Chapter Thirty-one: Resolve
“Time to get up, Miriel,” whispered Hal, gently shaking her awake.
Her eyes slowly fluttered opened. The Slayer could feel the warmth of Hal’s hand still on her shoulder. She yawned, rolling from her side to her back. A grey morning sky greeted her. She stretched her stiff limbs, her joints popping to life as she did so. Miriel then pulled herself upright, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“How are you feeling?” asked Halbarad, looking her over carefully.
“Alright, I guess,” she answered with yet another yawn. “You?”
“I’m Fine. Just fine,” he replied with a reassuring smile. He then offered her his hand, and heaved the girl to her feet.
Miriel could see that the others were already awake. She exchanged pleasantries with her companions before tending to her morning ritual. After a quick bite, the group set off, heading north on The Greenway.
Once again, Aragorn was leading the company. After a while, Miriel, curious to know their destination, hurriedly caught up with the Ranger Chieftain, asking, “Where are we going?”
“Fornost?” she repeated, furrowing her brows. While the Slayer was by no means a scholar of northern realms of Middle-earth, she was almost positive that she had remembered that that realm had been desolated in the wars long ago. “But isn’t that place in ruins?”
“It is,” he answered.
“Then why are we going there?”
“There is a small settlement there.” Aragorn glanced at Miriel. “Some of our people have returned, calling that place home again.”
“Oh,” she replied. “And why exactly are we going there?”
“It’s been a while since I last visited with my kin and we go there seeking news.”
“News of what exactly?” queried Miriel.
“There is much knowledge we can glean from our fellow Rangers, such as the movement of the enemy.”
“I don’t understand,” came her reply. “Doesn’t the enemy dwell south of here? I mean, from what I’ve seen, the Orcs come from the south and from the east, out of the mountains.”
“Eriador is vast, Miriel, and the enemy dwells in many places. If there are roaming bands of Orcs or trolls, I would like to know of it.”
The Slayer supposed that made sense. However, after having been holed up in Archet for what seemed like ages, Miriel was ready to fight in a real battle. Maybe the previous night’s events had awakened her bloodlust. Unsure of what to think, she shortened her stride, no longer keeping up with the Ranger Chieftain. She needed to think.
As she glanced down at the road, she couldn’t help but notice the enormous blood stain on the front of her gown. Though she was wide-awake, images of the previous night’s attack flashed before her eyes. She saw Juniper’s bruised and anguished face, then that of her attacker, Reed Thornberry. The sound of the girl’s muffled cries echoed in her mind, followed by the man’s grunts of pleasure. The horrid act played over and over until the images began to change.
She was brought back to that place, to the House of Horrors, where her own rape had occurred. Her face now replaced that of Juniper’s, and Reed Thornberry’s appearance morphed into that of Miriel’s rapist, Dúilin. The smells, sounds and pain of her ordeal came rushing over her, as if she was reliving that nightmare in the present. She could feel the burning sensation on her wrists and ankles along with a sudden searing in her privates. This strange event felt so real.
Miriel was unaware that her eyes had glazed over at the onset of this episode. It was her muscle memory that kept her feet moving, though she was beginning to lag further behind the others. They were not yet aware of what was happening to her.
But, in her mind’s eye, she had just bitten off Dúilin’s nose and could taste the saltiness of his blood in her mouth and feel the warmth of his blood as it sprayed from the hollow of his face. Her stomach instantly became queasy, threatening to expel her meager breakfast.
Then, she felt a sudden tightening around her neck, as if invisible hands were choking the life out of her. Gasping for air, she tried to reach for her throat, but her hands were immobile. She fell backwards, hitting the ground hard. The unexpected thud alerted her friends, who swiftly ran to her side.
Reality had forsaken Miriel, only to be replaced by the gripping fear of a bitter memory come to life. She was lost to all else. A rain of blood washed over her when Dúilin’s throat was slit, and, seconds later, the hag revealed herself, cackling softly. It was so real that Miriel could make out every wrinkle on the woman’s face as it hovered over hers. The smell of the rancid combination of wine and garlic on her warm breath engulfed the Slayer.“The honor of killing you falls upon me,”
she heard the woman say. She could feel a prick to her skin above her left breast. “But firstly, I shall carve a symbol into your flesh to signify that yet another Slayer falls by the might of Sauron.”
Scrunching her eyes closed, Miriel let out a blood-curdling shriek as she felt the tip of the blade beginning to carve the hideous Eye into her flesh.
She then felt herself being violently shaken, her head lolling from side to side.
“What’s happening?” cried out Halbarad, desperately trying to shake Miriel back to reality. Her eyes rolled back so that only the white portion showed, terrifying her Watcher.
The sons of Elrond dropped to their knees on either side of her, as the rains poured down from above.
“Miriel? Miriel?” shouted Elrohir.
But the Slayer remained oblivious to all things present.“‘Tis music to my ears, Dagnir,”
the old woman sniggered. “A melody of mayhem. Louder if you please.”
The pain above the Slayer’s left bosom grew in intensity, as she felt the blade sink deeper into her flesh, causing her to screech even louder, as if obediently following the hag’s orders.
Elladan and Elrohir began to utter an elvish prayer, beseeching those in the West to aid them.
Still unaware of her surroundings, as the hag finished her artwork, Miriel shrilly cried out, “I’m marked!”
“What is happening?” With an utter look of terror on his face, Halbarad looked to the sons of Elrond for some type of explanation.
“My Eru! Look at her neck!” exclaimed a worried Elrohir, pointing to the reddish blue marks on the Slayer’s throat. “What deviltry is this?” They could clearly make out the shapes of fingers on her skin.
They then noticed fresh blood beginning to bleed through the fabric of her dress just above her left breast, the shape not quite clearly formed. Terrified, Elladan pulled Miriel into his arms, holding her tightly. The rain continued to pour down from the heavens as he raised his voice in prayer.
A booming clap of thunder rang out, literally shaking the ground beneath the small company.
As suddenly as Miriel had fallen into this altered state, she came out of it. Traumatized by this unexplainable event, her silent tears blended with the rain, trickling down her face. With her chest burning like hell fire, she squeezed her hand between her body and Elladan’s, pressing down on the bleeding scar above her breast. She dropped her head onto the Elf’s shoulder, clutching his back with her free hand.
“I told you she was out of her mind!” shouted Gúron, making a point to stay several feet away from the Slayer.
At that moment, the others were far too concerned with Miriel to pay any mind to Gúron. They were baffled by what they had just witnessed. Never before had any seen physical manifestations on a body without apparent cause.
Gradually, the pain began to lessen, leaving Miriel confused, scared, and mentally numb. She had never had an episode like this before, not one that felt so real. She then felt someone gently lift her arm from Elladan’s back. She looked up and saw Aragorn examining her wrist.
“It is red, as if recently burned,” he remarked, studying the skin keenly. Miriel’s past torments had left her scarred, but after these many months, the scars were thin and white, not red.
“What happened, Miriel?” asked a deeply troubled Elrohir.
She did not answer. She pulled back slightly from Elladan; his arms remaining protectively draped around her. Miriel now noticed that she had slipped her hand beneath the neck of her dress. As she pulled her hand out, blood covered her palm.
“Let me see,” said Elladan softly, eager to inspect this mysterious wound.
Miriel stumbled backwards, out of his grip, not wanting anyone to see the hideous Eye engraved in her flesh. As the rain washed the blood from her hand, she pulled her cloak tightly about her. Wrapping her arms around her body, she remained seated on the wet road, rocking back and forth, shocked by what she could only assume was some diabolical device conjured by the Enemy.
The others had reached the same conclusion as Miriel though they had not shared that with each other just yet. They watched her for a few minutes before rising to their feet and assembling into a circle.
“Something is terribly amiss,” said Aragorn, trying his best to conceal his terror.
“I have never witnessed anything remotely like this in all my years, Estel,” revealed Elladan.
“This has got to be the craft of Sauron,” said Elrohir. “Who else is capable of such sorcery?”
“Why would he waste any time or effort on Miriel, Slayer or not?” queried a skeptical Gúron. “She is nowhere near Mordor. She’s no threat to him.”
“Do not underestimate the abilities that a Slayer possesses,” rebuked Halbarad. “The Slayer has skills you know not. It is apparent that Sauron feels threatened by Miriel and is using some type of… ” He paused, unsure of what to call what had taken place. “ - Dark magicks on her,” he finally blurted out.
“Surely now, you all must see that Miriel is unfit to continue on our journey,” said Gúron. “I told you that she was not of sound mind.”
“Can you not see that this was being done to her?” hissed Elladan. “Do you think she had the power to use her mind to choke herself, to make herself bleed? This is not her doing. I agree with my brother, this is the work of Sauron.”
“Or maybe even the Witch-king,” suggested Halbarad. “He too is skilled in the dark arts, if rumor holds true.”
“That’s a fair point, Hal,” said Aragorn with a nod. “We cannot rule out the Witch-king.” He glanced up at the grey sky, closing his eyes as the rain beat against his face. Ultimately, the decision fell on him as to what they should do next.
“It looks to me that we have no other choice here,” concluded Elrohir. “We need to go back, back to Imladris. Father is the only one I deem with the skill to fend off whatever magicks are being used against Miriel.”
Aragorn took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, turning his gaze back to the others. “I agree, Elrohir. We should take her to your father.” He then shifted his eyes to Miriel, who continued to sit in the growing pool of water, rocking back and forth. Clenching his fists, Aragorn hissed, “I curse the Enemy for what he’s doing to her.”
Elladan and Halbarad went to Miriel’s side, informing her that it was time to go. She was unresponsive. Their faces grew graver as they each took her by the arm and lifted her from the puddle of water in which she had been sitting.
Aragorn then turned his attention to Gúron, who was watching his fellow Rangers gentle handling of the Slayer. “If you are ill at ease with traveling with us then you need not go,” said Aragorn. “You may continue to Fornost as we planned and join the others in their tasks. I would not want our journey with Miriel to burden you with additional stress.”
Gúron’s eyes remained locked on the Slayer. His earlier assumptions about her were beginning to waver. How could he not show pity for the girl? After having witnessed the mystical attack (something he would not have believed if he had not seen it with his very own eyes), how could he walk away? He was beginning to think that maybe Reed Thornberry had been a minion of the Dark Lord and that Sauron sought retribution for his murder. That seemed plausible, considering that not even twelve hours had passed since Reed Thornberry’s demise. Perhaps Hal was right in saying that Miriel was a threat to the Lord of Mordor. It now seemed to him that Miriel needed the protection of the Rangers more than ever.
“I would like to continue with you, if that’s alright,” answered the golden-haired Ranger. “I’m beginning to see that you all have a better grasp on what this Slayer business is all about than I do. And, I am man enough to admit that I was wrong about her. If anything, Miriel needs our protection more than ever.”
“Very well,” replied Aragorn with a curt nod. If the situation hadn’t been so dire, he would’ve shown his appreciation to Gúron for finally seeing the light. But there was no time for that. Right now, Aragorn was most concerned with getting Miriel back to Imladris by the quickest road possible. Even the speediest way would take them at least ten days to travel, and that was if none lay in wait, ready to ambush them along the way.
“Let us get a move on,” he announced, heaving the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
Elladan and Halbarad each linked an arm with Miriel, steering her down the road from which they had just come. The Rangers would spend many hours walking in silence, each man consumed with his own thoughts.
It had been a long time since Miriel had had her last bout of melancholy, but now, it returned full force. Elladan and Halbarad were practically dragging her along the roadway. Miriel still remained dazed by her supernatural assault for a few hours afterward. When she finally found herself becoming cognizant to the present, she pulled her arms free from her escorts, insisting on walking on her own. Unfortunately, the attack had left her feeling weak and her mind still felt so hazy that she nearly stumbled over her own two feet. As a result, Aragorn called a halt to the march.
Elrohir offered her some lembas. “It’ll help renew your strength,” he said, coaxing her to take a bite of the elvish way bread.
Miriel ate the proffered food without protest. The rains had passed by then, though the sky remained grey. The men kept a keen eye on the Slayer. While they were most eager to question her about the attack, they decided to hold off until she had showed obvious signs of recovery.
Miriel’s throat was tender to the touch and it hurt when she swallowed, a condition which would last for a few days. Nonetheless, the food helped clear her mind and rekindle her strength.
After eating a couple of bites, she made up her mind that she needed to change out of her soiled dress and into clothing more suitable for traveling. As she changed behind a cluster of trees, she noticed that the Eye on her chest was newly scabbed over. For so long it had been a thin white scar, but now it was red and inflamed as if the incision had been freshly made. She carefully slid her tunic over her head, hoping that the dry garment wouldn’t rub the scab to the point where it bled again.
Still hoping the she’d be able to clean and mend her gown when she had the time, Miriel carefully folded the dress and slid it into one of the pockets of her bags. She then rejoined the others, and together they continued on their trek to Rivendell.
For some reason, the others spoke quietly to one another, mostly in Sindarin. Miriel didn’t know why they bothered for she could speak Sindarin fluently. They were discussing the latest incident, somewhat surprised that it had been able to eclipse the previous night’s events. All of her friends seemed to be in agreement - that Sauron was definitely behind her mystical attack. She didn’t voice an opinion either way, preferring not to talk to anyone at all.
Perhaps the lembas had worked its magic, because not only did it reinvigorate the Slayer’s strength, but also her mind. Her thoughts became clearer and she spent a great part of that day mulling over the events that had transpired in the past twenty-four hours. While the others were convinced that Sauron was behind the latest episode, Miriel believed differently.
There was no doubt in her mind that the witch was responsible for her earlier assault. Why else would she relive her ordeal at the House of Horrors? The Slayer had always known that she and the old hag would face off again and it seemed that that appointed day was arriving at last. The fact that they were now traveling upon the same road that led to the old homestead merely confirmed that in her mind.
Once she had accepted that realization, her melancholy vanished, never to return again. Instead, she focused all her energies (mostly mental) on planning and plotting for her ultimate confrontation with the witch. She still had several days to prepare. Her first thoughts were trying to figure out how to prevent the old hag from doing what she had just done - attacking her mystically from afar. She believed that the witch had done that out of fear. She feared what Miriel had become. She was no longer that young, naïve girl that saw the goodness in people. Far from. She had become cynical, untrusting and seasoned in battle.Perhaps Elladan and Elrohir know of some ancient elven way to protect oneself from such attacks
, she thought. When she got a chance, she’d ask them about that.
However, there were still many obstacles in Miriel’s way. For one, she had to figure out a way to leave the others. There was no way she would put her friends in harm’s way. Besides, this fight was meant for her alone. She knew
that. She felt it in every fiber of her being. It would be a battle to the death, though, hopefully, not her own.
She knew the Rangers well enough to know that they’d never abandon her, even if she asked. They were fiercely loyal. That proved to be her greatest dilemma. How could she slip away unnoticed? She considered leaving when she was assigned to sentry duty, but quickly dismissed that notion. With so many enemies lurking about, that would leave her friends vulnerable to attack, and Miriel wasn’t about to do anything like that. In the end, she decided to wait and see. Surely, if her battle with the witch was fated to be, (as she believed), then a situation would present itself where she could slip away from the others.
At the onset of their journey, Aragorn had had the group marching due west in order to remain out of sight of the Bree-landers. Since Miriel was banished from Bree, they couldn’t take The Great East Road, which ran directly through the town and was the quickest path to their destination. Not to mention the fact that Aragorn feared retaliation from the Thornberry clan and did not want any of the townspeople to see them. These considerations would add many miles to their trip. Instead of following the Great East Road, they crossed it, heading south into the hilly region.
That afternoon, when they had reached the ridge that overlooked the Barrow-downs, Aragorn announced, “We’ll turn east from here, for I do not desire to see The Great Barrows, even in daylight.”
“What is that?” Miriel asked.
“It is a place of great evil, though it wasn’t always so,” he answered. “Many of my forebears are buried there.”
“Evil spirits haunt that place now,” added Elrohir, “Having fled there after the downfall of Angmar.”
For whatever reason, Miriel felt compelled to look upon that place.
Aragorn went to grab her arm, to prevent her from going to the edge of the hilltop, but Gúron stopped him. “Let her have a look, my lord. For her ancestors dwell there as well.”
“But it is an unwholesome place,” countered Aragorn. “And after what happened this morning, I would not want Miriel to look upon that place of evil. For all we know, those specters will be drawn to her like a moth to flame.”
Aragorn’s protests were to no avail. Miriel, accompanied by the twins, walked over to the edge and looked down upon the green valley below. Even in late afternoon, a gloomy haze blanketed the barrows.
The Slayer stared intently below, her eyes trying to pierce the mists of the valley. For some strange reason, thoughts of Bregolas sprang to her mind. Without thinking, she then asked, “The spirits that dwell there, do they have conscious thought?”
“Yes,” answered Elladan. “They may not have bodies in the same sense as we do, but they live on, in spirit form, and are aware of all that enter their domain.”
“Do they ever leave their domain?” she queried.
“Maybe,” replied Elrohir, “Though it does seem that they are bound to these parts. Seldom do we feel their presence outside the valley.”
As Miriel continued to stare almost transfixed at that barrows, memories of Bregolas raced through her mind. She recalled having heard him talk to someone other than her on their travels on several occasions. At the time, she assumed he was just talking to himself, but now, she was beginning to have doubts. It was around that time that his personality had begun to change and he had become moody and sullen. Things had escalated to the point where he demanded that she marry him, threatening to abandon her in the wilderness if she did not. That was not the Bregolas she knew and love. Was it possible that these spirits had found their way to her and Bregolas and used their powers to corrupt the mighty Gondorian warrior? That possibility had never occurred to her until that very moment. The mere thought sent a shiver down her spine, which did not go unnoticed by her companions.
“We have seen enough,” said Elladan, steering Miriel away. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”
The sons of Elrond watched the Slayer very closely after resuming their trek. It almost seemed as if she was becoming entranced by the barrows. Many questions arose in the twins’ minds, but they’d wait until the Barrow-downs were far behind before quizzing Miriel.
The sun had not even sunk beyond the horizon when Miriel stopped, announcing, “I’m too tired to go any further.” She was ready to drop.
“Can we not at least make it east of The Greenway?” asked Aragorn. He turned west, shielding his eyes from the sun. “I would feel more at ease if more miles separated us from the Barrow-downs.”
“I don’t think I could take another step,” admitted Miriel. They had been marching since dawn with very few breaks. Perhaps the trauma of the earlier attack was finally taking its toll on her, as the others showed no outward signs of exhaustion.
A grim-faced Aragorn scanned the vicinity. “Alright, Miriel,” he finally said. “But if we are to stop, I would want us to use the terrain to conceal us the best that we can.” He pointed to a rock outcropping a few yards away. “Let us take shelter there. If you’re too tired to make it there, one of us can carry you.”
“I do not
need to be carried,” she scoffed, insulted by his comment.
One of those rare smiles came to Aragorn’s face as he watched Miriel stamp ahead of him and the others toward the outcropping. He was pleased to see that she was so resilient, especially after everything that had just happened. The girl had the makings of a great warrior, and as far as Aragorn was concerned, was well on her way.
When Miriel reached the other side of the rocky protuberance, she plopped down on the ground. It had been quite a while since she had last walked a great distance, and her feet ached as a result. As the others joined her, relieving themselves of their burdens, Miriel pulled off her blood-splattered boots and stockings and began to rub her sore, sweaty feet.
“Your feet hurt, eh?” asked Elrohir, plunking down beside her.
“Uh-huh. I’ve been homebound for so long, I’m not used to walking long distances.”
“Would you like for me to rub them?” asked the Half-elf.
“Who am I to turn down such an offer?” chortled Miriel, scooting back so that she could stretch her legs out on Elrohir’s lap.
As the Elf began to massage her feet, Halbarad sat down, saying, “Who’s ready for an early supper?”
“It’s not lembas, is it?” queried the Slayer.
“No,” answered the Watcher, grabbing one of his bags and digging through its contents. “We brought some food from Archet.”
“In that case, I’m famished.”
“What’s wrong with lembas?” asked Elladan. “It’s tasty and reinvigorates the body.”
Miriel smiled at the eldest son of Elrond. “But it’s not meat.”
While they discussed the virtues of lembas versus meat, Elrohir fixed his gaze on the Slayer’s ankles. He couldn’t help but notice the red, raw skin that mirrored the markings on her wrists, clearly a sign that she had been bound. At first, he didn’t make any comment, as it pleased him to hear Miriel engaged in an amusing debate with his brother. It seemed, on the surface anyway, that there were no lingering adverse effects from the events earlier that morning.
Then, as he joined in the conversation, his hand inadvertently touched the raw skin above her ankle. Miriel winced and went to pull her leg away, but Elrohir kept a firm hold on it.
“Sorry,” he said. “My hand slipped.”
The pain was instant and searing, which was a bit surprising to Miriel since it had abated throughout the day. But now, she struggled to free her leg from Elrohir’s grasp as the others looked on.
“My feet feel better, thank you,” she insisted, roughly wrestling her leg out of the Elf’s grip. She immediately began to slip a stocking over each foot, avoiding everyone’s gaze.
“You’ve been bound, Miriel,” began Elrohir, his tone riddled with concern. “Anyone can see that. Sometimes it helps to talk about these things. It helps with the healing process.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said, hoping to dodge the topic altogether.
The Rangers eyed one another, knowing that the opportunity had presented itself to speak of Miriel’s past. Yet they had to tread very carefully, otherwise this conversation could have detrimental effects on the bonds they had formed with her. No one wanted that to happen. If anything, they wanted to aid the Slayer, to help her heal.
“It’s time we talk about this,” urged Elladan. His eyes darted to Halbarad, as if seeking the Watcher’s approval to dig deeper.
Halbarad curtly nodded.
“Miriel, you were attacked this morning. I do not understand how or why that happened, but we must discuss this. If we do not have some sort of understanding of the situation, of whom we’re dealing with, then we cannot help prevent it from happening again.”
The Slayer didn’t answer. She kept herself preoccupied by putting on her boots.
“Those marks on your wrists and ankles suggest that you have struggled within bindings of some sort. Who held you captive, Miriel? Was it Orcs?” continued Elladan.
Still, Miriel didn’t answer.
“We cannot help you unless we know what we’re facing,” interjected Elrohir.
“I’ve never asked for anybody’s help,” snapped the Slayer. “If my being here makes anyone uneasy, I’ll gladly leave. I’m not afraid to walk alone.”
Miriel went to rise, but Elrohir, placing his hand on her arm, stopped her. “None of us want you to leave. We want to help, help protect you. Do not turn against us.”
The Slayer settled back down. If anyone felt uneasy, it was she. “How can you help me when you’ve said that you’ve never seen anything like this before, that you’ve never witnessed an attack on someone like the one that happened to me this morning? There’s nothing you can do. This is my
“With whom?” asked Aragorn, his eyes locked on the Slayer. “Is it Sauron? For whoever is behind this attack considers you a great threat, a threat that needs to be eliminated.”
“I’m the Slayer,” answered Miriel straightforwardly. “Of course the enemy should perceive me as a threat. Isn’t that what a Slayer is supposed to do, strike fear into the enemy?”
“Before things get out of hand, let us all just calm down a bit,” suggested Halbarad, placing the packets of food to the side. He then fixed his gaze on Miriel. “We care deeply about you, Miriel, and do not want to see any harm come to you. We’re all friends here. Let’s keep the hostilities to a minimum.”
“I’m not being hostile,” she countered somewhat defensively.
“May I interject something here,” chimed in Gúron.
All eyes turned to the golden-haired Ranger.
“I’m probably the most objective here since I’ve been around the Slayer least of all,” Gúron continued. “There’s no doubting that someone of great power is after you, Miriel. We all witnessed that this morning. But, for the life of me, I’m baffled as to who it can be. At first, I thought it was Sauron, but I don’t believe he has the strength to do something like that since the loss of his Ring. And we have not felt the presence of the Wraiths since being in your company - so who does that leave? Who can answer this riddle? Is it possible that it’s one of the Istari? Two of which have not been accounted for in some time?”
“Hmm, I’ve never considered a Wizard being behind this,” remarked Elladan.
“They are capable of wielding such power, I deem,” said his brother, nodding in agreement. “And as Gúron has mentioned, the Ithryn Luin have not been seen in centuries.”
“You’ve think they’ve been corrupted?” asked Aragorn, his brows shooting upward.
“I think it’s possible,” Elrohir replied.
“Perhaps this is something Gandalf could answer,” remarked Halbarad.
Miriel listened as the Rangers debated this new theory. She grabbed one of the bundles beside her Watcher, delighted that she had picked the one containing ham. She slipped the dagger out of the sheath strapped to her leg and sliced off a bit of cured meat for herself. When she looked up, Halbarad was staring at her with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Well played, Miriel,” he said with a chuckle. “You’ve diverted the topic of con- ”
“ - I most certainly did not,” she interjected with a wry smile. “That would be Gúron.” She then tore off a piece of meat with her teeth, refusing to say anymore with her mouth full of food.
Aragorn quietly scrutinized the Slayer with his intense grey eyes. “Why is it that I have a sneaking suspicion that you know more than you’re willing to tell?”
Miriel wasn’t about to let anything or anyone sour her mood. Perhaps it was her recent resolve to go after the witch that had prompted this change in attitude. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Aragorn,” she finally said. “But, I suppose we can put this to rest once and for all.” She looked at Elrohir. “Was I held captive? I’ve been held in captivity all my life. One of the rewards for being the only daughter of the Steward of Gondor.”
“Surely, Denethor did not physically restrain you,” said an aghast Halbarad.
“No. Well, at least not with literal bindings.” Miriel recalled her father’s refusal to let her go to Dol Amroth with her kin just before her hasty departure from Minas Tirith. Feeling her good mood beginning to slip away, she then added, “There are some things I will take with me to the grave. I will not discuss any of my past torments, with anyone.” She glanced at each one of her companions. “If you have no suggestions as to how to prevent a mystical attack, then you cannot help me. I’m a big girl. I can handle whatever comes my way.”
Though Miriel spoke with conviction, her friends didn’t buy it. She was putting up a brave front. When one looked into her eyes, one could see her pain, fear and confusion. But it was clear that she didn’t want to discuss it any more, and, for now, the Rangers would drop the subject in order to maintain peace within the group.
“Father can help,” said Elladan, placing his hand comfortingly on Miriel’s. “When we get to Imladris, he will help you.”
“He is gifted in the art of healing,” added Elrohir. “And perhaps, between him and Glorfindel, they know of a way to prevent these mystical attacks.”
The Slayer took another bite of ham and shrugged her shoulders in response.
“Enough of this talk,” said Halbarad with an air of finality to his tone. “Let’s eat.”
All talk about Miriel’s torments, past and present, ended. The twins wished that they could’ve questioned her about the Barrows, for to them, it seemed that that place stirred some memory within her. But alas, they knew the Slayer well enough to know that if they tried to push the topic, she’d pull away, distancing herself from them. The discussion turned mostly to mundane things, such as the weather and the road that lay ahead of them.
Miriel went to sleep earlier than normal. True, she was exhausted, but she was also most eager to talk with Buffy about her decision to take the fight to the witch.
“I don’t like it,” said a stern Buffy after hearing Miriel’s plans. The two Slayers sat across from one another on the grassy embankment beside the Anduin.
“Why?” asked Miriel, sounding crushed.
“‘Cause it’s a good way to get yourself killed.”
“But, I’m destined to do this,” argued Miriel. “I know
it. I feel
A scowl came to the younger Slayer’s face. She couldn’t believe that Buffy disagreed with her on this. “I cannot believe you would say that,” she argued. “What about you and the Master? You went after him alone - ”
“ - And I died!” exclaimed Buffy, cutting Miriel off mid-sentence. Her confrontation with the Master flashed in her mind. Feeling uncomfortable, the elder Slayer rose to her feet and walked to the water’s edge. “If not for my friends, I would’ve stayed dead.” She turned, looking at her protégé, her face a mask of pain. “If you go alone, there won’t be any to save you. You could die!”
“Maybe,” answered Miriel weakly. Swallowing the growing lump in her throat, she added, “But, if I take her with me, will the world not be a safer place?” She clambered to her feet, strolling to her mentor. “It was your destiny to take out that vampire lord. Why is it so unfathomable to think that I’m destined to take out the witch?”
“That Bear-man, he died fighting her,” answered Buffy. “And bears are pretty damn strong. If he couldn’t defeat her, what makes you think that you can?”
“Because I’m the Slayer. That’s got to account for something.” It disheartened Miriel that Buffy didn’t believe that she was capable of taking out a formidable foe such as the witch. She felt her bottom lip begin to tremble as tears formed in her eyes. “It’s my birthright to fight creatures greater than Orcs and trolls and wargs. That’s why we were chosen. We were made to take out those creatures that ordinary men do not have the strength or skill to fight. You know that, Buffy. You’ve been there. You’ve done it. And you’re still here. You’re still alive.”
A tear escaped from the corner of Buffy’s eye. “I don’t want you to die, Miriel. Not on my watch.”
“Who’s to say that I will?” countered the younger Slayer, stepping closer to her mentor. “I have to do this. I know it, and of all people, you should know that as well.”
Buffy looked up into Miriel’s teary grey eyes. She pulled her protégé into a tight embrace. “You’re right. You’re right, Miriel. What can I do to help?”
Miriel pulled out of the hug. “We must train. Every sleeping second must be dedicated to practice.”
The elder Slayer chuckled, folding her arms across her chest. “I think we can manage that. But tell me, what makes you so sure that the witch is at that homestead?”
“I don’t know. I just know it. Does that make any sense?” she asked, raising a brow in question.
“Unfortunately, it does.” Buffy sighed. “Our main problem is that she’s a witch and I don’t have any magical abilities that I can teach you.”
“That’s why I think the element of surprise must be on my side. I don’t think she knows I’m coming for her.”
“But her earlier attack makes me think that she’s trying to lure you into a trap,” said Buffy, furrowing her brows. “That’s what I fear most.”
“Then that’s all the more reason for me to prepare. As long as I keep my guard up, things should be alright.” Miriel’s inner resolve shone through. “I’m not afraid to die, Buffy. If that’s what the Valar have in store for me, then so be it.”
“You don’t wanna die, do you?” asked Buffy.
“Of course not,” replied the younger Slayer. “But, I’m meant to do this. This is my great challenge. And I do not want to run from it. I want to confront it head-on and hope I come out alive.”
Buffy forced herself to smile for a brief moment. “You’re a brave young woman. I only wish you’d let the guys go with you. They could help.”
“And would you put your loved ones at risk?” countered Miriel. “I don’t think you would. As you were meant to face the Master alone, I too must do this alone.”
“I can’t convince you otherwise, can I?”
“No, you can’t.”
“Then let’s get work.”
And thus began Buffy and Miriel’s extensive training that took place every night whilst the younger Slayer slept. Their practice sessions varied, ranging from stealth to hand-to-hand combat and everything else in between. The only thing Buffy couldn’t help Miriel with were magical attacks. They could only hope and pray that that wouldn’t be a factor in the upcoming battle…
With Miriel’s mind made up, she remained steadfast during the daily marches with the Rangers. She never complained or claimed to be tired, even when she was. As a result, she and her companions were able to cover many more miles than originally anticipated. Sticking to The Great East Road, they soon passed familiar landmarks - the Midgewater Marshes, Weathertop and the Lone-Lands.
A week later, the group was finally nearing The Great Bridge, a pivotal point on the journey. The hilly region was a welcome sight to the Slayer.
“Oh, please tell me we can stop at the hidden lake,” she begged. “I’d love to be able to bathe and wash this dried blood out of my hair.” She touched her hair, cringing as she felt the nasty clumps of caked blood that still coated the strands.
The men laughed at her plea.
“You have been less demanding than usual,” answered a grinning Halbarad, “and thus should be rewarded.”
“I think we could all use a good scrubbing,” said Aragorn, grabbing hold of the front of his shirt and sniffing the fabric. The foul stench of many days sweat filled his nostrils. A bath and a fresh change of clothes sounded pleasant to the Ranger Chieftain.
“I’m first,” Miriel demanded, quickening her pace so that she would be the first to find the pass in the hills that led to the hidden lake.
“The lake is big enough for us all,” said Gúron.
Miriel spun around, but continued to walk backwards. An indignant expression etched on her face. “And what kind of girl would bathe nude in the company of men? I, for one, am not
that type of girl.”
Gúron rolled his eyes. “We’re not boys, Miriel, but grown men. We’ve seen naked women before.”
“Not this naked woman,” she replied.
“Come now,” spoke up Elrohir with amusement. “Let us not condemn Miriel’s modesty. There’s no harm in letting her bathe first.”
“Thank you, Elrohir,” she answered, smiling. “Now maybe Gúron here can see why the Elves are considered wisest amongst the people of Middle-earth. Not to mention, of good, upstanding moral character.”
Gúron frowned. “What’s wrong with my moral character?” he grumbled.
Ignoring his question, Miriel added, “And just so you know, I intend on enjoying my bath and will linger in the water longer than what you’d consider normal.”
“Ah, yes, what a true woman you are. You may bathe in the warmth of the sunlight and we shall bathe when the sun goes down and the water grows cold,” said Gúron snidely.
“You’re a Dúnadan. Suck it up!” Miriel said teasingly before turning back around, her eyes eagerly searching for the gap in the hills.
Miriel’s heart raced in her chest. This was not only the moment she had been waiting for, but it also confirmed that she was destined to fight the old hag. It was of the utmost importance for her to keep her cool and not show any signs that she intended to flee her companions.
She stopped when she reached the pathway. Her eyes went to the faded engraving on the rock wall. She smiled at the memory of Gimli and his kinfolk, wondering how they were doing and if she’d ever see them again. Their meeting seemed so long ago.
When the others caught up to her, she started down the pathway through the hills. She stopped again once she entered the clearing. If possible, the place looked much more beautiful than she had remembered. The shadows of the surrounding rocky hills reflected on the water’s surface. The air felt cooler and smelled cleaner within the enclosure than it did along the roadway. It almost seemed as if this place was enchanted, that after all these many years it remained untainted by the enemy.
Miriel immediately headed toward the willow tree. She smiled again, picturing Gimli hanging from one of the branches. Her first successful trap. That was not something she would ever forget. She dropped her bags near the water’s edge. As she went to undo her belt, she heard the others dropping their things on the ground behind her.
Whirling around, she asked, “What are you doing?” Her voice echoed within the rock enclosure, alerting her to a possible problem that she had not foreseen. How could she possibly leave unnoticed when the slightest noise seemed to bounce from wall to wall.
“What are we doing wrong?” queried her puzzled Watcher.
“No, no, no, no,” she answered, shaking her head. “You men go over there,” she instructed, pointing to the cluster of trees on the south side of the lake. “And keep your backs to the water.”
“This is ridiculous,” complained the golden-haired Ranger.
“Ridiculous is thinking that you’d stay right here where I intend to bathe,” she snapped back.
“Wouldn’t it be more prudent for us to stay here by the path and you go over yonder?” queried Elladan, waving his hand across the lake. “If any were come down the path, you would be the first they’d see.”
Of course, Elladan’s comment made perfect sense. Miriel had to quickly find a counter to his sensible statement and fast.
“And what are the chances that one would come upon this place?” Without allowing time for any to answer, she quickly added, “Slim to none. I can handle any situation that arises. Do not forget, my good men, that I survived on my own for a good while before meeting you all. Now go.” She tried to shoo the Rangers away.
“I don’t know, Miriel,” said a doubtful Aragorn. “I tend to agree with Elladan. I think it is safer for us to remain here and you go over there.” He waved toward the cluster of trees across the lake.
The Slayer’s hands went to her hips. “Are you implying that I’m incapable of taking care of myself?” she asked defiantly. “I prefer to stay here, beneath the boughs of this willow. I feel safer here.”
“There’s no point in arguing with her, Aragorn,” said Halbarad, not in the mood to bicker over such a trivial thing. “Let us just leave her be.” He glanced at the twins. “We have the sons of Elrond. They’ll be able to hear if anyone approaches.”
“That’s true, Estel,” replied Elrohir, nodding.
“And we can be on this side of the lake in no time flat,” chimed in Halbarad.
Miriel offered a grateful smile to her Watcher. As the others gathered their baggage, the Slayer plopped down on the ground, unlacing her boots. Thankfully, no one could hear her thoughts. If any could, they would hear her screaming every curse word she knew at the top of her lungs. Not only did she have to contend with the possibility of her movements creating an echoing effect, but now she also had to face the keen ears of the sons of Elrond, a simple fact she had somehow overlooked. How, in the name of the Valar, could she possibly overcome those two obstacles?If my leaving is fated to be, then I will find a way
, she thought. This was the first instance of her having misgivings since having decided to leave and confront the witch.
She watched the men as they walked around the lake, paying particular attention to the sounds she was making. She took off her belt, carefully laying it, along with her two blades, on the grass. She shifted her gaze to the shore.Pebbles
, she groaned to herself. Pebbles crunch under one’s feet. Shit!
Miriel’s nerve was beginning to waver. Panic was replacing her sheer determination. Her chances of leaving unnoticed seemed impossible. O’ how she wish she could speak to Buffy right now. Stay calm. Stay focused
, she thought, attempting to reassure herself that not all was lost as of yet.
She looked back at the Rangers, who had now reached the other side. She laid out clean garments and her blanket, waiting for the others to seat themselves before she disrobed. She found it comforting that the only thing she could hear (for the most part) was the conversation coming from across the lake.
A few minutes had passed when she finally stripped out of her clothes, carefully rolling up the bundle and slipping it back into her bag. With soap and cloth in hand, she walked down to the water’s edge. Her eyes darted from the lake to her male companions, hoping that they’d keep their word and not look in her direction.Crunch, crunch, crunch.
“Damn it!” she uttered as the pebbles crunched under her feet.
She stepped into the water, surprised by how cold it actually felt. Spring had just sprung and the water had not yet turned warm. To Miriel, it felt icy cold. Slowly, she walked deeper, stopping every now and then to allow herself time to get used to the temperature. When she was about waist deep, she took several deep breaths before plunging her entire body under the water. She jumped up, yelping from the frigidness of the water.
Of course, her sudden cry alarmed her companions who turned and looked at her.
She immediately squatted so that only her head remained above the water. “What did I say about looking?” she squealed, trembling from the freezing water. “The water’s cold is all.”
The men immediately turned back around, apologizing for looking at her.
Miriel wasted no time. She immediately began to lather up the soap so that she could wash all the blood out of her hair. Even though she felt numb all over, Miriel scrubbed until her skin was nearly raw.
Once clean, she cast another long look at the men, who still sat with their backs toward her. She had informed her companions that she would need to let the sun dry her before dressing. Miriel wrapped herself in her blanket, keeping her eyes fixed on the Rangers as she dried off. She then quietly slipped into her clean clothing, her eyes never leaving her friends.
Now that the time was drawing near, Miriel’s heart began to ache at her parting from the people she had come to love and care about. Maybe a part of her knew that she’d never see them again and that added to her mounting misery.
“How’s it going over there, Miriel?” shouted Halbarad after a short while.
“I’m still wet. I should be good in about thirty minutes.”
She then heard Gúron complaining, something that brought a smile to her face. As he went on with his rant about how selfish Miriel was being, she gathered her belongings and slipped away. When she reached the road, she ran like the wind, flying over the bridge before disappearing into the forest on the north side of the road…