Chapter Thirty-seven: Back to the Wilds
Miriel did as Buffy had suggested by increasing her training sessions with not only Halbarad, but also with Glorfindel and the twins. She approached her workouts with a renewed fervor, dedicating the better part of each day to various exercises, determined to become better, faster and stronger.
As the days swiftly turned into weeks, Miriel started to see the results of her vigorous workouts. Her body became more toned, her muscles more defined. Calluses replaced the blisters that normally plagued her hands after long practice sessions with weapons. Her agility increased twofold.
One of her favorite and most challenging drills was the enhancement of her other senses, as Hal called it. He’d take her out into the woods, blindfold her, and have Gúron and a dozen or so Elves ambush her. Miriel had to rely completely on her other senses, which actually became more acute with her loss of sight. Her sense of hearing compensated for a while until the Elves figured out a way to combat that.
Several of them would surround the clearing in which she stood, beating rocks together and violently shaking the leafy branches of trees so that the never-ending cacophony overwhelmed her sense of hearing. That tactic threw her off, enabling her attackers to blindside her, tackling her to the ground and knocking the wind out of her. At Halbarad’s insistence, none showed her any mercy and Miriel acquired quite a few bruises from that game.
“Trust your innermost sense, the one warning you of impending danger,” her Watcher counseled. “Your skin should prickle at the first sign of their approach.”
Even though Miriel relied on that innate sense in real life and death situations, it was more difficult during practice. However, she eventually got it, but it wasn’t easy.
As the end of May approached, Miriel felt a growing restlessness within her. The road beckoned her return. She was the Slayer, after all, and felt useless within the borders of Rivendell. She felt the need to be out there, in the wilds, fighting the good fight, helping the good people of Middle-earth.
When that feeling had become overwhelming, she shared her concerns with her Watcher after a particularly strenuous workout.
“I think it’s time for us to hit the road, Hal,” she revealed, wiping the sweat from her brow and neck.
The Watcher cocked his head. “Have you grown weary of Rivendell already?” he asked with a small smile.
“No. I just think we’d be more effective out there,” she answered, waving her hand toward the nearest window. She plopped down on the floor, stretching her legs out before her. “Don’t get me wrong. I love it here. But, I’m the Slayer and there’s not much slaying to do in Rivendell.”
Halbarad chuckled. “That’s so very true.” The Watcher seated himself on the floor across from his charge, groaning slightly from the pain in his side. “I’d so like to visit the hot springs of Fornost. Its waters are soothing and heal all aches and pains.”
Miriel cringed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”
“It was my fault,” he replied with yet another groan, rubbing the side of his body in an attempt to dull the constant throbbing. “I was overzealous,” he admitted. “I sometimes forget how incredibly strong you truly are.”
“I do too,” she said. “I shouldn’t have thrown you across the room.”
“I’ll live,” he replied, offering her a smile.
“You need to see Nírithil. She has healing hands. You won’t feel any pain after one of her massages.”
“I may do just that.” He then focused his attention on Miriel. “When do you want to leave?”
She shrugged. “Whenever. I just… I just feel like we need to go.”
“Who am I to deny the Slayer? I’ll make the necessary arrangements as soon as I can. I hope a couple of days delay will not hinder your enthusiasm.”
“It won’t,” she said, rising from the floor. She offered her Watcher a hand, which he took. She then pulled him onto his feet. “Thanks, Hal.” She linked her arm with his. “Let me take you to Nírithil.” Miriel then escorted him to the elleth whose hands would soon provide him with much needed relief.
“I knew it!” exclaimed Elrohir when Miriel told the twins of her desire to return to the wilds. Smiling, he turned to his brother with a look of satisfaction on his face. “I told you so. I’m beginning to think that I know Miriel better than you do.”
Elladan appeared crestfallen. “But I haven’t finished your portrait,” he said in dismay.
“You can finish it next time we visit,” she replied encouragingly.
The eldest son of Elrond frowned. “You’ve avoided sitting for me for weeks now. I don’t see that changing next time.”
“Well, I have
been working extra hard on improving my fighting skills,” she rationalized.
“You cannot refute that, my brother,” said Elrohir in agreement. “Miriel has been working extremely hard of late.”
The Slayer nodded. “Besides, you Elves have exceptional memories. You can finish the painting without me.” She smiled, patting him reassuringly on the back. “I have all the confidence in the world in you. You’ll do great.”
Elladan grumbled under his breath, realizing that Miriel would not sit for him again.
The Slayer savored every moment she spent in Rivendell, knowing how drastically life would change in a few days time. The transition from living in the lap of luxury, to the hardships of the road, was always a difficult one, at first, anyway. Without question, food and water proved to be the hardest adjustment. To go from eating to your heart’s content, to rationing every single bite and sip was definitely trying. Despite the brutal living conditions, Miriel always tried her best not to complain. It could be burdensome, but if the men folk could do it, then so could she.
Before dawn, on the third day of June, the Rangers prepared to set out on their journey. Since most of the household had not yet awakened, only a handful of Elves were there to bid them farewell. Glorfindel, of course, was there to see Miriel off. He pulled her aside, and with his hands tenderly gripping her shoulders, he doled out his fatherly advice.
“Use care on your journey,” he began. “Be watchful of all around you. And whatever you do - do not leave the others.”
“I won’t,” she promised.
The Noldo’s brow shot upward, revealing his doubts.
“I swear,” she vowed. When his expression did not change, she added, “I had a score to settle with Thuringwethil. It’s done. It’s over. I swear to you that it won’t happen again. I won’t leave the others.”
Glorfindel’s brow returned to its normal position. “I believe you’re speaking the truth.” He offered her a fleeting smile. Grave concern then marred his otherwise handsome face. “I wish I knew if news of Thuringwethil’s demise has reached Mordor.”
“You can’t see that?”
“I’m afraid not,” he answered, his face and tone becoming even more grim. “It is of the utmost importance that you remain vigilant at all times. Be careful what you say around both birds and beasts, for many act as Sauron’s spies.”
“You think he’s about to make his move?” she asked uneasily.
“I cannot rightly say,” he answered with a sigh. “That does not diminish the need for you to be prepared for whatever may come your way. Trust in your companions. They are well-seasoned warriors, particularly the sons of Elrond. Do as they say. Work together.”
“You’re acting as if this is my first trip out with the Rangers,” Miriel said, rolling her eyes.
“And do you feel there is no need for me to worry about you?” he queried. “I am very fond of you, Miriel. I love you as if you were my own daughter. Every day you’re away from me, I say a prayer, beseeching the Valar to protect you from harm, to bring you back to me, safe and sound.”
Miriel could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. “I appreciate that,” she mumbled.
“Just, please, be careful.” He then pulled her into a tight embrace.
“I will,” she croaked, feeling as if the Noldo was squeezing all of the breath from her.
“And for the love of Eru,” he whispered in her ear, “stay out of trouble.”
“Can’t… breathe,” she uttered in reply.
Glorfindel pulled out of the hug, the smile returning to his face. Cupping her cheeks, he said, “You take care. And come back soon.”
“I will,” she answered.
He then kissed her on the forehead. “Farewell, my Miriel. Farewell.”
The Slayer then gathered her packs, rejoined her friends, and together, they set off on their journey. She had no idea where they were going as of yet, but she would find out after they had left Rivendell’s borders.
No one really spoke much until they reached the ford, where they paused long enough to remove their boots and stockings and roll up the legs of their breeches before crossing the stream.
“Any ideas on where we’re going?” asked Miriel out of curiosity.
“North,” replied Halbarad, as he pulled off one of his boots.
The Slayer glanced at her Watcher. “Can you be a tad more specific than that?”
Hal met Miriel’s gaze. “Fornost.”
“Ooh, land of the healing hot springs, huh?” she answered, remembering their earlier conversation.
“Have you ever been, Dagnir?” asked Gúron with a dreamy expression on his face.
“To Fornost? No,” she replied.
“The hot springs. Have you ever sat in the hot steamy waters of a hot spring?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “We only have cold springs in Gondor.”
“Then you’re in for a real treat,” continued the Dúnadan. “There’s nothing like the hot springs of Fornost!”
“So I’ve been told. Hal says that the water can heal aches and pains.”
“This is most certainly true,” said Elrohir in agreement.
“I find the waters quite relaxing,” added Elladan. “As Gúron said, you’re in for a real treat.”
Miriel smiled. “Good. I look forward to it.”
With the Rangers now barefoot and their breeches rolled up above their knees, they carefully began to cross the slippery, rocky bed of the River Bruinen with their baggage. The water was icy cold, the current swift. The Slayer’s gaze shifted from the riverbed to the Misty Mountains looming to the east. She was eager for the sun’s rays to break over the snowy peaks.
Unfortunately, when she turned her attention away from her feet, her left foot came down on a particularly slippery stone, which caused her to lose her footing. She cried out, the sound of her voice bouncing from tree to tree. Her arms flailed at her side in an attempt to regain her balance. The straps of her bags slid off her shoulders and down her arms, as her companions attempted to reach her, to steady her before she could fall. But it was too late. Miriel fell backwards, crashing into the frigid waters with a loud splash, nearly drenching her from head to toe. The only part of her body that remained dry were her arms, which stuck out from the stream, her hands tightly clutching the straps of her bags and her boots, preventing both from getting soaked.
Her tailbone throbbed, goose bumps instantly spreading over her flesh as she coughed up the mouthful of water she had managed to swallow.
“Are you alright?” asked Elladan, the first to reach her side.
“Take my things,” she said breathlessly.
Elladan divided her belongings between Elrohir and Halbarad, as he and Gúron helped Miriel to her feet and carefully across the ford.
Groaning, the Slayer rubbed her lower back, her teeth now incessantly chattering from the cold.
“You’re hurt,” said Elladan with concern, seeing the grimace on her face.
“I’ll live,” she moaned, looking down at her saturated garments in disgust. Despite the pain in her butt bone, she was annoyed more than anything else.
Feeling the bad vibes emanating from the Slayer, Elrohir felt the need to put an end to it before things turned foul. “Look on the bright side, Miriel. At least your footwear is dry,” he said lightheartedly, flashing a brilliant smile.
Perhaps it was Elrohir’s smile, or maybe the mischievous glint in his eyes, but Miriel couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Her reaction immediately put the others at ease, and they too joined in her mirth.
“You better change into some dry clothing,” suggested Halbarad, as he seated himself on the ground so that he could put on his stockings and boots.
With her teeth still chattering away, she nodded, squeezing the excess water out of her hair and garments first. Once finished, she said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Grabbing one of her bags, she headed into the woods where she could change in private. Before removing a single garment, Miriel’s eyes scanned the treetops in search of hidden Elves on sentry duty. When she determined that the area was Elf-free, she began to change hurriedly, listening to her friends’ idle chitchat.
As soon as she had pulled a clean, dry tunic over her head, she saw the first bit of sunlight filtering through the treetops. For some reason, that irked her nearly as much as her tumble into the river. It almost seemed as if the sun was mocking her. While she was aware that that was not the case, she couldn’t help but think that her latest mishap was a sign, an omen even, of things to come.
Surely, Sauron knew of Thuringwethil’s demise by now. Was it possible that he was somehow luring her out of the safety of Rivendell into the perilous world beyond its borders? Did he possess that kind of power? Was it possible that he could somehow light that fire in her heart to return to the wilds, even from the bowels of Mordor? Miriel thought it was plausible. She had not forgotten how Sauron had been able to find a way into the dreamscape when she and Buffy were at The Bronze months ago.
She shuddered as she pulled on her breeches. Maybe she was being paranoid, over thinking the whole situation. Who’s to say that she hadn’t happened to just slip and fall? Why think that someone was behind it? For the sake of the others, Miriel wasn’t going to allow this little mishap to ruin the day. As long as she remained vigilant, she should be okay.
Now dressed in dry clothing, the Slayer strolled back to the others, squeezing the excess water from her wet garments. She decided not to put her wet clothes in any of her bags. Instead, she’d drape them over her arm, hoping that would help dry them faster.
The Rangers then resumed their trek, making their way west along The Great East Road. Nothing seemed amiss throughout the day’s march. There were no signs that any had traveled on the road, no footprints, no nothing. The only signs of life (other than the Rangers) were the chirping of birds and the buzzing sound of insects. Miriel felt no impending danger, no hairs stood on the back of her neck, not even when they passed the game trail that wound its way beyond the great hill to the House of Horrors.
Exhausted and drenched with sweat after the long day’s hike, the group took refuge amidst the hills on the south side of the road, deciding that it would be best to avoid the forest to their north. With the days now being longer, the sun still had not sunk beyond the horizon. Yet everyone, even the sons of Elrond, was weary from the day’s journey. On the upside, supper would be as good as their midday meal since they had only left Rivendell that morning. There would be no need to resort to lembas for a while yet.
Once her belly was full, Miriel became sleepy. She chose to rest now, taking watch duty after dark. Despite the ground being hard and lumpy, she settled onto her bedroll, closed her eyes, and fell fast asleep…
“Nice fall this morning,” said Buffy teasingly. Those were the first words out of her mouth when Miriel joined her in the dreamscape. She then mimicked the younger’s Slayer tumble.
“I’m delighted that I was able to amuse you,” replied Miriel with a curtsey. She accepted the ribbing.
“I’m all for cheap entertainment,” said a smiling Buffy. “I can’t begin to tell you how boring things are when you’re not around.”
“I’m always around.”
“But not here, here,” Buffy said, correcting herself. The elder Slayer scanned their surroundings. Once again, they were standing on the banks of the River Anduin. Some scattered trees shaded the otherwise grassy area. Wildflowers in a myriad of colors blended in with the greenery. The sweet fragrant scent of the blossoms lingered in the air. It was nearly always the same. Either the two Slayers were by the river or by the sea.
“The Anduin River, again,” said Buffy with a groan. She turned to her protégé. “If I didn’t know when your birthday was, I’d swear that you were an Aquarius. You have this weird affinity for water.”
Puzzled, Miriel asked, “What’s an Aquarius?”
Buffy laughed. She then explained, with some difficulty, about the zodiac signs and its supposed influence on people, that is, until her protégé motioned for her to stop. “Once you talk about stars and such, I’m lost. I’ve never seen the significance in all that.”
“Really?” said Buffy, both brows raised in question. “I seem to recall helping a young Slayer find her way by following the North Star.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.”
“Don’t write off stuff like that so easily. Astrology can be useful, beneficial.”
“I guess,” answered Miriel with a shrug.
Buffy smiled. She then linked her arm with Miriel’s and said, “Come on. Let’s blow this scene.”
The younger Slayer looked at her mentor with much confusion. “Huh?” was all she managed to say before their surroundings changed.
The grass disappeared, only to be replaced by lots of concrete. Day had turned into night. A large metal building sprang up where the river had run only a second before. Once Miriel had regained her bearings, she uttered a single word, “Sunnydale.”
“Yeppers,” said a cheerful Buffy. “Time to visit the Bronze and have some fun. We need to cut loose.”
Miriel stopped dead in her tracks. Buffy tried to take another step, but the anchor attached to her arm forced her to a halt.
“What’s wrong?” asked the elder Slayer.
Miriel shook her head. “I’m not going in there,” she said, eyeing the sign over the club’s main entrance.
“Do you not remember what happened the last time we visited here?” She looked around, wary of their surroundings. She leaned in closer, whispering in Buffy’s ear, “The Dark Lord made an appearance.” She then freed her arm from her mentor’s, took a step back, and shook her head. “I will not set foot in that place again.”
Buffy gave her protégé one of those pitiful looks. “You can’t live in fear, Miriel. Besides, Sauron didn’t actually attack you. He attacked me
. And, I’m not afraid.” Buffy then turned on her heel, and marched toward the door of the club. Glancing over her shoulder with a wry smile on her face, she added, “I’ll be in here if you need me.” In the brief few moments that Buffy had the door open, the “music” grew louder before becoming muffled again, once the door closed.
Miriel’s feet suddenly hurt. She gasped when she looked down. Undoubtedly, in Buffy’s amusement, she had changed her protégé’s garments from the tunic, breeches and boots she had been wearing to a scant, skin-tight short black dress that left nothing to the imagination and a pair of matching black stilettos that had the highest heels that Miriel had ever seen. The heels were so narrow that the young Slayer thought if she took a step, she’d probably break an ankle. Buffy had pulled a similar stunt in the past, but not to this extreme.
The cool, night air chilled Miriel to the core. Goose bumps popped out over her entire body. When her nipples also reacted to the cold, causing her great alarm, she slapped her arms across her chest, mortified by her indecent apparel. After mumbling several choice words under her breath, she closed her eyes, wishing for her clothing to change into something less revealing. However, when she opened her eyes, she remained garbed in the same skimpy mini-dress and heels that Buffy had chosen for her.
Furious at her predicament and thinking of innovative ways to kick her mentor’s ass, Miriel was momentarily distracted from her plight by the sound of voices, approaching from behind. Always suspicious of others that interloped in her and Buffy’s dreams, she slowly turned her head in the direction of the sound, only to see four girls strolling out of the dimness. The young Slayer’s eyes locked on the brunette wearing a knee-length black sweater. Since she was in the dreamscape, she was unsure how to acquire said sweater. Should she take it by force or simply ask if she could have it? She quickly debated this issue as the gaggle of girls drew closer.
“Excuse me,” she finally said, awkwardly shifting her feet so that she could face the group.
The girls ceased their conversation, surveying the tall, scantily clad Slayer.
“I hate to bother you, but I’m terribly cold.” Her arms were wrapped around her body. “Is there any way I could talk you out of that lovely sweater?” she asked, looking pleadingly at the brunette.
The girl eyed Miriel with suspicion. “Where’s yours?”
Trying to think quickly, she replied with, “My friend ran off with mine.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a friend,” remarked one of her companions.
The brunette’s gaze fixed on Miriel’s shoes. “Are those Christian Louboutin?”
“I beg your pardon,” she answered, having no clue what the girl was talking about.
“Your shoes? Are they Christian Louboutin stilettos?” she repeated.
“Um, er, no. They’re mine,” Miriel stammered in reply.
The girls sniggered. They assumed that the Slayer must have been a model since she was tall, pretty, and dumb. A simpleton, perhaps.
The brunette suppressed her laughter. “Can I take a closer look at the shoes?” she asked. “I only need to see one.”
Miriel didn’t understand why the girl needed to examine her footwear. However, she was freezing and if the girl was interested in maybe exchanging the shoes for the sweater, she was game. Glancing at the closest girl, a blonde, she asked, “Do you mind?” as she reached a hand out toward the stranger’s shoulder for additional support.
“Not at all.” The blonde actually moved closer, so that Miriel could lean on her as she removed one of the shoes and handed it to the girl wearing the black sweater.
The brunette took the stiletto and inspected it like a dwarf scrutinizing a newly polished gemstone. Her eyes widened as she looked at the red sole. She then let out this high-pitched squeal that startled the Slayer, nearly causing her to topple over. Thankfully, the blonde moved swiftly and steadied her before she could roll an ankle.
“They’re the real deal. Not knockoffs,” exclaimed the brunette, amazed at her good fortune. “I’ll tell you what; I’ll trade you the sweater for the shoes.”
“Yes! I’ll do that,” blurted out an appreciative Miriel.
The girls quickly made the exchange. The Slayer felt instant relief after slipping on the sweater.
“Do you want my shoes?” the brunette asked after admiring her newly acquired footwear. “They’re not as expensive as yours, but I’d hate to see you go barefoot.”
Miriel looked at the girl’s high-heeled shoes. “No, thank you,” she replied politely. “I’d rather go barefoot.” She smiled gratefully at the brunette. “Thanks again for the sweater.” She turned, pulling the button-less sweater tightly around her as she headed for the main door.
The interior of the Bronze was teeming with people. The young Slayer snaked her way through the crowd, realizing that finding Buffy would not be that easy. When she came across the stairway leading to the upper level, she decided that it would be easier to spot her mentor from above. She hastily climbed the steps. When she reached the top, she was somewhat surprised and relieved to find the area patron-free.
She strolled over to the balustrade. Her hands gripped the railing as her eyes scanned the dance floor below, trying to pick Buffy out amidst the crowd. Many of the girls looked similar to her mentor with long, blonde hair, dressed in black. She finally found Buffy, dancing with someone that was not Angel. She was a bit stunned by that, especially since “dancing” in these times more closely resembled some animalistic mating ritual. Since Buffy had mentioned how bored she had been, Miriel thought it was best to let her mentor have her fun, no matter how the younger Slayer felt about the whole situation.
To help pass the time, Miriel decided to people-watch. She watched the band on stage for a bit, wondering if magic helped amplify the noise of their instruments. She found it hard to believe that this was considered entertainment, much less music. She and Buffy definitely had different tastes in that department.
Growing bored with the figures on stage, her eyes swept over the strangely clad inhabitants, stopping on a couple making out on one of the sofas. Miriel’s jaw dropped. She was shocked to see the young man’s hand slowly sliding up his companion’s thigh then disappearing under her skirt. Miriel’s cheeks turned bright pink as she quickly averted her gaze. Shuddering, she looked back at Buffy, embarrassed and ashamed that her mentor allowed such a display to manifest in the dreamscape. What the hell was Buffy thinking? As she watched the elder Slayer’s provocative dance, she could deduce what was on her mentor’s mind.
“Oh, Buffy,” she said with a groan. Miriel’s interest in the Bronze was waning, fast. In the past, she had found trips to Sunnydale to be interesting and somewhat entertaining. How could one not find the idea of stepping into the future exciting and riveting? But tonight lacked all of the above. Buffy had abandoned her, leaving Miriel alone, clad in garments that can only be described as harlot-wear. That mere thought sent a shiver down her spine.
Rubbing her arms to dispel the sudden chill that had encompassed her, Miriel closed her eyes and attempted to change their surroundings to a more desirable setting - the banks of the Anduin. However, the constant noise from the band indicated that she wasn’t going anywhere, at least, for the time being.
Her eyes popped open and locked on her mentor once more. Damn, Buffy was in control of everything. She sighed in defeat, and noticed, much to her surprise, that she could see her breath.
“Good evening, Dagnir.” The cold, menacing voice came from behind, instantly paralyzing Miriel with fear. The air became so frigid that her goose bumps had goose bumps. The only part of her body that seemed unaffected by the Dark Lord’s presence was her eyeballs, which moved rapidly from side to side, trying to catch a glimpse of the most unwelcome visitor. Unable to see him, she fixed her gaze on Buffy, mentally imploring her to look up at the balcony.
“Look at her,” said the Dark Lord, his voice full of disdain. His warm breath cut through the otherwise icy area. She could feel it against the back of her neck. “Fear reeks from that one. She knows that she has met her match.”
Miriel desperately tried to shout Buffy’s name. Unfortunately, no sound escaped her throat, much less passed her lips.
“You, on the other hand, have exceeded my expectations. Your resiliency should be lauded.”
Was the Dark Lord complimenting her?
“I am not easily impressed, especially when it comes to Man, the weakest race in the world. Yet somehow, you’ve managed to thwart all attempts on your life, thus far. I thought you would break by now. You’ve proven to be stronger than I ever imagined.”
Miriel could actually feel his lips brushing against her ear.Does he know? Does he know that I killed Thuringwethil?
she thought frantically.
“They’re coming, Dagnir,” he whispered. “They are coming to avenge her death. You know of whom I speak.”
The Slayer gulped. He does know.
“Should you survive their wrath, then you will face mine. You taketh away from me, so I shall taketh away from you,” he hissed.
Much to her surprise, she was then hurled her over the railing without Sauron ever laying a finger on her. She let out a startled yelp as she tried to correct her position midair so that she wouldn’t hit the concrete floor headfirst. Before she even hit the floor, the crowd had melted away and the music had ceased. Only the two Slayers remained. Grateful that she was barefoot, Miriel was able to land in a squat, but on her feet. Her eyes met the elder Slayer’s. “Buffy,” she cried out…
Not a second later, Miriel bolted upright, now wide-awake. Her heart was beating frantically in her chest and little beads of sweat dotted her forehead and neck. She was breathing heavily, as if she had just run a mile long sprint.
Startled, Miriel nearly leapt to her feet. Her head jerked around toward the voice. Gúron sat in the shadows of the low-burning fire, puffing on his pipe and watching Miriel with inquisitive eyes. Apparently, it was his turn for watch duty. She relaxed a bit, realizing that the Dark Lord hadn’t sprung from the dreamscape into their campsite. The Slayer glanced at the bodies sprawled around the fire. The others appeared to be sleeping peacefully. It took Miriel a minute or two to steady her heartbeat. Her body shivered as the cool night air touched her damp skin. She wiped the sweat away with the back of her hand.
“Bad dream?” Gúron asked, scrutinizing the Slayer intently.
“You could say that,” she answered softly. “What time is it?”
“I reckon it’s about half past three,” he replied, blowing out a steady stream of smoke.
“Why don’t you get some sleep,” she suggested, stretching the stiffness from her limbs. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Yeah.” She clambered to her feet. “You can sleep on my bedroll if you like.”
“Sounds good to me,” he replied. He quietly beat the ashes from the bowl before slipping the pipe back into his bag.
Miriel traded places with the Ranger. In only a matter of minutes, she heard him softly snoring. Her thoughts turned to Sauron’s parting comments. Who was coming? And more importantly, when? She was definitely on high alert, but other than that, there wasn’t much else she could do.
That wasn’t true. With everyone asleep, Miriel retrieved one of her bags. She moved a bit closer to the firelight as she searched the contents. She then pulled out the Mahtanian dagger given to her by Glorfindel. She loathed wearing it, thinking that it was too precious to be used in any type of warfare. However, knowing that something was coming, something big, she felt that she needed every advantage possible. And what better than a dagger wrought by the greatest elven craftsman from the fires of Aulë. She attached the sheath to a leather belt and then strapped it around her waist. Unlike her last knife, she wouldn’t wear it on her leg where others could see the case covered in glittering gemstones. Why tempt a possible robbery attempt when it could be avoided. She pulled her tunic down over the weapon, concealing it from view.
Miriel actually felt more at ease knowing the dagger was within reach. For the remainder of her watch, she debated whether to tell her friends about the impending attack. Truth be told, they were always prepared for an attack of some sort or another.
Her companions rose shortly after dawn. After a quick breakfast, they began their march once again, following the roadway. Miriel found herself constantly looking toward the woods, half-expecting monsters of some sort to leap out and attack at any minute. It was a ludicrous thought, since most creatures prefer to strike at night. They detest the light of day. And today would be no exception. The sun shone brightly and there were hardly any clouds in the bright blue sky.
The Rangers were making good time. By mid-afternoon, they were already approaching the Last Bridge, a site that everyone now associated with trolls. Since it was still daylight, they would have nothing to fear on this trip. But that didn’t mean they weren’t alert. Everyone listened intently for any odd noises and looked for shadows moving within the woods. Each Ranger instinctively clutched the hilt of his sword, just in case.
The only discernable tracks in the road were of little critters, nothing large or menacing. As they crossed the bridge, Miriel stopped at the midway point to look down at the River Mitheithel. The stream was lovely and the only one they’d pass on their journey (as far as she knew). Her eyes scanned the walls that towered on either side, stirring memories of when she had rappelled to the river in desperate need of water. That seemed like ages ago. Her birthday, June 21st, was fast approaching, and would mark her one-year anniversary since leaving Minas Tirith. One year actually felt more like ten. So much had happened to her since the night of her departure. She was not the same feeble, trusting girl that had fled in the night with Bregolas. If anything, she had grown in strength and in mind.
Thoughts of Bregolas prompted her to turn to the east, looking up at the looming mountains. Her eyes stopped on the approximate area where the Gondorian warrior had fought to the death against the Orcs. She could feel her eyes begin to well with tears. Despite their trials along the way, the ups and downs in their relationship, Miriel still missed him. Although her feelings for him had never been the same as his for her, a part of her would always love him. He had saved her in more ways than he ever knew. She could only hope that he was at peace. She was. Miriel no longer wore his ring on a chain around her neck. However, she kept the token safely stowed away in her bag.
“What’s wrong?” asked Hal, giving the Slayer’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.
Miriel shook herself out of her reverie, and faced her Watcher, unaware of the tear that trickled down her cheek.
“Are you in pain?” He cupped her cheek with his hand, softly wiping away the tear.
“No,” she croaked. Clearing her throat, she regained her composure and glanced back at the White Mountains. “Just thinking about something.” She turned back to Hal and gave him a quick, reassuring smile. “I’m alright.”
Halbarad nodded. “Are you able to proceed on or do we need to halt for a while?”
“We can go on,” she said, turning to the west. She noticed that all her companions were watching her intently. She dried her eyes on her arm and walked briskly ahead of the others across the bridge.
Elladan caught up with her. “What was that about?”
“Nothing brought you to tears?” he queried, raising a skeptical brow.
“Just an old memory.”
Elladan pondered that for a moment. “Oh. Thuringwethil. I suppose traveling on this road brings to mind your past…” He paused for a moment, and then decided that the word “past” was sufficient enough, “with the Mother of Vampires.”
Miriel wasn’t about to reveal her true thoughts, so she sort of grunted in agreement in hopes of ending any further discussion.
They walked in silence for a while.
When the group approached the path that led to the hidden lake, Miriel had a strong desire to revisit that place.
“Ooh,” she began with an air of excitement in her voice. “Can we go to the hidden lake?”
She was dismayed when all the Rangers replied in chorus with a resounding, “No!”
Her shoulders slumped forward. “Why?” she inquired, pouting.
“Need we remind you of what happened last time,” said Halbarad. “We need to put as many miles as possible behind us before dark.”
“Please,” she pleaded, drawing out the word. “I promise that I won’t run off. Besides, there were extenuating circumstances last time. And, in the end, it turned out alright.” She offered a quick smile.
“Why so eager to return to the lake?” asked Gúron, a hint of suspicion in his voice.
Miriel didn’t have an answer. “I… I just want to go there. I…” She paused. “I just feel like I need to go back. I can’t explain it in words.”
“Slayers intuition, perhaps?” suggested Elrohir.
She shrugged. “Maybe.” She fixed her gaze on her Watcher as he had been left in charge after Aragorn’s departure. “Please.”
The Rangers shared questionable glances with one another. It almost seemed as if they were having a debate with their eyes only.
Finally, Elladan said, “I don’t see the harm in a quick stop.” He turned toward Miriel. “Surely, you do not expect us to stop for the night when there is so much daylight left.”
“No, I suppose not,” she said with a heavy sigh.
All eyes turned to Halbarad. “This makes absolutely no sense at all!” he said, throwing up his hands. “Alright, Miriel. But I trust that you will not flee as you did last time.” He then waved his finger threateningly in her face. “If so, you’ll get a good thrashing when I get my hands on you.”
She smiled. “Alright.”
The Rangers then continued on for a little ways before peeling off the road and down the pathway. When they had reached the end, they cautiously stepped out into the clearing, their eyes doing a quick sweep for any other visitors. There were none.
“Well, here we are, Miriel,” said Gúron, waiting expectantly for her to do something Slayer-like upon their arrival.
Miriel couldn’t explain what had drawn her back to this place. Maybe a part of her sought solace in an area that offered such beauty. Once they left this area, they’d be hiking in the open, amidst rocky terrain and thickets, for league upon league. It wasn’t what she considered lovely surroundings.
Instead of standing there like an idiot, the Slayer strolled purposely toward the other side of the lake, as the others followed behind. Since it was late afternoon, the Rangers debated whether they should go ahead and eat their evening meal now or stop again later. Miriel’s vote was to eat now.
When she reached the huge oak tree in which she had once slept when she was still on her own, she dropped her bags to the ground and rubbed the soreness in her shoulders. The place looked virtually the same as she remembered except for some branches, ranging from large to small that had fallen from the oak and littered the ground beneath its leafy green canopy.
She plopped down and leaned against the bole of the tree, drinking in the beauty of the lake and the reflection of the walled enclosure on its surface. Hal and Elladan moved some of the larger limbs away from their chosen seating area while Elrohir and Gúron plodded down to the lake to refresh themselves.
“Feel free to catch some fish for supper while you’re at it,” Miriel shouted to the duo, as she absently played with a small stick she had picked up from the ground.
“If you’re already tiring of salted meat and bread,” said a smiling Elladan, collapsing on the ground beside her, “we have an ample supply of lembas available.”
“It was only a suggestion, my dear Half-elf,” she answered lightheartedly. “I mean, how often are we going to come across a fishing lake whilst on this journey of ours? It would be a nice change.”
Laughing, Elrohir looked over his shoulder. “Nice change! We only left yesterday morning! If you’re tiring of the fare thus far, we’re in trouble.” He turned, scooping up water with his cupped hands. “It’s going to be a long journey.” He then splashed the water on his face.
“I’ll tell you what, Miriel,” said Gúron, marching back up the slope. “You find some bait - worms, crickets and such - and I’ll catch you some fish.”
“Are you serious?”
“Gúron’s an excellent fisherman,” piped up Halbarad, wiping the dirt from his hands. “He carries a wallet of hooks and line with him at all times.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Miriel, looking from her Watcher to the golden-haired Dúnadan.
“There’re a lot of things you don’t know about me,” said Gúron, as he began to search through the contents of one of his bags.
“I do not doubt that,” she answered, her eyes studying the Ranger she knew least of all. “Are you really going to see about catching some fish?”
Gúron pulled his wallet from his bag. Smiling, he answered, “Have you caught me any bait?”
“Come, Miriel,” said Elladan, rising to his feet. “I’ll help you search.”
The Half-elf pulled her to her feet, and together, they began their search, digging in the leaves and dirt for insects that would make suitable bait.
Apparently, the others felt confident that they’d have a fresh fish supper. Hal and Elrohir busily gathered up wood for a fire.
Elladan came across an enormous limb that had fallen from the oak; its circumference was tree-size itself. With it partially embedded in the earth, he felt there was a good chance there were insects beneath it. He tried to pick up the heavy limb, but it wouldn’t budge. Then he tried pushing on it, but had no luck.
“Oh, Miriel.” he called. “Help me with this.”
She was several yards away, digging in a patch of ground with her fingers. She rose to her feet and marched over to her fellow bug-collector.
“I’m in need of your Slayer strength,” he said, still out of breath from his failed attempts to move the limb.
Miriel smiled brightly. “I appreciate a man who’s able to admit his weaknesses,” she said lightheartedly.
“I consider myself fortunate to be in the company of one whose strength surpasses my own,” he replied with a bow.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Can you move this out of the way?” he asked, pointing to the mammoth bough.
“But of course.” Miriel bent down and lifted the tree-sized limb off the ground without much effort.
Elladan let out an impressive whistle when he saw that demonstration of strength.
“Where do you want it?”
“Place it there,” he said, pointing to the ground a foot or so away from where it had lain.
The Slayer let the enormous branch fall. They could feel the earth tremble beneath their feet when it landed with a loud thud.
Elladan squatted beside the newly revealed depression. The fresh dirt was crawling with all types of bugs.
“Ooh,” said Miriel, crouching at the Half-elf’s side. “We hit the mother lode!”
The two grabbed many insects, storing them in the handkerchief that Elladan had pulled from his pocket.
Upon hearing the Slayer’s announcement, Gúron wandered over to take a closer look. “What a find!” he said, grinning. “We’ll be sure to catch a mess of fish.” When Elladan felt they had collected enough bugs, he twisted the handkerchief closed and handed it to the golden-haired Dúnadan. He took the bundle, turned and started toward the water’s edge. “Get that fire going, my good men. It shan’t be long.”
“He sure seems confident,” Miriel said to Elladan as she clapped the dirt from her hands.
“It’s a talent,” replied Gúron, hearing her comments. “I’d be delighted to teach you the art of fishing, if you’d like.”
“Oh, no,” answered Miriel. “I have no patience for fishing.”
“A Slayer needs to be patient,” interjected Halbarad. “We’ve been working on that skill, have we not?”
As Miriel and Elladan walked down the slope to the lake so they could wash their hands, she said, “It’s one thing to be patient when stalking one’s prey, it’s something altogether different when trying to catch fish.”
“Surely, one descended from the line of Princes of Dol Amroth would possess some skill in fishing,” remarked Gúron, as he baited his hook with a live beetle.
The Slayer couldn’t help but laugh. “Yet, being one who has dwelled in Minas Tirith and only visited
Dol Amroth on occasion, fishing is not a talent I possess.” She paused, remembering how frustrating it had been when Bregolas had tried to teach her. She hastily added, “No, fishing is not
“I find it most relaxing,” declared Gúron, tossing his line into the water.
“I’m glad for you.” She shook the water from her hands before wiping them on her breeches. “You catch them, Gúron and I’ll help you with cleaning and cooking them. Does that sound fair enough?”
“Ai,” he answered. “Now be quiet before you scare all the fish away.”
Miriel rolled her eyes and tramped up the slope toward the fire that was crackling to life. Elrohir lay on a blanket with his head propped up on his bags, lazily chewing on a blade of grass.
“Don’t you look comfy,” she said, thinking that the younger son of Elrond had the right idea.
“Might as well relax until mealtime,” he answered.
“That sounds ideal,” remarked Elladan in agreement. “I shall do the same.”
“Me too,” added Miriel.
Elladan and the Slayer pulled out their own blankets and lay them on the ground beneath the towering old oak. They copied Elrohir, lounging around with their heads propped on their makeshift pillows. They watched Gúron fish, as Halbarad tended to the fire. They made a point to talk quietly so as not to frighten the fish away. Every now and again, the golden-haired Dúnadan would shout, “Got one!” as he added another fish to his day’s catch.
Everyone appeared at ease, enjoying their downtime. Songbirds sang merrily in the treetops and insects (the one’s lucky enough to not be caught) buzzed away in contentment, adding to the serenity of their surroundings. All (except Gúron) remained sheltered from the blazing rays of the sun beneath the leafy boughs of the giant oak. It was proving to be a wonderfully relaxing afternoon. Miriel hoped the others would change their minds and camp here for the night.
Maybe a couple of hours had passed when Gúron summoned Miriel to join him. She strode down the slope, her eyes widening when she saw the number of fish that the Ranger had caught. There looked to be enough for each to have two fish each.
“Come, sit.” Gúron motioned to the patch of grass beside him. “We have to scale and clean all of these,” he informed her, proudly showing off his catch.
“Wow! You really are quite the fisherman.”
The golden-haired Dúnadan’s smile widened. “Learned it all from my father.”
“Is he still alive?” she asked, out of curiosity.
“Do you mind my asking what happened?” She wasn’t sure if she was crossing a line, but since Gúron had mentioned his father, he had opened the door to a possible conversation on the topic.
“Orcs,” he replied, his expression immediately darkening. “He and a few companions went hunting for deer and were ambushed by Orcs.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Have you ever cleaned fish?” he asked, swiftly changing the subject to the task at hand.
“Unfortunately, yes,” she replied unenthusiastically.
Gúron laughed heartily. The sound of his laughter bounced from wall to wall. “Why so grim then?”
“I’m not fond of smelling like fish, or getting scales under my fingernails.”
Her comment amused the Ranger even more. “This coming from the Slayer?” he said, still laughing. “I know for a fact that you’ve had worse under your fingernails, dear girl. Surely, fish guts and scales are nothing in comparison.”
She shrugged. “I suppose.”
He shook his head. His mirth had not yet abated. “Have you a knife?”
Miriel’s hand immediately slid under the bottom of her shirt. She undid the clasp on her sheath and pulled out the Mahtanian dagger.
Gúron’s blue eyes widened. “Well, I haven’t seen that before. What a fine weapon it is.”
“It’s Glorfindel’s,” she said. “He lent it to me.”
“Well, I suggest you save that for battle. I’ll loan you my blade.”
She nodded; slightly embarrassed that she had even considered using such a magnificent weapon to clean fish. She took the Ranger’s knife and began scaling her first fish while he went to retrieve another blade. He was back in a minute and started to work on his own fish.
After a few minutes of silence, she asked, “Do you still hate me?”
The golden-haired Dúnadan stopped and looked directly at her. “I never hated you.”
Miriel raised a skeptical brow. She didn’t believe that for a single second!
“Alright, I admit it, I wasn’t fond of you in the beginning,” he confessed. He looked back down at his fish and resumed scaling. “One can never be too careful nowadays. The enemy is able to take on many guises.”
Images of Thuringwethil and her band of villains flashed in her mind. “Ain’t that the truth,” she said, sounding very Buffy-like.
“I’ve come to…” He paused, searching for the right words. “Believe in you. Any misgivings I’ve had are long gone. You are frightening, Miriel. Your wrath…” His words trailed off. Recalling the events in Bree sent a chill up his spine. He shuddered at the thought. “Let me just say that I’m glad to be a friend and not a foe.” He glanced at her. “I am a friend, am I not?”
She smiled. “I consider you one.”
He sighed rather dramatically. “Thank the Valar. After seeing what you did to that Thornberry fellow.” He shuddered yet again.
“He had it coming.”
“Indeed. Any man that would do such a thing deserves death. Though I would’ve refrained from hacking off his manhood and shoving it down his throat, but that’s just me.” He watched for her reaction out of the corner of his eye.
“It seemed befitting,” she replied without missing a beat. “And I’d do it again if any rapists cross my path.”
“I believe you.”
“So, we’re good?”
He gave a peculiar look, never having heard that expression before.
“We’re good,” he said, nodding.
They didn’t talk much after that, each lost in thought. Miriel really wanted to ask more about Gúron’s family, if he actually had any, that is, but felt that she’d let it rest, for now. When all ten fish were cleaned, they gathered them up and joined the others by the fire. They weren’t going to fry the fish, or poach them, as she and Bregolas had done on their journey. They’d be cooking them whole, over the fire on wooden spits that Hal had fashioned from sticks he had found.
Since they didn’t carry any eating utensils in their luggage (only a pot for boiling water and a wooden spoon, for God only knew what), the twins, ever resourceful, made ‘plates’ from the fresh leaves they had collected. Once their fish had finished cooking, they were placed on their leafy plates. When the fish were cool enough to handle, they picked the flesh from the bones with their fingers. This was considered a rare treat while on the road and each Ranger savored every tasty morsel.
After they had eaten (and to Miriel’s delight), Hal said that he would entertain the idea of stopping for the night, if everyone was willing to make up for the lost time tomorrow. The thought of marching for several hours on a full stomach had apparently lost its appeal to the Watcher. Everyone readily agreed, eager to spend the remainder of the day lazing around lakeside.
The Slayer’s clothing from the day before was still damp, so she decided that she’d hang them over the low branches of the tree to dry. They would probably end up smelling smoky, but that would beat the sour smell that would soon reek from her garments if not dried properly. Even though the sun had passed over the western wall, the air, as well as the heat from the fire, would help to dry her clothing.
To help pass the time, the Rangers shared some stories of their past adventures. Miriel always loved hearing their tales. Most of them included Aragorn, the bravest and wisest of the Dúnedain. She couldn’t help but wonder when their Chieftain would return. When she asked, no one knew for sure. There was no doubt in her mind that whatever the son of Arathorn had set out to do with Gandalf, he’d be successful, if these stories she heard were any indication.
Gradually, the sun sank further in the west, lengthening the shadows within the rock walled enclosure. With an ample supply of wood at their disposal, they kept the fire burning, which illuminated their little campsite and warded off the chill in the air.
“Why don’t you all sleep. I’ll take first watch,” suggested Miriel, not the least bit drowsy.
The others accepted her offer.
“Wake me when you tire,” said Elrohir.
She nodded in reply.
The Half-elf then readjusted his pillow of bags before stretching out on his bedroll like the others.
Soon, Miriel heard the slow, deep breathing of her companions and the gentle snoring of Gúron. She rose to her feet, eager to walk off the stiff and tingly feeling in her legs. She strolled down to the lake, looking at the stars’ glittering reflection on the water’s surface. The night was alive with a chorus of insects, frogs and the occasional hooting of an howl that sounded as if it was perched in the willow by the pathway.
“One way in and one way out,” she murmured, her eyes shifting toward the only entrance to the enclosure. A part of her wanted to check out the path, to inspect the area by the road for any signs of the enemy, but she knew that if anyone awoke while she was away, they’d assume the worst, thinking that she had run off again. The last thing she wanted was to lose the trust of her friends, so she decided to stay put, but keep an eye on the pathway.
Miriel must have stood by the lake for nearly an hour before she returned to the campsite. She plunked down on her bedroll and stoked the fire. The flames darted upward, brightly illuminating the immediate vicinity. The Slayer could clearly make out the faces of her companions, who remained still despite the crackling and popping of the fire.
Something then caught her eye. Not any intruders or such, but a piece of wood. A blackened limb, to be exact. Using a couple of sticks, she pinched the branch and pulled it from the fire. She lay it on the dirt in front of her, surprised by her compulsion to extract it from the fire. She bent down, looking closely at the stick. It appeared to be about eight or nine inches long. The fire had burned the outer layers off so that only the heartwood core remained. She tried to use the sticks to roll the hot wood in the dirt to cool it down, but it proved not to be as effective as she wished. So, she covered the burnt branch with piles of dirt, hoping that would help cool the wood enough for her to handle it.
It took a little while, but after about fifteen or twenty minutes, Miriel was able to inspect the wood without frying her fingers. She did her best to brush all the dirt off the stick and noticed a slight curve on one end, the only deformity she could see. She closed her fingers around the stick, finding that her hand fit perfectly in the curvature of the wood. She then climbed to her feet and headed to the lake to rinse the remaining tiny grains of dirt off the burnt branch and her hands. She then returned to the fire, wiping the stick dry on the leg of her breeches.
Without thinking, she pulled out the Mahtanian dagger from its sheath. Miriel looked around to make sure the others were still sleeping soundly. When she saw that they were, she began to cut slivers off the stick, the mystical flames burning the newly exposed wood, hardening it in the process. Before she knew it, she had fashioned her first stake. She smiled, wondering what Buffy would say when she learned that her protégé had whittled her first instrument of death.
She heard someone stir. Her muscles immediately tensed, as she found herself hiding the stake beneath her thigh. She sighed with relief when she noticed it was only Hal, rolling onto his side. Miriel then grabbed one of her bags and slipped the weapon inside. A wave of exhaustion crashed over her. She roused Elrohir from his slumber, informing him that it was his turn for sentry duty. She then crawled onto her makeshift bed, closed her eyes, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Halbarad woke her the following morning just before dawn. The rest of her companions were already busy gathering their gear for the long hike ahead of them. As she walked a little ways off to pee, she found it a little disconcerting that she hadn’t seen Buffy whilst she slept. Even though there had been a few instances when she had slept without dreaming, a part of her wondered if Sauron had found a way to prevent her from meeting with her mentor.
By the time she had collected her bags and began the day’s march, Miriel had managed to convince herself that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion. She deemed that her body and mind was in need of rest and somehow prevented her from uniting with Buffy in the dreamscape. It would only be temporary, or so she hoped.
Throughout the earlier leg of their trip, she had pondered Sauron’s words of warning. She had always known that there would be repercussions for killing Thuringwethil, but from the sound of it, they wouldn’t be coming from the Dark Lord. Not yet, any way. He had said that if she survived their wrath, then she’d face his. She wasn’t so sure who “they” were. That’s one of the reasons why she so desperately wanted to talk to Buffy, to get her input. But there was another part of this that was driving her mad. Sauron’s threat that he would take someone away from her. Thuringwethil had been his beloved, so she could only conclude that he’d take someone of equal importance from her. She had no lover, but she had her friends, the Rangers, whom she now thought of as her family. It would kill her should something happen to one or all of them because of her.
They stopped for their midday meal atop a rocky hillock south of the road. The heat was intense and there would be no fleeing from it, even temporarily, until they reached Weathertop. Miriel pulled out a strip of blue material (a remnant of the blue gown Hal had given her) and used it to tie back her hair from her face.
“You’ve been rather quiet all morning,” said Elladan as he nibbled on a chunk of cheese. “Something on your mind.”
“Actually, yes,” she replied. Miriel thought carefully about what to say next. She wanted to warn her friends without revealing every minute detail, such as the source of the information. “The night before last, I had a… a strange dream.”
All eyes locked on her, the intensity of their looks nearly matched that of the sun.
“A prophetic dream?” queried Hal with a tinge of hopeful anticipation to his voice.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Uncomfortable by the scrutinizing looks of her companions, she shifted her gaze to her lap. “We’re in danger,” she announced, now questioning whether she should’ve mentioned anything at all.
Apparently, the men were expecting to hear some profound statement, not that they were in danger.
“Rangers are no strangers to danger,” said Gúron with a chuckle. “It’s part of the trade.”
Miriel looked up, her eyes scanning her friends’ faces. She was quite surprised by their amused expressions.
“We’ve all accepted the risks that come with our line of work,” added Elladan. “That’s why it’s not for the faint-hearted.”
“They’re coming to avenge her death,” Miriel said in her most serious voice.
“Who?” asked Hal, the smile fading from his face.
“If I had to venture a guess, I’d have to say, vampires.”
“Vampires?” repeated Hal, his brows darting upward. “How do you know this?”
“The vampire part is conjecture on my part. But, I was told that they’re coming to avenge her death.” She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled to buy her a few seconds time. Miriel felt confident that she was figuring things out on her own. “I’ve been thinking that Sauron was the one to watch out for, but since he’s a he and not a they, I can only assume that it’s going to be vampires.”
“How can you be so sure?” queried Gúron skeptically.
She fixed her grey eyes on the golden-haired Dúnadan. “Mithrandir called Thuringwethil the Mother of all
Vampires. I’m sure we’ll be confronted by her offspring, or children, or whatever they call themselves.” She paused. “The main thing is, I want you all to be ready for that. An ordinary blow with a sword won’t kill a vampire unless you hew off its head.”
“You really believe this vampire attack is going to happen,” said Elladan, who appeared to be taking her comments very seriously.
“More so then yesterday. In fact, I feel so strongly about this,” she paused, reaching into her bag and pulling out the stake, “that I made this last night.” She handed the weapon to Elladan. “I can’t explain what possessed me to make it, but I did.” She shifted her gaze to Gúron. “The wooden stake is very effective against a vampire, as long as you hit them squarely in the heart. They’ll turn to dust when they die… Well, normally they do,” she quickly added, remembering that her greatest adversary had shriveled up instead of turning to dust when staked. “Thuringwethil was an exception.”
“I seem to recall that,” he answered, his eyes fixed on the newly formed weapon.
The Rangers passed the stake around, each admiring it as if it had been some ancient relic from the First Age.
“I do not doubt that you had some sort of prophetic dream,” said Halbarad, as he inspected the weapon. “However, I do have one question.” His eyes went from the stake to her. “Who was the one that told you that they were coming? You mentioned that someone told you that.”
Miriel forced herself not to react in any way to his question. “I can’t rightly say,” she replied. “I didn’t see him.” That part was true. She hoped she could leave it at that. There’s no way she wanted to mention anything about Sauron giving her that warning.
“Looks like we should be grateful for any warning,” said Elrohir.
“And more heedful of these creatures,” added Elladan.
The Slayer’s eyes shifted to the twins. “Have you ever encountered vampires on the battlefield or anywhere else? I mean, you’ve been alive for hundreds and hundreds of years, do you remember meeting them at some point in time?”
“I can’t say that I have,” replied Elladan.
“Me neither,” said Elrohir, shaking his head.
To be on the safe side, Miriel went over the various ways to kill a vampire. She felt a great sense of relief at sharing that information with her companions. She knew that everyone was now prepared for a vampire attack. When Hal handed back her stake, she stuck it in her bag and hungrily ate her food. They then set off, following the road west toward the Weather Hills.
Even now they could see the hills standing tall in the distance, rising from the rocky plain. Miriel disliked this leg of the journey. The terrain lacked any kind of eye appeal unless one is fond of pockets of brambles, thickets and weeds that managed to grow between the cracks in the rocky floor. There were no real trees to speak of, nothing that would offer any type of concealment or shelter from the elements other than the occasional stone outcropping. The Slayer avoided looking at the barren landscape by keeping her eyes fixed on the road at her feet. From time to time, she’d glance up to see if they had made any noticeable progress toward Weathertop and the surrounding hills.
Two days later, well after supper, the Rangers finally reached the hollow on the northwest slope of Weathertop. They would camp there for the night. Miriel sprawled out onto the soft green earth, which felt like a feather mattress when compared to the stone bed she had had to endure for the past couple of nights. It was a heavenly experience just to stretch out on something relatively soft.
They had been at the dell for maybe five or ten minutes when Elladan said, “Come, Miriel. Let’s climb to the summit of Weathertop.” He glanced up at the darkening sky. “The first stars are springing forth.”
“If you lay here, you can see them just fine,” she suggested from her comfortable position.
“But from the top, we’d be much closer and the evening air is ever more pleasant.”
For whatever reason, Elladan really wanted her to climb the hill with him, but convincing her wouldn’t be an easy feat after having marched for nearly seventeen hours! It was a good hike up the hill, not to mention coming back down again. Yet, there was a look in his eyes that made it impossible for her to refuse. He never asked much of her and this climb seemed important to him.
“Alright,” she said, holding her hands out so he could help pull her to her feet.
Elladan grabbed one of his bags and a water skin and the two then began to scale that ever-growing hill.
“You know,” Miriel said with some effort when they were about halfway up, “You’d think with all the walking we do, the muscles in the back of my legs wouldn’t hurt so much.”
Elladan chuckled. “You’re using muscles that you normally don’t use when hiking. The climb will make your legs even stronger.”
“Hmm,” was all she could say in response.
It took nearly twenty minutes to reach the summit. A crisp breeze blew out of the northwest. Miriel shivered as it touched her damp skin. Elladan wrapped his arm around her, pressing her body against his to help ward off her chill. She could feel the heat emanating from his body, warming her instantly.
Elladan shifted his gaze up to the sky. Miriel did the same. Thousands and thousands of stars sparkled above amidst the blackness of night. The Slayer’s eyes lowered to her companion’s face. His expression was one of peaceful contentment. Like most Elves, Elladan could stand there motionless for hours on end, staring up at the stars. But, Miriel was not an Elf and after the long day’s march, followed by the climbing of the steep slope of the hill, her legs were already trembling with fatigue.
“I need to sit, Elladan, before my legs give out,” she informed him.
“I’d catch you up before you hit the ground,” he replied with a smile.
“How can you not be tired?” asked a baffled Miriel.
“I am,” he answered, leading her toward the ring of broken stone near the center of the summit. “but the starlit night has a way of reinvigorating my body and soul.”
They sat on the hard ground, leaning against a stone block. So much for comfort
, thought Miriel miserably. She thought of the others, down in the dell below, of how comfortable they must be on the soft ground. Elladan wrapped a blanket around them both. He kept his arm wrapped around Miriel’s shoulder, holding her close.
“We first met here,” he said softly.
Miriel snuggled into the crook of his arm. “How could I forget,” she answered. “You and Elrohir were the first Elves I’d ever seen.”
“If I recall correctly - and I believe I do - you referred to me and my brother as the bastard sons of Eöl,” he said lightheartedly.
“Oh, yeah.” O’ how she regretted having said that. “I apologize for that.”
“I found it rather amusing myself. Elrohir, on the other hand, was flabbergasted and slightly insulted.”
“Remind me to apologize to him one of these days,” she said with a yawn.
Then, to her surprise, Elladan retold the story of their first meeting, from the Rangers’ perspective. She wished she hadn’t been so sleepy, otherwise, she would’ve asked lots of questions. Instead, she became drowsier and drowsier until his sweet elvish voice lulled her to sleep.
Since no one wanted to climb to the summit to retrieve them, Miriel and Elladan were spared from sentry duty that night. They had both fallen asleep atop Amon Sûl and remained there until the following morning. Miriel woke first. The growing discomfort in her hip (she was lying on her side) roused her from her slumber. When she finally forced her eyes open, darkness still encompassed their surroundings. She could feel the warmth of Elladan’s body pressed against her back, his right arm wrapped protectively around her. She carefully lifted her hip, her fingers searching the stone floor for the object responsible for the gnawing pain. She found the culprit right away - a small pebble, no bigger than her knuckle.
Her movements caused Elladan to stir. She rolled onto her back, his arm stretching out across her belly. She turned her head towards him. “You awake?” she asked.
He blinked several times. “I am.” He faced her. “Did you sleep well?”
“As well as one can on a stone bed,” she answered with a grin.
Elladan sat upright, stretching his arms and back. Miriel could hear the little cracking sounds from his joints.
“Dawn is approaching,” he observed, looking up at the dimming stars in the sky.
Miriel pulled herself upright, onto her feet. “Well, we better get moving before Hal gets miffed at us.” She stretched her stiff limbs, then rubbed the dull ache in her hip.
Elladan grabbed his bag and water skin and together they began the trek to the base of Weathertop. By the time they had reached the hollow, the others were already awake.
“Here they are,” announced Elrohir when he saw his brother and the Slayer approach. “Did things fare well on Weathertop?”
“What do you mean?” asked Miriel, puzzled.
“Ah, never you mind, Miriel,” he answered. Obviously, his brother had not shared his feelings with her just yet.
“Remember to refill the water skins before we set off,” instructed Hal before they gathered together to eat their morning meal.
“I’m sorry we missed sentry duty,” lied the Slayer, sitting on the soft green grass of the hollow.
“Do not fret, Miriel. You and Elladan shall take turns keeping watch tonight whilst we sleep.”
“Fair enough,” she mumbled.
After they had eaten and replenished their water supply, they began the day’s march beneath a gloomy, grey sky. The morning seemed unnaturally quiet. There were no noises, not even the buzzing of insects. The silence made Miriel’s skin prickle. Any hope of sunshine changing the ominous feeling she had soon vanished. In the distance, a mass of low, dark clouds were swiftly heading their way from the north-northeast, devouring any glimmer of light in its path. Deep rumblings of thunder accompanied by lightning, the kind that illuminate the entire sky, heralded the storm’s approach.
Knowing that the coming deluge would slow them down, the Rangers increased their gait, wanting to put as many miles behind them as possible before the clouds unleashed their torrents. Miriel could hear the chorus of heavy breathing coming from her and her companions. There was no way they could outrun this storm, no matter how fast they moved, but it seemed as if her friends intended to reach some predetermined place before the storm hit.
Despite it being summer, the temperature began to plummet. They could see the curtain of rain, not far off now. They stopped long enough to put on their cloaks, pulling the hoods over their heads to keep the rain off their faces. The first few drops hit their covered heads, followed only seconds later by a driving cold rain.
The winds picked up, eerily howling over the landscape and sending the rain in horizontal sheets. The Weather Hills, which were not that far off, offered no protection whatsoever. Rivulets of water, ankle-deep, streamed down the road, drenching their feet despite their elvish footwear. It was miserable going, but since the Rangers didn’t complain, neither did Miriel. At least, not out loud.
As they plodded on, in these terrible, unforgiving conditions, her thoughts turned to vampires. The sudden darkness made her think of the possibilities of a vampire attack, though she wasn’t sure where they could be hiding. Buffy had told her about vampires springing forth from their graves, attacking the first unfortunate soul they came upon. The ground was so rocky in this part of Eriador, Miriel didn’t think that was possible. If she could have, she would have inspected the nearby ground as they walked, but the rain was so heavy and thick that she could barely see Halbarad, who was merely steps in front of her.
For hours, the storm raged on relentlessly. The going was so bad that they didn’t stop until mid-afternoon when the rains finally let up enough that they could talk to one another without shouting. They nibbled on some lembas and each took a sip of miruvóre that Elladan had stashed in one of his bags in order to maintain their strength so they could continue their march.
And on they went, marching in misery, for the rain never wholly ceased for the next four days. There were many times Miriel thought about returning to the House of Elrond, where she could stretch out comfortably before one of the roaring fires, warming her icy, cold feet.
Sleeping in such a dreadful environment was not easy. However, when one is utterly exhausted, one can sleep just about anywhere, even if only for an hour or two. When Miriel’s feet went from numb to painful, the Rangers informed her of a condition called ‘foot rot’ that can sometimes develop from one’s feet being constantly wet. That was a frightening thought! No matter how badly she wanted to change out of her wet stockings it seemed rather pointless. If she did put on dry footwear, by the time her feet hit the soaked ground, they’d be drenched again anyway. It was a no-win situation no matter how she looked at it.
The one bright spot (if you want to call it that) was that when they passed by Midgewater Marsh, they were not attacked by the midges that inhabited that region. The rains were too heavy for even them to leave their hiding places.
Mid-morning, on the fourth day after the rains had started, Miriel could see Bree-hill in the distance. It looked black against the cold, dank, dark grey landscape. Even so, it was a welcoming sight. She remembered the Prancing Pony and its warm and cozy interior. What she would give to sit before the fire with a hot cup of tea in hand! But, alas, the illusion quickly faded when she remembered that she had been banished from Bree-land forever. She and her companions couldn’t even take refuge in Hal’s little cottage in Archet since that was off limits to her as well. If only they could sneak in. The winds chose that moment to pick up again, the driving rain pelting them like lead bullets, almost mocking Miriel for entertaining such thoughts in the first place. No one could see the tears of misery that trickled down her cold, pale cheeks. Ironically, they were the only warmth she would feel.
By late afternoon, Miriel caught the unmistakable whiff of smoke. “I smell fire,” she announced loudly to her fellow Rangers.
“It must be coming from the Forsaken Inn
,” said Elrohir, his eyes surveying the landscape through the sheets of rain. “Yes, it’s not too far off now.”
Hope filled Miriel’s heart for the first time in days. Her earlier fantasy could become a reality. The Forsaken Inn
was not within Bree-land’s borders, so she would be welcomed there.
As if reading her thoughts, Hal quickly said, “I’m sorry, Miriel, but we must leave the road. We shan’t be going any closer to the inn.”
“But why?” she whined, not caring one bit if she sounded like a child.
Hal turned and faced her. “We cannot risk a confrontation with the Thornberry’s or their lot. We must cut through the brush and make for the Greenway.”
So now they would have to contend with trekking through briars and thickets on top of the pouring rain! Could the day get any better?
“I’m not afraid of the Thornberrys!” proclaimed the Slayer.
“I know,” answered Halbarad grimly. “That’s my fear. I will not risk death and mayhem when it can be avoided. And I don’t want to hear any more about it!” he added with an air of finality. The Watcher then turned, leaving the road for the thickets.
Gúron gave Miriel’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before following the Watcher.
“Let’s go, Miriel,” said Elladan. “We’re over halfway there.” He tried to sound encouraging, but failed miserably.
Having no other choice, the Slayer trudged behind Gúron, leaving the Great East Road for the underbrush. Each painful step required a great deal of effort, and to make matters worse, she now found herself having to wrestle free from the brambles that latched onto the legs of her breeches, their spiny thorns digging into her soft, delicate flesh. She was far too weary to pull the spikes from her garments or to enjoy the bounty of wild berries that grew around them.
They had been traveling down a slope when they reached a rock outcropping that offered some shelter from the rain. It was probably around seven or eight in the evening when they decided that they’d stop there for the night. Their designated quarters were uncomfortable, but they did keep them drier than they had been. They had huddled together into that cramped spot, hoping to share each other’s body heat. All Miriel could feel was a trembling body on either side of hers. Despite that, she was the first to doze off.
When Miriel awakened the following morning, it looked as if their prayers had been answered - the rains had finally stopped. Droplets still fell from the roof of their rocky shelter, but it was nothing like it had been. The wicked winds wound down to a gentle breeze and the sky, though grey and a bit foggy, was many shades lighter than the past few days. Familiar sounds returned - birds, insects and frogs, to name a few. All of which gave them some semblance of normalcy.
Even though the rains had stopped that did not put an end to their misery, especially for Miriel. Her feet now felt like they were burning. She just knew that she had developed a case of foot rot but was too terrified to remove her boots to see, fearing her skin would come off if she did so. On top of that, marching day after day in wet breeches was causing her to chaff in the most unpleasant of places. While that seemed bad enough, things only got worse when she discovered that she had started her menstrual cycle. Could the day get any worse? She longed to see for herself whether the hot springs of Fornost truly had healing properties, that is, if she survived the journey there.
After a quick bite, the group began their hike, staying on an westerly course. The march was slow-going. Hal did his best to lead them, avoiding those large pools of water when he could. Yet, no matter which path they took, they had to deal with the undesirable effects of the storm. There were places where the topsoil had washed away and they were forced to cross long patches of wet clay, which was slick as ice. Then they’d have to contend with the mud, lots and lot of mud.
The topography forced them to go a bit further south than intended. By the end of the day, they reached The Greenway, about fifteen miles south of Bree.
“We cannot stay on the road,” said Hal, his eyes scanning north and south from where they stood.
“Let us take refuge in the trees,” suggested Gúron, pointing to a stand of pine trees a few hundred yards west of the road.
“That is too close to the Barrows for my liking,” said Elladan.
“And what would you have us do? Nest in the mud for the night?” said the annoyed golden-haired Ranger.
“No more mud,” panted an exhausted Miriel. She looked down at her feet. Not only were her boots covered with mud but so was the bottom of her breeches.
A debate broke out amongst the Rangers. After the past few days, no one was in the best of moods, and the debate quickly became heated, as tempers flared.
“For the love of Eru, someone please make a decision!” exclaimed Miriel. Her cramps had worsened throughout the afternoon and she was ready to drop.
“I see no other choice, Elladan,” said Hal with a heavy sigh. “Everywhere is wet. Maybe the pine needles will act as a barrier between us and the mud.”
The Slayer liked that idea. Before anyone could voice their disapproval, she said, “Alright, then. Let’s go,” and started toward the trees. Resigned, the others followed. The twins, in particular, were not pleased with the choice of campsite.
A bed of pine needles did, in fact, cover the ground. However, it was saturated like everything else. At least it would prevent the rear of the cloaks and breeches from turning brown.
For the first time that day, Miriel asked for some tonic to help relieve her pain. She thought she’d be able to attribute the pain solely to her feet, but unfortunately, her companions could smell the faint odor of blood lingering around her. She thought she’d die of embarrassment when questioned about her monthly cycle. That was a private matter and not one she wished to discuss with those of the opposite sex. She needed to wash her rag, but at that point, she just wanted off her feet for a while.
Since the sun never reared its head that day, the sky began to darken much earlier than usual for that time of year. With each passing hour, the fog grew denser, stifling the air and the nighttime noises.
“I do not like this abominable fog,” whispered an uneasy Elladan, squinting his eyes in hopes of being able to see through the mists.
“I’ll take it over rain any day,” said Miriel, content that the pain in her feet had lessened and her cramps had diminished.
Elrohir rose to his feet, his eyes warily searching the mists to their west.
“What is it? Do you see something?” asked Hal, following the younger son of Elrond’s gaze.
“No, but my heart is troubled. There is something lurking in the fog.”
Miriel didn’t sense anything, but she trusted Elrohir and Elladan completely. If they felt that something was amiss, then they were most likely right.
“Perhaps the Barrow-wights are in the mood to accost weary travelers that camp too close to their borders,” said Gúron with a snigger.
The Slayer actually laughed at the Ranger’s comment. “They’re dead,” she chuckled. “I mean, what can a ghost actually do?”
No sooner than the words had left her mouth, it happened.
An icy coldness suddenly pervaded their campsite. Not a second later, Elrohir shouted, “Attack!” and in one swift motion, he was on his feet, his unsheathed sword whooshing through the air and stopping a blade that would’ve otherwise struck Miriel’s head. The loud clank only inches from her face caused the Slayer to leap backwards out of the fray. Her eyes followed the length of the enemy’s blade, which emitted a dim greenish light. A black, shadowy hand clutched the weapon’s hilt. Her eyes widened in horror when she saw Elrohir’s sword pierce the spectral intruder with no ill effects whatsoever. Several Barrow-wights sprang forth from within the mists, their tall and menacing forms ready for battle. In one hand they brandished a very real weapon, in the other, a shield. Miriel couldn’t help but think they were doomed, for how can one defeat someone who is already dead.
As the others began to engage the wights in battle, Miriel fumbled with her weapon, trying to pull it from its scabbard as she awkwardly climbed to her feet. It seemed to her that the Rangers only course of action was to defend themselves until they could flee, since they could not actually inflict any damage on these cursed spirits.
When she joined the melee, she was truly terrified for the first time in battle. All other creatures she had fought could be wounded and killed. The Barrow-wights were the exception. The weapons she and her companions wielded could not maim or slay their foes, not even those blades crafted by the Noldor. It would take something more to defeat this enemy, but what, Miriel did not know.
The Slayer didn’t know which was racing faster, her heart or her mind. So many thoughts were flying through her mind. She could tell by her friends’ expressions that this sudden attack by the wights was not normal, that something or someone had drawn them out from the heart of their domain. It then occurred to her that one of Sauron’s many aliases was the Necromancer. She couldn’t help but think that the Dark Lord had somehow commanded this attack from the depths of Mordor. What a frightening thought that was!
Miriel tried to stop the stream of thoughts in her mind. Maybe the Barrow-wights were actually under the command of Thuringwethil and are retaliating on her behalf
, she thought. Maybe this was what Sauron warned me about. But I assumed it would be vampires.
The Slayer needed to focus and having all these thoughts was not helping one bit. Acting on instinct and adrenaline, she swung her weapon toward her foe’s neck, the blade swishing through the air and his shadowy form, not hindering him in the slightest. Her adversary’s only response was a low cackle that chilled her to the bone.
“Fuck,” she groaned, now seeing how hopeless it was to keep battling these spirits. At this point, she realized that she and Rangers would fight until exhausted, then the wights would go for the kill. What they needed to do was flee. Miriel couldn’t see any other options. Even the sons of Elrond didn’t possess any type of magic to subdue or defeat these wicked creatures.
Sweat trickled down her neck and face. Her hands were so wet that keeping a firm grip on the hilt of her sword was becoming problematic. She quickly shifted her weapon to her left hand so that she could wipe the sweat from her right palm on her cloak. That’s when her adversary delivered a powerful blow. She blocked it, but when his blade struck hers, she apparently didn’t have a good grip on it, and it went flying out of her hand onto the ground. Miriel yelped at being weaponless, the sound alerting her friends, who began to maneuver away from their own opponents so they could come to her aid.
Keeping her eyes fixed on the specter that had disarmed her, the Slayer took several hurried steps backward. Both the fog and the battle had disoriented her and as a result, she tripped over their baggage and fell to the ground. Her foe rushed forward, his sword held aloft. Halbarad seemingly came out of nowhere, his weapon hammering the phantom’s and saving Miriel from certain death.
In her fall, the Slayer felt something jab her in the stomach. As her hand protectively went to the sore spot, she felt the Mahtanian dagger beneath her shirt. She had nearly forgotten that she had that Valinorean weapon affixed to her belt, having gotten used to wearing it over the past several days.
When she looked up and saw that the wights were all dashing towards her, her friends formed a barrier between her and the phantoms, holding them at bay, as best they could. Something inside Miriel then told her to take the dagger from its sheath. When her hand grasped the pearl handle, she instantly felt calm and her hope was renewed. She watched as the wight Halbarad had been fighting used his shield to block the Watcher’s blow, as he swung his own blade toward Hal’s side.
Miriel lunged forward and drove her fiery dagger into the wight’s thigh. The flames of the blade came alive, devouring the ghostly creature, which let out a high-pitched wail. Its weapon fell to the ground as the phantom dissipated in a flash of flame.
At that moment, everyone seemed to freeze, enemy and friend alike. Perhaps it was the shock of knowing there was a weapon in their midst that could kill even the dead. Testing that theory, the Slayer pounced on the next nearest wight, sinking her blade into his spectral flesh. Once again, a chilling cry reverberated in the wood, as her dagger quickly incinerated the phantom’s form. Both his weapon and shield dropped to the ground. Upon seeing that, the other ghostly creatures fled into the night, taking with them both the frigid cold and the thick mists that had accompanied their presence.
And just like that, it was over. The entire skirmish lasted, maybe, ten minutes, ten exhausting minutes.
Miriel dropped to her knees, drained of nearly all energy. She then noticed Hal clutching his arm, as he too fell to his knees.
“You’re hurt,” she said, breathing heavily, slowly crawling toward him with her dagger still in hand (just in case).
“The wight’s blade nicked me is all,” said Halbarad. “You alright?”
The Watcher’s eyes scanned the others. He had been the only one to suffer an injury.
“Let me see your wound, Hal,” said Elladan, coming to his fellow Ranger’s side.
As the eldest son of Elrond treated the Watcher’s laceration, Gúron said, “That’s some blade you got there, Miriel. In all my days, I’ve never heard of any weapon besting a wight. I feel better knowing that such a weapon is close at hand.”
Miriel smiled weakly. Her entire body seemed to ache. She examined the cut on Hal’s arm. Thankfully, it was superficial and not very deep.
“You saved me there,” said Halbarad, his hand reaching out and affectionately caressing the Slayer’s cheek. “And made me very proud.”
“I’m sorry you’re hurt.”
The Watcher waved his hand dismissively. “It’s no worse than a paper cut,” he replied with a smile.
“I don’t know about the rest of you,” began Elrohir, “but I have no desire to camp here. As soon as Elladan finishes tending to Hal’s arm, I say we go find a campsite further east of the road. Muddy ground be damned.”
At this point, all were in agreement. They preferred pools of mud over another possible wight attack, no matter how unlikely that might be.