Chapter Thirty-eight: Strife in Fornost
No one really slept that night and not because they feared that the Barrow-wights would return. Their clothing was drenched and after the adrenaline rush of battle wore off, everyone was freezing cold. A fire would’ve helped considerably, but there was no dry wood to be found and wouldn’t be for several days yet. For that reason, the Rangers set off well before sunrise.
Once again, they trudged through the mud back to the Greenway, forced to march through pools of water that covered the grassy road. A cool breeze blew out of the northwest, moving wisps of fog along its current. After an hour or so, the Rangers were greeted by the pale grey light of morning.
“I’m afraid the sun will not rear her head today,” announced Elrohir, predicting the day’s weather.
“Any chance of rain?” asked Miriel with dread.
The Half-elf surveyed the sky. “I cannot surely say. But I think it’s highly likely.”
The Slayer groaned at the thought. She’d have given anything to have warm, dry feet. At the moment, they were soaked and burning again. She tried her best to block out the pain, telling herself that she’d find relief when they reached their destination.
When the Rangers were within a couple of miles of Bree, they left the Greenway and traveled west along the roadway. Hal was being overly cautious, fearful that the Thornberry’s loyal followers might spot Miriel. The last thing he wanted was a confrontation of the violent kind. Last night’s skirmish had been enough for him.
Only a few miles north of Bree, a gentle rain began to fall. It would last, off and on, well past nightfall. Fortunately, that was the last shower for many days. The following morning, the sun finally came out, and the sky was a lovely pale blue.
On the afternoon of the 18th of June, they finally reached the outskirts of Fornost. Along the way, they had passed some ruins, old watchtowers from long ago, according to Halbarad and Gúron. In the ridge of grass-covered hills to their west, the ever-resourceful Dúnedain had hollowed out sections within them where they were able to keep watch on the Greenway without being detected. Miriel was amazed to learn that, as she couldn’t see any windows in the hillside, revealing the location of those lookout posts.
“Why don’t you all go on,” said Hal. “Miriel and I will join you in a while.”
“Come by my home when you’ve finished your errand,” said Gúron. He and the twins then continued north while Hal and Miriel veered east of the road.
“Where are we going?” she asked, looking longingly over her shoulder at their departing friends.
“You shall soon see.”
They hadn’t traveled very far, maybe a mile or so, when they came to a halt beside a small mound covered in green grass. A stone had been set at its base. It read, ‘Here lies Idhien, daughter of Galdor, wife of Halbarad.’
When Hal dropped to his knees, out of respect for him, Miriel did the same.
“Good afternoon, my darling,” Hal said in such an affectionate voice that the Slayer couldn’t help but look at him. He placed a hand on the raised earth. “I know it’s been many months since I had last visited but I’ve been quite busy. I’ve found my Slayer, Idhien. This is she - Miriel, the daughter of Denethor, Lord of Gondor.”
Despite the awkwardness of the whole situation, Miriel politely greeted her Watcher’s late wife.
“We’ve been on many adventures of late,” he continued. “We’ve done well together, Miriel and I. We’ve lessened the number of the Enemy in these parts. Miriel even killed Thuringwethil, the evil Maia that all believed had died in the War of Wrath in the First Age.” He smiled. “I believe we make an admirable team.”
He paused, the smile fading from his face. “O’ Idhien, I miss you so. Not a day goes by that you’re not in my thoughts.”
With Hal’s comments becoming more personal, Miriel excused herself. She felt like she was intruding. She wandered around in the field, picking the prettiest wildflowers that she came across. Miriel couldn’t help but think of her own kinfolk back in Gondor. She seldom thought of them much. But that didn’t mean that she didn’t miss them, especially Boromir and Faramir, and her Uncle Imrahil and her cousins, Elphir, in particular, whom she loved best. At that moment, they consumed her thoughts. She wondered how they were and if she ever came into their thoughts as they did hers. Did any believe she was still alive? Probably not. Maybe if they knew she was a Slayer, they would think differently. But, alas, that was not the case. It was best for them to think she was dead. She would never willingly return to Gondor again. She’d rather live in the wilds, enduring the hardships (such as days of endless rain!) than return to the prison of Denethor, no matter how fair her surroundings might be.
“Oi! Miriel!” shouted Halbarad in the distance, his small form waving his arms wildly for her to return.
She had been so lost in thought that she hadn’t realized how far she had wandered off. She hastened back to her Watcher, clutching a bouquet of wildflowers in her hand.
By the time she reached Hal, she was nearly out of breath. “What is that?” he asked, pointing to the flowers.
“I thought Idhien may like them.”
Halbarad did not immediately respond. He watched as Miriel pulled the dirty blue strip of cloth from her hair and tied the stems together. She then set the flowers beside the grave marker. “I’m truly sorry that I ruined your blue dress,” she said to the mound. “It happened in battle, though. I reckon how doesn’t really matter.” She paused for several long seconds before continuing, “I tried to scrub it clean, but the blood would not come out. Even the elvish seamstress’ of Rivendell could not repair it. I had the Elves salvage what they could and I leave a piece of that with you. I hope that you can forgive me, dear lady.” She then bowed before the mound.
When she turned and faced Halbarad again, she saw him brushing away a tear trickling down his cheek. “That is very thoughtful of you, Miriel.”
She smiled weakly. “It’s the least I can do.”
They walked in silence back to the Greenway and made their way north toward the North Downs of Fornost. Miriel had tread upon that road a few times now, but never so far north. The Greenway ran through an opening between the hills, and into an oblong hollow surrounded by tall green hills. What remained of Fornost lay before them, a city mostly in ruins. Miriel noticed the similarities in construction between the northern kingdom and southern one. There was no questioning that they were built by the same people. In an odd way it reminded her of home. Since setting out on her journey she had not come across any other place that looked similar to Minas Tirith until now. Though Fornost wasn’t built into the mountainside, the architecture was nonetheless the same.
“Hail, Halbarad!” called one of the men stationed at the gate. “It’s been a long while since we’ve last seen you.” Two Rangers stepped forward from their post.
The Watcher greeted his kinsmen, whose eyes seemed more fixed on Miriel than their fellow Ranger.
“This is Miriel Dagnir.”
Miriel was slightly taken aback. Hal had never introduced her in that manner before.
“It’s an honor to meet the Vampire Slayer,” said the taller of the two with a nod of his head. “I am Dírhavel and this is Guilin,” he continued, his head motioning toward his fellow dark-haired Ranger. Guilin too, gave a quick nod of his head.
Miriel gave them each a quick smile. Now that she was in Fornost, she greatly desired to visit the hot springs that she had heard so much about.
“We must be off,” said Hal, as he led the Slayer through the gate and into the city.
“Why did they call me the Vampire Slayer? How could they possibly know about Thuringwethil?”
“News such as that has a way of reaching the Rangers, no matter the distance.”
Miriel thought that Aragorn or Gandalf must have informed some Rangers they had met on the road, and, they in turn, passed the news to their brethren.
Surveying their surroundings, she then asked, “How far to Gúron’s home?”
“A few minutes walk is all.” He glanced at her, the smile returning to his face. “Surely, you can make it a few more furlongs.”
“Of course I can. I’m just eager to visit these hot springs you men folk have been going on and on about.”
“How do your feet feel?” he asked, concern replacing his mirth.
“They’re burning like hell fire,” she replied in all seriousness. “I’m afraid to take my boots off to see how bad they are.”
“Take heart, Miriel. We’re nearly there.”
From what little she could see of Fornost, it was a strange place. For the most part, it was a city of ruins, similar to Osgiliath in Gondor. But there was life amidst the rubble. Not all the buildings had been destroyed in ancient battles. Some were still in good repair, inhabited by many of the Dúnedain that had survived the old wars. The remnants of the city overlooked a great valley of green, where husbandmen and herdsmen lived in scattered homesteads, producing and raising foodstuffs for the people.
They turned down the first street to the left. Before Miriel could ask any questions about Fornost and its people, they had reached the abode of Gúron. It was a fine, white stone home, standing three-stories high. For some reason, Miriel hadn’t expected the golden-haired Ranger to live in such splendor. After having seen Hal’s modest cottage, she had assumed that all the Rangers lived likewise. She had been wrong.
Hal knocked on the wooden door. A few seconds later, it swung open. A little golden-haired girl stood before them. “Good afternoon, Friends!” she said politely. “Come in. Come in.” She couldn’t have been any older than ten, if that.
“How are you, Tincdaniel?” asked Halbarad, stepping into the house with Miriel following behind.
“I’m well. Thank you. And yourself?”
“Very well indeed,” answered Hal with a smile. He then introduced Miriel to Gúron’s eldest child. The Slayer was taken aback to learn that the golden-haired Ranger had children. Not once had he mentioned them.
Immediately upon entering the house, Miriel could smell the aroma of freshly baked bread straight out of the oven and some type of roasted meat. For the briefest of moments, she was transported back to the House of Horrors, remembering the similar smell of rosemary and garlic when she had first set foot into that abominable place. She immediately pushed thoughts of that place out of her mind. Here, in Fornost, she was amongst friends, not strangers set on harming her for sport.
As Miriel and Hal placed their luggage on the floor beside their companions’, the Slayer’s eyes did a quick inspection of her immediate surroundings. Straight ahead was a wide stone stairway that wound its way all the way up to the third floor. It was definitely the focal point at the entry. A hallway ran along either side of the stairs, leading to the back of the home where many voices could be heard. To her right was a long rectangular sitting room with comfortable-looking furniture arranged before a stone-faced fireplace. Many toys were scattered about the room - dolls, horses, balls.
Off to the left of the foyer was either a study or library, or maybe a combination of both. From what Miriel could see, bookcases covered all the walls, stretching from floor to ceiling. A desk, piled high with papers and books, sat near the wall near the front of the house. Before the hearth was a large rug in which many toy boats and ships had been arranged as if on a cool, blue sea. Along the edge of the rug were docks, where additional boats were moored. A little village consisting of stone and wooden buildings, including a tall gleaming white tower had been erected on the flagstone floor behind the docks.
Miriel couldn’t help but smile. She looked back at Tincdaniel who was staring wide-eyed at Miriel.
“Are you really a Slayer?” she asked in amazement.
“Yes, I am.”
The little girl let out a squeal of delight. She then took Miriel’s dirty hand. “Come, and join the others,” she said, beaming. She led them down the corridor to the left of the stairway to an enormous kitchen that took up the entire back portion of the house. There were over a dozen people (men, women and children) in there that Miriel did not know. Most were seated around the long, polished wooden table, which had already been set with dishes and utensils. A few women were busy readying the meal.
“Here they are, at last!” said a happy Gúron, holding a small boy in his arms with the same color hair as he. Undoubtedly, the boy was his son. “Tincdaniel, our guests have not washed yet.”
“Sorry, Father,” she said. She then hurried them along the other corridor (both ended in the kitchen) to a bathroom where Watcher and Slayer could wash up before the meal.
When they had finished and had been escorted back to the kitchen, Hal and Miriel took their places at the table. “I thought you might want a decent, hot meal before a bath,” Gúron said to the Slayer.
She happily agreed. Her mouth was already watering at the victuals laid out on the board.
Aside from the Rangers, everyone seated at the table were kin to Gúron. His wife, Melannen had the same golden-hair as he, which they had passed on to their children. There were three: Tincdaniel, who was eight, Berioreth, six, and Gúrvel, four.
Miriel couldn’t understand why Gúron would choose to live the life of a hunter instead of being home with his (seemingly) loving family, especially considering how young the children were. She was curious as to why he had never spoken of them in all these months that they’d traveled together. She supposed she could’ve questioned him more about his family, but always found herself somewhat hesitant to do so. If she had asked about his home life, it would have presented the opportunity for him to ask about hers. And that was the last thing Miriel wanted to discuss, with anyone. However, her curiosity wasn’t quelled. She thought it would be better to ask one of the twins or Hal about it.
The main topic of conversation at the table was (thankfully) not Miriel, but something called the “Berry Festival”.
“What is that?” Miriel had to ask.
“Once a year we hold a festival celebrating the bountiful berries that grow in this region,” explained Celebrindor, father of Melannen. “The talented cooks of Fornost create a variety of dishes - desserts and wine mostly, that highlight the berry of their choice.”
“It ends with a large feast on the green grass at the edge of the city,” added Melannen.
“And there is music and dancing too, Miriel,” said Gúron. “I’m sure you’ll find it most enjoyable.”
“Sounds delightful,” Miriel answered. “When is it?”
“The twenty-first,” answered the golden-haired Ranger.
Miriel smiled. The Berry Festival would be on her eighteenth birthday, but she wasn’t going to say anything about that to the others. Remarkably, since she had joined the Rangers, not one of them had ever mentioned anything about a birthday, not the twins or Halbarad. Since they did not seem to celebrate them, she would do likewise.
“This will be the sixty-fourth festival. Isn’t that so, Grandfather?” asked Tincdaniel.
“Yes, my dear child,” he replied, his blue eyes twinkling brightly at his eldest grandchild.
Melannen and her kinswomen then spoke of the various dishes they planned on making. They had already collected gallons of berries, which were stored in the cellar, and planned to look for more the following day. Miriel was greatly looking forward to the celebration, as they were few and far between.
After a delicious supper, Miriel offered to help with the dishes, but the ladies of the house refused.
“You’ve been on a long journey. Go rest with the others,” insisted Oneth, Gúron’s mother.
Elladan then herded her from the kitchen. “Let’s take a look at your feet,” he said, leading her to the front sitting rooms. “Once I see how badly they are hurt, I’ll know better how to treat them.”
“We should take her to the hot springs,” said Halbarad, filling the bowl of his pipe with tobacco. “A little athelas in the water should do the trick.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” chimed in Celebrindor as he puffed on his pipe, “but today is a men’s day at the hole.”
“Rubbish!” exclaimed Hal. “Miriel’s the Slayer and in need of healing. That takes precedence over any rule.”
The old man propped his feet up on a stool. “Well, you have every right to do as you want with Aragorn away. But, I think you might ruffle a few feathers should any of the Dúnedain show up for a soak.”
Hal blew out a stream of smoke. “I’ll deal with that should the need arise. My Slayer’s health comes first.”
“I appreciate that, Hal, but I don’t want to cause any trouble,” voiced Miriel with concern. “Elladan’s ointment will probably do just fine.”
The Watcher made no reply.
Miriel carefully pulled off her boots, which was quite painful. But nothing when compared to pulling off her stockings, which seemed to have glued themselves to the sores on her feet.
“Just rip them off,” suggested Elrohir, sitting beside Miriel on the floor.
“You do it,” she said, wincing.
Elrohir then grabbed the first stocking and pulled it off quickly. The sores opened and began to ooze a combination of blood and pus. A foul stench emitted from the wounds. He then swiftly pulled off the second stocking. That foot too had many sores.
Miriel’s heart sank when she noticed both Elrohir and Elladan grimacing. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Elrohir carefully inspected each foot. “I’ve seen worse. Rejoice in knowing you won’t lose your feet.”
“Yay me,” she said between clenched teeth. Even though Elrohir handled her foot gently, the simplest of touches caused her great pain.
“Hal, I think your remedy is best. Some athelas and hot water should aid in healing these sores,” observed Elladan.
Gúron then came into the room. “What’s the verdict?” he asked, peering over Elrohir’s shoulder as the Elf removed Miriel’s other stocking. The smell hit him square in the face. “Ew,” he sounded with a look of revulsion on his face.
“So glad I can repulse you,” said Miriel snidely.
“I just hope I can keep my meal down after that,” he replied, his nose wrinkled in disgust. The Ranger gave her a quick smile and wink before plopping down into a chair located furthest from Miriel.
“Gúron, do you think that Melannen or one of the other ladies of your household has a pair of slippers Miriel can wear?” asked Elladan. “I don’t think she should put her boots back on until her feet heal.”
“I’m sure we can find something,” he said, rising from his seat and leaving the room.
“Might as well bathe whilst we’re there,” suggested Elladan. “You still have some clean clothes in your luggage.”
“Can you walk?” asked Hal, smoke puffing from his mouth as he spoke.
“I made it this far. Surely, I can make it to these hot springs of yours.” The twins helped her to her feet. “Just how far away is it?”
“You’re in luck, Dagnir,” replied Celebrindor. “It’s just around the corner.”
“What of these?” said Elrohir, holding up Miriel’s disgusting stockings with his other hand.
“They can be washed,” she insisted.
The Slayer then hobbled to the entry, uttering “Ow, ow, ow,” as she went along. She grabbed one of her bags that had clean summer clothing in it, then returned to the front room, awaiting Gúron’s return.
Nearly fifteen minutes later, the Ranger came back accompanied by Oneth, each carrying a stack of towels, toiletries and slippers for their four guests.
“I cut some athelas from the back garden,” said Oneth, handing the pouch to Elrohir. “Should you need any more, let me know or you can help yourself.”
“Thank you, Oneth,” he said with a grateful nod.
Oneth then turned her blue eyes to Miriel. “Melannen thought you might like to wear this after you bathe.” She shook out the folded garment, revealing a light green dress covered with tiny white flowers.
“Thank her for me, but I’d actually prefer to wear my own clothing.”
The old woman looked as if she was going to say something, but she stopped, literally biting her lip. After an awkward pause, she said, “Well, I’ll put it aside in case you change your mind.” She offered Miriel a smile, turned and left the room.
The Slayer’s eyes darted to Gúron. “What was that all about?”
“Never you mind,” he said, looking a little uneasy. “I believe you all have what you need.” He handed his bundle to Halbarad.
“You’re not going then?” asked Miriel.
“No. I’m going to stay here with the family. Melannen is preparing a bath for me.”
“Alright then. Let’s go,” said Elladan.
Miriel left the house barefoot, something she seldom ever did. She couldn’t help but notice that there was a strange vibe in the house; that something was off. She hadn’t noticed it when they first arrived, but it seemed that as time ticked away, the feeling in the house changed, and not for the better.
When they were safely out of earshot away from the open windows of the house, she said to the others, “Maybe it’s just me, but I’m picking up a real strange vibe in that house.”
“It’s not just you,” said Hal.
She looked intently at her Watcher, waiting for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
“So, what’s going on?” she finally said.
Elladan then said, “Ignore it, Miriel. The best thing to do is ignore it.”
Since they were out of the house, she’d let the matter rest, for now.
The hot springs were located in what had once been the king’s courtyard, beside the palace, which currently resembled a mountain of broken stone, wood and glass. Long ago, the Dúnedain had built a walled structure around the spring, offering privacy to those that bathed or soaked in the hot water. The domed roof was made of thick glass so that you could see the sky above, day or night. Presently, there was a gaping hole where the roof had once been and only one partial thick, rounded wall still stood. When the people returned to the area after the Great War, they built a crude rock wall that only reached half its former height so that the entire spring was enclosed again. A smooth flagstone pathway wound its way around large piles of debris to the only opening in the wall. Oil lamp posts (lit at dusk) were strategically placed along the walkway to illuminate that area after dark.
When they stepped through the opening, Miriel’s eyes widened to behold such a sight. There were actually two steaming pools within the enclosure. One small, that could accommodate six to eight people without encroaching on another’s personal space, and the other much larger, seating a minimum of thirty to forty comfortably. A wide flagstone floor encircled both pools. Every few feet along the walls sat a long stone bench. Oil lamps hung from brackets on the remnants of old pillars.
Halbarad informed Miriel that the smaller pool was used primarily for medicinal purposes, such as was her need. Athelas was commonly used for healing in this region and was most effective when crushed into hot water. The herb’s potency would be beneficial in the small spring and wasted in the large one.
permitted to bathe in here, aren’t we?” she asked, double checking with Hal.
“Of course,” he answered firmly.
“Perhaps I should rephrase that: Am I
permitted to be here?” she corrected herself. “Celebrindor mentioned that it was the men’s day at the hot springs. I have no desire to make enemies with any needlessly.”
“Fret not, Miriel,” said Elladan. “Halbarad is Aragorn’s second-in-command, and he has the power to do as he will when the Chieftain is away.”
Miriel relaxed a bit after that. She set her things at the edge of the small pool so they’d be within reach. She hesitated, none to eager to undress in front of her companions, friends or not. She slowly removed her belt on which the sheath that held Glorfindel’s dagger hung. While she was alright with leaving her sword behind at Gúron’s house, there was no way she’d part with the dagger, not if she could help it.
Perhaps the others sensed her reluctance, for Elrohir then said, “We’ll keep watch at the door whilst you slip into the spring.”
“Wash as quickly as you may, Miriel. Then we’ll see to your feet,” added Hal.
All three men stood by the doorway with their backs facing her. Miriel hurriedly pulled off her dirty garments, making a point to keep her back to the door. She dipped her foot into the spring, then quickly withdrew it with a painful cry. She had been under the assumption that the water would instantly heal her foot the moment it touched the water. That was not how it was.
“It burns even worse,” she whimpered, doubting the healing properties of the hot spring.
“You have to get use to it,” answered Elladan. “I promise; you’ll feel better shortly.”
Miriel tried again, carefully easing one leg into the water until her foot hit what turned out to be a smooth stone shelf about twenty-four inches under the water’s surface. She the slid her entire body into the spring, surprised by how hot the water truly was. She sat on the ledge, giving herself some time to get used to the temperature before washing and scrubbing the two weeks of filth from her hair and body.
Once she was clean, she looked over her shoulder and announced, “I’m done.”
Hal started to walk over. Miriel covered her chest (and especially the hideous scar) with a washcloth and slid a little deeper under the water. She watched Hal pull some athelas leaves from the pouch, crushing them between his fingers before sprinkling them into the water. A sweet scent instantly rose from the pool. Miriel took several deep breaths, finding the vapors intoxicating to the senses. The pain in her feet began to subside. She felt every stiff and aching muscle in her body relaxing. Whether or not this was due to the addition of athelas into the hot water, she didn’t know. She didn’t care.
Hal’s face was bent over the spring, breathing in the refreshing steam too. “Ah, Miriel. I must ask: can we join you? For there is nothing like bathing in such waters when weary from travel.”
Before Miriel could answer, Elladan said, “We must preserve Miriel’s modesty. Here, Hal. Give her this tunic to wear.” The Elf took a few steps closer and tossed the garment to the Watcher.
Halbarad caught it and gave it to his Slayer. He turned his back while she slipped the burgundy top over her head pulling it down so that it concealed most of her nakedness. She then buried her face in her hands while the others disrobed and joined her in the pool.
Miriel made a point to keep her eyes above the water and to not look down. Yet, a part of her found this whole scenario amusing. She laughed, saying, “I imagine we would cause quite a scandal if anyone walked in on us.”
“Let us hope that does not happen,” said Halbarad before plunging his head underwater.
The others washed away their accumulation of filth. All four were in high spirits. Bathing in the hot springs turned out to be a glorious reward after having endured the hardships of the road. Miriel would mark this visit to the hot springs of Fornost as one of the greatest experiences of her life. It was the first time that she had ever soaked in waters that never cooled.
Their good time was interrupted shortly thereafter when four men ambled into the spring house.
“Athelas,” said a man, inhaling deeply and loudly.
Miriel glanced over her shoulder. The grin quickly left her face at these unwelcome intruders.
“Is that a woman in the spring?” said one of the men, voicing his outrage. “‘Tis not allowed!”
“I authorized it,” said Halbarad sharply. “My Slayer is in need of healing. If you find that offensive - then be gone!”
“Slayer, eh?” said the first man. His heavy footfalls crossed the flagstone floor, coming nearer. He stepped around the spring to get a better look at Miriel. “So, you’re the Slayer. Your reputation precedes you. Rumor has it that you felled Thuringwethil.” His grey doubt-filled eyes bore into her. “Is that true?”
“Of course it is,” said Halbarad. “We were there.” A snide smile came to the Watcher’s face. “I would think as one descended from Malbeth the Seer, you would’ve seen such a thing, Cênon.”
“I’ve seen much, lord. But for Slayers, I have little time.”
Miriel didn’t like this man, at all.
Then, without saying a word, he disrobed right there in front of Miriel. She clapped her hands over her eyes, shocked by his and his companions’ lack of decorum.
“Me and my men shall join you. Nothing invigorates the soul like a pool of hot athelas water.”
Elladan and Elrohir were seated on either side of Miriel. As the newcomers slipped into the pool, the twins slid closer to her. She could feel their naked skin brush against hers. Her discomfort escalated. She wished she would’ve left the spring sooner, but now, she dare not leave the water, not while these men were present.
Elladan gently nudged her shoulder. She peeked through her fingers at the Elf. “It’s alright,” he said softly. “You can uncover your eyes.”
The spring seemed much smaller with the addition of five other people. Miriel couldn’t help but give Hal the
look, the look that said, ‘Use the power of your position to banish these men from this spring at once!’
But, alas, he merely sighed heavily in response.
Cênon sat directly across from Miriel, his grey eyes staring at her intently. At first, she avoided his gaze, but then decided that would make her look weak and submissive, so she met his eyes, looking as intently at him as he was at her.
“So tell me, Miriel
,” he said, emphasizing her name, “How was it that the proud Lord of Gondor allowed his youngest and only daughter to leave the stronghold of Minas Tirith for a life of peril and uncertainty?” Cênon’s eyes darted to her companions, and he hastily added, “No matter how noble and valiant the company.”
His condescending tone was not lost on the Slayer. “You’re a Seer. You tell me,” she shot back with disdain.
Cênon laughed coolly at her reply. His companions joined him in his momentary mirth. “If I had to venture a guess, I would say that you left without leave of your Lord and father.”
Even whilst seated in the hot water, Miriel felt a chill run up her spine. How could he have guessed correctly? Had Cênon actually seen
that? And what else could he see? Could he read her like Elrond had at her first meeting with the Lord of Rivendell? Were mortal men in this day and age even bestowed with such gifts?
She swallowed the growing lump in her throat. “What does it matter?” she finally said. “I am fulfilling my duty as was ordained by those in the West.”
“So it’s been said by the lore masters of old,” he answered.
Miriel then whispered to Elladan, “There’s at least one asshole in every town or city we visit. Fornost proves not to be the exception.” Of course, with everyone seated so closely together, all heard her comment.
The sons of Elrond chuckled.
“That is one haughty Slayer you have there, Halbarad,” said Cênon with loathing. “Impertinence is not a redeemable quality for a maiden of your stature, daughter of Denethor.”
“That’s enough, Cênon!” barked Halbarad with such authority that the smile left the Seer’s face. “If you choose to provoke my Slayer for sport, I forewarn you that she is quick to anger and is, by far, the most lethal creature you’ve ever set eyes on. Use care when speaking to her.”
The Seer paused, unsure whether Halbarad was being truthful or not.
“Did you not hear what happened in Bree several months ago?” asked Elrohir. “Surely, the townspeople are still talking about it.”
“You’re talking about the dismembering of that man, are you not?” asked Maethor, one of the Seer’s companions.
“Who do you think was the maiden responsible for that?” asked Elrohir, nudging his head in Miriel’s direction.
The newcomers’ facial expressions changed to a mixture of fear and awe.
“I hear the fellow’s… manhood was hewn off,” remarked Narwon, yet another cohort of Cênon’s, in a mere whisper that all could hear.
“Not only was it hewn off, but it was shoved down his throat for speaking ill to the Slayer,” said Elladan, embellishing the story ever so slightly for added affect.
The strangers shifted uncomfortably; the water sloshing with their movements. Miriel didn’t look, but she was sure that each man was now protectively covering his privates with his hands.
“I deem that soon all those residing in Fornost will be gladdened by the Slayer’s timely arrival,” said Elrohir, his eyes fixed on Cênon. “And that you, Cênon, before long, may change vocations, becoming renowned as a minstrel rather than a seer.”
Miriel’s eyes swiftly darted to Elrohir. Her brows shot up as she looked at him questionably. She had no idea what he was talking about. She felt Elladan give her hand a gentle squeeze. She faced the elder son of Elrond, who gave her a small smile, but did not expand on his brother’s comments. She knew the twins well enough to know that now wasn’t the time or the place for her to inquire any further.
After an awkward pause, Cênon finally said. “I beg your forgiveness, lady. I spoke out of turn and did not mean to offend one whose surname signifies death.” He then followed up his remarks with, “For the most part, we hold to the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, tending to her husband and rearing the children. That has been the way of our people for years untold. Does the same not apply in Gondor as well?
There had been a time, not long ago, when Miriel would’ve heartily agreed with the Seer’s assessment, however, her opinion on things had changed since being called as the Slayer. Miriel had changed. “It does, but not to me.”
“How tragic for you,” said Narwon, his tone riddled with sympathy.
“Tragic?” repeated the Slayer incredulously. She locked eyes with Narwon, his dark wet hair slicked back from his rugged bearded face. “I think not,” she said, emphasizing each word as she spoke. “The only tragedy that I see is that only one Slayer lives at a time.”
“You’re the first Slayer I’ve ever met,” said Maethor. “It is said that Slayers have the strength of no less than three men. Now that I look upon you - that seems suspect.”
“I assure you, Maethor, that the rumors you’ve heard are indeed true,” said Elladan. “Miriel is very strong, stronger than any folk in Middle-earth.”
Cênon snickered. “There is no way that her strength matches that of any troll!” he asserted, speaking as if Miriel were not even there. “She is too slender, too delicate - ”
“ - She has fought trolls on more than one occasion and bested them,” interjected Halbarad heatedly. “You know nothing of Slayer lore or of my
Slayer, in particular!”
“Relax, Hal! We’re just talking amongst friends. No need to get wroth,” said Cênon, trying to calm the Watcher. “It’s not every day a Slayer is in our midst. Is it so wrong to question her?” His eyes darted from Hal to Miriel.
“Question away,” said Miriel, using the same sardonic tone as the Seer. “Or would you prefer a demonstration of my strength? I’ll gladly show you: one-on-one.” She tilted her head, as if inspecting Cênon a bit closer. “But then again, I think it would be too dangerous for you. You look far too dainty
to spar with me.”
“I suppose I deserved that,” answered the Seer, his smug smile wavering for a moment. “In regards to your strength, I will trust the word of your companions, for they have traveled far and wide with you, Dagnir.”
“If I may,” said the man that had remained silent thus far, “I’d like to ask a question.” All eyes turned to him. “It is said that Slayers are Seers as well, that they have the gift of foresight. Have you seen any significant happenings in our future?”
“Such as?” asked a bewildered Miriel.
“Such as our Lord Aragorn ascending the throne of Gondor, or, the Dark Lord being overthrown, things of that nature.”
“I’m afraid not,” she answered with a shake of her head.
“Slayers tend to see things that effect them personally,” Halbarad went on to explain. “They mostly come in the form of prophetic dreams that help guide the Slayer to defeat her latest enemy. Sometimes these are not clearly discernable and appear more like riddles needing to be solved… ”
As Hal prattled on about prophetic dreams, Miriel’s thoughts drifted to her own dreams. She had seen Sauron in her dreams a couple of times now. What could she discern from that? She knew from their last encounter that some enemy was coming, an enemy seeking revenge for Thuringwethil’s demise. But that was probably the Barrow-wights with whom the Rangers had battled on their way to Fornost. Other than that, she had seen many wondrous and amazing things that the future held for mankind. Her visits to Sunnydale with Buffy had shown her how brilliant Man would become, how resourceful, creative and innovative they would be in the future. She didn’t clearly understand what time period Buffy lived in or how far in the future. If she had to guess, she’d say hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, possibly thousands.
“… Have you seen anything such as that, Miriel?” asked Hal. “Miriel?”
The Slayer was so engrossed in her own thoughts that she hadn’t heard the question her Watcher had asked.
“You alright, Miriel?” asked Elladan, nudging her with his shoulder.
“Huh? What?” she said, coming back to her senses. She looked at Elladan. “Did you say something?”
“You alright?” he repeated, his concerned eyes looking intently at her.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Did you hear my question?” asked Hal again.
“No. I’m sorry. I was kind of lost in my own thoughts. What did you say?”
“He was asking if you have had prophetic dreams of late,” said a deeply curious Cênon. This topic, in particular, seemed to grab his attention.
Miriel did not immediately answer. She wondered why Halbarad would ask her that when only a few days ago she had told him and the others of her “prophetic” dream involving a possible vampire attack. True, it wasn’t a “real” prophetic dream, but he didn’t know that. Or, was he wanting to know if she had had any others since then? Sometimes not telling the complete truth could be confusing.
“I have seen things that don’t pertain to the enemy,” she finally said thoughtfully. “The advancement of mankind.”
That definitely piqued everyone’s interest.
“That sounds curious. Pray tell,” said Cênon, listening attentively.
Miriel should’ve kept her mouth shut, but something inside her caused her to blurt out things she had seen in the dreamscape. “There will come a time when men will fashion lights that come on with a flick of a switch. Little glass bulbs that can illuminate an entire room without fire or oil in all colors of the rainbow.” She spoke almost in a trancelike state. “And in their need for haste, they’ll make horseless carriages that travel on streets paved of blackened stone. But even more amazing than that is they’ll learn to fly. They’ll build huge metal birds with long wings that do not flap, with rows and rows of seats in their belly. And they roar like thunder and your ears hurt as they soar high into the sky, flying faster than Manwë’s eagles.”
After Miriel had spoken that last sentence, she seemed to snap out of it. She glanced at the men seated in the spring. Each one sat there with their mouths agape. Even her closest friends had that look of utter bewilderment on their faces. In the total silence that followed, Miriel felt nothing but dread. Despite being in a pool of hot steamy water, goose bumps covered her flesh from a chill that emanated from deep within. She lowered her head, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone, cursing herself repeatedly. What the hell were you thinking?
she thought, scolding herself. You never share anything about Buffy or her world with anyone.
Then, it happened - laughter. Raucous laughter. First from Cênon, then, one by one, his companions joined in.
“That Slayer of yours is mad, Halbarad,” the Seer said between fits of laughter. “Men flying in metal birds! She’s not right in the head!”
Miriel felt a surge of anger coming from deep within. How dare Cênon and his cohorts mock and ridicule her! Slowly, she lifted her head, her narrowed eyes boring into the Seer. “They happen to be called airplanes,” she said between gritted teeth.
Her comment seemed to incite Cênon further. His boisterous laughter echoed within the confines of the spring house. His companions, on the other hand, ceased their mirth. Perhaps they noticed the threatening look in the Slayer’s eyes and took that as a warning to end their mockery or face the repercussions.
“Metal birds called airplanes!” exclaimed the sniggering Seer. “That is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in all my life. For one to suffer from such delusions, such abnormalities - I deem you’re a danger to us all!”
“If Miriel says that Man will one day construct flying machines, then I believe her,” said Halbarad, coming to his Slayer’s defense. “You seem to forget the history of your own forebears, Cênon. Did they not advance under the tutelage of the Eldar and the Lord Eönwë long ago? Were the Dúnedain not imparted with greater knowledge than other mortal folk? Were our Númenorean ancestors not looked upon in wonder and awe when they returned to these shores in ships of great magnitude? Even the Elves had never fashioned sea craft of similar design. How can one be so presumptuous to think that Man will not continue to advance in years to come?”
Halbarad spoke so convincingly and with such authority, that even Cênon’s cohorts were nodding in agreement, which brought an end to the Seer’s laughter. Miriel smiled gratefully at her Watcher. She could feel the tension leaving her body.
Cênon’s eyes anxiously shifted from face to face, desperate to find someone
that agreed with his assessment.
The Seer took a breath, as if to speak, but Elladan interjected, “I, for one, have grown weary of your incessant attacks on Miriel. Why don’t you do us all a favor and leave!”
Cênon hardened his heart. His frown had become so pronounced that his wrinkles deepened into ridges along his face. “It is she that is unwelcome! Today is men’s day at the springs. Yet here she is. Newly arrived and creating strife.”
“Leave her be,” blurted out Maethor, deciding that enough was enough. “We’re the intruders.” As he began to raise his naked body from the pool, Miriel snapped her eyes shut and turned her head away.
“At least somebody
here is exercising some common sense and decency,” said Hal. He then fixed his eyes on Cênon. “Just so you know, Seer, we’ve recently been in battle,” he pointed to the scab on his shoulder as evidence of that, “and have sustained injuries. If that athelas wasn’t a clue, then you are more witless than I thought!”
Apparently, Hal’s comment was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Cênon jumped from the spring in a huff, grumbling curses under his breath. He and his companions hurriedly dressed then stomped off with the Seer at the lead. Cênon’s dislike of the Slayer was so great that he began to spread horrible rumors about her soon after leaving the hot springs in an attempt to sully her good reputation.
Miriel’s friends had reached an unspoken consensus and decided not to discuss those things she had foreseen. At this point, they wanted her to relax, to enjoy the healing aspects of the hot spring in peace. They stayed there, undisturbed, for a long while afterward.
When they finally climbed out of the hot spring, evening was already upon them. After everyone had dressed, Halbarad lit the torches affixed to the pillars of the spring house for those that would come later, preferring to soak under starlight.
The Rangers then made their way back to Gúron’s home. Instead of entering the house upon their return, Halbarad led them to the back garden. He and the twins had been here on numerous occasions and were quite familiar with Melannen’s rules of the house. All wet items were to be hung on the clothesline, not piled on the floor. As soon as they had finished, they walked back to the front of the house and entered the dwelling. They immediately noticed Celebrindor, perched on a chair in the front parlor, regaling the entire family with tales from bygone days. Once the returning guests had placed their bags in the foyer, they quietly joined the others, seating themselves on the floor before the eldest member of the household.
Only seconds later, Miriel perceived that strange vibe again, although this time, it had increased in intensity. It felt as if the entire room had been engulfed by an invisible cloud of oppression. She had never experienced anything like it before. She glanced at the occupants within the room. All had their eyes locked on Celebrindor, engrossed in his story. She fixed her gaze on Hal since he had mentioned that he had sensed it earlier too. After several long seconds, he shifted his eyes to her. He gave the slightest shake of his head, which, to Miriel, indicated that, yes, he felt it as well. Since there was nothing she could do to dispel this heaviness, she decided to ignore it the best she could.
She kept her attention focused on Celebrindor, listening to unfamiliar tales. Having been born and raised in Minas Tirith, she had only heard tales of her people, the Gondorians, who considered themselves far superior to their northern counterparts. It seemed tragic to her that those in the southern kingdom thought so little of their kinsmen in Arnor, merely because Gondor had endured many brutal wars over the centuries whereas Arnor had not.
Before the children were ushered to bed, the women of the house surprised everyone by serving samplings of the desserts they intended to enter in the “best dessert” category at the Berry Festival along with steamy cups of tea. The ladies were eager for feedback from their houseguests, bombarding them with questions and asking for suggestions on how to perfect their recipes. Of course, the visitors weren’t foolish and declared that each sweet was delicious enough to be presented for judging, as is.
As the night wore on, people began filtering out of the room and up to bed. Gúron and Melannen had gone off to bed when their children had. It had been a long day, after all. Miriel, Halbarad, the twins and the older folk stayed up quite a bit longer, well past midnight, in fact. As it neared one o’clock, the Slayer struggled to keep her eyes opened. The thought of sleeping uninterrupted and without risk of attack seemed rather appealing after a couple of weeks on the road.
“Looks like we have a sleepy Slayer on our hands,” announced Celebrindor, as he watched Miriel dozing off. “I deem it’s time for bed, for us all.”
“There’s a bed prepared for you in the girls’ room, Miriel,” said Oneth, rising from her rocking chair. She then turned her tired, droopy eyes toward the Slayer’s companions. “I believe you all know where the extra blankets and pillows are stored.”
Elladan nodded his head and hurriedly left the room to collect their bedding.
“If you don’t mind,” Miriel said, politely addressing Oneth, “I’d like to stay with my friends.”
A long, awkward pause followed her request. “I do
mind,” the woman finally answered. “Mixed company do not sleep together in the same room under this roof!”
Miriel’s jaw dropped. Oneth’s comment made it seem as if the Slayer’s character was in question.
The old woman must have realized this, for the next moment, she tenderly placed her hand on Miriel’s arm. “It’s not my rule, dear,” she said sympathetically, “but Melannen’s. For the sake of harmony, just abide by it, hmm?” She then gave Miriel a reassuring smile. “Good night, all,” she said to those remaining in the room. She then carefully picked up an oil lamp and led the Slayer out of the room and up the stairs.
“I have no qualms about your sleeping beside the Rangers,” the woman whispered as they climbed the steps. “You’ve been traveling with them for months, for goodness sake! I do not doubt your virtue. Not everyone trusts their instincts, their heart. If truth be told, too many heed the words of rumormongers.” She then grumbled a few choice words under her breath. Miriel suspected they were not words that Oneth normally used in front of company.
During that short trek to the girls’ upstairs bedroom, Oneth was able to put the Slayer at ease. They quietly entered the chamber. The girls were snuggled in one bed, sound asleep. The other bed remained empty. A white nightgown had been draped over the covers. Oneth set the lamp on the bedside table, checked on her granddaughters, then bid Miriel good-night. She left, closing the door silently behind her.
Within the dimly lit chamber, the Slayer quietly changed out of her clothing and into the gown provided. She placed her folded traveling clothes in a chair by the door. She then snuffed out the light before sliding under the covers, waiting for sleep to take her.
Despite the fact that she had been dozing off earlier, Miriel was now wide-awake. She found herself mulling over the events of the day. She wished her mind would shut down so she could get some much needed rest. She listened to the clock ticking on the mantle over the fireplace, hoping that the rhythmic sound would lull her to sleep. It did not.
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t fall asleep. She thought about lying in bed until morning, but she found herself too restless to do so. After an hour and a half, she gave up. She climbed out of bed and, with her arms stretched out before her, feeling for any obstacles in her unfamiliar surroundings, she slowly shuffled through the darkness in search of the chair where her clothing was.
Unfortunately, she found the chair when her shin collided with it, sending the wooden seat into the wall with a bang. Despite the sudden pain, Miriel held her breath, waiting to see if the noise had awakened any in the household. From behind, she heard one of the girls stirring in bed. A couple of seconds later, all was silent.
With a slow sigh of relief, the Slayer pulled off her nightgown and hung it on the back of the chair. She then hastily slipped her tunic over her head and pulled on her breeches. Once dressed, she quietly slipped out of the room and into the hallway. Before descending the stairs, she stopped, listening intently for any sounds within the house. Everything was still.
She cautiously crept downstairs, telling herself she was not breaking any rules, as she intended to sit in one of the rocking chairs until morning. By the time she reached the bottom of the staircase, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She entered the parlor and could see that one of her friends was asleep on the sofa while the other two were stretched out on the floor, sleeping. She inched her way around the sleeping pair towards the rocker.
The chair creaked ever so slighted when she eased into position, yet all remained quiet. The environment was much different now. Peace and tranquility had replaced the ominous air that Miriel had felt earlier. She felt relaxed, the tension rapidly leaving her body. Minutes later, she had drifted off to sleep.
She was unsure how much time had passed when she felt someone gently shaking her awake. A sweet elvish voice softly called her name. “Miriel.”
“Hmm,” she sounded, still half asleep.
“What are doing down here?” asked Elladan.
Miriel could feel the warmth of his breath against her skin. “I couldn’t sleep,” she mumbled groggily.
He chuckled softly. “Well, then, come lie down with me, or you’ll be stiff in the morning.” He gently helped her to her feet and guided her over to his makeshift bed. She lay down, her head resting on Elladan’s pillow. The Elf stretched out beside her, covering them both with his blanket. He could hear her deep breathing. Miriel had already fallen back asleep. Elladan cuddled up to her, draping his arm protectively across her stomach. Feeling such contentment, he swiftly drifted off to sleep.
At the crack of dawn, all hell broke loose. “That whore of yours cannot even spend one night without the company of men!” screeched the shrill voice of Melannen, which woke the entire household, if not the entire neighborhood.
“Lower your voice,” growled Gúron in reply. The couple sounded like they were in the kitchen.
“I will not lower my voice!” the woman screamed at the top of her lungs. “How dare you bring her
into this house! Do not think that I do not know what’s going on! I know you’ve been having an affair with her. That she’s been sleeping with all
Miriel was sitting upright, in a state of shock. Her friends too were wide-awake, stunned and startled by the fierce argument taking place down the hall.
“That’s a lie!” shouted Gúron. “Miriel is the Slayer and a friend. Nothing more!”
“Oh, so you say to my face!” his wife shrieked. “How can you bring that harlot into my home, around our children. You have me waiting on your trollop, lending her my clothing!” The sound of glass crashing against the wall rang out.
“Stop it!” yelled Gúron sternly. “I’ve had it with your insecurities. Your temper tantrums. This is all in your head. It’s always in your head.”
Coming to her senses, Miriel’s first reaction was rage. She had been called some rather harsh names in her young life, but harlot, whore and trollop had not been among them. Melannen didn’t even know her, what adversities she had overcome. Her blood was beginning to boil. Her face was reddening by the second.
“All in my head, huh?” the woman shot back. “What kind of woman lounges around in a pool with naked men?” she demanded. “A whore!” she cried out, answering her own question. “Eru only knows what kind of debauchery transpired in the hot springs! That girl has no shame! Flaunting her indecency.”
“That’s enough, Melannen! I’m not going to put up with this.”
“And what are you going to do? Run off with that harlot?”
Miriel had heard enough. She leapt to her feet and bolted toward the door. As she grabbed her things, she looked over her shoulder. The rest of the household, including the children, were on the uppermost part of the staircase, listening to the verbal sparring match in the kitchen. Their faces had a wide-range of expressions: sorrow, disappointment and fear. Seeing the rest of the family face-to-face broke Miriel’s heart. She hoped they knew that everything they had overheard were lies. Awful lies.
Not even taking the time to put on her boots, Miriel stormed out of the house, barefoot, marching down the cold, stone walkway toward the street. Tears streamed down her flushed face. She could still hear the bickering couple, quarrelling over her virtue…