Twice blessed is help unlooked for
Sing as you raise your bow, shoot straighter than before.
Led Zeppelin, The Battle of Evermore
The stones were ancient, eroded, and barely protruded above the earth. Some had sunk altogether and only the barrenness of the soil above them betrayed their presence.
“This must be the site of the original portal that our ancestors used to depart from this world, millennia ago,” said Tebolvir, “and it would seem that it has not been used since then. To reactivate it, in the event that this world proves inhospitable, would be a mighty task.”
“Impossible, I would say,” said Laelryne, “but we were warned that such might be the case. We are here to stay.” She looked around and saw that they were in an area of open, rolling, grasslands. In one direction there were mountains, forming a line along the horizon; to the other side the plains continued as far as the eye could see, with only an occasional copse of woodland interrupting the expanse of grass. The sky above was cloudy, with a few patches of blue sky in the distance, but there was no indication that rain was imminent. “I wonder what time of day it is,” she mused, “and, for that matter, what time of year. If this is what passes for their winter I fear that Cierre will be disappointed.”
“I can always head north, Jabbress,” Cierre said, “or south if we are below the equator.” She brought her hand up to shield her eyes from the light, in an instinctive gesture that was no longer necessary now that the transformation had given her the daylight tolerance of a surface Elf, and surveyed her surroundings.
“There should be some kind of civilisation on this world, according to what the Rituals revealed, but it does not seem that it is close at hand,” Laelryne said.
“There is a road over there, Jabbress,” Cierre pointed out, “and I see travellers upon it.”
Laelryne looked in the direction indicated by Cierre and saw the road. It was a good thirty seconds before she was able to spot the travellers in the distance, her eyes not being as sharp in the outdoors as those of the tall ranger, but eventually she saw indistinct moving figures. They came more clearly into focus and she was able to distinguish horses, riders, and wagons. “They are coming in this direction,” she said, “and I would say their numbers are not significantly greater than our own. A merchant caravan, or similar, I think. We will have to make contact with the locals eventually; we might as well do it now. Form up, everyone, and follow me.”- - - - -
Éomer tried to put aside thoughts of Lothíriel and concentrate on the council meeting. It wasn’t easy. There were two main subjects to be discussed; one was the resettling of those parts of the Mark that had been depopulated by the depredations of Saruman’s hordes, and the provision of adequate safeguards against the Dunlendings and whatever remnants of the orcs that might still be hiding out in the mountains; the other was the possible construction of a road through the White Mountains from Harrowdale to Gondor, making use of the tunnels that had been the Paths of the Dead. Such a road would significantly shorten the journey to the western areas of Gondor, especially to Dol Amroth, and Éomer had to keep considering whether or not he was being unduly influenced by the thought of an easy route between Edoras and the home of his beloved.
One of his counsellors was in the middle of a speech when the door was thrown open and Legolas rushed into the council room. Éomer looked up in surprise. There must be some very urgent reason for the Elf to behave in such a fashion.
“My Lord King,” Legolas called, “I bring bad tidings. The Haradrim were not destroyed.” Gimli, and the two Riders whom Éomer had sent to accompany the pair on their mission, entered the hall behind Legolas. The Riders appeared to be perturbed and Gimli’s face was set into an ominous glower.
“There are more of them? Where?” Éomer asked. He stood up. As far as he was concerned the council meeting was over.
“We crossed their trail,” Legolas said, “and it seems that they passed by Edoras, giving it as wide a berth as they could, some two or three days ago. They were heading roughly south-east. Towards Gondor.”
“To Gondor? Why would they…?” Éomer began, and then realisation hit him. “Béma!” he exclaimed. “The West Road. They are after Princess Lothíriel!”
“That is my thought too,” Legolas agreed. “She would make a valuable hostage – as, indeed, would the two princes. With the Princess and her brothers as their prisoners the Haradrim could force King Elessar to grant them unmolested passage through the lands of Gondor to Harad.”
“Indeed so,” said Éomer. His brows lowered. “Surely the Haradrim cannot be strong enough to attack her convoy,” he said. “There are, counting the two princes, sixty men in the escort.”
“I fear that will not be enough,” Legolas said. “The Haradrim number far more than that.”
“What? How many?”
“It was not easy to work out the numbers from the hoof-prints,” Legolas said, “but there were signs…”
“Dung,” Gimli interjected.
“Indeed,” said Legolas. “Gimli observed that there was much dung on the trail and I made a close examination. I would say that they left more than twice the amount of dung behind them that a full éored leaves. They number two hundred at the very least. Probably, assuming that they were travelling at speed, the true count will be close to three hundred.”
Éomer bared his teeth in a snarl. “Béma!” he exclaimed again. “We must ride at once. I cannot leave Edoras altogether undefended, lest the Haradrim double back and attack our homes, but we must have a considerable force if we are to defeat them without suffering heavy losses.” He raised a hand and stroked his beard. His father had died because he had ridden out in pursuit of orc raiders without taking enough men… He came to his decision quickly. “We have a ditch, and strong walls, and footmen can defend Edoras as capably as can horsemen,” he said. “Éothain! Pass the word for the muster. Every man who can ride. Make sure we are well provisioned and there are plenty of remounts. We ride fast and far. Forth Eorlingas!”- - - - -
Lothíriel gazed, fascinated, at the strange beings that were approaching. They resembled Elves – but they were black! Most of them had skin that was as black as jet but, in stark contrast, their hair was as white as snow. The others were less dark of skin, a deep brown, but had black hair. All save one of them were small; they were on foot, although they had two laden pack-mules, and it was hard for Lothíriel to judge their height when she was mounted, but she would estimate that few of them reached even as tall as five feet. The exception was a woman who was tall by any standards, close to six feet, who held a great bow of a length that matched her height; a weapon not unlike the bow of Legolas.
“Keep back, Lothíriel,” Erchirion cautioned. “They may be creatures of Sauron and they are heavily armed.”
“They are black and evil,” muttered one of the Riders of Rohan.
“I have never heard that Sauron’s forces included women,” Lothíriel said. “Nor have I heard that there were any Elves in Mordor, black or otherwise.” She continued to study the approaching figures. Many of them were armed with a strange weapon like nothing she had seen before; a small bow fastened to a long, flat-topped, wooden shaft, so that any arrow would have to slide along the flat surface before it could leave the bow. It seemed remarkably inefficient. They were held loosely, pointing down at the ground, presumably as a sign of peaceful intent.
“Who knows what may have lurked in his secret chambers below Barad-dûr?” Erchirion countered. “We must be on our guard.”
“One of them is with child, brother,” Amrothos pointed out. Indeed, Lothíriel saw, one of the black Elf women was visibly pregnant. “I doubt that a party with evil intent would include a lady in such condition among their number.”
“And the one in the lead, who has the tall woman watching over her like a mother bear watching over a cub, has a nice smile,” said Lothíriel. “Let us hear what they have to say before condemning them as enemies.”
The woman at the front of the group of dark elves, who was one of those with brown skin and black hair, raised a hand and her party came to a halt. She then took a couple of steps forward and spoke.
Her words were completely incomprehensible.- - - - -
“Should I cast Comprehend Languages, Jabbress?” Tebolvir suggested. “Nothing they have said resembles any tongue I have ever heard.”
Laelryne shook her head. “Not yet. You would have to touch one of them and they seem excessively wary of us; almost as if the Drow are not as unknown in this world as we were led to expect. The gesture might be interpreted as an attack. We must persevere, first, with attempts to find a mutually comprehensible language. Only fall back on the spell if all else fails.”
“A’dos quarth,” Tebolvir assented, giving a nod of his head.
“I shall try the Darthiir tongue,” Laelryne said. “Not all the Elves left this world with our ancestors, if the tales are true, and some may dwell here still. If that is so then some of the humans may speak their language.”
At that very moment the human woman, whose clothing and fine steed indicated that she was a person of wealth and importance, spoke. “Who are you, and why do you stop us on the highway?” she asked, in the very language Laelryne had been going to try. It wasn’t quite the same dialect as the one with which Laelryne was familiar but it was close enough to be understandable.
Laelryne smiled. “We are travellers from afar, newly come to this land,” she replied. “I am Laelryne, Protector of the Song, and these are my people. We seek directions.”
“Directions?” A tall man in full plate armour, his helm surmounted by a crest in the shape of a swan, spoke in the same language. “This is the Great West Road. Rohan lies behind us. Gondor lies ahead. If you are here you must have come from one or the other. Even to get here from Mordor would mean crossing the lands of Gondor. What are you and whence come you? Are you creatures of Sauron?”
Laelryne felt her smile slipping and forced it back into place. She sensed, rather than saw, Cierre tensing and she put her hand out and touched the lethal ranger’s arm. “Easy, my friend,” she said soothingly, speaking in Ilythiiri. She returned her attention to the knight and switched back to the tongue of the Darthiir. “I know not what you mean,” she said. “We are Elves whose ancestors left these lands many centuries ago. We fell upon troubled times in our current home and have returned here seeking shelter.”
“And we are not ‘creatures’, rivvil iblith,” Cierre muttered, just loudly enough to be heard, but – thankfully – in Ilythiiri.
“Then go along this road, in either direction, but go by yourselves,” said the knight. “We are not willing to allow heavily-armed strangers to travel in our company.”
“That is ungallant of you, Erchirion,” the woman said.
“Indeed so,” agreed another knight in similar armour and accoutrements to the first. Only those two of the company were in full plate; some of the other men wore the same swan insignia but their armour was a coat-of-plates over chain-mail. The rest of the riders wore nothing heavier than chain-mail and their emblem was a white horse on a green background. “There are women there, brother, in fact more than half of them are women, and I’ve already pointed out the condition that one of them is in. It does seem harsh making them travel unaccompanied through an unfamiliar land.” He added a couple of sentences in an alien language; Laelryne guessed that he was translating his speech for members of the group who did not speak Elvish.
“What would you have me do? Offer them seats upon our wagons? I think not,” said the first knight, Erchirion. He switched over to the other language and spoke at some length to his companions.
“I apologise for my brother’s discourtesy,” the woman said, “but I cannot deny that his caution is rooted in sound sense. I cannot, without his assent, give permission for you to accompany us. Yet I will not refuse aid to those who need it. Are you adequately provisioned? There may be things we could spare. And I can offer a riding horse for that lady who is in… a delicate condition.”
“I thank you,” Laelryne replied, “but we are amply supplied with necessities. And Srulauthe would have no use for the horse.”
“I cannot ride, my Lady,” Srulauthe explained, “and my condition does not yet hamper my walking, but I thank you for the offer.”
The woman turned to the knights. “See, brothers, is that not fair speech? Shall it truly be answered by suspicion and discourtesy?”
“One may speak fair and do foul,” said Erchirion. “My mind is made up, Lothíriel, and you will not dissuade me. They must make their own way through this land.”
“Quite apart from any consideration of possible treachery,” said the other knight, “a party on foot would slow us down. We would not reach the next village before nightfall. I think that I must, reluctantly, back Erchirion in this matter.”
“Tell me, then,” Laelryne requested, “in which direction the nearest town lies.”
The woman, Lothíriel, consulted briefly with the others, and with the riders who wore chain-mail and bore the horse emblem, in the non-Elvish tongue. She then turned back to the Drow party and spoke in Elvish once more. “We are half-way between two villages,” she told them. “It would make little difference which way you went. Yet, if you go that way,” she pointed back in the direction from which her party had come, “you would be greeted with suspicion and perhaps even attacked. The Rohirrim do not speak Elvish and it would be hard for you to explain that you are peaceful.”
“Especially as you are armed for war,” Erchirion put in.
“It may be best, then, if you follow behind us,” Lothíriel went on. “We can advise the village elders that you approach and make sure that there are no… unfortunate misunderstandings.”
“We shall do as you suggest,” Laelryne said, “and I thank you. Farewell.”
“Fare thee well,” said Lothíriel. Erchirion called out a command and the human convoy moved off.
Laelryne waited until they had drawn clear and then gave the signal for her people to follow. “Well, that could have gone better,” she said, “but it could have gone worse also. The woman, Lothíriel, seemed pleasant and well-inclined towards us.”
“Yet the others seemed less so,” said Tebolvir. “We were treated with as much suspicion as we would have been back in Faerûn.”
“There is yet time for things to improve,” said Laelryne. “I can understand their reactions. They know us not, we are in truth armed and armoured such that we might appear to be a threat, and they might have been guarding a valuable cargo in those wagons. The next time we meet we might be able to establish friendlier relations.”
They walked on, with the wagon convoy gradually drawing further ahead, and then Cierre drew Laelryne’s attention to something in the distance.
“Horsemen,” Cierre said. “A large body of them.”
Laelryne could make out only that something was moving. It could have been a flock of birds, flying close to the ground, for all she could tell. “Keep your eyes on them, and report if they start coming this way,” she told Cierre.
Cierre nodded assent. “A’dos quarth, Jabbress,” she said. She continued to watch the horsemen.
After a little while, by which time the wagons and their escort of riders had pulled ahead of the Drow party by some four hundred yards, Cierre spoke again. “The horsemen divide their forces, Jabbress,” she reported. “One group, perhaps a quarter of their number, are racing ahead. Ah, now they divide again. The largest section wheels to aim at the wagons. The remainder are turning to face us. Yes, they are coming this way.”
“I can see them,” Laelryne said, “but I can make no estimate of their numbers. Can you tell me how many there are?”
Cierre stared hard at each section of fast-moving horsemen. “Maybe sixty, sixty, and a hundred and twenty,” she said, “or perhaps more. No, I have understated their numbers. Seventy-five, seventy-five, and a hundred and fifty would be a closer estimate.”
“And one group heads for us? I like this not,” Laelryne said. “Everyone, ready your crossbows! Wizards, make ready your spell components! Prepare for battle!”- - - - -
“To arms!” Erchirion shouted. Heruwine, commander of the Rohirric contingent of the escort, echoed the call in his own tongue. Men donned helmets, couched lances, and nocked arrows to bowstrings.
“They have circled us at a distance,” said Amrothos, “and placed men before and behind. Yet one side remains clear.”
“If we flee that way,” said Erchirion, “we will be pinned against the mountains and slaughtered. And, if aid comes, it will come along the Road. We must fight here.”
“Against odds of five to one,” Amrothos said.
“Six to one, if those black Elves are their allies,” Erchirion said.
Amrothos shook his head. “I think not. The Haradrim treat women as chattels, or so I have heard, but the black Elves were led by women. And who would send to war a woman whose belly swells with child?”
“You may well be right,” said Erchirion, “but I cannot risk our fate upon such deductions. We must avoid the black Elves until they are proven friend or foe.”
“Which way, then?” asked Amrothos.
“Forward,” said Erchirion. “If we can break through the covering force the main body must pursue from behind. A stern chase is a long one.” He raised his voice. “Abandon the wagons! Drivers, into the carriage with the servants! Form for a charge! Ohtar, Cirthalion,” he called, naming two among the Swan Knights who were men steady and valiant, “take station beside Lothíriel and shield her from arrows! We shall break through and win free.”
“Wait!” Lothíriel shouted. The urgency in her voice brought everyone to a halt. “Look behind! The black Elves form for battle, and not against us but against the Haradrim. See, the Southrons wheel to face them. We should go that way.”
“To break through, escape, and leave women to cover our backs? That would be black shame,” said Amrothos.
“No, brother,” said Lothíriel, raising her eyes to look skyward. “To join with them. Some few riders, perhaps, might then ride for help while the others hold off the Haradrim.”
Erchirion scowled. “I know not what to do for the best. But we must choose quickly.” He thought hard as he watched the wagon drivers scrambling into the carriage. “Amrothos, what is your counsel?”
“I trust the Elf woman Laelryne,” said Lothíriel, “black skin or no. Did she not style herself ‘Protector of the Song’? What servant of Evil would use such a title?”
“I agree with our sister,” Amrothos said. “Hard as it sits with me to put women into danger for our sake, I feel we have no choice.”
The last of the wagon drivers, finding no more room inside the carriage, clambered up to join the carriage driver. Erchirion lifted his sword high. “Turn the carriage about,” he commanded, “and face the rear. We ride back the way we have come. For Amroth and for Rohan!”- - - - -
“You are determined that we should fight for those rivvin who treated us with such distrust?” asked Kyoroth. “We do not even know who they are. Might those horsemen, who resemble the Bedine of Anauroch, not be righteous avengers? Or defending their homes against invaders?”
Laelryne shook her head. She was not surprised that her decision was being questioned; least of all that it was Kyoroth who did so.
Kyoroth, the only other surviving Protector of the Song, had lost some precious part of her spirit in the fall of the Promenade. She had seen Qilué make bad decision after bad decision, had heard the accounts of the terrible death of Iljrene, had seen her friends and comrades massacred, and had lost her goddess. It was perhaps inevitable that she found it difficult to trust the judgement of Laelryne who, after all, was her senior by only a small margin. Kyoroth had supported the plan to leave Faerûn, not surprisingly after what she had been through, but other than that she had questioned every decision. She had been suspicious of Liriel Baenre and reluctant to accept the little wizard’s help. She had objected to Laelryne’s ready acceptance of Cierre, seeing only that the tall ranger was a worshipper of the cold and merciless Frostmaiden, and not recognising the desperate loneliness and need for acceptance that lay within the deadly warrior.
And now Kyoroth wanted them to turn their backs on those in need.
“You answer your own question,” Laelryne explained. “Like unto the Bedine, you say, or you might equally have said like unto the Calishites. Look at this land around us, Kyoroth; do you see desert? No, those horsemen are raiders, and the people of the wagons are natives. We intend to live in this land; will we be made welcome if our first action is to stand by and watch a massacre without intervening?”
“Who would know?” Kyoroth asked.
Laelryne opened her mouth to reply but Tebolvir beat her to it. “We would know,” he said, “and we would walk with shame for the rest of our days.”
Cierre looked at Kyoroth and her upper lip curled. “We fight,” she said, in a tone carrying stinging contempt.
“Yes,” said Laelryne. “We fight.” She watched the rivvin convoy, saw the warriors making frantic preparations, and saw them wheeling the light carriage around to face back the way they had come. Her eyes might not be as sharp as Cierre’s but she saw all that needed to be seen. The Calishites, or whatever they were, spun their horses about as the pale-skinned rivvin began their charge. “We fight… now! Ultrinnan!”
And forty-six voices – all save that of Kyoroth – echoed the ancient battle-cry of the Drow as one.
“Ultrinnan!”- - - - -
The Men of Dol Amroth and of Rohan rode into a hail of arrows. This they had expected, and they pressed on undaunted, trusting to their shields and armour to get them through to where their lances and swords could strike home. Yet the Haradrim aimed, not at the men who faced them, but at their steeds. Arrows bit into flesh, and horses fell, and riders crashed onto the hard ground. And the men of Harad wheeled their mounts about, and retreated, and loosed yet more arrows as they went. A horse in the traces of the carriage was hit, and went down, and the carriage wheels struck the body and the vehicle was brought to a shuddering halt. Things did not go well.
And then there arose a great cry from the ranks of the dark Elves beyond. “Ultrinnan!” was the word they shouted out, and none of the Men knew the meaning of the word, for it was not in the Elvish tongue that was spoken in Middle Earth. With the cry came a volley of small arrows, flying straight and true from the strange bows of the black Elves, and Haradrim warriors toppled from their horses and lay still. And, strange and wondrous to behold, a ball of fire came forth from nowhere, in the midst of the Haradrim host, and men and horses alike screamed in pain and fear as hair and clothing was set aflame.
Then the Men of Dol Amroth and of Rohan took new heart, and charged home, and met the scimitars of Harad with lance and sword. And from the far side charged the dark Elves, and bright swords gleamed in their hands, and at their head was the woman Laelryne and her tall companion. And with each stroke of Laelryne’s sword a man died, and she sang as she slew, and at her side the tall one struck blows that cleaved skulls and severed limbs from bodies. The Haradrim riders, who had sought to prevent the escape of the people from the convoy, were caught between Men and Elves and perished to a man.
Erchirion and Amrothos exchanged smiles, and then looked about them, and their faces turned grim. For the main body of the Haradrim remained unfought, and were approaching, and the Men of the West had suffered in the combat. The princes saw that many of their men had been thrown to the ground, as their horses perished or reared up in their pain, and some of those men had taken sore hurt or lay dead. And one of those who lay on the ground wore no armour, and bore no sword, for it was a woman. She had been well protected by the shields of her retainers but they had not been able to shield her horse; an arrow had struck it in the throat and sank deep, and it had fallen, and the rider had struck the ground hard and now lay very still.