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The Dark Companion

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Summary: Cierre, Ranger of Faerûn, is transported to Middle Earth and meets Aragorn at Amon Hen. She joins the Fellowship in their pursuit of the Orcs but finds trouble at Edoras. And a conversation with Éowyn sets off a chain of events that may ruin everything.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Lord of the Rings > Non-BtVS/AtS Stories > Crossover: Other
Games > Dungeons and Dragons > Neverwinter Nights
(Current Donor)SpeakertocustomersFR189121,9838346,76018 Apr 1327 Nov 14No

You can run but you can't hide...

Gimli’s brows descended low and he shook his head. “This is not right,” he said, as a Rohir woman snatched up her child and rushed away from the two non-humans. It was obvious, from the direction of the fearful glances the woman cast over her shoulder as she scurried off, that it wasn’t Gimli who was the cause of her flight. “They should be doing you honour, not fleeing from you and hiding their children.”

Cierre shrugged. “It was the same where I came from,” she said. “It no longer bothers me.”

“It’s not right,” Gimli said again. “Even some of the Riders are still wary of you.”

“Yet others smile and greet me with friendship,” said Cierre. “I am content enough. And your comradeship, abbil, makes up for a thousand frowns.”

Gimli looked down at his boots. “Harrumph. Thanks. Um. Well, it doesn’t look as if you’ll be able to snatch some sleep with the women-folk as we’d planned. I suppose we’d better go on deeper into the caves.”

“Indeed so,” Cierre replied. “There should be just enough time for me to regain my spells before we must arise to fight again.”

She gave Gimli a fond smile. Actually what Cierre really wanted, more than sleep, was a good fucking; victory in combat made her feel lustful and it had been a long time since she’d last had sex. She did not find Gimli sexually attractive, for she much preferred men to be at least as tall as herself, but she liked him so much that she would have been delighted to share her bed with him anyway. However his embarrassment at even the slightest discussion of emotions implied that making advances to him would be awkward, and might even cause offence that would damage their friendship, and she was not willing to risk that. And she wasn’t going to approach one of the Riders until she knew more about their sexual mores; it had taken two killings, and the administering of a brutal beating to a lover who had talked of her disparagingly, to regain the respect she had lost with the Uthgardt through being too free with her favours in their eyes. She didn’t intend to make that mistake again.

“I am puzzled by what you say about being used to such treatment,” Gimli said. “Surely in your own world you are not strange to those around you?”

Cierre stopped smiling. “My people are disliked and distrusted by all other peoples of my world. And, I must confess, it is with good reason. Most of the Drow are warlike, often treacherous, and attack and raid the communities of the surface peoples all too often. Not all are like that, indeed the worshippers of Eilistraee are perhaps the kindest and most benevolent of all the denizens of Faerûn, and the Ranger Drizzt Do’Urden is a hero of honour and renown, but at least three fourths of the Drow would cut your throat for a copper coin.”

Gimli’s eyes widened. “Well it is that it was you who came here instead of them, then,” he said. “Although… as I said about the culvert, where one can go so can a thousand. Should we worry about… less honourable members of your people following in your path?”

Cierre shook her head. “The magical doorway through which I came closed behind me and I do not think it will open again,” she said. “Even if it did, I doubt if any would pursue me. I came through, not knowing where it would take me, only because the alternative was a fight against overwhelming odds. Those from whom I fled have no such pressing motivation to take the risk. No doubt they would like to kill me, and to retrieve this armour and the sword I wield – I took them from a fallen foe – but they would not follow me across worlds. I do not believe any other Drow will ever come to Middle Earth.”

- - - - -

“You surprise me, Halaster,” said Drythaera, commander of the Drow invasion force. “You stubbornly refuse to open the main portal that would enable us to pass freely through Undermountain. Why, then, are you willing to grant Khareese’s request to open the one through which Cierre fled?”

The wizard stared at her from out of the energy globe in which he was imprisoned. His beard bristled as if charged with static electricity. “If I open the gateway, more Drow will flood through,” he answered. “I don’t want that; I can barely stand you. If I send your companion to follow Cierre, at least that gets some of you out of my hair. And why should I care if one Drow kills another? If you’d wipe yourselves out, that would save me the bother.”

“Humph. I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else you have said,” the commander conceded. She turned to Khareese. “I do not approve of this excursion,” Drythaera told the Red Sisters assassin. “The Valsharess commanded that Cierre be killed, it is true, but that was because she posed a threat to our operations. Once she was transported far away through that portal she ceased to be a danger.”

“But the Valsharess has not countermanded her order,” said Khareese, “and you do not have the authority to do so on her behalf. The order stands – unless you are willing to tell the Valsharess that you have called off the hunt for Cierre?”

“I have no intention of bothering the Valsharess over such a trivial matter,” said Drythaera, “as you are, no doubt, counting on to get your way. And at least there will be some benefit. It will dishearten our enemies when they see that, once the Valsharess has decreed your death, then not even fleeing beyond the world can save you. You have my permission to pursue Cierre.” Her fingers, shielded from Halaster’s sight by her body, moved in the Silent Tongue of the Drow. ‘Are you sure the wizard is not just trying to banish you permanently?’ she asked in sign. ‘I trust him not.

“Thank you, Jabbress,” Khareese said. Her lips twitched into a fractional smile and then reverted to their previous tight-set, grim, expression. ‘I have a Stone of Recall’, she replied in the Silent Tongue, using the commander to screen her gestures from Halaster. ‘We will be able to return with or without the portal.’

“And I suppose you’ll take your squad with you,” Drythaera said. “I am loath to lose their services but if I ordered them to stay their resentment would make them useless to me.”

“We all have a blood debt to pay,” Khareese said. Her right hand caressed the hilt of her envenomed short-sword. “Seldszar must be avenged.”

“I still find it strange that you are so determined to avenge the death of a mere male,” Drythaera mused. “I can understand his brothers’ desire for vengeance but not yours. Is it not really his sword and armour that you seek to retrieve? The Frozen Blade, and Greenleaf, are treasures of great value.”

Khareese shook her head. “I know it is not usually the way of the Drow,” she said, “but Seldszar was not just my husband, and my lover, but he was also my best friend. He completed my soul. Without him I feel as if part of my very self has been ripped away. When I saw what Cierre had done to him it was as if icy claws had seized my heart. I will know no peace until Cierre’s head hangs from my belt.”

“Strange,” said Drythaera, “but I will not stand in your way. However Cierre passed through the portal several days ago. She could have travelled many miles since then. Finding her will not be easy.”

“I have thought of that,” Khareese said, “and Halaster is willing to assist me. I know not why, and doubt his motives, but I am grateful nonetheless.”

“You asked me quite nicely, and showed me respect,” said the mad Archmage, “and so I will spare you a long weary trek. There’s no need to follow behind in her wake; I’ll send you ahead to the road she must take. It’s even in darkness, sheltered from the sun; an underground tunnel – now won’t that be fun? Lurk there in ambush, you just need to wait, and she won’t get a chance to avoid her grim fate. If you want to kill her, and cut off her head, I’ll give you your chance on the Paths of the Dead.”

- - - - -

The orcs cowered in the quarter-mile stretch of open ground between the Deeping Dyke and the mysterious forest that had sprung up overnight. Behind them Théoden’s household cavalry advanced, backed up by the remainder of the Hornburg garrison on foot, and a host came forth from the caves at the head of the valley to reclaim the fields behind the Deeping Wall. To the east the valley’s sides were too steep to climb. From the west came Gandalf, and twelve hundred Men of the Westfold led by the mighty Erkenbrand, cutting off the only avenue of escape.

Barely five thousand orcs remained of the ten and a half thousand that Saruman had sent forth. The corpses of their fallen littered the ground like the fallen leaves in autumn. Many of the orcs had cast down their weapons and their shields as they fled, forsaking all thoughts of battle in favour of flight, and now they were helpless to defend themselves.

The king’s cavalry levelled their lances and advanced. From the gap in the dike marched a thousand swordsmen; at their head was a white-haired woman with black skin and a Dwarf wielding a battle-axe. A war-cry rang out from that group, one never uttered by Men of the Mark before in all the long years since Eorl the Young led them from the North; “Ultrinnan!” Gandalf urged Shadowfax on and galloped down the western slope like a deer that leaps sure-footed in the mountains. Erkenbrand’s cavalry followed, more cautiously, and his infantry marched down the slope. On three sides the demoralised orcs faced forces too formidable for them to face.

The White Rider descended upon the orcs and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The orcs reeled, and screamed, and cast aside what weapons they still possessed. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled, and passed wailing under the waiting shadow of the trees, and from that shadow none ever came again.

- - - - -

Cierre seized Gamling the Old in a tight embrace and planted a smacking kiss on his cheek. He seemed a safe choice; he was probably married and, even if he wasn’t and she’d inadvertently made a proposal of marriage, he’d be dead in twenty years or so and she could put up with a human husband for that long if necessary. “Thank you!” she cried, releasing the grizzled warrior and turning to the ranks of Rohirrim behind him. “Thank you all! You have maked me proud.”

She clasped arms with several Riders who approached her, smiling, and exchanged pleasantries and answered questions as well as her knowledge of Westron permitted. A few of them seemed as if they were going to try to kiss her but she was able to fend them off with no apparent hard feelings. Eventually she was able to make her way through the throng, mainly by following in Gimli’s wake as he plodded irresistibly onward, and rejoin Aragorn and Legolas near where Théoden King was talking with Éomer and Gandalf.

“Well met, Gimli, Cierre,” Aragorn greeted them. “I am glad to see that you survived the battle unscathed.”

“I took a head wound,” Gimli told him, “but Cierre healed me. It was not serious. I saw Legolas knocked over by the blast when the orcs destroyed the culvert. Are you well, my friend?”

“I am,” the Elf replied. “I was knocked from my feet but took no hurt.”

“You seem in good spirits, Cierre,” Aragorn remarked.

“I am, Jabbuk Aragorn, in fact I think I am happier than I have ever been before,” Cierre confirmed. “Did you hear the Rohirrim when we came forth from the caves? Many of them shouted ‘Ultrinnan’ and to hear it, knowing that it was in my honour, filled me with great pride.”

“I suspect many of them believed it to be your name,” Gimli said.

“Yet still they did me honour,” Cierre said. “And, also, I have seen a place of great wonder and beauty.”

“We have indeed,” Gimli agreed. “The Rohirrim think of those caves as mere storehouses and a place of refuge in war. Yet they are, in truth, one of the great marvels of this world! Vast, and beautiful, immeasurable halls filled with an everlasting music of water that trickles into pools, as fair as Kheled-zâram in the starlight.”

“They could house a city as great as Menzoberranzan and many times as beautiful,” Cierre said. “I am privileged to have seen them.”

“Happy was the chance that drove us there,” said Gimli, “and I would delight in exploring them further.”

“We shall do so together,” Cierre said. “I cannot see the Rohirrim objecting after this past night.”

“Aye,” said Gimli, “I am sure they will grant us free access. Will you come with us, Legolas? You may think that those halls are fair where your father dwells under the hill in Mirkwood, and Dwarves aided in their construction long ago, but they are nothing compared with the splendours that lie within the caverns of Helm’s Deep.”

“My father’s halls are underground out of necessity, and not by choice,” Legolas said, “and I have no love for caves. Yet I will come, and accompany you in your exploration, for the enthusiasm that lights up both your faces shows that these caves indeed must be something special. But not yet. First we must finish our mission. Gandalf has a task for us, once we are rested; he wishes us to go with him to Isengard.”

- - - - -

It was a long ride, through the evening and the first half of the night, and then, after sleeping, continuing onward at dawn. Théoden and Éomer accompanied them, with a bodyguard of a mere twenty riders, for Gandalf had assured them they were travelling to a parley and not to war. Late on the next morning they reached their destination.

Isengard was a mile-wide circular plain, surrounded by a stone ring-wall, with but one gate permitting entry. In the centre of the circle there stood a tower that must have been five hundred feet high; not quite as tall as the Hosttower of the Arcane in Luskan but still impressive.

The rest of the fortress perhaps would have been equally impressive if it hadn’t been devastated by assault and flood. Gaps were torn in the wall, the gates had been torn down, and the plain within the wall was a morass of bubbling pools with wreckage floating along drowned roads.

Cierre surveyed the scene and nodded her head. “Xuat vith xuil lil Treanten,” she remarked to herself, remembering one of the first lessons she had learned when she became a Ranger on the surface of Faerûn; ‘Don’t fuck with the Treants’. A lesson Saruman had either never heard or had failed to take to heart.

Her companions seemed amazed; apparently they were far less familiar with Ents, as Treants were known here, than was Cierre – even though the local Ents seemed to be far more numerous than their counterparts in Faerûn. Théoden and his Riders gazed, awestruck, at the scene of devastation. Aragorn showed equal surprise, as did Gimli; only Gandalf and Legolas showed no sign of surprise.

And then they saw two small grey-clad figures, reclining on a heap of rubble, hardly to be seen among the stones. Heaps of empty bowls and plates in front of them implied that they had recently finished a meal. One seemed asleep; the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long wisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.

Udos inbal muth l'sakphen,” Cierre said. “I take it that those are your missing Hobbit friends?”

“Aye, those are the young rascals,” Gimli said. “Trust them to find food and pipe-weed even in the midst of such destruction.”

The small smoke-breathing figure rose to his feet and bowed. He ignored Aragorn’s group, for the moment, and addressed Théoden and his retinue.

“Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!” he said. “We are the door-wardens. Meriadoc son of Saradoc is my name, and my companion, who, alas, is overcome with weariness, is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took. Far in the North is our home. The Lord Saruman is within but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or doubtless he would be here to welcome such honourable guests.”

“Doubtless he would!” laughed Gandalf. “And was it Saruman that ordered you to guard his damaged doors, and watch for the arrival of guests, when your attention could be spared from plate and bottle?”

“No, good sir, the matter escaped him,” answered Merry gravely. “He has been much occupied. Our orders came from Treebeard, who has taken over the management of Isengard. He commanded me to welcome the Lord of Rohan with fitting words. I have done my best.”

“And what about your companions? What about Legolas and me?” cried Gimli. “You rascals, you woolly-footed and wool-pated truants! A fine hunt you have led us! Two hundred leagues, through fen and forest, battle and death, to rescue you! And here we find you feasting and idling – and smoking! Smoking! Where did you come by the weed, you villains? Hammer and tongs! I am so torn between rage and joy that if I do not burst it will be a marvel!”

“You speak for me, Gimli,” laughed Legolas. “Though I would sooner learn how they came by the wine.”

“One thing you have not found in your hunting, and that's brighter wits,” said Pippin, opening an eye. “Here you find us sitting on a field of victory, amid the plunder of armies, and you wonder how we came by a few well-earned comforts!”

“Well-earned?” said Gimli. “I cannot believe that!”

The Riders laughed. “It cannot be doubted that we witness the meeting of dear friends,” said Théoden. “So these are the lost ones of your company, Gandalf? The days are fated to be filled with marvels. Already I have seen many, since I left my house, and now here before my eyes stand yet another of the folk of legend. Are not these the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?”

“Hobbits, if you please, lord,” said Pippin. His gaze fell on Cierre, and his eyebrows shot up, but he made no comment.

“Hobbits?” said Théoden. “Your tongue is strangely changed, it seems, but the name sounds not unfitting so. Hobbits! No report that I have heard does justice to the truth.”

Merry bowed, and Pippin arose and bowed also, and the two Hobbits addressed Théoden with fair words. Their greeting turned into a long discussion, much of which was unintelligible to Cierre, until Gandalf brought them to a halt.

“You do not know your danger, Théoden,” interrupted Gandalf. “These Hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience. Some other time would be more fitting for the history of smoking. Where is Treebeard, Merry?”

“Away on the north side,” Merry replied. “He went to get a drink of clean water. Most of the other Ents are with him, over there, still busy at their work.”

Cierre could hear the rumble of falling stone in the distance. The Ents, apparently not satisfied with the ruin they had wrought upon Saruman’s fortress, were still demolishing the structure.

“And is Orthanc then left unguarded?” asked Gandalf.

“There is the water,” said Merry. “But Quickbeam and some others are watching it. Not all those posts and pillars in the plain are of Saruman's planting. Quickbeam, I think, is by the rock, near the foot of the stair.”

“Yes, a tall grey Ent is there,” said Legolas, “but his arms are at his sides, and he stands as still as a door-tree.”

“It is past noon,” said Gandalf, “and we at any rate have not eaten since early morning. Yet I wish to see Treebeard as soon as may be. Did he leave me no message, or has plate and bottle driven it from your mind?”

“He left a message,” said Merry, “and I was coming to it, but I have been hindered by many other questions. I was to say that, if the Lord of the Mark and Gandalf will ride to the northern wall they will find Treebeard there, and he will welcome them. I may add that they will also find food of the best there; it was discovered and selected by your humble servants.”

Gandalf laughed. “That is better!” he said. “Well, Théoden, will you ride with me to find Treebeard? We must go round about, but it is not far. When you see Treebeard you will learn much. For Treebeard is Fangorn, and the eldest and chief of the Ents, and when you speak with him you will hear the speech of the oldest of all living things.”

“I will come with you,” said Théoden, and he bade a courteous farewell to the Hobbits.

The Hobbits bowed low. “So that is the King of Rohan!” said Pippin in an undertone. “A fine old fellow. Very polite.”

The king and his entourage, together with Gandalf, rode off in the direction indicated. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli remained behind. Cierre chose to stay with them, being more interested in meeting the other members of Aragorn’s party than in talking to an Ent, and she dismounted and followed the rest to join the two Hobbits.

“Well, well!” said Aragorn. “The hunt is over, and we meet again, where none of us ever thought to come.”

“And we have much to tell you, and much to ask,” said Merry. “We have learned a few things through Treebeard, but not enough, and you clearly have a great deal to relate. For a start, who is your companion? I have never seen her like before.”

Cierre understood most of that and, before Aragorn could reply on her behalf, she bowed low. “Cierre of Luruar at your service,” she said, in passable Westron.

The Hobbits returned her bow and her greeting. “Meriadoc Brandybuck at your service and that of your family,” said Merry. “May I ask what people you belong to?”

“I would have taken you for an Elf except for your black skin and white hair,” Pippin chimed in. “I’ve never seen anything like it? Are you really an Elf? Is your hair white with age? I thought that didn’t happen to Elves. Are you from Far Harad, where the Oliphaunts come from?”

Cierre frowned. She had understood most of what Merry had said but Pippin’s fast speech and multiple questions had confused her. “Translate, please,” she requested in Sindarin.

“Cierre is of an Elvish people called the Drow, and her colouring is that of all her folk,” Aragorn answered for her. “She comes from outside the bounds of Arda and speaks Sindarin but, as yet, has little Westron.”

“I getting – I am getting better,” Cierre said. “Not understand only last part.”

“Ah,” said Merry. “I’m afraid my Sindarin is fairly basic; certainly not enough to carry on a conversation.”

“And I know only a few words of Sindarin,” said Pippin.

“You speak Westron, is good,” said Cierre. “More I hear, more I learn.”

“Well, Aragorn has answered our questions for you,” Merry said, “although I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘from outside the bounds of Arda’.”

“I do not fully understand myself,” said Aragorn. “Cierre was transported to this world by magic and that has been a lucky chance for us. She was a great help to us in following your trail and has proven herself to be a warrior as mighty as any I have ever known.”

“It’s a long tale,” Gimli put in, “and one that would go much better over a meal. You mentioned that you had provided food for Théoden’s party; well, you would not be Hobbits if you had not kept plenty back for yourselves. I take it there is enough for your friends too?”

“Indeed there is, and it is provender of the finest, although the bread is some three days old by now and not at its best,” said Merry.

“Will you have it here, or in more comfort in what is left of Saruman’s guard-house?” Pippin asked.

“I won’t go into an orc-house, or touch anything they have mauled,” said Gimli.

“We wouldn’t ask you to,” Merry said. “We have had enough of orcs ourselves to last a life-time. But there were other folk in Isengard besides orcs. His gate-guards were Men; some of his most trusted servants, I think, and certainly they were favoured and got good provisions. Let us, then, go and have lunch. And, while we eat, we can tell you our tale and we can hear yours.”

- - - - -

“Then Boromir is dead,” Merry said, with a sigh. “I feared as much. He was gravely injured and I didn’t think he would survive.”

“He died for us,” said Pippin.

“Boromir save – saved – my life,” Cierre said. “Orcs catched my arms, one comed at me with sword, Boromir throwed knife and killed orc.” She was beginning to get the hang of tenses in Westron by now but was getting caught out by irregular verbs.

Pippin laughed, caught himself, and looked shame-faced. “I’m sorry, that was very rude of me,” he said. “I shouldn’t laugh at your mistakes. Please forgive me.”

Cierre’s fists had started to clench as Pippin laughed but his sincere apology defused her brief flare of anger. “You say sorry, is good,” she said, giving him a genuine smile. “What I get wrong?”

Pippin, somewhat hesitantly and with several glances toward Merry, gave an explanation of her errors.

“So, right way is ‘Orcs caught my arms, one came at me with a sword, Boromir threw a knife and killed the orc’. I am saying it right now?” Cierre asked, and then added, under her breath, “Ele'udtila naut nindol vith’ez xanalress jihard ulu l'kultar?” (‘Why doesn’t this fucking language stick to the rules?’)

“That was perfect,” said Pippin. “So Boromir saved your life? Is that when you met Aragorn and the others?”

Cierre had had enough of struggling with Westron, for the moment, and so she simply nodded. Aragorn took up the tale, recounting how they had followed the trail of the orcs until they encountered the Rohirrim, and then told of their reunion with Gandalf.

“We rode, then, for Edoras,” Aragorn related, “and on our arrival found that Cierre had fallen foul of Gríma Wormtongue and been thrown into prison.”

“The cur molested her, while she was unarmed, and she taught him a lesson,” Gimli put in. “No doubt you noticed, when Wormtongue arrived here, that he wore a bandage over one eye? Or, I should say, over where one eye used to be.”

Cierre nodded and gestured with her thumb. Merry and Pippin shuddered and grimaced.

“He deserved it, the scum,” Gimli assured them. “Anyway, Wormtongue was going to have Cierre executed, as revenge, but Gandalf soon sorted things out when we got there.”

“That reminds me,” Aragorn said to Cierre, switching to Sindarin. “Gandalf cast a spell of Darkness as part of his breaking of the hold Gríma had over Théoden King. I saw you cast the same spell when you were fighting the Dunlendings. I had thought the spells to heal wounds were all that you could cast but that seems not to be the case. What else can you do?”

“I am no wizard, Jabbuk Aragorn,” Cierre replied. “The spell of Darkness is something that all my people can do. I can cast it once only then, like the healing spells, I must sleep before I can do it again. There are only two other spells that I can cast; one surrounds an enemy with a dim glow of light, to make her an easier target for attack in the dark, and the other increases my strength and speed for a short time. I used that one when I fought the Dunlendings outside the wall, for I had to slay them all quickly while the Darkness lasted, and needed every possible advantage. It draws its power from the connection with Nature common to all Rangers and so I believe that I should be able to teach it to you.”

“That would be useful, I am sure,” said Aragorn, “although it is the healing spells that are of most interest to me.”

“I shall instruct you in what to do before we next sleep,” Cierre said. “You should be able to cast those spells when you awaken.”

“I hope so,” said Aragorn, “as long as magic works the same way in this world as in yours.”

“I see no reason why it should not,” Cierre said. “My magic works here. Also your horses are the same as ours, Men are the same, Dwarves are the same, Halflings are the same, Orcs are very much the same apart from being a little bigger and a lot stupider, and the only difference in the Elves is that the ones here are taller than in my world – assuming that Legolas is typical rather than being as unusual among his people as am I among mine.”

“He is,” Aragorn said. “Moderately tall for an Elf, perhaps, but by no means exceptional. You are tall by the standards of your folk, then? I had not realised.”

“All the rest of the Drow are small,” Cierre told him. “Rarely have I met another who came up even to the level of my chin. We are strong in proportion to our size, however, and an average Drow is as strong as an average Man. And I’m much stronger.”

“Are the other Elves in your world also so much smaller than my people?” Legolas asked.

“They are shorter than you, but taller than the Drow,” Cierre replied. “Most male Darthiiren – Surface Elves – are about my height or a little shorter. A few are taller, although I have never met one quite as tall as you, and the Elf women tend to be shorter than me by at least a hand’s breadth.”

The Hobbits, bored by this digression in a language that they didn’t understand, had taken the opportunity to rustle up more food. Cierre savoured the delicious scent of bacon and toasting bread and, when the Hobbits reappeared, accepted a second plateful eagerly.

“No mushrooms?” she asked, a grin on her face. “I thinked where there are Sakphen – Hobbits – there are mushrooms.”

“Sorry, Saruman doesn’t seem to have provided his guards with mushrooms,” Merry said. “I take it you like mushrooms?”

“I like mushrooms best food of all,” Cierre said, between bites. “My mushrooms all gone.”

“You know about Hobbits and mushrooms,” Pippin remarked, “and you didn’t seem in the least surprised to see us, unlike King Théoden. Are there Hobbits where you come from?”

“Yes,” Cierre informed him. “They have land of their own, it call – called – Luiren, live in lots other – of other – lands too. Hobbits in Men cities most of them are…” She frowned, stuck on a word, and asked the others, in Sindarin, for a translation.

“Thieves,” Legolas supplied.

Merry and Pippin bristled. “Hobbits aren’t thieves,” Merry said, in an icy voice.

“That’s a horrible thing to say!” Pippin snapped. He stood up, his fists clenched into tight balls at his hips, and he glared at Cierre. “You take that back!”

Cierre shook her head. “I am sorry,” she said. “Not understand what I say wrong. Legolas give wrong word? Is…” she groped for words in Westron, gave up, and completed her sentence in Sindarin; “… respectable profession.”

“Ah,” said Gimli, “I think I can resolve this misunderstanding. Remember that my father and his companions refer to Bilbo Baggins as ‘the Esteemed Burglar’. I expect that’s what Cierre means. Someone to creep stealthily into a dragon’s lair, or similar, and bring out the treasure without waking the beast or setting off any traps or the like. Is that not so, Cierre?”

Cierre nodded her head vigorously, having noticed that the gesture was common to both worlds, and smiled at Gimli. “That right,” she said. “Hobbits – little, not make noise, good at hide, good with handen – hands. Like, people go place dead Men, look for gold and magic swords, take Hobbits to open…” again she groped for a word, but this time mimed opening a lock rather than switching to Sindarin, “… and get past dead Men walking, not have to fight.” She refrained from mentioning that many Halflings in Faerûn were also dab hands at picking pockets and certainly weren’t above burgling the houses of the wealthy; or, indeed, stabbing merchants in the back and taking the valuables from their corpses.

The two Hobbits relaxed. “That sounds like exploring the tombs of the wights on the Barrow-Downs, where we got our swords,” Merry said. “I can see how getting in and out without waking up the wights would be preferable. That’s quite different from what I’d thought you meant and I can see that you didn’t mean to offend. My apologies. I shouldn’t have become annoyed at you.”

“And you have my apologies too, Mistress Cierre,” said Pippin, managing to pronounce her name almost perfectly on the first attempt.

“Apol-ogies is sorries, that right? Sorry make it better. I say apologies too,” Cierre said, smiling at the Hobbits. She wanted to befriend the Hobbits; it would be very awkward to be at odds with these friends of her new companions and, also, they could be a useful source of mushrooms.

“Well, if we’re all friends again,” Gimli said, “I’ll take up the tale once more. After Gandalf broke Wormtongue’s hold on Théoden, and we saw to the release of Cierre from her imprisonment, we rode with the Rohirrim to fight Saruman’s orcs and wild Men. We garrisoned the fortress of Helm’s Deep and held it against the horde. Many were the great deeds done in defence of the walls, and mine not the least, but Cierre was truly exceptional in her valour and her skill. She taught the wild Dunlendings to fear her and eventually they broke and ran.”

“Riders on horse kill more than me,” Cierre said. “And thing most good was thing you did to ladder. Cut through, not all the way, then orcs climb, it break, they all fall down. Big fun.”

The Hobbits chuckled. “You sabotaged the scaling ladders?” Merry asked. “A cunning ploy, but how did you manage it in the middle of a battle?”

“The orcs left the walls for a time to try to stop the Dunlendings from deserting,” Gimli explained, “and the Rohirrim started to pull the ladders inside the walls so they couldn’t be used against us when the orcs came back. I persuaded them to do something different with one of the ladders. It worked very well; not only did it injure or kill several orcs but it made the rest wary, for a time, of all the other ladders too.”

“Very clever,” said Pippin. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

“I trust you’re not going to do it to innocent thatchers or fruit-pickers,” Merry cautioned him. “That would get you into a lot of trouble.”

“Of course I wouldn’t do anything that might hurt Hobbits,” Pippin assured him. “I’d only do it to orcs.”

“Not that you’ll be likely to get the chance,” said Merry.

“Perhaps not,” said Pippin, “but I’ll be ready if the chance does crop up.” He crammed half a slice of toast topped with bacon into his mouth, washed it down with hot tea, and then turned his attention back to Cierre. “How is it that you have black skin?” he asked. “And did your hair used to be another colour? Hobbit hair goes white with age but you look young – although, of course, one can never tell with Elves. How old are you?”

“Pippin!” Merry scolded. “You should never ask a lady her age.”

Cierre’s face lost all expression and became a mask. How could she sum up the Crown Wars, Corellon’s unjust curse on those dubbed Dhaerow, and the Descent? She responded tersely. “All Drow hair white, skin black,” she said. “I one hundred forty. Young for Drow.”

Legolas raised his eyebrows. “Not quite one yén? Really? Young indeed,” he said. “You seem such an experienced warrior that I had thought you much older.”

Cierre shrugged. “Old enough,” she said, keeping to Westron for once. “Fight much. Not want to talk about it.” She finished off the remainder of her meal in silence and the others followed suit.

“Well,” said Aragorn, pushing his empty plate aside, “I am replete, I can eat no more, and I think we have told as much of our tales as is needful for the moment. I think I shall go to join Gandalf. And, small thing though it may seem among the great matters of the time, I shall bring to his attention the presence of barrels of Longbottom Leaf amid Saruman’s stores.”

“We might as well all go,” said Merry. “It’s not as if there is any need for us to tidy up, and wash the dishes, in all this mess and wreckage.”

The party left the guard-house and crossed the inner circle of Isengard, picking out a route between pools of dirty water, until they saw Gandalf, together with Théoden and his Riders, heading for the tower of Orthanc.

“It looks as if they’re on their way to speak to Saruman,” said Gimli. “Let us join them. It would be a shame to have come all this way and not set eyes on the wizard who has caused so much trouble. And, also, I would like to see for myself how alike Gandalf and Saruman really are.” He spoke in Westron but added a translation for Cierre’s benefit.

“If he is Wormtongue’s master then I would like to kill him,” said Cierre. “Although, as it is a parley, I doubt that I will be allowed to do so. Still, I can hope.”

- - - - -

Saruman bore a distinct resemblance to Gandalf, at least as far as appearance went, but his character could hardly have been more different. Cierre wasn’t able to follow all the conversation, as Saruman addressed Théoden and the Rohirrim in Westron, but she caught enough to be aware that the wizard was trying to use Suggestion to sway them into overlooking the fact that he’d been trying to conquer their country and to accept him as a ‘valued counsellor and ally’ – read, manipulative bastard controlling them for his own ends. She considered unslinging her bow and putting a shaft through the wizard’s heart but she would have a difficult shot, at a target on a balcony high above her, and all Saruman would have to do was to take a step back and he’d be out of her line of fire.

Gimli interrupted Saruman’s spiel, summing up Cierre’s own thoughts, in typically blunt and pithy fashion. “The words of this wizard stand on their heads,” the Dwarf growled, grasping his axe firmly. “In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain. But we do not come here to beg.”

Saruman didn’t like that. He snarled out a reply, initially in angry tones but gradually reverting to his oily voice and manner as he tried to calm Gimli, and then he turned his attention back to Théoden. Saruman made an impassioned appeal, putting a lot of power into it, and for a moment Cierre thought the old king was going to fall for it. Éomer spoke up, countering the wizard’s words well, but he didn’t have the advantage of a Suggestion spell going for him.

“We will have peace,” Théoden said at last. Cierre groaned. It seemed that the whole arduous battle had been a waste of time. “Yes, we will have peace,” Théoden went on, “when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts.” That was more like it. Cierre particularly enjoyed it when Théoden went on to say “When you hang from a gibbet at your window, for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc.” She hadn’t heard the word ‘gibbet’ before but worked out the meaning from context. It was a good speech.

Saruman’s control snapped. “Gibbets and crows!” he hissed. “Dotard! What is the House of Éorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” Cierre could appreciate that it was a cutting retort, although she didn’t understand several of the words; she made a mental note to ask one of the Sindarin speakers for a translation later. Once more Saruman regained control of himself and he spoke in more measured tones, dismissing Théoden’s people as unimportant, although obviously the failure of his Suggestion had been a blow both to his plans and to his self-esteem. Then, much to Cierre’s surprise, Saruman turned his attention to her.

“But what of you, Cierre of Luruar?” Saruman addressed her, in Sindarin. “Lost traveller from another world, clinging to those into whose company you were thrown by mere chance, meddling in affairs you do not understand. What can they offer you? Already you have been beaten and imprisoned at the hands of the Rohirrim, and they fear and distrust you, yet you fight for them because you know not what else to do. Would you not rather serve one who could give you the aid you need? I have the power to return you to your own realm, laden with riches, if you merely do me a few small services.”

Cierre could guess what those ‘services’ might be. Killing Théoden for a start. She could feel the Suggestion spell but she was a Drow, naturally resistant to magic, and she wore an enchanted belt that boosted her resistance enough to make her almost spell-proof. Saruman’s appeal would have to stand or fall on its own merits. And it didn’t have any.

Vith’os,” she snarled out, adding a hand gesture to make it plain what the Drow obscenity represented. “A person is judged by those with whom she associates. Aragorn has Gimli, who willingly risked his life to aid me, and Legolas who is also steadfast and true. Théoden has Éomer, who has proven himself to be honourable and brave, and Éowyn, who showed me great kindness and offered friendship. Who do you have? Stupid orcs, Men who are primitive savages, and Gríma Wormtongue, who attempted to coerce me into taking him to bed, and whose poisoned words caused Théoden to imprison me for defending myself. And you are a proven liar, Saruman. If I did one service for you then you would require another, and another, always postponing the time when you would send me home. If you even have the power; you may be lying about that too. Assuming I want to go, that is, for thus far I am well content in Aragorn’s company. And, if I change my mind, then anything you can do I am sure Gandalf can do too. No, I will not serve you. But if you throw down to me Gríma’s other eye then I will grant you a quick, and relatively painless, death.”

“Vile and ungrateful creature!” Saruman spat back. “You will regret this when those you call friends discover your true nature and cast you out to wander alone and die in misery.”

“I’ve been cast out and alone before,” Cierre replied. “I survived. I’d survive again, if it came to it, but I do not believe Aragorn would cast me out.”

“Oh?” Saruman focused his gaze on Aragorn. “Know you not, Ranger of the North, that the Dark Elves of her world are a race more evil and treacherous than any orc? She has hidden much from you and you have given your trust to one unworthy. One day she will betray you.”

“She told me about her people, when we were in the caves,” Gimli put in. “Do not believe him, Aragorn. Cierre would no more betray you than would I! The wizard seeks only to sow discord.”

“I am well aware of that, my friend,” Aragorn replied. “Do not fear, Cierre, you have won your place in this Fellowship and I will stand by you come what may. The words of a fallen wizard will not turn me against you. He merely spits venom at those who have bested him.”

“Bah! Fools,” Saruman spat out, reverting to speaking Westron. “Unlettered horsemen wielding crude swords, dour Dwarves, Elves pale and dark, savage tree-spirits – none of them matter. Only wizards can be counted among the Wise. Gandalf, you and I are above the trivial concerns of lesser folk. Are we not both members of a high and ancient Order, most excellent in Middle Earth? Our friendship would profit us both alike. Much we could yet accomplish, together, to heal the disorders of the world. For the common good I am willing to redress the past and to receive you. Come, Gandalf, ascend into the tower and consult with me. Will you not come up?”

Gandalf laughed. “Saruman, Saruman, you have missed your path in life,” he said. “You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread by mimicking his counsellors. When last I entered your tower you imprisoned me. You were the jailor of Mordor and there I was to be sent. The guest who has escaped from the roof will think twice before he comes back in by the door. Nay, I do not think I will come up.” He went on to invite Saruman to come down, to descend from his tower, and to hand over his staff and the key to Orthanc in return for being allowed to go free.

It seemed a fair offer. Neither wizard appeared to be able to fly, nor to travel by Teleport or by Dimension Door, and Saruman was stuck in his tower with Ents waiting to rip him limb from limb if he tried to escape on foot. However Saruman was too proud to accept. He rejected Gandalf’s appeal out of hand and launched into a vitriolic diatribe. Eventually, with a parting volley of scorn, he turned to leave the balcony and retreat into the tower’s inner chambers.

“Come back, Saruman,” Gandalf commanded. Saruman turned again and, as if dragged against his will, lurched back to the balcony’s iron rail and leant upon it. “I did not give you leave to go,” said Gandalf. He warned Saruman of the fate that awaited him and then, in a voice filled with power and authority, he said “Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now and I cast you from the Order and from the Council.” He raised a hand. “Saruman, your staff is broken.”

The staff in Saruman’s hand split asunder and part of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. Cierre cringed; she was expecting the destructive blast that would occur if a Staff of the Magi was broken, but nothing of the sort happened. Instead, as Saruman was dismissed by Gandalf and slunk away, a glistening spherical object plummeted from a window high above and hurtled towards Cierre’s head.

Cierre caught a glimpse of the gleaming ball approaching and leapt aside. It missed her by inches, landed on the stone stairs, and shattered the step on which it struck. The ball, dark but illuminated by some inner fire, was unharmed by the impact and rolled away down the staircase and across the surrounding courtyard. As it rolled towards a pool of water Pippin ran after it and snatched it up.

“The murderous rogue!” Éomer exclaimed.

“Nay, this was no deed of Saruman’s,” Gandalf said, “nor was it thrown at his bidding. Another it was who hurled it down. A parting shot of Master Wormtongue’s, I suspect, and it was no accident that it was Cierre who would have been struck but for her quick reactions.”

“A different murderous rogue, then,” said Éomer. “So Gríma sought revenge for the loss of his eye. Well it is that Cierre was able to dodge, for it would have struck with lethal force, and that would have been a great loss. I pay no heed to the wizard’s words, spoken in malice from a lying mouth, and am proud to have stood with Cierre on the wall of Helm’s Deep.”

Gandalf made his way to where Pippin stood holding the gleaming sphere. “Here, my lad, I’ll take that,” the wizard said. “I did not ask you to handle it.” He retrieved the object from Pippin and wrapped it in the folds of his cloak. “I will take care of this. It is not a thing, I guess, that Saruman would have chosen to cast away.”

Higher up the steps Éomer faced Cierre and bowed his head. “Your speech to Saruman was both shrewd and fair,” he said, in Sindarin. “I thank you for speaking well of me and of my sister. You have done great deeds in the service of the Mark, even though you were treated ill on your arrival, and you deserve great reward.”

“And she shall have it,” said Théoden, “but this is neither the time nor the place for such matters. The wizard has crawled back into his hole. Let us away.”

- - - - -

Cierre woke with a start and drew her weapons as she leapt to her feet. Someone had shrieked, a cry of pain or alarm, and she expected to find that the camp was under attack. Aragorn and the others, and the Riders of Rohan, were only fractionally behind her in rising and drawing weapons. They had ridden away from Isengard in the direction of Helm’s Deep, travelling for only a few hours before halting for the night, and they were out in the wilds well away from any villages of the Rohirrim. Saruman’s main force had been utterly destroyed but some of the Dunlendings may well have escaped, or there may have been patrols of orcs separate from the army, and Théoden’s escort was small enough to be vulnerable. She saw no sign of any foes, however, and after a while she discovered that the alarm seemed to be down to some altercation between Pippin and Gandalf.

The conversation was in Westron, highly charged with emotion, and some distance away from Cierre. Consequently she understood little of what was going on except that Pippin, despite what he had said the previous day, appeared to have stolen something from Gandalf. She thought that it was the gleaming ball that Wormtongue had thrown at her, which definitely resembled some kind of scrying device and was presumably valuable, but she could easily be mistaken in her assumption. In fact Pippin might have simply been sneaking a look into it, rather than stealing it, although she wouldn’t have thought that would have been cause for such alarm and excitement.

That scrying ball, now that Cierre thought about it, was presumably how Saruman had known more about her background and the Drow than he could have found out from Wormtongue. That was a mildly worrying thought, especially when Gandalf presented it to Aragorn with uncharacteristic deference and advice not to be in a hurry to use it, but Cierre wasn’t too concerned. Her openness to Gimli, about the dark side of the Drow, had turned out to be providential and what secrets she had not revealed to the Dwarf had already been spilled by Saruman.

Whatever Pippin had done with the scrying ball had caused Gandalf to change the plan. Théoden and his escort were still to ride back to Helm’s Deep, and Aragorn and his companions were to go with them, but Gandalf was going to set off for Minas Tirith with Pippin. Merry was to stay with Aragorn.

“I wish to go to Minas Tirith too,” Cierre declared. “I owe it to Boromir to fulfil his last request.”

“And we shall,” Aragorn said, “but in company with the army of the Rohirrim. You cannot ride with Gandalf, Cierre, for the horse you have been given could not begin to keep pace with Shadowfax. Yours is a fine horse, certainly, but Shadowfax is the Lord of the Mearas and faster than any other horse in the world. Do not fret. King Théoden has commanded his army to muster at Edoras, four nights from now, and then. I believe, we shall ride out to the aid of Gondor together.”

“Very well, Jabbuk, I will obey,” Cierre acquiesced, and then she turned to another matter. “Has my teaching been effective? Have you awoken with the ability to cast healing spells?”

“I feel something I have not felt before,” Aragorn said, “and I sense that perhaps I may be able to work such magic, but I have no idea how to put it into practice.”

“I will instruct you further when we reach Helm’s Deep,” Cierre said, “for there are still Men there who carry unhealed wounds.”

At that moment there was another alarm. Some huge winged creature passed overhead, radiating an aura of fear, and threw the camp into confusion. It made no move to attack, merely flying off to the north, but Gandalf was galvanised into action.

“Nazgûl!” Gandalf cried. “The messenger of Mordor. The storm is coming. The Nazgûl have crossed the river. Ride, ride! Wait not for the dawn. Let not the swift wait for the slow. Ride!” He sprang upon his horse, Aragorn lifted Pippin up and passed him into Gandalf’s arms, and then the mighty stallion galloped away and was out of sight in moments.

And, after a brief consultation between Théoden and Aragorn, the rest of the company began readying themselves for immediate departure. Cierre’s horse was unhappy about being saddled so early and made its objections known. She had far less experience with horses than any of the others, save for Gimli and Merry who were riding with Legolas and Aragorn respectively, and everyone was kept waiting while she struggled with the beast. Three of the Riders volunteered to assist her but began to argue among themselves, contending for the privilege, and it didn’t help. Then Éomer came, dismissed the Riders with a few curt words, and dealt with the recalcitrant horse in short order.

Cierre felt her cheeks burn; he was brusque and impatient with her, unlike the Riders who had been eager to show off, and she could tell she’d lost points with him. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been brought up in an environment where few bothered to ride and, when they did, it was on giant lizards. Then, on the surface of Faerûn, developing equestrienne skills hadn’t been a priority when she could run faster than anyone else and go day after day on foot without tiring. And she could ride perfectly well; it was just the tack with which she had a problem, when the horse wasn’t being co-operative, and she’d never had to bother about that sort of thing in Menzoberranzan where it had been the slaves’ job to saddle up the lizards. It was all very well for Legolas, riding bareback, the vith’ez show-off…

The delay had, however, been minimal. Only a couple of minutes after Théoden had planned they were on their way, riding hard and fast, headed for Helm’s Deep. And Cierre, who had ridden further and faster in the past few days than the sum total of her riding during fifteen years in the Silver Marches, was beginning to feel the effects. One of the wounded men at the fortress was going to be out of luck; she’d be using up one of her Cure Light Wounds spells on her own thighs and bottom.

- - - - -

“My Lord King,” one of the Riders reported, “there are horsemen behind us. As we crossed the fords I thought I heard them. Now we are sure. They are overtaking us, riding hard.”

Théoden called a halt. Once the horses were still Cierre was able to hear the sound of approaching hoof-beats and she scanned the road behind them for the source. The moon was screened by clouds and none of the others, not even Legolas, could make the other horsemen out in the darkness. For Cierre, however, it wasn’t a problem.

“There are thirty-one of them,” she informed Aragorn, as the king’s party tried to determine the size of this unknown force and prepared for possible battle. “Men, not orcs, and not Dunlendings. Skilled horsemen,” as of course they would have to be to have overtaken the Rohirrim, “and lightly armoured. Leather and chain mail, nothing heavier, except for two who may be wearing plate.”

“An even match, then, if it comes to a fight,” said Aragorn, “although what you say makes it unlikely. Another party of Rohirrim, or perhaps Men of Gondor, seems most probable. Saruman had no cavalry and the Haradrim could not come this far north unless Gondor had already fallen.”

The moon emerged from behind its cloud. “They look like you,” Cierre announced, “or at least like enough to be your kin.”

“Can it be?” Aragorn exclaimed, joy evident in his voice.

“Halt! Halt!” Éomer challenged, as the newcomers approached to within fifty paces. “Who rides in Rohan?”

The approaching horsemen brought their steeds to a halt. One dismounted and approached on foot. He bore a distinct resemblance to Aragorn, although perhaps more weathered and slightly less handsome, and Cierre licked her lips. A heterosexual Ranger might be just what she was looking for.

“Rohan? Rohan, did you say?” the Man called. His accent, as far as Cierre could tell from her limited acquaintance with Westron, was identical to Aragorn’s. “That is a glad word. We seek that land in haste from long afar.”

“And you have found it,” said Éomer, “for when you crossed the ford yonder you entered it. But it is the realm of Théoden the King. None ride here save by his leave. Who are you and what is your haste?”

“Halbarad Dúnadan, Ranger of the North, I am,” the stranger replied. “We seek one Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and we had heard that he was in Rohan.”

“And you have found him,” Aragorn cried. He passed the reins of his horse to Merry, ran forward to greet the other Ranger, and the two Men embraced. At first Cierre, to whom embraces with someone not a lover were culturally alien, thought that Halbarad must be Aragorn’s lover; then Aragorn announced Halbarad as his kinsman and, although this didn’t disprove Cierre’s hypothesis, it did provide an alternative explanation.

Halbarad explained that he had received a summons and had then gathered all the available Rangers to ride to Aragorn’s aid. This puzzled Aragorn, who had sent no such summons, but Halbarad revealed that it had come via the Lady Galadriel. Cierre recalled having heard that name mentioned as one who might have the power to send her home, and – by Éomer – as a sorceress. No surprise, then, that she’d be able to know what was going on at a distance.

The introductions were, of necessity, brief. Halbarad, and the others of his company, obviously were somewhat taken aback by Cierre’s unusual appearance but there was no time for explanations. They were on their way again before Cierre had the chance to learn anything about their new allies except that yes, they were Rangers, and that two of them were Darthiiren – identical twin Elves, almost as tall as Legolas but resembling the Moon Elves of Faerûn rather than Wood Elves – and the twins were extremely good-looking; handsome enough, in fact, for Cierre to regard them as very tasty indeed despite her usual antipathy towards Moon Elves.

And the two Elves, after initially riding beside Aragorn and engaging him in conversation, then dropped back slightly to station themselves to either side of Cierre and ply her with questions as they rode. Not, alas, questions of the ‘May we invite you to dine with us, share a bottle or two of wine, and then come back to our chamber for a night of wild, passionate, sex?’ kind. Rather they questioned her about her background and her people, very much the same questions as she’d already been asked numerous times, and she gave the same answers. It would save time, she thought, if she wrote out her replies on paper and had a number of copies transcribed so that she could hand them out to everyone she met for the first time.

Unfortunately, from Cierre’s point of view, the conversation never strayed into matters that could be regarded as personal. After she’d answered their questions about her presence in this world they went on to ask about the battle at Helm’s Deep. At no point did any opportunities arise for anything that could count as flirting – not a skill Cierre possessed, anyway, it being completely alien to the Drow and almost unknown among the Uthgardt barbarians – and the closest she was able to come was to compliment them on the beauty of their armour. It wasn’t plate, she saw once they were close, but gilded mail with some plate reinforcements over the chest.

“It was made for us by Angmir,” one of them said; she had no idea whether it was Elladan or Elrohir.

“Our father’s smith,” the other one tagged on to the end, picking up exactly where his brother had left off. “He learned his craft in the realm of Eregion…”

“…when Celebrimbor was Lord, long years ago,” the first continued. “Elves and Dwarves worked together in those days, refining their arts…”

“…and Angmir carries on that tradition.”

Cierre slipped into a reverie about getting fucked by both of them at once; if they could co-operate in bed as well as they could in speech it would be an experience never to be forgotten. It didn’t seem to be an immediate prospect, and she wouldn’t make a favourable impression by drifting off in the middle of a conversation, and so she forced herself to come back to the moment.

“In my world the Dwarves are the finest smiths, but the Elves surpass them at enchanting,” she said. “My own people can almost match the Dwarves at working metal, and are the equal of the Surface Elves when it comes to enchantments, but they make few things that fit my stature and my style. My sword was made by the Drow, but my axe was forged by a Dwarf, and my armour is the work of Men.”

“Aragorn told us that you can cast healing enchantments,” said Elladan, or Elrohir.

“And that you have taught him to do the same, although he is not yet sure that he will be able to replicate your abilities,” Elrohir, or Elladan, added. “Our father is the most renowned healer in all of Middle Earth and yet he cannot heal a wound with nothing but a word.”

“We have studied under him,” said his brother. “Think you that we could also learn this art?”

“I am willing to teach you, or at least to try,” replied Cierre, “but on one condition. That you wear something distinctive, an item of jewellery or apparel, so that I can tell the two of you apart.”

- - - - -

Aragorn proved to be an apt pupil. When they arrived at Helm’s Deep, and he tested out his new spells on the wounded Men there, it turned out that his capacity for spell-casting quite eclipsed Cierre’s. He was able to cast more spells, and of greater power, than Cierre had ever been able to master. This came as no great surprise to Cierre, although it did to Aragorn; if she’d possessed the right mental attributes for spell-casting she wouldn’t have failed so abjectly at her clerical studies. Aragorn, who was charismatic in the extreme and possessed enormous strength of will, had those attributes in great measure. This opened up the possibility of him learning other spells, ones unavailable to Cierre, but she put that thought aside for another time.

“This is remarkable,” Aragon said. “A Rider who would have lain abed for months, and who might yet have died, now fit to ride and fight. Another with a gash on the arm, which would have rendered him unable to wield a sword for weeks, now healed on the instant, and full ready to smite our foes. And a limping Man who can set aside his crutch and run. If you can teach my kinsfolk the same skills then we could save many lives, or restore a full company of wounded Men to fitness in a day or two, and this would be a great benefit in the War.”

“Already I have agreed to teach the twins Elladan and Elrohir, Jabbuk,” Cierre said, “and I would be happy to include the other Rangers.” Actually ‘happy’ was an overstatement, as it meant that she wouldn’t get to spend time alone with the handsome Elves, but she was willing enough.

Yet not all the Rangers were as willing. “I had thought, in the moonlight, that she was dark brown like some of those who dwell in Far Harad,” said one. “I had not realised that she was as black as night. And I am told, by the Rohirrim, that she shrouded herself in shadow during the battle. Are these not signs that she is a servant of the Dark Lord?”

Aragorn’s brows lowered and his expression became like unto a gathering thunderstorm. Before he could speak, however, Gimli intervened.

“You’re a fool, laddie,” the Dwarf declared. “I have seen Gandalf cast a spell of Darkness identical to that cast by Cierre. Are you accusing Gandalf of being a servant of Sauron? And to say that someone’s virtue can be determined by the colour of their skin is ridiculous. Would it was that easy! It would make just as much sense to judge folk by the colour of their hair. Her hair is white, the Rohirrim have pale hair, and yours is dark; are they, then, more virtuous than you?”

“Sauron has never been able to heal, only to mar and distort,” Legolas pointed out.

“Yet the Valar have never granted us such powers before,” said the suspicious Ranger.

“Did you ever ask them?” Cierre retorted.

“Enough, Bergon,” Aragorn commanded. “You do not have to participate, if you have objections, but do not hinder those who do wish to learn. I invoked the name of Estë when I spoke the spells, and they worked; that, I think, proves conclusively that they cannot originate from the Enemy. Now I must retire to the chamber that has been provided for me; I have much to think about, and I can spare no more time here. Halbarad, join me as soon as you have heard Cierre’s instructions.”

With that Aragorn departed. Cierre managed to keep her face straight; it seemed that her first guess, that Halbarad was Aragorn’s lover, had been correct. She suppressed the thought, and suppressed her nervousness at the unaccustomed experience of addressing more than thirty people, and began to lecture.

- - - - -

“She-air of the Drow,” said Théoden, who thus far had not managed to pronounce her name in the same fashion twice, “this Man confesses that he did wilfully strike you with his shield, when you were standing atop the parapet, so that you fell from the wall amid a host of Dunlendings. For such treachery in battle the penalty would be banishment from the Mark on pain of death, or at the least the payment to you of a wergild and dismissal of the offender from his éored. Éomer informs me, though, that you told him that you would be satisfied if you could merely strike the offender with your fist. Is that truly the case?”

“Indeed so, Théoden King,” Cierre replied. “I took no hurt, and was able to turn the mischance to our advantage, and I am told that the guard that I slew in Edoras was kin to this Rider by marriage. I wish to end this with no further bad blood or resentment.”

“Then so shall it be,” said Théoden. He waited for a moment while Éomer finished translating the exchange into Rohirric, for the benefit of the offender and the witnesses, and then addressed the Rider. “Heruwalda, son of Herubrand, do you accept this judgement? And will that be an end to the matter?”

“I accept it, Lord King,” said Heruwalda, “and it will be an end. I regret my action, for the Dark Elf fought full valiantly in the battle, and the skill and valour of her and her shield-brother the Dwarf saved many lives as we fell back from the Deeping Wall.”

Erkenbrand, chief of the forces of the Westfold, looked on and snorted. “A blow from the fist of that slender Elf-maid seems no fit punishment,” he said to Éomer. “Perhaps I should smite him in her stead.” He was a Man of late middle-age, balding under his helm and with grey hairs in his beard, but he had a tremendous breadth of shoulder, his arms bulged with heavy muscle, and he was renowned throughout the Mark for his strength.

“You have not seen Cierre wield a sword,” Éomer said, “nor hoist an Uruk-hai in full armour above her head and hurl him from the Deeping Wall to crash down upon his fellows. Nay, I suspect that Heruwalda would be more than willing for you to take Cierre’s place.”

Indeed Heruwalda was visibly apprehensive as Cierre approached him. He swallowed, clenched his jaw, and stood firm.

Cierre drew back her left fist. If she struck with her full strength, at a target who was making no move to block or to dodge, she could kill or seriously injure him with ease. That seemed pointless, however, and so she asked herself ‘What would Aragorn want me to do?’ and acted accordingly. Her fist shot out in a mere jab to the chin, striking with force enough to jolt back his head, but no more.

“Do not do it again,” she said, in Westron.

“I will not, Lady,” Heruwalda replied. He bowed his head and then began to rub his jaw. “I thank you for your mercy.”

“Let the matter be at an end,” Théoden said. “Heruwalda, return to your éored. You will ride with us to the muster. Lady Cheeair, you deserve a reward for your deeds in the service of Rohan, as do your comrades. For now I bestow upon you as a gift the horse that was loaned to you by Éomer; the dependants of the former owner shall be recompensed from the treasury of Meduseld. I shall consider in greater depth what else to give you once we are at Edoras. I would ask you, however, what it is that you would choose to receive?”

Cierre didn’t even need to think about it. “I thank you, Lord King,” she said. “What I desire, more than anything else, is… a hot bath.”

- - - - -

“Nothing,” Legolas moaned. “Why did it not work? I am a Wood Elf, at least on my mother’s side, and surely I have a connection with Nature at least as strong as that of Aragorn.” All around him Rangers were casting healing spells on the Rohirrim injured, almost unable to believe what they were doing, gasping in amazement as wounds closed up before their eyes. Legolas and Gimli, however, obtained no results whatsoever.

Cierre touched two fingers to her chin. “I sensed that it would not work for you, but you deserved the chance to try,” she said. “Don’t ask me to explain. My marks for The Theory of Divine Magic were the lowest ever recorded in the whole history of Arach-Tinilith. I just sensed that Aragorn possesses whatever quality it is that enables a Ranger to cast spells but I did not sense it in you. Neither did I sense it in Gimli. It is rare for a Dwarf to have such abilities, in my world, except in the case of those who devote their lives to the service of the Gods. I suspect it is the same here.”

“That does not surprise me,” Gimli said. “I have never had any aptitude for healing and, to be honest, I never expected to be able to master this art. Do not be downcast, Legolas, you are no worse off than you were yesterday.”

“Yet still am I disappointed,” said Legolas. “It cannot be because I am an Elf, for Cierre is also an Elf though of different kind, and I see that the Sons of Elrond have set a broken leg with but words.”

“From what I’ve heard I gather that they are Elves who have associated with Rangers for many years,” Cierre said. “Perhaps it has… rubbed off on them.”

Legolas frowned, momentarily, and then threw back his head and laughed. “Perhaps on this long journey with Aragorn, and then yourself and now an entire company of Rangers, something will rub off on me too.”

“I suppose it’s possible,” Cierre said. “I really don’t know how it works.” It occurred to her that the idea of rubbing herself against Legolas did absolutely nothing for her and she paused to consider the reasons. He was just as handsome as the Sons of Elrond but somehow she couldn’t think of him as anything but a comrade. Perhaps it was because when she met him she’d still been thinking of the Darthiiren as her traditional enemies, a feeling that had eroded away as she spent time in his company, or perhaps he, like Aragorn, was do’ch and she had sensed this subconsciously. He certainly wasn’t Aragorn’s lover, there had been no hint of that at all as they journeyed, but he might have a do’ch mrannd'ssinss waiting for him back in Mirkwood. Although, do’ch or not, she’d still be happy to rub herself against Aragorn…

“I see your teaching has been successful.” Aragorn’s voice broke into her reverie. He had entered the room while Cierre was distracted and was surveying the scene, arms folded across his chest, watching as the formerly injured Rohirrim warriors reacted with incredulity and delight to their restored health.

“Indeed, Jabbuk,” Cierre said, coming back to the moment with a start. “Even Bergon, who distrusted me, has managed to learn one Cure Light Wounds. Gimli and Legolas were not able to learn the art, alas, but then I didn’t expect them to. They’re not Rangers.”

“Even so, there are now thirty-one more who can return wounded Men to battle-fitness in mere moments,” Aragorn said. “This is a factor that I had not considered when I made my plans and I must now change them accordingly.”

“How so?” asked Legolas.

“I have looked into the Palantir,” Aragorn said. “It was a long and bitter struggle, but I had both the right and the strength, and eventually I won control and turned it to my own use. Then it was that I saw a new peril coming unlooked-for upon Gondor from the South, one that will draw off much strength from the defence of the city, and if it is not countered I fear that Minas Tirith will fall ere ten days have passed.”

“Then it will fall,” said Gimli, “for the only help we could send would be the Rohirrim, and they could not complete their muster and get there in time. And if Théoden takes only the Riders that are here now, and sends orders for the others to follow when they can, then they will be destroyed piecemeal.”

Vith nindel!” Cierre snapped. “Boromir used almost his dying breath to save my life. I vowed then that I would go to his city, as he wished, and defend it from its enemies. I will not be forsworn. Give me a map, and provisions, and I will go alone if needs be.”

Aragorn reached out a hand and rested it on her shoulder. “Well said, my friend,” he said, “but that will not be necessary. There is a road a small party could take which would get us there in time. The Sons of Elrond brought a message from their father reminding me of that path. I had hoped to avoid it, for it is a place of ill repute, but it is the only route that will serve our needs. The Paths of the Dead.”

“The Paths of the Dead? A fell name indeed,” said Gimli. “Can the living take such a road and not perish? And, even if we pass that way, what can a small company do to counter the strokes of Mordor?”

Cierre toyed with the necklace at her neck. “I will come with you, Jabbuk Aragorn,” she said. “The Dead hold no terrors for me.”

“I’m not saying I won’t come,” Gimli said. “I will stand with you even in the face of all the hordes of Mordor. But will it serve our purpose?”

“I believe so,” Aragorn said. He launched into an explanation of an old prophecy; Cierre didn’t follow it all, even though the conversation was taking place in Sindarin, because it referenced things familiar to the others but unknown to her. She thought she had got the gist, though; the road was indeed infested with Undead but they had been condemned to that state because they had broken an oath to fight against Sauron. Aragorn, who apparently was the descendant of the king to whom the oath had been sworn, believed that he could compel them to fulfil that oath and provide him with an army.

“We thirty-five, plus the Dead, should be able to achieve my aims,” Aragorn said. “However it occurred to me that the Rohirrim, who will have their own battle to fight, could make good use of our new healing powers. It would be unfair, and not to our best advantage, for all those with these abilities to go off together and to leave them with nothing. Yet I can spare few, if any, of our company to go with the Rohirrim instead.”

“Perhaps we could trade,” Legolas suggested. “If a few Rangers, perhaps ten or a dozen, went with the Rohirrim and that number of the Riders came with us in their place…”

“An excellent idea,” Aragorn said. “The Rohirrim have a great dread of the Paths, and I suspect few of them would be willing to take that road, but perhaps enough might be found for such an exchange to be made. They would not slow us down, that is certain, and they are indeed fierce and staunch warriors. I shall consult with Théoden, and with Éomer, and ask them to find some volunteers. Let those Rangers who are willing to travel with the Rohirrim present themselves to Halbarad.”

Cierre pursed her lips. All the Rangers spoke Sindarin and it would have been a pleasant change to have been able to understand everything that was going on for a change. Also she wondered what was to happen to the remaining Hobbit. It seemed a little odd, after running for days on end to rescue Merry, merely to pass him over to the Rohirrim; yet there would be no place for him on this desperate journey. Still, from her point of view, it was probably for the best. No doubt the Rangers who chose to go with the Rohirrim would include any who, like Bergond, did not trust her; conversely the most likely Riders to volunteer to travel with the Rangers were those who had become her enthusiastic supporters during the battle.

“Even split up among the Rohirrim, perhaps only one for five hundred warriors, Men with such magical powers of healing could be of great value in battle,” Aragorn went on. “It would be an aid to morale, for a start, and I am sure these Riders whom you have cured will spread the tale among their fellows. And we owe it all to you, Cierre; you have made yet another valuable contribution to our cause. It was in truth a lucky day for us when you came through the portal into Middle Earth.”

- - - - -

“I sense Undead,” the Drow priestess announced. “Many of them, all around us.”

“That explains why these tunnels are called the Paths of the Dead,” Khareese said. “Are there any that could threaten us?”

“No, all that I sense are relatively weak, although their numbers are great,” the priestess answered. “They will not approach unless I allow it.”

“Good,” said Khareese. “Keep them back far enough that they do not interfere.” She turned to the twenty Drow who made up the rest of her squad. “Explore this place,” she commanded. “I want a suitable place for us to camp, where we can rest without giving away our presence, for we do not know how long we will have to stay here before Cierre arrives. Halaster would not be more specific about timing than ‘a day or two’, and that may just have been to fit into his idiotic rhyming. And, of course, we need to select the best place to set up our ambush.” She selected one of the mages and gave him an order. “Cast some minor spells to check that magic works properly here. It can be much weaker on some of the Planes and, if such is the case on this world, I need to know before battle commences.”

“As you command,” the mage responded.

“Should I lay traps along the path, Jabbress?” asked a thief.

“No,” said Khareese. “They would give her warning of danger. I want Cierre to walk into our ambush unaware of her peril. She is deadly, as we have learned to our cost, and more so if she is given time to prepare. Let the first she knows of our presence be when our crossbow bolts find her heart.”

“And if she is in company with others?” a male warrior enquired.

“If she marches as part of an army then we try to pick her off and then flee,” Khareese said. “If she is with a small group then we kill them. Kill them all.”

Glossary of Drow Phrases

• ‘Valsharess’ = ‘Empress’, or ‘Queen’
• ‘Jabbuk’ = ‘Commander (male)’
• ‘Jabbress’ = ‘Commander (female)’
• ‘abbil’ = ‘trusted friend’
• ‘Ultrinnan!’ = ‘Victory!’
• ‘Xuat vith xuil lil Treanten’ = ‘Don’t fuck with the Treants (Ents)’
• ‘Udos inbal muth l'sakphen’ = ‘We have found the Halflings’
• ‘Ele'udtila naut nindol vith’ez xanalress jihard ulu l'kultar?’ = ‘Why doesn’t this fucking language follow the rules?’
• ‘Darthiiren’ = ‘Surface Elves’
• ‘Dhaerow’ = ‘Traitors’, name given to the Ilythiiri by other Elves, later shortened to ‘Drow’
• ‘Vith’os!’ = ‘Fuck you!’
• ‘vith’ez’ = ‘Fucking’
• ‘do’ch’ = ‘gay’
• ‘do’ch mrannd'ssinss’ = ‘gay lover (male)’
• ‘Vith nindel!’ = ‘Fuck that!’
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