The Calm Before The Storm
“Stop!” the naked Drow elleth
commanded. Her troops halted their charge. “Do you not recognise one of our own? Nathyrra has returned, and with company; allies for our cause, I presume?” She stood up and descended the steps. Her guards lowered their weapons and backed away. Elladan, who had thought that Halaster had transported him directly into the lair of the Valsharess and had therefore drawn blades for what he expected to be a desperate fight, sheathed his swords.
Nathyrra bowed low. “It is good to see you again, Mother Seer,” she said. “Indeed I bring you allies, and ones who have struck great blows against the Valsharess; the rivvil
wizard Prentice and the darthiir
swordsman Elladan Elrondion.”
“I bid you welcome,” said the nude woman. “I am Kyorli the Seer, High Priestess of Eilistraee, and circumstances have made me the leader of the forces opposed to the Valsharess.” She favoured the males with a dazzling smile and held out her hand for Elladan to take.
She was, undoubtedly, extremely beautiful. Elladan saw in her something of the poise and authority of the Lady Galadriel; he could not, however, envision Galadriel presiding over a meeting in a state of total nudity – although if guests had arrived by magic when she was in a state of undress, and she had been called upon to receive them, doubtless she would have done so with the same air of calm equanimity that was displayed by Kyorli. A stray thought crossed Elladan’s mind and he was hard pressed to keep his face properly straight; he pictured the Grey Company arriving in Minas Tirith, and somehow surprising Lord Denethor in his bath, and the Steward of Gondor greeting them naked with his balls dangling. Kyorli was certainly much more aesthetically appealing than Denethor, who must be quite elderly by now, would have been in the same situation.
The Seer moved on to Prentice and clasped his hand. “Drogan’s apprentice,” she greeted him. “It is an honour to meet you.”
“The honour is all mine, Seer,” Prentice said. “I am surprised that you have heard of me.”
“Your fame has spread far and wide,” Kyorli said, and she talked for a few moments of things that meant nothing to Elladan and didn’t seem to be relevant to the current situation.
Elladan felt that it would be impolite – although very pleasant – to continue to gaze at Kyorli’s naked body and so he occupied himself with looking around the chamber. It was sparsely decorated; only a single painting, depicting a Drow elleth
as naked as Kyorli but wielding a two-handed sword, adorned the walls. There were marks showing where other paintings had once hung, and empty plinths that may once have supported sculptures, but all were gone. And in the centre of the chamber, where he stood, a circle of flooring was paved in a crude and uneven fashion that contrasted sharply with the precision displayed in the rest of the building. Elladan deduced that there had been a mosaic there, depicting something that was anathema to the present occupiers, and it had been ripped up and hastily replaced; just as Elves would tear out images of the Lidless Eye if they took over a building dedicated to Sauron, or as Orcs would destroy or defile representations of the Valar if they captured a stronghold of the Elves.
Elladan devoted only a couple of seconds to this architectural speculation. He was much more interested in the people who surrounded him. All but one were Drow; mainly ellith
, but a few were ellyn
. Two of the ellith
were naked; the others, and all the ellyn
, were clad in armour of mail or plate and were heavily armed. The lone non-Drow was the one who drew Elladan’s eyes more than any of the others.
A male… something. He was much taller than the Drow around him, his skin was pale, and he had long red hair. His ears were pointed, similar to those of an Elf, but it was clearly apparent that he was no Elf. His head bore a pair of horns and he had a barbed tail. Elladan had never seen anything like him before. It took every ounce of his self-control to refrain from staring.
This world was strange indeed.- - - - -
“Your brother will find my world strange,” Cierre told Elrohir. “There are many creatures there that I do not think exist in this world. Some friendly or harmless, but many hostile or predatory, and it is often difficult to tell which is which. And magic is much more commonly used than seems to be the case in this world.”
“I believe he will cope,” said Elrohir. “We have spent many long years slaying Orcs, and Trolls, and evil Men. Foes less skilled than the Drow who attacked us in the tunnels, it is true, but oft they outnumbered us a hundredfold or more. And he lives still, I am certain; I would feel it if he died.”
Cierre suspected that this might not be true when the two brothers were in different worlds but she did not voice her suspicion. “Perhaps Gandalf might find a way to bring him back, once we catch up with him,” she said, “or else the Lady Galadriel who Aragorn mentioned.”
“Or Saruman,” Elrohir suggested. “He would be unwilling to co-operate, of course, but a sword at his throat most probably would put him into a more amenable frame of mind.”
“Especially if it was my sword,” Cierre said. “The touch of Heleg Naur on unprotected skin is painful in the extreme. I will do all in my power to help you get your brother back but that is a matter for the future. We can do nothing at this time. First we must press on and help Aragorn relieve the siege of Minas Tirith. And, in so doing, we will fulfil the request that Boromir made of me just before he died.”
“Agreed,” said Elrohir. “To divert from our course to seek aid for Elladan would help no-one; not even my brother, for if the Enemy conquers Gondor the rest of the world will lie helpless before him. And Elladan would not thank me for bringing him back into a world under the dominion of the Dark One.”
“Why are evil overlords always referred to as Dark Lords?” Cierre digressed. “I am offended – not by you, for you are only following the custom, but by the custom itself. What’s wrong with being dark?”
“In your case, nothing,” Elrohir said, “but darkness has acquired an evil name here. The Enemy’s creatures fear the sun, and hide from the light of day, and it is at night that they come forth to slay and pillage. Thus has it been for thousands of years and it has made its mark in the terms that are used in our language – and in the languages of Men.”
“I’m not overly fond of the sun myself,” Cierre admitted, “for bright sunlight hurts my eyes, and gives me a headache, and even makes me feel nauseous if I am exposed for too long. Does that make me evil? Owls are blind in the daylight but are not evil – except to mice.”
“That is…” Elrohir began, but he was interrupted by Aragorn announcing the end of the brief rest halt.
“Finish off your food and mount up,” Aragorn called. “Anyone who has not yet relieved himself, do so now, for we will not halt again before we reach the Stone of Erech. And our halt there will be brief, for then we ride for Pelargir with all speed. Make haste!”
Cierre took one last mouthful from her water flask, fastened the top, and put it away. “Perhaps we might talk of this again,” she said to Elrohir, “but I find it difficult to talk whilst riding. At least this horse is more tractable than my last, and I grow more accustomed to the saddle; no longer do I find myself stiff and sore when I dismount.”
There was scope for innuendo there, she thought, but she was as yet not familiar enough with the codes of this place to risk making such remarks lest they offend Elrohir. Saying, flat out, “I’d much rather mount and ride you than the horse” might reduce the chances of her being able to put her desires into practice. And, with his twin brother missing and probably in jeopardy, this wasn’t the right time.
“Later, then,” said Elrohir, and he vaulted lightly onto the back of his horse.
Cierre hesitated for a second and then decided that this horse was steady enough to permit her to emulate Elrohir’s move. She vaulted up, just as lightly, and settled herself in the saddle. No doubt Éomer, had he been there, would have either ignored her feat, taking it for granted, or made some patronising remark. Elrohir, however, nodded and gave her a brief smile that she interpreted as being one of approval. Cierre smiled back.
She was fairly sure that Elrohir liked her but was less sure that he found her attractive. And she had little idea of the courtship customs of this world. It was a shame that she had not been able to talk about the subject with Éowyn; she had had every intention of doing so but there had not been time. Apart from agreeing that Aragorn probably was do’ch
, and Cierre mentioning that she did find Éowyn’s brother physically attractive, the only mention of men in their conversation had been the best way to dismember them with a sword.
Cierre looked forward to being able to talk with Éowyn again. Unfortunately that would not be possible until Sauron’s army, advancing to besiege Minas Tirith, had been defeated. Well, the same situation had applied when Saruman’s army had threatened Rohan. She’d said, then, that she’d just have to kill all of them. And Saruman’s thirteen thousand Men and Orcs had been destroyed in a single night. Sauron, she had been told, had far larger armies; to be counted in hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands. Cierre wrinkled her nose. Killing that many was going to take ages
Éowyn could have cheerfully strangled Cierre, had the Drow girl been there, for she was finding the administrative work of organising the refuge at Dunharrow both taxing and boring. It had been Cierre’s words that swayed Éowyn into accepting the duty that had been laid upon her, instead of following her first impulse and running off, dressed as a man, to join the army on its march to Gondor. Yes, it was an honour, but one that she would rather have done without.
“I am sorry, Meriadoc, but I fear that it will be long ere I can fulfil my promise to teach you the tricks of swordplay that Cierre showed me,” Éowyn said to the Hobbit. “I have much to do, ensuring that all here are properly supplied and no-one goes short, and the task is occupying all of my time. I feel I am being a poor host, and indeed I would much prefer to be entertaining you as you deserve, but I have no choice. My duties to my people must come first.”
Merry sighed. “I understand,” he said. “Perhaps I could do something to help. It isn’t fair for me to be doing nothing, other than picking mushrooms, when you are working so hard. I could act as your scribe, perhaps, if that would be helpful.”
“It would indeed,” Éowyn said, “except that I do not think that there are any writing materials here. Few of my people can read or write.” It struck her that this was, perhaps, how Gríma Wormtongue had inveigled himself into a position of power and influence; by taking on the clerical tasks that few others had either the ability, or the inclination, to perform and gradually making himself indispensable.
“It’s easy to make quills,” Merry said.
“True,” Éowyn agreed, “and there may be some sheets of vellum here – we sell it to merchants who trade with Gondor – but I doubt if there will be ink. Certainly I did not think to bring any.”
“I know how to make ink,” Merry said. “Cousin Bilbo taught Frodo and Frodo taught me. The best ink would take a long time to make, and needs ingredients such as oak galls which might be hard to find, but I know a quick and easy recipe. All we need is soot or lamp-black, white of egg, and honey.”
Éowyn raised her eyebrows. “As simple as that? Egg-white and honey will be easy to come by. I am not so sure about soot, however; there are only a few permanent dwellings here in Dunharrow and tents do not have chimneys. And oil-lamps are rare, outside of Edoras, and I do not know if we will be able to find lamp-black here.”
“Powdered charcoal will do,” Merry said, “although soot is easier.”
“Then let us see what we can find,” Éowyn said, smiling at the Hobbit. “Being able to write things down will make things much easier. I should be able to find time to teach you swordplay after all.”
One advantage of being in command was that Éowyn could delegate. She sent one of the household staff to fetch a couple of eggs and some honey, dispatched another to seek out soot, and set off, with Merry in tow, to look for vellum.
“It needs a final preparation,” Merry said, a little later, as he scrutinised the result of their search. “A rub with a smooth stone and then with chalk. I’ve already found some chalk; I thought perhaps I could take notes for you on a piece of slate.”
Éowyn raised her eyebrows. “It seems you think of everything,” she said. “No doubt you will do a better job of fashioning the feathers into quills than would I.”
“Well, Frodo does it better than I do, but I can fashion a serviceable pen without much trouble,” Merry said. “I’ll need some boiling water and a sharp knife – smaller than this one that serves me as a sword, which would be a little unwieldy for the task.”
“We can borrow one from Derngar the fletcher,” Éowyn suggested. “His tools should be perfect for the task. I was going to ask him for the feathers anyway.” She was impressed by Meriadoc’s efficiency, and she was finding him to be excellent company; if only, she thought for a fleeting moment, he was two feet taller… She held back a sigh. There was not one amongst the warriors of the Rohirrim whom she found especially attractive. Her interest had been aroused thus far only by Aragorn, who had no interest in women; by Meriadoc Brandybuck, who was a four-foot tall Hobbit with hairy feet; and, she had to admit, by Cierre. There had been a moment, whilst the Black Elf girl had been teaching her that deadly upward cut, when Éowyn had thought that Cierre was going to kiss her. The idea had… not been entirely unwelcome. It hadn’t happened, however, which was probably just as well. Although…
Éowyn wrenched the thoughts from her mind and went back to thinking about writing materials. “That will be everything that we need. We have the white of egg, and the honey, and the soot. In fact,” she said, “we have far too much soot. I did not think to specify a quantity. I cannot imagine where Gléohild managed to find so much of it.”
There must have been three or four pounds of soot, filling a sack that left black smears behind it wherever it rested, many times as much as was required. “Better to have too much than too little,” Merry said. “I’ll take what I need and dispose of the rest.”
“No, keep it here,” Éowyn said. “If we throw it away children will find it, and create a mess, and then I will have to deal with their irate mothers. We can get rid of it when we are about to leave Dunharrow.”
“Or I can use it to play a jest upon Pippin,” Merry said, with an impish grin.
Éowyn laughed. “Not too messy a jest, I hope,” she said.
“I will keep it within bounds,” Merry assured her, “for undoubtedly Pippin will retaliate in kind.”
Éowyn was about to reply when there was an interruption.
“Lady Éowyn, might I have a word?” It was Éadmód the silversmith, who served also as a money-changer, and who had given Éowyn silver sceatta
of the Mark in exchange for Cierre’s golden coins.
“Certainly, Éadmód,” Éowyn assented.
“In private,” Éadmód added. “The matter is somewhat… delicate. And there is something I must show you.”
Éowyn’s eyebrows climbed. She was puzzled by his choice of words. The ‘delicate matter’ could not be a dispute involving his apprentice, for the young man in question had ridden off with the éoreds to Gondor; nor was it likely to be the reporting of a theft, for surely that would be brought to her attention, openly, in her official capacity. “Very well,” she said. They had spoken in Rohirric, which her Hobbit companion did not speak, and she switched to Westron to address him. “Excuse me for a moment, Meriadoc,” she said. “Official business requires my attention.”
“Of course, Lady Éowyn,” Merry said. “I’ll make a start on the ink.”
Éadmód led Éowyn to his tent. Had he been anyone else Éowyn might have become slightly perturbed; a younger man saying that he wanted to show her something in private, and then taking her to his tent, could have meant something embarrassing at the least and positively distressing at worst. Éadmód, however, was a respectable married man, whose eldest daughter was Éowyn’s age, and she had no fears that he intended anything untoward.
Once they were out of the view of curious eyes Éadmód put his hand into the scrip at his belt and pulled out a coin. He handed it to Éowyn. “I am sure you will recognise this,” he said.
Éowyn stared at the golden coin. She saw a rampant dragon on one face, turned it over, and saw the emblem of a crescent moon over water. “This is one of the coins Cierre gave me to pay her wergild,” she said. “Is there a problem? Are they not real gold after all?”
“They are of purer gold than the coins of Gondor,” Éadmód said. “Only twice in my life have I seen coins that were their equal, and those were Dwarvish coins from the North. No, the problem is that you did not give me this coin.”
Éowyn’s eyes widened. “Cierre said that several coins were still missing, after her possessions were returned to her,” she said, “and a few gemstones, too.”
Éadmód put his hand into his scrip again and pulled out another coin and a gleaming green jewel. “Gemstones like this one?”
“Five gems, she told me, every one of them green,” Éowyn confirmed. “Whoever gave you that, and the coins, must have stolen them from Cierre. Who was it?”
“It was Fréawulf,” Éadmód revealed.
Éowyn’s jaw dropped. Fréawulf was the Rider commanding the éored that had been allocated the duty of protecting Dunharrow while the army was away. He was a respected warrior, widely regarded as brave and steadfast although perhaps somewhat unimaginative, and one of the last people Éowyn would have ever suspected of being a thief.
“Fréawulf Gárulfsson?” Éowyn asked, just in case it was some other Rider named Fréawulf who had committed the crime, but she knew even as she spoke that her hope was futile.
“Indeed, it was Fréawulf Gárulfsson,” Éadmód confirmed. “He brought one coin to me and asked me to change it for silver, which I did at the same rate as I had given you, and then produced the gemstone, and another coin, and asked me to make a silver necklace and set the jewel into it. I agreed but came straight to you.”
“You did right,” Éowyn said. “He must have intended the necklace to be a gift. Is he still courting Leofrun?”
“I believe so,” the silversmith replied.
Éowyn nodded. “Perhaps that may be why he succumbed to temptation,” she said. Fréawulf, a man in his thirties, was courting a girl of a mere eighteen summers. Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that, in itself, but Leofrun was, in Éowyn’s opinion, vain, self-centred, and avaricious. It would have been in character for her to have pilfered from Cierre’s possessions, Éowyn thought, but the girl hadn’t been in Edoras at the time in question. No, Fréawulf must have taken what he thought would please her, acting on sudden impulse, giving in to weakness. An understandable motive, indeed, but in no way justification for dishonesty. He would have to be punished. That would be Éowyn’s duty, in the absence of the King, but she had no heart for it. And the public disgrace of one of the people’s primary defenders, in this time of worry, would be a severe blow to morale. Perhaps the judgement could be postponed.
“Say nothing of this to anyone else, for now,” Éowyn commanded. “I will speak to Fréawulf.” She took the coins, and the emerald, and departed with a heavy heart.- - - - -
Fréawulf’s face was pale as he walked away from his interview with Éowyn. The scorn in her eyes had cut him like the lash of a whip. He was irredeemably disgraced; his reputation would be forever destroyed, once the army returned from Mundburg and his misdeed was reported to the King, and never again would he be given command of an éored. And his hopes of marrying the fair Leofrun were shattered forever. All due to one moment of weakness.
But it was not theft of which he had been guilty. Indeed he would never have done something so petty as to steal coins, even gold ones, from the possessions of a visitor to Meduseld. No, his true crime was worse.
There was a good reason why he had not returned the coins and gems to the strange Black Elf woman, when the King’s command had been issued; he had had no idea that they belonged to her. He had accepted them from the hand of Gríma son of Gálmód, giving no thought to where Gríma had obtained such wealth, and, in return for the largesse, he had pledged his loyalty to Gríma. Théoden, Fréawulf thought, had declined to the point where he was no longer fit for kingship and Gríma was the coming power. Then, suddenly, Théoden was restored and Gríma was cast out into exile.
At least, Fréawulf had believed, no one would know that he had pledged allegiance to one now a reviled outcast. And he still had the gold and gems. He would be able to give Leofrun a courting gift that would sway her affections decisively in his favour – he had no illusions about the importance she placed upon wealth and status – and still have enough remaining to purchase a substantial farm and probably to become Thane of a village. He had given little consideration to the origin of the gold coins; probably, he had thought, they were from some Dwarven realm in the far North where, according to legends and travellers’ tales, there had been dragons in recent times.
When Théoden had led forth the éoreds to do battle against Saruman Fréawulf had volunteered to stay behind. He had anticipated that the sally, too little and too late in his opinion, would lead only to disaster. But yet again his judgement had been wrong. The army returned in triumph, after winning a crushing victory, and all had gained honour and renown save for Fréawulf. And then Théoden had decided that it made sense to retain Fréawulf in the role of commander of the detachment protecting Dunharrow. The army had set off for Mundburg leaving Fréawulf behind. He would have no chance to make a name for himself in battle; when the war was over he would be remembered, now, only as a petty thief. It was untrue but defending himself, by telling the truth, would only gain him an even worse name.
Fréawulf thought of walking to the cliffs and throwing himself over the edge. Yet it would solve nothing; the reason for his suicide would come out and he would be shamed even in death. Only by dying valiantly in battle could he regain his honour but, unless the Enemy came here, that one chance for redemption would be denied him.
He went to his tent, curtly telling all who spoke to him that he was unwell, and cast himself down upon his bed. Despair filled him. With all his heart he wished that the Black Elf woman had never come to Edoras.- - - - -
“I have had enough of work for today,” Éowyn declared. “You have done well, Meriadoc, saving me much time and ensuring that records have been kept so that we do not have to rely solely upon memory. I have had to deal with things that I found… unpleasant. Both of us need, and deserve, to spend some time on less serious matters. Would you like to engage in some sword practice?”
“I would indeed,” Merry said. “I have sat at this table long enough and my legs are sorely in need of some exercise. And I can think of no more practical way of getting that exercise than by learning more about how to handle a sword.”
“Indeed, it is a skill that is needed all too often in these times,” said Éowyn, “although hopefully there will be no call for it while we are here. Don your armour, then, and I shall meet you at the practice field.”
An area near the main assembly of tents had been set aside for weapons practice. Wooden dummies in the shapes of men had been erected, set on stakes hammered into the earth, and there was a row of archery targets standing where stray arrows would strike harmlessly into a rise in the ground. Fréawulf had organised it; Éowyn had to admit that he had done a good job, so far, in his position of commander of the forces defending Dunharrow. If only he had kept his hands away from Cierre’s valuables…
A score or so of Riders were there; shooting at the butts, striking at the dummies, or paired up to spar. A few of them stopped what they were doing, and turned to watch, as Éowyn led Merry through some warm-up exercises and then began to instruct him.
“That low blow is… vicious,” Merry commented. “It makes my eyes water even to think about it. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to do it in a real fight.”
“In a real fight the aim is to win,” Éowyn pointed out. “There is little true glory in war, as Cierre told me. Survival is what matters. Would you hesitate before striking that blow against an Orc?”
“No, I would not,” Merry admitted. “I used everything I knew when I fought the Orcs who captured us at Amon Hen.”
“Saruman had Men in his service, as well as Orcs,” Éowyn pointed out, “and to have been captured by them would have been just as bad. And there are Men in the service of the Enemy, too. If you need to fight again you must hold nothing back. What you lack in size you can make up for with cunning, speed, and skill.”
“I will,” Merry said, “although I hope there is no need for any fighting while we are here.” He sighed. “It is Pippin who is likely to have need of his sword, if the Enemy is going to attack Gondor,” Merry said. “I wish I could have gone with him. What is he doing now, and how does he fare, I wonder?”- - - - -
Pippin, in the company of Bergil son of Beregond, walked back through the gates and re-entered the White City. They had been out on the plain, watching the arrival of the levies sent from the provinces of Gondor to reinforce the city, but now all had entered and the sun was touching the horizon.
“It seemed quite a host to me,” Pippin remarked, “but from what I overheard I take it that your people had hoped for more.”
“Indeed, we had thought more would come to our aid,” Bergil confirmed, “but I suppose that they had to keep many of their Men back for their own defence. Foes threaten our lands on all sides. Still, among those who have come are some renowned heroes. Forlong the Fat is a mighty warrior, they say, for all his bulk. So too is Hirluin the Fair. And Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth is… oh, there he is, right ahead of us.”
Pippin saw the knight, further along the street, in the act of dismounting from his horse. A tall woman, wearing the grey robes of a Healer, stood beside the horse’s head. Imrahil took off his swan-crested helm, placed it over the horn of his saddle, and joined the woman.
“I had thought you would have been evacuated from the City and been safely on the way back to Dol Amroth,” Imrahil said.
The woman flipped back the hood that had covered her hair and her face came into view. Pippin saw that she was young, scarcely more than a girl, and exceedingly comely. In fact she almost rivalled Arwen Evenstar and the Lady Galadriel.
“Healers are exempt from the evacuation order, Father,” the girl said, “and, although I am but an apprentice, I can do my part. This is where I am needed.”
“That must be the Princess Lothíriel,” Bergil informed Pippin. “They say she is the fairest maid in all of Gondor.”
“And they say correctly, I would judge,” Pippin said. Not that he had seen many women in Gondor against whom he could compare Princess Lothíriel, for the evacuation had been completed shortly after his arrival in Minas Tirith, but he would wager there could be few in Middle Earth who could approach her radiant beauty. And, he thought as they drew nearer and he saw her more clearly, her clear grey eyes were kind and her smile held good humour. At close quarters he could see that there was a slight kink to the bridge of her nose, as if it had been broken at some time and imperfectly set, but this minor imperfection was scarcely noticeable.
“I would rather see you safe,” Imrahil said, “but you are doing worthy work. I fear that healers will be sorely needed within a matter of days.” He swept the maiden into a hug. “Oh, my daughter, I am so very proud of you.”
Pippin and Bergil walked past the embracing pair at that point. Bergil did not speak again until they had gone far enough that he thought them out of hearing range. “The Princess is cousin to our Lord Faramir,” he said. “Her father, Prince Imrahil, is a lord both noble and accomplished in warfare. We are fortunate indeed that Gondor has such Men in this time.” He lowered his voice. “Although I could wish that we had more of them.”
“The Riders of Rohan will come,” Pippin assured Bergil, “and my friends with them. Legolas, who is a wonder with his bow, and Gimli, who is just as good with his axe, and their friend Cierre who is greatly skilled with all weapons. I wonder if they’ll let Merry come with them?” He obeyed Gandalf’s instructions and refrained from mentioning Aragorn.
“Well, I hope they come soon,” Bergil said. At that moment bells tolled from the city’s towers. “The sundown bells,” Bergil said. “I must leave you. Take my greetings to my father, and thank him for the company that he sent. Come again soon, I beg.”
They parted and Pippin hurried back towards the Citadel. “I don’t know whether to hope Merry comes with the Riders of Rohan or not,” Pippin muttered to himself, as he made the climb. “I miss him dreadfully but this doesn’t seem to be a terribly safe place. They wouldn’t have evacuated the womenfolk and the children if they didn’t think that the city might fall. Perhaps it would be for the best if Merry stayed in Rohan. I’m sure they’ll look after him well there.”- - - - -
“It’s getting dark,” Merry said. “Time to stop, I think, but I’ve enjoyed this very much. And I’ve learned a lot.”
“Indeed, you will be no easy victim for anyone who seeks to do you harm,” Éowyn said. “Before we go I shall see if I can still perform the move that Cierre taught me. Now, I’ll need something in my left hand to serve as a counter-balance, and I’m still not sure about doing it with a shield. Let’s see if I can do it the same way that Cierre does.” She approached a Rider who was wielding a hand-axe against a training dummy. “May I borrow your axe?”
“Of course, Lady Éowyn,” the Rider said. He handed over the weapon and stepped back out of the way.
Éowyn took it in her left hand and, with her right, slid her sword from its scabbard. She hefted sword and axe and gave each a couple of practice swings. Then she faced the dummy, shifted her feet, and her arms blurred. The axe went down and back; the sword swept up almost too fast for the watching Riders to follow the motion. The blade struck the dummy’s wooden arm, at the point where it joined the body, and severed it. The arm spun through the air and fell to the ground five feet away.
“Bema!” the nearby Rider exclaimed. “That was a blow well struck.” Similar cries went up from the other Riders in the vicinity.
“I had a good teacher,” Éowyn said, “and it seems I have learned well. Although dummies do not parry, nor do they strike back, and that I can do this in practice does not guarantee that I would be able to do it against an armed opponent.”
“Un-armed now,” Merry said.
Éowyn grimaced. “It is a fearful stroke,” she said. “I had not thought I could cleave through wood in that fashion.” She went to the dummy and examined where the arm had been. “A clean cut, with only a few splinters,” she said. “I am amazed. I had expected that the blade would go in for perhaps an inch at most. This truly is an exceptional weapon. Light, and perfectly balanced, and with an edge keener than any I have ever seen. And yet this was merely Cierre’s spare sword. The blade she wields now, the one she calls Heleg Naur, must be a marvel indeed.”
“Heleg Naur,” said Merry, “that is Elvish for ‘Ice Flame’, if I remember rightly. Not that my Elvish is anything like as good as Frodo’s. I could easily be wrong.”
“You are correct,” Éowyn confirmed. “Ice Flame, or perhaps Frost Fire, would be its name in Westron.” She scrutinised the edge of her blade. “It is unharmed,” she said. “I feared that such a blow might have marred the steel but, no, there is not even the slightest sign of damage. We have some good smiths in the Mark but the smiths of Cierre’s people must be skilled beyond all measure.”- - - - -
The Drow smith’s eyebrows rose as he examined Elladan’s sword. “This is a very fine blade indeed,” he said. “Excellent steel, truly superb, and the craftsmanship is on a par with my own – perhaps, although I hate to admit it, even better in some ways.”
“My father’s smith, Angmir, was taught by the finest smiths of both Elves and Dwarves,” Elladan said.
“I never would have thought a Surface Elf could produce anything of such a high standard,” the Drow said. “I suppose the Dwarven influence explains it. However the enchantments on the weapon are not in the same class. Rather basic, in fact. An unusual technique; the enchantments are applied only to these gems set into the hilt. The blade itself is entirely un-magical.”
“That’s the way it is done among my people,” Elladan said.
“Well, it’s simply not good enough,” said the smith. “If you face demons or devils, or powerful members of the Undead, your swords will simply bounce off.”
“Then fix it, Rizolvir,” Nathyrra put in. “The Seer wants us to investigate rumours that the Valsharess is seeking alliances with the monstrous races in this area, and to disrupt the alliances if possible, and that could well bring us into conflict with foes who are protected against non-magical weapons.”
“I’d be delighted to do so,” Rizolvir said. “His armour needs some repair work, I see, as there’s a bit of damage to the left-hand spaulder. It’s not magically reinforced at all, which is a shame, as it’s pure mithral and the construction is superb. As it stands, however, a thrice-enchanted blade would go through it as if it was no better than a studded leather brigandine. I’ll enchant the armour up to the level it deserves, repair the damage, and bestow suitable enchantments on his blades. I would suggest adding elemental damage charms, too, if you’re likely to be fighting the Undead.”
“Is that acceptable to you, Elladan?” Nathyrra asked.
“As long as it won’t harm armour and swords, certainly,” Elladan said.
“Do it, then, Rizolvir,” Nathyrra said.
“Very well,” Rizolvir said. “My fee will be quarter of a million gold pieces.”
“What?” Elladan’s eyes widened. “I have no money in your coinage at all and no great amount in that of my own realm. I cannot pay such a fee.”
“You jest, surely, Rizolvir,” said Nathyrra. “We are to fight the Valsharess and her agents. To aid us in that task is in your own interest.”
“I am not motivated by greed,” said Rizolvir. “The enchanting requires expensive components which will be consumed during the process.”
“Diamonds, and other gems,” Prentice said, nodding his head. “I can provide those. In fact I could do the enchanting myself but it would take time. And I’d prefer to keep myself stocked up with combat spells, in the present circumstances, rather than the spells necessary for enchanting weapons and armour. Now, I have several weapons and sets of armour, scavenged from dead foes, which I had intended to sell. Let’s see if we can work out a deal.”
After a period of bargaining a deal was struck whereby Rizolvir would cast the enchantments, using gems supplied by Prentice, and would be paid with several sets of Drow swords and armour plus an enchanted two-handed axe.
“What charms shall I cast upon the blades?” Rizolvir asked.
“I have no idea,” said Elladan. “I’m not even sure what you mean by ‘elemental damage charms’.”
“I take it that the use of magic is much less prevalent in your world than in ours,” said Prentice. “Spells cast upon the blades so that they burn, or freeze, or shock those struck by them. Thus the effect of a blow is magnified so that a trivial wound becomes serious and a serious wound is mortal. And some creatures are invulnerable to normal injury and can only be harmed by elemental damage of a particular type.”
“Such as trolls, which rapidly heal from any wound not inflicted by fire or acid,” Nathyrra added.
“Trolls where I come from heal no faster than other creatures,” Elladan said, “although they are, in truth, difficult to injure. I suspect that we use the name for a different breed of creature to the one you describe. I understand the principle, though. What would you suggest? I do not have the knowledge or experience to make an informed choice.”
“Fire on one blade, ice on the other,” Nathyrra suggested. “That way you will be prepared for most eventualities. My short-sword is enchanted to deliver a shock of lightning to the foe struck, and my rapier bears charms that make it especially destructive to the Undead.”
Elladan remembered her slim sword cleaving through the legs of a skeleton warrior during the battle immediately before he had been transported to this Drow city. Now he could understand how it had been far more effective than he would have expected. “You are the expert, and I will defer to your superior knowledge,” he said. “Fire and ice it shall be.”
“I’ll make a start at once,” Rizolvir said. “You will need to leave swords and armour with me for a few hours.”
“I need to sleep to regain my spells,” Prentice said. “We can collect your gear when I awaken.”
“It would be best not to be completely unarmed, Elladan, even for so short a time,” Nathyrra advised. “We do not expect any attack by the Valsharess yet, not for several days at least, but some of the Drow of House Maeviir are quarrelsome, prone to violence, and resent the presence of the Seer’s people in their city. And there is a long history of enmity between the Drow and the Surface Elves. You could be challenged, or even attacked outright, if you appear to be vulnerable.”
“I did not hand over all of the weapons I have collected to Rizolvir,” Prentice said. “I have a Blade of the Gladiator long-sword still. Take it until your own blades are ready.” He focused his gaze on Elladan’s hands. “You wear no rings, nor amulets, I see. I can rectify that lack and ensure that you are as well protected as the rest of us.”
“I thank you,” Elladan said. “I do not know how I will be able to repay you.”
“You will repay me the first time some monster seeks to eat my head and you stop it by removing its head from its shoulders,” Prentice said. “It’s in my own interests to ensure that you are as well equipped as possible. The same applies to you, Nathyrra, and you, Valen. If there is anything you lack please mention it and I will do my best to supply it.”
“I think I am well enough supplied,” Nathyrra said, “but if I think of anything I’ll let you know.”
“I have everything I need,” Valen said. He was the strange being Elladan had noticed upon his arrival in the Seer’s chamber; superficially he resembled an Elf, almost as tall as Elladan and with a similar slim yet powerful build, but his head was crowned by a pair of goat-like horns, a barbed tail hung from his rear, and his ears were longer and more pointed than those of any Elf. He spoke little but watched both Prentice and Elladan with a wary look in his oddly pale eyes. Valen was clearly a warrior, and his armour of green metal scales bore the scars of many battles, but if he remained suspicious of Wizard and Elf that could create discord that would weaken the group by more than his combat skills strengthened it. Perhaps, Elladan thought, he was romantically interested in Nathyrra and regarded the newcomers as rivals.
Elladan put aside thoughts of Valen’s unfriendliness, for the moment, and took off his armour and gave it into the care of the smith. In return Rizolvir offered him the loan of a lightweight mail shirt. Elladan accepted with thanks, donned the mail, and took the sword offered him by Prentice and belted it at his hip.
“Have a care with that blade,” Prentice warned. “It sweats acid when in contact with flesh.”
“For the slaying of… trolls, I take it?” Elladan said, remembering what Nathyrra had said earlier.
“Indeed so,” said Prentice. “I have a dagger with the same enchantment, as a weapon of last resort, in case I have no suitable spells to hand. Although if hand-to-hand combat is necessary I’d far rather use my staff. I have little skill at close-quarter fighting and prefer to keep my opponents as far away as possible.”
Elladan nodded. Mithrandir could use a sword to considerable effect, he knew, but one could not expect the same from every Wizard. Certainly Prentice, when given room to cast spells without interference, had proved himself to be as formidable an ally as anyone could desire.
He opened his mouth to comment but was pre-empted by a Drow messenger addressing them.
“Surface-dwellers, I bring an invitation from my mistress the Princess Zesyyr of House Maeviir,” said the Drow. “She bids you dine with her in the Maeviir Public House.”
“Dinner with a Princess?” Prentice raised his eyebrows. “Well, it was my intention to dine before I sought a bed, and I have no objection to dining with a princess. Lead on, then.”- - - - -
“I must find time to examine the items that we took from the bodies of the fallen Drow,” Cierre remarked. “There might well be things there that would be of great use to us.”
“Enchanted weapons, you mean?” Gimli said. He broke a meat pasty into two halves, handed one to Cierre, and then took a bite from his piece.
“Thank you, abbil
,” Cierre said. “Yes, enchanted weapons for a start. Those who ambushed us were an elite unit. Almost every weapon taken from a member of such a company will bear charms to make them more deadly in combat. Those dropped by the leader, the jalil
who slew Halbarad and carried away Elladan, may well come close to matching my sword Heleg Naur. And there will be more than just weapons. Amulets, rings, bracers, belts, even boots, all may bear useful enchantments.” She took a small bite from her pasty and washed it down with a swig of water. “However, to determine what each one does will be the work of some hours. It is not something that can be done during these brief rest halts.”
“If I read Aragorn’s purpose aright, we shall proceed up the river by ship after defeating our enemy’s southern forces,” Gimli said. “There will be time then.”
Cierre grimaced. “I came to Waterdeep from Neverwinter by ship,” she said, “and I was sick for almost the whole of the journey. Sea-sickness, the sailors called it, and my amulet, although it makes me immune to all diseases, was of no help whatsoever. I do not look forward to another journey on water.”
“You are unlikely to suffer from that affliction through travelling on the river,” Legolas said. “It is, I gather, the motion of the sea’s waves that disturbs one’s stomach.”
“I know nothing of the sea and ships,” Cierre said, “but what you say sounds logical. Hopefully, then, we will arrive at Minas Tirith in good shape and be fit for battle as soon as we… disembark? Is that the right word?”
“It is,” Legolas confirmed, and repeated the word in Westron. “We have allowed your language lessons to lapse on this journey. That is something else we can resume once we are on the ships.”
“What I plan to do,” Gimli said, “is to get some sleep. It’s alright for you Elves, for you need little, and the Rohirrim seem able to doze as they ride, but I need to lie down to sleep. This long ride, with only brief halts to snatch a bite to eat and to relieve ourselves, is wearying.” At that moment Aragorn gave the signal that the halt was ending and, with a sigh, Gimli began to pack away his provisions.
“I am weary too,” Cierre said, as she fastened the top of her water flask, “although I am becoming accustomed to riding and no longer am I experiencing discomfort. But, despite the weariness, I am happier now than at any time in my life. I have found good friends, and the Rohirrim have done me honour, and I could never have hoped to serve under a commander as fine as Aragorn. He drives us hard at the moment, it is true, but he has good reason and I do not mind in the least. No-one I knew in my own world can compare. The Weapon Master of my House was fair-minded, and one or two of the instructors at Melee Magthere were decent enough, but most Drow leaders are… downright nasty.”- - - - -
The young Drow woman was extremely pretty; slim and graceful, delicate of feature, and elegantly clad in a silken gown that reminded Elladan of the styles and fabrics prevalent in King Thranduil’s realm. “My name is Zesyyr, only daughter and sole surviving heir to Matron Myrune of House Maeviir,” she introduced herself. “I took a risk in inviting you here, for it will draw attention, but time is pressing. I could not wait in the hope that you would come here of your own accord.”
Prentice raised an eyebrow. “A risk? How so?”
Zesyyr did not reply directly. “My House has fallen on hard times,” she said. “My mother has brought us to the very brink of destruction. Many believe it is a time to change. Many believe I should rule. Of course, my mother is no fool. She understands the danger I represent, which is why she has exiled me from the tower where she dwells. She thinks she is safe inside high walls.”
“Obviously she isn't as safe as she thinks,” Nathyrra said. "I know this is how we were brought up, but there is another path we can take. One that isn't fraught with betrayal and death. Eilistraee can…”
“Don't throw your goddess in my face!” Zesyyr snapped. “We can't all run away to the surface; some of us have to survive down here in the Underdark. And that means plotting to assure my own future. My mother thinks I am no longer a threat, but I have more support than she knows. All I need to complete my coup are assassins powerful enough to kill her and her bodyguard.”
Elladan’s jaw dropped. He was too shocked to give voice to any response.
“I’m a wizard, not an assassin,” Prentice said.
“So these are the kind of allies we are counting on to stand with us against the Valsharess?” Valen said, contempt evident in his voice.
“I used to be an assassin,” Nathyrra said, “but I don’t do that sort of thing any longer. Find someone else to do your dirty work.”
Elladan found his voice at last. “You want us to kill your own mother?”
“Surely you aren't surprised?" Zesyyr uttered a short, mirthless, laugh. “This is the way of the Drow. The Matron Mothers raise their daughters knowing full well we are scheming to replace them as soon as we come of age.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Nathyrra said, “and to mount a coup at this time will cause conflict that will weaken us when we need everyone to stand together against the Valsharess.”
“That is exactly why I intend to act,” said Zesyyr. “I know my mother. She doesn't believe we can defeat the Valsharess, and she's afraid. Do you really believe she will fight by the Seer's side when the Valsharess attacks? Matron Myrune will betray your Seer the first chance she gets. I, however, actually believe we can defeat the Valsharess. I won't turn on my allies at the first sign of trouble."
“Why should we believe you when you’re turning on your own mother?” Prentice said.
“Walk around Lith My’athar,” Zesyyr suggested, “and listen to what my mother's soldiers are saying. They believe our cause is hopeless.”
“And you don’t?”
“I believe we have a chance,” Zesyyr said, “and I am certain that the Valsharess will have me killed on the spot if she takes the city. I believe she will execute my mother, too; what use has the Valsharess for other rulers? But my mother has convinced herself that she’ll be allowed to live, in a subordinate position, if she changes sides.”
“Then we need to convince her otherwise,” Elladan said.
Zesyyr snorted. “Good luck with that. And even if she said that she was convinced, and promised to fight faithfully against the Valsharess, what is to prevent her from changing her mind again? No, it would be far more certain simply to kill her.” Her voice softened. “I have no particular desire to see her slain. She has brought me up strictly, but fairly, and I had no thought of challenging her for the rule at this time. In a century or so, perhaps, but not yet. If you could find a solution that does not require her to die I would not be displeased. Unfortunately I doubt very much if any such solution can be found.”
It occurred to Elladan that perhaps his presence in this world was not entirely accidental. Was he meant
to be here? If Cierre had not been transported to Middle Earth, and Elladan to Faerûn, presumably it would have been the tall Drow girl who stood here beside Prentice. And Cierre, while her combat skills could not be faulted, seemed to have only two ways to solve problems. If they were within arms’ reach she hit them with sword or axe; if further away she resorted to arrows. Elladan, however, had learned something of diplomacy from his father. Could he but find a way of resolving the Princess’ dilemma without the need for violence then the forces opposed to the Valsharess would be strengthened, or at least not weakened by internal conflict, and their chances of final victory would be improved. First, though, Elladan needed to learn more of this world and its inhabitants.
“I would be willing to try,” said Elladan, “but I need to know more of the situation, and of your people, before I can act. Four days ago I had never even heard of the Drow.”
“Oh? How strange. I thought all Surface Elves knew of us, and were taught to hate us from an early age,” said Zesyyr.
“Elladan isn’t from this world,” Prentice told her. “For that matter, I do not know all that much about the Drow. Most of what I know comes from my mentor Drogan and, as he was a Dwarf, his views may have been… somewhat one-sided. Mainly I studied the best ways to slay Drow.”
“Are you saying that the Dwarves and the Drow are enemies?” Elladan asked. “I had met but one Drow before we were attacked by Khareese’s force, Cierre the Ranger, and she was firm friends with Gimli the Dwarf. Indeed never have I seen such friendship between Elf and Dwarf, save perhaps that between Gimli and Legolas of the Wood Elves.”
“Cierre of the Silver Marches?” asked Prentice. “Extremely tall for a Drow, armed with a great bow, sword, and hand-axe?”
“Indeed so,” Elladan confirmed. “You know her?”
“I met her, briefly, in the Common Room of the Yawning Portal,” said Prentice. “She spoke little and, although polite, she did not give the impression that she sought friendship with any. She went ahead of us into Undermountain and left a trail of dead bodies behind her. Then we stopped seeing sign of her and thought that she had perished.”
“I heard her name mentioned as I spied upon the forces of the Valsharess,” Nathyrra said. “She had slain one of their patrol leaders and taken a valuable sword and a set of enchanted armour. The Valsharess gave orders that she was to die.”
“She did not perish, but instead was transported to my world,” Elladan said. “And when Khareese followed her there, and sought to slay her and all with her, I was transported here.” He turned his attention back to Princess Zesyyr. “It seems she is not typical of your people and what I know of her is not applicable. Your invitation was for us to dine with you. I suggest that we do so and, as we dine, you tell us of the Drow and of the Valsharess.”
“I will do so,” Zesyyr agreed, “although I am no lore-mistress and my mother would be a better source of information. Or Matron Mother Brizafae of House Deani, who can be found in the Lith My’athar Public House, but she may not be sober enough to talk. Since the Valsharess destroyed House Deani, and Brizafae and her only two surviving followers fled to seek refuge here, she has spent most of her time trying to drink herself into insensibility.”
“She doesn’t sound congenial company,” said Prentice. “I think we’d be better off with you. Nathyrra can contribute too, of course. If we have questions neither of you can answer then we can approach the Matron Mother later – if we can catch her sober.”
“Very well, then, I shall order our meals,” said Zesyyr. “I cannot offer you a wide variety. Most of our supply routes have been cut off and the menu consists solely of mushrooms and fish. At least there are plenty of both; mushrooms grow anywhere and the city is on the banks of a great river. And there is an adequate supply of mushroom wine.”
“I like mushrooms,” Elladan said, “but I would not have thought that they were suitable material for the making of wine.”
“It is a speciality of our people,” Zesyyr said.
“One I would not recommend that you try,” Nathyrra advised. “Morimatra wine is not only fiercely alcoholic, it is also hallucinogenic.”
“Then I will refrain from partaking of the wine,” Elladan said. “I will drink only water. But I would be delighted to accept the fish and mushrooms.”- - - - -
Éowyn took Merry with her into Fréawulf’s tent, for the sake of propriety, but spoke in Rohirric so that the conversation remained private.
“Fréawulf, I hear that you retired to your tent immediately after I spoke to you and have done nothing since other than lying abed,” she said. “That is not acceptable. You have duties to carry out and, up until the time of your reprimand, you performed them well. If you are going to abandon them then there is no point in my remaining silent about your… indiscretion. At break of day you will rise, and return to your duties, and do them to the best of your ability. If you obey, and continue to do well, then it will be taken into account when I report to Théoden King and you are judged. If you do not then I will dismiss you at once and appoint another Rider in your stead. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lady Éowyn,” Fréawulf replied. He bowed his head. “I will obey.”
“Good,” said Éowyn. “In that case I shall recommend leniency. Farewell.”
She spun on her heel and left the tent with Merry following close behind her. Éowyn believed that the matter was settled, for the time being, and that she would not have to deal further with Fréawulf until the return of Théoden King. But later she would bitterly regret not drawing her sword and striking Fréawulf dead on the spot.