Through the past, and that quite darkly...
“I hope that the weapons of the Dead will still bite,” said Gárod, “for the Corsairs are many and we are few.”
Cierre laughed. “No worry,” she said. “Shadows touch Men make weak, not fight, we kill them like… white animal, go ‘baa’, hair make clothes.”
“Sheep,” Legolas supplied.
“Sheep,” Cierre repeated the Westron word. “We kill them like sheep.”
Ahead of them a battle was raging. A moderate-sized river, perhaps as wide as the River Rauvin where it ran through Silverymoon, ran through the fields. Armed Men were crossing it on foot and on horseback, indicating that it was fordable at that point, and other armed Men were attempting to prevent them from getting across. The defenders were outnumbered and, despite their advantage of position, were being driven back.
“The Men of Lamedon defend the fords of Linhir,” Aragorn explained to Cierre, “and Men of Umbar and Harad seek to force a crossing. We shall sweep away the Umbarim and Haradrim and call upon the Men of Lamedon to follow us to Pelargir.”
“Is Lamedon an ally of Gondor?” Cierre asked.
“It is a province of Gondor,” said Aragorn, “and doubtless these Men would have gone to aid in the defence of Minas Tirith had it not been for the threat from the Corsairs. If we end that threat we can bring many from the southern provinces flocking to our banner.” He drew Andúril and brandished it above his head. “On to the fords!” he shouted.
!” Cierre answered, brandishing Heleg Naur in like fashion, and the others of the Company voiced their own battle-cries. They spurred their horses to a gallop and the Army of the Dead followed at their heels.
Much to Cierre’s disappointment the enemy did not stand to meet their coming. The forces of Harad and Umbar turned and fled, racing away in blind panic, crying out “The King of the Dead is upon us!” Many of the Men of Lamedon did likewise and ran off across the fields.
A mere handful stood firm and awaited the approach of the Grey Company. “Who are you, strangers, who come with such a dread host under your command?” their captain queried. He was a Man tall and strong, grey of beard but still hale, clad in shining mail and a cloak of blue.
“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor,” Aragorn answered, “and we ride to the aid of Gondor.”
“Chieftain of Arnor… and you command the Host of the Dead,” the Gondorian gasped. “Then… you are Isildur’s Heir!”
“I am of the line of Isildur,” Aragorn confirmed.
“Welcome, Lord Aragorn,” the captain replied. “You come at our time of need. I am Angbor, Lord of Lamedon, and I…” His voice trailed away and his gaze became fixed on Cierre. “What is that creature?” he exclaimed. His sword came up into a ready position.
“Call her not ‘creature’, Lord Angbor,” Aragorn said, his tone carrying an unmistakable note of censure. “The Lady Cierre is an Elf, and a friend to Gondor. Your Captain-General Boromir saved her life and, in return, she has pledged her sword to the defence of Minas Tirith.”
Angbor lowered his sword. “She fought beside Boromir? Then indeed she must be worthy. I crave your pardon for my hasty words, milady. Elves have not been seen in these lands for many long years and I did not know that any had black skin.”
Cierre thought that he was a little naïve to accept Aragorn’s word so readily but she wasn’t going to object. “I am not offended, my lord,” she said, giving Angbor a warm smile. She had to give him credit for bravery, as he had not only held his ground in the face of the Host of the Dead but had inspired his guard to stand with him, and Cierre was all in favour of brave Men as long as they were on her side. And that he spoke Sindarin was another point in his favour. “Only the Elves of my kindred are black. Well met, Lord Angbor. Perhaps we shall fight side by side one day.”
“But not yet, for we must press on with all haste,” Aragorn put in. “Gather your Men, Lord Angbor, and follow us to Pelargir. We will need your help if we are to save Minas Tirith.”- - - - -
Matron Mother Myrune shifted her gaze between Elladan and Prentice, staring at them intently, hardly glancing at Nathyrra and Valen. She was silent for a long moment, nipping her lower lip between her teeth, and then she spoke.
“Your proposal is… ingenious,” she said. “It would resolve the conflict between myself and my daughter with no need for anyone to die. Yet if the Valsharess destroys us it would all be for naught. You really believe that Lith My’athar can hold? Our few hundred against the armies of six cities?”
“Most of whom, I gather, are unwilling conscripts with no loyalty to the Valsharess,” Elladan said.
“And, while Mother Lolth remains silent, we have access to only the most basic of spells and none that can counter the devils summoned by the Valsharess,” the Matron Mother went on.
Elladan held himself back from shuddering at the name of the Drow deity. The descriptions of Lolth sounded far too much like Ungoliant for his comfort; he suspected that the two might, in fact, be one and the same. “The Seer’s people have no such limitations,” he pointed out. “Yes, we can defeat the Valsharess and save this city.”
Assuming, of course, that the background information that he had been given was accurate, and that he had accurately predicted the reactions of people he had never met, and that he and his new companions could overcome a series of ferocious monsters…
“Your words are impressive,” Myrune said. “If you can fight as well as you can talk then indeed we have a chance. Let us test that.” She clicked her fingers and her bodyguard advanced to stand at her side. “Defeat Captain Tebimar in single combat and I will agree to your terms. Fail, and… well, you’ll be dead.”
Valen pushed back his chair. “I should be the one to face him,” he said. “We know nothing of this Elf’s abilities.”
“Stay out of it, Valen,” Nathyrra said. “I’ve seen Elladan fight. I have no fears for him.”
Elladan stood up and moved away into the centre of the room. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked the Drow. “I have no wish to harm you.”
Tebimar merely grinned, advanced, and raised his weapon. It wasn’t a conventional choice; he was armed with a scythe, a wicked-looking implement with a gleaming blade that indicated that it had been forged for combat rather than as an innocent agricultural tool, and Tebimar held it as if he knew how to use it. Elladan had seen scythes used in battle before, in the hands of peasants impressed into the armies of Carn Dûm, and knew that they could move in ways difficult to predict and that they could inflict terrible wounds. Few fighting men would relish facing an opponent armed with a scythe.
Elladan didn’t relish the prospect either but it had to be done, if he was to achieve his objective, and he was willing to risk injury if that was what was necessary. He knew that the design of a scythe was particularly suited to strikes at the lower legs, an awkward target for most other weapons and so often coming as a complete surprise to combatants unused to scythe-wielding foes, but he was well aware of that potential. Without drawing his swords he launched himself into the air, thankful that the Drow went in for high ceilings despite their small stature, and hurled himself at Tebimar. Elladan drew up his legs, saw the scythe blade passing harmlessly under him, and struck Tebimar in the middle of the chest with both knees. The Drow, a foot shorter than Elladan and much lighter, was smashed from his feet and crashed to the ground with Elladan on top of him. Elladan struck two blows with the heel of his hand and Tebimar went limp.
“Impressive,” Myrune said. “Very well, I agree. Zesyyr shall have supreme command over all the guards and soldiers of House Maeviir. Only her orders shall be obeyed for a period of three months, or until the Valsharess is utterly defeated, whichever is shorter. And if she perishes the only command I may give the warriors, until the Valsharess is slain, is ‘Avenge Zesyyr’. I retain control only of non-military matters. So shall it be.”
Prentice handed her a sheet of parchment. “It’s all written down here. Sign it, and we’re done.”
Elladan examined the fallen bodyguard, assessed that he was not badly hurt, and then watched as Myrune signed the agreement. She laid the quill down, looked up, and met his eyes.
“No, we are not yet all done,” she said. “You are an impressive physical specimen, male Elf, and if your penis is in proportion to your size then you must be exceedingly well endowed. Come to my bedchamber and fuck me.”
Elladan was taken completely aback but managed, with an effort, to keep his astonishment from showing on his face. For a moment he was unable to frame a reply.
“You seem not to understand,” Myrune said. “Was your education in our language incomplete?” She formed a circle with the fingers of one hand, poked the index finger of the other through it, and moved her hands back and forth. “I command you to fuck me.”
“I understood your meaning,” Elladan said. The compulsory language lesson he had received from Halaster had been comprehensive and, even if it had not been, he would have been able to work out the meaning of the Drow word vith
from its resemblance to the Sindarin huitho
. And, when he had heard Cierre utter words in her own tongue beginning with vith
, it had been obvious that she was swearing. “I must, however, decline your offer. It would not be in accordance with the customs of my people.” He was not in the least attracted by the idea of sexual intercourse with the Matron Mother; she was comely enough, he supposed, but her lips seemed more likely to curl into a sneer than a smile, and her eyes were cold.
“Oh?” The sneer duly appeared. “Is it because I am a despised Drow, Elf male?
“I do not despise the Drow,” Elladan replied. “Before I came here I had met only one Drow, and I counted her as a friend. It is simply that we have only just met.” He groped for a polite term for sexual intercourse but could not think of one; the Drow language, it seemed, scorned euphemisms. “To… fuck… on the basis of such slight acquaintanceship is simply not done.” A quick glance at his companions revealed that Valen had raised his eyebrows slightly and Prentice’s lips were curved up slightly in what might have been a smile. Nathyrra, however, was aiming a glare at Myrune that seemed intense enough to pierce steel. “I must decline your invitation,” Elladan concluded, “and I hope that you are not offended.”
“You appear sincere,” Myrune said, “and it appears that if I press the matter I will make an enemy of Nathyrra. I am aware of her past background with the Red Sisters and have no desire to antagonise her. Very well, Elf, you are excused.” She directed her gaze at Prentice. “You also are tall, human, and a mage might be creative enough to compensate for lack of athleticism. You can take his place in my bed.”
Prentice’s eyes widened. “You flatter me by your offer, Matron Mother, and I would like to accept. I have heard that the Drow are skilled in the arts of the bedchamber. Alas, I fear that you would be sadly disappointed. My experience in such things is limited to one brief encounter with a barmaid in Hilltop and she appeared to find my performance profoundly unsatisfactory. Also we must leave Lith My’athar in haste if we are to accomplish the mission with which the Seer has charged us.”
“In that case I will not bother,” said Myrune. “I suppose there is no point in moving on to the Tiefling, although the thought of what he might do with his tail is… intriguing, as the same time constraints would apply. I’ll just have to fuck Tebimar when he recovers consciousness.”
Elladan felt a pang of sympathy for his defeated foe. It was likely that he would have a headache, and the impact of Elladan’s knees against his chest could well have cracked a rib or two; certainly he would be severely bruised. Sex, in that condition, would be far from enjoyable. Perhaps Myrune might cast a healing spell on him first, if she had such a spell available, but Elladan wouldn’t count on her bothering to do so. He cast a ‘Cure Light Wounds’ on the unconscious Tebimar, who stirred slightly but did not wake, to make sure that he did not suffer too badly when dragged off to the Matron Mother’s bed.
“We shall leave you to it,” Prentice said. “Now we must return the contract to your daughter and then set off on our mission. Farewell.”
“You have my permission to depart,” the Matron Mother said. Her lips curled slowly into something approximating a smile, conveying the impression that it was not an expression that she used often, and she dipped her head. “If you can confound the Valsharess as you have confounded me perhaps we shall achieve victory after all.”- - - - -
!” Cierre yelled. “Look, there are sheep!”
Gárod laughed. “Thousands of them, Cierre, but we shall shear them nonetheless.”
In front of them lay a mighty host. Fifty great ships lay at anchor, as well as many smaller vessels, and the united forces of the Haradrim and the Corsairs who were assembled on the bank must have numbered seven thousand or more. Yet they were in disarray, with some mustering for a stand and others trying to push through them to reach the ships, and Gárod was sure that a mere dozen éoreds of Rohan would be able to sweep them away without difficulty. Alas, the éoreds were far away, and the Company numbered only twenty-nine.
Plus the Army of the Dead. “Now come!” Aragorn cried. “By the Black Stone I call you!” The Shadows swept forward like an onrushing tidal bore. And the enemy host turned and fled.
Horses collided and went down. Men stumbled and fell, and were trampled by others rushing heedlessly over them, and some drew weapons and hacked at their own fellows in their desperation to get away. One Captain of Corsairs was slain by his own men as he tried to stem their flight; an Amir of the Haradrim managed, for a brief moment, to rally a few of his horsemen but Legolas put an arrow through his throat from a distance of two hundred and twenty yards. Those remaining joined the flight at once.
“Well shot,” Cierre praised. She would have had to dismount to match the feat, at that range, but Legolas had managed it from the back of a running horse. And, for that matter, Cierre had no usable arrows. The flights of hers had been incinerated by a Flame Strike from a Drow priestess, in the Paths of the Dead, and she had not yet had time to fit new fletching to the shafts; nor, distracted as she had been by the deaths of Baldheort and Halbarad and the others, had she thought to scrounge replacements from the Rangers. She had to content herself with brandishing Heleg Naur and hoping that some foeman would flee slowly enough for her to catch.
The chance did not come. The rout continued at undiminished pace even when the fleeing Men reached the edge of the water. Many plunged into the broad river and swam for the ships. Those who could find boats swarmed into them and rowed; fights broke out in some, as too many piled in for the vessels to hold, but as the Dead drew closer the struggling knots of men dissolved and they dived from the boats into the water. The Shadows followed, passing over the surface of the water as easily as they had travelled across the land, and wherever they touched a swimmer that man faltered, struggled briefly, and then sank.
The ships proved to be no refuge. The Dead climbed aboard and the panic-stricken crews abandoned ship en masse. The relentless Dead pursued them.
A short time later the only traces of the host of Corsairs and Haradrim were a few bodies drifting downstream. The majority, weighed down by weapons or armour, had sunk without trace. Seven thousand men had perished within half an hour and Cierre, rather to her disappointment, hadn’t killed any of them.
Oh, well, there would be plenty more of the enemy to be found when she reached Minas Tirith.- - - - -
Elladan parried with one sword and slashed with the other. The creature he faced was terrifying almost beyond imagining; like unto an immense spider, it was, but armed with vicious pincers on its forelimbs and something that looked ominously like a sting at the tail end of its long body. And it did not fight like an animal, going by instinct, but like a trained and experienced fighter. Parrying, striking at weak points, following up advantages and abandoning lines of attack which failed to achieve results. Earlier they had fought huge true spiders, very like those that infested Mirkwood, but this was something very different. A bebelith
, the others had named it, but they had had no chance to give more information before it had fallen on them in furious attack.
Valen and Nathyrra fought alongside him but they were struggling. Valen swung his flail with undoubted power, though without the precision one would expect in a warrior of his standing, and his blows had no discernible effect. Nathyrra’s swords were glancing from the creature’s carapace without penetrating and, when she dived away from a lashing pincer, she landed in an ungainly sprawl instead of rolling and coming to her feet in the same motion. And Prentice could do nothing to help and could only stand, staff raised, ready to try to fend off the monster if it turned on him.
There was no magic in this place. No spells could be cast, healing potions had no effect, and enchanted weapons and armour lost the charms placed upon them by wizards. The others, accustomed to their equipment’s extra qualities, were thrown off their stride when deprived of them and fought at well below their full potential. Elladan, however, had used his swords in only a handful of brief, although savage, fights since Rizolvir had placed enchantments upon them. The boots he now wore would, according to Prentice, enhance his ability to dodge away from blows but he had not yet had occasion to test this in combat. He fought as he had always done, trusting to nothing but his own skills, and he was holding his own.
Valen… wasn’t. The spider-like bebelith
lashed out and hooked the long claw of one of its pincers onto the horned warrior’s scale armour. That claw ripped, and the shorter claw that formed the other part of the pincer sheared, and the armour split and fell away. Valen was left unprotected and wide open to the creature’s next attack.
Nathyrra threw herself forward in a desperate attempt to save him. The bebelith
struck with its right pincer, its intention being to remove her head from her shoulders, but she went into a diving roll under the blow, this time performing the move perfectly, and came up to thrust with both swords at its abdomen. The blades glanced off, not even inflicting a scratch, and the bebelith
retaliated immediately with its left pincer and caught Nathyrra’s right leg between the claws. And began to squeeze.
Elladan felt a stab of sheer terror he had not felt when Valen had been the one in immediate peril. The male warrior was not yet a close comrade, merely someone who fought on the same side; whereas Nathyrra… was more. If she were to lose her leg… it was too terrible to contemplate. But Elladan had already moved into a position where he could take advantage of the monster’s concentration on Valen. Now its attention was fully on Nathyrra and Elladan could pick his spot and strike with precision and every ounce of his power.
His target was the point where the arm of the left pincer emerged from the thorax and his aim was true. The armour of a bebelith
was iron-hard, invulnerable to most blades without magical enhancement, but the steel forged by Angmir of Imladris was equal to the task. The blade cleaved through the tough plating and severed the limb. It fell away, the claw opened, and Nathyrra was free. Then Elladan brought his other sword up and thrust into the place where the arm had been. He drove it deep, almost to the hilt, and the bebelith
uttered a hideous screech and raised itself high on its long legs. The sword came free and a torrent of putrescent ichor poured from the wound.
The creature began to turn, rotating to bring its remaining claw to bear on Elladan, and he took refuge under its abdomen where it could not reach him. Its sting jabbed at him but it could only aim by guesswork and he avoided it with ease. It hesitated, the sting motionless for a brief moment, and he brought one sword up under it and chopped down with the other. Caught between the blades, as if in the jaws of shears, the sting parted from the body and fell to the ground.
“Go for the legs!” Prentice shouted. “If you can take off all the legs on one side it will be helpless!”
A sound idea and one Elladan lost no time putting into practice. He hacked at a leg, aiming at the highest joint, and cut half-way through the limb. At once the bebelith
tried to strike back, scuttling away at speed so that Elladan was exposed to its grasp – and Valen, now back on his feet but bleeding from a gouge that ran from his collar-bone almost to his navel, swung his flail to block the reaching claw. Elladan was free to strike at the leg again and this time to cleave through it.
And suddenly they were working as a team. Elladan delivered the damaging blows and Valen shielded him from retaliation. Nathyrra, limping and with blood soaking the leg of her pants, began thrusting at the holes left by the severed limbs. Her rapier, ineffective against the armoured carapace, was able to penetrate the gaps and inflict damage on the vulnerable flesh within. Prentice moved in and used the reach of his staff to fend off the monster’s strikes at Nathyrra. And the bebelith
collapsed, writhing impotently, able only to drag itself awkwardly across the cave floor and to reach out with its remaining claw in futile attempts to strike its mobile opponents.
Once it was down Valen had no further need to defend Elladan. He began to rain down blows upon the bebelith
, battering against its head and thorax, and at last his flail took effect. Pinned against the stone floor, unable to give before the impacts, the carapace began to crack. Nathyrra turned her attention to the eyes. The final moments were nothing more than butchery. At last the bebelith
, dismembered and pierced by a score of wounds, lay inert.
Valen picked up the pieces of his armour. “This served me well through long years of war,” he said, “and bore mighty enchantments. It will be hard to replace.”
“Perhaps Rizolvir will be able to repair it,” Elladan suggested.
“Perhaps so,” Valen agreed. “He is a skilled craftsman, more so than any I have encountered elsewhere, and yet even his steel might not have been capable of cleaving through the armour of a bebelith
when stripped of magical enhancements. The smith who forged your swords must be a master indeed. And you wield them with the skill of a true warrior.”
“I told you so,” Nathyrra said.
“And I told you that you leave your right leg too exposed when you strike,” Valen replied.
“I am working to correct that flaw,” Nathyrra said, “but your imminent demise drove it out of my mind.”
Valen dipped his head. “Your effort was valiant,” he acknowledged, “and I thank you. And both of us should thank Elladan, for it was through his efforts that we prevailed.”
“We fought as a team,” Elladan stated, “and I trust that we shall continue to do so. Now I had better attend to your injuries.”
“In this dead magic zone our potions might as well be water,” Nathyrra said, “and your curative spells will fail.”
“Then it is just as well that I learned the healing arts in a world in which such spells and potions are unknown,” Elladan said. “I cannot restore you in an instant, as a spell would do, but I can staunch the flow of blood and stop the wounds from getting any worse. That is as much as I can do, in a dimly-lit and spider-infested cave, but it will have to suffice.”
He applied salves and bound the wounds. When dealing with the gash on Nathyrra’s smooth-skinned and lithely muscled leg he experienced some difficulty in maintaining the proper detachment from his subject. He was aroused enough to feel discomfort in some areas of his… armour; in fact his arousal was greater than he had experienced in the past when starlight bathing, in the nude, in the company of willing ellith
considerably more beautiful than Nathyrra. These feelings were inappropriate for the occasion and he suppressed them, by an effort of will, although he suspected that Nathyrra had sensed them despite his efforts. This was not the time, nor the place, to raise the subject and he forced the thoughts from his mind and concentrated upon tending the injuries.
“I wonder,” Prentice mused. “The inscription upon the ancient mechanism that we passed spoke of healing. It could well be that it is a device for casting healing spells.”
“Even if that is the case it will be useless in a zone of no magic,” Nathyrra reminded him. She flexed her bandaged leg, testing its mobility, and ran through a practice lunge and withdrawal. “Let us press on.”
“I hear running water ahead,” Elladan said. “Even if what we seek is not there at least we will be able to wash the filth from our weapons.”
They passed through an archway, beyond the chamber in which they had fought the bebelith
, and found an underground stream running along the side of a paved area. In the centre of the paved section stood an obelisk.
“That is, indeed, the source of the dead magic zone,” Prentice declared.
“Taking it with us will not be easy,” Nathyrra said. “It must be fifteen feet high and made of stone.”
Prentice walked closer and examined the obelisk. “There is a compartment within it fastened with a puzzle lock,” he said, “and the compartment is not large. Our task will be easier than you fear.”
“Can you open the lock?” Elladan asked.
Prentice smiled. “My master Drogan set a puzzle for me to solve at least once every day for seven years,” he said. “I do not anticipate any great difficulty. Hmm. Four lines of four letters in an archaic version of the Thorass runic alphabet.” They bore a marked resemblance to the Angerthas Daeron
, Elladan noted; yet another indication that there had been significant contact between Arda and Faerûn at some time in the forgotten past.
“If it’s a word puzzle I will be at a disadvantage without access to a Read Languages spell,” Prentice went on. “Ah, they change when depressed – except for the one in each line closest to the obelisk. In that case the number of possible words would be limited. North, South, East, and West, perhaps? No, I doubt if there are any languages in which those four words are all made up of the same four letters. Hmm.”
Prentice took a step back and stood, stroking his less than impressive beard, and staring at the symbols. Elladan did not expect anything to happen soon and so went to the nearby stream and began to clean the ichor from his blades; Nathyrra and Valen followed his example.
“Ah, perhaps it is the simplest solution,” Prentice said. “Let me see…” He moved around the obelisk, depressing the plaques which bore the letters, until each line was made up of four repetitions of a single symbol. A ‘click’ sounded and a door slid open. “And indeed it was that simple,” Prentice said. He bent down and peered into the chamber. “Nathyrra,” he said, “would you be so good as to check for traps?”
“There is no need to be so excessively polite, wizard,” Nathyrra said. She examined her blades, decided that they were clean enough, and sheathed them. “Such tasks are my responsibility and you may phrase your instructions as orders without fear of offending me.” She joined Prentice at the obelisk and made a thorough examination of the compartment. “There are no non-magical traps present,” she declared, “and in this environment there is no possibility of Explosive Runes or Glyphs of Warding. You may proceed safely.”
“Thank you,” Prentice said. He reached into the compartment and removed a glowing spherical object. As soon as it was clear of the obelisk the glow went out.
Elladan saw steam rising from one of his sword blades and the other one, in the water, began to grow heavier. He snatched it out and saw that a thick coating of ice had formed on the steel. He gave the sword a hard flick and the ice slid from the blade and splashed into the water.
“The magic is back,” said Prentice. “Useful for the moment, as we can heal up our injuries and open up the Bag of Holding to get replacement armour for Valen, but it might mean that the anti-magic zone is not portable. If this globe only works when it’s installed in the obelisk then we will have to fight the Beholders in their full magical might. Fearful odds indeed. I have been turned to stone before and it is not an experience I remember with fondness.”
“Turned to… stone?” Elladan echoed.
“It’s a long story, and this is no time to relate it,” Prentice said. He turned the globe over and scrutinised the base.
“There is a book about his adventures,” Nathyrra said. “The Seer has a copy.”
Prentice groaned. “A book full of wild exaggerations,” he said, “and I would much prefer you not to read it… aha!” He tensed and bent his head close to the globe. “I see now. The obelisk serves as an amplifier, and recharger, but the globe will function alone. I can activate it and produce a dead magic zone for a few minutes. Long enough for us to kill the Beholders while they are powerless.”
They had encountered only two of the strange monsters on their way into the caverns, before learning of this ‘dead magic’ and diverting from their course to seek out the source, but that experience had been enough to fill Elladan with both loathing for the creatures and a healthy respect for them as opponents. Sauron, in Elladan’s opinion, would have delighted in the malevolent Beholders with their multitude of small eyes on stalks and their massive central eye like a living expression of the Enemy’s own symbol. Killing them while they couldn’t fight back seemed to Elladan merely eminently sensible and not in the least dishonourable.
“And after that we will have to deal with the emissaries from the Valsharess,” Nathyrra said. “Unfortunately using the anti-magic globe against them would weaken us by as much as it would weaken them. It will be a tough fight unless we can catch them asleep – and I, in their place, would not sleep in the lair of the Beholders without a strong guard on watch.”
Elladan couldn’t help feeling relieved that Nathyrra did not expect them to catch the Drow emissaries unawares. Killing monsters while they were helpless was one thing; slitting the throats of sleeping Elves, no matter how evil the mistress they served, was quite another. And the information he had gathered about the Drow culture, while it had horrified and disgusted him, had also made him feel acute sympathy for a people who had suffered terribly. But he knew that a party sent as emissaries of the Valsharess to recruit monsters to her cause would not be hapless conscripts; these would be her loyal followers, dedicated and ruthless, and it would be as pointless trying to sway them from their loyalty with words as it would have been to try to negotiate with Khareese. All he could aim to do would be to kill them as swiftly and efficiently as possible.- - - - -
Cierre trimmed goose feathers to shape and glued them to the shafts. She was not used to seeing geese this early in the year – this month that they called ‘March’ here would be the equivalent of Ches, as far as she could work out – but Pelargir was much farther south than the lands she frequented in Faerûn. It had worked out very conveniently; the geese had provided her with fine quality feathers and, roasted, had provided the Grey Company with a tasty meal. It would have been better if the geese could have hung for a while, of course, but that was impractical. And she’d even managed to find some mushrooms.
She had identified the items retrieved from the bodies of the Drow ambushers. Identification wasn’t one of her primary skills but she had found a Ring of Insight and some Potions of Lore on the body of one of the mages. Using those she’d managed to classify almost everything. And she had made sure that the best items went to Aragorn; not that she had had to overcome any objections, as everyone in the Company agreed with her that Aragorn’s welfare was paramount. She had not neglected to see to her own interests, of course; she had acquired a set of twice-enchanted Bracers of Dexterity, enabling her to pass on her Bracers of Archery to Legolas (who would now be even more of a marvel with a bow), upgraded her Ring of Protection, and kept the Ring of Insight for future use in non-combat situations.
In fact she was wearing the Ring of Insight as she worked, in place of her Ring of Protection, because it had occurred to her that something that enhanced her memory and her powers of deductive reasoning might help her to learn the Westron language. However all the members of the Company who didn’t speak Sindarin were currently asleep and only Elrohir, and an untypically gloomy and silent Legolas, were in her vicinity. She kept the ring on, nonetheless, and continued with her task.
“There are large stocks of arrows on the ships,” Elrohir said, “and, although most of them are the slightly shorter arrows favoured by the Haradrim, some hundreds are long enough for your bow and that of Legolas. I am surprised that you are bothering to re-fletch those shafts.”
“I learned at Helm’s Deep that you can never have too many arrows,” Cierre replied, “and I like having arrows that I have fletched with my own hands. And it gives me something to do. I have no administrative skills, and I know nothing about ships, and I have slept as much as I need.”
“I had hoped to talk with you,” Elrohir said.
“I can talk while I work,” Cierre said, hoping that she did not sound too eager. “What do you wish to talk about?”
“I am wondering about your people,” Elrohir said. “What will Elladan find now that he is trapped amongst them? Saruman said that they are evil, and Gimli said that you had told him this already, but what is the truth?”
Cierre sighed. She had hoped that the handsome Elf had something more romantic in mind. Still, she would rather talk to him than not talk to him, even if the subject was not one she would have chosen. Briefly she considered giving an account that would paint the Drow in a more flattering light than they deserved but decided against it. She knew she was not a good liar and she would be bound to trip herself up. No, she would tell the plain truth.
“Not all of the Drow are evil,” she said, “but most are. Three quarters of the females, and half of the males, worship Lolth the Queen of Spiders. She commands her followers to be merciless, selfish, and cruel. The rest of the males mainly follow Vhaeraun, who teaches that males have as much right to rule as females, and that the Surface Elves should not be our enemies. But he is also merciless to those who oppose him, and is an enemy to Dwarves, and many of his people try to conquer the Surface Elves anyway and he does nothing to restrain them. A few males, and many of the females who do not worship Lolth, are worshippers of Kiaransalee the goddess of the Undead. It was a priestess of Kiaransalee who was with the party that attacked us on the Paths of the Dead – in her company they would have had no fear of any shades. The remaining females worship Eilistraee, Lady Silverhair, the Dark Maiden. She is a good and kind goddess who teaches mercy, forgiveness, and dancing beneath the light of the moon. But her followers are very much in the minority.”
“And you?” asked Elrohir.
“I rejected the gods of the Drow when I left to live on the surface,” Cierre said. “I despise Lolth and do not trust the followers of Vhaeraun. Eilistraee… I considered her, in her capacity of goddess of sword-fighting, but in the end I chose Auril the Frostmaiden. As far as I know I am her only Drow worshipper.”
“So you are not representative of your people?”
“Very much not so,” Cierre confirmed.
Elrohir nodded and then returned to his original line of questioning. “Why is it that the Drow follow such ignoble members of your world’s Valar? Surely it cannot be natural for Elves, in any world, to be inclined toward Evil.”
“We were not always so,” Cierre said. “It is a long story.”
“And it will be three or four hours before Gimli and the Men awake,” Elrohir said. “There is time for a long tale.”
“I shall have to abbreviate it nonetheless,” Cierre said, “for it begins fourteen thousand years ago. In those days we were not known as the Drow, our skin was dark brown rather than black, and our hair was black and not white. We had two realms; Ilythiir, a southern land of hot plains and lush jungle, and Miyeritar, the Sapphire Wood, a northern forest realm that we shared with the Wood Elves. The Ilythiiri were proud and stern, and those who crossed them soon regretted it, but they were not aggressors. The Miyeritari were peaceful folk who devoted themselves to the arts. Until the Sun Elves of Aryvandaar invaded.”
“Sun Elves?” Elrohir queried.
“The Ar-tel-quessir, also known as High Elves,” Cierre said. “The tallest and fairest of the Elves of Faerûn, and the noblest and the wisest – at least in their own minds.” Her lips curled back in a snarl. “But, as Théoden King said to Saruman, were they ten times as wise they would have no right to rule me and mine for their own profit as they desired.”
“They sought to conquer your people?” It was hard for Cierre to read Elrohir’s expressions, for he seemed to pride himself on avoiding displays of emotion, but his eyebrows climbed high and she interpreted that, and his tone of voice, as showing strong disapproval of the actions of those Faerûnian Elves.
“They did conquer Miyeritar,” Cierre said. “The armies were crushed and scattered, the lands occupied, and the people subjugated, and only a few bands of rebels escaped to continue to resist. The Ilythiiri were desperate to help their kinfolk but their realm was far away and the Moon Elf realm of Orishaar lay in between. Ilythiir demanded that Orishaar should cease trading with Aryvandaar and allow the Ilythiiri armies free passage through their lands. Orishaar refused. And so the armies of Ilythiir entered Orishaar anyway. The Moon Elves fought back and the Ilythiiri, needing to secure their lines of communication, crushed Orishaar as ruthlessly as the Sun Elves had crushed Miyeritar. And other Elven nations came to Orishaar’s aid.”
Tears began to trickle down Cierre’s cheeks. “I could never understand why,” she said. “None sought to help us, except the Ilythiiri, but the Elves flocked to assist Orishaar. And the Ilythiiri became bogged down in a war on a dozen fronts, unable to reach us, as we suffered under the Sun Elves.”
“You say ‘we’ and ‘us’,” Elrohir observed. “You are of the Miyeritari, then?”
Cierre shook her head. “I believe so,” she said, “but I have no way of knowing. It is said that the Miyeritari were taller than the Ilythiiri, and I am the tallest of all the Drow save for Qilué Veladorn, and my grandmother was almost as tall as I am. Also I like the cold, and when I saw snow and ice for the first time it felt as if I was coming home, and I am less affected by daylight than are most Drow. None of that is solid evidence, however, and there is no way to be sure. Miyeritar no longer exists. When Ilythiir finally broke through and reached the borders of Miyeritar the Ar-tel-quessir unleashed the Dark Disaster upon Miyeritar.”
Cierre gazed into space, the arrows forgotten, the tears now running down her cheeks in rivulets. “Half a million died as the killing storms raged. The land was scoured bare and even now, twelve thousand years later, it is still a wasteland. The survivors fled and made their way to join the Ilythiiri… who went berserk. From then on they showed no restraint, no mercy. They put forests to the torch, executed prisoners, massacred innocents – just as the Ar-tel-quessir had done to us. And they launched attacks on all who had not helped the Miyeritari. There could be no neutrals. The Wood Elves stood with us, and Illefarn was spared because they had given shelter to refugees from Miyeritar, but the wrath of Ilythiir fell upon all others. Their fury knew no bounds, and their might was great, but their enemies were legion. Therefore the high commanders of the Ilythiiri deserted Eilistraee, and Vhaeraun, and prayed to Lolth for aid. And she sent to them Wendonai, the Balor, and he warred upon the Elves at their side.”
Elrohir shuddered visibly as she said ‘Balor’. “This… Wendonai,” he probed. “A figure of smoke and fire, shaped like a winged Elf or Man, armed with a whip of many thongs or a flaming sword?”
“You have described him precisely,” Cierre confirmed.
“A Balrog,” Elrohir said. He shook his head. “An evil spirit of fire, most fell of Elf-banes save for Sauron, an adversary foul and terrible. Your people fought alongside such an abomination?”
Cierre lifted her head and glared at Elrohir. “They were desperate,” she snapped. “Yes, it was foolish, and it damned them in the end – but they turned to Evil only because Good had stood by and watched as we were slaughtered. Do not condemn them.”
“I spoke not in condemnation, but out of surprise,” Elrohir said. “I understand the extremes of action that can come from desperation.” He sighed audibly. “My father was, for a time, brought up in the household of Maedhros and Maglor, two of the Sons of Fëanor, who were noble and great in many ways. Yet they had sworn an oath, and were bound by it, and as a result they committed terrible atrocities. And they had less excuse than your people, for they were avenging a theft, whereas the Ilythiiri were avenging conquest and massacre. Oh, yes, I understand and sympathise indeed.”
“What did these… Sons of Fëanor… do?” Cierre asked.
“I will tell you at another time,” Elrohir said. “Go on with your tale.”
“The rest is slaughter,” Cierre said. “Massacre upon massacre, as the war continued for another one and a half thousand years. In the battle of The Gods’ Theatre a full seventy thousand Elves perished – and that was but one battle out of hundreds. The armies of Aryvandaar set upon the Moon Elf nations that had been weakened by their struggles against Ilythiir and sought to swallow them up. New wars erupted as Elf fought Elf across the continent. And still, despite the evil of Aryvandaar becoming more and more obvious, the Ilythiiri were regarded as the greater foe and a conclave of Elven mages and priests assembled and wrought magical doom upon my people. We were cursed and condemned to the Descent.”
“Our skin and our hair transformed to be as you see me now,” Cierre explained. “Our eyes became overly sensitive to the light of day and prolonged exposure to sunlight weakens us and burns our skin. We endured for a little while but then fled into the deep places of the world. And thus began our conflict with the Dwarves, with whom we had thus far coexisted in relative peace, for the prime dwelling places in the Night Below belonged to them and we sought to dispossess them by force. Long and bitter have been our wars with the Harglukkin
“If that is so I wonder at your great friendship with Gimli,” Elrohir remarked.
“Why should I resent the Dwarves?” Cierre responded. “In our wars with the Darthien
we were the wronged party, at least to begin with, but the Dwarves did us no wrong until we attacked them. Gimli welcomed me from the beginning and has ever shown me trust and comradeship the like of which I have never before known. He is my aluri abbil
“Indeed Gimli is a redoubtable warrior and a staunch comrade, a worthy son of his renowned father Glóin,” Elrohir agreed. “My father’s choice of Gimli to be a member of the Fellowship could not have been bettered.”
“No, not even Bruenor Battlehammer of my world is a match for Gimli,” Cierre said. A broad grin transformed her still tear-stained face. “I have been accused of trying to emulate Drizzt but managing to be only a poor copy,” she said, “but my Dwarf comrade is better than his Dwarf comrade. Hah! Take that, Do’Urden!” The grin vanished as suddenly as it had appeared and was replaced by a pensive frown. “The Fellowship,” she mused. “I wonder how the other members are faring. Drizzt’s Halfling friend Regis could creep into just about anywhere, and steal just about anything, but I never met Frodo and Sam and cannot judge their abilities. Nor do I know the details of their task.”
This was dangerous ground. Elrohir was certain that Cierre could be trusted but if Aragorn had not told her about the true mission of the Ringbearer then Elrohir was not going to be the one to do so. And what one did not know one could not be forced to reveal in the torture chambers of the Enemy. He had to divert her from that topic and so went back to the original subject of their conversation.
“Did the wars end when your people were cursed?” he asked.
Cierre uttered a short, mirthless, laugh. “End? Oh, no. With the Ilythiiri and the Miyeritari gone the Sun Elves turned their full might upon the remaining Moon Elf and Wood Elf kingdoms. They absorbed their conquests into their new Vyshaantar Empire and sought to crush all resistance totally. They fought with renewed fury, and a fanatical determination, for they had a terrible secret to protect. The Ilythiiri were not the only ones who had sought aid from the powers of Evil. In the court of the Vyshaan Emperor lurked Malkizid, the Fallen Solar, and it was his corrupt advice and dark magics that had enabled the Ar-tel-quessir to prevail in their wars of conquest and to destroy Miyeritar in the Dark Disaster.”
“Fallen Solar?” Elrohir queried. The term sounded ominously reminiscent of a certain being of Middle Earth…
“Solars are the greatest servants of the good gods,” Cierre explained, “powerful beyond measure but normally benevolent. Malkizid served the Elven gods but betrayed them. He was cast out of Arvandor and sought to subvert the Elves and to destroy the Ilythiiri. He nearly succeeded.”
Elrohir hissed and his lips curled back from his teeth. His suspicions were confirmed. This ‘Malkizid’ was exactly the same type of being as Sauron, and had served the Elves of Cierre’s world as Sauron had served Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor – with consequences perhaps even more ruinous.
“But now the Sun Elves had overreached themselves,” Cierre continued. “They were fighting everyone
. So many of their soldiers were tied down occupying the conquered lands that they could not match their opponents in the field. The remaining Elven kingdoms began to roll them back, and the subjugated populations rose in revolt, and the Ilythiiri – now renamed the Drow – launched raids from their new underground homeland. The Vyshaantar Empire collapsed – and Malkizid deserted them and fled. But too late for us.”
“I take it that the curse remained in effect?”
“Indeed so,” Cierre confirmed. “As the Drow we founded new cities in the Underdark, and ruled there, and on occasion sent up parties to the surface to attack the Elves. Eventually we forgot that the Wood Elves had been our friends and allies, and attacked them too, and became enemies to all. Only the followers of Eilistraee lived on the surface without warring upon Elves and Men. More recently a few renegades have taken to life on the surface; myself, and Drizzt Do’Urden, and Liriel Baenre, and Viconia De’Vir. But only Drizzt has gained the trust of the surfacers and really won a place for himself.”
“You say that your people have forgotten that the Wood Elves were their friends,” Legolas spoke up, startling Cierre; Legolas had been sitting staring out over the river and she had not realised that he was listening. “How is it that you remember? Forgive me for saying so, Cierre, but you do not have the air of a loremistress or a scholar.”
Cierre gave him a broad grin. “Quite the opposite,” she said. “In fact that is the very reason why I found out our true history. I was failing in my studies at Arach-Tinilith. I could manage only the simplest of curative spells, and the spells which cause harm and those that bring the blessings of Lolth upon the caster were quite beyond my abilities, and the theology in our lessons baffled me. I feared that I would fail my tests, and bring shame upon my House, and I turned to dishonourable means. One thing I excelled in was stealth and I sneaked into a part of the college that was forbidden to students. I thought I might find the answers to test papers so that I could pass my examinations by cheating. Instead I found the Secret Histories.”
Histories?” Elrohir queried.
“The true history of my people is restricted knowledge,” Cierre explained. “We are taught that we have always been Evil, and that we should glory in it, and that the Darthien
are inferior and are jealous of our greater prowess. To learn that we once had been defeated by them would be a blow to our pride. I found that out when I quoted from the Secret Histories in an essay and was rewarded by being accused of heresy and ignominiously expelled from Arach-Tinilith. A disgrace that proved to be a blessing in disguise, for my uncle was the First Sword of Melee-Magthere, and he arranged for me to be admitted into the Fighters’ College despite me being a female. There I learned that I was good at something else besides stealth. After I had been there four years not one of the other students could stand against me. By the time I left I could defeat even my uncle in three bouts out of five.”
“And your skills have served us well indeed,” Legolas said. “I owe you an apology, Cierre, for I have misjudged you. I saw your ferocity in battle and I regarded it as excessive, as if you gloried in the slaughter, and you seemed to delight in inflicting pain. Yet later I saw you weep over Baldheort, and I saw your anguish when Gimli was poisoned, and I recognised that you were not, in truth, a heartless killer. Now that I have heard your tale I regret my harsh judgement even more. Forgive me.”
“I had not even realised that you felt that way,” Cierre said. “You Elves of Middle Earth hide your emotions so that it is hard to read you. I will not deny that I am hurt… but I forgive you, Legolas. Perhaps I should have told you what I was doing. I sought to break the will of the Dunlendings through terror and in pursuit of that aim I fought to maim as much as to kill.”
“War of the Heart, we call it,” said Elrohir. “You of Mirkwood have forgotten the art, Legolas, for you fight Orcs with no imagination and spiders that are only marginally sentient. My brother and I, however, have used it many times against the Men of Angmar. It can be very effective, especially against unwilling levies, and had I been at Helm’s Deep I would have fought the same way as did Cierre. Probably with less success, I suspect, for I believe her… unfamiliar… appearance magnified the impact of her actions on the morale of the Dunlendings.”
“It was effective indeed,” Legolas agreed, “and I should not have held Cierre’s actions against her when they were justified by our dire situation.”
“I said I forgive you,” Cierre said. “You don’t need to go on about it. I’ll get back to my fletching.” She looked down at her work and her face fell. “Oh, vith!
” she swore. “My glue has set!”- - - - -
Nathyrra hissed a warning and raised her crossbow.
“Light!” said Prentice. A glow emanated from his staff and illuminated the shadows ahead.
A figure stood there, motionless, not reacting to the sudden light. It was a male Drow, taller than Nathyrra but still a good five inches shorter than Cierre, clad in armour of dark red leather trimmed in black. There was something odd about his right leg and he wore a black domino mask. He stood with his arms folded; in his right hand he held a short sword, with an unusual forward-curving blade somewhat resembling that of an amputation knife, but it was not poised ready to strike.
“A Vhaeraun worshipper!” Nathyrra said, almost in a snarl, and took aim.
“Stop!” Elladan commanded. “He is here at my invitation.”
“What?” Nathyrra’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. “How? Why?” She obeyed, however, and lowered her crossbow.
“The how was easy,” Elladan said. “I spoke to… someone… before we left Lith My’athar and arranged to have a message sent. As to why, I would have thought that was obvious.”
“You are a stranger here and do not know the way of things,” Nathyrra said, “and therefore I forgive you. But this is rank stupidity. The followers of the Sly Savage are treacherous and vile.”
“I have met but one,” said Elladan, “and I found him to be honest and worthy of respect. I will judge this Drow as I find him and not by reputation.”
“The only male you have met, and to whom you could have spoken without me witnessing the conversation, is Rizolvir,” Nathyrra deduced. She pursed her lips and tilted her head to one side. “Well, even if he is a spy for the Vhaeraun worshippers, Lith My’athar could not afford to do without him,” she decided, “and indeed I have always found him to be an honest and meticulous craftsman if, perhaps, a trifle avaricious. Very well, then, speak to this male – if Prentice approves, that is, for the Seer has deemed him to be our leader.”
“Elladan came up with an ingenious solution to the problems of House Maeviir,” Prentice said. “I trust his judgement and, when he suggested this, I approved his plan. We did not expect such a quick response or we would have warned you earlier. Let him do the talking.”
Elladan kept his hands well clear of his weapons as he approached the Drow. “Greetings,” he said. “I am Elladan Elrondion. You are the representative of the worshippers of Vhaeraun?”
“I am Jezz, known as the Lame, speaker for House Jaelre,” the Drow answered. “I am told you have a proposition for me. Speak.”
Elladan observed that the Drow’s right leg bore a metal brace at the knee and his boot was built up at the sole. Some dreadful injury had left the leg twisted and permanently shortened. It seemed odd to Elladan that such a crippling disability should exist when healing magic was so prevalent; then he remembered Cierre, when she was instructing the Rangers in the use of Cure spells, cautioning them to be sure to position displaced bones correctly before casting spells on broken limbs. Elladan would have done so as a matter of course but perhaps whatever spellcaster had healed Jezz had neglected to do so. Or he had been injured in a situation where no spells or potions were available and the leg had healed, naturally, with the bones out of place. It was a severe handicap but it was obvious that Jezz had overcome it and was, no doubt, a formidable warrior. Not someone to be taken lightly.
“I want your people to come to the aid of Lith My’athar,” Elladan said, coming straight to the point. “The Valsharess is a threat to you too. And, because she conscripts the survivors of each conquest into her army, she grows stronger with each victory. She needs to be stopped now before she grows too strong for anyone to oppose.”
“We live in the Night Above,” Jezz replied. “She poses little threat to us.”
“I am told there is a city in the Underdark, Rilauven, which is ruled by the worshippers of Vhaeraun,” Elladan countered. “She has not attacked it yet but its turn will come. Perhaps immediately after Lith My’athar.”
“It is more likely that she will move next against the Promenade of Eilistraee,” Jezz said, “and Rilauven is much stronger than either Eilistraeean stronghold. It would be a better place to make a stand. What makes you think you can hold Lith My’athar even with our aid?”
“If we can inflict a reverse upon her I believe we can cause her conscripts to revolt,” Elladan said, “and Lith My’athar’s very weakness provides an opening for that reverse. It appears that the Valsharess is not committing her full strength here and has approached the local… monsters… to bolster her forces. I intend to frustrate that plan. Already we have destroyed the Beholders.”
Jezz’s eyebrows rose. “Formidable adversaries, in truth, and that was a deed well done. You have won a mark in your favour, Elf, and perhaps your scheme has merit. But we are mercenaries. You must offer us some incentive before you can recruit our aid. The inhabitants of Lith My’athar may term it a city but in reality it is a town, and not a large one at that, and I doubt if it has much in the way of wealth.”
“True,” said Elladan, “but many of the worshippers of Eilistraee there are beautiful women who wear very little in the way of clothing. And surely they would feel… well disposed… toward unexpected allies and rescuers.”
A fractional hint of a smile showed on Jezz’s lips. “Perhaps so,” he said. “Indeed a reward that some of my people would prize above gold.” The smile flickered and was gone. “Answer me this, Elf. The Surface Elves have hated us of the Drow for millennia. Yet you are aiding those of Lith My’athar. True, it now houses many followers of Eilistraee, who some among you Surface Dwellers exempt from your loathing of the rest of us, but my… agent… informs me that you gave wise counsel to the Lolthites and showed them courtesy and respect. You have met me with fair words and I see no hint in your eyes that you dissemble. How is it that you appear to be free of the prejudices of your race?”
“I am from another world,” Elladan explained, “and I was brought here by a magical accident. The Elves of my world had never heard of the Drow until one was transported there recently by a similar accident. I have found her to be a redoubtable warrior and a true comrade. The next Drow I met attacked us from ambush, and slew a good friend, but she was a captain in the service of the Valsharess. I will not judge your people by her but will take you as I find you.”
“I am a thief and a killer,” Jezz stated bluntly.
“Perhaps so,” said Elladan, “but you could be something more.”
Jezz looked at him for a long moment, his face inscrutable, and then the lame Drow broke into a smile. “By Vhaeraun, I think I like you, Surface Elf,” he said. “And those are words I never thought that I would utter. I will aid Lith My’athar. But do not expect too much; the main strength of House Jaelre is many leagues away and magically transporting large numbers is not feasible. There are other Vhaeraunite groups relatively near at hand but they owe me no allegiance. I will ask for volunteers but I cannot issue commands.”
“Be sure to mention the naked girls,” Elladan advised.
Jezz laughed aloud. “I do like you, Elf. Very well. I shall see what I can do. But I make no firm promise. I will not come if a mere handful is all I can raise. I will not throw my life away.”
“Dying in a good cause is not throwing away your life,” Elladan said, “but it is your decision. I shall hope to see you at Lith My’athar when the time comes.”- - - - -
Aragorn pricked the blisters on Cierre’s hands and gently squeezed out the liquid. “I have salve that could heal these without need of a spell,” he said, “but you might as well use a Cure spell anyway. It will rid you of the pain in your back as well and there will be plenty of time to regain the spell before we engage in battle once more.”
“As you advise, Jabbuk
,” Cierre said, and cast the spell.
“You are not to take another turn at rowing,” Aragorn told her. “We have more than enough Men available to fill all the berths at the oars and it is much more important that you are at peak fighting efficiency when we arrive at the Harlond.”
“But I am strong, Jabbuk
Aragorn, and many of the rowers have been prisoners forced to row for the enemy,” Cierre protested. “It is not fair that I should do naught but rest as they row us up the river. I wish to contribute.”
“Strong indeed, but you are not accustomed to this form of labour,” Aragorn pointed out. “You harm yourself without need.” He gave her a sharp look. “I suspect that you worry lest the oarsmen resent you if you do not row with them. I assure you there is no need for such fears. You will note that none of the rest of the Grey Company are sharing in the rowing and no-one will think less of them for it. They are saving themselves for the fight, as should you.”
“I am not good at doing nothing,” Cierre said.
“Then return to your lessons in Westron,” Elrohir suggested. “Legolas does not seem to be in any mood to tutor you, alas, but I could take his place.”
“That is an excellent idea,” Aragorn said.
“Indeed so, Jabbuk
,” Cierre agreed, “and I shall do as he suggests.” Aragorn nodded and moved on to attend to someone else. “I thank you, Elrohir,” Cierre said. “What ails Legolas?”
“The Sea Longing,” Elrohir answered.
Cierre turned a look of blank incomprehension on him. “Sea Longing? Why would he long for the sea? He is a Wood Elf, not a Sea Elf. And the sea is horrible
. It made me vomit and feel dizzy for the whole four days of the journey from Neverwinter to Waterdeep. Luckily this river does not have the same motion and I can tolerate it.”
“Not for the sea itself, but for the Undying Lands beyond,” Elrohir explained. “The island of the Valar, where all Elves go when their mortal bodies perish in Arda, and to which many of us have been travelling by sea as Middle Earth grows darker and the Age of Men approaches.”
“You can go to your equivalent of Arvandor by sea?” Cierre’s eyebrows climbed. “How strange. We have to die to get there… well, not me personally, as a worshipper of Auril I will go to Fury’s Heart, and the other Drow will go to the realms of their deities in the Abyss. They don’t let us into Arvandor. I mean the Surface Elves of Faerûn.”
“We can sail there, indeed,” Elrohir confirmed, “and many are doing so, or plan to do so in the future. The Sea Longing can be awakened by the sight of the sea or, as I think is the case with Legolas, by the cry of gulls. In time all the Elves will have left Middle Earth.”
Cierre shook her head. “Weird,” she said. “We seek to put off such a journey for as long as possible. Even those Surface Elves who made the Retreat to Evermeet have been returning to Faerûn of late.” She was not perceptive enough to realise that Evermeet had been created in imitation of Valinor, in the days when some Elves of Faerûn still remembered tales of their origins in Arda, and that the returnees had found the imitation unsatisfactory without ever knowing why.
“There is no return from Valinor,” Elrohir said. “Well, except in the case of Glorfindel, and no-one knows why he was sent back – not even him. Perhaps it was to teach swordsmanship to myself and my brother.”
“He must be good, for you are very skilled,” Cierre said.
“We have needed to be,” Elrohir said. “But we have strayed from the matter of your Westron lessons.” He switched languages. “I shall talk in Westron from now on. You must ask if you need anything translated.”
“Not understand ‘translate-ed’,” Cierre said, in her awkward Westron.
Elrohir repeated the word in Sindarin.
Cierre nodded. “Yes, I ask you if I need translate-ed,” she said. “You tell me about this… war,” she requested, having to use Sindarin for the final word. “We fight much but I not know why. Understand Saruman want to rule Rohan, not understand about Sauron, know Minas Tirith only that Boromir ask me go… to go… there. You tell me more.”
Elrohir obeyed and, as the fleet laboured upstream against the current, he related the events that had led up to the current war. He abbreviated his account considerably, of course, and omitted all mention of the Ring. During the telling of the tale, however, Sauron’s true nature came out.
Cierre’s eyes blazed amber. “He is Fall-ed… Solar?” she said, falling back on Sindarin for the last word. “Like Malkivid?”
“Fallen Solar,” Elrohir corrected her. “Yes, he is the same type of being as the one who corrupted the Elves in your world. Once he was perhaps the greatest of the Maiar, the servants of the Valar, but he followed Morgoth and fell into Evil.”
“Usstan orn vith'ez elgg ukta!
” Cierre spat out. “I will kill him. Malkizid go where I cannot follow. I kill Sauron in-stead.”
Gimli had been talking quietly to Legolas, who was sitting a few feet away from Cierre and Elrohir and staring out over the dark water, but now the Dwarf looked up. “That’s impossible, lass,” Gimli said, speaking in Westron. “He’s a foe far above the likes of us.”
“Not understand ‘impossible’,” Cierre said.
Gimli hesitated, for his Sindarin was not perfect and he could not think of the word at once, and it was Elrohir who supplied the translation.
“Not understand impossible,” Cierre repeated, her tone and the determined set of her jaw making it clear that what she meant was that she did not accept the impossibility of the task. “Heleg Naur can kill anything
. Especially,” she used the Sindarin word and then reverted back to Westron, “if I thrust it up his…”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” Gimli said, his cheeks reddening, before Cierre could complete her sentence, “but you’d never get to him, lass. Barad-dûr is impregnable and guarded by vast numbers of Orcs and Trolls.”
“I kill Orcs and Trolls first,” said Cierre, not bothering to ask for a translation of ‘impregnable’.
“I wouldn’t put it past you,” Gimli said, “but first we’ll have to deal with the army that Strider reckons will be surrounding Minas Tirith by now.”
“Will kill them all,” Cierre declared. “We have many sacks arrows, is open plain – yes? Nowhere to hide. Legolas and me we kill hundreds
“Leave some for me, lass,” Gimli said, a grin beginning to spread across his face.
“I don’t think there’ll be any danger of her getting all of them, friend Dwarf,” Elrohir said, “although I have no doubt that she’ll try. You know, impregnable fortress or not, if Sauron could see our fierce dark warrior maid I think that indeed he would know fear.”
Cierre sensed eyes upon her and turned to see Aragorn looking at her with his lips pursed and a thoughtful expression on his face. He spoke up when he noticed that he was observed.
“Perhaps that is so, my brother,” Aragorn said to Elrohir. “Certainly the hosts arrayed against the White City have cause to fear. They outnumber us many times over, it is true, but we have fifty ships full of stout Men and they will have no archers who can even come close to the skill of Legolas and Cierre. Their foul master has even provided a shroud of darkness that will enable Cierre to loose at her full potential while still being light enough for Legolas to see. We will give a good account of ourselves. And the Rohirrim will come, too.” He turned to gaze upstream. “I only hope that they, and we, arrive in time.”- - - - -
“Less than a thousand, I would say,” Éowyn said, looking down from the cliff edge to where the Dunlendings were beginning to ascend the winding road that led up to Dunharrow. “Some eight hundred, perhaps, or a few more. They take up as much space as would six or seven dismounted éoreds.”
“All I can tell, in this darkness, is that there are a lot of them,” said Merry. “Quite a few more than we have warriors even counting the… shieldmaidens.”
counting the shieldmaidens?” Éowyn shook her head. “You should know better than that, Merry. A shieldmaiden of the Mark is more than a match for a man of any other nation.” She backed away from the cliff edge. “The Dunlendings will be at a great disadvantage on the narrow ascent,” she went on, “and with our mounted éored poised to strike if the Dunlendings break through our foot I have no cause to fear that they might prevail. Some of us will die, and for no good reason, that is all. Fools! What do they hope to achieve by this assault? Their force must be all that escaped from the rout at Helm’s Deep. There cannot be many left behind to defend their own lands, and there are still Orcs at large. They will bring ruin upon themselves for the sake of pointless revenge.” She turned away from Merry to give instructions to some of the Rohirrim who were making their way toward the cliff road.
“Spears in the front and centre,” Éowyn ordered. “Archers to the flanks. Swords and axes to the rear, to fall upon any who break through the spear-hedge.” She saw that the mounted éored was forming up directly in front of the road, frowned, and quickened her pace. “Fréawulf!” she called. “You should not be there. We need to meet them with a shield-wall and spears. You are to be in reserve at the rear.”
Fréawulf ignored her. He rose in his stirrups and shouted out to his éored. “We shall sweep them away by sudden assault,” he cried. “The Dunlendings cannot stand before us. Forth Éorlingas!” Then he set spurs to his steed and it leapt forward. The Riders followed as one and thundered down the causeway.
“Stop!” Éowyn yelled, at the top of her voice. “Come back! Fréawulf, you fool, you lead your Riders to destruction! Stop!”
Two Riders, at the rear of the éored, heard her and obeyed. They reined in their horses, turned, and came back up to rejoin the footmen. The others, whether because they failed to hear her over the noise of the pounding hooves or because they were carried away by the impulse to charge, continued on.
“Stop!” Éowyn shouted again, to no avail, and then gave up. “This is madness,” she said to Merry. “Any half-competent enemy commander will meet them at a turn, where the horses must slow to a walk, and his front line will be able to hold the Riders off while the rest of his men assail the éored’s flanks with javelins and hurled axes. And a commander who managed to extricate his men from Helm’s Deep, fighting through Saruman’s Uruk-Hai to do so, will be more than half-competent. Fréawulf is throwing away his life, and the lives of his Riders, for no…” Her voice trailed away and she clenched her teeth tightly.
Merry looked down over the cliff again and saw that, as Éowyn had said, the horsemen were being forced to slow to walking pace when they approached the tight turns in the zig-zag road. It was impossible to maintain the momentum of their charge.
“I am a fool,” Éowyn said, her tone bitter. “Fréawulf stole gold and gems from Cierre and I did not make public his disgrace. I felt it would dishearten our people and I told him judgement would be postponed until Théoden King returned. But he knows he is dishonoured and now he seeks death in battle to, as he sees it, redeem himself. And he drags an entire éored to their doom along with him! Curse him, and shame on me for not stripping him of his office on the spot.”
She turned once more and began barking out commands. “Herumund!” she addressed one of the two Riders who had held back from the charge. “You now command what remains of our mounted force. Find any who are fit to fight horsed, and who can quickly lay hands upon a mount, and organise what you can. Make haste!”
“At once, Lady Éowyn,” Herumund replied. The majority of those who formed the foot contingent at Dunharrow had suffered minor injuries, or more serious injuries that had been alleviated by the healing spells of Cierre and the Rangers, at Helm’s Deep and had been judged unfit for the long march to Gondor. Many had passed on their horses to serve as remounts for the main army. A few, however, had kept back their mounts; some because the horse, too, had suffered injury at Helm’s Deep and some because their steeds were temperamental beasts that would accept only their own Rider. Yet it was only nine Riders who were able to respond to the summons.
Down on the road below the Dunlendings had advanced past a sharp corner and then, as Éowyn had predicted, pulled back and formed up below the bend. “Why did they do that?” Éowyn wondered. “I suspect a trap. Caltrops, perhaps, dropped on the path to lame the horses. Fréawulf, you fool, can you not see the danger?”
It seemed that he suspected nothing and he led his men forward at the best pace they could manage on the twisting road. And, as they reached the section that the Dunlendings had occupied for a brief time, the horses began to fall. Not caltrops but a simpler, more easily improvised, hazard; small rounded logs, invisible in the dim light, that turned under the horses’ feet and sent them stumbling. Several went over the edge of the path and fell to their deaths, carrying their riders with them, and others lost their footing and crashed to the ground. A hail of darts and light axes flew from the Dunlendings into the flank of the éored, again exactly according to Éowyn’s prediction, and sent Riders tumbling from the saddle. And then the Dunlendings charged, with sword and axe, into a body of horsemen that was no longer an advancing formation but an almost stationary tangle of horses and men.
The Riders fought, of course, but everything was against them. Few of the Dunlendings fell and the Rohirrim were hewn down by the score. Those who turned to flee were struck in the back by yet more axes and javelins. Of the one hundred and eighteen who had set off down the slope only six made it back to the top. Fréawulf was not among them.
“Up here in the open those Riders could have given the Dunlendings a mauling from which they would not have recovered,” Éowyn said. “Now we must fight them with no reserve, and with the people shocked and discouraged, and what would have been our certain victory is now in doubt. Would that Cierre was here! The Dunlendings would quail at the sight of she whom they call the Dugurach
and perhaps even withdraw without another blow being struck. Alas, she is many leagues from here. I will have to do my best to reorganise the defence.”
Merry looked at Éowyn, tall and slim and fair of hair, and a thought struck him. A wild idea, born out of desperation and perhaps with little chance of success, but there seemed to be nothing to lose. “Wait, Lady Éowyn,” he said. “Perhaps there is a way that Cierre could be here after all…”