And I'll find strength in pain
Chapter Eight: And I’ll find strength in pain
Éowyn applied the soot around her eyes with care, making sure that her eyelids were completely covered but that none went into her eyes, and then speeded up as she covered the rest of her face. She ran sooty hands over the backs of her ears, daubed the inside with her fingers, and smeared soot down her neck. Onward to her arms and shoulders, covering every inch, and reaching inside her sleeves and down the front of her bodice. Lastly she lifted the hem of her kirtle, grimacing as she left sooty finger-marks on the garment, and blackened the area between the tops of her boots and her knees.
“An unnecessary precaution, perhaps,” she muttered, “but they will be below me and I might have cause to kick.” Éowyn let the hem fall, straightened up, and turned to a slightly red-faced Merry. “Do you see any gaps?” she asked.
The Hobbit scrutinised her. “The inside of your nose shows pink,” he said. “I’m not tall enough to be sure about everywhere, though. Perhaps you should have brought a maid.”
“There was no time,” Éowyn said. She put a hand into the bag of soot, rubbed her hands together, and then ran a sooty finger around the rims of her nostrils. “Stand on a chair, then.”
Merry paused before mounting the chair, snatched up the chalk that had been used to finish the preparation of the vellum, and then climbed onto the chair. “This will make sure that your hair is pale enough,” he said, and brushed the chalk over her hair. He peered at her closely and suddenly his cheeks flamed red. “I… uh… can’t see any gaps in the soot,” he said, his voice breaking into a squeak half-way through. “Uh, turn around.”
Éowyn’s cheeks felt hot; no doubt they would have showed an equally red colour had it not been for the covering of soot. Merry had, she guessed, seen lower down her front than was proper. Hastily she turned around, as he had requested, so that he could check the rear view for imperfections in the disguise.
He rubbed the chalk over her hair again, running it along the tresses that hung down her back, and then assured her, in a voice that had regained some measure of control, that he could see no omissions in the coverage. “I hope this works,” he said. “You do look very like Cierre, now, but you don’t have her yellow eyes.”
“I think this will fool them,” said Éowyn. “After all, the only Dunlendings who saw Cierre up close are all dead. And it is a cool night, so I will not sweat and ruin the illusion. But if my masquerade is not enough to cause them to flee then I will have to emulate her feats of arms. That may be beyond my abilities.”
“You’ll do fine,” Merry assured her. “You’d better get your hauberk on.”
“Cierre does not wear one,” Éowyn mused, “but I have no armour of green leather such as she wears. And the Dunlendings would see chainmail as superior and it would not make them question my identity.” She took up the hauberk and pulled it on over her head. The ends of her hair lodged under the garment and she reached her hand up to pull the tresses free.
“I’ll do that,” Merry volunteered. “You’d get soot on your hair.” He adjusted her hair and applied a little more chalk. Then Éowyn turned around. “There’s a smudge of chalk on your nose, and the soot has rubbed off your left cheek,” Merry warned her. “Oh, and your left arm now has a streak of clean skin.”
Éowyn daubed soot on her arm, repairing where the original application had rubbed away, and then saw to her cheek. After that she stroked her hand down her nose.
“Wait!” Merry urged, as she raised her hand for another stroke. “That’s… perfect. Somehow it looks much more natural than before. Just like Cierre’s skin. Leave it at that.”
Éowyn raised her eyebrows. “If you say so, Meriadoc, although it needs only be good enough to pass muster by the light of torches,” she said. She took up her sword. “There is no time for more in any event. This will have to do.”
Merry stepped down from the chair and followed her out onto the field. The first person they met was a woman who screamed out in fright. A Rider, one of those who had been among the footmen but had withdrawn to find a mount after the destruction of the éored, rode toward the scream but reined in his horse when he saw the cause.
“Cierre!” he exclaimed, speaking in Westron. “Did you, then, not take the Paths of the Dead? Thank Béma you are here.”
“Well, that’s a promising start,” Merry commented.
Éowyn flashed him a brief smile, her teeth gleaming white against her newly black skin, and then spoke to the Rider. “I am only pretending to be Cierre, Aldfara,” she said. “Let us hope the Dunlendings are fooled also. I see a hand-axe at your belt; will you lend it to me?”
“Lady Éowyn?” Aldfara leaned over and stared. “Béma! You are the very image of the Dark Elf save that your armour is not green and you carry no bow or… axe.” He pulled the axe from his belt and handed it over. “Take it and use it well, my Lady.”
It was a well-made weapon, with a ‘bearded’ blade that could be used to hook an enemy’s shield and pull it aside, and a vicious spike protruding from the reverse of the blade. “I thank you, Aldfara,” Éowyn said, hefting the axe in her left hand. “This should serve well indeed.” Aldfara dipped his head in acknowledgment, wheeled his horse around, and set off again at a canter.
Éowyn hastened on toward the cliff path, walking at such a pace that Merry had to run to keep up with her, passing through women and children who were hastening to the rear away from the approaching Dunlendings. Some of the children cried out in fear and even ran from her; others, who had seen Cierre as she passed through Dunharrow or had heard her described by fathers who had fought at Helm’s Deep, called out in greeting or shouted acclaim; and one overly perceptive girl enquired “Mama, why has Lady Éowyn made herself look like the Dark Elf?”
Éowyn laughed but could not spare the time to pause and explain. She maintained her quick pace and, as she neared the defenders at the place where the road reached the top of the cliff, she gave a shout of “Ultrinnan!
Heads turned among the swordsmen and axe-men who, as Éowyn had directed, made up the rear line of defence. The few Riders on horseback, the survivors of the ill-fated charge plus those footmen who had managed to acquire horses while Éowyn was donning her disguise, wheeled around and raised their weapons high. “Ultrinnan!
” they shouted. “Cierre for the Mark!” Aldfara was among them, having outpaced Éowyn, and no doubt he had forewarned the other Riders. It lifted Éowyn’s spirits nonetheless.
The archers at the flanks were loosing shafts but there was no sign that hand-to-hand combat had begun. Éowyn had feared that the Dunlendings might have reached the cliff-top while she was away but that had not happened. “Let me through,” she called, and the ranks parted. Éowyn made her way through, taking care not to brush against anyone lest she wipe away the soot, and Merry followed at her heels.
The front rank of the Dunlendings had just rounded the last bend, forty yards away, and as they saw Éowyn they came to a halt. It had taken them longer to make the ascent than Éowyn would have expected; perhaps, she thought, they had been delayed by having to scramble over, or past, the dead horses that must have formed a barrier to their progress. Whatever the reason she was deeply thankful for the delay; her appearance would have made much less of an impact if the two forces had been already engaged.
The ranks of spearmen, blocking the exit of the road and overlapping to the sides, closed up behind Éowyn. She felt her heart pounding. If her bluff did not work, and the Dunlendings charged at her in a body, she would be overwhelmed. She was committed now and it was too late now to change her mind; if she turned back, and demanded that the shield-wall open up to admit her, it would create an opening that the Dunlendings might exploit with a sudden charge. And if they broke through, with only seventeen horsemen now remaining to mount a counter-attack, the likelihood was that they would overrun Dunharrow and the women and children would be at their mercy. Éowyn summoned up her resolve, suppressed her fear, and advanced at a slow walk.
She could hear cries of ‘Dugurach
’ from the ranks of the Dunlendings, in tones of alarm, and she saw that their advance had come to a dead halt. An arrow sailed out from the midst of the enemy, aimed at her, but the archer must have been unsighted and it missed her by a good five feet. No further arrows followed.
Éowyn halted and raised her sword high. “Ultrinnan!
” she cried again, and then, emulating Cierre’s imperfect Westron as best she could, added “Who die first?”- - - - -
Cadarn stared in horror at the Dugurach
. He had been certain that she would have gone with the Forgoil
army to the city of the Stonelendings. If he had known she was here he would have reconsidered this whole venture. Revenge, and the prospect of loot and of women to take as slaves, might not be enough incentive to get his men to follow him when faced with such a deadly opponent. He had seen her slay a whole troop in less than a minute, and cleave Gethmadoc in two at the waist, and the thought of facing her sword to sword made him shudder. Yet if he called for a retreat now, when they had won no loot and achieved only a small victory against a single troop of the Forgoil
horsemen, he would be finished as a chieftain.
At his side stood the mightiest Dunlending warrior to have survived the disaster at Helm’s Deep; Tansad, known as the Iron Man of Dunland, whose son Gutho had been slain by the Dugurach
. Tansad had been stunned by a fall from a siege ladder, relatively early in the Battle of the Hornburg, and had recovered too late to take any part in the fight against Cierre.
“That witch killed my son,” Tansad growled. “I will have my revenge.” He brandished his battle-axe and shouted out a reply to the Dugurach’s
challenge. “I will have your head, witch!” Then he strode forward.
Cadarn, somewhat reluctantly, went with him; he feared loss of status slightly more than he feared the dread black-skinned female warrior who faced them. Tansad was left-handed, something that gave him an advantage against most opponents, and so Cadarn positioned himself to Tansad’s right. “Be wary of her spell of Darkness,” he warned the Iron Man. “Take care, if she casts it, not to smite me in error. Several of our men at the stone castle died at the hands of their fellows in the blackness.”
Tansad merely grunted in reply. Cadarn had a feeling that the veteran warrior would regard accidentally striking him as an acceptable loss if the Dugurach perished along with him. He resolved to retreat quickly, if the witch cast the spell, and let Tansad swing his axe unhindered.
As they approached the black-skinned female Cadarn noticed a small figure behind her. His heart sank for a moment and then he realised that it was not the Dwarf who had wielded his axe with such deadly effect at the wall of the stone castle. This Dwarf had no beard, and held a long dagger instead of an axe; a son of the other Dwarf, perhaps? He did not look as formidable as the other, and was too far back to be able to aid the witch immediately, and Cadarn’s confidence began to rise. There was no sign of the Dugurach
casting any spell and surely she could not defeat him and the mighty Tansad, both at once, without the aid of sorcery. Tansad broke into a run and Cadarn charged with him. He raised his sword to strike.- - - - -
Éowyn saw two Men step forward from the ranks of the Dunlendings and advance. One of them shouted a challenge, incomprehensible to her as it was in his own language, but she responded with another cry of “Ultrinnan!
” nonetheless. She studied the warriors. They were better equipped than their fellows, wearing fine chain-mail hauberks that most likely had been taken from dead Riders, and she deduced that they were chieftains or champions of their people. If she could slay them it could well break the morale of the Dunlendings entirely and cause them to retreat. Yet defeating them would be difficult. Éowyn had no fear of any Man, and believed that she could give a good account of herself even against a warrior such as her brother or Erkenbrand if she had room to manoeuvre, but two at once, in the restricted space of the cliff road, was quite another matter. Her only chance, she knew, rested upon the unconventional moves taught to her by Cierre.
Éowyn lowered her sword until its tip rested almost on the ground. The Dunlending to her right, a massive Man who stood well over six feet tall and bore a single-handed battle-axe and shield, was left-handed. This could work to her advantage. Behind the two Men she saw another Dunlending beginning to run forward but she paid him no heed for the moment. The fight would be over, one way or another, before he could get involved. She poised herself for action; timing would be everything in this fight.
The tall Dunlending’s axe came up in preparation for a downward strike. Éowyn took two quick steps forward and brought up her sword in the lightning-fast flick that she had used successfully against the training dummy. Her aim was good and her blade struck home under the base of the warrior’s arm. The blade did not cut through the chain above the shoulder, and for an instant it seemed that all she had achieved was to make the warrior release his axe, but then the arm flopped down, the few shreds of skin and flesh that were still attached tore free, and the severed limb fell to the ground. A torrent of blood accompanied it, pouring down the side of the hauberk, and began to form a pool on the road.
Even before the arm had fallen Éowyn had struck again. The other Dunlending was still readjusting his aim to compensate for her movement when she lashed up with her hand-axe, striking with the spike at the reverse of the blade, and aiming between his legs.
Cadarn screamed at a pitch that should have been impossible for a male voice. His sword fell from nerveless fingers. Éowyn wrenched the axe free, releasing another torrent of blood, and Cadarn sank to his knees. He clutched at his groin, still screaming, and Éowyn lifted her left foot and kicked him off the edge of the road. His screams were cut off as he slid down the slope, nearly vertical at this point, crashing against rocks until he landed on a lower section of the zig-zag road and lay still.
Tansad somehow managed to remain on his feet, despite his ghastly wound, and he struck out with his shield and drove it against Éowyn. He caught her in the middle of bringing down her foot after kicking Cadarn and she lost her balance and went down. She landed on her backside, sending a painful jolt through her spine, but suffered no injury. At once she retaliated, sweeping her sword around at Tansad’s legs, and the enchanted blade sheared through his left leg at shin level and swept on to bite deep into his right calf. The tall warrior toppled like a felled tree.
Éowyn scrambled to her feet. She considered delivering a finishing blow as an act of mercy; the bravery of this Man, who had attempted to fight on even after suffering a terrible injury, was worthy of respect even in an enemy. However she believed that Cierre would have left him lying, moaning in agony, to inspire even more terror in the foe. For the moment, therefore, she acted as Cierre would have done and withheld the mercy stroke.
She lifted her gaze to the third Dunlending, ten yards away, and saw that he held a hand-axe and was drawing back his arm for a throw. She had no shield, her hand-axe was held low and she would never get it into position for a throw in time to beat the Dunlending, and all she could do was to tense ready to try to dodge the weapon. Then something flashed past her and struck the attacker in the throat.
The hand-axe dropped to the ground, the throw uncompleted, and the Dunlending clawed at his throat and fell on his face. Merry had thrown a knife; not the long knife that served him as a sword but the small, razor-sharp, knife borrowed from Derngar the fletcher to fashion quill pens.
Éowyn glanced back over her shoulder, saw Merry’s arm still extended from the throw, and realised what had happened. Quite possibly Merry had saved her from death or serious injury. “Thank you, abbil
,” she called. She could remember Cierre using that word to her, in a context that implied that it meant ‘friend’, and she thought that saying something other than ‘ultrinnan
’ might provide an additional touch of verisimilitude to her impersonation. Then she turned back to face the remaining Dunlendings and shouted out “Ultrinnan
” yet again. She took a single stride toward them… and they broke.
The Dunlendings turned around, almost in unison, and began to retreat down the road. The retreat rapidly became a rout, their pace quickening to a headlong run, and a few at the fringes of the mob were jostled so badly that they went over the edge of the path and fell to suffer death or injury on the steep slope.
Éowyn watched their flight until it was quite obvious that they would not be returning. Then she went to the body of the tall axe-man and looked down upon him. She was ready to administer a mercy stroke but she saw that it would not be necessary; the Dunlending warrior lay still and silent, the blood flow had stopped, and it was apparent that he had died from shock or loss of blood. Éowyn breathed a sigh of relief and made her way back up the road.
“I thank you, Meriadoc,” she said to the Hobbit. “Your quick action may have saved my life and your cunning scheme has driven off the Dunlendings. You are a worthy ally of the Mark and deserve great honour and praise.”
Merry looked up at her with a solemn expression. “I’ve never killed a Man before,” he said. “I stabbed some Orcs, when they took us prisoner, but it’s not the same.”
“I know,” Éowyn said. “I, too, had slain Orcs before this day but never a Man. Cierre told me that war is more about butchery than glory and I see that she was right.” She realised that she was still holding her sword, and made to sheath it, but then remembered that the blade was covered in blood. She could not face wiping it clean and so continued to hold it, merely lowering it to point toward the ground, and lowered the bloody hand-axe too. “But we drove off the enemy and saved Dunharrow. That is what matters.”
“True,” said Merry, “but I still feel… sick.”
“As do I,” said Éowyn, “and I really need a bath.”
Merry grinned. “More so than ever before in your life, I would say,” he said.
Éowyn could only nod in reply. She was feeling nauseous and weary but she forced a smile onto her face as she led Merry the rest of the way up the road to meet the rejoicing crowd. Victory did not taste as sweet as she had expected but it was, she knew, much better than defeat.- - - - -
“They… do not… pursue,” a Dunlending declared, his speech laboured as he panted for breath.
“We slew most… of their horsemen, I think,” another said. “They will… not… pursue on foot.”
One who was bent over, clutching his knees, straightened up and took a deep breath. “Yet if the Dugurach
follows us we will be at her mercy in the darkness,” he said. “We must get far away from here.”
“But where shall we go?” asked another. “Back to our villages, defeated, with nothing to show for this venture but dead chieftains? And if the Forgoil
army returns from the land of the Stonelendings they will invade our lands and destroy us.”
“We could still attack their capital,” the second speaker suggested. “Even now we outnumber those we saw there by some two to one.”
“If their… horsemen come out to attack us… on the open plain… we will be cut to pieces,” said he who had spoken first. “That is why Cadarn led us past Edoras and it was a wise decision.”
“Unlike his decision to bring us to this place,” another said, bitterly.
“He could not have known that the Dugurach
would be here,” the first speaker defended the fallen chieftain, “and he has died for his choice. Let him rest in peace.”
“Saruman asked for Men to go North-west, to a land in Eriador called the Shire,” said the one who had feared that the Dugurach
would pursue. “He said it is a rich land, ripe for the picking, defended only by a race of small people with no armies. Perhaps we could go there.”
“We will be in disfavour with the Old Man after our flight from the battle at the stone walls,” said he who had wondered where they should go. “There may be no welcome for us in this ‘Shire’.”
“Who is to know we were there?” the previous speaker pointed out. “The Orcs were destroyed. There is none to bear witness against us. We can claim that we were never at the battle.”
“I will go back to my farm,” said another, “and trust that the Forgoil
army perishes in the war to the South.”
“Not I,” a youth, whose beard had barely begun to grow, declared. “I will seek out the Shire. Perhaps there may be riches to be won there.”
A debate began and expanded as the last stragglers of the rout arrived and joined in. Eventually the majority decided to return to Dunland. A large contingent, however, declared for the Shire. As the route to Eriador would take them first to Dunland others decided to delay their decision. Some considered collecting their families, as they passed through their homeland, and taking them to the Shire to settle in new lands won at the point of the sword. By the time they set off again, to sneak past Edoras once more and head for the Gap of Rohan, nearly two hundred were committed to continuing on to the Shire.- - - - -
Pippin watched from the shadows as Gandalf faced the Lord of the Nazgûl.
“Old fool!” said the Witch-King. “This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!’ And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.
“No,” said Gandalf, “Death comes for you, with a heart that knows no fear and a weapon that can cleave through anything, and terror walks at her side.”
The Lord of the Nazgûl seemed to falter. His face could not be seen to read his expression but his sword lowered slightly. “At her
side?” he echoed.
And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
As if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
The Ringwraith turned his horse around and galloped off. He was out of sight within moments. Gandalf sat still for a moment, listening, and then urged Shadowfax forward.
Pippin ran out from his position of concealment. “Gandalf! Gandalf!” he cried. “Wait!”
Gandalf brought Shadowfax to a halt and turned his head. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Is it not a law in the City that those who wear the black and silver must stay in the Citadel, unless their lord gives them leave?”
“He has,” Pippin answered. “He sent me away. But I am frightened. Something terrible may happen up there. The Lord is out of his mind, I think. I am afraid he will kill himself, and kill Faramir too. Can’t you do something?”
Gandalf looked through the gaping Gate, and already on the fields he heard the gathering sound of battle. He clenched his hand into a fist. “I must go forth,” he said. “The Black Rider is abroad, and he will yet bring ruin on us. I have no time.”
“But Faramir!” cried Pippin. “He is not dead, and they will burn him alive, if someone does not stop them.”
“Burn him alive?” said Gandalf. “What is this tale? Be quick!”
Pippin spoke in haste, relating the tale of Denethor’s madness and of the pyre he was having built for himself and Faramir, and he implored Gandalf to come to Faramir’s rescue. “And did you not say that Cierre was coming to kill the Black Rider?” Pippin finished. “You can leave him to her and save Faramir.”
“I was bluffing,” Gandalf confessed. “I believe she is capable of killing him, indeed, but I know not where she is at this time. Glorfindel’s prophecy of the Witch-King’s doom may refer to Cierre, perhaps, but I am only guessing and so I named her not. I sought only to sow doubt in the Nazgûl’s mind.”
“I think you succeeded,” Pippin said, “but you must come now or Faramir will perish.”
“It seems I must, for no other help will come to him,” said Gandalf, “but I fear evil will come of this and others will die.” He reached out his hand, swept Pippin into the saddle, and turned Shadowfax about. They rode up the winding streets, observing Men rising from their despair and taking up their weapons with new hope, and soon came upon Prince Imrahil at the head of his Swan Knights.
“Whither now, Mithrandir?” Imrahil called. “The Rohirrim are fighting on the fields of Gondor! We must gather all the strength that we can find.”
“You will need every man and more,” Gandalf agreed. “Make all haste. I will come when I can. But I have an errand to the Lord Denethor that will not wait. Take command in the Lord’s absence!”
And they left Imrahil behind, and raced on to the Citadel, while behind them the great battle began.- - - - -
Théoden had divided his forces into four. The centre would be the Royal Guard of three hundred Riders, with Éomer commanding a division of eighteen éoreds following immediately behind; the right wing would be Marshall Elfhelm, with another eighteen éoreds; and at the left Grimbold, promoted to Marshall after the death of Théodred, with the same number under his command. The remaining six éoreds he appointed as a rearguard, under a Captain named Fastred who had distinguished himself at Helm’s Deep, with instructions to allow the main body to get a league ahead and then follow. If any foe sought to encircle the leading divisions Fastred was to come to the rescue and fall upon the enemy from behind.
The host of Rohan passed through the out-walls of the Rammas with no alarm being raised. The few Orcs that manned the position were taken unawares, for they knew that a strong guard blocked the road from Rohan, and had believed that no foe could come upon them without a fierce fight which would raise the alarm. They were cut down in moments, without loss to the Riders, and the Rohirrim advanced onto the fields with their presence still unsuspected.
Then a wind sprang up, parting the clouds that Sauron had sent to block out the sun, and light glimmered in the skies to the South. A good omen, the Riders felt, and their hearts lifted. Almost at the same time, however, a brilliant flash as of lightning lit up the White City. It was half a minute before the ‘boom!’ of the thunderclap reached the ranks of the Rohirrim.
At that sound the king rose in his stirrups. “Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
” he cried.
“Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
He took a horn from his banner-bearer Guthláf and blew a great blast upon it. Throughout the host horns blew in answer. “Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
” Théoden called again, and the éoreds rolled forward and swept across the field like three great waves.
War-cries sounded from each of the divisions. “For the Mark!” and “Eorlingas!” and “For Théoden King!” But from Éomer’s division, most of whom had been at the Hornburg, went up their new battle-cry. “Ultrinnan!
”- - - - -
A thunderous knocking on his chamber door woke Elladan. “Yes?” he called.
The door opened and Prentice rushed in. “Zesyyr sends word that the army of the Valsharess has been sighted,” the Wizard announced, “and I cannot find… Nathyrra…” His voice trailed away as the face of the Drow in question appeared from behind Elladan’s shoulder.
“I am here, Wizard,” Nathyrra said, raising herself up on one elbow and holding up the sheet to conceal her breasts. “I will dress and arm myself as fast as I can.”
“Oh. Uh. Right,” Prentice said, blushing red. “Um, congratulations.”
“We are not betrothed,” Nathyrra said. “We but sought comfort, after the horrors we saw in the lair of the vampires, and there has been no talk yet of love. Such matters must wait until the threat of the Valsharess is ended.”
Elladan reached up and touched her cheek with his fingers. “Indeed so,” he said, “but once she is gone then I will have much to say to you. For now, though, we must fight.”
“She strikes sooner than I would have wished,” said Prentice. “We have slain most of her prospective allies but we had no chance to travel to the islands. I know not what recruits to her cause she may have found there.”
“It cannot be helped,” Elladan said. “Now, if you would leave us to dress…”
“Oh. Of course,” Prentice said, the blush returning to his cheeks, and he hastened out.
Nathyrra slipped from the bed and stood up. Elladan’s body reacted to the sight of her nude form, even though they had made love six times already during the sleep period, and as he rose from the bed Nathyrra glanced in his direction and her eyebrows rose.
“I can hardly believe that fit inside me,” she said, “and I would dearly like to rediscover how it was achieved. Alas that there is no time.” She was dressing even as she spoke.
Elladan began pulling on his clothes. “You speak for me too,” he said. “I look forward to our own personal victory celebration. But after that I will have another Dark Lord to confront.”
“I will be at your side, if you will have me,” Nathyrra offered, as she buckled her sword-belt at her waist.
“I could ask for no better partner,” said Elladan, “in any sense.” He donned his armour, his arousal having diminished enough for him to manage it without excessive discomfort, and buckled up the straps. Nathyrra came to assist him with the task; her proximity reawakened his desire and made him wish that his mithril armour was more flexible in certain areas. He could not hold back from placing a soft kiss upon her cheek.
“Later, my lover,” Nathyrra said, but she reciprocated his gesture. She handed him his sword-belt and then took up her crossbow. Elladan fastened his belt, picked up his bow and quiver, and made for the door.
In the corridor they saw Prentice again, even redder of face, standing outside Valen’s room. “I am so sorry,” he was saying. “Oh my goodness! I am so sorry!”
“I take it Valen also did not sleep alone,” Elladan deduced. “Matron Mother Myrune? No, she would insist that he go to her chambers. And Zesyyr must be elsewhere if she sent word to you about the approaching army. Who was it?”
“The, ah, Deva who we rescued from the vampires,” Prentice replied.
“Lavoera,” Nathyrra supplied.
“Yes, Lavoera,” Prentice said. “And they were actually… doing it. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life!”
“Well,” Elladan said, “I hope they finish… doing it… quickly. We have a battle to fight!”- - - - -
Théoden’s guard smashed through the Haradrim cavalry. Théoden made for the Amir commanding the contingent and the point of his lance drove through the Southron’s gilded armour and burst out through the back. Théoden released the trapped weapon, drew sword, and charged on to the standard bearer. He hewed through the banner’s shaft, sending the Black Serpent flag fluttering to the ground, and struck again to send the bearer tumbling from his horse. The Southron regiment numbered a full thousand, more than three times as many as Théoden’s guard, and the king had far outpaced Éomer’s division and had no reinforcements to hand. Yet in the first clash of arms nearly three hundred of the Haradrim had fallen, and they had inflicted a mere handful of casualties in return, and when they saw their Amir and his banner fall they lost heart and turned and fled at a headlong pace.
Then, in the moment of Théoden’s triumph, a shadow fell over the Riders as a great flying beast descended from the sky. Cierre would have named it a wyvern, for it was not of dragon-kind; it had but two legs, though it bore no feathers, and had leathery flight membranes stretched between long fingers like those of a bat. Astride the loathsome creature sat the Lord of the Nazgûl. The horses of the Rohirrim reared and wheeled about in panic. Few of the Riders could retain enough self-control to attempt to restrain them. Many were cast from the saddle, to lie upon the ground bereft of wit and helpless in their fear, and others were carried away by their fleeing mounts.
“To me! To me!” cried Théoden. “Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!” But his steed Snowmane reared high, striking with his hooves at an opponent beyond his reach, and then a dart streaked from the Nazgûl’s hand and struck Snowmane in the neck. The war-horse lost its footing and crashed to the ground. Théoden was pinned beneath it and, as Snowmane writhed in pain and fear, Théoden’s leg was crushed and broken.
The fell flying creature swooped down and landed upon the body of the horse. The wyvern’s lizard-like head, borne upon a long scaly neck, dipped to the neck of Snowmane. The fanged jaws ripped, and tore, and the horse shuddered and lay still.
Yet Théoden was not utterly forsaken, for faithful Háma, the door-ward of Meduseld, had dismounted from his steed before it could bear him away. “You shall not touch my lord and master!” Háma cried, drawing sword and rushing to the king’s aid. He struck one blow, making a rent in the membrane of one of the great wings, and then the Witch-King leaned forward and lashed out with his flaming sword. Háma’s head flew from his shoulders and rolled upon the ground.
Then the Lord of the Nazgûl gave his dread mount a command and the beast lowered its head once more. Its fangs closed upon the head of Théoden, and sheared through flesh, and Théoden’s head too was severed from his body. The Witch-King laughed, a sound like unto the grating of a rusted portcullis being raised, and ordered his steed into the air once more.
From the gate of Minas Tirith there issued a sortie; Prince Imrahil, and his sons Erchirion and Amrothos, leading forth the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth to drive away the enemy from before the gate now that the ranks of the foe were disordered by the onslaught of the Rohirrim.
The Lord of the Nazgûl saw them come, and recognised Imrahil by the banner of the Silver Swan, and knew that here was one who could lead the Men of Gondor to great deeds of valour. He urged his fell steed across the battlefield to intercept, positioned himself above the Swan Knights, and swooped down to attack again.
Once more chaos and terror spread as the Witch-King descended. The Swan Knights scattered, and some were thrown from their horses, and others were carried away across the fields and set upon by Orcs and Southrons. Prince Amrothos was thrown heavily and lay stunned. Erchirion, however, managed to dismount in good order and readied his sword to fight against this enemy from the skies. Imrahil’s horse reared, as had Théoden’s, and again the Ringwraith threw a dart. Imrahil’s charger was protected by armoured barding and this time the dart glanced off harmlessly. The horse returned its feet to the ground and Imrahil swung down from the saddle. Father and son stood together and raised their weapons in defiance of the Morgul Lord.
Down plunged the wyvern. The Witch-King extended a pointing hand and spoke a Word of Power. Imrahil’s sword shattered in his grasp. The fell beast seized the prince in its talons and climbed upward. Yet even as its talons closed Prince Erchirion hewed at it and inflicted a wound upon the muscles of its breast. The injury did not hinder the creature from ascending high. Two hundred feet above the ground it opened its claws and let Imrahil plummet to his death.
The Ringwraith urged his steed down again. It hurtled toward Erchirion, smashed into him, and knocked the young prince from his feet. Its head darted out on its long neck and the jaws clamped upon Erchirion’s sword-arm. It wrenched, and tore, and tossed Erchirion away. The arm, severed at the elbow, remained in the wyvern’s jaws. The prince crashed to the ground and lay still.
The Witch-King set his course upward once again. The flying steed rose more slowly than before. The two wounds, one to a wing membrane and the other to the flight muscles, were hampering its progress. There was no danger, as yet, of it being unable to stay in the air but its speed and manoeuvrability were impaired. The Nazgûl frowned, although as he was invisible and a hundred feet up in the air none could see it; this might force a change of plan upon him.
His aim was to decapitate the enemy command structure. Thus far he had been successful; the King of Rohan was dead, the Prince of Dol Amroth likewise, and the Prince’s son dead or so badly injured as to be incapable of action. The Witch-King’s next move, however, was less obvious. There were three large bodies of Rohirric horsemen in sight, rampaging unchecked across the battlefield and defeating all in their path, plus a smaller body some distance off that had not yet joined the fray. The Witch-King could not tell which contingent held the successor to Théoden, the logical next victim, and so chose the nearest and headed off in pursuit.
The division that he had selected as his objective tore through an Orc encampment, slaying and setting tents and siege engines afire, and then raced on toward a body of Haradrim cavalry. The Witch-King laboured in their wake. He was gaining on them only slowly; by the time he caught up the Riders would be engaged in combat with the Haradrim and his intervention would demoralise the Southrons almost as much as the Rohirrim. To pick out, and slay, the commander of the Riders would be difficult in the confusion. And if the wyvern suffered a further injury in the fray it might negate the beast’s ability to fly altogether.
The Witch-King directed his steed into a climbing turn and abandoned his pursuit. He had decided upon a less mobile target. The Steward of Gondor.- - - - -
“Prince Imrahil has fallen!” came the cry. “His sons too! Dol Amroth is overthrown!”
Gandalf’s face was grim as he heard the dire news relayed up through the city. “I knew tragedy would befall if I was not there to oppose the Witch-King,” he said, “but you were right, Pippin, I could not leave Faramir to be burnt to death; as he would have been if not for you and Beregond. But now I must leave you. My small skills as a healer are outweighed by the need for me upon the field of battle. Stay with Faramir.” With that Gandalf mounted Shadowfax and galloped off.
The Men bearing Faramir upon his bier carried him into the Houses of Healing. Beregond, in obedience to Gandalf’s instructions, set off for the Citadel to report to the chief of the Guard what had transpired. Pippin followed behind those bearing Faramir and, upon entering the Houses, he saw a figure he had seen before.
The Princess of Dol Amroth stood there, in her grey healer’s robes, her face a deathly white and her eyes huge in her face. “Father!” she cried. “What is this I hear? My father and my brothers slain? It cannot be!” And then Lothíriel set eyes upon Faramir. “Cousin! How is it that you lie as if close to death? Oh, woe!”
An older woman, also in grey, laid a hand upon Lothíriel’s shoulder. “Have courage, my Lady,” she said. “You have duties to perform. There will be time to mourn once we have seen to the injured.”
Lothíriel’s face contorted, her shoulders heaved, and she swallowed hard. “You are right, Ioreth,” she said. “I must think first of the living.” She made her way to Faramir, bent over him, and touched her hand to his brow. “I would say that he suffers from the Black Breath,” she declared, “except that he has a fever and that is unusual in such a case. Whatever ails him is beyond my skill, alas. All that we can do for him at this time is to give him fluids, try to keep him from sinking into a deep sleep, and apply cold damp cloths to alleviate the fever. Take him into a room over there,” she ordered, pointing, “and set him down upon a bed. Mistress Ioreth shall direct you. I shall send a Healer to him as soon as one can be spared.”
“Are you not a Healer, milady?” asked one of the bearers.
“An apprentice only,” replied Lothíriel, “and the cure for the Black Breath is not yet known even to our Master Healers. Yet we shall persevere. Now I must go. I am to assist in an amputation. Follow the directions of Ioreth.”
“You’ve had a dreadful shock, my Lady,” Ioreth observed. “Are you sure you’re in a fit state to help with an amputation? Maybe you should sit yourself down and have a nice cup of tea.”
“As you pointed out, I have a duty to the patients,” Lothíriel replied. “I leave Faramir in your hands, Ioreth.” She turned and departed for some destination deeper in the Houses.
The bier carriers accompanied Ioreth to the room indicated by Lothíriel. Pippin followed close behind. Ioreth turned, put her hands on her hips, and glared at him.
“Where do you think you’re going, young…?” she began, and then raised her hands to her face. “Oh, my word, it is the Ernil i Pheriannath
! I beg your pardon, my Lord. I thought you but a page.”
“That’s quite all right,” Pippin said, “and there’s no need to call me ‘my Lord’. Gandalf – that is, Mithrandir – said that I was to stay with Faramir.”
“Oh, well, if Mithrandir said it, then it’s not my place to say no,” said Ioreth. “But if you’re to be here then you can make yourself useful.” Ioreth watched as the carriers set the bier down, bullied them into assisting her in removing Faramir’s oil-soaked garments, and then had them transfer him to the bed. As soon as the patient was settled into place Ioreth hustled the bearers out of the room. She then gave Pippin detailed instructions on how he was to use the cold cloths and the correct method of administering drinks to a semi-conscious Man.
She was very direct and forceful in her manner. Altogether she was a rather intimidating woman who reminded Pippin of a formidable cook who had worked at the Great Smials. No doubt she could be a very terror if anything threatened the orderliness of the Houses of Healing, as the cook had been if the order of her kitchen was disturbed, and Pippin felt that he wouldn’t dare disregard her instructions.
“Now do as I say and Lord Faramir may yet be saved,” Ioreth said. “I must go. More wounded Men could be brought in from the battlefield at any time. Remember, if Lord Faramir falls fully asleep before a Healer has examined him, you must wake him within two hours at the most!” She hastened out, taking Faramir’s clothes with her for disposal or cleaning, and left Pippin alone with his charge.
The Hobbit sighed. He had not expected to be set a task that would trap him in one place for an unknown length of time. Still, it was in the interests of Faramir, and it was better than waiting outside Denethor’s chamber for hours on end had been. He hoped that a Healer would come, and that there would be some food available for one who was neither a Healer nor a patient, before too long.
Only a few minutes had passed, and he had had no chance yet to become bored, when he heard a disturbance outside. At first he thought merely that another batch of wounded Men from the battle had arrived at the Houses of Healing. Then it registered on him that he was hearing screams, and cries of alarm, and even the clash of steel. Had the besieging forces burst through the broken gate and made their way up to the sixth circle? Yet surely they could not have penetrated so deeply into the city in the short time since word had come of the fall of Prince Imrahil. Could a few of the enemy’s Men have managed to sneak in somehow, aiming to slay Denethor, and were now coming for Faramir? Or had Beregond, returning to the Houses of Healing after reporting to the Guard captain, been attacked by other Guards who regarded him as a traitor for his actions at the House of the Steward?
Pippin hesitated. He was reluctant to leave Faramir’s side and yet felt that, if the commotion was indeed an attack on Beregond, he might be the only one who could resolve the matter without further bloodshed. And if it was an enemy force then they needed to be stopped as soon as possible. Pippin stood, drew his sword, and went out into the lobby.
A Man in the robes of a Healer, who Pippin had not previously encountered, almost bowled him over as he fled from the lobby into the inner rooms. Ahead of Pippin a soldier in the green garb of Pinnath Gelin, his left leg tightly bound with bandages and his left arm in a sling, limped forward with sword raised. Through the front window, beyond the soldier, Pippin could see a great dark shape moving. Something with wings, and a long sinuous neck, and snapping jaws.
And then in through the door strode a figure of dread. Black was his mantle, above it a crown of steel shone, but between robe and crown could be seen naught but twin gleams as of cruel eyes. The Lord of the Black Riders. He no longer wielded the fiery sword but held in his hand a mace of black metal.
“Where is Faramir, son of the Steward?” the Witch-King demanded.
Pippin recoiled in terror. He would have turned to flee but someone was coming up behind him and blocked his exit. Instead he dived under a table and crouched, shuddering, hoping that the Nazgûl would overlook him.
The wounded soldier from Pinnath Gelin limped forward. His sword shook in his trembling hand but still he advanced and struck a blow. The Nazgûl parried with ease.
“Fool!” the Witch-King growled. “No Man may hinder me.” He swung his mace and dashed out the soldier’s brains.
Shame began to supersede Pippin’s fear. The Man of Pinnath Gelin had stood up to the Black Rider despite his injuries and all Pippin could do was hide. Yet what else could he do? He was only a Hobbit, after all...
“I am no Man, foul creature, and I shall hinder you,” a clear voice rang out. “You have slain my father and my brothers. You shall not have my cousin while I live.”
Princess Lothíriel stepped forward into the lobby. Her hands were bloody and she held a strange knife, a foot and a half long and curving forward, and there was blood upon the blade. An amputation knife, although Pippin did not recognise it as such, forged of the finest steel Gondor could produce and honed to an edge that would put a razor to shame.
“Aye, you will not come in here bothering the sick and the wounded,” added another familiar voice. Ioreth, at Lothíriel’s side, brandishing a broom. “Get away from here, you horrible thing!”
Pippin remembered Gandalf’s words. ‘Death comes for you, with a heart that knows no fear and a weapon that can cleave through anything, and terror walks at her side.
’ The wizard had intended to refer, in ambiguous words, to Cierre but had he stumbled upon true prophecy by accident? Lothíriel seemed to know no fear, and that knife in her hand certainly looked as if it could cleave through anything, and Pippin had dubbed Ioreth a terror when the old battleaxe was giving him instructions…
“Death comes for you, with a heart that knows no fear,” the Nazgûl-Lord muttered, his mace lowering, and then he laughed. “So the old fool was right, but not as he thought. You shall walk at the side of Terror indeed – as my bride.” He cast aside his mace and his hand went to his belt.
Lothíriel stepped forward and swung the amputation knife. The Nazgûl’s left hand shot out and caught Lothíriel’s arm, stopping the blow short, and he laughed again. His right hand withdrew a dagger from his belt.
Pippin knew what the weapon must be. A Morgul-knife, which would leave its blade in the wound to turn the victim into a wraith, like the one that the Rider had used to stab Frodo at Weathertop. Horror flooded through him. But then resolve filled his heart and, slowly and stealthily, he began to move.
“Get your filthy hands off the Princess!” Ioreth cried, and she smote the Nazgûl with her broom. The Black Rider delivered a back-hand blow with the hand that held the knife, striking Ioreth with the pommel, and sent her flying back to crash into a wall and slump to the floor. Then he raised the knife ready to plunge it into Lothíriel’s heart. She tried to pull herself free of his grasp but against his overwhelming strength her struggles were of no avail.
And Pippin scuttled out from under the table and did his level best to hamstring the Black Rider.
‘You are small, and your foes shall be taller,
’ Boromir had told him, ‘and so you must seek to take away their advantage of height. Strike first at feet, and knees, to bring them down to your level.
’ Pippin remembered his teachings and struck accordingly. Boots might turn a blade and so he avoided the ankles; he aimed, instead, for where he guessed the backs of the knees might be. And his blade, forged long ago in Cardolan when the Dúnedain warred against Angmar, bore runic enchantments wrought specifically for the doom of Angmar’s sorcerer king. It sliced through undead flesh and severed the sinews as few other blades could have done. The Witch-King’s right leg gave way under him, and he fell to one knee, and his strike at Lothíriel went astray. He released his grip on her arm as he sought to regain his balance.
At once Lothíriel struck, aiming just above the black robes, and the amputation knife sheared through the invisible neck. The steel crown fell with a clang, and rolled away, and the black mantle collapsed in on itself and fell, empty, to the floor.
Lothíriel dropped the amputation knife and it, too, fell with a clang. Tendrils of smoke began to curl up from its blade. “Ernil i Pheriannath
,” she said, looking down at Pippin. “You saved me.” She swayed on her feet and raised her arm in front of her face. Her sleeve rode down to reveal black marks where the Nazgûl’s fingers had gripped. “I… I…” she gasped. Then her eyes rolled up and she collapsed.
“Princess Lothíriel!” Pippin cried. He, too, was feeling dizzy and a chill was spreading from his arm to the rest of his body. “Help! Healers! We need aid.” He glanced at his sword and saw that it was corroding away as if rusting at a thousand times the normal speed. He threw it down and called out again.
A grey-haired male Healer poked his head around the inner door, saw nothing threatening, and emerged into the lobby. “What has happened?” he asked. “What ails Lothíriel?”
“We slew the Witch-King,” Pippin said, “but… the Princess…” He felt blackness closing over him and he sank to his knees.
“My patient!” cried the Healer. “We have taken off his leg and I must sew up the stump at once or he will surely die. I cannot help you. Where are the assistants?”
Then in through the front door burst Beregond of the Guard, a bloody sword in his hand, and three Men in the blue and silver of Dol Amroth.
“Peregrin!” Beregond cried. “We have slain the winged beast but where is its fell Rider?”
“We slew him,” Pippin responded. “We…” A further wave of weakness hit him and he had to put a hand upon the floor to prevent himself from falling on his face.
“Healer!” shouted one of the Men of Dol Amroth. “We have borne our Prince Erchirion here and he is grievously wounded. You must…” His eyes fell upon Lothíriel and he cried out in shock and alarm. “Princess Lothíriel! This cannot be!”
“She…” Pippin began, and then his arm gave way, he fell forward, and everything went black.- - - - -
Black leather parted and black skin flowered with red blood. Elladan saw the sword go in, saw Nathyrra fall, and his heart seemed to stop. He thrust swiftly to dispose of the Drow who faced him and rushed to her aid.
Her opponent turned to meet him. She was a slim Drow elleth
in leather armour of green trimmed with red, armed with twin swords; one of which was smeared with Nathyrra’s blood. Elladan thrust – and his strike was parried, and the lightning-fast riposte came within a whisker of cutting his throat. Her other sword flashed out and he stopped it short of his groin only by the slightest of margins. He attempted a cut and again met a parry and riposte that tested him to his limits.
Elladan soon realised that he was in the fight of his life. Khareese had been superb, the most skilful opponent he had ever faced in deadly combat, but this elleth
was better. Blindingly fast, with a repertoire of techniques that negated his advantage of reach, she launched attacks that he could barely block and countered every attack that he tried. He tried to overpower her with superior might but she resisted him as if her strength equalled his own; he guessed that she was magically enhanced in some way but knowing that was of no help. He could find no way through her defences using conventional methods.
So he would try something unconventional. A move he had heard described by those who had witnessed Cierre at Helm’s Deep. He allowed his left-hand sword to dip. She moved in to take advantage of the apparent opening.
And he lashed up, aiming for the underside of her right arm where it joined the body, and caught her before she could readjust. The false edge at the back of his blade sheared through flesh and bone and took off her arm an inch from the armpit. There was no immediate gout of blood, as the frost charm on the blade froze the blood vessels and had a temporary cauterising effect, but the shock stopped her in her tracks and her other sword fell from her hand.
She stood motionless only for a moment and then her left hand reached for her belt. Elladan remembered Khareese doing the same thing, when she had activated the Stone of Recall that had brought him along with her to this world, and he acted at once to prevent this elleth
from doing something similar and escaping to find healing. His right-hand sword swept across and took off her head.
At once Elladan went to the fallen Nathyrra. She was still alive, although barely, but he saw a froth of blood on her lips. The sword-thrust had pierced her lung. Elladan was not confident that even his most powerful healing spell would be enough but he would try. Before he could act two more Drow rushed upon him, one thrusting with a spear and the other swinging a spiked flail, and he was forced to defend himself.
Everyone else in the vicinity was engaged in combat and could not help. Valen was fighting two grey-skinned Dwarves, who wielded battle-axes with skill and might, and Prentice was using his staff to fend off a pair of Drow swordsmen; at such close quarters, especially against the magic-resistant Drow, his spells were of little use. Lavoera, the strange winged woman they had freed from captivity in the lair of the vampires, battled a massive being that resembled a Balrog. Incredibly, despite being only a fraction of the fiend’s size, Lavoera was holding her own but seemed unlikely to achieve victory any time soon. And the Seer was the target of a concentrated attack by half a dozen Drow and her two bodyguards were fighting desperately to hold them off.
Then the Seer pointed a finger at the fiend and spoke a single word. The mighty creature shrieked, seemed to collapse in upon itself, and vanished. Lavoera, now without an opponent, flew to aid Prentice and bludgeoned his attackers senseless with two strokes of her mace. Prentice conjured up a great bear that ripped into the Drow targeting the Seer and tore them apart with its claws. Valen felled his Dwarven foes. And the Seer and her bodyguards hastened to Elladan’s side.
Elladan slew the second of his opponents just before the Seer arrived. He turned to Nathyrra again. She was very still and he could not be sure that she still breathed.
“Fear not, Elladan Elrondion,” said the Seer. “By the power of Eilistraee she shall be Healed.” And, at those words, Nathyrra stirred and sat up.
“Thank you, Lady Seer,” Elladan said. He glanced around. The main battle was taking place some distance away; this had been a surprise attack by a small elite force, ferried across the underground river, apparently aimed at taking out the Seer and Prentice. The assassins were all dead now, except for two who were fleeing pursued by a bear, and for a moment there was respite from the struggle. He turned back to Nathyrra.
“I thought I had lost you,” he said, “and my heart became empty.”
“It gladdens my heart that you say it,” said Nathyrra, “but now is not the time. There are still foes to fight. At least I see that Sabal is slain.” She extended a hand and Elladan took it and assisted her to her feet.
“The one who felled you? Yes, I slew her, and it was a hard-fought contest,” said Elladan.
“A great deed,” said Nathyrra, “for she was the champion of the Red Sisters and the right arm of the Valsharess. She owned a Belt of Giant Strength. You should retrieve it.”
“Ah, so that is how she could match me for strength,” said Elladan. He stripped a heavy belt of black leather from the body and buckled it about his own waist. A flail hung from the belt and he discarded it, having no use for the weapon, but he kept a pouch of potion bottles that hung at the opposite side.
“We were pushed back too far from the battle lines during that fight,” Prentice observed. “My spells could not reach the enemy from here. We had best move forward.”
“You should stay back, Mother Seer,” said one of the bodyguards. “If you fall then they have won.”
The Seer shook her head. “I am not the only focus for resistance,” she said. “Zesyyr is as committed to opposing the Valsharess as am I. And Prentice is the one named in prophecy as he who will cause the Valsharess to fall.”
“I still think Deekin had something to do with that,” Prentice muttered, referring to the author of the book that gave an exaggerated account of his previous exploits. “Let us move, then,” he added, in a louder voice, “before another Pit Fiend appears.”
Just behind the battle line, where the main forces of House Maeviir were gradually falling back into the city core before the advancing army of the Valsharess, a swirling vortex of energy appeared. Out of it stepped a Pit Fiend, twelve feet tall, wreathed in fire. It spread its great wings and made straight for Princess Zesyyr. She struck at it with her mace but to no avail. It reached out with its massive right hand, seized her around the waist, and lifted her, screaming, into the air.
Lavoera took off and hurtled toward the fiend. Before she could reach it a mage serving the Valsharess unleashed a barrage of magical missiles that homed in on the winged woman and seemed to paralyse her. Lavoera’s flight became a downward spiral and she hit the ground hard.
Elladan ran to Zesyyr’s aid, as did Nathyrra and Valen, but they were too far away to intervene. The Pit Fiend began to tear away Zesyyr’s armour and opened its fanged maw wide. Around the monster a gap opened up in the Lith My’athar forces, as those near the fiend turned to flee, and the soldiers of the Valsharess poured through.
“Get the fuck
away from my daughter!” Matron Mother Myrune screamed out. She had taken almost no part in the battle, up to this point, but now she raced forward. Her flail whirled and smashed aside anyone who blocked her path; not just the enemy but fleeing members of her own House as well. At her side ran her scythe-wielding bodyguard.
Elladan and his colleagues became engaged against the elements of the invading army. Prentice, Valen at his side, ran to where Lavoera had fallen and protected her with spell and with flail. The Seer cast a spell that brought part of the retreat to a halt and inspired the Lith My’athar forces to turn and face the foe once more. Elladan and Nathyrra concentrated on killing.
Myrune smashed her flail into the leg of the fiend. It ignored her. Her bodyguard Tebimar achieved more with his scythe, carving a bloody gash into the fire-wreathed flesh, but received in return a kick that dropped him unconscious. The monstrous creature, delayed only momentarily, brought Zesyyr closer to its mouth.
“Eilistraee!” Myrune yelled. “Grant me the power to save my daughter and I will worship you!”
The Pit Fiend laughed and bit down upon Zesyyr’s shoulder. She screamed out in agony, her voice reaching an impossibly high pitch, and then fell silent.
And Myrune shouted again but this time her voice carried a terrible power. A wave of energy burst forth from her and all around the forces of the Valsharess were knocked from their feet. Most quickly regained their footing but many stayed down, unconscious, and some lay in the stillness of death. The Pit Fiend dropped Zesyyr, screamed in its turn, and disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived.
The breakthrough was stopped, the gap in the lines plugged, and the position was stabilised. Yet the battle still hung in perilous balance. The forces of the Valsharess had suffered a reverse but they had made great advances already and still outnumbered the defenders of Lith My’athar by three to one. And more Drow were arriving behind them, lining up along the inside of the inner city wall, some one hundred and fifty in number.
“Loose!” a male voice shouted. A hail of crossbow bolts flew, smashed into the rear of the invaders, and toppled them by the score. “Reload!”
The forces of the Valsharess reeled under the impact of this shattering volley. Caught by surprise they turned this way and that, uncertain of what to do or in which direction to face, and they were still in disorder when a second volley struck home. The ranks wavered.
“Jezz the Lame,” Elladan cried, “and the forces of Vhaeraun. They have come!”
The Vhaeraunites loosed no third volley but instead drew swords and charged. Matron Myrune looked up from her fallen daughter and commanded the forces of House Maeviir to do likewise. The Seer urged on the worshippers of Eilistraee.
From the Lith My’athar Public House appeared Matron Mother Brizafae and her two loyal followers. “To me, House Deani,” she shouted, swaying slightly on her feet, and waving a wine bottle as if it were a mace or sword. “Rise up against the Valsharess!”
And they did. The members of House Deani, conscripted into the ranks of the Valsharess when the House was conquered, turned on their erstwhile comrades. Some other unwilling conscripts, from Houses unconnected with Lith My’athar, followed their example. The army of the Valsharess began to dissolve in internecine struggle.
Two more Pit Fiends arrived, materialising in the middle of the battlefield, but neither had a chance to strike an effective blow. Prentice blasted one out of existence with a devastating spell and a priest among the Vhaeraun worshippers banished the other.
The remaining conscripts in the invading army threw down their arms. Only the Red Sisters and the Drow of House Kilath, of which the Valsharess had been Matron Mother before she seized the chance to build an empire, fought on. And they died.
Zesyyr lived. The Seer healed her of her injuries and of the venom from the fangs of the Pit Fiend. And the Drow Princess threw her arms about her mother and embraced her.
Elladan did not overhear the words they exchanged but his impression was that reconciliation between mother and daughter was complete. He was more occupied, at the time, with greeting Jezz the Lame.
“In the nick of time you came,” Elladan said, “and I am glad indeed. The battle still hung in the balance when you tipped the scales decisively in our favour.”
“And without loss to us,” Jezz said, “which is pleasing. It seems that your plan to separate the conscripts from her loyal forces was successful. Well done. And your statement that there would be many comely girls here proves also to be correct – although they wear more clothing than you promised.”
“It was a battle,” Elladan said, “and armour was the appropriate dress. I suspect they will wear far less for the victory celebrations.”
“We will,” the Seer confirmed. She smiled at Jezz. “I greet you, follower of Vhaeraun, and I thank you for your aid. Whatever differences there are between us can be set aside. You are welcome to attend our celebrations; although they will be neither long nor extravagant, as we must consider taking the offensive against the Valsharess now that her forces in this area are depleted. But there will be feasting, and dancing, in Lith My’athar this day and, in accordance with our custom, we will disrobe.”
Jezz gazed at her with frank appreciation evident in his expression. “That in itself will make our participation in this conflict worthwhile,” he said, “for even clad in armour you are exceedingly fair to look upon.”
The Seer laughed. “A bold warrior with a silver tongue,” she said. “A dangerous combination and one that may take you a long way. You will not find us ungrateful for your assistance.”
Matron Mother Myrune and Princess Zesyyr, walking close together and smiling, approached. Zesyyr opened her mouth to speak to Elladan but he did not hear her words. The city in front of him blurred and vanished from his view. He saw darkness, and felt a sensation as of travelling, and then he found himself at rest in another place.
He stood in a circular chamber under a domed roof, with two smaller semi-circular rooms opening off from it, in a sunken section in the centre of the main room. He was not alone; alongside him stood Nathyrra, Prentice, and Valen. A few Drow guards stood in the raised portion of the room, their crossbows aimed at the group, but Elladan paid them little heed after he saw the other denizens of the chamber.
In one of the annexes Elladan saw a strange figure chained to the wall; human-shaped but nine feet tall, scarlet of skin, and with legs articulated like those of a goat and which ended in hooves rather than feet. A pair of long curling horns adorned its – or his, for the creature was undoubtedly masculine – head and huge bat-like wings spread out from his shoulders. If the being’s musculature was a true indication of his strength then he would be able to rip trolls limb from limb with ease. A remarkable sight, indeed, and yet it was the occupant of the other annexe who drew Elladan’s attention.
In that ante-chamber he saw a throne and on it sat a Drow elleth
. He knew at once, without needing to be told, that she was the Valsharess. She wore a spiked crown and armour that obviously had been designed with no thought at all given to practical defence. It rose only as far as her nipples, and was cut away at the midriff, and left her legs bare above the tops of her knee-high boots. Spiked pauldrons protected her shoulders but they were small and connected to the breastplate – nippleplate? – only by thin straps. The only function the armour could serve would be to make it impossible to make love without removing it – and it would take a braver ellon
than Elladan to desire sexual congress with the Valsharess. Her expression was so cruel and haughty that in comparison the sneer of Matron Mother Myrune seemed as welcoming as the smile of Bilbo Baggins when he greeted a dinner guest who had brought mushrooms.
The Valsharess had been staring into something in her lap but she raised her eyes and slipped the object into a pouch; a mirror, Elladan thought, from the glimpse that he had of it. “So,” she said, “these are the adventurers responsible for inconveniencing me. Well done, dread Mephistopheles.”
“I exist only to serve you, great Valsharess,” the being in the opposite antechamber replied, in a deep and resonant voice. And if he was speaking sincerely then Elladan was a Hobbit.
,” Prentice muttered. He raised a hand and unleashed a bolt of energy in the direction of the Valsharess. It reached only as far as the limits of the sunken area in which they stood before striking an invisible barrier and fizzling out.
“And they are no more prepossessing in person than in the Mirror of Shaori,” the Valsharess said. “The famous Drogan’s Apprentice turns out to be a mere callow youth. The Tiefling is nothing but a brainless brute. A Surface Elf exceptional only in his freakish height and some limited ability with a sword. And Nathyrra the traitoress.”
“You murdered my mother, and my sisters, and slaughtered my House,” Nathyrra said. “Did you really think you could buy my loyalty after that?”
“I expected you to be intelligent enough to recognise the futility of resistance,” said the Valsharess, “but it is no importance. I had you transported here only so that I could watch you die. Dread Mephistopheles, kill them!”
“I have a better idea, great Valsharess,” boomed the winged being. “Kill them yourself.” He pulled himself free of his chains, effortlessly, and stepped forward.
“What are you doing?” the Valsharess cried. “I have Bound you. You serve only my will.”
Mephistopheles laughed. “Did you really think that you could Bind an Archdevil? Everything has happened according to my plan. Years ago I planted an artefact where one day the young Apprentice would find it. It enabled him to escape from several perilous situations – but it is keyed to me. I created the prophecy that he would be your most formidable opponent to manipulate you into bringing him, and the artefact, here into my presence. And, as I intended, it set me free. You summoned me into this world, Valsharess, and now it is mine to conquer.”
“Obey me!” shouted the Valsharess.
Mephistopheles laughed again. “I’m mildly grateful to you,” he said. “I might even allow you to rule a city or two as my satrap – if you can prove yourself able to do more than sit on a throne looking like a cheap harlot.” He snapped his fingers and, suddenly, the Valsharess and her guards were standing within the same circle as Elladan and his comrades.
At once Prentice cast a spell. It seemed to do nothing but when the Valsharess spoke the words of an answering spell nothing happened. Elladan guessed that Prentice’s spell had been designed to remove her ability to do magic. The nearest guard struck at Elladan but this was no master swordsman in the league of Khareese or Sabal. Elladan slew the guard, and another and another, in three swift strokes.
The Valsharess dropped a hand to a flail that hung at her waist. Valen seized her wrist and prevented her from drawing the weapon. Nathyrra slew a guard with one sword and, with the other, delivered a thrust into the exposed area above the Valsharess’ ornate but impractical armour. Prentice, meanwhile, snatched the pouch from the would-be conqueror’s belt.
The rest was butchery. Deprived of magic, surrounded by experts at combat, the Valsharess stood no chance. She was strong, and seemed able to withstand wounds that would have dropped a troll dead on the spot, but eventually she went down and stayed down.
“As I expected,” Mephistopheles declared. “You have rid me of that annoying woman, Drogan’s Apprentice, and so I shall not slay you. Instead I will send you, and your associates, to my icy realm of Cania while I go forth to conquer Faerûn. I’d wish you a pleasant stay but that would, after all, negate the whole point of the Nine Hells.”
Once more Elladan’s vision blurred and he felt the sensation of movement. When it ended Elladan found himself on a battlefield. All around were figures that were all too obviously hostile. His sudden appearance in their midst took them aback and, for a moment, they did nothing but stare.
And then they attacked.- - - - -
Cierre was crying.
She had long since lost count of how many she had killed. She stood with Legolas, and with a hundred bowmen of Lamedon, and loosed shaft after shaft for what seemed to have been hours on end. Teams of youths were employed in fetching arrows from the sacks and passing them to the archers to replenish their quivers. The longest shafts were supposed to be reserved for the Elves but by now Cierre was being given arrows that were two inches shorter than optimum. Either the helpers were becoming too fatigued to keep proper track or else she and Legolas between them had used up all eight hundred of the full-length arrows. Probably the latter; they had, after all, moved to new positions four times after killing every foe within range.
None of that had affected her. She could kill Orcs until the rothé
came home without even batting an eyelid. The swarthy Haradrim, resembling to her eyes the Bedine
of the Anauroch Desert, were to her nothing more than moving targets and she had toppled dozens of them from their saddles. She did feel a degree of pity for the black-skinned Men from Far Harad, who had fought with great courage despite their lack of armour, and a vague sense of kinship simply because their skin was almost as black as hers. When a regiment had surrendered, and the Men of Pelargir had seemed about to massacre them regardless, Cierre had intervened to ensure that the captives were spared. But had her intervention been too late she would have shrugged and returned to the fray without shedding a single tear.
But what she had been forced to do to the mammoths…
Those around her called them ‘mûmakil
’ or ‘oliphaunts
’. Massive and intimidating animals they were, fifteen feet or more at the shoulder, each bearing on its back a war tower manned by as many as six warriors plus a rider mounted on the mammoth’s neck. Their thick hides were invulnerable to arrows, even from the bows of Cierre or Legolas, except perhaps at point-blank range where the archer would be within reach of the grasp of the trunks or the sweep of the huge tusks. Those who went in close to thrust with spears, or to hack with axes, were either trampled or slain by the enemy footmen who clustered in the shadow of the monsters.
Cierre, however, had fought mammoths before. The Frost Giants of the Spine of the World rode them to war. Cierre had fought both against the Giants, on behalf of the city of Mirabar, and alongside them, during Gerdi Orelsdottr’s campaign to make herself Queen of the Frost Giants, and these mammoths’ were identical, save for being hairless and slightly larger, to the ones she knew. She knew their weakness.
They feared fire. And the towers on their backs were made of wooden planks.
Now the stench of burning hide, and disconcertingly pleasant smells of cooking, drifted across the fields. And the high-pitched squeals coming from the vast beasts as they ran hither and thither, trampling friend and foe alike in their agony and panic, wrenched at Cierre’s heart. When one toppled and lay thrashing and writhing on the ground, its spinal nerves cooked by the blazing tower, Cierre burst openly into tears.
Gimli looked up at her, his heavy brows lowered in a frown; he seemed perplexed by her reaction. Legolas, however, laid a hand upon her shoulder. “It had to be done,” he said. “I understand your sorrow. They are but innocent animals with no choice but to follow the orders of their riders. Take a moment to gather yourself, if you wish. You have achieved much already.”
Cierre brushed away her tears with the back of her right hand and then laid it over the hand of Legolas. “Thank you for your understanding… abbil
,” she said. “Yet there is still much to do. I will be myself again in just a moment.” Her hand trembled as she lifted it from that of Legolas and returned it to her side. “Perhaps I do need some time to rest,” she admitted. “My arms ache as they have never done before.”
“As do mine,” Legolas agreed. “Even at the Battle of Five Armies I did not loose half this number of shafts. A moment’s respite would benefit me as well.”
“Let us move away from these flames,” Cierre suggested, “for the smoke is unpleasant.” They were positioned behind the blazing wreckage of several siege engines, which they had used as a screen against charges by the mammoths, but now the great beasts were dead or had fled far away.
Legolas nodded. “Indeed so,” he agreed. “We need such shelter no longer.” They walked away from the barricade, with the bowmen of Lamedon following their example, and Legolas surveyed the field. “We have come far from the Harlond,” he said, “and have lost touch with the others of our Company. I suggest that we leave these Men to finish off what remains of the foe here and we set off in search of Aragorn.”
“Aye,” said Gimli. “I have had but little opportunity to swing my axe thus far in the battle. Perhaps in Aragorn’s company I might have better luck.”
“I would find that an acceptable course of action,” Cierre said. “I hope Aragorn, and Elrohir, and Gárod have fared well in our absence.” She slipped her quiver from her shoulder and counted the arrows. One of the youthful assistants ran to her with a bundle, from which she took a dozen shafts and replenished her quiver, and he handed the remainder to Legolas. “There are few remaining,” Cierre observed, glancing at the now almost empty sacks. “We will have to make do with what we have.”
“It should suffice,” said Legolas. He gave a whistle and his horse trotted to his side; Cierre’s horse followed close behind and went to her. She smiled, and scratched it between the eyes and stroked its neck; she would have liked to give it a treat but had nothing to offer. Legolas, who had thought further ahead than Cierre even despite the distraction of the sea-longing, had acquired a few carrots from storage barrels on the ship. He passed one to Cierre, and fed another to his horse Arod, and then leapt lightly astride. He reached a hand down to Gimli and assisted the Dwarf to mount behind him. “Farewell, Men of Lamedon,” Legolas said. “You have been worthy comrades but you need us no longer. Seek out captains of your own people once these few foes are slain.”
Cierre gave her horse the carrot; she liked this horse much more than the rather obstreperous one that had perished in the Paths of the Dead. She then leapt onto its back, just as lightly as had Legolas, and took up the reins. She was getting better at this whole horsemanship thing; another ten years, she thought, and she might be as good as the Rohirrim. Legolas set off across the plain and she followed.
“I see Aragorn’s banner,” Legolas announced, after a time. The pall of cloud that had hung over the area had dispersed by now, blown away by the fresh breeze, and it was a fairly bright day. Cierre’s long distance vision was poor in the conditions, even though she had donned her somewhat battered hat, and she could not make out the banner until they had drawn much closer.
Eventually she could make out Aragorn, and the Ranger – she couldn’t remember the Man’s name – who bore his standard, and Elrohir, and Gárod, and the other surviving members of the Grey Company. They, together with a couple of éoreds and some horsemen in green livery, were harrying a fairly large body of enemy troops that was retreating north-eastward. Orcs, Haradrim, black-skinned Men of Far Harad, Variags of Khand, and bearded Easterlings with axes; some mixed together, some remaining in their separate units, but all headed in the same direction at more or less the same speed.
Legolas, Gimli, and Cierre rode up and rejoined their comrades. Their greetings were brief, for the running battle was continuing, but heartfelt nonetheless. Then the three added their contributions to the harrying of the foe.
All three chose to dismount; Gimli because it was the only way he could fight, the other two because it allowed them to make the best use of their bows. They picked off stragglers but Cierre found it tedious and questioned the necessity. Her inclination was to let those fleeing a battle, the result of which was no longer in doubt, to go rather than to risk taking casualties in an attempt to wipe them out. Then she remembered that this was a war rather than a battle. She thought back to her lessons at Melee Magthere; those who escaped here might have to be faced again in the future. Perhaps it was better to get rid of them once and for all, here and now, even if it did mean some extra risk and effort. And Aragorn generally knew what he was doing. She would follow his lead but she wasn’t going to strain her already tired arms in doing so. Instead of fifteen shafts a minute she held back to a comfortable six a minute.
And then everything changed.
In the midst of the enemy host there was a sudden commotion. At first she thought that a fight had broken out amongst the disparate races, perhaps between some who wished to surrender and others who were determined to continue the retreat, but then she realised that it was one single figure who fought against all around him and somehow managed to hold his own.
Then Elrohir yelled “Elladan!” and spurred his horse into a furious charge.
Could it be? Cierre could not get a clear enough view to be certain but Elrohir was in a better position to see, had better eyesight in full daylight, and could be expected to recognise his twin brother. She increased her rate of fire at once, taking out those who posed the greatest threat to Elrohir, and Legolas at her side was doing the same thing. Gimli raised his axe and ran as fast as he could at the foe. Aragorn called for a general charge and everyone rushed forward. In moments everyone was embroiled in a frantic mêlée.
Cierre decided that there was too much risk, in the confusion, of loosing a shaft that struck friend instead of foe. Instead she slung her bow, cast Animalistic Power, and drew sword and axe as she ran toward the fray.
She whirled both weapons in a circle of death. Bearded faces appeared in front of her, scimitars or axes raised, and she hacked them down without pausing in her headlong rush. She was vaguely aware that Gimli was carving a path through the Orcs off to one side, Aragorn was cleaving heads with Andúril at the other, and Elrohir had dismounted and was laying about him with his twin swords with a speed and fury that matched her own. But ahead of her…
Elladan was wreaking sheer destruction. His swords swept through shields and armour as if meeting no resistance and those who faced him, be they Orcs or Men, fell like wheat before the reaper. His right-hand sword left a trail of flame behind it as it blurred through the air and his left gave off a cold gleam like that of Heleg Naur. The power behind his blows, evidenced by the way limbs flew and great gashes were carved into armoured chests, was awesome. No doubt, she realised, he had acquired powerful magic items during his time in Faerûn. Yet he was still in dire peril, for he was being attacked from all sides, and eventually a blow would strike home if only by sheer chance. Cierre redoubled her efforts, because she believed it to be her fault that Elladan was in such a position, and she would not be able to bear it if he died.
It was Gimli who made it to Elladan first, however, and he positioned himself to cover the Elf’s rear. A moment later Elrohir reached his brother, and then Aragorn, then Cierre only fractionally ahead of a mounted Ranger whose name she could not recall. Then, as the enemies around them fell and the survivors wavered, the éoreds burst through the gaps that the champions had made in the ranks of the foe. And, at that, the enemy broke and scattered. What had been an orderly fighting retreat became, not even a rout, but hundreds of individuals each fleeing in a different direction. The Rohirrim, and the other riders in green, chased them down and slew them.
The Companions took no part in that hunt. Elrohir went immediately to his brother, and embraced him, and Aragorn embraced Elladan too.
“We feared you lost, brother,” Aragorn said. “You were transported to Cierre’s world?”
“I was,” Elladan confirmed, “and I faced peril there, and battle, but I found friends and good companions there too. They have not appeared here with me? No, I would have seen them. Halaster said that I would be transported here, once the Valsharess was dead, but the others must have been sent to the icy realm of Mephistopheles.”
Cierre winced. She had intended not to speak, leaving this moment of reunion to those who knew Elladan better, but spoke now. “Cania, in the Nine Hells?” she queried.
“Yes, that was it,” said Elladan. “You know of that realm?”
“I do,” said Cierre. “It is a place of torment. The place to which the souls of traitors go after their death. Any of the living sent there are doomed.”