9. Chapter Eight: Promises
It was almost two hours following their return from London and the mood in the Westernham home of Ronald Banks was one of anticipation.
With the exception of Bryan, Aaron and the rest of his companions were gathered around the kitchen table as the former psychiatrist apprised the others of what had transpired during the scouting expedition to Saeran’s estate in Windsor. Unfortunately, there was little to impart beyond the news that upon arriving at Saeran’s mansion property, they discovered the CEO of Malcolm Industries and former dark lord of Mordor had elected to pull up stakes and leave the country. Aaron, Legolas and Bryan had followed Saeran to Heathrow but when limousine took a turn into a restricted airfield, there was no way to maintain their pursuit without calling attention to their presence. With security at airports across the world nearly martial in the wake of September 11th, it did not seem like a wise idea to force the issue.
The mood between the three men had been dark during their return journey, mostly because they were disappointed in being unable to continue their pursuit or discern Saeran’s intended destination. They had returned to Windsor and collected the Ford before driving both vehicles back to Westernham. In the event that they were found, two means of escape were certainly better than one. Despite being unable to witness it for themselves, both Aaron and Bryan were in agreement of their belief that Saeran had fled the country. Whether or not it was because of them or for the dark purpose of setting the world ablaze in nuclear fire, neither could say. Nevertheless it was imperative that they discover his destination and quickly. Time was against them.
Upon returning to their temporary sanctuary, Bryan set to work in contacting his various sources of information regarding the destination in David Saeran’s flight plans. If they knew where he was going, they could intercept him and perhaps discern what his plans were. Gandalf could sense Saeran’s diminishing presence that seemed to correlate with the knowledge of the enemy’s transitory state. Still, Aaron was concerned with how they were going to leave the country in order to find him. The logistics of all eight of them leaving England would be difficult at best. They had to reach Saeran fast in order to thwart his plans and the only possible means of accomplishing this was by air. There was no way that any of them could attempt to board a commercial airline carrier without raising seven kinds of hell.
Whoever said getting there was half the fun, never had to do it with two elves and a wizard.
"I’m surprised," Tory declared as they sat around the dining table. She had been pleasantly when Eve had produced a tasty casserole from the meager supplies in Bank’s refrigerator and larder. "Where does a New York policewoman learn how to cook so well?"
"I’ve wondered that myself," Aaron replied offering Eve a little smile of gratitude after swallowing a bite of his meal. "I thought liberated women didn’t cook," he teased.
"No," Eve stared at him smugly, "liberated women don’t have to cook."
"I must say I do not fathom this business of liberation you often speak of Eve," Legolas remarked, wholly confounded by the subject. While Eve took great pride in her abilities which Legolas had to confess were impressive, she did seem to regard her talents as something hard won, instead of simply learnt. "Women have always had the right to do as they chose."
"It was different here for a long time," Eve explained. "Women weren’t expected to be any more than wives and mothers, to want a career, to vote or even own land was denied us until the last century. We had no right to choose what we could and could not do with our bodies and that are a race with rituals regarding females that are nothing less than barbarous and are often more than an excuse to subjugate us. However, we are gaining more ground now then thirty years ago so things are improving, slowly but surely."
"That’s why we call this the Dark Age," Aaron teased and earned two napkins being flung at him simultaneously causing Fred to giggle at the behavior of her supposedly grown up companions.
"Seriously," Tory turned to Eve after Aaron had been sufficiently cowed, much to the amusement of the others, "where did you learn to cook like this?"
"From my mom mostly," Eve volunteered. "After that, it was kind of my release valve. When you deal with murderers and criminals on a daily basis, making a soufflé can be a surprisingly relaxing hobby."
"It is a good idea," Aaron agreed with similar seriousness, being a psychiatrist, he knew the importance of releasing stress when working in a high pressure environment that was capable of exhausting a person both mentally and physically. "It’s the simple things that keep us in touch with ourselves."
"Your world is terribly cluttered," Gandalf added. "I trust it must be difficult to simply reach one’s inner peace. You’ve build yourselves an interesting world but also an exceedingly difficult one to survive in."
"We call it progress," Tory replied, "although I have to wonder sometimes."
"I’ve got it!" Bryan announced his return to their company with a triumphant exclamation.
"You know where he is?" Aaron shot the question at him immediately.
"Yes," Bryan nodded meeting his gaze with a mixture of pride and euphoria. "One of my contacts has an insider with the air traffic control authorities. David Saeran’s private jet lodged a flight plan for Craiova."
"Romania?" Aaron exclaimed with shock, familiar with the territory. "What the hell is he in doing in the middle of Carpathian Mountains?"
"I remember vaguely reading something about Malcolm Industries having some kind of operation out there but I never found out what," Bryan answered honestly. "I’d probably have more details in my files but Caldwell has all of them now."
"Where is Crai-ova?" Haldir suddenly asked.
"You can talk!" Fred declared, mirroring the surprise of the others.
"I listen," he answered the little girl with a smile. "It is time, I try to speak also," he said as he carefully pronounced the words.
"You learn quickly," Tory answered, noting he spoke with the same curious accent that Legolas possessed. "Craiova is in Europe."
"May we see a map?" Gandalf asked, his thick gray eyebrows furrowing together.
No one answered until Tory went into Ronald’s study to retrieve the Atlas she was certain she had seen on his bookshelf earlier that day. It was not long before she was spreading open the large book of glossy pages with its detailed information across the table for all to see. She thumbed through the thick pages until she found what he had asked for, a map of modern Europe, complete with geographical features. For a long moment, the elves and the wizard leaned in close as they studied the contours and lines that depicted modern Europe and Romania. Like the others, Aaron wanted to ask what it was they were seeking out but he held back until they were done. However, Fred who did not know such restraint, tugged at Bryan’s cuff.
"What are they looking for?" Fred whispered to him as she stood on her tiptoes to see what Haldir, Legolas and Gandalf were studying so closely.
"I’m not sure luv," Bryan answered distractedly, picking her up instinctively so she could have a better look, despite his attention being on the three.
"Do you see it?" Legolas broke the silence first.
"Yes," Gandalf nodded. "Time and the separation of the Undying Lands from Middle-earth has changed its shape significantly but I believe this is familiar indeed." The old man’s finger’s traced the path of the mountains on the page.
"Ephel Duath has been worn away and this here," Legolas pointed to the curve of mountains, "I am certain is Ered Lithui."
"Okay," Aaron finally interrupted certain that the discussion was important enough to warrant it, "I think I speak for everyone when I say, what are you guys talking about?"
"This place you call Craiova?" Gandalf met his gaze. "I think it rests near what we once called Mordor."
Though the mountains had changed through erosion and mystic forces that no scientists could even conceive of let alone explain, Saeran knew from the moment he set foot within the eastern belt of Romania, that he was home at last. The landscape had altered greatly, undergoing numerous changes in climate and the advent of the odd Ice Age but despite the disfigured shape of the mountains, there was no mistaking the texture of the place. The atmosphere seeped through the soil and reached up inside him of like a great sigh of relief. This was Mordor. This was his kingdom.
The land had been pulled and shaped to suit the stars of Ea. The continents had been drifting further apart since the departure of the Valar but when the last elf had left Middle-earth it was as if Eru had decided that Arda had finally reached its final stage of completion. The land was stretched thin to accommodate its new configuration. Lindon had become home to the Nordic races. Most of Europe was once the lands of the Reunified Kingdom with Rohan evolving into southern France and some portions of Spain. Eriador had broken off completely and subsequently formed the islands of Great Britain. Rhun had become Asia and Far Harad was now Africa.
Saeran often found it amusing to listen to the prattling of geographers and archaeologist speaking of the world in terms of continental shift and the tectonic shelf, wondering whether or not that it was worthwhile letting them see how truly wrong they were. The human race had expended the past two hundred years discarding the belief that they were sprung ready-made from paradise. Nowadays the beliefs that gods had created them were for the superstitious because such deities did not exist. Saeran wondered how it would be if they were to learn that their birthplace was not Eden but rather Hildorien and that they had been born the moment the sun had rose in the sky for the first time.
Perhaps when all of this was over, he would tell them.
He had found Mordor a hundred years ago and discovered that Mount Doom had solidified and disappeared into the ranges of the Carpathian Mountains. A harsh, unyielding land of temperate forests and some beauty though it’s sinister past had a way of nurturing those who had darkness within them. Where Barad-dur had been, Vlad the Impaler had become a national folk hero as well as one of the most infamous men in history, known for his cruelty and barbarism. Elizabeth Bathory had murdered her six hundred maidens and caused almost as many nightmares in those who survived her reign of terror as those who had died.
When Saeran had found Barad-dur, there was no trace of his fortress. Time had efficiently wiped it off the face of Arda but Saeran’s connection to his former kingdom was strong and with the resources of Malcolm Industries, was able to establish a new sanctum to carry out his plans. Despite Romania’s place behind the Iron Curtain, Saeran was capable of ensuring that he be given leave to move about freely within the country. Manipulating presidents was just as easy as manipulating monarchs, he had found and within the dark mansion he had constructed upon the unseen ruins of his former stronghold, Saeran had complete secrecy to continue his work to destroy the world of man.
Deep beneath the earth, he had enlisted the aid of some humans; the only ones who would be left alive once his plans had come to fruition. In the bowels of the earth, in cracks beneath Barad-dur that no one knew existed or any being had delved so deep since the dwarves, things stirred in the dark. Some feasted upon each other or had hibernated in waiting for a time when they might hear the call of the one who created them. Melkor had thousands of years to fill Arda with creatures so dark and fearsome that their true number cannot be accounted. In the War of the Wrath, many had fled into the deep places of the world, hiding because they believed emergence would signal their existence to the Valar.
When he had become Lord of Barad-dur, Sauron had found many of these creatures and had given them a home in his kingdom. Shelob was but one of these creatures. With his destruction, they had retreated into the darkness again, deciding that it was better to sleep in anonymity rather than risk exposure to the capricious nature of men who could be almost as relentless as the worst of them when his blood lust was properly stirred. They were still there when David Saeran returned and he had awakened them with promises that very soon, men would be gone forever.
Through the miracle of modern genetics and spells so ancient that they lived only in his memory, Saeran had continued his preparations to assume kingship over the world once he had rid it of its present occupants. His creatures were growing impatient, having been fattened with talk of feeding upon their enemies so much so that they desired the talk to become reality. The few humans whom he had allowed into this underworld kingdom had been hard at work creating for him a vital component of the new order, secure in the belief that they would be positioned highly when it arrived.
Saeran arrived at Craiova four hours after boarding his private Lear jet at the airfield in Heathrow. The journey to Craiova was relatively simple in comparison with reaching his fortress, which was in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, in a region that was difficult to reach either by land or air. However, he did not mind the journey through the tall conifer forests and steep hilly terrain. It was almost dark when he finally arrived at his fortress mansion, a place of high walls and jagged spires whose architecture was likened to that of the buildings built by the invading Moslem Turks in some parts of Eastern Europe.
Wasting no time once he arrived at the one place on this earth he could truly call home, Saeran immediately descended the underground passage he had spent a small fortune carving through rock to reach the underground caverns beneath the mansion. There, a handful of humans worked in complete secrecy, undertaking the most vital part of his plan, a task that had been decades in the making and was near completion. Already, preliminary yields of their labor had proved favorable and as Saeran walked through the dimly lit cavern, surveying their handiwork, Doctor Irina Sadko could tell that he was pleased by their efforts.
Irina had been a geneticist working for the Soviet Union when she was stolen away by David Saeran and brought to work in Romania. They met during a party function at the Moscow State Academy of Applied Biotechnology where she had been the head researcher for the institute’s genetics division. Saeran had been one of the few foreigners allowed to conduct business in Russia during the reign of the communists and as a young, handsome capitalist; he had made a most charming first impression. Irina had been one of the youngest scientists in her field to be given her own research staff. Unfortunately, she was languishing under the weight of conventional thinkers who felt her theories on genetic research were more dangerous than useful. When she met Saeran, her position was already becoming precarious.
Their relationship had begun tentatively. He was charming and extremely confident in the power he had over the opposite sex, Irina included. She was a sultry beauty who had worked very hard to be taken seriously and even though she had come far in her field, her looks would always ensure that she would never be regarded for her scientific merits. When Saeran offered her unlimited funding, the freedom to conduct her research without supervision or answering to any authority other than himself, she had thought it was it was merely an attempt to impress her with impossible promises. While the powers that be may not think too highly of her research, Irina was confident that they would not want it in the hands of foreigners either.
When she consented to work for him, it was merely an obligatory response to appease him. She was already his lover but Irina was realistic about his grand offer being anything more than a fanciful promise. However, as she was to learn many times over the next few years, it was never wise to underestimate him. David Saeran did not make idle promises.
Through some miracle, he produced the necessary paperwork to release her from government-indentured service as well as providing her with unrestricted travel wherever she pleased. It was not long before she was in Romania, living in the fortress that Saeran had built for himself in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains and conducting research into genetics no respectable scientist would even consider. During all that time, they had been lovers and she presented her accomplishments to him the way one would present tokens of love.
By the nature of the work she conducted for him, Irina knew that David Saeran was more than what he seemed. He was only thirty when they had met but she knew he was older; she could see it in his eyes. She was aware that the work undertaken beneath the fortress was so secret that it was unknown even to Saeran’s employer John Malcolm. She had only ever met Malcolm once but whatever he was, Malcolm and Saeran were the same. There were things she knew about him, things she noticed but did not speak out loud because she loved him. For all the darkness she saw in his eyes and there was so much that it made her shiver in fear at times, she loved him. To an extent he felt something for her too because Irina was aware that he had not taken anyone else to his bed. He seemed to cherish their moments together as something forbidden he was not allowed.
"You have outdone yourself," Saeran commended as his eyes swept across the cavern and soaked in the accomplishment of almost ten years of work. "When will they be ready for removal?"
"They are ready now," Irina said proudly, unable to keep from feeling some pride in what she had created for him. "I thought keeping them in gestation will solve our containment problem for the duration. When you need them, they can be removed and prepared for deployment in a matter of hours. I followed your instructions explicitly and your own contribution to their genetic makeup ensures that they will adapt with extreme speed."
"Good idea," he nodded. "They are necessary to the cause but very difficult to control in a confined space. Their arena will come soon enough. However, I would like one batch released to boost the security of this place."
"Is there trouble David?" Irina looked at him.
"Not really," he offered her a faint smile, "some old acquaintances might decide to drop in and I want to be prepared to give them a proper reception when they arrive."
One that none of them would ever forget, he added silently.
The decision to pursue David Saeran to Romania had been a foregone conclusion. There was no debating what simply had to be done. In order to stop the dark lord from reducing the world to ash, the fellowship as Gandalf had started calling their assorted group, had to face Saeran in his domain. Unfortunately, reaching him posed another set of problems. A cross-country trip would take too much time, with too many opportunities that the authorities or Saeran’s agents to intercept them. Not to mention the customs checkpoints they would have to pass from country to country. Since, neither Haldir, Legolas or Gandalf had passports of any kind; it was a nuisance they could do without.
Taking a commercial carrier would limit the risk of discovery since the number of security checkpoints would be significantly reduced, however, it would mean having to leave their weapons behind, a situation no one was entirely pleased with. Considering their enemy, it was an entirely understandable reaction. When Eve suggested a chartering a plane, Bryan had thought it was a good idea even if it posed an entirely different set of problems. However, Gandalf had latched onto the plan with enthusiasm and Bryan’s attempts to explain how difficult this would be were met with complete indifference.
The MI6 agent expected the worst when they approached an air charter company near Heathrow, less than a day after David Saeran had departed England. He was certain that the company would demand all kinds of information in order to release any craft into their custody, not to mention a good deal of cash because leasing a private jet was not at all cheap. After September 11th, the potential for any aircraft to be a turned into a weapon of destruction could no longer be ignored and no one was more painfully aware of this than the aeronautics industry. Chartering private jets was a booming trade in the post September 11th attacks with confidence in commercial carriers low. Bryan was certain that they would be lucky to even get near a plane, in the unlikely event that the company was actually willing to ignore its security protocols to begin with. He was expecting suspicion or worse yet, being given away to the authorities when he started the process of applying for the charter. Fortunately, it was at this point that Gandalf took over and what that transpired then left Bryan with his jaw agape in astonishment.
He could only stare when the old wizard proceeded to tell the very experienced agent that there was no need for such checks, after all, he was a respectable old man and his companion was a law abiding soul with no malice towards anyone. The MI6 agent was certain the man was going to balk at this but there was a tone to Gandalf’s voice that was almost soothing. Thus, he not only processed their application with a smile plastered across his face, he did not even bat an eyelid when Bryan paid in cash what would hardly amount to a deposit for the landing gear of a crop duster, let alone a jet. As Gandalf continued to speak, with Bryan descending into greater depths of amazement as well as respect, the company representative continued to respond with astonishing amicability.
When it was all said and done, they had successfully leased a rather comfortable 9-seater Westwind jet for the journey to Romania.
"How did you do that?" Bryan had asked Gandalf as they walked back to the vehicles where the others were waiting for them.
"How did I do what?" Gandalf stared at him from beneath those bushy eyebrows with pure innocence.
"You know bloody well what," Bryan declared. "By rights, he should be calling Scotland Yard to come get us for trying to steal a plane for the money I paid him. You had him eating out of your hand like you had sugar in your palm."
"I have been known in my time to be persuasive," Gandalf said with a smile, reaching into his tweed coat to produce the pipe he had acquired since returning to the modern world.
"If you were any more persuasive, I’d have to call you Obi-Wan."
Gandalf laughed shortly and replied, "I am sufficiently long lived enough to know how to bring out the best in some people."
"Oh really," Bryan looked at him skeptically, certain that there was more to it than just that. However, since coming into the company of elves, a reincarnated king, a hobbit and an elf maiden, the silver tongue of a wizard was not the most difficult thing he was called on to accept.
Still whatever spell Gandalf had used to trick the charter company agent into giving them a small jet was not something Bryan was going to rely on indefinitely. It was prudent that they got in the air as quickly as possible, before the spell or whatever Gandalf had did, wore off. If there were troubles to be encountered, Bryan would rather deal with them when the company arrived at Craiova.
Right now, the most important thing was to reach David Saeran before they lost any more time.
"Legolas, we’re ready to go," Aaron stated firmly.
"Is there no other way?" Legolas asked for the hundredth time since their departure plans had been finalized, a slight shudder of anxiety crossing his handsome features as he repeated the question.
"I’m afraid not," Aaron shook his head sympathetically, appreciating the magnitude of Legolas’ anxiety. Even Haldir had taken some convincing and the only reason he had managed to bear it so stoically was because the elf despised appearing weak or hesitant, especially when Legolas was not so restrained.
"Surely, there must be another way to reach this place?" Legolas argued again, his eyes darting back and forth from Aaron to the object of his fear.
"There is," Aaron replied, "but it will take us two days to reach Craiova, where else this will get us there in less than three hours."
Legolas stiffened and dropped his gaze to the tarmac, suddenly finding his sneakers a good deal more engaging then their present conversation.
"Legolas, it’s perfectly understandable," Aaron said in his best physician’s tone. "This is an experience that my people have to get accustomed to themselves but once its done, you’ll see that there is very little to fear."
"It is unnatural," Legolas said defiantly, needing to speak louder over the voice of the spinning propellers. "We were not meant to travel this way."
"I agree," Aaron nodded in sympathy.
"Do not patronize me," Legolas barked, "I am not one of your patients."
"Of course not," Aaron returned in the same reasonable tone. "If you were my patient, I’d prescribe you a Valium so that you’d be half stoned when you got on the damn thing but since I can’t ethically force drugs down your throat, I am going to have to appeal to your reason."
"I am not a coward," Legolas stated firmly.
"I didn’t say you were," Aaron answered in a voice so serene that it would have done any elf proud.
"Is he getting in or what?" Eve’s voice shouted from the doorway of the small Westwind jet currently spewing exhaust from its spinning turbines on the tarmac of the private airfield.
"Just a minute!" Aaron shouted back at her, shooting Eve an irate look at the same before facing Legolas again and deciding that brutal honesty was his only recourse, "Legolas, we have to go. We can’t stay out in the open like this. People are going to start to notice us."
It was true. Though it was already evening with night quickly descending upon them, there were enough people on the tarmac to make Aaron uncomfortable. Only one of them had to give him away and the place would be swarming with police and God knows what else.
"I know," Legolas groaned and dragged his feet reluctantly forward. "It’s not the travel I mind so much, it is the manner in which we must do so. Moria I could endure, Caradhras even, but this menace?"
"It’s just a plane," Aaron replied sympathetically as he walked with Legolas towards the plane. The elf was staring at the aircraft as if he were a condemned man about to take the walk to the gallows. "And I have plenty of Dramamine," he added, hoping that would assure the elf despite Legolas not having the slightest idea what that was.
"I saw what happens when these things fly," Legolas said defiantly as they reached the small set of steps that leading to the door of the plane. The engines were roaring even harder as the turbines spun faster, indicating its readiness to fly. Displaced air around the craft had created a condensed gale as the two approached the steps. "Do you know when the one who commands this ‘vessel falls ill, a device made to look like a man is put in its place?"
Aaron rolled his eyes and swore; "I told you Airplane is just a movie!"
Bryan sat within the cockpit as the plane made its way eastward, flying into the night and leaving England behind. He had acquired his pilot’s license a decade ago and was never more grateful for it then at this moment. High above the clouds, with the world beneath them, it was the first time in days that he had truly been given the chance to relax. He knew that the respite was temporary and very soon, they would be walking into a great deal of trouble but for the moment, there was peace and serenity in the twilight. The elves, even after their horror at takeoff had settled down a bit, in no small part due to the efficiency of modern seatbelts. He could hear Tory and Eve chatting in the background, apparently discussing the pros and cons of the Tom Cruise – Nicole Kidman breakup.
"Hello Bryan," Fred suddenly surprised him by sneaking up behind his chair in the cockpit.
"Hello Fred," Bryan flashed the child a little smile, "come for a little look?"
"Yeah," she nodded, her dark hair bouncing.
"Well take a seat in the co-pilot’s chair," he glanced at the empty seat beside, "just don’t touch anything."
"Okay," she said obediently because she was just pleased to be around him. Although there were many people around her she trusted now, Gandalf in particular, Fred did not forget that it was Bryan who had kept her safe since mummy and daddy were taken away.
"Have you eaten?" He asked, completely unaware how paternal he was sounding and would have been horrified if it had been pointed out.
"Yes," she nodded. "Eve gave me chicken."
"Good," he answered and noted that she was staring at him with those big blue eyes of hers, as if she had something on her mind.
"Fred?" He asked after a moment, "is there something you want to tell me?"
"Yes," she said hesitantly and climbed out of her chair so that she could stand next to his own. "When all this is over, can I come stay with you?"
Bryan looked at her startled. "We’re a long way from that Fred," he said evasively, unable to think of a better response.
"But when everything is okay again, I can come live with you. You don’t have anyone else and I wouldn’t be a lot of trouble."
"I know that," he was stammering, wondering how on earth he was going to explain that he had no room for a child in his life. "Don’t you have grandparents?"
"I’ve got a granny and granddad but I don’t want to stay with them, I want to say with you. I can keep you company," she pointed out, "you won’t have to be alone then."
Bryan cracked a smile at her logic but the responsibility of a child terrified him more than any threat he had faced in his life and this included knowing David Saeran was some dark lord from an ancient past. "Fred, I..."
"Hey Fred," Aaron called peeking through the curtain separating the cockpit from the cabin, "you mind doing me a favor and keeping Gandalf company. If he starts to tell Eve one more story about the good ol’ days of Middle-earth, I think she’ll shoot him."
Fred giggled and nodded, forgetting her conversation with Bryan for the moment. "Okay, Aaron," she said pleasantly and hurried past him since children were never capable of walking anywhere.
When she left, Aaron smiled at the visible sigh of relief escaping Bryan as he slumped deeper into the pilot’s chair. "I thought you needed rescuing," he remarked as he took Fred’s vacant seat.
"I thought I was scared when one of my old girlfriends suggested we live together," Bryan replied, unable to believe how unsettled he felt after Fred’s request. "She’s just a child! I can’t look after a child. I have trouble enough looking after myself."
"It was only natural she was going to depend on you Bryan," Aaron said slipping comfortably into the role of analyst as well as friend, "you were there to protect her when her parents were killed. You took her from right under the noses of the Nazgul. I doubt she trusts anyone else as much as you right now."
"I know," Bryan admitted feeling some pride in that but it was also accompanied by this clenching fear at the pit of his stomach, "but I can’t look after her. I wouldn’t know how. Even if it was possible for me to keep her, I don’t know that I want to."
"Hey its a big responsibility," Aaron understanding his anxiety. Bryan, who had obviously spent a great deal of time alone, could be forgiven for his reluctance. Even if the man were accustomed to taking bullets for his line of work, the responsibility of a child was a completely different matter. "I understand your hesitation but if we survive all this, you do need to stay in her life even if you don’t want to raise her. After what she’s been through, you up and leaving when it’s all said and done is going to damage her."
"Christ," Bryan sucked in his breath and wondered how he had found himself in such a situation. There was a part of him that truly wanted to keep Fred with him but there was another part, more sensible and realistic that told him that Bryan Miller had no business raising a child. For a long moment, he did not speak and the thought of what perils that awaited them when they reached their destination gave Bryan an excuse to change the subject.
"Look, when we get to Craiova, I think we should put Tory and Fred on a train out of there. They need to be as far away from us as possible. If we don’t succeed in stopping Saeran, he’ll go after them."
"I know," Aaron said agreeing completely. "If I thought she’d agree, I would ask Eve to go myself but you’re right, it is safer if Fred wasn’t with her. Although if we fail, I don’t know how far they can go. There won’t be much of anything left."
"But they won’t be in Saeran’s hands," Bryan pointed out, refusing to be daunted by their chances of surviving. "I have a brother in Africa. He’s an archaeologist and is used to travelling in some very remote places. If they can reach him, I’m certain Frank could hide them indefinitely."
"Then its’ what we’ll do," Aaron nodded, understanding far better than Bryan could believe. "I just don’t want to be the one to tell either of them."
They were coming.
Saeran could feel not only the child but also Gandalf. In his fortress, in a place that was as connected to him as the flesh on his bones, his powers were at their strongest. Mordor had been what it was because it had soaked up his essence, turning all that was good and healthy in a twisted parody of itself. Now that he had returned to the cradle of his kingdom, that power even if it existed in minute traces was returned to him, enhancing the whole to even greater strength. The power gave him the ability to sense things with even greater depth and he knew without doubt that his enemies were coming to him.
Saeran sat in the dark room where he spent much time ruminating. The sunshine was something he tolerated and though the image of the carefree tycoon who enjoyed the outdoors like a teenager was a useful tool in convincing men that he was the benevolent ruler of his corporate kingdom, Saeran preferred the comforting cool of the shadows. Within the heart of his domain, built upon the ruins of Barad-dur, now Southern Transylvania, he relished the clarity that darkness gave him. He always thought better when all about him was covered in shadow and rose from his chair to walk towards the balcony.
Stepping into the twilight air, Saeran was provided with a sweeping view of the Carpathian Alps, covered in some places with snow but generally obscured by fog. His separation from the land had allowed things to grow again but it could never be a place that inspired anything but awesome admiration and a sliver of fear. These mountains were magnificent but they were also foreboding. He raised his eyes to the sky and saw a dark shadow moving through the air, wings rushing about his ears as they flapped in great number. He saw the flock moving through the sky, appearing like swarms of insects instead crows.
He found it most amusing that their gathering was called a murder of crows.
Their voices screeched unintelligibly but to Saeran, they sang a song as clear as the night they were presently swooping through like a force of nature.
"Hear me," he spoke softly, aware that his speech was something they did not hear but rather felt when he raised his hands to the air and caught their attention. The crows circled the air around him, a dark cloud of furiously beating wings above his head. He could almost feel the breeze created by their exertions and a smile crossed his lips, knowing that his power to affect the darker beasts had not diminished.
"Sweep across the land and seek out those who would harm me. Find them in whatever place they hide, show me their path with your keen sight. Let me see through your eyes and you will feed as you have never fed before. The scourge of man with his flames, his knives and his iron beasts, who stole the sky from you, will be no more. I will give you his carcass to pick clean. Find them for me and the sky will be yours again!" He exclaimed fInally. The flock of dark birds began descending high above the clouds, scattering through the darkness as they spread across that night, searching for his enemies.
When the air was still once more, Saeran returned to the shadows, aware that there was a further audience to make. The air had grown decidedly colder when he returned to the confines of his dark chamber. Even the strobe of moonlight pouring through the balcony doors could not improve the atmosphere within it. His human flesh recoiled at the cold but Saeran ignored the weakness of his body because the soul of him craved tlese things. There were some pleasures to be derived from being human but this was not one of them.
The Nine awaited their master’s orders.
"They are coming," Saeran said coolly as he paused in the middle of the room, in front of them.
"We will find them Master," the leader of the Nine spoke, his voice nothing more than a slow hiss, like a snake uncoiling for attack.
"There is no need," Saeran answered, "no doubt Gandalf will lead them here. We will provide them with our hospitality. When we discern where they are, you will watch them and make certain that they find their way here. I want them all, no one is to escape."
"Is that wise?" He who was once called the Witch King of Angmar asked.
"Your lack of social graces calls for my leniency for your impertinence," Saeran glared at him. "I do not have to account myself to you but since you must know, I think it is time we unleashed our denizens below. They have been waiting for a long time for some sport and I think it only fair that I give it to them."
"Masterfully done, my Lord," the Witch King hissed while behind him the other Nazgul shudder in fear at their master’s displeasure.
"Now," Saeran replied continuing out of his dark chamber, "I am required elsewhere. Save a matter of utmost importance, do not disturb me. I will be with Irina."
The Nine did not respond to this statement, having become accustomed to the strange ‘relationship’ that Saeran seemed to be having with Doctor Irina Sadko. Saeran left them with a smile, aware that his physical desire for the doctor confused them somewhat but then if they had been without physical form for the past aeons, they might well understand why it was necessary for him to indulge himself.
After all, there had to be some pleasures in living inside human skin.
They arrived in Craiova under the cover of darkness, which served them well because Gandalf’s spell to get them through customs was less noticeable when the traffic at the airfield was slow. A heavy mist had fallen across the land upon their approach and even before the plane had set down, Aaron could not help thinking that he understood what had inspired Bram Stoker to use the Carpathian Mountains as the backdrop for his seminal vampire epic. The foreboding mountains seemed sinister in the darkness of night and the full moon that observed their arrival in Romania did not make the mood any less grim.
There was little to see of Craiova in the middle of the night as Tory rented a small van to take them to some suitable accommodations. Mountains with large tracts of forest of tall conifer trees enclosed the city. It was late in the season with most of the hotels and resorts emptying of the tourists who came for the skiing. This suited the fellowship just fine. They took up lodgings a hotel on the edge of the city whose main attraction was its apparent closeness to the woods where wild bears were apparently known to roam. After the harrowing trip on the plane, Legolas and Haldir were especially pleased to be near the woods, even if it was situated in a place that had once been Mordor.
Bryan and Aaron had not told the others of their plans regarding Tory and Fred. He did not perceive they would disagree since it was an unspoken understanding that they were not going to face the lord of Mordor with a six-year-old child in their company. More than anyone of them, it was Fred who earned Saeran’s utmost hatred and while getting her out of England seemed sensible at the time, remaining here in the heart of the enemy’s domain was unacceptable in any shape or form. Tory was the only one who could care for her because the rest of them were needed to fight Saeran. Aaron suspected that Bryan’s reasons for Tory leaving with Fred were not entirely for the child’s welfare if he was any judge of the way Bryan seemed to be looking at Stuart’s ex-wife when he thought no one was looking.
It was Bryan who volunteered to tell Tory that she had to take Fred and leave Romania. After all, if he was the chief architect of her being sent away, the least he could do was say tell her himself. Aaron did not envy him the task because he knew first hand how fiery Tory could get when properly motivated and this would no doubt send the lady into an impressive fit of anger. Fortunately, Bryan had presence of mind to wait until morning to do the deed. When they awoke the next day, Bryan was notable by his absence at the breakfast table, even though Aaron suspected where he had gone. No doubt, he had gone to make arrangements for Tory and Fred’s departure.
He returned a short time later, signaling to Aaron that all was in readiness with a slight nod, which Aaron returned in kind. Eve noted the exchange as did the elves and Gandalf but they said little until Aaron was ready to tell them what conspiracy was afoot.
"Tory," Bryan said after sitting down long enough for a cup of hot coffee, "can I have a word?"
Tory who had been sipping her tea immediately arched a brow at the request, meeting his gaze with an expression of puzzlement. When he broke away eye contact, Tory began to suspect something was wrong but she did not comment, at least not yet.
"Certainly," she said rising to her feet, conscious of the awkward silence that had fallen over the room as she left the table and followed him outside.
Bryan stepped onto the porch of the chalet they had rented on the slopes of the mountains. It provided them with a panoramic view of the Carpathians, which was actually quite lovely in the light of day. He admired the scenery briefly, wishing that he did not have to do this. However, his hesitation lasted only as long as it took him to remember that both Fred and Tory would be in mortal danger if they remained. He was lost in the snowcapped mountains until he heard her closing the door behind her.
"What is it?" She asked, hugging her arms closer to her body. Despite buying some sensible winter clothes for the cold weather, the morning air had enough bite to it to make her feel the chill.
Bryan drew in his breath, crushing the feelings of guilt inside of him because this had to be done. Fortunately, his conflicted emotions were assuaged by the knowledge that this was the only sensible course. "Malcolm Industries has some property in Motru," he began, "when we’re done getting some supplies, we’re going to make our way there."
"We’re just going to drive up to place and hope for the best?" She stared at him with more than a little trace of worry across her lovely face.
"Something like that," he shrugged evasively before meeting her eyes, "but not we, just us being everyone except you and Fred."
Her reaction was immediate and though he thought anger would be her first emotion, he was wrong. It was hurt. Her eyes showed it instantly but with as much expertise as he had used to crush her guilt, she forced away her pain and stared at him instead, with a gaze so hard it could have been granite.
"Why?" She asked softly with no trace of outrage or anger in her manner, her face a mask of composure.
"Fred can’t come with us," he answered with honestly. "You know that."
"That’s not what I ask. Why me?" She demanded. "You could ask anyone else to protect her. Why me? Why me when you know I wanted to be there. After what they did to Stuart, I have a right to be in this fight!"
"You may have the right but you can’t protect yourself against what we’re facing there!" Bryan snapped, hating to be so brutal but he had to because she needed to understand.
"I can take care of myself," Tory insisted but her lips quivered in defeat even as the words left her mouth because she knew deep down inside, he was right. She was not an elf. She had not the skill of a seasoned policewoman or a powerful wizard. She had none of the skills to defend herself if faced with the Nine or Saeran’s men. She was a liability because she could not protect herself.
"I know you can," he said refusing to let her feel any more helpless than she already did because he admired her, even if she couldn’t fight. She was strong and brave and she had taken in stride some pretty extraordinary things without buckling under the pressure, he respected that. "Tory, you are the only person that can keep Fred safe. Gandalf said you had a purpose with us. Did it ever occur to you that this might be it? If we die, you are the only one who can protect Fred because you knows what’s after her."
"You’re just saying that so I won’t feel any worse," Tory replied turning away because if she shed tears in front of him, she would simply die from the humiliation.
"I don’t want you to feel any worse," Bryan said sincerely, "I want you to live. Even if we’re all dead, I want to die knowing that you’re alive somewhere."
Tory turned back to him because those words were laced with such emotion that for an instant, she swore it was not simply about Fred. His fear was also for her but not as one of his comrades in this insanity, instead it was for more than that. Tory looked at him and saw that the reflection of understanding in his eyes that she had found him out and suddenly, it was Bryan who was retreating in this war of words.
"You’ll break her heart if you make her go," Tory pointed out.
"I know but she means more to me than I ever believed possible and I won’t let him have her, " Bryan replied before adding in an even quieter voice, "or you."
Tory swallowed, hating herself for agreeing to this, even though she knew it was the right thing to do, "you’re an impossible son of a bitch you know?"
"You’re not the first woman to tell me that," he offered her a little smile but there was too much sorrow in it.
"Good, then understand this," Tory replied crossing the space between them so that he could look into her eyes and know that she meant what she was about to say. "You may think that dying is just another part of the business, that it’s alright for you to die for queen and country. I am telling it is not. You have people who care about you, who’ll mourn you if you get yourself killed so understand that I’ll do this for you and only you, if you promise me you will try to stay alive."
Bryan did not know how to answer. He had been asked many things in his life but never had that demand been put to him so starkly or with such fire. He nodded; a little dumbfounded because once again, he had underestimated just how strong she could be by a country mile.
"Alright, I promise," he said hesitantly, unable to think of anything else to say.
"Okay," Tory said drawing a deep breath, feeling as if she had climbed one of those mountains on her hands and knees just to force that oath from him. Turning towards the door, she looked over her shoulder at him and said with a sad smile on her face, "let’s go tell Fred."
Fred was not at all happy to hear that she and Tory were leaving and protested bitterly all the way to the train station that would take her and Tory to Timisoara in the western border of Romania. Bryan had booked them passage under an assumed name that would take them all the way to Hungary. Fortunately, now that they were in Europe, it was possible to travel across the continent without documentation. Bryan had given Tory the names of contacts he knew that could arrange for passports when they reached Germany. Once that was done, she and Fred could fly out of Europe and reach Frank who by his last letters, was shifting through the dirt somewhere in the Olduvai Gorge of East Africa.
"I don’t want to go Bryan," Fred pleaded once again as he and Aaron saw Fred and Tory off at the train station. "I want to stay with you."
The child’s eyes were brimming with tears and as much as Bryan wanted to take away the source of her pain, he knew he had to harden his heart to her tears.
"It’s not safe Fred," Bryan explained gently, aware that this did little good because she was only a little girl and while she understood the danger her life was in, she did not understand how risky staying with them would be. He thought of what Aaron had said about how abandoning her would damage her later in life but better that she was hurt, then dead. "I promise you I’ll find you when this is done," he took her hand in his. "I’ll find you and maybe we’ll have that talk about you coming to live with me."
Her eyes brightened but only slightly, "you promise?" Her voice escaped her in a hush.
"Yeah," he offered her a lopsided smile, "I promise."
Bryan gave Fred a farewell embrace as Aaron said his farewells to Tory.
"Don’t you dare disappear for another year Aaron," Tory said firmly after she and the psychiatrist had pulled apart from their hug. "Where am I going to find this much excitement again?"
"Yeah, I am a tough act to follow," Aaron grinned cockily.
"Yes you are," she replied, trying not to become too emotional, "you take care of yourself."
"You too, Tor," Aaron said seriously and kissed her gently on the forehead before he turned his attention to Fred and picked up the little girl.
As Aaron took custody of Fred briefly, Tory turned her eyes to Bryan and for a moment, neither said anything as they stared at each other. They had known each other for less than a week and there was still much they did not know but for this moment, all that could wait.
Tory took a step forward, taking firm grip of Bryan’s jacket before pulling him towards her. Without saying anything, she captured his mouth in a passionate kiss. The instant their lips met, she felt him stiffen in surprise but his hesitation was brief and soon he was kissing her back with just as much passion. He tasted warm and familiar, almost as they had been doing this for as long as they had lived. She felt her head swim at the power of his demanding mouth and for a few seconds at least, there was nothing in the world but them and the undeniable feelings they had for each other. Feelings they could no longer ignore, even if they both too proud to admit it.
Unfortunately, a moment was all that they had and it was Tory who broke away first.
"I’m holding you to a promise as well," she reminded him as Tory stepped away from him.
"I’ll do the best I can," he answered with a slight nod.
That was enough for her and with that, Tory took Fred’s hand in hers before they turned away from the two men and started towards the train station. Aaron and Bryan lingered a few seconds more to watch them disappear into the midst of other travelers leaving the city, before they too went on their way.
None of them noticed the crow perched high on the curved arm of a nearby streetlight staring at them with blood red eyes.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.