Dark Night of the Soul: 3. Finder's Keepers

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3. Finder's Keepers

"Behold Bree," Elenya announced as the group reached the top of a high, grassy hill. There was another, even taller hill to their west. On the near side of that hill lay the village of Bree, guarded by a low wooden wall. The larger part of the village was made up of ordinary wooden and stone homes lining streets that lazily wandered here and there in no clear pattern. Farther up the hill, the houses began to fade, replaced by Hobbit dwellings like those of the Shire.

"Hobbits live here, too?" Xander wondered, slightly nervous at the prospect of another shin-kicking session.

"A few families, yes," Elenya confirmed. "The Bree Hobbits claim their ancestors were the first to settle the lands west of the Misty Mountains, long before the Shire was founded. The Men of Bree say much the same thing, that they have lived in these parts since before Númenor fell," she added. "It may be, but only under the guardianship of others," Elenya said, although she would not say who those others were.

"How far is it from Bree to Rivendell?" Giles asked as they headed down the eastern slope of the little hill towards the gates of Bree.

"Not more than a week, if we can find horses in the village. And it may be best not to speak that name aloud too often. The Bree-landers are good folk, mostly, but there are settlers from the East and the South, who may not be so found of Elves and those who would seek them out."

"Why not?" Willow asked. "What's wrong with Elves?"

"They ruined my Christmas," Xander muttered. That earned him a sharp glance from Willow.

Elenya laughed. "Few things, if any. The fault lies with the outsiders and..." She hesitated, lowering her voice as she went on. "And with the ruler they may still serve."

"Who?" Willow inquired.

"I will not speak his name. The Lord of Mordor will suffice." She eyed them for any reaction, but only Giles seemed to have even the faintest glimmer of recognition in his eyes. Even so, they all sensed the greater darkness that the word Mordor only hinted at.

"Well, that's not our problem," Buffy said, as much to reassure herself as the others. At least that was one plus of being stuck in this world - Elenya's problems weren't hers. And this Lord of Mordor, whoever this guy was, could jack around with the Slayer of this time period and leave her the hell alone.

"Yeah," Xander said, glad he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt so no one could see his goose bumps.

There was little talk after that, until they reached the gates of Bree. There was only a single guard, and he was not even armed, a sign of the peace that Bree had enjoyed for years beyond count.

Buffy nudged Willow, gestured towards the unarmed guard and raised an eyebrow. "That's strange, don't you think?" she said in a hushed voice to her friend. She looked over her shoulder then back to Willow. "A land as dangerous as this one and the guy watching the gate isn't armed. He doesn't even have a slingshot. What's he going to use on all these Orcs and vampires? Harsh language?"

"This whole place is strange, Buffy, who knows?" Willow answered with a shrug. Still, the fact the guard was unarmed did arouse a certain amount of worry in the young wannabe witch. She kept close to Buffy as they continued along the streets of this new town. Much different from the Shire; buildings were cramped together and people clogged the avenues. Willow preferred the land of the Hobbits to this place.

"We'll make for the Inn of the Prancing Pony," Elenya told the others once they had passed through the gates. "The inn keep is a fair enough man and keeps clean rooms. And there may be horses for sale at the stables there, as well."

"Uh... now might be a good time to remind you that the equestrian stuff really ain't our thing," Xander said. He looked over to Willow then Buffy. Neither of the girls appeared too eager to ride a horse.

"What?" Elenya drew her horse to a stop and stared down at the four of them in absolute amazement.

"We can't ride horses. Sorry."

"It's not that we can't," Willow quickly picked up where Xander left off. She flicked a quick glance over to Buffy then back up to Elenya. "We just, uh, prefer not to whenever possible."

"Yeah," agreed Buffy with a nod. She met Elenya's gaze. "Horseback riding, not a real big skill where we're from. Unless you're a debutant or a cowboy."

"You traveled all the way from your home on foot? But why?"

"We didn't really travel from our home on foot - " Xander began, but Giles cleared his throat.

"As Buffy pointed out, it's not a common skill among our people," he told Elenya. "And there aren't many horses where we come from."

Elenya shook her head. These four revealed new mysteries with almost every word they spoke. Her curiosity was reaching the breaking point and only the very public surroundings prevented her from pressing them to be more forthcoming. As it was, she sensed they had already attracted too much attention with their odd accents and outlandish, not to mention borderline decadent, clothing.

She'd done her best to conceal that - lending Buffy and Willow two of her spare cloaks, but that did little to mask the men's clothing and nothing for any of their accents. Hopefully, they would heed her advice to speak little and pray they blended in as merely another group of travelers from far-off lands.

Luckily, there were more than enough empty rooms at the Prancing Pony. Elenya paid for three - one for her, one for Buffy and Willow, and one for the men - from her dwindling supply of coins. That too would pose a problem if they didn't soon depart Bree for Rivendell, for whatever reason.

-

"Well, this isn't exactly The Bronze," Buffy murmured as she, Willow, Giles and Xander followed Elenya into the Inn of the Prancing Pony. It was more like something out of the old Western movies with John Wayne - a bunch of less than friendly looking people drinking and hanging out. She kept close to the others, but a wary eye remained on the patrons.

Willow held tightly to Xander's arm and she moved closer to him. "I don't like this place," she said in a low voice. Her gaze met that of a slovenly fellow who smiled at her, revealing his near toothless grin then he went back to chugging down a pint of ale. She shuddered. "It wasn't so bad outside."

Xander spotted a couple of younger men ordered drinks from the man behind the counter. He wondered how much he could drink for the money that Elenya had spotted him. He patted Willow's hand. "I'm going to get something to drink, I'm dyin'." Without waiting for her response, he slipped from her grasp and headed over to the counter.

"Xander!" Willow rolled her eyes then looked over to Buffy. "He doesn't have a problem, obviously." She stopped when Giles and Elenya did. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Giles answered. He saw the expression on Willow's face. "Are you all right?" An eyebrow rose up a little at her. "You look rather peaked, Willow."

"It's just ... stuffy in here," Willow answered. She waved a hand, fanning her face. "You think it would be okay if I went outside for a while? Kind of looked around the town?" Even though the place wasn't near as nice as the peaceful Shire, Willow couldn't help but be curious about the lifestyle of the people living in the town. How many chances did she have to get an up close and personal look at actual history?

Giles frowned. "Willow, I shouldn't think that to be a wise idea," he began.

"I'll go with her, Giles," Buffy volunteered. She shrugged when the Watcher looked at her. "We'll just have a look around. We won't go far. I promise." She held up a hand with three fingers raised in the Girl Scout sign of honor. "We'll stay out of trouble."

The Watcher sighed then shifted his gaze over to Elenya to see what she thought of the idea. "Will they be all right in the town?" he asked. He hoped she would say no to keep the girls near.

Elenya looked from him to the two girls. She saw the determined glimmer in Buffy's eyes. Her fellow Slayer wouldn't take no for an answer. A soft sigh followed. "We are within the walls of Bree and well protected from the wilds that surround us." She turned her attention from Giles back to Buffy and Willow. "If you keep to yourselves and do not cause any trouble, you should be fine."

"Great!" Buffy took Willow by the arm. "We'll be back soon, okay?" She practically dragged her friend toward the exit of the inn. On the way, they bumped into Xander who had a mug of foam in his hands. Buffy eyed the drink then looked up at him. "What's that?"

"Ale," he replied, a smile lit up his face. He rose up the cup as if to toast them. "They don't even card you in this place! This is great. I think I'm beginning to like this time period, you guys." He lowered the cup, his smile disappearing as he noted the looks on their faces. "What's the matter?"

"We're going to take a look around the town," Willow told him.

"Oh." His shoulders slumped. He'd hoped that they would hang out together, at the very least pretend that they were all right. "Well, does Giles know about that?"

"Yeah, he does. Anyway ..." Buffy tapped Willow's shoulder. "We'd better go if we want to see anything before it gets too dark outside. I doubt this time period has flashlights or stuff like that."

"Sure you won't reconsider? I mean ... ale." He raised the cup, a hopeful expression on his face. Then he frowned. "Okay. Be careful out there, though, all right?" He started to turn but remembered something. "Oh, hey, just a second..." He reached into his back pocket where the completed flower circlet dangled. "Might not be smart for me to get caught with this thing, you know?"

Willow saw that Xander had automatically extended his arm towards Buffy. Her eyes followed Xander's arm down to the hand then up to Buffy's rather surprised face. She watched Buffy accept the offering from Xander then she studied the Slayer closely. Buffy'd been pretty closed off recently, and Angel's abrupt exit hadn't helped matters any.

"Thanks," Buffy softly replied, staring at the flowers in her hand. Xander had made this? She hadn't any idea he could do anything like that, he certainly never made a mention of the ability. Her head lifted and she weakly smiled. "Um.. have fun, Xander. Let's go, Will."

Xander watched the two girls leave. He held his mug in both hands; still staring even after the door had fallen shut behind them. After a moment, he let out a breath then headed into the main room to mix with the locals. As he passed by a table, he paid no mind to the man covered in a black hooded cloak that stood up then headed towards the door.

-

"Barliman! Two ales!" Elenya called out, just loud enough to be heard over the general din of the late afternoon crowd. "Your finest," she added with a quick grin.

Giles glanced sideways at her. For a moment, she reminded him of Faith. He shook his head. Not at all a fair comparison.

"Two ales," Barliman said, placing them down on the bar in front of Giles and Elenya.

"Thank you." Elenya passed Barliman a silver coin and then grabbed one of the mugs. "Health and strength," she murmured before taking her first drink.

"Health and strength," Giles repeated, trying not to stand out too much. "To be honest, I had hoped we might talk somewhere more private with the others gone."

Elenya stared at Giles for a moment in absolute silence, her lip twitching just a bit. "Is... is that the custom where you come from?" she asked, barely containing her laughter.

"Oh! Oh, no, I didn't mean - " Giles buried his head in his hands for a few seconds. "I'd like to know more about the history of - of this land," he explained. "We know very little of it in California."

"California. An odd name." Elenya took another long swallow of ale, then nodded. She looked around the room, then pointed at one of the tables in the very back, away from most of the crowd. "As you wish, though a table will do, I think."

"Right. Good idea." Giles picked up his mug and followed Elenya across the floor to the table in the back. Once they were both seated, he sipped at the ale - it was surprisingly good - and wondered what to ask first. He had so many questions. "Well then. The books in my land are fairly clear on the very beginning. The demon rule over the Earth and the slow rise of mankind as they retreated to other, er, worlds - "

Elenya drummed her fingers on the table. "Wait a moment. Demon rule over the Earth, and then retreating?" she asked, an extremely befuddled look on her face. "When was this time?"

"What? In the beginning, before mankind evolved, and for many eons afterwards."

"I don't know that word 'evolved'. But I do know the truth. This world was entrusted to the Powers of the West before time even began, and it was their unblemished garden when it was young. The Dark Lord and his horrors crept in later and then he was bound up for a time before Man ever awoke. How could it be otherwise? Nothing but misery and perversion ever springs forth from the realms of Evil. Certainly Man was not born into an age of utter darkness as you say."

Giles stared at the Slayer and shook his head. "No, that's not true. The world began as a hell and a haven for the dark powers."

"Lies," Elenya replied easily. "I do not know who told you those tales, but they are not true - this world, all worlds, all of Eä, came into being as a paradise under the guardianship of the Powers. The darkness came ages afterwards, and was not there from the very beginning."

"That's not - "

"It is! I have spoken to one who is only five generations removed from the very first Elves to come to life in Cuiviénen itself!" she said in a low voice, just beginning to get impatient. "He himself is only a few centuries younger than the race of Man, and remembers well those ancient wars."

"That's insane. He'd be ..." Giles shook his head. What she was telling him couldn't be true. The Council knew more about the true history of the world than anybody. There was no way they - not to mention every reputable scientist in the past century and a half - could have gotten it all so wrong.

"You may meet him yourself. Then we shall see who is insane," Elenya grumbled as she finished off her ale. [What madman could create such a tale?] she wondered as she drank.

Giles could only shake his head one more time and attend to his own drink.

-

Xander sat down at one of the tables, sipped his foamy ale then gave the room a quick scan, trying to figure out whom he could talk to. He was on his own since Giles was in some all-important conversation with Elenya. The other Slayer worried Xander, for several reasons. The things she said made Giles jumpy at times. Also, from what Buffy said, she'd been Slayer for a long, long time. He wondered how she'd managed to pull that off. Giles never said anything about Slayers living that long.

He jumped a bit when a mug clanked down on his table then he looked up to the tall, very hefty bearded fellow who now stood in front of him. He swallowed hard and tried to smile.

"Uh, hi," he greeted. The man stared at him yet said nothing. That made Xander even more nervous than before. "Is, um, is there something I can do for you?"

"This is my table, you witless worm," he grumbled. He used his other hand to stroke his beard. Underneath his beard, some light leather armor was visible to Xander. It was pretty worn and scarred by from what Xander assumed to be swords and various weaponry. "If you place any value on your life, you will remove yourself."

Xander swallowed again then glanced around at the other patrons. Everyone else in the immediate area was quiet, and his or her attention was focused on the confrontation, which took place. He tried to keep himself calm, thinking of ways to get out of the situation with all of his limbs firmly attached to his body. "Uh, hey, you know, if I moved, you wouldn't be able to hear any of the ... the neat stories I have."

The man leaned over, the smell of him overpowering Xander almost to the point of faint. "What stories would you have, stranger?" he asked. His brow furrowed as he studied the younger man. "What lands do you hail from?"

"Uh.." Xander shifted in place, trying to think of an answer. He chuckled nervously, but this guy wasn't finding anything funny. Quickly, he cleared his throat. "I'm from way, way west of here. You wouldn't know the place, I'm sure. Over the river and through the woods, that kind of thing." He saw the look in the man's eyes. "Would you like to hear a song? I could sing you song about my land!"

The heavy man stood straight, never taking his eyes off of Xander. "Sing us a song about this mysterious land of yours, then."

Xander coughed a few times. [Great. Now what do I do? What in the hell am I going to sing for them?] He picked up his mug, took a long swig of the ale then let out a breath as he placed the mug back on the table.

"Ah, yes, I have the perfect song." He glanced at the others who listened to the discussion. [Here goes nothing.] "Sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip ... which started from this tropic shore, aboard this tiny ship. The mate was a mighty sailor man, the skipper brave and sure -"

The man grabbing him by the neck cut off Xander's singing, and then he lifted Xander up from the seat. He narrowed his eyes at the gagging boy. "Ships? Sailors? The seas? What land is this you speak of, worm? I know of no lands beyond the seas. None that still exist, at any rate." The crowd murmured agreement and began to mutter darkly among themselves. "Who are you?" He shoved Xander back down onto the seat.

Coughing loudly, Xander placed a hand to his neck. [Okay, so maybe the theme to Gilligan's Island wasn't such a good idea.] He lifted his head, seeing that the man expected an answer. The other patrons eyed him with suspicion now, too. What had he said that bugged them? [You'd better try another approach, Xander. Or else you'll be a new wall hanging in this dump.]

"Okay, okay ... so I lied. I'm not from a land beyond the seas. I'm, um ... " He massaged his throat, thinking of another place to claim to be from. Suddenly, he had another idea. Hopefully, this one wouldn't get him half-strangled. "I'm from a land called Greece!" He saw the crowd exchange looks. "It's place very far east of here. It's a lot like your own lands, really."

The man dressed in the leather armor eyed Xander again. "Greece? I've never heard of this Greece. You say it is east of our own lands?" The Bree-folk knew little of the world beyond the Misty Mountains and the few tales they had heard were unsettling. For his part, the man in leather had heard of the Lonely Mountain, and of Rhun, but that was all ... unless.

"Oh, yeah." [All right, it's not making them kick my ass, so east must be okay.] He dropped his hand away from his neck. "We're a rather home-y kind of people. Stick to our own country. We used to have a lot of problems, but not anymore."

"Really?" the bearded man took a seat across from Xander, curious now of this Greece that Xander spoke about. "What sort of problems?"

"Problems. Uh, yeah, problems." He took another drink of the ale, using the moment to come up with a sufficient story. As he placed the mug back down, he looked to his audience. Then he began to recite something he never thought he'd find a practical use for. "In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle!"

With the reaction that got from the crowd, he figured he was on the right track now. After another long drink of his ale, he proceeded to recount all the episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess he'd seen as "tales" of his own land of Greece. It was better than having his head ripped off by Grizzly Adams, at least.

-

"Oh, Buffy -" Willow stopped in the street, pointing up to one of the shops. She smiled then looked over to her friend. "A shop that sells herbs! Maybe we should go inside? Look around?" Her tone was hopeful but she frowned when Buffy shook her head. "All right. It's not like we have money to buy anything anyway."

Buffy and Willow moved along the streets, trying not to get barreled over by the humans in the town or trip over the little Hobbits. Even after all the time they'd been stuck in this land, the past, Buffy couldn't get a grip on the reality. She'd never felt so detached in her entire life, not even when she was the only girl in the entire world with the skill and power to defeat the forces of darkness. Everything here was real - this wasn't the past that Giles and the Watchers Council had put in their books.

Willow stopped to look through a cart of things a middle-aged woman had for sale. She picked up a piece of fabric, looked down at her own clothes and made a face. "We could use some new clothes," she said then flicked her gaze over to Buffy. "We've been wearing the same stuff for way too long. And I'm feeling icky icky since I haven't had a bath in the same amount of time, either." She noticed the expression on Buffy's face. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, it's ... it's nothing, Willow," Buffy replied, and then she shook her head. She tried to smile but it wasn't working.

"You've been saying that for days, Buffy." She placed the fabric back down on the cart, turning her full attention to the Slayer. "What's bugging you? And you'd better tell me. Are you still blaming yourself for us being here? If you are, you need to stop. It's not your fault. It never was. We're all responsible for our own decisions. We chose to follow."

"But if I'd been a better Slayer before -" She sighed in frustration, and then looked away. "We wouldn't be here if I was as good as she is, Willow. You know that." A moment passed then she looked back at the redhead. "You've seen her. You heard all her stories about the monsters she's fought and killed. How do I compare with that?"

"You're not from here!" Willow placed a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "You're Buffy Summers of Sunnydale, California, and you're from 1999. This isn't your problem. Nothing going on in this time period is your problem. Elenya is Slayer now. She's prepared for what lurks around here." She gave Buffy's shoulder a squeeze, her expression becoming sympathetic. "Buffy Summers is a pretty kick butt Slayer where I come from."

Buffy's gaze lowered back to the semi-muddy ground beneath their feet. She wanted to believe Willow, she really did. But what chance would she have as time went by if she never improved in skill as a Slayer? Three years was a pretty long while for a Slayer to survive in their time. Elenya passed that mark by five times. If Giles was right, and this place was representative of their past, what would happen if one of these beasts reared its ugly head in modern times?

Oh, wait. She already knew. She flinched recalling the two-week battle with the Orc.

"I appreciate the pep talk, Will," Buffy softly said as she raised her head, her gaze meeting Willow's. [Even if it didn't really do any pepping.]

"Let's walk. Maybe we'll find something interesting in this town."

For another thirty minutes, the two girls strolled up and down the streets, stepping into shops here and there, trying not to talk too much to anyone but each other and keep out of trouble. They were unaware of the black-cloaked figure that'd been following them since they'd left the Prancing Pony. They made a left on the street, almost losing one another in a barrage of people, but they managed to get through.

"Buffy, look here," Willow said, directing Buffy's attention to man who strummed the strings of an instrument that sort of resembled a guitar. She and Buffy stopped to watch the man compose his lyrics, speaking of lands and people of which neither girl had heard. "You know who might like this? Oz." Her smile faded just a moment as she thought of him. He was probably out of his mind with worry back in his own time.

Buffy shrugged a little. "I guess so. Music is music, no matter what age you're from," she replied. Her gaze shifted to Willow and she saw the solemn expression on her face. "You miss him, don't you?" It wasn't a question; it was a statement.

She nodded, biting her lower lip for a moment. "Yes, I do," she softly answered. "I've ... I've been keeping a positive outlook on this whole situation to deal with it." She flicked her gaze to Buffy. "We have to get home. With all the magick that Elenya and Frodo told us about, somebody somewhere has to be able to help us. Right?"

Buffy nodded a little. She wasn't so certain herself, but if it kept Willow from being as frustrated as she then that was fine.

"Besides," she went on, her voice perking a bit. "Worrying about it won't help us. We're sort of at the mercy of fate and destiny and luck. We were fortunate to land where we did then we found Elenya. She'll take us to these Elves and, hopefully, everything will be okay. I'll see Oz again," she murmured as she shifted her gaze back to the singing man. "I know I will."

In that moment, Buffy wished she were more like Willow. Willow had always wanted to be somebody else, and she had no idea what a great person she was. Her little speech was damn near inspirational. Optimism like that was completely lost on the modern Slayer - she seemed to gravitate toward the negative, forgetting that a positive side even existed. Everything had to be a Greek tragedy with her - even Angel.

Willow sighed heavily, trying to push away the sad thoughts of Oz. She started to take a step but stopped when something in the alleyway behind the guitar man caught her eye. Her gaze narrowed a bit, and for a minute, she thought her imagination had played a trick on her. Before she could turn away, the distinct glimmer of light reflecting off of a shiny surface attracted her attention again.

"Willow?" Buffy asked as Willow crept down the half-dark alley. She glanced around then followed after her. Rubbing her arms with her hands, she came up just behind her friend. "What are you doing?" she whispered, leaning over a little as Willow crouched down, pushing away a few old rags at the same time. "What is it?" she asked when Willow picked up something from the ground, something shiny and a silverish/gold.

Willow held it in her hands, staring wide-eyed at the piece of jewelry. "It's ... it's a ring," she murmured. She turned the simple band of sparkling gold shimmering with bits of silver over in her hands. "Who would just leave a ring like this lying around?" She tried to slip it into her right ring finger, but it was so loose it slid off again.

Buffy tried to get a better look at what Willow had found. "Who knows? I'm sure if it's worth anything the owner will come looking for it." She paused, glanced over her shoulder, becoming aware that the sun was setting. The city would be dark soon, and they'd have a tough time finding the Inn again at night. "Let's get going, Will. We've fooled around enough out here. I'm starved and I'm tired."

"Yeah, I'm coming. Wait a second, okay?" Willow grabbed a piece of the old rags, ripped away a small strip then used it to "size" the ring to fit her ring finger. She smiled as she raised her hand, watching the fading sunlight glint off her new treasure. Her smile dimmed slightly when she realized that she felt different since she put it on her hand - a strange warmth tingled throughout her body. She felt ... a little more powerful.

"Will?" Buffy said loudly from the mouth of the alley. She stood there, her arms folded across her chest, watching Willow admire her new ring. When Willow finally stood and joined her, she shook her head. "You better hope whoever that ring belongs to doesn't come back lookin' for it. Who knows what they do to thieves in this land."

"I didn't steal it, I found it!" Willow defensively said. She held out her hand, looking down at her ring then she smiled again. "It's pretty, isn't it? A little big but that's okay."

Buffy stared at Willow's profile for a moment. "Yeah, well, if they catch you, I don't know you."

The two girls hurried in the direction of the Prancing Pony.
-

Hamil growled a little as he shoved his way through a pack of Hobbits. The two girls were slowly drawing away from him.

"Curses on curses!" he snapped. The crowd seemed to be somehow working against him. It was one thing to shove aside Hobbits, but too many of the Bree-men were apt to shove back. And it had been made painfully clear to Hamil that he was not to be discovered. Not for any reason.

But it had also been made painfully clear that he was not to lose the strangers once found. Not for any reason. And there they went - out of sight as they turned a corner too far ahead for Hamil to catch up without running and being seen.

He stood still and fretted. Now what to do? After a moment or two, he grinned and turned back in the other direction. Nobody need know that he'd actually LOST them if he didn't mention that. All he had to do was reveal that they'd been found. Those were his orders and orders had to be obeyed.

Not long after that, Hamil rode away from the Prancing Pony and clear out of Bree. Once a safe distance from the walls, he spurred his horse on until it was racing at breakneck speed, heading north towards the wild country.

For two hours, he rode like that, not caring how close his steed was coming to exhaustion, until he reached a pair of rocky hills hard up against each other with only a small crack between them. The crack was just wide enough for a single man, or horse, to squeeze through for several feet, and then it widened abruptly, revealing a hidden dell between the two hills.

Inside the dell, there was a sizable camp guarded by several men with nasty swords and dark cloaks, and a handful of archers squatting on ledges jutting out of the more or less sheer hillsides.

Before he could be skewered and stabbed, Hamil yelped the word of passage, the one that made it clear he hadn't been followed or tricked. The guards stood down and let him pass to the large tent in the center of the dell.

Swallowing hard, Hamil entered the tent.

"M - milord?" he called out once inside. As always, it took his eyes several seconds to adjust to the darkness inside the tent. And as always, he rather regretted that they did at all. There were things in there that he did not care to see. "It is Hamil. I have news of the ones you - Urk!" Hamil suddenly exclaimed as an iron grip tightened around his throat.

"Then speak it, maggot, and be done," a voice hissed in his ear.

Hamil nodded frantically. "The four strangers, the ones you seek, I spotted them in Bree this very morn! At the Prancing Pony Inn."

"Four? The four?"

"Yes, lord!" Hamil desperately searched his memory for the right thing to say. There! He had it. "Four strangers from distant lands, of custom and language unknown, riding into the setting sun for counsel and comfort." He did not understand much of that verse, but Hamil had never been good with any poetry beyond the most vulgar limericks.

"Describe them," the voice hissed.

"Two men and two women. Young and pretty." The grip tightened around his throat and Hamil quickly told his lord exactly what they looked like. "And - "

"Enough. Your use is over."

"I - " Hamil began, then nodded when he felt the pressure increase one more time. "Yes, lord!" he whimpered, and whimpered again when an iron boot kicked him out of the tent.

Inside, the wearer of that boot sank down into his travel-seat and sighed wearily. The half-wit's report left an odd heaviness on his heart. For a moment, Rauko, for that was his name, felt a touch of fear and uncertainty then he laughed it off. He hadn't risen high in the service of the Lord of Mordor by listening to fleeting doubts and scruples, and the rewards if he accomplished his mission.

Rauko grinned hungrily. Power and wealth, and the promise of more when the long war was finally over and the weak people of the West were crushed forever.

Still grinning, Rauko rose up and grabbed his sword, then strode forth from the tent. His men snapped to attention the instant they saw him.

"Break camp. We ride now," he instructed and, without checking to see how fast they obeyed his commands, mounted his own horse, a black steed stolen from the herds of faraway Rohan. Soon, the camp had been disassembled down to the last scrap of ash, and the company rode out, one by one. They had a prophecy to destroy.

-

Buffy gasped loudly as she sat bolt upright in bed. She breathed in and out, attempting to keep herself calm, but the dream she'd had was so intense, so real. Her hands went to her throat; she felt her neck then let her hands trail down to body. She was still in one piece. Tossing back the covers, she stepped out of her bed, made her way to the window and threw it open. The instant rush of cool air helped to calm her nerves. Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath.

[It was just a dream. Just a dream.] Her hand still trembled, however, as she raised it up to brush her hair out of her face. She clasped her hands together then looked over her shoulder. Willow was sound asleep in her own bed, and the hand that bore Willow's new ring lay on top of the blanket. The ring shimmered in the pale moonlight that streamed into their room.

Letting out a soft sigh, Buffy settled on the sill of the window then lifted her gaze to the stars. Her head rested against the wall. The terror she'd experienced in her dream began to drift away. What a horrible nightmare. A black figure, no discernible features of any kind, had tried to kill her. All she could feel was the grip of hands around her throat, slowly squeezing the life out of her.

"I want to go home," she murmured to the night sky. It was a last ditch effort on her part, a plea to these Powers that so enjoyed messing with people's lives, and she hoped that they would hear her. She half turned when she heard the sound of soft footfalls that stopped at her and Willow's door. Her muscles tensed, eyes searching the room for a weapon if she needed it, but she relaxed when Elenya stepped inside.

"You are awake," she greeted. She quietly closed the door behind her, glancing at Willow as she crossed the room to join Buffy at the window. Immediately, she noted the distress in Buffy's eyes. As she sat down, she never took her eyes off of Buffy. "You, too, had the dream."

Buffy blinked. "If you mean the one about the Shadow trying to strangle me, then yeah, been there, nightmared that." Her gaze shifted and she stared out of the window once more. "One of the perks of this job - intense, creepy dreams. They're supposed to help you, or so Giles claims but it's really a whole lot of uselessness packed up in your brain."

Elenya nodded then followed Buffy's gaze to the sky above. "Your friend, Giles, has strange ideas about many things," she said. She waited a moment then looked at Buffy once again. "He spoke of an organization - some sort of Council? Who are these Watchers?"

Buffy's eyes flicked over to Elenya. "Huh? You haven't heard of the Watcher Council?" she asked, surprised. She realized she'd spoken a little too loudly when Willow murmured in her sleep and rolled over in bed. Her voice dropped as she leaned closer to Elenya. "You don't know who the Watchers are?" Elenya shook her head and Buffy sat back. "Then ... then how do you ... if you don't have any Watchers, how did you figure out the whole Slayer job?"

"Figure out?" she repeated, a little unsure of what Buffy meant. Her brow rose. "No Watcher told me anything of my duty as the Slayer."

"Somebody must have. You don't just wake up one day, able to bend metal bars, and think, 'Golly gee, I must be a Slayer!'. It doesn't work like that. Watchers show up before you're activated, train you, and prepare you for the job ahead." She could tell that none of this struck any chord of recognition with Elenya. "Well, that's how it's supposed to work, but in my case, that's not how things went down. Generally, Watchers are a bother. Giles is okay. I don't know where I'd be without him. Dead, probably."

"This must be something of mortal making, then," Elenya stated. She turned her attention back to the window, drew in a deep breath of the clean night air then leaned back.

"Then how did you find out who you are and what you're supposed to do?"

"She came to me in my dreams," Elenya began, her voice a little distant now as she spoke. Her hands came together in her lap. "The one before me - the Slayer. She was of my race but from the lands East of here, lands that are cursed with Evil. Despite such an upbringing, she accepted the task, fought long and hard against the darkness. It took her life, as it will one day take mine." Her gaze shifted to Buffy. "As it will take yours, eventually."

Buffy swallowed hard, but remained silent. She didn't want to mention that little fact that it already had. Thing was, the darkness didn't expect her to come back. The talk of dreaming of other Slayers was unsettling as well. A few weeks before, Faith had visited Buffy in her dreams to reveal the weakness of the Mayor. She'd wondered if that was real or if it was a subconscious thing. If Elenya had another Slayer come to her in her dreams, it must've been the former.

"She told me the story of our kind. Of our heritage as the defenders of the weak." A soft smile graced Elenya's features. "Perhaps in another time, the Slayer was more important as a weapon, yet these days we see now ... " The rumors of rumblings in Mordor came to the forefront of her mind. "Well, we shall see how useful a Slayer will be in those to come."

"Whoa, wait a second," Buffy held up a hand as she realized what exactly Elenya was saying. "The Slayer WAS more important as a weapon? You're not important now?" How could that be? The way the Watchers told it, the Slayer always was the last line of defense against the Evil and Darkness in the world. Elenya talked as though she was an average Joe. "Where I'm from, every big bad from one coast to the other is gunning for me. That's all they ever think of, actually. 'Oh, kill the Slayer! Sear the flesh from her bones and suck the marrow from them!'. Don't you hear that spiel?"

Elenya shook her head slowly. "No, I cannot say that I have. The Evils of this land do not fear me." She paused, smiled a little slyly then continued. "That would be their most fatal error." She noticed the confusion still stuck on Buffy's face. "The inhabitants of these lands battle the very same creatures as I. My troubles stem mostly from who I am and where I am from. Men are not exactly held in high regard by many."

Buffy tried to absorb what Elenya had said before that she didn't pay much attention to the comment about Men. Everyone in these lands fought the same creatures Elenya did? Not every demon or Big Bad who came along bayed for Slayer blood? What sort of messed up past did they come from? Then her expression changed, becoming a little more suspicious but not of Elenya and her story.

[Actually, that would explain a lot. If the Watchers knew the Slayer wasn't always like she is in my time, why would they want to promote that? Elenya doesn't need them, obviously. If she doesn't, no Slayer to ever exist needed them.]

Elenya stood up and Buffy's gaze followed her. "You should rest. We have much travel ahead of us until we reach Rivendell, Buffy." She placed a hand on her sister Slayer's shoulder. "I am certain the Elves will be able to help you return home. To your own time," she added.

"Huh, our own time? Where did you get an idea like that?"

She smiled. "Giles allowed me the truth, Buffy. It explains much. Your strange dress, your speech, and why you would also be Slayer." Her hand slipped away from the blonde's shoulder, the smile fading a bit. The dream she had shared with Buffy weighed heavy on her mind. She, too, dreamed of the dark, featureless figure, though in her dream the mysterious being didn't come after her - its only focus was Buffy and Buffy's companions. "Sleep well."

"Yeah, you too." Buffy watched Elenya leave the room then she snorted softly. "Easy for her to say." Leaning against the wall, she continued to stare out of the window. And there she stayed until morning.

-

Morning came early but dark clouds hid the sun, and there was a slight dampness in the air. The morning dew lingered well past dawn.

"Rain before noon," Nob, one of Barliman's Hobbit employees, declared as he lead Aratar and the rest of the horses around to the front of the inn from the stables. "Sure you won't stay another day?" he asked Giles. "It's bad luck to set out on a rainy morn, and that's a fact." On top of that, he and most of the other locals were curious about the strange travelers. Aside from Dwarves, Bree saw few folk from far afield. They would be missed, odd as they were.

"Perhaps, but to tarry until winter approaches is willful folly," Elenya said pointedly. She took Aratar's reins and whispered a few words to him, then gracefully leapt up into the saddle.

"Are we ready?" she asked the rest of the group and was answered by nods of varying enthusiasm. Another long hike through the wilderness didn't exactly appeal to any of them. But there was nothing to be done. With Elenya in the lead, the little company set out. They passed through the south gate, which set them back on the ancient Great East Road.

The weather remained clear for an hour after they departed from Bree, then it began to rain. Elenya pulled her hood down low. At least the others had been willing to try their hand at riding. Rain had a way of lingering for days in this corner of the world. And the path to Rivendell was faint enough even on a clear day. Any delay would only invite trouble.

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.

Story Information

Author: Net Girl and Sibyl

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Action

Rating: General

Last Updated: 08/24/02

Original Post: 08/05/02

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