4. Servants of the Dark Lord
"Well, this isn't so bad," Xander said as they passed over yet another low, green hill.
"Enjoy it," Elenya said with a grin. "We'll pass near the Midgewater Marsh soon, and then it's only a handful of leagues to rockier country."
"Oh. Well, damn. Are we sure these Elves are worth it?"
"You'll see," Elenya told him. Then she suddenly cast her eyes back to the west and drew her sword an instant later. "Buffy, by me!" she called out.
There, coming over the crest of the last hill they had crossed, was a line of horsemen. Perhaps ten or so all clad in black and wielding long, bent blades in the fashion of Mordor.
Xander glanced at Giles, who was already looking over at Elenya. "I have the distinct feeling that these guys aren't a welcoming committee from the Elves." The whinny of the oncoming horses chilled Xander to his very core. He gripped tightly to his reins, mostly to keep his hands from shaking. Here they were, being bore down on by the bad guys and they had almost nothing in the way of weapons.
Buffy brought her horse around, coming up between Elenya and Giles. "Who are they? And what do they want?" she asked, more of Elenya, but she had a suspicion that Giles knew who these jerks were, too. From the look on Elenya's face, she could gather that this meeting wouldn't be friendly. "Should we prepare to kick somebody's ass? Hello? You guys?"
An indecipherable yell echoed across the land as the riders charged hard towards them. Buffy reached for her sword, but stopped when Giles placed a hand to her arm. She saw the look in his eyes. Only one word could describe what was contained within them - terror.
"Buffy, don't," he said, voice low and even. He exchanged a look with Elenya, an unspoken question being asked. 'Can we avoid them?' The single solemn shake of her head was all Giles needed for his answer. He closed his eyes for a moment, head lowering. The thundering of hooves became louder, pounding inside of his head as he tried so desperately to think of a way to avoid this fight.
The whinny of one of the approaching horses made Buffy turn. "I'm sorry, Giles, but I'm not gonna sit here and let them cut us down. Whoever they are." She slid down from the saddle, drawing her sword from the sheath strapped to the animal at the same time. "If they want to cause trouble, I'm more than happy to oblige."
Willow and Xander exchanged glances. Two seconds later, the both of them were on the ground, weapons drawn and at Buffy's side. If she was going to stand up then so would they.
Elenya threw one leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground herself. Her eyes narrowed as the riders came closer. "Khand," she whispered. The traditional ally of Mordor, home to a warlike and proud people. Some of these riders were dressed in the native garb of that far-off realm. Crossing to the other side of Aratar, her features hardened. "We fight."
Giles dismounted as well, drawing his own sword, and come up behind Buffy, Xander and Willow. "These are not demons and vampires, Buffy," he murmured. He looked down at the top of the blonde head, concern filling him as he realized what they would soon be in battle against. "They are men. And you know what -"
"I know, Giles," Buffy shortly replied. She gripped the sword in her hands. As much as she didn't want to know, she knew. Humans. She couldn't kill humans. That was the one thing a Slayer couldn't slay. Her tongue ran over her lips, her stomach began to flip flop around.
"We're here, Buff," Xander softly assured her. He swallowed hard and prepared himself for his inevitable death. No way would he be able to fight off any of these guys. He could barely hold his own with demons and vamps, now these were living, breathing human beings coming at him.
"Don't worry," Willow added. However, that's all she could do. Worry. She glanced down at the ring on her hand, noticing the shimmer of it despite the overcast sky. She was nearly entranced by the sparkle - her eyes became utterly affixed to it.
'Willlllow,' a soft voice hissed.
Blinking a few times, Willow tore her gaze away from it then looked at the riders. Her sword slipped from her grip and fell to the ground at her feet.
"Leave no one alive," Elenya commanded as she drew in front of Willow, a bow in her hands and a quiver of arrows on her back. She withdrew two arrows, fastened them into place on the bow's string then took aim on the enemy. Her eyes focused on the two human riders in the lead.
"Huh?" Buffy flicked her attention to Elenya. "What are you talking about, leave no one alive? They're human beings!"
"Not all of them," Elenya answered. One eye closed so she could get a better aim on her targets. "And these human beings as you call them ... they're far from that now. Servants of the Lord of Mordor haven't any humanity left in them." She let loose her arrows. Each struck its target in the throat and the two riders fell from their horses, dead.
High atop the hill overlooking the battle, Rauko frowned when his two warriors tumbled back and landed limply on the wet grass. The archer had superb skill, especially for a woman. He winced as a sudden fear occurred to him. What if she was an Elf? They were not all that far afield from Rivendell, that cursed pit, and she had a bit of the look of an Elf, at least from this distance.
"Hold back," Rauko ordered to the rest of his men. He wanted to see the skills of the rest of these strangers. After all, what loss would it be if a dozen Khand-men, or a hundred Orcs, died?
"Holy Shi-ite Muslim," Xander exclaimed. He looked from the two dead men to Elenya who drew another arrow, quickly, took aim then fired. He followed the arc of the arrow, which made contact with its human target - directly in the throat. "What ... what ..." She'd just killed three people! A Slayer! [Oh God. We've hitched a ride with another Faith. Well, Faith's great, great, great, great thousand times psycho grandmother!]
Tossing her bow and arrows aside, Elenya snatched up her sword. "Their leaders are dead, the Orcs won't be much of an opponent without them," she said as the horses slowed and their riders dismounted, bringing out weapons of their own - swords, axes, and dirks. "Disarm and behead them as quickly as possible. It's the only way to be certain."
"Uhh..." Xander glanced at the sword in his hand then looked up at the Orcs, now fully visible since they'd thrown off their cloaks, headed towards them. "Behead them? I'm so gonna die."
"You're not going to die, Xander," Buffy said as her eyes narrowed at the approaching Orcs. She pushed him behind her then brought up her sword, preparing for the battle. "I won't let you."
She blocked the first strike from the Orc; the connecting of metal was violent, so violent she had trouble keeping a hold on her weapon. She delivered a high side kick to the exposed underarm of the Orc. When it let up on her, she used her sword bearing hand to punch him square in the jaw. Taking its dazed spell to her advantage, she executed a fast sweep kick to knock the creature's feet out from underneath it.
Tossing her hair out of her face, she gazed down at the fallen Orc, grinning. "Oh, I'm sorry, did that hurt? The next time I kill you, I'll try not to hurt you so much." She prepared to plunge the point of the sword into the Orc's chest, but her moment of pause she took to gloat gave him a chance to draw a long knife out of his boot. Buffy jumped back to miss the swipe at her shins he made with his weapon. "Whoa, hey, no fair!"
Elenya finished off the Orc she'd taken on then turned when she heard Buffy's voice. Buffy backed away from her own opponent who was without sword but was still armed with a rather nasty serrated edge knife. "Kill him!" she yelled.
Elenya whirled around, stabbing her blade into the gut of an Orc who tried to rush her while she was distracted. Her eyes met his and she smiled a little as she twisted her blade in his gut. Using her foot, Elenya pushed his body off of her blade, brandished the blade once before neatly separating the Orc's head from its body.
"Buffy!" Xander remembered he had his own weapon and made a move to help her. But somebody grabbed him by the back of the neck and threw him to the ground. His sword lay on the ground but when he rolled over to snag it, a foot stamped itself down on the blade. He followed the foot up to the leg then finally to the face of its owner - a chuckling, well-armed Orc. "Uh... hey. Nice, uh, nice axe you have there."
Laughing, the Orc wielded his axe and began to bring it down on Xander. However, he never made contact with his victim. From behind, a sword blade sliced through the neck of the Orc, its head dropped like a rock from its shoulders and landed right in front of Xander's face.
"Argh!" He rolled away then on his back, he looked up to see who'd saved him from being chopped in half. "Giles! G-man! Oh, my God, am I glad to see you!" He let out a relieved sigh and accepted the Watcher's hand of help. "Thanks. You saved my life. I mean, I thought I was a goner for sure." He hugged Giles.
"Yes, Xander, that will be quite enough," Giles replied, using his free hand to pry the young man's arms from around his neck. He craned his head around to get a look at the ongoing battle, to see how Buffy was faring. "Xander, if you wouldn't mind terribly, I must be able to -" He brought up his sword in time to block the attack of another Orc. "Xander!"
"Gah!" Xander backpedaled as Giles took on another Orc in a sword fight. He couldn't believe what he saw - in fact, he rubbed his fingers in his eyes then looked again. Yes, that was Giles, in a sword fight with an Orc. He knew Giles could take care of himself, but damn, not all of this Xena: Warrior Princess kind of stuff.
"Gah!" He jumped when Willow slapped a hand on his shoulder. He put his hands to his chest, checking to see if his heart was still beating. "Geez, Will! Would you be careful with the scaring the crap out of me?" His hands dropped to his sides. "Where've you been? I was almost carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey!"
"Trying to figure out a spell to use," Willow answered. She looked past Xander. Buffy, Giles and Elenya were all handling the physical fighting stuff. Buffy, however, was having a time of it. She looked so tired as she fought off the advances of an Orc and his axe. "Here ... I think I know of a good one."
"Willow, remember what happened the last ti -" Before he could finish, though, Willow already began to chant the words to one of her spells. He watched her raise her hands, taking aim on the Orc that fought Buffy. "I guess you don't, then."
"Goddess Hecate, work thy will! Let thine fire clear the path!" Willow shouted. As soon as the spell was finished, a stream of fire leapt from her outstretched hands and hit the Orc with such a force it was blown several feet away from the blonde Slayer. She blinked as she watched the creature writhe about, howling and screaming as it burned to death. "O-oh, oh my..." she whispered. "Where... where did that come from?"
Xander stood there, staring at Willow, amazed. Not only because she'd managed to do a spell that didn't almost kill somebody, but also she'd been so accurate with her aim. "Wow, that was ... what was that?"
"I - I don't know, Xander." She brought up her hands in front of her then she noticed the shimmering ring on her hand. It glowed seemingly from within now. [It - it was the ring. It had to be. Why else would a spell that I always screwed up before work so well now?]
On the hilltop, Rauko clenched the hilt of his sword with white knuckles. His mind raced, as did his heart. Nothing in all Middle-Earth, nothing in all the Arda, had such mastery of fire. Nothing except his own Dark Lord and the slumbering Balrogs... and, he had heard, the bright, burning servants of Arien, the Maiden of the Sun.
Could this slip of a girl be one of Sauron's unfallen kindred? Rauko paled. It could not be. They had been cowering in the West behind their great mountain walls for two whole ages. But what, then, was this girl to wield such power? And were they all of a kind with her? Could they match even -
Before his thoughts could enter dangerous terrain, Rauko shook himself and turned his gaze back onto the battle still raging below.
Quickly, Willow clasped her hands together to hide the ring when Buffy ran up to her. "Buffy! You're okay!"
"Thanks to you!" Buffy hugged her briefly. She shook her head as she looked her over. "Willow, I didn't know you had it in you."
"Buffy!" Giles called out.
Buffy joined Giles in his battle against another Orc. She let loose with a spinning hook kick, smacking the Orc hard in the back of its head then she ducked down when the creature pivoted, bringing it's axe around with it. "Down here, pal," she greeted, looking up at the surprised beast. She rammed her sword into the gut of the Orc. "Ooopsie."
Giles finished off the creature, swiftly removing its head from its body. He sighed as the final body dropped then dragged his forearm over his head, clearing away the sweat. "It's over," he breathed. He turned to see how Elenya had fared. She was quite all right and headed their way. "Buffy?"
"I'm right here, Giles," she said as she rose up to her feet. She looked down at herself then wrinkled her nose. "I'm covered in icky gooey Orc blood, but otherwise, I'm good. I so need a shower. I might be able to use my B.O. as a weapon pretty soon here."
"Are you guys okay?" Willow asked as she and Xander joined them. Buffy looked exhausted but no worse for the wear, as did Giles. Elenya was slightly winded herself, though in good shape. She scanned the area, seeing all of the decapitated Orcs and the three dead humans. Immediately, she remembered who'd killed them and she looked at Elenya. "Who are they?"
"Khand-men," Elenya said then spat. "And Orcs out of Mordor," she added with a quick, contemptuous look at the dead Orcs. "We attract curious company," Elenya mused then turned in a slow circle. She had glimpsed others watching during the height of the battle, but they had fled or were hiding beyond her skill to perceive.
"We should ride on," Elenya said, whistling to call Aratar over. The white horse obediently trotted over to her side, and she gracefully leapt up into the saddle. "Quickly. There may be more."
"Hang on a second. You just killed a buncha people!" Buffy yelled, grabbing at Elenya's saddle.
Elenya exhaled impatiently. "Sworn servants of Mordor," she corrected. "Let them face the judgment of Iluvatar. I have no grief except for those they have murdered."
"You don't know - "
"Open your eyes, girl!" Elenya snapped. "You may be a stranger to this time and place, but I am not. I have seen them commit wickedness you cannot imagine. Have you heard the screams of the prisoners of Minas Morgul? Have you seen what is left in the wake of the armies of Khand through the lands of their enemies?" the older Slayer asked. "Fah! When you see newborn babes stuck to their mothers with black arrows, then maybe you understand the 'mercy' of Mordor."
She shook her head, pulled up her hood and with a flick of the reins rode off towards the east.
Buffy clenched her fists for a minute then relaxed only after a visible effort.
"That chick's got a serious 'tude," Buffy muttered as she got back up onto her own horse.
"She's also the only one who knows the way to Rivendell," Giles pointed out, even though he was little less disturbed than Buffy by Elenya's cold-blooded attitude towards the dead humans. "We have little choice but to follow her and be careful," he said in a whisper.
"Great." Xander turned to Willow. "Do you think it'd work if we tapped our shoes and said 'There's no place like home' three times?"
Willow stared at him for a second and he nodded. "Right." Xander shrugged. "Bad idea." Before he mounted his horse, he gave Willow a second look. "Are you okay? You're looking kinda zoned-out. Magic overload?"
"Maybe," Willow replied, rubbing her ring for a moment before putting both hands behind her back. "Everything is stronger here. Can't you feel it? It's so much... more than home, you know? Even the air is different."
"Uh-huh... That would be the lack of smog," Xander said.
"Must be," Willow murmured. She smiled at Xander and then clambered up onto her horse. Her ring glinted once, caught by a stray ray of sunlight, and Willow hastily shifted her hand so it was hidden once again. "We better hurry or we'll lose 'em," she told Xander then gave her horse a little kick.
"Hey, wait up!" Xander shouted even as he nudged his own mount into a trot.
The next stage of their journey to Rivendell passed slowly and, mostly, in silence. After a few days, the tension of the battle's aftermath faded a bit, but tempers still remained high. There were few open arguments, but little talk of any sort. After a time, Elenya offered to teach sword and bow skills to Xander, and he proved to be a quick learner. Giles learned more of the history of Middle-Earth at least what Elenya was willing to share. Willow grew more irritable as time passed, though.
Elenya lead the group on deeper and higher into the wild country, and some five or six days out of Bree, the flat grassland was broken up by rockier terrain.
Some eight or nine days out of Bree - it was hard to keep track in the rain and cold - they saw a low range of gray hills well to the north of the road, with a larger isolated hill just off the shoulder of the ancient pathway.
"The Weather Hills," Elenya said, pointing northward, "and Weathertop," with a nod towards the nearer hill, which was crowned with the crumbling remains of a stone fortress. "An ancient watchtower of my people against the power of Mordor," she explained, breaking a day-long silence, but would not elaborate on just who her 'people' were, saying that it was a tale meant to be told only in safer halls.
"You always say that, ya know," Xander pointed out as they rode through the shadows of Amon Sûl. "When are we gonna get to these 'safer halls' anyway?"
Elenya drew to a halt. "We must make a choice here. We can remain on the road and take the slow way, and arrive in Rivendell in perhaps three weeks time. Or, if you will risk it, we can cut across the Lone-lands ahead and cut several days or perhaps a full week from our travels. But the country is wild and home to dangerous beasts - wolves and bears, and perhaps worse; haste or, perhaps, comfort. What will it be?" she asked the four.
"I'll go with... uh... whatever you all pick," Xander said without the slightest hesitation.
Buffy smiled at him for a second, then shrugged. "Whatever gets us there faster. There might be more of those Orc freaks chasing after us. I'm all for kicking butt, but clean clothes and bathing sounds pretty good."
"Buffy's right. I don't like the look of this country," Giles quietly said.
"I'm sure we can handle anything in the hills," Willow argued. "Do we even need to visit the Elves, anyway?"
Elenya frowned, but spoke lightly. "There are no other people who can help you, Willow. Unless perhaps you wish to sail across the Sea and seek Valinor."
"The home of the Powers. No Man has been there in thousands of years. Only by the grace of the Powers themselves can even the Elves find the way there."
Willow made a face. "Typical. Never looking out for the little people," she muttered sourly.
Elenya gave Willow a brief nervous look, then turned to the east. "We must go soon, I think. There is a storm coming. We should be on our path, whatever it may be, before the rain begins to fall. "Two for the hills and one for the road. I will say nothing either way. Xander, it falls to you."
"Oh, man." Xander looked down the road, then towards the hills far off to the southeast. He kind of believed Willow - they'd kicked that Orc ass pretty good. Okay, Buffy and Elenya and Giles and Willow had, but an extra week of saddle sores and berries for dinner? And whatever else was out there. "I say we head for the hills."
"Then let us ride!" Elenya called out with the barest of smiles. "Rivendell awaits!"
"She's sure got a thing for dramatic exits," Xander noted as the older Slayer left them all in the dust.
"Yes, she does cut a dashing figure," Giles murmured, then blinked and coughed nervously. "Onward, then." He smiled and, with a "Hurrah!", rode off after Elenya.
There was no more sign of Orcs or Men as the small band picked its way over the rocky terrain east of Weathertop. The storm Elenya had predicted broke the very evening they made the choice to leave the road and lasted for the better part of three days, during which the sun was hidden behind thick gray clouds. It was a miserable time, but on the fourth day, the clouds began to part and the long-hidden sun showered light down upon them for much of the afternoon before more rain clouds drifted in from the east.
The pattern continued as they went on, ever higher and closer to the Misty Mountains that were now visible on the eastern horizon. The rain sapped their spirits and they began to wonder if they would ever reach Rivendell before they wasted away from the persistent gloom.
But then, finally, they reached the end of the hill country. There was a deep ravine and a raging river, crossed by a great stone bridge to their left.
"The Last Bridge," Elenya said, but her gaze was to the dark wooded land across the bridge and to the south. Her distant kinfolk, but still Dunedain, dwelt in the land past those trees. But that was a secret refuge, and one she could not share with her new companions. "The last stage begins on the far side of the Hoarwell, or the Mitheithel in the language of the Elves. Come! Let us ride!" she said with a grin and a twinkle in her eyes.
"She sure - "
"We *know* Xander," Buffy said, but with a smile of her own. "Race 'ya!"
Giles and Willow exchanged knowing glances, then followed after the two of them and Elenya, who was far in the lead.
The country between the Hoarwell and the Loudwater, or Bruinen, was green and pleasant, a most welcome respite from the Lone-lands and much like the faraway Shire, but not so tame. The companions recovered some of their strength and energy, growing more anxious as they came closer to Rivendell with each passing day.
And then, one sunny morning, they rode out from under the shelter of a stretch of crimson-leafed trees and the Ford of Bruinen lay before them. On the opposite shore was a line of riders in gray, all armed with bows but none with arrows drawn.
"Say nothing," Elenya whispered as she slowly rode up to the Ford, but arms held out and well away from her weapons. Then the leader of the Elves on the other shore lifted back his hood and laughed, then murmured a quick phrase in a hauntingly beautiful language.
"Glorfindel!" Elenya exclaimed before responding in the same language, but haltingly. She laughed and turned back to the others. "The House of Elrond awaits us."
Many long leagues north of Rivendell, another path lead east into the hills. But it was less fair by far than that which ran from the Bruinen to Rivendell itself. The way was bleak and littered with the chewed, discarded bones of small animals unlucky enough to get caught in Orcish snares. Rauko felt the gaze of hidden watchers lingering upon him, but his only reaction was an impatient scowl.
At the end of the trail, there was a large and crude black gate guarding the entrance to the tunnels of the Orc-kingdom. A dozen Orcs, tall and ugly, stood watch there, but bowed low when they saw Rauko approach. There was a creaking sound and slowly the gate swung open, revealing a dark opening as grim and black as the legendary maw of Carcharoth.
Deep, deep into the tunnels under the Misty Mountains did Rauko and his troop journey, ignoring the grudging obsequities offered by the 'King' of the Orcs who dwelt there. King! - there was only one King in this world, and his throne was in Barad-dûr, not some dark dung-heap crawling with feeble cave Orcs.
But Rauko had little time to spare for his hate. The greater part of his thought was bent on his prey. The open might of the redhead, and the skill at arms of the others. He still feared they were emissaries from beyond the Sea. But until he knew for sure, he could not act. What, then, should he do?
That, at least, was easily answered.
Rauko descended into the heart of the mountain kingdom, where craftsman of his race had carved a maze of Man-sized dwellings not long ago. There, he retired into a room with a door painted with the Lidless Eye and, guarded by his kinsmen, withdrew his great treasure from a hidden chest of blackest adamant.
It was a globe, apparently of the darkest glass with a heart of flame, and precious beyond a king's ransom. None save the Lord of the East knew whence it had came, but it was one of the seven palantíri, the Seeing Stones of lost Númenor. Even Sauron did not know what strange journey had brought it from the watery tomb of Arvedui to the Misty Mountains, where it had been found and treasured by the Orcs until he himself had reemerged in strength and claimed it for his own. And now it was granted to Rauko, a sign of the Black Númenórean's stature in Sauron's eyes - or so Rauko saw it, little caring that it was also a way for the Dark Lord to better enforce his will upon Rauko.
Rauko carefully held it up and carried it over to the ebony column in the center of the room. Atop the column was a crimson silk pillow, upon which he rested the globe and then carefully positioned it, and him, until it was facing to the East, with himself directly westward of the globe. Then he steeled himself and placed both his hands atop it.
Flesh met glass and Rauko shuddered as the seeing stone flared brightly with a malevolent red glow. Inside, a burning Eye appeared, looking this way and that before locking itself on Rauko's face.
Speaking in the Black Tongue, Rauko quickly told his Master what he had learned and seen. There was a long silence, and then the answer came from out of the East.
"Pass through the mountains and gather your forces, and lay in wait for these strangers. They do not have the stink of Aman upon them. Strike hard, kill the others, but bring the fire maiden to me," the Voice ordered.
"It shall be done, Lord," Rauko replied, but the glow had faded and the Eye was gone. The seeing stone was dark once more. He reverently returned it to the secret chest and then emerged from the secluded chamber.
Rauko's newly formed plan was simple enough. He had forces of his own. All the countless Orcs of the Mountains answered to him in truth, and hundreds of Men, a strong company of Black Numenoreans - the same as he - and Easterlings out of Khand and Harad. If need be, he would sacrifice them all in order to defeat those strange travelers and their Dúnedain companion.
But not until they emerged from accursed Rivendell, Rauko grudgingly admitted to himself. It was beyond his power, beyond any power save Sauron himself, to break the defenses around that Elvish citadel. At least their stay there would give him time to gather his army and make ready for a true strike. Then the entire world would see the true worth of Elvish prophecies and fleeting hopes in the West.