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The Dark Companion by Speaker to Customers

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Story notes:
I've read quite a few Tenth Walker fics and I always feel that the extra person can only make things worse. Things in canon worked out right by a chain of events which could easily have been disrupted. Elrond could have sent Glorfindel with the Fellowship, after all, but felt it pointless; a Tenth Walker, even one with the combat abilities of Buffy, Conan, Drizzt, or Jason Bourne, would be much more likely to cause the mission to fail than to improve things.

That, therefore, is what I set out to show in this story. Cierre's formidable skills certainly aid the Fellowship in some ways but she causes as many problems as she solves. And when she accidentally derails a prophecy she triggers a series of catastrophic events which could ruin everything.

Cierre, although listed as an OFC, is in fact a very obscure canon character in the Forgotten Realms. She was created by Ed Greenwood and Jason Carl in the Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms game accessory 'The Silver Marches'. The only truly original characters in this story are some of the minor Rohirrim and the named Dunlendings. Banner created by Ellyn and slightly modified by me.
Banner based on manip by Ellyn

Chapter One: Out of the blue and into the black

If there had been any feasible alternative Cierre would never have jumped into the portal. Halaster had created it, after all, and the Wizard of Undermountain was so mad that conventions of hatters would have gathered to point at him, and to jeer, if such behaviour wouldn’t immediately have resulted in their spectacular and messy deaths. The portal could lead absolutely anywhere; another world, one of the Nine Hells, Kara-tur, the bottom of the sea, or the room next door. Cierre calculated her chance of surviving the portal at no better than fifty per cent.

That, however, was a lot better than her chances of surviving combat with the two dozen Drow warriors who were pursuing her. At least not in this warren of narrow, twisting, tunnels where the superior range of her Uthgardt bow over their crossbows was irrelevant. They were all well-armed and equipped, there were mages and priestesses amongst their number, and two of them were lethal assassins from the Red Sisters society. She would slay some of them before they took her down, at least four or five and with luck perhaps as many as ten, but then they’d kill her for sure.

They had responded to her attempts to communicate only with volleys of crossbow quarrels. Cierre had no idea why they had seemed so fanatically determined to kill a fellow Drow right from the start, when she’d never been within a hundred miles of Waterdeep before; unless, of course, they thought she was an Eilistraee worshipper. The Promenade of Eilistraee lay somewhere below Undermountain, after all – in fact, Cierre suddenly realised, they might have mistaken her for Qilué Veladorn. Or else the Drow were behind the incursions from Undermountain that were currently plaguing Waterdeep, and which Cierre had been hired to investigate, and they wanted her dead because she was a threat to their plan. And after she’d wiped out the first group she had encountered, and taken a powerful magic sword and set of armour from the patrol leader, they would be seeking revenge in addition to their original reason for the attack.

Not that their motives were relevant right now. The important thing was that they were trying to kill her and Cierre knew that if she let them get close they would succeed. They had driven her into a dead-end and the portal, perilous as it might be, was the only escape route she had. If only she hadn’t been tempted by the one hundred thousand gold pieces reward… Cierre gritted her teeth and, as the leading elements of the Drow burst into the chamber, she rushed for the portal and plunged through.

She emerged into daylight. She blinked and hurriedly brought up a hand to shield her face from the light. Her broad-brimmed hat was in her pack, and not easily accessible, but after fifteen years on the surface she had grown accustomed to the light of day and, once her eyes adjusted, she would not be too badly affected. The Drow pursuing her, however, would be at a distinct disadvantage. Cierre grinned and nocked an arrow to her bowstring.

She scanned her surroundings and saw that she stood in a wide, flat, circle of paved stone flags. A crumbling battlement surrounded the circle and moss grew in the cracks between the paving stones. In the centre of the circle stood a high seat, set upon four carved stone pillars, reached by a flight of steps. There was no sign, from this side, of any portal. Something on the ground caught her eye and she bent to examine it.

Half of a Drow crossbow bolt, sheared off cleanly just forward of where the flights should have been, lay on the stones. The portal must have been single-use, closing after one traveller had entered, and it had shut off while the quarrel was in transit through the portal. No-one was going to be following her. The down side was that there was unlikely to be any way to return; then again, Cierre wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about going back to Undermountain any time soon. She relaxed, lowered her bow, and set about trying to work out where the portal had deposited her.

With her hat retrieved from her pack and set upon her head, so that her face and eyes were shielded from the daylight, she was able to make a better evaluation of her surroundings. Her first impression had been that this area was little used; further examination changed that to ‘completely abandoned’. There wasn’t just moss between the flagstones; there was grass, and weeds, and even an occasional sapling bursting through where the cracks were at their widest. The carvings on the stone seat, which reminded her of Lord Nasher’s throne in Neverwinter, had eroded away until it was impossible to tell what they had once represented. This was a ruin perhaps as old, or older, than the Illefarn and Netherese ruins she had seen sometimes around Neverwinter and the Savage Frontier.

She went to the crumbling walls and looked over. On the other side was a downward slope obscured by a light growth of rowan trees. A glint in the distance, sunlight on water, pointed to the presence of a river or lake. Far off she could make out the shapes of mountains on the horizon. A circuit of the courtyard revealed that the downward slope was on all sides; the courtyard, therefore, stood at the top of a hill. The raised chair would make a good vantage point from which to scan her surroundings but it would place her into the view of anyone in the trees lower down the hill. She decided not to risk that until she had carried out a reconnaissance on foot.

Beyond a gap in the wall, where stone fragments on the flagstones indicated that an archway had once stood but had collapsed, was what remained of a staircase leading down the hill. Rainwater had carved channels through some of the steps, tree roots had split others, and in places deposits of soil overgrown with grass hid the stairs altogether. She followed the line of the staircase anyway, moving stealthily, and with her bow poised ready for action.

When she came to a point where a small stream crossed the path, pouring over one of the stairs in a miniature waterfall and dampening the surrounding earth, she stepped over it taking extreme care not to leave any footprints either in the soil or on the wet stone. She did not want to leave any signs of her presence until she had some idea of where she was and whether the locals were friends or foes. Of course, as a Drow in exile on the surface world, friends for her were few and far between and foes were everywhere.

As she crossed she noticed that someone before her had not been so careful. There were traces of footprints, just one pair, going in both directions. The imprints of toes showed up, proving that the feet had been bare, and the prints were smaller than a human’s. A Halfling. That was an encouraging sign; the Sakphen tended to be peaceful and were unlikely to attack her without provocation.

Shortly after she had crossed the little stream she heard the sound of running feet. Quickly she left the path and sought concealment among the trees. The enchanted leather armour she had taken from a dead Drow, the suit named Greenleaf that had been specially designed for Rangers, bore charms to help the wearer blend into her surroundings. As did her Cloak of Elvenkind; the two items in conjunction were almost as effective, in woodlands, as an Invisibility spell. She crouched behind a tree trunk, keeping perfectly still, and watched as a man ran past.

He was human, fairly tall, with longish dark hair and a short beard. His clothes were drab and travel-stained, he wore a bastard sword at his left hip, and a bow and quiver were slung at his back. His cloak bore a marked resemblance to the one Cierre was wearing. ‘A Ranger’, she deduced. She continued to watch him as he stopped at the stream and examined the ground. It was obvious that he had found the footprints; he glanced back the way he had come, hesitated, and then shook his head and continued his progress up the hill.

Cierre waited until he was out of sight and then emerged from the trees and returned to the path. There was no sign of anyone else climbing the hill and it seemed the man was alone. She debated what to do next and then decided that her best course of action was to approach the Ranger. If he was willing to talk she could find out where she was and then she would know what to do next. If he was hostile, well, a lone man would be much easier to kill than a group. She set out after the Ranger and retraced her steps up the hill.

When she stepped through the gap in the wall and re-entered the courtyard she saw the man sitting on the high throne. He was staring out into the distance, his expression pensive, but when Cierre appeared he leapt to his feet and drew his sword in a fast and fluid motion. He called out, presumably a challenge of some kind, but Cierre couldn’t understand a word. She spoke nine languages fluently, and had a smattering of a couple of others, but this wasn’t any of them.

“I mean no harm,” Cierre said, as the man descended the stairs and approached her with his sword poised. She kept her bow lowered as a signal of her peaceful intent. “I wish only to learn where I am.”

The man showed no sign of understanding the Common Tongue. She must be well outside the bounds of the part of Faerûn with which she was familiar. She grimaced. If this was an area without Eilistraee worshippers it was unlikely he’d be aware that Drow could be anything but an enemy. His stance with the sword, and his footwork as he advanced, showed that he was a skilled warrior. If it came to a fight she would have to strike to kill, as trying merely to stun or disarm him would be much too risky, and she didn’t want that. In fact, as he was rather good-looking and moved well, she’d much rather fuck him than kill him.

She back-pedalled a short distance but did not yet raise her bow. She switched to the tongue of the Sy’Tel’Quessir surface Elves. “I mean you no harm,” she said again.

The man stopped his advance and changed the poise of his sword from an offensive to a defensive position. “Who are you?” he asked, in Elvish. “And, indeed, what are you?”

It wasn’t quite the same dialect of the Darthiiri tongue that Cierre knew but it was close enough that she could understand him. “I am Cierre of Luruar, a Ranger of the Silver Marches,” she replied, “and I require assistance.”

“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” said the man. “What aid do you need, lady?”

Before she could reply the sound of a distant horn reached their ears. Cierre would have ignored it but the human reacted sharply.

“Boromir!” Aragorn exclaimed. Cierre took that to be a curse in his native language but his next words set her right. “He is in need. I must go to him.” He lowered the sword to a neutral position and began to run towards the exit gap.

Cierre stepped aside to let him pass. She thought for a second. This, obviously, was not a good time for a conversation with the human Ranger. What should she do? Then she heard the horn blowing again and, also, the war-cries of orcs. If she joined the man in giving aid to his comrade it would certainly help her case… She turned around, took off at a run down the hill, and caught up with the human within a hundred yards.

“I shall come with you,” she told the man. “My aid against the orcs in return for directions.”

“I thank you,” Aragorn grunted in reply, “my lady.” He said nothing more; he was finding the descent harder going than Cierre and was, no doubt, conserving his breath for running.

Cierre crossed the stream, for yet a third time, by-passing the muddy earth but taking no special precautions to avoid leaving footprints. She remembered having once heard a human philosopher, in Silverymoon, say “You can never cross the same river twice.” She had pointed out to him that she had crossed both the Surbrin and the Rauvin rivers on numerous occasions and he had only laughed. Now she was proving him wrong yet again. She put the stray thought out of her mind and ran on.

Gradually she began to leave the human Ranger behind. All Drow were fast runners, for their size, and could outdistance most humans over anything but a short sprint. Cierre’s long legs, and exceptional physical fitness, meant that she could leave any normal-sized – no, she would not use that term, bringing back as it did bitter memories of being mocked for her ‘freakish’ height – any smaller Drow trailing in her dust. She looked behind her, saw that Aragorn was losing ground, and slowed her pace to match his.

“You are faster than me. Go on ahead,” he urged her. “Boromir is a tall man in armour, with a round shield and a great horn. My other companions are four Hobbits, an Elf, and a Dwarf. Help them against the orcs, if you can.”

She did not recognise one of the words. “Hobbits?” she queried.

“Halflings,” he said.

She gave a quick nod. “I understand,” she told him. “I will aid them. Farewell.” She accelerated again, reached full speed, and left him behind.

The horn sounded again, and then again, still accompanied by the cries of orcs. The last blast sounded weaker, somehow, trailing off into a fading note. She veered from the path, aiming for the sound, and took a more direct course. Her hat blew off, dislodged by the wind of her passage through the air, and dangled behind her on its retaining cord. She did not pause to restore it to her head but kept on running.

And then she emerged into a clearing and there were the orcs.

Many of them, too many to count, but most of them were running off into the trees away from her. A dozen remained, clustered around the body of a human warrior who lay on the ground surrounded by orc corpses, and those dozen turned to face her and raised their weapons to fight.

Ultrinnan!” she yelled. She drew back her bowstring and loosed an arrow at the largest orc. He was exceptionally big for an orc, perhaps a half-orc who took mainly after the orcish side of his heritage or even an ogrillon, and he wore a coat-of-plates and a shield emblazoned with the device of a white hand. At this range, against the Uthgardt heavy bow, he was little better off than if he had been naked and defending himself with a parchment scroll. Her arrow went through the shield, through his arm, and nailed the limb to his chest through the armour. He staggered back, howling in pain, and his companions roared and charged; all but one, who fell back behind the others but raised a bow and nocked an arrow.

Cierre loosed one more arrow, dropping an orc dead in his tracks, and then tossed the bow behind her and drew sword and axe. She struck once with her sword, once with her axe, and then again with the sword. Two orcs fell dead. She swayed aside to dodge a slash from a weapon resembling a falchion, drove her sword through the orc’s stomach, and ripped her blade free. She hooked the rim of a shield with her hand-axe, pulled the shield out of line, and stabbed her sword into the orc’s exposed flank. A back-hand blow with her axe disposed of an orc who was trying to get around behind her; an instant later she spun and slashed her sword across the throat of an orc flanking her on the other side.

The orcs had screened her from the orc archer at the rear and their fall left her momentarily exposed to his aim. He loosed a shaft and hit her in the left thigh. Her leg gave way under her and she fell. An orc blade swept down towards her and she rolled out of its path, feeling searing pain as the arrow shaft struck the ground and ripped the barbed head out of the wound, and then another orc kicked her in the stomach. Her Greenleaf armour absorbed the force of the blow, so that she took little hurt, and she lashed her sword around to take off his left leg at the ankle. The orc fell screaming to the ground.

The orc bowman was lining up another shot; she threw her hand-axe, hard, and struck him full in the face. She slew him but one of the surviving orcs caught her left wrist, before she could withdraw her arm from the throw, and held on tight. The crippled orc seized her sword arm. She struggled to free herself but each orc was using two arms against one of hers. Then the last unengaged orc stamped down on her wounded leg.

She could not hold back the scream of agony that burst from her lips. She redoubled her struggles, kicking out with her unwounded leg, but to no avail. The orc raised a scimitar to strike a finishing blow and there was nothing that she could do to avoid it. She was going to die.

And then a knife streaked through the air and struck the orc in the centre of his back. The scimitar stroke went astray and struck nothing but the ground. Cierre was just able to make out the fallen warrior, who had raised himself up to a sitting position, with his arm extended from the throw that had saved her life. Then the falling orc landed on her, driving the breath from her body, and pinned her down helpless against the pair of orcs, one crippled and one uninjured, who had hold of her arms. The first orc she had shot, badly wounded as he was and with one arm totally out of action, was shambling towards her rescuer with a broadsword poised to strike.

“Elendil!” A war-cry rang out and a running man entered her field of vision; Aragorn, the Ranger from the hilltop. He smote the head from the orc who threatened the fallen warrior, hurtled onwards, and laid into Cierre’s captors. Two swift strokes laid them dead on the ground. Cierre started to wriggle out from under the dead orc; Aragorn heaved the corpse aside and freed her.

“You are wounded, my lady,” he observed, bending down and looking at her leg.

Cierre managed to restrain herself from snapping at him for stating the obvious. “It is not serious,” she said, instead. “See to your friend.” Aragorn turned away and Cierre fumbled at her belt pouch for a healing potion.

Her fingers found only a pouch full of liquid and sharp pottery shards. Either the orc’s kick, or the dying orc falling on top of her, had crushed the pouch and shattered the potion vials inside. She grimaced, put her fingers to her mouth, and licked them. The traces of potion on her fingers were just enough to heal the slight cuts she had suffered from the broken vials. The wound in her leg was unaffected and kept on bleeding.

She drew her boot knife and cut open her breeches to examine the wound. It was nasty, the arrow-head had torn the flesh badly when it ripped free, but she’d had worse. She cast a Cure Light Wounds spell, slowing the bleeding to a slow ooze and knitting much of the torn flesh together, and stood up. Her first priority was to retrieve her bow. Next she replaced her hat, now somewhat battered, on top of her head and then she limped off towards the two humans.

The Ranger was kneeling at the side of the man who had saved her life with a thrown knife; Boromir, she presumed. They were conversing in a language unknown to her. Cierre took a good look at Boromir and her heart sank. The shafts of three arrows protruded from his chest; from the lengths of shaft showing she could tell that they had gone completely through his chain shirt and sunk in deep. Very deep.

The single Cure Light Wounds spell remaining to her, and the two Cure Moderate Wounds spells on scrolls in her pack, would be about as much use as dabbing his brow with cool water. Even the shattered Cure Critical Wounds potions from her pouch would have been inadequate; the arrows would have to be removed first, for the potions to work, and the resultant tissue damage and blood loss would kill the man almost instantly.

“You saved my life,” she said, in Elvish. “I thank you.”

“My eyes dim,” Boromir replied in the same language, “for you appear to me almost black. A valiant warrior maid art thou, milady, and I am glad I managed one last feat of arms before I die.”

“Not just one,” said Cierre, surveying the mound of bodies that surrounded the dying man. At a rough count he had killed over twenty orcs before they felled him. A great horn, cloven in two, lay among the corpses. “You are a truly great warrior. I regret that I could not arrive in time to fight at your side.”

“We would… have… been invincible,” Boromir said. Bloody froth came forth from his mouth as he spoke. “And yet… I failed.”

“No,” said Aragorn. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall.”

“With you… and this… lady… there… I believe you…” Boromir gasped out. “Gondor…” A rivulet of blood emerged from his mouth, his head lolled aside, and he jerked once and then lay still.

Aragorn knelt beside him, clasping the dead man’s hand, and tears ran down his cheeks. “Alas!” he lamented. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it, but where are the…” He hesitated, as if changing his mind about what he was going to say, and then continued. “…the Halflings? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

“I cannot advise you,” Cierre said, “for I know not of what you speak. Yet none of the names that you mention mean anything to me at all. I think I am further from my homeland than I could have imagined. I may as well lend my services to you, at least for the time being, until I can find a way to get home.”

“What?” Aragorn exclaimed. “You know not of Minas Tirith?”

“The place-name known to me that it most resembles is Myth Drannor,” Cierre said, “and the resemblance is not close at all. Excuse me. I must finish tending to my wound.”

The Ranger peered at her leg. “That is strange,” he remarked. “I could have sworn the wound was much worse than that.”

“I cast a healing spell earlier,” Cierre explained. “I have one remaining and that should be enough to more or less make it as good as new.” She cast another Cure Light Wounds and, as she had predicted, the wound closed up leaving only a thin line, little more than a scratch, on her skin.

Aragorn’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “Elbereth!” he exclaimed. “You have healing powers beyond anything I have ever seen or even imagined.”

Now it was the turn of Cierre’s jaw to drop. “But… you are a Ranger, like me, are you not?” she said. “Surely you can cast such spells?”

“Lady, I have never heard of such a thing before,” said Aragorn. “Even Lord Elrond possesses no such powers.”

“Oh,” said Cierre. “Oh. Sussun pholor uns’aa! Usstan thun vithus! Halaster’s portal must have sent me outside the bounds of Faerûn. I suspect I am no longer even on Toril.”

Aragorn looked at her, his head cocked to one side, and his brow furrowed deeply. “Where?”

- - - - -

A surface Elf and a Dwarf entered the clearing. The Elf bore a great bow, resembling an Elven Court bow but perhaps even finer, but his quiver was empty. The Dwarf held a battle-axe and there was blood on its blade. The Elf spoke to the Ranger, in the language Cierre didn’t speak, but she could tell that his final sentence was a question about her. The Dwarf merely glowered at her with suspicion written all over his face.

“She speaks Sindarin but not Westron,” Aragorn told the Elf. “This is… Shee-air,” he introduced her, stumbling over her name. “She is a Ranger from a far place, or so she says, and she came to Boromir’s aid when there was no-one else. Lady, these are my companions Legolas of Mirkwood and Gimli son of Glóin.”

“Cierre of Luruar at your service,” she said, stressing the ‘ch’ sound at the beginning of her name. She swept off her hat and bowed; Dwarves, she had learned, responded well to that sort of courtesy.

“Gimli Glóin’s son at yours,” replied the Dwarf, returning her bow. The glower vanished from his face and was replaced by a broad smile. “Your countenance is strange but your speech is fair.”

“A black Elf,” said the Elf, Legolas. He shot a glance at his Dwarven companion, his eyebrows raised as if something the Dwarf had done had surprised or puzzled him, and then turned back to Cierre and stared at her. “I have never seen the like. From whence do you hail?”

“Luruar, known also as the Silver Marches, in the north of Faerûn,” Cierre replied. “It must be far from here, for the places your comrade named are not known to me, and I think that this is not my world.”

“Not your world?” Legolas echoed.

“I was exploring the dungeons of a mad wizard,” Cierre explained, “and I was set upon by foes too numerous and well-armed to fight. I fled through a magical portal, not knowing where it would send me, and I found myself atop that hill. There I met Aragorn.”

“And she volunteered her aid, asking only directions as payment,” Aragorn said, “and out-distanced me to this glade. She slew many orcs but was sore wounded herself before I arrived. Then she healed herself, in some miraculous manner, the like of which I have never before seen.”

“I cannot do it again,” Cierre warned him. “I have but two healing spells and, now that I have cast them both, I need to sleep before I can regain them. I had potions of healing in my belt pouch but they were broken in the fight.”

“A pity,” Gimli said, “for such things would, no doubt, have been of great use.” He heaved a sigh. “So, Aragorn, what now?”

“Boromir told me that the orcs had carried off Merry and Pippin, alive, and he could not prevent it,” Aragorn said. “He did not see Frodo or Sam. I do not know what to do for the best. All that I have done today has gone amiss.”

“First we must tend to the fallen,” said Legolas. “We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul orcs.”

“There is, then, no raising of the dead in this world?” Cierre asked. She suspected as much already, from the amazement with which her simple healing spells had been received, but wanted to make certain.

“Raising of the dead?” Aragorn echoed. “Such a thing would be black sorcery.”

“Not in my world,” said Cierre. “The High Priests of many temples, those of good gods as well as evil, can bring back the dead if the bodies are brought to them in time. They charge much gold, or sworn services, for such an act.” She shrugged. “It makes little difference to me that it cannot be done here. I knew no-one who would have paid to bring me back.” She went to the corpse of the orc archer she had slain earlier, wrenched her hand-axe free from his skull, and began to clean the blade.

“Your world must be strange indeed,” said Legolas, shaking his head slowly. “Black Elves! Forgive me if I seem rude but I have never seen any like unto you before. In Middle Earth only the servants of the Enemy are black of skin. And none, save for the elderly among Men and Dwarves, have hair of such a pure white.”

“Most Elves in my world look like you,” Cierre told him. “Only my people, the Ilythiiri who are called Drow by the other Elves, have black skin and white hair.” She decided to refrain from mentioning the ancient enmity between the Drow and the surface Elves; this Darthiir appeared willing to treat her without hostility and there was no point in raising matters that did not apply in this world.

“We must move swiftly,” said Gimli. “Boromir would not want us to linger. We must follow the orcs, if there is hope that any of our Company are living prisoners.”

“But we do not know if Frodo and Sam are with them or not,” said Aragorn. “Are we to abandon them? Must we not seek them first? An evil choice is now before us.”

“Then let us do first what we must do,” said Legolas. “We have not the time or the tools to bury our comrade fitly, or to raise a mound over him. A cairn we might build.”

“The labour would be hard and long,” said Gimli. “There are no stones that we could use nearer than the water-side.”

“Then let us lay him in a boat with his weapons, and the weapons of his vanquished foes,” said Aragorn. “We will send him to the Falls of Rauros and give him to the Anduin. The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil creature dishonours his bones.”

They began to gather up the weapons of the orcs. Cierre assisted them. It did not seem to occur to them that the belongings of fallen foes could be taken and sold. Still, their world, their customs, and she had acquired plenty of gold in Undermountain anyway. When in Waterdeep, as the saying went, do as the Waterdhavians do. She refrained from appropriating those few items that might be saleable and merely added them to the heap collected by the others.

“See! Here we find tokens,” Aragorn exclaimed, picking out a pair of daggers from the pile. “No orc-blades these. They were born by the Hobbits.” There was that strange word again but this time Cierre recognised it as a local name for Halflings. “Doubtless the orcs despoiled them but feared to keep the knives, knowing them for what they are; work of Westernesse, wound about with spells for the bane of Mordor.” Magic daggers? Cierre pricked up her ears.

“Well, now, if they still live, our friends are weaponless,” Aragorn continued. “I will take these things, hoping against hope to give them back.”

“And I,” said Legolas, “will take all the arrows that I can find, for my quiver is empty.” He searched the pile, and the ground, and gathered up a reasonable number of undamaged arrows that were long enough for his bow.

Cierre recovered one of her own arrows from a corpse; the one that had pierced the shield of the largest orc was impossible to retrieve. She did not bother with the orcs’ arrows, for she was still amply supplied, and indeed she had a second full quiver stowed in her Lesser Bag of Holding against future need. She would have offered it to Legolas but he managed to find sufficient from the belongings of the dead.

The man, the Elf, and the Dwarf then began to discuss the meanings of the insignia displayed by the orcs. Most of the conversation was completely meaningless to Cierre but she gathered that they had two enemies who might employ the orcs; a major player named Sauron, and a lesser opponent named Saruman. Possibly, they seemed to think, the two were in league. Cierre filed away that information, which would acquire more meaning once she knew more about this world, and waited.

Gimli the Dwarf then constructed a crude wooden bier which they would use to carry Boromir’s body down to the river. Cierre took one corner, without being asked, and was thanked by the others.

“He saved my life, when he lay wounded unto death,” she said. “I will join you in doing him honour.”

“Yet your life was in peril only because you sought to aid him, at my request,” said Aragorn. “We are in your debt.”

Cierre wasn’t used to being thanked. She was more accustomed to having her reward thrust at her with a curt acknowledgement and a strong hint that, now that the trolls or orcs had been slain, her presence in the area was no longer required and she should vacate the region immediately. Being treated as an equal, and having her contribution valued, was a new and pleasant experience. She couldn’t think of a suitably courteous response and merely nodded her head.

They reached the bank of the river and set Boromir’s bier down. “I shall watch over the body,” Aragorn said, “if you, Legolas and Gimli, go and fetch the boats.” The Elf and the Dwarf departed, making their way along the bank heading upstream, and Aragorn sat down.

The river was wide and an island stood in the middle of the channel. Cierre went to the water and washed her hands and face. She disposed of the debris from her potion pouch in the river; the fish in the immediate vicinity would be puzzled to find themselves briefly endowed with unusual powers of healing. The padding in the pouch, which had proved woefully inadequate, was saturated and she decided that keeping the pouch would be more trouble than it was worth. She weighted it down with a couple of stones and sent it to the bottom of the river.

Next she examined the rent in her breeches and saw that they were beyond her ability to repair. She would have to wait until she found a city and could hire a seamstress. “I must change my clothes,” she informed Aragorn.

“Very well, my lady, I shall turn my back,” he said, and did so.

Cierre stripped off, cleaned the blood from her leg, and wiped her body down with a piece of cloth moistened in the river. She extracted a clean pair of breeches from her pack and dressed again. Aragorn had been a perfect gentleman and had not even tried to take a peek; Cierre was slightly disappointed, as she definitely found him attractive and would have appreciated some evidence that he was interested in her as a woman, but she was also pleased at further evidence that this stranger, into whose company she had been thrown by chance, was an honourable man.

“I am dressed once more,” she told him, and he turned around.

“The boats are a mile upstream,” he said, “and so it will be some time before my comrades return with them. We have time to talk. You were transported here by enchantment, you say?”

“That is so,” she confirmed. “I had thought that the portal would merely take me elsewhere in my own world and I am at a loss now I find myself in another world altogether.”

“I wish I knew how to help you,” said Aragorn. “Our companion Gandalf was a mighty wizard and may well have been able to return you to your home, if anyone could, but he was slain in Moria. The only other person who might have such power, and knowledge of lore, is the Lady Galadriel. She dwells in the realm of Lothlórien.” He pointed upstream. “It took us ten days to travel here from there, and that was with the advantage of the current. Also the Elves of Lothlórien have closed the land to strangers and, alone, you would not be admitted. I would escort you there, if I could, but my duty to my captive friends must come first.”

“I understand,” Cierre said. “Let me, then, assist you in their rescue.”

“I cannot ask that of you, Lady Cierre,” Aragorn said. “Our Quest is perilous beyond all measure and it was given to us alone to complete.”

“Then what would you have me do?” Cierre asked, a touch of annoyance creeping into her tone. “Wander alone in a world I do not know? If I do not accompany you, where do I go?”

Aragorn raised a hand and tugged at the lobe of his right ear. “It is a dilemma,” he said. “We are far from any safe haven. Perhaps, if you took one of the boats and entered the river south of the Falls, you could make your way down to Osgiliath. Yet the way passes through perilous territory. Also, although it saddens me to say it, you would be met with suspicion in Gondor. Your black skin would be deemed to mark you as a servant of the Enemy. That you speak no Westron would make things even more difficult. The nobility of Gondor speak Sindarin but the common soldiery, such as you would find guarding the gates, do not.” He ran his finger down his jaw, from his ear to the point of his chin, and toyed with the hairs of his beard. “You would need someone to speak for you. I will come, then, and leave Legolas and Gimli to pursue the orcs.”

“The orcs that I saw departing numbered many more than the dozen who remained to face me,” said Cierre. “Your friends would be going to their deaths and the captives would not be rescued. Four of us, however, could achieve much. I well know my own skill, and what I saw of you shows you also to be a redoubtable warrior, and if your two companions are equally skilled then fifty orcs would be no match for us.”

“You have nearly died for us already, my lady,” said Aragorn. “I cannot ask you to do more.”

“As I have said, I have little choice,” said Cierre. “I am a Ranger and my trade is slaying orcs and trolls. I am no helpless maid who needs to be protected. And stop calling me ‘my lady’. My name is Cierre.”

“You make your case well… Cierre,” said Aragorn. This time he pronounced her name correctly. He heaved a sigh. “In truth, I think I have no choice but to accept your offer. To do otherwise would place either you, or my comrades, in peril greater still. Yet this does not sit easy with me.”

Sargh lueth kyona phuul dro’xundus,” Cierre said. She saw Aragorn’s brow furrow and explained. “A proverb of my people,” she said. “It means ‘Strength at arms, and wariness, are survival.’ That is how I live my life. I will accompany you, and I will play my part, and we shall slay the orcs and rescue your Halfling friends.”

- - - - -

Aragorn spent the next few minutes explaining to Cierre something of the politics and geography of the surrounding lands. To the north lay the Elven realm of Lothlórien, which he had already mentioned, and also the forest of Mirkwood which was the home of Legolas. To the west lay the grasslands of a country named Rohan, inhabited by barbarian warriors who fought on horseback, and the tower of the evil wizard Saruman. Downstream, to the south, lay the cities of the land of Gondor. It sounded, from his description, as if Gondor was an empire in terminal decline. Immediately to the east of Gondor was Mordor, the realm of Sauron, a domain of orcs and monsters from which came a constant stream of attacks upon Gondor and the other civilised lands.

Before Aragorn could go into more detail Legolas and Gimli returned, with two small boats, and they reported that their third boat was missing but had not been stolen by orcs. This implied, therefore, that the two Halflings Frodo and Sam had taken it. Aragorn said that he would investigate, to confirm or disprove that assumption, after seeing to Boromir. They then proceeded to lay out the fallen warrior for his funeral.

Cierre was reminded of what she had heard of the customs of the Northmen of Ruathym. They sent their fallen chieftains into the afterlife on their ships, although the Northmen usually set the ships on fire as part of the ceremony, and chanted funeral laments as they did so. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli sang songs honouring the dead man and then sent Boromir’s boat down the river towards the great waterfall.

Privately Cierre thought this was all a waste of time. Every minute the orcs were getting further away with their Halfling captives. It was important to the others, though, and so she treated the ceremony with due solemnity. She even delivered a short eulogy, in her own tongue, acknowledging him as a great warrior and giving thanks that he had saved her life. She spoke from the heart, for it was the truth, and her new companions obviously recognised her sincerity even though they could not understand her words. Their faces displayed respect for her, and thankfulness for her participation, and Cierre found this oddly comforting. She was unused to participating in surfacer customs, mainly because those she knew in the Silver Marches still treated her as an outsider after over fifteen years, and it was pleasant to have, seemingly, won at least partial acceptance.

After the funeral they paddled upstream and examined the place where the boats had been stowed. Cierre found signs that a Hobbit had waded into the water, and then had returned to the land, and that boats had been pushed into the water more than once. Aragorn, who was as accomplished at reading sign as was she, knew things she did not and so was able to work out the sequence of events.

Indeed the two missing Halflings, Frodo and Sam, had taken a boat and crossed the river. They had set off alone on their mission. The others were not willing to reveal the details of the quest to Cierre, and some of their conversation was in the human language ‘Westron’ deliberately to keep things from her, but she could make a guess.

“I understand that your quest is not my business,” she said, “and I am not offended that you do not speak of it to one who is, still, virtually a stranger. However I think I can give my own account of things. This ‘Dark Lord’ Sauron, in his lair in Mordor, guards some artefact from which he draws power. Your Halfling companions are tasked with stealing it.” She nodded her head. “Yes, that fits. Were I to choose a pair to carry out such a task, and were thieves of my own people not available, it is to the Sakphen – Halflings – that I would turn.”

“I will not say if you are wrong or if you are right,” said Aragorn, frowning. “Why, then, do you think they left here by themselves, leaving us behind?”

“You were their escort, is it not so? Yet you cannot protect them by force of arms, not now that we are close to the territory of the enemy, and he can send overwhelming numbers against us,” she said. “Therefore you became a danger to the Halflings, rather than a safeguard, for no human or Dwarf can match the stealth of the little barefoot people. They left by themselves so that you could not insist upon accompanying them.”

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli exchanged guarded looks. “Again, I will not say if you are correct,” said Aragorn. “Yet, I ask you, do not speak of this to anyone other than ourselves.”

“I will not talk,” said Cierre. “It is only by chance that we have met, but you have greeted me with friendship, and I will regard myself as one of your party until we mutually decide otherwise.”

“She is coming with us in pursuit of the orcs?” Legolas asked. “Is that wise?”

“As she said to me, what else is she to do?” Aragorn answered. “Are we to abandon her here, alone, many miles from any safe shelter? I have agreed she may accompany us. And she will not slow us down; never in my life have I seen so fast a runner.” He held up a hand as Legolas opened his mouth to speak again. “The decision is made. Loath as I am to take a lady into deadly peril, there is no other choice. Let us, then, tarry no more but be off.”

“We are, then, leaving Frodo and Sam to make their own way, and following after the orcs who seized Merry and Pippin?” Gimli queried.

“We are,” Aragorn confirmed. “I would have guided Frodo to Mordor, and gone with him to the end, but if I seek him now in the wilderness I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last. The fate of… Frodo’s quest… is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part but we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. We will go now. Leave all that cannot be spared behind. We will press on by day and dark.”

They drew up the last boat, and carried it to the trees, and laid beneath it such of their goods as they did not need and could not carry away. Then they returned to the glade where Boromir had fallen. There they picked up the trail of the orcs; it needed little skill to find.

“No other folk make such a trampling,” said Legolas. “It seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way.”

“The more fools them,” said Cierre. “The orcs of my world are not so stupid. If these were the orcs of King Obould Many-Arrows then they would take a path hard to follow and waste no energy on wanton destruction. If such a plain trail was left then it would lead, inevitably, into a cunning ambush.”

“Such is not their custom here, for which we may be thankful,” said Aragorn. “Yet they will go with great speed and they do not tire. And later we may have to search for their path in hard bare lands.”

“With two Rangers that should not be too hard a task,” said Cierre. “Let us be off!”

“Indeed,” said Gimli. “Dwarves too can go swiftly, and they tire no sooner than do orcs, but it will be a long chase. They have a long start.”

‘And whose fault is that?’ thought Cierre. ‘They must have travelled a good five miles or more during the time we spent on Boromir’s funeral.’ She held her tongue, though, not wanting to offend her new companions with such a comment.

“Yes,” said Aragorn, “we shall all need the endurance of Dwarves. But come! With hope, or without hope, we shall follow the trail of our enemies. And woe to them if we prove the swifter! We shall make such a chase as shall be accounted a marvel among the Three Kindreds; Elves, Dwarves, and Men.”

“And Drow,” Cierre put in.

“And Drow,” Aragorn agreed. “Forth the Four Hunters!” Like a deer he sprang away through the trees. The others followed.

- - - - -

All through the afternoon they followed the trail, and as dusk fell, and on through the night. Cierre travelled at a steady lope, effortlessly eating up the miles, easily matching the pace of the others and with reserves of speed to spare. Legolas, too, ran lightly and swiftly.

“Aragorn was not exaggerating your prowess at running,” he said to Cierre, as they ran.

“And you, too, run well,” said Cierre. “Better than the surface Elves of my homeland.”

Surface Elves?” Legolas queried.

“My people, the Drow, live underground,” Cierre explained. “I left them to live upon the surface world. To them I am Dobluth – outcast.”

“Tell me of your world,” said Legolas, “if, that is, you have breath to spare for conversation.”

“I can keep up this pace with no effort,” said Cierre, “and I would be happy to talk as we run, but I see little point in telling you of my world now. I think it would be better use of our time if you told me of your world – or, better still, if you taught me the language of humans. I do not wish to be able to converse only with Elves, Dwarves, and nobles.”

“Few Dwarves speak Sindarin,” said Legolas. “In fact I was not aware that Gimli knew the language until he spoke to you.”

“It never came up before,” Gimli said. “The Elves of Lothlórien spoke with an accent I could not understand. And even your… Elvish… does not come… easily to me. Teach… the girl… Westron, Legolas, as she… asks.” The spaces between his words grew longer as he spoke, interrupted by long breaths, and on completion of his request he fell silent once more and concentrated on his running.

“I shall,” Legolas agreed, and he began to give Cierre instruction. He spoke Elvish words, and their Westron translations, and then put them into sentences.

Cierre was relieved to find that the grammar of Westron followed similar rules to the Common Tongue used as a trade language in Faerûn. Possibly there was some far distant link between the humans of the two worlds, perhaps from the time when the Imaskari Empire was pillaging other worlds for slaves, or possibly both languages had been influenced in their formative stages by Elvish. The process of learning the language was made simpler by that similarity, however it had come about, and it became a matter merely of memorising vocabulary.

By the time they halted, an hour or so before dawn was due, Cierre had mastered a fair number of simple phrases. Not enough to carry on any kind of conversation, however, and they continued to speak Elvish as they discussed their next actions. They had reached a valley with a floor littered with rocks and stones, with a small stream running through it, and the trail of the orcs could no longer be made out.

“We cannot assume that they followed the valley,” Aragorn said. “They may have turned aside and, if they did, we could miss in the dark the signs of their departure. We must, therefore, wait for daylight before continuing.”

“I see in the dark much better than any human or surface Elf,” Cierre told him. “I could watch out for any sign of them leaving the valley.”

Aragorn shook his head. “We would still have to go slowly,” he said, “for you would have to check in all directions. Also they could have gone either upstream or downstream. Upstream, to the north, I would guess, but I cannot be certain. Better to wait for the day when we will have four sets of eyes.”

“I will not deny that I would be glad of a rest, and a meal,” Cierre said. “I have enough food to share.”

“As do we,” said Aragorn. “Let us each contribute something.”

“Mushrooms!” Gimli exclaimed, as Cierre produced food from her pack. “You would get on well with the Hobbits.”

“They are the staple diet of my people,” Cierre said. “I also have fruit, cheese, smoked fish, and meat both fresh and salted.”

“Then we should eat the fresh first,” said Legolas, “for the lembas that we carry will keep, as will your smoked and salted foods, but the other will go off.”

They lit a fire and prepared a simple meal. The water in the stream was clear and if the orcs had befouled it any traces had washed away completely. Aragorn deemed it safe to drink and they refreshed themselves. After that they lay down and snatched a short period of sleep.

They rose with the sun. “Now,” said Aragorn, “let us consider which way the orcs went. The southward course would lead them to the Entwash. I cannot envisage that they would take that route. Northwards, therefore, and then at some point they will turn west. That would give them the shortest route across the fields of the Rohirrim and thence to Isengard.”

Cierre could not debate the merits of his deduction, lacking the necessary knowledge of the region’s geography, and was content to abide by the decision of the others. Legolas and Gimli agreed with Aragorn and so, after a brief toilet, they set off once more up the valley to the north.

To their right a cliff loomed, casting a shadow across the valley, and to their left rose grey slopes. In the gloom Cierre’s eyes were sharper than those of the others; thus it was that she was first to see the proof that they were on the right track.

“Look!” she called, pointing to what seemed at first sight to be mere boulders. “There lie some of those we pursue.”

Five dead orcs lay on the valley floor. They had been hacked and slashed with many strokes and two had been beheaded.

“This seems not unhelpful,” Legolas said, “for enemies of the orcs are likely to be our friends. Do any folk dwell in these hills?”

“No,” said Aragorn. “The Rohirrim seldom come here, and it is far from Minas Tirith. It might be that some company of Men were hunting here for reasons that we do not know. Yet I think not.”

“If they were slain by enemies,” said Cierre, “then why are there only five? Surely a force powerful enough to defeat the orcs would not have abandoned the fight with many left unslain. Yet, had the orcs overcome their attackers, then human bodies would lie alongside those of the orcs. Unless the orcs fought a lone warrior, took him or her alive and carried away a captive, then I think it likely that this is the result of a disagreement within the orc band. A chieftain enforcing order.”

“I agree,” said Aragorn. “These are Northern Orcs, from far away, and none of those slain are the great ones with the badge of the White Hand. I suspect there was some dispute about the road.”

“Or about the captives,” said Gimli. “Let us hope that no harm came to them.”

They set off once more. A mile or so further up the valley they came to a place where a tiny babbling brook descended the western slope to merge with the larger stream. Along the sides of the channel carved by the brook grew bushes, and occasional patches of grass, and the watercourse formed an easy path up the slope.

Aragorn examined the area, bending over to peer at the ground, and then straightened up with an expression of relief on his face. “At last!” he exclaimed. “Here are the tracks that we sought. Up this water-channel; this is the way that the orcs went after their debate.”

The party climbed the slope, emerging onto a high ridge which provided them with a view of the area for miles around, and continued to follow the trail of the orcs. They descended the ridge on the far side and emerged onto the green fields of Rohan.

“Light feet may run swiftly here, and the trail is plain to see,” said Aragorn. “Now is our chance to lessen their lead!”

They ran on. Legolas resumed the lessons in Westron that he was giving to Cierre, although keeping his gaze focused on the trail they followed, but before very long he was interrupted by a cry from Aragorn.

“Stay!” Aragorn commanded, turning aside from the path. “Do not follow me yet.” By this time it was broad daylight, and Cierre’s distance vision was suffering accordingly, and she was unable to see what he had found. Aragorn went some distance away from the trail, picked up something from the grass, and then returned.

“Yes,” he said, on rejoining the group, “they are quite plain; a Hobbit’s footprints. Pippin, I think, for he is smaller than the other. And look at this!” He held aloft a glittering, leaf-shaped, object.

“The brooch of an Elven-cloak!” exclaimed Legolas and Gimli together.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,” said Aragorn. “This did not drop by chance; it was cast away as a token to any that might follow. I think Pippin ran away from the trail for that very purpose.”

“Then he, at least, was alive and with the use of his wits and his legs,” said Gimli. “We do not pursue in vain.”

“Let us hope he did not suffer for his cleverness,” said Legolas, and they ran on.

- - - - -

All through the day they ran. When darkness fell they halted and Aragorn considered whether or not to go on through the night.

“If we continue we risk missing the trail,” he said.

“And if a captive escapes again, or was carried off by a smaller party – eastward, say, to the Great River or to Mordor – we might pass the sign and never know it,” Gimli added.

“By day your eyes are sharper than mine,” said Cierre, “but by night mine are at their sharpest. I would not stray from so broad a trail and I could be alert for any signs of any leaving the path.”

Aragorn scratched his head. “There is no moon. You can truly see well enough in the dark to spot the footprints of a Halfling?”

“I can,” Cierre assured him. “Not if he was taking care to leave as little sign as possible, of course, but if he was running then I would not miss his tracks. And there is no way that a group of orcs could leave the main body without me being aware of it.”

“Yet we must rest,” said Gimli. “Even I, Dwarf of many journeys and not the least hardy of my folk, cannot run all the way to Isengard without any pause – not if I am to be fit to fight at the end. And, if we rest, this blind night is the time to do it.”

“You said that you must sleep to regain your healing magics,” Aragorn reminded Cierre. “We snatched a single hour of sleep before dawn. Was that sufficient?”

“No,” Cierre admitted. “I must sleep for at least four hours to recover my spells.”

“Then we shall sleep for four hours,” said Aragorn. “Let us continue on for an hour or so, and then camp and sleep awhile, but we will rise well before dawn and you shall guide us onward through the darkness.”

They pressed on, at a walk rather than a run, with Cierre scanning the ground as they went. Then Aragorn called a halt. They ate, and slept, and then arose. Again they proceeded at a walk. When the sun rose, and Aragorn took over the tracking duties, they had gained some ten miles over the distance they would have made had they slept through the night.

Through the day they continued on. The trail led straight to the north-west, without deviation, across league after league of the plains. By late in the day Legolas was weary enough that he had to discontinue his language lessons; Cierre, too, was beginning to flag and was glad that she could concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other. She was relieved when Aragorn decided that they should rest through most of the night, not availing themselves of Cierre’s night vision, and would rise only a single hour before the dawn.

With that amount of rest Legolas and Cierre both felt refreshed enough to carry on with language lessons through the next day. Cierre’s command of Westron was, by the end of the day, sufficient that she could converse with Aragorn and Gimli in that language, as they set up camp, and understand most of what they said without needing to fall back on Elvish. It would not yet see her through a complex conversation but was adequate for the necessities of daily life in the wilderness.

Again they rose before the dawn.

“I see a fire in the distance,” Cierre reported, “and it is along the line of the trail we follow.”

“I see it not,” said Legolas. “Are you sure of what you see?”

“I am sure,” Cierre said. “Once the sun rises you should see the smoke. I see moving figures, too, with metal glinting in the light from the fire. Horsemen, I think.”

“We will continue to follow the trail,” Aragorn said. “Horsemen in these parts can be only the Rohirrim. If they encountered the orcs they would fight them. What you see might be a battle in progress.”

“I hope the Hobbits come through it unscathed,” said Gimli. “Well, the sooner we get there, the sooner we will find out. Onward we must go.”

- - - - -

Dawn broke and the sky became clear and pale.

“Cierre was right,” said Legolas. “I see smoke, as she said, and – yes – there are riders. They come this way.”

“A large force,” Aragorn said. “The Rohirrim are organised into squadrons called éoreds, each of one hundred and twenty men at full strength, and I would guess one such approaches.”

“I think you are correct, for they number one hundred and five,” said Legolas. “Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears, and their leader is very tall.”

“Keen are the eyes of the Elves,” said Aragorn.

“Nay, for they are little more than five miles distant,” said Legolas. “Keener are the eyes of the Drow, to have seen them in the dark when they were yet further away.”

“Now that it is daylight I can barely make out that there is something moving,” said Cierre. “To say whether they number five or one hundred and five would be beyond me.”

“There are three empty saddles,” said Legolas, “but I see no Hobbits.”

Aragorn frowned. “That is a bad sign,” he said. “I begin to dread what we shall hear.”

“They will reach us soon,” said Gimli, “and they will not miss us in this empty land. Shall we march to meet them, or wait here?”

“We wait,” said Aragorn. “They will reach us soon enough, bringing good news or ill, and we are weary. Once we have spoken to them we will know better what our course should be.”

They sat down in the grass, wrapped their cloaks about them, and awaited the approach of the riders. “What do you know of these horsemen, Aragorn?” Gimli asked. “If they are hostile we would face a battle we could not win.”

“I have been among them,” answered Aragorn. “They are a proud people, but true-hearted, generous in thought and deed, and bold but not cruel. They write no books but, instead, record their histories in songs. They have long been the friends of the people of Gondor, although they are not kin to them; their kinship lies rather with the Bardings and the Beornings of the North. I know not how things lie with them now, between the traitor Saruman and the threat of Sauron, but they are no friends of the orcs.”

“Gandalf spoke of a rumour that they pay tribute to Sauron,” said Gimli.

“I believe it no more than did Boromir,” said Aragorn.

“We shall learn the truth very soon,” said Legolas, “for they are almost upon us.”

As they drew closer Cierre was able to see them clearly. They were tall men, on big horses, clad in mail and armed with long spears. Their leader was, as Legolas had said, taller even than the rest. He wore a helm crowned with a white horse-tail, and its cheek-guards partially hid his face, but what could be seen of it was handsome. He was broad-shouldered but slim at the waist, he sat straight and proud in the saddle, and Cierre licked her lips.

Usstan orn’la vith nindel jaluk,” she muttered to herself.

“What was that?” Aragorn asked her.

“Their leader is… impressive,” Cierre said. She had gathered, during the past days, that these people were reticent, perhaps even prudish, about sexual matters. Aragorn would probably be shocked if she explained the true meaning of her comment; ‘I’d fuck that male’.

- - - - -

The riders drew closer, drew level, and then thundered past a hundred yards away. Contrary to Gimli’s assertion it seemed that they were oblivious to the small party’s presence; of course all four of the group were wearing Cloaks of Elvenkind. The horsemen might have passed by altogether had Aragorn not stood up and shouted out “What news from the North, Riders of Rohan?”

The horsemen checked their steeds, wheeled about, and formed into a ring with the party at the centre. They came to a halt with spears levelled. Some of them had bows; they drew back the strings and aimed arrows at the four companions.

Cierre glowered at Aragorn. “Olot’ dos, waela jaluk,” she muttered. He ignored her, his attention being fixed on the Rohirrim, which was perhaps as well; she was angry enough to have translated the remark (‘Darkness take you, foolish male’) had he asked.

The leader of the horsemen advanced until his spear was poised little more than a foot from Aragorn’s chest. Aragorn did not move.

“Who are you and what are you doing in this land?” the Rohirrim leader asked, in Westron. Cierre had learned enough, by now, to be able to understand him.

“I am called Strider,” Aragorn replied. Cierre did not understand the last word, his nickname had not been mentioned since she joined the company, and she thought that Aragorn was, for some reason, giving an assumed name. “I came out of the North. I am hunting orcs.”

The rider dismounted, handed his spear to one of his fellows, and drew his sword. He stood in front of Aragorn, looking him up and down, and then spoke again. “At first I thought you were orcs yourselves but now I see that it is not so. Indeed you know little of Orcs, if you go hunting them in this fashion. They were swift and well-armed, and they were many. You would have changed from hunters to prey, if ever you had overtaken them. But there is something strange about you, Strider. That is no name for a Man that you give. And strange too is your raiment. Have you sprung out of the grass? How did you escape our sight? Are you Elvish folk?”

“No,” said Aragorn. “Only two of us are Elves; Legolas, from the Woodland Realm in distant Mirkwood; and Cierre, from a realm even more distant. But we have passed through Lothlórien, and the gifts and favour of the Lady go with us.”

The rider frowned. “Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.” He looked more closely at Legolas and Gimli and then his gaze fixed on Cierre. “Béma!” he exclaimed. “What creature of darkness is this?” He swung his sword to point directly at her.

“Cierre’s skin may be black but her heart is true,” Aragorn said. “She speaks little Westron, only Elvish. Direct any questions you may have for her at me.”

“Then tell her to stand up, and to take off her hat that I might clearly see her face,” the horsemen’s leader commanded.

Cierre followed most of that, but not all, and waited for Aragorn’s translation before obeying. “Usstan nau velendev ssinssrin ulu vith’os, kke jaluk,” she said, as she stood up.

”What did you say?” Aragorn asked, in Sindarin.

“I told the male that I no longer regard him as attractive,” Cierre replied, giving a severely censored version of what she had really said. She took off her hat and met the man’s gaze.

He scowled back at her. “A creature of darkness indeed. Perhaps I should strike you dead before you can cast any enchantment upon me.” He drew back his sword and raised it high. Cierre dropped one hand to her sword hilt and the other to the haft of her axe.

“She stands not alone,” Legolas said, coming to his feet. His hands moved in a blur as he nocked an arrow and took up tension on the string. “You would die before your stroke fell.”

“And my axe will be raised in her defence too,” Gimli added. He also stood up. “You slander one who is as staunch and true a warrior as any Dwarf, Horselord,” he said, “and you speak evil of the Lady also, who is fair beyond the reach of your thought. Only little wit can excuse you.”

Aragorn sprang forward, his empty hands raised, and placed himself between the Rohirrim and his comrades. “Your pardon, Marshall of Rohan, for such I guess you to be,” he said. “Lower your bow, Legolas, and your axe, Gimli.” He switched to Sindarin. “Do not draw your weapons, Cierre.” Then, in Westron, he addressed the Rohirrim leader once again. “When you know more you will know why you have angered my companions. We intend no evil to Rohan, nor to any of its folk, neither to man nor to horse. Will you not hear our tale before you strike?”

“I will,” said the Marshall. “But wanderers in the Riddermark would be wise to be less haughty. First tell me your right name.”

“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, of the Dúnedain,” Aragorn answered. “What is your name, and whom do you serve? Are you friend or foe of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor?”

“I am Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshall of the Mark,” said the Rohirrim commander. “I serve only the Lord of the Mark, Théoden King son of Thengel. We do not serve the Power of the Black Land far away, but neither are we yet at open war with him, and if you are fleeing from him then you had best leave this land. We desire only to be free, and to live as we have lived, keeping our own, and serving no foreign lord, good or evil. We welcomed guests kindly in the better days, but now there is trouble on our borders, and threats beset us, and in these times the unbidden stranger finds us swift and hard. Come! Who are you? Whom do you serve? At whose command do you hunt Orcs in our land? And, I say again, what is this black creature that you bring with you?”

“Call not Cierre a ‘creature’,” said Aragorn. “She is an Elf, like Legolas there, and only her skin is black. She fought alone against a dozen orcs at once, trying to save one of my comrades, and she slew eight of them and crippled two more before I arrived. I serve no man, and hunt orcs at no man’s command, but the servants of Sauron I pursue into whatever land they may go. Few among mortal Men know more of orcs, and I do not hunt them in this fashion out of choice. The orcs whom we pursued took captive two of my friends. In such need a man that has no horse will go on foot, and he will not ask for leave to follow the trail. Nor will he count the heads of the enemy save with a sword. I am not weaponless.”

He swept his sword out from his scabbard and held it aloft. “Elendil!” he cried. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil's son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Cierre did not follow all of that speech by any means, save to gather that he was speaking up for her, and that he was ending with a call to the Rohirrim commander that sounded more like a request for an alliance than an appeal for aid. She did, however, recognise that there was a charisma about Aragorn, and an air of authority, that was having a powerful effect on the Horselord. And on her; she would have stripped off and coupled with him right there, on the grass in front of everyone’s eyes, had he asked. Unfortunately he had never shown the slightest hint of sexual interest in her; perhaps he lusted only after other males.

Éomer stepped back and lowered his sword. “These are strange days indeed,” he said. “Dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass. Tell me, Lord, what brings you here? And what was the meaning of the dark words? Long has Boromir son of Denethor been gone seeking an answer, and the horse we lent to him came back riderless. What doom do you bring out of the North?”

Cierre had followed only part of that conversation, which seemed to be referring to things she knew nothing about, although she had recognised the name ‘Boromir’. She tried to make sense of the rest, as the two men continued to speak, but gathered only that Aragorn was giving a condensed version of the quest and of the part she had played since she joined the party. The Horselord, Éomer, replied with an account of his force’s conflict with the orcs.

Legolas recognised that she was struggling and, quietly, he translated a few crucial parts for her. Apparently the Riders had intercepted the orcs, wiped them out in pitched battle with the loss of fifteen of their own men and twelve horses, and had burned the corpses of the orcs in a pyre. That had been the fire Cierre had seen during the night. They had seen no Halflings.

“They escaped in the confusion, no doubt,” Cierre said to Legolas. “Halflings are nimble, and quick, and stealthier than any.”

“I hope that you are right,” said Legolas.

Aragorn then made an appeal to Éomer for the loan of horses. Éomer looked pensive.

“I am willing to lend the three spare horses to you and your Dwarven and Elvish companions,” he said, “but I am still doubtful about the other, the black-skinned one. You admit that you met her only four days ago; she could well be a servant of the Dark Lord. That she slew orcs proves nothing. Would it not be worth the lives of a few orcs to place a spy in your company?”

“They would have slain her, had Boromir not thrown a knife with almost his dying breath, and had I arrived a few seconds later,” said Aragorn. “Though I have known her for mere days I am willing, already, to trust her with my life.”

“But I am not,” said Éomer. “The orcs are slain, now, and your need for another warrior is therefore less pressing. I will lend you the horses, and give you leave to search for your missing friends in the land of Rohan, but I will take this… black Elf woman into my custody and hold her hostage in Edoras. When you return with the horses I will release her to you once again.”

“That is unworthy,” said Aragorn, “and poor thanks to Cierre for her efforts on behalf of captives she never even met. Also it is going against the dying wishes of Boromir, who asked Cierre to go with me to help defend Gondor. Only our need to rescue our captive friends has prevented us from acting as he wished.”

“My mind is made up,” said Éomer. “I will not permit her to wander Rohan unwatched. Neither can I spare men to accompany you, for I am under orders to return to Edoras forthwith. Therefore the… lady must come with me.”

Aragorn frowned. “I will not hand her over against her will,” he said. “I will speak with her and find out if she will give her consent. If she is unwilling then we shall continue on foot, with your leave or without it.”

Aragorn turned to Cierre and, in Sindarin, explained Éomer’s demand.

“Often have I been met with suspicion because of my race,” Cierre said, “and I am used to it. Do you believe this Éomer is an honourable man?”

“I do,” Aragorn said. “He is overly suspicious, that is all, but then he does not know you as we have come to know you over these past days. I believe that you would be well treated, if you accede to his request, but I would not blame you if you refused. In your position I doubt that I would accept such treatment.”

“As I said, I have grown accustomed to it,” said Cierre. “Very well, you may tell him that I agree, provided that it is clear that I am a hostage and not a prisoner. I have committed no crime.”

“You are noble indeed, Cierre,” said Aragorn.

“Pragmatic, rather,” said Cierre. “Although this displeases me mightily I feel that there is no point in resisting. It would only bring trouble upon you.”

“I thank you,” said Aragorn. “We will return for you as soon as we are able.” He turned back to Éomer and began to inform him of Cierre’s agreement and conditions.

“There is no need to translate,” Éomer said, interrupting Aragorn. “I learned Sindarin as a child, although it is long since I used it, and I understood what you said. I hope you will forgive my discourtesy in not saying so before. I agree to those conditions, which are most reasonable, and I give my word that the lady will be well treated.”

A short time later Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli departed on horseback; Gimli, who could not ride, perched behind Legolas with his hands clinging firmly to the Elf’s sides. Cierre, mounted on the remaining spare horse, was led away by the Rohirrim. Before long the two parties had passed out of each other’s sight.

- - - - -

Two days later Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli arrived at the gates of Edoras. With them was Gandalf, returned beyond hope from seeming death, whom they had encountered in the forest of Fangorn.

They were stopped at the gate by guards in bright mail. The guards were loath to admit them, at first, and some considerable argument was required before they seemed ready to relent.

“Here are the horses that Éomer, Third Marshall of the Mark, lent to us a mere two days ago,” Aragorn said. “We bring them back, now, even as we promised him. Has not Éomer returned and given warning of our coming? And what of Cierre, our comrade, who was taken into custody by Éomer as surety against the return of the horses?”

“Of Éomer I have naught to say,” said one of the gate guards, “but if by… Cierre… you mean the black fiend in the shape of a woman, then it is chained up in a cell.” He spat upon the ground. “The evil thing slew a Rider and maimed Gríma, counsellor to Théoden King. As soon as Gríma rises from his sick-bed the foul creature will be put to death.”