Tenth Walker, No Choice

To The End of Night

5. Marking choices

~

This sensation is remarkably similar to that of intoxication.

Hithriel's experience with consuming alcoholic beverages could in no case be considered vast. Indeed, the one and only time her father had allowed her to drink wine she had, in her inexperience, consumed too much of it and too fast. Before the uncomfortable physical side effects took place, the substance had induced in her a feeling of weightlessness. Hithriel felt weightless now as well, and happier than she had been in a long, long time.

It had not been so in the beginning. At first, the familiar sensation of pain had ripped through her body. A red haze had enveloped her - no, not again - she could not draw breath. As suddenly as the pain appeared, it vanished, and darkness gave way to glorious light, one seen with the eyes of the spirit, rather than those of the flesh. Soothing warmth caressed her, while faint voices, welcoming her, could be heard in the distance.

Be at peace.

And she was. Never in her life had she felt as safe. Pain and fear became naught but distant memories.

What was this place?

Hithriel dimly realized someone clutched at her hand, holding it in a painful grip. It was of no consequence. The light, the warmth mattered, nothing else. And then, it vanished.

The disappearance of it hit her as a physical blow. The sensations of flesh returned, and Hithriel felt herself falling through the air with great speed. A scream tore from her throat.

With a violent jerk, she came to a halt... Oh, Valar! ...her arm stretching beyond endurance, her hand held in an iron grip by another - that hold the only thing between her and oblivion. All was still, except the sound of her heavy breathing.

A voice called, "Don't let go." She didn't plan to. Silence descended again.

Hithriel's stomach lurched in panic as she felt herself being swayed from side to side. One swing, two, three... and she was flung upwards through the darkness. After a breathless moment of flight, her body hit something hard, and Hithriel landed on the ground with a bruising, painful force. Rising to her knees, Hithriel drew a shuddering breath, frantic. Where am I? Even though her eyes were wide open, stifling, threatening darkness surrounded her. Where? Moisture could be felt in the air. She drew in a lungful of it - stagnant, chilly, but not overly foul. Fingers reached down and traced a shallow trail in the dust; the surface beneath it, cold, solid rock. Miles of solid stone loomed over her head. Underground. Her ears picked up the sound of running water. No matter the circumstance, she felt... drawn to this place, though she knew not why.

A feeling long forgotten began to build in her. No. It could not be. She stomped it down. Hithriel thought herself rid of this fool's hope long ago.

But... What was this feeling? And... The pain that had radiated from her broken arm had disappeared, she realized. Reluctant, uncertain, Hithriel put some more of her weight on it. Still, no pain. The thought repeated, insistent... It cannot be! The denial did her no good. Hope chipped away at the frost inside her.

Grunting noises came from the abyss, and a body slumped to the ground, heavy and limp. Kalista. The woman made a pained sound, and barked out a vicious curse. Then one more, even fouler, and another after that. All in Westron! How? A sound of a throat being cleared, "Somebody up there really hates my guts." The words echoed in the darkness - a pause, and Kalista lowered her voice to a whisper. "You in one piece? Any body parts missing?" Shuffling noises could be heard. "I wasn't sure that I'd manage that - throwing you up here."

Hithriel froze at the words, the matter of language put out of her mind. Not sure... Her throat dry, Hithriel opened her mouth to answer, but Kalista cut her off. "What the hell just happened?"

What had happened? Hithriel paused, struggling to make sense of these conflicting sensations. She felt a... a connection to the world again, awareness only remembered in dreams - a memory lost. Her eyes drifted closed. Nine months. So little time... Why had it felt longer, then, than all the Ages of Arda? There had been more to her, once, than this prison of flesh, sinew and bone - yes - she remembered it now. New strength filled her, a cautious drop at a time. A hope she dared not give voice to awoke. Could it be? Could this be the end of her torment?

Unexplainable joy bubbled up - it would have overwhelmed her, if she'd let it. Her breath caught in her throat and tears ran down her face. Tears of joy - she did not mind them.

Home.

The Valar had answered her prayers at long last. She had felt them - Oh, Elbereth! -- there, in that place. Relief and joy so intense they bordered on pain flooded her. I am home.

A whisper, "Are you crying?" The harsh undertones Hithriel had gotten used to disappeared. "Your arm?"

Hithriel laughed once and shook her head. "I am unharmed. I am well," she said. The feeling of intoxication returned. Another laugh escaped her. Oh, more than well.

After a pause, Kalista leaned in close, touching her arm. Careful fingers ran over skin, searching for the fractures that had been there moments before. Not finding any, the grip tightened until it became painful. "What the..." the woman muttered and pulled her closer, fingers probing the cuts on her neck - closed wounds now.

Hithriel sported new bruises and scratches from their near fall - she felt the sting of them - but all of her old wounds had been healed. "We are safe. I am sure of it," she said, in the face of the woman's confusion. "The Valar gave us their blessing and healing as we crossed the veil separating our two worlds." The memory made her smile. "Did you not feel it?"

"No. I'm still sore as hell. Figures..."The grip on her shoulder tightened, fingers biting into skin. "What do you mean, crossed over?" The words came out in a heated growl - Hithriel gritted her teeth against the pain.

A cautious whisper, "We are in my world..." A breath of air brushed against her ear as Kalista's fist slammed into stone, right next to her head.

Another growl. "How? "How do you..."

Hithriel fought to steady her heartbeat, one at a time. " I know not." Angry eyes glinted in the dark. "But I know truth when I see it." Leaning in, she whispered, "Look inside. Can you say that you feel nothing wrong? Nothing amiss?" Hithriel had - from the very first breath drawn in that dank ally. "Can you feel weakness crawling in, eating away at you, even as I speak?" Resentment and anger long kept under lock and key poured out. "You will soon. As I did."

Silence descended, heavy and dense. Iron fingers gripped her shoulder, hurting - then left her. Tracing her shoulder, soothing the bruised flesh, Hithriel swallowed. It had felt good, this anger. But misdirected, undeserved, no matter the truth of her words. Those who deserved it, and more, stood a world away. Perhaps it will be different for her. Dry lips fought to speak, "I did not..."

"Don't." Clear, quiet words, some distance away, with an undertone of restrained rage. Whether rage at her, or rage at the circumstance, Hithriel knew not. Both. Most likely in equal measure. Silent, too drained to fear, she turned away, allowing the woman to come to her own terms with what had happened. It was not easy, being cast from one's home. And I should know. Regret that this had come to pass should have filled her, but she could find no place for it... not yet.

Hithriel lowered herself back to the ground. She would honor her debt, in time.

"First things first." Three mumbled words from Kalista's direction -the first in as many minutes. "You could be wrong." No emotion in her voice. "Get out...see where we are." As if she made a list. "Then, we'll see."

More silence, then a hand gripped the strap around her waist and unclasped it. The bag slipped from her shoulders. More noise reached Hithriel's ears and then a light appeared - a small flame that flickered in the darkness. The moment she saw Kalista's face, Hithriel wished for the dark back. Bile rose in her throat at the sight. Kalista's hand reached up, torn and bloody, fingernails missing, and touched the wound. Her face... A lump formed in Hithriel's throat - Kalista had stopped their fall down the pit. If she had not done so... Hithriel's heart skipped a beat at the thought. She owed her much indeed.

"We're stuck on some sort of a ledge," Kalista said, still searching for something. "I can see a path above but we would have to do some climbing to reach it. Can you?"

Climbing blind, with no telling how deep the chasm below them was. One slip and they would be gone forever.

Cursing, Kalista emptied the contents to the ground. "Where is it?" An edge of desperation carried in the voice.

Kalista placed the small light in Hithriel's hand, eyes already searching the ground below. Dropping to her knees, Kalista went through her scattered belongings, heaving a sigh of relief when her fingers closed around a medium-sized, padded container. Opening it, she reached for the small vials inside, took one and placed it in the inside pocket of her coat. All the thrown out items ended up inside the bag again, the container laid carefully in the middle.

A hand offered Hithriel the bag. "Don't drop this," Kalista said. "Got it?"

Hithriel nodded.

The woman took two knives from the bag and placed them in her arm-sheaths. After some consideration, a gun holster got strapped to her thigh. Kalista had given her weapons to carry? Did the woman think her too weak to use them against her? Resentment welling up, Hithriel watched her get up and run her hands along the stone wall -- searching for the most convenient place to start the climb from. Kalista stopped next to what appeared to be the most solid part of the cliff and placed a foot on a protrusion there. Without turning to face her, the woman said, "Something about this place rubs me the wrong way." She reached up, one hand finding purchase. "You should be safe down here." A glance back, "Try not to move around too much." A vague gesture to the left. "That side of the ledge there is close to collapsing."

And with that, she vanished into the darkness.

Alone, Hithriel tried not to think of her surroundings too much. The small flame in her hand could only illuminate the narrow ledge, leaving the rest of the vast cavern veiled from sight. Moments passed, without motion or sound. Suddenly, a clink of metal -- combat erupted. A meeting of swords, flesh hitting flesh. Hithriel heard a body hit the ground, and then all was quiet once more. Her heart hammering in her chest, she moved as close to the wall as she could. She almost jumped out of her skin when something coarse grazed her arm - a rope.

"Tie it around your waist. I'll pull you up." After a second. "The bag. Don't forget it." Her companion's voice. Still speaking Westron. How did Kalista learn the language of the Men of Arda?

After a short amount of time had passed, Hithriel's feet settled on a relatively wide path. Grateful for the solid ground beneath her, she smiled at Kalista and untangled herself from the rope. The matter of the language. She would ask her now. As fast as she could manage, Hithriel lit the small flame again. The sight before her made her knees buckle. A creature of nightmares lay at the woman's feet, unconscious. Gray, filthy skin, covered with many scars. A torn, worn-out suit of armor of poor quality concealed most of it from sight. The beast lay on its stomach, its face cloaked in shadow. Hithriel was glad of it.

An Orc.

Never in her life had she seen its kind, but she doubted not that this creature belonged to the foul breed. Her throat tightened. More likely than not, there were others of its kind to be found in these depths. Orcs. All knew the fate of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. She would not go through such again - could not.

Kalista turned back and poked at the unconscious creature with her foot. "We're in luck. I'd bet anything this ugly son of a b*tch knows a way out of here." Indicating the rope piled on the ground beside Hithriel, she continued. "I found this on him." Making a small satisfied sound in the back of her throat, Kalista dropped into a crouch, her hand closing on an object that lay next to the orc, turning it over in the dim light. The woman laughed once and then tossed it at Hithriel -- a torch; she wasted no time in lighting it. More of the cavern became visible, the shadows retreating, but that could not ease Hithriel's fears. Not now, not when she knew what lurked behind them. Her eyes drifted closed, and she took a deep, steadying breath.

"What is it now?" Kalista asked. Her hands crossed over her chest as she straightened.

Orcs! Words tumbled from Hithriel's lips in a heady rush. "Promise me. Promise me that you will not let these monsters lay their hands on me." Her voice shook - Hithriel steadied it. Never show weakness. "I will not bear it. If the worst comes to pass, if there is no hope of escape left, then promise me you will end my existence, quickly and mercifully." She whispered, "I beg it of you."

There. She managed to get it all out.

Kalista's brow furrowed. "What?" The incredulous tone of her voice was answer enough.

Eru, hear me, just this once. Hithriel repeated her plea, letting the desperation seep into her voice. "None of my people can bear being... mistreated in such a way. The pain eventually becomes too great and we leave this world." Would she be able to leave it at will this time, and leave the pain behind? She was home, but... had she been healed enough? The uncertainty made her throat dry, her eyes water.

The woman's eyes glinted steel and she opened her mouth, to bark out an angry retort, no doubt. She should not have mentioned worlds. Kalista suddenly paused, her face scrunching up. "Leave?" How much disgust could one word express? "So, basically what you're saying is, you just roll over and die?"

Anger flared up, but Hithriel stomped it down. In her ignorance, the woman thought her weak -- it did not matter. "We leave the shores of this world and return to the home of the Firstborn, yes," Hithriel answered, keeping her tone even. "Some linger, until they become pale shadows of what they once were. Others vanish quickly, the fire in their soul extinguished. Such would be my fate as well, should I fall into the hands of the Orcs." An imploring look, one that begged her to try and understand. "But death would not come soon enough to spare me the worst of their wrath. It would not be murder to kill me then. You must see that! I would call it mercy, and so would others of my kind."

"Don't tempt me," Kalista growled, the sound chilling Hithriel to the core. Her anger soaked the air, like a living thing. "You owe me. Until I'm back where I belong, until I'm back home, you'll keep breathing for as long as I tell you to, whether you like it or not. I..." Kalista frowned, biting her lip. She looked away and to the ground. "Deal with it." Hard words, spoken in soft tones. Her anger had ebbed away.

Hithriel pressed on. "There are burdens too great to carry and wounds that do not close no matter of the passage of time." Her voice rose with her gamble. "You know this."

Kalista's head snapped up, her eyes narrowing. "What..."

"Even if I somehow survived," Hithriel continued, not letting the woman speak, "every moment spent in this world would remind me of the pain I endured. Suffering that I do not wish to bear, that I cannot bear." Not again. "Believe what I say and take pity on me. Will you grant me this mercy?"

A shake of the head, refusing the plea. She did not believe her. "Nice story," Kalista said, "but not one I'd buy. If all this is true, then why didn't you off yourself before, when Galliano had you? I can't imagine these... what do you call them, orcs? ...can do any worse."

Hithriel had trouble swallowing around the lump that formed in her throat. Why ask her that? She had no wish to talk of it. "Death is little more than a passing through a veil, my people say," Hithriel whispered. "When all else fades, in the eyes of the spirit is seen a distant place, towards which one rushes, with surpassing speed. In a morning of bright sunlight, one draws ever closer to this unknown country, and the first thing to be seen, amid a haze of land and sea is a long line of white waves breaking against a far-off shore."

Kalista cocked her head to the side, looking mildly intrigued. Her face relaxed, she leaned against the tall stone behind her.

Hithriel swallowed the bile that rose in her throat. "It... it should have happened that way. After the first time... I could not leave." She choked out. "I could not! Body and mind, hroa and fëa, bound together, like that of a Man's. Trapped." Her hands closed into fists. "I waited. Death should have come if I wished for it hard enough. But it did not." The tide of memory threatened to pull her under. "Then came the second time. And the third. And..." She turned her head. "Still, I lived. When..." Her voice broke.

Kalista maintained her silence, eyes fixed on the opposing wall. Her right hand closed and opened on a sword hilt, uncomfortable.

"The pain became too great," Hithriel said. "I could see no end to my suffering. Why wait for something that will not come? My spirit would find healing and peace in Mandos' Halls." She lowered her eyes and evened her tone, made it distant and factual. "I smuggled a piece of broken glass to my cell and... slashed my wrists with it."

Hithriel looked up, to Kalista, expecting a raised brow, a disgusted glance... but found a hint of anger there instead. At Galliano? Kalista nodded. Continue.

"My life blood drained away, the world sunk into darkness, until my eyes closed and my heart stopped beating." Hithriel clutched at the torn material of her shirt. "And there was nothing." Give me strength. "Nothing! No white shores in the distance, no glorious light to greet me. Just darkness." Kalista stiffened. "I was... gone."

A hesitant hand reached for her arm and then drew back. Good. Hithriel could not bear anyone touching her. Not now.

"Galliano... he brought me back," Hithriel said. And how she hated to owe him that. "Then he killed the woman that had tended my wounds after..." Hithriel shook her head. "She was a prisoner as well. She was kind." Hot blood had spurted from the woman's veins and hit her face. "Galliano said the next time I tried something as foolish, his punishment would be harsher than I could imagine." A bitter laugh escaped her. "I doubted it not, but that was not the reason I have clung to life with such ferocity ever since. I feared that nothingness more than anything he could do to me."

A long silence followed.

"I do not fear it now." Hithriel whispered. "I am home. The shores of Valinor beckon me and I long to heed their call."

Kalista bit her lower lip and looked Hithriel straight in the eye, for the first time since she began her tale. "Being dead reduces ones chances of rescue from slim to none." She shrugged. "I'm not overly fond of clichés, but where life is, there's hope." With a grim half smile, she added, "And revenge. There's always revenge."

I have neither strength, nor will left for it. "I do not ask you to do this if there is a chance of us leaving this place. Only when all hope is lost would I ask it of you. When there is no other choice."

A moment passed, then the woman nodded once. Hithriel smiled, relieved. "Thank you," she said -- and meant it.

"I wouldn't make any burial plans if I were you." Kalista's eyes narrowed, and she gave Hithriel a crooked smile in return. "It's in my best interest to keep you breathing." A pause followed. "So buckle up and trust me; we are getting out of here."

And back to Lothlorien. Let it be so.

A faint groan drew Hithriel's attention. She froze --the orc began to stir.

~ ~ ~

Eyes came open, blinking against the sudden light, unfocused. Rurbag touched his hand to the back of his head - it throbbed and pulsed - fingers came back smeared with dark blood. What had happened? In one, fast motion he rolled onto his back, mumbling curses under his breath when black spots danced before his eyes. The world spun around him, in a wild, energetic, whirling dance - like those of the Tarks he'd killed back east. Grunting, he tried to sit up, his head in his hands.

Something crashed into his chest, hard and fast, knocking the wind out of him -- knocking him down and holding him there. Rurbag's eyes snapped open, fixing on the pale - under all that sweet man-blood - face above him. His stomach lurched. A woman. A growl escaped him, and she pushed down with her knee, making his ribs bend. He held his breath, expelling it with a curse. A man-bitch had knocked him out! Hissing, Rurbag fought to get up, clawed fingers reaching for the leg that held him pinned to the ground. Before he could cut into the flesh of her thigh, a blade pressed against his throat, lifting his chin up.

The woman turned to her left. "What did he say?" she asked. "Do you understand him? Ask him how to get out." The tongue of Men - how he hated hearing it, spoken by either Men or Orcs. Rurbag followed her glance, to the far left and saw... By the Eye! An Elf-bitch. She stood in the shadows, shaking her head, lit by torch light. Pointed ears, with a mug that he just wanted to bash in. Otherwise, not much like the other she-elves he'd seen - killed, been in - that Tark had more stinkin' Elf-magic in him than she seemed to. Easy on the eyes, for an Elf. He wouldn't even have to look away when he rutted her. The pressure increased - pain made him refocus. Talk.

"I understand fine," Rurbag ground out, using Man-tongue. "A man-brat and a she-elf. I ain't tellin' you whelps nothin'."

More pressure and a feral smile, teeth barred. "There are two ways to do this," the woman drawled, "the easy way and the hard way. Now, the hard way involves torture, pain, and blood by the buckets."

Laughter bubbled up, beneath the surface. Did the slattern think to scare him? A knife's blade glimmered in the faint light a moment, then faded, disappearing from sight. Rurbag froze, breathless and still when the cold metal pressed against his crotch.

She continued, applying more pressure - above and below, "The easy way involves... less pain. The end result is the same. You are going to tell me what I need to know." Rurbag's abdomen clenched when the knife bit into the skin, just below his pelvis. "So what do you say we skip the interrogation and get straight to the good bits?" The knife circled and stopped just before... Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. "Before I get bored and do something... unpleasant."

Just tongue-wagging. It had to be. Swallowing, Rurbag forced himself to grin wide. "You ain't got the guts for that, girlie." Men -- cowards, the lot of them. Some of his confidence returned. "I'd wager my last piece of man-flesh you'd faint at the first sight of blood." If he had one. Slowly, the knife edged upwards and left his skin, proving him right. His grin turned honest. "You don't have the stomach for it." Slaves are not made for war. "Snaga nar baj lufut," he said, looking towards the she-elf. Her eyes were closed. Weak. He spat out, "That means you, elf-whore..."

Knuckles connected with his face, hitting his cheekbone once - Rurbag reeled back from the blow - catching his nose on the next swing. Broken again. The b*tch knew how to hit, he had to give her that. Strong too. She kicked him in the gut, hard, two times. Rurbag fought to breathe in.

Fingers brushed against his cheek, across a blood spatter. "That would be first blood," she said.

Fingers traced town, wrapped around his throat and tightened. Rurbag didn't fight back when she hauled him to his feet. Wait for it. She leaned in and down, until they were face to face. Rurbag shifted and growled; he hated how Men towered over him. But he'd taken all of them down a peg - taken them down by a head.

She came even closer. "How many of you inhabit this dank cave, and how do I avoid running into them?" Inches away.

Now. Hissing, he tried to bite at her cheek - she recoiled, faster than any man-brat had a right to be - teeth met with air, instead of tearing through flesh. The back of her hand connected with his temple; pain exploded, making his eyes water.

"What is this place?" she continued. "How do I," a pause, "...we get out?"

This place? Laughter escaped him. "Ha! The man-brat doesn't know where she is." Another bark of laughter. The best joke he'd heard in a decade. "You an' the Elf-bitch must 'ave been blind, deaf and dumb to wind up in the Black Pit without knowin' it."

A whisper, "The Black Pit..." The elf. "Moria!" An uncertain question followed. "Are we in the mines of Moria?"

Where else would you be, fool? Rurbag nodded - as close to a nod as he could manage with the harriden's hand wrapped around his throat. "Aye, wench. Moria. And don't think there ain't many of us here. Soon, they'll find you and then you'll be begging for..." Fingers tightened, cutting off his air supply, bruising, lifting him off the ground. He choked, feet flailing through the air, trying to find purchase - not finding any. She watched him, her eyes on his, while she squeezed the life out of him.

No. He wouldn't go out like this. Reaching out, he clawed at her, cutting a deep path down her arm.

The pressure disappeared, and he dropped to the ground. Before he could scramble to his feet, a knife pressed at the base of his throat - making a gurgling sound, he leaned back, the knife following him down.

The man-bitch punched him in the face, some of her blood smearing his cheek. "You may be right," she said. "They may find us." The blade cut into the skin - he stopped breathing. "But I don't see how that will mean much to you, considering you'll be maggot food by then." Moisture trickled down his throat. "You get me? How do I get out?"

Out? He couldn't get her out of Moria if he wanted to. To the west, the Tark and the wizard. To the north, Ufthak and the rest of his den - all itching for a taste of his blood. Buggered, anyway he looked at it. Rurbag started when the woman's hand wrapped around one of his fingers - then bit the inside of his cheek when she snapped it like a twig. He glanced up, a curse on his lips, and met her eyes. Pleasure at his pain shone in them; he'd seen it before.

Strange, for a man-bitch.

A shake of the head, a frown, and another flash of pain pierced his hand. Rurbag kept his mouth shut, biting down on his tongue. He hadn't screamed for Ufthak - he wouldn't scream for a stinkin' woman. And she'd broken two fingers of his left hand, not his right - foolish - he still could grip a blade and rip her insides out, like he did with the Tark's who'd captured him, years ago.

No, not the same.

The Tark had had a spark of fear in his eyes, while he sliced him for every question unanswered - but not fear of him. Speak now and let this be done, the eyes had said, let me kill you where you stand, quick and clean and have done with it. Rurbag had laughed and spat in the weakling's face after he'd killed him. No stomach for blood, that one.

The knife traveled down, to rest against his groin again. Rurbag looked down, then up to meet her eyes. No spark of fear there, no weakness of Men. This one had the stomach for blood - and she would have it, no doubt about it, for every question unanswered.

Buy time.

"You have some spunk in you for a tree-hugger, girlie," he said, his voice rising. It echoed inside the cavern. The knife cut into sensitive skin, and he lowered his voice to a whisper, swallowing a pained moan. "I know where to go, aye," he ground out between clenched teeth. "But there ain't no way you'll be getting to it just by my direction. I'd need to take you there."

A fist in the face answered him. "By all means," she hissed. His head snapped back from the blow. "Feel free to lead us to our gruesome deaths." She scraped her knuckle against his teeth on the next swing - he tasted her blood in his mouth. "How stupid do you think I am?"

Her blood distracted him. It tasted... strange. Unlike man, or elf-blood - and he'd had enough of both to know. Morgoth's balls! She may look like a man-bitch, but she wasn't one; no more than Rurbag was.

Rurbag managed to move his head before her foot made contact with his face, her patience with his silence running out. "You ain't got no other choice," he said, remembering not to shout. "You think you and the whelp can find your way out on your own? Ha! This is the Dark Pit, youngling, and it's called that for a reason. Even some of the Uruks get lost 'ere." The woman stilled, listening at last. "Take a chance on trustin' me, or die here in the dark." He shrugged. "It's up to you, manling."

The elf-bitch drew closer, reaching for the woman's arm. "You cannot trust him to guide our steps." A gesture his way, insulting in its elegance. "As surely as I stand here now, he will betray us." She shook her head, fine strands of silver hair flying about her, landing on her shoulders. The sparkle of mithril. How he hated it.

Rurbag caught the elf's eye and held it - she looked away first, taking a step back. She wouldn't last a night in the dens. "No one's talking to you, Lulgijak." Weak fool. Disgusted, he lunged at her, twisting out of the woman's grasp... for a moment. She caught hold of his shoulder and pushed him back down, that cursed blade at his throat again. He stopped moving, wary.

Gesturing to the elf with her head, she said, "My friend here has a point. Why should I trust you? And note that I feel like an idiot just for saying it."

Smart. Only an idiot would trust him. Rurbag shrugged, casting a dark glance towards the elf before answering. "The way I figure it, I'm dead either way. If I don't show you to the Gate, you kill me. If my den catches up with us, they'll kill me for bein' stupid enough to get ambushed by a stinkin' man-brat." Both true. More than he'd like.

The blade cut in deeper at the name, and he drew in a startled breath. "Go on." She didn't like being called that, it seemed. Too bad for her.

"For me to keep breathing, I need to get you two out of the mines," Rurbag breathed out. "You don't kill me and we'll be best mates till I shove you out of the Pit. Then you go your way and I go mine." She watched him, a frown on her face, unmarred cheek twitching. "How's that work for you, girlie?" he asked. He'd lead them on a merry chase down the mines and lose them there, somehow. Her eyes never left his face - trying to read him no doubt.

The hand gripping his shoulder moved, worming its way under the worn leather, fingers touching skin. It caused a twitch down below - that and the smell of her blood, the taste of it still fresh on his tongue. Rurbag sneered at her, amused for a moment. This one, he wouldn't want to look away when he rutted her. She'd scream curses at him, bite and claw. She'd last long in the dens. He looked forward to it.

The blow that followed came as no surprise - only a fool wouldn' be able to read that expression - he laughed through the pain. He'd live yet. "What will it be, then?" They had no other choice.

The silence stretched out. "Kalista..." the elf called. A hand rose, asking for silence. Another moment and, with an odd, unsure nod, the woman released him, backing up a step, looking down and to the side. A mumbled curse fell from her lips.

Rurbag stood up, stretching his limbs. Kalista... he'd still call her man-brat.

"All right." Kalista swallowed. "Lead the way. I'll be keeping both eyes on you." He didn't doubt it. "At the first sign of trouble, you're a corpse. Got it?"

The elf sagged, but said nothing.

Rurbag's hand reached for his throat, carefully tracing the cuts there. "Aye, wench. Got it."


~



Rurbag, as the orc named himself -- no one asked you, Kalista had said -- led them along a great column of steps. An hour had passed already, and Hithriel felt increasingly more uncomfortable in his presence. The dark stares he cast in her direction did not allay her apprehension. He had said it would take them at least two days to reach the bridge of Khazad-dum, with an exit to the west slopes of the mountains just beyond. They had to take the long way around to avoid running into any orc patrols. Hithriel saw the logic behind it, but loathed every extra minute she had to spend in his foul company because of it.

Kalista walked ahead, keeping a close eye on the orc. Before they began their journey through the mines, the woman had bound him with the same rope she had used to pull her up, out of the chasm. Holding onto one end, Kalista used it as a leash.

Suddenly, she turned to Hithriel with a puzzled expression. "How is it that Rurbag here speaks English?"

The question froze her in place, made her remember. "What do you mean? He is speaking Westron, as are you."

Now Kalista looked even more puzzled. "Listen, I know what language I'm speaking and it's English. How would I know this... Westron?"

But she did speak it, as if she'd been using it her whole life.

The orc looked down on them from one or the higher steps and spat out his comment on the subject. "It's the tongue of Men, man-brat. And don't act like you don't know it. I ain't speaking it just to give the likes of you a kick." He pulled on the rope around his neck. "Stop yankin' Rurbag's chain, or I go back to the Black Speech."

In place of an answer, Kalista yanked on the rope, hard, making Rurbag stumble backwards, falling down and landing at her feet. "For the last time," she growled, "don't call me man-brat. Get up."

He sneered at her, before continuing his climb up the steps. Falling back in step with Hithriel, not taking her eyes off his back, Kalista asked, "When you came to my world, did you think everyone was speaking your language?"

Hithriel shook her head, remembering. "No. I had no idea what anyone was saying. I had to learn English to be able to communicate." A remembered darkness passed over her face. "But when I did, I came to regret it."

Kalista glanced at her. "You spoke English remarkably well back there, for someone who had just a few months to learn it." She sounded disbelieving.

Hithriel shook her head and corrected her. "It took less than a month." At Kalista's frown, she rushed to explain. "Elves are natural learners when it comes to this. When we are forced to, we can learn a language in very little time." Hithriel's lips moved involuntarily, forming a small smile. "Ada... My father told me that, according to our legends, the first Elves were awakened by Eru Ilúvatar near the bay of Cuiviénen."

Hithriel smiled. "The first Elf to awake was called Imin. Next to him lay Iminyë, who would become his wife." She fell in the memory, into the easy rhythm of storytelling. She had inherited her father's love of history, but not his gift of bringing the stories of old to life. No matter.

"Near where Imin woke, awoke Tata and Tatië, and Enel and Enelyë. They walked through the forest and as they came across other Elves, all in pairs; they woke them and Imin claimed them as his people. In the end, they numbered hundred and forty-four Elves who dwelt long together, until all had learned the same language, and they were glad of it." She swallowed around the sudden lump that formed in her throat. "My father taught me much of Middle-earth's history."

Noticing that Kalista now simply looked more lost, she cringed and shook her head. "But hear me go on and on. Forgive me; I know well enough we have no time now to indulge in such matters. Suffice it to say, in the dawn of time, when the Firstborn awakened beneath the light of the stars that Elbereth in her mercy and wisdom had lit for us, we named ourselves Quendi, those who speak; for indeed, we were the first beings on the face of the Earth to utter a spoken word."

With a raised eyebrow, Kalista shrugged and walked faster, catching up to the orc.

Truly, I have not my father's gift. When Kalista glanced back, Hithriel gave her a real smile, amused by the thought.

Rurbag gestured at them to follow him through an arched gateway. Before Hithriel could move to reach it, Kalista caught her arm and stopped her in place.

"Be ready for anything." The woman glanced around, uneasy. "I have no idea what this guy is planning."

Hithriel frowned. "You cannot tell?" she asked. "I thought..."

Suddenly, Kalista looked troubled, more than Hithriel had ever seen her. "I don't know." Kalista's hand rose to rest at the back of her neck. "Even when I try, I get nothing." The other hand rose, to ward off any questions or interruptions. "I've tried. Believe me. I'm not even getting unconscious warnings. My instincts decided to go take a collective nap and left me to deal with all this. It's... strange." She shook her head and straightened. "Never mind. Just be on your guard."

Hithriel intended to be.

A shadow passed over Kalista's face - pain? - and her hand reached for the inside of her short coat, pausing mid-air. Her eyes glanced at Rurbag and Hithriel both, before she shook her head, as if answering a question. Her hand lowered to rest on her hip. It twitched there. Hithirel opened her mouth to speak, only to be cut off by a curt gesture. But Kalista's hand still reached up to touch the same spot as they walked, face pale, lips tight.

They passed the gateway, only to find the orc trying to cut the rope on a sharp piece of rock. Pulling him away with a jerk, Kalista stopped to smell the air. She stiffened.

"Someone's coming.", she said.

Rurbag glanced at her, appraising, cautious; his nostrils widened. He nodded, "Man-flesh. I smell it."

Hithriel backed into a corner, her heart fluttering in her chest. Whether these men were friend or foe, she did not know, but was not eager to find out. Rurbag had told them all of the dwarves who had inhabited the place had been slaughtered. None remained here now but servants of darkness. The likelihood of finding allies in the pits of Moria seemed slim indeed.

Kalista placed a finger on her lips, commanding silence and retreated into the shadows, unsheathing her blade. The orc crouched behind a boulder and, surprisingly, made no attempt to escape. Darkness swooped in after Kalista doused the torch, their only source of light.

Moments passed, and soon, rushed steps could be heard. Soft white light filled the corridor, and a shape appeared on the path. A dark haired man, his weapon drawn, others following in his steps. How many? Hithriel tried to mold herself into the wall and closed her eyes.

The sound of metal hitting metal startled her, and Hithriel jumped, opening her eyes with a start. The stranger's and Kalista's blades locked together, both tried to gain the upper hand, then broke away. As the rest of the stranger's companions appeared, they advanced on the woman. None noticed Hithriel or the orc.

Wait... Hithriel's heart froze in her chest... Oh! ... and resumed its rapid beat when a figure with a cloud of blond hair similar to her own stepped into the line of sight. Oh! He turned in her direction, and their eyes met. Shock filled his; hers filled with tears.

An elf! The first one she had seen in what seemed like an eternity.

Disregarding caution and common sense, Hithriel flew to him and wrapped her arms around him. He stiffened at first, muscles coiling beneath the smooth - Elven - fabric of his cloak, but placed a hesitant hand on her hair and spoke. Soft words that flowed like water, lilted by the musical tones of her people - spoken in Sindarin. At the sound of her own tongue being spoken, her resolve crumbled.

Hithriel gradually became aware she was repeating something over and over again.

"Take me home. Take me home..."

~


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

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Author: Pen 52

Status: Beta

Completion: Work in Progress

Rating: General

Last Updated: 07/02/07

Original Post: 06/06/06

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