To The End of Night
6. A hole in one
Aragorn turned to his left, blocking a blow from behind. On the return swing, he held back, not attacking with his full strength. Andúril against two long knives. The fight should have ended as soon as it had begun - no matter how sharp, how quick the knives...or the woman that wielded them. Who was she, this woman who stepped out of the shadows, weapons drawn?
Aragorn jumped back, narrowly avoiding a knife in the gut. Apparently, she had no intention of holding back. Another swift slash. When he straightened, they both paused and eyed each other, weapon in hand - his pointing down.
If we continue this for much longer, blood will be shed.
"No." He breathed out. "Lay down your weapon." A wounded woman stood before him - Aragorn had no desire to end her life here and now. "There is no need for this."
She remained still and silent; perhaps considering his proposal...
A cry echoed through the chamber. "Orc!" Gimli. A glance confirmed it - a... bound? ..creature hid behind a large boulder on Aragorn's right. A woman, with a bound orc in tow? He'd never heard of such a tale, even as a drunken jest. Faster then he could react, the strange woman pushed past him, making him sway back, his balance lost, and ran towards the boulder - towards Gimli and the orc.
Recovering quickly, Aragorn followed, Boromir a step behind him.
Just as Gimli made to cleave the orc in half, the woman collided with the dwarf... To save an orc? Confusion flooded him at the thought. Both of them tumbled down the gateway, intertwined. Aragorn came to a halt just before a great column of steps, a foot away from the two. The woman jumped on her feet and faced both Aragorn and Boromir - unarmed, while they had their weapons drawn and ready. Gimli climbed to his feet as well, axe in hand.
It is done. Aragorn opened his mouth to speak.
The woman allowed her shoulders to slump and relaxed her stance to a degree. "Let this day be over." The tired, whispered words had an edge of anger to them.
For whatever reason, Aragorn felt unnerved by the sound of her voice. Inexplicably, shivers ran up and down his spine. Ignoring the sensation, he said, "Who are you?"
She remained silent, her eyes narrowing - undoubtedly searching for a way to escape.
A voice - Gandalf - rang out, clear and commanding. "Young woman, why do you attack us? I bid you, stop this folly and let us speak before you come to harm."
Gandalf stood beneath a high arch, one hand gripping the back of the orc's neck, holding him down, while the other held Glamdring at his throat. A few paces behind him... By the One! ...Legolas, a hand on a trembling woman's shoulder, her forehead pressed against his chest. Aragorn felt his brow furrow. Another woman in the Black Pit! This day did not lack for surprises.
"We need not be at odds," Gandalf continued.
The hobbits cluttered together, back in the hallway, their small weapons drawn, looking as confused as Aragorn felt at the moment. Who this other woman was and from whence she came, he could not even venture a guess at.
The first woman, the warrior, took a step forward. "Hithriel," she called.
Mist wreathed maiden... she tensed at the sound and her head turned slowly, until her profile became visible. Aragorn's eyes followed the delicate line of her jaw, taking note of the bruise that covered half of her cheek. He paused in his examination when he finally reached the curve of her ear. The pointed tip of it parted the dirty strands of her tangled, unkempt hair. An... elleth? Aragorn felt disbelief welling up. What misfortune could have brought her to the mines of Moria? She looked tired, worn down and battered - mortal to his eyes.
Elven or mortal, she was naught but a child.
Drawing a shuddering breath, she buried her head back into Legolas' chest, not saying a word. Aragorn glanced at Legolas in askance briefly, his mind wrought with questions he had no answer to -- the elf's gaze held pity and confusion both, in equal measure. No answers could be found there.
A foul voice caught Aragorn's attention. And held it. "Soddin' weakling. All she does is cry an' moan. Don't know why you put up with 'er, man-brat," the orc spat, with obvious contempt.
The wizard pressed the blade down harder - a gesture of warning. Black blood began to well up on the dark skin of the orc's neck. The beast hissed and, unwisely, made to speak again.
Without turning around, the woman Aragorn had fought moments before cut the orc off. "I'd shut up now if I were you, Rurbag." After a pause, she added, "Don't call me man-brat." Angry, clipped tones.
Those two were on familiar terms. Aragorn feared as much. His jaw clenched at the thought of anyone stooping as low as to make alliances with orcs - if indeed that was the case here. A servant of the Enemy or... a captive?
Aragorn fixed his gaze on her - gravely wounded, by the look of her, but she had shown little or no sign of pain. And yet, dried blood covered almost every inch of her. The gaping wound on her cheek - is that bone showing? - was terrible to behold. Aragorn examined it with a healer's eye - it would leave a formidable scar when healed... if it healed.
Disturbed, he looked away. Signs of battle were not a burden meant for women to bear - even for a servant of Sauron.
Boromir echoed his thoughts, "You ally yourself with the orc?" His eyes narrowed.
The woman turned to regard him, ice in her gaze. "I'm not allying myself with anyone," she said. "I just want out of this hell-hole." Her gaze traveled across the camber to where Gimli stood. "By the description I got before, you would be a..." she frowned, "a dwarf. Correct?"
"Who are you, woman, that I should answer you?" Gimli asked, stepping forward. "And who would not know a dwarf when he sees one?"
The woman spun back and faced the orc. "You lying son of a bitch." The words came out in a heated growl. "I thought you said all the dwarves here were dead and rotting." Gimli froze, at rigid attention. "What else did you lie about?" she asked.
Aragorn took a steadying breath. They were dead, then - Balin and his people. He had suspected as much, though he had held out hope, for Gimli's sake. A silent prayer, Valar, give them peace, and Aragorn let his eyelids flutter open.
Gimli stood, silent and unmoving for a long moment before he spoke. "Dead?" No hope in his voice, but the ring of truth being said out loud. "Be careful what you say. The words may mean little to you, but they mean much to me. What fate befell my kin?" His voice shook with awakening rage.
Gimli's kin... Aragorn swallowed. Were they buried within these ancient halls, or did they rot in orcisch belies? He shook the thought away.
After an uneasy glance the orc's way - Aragorn felt nausea rising up in the pit of his stomach - the woman said, "You need to ask him that," a pointing gesture, "not me." Her hand rose to rest on her forehead, fingers kneading the right temple - she frowned and shook her head.
Gimli's voice rose - anger seeped in, fighting its way past the shock. "Did you take part in their deaths?"
She tensed at the words, her muscles coiled and ready to spring. Ready to attack.
Gandalf's voice rang out, "You are considering something quite foolish. Do not take this path."
Several moments passed before the woman relaxed her stance. Boromir stood beside Gimli and placed a hand on his shoulder - the dwarf stilled and turned his head. Good. Aragorn had no wish to see the woman's blood spilled.
To Aragorn's ears, the answer that followed seemed laced with equal parts of fatigue and contempt, "I suppose this is the part where I decide to take a blind leap of faith and throw myself at your mercy, old man," she said, her voice a mere whisper by the end. She swayed to the right, and her eyes closed. For a moment, it looked as if she was about to fall down. Beneath the blood, her face paled, as white as a sheet.
Would she lose consciousness? Perhaps that would be best.
She shook herself and focused once more. "That sound about right?"
Gandalf gave her a smile -- not one Aragorn would have cared to receive -- and nodded. "I believe that would be correct, yes. And then you would do well to answer some of our questions. Undoubtedly, there will be many. I admit to being curious about your presence here."
"You and me both, mage," she answered.
Mage? What an odd expression.
When no further explanation followed, Gimli spoke up. "Speak plainly woman," he growled, fuming. "Or suffer our wrath. You say that these halls are filled with the bodies of my kin, slaughtered by the very filth you would protect." His voice lowered, at the end, then rose again. "My heart knows this to be true. I would have this orc, if not all, answer for it, sooner rather then later!" Gimli pointed with his axe. "I warn you, do not come between me and my vengeance again, or your life will be forfeit."
The woman showed no reaction. She held herself unnaturally still.
Gimli took a step forward. "Speak and be quick about it," he said. "My patience wears thin."
"Listen," she said. "Nothing I can..." A sudden change overtook her, then, and her knees buckled. Closing her eyes, as if in pain, she doubled over. A pained sound escaped her.
Aragorn caught himself taking a step towards her.
She slumped down, to her hands and knees, then sat back, leaning on her haunches after taking a few deep breaths. Aragorn glanced to the side - the orc smiled, sharp teeth showing. The elleth, Hithriel, gave no sign she was aware of what was happening.
"You don't mind if I take a breather, do you?" The woman's voice was hoarse, breathless, with a faint note of... panic? ...underlining it. Something more then mere exhaustion... but what? Whatever it was, it made all Aragorn's hairs stand on end.
Her head swayed to the side; she braced herself by placing her left hand on the ground. Aragorn took a step forward, despite his doubts. She was in need of aid. And he would not deny any woman healing -- not if it was within his power to give, no matter her loyalties.
"Stop," she bit out. "Don't... don't come any closer."
Aragorn pressed on. "I will not hurt you. Your wounds are many and will end your life if left untended. I would try and heal what ails you." Whether he would be successful or not... well, that remained to be seen.
No response. Both her elbows rested on the ground, supporting her weight, hands clenching and unclenching. Small tremors shook her upper body. A moment passed and Aragorn found himself standing beside her. He paused to cast a glance back - Frodo kept his distance, Sting drawn, but held loosely in his hand.
Boromir's voice cautioned, "Be on your guard. This could be mere trickery."
The sound of Gimli's steps, moving towards him, reached his ears. "Aye, keep your distance lad," he said, "Something is not right here, I would wager my axe on it."
Aragorn agreed with them. He should approach her with caution, yes, but he could not stand idle in the face of her pain. Pity drowned out the warning resounding in his mind, silenced it to a whisper. Aragorn dropped to one knee beside her and placed a hesitant hand on her shoulder, feeling the muscles in her back tense at the contact. She shifted away from the touch. Strands of dark hair clung to her face, coated in dried blood. Did she fear him?
"Get away..." she rasped out, "fool..." and fell silent, as if she choked on the word. But her hand reached out to him and clutched his arm.
With the touch, the wariness returned, insistent. He chose to set it aside, for the moment, and focused on the task at hand. Perhaps I am a fool. An old woman of the Haradrim, toothless and half-blind, had called him that, years ago, after he had offered healing to her grandson.
"My kin is desert-born," she had said, a weathered hand gripping his arm, "at home in the blistering sun." She had not lied -- Aragorn had found them, her and the boy, on the edge of the desert, alone and unconcerned. Her Westron had been distorted, altered to suit the speech patterns of her people. "Most at home in the heat of battle." Her whitened eyes had turned on him, unseeing. "Why would a son of Gondor heal a son of the desert?"
Son of Gondor. The name had caught Aragon by surprise. How had she known?
"He may be a green youth, now, but he will grow." Her toothless smile had spread with the words. "There will be wars in the years to come. Your life may end on his blade yet."
Aragorn had nodded, "That could be his fate," and kneeled next to the boy, palm of his hand touching dusky skin, lips murmuring elven words of healing.
"Fool..." the old woman had said, before turning her face away, tears streaming down her face.
Shaking off the memories, Aragorn focused on the wounded woman beside him. He placed a cautious hand beneath her chin, tilting her face up. "Gimli, take what healing herbs and bandages you can find," he said. His eyes narrowed, fingers probing at swelling on her jaw, away from the open wound. The amount of dried blood on her cheek made it impossible to determine the true extent of the injury. He would have to clean that wound first.
As he leaned in to get a better view, she kept her eyes closed, but took a deep breath... sniffing at the air. A deep, rumbling growl escaped her. Aragorn tensed, muscles tightening. The warning hum in his mind turned into an echoing scream.
No one descended from the race of Man could produce such a sound.
Aragorn pushed back and jumped to his feet. Her eyes snapped open.
She moved - too fast - and fell upon him before he could even take a single step back. Before his hand could wrap around the hilt of Andúril. Fool. Arms wrapped around him; a vice like grip, preventing any movement. Legs intertwined with his, pushing him down to his knees. All in the space of his one sharp intake of breath. Fear seeped in, past the shock -- he struggled, but she pressed down harder on his right elbow. Pain shot through him. She twisted his leg at the knee with her own. Cold lips touched his skin - Aragorn froze -- her cheek resting in the crook of his neck. He felt her take a deep breath of him and expel it, but no moist heat reflected against his skin, no warmth and vibrancy of life.
Only the steady pressure of the points of her teeth.
~ ~ ~
Waiting for an audience with Galliano left him plenty of time to think.
It could be worse.
Careful to keep his expression blank, Darius glanced to the side, towards a massive oak door. On both sides, two guards stood watch, unmoving - former familiars, turned vampires. Both bound to Galliano by the strongest blood oath Darius could find.
Oaths had power, these days.
The thought of forcing his way in left him; he sank back into the chair, shifting to find a comfortable position. He couldn't get pass them if he tried - or so he hoped. Guard him, he'd said, even against me.
If they didn't, there'd be hell to pay.
It could be worse... No. What was the point of denying it? He was screwed, no doubt about it. Why else would Galliano keep him waiting this long? Worried, Darius kneaded his left shoulder, working out a kink there, and shifted again. Under his breath, he bit out a curse. The chairs in this area offered little in creature comforts - calculated intent, rather than foresight. Still nothing. Leaning back, he spared another glance for the two guards - quick, deadly... and mute from birth. He'd chosen them most for the last quality. Cutting a guard's tongue out every few days would have become tiresome.
When will he ask for me?
The guard on the left, Eras, scratched at a long, white scar on his forearm - the scar Darius had carved into his skin, as a child, to tell him apart from his brother, Tyro - weapon pointing down, the hilt in a loose hold. Eras blinked twice, then his eyes drifted closed... and stayed that way.
Darius swallowed the growl that rose in his throat. Like a bumbling novice, while an armed man sits not five feet away. He counted - one, two seconds. He could have been half-way across the room. Three - Eras still looked like he was dosing off - he could have pried the weapon from Eras' hand, and broken it for good measure. Four... five...Only one question remained; would Eras' head have bounced off the floor an inch, or two?
Jaw clenching, Darius forced himself to sit still. It seemed that, this night, people insisted on forgetting all he taught them - some more so than others.
Kal... Fool girl.
Darius shook his head. "Guard," he called, his eyes narrowing. "Mind your duty."
Eras' eyes snapped open. He straightened, at rigid attention, the hold on his weapon tightening - five long seconds too late. Before Darius could say anything, Eras dropped to one knee, head bowed, while his brother signed his regret.
Gods below, help us. Now, they were both distracted. Darius fought to reign in his temper. Old habits died hard, true, and these two brats had answered to him alone all their adult lives. He couldn't fault them for it.
Until the next time.
"Up, Eras." Darius rose with the words, hand gesturing. "See the enemy, when you look my way tonight, not the Clan's second." Closer to the truth than he'd like, after his failure.
Tyro signed -- I hear and obey -- then placed a hand on a weapon hilt. Eras straightened and climbed to his feet. Both brothers watched him now, with a single-minded intensity. Better.
A sudden hum of the intercom, "Let him in." Darius' stomach dropped to his heels. Galliano.
The brothers stood aside, weapons still in hand, as the door soundlessly swayed outwards, soft yellow light illuminating the darker corridor. Darius took an unneeded breath. He had sat there for what seemed hours upon hours, impatient and eager to speak - why did his feet refuse to move now? Yet... Galliano had never kept him waiting before. An unfamiliar fear gnawed at him. Could this one failure erase all the years - centuries - of service?
Years of... He chose not to finish that thought.
Fortune favors the brave. At least, that's what he used to say so to a troublesome girl he'd trained. The same woman that had cost him his word tonight. The smile that came to his lips died, hollow. His word - given to Galliano. Stepping forward, Darius offered a silent prayer to whatever god would listen.
He moved past an old statue and a weapon stand, cluttering the hallway, past the touch-sensitive trap to place his hand on another door frame - carved, ancient wood encircling cold metal, still closed, a rotating camera over the frame. Galliano watched him, no doubt - Darius bowed his head, his arms crossed over his chest, subservient, for the first time in decades. Perhaps a show of submission will soften him. Seconds of dense silence passed - perhaps not - before the door opened to reveal a dimly lit room. Darius' nostrils flared up at the scent - it reeked of sex... and blood.
"You are late," Galliano's voice sounded out just as a female sob echoed through the room.
Late! Darius quenched the quick stirring of his temper. "My apologies, friend..." A raised eyebrow made Darius reconsider the familiar term. "...my lord." Entering the room, he forced himself into an awkward bow again. Was this deference, then, what Galliano wanted? "I was... delayed." An edge of sarcasm sneaked into his tone against his will.
Galliano sat across from him, naked and blood stained, sprawled over a large leather chair. A girl, a familiar Darius didn't recognize stood before him. Stood... hung from the ceiling, truth be told, her wrists chained together, toes brushing the floor. Good. Galliano had worked out some frustration already.
"You have my prize, then?" Galliano asked, hand reaching out to trace idle patterns on the girl's waist, deceivingly gentle. Chains rattled as she tried to shift away, eyes squeezed shut, breath rapid. "My captain." He continued, "He who never fails."
Darius recognized the tone, much to his regret - a cat stalking a mouse. He swallowed, a foul taste in his mouth. "You know I don't," he said, keeping his voice steady. Galliano had played these damned games with others through the years, made proud men cower and beg, or lash out in anger. But never with him. Not once. Darius took another step forward, throat tight.
"Do I?" Galliano asked. "I've heard..." a pause, "rumors." He rose with the words. "Rumors of how you offered a traitor a deal." Anger - acted or real? - seeped into his voice. "And lost the prize for it." Galliano stepped back, behind the girl. "I've heard rumors." His voice changed. "Rumors, or truth?"
Darius forced himself to remain still. Jack, you son of a bitch. Apparently, the bastard didn't have the decency to stay dead. He and Jack had been the only two to leave that warehouse alive - one survivor too many. A snapped neck later, and the count came down to one. If he only had time to set the body on fire, before the police arrived. Inefficient and sloppy -- consistent with everything else he did tonight.
"They... he lied." His word against Jack's. The word of a conniving rat with a mind the size of a walnut, and the guts of a below-average courageous sheep. The rat was actually telling the truth this one time, but... The silence stretched on. Galliano couldn't take Jack's word over his. After years of...
"Who do you serve?" Galliano's tone betrayed nothing, and the girl's body hid his expression from sight.
Darius felt anger flaring up again. "You, my lord, and your father before you. All my life." What kind of a dense question was that? Who had stood beside him when the Clans had called for his death? Who had cleared his name... lied for him that night and every night after that? Sentenced a friend to death for him?
Kal... Fool girl.
Galliano echoed his thoughts, "You hope for her, still." A hand rose up, over the girl's bruised shoulder, to ward off interruptions. Darius clamped his mouth shut. "Misguided feelings wasted on a traitor. A failed experiment. Don't deny it."
He didn't plan on it. "It never stopped me from doing what had to be done," Darius bit out, lying through his teeth - to Galliano, for the first time in his memory. Why he gave her that chance, he didn't understand himself. With Galliano and the Clans both after her, Kal was ashes in the wind, running on borrowed time. "She wasn't the target. I had to compromise." Darius bit his lip - a mistake, telling Galliano that.
Ice crept into Galliano's eyes, warm brown giving way to green. "She is always a target."
Darius nodded, looking away - he couldn't deny it. The heads of the Clans hunted Kal for revenge, to honor the memory of their dead fathers -- because of a lie -- to hold back the wrath the gods. Abomination, they called her. Galliano hunted her to keep the truth from coming out. We... I made her that way.
The wrath of the gods - he and Galliano had shared a chuckle over the concept, once. Long ago. As it turned out, the gods did not share their view. Either way, Kal's days were numbered, over, no mater what Darius would wish for.
Galliano's hand traced the girls left cheek. "There is a fine line between compromise and betrayal." The dismissive tone stung more than the words themselves. Galliano stepped back, towards the back wall and shook his head. "What will your next compromise be, I wonder? When the other Clans sweep down on us."
When the truth comes out, he means. Darius' temples throbbed, his hands curled into fists. Enough of submission for one day. "Did you fall and hit your head by any chance, my lord?" Unable to remain still, he stepped forward, temper rapidly rising to the surface. "The stream of nonsense coming from your mouth implies it."
Galliano leaned back against the wall and remained silent.
Shoving the girl out of the way, Darius walked past the leather chair and stood facing him. "Have my head, if that's what you want, but don't..." A traitor! Him!
The girl emitted a pained moan.
"Don't toy with me," Darius said. They had shared too much, for too long for that.
Silence, except... Would she stop that moaning? It got on his already high-strung nerves.
Galliano's eyes met his... the ice left them. "Stream of nonsense..." Head thrown back, he let out a... laugh? "Took you long enough."
Darius frowned. What the hell?
Straightening, Galliano pushed away from the wall and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I said that I heard rumors." A slow shake of the head followed the words. "I never said I believed them."
A moment passed, before the whole trice-damned meaning sunk in. "This is your idea of a joke?" Darius bristled, torn between relief and anger. "You son of a..."
A warning. He'd crossed a line again - nothing he hadn't done before. Darius plowed ahead. "What about Jack?" Alive, he would always be a threat. Human, turned familiar, turned vampire - once a traitor, always a traitor.
A finger, covered in dried blood, pointed to a low table next to the leather chair. A burial urn rested on it, glinting silver in the dim light. "He shook my faith in you." The whispered words trailed away. "For a moment."
Five steps to the table - the ticking of an old clock over the bed, second after second, marked each one. The soft carpet rustled beneath Darius' feet.
On his third step Galliano said, "Simple death didn't seem punishment enough for that."
Darius leaned in, one hand tracing the spiraling letters carved into the urn, the fingers of the other lifting the equally carved lid. A part of him shuddered. The water curse - he knew what he would see inside. He lowered the lid and drew back, fingers spread.
"We called it a superstition, once."
Darius turned to see Galliano walk towards him. "That was before," he answered. Before the Awakening. Before the sacrifices and the Temple. Before the Night of the thirteen stars.
The night of the thirteen deaths, he called it. One of that thirteen, he regretted.
Galliano nodded. "Words, symbols.. They have power, now." He grimaced. "No," a pause, "They've always had." He walked pass the table, white skin gleaming in the lamp light. "My father believed it." A bitter laugh rang out and bounced off the walls. "And I mocked him for it."
Darius remembered it. "You weren't alone in that," he said. Why hadn't they listened? "Drowning a traitor's ashes - I used to think it an empty gesture, no more. A symbol." Before. He swallowed. "Will you send this to the Temple?" An offering.
A slow smile. "Why not?" Galliano leaned back against the wall, one leg bent at the knee, foot touching the wall. "Let the Robes have what's left of his soul." His left hand rested on his thigh. "It will have nothing to offer them."
True. Jack hadn't been included in their current plans - and he knew nothing about the night that now seemed so long ago. Had it only been two years?
"Besides, the gesture is bound to keep them confused for days." Satisfaction in his tone. "Petty revenge, but I'll take what little I can get." Galliano's fingers began to kneed at the flesh of his own thigh, working upwards.
Darius' eyes traced the lines of his body - all too familiar a sight after all these years - smooth skin stretched over lean muscle. Supremely confidant. Commanding. Galliano could issue orders naked and make others feel over-dressed.
Darius loved him for it.
A sigh followed. "Tell me about the girl."
A tinge of panic sneaked back in. "I couldn't rebind her soon enough."
"I know that much." Impatience.
Fighting his unease, Darius shifted. "It was a mistake to give your little protégé the Anchor. Too young, untrained still. She broke formation and went after Kal..." Galliano's hands curled into fists - he reconsidered. "...after the traitor, instead of going for the girl. Bri was a glory-hound, going for the kill that would up her rank. She failed." A snort threatened to burst out. Like she could do anything but fail. Kal could have handed Bri her head with both hands tied behind her back. A surge of pride accompanied the thought - a habit of years past, never unlearned.
Darius continued, "It all went down-hill from there." It wouldn't have, though -- if he hadn't allowed his feelings to get in the way. "They're both gone."
Galliano said, "Let the bitch rot there." The words came out in a growl. "If the gods are kind, she's dead already."
Silence. Did Galliano expect him to agree? Darius breathed in - took in the heady aroma of blood, sex and the girl's fear. It centered him in the moment.
Five more ticks of that old clock, and Galliano shook his head, laughed. Bitter, unforgiving. "When have the gods ever been kind?" He'd had a different laugh, once. Before. "She's out of the Clans' reach, at least." He made a dismissive gesture. "And the girl..." Frowning, Galliano said, "What did she say her name was?"
Darius searched his memory. "Hithriel," he remembered.
"She served her purpose. Let her crawl back home and enjoy the little time she has left." Galliano pushed back from the wall and started back towards the leather chair. "The reports came in."
Darius froze, mid-step. "How long?" he asked. How long until the other Clans force their hand.
"A week. Two at most." The leather creaked as Galliano sank back into the chair. "The Robes are pushing for an attack. I don't know how long Maira can hold them back."
Their spies - one for each Clan - had proved trustworthy during the years. Maira Cattaro most of all. Though, he couldn't quite call the head of the Cattaro Clan a spy. There was no reason to start to doubt her now. "Are we ready?" Darius asked.
"Almost." Galliano's hand reached out towards the girl. This time, she didn't flinch away. "Unbind her."
Feet moved to obey - another habit - before Darius could even think to stop them. The girl moaned when he unshackled her left wrist.
Galliano continued, "Some of our... guests are recovering. It looks promising. Harrison swore on his mother's grave and on his daughter's life that he would have the antidote ready in time."
When the other shackle fell to the floor with a clink of metal, the girl sagged into Darius' arms. He picked her up, her face resting in the crook of his neck - she weighed less than a drowned rat.
A chuckle rang out in the silence. "His mother is alive and kicking, just so you know." Darius could hear the smirk in his voice. "And his daughter... he would sell her out in half a breath." A pause. "Less than that."
The girl stiffened in Darius' arms. Something moist tickled his skin - tears - at the same time as a hand, gentle at the moment, wound into her hair. Galliano. Darius hadn't heard him get up. His other hand came to rest on Darius's hip.
"In fact, he already did." His other hand came to rest on Darius's hip. "Isn't that right, sweetheart?"
The girl's eyelids fluttered; Darius felt her eyelashes tickle his skin. What kind of a weakling betrays his own flesh and blood? And Galliano trusted this man? It had to be said. "What incentive did you give him, then?"
"He sat for an hour... and watched the Ferals feed." Galliano's hand traced upwards and kneaded the flesh of his lower back. "He's been quiet ever since, and focused on his work."
Darius leaned back, into the touch. Tingling heat spread out, from his stomach down to his toes. Didn't he have something else to report? "Rayna's dead." An afterthought.
"The night hasn't been a complete waste, then."
Darius turned to see Galliano smile down on the girl - ruthless, hungry, downright cruel.
Darius loved him for that, too.
~ ~ ~
Aragorn held himself still. The pressure on his collarbone and on his left knee wouldn't allow for much else. A tongue, cold and moist, licked at the new sweat at the crook of his neck. What was she doing? Teeth scratched skin. A mad-woman! She shifted, and, with new energy, Aragorn tried to break free. She shook against him, once and gripped him tighter - painfully so. No woman could be as strong as this.
"Release him!" Legolas' voice. "Lad!" Gimli.
Steps rang out, teeth grazed his pulse point again, and the stem of time slowed to a trickle. The pressure turned to pain. "Release me," Aragorn bit out, keeping the uncertainty he felt out of his voice. More approaching footsteps, maddeningly slow. The sound of orcish laughter rang in his ears.
Then, a female voice rang out. "Kalista!" At the sound, she froze, her grip on him weakening. As her left hand slid off his shoulder, no longer bruising, Aragorn pushed forward, making her tumble back.
He flew to his feet, hand gripping the hilt of Andúril. half a breath, the blade pressed against her throat.
"Strider," Frodo called, suddenly beside him. "Are you injured?" The hobbit sounded uncertain.
Aragorn shook his head, out of breath. His gaze remained fixed on the woman's form. When Frodo made to step in front of him, Aragorn held him back, free hand extended. Not by his folly would the Fellowship fail.
Boromir spoke up, "Did I not warn you?" His had his weapon drawn as well. "There is something amiss with this woman."
Gimli nodded in silent agreement. "Aye, that may be true," the dwarf said, a thoughtful look on his face. "But what exactly did she try and do to you, lad? Besides try and cuddle you to death?"
He knew not - Aragorn's free hand rose to trace his neck - she'd caused him no injury to speak of. He glanced at the weapon in his hand. Is this truly necessary? In spite of his doubt, Aragorn did not remove the blade, or eyed the woman less warily.
A shout, "My lord!" The elleth, Hithriel, tore away from Legolas and stepped towards him. "Do not harm her. I beg you. She is not herself." Sindarin, spoken in a voice raspy from disuse.
"No harm will befall her," Gandalf said, walking into Aragorn's line of sight, no longer guarding the orc. "Unless she attacks one of us again." Gandalf's eyebrows knitted closer together. "She is not herself? What do you mean, child?"
Hithriel gnawed on her lower lip, hesitant. "She..." the words trailed off, when...
Aragorn cursed under his breath. The woman pushed back, cutting her chin on the tip of his blade - a shallow cut. When he made to step towards her, her hand rose - the gesture half a plea, half a warning.
"Stop," she croaked out. Crouching, a step away, she reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a small vial. From her other pocket, she drew a... device? Metal and... glass? The two items connected and, with fast, jerky motions, she pressed it against the side of her neck. To what end? A small hissing sound later, liquid disappeared from the vial.
"What is she doing?"
Pippin's voice, close by. Aragorn turned to warn him away. When he turned back, the woman's whole face was contracted in pain. A sound, a low note of pain escaped her. Body jerking, she leaned on her hands, spiting out blood. She bit down on her tongue, most likely. Not looking up, she groaned and rested her forehead against the ground.
The elleth ran past Aragorn to couch beside the woman, a hand reaching out to touch her back, then pulling back. Aragorn did not blame her. "You will be well," she whispered, straightening. With a glance Legolas' way, she faced Aragorn and nodded. "I am Hithriel of L?rien." In Sindarin, still.
The Golden Wood! Even if the mines of Moria were but a short distance from its borders, Aragorn had never heard of an L?rien elf venturing past the Dimril Dale.
Frowning, she shook her head and said, "I am called Hithriel."
Westron, now. Lilted with hints of elven tongue. She spoke it well.
She pointed down. "My companion is known as Kalista." There was no reaction from the woman - most likely unconscious. Aragorn felt his brow furrow. Should be check her breathing, her pulse? A healer's instinct. No. Not yet.
Hithriel continued, "We have wandered into Moria unwittingly and have need of your aid and protection. Will you grant it?"
Legolas came to stand beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder -- something Aragorn expected. "Mae govannen. I eneth nín Legolas o Eryn Galen. Fear not, child. You will have what aid we can offer you. Once we are out of the mines, we will see you to Lothl?rien. We are bound there as well."
Eryn Galen. It was not how elves now called the once fair realm of Legolas' birth. Taur-e-Ndaedelos, they called it now. Mirkwood. Men called by the same name: Taur-nu-Fuin. The great forest in Rhovanion had been fouled - at least in part, the shadow of Dol Guldur still upon it. War will come to Thranduil's realm, soon. Something that Legolas was all too aware of, he knew.
Hithriel bowed again, a tremor in her voice. "Hannon le, hîr nín. I had hoped you would say such. I am in your debt."
Legolas inclined his head, acknowledging her thanks. "There is no debt. Even had you not asked it of us, we would have delivered you back to Cerin Amroth, and to the Galadhrim." An appraising look. "You are young, yet." Legolas looked away, a frown on his face.
More than merely young - she looked to be a mortal child. Almost, but for a weak, yet undeniable spark of light - the life of the Eldar. Aragorn could not miss it - could not forget it. For the better part of his youth, he had been surrounded by it.
Legolas sheathed a knife. "Too young. How do you find yourself braving these depths?" he asked. "And in such strange company." Decidedly pointed looks in the direction of both the kneeling woman and the orc accompanied the question.
"Strange company indeed," said Gandalf. "I have been called by many names in my long years, but you may call me Gandalf." Aragorn saw Hithriel's eyes widen at the statement. "We would all introduce ourselves, but courtesies such as those take time. Time better spent in pursuit of a tale." Shadows danced on the walls as he gestured with his staff. "A tale of how all this came to pass." He leaned back, against the wall. "We will listen."
Hithriel looked down, towards the woman. "How I came to be here?" Her back straightened. "It is a strange tale. Stranger, I fear, then even one of your years and wisdom will care to entertain, Mithrandir." At his raised eyebrow, she smiled and explained, "What elfling has not heard of the Grey Pilgrim? The Valar must watch over me indeed if the first Company I crossed paths with after my return happened to be under your wise leadership." A respectful incline of the head. "I am most grateful for it."
The orc made a disgusted sound. "Sure, elf-bitch. I recon the high and mighty Valar 'ave nottin' better to do then watch you pussyfooting about. And I've heard a thing or two 'bout your 'Grey Pilgrim'. The way Sharkey says it, he's nottin' but a stinkin' pile of..." Boromir yanked hard at the rope that was tied around the orc's neck. It tightened -- the beast choked and fell silent.
After a moment of silence, Hithriel said, "What I am about to tell you will seem strange, improbable at best, a lie at worst, but I assure you, 'tis nothing but the truth. I beg you, my good lords, stay your judgment on the matter 'til you hear the tale in full."
"Speak, child," Gandalf said. "We will hear you out."
She swallowed. "Nine months have passed since I've seen any of my kin. You, my lord," she said, turning to Legolas, "are the first of my kind I have seen in all that time. Forgive my over-familiarity. When I saw you, I could not help but fly to your side."
Legolas shook his head. "Ú-moe edaved. Worry not," he said.
"For the length of those nine months, I had been imprisoned by creatures I have no wish to speak of." At Gimli's angry growl and Aragorn's pointed look at the orc, she said, "I did not fall into orcish hands. The beasts that held me were not of this world." An uncomfortable silence fell upon the chamber.
Have her trials damaged her mind?
"Do you mean to say this woman comes from another world?" Aragorn asked, casting a worried glance to the prone figure.
Hithriel nodded in confirmation, but said no more. Unable to hide his disbelief, Gimli snorted, taking a step back. Even Legolas looked to be on a verge of expressing a similar view, although more eloquently.
"Who is she?" Aragorn asked, "Why did she attack me?" The orc groaned and coughed again - reminding Aragorn of his other, grimmer suspicions.
The dwarf gave a curt nod and asked a question of his own, "The orc. Why protect it?"
Hithriel took a breath to answer - a faint sound echoed through the halls. The woman they spoke of climbed to her feet, stiff and slow. Aragorn's grip on his sword tightened; taking a step forward, he faced her, wary. She avoided his gaze, trying to wipe the blood that clung to the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand, but only succeeded in smearing it across her unmarred cheek. Legolas made as if to notch an arrow.
"Daro! Please," Hithriel cried. She took hold of Legolas' arm and pleaded. "Do not harm her. She is not in league with the orcs. Believe me when I tell you, she poses no threat to you."
Aragorn was not convinced of that.
Grunting, Gimli drew a throwing axe with his free hand. "What have you to say for yourself, woman? Or do you let the elf fight all your battles for you?"
Cocking her head to the side, the woman cleared her throat. "I can speak for myself, short-stack." she bit out, not able to fully mask the tremor in her voice. Still weak, then. Good.
Gimli bristled at the name. "Short I may be, woman, but my axe will find a way to your throat just the same."
The woman's attention shifted. "This wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I said I would throw myself at your mercy, old man," a nod Gandalf's way, "but since I'm here, my head still firmly attached to my shoulders, it will do." Did she think that they would kill her as she laid there - as Orcs would?
Aragorn kept a close watch on her as she stepped forward, closer to him. His hand wrapped around the hilt of Anduril - wanting to pull it out. He willed himself to let go.
"Just who the hell are you people?" she muttered quietly.
The orc laughed - a harsh and cruel sound. "Gurz, man-brat. Death to the likes of us." He sneered at her. "Better start prayin' to whatever dark power made you, ruk."
Aragorn saw Gandalf's face darken at the word, but could not recognize the meaning of it. Now more then ever, he was certain the woman could not be trusted - no more than any orc could be.
~ ~ ~
The air burned. Darius's skin blistered, his hands rose up, to cover his face. His feet still moved forward. How would they not? Gitano - his lord - called for him, screaming. One more step. The skin of his palms peeled off from the heat. Another step.
A strong hand gripped his arm, holding him back. Galliano.
"Let him go." The screaming stopped, gave way to heavy silence. "He's long gone."
He is your father, and my sworn lord, Darius wanted to say. He couldn't form the words. The heat grew.
"Let go." The voice was female now. Kal. She stood before him, sword in hand. "It's hard to run with just one foot through the door." A wink followed the words.
Darius swallowed, turning his back on the fire. The Awakening had begun.
Darius' eyes snapped open. Fire and death... would this dream haunt him for the rest of his days? Holding himself still, he forced his muscles to relax, one at a time. A moment more and he gently removed an arm, flung loosely over his waist.
Throwing back the covers, he swung his legs to the right, the bare soles of his feet touching the floor. He rose from the bed, naked.
A glance back showed that the girl drifted to the edge of the bed, away from them both, curled in a fetal position. Galliano wouldn't be pleased when he woke up -- he enjoyed a warm body next to him in the day-time.
Darius walked over to the window and opened the blinds -- it confirmed what every cell in his body had told him already -- the sun had set. The lights of the City had come blinking on, bright and blinding, earthly stars that hid the ones in the sky above. Darius shifted, leaning back against the window-sill.
A hand reached out to crack the window open - the traffic noise, the bustle of the streets, the heady aroma of humanity, it all drifted upwards, ten stories high. Darius took a deep breath of it.
This world - it was home.
He would be sad to leave it.
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.