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Thread: Another Story: The Quest for the Straight Road

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AmariŽ put her arms around Vaeltira and held her tight for a little while, letting her cry silently into her shoulder. Then she kissed her forehead, wiped her tears away and smiled gently. "I will see to our lords now."

As AmariŽ moved away Arkantos went to her side looking both worried and angry. "I thought you were safe on the ship, why didn't you go?"

"I did go, unwillingly, but the ship is no longer a safe place for us, not alone. The only good thing that happened there was that Daria found out who she could trust and that the surgeon came with us.."

Arkantos opened his mouth to say something but AmariŽ interrupted him. "I will explain more later, they did not harm us. I need you to do something for me. Take Vaeltira away form here and see to her wounds. The surgeon needs to operate on both Aragorn and Aelric and she cannot be here then. Please. Take Drogba with you, I see he has injuries too, but mostly because he is her friend and she trusts him. Tell him what I told you"

Arkantos nodded and AmariŽ went to the surgeon.
Aragorn called Roland to come to him and told him of their fight with Thuringwethil. "You must return to the ship and tell them that Aelric lives. Tell them of the dangers here but no one must come to the island. We do this alone."

"As you command, my Liege." Roland made his preparations and using his stealth and knowledge as a knight of Gondor he set off, following the directions given by Daria.

Amarie looked up from helping the surgeon. "What of Nilgaerian? She is out there somewhere with Valruin and we know not what evil tracks her..... if Thuringwethil's spirit still haunts this island and if Melvorion draws his power from that she is in grave danger...... she may already be lost again to him."

"Etharion will find her. " Aragorn nodded to the elf, "Take Dorin with you and bring Nilgaerian back to us."

Dorin grinned. "Aye, something to do..... mind you behave yourself while I am gone, Moori, no getting into trouble." Moori snorted. "As if. It is you who courts trouble." She turned from him and stamped away. He watched her, smiling. "Ah..... light of my life...."

"Come Master Dwarf, let us go now while we have light enough to see."
Nilgaerien turned her sightless eyes in the direction they had come. "I feel him.... my skin prickles... he searches..."

"Then we must go now. Come." And taking her arm he led her out of the shelter back into the thickly wooded undergrowth. They moved as quickly as was possible but Nilgaerien's blindness was a hinderance. Every so often she would stop and turn seeing only the blackness within her own mind but desperately trying to see something... anything.

"Stay here." He commanded abrubtly. And leaving her briefly he leapt up onto a huge outcrop of rock which took him above the tree line. His keen elven sight pierced the mist that still lingered in the gully which by now had opened out into a wide valley. To his left he could see the vast range of mountains which split the island. Smoke rose from fissures and he could see the red flames from the volcanic larva as it burnt its way through trees to the sea. Upon returning to Nilgaerien he took her arm and again led her forward. "I have seen the land" he said "We will make our way to where the beasts had their lair for that is where Aragorn would have fought Thuringwethil." Onwards they went, Nilgaerien stumbling and whimpering, hating her vulnerability, dreading what lay before and behind them.
A voice came from the depths of the undergrowth. "My my, but you move noisily for elves. What say you Etharion? Should we rescue 'em now or leave 'em stumbling around like headless orcs?"

"Dorin!" Nilgaerien spun round to face the direction of the voice. "Where are you, friend?" She held out her arms and Dorin came to her hugging her around her waist."

"Yer alright now, my lovely" he whispered to her. "Come quickly now, Amarie awaits you."

"And the others?" She asked, breathless with relief.

"Aye, all safe. Not sound, but safe.... we'll tell you all on the way. But hurry. It is not safe here."

Etharion stepped forward and greeted them. "I had a difficult time keeping up with this dwarf." he remarked as Valruin clasped his hand. "Not even a Balrog would keep him from finding you swiftly."

"A Balrog might be easier to fight than the monster trailing us. Nilgaerien senses he is near but he hasn't shown himself. I fear he waits for her to find the Gem. Come, greetings can wait. Take us back to the others but be careful, Nilgaerien is exhausted and near collapse."

Nilgaerien leant on Dorin for support, Valruin beside her and Etharion leading the way back.
AmariŽ stayed silent and out of the surgeons way but watched closely, seeing all he saw. His stone like face revealed noting of his thoughts as he examined the two men, he only let out a hmm or a hmf now and then. But when seeing the damage Thuringwethil had done to Aelrics body, AmariŽ saw his jaws tighten. This was more than he had bargained for.

AmariŽ kneeled down and took Aragorns hand and closed her eyes, sensing his pain and injuries and knowing instinctly what needed to be done. He shook his head slowly. "Lord Aelric needs your skills more than I do." She opened her eyes and smiled "I would not have expected you to say anything else my lord. I was only looking for what the eyes cannot see so we don't miss something. The lovely queen Arwen will be mighty displeased if we return you in less than perfect condition."

He laughed a bit, started to cough, but he smiled. "Blessed are we to have you here." "Blessed am I to be here with my dearest friends when they need me the most. Now drink this, rest and we will have you fixed up before you know it."

He fell quickly into deep and painless sleep and she went to the surgeon and seeing once again the damages she pulled him aside.
"Sir, this is beyond both our skills to heal alone. The only chance we have is if we work together."

The surgeon did not like this, but he had seen what she could do and he knew she was right.
"Fine, but I am only doing this to save my lord."
"Naturally. Thank you." AmariŽ was relieved and her eyes shone.

"Yes... well I am not sure what to do with lord Aelric, Aragorns arm should not give me... us much trouble." AmariŽ nodded, that is what she had seen too. "Aelric is a bit worse." he continued. "He is weaker than he appears, that... thing has done great damage and I fear he might not wake up again..."

"I can keep him pain free and calm without putting him to sleep, but it will be strenuous for me. I suggest we take Aragorn first, in case we run into some surprises there I will have the power to help and have the rest of my energy to spend on Aelric."

The surgeon agreed, and so they did. Aragorns operation went well and thanks to AmariŽ the blood loss was minimal. But Aelric was not pleased with the idea when they told him. "I will not let this elf come near me with her skills."

"Lord Aelric." She said calmly. "I know you worry what I could do if you let your defence down, but I have no desire what so ever to roam trough your mind, nor to cause you any needles harm. My intentions are to keep you alive for the sake of the Quest and for Vaeltira. Do it for her, as you have done so many things both for her and against her. Lay your pride aside. Your stubbornness and refusal to listen to her advice and plead is what nearly caused both your lives. It took a man with elven blade and elven blood and a gift form the Valar to free you, now it takes both elven and human skills combined to save you. I give you my word I will not tread where I need not go."

His head was spinning, but when AmariŽ put her hand gently on his brow he didn't object. He felt a tingling feeling and closed his eyes. For the first time in his adult life he freely opened his mind to another person.

He felt his heartbeat slow down and a pleasant numbness spread trough his body, though it also felt unnatural to give up the control he reasently had regained. "Shhhh do not fight me Aelric. All is fine, all is good." Amaries voice was soothing and almost hypnotic. She signalled to the surgeon with a glance and a nod and while Aelric stared up in the air listening to AmariŽ sing softly, he began.
Roland travelled faster alone and following the path Daria had taken he soon reached the beach. Two more boats had been pulled up beside the one Amarie had used and a group of Aelric's men waited silently.

Not so long ago Roland would have hesitated at this task; to talk to and command these strange Men would have caused stuttering and clumsiness. Yet now, a seasoned warrior, he walked towards them measuring their mood.

"Lord Aelric lives!" He called, raising his hand to forestall any interruption. "He lives yet he is badly wounded and your surgeon attends him. I bring orders from King Elessar." He sought out the group's commanding officer. "Return to the ship with this news, that Lord Aelric has been freed from the power of Thuringwethil yet while her earthly body has been destroyed by King Elessar her power remains diminished but dangerous. King Elessar commands that no one returns here until a signal is given. Look for flaming arrows shot into the sky - then boats will be needed. Keep the men keen and ready."

The officer stepped forward, saluting Roland. "As is commanded, my lord. But what of you? Do you return with us?"

"My intent was to return to the ship but now you will carry these orders back. I shall return to my King and give assistance. Fare thee well and may the Valar be with us all." So saying he watched the men push the boats (leaving but one on the beach) and begin rowing back to the ship. Then he sighed, and looking towards the cursed mountains he began the journey back.
Melvorion waited far enough away from the group that even the elves keen senses would not detect him. Even without seeing them he could feel the filth of the elves, the stink of the dwarf and most of all the crawling desperation from that elf maiden, Nilgaerien. Thinking her name irritated him, she had escaped him before but this time he would take his time, stalking his prey and waiting until she led him to the Gem. He sneered at the thought of her. His mind had touched hers, Thuringwethil had taken nourishment from her and he could feel her fear and he knew how close she was to losing her fea and fading into nothing. But he must make use of her before that happened. The healer would keep her alive long enough for him to avail himself of her talent and then one by one the whole malodorous group would be consumed by him and by his Mistress.

Touching the ground with his hand he felt her power still there; faint and deep within the earth but it was there. It pulsed like a heartbeat. He breathed in relief. When he needed to draw upon that power it would be there for him. Then those wretched elves, men and dwarves would suffer for what they had done to his beloved Thuringwethil. And such suffering it would be.
It struck the surgeon how bizarre this was. Opening Aelrics arm was like cutting in a dead man. It was pale and motionless and there was hardly any blood. Amaries was sitting on the opposite side of Aelric, leaning over him. Her delicate hand was holding a firm grip on Aelrics arm just above the elbow, above her hand the skin was healthy. How she could stop the blood flowing when she couldn't even reach halfway around his arm was a mystery to the surgeon.

Now and then the knife screeched against bone and make a foul sound. Aelric flinched, but Amaries instincts seemed quicker. He could see her grip fasten and her knuckles whiten and somehow she managed to keep his arm completely still. He had to admit it was quite impressive.

Finally his skilled fingers had puzzled together Aelrics arm and sowed him up. Somehow it felt like it had take longer than it had with Aragorn, but it must have been the strain of knowing Aelric was awake. He leaned back, wiped the sweat of his brow and signalled to AmariŽ. "All done." She leaned over so her face was directly over Aelrics and she looked him deep in the eyes. His nose twitched a bit from disgust of having her so close. "I am letting you go now. Do you understand what that means??" He closed his mind as fast as he could and the first thing he did as he regained control of his body was to push her away. She stumbled backwards a few steps, and first now could the surgeon see how tired she looked. Her voice had fooled him too.

It took a few seconds before the pain returned to Aelric, but when it did he swore out loud and cursed all elves.
AmariŽ sighed and gave the surgeon a few leaves from one of her pouches. "Let him chew on this, it should make him feel a little bit better and maybe shut him up a little bit. I will be back in a whileÖ"

Then she went out of the cave. The light felt bright even through the clouds and mist from the volcano. She let herself fall to her knees and buried her hands deep into the layer of ashes and into the soil and lifted her face to the treetops. "Oh Yavanna, mother of all that grows, like the trees that grow green and tall, let me too drink from the source of the earth. For I am withering like a leaf, and in need of your love."
There was nothing. All that once was filled with life and joy, all the blossom, trees, grasses and shrubs were silent as if a conversation had suddenly stopped. She felt no sweetness and it was as if there was no living thing left in the earth.

"Yavanna!" she wept. Her tears wet the earth and she felt at once a surge of hope that this sullied island may yet be saved from the evil that infested it. But it was only a fragile hope. Deeper she probed, yearning for the feel of growing things until her strength failed and she fell distraught upon the sterile soil. As she lay there a glimmering of something touched her; not the blossoming of seeds but the intrusion of something else, something foul just beyond her understanding. Then she understood.... "Melvorion" she whispered. "Yavanna have pity! " The once green leaves of the forest trees had already started to wither and brown.
Seeing Amarie leave Aelic and the surgeon and hearing a growl of pain and anger from her husband, Vaeltira hurried to his side. He looked up at her, into the eyes of a Numenorean woman, clear and grey and no longer the deep blue he had always known. A gasp of surprise escaped him. "What have I done to you, my lady?" She smiled at him. "You have done nothing, my Lord; we are now what we should always have been. The pendant was spent in the fight and your cursed sword destroyed. Give thanks for that."

He lay back while the surgeon continued his work. "I am broken, my Lady, I fear beyond any healing."

"No," her voice was confident, "My husband and Lord is stronger than that. The body will heal, if slowly, and the rest.... well, your strength and determination will overcome anything that foul beast did to you."

"I hope you are right," he winced as the surgeon stitched his wounds, "But I fear you overestimate my strength. This is.... this is nothing I have faced before...." His voice faltered and his eyes closed.

"Aelric! No! You mustn't give up. I won't allow it! Do you hear me?"

His eyes flickered open and a faint smile touched his mouth. "Whatever you say, my love... but let me sleep. The elf.... she helped and I was less than grateful. Habits cannot be broken overnight... but tell her.... tell her......."

"I will tell her she has my thanks if not yet the thanks of the most stubborn and ungrateful man in Middle Earth."

He smiled, closed his eyes again and fell into sleep.
Vaeltira kissed her husbands cheek and then turned to the surgeon. He had gone over to check on Aragorn to give the some privacy, but he could not help hearing what they said. He sat down and leaned his back against the cave wall. "Not long ago that sleep would surly have been his last. I must say, my lady, the skills of that girl are not of this world. I have always though the Valar had no care for us down here, now I am not so sure. She went outside. But my lady, I have not seen such a tired face since I last saw the slave pits..."

Vaeltira hurried outside and saw Arkantos lift Amaries lifeless body from the ground. For an insane minute she thought she had been slain, for she saw blood. But running towards them she saw it was only because Amaries had not taken of the apron protecting her clothes. "AmariŽ! Sweet AmariŽ... Arkantos, what has happened?" His face was as grey as the ashes covering the ground.

"I heard her cry for Yavanna. She has given too much. Again."

Suddenly they heard thunder and the sky burst open. Big drops of rain came pouring down, filled with ashes and dust washed from the air. Vaeltira pulled her cloak over her head. "Get her inside, she will be soaked!" But Arkantos stood still and Vaeltira saw why. As the rain hit Amaries face she stired and her face which had been leaned agains Arkantos' chest turned towards the drops.

The more it rained the purer the drops became and they washed Amaries face and soaked all three of them.
"Elves love water." Arkantos said quietly. "She draws strength from the earth almost like a tree. The soil here is dead, but the rain..."

AmariŽ opened her eyes, blinked and sighed happily. Then she looked up at Arkantos. She lifted a weary hand, grabbed a lock of his dripping wet hair and squeezed the water out of it. "My sweet ArkantosÖ I got to see the twins again. They are fine. And I will be fine now. Thank you."

She became silent and rested her head against his chest again and he began to move toward the caves. Vaeltira ran ahead and waited by the entrance out of the rain. Suddenly AmariŽ raised her head. "Nil! Wait, it is her! Good news at last!" And it didnít take long before Aragorn too could hear Nilgaeriens voice and see them appear out of the mist and rain. "AmariŽ! AmariŽ!"
Aelric's thoughts were a swirl of pain, relief and presently a concern for the fragile predicament the people about him were in. He was conscious of his physical weakness and that there still existed the significant threat from Melvorion and the Brood, but they could not legislate for his strategic genius and sharp wits, they would be his weapons now, for these were the devices of the general, and Aelric was beyond compare in this field. He looked toward Aragorn his former nemesis, and mused that should the King of Gondor and the Lord Protector of Umbar set there minds against the common enemy, then victory and securing the gem would be assured. He gave rueful look in Vaeltira's direction thinking how her faith had kindled these seeds of hope in him, and a tinge of guilt at his hostility toward the fair Amarie who had brought him from the brink.

He resolved to do it for Them, "Drogba, your master needs a weapon if only to prop myself up against, for I think better when I am on my feet man!"
Amarie watched as Valruin led Nilgaerien towards her. She had still not regained her sight and she looked terrible, her clothes were soiled and torn, her hair wild and matted and her features drawn with a strange transparency to them but she was smiling as the rain soaked her and her companions.

"Amarie!" she called again, sensing her friend's pesence nearbye.

Amarie laughed. "Yavanna protects us, my dear friend. Come, hold my hand." The two friends touched hands as Arkantos lowered Amarie to her feet and they hugged each other standing in the cleansing rain.

Moori walked casually towards Dorin. "You took your time. Did you stop to smell the flowers on the way?"

"What need have I for the perfume of flowers when I can smell the sweetest dwarf that ever walked this earth?"

She clipped his ear, bringing an even bigger smile to his face.

Etharion watched. He saw Vaeltira walk towards Aelric who was now standing with the aid of Drogba and leaning on a sword. The man looked exhausted and drained yet his head was held high and his eyes were steady as he met the elf's gaze. The man certainly had immense strength and courage. He hoped for all their sakes that it would be used for their benefit for Aelric would make a dangerous enemy. While the others immersed themselves in greetings, Etharion edged his way closer to Aelric, resolving to watch for any sign that the great Lord of Umbar was still influenced by the evil of Thuringwethil.

Nilgaerien could easily sense how tired AmariŽ was and it worried her, it was a bit ironic to feel how worried AmariŽ was for her in return. Arkantos put his hood on and pulled his cloak around him. He was soaking wet and felt cold. The dwarves respectfully suggested that they all could talk somewhere a little less wet, and all agreed.

When letting go of Nilgaerien AmariŽ felt a bit dizzy. She reached out for support and Arkantos was there to take her hand. He lifted her up again and she giggled slightly, but didn't object. She was glad he was there, not avoiding her, not acting strange, just being the Arkantos she knew. Or thought she knew. Inside one of chambers in the cave, Nilgaerien found that AmariŽ had brought her things too and sighed in relief. Daria came running and surprised the newcomers by speaking rationally, wondering what was wrong with AmariŽ.

They quickly began to prepare a bed for AmariŽ, and Arkantos sat her down while waiting. Valruin and Dorin left the girls alone to change clothes, rest and talk. AmariŽ took the arm Daria offered, but before letting go of Arkantos' arm she looked at him. "Arkantos, can I talk to you later... just you and me?" He had to look away from her blue eyes again. She looked so vulnerable standing there. He wanted to hold her close and never let go. He wanted to run away so he couldn't hurt her. But he could never say no to those eyes. He nodded.

He sat down by the fire to get warm again. He heard the girls talking and he assumed they shared their stories. Once again he had thought he had lost her forever and it was an unbearable thought. He stared into the flames. She wanted to talk to him. What did that mean? Would they argue again? Would she cry again? Then someone touched his shoulder.
Vaeltira walked past Etharion and stood in front of Aelric where he stood supported by Drogba and a sword. They were barely six feet from the cave, beneath an outcrop of rock which continued along the cliff face until it was swallowed by the trees and vines. "Drogba, please, leave us."

"But Lady Vaeltira, my Lord needs my help... he ordered...."

"Leave us," she said in a voice which brooked no argument. "I will give him all the assistance he requires."

Aelric protested but a glare from his wife silenced him. She watched as Drogba steadied Aelric against the cliff wall, his face shadowed by the overhanging ledge, and reluctantly left them.

"Well?" The arrogance was seeping back into his voice as he regarded the woman standing in front of him.

"Well?" Her voice was quiet but by no means calm. "Well?" she repeated. "Is that all you can say to me?"

"What would you have me say, my lady?"

"I would have you say what a fool you have been, what a fool you continue to be." Her voice rose with anger, her hands were clenched at her sides. "You stand there, as stubborn as ever, with not a thought for those here that risked their lives for you, that continue to risk their lives for you. You should listen to the surgeon, to Amarie, to anyone here - they will tell you that you are not invincible, you are sick and weak.

"Vaeltira, my wi....."

"Do not interrupt me. You are arrogant, you are foolish, you are stubborn yet you still live. By the grace of these people you distain.... do you understand that? All this nonsense..." she waved her hand across him, "...this nonsense about standing; trying to prove to them that nothing can touch the Great Lord of Umbar. Well, let me tell you this - something has touched the Great Lord, something evil and terrible and it nearly cost you your life! And mine! Or have you forgetten how our lives are entwined? Have you? Did you give any thought to what this would do to me? No, you didn't! You great lump of useless, useless.... you arrogant....... you stupid man!" In her anger she raised her fists to him and beat upon his chest.

In surprise and astonishment he tried to move away and his weakness betrayed him. The sword slipped from his grasp and he fell.

The surgeon left his place at the fire where he had seated himself near Arkantos and hurried to Aelric's side. "My Lord, I must insist you rest."

Vaeltira turned and walked away, wiping tears of anger and frustration from her face. She stood apart from the others, beyond the warmth of the fire, and watched as the surgeon helped Aelric to his feet and led him past the fire and into the shadows of the cave. All conversation stopped as Aelric was guided to a space and set to rest. "Please, my Lord, stay here and rest. I cannot stress how important it is... even for you." He bit his lip, fearing he had said too much but Aelric offered no resistance. He was too tired and Vaeltira's words rang in his ears. Was he that arrogant? Was she that angry with him? More bridges to be mended..... but not yet. The tiredness had him in its grasp again and sleep was welcomed. He would appease her... but later. Now he slept. Amarie motioned Daria to say with Nilgaerien and quietly slipped out of the cave. Arkantos was alone. Now was the time to talk. But before she could speak a hand touched her shoulder. "Lady Amarie, my thanks to you." Drogba appeared beside her, his eyes holding hers and she shivered. Not now, she thought, please not now.
"Are you cold, my lady?" Drogba took of his jacket and put it over her shoulders, and let her free from his gaze. She wanted to find an excuse to leave and she glanced over to Arkantos by the fire. He was gone. Maybe he didn't see her. Or maybe he was avoiding her again. She sighed sadly without really knowing it, and Drogba gave her a worried look. "Don't be sad, my lady. We will find the jewel so you can help your friends." AmariŽ smiled softly. "You mean the Gem, thank you. It is nice of you to say so."

He took her hands in his and looked into her eyes again. "I am not saying it to be nice, I am saying it because it is true! I... " His eyes began to flicker, like he was searching for words and he lowered his eyes. "You saved my friends and it almost killed you. Twice... And you made me see that I have been wrong. All my life. So in a way you... you have saved me too. Thank you."

He looked up and met her eyes again and she smiled gently. Somehow his gaze wasn't so intimidating now that she had seen a glimpse of his heart.

-----

Arkantos stood in the shadows watching at a distance. He had left his place by the fire to get away form what he had seen. He felt jealousy rip his insides apart. She had come to see him. Then he had arrived. And the look he had given her... he was not the one to look at her like that. It was he, Arkantos, who loved her. Not thatÖ child of a man.
As he looked into her eyes thoughts began that should not; she was of elven kind and he knew they lived longer than Men, some stories even told of immortality. She was far different from the elves he had seen briefly working as slaves or worse; this young woman in front of him now was lively and effervescent with eyes that could see his very spirit. He felt ashamed of what he was and what he had done to her kind in battle and the scorn he had felt when watching the elven slaves in Barad-dur. Surely she could not be much older than he? But her eyes held memories of ages past, great sadness changing to joy as he lost himself in their depths.

What madness, he thought. She was more likely several hundred years old and would live a lot longer than he. There can be nothing to gain from allowing himself to love her.

"My Lady, my apologies. I interrupted you.... forgive me." And as suddenly as he had appeared beside he he was gone. Amarie clasped his coat around her, feeling the chill of the approaching eventide and sudden loneliness. A boy, she thought. A mere boy and what was she doing encouraging him, for she had felt the longing to be held in his arms. She felt her face warm and knew she blushed like a silly girl.

"Amarie?" Arkantos stepped from the shadows.

So that is where he went. Lurking in the shadows. No doubt he had seen it all... If he hadn't left she could have escaped Drogbas eyes. But it probably would only have postponed it all...

"Hi Arkantos." She didn't look at him, she had hoped to keep the feeling of Drogbas eyes for just a little longer, no matter how foolish it was. "I was wondering where you went."

"I... You wanted to speak to me?" He was avoiding the subject, but she knew it would come up.

"Yes I did. But that is not what you want me to talk about now, is it?" He swallowed.
"I saw the two of you. I am sorry, but have you thought this through? A mortal man and an immortal elf, it will bring none of you any good! And boys his age falls in love all the time."

AmariŽ snorted. "Yes how could anyone fall for me for real? An inconceivable thought is it not?" There was a sore tone in her voice. "No it isn't, AmariŽ." He said sadly. "It is not inconceivable at all..."

She was silent for a little while.
"But it is true. He does not love me. Not the real me. He sees a young girl different from any girl he has met. New and exciting. Breath of fresh air, running around healing everybody. Nice and sweet and shy. He does not know me or my people. He will realize it soon enough. Better he learns from me rather than being told by someone else..."

She pulled the coat closer again and started pacing.
"I have many roles in this fellowship, Arkantos. Friend, healer, fighter, supporter, protector... But it was nice to feel like a woman again. It made feel like I was 50 again. Even if it was just for a little moment. I know I am being silly."

"Great" she thought. "I am babbling. This is not what I wanted to talk about.Ē He probably just wanted her to be quiet and go away.
"I am sorry, Arkantos. I am babbling. I am a still a bit tired and not quite myself. I will leave you be and go back now."

"It is not silly to want someone to care for you, everybody wants that." He gave himself a mental kick. Don't say too much. Be careful.

She smiled softly. "Thank you, it is nice of you to say that." Then she turned and left. He wanted to call her back, but he didn't know what to say.

Arkantos went back to the fire and she went to the cave and sat down on her bed.

"...like I was 50 again." She smiled crookedly as she thought of how Drogba would have reacted had he heard that. It didn't really sound like a compliment from his point of view. The man who understood her (at least a bit) didn't want to be around her and the man who did want to be around her might never understand her. She picked up her beloved brooch and polished the silver petals with the sleeve of her shirt till they glittered. She rested her eyes on the blue sapphire. Family. Home. Rest. And she fell asleep like elves do. Half in dream and half awake.
Etharion was still hoping that the nightmare of this island yould end. For then they would need to face yet another peril. The cursed hordes of the Haradrim. But if that battle would be won, finally peace would come to the southern elves. But right now he was keeping close watch on Aleric. He didnt beleive he was holey curred. So he watched just in case. He was a bit more happy from when lady Vaelitira gave him a good lecture speaking her mind. The others where nearby, each in there own work. He seemed not to be needed so he just continued sharpening and cleaning his swords, glancing at Aleric every now and then.
Roland cursed the sudden rain. It had made the layer of ashes slippery and had led him astray from the path he had come on and he had taken shelter as best as he could. This island was not a good place to get lost. Now that it had cleared up he once again saw the rock formation he was suppose to head towards and was thankful he hadn't wandered to far off. It didn't take long until he saw smoke rising high above the withering forest roof. He was hoping they would keep it alive till he got there.

As he made his way across a small ridge he had to use both hands to climb the cold, wet and slippery rocks and he was looking forward to sitting by the fire so much that he could almost smell the smoke. No wait, he straightened his back and turned his face towards the wind. He did smell smoke. That couldn't be good news. He quietly made his way over to the edge and looked down in a valley with steep walls. A group of orcs, he counted about twenty but the view wasn't too good, was gathered around a fire where they where roasting something. He didn't want to think about what it was, but he thought he head it scream.

As he shook away the disgust he suddenly realized that they too were bound to see the smoke from the fire his friends had made and come to investigate. He scanned the valley with skilled warrior eyes. Even if they started right now, they would have to get out of the valley and he could not see any quick way to do that. Still the orcs might both secret paths and secret tunnels, and what did he know of what was around the corner down there. He wouldn't take the chance of idling any longer. He crept away silently and hurried the best he could to warn everybody.
Nilgaerien shivered. Her body had finally warmed but her spirit felt cold, her mind a raw and battered mess. The only thing that felt half-way alive was the steady pulsing of the Gem's power. It was closer now but still so far away. All she wanted was to be done with this Quest, to feel the Gem once again safe in her hands, though she had only held it twice - once as a child and then when she had escaped with it as her village burned behind her.

"Nilgaerien?"

Nil lifted her head and stared into blackness. Her teeth gritted together at that thought but she released the pressure. "Daria?"

"Yes. Do you...are you comfortable?"

"I am...physically." She could almost see Daria's raised eyebrows and she almost chuckled. She must look terrible, scratched and bruised. Her body hadn't felt right since Thuringwethil had taken part of her anyway. Nil held out the plate Daria had filled with food. "Thank you for bringing this."

"But...but you haven't eaten anything really."

NIl frowned. She couldn't see the food and knew she had only taken a few bites but her stomach was protesting at even that small portion. No, more than protesting... "Daria!"

"Yes?" A gentle hand was instantly on her arm.

"Help me to the entrance - quickly!" Daria's hand moved to her shoulder as her other arm wrapped around Nil's waist. Nil stumbled along, sensing someone moving out of the way and hearing Dorin's deep voice demanding to know where she was going. Daria ignored him, saying instead to Nil, "Almost there."

Not a moment too soon, Daria stopped. Nil let go and landed on her knees, all of her meager supper coming right back up. Daria's hand rested on her back as she said something meant to soothe. Nil wrapped her arms around her body and trembled. Her body was wasting away and there was nothing she could do about it. Her brows knit together in determination. She had to stay alive until she reached the Gem. Only until she reached it...another shiver wracked her frame as some deep malevolence touched a dim part of her mind.
The dwarves returned with more wood for the fire and found Arkantos sitting quietly, poking the fire with a long stick. Vaeltria had joined him and was sitting two arm lengths from him, lost in thoughts watching her dragon pendant.

The dwarves stopped talking, looked at each other and at the gloomy looking couple. Dorin cleared his throat. "Well, this was a great party but I think I will retire to... sharpen my axe." "Ay, and I should look in on Nilgaerien." Moori said and they left the awkward silence. They spotted Drogba standing in the shadows outside the cave entrance. "Another gloomy human, must be contagious." Moori mumbled under her breath. "Hello there young Drogba." Dorin said cheerfully. "How are you doing?"

He shrugged. "I am ok, but that Nilgaerien isnít doing so well. She threw up a minute agoÖ" "She did? I really should go see how she is doing." said Moori, and she gave Dorin a meaningful glance. He nodded briefly. She hurried into the cave. Dorin put a hand on Drogbas back and led him away from the cave. "You are not fooling me, young Drogba, does this by any chance have anything to do with the lovely elf maiden we spoke about the other day?"
Dorin chuckled at the dark look Drogba gave him.

"Do I wear my heart on my sleeve that even a dwarf sees my pain?" He asked.

"Even a dwarf? I'll have you know us dwarves are very perceptive, especially in matters of the heart. We may seem rough to you but we have more year's experience than you will ever have."

Drogba sighed. Without realising it he had allowed himself to be led beneath the trees away from the others. No one was there to overhear.

"She makes me ache in ways I have never experienced. Her eyes, her gentle manner... she is soft and beautiful and caring."

"Aye, she is that, lad. She is also sharp as a needle point and as brave as any elf. She fights with all her heart and soul. And, like you, she has lost family and loved ones. For an elf there is no end to grief; they bear it with them for eternity. Remember that before you step too far. If there is to be anything between you and her she is the one who will suffer most. Your time is fleeting and for you she will always be young. Yet she must watch you age and die.... unlike our beloved Arwen she does not have the choice and she must eventually leave Middle Earth to go to the Undying Lands with the rest of her kind. If she stays she will linger beyond your liftetime and fade. Would you wish that fate on her?"

"No!" The tall man looked down upon the dwarf. "You tell me things I do not want to hear yet your words are wise. What can I do then but yearn for something I must not have?"

"Nothing, my poor Drogba. Nothing at all."

Together they walked beneath the trees. Rain dripped onto them.

"And what of you, Master Dwarf?
Dorin gave his companion a sly smile. "What of me, lad?"

"Um, yes. You and...and Moori..." Drogba didn't seem sure what to say.

The dwarf gave a hearty laugh and slapped him on the back, making the man miss a step. "Ah, laddie, you are too easily embarrassed! Yes, the lovely Moori..." he trailed off as if seeing her before him and it was some moments before he again spoke. "She is a finer dwarf than any other, eh?"

Drogba decided the easiest thing would be to agree, as he hadn't had much association with the race...well, not at all beyond these two. "Uh, yes."

Dorin nodded. "Aye, such a lovely beard, such beautiful eyes..." he gave a great sigh. "Alas, I've waited this long in courting her, I can wait another decade."

Drogba nearly swallowed his face. "Courting?!"

"Aye, lad! Do you know nothing of dwarven courting? Ah, 'tis a wonderful thing, but too long in my opinion. Gives the lady far longer than she needs. Gives her spare time to toy. Ha! But my Moori, do you see how adept she is at it! Ah, beautiful one that she is!"

"But the way she...uh, the things she says..."

"All part of the process, lad! All a game, you see?" The dwarf turned thoughtful. "Now if Amarie were accostomed to such things, you would have her opinion on the matter that much sooner...bah, you other races know nothing of proper courting techniques!"

Drogba didn't think Amarie would be pleased with this and was too busy trying not to think of the consequences of such to give Dorin an answer.

Valruin felt useless in the cave and he decided to take a walk. He silently stood op and sneaked to the exit of the cave. It was misty outside, and a bit cold. Valruin inhaled deeply "Finally some fresh air," he thought. Valruin walked in the forest when he heard something moving in the bushes nearby. Valruin unsheathed his sword and hided behind a tree. The creature was very close now. Valruin jumped behind the tree and pointed his sword right in the face of Roland.

"Valruin! What are you doing here?" was the first thing Roland could come up with. "I'm just having a walk," Valruin answered, while he sheathed his sword, "but what's wrong you're all red end panting." "It's... there are Orcs nearby, I think they're heading to the cave!" Roland said. "Orcs you say? Show them to me! We might kill some of them before they reach our cave!" Roland guided Valruin to a cliff, where Orcs set up camp. "We're lucky," Valruin whispered, "they have been dumb enough to set up camp here. Grab your bow Roland, lets kill some."

He and Roland both grabbed their bow and put an arrow to the string. They stretched the string and released. Two Orcs fell down dead. Panic emerged from the camp. Orcs were running around to get their weapons while more Orcs were slain. "Grab your weapons!!! Hurry!!!" A big, ugly black Orc, who obviously was at command, was shouting and he grabbed his bow, firing some arrows to where he thought the attackers were hiding. Two arrows nearly hit Valruin and Roland fired a arrow at the Orc. The arrow went through the commander's arm and at time Valruin thought it was time to return to the cave. When Valruin stood up and walked away, Roland fired some more arrows. "Hurry up Roland, we have to go!" Valruin shouted. "Now?," Roland asked, "but we're winning!" "No, we're not and we have to go now!" "Grab them!! shouted the commander again, "Kill them!!" "Okay then, Roland said, "I'm coming already!"

Together Valruin and Roland ran back to the cave, arrows flying around them, Orcs chasing them. "Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea," Valruin thought to himself.
"Now, missie, Amarie said it would be good for you. Don't make me force it down your skinny throat!" Moori griped at her charge. She had found Daria and Nilgaerien still at the entrance to the cave and had taken things over from there by first bugging the Healer elf to give her something for Nil. She had wanted to move the sick elf farther back into the cave but Nilgaeiren had insisted it made her feel better being partially in the open.

Nilgaerien now waved one hand in front of her. "Go on, Moori. You know you'll not get me to drink it by threatening."

Moori screwed up her face and looked ready to growl but Dorin walked by just then, laughing at her expression. The female dwarf turned and soon the two were bickering good-naturedly, Nil forgotten for the moment.

The elf smiled but just as quickly frowned. She could feel something...something wrong. She placed both hands flat on the ground and carefully leaned down until she could sense the earth not far from her face. Somehow, the Gem seemed more able to aid her senses if she was close to the ground. There! A tremor from...her brow wrinkled. Valruin? What was he doing out of the cave? She hadn't heard him leave. She concentrated harder, trying to establish a link between him and her but his mind was far too tense at the moment. Two things did get through, though.

Nil jolted upright and waved blindly in the dwarves' direction. "Moori! Dorin!" They stopped their arguing immediately and came to her.

"What is it, lass? What's wrong?" Dorin asked.

"You must tell the others: Valruin is out in the forest with Roland, moving this way, I think. They're...something's wrong. I sense malice, but...oh, I don't know..." saying so, she put her head in her hands, wishing for the acuuracy she had had before Thuringwethil took it from her. Dorin ran off to the back of the cave, yelling something and Moori put her hand on Nil's shoulder, urging her to come with her. Nilgaerien, however, wasn't able to move for fear. A presence had just moved into her mind's range. "Melvorion," she whispered.
Moori glanced quickly at Daria. "Lass, Roland left, he should be safe on the boat right now." Nilgaerien snarled. "He is not, he is here!" Then she whimpered. "He is here..." AmariŽ kneeled down beside her and put her bag in front of her. She got worried looks from Daria and Moori. "She won't eat." "And she won't drink."

AmariŽ took the cup from Moori and gave both a kind smile. "Thank you, both of you. Leave us alone and I'll see what I can do." The two stepped aside and gave the two some room. "I felt a bit bad to wake her." Moori whispered to Daria. "But she looks a lot better then she did, doesn't she?" Daria nodded slowly.

Suddenly shouting and sounds of fighting broke the silence from the dying woods. The misty air carried the voices well. AmariŽ quickly rose to her feet and Etharion was by her side instantly. Drogba had joined Arkantos and Vaeltira by the fire, all three hurried to the cave entrance. "Orcs." he said coldly. AmariŽ turned and looked at Aragorn. "It is Roland and Valruin."

"Arkantos!" Aragorn called. "You are in charge!"
"Yes my king. Get your weapons everybody and follow me!"
"You don't have to tell us twice!" exclaimed Moori.

AmariŽ squinted her eyes in the direction of the orcs. Drogba gave her a short bow before he ran after the others. "Don't worry my lady, I promise the orcs won't get as far as this cave." She simply nodded then kneeled down by Nilgaerien.

"I told you!" muttered Nilgaerien.
"I know sweetie, I know. Do not worry about that now. Why won't you eat? And why won't you at least drink? It will only make you feel better, you know I only want to help you."
"I... can't keep anything down. Just a few bites and... My head! He's getting closer, he's getting closer!"

AmariŽ embraced her. "I can feel him too. When I touch the ground I can feel where he is. He draws strength from Thuringwethils evil in the ground. We won't let him take you. I won't let him take you." She freed herself from Nilgaeriens arms. "I have something for you." Nilgaerien heard her search trough the bag, far down. "Ok, open your mouth now." She sounded like a child who had a surprise planned and were to excited to hide it. Nilgaerien was not in the mood for games. "Come on, you will like it, I promise." Nilgaerien sighed, it didn't seem like AmariŽ had any plans of giving up so she opened her mouth.

A small piece of bread, it took a second before her weary mind understood what it was. She gasped. "Lembas" she whispered, "You have lembas bread!" AmariŽ giggled. "Lady Galadriel gave me a couple, handy when a patient doesn't want to eat. I think Aragorn has some for emergencies too." The sudden reminder of Lothlorien and lady Galadriel sent a warm wave through Nilgaerien. She emptied the cup without arguing. The noise from the battle was getting louder. She felt AmariŽs mind wander of to the ones fighting. "Go help them AmariŽ, I feel better, your place is with them now."
"Go, Amarie." Vaeltira's voice was a whisper. "Without the pendant I cannot fight. But I will stay here with Nilgaerian and should any orcs come near....." she touched the short swords at her side. Amarie saw the fear in her eyes and understood.

"I am sorry, I have given no thought to what you lost. It must be difficult to be without its protection. When I come back......"

"Go now! My demons are nothing compared to what will happen if we fail now."
AmariŽ gathered her long brown hair in a pony tail to keep it out of the way. She hurried towards the others.

Drogba was fighting bravely alone against five orcs, he cut the head of one and cut the arm of another, but they were fierce. Bloodlust and hunger was written all over them. Suddenly a white arrow flew over his shoulder and hit one right between the eyes. Another followed quickly and hit the fourth orc in the throat, leaving the last orc for Drogba to finish of. He turned to thank the archer but lost all speech when he saw it was AmariŽ. She came towards him. Fearless, silent and deadly, but oh, so beautiful. Like a cat. But she smiled when she saw the look on his face. "Don't be so shocked, Drogba. I don't carry these weapons because they look pretty."

She bent down and yanked out the arrows from the corpses, her eyes glowing with hate. Then she turned to Drogba. "Come now, we are needed further ahead. My fathers sword is crying to taste the blood of these beasts."
The sound of screams and fighting woke Aelric and he staggered to the cave entrance, rubbing his eyes and shaking his head to fight off the drowsiness.

"Aelric!" His wife's voice was stern but beneath that he heard concern and fear. "Do not worry, my lady, I am aware of my weakness. I shall not attempt to join them though my heart would have me take a sword again." He stood unsteadily and watched, catching glimpses of elves and men and orcs both within the trees and beyond on the rougher ground.

His sight fixed upon a creeping figure. The young woman Daria had made her way stealthily from the cave and no one had seen her go. Yet there she was, edging her way towards the slain bodies of two orcs, dagger in hand. As he watched she yanked the head of the first orc backwards by its hair and neatly sliced it throat. Then she quickly cut around its forehead, severing the matted hair from its head. A trophy? Or was she merely making sure they were dead. She moved to the next orc and again sliced through its flesh and scalp. As quietly as she had appeared there she melted away into the undergrowth. A large fleshy orc lumbered past where she had been and Aelric, although he could not see, imagined the surprised look upon its face as the slender figure leapt upon its back, pulling its head back before it could react, and slit its throat. This time he could see the blood spurting as its last heartbeats struggled . Then she was gone.

This girl, he thought, could be of use. Such assassin skills were instinctive rather than learned and in the world of politics there would be many 'obstacles' requiring removal. Yes, she was good and this was how she had survived here alone for so long.

He glanced at where Aragorn stood surveying the fighting further away. He had not noticed Daria's cunning attacks and that was good, for Aelric was already plotting to strengthen his new King's claim to the throne of Gondor and Umbar the way he knew best. Aragorn would have many enemies within his realm and the way of the Good was not always the way maintain power. He returned his attention to the fighting but Daria was nowhere to be seen although he could see the evidence of her skill and tactics.

Vaeltira approached him. "Yes, my wife, I hear your thoughts. But fear not, the fighting goes our way. See - the dwarves have already amassed a pile of corpses. I doubt any orcs will......."

Her blades flashed and the sneaking orc fell headless and bloodied at his feet.

"You were saying, My Lord?"

He smiled at her. "Ah, my wife, my love, what would I do without you?"
He kept his distance, hidden, crawling in the dirt like a blind orc. Curse those Men! The orc had nearly reached the cave where that elf lay whimpering but he had reckoned without the woman's reflexes. He stretched out his mind again to the orcs still fighting and spurred them on. The simple creatures had no idea he was guiding them, pricking their thoughts with hatred for all men, dwarves and elves.

Curse this body! Even using Thuringwethil's now feeble power he could not strengthen or change it. Perhaps it had been a mistake to torture it so but he had planned to draw such power from Thuringwethil once she had devoured Aragorn and Aelric that nothing would have been beyond his ability. Now he was reduced to scurrying and hiding, dragging this pathetic body along with him.

His spirit burned with hate, his mind reached out and there cowering in the recesses he felt HER and knew her fear.
From behind him Aragorn could hear Nilgerien's muffled sobs. The girl was troubled but her suffering came from more than just physical injuries.

"Daria!" he called. Someone should be with Nilgerien.

"She joined the others in the fight." Aelric's voice was regaining strength. "I watched her. She knows what she is doing."

"The orcs are trying to break through. Do they know we are here? What possesses them?"

"Sire, I cannot answer that but we should be armed and ready, regardless of our weakened state."

As they watched several orcs made a dash between Roland and Drogba, towards the cave. Amarie sheathed her sword and took up the bow again. With lightning speed she shot at the orcs, felling them as they ran. Drogba watched her movements, graceful even as she dealt out death.

Aelric stood beside Aragorn, Numenoreans separated by ages but united by blood.

"Your friends make formidable enemies, Sire. I hope one day to be counted among them."

Grey eyes looked into grey eyes, understanding.
Nilgaerien winced then cried out again as Melvorion's wrath battered her mind. He was getting closer. Slowly, but he would soon be within striking distance, she was sure.

Underneath the hatred, she could feel something familiar...whatever was left of Roth beneath the magician's growing madness. Her own anger grew as she thought of Roth being crushed into nothing by that malevolence. That led her thoughts to her own experiences under Melvorion's hands. Anger and hatred built. She stoked it by allowing herself to again feel Thuringwethil devouring part of her, to feel the old wrath for what Roth had done; she immersed herself in hated memories.

With a shriek of rage, her mind touched the Gem and its power caused her hatred to war against Melvorion's. He stopped pressing against her mind but she could not maintain the flow of power and anger and came back to herself just as she fell against the edge of the cave. Melvorion's grim pleasure at her failed efforts hit her but she had no mental strength left to even be angered about it.

Her slender fingers carefully felt their way down the rock as she lowered herself back to the ground. She hadn't even realized she had stood. Nilgaerien shuddered. If Melvorion's mere hatred could push her to such extremes, what would some of his actual powers do? She knew she was growing weaker, but touching the Gem had proven her wondering: if she could reach it in time, it might restore her to her former self.

She quieted her thoughts and concentrated on those around her, that small effort almost being too much. Good - they hadn't seen her little demonstration. She gasped and let go of their minds. Even in her weakened state, her fingers itched for her dagger and bow as the sounds of battle raged around her.
Melvorion laughed. Yes fight me, little elf, fight me, he thought to himself. Turn your mind towards me. Come close. Think about me. Dream about me. Feel me watching you, knowing you. You are making this so easy for me. I haven't even begun taunting you. You were mine and you will be again.

It would be so easy if it hadn't been for those cursed 'friends' of hers. Them and this puny body he was stuck in. He cursed as he followed the fight through the eyes of the orcs. One by one they fell, leaving not nearly enough damage. Some even without knowing what killed them. Only a few things, like a long gash down Arkantos' back, made Melvorion smile. No, these orcs were too few and too stupid even with him pushing them forward. But there would be other chances. He lost interest and ignored the battle where the last orcs soon fell dead to the ground.

This body was so needy. It disgusted him. But since he no longer could draw power from Thuringwethil like he had, he was forced to indulge it. A rat scurrying in the nearby bushes was an easy target for Melvorions mind. Roth was silenced and buried, but Melvorion felt him squirm at the taste of warm blood and fur scraping at the roof of his mouth. "What's the matter, Roth my friend? There was a time where you would do anything to get a meal like this. I helped you. Kept you alive. But then you got new friends and now you are to good for it? We might just have to keep doing this until you remember who your friends really are, won't we?" He grinned as he licked the blood of his fingers.
No orc was to be left alive. A few of the remaining orcs had tried to make a run for it, but were hunted down by Etharion and Valruin to the cry of "Elbereth!"

AmariŽ ran to Arkantos the minute she saw he was hurt. While she quickly helped him of with his shirt and jacket to get a better view of the extend of the damage, she asked the others to leave them alone. The surgeon would take care of their injuries. Drogba however asked Roland to be allowed to stay behind. He wanted to make sure there where no more orcs arriving he said. And he would stay out of Amaries way, she wouldn't even know he was there. The real truth was that he wanted to see AmariŽ use her magic. So far he had only heard about it, he wanted to see it with his own eyes. He almost envied Arkantos for getting to experience it first hand.

AmariŽ lifted her hand stuck out two finger in a v-shape and let the fingers run down on each side of the cut. She sighed in relief. "The cut isn't as deep as I feared, Eru be thanked." She did the same thing a couple more times, closing veins to stop the bleeding. She then placed her hands on his back. He felt a warm flow from her soft hands wash away the burning pain. "You.. shouldnít waste your energy... on me.." he whispered. "When they... she needs you... more than I do."

AmariŽ made a little snort as she got her suture kit out from on of her many pouches. "I will 'waste' my energy on whoever I choose and whenever I choose. You have been there for me when I needed you the most, and I will be here for you when you need me." She leaned in closer for the stitching and added with a low mumble. "Even if it seems that lately you only want to spend time with me when I am half dead..."
"That is not true!" his tone was indignant, then doubt crept in. "Is it? Is that how it seems?" He winced as he felt the needle bite into his flesh and turned his head to look at her.

"Keep still now! It will hurt less. And yes, that is how it seems."

He tried to ignore the pricking of the needle, concentrating on the warmth of her fingers where they touched him. "Maybe that is because at any other time I feel unworthy to be with you."

Amarie laughed softly, then seeing the blush creep across his neck and shoulders she was silent for a moment. Then she spoke in a whisper close to his ear "I am no more worthy than you, than anyone here. I thought you said that in jest but it was no jest was it?" He did not answer.

"Well" she spoke so that Drogba could hear. "That is you stitched up. And now if Drogba would assist you back to the others I will see what else I can do." She stood up and motioned Drogba forward, aware of his eyes watching her.
As they neared the others Amarie could see the surgeon busy with minor wounds. Aragorn was deep in conversation with Aelric. There was no sign of Nilgaerien but Vaeltira was pacing in front of the cave entrance. The woman looked paler than usual. There was agitation in her movements and every so often her hand would go to where the pendant used to hang at her neck.

Amarie left Drogba and Arkantos and made her way swiftly to Vaeltira's side.

"Will you tell me what pains you?" she asked gently, touching the woman's arm and looking into her eyes Amarie was again astonished to see them so clear and grey with no trace of the deep blue that had made them so unusual.

A sigh escaped as Vaeltira halted her pacing. "Amarie, I cannot live with this..... pain.... the fear, the memories, the demons..... they..... " she faltered, looking towards Aelric, "They are here now..."
Amarie followed her glance. "What are you saying? What do you fear from Lord Aelric - your husband?"

For a while Vaeltira was quiet in thought. She sat down upon the trampled grasses, her head cradled in her hands. Amarie sat beside her waiting.

"I do not fear for my own safety - yet. I am of value to him still and I hope maybe beyond reason that our partnership has forged something between us that goes beyond the curse. Yet I know his needs and desires and I remember what he was prepared to do even before that Swordwraith took him under her power. He is, above all, an ambitious man and I question his ability to serve anyone other than himself."

"He served Sauron well enough" There was a tinge of bitterness in Amarie's voice as though she was remembering those of her kin lost in the battles against Sauron's evil.

"He did. He served The Dark Lord the best he could.... yet all the while he hungered for more. He always looked for opportunities even though that was hopeless. His service was not given freely; like many he was ensnared not only by our heritage and the folly of our ancestors but by his own greed for power. Once the Dark Lord has you he never lets go. Some say his arm reaches even beyound our death and those of us who walk in the shadow, die in the shadow and take it with us. Not for us the peace of the Valar or the great music that is to come. We are the discord of The Dark Lord and the one who went before him."

"No, death is the gift of Eru, the One. It cannot be corrupted by any lesser being, not even Melkor. It is the freedom for you from all that is of this world."

Vaeltira raised her head and looked into Amarie's eyes. "Wise words, Lady Amarie of Rivendell, and not without hope. But that is for the future, the unseen and unknown. " She looked again at Aelric. "My heart tells me he is true and that he is willing, for the sake of those men loyal to the memory of Numenor, to put aside his own ambition and to follow Lord Aragorn. Yet I wonder.... I cannot help it..... and I urge caution... if his desire for power outstrips his desire for reconciliation and absolution then he will be a dangerous beast to harbour so close. "

"Is there no leash with which to hold him?"

"Honour. Above all and despite the evil he has done he believes himself to be a man of Honour, although he may sometimes twist the thread to breaking point - honour will hold him back, if anything will. Ah, my Lord Aelric is my salvation and my greatest demon. I must walk between the two."

"If I can help dispel these demons, if only long enough to give you some peace, I will. I offer you my help and it needs only a word or a look from you and I will be there beside you. My word on that, Lady Vaeltira."

"I would like to hear you sing again. Soon. Your words, even though I do not understand them, bring happier memories. " She laughed suddenly and for a moment the sadness lifted from her eyes. "You see, even thinking about your singing makes me forget.... for a moment anyway."

"Perhaps I should sing to Lord Aelric?"

"Whether said in jest or not, my Lady, it would perhaps do not harm and maybe if it stirs memories of better times and of hope for My Lord he will forget the dark desires long enough to understand what part he has to play in all this - for the good of his people and all the people of Middle-earth."

"I have sung for him once. Though for other reasons. I don't know if the surgeon told you?Ē
Vaeltira looked down. "They don't tell me things, and most of the time I don't want to know."
AmariŽ quickly took her hand. "So he has not told you. But I want you to know. We had to operate while he was awake."

Vaeltiras eyes widened and she had to swallow as she remembered the long scar down Aelrics arm. She saw in her mind hands holding his body down, a strong hand holding his wrist, the other hand holding a knife, slicing deep into the arm... She had heard enough screams from behind the surgeons closed doors. It had a seemed to her to be even worse than torture, since it was done in an attempt to do good...

"Do not worry my lady, he felt no or little pain."
Vaeltira looked at her. "HowÖ?"
"He let his defence down, he let me enter his mind. I made his body numb, I held back the blood, absorbed the pain, so the surgeon could do what he had to. He trusted me not to go further down than I had to. And I sang to distract his thoughts. It was hard, harder than I thought it would be. He could have made it harder. But he didn't. He did it for you, only for you. You are his weak spot, a curse and a blessing. I believe there is something more between you than the curse, but only you can find out what it is. And I will be here for you when you do."
Nilgaerien had left the cave to get away from the pain the others radiated. She had found her way to some trees, but kept close to the cave. She didn't want to go to far, she wouldn't admit it, but she was scared of Melvorion. Well, maybe not scared, she told herself. Worried perhaps. Annoyed. She felt Daria close by, but it took a little while to find her. She called her name and Daria slowly appeared from behind a tree. Daria looked nervously at the elf. Even if she couldnít see what she had done, Daria had seen the other dead orcs and figured out that what she had done wasn't common behaviour. She hid the knife and the scalps behind her back. Maybe she would get mad! What would she do if she got mad? Oh if only AmariŽ was here!

Nilgaerien felt Darias fear, but didnít quite understand why. Something to do with orcs, and that she could understand. She smiled gently to Daria. "Daria, will you lead me back to the cave? I just needed a little break. We shouldnít be out here on our own.Ē Daria slowly approached and reached for Nilgaeriens hand. What Daria hadnít expected was for Nilgaerien to put her arm around her waist for better support. Her hands touched something cold, hairy, dead. She let out a gasp and withdrew her hand in shock as she read in Darias startled thoughts what it was. Daria jumped back, whimpering. She felt so ashamed. Of course this wasn't the way the nice people did it, she should have known. She should have known! She had ruined everything!

Nilgaerien felt Darias fear moving towards panic. She breathed deeply a couple of times, it was only orcs, there had to be an explanation. And if Daria wished for AmariŽ, then maybe AmariŽ could explain. No one had spent so much time with Daria as she had. She didn't want to scare the girl. It was only orcs and they could talk about it at the cave.

ďPlease Daria, let us go back to the cave? AmariŽ will be worried about us, you know how she always worries.Ē She pleaded and reached out her hand again, and Daria took it. She didnít want to upset her anymore. Her heart was beating rapidly. Oh they would all hate her! And then they would leave herÖ She walked with Nilgaerien back, and saw AmariŽ and Vaeltira sitting outside the cave. AmariŽ turned towards them and smiled softly, Vaeltira looked lost in thoughts. AmariŽ noticed Darias nervous behaviour and saw Nilgaerien nodding towards Daria and what she was holding behind her back.

It took a couple of seconds before AmariŽ understood, but when she did she hurried up and went towards Daria and embraced her. "Oh Daria, everything is alright. It is alright. I can explain to them, if you want me to. They will understand." Daria started crying and wrapped her arms tightly around AmariŽ, still holding the grotesque scalps and the knife. AmariŽ rocked her quietly.

Daria and AmariŽ was soon the centre of everyones attention, but they kept their distance. AmariŽ called Aragorn over and he and AmariŽ talked in Sindarin with each other. Daria knew they talked about her, but the voices were so soft. It was like a song, shifting between Amaries melodic voice and Aragorns deeper bass. How could a song about something so bad sound so nice? Almost without knowing it she relaxed and loosened her grip around AmariŽ and listened.

"Daria?" Amaries stroked her hair and she looked up. "Do you think you can show the king what you showed me?" She looked up at AmariŽ and then at Aragorn. His grey eyes were so kind. Like her father. And there was a light in them, deep and pure. She looked down and nodded shyly. With a shaking hand she reached under the collar of her shirt and let an emerald necklace encircled with mithril fall on her chest. Daria didnít speak so AmariŽ explained. "It was a gift to her mother from her father. I don't know how they have been able to hide it for so long, but they did. She doesn't remember, butÖ Is itÖ the designÖ Could she beÖ?" Aragorn swallowed. "It has been a while since I saw it, but I think you might be right." AmariŽ stepped back. "Iíll leave you two alone then." She turned around and walked back to the cave, as the questions began, she waved them off. "Please, not now. Ask the surgeon, I need a little time on my own."

Now all eyes where on him. Aelric was not happy, had he know about this and not told him? "MankŪr, what do you know about this?" The surgeon cleared his throat. He knew that tone in Aelrics voice. "Daria was showing us the way as you know, but decided to take a detour. She led us to a cave and a grave. Then she ran of her own. Well the elf lady knows more. The make it short: She scalps the orcs because that is what she saw the orcs did to her mother."
Lashnack looked over the crowd of orcs before him. In the last few days many small bands of orcs had met with him and his group all telling tales of a strange sorcerer, servant of the Dark Lord. It was difficult for these primitive orcs to put into words exactly what the sorcerer had been telling them but it was almost surely a call to arms, not against the winged beasts which fed on orcs too stupid to stay under cover, but against the elves and men who dared tread this island. All the orcs felt this urge to fight and slay the intruders, to add elven scalps to those trophies they had already collected from the humans taken there as slaves and then hunted as food. Now this food supply was gone and apart from the rodents and other small animals there was nothing left for them to eat. A fresh supply of meat was welcome.

He was a large orc, head and shoulders above the others, and because of that and his better grasp of hunting and tactics, he was considered their leader - for as long as he could stay alive. Danger came not just from the winged beasts but from his own kind; orc hated orc and skirmishes between the small groups usually resulted in several being slaughtered. Often their bodies would be left near the beasts cave as an offering, hoping to ward off attacks for a while and give the orcs some peace in which to tend their own. If not offered to the beasts then the bodies provided a few good meals for the orcs themselves.

Lashnack shouted at the orcs, his coarse voice rising above their arguing. Spittle dribbled down his scarred chin. This sorcerer had spoken to him also. There was power in his words and promises of more men to feed on. The squabbling gradually ceased and the orcs looked to Lashnack.

He grunted. His evil mind dwelt on the taste of manflesh and he licked his thick, rough lips. Man or elf, male or female - they would provide good meals for these orcs and for their few females hidden deep within caverns on the other side of the island.

"You follow ME!" He shouted. "I will lead you to them. I know where they are. The sorcerer has spoken to ME! You obey ME and only ME! Understand!"

There was a murmour of agreement. One thick set orc stepped forward, his weapon raised. "And why you? What says you lead us? I ain't following no stupid orc from the west side. Yer don't know yer way to the pits, let alone to them!" There was a few sniggers from some orcs close to him of the same group but as Lashnack's crude blade sliced the orc's head from his body the sniggering stopped."

"What says?" He shouted, "I says!"

"Lashnack, Lashnack!" The orcs took up the cry, stamping their feet. The air was filled with the cry, echoing from rock to rock.

A day's march away from the orcs Valruin listened. This was not good.
Not good at all. Valruin looked at the sky, soon it would be night, and the Orcs would go to plunder the cave. He had to warn the others, and fast. Valruin ran away, back to the cave. On his way he saw another patrol of Orcs. Valruin grabbed an arrow and his bow. He shot 1 Orc, then he quickly slayed the rest. Valruin was so fast, the Orcs couldn't scream. Discreetly the Elf moved on. He saw a small stream, and he stopped to drink some water. The water tasted vile, like there was evil in it for ages. Valruin walked on.

Aragorn looked at the necklace. "How did you get this?" he asked. "My father gave it to me after my mother died." Daria answered. "Then, your father was..."
"Yes he was," Daria answered quickly. "How did you get stuck here?" Aragorn asked. Daria took a deep breath.

Aelric still stood there with MankŪr. "How do you know about that, MankŪr?" Aelric asked. "I overheard, mylord." "So you didn't become one of those Elfworshippers? A dirty Elf friend?" "No sir, I haven't...."

Valruin was almost at the cave now. He could still hear the Orcs screaming behind him. He hurried. There was no time to lose, for he could hear they were getting closer.
MankŪr kept his calm, stone like face. "My lord, I am a surgeon, I am not a spy. But if you are worried about 'Elfworshippers' and 'dirty Elf friends' you should take a closer look on those you consider closest and most loyal to you, your best friend and your wife. And if you want to know more about Daria, you can ask your new best friend the king."

----

Daria suddenly felt dizzy. How did you get stuck here? How did you get stuck here? How did she get stuck here?

"There was... a big boat... we were many... and orcs.... soldiers..." She struggled to remember, she wanted to answer. "We were to build something, but it wasn't true, the boat left. And then the shadows came. Every night they came. And.. and.. we hid and we ran... so for long we hid and ran. Safe in the sun. But they found us... one by one... orcs and shadows... my mama..." Her voice broke and her eyes filled with tears.

"I know, Daria, AmariŽ told me." He tried to catch her eyes, but her eyes were distant.
"I did like daddy said... be quiet, don't let them see you, don't say anything, Daria, don't let them win, Daria, be invisible, Daria."

Aragorn was getting a bit worried now. "What happened to him?"
"... the Shadow... I... I was quiet, Daddy, I was, like you said, didn't say anything, I wasn't there, it never happened, invisible, invisible Daria, only me, only me, no one to see me..." She burst into tears again.
There was no time for Aragorn to comfort Daria; Valruin leapt into their midst with news of the orcs gathering at least a day or so's march away. Aragorn gave orders for everything to be made ready to leave swiftly. A group of stray orcs was one thing but an organised gathering of maybe several hundred was another. Their only hope was to move out , get the Gem and return to the Meneltauros.

Aragorn motioned Aelric to join him. "I see only one way from here, Lord Aelric, if we are to stop Melvorion from taking the Gem. We know he is tormenting Nilgaerien and it is possible he knows her mind. We cannot risk him getting to the Gem before we do."

"Our minds perhaps think much the same, My Lord." Aelric went on "As I see it we must send Nilgaerien away from the Gem, leading Melvorion and his orcs from us. Daria will be useful in getting the Gem should it be in an unusual location."

Arargorn nodded while Aelric continued, "I suggest I go with the Lady Nilgearien, the dwarves, Etharion and Roland. You take the others. Valruin has a sense of the Gem, find it and get back to the beach. We will take care of Melvorion and meet you back there. Flaming arrows give the sign."

"I am surprised, Lord Aelric, that you do not wish to be there when we find the Gem."

"Sire, I have no need of that elfen bauble. But I have a great interest in what else comes of this Quest. The elf maiden will be safe with me and when she and her Gem are reunited I trust we can leave this cursed island. Although that foul wraith's poison is gone from my body I still feel her within and I feel her keen senses. Let us hope that I can sense the sorcerer and flush him out of his hiding places. " Aelric did not mention the score he had to settle with Roth but if the opportunity arose......

Leaving Aelric to organise the groups, Aragorn made his way to Nilgaerien. The elf was sitting alone, looking pale and drawn. Gently he took hold of her hands. "I am asking you this, trust me, Nilgaerien. Do not connect with the Gem....... tell me this from your memory and do not ask me why. Can you tell me where the Gem is? Which direction does it lie? Is it buried?"

She raised her face, fixing her sightless eyes on him. He could see the struggle within her..... to share with those she trusted the most valued information or to keep quiet and hope, maybe beyond hope, that it will stay safe even after her death, for she now felt that this would be her last journey. She had one purpose left, to ensure the Gem was saved. She considered what Aragorn was saying too her. There was a time, not so long ago, when the thought of anyone else touching the Gem was too painful to consider. Now, although she could not see him, she knew his eyes would show concern for her.

"I have always trust you, my Lord Aragorn." she sighed. "All I can recall is that it is safe within the tears from the Two Trees.... the light of Yavanna protects it." Aragorn wiped the tear that fell down her cheek.

"Thank you my lady."

Amarie was tired. She needed to regain her strength but there was no time. Aragorn was asking her..... tears of the trees, Yavanna...? The only pure thing left on this island...... water!

"Lord Elessar! I know...... I know where it is. Or at least I knew where it was...... but it seems different now. Although Daria would know..... "
Aragorn looked confused. "Daria knows where the Gem is?"
"No. Yes. Well... I know almost where it is, Daria will know where to find that place and Valruin will find the Gem once we get there!" She quickly explained about the creek and the pond near the first cave they had stayed in, how she had felt it was the only pure thing on the island. "The Gem is in the water! That is why the water is pure and that is why Nilgaerien felt the Gem move, it must have been washed from its place of hiding."

Aragorn sighed and bowed his head. AmariŽ reached out and touched his arm. "Aragorn, Estel, you need not hide your thoughts from me. Elladan and Elrohir are like brothers to you, and... I suppose you know what they mean to me... We have more hope now than we had before. We both wish there was some other way, but we cannot let Melvorion take the Gem, and we cannot return home without it. We know it and Nilgaerien knows it. But I fear this hour will haunt us all our lives."
With orcs on the way there was no time for long goodbyes. AmariŽ didn't want to leave Nilgaerien, but they needed Daria to guide them, and Daria needed her. AmariŽ had also told Aragorn that she could sense Melvorions presence when touching the ground. This way they could know if Melvorion fell for their plan. AmariŽ touched her brooch in her pocket. This was why she had come. She was here to help find the Gem and save the twins. She knew it wouldn't be easy.

There were few objections about how Aelric had divided then. Arkantos wouldn't have left AmariŽ, Drogba obeyed his captain faithfully, but was happy to be put with AmariŽ. But in the chaos of people saying goodbye, Vaeltira secretly pulled Aelric aside asking why he didn't want her to go with him.
"Aelric, I would rather be with you in case anything should happen......"

"If anything happens, wife, you will soon know. I must ask you to go with the others for no other reason than a small group travels faster and we must have speed if we are to outpace Melvorion."

"Aelric.... promise me...." she looked into his eyes, begging understanding. "Just promise me you will act with honour for all our sakes."

"You do not need my promise on that. Have you no faith in me?" Now go...... there is no time for this." He pushed her none too gently towards Aragorn and those that were to go with him. Aelric gathered together Moori, Dorin, Roland and Etharion who was guiding Nilgaerien. In silence they set off.
It was raining again. Not a drenching downpour, but a drizzling, clammy rain that seeped into every part of one's body, seeming to sap all warmth. Nilgaerien shivered, sensing the others' discouragement. They had been forced to stop again, because of her. Her strength only lasted for small intervals - compliments of Melvorion. At this rate, they wouldn't be traveling far enough away from Aragorn's group to cause any real distraction.

Nilgaerien shut that line of thought quickly. Melvorion could only sense her feelings and emotions and sometimes carefully worded thoughts but she was tkaing no chances. She could feel him even now, a stale presence lingering in her mind, searching, ready to devour anything she brought to the surface.

That's right elfmaid, came the whispered thought. Think about me and fear.

She trembled at the invasion of her mind's privacy. No, she did not think she feared him - only despised wha the had done to her...and to Roth. Someone large stepped in front of her, kneeling down to eye level - Aelric, she thought. Wait - how did she know that he was looking at her eyes?

"Nilgaerien - we must move."

Her response was a gasp. Reaching out, she clutched a handful of his shirt. "Aelric. Don't move."

He obeyed immediately and she sensed him becoming alert to danger. With a grimace, she released him. "What was it?" He looked around.

"Aelric - I can see you."

He nodded, as if that was normal, still scanning the forest then he seeemd to register her words. "You can what?"

She nodded. "You're still a blur, mostly, but I can make out that you're facing me and you're kneeling." She shrugged. "Though I'm sure alot of it is helped along by my senses." She stopped, opened her mouth, then bit her lip. "What I'm most worried about," she whispered, so low that Aelric had to lean towards her, "is that this might help Melvorion. What if he can see what I can see? Or what if the sensations indicate to him where we are?"

"Then we'll have to move faster."

"But I can't - "

"If carrying you helps our progress, we'll do that."

Nilgaerien set her jaw stubbornly. "I won't be carried. And I doubt that you would want to do so." She stood, all the blurs wobbling to make her dizzy. She blinked. "I'm rested. Let's move on before that sorceror gets closer." Remembering that Aelric was now in charge of her, she hesitated. "Please," she finished.
It was with misgiving in her heart that Amarie watched Nilgaerien being led away by Etharion. They were going in the opposite direction to where the Gem was thought to be, with the sole intention of drawing Melvorion away from it. But their path would take them further away from the beach and they would need speed, cunning and a lot of luck to avoid a confrontation with the sorcerer. Amarie wondered if Nilgaerien would be able to withstand Melvorion's power if he managed to get close enough to her. Her spirits slumped. This could be the last time she saw her friend.

Valruin took her arm gently, urging her leave. She looked into his eyes and saw the same sorrow. He too despaired of seeing Nilgaerien alive again.

Daria led the group through the dense thicket, following paths that even the elves' keen sight had trouble seeing. The chaos caused by the volcanic eruptions did not deter Daria. Her skills were instinctive. They threaded their way through the trees, round huge outcrops of rock and gaping cracks in the earth through which steam and ash still belched. Deep tunnels with openings hidden beneath scrub and brush provided a quicker route. The walls of these naturally created tunnels were damp and lichen covered. Water trickled from cracks and glistened in the dim light. There was no evidence that orcs had ever used these tunnels and to Amarie the air felt pure and fresh with no taint of evil yet.

One such tunnel opened halfway into a space large enough for all of them to huddle together and rest. Watches were set in either direction while the others rested in turn. Daria was at ease and confident that no orcs would find their way here but it was impossible to light a fire so they wrapped their cloaks about themselves and sat close together for warmth. Amarie sat between Drogba and Valruin and although she did not require the sleep of mortals, she needed rest and peace. She could feel the cold from the stone wall behind seeping into her back, Turning slightly she leant against Drogba who instinctively put his arm around her shoulders. It was comfortable like this, she thought, as her head rested against his chest, and warm .. she was drifting.... she could feel the sun's warmth on her face as she walked beneath the silver and gold mallorn trees.... there was laughter and someone walking towards her, arms open in greeting..... Elladan!

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