The Gift of Death, Part Two
“Is she crying?” Pippin asked Merry, round-eyed as he watched the small woman sniffle and scrub at her face with her fists.
“I think she is,” Merry replied, equally amazed. “She seems very attached to that horse. Even if she did give it a most unusual name.”
“I don’t blame ‘er,” Sam piped up. “I feel like crying m’self, having to leave Bill ‘ere, and we’ve not known him long. I think she’s had Gordo for years. Like a member of the family, he is.”
With a final snuffle, Dagnir hugged the horse round his neck a last time, then turned to glare fiercely at the others, who were watching her with curiosity (the Hobbits), derision (Boromir and Gimli) or utter blankness (Aragorn and Legolas).
“It’s always the same with women,” Boromir said airily, tilting his head back and surveying her down the length of his nose . “No matter how battle-hardened they say they are, it always ends in tears.”
“On behalf of my gender— hey!” Dagnir exclaimed, hands on hips. “You keep talking that way and this is gonna end in tears, alright— yours.”
Boromir backed away, hands held up in mocking surrender. “Yes, Dagnir. I meant nothing by it.” She just curled her lip at him and stomped over to the pile of supplies she’d removed from Gordo, and the rest dispersed, Merry and Pippin scooping up handfuls of pebbles to toss into the water. Gimli and Legolas began to bicker about whose fault it was that the passage from Holllin had gone unused for so long—Dwarves or Elves?
“Any progress yet, Gandalf?” Frodo asked quietly as the debate raged on. The wizard had been trying for the past hour to speak the correct password to enter the gate of Moria.
“I’m afraid not,” Gandalf replied shortly. Silence fell, broken only by the plop! of Merry’s stone in the water. Pippin made to throw his own but was halted by Aragorn.
“It’s a riddle!” Frodo said suddenly. “Speak friend and enter… what’s the Elvin word for friend?”
Gandalf blinked. “Mellon.” And blinked again as the doors parted smoothly. His frown was very deep indeed as they entered the cave.
“Soon, Mr. Elf, you will experience the fabled hospitality of the Dwarves: roaring fires, malt beer, red meat off the bone,” Gimli told Legolas happily. “This, my friend, is the home of my cousin Balin. And they call it a mine. A mine!”
It was very dark, and mysterious things crunched beneath their feet. Boromir lit raised his torch high and gasped at the sight that was illuminated. “This is no mine,” he said grimly. “It is a tomb.”
“No!” Gimli shouted, his voice echoing against stone walls as his eyes darted around at the skeletons scattered across the ground. “No!”
“Goblins,” Legolas muttered succinctly as he squatted and picked up an arrow.
“We make for the Gap of Rohan!” declared Boromir. “We should never have come here. Now get out, get out!”
Dagnir held up a hand for silence. The usual prattlings of the halflings were absent. “Where are the Hobbits?” she asked, looking around, and turned to jog back outside the gate.
Without was chaos; a water-creature had snagged poor Frodo by the leg and dangled him high in the air by a long, glistening tentacle of pale, sickly green; the other three halflings were hacking at it ineffectually with their little swords.
Legolas began pelting the creature with arrows, which only seemed to infuriate it—flapping the unfortunate Frodo back and forth like a leaf in a windstorm. Drawing their weapons, all lunged at the beast and stabbed and slashed at it until the tentacle loosened and Aragorn could tug the Hobbit free.
“Still better than a Tsangor demon,” Dagnir was heard to mutter as they dashed into the mines to escape the enraged thing. “Way fewer arms, and no mucus. Any mucus-free critter is a-ok with me.”
Boromir just cleared the gate when the creature smashed into it, and it collapsed. Rocks rained down from above, and when the dust cleared, the entrance to the mines was obliterated. Their only means of escape was gone, and there was no choice—they must go through the mines of Moria.
They walked and walked, down narrow corridors and up steep stairs. Legolas stepped lightly as ever, but his face had a different set to it, as if he were clenching his jaw very tightly. When they were exhausted, they rested; when they were hungry, they ate. They spoke little.
Finally they came to a set of three doors, and Gandalf halted, puzzling over which to select.
The Fellowship and Dagnir took the opportunity to rest a moment. Gandalf and Frodo bent their heads together, speaking in low voices, while the other Hobbits argued over being hungry.
The Men and the dwarf plopped to the ground, happy to take the weight of their armour and weapons off their feet, while the elf leant back against the wall and Dagnir pulled her long plait over her shoulder, grimacing at the mine dust caked in it. It was fairly evident that the silence was due to the males’ awkwardness around a female.
“So, Dagnir,” Gimli said at last. “You’re a woman.”
She looked at him, her face deadpan as she replied, “Yes. For many years now.”
Gimli frowned; Aragorn and Boromir muffled their laughter. Legolas just watched.
“Why did you follow behind us for so long, Dagnir?” Aragorn asked. “Why did you not make yourself known earlier?”
“I don’t play well with others,” she replied, and dropped to sit beside him. “Besides, I snore, and God knows I couldn’t live with myself if I disturbed your beauty sleep.” The way she eyed them indicated her opinion that some needed it more than others. “Did you forget to bring soap again, Strider?”
He threw back his head and laughed; the sound bounced off the stone walls. “If I did, I know you will press some of yours on me. I can only hope I will not end this journey smelling of lilacs or roses.”
“It’s honeysuckle,” Dagnir replied crossly, unbraiding her hair. “And smelling flowery is the least of your worries, bucko.” She stretched an arm over her head, then the other. “So, you gonna tell me who these other guys are, or am I gonna have to call them Elf Guy, Dwarf Guy, and Horny Guy?” They all looked at her oddly.
“Which one of us would be Horny Guy?” Aragorn asked mildly.
“Him,” she said, jerking her thumb at Boromir, who looked dismayed. “Because he’s got the horn!” She tapped it where it hung at his waist, and rolled her eyes.
Aragorn smiled. “Quite right. Dagnir, this is Gimli, son of Gloin—“ the dwarf nodded at her, and she nodded back, “Legolas, son of Thranduil and prince of Mirkwood—“ she saluted him smartly, which he returned with a raised eyebrow, “And—“ here he coughed delicately, “Horny Guy is Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor.” She grinned at Boromir, who glowered at her.
“That’s a pretty good frown,” she told him. “I give it a seven out of ten for sheer bad temper, plus an extra point for all the stubble. Really drives home the intimidation factor.”
There was a bit of silence, marred only by Sam shouting at Merry and Pippin to stop arguing over whether elevenses really should be held at eleven o’clock.
“So!” Gimli finally said with forced cheer. “You’re Dagnir, the Slayer.” She nodded. “I like that in a woman.”
“This is my lucky day,” she muttered, busying herself with rummaging through her pack, and Aragorn hid a smile, knowing her to be worrying about fending off the advances of an amorous dwarf.
“What is a slayer?” Legolas asked from his stance against the wall.
“Just what it sounds like,” she replied, coming up with a comb and starting to run it through her hair. It was the only thing that had changed since he’d met her, Aragorn realized. It was very long, falling past her waist. The last foot or so was very light, almost as pale as an elf’s, but the rest was the colour of rich honey. “I slay things.”
“What sort of things?” asked Boromir. “Evil things?”
She nodded, removing the last tangle before separating the mass into three parts for another braid. She braided her hair into a single smooth plait, her actions practiced. The men watched the movement of her deft hands, waiting for her to continue, but she said no more.
“Ah, it’s that way!” Gandalf exclaimed from his perch further up the way, and they heaved themselves up to follow. For many miles they walked until the Hobbits were near-dead on their feet, and still they pressed on, seeing nothing but what was revealed by the all-too-small ring of light from Gandalf’s staff.
Suddenly the close walls on either side of them seemed to melt away, and the wizard chanced a larger burst of light to show their surroundings: a huge hall of glittering black stone, with tall, tall pillars arching upwards.
“Behold! The great realm of the Dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf!” Gimli cried in delight as the others stared in amazement at the halls’ lofty heights. Legolas lost the pinched look he’d acquired upon stepping through Moria Gate, and all breathed a sigh of relief until the brighter light was extinguished and they could see nothing but the gleam of Gandalf’s staff in each other’s eyes as they crowded close.
“Let us find a cozy corner here, and sleep, for we have had none to speak highly of since entering Moria,” Boromir declared, and the others were quick to agree. Huddled tightly against the draught that whispered through the great hall, Aragorn let sleepy eyes travel over his companions. To his left was Boromir, who adjusted the placement of the Horn of Gondor before dropping his head to his chest and closing his eyes; to his right was Dagnir, who lost no time in snuggling up to Legolas for warmth and falling asleep, but not before spotting the elf’s expression of dismay and winking up at her fellow Ranger.
Stifling a smile at Legolas’ discomfort, he turned his attention to the Hobbits. Like a family of puppies, they had collapsed in the corner and passed out immediately, dirty faces smudged and exhausted. Merry’s arm was tight around his cousin Pippin’s shoulder, and Sam’s one hand rested protectively near, but not touching, Frodo’s leg even as the other grasped the pommel of his little sword.
As for Frodo, he ventured a wobbly smile for his friend Strider, who returned it encouragingly. “Sleep, Frodo,” Aragorn told him. “Sleep, for I do not know when you will next have the chance.”
Frodo closed his eyes, and Aragorn did likewise, knowing Gandalf was on first watch. He awoke automatically when Legolas rose for his turn on watch hours later and Dagnir turned to him when her heat source was gone. Feeling her cuddle against him, he sighed and draped his arm round her shoulders. She was so small, with her bones as fragile-seeming as a bird’s, and yet he’d seen the carnage she could wreak.
He only wished she would reveal more of her past to him, for he could not blame Legolas for his distrust of her. She was a mystery, and worked hard to remain one. It was not the behaviour of a honorable warrior, to hide one’s history.
“Stop thinking so hard,” she mumbled against him. “You’ll get a cramp.”
Aragorn sighed again and closed his own eyes, but sleep would not come for a long time.
The next morning Dagnir untangled herself from between Aragorn and Legolas, who had resumed his former place, and came forward for her share of the cold breakfast Sam was trying to cobble from their supplies. Then they left the immense hall and entered another, much shorter corridor. There was light up ahead, and they hastened toward it. It fell in a straight, pale stream upon what was clearly a stone tomb, and Gimli rushed to it, muttering, “No, no, no no no…”
They looked on stoically as the dwarf knelt before the tomb, speaking brokenly in Dwarvish. Aragorn raised a brow to see Dagnir come forward and rest her hand on Gimli’s shoulder, squeezing briefly.
Gandalf pulled a book from the grasp of a nearby skeleton and began to read in spite of Legolas’ urging not to linger. “ ‘Drums, drums in the deep. We cannot get out. A shadow moves in the dark. We cannot get out... They are coming...’ ” he read aloud.
A huge, echoing clatter interrupted the wizard, and they spun around to see Pippin standing beside a well, eyes shut tightly in dread.
“Fool of a Took!” Gandalf raged. “Throw yourself in next time, and rid us of your stupidity!”
And then, softly at first, and growing in volume as they listened in horror, came the sound of drums. Frodo’s sword, Sting, began to glow a bright blue.
“Orcs!” Legolas murmured.
Boromir poked his head around the corner “They have a cave troll!” he declared grimly as he jerked back, narrowly missing being hit by arrows. He slammed the door shut and jammed long staves and polearms across to gird it more firmly.
“Let them come!” shouted Gimli, brandishing his axe, eyes alight with the thirst for vengeance. “There is one dwarf yet in Moria who still draws breath.”
They waited, bodies tensed, weapons poised. The creatures on the far side of the door began to hack at it.Legolas, Aragorn, and Dagnir readied their bows and as the orcs hacked through, began to loose arrows through the gaping holes. Screams and squeals of pain followed the twang of each bow, but finally the doors burst open and Dagnir and Aragorn relinquished bows for swords.
The room was flooded with orcs and goblins. Metal flashed as they battled the monsters, metal that swiftly became covered in black blood. Then the troll was led in, smashing into a wall, knocking part of it down as it pushed its inexorable way toward Frodo. Aragorn was flung into a wall, slumping unconscious to the floor.
The others rushed to occupy the troll while Frodo crouched over Aragorn, frantically trying to awaken the Ranger, but it stabbed out with its spear and caught the Hobbit neatly in the side, the force of the blow knocking Frodo into the corner.
Horrified, the swordsmen (and woman) distracted the beast while Legolas aimed the death blow carefully, loosing his arrow into the troll’s throat. The Hobbits sobbed in fear for their friend, but Frodo grinned up at them from his prone position on the filthy floor—he was unhurt, and revealed a shirt of mithril under his tunic and cloak.
“I think there is more to this Hobbit than meets the eye,” Gandalf murmured, and Gimli exclaimed, “You are full of surprises, Master Baggins!”
“Enough of the back-slapping, boys,” Dagnir said briskly, head cocked toward the hallway, listening hard. “There’s more orcs coming.”
“To the bridge of Khazad-dûm!” Gandalf commanded, and they set off, stumbling into yet another massive, high-ceilinged hall. Pelting into it at top speed, their eyes widened to see that creatures began to emerge from the very stone that surrounded them on all sides. and they were soon surrounded by a very large, very nasty troop of orcs and goblins with murder and blood-lust in their glistening black eyes.
They were feeling the end was near indeed when a fiery glow appeared at the end of the hall, and the monsters surrounding them slowly began drawing away, melting back into the stone and shadows until the Fellowship and Dagnir were left alone once more, the glow burning more brightly with each passing moment.
“Something so bad even they’re afraid?” Dagnir asked, trepidation in her voice. “This is not of the good.”
“A balrog,” breathed Gandalf, grey eyes searching the darkness for their newest foe. “A demon of the ancient world.”
“Demon?” she inquired, perking up. “Leave it to me. I’m really good with demons.”
He turned a stern face to her. “This foe is beyond any of you.” She pouted, but he pointed sternly toward the broken staircase with his staff. He turned back to them. “You must run one final race! Keep going down the stairs, and keep to the right. Take the bridge!”
And they began to flee once more, until the Hobbits in front were brought up short by the abrupt end of the hall. A brief flight of stairs went down, terminating in a vast chasm that Frodo almost fell forward into, if not for Sam’s frantic grab on his cloak hauling him backward to safety.
One by one they leapt across. Gimli refused to be tossed but almost fell off, and only Legolas and Dagnir tugging him up by their grip on his beard saved him. And all the while, the balrog drew closer, its footsteps shuddering ever nearer and making the ground tremble. After days in the darkness, the light thrown by the demon was like the sun at midday, they found themselves squinting as their eyes ached from the increasing glow.
With a roar and angry spreading of arms and wings, the balrog rounded a corner and revealed itself for the first time: a monstrous vision of shadow, flame, and smoke, with tiny coals for eyes burning in a face crowned by curving horns. Immense, hooved feet thudded down, leaving great scorched rings on the ground with each step, and in its clawed hand it gripped a long whip like a slender tongue of fire.
Once all but the wizard were across the chasm, they ran as fast as they could toward the other side even as orcish arrows pinged at them from left and right. Only when they were safely across did they look back, and saw then that Gandalf was not with them, but stood at the edge of the chasm, facing down the balrog.
“You shall not pass!” he thundered, and Aragorn dropped Pippin to draw his sword and charge forward with his war cry of “Elendil!”
Boromir hestitated not a moment, but sprang forward, yelling, “Gondor!” Dagnir followed a scant second later with a shout of “Sunnydale!” that would have puzzled them all greatly had they not other pressing issues to handle at the moment.
“You shall not pass!” Gandalf cried once more, and with a blow of his staff on the bridge, cracked it so the narrow bridge was rent asunder. Its footing lost, the demon tumbled with a roar of fury and outrage into the abyss below. Gandalf turned to face the Fellowship, and for a brief and shining moment they felt joy at his success. But the balrog would not be thwarted in his quarry, and his whip lashed out and up, wrapping around the wizard’s knees and yanking him over the edge. “Fly, you fools!” Gandalf shouted as he tumbled down.
Stricken, they stood frozen in horror until orcish arrows began once more to pepper the ground near them, and each snatched up a Hobbit and began to run. A small band of groups guarding the entrance was quickly, almost perfunctorily dispatched as daylight glimmered just beyond.
Bursting free of the mine at last, their return to the sunlight was ignored as the Fellowship collapsed to their knees in grief. Dagnir watched them quietly, her head bent in recognition of the wizard’s passing.
Aragorn, to Boromir’s displeasure, insisted on continuing as fast as they could. “By nightfall these hills will be crawling with orc,” he told them gruffly. “We must reach Lothlorien.”
And so they began their trek once more, albeit at a slow and often stumbling pace, for the Hobbits at least were half-blinded by tears. After some hours they crossed a stream, taking a brief moment to drink and wash the tear-tracks from their faces. Aragorn stared northward, fondling a pendant on a chain around his neck and Dagnir commented on it.
“Arwen gave it to me, as a symbol of the love she bears me,” he said almost shyly.
“Ah, true love,” Dagnir said lightly, but there was something in her voice that made the words grate.
“You do not believe in true love?” Gimli asked sardonically, his face making it clear that he certainly didn’t, and wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t, either.
“Oh, I believe in it, all right,” she replied, her mouth an ugly, wry twist. “I have personal, first-hand knowledge of it, after all.”
“You have shared in true love?” Legolas asked, skepticism plain in his expression. “Why, then, is your mate not at your side at this moment?” Aragorn wondered at the cruelty of the elf’s question.
Buffy looked up at him, her green-gold gaze roaming over his tall, lithe body and pale hair and beautifully masculine face. “Because he turned evil, and I had to send him to hell,” she replied at last, her face utterly blank, and stood while the others gaped at her. “I told you before: I do what needs to be done. I suggest you not forget it.”
She brushed some grass off the seat of her trousers. “Shall we continue?” she asked, very businesslike, and began walking toward the forest once more, uncaring if they followed.