Author’s Note: This chapter dedicated to Caro, aka Technoelfie, for gifting us all with some exceptionally beautiful fanart of this story. You have my gratitude, my respect, my love, and my thanks, all in great profusion.
Without, Part 35
There was nothingness for a long moment, an utter void of velvet blankness, until Buffy felt the familiar sense of being alive again, of having a body weighing her down and body parts to move and lungs to breath with. Opening her eyes, she saw above her the angle of Legolas’ jaw and felt the tickle of his silken hair against her forehead.
“Hi, honey,” she said to him, and he glanced down with a smile, eyes lighting with joy to see her alive once more.
“That was faster than usual,” Legolas commented, hugging her briefly and pressing a kiss to her lips as Gimli beamed at her through his beard and Dawn murmured, “Welcome back.” Spike just watched her, eyes wide and very, very relieved. Haldir’s face was impassive, expressionless as a statue’s, but Elessar smiled broadly at her and winked.
“Yeah, well, Corinne was impatient to get back,” Buffy replied, grinning cheekily at Gondor’s king.
All heads in the vicinity whipped around to stare at her at that. “What?” demanded Haldir, his voice hoarse.
Buffy sat up and investigated her surroundings; the ground was littered with the corpses of Aker’s alter-ego lions, but most of their company was fairly clean with the exception of the march-warden, who was liberally splattered with blood. She figured that they others had allowed him to work out his frustrations and demolish everything in sight. Cheap therapy, she figured with a sigh.
“Yes,” she confirmed, with a big smile. “I had to fight yet another god, but she’s been allowed to return.” Her head swiveled as she strained to look further. “So where is she? She should be here somewhere.”
They all looked around, but as they stood in the middle of a large, vacant cavern with nothing but the howling wind, it was fairly evident right away that Corinne was nowhere in sight. Buffy bounced to her feet, energized as always after regenerating, and slapped her hands on her hips. “Yinepu!” she shouted. “You mangy mutt! What did you do with her?”
Yinepu appeared beside Buffy; quicker than the blink of an eye, Legolas had his an arrow nocked and aimed directly between the god’s eyes. “You will step away from her,” he informed Yinepu, who backed up, hands help up in mocking surrender as a rather unpleasant smile spread across His jackal’s face.
“Slayer,” he greeted her in a silky voice, then yelped in surprise when she reached out and yanked off his kilt. “Is that entirely necessary?” he asked sourly, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring.
“It is when I’m dealing with sneaky gods like you,” she replied nastily. “And how weird is it that I know enough gods to make a statement like that?” She swung the kilt in her hand and determinedly refused to look below his waist. The others, however, suffered no such compunction and stared openly. “So, spill. Where is Corinne? You said she could come back with me.”
“I said I would release her,” Yinepu corrected, matching her nastiness. “You did not specify to where, so I chose a location myself.” He leaned forward, ignoring the dig of Legolas’ arrow into His forehead, and met her stare with his own narrowed one. “I shall not be dictated to, and certainly not by the likes of you.” He straightened, and sniffed haughtily. “She has been sent back to your world.”
Buffy gaped at him. “Let me get this straight,” she began slowly, trying to control her temper. “You dumped a woman who’s had the crap kicked out of her the past few days, and who’s still mute from the injury that killed her, into the wilds of Middle-Earth without any means of protection?”
The others glowered at that, and Haldir shouldered Elessar aside to stand nose-to-snout with Yinepu. “You have done what?” he demanded from between gritted teeth, then locked his hand around the god’s throat and hoisted Him off the ground to shake Him like a rag doll. Yinepu began to gasp for air, but Haldir didn’t seem to notice.
“You have returned her to life, only to abandon her in the wilderness so soon after the War, when orcs and Uruk-hai still roam the lands of Arda?” Yinepu was beginning to struggle in earnest now, kicking his legs and trying to pry the elf’s hand from his throat, but Haldir was beyond notice; his gaze never wavered from Yinepu’s face.
“Um, Hal, maybe you should let him go now,” Buffy ventured after a moment.
Instead, Haldir tightened his grip and with a brutal crunch, killed Yinepu before carelessly tossing His body away. “Do not call me that,” he told Buffy calmly with a faint smile that rather scared her with its coldness. Then he turned to Dawn and Radagast, who stood watching him with expressions of apprehension on their own faces. “It is time to perform your parlour tricks once more, for we need to return.” He squared his shoulders. “I must find Corinne.”
Dawn automatically extended her hand to the wizard, who reached into his dun robes for a needle after studying Haldir for a moment. He lightly grasped Dawn’s hand and pricked her finger, squeezing gently to bring the blood. When the first tiny portal appeared, he thrust the end of his staff into it and pulled outward, widening and enlarging it so that even a Man of Boromir’s size could fit through it.
Then he eyed Spike. “You are sure you will accompany us?” he asked. “For I know not at which time of day we are returning, or if the sunlight there will harm you.”
“I am,” Spike declared. “Corinne’s a decent bird, I’m going to help find her. ‘S the least I can do, after bollocksing up keeping her safe.” Then he glanced at Yinepu’s corpse. “I’ll go last, though. Think I might have myself one last meal before I go back on an animals-only diet.”
Arwen grimaced at that, and volunteered quite eagerly to be the first. Elessar flatly refused, and it looked like they were heading for a full-fledged argument when Radagast sighed, grabbed a shoulder of each, and propelled them both through at the same time. “Newlyweds,” he grumbled. “Ilúvatar preserve us from them all.”
One by one, they entered the portal. Gimli blew out a greatly relieved breath as he leapt through, but Thranduil seemed almost sad to go. “Many fine adventures were had here,” he commented, dancing nimbly out of the way of Radagast’s eagerly pushing hand, and stepped through under his own steam, as it were, with one last fond glance backwards.
Finally, it was just Radagast and Spike. The vampire left his dinner and staggered over to the portal. “Wow,” he gasped. “Gonna miss that; it’s good stuff.” Radagast just rolled his eyes and shoved Spike through, himself following a second later.
They returned at precisely the same spot from which they’d left: the tiled mosaic floor of Radagast’s garden. What was different, however, was the company: instead of merely a few score of soldiers and archers and Haldir’s brother Orophin, not only did Rúmil and Tatharë run from the cottage after Orophin to welcome back the travelers, but—
“Ada?” whispered Arwen from her position on the ground, half-hidden under Elessar. She peered through the sheaf of wavy black hair that had tumbled forward to obscure her vision. “Ada, is it truly you?”
“It is,” replied Elrond, coming forward and extending his hand to assist his daughter to her feet. “We arrived yester eve, fetched by Orophin when he became concerned over your prolonged absence.”
“Prolonged absence?” Thranduil inquired, resting lazily back on his elbows and looking for all the world like there was no better place to be than lying in Radagast’s untidy garden between the cabbages and beans. “How long have we been away, lord of Imladris?”
“Over three months,” Elrond informed his Mirkwood counterpart, whose calm acceptance of that extraordinary statement was in direct counterpoint to the shocked exclamations of his companions.
Only Haldir seemed unphased, or at least uncaring. “Arwen,” he address the elleth, “Would you be so kind as to contact your granddam? I would have her try to locate Corinne, if she may.”
But Arwen was still in shock at seeing her father, who she had never thought to encounter again after their tense parting following her wedding to Elessar, and stood trembling in his embrace.
“It’ll have to wait a while,” Buffy told Haldir. To his credit, he said nothing, only clenched a muscle in his jaw and instead turned his attention to his brothers and Tatharë, who had flocked around him and now peppered him with questions about their quest.
Buffy went to shoot a grin at her sister, but found to her dismay that Dawn was standing in the circle of Boromir’s arms, head on his shoulder, weeping quietly. “What’s wrong?” she asked, concerned.
“Mercas,” Dawn replied with a sniffle. “We’ve already been away so long, and now time did a funky warp thing and we’ve been gone way longer than we thought, and, and, and we’ve missed almost four months of his life, and he’ll be almost ten months old now, and what if we miss his first word, and his first step, and what if he doesn’t remember us, Boromir?” She turned a tearful face to her husband.
“Babies are mostly witless,” he replied matter-of-factly, smoothing her hair and pressing his cheek to the top of her head. “It would be surprising if he did remember us, I think.” He tilted up her chin and dropped first quick, then more lingering kisses on her lips. “Do not fret, sweet, for we shall now return to him. If we are lucky, we shall have missed his fussing over growing teeth.” Boromir looked positively delighted at the prospect of his brother spending sleepless nights tending to a screaming child.
“Yeah, that’s one milestone I’m not at all sorry to be missing,” Dawn admitted, then brightened as a thought hit her. “It’ll take us a month to get back, think he’ll also be potty-trained by then?”
With a thud, Corinne landed on the ground. “Ow,” she tried to say, shifting to her hip so she could rub her bruised butt, but her voice was still messed up and all that came out was a harsh croak. Looking around she saw that not only was she alone, but was in a totally unfamiliar place, and rested her forearms on bent knees and then dropped her forehead onto them. Was there no end to the confusion? She’d harboured a scant five minutes of bliss that she’d finally be reunited with Haldir, and now she was…
What was she? More importantly, where was she? Lifting her head, she studied her surroundings. It appeared she’d been plunked down squarely in the middle of a sort of courtyard, over which arched a tall dome supported on four tall, stout pillars. Behind her was a large altar-type platform, in the centre of which was a large, round impression, much like a socket. Seven broken stone prongs jutted upwards, clutching at nothing.
Venturing closer, Corinne saw that there was writing carved around the base of the platform. Brushing away what seemed like centuries of dust, she squinted at the words. Her reading of Common was somewhat better than her Sindarin, and she was able to discern that it read, “The stone of the fortress of stars.”
Interesting, she thought. Of no use whatsoever to her, but interesting nonetheless. Turning from the platform, she saw that beyond the dome overhead was an entire city, of pearl-grey stone, and quite demolished. Statues leaned drunkenly, headless or armless, from their bases while walls and steps lay in cracked ruins. Gates fell open, admitting all who would enter, columns lay in pieces where they had crashed to the ground.
No help here, then, she realized with another sigh. Still, the place didn’t have the taint of surrealism that Aker’s realm had, and she figured she might very well be back in Middle-Earth. The question was, therefore, where in Middle-Earth was she? Were Buffy and the others back here as well, or only her? Haldir’s gonna bust a gasket at this, she thought with certainty, and heaved herself to her feet. Resigning herself to a lengthy walk, she picked a direction and started walking.
An hour later she found herself at the outskirts of the abandoned city, and through the gate hanging off its hinges, nearly entirely rusted away, a vast range of mountains stretched endlessly before her. With a sinking heart, she leaned against the crumbling wall that ringed the city and closed her eyes. What was she going to do now? It was madness to begin walking, with no provisions and certainly no way to defend herself should attack come.
Corinne looked skyward; it was getting dark, and already the air was becoming chilled. Rubbing her arms through Spike’s borrowed shirt, she began to amble back into the city, hoping to find some shelter that wasn’t too hideously uncomfortable for the night, and perhaps some water as well. Food was probably out of the question, which was a shame, because her belly was already growling in protest at its emptiness.
She retraced her steps to the dome, and hearing the faint sound of rushing water, followed it to find that the city was split in two by a massive, fast-flowing river. She drank her fill, then stripped down and washed herself as best she could, feeling immensely better once she was clean, even if she had to put her dirty clothes back on afterwards. She found a corner that was mostly intact and curled up in it, exhausted.
What had gone wrong? Had it been something she or Buffy had done, or was it Yinepu that caused her to be sent here—wherever here was—all alone? Had Buffy been sent back to the others? Were they safe, or had they been defeated by Aker? The thought of Haldir, injured or even killed as he fought against the god, shattered the thin veneer of control she’d managed to that point and she broke down, crying until the sliver of a moon rose overhead and she fell asleep, her huddled figure bathed in its feeble light
Corinne was awakened the next morning by a shout, and pushed herself to a sitting position before rubbing the sleep from her eyes and peering into the bright morning light at the figures approaching her.
“How fare you, milady?” one man asked her, kindness in his voice, while the other demanded why she was there in a somewhat more abrupt tone. Behind them on the riverbank, a small boat was tied with a length of rope to the ankle of a nearby fallen statue.
“I—“ she tried once more to speak, but it came out a garbled squawk so she just pointed to her throat and shook her head to indicate she couldn’t talk. The first man seemed sympathetic but the second was unimpressed.
“You cannot be allowed to remain here,” he told her. “You shall be brought before the Steward.” And he turned away, striding back to the boat and plunking himself down at its helm, glaring forcefully at her and the first man.
He sighed and attempted a smile. “I am Damrod,” he introduced himself, “and that is Mablung.” He helped Corinne to her feet and assisted her over the uneven ground to the boat. “We are Rangers of Ithilien.”
Ithilien? Wasn’t that where Dawn and Boromir and Buffy and Legolas lived? Excitedly, she grabbed his arm and began nodding her head frantically, wondering how to make him understand that she needed to get back to them. He seemed glad she was pleased to be there, but clueless as to what had her so thrilled. She quickly gave up, but was vastly relieved to be in safe hands, especially when Damrod handed her a fat packet of food and nearly full bottle of weak mead.
Mablung was a surly sort, speaking as little as possible, and seemed to resent the easy speech of Damrod, who kept up a running commentary the remainder of the day as they retraced their steps to their camp. It seemed that every week they made a patrol to the city of Osgiliath, in which Corinne had been unceremoniously dumped by Yinepu, and they had happened upon her there.
“We shall bring you to the White City right away, milady,” he told her, and she nodded happily. He gave her a clean tunic to wear, for which she joyfully rewarded him with a kiss to the cheek. His reaction was to blush furiously under his growth of stubble; Mablung’s was to scowl even more fiercely and gripe even louder about the folly of rescuing foolish women sleeping in deserted cities.
And so they began their journey toward Minas Tirith, Corinne riding pillion behind Damrod since Mablung refused to allow her to ride their supply pony. After a few hours of silence, Damrod tried to make conversation as best he could with two companions who were not speaking, one by choice and the other by necessity. His eyes widened in alarm when he asked her if she’d tried leaving the city, and she motioned toward the east.
“But, milady, that way lies Mordor!” he exclaimed. “There still be many wild things, fearsome things, in that foul land.”
How could she respond to that? She shrugged and attempted a weak smile. He just sighed as if amazed anyone could possibly be that entirely stupid, and suggested she try to sleep, as the trip was long and dull.
And so it was. For two days they rode, slept, and rode some more. Mid-morning on the second day, Damrod woke her for her first glimpse of the White City: obediently she looked, and gasped at the sight of it, rising out of the side of a mountain. Seven tiers it had, all of the purest white stone, and a lone tower rising above it all from the highest tier.
“We shall arrive before nightfall, if we make haste,” he informed her, and she motioned that, by all means, they should make haste. He laughed and kicked his mount into an easy trot.