Without, Part 36
Hours later, the gates of Minas Tirith were flung open to its returning sons and Corinne stared with wide eyes around her, trying to take mental notes as best she could. Still astride, they rode through the city to its topmost tier, where dwelled the king and queen when they were in residence and where the Steward and his wife currently ruled Gondor in the absence of Elessar and Arwen.
Corinne’s legs were wobbly after two long days perched precariously on a horse’s rump, and she was grateful when strong hands steadied her as she stumbled. Turning to smile at her rescuer, her breath caught in her throat, for before her stood quite possibly the handsomest male creature she’d seen since Thranduil.
Except that there seemed to be two of him—or was she simply seeing double, after her hellish experiences of the past week? For there was not one, but two dark-haired elves with sparkling silver eyes standing on either side of her, hands outstretched as if to catch her in case she fell. For a crazy moment, she contemplated swooning just so they’d have to rescue her, but then dismissed it as stress-induced delirium.
“What are you doing here, Ranger?” one of them asked Damrod. “For your post is on the Anduin with your kinsmen.”
The other nodded in agreement. “Bringing your leman for a visit to the White City is not recommended at this time, while the king is gone.”
Corinne blinked in surprise, then frowned. “There’s no need to be insulting,” she tried to snap, though it came out more as an unintelligible croak. Frustrated by her inability to speak, she settled for slapping the elf sharply in the chest.
In a flash, he had grabbed her wrist and spun her around, twisting her arm around her back and pushing her against the wall, his body pressing hard against her so she could barely breathe. “I recommend you not do that again, madam,” he said into her ear, making her shiver in spite of the anger she could feel radiating from him.
Her arm swiftly becoming numb and her shoulder aching fiercely, Corinne nodded. Slowly, he released her and turned her to face him. “Your name,” he demanded.
“Corinne,” she tried to say, but it was a mere squeak. Sighing, she pointed to her throat. His eyes scrutinized the marks and then he wrapped one hand around her neck much as Aker had only days ago. Panicking at the familiar, horrible sensation of being gripped there, she began to fight him but the other elf came forward and, pinning her arms to her sides, held her still.
“My thanks, Elrohir,” the first elf murmured, then looked deeply into Corinne’s eyes as a surge of warmth flowed from him into her. She calmed, and then began to nearly purr as the faint soreness in her entire body lessened. She could almost feel the bruises melting away, as well as the various aches from riding for days and sleeping on the ground.
Finally he was done and stepped back, indicating to his twin that he should release her. When she was free, Corinne touched her throat and found there were no more sore spots. Relieved, she gifted him with a bright smile, but he merely stood there, stone-faced.
“Your name?” he repeated.
Why did she always get the pissy elves? she wondered. Aloud, she said, “Corinne,” and was amazed when her voice, though hoarse, actually functioned.
“And from where do you hail, Corinne?” asked the other elf, the one called Elrohir, coming to stand beside his brother.
“Used to be New York,” she replied, “but most recently, Caras Galadhon.”
Elrohir quirked a dark brow. “Indeed? Then you shall have met our grandparents, Celeborn and Galadriel.”
She brightened at that. “Celeborn’s your grandfather? I love him! He’s the one who taught me to speak Sindarin! And Galadriel’s terrific, she’s been a huge help to Haldir and me.” Relieved to be able to speak once more, she found herself yapping freely. “You must be Arwen’s brothers, then. I thought you looked familiar. Just as hot as Buffy said…” She trailed away when she saw their matching expressions of confusion. “Oh. Um, sorry. Should I go slower?”
“You should stop altogether,” said the first elf, but Elrohir contradicted him.
“Elladan, she speaks of our sister and Dagnir.” He turned to her, his intent silver eyes boring into her. “What do you know of them?”
They were both serious, deadly serious. “Why are you so worked up about them?” she asked slowly. “They’ve only been gone a few weeks.”
“They have been gone for nearly four months,” the one named Elladan informed her coldly. “We have not had word in many days. If you have information, it would be to your benefit to share it.”
Four months? Corinne goggled to herself, feeling a genuine swoon coming on, and groped for the wall behind her. Once more, their hands came out to steady her, and she leaned gratefully against them. “But we’ve only been in Aker’s realm a week… less than a week… and it took two weeks to get to Rhosgobel from Caras Galadhon…no, it can’t have been four months,” she insisted to them.
“And yet it has been,” Elladan replied calmly. “Four months, almost to the day.” He paused. “Come, you must tell your story to the Steward.” He grasped her elbow and propelled her forward into the palace, his brother and Mablung and Damrod trailing behind. “Tell Faramir that one of his brother’s party has arrived, and to meet us in the tapestry room.” Elrohir nodded and peeled away from the group down a smaller corridor.
Once there, Elladan released her arm and suggested she take a seat. She did so, and surveyed her surroundings; the room was of medium size, with a vaulted ceiling that was painted black with a white willow tree and seven stars stretching to each corner of the room. The walls were covered with colourful tapestries featuring tales of yore, Corinne supposed, and though the immense hearth was empty this warm late-summer day, she could well imagine how pleasant the room would be in the midst of winter with a cozy fire.
While she was examining the chamber, Elladan was examining her, and as soon as she realized it, she blushed bright red and stared down at her lap. “I’m not Damrod’s leman,” she said quietly. “I—“
“Best to save your tale for the Steward,” he interrupted, but his voice this time was gentler. “So you need to tell it but once.”
The doors were flung open once more, and Elrohir entered with a man bearing such a striking resemblance to Boromir that he could only be that Man’s brother. “Faramir, Steward of Gondor,” the elf announced, then grinned. “And Mercas, prince of Ithilien whilst his parents are away.” For Faramir came bearing a child in his arms, and grimaced as the boy got a great handful of hair, giving it a healthy tug.
Corinne stood, but her attention was focused on the baby. “So you’re Mercas,” she murmured, reaching out a finger to stroke his light brown curls. “Your mom and dad have told me a lot about you.”
But Faramir stepped back from her. “You will kindly explain your presence, milady, before touching my nephew,” he told her with a frown.
She understood, and sat down again. “You’ll probably want to take a seat,” she commented. “It’s a long story.”
“…And so Damrod and Mablung found me on the riverbank,” Corinne continued, bouncing Mercas gently as she walked around the room. “I still couldn’t talk, so they brought me to you, where I received quite the warm welcome from Tweedledee and Tweedledum, here.” She grinned at the elves, who merely stared back impassively. Honestly, she thought grouchily, it was impossible to make friends with them.
She’d encountered no such problem with the Steward; Faramir had warmed up to her right away, or perhaps it was because she’d succeeded in keeping Mercas quiet where he’d failed. In any case, he seemed more than content to sit back and listen while she labored to entertain Dawn’s and Boromir’s son. Not that she minded; the kid was adorable with his sandy-brown curls and huge blue eyes.
Corinne bounced him on her hip once more. “So, that’s my story.”
“And it is an exciting one,” Faramir conceded. “How much of it is truth?”
She frowned at him. “All of it,” she sniffed, nose in the air as she turned away from him to the window, pointing out things of interest to Mercas. The melodious, bell-like sound of elven mirth filled the air then, and she turned back to find Elrohir laughing.
“There can be no doubt of Haldir’s influence upon you,” he said, “for only the Guardian is capable of that much hauteur.”
“Yeah,” Corinne agreed with a fond smile. “He’s a snooty thing, isn’t he?” She sighed. “I miss him.” Resting her cheek against Mercas’ curly head, she gazed out the window, staring northward as if she could see Haldir’s beloved Lothlórien even from Minas Tirith.
Faramir cleared his throat. “Damrod, Mablung, you concur with her tale?”
“From when we found her in Osgiliath, yes, milord,” Damrod replied while Mablung jerked his head in a short nod.
“Then I give you leave to return to your posts, with my thanks for your escort.” Thus dismissed, the Rangers stood, bowed, and departed. “Have you two any doubts to her honesty?” he inquired of the elves.
“None,” Elrohir replied, for he had been watching her closely for signs of deceit and had found none. Elladan nodded slowly, as if disappointed to have found her trustworthy.
“So, then,” Faramir continued, eyeing her with speculation, “what shall we do with you?”
“You could send me up to Lothlórien,” Corinne suggested hopefully. “That’s probably where Haldir and the rest will go.” She had a thought then, and frowned. “If they’re back in Arda too, that is.”
Elrohir lifted a brow. “Is there some doubt?”
She laughed, a harsh and humorless sound, and then winced when a tiny hand yanked on her hair. “With Aker, all there is, is doubt.” She disengaged Mercas’ hand and fished in her pocket for something he could play with, but all she had were four lotus petals and a somewhat wilted palm frond. Breaking off one of its leaves, she used it to tickle his wee nose, making him giggle. “The last I heard from Buffy is that Aker had yet to be defeated. I don’t know if she’s back with the others, or if she were sent somewhere by herself like I was. Anything could happen.”
“In that case,” Faramir said, “I will keep you here where ‘tis safer, until some word arrives of the others’ whereabouts.” He grinned suddenly. “And you shall earn your keep; I see you get on well with the young prince. He is now your charge, as my lady wife is quite busy with our own child and her duties as chatelaine of the palace.”
“Did Dawn not threaten you with emasculation if you foisted her son off on a stranger?” Elladan pointed out in a low voice, gazing at the Steward over his steepled fingers as he slouched languidly back in his chair.
“From her telling, she is almost family to Dagnir and her sister, and so hardly a stranger,” Faramir replied reasonably. “And you shall be watching her besides, so I have no fears in placing Mercas in her care.”
Elrohir began to laugh at his brother’s outraged expression. “We were not sent here by our father to monitor your nephew’s nanny,” Elladan told him, voice quiet but infinitely menacing, “but to assist in the governance of this realm whilst our sister and her husband are away.”
Faramir only smiled as he stood, and turned to address Corinne, who was watching with bemusement. “I shall send in Éowyn forthwith,” he told her. “Only stay here, and she shall fetch you to the nursery and your new chamber.” Sketching a bow, he hastened from the room, leaving her with the identical elves and Mercas.
Soon a lovely blonde woman with a tiny infant in her arms entered the room, and the elves stood to greet her. “Milady Éowyn,” Elladan said with a bow as Elrohir made a silly face at the baby, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue.
“She is yet too young to respond to your brand of charm,” Éowyn told the latter dryly, and he straightened, looking a little sheepish.
“Ever have I liked children,” he explained. “I hope our sister shall soon bless us with a niece or nephew of our own.”
“Why not hook up with a foxy elleth and have your own?” Corinne couldn’t help but ask, but he and his brother only looked at her oddly as they swept out the door. She turned to Éowyn. “Is that such a strange question to ask?”
Éowyn laughed and pushed a stray strand of golden hair behind her ear as she juggled her daughter with the other. “Both have sworn themselves to eradicating orcs from Middle-Earth, and that rather precludes them from taking mates and having families.”
“Ah.” Corinne was beginning to understand that some elves had this commitment thing where they forsook personal happiness for the sake of duty, and she could comprehend it all too well; hadn’t she dedicated herself to learning for the sake of learning? If not for Aker’s interference in her life forcing her to hook up with Haldir, she’d likely never have known was it was like to enjoy a passionate love.
At the thought of him, a bleak fear for his life and sharp longing for him swept over her, and to her dismay Corinne found herself crying once more. She pressed her cheek to Mercas’ head, uncaring that her tears were soaking his curls, and let out a long sob of despair. The baby seemed to sense her need of his warmth and kept remarkably quiet, allowing her to cuddle him closely.
Corinne’s tears ceased eventually, and when she dried her eyes she found that Éowyn had left her alone with Mercas. He began to squirm in her grasp and she carried him back to his chair, plunking him down and staring at him. Huge eyes stared back, and they had a moment of wordless communion until Corinne began to laugh. “What do we do now?”
Mercas reached down into his chair and pulled out a rather battered doll, waving it hopefully at her. She took it and frowned thoughtfully. “A puppet show?” He clapped his chubby hands together and laughed, but she doubted he really understood what she’d said. Searching the room, she found a few more dolls in varying states of damage and lined them up on the table before her.
“What in the world am I going to tell you? I don’t know any fairytales.” She thought a moment. “Ok,” she said at last, deciding.
“Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third human, and was the greatest king on earth and the strongest super-human that ever existed; however, he was young and oppressed his people harshly.” She made the knight-puppet hop manfully across the tabletop. “The people called out to the sky-god, Anu, the chief god of the city, to help them. In response, Anu created a wild man, Enkidu, out in the harsh and wild forests surrounding Gilgamesh's lands.” Corinne picked up the orc-looking doll and lurched it around with her other hand. “Enkidu had the strength of dozens of wild animals; he was to serve as the subhuman rival to the superhuman Gilgamesh.”
Lifting her gaze from the dolls to Mercas, she told him, “Keep in mind the pervasive themes of heroism, polar opposites, divine intervention in mortal affairs, good versus evil. and overall cultural mores in the narrative as the story progresses.”
Mercas burbled and blew a spit bubble; she took that as assent and continued.
“A trapper's son, while checking on traps in the forest, discovered Enkidu running naked with the wild animals; he rushed to his father with the news. The father advised him to go into the city and take one of the temple harlots, Shamhat, with him to the forest. When she saw Enkidu, she was to offer herself sexually to the wild man. If he submitted to her, the trapper said, Enkidu would lose his strength and his wildness.”
Corinne peered suspiciously at the child, as if she expected him to applaud the father’s advice to his son. “And here we have the ancient concept of woman as drainer of man’s potency and vitality.” She snorted. “Typical misogynistic claptrap, but what can you expect from an Iron Age civilization?”
“What in the name of Eru is she telling him?” Faramir asked his wife from the entrance, where they stood listening at the cracked-open door.
“I have no idea,” Éowyn replied, “but she is no longer crying, and you are not having to chase after him. Success all-round, would you not agree, my husband?”
“Ever are you canny, my lady of Rohan,” he said admiringly before raising an eyebrow suggestively. “We do have a while before we ought to return,” he mentioned casually. “Our own little one is asleep; shall we retire to our chamber?”
Éowyn laughed. “You are as subtle as an elvish arrow through the neck, Faramir,” she told him, eyes sparkling. “Lead on.”
Far to the north in Rhosgobel, a dozen people slumped in relief when Arwen relayed the message from her grandmother, who had it from her grandsons in Minas Tirith, that Corinne was safe.
“Yinepu deposited her in Osgiliath?” Haldir demanded, his face like a thundercloud. His ire was understandable; it was but a year after the destruction of the One Ring and the ruined Fortress of Stars was perilously close to the still-untamed evil of Mordor. Deserted for many miles around, Osgiliath could be a frightening place.
“Some Rangers found her, and she is with Faramir and Éowyn now,” Arwen soothed, and he settled back in his chair, still glowering but somewhat calmer. “When shall we be on our way?” she asked her husband.
“Are we certain that Aker is destroyed?” Elessar asked, meeting the gazes of first Buffy, then Radagast. “All the lions were killed, but does that mean He himself is dead?”
“I destroyed His talisman, the thing that made Him invincible,” Radagast replied slowly. “One would think that, after its ruin, He—or whatever he changed into-- would be as vulnerable to the Guardian’s wrath as any other mortal.”
“And it’s not like we can do anything about it,” Buffy added. “We can’t spend forever in Fun Land hunting Him down; we’ve got to collect Corinne and figure out what all this means for Arda and Aman. If there’s going to be trouble, we’ll need to be here to fight it.”
Boromir heaved a great sigh. “I can only hope that will we not come to rue this decision.”
“If we do, I hereby give you permission to tell us all, ‘I told you so!’ until we want to punch you,” Dawn told him playfully.
“Another day to rest and pack, do you think, friend Gimli?” Legolas murmured, tapping his fingers on the table as he planned the logistics of their next journey.
The dwarf nodded. “At least.” He gestured none-too-subtly toward Dawn and Arwen, whose shadowed eyes spoke of greater weariness than they were accustomed to. “Perhaps another week, even.”
“I saw that, Mr. Subtle.” Dawn folded her arms across her chest and scowled at him. “Just because I’m tired doesn’t mean I can’t hit the road again.”
“And I,” Arwen added stubbornly. “’Tis merely the stress of the past days that has me looking less than I might.” In truth, the purplish hollows under her eyes gave her a look of such fragile, ethereal loveliness that it almost hurt to look at her. “Now that we are home and there is naught to fear but the usual dangers of Arda, all shall be set to right once more.”
“Yeah, what she said,” Dawn agreed, and exchanged a firm nod with the elleth before both turned in tandem to glare down any opposition.
“So, that’s settled then,” Spike commented, fishing in his duster pockets for a cigarette and jamming one, a sadly bent specimen, in the corner of his mouth. “You lot would have a much easier time if you stopped fighting with your chippies over every little thing.” He lit the fag and snapped the lighter shut with a flourish, squinting through the smoke he blew out the other side of his mouth. “I learned years ago not to argue with the Bit; it don’t work, and only annoys her.” He removed the cigarette and gestured toward Buffy. “Same goes for Big Sis.”
“My thanks for your illuminating advice, vampire,” said Elessar, his tone acerbic. “Should I have need of more, where shall you be found?”
Spike shifted on his chair and looked apprehensive. “Been meaning to ask about that, actually,” he admitted. “I don’t expect your bloke fancies having me roaming round his treehouse, yeah?” he asked Buffy.
“We do not live in a treehouse,” she informed him, “but no, I think Legolas would rather eat ground glass than have you underfoot.”
“You’re so stupid,” Dawn declared, staring at him in amazement. “Do you really think I’d let you live anywhere apart from me after I missed you so much this past year?”
Spike beamed happily at her around his fag. “And what does hubby have to say about it?” he asked lazily. “Wouldn’t want to be the cause of any domestic strife.” He judiciously ignored Buffy’s blatant snort of skepticism.
Boromir’s expression was carefully neutral, as was his tone when he said, “Our household is certainly large enough for you to join it. If Dawn wishes you to reside with us, then I wish it as well.”
Spike nodded like the gracious gentleman he’d been raised to be. Then he ruined it when he replied, “Ta, mate,” with a jaunty wave of his cigarette, strewing ash across the table. He seemed to think of something that displeased him greatly. “Oi,” he said to no one in particular. “What am I going to do when I run out of fags?”