Teaser for The Four Corners Of Middle Earth.
Lothiriel stepped on the deck of the light schooner that had been her temporary shelter for the last two moons. She loved the fresh and salty air of the sea, and she gathered lungfuls.
"My lady, another half a day, and we are back home," the ship captain announced gleefully, and she gave the man a warm smile.
Lothiriel's visit to the islands West of Dol Amroth had been a success, and she was returning home full of pride and expectations of praise from her father. She could not wait to see her kin, especially her brothers. And with all honesty, she could not wait to sleep out of her chainmail and with unwavering ground underneath her. As much as she enjoyed sea travels, nothing brought her more joy that being surrounded by the loyal walls of her home. Worry, as well, was gnawing at her heart. The world was growing perilous; unrest grew in all parts of Arda.
"A ship!" a sailor in the crow's nest suddenly screamed. "I see black sails!"
Lothiriel's hand lay on the hilt of her sword unconsciously.
"Corsairs?" she asked the captain in a hushed voice, and saw alarm colour his features.
"All hands on deck!" the captain ordered, and sailors rushed around Lothiriel. She stepped out of the way, worrying her lip.
Soon, she could see the ship on the horizon, as it was approaching fast. The triangle of the sail was indeed of a darker tone, and she could see a banner thrash on the mast. She thought she recognised the crest of one the Umbar Warlords.
"At least they are alone, no Haradrim filth," the captain muttered under his breath. "But what are they doing so close to the shore?"
"Their ship is fast," the first mate stepped closer to the captain and Lothiriel, and they formed a tight circle speaking in hushed voices. "I would say it is a scouting mission."
"Or a waylaying one," the captain answered, and threw Lothiriel a meaningful look. "If the islanders betrayed us and sent them a note, they know you are on this ship, my lady." Lothiriel exhaled sharply in anguish.
"It would make sense," the first mate spoke gravely. "One fast ship, a swift attack, and they have the Princess of Dol Amroth for ransom."
"Can we outrun them?" Lothiriel asked, and the dark expressions on the men's faces gave her the answer.
"There are a few more hours travel to the port." The captain shook his head. "Unless..."
"Aye?" the Princess asked, and the men exchanged looks. "Well, what is it?"
"There is a bay nearby. We can try reaching it. It is tricky, the arms are narrow, and full of steep cliffs, but we could manage."
"Then do it." Lothiriel commanded firmly, and the captain nodded. "They might withdraw if they see us go for the bay. They hardly will be willing to fight on land."
Lothiriel had been wrong. The Umbar ship had pursued them relentlessly, and even when they entered the narrow mouth of the bay, it followed. The corsairs had an additional advantage in the circumstances - their ship was narrower and lighter, and as they chased the schooner, they did not need to maneuver between the underwater cliffs and ridges.
Lothiriel could already see the sandy shore of the bay, when a deafening crack and a jerk of the ship's hull let the failure of their captain be known. A long wide shoal lay underneath them, and the sailors saw small light boats separate from the Umbar ship and rush towards them.
A fight started on the decks, and blood spilled. The assailants were numerous, blood thirsty, and the sailors were suffering defeat.
When almost none were left standing, the corsair captain placed the final blow across the first mate's chest, and the man fell, heaving, blood colouring his lips.
"Where is she? Where is the Princess?" the corsair asked, but the sailor only spat in response.
Lothiriel crawled out of the water, coughing, her limbs aching, and lungs painful in her chest. She was an exceptional swimmer, but even for her the distance was trialing. She had left her armour on the schooner, but her sword was clasped to her back, and now weighed on her like a rock.
She could hear screams from the schooner, and quickly looked back. Judging by the corsair boat now rowing towards the shore, her escape had been discovered. She pushed herself to get up and rushed towards the pines on the far end of the beach. She knew this part of the shore was uninhibited. She had only herself to rely on.
She ran, weaving between the pines, her wet boots slipping on the needles and the grass, but she knew she had little chance to escape. Whatever advantage she had gained was now quickly dissipating. The men behind her had their strength, she had just swam the distance that made every muscle in her body burn in agony.
She could already hear noise behind her - boots stomping, and harsh voices barking - when she suddenly dug her heels into the ground. She stood on the edge of a steep sandy gully, the slope going sharply down. Lothiriel looked back, and saw the first corsair appear from between pines. She squeezed her eyes and lunged ahead.
She rolled down, protecting her sides, and minding the blade on her back, and landed at the bottom relatively unscathed. The men hesitated on the top, and she jumped on her feet and rushed along the tiny trickle of stream at the bottom. She knew it would only be moments before they followed. The walls on her two sides were growing taller, and soon she realised she was running through a narrow cleft in the rocks.
Air was entering her lungs, seemingly cutting them with myriads of blades, and her legs gave in twice already. She would fall, and rise, and run again, her knees now bleeding, cut by the sharp rocks under her feet. The voices behind her grew louder, and fear grasped at her heart.
The cleft made a sharp turn, and Lothiriel pushed with the last effort of her body and spirit. She dashed along its curve, around a large granite boulder, and came to a sudden stop, frozen from the view that entered to her eyes.
Two people stood in the narrow passage in front of her. Both were short, hardly reaching Lothiriel's chest. The woman was slender and of Men, clad in some heavy opulent garments, unfamiliar to Lothiriel. The Man was probably a Dwarf - although Lothiriel had encountered too few of them to be certain. Long dark locks lay on his shoulders and back, almost covering a long wide scabbard on his back.
"And I am telling you, I am not leaving my crown in some forsaken sandy ditch!" the woman said and pushed a large golden crown under his nose.
"It is your coronation one! You never fancied it anyway!" the Dwarf answered in a grumpy tone, and then both of them turned and looked at Lothiriel. She noted the freckles on the woman's angular face, and the Dwarf's prominent nose, and the black beard, braided at the end, and decorated with splendid beads.
And at that moment the corsairs appeared around the curve of the crevice.
Lothiriel jerked her sword out of the scabbard, wondering whether she had just gained the second group of enemies, when the Dwarf shifted, shielding the red haired woman. His wide Dwarven sword was already firmly clasped in his right hand.
"Umbar corsairs," he snarled through gritted teeth, and the woman peeked from around his wide frame.
"Aye," she agreed. "The question is why you are pushing me aside. I can fight, you know."
"I have not touched you," the man grumbled, and Lothiriel wondered whether the two of them were mad. The corsairs were slowly approaching, and the Dwarf and the woman were bickering like an old married couple! Their behaviour was apparently puzzling even to the attackers, since they were exchanging confused looks.
"We also do not know if your magic had returned with us, ushaktul," the Dwarf said, and the woman huffed the air out in irritation.
"There is only one way to find out," she announced haughtily, and stepped ahead.
The woman lifted her hands, in a strange gesture, splaying her fingers and palms, as if planning to push the corsairs back, and then Lothiriel could not hold back a cry of astonishment. Some sort of golden glow grew in the centers of the woman's palms, and then tongues, sharp and slithering, grew out of them, and rushed towards the corsairs.
The first wave of the golden glow hit the nearest attacker into his chest, and the others thrashed, screams of panic escaping some of them. Two of them nonetheless rushed ahead, only to meet a quick and bloody demise at the feet of the Dwarf. The double loop of his blade cut them down like a woodcutter's axe chopped down young trees.
The man hit by the woman's bewildering golden flames flew about twenty steps backwards, and his body slammed into a rocky side of the cleft. The woman jerked her hands back.
"Mahal help me, that was mighty!" She shook her hands, as if trying to dry them of water. "I have not been able to wield that much in years."
"You have been dead in years," the Dwarf grumbled, wiping his blade, and looked at the quickly disappearing corsairs. And then his bright blue eyes shifted onto Lothiriel, who still stood frozen, her sword limply hanging in her hand. "Good day, fair maiden. And who would you be?"
"I am… Gilraen." Lothiriel quickly conjured a lie. "Gilraen, daughter of Hallas."
"And a liar," the woman chimed in, in a teasing tone, and Lothiriel shifted her eyes at her.
The redhead was an oddity: the features were sharp, her eyes slanted and of strange greenish hazel colour, her mouth wide and red lipped. Her face was kind though, and presently glowing with a mischievous smile.
"You do not have to give us your name, child," the woman spoke warmly. "But the royal crest of Dol Amroth on your hilt is a wee bit telling." Lothiriel took a small step back. "Worry not, we are no danger for you. We are… lost, and hardly know ourselves who and where we are."
"Or when," the Dwarf added, and Lothiriel frowned not understanding. "What year is it, my lady?" He had a low melodic voice, and there was noble kindness glimmering in his eyes as well.
"It is Year 3018," Lothiriel drew out, shifting her eyes between the two in front of her.
"And who rules the Kingdom Under the Mountain?" asked the Dwarf, and Lothiriel gave him a confused look.
"Do you mean the Dwarven Kingdom far North?"
"How far North? Where are we?" he asked and looked around unnecessarily. They were after all locked between two steep sides of rocky crevice.
"You are on the shores of the Thunder Bay, a day travel from Dol Amroth."
"And probably we should be moving, do we not?" the woman suddenly spoke up, and started pulling off her fur collared cloak. Underneath, she wore a heavy dress, of fern green velvet. In a strange gesture she looked herself over, as if she had not known what garment she had on. She then made a small frustrated noise. "Could we not have returned in more travel appropriate garments? You at least are wearing your brigandine." She pointed at the Dwarf. He looked down at himself in the same inexplicable inquisitive interest.
"We will talk dresses later, my heart." His harmless sardonic tone made the woman emit a strangely careless giggle. "Let us start walking. The corsairs might be back, and we still have to decide what we are doing here."
Lothiriel could not hold her bewilderment back any more.
"Do you not know why you are here? Have you been brought here in a box?!" she exclaimed, and the Dwarf suddenly boomed a low, earnest guffaw.
"You are not wrong, my lady. And as for your question, nay, we know not anything regarding our presence here."
"Last time at least there were instructions in the dream," the woman spoke mysteriously, widening her eye in exaggeration, and the Dwarf sighed out a long tragic sigh. Somehow Lothiriel felt the two of them were being dramatic to entertain each other.
"Would you mind joining us?" the woman offered to Lothiriel lightly. "We could use some explanation, and you look like you need companions. As well as perhaps a healer," she said softly and pointed at Lothiriel's knees. "I could help with that. I used to serve in an infirmary."
"Thank you, but we should haste." Lothiriel gave it a thought and pushed her sword back into her scabbard. "The city is that way." She pointed North West, and the Dwarf and the woman nodded. "And what are you names, kind sir and lady?" Lothriel was grasping for some sort of clarity in the situation, but the silent looks that the two people in front of her exchanged told her she would not receive any.
"We do not wish to lie to you, child," the woman spoke in a cordial tone. "But until we know what is happening, we would like to retain our privacy."
"Fair enough," Lothiriel agreed.
They started walking. At some point the woman grumbled something under her breath and shook off the outer layer of her dress, left only in a thin undertunic and the inner skirts. The day indeed was hot. The Dwarf soon left his coat behind as well, and Lothiriel skewed her eyes and watched the sun rays play on the plates of his brigandine. Something in the pattern of the mail and the crest on the buckle of his richly adorned belt seemed familiar.
Lothiriel then shifted her eyes and caught the laughing gaze of the redhead. Embarrassment flushed Lothiriel cheeks. It indeed could have seemed that she was ogling the Dwarf.
"Your crest..." Lothiriel hastily explained, and pointed on the same pattern that decorated the scabbard of the woman's much shorter sword. "I have seen it before. And your faces… The colouring of your hair..." She trailed away in bashfulness. She was, after all, hiding her identity as well. And now she was as much as prying.
"Aye, we are an unusual pair, are we not?" the woman snickered, and the man echoed with a low rumble of a chuckle.
"We are on a lot of tapestries after all, my heart. No wonder the maiden finds us familiar." Lothiriel noted that the two of them seemed to converse more between themselves than with her. She was suddenly reminded of the same manner in her parents' behaviour.
"Perhaps we are all but forgotten by now. It has been twenty years since..." the woman stopped herself, and made a vague gesture in the air with her hand. Gem adorned rings on her fingers sent flashes of light dance. "Mahal help me..." the woman continued pensively. "Twenty years… I wonder what they are like now..." Emotions splashed in her eyes, but then she shook the sudden agitation off. "But at the moment we have a more pressuring matter to attend. I am wearing feast shoes." She pulled the hem of her skirt up, and Lothiriel saw a delicate shoe, decorated with an elegant buckle with pearls and onyxes. The woman had exceptionally small feet.
"I can carry you," the Dwarf offered, and Lothiriel watched in shock one of his black eyebrows crawl up in a flirtatious gesture. The redhead giggled.
"Hm, look at you! All alive and kicking." The woman's voice dropped into a soft purr, and the eyebrow jerked higher.
Lothiriel felt her jaw slack ungracefully. By now, it was abundantly clear the Dwarf and the woman were lovers, and Lothiriel was still struggling with the notion.
"I will walk for now, but soon you might have to," the redhead said, resuming her fast pace, and patted the man's shoulder. "And so you know..." she added, lowering her voice, and then leaned close to his face. "Judging by the silver above your brow, I would say..." She made quite a spectacle out of studying his mane. Lothiriel looked as well, though not understanding what the woman was doing. "I would say couple years after the Battle of the Five Armies."
"Wonderful age," he rumbled in response, and the woman bit into her bottom lip flirtatiously. "Is it not the age when one usually meets a certain healer from Dale?" The woman snorted and bumped her shoulder to his. They were walking so quickly that Lothiriel - tired and perturbed - had difficulty keeping up. It was clear they had plenty of experience of travelling on foot together.
"And how do I look?" the redhead asked, and the Dwarf gave her a rather indecent look over, making sure it was noticed when his gaze slid below her waist, on the hips and the bottom.
"I would say you look the right age, twenty Springs or so." She smiled to him, and he quickly whispered into her ear, and although Lothiriel did not want to eavesdrop, she heard his low whisper, "The same firecracker."
The woman laughed, the Dwarf grinned lopsidedly, Lothiriel felt flustered, and they continued their journey in the same manner.
Dedicated to coecoe11. Thank you for planting this idea in my head. This will now turn into my new multi-chapter, LotR FF: The Four Corners Of Middle Earth.