Disclaimer: The characters that are not mine are either J.R.'s or N. Vasilieva's. Those that are mine - are mine.
Author's note: it's the same very-very AU story as in "Just one more truth" - but later.
And again - special thanks to my wife who inspires me in so many ways and to Mirach, who continues to kick my ass!
Lomyrin hesitated for a moment before opening the heavy doors of the palace. After all, he was really late from his mission, and the last few days were spent not on the mission itself but on wasting his share of reward. Though king Eldir wouldn't probably be angry with him for that - or would even notice that someone should have returned to the city much earlier.
But wasting even more time on useless thought was no good, and he threw the doors open... just to face a very worried Shannah.
That was strange. Shannah was a quarter-wight, probably the granddaughter of Ungolianth, but nobody could tell that for sure. Though she chose a life path of an elf, not of a wight, her magical power was still overwhelming in comparison with the rest of the mercenaries. For that reason or some other she became a personal King's councillor - or more? - soon after she appeared in Osthauer. And like the majority of personal councillors of kings she was always calm as a snake. But now her eyes were shining bright green, and the lips were bitten to blood...
"How lucky you've returned, Lomyrin!" she exclaimed, rushing to the elf.
Lomyrin stepped back, subconsciously taking the defensive position. Who could foresee what she wanted and what happened during his absence to worry her that much. The worst assumptions arose in his mind - was the King assassinated? Or have the Valar suddenly declared war on Osthauer? Or have Shannah's distant relatives attacked the kingdom?
Not to remain silent and not to prolong the torture of knowing nothing, he asked almost indifferently:
"What's up, Shannah? You're worried - that's strange..."
"Take this - and read yourself. You'll understand then..." she said in the same nervous tone, handing him a carefully folded piece of parchment. Lomyrin took it and looked through.
"..should come... - he read across the lines. - "King's Mantle"... first day of fall... an errand... An errand?" - he raised his head. "But who is the customer? There is no signature..."
"I do not know who he is," Shannah answered. "But his envoy looked... impressive... Seems it's somebody of the highest rank... you'd better go to the temple and talk to Aine now. He might help you somehow."
"Yes, certainly..." Lomyrin answered, thinking of things quite far from that.
Who could need HIM? After all, who was he to be given such errands? Not a King, not a Prince... he himself would even say - by no means a Prince. And was not going to be. And still he was given an errand by someone of the highest rank – the privilege that belonged usually to the royal family of to the heads of clans. And the word "highest" seemed too vague and incomprehensible a term... the Valar?... the Yirthi? Who? And why should they need a mercenary? And ... why him?
"See you, Lomyrin!" Shannah turned back, heading to the King's chambers. "And good luck!"
"Thank you." he sighed, foreseeing the quick end of his long-lasting dream to have a short vacation. "Good luck is what we all need..." and still pondering over the strange behaviour of the mysterious "someone of the highest rank" he went to the palace temple - a half-secret place, where not everyone was admitted, a place from where the new religion of Osthauer grew some twenty-five years ago - and changed the kingdom.
Before that Osthauer was a kingdom of purely practical way of thinking, no beliefs and relying only on quick reaction, stealthy, keen blade and deadly poison…
Made up of exiles, escaped captives, renegades, scattered all over Beleriand, they were no longer light or dark… they were just surviving by any means and any price. They learned to be over-cautious, to trust no one, even themselves at times, to be merciless when needed… to care more about effective actions then about beautiful words and gestures…
Their leader and lord at that time was Ethel'mar, Namo's wayward maia, who as Suula before him chose his own ways… and his father's damnation. He turned away from the light… and the darkness turned away from him, not willing to drag him to death. These lonely, exhausted and wary ones, whom he met in the woods, became his only friends and the only ones whom he protected and cared for. Under his command they became stronger, eliminating every possible enemy around, be it a Noldorin patrol, troops from Ast Ahe or orc hordes.
The catastrophe that marked the ending of the First Age didn't leave Ethel'mar and his people intact. Some of them were killed in battles, some – by bristling elements… but some survived and had to move southwards. It was a long journey until they found a place where they could settle down and that place was in the caves in the White Mountains. These caves were not huge enough for the dwarves but suited perfectly the needs of the once again exiles…
But finding a new home was only the first step to normal living, and the second was finding what to live on. They could not grow anything in the caves, except perhaps some weird looking and mostly poisonous mushrooms… They could not rely on mining either, for there were neither rich ores, nor many gemstones there…
The only thing they had was their ability to kill others and survive themselves, so they had no other choice but to become mercenaries. First they took greatest hazards, eavesdropping here and there in search of someone who needed help of the ruthless, merciless and cunning, and if they learned about such someone, they were there to offer the help.
Sooner or later they became renowned with the certain kind of people, who preferred not to act themselves and were eager to pay any money for the dirty job to be done for them. Some even joined the mercenaries or just stayed near them to offer some help in return – food, clothes, weapons…
Gradually the number of the Osthauerians grew… they widened the limits of their hidden influence, spreading all over the world and becoming more powerful – and pickier about the missions. Playing their part in the world balance of powers they realized that some assassinations would be harmful for them as well as for the others… so they refused. But the reputation of them as of totally vendible and rotten-hearted ones lived on.
The only almost unreachable land for them was Valinor, full of ainur who might feel some mean thoughts and intentions, and though the most skilful mercenaries managed to succeed in missions in the Blessed Realm, there was always a risk of revealing too many secrets…
It all changed in the Fourth Age, with the coming of the yirthi or the wights – creatures almost unknown before and therefore twice dangerous. And the mercenaries became involved in the hazardous double game of the newcomers, firstly because neither the light, nor the dark would serve or pretend to serve the yirthi, and secondly because only Osthauerians could match them for meanness and guile. Eldir, the king of Osthauer, was chosen by Aivare, the son of Eru and Eng'Lliss, the Queen of the yirthi, to assist him in all his plans... But though the king accepted the errand, he still did everything he could to stop the almost unstoppable danger. He preferred to assist Aivare's half-brother and opponent, Telron, and those who were with him.
And while the whole world froze in expectations, apprehensions and silent indignation, the mercenaries were up to their ears in the confrontation between two groups of powerful monsters, pretending to be allies before each other's eyes. And only the mercenaries supported those of the wights who pretended to have killed all Valar and seized the world, in fact to protect it from Aivare.
When Aivare was finally defeated, the life in Arda slowly returned back to normal and the Valar were back in their places, the strangely born friendship between the wights and the mercenaries didn't fade. On the contrary the latter realized how much they had in common with the dwellers of the Void, now attached to Arda forever. Often they caught themselves on referring to the wights as the rest of the world referred to the ainur, as if nothing changed since the upheaval. Maybe it bore a shade of mockery as well as between the wights themselves, but the respect and homage were serious.
The wights paid back for the help in the hardest times – they offered Osthauer their own help, the same that others got from the valar and maiar in the old days… or maybe more than that.
No wonder the mercenaries soon built the temples and prayed the wights that once ruled the world…
In the dusk of the temple, Lomyrin's alertness and uneasiness became even stronger for some reason instead of calming down... But the elf reminded himself that he had no right to yield to this, and with his teeth clenched he passed a short corridor and peered into the hall. Aine was there, surrounded by statues, which, due to shades, dancing of the black marble walls and their own ever-changing light seemed alive...
He even shuddered and Aine having heard this almost inaudible noise came up to the mercenary smiling slightly:
"Oh, Lomyrin! Have not seen you for ages! How are you?"
"Well, not for ages maybe." Lomyrin chuckled. "Quite all right and what about you?"
"Not bad in fact." Aine said. "But... I've heard you've got an errand? And a difficult one I suppose."
The word "difficult" seemed too mild... though Lomyrin still did not know what the errand itself implied... but the client seemed to be trickier than the errand.
"Yeah..." he nodded somewhat miserably.
"Then you need assistance." Aine said meaningfully. "Special assistance..." and he nodded in the direction of the statues even more meaningfully.
"What do you mean, Aine?" the younger elf looked at the statues again. They still seemed alive.
"One of them..." explained the priest. "'I've been praying before you came... and they agreed to assist you... to share your possible difficulties. You can choose any... but only one so think twice..."
Lomyrin even forgot to breathe. He was offered the assistance of one of them - an honour much higher than being given an errand from the King of Arda even, though it would almost obligatorily imply the help of the wights...
In this point many might envy the mercenaries. No other people in the Fourth Age could at least sometimes ask a maia or a vala to accompany and assist them. Of course in common missions Osthauerians preferred to act on their own, still preserving some independence. But against something that a man or an elf could not cope with they needed help – and had it. Until now there were only a few cases when a wight accompanied a mercenary and these mercenaries were the heads of clans only, who being the most experienced and efficient, got the most difficult errands.
The elf was trying hard to perceive the very idea of such luck, not daring yet to think whom of them he would like to choose. He hadn't even seen them before... only once - a silhouette in almost complete darkness and at a considerable distance, so he was still doubting who exactly it was. Probably one of the former Priests... but who? Anyway it couldn't be called "seen".
He approached the statues slowly studying them carefully... and still doubting. Logically, they all had strengths as well as weaknesses... each one had this or that, but only one element at his disposal… and neither Lomyrin, nor Aine could not predict what exactly the elf would have to face, which powers would be more useful for him… if any. Possibly all he would need was simplest disguise or just a strong predator with sharp claws and little mercy. After some minutes of nearly painful attempts to take a sensible decision he just stood at the centre of the circle, closed his eyes... turned on the heels...
... And having opened his eyes again he found himself facing the statue of Daenar directly. "Well, if the fate decided so..." he said to himself. "It is not a good idea to argue with it!" He came closer to the statue... touched the marble folds on the wight's clothing and wanted to say something... but no sooner had his fingers touched the statue, a strange rasping sound filled the hall... the temple became lighted up with blood-red flash... and for some moments the air became unbearably cold…
The statue was there no more... what was in front of Lomyrin was a real live Daenar. He hesitated a moment, then took a step toward the mercenary.
"Did you call me, Lomyrin?" he inquired slightly insinuatingly. "I'll gladly assist you... but I need something in return..."
"Oh... what is it?" the elf tried to hide the pain and despair in his voice. There would be no help, he thought. What could he offer the person, who already has almost everything and what he has not, he can create or get himself?
"I would say "a piece of your soul" Daenar's eyes flashed green for a moment. "but it will kill you... So I'll ask you to give me two artefacts, that are kept in your training dungeons."
"What are they?" Lomyrin even smiled and sighed with relief.
"When we find them, I'll tell you."
"Well," he nodded. "Come on, let's go."
"Let's go." replied the vampire still insinuatingly, gazing at the walls and ceiling of the temple, examining the exquisite carvings on their smooth surface.
"Well, I'll just buy some necessary stuff." the elf added hastily, worried that the wight would not probably want to wait. "And we will go."
"Yes, of course" Daenar shrugged blankly, continuing to examine the temple walls.
Having glanced at him a couple of times, Lomyrin headed to Delian, who stood in the corner with a bored air. Delian came from Daedroth – the only other kingdom where the yirthi were worshipped instead of the valar. Founded by Alcar not so long ago, very far in the East, further than Khand and Harad, it was originally a community of runaway slaves and prisoners or exiles from the nearby lands, just like Osthauer was in the First Age, only Daedrothians put all their efforts not in killing and stealing but in crafting artefacts. Most daring minds, not fitting into less tolerant societies, worked out ideas so wild and weird that they were just doomed to be a success. Since the first artefacts that could bring their owners one or two steps up to the hitherto unreachable level of ainur or yirthi, the wish to continue rising and perfecting their skills never decreased.
Soon they began trading their artefacts to those who wished power and had money… giving certain preference and lower prices to their brothers in belief. The only trouble was the distance between the two kingdoms. Still Delian preferred to deal with Osthauer. He explained why he chose to travel constantly and so far very simply - his goods were valued properly only there. But Lomyrin had a strong suspicion that in his native lands he simply had not the best reputation... or there were too many competitors.
After a long inquiring about the prices and wondering at some very curious things that were however not necessary for him, he chose the ring, which provided some protection from possible magical harm - quite a possible outcome of working for "the highest". He had one of that kind before, but lost it together with a bet suggested by one of the most notorious of his friends... Having then stored enough antidotes for all cases from Terina, Delian's colleague and a countrywoman, Lomyrin turned to Daenar, who - to his great surprise - was persistently following the mercenary, as if he was merely a henchman.
"That's all, I am ready."
"If you run out of these potions of yours, I actually know how to heal too,» the vampire remarked as if incidentally. "Just a by-the-way note for you..."
"Not at all, I did nothing so far." he examined the claws on his left hand meticulously, but apparently was satisfied... nodded... and they went to the training dungeon.
When they reached the iron gate to the dungeon, Lomyrin turned back and asked a question that was whirling constantly in his mind since he heard what reward Daenar asked for himself.
"Why can't you get the artefacts yourself?"
"There are reasons..." was the elusive answer...
TBC - one day...