Usual disclaimer and thanks: Nothing is mine, etc., etc. Many thanks to my betas, eekfrenzy and Rose. And many thanks also to my reviewers—I really love reviews!
For those who came in late: this story is a sequel to my story Misfit in Middle-earth, which you can find on my profile page. I suggest you read that story first. Take a chance-I promise, this isn't a Mary Sue.
Chapter 01 There's No Such Thing as a Happy Ending
What Has Gone Before...
Barbarella Sanderson, a graduate student of linguistics, never read The Lord of the Rings and has seen only the first movie. Her mother, a big fantasy and SF fan, wants to take her to The Two Towers on Christmas Day, 2002, but instead Barb is nearly killed in a road accident, blacks out, and wakes up on the plains of Rohan.
Rescued by the Riders of Rohan, our misplaced grad student is brought to Meduseld, where she's taken in by Princess Éowyn as handmaiden, confidante, and ultimately, friend.
Caught up in the troubles of Rohan, Barbarella pulls together a band of earnest lads, grizzled old warriors, and grumpy healing women into an ersatz M.A.S.H. unit at Helm's Deep to save the lives of warriors wounded in the Battle.
And so it begins...
The Battle of Helm's Deep had been won. Against all odds, King Théoden's outnumbered warriors had defeated the evil Wizard Saruman's monstrous army of orcs and hirelings. The people of Rohan had prevailed, and just for a few hours, they were pausing to bind up their wounds, to rest, to recuperate, and to rejoice before they went back to Edoras and to, perhaps, a bigger war against the ultimate enemy, Sauron.
But I'm not from Rohan—I'm from Pennsylvania! How was I supposed to know what to do next, when I didn't even know why I was 'beamed into' Middle-earth?
I was sure that the Evenstar necklace my Mom had given me must have had something to do with it, but what?
I was half-asleep and curled up on the bale of hay that I'd commandeered when I was woken by raised voices. Bleary-eyed, I rolled off the haybale and looked around to see what was going on.
Two people were yelling at each other at the edge of the space that my kids and I had cordoned off in the Great Hall as a makeshift 'hospital.' One of them was Merth. She was one of the handful of healers that I'd dragooned into staying 'up top' during the Battle to tend the wounded. The other was a stocky, curly-haired warrior still in the grubby, bloody leather armor he'd worn during the battle. He wasn't wounded, though, so he didn't belong in our hospital.
I headed over to where Merth and the unknown warrior were squabbling in ever-more-audible tones.
"…you were told to go down to the caves and be safe! What were you thinking of, Mother?"
"Of the warriors on the Wall who would need my help!" Merth snapped back with her usual acidity. She's a tough middle-aged woman who doesn't stand for nonsense. "Including you and your brothers, maybe."
Good for Merth! She'd never make Ms. Congeniality but she was absolutely right.
"Ssst!" I hissed at both of them. "Let's keep it quiet around here, okay? There are guys in this place who need their rest."
Both mumbled grudging apologies back at me, but before she shut up, Merth managed to slip in the last word. "Anyway, why are we bickering about this now? The battle is over and done with!"
Curly gave us both an annoyed frown, then wheeled away muttering, "Women! If you want me I will be digging in the Coomb with the other men."
"My eldest boy, Blaec, is just like his father," Merth confided to me as her son stalked off. "He fusses at the worst possible times."
"What are they digging in the Deeping Coomb?" I whispered back. You sack out for just a couple of hours and you lose all track of things.
"Graves. The men are digging two big pits, one for the Elves and one for the eorlingas. It must be done quickly because we leave for Edoras tomorrow."
Two pits. Separate but equal. Right. "Tomorrow? What about our wounded men? What about Fréalof?"
"Guthrun will remain with the men who cannot be moved. I don't know where your boy Fréalof is. That Elf took him, remember?" Merth looked me up and down, then trotted over to a trestle table. She offered me a bundle of cloth when she came back. "As soon as you have a chance, clean up and get rid of that bloody gown. You're our Princess's handmaiden, after all."
'That bloody gown' had been a noblewoman's elegant dress only twenty-four hours before. She was right, though—cleaning up was definitely a good idea. 'Grimy and smelly' had been my Uniform of the Day ever since I'd gotten to Helm's Deep.
But first I had to track down Fréalof. He was one of my kids, and he'd been terribly burned on the Wall by Saruman's fire. I'd handed him to the Elves in the hope that they could heal his burns, but I hadn't intended for Captain Haldir to keep him!
What I needed was somebody to keep a close eye on Haldir and his Elves. Fortunately, I knew exactly who I wanted for the job. It was time for me to hunt down the rest of the kids who'd worked for me during the Battle of Helm's Deep.
When I headed out of the Great Hall it was nearly dusk and big black thunderclouds were filling the eastern sky, but the Inner Court was crowded with people preparing to go back to Edoras. I soon ran into Princess Éowyn, who—unlike me—had changed into clean clothes. When had she found time to do that? Her new outfit was a good choice for travel—the leather vest and brown riding skirt could absorb a multitude of stains.
"Barbarella! Good, you are finally awake! And just in time—much needs to be done."
"Yeah, right," I sighed. "I'm awake and up now—up and ready for action."
Yeah, sure I was. Whether or not I was 'up' and ready for action, Éowyn certainly was. Her face had that 'warrior princess' look to it and her eyes were sparkling excitedly.
"Gandalf is riding out at moonrise to confront the Wizard Saruman in his lair," she told me. "A company has been chosen to ride with him and King Théoden—Lord Aragorn and his two comrades, my brother Éomer and a few of his best Riders—and finally, you and me."
My first thought was "Great, Éowyn finally got picked for the team." But— "Ummm…I'm not much of a horsewoman. Are you sure you want me to ride along with you?"
Éowyn laughed. "No, Barbarella, it is the other way around—I want to ride along with you. Gandalf told me that he wants you to be present when he parleys with Saruman."
Gandalf wanted me to come along? Why? But I had to admit, the idea had appeal. From the moment I'd set foot in Middle-earth, Saruman had been at the bottom of every bad thing that had happened around me. Prince Théodred's terrible death. The orc ambush of the refugees. And of course, the whole bloody Battle of Helm's Deep. I wasn't about to pass up a chance to watch Saruman go down.
What else could I say to Éowyn, anyway? "No, Princess, I'm not going to obey you"? This was a feudal society and she was my boss.
The boss-lady must have noticed that I was weakening because she clasped my shoulder and said, "Fear not. Gandalf says that Saruman has been cast down and can do no more harm. Go now and tell the men in the stable to saddle a horse for you, on Princess Éowyn's command."
A horse. What she meant was a warhorse—it's the only kind of horse that they had in the Hornburg. A trained killer on four legs! Well, there was one good thing—if I could survive riding a warhorse all the way to Isengard, merely facing down an evil Wizard at the end of the ride would be a cinch by comparison.
As ordered, I headed off to the stable—and who should I find but the very boys that I'd wanted to see: Wulfhelm, Caedmund, and Faegan, the three young squires in my group of kids. They were darting back and forth with waterbuckets and feed sacks. Of course—those three kids weren't the sort to let their buddies down, and the two official stableboys on our team, poor Fréalof and his brother Elric, certainly weren't going to be able to handle their duties as usual.
I waved my hand in the air. "Wulfhelm!"
Wulfhelm came running up to me. "Yes, Barbarella?"
"I've got a couple of questions. First, do you know where Captain Haldir took Fréalof?"
"Yes, I do. The Elves pitched tents in the Deep for their own wounded. Captain Haldir put Fréalof there with them."
"Okay, good to know. The next thing is, I'm riding out with Princess Éowyn at moonrise as part of the King's company. I need a horse saddled up for me as soon as possible—a gentle one, if there are any. Also, can you find me a saddle that's easier to sit on than those flat things the Riders use?"
Wulfhelm cogitated for a moment and then ran off to the tack room. Eventually he came back lugging a huge leather saddle that reminded me of my days at summer camp.
"Hey, that looks kind of like a Western saddle! I used to ride on those back home-"
"In Rohan they are used by the very old and the sick. And by pregnant women," Wulfhelm said flatly.
"Wait a minute! Cowboys ride on Western saddles—cowboys sure aren't invalids!" No, stifle it, Barbarella. There was no point in arguing with Wulfhelm unless the issue was absolutely critical. Once he got into it, he wouldn't stop until he ran out of breath.
"Well, thanks anyway. This will help me carry out our Princess's orders. And now for the third thing…"
My plan would be even more essential if Haldir intended to keep Fréalof long-term.
"Wulfhelm, I need a boy to carry out a mission of great importance."
Wulfhelm's heavy brows slammed down and he leaned forward intently to catch my every syllable. Hah! I'd snagged him good!
"This boy must be capable of three things. First, he must be able to speak Westron."
"I can—I can speak Westron!" he shouted.
I'd expected that—Wulfhelm was the best scholar of all the kids in my 'company,' and most of the books that I'd seen in Rohan were written in Westron.
"Second, he must be very intelligent and perceptive."
That was a no-brainer. Everyone in Edoras knew that Wulfhelm was smart—especially Wulfhelm.
"Third, he must be able to act with great humility."
Now that might be the dealbreaker. Nobody had ever accused Wulfhelm of being humble!
Wulfhelm squinted at me for a moment as if he was calculating out what I was up to, and then said with a certain tinge of arrogance, "I am capable of acting humble—if it is necessary."
I supposed that would have to do.
"Okay, here's the situation. Haldir promised me that he'd do his best to heal Fréalof. Elves are honorable and I'm sure he'll keep his word—but he doesn't understand mortals. Someone has to be there to tell these Elves what Fréalof needs, and Elric doesn't know Westron. He can't speak to Haldir like you and I can."
Wulfhelm figured out what I was driving at within seconds. You do have to like that about Wulfhelm.
"The Elves are the best healers in Middle-earth, so anything that you can learn from them is more precious than gold. They seem to be close-mouthed, too, but I should think that even an Elf would take pity on a poor humble lad and explain to him what he is doing to heal the terrible injuries of his wounded friend."
For an instant, Wulfhelm's face showed real respect. "That is truly crafty, Barbarella. You're even sneakier than Wormtongue!"
"I meant it in a good way."
Wulfhelm tapped his forehead with one finger (that actually is a symbol of respect) and said, "I will carry out your mission—but first I must find you a horse."
While he and the other boys were doing that, I dunked my head in a horsetrough to rinse off my greasy hair, then rubbed everywhere I could reach with a wet rag. Finally I slipped into an empty horse stall and checked out the clothes that Merth had given me—a voluminous one-size-fits-all shift made of homespun wool and a mud-colored felt jumper cinched with leather ties. But they were clean, so I put them on.
I was belting the jumper around the billowing shift when Wulfhelm and Faegan led up a gigantic slate-grey gelding tacked with the saddle that Wulfhelm had found for me. It was no fancy caballero's saddle encrusted with fancy leatherwork and silver conchos—it was basically a plain couch-on-a-horse. The warhorse was giving me a walleyed sneer, but otherwise he seemed to be a professional.
"Garulf's horse is probably your best bet," Wulfhelm said. "Three different men have ridden Hasufel in the past two months and he's caused none of them trouble."
"He's had three riders in two months?" I asked skeptically.
"Two of them were slain by orcs. It was not the horse's fault," Wulfhelm answered shortly. "Get her a box, Faegan. Barbarella will never be able to mount up otherwise."
Faegan dragged over a crate for me to stand on and the two of them shoved me into the big saddle on top of Hasufel—or 'Monstruo', as I nicknamed him in my thoughts.
That beast was an absolute whale!
Once I was mounted it took longer than you might imagine to get ready to roll. First, Wulfhelm had to take Hasufel by the bridle and walk us back and forth through the stable so the horse could get used to me. I really didn't get used to Hasufel but eventually I learned to fake it.
While all this was happening Faegan and Caedmund ran and got me a waterskin, a pouch of bread, and a rind of cheese. This was invaluable later on, because when I finally checked the saddlebag I discovered that the supplies were all for Monstruo, er…Hasufel.
By the time that Wulfhelm led me out to the Great Gates, it was completely dark. Seated on their great Mearas stallions, King Théoden and Gandalf were conversing quietly. Éomer and half a dozen of his men were right behind them—armed, armored, and ready to ride with their King. Finally, just past the statue of Helm Hammerhand, I spotted Princess Éowyn on Windfola next to Lord Aragorn and his friends. Aragorn was still riding Prince Théodred's warhorse Brego and Legolas and Gimli were still sharing a mount.
For a moment I was scared that everyone had been waiting for me, especially when Éowyn called out, "So there you are, Barbarella! I was wondering where you were!"
Gimli saw my embarrassment and interjected gruffly, "That's a pretty big warhorse, lass. Do you really think you can ride a horse that size?"
"If a Dwarf can do it, it can't be that hard,'' I said with a smile.
I wasn't being disrespectful—he likes people to talk to him like that.
Just as the Great Gates were being opened for us, one of Haldir's Elves rode up on a pale grey horse. I couldn't make out the Elf's face in the moonlight, but his mail glittered from the tip of his pointy helmet to the toes of his shiny boots. He announced to Gandalf, "I shall represent Lothlórien in this venture to Isengard."
Gandalf stared at the newcomer Elf for a moment and then said slowly, "I have no need of a bodyguard, Serindë."
"Even so." The Elf's voice was cold, precise—and implacable. Gandalf shrugged and let the matter drop.
Here was somebody who wasn't going to let Gandalf tell him what to do. Unlike me.
What was I doing on this 'venture'? I considered asking Gandalf why he'd wanted me along, but dropped the idea when I realized how useless it would be. Gandalf is like Dumbledore—there's no way he would tell me anything until he was good and ready.
We rode down the Causeway toward the Deeping Coomb, with Gandalf in the lead and Théoden King right behind him. The torchlight from the fortress only extended about fify feet from the Gates—after that I had to let my horse follow the herd. I pointed Hasufel in Windfola's general direction and wound up alongside Princess Éowyn. It felt much safer to ride next to Éowyn.
Once my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see a little better, but even by moonlight the Deeping Coomb was really gloomy. Dark, dark, darksome. Creepy, too. There were shadows looming at us from all over the Coomb. And rustling.
"Trees!" Éowyn gasped incredulously. "This cannot be—I see trees on the Deeping Coomb!"
I peered into the shadows and saw that she was right. Sometime after the Battle of Helm's Deep, a forest had walked out onto the empty floodplain of the Deeping Stream. Birnam Wood had come to Dunsinane.
A forest…walking. Now what did that remind me of?
"Ents," I said thoughtfully. "It looks like we've got Ents."
Éowyn wheeled to stare at me, fascinated and frightened at once. "What are Ents? Are they creatures that you have read about in your studies?"
Wracking my brain, I finally came up with, "Ummm. Ents are supposed to be sentient trees. Spirits of the wood, capable of both fighting and speaking."
And she passed the word all down the line! I was so embarrassed! But as it turned out, I was right.
Since the only Lord of the Rings movie I'd ever seen was Fellowship, you may be wondering—where had I gotten this information? Let me say three things: High school. Boy friend. Dungeons & Dragons.
It's nice to have the reputation of a scholar. It's even nicer when you're able to live up to it.
I hadn't read Tolkien's books and I'm not a fan like my Mom, but I'd watched my share of sci-fi movies and I'd read my share of popular novels—even fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings is the taproot for most of the 20th century's fantasy and half of its SF. Like it or not, I'd been soaking in it.