A/N: Aaaand we're back! Sorry for that dramatic little cliffhanger at the end of the last chapter, I couldn't resist. ;) Obviously Erin's not going to die - what kind of an author would I be if I killed off a main character before we even finished the first book?! I'm pretty sure that would result in a lot of death threats coming my way, hahaha.
Anyway, enjoy this update! Thanks again to all of you who reviewed!
A Strange Twist of Fate: Chapter Nineteen
Everything was slow and sluggish. My limbs were heavy, and my muscles ached like I'd been somebody's personal punching bag for the past hour. Every now and again, my vision and thoughts went hazy, and across the board, I felt like utter shit - but I was alive.
The past few hours had been torturous as the antidote given to me by Legolas worked to flush the poison out of my bloodstream. At first, it had felt like my entire body was on fire, burning from the inside out, but by now the initial pain had subsided. As soon as I'd been stable enough to stay conscious on my own, Legolas pulled us out, fleeing the scene of the attack. Currently we were camped out in the wilderness, as far away from the inn as we could get. Together we sat, in the wee hours of the morning, resting, recovering, and trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.
"So you're positive he was from the east?" I mumbled, slowly taking another sip of water from my flask. I sat at an angle, leaning back into the roots of a tree. I still didn't have the energy to do anything else but talk a little.
From nearby, the elf nodded, though I could barely see him in the darkness. We'd decided it would be safer not to light a fire tonight. "The markings on his face were runes of the Easterling's tongue. I could not read them, but I knew them. He carried the appearance of an Easterling as well, and poison is a common form of weaponry for many of their tribes."
"His accent, too," I mentioned, "the way he spoke made it seem like the Common Tongue wasn't his first language."
"He spoke to you?" Legolas' gaze met mine. "What were his words?"
"I asked who he was," I replied. "He said he was 'one sent to kill.'"
Legolas' expression was grave. "An assassin."
But I still didn't get it. "Why was he here, though? Why would someone come from so far away to kill me? Why did he go after me?"
"He would not have come on his own," Legolas replied. "He would have been sent by another."
"But who sent him? And why?"
The blond was silent for a moment, thinking. A few moments later, though, he spoke again, and the realization hit me like a sack of bricks. "The palantír," he whispered. I felt my stomach drop. "Someone must have learned that we were tracking it."
I blinked, trying to stop the world from spinning as I focused on what he'd said. "And they sent an assassin after us? From the East? But that doesn't make sense, unless..." I stopped, looking at Legolas with wide eyes. "Do you think the Easterlings have it?"
He shook his head. "I do not know. Whoever has taken it, though, must be someone of great power or wealth if they are able to employ assassins in order to dispose of us."
"And if they're sending people to kill us because we've done too much prying, they must be up to something big," I added. A sudden flash of dizziness swept over me, and I exhaled as I leaned my head back against the tree again, closing my eyes.
Legolas noticed this, abandoning the conversation about the mysterious killer for a moment. "How do you feel?"
"Like I just got run over by a freight train," I groaned. Then I paused, opening my eyes to look at his confused expression. "...You don't know what that is, do you?" He shook his head. "It means I feel awful. But I'm breathing, and I'm not paralyzed, so I owe you some thanks."
He humbly dipped his head. "I did only what anyone else would have done."
"You saved my life," I reminded him. "Not everyone can do that."
"It was necessary," he replied, his tone becoming more sincere. "I swore to protect you, Erin. It was not a promise I made lightly."
I smiled, closing my eyes again and taking another sip of water. "Well either way...thank you, Legolas." There was a beat of silence, and then I managed a short laugh. "That's twice now that you've saved my ass at the last second, you know. I'd rather not make this into a continuing trend."
"Nor would I," he agreed.
"If this keeps going, we might have to cuff ourselves together," I went on, smiling a bit.
I could practically hear the smirk in his tone. "Then you truly would always be at my side."
"And you'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?" I teased. "Just you and me...forever and ever and ever."
Legolas chuckled lowly, and I imagined it was accompanied by a shake of the head. "Good night, Erin."
The smile stayed on my face as I adjusted my weight so I was more comfortable. "Good night, Legolas."
You know, sometimes there are moments in life you never forget. As soon as they happen, you think "Damn, I'm always going to remember this." And you do. I remember everything about that moment one mid-July morning when I came to the top of the last great hill in a sea of plains. I remember the smell of soft, raw earth, the stickiness of the sweat on my back, the welcome coolness of the wind on my face...everything. I would never forget the moment when I first arrived at Edoras.
It had been about three months since I'd left Lothlórien, and I couldn't have been happier to arrive at my destination in one piece. Night after night, I hadn't slept, panicking about whether or not I was still going in the right direction, if I had enough supplies, if I'd forgotten something...the list goes on. To say I was excited was a huge understatement. I kicked my horse into a full-on gallop down the other side of the hill, pushing her fast across the final stretch of land separating me from the city. As I drew closer, though, my nerves spiked a little once again. What should I say once I get there? Should I have an alias? Is Kathryn a weird name in these parts? Oh God, probably. I could see the sunlight glinting off the armor of the guards now. Jesus, okay, just try to not sound American. Tell them...you're from...Gondor? No, that's in the complete opposite direction. And suddenly, the great wooden gates were before me, and my time to think was gone. Shit. I swallowed hard, looking up.
Two guards, clad in typical Rohirric gear, stood at the top of the two large wooden towers flanking me on either side. The men moved to the walkway creating an archway between these towers, their gazes fixed keenly on my as I sat on my horse. "Hail, milady!" one man shouted down. "Who are you, and what business have you in the realm of Théoden King?"
I forced myself to make eye contact as best as I could. "My name is Kathryn. ...I come from Laketown, in the far north." I could've smacked myself. Laketown?! Of all the places in Middle-Earth, and I pick-
"Laketown?" The other guard seemed curious. "That is no small journey. What brings you so far south?"
"I've come to start a new life for myself," I said simply. "I've heard a lot about Rohan's hospitality, and of your king. I was hoping I would find good work here." I paused. "...I'm unarmed, I promise you. Would you let me enter your great city?"
The two guards stepped away for a moment to whisper among themselves, and I cringed once they weren't looking. That was probably the stupidest thing I've ever said. Fantastic work, idiot. But a moment later, to my surprise, I was startled by a loud groan from ahead, and then the creak of massive hinges as the doors began to open. I nudged my horse forward, trotting up through the opening in the great gate before I was stopped by an approaching guard. He checked me over lightly, scanning my horse and my belongings for any sign of potential threat. When his eyes ghosted over me, there was a spark of question in his eyes. "You dress as an elf more than any mortal woman," he commented.
Though I doubt he meant anything by it, my heart still skipped a beat. "I stopped through Lothlórien on my way here," I responded. "They gave me supplies." In any case, the guy didn't seem suspicious, letting me continue on with a nod. I thanked him and focused my attention forward, again starting off at a comfortable trot up the hillside.
As I passed through the city, I realized how nice Edoras really was. It was so different from Lórien, and definitely not beautiful in the same sense of the elven colony, but there was still a grandness to the capital city of the horse lords. Everything here was built to last, standing strong and sturdy against the elements and centuries of war. I didn't go too far up the slope, assuming the higher up you went, the richer you were. I certainly had no place among rich people.
In the end, I settled on a small, cozy inn not far from the entrance to the city. It wasn't too pricey for a night, and after explaining my situation to the innkeeper, she was happy to give me a basic, low-paying job as a stable hand there. Things ended up going rather well for me on the first day, and I spent most of my afternoon buying a new, simpler Rohan wardrobe for myself. As pretty as the elven gowns were, I was sick and tired of them, and ready for change. By the end of the night, I had a full stomach, a warm bed, and clean, freshly-trimmed hair for the first time in months. It was great, honestly. I couldn't have asked for better.
I had no idea how I was supposed to find Kaia in this place, though, and it bothered me. I'd kept my eyes and ears open as I'd walked through the town that day, eager for any gossip about a strange, otherwordly girl appearing nearby. Sadly, I got nothing, and only then did I started to realize how hard it might actually be to find her if she'd already gotten here. What if she'd come to Edoras a month ago, while I was on the road, and immediately left for somewhere else? What if she was living in some small house on the other side of Edoras, working a normal job and minding her own business like I was? Dozens of different scenarios swirled through my head, and I fell asleep that night with no idea as to what my next step would be. One thing was certain, though - whether Kaia was here or not, I wasn't leaving Edoras until I had a solid answer as to where she was at. Maybe I'd wait here a month...maybe a year. But I sure as hell wasn't going back to Lórien now. I was in it for the long haul.
And so, the weeks continued to pass. I think I surprised myself with how easy I adjusted to Rohirric life; it was just so much simpler here. I felt like I belonged there more than I ever had in Lórien, and I actually had things to keep me occupied now, too. I put a lot of time and effort into mastering my job of caring for the horses in the stables, and evidently, my work didn't go unnoticed. Before long, the woman who ran the inn approached me with news of a better job offer - an attendant for the royal stables of Meduseld. I'd nearly collapsed when she told me how much the job would pay. It was almost triple what I was making at the inn. At first, I'd felt uncomfortable at the idea of working for the king himself, but the innkeeper assured me I was totally skilled enough to do the job well. By the time summer was over and I'd celebrated my third month living in Edoras, I had a new job and a significant amount of savings building up behind me.
I didn't meet Théoden right away once I started working in the royal stables, but I didn't mind. A tanned, bright-eyed boy with long, tangled brown hair was the first one to introduce himself to me - Haleth was his name. He was about sixteen, if I had to guess, but you could tell he'd been working in the stables for several years and loved his job more than anything. Haleth was the one who showed me the ropes on my first day, but it wasn't too different from what I'd done at the inn. Clean the stalls, make sure the horses are washed, fed, and secured, and keep everything in stock. Nothing too hard. Aldor was Haleth's father, and the one in charge, whom I met not too long after becoming friends with Haleth. Aldor looked just like his son, and was a pretty nice guy, too. He was strict about the cleaning, though, and sometimes he'd have me stay late to make sure everything was immaculate in the stable.
As it happened, tonight I was doing just that. Nearly everyone else had gone home for the night, but Aldor had asked me to do one last round and get all the horses' stalls extra clean before I left. Obviously, I wasn't thrilled about the extra work, but I knew the pay would more than make up for it later. So, there I sat, the straw flooring of a stall underneath me as I scrubbed at its walls with a rag and bucket of soapy water. It felt like I'd been scrubbing at this one particular spot in the corner for hours, but it just wouldn't come clean. I grumbled under my breath, dunking the cloth back into the bucket and furiously scratching at the spot again. At this rate, I won't be going home until midnight. From behind me, I heard the doors to the stable open, along with muffled voices greeting whoever had come inside. Probably Aldor, I guessed. God, I hope he doesn't yell at me for still being in this stall.
Footsteps and the creaking of an opened gate told me someone else had come into the stall. I heard the horse give an eager whinny as the person murmured greetings to the animal. Then, a moment later, they spoke to me. "Don't waste your time on that stain, it'll never come off. It's been there since I was a boy."
I stopped my scrubbing and turned, observing the man standing in the stall. He was tall, but not incredibly so, with broad shoulders and a trim figure. His jaw was strong and square, with deep brown eyes and long, dirty blond hair reaching to the middle of his chest. I recognized him...he had been the man I'd seen in the Mirror. "Oh, really?" I asked. The man nodded, and I dropped the cloth back into the bucket, picking it up and getting to my feet. "I guess Aldor won't be too upset if I leave it there, then."
"No, although he certainly will continue to complain about it," he laughed. As I stepped closer, he eyed me curiously. "I don't believe we've met, have we? You must be new."
He extended his hand, and I shook it politely. "Yep. This is my fifth day here. I'm Kathryn," I said.
The man smiled, ending the shake. "Theodred."
My eyes widened as the name registered in my mind. "Oh! As in, Théoden's son, Theodred?" He nodded, and I glanced at the horse who was assigned to the large, roomy stall. "He belongs to you, then?" Theodred's horse, Brego, was a particularly handsome one. He had a beautiful brown coat the color of chocolate, a black mane and tail, and white stockings on his hooves. A small white blotch rested in between Brego's eyes. This horse had stood out to me from the first day I'd seen him, but I'd never known he belonged to Theodred.
The man nodded, stroking Brego's neck. "Yes, he does. Technically, I am supposed to be at a prestigious dinner with my father and several officials, but I grew tired of listening to them talk. I thought I might pay Brego a visit." Theodred smiled, and Brego let out a soft neigh, leaning towards his master.
"So you're skipping out on important duties to come say hi, huh? I don't blame you." I turned to Brego, also reaching out to pet the horse. "That meeting sounds really boring."
Theodred laughed. "Yes, it certainly was." He looked back at me, a genuine warmth in his eyes which I hadn't really expected from a prince of Rohan. "Have you grown up here in Edoras? I can't recall ever having seen you before."
I shook my head. "No. I'm from Laketown, but I came down here to find work. Which reminds me..." I glanced down at my bucket, knowing I still had a few stalls left to check over. "I should get back to scrubbing." I smiled up at Theodred as I moved around him to exit the stall, and he followed shortly after. We split into our separate directions, and just as I was about to turn into another stall, I turned, knowing I owed the prince a formal goodbye of some sort. "Theodred!" He turned as I called his name, and a wave of deja vu passed over me as I realized I was experiencing exactly what I'd seen in the Mirror. "It was nice meeting you!"
He smiled, bowing his head slightly. "And a pleasure to meet you as well, Lady Kathryn. Hopefully we shall see each other again soon!" Theodred turned back around then, exiting the stables as I made my way into the next stall, and just like that, our conversation was over. I couldn't help but smile to myself as I worked, though. After all, it's not every day you get to casually meet the prince of Rohan.
To my great relief, Erin and I were able to travel in peace for a long while after the incident near Fornost. Her recovery from the poison was quick and somewhat painless, and before long we were pressing on into the wild once more. Now that we knew our attacker (and his employer) had come from the east, we could ask more specific questions to those in charge of various inns throughout Eriador. Erin and I had both agreed it would have been unwise to immediately venture east without knowing exactly which area of Rhûn we were headed for. We still did not have enough information to make such a bold move, and so, we continued to scour the northwestern region of Middle-Earth for answers. Everything had returned to normal...although, not entirely.
I did not understand what exactly had changed...but something had. Of course, we were much more diligent in masking our trail and moving through the wilderness unseen, but it ran much deeper than that. For many nights, I spent countless hours staring at the stars, remembering the panic that had seized me when Erin had nearly been lost to the assassin's poison. Initially, I had not understood it. The last time I could recall having felt so distressed was when I had fought in the battle for the Lonely Mountain, which seemed so long ago. There had been a moment in the midst of the chaos when Tauriel had been attacked by the orc Bolg, and he had nearly killed her. I remembered the fear that had taken me then; how terrified I had been at the idea that she could be dead. I had felt the same thing when I had seen Erin lying immobile on the floor...the same fear when I had come so close to losing her.
For the longest time, I could not determine what it was that had made me feel such panic. But the longer we traveled together, and the more time we spent with each other, the clearer the realization became in my mind. I cared for Erin in the same way I had cared for Tauriel. When we had set out to track the stolen palantír nearly a year ago, Erin had been under my protection because Aragorn had asked me to keep her safe. Now, I protected her because the threat of losing her was one I did not wish to face a second time.
Still, it puzzled me to wonder why I had become so devoted to a mere mortal woman. As ridiculously foolish as she could be at times, Erin was utterly fascinating, and I could not imagine having any other as my traveling companion for this mission. As our journey continued into the northern regions of Eriador, I even noticed a change within myself. I felt...lighter. A great deal more carefree than I had felt in an age, in fact. And although I could not yet understand why these things had changed, I did not feel pressured to. All I knew was I took comfort in keeping Erin safe, and she was happy to continue alongside me for as long as we needed to until the mystery was solved. That was all that mattered.
Life in Edoras only seemed to get better and better as time went on. I continued my work in Meduseld's stables, quickly earning enough money to buy myself a modest, but comfortable house in the middle-class area of Edoras. My friendship with Haleth continued as I learned more from him about being a stable hand. By the time December rolled around, I knew all the ins and outs of the job like the back of my hand. Theodred kept making regular appearances during the day, too. More often than not, he'd seek me out to chat for awhile as a means of escape from his 'utterly dull' prince life, as he put it. Eventually, I met the rest of the royal family, as Éomer was in and out of the stables with his his horse just as frequently. Éowyn also came to visit occasionally as well, excited at the idea of a new female friend. I even got introduced to Théoden once when he came out for his horse, which was cool. I'd been the one to hand him his reins and everything.
Out of everyone in the family, though, Theodred was the one I connected with the most. He seemed pretty interested by my strange little Earth quirks and general oddness. Thankfully, though, he never seemed to catch on to the fact that I was quite literally out of this world. The biggest thing we bonded over, weirdly enough, was being alone. It didn't take long for him to open up to me about the drawbacks of being a prince. Theodred was the kind of guy who really loved his people and wanted to get to know them all. Unfortunately, things were always awkward because no matter what he did, the regular people of Edoras always treated him differently in some way since he was their prince. He explained to me how he always felt kind of isolated because of it, coupled with him being an only child (although, the way I saw it, Éowyn and Éomer treated him like a brother). That led me to tell Theodred about how I felt so much like an outsider, too, even though I was genuinely enjoying life in Rohan. Obviously, I couldn't be explicit about why I felt so different from everyone else, but I could still get the point across to him.
So, through our similar feelings of loneliness, Theodred and I quickly became very close friends. And with the addition of a new pal, I was officially living my best life in Edoras. I had money, a house, a friend I could count on, a job...I was living the dream, let me tell you. I kept watching for any sign of Kaia's arrival, but so far, nothing had happened, so I assumed I'd just gotten here early and would have to wait awhile before she showed up. Everything was going great!
Then this one guy came along and ruined everything.
I remember it perfectly - it started out as any other normal day in Edoras did. I got up, threw some clothes on, and rushed up the hill to work, out of breath before I was even halfway up the main road, as always. I worked steadily throughout the morning, as today was grooming day, which meant I had to take extra time in making sure each and every horse was groomed to perfection. The only thing different was how quiet the morning was. Usually Theodred dropped by sometime before noon, but I saw no sign of him as I moved from horse to horse. By the time lunch rolled around, he was still nowhere to be found, and that was when I started to question what was going on in The Golden Hall that day.
Finally, after what seemed like a hundred years later, I heard his familiar voice call my name at about two o'clock. "Kathryn!"
"I'm here!" I called out, continuing to keep focused as I gently brushed out all the tangles in the tail and mane of Éomer's horse, Firefoot. I didn't even look up as Theodred entered. "Took you long enough! I thought I was going to have to come searching for you myself."
He exhaled, and I then lifted my gaze to see the evident frustration on his face. "I'm sorry, Kathryn. It has been a long and arduous day."
I frowned, pausing in my brush strokes. "What happened?"
Theodred looked back at me, and I immediately read the unease in his eyes. "You remember how I told you of the death of Elfhelm, yes?"
I nodded. Elfhelm had been Théoden's most trusted advisor for a long time, and had unexpectedly passed away a few days ago. "Yeah. What about it?"
"Today we sorted out the matter of who would succeed Elfhelm as my father's advisor," he said. "They chose a man I have never seen in Edoras before, much less in Meduseld itself."
"Who is he?"
Theodred shook his head. "His name is Gríma. That is all I know."
I tried my best not to react. "Gríma? That's it?"
"Yes," Theodred said, "although I've half a mind to call him 'Wormtongue' with the way he seemed to slither into the position."
I raised an eyebrow. "You don't trust him?"
"Not at all," Theodred replied. "He is a shrewd man who cloaks himself in black furs and looks as though he has never seen the light of day. And the way he carried himself...it almost seemed as if he expected to take the position."
I scoffed. "How convenient that the old advisor just died the other day. Perfect timing, don't you think?"
Theodred nodded. "Too perfect, as I see it." Again, he sighed. "I hope he won't be around for long."
You have no idea, man. "He seems like a creep."
At that, he let out an undignified snort, and I went back to my brushing. "That is something of an understatement."
"Have you talked to the others about it?"
"I've said nothing to my father," he said, "and Éomer does not seem too skeptical just yet. Éowyn is wary of him, though. She swears she caught him staring lustfully at her."
I made a fake retching noise. "Gross. Do you think he'll be out of here soon enough?"
Theodred sighed, taking a seat in a soft pile of straw and making himself comfortable for the rest of our daily chat. "One can only hope."