Why do I do the things that I do...yes, I'm publishing another fanfiction. I went from writing 10,000 words a day for work to doing nothing so this is my outlet to keep the writing muscle working in the off-time.
I - Draw Back The Veil
October in the wilds of Eriador put a chill in her skin, but it was easy to ignore. She had walked this land before, and many lands harsher than the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Compared to the blazing heat of Far Harad, or the steppes of the Easterling kingdom, the stirring wind was refreshing. And the rain was gone; she had to give thanks for that. Now the clouds parted to reveal blue skies and the sun, painting the valley in the fire of autumn.
Rivendell, she thought to herself, as the Last Homely House came into view around the craggy cliffs. Waterfalls raced down the stone, disappearing into clouds of mist, making the whole world seem like a dream. But the reason for her coming, the dark shadow that had settled over the lands of Middle-Earth, weighed heavy in her mind. Not a dream, she knew, but perhaps a nightmare.
Her horse knew the way, though it had never been here before. Something about the elves bewitched the animal, guiding it over the rocks to the carved stone bridge spanning the river. Even from so far away, with the water roaring beneath, she could hear the sounds of more horses in the courtyard. Of course others would come. This concerns us all. The Men of Gondor, Rohan, elves from both sides of the mountains, and even the dwarves would send envoys to Elrond's house. It has been found.
Gandalf warned her when he lasted visited the realm of Gondor, though she never entered the gates of Minas Tirith. Her kind was not welcome inside the walls and though she could have disguised herself if she wished, the prospect of Gondorian dress and mannerism made her shiver. So Gandalf tracked her to Pelargir, the port city at the mouth of the Great River, where she often resided between contracts. When the darkness spreads, when the shadows fall, ride to Rivendell, the wizard said. She tried to ask what he meant, but the old man spoke in riddles, as usual. Only when she felt the black power of Mordor creeping, reaching out with dark fingers from the East and the South, did she understand. Her horse, a sturdy creature of the desert tribes, rivaled the steeds of Rohan in stamina, and the journey passed by swiftly. Goblins shrieked from the mountains, orcs patrolled the hollows and smoke rose from Isengard, but she pressed on with quiet speed. She was a Hasharin of the Haradrim, an assassin born and bred, and her blades were always sharp.
"Was," she breathed to herself, a reminder as the horse crossed the bridge. Those days are gone. A life of murder and contracts and gold was far behind her now, left in the darkness of memory. She shed that life as a snake does its skin. She'd had her share of gold and blood and darkness; they could no longer tempt her.
But the Ring. She tried to ignore the thought, pressing it from her mind. Still, it whispered in her ears, a haunting ghost. The Ring might tempt you still.
Inside the courtyard, elves glided to and fro, dismounting their white stallions while the servants of Elrond saw to their every need. Wood elves, she thought to herself, noting the ash-blonde hair and their distinct bows. All were tall and light of foot, prancing around like deer through a meadow. Behind her veil, she wrinkled her nose. A silly sort of people. She remembered the Elvenking Thranduil, and his famed kingdom in the Greenwood. For elves, his people were especially strange, more concerned with feasts and celebrations and tricks in the green darkness. But for all their festivity, they were a cold people, and heartless in comparison to Elrond's kin. The elves of Rivendell were reserved, yes, but more inclined to offer aid when needed.
A dark-haired elf, a stablehand by the looks of him, took her horse by the reins. He glanced back, perplexed by the veiled human in brown and black leathers, but said nothing. She did her own glancing, sizing up the Last Homely House with sharp eyes.
The wood elves were not so polite and a few openly stared at the curved blade at her side. But their leader, a blonde man in gray, directed them away with a few words of Elvish. His blue eyes hesitated on her, but only for a split-second. That was all it took for him to know she was a woman, a strange one, and she did not belong.
The wizard stepped down from the house only when the courtyard cleared, leaving him alone with his guest. He smiled at her from beneath the brim of his hat, and smoked on his pipe errantly.
"The shadows have fallen, Gandalf," she said, bending her head in greeting. He nodded in return, eyes twinkling.
"You are in safe company now, Sakhra. And Lord Elrond does not take kindly to those who enter his house masked." He gestured to her veil, still fastened across her face so that only her eyes could be seen.
"As you wish," Sakhra huffed and pulled the veil away, revealing cat-like features beneath. Her skin was the color of sunset sand, like all the Haradrim before, but her usual war paint was gone. Only a few streaks of black outlined her eyes now. "Does Lord Elrond know of me?"
"He does, and he bids you welcome."
She sensed Gandalf's unease, for it was also her own. "And the others?"
"I'm certain the rest of the council will gladly receive all the help they can," he said, though he avoided her eyes. Even Gandalf knew ingratiating her to the rest of Elrond's guest would be a challenge. The Men of Harad were no friends to the West and though he trusted Sakhra beyond measure, others would not be so open-minded.
Sakhra did not become a killer of men by being blind, and she read the discomfort in him easily. Still, Gandalf was Gandalf, and arguing with him was a tedious, if not impossible, matter. She hooked her arm in his, allowing him to lead her wherever he may.
"I'll be certain to blame you when the Men of Gondor try to cut off my head," she muttered, smiling when the old wizard laughed aloud.
Not much frightened Sakhra, but the ringed circle of chairs, all of them occupied by the great peoples of the West, gave her pause. Gandalf didn't allow her to stop, almost pushing her along into the council circle. Several eyes found her, but the wood elves and the dwarves preoccupied most. Both races were obviously at odds, bickering so much that a pair of men from Rhovanion were forced to sit between them. Sakhra was glad for the distraction and took the first seat she could find, next to a gray-eyed man with a stern air. Gandalf quirked an eyebrow at her, offering her a reassuring smile, before taking his own seat next to the strangest thing of all: a Halfling.
Despite her fascination with the floppy-haired Halfling of the Shire, she couldn't help but notice the man next to her. For his part, he was trying not to stare, but his flickering glances could not be ignored.
"Forgive my appearance, I only arrived a few minutes ago," she said sharply, hoping to scare him off the subject. Instead, it only seemed to incite him.
"It is not your garb that interests me," he muttered back, turning to face her. Sakhra met his gaze with her usual steel, but unlike many, unlike most, the man didn't even quiver. Instead, he looked at her longer, sizing up every inch in a single moment.
Her hair was dark and braided, pulled away from her face in the Haradrim style, though her clothing had the air of a southern ranger, if not the coloring. Leathers, worn boots spattered with mud, a hood with a peculiar veil. At first glance, she looked to be another walker like himself, but the tattoos on her hands and neck told a different story. Black as oil, snake-like, those were the marks of Harad. But she wore no bone jewelry of the mumak and her accent was slight, if indiscernible. She was long away from her homeland and this comforted him a bit. And because he was keen of eye, he noticed the way she leaned, overcompensating for a sword that was not there. A woman on the council is strange, a Haradrim even stranger, but a warrior – impossible for some to bear, he understood. Some meaning the Men of Gondor, his own kin, who had more cause than most to revile the Haradrim.
Sakhra shifted under his gaze, "I'm not suited to silk. And I don't think you are either." Like the man, she had done her own observing, and didn't miss the way his hand strayed to his silk collar or how he picked at his sleeves. The bruised fingers were hard to miss as well; he was a man more accustomed to the wilds. And his eyes, gray as stone, were grave and hard, the eyes of a king. The rangers of the north are said to be descendants of the Dunedain, the blood of kings, she remembered, thinking back to her teachings in Umbar.
"I'm a friend of Gandalf's," she continued, hoping to ease him a bit. Fights and accusations were the last thing she needed now. "If that comforts you."
He leaned back in his seat, smirking slightly. "Gandalf has strange friends."
Sakhra scoffed, knowing that all too well. "The understatement of the age."
"Indeed he does."
Against her expectations, the man laughed with her and grinned. She smiled as well, half-relieved, half-amazed. Here she was, a former Hasharin, laughing with a Dunedain ranger. Perhaps this council will bridge the gulf between us all, to save Middle-Earth, she hoped, glancing back at the elves and dwarves. Now separated, the races resigned themselves to glares and scowls rather than heated words.
Over the floor of the council chamber, one of the elves felt her gaze and looked up to meet her eyes. Sakhra recognized him as the elven leader from the courtyard, the one who turned his kinsmen away from her. She held his gaze, but he was more interested in the man next to her, gauging the ranger's reaction to the strange Haradrim woman. Something, perhaps the ranger's smile, made him relax back into his chair, though he still looked at her with confusion.
A Haradrim woman, he thought, picking out the tell-tale details immediately. And though the ranger could not, the elf recognized the ring on her middle finger, a triple band of black, silver and gold. Hell, earth and heaven. The mark of the Hasharin. What could Lord Elrond want with a Hasharin assassin, he wondered, but the will of Lord Elrond was not for him to question. Or Gandalf's, for that matter. The council was selected by them both and that was good enough for him. For now.
When Elrond cleared his throat, immediately silencing the floor, Sakhra swept her eyes back to the elven lord. About time, she thought, eager to be through with this council so Gandalf could speak his riddles and give her his task.
"Strangers from distant lands, friends of old," Lord Elrond said, his hard eyes taking in the circled peoples. Even the dwarves sat in rapt attention. "You you have been summoned here to answer the threat of Mordor. Middle-earth stands upon the brink of destruction. None can escape it. You will unite, or you will fall. Each race is bound to this fate, this one doom."
He shifted in his chair, turning to face the one person more out of place than Sakhra. "Bring forth the Ring, Frodo."
To Sakhra's great surprise, the Halfling stood from his place next to Gandalf and faced the central stone of the chamber. His hand quivered, but he placed the great evil on the stone with the resolve of a king. The One Ring. A gasp shivered through the council as whispers were exchanged and Sakhra couldn't help but feel a darkness cool her blood. It was so small, so simple. And it was pure evil. No, something whispered in her ear. Pure power.
A Man of Gondor, nobility by the looks of him, stood from his own seat and made a plea to the council, begging for the Ring to be brought to Gondor. Sakhra could barely hold her tongue, watching the pompous braggart state his case. She had passed within a breath of Mordor, beyond the Mountains of Shadow, through Khand, tasted the Sea of Nurnen, and seen the fires of Mount Doom. She knew what darkness this thing came from and most of all, that it could never be used to bring light.
Her hands clenched on the arms of her seat but before she felt the words trail from her lips, the ranger spoke up, his own voice angry. "You cannot wield it," he snapped, "None of us can. The Ring answers to Sauron alone. It has no other master."
The Gondorian sneered at the ranger like he was something on the bottom of his shoe. Son of Denethor, Sakhra finally realized, recognizing that look. The Steward of Gondor was a hard man to forget, particularly when there was a contract out for his head. But I turned it down. I refused. And I walked away, though many never could.
"And what would a ranger know of this matter?" Boromir, son of the steward, said.
But it was not for the ranger to reply, as the wood elf captain jumped to his feet, incensed. Such rage from an elf, even a wood elf, was strange to see. They are friends, great friends.
"He is no mere ranger," the elf said, his eyes alight with blue fire. Sakhra couldn't help but notice the color, darkening with his anger, like a sea darkening at sunset. "He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. You owe him your allegiance."
Sakhra nearly jumped in her seat, knowing those names as any Hasharin would. There were many contracts taken out for the heirs of Isildur, and as the years passed and the heirs died off, the pay grew. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, was worth a treasure even dwarves would drool at. If she took his head right now, the Hasharin would welcome her back with open arms instead of sharpened swords. But Sakhra would not. She made a choice years ago and she intended to live with it.
Aragorn spoke quickly, calming the elf in his own language. Though Sakhra could follow along in Haradaic, Variag, Easterling, Orkish, the Black Speech and the common tongue, Elvish was still unknown to her. She was more accustomed to the harsh, hard words of the south and the fluid language of the Elves had been impossible for her to learn. There were other Hasharin who knew the words, using them to slip within the Elven strongholds to carry out their contracts, but they were older and far more skilled than she. Unlike them, she had only killed men and women for gold. And I never will again.
The elf captain sat back down, still incensed, though he kept his anger in check. Boromir did little more than strut back to his seat, sparing a condescending glance for Aragorn as he went.
"Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king."
Sakhra had seen the White Tree with her own eyes. Its branches were like bones, the relics of a dead world. If Aragorn was who the elf said, he could be the one to make it flower again. No son of a steward could do that, Ring of Power or not.
The dwarf was more admirable in her eyes, jumping up from his own kin to try and smash the ring. His axe was heavy, his arm strong, and it should've cleaved the ring in two, but instead the axe shattered, leaving only broken stone and the simple ring. When the dwarf fell back, the elves smirked to themselves, and Elrond himself seemed patronizing as he explained the Ring must be destroyed in Mount Doom itself.
With a shiver, Sakhra let her eyes trail to Gandalf. He was already staring, eyes hard beneath his brows. She could almost hear his voice in her head, speaking over the insufferable Boromir as he protested. You know the way. You have been there. You have seen the Tower, seen the Mountain. You have passed beyond the Shadow and returned. Again, the elf argued with Boromir, trying to shout down another plea to use the Ring. The fiery dwarf found his own opening, roaring his prejudices towards the elves. It didn't take long for the entire council to fight, bickering like children over a toy, but all the while, her mind echoed with Gandalf's voice. Where the Ring goes, you must guide.
A failed assassin and the Ring of Power, she thought dimly, raising a hand to her head. What a match.
She barely heard the Halfling, so engrossed with her own thoughts, but the second time, his words were unmistakable.
"I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!" he yelled over the crowd. Somehow, such small words stilled them all. Gandalf looked almost heartbroken and Sakhra understood; the Halfling was so small, so innocent. His were wide, having never seen the world. And here he was, offering to fight – and destroy – the heart of evil.
When he continued, his voice faltering, she almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. "Though, I do not know the way."
I do. But the words stuck in her throat. She couldn't offer herself, not yet, and could only watch as Gandalf, Aragorn, the elf, the dwarf and, to her dismay, Boromir, offered their services to the Halfling. He accepted them all with a smile, looking a little less green than he did a moment before.
When Gandalf's eyes landed on her, she knew her own choice. Thankfully, her feet were sure from many years of walking and her legs did not shake as she stood.
"I have walked the paths you seek," Sakhra said, taking measured steps towards the assembled group. She could feel their eyes, Boromir's especially, burning into her skin. "And I will help guide you, to Mordor and wherever you will go."
She didn't miss both the elf and Boromir open their mouths to protest, but the sudden entrance of yet another jolly little Halfling saved her for the moment. He had strawberry blonde hair and a round physique – the opposite of the rest of them.
"Mr. Frodo's not going anywhere without me," he growled, moving to stand next to his friend. She might have been amused, had he not sounded so serious. Two more Halflings – do they grow out of the ground? – appeared before Elrond could protest, volunteering their services as well. Neither appeared to be very sharp, but both were full of zeal, without a hint of fear. I cannot say the same for myself.
"Ten companions," Elrond mused, letting his eyes linger on her. Sakhra only stood a bit straighter, not wanting to look afraid in the eyes of such a lord. "You shall be the Fellowship of the Ring."
Fellowship. We have no such word in Haradaic.
The words seemed to hang in the air, part of a history about to unfold. She knew Gandalf felt it too as he met her gaze, quietly happy with her decision. Sakhra was proud, but not happy. There were long days ahead, full of danger, but she welcomes all the Orcs of Mordor. It was the companions, the suspicious elf and the boorish Boromir and the others who would certainly question her, that made her squirm. It is a long way to Mordor.
But still, the company gave her hope. Boromir seemed calmer, stronger somehow, and the elf and dwarf were not bickering again. Maybe they would not only chase away the shadow of Sauron, but heal the wounds between peoples as well.
Or the Gondorian will slit my throat in the night. I deserve no less.
Review and feed the beast, if you so desire.