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VII - One Of Many Masks

A four day journey to the other side, Gandalf had said. Four days in the dark. Even in the desert, even in Mordor, there was the light of the stars or the fire of orc camps, but no such thing penetrated here. Only Gandalf's staff illuminated the way, and it was weak, casting monstrous shadows across the stone. The ruins of the dwarf kingdom twisted all around, a testament to the deep evil that rested here. Sakhra could feel it on her skin, in every breath, always waiting on the edge of Gandalf's light. She kept a hand on her sword, never lessening her grip on the ebony hilt. The other rested in her leather jacket, closed around her Hasharin dagger.

She was tense as they moved through Moria, even as the hours passed with nothing more than shadows to follow them. Legolas wondered how a human could stay so vigilant, never relaxing for a moment. His own senses hummed a warning at every corner, but he was an elf. He was made to watch and to wait. So when Boromir slowed his pace, dropping back to accompany Sakhra, he felt himself tense. A shouting match was the last thing they needed here, but the shouts never came.

"You favored my plan, didn't you?" The Gondorian's voice was low, barely a whisper, but Legolas could still hear him.

Sakhra glanced at him, surprised by his quiet, almost gentle tone. "I would favor anything next to this," she said, gesturing at the black mines. "And the western road would save us many troubles. The Rohirrim would aid us, and your people would as well."

He nodded, heartened by her words. "Indeed. My father would welcome us with open arms and many feasts."

"Careful, you're starting to sound like the dwarf." To her delight, Boromir smiled at the jibe and nodded.

"We are both simply proud of our people."

She felt blood flush in her cheeks, though the air was damp and cold. "You have every right to be. The Men of Gondor fight bravely, and against many dangers." I used to be one of them. She knew Boromir was thinking it too, and fighting against the urge to say so. "My people are a brutal kind, Boromir. No one knows that better than I."

Their spears are sharp, their armor thick. And the mumakil are warring mountains.

"And you left them." His voice echoed further than she wished, and a few heads turned, but no one spoke a word. In that moment, she wished she could disappear into the dark. "You left the assassins and your people."

"Onsatara," she murmured to the shadows, remembering her most vile name. "I betrayed them. I betrayed the blood." And even though her actions were good and righteous, she still found it in herself to be ashamed of them. I betrayed the only ones who ever loved me. The ones who saved me from the slaver's tent. The ones who gave me purpose. I betrayed them all.

Somehow, Boromir of Gondor felt pity for the Haradrim woman as he watched shadows and sorrow dance across her face. The feeling swelled deep within, in a place long forgotten since the Ring came to his thoughts. "You cannot betray what is already wrong," he said, tentatively putting a hand on her shoulder. Her muscles were tense beneath his touch, and hard as bone. "You chose a better path. And when we reach Gondor, my city will open its gates and you will pass through freely." He knew the laws of his land. He knew her kind was forbidden. And when he returned to Minas Tirith, he intended to change that. "The city will sing at our coming and even Sauron will tremble. For we have the Ring, and we can defeat him."

Sakhra put a hand over Boromir's and marveled at the strength she felt there. But she remembered his face on the mountain, and the hunger in his eyes. Would he be strong enough to resist?

She certainly hoped so. "Thank you, Boromir."

Though neither would admit it, Boromir, son of the steward, and Sakhra, the Hasharina, became friends deep in Moria. Somehow, they brought light to that darkness, lifting the last veil of unease from the shoulders of the Fellowship.

But Sakhra never eased the grip on her sword or her dagger. For her, the shadows were too close to forget. Still, the passage seemed safe, broken only by slipping hobbits. Everyone kept an eye on Pippin, who proved very adept at falling, particularly near high ledges.

"The Haradrim leash their children during sandstorms," Sakhra chuckled when Pippin fell again, this time far from the cliff edge. She hoisted him up by the collar, righting him on his feet. "Perhaps we should adopt the practice?"

Pippin scowled and stuck his tongue out at her, which she only laughed at. Aragorn chuckled as well, his deep laugh rumbling in the darkness.

"At least we outnumber the hobbits now," he said, "Try taking all four of them from Bree to Rivendell alone."

"Not alone, Strider," Sam reminded, thinking back to the attack at Weathertop and the elf woman who saved Frodo. "There was that elf maiden who helped you."

Frodo nodded along, though he barely remembered the ride of his life. "She evaded the Ringwraiths, all nine of them."

Sakhra did not miss Aragorn's forced shrug or the way his eyes darkened. "She did, indeed." Elf maiden, she thought, remembering what she saw on the bridge. Kiramir. And then, through the folds of Aragorn's collar, Sakhra noticed something winking like a star: a white gemstone, a necklace. A woman's jewel.

"She must be quite the warrior, to have faced the Nine riders alone," Sakhra murmured, enjoying the uncomfortable way Aragorn squirmed. As much as he tried to hide it, she could see the layers of his hard exterior peeling away to show what lay beneath. Not the ranger, not the heir, but the man. Flesh and blood and a beating, loving heart. We are all men beneath our armor, she knew, and to see it in Aragorn, in one so grave and skilled, gave her a strange kind of hope. And, if nothing else, teasing him gave her a reason to smile in this darkness. "Would that she had come with us."

Aragorn hoisted his quiver higher on his shoulder, if only to avoid the clenching feeling in his chest. Just the thought of Arwen accompanying the quest made his blood chill, though it ran hot again when he saw Sakhra smirking in the shadows. Legolas saw it too and wanted to laugh aloud, but did not, for his friend's sake.

"Are you missing female company, my lady?" Gimli chortled, throwing a look over his shoulder.

"Not at all, Master Dwarf," she said, "Just the smell."

The rowdy jeers of menfolk echoed off the stone, and even Gandalf admonished her for her 'impertinent cheek', as he called it.

They came to a split in the path, with three arches each leading away into a different darkness. Sakhra barely noticed, more focused on searching for Orcs, and bumped into Aragorn's back when he stopped walking. She opened her mouth to ask why they were standing still, but Gandalf answered for her.

"I have no memory of this place," he said gravely, his eyes searching the arches like they held some kind of answer. But an answer never came.

Though she wanted nothing more than to stand, to watch the path ahead and behind, Sakhra's legs finally began to protest her constant vigilance. Long hours in the dark, walking over hard and jagged stone, had taken their toll. When she settled down on an outcropping of rock, she had to clench her teeth to trap in a sigh of relief. The hobbits were not so veiled and smiled at the prospect of rest, as did Gimli. It wasn't long before were sifting through Sam's food stores, pulling out pieces of bread and jerky to share.

Aragorn simply drew out his pipe, content to sit and smoke with Boromir at his side. There was a heavy silence between them, the kind that settles when words want to be said, and it made Sakhra uneasy. Boromir was the son of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, a man who was king in all but name. Now he sat next to the man who would be king, a man he had insulted and distrusted not so long ago in Rivendell. His opinion of you has changed, surely he thinks differently of Aragorn as well? She wanted to believe that, if only to calm her already pounding heart. This place does not agree with you, Onsatara.

The elf was no comfort either, constantly standing, still as a statue, his sharp eyes fixed on the craggy fissures all around. She wondered if anything ever snuck up on him, and wanted to be there when something did.

When his gaze moved, shifting from the shadows to her own face, she nearly jumped in her skin. Only her Hasharin training kept her from reacting, though no lesson ever taught her how to stop her face from flushing.

She is strange, Legolas thought, watching as she dropped her eyes. Her movements were quick but fluid as she busied herself, laying her sword across her knees. He remembered the blade cutting through the Watcher with smooth, dancing motions like he'd never seen before. In truth, her fighting style seemed more Elvish than anything, especially in comparison to the strong, hard, hacking Boromir or Aragorn's flawless swordplay. Though he knew a few words and some of their histories, the Haradrim were a great mystery to Legolas. Only tales of the Hasharin, the ancient guild of assassins, ever held his attention as a young elf. And now he walked with one of them, sharing camp and fire with such strange myth. He had so many questions for her, but now was not the place for them.

The familiar smell of pipeweed told Sakhra that Gandalf had settled in, ready for long hours of muttering and thinking. She wanted to poke at the old wizard, perhaps prodding him into one of his more wizardly fits. If it meant moving on, she would gladly accept his rage, but this was not a place for such things. Now they must sit in quiet, longing for the sun and the wind and the dream of the world above.

Well, now that I have some time, she thought to herself, and let her hands stray to her hair.

Legolas couldn't help but feel surprised when she pushed back her hood for the first time in many days. Since Rivendell, he told himself, remembering her at the council. Like her veil, the hood was another comfort for her to hide in, and somehow she felt safe enough in Moria, with them, to shed it. But that was not her purpose at all, he realized, when she began undoing the long braids of her hair. In the dim light, her hair seemed black as a void, and not so long as a woman's should be. But that was to be expected. She is an assassin, not a lady. Still, as the braids fell into waved, gleaming rivers, Legolas could not ignore the fact that she was indeed a woman.

Her lips curled into a smile as the braids fell apart, unwinding between her fingers. She had gone so long with the braids, she'd nearly forgotten what it felt like to let them down. The relief almost made her moan, but she bit back the sound. Though she now counted herself a member of the Fellowship, a friend even, she was not that comfortable.

Though Legolas tried his best to look away, he found his eyes always flitting back to her, watching as she bent and angled herself. She was so graceful, but not in the elvish way, and it confused him.Intrigued him. Every movement was fluid but hard, light but full of purpose. It didn't take much effort to imagine how her hands, now untangling hair, could just as easily slit throats. Her face was a different story though. Now, with her hair down, her hood pushed back and the veil pulled away, she seemed smaller, younger somehow, even innocent. Not, not innocent, he realized. But unbound. Unfettered. Free. In this place, in this moment, she seemed to shed the weight of her memories and her ghosts.

But it was not to last. When Sakhra began rebraiding her hair, he almost reached out a hand to stop her. Almost. But he didn't miss her smile fade away, replaced by the neutral expression she fell so easily into. It is not her only mask, but one of many.

Sakhra did not understand Legolas's fascination with her hair, but she didn't want to question it either. Not in front of the hobbits, at least. Merry and Pippin would joke forever, Frodo would tease her if given the chance and Sam would follow Frodo's example. A burden, she once thought of them. Between their falling and laughing and constant eating, it was indeed true. But they are a burden I will gladly bear.

This time, she made sure the braids weren't so tight, if only to give her scalp some respite. If this had been Harad, she would braid gold wire and ribbon and mumak bone into her hair, but this was Moria and not the time for such things. All the better. Sakhra never liked the bonewear. It was too barbaric, even for an assassin.

"It's that way!" Gandalf finally said, pulling out of a whispered conversation with Frodo. He drew himself off his perch and pointed with his staff down one of the arches. The others jumped to their feet as well, Sakhra quickest of all. She could still feel Legolas's eyes, and it was not a sensation she liked.

As they fell into line again, trooping after Gandalf and down a flight of stone stairs, Sakhra's hand returned to her sword. The entire mountain loomed over them, threatening to come crashing down. Only the hobbits, still wide-eyed and curious despite the darkness, gave her any hope. Now I understand why Gandalf brought them along.

Frodo in particular looked strangely cheerful, heartened by his conversation with Gandalf back at the crossroads. The slight smile on his face seemed to light the shadows, despite the chain around his neck and the evil it carried. Somehow, it had not taken him.

But it will, the voice in her head warned, hissing in Haradaic. It will take you all. She bit down on her lip sharply, using the pain to drive the voice away.

"The air is lighter here," she said aloud, hoping for some conversation to distract her harried mind. "Have we found a shortcut?"

Aragorn answered from the back of the line, his preferred place in the company. "The great halls of the dwarves are not far off," he said, remembering his own travels through Moria.

"Grand as the hall of any king, and big enough to house any palace," Gimli boasted, puffing out his chest against his armor. He ran a mailed fist against the wall, along the geometric carvings that seemed to multiply as they continued forward.

Sakhra couldn't help it; the words simply slipped out. "I don't know Gimli, Rivendell seemed quite large."

In the dark of Moria, it was hard to hide any noise at all, and the stifled laughter of the Fellowship echoed loudly off the stone.

Gimli sputtered, turning over his shoulder to face Sakhra. His feet continued moving, forcing him to walk backwards. At any moment, he looked close to stumbling, but continued on with determination. "Rivendell!" he spat, "A pittance in comparison!"

"And what of the Tower of Ecthelion? It is a massive thing, guarding over my city for thousands of years," Boromir said, joining in on the game. "Legend says the tower touches the sky."

The dwarf barely paused before waving off Boromir's words. "Your tower would tremble in the face of Khazad-dum."

"The halls of my father would not," Legolas chimed in, enjoying the way it made Sakhra smile and Gimli flush. "Our trees are tall and our chambers deep."

"I'll not justify that with an answer, princeling," Gimli said, realizing that he was being baited. "See for yourself when we come to the halls."

Smiling, Sakhra put an arm around Gimli's armored shoulders. "We were only teasing, Gimli," she said. The dwarf tried his best to look angry, but found he couldn't in the face of Sakhra's rare smile.

The walls around them seemed to open, as the passageway led out to a great chamber. In the darkness, Sakhra could not be sure of its size, but it had the air and smell of something massive. She could just see a few columns in the gloom, each one bigger than the great trees of Lothlorien or the Harad jungle, all fading up into black air.

At the head of the company, Gandalf smirked and raised his staff. "Let me risk a little more light."

His staff gleamed out with surprising strength, illuminating the immense cavern almost too big to comprehend. The massive columns marched out in every direction, supporting a stone roof high above. In spite of herself, Sakhra felt her jaw drop at the sight.

"Who's teasing now?" Gimli chuckled, elbowing her in the ribs, but she barely heard him at all.

"There's an eye opener and no mistake," Sam murmured, voicing the awe the rest of them felt.

"Behold the great realm and dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf," Gandalf said, his voice echoing off the stone and into the deep darkness all around.

Sakhra could not believe her eyes, but tried her best to mask her wonder. This was a great city, yes, but a ruined one, full of shadow and danger. She needed to be on her guard, no matter how grand or how beautiful her surroundings might be. Legolas felt the same and kept his hands free, ready to draw his bow if he needed to. His eyes saw farther than any other, but still he couldn't see the far end of the hall, and it made him wary. He knew what lingered in Moria, what evil waited in the depths of the mines.

And so did the Ring. It called out, one evil heart to another, beckoning shadow and flame to come out of hiding once more.