Chapter 1: Book 1: Twilight - The Exile and the Ranger
Book 1: Twilight
But I can speak of these things, for I loved a mortal once. This is the story of how my fate was forever tied to hers.
In her thirtieth year Korra started to join parties of Rangers. Weeks would be spent in the company of just a few as they mapped the wilds and tracked the movements of orcs and goblins. Korra itched to put an arrow into the skulls of those evil creatures, and she enjoyed it every chance she got. She’d lost too many friends and family and every kill was a bit of personal vengeance.
Eventually, she lead her own patrols under the orders of her company’s commander, Halbarad. They made sorties into the flooded ruins of Annuminas and once they even dared the treacherous remains of Fornost. But most of that decade was spent near the Shire in a seemingly peaceful patrol. It was deemed so important that only the very best were assigned there, and they were called the Grey Company.
Halbarad gathered them together in her fifty-third year, thirty rangers standing around him. “We ride to Rohan,” he said. “We’re the best men and women in the North and Elessar needs us.”
“The best in all of Middle-earth,” Korra boasted. “If he needs us, we’ll answer.”
Halbarad laughed. “Just what I wanted to hear.”
The Company were to travel first to Imladris where Lord Elrond’s sons would join them, and then to Rohan to meet with Estel. The night before they set out for Imladris, Korra had a dream. The fire of a forge burning in green eyes and the sound of steel being pounded. A voice whispered in her ear, telling her of a fallen star to the east. Dreams and portents were never to be ignored, but she kept it to herself until she could understand it better.
But when they came to the Paths of the Dead, she forgot about it entirely.
But that time faded into memory long ago. The trees were destroyed, and the First Age of the Sun was one of conflict and strife. It was a time that Asami desperately tried to forget.
Elves don’t sleep the way mortals do. But they do sleep, and they do dream. And in the first years of the Second Age, Asami started to dream of piercing blue eyes, and dark skin scented like leaves. There was a voice, too, but she could never make out the words. When she woke she longed for something far out of reach.
For millennia, she searched. Not just for the blue eyes, but for a semblance of peace. Asami craved peace. Those conflicts had taken their toll on her, leaving her wary and weary and she sought out any light she could. For a time, she found that peace beneath the golden leaves of Lothlorien, where she turned her skills back to art and invention. Later, she found peace far to the East and the South, where the people called her by different names than the ones she was used to.
When she returned to Lothlorien, the nights were growing long. A Fellowship passed through, carrying a weight of shadow that brought Asami back to memories of fire and ash. After they’d departed, Asami left the woods. Buried in a cave was a chest and when she opened it a sword gleamed in the golden light of Lorien. It felt too familiar in her hands.
Her peace was shattered, but she would defend her home, reluctantly holding a sword again. And if she fell in the process, it was no less than what she deserved.
Chapter 2: Silver Stars I
The Paths of the Dead. Korra could feel the unease in the air. The closer she got to the entrance the sicker she felt. No one wanted to go inside, no one moved. Not until Estel, Aragorn, stepped inside, his brown skin becoming veiled in shadow. And like that it was as though a spell had broken. His friends followed, the Mirkwood elf and the Dwarf, and then the Grey Company. Halbarad took up the rear with a torch, and Korra stayed near him. She’d have a Company of her own someday. But Halbarad had her respect, and she counted him a friend.
Whenever they stopped, it sounded as though an endless whisper of voices surrounded them, speaking in an tongue that Korra didn’t recognize. They kept moving until they found an large, empty cavern where they discovered the bones of a large man, clad in mail, with a gold belt and gilded hauberk.
Korra watched as Aragorn knelt before the corpse, before he stood and called out to the whispering darkness. "Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!"
There was a silence more dreadful than the whispers. It was followed by a freezing blast of air, putting the torches out and blowing Korra’s hair around her face. They were ordered to move again, and Korra was all but certain that there was the sound of more feet than there should have been for thirty-four people and their horses.
She could feel unease growing by the hour until finally they passed through a gateway, onto a road flanked by sheer cliffs on either side. They mounted their horses, and rode in single file.
"The Dead are following," Korra heard Legolas say to Gimli. "I see the shapes of men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night."
A shiver ran through her, straight down her spine. But Korra had never been one to shy away in fear, and she turned her head to look. There was nothing there, yet she could feel a thousand eyes on her.
Eventually they reached a huge black stone, round like a globe. It was there that Aragorn blew a silver horn, and called out for the Oathbreakers. An army that had once betrayed their king.
Korra didn't pay much attention to the words. The voice that answered him seemed far away, and yet right behind her, causing her to grip her reigns tighter. Aragorn answered the voice in kind, bidding the Oathbreakers to join him to cleanse the land of Sauron's servants.
A different kind of chill ran through Korra, when Halbarad unfurled the banner he'd brought from Rivendell. It was black, and too dark to see the device upon it. And though none made a sound, Korra believed that the Oathbreakers would fulfil their oath to Isildur's Heir.
In the morning, they moved faster and harder than Korra have ever seen before. But no other mortal men or women could have endured it, except her people, the Dunedain of the North. Always, always the Dead followed.
The port city of Pelargir was under siege by Corsairs from Umbar when the Company burst from the mountain paths. They descended on the enemy with arrows and swords and axes and a host of the dead. The battle was over in minutes, and Korra stared about in wonder at the scene around her. Many strange things had she seen in her patrols, but none matched what Aragorn was able to command.
“Halbarad!” She called out, as the Company started to load into the Corsair’s ships. “That was amazing! We might just win the day.”
He smiled at her, expression tight. She remembered his words before they’d entered the Paths. It was an evil door, he’d said. And that his death lay beyond it. He’d seemed so certain of that. “We just might.” He nodded his head towards Aragorn. “Look. He’s going to release the Dead from their oath. We’ve enough soldiers, between the Grey Company and the people of Pelargir, to turn the tide at Minas Tirith.”
They watched in silence as the Dead departed, released to wherever it was the dead go after life. If Katara had known where, she’d never told Korra.
“Korra,” Halbarad laid a hand on her shoulder, his grey eyes filled with a morbid mirth. “Come. I’m going to pretend to be a Corsair captain, and I would not wish for any other first mate.”
She answered him with a confident grin. “I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces.”
They sailed in silence up the river, but the sounds of battle carried over the water and so did the stench of fresh death. Korra gripped her bow tightly. Her confidence didn’t waver, but she still felt the cold chill of fear in her bones.
The battle wasn't going well. The forces of both Rohan and Gondor were being routed and Korra wondered what they could actually do. This battle was like nothing she could have prepared for.
Aragorn's ship unfurled the black banner. A design of a white tree, but with seven stars and the crown of Elendil around and upon it. It was the flag of the Kings of old. The stars flamed in the sunlight, glittering gems placed by Arwen Undomiel, and the crown was like mithril and gold.
Sometimes, all it took was a sign of hope, something to rouse people whose hearts were flagging.
At the command Korra lept out of her ship, along with thirty other Rangers and hundreds of soldiers from Pelargir. The laughter and the joy from the Rohirrim rang in her ears. Music and trumpets roared from the great stone city, urging her on. Minas Tirith was larger than she'd ever imagined, and even with the damage and the fires the crown jewel of Gondor was still beautiful and astonishing to behold.
Taking advantage of the sudden chaos, the knights of Dol Amroth rode in from the East. They forced Sauron's army into the Rohirrim, and between the two of them Sauron’s forces were led straight to Aragorn’s army. Orcs fled towards them in a panic, and Korra got the impression of something caught between an anvil and the hammer.
She shouted a battle cry and loosed her first arrow as Aragorn led the charge, his sword flashing like fire. Her arrows ran out by the time they had finished with the orcs, but the battle raged for hours more as they fought and cornered the humans of Sauron's army. Desperate and despairing, the enemy fought hard for their master.
Korra’s heart was sickened every time she cut one down. What lies had been told to bring them this far, to make them fight this hard? When she looked into their dying eyes, she saw no evil. They were afraid.
When the battle was over, smoke still lingered in the air. Korra walked among the wounded, helping where she could. Those of the Company who had been lost, she took the silver stars from their cloaks to bring home to their families. She knew their names, and their faces and what their favorite meal was. She’d joked with them and played with them and sung with them.
She saved what lives she could on that bloody field, but she could not save Halbarad. It was only over his body that the tears finally came. She only allowed herself a few. With only two days to rest, Korra spent most of her time at the Houses of Healing, assisting the wounded.
On the third day, Aragorn and Eomer of Rohan mustered up as many people as they could for a march to Mordor. Of the Grey Company, there were now eleven left, including Korra. They looked to her, four women and six men. She knew each of them like family, had grown up with some of them. She’d even once shared a kiss with Laeriel. Twenty silver stars were secure in Korra’s pouch. How many more would she have to add?
Korra only knew in part what they were fighting for. It was a delaying action, in hope of some miracle. She felt that hope deep inside her. It burned in her and ran like fire in her veins. Even as men and women fell all around her, she refused to give that hope up. Korra fought until she ran out of arrows, she fought until her sword snapped in two and then she fought with half a sword and a dagger scavenged from a fallen knight.
When it was finally over, the darkness lifted like a veil. Korra counted her company, and brought them to Aragorn. He squeezed Korra’s arm. “Thank you, sister. You fought well.”
There were now twenty-eight silver stars in Korra’s pouch.
Chapter 3: Portents and Merriment
It seemed as though Asami could not escape war. The First Age, the Second and the Third, war followed her wherever she went. She returned to Lothlorien in time for the Shadow to rise again and she knew it was inevitable.
The armies of Sauron marched on Lorien from the ancient fortress of Dol Guldur, led by one of the Ringwraiths. A king from far to the East, he’d fallen under the sway of Sauron long ago, becoming second in power and status only to the Witch King. There were tales of this king and a Dragon Queen of Khand. Some called them adversaries, lovers, or both. Whatever the truth, much of their story had been lost to time.
On three different days, the Ringwraith threw his army at Lothlorien and each time Galadriel’s power held him back. A fourth attack never came, his Master calling for him. He sped away atop a flying beast, leaving the fortress without a commander.
Asami hadn’t fought in centuries. It felt familiar, her hand on the hilt and the sick feeling in her stomach. Like coming home again. The sick feeling only worsened as Galadriel led them into the fortress. It was tainted by darkness and evil, a fell stench that wafted across Asami’s nostrils and made her stomach churn. She remembered a similar feeling, long ago on another battlefield.
Like Asami, Lady Galadriel hailed from Valinor. She’d laid eyes on the trees and held their light within her soul. But she paled in comparison to the Lady. Where Asami walked, the shadows faltered. But where Galadriel strode, they fled before her. She stood at the base of the fortress, resplendent in shining armor.
It was golden like the crown of hair upon her head, mail woven together like feathers over her body. Few had seen its like in six thousand years. Lady Galadriel wore Asami’s handiwork, and she gleamed as bright as the sun. For a long moment, Asami was transported to another time and place by the purity she beheld. Her feet bare on soft grass, a golden light overhead, soft skin under her fingertips. An unwanted tear fell down her face.
Galadriel’s power washed over the fortress like fire cleansing a forest. The stones crumbled, and then the tower fell, a cacophony of crashing stone and screaming metal, black mist burned away by the light.
Asami felt something just then. A heady, strange feeling. All around her was laughter and cheers as Galadriel’s people shouted in pure, unadulterated joy. A flame of hope, however small, kindled in her heart.
In the days after, the mood began to change. There was a chill in the air that had not been in Lorien for an Age. In the past, Galadriel could sometimes be seen to gaze West, towards what had once been her home. With the downfall of Sauron, her eyes turned that direction more frequently.
“Vanessë.” Her choice of that name startled Asami. She hadn’t been called by it since before her father was slain, and only then on rare occasion.
“Yes, my Lady?”
She gestured for Asami to stand next to her. “Will you return?”
There was no need to say where. Asami knew instinctively, and her eyes were drawn to the West as well. “I do not know. Eventually.”
Turning her head towards her, Galadriel’s eyes glinted with unspoken wisdom and not a little amusement. “There is still something for you to do and the way will not be closed for some centuries yet.” She gestured with one hand. “Join me on the ride to Gondor for my granddaughter’s wedding. There, a task will be asked of you. I cannot tell you to accept or deny this task, for the choice must be yours alone to make.”
An offer to join the Lady at a royal wedding was not one Asami could refuse, and she was curious as to this task Galadriel foresaw. She was of half a mind to accept it right away, but that was danger and folly and she should at least know the details before deciding. “Do you know what the task is?”
“My vision is clouded,” She replied, then rested her hand on Asami’s arm. “All I can tell you is if you accept it, you will not return unchanged.”
Asami mulled over those words as she rode to Gondor. A many days journey, but for the first time without a shadow weighing them down like a heavy cloak. As she left Lothlorien, she thought that it might be the last time she’d see those golden leaves.
Minas Tirith was as grand as she remembered it. The people were cleaning her up, repairing the damage to her walls. The prospect of a wedding, the return of their King, and the end of the Shadow that had lain over them for so many centuries did much to repair the peoples’ spirit, too.
The elves rode through wide streets in a grand procession led by Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel. Most of those traveling with them were golden haired like the Lady, though there was a smattering of other colors. Raven black like Asami’s, red like flame, and rarer still, silver like Lord Celeborn’s.
A child ran out and lifted up a flower for Galadriel. She took it, reaching down to stroke his cheek before shooing him back to his parents. She tucked the flower into her hair, and she continued on.
Guards took their horses when they reached their destination. Asami took leave of the Lady to help tend the horses. As she led her horse into the stables, she heard a low voice.
“That’s a good girl…” There was a woman tending to a grey mare. Her brown hair was made up into an elaborate braid and when she turned to look at Asami, she had dark skin and blue eyes burning with life. Asami’s mind flashed to visions and dreams that she’d forsaken long ago.
Unwilling to face an inconvenient truth, she hastily turned to stable her horse and her head met a low-hanging beam. Older than the very sun in the sky and she’d managed to make a fool of herself over sapphire eyes.
She looked up to see a tall woman staring at her. The woman had long black tresses that fell like waves from her head, sharp featured and with tell-tale leaf-shaped ears. But it was the color of her angular eyes that startled Korra. Green like the trees in spring, shining like the beryls she’d once traded with a passing party of Dwarves. She’d seen those eyes, once upon a dream.
The elf was just as startled as Korra was, inelegantly knocking her head against a beam as she turned away. She rubbed the spot, embarrassment coloring her cheeks, then brushed her hair back and over her shoulder before looking at Korra again.
Korra was glad the elf spoke first, because words suddenly threatened to fail her.
“I was just tending to my horse. It was a long ride and I’m not needed for the formalities.”
“I’ve spent the past week having my toes stepped on by half the nobles in the city,” Korra replied, laughing heartily. “I may understand more than you’d think.”
“People are excited, happy?” There was a spark of hope in the elf’s sad, green eyes.
“Yes. I may be complaining, but I don’t really mind.” Korra studied her. It was not an unpleasant task. The elf wore supple leather, dyed in reds and yellows, over a loose tunic and intricately woven trousers. Her boots were dusty from her travels, but well cared for. There were some nobles who wore pristine clothing that had never seen a day of wilderness in their lives. But this woman’s clothing bore the subtle signs of use and wear. Korra offered her a hand in greeting. “My name is Korra. Captain of the Grey Company.”
It was good to hear. After so long under the shadow, the people of Gondor in particular deserved whatever sunshine they could feel. They’d been the bulwark, a steadfast line between Mordor and the rest of Middle-earth and with the fall of Sauron they could at last have peace. She gave the Ranger a closer look.
There were lines on Korra’s face, stress from battles old and new. Her hair reminded Asami of warm earth, the kind she used to feel beneath her toes. And Korra was muscular, with the lean strength of a warrior skilled in bow and sword. Despite the cloak, Asami’s keen eyes could make out some of Korra’s definition, especially when the cloak moved to reveal bare arms. Her skin was a dark mahogany, reminding her of some of her Noldor kin. But it was always those sapphire eyes that drew her attention. They were bright and intelligent, filled with a hopeful light that made Asami feel not unlike a moth facing the flame.
“My lady?” Korra tilted her head.
Asami snapped out of it. She removed her glove and took Korra’s hand. “You may call me Asami. I’m hardly a lady.” She chuckled. “Well, only sometimes a lady.”
“You’re a lady to me.” Korra brought Asami’s hand to her lips. “Asami, that’s a strange name for an elf.”
Flustered, Asami struggled to find an appropriate response, but all she could manage was a nervous little laugh. “I traveled East long ago. That was the name I was known by there, and I’ve always liked the sound of it.”
“This is the first time I’ve been this far South or East,” Korra replied. She hadn’t much cause to smile lately, but around Asami it was easy. She missed being able to smile easily.
Korra nodded. “Right.”
“I haven’t been west of the Misty Mountains since before Arnor split apart.” That was a long time ago. She wondered how much the lands of Arnor had changed. What had become of Eriador. Or of the Blue Mountains of the dwarves, the forests of Lindon and the ford of Tharbad. And of Arnor and the people there. “After Lady Galadriel settled in Lorien, I felt the need to travel. West and East, and even into the South. This was before the Shadow returned.”
Korra had yet to give Asami her hand back. It was intimate. Too intimate. But there was something familiar about her. The color of her eyes dredged up memories of dreams and she was distracted from her task with Naga. “Are they much different from us?”
“Not really.” A blush was creeping up Asami’s ears. “They were much like you. Mortal, with all the good and bad that comes with that. They loved, and they ate, and they sang. Maybe they looked different but in your hearts you are all the same.”
“Our hearts can turn to evil easily enough,” Korra replied. “It doesn’t matter where we’re born.”
“Your hearts can turn to goodness just as easily,” Asami reminded her. She finally extricated her hand from Korra’s. “Or do you not believe that?”
Korra straightened, squaring her shoulders. “I believe that more than anything. There’s good to find in just about everyone. The Free People or the Southron and Easterlings. Who I...suppose are free people now, too.” She smiled, a quick roll of her shoulders as she corrected herself. Then she turned back to Naga to finish brushing her.
It was probably not a popular mindset in Gondor, Asami mused. But she also thought it would be the only way for the kingdom to survive and thrive in the future. “Sauron is no more. But there’ll be those who see opportunity for power. I hope your new King has a plan to prevent that.”
“If he does, he hasn’t shared any plans with me.”
Asami laughed. “It’s too soon for that, I guess.” She took a step forward.
Meeting her eyes, Korra saw that sadness again. What had Asami seen in all the thousands of years she’d been alive? She was old enough to remember Arnor at its height, if not older. Asami had seen war and suffering, surely, but many of the elves that Korra knew were often joyous. Had Asami fallen prey to the same melancholy that she’d seen in Imladris? Something like the Fading of the Elves, this need to go West and leave a world they no longer felt a part of. She couldn’t tell which it was, or if it was both. She just wanted to do something about it and the words came out before she thought them through, “The wedding party is tonight. Do you want to go with me?”
Startled, Asami nodded her head before her she thought better of it.
“Good!” Korra’s face erupted into a huge grin. Were Asami one of her friends or family, she would have enveloped her in a massive hug. As it was she almost did. “I’ll see you tonight then, Lady Asami.”
She just had to clean up first. Korra suddenly wanted to look good for Asami.
Asami was wearing a red dress that glimmered in the light, made from some kind of spun silk, a kind unique to Lothlorien. The neckline was almost scandalously low, at least to a Northerner like Korra. Korra’s dress was multi-layered and several shades of blue, trimmed with white, and as always it left her arms bare. Perhaps she imagined it, but Asami kept glancing in her direction.
Her mind drifted to the dream she'd had before she'd left for Rivendell. Green eyes and a soft, musical voice.
“I’m going to ask her to dance.”
A voice startled her out of her reverie. Korra looked around, then down as she realized one of the Halflings had come to her side. She tilted her head. “Lady Galadriel?”
“Oh, no! I mean she’s quite pretty, and elegant and a little scary, and all those kind of things. But I mean Silamë.” The halfling nodded his curly head in Asami’s direction.
”Silamë?” How many names did Asami have? “Do you know her, or do you think you can charm your way into a dance?”
A cheeky grin crossed his face. “Both, Captain.” Winking, he sauntered towards the two elves as Asami finished her conversation with Galadriel.
Asami turned, and a smile lit up her face. “Peregrine Took!”
Now, Pippin was tall for a hobbit, but next to an Elf nearly as tall as Asami or Galadriel it was almost funny to watch them dance. As long as Korra got her dance, she didn’t mind and Asami seemed to be enjoying herself. Maybe Asami needed this sort of thing.
Korra jumped, then turned towards the sound of the voice. Lady Galadriel was even more unearthly beautiful up close. Korra bowed her head in respect. “Lady Galadriel. To what do I owe the honor?”
“Walk with me? I intend to steal my new grandson for a dance, but there is something I wish to speak to you about, first.” Galadriel gestured with one hand and Korra nodded as she fell into step with the Lady.
Unsure what to say, Korra remained silent as they walked through the great hall, and then out into the courtyard. Being the mid-year day, it was warm out and the stars stretched out overhead. One streaked across the eastern sky, burning and bright. A possible omen.
“The King will soon ask of you something dangerous,” Galadriel said. “I have seen what is to come. A falling star, much like that one. Fire in the sky. A city glistening on a bay. A young woman longing for herself. But my power is waning and the rest is shrouded to me.” She stopped walking, and faced Korra. “I will ask one of mine to accompany you. She too has seen visions of the future, but lost her way long ago. She can help you and perhaps you will be able to help her in turn.”
That sounded fair to Korra. If there was some quest for her from the King, then she would accept it no question. For duty and honor, but also for adventure. And if Lady Galadriel thought she’d need help, she might be just proud enough to grumble about it but she wouldn’t be so proud as to turn it down. “Then I’ll welcome her aid.”
“Thank you.” Galadriel regarded her for a long moment and Korra felt as though the Lady were looking into her very soul. She felt lost and small under Galadriel’s gaze and when Galadriel spoke again the words echoed through her mind. “Such quests do not leave one unchanged, Korra of the North. If you return, you will not be the same as you were.”
The chill remained down Korra’s spine as she returned to the celebrations. Galadriel gave her another considering look, before she spotted Aragorn and excused herself. Korra watched as her Chieftain was ambushed by the Lady for a dance. She felt the chill evaporate, but still had a sense of unease. She nearly jumped when someone touched her elbow.
“Do you want to dance?”
The voice was musical, and familiar. The unease faded. Korra turned into Asami’s touch and smiled at her. “I’ve been waiting all night.”
“I’m sorry. It’s hard to turn down a Took.” Asami pulled her to where the others were dancing.
Dance, like song, was a universal constant. Whether it was the parties in Hobbiton or celebrations in Gondor or the laughter in the halls of the Last Homely House, music brought people together. The world itself had been created by music and bound by it. One thing that still brought Asami joy was watching people dance, and this was the first time in recent memory she’d felt the need to dance herself.
Dancing in the North was a lot different than in the courts of Gondor among the lords and ladies, Kings and Stewards. In the cold of winter, in the forests she grown up in, the celebrations were different. More emphasis was placed on creativity and closeness. Korra was a quick study and she had been passable this last week, but this was Asami. She lifted her head to meet Asami’s eyes and found that she had her full attention. “I’m sorry ahead of time for the damage I’m going to do to your toes.”
“Right, of course.” Asami’s hand was warm where it rested on her shoulder. Korra felt like she was twenty again and trying to impress a Ranger named Farandren. Though in those days she relied on bravado and dangerous stunts. If Korra was honest with herself, she’d rely on bravado and dangerous stunts tonight if it wasn’t a royal wedding celebration. But maybe that bravado could at least help her power through this without looking too stupid.
Asami’s skin was smooth under Korra’s hands, and just as warm as the one on her shoulder. There was a brief fit and start when Asami seemed to be distracted by something and stumbled most ungracefully. The flush on her cheeks was probably not from the warmth of the night.
Initial awkwardness passing, Korra let the music take her, finding Asami’s proximity both exciting and calming. When she looked into Asami’s eyes she could see the energy there, a sort of excitement and a tentative hunger that warmed Korra down to her toes.
They found a rhythm quickly. Korra could read Asami, and Asami read her and though they’d never met before this day Korra thought that perhaps they’d danced together once before.
Chapter 4: Of Wizards and Wings
Celebrations went well into the evening and there were more over the next two days. Minas Tirith came alive with music and joyous laughter. In time, there would be a lot of work ahead of everyone, but for now the city lost itself in the kind of giddiness that only came after the lifting of a long Shadow and the end of a terrible war.
If there was a moment when Korra looked at Asami and felt her heart start to ache, it was on the second day after the wedding. They were in the square on the third level and Asami had a gathering of a dozen children around her, as well as a few curious adults. She was holding up some kind of mechanical contraption. It was beautiful, shaped like a bird and made from a light metal and red cloth. “If you twist the key like so, it will wind up,” Asami explained.
Demonstrating, she wound up the little bird and then threw it. It’s wings flapped and it soared around the square. As it arced and started to wind down, it passed through a circular puff of smoke, which renewed its flight. Another puff sent it higher as smokey birds joined it in it’s flight.
The children gasped and cheered and even Asami looked enraptured. Korra looked around for the only person in the city capable of such a feat and caught a glimpse of a white robed figure leaning on a staff. She’d met him once when she was very young and doubted he’d recognize her. “Mithrandir? That’s a fancy trick.”
Only elves and Rangers called him Mithrandir. Gandalf glanced at her, a quirk of a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes. “Hrm. Not so fancy as you might think.” His eyes fell on the silver star over her cloak and his voice grew mischievous. “Would you like to see something really fancy, Captain of the Grey Company?”
Korra grinned. “How can I say no to that?”
Mithrandir took a draw of his pipe, and billowing his cheeks blew the smoke out across his palm. The purple smoke swirled and spun into shape. With a thrash of nebulous wings, a cat-sized dragon took flight. It looped through the air, rolling around the mechanical bird as though escorting it back to Asami.
For just the briefest of moments, Asami saw dragon-fire and smelled the burning flesh of the dead. She snapped herself out of it just in time to catch her bird. Her voice shook at first, “I can make one for each of you, as a gift.” She rested a hand on the shoulder of a little girl. “Meet me here tomorrow after lunch. I may also have a surprise if you all behave.”
As the children rushed off, Korra jogged over to Asami. There’d been the briefest moment of panic on her face when the ‘dragon’ had approached. Korra knew what it was. She’d experienced emotions like that before. “Asami! That bird is amazing, but are you all right?”
“What? I’m fine.” Asami brushed off Korra’s question. “I’ve been making these little trinkets for a long time. I wanted to bring a little joy to the children here.” Her eyes fell on Mithrandir. “I can probably do a dragon too, though not as well as a Wizard.”
Chuckling, Mithrandir smoothed a hand down his long beard. “Pardon me. I could not resist.” He nodded towards the toy. “May I see it?”
“Of course.” Asami held it out to him.
“Marvelous, simply marvelous.” Mithrandir turned it over in his hands, admiring not just the mechanical work, but the detail work of the metal. Asami had made the bird’s head and beak almost lifelike, and had even painted it like a cardinal to match the fabric wings. “Why, I haven’t seen this kind of work in-”
“You can have it, if you wish,” Asami interjected, not wanting him to finish that sentence in front of Korra. “I can make more.”
Mithrandir harrumphed, then smiled congenially. “Thank you. I’ve a friend who’s quite taken with animals, particularly the smaller kind. I’m sure he will love this.”
After the bird disappeared into his robes, Mithrandir took one of Asami’s hands between. “My dear, there is no shame in admitting where you came from. It may be the only way for you to get where you’re going.”
Leaving them with that riddle, Mithrandir gave Korra a wink before he walked off humming an ancient tune. She smiled back and him, shaking her head ruefully.
“Asami, what was that…” Korra trailed off, looking around as she realized Asami was nowhere to be found.
Always, Asami thought, life went on. She wished that war would cease, but knew better. Where one Dark Lord fell, another would inevitably take his place. It was an endless cycle and one reason she’d laid down her sword.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Asami lifted her gaze from the view and looked at Korra. “How did you find me?”
“Ranger is more than just a title, you know.”
“Of course.” Asami laughed, and moved over so Korra could sit next to her. She didn’t answer Korra’s question, which was an answer, and the only one she’d give right now. Korra’s presence was calming, at least.
Korra took a seat on the ground next to Asami, and fiddled with the edge of her cloak. “It’s a lovely view, isn’t it? Hard to believe there was so much suffering out there. I’m told they were once green and fertile. I think in time, the fields will return to the way they were.”
“I wonder when people will forget the hardships here? Oh, they might remember there was a battle. Books and scrolls will tell the story and there will be songs. There are always songs. But the ones who were there will pass on, until no one is left who remembers exactly what it was like.” Asami had fought her own wars, and she’d known those who’d fought in the wars she’d made weapons for. Few liked to talk about it and there were usually happier memories to share. “I’m glad I wasn’t here. And yet, if I was, there would be someone who lived on to tell what happened here.”
“Prince Legolas fought here,” Korra pointed out. “So there is someone. You don’t like battle, do you.” Not many people did, for all the songs of glory.
Asami pulled her legs up, resting her arms on her knees. “I’ve fought before, Korra, in wars that only a few still live who remember. I decided a long time ago that I would rather put my skill and my energy into things that bring people happiness. Make things, not destroy them.”
“Do they make you happy?”
“For as long as I see the joy on those childrens’ faces, they do.” Asami felt a weight at her side as she spoke. It had been there since Mithrandir. She reached into her pocket, stroking the object he’d palmed into her hand with her finger. “Some day, I’ll make something so beautiful, people will look upon it and feel their worries fall from their shoulders.”.
“I can’t wait to see that.” Korra placed her hand on Asami’s arm. An easygoing smile was on her face. Their eyes locked and Asami couldn’t look away. Korra rubbed her thumb over Asami’s smooth skin. “I’d like to help, if you’ll let me.”
Loneliness had dogged Asami’s heels for six and a half millennia. Elvish friends she’d made had died in war or sailed West. Mortal friends were even more fleeting. She’d never found anyone she felt love for as more than a friend of comrade and she’d never felt the need for it. Yet at the same time it was almost like she was waiting for something, longing for blue eyes she was destined to look into. It broke through all her defences and having Korra so close again only reminded her of the way she’d felt when they danced. It was a feeling that terrified her for all of the reasons they sang about, and much more.
Korra’s inner light raged like a bonfire and Asami was dry tinder on the edge of a forest just waiting to catch a spark. She pulled away, rising to her feet in hurried grace. “I’m going to rest.”
Mouth agape, Korra watched as Asami walked away as fast as she could without actually appearing to be running. “What did I say?”
Sleep didn't come easily for Korra. She tossed and turned, wondering if she’d somehow offended Asami. When she finally did fall asleep, her slumber was dreamless. Korra was glad for even that much, as she had a summons from the King for the morning. The title was still new to her. He was her Chieftain, and part of her would always think of him that way. That still didn’t mean she wanted to be late.
Strangely enough, Aragorn hadn’t summoned her to the throne room but to offices adjacent to the royal quarters. It was an area that hadn’t seen much use since the last king had been lost to the Witch King a thousand years ago. The floors had been swept and polished, the walls and decorative moulding dusted but it still smelled of disuse. Knowing Elessar’s work ethic, he’d probably helped.
Whatever she was being summoned for it clearly wasn’t for the people at court to hear. A harried looking man gestured for Korra to enter. Inside, Aragorn was sitting behind a fine oak desk. Lady Galadriel was there as well, sitting in a gold trimmed chair and Mithrandir leaned against the opposite wall, pipe in mouth. Korra didn’t know who to look at first, so she bowed to all three of them and addressed her Chieftain first. “My liege, you wanted to see me?”
“Captain.” Though the mood in the room was tense, Aragorn still had a warm smile for her. Korra was kin and one of the only representatives of his Dunedain remaining in Minas Tirith. She had his respect and the love he had for his people who’d been in hiding for so long. “I know I’ve asked much of you. As a Ranger and as a member of the Grey Company. But there is another task I must ask of you.”
Korra’s eyes flicked to Galadriel and back, but she nodded. “Anything you ask of me, I will do.”
Aragorn held up his hand. “Hear me out first. Just because I ask,doesn’t mean you have to accept it. It’s a task only for a volunteer.”
“A star fell in the East,” Aragorn said. “What can be forged from such metal can cut slice through iron as easily as one might split a hair.”
"Long ago, the Dark Elf Eöl forged two swords out of another fallen star.” Galadriel explained. “The blades were black and yet still they glowed. One was called Anglachel and Eöl poured his malice and his hatred into it. It was a fell thing that led to great tragedy."
“You want me to retrieve this star-metal?” Korra looked between them. “So that someone doesn’t find it and make another terrible weapon?”
“Not just that.” Aragorn unfolded a map, wishing to show Korra where he believed she could start her search. “In the Elder days, there were many powerful weapons and artifacts made by the elves or the dwarves, or even particularly talented humans. Were there a smith skilled enough and with a pure heart, they could forge this star-metal into something that can inspire and bring hope, if wielded by the right hands.”
“Which is why we want you, Korra.” Mithrandir tapped the mouthpiece of his pipe against his cheek. “Darkness and evil still taint these lands. It will be many years before the poison of Sauron and his ilk drains away and I fear that Minas Morgul and Mordor itself will take much longer than that to be cleansed. In the East are people who’ve been under the Dark Lord’s boot for half an Age. People who may yet be allies if someone can show them we do not wish to be their enemy.”
“There are warlords and others still loyal to Mordor both in the East and the South. Gondor and Rohan will have to ride against them eventually.” Aragorn leaned back in his chair, a heavy sigh on his lips. “I would much prefer to work with allies against these loyalists than to have them fear our coming.”
“You want me to act like an ambassador?” Korra looked between the three of them, barely able to contain her incredulousness. “My lord, the first time I met a Dwarf I accidentally insulted his mother. This could be inviting disaster.”
Galadriel laughed, the sound entirely unexpected. She regained her dignity, leveling Korra with an amused expression. “We have faith in you. You are strong, not just in body but in heart as well. Your compassion is exactly what is needed.”
Ignoring the heat on her face, Korra nodded, and leaned over to review Aragorn’s map. It looked like she would have to travel North through Ithilien, and then turn East. “You think it went down near the Sea of Rhun?”
“There is a sizable town on the southern shore. You can make allies and gather further information.” Left unsaid by Aragorn was the simple fact that once she left Gondor she’d be on her own. For good or for ill.
“Do you think messengers will be able to make it from there back to Gondor if I need to send you information?”
“It would be worth trying, though I doubt we’ll be able to send any back that would find you.”
Korra placed her hand on the map. “I’ll do this.” She should think about it more, give it a least a few hours. But she’d always been impulsive and here was a chance to do something new. The threat of that metal in the wrong hands was enough to motivate her, but the other part of this quest also interested her. She remembered Katara’s lessons.
“Somehow, I doubt giving you time to think about it will change your mind.” Aragorn smiled, and held out his hand to clasp hers. “I’ll see that your horse is given new tack and shoes, and the armory and provisioner are open for you to take whatever you need.”
“I will ensure you have a supply of Lembas for your travels, and a new cloak,” Galadriel promised. The Rangers had excellent cloaks, but none were as light nor keep one as warm and dry as well as a cloak of the Galadhrim.“And the woman who will accompany you knows the Lembas recipe should you have occasion to make more.”
Korra clasped Aragorn’s hand with her own, barely containing her excitement. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.”
“Korra.” Mithrandir followed her as she left the office. His hand was gentle but firm on her arm. “I have one more request of you, should you happen upon old friends of mine.”
“What do you need?”
Her first task was her most solemn one, and also the closest to her heart. Besides her, there were only two members of her company that remained. Some Captain, she thought. A Captain of Three.
She found them in a little pub on the second level. Brightly decorated, The Candle and the Lantern had managed to survive the Siege mostly intact. Haladreth and Farandren were cousins, Rangers originally from the forests near Lindon who had become good friends to Korra over the years. They were green eyed and weathered by experience. Neither had ever let Korra live down the stunt she’d pulled trying to impress Farandren. Their companion was a brown-skinned elf who nodded at Korra as she took a seat.
“This is Korra,” Farandren explained, gesturing at her. She scarcely had to say any more.
“So this the infamous Korra.” The elf smiled, and held out her hand. “I’m Avarian.”
“You just had to tell her the story, didn’t you.”
“How could we resist?” Haladreth toasted Korra with her drink and a teasing smile.
The teasing buoyed her mood for a brief moment.
Avarian shook her head, “Did you really tell Haladreth to hold your ale before you wrestled the bear?”
Sighing dramatically, Korra reached down her tunic and pulled out a necklace. Dangling from it was a bear claw. “I won, didn’t I? And we had enough meat for two months.”
“And I had to sew up your arm,” Haladreth reminded her. “And your stomach. Your grandmother had words about my work.”
“Every scar is like a story,” Farandren interjected. “Let her have hers, as foolish as they might be.”
“You were impressed, admit it.” Korra rested her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands.
“Perhaps a little bit.”
Korra leaned over and whispered loudly to Avarian. “That was how I got my first kiss.”
Their laughter rang out through the tavern, and the four settled into drinking, conversation and storytelling that lasted well into the evening. They all conspicuously avoided recent events, settling instead on fond memories. Haladreth spoke of her first hunt and how she’d tracked a specific deer for three days before she’d realized it was actually following her.
Avarian described Numenor for them, having once visited in the years before darkness fell over the island and elves were no longer welcomed. Thanks to Avarian, Korra could see in her mind’s eye the tall obelisks and buildings and the places of worship, with the holy mountain that overlooked it all. She could hear how the people laughed and how they smiled.
“Those were good times,” Avarian said. “Then, in time, they lost the old ways and evil took hold. But I’m sure you know that history.”
“I do.” The jingling in her pouch reminded Korra of why she was here. She didn’t want to pass this responsibility onto others, but she might never return home. Their kin deserved a token of those who had fallen so far away. “You’ve reminded me of something. I don’t want to spoil the evening, but it’s important.”
Pulling the pouch out, Korra set it on the table in front of her. “I’ve been asked to go on a quest by Elessar. I had planned to take these home, but I may not get that chance.”
Carefully, she opened the pouch and pulled out one of the silver stars. “These belong with our kin, with the families of those we lost here in the south.”
Avarian held out her hand. “May I?”
Nodding, Korra handed Avarian the star. Avarian looked it over, studying it with the eye of one who knew jewellry and gems. “They’re beautiful.” She seemed to come to a decision, weary sadness in her eyes. “I knew Laeriel. Her brother and I are … close. I’d like to return this to him, if you would allow me.”
If she were honest with herself, Korra had not been looking forward to telling Laerion his twin was dead. “Thank you. I’m sure she’d be honored. Tell him she fought well at the Black Gate. They all did. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Folding her hand over the star, Avarian tried to give Korra a reassuring smile. “I’ve always liked mortals. Your bravery is uncounted.”
Farendren and Haladreth each took half of the remaining and Korra wrapped her hands around her mug. She had something else to ask of them. Two things, really. One personal, and both she would do herself if she could. “Haladreth, when you return home, you need to rebuild our company. The King will need all the help he can get as the Kingdom is reunited, and the Grey Company can help. Make it strong, and make it yours, Captain.”
“One more thing.” She reached to unpin her own star, “I want my parents to have this.”
“No.” Farandren took Korra’s hand and pulled it away from the pin. “You will return or you will not. But keep this symbol to remind you of home and the people you’ve fought for.”
The gathering fell silent. Korra contemplated the path ahead of her and if she’d ever see her parents or grandmother again.
“To the fallen,” Avarian broke the silence, lifting her drink up.
“And to those left behind,” Korra added.
The rangers, Ava, Laeriel and her brother are all based on old Lotro characters of me and my wife ;)
Chapter 6: Fire and Promise
The Houses of Healing were quiet, but Korra was helping out in exchange for some supplies to take with her on her journey. She hadn’t wanted to take from them anything they really needed without offering something in return. It was a fair trade, or so she hoped.
“Your stitches are very good.” A blonde woman knelt next to her. Korra thought she was one of Éomer’s people from the look of her.
Korra smiled. “Thank you. I learned everything I know from my grandmother. I might not have the King’s hands, but I know a thing or two.”
“Do you know Elessar well?” She tilted her head, then leaned in to help steady the patient when he tried to move. He was a large, broad shouldered man and he’d been hurt when his cart had overturned. He was also particularly stubborn.
“He’s a cousin, of sorts. I didn’t have much opportunity to work with him until I came down with the Company. We’re not particularly close. I’m Korra.”
“Éowyn.” Éowyn had a strong grip, and it let Korra more easily sew the wound. Her eyes looked over Korra, and settled on the silver star. “Did you come to fight, or to heal?”
“Both.” Korra snipped the thread free and leaned back. “There you go. If you’ll see someone before you leave they can give you a salve for the pain. Just try to avoid Ioreth, she’ll talk your ear off.”
“She would at that,” Éowyn agreed. She stood as Korra stood. They were nearly the same height, something that Éowyn was not all that accustomed to among mortal women.
Korra wiped her hands on a cloth. “You’re from Rohan?” Something about Éowyn’s name sounded familiar.
“I am. I just like helping out here. I’m finding healing to be something suiting me.” Éowyn seemed contemplative for a moment. “Have you ever wondered what kind of person you were supposed to be?”
“I used to ask myself things like that,” Korra admitted. “What did it mean to be Dunedain, to be a Ranger. If I was supposed to stay and heal like some others, or if I could bring my skills out to the field.”
“I dreamed of fighting. Of holding a sword and bearing a shield on my arm.” Éowyn folded her arms. “I trained for it. All the woman of Rohan do. If the men fall in battle, it is up to us to defend our homes. We were raised on the glory of battle, the shining armor on the riders in the sun. But training wasn’t the same as war.”
“You fought, didn’t you.” Korra could see the way Éowyn’s eyes flashed, the way her shoulders sat. “And it wasn’t what you expected.”
“War is horrible. There’s no glory in dying on a muddy battlefield thousands of leagues from those who love you.” Disgust edged into Éowyn’s voice. “There’s no glory in the cries of the wounded or the bodies piled high. When I slayed the beast and its master as they stood over the body of my Uncle, I was afraid. And yet...”
Éowyn looked to Korra, who only waited for her to finish. “And yet......I did not feel empty. I did not feel that glory either. I think about it time and again and I cannot place words to how I felt then. I wanted to be a warrior and now that I know what that is, I’m unsure if I want any part of it.”
“There’s no shame in that. This war, these battles, there’s nothing like them in my experience, or that of any mortal alive.” Now knowing exactly who this woman was, Korra gestured towards the fields. “Out there was so much suffering. But look at the city now. It lives on, in time it will prosper again, and you destroyed one of the greatest evils ever known. If you take no glory, at least take solace in that.”
“Can you be one who tends wounds, yet also inflict them?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” It was an answer. Not a good one, but an answer nonetheless. “I think that’s up to the individual, don’t you? The only ones who can choose who we are going to be are ourselves.”
“Never let someone tell you who you are, Korra.” Éowyn placed her hand on Korra’s shoulder. “Too long I let others do that to me. Now, I have a chance to find out who I am. Healer or Shield-maiden, perhaps a little of both.”
“That’s good advice.” Korra was really growing to like Éowyn. She could see a passion in her eyes that grew the more they spoke. Éowyn was someone she could get into the good kind of trouble with.
A man entered the Houses, tall and slim, grey eyed and dark haired. Éowyn saw him first and her face lit up. Korra followed her gaze and smiled, recognizing the Steward of Gondor. She liked him, and thought he’d make a good compliment to Elessar. “He’s handsome.”
Korra laughed. “Don’t let love change you, either.”
“I won’t, but love can shine a light in your heart and make it easier to see yourself.” Éowyn elbowed Korra before she could tease her further. “Faramir, what brings you to the Houses of Healing?”
“As lovely as it is to see you, I’m actually here for Korra.” Faramir smiled, though he took Éowyn’s hand as he stepped up to them. From his belt he pulled out a rolled parchment. “I have here the locations of many camps and caches in Ithilien, as well as secret ways that should make the start of your journey a little easier. Some of my scouts have gone much farther North and East, and their maps are in here too, though woefully incomplete.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Korra bowed her head to the Steward as she took the maps. In the North, everyone looked out for everyone else. In the South it seemed as though at least some felt the same way. Whatever she’d find elsewhere in Middle-earth, Korra hoped that people remained people. Inherently good.
Clasping her hand, Faramir replied. “Just call me Faramir. At least when it’s just us.”
Knowing that Éowyn had slain a Nazgul, Korra glanced at her but saw no jealousy, only amusement. “Spending so much time in Minas Tirith, I’ve said more ‘my lords’ and ‘my ladies’ in the past month than I have in the previous forty years.”
A momentary shocked look passed over Éowyn’s face. Of course, Korra was Dunedain and older than she looked. “You don’t have much cause for formalities in the forest, do you..”
“Yes.” Korra laughed. “Outside of the very rare visit with elves. Most of them don’t really care either.”
“What kind of task is this, if I might ask?”
Turning back to Éowyn, Korra replied. “I’ve been asked to seek out an object of Power, and to scout the east.”
“I hope you find more allies than enemies.” Faramir looked hopeful. “It is better to make friends.”
“I’d like to call you friend,” Éowyn added. “You’ll always have a place at my hearth if you need it.”
“Thank you.” Korra enveloped both of them in a spine-crushing hug that reminded Faramir alarmingly of his brother.
It actually brought him some joy to think that there were others in the world who could embrace people like that. Boromir had never been stingy with his affection, not when he truly liked someone. “You’re welcome. Do us proud, and be careful out there.”
The work was supposed to help her avoid thinking about that Ranger. About Korra. Her thoughts kept turning to her when she least expected it and Asami grew more and more certain that she should not accept Galadriel’s task for her. It was not an order. She could do so much good here. The children laughed, the city needed repairs. She could help.
Korra wasn’t the only thing on her mind. Mithrandir had given her a necklace that she now wore around her neck. It had belonged to her mother and last she’d known, it had been buried with her father in a land now submerged. So how Mithrandir had found it was a mystery to her. One she hoped he’d shed some light on.
Asami found the old wizard in the archives, poring over an ancient manuscript. She sat down across from him and waited for him to notice her. Mithrandir said nothing at first, merely turning to another manuscript. Amusement rang in his voice. “If one simply sits around waiting for something to happen they’ll never get anywhere.”
Irritated, Asami placed the necklace on the table. “Where did you get this?”
Two bushy eyebrows disappeared into Gandalf’s white hair. “Hrm? Oh yes, that little trinket. It has a long and storied history, I’m sure. Jewellry, you see, often has a mind of its own. It knows where it belongs and it wishes greatly to get there.” He hummed lightly, eyes alight by the candles. “Sometimes there is great calamity. An evil ring. Stolen gems. But other times it is as simple as a mother’s wish.”
Asami felt her heart freeze in her throat. She picked the necklace up, tracing the blue gem at the center of the pendant. “She died, when I was young. An accident. She had not yet returned from the Halls of Mandos when my father and I joined the others and came to Middle-earth.” She’d often wondered if her mother would have returned at all upon hearing of what her husband and her child had done. Shame swept through Asami, and she closed her fist around the necklace.
“Mmh. I never met her personally.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Somehow through means lost to time, that necklace found its way to a merchant’s pocket in Bree-town. Perhaps it was looted before Beleriand sank, or it washed ashore and was found. No matter.” Lighting his pipe off of a candle, Mithrandir blew a puff of smoke, and continued. “What matters is that merchant had the necklace and he sold it to some passing dwarves.”
He pointed the pipe at Asami. “The dwarves traded the necklace with some elves, who gifted it to a mortal child. That child, now an old man, bestowed it to me as a gift for a long friendship. And when I saw you in that square with your marvelous machine, I knew that it had been searching all along for you.”
The necklace was warm in her hand, and she looked down at it. “There is no power in this. My father made it for her out of love.” Her father had been a good craftsman, but he’d lacked some of Asami’s talent to imbue strength or power into something. They were techniques she’d learned over time and through experience. And experience taught her that power only led to harm.
“That is a power, my dear. Love.” Mithrandir placed his hand over Asami’s, the necklace between their palms. “Whatever else happened in those long ago days, your father loved your mother and that is the power that he gave this. A love that reached out across the Ages of the Earth to find you. Where it goes from here, I cannot say. I can only tell you that love, be it family or friendship or more is the most powerful force there is.”
“Do you think she’d forgive me?” Asami knew she would wither and fade if her mother hated her. She doubted her father would have been released from the Halls yet, but her mother had been so kind and so sincere that she couldn’t imagine her not being released.
Mithrandir’s eyes were kind, and his smile knowing. “I believe so.”
Thoughts still on what Mithrandir had told her, Asami left the archives. There’d been something else she’d been working on and now she knew she needed to finish it. It was reluctant work, and she was rusty at first, making a half dozen failed attempts over the next few days before she finished a dagger that shone like silver.
Asami still remembered how to imbue magic into her forging. She sometimes made trinkets to give to travellers to warn them when orcs were near, and that same magic she put into her dagger. It would glow blue for orcs, and red for the restless dead. She would not wield a sword if she could help it, but Asami wasn’t a fool to go defenseless either. A dagger and a bow would have to suffice.
Her bow was well cared for, elegant and sleek. She replaced the string and polished the mithril and wood. Asami was busy crafting new arrowheads when she had an unexpected visitor.
“It’s a lovely bow.”
Head snapping up, Asami tried to stand. “Your majesty. What can I do for you?”
Queen Arwen waved her hand, bidding Asami to stay seated. “Do not get up on my account. May I have a seat?”
“Of course.” Asami moved over so that Arwen could sit next to her. The Queen was as beautiful up close as she was at the wedding. While Asami had met her once or twice during times she’d come to visit her grandmother in Lorien, she’d never spoken more than pleasantries to her. She’d known her mother, Celebrian, just a little better. Where Celebrian’s hair had been silver, Arwen’s was as dark as Asami’s.
“Preparing for a trip?” Arwen’s tone was knowing, and Asami suddenly wondered if Galadriel or Elessar had suggested she be paid a visit.
She looked at her from the corner of her eyes, and said cautiously, “Perhaps. I haven’t really decided yet.”
“Something weighs on you. It might help to talk about it.”
“Much weighs on me, your majesty.” Asami smiled, picking up her work where she’d left off.
“Sharing burdens means they weigh less.” Arwen took Asami’s hand, stilling it. “What is it that you are afraid of?”
Resistance crumbled under Arwen’s gentle expression, and Asami couldn’t stop the words. “If I do this, I will have to fight. I spent so much of my youth fighting and I’ve seen so many die. I’m afraid to fight. I’m afraid that I’ll have to make weapons of war again, because of this unique metal. I’m afraid that if I hesitate at the wrong moment, Korra will die.”
Asami looked away, into the fire of the forge. “A long time ago, I dreamed of sapphire eyes. I saw them for the first time in the stables, the day of your wedding.”
Arwen studied her, then put her arm around her. “I cannot tell you what to do, but I can offer you some advice. You fear war and the evil that comes with it. But standing by and doing nothing is an evil of its own. In the right hands, a sword can be a symbol of inspiration.”
Looking at her hands in the flickering light, Asami was unable to speak. More than just orcs had died at her hands, and she wasn’t a healer who could make amends for that sin. Could a sword inspire? She imagined Korra with such a weapon. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
“If not for someone else, then do it for yourself.” Arwen was uniquely experienced with the power of inspiration. She’d made Elessar’s banner herself and she’d seen the way he held his sword Anduril after it had been reforged. In the darkest of days, she’d needed that inspiration for herself as much as for her lover. Sensing Asami’s unease, she changed the subject. “You were very specific about these blue eyes. Do they belong to the Ranger you danced with most of that night?”
Alarmed, Asami snapped her head up. “I..why do you ask?”
“Because I loved a Ranger too. They are mortal and their fire burns hot and quick. She will be gone before you realize it.” Arwen knew that the choice she’d made, mortality, was a gift that Asami did not share. “If you run from her, you may regret it.”
But if she didn’t, Asami mused, she might regret that, too. “I could spend eternity mourning her.”
“Will you not, regardless? You could at least have the fire of her memory for all the long years of your life.”
Easy enough for the Elf turned mortal to say. She would not have to suffer through those long years alone. But then, Asami had known her feelings the moment she’d seen Korra’s eyes, and her heart had already made the choice for her.
Chapter 7: Home is Behind
Much to Korra’s dismay, she hadn’t seen Asami since the day in the park. It was not for lack of trying and Korra would have believed that the elf had left Minas Tirith entirely if she hadn’t kept hearing word of Asami’s work or seeing children with toys. She’d wanted to apologize for whatever she’d done wrong and at least get some kind of closure so she could push Asami from her mind.
Pushing the elf from her mind would probably never happen, but Korra could hope.
There was no ceremony, that last morning. She spoke with the King the night before and woke up before the sun to get Naga ready for travel and fit Naga with her new saddle bags. Light and flexible while also being water resistant, they were a gift from Galadriel and matched the new cloak that Korra was wearing. She paused to admire the fine fabric, rolling her fingers over the cloak. It was beautiful and very comfortable, she felt blessed.
For maybe the fifth time, she made sure Faramir’s maps were stowed safely with copies of maps from the archives and did an inventory check. Korra had her store of lembas, her canteen and a supply of daggers. A new sword was secured to the saddle and her bow hung from a hook on the other side. Hidden in other pouches were gold pieces and some gems she could use for trade though Korra planned to hunt and skin for the majority of it. Meat and hides were a universal trade-good, and useful for herself on top of it. Lastly was the bedroll strapped to the back of her saddle. Everything else of importance, such as striking stones to start fires, she kept on her person.
“You’re excited, girl.” Korra stroked Naga’s nose. “You know we’re finally leaving this city. I’m sorry I haven’t ridden you as much as you’d like but I think you’re going to get your fill of it very soon.”
Naga snorted and nuzzled at her hand. Laughing, Korra stepped away, walking around Naga in one last inspection of her tack. Naga’s excitement was starting to catch. The promise of adventure was awaiting her and she remembered something Katara had once told her. Nothing is so exciting as the prospect of seeing new things, but take care not to forget the old. “Don’t worry, Gran gran. I won’t forget.”
Mounting up, Korra urged Naga out of the stables. “We’re supposed to meet our riding partner on the first level.” She wished she had time to find Asami. Maybe do one last search around the city, but now there was no time. Korra didn’t dare hope Asami would be the one to join her, nor did she really wish to think too hard on why she had that hope to begin with.
The sun was just starting to crest over Mordor as Korra made her way through the city. In years past the view had always been ominous, with black smoke and red clouds. But today it was clear, as it was on all the days since Sauron fell. If such a darkness could be lifted, than anything was possible.
At the gate waited a lone figure on a chestnut mare, wearing a greenish-grey cloak the same as Korra’s. When the figure moved, the cloak parted to reveal maroon leather. Then the hood fell away and Asami smiled at her.
Asami tried not to stare at Korra as the light from the rising sun cast her features in orange. Tension in her shoulders ebbed and she knew she’d made the right choice. “Have you said all your good-byes, Captain?”
“All but one,” Korra replied, beaming. “And now I don’t have to say that one.”
“They could make a tradition of this,” Korra said, riding alongside Asami. “Every year. Food and games, maybe even a tournament. People will always find reasons to celebrate and what better way to celebrate than to bring all of Arnor, Gondor and Rohan together?”
Korra sounded excited. Asami found herself getting into the idea too. She nodded, “If we succeed, perhaps people from farther away could attend, too.”
Asami glanced over her shoulder, back to the White City. Atop the ship-shaped rock that jutted out through the center of the city lay the Tower. With her keen eyes, she could just make out figures standing at the ‘bow.’ they were golden haired, white haired, and the third with the darker hair of the King. A fourth approached, placing an arm around Aragorn. Asami was reminded of the conversation she’d had with Queen Arwen.
She wondered if she would ever lay eyes on any of them again.
Letting herself get caught up in Korra’s excitement, she gave the Ranger a considering look. “Last one to Osgiliath has to cook tonight.”
Not giving Korra get a chance to respond, Asami burst into a gallop. She could hear Korra shouting behind her and glanced over her shoulder to see a very determined Korra and Naga chasing after her. Korra was wildly beautiful, and Asami looked away before she became entranced.
The race took them across the fields, following the road to the ruined city. Osgiliath had once been the capital of Gondor. It straddled the river Anduin, larger than both Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul combined. Abandoned for six hundred years and in heavy decline for a thousand years before that, it had once served as the last barrier between Gondor and Mordor.
Work was already underway. The great bridge had been repaired, and the waste of Sauron’s army cleared away. One day the city would be reclaimed and some time far in the future it would once again be the glorious jewel of Gondor.
Korra slowed to a trot as she finally caught up with Asami. “That was cheating.”
“I gave you fair warning.” Asami pushed back her hair, flashing a brilliant smile over her shoulder. “We should save the Lembas for when we need it most. Who knows when we’ll be in a place where I can make more.”
“I hope you like squirrel.”
The bridge was wide enough for an Oliphaunt or two, but much of the city was submerged or had falling into the river. It was a sad sight. Asami looked towards the tower on the bridge, where the Dome of Stars had once been. “I wish you could have seen this city when it was alive. It was rivaled only by Annuminas among all the lands of the Exiled.”
“Maybe someday.” The long, slow decline of both their kinds had been stopped with the defeat of Sauron. Now maybe they could rebuild. But what would the world be like without Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits? A less wondrous world and the thought saddened Korra.
Ithilien was a large forest with the south part of it below Osgiliath and the rest above. Korra led them through the paths and crossings that Faramir had mapped out until she found a clearing along the river. True to her word, Korra roasted a squirrel over the fire and Asami supplied some berries she’d gathered while Korra had hunted. Sitting at the campfire, Asami was enraptured by the way the firelight danced across Korra’s face.
As Asami did not need sleep in the same way that Korra did, she took watch that night, and the second night as well.
Korra objected on the third night. “I know you need to rest your body too. I’ll take first watch tonight, and once you’ve rested I’ll let you take the rest of the watch.”
Asami smiled at her. “Every third night, then?”
“Every third night.” Korra rubbed her shoulder, then looked around. This area seemed secure, and there was a pond and stream nearby. “I think we should bathe and wash our clothing while we have the chance. We should be on the Morrannon tomorrow and who knows when we’ll be able to clean up next.”
They weren’t going to go through Mordor but they would have to pass the remains of the Black Gate on the way. Asami wasn’t looking forward to that part, the thought making her feel unclean. There were still orcs and ogres and trolls, and many more evils in the world. The next part of this journey would be dangerous.
Korra wasn’t self-conscious. Rangers worked together and bathed together and so Korra stripped out of her armor without a second’s thought. She carried her clothing towards the pond, leaving Asami staring at the rippling muscles in Korra’s back as she went. Asami stared for far too long before scrambling after her while trying to undress.
“Would you believe the fashion in Gondor is that women shave their bodies?” Korra set her clothing on the bank and stretched. “Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Asami joined her, tying her hair back and steadfastly trying to avoid looking at Korra’s body. There were a dozen scars on Korra’s back, and one on the inside of her bicep. Another crossed her stomach. She looked strong. Without clothing to obstruct Asami’s view, she could see how well toned and built Korra was. Forcing herself to look away, Asami waded into the water. “Elves don’t have body hair.”
The first thing she’d noticed had been the necklace hanging from Asami’s neck, and how it had draw her eyes down to her breasts before she’d caught herself staring. At Asami’s pronouncement, Korra did a double take. She rubbed the back of her neck as her cheeks colored. “Oh well. That’s. Nice. Don’t you get cold?”
“Yes, but it would have to be foul weather to really bother me. We don’t quite feel cold the same way you do.” She could tell Korra stories about the kind of cold that could bother an elf. For the first time in her life, Asami wanted to tell someone about crossing the Helcaraxe so long ago. What was Korra doing to her?
Wading deeper, Asami didn’t turn around until the water was up to her chest. Korra was still standing there, the fading sunlight making the water ripple like flame around her body. The light cast shadows on her, reminding Asami of chiseled marble. She was not really a sculptor of stone, her talents laying more with metal and machinery, but she memorized the sight. Every detail, every scar and shadowed line, the way Korra stood with her hip cocked to one side and a sunny smile on her face.
Korra undid her braid so she could wash her hair, stealing looks at Asami whenever she could. “Do you want to help me with my hair? I can help you with yours.” It was generally a well-known myth that elves were enamoured with hair. If Korra was honest with herself she wanted to get her fingers into Asami’s hair herself so it wasn’t entirely a selfless question.
“I’d love to.” Asami swam over. Her heart hammered in her chest. She’d washed others’ hair before and yet this was somehow different. She searched for something else to focus on, “You have some interesting scars, any stories you’d like to share?”
Lifting her right arm and flexing it so Asami could see the scar there, Korra boasted, “Let me tell you about the bear.”
Truth be told, Asami would have difficulty recalling what Korra told her about the bear later. But the texture of Korra’s hair and the feel of her skin when their bodies brushed together would go with her into eternity.
Elves did need rest, and Korra was right that Asami had needed it. She got lost in her own head as she dried off. Her scalp tingled from Korra’s surprisingly gentle washing, and she sat down on her bedroll and watched the Ranger set herself up for the watch. Asami slept trance like, her eyes unfocused and gazing towards the sky. And she dreamed of Korra’s blue eyes and the earthy scent of her hair and her voice speaking quietly. Though she finally knew the face, she still could not make out the words.
“Very well.” Asami shaded her eyes. “I can see Dwarven merchants and the great carvings of the entrance to Erebor.”
“Of course not,” Asami laughed. “It’s hundreds of miles, you’re lucky to even make it out with a spy glass. I can tell it is a mountain, little more.
Compacting her spyglass, Korra slid it into it’s case then thwacked Asami on the thigh with it. “Elvish eyes are not as good as I was led to believe.”
“Trust me, Korra. I can see in great detail.”
Asami’s eyes dipped like she was looking her up and down, but the motion was so quick Korra might have imagined it. She coughed and returned her attention to the road ahead. She started to hum a tune and before long Asami joined her.
Travelling songs were universal. The Dunedain sang them and Katara had taught Korra songs from the elves and the dwarves and even people as far away as Umbar. This one often got stuck in her head. When she was younger she thought it romantic, but older and wiser she knew it was sad. Yet it didn’t take long for humming to turn to words.
I rode afar from field to glen
Under forest canopy
At night the stars shone so bright
To guide me home again
I rode afar through storm and rain
Crossing rivers flowing true
Far from home I hear your voice
For there my heart remains
I rode afar to make my name
Travels took me far away
Now at home with you my dear
I am not the same
The last note faded, so they rode in silence for a time. Asami seemed to be lost in her own thoughts and Korra let hers wander as well. Galadriel had looked her in the eye and told her she would not come back the same. She wasn’t the same person she’d been when she left the North nor the same as she was before she’d commanded her own squads, nor the same as the brash woman she’d been when younger.
Asami’s eyes grew downcast. Korra rode up beside her, reaching over and, touching Asami’s cheek to lift her head and turn it towards her. “If you don’t want to talk about it, it’s okay. But I’m willing to listen if you want to talk.”
“It’s all right. I’ve never really talked to anyone about a lot of my past. It’s all still vivid.” Asami did want to share and she only hoped that Korra wouldn’t judge her for it. That she wanted Korra to know terrified her. “Have you ever been cold? I mean, truly to the bone cold.”
“I’ve weathered a few blizzards, but I don’t think I could ever describe it that way. Grandmother Katara once described the Fell Winter though, and she used words not unlike yours. She was among those who helped Mithrandir keep the Halflings from starving.”
“I remember that winter.” Over one hundred years ago. It had been harsh enough to bring back memories of the Helcaraxe and Asami had not ventured far from the safety and warmth of Lothlorien that year. She wondered if Lady Galadriel had remembered the icy wastes, as well. “It was a bone cold winter, too. I didn’t leave Lorien that year, not very far or for very long. It reminded me of another winter, from when I was much younger.”
Korra listened, letting Asami speak. She thought this was good progress. Asami seemed willing to open up to her. Korra didn’t want to risk somehow making her close up again. She still didn’t know what she’d done the last time.
“How well do you know your Elvish history?”
“I know the basics,” Korra answered. “Stories and songs. I loved the library at Rivendell and we had our own histories and tales. But so much of it is exaggerated, or the details forgotten. You can tell me anything, Asami. I won’t judge. I promise.”
“I’m not much younger than the Lady Galadriel.” A long silence passed, before she spoke again. “I followed her and her brothers across the grinding ice after we were abandoned by Feanor. It was long, and hard, and too many to count died, usually when the ice shifted suddenly underneath us. But there were some that gave into despair and let themselves freeze to death.”
Time was counted differently in the years before the sun first rose. A year then was equal to nine and a half now, and Asami had been on the ice for nearly three. A hundred years old when she stepped foot onto Middle-earth, but almost a thousand by modern count. Asami still sometimes forgot that the years were supposed to be faster now.
“I never knew an Elf could freeze to death,” Korra replied. She took Asami’s reins, so they stopped moving.
“This was a very harsh cold, a very deadly place. One that no longer exists. I don’t know how I feel about that. The burial place of so many, forever lost. But a place that would be better forgotten.”
“When I was younger, I was badly injured in a skirmish with Orcs.” Korra said. Impulse had gotten the better of her and she continued, “They got a few lucky strikes in, and I fell down a cliff. It was months before I had the strength to walk. Two years before I could return to the field. It was the hardest time of my life. More than once I wondered if I deserved to live. If dying would be better than being a burden to myself and others.”
She looked at Asami. “I’m sorry. I was thinking about the song earlier, so it’s been on my mind. How when you leave, you don’t return home the same as you left. And I thought about all the ways I’ve changed over the years. From who I was then to who I was a few months ago. To how war has changed me since then. And I wonder what I will be like at the end of our quest. I just...wanted you to not feel as though you’d shared your tale for nothing.”
“I understand. You don’t need to apologize. What happened to you was tragic, but you persevered. That’s something to admire.”
From the expression in Asami’s eyes, Korra believed her. Asami looked ahead. “For my kind it’s the same, except maybe on a longer scale. The girl I once was would not recognize me.”
“You could tell me more,” Korra suggested. “My own oversharing isn’t an invitation unless you want it to be. Believe me, it’s a lot easier to talk about now than thirty years ago.”
Asami nodded. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that.”. It was too late to take what she’d said back, and yet she felt better for telling Korra. Mostly to herself, she murmured. “You deserved to live.”
Firmly, Asami repeated. “You deserved to live.” Korra was something special. In all her long years Asami had never met anyone like her.
Korra took Asami’s hand. They were merely words, but they were words that meant everything, even though it was so long ago. “We both deserve to live.”
Their fingers threaded together and they gazed at each other in companionable silence, until hunger and impatient horses compelled them to find a place to set up camp.
Chapter 8: Out of Shadow
Korra’s sword was of Gondorian make and there wasn’t anything special about it as far as Asami could tell. The craftsmanship was fair, the kind of sword an officer would wield, but she’d seen much better. Korra deserved better. She squashed that thought before she ran with it, not yet willing to entertain the thought of producing a sword. Arwen may have made an effective point, but Asami would need to think about it a lot more before she accepted it.
“My sword broke in half at the Black Gate,” Korra explained. She took it back when Asami carefully handed it over. “It’s not the same, but the balance is good enough and I’ll get used to it. I’ve fought with worse.”
“I just hope we don’t need to fight.”
“You didn’t bring a sword. Why?” Korra had noticed that the first day, but now she had occasion to ask about it.
“I’m armed.” Asami indicated her sleek elven bow, and the dagger at her hip. “Until the assault on Dol Guldur, I hadn’t used a real sword in centuries.”
“You must have been out of practice.”
Tensely, Asami smiled. “My hand remembered the hilt, and my body remembered how to move. It never really went away, though you’re right, I did need more practice.”
After returning her sword to her sheathe, Korra sat down next to Asami. “You don’t like swords.”
“Swords only have one use, killing,” Asami replied. She shook her head, hair falling loosely about her shoulders. “You can hunt with a bow, skin with a knife. A sword kills things, and that is all it can do.”
“A sword can inspire, and defend,” Korra countered. “An orc or bandit isn’t going to care for principle, they’ll kill you either way.”
“I never said you couldn’t use a sword or fight.”
“You just don’t approve.”
“I didn’t mean…” Asami frowned, then stood and walked away from the campfire.
Korra watched her pace. “I just need to know that if something goes wrong, I’ll have you at my back.”
Asami froze in place, then leaned her head back and stared up at the sky. She let her breath out slowly, then glanced along the ground until she found two straight sticks. Kneeling, Asami picked them up, then tossed one to Korra. “I won’t leave you undefended. Spar with me.”
The stick was sturdy, and Korra grinned as she took her cloak off. “Do you want me to go easy on you?”
“Do you want me to go easy on you??”
There was something in the way Asami stood, beautiful and graceful and ready for Korra to attack, that made Korra’s stomach turn around and twist into little knots. But she was brave and confident and struck first, bringing her stick down towards Asami’s head. The strike was easily parried, Asami dancing out of range before Korra could follow up. Unable to contain a grin, Korra feinted, forcing her opponent to remain on the defensive. “So if I win, do I get something for it?”
“You’ll have to see.” Asami was a little sloppy. Talented and with training to be sure, but obviously rusty and reluctant. And Korra was very, very good. Agile and quick, with all the strength in her toned body to back it up. Even in Asami’s heyday, Korra would have proven a challenge. Korra could tell Asami was relying on her superior reach and speed to make up for her being out of practice. It was smart actually, but being versatile was usually the key to victory. Korra darted in close, and their makeshift training swords locked. Her face was close enough to feel her breath. Korra hooked her foot behind Asami’s and pushed her over but instead of being able to savor her victory, she found herself pulled down with Asami.
They landed in a heap, and Korra propped herself up in time to see the laugh light up Asami’s eyes just as it exploded across the clearing. Dark hair was spread out like a halo in the grass around Asami’s head and Korra couldn’t stop herself, before brushing the backs of her fingers across the side of Asami’s face. “What did I win?”
Korra was warm and firm on top of her and Asami idly wondered what she could do to stay this way forever. Promises to herself to not let her feelings happen were forgotten. She leaned her head up, but at the last moment turned so that her lips brushed Korra’s cheek. “The only prize I can give you.”
It was a very nice prize, all things considered. Korra felt Asami’s arms go around her when she started to roll off of her. She ended up on her back, with Asami’s head pillowed on her chest and ran her hand in slow, comforting circles around Asami’s back.
Asami wondered if Korra realized that she’d already won her prize. Listening to the soft beating in Korra’s chest, Asami knew she was well and truly doomed.
After nearly a month on the road from Minas Tirith, Korra was looking forward to seeing people again. A real bed would be nice. She’d noticed that Asami had been more alert and resting less than even she should. It worried her.
Aside from a few straggling orcs they’d dispatched, she’d seen naught but animals this whole time. Save the armies conscripted by Mordor, she doubted any Easterlings had taken these roads in a very long time. “Do you think they’ll welcome us?”
“I doubt they’d chase us out with swords, but they’ll probably be wary.” Asami pulled the hood of her cloak up, slouching a little. Elves were not known often here. There was a small community she’d found once, long ago. But they kept to themselves and were much unlike the Elves she knew. Like distant cousins long forgotten, they’d still welcomed her. She hoped they’d escaped the Enemy.
“I’d be wary too.” Korra tested her reach for her sword. She didn’t want to fight, but it paid to be prepared. The sky was dreary, and water misted down on them from above. She really hoped they could have an inn room, rather than a fight.
“Can you smell that?” Asami asked. She closed her eyes. The smell of the sea was strong, though she’d first caught wind of it yesterday.
“The Sea is supposed to be huge,” Korra said. “Much bigger than Lake Evendim.” Evendim had been the largest body of water she’d ever seen, and while a fair size for a lake (larger than the Old Forest), it was nothing like a sea. She started to move faster, making Naga trot.
Quick to follow, Asami let Korra’s excitement fuel her. She’d seen seas and oceans before, including this one and yet… and yet it was all new again thanks to Korra.
Cresting a hill, Korra got her first view of a sea. The Sea of Rhun stretched on into the mist and fog, the water rough and choppy in the wind.
“Even on a clear day, you can’t see the other side,” Asami said, stopping next to her. “But this is nothing like the real ocean.”
“Do you think we’ll see that too?” Korra glanced at her. Something about so much water spoke to Korra on a deep, almost spiritual level. As much as she belonged in the forest amidst the trees, she loved the water. Evendim was one of her favorite places, with its mirror-like surface on a calm day. It was also a sad place. The waters had claimed much of the city of Annuminas, and the remaining ruins overlooked the water like silent guardians.
“We just might.” Asami rather liked the idea of visiting the ocean with Korra. She almost reached for Korra’s hand, then caught herself. “Tomorrow will be clearer, I hope. We can see the water better then.”
“Lets go. I’d like to get in before dark.” Asami’s eyes fell on the star at Korra’s cloak. “I think you should hide that, for now.”
Reluctantly, Korra unpinned it. Asami was right, they shouldn’t draw undue attention. It still hurt to put it away, though. “I’ve a seal from the King, should we need official proof of anything, but you’re right. We don’t want to make anyone suspicious.”
“We already will, but the less we draw attention the better.”
If they had any hope of finding this fallen star, it would start here. If they had any hope of extending the first branches of peace, it would be here as well. Determined, Korra led Asami down the road towards the town. The town had a center street that ran through a market, but there were dozens of side streets. It went into the hills a fair ways away from the sea, and from what Korra could tell it was a little bigger than Bree-town, with at least one-hundred dwellings. Most of the townsfolk were very young, or very old. Men and women who were strong enough had been pressed into war by the Dark Lord and not all had returned. Korra was certain she’d personally killed at least one person from this town on the Pelennor Fields.
Despite that, they only got a few odd glances as they rode through the main street. The merchants were closing up shop, and by the time they found the inn much of the street was empty. Stabling the horses was a barter game with Korra trading pelts she’d collected, but she had to part with some pieces of silver to get them a room. The inn keeper was a woman in a normal mortal’s forties, weathered in the face and missing one eye. She only gave Korra a cursory look, but Asami merited a longer study. If she thought anything odd about it, she said nothing and directed them upstairs to their room.
Setting their saddlebags in the corner, Korra inspected the room. It was clean, with a little table in the corner to write on and a single bed large enough for a broad man or two women.
“I guess we should have asked for a room with two beds,” Asami said, pulling her cloak off and hanging it on a hook.
“No,” Korra waved her hand. “This room is cheaper, we can stay twice as long for the same coin. I don’t really mind.”
Though Asami didn’t sleep as long anyway, she also knew that Korra wouldn’t let her get away with not resting, even in town. She stared at the bed a moment longer, than shrugged. “I can sleep in the chair, if you’d be more comfortable. One of us should keep watch the first night, at least.”
“Do I need to bathe?” Korra made a show of checking herself for odor, and ducked when Asami threw a pillow at her. “Let yourself enjoy the comfort of a bed, Asami. You’ve barely slept since we passed Mordor. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
“I’ve been alert.” Asami sat on the bed, looking up at Korra. “Speaking of keeping alert. We should dine downstairs and listen.”
“Good idea.” Korra gestured to Asami’s ears. “Are you sure you want to leave your cloak up here?”
“I’m not going to be able to hide that I’m an elf,” Asami pointed out.
“What happened to not drawing undue attention?” Korra said, and watched as Asami pulled her cloak back on. She gave her a smug look. “After you.”
Stepping past Korra, Asami headed downstairs. No one looked up at her, and she found a nice table in the corner while Korra went to order food. It might be a simple stew, but after their travels Korra was looking forward to something she hadn’t poached and made herself.
“No ale?” Asami asked, once Korra had sat down across from her.
“Once I have a better feel for the town, then I’ll risk a drink like that.”
“Well I’ll have an ale,” Asami said, a smile playing at the corners of her lips. “Unlike Rangers, it takes a lot more than a single mug to for me to get drunk.”
Korra shot her a pout, “I didn’t say it would get me drunk.”
Chuckling, Asami stood and walked to the bar. Korra tried to observe the tavern without letting her gaze wander too often to Asami. She mostly succeeded.
The tavern was brightly lit, colorful tapestries adorning the walls. Nothing at all like one would expect for a town under Sauron’s thumb. There was new paint, as though someone had tried to paint over some marking or drawing. Korra could just make out what resembled the outline of an eye. She shivered.
“What is it?” Asami said, sitting again and keeping her voice low.
“I think they used to have to display proof of their loyalty to certain dark lords,” Korra whispered. “They’ve painted over it.” Was it sincere? Korra wanted to believe so. This inn wasn’t much different from any number of places she’d seen. There was always something unique to each culture, usually in the form of the food or the nature of decor and structural design, but they almost always had a warm hearth, soft bed, and good food.
“Fear can be a great motivator. So can relief.” Asami tasted her ale, and closed her eyes. “This is very good. Are you sure you don’t want a sip?” She opened her eyes, giving Korra a teasing look. “Just one?”
Korra had to admit it was tempting, and not just because it smelled good. The way Asami was teasing her sent tingling pulses through her body. She remembered the kiss a week ago and her cheek warmed at the thought. They’d sparred since then, at Korra’s insistence that Asami be ready for anything and every time after she felt flushed and warm from more than the exertion.
Before her thoughts turned to the things she couldn’t have, Korra reached over and took the mug from Asami. She gave the drink a taste. It was sweeter than most of the ales she was used to, and stronger too. “Either they got this recipe from a Dwarf, or our own brewers need to step it up.”
Asami took her mug back with a laugh. “Exactly my thoughts.” She fell silent after that, leaning back and savoring her drink and the stew when it was ready. Like Korra, she kept her ears and eyes attuned to the conversations around them.
To Korra’s ears, she heard nothing all that strange and had the sneaking suspicion that people were chatting about mundane matters out of distrust. She’d have to come down later alone and find another table where no one would notice her and listen to what conversation might be like when they weren’t noticed.
She nodded to Asami, then gestured with her chin towards the second floor. Without a word, she got up and Asami followed her. Korra could feel eyes on them until they’d gone out of sight. Once secure in their room, Korra sank onto the bed. “That was pointless.”
“Maybe it was. I think you should get settled in early tomorrow. Blend into the shadows until they forget about you.”
“I was just thinking that.” Korra smiled at her, then pulled off her boots and leaned over to rub her feet. She wanted to tell herself she could sleep in, enjoy the bed and a night without worry, but she knew she’d be up early anyway. “What about you?”
Looking away when Korra started to strip to her smallclothes, Asami busied herself with removing her own boots and armor. “We need to get the lay of the land, and I want to see about how local trade and politics work. There is probably a little bit of uncertainty. With Sauron gone and Gondor ascendent, there’s a good chance someone could step in and manipulate everyone.”
“See if you can’t do some trade, too. They accept pieces of silver, at least, but we should know how it works here. And the farther East we go, the harder it might be to communicate.”
“Every town has a bookkeeper, and many have those with knowledge,” Asami assured her. “I’ll try to find out what I can.”
Korra looked up. She hadn’t known what to expect after Asami undressed. Some kind of flimsy white nightgown like what she’d seen some wear in Rivendell, but Asami wore simple red shorts and a loose fitting top, both made from some kind of elven silk. She realized she was staring, and slipped under the covers. “Decided not to stay guard?”
“Our weapons are next to the bed and I can fight like this as well as in armor.” Asami stayed above the covers, then rolled onto her side facing away from Korra. Then facing Korra. Then onto her back.
Korra sighed. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong.”
Rolling to face Asami, Korra propped her head up on her elbow. “You’re restless. Do you want to talk about it.”
A faint flush on her cheeks, Asami flicked her eyes to Korra’s lips. “I’m just thinking about tomorrow. We have so much to do still, with hardly any idea where to start.”
“We already know where to start,” Korra pointed out. “Tomorrow.” She pulled Asami to face her, wrapping her arm around her. Asami buried her face into Korra’s chest, hesitantly sliding her arm around Korra’s waist. Korra’s heartbeat was too loud and her fingers traced random patterns into Asami’s back. It was a silly, stupid thing, but Asami hadn’t felt this at peace in a thousand years. She held her breath for fear of breaking the moment. Even after Korra’s breathing slowed and her fingers stilled, Asami did not allow herself to move.
The air felt oppressive, and not just from what was left of Sauron’s influence. Before Korra could follow the lead south to Khand, she needed to find out what this was and deal with it. Apparently, someone else had the same idea.
“Come here, child.”
Korra approached the bar, leaning on it as the innkeeper placed a key on the wood between them. “What is this?”
“I know what you are, where you come from. No one here is going to do anything about it for fear of upsetting the wrong people, but you’re an outsider.” The woman tapped the wood with one finger. “You can get away with it. If it all goes wrong they can blame the West. If it goes right, well then we can thank the West. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“I want to help,” Korra replied. “And I want people here to not look at us as enemies any more. This whole town is on edge and not just because of me and my friend. What can I do to help?”
“Rid us of the Necromancer so we can put our dead to rest.”
Korra was left with a key for a lock she didn’t know the location of, and a sick feeling in her stomach. The only Necromancer she’d ever heard of had been Sauron himself and if he’d somehow survived then they were in a great deal of danger. And if it wasn’t him, it was some kind of imposter. The dead could walk, their bodies possessed by fell spirits but no mere mortal could animate them, not even an elf. She’d heard of spectres and phantoms, and the barrow-wights of the Witch-king. The very thought was alarming. Korra needed to find Asami, they could not leave until they found out what was going on and put a stop to it. The Innkeeper was right. If they failed, it wouldn’t bring any extra harm to the people here. If they succeeded, they could count on new allies. Even disregarding all of that, helping was the right thing to do.
Children could be a boon for someone looking for information. They often overheard or saw things they shouldn’t and with the right amount of coaxing they could blurt it out for anyone who wanted to hear it. Asami wasn’t above a little bribery. She’d found a little area of the market and set up shop, fixing toys and making new ones.
At first the children had been wary, but after she’d created a wind-up mouse she’d started to collect a following. She mostly gave away the toys, only asking to talk or for materials in return though one rich noblewoman had commissioned her to make a very specific type of bird from the far Harad. Asami had never heard of such a bird but from the woman’s description and a painting she’d been able to replicate it faithfully.
For payment she’d taken a very fine and sturdy leather wrapping. Holding it in her hands she could imagine it in various shapes and for different purposes, but one in particular kept coming to her unwanted and unbidden.
Of what she’d she’d learned from the children, first was that horses were as popular among the children who’d come from Khand as they were in Rohan and secondly the children of the town were very fond of dogs. Asami then created galloping horses and carved hound figurines that resembled Huan, the hound of Valinor that she’d sometimes seen accompanying one of Feanor’s sons. While she thought she was able to carve his likeness, there was no way to capture the full majesty of a dog the size of a horse with a toy.
One child told her of a haunted house. The girl spoke of one near the center of town on a hill overlooking the remains of a statue. The statue had been of Sauron in full armor, sword aloft, but in the hours after his fall the people had risen up. Only his boots remained, and probably not for much longer. The house had belonged to the Overlord of the town. When asked what had happened to the Overlord, a boy had mimicked being hung by a noose.
“You’re making friends.” Korra dropped down next to Asami, and leaned against a wall.
“We should take our meal in our room tonight.” Asami gathered up everything into her bag and stood, facing Korra. “There’s too much in public we can’t discuss.”
“Well, if you want to get me alone, all you have to do is ask.”
Korra started walking, leaving Asami to fumble with her pack before catching up. She gave Asami a sly smile, and nudged her with her elbow. “Whatever we do, we need to act soon.”
Hoping Korra was talking about their quest and not anything else, Asami nodded. She got the door for Korra, then followed her inside and up the stairs. “The children told me of a haunted home. When Sauron was defeated, the townsfolk rose up and hung the Overlord.”
“I’ve learned that someone claiming to be a Necromancer has taken over the council here,” Korra replied. “I’ll bet that’s where he’s living.”
“A Necromancer?” Asami carefully emptied her bag on the writing table, so she could sort through it and organize it better. “You’ve got to be joking. The only Necromancer I’ve ever heard of was Sauron himself.”
“That’s what I thought. Either this person isn’t human, or they’re very good at playing tricks.” Korra pulled out a chair, sitting down on it to watch Asami. “Unless there’s more magic in these lands than we know about. It’s not impossible.”
“We’ll find out,” Asami promised. She looked down at her collection of parts as an idea began to form in her head. “Should we investigate tonight?”
Holding up the key, Korra said, “Yes. We should.”
Chapter 9: The Dark Numenorean
It was a moonless, cloudless night as they crept over the fence and behind the Overlord’s home. Korra would have to try each lock until she found the one the key fit in, and it was dark enough that she was glad for Asami’s elf-vision. “Keep a look-out, I’m going to try the cellar first.”
The key didn’t fit the lock on the cellar, so Korra moved to a side door. This time it fit in perfectly. Korra listened for any signs of life, but nothing caught her attention. She motioned for Asami to come closer, then turned the key.
The door opened into a kitchen. It wasn’t abandoned or dusty, like Korra had expected. The shelves were stocked, and a quick look at the stove proved it was in good repair. This place was used, lived in. There was a faint scent of sulfur in the air, and as Korra crept out of the kitchen she felt something distinctly oppressive, like the corruption of Mordor.
“It’s old,” Asami whispered in her ear. “This fell taint. It’s always been here, it’s old and it’s fading now that Sauron is gone.”
“Then the necromancer is a fraud.”
They split up, searching the first floor for anything of use. Asami found some notes in Adûnaic of all languages, as well as a book written in a flowing script she didn’t recognize. Something in the book called to her, so she took it as well as the notes. Flipping one piece of parchment over, Asami announced, “I found some notes in Adûnaic. I think our necromancer is a Renegade.”
“Like some of the Nazgul? Or that disgusting Mouth of Sauron at the black gate?” There were disturbing implications. Descendants of the King’s Men who’d opposed the Faithful, the Renegades were known to have practiced fell arts and were strongly tied to Sauron, even worshipping him. They’d been those most opposed to the old ways on Numenor and had controlled many of Numenor’s colonies. As an organized people they hadn’t really existed in two millennia, but their influence could be found everywhere. Particularly in the South as they’d manipulated the peoples there for generations. That they shared an ancestry with the Rangers had always bothered Korra. The Renegades were everything that could be wrong with a society.
“Yes. At least one who practices their same arts. I don’t think we’re going to face a Wraith.”
“Not as much of a fraud after all.” There was a spot of wetness near a shelf. Korra sniffed it, then sat back on her haunches. Blood. It led directly to the wall, so she searched around until she found a seam. “I think there’s a passage here.”
Korra did the only logical thing she could think of. She pushed and the wall sunk in, a segment swinging open. There was a short passage leading to stairs. Korra crawled in, Asami quickly moving behind her and shutting the door.
“Can you tell where the stairs go?” Asami whispered.
“Down.” And down Korra went, taking each step slowly and carefully to avoid making any kind of noise. At the bottom of the stairs was another door, and Korra pressed her ear against it. She heard shuffling on the other side.
Light danced under the crack of the door. Korra drew her sword, and then carefully pushed the door open.
It was a chamber with a dirt floor and walls arranged like an octagon. At the center was some kind of altar, the kind of which Korra had only ever seen in books. Candles flickered in an arranged star pattern on the altar and in a similar pattern around the room. The altar itself was short, with a skull shape carved into the base and a glowing red gem in the middle, as though it were an eye.
Asami could make out a body in one corner, and then something moving towards them. A hand, white with death and attached to only a stump of an arm crawled in their direction. She recoiled, and Korra reacted as well, flinging a knife at it. The knife struck it with a metallic sound and it spasmed and twitched.
Nothing else stirred. Stepping into the chamber made Korra feel ill to the stomach, but the necromancer didn’t appear to be home. She retrieved her knife, then picked up the hand. “This is...it’s like one of your toys.”
“Let me see it.” Asami took it, and looked it over. The hand was made of some kind of malleable material, and inside were intricate gears and pistons. “Shoddy work, but I think it would scare off most people.”
The body however, was real. It was bloated, and clearly not a recent death. Korra discovered another body on a table near the altar. “He’s definitely robbing the cemetery.”
“It won’t be long before people start disappearing too,” Asami pointed out. “The air here is oppressive, more than any place in this town. I think this necromancer is really trying to animate the dead. If not with dark magic then with …” She waved the false hand, then tossed it aside. “Perhaps a combination of both. A malign version of what Mithrandir did with my bird.”
“There’s no way this man is a Wizard,” Korra muttered.
“Saruman was a wizard..”
“Don’t remind me.” Korra shook her head. She didn’t even want to entertain the idea, because how did one beat a Wizard without actually being a Wizard? But surely they bled just like anyone else, right?
“Shh...someone is coming.” Asami rushed to the door, closing it quietly and then looking around for a place to hide. She chose a corner as far away from the altar as possible, and Korra quickly joined her.
Moments later, Korra could hear footsteps and the sound of something heavy being dragged. The door swung open, and in stepped a tall figure. The necromancer was a pale woman, smooth skin obscuring her true age. She had high, wide cheekbones and small grey eyes. Perhaps somewhere in her ancestry was at least one Eastern family, but she was clearly descended from Numenor. She wore rich robes, in shades of purple and black. She pulled a sack in after her and Korra got a vivid look at a rotted face as it passed.
Freezing, the necromancer tilted her head and sniffed. Her voice was deep and booming in the old tongue, shocking from such a thin figure. “I can smell thee. Pure, like the sun bursting through a cloudy day. Elf. Noldor. What sight have thou gazed upon in all thine years? Oh glory day! What I could do with thine blood.”
Red hot embers exploded from the woman’s hand. Asami and Korra dove in opposite directions to avoid it. Korra was on her feet in seconds, brandishing her sword.
Looking between Korra and Asami, the necromancer threw her head back and laughed. “A cousin. A sister. I had not expected thee as well. Has thine false King sent thee for me? Or do thee come for something else? I am Azruphel, and this is thine’s last night.”
Korra darted forward and Azruphel threw some kind of ball. A flash of white hot light blinded her. Something whistled through the air and Korra recognized the sound of a blade. She parried it at the last possible second. “Asami?!”
Hoping that Azruphel did not understand Quenya, Asami cried, “Hyarya!”
She blocked a strike from her left. Asami called out another direction and she swung around to parry again. There was too much noise from both of their movements for Korra to accurately find her target, and if Azruphel pulled out another magic trick she wasn’t sure what she’d be able to do about it.
Driving her sword at a downward angle, Korra felt it strike flesh. Azruphel gasped, grasping at the blade with shocked eyes. Her voice was wet, gurgling and grating and filled with terror. “I see, I see now! Naught awaits but darkness! I am afraid, I am so afraid!”
“Be not afraid.” Korra withdrew her sword and caught Azurphel’s body as she fell. “The greatest lie ever told was that we should fear death.”
Azruphel’s blank eyes gazed into nothing, and Korra set her down on the floor. “Asami, do you think people can be born evil? Is there always a chance for forgiveness or redemption?”
Kneeling, Asami picked up Azruphel’s sword and inspected it. “No one starts out evil.” She swung it, knocking the altar over and shattering it. Her hand gripped the hilt until her knuckles turned white. “But I think that even if you could forgive someone, they might find it hard to forgive themselves.”
Turning her attention to Korra, Asami inspected her eyes. “I don’t think there’s permanent damage.”
“Good, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see your face in the morning anymore.” She patted her hand around until she grabbed hold of something she hoped was Asami’s shoulder. “That was good teamwork. I still think you need to let yourself do sword work.”
Biting her lip, Asami took Korra’s hand and moved it from her chest to her shoulder. “I.. I’ll try.” She’d been terrified she’d lose Korra, yet she’d been unable to move her feet. Hesitation was deadly but Asami didn’t know how she was going to be able to overcome that.
“That’s all I ask,” Korra replied.
“I’m ... going to take her pouch and search her belongings, then we should get out of here.” Asami stepped away from Korra. Besides the sword, which Asami was certain was forged on Numenor itself, Azruphel was carrying more of those little flashbulbs. Asami could smell some kind of powder. Something like the black powder infamously used by Saruman? There were a couple of gadgets, including a sphere with complex gear work and paintings of stars on it. She also found the source of Azruphel’s embers in another pouch.
“Anything juicy?” Korra pulled herself to her feet. She could see shadows now, and vaguely make out Asami’s shape.
“Most of what she was doing was trickery. Special powders but I’ve no doubt she was able to master some forms of magic. It would explain how she could ignite those embers, but most of what she accomplished was magic of the mind.”
There was little else for them to take, save more notes and books Asami found hidden beneath a false door. She’d have plenty to study.
“Could she have created Wights?” Korra put her arm around Asami as they left the house, still needing to rely on her companion to see. “Or controlled phantoms?”
“We’ll know more after studying her research.” Asami felt Korra lean into her. She leaned in as well, and gave Korra a light kiss on the side of her head. “Can you feel that?”
“It’s less oppressive already.” A bright smile found its way to Korra’s face. “We did good.”
Chapter 10: Book 2: Shadow - Three Sheets
Book 2: Shadow
If they’d failed and died, Gondor would have been blamed for anything bad that had happened and their bodies would have been used in whatever strange rituals the necromancer had planned. But Korra’s vision had returned and the people here could finally step out of the shadow long cast by Sauron. They had a path forward. Korra was content with that. Maybe when Gondor came to the east, this town would be welcoming.
That night, Korra danced with the innkeeper and the innkeeper’s daughter. She danced with the old man from the South who told everyone stories of Khand and the city the mysterious cat-queen Beruthiel had hailed from. She danced with his handsome son, whose eyes held mysteries. She danced with the children who flocked to Asami’s feet for her toys and magic tricks. But most importantly of all, she danced with Asami. When she danced with Asami it was like nothing else mattered. Simply the two of them taking steps together, as old as time.
It was well past the witching hour when they finally stumbled into their room. Copious amounts of ale had gotten to Korra. Asami had counted at least three mugs as well as a glass of wine. She’d imbibed an extra glass or two herself, and felt somewhat tipsy. It was an interesting feeling, she’d honestly not drank that heavily in a single night since before the first rising of the Sun.
Korra tripped over her feet a little, twisting around and landing on her back on the bed. She lifted her foot and laughed. “My boots stuck!”
“You haven’t even tried to take it off.”
“No, no Asami. You have to… you have to trust me. Asami. Trust me. Asami, it’s stuck. Trust me.” Korra pushed at the heel with her other foot. “Stuck. I’m going to be stuck in this boot unless we can cut it off.”
That suddenly gave her an idea, and she sat up. “Thas it!”
Not nearly drunk enough for this, Asami grabbed her wrist before Korra could reach for her sword. “You’re not cutting your boot off.”
Flushed with drink and happiness, Korra looked up at Asami. She wrapped her other arm around her waist and fell back again, pulling Asami on top of her. “You’re so smart.”
Soft laughter rippled through Asami, and she nuzzled the side of Korra’s neck. She was gone far enough to not feel nervous, or fear. But Korra was more ale than blood at the moment, so Asami kept her face away from Korra’s.
Tangling her fingers in Asami’s hair, Korra kissed her jaw sloppily. “Pretty too. Anyone ever tell you your eyes shine like beryls in the sun?”
The tugging in her hair made Asami tilt her head back. She shivered, “Korra, you’re whittled and yet that’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Thas me, romantical.” The murmur of Korra’s lips against Asami’s throat was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Korra sat up, the motion forcing Asami to shift around in her lap. She looked at her, truly looked at her. Asami was beautiful, her hair like waves of midnight and her mouth parted. The way Asami looked at her made Korra feel like she’d be devoured if she let her. And did she ever want to let her.
Leaning in, Korra’s lips would have crashed into Asami’s if the elf hadn’t turned her head at the last moment. Instead, she kissed Asami’s cheek, then went with it and kissed her ear, eliciting a sound that lit a furnace in Korra’s center. She kissed there again, then nipped and flicked her tongue.
It was too much for her. Dazed, Asami pulled herself from Korra’s lap and staggered to the far wall. Korra watched her go, blinking away unwanted tears. Somehow, this hurt worse than any outright rejection might have. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No...no, you did nothing wrong. There’s just too much drink in us. You. Mostly in you.” If Asami didn’t stop this now she’d never forgive herself. Her head was swimming from ale and wine and she wanted nothing more than to fold back into Korra’s arms and taste her lips.
“I dreams about you. Dreamed. Had dreams. ” Korra stumbled over the words as they came out in an intoxicated rush. “Your eyes, your voice. Asami. You were at a...at a forge. And you looked at me. Through...through me into me. You’re always so sad, Asami.”
“I’ll tell you everything, someday. I’m sure you’ve guessed some of it.” Asami knelt in front of Korra, then helped her tug her boots off. “You need to sleep this off.”
Korra looked at her again, then wiped her eyes. “Only if you stay.”
“I won’t leave you tonight,” Asami promised.
Watching her undress, Korra was suddenly overcome with exhaustion. She slid over so Asami could join her, then rolled onto her side. She felt Asami spoon against her, and just as she drifted into a haze felt warm, soft lips against her shoulder.
It was a long road to Khand in the south and they would have to divert their path around some jagged hills. Asami was quiet as they rode.
“Nothing is wrong.”
“People only say that when something is wrong,” Korra pointed out.
Asami turned her head, hair whipping as she did so. If Korra didn’t remember, Asami wasn’t going to embarrass her by talking about it. “I’m okay, really. If something was wrong, I would tell you.”
“Is this about the other night? Did I act foolish?” Korra wracked her brain, trying to remember what she’d done, but most of it was a blank. She could recall dancing with Asami, then Asami curled up against her. And something about her boots. “...did something happen?”
“You danced, you wanted to cut your boots off your feet, then we went to bed.” Was it lying if one omitted part of the truth?
Horrified, Korra asked, “Went to bed, or went to bed?”
“We slept, nothing more.” Asami covered her face with one hand.
Korra lowered her head, watching Naga’s ears flick back and forth. “Okay, that’s good. We’re going to be together for months, I’d hate it to be awkward.”
“Yes,” Asami smiled. “Good.”
Returning the smile with a sly look, Korra said, “Besides, if such a night were to happen, I’d like to remember it.”
“If you need that much liquid courage, such a night will never happen.” Asami’s voice was firm, yet gentle. Needing some space, she kicked her horse into a gallop.
“Naga, why do I keep making her run away from me?”
Naga whinnied, shaking her head.
“You’re right. Elves are very strange.” She watched as Asami disappeared into the distance, before starting to follow. “Somehow I don’t think she’s really running from me, but something else.”
At Naga’s snort, Korra laughed. “Or that’s just wishful thinking.”
She kept Asami in sight but hung back, allowing her time to have her thoughts to herself. It was probably good for them to have time to themselves at least. Korra could remember more than a few times Rangers had tried to bite each others’ heads off after prolonged excursions together.
After a few hours, Asami waited for Korra to catch up, and fell in next to her. She glanced at Korra, but couldn’t find the words she needed to say.
“What? What for??”
“Whatever I did to upset you.” It wasn’t easy for Korra to apologize like this, but it was already starting to bother her and it would get worse if she let it be.
A sad smile on her face, Asami shook her head. “Oh, Korra...I wasn’t upset at you.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve up and ran on me,” Korra said. “I want to know what I’m doing wrong so I can stop doing it.”
Looking off towards the West, Asami searched for the right words. Even when she had them, she was reluctant to say them. “You’re brave, Korra. Bold and beautiful and so very true. I wasn’t ready for my destiny to be so tied up with yours, yet here we are and it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” Korra brought Naga to a stop, and swung off of her. She waited for Asami to turn around and come down from her horse as well. “You’re my friend and I knew we’d get on the moment I saw you. We’re alone out here, just us and it’ll be months before we see a familiar face.”
Korra cupped Asami’s cheek. “What are you so afraid of?”
If this was love, Asami wasn’t sure she wanted it. It hurt, like an open wound in her chest. She wasn’t mortal, and she didn’t have the choice to be one. What would happen to her when Korra passed away? She was too stubborn to fade away, she hoped. Asami knew she’d feel that pain whether or not Korra ever knew about it. “I think that you’d hate me, if you knew me.”
“I know you’re Noldor. I know you crossed the Helcaraxe, and you fought in the Wars of the First Age. I can guess at other things because of that, but I’d rather you tell me them yourself. I can promise I’d never hate you.”
“I saw a good place to camp, down the road.” Asami turned her head away from Korra, then grabbed her horse’s reins. “We can talk then.”