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.”
Chapter 11: Blood on the Sand
The Telari Elves were shipwrights, their craft shaped like swans and fish and painted white and silver and green. As the only ships in the Undying Lands, they were all that stood between Feanor's Noldor and Middle-earth.
The Telari refused to hand the ships over. Tension built. Someone shouted and an arrow flew. All around Asami a battle raged, the Telari outmatched and outnumbered yet fighting tooth and nail. White sand turned red.
She stood watching, unable to act. Disbelieving what was happening, Asami nearly dropped her sword before she saw her father lose his balance, a Telari man lifting a spear to finish him off.
It’s a terrible thing, to kill. To feel flesh give way beneath a blade and see the light to go out in their eyes. It’s a terrible thing for blood to water the earth. That first one was the most terrible of all. With it went Asami’s innocence. With it went any pretense that she wasn’t a part of this, that the Doom foretold by the Valar did not apply to her.
She never learned his name, nor the names of the three others that fell to her sword as she protected her father. Asami gave her innocence for him and in the end it had been for nothing.
Killing other people was much different from Orcs, and slaying a kindred elf must have been a thousand times worse. A human could love and laugh and by and large were good people. Orcs only cared for the slaughter. She rubbed her hand on Asami’s back, rocking her as the sobbing gradually stopped.
“They forgave us, you know,” Asami lifted her head, wiping at her eyes. “All of us, except maybe Feanor and his sons. Invited us to return, invited us to heal.”
“But you haven’t gone back because you haven’t forgiven yourself.” Korra pulled Asami’s hand from her face so she could brush away the tears herself.
“Yes. Because I should have done something different. Sided with the Telari, convinced my father not to go at all. Let him go without me. He joined Feanor on the boats, before they were burned, leaving the rest of us stranded. He fell, in one of the battles of Beleriand. I never saw him alive again.”
“None of that can be changed.” Korra squeezed Asami’s hand. “You can regret and regret and regret. You can think about it over and over and don’t tell me you haven’t. But you can’t change that it happened. Accept it, change from it. My grandmother taught me something, after I was hurt. I was struggling, trying to understand what had happened to me. What I learned was that I could choose to find meaning in it. And I know it’s different, what you did. But I also know you suffered on the ice, and you probably suffered elsewhere too. The other thing I learned is there’s no shame in it.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever atone for what happened on that beach,” Asami admitted. She could accept no shame on the ice, or in the face of Dragonfire. But her innocence had died on that beach and the shame would never go away. “In Middle-earth, I saw war. Fought in many against the Dark Lords. But unlike those wars, the Teleri were innocents.”
“In all your thousands of years, how many people have you helped? How many children’s faces have lit up with joy at one of your tinkers? How many people did we just help in that town.” Korra brought Asami’s knuckles to her lips. “Isn’t that a good start?”
Asami looked over to her bedroll, and the necromancer’s sword she’d taken. She turned Korra’s words over in and over in her head, wondering how she could atone, and what meaning could be found in all that she’d experienced. Azruphel had been evil. If not irredeemable then so lost to her dark magic that coming back to the light had ceased to be an option. That sword was of Numenor, no more or less evil than the bedroll. In Asami’s hands, it could protect. The right sword in Korra’s hands could inspire.
“I know what to do with the star-metal.” This time, Asami was the one kissing Korra’s hand. It wouldn’t be Anduril or Glamdring, but perhaps she could forge a legend of their own.
“We need to find it first.”
“We will.” Asami got to her feet, then pulled Korra up with her. She felt immensely better, and laced her fingers in with Korra’s. There were fresh tears on her cheeks but a smile on her lips. “I’ve never told anyone about that before. I’ve been holding onto it a long time.”
“Anything else you need to let out?” Korra asked.
“Yes,” Asami laughed, the kind of relieved and slightly hysterical laugh of someone who’d just found a release. “But let’s save that for another night.”
“I’m holding you to that.” Korra stepped closer to Asami, sliding an arm around her. “I’ll always listen.”
“You can talk to me too, Korra.”
“Good, I need to tell you about the time I wrestled a bear!”
“That’s...not what I…” Asami widened her eyes. “You wrestled a bear.”
Lifting her arms and flexing until her biceps bulged, Korra nodded. “And I won.”
Staring, and sufficiently distracted from the earlier conversation, Asami sat down on her bedroll. “Tell me more...”
It was easy to forgive Asami transgressions from her past. She wasn’t evil, and Korra knew well enough that if she ever returned to the Undying Lands she would face both those who’d forgive her and those who’d hold a grudge. Korra wasn’t going to make that any harder for her.
She was also discovering how easy it was to distract Asami with just a little flexing. It was a little exhilarating and while she kept telling herself to tone it down while telling the story of the bear, she couldn’t. Seeing Asami look at her that way was intoxicating. Korra needed to figure out what to do about it. Despite how often she’d shown off for others, Korra had never actually had a relationship much deeper than sharing warmth in the snow, and the feelings she was developing were terrifying to her.
Asami laughed when Korra got to the part where she got scolded by Farandren, and Korra contented herself with chasing the sadness from Asami’s eyes.
They passed a village burned to cinders, the corpses of men and orcs littering the remains, and Korra kept her hand near her sword the rest of the day. Without Sauron to inspire fear and command the Orcs, uneasy allies had turned on each other. Farther south, with Mordor’s teeth dulling in the distance, they found a fortress. Made of wood and stone, it straddled the road. The main gate was broken in two and Korra took point as she rode under the arch. Archers kept close eye on them.
Locals had turned the fortress into a town, the area just beyond the gate an open air market like the one on the Sea. Hundreds of eyes turned to them as Korra dismounted. The atmosphere was different here. The people more suspicious, their oppression more recent, their hatred of the West stronger. And Korra knew that while some of that hatred was spurred by ancient lies, some of it was probably justified. She could see people from as far away as the Harad, and others who looked as though they were from much farther east.
“We’re just passing through,” Korra explained, glancing up at Asami. They both kept their hands visible. “We just need an inn, or a place to sleep. We’ll pay.”
Some of the people shared glances, others shrugged and returned to their tasks. An old woman approached them, leaning on a rickety staff. She had piercing amber eyes and wrinkled skin several shades darker than Korra’s. Her hair was grey and black, with white speckled throughout. “I got a room for you if you want. All you’d have to do is help my grandson out in the stables, if that’s not too dirty for fancy folk like yourselves.”
Asami pulled her hood back and smiled. “That’s fair, I don’t mind working in the stables at all.”
“Huh.” The elder looked Asami up and down, but didn’t look impressed. “It’s this way.”
Without any further pleasantries, the woman turned to lead them to the stables. “My name is Manara. You’re a long way from your homes.”
“I’m Korra, and this is Asami.” Korra followed her, guiding Naga by the reins. “We’re exploring lands unfamiliar to us, and hoping to open up trade and talks between East and West.”
“Asami?” Manara stopped, turning to eye her. “Odd name, for a Western Elf.”
“I traveled once, a very long time ago,” Asami replied. “These lands have changed since then.”
Manara nodded. “The stalls at the end are free for your horses. Once you’ve helped Riyad with the stables you can come in for dinner. There’s a room upstairs for you. He’ll show you.”
Before Korra could lead Naga to the stall, Manara took her arm. “If you want to discuss politics, you’ll have to talk to my brother. He’s the Trademaster of our town.” She leaned in, as if passing along a secret, and winked, “But out here, whoever owns the stables owns the town.”
“A colder welcome here,” Asami noted, as she stripped her horse of tack and wiped her down. “But I think they’ll open up.”
“We should spend more than a few days here,” Korra agreed. “We need to find out where that star landed anyway, and I want them to warm up to us.”
“That’s harder than you think.” A lean young man stepped out from a stall. He had long black hair pulled back into a ponytail, and his large eyes greatly resembled Manara’s. His face was round and clean shaven, and he wore a loose fitting blue robe. “The people here don’t like strangers, especially with all the upheaval. Orcs and warlords are running rampant. We’ve set up in this fortress to allow us some kind of protection.”
“Well, it’s worth a try.” Korra offered her hand, thinking the stranger couldn’t be much older than twenty. “I’m Korra.”
“I’m Riyad.” He shook Korra’s hand. “Let me show you to your room. What grandmother lacks in manners she makes up for in her cooking.”
“Thank you,” Asami said. She picked up their saddle bags and followed Riyad and Korra inside. Their room was small, with two beds. Asami actually felt disappointed by that.
“Riyad!” Manara poked her head in. “Oh, good, you’re not dallying about in a dress today. Can you show them what to do in the stables, then clean up and help me with dinner? We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed tonight.”
She disappeared, leaving Riyad with burning cheeks. “Lets… lets get back to the stables.” He was out the door before Korra could respond.
Korra glanced at Asami. “What was that about?”
“I don’t know.”
They found Riyad moving feed around for the horses, every motion angry and harsh. Korra silently joined him while Asami went to clean out one of the stalls.
“Go ahead,” Riyad said. “Mock me. It’s what everyone else does.”
“I’m not going to mock you,” Korra replied. “I once knew someone in a little village far to the West who everyone saw as this big, strapping man named Pol. But she saw herself as a woman named Nanrin and was happier that way.” It wasn’t the easiest thing, she thought. Some people were very close-minded and that was true no matter where you went.
“The world takes all types,” Asami added, peeking over the stall. “The same is true of my kind. The Fëa, the soul, doesn’t always match the body it’s housed in.”
Riyad stopped and leaned on a pitchfork. “After my mother died, my grandmother took me in. She’s never really…accepted who I am. She can be so cruel at times. She’s never raised her fist, but sometimes it feels like a blow nonetheless.” Riyad stared at these two strangers, who looked at her not with laughter or disgust, but with kindness. It seemed like a small thing, but it was the bravest thing Riyad ever asked. “Can… can you call me Tahirah? Just not in front of other people in town.”
“Of course,” Asami said. She looked towards Tahirah’s house, where Manara was, and frowned.
“Tahirah,.” Korra resumed working with the feed, shoveling some for Naga. “What was it like here? Before the fall of Sauron.”
Hearing her name like that made Tahirah smile so broadly it hurt. “It was dark, but we found small joys. Song and dance, playing music. My family was mostly left alone as long as we supplied the armies with horses. But so many others went off to fight.”
Korra’s grip tightened on the feedbag. “I feel as though so many of us were just pawns in events beyond our control.”
“You must have fought some of us.” Tahirah said. Her smile had dimmed somewhat due to the tone of the conversation, but was still present. For the first time in her life she felt like she could be herself. “They used to say that Elves ate the hearts of their enemies to gain their strength and some of the soldiers traded stories about Gondorians being intimate with dead.”
Torn between disbelief and offence, Asami cried out. “We do not eat human hearts!! Nor the hearts of any sentient being!”
Tahirah threw her head back and laughed. She wiped at her eye. “Oh, the rumors were terrible and inspired fear, but that one I made up.”
Korra started laughing too. “That’s just wrong. Maybe not as wrong as the necrophilia, but still.”
Planting her face into both hands, Asami tried not to laugh too. “Clever.”
Once the stables were mucked out and the horses comfortable for the night, Korra and Asami joined the townspeople for a communal dinner. As Tahirah explained, on the fourth night of every week the whole town got together to eat.
“The tradition started a long time ago,” she said, sitting next to Korra on a wide bench, bowl in hand. “No one really knows when but the most common story involves a distant ancestor of mine.” She tasted her stew. “At least Grandmother insists we’re related.”
“Do you know the story?” Asami crossed her ankles, excitement dancing on her face.
“This was… gods below, I don’t know how you keep time, but when the Dark Lord was first really starting to exert his influence.”
“That might be the Second Age,” Asami mused. “A very long time ago indeed, if so.” Five thousand years as mortals counted.
“Right,” Tahirah nodded. She was wearing breeches tonight, and a loose tunic. “Khand did not bow at first. We’re proud and strong, with horses that make your Rohan mounts look meek and sickly.”
“Never say that to a Rohirrim’s face,” Korra warned with a laugh. “I know at least one woman who’d punch you before you were done speaking.”
“We’re the same when it comes to those majestic beasts.” Grinning, Tahirah continued her story. “Our leaders would not bend, so he sent messengers with gifts and promises of power. Some were swayed.”
Asami nodded. “Such things can be very persuasive.”
“One woman refused, but those who were supposed to be loyal to her betrayed her. She was left to die. But something called to her and she followed it. She dragged herself for miles, the call getting stronger and stronger until at last she found it’s source. It was a sword. Something magical, something out of legend. They say it was created from a dragon’s tooth and the legends talk about a single warrior felling whole armies.”
Tahirah was enjoying the way that her new friends were hanging on her every word. Grandmother always told her she was good at telling stories. It was one of the few things she ever got complimented for. “The sword was practically alive, always thirsting for blood and eventually those who wield it would succumb as well. Then it would lay and wait, growing thirstier and thirstier until it was claimed again. So this woman closed her hand around the hilt, and listened as it spoke to her. She never recorded what it said but in the weeks that followed she traveled through Khand, fighting like a dervish and destroying every army in her path. And she built one of her own. Her own army, her own followers. For the first time in our history, Khand was united under a single ruler. The Dragon Queen.”
Korra wondered if such a sword existed, or how it could wipe out armies. Perhaps if it was thirsty enough for blood it could drain them dry. But she wanted to know more. “What happened to this Dragon Queen?”
“Eventually, Sauron tried again. This time the messenger came from the farthest East. A King, who swept in like a shadow. He met with our Queen and the two parted without settling matters. His army and hers clashed again and again, but neither could best the other. Some say they became bitter enemies and others the most heated of lovers. But in the end no one knows what became of the Queen. One day, she and her sword disappeared, and Khand gradually fell to shadow.”
“And that King?” Asami thought she knew who he was, but she wanted to hear it to know for sure.
“He faded and became one of the nine.”
“Khamûl,” Korra murmured. “Shadow of the East.” The second of the nine, Sauron’s Lieutenant and nearly as powerful as the Witch-King.
Asami said nothing, keeping her memories of the battles of Lothlorien to herself. It had been Khamûl who’d led the attacks on the Golden Wood.
“Once, simply a man in love.” Tahirah murmured. Every time she thought of that story, she wondered what it must have been like. To fight each other by day and make love by night.
“The best kind of tragic love story,” Korra agreed. She barely realized it, but her fingers had edged next to Asami’s.
Asami moved her hand over Korra’s. “I like happy endings better.” Just thinking about Wraiths gave her chills. There was something about that kind of Fell power that did not sit well with her. In part it was because one of the more effective ways for an elf to succumb to death was through a wound inflicted by that kind of dark magic.
The gesture did not go unnoticed, but Tahirah didn’t call attention to it. “Maybe I’m descended from them both!”
“I’ve always wanted to know a Dragon Queen.” Korra winked at her. “I take it in the stables you get to hear a lot of talk. Do you know anything about a fallen star?”
“Shh!” Tahirah glanced around. “I’ll...come tell you about that tonight, all right? It’s not something to chat about openly.”
Asami nodded. “Thank you.” If there were eyes on them after that, she didn’t feel it.
“Thank you.” She sat in a chair, smiling at them both. No laughter, no ridicule, just acceptance. Tahirah honestly wanted to cry.
Sitting cross-legged on one of the beds, Korra nodded in agreement. “Where did you get it?”
“I traded for it about a year ago. It’s my second one, my first was kind of bland but suited its purposes. When my grandmother found out about the trade she…” Tahirah frowned. “You wanted to know about the star?”
Asami shared a look with Korra, before sitting next to her on the bed. “Yes. Allies of ours had visions about it. It’s metal, in the wrong hands, could make a terrible weapon.”
Tahirah’s frowned deepened. “There are a lot of wrong hands here. There’s a warlord who’s been trying to fill the hole left by Sauron. If this metal is that powerful it could be really bad for everyone here.”
“That’s why we need to find it.” Korra gestured to Asami. “She’s a smith. She can melt it down and do something good with it.”
“You said you knew what to do, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but…” Asami sighed.
“If you can take this metal from him,” Tahirah interjected. “And make something good with it, you should. Unlike swords of stories, a sword has no heart but that of the person who wields it.”
“You should be a bard, instead of mucking stables.” Korra leaned over and patted Tahirah’s knee.
“I realize that. I just have to fight centuries of reluctance.” Asami started when Korra put her arm around her, then sighed again and leaned into the embrace.
Tahirah wondered if they were lovers. They had an easy intimacy that made her a little jealous, but she’d never known that mortals and Elves could love each other. “How long have you been together?”
Asami turned red, but Korra either didn’t notice the context or chose to ignore it. “We met in the stables at Minas Tirith, and then we were tasked to come East for the star and to help establish relations.”
“So many good things can happen in the stables.” Tahirah was enjoying the way Asami was getting flustered and she managed to make Korra sputter as well. “But these beds are probably more comfortable so keep that in mind.”
“The fallen star,” Korra said, closing her eyes. “Do you know where it fell?”
“Yes,” Tahirah said. Her stomach tightened and she could feel her heart starting to race. “And I’ll show you where but you have to promise to take me with you when you leave.”
“Okay, we will.” The speed at which Asami answered startled even herself. Ideally she and Korra would talk about it, but Asami had paid careful attention to the way Marana treated Tahirah. Even some of the other townsfolk, as friendly as they were, barely gave her a second’s glance. Family was family, but sometimes family could hurt you. Asami knew that all too well.
Korra looked at her, then at Tahirah. Something in her heart told her this was the right thing to do and Korra had the same worries as Asami. “I guess you’re coming with us. But it’s going to be dangerous, and you may need to defend yourself, and us. Do you have a weapon? A horse?”
“I can get one, and I have a horse. Her name is Raya.”
“I have a meeting with your uncle tomorrow,” Korra said. “I’ll let you know the day before we leave and we’ll leave with the sun. That way you can say your goodbyes.”
Determination filled Tahirah’s eyes. “A few may care that I’ve gone, and those I will talk to. But then I can finally bury Riyad and go to places where they’ll only ever know Tahirah.”
Asami spent the evening making a spring loaded jumping frog and the next day she was tooling around with spheres of a silver color. Korra packed their new purchases well in their saddle bags. Korra suddenly felt vibrations under her feet, and she looked up to see Asami with her head tilted, listening to something. “That’s not just me, is it?”
“No. There’s a lot of horses. And drums.” Asami got up and moved to the window, looking outside. “Korra.”
Korra jumped to her feet and joined Asami at the window. In the distance to the southeast were lines of riders. They were too far away for her to count, but maybe Asami could. “How many?”
“That has to be that warlord Tahirah mentioned.” Korra stepped away from the window, pulling on her cloak and strapping her sword to her side. “We have two choices. Get out of here before they arrive, or stay and fight.”
Reluctantly picking up the necromancer’s sword, Asami replied, “I think we both know there’s only one choice.”
Grabbing her bow, Korra gave her a nod before darting out of the room and sliding down the railing of the stairs. Asami hesitated only a moment, before securing her sword and slipping her bow around her shoulder. She shoved her project into a pack then followed Korra downstairs, at a more dignified pace.
Korra was already outside. It was controlled chaos. A group of people were barricading the ruined gate, and she could see men and women on the walls. Looking around for whoever was in charge, Korra spotted a man who seemed to be directing the defenders. She ran up to him. “I know we’re just visitors, but we want to help. Where do you need us.”
“How good are you with that bow?”
“I rarely miss.”
He nodded. “Good enough. Get up on the wall, take your elf.” He pointed at a spot. “Riyad, go with them.”
Tahirah scowled. Adjusting armor that didn’t quite fit, she ran for the wall. She couldn’t wait to leave, but she would fight for them. Not everyone was like her grandmother or the Captain.
It was the position with the least amount of cover. Korra understood. Better to risk a stranger than one of his own. She’d faced worse, and was worried more for Tahirah than herself. Glancing back to signal Asami to follow her, she jogged for the wall and climbed up a rickety ladder. This side of the fortress had taken damage at some point, and had yet to be repaired. There were one or two places they could cover from enemy archers and Korra took position at one of them. She leaned on the stone and peered through her spyglass.
“They’re going to know this section is vulnerable,” Asami noted. “But we have a small advantage; there’s a slope leading down to the wall, and a trench along the outside. It will make it harder for them to approach.”
“They’ll still try. Other than the gate itself, this will be the best access.”
“We’ve been preparing for this. The gate might be a ruin, but they have teams moving stone slabs and other barriers into place.” Tahirah checked the blade of her sword, for lack of anything else to do. She’d only had to fight once before, and she was not at all looking forward to repeating that experience.
Asami sat down on a piece of rubble from the wall, and unslung a pack. “Okay, I wasn’t expecting to try this so soon, but I’ve been studying the necromancer’s notes and her book. She combined old Numenorean techniques with knowledge she discovered in the East, and I’ve been playing around with it.”
From the look on Korra’s face, Asami realized her friend misunderstood. “It’s not dark arts. It’s knowledge, no different than knowing how to use athelas.”
“So what is it?”
She pulled out the sphere she’d been working on. “A powder. Remember what they said about what Saruman used at Helm’s Deep? That blasting fire that blew the wall? It’s similar. Similar enough that I’m almost certain that’s where Saruman got the idea. I’m pretty sure Sauron used it on his catapults too, at Minas Tirith.” She turned it, showing Korra a painted red symbol that she recognized as the elvish script for ‘X.’ “Red means it will explode. Black will produce a thick smoke that will make it hard for them to see.”
Tahirah picked one up. It was like some kind of magic. Elven maybe, though she’d heard stories of fireworks from the distant east. This reminded her of them. “What are the ones with the white marking for?”
Korra smiled. “I like the sound of that one. When we get out of this, show me how you made them?”
“Of course.” Asami reached up and squeezed Korra’s hand.
Korra turned to Tahirah. “We don’t have as many as I’d like, but I think we can help give your people an advantage. Is there anyone here who’d be willing to listen to us?”
“Soraya, the Captain’s second. She’s one of the few friends I have.” They were tangentially related. Tahirah’s aunt had married Soraya’s brother.
Leaning in close, Korra explained her plan as Asami loaded some of the spheres into a pack. “Take Asami to your friend. Explain the plan and what these things do. With a little luck we’ll be able to hold our ground.”
Asami nodded. “I’ve left some for you too.”
As the two ran off to find Soraya, Korra busied herself with positioning Asami’s devices for ease of access. If this worked, the defenders would stand a better chance of repelling the attack. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t really make things all that worse. The odds were ten to one. Korra didn’t know the quality of some of the defenders. Many were townsfolk and civilians, but there were enough that had seen war for Korra to think that maybe they had a chance.
Warriors from Khand were renowned for their skill on horseback. Their horses were swifter than those of Rohan, but less sturdy, bred for speed and mobility. But like the Rohirrim, get them dismounted and it could become a more even fight. Forcing them to lay siege rather than ride out to meet them was probably the best tactic here. But like the Rohirrim, they were still fierce combatants even on foot.
From the battlements, the Captain blew his horn, and called out. “We did not become free from one tyrant to fall to another! We will beat him back, as we have beaten back all the others, as we have thrown off the Shadow. Orc or bandit or warlord, we do not bow!”
A cheer went up around the wall, and Korra smiled. The right inspiration could be worth ten fighters at least.
“We’re all set.” Asami came up the ladder, then helped Tahirah up. “She accepted your plan. When they get close enough, we’ll use the smoke. That will make it harder for them to see us until they get too close for their archers. But our archers will be able to shoot from above. For if they climb the walls, the flash fire will be able to blind them. I made very sure to warn her to warn everyone to not look.”
“And the blasting fire ones will be our first volley.”
Asami smiled and waggled an arrow with a ball tied to it. “I suggested tying them to arrows.”
“Perfect.” Korra picked out a few arrows to do the same, as the warlord sounded his horn and began his charge.
Taking up a position nearby, Asami knocked her first arrow, drawing the bowstring as she sighted her first target.
Her eyes darted to Korra.
“I know.” Asami regulated her breathing, taking slow, deep breaths until her hands stilled. She heard the command to fire as though through water, and loosed her first arrow. It struck the dirt in front of four riders. Fire erupted with a sound like booming thunder. Three more booms answered. She picked out another, and shot it high, in an arc. It sailed through the air and exploded in a cluster of riders. An explosive shot from Korra dispersed some more. It took all of Asami’s willpower to not flinch with every death cry.
A different horn sounded, high pitched and warbling. “That’s the signal for the smoke.”
Korra set down her bow and flung one of the smoke devices as far as she could. Their sound was like a soft strike of steel on stone. White smoke quickly filled the battlefield around the fortress like a thick fog. She resumed crouching, listening as the attackers shouted in confusion. The warlord hung back with what looked like an honor guard. Korra kept her eye on him when he started to lead a new approach.
Defenders unleashed a torrent of arrows as the invaders got close to the walls. Along other parts of the wall some of the band had managed to get past the archers and a desperate fight broke out on the south wall. More explosions rocked the ground, and in the sudden confusion Korra lost sight of the Warlord. She glanced at Asami, who was focused on finding targets with her arrow. “Tahirah, protect her if they get close.”
Tahirah nodded, and Korra ran along the wall. The Warlord vaulted up, running two defenders through and kicking them off to their deaths. He was a huge man, as tall as an Uruk-hai and fair of face, save for a jagged scar across his nose. He cleaved the Captain in two with a single strike of a massive claymore.
A black-skinned woman with eyes the color of the midnight sky rushed in to engage him. Korra recognized her from the meeting with the Trademaster and from the regalia on her shoulder Korra guessed she must have been Tahirah’s friend, Soraya. Soraya was nearly as tall as the Warlord, and twice as wide, blocking his every blow with a large sword and a loud cackle. It didn’t seem to be enough and with each strike she was pushed back just a little more. A heavy slash splintered her sword, sending a shard into her right eye. She fell onto her back, and the Warlord lifted his weapon to end her.
Korra intercepted the blow, the impact jarring her bones right down to her feet. The next attack nearly dislocated her shoulder and a third would have taken her head if something hadn’t stopped it. Out of the corner of her left eye she saw Soraya with half a sword, blood streaming down her face. Together, they started to push him back.
“Sahm!” At Soraya’s command, archers unloaded a half dozen arrows into the Warlord. Behind him, Asami gracefully jumped onto a tall pedestal and shot three more into his back as she did so.
The man laughed, swiping his sword in a wide arc. Korra dodged it, and got a foot in her stomach for her efforts. Bringing her sword up to block an overhead attack, Korra felt the metal start to give. Another blow like that and she’d be lucky to only lose an eye. Was this man half-troll? Another arrow struck him, this time in the back of his head. Two more from the front hit his shoulder and his grip on his axe weakened.
Korra moved inside his reach, ramming her shoulder into his chest. Staggering, the Warlord lost his balance and tumbled off the edge the wall. Not wasting a moment, Korra leapt after him, using all the weight of her body to ram her sword into his chest as they fell. Jarred loose, Korra bounced on the ground and rolled several feet away. She pushed herself up, but the Warlord wasn’t moving.
Horns rang out as the Warlord’s band started to retreat. Amidst cheers, someone pulled Korra to her feet. Soraya clapped her hand on Korra’s shoulder. “You saved my life.”
“You saved mine.” Korra grinned, the excitement in the air making her head swim. She gestured at Soraya. “Your eye.”
“It is a good thing ladies like scars.” Soraya laughed, ripping a strip of cloth from her tunic to bandage her eye for the time being. “You did not have to help. Thank you.”
“It was the right thing to do.” Asami slid down from above, and brushed herself off. “We’ll stay a few more days and help everyone clean up and bury the dead.”
Soraya nodded. “I appreciate that. I’ll make note of your bravery and help when we send a messenger to your King.”
Korra clasped Soraya’s hand. “I’m glad your people are safe.” And she was really glad they weren’t enemies any longer. She could only imagine how facing Soraya or her warriors in battle would have gone, but she felt like they’d be strong friends.
The Dragon Queen and her sword are based upon the headcanons and Rps of a friend I used to write with a very long time ago. Used with her permission!
Chapter 13: The Tomb of the Dragon Queen
Asami sat in the bath, arms hugging her legs and gazing off into the distance. She’d gotten increasingly withdrawn in the weeks since the battle, and the more she thought about it the more conflicted she was.
Korra sank into a chair next to the bath and leaned her chin on the lip. “Asami…”
“All I ever wanted to do was make things. Beautiful things.” Green eyes, wet from unshed tears, moved to look at Korra’s face. “Helpful things. New and unusual things. And now I’ve made something that can blow a man limb from limb. Should I teach them how to make it? For defense? But once it’s out there…”
“You won’t be able to control it, and you’re not the first to create it. You won’t be the last. There’ll be others. Do we make sure they have fair ground to fight on?” Korra reached out to play with a strand of Asami’s hair.
Lowering her head to her knees, Asami sighed. “I’m glad we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Tahirah says she can show us where the star fell. We’ll claim it and then… Then we’ll figure out where to go from there.” Korra touched Asami’s chin and turned her face towards her. “It will be okay. You did good here, Asami.”
“You were amazing, you know that?” Leaning into the touch, Asami closed her eyes. Korra was something special, and Asami’s emotions were raw enough to leave her unfiltered. “I’ve never seen anyone so brave, and I’ve seen a lot of brave people.”
“Well. It was probably kind of stupid too. I think he was half-troll. My shoulder still hurts.”
“A little too handsome for a troll. At least so far as warlords go.” Asami twirled her finger around. “Turn around. Let me see.”
Korra did as she was told, sighing when she felt Asami’s hands on her shoulders. Asami pressed and kneaded, fingers gentle with the soreness and yet firm where they needed to be. Korra relaxed against her hands, a throaty groan rumbling from deep inside as her head fell forward. “Thanks Asami.”
“Anytime,” Asami replied, voice too unsteady for her own liking. “You should take a bath too.”
“I stink that badly?”
Asami splashed some water at her. “I mean this will be the last time you get to enjoy an actual bathtub for who knows how long.”
“I’m not sure we can both fit in there without getting really close.” Korra glanced over her shoulder, rewarded with a blush that ran up Asami’s neck and ears.
“I’m going to dry off and then heat the water back up for you.” Asami climbed out of the tub as Korra tried valiantly to avert her gaze. With a teasing lilt to her voice, she added, “And you do kind of smell.”
Korra just rolled her eyes.
Asami stepped away from her horse at the sound of Soraya’s voice. She smiled at the newly promoted Captain. “What can I help you with?”
Soraya’s good eye darted over to where Korra was helping Tahirah get her horse ready. “Her fire burns like the sun, your Ranger. She’ll need a new sword, it’s too dangerous to use her old one.” She placed a sheathed sword in Asami’s hands.
“She’s not my Ranger, but she is amazing.”
Making note of the smile on Asami’s face, Soraya leaned in. “Protect her, not just from others but from herself. She reminds me of me when I was younger.” With a grin, she waved a finger over her lost eye. “You don’t want her to be me when she’s older.”
Brash and Korra generally went hand in hand, though in Asami’s experience Korra was a lot less brash than she’d been told about. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“One more thing.” Soraya put an arm around Asami. “Sometimes it’s okay to let yourself be burned.” Laughing, Soraya pushed Asami in Korra’s direction.
Leaving the fortress town was easier than expected. Aside from a few good byes on the way, most of the people were focused on their lives. Korra looked back as they got farther away, able to see the supports being built for eventually repairing and even improving on the walls. She wanted to come back in ten years, and see how the town built up. “They really should put Soraya in charge.”
“She orders everyone around like she is,” Tahirah laughed. It made her think of her grandmother insisting the stables proved who owned the town. Thinking of her grandmother left her feeling conflicted. Part of her hated her. Part of her still loved her. She hoped it would make more sense after some distance. Turning her attention back to her new companions, she said, “The star fell in the foothills. The problem is that area is known to harbor orcs and evil men who still follow Sauron.”
Asami lifted her arm and gestured at her bracelet. “If this glows blue, we’ll know for sure there are orcs.”
Korra still remembered the first time she’d see that. She’d heard of such things in legends, but those were usually swords and daggers, and even then she’d never seen one of those either. “You’re lucky, I found out her jewellry did that when we ran into a band of them up north.”
“Just the bracelet. I made a few others but those have all been sold or given away.”
“She makes enchanted things,” Korra said. “And admits it, just like that. And she calls me amazing.”
“You’re amazing, Korra, not me.”
“Don’t you start, you’re a genius.”
Tahirah covered her mouth and snickered.
Once they broke for lunch, Tahirah took the opportunity to change. She’d packed the only two dresses she owned, but when she was about to pull one out to change into it, she found a wrapped package from Soraya.
It was a dark blue outfit, made of a trimmed tunic with a little shaped padding in the chest and leather and cloth riding pants under a layered skirt. It had probably taken Soraya months to make for her and all Tahirah could think to do was cry. It occurred to her that Soraya had been more true to her than her grandmother ever could be.
“Put it on,” Korra said. “I think that it’s meant to be worn as soon as possible.”
“Did you know about this?” Tahirah stripped to her smallclothes and started to change.
“I saw her sneak something in, but she didn’t let me ask what it was.” Korra smiled, taking a bite of lembas. She was grateful that Asami had been able to use one of the ovens. She’d even baked some for Soraya to pass out to her people for scouting missions. “That was after she gave me the keep you safe speech.”
“She would.” Tahirah ran her hands down the front of her tunic. There was a thin, protective leather vest as well, and she pulled that on last.
They made the hills by dark, setting up camp in the shadow of a cliff. It offered protection on one side, and a good view all around. As a matter of safety, Korra didn’t start a fire. Dinner was lembas and dried meat, and Asami laid her bracelet where the fire would have been so they could all see if it glowed blue. At Korra’s insistence, they split the watch three ways. Korra first, then Tahirah, and finally Asami. She expected Asami to argue, but none was forthcoming. Except for the days they’d spent crossing north of Mordor, it was the most tense mood she’d been in, and Korra needed to take the first shift just to be able to unwind enough to rest.
The only thing any of them saw that night was a pair of foxes on the hunt.
She stared long and hard down a branching corridor, then started to walk down it. Something called to her, mysterious and ancient. It burned through Tahirah’s blood, and she started to run.
“Tahirah. Tahirah!” Asami chased after her, leaving Korra trying to catch up without losing the horses in the process.
The cavern wound in a spiral, going deep into places not trod by mortal feet in an age. Worn stone walls gave way to intricately carved hallways. Asami found herself in what appeared to be a small dwarven outpost. Long ago, she’d traveled through Moria with the Lady Galadriel and her people, but the patterns and designs in these walls were different.
Dwarves rarely spoke of their history to outsiders, but what Asami did know was that there had originally been seven clans. Four of which had come from the East and they’d answered a call by the heir of Durin to fight the Orcs of the Misty Mountains in a war two centuries ago.
According to Elven legend, their land had been in mountains near Cuiviénen, the bay where Elves first woke on a sea that no longer existed. Somewhere in these Eastern lands were descendents of those elves who had chosen to not follow the gods to the West. Asami knew where they had been, but they might have moved on by now.
Which Dwarven clan had excavated this outpost, Asami couldn’t say, but it appeared to be very old. The outer hallways had worn down over time to simple caverns, and even deep within the mountain the outpost was well weathered and crumbling. “Tahirah?”
She could hear footsteps and followed them, checking her bracelet for a glow. The Dwarves may have long departed but that didn’t mean that something else couldn’t move in. Hopefully no Balrog, like Durin’s Bane in Moria. Asami had seen a Balrog once, during the War of Wrath, and she had no desire to ever see another one again. Even the three of them together couldn’t hope to defeat one.
Past the Dwarven outpost was a small cavern. It was natural, with a pool of water surrounding a small island. It required squeezing through what appeared to be a recent crack. Tahirah was already there, kneeling in front of a stone coffin. She looked up at the sound of Asami’s approach, her hands on the stone. “This is...the tomb of the Dragon Queen.”
“Did she have some kind of alliance with the Dwarves?” Asami lifted her torch to inspect the walls. The stone had been carved into a scene of a battle. A single woman held a sword aloft and dragon wings burst from her back like fire. All around her was a fallen army. On another wall was the carving of a man in armor, with a helmet shaped much like the head of a dragon. He was depicted kneeling before the Queen and offering her the helm.
Behind the coffin was a display clearly meant to hold a sword. It was empty.
“Not that I know of,” Tahirah said. “I think maybe this tomb was here before they were.”
“There are hand prints burned into the stone.” Korra had caught up after tying the horses at the outpost. “Look.”
Tahirah got to her feet and looked down at black prints. “The stone is cool to the touch.” The lid was gone, and so too was the Queen’s body. “The tomb was probably robbed at some point. The sword is gone.”
“Not everything is.” Korra pulled out a helm. It felt like leather and was as light, but still as hard as steel. It was shaped like a dragon's head, with a metal face plate in the opened jaws, and wing-like shapes sweeping up from the side.
Asami took it from Korra and got a better look in the torch light. “This is dragonscale.”
“Do I want to know how you know that?” Tahirah wrapped her arms around herself. Now that she was here, she couldn’t recall how she’d gotten here. It had been like following a voice, calling to her. The voice had been familiar, and comforting.
“I’ve seen dragons up close. It is not an experience I’d wish on anyone.” The helm gave her chills. Something very dark and every evil had once possessed it. She lifted her torch again to the carvings on the wall.
“That’s Khamûl,” Tahirah said. “Don’t ask me how I know that. I just do.”
Asami placed the helm back into the coffin as if it had burned her. “No wonder I feel as though I’m about to drown in darkness.”
“Before he became a wraith, but after he accepted a Ring of Power, he presented the Dragon Queen with his helm.” Tahirah rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “And she was later buried with it.”
“Sounds romantic,” Korra quipped. “Do you think the sword was, too?”
“I don’t know. There’s a place for it.” Tahirah pointed at the display. “But it was probably stolen.”
Korra inspected the display. Save for dust, it was pristine. No scratches, no signs that anything had ever been placed in it. “If it was ever here to begin with.”
Drawn to the coffin, Tahirah picked the helm up and inspected it. Then she lifted it and pulled it over her head.
A lone figure stood in the tomb. The Dragon Queen was tall, her brown skin glistening like gold in the torchlight and her hair was black as night. Her eyes were gold as well and when Tahirah looked into them it felt as though she were looking into her own reflection. She did not seem to notice her, as she placed the helm into the coffin. She lifted a sword to her shoulder. Long and curved, malice beat within the sword like a heart. As she walked away, Tahirah’s eyes locked with those of a young girl who’d been waiting near the entrance.
Tahirah ripped the helm off, blinking as the present reasserted itself.
“Are you okay?” Korra put her hand on Tahirah’s shoulder.
“She was never buried here.” Tahirah looked at her reflection in the faceplate. “She came here with their daughter to say goodbye to him.”
“So we don’t know where that sword is, or if it even exists?” Accepting what Tahirah had seen, Korra started back for the horses, squeezing out of the tomb.
“It’s probably for the best that it remain lost,” Asami replied. She helped Tahirah out, careful to avoid touching the helm that the young mortal still held. “An artifact with that kind of power could only have originated within the halls of Angband, and that’s assuming the legends are even half true.”
Tahirah frowned. While there’d probably been some exaggeration over the years, she was positive that both the Queen and her sword had existed. Tahirah didn’t know where she’d gone after this tomb or when that scene had been. Maybe that was when the Dragon Queen had disappeared. She hung the helm off of Raya’s saddle. “If we find it, what do we do? Something like that could be put to good use. Or very bad use.”
“I don’t know,” Korra replied. “It’s a relic of your people, what do you think we should do if we find it?” Her gut said it should be destroyed. There were stories and legends about swords of power and other objects like them, and they never ended well.
“The stories say that wielding it curses you. The sword consumes you, and everything that you love. All it brings is destruction, and pain. But the Dragon Queen united Khand. Maybe the sacrifice was worth it.” She fell silent. Wasn’t that her birthright, as a daughter of Khand? She could feel her blood burning again and wondered if that was dragonfire.
Chapter 14: Things That Crawl in the Dark
Arachnophobia warning because it's not Middle-earth if there isn't a spider chapter!
They made camp inside the caverns, near the Eastern exit. After drawing straws, Asami left Korra and Tahirah to prepare the meal while she crept out into the open world to scout. It was nearing sun down and they’d spent most of the day below ground.
Before the sun finished setting she’d found the main encampment. There were three dozen orcs and nearly as many humans. Was this where that Warlord had come from? Asami didn’t think that they were related. The encampment had been built in some sort of crater. Most of the trees in the area had been knocked over, and the ground scorched. This must have been where the star had landed.
She crawled up a hill, and peered through Korra’s spyglass. Two of the men were loading a wagon with supplies and weapons. Something glinted, and she peered more closely. It was the star-metal, silver and black. It could be nothing else.
Orcs and men, still allied and with the star-metal? It was a bad sign, and Asami quickly made her way back to the caverns. Their camp was several hundred yards inside and around a false bend that gave them a defensible position. They also had an escape route in case they needed to rabbit. She came around the corner, only to find both of her companions gone. Even the horses had disappeared.
Asami drew the necromancer’s sword, approaching the camp and looking for some sign of a struggle. There was a trail leading deeper into the cave system, in a direction they’d not gone. She could see that they’d clawed at the ground. She could see there was blood and her heart clenched.
Something skittered in the darkness, like dozens of little footsteps pattering all around her. She swung her torch around, and was greeted by eight large, red eyes. Asami back peddled, narrowly avoiding huge hairy legs that tried to grab her. Lashing out, she injured the creature, which hissed and snapped it’s mandibles. Air rushed up behind her and Asami deflected a pair of fangs the size of her finger.
She rolled out of the way of another spider and ran. She used the trail from her friends to guide her, even though it led her deeper into the spiders’ lair. Asami wasn’t going to leave without any of them. Not Korra, not Tahirah, and not the horses either. She just needed a plan, a way to deal with the spiders so that she could free the others. Asami only hoped they were still alive to free.
Webbing clogged up the floor and the crevice where the trail ended. Asami hacked through it and crawled out the other side. Two humanoid figures were wrapped and hanging from the ceiling and she could make out the horses nearby. To get to them, she just had to get past the arachnids. Besides the three that had chased her, there were another four. They chittered and hissed at each other, and Asami brandished both sword and torch.
Fire could keep the spiders at bay, but if she was not careful she could end up igniting her friends.The black powder bombs would be even worse, yet... Inspiration struck, and Asami dropped the torch. She pulled three balls and flung them, covering her eyes. White light flashed through the cavern and the spiders shrieked. Dazed and confused, they stumbled around. Two fled, and Asami made short work of the other five before they could recover from being blinded. The ground was littered with bits and pieces of spiders, and Asami nearly slipped as she tried to cut the first of her friends down.
Slicing the webbing open, she found Tahirah. The girl was pallid but breathing, so Asami cut Korra down and freed her from the webbing as well. Korra’s eyes were closed, and Asami’s heart stopped until she leaned over and felt Korra’s breath on her cheeks. Korra was alive, for the time being and Asami had never been so thankful for anything in her entire life.
The horses were thankfully not hung up. Asami was strong, but not strong enough to have been able to get them down without injuring either herself or their steeds.
The first one she freed was Raya, Tahirah’s horse. She was alive and so was Naga, but Asami’s mare was dead, her throat ripped open. She checked over the other two but could find no injuries. Unable to move them, Asami instead brought the girls over, then freed all of them from the rest of the webbing. With that task complete, she sank to the ground, one hand on Tahirah’s arm and the other on Korra’s shoulder. Only the sound of her heartbeat kept her company, along with the slow, fragile breathing of two mortals and two horses.
“I can’t risk leaving any of you to start taking you out of here, so I’m going to have to wait for all of you to wake up. So please do so soon.”
There was no answer from either of her companions, and Asami was left to the silence. She lost track of the hours, periodically making sure no one had died on her and memorizing Korra’s face every chance she could. Asami also risked some water trying to keep them hydrated, but they didn’t wake from the effects of the spider venom.
After another futile attempt to rouse them, Asami pulled Korra’s head into her lap and stroked her hair. She’d waited in one spot for much longer than a few short hours before, and she could wait for longer if need be. But the star-metal would be gone in the morning, and tracking it down would not be easy. So many people could be hurt if that metal were forged into a weapon by someone else’s hand. The self-loathing at the idea of making the sword had faded day by day and mostly all that was left was a determination to do it right. But if she left Korra and Tahirah to retrieve it, she could return to find them both dead, either from this venom or something else. If she even returned at all. One elf against that many orcs and soldiers? Asami would feel a lot better with Korra guarding her back.
She sighed, leaning her head back against Naga. The horse was breathing better now, which was a very good sign. Asami spared a moment to thank the mare that had brought her this far. Tarcallon she’d been named. A worthy name, for a worthy steed. She hoped the horse had had a chance to fight back before she was taken.
The hours ran on, and Asami started to think about ways to keep Korra and Tahirah safe while she went after the star-metal. If she backtracked far enough she could seal them in the Dwarven outpost. Asami was fast enough that she might still be able to catch the orcs. There was nothing she could do for the horses, but at least Korra would be safe. She needed Korra to be safe. Asami had a sudden morbid image of an explorer finding their remains some day, only to be shot down by an elf keeping vigil for all time.
As if in response to her thoughts, Korra started to stir. Asami’s fingers went to Korra’s face, and she brushed them down her cheek. Hoping that Korra could hear her and follow her voice, she whispered. “I am here. I know it’s dark but follow my voice. I am here.”
Beautiful sapphire eyes fluttered open, and Asami bit back a choked sound. She pulled Korra up, folding her into her arms and kissing the side of her face as she did so. Asami wasn’t ready to lose Korra. Maybe she never would be, but it was inevitable that their fates would separate them.
“I hate spiders,” Korra mumbled. Her limbs felt heavy, and weighed down, but she still wrapped them around Asami and held on tight. The spiders had attacked not long after Asami had left, and Korra remembered the sounds they’d made. She shuddered. “And to think we thought you were the one that drew the short straw.”
Asami chuckled, and she brushed a bit of web from Korra’s hair. “You were so put out that you didn’t get to go.”
“I still am.” Korra tried to sit up, and the caverns spun around her head. She peeled away from Asami and emptied her stomach in the corner.
A retching sound to her right drew Asami’s attention to Tahirah. From there she looked to the horses. Horses could not actually vomit and if they needed to be purged too that could present a problem. Fortunately, while the two mortals were finishing, both horses got up on wobbly legs and Asami set herself to making sure they were actually okay. Otherwise, she’d fuss over Korra and Tahirah and that would be quite embarrassing for all of them.
“What about the star-metal?” Tahirah wiped her mouth. The fog in her head was clearing and she thought she might actually be of use.”
“In an orc encampment a few miles away,” Asami said. “Nearly six dozen if you include the human bandits allied with them.”
Korra walked over to Naga, hugging her steed’s neck and checking her over. “I’d feel comfortable if there was about a third of that number to worry about.”
“We might be able to do something about that.” Asami started to make markings in the cave floor. “Ideally, we can sneak the metal out under cover of darkness. If they follow us, we can lure them here. I noticed that area can be prone to rockslides. If we can destabilize the rock we can cut them off.”
“And maybe smash them to paste.” Korra punched the palm of her hand. “How long were we out?”
“Long enough that it’s probably close to dawn.”
“Then we need to get moving.” Korra felt okay, and worried more about Naga right now. But her horse had recovered faster than she had. They only question that remained is how they were going to steal the star-metal without getting killed. Korra had an idea about that. “Lets scout that ravine, then make our way to the Orc camp.”
The first dim rays of pre-dawn were creeping over the horizon, as Korra and Asami quietly slipped through a gap in the defenses. There were six sentries, and none of them were paying much attention. They weren’t expecting company.
At the cart, Asami pulled up the covering and got her first look at the star-metal. It was dark, almost black, and a little shiny in places. She reached in and tried to lift it. The metal was dense, and heavy, surrounded by rock of a nature that she’d never seen before. But it was light enough to lift, perhaps a little heavier than a small child. The metal hummed with power. Asami felt drunk. Her mind was already racing with the possibilities - there was enough material that even after she’d melted away the impurities, she could make Korra armor. Maybe even a weapon for herself. A shiver ran through her.
“Asami,” Korra shook her shoulder. “We need to go!”
“I’m sorry.” Asami shook herself out, quickly following Korra to the shadow of a guard tower. Two orcs were standing guard. In the dim light she could just make out Tahirah preparing the diversion.
Korra cupped her hands around her mouth and mimicked a birdcall. It sounded like birds that Asami had only heard when they’d come to Khand, and she blinked at the Ranger in impressed surprise. Korra glanced at her, and winked.
A sudden explosion rocked the front gate, and Tahirah tore off towards the South on Raya. Alarms sounded, orcs and men reacting to the noise. Asami tossed another bomb towards another part of the camp. When she turned back to Korra, the ranger dropped from the guard tower. She wiped her knife in the grass. “Lets go. Get the star-metal onto Naga and we’ll meet you at the rendezvous.”
“Be careful.” Asami slipped through the wall and sprinted towards Naga. She didn’t dare spare a glance back to check Korra’s progress.
“Easy, girl.” She secured the star-metal into a sling, then mounted up. Naga resisted a little at first. Asami leaned down, stroking the mare’s nose. “Don’t worry, Korra will be fine.”
Her voice soothed Naga, and she let Asami take control. Only when they had started moving, did Asami glance back the way she’d come. In the darkness, all she could see were the shapes of orcs pouring out of the camp.
The first orc she greeted with an arrow to the skull, and the second as well. A man followed and she shot an arrow into his throat. The fourth was a large orc, bearing a shield that he kept in front of him. Two others joined him, forming a wall between her and the only exit. Korra backed up as the enemy started to fill the ravine behind their shield wall.
She backed into the rock, under an overhang that protected her from any attempts to flank her from above. Sensing victory, the orcs beat on their shields.
“What if we just sat down and talked?” Korra suggested. “After all, this is a very unfair fight. There’s just not enough of you to win.”
A bird called out nearby. Korra jumped, grabbing onto a hidden part of the ledge and started to crawl through a gap
The rock rumbled as Tahirah threw the last of Asami’s explosives at an unstable section. Supporting boulders blew out, and the entire mountain seemed to collapse onto the orcs and bandits. Tahirah helped Korra the rest of the way up. “Good plan!”
“I think that was most of them. Lets find Asami and regroup.” Korra followed Tahirah onto Raya’s back, holding her bow tight and searching for any signs of followers or ambush. She wished she could control the elements. Use wind to disguise their trail or manipulate the rocks around them to change the path. Now wouldn’t that be something?
They broke out of the hills and Korra searched for Asami. She spied her through her glass, but the elf wasn’t alone. “There are three following her. Two warg-riders and a woman on a horse.”
“Hold on. Nothing can outrun Raya!” Tahirah dug her knees into Raya’s side and the horse took off at a full gallop. Korra gripped Tahirah’s waist.
“Get me close enough and I can pick them off.”
Asami and her pursuers were on open plains now. Naga was fast, but she was built for strength and durability more than speed, and the riders were catching up to her. Korra prayed that Asami didn’t try to overly control Naga. Naga was trained to fight and all Asami needed to do was guide her.
One of the wargs was struggling to keep up. Raya was quickly gaining on it and Korra took aim. The arrow struck through the warg’s ribcage and it stumbled. The orc on it’s back rolled on the ground and Tahirah guided Raya to trample him before chasing down the horsewoman.
The horsewoman was likewise armed with a bow. Her shot missed Asami by inches, but before she could draw again Korra shot an arrow into her shoulder. She dropped her bow and Korra knocked her in the head with the hilt of her sword as they passed.
Ahead of them, Asami was dismounted when the warg leapt up and knocked her off Naga. Naga kicked wildly, her hoof connecting with the orc’s face and crushing his head. Korra jumped off Raya’s back and rushed towards where the warg lay on top of Asami. Asami groaned, and pushed it off of her. She’d run it through.
Taking Korra’s hand, Asami let herself be pulled up. Blood stained the back of her tunic and every time she moved, stinging pain raked down it. Korra spun her around to look. “We need to take care of this, now.”
“I’m fine, it can wait.”
“No. Tahirah, can you go capture the bandit’s horse? Bring her to us too. If she’s still alive I want to question her.” Not waiting for a response from either of them, Korra pushed Asami’s top up so she could get a good look at the wound. It wasn’t too deep, but Korra knew some warg-riders dipped the claws in various poisons. “You’re lucky.”
“I’ve been hurt worse.” Asami pulled away. “It will heal up, and better than it would on you. In a week there won’t even be a scar.”
“Just… let me?”
Staring into Korra’s eyes, Asami relented. “Fine. That pout isn’t fair, I hope you realize.”
“I know it’s not. That’s the point.”
Chapter 15: Fire of the Soul
Fire rolled across the ground, hotter than any forge. The person in front of Asami burned, his screaming ringing in her ears as she ran. No matter what direction she went, the fire followed her, walls of flame boxing her in. Heavy footsteps approached, rocking the ground, and in the red light she could see the creature’s head rise over the flame. It was huge, towering over her like a mountain.
The Dragon opened its mouth, and fire billowed towards her.
Asami jerked awake, sitting up in a rush as sweat make her skin slick and her clothing stick to her body. Tahirah was asleep, laying on her side and facing in the direction of her home. Asami looked for Korra, and found her near the campfire, watching her. She felt annoyed with herself for falling asleep, but between the spiders and the warg, she’d needed the rest.
“How’s your back feel?” Korra asked.
“It stings.” Asami bit her lip before she made a comment about the quality of Korra’s hands. She was too shaken from her dream to really flirt. “But probably less than if you hadn’t helped.”
“Mm.” Korra quietly came over and sat next to Asami. Almost immediately, Asami threaded her fingers through Korra’s. Korra didn’t point it out, and instead asked, “What did you dream of?”
“Dragons.” Just saying the word made Asami shudder. She leaned into Korra when she felt her arm go around her. “Just...old memories and my imagination playing tricks. It wasn’t really a memory.”
“A vision?” Korra asked, as Asami shifted closer.
“Of what? The only dragons that still exist are far to the north, in mountains so cold the only warmth is the fire within them. And none of those are that large. The last great dragon was Smaug, and he was small compared to most.”
“We know little of the far east, or the south,” Korra offered. “Maybe we’ll find a dragon yet.”
Asami sighed, eyes flicking up to Korra’s. “If this was a vision, then I am going to need more than star-metal to be able to protect you.”
Korra stared at her for a long moment, then lowered her head and brushed her lips against the corner of Asami’s mouth. “I know how hard that must be for you. I don’t want you to go against your nature for me.”
“It was my nature, long ago.”
The sad smile on Asami’s face made Korra’s chest tighten. “Who you are now is what matters.” She pulled Asami closer, or as close as she could get her. Asami was trembling, shivering. “Are you cold?”
That shouldn’t be possible. “Were you hurt anywhere else?”
“No, just the warg.” It shouldn’t be anything to be alarmed about, but if the claws had been poisoned she might be feeling the effects. Asami leaned her cheek against Korra’s chest. “It’s… not enough to really hurt me.”
“Asami…” It didn’t matter what Asami said to reassure her. When she’d gone down under that Warg Korra had feared the worst. She couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. Something took hold of Korra and she turned Asami’s face up. When she kissed her, it felt as though time slowed. Almost all sound ceased. The crackling of the fire, a cricket chirping and the bushes rustling in the breeze fell away and there was only Asami’s heartbeat.
The kiss burned. It burned away the taint from the warg, and Asami pulled Korra closer. Darkness and shadow that had long been lodged in Asami’s heart shrank back from the light. An elf’s heart burned long and slow and steady like a lantern all winter. A mortal’s heart burned hot and fast, a bonfire for barely a night. It set Asami ablaze.
She loved Korra, and there was no going back. Asami now knew that she’d never stood a chance.
Korra hadn’t wanted to execute her, nor take her prisoner. So they’d left her, riding north for a day before turning East again. Her expertise in hiding their trail would ensure they couldn’t be followed, even if the bandit had thought about it. Korra hoped the bandit would turn over a new leaf. In some ways, she reminded her of herself.
More importantly, they now knew where the star-metal had been destined. Many leagues to the East lay a city in a pristine bay on the great sea. The City of Jewels, Kadarzimra. The men accompanying the Orcs had been paid by someone within that city and would have turned on their allies at the first opportunity. Work with the orcs, then kill them. Part of Korra thought Orcs deserved no better.
“I’ve been thinking,” Tahirah said, breath frosting. Between them and Kadarzimra was a tall peak shrouded in clouds from an overcast day. They’d lost a lot of time in the snow that covered the ground. “About Kadarzimra. I don’t recognize what language that’s from.”
“It’s Adunaic,” Asami said. “The language of Numenor, particularly in its latter days.”
“Why is an Eastern city named in their language?”
“Conquest.” Korra brought Naga up alongside Tahirah, squinting at how dark the clouds were. “Numenor used to be a nation of explorers who sailed the seas. Eventually exploration turned to colonization, and conquest. Mostly along the western shores of the Harad and of Gondor, but they were said to have sailed all around the world. Port towns in particular could still have names in Adunaic. If the language is still common there it might make it easier for us to communicate.”
A sound drew Korra’s attention, and she saw Asami ride off the road and up a trail to the north. Sharing a look with Tahirah, Korra quickly followed. There was some kind of marking in the stone near the trail, markings that would have been nearly impossible to see from the road, unless one was an elf. Korra nudged Naga faster, catching up with Asami at the top of the trail.
Below them lay what was left of a small town. A graceful arch welcomed visitors, and each building was elegantly built in a style that shared many similarities to that of Elves. The lines were sharper, and the buildings more angular, but the seed was there.
“North and west of here, by many leagues, I found another village like this. It was larger than Bree-town.” Asami said. “This was many years ago, when Arnor was still a nation. The elves there were kin called the Avari, those who’d never traveled West. Their town was bright and beautiful. They sang every night, and their poetry was beyond compare. I’ve always wondered what happened to them after Sauron’s shadow fell onto the east.”
Abandoned, the town held no life. The colors were muted with age and yet the whole scene was serene and pristine from the snow. Korra could see how it could have been. “Do you know where they could have gone? Do you think that city you found still exists?”
“I don’t know.” Asami’s grip tightened on the reins. “Perhaps they faded away under the Shadow. Maybe some built boats and tried to sail to other lands.”
“Would they be allowed to go to Valinor?” The rules for that had always been a little confusing to Korra, except that Mortals weren’t generally allowed.
“Yes.” Asami slipped off of her mount. “At least, I hope so. Stay here.”
Korra frowned, but grabbed the horse’s reins as Asami slowly walked under the arch. There was a courtyard with an overgrown fountain. She watched as Asami circled the fountain, and moved from building to building. Asami’s heart seemed to break a little more with each one she checked and Korra could almost feel it as though it were her own. A stiff breeze started up, and a few white specs of snow started to fall.
“Watch the horses.” Korra jumped down, and jogged into the town, leaving a confused Tahirah behind. Asami had disappeared down one of the side streets. Though her footsteps were light, her path was easy enough to follow. Snow had started to fall by the time she found her.
Asami was inside a small home. It looked like it should still have people living in it. The books and scrolls on the shelves had been rotted with time, but the furniture was still intact and the table had been set for an evening meal that had never happened. It was as though they’d all just vanished.
Asami turned towards Korra. “If they left, where did they go? If they were here, did they fade away? To fade away until there’s only ruin, and then in time for that to crumble to dust? Is this what awaits me? Awaits all the elves?”
“I don’t know. But if we remember them, they aren’t gone forever. And if they sailed, they’ll be in the Undying Lands, and safe.” There was something in Asami’s hand. Korra came closer, and Asami held it out. It looked like a ship, made of metal. The cloth of the sails had long ago joined the books, but it was unlike any ship Korra had ever seen.
Asami pulled the little ship against her chest, “I made this. Thousands of years ago, I made this for a handsome blacksmith in that Elvish town. He wanted to know what Earendil’s sky ship had looked like...and I wanted to impress him. They must have...moved here. Maybe to get away from the Shadow.” But this town was so much smaller. How many had been lost trying to seek refuge?
“I’m sorry.” Korra reached for Asami, pulling her into her arms.
“It’s all right.”
It wasn't, and Korra could feel the sadness rolling off of Asami. She leaned their foreheads together. “Were they happy memories, your time with them?”
“Yes.” Asami blinked her eyes to dry them. “Very.”
“Then focus on those and keep hope.”
“If you think I should have hope, then I will.” Asami cupped Korra’s face, kissing her. Their kisses were infrequent, and usually when Tahirah was asleep. There was a magic being woven between them that neither wanted to give words to. At times, Asami tried to pull away, put distance between her heart and Korra’s. It wasn’t really working.
The wind started to howl outside. Korra reluctantly broke off her embrace with Asami and went to investigate. Snow was falling hard and fast. She turned back to Asami. “There’s a blizzard blowing in. We need to leave now.”
Asami glanced around the home. “We could set up camp in one of these buildings until the storm passes. It would be really dangerous to try to go anywhere in this weather.”
“We could risk being snowed in for weeks.”
“Better that than one of you freezing to death before we can get across the mountain.”
Frowning, Korra tried to think of an argument to that. But the storm was getting worse and she didn’t have time to properly weigh pros and cons. “Okay, pick out a building and I’ll go get Tahirah. We’ll need a place to keep the horses protected from the weather too.”
“I saw one, near the central square. Room on the first floor for the horses and on the second floor for us. We can break a lot of this furniture down for firewood.” Asami glanced at the table. Survival had to override her feelings on disturbing this place. Her blacksmith was in the past, but Korra was the future. Korra had always been her future.
Chapter 16: City of Jewels
The blizzard passed after two days, and it took them another three to come down from the mountains. Winter had come to the east, and Korra could imagine how the Shire or her home would look now, under a blanket of white. It had been nearly the eighth month when they’d left Minas Tirith, and if she was counting her days right they were partway into the twelfth. The Shire Yuletide would be soon. The Rohirrim and Gondorians too celebrated midwinter, and the Dunedain had their own traditions. As far as Korra knew, the Elves had no such holidays. She wondered if the Easterlings did. It would be interesting to find out.
The City of Jewels lived up to its name. It glistened. Spiraling towers and glimmering buildings built from multi-colored stone. At the center was a tall building with glass windows that radiated all the colors of the rainbow. While there were hints of Numenorean influence in some of the older buildings, Kadarzimra was a city unlike anything Korra had ever seen. It rivaled Minas Tirith or Dol Amroth.
“It’s so beautiful.” Asami shivered. “But there’s something dark there. Something that doesn’t belong.”
“I heard a story once.”
Korra nodded for Tahirah to continue.
“One day, long ago, two visitors came to the east. I never heard exactly where they came from or what kingdom they explored, but they were mysterious and draped all in blue. They bewitched a king, and set themselves up as rulers. In the version I was told, Sauron whispered promises in their ears, and they in turn sent him weapons and warriors.”
“Clad in blue? And they bewitched the king?” Korra furrowed her brows, a frown deepening on her face.
“That’s what I heard.” Tahirah shrugged her shoulder. “But I hear a lot of things in stories.”
“What is it, Korra?” Asami asked.
“Before we left, Mithrandir took me aside. He said he had something for old friends of his. Two men, robed in blue who were much more than they seemed.”
Asami’s gaze shot towards the city. “Wizards.”
“That’s very bad.” Stories about Wizards had come East. Like many stories they were exaggerated, but Tahirah believed enough to be fearful.
“If they’ve been listening to Sauron’s whispers, we’re in deep trouble.” They needed to get into the city without being noticed. Tahirah wouldn’t be much of a curiosity, but a woman of the West and an Elf would be like a flashing torch. They could maybe blend in, but Korra wanted more information. “Tahirah, can you scout out the city for us? We’ll make camp a little out of the way and wait for you. I don’t want any talk of elves and rangers running around the city where the Wizards could hear.”
“Give me two days.”
Those two days turned into almost three. Korra was planning a rescue operation when Tahirah finally appeared. She was wearing a new dress in the local style, underneath her Lorien cloak. Korra practically seized her, picking her up in a crushing hug. “I was starting to get worried! What took you so long?”
“The streets are pretty heavily patrolled, but I got you local clothing, and we’ve a place to stay.” Tahirah hugged Korra back, squeaking from the pressure.
Korra set her down. “You did good.”
“There’s something called the Blue Council,” Tahirah explained. “Even before Sauron’s Fall, they wielded a lot of power here. People had to be careful of what they speak of and who they speak to. But since that day the Council has been stretching their muscles. There’s more pressure than before, and I think there’s a rebellion brewing.”
“We can work with that,” Korra said. “We can help.” She didn’t know how yet or what they could do, but she wanted to help.
“According to my contact, there’s a special kind of forge in the city.” Tahirah directed this to Asami. “He think he can get you access to it. It should be hot enough to melt any metal.”
Asami nodded. She hadn’t been confident that a normal forge would allow her to do what she wanted to do with the star-metal, and there were few forges east of the Misty Mountains that could get hot enough. “Thank you. That will be very helpful if I can get access to it.”
“Are they willing to trust us so easily?” Korra asked, rolling up her bedroll. “And should we trust them?”
“I think we can trust them.” Her first day in the city she’d nearly run over a handsome young man. Through him she’d gotten introduced to the dissidents and their contact on the council. Tahirah didn’t really believe in coincidence. Some things were meant to happen. Meeting Korra, coming to this city. It was all Fate.
Asami eyed her with a light smile. “Tell us about your dissident contact?”
“Oh, he’s tall and handsome. A bit serious, with the eyebrows to match. He showed me the city. He showed me something he and his brother play. They have this leather ball and the goal is to get it into a net in the middle of the field. It looked really exciting. ” Tahirah grinned, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I think you’d both like him.”
Korra glanced at Asami and stifled a smirk at Tahirah’s gushing. “I’m sure we’ll get along with him.” It was really rather cute. Had she ever been that bad with a crush? Besides the bear wrestling, at least.
Even Asami looked around, joy writ on her face. For all the wonders she’d seen, there were still some that this world could surprise her with. “I feel inspired.”
They might need that inspiration in the coming days.
Where Minas Tirith had been built in layers, Kadarzimra was flat and sprawling, curving around the bay. Where Minas Tirith’s majestic height had come from being carved out of a mountain, Kadarzimra’s height was in the buildings and spires that twisted towards the heavens. They passed obelisks, too, remnants of Numenor’s influence. Most had been incorporated into other buildings, Kadarzimra’s citizens claiming them for their own.
Asami studied their destination as they approached it. The building was seven stories including the base, with an angled roof and an eave for each story. It was six-sided, and surrounded by a tall wall. Beyond the wall were several other buildings. Four sided and one or two stories, with an angled roof. Like the taller building, the corners of the roofs all ended up points that curved upwards. She assumed they were dwellings, and most of the buildings they’d passed were similar in design.
A man stepped out of one of the dwellings, coming to greet them. He was tall and bald with a pointed beard, and wore robes of crimson and gold. Asami felt like she could trust him as soon as she laid eyes on him.
Korra slipped off of her horse, placed her hand over her chest and bowed. “I’m Korra, and this is my … companion, Asami. Thank you for letting us stay, and if there’s anything we can do to help you in return, we will.”
“Of course.” The man bowed in return. “My name is Tenzin. I know you’ve traveled a long way. The Lady Tahirah could not stop speaking of your skills, nor how beautiful you both were.”
“She wasn’t exaggerating,” Korra boasted, putting a firm smile on her face.
“I can see she wasn’t. Why don’t you come inside. I’ll have my children tend to your horses. You’re just time for dinner.”
“We wouldn’t want to impose.” They were strangers here, and Asami was wary of taking advantage of someone’s hospitality.
“It’s not an imposition.” Tenzin tugged on his beard. “Please, come inside. I think we can help each other.”
The travellers shared a look before following Tenzin inside. There was a presence in the city, a darkness that seemed to creep over all things. Asami couldn’t place what it was and it made her uneasy. Whatever this Blue Council was, she doubted it had the best interests of the people in mind. She got a much better feeling around Tenzin. While he seemed stiff, there was a warmth and kindness to him and his home that was immediately inviting.
That they were swarmed by his wife and more kids than Asami could count only reinforced this.
She looked down at a boy, maybe ten years old with a mop of black hair and mischievous eyes. “And you’re very handsome.”
“Don’t give him any ideas,” one of the girls said. She looked a few years older than the boy, with long hair pulled up into two buns. Asami gave her a wary smile as she realized the boy was now preening. She looked for Korra to maybe save her, but the Ranger had the youngest boy dangling from her left bicep.
“I’m Jinora.” This second girl was clearly the oldest, her hair cut to chin length. She pointed out each of her siblings in turn. “Ikki, Meelo, and the little one trying to climb your friend is Rohen.”
Saved from gazing overly long at Korra, Asami nodded at each of them. “I’m Asami, and the strongwoman is Korra.”
Jinora’s brow furrowed, but before she could say what was on her mind, her mother came in and started herding the children upstairs. “Sorry about that. It’s bed time, all of you!”
As suddenly as the deluge of children had come, it was over. Asami stepped over to Korra, “I’m impressed.”
“Me too, I haven’t seen someone handle children like that since watching my grandmother with some rowdy nephews.” Korra leaned against Asami, looking up the stairs. “Almost makes me want one of my own. Is it any different for elves?”
“Didn’t you spend time in Imladris?”
“Yes, but it's not something I’d ask.”
“There are books that talk about it.”
“I want to hear it from you.”
There was a teasing note to Korra’s voice that immediately brought heat to Asami’s cheeks. Before she could respond, Tenzin approached them. He led them through a large chamber. It looked peaceful and serene, a place one could come to meditate and relax.
“Have you lived here your whole life?” Korra asked.
“Yes. My father migrated from lands south and east of here when he was young. He became a sort of spiritual teacher.”
“So you follow in his footsteps.” Asami smiled at him, the expression hiding the pain. “My father was a smith, and I create things too.”
“Those who create are greatly respected in this city,” Tenzin told her. He stopped at a wall, and pressed his hand against it. There was a woosh of air just as it slid open. “As long as they do not step out of line with their creations.”
Asami could guess that what she wanted to do with the star-metal could attract the wrong attention. She hadn’t been planning on bringing it up so soon, but since they were on the subject, it seemed appropriate. “I’ll have to create something as a diversion. If we can get access to the forge we need.”
The passageway led them to an underground chamber. There was a scale model of the city, and a map of the surrounding area on the wall. Korra gave both a hard look, then turned to Tenzin. “What are you planning?”
Wearily, Tenzin leaned his hands on the edge of the table, face tense. “It is dangerous to even show you this, but we’re desperate. There’s unrest brewing in Kadarzimra. For centuries, the council has stretched out its fingers, drawing the noose tighter and tighter. Never too much, never enough to attract the attention of the Eye, but enough to erode at the freedoms we thought we had. Since the end of the War and Sauron’s fall, they’ve pulled the noose tight. People have been publicly executed. I watched my own brother hanged.”
Most people wouldn’t have noticed the tension in his voice, with how carefully controlled he spoke. But most people weren’t Korra and Asami. Korra put her hand on Tenzin’s shoulder. “I don’t yet know how we’ll be able to help, but we’re not leaving until your people are free. It’s what my king would want. It’s what I want.”
“We’ve allies in the guard. Tomorrow I’ll have them show you around. Tonight, you should rest. Pema prepared a meal for you.” When Tenzin straightened, some of the tension was gone from his face.
“I can craft trinkets and toys, things that move and fly” Asami said. “Decorative armor. Set myself up as a merchant smith. The funds can help Korra and I with supplies, and your people too.”
“My father’s people were said to have the ability to fly. I’d very much like to see this toy.”
“I’ll put one together over dinner,” she promised. Feeling Korra’s hand at her back, she leaned ever so slightly into it. “And we’ll have many questions.”
“I’ll answer whatever I can, but I can’t promise I’ll have all the answers you need.”
Korra smiled at him, lifting her head up confidently. “Anything you can fill in will help.” While they couldn’t single-handedly save the day, she knew they could still help Tenzin’s people. Sometimes all that was really needed was a breath of fresh air.
Chapter 17: Making Allies
They met Tenzin’s allies early the next day, at a noodle shop several blocks from Tenzin’s home. The first was an older woman, stern and craggy faced with scars on her cheek and a recent one over her eye. The Captain of the Guard, Lin Beifong took an immediate dislike to the idea of outsiders interfering in their affairs in general and of Korra in particular.
The brothers with her were much more amicable and friendly. When Lin returned to duty, it was Bolin who jumped at the chance to show them around. His brother was more subdued, but no less warm.
Based on his eyebrows alone, Korra was certain this was Tahirah’s crush. She couldn’t blame her, the man was handsome. “How long have you been with the guard, Mako?”
He fidgeted with the collar of his long, red tunic and smiled at her. “When I was sixteen, Lin gave me a choice. The dungeons or the guard. Considering I had to take care of both myself and my brother, it wasn’t much of a choice.”
“She practically adopted us,” Bolin interjected, his voice boisterous. “Mako called her mother once, on accident.”
“I’m never living that down, am I?”
“Never.” Bolin grinned at Mako.
Asami remained silent, though there was the faintest of smiles on her face. Korra made a note to ask her her opinion later. Second chances were probably weighing on her mind. She couldn’t let her friend remain out of the conversation entirely though, “We’re going to need a forge, a place to set up shop. Got any suggestions?”
“You’re in luck.” Mako gestured for them to follow him. “A blacksmith recently opened up. The previous owner was arrested.”
“I hope we’re luckier than he was,” Korra said.
Mako’s voice was grim as he pushed open the doors, “Me too.”
The interior was a mess. Besides the signs of a struggle, the blacksmith hadn’t done a very good job of maintaining his equipment. Asami wrinkled her nose. “What was he arrested for?The state of this place is a crime unto itself.”
“Working with one of the local criminal syndicates,” Bolin explained, scratching his chin. “Uh, not the good one.”
Supposing that plotting a rebellion was a criminal activity, Korra merely nodded. “Asami, think you’ll be okay here?”
“Yes, go on and have fun.” Asami waved her hand, already engrossed in mentally puzzling out how she wanted to set up her equipment and what would be required to make the blacksmith functional again.
“Well, seeing as I’ve been dismissed…”
Ears coloring, Asami shot Korra a look, “I didn’t mean…”
“I’m teasing you. I’ll stop by later.” Korra felt odd leaving her. They had a lot to talk about, but scarcely had a moment alone since those kisses in the snow. Personal matters would have to wait, no matter how badly Korra wanted to fold Asami into her lap. She held Asami’s gaze for just a little too long, until one of the men cleared his throat and she snapped back to the here and now.
“Be careful,” Asami called out after her, the emotions in her voice mirroring that of Korra’s.
“I’ve never seen an elf before,” Bolin said, when he thought they were out of earshot. “She’s so pretty.”
“Yeah, she is,” Mako agreed, then coughed and added, “Not that our Gondorian friend isn’t fetching either.”
“I’m not… All right, I guess I am Gondorian now.” With Elessar on the throne, that did make the Dunedain Gondorians of sorts. “I’ve always considered myself Dunedain. Arnorian at best. But our Chieftain is king of Gondor now, and will reunite both kingdoms.”
“They say Gondor will come to the East.”
She glanced at Mako, and shook her head. “That’s not what we want. And it’s why I’m here. To offer the hand of friendship. We don’t want to rule over you. We just want to make sure that the last of the Dark Lord’s shadow has been purged from the Earth. We killed a Dark Numenorean in the city on the Sea of Rhun. I hope that we can help here too.”
Korra came to a stop and put her hand on her chest. “Whatever you need us to do, we are here to help.”
“So if we had you put on a funny hat and do a special dance,” Bolin started to ask.
“Within reason,” Korra clarified, and Mako laughed.
“All right, you don’t need to give us any kind of oath. Though I’m sure the Captain would be happier with something like that.”
“She strikes me as the kind of woman you want to stay on the good side of. Reminds me of some of the Captains I’ve had in the past.” Korra gave them both a little wink. “I always tried to be a little less stern with my own company.”
Her expression sobered almost immediately. The Grey Company had been all but wiped out by the end of the War. Haladreth and Farandren might already have returned to the North by now, with their precious cargo of Silver Stars. And Avarian with Laeriel’s star for Laerion. Korra’s regret over not being able to return them herself cut as deeply as the grief she felt for every one of the fallen. She wondered if Elessar felt the weight of those lost under him as well. She couldn’t imagine that. Tens of thousands of lives…
“Are you all right?”
She wet her lips and nodded at Mako. “I’m fine. Was just reminded of those left behind.”
Mako regarded her for a long moment, then gestured for her to follow him. “Come with me, I want to show you something.”
Kadarzimra was divided into districts. There was the market district, a craftsmen district, the financial district, and a number of others. The district Mako and Bolin took Korra to was near a river that bisected Kadarzimra near the south side. Many of the impressive spires were visible, and one towered high above them.
It took great feats of engineering to touch the sky. “Was this built by the Numenoreans, or before?” It shared certain stylistic similarities, which was to be expected of a former colony, but there the local culture was reflected in the shape and color.
“This one was built after they left,” Mako said. “The spires range from hundreds of years old, to thousands near the center of the city.”
“Why nothing newer?” There was a personal quality to Korra’s question. In the West, they’d long ago stopped building great wonders. Minas Tirith was kept in repair, but Osgiliath was in ruin. The ancient cities of the Elves had fallen before Numenor had risen from the sea. And in the North, Korra’s people had been too busy surviving to do more than keep old fortresses intact. Even the Dwarves were down to only a few majestic halls. It pained Korra’s heart.
Bolin exchanged a look with his brother and then shrugged. “I think we were afraid of angering Sauron.”
“And if you stop building long enough, it becomes that much harder to restore your former glory.” Korra folded her arms, sadness etched in her eyes. “It is like that in the West, too. We spent so long just trying to survive, we forgot how to thrive. Kadarzimra reminds me of stories I was told, of Annuminas at its height, or the great cities of Numenor and the elves.”
“A beautiful shell can hide rot to its core.”
Agreeing with Mako, Korra replied. “A lot like Numenor ere the end. We’ll make sure your city has a happier ending.” She unfolded her arms and gestured at the spire. In structure it reminded her of Tenzin’s home, sharing many of the same lines as that kind of building. “What is this place?”
“It’s a temple.” Mako pushed open the door, and gestured for Korra to enter.
“No one really knows what it was built for,” Bolin said. He quickly corrected himself. “Tenzin and Jinora probably do, but no one normal does.”
“It’s been kind of co-opted.” Mako’s voice followed Korra as she stepped inside.
She didn’t know what she expected, but this wasn’t it. The interior of the spire was hollow, with winding stairs along the inside wall that stretched up as far as the eye could see. The floor was polished stone, painted in intricate, flowing designs. They reminded her of water, or fire, or air. Perhaps all three. Statues carved from jade and other colorful stone looked down upon them, though there was no judgement in their faces.
Windchimes created a soothing melody and Korra felt immediately at peace. She reached out, holding her hands up and closing her eyes. There’d been a similar feeling in Tenzin’s home, but not to this extent. She let her hands drop to her sides, and turned to face the brothers as a breeze ruffled her hair. “This temple is beautiful. There’s no darkness here.”
She wondered how it had survived. Asami needed to see it. More than anyone Korra knew, Asami needed some light in the darkness. “How did it survive all these years?”
“Several were destroyed three years ago. This one would have been if the Dark Lord hadn’t been defeated.”
“Luck then, or providence,” Korra said.
“Maybe not for long.” Bolin peered out the door. “The Council has been cracking down on those of us who worship the old ways.”
That grim expression of Mako’s returned. “Too many in the guard back the council, and not enough of us protect the people the way we should.”
“We can’t change it from inside.” While both of them seemed upset, Bolin was more so. “Lin’s position won’t hold for much longer, and there’s maybe a dozen of us behind her.”
A dozen guards against the city wasn’t good odds, but if they could get the people to back them… “I want to see the Council. Or at least get close enough to observe. I doubt they’d let me have an audience and I’d rather they think we’re just travelers from the West and not spies.”
“But you’re spies,” Mako pointed out.
“On a technicality.”
Technicality or not, Korra knew she had to be careful. She could easily be captured or killed or at best turned into a scapegoat for all the city’s problems. At least it let her get close to the center of the city.
They passed through the market district, Korra paying close attention to the merchants and the buyers, clothed in all the colors of the rainbow. She loved how colorful everything was here. It reminded her of the Halflings, in a few ways. But unlike the Shire, there was tension in the air that belayed the peace. Guards watched, and so did other things that she couldn’t place her finger on yet made her feel uneasy.
Thick black smoke billowed from the top of one building, and Korra felt her stomach turn. Mako put his arm on her shoulder. “It only burns wood.”
“But it didn’t used to, did it,” she managed to say through a constricted throat.
Mako simply nodded and Korra shuddered. Long ago, on Numenor, such smoke had risen from a once holy temple, and it had not been wood either that had fed it. Human sacrifices, for Sauron’s lord Morgoth. That it had happened here too should not have been surprising. “Why keep such a place? Elsewhere, they’ve toppled or destroyed all of Sauron’s temples and statues.”
“It was empty a month ago. And then the Blue Council decreed that the fires be lit again,” Bolin explained, his hand on Korra’s other shoulder.
Her eyes hardened like ice. “How is the council selected?”
Mako glanced at his brother, then at Korra. “There are supposed to be elections, but the two lead positions have been passed down through one family for centuries.”
She nodded, and stalked off towards the council chambers, all but itching for a fight. There appeared to be just the one entrance, which had a line of people going nearly a block. Korra let out a frustrated noise. “I have a theory about your Council, but I can’t prove it.”
Bolin furrowed his brow. “What, do you think they’re like wraiths or something? Orcs? Goblins? A dragon? I bet they’re a dragon.”
Korra laughed, feeling some of the tension fade. “Have you ever heard of the Istari?”
Both men shook their heads, and Korra guided them away from the council building. “The Istari are an order of Wizards. Five were said to have landed in Middle-earth three thousand years ago, identified by the color of their robes. White, Grey, Brown, and Blue. The White wizard, Saruman, was turned to Sauron’s side and defeated during the final war. The Grey became the White, and is a dear friend among the peoples of the West. The Brown is the friend of animals and an ally as well. But the Blue…”
Lowering her voice, Korra continued. “They disappeared into the East long ago, and have never been heard from since.”
“You think the Blue Council are these Wizards?” Mako folded his arms, a considering look on his face. “Without solid proof we can’t do anything yet, but the evidence seems strong enough to look into it.”
The prospect of facing not one but two evil Mithrandirs was not an appealing concept to Korra. “If I’m right, we’ll have to be careful. Not only have they been manipulating your people for generations, but they’re incredibly powerful on top of it, with elemental and other kinds of magics. A friend gave me something that might be of use, but we won’t know until we face them.”
“The East has a magic all her own,” Mako assured her. “But you’re right, we have to be cautious.”
Bolin sighed, lamenting, “We hate being cautious.”
“You and me three,” Korra said. She patted his shoulder. “My friend is going to make a special weapon for me. Even more so because she’s morally opposed to weapon crafting, but we have a metal that fell from the sky. It’s why she needs that forge. With that weapon, I might just stand a chance against the Wizards. At least enough to tilt the battle in your favor.”
“She carries a weapon, but she doesn’t make them?”
“It’s a long story, and you can ask her about it if you wish. It’s not my story to tell.”
“Let's get back,” Mako said. “She may have need of other materials to craft this weapon, and the sooner we have the list the quicker she can make it. Something tells me everything will move very fast once it starts.”
Chapter 18: In the Heat of the Forge
In the space of a few hours, Asami had managed to turn the Forge into something she could actually use. It had fired up easily, and she had to peel off her outer tunic due to the heat as she beat away at a slab of metal. It felt good, the heat and the sound of metal ringing in her ears. It was like a piece of her had come home.
And yet, with every beat of the hammer she thought of Korra. She feared for her, and what the star-metal might mean for her. Korra would need more than a weapon, she would need armor. he thought she could reinforce some leather armor for Korra with some of the star metal. Protect vital areas.
She envisioned Korra in the kind of armor she imagined, and missed of of her beats, nearly burning herself with sparks.
Pausing long enough to catch her breath, Asami stared at her hammer, then gripped it tightly and resumed pounding the sheet of metal. That was unlike her, getting distracted like that. Her hammer struck hard. She tried to tell herself that stolen kisses didn’t have to mean anything. She flipped her work around and started hammering that side, and didn’t hear Korra come in.
It was probably for the best as Korra gaped, Asami’s skin shining with a thin layer of sweat, the muscles in her back under an undershirt rippling with every blow. While Asami didn’t have Korra’s definition, she was still incredibly fit. Korra thought the same elvish magic that kept Asami’s hair perfect even now lent itself to her slender frame. The light of the fire made her shine like gold, and since she was distracted, her inner glow was shining through as well. It was the first time Korra had truly seen it in Asami. The light of Valinor that resided in every Elf who’d come from the Undying Lands. She understood why Asami might hide it, but she appreciated it’s beauty none-the-less.
Wiping her brow, Asami turned and saw Korra staring at her. Her ears tinged red. “I’m sorry. I wanted to try out the forge. I’m not really making anything in particular yet, but I have some ideas. I’m mostly practicing.”
“I’ve seen you tinker.” Korra had finally found her voice. It sounded thick in her ears,“This is the first time I’ve seen you at a forge. It suits you.”
“I’m going to have a very unelf-like scent,” Asami joked, tossing her hair over her shoulder as her eyes twinkled. “Do you think Tenzin will lend me his bath?”
“After my day, I could use one too, but we’re going to have a lot to discuss.”
Nodding Asami gestured at the forge, “I can’t get it hot enough for the star-metal. I can forge plate for armor, and parts for my tinkers, but I’ll need the big forge to make a sword worthy of being held in your hands.”
“Are you really okay with that?” Korra took Asami’s hands in her own, squeezing them lightly. They were hot from the forge, but she didn’t shy away.
“No. Yes. I do not know.” Asami closed her eyes, taking a long and deep breath. “But I have learned, in all the years before the forge, that sometimes the metal knows what it is supposed to be. This is meant for your hand, and there is naught I wouldn’t do for you.”
She felt Korra’s soft, warm lips on her knuckles, and opened her eyes.
“You’ll make something to rival the Flame of the West,” Korra said fervently. “And we’re going to need it.”
Feeling something tighten in her chest, Asami nodded. “Let me clean up, and I’ll meet you at Tenzin’s.” Really, she wanted to put the whole world on hold so she could kiss Korra again, and the desire was nearly impossible to mask.
Korra looked like she wanted to say more, but instead she stepped forward, sliding her hand along Asami’s cheek and into her hair before pulling her head down. Asami responded to the kiss immediately, leaning into Korra and rubbing her hands down her arms. Every kiss was something special, something she wanted to remember for the long, dark years after Korra moved on from the world. She found herself unexpectedly backed into a table, Korra’s hands wandering down her chest and then sliding over her waist.
The kiss deepened, Asami responding to Korra’s desire with hunger of her own. Many leagues had passed beneath their feet since they’d last had chance to be alone, and emotions and feelings had shifted and grown in that time and that space. Not stopping Korra would be a terrible idea, and yet Asami still made a soft, plaintive groan when Korra broke the kiss and pulled away.
Lifting her head, she froze when she saw Korra was unlacing her tunic. “Korra.. wait.”
“What?” Korra stilled.
There was a moment, where Asami’s needs and wants warred with what she thought was right. Her eyes locked on Korra’s and her willpower burned away in the heat of the fire within them.
“I just wanted to look at you,” Asami whispered, as she started to move towards her again. To give herself to Korra, in the forge, it somehow seemed fitting. But that was when the door swung open.
“There you two are.”
While Korra was really fond of Tahirah, she’d never wanted to see any person less than she wanted to see Tahirah right then. “What is it?”
“Lord Tenzin said he might have discovered a source of power, something to help make Korra’s weapon and armor stronger. Mako and Jinora say they can lead us to it.”
Asami glanced at Korra, an imperceptible sigh escaping her lips. “Then I have work to do, while you go searching for whatever this is.”
“What do you think the odds are of the populace siding with us, Tahirah?” Korra asked.
Tahirah settled on her heels, folding her arms and tapping her lip with a forefinger. “Beifong is not that charismatic, and neither is Tenzin. They are good souls … and good leaders, but they lack that ability to draw people to their cause. Mako and Bolin are better at it. Bolin disarms with humor, and Mako can make people inherently trust him. But what they lack is a beacon in the dark.”
She and Asami both looked at Korra again, and Korra held up her hands. “I’m not Elessar. I’m not even Halbarad.”
“But you’re easy to love,” Tahirah murmured, eyes sparkling. “Easy to trust. Easy to follow. I think I can tell your story too. The battles you’ve fought, not just for Gondor, but for the people of the East too. You’re no Dragon Queen, but I think I can make something of you.”
“She can make something of me,” Korra remarked, throwing up her hands.
“While she makes your story shine, I’ll make you shine.” Asami caught Korra’s gaze and held it, emotion boiling just beneath the surface. It was such an intense look that Korra nearly had to look away.
“I trust you, Asami. Your armor will protect me, and that weapon will inspire a people.”
You will do the inspiration, Asami thought. What good was a sword without the hand that wielded it?
Chapter 19: Twilight and Shadows
I finished some stuff that's been a block on me so have the next chapter a week early.
The sun disappeared when they entered the forest. Tahirah felt a chill run through her, and she hiked up her skirt as they stepped over a stream. “How long does it take to make armor?”
“Days at least,” Mako said, reaching out to help steady Tahirah. He didn’t seem to notice the blush that crept across her face, but Korra noted the blush on his.
“I’m just realizing a dress is not really suited for this.”
“You could have stayed home, helped Asami out in the Forge making your armor.” The last member of this little fellowship was Tenzin’s eldest, Jinora.
Korra had been reluctant at first to allow her to join them, but she was the one educated in the legends of the area and she seemed to be as stubborn as the rest of them. “If you can’t fight in a dress, you have no business on the battlefield.”
She winked at Tahirah, then turned her head to Jinora. “What do you think we’ll find?”
“There are many tombs and mounds in these forests, particularly near the mountains,” Jinora explained, spinning her staff in the air as she walked. “Kings and Lords and Ladies from times long past. Many were buried with enchanted weapons or armor lined with mithril and dragon-scale. Some say there’s at least one elf-lord buried here, with riches from sunken lands.”
Noldor? Korra wondered at that. Not all had perished or returned West, as Asami and the Lady Galadriel were testament to that. It was not unbelievable that one might have sailed here with whatever they could have recovered from Beleriand. “We may have an abundance of choice.”
The arms and armor of the Noldor were impressive in their own right, but the East had its own kind of magic and power. Korra decided while she would like to find this elf-lord’s tomb, she would prefer to draw from the East. “Would the people react poorly to a Westerner raiding their tombs?”
“Not these,”Jinora murmured. “No one comes here. It is too tainted by darkness and they say the dead walk this forest.”
“Sounds familiar,” Korra rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. If they found the elf-tomb, she’d have to bring something to Asami. Asami might be able to identify who was buried there, at least.
“There’s one tomb in particular I think we should explore.” Mako pointed towards the north-east. “A king of old, the last king to unite the East under one banner. His armor was dragon-scale, passed through his line for centuries.”
Tahirah came to a dead stop, eyes wide. “Dragon-scale armor? Khamûl?”
Mako nodded, giving her a curious look. “You know of him?”
Wetting her lips, Tahirah glanced at Korra, then to Mako. “Let me tell you about the Dragon Queen and the Wraith.”
While Tahirah fell back with Mako and told him the story in hushed tones, Korra wondered if it had sunk in for her friend that it meant she was the descendant of royalty. She gestured for Jinora to walk a little ahead with her. “She won’t stop until she’s done or we enter combat.”
“I’ll have to have her tell me so I can write it down.”
Korra laughed quietly. They passed an ancient tree, and the air seemed to grow still and oppressive. A shape loomed in front of them, a great gaping maw lined with sharp teeth. A wispy light floated in the socket of an eye and Korra realized they were staring at the skull of a great dragon. It was as large as the boat that had brought her and Halbarad to Minas Tirith, sunk into a hill.
“It’s a burial mound,”Jinora whispered.
“If Khamûl became a Ringwraith, why does he even have a burial mound?” Korra looked back as Mako and Tahirah joined them. “He never would have returned after leaving here the final time.”
Placing a hand on one tooth, Tahirah suggested, “Maybe he decided to have it built himself. Or the Dragon Queen built it for him. It’s what I would do, if I were her and I loved someone enough.” She closed her eyes, tilting her head as if she was listening. Then without another word, she stepped through the maw of the beast and disappeared into the tomb.
Korra bolted forward, Mako and Jinora close on her heels. The air was stale, with the faint scent of decay. Water dripping echoed from somewhere deep within. “Tahirah!”
The girl didn’t answer. Mako lit a torch, holding it aloft and waving it about to give them a view of the tomb. There was a single passageway that went down at a steep angle, vanishing into the inky darkness. Something shuffled in the distance and he fought down a cold surge of panic.
Drawing her sword, Korra started down the passage. “Jinora, take the torch, stay between Mako and myself. Mako, protect our rear.”
“Got it.” Handing the torch to Jinora, Mako drew his own sword. It glinted in the light of the torch. He was sure he’d just been hearing things, but from how alert Korra was, he realized that they weren’t down there alone. They had to find Tahirah.
“We really need to put a leash on that girl.” Korra muttered, slowly leading the way. The ground was damp, water coming up to her ankles in places as drips echoed around them. Unlike the so-called Necromancer, Korra was certain that there would be no trickery here. That oppressiveness only grew stronger the deeper they walked, until Korra felt like the air was suffocating her.
She almost wished to face some fell creature just to break the tension. It reminded her of the Paths of the Dead. The same stillness to the air, the same whisperings in the dark that made the hair on her neck stand on end.
Something grasped at her foot, and she kicked it. Shapes moved in the darkness, just out of the light of the torch and the whisperings grew louder. Wishing that Asami had come with them, Korra adjusted her grip on her weapon as she felt Mako’s back press into hers. “Jinora, stay close to us.”
The creature that shambled into the light of the torch was dessicated and ashen in color. Whoever it had been in life had long ago faded away, leaving colorless flesh and empty, black eyes behind. This was worse than the Paths. This felt like the Black Gate or how she’d felt when they’d passed the road to Minas Morgul. A darkness that seeped beneath her skin and into her bones and threatened to drown her.
Striking first, Korra took the wight’s head off. The body crashed to the floor, only to be replaced by another wight. Somewhere to her left and down the tunnel she thought she heard someone calling her name. “That way!”
Mako joined Korra in pushing their way down the tunnel. There were more wights than made sense for a tomb like this. Had an army been buried with Khamûl? That wasn’t possible. “They must be drawn here by something.”
“Even though the Wraith wasn’t buried here, something that retains his dark power must have been. “Jinora edged closer to Mako, swinging her torch to beat away another wight and cracking her staff against its head.
“Chances are, it’s what’s drawn Tahirah too. She’s following the call of her ancestor.” Korra cleared a path past two more wights and broke through into a narrow tunnel system. She ordered them back into a formation with Jinora in the middle and moved as quickly as she could through the narrowing corridor. The end was barely large enough to let her through, and when she fell out the other side she could feel her stomach twisting around, threatening to empty what she’d had for breakfast.
The air was dark. Literally, and figuratively, that oppressive feeling magnified a thousand fold, the darkness like a fog with wispy tendrils that roiled against all surfaced. Figures were carved into the stone walls and ceiling. Some resembled the story told in the Dragon Queen’s tomb so far to the West, but others were new. They told a story of conquest and power and something more.
Tahirah stood near a throne. Sitting on the throne was an armored figure, missing the head. From the design of the armor, Korra knew the missing piece had been left elsewhere, and now resided with Asami in the city. Clasped tightly in one gauntlet was a sword. It was curved for horse-mounted combat, with a jagged reverse edge, and it ended in a single point. It wasn’t entirely made from a Dragon’s tooth, though parts of the hilt and guard clearly were.
“Tahirah,” She warned, holding out her hand as if that might stop the young woman from picking up the sword.
“It’s okay…” Tahirah ran her hand down the shoulder of the armor. “I’m meant to be here, just as you were meant to be here.”
She looked at Korra, then pried the sword out of the gauntlet’s finger. When she lifted it, the air thrummed once, and then fell still.
A ghostly figure passed through the space where Mako stood. It carried the sword on its back, and as it got closer Tahirah realized it was a woman. She wasn’t the Dragon Queen, though she shared some of her features and those same golden eyes.
The woman moved to the armor, placing the sword in its hand. “I know you are elsewhere, that you’ve been lost to the Shadow. But mother is gone, father, and the magic is spent.” She lifted her head, and seemed to look right at Tahirah, “When the Dark One is defeated, my daughter’s daughter will break the sword, and you will both be free.”
The figure faded away. Mako took a step forward, “What just happened?”
“She’s right.” Tahirah ran her finger along the blade. It cut her, but nothing else happened. “The sword’s power is gone. In the Legends, they say that once it drinks your blood it is bound to you until you die.” She held up her finger, “I don’t think it’s very thirsty.”
Korra strode up to the throne, eyeing the armor with an appreciative eye. It wasn’t her style, but she thought that Asami might be able to do something with it, and if it really was Dragonscale, then it might provide the protection she’d need against whatever they’d face. “You’re supposed to break the sword. Somehow I don’t think it’s as simple as snapping it in half.”
“Asami can reforge it.” Tahirah flipped it around, and offered it hilt-first to Korra. “Combine it with the Star-metal. Make you something unstoppable.”
“I don’t… Tahirah, this is your legacy. The legacy of your people. It’s not my place or hers to take that from you.” She gently pushed the hilt aside. When she did so she could almost feel the malevolance that remained. It made her ill at ease.
“I can feel how evil that is from here,”Jinora piped up. She edged closer, still leaving a wide distance between her and the throne. “But… You’ll need a weapon too, Tahirah.”
“Jinora is right. I don’t see why Asami can’t turn it into a weapon more suited for you,” Mako said. He joined the others at the throne and put his hand on Tahirah’s shoulder. “And I’m sure there will be something left over to incorporate into Korra’s new weapon.”
Tahirah nodded, and wrapped a cloth around the blade before strapping it to her back. “I saw you eyeing the armor, Korra. It’s yours if you want it.”
“Not in this form. It used to be a Wraith’s.” Korra made a mental note to have Asami craft something for Tahirah too, using pieces of this armor. It was only right.
“Someone is going to have to wear it out of here,” Mako pointed out. “It’s too awkward to carry… why are you all looking at me?”
“He looks the right size,”Jinora said. “A little thinner but tall enough.” She glanced at Tahirah, “And he’s very strong and capable.” Her comment elicited a blush, and she smiled in satisfaction.
“I think you’re right, Jinora.” Korra started to detach the armor, flashing a grin at Mako. “I’m sure there’s nothing inside it. Like spiders or scorpions or snakes. Besides, it was your idea.”
“Can I veto my own idea?”
“I’m a little concerned,” Korra said, leading the way out of the tomb. “The Wights are gone.”
“Is that really such a bad thing?” Tahirah hung back a little, her mind weighed down by what she’d seen, and the implications of what she’d learned about her ancestry. Mako looked good in the armor at least, so she took that small comfort.
“I think that depends on where they went, or why they disappeared.”Jinora wished they were home already, where she could pull out some scrolls and maybe discover an answer.
The barrows were silent, cast in pale light from the moon as they emerged from the dragon’s mouth. The atmosphere felt less oppressive than earlier, as though a curse had been lifted from this place. Korra glanced behind her, then turned her gaze forward. They’d left the horses outside the forest, and she was looking forward to getting back to Kadarzimra. “We’ll rest at the horses for a few hours, then ride at dawn.”
“I’ll go ahead,”Jinora suggested. “That way we can have a wagon waiting to smuggle in that armor. It’s kind of conspicuous.”
Unable to argue with that logic, Korra nodded her head. Once they reached the horses, Jinora stayed around long enough to help set up camp, then rode off to return to the city and arrange things with her father.
Korra sank onto a stump, stretching her legs out and massaging her left shin. She wondered if Asami was working right now or resting. She wondered how they could possibly face down two Wizards who controlled much of the city guard. While she had a plan and a potential ace up her sleeve, there was no way of knowing if it would actually work. But thinking about that was useless and she couldn’t even plan anything until she was able to talk to Tenzin and Lin.
Instead, she turned her attention to Mako and Tahirah. Tahirah had helped Mako out of the armor and was brushing him off. Korra leaned her elbow on her knee and chin on her hand and smiled.
“I’m going to take a walk, check our perimeter,” She said, standing suddenly. Tahirah gave her a panicked look, which she ignored as she grabbed her sword and bow and started off.
Tahirah watched her go. “I guess that’s… probably a good idea.”
“Korra knows what she’s doing,” Mako agreed. “I never thought I’d find common ground with someone from the West.”
“Does Khand count as the West?” Tahirah asked.
“Geographically yes, but that’s about it.” He took a seat, and after a moment offered Tahirah the seat next to him.
She took it, sitting with her knees locked together and her palms on her legs. “We lost so many to the War. Both of my parents, most of my friends parents. They marched away and never returned, and still, we were asked to sacrifice our people. I think I would have been sent next, if the War had continued.”
Mako nodded, hesitating before putting his hand over her arm. “Bolin and I lost our parents the same way. Sent off to War in lands we’ve never seen. We don’t even know where they died, or how. I only know they’re gone.”
“What do you really think? About Korra and Asami, and why they’re here?” Tahirah sagged a little, and leaned against Mako.
“I think they’re honorable and good. Certainly nothing like what we’ve been fed. And I’m sure we’re nothing like what they’ve been told about us. I’m a little more concerned about what Gondor has planned.” Mako put his arm around her, leaning his cheek against the top of her head. “I think our friends do want peace, but what of their King?”
Tahirah pursed her lips, a sense of unease settling into her stomach. These thoughts had been at the back of her mind since she’d left home. “Khand and Rhun are weak. We barely have the numbers to keep back the Orcs and Mordor loyalists. Gondor and Rohan could ride over us all like a wave, or they could help us destroy all that remains of Sauron. I just don’t know which they intend to do.”
“I can’t imagine they’re that much stronger after the War either,” Mako pointed out. “And we’re stronger than you think.”
“Give them time.”
“Give us time too,” Mako countered. “It wouldn’t be a rout either way, and I don’t think Gondor is spoiling for another war so soon. You’ve spent months with Korra. I don’t think you would have stuck around this long if you thought they were insincere.”
“They’re among the first people to really accept me for who I am,” she replied, but couldn’t deny it wasn’t the only reason.
Mako squeezed her arm. “But not the last.”
“I …” Her eyes moved to where she’d propped up her ancestor’s sword. “I’m her descendant. The Dragon Queen of Khand. I know that as surely as I breathe. And I’m his too. Whatever else Khamûl became, he ruled all the lands east of the Sea of Rhun.”
“What are you going to do with that knowledge?” Korra’s voice interjected as she approached the camp. “You could unite the East, if you got enough people on your side.”
Tahirah pulled away from Mako, and smoothed out her dress. “Do you think I should try?”
Taking a seat, Korra smiled at her. “I think, eventually, you should. Khand in particular could use a kind, guiding hand. But you’re still very young, and that will take time and effort.”
Tahirah nodded. “Do you think Gondor will give us that kind of time?”
Kora looked momentarily troubled, then shook her head. “I hope so. There will be those that will call for cleansing the shadow from elsewhere in the world, and I need to prove that we can do that as friends, together.”
The alternative made her stomach turn.
Chapter 20: Crashing Waves
It took three days for Asami to gain access to the Forge, and she spent that time conferring with local smiths, trading techniques with some of them in hopes of learning something to help her, and otherwise creating new armor for her friends.
Once she entered the Forge, she peeled of the outer layer of her tunic, and prepared what she’d need. The Star-metal, parts of the Dragon Queen’s sword, the material gifted to her many months ago. Hammers and other tools, to form and etch and design. And her drawings and sketches, a hundred hundred outlines to narrow down and select from.
Pouring molten metal into a mold, Asami brought down the first strike of her hammer. Her eyes reflected the spark and the heated glow. She struck again and remembered the Forges of old, the ring of elvish hammers all around, her father’s smile as she held up her first lattice. A smile that had been much darker the day she’d made her first sword.
For six long days and sleepless nights she worked the forge, her hammer ringing at all hours. Breaks were infrequent and short, and twice she started over when she decided that her work wasn’t good enough.
There was a malleable quality to the Star-metal, properties she had to unravel and understand before she could make something useful from it. At first it felt like it was fighting her, but as she worked, it started to respond. Finally, as the moon sank behind the mountains, the sword formed the shape it was meant to have. She breathed life into it, as though giving it a part of herself. And perhaps she had.
She used the old magics so that it might never dull, that it might glow when fell things were near and cut them down all the more easily. Korra would have to rely on her own skill otherwise. No sword, whatever magic it possessed, could protect its wielder if they didn’t know how to use it.
For Tahirah she crafted something shorter and smaller, designed for quick, agile movements and curved for use from horseback. The steel she folded like she’d learned from the smiths of this city, and imbued it with similar magic to Korra’s. She hoped that she’d turned the malice of the former sword of the Dragon Queen into something kinder, as kind a weapon might ever be. Staring at her creations, she thought back to Minas Tirith and the words of the Queen.
Standing and doing nothing is an evil of its own. In the right hands, a sword can be a symbol of inspiration.
She wrapped Tahirah’s weapon, naming it under her breath as she did so, then turned to the other sword.
LIfting it, she tested the balance and the weight, the feel of the haft in her hand and the sharpness of the blade as it sliced through the air. Then she wrapped it as well, once again murmuring a name, and something more. Something like a promise.
“Of course!” Tahirah regarded it carefully, expression carefully guarded. “I can feel her… I just wish we knew her name.”
“I present to you Adalah, the blade of Justice,” Asami said. She’d engraved the Khandish word into the blade itself. “It will guide you and protect you as long as you follow your path, Tahirah. And should an orc or some fell beast draw near, it will alert you.”
“Elvish magic,” Tenzin asked, leaning forward to get a better look. “How intriguing.”
“With a blade like that,” Mako said. “You’ll be able to get just about anyone to follow you.”
Tahirah ducked her head and nodded. “Maybe in a few years.”
“Is that what you want?” Asami laid down a set of leather armor, wrapped in cloth, for Tahirah. “To lead?”
“I want what’s best for my people.”
Korra thought it was the best possible answer. Tahirah was young and inexperienced, but she held a great deal of potential and was a natural leader. Given time and training, she might just pull her people together. “Whatever happens, Tahirah, I know you’ll do your people proud.”
“Korra.” Asami pulled the other sword off of her back. Where she’d been confident with Adalah, she seemed a little more nervous with this sword as she held it out to Korra.
“Here’s the big unveiling,” Korra joked, taking the weapon with a smile. She turned to the war table, setting it down to unwrap it. The others gathered around the table, yet gave her space. She appreciated that.
The sword was black, shining with an almost blue hue at the edges. It was grooved along the center, and set into a hilt carefully crafted to fit Korra’s hand. Elvish runes glittered as Korra lifted the sword up. The weight was perfect, more balanced than anything she’d ever held before. She didn’t need to ask to know that Asami had put the same sort of elvish magic as Adalah. Korra flipped the blade around in her hands, then moved through a basic form.
“Forelen,” Asami said, unable to tear her eyes from Korra. “Star of the North.”
“Thank you.” Korra set the sword down reverently, and came over to Asami. She took her hand and squeezed it, before pulling Asami into a tight embrace. She turned her head, whispering in Asami’s ear. “I know how difficult this was for you. I know what it took out of you to create these weapons.”
Korra’s breath was warm, and her lips briefly brushed the shell of Asami’s ear, sending a shiver running right through her. She hesitated only a moment before embracing her back. “These three are the last weapons I will ever make, and there is no one else in all the world I would want to wield them.”
“Three?” Korra pulled her head back.
Still keeping an arm around Korra, Asami drew a dagger from a sheathe at her waist. It was the same color as Forelen, though while she’d given Forelen a shape that was familiar and human to Korra, Asami’s dagger was waved and curved, designed for slashing and beautiful in an elegantly deadly way. She’d created it to match the sword she’d taken from the Necromancer, what felt like years ago.
“You just wanted to match me,” Korra joked.
“Enough quality material left over, and I didn’t my want to waste it,” Asami countered.
Stepping away from Asami, Korra turned to look at those gathered. Besides the two of them, Tahirah, Tenzin and Mako, Bolin, Lin and Jinora were present.
So this was the face of rebellion. She hoped it would be enough. She hoped the people were ready.
They only had one shot at this. Once they exposed themselves, the Blue Wizards would be on them, and none of it would matter if they couldn’t convince the people that the time was now.
“Should I do anything?” Tahirah asked, when Korra had a moment.
“Stand by us. You’ll know when to draw your sword.” She clapped Tahirah on the shoulder. “I trust you. You’re one of them, in a way.”
Tahirah picked up the helm Asami had made her, and nodded. “I think for now I’ll follow your lead.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Lin had chosen a central location. There were more people there than Korra had actually expected, and they looked up at them with curiosity, and some suspicion. She thought, maybe, they might be willing to listen. Her armor felt light, and yet she felt secure as she moved in it. Asami had crafted elements of home into it, and something more. Korra ran her fingers over elvish script on the inside of her bracer as she moved to the top of the stairs and raised her voice.
“My name is Korra. I’m a Dunedain from far to the West and the North. I’ve traveled all this way, seeking new friends and to offer my aid where it is welcome. Make no mistake. This is your home. You’re your own people. I’ve not come to conquer or to control.”
Tahirah stepped besides her, wearing a helm reshaped from that of Khamûl’s, and a supple leather armor embroidered with the crest of the Dragon Queen.
Clever elf, Korra thought. She let Tahirah speak,watching the crowd as what they were saying seemed to sink in. Some people looked angry, and she couldn't tell if that was at her, or their rulers..
“You’re good people, deserving of happiness and health and freedom,” Tahirah called out. “For so long, you’ve lived under the shadow of Dark Lords and those who would pretend to be. For so long, your lives were sacrificed in a war, far from home. I know what that’s like. I watched my parents march away. A brother. Most of my friends. The war ended before I could be next.”
While Tahirah spoke, Korra gestured for Lin and Tenzin to join them. Mako took Lin’s left, and Bolin stood to Tenzin’s right. “We’re willing to lay it all on the line for you, but we can’t do it alone. We can light the way but only you can extinguish the darkness.”
Korra drew her sword, the black blade glittering in the sun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tahirah draw hers as well. Some of the crowd started murmuring, and one pointed at Tahirah. She wondered if it was the weapon or something else he’d recognized.
“The Council is powerful,” Tenzin said. He lifted his hands, palms out, “But they are few. We are many, and we are in the right. We have one chance, just one, to be free for the first time in an Age. We have Allies from the West and from Khand. We have guards and servants, merchants and musicians on our side. You don’t have to be a soldier to do what’s right.”
Sharing a look with Tenzin, Korra started down the stairs. The others fell into line besides and behind her. As she reached the bottom, Asami seemingly materialized from the crowd to walk at Korra’s left.
The crowd parted before them and then closed in their wake. Many peeled off to join them, others stood still and waited, unsure. Perhaps a little scared.
Ahead, between them and the palace were gathering soldiers. Dozens. Perhaps hundreds. More stood atop the wall of the gate, aiming arrows at the crowd.
“Cease this madness!” One of the guards took a step forward, the new captain who’d replaced Lin. “You’d listen to a foreigner? You’d listen to traitors?” He pointed his sword. “For this insolence, you will be punished. Per the orders of the Blue Council, return to your homes, or you will be required to turn over one son or one daughter for punishment.”
Korra could feel the moment the mood shifted. The crowd pressing in from behind, the sound of weapons drawing and cloaks falling discarded to the ground. She turned her sword, looking at the people reflected in it behind her. Anger. Defiance. Hope. How many people had disappeared? Killed because they spoke out, or worse? How many people here had lost friends and family not just to the war, but to the people that were threatening them even now?
She started to jog then to run, the point of a spear with the people of Kadarzimra driving her forward. Arrows rained from above, cutting men and women down. The soldiers formed a wall of steel, yet still the rebels surged forward. They crashed upon the line of guards like waves on the rocks.
Chapter 21: Of Wizards and Prophecies
Forelen cut through the Guard Captain as easily as parchment. Korra ducked under a wide blow from his lieutenant, Tahirah moving in under his reach and running her sword into his heart. The wall collapsed, and like a rushing river the rebellion spilled into the rest of the city, picking up more and more people as it went. Sounds of fighting rang through the city of jewels.
At each gate, Asami blew the doors down with her black powder and before Korra realized it they had reached the palace. There was a long ramp leading up, two rows of guards between them and the ornate silver doors.
“Korra.” Tenzin grasped her arm. “We have this. Take Asami, Tahirah and the brothers with you.”
“Are you sure?”
“We’ll buy you the time you need,” Lin interjected. She cracked her knuckles, “Besides, I’ve got a few scores to settle out here.”
“Be careful. Kadarzimra will need you both to pick up the pieces.” Korra tightened her grip on her sword, turning back to the waiting guards.
They fought as hard as their comrades had at the Black Gate, refusing to give an inch without an ocean of blood. Korra felt the shift in air as someone attacked her from behind, too late to react, only to hear the sound of an arrow impacting human flesh.
She saw Asami lower her bow, but there was no time to check on her mental state. These weren’t Orcs, these were people and there was a different weight to every kill. But they were almost to the doors.
She expected heavier resistance then they got when they broke through the doors. In fact, there was only a long, empty hallway. Korra held up her hand and didn’t step through.
“Traps?” Asami asked.
Asami slung her bow across her shoulder and fingered the sword at her hip, “The rest of you should step back.”
“I’m light footed, I’ll make it through, then set off or disarm the rest of the traps,” Asami explained.
“... Just be careful.” Korra held Asami’s gaze for longer than necessary, then stepped back from the entrance.
Asami judged the distance to be more than one hundred feet. If she moved too fast, she’d set off the traps. Too slow, she’d set off the traps. They were probably weight based but it should be no different than walking on snow.
She stepped nimbly into the hallway and started to walk, studying the walls as she went. Her original plan had been to use her black powder grenades once she’d crossed, but there appeared to be a flaw in the design of the traps. One that could be exploited if she found the right spot to simply trigger them all.
Korra watched her, feeling her heart pounding in her chest and nearly drowning out all sound until Asami had made it all the way. The elf took a sharp turn left and disappeared.
Trusting her to be okay, Korra turned back to the way they’d come. She could hear people approaching, and readied her weapon to fight, but lowered it when she saw Mako, Bolin and Tahirah.
The sounds of gears screeching and a heavy thudding crash behind her made her whirl around. Instead of an attacker, Asami stood at the end of the hallway, beckoning them.
Not waiting an instant, Korra signaled the others and bolted towards her companion. “I was expecting something a bit more complicated. Or explosive.”
“I’ll explain what I did later,” Asami promised. “But we don’t really have time for it right now.”
“We’ll cover this door,” Mako said. “Keep going straight, then go through the west archway to the council chambers.”
“Thank you.” Korra reached out, clasping his hand. “Be careful.”
“The same goes for you,” Mako said. He held Korra’s eyes for a moment longer, before turning to face whatever might come. “We’ll join you when we can.”
The sound of battle faded behind Korra as she ran through the West Archway, and she forced herself to focus on what was ahead, rather than behind. They’d be fine, and she had Asami at her side. Her sword, and Asami’s dagger both had a soft blue glow that grew stronger the closer they got to the Council Chambers.
When they reached the Chambers, the first thing Korra noticed was a vaulted ceiling, painted like the night sky. Constellations she didn’t recognize glittered silver and gold.
“Aman…” Asami whispered, eyes wide as she took in the ceiling. “I’ve not seen these stars since before I left the Undying Lands.”
Korra’s attention was drawn to a low rumble as something shuffled in the darkness. A huge club swung out from the shadows and she jumped back as it cracked the marble where she’d been standing.
The creature stepped into a light of a lantern, akin to a troll but a little smaller and with round, curved horns on either side of its head. It was joined by a twin, and a smattering of Goblins and Orcs. That would explain the glow.
Before Korra could call out a warning or a strategy, Asami unslung her bow and unloaded several arrows into the goblins. Four of them went down, but there were many more as well as a few larger orcs. Asami dodged aside as the second troll turned towards her.
Despite her own troll and accompanying Orcs, Korra was more alarmed by the look in Asami’s eyes. She spun around, parrying blows from the orcs while dodging every swing of the troll’s club. A goblin’s head bounced along the floor and she ducked low, impaling another.
Asami threw aside her bow, drawing the Numenorean sword and making quick work of two goblins. Shouting an ancient battle cry, Asami used an orc’s face as a launch pad to attack a troll. The silver light from above drew out a glow from deep within Asami as she seemed to float through the air, sword and dagger angled like fangs posed to strike.
Both trolls and the remaining goblins turned away from the blinding light, and Korra charged up the club of her own troll. Her sword cut through its neck like and the creature tumbled over, hitting the ground hard enough to shake it. The other troll collapsed moments later, Asami rolling off of it gracefully, picking up her bow and loosing more arrows into the backs of retreating orcs and goblins.
Touching Asami’s shoulder, Korra nearly lost her head when the Noldor whirled on her. She blocked the dual strike, metal clanging on metal, “Asami! It’s me!”
The light within had faded, a mixture of shame and shock crossing Asami’s face. Korra didn’t have time to reassure her as a lilting male voice spoke.
“The light of the two trees. Telperion and Laurelin.”
A second voice, similar to the first, added, “Many long ages since we have seen it.”
Fire spread suddenly around around them. Asami froze, the flame reflecting fear in her eyes. Korra pulled her out of the way, putting herself between the voices and Asami.
At last the Wizards were revealed, as the fire died down. Two men sat upon matching thrones. They resembled young men in their prime and were indescribably beautiful. They had piercing blue eyes and one wore his black beard in the pointed style common to the city while and other was more closely shaven. There was no other difference between them.
Whatever Korra have been expecting, this wasn’t it, but she stepped forward, pulling something from a pouch and holding it up. It was round, with symbol on it and elvish lettering, “I bring a message to you, from Olorin.”
“The Grey?” The first said. Alatar, if Korra guessed correctly. “Why should we listen to the weakest of our order?”
“The white,” Korra corrected. “Saruman is lost, diminished and defeated. Olorin wants you to come home.”
Besides her, Asami recovered enough from her shock to let out a sudden laugh. She eyed her out of the corner of her vision and muttered. “Asami, what are you doing?”
“This is the visage you’ve chosen?” Asami asked, incredulously. She spun the dagger in her hand, “Long ago, a man came to the elves of Eregion. Fair of face and silver of tongue, he taught them to craft powerful rings.”
“Three rings for elven-kings under the sky,” Pallando whispered.
“Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone.” His brother said.
Together, they finished, “Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die.”
“Tell me, Wizards.” Asami stook a step forward, eyes flashing and tongue sharp, “Did you choose this form to spite Sauron or to please him?”
Sensing that things were about to get out of hand very quickly, Korra held her other hand aloft, something glimmering between finger and thumb. “He also gave me this.”
Asami turned her head, and stared at the ring in Korra’s hand. “Narya?!”
The Elvish ring of fire was dull and empty, yet still beautiful. Korra threw it at the Wizards’ feet. “He said you’d know what that means.”
The two wizards stared down at the ring that lay powerless at their feet. Alatar spoke first, “He is telling us that our time in this world is coming to an end. That we too will diminish. Are diminished. Day by day, our power wanes.”
“He’s offering you a chance to return to the Undying lands.” Korra held up the Istari seal again. She didn’t know if they could survive fighting these Wizards, but there needed to be justice.
“It’s your choice. You can accept Mithrandir’s offered hand, or we send your spirits back to the Halls, where there will be no one to speak for you before Mandos’ judgement.” Asami didn’t look at Korra, but she could feel her eyes on her.
Alatar shook his head. “His judgement will be harsh, either way. And deserved.”
Asami’s tone softened. “It’s better to have a chance, than none at all.”
“This coming Age will be the last Age of Wonder,” Pallando murmured. “Men will rise and fall and rise again, but the time of Elves Dwarves and Wizards is over. In the End of Days, Melkor will be freed. A last battle will be fought between darkness and light. A day of Doom, once spoken of by Mandos and yet we did not heed its warning. And after that, the world will be unmade with Melkor’s death and magic will truly be lost forever.”
“Will the world be remade?” Despite herself, Asami’s voice shook.
“A new song of creation, the world renewed on the voices of Ainur, Elves and Men and under Dwarven hammer.” Alatar looked at his brother. “Perhaps we will be allowed to sing it as well. The first was quite beautiful.”
Pallando knelt, picking up the ring. There was a flash of light and two stooped old men stood there in simple blue robes. “I’m tired. Let us go home, brother, and face judgement.”
Another flash of light blinded Korra, and when she could see again, the two Wizards were gone, leaving only their robes behind. Her shoulders sagged and she sighed in relief. “For all their talk of diminished power, I’m not sure it would have been an easy battle.”
With the wizards gone, Asami leaned against Korra. Korra held her tightly, “Are you all right?
“I’m sorry.” Asami straightened, then cupped korra’s face. The expression on hers broke Korra’s heart.
“For…” She gestured towards a dead goblin, “I haven’t felt like that in two Ages. I feel sick.”
“I’m the last one to judge bloodlust against Orcs and Trolls,” Korra placed her hands over Asami’s. “But I don’t think any less of you. We did good this day. Hold fast to that.”
Shadows lifted from Asami’s expression. “You’re right. We did it. You were so inspiring, Korra.”
“Lets help the others clean up the rest of the loyalists,” Korra suggested, not yet pulling away. “At least those that haven’t regained their senses from the Shadow. There’s going to be a party tonight to rival any Halfling festival.”
Gulls called out as they circled over the ships at dock. Asami felt Korra lean against her, and leaned back. “So what do you think of the ocean?”
“It smells like fish,” Korra replied cheerily. “I love it.”
Asami laughed, turning her head to look at her companion. She could feel it, even now, a call deep within her heart. To sail, to return home. But that wasn’t home for her, and might never be again. At least, Asami was certain, she could never take the grey ships until after Korra had passed into memory. “You’re going to get your fill of the ocean soon enough. The new council talked someone into taking us south and west, at least to another port of call. Apparently the captain owed Beifong a favor.”
“I would never, ever want to be indebted to Lin.” Korra shook her head, her hand moving onto Asami’s. “You know, I almost think they want us gone sooner rather than later.”
Their fingers laced together, and Asami wanted nothing more than to kiss Korra. She didn’t feel it was appropriate right now, though her lips burned with the memory of those they’d already shared. “Can you blame them?”
“No, but I don’t want to leave right away. There are messages we need to send, and goodbyes, and at least two more celebrations.” Korra pulled her head back and smiled at Asami. “And that whole diplomatic thing we need to do.”
“The Zaofu will not leave for another eight days,” Asami assured her. “We have plenty of time to enjoy the city before we go, and hammer out an agreement.”
“Tenzin is receptive. Lin less so. I have some doubts about that new head of the council. He rubs me the wrong way. Too much the politician.”
Asami laughed, “It could be a lot worse.”
“Have you met him? He’s conniving and sleazy.”
“Yes, and I agree.”
Korra huffed, then got to her feet. She offered her hand to Asami. “I’m starving. Let's find Mako and the others and get lunch.”
Tucking some hair behind her ear before taking Korra’s hand, Asami replied, “What if we got lunch, just the two of us?”
Looking up at Asami after she’d pulled her up, Korra felt her face heat up, “I… think I’d like that.”
Lunch was some kind of noodles, but Asami didn’t remember much of the meal, so much as the light in Korra’s eyes and the sound of her laughter. She could listen to her laugh forever, and committed the sound to memory. Even the way Korra smiled at her, different from how she smiled at others, warmed the coldness in her heart. Few other things could. She sometimes still felt so cold, that she wondered if that had been more than a simple warg that had wounded her.
They hadn’t talked about the battle, or the way she’d become lost and Asami was happy to never bring it up again. There were many leagues to go before they returned to Gondor, and she wondered how many more times Korra would have to draw her sword, and how much more blood would coat her own hands.
Asami blinked her eyes, returning to the present. “I’m sorry. I was… lost in thought.”
“You can talk to me.” Korra reached for her hand, bringing it to her lips. “We’re friends. Closer than friends if we’re honest about it.”
“I’m still thinking about the wizards, and the battle for this city.”
“Asami, you can’t let it consume you. What happened happened, and they were trolls, it’s not like they’d have shown you any mercy.”
“Has anyone ever tried?” Asami asked. “Orcs and goblins and trolls aren’t going away. If we wipe them out are we any different from them?”
It wasn’t a question Korra had an easy answer for, and so she didn’t give one to Asami. “I think that’s something I need to think about.”
She’d lost too many to them, yet she’d lost friends to the Easterlings too, and vice versa. But Orcs were Orcs, and a lot harder to reason with than a human or an elf.
That night, to make up for not inviting anyone else to lunch, they made sure to have supper with their friends. Asami pushed the questions of the day to the back of her mind, instead watching everyone.
Tahirah sat between Bolin and Mako, her attention mostly on the latter. She liked the easy way that Mako made her smile, and how easily Tahirah made Mako flustered. Asami felt a warmth and a welcoming here, and she would be sad to leave. Her only real regret was that they’d be unable to find that Elf town. It was too far north of here to make it there and back in any time less than a week, unless she traveled alone.
Lin stood, “Everyone, thank you for joining us tonight. I know Tenzin wants to speak, but we’ll be here all night when that happens, so I wanted to talk first.”
She smiled at the laughter that rippled around the table. Tenzin huffed, but still smiled. Lin glanced around at everyone. They’d already had several nights of toasting and discussion, and likely would have more before all was said and done. But they’d earned it, “I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, restoring order and strengthening us. There are other cities that will think we’re vulnerable, and I want to make sure that they regret any action they decide to take about it. But for the first time in my life, I feel light. The Shadow is gone, and so are the Wizards. I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime, but thanks to our hard work and the aid of our friends from the West, we’ve done it.”
Clearing her throat, she gestured at Korra. Taking it as an offer to speak, Korra stood, “You freed yourselves. We just helped make it happen sooner. I’m proud to call you my friends, and as a representative of the Reunited Kingdom, I can confidently say King Elessar would feel the same way.”
She raised her glass, then sat down as Tenzin stood.
“Tomorrow,” He said, smiling at everyone. “Tomorrow we’ll finish the discussions we began after the Wizards were overthrown. There is still much shadow in the word, and together we can shine a light into the dark crevices and root it out. But for tonight, let us rejoice and enjoy the company of friends.”
Dinner resumed in earnest, Korra listening intently as Bolin and Mako described the game they played. It involved a goal and a ball, and she thought she’d be able to pick it up easily enough, though it would take time to master.
Lin drew her attention next, then Tenzin, and Jinora. By the time the meal was finished and night had fallen, she realized that Asami had disappeared.
Excusing herself, she left the hall to look for her, but was waylaid by Tahirah and Mako.
“What is it?” She asked, a little distracted. Where had Asami gotten to?
“We’re coming with you,” Mako said, his tone making it clear it was a statement and not a request.
“Eventually,I’m going to return home,” Tahirah said. “But not for many years yet. There’s too much for me to learn. I think I can unite my people, like my ancestor did so long ago. “
“You need a lot more experience before that,”Korra agreed, looking between them and momentarily forgetting about her quest to find Asami. “When my king was younger, he traveled the world, far beyond the borders of the North, or of Gondor.”
She pulled Tahirah into a sudden, tight hug, causing the girl to squeak, “Of course you’re welcome. You too, Mako.”
It would be good for them both, and Korra would assume Bolin would join them. Seeing the world had helped open her own eyes, and for Tahirah in particular it would make her a stronger ruler. Of that Korra had no doubt.
“On one condition.”
Tahirah tilted her head,”What’s that?”
“After you unite Khand, I want to be invited to the party you throw.”
Laughing at that, Tahirah nodded firmly, “You and Asami will be welcome.”
She shared a look with Mako before taking her leave, but the man lingered. Korra regarded him a long moment. In another life, one where she hadn’t met Asami first, she thought she might have pursued him.
He shifted on his feet. “I wanted to thank you. For helping out. For not being like they said people of the West are like. That’s another reason I want to go, besides keeping an eye on Tahirah. I want to see it for myself, form my own opinions. Let your people see what we’re really like, too.”
The world could only be better the more open it was. The more people saw and talked to each other, the harder it was to hate each other. Korra pulled Mako into a hug. “I hope we don't’ disappoint, Mako.”
Mako coughed, hugging her back stiffly. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Letting go and stepping back, Korra smiled. “I need to find Asami, but do you want to spar tomorrow?”
“I’d love to.” Mako hesitated, then added, “It’s not my place. But I’ve seen the way you two look at each other. Life is short for us mortal, even you Rangers. Don’t miss out.”
Thinking back to kisses and other conversations, Korra nodded. “I want to find out where we actually stand.”
Another hug, then she turned away from Mako, following the subtle trail Asami had left behind. She clearly wanted to be followed or else Korra would have found nothing.
The trail led to the stables, where Asami was tacking up one of the horses. Korra felt her heart seize up. “Planning a trip?”
“I keep thinking about that town we found. About the city I visited so long ago,”Asami said. She turned around to face Korra. “I have to find it. I need to know what happened to them.”
“Are you sure?” Stepping forward, Korra took Asami’s hands. “You don’t know what you’ll find. It could be gone. Fallen to shadow like Minas Morgul. It could ruin the memory of the city, what you find.”
“I have to go.” Asami squeezed her hands, then let go. “And the only way I’ll make it back in time is if I ride alone. Not even you could keep up the pace I need to set.”
Asami seemed set to continue but Korra pulled her close, kissing her gently, giving Asami incentive to return and as quickly as she dared. The kiss ended, Asami’s eyes darting across Korra’s face before she leaned back in and kissed Korra again. It was long and hard, full of fire, leaving Korra breathless and longing for more.
She watched Asami mount up, and stood there, long after the hoofbeats had faded in the distance.
The Elven city had no name in the tongues of the West. Roughly translated, it had been an allusion to the way stars reflected on water.
Set into rolling hills that led to the sea, the city had once gleamed with the light of lanterns and rang with the sound of song and laughter.
No more. No lanterns were lit to greet her the night she arrived. No voices called out in greeting. The only thing that walked the streets were memories.
Once painted brightly, the walls and buildings had faded with age and disuse. Just like the village, the city’s inhabitants had left a long time ago.
For several long hours, Asami wandered to and fro. One house she remembered the inhabitants fondly, another had belonged to a couple with a young child - the first elven child Asami had seen in centuries at the time. She’d been warmly welcomed.
Elves didn’t count the years the same as mortals did. A decade, even two could pass in the blink of an eye, and yet sometimes felt like they dragged on forever. It had been both ways here, Asami having lingered overly long and yet when she looked back in her memory it felt as though that time had passed too quickly, like an early snow signaling the end of Autumn.
She felt suddenly, afraid. As she ran her hand across an intricately carved table, leaving trails in the dust, Asami felt afraid. Afraid of her time with Korra becoming such a memory. Afraid of letting herself love Korra enough to fade away when the ranger died. Afraid of surviving out of sheer, stubborn will and facing eternity with half her heart missing and the pale fragile memory of the heat of Korra’s fire.
For that was what happened when one of her kind loved a mortal. Korra would pass beyond the veil to whatever waited a mortal woman, and Asami was tied to Arda and whatever end came to this world. That was the gift of mortality. To pass beyond, into the embrace of Eru Iluvatar the creator.
Thus was the curse of the Elves. To remain and stagnate. It wasn’t fair. And yet, she stepped back out into the street, gazing towards the sea and knew that she could not change how she felt.
Asami thought back to what the Wizards had said. A prophecy of Mandos, a final battle and the world remade on the voices of Men and Elves. The Dwarves too, had their legends of reshaping the world. No matter what end came to her, if that were true then she’d see Korra again. It was all she had to hope for.
Leaving the city behind, Asami felt closure. She might never know what became of the friends she’d made, if they’d found another home or sailed to the Undying Lands. But they lived on in her memory and their city would stand for many centuries to come.
And here at last we come to the end of Book 2: Shadow.
The final part of Korra and Asami's adventure will be Book 3: Flame, as they embark on the long journey home.
I'm sure things will go smoothly...
Asami had returned the day before, all but collapsing in Korra’s arms from exhaustion. She’d had to carry Asami to a bed, and then spent several hours watching her sleep. So she was just a little tired as they made their way to the docks to where the ship awaited.
The Zaofu wasn’t what Korra expected. The ship glistened in the sun. Nearly one hundred feet long, the entire ship was covered in some kind of metal and it had three masts. Affixed to the stern was what looked like a water wheel. It was thirty feet in diameter, with images of dragons engraved into the metal of the paddles.
Next to her, Asami gasped. She pointed at the wheel, “Look at that! I’ve only ever seen one ship like that before! It was a Numenorean vessel that had docked in a town in Lindon in the middle of the Second Age. It was powered by-”
Korra turned at the sound of a woman’s voice.
Standing behind them was an older woman, wearing a dark crimson coat with gold buttons. A leather eyepatch dyed the color of the sea at sunset covered her left eye. Her visible eye was the same green as Lin Beifong’s and she shared several other notable facial features. The family resemblance was unmistakable.
“Caught you admiring my other wife.” She offered them her hand. “Captain Suyin Beifong.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Asami said, clasping her hand after Korra had. “Your ship is magnificent!”
“I can tell you’ve got a good eye for it. Would you like a tour?”
Korra didn’t think Asami could answer fast enough before they were being led onboard. Even the deck had been laid with this metal, and she wondered what kind it was. “Is the Zaofu iron? Steel?”
Korra started as both Asami and Suyin answered at the same time. Of course Asami would know. Why should she be surprised? Still, the answer shocked her. “I didn’t think there was this much mithril left in all of Middle-earth.”
It would explain the shine, and since mithril was so light it was a lot better than steel for coating a ship.
“Very good guess.” Su smiled at Asami, ducking her head as she went below decks.
It was easier to see the structure here. The Zaofu wasn’t entirely metal. The superstructure and most of the hull was some kind of oak, interspersed with metal rods. These looked a bit less shiny and Korra guessed they weren’t mithril like the hull plating. Mithril could withstand anything, so it made great armor, but it was also very rare and very costly.
The deeper they went, the more rods Korra saw, and she realized they were actually piping. When Suyin showed them what she called the engine room, Korra recognized it.
There was a furnace in the center, with piping that led up to a set of large gears. The heat from the furnace burned off water in containers, which then sent steam to turn the gears, which then turned the paddle. A cabin boy was seated in one corner, reading a book. He looked up when they entered, then back down to his book.
“I’ve seen this before!”
“What? Where?” Asami had been engaged in an exciting-to-her conversation with Su about the finer properties of mithril, but stopped abruptly to turn and look at Korra.
“In Elrond’s library,” Korra explained. “There was this book, filled with sketches and poetry, and a letter or two.” She used her hands to roughly describe the size of the book. “There were drawings of the White Tree of Numenor, numerous sketches of a beautiful woman, and also what was obviously a self-portrait. But there were also drawings of ships. An entire fleet, thousands of them, and one that was far larger than the rest.”
“That’s...there are rumors and hearsay from the Exiles about the fleet of Ar-Pharazon, that sailed to the Undying Lands and never returned,” Asami said. “But I never knew about a book like that.”
“It belonged to the last Queen. Tar-Miriel.” Korra dropped her hands to her side, smiling a little sheepishly. “I kind of thought she and that woman she sketched so much were lovers. The letter and the poetry are a dead give-away. But the ships were interesting too.”
“Ah, the romance of youth.” Su laughed. “We never had many records ourselves of Numenorean ships like that. Old stories, some descriptions. Barely enough to go on.”
“So you designed all this yourself?”
Su nodded. “The mithril was, ah, a gift. I acquired it years ago from someone far less deserving.”
Korra was too polite to ask Suyin if it the ‘gift’ had been given up willingly. Among everything else, she’d noticed a sizeable armory and some of the banners had reminded her of the colorful tapestries flown by Umbar’s corsairs.
Asami chuckled, distracted by the intricate machinery that made the wheel turn. She pulled Suyin aside and started asking her questions about it.
Leaving the two to be engrossed in the engineering, Korra picked a door and walked through it. It led to some stairs, which took her up and around and into what looked like a navigation room. There were seacharts, and a large map of the Eastern coasts of Middle-earth, extending southward.
A young woman with Su’s eyes looked up from one of the charts and smiled at Korra. “Hello! You must be the ranger.”
“That’s me, I’m Korra.”
The woman took Korra’s hand and shook it, “I’m Opal. Ship’s navigator.”
She gestured to a tall, green eyed woman with sharp features. “This is our First Mate, Kuvira.”
“You’re certainly as pretty as your namesake,” Korra replied, unable to help herself. Perhaps flirting with the Captain’s daughter wasn’t the wisest course of action. She coughed and shook Kuvira’s hand. Kuvira, who was also gorgeous. Korra was pretty sure this entire ship was filled with enough beautiful people to make her act like an idiot.
Opal laughed, her cheeks flushing, but replied dryly, “Thank you. I get that a lot, though usually not from people smitten with elves.”
Korra rubbed her arm, “How did--wait, I am not smitten with Asami!”
Kuvira snorted, rolling her eyes as she stepped past Korra and out into the ship. Korra noticed that she hadn’t even said a word.
“You’re the talk of the town and we’ve only been in port a day.” Opal moved past her, grinning widely as she pinned up a chart. “Come here, I want to show you the route we’re taking.”
Korra walked up to her, ears burning. “Looks like… 3 days, maybe four to the first port?”
“Two.” Opal’s smile only got bigger at Korra’s befuddlement. “This ship is the fastest in the world. We can do in two days what most do in four.”
She traced her finger along the route. “We’ll make port here. My brothers usually handle the trade, and we spend a few days there before coming home or going elsewhere. My mother hasn’t decided if we’ll arrange passage for you on another ship, or sail right around to Gondor ourselves. I think she’s always wanted to see more of the world.”
Korra noticed the wistful look on Opal’s face. “You hope the Zaofu will take us further, don’t you.”
“Yes.” Opal stared at the chart. “I’ve not been much farther than that port. My mother has, but things are a little heated between her and some of the folks farther west.”
“She robbed them blind didn’t she.”
Laughing, Opal put her finger to her lips, “Shh. She prefers the term ‘liberated them of their valuables.’”
“In a ship like this, I doubt there’s anyone who could catch her, let alone board her successfully.” Technically, Korra shouldn’t be impressed. Suyin was a corsair. A literal pirate. But her ship was astonishing, and the woman and her daughter friendly.
“If you’re worried, we’ll behave until after we’ve dropped you off.” Suyin ducked into the room, grinning at Korra. “And I’ve mostly put those days behind me.”
“Mostly.” Korra shook her head, “I suppose that will have to do. I’ve had my fill of excitement for the next few weeks at least.”
“Once the Zaofu is loaded and refueled, we’ll be ready to go.” Suyin swept her hand out, in the direction of the sea. “You and your companions need to be on board by sunrise tomorrow, or we’re leaving without you.”
She turned towards the city, which shone like the jewels it was named for, watching Tahirah board the Zaofu, Mako and Bolin not too far behind her.
Her eyes fell to where Tenzin stood near the Beifong sisters, Kuvira a respectful distance behind Suyin. He’d promise to see Naga safely home to Gondor, and a part of Korra feared she’d never see her horse again. But she thought she could trust Tenzin, and taking Naga onto the Zaofu was probably not the wisest course of action.
“She’ll be all right.” Asami put her hand on Korra’s shoulder.
“I know.” She didn’t bother asking how Asami had guessed where her thoughts had gone. Somehow, it seemed natural at this point. She leaned into Asami’s arm. “That doesn’t mean this is any easier. I’m almost glad she’s not down there right now, it would be even harder saying good bye again.”
“Do you think we’ll ever see this city again?”
Korra followed Asami’s gaze to the towering spires. “You, maybe. I don’t think I’ll have opportunity to travel this far east again in my lifetime.” She turned back to Asami, “You’ll visit them, won’t you? See how they’re doing. See if Tahirah was able to unite her people and that they stayed united. Could you do that for me? Just once, before you sail.”
Asami took a step back, almost as if she’d been struck. Her expression darkened, and her voice was tight, “I’d rather not talk about your death as if it is inevitable.”
“But it is.” Korra cushioned her reminder in a gentle tone.
Her hands closed around Asami’s, and she could feel them shaking. She kissed each of her fingers, one at a time. “When Minas Tirith has crumbled to dust, when Kadarzimra has fallen into the sea. When the Ages of the Sun have faded into myth, you’ll remember. The heroes of old and those not yet born, the people who laughed and waved and smiled. The faces of children lit up at your toys. Next week, next month. Thirty years from now. My end will come and I will embrace it, knowing that everything I hold dear will live on in your memory and your heart.”
“Korra.” How one word and one breath could contain so much heartbreak, so much pain, she didn’t know, but all that and more was writ on Asami’s face.
But Korra had needed to say that, and she’d needed Asami to hear it. “You’re strong, Asami. Stronger than you believe. Promise me you’ll remember me.”
“I won’t remember anything else,” Asami whispered.
A horn sounded as Suyin boarded. Korra kept hold of Asami’s hand, but looked away so she could watch the crew as the ship got underway. A man, Varrick if she’d remembered from the introductions, ducked below decks to inspect the engines. He was followed by the Engineer’s mate, a woman with a perfectly manicured expression on her face.
“They’ll use sail until we’re farther out to sea,” Asami said, sounding much more like herself. “I can’t wait to see the wheel in action.”
“It’s windy enough.” She finally let go of Asami’s hand when she saw Tahirah leaning on the railing, holding on with a death grip. “...I better go check on her.”
Tahirah looked a little green as Korra approached, and she felt a twinge of sympathy. “First time on a ship?”
“Do you get used to it?” Tahirah asked.
“Only ships I’ve been on are river boats,” Korra admitted. “But I got used to those quickly enough. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Leaning on the railing herself, Korra asked slyly, “So how are things with you and Mako?”
Predictably, Tahirah’s eyes widened and she sputtered, “There’s nothing between me and Mako!”
“You’ve been spending a lot of time together,” Korra said helpfully. “And he took you to dinner the other night. Don’t think just because I’ve been busy that I haven’t been paying attention.”
Distracted from the queasiness in her stomach, Tahirah shook her head, “That doesn’t mean anything.”
Laughing, Korra rubbed her back. “Oh it means plenty. He’s a good man, and you’re clearly sweet on him. Don’t let something good slip through your fingers.”
“Good advice coming from you. What are you going to do about your elf?”
“That’s hardly fair, trying to turn the tables on me.”
Tahirah stared at her expectantly. “It was obvious the day I met you both. You’ve only grown closer since. Yours is a love story, the kind the bards sing about.”
Korra’s throat bobbed, and she turned to look out to sea. “Loving someone you cannot have sounds great when it’s a song or story. It’s a lot worse when you have to live it.”
“Who says you can’t have her?” Tahirah bumped her hip against Korra’s, “She looks at you like nothing else matters.”
“Letting her love me could quite literally kill her. It’s selfish.”
“That’s the thing about love, Korra.” Tahirah sighed, “It’s not something you can control. It’s a spark that sets the forest ablaze. If my ancestor couldn’t stop loving a wraith, what hope do you have of telling an elf she can’t love you?”
Korra didn’t really have an answer for that.
I'm not saying there's a direct reference to my other Tolkien work but I'm saying there's a direct reference.
Chapter 24: The Rhythm of Their Heartbeats
The Zaofu wasn’t as noisy as Korra might have thought. It did kick up a lot of smoke from a pipe near the stern, but right now it was operating under wind power, with the wheel lifted out of the water to remove drag. That had been interesting to watch and she’d been certain Asami might have fainted from excitement. Varrick had enjoyed explaining it as it happened.
It was good to see Asami excited. There’d been times, particularly after the Warg, where Asami had seemed tired. It was never when she thought Korra was looking, but Korra had learned to read her over the past few months. It should be concerning - even mortals rarely connected so quickly to someone they’d just met, but Korra could no longer imagine her life without Asami there beside her.
It was a selfish thought, and she leaned on the railing to watch dolphins surf the wake of the ship. In the distance a whale breached the surface. Korra thought of Halbarad, and how he would have loved this.
“What do you think?”
She turned at the sound of Opal’s voice. “It’s beautiful. I never thought I’d even see the ocean, let alone sail on it.”
Opal pointed to the dolphins, “They’re my favorite part. They like to play and have fun, and they’re mischievous too. I’ve caught them playing pranks on sailors, and on ships at dock. Once, when I was a child, one of them saved me from drowning.”
“I know a story about the dolphins,” Suyin said, joining them at the railing. She peered down at the water with her good eye. “A long time ago, before the Darkness came, there was a clan of elves. They lived in a city on the coast. Smaller than Kadarzimra, but no less beautiful. I traveled there once, when I was your age, Opal.”
Korra turned around so she was leaning back against the railing as Suyin spoke.
“One day, they disappeared. Old shipwives say that they gave into the call of the sea. They waded into the waters of their bay, and through some ancient elvish magic, they were transformed. Some say they became mermaids. Half fish, half elvish. But I always believed that they became dolphins.”
“Dolphins play, and laugh, and they save those who are in danger,” Opal said.
There were stranger tales that were true, Korra thought. She caught Asami’s eyes from where she stood nearby and it was impossible to read her expression, but Korra could tell she almost wanted to believe that story. To know that her kin still lived, albeit in some other form.
Other than the dolphins and occasional whale sighting, the trip wasn’t very exciting. By the third day Korra was bored out of her mind and feeling overheated. She lay on top of the wheel house, her tunic removed and in only her undergarments as she tried to deal with the increasing temperatures as they traveled southwest.
A shadow blocked the sun, giving her some relief, and she opened her eyes to see Mako standing over her. With one hand, she lazily indicated he could take a seat. “How can it get so warm so quickly?”
“We’re much further south than where we started,” he pointed out, leaning back on his hands after he sat. He sounded amused, “And the farther south we go, the more summer it becomes and the less winter.”
“Stop telling me facts,” Korra groused. But she sat up and looked at him. “How are the others doing?”
Mako grinned at her, then turned his gaze to the deck below. “Bolin’s been keeping busy,helping out the crew. I think he likes it. It’s good, honest work, and he’s got the strength for it. Asami has been like a ghost. One moment I’ll see her below decks, the next she’s up in the crow’s nest.”
Korra glanced up, and indeed, Asami was perched high over head. She saw her look down at them and waved.
“My… Tahirah and Opal have been poring over maps, arguing about the most efficient course to get to Gondor. The first mate keeps siding with Tahirah and it makes Opal furious.”
“I doubt we’ll get a ship to take us the whole way there. We’re going to be making friends with 2 or 3 more captains by the time we get to Dol Amroth.” Korra gave him a teasing smile, “Your Tahirah?”
Mako’s face went as red as the scarf he usually wore, “I uh….”
“Relax. She likes you, I like you, and if you hurt her I’ll make sure they never find your body.”
Unable to tell if Korra was joking or not, Mako cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Don’t tell the Captain this, but Opal wants to come with us, if the Zaofu doesn’t go the whole way.”
Korra wasn’t surprised. She nodded at his words, “Suyin won’t like that.”
Mako blanched, “I know.”
“I’d say let her blame me, but I don’t want to add any tension to future negotiations,” Korra pointed out. “Kidnapping the niece of the Captain of the Guard wouldn’t go over well.”
“I could talk to her,” Mako suggested. “She knows me, and I know Opal. And I think I can get her to see that she won’t be able to stop Opal once she sets her mind to it.”
“Let Opal know she’s welcome, as long as you can convince the Captain it’s a good idea.” Korra reached over, and squeezed Mako’s arm. She was glad beyond words that he’d come too. They’d only known each other a short time, but Korra felt like they were meant to be friends. Both him and his brother.
Mako gave her a nod, before stepping away. Across the deck, Korra could see Bolin leaning on the railing, looking a little green. Asami gave him a mug of something, which he drank gratefully. He put his hand on his stomach and burped, then laughed. He was loud enough that Korra heard not just what he said, but also the burp.
“Thanks! I feel so much better! Who knew elves had a sea-sickness cure!”
Asami laughed politely, though when she turned towards Korra she was cringing. Korra laughed so hard she nearly rolled off of the wheel house.
Asami shaded her eyes as they got closer. There was a tall cliff behind the port with a majestic three-layered waterfall. The trees were unlike any she’d seen before, tall layered trunks with green pointy fronds that waved in the breeze.
Korra was the first one off the ship when they docked, disappearing into the port with Su. Asami remained behind, helping the others unload what had been brought to trade. By the time the Zaofu was unloaded, Su and Korra had returned.
“We won’t be leaving for a few days,” Korra told her. “Su invited us to dinner tomorrow night, and she’s going to take us as far West as she can!”
“That’s very kind of her! I think I’d like that dinner, too,” Asami replied. She’d come to like Su and her family over the course of this voyage, and she was glad to spend more time with them. “I heard something about taking on some new crew?”
“Yes. Some of Suyin’s will be transferring over there” Korra pointed out a small ship a few berths over. It was two masted, made from some kind of dark wood and in a Southron design. “It’s called the Four Seasons and. Pretty ship, but I think I like the Zaofu better. Kuvira is recruiting right now.”
“I wonder how far she’s willing to go, before she dumps us on another ship,” Asami remarked. And how much longer would it take to return? Without Su’s steam engines, they were at the whims of the wind and tides for whatever ship eventually takes them the rest of the way home.
But maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. More time with Korra, and with their new friends. Asami had all the time in the world, but she was the only one.
It was nearing sundown by the time she was able to peel Korra away and have her to herself. Korra asked no questions as Asami led her out of the city and towards the waterfall.
“So how exactly are we getting up there?” Korra asked.
“How do you know that’s what I’m planning?”
“Because it’s the only place with a view where we can be alone.”
Asami turned to Korra, then sidled close before pulling her into a kiss. When she pulled away, the ranger looked dazed, and Asami’s eyes twinkled, “Race you to the top.”
As she jumped up and grabbed an outcropping, she could hear Korra protest below her, “That’s cheating!”
“You can punish me if you catch me.” Asami heard Korra scrambling up after her and redoubled her efforts. Her laugh rang off the stone as the top got closer and the waterfall grew louder. Asami’s goal was the second tier. From the ground it had looked like there was a flat area far enough away from the water to be able to talk easily, but still close enough to enjoy the view and the spray.
There wasn’t much to get a foothold on when she reached the top of the first tier, and so she dangled for a moment before jumping, her body swinging after she’d grasped a handhold. This climb was less steep, and she grinned in triumph as she reached the top.
Korra smiled down at her, holding her hand out to help her out. Too stunned to do anything else, Asami took it.
“So how shall I punish you?” Korra ran the back of her hand across Asami’s cheek, and then stroked her ear with her fingers.
“That’s a good start.”
Rolling her eyes, Korra stepped back, taking Asami’s hand and guiding her to the edge of the cliff. The sea stretched on forever, glistening gold and yellow and red as the sun began to set. Below them, lanterns and torches flickered to life in the city and on ships at dock. “Worth the climb?”
“Definitely.” Asami squeezed Korra’s hand, then sat and pulled her down with her.
“We really haven’t had much alone time lately.” Korra leaned her head against Asami’s shoulder. “Not that I mind the people we’ve been with, but a part of me misses all those long miles when it was just the two of us.”
“Yes.” Asami laughed quietly, “I feel the same. I wanted to … I wanted just us, for a night. Before our journey continued, before we sail to lands even I never visited.”
She turned her head to find Korra looking at her. Her eyes shimmered like sapphires in the dusk and Asami’s heart thundered. She knew those eyes. She knew that look. She knew this place. Korra smelled of leaves, a scent Asami had carried in her dreams for thousands of years.
“Calenmir, tye-meláne.” Korra lifted her hand to Asami’s face.
For the first time, she knew the words that Korra had told her in her dreams, and it barely registered what name she’d used. Calenmir, green jewel, for her eyes no doubt.
It touched her in a way she couldn’t voice, but not near the same way as the words themselves. The weight of them, of what they meant, of it being her original language that Korra had chosen. Not Sindarin, but Quenya. Asami’s voice broke, “I love you too, Korra.”
Here they sat, on a waterfall at the bottom of the world. To Asami, nothing else existed. Here in this moment Korra was her world and she was Korra’s. Leaning in, she kissed her, Korra’s fingers tangling in her hair.
Korra pushed her down, a fire burning in Asami’s chest. Their lips parted, and Korra sat up, looking down at Asami.
“Be mine,” she whispered. “Please.”
“I was never anyone else’s.” She never could be anyone else’s.
Korra’s throat bobbed, and then she pulled her tunic off and tossed it aside. Asami drank in the view, the dark skin glistening in the dusk, the heat in Korra’s eyes. Her fingers moved over Korra’s stomach, then caressed at her skin reverently before tracing the scars. She’d held close the memory of Korra in that pond, the way the shadows and light had danced on her form and how very much like a sculpture she was.
But to touch her, finally, was something altogether different, and she spent several lazy minutes studying Korra’s body with eyes and hands.
Memorizing every muscle and scar.
Korra would never be known as ‘the patient’ and chuckled before taking Asami’s hands and placing them on her breasts. “There’s more of me, you know.”
“I… didn’t want to presume.”
Giggling, Korra guided Asami’s hands until Asami didn’t need the encouragement anymore. She groaned, arching her back and smiling at the shift in Asami’s expression and the way her eyes kind of bugged out.
“Have you never…?” Korra racked her brain for what she knew of elves and lovemaking, but Asami moved her thumbs over her nipples, which was making it difficult to think.
“There was someone once. But not… this much. Not like this.” It was complicated with her kind, and Asami didn’t want to get into it or think about it. About consequences and what it mean for her life and her soul if they continued. And Asami very desperately wanted to continue.
She sat up suddenly, kissing Korra, and then her jaw, and her neck, nuzzling her skin. “You’re so beautiful. So beautiful, I want to worship you.”
Korra only made a strangled approving sound as Asami’s lips brushed down her throat. The taste of Korra’s skin was impossible to place, but Asami couldn’t get enough of it. She felt Korra’s hands in her hair again, her fingers brushing her sensitive ears and in response, Asami flicked her tongue over the nipple on Korra’s right breast.
“You know,” Korra gasped. “It’s been awhile but I don’t remember that feeling quite this good.”
There was a burning in Asami’s heart as she took that as a prompt to forever banish any of Korra’s previous lovers from her mind. Pushing her onto her back, Asami lay on top of her, sucking the nipple into her mouth and teasing it with her tongue. Korra shivered underneath her and moaned her name. Her fingers dug into Asami’s scalp when Asami used her teeth, “Gentler… gentle.”
“Sorry.” Asami stroked her hand up and down Korra’s stomach and kissed her nipple apologetically.
“It’s all right.” Korra stroked her hair, then pulled her up to kiss her.
That fire in her chest threatened to consume her, so Asami shed her top in the hopes that the feel of their skin together might quench it. It only made the fire spread lower.
“Let me.” Korra rolled them so Asami was beneath her.
There was something in Korra’s tone that sent a jolt straight through Asami, and she didn’t protest again.
Korra’s fingers were calloused, a stark contrast to the smoothness of Asami’s skin. Where Asami had touched Korra like an artist inspecting a work of art, Korra touched Asami like she was trying to make her sing.
She held her eyes as her head lowered to Asami’s breast, her hand moving down to her hip and then back up her side. Asami writhed against her, then propped herself up on her elbows as Korra’s mouth moved down her stomach. Korra paused, hooking her fingers into the waistband of Asami’s trousers and without breaking eye contact pulled them off of her.
Asami watched as Korra sat back on her heels, lowering her eyes to look her over. In a voice that was a lot less smooth than she liked, she asked, “Like what you see?”
“I love it.” Korra shed her own trousers, staring at Asami with hunger in her eyes, “There’s so much I want to do to you.”
Reaching for Korra, Asami pulled her down on top of her. She needed to kiss her again, needed to touch her, needed Korra’s hands on her. Somehow sensing this, Korra returned the kiss and caressed at Asami, letting her hands explore her for several minutes before she dared to slid her palm down the inside of Asami’s thigh.
Without breaking the kiss, Asami hooked her leg around Korra’s to pull her closer. Her skin tingled, her groan lost in Korra’s mouth as she willed that hand to move. It did, but in the opposite direction of where she wanted it to go. Her frustrated whine was answered by soft laughter from Korra, who pulled her head back slightly.
“Korra.” She was burning up. She was going to die, going to combust into ash if Korra didn’t touch her. In all her long years she’d never needed anything so much as she did just then.
Korra’s touch was gentle, too gentle to douse the fire in Asami. If anything, she stoked it with tender kisses and loving strokes of her fingers. Asami pulled Korra closer, digging her nails into her back while caressing her hip with her other hand. Then she slid her hand between Korra’s legs and was rewarded with a low, guttural moan.
“I love you,” Asami whispered, barely able to speak as Korra’s dexterous fingers moved faster. She rocked her hips as Korra jerked hers, groaning at the feel of Korra around her finger.
They say… they say… Asami couldn’t remember what they said about what happened when two of her kind joined as one. It didn’t matter what they said. What mattered was Korra. Korra’s voice in her ear, Korra’s skin slick against her own. Korra. Korra. Korra.
And that fire inside Asami, it built and it burned and it built and it raged. Korra burned so bright that the bonfire of her mortality consumed Asami inside and out as she came.
The flame receded, taking something precious of Asami with it. But it left something of Korra behind too, warm and comforting. A connection that might only be broken with the reshaping of the world.
Asami wasn’t alone.
She buried her face into the crook of Korra’s neck, unable to fight the tears or the choked sobs that racked her. But it wasn’t the millennia of exhaustion and pain.
It was joy. The agony and joy of the too short time she would have with Korra. But it felt right, it felt so right. She lifted her head to see tears streaking Korra’s face too.
“I love you,” Korra whispered fervently. Like it was a promise.
But now the sun was up and Korra wobbled a little as she searched for her trousers.
“Do you need me to carry you down?” Asami asked her and she swore she could feel Asami’s amusement.
“Very funny.” Korra fired a grin over her shoulder as she retrieved her trousers from a bush. Asami still lounged in the grass, the rising sun kissing her skin and making her glow.
Or maybe it was her normal inner glow. Or the afterglow of their love making. Maybe even all of the above. Either way Korra caught herself staring, then she remembered that she could stare. So she stared some more.
“Are you going to oogle me all day?” Asami finally got up, stretching her limbs and back once she was standing.
Korra started weighing the benefits of not climbing down until much, much later. “Yes.”
Asami sauntered over, and Korra felt the heat rising in her face. Asami seemed relaxed, and Korra made herself relax. Lovers did this kind of thing, and Asami had clearly gotten over some of her nerves.
The implications of Asami’s nerves and being Asami’s first momentarily weighed on Korra. Asami was older than the sun, and in all that time she’d never let herself get close to someone before Korra? It made her dizzy to think about. And she was glad she hadn’t thought about that the night before. The last thing she’d needed just then would have been performance anxiety.
Placing her hand on Asami’s waist, Korra pulled her in and laughed, “I feel like a newlywed.”
“That’s because you are,” Asami replied simply.
She tilted her head, looping her arms around Korra’s shoulders, “Korra, you do know that in most Elvish cultures the act of making love is akin to marriage, right? That’s where Numenor got it from.”
“I uh.” Korra stared up at her, wide-eyed. Her mind was spinning, “We’re married?!”
“Of course not,” Asami replied, her smile growing. “Unless you want to be.”
“Okay,” Korra said, a little impulsively. “We’re married. I did ask you to be mine after all.”
Clearly, Asami hadn’t expected that answer. “Korra, I was joking.”
“Were you really?” Korra tilted her head, giving Asami a knowing look. “Because I think you were fishing, trying to see my reaction.”
“Both of us would have to consent to that for it to be so,” Asami answered, eyes wide, but locked on Korra’s. “But I’m not fishing. I mean that. I just wanted to see the look on your face.”
“I consent, do you?” The words hung in the air between them, but this all felt right to Korra. How could she want anyone else? She’d fallen in love with this prissy elf
Asami wet her lips, then nodded. “How could I not?”
“It’s easy, you just say no.” Korra smiled gently, “You’re allowed to say no.”
Shaking her head, Asami replied, “I’ll get maybe eighty years with you at most. Maybe another hundred if we’re lucky. I’ve already wasted too much time.”
“Lucky for you I’m not one for a long engagement.”
Asami looked like she was going to say something else, but thought better of it. Korra accepted that, knowing that when Asami was ready, she’d talk about it. Besides, as stunned as Asami looked, she was positively glowing with happiness. Korra felt a tug in her heart and she gave Asami a tight bear hug, then kissed her soundly. For good measure, she spun Asami around, “Wife, I’ve got a wife!”
And she was going to tell the whole damn world about it, too.
Chapter 25: The Oliphaunt in the Room
No one said anything to them about what had obviously happened the next few days. Not even at the dinner they shared with Su and her family. Oh, there were looks, there were plenty of looks, even from Kuvira, but mercifully none of them said a thing.
Asami was grateful for that, and the fact that Korra hadn’t just blurted it out to everyone. She was still swimming through the emotions of that night and the morning after and a part of her wanted to keep it to herself for a little while, just to enjoy that feeling of it being the two of them. Looks shared between her and Korra carried more weight than before, and there were many times she could sense what Korra was feeling or going to say before it happened. It was when their hands touched, fingers brushing across skin, that everything felt the strongest. The brightest.
She was pretty sure she was floating half the time and they were three days out to sea before someone finally called her out on it.
“So are we going to talk about the Oliphaunt in the room?”
Bolin’s voice startled Asami as she leaned on the railing watching dolphins play, the paddle pushing the ship at full speed. She turned to look at him, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You? Korra? The fact that you oogle each other whenever you’re in the same room. I mean, it was bad before but lately it’s been…” He waves his hands, “A lot. It’s been a lot.”
Frowning, Asami lifted her head, “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“No no, It’s not bad! It’s really good and you’re really obviously happy!” He fidgeted with his tunic’s sleeves, “But no one is saying anything about it and it’s kind of driving me crazy because it’s just there and I thought maybe if someone said something the tension will clear and we can all stop holding our breaths about you two.”
“You’re… holding your breath?”
“I know that.”
Bolin laughed, “Besides, I’m pretty sure Korra will burst if she doesn’t tell someone. Soon.”
That was probably true. She looked over to where Korra, Tahirah and Mako were playing some kind of dice game with Wing and Wei, Suyin’s twin sons. Korra lifted her eyes to meet Asami’s and beamed at her, as bright as the sun.
Asami smiled back, eyes crinkling and becoming shiny, “Well then, I guess I’ll have to let her break the news.”
Bolin stood in silence with her for a little while, and they watched the ocean pass by. Something seemed to be on Bolin’s mind, and after a few more minutes, Asami asked, “Is everything okay?”
“What? Oh, yes.” He shook his head, “I just… have some questions, but I didn’t want to be a bother.”
“You can ask me anything,”Asami promised.
“Okay…” Bolin furrowed his brow. “So how does it work?”
At the expression on Asami’s face, Bolin waved his hand, “Not that, I mean how does it work with you being an elf and her being mortal?”
Sagging slightly against the railing, Asami wished it had been the other thing, “You mean, what happens when she dies?”
“I know she’s Dunedain and they live longer than most humans, but…”
Gripping the railing behind her, Asami weighed her words, “There are stories, usually cautionary ones, about my kind and yours. In them, once the mortal has passed, the Elf becomes consumed with grief. Some fade away until their souls return to the halls of Mandos to await reincarnation. Many choose to stay there forever. Others live on, minus the piece of themselves that died with their lover. Sometimes, there’s suicide involved.”
Placing his hand on her arm, Bolin said, “That sounds awful.”
“It is. It’s almost as bad even without a mortal involved. My father never fully recovered from my mother’s death. They shared a bond, just like the elves and mortals in the stories. But at least they were reunited after his death. You mortals, you go somewhere else. So we quite literally lose a part of ourselves. It’s a matter of how strong an individual is if they survive it or not.”
“Do you know where we go?”
She shook her head, “No one does, but it’s supposed to be a good place, despite the lies of Sauron and Morgoth.”
His eyes moved to Korra, then back to Asami, “Are there any happy endings?”
Asami’s mouth twitched, and she looked down at the deck. “There’s the story of Beren and Luthien. In it, Luthien convinced the gods to grant her mortality. So she and Beren got to live a life as mortals, and departed the world together. And then there’s Tuor and Idril.”
“What happened with them?”
“It is believed that he is the only mortal to ever set foot upon the undying lands, and that he is now counted among the Elves. There, he will live forever alongside Idril.”
It was a lot to take in, but Bolin wanted to make sure he really understood. They were his friends, and he wanted them to be happy. It was the least they deserved after helping his people, “If you had the choice, which option would you pick?”
“Mortality.” Asami’s answer was instant, and heartfelt. She’d lived so long, seen and done things that would haunt her forever and the idea of a mortal life, a single life with Korra, was appealing. “But that’s impossible.”
“But you just said someone did it.”
“I don’t have Luthien’s vocal cords.” Asami laughed, the sound gentle like the breeze. “It was a gift, for her and her descendants. The Queen of Gondor is her great granddaughter, and she chose mortality. Her brothers… well they still have a little time to choose.”
“So, that’s a third happy ending, then.”
“I suppose it is. Her advice has proven… valuable.”
“What about the other option?”
Looking at Korra again, Asami weighed the odds, “Tuor was a hero of legend, even during his life. Like Luthien, the circumstances were unique. But...Korra has inspired so many. She convinced the Blue Wizards to return for judgement, and there’s no telling what else she’ll do in her life.”
Bolin’s hand squeezed on her arm, and he would have taken her into a hug if she’d seemed open to it, “So it’s possible.”
“Perhaps.” But Asami didn’t dare let herself hope. “But even if it is not, I don’t regret loving her. I have memories already and we’ll build more together. And in that way Korra will live on until the ending of the world, no matter what else happens.”
“You’re not allowed to fade away,” Bolin decided, his tone almost demanding. “If you do I’ll come back and kick your butt.”
“That’s fair.” She turned to smile at Bolin. Thanks to Korra and all these mortals, Asami had returned to a world she’d separated herself from for centuries. Galadriel was right, they would both return home changed. Changed for the better, “And you’ll live on too. All of my friends. I’ll make sure of that.”
Mostly, she was just relieved they’d gotten over themselves and let themselves enjoy each others’ company. Life was too short to lose out, even for the Rangers.
For months and months she’d watched them flirt and dance around each other and she was pretty sure they’d been snogging behind her back since before they’d arrived in Kadarzimra, so she’d cheered. But now that they’d all retired to their cabins, it made her reflective. About her friends, about herself, about … Mako.
She slipped out of the hammock, edging past the bed where Asami and Korra were sleeping and grateful they were polite enough to not fool around with someone else in the room. Not withstanding some giggling earlier, at least.
She nearly tripped over Opal’s outstretched foot, before carefully making her way onto deck.
The deck felt deserted. Kuvira was on night watch, and nodded at her from the helm. She thought she saw Varrick and his assistant at the bow, and fourth figure stood at the starboard railing. She recognized Mako’s figure immediately. Tucking her hair back, Tahirah shyly approached him. “Can’t sleep?”
He turned his head, smiling at her, “Bolin keeps making interesting sounds in his sleep, I thought I’d help out up here to try to exhaust myself enough to sleep through it, but they didn’t really need me.”
Tahirah looked out towards the horizon. It wasn’t a clear night, and there was a light breeze that was slowing the ship down. “I’m sure the rest of us need you enough to make up for it.”
She tensed, staring at a particularly interesting looking wave. “That is, I mean…”
Mako slid his arm around her, and she leaned into it. “I know what you mean.”
“Do you, really?” She looked at his face, meeting his eyes. There was a question there, and an interest that made her stomach twist into knots. She’d seen plenty of attractive men before, but she’d never met anyone who’d made her quite this tongue tied. Because try as she might, she couldn’t make the words happen.
Which was a little terrifying considering making words happen was kind of her thing, and this was a moment, this was her moment to say something profound or flirty or romantic or suggestive and then Mako tilted her chin up and he kissed her, and she forgot everything else.
“Yeah, I do,” he replied, leaning his forehead against hers.
Maybe it was the kiss, but Tahirah felt unsteady on her feet. “So I guess you have a thing for royalty.”
“I have a thing for cute girls who tell wonderful stories,” Mako replied. “The royal thing is just a bonus.”
Tahirah laughed softly, and looped her arms around his shoulders. “I should have kissed you weeks ago.”
“You should have,” he agreed.
The ship’s movement became rockier, and she grabbed both Mako and the railing. The clouds she’d seen on the horizon had gotten much closer, and they looked much, much angrier. Lightning flashed within the storm and as the seas kicked up the wind became worse as well. It blew rain into Tahirah’s face.
Someone started ringing an alarm bell, and a few moments later the rest of the crew came rushing out from below decks. Kuvira’s voice cut through the wind, “Squall!”
Kai, the cabin boy, grabbed Mako and Tahirah’s arms, “If you wanna help, we need to make sure the ropes are tight and then get below.”
Not needing to be asked twice, Tahirah bolted around. The storm was already making visibility difficult, soaking the deck and making her feet slip as she moved around. The ship bucked like an unbroken wild stallion and she nearly flew overboard. But she made sure that the crew could tie themselves off, and that they’d be secure. But before she was done, the storm hit the ship with its full fury.
The ship pitched sideways as a wave washed across the deck, taking her with it and into the raging ocean. Tahirah struggled to stay above water, breaching the surface in time to see another wave slam into the port side of the ship. Metal groaned and wood splintered as the mast snapped. The last thing she remembered was the mast falling towards her and the sound of the metal screaming as though the Zaofu was dying.
Chapter 26: Castaways
The only thing keeping Asami going was the knowledge, deep in her heart, that Korra was still alive.
Of the crew and passengers of Zaofu, she’d so far pulled the brothers, Tahirah, and Opal out of the water. Kuvira and Suyin had rescued the twins, Kai, and several more of the crew, including Varrick and Zhu Li, but there was no sign of Korra. The sea had likely claimed the rest, but Korra was alive. She knew it, she felt it. If Korra was dead, Asami would have felt that as surely as an arrow through her own heart. And it was too soon, far too soon to be parted from her.
It was oppressively hot, the sand white, the sun impossibly bright.. The beach would have burned her feet were they bare, and it was the only thing between the ocean and a thick, humid jungle. Elves only felt the heat in extreme situations, much like the cold, but this was close to uncomfortable for Asami. She couldn’t imagine what it was like for the mortals.
Wiping her brow, she came to a stop and closed her eyes. Asami listened. Not with her ears, but with another sense. She felt something, like the caress of a lover. Opening her eyes, she moved quickly, “Korra!”
The ranger had washed up a thousand yards away from the rest of them. Asami sprinted across the sand, dropping to her knees at Korra’s side. Korra groaned, opening her eyes as she was bundled into Asami’s arms. “I feel like I swallowed half the ocean.”
“You’re not going to enjoy the next few hours, then.”
Korra made a face, leaning her head into Asami’s check, “What about the others?”
Standing and making sure she had a good grip on Korra, Asami started back up the beach, “Our little fellowship survived. So did most of Suyin’s crew. It’s a miracle.”
Korra remained silent. Asami thought she might have argued at being carried, but after the ordeal last night she doubted she had the strength.
She set her down on a log, then straightened and took in the scene. Kai and Mako had built a fire, and she could see Bolin with Opal in the water trying to catch fish. Food might not be as big a problem as fresh water would be. Suyin and Kuvira were going through the supplies that had washed ashore.
The rest of the survivors were in the shade of a large tree at the edge of the jungle near where she’d put Korra down, and they all looked exhausted. Torn clothing, cuts and scrapes and bruises, but no serious injuries. They had been lucky.
She approached Mako, “Has anything washed up? Supplies, or anything really?”
He gestured towards a pile that Tahirah was sorting through, “A few things. A crate of rum, a few of our packs, and a barrel of grog. Su is hoping they can find some more.”
“So we’re not entirely without water, but that barrel won’t last us more than a few days.” Asami sighed, watching as Tahirah brought two packs over to Korra. “As much as we needed those packs, I’d trade them for another barrel.”
“There’s got to be fresh water in the jungle,” Mako pointed out, “Or we could try to tap into the trees.”
“I need to get a view above the canopy,” Asami decided. She had the sinking feeling their best chance might be to brave that jungle, but she wanted to know if they were on an island or the mainland. Based on the sun they were on a south shore, which was evidence of the latter. But she needed to know for sure. She glanced at the large tree giving everyone shade. “I’m going up.”
Stripping to just her underclothes, Asami set them aside on top of her boots and approached the tree. She thought she could shimmy up it pretty easily, and it only took her a few minutes to reach the top.
While it wasn’t the tallest tree, it was tall enough to give Asami a general idea of where they were. The jungle went inland for miles, before meeting a series of ancient, worn down mountains. The jungle seemed to breathe, like it was a sleeping thing and Asami got the impression it was as old as those mountains. She wondered what creatures lay within.
Between two mountains she could just make out a desert that stretched to the horizon. That meant they weren’t on an island, though they were on the far southern coast of the Harad, on a little peninsula jutting out into the ocean. She closed her eyes, visualizing maps she’d seen centuries ago. Nothing in her memory related to those mountains, and with the sea on three sides they only really had one direction to go in.
Or they could stay, and hope a ship passed by on the trade route.
Climbing back down, Asami let out a sharp whistle, and waved everyone over as she jogged to Korra. Once everyone had gathered, she took a stick and drew what she’d seen. “We’re here. The jungle stretches for perhaps thirty miles, maybe forty, before it ends at mountains. Beyond those mountains is desert.”
“It’ll take two weeks to hack our way through,” Kuvira said.
“One at least,” Asami agreed.
“What if we stayed here?” Tahirah suggested, “Go in far enough to find fresh water, and wait for a ship.”
“It could be a month before we see another ship.” Suyin took a stick, and marked where the shore was where they are, “And that’s assuming one is close enough to see us. The trade route doesn’t usually come this close to land here. We got pushed in by the storm.”
“Why, exactly, do ships avoid this area?” Korra shifted closer, looking at the map in the sand.
“It’s the jungle,” Zhu Li answered. “There’s something terrible in the jungle.”
“Is it just me,” Bolin asked. “Or is it always something terrible in the jungle?”
Korra and Asami shared a look, before Korra pulled herself to her feet. “So that’s our choice, then? Hope for a miracle, or brave the jungle and whatever creatures we might find?”
She turned to Su and Kuvira, “Let's say we make it through the jungle. What are our chances of finding a town or city after that?”
Kuvira rubbed her jaw, then drew a line from the mountains, north and west through the desert. “There’s a large town here. Three days ride.”
Korra did the math in her head, “Three days by horse. That’s eight on foot if we wanted to survive the trip. Any faster would be suicide.”
Two weeks in the jungle, another in the desert. Asami glanced back towards the ocean, then peered into the trees again. She was already designing a means to transport the gear they’d recovered plus the water they’d need to survive the journey. Any one of them could hunt, so food probably wouldn’t be a problem…
“We don’t really have a choice.” Su snapped her stick in half, “We have better odds making for that town than we do waiting for help that might never see us. From there we could join a caravan to the coast, or you could stay on land the rest of the way to Gondor. Besides.”
She gave them a grim smile, “I know you guys faced Wizards. The jungle doesn’t stand a chance.”
Wizards and deadly jungles weren’t the same thing and not even on the same scale, but Asami prepared as best she could. The thick vines and plants would be havoc on their blades, and they only had one sharpening stone left between them. Transporting the supplies they’d recovered was another task, but she solved that by building platforms they could drag behind them. If someone was injured, that same sled could be used for them.
Knowing that they’d run out of water eventually meant they had to always be on the look-out for water sources and according to Wei, the water here wasn’t always safe to drink.
“We found an empty barrel,” Mako said, kneeling next to Asami and pointing it out. “we should take it. If we suspend it over a fire we can boil any water in it. That should make it safe enough to drink.”
“It’s a good idea,” Kuvira agreed. “Put the barrel on my sled. I am sure Asami and Varrick can come up with a way to keep it from catching fire while we boil the water.”
Varrick wrapped an arm around Asami, “That’s easier said than done, but two super geniuses like us ought to come up with something no problem!”
After a day of preparation and a night of rest, they were ready to go. Asami stepped into the forest first. She moved the lightest, and had the strongest swinging arm, using Kuvira’s saber to hack through vines and leaves.
Behind her was Mako, then Tahirah, Varrick and Zhu Li. Bolin was behind them, pulling a sled. Kuvira after him with her sled, then Opal and the twins, and finally Korra taking up the rear with several more crewmembers.
It pained her that Korra was out of sight, but she was the best option for the rear guard.
It was slow going. The jungle was as humid as the beach, maybe more so. Even Asami wasn’t immune to the sweat, or the bite and sting of strange insects that followed them.
Asami thought she might go mad. Other than their thrashing, the only sound were insects, and some distant creature with a long, low bellowing call.
She started to hum, and before long the others picked up the tune. Without discussing it and without planning it, it turned into something altogether amazing.
At first, they all hummed along together, before Kuvira started to hum a countertune and Mako joined her. Korra’s voice cut through the trees clear as bell as she sang wordlessly, and Asami’s voice rose to match hers.
Not to be outdone, Tahirah harmonized with Mako and Kuvira. Bolin’s voice rolled beneath them all, surprisingly low and deep.
It was a marathon, not a sprint, so they rested often. By Asami’s count they only covered five miles that first day. She knew they could do better the second, sitting on a log as Opal passed around their water ration while Korra discussed the watch schedule with Kuvira. The two seemed to butt heads often, but Asami thought Korra could handle it on her own.
“How are you holding up?” She took the cup from Opal, sipping before returning it to her. Asami could go on much less water than the rest of them, but she’d decided to only drink a little less than she usually did. It would be the desert where they might find out just how long she could last without.
“It’s exhausting, but I’m used to a hard work ethic,” Opal explained, taking a seat next to her. “When on board the Zaofu, my mother is a slave driver. Once on shore, though, it’s the exact opposite.”
“Shore is for leisure, and ship is for work,” Asami guessed.
“Exactly.” She held out the cup again, “One more.”
Asami thought that was wise, so she sipped again and nodded at her, “Thank you.”
Chapter 27: Starkindler
For the record, this chapter and the next have been roughly planned for three years now ;)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Their original water was gone by the end of the second day and everyone but Asami looked worse for wear by the end of the week. But even she was starting to show the strain. They pushed themselves another three days before Korra called for an extended break.
They’d made it farther than they’d expected to, though, and Asami confirmed that by climbing up a tree. The mountains were much closer; maybe two days away at most. She agreed it might be best if they took a day to rest, boil water and resupply their food stores, and decided to suggest to Korra they do some hunting once they were back on the ground.
But she saw some movement, a few miles West of their position, and shielded her eyes from the sun. Something large rustled the tree tops, but she couldn’t make out exactly what it was except it had a very long neck. It moved on, the forest blocking her view.
Asami puzzled over it for a moment. The largest creatures she’d ever seen had been Dragons. Ancalagon the Black had towered over an entire mountain range, and many drakes could dwarf even Minas Tirith. The infamous Smaug, nearly three hundred feet in length, was small in comparison to the Dragons of the First Age.
But this had been no Dragon, and yet it was larger than any Auroch or other non-dragon she’d encountered in Middle-earth, for that matter.
Korra caught her arm excitedly when she came down, “Asami, you have to see this. I found a game trail, and there’s… it’s hard to describe.”
Letting herself be tugged along, Asami spent more time admiring her new wife than preparing herself for whatever Korra had to show her. “I’m sure it’s not that interesting.”
The trail was thirty feet wide, a path cleared through the jungle by many large creatures over many years. One such beast was lumbering along. Feathers, mostly green and white, ran along its body, particularly the back. Nearly twenty feet long, and bulkily built, it had a large bone fringe around its neck and a single horn rising above a beak. The fringe had a vibrant red and white pattern on it.
It was like some kind of bizarre bird, but not any bird Asami had ever seen. She watched as it took a bite out of a fern and chewed slowly. The ground rumbled, and she looked up the trail to see another dozen of the animals approaching. “What is that?”
“I don’t know, but it’s really beautiful. Look at the pattern on the frill!” Korra pointed at it, and Asami smiled at her.
“You know, for being such a dangerous jungle, we haven’t really encountered anything worse than large snakes.”
“I’m going to assume that horn would hurt really badly,” Korra replied softly.
Asami agreed they probably didn’t want to provoke a herd of animals that could easily trample their entire party. Very quietly, they returned to camp.
Korra’s ranger skills got them a fire going despite the dampness of the jungle, and as night descended they all gathered around it, chatting softly.
Tilting her head up, Asami looked at the sky through the trees. It was hard to see it, but there were a few gaps where the stars were visible.
“What is it?” Tahirah settled next to her, following her gaze.
“The stars are holy, to my people,” Asami explained, still focused on the ones she could see. “When the Elves first awoke, there was no sun. There was no moon. The only light was that of the stars, placed there long ago by Varda Elentari, the Starkindler, our most revered of the Valar. Most know her as Elbereth.”
She lowered her gaze, realizing everyone was looking at her.
Korra smiled at her, “Did you ever meet Varda?”
Shaking her head, Asami laughed, “No, though I’ve seen her. I cannot begin to put her beauty into words, but I’ll try. She’s tall and beautiful, with a wide, round face, with high cheeks and angled eyes. Her hair is black with glittering stars. If you looked at her straight on, she glows with the purest light. And she has the cutest freckles.”
Asami might have had a crush at one point or another. But then most who saw Varda found it hard not to develop one. She’d always wished she’d gotten to speak to her.
“Starkindler,” Tahirah said. “Is that one of your Valar?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “I’ve only ever met two of them, though I saw most of them at a distance on Valinor, and during the War of Wrath.”
Sensing there was a story here, Tahirah prompted, “Who did you meet?”
Thinking about it for a moment, Asami saw no reason not to tell them. She fished around in her pack and pulled out one of her birds. It was dented and damaged from the storm, but still intact, “Aule the Smith was the first one I met. When I was just a child, younger than any of you, my father took me to the Noldorian forges. On my very first day, Aule decided he wanted to visit the forges and see what we were making. He considered the Noldor his friends, and frequently took great interest in what we created. Imagine a dwarf, as tall as a tower, with a huge beard and grey skin. Molten iron ran in rivers along his skin.”
She laughed softly, eyes distant, “And can you imagine making your very first creation while one of the Gods that crafted the world stood there watching? But Aule was kind to me, and he has never been known to be jealous of another’s work.”
Asami lifted the bird up again, “I made something like this. A simple sculpture, without any of the mechanical parts this one has.”
Korra reached out and brushed away one of Asami’s tears. She gave her a grateful smile before continuing, “He praised it. So I offered it to him as a gift.”
Awed, Bolin asked, “Did he accept it?”
“Yes. I imagine it’s still in his workshop.” Almost everyone was looking at her with interest, though she thought she caught Kuvira rolling her eyes.
Slipping her hand into Korra’s, she continued, “I hope, one day, I can meet him again, and show him what I can do now. If I’m worthy of that.”
Tapping her knuckles against her armor, Korra said, “I think he’d be proud.”
“You said there was a second one?” Mako asked, curious.
“Yavanna, the queen of the Earth. Her skin is dark like the roots and the soil, and her hair is leaves of green and yellow, with flowers of all the colors growing in it.” Asami turned her little bird over and over in her hands, “She liked to talk about things that grow. That was her domain. Moss and flowers and trees. And she mentioned something once, about the time before the Elves. How the Valar would raise mountains and plant trees and create all manner of beasts. But Melkor would constantly disrupt their work. So there were forgotten places in Middle-earth, where some of those beasts might still be found. I think this jungle is one of those places. It certainly feels old enough.”
“People who place stars in the sky? Gods of creation and earth?” Kuvira snorted, “You can’t expect me to believe any of that. These Valar might be your gods, but they’re not mine.I choose to believe in what can be seen.”
“You can believe what you want, I know what I’ve seen,” Asami snapped.
Korra put her hand on her arm, “That’s enough, Kuvira.”
Asami looked at Korra, and then Tahirah and the others, and didn’t want to ask if they’d believed her. But at least they had the decency to keep any doubts to themselves. Asami had shared something deeply personal, and Kuvira’s words wounded her. She patted Korra’s hand, then got to her feet, “I’m going to scout ahead.”
“I just need a little while, I’m okay.” She smiled at Korra, then grabbed her bow and sword and jogged out into the jungle.
Putting Kuvira out of her mind, Asami moved through the jungle silently. Without the entire complement following her she could be as light-footed as she needed to be.
After about a mile, she stepped into the edge of a clearing. Starlight seemed to fall like the tears that suddenly ran down Asami’s face. She suddenly felt homesick in a way that she hadn’t known in a thousand years. Homesick for the Gardens of Lorien or the streets of Tirion, and the houses of Valmar that floated on air as if ships at sea.
She turned her face skyward, singing softly words that she hadn’t voiced in an Age, “Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the sea.
O Stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.”
Asami didn’t expect any answer, though she hoped for a sign that someday, long after Korra had passed, she would actually be welcomed home. The words felt strange on her tongue, the tune not quite fitting her throat, but for some unknown reason she felt lighter.
She turned to skirt the edge of the clearing, only for something like the sound of twinkling bells to draw her attention back to it. A tall woman stood in the starlight, bright as the moon. Numberless stars and nebula shone in her hair as it waved in a breeze, glittering and glistening. Asami felt her legs give out before she dropped to her knees.
“Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo.” A hand touched her chin, lifting her face so she couldn’t turn away from the blinding light. Varda Elentari’s voice was as soft as a song, “Vanessë. Do you really believe I do not hear your prayers? You are no longer Exiled, and have not been for quite some time. Your home will welcome you. ”
“I…” Asami was at a loss for words. She’d known, logically, that the ban had been lifted for all but a few but she’d never really allowed herself to think she was worthy of returning.
A smile danced like moonlight across Varda’s lips, “Or shall that mortal flame that burned your heart finally convince you of your worth?”
A long silence passed between them, before Asami found her words, “I am afraid.”
“Fear is natural, even among the first children,” Varda answered. “But is it not bravery to return? To face those who you wronged? Whether they forgive you or not is up to them, but should you not at least try?”
She gently pulled Asami to her feet, and placed something in her hand. Closing Asami’s fingers over it, she continued, “There will be more darkness, before your journey is ended. Trust your heart to guide you. Tenn' enomentielva, Vanessë.”
“Until we meet again,” Asami responded, voice tight.
Varda smiled, her form turning dark, pinpricks of light twinkling within her. Those lights dispersed to the heavens like sparks from a bonfire and Asami was alone.
Opening her hand, Asami stared down at what Varda had placed in her hand. It was a gem of some sort, but the light within burned like a star. Keep it close to her heart? Asami knew that Korra was her heart, and she was already mentally designing the fastening so that Korra could wear it under her armor.
As she started back towards camp, Asami heard, almost felt, some kind of low rumble. It was an incredibly unsettling sound, rattling down to her bones. It reminded her, vaguely, of the sound of Dragons on the hunt.
Something stepped into the clearing. It was large, walking on two powerful legs. A blanket of black feathers or quills ran down its back but the creature was mostly scaley, with black and white markings all along its body. Arms that were almost vestigial ended in two sharp claws each. At least twenty feet long and half that in height, it had a wide snout with a mouth like a crocodile, lined with long, sharp teeth. It looked like it could eat a dwarf whole.
But it was the eyes that made Asami freeze in place. Set beneath a scaley ridge the color of copper, they were yellow.
Among the Eldar, it was generally known that the creatures of Morgoth and Sauron were corrupted. From wolves came Wargs. Powerful Maiar like Gandalf were corrupted by fire and darkness into Balrogs. Less powerful spirits became creatures like Sauron’s vampires. And of greatest shame: Orcs and Goblins had been created from tortured elves.
The eyes that looked at her were those of a dragon and Asami now knew the answer to a question she’d never wanted to ask; what had Morgoth created dragons from?
Something like this. Something very much like this.
It snorted at her, tilting its head before turning to continue on its way, tail swinging behind it as that unsettling rumble reverberated in Asami’s chest. As she watched it lumber off into the darkness, Asami reasoned it must not have been very hungry, or perhaps Varda’s lingering presence had made her an unattractive meal. But she had the distinct impression this creature had graciously allowed her to live.
Still, she was wary as she returned to camp, as though she couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being followed.
Korra spotted her first, and she put the strange predator aside for the moment as the ranger came over to her, “Asami! You’re glowing.”
She looked down at herself, then held her hand up to examine it. Dropping her hand down, she gently pulled Korra into her arms and kissed her. “I love you, so much.”
“That doesn’t explain the glowing,” Kuvira said, looking up from her meager rations.
Asami shrugged her shoulder, willing the light to fade, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But I really think we should move camp.”
I'll be updating Quenta once more in October, and once in November. The remaining chapters of Quenta will be the initial subject of Nanowrimo this year and if all goes well weekly updates will begin in December.
Chapter 28: The Hunt
While I don't go into depth or detail, this chapter is a little more violent and bloody than most of the rest of this story outside of a few battles and scenes. There are some deaths, though whether they're 'major' characters or not is a matter of perspective.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Korra had spent most of the time Asami had been away arguing with Kuvira. They were too alike in too many ways, and if Su hadn’t been there to keep the peace Korra wasn’t sure who might have thrown the first punch. It hadn’t just been because Kuvira had touched a nerve in Asami, despite the fact that Korra had felt it almost as if she’d been insulted herself.
Kuvira just didn’t agree with almost everything they decided. She didn’t understand how Su could have worked with her for so long without pushing her overboard. Korra guessed that she was a good sailor and the crew followed her orders, but she couldn’t imagine Suyin standing for any undermining of her orders. In fact, she’d stepped in when things had gotten too heated.
Now Korra sat with Asami, about as far from Kuvira as she could manage. She’d… have to talk to her sometime, and soon. They couldn’t afford to have any splits, not if they wanted to get out of this alive. Her eyes moved from the fading glow in Asami’s face, to where Kuvira was sitting with several of the crew. She could already see the lines being drawn. Tomorrow, she decided. They’d have it out tomorrow.
“Why exactly should we move camp?” Su asked, taking a seat on the other side of Asami.
“I saw this… creature. It was very large and clearly predatory. I don’t know what to call it, but it was like some kind of giant bird lizard, or a very small dragon-----.” Asami gestured at the length of the camp. “Head here, to the tail where Kuvira is sitting. Very tall, too. I’m a little shorter than one of its legs. You’d have to stack the three of us together to reach the top of it’s head.”
“You call that a small dragon?” Su asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Oh, much smaller,” Asami assured her. “Smaug was a small dragon.”
Korra choked on her water, “Wait, Smaug was small? He was three hundred feet, at least!”
Asami gave her wife a pitying look, “A Drake of the First Age was the size of Minas Tirith. Smaug was tiny.”
To give Su an idea, Korra said, “Minas Tirith is tall, while Kadarzimra is wide. Asami’s drake would span from the sea to the palace.”
“Okay so this thing was tiny in comparison, but still pretty big compared to us. Are we in any danger?”
“I can’t say,” Asami shook her head. “If it was hungry and wanted to prey on us, it would take our combined effort to bring us down. But it just looked at me and walked away. My concern is we’re somehow in its territory, and there’s no telling how territorial it is.”
She lowered her voice, adding, “And I feel like something was following me back. But I couldn’t hear anything, or see anything.”
“Moving in the dark would be just as bad an option,” Kuvira pointed out. “We should stay put.”
Korra made sure she was looking away from Kuvira when she made a face, “I hate to admit it, but I agree with Kuvira.”
“We’ll leave at first light,” Su decided, looking up to the trees. “But we should make sure everything is ready to go before we sleep.”
“I’ll take watch,” Asami said, putting her finger to Korra’s lips when she objected. “I’ll rest once we’re out of this jungle. Deal?”
Korra frowned, but nodded. She frequently expressed her displeasure with Asami’s resting habits, but wasn’t about to have that fight where everyone could see. Asami was grateful for that.
It didn’t take them long to be ready for the road. They didn’t exactly unpack at every stop and it was mostly preparing their water and food stores. Korra set the water barrel to boiling over the fire, then curled up with her pack for a pillow. She knew Asami would stop the water barrel before all their water boiled away, and they would have safe water to drink for the trip ahead. As Asami sat on a log to be their sentinel, Korra watched her, wishing they could have another moment alone. If only to hold her.
Korra walked through a dark tunnel, torch in one hand and her sword in another. The sword glowed faintly; not blue for orc, but red for something far darker and far more terrifying. As though something ancient and evil lurked beneath her feet, prepared to leap up and devour her whole.
There was the sound of leathery wings, and an inhuman shriek.
Korra bolted awake, shuddering as the dream kept hold of her, an icy hand running down the back of her spine. It took her a moment to remind herself of where she was, and she couldn’t tell if she’d dreamed of something in the past, or something they would encounter in the future.
The pre-dawn was filtering through the canopy, and she sat up as Asami filled everyone’s water skins. Wordlessly, she got up and assisted then helped with securing the water laden barrel to one of the sleds.
“Are you all right?” Asami whispered, slipping close to her, her arm rubbing up Korra’s back.
“Just a dream,” Korra explained, stealing one sweet, far-too-short kiss as the others in their party started to stir.
She looked up, past Asami, seeing that Kuvira was already awake and staring at them. It didn’t matter, they weren’t a secret yet it still somehow made Korra uncomfortable. Like she wanted Asami to herself and Kuvira had pried into a private moment. Shaking herself, Korra turned back to her lover, “Anything unusual last night?”
Asami shook her head, “Nothing that I could hear, or see. I still felt like we were being watched, but if we were, it was by something or someone very skilled with concealment.”
Korra thought about it a moment, “I’ll have some ideas, I’ll talk to Su. I think we need to stagger the best warriors so that there’ll always be a sword to meet an attacker from any direction.”
“It could weaken us to a coordinated assault from one direction.”
“I thought of that, but better that than leaving a side completely undefended.”
It wasn’t too much different from any other day, but Korra wanted to change some of the positioning of everyone, keeping supplies and the less hardy crew near the center.
Leaning in, Korra stole another kiss, a longer, defiant one in case Kuvira was watching, before walking away to find Su.
The Captain was awake, speaking quietly with Opal. She smiled at Korra, though the expression was tense. “I have a bad feeling about today.”
“You and I both,” Korra assured her, then presented her plan. Su agreed readily, and they spent the next ten minutes deciding on how to spread everyone for the best effect. By the time they were done, the party was ready to move.
Asami was assigned to move around, walking alongside the middle, or to scout, or to watch the rear, whatever her Elf senses told her was best. Korra took point, Kuvira closer to the middle. Su took the rear herself, wanting to keep her good eye on her crew and new friends, and not trusting anyone else to do it. Tahirah was between Su and Kuvira, with Mako between Kuvira and Su. Bolin helped with a sled, Kai near him for defense. Wing and Wei were nearest to Su, with Opal edging suspiciously closer to Bolin, though Korra didn’t point that out so Su didn’t kill him.
The rest of the crew dispersed between Korra and Su, carrying supplies and gear that didn’t fit on the sleds. Korra thought she heard Varrick grumbling about unfair cargo orders, but ignored him.
And then they started to move. By Asami’s estimation, they’d make it to the edge of the jungle before nightfall. They were so close that Korra was impatient for it to be over. As bad as the desert might be, she’d be happy to leave this jungle behind.
But as they walked, her mind started to wander. To that dream, to the memory of Asami’s glow after she’d returned from her late night walk. Something had happened there, that Asami had not told her. Korra knew, in her heart, that Asami would tell her if there was a danger, and they didn’t have the space from the others to discuss personal matters, but she knew something had happened. And it hurt a little that Asami hadn’t told her.
She took a breath, chiding herself. Asami would tell her when she was ready, probably when they could be out of earshot of anyone else. Korra returned her focus to the trees in front of and around them.
The jungle stayed dense as the morning waned on. By noon, the sun was beating down hard enough that Korra called a water and rest break. People had started grumbling and complaining and low morale would do them in as surely as any jungle creature. Even the usually quiet Kuvira had a few choice words about the heat.
Su set a couple of her crew to passing out a meager ration, and nodded at Korra. Korra approached her, crouching as she drank from her water skin, “I feel like we’re so close. Have you noticed anything?”
Shaking her head, Su responded, “Nothing concrete, just a feeling of being followed. But when I look, I don’t see anything.”
Magic? Korra wondered if that could explain how no one had seen anything and yet still felt it. Or perhaps they were just paranoid. She remembered one winter, where wolves had tracked her for miles. It had been this constant paranoia, this knowledge that something was there, but she hadn’t realized what until they’d sprung their trap when she’d stopped to rest.
She stood up abruptly, “Su, we need to get moving, now.”
But it was too late. Someone screamed, and the forest erupted into movement.
Too late, Asami recognized the trap. She heard screaming behind her, the sound of creatures moving through the ferns, and she barely dodged aside as the one facing her leapt forward, slashing down with powerful legs as two others moved in from her sides.
Her sword was drawn in an instant, her dagger held reversed in her offhand as the beast struck at her again. The blade of her sword left a shallow wound in its flank and now she knew it could bleed. Spinning around, she took the head off of the one on her left before the third left a gash down her side from one of its hand claws. Asami separated that hand from the beast for its trouble, then dispatched it and the pack leader, before running back to where she’d left the rest of her crew.
She was greeted by chaos. Feathery tails lashed in between trees, a man screaming as he was dragged away. Another cry brought her attention to Su, and she stared in horror as the Captain was gutted and pulled into the trees by one of the beasts. Asami nocked and fired her bow so quickly she didn’t realize she’d done so until an arrow stuck out of Suyin’s heart, sparing her an agonizing death.
Without Su, everyone started to give into panic, running madly alone or in groups of two or three through the jungle to the north, in some vain hope of finding safety.
It just made them easier targets. The stragglers were picked off one by one, and Asami shouted a warning too late to save them.
Jumping into a tree, she sent arrows raining down into the beasts. She hit several and several more disengaged from the chase to surround her tree. They circled it and occasionally butt into it trying to dislodge her.
But if they were here, they weren’t chasing her friends. They weren’t chasing Korra. And Korra was alive, Asami could feel it like a comforting presence in the back of her mind. It was one less thing to worry about.
From her perch, she could see the remains of the caravan. Most of the gear had been abandoned, blood trails leading into the jungle where the unlucky ones had been dragged away. Asami counted her arrows, and peered down at the creatures surrounding her tree. There had been two at first, but now there were four.
She’d killed three, and then four more. These made eleven, and however many were still chasing the others. Not too many, she reasoned. There were only so many predators any given forest could support, and between that large animal she’d seen and this pack, there probably weren’t too many more.
Su was gone. And so many others. And if she stayed here too long, she might lose the rest completely. Asami counted her arrows one more time.
An arrow struck one of the beasts in the eye, a second went through the neck of another. Asami didn’t wait, dropping to the ground, her sword cutting through a third as she landed. The fourth backed away, hissed, and then ran.
She turned to see Korra limping towards her. Blood streaked down the left side of her head and face, flowing from a slash that ran from her forehead, across her left eye, and down her cheek. Cold fear gripped Asami but she forced herself to move to her lover, “You’ve looked better.”
Korra gave her a tight smile, “We need to get back to the others.”
Nodding, Asami retrieved what arrows she could, and then set off at a heavy jog, all her senses strained to watch out for more of those predators.
Korra remained quiet as they moved. They stumbled across some bodies, here and there. Kai floating in a pond. A woman’s arm. Wei face down in the dirt.
When they found what remained of Varrick, Asami started to doubt that they’d find anyone else alive. But they couldn’t linger to tend the dead; any surviving pack members would be back to take the bodies for food and she knew that huge queen of the jungle might come investigate as well.
They burst out of the jungle and into grasslands that bordered the desert and found the last three of the predators dead, the rest of the crew gathered a few dozen yards away.
Few of them had escaped without injury. A crewwoman Asami struggled to remember the name of sat on the ground as Mako grimly cauterized the stump of her left arm with a blade heated from a hastily made fire. Blood caked Opal’s hair, her arms wrapped around her remaining brother. Asami saw Kuvira standing nearby, staring past them into the forest, her sword dripping blood. She barely acknowledged either of them and while she was hard to read, there was a haunted, heartbroken look in her eyes.
They got closer, and she could see Bolin laying on the ground, makeshift bandages covering his leg and stomach as Zhu Li tended a gash in his arm. The worst of the wounds were already being tended, so Asami forced Korra to sit so she could tend the Ranger’s eye before Korra started helping the others to her own detriment.
She was no healer, but she knew enough to clean and bandage Korra’s face. When she was done she leaned back and remarked, “You remind me of an elf I knew, long ago?”
Knowing that Asami was trying to keep her from thinking about what had happened, Korra asked, “What can take an elf’s eye?”
“Nothing, just a balrog.”
“Just a balrog. What was her name?”
“We spent a few centuries living in a human village in Minhiriath. The mortals there took to calling her Ana.” Asami smiled, the expression tired. She didn’t let Korra ask what she knew the next question to be, “We should help tend the others.”
Korra nodded, getting to her feet. There was nothing she could say that felt appropriate, or inspiring in light of the death today, but she wanted to try, “This day will lay on us like a shadow, always. The sea claimed some, the jungle others, but our journey isn’t over. There still stretches the desert, and all the dangers of the sands. But we will honor the dead by living. We will honor the dead by surviving.”
Then she turned to Asami, and Asami felt her throat constrict, “I need you to take Kuvira and go back into the jungle. We need water, food, weapons. Anything you can carry without making yourselves vulnerable to those damned monsters.”
Asami nodded, and glanced at Kuvira, expecting a fight. But Kuvira just nodded as well. They turned and walked back to the jungle together, silent as a whisper.
The bodies were gone, and when they reached the supplies, they had to hide in a tree and wait for two hours for the large scaled and feathered queen to leave. Asami had not seen Kuvira look scared before, until she’d laid eyes on that creature.
At first, they were silent, searching for supplies while keeping sharp eyes on the lookout.
One of the water barrels was destroyed, but Asami was able to recover the second and tied it to the one remaining sled. She found her and Korra’s packs where they’d left them, and Tahirah’s half-way up a tree. The only other pack that survived was Suyin’s. Asami put all four in the sled.
“Does your kind have an afterlife?” Kuvira asked, breaking the silence.
Asami frowned, debating how much to tell her, “Of sorts. When we die, our souls go to the Halls of Mandos, where Mandos sits in judgement. After a time, we are reborn.”
Going still, Kuvira stared at her for a long moment before she asked another question, “Reborn as yourself, or someone new?”
“Yes,” Asami replied, looking down at the meager supplies in their sled. “Some great heroes return as themselves, anyway. Glorfindel as an example. But most of us are reborn as someone new, though many with a weight upon their shoulders.”
“I cannot tell if one life is enough of a burden to carry, or not enough time to accomplish all that needs to be accomplished.”
There was no answer that Asami could give her, because she felt much the same way. At least, as an elf, she had many, many years to accomplish things -- and to carry her burdens.
The sun had set by the time they’d returned. Besides the large Queen and an even larger animal with a long neck grazing in the treetops, the only movement either had seen had been a small pack of scavengers hopping along like deadly little finches. Asami tried not to think about the blood staining the feathers around their snouts.
Too wound up to sleep, Asami took the opportunity to get the sled better packed, trying to make room for Bolin, who did not appear to be able to walk under his own power.
But they couldn’t leave him, either, nor would anyone suggest such an idea.
She settled, finally, next to Korra and for the first time since the panic of the attack let herself give into the gnawing worry she felt for her wife. Asami leaned into her, clutching her fingers at the armor that had probably saved Korra’s life, if not her eye. “I’m not ready to lose you.”
The words were quiet, so quiet that Asami hadn’t been entirely sure she’d spoken them. But it was true and while she’d never be ready to lose Korra, it seemed such a cruel thing to lose her so soon after meeting her, so soon after giving over her heart and her soul.
Korra’s arms settled around her, and she rubbed lightly, whispering, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Sighing, Asami gave herself a few moments, before she lifted her head, and brought her hand to the side of Korra’s face. She asked, “How are you? How are the others?”
“My depth perception is shot, and… it hurts far more than I’ll admit to anyone but you. Bolin is stable, Anilya is still in shock but I think she’ll be okay. Opal and Wing are.. devastated. Over their mother, their brother, the crew. They lost so many friends and family today.”
Asami turned, looking in the direction of the fire. With her elven sight she could see most of the survivors huddled together. Zhu Li and Opal clung to each other, the latter also leaning against her brother. Mako and Tahirah sat near them, so close that no air could pass between them. Mako had his free hand on Bolin’s head. Only Kuvira really stood apart, until Opal lifted her head and gestured for her to come.
Kuvira hesitated a moment, then approached the fire and sat down with them. Opal pulled her into her arms, and for the first time in what Asami was sure was Kuvira’s entire life, the woman cried.
And at last they leave the jungle. Sometimes change comes in many forms and more than once. Once they escape the desert, there's one last port before home...But one that may be a lot less welcoming than other places they've been.
As I said last chapter, I will update once in November and then should be able to move to weekly updates assuming NanoWrimo goes well!
Chapter 29: Mirage
The pain was the easy part. It was something Korra could focus on, that tight burning pain on the left side of her face, instead of the grief that swept through her heart at the senseless death they’d faced. First those lost in the storm and then in the jungle when they’d been hunted like prey.
She hadn’t been able to save everyone. Korra had barely managed to keep crewwoman Li from losing more than an arm, throwing her over her shoulder as she’d dashed through the ferns and trees. Without the armor Asami had crafted, she was certain she’d be dead. It had protected her, kept her alive by turning away the claws and teeth of those monsters.
Her eye was a small price to pay for her life. The adjustment would be difficult and part of her feared falling into old habits and depressions, but there was no time for that. There was no time beyond the immediate task of survival.
They had to survive, they had to make it across this desert, make it to safety. Then and only then could she let herself dwell on it. Her eye, and everything else.
But the pain, though it burned and ached like something raw, was something she could use, pushing herself to keep going, pushing herself to keeping the rest of them moving. To go forward.
Those who were able took turns pulling the sled. By the third day, Bolin was well enough to walk, albeit slowly and for only an hour at a time. But it was better than nothing, even with the risk of infection growing by the day.
Conversation was rare. Though the desert was much dryer than the jungle, it was hotter and in Korra’s mind it evened out. Yet in the jungle she never felt this dry. Like all the moisture was being drawn out of her leaving a husk behind and she found herself almost missing the humidity. At least there, it hadn’t felt like her skin was cracking like the earth they walked across.
The last of their water skins were dry by the fourth day and the water in the barrel would not last much longer. As Korra stared mournfully into her water skin, a sound drew her attention to the southwest. Heat twisted the air in waves and yet something moved in it. Through it. Above it. A sound like fabric rippling in the wind reached her ears, and then a massive shadow passed over them. Korra looked up, eyes wide as a dragon flew past them.
It was huge, a blue so deep as to be nearly black, with a wingspan that easily dwarved the Zaofu. No one made a sound. No one moved, not until the great beast had disappeared to the north with a long, forlorn cry.
“It’s… it’s just a small one,” Asami murmured, voice trembling. Korra remembered their conversation about dragons. She put her hand on Asami’s shoulder, squeezing it.
“That was a small dragon?”
She turned to where Tahirah was standing, all but gaping at Asami. “How is that a small dragon?”
Asami favored her with a tense smile, “Ancalagon the Black smote three mountains beneath his weight when he died, and Morgoth’s drakes were roughly the size of Minas Tirith. Each.”
“Big dragons,” Bolin whispered.
Despite its relatively small size for a dragon, the implication bothered Korra. That thing had been larger than Smaug by a significant margin, she was certain, if the tales held any truth. But just as certain was that they were in no condition to fight a squad of orcs, let alone a dragon. “And me without any Black Arrows.”
Taking in the group, Korra said, “It flew North and East. We’re traveling west, so I don’t think we need to worry about it. But stay on alert, I’ve got a feeling we’re going to run into trouble sooner or later.”
She had no earthly idea how they might survive the next few days. Without water, a dragon was the least of their problems.
By the sixth day, they were out of water entirely, with no sign of civilization or the promised port on the southwest coast of the Far Harad. The desert just dragged on and on, an endless sea of sand and rock with scarcely any life to speak of. The occasional snake that slithered sideways was about the only thing Korra had seen that had been alive, though she heard other things at night.
She managed to kill one of the snakes, careful to avoid its bite. It made for a meager meal. But it still wasn’t water.
At camp that night as they got some relief from the heat, Korra studied her people and came to a bitter conclusion; none of them were going to make it out of the desert alive. Not without help, or being able to find water. Korra’s mouth was so dry that all she could taste was sand. Li’s arm had started to turn green around the wound, and Korra was certain her eye and Bolin’s stomach weren’t far behind. Tiredly, she gestured at Asami, and leaned against her when she sat down.
“I love you,” she rasped, closing her eyes. This had to be done. “I need you... I need you to get help. You must leave us, and get help.”
Asami’s breath caught, then dry lips pressed into Korra’s cheek. “I’ll leave right away, while it’s still dark. I’ll bring help, but you have to promise me you’ll hold on. You have to promise me you’ll be here when I return.”
Korra smiled to herself. She was being selfish, sending the one she loved most. But it was a practical sort of selfishness; Asami was the only one who stood a chance of living long enough to find help. But if she couldn’t, if they all died here, at least she’d given her a chance. “Trust me. We’re not going anywhere.”
She stayed awake long enough to watch Asami’s form fade into the night, before exhaustion claimed her.
The first day wasn’t too hard, considering. The rock they’d found provided some shelter and shade. It was a small comfort, but it was better than nothing. Not even Kuvira had the energy to object to Korra’s plan. Even she knew that their only hope of survival was that Asami found someone and brought them back before any of them succumbed to the desert.
Korra started hallucinating the second day, sitting up when she saw what looked like a procession of Oliphaunts marching to halfling fair music past their rock. Only after she ran out in a daze to where the parade was did she realize that it had been a mirage. She stumbled back, collapsing again in the shade and didn’t move from that spot for the rest of the day.
No one noticed when Crewwoman Li died, until Mako had tried to shake her awake only to discover she wasn’t breathing. He and Kuvira carried her body out into the sands, burying her as best they could; but there was no marker for her grave.
If Korra had the tears to shed for her, she would have.
As the sun started to set on that third day, Korra fell over onto her side. She’d kept a vigil in her spot the whole time, except for that brief attempt to flag down an Oliphaunt circus. But now she couldn’t move even if she wanted to. She watched the heat rising on the dunes, the way the waves made strange shapes and patterns in the air. Two figures approached, as if cloaked in shadow. Korra hummed her fair song, and then she knew no more but the darkness.
Something cold and damp drew her back. Korra was in a dark place and found it nearly impossible to open her eyes. Her mouth was too dry, her tongue felt like sandpaper. That odd dampness moved across her face, and to her neck. Water dripped onto her lips and she opened her mouth to welcome a thin, short stream of the precious liquid. She rasped a voiceless question.
“You’re safe,” Asami whispered, her voice breaking. “You’re safe.”
Safe could mean many things, but with Asami’s voice and the promise of water, Korra wasn’t inclined to care where they were or who Asami had found. Morgoth himself could have offered her water and she’d take it. But she grasped for Asami’s hand, finally managing to open her eyes. Asami was beautiful, her hair somehow still shining despite their ordeal, even if her face and clothing were dirty.
“Hi,” Korra rasped.
“Hello,” Asami replied. She helped Korra sit up a little, using a wet cloth to dribble some more water into her mouth.
It was only after that that Korra noticed they weren’t alone. An elderly, dark-skinned man sat nearby. He had long hair pulled into dreadlocks that looked to be almost as long as he was tall. His face was marred by time or the ravages of the desert and yet his ears ended in an elegant point. Just as peculiarly as his age, he had a beard. It was shorter than Mithrandir’s and as dark as his hair, carefully groomed. His brown eyes were intelligent and kind.
Asami smiled. “Korra, I’d like you to meet a very old friend of mine. This is King Thembani, Lord of the Elves of the Crescent Moon. The Cúrondhrim.”
“You found them again?” Korra glanced at Asami and managed to have enough energy for a broad smile. She looked back at Thembani and did her best attempt at a bow while laying down. “It’s an honor to meet you, your highness.”
Thembani chuckled. “Rest. You have undergone a difficult trial. I am sorry for those you lost. The jungles to the south are filled with creatures that were here long before I woke from Iluvatar’s sleep beside the Cuiviénen. And, I suspect, they will be here long after I journey to the Halls of Mandos.”
Korra blinked at that. “You… woke…” She felt dizzy. The oldest of the Eldar that she knew of was Cirdan the shipwright. He too grew a beard and appeared old, but she didn’t believe even Cirdan was so old as to have been among the firstborn. “I must be hallucinating again. Have you seen any oliphaunts or halflings?”
“I did tell you he was an ‘old’ friend,” Asami joked, evoking a deep laugh from Thembani.
He smiled at her and put his hand on her arm. The gesture was comforting.“Get some rest. Your wife has told me much of you and your friends. I look forward to showing you my city.”
“It’s so interesting,” Thembani said, walking alongside Korra with his hands clasped behind his back. “I’ve not seen a Ranger since Thorongil came to the South, though that was not that long ago by my own reckoning.”
Korra smiled. She would have been a child while Aragorn had ridden south. None of the people who’d survived the jungle and desert would have been born yet. But she supposed an Elf as ancient as Thembani would see a few decades as the blink of an eye.
She blinked when he held his arm to her, and then she took it as they stepped out into the sunlight. While the Houses of Healing had been somewhat cool, outside, even in the shade of a mountain, it was stifling hot. But Korra forgot the heat almost immediately as the view registered.
Thembani’s city was built near an oasis, much of it carved directly into the canyon. Other buildings rose from the desert all around, built from red stone that seemed to sparkle when the sunlight hit it. It was as grand as Minas Tirith, in every way. She could see gathering places with people milling about or going about their business, flags and banners waving, glittering, gem-like windows in towers.
The Elves of the Crescent dressed in flowing robes or tunics in colors that mostly leaned towards whites, reds and yellows. Most were varying shades of dark, from skin like obsidian to a few shades lighter than herself and hair to match. But she caught glimpses of red and silver and gold, as well. A striking blonde Sylvan elf dressed in red moved through the crowds, laughing uproariously at her companions; a handsome Cúrondhrim man who wore a tunic with a wing motif and a beautiful dark-haired Sindar woman leaning against him with an unusual tattoo looping down her arm and hand.
Korra took it all in, a wide smile on her face as the sight of people so far removed enjoying each others’ company. “It’s beautiful. I’ve been so honored to see place such as this.” She only wished more of the others had survived long enough to see it.
The king laughed, guiding Korra down into the city proper. “You are welcome to stay as long as you need to. You and yours will need your strength if you are to make the journey home. There are but two ways.” He held up two fingers, “Hard, and harder.”
She glanced at him. “What’s the harder way?”
“North, across the desert.” He gestured with his hand towards the North. “A journey that would be deadly enough for an Elf or yourself. That is the way that Thorongil came, and it nearly killed him.”
North was out, then, and Korra had a sinking suspicions what the less hard way was. “And the other way?”
He smiled grimly. “West, to the sea. Through Santhera’s Jungle and then to Umbar.”
Korra couldn’t say which was worse, Umbar or another jungle. She was leaning more towards Umbar. “Umbar and my people have a sour history, but perhaps with the end of the War I can make an offer of peace. It cannot hurt to try.”
That thought alone made her decision; it was half the reason she’d left Gondor.
They stopped in a shaded market, and Korra watched a child run past, pulling a kite. It startled her; she hadn’t seen an Elvish child since she’d been one herself. She stared at him until he disappeared, then inclined her head towards Thembani. “How did you avoid the shadow?”
“Very carefully,” he said, his smile almost impish. “Perhaps something I will elaborate on another time. First, I wanted to talk to you about Asami.”
“Is she well?” Korra felt a tightness in her gut at the thought of Asami being not well.
“Yes. She is much more well than she was last I saw her, two thousand years ago.” His expression was soft. “She was unhappy and in pain. The kind of pain that only long years of sadness and self-loathing can create, festering in her like an infected wound. But now… While such wounds can never fully heal, but they can be made better. And I can tell that you have given her uncountable joy. The difference is remarkable.”
Korra was apparently hydrated enough for tears, and she gave the old elf a thankful smile. “She gives me equal joy. I swear to that.”
Chapter 30: Old Friends
Asami had never been to Umbar, though she knew those who had. They must have left an impression, as according to Thembani, there was now a myth in Umbar that spoke of an avenging angel bringing wrath upon those who’d wronged her beloved. It sounded about right for Gailhirin.
Also, according to him, much had changed in the city since the end of the war and he would provide them the details when they met again on the morrow. There was much planning, so much to look ahead to and Asami knew she wasn’t the only one who wanted to move forward rather than look back.
With Korra up and about and the others able to move as well, Asami could let herself enjoy the city.
The Cúrondhrim city hadn’t changed much since she’d last been south. There were newer buildings and more dwellings carved into the red stone of the cliff, but it was still very close to how she remembered it. There were more outsiders too. Elves from Mirkwood or Lorien, and even a Noldor or two.
How they had all escaped the ravages of the Shadow remained a mystery to her, but perhaps they’d been protected by both the desert and the elvish magics of Thembani and his daughters. It didn’t really matter in the end. They had remained free, a refuge from the corsairs of Umbar and the forces of Sauron to the North and a haven for their kindred fleeing evil.
She turned her head at the soft voice, and smiled brightly at Naledi. Darker than her father, the Princess of the Cúrondhrim was radiant in the glow of the sun. She offered Asami her elbow, and she took it gladly.
“Naledi. It’s so good to see you, now that I have time to relax.”
“You were rather in hysterics when my sister found you,” she said, clucking her tongue. “So desperate to get aid to your friends.”
The desert had very nearly driven Asami mad. Even with her stamina and her inner strength, the thirst and the sun would have done her in eventually. She patted her hand over Naledi’s. “They’ve come to mean a lot to me. Especially Korra.”
“Somehow,” she murmured, eyes momentarily downcast. “I always knew your heart was destined for a mortal.”
Asami swallowed, “Naledi, I--”
“Shush, mellon. I got over that heartbreak a very ong time ago.” She leaned over, brushing her lips against Asami’s cheek. “But we had such a good time, did we not?”
“One of the brighter stars in my life,” Asami assured her, face coloring.
“But not quite as bright as her, no?” Naledi grinned, expression as bright as the sun. “She is special, that one. Your fire burns as hot as hers when you are around her. A love like that is pure and whole and I’ve never seen something like it before.”
“It took me months to embrace it,” Asami admitted. “Though when I first laid eyes on her, I knew. I might as well have been bonded to her, then and there. I wasted so much time in denial.”
“So you have bonded?” Naledi’s eyes lit up with delight. “I suspected as much! The way you cradled her, the subtle ties between the two of you.”
Heat again burned at Asami’s cheeks and she swatted at the princess. “You’re embarrassing me. Korra is probably blushing at this moment without understanding why.”
Naledi nearly skidded to a halt. She turned the top half of her body towards Asami, a judgemental lookin her eyes. “She doesn’t know?!”
“We haven’t exactly had the chance to talk about it,” Asami deflected. “But she’s been around elves enough that she should know what it means to marry one.”
Laughing, Naledi pulled Asami along another street. “Once you are both feeling better, and before you leave, I am going to make sure you have some time alone. To … talk.”
From the glitter in her eyes, Asami knew that Naledi expected that talking would be last on the agenda, though Asami also knew she couldn’t get away with not telling Korra the details of what it meant to have married her. But the annoying thing was she wasn’t wrong. So much had happened since the waterfall, so much death and pain and suffering and misery, that she needed something pure and good and she needed to assure herself that Korra really was all right.
They paused at a stall and sorted through some fabrics. Naledi insisted on buying Asami a new robe ‘appropriate for the weather here’ and Asami just shook her head ruefully. She had no regrets -- her heart had led her to Korra-- but if she had stayed all those centuries ago, she would have fallen in love with Naledi eventually. The woman was like a glittering diamond, in looks and personality and as mischievous as she was kind and pure.
“Have you met any of my friends yet?” Asami asked, once the purchase had been slung over her arm. She fell into step alongside her friend.
“Oh yes. Father and I have spoken with each of them. That Kuvira is…so mysterious. “ Naledi sighed and fanned herself, making Asami laugh.
Ignoring her, Naledi continued. “I think even your Bolin is well enough now that we will have a dinner tonight. Father is excited; we have not been able to be hosts to visiting dignitaries for many years.” She smiled at Asami. “Sometimes one forgets the simple pleasure of making others happy.”
Visiting dignitaries? Asami supposed that Naledi was right on the mark there. “So where to next, mellon?”
That glimmer returned to Naledi’s eyes. “We are going to eat lunch and you are going to tell me everything that has happened since last we met. And spare me no detail of your Ranger. And I mean no details.”
“I might need to skip a few centuries here and there,” Asami cautioned, her smile as wide as Naledi’s. It would take most of the afternoon, but she could make time for an old friend. And the sooner she could put the Zaofu and the jungle behind her, the better.
Dusk had fallen by the time she’d changed into her new robes. Thembani’s people had lit torches and lanterns on a part of the cliff face that jutted out over the city. It made for a spectacular view as the sky darkened and the stars came to life, the only other light on this night save the flickering torches making the cliffs glow like it was on fire.
Naledi made a point of sitting on Kuvira’s left, clearly enraptured by the woman. Asami recognized her sister, Mandisa, listening to Tahirah weave what she’d come to refer to as the Tale of the Star’s Fall.
And of course, she took her place next to Korra, with Thembani on Korra’s left. The old elf was keenly interested in her wife, peppering her with questions about the North, Elessar, and the Reunited Kingdom. Korra was happy to answer anything she could, and in the firelight she cut a striking figure with the grey eyepatch that was embroidered with gold thread.
“Father,” Naledi said, once the meal had been served. “Have you given any consideration to my idea?”
“I have.” He smiled indulgently at her, then returned his gaze to Korra. “I wish to send a representative to Gondor. My daughter has reminded me that it is still a long and difficult journey and so I cannot go myself. She has volunteered to accompany you the rest of the way on your journey, so that she might represent our people to your king.”
Asami was sure Naledi volunteering specifically had absolutely nothing to do with her fascination with Kuvira. She caught her friend’s eye and winked at her and was rewarded with a blush.
“Thank you,” Korra said, pressing her hand to her chest. “I’ll protect her, except for the parts where she can likely protect herself.”
Naledi laughed and the whole table joined in. Asami hadn’t felt this light since the waterfall and the nights on the Zaofu before the storm. It wasn’t home, the Cúrondhrim had always welcomed her, but it hadn’t been home.
She’d searched for a place to call home since the end of the First Age and home sat to her left, home’s name was Korra. But movement to her left made her turn her head, and then she froze. Asami felt dizzy and sick as a thousand lifetimes crashed down upon her like a sundering wave.
Emerging from an alcove was her father. He was thinner than she remembered, his dark hair showing the faintest traces of snow around his temples. But she could never have forgotten his face.
Asami stared at the man who she’d thought had died, the man who was the direct cause of all her suffering and guilt. Asami stood abruptly, barely pausing to excuse herself before she fled the table as fast as the wind.
Korra called her name and she ignored it. Her father called her name and she ignored that too, rushing through the city until she found a little garden planted with prickly plants and desert flowers, and collapsed onto a bench.
She heard someone approach, and said heavily, “Korra, I would like to be alone right now.”
“Vanessë, it’s me.”
She pulled her arms tight around herself at the sound of her father’s voice. Asami might not have forgotten his face, but she had forgotten his voice until this moment and now it was all rushing back to her. Days on Valinor, the ringing of the forge, her father’s approving glanced at her work.
But, six and a half thousand years since last she saw him, all she could say was; “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I almost was.”
She didn’t dare look at him as he took a seat next to her and she shied away when he tried to put his arm around her. “Do not touch me.”
“I suppose I do not deserve that privilege,” he admitted. “But I’ve missed you so much. I’ve thought about you, every day since I last saw you. About what you might be like, what you’ve seen. If you were even alive. After I came here, I learned that you had once befriended the Cúrondhrim and it gave me hope. These are good people and they welcomed me to stay. I thought, maybe, some day you’d return and I might be able to see you before I tried to sail.”
Asami choked back a bitter laugh as she realized she still hadn’t forgiven him for his actions in the First Age. For the boats, the Helcaraxe, for the blood that she had never been able to entirely wash from her hands. She turned her head, staring at him with tears in her eyes. “Do you even remember what you did? What you did to me when you burned those boats?”
“Look at me and tell me that you did not hold a torch yourself!” Asami straightened, anger and grief in her eyes, her voice sharp. Her stomach dropped when her father could only look away, silent.
“I killed for you! I killed our kin to protect you! And the thanks I got was to be left behind!”
“Was it so bad to be left behind? You could have turned back.”
“You and I both know that turning back wasn’t an option. Not then. I accept my part and my pride in that much.” Asami traced her finger on a delicate design on her robe. “So many of us perished on that ice because of you and Feanor. More than… more than even the Telari, I don’t… I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for that.”
Her father was silent, looking down at his own hands as if he could see blood glistening in the light of the moon. He put his hand over Asami, and she let him. No matter what had happened, he was still her father. He’d been her whole world, and she loved him, even now, even through her anger and grief.
“So who is this Korra?”
She chewed on her lip, then looked at him, hope in her voice. “The Dunedain that travels with me as representative of Elessar King. My wife.”
The expression on his face passed quickly, but not so quickly that Asami missed it. She felt that small kernel of hope get crushed as he said, “You married a mortal?”
“You told me once to follow my heart, Ada.” She lifted her chin, swallowing the fresh agony that tore at her heart. “Korra is the kindest person I’ve ever met, able to inspire whole nations to great deeds. She’s strong, and brave.”
“But she is mortal.” He sounded as though Asami had run him through with a sword. “What would your mother say? What happens when time claims her as it does all her kind?”
“Mother would be happy for me.” Asami snapped. “And when time claims Korra, I will have many years of happy memories to reflect on. I promised her I would live, and I will.”
The firm tone in her voice seemed to give him pause and he looked at her again. “That armor she wears. Her sword. What your companion from Khand wears and brandishes. That is your skill. I would recognize it anywhere.”
She nodded. “We found star-metal recently fallen, and ancient armor from a great king of the East, as well as a sword long drained of its power. They belonged to Tahirah’s ancestors. I’d not crafted armor or weapons in an Age, and I will not do so again, I expect. This was a special case.”
He worked his jaw still staring at her, before his gaze softened. “It is the best work I have ever seen.”
Asami smiled bitterly and wondered if he would say the same thing about her beloved mechanical birds.
She turned around, stepping into the bedroom and feeling Asami’s conflict as she put her own aside. Relief mixed with heartache and something unfathomable and Korra could almost read her wife’s mind as she stared at her sitting on the bed looking lost and alone.
Asami looked up, sensing her presence even though Korra didn’t make a sound. Her expression lightened, a smile forming on her lips. “Hello.”
“Hello.” Korra smiled, sitting next to Asami. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. No. I will be.” She leaned against Korra. “That was my father.”
“I gathered.” She put her arm around Asami’s shoulders, resting her chin on the top of her head. “You know, he came and found me this afternoon. He was really impressed with your work. I didn’t know who he was then, I’m sorry.”
Asami nuzzled her face into Korra’s shoulder. “Don’t be.” She lifted her head, gazing into Korra’s eye. “How long do you plan on staying here?”
“I’ve spoken with King Thembani about it. A few weeks, at least. He says the path to Umbar should be a little more tolerable when the season shifts, though there’s the risk of running into a monsoon nearer the coast if we’re too slow. So there’s a window we need to keep our eyes on.”
Nodding, Asami pushed her hair out of her face, fingers lingering at the edge of the eyepatch. “Okay. I wanted more time here anyway and… maybe I can find some kind of balance with my father. But I can’t forgive him, Korra. I can’t.”
“No one is asking you to,” Korra whispered, cupping Asami’s cheeks. She pressed her lips against her nose, then her cheek, and then kissed Asami gently on the lips.
She could feel Asami melting against her, almost hear the whisper of thoughts that swirled in her wife’s head. Pain at the losses in the jungle. Hurt and happiness from her father, love and want for Korra, happiness at finding her old friends had survived and prospered.
And she knew what some of that felt like. Korra kissed her again, a little harder this time, a question in the action that Asami quickly answered as she deepened the kiss. She could feel herself unraveling as quickly as Asami was. After the stress of the past month, they were safe and sound and Korra couldn’t stand it any longer; she ran her hands down the sides of Asami’s neck, then slid them around to unlace the back of her robe. No pains, no grief, just the two of them and the fire they shared.
Once Asami was free of the garment, Korra pushed her onto her back, leaning down with her so as not to break the kiss. Asami’s hands were everywhere, caressing and loving and touching her and before long they were both undressed. Korra lay on her side, trailing her fingers up and down Asami’s hips as she gazed appreciatively at her. Asami’s fingers moved through her hair, then brushed her face, hesitating again at the patch over her eye.
“It’s okay,” Korra said, though she was wracked with nerves when Asami gently lifted the patch up.
“You’re still beautiful,” Asami assured her, then leaned in and kissed the scar above her eye. “And so strong.”
The sensation made Korra shiver, and she pulled Asami against her, pressing her lips against Asami’s throat and then biting gently. The groan she got for her effort sparked a fire inside her. Korra lifted her head, catching Asami with another, harder kiss. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Asami whispered, staring at Korra with such intense want that Korra was certain she was going to spend every night of the next three weeks in absolute bliss. She shrugged off the guilt that suddenly welled up at the thought.
And then Asami was pushing Korra down, her lips at her throat, a hand palming her breast and the other tracing a scar on her hip. Korra groaned, shivering at the touch and the weight and warmth of Asami as she lay on top of her.
Soft lips brushed her clavicle, trailing down her breast and over her nipple. Asami stared at her with eyes like emeralds, her tongue trailing in circles, the hand at Korra’s hip dragging nails on her skin, inching down her thighs and teasing between her legs.
The pleasure rippled through her, and Korra broke Asami’s gaze, head rolling back, arching her chest into Asami’s mouth and hooking her leg around her wife’s to give her better access, making a sound half way between a groan and a plea.
“Melleth nin,” Asami whispered, her fingers stroking the letters against Korra, making her gasp, making pressure build as lightning arced through her.
She didn’t know how badly she needed Asami’s fingers inside her until it happened, and Korra pulled her up, kissing her and wrapping her arms around her to hold her close, rolling her hips encouragingly as though it was their first time again.
And like that first time, something crackled and roared in her chest, in her soul, a beacon of fire as two became one.
I love you. The voice in her head was her own, or Asami’s, or maybe it didn’t really matter; What mattered was that she felt it, some part of her holding Asami’s soul in her hands. Cradling it, cherishing it and Korra couldn’t comprehend how she hadn’t realized that from the beginning.
When she shattered, fingers marking Asami’s back and voice ringing in her own ears, she felt full and whole and loved.
She held on for a time, before Asami lifted her head and smiled at her breathlessly. She sat up and reached for her trousers, Korra reaching for her and stroking her leg. “I have something for you.”
“Do you?” Korra propped herself up on her elbows, staring at the necklace that Asami pulled out. She’d set a glowing white gem into silver filigree, with a matching chain.
Silently, Asami slid the chain around Korra’s neck,clasping it and leaning back to stare at the soft glow dangling between her breasts.
Korra gave her a questioning look. “It’s beautiful.”
“Light in the darkness,” Asami said. “I was told to keep that close to my heart, and you are my heart.”
Closing her hand around the stone, Korra smiled at Asami. Then slowly, gently, she pulled her close and rolled her onto her back to show her exactly how much she loved her.
Chapter 31: Last of the Fire-breathers
Asami hadn’t actually spent most of the month in bed with Korra, but Naledi liked to pretend she had, teasing her relentlessly as they prepared for their journey. It was better than thinking about the oncoming dangers. It was better than thinking about her father and the farewell she knew was coming.
“I am glad that I am joining you,” Naledi was saying, leaning her hip against the wall and watching as Asami carefully strapped her weapons to her belt. She had a huge toothy grin on her beautiful face. “Because I have scarcely seen you these past weeks.”
“You have seen me every day,” Asami pointed out, picking up her pack and slinging it over her shoulder. “Some days, you’ve seen me more than Korra has.”
Naledi looked her over with an appraising eye. “I am positive that no one has seen as much of you as Korra has.”
Asami threw a pillow at her, but couldn’t help the laugh that echoed through the small room. It buoyed her, and today she needed that more than ever. It wasn’t just her father she would be parting ways with. There was Thembani. Some of the friends who’d she’d survived so much with had chosen to stay longer. Zhu Li, Opal and Wing, she thought, might choose to never leave, and she couldn’t blame them. The King had opened his lands to them for as long as they wished.
Throwing her arm around Naledi’s shoulder, Asami walked outside with her. Even in the shade from the canyons and cliffs, it was still warm. Cooler than it had been a month ago, and she tried to make sense of the seasons in the southern hemisphere compared to the winter they’d left an eternity ago in Kadarzimra. “I can’t wait to show you Minas Tirith. And maybe we could visit Lorien and Imladris some day. They will still be beautiful for some time to come.”
“I would like that.”
They walked, arm in arm through the city, until they arrived to where Thembani was waiting. There was a cart, carved from a dark wood and hooked onto a strange creature with a long neck and long hair. It had two humps on its back and long, spindly legs with knobby knees. There were several others for riding and Asami noted that Korra had already claimed one, stroking it’s neck and whispering to it.
She watched Korra for a few moments, before her eyes slid to the others. Bolin had healed miraculously, though they’d already decided he would control the cart. He hadn’t even argued too much with the idea. Kuvira was sitting with him as the two pored over a map.
Mako and Tahirah were already mounted on the creatures. Tahirah looked resplendent in her armor, with her sword at her hip and her eyes cemented on the horizon. Asami put the sight to memory; the warrior Queen and her consort and she knew that one day, Tahirah would shake the foundations of Khand.
Letting go of Naledi, Asami walked to where Opal and the others waited. She took Opal’s hands in her own. “Are you sure you wish to stay? We can still make room for you.” She looked at Wing and Zhu Li. “All of you.”
“I think... “ Opal glanced at her brother. “I think we’re going to need more than a month to recover and mourn. I don’t know yet if we’ll go on to Gondor, or try to find another way home.”
“You’re welcome in the north,” Korra promised as she walked up. She hugged each of them, saving the longest for Opal. “But take care of yourselves. I only wish I could have protected your family better.”
Zhu Li put her hand on Opal’s shoulder, and spoke for them. “Anyone who goes to sea knows they might not return home. Though I think we all envisioned different kinds of monsters than what we found.”
Korra nodded, then glanced at Asami. “I’ve already spoken with the King. But he wanted to see you before you left. And..”
“I know, I should see my father.” Asami didn’t actually want to. No, she did want to, she was just conflicted and hurt.
“He asked if he could come with us,” Korra said, guiding Asami towards where the King was observing the preparations.
Blood running cold, Asami would have stopped if Korra hadn’t been pulling her along. “He… wants to come with us?”
“I told him that it was up to you.” Korra’s voice was soft, gentle, and she peered at Asami. “I cannot tell you what to decide, Calenmir. I can only tell you what I feel.”
She looked at Korra, barely seeing her. “What do you feel?”
“That if you leave him behind, you’ll never see him again.”
A cold expression settle onto Asami’s face, and she looked away from her wife. “I can never forgive him. Never.”
“Never is a long time.” Korra let go of Asami’s hand, and Asami watched her go, not needing their link to sense her irritation and sadness.
Feeling as though a great weight lay on her shoulders, she turned away from Korra, and strode the remaining distance to Thembani. She gave him a smile she barely felt, and bowed. “You wished to see me, my lord?”
“Come, come,” he said, holding his arms out to her. Asami’s smile reached her eyes, and she returned the hug warmly.
“Now that is better.” He pulled back, eyes crinkled and glittering with fondness. “Take care of my girl, will you?”
“I suspect that she will take care of us as much as we take care of her.” Asami clasped one of his strong, leathery hands between her own. “I can never thank you enough for what you did for us. For what you will continue to do for our companions.”
“Perhaps I shall escort them home myself,” Thembani mused. “It has been so very long since I have seen the East…And I would enjoy speaking to this Tenzin.”
Warmth spread through Asami as she studied the ancient elf. She wished he’d been her father, and it would be worth almost any price to not have the blood and pain of her past. Almost any price, save Korra. Leaning in, she kissed him on the cheek. “Namárië, haru.”
His eyes twinkled again. “Am I so old as to be your grandfather? I suppose that I am!” He took her hand and kissed it. “Namárië, granddaughter. Until we meet again.”
Before she could do something so undignified as start crying, Asami walked away from Thembani, and strode with purpose towards where her father stood. She stopped in front of him, wondering if she’d always been taller or if he’d somehow shrunk in the six thousand years since she’d thought him dead. She glanced towards the sun, then back to him. “Pack lightly. We leave in an hour and we will not wait.”
They made for an interesting fellowship, Korra thought. Her heart ached for those they’d left behind, and those they’d lost but those who remained she trusted her life wish. Even Kuvira. While she was only beginning to know Naledi, Asami trusted her and so Korra trusted her. And she liked her company well enough.
The camels, as the creatures were called, had ambling gates that Korra was still getting used to. But as they rode, she listened to Bolin talking with Asami’s father. Faelion had arrived at almost the last minute, in a suitably dramatic Noldor fashion and Korra had found it impossible to read Asami’s expression, yet could feel the conflict that raged within her even now.
I will be all right.
The voice touched Korra’s mind like a caress of silk and yet it shocked her so thoroughly that she nearly fell off her mount.
Asami’s laugh rang through her mind, and she shifted in her saddle to stare at her slack jawed.
Perhaps I should have told you about this part of our bond before.
Korra huffed out a breath, squaring her shoulders and decidedly ignoring that. If Asami wanted to play games, that was fine. It was better than her brooding.
She rode up alongside Korra, casting her a sideways glance and a raise of one eyebrow. Korra looked down, then back over at her and reached out tentatively. YOU CANNOT READ MY MIND CAN YOU?
Asami winced, bringing a hand to the side of her head. You do not need to shout. And no, I cannot read anything you do not wish to share, though we can sense how the other feels emotionally.
Frowning, Korra wondered why Asami had not shared this with her until now. She’d always sensed there’d been something new between them. She could feel Asami’s emotions and sense when she was nearby. When they made love it sometimes felt as though they were one person.
But she chose to set it aside. There had been too much tragedy, too much surviving, and then they’d both been lost in supporting each other through grief and recovery. This was not an argument she wished to have, and now that she was aware of it she could feel Asami’s presence in her heart and in the back of her mind like a comforting warmth.
Like they were a part of each other now.
Korra reached out, brushing her hand along Asami’s arm, before she urged her camel on.
They’d left in the late afternoon, pushing until the moon was high in the sky before stopping to eat and rest. Korra had bowed to Naledi’s wisdom to travel when it was coolest in the evenings and morning, and to rest during the hottest parts of the day, so she intended to push them as far as possible this first day.
Tahirah had had the idea to arrange the supplies in the cart in such a way that one could lay under cover and rest if necessary while traveling in the day, though Korra had no intention of traveling too close to noon.
She sipped water from her cantine, and sat next to Kuvira as she and Tahirah looked at the map. “What are you thinking?”
Tahirah glanced at her, then back down at the map. “I’m thinking we may want to skirt around the edge of this jungle here. Once we’re north of it we’ll be on a straight line to Umbar.”
Korra’s eyes met Kuvira’s. “What do you think?”
“I think I would like to avoid going through another jungle if at all possible.” Kuvira trailed her finger around the potential route. “But there are these hills and ridges here. Good place for Orcs, or worse.”
Lifting her hand to touch the leather of her eyepatch, Korra flashed Kuvira her teeth. “I almost look forward to it.”
Kuvira’s smile was brittle. “A better fight than monsters with claws and teeth.”
Tahirah took the map and rolled it up, then reached into her pack and removed some parchment. “I spent the past week talking with our friends. I wanted them to tell me about themselves, and about those we lost.”
She lifted her eyes to look at Kuvira. “If you wanted to talk about the captain…”
Lips thinning out into a tense line, Kuvira stood. “Not today.”
Watching her walk away, Korra hung her cantine back on her belt and squeezed Tahirah’s shoulder before the girl could get up and follow her. “Everyone processes grief differently.” Her eyes followed Kuvira, watching as the woman sat alone. She remembered the way she’d cried, the sound of her cry when Suyin had died. “Especially when it’s someone we love. Let her come to you.”
“She was in love with Suyin?” Tahirah tilted her head, then started to shuffle through her parchment. She took a look at one. “Wing told me something, how Kuvira was one of Su’s first crew members. Kuvira lost her family to goblins and Suyin took her in. I suppose …it would be easy to look at someone and have those emotions turn to love, wouldn’t it.”
“It would.” Korra shook her head. “I’ve been meaning to check up on you. How have you been holding up?”
Tahirah gave her a tired smile. “Well enough. I have nightmares, but Mako is usually there to calm me. I just keep seeing those eyes.”
The eyes haunted Korra too, and she slipped down onto the ground next to Tahirah and put her arm around her. “I wish I could tell you that it goes away. But this will always be with you. It’s only a matter of degrees, and we can all help each other through it.”
“Some Dragon Queen I am,” Tahirah whispered.
“If you think that your illustrious ancestor never felt fear, never felt terror in her veins, you would be wrong,” Korra assured her. “She was human, as are you. Fear is natural, fear is something that keeps us alive and something to learn from.”
She nodded her head towards where Asami sat with Naledi, studiously ignoring her father. “Even they know fear, and remember nameless terrors that would chase the spirits from our bodies. But still, they go on.”
Tahirah stared into the distance, her eyes tracking a shooting star. She remained silent for several long moments, leaning in against Korra and resting her head on her shoulder. Just when Korra thought she might have drifted off, Tahirah spoke, “I sometimes wonder if she died alone, with no one who loved her.”
“She had a daughter,” Korra reminded her. “And she may have had other lovers, other friends. I do not believe she died alone.”
She squeezed Tahirah’s arms. “Let us make a promise. Whichever of us passes first, the other will come and visit whereever we are laid to rest.”
“Then it is a promise.”
Naledi was beautiful and deadly, moving like a panther through the ruins as they hunted the goblins. Asami counted a dozen falling to her own blade and she knew Korra and the others were as efficient. Ancient streets ran black with blood, and when they had finished their grim task Mako and Korra set fire to the remains. Thick smoke billowed high into the air as the fire spread through the rickety goblin buildings until they were all consumed.
The flames reflected in Asami’s eyes as she watched them dance in the twilight. She started when Mako touched her elbow, and turned towards him. “Yes?”
“Are you all right?”
Her smile was sad. “I don’t know. Something about this feels wrong. Like they were just living here. And we exterminated them like vermin.” The Asami of even a year ago would have been horrified by her actions. She felt her father’s eyes on her.
Mako regarded her, then took her hand and squeezed it. “They would have done the same to us.”
“Yes,” Asami murmured, and yet once again she wondered where and how the cycle could stop. She wondered if such creatures were truly evil or if, without the influence of others, they could one day shed the shackles of darkness that had consumed them.
They could still see the smoke to the south as the sun rose in the morning. The terrain had started to change. It was stonier and there were more green plants and shrubs along an actual road.
An overturned cart gave them pause; it was blackened as though burned and Mako discovered the remains of people huddled nearby, also charred.
Asami heard it first, a sound like leather sails rippling in the wind. And then she felt it, a darkness so profound that it stole the very breath from her lungs. And she could see it as though it were yesterday, the fire bursting forth as the dragons descended upon the hosts of the Noldor.
Shaking herself out of it, she shouted, “Get under that outcropping! Now!”
To her everlasting relief, no one hesitated and no one argued. She kicked over the cart, freeing the now panicking camel and then dove into cover with the others as their mounts scattered like ants. Her father grabbed her by the shoulder, shoving her under the outcropping and she was genuinely too afraid to argue.
A massive shadow passed overhead, wings beating like thunder. The ground shook violently as the great beast landed, jaws snapping closed around one of the escaping camels.
The dragon tilted its monstrous head back, a bulge in its throat as it swallowed the camel whole. Larger than any ship, with scales the color of midnight, it turned towards another one of the camels, eyeing it keenly and then reaching out with the foreclaws of one wing and plucking a camel from the ground, throwing it into the air and then catching it in its mouth and swallowing it.
If it scented them, they were all going to die. Asami fought down her panic and her memories and eyed the burned wagon and the remains nearby. Then she snuck out from cover and crouched to the dead family, Faelion hissing at her to stop. Footsteps followed her and she looked behind to see that Naledi had joined her.
Up close, she could see there had been four of them. Three adults, and a child. There was no time to offer a prayer for them or an apology for what she had to do. Asami picked up the child and smallest adult and carried them back to the outcropping, Naledi carrying another one of the bodies.
Kuvira stared at them as they laid the bodies down. “What are you doing!”
“Saving our lives.” Asami said, rubbing her hands in the ash, and then holding them up. “Now everyone stay still.”
That Asami was remotely functional right now was a miracle.
She’d just started to breath again when those terrible wings flapped over head and the ground rumbled at the dragon’s landing. She saw a long tail whip over head. The tail ended in something like a club with three spikes, and armored scales and spines ran all the way up its body. Up close, the coloring was almost beautiful. Black gave way to shimmering blues, like the blue goldstones she’d once watched dwarves make.
And then the creature sniffed, the sound followed by the cracking of wood as the dragon swiped aside the cart and shattered it against the boulders.
It spoke, a smokey, rumbling sound with a musical, feminine lilt. “Clever little rats, masking your scent.”
The tail disappeared from view and before Korra could move, the gigantic head replaced it, an eye the size of a draft horse moving between each of them. Observing. Counting. Considering. Its eye locked on Korra for long enough that she was afraid she’d lose control of her bladder, before it moved to Asami, and Faelion.
Her voice made Korra’s chest stutter. “Edain. Noldor. How interesting.”
Kuvira’s hand moved to the hilt of her sword, but Naledi caught her wrist.
“Smart, little elfling.” The dragon lifted her head, the ground shaking as she moved back, far enough that while her lean bulk still obscured all behind her they could see her full head and much of her long, elegant neck. That rumble returned, so similar to the sensation Asami had described in the jungle. “Come out, little ones. Be not afraid, my appetite is already sated.”
Since disobeying a dragon was never wise, Korra stepped out, careful to keep her hands away from her blades. Her order was quiet. “Spread out a little.”
Maybe at least one of them might escape with their life.
A sound like a whipcrack came from the dragon, and Korra realized she was clicking her tongue. She wondered how old this dragon was, if, like Smaug, she’d simply disappeared one day out of reach of Morgoth, Sauron, and their servants.
The dragon lay on her belly, folding her wings against her back, though Korra could see how taut her muscles were, and knew that she could surge forward or simply burn them all in the space of a heartbeat. Her rumble reminded Korra of a purr. “Edain. Nolder. Cúrondhrim. Easterlings, and…”
Her head lifted up and she huffed out a breath from her nostrils. “Blood Drinker.”
To her left, Tahirah froze and by the time Korra remembered how to breath the Dragon had moved, her eye fixated on the girl. The scent of carrion was strong and Korra fought the reflex to gag.
“Show me, mortal. Show me the Blood Drinker.”
“I…” With shaking hands, Tahirah drew Adalah from her back. With bravery that made Korra proud, she declared. “Blood Drinker is no more. This is Adalah, forged by a master into the blade of justice.”
A chuckle from the dragon, and Korra decided she would rather fight at the Black Gate again than spend much longer in the presence of this dragon.
“And who wields justice, then?”
To Tahirah’s credit, her voice barely wavered. “I am Tahirah, direct descendent of the Dragon Queen of Khand and Khamul, Shadow of the East.”
“Such mighty company indeed.” The great head turned towards the others, her eyes seeming to look through each of them. “And the rest of you?”
Vaguely uneasy at introducing herself to a dragon, Korra planted her hands on her hips. “I am Korra, Captain of the Grey Company and Ranger of the North. This is--”
She gestured at Asami but Asami answered on her own. “Calenmir. A blacksmith.”
“So Adalah is your handwork.” The dragon huffed again. “And the dragon scale armor, that is yours too?”
“It once belonged to Khamul. I repurposed it.”
The dragon tilted her head. “Are the rest of you nameless?”
“Mako, Bolin, Kuvira, Faelion” Korra said, each name sharper then the last.
“Princess Naledi, daughter of King Thembani of the Cúrondhrim,” Naledi said, standing proudly, despite the ash on her face and the fierce creature in front of them.
“My, such illustrious company.” She lay back down, head angled so she could watch them all with her right eye. Korra got the sense that she was… bored.
“And what shall we call you?” Asami asked. She’d edged over to Korra’s side, the only sign of her fear the waves across their bond and the way her fingers clung to the back of Korra’s armor.
“Santhera,” she breathed, the name running through Korra like a cold chill, though she could not discern its meaning. She tilted her head at them again, and there was a glint in her eye. “I wish to play a game. Answer my three questions and I shall let you by, safe and unharried.”
“Questions?” Korra asked. “I would have expected riddles.”
“Sometimes they are one and the same.”
“And if our answers are not satisfactory?”
Santhera’s tongue flicked out, leaving a trail of saliva and slime across Korra’s face. “Then we shall see how strong that armor is.”
Drawing herself up, Santhera regarded and again Korra felt that terror inside her. She realized that it was mostly Asami, and that was more alarming than anything else.
“Tell me little ones, if you dare. Where do Dragons come from?”
“Far to the south,” Korra said, lifting her hand and flipping her eye patch up. “There is a jungle, filled with deadly creatures.”
She felt Asami, perfectly still next to her as she spoke, “I saw something large.. Small compared to you, but large for us. It shared your eyes and I thought that, like orcs and elves, there was a link between it and dragons.”
The great beast’s head turned south, as it if could somehow see all the way to that awful jungle. “Perhaps.”
Her head snapped back towards them, weaving like a snake’s. “Now the riddle. I cry, yet I have no eyes. Darkness follows me, yet you still see me. What am I?”
“A candle,” Bolin answered, folding his arms and looking smug.
Santhera actually looked offended at how quickly they’d answered. “I was hoping you’d all be more entertaining.”
Asami let go of Korra, and took a shaky step towards the dragon. “You’re lonely”
She lowered her head slowly, until she was nose to face with Asami. “Tell me, little one. What has become of the others of my kind?”
Stock still and yet trembling, Asami lifted her hand and pressed it to the leathery snout, so small compared to the dragon it was like she was touching the side of a barn. Some of Santhera’s teeth were bigger than the elf. “The last dragon in the north was slain eighty years ago. Smaug, who’d claimed the Lonely Mountain from the Dwarves of Erebor.”
“Are there no others?”
Asami shook her head. “I have heard old wive’s tales, of dragons in the mountains of the Forodwaith. It is bitterly cold there.”
Faelion had kept his eyes on Asami the entire time, as terrified as the rest of them. Korra wondered if he was as lost in the past as Asami had bee.
“There may be some in the East,” Mako offered. “In the mountains of the north.”
Naledi shook her head. “I’ve heard naught of dragons in the lands of the south, I am afraid. Save stories of you.”
Santhera blinked, a leathery membrane moving across her eye. “You are brave or foolish. Or lucky that I am not hungry.”
Very lucky, Korra thought. Those camels had not died in vain.
“To the north, to the bitter cold,” Santhera rumbled, and spread her wings. Asami froze again as the sun was blotted out and that familiar shadow covered them. With a single beat that knocked them all off their feet, Santhera took off.
Korra pushed herself up by the elbows, staring with wide eyes as the dragon disappeared into the horizon.
No one spoke for an entire minute, before Bolin whispered, “I need to change my pants.”
Chapter 32: City of Corsairs
A few hours after Santhera had flown away, they found a river and cleaned up. Asami didn’t care who saw what, or how much of her they saw; she stripped down and dove into the water to try to wash the ashes of the dead from her body and hair, and to scrub away the ancient dread fear that had locked her muscles so easily.
On foot, it was another three days to Umbar. Asami sat with the water up to her neck, gazing in the direction of the sea. It had been like something out of her worst fears and nightmares. She’d rather face down the Wizards again, or those creatures in the jungle. She’d have fought in a war again rather than face a dragon.
And yet they’d lived, somehow.
The water moved nearby, and she slid her eyes to Naledi. A smile tugged at her lips. “Korra sent you, didn’t she.”
“She’s trying to figure out our supply situation,” Naledi said, putting her hand on Asami’s arm. “But she thought you could use a little company.”
Naledi’s eyes were a little ways away, though, and Asami followed her line of sight to where Kuvira was washing herself down. Asami’s smile was a little stronger this time. “Though I’ve no room to talk, she’s mortal.”
“No one is perfect.” Naledi turned her attention back to Asami, and touched her face. “Talk to me, mellon.”
Asami looked to the north. “We survived a dragon. The stories people tell, the stories I tell are but pale whispers of what a dragon is like. Even she is a pale whisper of what the dragons of the First Age were like. She seemed…”
“Lonely. You said she was lonely.”
“Wouldn’t you be, if you were the last of your kind?”
“You pity her.”
Asami leaned her shoulder against Naledi’s. “How could I not?” Her throat bobbed and she closed her eyes, letting go of the last of her fear. “I think I sensed it right off. That was the only reason I didn’t shut down.”
Emphasizing with a dragon, Asami never thought she’d have seen the day. But was the dragon actually evil? Or just made to be that way and could she overcome her beginnings?
“And you once wondered if you would ever be accepted in the Undying Lands again,” Naledi mused. She played with Asami’s hair, watching Kuvira again. “I pitied her too. And I think she might remember that, some day. Not in anger or dismay, but that one of the natural enemies of her kind was willing to look past your history and show a kindness.”
“Thank you, mellon.”
“Of course. Now if you will excuse me…” Naledi kissed Asami on the cheek, then started to swim towards Kuvira, rising out of the water as she got closer. Sunlight glistened on her ebony skin, rivulets of water streaming off of her.
Asami watched in delight as Kuvira stared at Naledi. Naledi motioned for Kuvira to turn around, and mutely, the sailor did. Sitting behind her, Naledi started to brush out her hair with her fingers and wash it.
“She is rather attracted to Kuvira, is she not?” Korra sank into the water next to Asami and let herself be pulled into Asami’s needy arms.
“Elves do not share the same quandaries about the body as mortal do,” Asami reminded her, pressing her cheek against Korra’s shoulder. “But I did try to tell her that.”
“It may be some time before Kuvira is ready for anything more than friendship,” Korra mused. She shifted and started to stroke Asami’s hair. “But I am sure Naledi is patient, and patient understanding and kindness is what Kuvira needs most now.”
Korra tilted Asami’s face up. “Do you wish to talk about it?”
“Not now,” Asami whispered. “And not in words.” She could open herself to Korra now, and let her see the thoughts and emotions that tumbled around in her head. But not right now. Only when she was ready.
“How… far can it reach?”
“Touch makes things the clearest,” Asami said. “Otherwise we should be in the same room. Too far away and it is only emotion. Farther away still and I would only be able to sense if you are alive or dead.”
Understanding dawned on Korra’s face, as though the full weight of their bond was suddenly clear to her. Asami nodded slowly. “A part of me is now within you, Korra. Forever.”
“...And when I die…”
Asami just smiled, and cupped Korra’s face between her hands. “A part of me will be with you in whatever lies beyond.”
It was interesting, the way old Numenorean designs had changed over time. The father inland the city went, oddly enough, the more it reminded Korra of the sea. Umbar’s citizens had taken so much influence from the sea that the city looked like a thousand, thousand ships resting on the waves.
“So what’s our plan?” Kuvira asked, crouching next to Korra and peering through a spy glass.
Korra shrugged. “Gondor is, technically, at peace with Umbar, and they’ve no quarrel with Khand or Kadarzimra. My plan is to walk in, find us an inn for the night, and then spend tomorrow procuring supplies and a ship.”
“And if they don’t just let us walk in?” Kuvira prompted.
“I’m not going to fight my way through the city and commandeer a ship, if that’s what you are suggesting.”
“I may have an idea,” Naledi said quietly. She rustled through her pack. “As an envoy of the Cúrondhrim, they would not wish to offend me. And since you have so kindly offered to be my escorts to Gondor, they could not turn you away.”
She pulled out a rolled up parchment and flashed Korra a cheeky smile. “Besides, I have an offer from my father for the ruler of Umbar, to increase trade. While you ensure our passage from the city, I can keep them busy.”
A smile spread slowly across Korra’s face, and then she nodded. “Yes, that’s perfect.” Her eyes moved to Kuvira, and she waited for an objection.
Kuvira studied Naledi, then sighed. “It is our only option.”
“It is settled then,” Faelion said. He picked up his pack and started down the hill towards the city. Korra rolled her eyes, and then hurried after him.
She caught his arm. “Naledi and I should lead. She is royalty, after all.”
“And why should you lead?” Faelion asked, voice low and eyes hard like stone.
“Because I was tasked by my King to make contact with the East and the South,” Korra replied, her own eyes flashing. And as she said it, she knew then that she would have to accompany Naledi; ensuring peace with Umbar was all but an explicit part of her task.
She turned to the others. “And as such, I shall go with Naledi to see the rulers of Umbar. Mako, I want you and Bolin to get us a few inn rooms. Try for three but we can work with two. Tahirah, take Kuvira and scout the docks. I also want you to get the pulse of the people here.”
Asami tilted her head and Korra didn’t need their bond to understand. She gave her wife a soft smile. “Do what you do best, Asami. Learn what you can from the children and people, and maybe leave a few of your birds behind when we leave.”
“Of course. I will...take my father with me.” Asami joined her, taking her hand and squeezing it. Do you still have what I gave you? That gem?
Korra’s hand went to her neck, where it dangled safely alongside Asami’s mother’s necklace, and she nodded.
“Keep it close,” Asami whispered, eyes moving to the city. “Just… keep it close.”
Exhaling, Korra fell into step with Naledi, remembering the nightmare she’d had. The darkness and the presence she’d felt and as the gates of Umbar grew closer she could feel that darkness within, like a sickness.
While the guards didn’t even give them a second glance, Korra was all but certain that messengers were on their way to whichever Corsair actually ruled this city to tell them just who had walked through those gates.
One by one, each of her fellowship slipped away on their missions. Asami was the last to depart, her gaze lingering on Korra before she finally turned away. Korra turned her head towards Naledi, feeling more nervous than she was willing to let on with eyes watching. “Shall we, then? I would assume that we will find their leader in that large keep near the sea.”
“It is not an unreasonable assumption,” Naledi agreed. “But perhaps we should ask, just to be sure.”
It was a suggestion that Korra took to heart, though it was nearly twenty minutes before they could find someone willing to talk. The people of Umbar did not trust outsiders, and were far more unwelcoming than even those of the East. Korra did not think less of them for it; the scars with Gondor were deeper here, the cuts still fresh.
Umbar was ruled by a Queen, a fact that brought Korra’s mind to the old tales of Queen Beruthiel and her cats. When she mentioned it to Naledi, Naledi inquired as to the story.
"Beruthiel was a Queen from some city south of Umbar. Perhaps even that one we cleared of Orcs. She was married to a Gondorian king in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two peoples. But she was a solitary person, and has often been referred to as loveless and nefarious."
Korra peered towards the keep, her hands loose but ready at her sides. "It was believed that her ten cats were used as spies, telling her those things that men wish most to keep hidden. She became hated within Gondor and was eventually banished, and sailed away on a ship. They say the ship was last seen passing Umbar under a sickle moon, a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow."
“I wonder if she was so evil as they say, or if her story has been twisted by time and the will of men,” Naledi said.
“If that was truly her home,” Korra said. “Then that answer was lost to time. Gondor erased her name from their books and she lives on only in memory.”
She nodded. “In a way.”
It didn’t take long for Asami to find what she was looking for. Even though she kept an eye on her father, she didn’t speak to him; she had barely spoken to him since they’d left for Umbar, a fact which she knew he had to be keenly aware of.
Children were much the same in any city, congregating in certain areas more than others, and they ignored her until she pulled down her hood to reveal her long, silky hair and elegantly pointed ears. And even then, they were wary.
“What are you doing?” her father asked, and she considered ignoring him.
Instead, she pulled some material from her pack. It wasn’t as much as she’d like, but she had an idea. Asami just needed to get the attention of the children. “Children hear things. Adults speak freely around them, thinking they are too youthful to pay attention. But they do, and they remember, and with the right encouragement, they speak.”
His eyes fell on the collection of odds and ends she laid out on a cloth. “What are you making?”
“A bird,” Asami said simply.
With no forge to make a proper body, she would have to make do with wood. This creation might only last a few seasons, longer if cared for, but it was all she could do now. Quickly, she carved out the shape of a bird in flight, threading wire through it. Surely and steadily, her little bird came to life. She held it aloft, testing the wait by bouncing it in her hands and watching the wings flap. “Don’t look now, but we have visitors.”
Two children had crept close, staring at the creation with curious eyes. Asami wound it up, and then gently tossed it. The wings beat and it soared around in a circle, the children chasing it.
“Remarkable,” Faelion whispered, and something inside Asami cracked like the shell of an egg.
She dug her fingers into her knees as the children brought the toy back and forced a smile onto her face. “Marvelous, isn’t it? Would you like to know how to make one?”
One of the girls nodded.
“Wonderful! Here, first I’ll take this one apart, and then we can put it back together. But I only have enough materials for this one.”
The other girl leaned in, chewing on her lip. “What do you need to make more? Papa is a blacksmith, I can get you some scraps!”
Faelion smiled, and Asami gave him a knowing look back. “I can give you a list, but I don’t want you to steal anything, okay? Just scraps, and wood. And if you have any friends who would like to learn, bring them along too.”
Both girls ran off, and Asami leaned back against the tree she’d been sitting under. She didn’t look at her father, and perhaps that wasn’t fair of her but she didn’t think she was ready to let him back into her life. And yet, she’d accepted his request to join them on their journey to Gondor.
She smoothed her fingers over her leather trousers, wishing she had the words to express the heavy emotions that weighed on her chest like a sleeping cat.
“Vanessë.” He started to reach for her, then thought better of it and instead picked up a spring, squeezing it between his fingers. “I am not going to offer any excuses, or any explanations. I only wish to...”
He trailed off and she lifted her head, staring at him with a hard expression. “Apologize?”
Asami had accepted responsibility for her own actions. For the kinslaying and all that came after. But her father had abandoned her, had left her behind after she’d done so much evil to protect her. “You told me to wait with the second group. And then you sailed with him. When I saw that smoke I realized we were separated by an ocean and everything I’d done was for nothing. I’ve carried that weight with me through countless years of torment and sorrow and you think an apology will be enough?”
“No,” Faelion said, expression solemn. “I do not expect an apology to be enough. I do not think there are enough years left in Arda to be able to make up for the things I’ve done and the hurt I’ve caused you. It was my fault you were there on that beach, it was my fault you crossed the frozen wastes. If I had not been so blinded by Feanor’s fire…”
She drew one leg up, wrapping her arm around it and steadfastly trying not to look too closely at him. What he said, the way he said it, it was as though he’d ripped the bandage off of the wound in her heart and she was bleeding again. Her eyes closed, tears glistening in the corners of them.
For three Ages, she’d longed to hear him say that. Longed to be held by him and hear his voice. Now, he was here, and she felt bitter and angry and raw. She pressed her hand to her chest, grasping for the fire that burned there like a thin tether between her and Korra, like an anchor keeping her in place and reminding her that she was alive. Softly, almost so softly that she wasn’t certain her father heard at first, Asami spoke. “Someone told me recently, that there is bravery in returning to face those we have wronged. That while forgiveness is up to them, one should at least try and face them.”
They deserved it, as she had deserved the chance to face her father. She lifted her eyes to him, feeling something fall into place inside her. “I cannot just forget what happened. I’ll need time, but… perhaps I can find forgiveness in my heart for you.”
She leaned over, whispering to Naledi. “If things go ill, the odds are in our favor.”
Naledi took in the number of guards, her eyes twinkling. “Indeed, my friend.”
Korra straightened as a door at the far end of the throne room opened, and a woman swept out. Queen Rianera was tall, taller than Asami or Naledi, her head shaved bald and patterned in intricate tattoos of waves and fish and sail. Brown skin shone gold in the light of candles, and she studied Korra with eyes like the sea at twilight. She wore a thick red jacket with long coattails, and black trousers tucked into well worn boots.
Rianera approached them, and Korra got a better look at her round face and crooked nose, before she bowed her head. “Your highness. I am Korra, representative of the Reunited Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor and personal escort for Princess Naledi of the Cúrondhrim.”
The Queen said nothing for a long moment, then glanced around and spoke in a clear, clipped voice. “Everyone out. I wish to speak with these two alone.”
Without protest, her guards filed out and within a few moments they were alone with the Queen. Korra raised her eyebrow, assessing Rianera’s stance, and the weapons likely hidden in her jacket and cloak. She would prove the challenge.
Korra smiled at her, but waited to be addressed. Royalty were funny that way, and she was trying to make a good impression.
“So what does Gondor want?” Rianera said, cocking her hip as she planted her hand on it. “Such a strange alliance, Gondor and the Cúrondhrim.”
“Not so strange,” Naledi said, staring Rianera down. “And not set in stone, either. That will depend on what happens when I speak with their king on behalf of my father.”
It was a risk, Korra knew, being so open about who they were and what they were doing. Umbar’s Corsairs were famous for ransoming off the prizes they found, and many of Korra’s fellowship were valuable prizes. She wet her lips and squared her shoulders. “Gondor wishes for peace, your highness, and to eradicate the shadows that still linger in the Dark Lord’s absence. We’ve no wish to remain enemies with Umbar, and I have already opened talks with kingdoms in Khand, Rhun and even as far east as Kadarzimra.”
“And if Umbar is unwilling to talk?” Rianera’s eyes bored into Korra’s, but Korra didn’t flinch away.
“Gondor will not wage war unless provoked.” Korra kept her hands loose at her side, away from her weapons. “Though we would greatly appreciate leave to hunt down orcs and other minions of Sauron. While it would be best to work together, if necessary Gondor can take the risk and costs, and Umbar would still benefit.”
“And what do you think?” The Queen turned to Naledi.
“I think that the sun has been obscured for too long and we have a chance to make a better world. There are so many old hatreds and yet…” She gestured to Korra. “I have spoken with the Easterlings who traveled with her, both those who remained with my people and those who have continued onward. Korra has offered her sword, sometimes without asking for anything in return, to help those in need, and without seeking to usurp or control those she has no claim to.”
“Tell me then, what you have done? I want to hear it in your own words and see it in your eyes.”
So Korra met Rianera’s gaze. “On the Sea of Rhun, there is a small city. A Dark Numenorian had taken the place of the ruling council and the citizens were unable to act. They encouraged myself and my companion, so we tracked her down and fought her. We left the city a few days later. In Khand, a town there was besieged by bandits. We assisted in the defense, and again left it to them to take care of their own affairs. Farther east we eliminated a camp of orcs. In Kadazimra, we assisted in a rebellion and forced two Wizards out of power. I have helped where I could, but I have never and would never do more than assist.”
“Very well then.” Queen Rianera’s shoulders suddenly sagged, exhaustion reaching her eyes. “The War nearly destroyed all of us and we cannot fight another. But not all of Umbar feels the same. I am at odds with my council and I fear they wish to remove me. Help me prove their intentions, and you will have your cooperation. However.”
She held up her hand, eyes sharp and unyielding. “I will not bend for Gondor, or Dol Amroth. We will not be a puppet state, but equal, if uneasy allies.”
“There is no need to bend to anyone to have peace,” Korra said fervently. This was her mission, this was one of the reasons Elessar had sent her; because he did not wish for war either. But he was a King now, and there was still so much darkness in the world. War would come if Korra could not find other ways. She only hoped what she’d done in the East would be enough.
But there was more, and while she hadn’t exactly been told she could do this, she also thought her King would listen. “After all of this, there are other cities. Nomads. So much of the Harad we were unable to visit and speak to because of our ordeals. Perhaps we should consider an actual conference. Between Umbar, Gondor and the other peoples of the south.”
“If my rule survives this next fortnight, I am willing to discuss that idea more.”
It wasn’t a promise, but it was the best Korra could hope for. She’d have to tell Elessar it had been his idea when she got back to Minas Tirith so he wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. “What can I do to help prove who among your council will act?”
“Talk to them, first. And there are… rumors. Some I have planted myself, but others I have not.” Rianera walked towards her throne, sitting down and crossing her legs. “One Admiral, Alabestor, dabbles in dark magics, and was a spy for Sauron. Expose him, and we shall see how the council splits.”
“Alabestor?” Korra said, paling. “As in Alabestor the Red Scourge?”
“Ah, you have heard of him.” Rianera’s lips quirked up. “So you know to be careful with that one. I know what they say about him in Gondor, and most of those stories are true.”
It was probably one of the few times that stories like that weren’t overly exaggerated or falsehoods, but Korra swallowed her fear. After the jungle, she could deal with human monsters. “And what happens if during the course of this investigation I am forced to defend myself from him?”
Rianera’s eyes glittered. “Then Umbar would be quite grateful.”
Korra decided she didn’t wish to ask who Umbar would be more grateful to lose. She supposed their departure would have to wait until she uncovered whatever Alabestor was hiding. “I’ll start tonight. What about the other Admirals on your council?”
Rianera eyed the Princess. “I think you can help me with that.”
Chapter 33: Shadow's Reach
Blood coated Korra’s face and she flicked her tongue out, letting the sting of her lip center her. She was in complete darkness, the only sound water dripping somewhere far away. It smelled musky and dank in the cell she’d been thrown into and her ribs ached.
Alabestor did not pull his punches, and he had not waited long before ambushing her in close quarters with six men at his back and a seventh coward who’d struck her from behind.
She couldn’t say what fate awaited her; if he meant to torture her or use her in some way to rile up the people of Umbar against their Queen. It would not be far fetched for him to kill Rianera with Korra’s weapon and then cast her as an assassin for Gondor. Naledi might even end up a sacrificial lamb in all of this, to force a split between Elves and Men.
And if Alabestor succeeded in that there would be no stopping the war that would follow. Many would die on both sides and even though Korra knew Gondor, with Rohan at its back, would be victorious, the cascading effect through the South and potentially the East could throw the world into an endless war that not even Elessar could protect Gondor from.
Sauron could still see his victory even from the utter void.
Korra had two options; rely on Asami and their friends to keep Rianera alive, and escape. But Korra was inclined to choose both options. Escape and warn them, escape and help them.
She closed her eyes, feeling for a source of light in the darkness, searching for the thread that existed between herself and Asami. It was faint, and she feared Asami was too far away to hear her even if she tried to strum it like the string of a lute.
Something else thrummed near her chest, and Korra’s eyes snapped open. There was a soft glow under her tunic, and she pulled out the gem Asami had given her. She hadn’t said too much about it, but as Korra held it in her hand she could feel the warmth and light and goodness.
The shadows of her cell receded, and she looked around. It was like any number of dungeon cells, but the gem pulsed, and Korra tilted her head and listened.
The sound of air moving drew her to one corner of the cell. There were loose stones, enough of them to cover a hole just large enough to squeeze through. Korra left the gem dangling outside of her tunic and started to pull the stones away. Once she’d crawled through, she replaced them, trying to keep them exactly as they had been. Let her captors waste time trying to figure out how she’d escaped. It would give Alabestor and his men plenty to puzzle over, assuming they planned anything more than to leave her there to rot.
Wiping some more of the blood off of her mouth with her hand, Korra took in a low tunnel that led behind the cells. To her right was a wall that looked and felt solid with no obvious signs of exit. To the left was an oppressive darkness that stretched onward beyond sight.
Picking up a brick, Korra walked into the darkness, each step measured, all her senses alert to any dangers.
If Alabestor had been one of Sauron’s spies, if he still had his hands in fell things, Korra would find out. And as she walked through the tunnel the darkness coiled around her, whispering and stroking at her like it was some kind of living thing.
She came to a split in the tunnel. To the left, Korra felt nothing out of the ordinary and the light of the gem revealed nothing of alarm. But to the right, where the brick and stone ended and a natural tunnel began…
There was that darkness again. Suffocating and smothering. Every instinct within Korra told her to go left, that going left would take her outside, take her to safety.
But if she let this darkness stand, if she never found out what it was, Korra knew she wouldn’t be able to live with herself. So Korra turned right and lifted the gem aloft in front of her. It’s light pushed at the darkness as she walked, pushed it away and around her.
The tunnel descended further and further, the air growing colder with every step. After twenty minutes of walking, Korra emerged from the natural tunnel and into something built by hands again. Old brick and stone, black, black like obsidian and smooth when Korra touched it.
It seemed to be an entrance to something, and there was paint above the entrance. Korra held the gem up. It appeared to be a fresco that told a story forgotten by time. Much of the art had faded, but Korra could make out parts of the image.
There stood a pale Numenorean with hair the color of fire, painted with a dark aura that enveloped her like wings. At her feet knelt a raven-haired Elf in shackles, her eyes empty and broken. Descending upon them both was a golden-haired she-elf full of fury and rage, emitting a golden light so blinding that the paint almost seemed to glow in response to the gem in Korra’s hand.
Thembani had mentioned a legend of an avenging angel still told within Umbar. Korra made note to ask about that once she had escaped this place and dealt with Rianera’s council problem. With one last look at the fresco, Korra passed through the arch.
Beyond the entrance, there were rooms and chambers and hallways, and as Korra explored she got the sense of a cross between an underground castle and catacombs. But if the dead had once resided here, she saw no signs of their remains. It was something to be grateful for.
She came upon a room with overturned steel tables, and the remains of leather bindings. Korra shuddered, imagining what horrors might have been done there, and quickly moved on. Another few rooms and another fork in her path. This time she felt the oppressing darkness to the left, and followed it without hesitation.
There was a dead end a few hundred paces down the tunnel, but Korra could feel the passing of air and sense a presence on the other wide of the wall. It was darkness and agony and regret and it hit her like a blow to the chest when she touched the stone.
Grasping Asami’s gem with her other hand, Korra pushed against the wall and it crumbled into dust. On the other side was a round chamber with a pit in the center of it. There were more of those tables, and shackles and what looked like the skeletal remains of a hound. Korra took in the scene, just as liquid shadow rose out of the pit.
Grabbing a discarded, rusty sword Korra braced herself for whatever it was. But she just felt that agony, and underneath it all there was sadness. The shadows moved like mist, forming the shape of a person, then the shape of an owl, then the shape of something wholly unhuman.
Slowly, Korra unclenched her fist from around the gem and light of it was nearly blinding. The creature flinched back, shrieking and Korra advanced a step. “You’re some kind of wraith, aren’t you. But not Nazgul. How long have you been trapped in this place? Are you what Alabestor hoped to find?”
Pity moved her to close the distance, the light pushing the wraith back until it clung to the opposite wall. The shadows around it pulsed and shivered, and then were gone. All that remained was the faint outline of a man wearing a thin crown. She could not make out his features or anything that might have told her who he’d been in life, but something in the hollow orbs of his eyes made her reach out to him, cupping his cheek.
His voice rasped like pages turning in an ancient tome in the old tongue of Numenor.
Korra nodded once, and pressed the gem against where his heart would have been. She responded in kind, not knowing if he still understood or was but a lost echo. She hummed pulling his head down to her shoulder as white light engulfed them both. “Rest now. Lay down your weary head. The darkness is lifted. You’re free.”
Tahirah watched Asami closely, trying to get a read on her mood. She seemed antsy, and Tahirah couldn’t blame her. She wet her lips, then looked down at the meal Mako had brought up from the tavern below. Like the rest of them, she’d barely eaten. “Until we hear word from Korra, I think we should try to help.”
“Help how?” Bolin asked, mouth full. “Do you mean that we should head out into the dark and scary night and track down the Admiral’s men and try to discover what sort of fell evil doing they’re up to and hopefully find Korra at the same time?”
“And who precisely made you our leader in Korra’s absence?” Kuvira set down her fork, fixing Tahirah with a long, considering glance.
“I do not see you stepping into the role,” Asami said sharply, her eyes fixed on Tahirah. She reached over and squeezed her arm. “Do you have a plan?”
Mako gave her an encouraging nod and she appreciated the support. “I have some ideas, but I need some more information. What did you learn from the children, Asami?”
“They back up what the Queen said. Their parents talk about the political situation here, the rift that has been growing between the Queen and her council. One boy, about thirteen, told me that the council is evenly split, with a hold-out vote remaining neutral.”
“Do we know who that is?” Mako asked, leaning forward.
“No. Just rumors.”
Kuvira was silent, and Tahirah looked at her expectantly. Finally, after a long moment, Kuvira said, “Then we need to uncover this swing vote before it dissolves into civil war.”
“Asami, you and Naledi need to speak with the Queen again, find out if Korra said anything about her plans and if she has any suspicions about the swing vote.”
“It might be a good idea to have someone stay close to her anyway.” Bolin put his bowl down and drew his finger across his throat. “Before there isn’t Queen for us to help.”
Tahirah looked again at the elves, their most experienced combatants, and then at the rest of her friends, each skilled in their own way. “Since Asami and Naledi will already be with the Queen, the rest of us can focus on other tasks.”
“Agreed,” Kuvira said, standing. “I will find out our swing vote and make sure they do not swing away from us, or meet an ill fate.”
She watched Kuvira depart, and then Naledi excused herself and followed after her. Tahirah watched the door close behind her then turned back to Asami. “All right…”
Asami just smiled. “Naledi and I will protect the Queen. I think she might be more open to talking with her anyway than with me. So it is good to have her there. What will you three do in the meantime?”
“See if anyone saw Korra.” Mako cracked his knuckles. “Or anything out of the ordinary.”
“Try not to beat anyone up,” Asami joked, getting to her feet. “Let's meet back here in three hours.”
Tahirah nodded, watching Asami leave before she looked at the brothers. Nervous. She felt her nerves twisting in her stomach like a knife as she wondered if she was doing the right thing.
Mako put his hands on her shoulders. “You did great, Tahirah. Always remember that there’s a leader inside of you.”
“I still feel like throwing up,” Tahirah admitted.
Bolin blanched. “Please no, I just ate.”
Laughing, she gestured for him to get up. “Come, we need to find Korra.”
She also wondered if she’d done the right thing in asking Asami to not search for her wife, but it was better to give her something else to do. Something less personal.
They helped each other with their armor, and Tahirah hesitated before putting Adalah down. Daggers and knives would have to suffice; walking around armed to the teeth would draw unwanted attention and scare too many people.
Then she led the men out of the tavern. First, they walked closer to the keep, careful not to ask too many questions and keeping a sharp eye for anything that might lead them to where Korra had gone.
Taking a cue from Asami, Tahirah bribed a girl with a sweet and learned that Korra had been seen walking west along the main street. So that was the direction she went, staring into each alley as they passed.
An old woman pointed them down a different side street, and Tahirah almost missed it as they passed, the glint of metal at the end of an alleyway out of the corner of her eye. She stopped, Bolin nearly running into her, and then jogged into the darkness.
“What is it?” Mako’s voice was so quiet she almost couldn’t make out what he said.
Tahirah pointed at a glinting metal, and then knelt and picked up Forelen, which had partly come unsheathed. She turned and looked at them, holding it up.
Bolin exhaled. “Korra would never abandon that sword.”
“No,” Mako said, peering around. “She wouldn’t. There’s blood here. Not a lot. And see there? Scuff marks. There was a skirmish. Korra was ambushed.”
“I doubt that they carried her out of here without being seen.” Carefully, Tahirah fixed the scabbard to her belt.
“Look for loose stones, or grates.” Mako started to feel along the walls, Bolin carefully walking farther into the alleyway.
Tahirah just stared at the smear of blood on the ground. Mako was right, it wasn’t a lot, but even the most innocuous looking wounds could become infected. And there was no telling what might be happening to Korra right this moment.
“Here!” Bolin called out from somewhere further into the darkness, and Tahirah rushed to the sound.
He stood with a grate open into the sewers below. “I know what this looks like, but it does not actually smell. I don’t think this is the regular sewers.”
“Some kind of catacombs?” Mako asked.
“Or something designed to offset flooding from storms,” Tahirah suggested. She stared into the darkness, but did not flinch. Korra had been so kind to her, so supportive of who she was and who she could be and Tahirah would not let her down. Not like she had in the jungle, when it had been all she could do to master her fear and not lose Mako and Bolin.
So Tahirah sat down on the edge of the grate, swinging her legs into the air below, and then dropped down into the shadows.
Asami laughed, trying to ignore the tightness in her gut. Trying to ignore her worry over Korra, over what might happen if Tahiran, Mako and Bolin were hurt. Trying to will herself to trust in her friends.
Besides her, Naledi flashed a ivory smile, inclining her head in acknowledgement as she responded, “If one were to add you, this entire throne room would be the most attractive in all of Arda.”
“You, I like,” the Queen murmured. She gestured for the two to approach her, sweeping her hand out to cushions arranged on either side of the throne. “Take a seat. Standing there must be uncomfortable.”
Eyeing the cushions, Asami wondered as to their normal functions. Rianera seemed to sense her hesitation and laughed softly. “They are entirely innocent.”
“That is a relief.” Asami took a seat on one cushion, sitting in a way where she could quickly be on her feet as necessary. She watched Naledi glide over and take the opposite cushion.
“To answer your earlier question, I have not seen your Ranger since she left.” Rianera reached into a compartment in the throne and removed a bottle of some kind. When she opened it, Asami smelled some kind of fruity alcohol. The Queen took a long sip from the bottle then offered it to Asami.
Not wishing to offend her, Asami took the bottle. The drink tasted like citrus, with a floral aftertaste, and she sipped it again before passing the bottle over to Naledi. “Korra will succeed, I know it. But forgive me if I worry a little.”
“Wives,” Naledi teased. “Always worrying about each other.”
Rianera tilted her head, and Asami would have worried about revealing that information if she wasn’t certain she and Korra were so obvious that the Queen already knew. Her voice was brittle. “Cherish it, Noldor. For the hearts of mortals can be fickle things.”
Someone had hurt her, Asami realized, and she tried to not rise to the bait. “That will never be a worry, your majesty.”
“They also beat for such a short time.” Taking the bottle back, Rianera tilted her head and drank from the bottle for a full twenty seconds. She wiped her mouth when she was done. “Forgive me. I love someone who loves the sea more than she loves me.”
“It’s for the best.” Rianera waved her hand dismissively, and fell into a silence that Asami did not feel comfortable filling. So she looked around the throne room, taking in exits and escape routes for the tenth time. She could sense Naledi doing the same, their elf ears attuned to the sound of anything out of the ordinary.
Footsteps outside the double doors. A choking sound. Asami glanced at Naledi and they rose as one, drawing their weapons silently. Rianera frowned, sitting up straighter as she palmed a knife into her left hand.
The door burst open, armed men rushing in. Asami mused that Tahirah’s instincts had been right as she drew back an arrow and shot the first man through the throat.
Rianera flung out her hand, her knife striking a second man in the chest before she smashed her bottle on the throne and brandished the broken remains like a dagger.
Dropping her bow and hefting her sword, Asami readied herself for what was to come.