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.”