Tasana: Queen of Wargs - Part II: Stories of the Past, Senses of the Future

"We cannot hide it here, Mythrandir." The elven lord shook his proud head sadly. "My people's strength is not what it once was, and we could barely survive an onslaught from the Dark Lord at the height of our power."

"You fared better than the other races, my old friend." Gandalf nodded with a bittersweet smile. "We will have to destroy it, then, but this will not be an easy task. It must be cast into the fires of Mordor."

"A fact I know all too well. No army could ever hope to penetrate that deeply into Sauron's foul kingdom." It had happened once, just after the battle with Sauron fifteen hundred years ago. But human frailties had squandered that opportunity to destroy this bane that threatened Rivendale once more. The elf glanced briefly at the two men sizing each other up like wildcats from where they sat facing one another at opposite ends of the council ring. Both appeared as dangerous and confrontational as the dueling red dragons embroidered upon the southern lord's white doublet that the lighter haired man wore atop his chain mail.

No, he couldn't blame them for the mistakes of their forefathers. His daughter and nephew were so fond of the Dunedain, whom Lord Elrond looked upon as almost a foster son. Aragorn shouldn't bare the blame of Isildur's madness, the memory of which haunted Lord Elrond's sleep and disturbed his waking thought. Even if...

"No, but a small group may be able to sneak in where an army could not. A group of no more than nine or ten might go unnoticed," Lord Elrond's daughter spoke up. Like her father, Arwen possessed an ageless elven beauty and a quick mind.

"I've kept it this far. I will see this quest through, no matter how far it takes me, even into the Black Tower itself," Frodo said quietly. His friends quickly added their willingness to go.

"You'd have to tie us in a sack and throw us in the river to stop us!" Frodo's youngest cousin stood as tall and proud as his slender three foot five frame allowed.

"I wouldn't be surprised, seeing how it's impossible to separate you three from him. You managed to sneak into a secret meeting you weren't even invited to; Mordor should prove no problem." Elrond allowed himself a brief, droll smile. "So be it, then. You and your companions shall journey to Mordor to destroy the ring. With you and Gandalf, who must go as your guide, I shall send my kinsman Legolas as a representative for the elves, Lord Boromir Hurin of Gondor as a representative of men's concerns, and Gimli son of Gloin for the dwarves."

"Gimli's father went with Uncle Bilbo on his adventures," Frodo whispered to Sam. "It will be good to have them with us. Have you all agreed to this already?" He looked toward the three who had stood at being named to the company. "Your aid is more than welcome, but it shall not be an easy journey. Even if you decide to go with us of your own free will, there are no guarantees that we will finish it together, so I won't object if you want to back out at any time."

"Perhaps we can ease this journey somewhat. The best bow in Mirkwood is at your service, Frodo Baggins," The elf said, bowing with a small flourish.

"As is my axe," Gimli said taciturnly, leaning on a massive double bladed weapon that stood at least as tall as Frodo. He looked disapprovingly at the archer. The dwarves had come very close to war with the elves of Mirkwood during their resettlement of the dwarven homeland in the east, and old tensions still rankled.

"I disagree with Lord Elrond about this plan, but better the ring is destroyed quickly than to have it fall into the wrong hands." Boromir stood with the other two.

"I wouldn't phrase it in quite the same way Pippin did, but I feel it best if I continued with this group as well." A dark form stood alongside the man from Gondor: Strider, the enigmatic ranger who had met the hobbits in Bree. None of the hobbits fully trusted him, but the tall, secretive Dunedain had gotten them safely to Rivendale despite black riders in the service of Sauron constantly hounding them during the trip.

"My Eliu... Aragorn, no!" Arwen clasped her hands to her mouth to stifle a gasp. Her father looked similarly shaken by this newest volunteer.

"Are you sure about this, Aragorn?" Elrond patted his daughter's hand in an effort to calm her, and studied the ranger's countenance. "You know the fate the ring brought to Isildur."

"I have my own weaknesses, Lord Elrond, but I will not make the mistakes of my forefathers. I will make sure that no one else will suffer his fate, either." The dark gray eyes of the Dunedain ranger flicked briefly from the shocked elven faces to Boromir. The prince of Gondor had wanted to use the One Ring to defend his city from inevitable attack from Mordor. The ancient king Isildur had tried to do this after taking the Ring from Sauron. It had corrupted the king, killed him, and scattered his line. Despite Boromir's promise to help him, Frodo decided he would have to watch the son of the Steward of Gondor very carefully.

* * *

A few days later, Tasana saw Boromir marching out of Rivendale at the forefront of a strangely assorted company, letting off a blast of his hunting horn. "Lead on my lord, and I shall follow you," Tasana saluted him.

"Then ride on to Minas Tirth, good woman, and see the White City for me one last time before it falls. For none should follow where this company passes," He returned formally, taken aback by her strange clothing.

"What dark things you speak of, my lord! Tell me, if it can be said, are the rumors the guardsmen speak of true? For I've walked -- and ridden when I can -- all the way from Minas Tirth to find the truth; only to find the elven city closed to travelers." She had argued with the gatekeeper for three days straight to no avail. Not even a change into her best dress had convinced him she was harmless. She was beginning to believe the rumors of elven eagle eyes, spotting her scimitar no matter the fact that she had hidden it under a heavy cloak. Tasana hated to go unarmed with even the slightest chance of orcs afoot.

"What do the great councils say of these matters?" she asked Prince Boromir. As a leading lord of the city and a powerful warrior, he must surely know what was going on, if only he would be willing to reveal it.

"Not even the wise can foresee all that shall come to pass, Mistress Swiftfoot," said a wizened old man in gray clothing and a rumpled blue hat that might have been pointed several decades ago. "Yet dark times these are; for the Ring Wraiths of the Dark Lord Sauron ride once more and the orcs come out of hiding. I would heed Lord Boromir's advice and fly back home as quickly as you came here.

"Which certainly makes me wonder: how did you get here so quickly? For Boromir arrived but four days ago."

"I know a few shortcuts," Tasana said hastily, not wishing to reveal her connection with the pack.

"Indeed. Our company is headed south. Perhaps you would be willing to reveal these shortcuts to us then, Mistress Swiftfoot." The old man was much too suave for Tasana's liking.

"Not with that pony. My path leads through wolf territory." Tasana was glad to make use of any excuse that came into her mind, and she took up the small pack horse's nostril flaring at the Wargish scent upon her clothing quickly.

"Aw, Billy here ain't afraid of no wolf," one of the slender little men spoke up, patting the laden pony upon the nose.

"And the Wargs do not fear any man nor sword. The packs will kill you if you do not prove yourselves friends." The situation was growing tenser by the moment. Tasana unconsciously put a hand to the hilt of her scimitar that she wore under her cloak, noting Boromir and the other large man were also reaching for their swords. The dwarf had kept a two handed grip on his battle-axe during the entire encounter, and the elf now loosely fingered his bow.

"Quite a bold woman to challenge Gandalf the Gray, and a wolf-friend and swordswoman as well, if I'm not mistaken," the latter said coolly.

Gandalf the Gray? The master wizard of song and legend in Gondor and beyond? Tasana was in for more trouble than she had bargained for if she upset these people, but to Mordor with it. The elven archer was perilously close to slandering her wolves, yet it was required by some unknown instinct that she accompany Lord Boromir. Doing the best to hide her surprise, she shot back: "Where are the rest of your people then, Elf? Where are the armies riding for Gondor in the south? Yet no army is large enough to approach Mordor openly, is it?" Her argument was pure conjecture, but she could almost hear the little men's jaws drop. Even the old man's -- Gandalf's -- eyes widened slightly.

"Your company heads for some danger I do not yet know, Lord Boromir. You have said none should follow you, my lord, yet the wolves shall join you of their own will. For not all Wargs are loyal to the Dark Lord, and many packs will stay with me, even to Mount Doom where our worst tormentor reigns," she added with a look at the elf, as if daring him to claim otherwise.

"Put down your weapons." The wizard commanded his compatriots. "She is as trustworthy as any companion we are likely to meet and more crafty than most. What is your name, Mistress Swiftfoot?" Gandalf asked.

"The wolves call me Chev'yahna, or Healer in their tongue," Tasana said, forcing her hand away from the pommel. This was her lord she was addressing after all, she reminded herself, whom she intended to serve. Yet he continued to view her anxiously, as if he thought she was planning to attack. She needed to calm down. Perhaps she too was jumpy, or Mithilira's talents were rubbing off, but there seemed to be an aura of hidden danger and treachery about her lord.

The old wizard waited, weighing her answer and seeming to expect more. The others looked toward Gandalf, gauging her by the sorcerer's reaction, though the dwarf, obstinately clutching his ax, was obviously holding to his own council.

"We shall head for the High Pass in the morning, then." The wizard's voice broke the tense silence. "Today we will go by the roads to lay a false trail, but we'll cut across the open country tomorrow. I trust you are prepared to travel with us, Chev'yahna?"

"I am always ready, though I'll need to hunt within a few days." She nodded, looking toward the wilderness from which she had come.

"There's plenty of cram," the dwarf interjected, referring to the tasteless journey bread of his people.

"I prefer hare, or raw orc when I can get it." She gave him a predatory smile and received one in return.

"You will get your fill of orc, and then some, Chev'yahna, even with Master Gimli hewing as many orc necks as he can reach," the elf said grimly. "Precious few though that may be," he muttered under his breath.

"It will simply leave a few for your bow then Legolas," the dwarf replied evenly. "By the way, I caught that last part of your comment." His voice was closer to a growl.

"Yet if you two are truly after orcs, we had best get moving before sunset," the wizard ushered them along the path.
They walked as far as pack boundaries without incident. When the company stopped for the night well along the route to the mountains the wolves had already made themselves apparent to Tasana. They howled as the hobbits -- as the small folk were called -- started a small fire, as smoke free as they could make it.

The hobbits had been so cheerful on the road: bantering, joking, and singing, even with tired feet. They were definitely unused to life on the road and hard living, but their optimism had buoyed even Boromir's dour spirits, pulling him into a mock swordfight following an impromptu practice lesson as they stopped.

The wolf howls had unnerved the village dwelling hobbits, but Tasana's answering howl left all but Frodo quivering in fear. Even Lord Boromir, famed throughout Minas Tirth for his bravery, looked slightly shaken. Then, to everyone's surprise, Gandalf howled as well, welcoming Mithilira and her mate to the camp in their own tongue.

"I wasn't planning to introduce them for another few days, Gandalf," Tasana said in common tongue, posturing confused but pleased interest as Wargs often communicated up close.

"Best if we get to know our allies as soon as possible. We never know when we might need a friend." The old wizard adjusted his tattered, dusty blue hat and stood nonchalantly, as if he was introduced to Wargs in the forests by mysterious swordswomen on a daily basis.

"We never know when we might need the pony, either. I hope they've already eaten," Tasana replied uncertainly. As usual, the great alphas appeared first, standing just outside the camp, with the rest of the pack sulking on the edge of the firelight. Tasana greeted them warmly, and then brought the other members of the group out to meet them individually.

First out to greet the alphas was Gandalf the wise wizard, who spoke the Wargish words of greeting on his own. He smiled upon hearing the she wolf's name, the feminine version of his elven alias.

Then Legolas, the sharp eyed and occasionally sharp-tongued elven archer whose age belied his almost youthful appearance. He nodded slightly in a gesture of trust to Tasana as the wolves looked toward her for introduction. The elf was not as set in his prejudices as he first let on.

Gimli approached too quickly and attempted to pat the lord of the Wargs on the head like a trained dog. Tasana had to prove how she received the name of healer and put a compress on the dwarf's bleeding arm from where the black wolf had taken his entire forearm up to his elbow in his mouth in return for Gimli's faux pass.

Samwise Gamgee the hobbit had nearly fainted when the wolves sniffed his hand. Pippin Took, the youngest, actually did, and Merry Brandybuck wasn't much more comfortable around the Wargs than his kinsman. Frodo Baggins accepted their presence gravely, but Mithilira shied out of contact with him, telling Tasana that the hobbit smelled of death, pain, and the Twisted Ones of Mordor.

She and her mate welcomed Strider as an equal. The man was certainly used to the lonely atmosphere of the woodlands, which supported his claim of Dunedain origins as well as his dark hair and gray eyes did. Yet despite the stigma of being a northern ranger, a group hated by most "civilized" folk almost as much as wolves were, Strider seemed at least as kingly in bearing and manner as Lord Boromir. The ranger was certainly an enigma.

The Wargs picked up Tasana's feelings of respect towards Boromir, but Mithilira also smelled the taint of treachery that Chev'yahna had picked up earlier. "Keep an eye on that one," The seer wolf warned her.

"Two eyes, whenever I can spare them," Tasana replied in wolf tongue. Gandalf chuckled for some obscure reason and added in Wargish that he too, would watch Boromir.
The wizard and the ranger had the first watch that night, but Tasana couldn't sleep. "Strider?" she called softly.

"Yes?" the black-cloaked shadow silhouetted against the fire replied.

"I sense there is something about you that you've hidden, something that may prove extremely important later."

"You haven't been perfectly honest with us, either. Chev'yahna isn't your real name."

"Nor is yours Strider." She approached the fire, crossing her arms. The last dregs of high winter seemed to be gathering in the camp that night, particularly in the tall man's frosted tone of voice.

"I don't trust you, and you don't trust me. We'll work this way, with this amount of information until we build that trust." He faced away from the firelight, standing without moving.

"What was your mother's name?" Tasana had no idea where that question had come from, and it surprised her almost as much as the ranger. Her own mother, who had taught her woods craft as a child, had died a few years before Tasana had first encountered the wolves. In some ways, Mithilira had become a replacement mother to Celeste Rivermerchant's daughter, continuing the young woods-woman's education in the wild.

One thing that no one had been able to replace or continue was the stories of Tasana's mythical half-brother, whom Celeste had raised in the northern wildernesses. According to the tales their mother told Tasana, he would someday return to Gondor and claim the throne of his forefathers. These stories seemed naught more than fairy tales when Tasana was full-grown; the Stewards of House Hurin had ruled Gondor from father to son for generations. Yet the Stewards all said they took this power merely until the rightful heir to Isildur could be found, and there were rumors of kingly lines among the Dunedain....

"Celeste. She was lost to us on a hunt when I was young." He said absently, and then shook his head, as if trying to shake off a spell with it. "I don't know why I'm telling you this."

"Aragorn," she whispered, her eyes widening. He turned abruptly toward her, his dark gray eyes flashing in the firelight.

"How do you know that name?" His voice was too soft.

"My -- er -- my mother told me stories of you when I was little..." she stammered, losing eye contact, then let her voice trail off. "I really never saw how anyone could have lured her away from the forest," she started again more softly, slowly gaining power in her speech. "She was always wanting to take me back to her home in the North Woods, in Andor, but my father would never be content to leave dryads in the trees." Tasana willed him to understand with her eyes, not daring to say it outright. "She said you would be a king."
He shook his head again as if to drive away the shock, then answered with a nod of dawning comprehension. "Mother always wanted a daughter, but I never had any other siblings. My father died when I was a baby, and she never remarried."

"Tasana, my brother. Perhaps Gandalf is right. We need allies." They gripped hands firmly before she took his place on guard.

"Even more, we need friends we can trust. You walk along the edge of a sword now, but perhaps it will be easier going after tonight." He gave her a slight smile.

"I hope so," Tasana returned. "Get what rest you can, Strider, and I'll see you in the morning."

"Wake Legolas in an hour," he advised her. "You can't stay up all night, either."

"I will." Whether she was replying to the former or latter statement neither was certain of.

* * *

The next afternoon the travelers reached the foothills of the mountains. Gimli proudly pointed out the highest peaks, all the while speaking of the wondrous hospitality his cousins in the mines of Moria would regale them with. "They resettled it a couple of years back, but I'm sure by now the great halls in Moria are brighter than they were at the height of the original settlement," he said, going on to describe in rather verbose detail the great feasts that had been held in those very same halls.

Indeed, these stories alone were enough to make the footsore hobbits protest Strider's choice of a path along the windblown, ice crusted mountaintops. Even Boromir and Tasana wondered why Aragorn and Gandalf were so adamant about avoiding the deep mines below the mountain range. Surely there could be nothing more unpleasant down there than fire and shadow, nothing in a civilized dwarf mine as uncomfortable as all this blasted windblown snow and ice.

They were on an unsheltered ledge when the storm blew up out of nowhere. "This is no natural storm; it must be some sort of witchcraft! Look at Gandalf!" one of the hobbits called. Tasana could barely hear him over the wind. Their chilled hairy feet was all that could be seen of the hobbits, hidden between the pony and the lee side of the mountain, where they had a bare minimum of coverage from the storm. The entire group had gotten as close to the mountainside as possible. Tasana found herself jostling elbows with Boromir and Legolas, all eyes now fixated upon the wizard.

He was chanting something in a foreign tongue, shaking his staff ineffectually at the storm. His voice was all but lost in the howling wind. Then there was a crashing sound, followed by an avalanche on the opposite peak. "Ice giants! We have to get out of here! The path will be blocked up ahead!" Boromir shouted to Aragorn, who was standing next to him.

"We can't go into the mines! Besides, nothing will be able to move until this storm abates," the Dunedain argued vehemently.

"We have no choice!" Boromir shivered, snuggling closer to the wall and incidentally, Tasana.

"Boromir is right, Aragorn," Gandalf said, giving up any further efforts to hold back the storm. He did not look too pleased at his lack of options, either. "We will move toward the mines as soon as this storm clears."

After several tries that were extinguished from the ever-present wind, Boromir started a small fire and all gathered closely around it, pulling heavy cloaks tight. Tasana built upon the already high plied wall of packed snow, attempting to help insulate the half frozen party from further frostbite. "Do you know who sent that storm up, Gandalf?" she asked, rubbing numb hands before the fire.

"More importantly, when will it stop? I'd give my left arm for a warm fire in my cousins' hearth about now," Gimli grumbled, brushing ice from his shaggy auburn beard.

"I don't know exactly who caused this storm, but I have no doubt it was sent by the enemy to delay us. As for how long it will last, we will quite probably be stuck here until morning, at least," Gandalf said, seemingly unaffected by the freezing drafts that invaded the icy camp, more of a cavern than a cliff with the sudden, deep snowfall.

It proved to be a long, cold night as the company awaited the passing of the storm. Everyone was in a sour mood and champing at the bit to leave the mountains behind. The cramped, chilly, and featureless space did little to alleviate the boredom and wanderlust that was at the front of everyone's mind. The hobbits used the fire to fry a little bacon, and then fell asleep in a shivering huddle by the wall. Gandalf, too, went promptly to sleep after dinner. He was the only one who appeared perfectly comfortable in the cold.

Legolas of light elven feet and keen elven eyes scouted from atop the snow banks, watching for a break in the storm. Despite the freezing weather, the archer preferred activity in the elements to the constraining atmosphere of the snowed in camp. Tasana sat with her back against the side of the mountain, drowsing uneasily. Her brother dozed by the fire, adding a little of the soggy wood they had collected whenever the heat began to fail. Strider kept one half closed eye on Gimli and Boromir, who stalked like a pair of caged wildcats, distractedly trading heated comments as the night wore on.

The next morning the worst of the snowfalls had stopped, but they still had snowdrifts that came up to as deep as Strider's waist to deal with. Legolas, with his catlike feet, had no trouble getting through the snow, of course, but the others had a difficult trek before them.

Aragorn and Boromir, who were the tallest and strongest members of the group, waded into the frigid drifts that could easily bury Merry or Pippin entirely in an effort to beat a path for the others. The men were completely exhausted from half digging, half swimming through the four foot high, tightly packed drifts before they had gotten more than a few feet.

Despite the temperature, both were soaked with sweat and melted snow. Although they attempted to hide their weariness, particularly from Tasana, it seemed quite obvious to her that they could not continue their pace much longer. Asking Boromir to help Frodo, who was lagging behind due to his short legs and cold, tired feet, she took over the difficult task of plowing out a path with only minimal damage to the prince's pride. Legolas shouted encouragement from atop the snow bank, pointing them toward the end of the drift, where the winds had blown away all but the hardest packed ice. The dubious relief of that slippery surface instead of high piles of snow that were too soft to walk upon and too hard to push out of the way was too far for Tasana's liking, and most likely Aragorn's as well, considering the grimly determined expression on the ranger's face.

The group did stop a few times once the men realized that the unspoken challenge on their masculine reputations, while never directly demanded by the "lady" in breeches within their midst, had already been lost once Strider yielded the front trailblazing spot to his sister. Once she had proven herself capable of handling the same grunt work as the other humans, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, and the others warmed up a little toward the scrappy, headstrong healer. These three, once the most suspicious of Chev'yahna and her intentions, were now attempting to put her more at ease with the group.

Boromir, especially, seemed to want to get to know her better. He switched places with Aragorn as much to have chance at nearly private conversation with her as to give the Dunedain a rest. "While a girl can't help but be flattered at your attention, milord," she said with a wolfish grin after his attempts to pry information about her past -- particularly her marital status -- hit a little too close to home for her to change the subject, "Isn't a little improper for a man of your status to be alone with an unmarried woods-woman?"

"Perhaps, but you are already alone among strange men without a guardian, if that were not improper enough." He smiled in return, but Tasana suspected the pink tinge to his cheeks was not caused entirely by exposure to the cold. "If you find yourself in need of help . . .well, 'tis a Steward's duty to protect his people. Not that I expect any trouble, mind you, these are men I would trust my wife to-- er, I mean, my life to."

"I know what you mean, my lord." Tasana restrained her smile as much as she could. It was hard to believe this was truly Lord Boromir, the most desirable bachelor in Gondor - and the most notorious for avoiding women -- tripping over his tongue like a schoolboy with a crush. This probably would never amount to anything more than a passing fancy for him, but Tasana would enjoy the irony of being pursued by one so often chased after while it lasted.

Strider spelled her for the rest of that drift, but there were other lesser obstacles to overcome in their path. They carried Frodo, Merry, and Pippin piggyback through the deepest snows and put Sam on the pony. Gimli refused any help getting through the drifts, and Gandalf seemed to be doing well enough on his own.

Finally, they had gotten off the high pass in the Misty Mountains and away from its freezing wind and snow. The sky was darkening with the coming evening and no one in the company had gotten much sleep last night, yet Gandalf dared not stop until they had gotten far away from the mountain pass and the malevolent force that had blocked the fellowship's way.

"Let me call the wolves, Gandalf. The great Wargs will be able to bear us on much fleeter feet than our own," Tasana suggested. The pack was proud and did not hold with packhorse duties, but Tasana was weary enough to risk the annoyance of the wolves in return for getting to Moria and away from dangers potent enough to worry the unshakable wizard with all possible speed.

"Ride upon Wargs like a horde of orcs?" Pippin did not look any happier about this prospect than Tasana was sure the wolves would be. "You can count me out of that stunt." The little hobbit shook his head, and Gimli began to mutter under his beard.

"If you're walking then, Pippin, would you mind leading the pony? My pack took a deer yesterday, and is well fed, but Bill might bolt in the midst of so many predators. I suppose you might catch up with us by the time we got to Gondor, if we wait for a month." Tasana attempted to keep an unruffled air, trying not to lose her temper and bite back at this useless balking. They were exhausted, and the others did not yet fully trust her or the Wargs. The struggle of getting off the mountain had unified the group somewhat, but they had no reason to trust the wolves except the healer's say-so. "We're all tired, and the Wargs who hunt orcs will get us to Moria before sunrise if we hurry," she added a little more gently.

Ignoring the disgusted look she received from the hobbit, Tasana howled her greeting to Mithilira, who granted the healer's request for a group of strong full-grown hunters to accompany the party to Moria. Although all the wolves were powerful and eager for the journey, Tasana still had to do some quick talking to convince them to accept riders and the riders to accept their mounts. Chev'yahna knew she had probably broken every diplomatic law and guideline ever established by the Wargs and the Free Peoples - human, elf, dwarf, and hobbit -- but she at last managed to goad and bully the group into riding quickly along a dismal old dried riverbed toward the entrance to the mines of Moria.

The eerie surroundings lent an edge to the group's wariness. Old crumbling remains cast weird shadows in the dusky twilight, and the broken rotting bones of dead fish and less easily identifiable creatures lay half covered in the dried mud of the riverbed. Low hills from the edge of the Misty Mountains blocked the peripheral view of the ill-kempt trail.

Tasana imagined she could almost hear the footsteps of an unwelcome follower running behind the Wargs, but even if they were being followed there was little ten of the giant wolves could not fight off, especially with the aid of trained warriors, and even less they couldn't outrun, riders and all.

At last they stopped between a fetid slime covered pool that had not seen a source of fresh water in decades and a crumbling hill that may or may not have once been subjected to unnatural construction many years ago, but there were no remains of the dwarven stonemasons' work. The dim starlight barely reflected in the black mire of the lake.

Gandalf probed at the old stone wall for some hidden sign of occupancy, current or former. If there was a special sign that might survive decades or even centuries of wear, it was not making itself obvious to the wizard, much less the healer, whose eyes were untrained to find such things.

Gimli, passing off the unkempt trail as a sign of the recentness of the resettlement, was once again speaking of the welcome his cousins would put on for their unexpected guests, complete with good beer, excellent hot food, a warm fire, comfortable beds, and at Tasana's not so subtle hints, added that there would probably be baths available as well.

The mines themselves would be quite a sight, according to the claustrophillic dwarf. Great deep tunnels, mined for gold, gems, and the rare "true silver" that dwarves designed their strongest armor out of: mithril armor that could turn the sharpest blade and protect the wearer from most enchantments. "Well lit and excellently built, of course," Gimli assured Legolas, whom shared none of his enthusiasm for subterranean passageways.

Meanwhile, the hobbits were redistributing the pony's load into everyone's packs. Billy had nervously put up with the wolves throughout their ride to Moria, but neither horses nor Wargs could fit through the twisting passageways of the mines. Somehow the requirement of leaving the little packhorse behind did not soothe the elf's claustrophobia, or Strider and Gandalf's private worries.

Sam tearfully hugged the pony's neck after the last of its baggage had been unloaded. "An' if those Wargs even think about hurtin' my Bill, I'm gonna make me a wolf skin coat out o' the lot o' them, yah hear me?" he shouted at the wolves, who ignored the small fist that barely cleared their heads.

"Don't worry, Sam. They don't quite understand your reasoning, but Roliran and the rest will protect that horse until he gets back home," Tasana assured him. She could only gesture helpless acceptance in answer to the hunter's questioning stare. The Warg didn't believe that the hobbit had a prey animal as a "pup," which was the closest Tasana could come to describing the relationship between pet horse and owner, but Roliran was willing to follow his leader's example. With a toothy yawn decrying zwieros' eccentricities, he moved the pack into their positions to shepherd the packhorse back towards Rivendale.
Gandalf left off his musings of the tumbledown wall long enough to cast a charm upon the pony that would keep wild predators away from it. Tasana gave a guard command once more to her loyal pack mates, and then with preemptory snap at Billy's heels, they herded the frightened pony northward.

"Aha! Here we are!" Gandalf said, tapping a point on the wall with his staff. He revealed a shimmering silver design on the wall that twinkled in the moonlight. It resembled a double door with elven script atop its arch. The doors, if that was in fact what the mystical shining design was, were decorated with a crown above an anvil, with seven stars surmounting the crown and two flowery stylized trees laden with crescent moons below. A much larger star was placed between the two trees, twinkling like its cousins in the night sky above. The arched doorway was high enough for a man as tall as Aragon to pass through without needing to duck his head if it were opened. This was certainly not the work of weathering.

"A dwarven door of old!" Gimli whispered reverently. "In peaceful times these were never closed, but were always thrown open to freely welcome travelers of all races. And look! Upon those doors is the crest of Durin, founder of my people, or I'll be an elf!"

"We certainly hope that never comes to pass, Gimli," Legolas chuckled.

"What does it say, Gandalf?" Frodo, who had been a book scholar of nearly forgotten languages before his odd inheritance had changed his life forever, asked. "Those runes are Elvish characters, but they don't look like any I've ever seen before." Neither Gimli nor Legolas recognized the ancient form of Elvish on the door, either.

"On a more pressing matter, how do we open the door? I don't see any handles and I would prefer not to wait for the open hospitality of the inhabitants. It doesn't look like they keep much of a watch on this entrance." Boromir kicked a stone that had crumbled from the ancient masonry at the door. It bounced of the shining panel without any more effect than a muted, solid sounding thunk that echoed slightly from the nearby hills.

Strider made a shushing gesture, checking the murky lake for signs of movement. "Keep it down. You don't know what's out here. Worse, we don't know what watches us from the mines."

"Nothing more frightening than Gimli's cousins, I'm sure. What is it that has you so upset about coming here?" Tasana asked her brother.

"You obviously haven't heard the Dunedain's tales of the lost mines of Moria," he replied darkly.

"Greatly exaggerated, I'm sure." She shook her head at his sour expression.

"Then listen to someone who has been there," Gandalf interrupted them. "That was some thirty or forty years ago, before the resettlement, and I came through from the southeast gate, but I remember the horrors of that journey well enough." Legolas shuddered, and looked wishfully toward the frozen mountain peaks from whence they had come. The old wizard chuckled and added soothingly, "But I'm sure the insides of the mines have been vastly improved with the resettlement. When I last went there, it had been abandoned for hundreds of years. Amazing that these doors have survived, really. As to Frodo's question, the runes confirm Gimli's statement. It reads 'the Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter,' in the common tongue." He shrugged slightly, and leaned on his staff. "I think it's simple enough to open. If one is a friend, one simply says the password and the doors will open on their own. Unfortunately, I do not know the password."

"Wonderful. Just bloody fantastic," Boromir grumbled, throwing up his hands and stalking off along the edge of the dark, murky waters. "Centuries of knowledge fail us on the point of one single bloody door."

Tasana could understand her liege lord's frustration, but this pacing only increased tensions. Silently following him out of the rest of the group's hearing range for everything save yells, the healer spoke up as she caught up to him. "That's a fat lot of help you're giving him right now, milord. Be a dear, Lord Boromir, and get some sleep. You push yourself too hard," she said softly, curtsying in her thread worn breeches, then, at his stubborn, imperious expression, Tasana bowled the surprised prince over.

"You don't play fair, Chev'yahna." A slightly embarrassed but eager grin flickered across his mouth.

"Is there any other way, milord?" she smiled in return, blushing at her audacity. Tasana hadn't tackled a boy since she was twelve. "Now will you go to sleep and quit complaining, or do I have to knock your stewardship out for the night with the pommel of my sword?" She playfully restrained him with one hand on his muscular chest while reaching for her scimitar with the other. He held the former hand against his heart with a little squeeze, gave Tasana a true smile, and then brushed her forehead with his lips.

She blushed even more deeply. Who would have imagined Tasana Rivermerchant, the maid of the Wargs, flirting with the steward's eldest son and heir? Especially in public!

"Wake me up if Gandalf figures it out," Boromir said, then laid his head back on his arm and closed his eyes. His grip relaxed on her hand, and Tasana stood slowly, as not to wake him. For a moment she contemplated returning his good night kiss, but avoiding her brother's eloquently raised eyebrow drove all thought of this course of action from her mind. Strider had come up behind them even more quietly than Tasana had behind Boromir.

"He was up pacing all night and then took a good amount of the work on the mountain. He needs all the rest he can get," she objected to his silent accusation.

"True enough, Chev'yahna," he said, leaving his opinion of her methods to be explained only through his body language. To a woman who had spoken mostly through the postures and tones of the Warg language for the past thirteen years, he had said more than enough. If it were possible, Tasana would have turned ever redder.

Legolas, Gimli, and the hobbits gave no sign that they had noticed anything. Gandalf was still hard at work, tapping his staff against the doors in various places, shouting, "open!" and similar phrases in several languages, many that Tasana didn't recognize.

The hobbits lounged nearby, resting and musing over the mysterious forgotten password. The youngest skipped a rock across the murky surface of the lake, lost in thought. "It's a riddle," Peregrine murmured. "Gandalf, what's the elven word for 'friend'?" he asked.

"Don't do that Pippin! There are things in the water best left undisturbed," Strider chastised him.

"Sorry." Pippin shrugged and put down another stone he had been toying with, and then looked expectantly toward the wizard. Seven other pairs of eyes joined his at the continued silence.

"Of course!" Suddenly Gandalf laughed. "Mellion!" he said in a commanding voice, and the doors slowly opened without a noise. "It seems obvious now. You were right, Pippin."

It was dark inside the mines. The entryway was gloomy looking, dusty, and cobweb covered. One could not see more than a couple of feet into the entrance without passing through the doors. It looked thoroughly abandoned. Before anyone could comment, there was another splash in the lake behind the company.

"Peregrine Took!" Frodo yelled at his younger cousin, who had a long history of troublemaking.

"It wasn't me, Frodo, I swear." Pippin looked truly innocent this time.

"Maybe Boromir knocked a rock or something into the lake," Tasana attempted to defuse the situation.

"I'll get him," Aragorn said before she could volunteer, and walked off toward the prince's resting place, moving as silently and swiftly as only a Dunedain could. A minute later the two men returned, Boromir hiding a yawn behind his hand.

"I didn't hear anything. Maybe it was just a fish." He sleepily ignored the fact that very little besides pond scum could possibly survive in the polluted water. Boromir grinned knowingly at Tasana, and received a sharp elbow in the ribs from Strider.

"We will discuss this later," Aragorn growled. Tasana smiled ruefully and rolled her eyes out of her brother's line of sight. He was making up for twenty-eight years of ignorance of her existence in one night of overprotection. Tasana thought she might have accepted one of those earlier marriage proposals just to get some freedom from his dark mood, had they grown up together like this.

Of course, she hadn't spent that much time with her brother yet. About all she knew for sure about Aragorn was he had grown up in the North Woods under the protection of their mother among the Dunedain in Andor, just outside the little town of Bree. He was at least ten years older than she was, yet still in prime condition of life. Strider was a master swordsman; that much was obvious.

The sight of something moving in the filmy water behind Aragorn jerked Tasana out of her chain of thought. The ripple in the shadows made her take an involuntary gasp and reach for her scimitar. "What's the matter?" Strider asked her, a concerned expression on his face.

"Frodo! Behind you!" she called, too late to warn him of the sickly gray-green tentacle that seized the hobbit's leg and picked him up high overhead. The last traces of grogginess disappeared from Boromir's face in the rush of adrenaline that surged through the group. The three of them advanced toward the lake with the men flanking Tasana, swords drawn. Sam, Merry, and Pippin looked on in shock, and then rallied with the humans, attacking the leviathan with the human dirks they used as swords.

Frodo, wrapped in several tentacles now, yelled for help as he hung over a toothy maw in the center of hundreds of the snakelike appendages. Legolas whipped an arrow out of his quiver, sighting down his ever-present long bow at the middle of the maw. The archer scored a hit in the dark mouth, causing the creature to loose a demonic shriek and shake its intended prey roughly. The swordsmen, joined by Gimli with his double bladed axe, hacked at any of the soft, soggy tentacles they could reach from the shoreline, beating back the clinging arms of the beast.

Aragorn leapt among the stumps that spurted black ichor, slashing at its head as well as the appendages that held Frodo captive. Suddenly the creature writhed, dropped its prize into Strider's waiting arm, and sank under the murky water fast enough to take the two down with it. Boromir threw his arm in front of Tasana to prevent her from diving in after them. For a few tense seconds nothing moved but the churning ripples in the hidden depths of the lake, then Aragorn surfaced, carrying a choking, but still breathing Frodo. The ranger set the small hobbit down gently, wiped his blade on his soaked pant leg, and sheathed his sword. The lake was still behind him.

"Aragorn!" his sister embraced him and nearly knocked him over in her exuberance. He steadied himself, resting his chin atop her head. "That was very, very stupid. Are you all right?" she pulled his head between her hands, observing him critically in the dim light.

"I'll live." He shook the water out of his ears. "How about you?"

"Perfectly all right, save the minor heart attack you gave me with those heroics of yours." She made heroics sound like a curse. The ranger gave her a smile in return to hers, and then loosed himself from their embrace.

"Frodo, how are you feeling?" Strider asked. The hobbit had stopped coughing up lake water, though he still looked awfully pale. Tasana sat down next to him, checking his arms for bruises.

"Fine, I suppose. Just a little beaten up." Frodo stood, brushing himself off while trying to allay his gathering friends' fears. "But that thing will be back. I know it will," he said with a fearful look toward the placid waters with their cover of fresh ichor.

"We must move on," Gandalf added forcefully. "It's not safe here." The others nodded in silent agreement.

Lighting a torch from one of the last logs they had brought for firewood, Tasana brought up the rear of the group's harried entrance into the darkened mines. Gandalf ran a hand over the end of his staff, causing the glasslike sphere implanted in the top of the thick wooden walking stick to give off a faint, steady glow. It was not enough to light up the dusty entryway, but the immediate space around the fellowship was now lit well enough.

"Hello?" Gimli called softly, then a little louder. His calls echoed hollowly from the walls and ceiling. There was no other answer.

Suddenly Tasana heard a watery roar behind her. She drew the scimitar with one hand, the other on her torch as the creature from the lake reached one of its incredibly long tentacles through the doorway. Strider and Boromir cut off its entrance, slamming the doors on a quivering arm that reminded Tasana of a snake in its death throes. Other tentacles grabbed at the door and pulled it off its hinges, causing a small cave-in. Fortunately no one was hurt. The water beast roared outside the toppled doors, but it had no chance of getting past the fallen rocks.

"We cannot go back now," Gandalf said grimly. "So we must move onward."

"Of course, but where are your cousins, Gimli?" Tasana peered about with her torch. "I don't see any welcome party."

In a corner out of range of the light of Gandalf's staff, the torchlight glared upon a rotting, spider web covered skeleton. It still had a few wispy hairs upon its head and chin, and clutched a chipped axe in its small bony, hands. Its breastplate was cloven down the center; crushed as if by some giant thumb. There would have been little chance to save that warrior, even if a trained healer had been nearby when he had been injured. Tasana guessed that his ribs had probably punctured every major organ in the poor fellow's body. "Gimli. You better come see this," she said in a flat monotone, trying to rein in her emotions as she always did around the dead and the dying. Tasana heard several gasps behind her.

"How could this have happened?" Gimli choked out.

"The dwarves dug too deep here," Gandalf answered the rhetorical question softly. "They let loose evils older than Sauron. This is why I was reluctant to use this route. We must move quickly and quietly. Come." He led them onward, down into Moria.

* * *

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