Tasana: Queen of Wargs - Part III: A journey through shadows and flame

After finding a small flat landing on a staircase halfway through their journey that night, Frodo announced that he was hungry. The group hadn't eaten since that morning, so the proposition of a dinner break was greeted with plenty of enthusiasm, but they didn't stop for very long. They ate only enough to regain lost energy, as the dwarven skeleton still lingered heavily on their minds.

"How far is it to the exit?" Sam asked as they finished up their meal.

"Three or four days' journeys, if we aren't delayed by false paths." Gandalf adjusted his battered blue hat. Sam had a dogged look on his face, anticipating four or more days in the darkened passageways with the unknown forces that had killed the dwarf. "Don't worry so much, Master Samwise. If there is a path to be found, I shall find it. I came through the eastern passes once before this."

"Well, let's get started, then," Boromir said, jumping up from where he had been sitting. "I have a bad feeling about these caves, and frankly, the sooner we leave them, the better, as far as I'm concerned."

"I second that motion," said Legolas, putting out their small cooking fire. "So much for well lit hallways." He grumbled as the darkness of the stairwell enveloped everything but the light of the torch and Gandalf's staff.

"These stairs have survived since the days of Durin, though," Gimli parried jokingly, "so you must admit they are well built."

"Do you think that corpse has survived since the days of Durin as well, Gimli? There are things down there that don't care how well the stairs are built." Aragorn's comment soured their mood and stifled further conversation.

Tasana glanced back at the menacing shadow among the dark reflections of her torch. He was probably right about the dangers of the mines, but she guessed her brother also badly needed sleep, and would not be fit company until he had had a full night's rest.

One other thing she had learned about her brother over the last few days: he never showed his weaknesses. Strider would march on stubbornly until he fell over from exhaustion, rather than hold the group up. He would bully others into keeping healthy, but paid scant attention to his own health if it got in his way. Aragorn was scared, even more deeply scared of these mines than Boromir and Legolas were. No one would ever get him to say so openly; Tasana doubted he would even admit it to himself.

Yet it was obvious he was frightened to everyone else, so Strider was in a black, bleak mood. Not unlike how she might handle such a situation, Chev'yahna thought. Each with its own inscrutable thoughts, the two dark haired shadows flowed amongst the torch-lit, brooding company.

Gandalf and Gimli, who were in the lead, stopped at major forks in their road, discussing possible paths and testing the air. Mostly dry, old, still, and stuffy, an occasional fresh breeze from a side chamber cleansed the air in the long, high-ceilinged main tunnel. They stopped in such a room off the main tunnel for the night for the next two days, careful not to leave any sign of their passage.

It was probably best that they used very little of their supplies during these stops. The fire materials were running slim, and the torch Tasana had brought was burning dangerously low. They made good use of their light source throughout those next two and a half days; despite Gimli's reassurances of dwarven stonework, there were nearly as many holes in the floor of the mines as side passages in the walls, and the sheer number of those arches, bridges, ramps, and hallways was all but unthinkable.

Despite the confusing network of walkways, Gandalf's path led unerringly southwest, rarely deviating from a straight line to the exit. They would usually go straight to sleep if they weren't on watch after those exhausting mile-eating hikes on tightly rationed food and water. They had found no streams fit to drink out of, and supplies of dried food were growing short.

Boromir and Legolas weren't the only ones whose nerves were raw and ragged from the caves. Frodo swore he heard an extra pair of footsteps behind them, and occasionally a hissing breath. Perhaps it was no more than a need for a real target to direct all her nameless fears upon, but amongst the light pitter-patter of the hobbits' bare hairy feet, the steady clomp of Boromir and Strider's boots, the barely audible catlike tread of Legolas, Gimli's ironclad stomp, Gandalf's cautious footfalls, and her own lighter step, Tasana could hear the smack of bare, flat feet against stone. Whenever the group stopped, the last pair of feet continued on for a time, too long for an echo, and a raspy hissing could be heard in the endless blackness behind them. Their pursuer was careful, though. It was never close enough to be caught in the torchlight.

"Gollum," Gandalf said as soon as Frodo mentioned his fears of a follower to him. "For good or for ill, the former ring bearer may yet have a part to play in this quest."

"Ring bearer?" Tasana sat up from where she had been lounging during breakfast, intrigued. "That's the first time anyone's mentioned a ring to me."

"That is the reason why we're headed for Mordor: to destroy the One Ring in the place it was made, the one place it can be unmade," Aragorn explained.

"But I thought it was lost." Actually, she had thought Sauron's Ring of Power was no more than a fairy tale, something her mother had used to scare her into behaving when she was a little girl, until now. After meeting her brother, Tasana was ready to believe almost anything. Unless she was greatly mistaken, that was Isildur's sword, Narsil, reforged at Strider's waist. It certainly was no orc blade like the one she carried.

To think, the sword that had cut down the Dark Lord of Mordor was hanging that close to her, in the scabbard of the rightful heir to the lost throne of Gondor... and she was his closest relation. How did a simple maiden daughter of a merchant who wished for nothing more than the chance to hunt with the wolves get so close to this much power?

"The Ring was, for many years," Frodo replied; fingering an ornament on the chain he wore around his neck. Tasana thought she detected a hint of gold. "But then my uncle found it in Gollum's cave. He's a ruthless creature, that Gollum. He'd probably strangle us all while we slept, save he's too afraid of the light. A pity Uncle Bilbo didn't kill him."

"Pity? It was pity for that 'ruthless creature' that stayed his hand. Do you think yourself truly able to judge a being's character from one chance encounter?" Gandalf said sharply, causing Frodo to lower his head with shame. "We shall see what role Gollum has yet to play."

Tasana and the others, however, never wavered from their watch. Perhaps legendary times call for even more suspicion than usual, the woods-woman thought to herself. Even Gandalf, despite his egalitarian words, seemed to let his eyes stray to the shadows behind the company for signs of an unwanted pursuer.

They stopped in a guardroom off the main path their third night in Moria. Spider webs covered the dusty walls and a deep, uncovered empty well stood decaying in the center. After eating a small portion of the dwarven journey bread and having a sip of water each, the males set out their sleeping rolls and Tasana bundled up in an extra cloak as everyone went to bed.

Pippin was assigned first watch, but wasn't the only one still awake. Gandalf was dredging up old memories of Moria, trying to decide on tomorrow's path. Aragorn had moved Boromir to a dark corner and was making a vague threat about what would happen the next time he caught the younger man making calf eyes at the healer, something unpleasant that left plenty of room for imagination.

"Forgive me, I didn't know you had an interest in her." Boromir backed as far into the corner as he could, keeping his open palms between the tall, menacing Dunedain and his more vulnerable parts. More concerned about the looming, vengeful wraith in front him neither Boromir nor Aragorn noticed the dark form behind him.

"He's my brother," the shadowed spirit said half exasperatedly. "Of course Strider has an interest." She reached over Boromir's shoulder and gave Aragorn a peck on the cheek. "I've handled men and orcs I don't like for the past thirteen years. I can take care of my own affairs without your help, thank you, Aragorn."

"That's exactly what I was afraid of." He smiled at his sister, removing her hand from Boromir's shoulder. Tasana squeezed her lord's hand where she held it in the shadows.

"Just try to be a little more diplomatic next time, Strider. It would hardly do if my uncivilized big brother scared off a man I really liked, now would it?" she teased in return.

Strider didn't have time to reply. A sudden thump emanating from the center of the room caused all three to turn in that direction. Tasana couldn't help but notice how Boromir moved to shield her as they cautiously drew their swords.

"Sorry... sorry," Pippin said sheepishly between thuds, flinching at the drawn blades with each echoed clunk. "I... must have knocked a stone off of the side of the well." Had anyone been watching him, one would have seen that the young hobbit had purposely dropped the stone in his curiosity to see how deep the old well was.

"Well, next time throw yourself in after it and rid us of your incessant foolishness!" Gandalf snapped. "We can't afford any sign of our passage."

The tapping continued far too long; those reverberations in the deep could not all be echoes of the stone's fall. It sounded almost like a cryptic, evil signal. "That was a hammer," Gimli said when the noise died away at last. He and the elf had awoken at the sound of swords being unsheathed. "I'd know that sound anywhere."

"That rock probably just hit something at the bottom of the shaft," Boromir shrugged, sheathing his broadsword.

"Something that shouldn't have been disturbed," Strider muttered darkly. Gandalf replaced Pippin, who was thoroughly cowed, on watch and shook his head at the well. Tasana dropped off to sleep after sharing a concerned look with the men across the room.

They were awakened the next morning by Gandalf, who appeared to be in a much cheerier mood despite having kept watch half the night. "I've decided which path to take," he said brightly. "The path on the right leads in the wrong direction, and I don't like the smell that emanates from the center one."

Tapping his hooked nose with a long, thin finger, his hawkish blue eyes shining with decisiveness and a little tired relief, the old wizard reminded Tasana of one of the village grandfathers sharing ancestral weather lore. "Always follow your nose; if there are no other signs," he said sagely.

"So the left path it is then. I hope for all our sakes you've followed your nose correctly, Gandalf." Legolas slung his pack onto his thin shoulders.

Gandalf led them up a winding trail for eight hours, with only two brief stops. At first the young hobbits had joked, laughed and sung to keep the gloominess of the dead, empty mines away. As the day wore on and the company grew a little shorter of breath, the dark, silent, cavernous passageway seemed to swallow their bright voices and reflect them mockingly, as if Moria itself knew how futile their efforts to hide their fears were. Among these echoes were less benevolent noises: the flapping of bare feet and the occasional ringing tap of some unknown metal.

Aragorn insisted upon keeping rearguard, motioning Tasana and her weakened torch up ahead of him so his eyes would adjust to the near darkness. Chev'yahna herded the tired, footsore, but wary hobbits in front of her. Boromir and Legolas had unconsciously fallen into flanking positions about Frodo Baggins. The eldest of the hobbits had drawn his dagger.

From the way its florid designs reflected the torchlight, Tasana could tell the dagger was of ancient elven make, one that would glow with a blue fire in the presence of orcs. She had heard of such weapons from some of her pack mates who had been freed from Mordor. The dagger's dim reflection of the twin light sources was a great comfort in the dark, twisting tunnels.

Gandalf and Gimli, up ahead, appeared unconcerned about their companions' nameless anxiety, but merely pushed ahead grimly. The wizard's glowing staff bobbed about holes in the floor and outlined the side paths, occasionally stopping and turning this way and that as Gandalf chose their route.

As they turned down yet another corridor, this one in better shape than most of the others, Tasana found herself panting for breath like the city dwelling hobbits, despite years of running with the Wargs. She wasn't the only one beginning to show the effects of long miles on a nearly empty stomach. Aragorn lagged behind, and Boromir had become too tired to grumble about the wizard's choice of roundabout paths anymore.

The corridor widened into a hall, soon becoming too wide for the weak torch to illuminate. Gandalf risked a brief flash of light, revealing three exits near the other end of the gigantic hall. This must be one of the great feast halls Gimli had told them about. Tasana had imagined it must have been very welcoming and impressive in its glory days, but now the open space only made her feel vulnerable to hidden attackers.

"There used to be high windows to light these halls," Gandalf said as the light dimmed. "It must be night outside." The group had not seen the sun in four days. The wizard's observations heightened the forest dwellers' thirst for having warm sunshine once more upon their backs.

"How much longer until we get out of these caves?" Legolas asked no one in particular. He had been born and raised in the wilds of Mirkwood, east of Rivendale. None missed the dappled sunlight of the forest more than the sylvan archer.

"Mines," Gimli corrected him peevishly. "No underground stream could have created a hall as great as this one was during its glory days."

"Mine, cave, whatever," Boromir snapped. "You're the only dwarf we've seen since we left Rivendale. Where are your illustrious cousins, Gimli?" He looked as if he would have liked to continue, but a judicious use of Aragorn's elbow cut him off before Gimli's axe could.

"We should be out of Moria before the week is out, Legolas," Gandalf filled in the tense silence as Tasana and Strider moved to forestall the short-tempered fighters before their battle of words took on new weapons. Even a drawn hunting knife could produce a general brawl amongst the company right now.

"I think we are just a little above and northwest of the other gate," the wizard continued. "That east corridor should take us directly to it. Let's rest here for tonight though. We still have a full day's journey ahead of us before we even leave Moria, and we are as yet nowhere near our ultimate goal."

* * *

"Go to sleep, Lord Boromir," Tasana whispered at his side. Strider had not argued when she moved to pacify the steward's son. "It would hardly befit a man of your status to become involved in a brawl with your companions; especially those who have lost family."

Her father's tutelage for the business world had taught Tasana that nearly any statement sounded logical to a man if it appealed to his pride enough. Her own youthful experiments on her father's apprentice had taught her that heavy fluttering of her thick, dark eyelashes could not only literally steal the pants off a man, but earn her rides into the South Woods even after her father had expressly forbidden it to her, as well. Chev'yahna made as much use of her long lashes as she could in the dim light.

Boromir smiled at her, seeming to see through her flirtations and enamored with her in spite, or perhaps even because of her ulterior motives. "My status?" Boromir snorted. He moved in on the healer, dodging her torch as he caught the surprised woman in his arms. "You'll soon find I'm not much more diplomatic than your brother," Boromir said in a husky whisper, tasting her lips eagerly and running a hand through her dark hair.

Tasana had felt winded after the daylong march, but now she was absolutely breathless. She vaguely remembered the torch in her left hand, clutching it weakly as her last connection to her life before she had foolhardily agreed to accompany her lord on a deadly mission. It was impossible for her to connect the proud, intrepid, and completely inaccessible lord with the man in her arms.

"My lord, everyone can see us," she said, bracing her free arm against his chest; attempting to hold onto her sanity one last time before surrendering her senses to Boromir's warm presence.

"Let them see." He blew out the torch as her knees weakened. Boromir picked her up and carried her into his bedroll. "You need your rest as well, Chev'yahna."

She needed his second kiss more than sleep, in her opinion, and felt subtly unfulfilled when he stood back up; though Tasana thought she would probably regret how far things had gotten already in the morning. "I have first watch tonight. I'll be murderously tired in an hour, so don't go through this whole 'my lord' nonsense when I return." His smile promised everything, but required nothing from her yet.

"Yes, milord." She fell asleep with a bemused little smile on her face, enjoying the extra comfort offered by a sleeping bag on such a cold, dark night. She especially enjoyed the musky scent deeply embedded in the sheets.

Tasana slept peacefully, never seeing the thunderous glare of her brother or the highly amused glances of Legolas and Gimli. Boromir wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself, stalking around the exits of the hall and relighting the torch for warmth and light.

Everyone else had huddled against the western wall, trying to avoid the infernal draft emanating from the eastern passageways. The hobbits had gone on to sleep, and Legolas and Gimli had finished chuckling at the young lover boy and had quieted down for the night as well. Gandalf, who never seemed to need sleep, was muttering something unintelligible as he drew in the dust with his finger. Aragorn was still glowering at Boromir, then rose from his sleeping bag on the guard's next pass, looking as if he were attempting to swallow his ire before doing something rash.

"That was a great thing you did for my sister," the older man's voice was surprisingly gentle. "Though I don't like your methods. I will forgive you the public humiliation of my blood kin and your direct disobedience of my order not to attempt to seduce my sister this once, so long as you understand that I do not want you that close to her again until the two of you are engaged, at least."

"So you wouldn't object to me marrying her, then?" Boromir looked intrigued by the notion. He had not planned out any lasting relationship with the healer; tonight's encounter had been conducted on a sudden impulse rather than any rational thought. Aragorn studied him for a long moment, and then turned his gaze toward his sister sleeping easily across the room.

"If Chev'yahna wants this, I will give you my blessing," he ventured after a pause, sighing with a bittersweet acceptance. The ranger faced Boromir again, his lean features tired but understanding. "Don't disturb her, Boromir, but do go on to bed. We haven't seen so much as a rat since we came into Moria. There's no real need for a guard. I have a couple of extra blankets you can use."

The Dunedain took him companionably but firmly by the shoulder and steered the Steward's son to a corner far from the sleeping woman, where the younger man would have to step over virtually every member of the company to reach her. There was a veiled but very real edge in Strider's voice and manner that assured Boromir that the ranger would not tolerate him setting up a bed anywhere else, even if he proposed tonight.

The next day they saw sunlight. The high windows were facing west and were dimmed by years of dust and disrepair, but after three days of walking through darkness that was unrelieved by anything save the light of a pair of low-burning torches, the weak light of false dawn was almost enough to blind the group completely.

"While we're all tired, I think we'll rest better if we get out of Moria today," Gandalf said over breakfast. "It is a long hike to the exit, but I believe we can get there in one day if we move quickly."

"I definitely don't want to spend another evening here," Boromir agreed. "I swear I heard something moving around in the next passageway last night."

"Really? I'm surprised you could hear anything over you and your lady friend purring last night. It must have been coming from under the floor; you certainly couldn't have heard any vibrations through the air with that wondrous moaning you two were sharing." Legolas raised an eyebrow, and then ducked as Tasana took a half-serious swing at the archer with a pan she was cleaning.

In a small celebration of their return into sunlight, Samwise Gamgee had fixed up a hot breakfast for the company. It may have only been reheated sausages and dried fruit and vegetables, but with Sam's knack for cooking and the potent garnishing of hunger, the food tasted like a gourmet dinner. "Please, Mistress Chev'yahna, that's my best skillet!" Sam cried.

"Sorry, Sam. That elf's thick head isn't worth breaking one of your pans over. I suppose I'll just have to use his bow instead," she said lightheartedly.

The group packed up and continued onward through the twisting passageways, teasing back and forth. The sunlight, combined with a warm meal, had lightened their spirits as well as their way. They turned yet another corner, approaching a very dusty doorway that despite the cobwebs was still in decent condition. The door was slightly ajar, revealing a light that seemed blinding after the dimness of the hallway. Gandalf entered, then stopped suddenly with an indrawn breath.

"What's the matter?" Merry asked, confused and a little frightened at the delay.

"I've found Gimli's cousins." The wizard's voice echoed in the sudden silence. The others crowded around the door, jostling elbows as they let the dwarf pass in front of them. With a heartrending cry, Gimli ran to the base of the great stone coffin in the middle of the room, weeping as he knelt to his cousin, the Lord of Moria, one last time.

Frodo bowed his head from where he stood at the door. Another of his uncle's grand companions had left on the journey from whence there was no return. How many of the younger hobbit's friends would join the dwarf lord before this quest was over?

In hopes of learning more about the plight that had befallen this hardy group of dwarves, Gandalf lifted as reverentially as possible an old, battle-scarred tome from the hands of another corpse who had not been as fortunate in burial rites as its lord, whose tomb it and the other dwarven bodies had probably died defending. These were not as clean of rotting flesh as the bare skeleton the company had encountered in the entrance, but the open skylight alleviated the stench of the dead corpses. Both dwarf and orc were present; both races were armed to the teeth in death.

Flipping through the delicate pages that were often burnt, ripped and folded, the wizard began reading aloud the fate suffered by the last group to enter Moria. The party of dwarves had lost much to enter Moria, both through the monster in the lake and the perils of the dark pathways. But the dwarves in this chamber of records had obviously not been killed by a fall. Tasana recognized the haft of an orc spear when she saw one, and many of the bodies sported such spikes in their chests.

"Drums... drums in the deep," Gandalf continued. "We have barred the doors, but still they come for us. We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They are coming..." the wizard shut the book with a heavy thud, only to hear it echo up from the floor: once, twice, then steadily beating.

"That's not funny, Pippin. Stop it," Aragorn snapped, the smallest hint of desperation rising in his voice as he saw that neither the hobbit in question nor anyone else in the company was doing anything that could cause the steady, swelling thump.

"It's not me," Pippin said, disgruntled about being falsely accused. The drumming continued, getting louder now.

"Orcs," Boromir spat. "We've waltzed right into the middle of a stinking orc trap."

"Quickly, help me with this door," Strider called, picking up a chipped and discarded battleaxe with a long haft.

"What about the back door?" Tasana asked, glancing behind her wildly.

"Leave it unbarred," Gandalf told her, drawing his sword. "We may have to use it for escape."

Legolas and Aragorn positioned themselves by the door, unlimbering their bows. "Why don't we leave now?" Merry asked, quivering with fear.

"Would you rather a small room you can defend yourself in while the orcs can only reach you twenty at a time, or a thousand orcs upon your heels while we're racing through places yet unknown?" Gandalf checked the barricades on the entrance one last time before backing to the rear door.

"I'd rather live. If it's more possible this way... well, we haven't lost a group member while following your council yet." Merry gulped, and then joined his fellow hobbits in a small, square ring in an effort to keep orcs off of one another's backs. All of them currently were facing the drums at the door, oversized daggers clutched nervously.

Tasana was hardly half the shot her brother was, much less the equal of the eagle-eyed elf, so she flanked the archers with a drawn scimitar. Boromir, who stood at Legolas's side across from her, flashed the healer a wan smile. Gimli had taken a position atop the tomb and was unlimbering his arms with slow, broad swings of his axe. Tasana could hear it slice through the air in a counter-rhythm to the rapidly rising drums. "Let them come," Gimli growled. "They will find one dwarf in Moria yet who still draws blood."

Their hearts were throbbing in time to the deeply thundering drumbeat now; and Tasana could smell the death that came with it, ever rising, ever closer. Suddenly the pulsating drums stopped, and for a few tense seconds all she could hear was her brother's shuddering breath as he sighted down his shaft. Then the calm before the storm was broken as an orc scimitar hacked into the barred and reinforced door.

Aragorn and Legolas held their arrows until the orcs had chopped a convenient firing hole into the massive doors that they could shoot through from halfway across the room. The elf drew the first blood, making an impressive hit by taking an orc through the throat through a hole not much wider than his narrow, long fingered hand. Strider took out another while Legolas reloaded his bow in two blinks of an eye. Of course for every orc the two archers took down, there were a hundred more to take its place in hacking a quickly expanding breach in the entrance to the room.

The orcs had now chopped enough of the door away to return fire, and Tasana found herself ducking for cover. Strider and Legolas had not missed a shot yet, but the orcs merely trampled their dead and dying in their bloodlust. Now Tasana and Boromir had their share of targets as well, busying themselves with keeping swordsmen off their archers until the elf and ranger could reach their daggers and broadsword.

The healer certainly surprised and taunted the orcs with her very presence. Not many of the twisted goblins had ever gone toe...to...toe with a swordswoman before and very few would ever do so again. Seeing the scimitar in her hand, many mistook her for a dark friend to Mordor until she attacked them.

Gimli was defending the tomb of his cousin from atop it, cutting down every orc that came in range of his flashing axe. For such a wiry old man, Gandalf was surprisingly quick and agile with his staff and elven blade. Even the little hobbits were holding their own in the rush of battle with only occasional aid from Boromir. Strider had drawn his sword and was now hacking his way toward the dissolving ring of hobbits, as well. Legolas kept his bow in hand, darting along the walls and firing shot after shot into the orcs.

Suddenly a gigantic half troll broke through the splinters of the doors, roaring in pain as the orcs goaded it into battle. The troll started snuffing after Frodo, picking up a broken spear as it lumbered after the hobbit. The others rallied and tried to distract it, but the hairless, half blind creature tossed the little men aside like rag dolls.

Tasana raced toward Frodo's side just as the troll put its massive weight behind a powerful thrust of its broken haft that sent the hobbit flying across the room. Once more she had been too late to protect him from danger. She attacked the troll anyway; attempting to hamstring the monster while its back was turned.

Tasana barely saw the catlike archer jump to the giant creature's shoulders and shoot an arrow at point-blank range deep into its thick skull. She only vaguely observed the orcs fleeing from her fury as she fought her way to where Frodo laid unmoving against the far wall. Tasana never noticed the others gathering for a last stand about her and the still form of the hobbit and driving back the orcs.

Only as the last orc fled the chamber and Sam Gamgee collapsed weeping beside his stricken friend did the last of the battle haze wear off. The floor was littered with orc bodies, but Frodo was the only member of the company to have received serious injury.

"Can yah heal him, Mistress Chev'yahna? Is he gonna be all right?" Samwise asked.

"I don't know, Sam," she answered truthfully. "Get that head of yours bandaged, and I'll see what I can do." She pointed to a nasty looking cut on Sam's forehead before examining Frodo.

The shaft had hit him hard in the chest and she had not seen any armor on any of the hobbits, yet Frodo didn't seem to be bleeding. His breath was weak but steady and he still had a pulse. Curious, Tasana pulled back his shirt to examine the wound and saw a coat of mithril underneath. Even more shocking, an unadorned gold ring lay atop the armor of true silver. It did not take a large stretch of the healer's imagination to guess what that ring upon its chain was.

Tasana sat back on her haunches, ignoring the others' worried questions for a moment as she regained her bearings. Not trusting her voice, she pointed to the hobbit's chest as he let loose a little groan of pain.

Her brother laughed with relief. "If it were known hobbits had such hides, all the hunters in middle earth would forsake the woods for a chance to ride to the Shire."

"And all their arrows would be in vain," Gimli added proudly. "Mithril! I haven't seen such a coat in ages."

"He's still weak. That thrust would have killed a wild boar." Tasana cut through their relieved joking. "Help me carry him, Strider." The sound of drums had begun anew.

"Now is our last chance for escape. Run, I will block the door." Gandalf didn't have to tell Tasana twice, but Aragorn looked as if he wanted to object to the wizard's orders. Even Sam, Pippin, and Merry, who couldn't conceivably defend themselves against the orcs, got a stubborn glint in their eyes.

"You can't possibly hold it by yourself, Gandalf," Boromir argued. "Let us stay and help." Gimli and Strider were nodding in agreement.

"Your swords are of no use here. Now, run!" The wizard waved the reluctant men down the stairs.

"Come on, Aragorn. Gandalf knows what he's doing." Tasana had to use poor Frodo as a lead to drag the ranger away from the sound of screaming orcs and the sudden heat of magical fire blasts. The wizard and the woods-woman managed to browbeat the other men into following her down the stairs into the darkness beyond. They stumbled along as fast as they could in the dark, for the sun did not reach here and no one had bothered to remember the torch.

There was a loud boom accompanied by a flash of light that momentarily lit the cavern they were racing through. Then the wizard was suddenly among their number once more, running haggardly behind the group to catch up. "I have delayed them, but there are forces amongst the orcs up there that could destroy us all in an instant," he warned them, obviously spent.

Although Gandalf was tired, the group made better time as a whole with his staff to light their way around hidden pitfalls. Soon they were no longer totally dependent upon the wizard's staff, however. The deep pits shone with a light of their own, a red-orange liquid fire that showed Tasana why her pack mates lived in perpetual fear of burning light.

They jumped yet another hole in the floor to watch in horror as the place where they had been standing collapsed into the blazing pit. A piercing shriek sounded from behind them, causing Frodo to moan once more.

"A Balrog!" Legolas whispered; brown eyes widened in terror. The orcs were after them again, in much greater force. It looked as if every goblin of Mordor and Moria had crowded into the mob, but that was hardly what had unnerved the elf. Behind the horde of orcs was the worst thing Tasana had yet seen in Moria: a creature of fire and shadow.

"Get across the bridge." Gandalf directed the rest of the company to a long stone overpass with no walls or handrail. At the other end of the bridge stood a gate with a teasing, faint sunbeam showing through the crack. The chasm it spanned was so deep they couldn't see the river of fire that surely flowed beneath it.

The monstrous creature flapped its dark bat-like wings, scattering the orcs in its path with a fiery whip and a sword of darkness. It fixed its burning eyes upon Gandalf and shrieked its challenge once more, cracking its whip.

"You shall not pass." Gandalf turned and faced it after the rest of the company stepped off the bridge, thumping his staff against the stonework, as the creature grew nearer. Tasana could sympathize with Boromir's apparent frustration at not being able to do anything to help the wizard. Gandalf looked very small, very ridiculous, and very, very old as the demon Balrog faced him in the middle of the bridge.

Neither the company nor the massive horde of orcs dared intervene in the struggle between the titanic powers on the bridge, yet no one dared look away from it. Somehow they all knew in the deepest part of their hearts that the future of the little company would be dependent upon this one supreme moment; whoever lived or died afterward would have little impact upon the ultimate destiny of the Ring of Power.

The Balrog flashed its whip toward Gandalf, only to have it repelled by the wizard's glowing sword. "You cannot pass. Go back to the shadow from whence you came, dark flame of Udun. You shall not pass." The creature swung at Gandalf with its now glowing red sword; and the white elven blade of Gandalf blocked the blow and shattered the burning steel.

The wizard thrust his staff into the bridge once more, and the stone gave way under the demon. Gandalf teetered on the edge of the chasm for a long, breathless instant, steadied himself, but then fell as the creature's flaming whip caught his heel.

"Gandalf! No!" Tasana rushed to the edge of the broken abyss, catching his slipping hand.

"Run, Tasana!" the fallen wizard gasped commandingly, and then added more audibly for the rest of the company: "Fly, you fools!"

Tasana felt a great weight on her arms, more than she could bear to hold much longer. The Balrog flapped its shadowy, thin, primitive wings uselessly, attempting to use Tasana's pity to save its own flaming hide and destroy the rest of the company in its malice. Then Gandalf let go of the healer's hands, slipping away into the darkness. Chev'yahna felt Boromir grab her waist and pull her away from the chasm, felt him run her out of Moria; she heard the thrum of Legolas's bow as the lull in the battle ended, but could not see through her tears until they had gotten far, far away from Moria and the bridge.

Aragorn had done his best to heal physical wounds, but only Boromir's gentle touch and quiet voice could rouse Tasana from her sorrow. "Get the map, Legolas. We must reach the elves in Lothlorien by tonight," Aragorn directed. The Dunedain knew the territory the best from his wandering youth, and hid his depression fairly well, so Strider had picked up the lead after Gandalf fell to certain death.

"Give us a night, Aragorn. We've gone too hard, too fast, and lost so much. Your sister can hardly see through her grief," Boromir argued, laying a protective hand on Tasana's shoulder.

"If we rest even a single night here we'll have a host of orcs upon us in the morning," Strider replied soberly, hoisting his backpack. "Will the wolves be available, Chev'yahna? We made much better time with their help."

"No, the packs dare not hunt in elven territory," she choked out between sobs. In the short time she had known Gandalf, the wise old wizard had touched Tasana more deeply than few others could ever have done. His quiet, commanding form, for all his eccentricities, had been a pillar of hope and an anchor of wisdom on this mad quest. Tasana did not have his power, though. His death had taught her that her strength was not enough to overcome evil.

"Come with me, Chev'yahna," Boromir said gently, guiding her along. As they passed through the hills, her tears slowed, but she was not yet prepared to walk without Boromir's comforting hand on her shoulder.
***

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