The Last One Standing - a short story
There was a low hiss somewhere behind her, and Faye stopped and turned. This forest was dangerous to fully fit travelers, let alone one who could barely raise herself to her knees. Predators followed the scent of blood, and more than once she had been forced to scare off a potential attacker. Luckily for her, she was now very good at scaring off lesser creatures. Narrowing her eyes and baring her fangs were usually enough to send them running, and she rewarded the bolder creatures with broken bones.
Dimly, Faye remembered a time when she considered herself tame, and was proud of it. It wasn't so long ago when she had left the warmth of the Valley, and the years she had spent there were the greatest of her long life. Every other moment of thought was given to remembering the faces of the ones she loved, especially her beloved Arwen.
How long had it been since she left? Faye could not fully determine the time, but she knew that it had been years. Perhaps even a full decade had passed since she last saw the Valley, and a year of that had been spent relocating her prey's trail. She had burned and bloodied a path across all the lands of Middle-earth, from ocean to mountaintop, desert to wetland. The men of the west would turn their views of the epic fight into legend in later days. In the dead of night, a shadow had flown overhead, pursued by a dark rider. The rider had brought the shadow to the ground, and they had fought until the shadow broke free to escape the rising sun.
A rider Faye was no longer. Her loyal companion, the spirited gelding Endis, the only horse she knew that had been willing to bear her, had fallen in one of the battles. It had been around six years since leaving Rivendell, and the quest had led them to the barren lands of the far north. The creature had been in Faye's sights, running low and fast over the ground. Spurring Endis, they had finally started catching up. Faye had been leaning over Endis's neck, reaching out for her prey, when the creature stopped, turned, and withdrew the accursed silver blade. Unable to stop, Endis had impaled himself on the blade, and with a wild cry he had fallen forward, crushing the creature underneath himself and sending Faye flying. Darkness had consumed Faye, days passing before she revived enough to rise onto her knees. The creature was gone, but there was evidence enough that massive injuries had been sustained.
Faye had cared little. Her loyal friend lay dead, and she had forced herself to crawl to him. Laying her head against the horse's neck, she had remained for a day longer, tearfully mourning the loss. Burying him had taken several days more, for with the injuries from the fall, she had been forced to dig slowly. The only things she removed from the saddlebags were her cloak, the scarf Arwen had made for her, and the curved sword she had taken from the armory in Rivendell. The rest had been left in the grave. After smoothing out the dirt and arranging a pile of stones as a marker, Faye had departed. Winter had come before she found the trail again.
The few years since had seen a great change in Faye. Before Endis's death, Faye had always been able to hold a degree of control over her vampiric instincts. Long ago, during her first years in Rivendell, Glorfindel had once commented that life in Rivendell was transforming her from a jungle-dwelling, unpredictable creature to a civilized woman. However, this change had slowly reversed itself over the few years between Endis's death and now. Before Endis's death, she had traveled the roads, stopped in settlements to seek information, and allowed herself to be seen. Now she kept to the shadows, moving silently over the lands, following a trail that was sometimes so thin and old that she was forced to crawl and track like a hound until she knew for sure which way her prey had gone.
The hiss sounded again, and Faye watched as a creature appeared from the shadows. For a moment, she was wary, but she relaxed when she realized it was nothing more than a mangy wolf. It hissed as it panted. Faye growled at it, pulling back her lips and flashing her fangs. The wolf stopped for a moment, clearly uncertain. It was nothing but bone, skin, and fur, and clearly desperate for a meal. Its desperation was shown when it began approaching, baring its yellowed teeth. Faye stiffened, preparing for an attack.
It lasted no more than a few moments. Staring down at the corpse, Faye shook her head. It had lunged at her, going straight for her throat, and ignoring the danger presented by her arms and hands. One well-aimed swipe to the wolf's skull, and the beast was dead at her feet.
"You had a better chance to survive if you had jumped into a dragon's mouth," Faye said softly, touching the wolf's head.
Turning her back on the wolf, she continued on. Dimly, she could hear thrashing ahead. Her prey had finally stopped running. Faye did not know if she was wandering into a trap, but she couldn't stop. At this point, the hunt was all she existed for.
Heaving herself atop a fallen log, she reached back to pull up her relatively useless left leg. She had been almost completely skinned from the calf to the ankle, and it refused to bear weight. It was a clumsy process, but was faster than trying to follow the scent hopping on one leg.
Rolling to the ground, Faye grunted when the strip of pale blue cloth wrapped around her neck tangled on a scrawny branch and ripped free. She glanced back at it mournfully. It was the last surviving piece of the scarf Arwen had made for her, torn and soiled over time. Save for the amulet Celebrían had given her, which was still secure around her throat, it was the last reminder of her old life she possessed. Everything else she had taken with her when Endis had been killed had either been lost or destroyed. The sword had met its doom while blocking a blow from the silver blade, splintering but also successfully stopping the strike that would have otherwise taken off her head.
Faye gently freed the cloth, sitting back and taking a moment to rest while she thought back on the events during her stay in Rivendell. Very few had been overly dramatic compared to the quest she was on now, but all of them were fond memories.
Up until Thuringwethil entered her life, Faye had enjoyed every minute. Though her thoughts were fogged by her ever-constant awareness of her surroundings, she allowed herself to reminisce on the day her beloved Arwen had given her the scarf.
"Are you cold?" A sweet innocent voice interrupted Faye's thoughts, making her turn to see who had come up behind her.
Arwen stood there, holding her hands behind her back. Faye smiled slightly. She was wearing a shawl around her shoulders, more to hide her paling skin than for warmth. She shook her head.
"No, my child," she said gently. "I am just starting to become a bit hungry."
Arwen approached, and Faye extended her hand to show her the pale skin. Now that she was closer, Faye could see that Arwen carried something made of pale blue fabric behind her. Faye decided to ignore it for the moment.
"I will leave when the sun sets," she said, withdrawing her hand. "For now, I will stay in here. You know it is not wise for me to be walking around Rivendell hungry."
Arwen nodded, clearly understanding. Faye was very proud of herself for her growing ability to handle bloodlust, but she still didn't trust it enough to risk leaving her bedchamber at the moment. She had heard rumors that someone had been injured near the archery range, and was being brought to Elrond for care. The last thing anyone needed was for Faye to smell the blood from the injury.
"I made something for you," Arwen suddenly said, revealing the pale blue object from behind her back. "I was hoping you were cold. Then I'd have a reason to ask you to try it on."
Faye smiled. Arwen had made her a scarf with diamond patterns embroidered into the soft thick fabric. It wasn't as long as most scarves, but Faye immediately accepted it and wrapped it around her neck.
"It is beautiful, Arwen," she said, approaching her vanity mirror and glancing at her reflection.
Moving over to the bed, she removed the scarf and wrapped it around one of the posters. She then turned and embraced Arwen.
"I will treasure it forever."
A low groan echoed through the forest, startling Faye back to reality. The distant thrashing had intensified, and somewhere above the canopy, birds were scattering. The remnants of the scarf slipped out of her hands as Faye turned. Distracted by the noise, she left it behind, quickly picking up the trail again. Her prey's desperation was growing. Thuringwethil clearly had a destination somewhere in the forest, but was losing strength and speed. The faster Faye traveled, the louder the sounds grew.
Forcing herself onto her damaged legs, Faye crashed through a line of thick undergrowth, landing in a crouch. In the distance, the walls and spires of a dark city loomed, and the stench of death hung thick in the air. Faye took no heed of the strange city, for her prey lay before her. The ground was wet with vile blood, and as the creature stared at her, blood continued to drip from between her tapered fangs. A steel-toothed animal trap was clamped around her leg, preventing the creature from escaping.
"Come no closer," Thuringwethil hissed. "I will rend you to pieces if you near me."
"You have dealt harm to those I love," Faye growled back. "In the name of the Valar, I swore to hunt you down and end your unholy existence. My hunt ends tonight."
"If I die tonight, you will be joining me in oblivion." Thuringwethil lashed out at her, but Faye stood too far away for the length of the chain to reach. "I'll finish on you what I started on the she-Elf!"
Faye roared and charged forward, feeling Thuringwethil's claw-like nails sink into the muscle of her arms even as she slashed at her and pushed her to the ground, pinning her to the dirt. The creature shrieked and thrashed about, trying desperately to throw her, but Faye held on. Thuringwethil snapped her teeth, thrusting her hands forward and tearing at her face, clearly aiming for Faye's eyes. Faye rolled away, swiftly wiping blood from her vision, and looked up just in time to see a flash of silvery metal. In the seconds of Faye's distraction, the creature had summoned her sword.
Throughout the length of the quest, Faye had learned several things about the powers of her enemy. Thuringwethil's power to transform into a bat was harbored in the cloak she wore, and the blade materialized whenever the creature had need of it. Once solid, the sword could be handled by others, and could even be used against its owner. However, it only appeared when Thuringwethil was in human form. In bat form, Faye guessed the sword made its presence known in the creature's deadly iron claws. Black magic gave unnatural speed to her wings, and she also possessed the power to control Orcs and Wargs. Once she had even summoned a fell draconic beast to attack Faye. Weaponless, Faye had been forced to flee.
But there was no creature nearby. Though Thuringwethil screamed for help with her icy, inhuman voice, the only living thing Faye could see now was her. There was fear in her eyes now, even as she brought the sword to bear. Faye stiffened, ignoring the pain that raged from her wounds, both new and old. She had been waiting for Thuringwethil to summon the blade, for Faye knew she was not strong enough to kill the creature with her bare hands.
Unable to stand with the trap around her leg, Thuringwethil nevertheless swung the blade around. Faye ducked the blow, pivoting around and forcing herself to her feet. Thuringwethil swung again, and Faye caught the creature by the wrist, using the momentum of the swing to sink her fangs deep into the sword hand. Thuringwethil screamed and abruptly lost her grip on the hilt of the sword, and it dropped into Faye's waiting hand. Faye quickly released the creature's hand, and was rewarded with a blow that cracked her jaw and knocked out a few molars. Spitting out the teeth, Faye quickly retreated out of Thuringwethil's range. Thuringwethil threw back her head and shrieked.
"Master!!" she screamed. "Master, spare me!!"
Faye raised the sword, unleashing a roar that made Thuringwethil scramble backwards. There was terror in her eyes, and she kept glancing at the city.
"My only regret is that I will not be able to torture you as you did Celebrían!" Faye snarled, her voice slightly muffled by the hindrance of the cracked jawbone. "For ten years, I hunted you. I dreamed of the day I would finally bring you down. In the name of the Valar, I avenge my family."
Faye charged forward, and Thuringwethil met her charge. Blinded by fury, Faye did not react fast enough to avoid her. Thuringwethil struck her chin, forcing her head back and exposing her neck, then sank her fangs deep into the tender flesh. Faye cried out as the creature started leeching the little blood she had left. She could feel Thuringwethil start to transform, and she desperately grasped the rapidly disappearing cloak, pulling with all of her strength. The strip of cloth securing the garment around Thuringwethil's neck ripped, and the creature released Faye and stumbled backwards, screaming so loudly that Faye could feel blood starting to trickle from her ears. Blinded by pain and shock from the bite, she estimated her aim, stepped into range, and swung the sword around.
Thuringwethil abruptly stopped screaming. Faye shook her head to clear her vision, gasping as she watched the creature sink to her knees, shock clear on her face. For a moment, their gazes met, then Thuringwethil fell forward, her head rolling from her shoulders and coming to a stop at Faye's feet. There was a low hiss, then the creature's body crumbled into dust, leaving Faye standing alone in the clearing with the blade in one hand and the cloak in the other.
With a deep sigh, Faye let the silver blade fall to the blood-drenched soil. It was over. The quest was finally complete. She had defeated her enemy, avenged her family, and redeemed herself in the eyes of the Valar. For the first time, she allowed herself to feel the pain of her wounds, and she trembled as a sob escaped her.
"Arwen, my darling," she whispered. "I'm coming home."
Faye allowed herself to sink to the ground, desperate for rest. Low sounds echoed in the distance, similar to drums and deep horns, but she did not hear them. She focused her gaze on the iron-toothed animal trap, the simple object that had aided her victory.
"My lords," she whispered, a prayer to the Valar forming in her fogged mind. "Grant me strength. Guide me home."
She was exhausted, and as a cold wind ripped over her, she turned her gaze to the forgotten cloak. The fabric was strangely warm, almost soothing against the bare skin of her arm, and she slipped the cloak around her shoulders. The pain abruptly eased, and she took a calming breath. The burning that had been a constant source of discomfort in her belly for the past ten years was suddenly gone, and she accepted it as a sign that the Valar were pleased. Faye sighed and allowed herself to relax, her eyes slowly closing.
For a moment, everything was black, and she was at peace. Then, she felt a distinct discomfort. Something was watching her, and she opened her eyes. However, she did not realize she was no longer alone until the horse came into focus. It stood barely a yard away, the bone-thin legs coated in what looked like blood. Black hooves sank into the bloody soil, and after her eyesight fully focused, she grunted in confusion. For a moment, she wondered how it could walk with nails hammered through its hooves. Forcing herself to sit up, she let her eyes trail up the muscular leg, the broad chest, the proud arched neck, and the heavily armored head. White froth dripped from its heavy lips, and points of reddish light shone in its fierce black eyes. She turned her head and glanced up at the rider.
Every inch of Faye's body turned cold as she stared into the blackness. The rider was robed in a thick cloak of similar material as she wore, but it was much heavier. It had no face, but its hands were armored, and in one hand it held a wicked blade. For the first time, fear budded in Faye's heart. She couldn't bring herself to even growl at the new arrival, though she knew she was in deep danger.
As the rider dismounted and approached her, reaching out for her, she immediately wished she had not survived the fight. It grasped her by the neck, lifting her to her feet.
"Slayer of the shadow woman," it hissed, its voice icy. "Our master will be very pleased with you."
Faye realized then that the rider was not alone. Two others had materialized out of the darkness. The first rider held her in the air, and the other two rode forward and grasped her arms.
"Take her back to Dol Guldur," the rider commanded. "She is the last one standing. She will make a fine replacement."
It suddenly reached forward and pressed its hand to Faye's chest, grasping hold of the amulet that Celebrían had given her. Faye finally found herself able to fight back, and she snarled. She was abruptly struck from behind, and she fell forward, the two other riders releasing her arms. For a moment, the chain held, and she dangled by the neck. Then, it snapped, leaving the amulet in the first rider's armored hand and sending her to the ground. The first rider laughed, a horrible sound, and tossed the amulet away. Faye cried out as it vanished into the darkness of the forest.
"On your feet, slave," the rider hissed icily, driving its steel-toed boot into her side, breaking more than a few ribs. "You belong to us now."
Faye had no control. The cloak constricted some movement from the awkward way she had fallen, and when she reached out to grasp the sword she had dropped, it disappeared. Staring into the forest where the amulet had gone, she fell limp, not struggling as the rider roughly lifted her and threw her over a saddle. She had no strength left to fight.
"Forgive me, my beloved," she whispered, and for a moment, the face of Arwen appeared in her thoughts.
"I am not coming home."