Part the Fourth
Over the River and Through the Woods
"What is it, mein freund?" Kurtvagner skied up beside me and stared into the whirling snow. "Legolas? Can you see through this?"
"No." I told him.
"Neither can I."
But I heard something. When I first came to this world, it had buzzed in my ears like an annoying fly, but I had become used to it, and no longer noticed it. Now, with the world wrapped in the silent blanket of the blizzard, I had noticed its absence. The constant roar of distant engines was no more.
Until now. They were still far away, many miles, perhaps. But they were drawing nearer.
I could feel it. I pointed. "They are coming."
He answered with a nod, then we moved to tell the others. The sled set a new course, down over the edge of the road into the woods. Ian skied ahead of it, finding a path through the trees, while Tas broke trail at the head of the team. Jon, Bran, Kurtvagner and I fell back, a light, mobile shield between the oncoming orcs and the sled. The others would stay with the sled.
And yes, two of us in the rear were the ones the orcs most wanted to find.
Jon stopped in the trail, barely visible only a few feet away, "Keep going." he told us. He scanned the trees behind us, his eyes finally lighting on one empty of creatures in their winter sleep. He raised his bow and drew the unseen string. Light blazed like the light of Vilya, and a great bolt the color of ice shot forth. The tree fell with a great groan across our trail. "That'll slow them down." he said, turning and running again.
"Perhaps." I said.
We moved in the tracks the sled had left, allowing the sled team to widen the gap between it, and us...and the orcs. Bran spoke words into the wind and the tracks vanished behind us, erased by blowing snow.
The buzz of distant engines changed from the sound of flies on a summer evening, to the growl of a dragon roused from slumber.
"They grow near." I told Jon. I heard the pause and sputter of engines as the orcs found the fallen tree, and made a way around it.
Then the woods fell silent for many breaths.
"They've lost our trail." Bran said with satisfaction.
We moved again, hoping they would lose the trail for good. Hoping we could reach the fortress of the quarry first.
"They're as keen as hounds on a scent. They don't really need a trail." Jon said. "Though this snow will make it hard to find our scent."
"Their noses are probably useless," Bran said, "burned out by too much oil and exhaust." Stupid punk kids." His face showed distaste, but none of the deep hatred my folk had for the evil folk of Mordor.
We ran, lightly, an ear to the emptiness behind us.
The engines roared, the sound of Smaug's kin as they picked up our trail again.
"I'll have a look." Kurtvagner said, and a bright flash of dragonbreath mingled with the whirling snow. A moment later he was back, dropping out of the air and flying forward on his skis. "Half a mile, no more."
"How many?" Jon asked, face grim as any Ranger's.
"All of them, I think."
"Great, just what I need, somebody else besides Zan spouting movie one-liners." Jon said, running after him.
"Smile, there's only thirty or so." Kurt called back, "Just enough to go around. Maybe a few for dessert."
We ran close as a wolfpack, the whiteout making us nearly invisible to one another, then Jon held up a hand, "Bran, do something about the lousy vis, would you."
Bran stood in the trail and raised his hands. I could see the skylight dancing around his edges, pouring through his hands, though anyone but another Elf...or Liz and Ian... would have seen nothing. The wall of white fell back, farther and farther.
Now we could see when they came. There would be a clear target for our bows. And for the swords of the Ravenkin, Bran, and the Walker of Night, Morathradon. We faded into the trees, waiting. Watching with the patience and silence of Owl. Bran swung up into a low branch above us. Kurtvagner could hide as well as any Elf, blending into the shadows of the tree-trunks, only his golden eyes visible to those who knew where to look.
We did not have long to wait. They came on us with a great roaring, I could feel even the trees tremble in their wake, and all of the creatures of that wood fled or hid. They were clad in black leathers, the sort of thing Men wear who ride such beasts; layers of black, padded and armoured, making their lean, small forms huge and fearsome. Their helms were dark and featureless, covering even their eyes with something like dark glass, though it would not break easily. Their clawed feet were hidden in boots, and their hands were disguised by their gloves so they looked like Men.
But strangest of all were their tails. Or the lack of them.
"Docktails." Jon whispered. "I thought so from Ashnarii's description." His face went even grimmer.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Young punks. They veer so far from the path of their ancestors, they cut off their tails so they can blend into human culture. At least as long as they leave their motorcycle leathers on."
"Their faces look very little like Men." I said.
"They can disguise those too." Bran said.
Jon's face held a veneer of disgust. "She was right. They will honor none of the traditions of their folk."
"You're saying they will kill us without a thought." Kurtvagner said, all three of his swords at the ready.
"Maybe not you. Or Legolas. Maybe Nazgul Barbie still wants you two alive. Maybe."
"They will have to go through us to get to the rest of you." Kurtvagner said, and his eyes glowed like the lights of the Two Trees.
Jon turned to me and read my heart in my eyes. "Remember. We are not to kill them! Let their own Grandmothers deal with them when we have laid them on the ground!"
I studied their movements as they closed in from the edge of the wall of snow. "Their armor is bulky, but their bodies are not."
"Don't let that fool you. They're as fast as falcons. And they can leap like kangaroos!" Jon said, raising his bow.
"What," I asked him, "is a kangaroo?"
Bran coiled on his perch, ready to spring. "They're here." He said, eyes glittering like Raven's fixed on a juicy feast.
From Jon's bow of ice and fire flew bolts of white light. The skis of the nearest snowmobile blasted into bits, the machine tumbling over itself and vanishing into a drift. The rider flew and fell, a smaller bolt of icy light hit him square in the chest.
He moved no more.
I fired my own bow, aiming for the vulnerable places of the machines, as Jon had instructed. I did not wish to hit the fuel tanks, for that would be worse for all of us than the Fire of Isengard itself. The first great green bolt sliced through a four-wheeled machine, two trees, and a cycle. I stared, aghast, as the living trees fell with a groan and crash.
Then the falling branches snared three snowmobiles, a four-wheeler and two cycles, like fish in a net. The four-wheeler that my bolt had hit exploded in a great fireball. The rider had already vaulted off and hit the snow running.
He did not run far. A cloud of bright smoke appeared just above him, and Kurtvagner landed on him, feet striking his black helm with the speed of a falcon. He leapt up from the flattened orc, eyed the fallen trees, "You might want to recalibrate that bow." he said.
I gave him a quick nod, and fired at a lone four-wheeled machine. The rider made a desperate leap as the machine blew into a fountain of flame. A great belch of fire and smoke engulfed the rider, and when it cleared he had vanished.
Kurtvagner appeared, looked down into the snow where the rider had vanished. "Unglaublich! Their armor is almost better than X-suits! He's not even..."
The orc leapt out of the snowhole and reached for Kurt's neck. He ducked, flipped out of the way and countered with a swift kick.
I drew the bow, and frowned at it. I did not want to risk blowing Kurtvagner into small blue bits. And it would not be wise to anger him, or Jon, or all the orcs of Yrch County by blowing the orc into small bits either.
In the next moment, Kurtvagner's orc was flattened at his feet. He held a hand up when he saw my bow. "Nein, nein, nein, Mein freund!"
"I'm recalling, rebating...I'm...I'm fixing it, OK?"
I fired again, into the running tread of the next snowmachine. It flapped like a dying dragon, and the machine spun into a tree in pieces.
"Ja!" Kurtvagner said with enthusiasm, "Makes me want to take up archery!"
I watched him wielding his swords with the ease of my light knives. "Ja!" I called to him, "Perhaps I should get bigger knives!"
Machines died with a great gouting of smoke and flame. Riders clad in black leather tumbled and lay still, though they yet breathed.
But others roared by, reaching for us from belching beasts with the speed of an angered bear. Some leapt from their mounts at full speed, reaching for us with hands or booted feet. Bran leapt and spun like a bird in flight and kicked several from their noisome mounts. His light sword spun blue circles in the chill air, slicing through machines as if they were carved of snow, stunning riders as if the sword was only the blow of a well-placed hand.
Kurtvagner appeared and reappeared in the most unexpected places; bamfing in above them and swinging his cutlasses broadside into dark, featureless helmets, or slashing straight through the howling machines. Surprised, they were, but not for long. They leapt from their disabled machines like striking snakes. One hand struck Kurtvagner, like the closing jaws of an adder, the orc roared in surprise when Kurt vanished in his characteristic burst of flame and smoke. Another leapt at Bran with both booted feet, knocking him, winded, into the snow. Kurt reappeared above the orc's head and swung a mighty blow with his cutlass. The creature fell, stunned.
"Nine!" Kurtvagner called.
"Ten!" I called back, moving to Bran's side.
"Elf!" Kurtvagner shouted, three cutlasses slicing into tire and engine and flattening the rider all at once.
"What?" I shouted back.
"I mean, eleven! Their lack of tails is throwing them off balance! They do not move with the speed of their women!" His own tail caught the neck of a passing orc and flipped him neatly into a tree trunk, while never dropping the cutlass that tail was wielding.
Bran rolled to his feet and spun through three more orcs, the sword a blue blur. "Fifteen." he called. "Your estimate of thirty was a bit on the light side, 'Crawler."
"I always did have trouble counting." he called, holding up a three-fingered hand.
The bow of green fire with which Doc had gifted me sang with the power of leaf and sun and mighty oak, with all the power of the great woods around us. Riders fell, and fell again, though I had to duck and dodge their swift leaps. But Kurtvagner was right. Once separated from their machines, they did not have the eerie grace of their women. They had given up their power for that of the machines. And once we took their machines out from under them, they were as grass before the scythe.
"Fourteen!" I shouted to Kurt.
"Fifteen!" he answered.
Jon cast us a hard glance and shook his head.
In the woods around us, just beyond the wall of white, a last few engines roared by. The rest lay still, and smoking, with their riders unconscious for now. I felt a rumble, as if the trees themselves had spoken.
"Their women are not far behind." Jon said. "We will leave the docktails to them. But there are others slipping by. Let's move!"
"Are you sure!"
"No lass, this is not the time to use your spells, stay in the sled. Let the Elves do their work." Doc's hand on my shoulder was heavy.
I hunched on the sled in front of him, clutching the scroll, imagining Legolas, who had never suffered so much as a scratch in the entire War of the Ring, cut down by some punk orc kid on a four-wheeler. "Swear to all the Valar, I'm gonna turn her into a toad when I catch up to her!"
Doc chuckled, but then his voice turned serious, "Be careful lass, or you'll turn yourself into her."
I wiped the snow off my goggles, but without Bran pushing back the storm, I could only see as far as Shenzi's butt. Somewhere ahead of her, Wolf continued to break trail at a terrifying speed, Shenzi and Kodi leaping after her, seemingly tireless.
Behind us, something in the woods changed.
"Is that an engine?" I said to Doc.
"Some have taken a longer route! They've gone around us!" Jon called. He was already running in the direction the sled had taken.
"I'll go ahead!" Kurtvagner said.
"Don't you have to see where you're going?" Bran yelled back.
"It helps." he shoved himself forward faster on his skis, "But I think I remember what the sled looks like..."
And he was gone.
A pair of skis appeared above my head in the midst of a flash of fuschia smoke, twisted sideways, and vanished into the whiteout.
"Bleearrrghh!" Doc grumbled, coughing.
"Aaaghh!" Zan said, ducking.
"Hey!" Liz shouted behind me. "George of the Jungle, watch out for that..."
"Sorry, liebling." There was a distinct thud.
"...tree." Liz said. "Whoa!" she called, and I heard the scrape of the sled brake.
I tumbled off the sled, ran back past the runners and found Nightcrawler in a pile at the base of a tree. Ow. And there I'd been imagining Legolas getting creamed by an orc. "Nighty?"
He rolled to his feet, skis and all. "I'm OK." he said, wavering a little. " Remind me never to pick a fight with an Ent."
Ian and Doc and Zan appeared out of the snow.
I could hear the distinct roar of engines now.
Nightcrawler pointed in the direction of the engines.
"The others..." Ian said, looking worried.
"Fine, but a few orcs slipped past. They're a mile or so behind us."
Doc grinned, "Jon and the others are behind them, and we in front. Snikt, snikt, the claws popped and closed like a set of jaws. "I was gettin' a little bored back here on the jingle-bell sleigh ride."
Ian peered into the whirling snow, as Tas pulled the team into a tight knot behind her, "We could really use Bran right now, to clear this snow." Ian said.
"When eyes are useless, use your ears, lad." Doc said. He crouched, claws extended and ready, looking uncannily like a Wolverine comic cover. Nightcrawler crouched beside him, cutlasses drawn, eyes narrowed, head cocked as if listening.
I unrolled the scroll, eyes searching frantically for something that would be of use. Poems, they're just poems. What good would 'hey dol, merry dol, ring a dong dillo' possibly do?
Zan peered over my shoulder, then pointed to one. I looked up into a wide wicked grin. "You and me, mellon nin," he said. The red palawntir was in his hand, spinning like a globe. "I have an idea."
The roar of the engines vanished ahead of us, though we ran as if they were hordes of Mordor. At the edge of hearing, more engines sounded, coming from yet another direction.
"I think, " Bran said, "Kurt was right when he said all of them."
They came out of the wall of white like the shadows of warg riders. They could see us no better than we could see them.
And we could hear them.
Tas stood, once more in Elf-form, the dogs behind her, her own stance casual as if she were waiting for a bus.
The bus arrived, she flicked out a hand.
I'd never seen a four-wheeler do a flip before. It landed in a spray of snow, the rider vaulting off, but somehow not as gracefully as other folk I knew with tails. That's when I noticed he didn't have any. He popped to his feet, and Tas' foot planted itself squarely in the middle of his visor. He backflipped and lay still.
Somewhere to my left I heard the sizzle of Liz's bo, a strangled "Arrrghck!" cut short. A silver disk whizzed out of the wall of white and vanished again. Something to my right exploded.
"Now." Zan said, crouched on the snowdrift by me, his feet at my waist, the palawntir dancing with faint lightnings.
I crouched, half-buried in the drift. He raised his hands.
hair was long, her limbs were white," I
and fair she was and free
And in the wind, she went as light
as leaf of linden tree."
Nothing happened. Nothing that I could see anyway. But then, I could only see Zan and the tree I was standing next to, and a lot of snow.
There was a flash of fuschia smoke in the snowy air nearby, then a surprised, "Katzchen!?"
I looked at Zan. He shrugged.
There was the distinct scent of electronics frying. The sound of one engine, then two, then three, dying.
"That..." Nightcrawler spat out something in German which I didn't recognize, and probably didn't want to, "...has opened another Gate! If she harms Katzchen..." His face looked as if he would cheerfully teleport Nazgul Barbie into the Darkforce Dimension and leave her there.
"Zaaaaan." I said.
A smiling Kitty Pryde waved at him and vanished back into the snowstorm. I heard the sounds of more electrical systems going dead, and at least one small explosion. Nightcrawler glowered and crouched to leap to the assistance of his long-time friend and fellow X-Man.
Zan grinned, caught his arm. "Just an illusion, mein freund."
"Eh?" Nighty's face registered astonishment, then relaxed, "A really good one. Too good!"
"Shadowcat?" I said to Zan. Shadowcat who could short out electrical systems by phasing through them.
"Yeah, by the time she's done frying their wheels, they should be easy to..."
Something hurtled out of the white and struck Zan's chest, feet-first. He vanished into the snowdrift he'd been standing on like a dropped anchor. The palawntir sailed through the air and landed just out of my reach. The orc rose and leapt out of the hole he had just made. A featureless black helmet turned toward me.
Then he saw the palawntir.
I didn't think, I just hurled the snowball. The Iceman routine had worked before. The snow splatted all over the helmet's visor, the orc staggered back, wiping at it.
I reached a hand out for the palawntir, it sat maddenly out of reach, I hitched myself up, half out of my hole. My hand closed over it, trying to stuff it down out of sight into the snow. At the same time I sang out the first thing that leapt to mind;
sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been
lightning danced across the red globe, and up my arm. It felt like
the time I'd hit the electric fence at Dana's. It crackled, burned.
The scroll in my other hand glowed with the same wild light.
I envisioned Storm frying the orc with lightning bolts. What I got was butterflies.
A whole cloud of them, out of nowhere, engulfed the orc's head like pirhanas in a feeding frenzy. The orc waved wildly, staggered back and dropped in the snow, face first.
The butterflies vanished.
I dropped the palawntir in the snow, breathing hard, and floundered up over the edge of my snowhole. I peered down where Zan had gone. "Hey. Zan?" No answer. I dug frantically at the snow, found a leg, a chest. "Zan?" First rule, unconcious victim, don't move them. He was half buried, I had to move him.I dug farther, found his face. "Oh crap." Breathing; no. Heartbeat...covered by too many clothes...find pulse at neck...yeah, there it is. Howthehell do you do mouth to mouth in a snowhole? I strained to haul him out, I had to. I laid him out on the snowdrift and hoped nothing important was broken, like his neck. Tilt his chin, pinch his nose, breathe, breathe again.
He sputtered and opened his eyes. "Gaaaah!"
"Sorry. Shoulda' used mouthwash this morning."
"Nooo." his voice came faint and raspy. "Chest feels like it got hit by a truck."
"Yeah, the orc truck, didn't you see the big "Dodge" logo across the front?"
"I think it said "Ram". Or maybe it was just a dog."
"A Greyhound, you mean." I said, grinning, "Anything hurt?" I'd have to peel half his clothes off and subject him to frostbite as well as cracked ribs to find out myself.
"Fine." he wheezed. " 'Cept for my ribs."
"Don't move then."
"Hey. Where's the orc now?"
I pointed to the inert form on the snow. "Out cold. The attack butterflies got him."
"I touched the palawntir when I sang the spell. One where Bilbo's talking about butterflies. I got butterflies. They creamed the orc"
"Whoa!" he stared up at me wide-eyed. A shout nearby caught his attention. "Damn. The illusion." he frowned, waggled his fingers. "Say the verdammt spell again, would ya'? The Shadowcat one. Wait, where's the palawntir?"
I reached for it, hesitated, then grabbed it like a hot rock and shoved it back into his hands. "Should you...?"
"Can't do much else right now."
I sang the spell again.
Zan focused on the palawntir on his chest. His face twisted in concentration...or pain, and the flickering light that danced around the surface of the red globe was fainter. But the smell of frying snowmachine circuitry returned. I crouched by Zan waiting for some other awful thing to materialize out of the snow. I heard more shouts and the odd explosion. A loud, deep voice that sounded Dwarvish, and the screech of metal...perhaps claws...on moving metal. Something that sounded like a sword, perhaps a cutlass...perhaps three of them...slicing through some sort of machinery. The smell of a science experiment gone horribly wrong. The distinct clang of Ian's frisbees hitting something large and metallic, then something more like plastic. A helmet, perhaps. The gaaack!of an orc exclamation cut short. A triumphant howl that wasn't Shenzi or Kodi, yet was still distinctly canine. And female. The roar of more engines coming from a new direction. I searched the scroll, "What else can I use here?" I said to Zan, unrolling the scroll before his nose. What I really wanted were fireballs or icestorms or Summers Brothers force beams or something akin to what Liz had told me D&D wizards carried around.
What I had got was butterflies.
Butterflies that had bagged me an orc. I frowned at the other spells, wondering just exactly it was they would do.
"Lorien." Zan pointed to a spot behind my head. "We need more butterflies."
We came upon the edges of the fight; a few smoking cycles, an overturned snowmobile slashed as if by a sword...or three, and the distinct smell of sulpher. A few orcs lay half buried in the drifting snow.
"Looks like they've been doing fine without us." Bran said.
"The vis." Jon said.
Bran sang into the wind, and the wall of white swept back as it had before. We could see our foes. They swarmed in the woods around the tight knot of our friends. Many machines lay useless in the snow, and no few orcs. But there were many more.
And now they could see us.
One leapt from his machine as Kurtvagner's sword removed the handlebars. The orc ran toward two figures huddled on the snow. And he had friends.
"Lorien!" I breathed, and raised my bow.
Without their bloody machines, the orcs could move as silently as any Elf. These had. Their helmets were missing, and half their blackleather armour was gone. They were just skinny kids now, without their toughguy clothes.
But there were a lot of them.
The first one grinned at us with a mouthful of teeth like a Great White Shark. His yellow eyes fell on the palawntir on Zan's chest.
"Ooooooh crap." Zan said. Faint lightnings played around the edges of his hands. Too faint. His eyes flicked to the palawntir, flickering about as bright as a half-dead firefly.
Four sets of orc eyes followed his gaze. All of them grinned.
I slapped my hand on top of the palawntir and shouted the spell;
iron was found or tree was hewn
When young was mountain under moon
Ere ring was made or wrought was woe
It walked the forests long ago."
Lightning danced across the red ball and up my arm, only this time it didn't feel like hitting the electric fence. It felt...
...good. Really good.
Something groaned, creaked like ancient hinges, and from overhead swung a great branch. It smacked into Orc One and swept on through his buddies like a great broom. They sprawled thirty feet away and moved no more.
The branch swept back up to its place and stopped, swaying lightly in the wind.
"Whoa." Zan said, staring up into the trees. "Keeeeewl." He lifted the palawntir off his chest and handed it to me.
"Ah, really I think that's your department, Zan." I handed it back to him, still watching the tree above for any more signs of movement.
"Apparently not." His sea-grey eyes studied mine. "This thing enhanced a couple of my illusions, but...whoa..." He rolled the ball on his fingertips.
I waggled the spell scroll. "Maybe it's just this."
"No. You're channeling the energy from the palawntir too. And it's way more powerful than I thought at first." He frowned at the red ball. It glowed in the half-light of the snowstorm like Sauron's eye.
"One ball to rule them all." I said. "Keep it." But my fingers itched to hold it again.
The rest of the orcs fell under the bolts from our bows, or blows from our swords. I found Liz in the thick of things, her bo weaving circles of glittering light, knocking orcs from their mounts one after another.
"Sixteen." she said. Her face looked like that of a wolf who has hunted well.
One more roared by, she swung and missed. I fired and the rider was punched into the snow by the bolt of green light. Two more caught us between them, I set myself against Liz's back and fired. She swung, and hers dropped.
Mine roared by, untouched.
She spun and swung and he fell. "Seventeen!" She crouched and swung again. "Eighteen!" She caught my eyes and gave me a questioning look. I smiled, but would only tell her that her score was better than mine. She grinned back and we took out the next one together.
A few roared off before we could fell them, the sound of their engines fading into the distance. We gathered around Lorien and Zan, Ian kneeling in the snow, running his hands over the fallen Elf. The familar green fire danced around his hands and, at last, the young Elf rolled to his feet. He looked around.
"Hey, you didn't leave any for me."
Yo Ho Ho, Me Hearties...
"Legolas, Is that it then, is that all there is?" Liz said to me. Her face was flushed with excitement and her bo was still at the ready. "Do you see any more?"
"No." I told her.
"For now, that is all we will see of the orcs, I think." Jon said. "Though our villainess may have a few in reserve. But if her magics, or her trackers tell her where we are going, she will know orcs are useless in water."
"Yeah." Bran said, "They swim in exactly the way fish don't."
"Kinda' like bricks." Ian added.
"So do I." Lorien said.
Tas blurred, shifted and reappeared in her true form. She handed a heavily padded vest to Lorien. "Maybe you should put this on under your parka."
"Man, those things are like, a hundred bucks at the kayak shop!" Liz said, eyeing the strange vest hungrily.
"You can have it when we get out of the quarry." Lorien said. "'Cause that's the last time you'll get me out on the water."
I turned suddenly for something had rumbled up from the edge of hearing and was screaming in my ears, though neither Liz nor Lorien nor Ian nor Doc seemed to notice it. The dogs had leapt to attention, their ears pricked. Then they howled in sympathy with the strange sound.
"What is it Legolas?" Liz said to me.
Around us the heavy white flakes were beginning to thin. I answered; "I heard the deep rumble their women make when they talk over great distances. And something else."
Bran knelt nearby, one hand against a tree-bole, head cocked like a bird, listening with more than his ears. "I've heard it before. But you never hear it in their presence. A kind of weeeeeeee heeeeeeeh heeeeeeeeh hheeeee!" His voice shrieked up into the sounds Men cannot hear.
"Sounds like the X-Jet." Kurtvagner said, eyebrows wrinkling as if it was an all too familiar sound. "With engine trouble."
"Dysfunctional tardis," Lorien said.
"Nooooooo, more like a functional one, I think." Bran said.
"If we go back there," Jon said, "we will find no trace of them, or their machines."
"How?" I asked.
"They have their secrets." Liz and Jon said together.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Liz frowned at the tall Elf. "Shoulda' dragged one of those O.R.C.s back here and pried his head open for a couple of those secrets."
Jon said, "It would not have been possible."
"You never really answered my question." Liz said to Bran.
"Can Dragonkin ... or rather orcs... open Gates? I mean, besides to wherever it is they go when they're not off-roading, wreaking havoc, or running errands for Nazgul Barbie. Like...new gates...to...ah...other places?"
Bran's eyes darkened, like deep water, "Why?"
"There's.... there's something... familiar. Those crests. The feathers."
"Feathers?" Lorien said, and a sudden look of understanding came to her face.
"Feathers?" the Ravenkin said. He glanced from Liz to Lorien to Liz.
Feathers. Blue-green feathers marked with purple. A brazier burning with an evil smelling concoction of herbs. Tossing those feathers into the fire.
"Why would Nazgul Barbie use orc feathers as part of a spell?" I said.
Jon turned to me, fast as a falcon, "What?"
"Yeah." Liz said. "I remember the feathers really clear now that I've seen them up close on those orcs. The big feathers that were notched and clipped, the crests on their heads."
"The ones that mark their rank and status in the clan." Bran said.
"That's what I thought too." I said.
"Gotta be. The ones I got from Dana were notched like that."
"The ones you got from Dana,"Jon began..."
"...and there's nothing in the north American woods, or any pet shop, marked like that, with those weird purple shadings." Liz said.
"True." Bran said to her.
Jon moved. Two quick strides like a leopard hunting brought him before me, he looked down into my eyes, "Lorien. Are you sure?"
I stared up into ice blue eyes that were probably about a thousand years old. It was like looking into a bottomless crevasse in a glacier. I took a step back.
Bran came up behind him, laid a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, mellon nin." He shot me an apologetic look.
"For how long have we been Gatesingers ?" Jon snapped, "And we have never heard of such a thing... someone who is not Dragonkin using Dragonkin feathers to open a Dragongate.!"
Bran stepped between Jon and me, looked at me with deep sky eyes, "Try to remember. Picture it again..."
I did, it was much easier this time; Bran's eyes, the color of Nightcrawler's skin, had some of the same softness. The images danced across my memory, and those dark blue eyes widened.
"Whoa." Bran said in a very quiet voice. He looked up at Jon, "Yep. Orc feathers." He paused, "Not precisely Dragonkin... you'd never get feathers from a true Dragonkin. Orc feathers. Pawned for a new motorcycle or jet ski probably."
"Well," Liz said, "Then all we need to do is catch Nazgul Barbie, get her to reveal the counterspell, call up a couple of your old Dragonkin buddies, snag a few of their most important body parts, or those of their wayward youth, and send Nighty and Legolas home. Should be a piece of double-death-by-chocolate cake!"
lephae-a tad: Legolas
The curtain of snow paled and fell back. The air lightened from grey to silver. Somewhere above us an early afternoon sun shone above the blanket of clouds. The dogs continued to run, light and fast, skiers and Tas breaking trail ahead of them. We found the sweeping curves of route 441, running north along the east bank of the River. A snowmobile that did not belong to an orc had been there before us, and we could stretch out and run the last mile. We no longer hid our trail, we were not trying to elude an army of orcs. Bran took to the air now, sailing ahead of us on the wind, wheeling back with news he had gathered with his own eyes, and with those of other birds who had come out of hiding after the storm.
The land was empty as far as he could see. Even from a hilltop I saw no more than many snowed in houses, a distant snowplow, and someone playing with a snowmobile.
The orcs were gone.
Ahead of us a familiar flag marked the end of a snowed road to the left. The bright red stood out against the snow, its white diagonal slash marking this as a place divers could practice their skills by doing things like carving pumpkins and decorating yule trees at the bottom of the clear, cold lake. The road led down past the dive shop, where Tas teleported all of our sled dogs but herself into the safety of the closed shop. The road wound down through the woods toward the River. It ran out of the woods and past some dilapidated buildings that had once been part of the quarry operation, when it was digging limestone from the earth. For a long time the machines had been silent, and the pumps that kept the great hole dry had stilled long ago, letting the groundwater reclaim the huge scar, and turn it into a deep lake. White cliffs still towered over the water, a shade of turquoise green that looked as if it belonged to warmer waters much farther south.
We stopped on the road where it ran along the high side of the quarry cliffs. Bran peered down into the turquoise hole, unfrozen, despite the biting winter cold all about.
"What if she doesn't find us?" Lorien asked, "What if we kicked orc butt so thoroughly she just packs up her magic wand and goes home?"
"She'll find us." Jon said, glancing at me. "We seem to have a lot of things she wants back."
Bran stood staring out into the water, singing softly under his breath. "...bring me that horizon...da da da, da da da, da da da daaaaaah...and really bad eggs..."
"Is it my imagination, or is it getting warmer?" I said.
ho ho, me hearties...get your bikinis out girls," he said. "And
save me some rum." He had shapeshifted again, and now was
wearing a baggy white pirate shirt and thigh-high boots. And a broad,
colorful Caribbean headscarf. And several locks of blue-grey hair
were beaded outrageously.
I raised my camera, and took a shot of him doing his best Captain Jack Sparrow grin.
"We're about to do some serious gunkholing." Captain Jack Raven said.
"Huh?" Liz said.
"Cruising about in shoal waters or small coves." I told her. I studied the white cliffs towering close on all sides, at the far end of the green lake one small gravelly beach sloped down from the entrance road to the water. We stood on a narrow grassy slope on the far side of the lake, one that led down to a floating dock. Those were the only two approaches to the lake. Not a particularly big lake, and starboard of our position, I could see a shoal of rocks through the clear water. In the other direction was a sunken grove of trees that had grown there before the quarry flooded. Not a lot of maneuvering room if Zan was doing what I thought he was doing.
Zan stood below me on the floating dock, twirling the palawntir and frowning. Legolas and Liz and Doc were beside him, wrestling a long pole they had scrounged from the old quarry building. Another one like it already stood near the other end of the dock, shrouded and braced with rope to keep it vertical. "Is there some kind of plan? Or are we just making this up as we go along?" I asked Bran.
"Plan? Elves and plan?" Ian's voice came from behind me, "Now there's two words you almost never hear together in the same sentence."
Bran gave him a wide smirk, then looked back out into the middle of the turquoise water. He kept humming. It sounded like more of the Pirates soundtrack.
I peeled out of my pooka parka and looked for a safe place to put it. A moment later I pulled off my sweater. Nightcrawler came and stood beside me, watching Bran curiously.
Below me something rumbled, a great ripple spread from the dock out into the lake.
And there was a tall ship where the dock had been. Not just any old tall ship; a swift looking 70 foot brig; headsails like the flight feathers of a hawk, her foremast sporting square course, top and topgallant sails, her mainmast hung too with top and topgallant sails, and one great wing of mainsail reaching to her stern. She looked awfully familiar.
"Hey, isn't that the Interceptor?" I asked. "The one they blew up in Pirates?" I raised my camera and took a shot. Two. Three.
Bran's grin widened. "It's the Lady Washington. Before they made her up as the Interceptor. A lot like the one I was on back in 17..."
"Na aear, na aear, myl lain nallol, i sul ribiel, a i falf loss reviol..." To the sea, to the sea, the white gulls are crying, the wind is blowing, the white foam is flying.
Bran turned in surprise and stared at Nightcrawler. "Since when do you speak Elvish?!"
"It's from elvish dot org. The Sindarin translation..."
"...of Legolas' sea song in Return of the King. Yeah, I know. Unglaublich!" Bran said.
Nightcrawler grinned at him, then down at the ship, one hand fiddling with the hilt of a cutlass. "Bring me that horizon. And really bad eggs."
"And what are we going to do with that?" I asked Bran, pointing at our brig, then the limestone cliffs that closed in on all sides."Fire forks at Nazgul Barbie with the cannons?"
Bran just grinned. The two of them, Bran and Kurt, looked like kids at Christmas.
I shook my head. "And how is she going to get close enough for us to trap her?"
"This." Zan said. The air wavered, hiccupped, and a horde of orcs jostled down the dock, sweeping us up and aiming for the ship's gangway.
"Hey, what?" The orc behind me definitely had far too tight a grip on me. I elbowed him, and stepped on his foot for good measure.
"OW!" he said in Nightcrawler's voice. "I'm one of the real ones!"
"Oh. Oooops. Sorry about the foot."
"It wasn't my foot."
"Oh. Sorry about the tail." I now stood near the gunnels in the midst of a horde of orcs, precise illusory copies of the ones we had just fought. Some of them were real; two had bows hidden in their off-road leathers, one was shorter than the rest and his gloves would sprout nearly-adamantium claws, and one, hidden in the midst of it all, back near the wheel, had a tight grip on a dark shiny red motorcyle helmet. Liz stood a few yards away, her bo collapsed and tucked under her pirate shirt. The orc behind her had a particularly annoyed scowl. Legolas knew of the Beren legend from the Silmarillion, in which Finrod the Elvenking changes his party into the likenesses of orcs, the better to sneak into Morgoth's stronghold. And he knew our O.R.C.s were not the evil folk of Middle-earth.
Despite this Legolas did not like being turned into an orc, even if it was only an illusion.
Not even if the black leather looked hot on him.
Jon was somewhere behind me. I shot a comment in his general direction, "Maybe it's time to send up those flares."
Somebody chuckled. It sounded Dwarvish.
"She will come." Jon said.
"Before I'm grounded for eternity?" Liz said.
We'd been there for hours, I knew all the spells on my scroll without looking. I had taken pics of the brig, of the Elves, the fake O.R.C.s. The last few pics looked like The Pirates of Helm's Deep. The sun had begun to burn through the cloud cover. Bran's weather wizarding had worked. It was getting downright tropical in here. And my feet were still clad...and melting...in the mukluks Mom had got me last Christmas. The ones you could climb Mount Everest in. The ones I'd been wearing when Nazgul Barbie kidnapped me on the way home from the barn somewhere in the beginning of the First Age. I had shed everything but my t-shirt, and jeans and the personal flotation device Tas had manifested for me. Liz had somehow got Bran to make her a pirate shirt and a headscarf. She looked like she belonged there on the deck of a tall ship. I was just hoping I stayed on the deck.
A vulture wheeled out of the woods above us, hit the mutated air over the quarry and wobbled.
"Sorry dude." came Bran's voice, and one of the orcs made a gesture at the air overhead. The vulture tilted on the fresh breeze and wheeled off.
Just over the treeline to the west, lay the Susquehanna River. A flock of birds, dark against the pale sky, circled up from there. They wailed over our private tropical lagoon, stark white against the turquoise water. A few dropped down to take a closer look at us.
"Mine? Mine, mine."
"Mine, mine, mine, mine!" the gulls shouted.
"Guess they're wondering if we have any hotdogs, like the divers usually do." Bran said.
"Maybe you could tell them to go find Nazgul Barbie and bring her here, like before the next millennium." Liz said.
"Maybe they're her Crebain from Dunland." I said.
One sat on the yardarm above me and made a great splot. It missed me by inches.
"Nah." Bran said. "She couldn't convince a roach to work for her."
"Mine? Mine mine Minemineminemine!" they wailed.
One of the orcs leaned forward past Liz and followed their wheeling flight with his eyes.
It was Legolas.
"Ohcrapohcrapohcrap!" I whispered.
"Was?" a German accented orc said in my ear.
"What was that little song you were singing awhile back, something about white gulls?"
"Achmist! The Sea-longing!"
The orc watching the gulls was leaning over the railing now, staring at the sky. Liz turned, saw him, and shot me a look that said Middle-earth is so screwed.
I stared back, What do we do... I mouthed. Liz's eyes flicked to a point behind my head, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it." Nightcrawler said. He tilted his head toward the steep slope above us, "Listen."
I heard the distinct roar of an engine.
Liz turned toward the sound. Legolas kept watching the sky.
"Sounds like a snowmobile." Nightcrawler said.
"Five of them." Doc added. He began to add something about the engine sizes and model years but Jon cut him off.
"She's here." Jon said.
...and Really Bad Eggs
snowmobiles, manned by two orcs each, skewed to a halt on the slope
just above us. No mean feat, as they'd needed to slog through the mud
and snowmelt for the last hundred yards, courtesy of Raven Weather
Wizarding Inc. The hot pink snowsuit stood out like Airhead Blonde
Barbie among Hell's Angels, though a good deal of the putrid pink was
splattered with mud now. And Barbie did not look pleased. She
dismounted. The orcs stared at us. I tried to remember what Jon'd
said about them; Orcs don't use weapons. At least the traditional
ones don't. And the orcs we'd met before hadn't had any. And their
lack of swimming ability made it unlikely that they would storm the
I just hoped these weren't hiding shotguns up their sleeves. Barbie slithered down the rest of the slope to the part of the dock that wasn't currently a brig. Her perfect pink snowsuit picked up some more melted mud, her expression changed from a look of triumph to one of annoyance. "Why," she said to the tallest orc on the ship, "are you on a boat?"
Behind me an annoyed German accent whispered, "It is NOT a boat, it is a ship, it is only a boat if you can put it on a ship!"
I elbowed him into silence.
Barbie unzipped the snowsuit halfway, "And why is it so damn hot in here?"
The orc who was Bran rumbled something that sounded orcish, then added, "They retreated here, thinking the water would protect them. Their magic is at work here, but we were faster. We have them." He stepped forward and caught Liz's arm, shoving her forth so Nazgul Barbie could see. "The others too." he added.
"What about my guys?" she said, glaring, "The Elves? The dark-haired one and the blue one?"
"They took more restraining, but we have them."
"The..." she frowned, hesitating, "red glass ball." There was something in her expression that reminded me of Gollum reaching for the Ring. Something...hungry. And I remembered the feeling of power I'd had the last time I'd used it. Yeah. Hunger. Like the Ring.
And I wondered how effective my spells would be without it.
"Perhaps it is among their gear. We did not look. We waited for you."
"Good." She tippy-tapped down the wooden dock, and glared up at the ship. Obediently a gangplank slid forth. She walked up it like she was walking onto a yacht. Her eye fell on me. I felt Nightcrawler's hand tighten reassuringly on my shoulder. I glanced at Liz. The orc who was Legolas was still behind her, no longer eyeing up the gulls.
At least for now.
Nazgul Barbie reached out a perfectly gloved hand, closed it on my chin. "Outer Mongolia. Noooo, not far enough. Maybe scenic Antarctica."
I wrenched loose. A breeze touched my face, the sails above me luffed, I felt the ship move under me. Now what? We needed to be farther out in the water. Farther from the orcs on shore. And more in the midst of the magic. She was focused on me, not Bran or Jon. I needed to keep her attention. Keep her talking. What I really wanted right now was a fireball, or the ability to teleport her butt to Uzbekistan. Or for Zan to have made those six deck cannons functional. I had offered to use the attack butterflies, or something else from the scroll, but Doc had warned me against it. Not yet. Not now. Not one-on-one with Barbie.
"So, before you ship me to scenic Antarctica, perhaps you'd like to tell us about your hidden plan for world domination?"
She actually laughed. "You really have been watching waaaaay too many old Batman reruns. Why would I want to rule the world? What a pain in the ass!" she leaned a little closer, an overwhelming waft of perfume crawled up my nose and into my sinuses. My eyes started to water. I wondered how she'd react if I sneezed a big one in her face.
"What do you want, then?" I said.
"Just a couple of verrrry...hot...guys." she looked even more predatory than Tas and Shenzi combined.
"Wouldn't it have been a lot easier just to kidnap Orlando Bloom or something?"
"He's kind of recognizable. Hard to take him to the beach, or to dinner without being mobbed. Or jailed. Besides. I like his movies. I'd like to see more."
"There are Elves here, you know. Why Legolas and Nightcrawler?"
"I know them. I like them. A lot. And if I...took...one from here, he'd have friends, wouldn't he? Friends who would perhaps, find him, and separate him from me." her eyes went dark as storm clouds and I had a feeling she was speaking from experience. Her hand tightened on my face.
A black gloved hand fell on her wrist and loosened her grip. She looked up, startled, looked past me at the orc behind me.
Ohcrap, Nightcrawler, don't blow it now...
She squinted, as if trying to see through a fog...
..or an illusion.
"So," I tried to get her attention back, "had a little bad luck with guys in the past, eh?"
She looked at me, then past me to the ship's rail, now definitely farther from shore than it had been. Above her the sails expanded with a definite breeze. I could have sworn I heard one of the orcs humming more of the Pirates soundtrack.
"What?!" she shrieked, "Why are we..." she stared back at Nighty and her eyes widened. A hand shot out, wreathed in dark lightnings.
On shore the other orcs stood up, watching.
just as he thought his dinner was caught
he found his hands had hold of naught" I sang.
Nightcrawler dodged, the lightnings missed, and three cutlasses sang out of their sheaths.
Not a one of them touched Nazgul Barbie.
Then everything happened at once.
A lightning wreathed hand moved again. The lightnings struck my pooka life-vest, sizzled around it, and it fell smoking onto the deck.
A bolt of green light hit Barbie square in the head. Or should have. She flicked out a hand and it flowed around her like water around a rock.
A shorebound orc unholstered something from his seat, with a move straight out of the Old West. Something boomed through the rigging, a shroud to the mainmast snapped, splinters flew.
Half a dozen orcs...the E.L.F. ones...hit the deck, and bits of mast and rigging spattered into the lagoon. Nightcrawler shoved me behind the broad bole of the foremast, at the foot of the fiferail, on the opposite side from the onshore orcs.
Another bolt of green fire shot forth from Legolas' bow, this time it struck the orc with the shotgun. He fell, steaming, and his gang erupted into action.
On deck, Nazgul Barbie plowed through illusory orcs. They parted like the Red Sea to let her by, then turned on us. Bolts of icy light shot from Jon's bow, mowing them down, but not once touching Nazgul Barbie. The rest of the real orcs rose from the deck and joined the melee. Tas threw mad punches and kicks port, starboard and abaft. Doc slashed a hole through the orc hordes with his claws. Ian's frisbees winged out, ricocheted off a few real orcs on shore, and sailed back to him. Liz leapt to Legolas' side and fended off illusory orcs with her bo. Jon turned his bow toward the real orcs on shore.
Legolas stood by the gunnels, firing at shorebound orcs. They ducked, dodged, leapt behind trees, and no few returned fire, with weapons they had hidden in their machines. Shotgun blasts blew through rigging, knocked splinters out of masts and yardarms, blew holes through our nice new sails. Legolas stood as if on the wall at Helm's Deep blasting snowmachines and the odd orc with the green lightning from his bow. Legolas' fighting style was honed in a pre-gunpowder world. He knew about guns, of course, he'd seen enough movies, read all of Liz's comic collection and the odd newspaper headline. But he was still thinking like an Elf of Mirkwood. "Legolas! Stay down!" I yelled as Liz dragged him behind the gunnels with her.
"You too, liebling!" Nightcrawler crouched over me, one hand keeping me firmly squashed into the deck.
Like that would do any good. The ship, and its railing was mainly an illusion. Yeah, and the mast I was cowering behind too.
Something zinged and splattered against the railing where Legolas had been standing. Zan had said the palawntir had enhanced some of my own magic as well as his... and the centipedes of doom had been illusions and had mass and bite. So maybe...
...and maybe the quarry magic itself was finally kicking in.
Legolas popped up over the sturdy rail and fired.
On shore an entire snowmobile lifted and blew into bits.
More gunfire boomed from shore, and ricocheted off the apparently quite solid sides of the ship.
Legolas stayed hunkered down behind the gunnels, popping up to fire and duck again, like a cowboy in an old western. Or maybe more like one of the Indians. Behind him, illusory orcs were falling from the low blows of an unseen bo.
We needed to be farther from shore, and our weather wizard was up to his eyeballs in orcs. Bran leapt and spun like a bird in flight, wheeling his sword in circles of blue light through the hordes on deck, swinging down from brief perches on stay or shroud to slash illusory orcs into shreds of skittering light. Nightcrawler still crouched over me, shielding me with his body. I planted a hand on his chest and shoved him aside enough to shout up at the sails;
"i sul ribiel a i falf loss reviol!" I sang. The wind is blowing, the white foam is flying.
The sails above us luffed, lifted and swelled. The ship began to move faster.
onshore orc fired a parting shot, too far now. It was answered by
green fire and the orc went down.
Dead ahead rose the white limestone cliffs of the quarry. I looked up at the full sails. "Hey, who's steering this thing?" I yelled.
"Ach!" 'Crawler exclaimed. And vanished.
Meanwhile, Nazgul Barbie was moving fast. She wasn't heading for the rail. She wasn't going overboard, not even with our help. And she wasn't headed for either of 'her' Elves. She was headed abaft.
The palawntir. It had to be the palawntir. I remembered the look on her face when she'd asked about it. And the taste it had left in my hands. Hunger.
If she gets it back, it's going to be like Sauron with the Ring.
I scrambled to my feet, elbowing my way through the orcs. A moment later the ship lurched and swung hard aport, like a horse yanked up short on its lead. The deck rolled and tossed beneath me. Nightcrawler reappeared beside me, catching me as I tried to find my sea legs and failed.
"Whatthehell?" I said.
"I dropped the port anchor." he said. "It worked in the movie."
The ship rocked, rolled and righted itself. It squatted now, dead in the water in the middle of the lagoon.
"We need to get to Zan, that's where Nazgul Barbie is going, I'm sure!"
Kurt nodded and plunged into the horde of orcs, with me right on his tail. He swatted them out of existence as he went. I sang out a spell, hoping it would aid him;
has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
Nightcrawler's eyes and his right-hand sword traded blows with three orcs to starboard. His tail fenced with two astern. His port sword came down on another dark helmet, and was met with blue fire.
"Crawler! It's me!" Bran yelled, his blue sword of light sizzling against a cutlass. Beside him another orc raised a silver disk that had once been a hubcap.
"Ach! Sorry!" Nightcrawler said.
Bran spat out something in no language I knew, and his orc illusion fell away along with the one disguising Nightcrawler and Ian.
"She's after the palawntir!" I told Bran.
"One ball to rule them all!" I told him, "When Zan and I used it..."
"It's more powerful than he thought. If she gets hold of it..."
His eyes read mine and widened. "Come on!" Capn' Bran Raven gestured silently to Ian. Ian made a quick gesture in return and moved aft, clearing a temporary swath through the orcs with his frisbees. Bran reached for a line belayed alongside fifty others on the pinrail, slashed it loose with his sword and swung in the general direction of Nazgul Barbie's bleachblonde head. Above him a yard leaped like a loose horse.
"Come, liebling," Nighty said, grabbing the freed belaying pin that had held Bran's line. He bounced the heavy pin off an orc's head, and scooped me up, swinging up effortlessly into the ratlines, even hauling me, Pudge-muffin, with him.
Below, Legolas headed for Liz, swinging her bo in circles of fire. Tas, back in her true form, was teaching orcs the art of swimming.
The fake ones didn't swim any better than the real ones would have.
A hole in the action resolved itself into Doc, slashing cheerfully away, orcs disintegrating like villains in a video game.
Nazgul Barbie plowed aft through illusory orcs like a heat seeking missle. Doc, Ian, Jon and the rest hacked their way through the hordes on deck with vehemence. They were not making much progress down the mere seventy feet or so of deck; the orcs didn't seem to be thinning.
don't remember this many fake orcs!" I said, looking down from
our perch in the mainmasts' ratlines.
"There weren't!" Nightcrawler said. "She's making more somehow!"
Zan was nowhere to be seen. But he was the illusionist, he could change his disguise as needed. He could be anywhere, be anybody.
"If she gets the palawntir..." I said.
"...deep trouble." Nighty said, nodding at the water below us, deep, turquoise, the bottom somewhere a hundred feet below.
Yeah, deep trouble. And that creep fried my pooka pfd.
"Do you actually have a plan?" I said to Nighty.
"Plan?" Nighty said.
"Plan?" Bran echoed, swinging from his halyard.
"Ach! Elves!" I said.
Something rumbled, way down at the edge of hearing.
"Whatthehell?" Bran said, he reached for one of the mainmast's port side braces and perched there on the slanting line.
I clutched Nightcrawler's neck as the whole ship heeled hard aport, our perch snapping like the end of Dana's lunge whip.
"Whoa!" Bran said, much nearer the water than a moment ago. He wrapped himself around the brace as the ship snapped back the other way.
Below us something moved in the clear green water. Something rising toward the surface.
Some thing big. Really really big.
"This is not the Creature From The Black Lagoon." I said. "This is a freshwater lake. An old quarry to be precise. There is nothing in here bigger than a largemouth bass."
"Yeah," Bran said, "Tell that to him!"
"Quarry." Nightcrawler said, "That's like a mine. Mines of Moria, Watcher in the Water. Any of that ring a bell?"
A huge tentacle snaked out of the water, slithered over the gunnels and reached for Nazgul Barbie.
"Uh oh." Bran said.
"You have a gift for understatement, mein freund." Nightcrawler said.
Something like an algae-slimed rock, or perhaps a smaller, less lovely version of the Great Barrier Reef, neared the surface. More tentacles shot out, spraying the deck with water and goo of unknown origins. A distinct smell of sulphur and decay filled the air. A few orcs went down. Nazgul Barbie slipped, caught herself by grabbing an orc, then a line. She raised a hand, dark lightnings fried another tentacle reaching for her head.
"Zan, you idiot!" Bran shouted into the mob of orcs on deck.
More tentacles reached for Barbie and were deflected, then fried.
"Wherethehell is he?" Bran said, scanning the deck below.
"You're telling me that's his?" I pointed at the multiple tentacles slithering over the deck, making the entire ship list heavily to starboard. A few began wriggling up the rigging. On the other side of the ship, Doc looked up from a pile of orcs and saw a tentacle snaking toward him. He flattened an orc and leaped for the tentacle, claws extended.
Barbie stood now, dripping quarry bottom goo from her perfect pink snowsuit, wriggling a hand like grasping tentacles.
"Wunderbar!" Bran said. "She's got control of Zan's illusion now. Problem is, he's so good, I can't tell where he is!"
Clinging to Nightcrawler's neck I sang out a spell;
Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away
Tom's in a hurry now, evening will follow day."
Tentacles bigger than Old Man Willow's roots continued to writhe over the deck. A few hesitated and fell limp as cooked noodles. More rose from the depths of the quarry to take their place. "Aaaaagh! It's not working!" Perhaps if I had the palawntir. My hands twitched. Itched. Hungered.
"Liebling, look!" Below us, by the wheel, one of the orcs stood contemplating a dark helmet in one hand. He was not going with the flow of the others.
And he was a bit shorter than most of them.
"Ja, the light around him is different from the fake orcs."
"What? Bran can't even tell."
"I can see parts of the spectrum you can't. How do you think I see in the dark?"
"Can you put me down and grab him?"
"Put you where?"
"Anywhere." Yeah, right. We were halfway up the ratlines of the ninty-foot mainmast, on a ship a giant economy sized Watcher in the Water was attempting to eat. I climb in exactly the way squirrels don't, and there was a lot of very deep water below me. Water full of writhing tentacles.
"You get Zan, let Bran distract her. I have a spell or two that might help."
"Here," Nighty said, "Hold onto this." he wove my arms through the spaces in the ratlines, stuck a leg, then the other through another space, tucked my feet through, and closed my hands on itchy tarred rope. "I won't be far." Then he was gone.
The woman was more powerful than we had thought. She deflected the blows of our weapons as if they were but toys. And the orcs she had come with had weapons of the kind Men of that world used; short, heavy and unlovely, like a crossbow, but filled with the Fire of Isengard. They were nearly too far away to be effective, but I felt their sting.
The great hole that had been a quarry of Men thrummed with the power of earth and water. The River flowed nearby, tying those energies to the Great Bay beyond, and to the Sea. Mirzithan's illusions gained strength here. And the Palawntir magnified them. The illusions were real, solid. The wood of the ship's rail deflected most of the orc fire. The broad sails caught real wind. The sheets and shrouds and braces would have held all of us aloft.
But those magics were being turned against us too. Nazgul Barbie multiplied the orcs, and turned them to her own use, much as she had twisted Zan's magic in our battle at her house. And she sniffed for the Palawntir like a Nazgul sniffing for the One Ring.
Lorien raised a bit of wind with her spell, and the ship moved. I felled the last of the orcs on shore. But Nazgul Barbie was lost in the pressing crowd on deck.
As fast as we flattened illusory orcs, more took their place. Beside me Liz's bo wove circles of fire and light, but the orcs came ever thicker.
"Crunch all you want, she'll make more." she said grimly.
"Indeed. This is her doing."
"Somebody has to fry her brains. If they can get close enough!"
"Aloft!" I said to her, pointing up into the masts, tall as the trees of Mirkwood.
"Won't you be a better target for her there?"
"I think she is not concerned with me right now." We swung up, and could see the swarming deck in detail.
Then the ship rocked as if it had struck a reef. I looked down and saw the reef, it looked as if a piece of the bottom had risen from the deepest hole, bringing with it decay and stench. It reached tentacles the size of tree boles across the deck, leaving a trail of slime. First it reached for Nazgul Barbie, and I realized it must be one of Zan's illusions too. But she blasted it with her lightnings, then turned it on us as well.
The masts and lines whipped as if in a great storm. The ship listed hard. I saw others; Morathradon, Lorien, Brannan the Ravenkin, and our villainess converging on the ship's stern.
Liz paused, swayed with the grace of a bird on one of the slender shrouds to the mainmast. "There she is."
"Our weapons won't touch her."
Liz grinned suddenly, "Yeah, but I bet we can."
Bran swooped down on Nazgul Barbie's head with all the grace of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp combined. Hoping to keep Barbie from frying Bran, I sang out;
of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising,
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
From his place on the starboard rail, Ian's silver disks flew, distracting her further.
"Yeaaaaagh!" Bran yelled, catching her armpits with his legs as he swung by. He must have underestimated his velocity, or the strength of the line, or Barbie's actual weight.
"Gaaah!" The line parted and they both tumbled across the deck, rolling through orcs like a bowling ball.
Ow! Well, that might count as a distraction. Bran popped to his feet and spun Nazgul Barbie in a mad dance under the mainsail. She shot out a hand and fired lightning the color of a train wreck. His blue sword flashed and parried. A silver disk, edged with green light, a disk that looked like it might have once been a pot lid, ricocheted off her shoulders.
Barbie and Bran both stood stunned and smoking.
know," she said, "you're kind of cute when you're mad..."
she raised a hand.
"The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes
When there's good cheer among the guests
he cocks an ear at all the jests
and laughs until he chokes."
Barbie gasped, sputtered. Her hand fell as Bran hit the deck, and rolled out of the way.
The ship rocked, the rigging whipped. Forward, Tas and the others were hacking through tentacles the size of trees as well as the odd orc.
Abaft, by the wheel, there was a sudden fuschia flash, the faint sound of imploding air lost in the melee. The smallest orc looked up, startled, then vanished in a burst of fuschia flame and smoke. A moment later I heard a 'bamf 'above me, then Nightcrawler and Zan swung down to land lightly in my ratlines.
Zan clung to the line, panting, "Let's go to the quarry, he says. She can't use our magics he says, well guess what Fearless Leader! She bloody well can!" Zan gestured and his disguise fell away. His red hair looked like it had weathered a hurricane, and there were lines of fear and worry around his eyes, eyes gone the color of a cold rain at sea. He swayed in the ratlines, Nightcrawler braced himself behind him, steadying him.
"I've got nothing I can hit her with, she's turned my orcs. Grabbed my Watcher. I was gonna try a few flying Nazgul, maybe the Millenium Falcon, hell, maybe even the Death Star!"
"Nein, nein, mein freund!" Nightcrawler said, eyes wide.
"Yeah, really." Zan's face looked drained.
For all that Zan was capable of, he was still a kid. Just a kid. One in over his head right now. "Let me try it." I heard myself say.
"Here." he said and thrust the palawntir at me like a hot potato.
Below me, Bran had regained his feet and was dancing in desperate circles, fending off Nazgul Barbie's lightning blasts with a wheel of light from his circling sword. Barbie paused and looked up. Her eyes widened as she saw the red flash of the palawntir. She gestured.
A couple of orcs started climbing after us. Then two more. A few of the Watcher's tentacles slithered after them.
"Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away
Tom's in a hurry now, evening will follow day."
that would work any better this time. I tried it anyway, none of the
other spells seemed to fit.
Above me, the topgallant sail suddenly went limp as a couple of its sheets ceased to hold it in place. The reason for its sudden demise swung down on the poop deck; Legolas and Liz. Two pairs of booted feet nailed Barbie right in the solar plexus. She vanished into a throng of orcs. The tentacles slipped and slithered back over the side into the water.
"YES!" I yelled.
"Oh crappola." Zan said in a very small voice, his eyes going to a spot behind my head.
Nightcrawler snarled, crouched, leapt straight over my head, all three cutlasses whirling like a Cuisinart. The ratlines spranged and tossed. I grabbed desperately and wrapped myself up like a caterpiller in a cocoon, following Nightcrawler's flight with the spell I'd used for Bran;
"Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising,
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing"
This time I sang it in German.
Below me a couple of orcs hit the deck, falling as if from a great height, and vanished into mist. A huge piece of tentacle fell beside them and disintegrated into slime. I heard a satisfied exclamation in German.
The palawntir, wedged between my bosom and the rope rigging began to slip. "Zaaaaaan!"
Nazgul Barbie rose out of the thinning throng of orcs on deck. She swayed a bit, like Capn' Jack Sparrow with too much rum. She looked up to see the big red ball headed for her nose.
I couldn't see Bran anywhere.
The loose topgallant snapped and spun as someone freed another line; someone swung by in a great swoop like an osprey on a fish. A hand flashed out and the palawntir fell into it.
"Yahoooo!" I whooped, and sang out a spell to aid him, a line from Treebeard's Lore of Living Things;
"Thoron vaeg-heneb!" Eagle sharp-eyed.
Below, on deck, Liz shoved her way past the last few orcs, smacked aside a great slimy tentacle with her bo, and delivered a neat palm strike to Barbie's head. She reeled, then shook it off, and grabbed for Liz.
"Carpholch vaethor!" I shouted. Boar the warrior, that was Liz, alright. Liz ducked and plowed into Barbie like a berserk boar.
Legolas reached the end of his rope, and swung out over the turquoise depths of the quarry. A few tentacles reached up waving perilously near his legs.
"Cabor i chab!" Frog that jumps. What I really needed was monkey, but apparently Ents had never met monkeys, there wasn't a rhyme for one. Anyway, all I could picture in the monkey department was an undead zombie one in pirate garb.
Legolas swung up out of the way, the line snapped him back over the ship. He juggled the ball frantically.
It seemed juggling is something woodland princes do not learn much about.
And I could not think of a spell to help...
"Gaaaah!" He said. The ball plummeted to its doom.
Below me Nazgul Barbie snapped out a front kick. Liz backed up a stride, eyes crossed as Barbie's foot passed within inches of her nose.
"Megli faroth vaed!" Bear, hunter, skilled.
Liz swung hard and Barbie reeled back a few yards.
Below Legolas, Tas reached out a hand and caught the palawntir, kicking aside fake orcs all the while. One of them barreled into her from astern and she sprawled headfirst into his buddies.
The palawntir sailed up, and up...
Liz delivered a mean spinning back kick. Barbie ducked. Mostly.
A couple of tentacles reached for the sailing palawntir. One made contact.
Slime does not make for a good catcher's mitt. The palawntir slithered, slipped and continued on its flight path.
Captain Crawler's Cutlasses took out a few dozen more orcs. At least they seemed to be diminishing in numbers. Barbie was perhaps a bit too preoccupied to make more.
A few more of the tentacles licked out and took some orcs overboard. Beside me Zan grinned, and with his legs locked through the ratlines, threw both hands out in a victory gesture, "Yeah!"
I still couldn't find Bran.
Doc looked up from slashing through several huge tentacles and three or four orcs, he saw the sailing palawntir. He held out a hand, and retracted two claws. The open end of the palawntir clinked onto the claw.
A trail of fuschia smoke marked where Captain Crawler was hacking his way through more tentacles of doom. A deep groan came from the water, the Watcher listed and bubbled as if it had indigestion. Beside me Zan had turned nearly purple with concentration.
"An midui orath vin, a dennin inath vin!" I shouted. For our days are ending and our years failing.
The Watcher listed farther, gurgled. Tentacles writhed and retreated. The strain on Zan's face lessened.
Barbie glowered, wriggled a hand. The Watcher hiccupped and new tentacles wriggled out of the lagoon.
Liz took advantage of Barbie's preoccupation with the Watcher and pressed the attack.
Barbie reached up, grabbed a snakey loose line and swung both feet hard toward Liz.
Legolas reappeared, at the other end of his line now, driving both feet in the direction of Barbie's shoulder blades. She spun and held up a hand, and he sailed past. At the end of his swing, he wavered for a moment over the water.
I sang a spell.
The line broke.
I needed the palawntir.
Doc looked up at me, one clawed glove fending off a mighty tentacle."Fastball special!" his deep voice boomed from the deck below. "Here, catch!"
"I failed baseball 101!" I shrieked as the palawntir sailed past me and out of sight.
"I've never missed a catch." came a sexy, accented voice behind me. A red ball perched on a blue hand appeared in my field of vision. I turned and came nose to chin with Nighty. Nightcrawler the circus aerialist who'd never missed catching his trapeze companions. He reached up...down...he was hanging upside down..and handed me the palawntir. "If you'll excuse me, my lady." He bowed...very odd upside down..."I don't think Legolas is enjoying his swim." And he was gone in a flash of fur and brimstone.
me Liz traded blows with Barbie so fast I couldn't follow them. Doc
and Tas and Jon hacked through orcs and more slimey tentacles of the
deep. Leggy and Nighty had vanished overboard. And Zan was clinging
to the ratlines above me, focusing painfully hard on regaining
control of his squid from hell, and really really wishing he was home
beating Juggernaut senseless on Playstation.
I couldn't find Bran or Ian anywhere.
I clung, wrapped around palawntir and ratlines. What spell would work? What spell would stop her?
One of the reaching tentacles wrapped around my leg like one of the great forest snakes, but one cold as the depths and oozing with evil-smelling slime. I caught a great breath and reached for my knives, and the turquoise water closed around me.
Clear it was, for I could see my foe from end to end; like a great rock that had lain at the bottom of the deep and risen to the surface, one big enough for our ship to dash herself to pieces upon. The surface water had lost the cold of winter with the Ravenkin's spell, but the depths never warm, not even in summer, and the Watcher brought with it biting cold from those depths.
Neither the one who created the Watcher, nor the one who had seized control of it wanted me drowned and sunk to the cold, dark bottom of the lake, but the magics had run loose like a panicked horse without a rider, and the creature held me in a grip like iron.
Thol palan-gennen, ann-vegil;
A giliath arnoediad
Tann thann din be genedril."
sword was long, his lance was keen
his shining helm afar was seen
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.
"What?" Nazgul Barbie said. She froze in her tracks, as surely as if I had encased her in ice. The reason for the transformation had just shimmered into existence before her; tall, stately, clad in silver mail and studying her with steely grey eyes. He was fair of face beyond even the measure of Legolas. "Whatthehell?" Nazgull Barbie whispered. Behind her the Watcher gave a last groan and vanished into the deep. She didn't notice. Orcs fell under the weapons of the Fellowship and were not replaced. She didn't notice. She stood, transfixed, mouth open in disbelief.
Or some kind of fangirl stupor. He was gorgeous. More than gorgeous. Beautiful as only a king of the Noldor; son of Fingon-Cousin-to-Galadriel could be. Don't just stand there. I thought at him, take her head off or something.
He raised his long shining sword in a move like dream. The palawntir squatted warm and humming with power in my hands.
"Lorien! No!" I barely heard the voice. It might have been Bran's.
Below me Gil-galad the Elvenking moved like a lion before a stunned antelope fawn.
"Lorien!" Liz. And Jon... their voices echoing oddly off my skull.
It was so easy, so easy to just...not...stop him.
Another voice... real? No, a memory. Gandalf. Or maybe Ian MacKellan saying the lines in the movie. Or Dad, reading them a long time ago and far, far away; 'Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life...can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.'
I slashed at the great beast with the knives Dana had given me. Fair they were, and swift enough even in the cold water of the lake. And sharp as falcons' talons. But the tentacles were as great as young trees, and as fast as I slashed one, two more would take its place.
I learned to swim in the Great Forest River. And to stay in its wintery depths long enough to coax fish into my hands, to learn the secrets of those quiet eddies and cold pools. But even the Elves of the Sea cannot breathe water, or hold their breath forever.
I felt a shock wave that was not a reaching tentacle, heard a muffled almost-sound, saw a flash of red light at the edge of my vision. Red, purple, brilliant among the sunlit greens, a color never seen in that place.
A very welcome color.
With the speed of dream, a cutlass slashed through a tentacle by my head, a two-fingered hand reached for me.
I shot downward, pulled by another great writhing arm at my feet. I coiled and hacked at it, but it was thicker than the rest, the knife only sliced halfway through.
A flash of red light again, a slow sweep of silver through the tentacle reaching for my neck. A hand reaching for me again.
"Daro!" I whispered to Gil-galad.
Above me Zan let out a relieved breath.
Below me Liz barreled into Nazgul Barbie and she went down. She rolled, and came up trying to take out Liz's head with a foot. Gil-galad blocked it with his shining shield full of stars. Barbie hesitated again, staring up at his beautiful face.
Liz leapt on her.
I held the palawntir tight to my chest, trying to think of what to do next. Maybe I could just send her to Outer Mongolia.
"One ball to rule them all." Zan said, he looked terribly young. And afraid.
"Wonder if it works the same way." I said, watching my reflection in the deep red globe. Works the same way as the Ring. The Ring Sauron had put all his power into. The one that when destroyed, took Sauron's power with it. The palawntir hummed against my arms, straight through to my dan tien, my center. Power. Lots of it. Power to transform me, Liz. To put all the Brittany clones in their place. To get any guy we wanted. Anything we wanted.
The sunlit waters were far above us now as the tentacles thrust us down into the dark depths, dark as the forest at twilight, cold as the midwinter night. Kurtvagner followed me, in flashes of light the color of dawn, leaping, twisting with the agility of a lifetime on the trapeze; but slow as dream in the dark green water. He reached and missed again and again as the Watcher pulled me out of his reach.
One of my knives went spiraling into the depths, and one of Kurt's swords. A great cloud of silt boiled up like a thunderhead, engulfing us in darkness. Now I could only feel my foe's attacks, and hoped I would not knife Kurtvagner by mistake.
Even in the dark of the thunderhead of silt, I could see the red flash of his teleport. Something gripped my hair, and it was not one of the Watcher's tentacles.
But the grip was not strong.
And there was no red flash to follow it.
I reached, caught his hand with mine, and slashed free of the Watcher. The hand in mine loosened, I tightened my grip on it, kicked up, toward the light, above the murky cloud. The water cleared, and I could see Kurtvagner's face, dazed, desperate for breath.
Tentacles reached for us. I slashed with my knife and it stuck, retreating with the tentacle into the depths. Another snaked up toward us.
Now would be a good time to teleport. Now Kurt, now!
No flash of red broke the endless green of the water.
I kicked harder, tossing one of his cutlasses to lighten us, taking the other in my hand to slash at the reaching arm of the Watcher.
I felt the welcome warmth of the surface layer, saw the bright turquoise of sunlit water, and Kurt went limp in my arms.
I raised the red glass ball and threw it hard. The deck below was solid and kind of hard to miss, even for somebody who had failed baseball 101.
I didn't miss.
It shattered into a thousand glittering fragments, a ring, a shell of light flashed out and vanished with a faint boom like distant thunder. Gil-galad stopped, wavered like heat waves over asphalt, he looked up at me with eyes full of stars, smiled and faded. Something in the quarry burbled and went still. A handful of orcs on deck stopped and stood still. Tas kicked them overboard, and they vanished into water and light. A shiver went through the timbers of the ship, the rigging I was perched on rippled like a horse's skin, trying to shed a fly. I hugged the itchy ropes with desperate strength. Beside me, Zan spat out what must have been a spell. He gestured and the ship steadied itself.
Nazgul Barbie screamed. Not the blood-curdling wail of a lost soul, or the fearsome cry of an enemy warrior. The scream of a small child whose best toy has been stolen or broken. Liz had her in a headlock, but it wasn't necessary.
The rest of the Elves and the lone Dwarf came running aft, coming to an uncertain stop a few feet away, Bran and Ian among them. Jon stepped forward, knelt in front of Barbie, "Let her go." he said to Liz. She did and Barbie crumpled into a sobbing heap on deck, like a two year old in the throes of a bad tantrum.
Jon looked up at me. He gave me a long, steady look. It made me think of Galadriel reading the hearts of the Fellowship. Then he smiled, wide and warm. "Come on down. It's over."
"I can't." I said in a small voice. I can't climb, you dorky Elf.
Tas gave him the sort of look you give an annoying little brother. A moment later she was perched in the ratlines beside me, catching one hand in hers. Phoomph. And we were on the deck.
"Crawler...Legolas..." Liz said, looking around.
Nightcrawler wavered, wobbled, sputtered, his tail a limp blue squiggle on the deck behind him. Legolas had an arm around him, as if he'd just hauled him out of someplace extremely unpleasant. Both were dripping with goo that smelled worse than the sulpherous bamf. All but one of Nightcrawler's cutlasses were missing. The remaining one was in Legolas' hand.
"I will never be able to watch that Watcher in the Water scene the same way again." Nightcrawler said. "Or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
"Watcher?" Legolas said. "Is this from The Book?"
"Ja, and the movie, although I thought it was better in the movie. Until now. Ehhhh. You should be careful when you get to..."
"Nevermind." Jon said sternly. "You'll find out soon enough when we get you home."
A laugh began, low, then louder. We all looked down. Ex-Nazgul Barbie looked up. "Home? You can't get home. Not now. You needed the gazing globe."
"You lie." Liz said flatly.
Barbie raised a hand, gestured. And absolutely nothing happened.
"Wow, Lorien, it worked!" Zan said, wide-eyed.
"What worked?" Nightcrawler said. He looked like a wet cat, soggy, dripping with Watcher goo, eyes glowing out from between strands of gooey, limp hair. He was still trying to remember what it was like to breathe, and leaning heavily on Legolas.
Legolas looked like an annoyed, soggy owl. One that might want to see how long Barbie could hold her breath at the bottom of a cold dark lake.
I pointed at a few red shards yet littering the deck. I opened my mouth a few times and no words would get past my lips. I'd stopped her, broken her power as surely as Gandalf had broken Saruman's when he broke his staff. As surely as Frodo, or Gollum, had destroyed Sauron's when he melted the Ring. I'd destroyed her power and I'd also destroyed any chance of getting Legolas Thranduilion or Kurt Wagner back home.
"I'm sorry." I whispered to them.
Tas' hand tightened supportively on my shoulder.
"Like I said." Liz said, "You're full of..."
"Yeah," Tas said.
"There was no palawntir when I did the spell. I didn't even know it existed." Liz looked at me, "What do you remember?"
Funny, I could remember it all now. The whole scene in Barbie's basement; Feathers. Blue-green feathers marked with purple. A brazier burning with an evil smelling concoction of herbs. Tossing those feathers into the fire. And more; a chant, a spell, I guess...the words came back to me now that Barbie's charm had been broken...and there had been no palawntir in sight.
"There was no palawntir in the basement when I did the spell that brought Kurt here." I said.
"You did it?" Liz said.
"Under the influence." I pointed at Barbie.
"Why?" Zan said.
"I was under the influence of Unadulterated Evil!" I snapped.
"No no no, why would she have you do it?"
"Because she can't." Liz said suddenly.
Legolas eyed Barbie the way Galadriel had eyed Boromir. "Yes." he said softly.
"Do you have any idea how hard it was to find seventeen year old virgins in this county?" Barbie shrieked.
"What?" Kurt said.
Liz turned purple.
Zan tried unsuccessfully to stifle a snicker.
Doc gave him a long look and popped one claw. The middle one.
"Well so what. You'll never get the spell." Barbie hissed.
"Oh yeah?" Tas said, taking a step forward.
"Whoa." Ian said, holding out a hand to block her.
Jon held up a commanding hand. Everyone froze.
"I remember the spell." I said.
"What?" everyone said.
Her name was Monica Saurman. Yep, Saurman. Under Jon's eagle gaze she told us a tale that would have made a great plot for some soap opera; the ex from hell, a couple of boyfriends out of Freddy Meets Jason, an unsuccessful attempt (by use of magic) to keep a really nice guy: an Elf whose family Jon recognized, a family who had apparently come to his aid in escaping her machinations.
And finally, Legolas and Kurt.
"It still won't work in reverse, you know." she said of the spell needed to send them back.
Jon leaned forward, he looked like my English teacher when somebody hasn't finished their project, and hands him a lame excuse like, 'my brother's iguana ate it'. "Lorien remembers the physical components as well. And they seem to be the same ones used in Liz's spell."
Liz is an airhead when it comes to things like this, but she had remembered with a little help from Bran. He's almost as good as Professor Xavier. And a lot hotter.
can't send them back from the same location." Monica said. "And
you can't use the same spell."
Jon leaned forward, looking like a leopard about to spring. "You're talking to a Gatesinger." He glanced at Bran, "Two of them."
"Where do you think I learned the spells in the first place?"
"Magic for Dummies?" Bran said.
Barbie...Monica..shot a glare at him that would have melted mithril plate. He grinned back a like a pirate.
Zan waggled his fingers, and something materialized in his hands. Long, bluey-greeny feathers marked with purple.
Monica's eyes went wide.
"Liz's spell was in Sindarin." Jon said. "Lorien's in German. But these opened the Gates." He gestured to the feathers, like Elrond focusing the attention of the Council on the Ring. "I guess your Gatesinger wasn't an Elf."
Monica's eyes did the impossible and widened further, till she looked like Gollum.
"Yep." Bran said. "Raiders of the Lost Orc." He started humming the theme from the first Indiana Jones movie.
"If she used Dragonkin-magic to bring us here, then they would know how to send us back." Legolas said.
Monica laughed. "The ones who told me would never share their secrets with you. If you could find them." Her eyes flicked to the shore. Jon's followed her gaze.
"One of the O.R.C.s," Nightcrawler said.
Bran fixed his eyes on Monica's, and the pirate swashbuckler was gone, replaced by something more akin to one of Odin's messengers. She shrank back, but couldn't free her eyes from his. Finally he nodded, never taking his eyes off her. "There is one among them who taught her well. Find him and you find the spell."
"She is right about one thing," Legolas said, "they will be difficult to find." He nodded toward the far shore where his bow of green light had flattened many O.R.C.s but an hour ago.
The shore was empty. The orc women had come, collected their delinquents and gone.
of the Lost Orc
"Can't you guys just follow them or something?" Liz said.
"They have their..." Jon began.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, but there must be some way to find out where they went, or get your buddy, whatz'ername to come back here."
"They do not come when called."
"Well, how do you find them when you want to?"
"You don't. They find you."
Zan stood, twirling his illusory feathers.
Tas eyed them and spoke suddenly, "Irony is, technically I could follow them. I can track things, teleport after them if I have some physical connection to the thing I'm following. Not that any of us have ever followed them into...well...wherever it is they go when they vanish."
Liz's eyes went as big as Elijah Wood's. "Whoa." She dug frantically inside her baggy pirate shirt, in a most unladylike fashion.
Legolas cocked a startled eyebrow, then looked skyward.
Nightcrawler found something very interesting on the deck at his feet.
"Would these do?" Liz said, and thrust a handful of orc feathers under Tas' nose.
Tas plucked them out of her hand, "Are these real?" She glanced at Zan.
"Yeah, they're real. I yanked 'em off a couple of the orcs I flattened." Liz's face looked more predatory than Shenzi's. Her grin widened. "One of them might even be the orc we're looking for."
Tas could teleport in there, wherever there was, but not with all of us. Nightcrawler could teleport a number of us, but not until Tas had taken him in there so he could see where he was going. It was like arranging shuttle vehicles to kayak a swift forest river; cars at the beginning, cars at the end, and lots of people driving back and forth forty miles to kayak ten. We stood in a circle on the deck of Zan's brig arguing, I mean, discussing, who would need to go in the first place. Tas twirled the feathers, absently, saying less than anyone expected. Jon suggested...rather strongly...that two unarmed teleporters was more than enough chaos and disturbance for the orcs' homeworld. Zan thought an illusory army might be useful. Jon mentioned the fact that someone needed to deliver Monica to the Grandmothers. Bran suggested a teleporter would be more efficient than a helicopter, and that a shapeshifter and sound mimic might be useful in orc country.
And it looked, once more, as if Liz and I were being left out of the picture.
After two or three minutes Tas simply vanished, Nightcrawler with her. She returned a moment later, hair and clothes looking like she'd been through another battle, with a mud-encrusted Nightcrawler and a bedraggled, crestless, and unhappy looking O.R.C. She thrust him at Jon.
"You're the one who speaks orc. Pick his brains."
The orc hunched in front of Jon like a hawk in cold rain. There was a brief exchange of low hisses and gutteral growls. Jon looked up at Tas. "Wherever you got him, put him back, put him back now!"
"What!?" Tas peered back in astonishment through straggled strands of muddy mane.
"He knows nothing about the gate business." Jon said. "And you are endangering not only our relationships with the orcs, but their internal pack structure. Take Legolas and Nightcrawler, and no weapons. Petition Ashnarii for an answer to returning them."
They stood, eye to eye for a moment, a conversation going on that no-one but they could hear. Tas snorted, spun, caught Legolas' hand, nodded to Nightcrawler and vanished. Nighty glanced at us apologetically, and hestitated...
...just long enough for Liz and me to grab his tail just as he bamfed.
"OW!" Nightcrawler said as the sulphurous smoke cleared.
"Sorry about the tail." Liz and I said in unison.
"What...are...you...doing...here?!" he said, yellow eyes going from one to the other of us in a kind of panic.
"Standing on a very big rock." Liz quipped. She looked down. "Whoa."
Very big rock was something of an understatement. With a death grip on Nighty's tail I leaned forward to see. Big mistake. I closed my eyes and felt a hand catch my shoulder. "Who put Caradhras in the middle of Pennsylvania?" I said.
"I don't think we're in Pennsylvania anymore, Toto." Liz said. She looked out over what I had at first taken to be distant snowfields. I realized now they were the tops of clouds. The sun shone down on those clouds with a hard yellow brilliance you never saw at home; home with its cars and factories and windborne pollution. The air was cool, like the Rockies in July, with the same kind of remnant snowdrifts hanging off the sides of the nearer slopes. Above, the sky was the deep blue of Nightcrawler's skin, of Bran's eyes.
It was noticeably hard to breathe. "Where's Tas and Legolas, and the miserable orc?" I asked.
Nightcrawler pointed, a swift motion like a sword drawing, "What are you doing here!" he repeated, somewhat more vehemently.
"Hey, it's our quest." Liz said, and started in the direction he'd pointed, even though I couldn't make out anything that looked remotely like a trail, just a lot of tumbly rock and the low, sparse plants of alpine tundra. "Hey Elf, are you going to help us or not?" Liz called back over her shoulder.
"I should take you back." Nightcrawler said without much conviction.
I let go of Nighty's tail and started scrambling after Liz, trying not to look out over the great snowfields of cloud. Probably hiding a thousand foot drop. I heard him sigh, glanced back and saw him follow us on elvishly light feet.
We heard the noise first. Like the low rumble I'd heard before, like an earthquake about to happen, but mixed with a chaos of shrieks and clicks. Giant prehistoric killer birds in a feeding frenzy. We dropped down a twisting trail into the cloud soup, then the trail leveled out, and just when I started really wishing somebody'd brought Bran, the soup thinned enough for us to see.
A wide bowl, still too high for meadow or trees, rimmed with rocks that would have made good shelter, or good castle walls. The middle of the bowl was filled with orcs, all shouting at once, and in their center were Legolas and Tas. She had one hand on his arm, and I tried to remember if she had to see to teleport, because all that was around her was fog and rocks and orcs.
"Holy great piles of horse crap." Liz whispered.
Our crestless orc was nowhere to be seen.
I scrabbled to a halt on the loose rock and said...rather too loudly...the first thing that came to mind; "Hey dol, merry dol, ring a dong dillo, ring a dong hop a long, fal lal the willow."
"Was?" Nightcrawler turned from his place on the edge of the rock wall and gave me a look that clearly said; your mind is full of drunken zebras, and the lions are circling.
All the orcs in the bowl fell silent and gave me the same look. With more teeth.
"Well then," Liz said, climbing down into the bowl, "might as well join the party."
The three of us strode up to the orcs like Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn striding into Meduseld to meet Theoden, King. Nightcrawler put a hand on my shoulder and steered me gently to larboard; "There's Ashnarii." he whispered. I could see the tall orc chieftainess at one end of the chaos, the highest point of the bowl.
Liz reached out a hand and gave the nearest orc a light push in the chest. She stepped back, mouth open in either startlement, or anticipation of a tasty snack. We walked through them to where Tas and Legolas stood, near Ashnarii's end of the circle.
"Le abdollen." Tas said, straight faced. You're late. Just like Legolas in Two Towers.
The quarry and the ship vanished, my innards turned outwards and my outards inwards. Then the world snapped back into focus again; the pooka, the orc and I stood in the midst of a wide, grey-green circle of tundra. The sun beat warm and golden, but the mountain was reaching near to Elbereth's stars, I could see them glittering through the thin air. The orc gave a startled gasp, broke free of Tas' grip and ran. He did not run far.
A handful of females came over the ring of rock and caught him. They carried him off into the fog that clung to those slopes. I did not hear where they went.
I ran forward, looking for their trail, motioning for Tas to follow.
"I don't think we need to look for them." she said, and stopped in the center of the tundra bowl.
Silently they came over the rock rim, like cats hunting. In a moment we stood in the center of a circle of teeth and claws and tensed muscle. A few were muddied as Tas... and limping.
Tas grinned at them. "Wanna try a second round?"
They showed their teeth but did not step forward. "What have you done?" I said to her.
"Kidnapped the wrong orc, apparently."
"I think your diplomacy skills would have old Linion pulling out his hair!"
"One who taught me many of the duties of being the son of a king."
"Great, you have any better ideas?" Tas glared at me from under her muddied forlock. She nodded at the circle of orcs, "I don't think they attended any of your classes." She turned in a slow circle so that none of them would be at her back for more than a heartbeat. I set my back to hers. She reached out a hand and held it near my arm. "Just in case," she said, "stay close."
They closed around us, hissing and rumbling like a river gone mad.
"I don't see their fearless leader, do you?" she said.
The orcs circled closer, rumbling among themselves, showing their teeth, raising their hackles and their great feathered crests. One of the nearest ones feinted a lunge and came up short a foot from my nose. One behind her snarled something and the lunging one backed into the circle of her fellows.
"It appears we may have some difficulty acquiring the return spell." I said.
They pushed in, nearly on top of us. Then a roar cut the thin mountain air, and they froze.
"There is Ashnarii." I told her. The tall leader came forward and her pack parted to let her through. Another deep rumble and they backed up, leaving open tundra the length of a short spear throw between us and them. Ashnarii stopped two strides from Tas, glaring down at the pooka with hard yellow eyes. Her mouth opened in a grin only one of the ancient dragons could have matched.
"You are dangerous, Elf." she leaned close to Tas.
Tas nodded, a shallow bow, never taking her eyes off the orc leader. The pooka smiled, "I'll take that as a compliment." She kept a hand near mine.
"I meant it as one. It is a sad thing that you are not one of my hunters." Ashnarii glanced at the muddied, limping orcs. They ducked their heads and tried to vanish into the pack. She gave me a long look, then her eyes turned back to Tas, "None of the Elves have been here in many lifetimes of Men. Why are you here now? Why did you disrupt the discipline of our youth, the quiet of our land? And why bring this one, who started trouble before?" she nodded at me, then her gaze turned back to Tas. "And why come back? Perhaps you wish to give my guards another lesson? You are already a legend among our wayward youth!" She gave me a long gaze, like a hawk eying prey. I met her strange eyes and saw something beyond the perilous hunter; a queen of a strange land to whom I was as strange...and dangerous...as she was to me.
I spoke, "I know nothing of your land, or your people. I have only been in the land of her people," I gestured to Tas, "for a few turns of the moon. At first I mistook your folk for the wicked folk of Mordor, who have wrought much evil in my own land. I know now I was wrong. I bowed, as one should before a queen, "You too are children of Eru, running under the same stars, breathing the same air. Your legs are swift, your talons sharp, your patterned coats beautiful as dancing leaf light on the forest floor. We have both fought to right the same wrong. I only wish to return to my land, and your folk, it seems, have the key."
Ashnarii turned and spoke to her pack, her tribe, in her own tongue. Around us, a low rumble started anew. It was a bit like one of my father's council sessions...only much louder.
"Things are about to get interesting." Tas said.
Then Liz came over the rimrock with Lorien and Kurtvagner in tow.
"Ashnarii was kind of impressed with my kidnapping of your bald orcling, and my flattening of several of her best guards." Tas said to Liz and me. "But we haven't had much luck convincing her to give us the spell."
"What's going on here?" I looked at the tight circle of teeth and talons and began calculating the pounds per square inch of either one...if a four pound Great Horned Owl could produce 1000 psi...
"Kind of like an entmoot, only louder, and a whole lot faster." Tas said.
I wondered who would be faster, the orcs, or our teleporters. And whether either teleporter could bamf to someplace that wasn't a thousand foot drop.
Legolas hadn't said anything, and his face held no clue what he was thinking. He made a tight, back to back circle with Liz and me and Kurt. It made me think of him and Aragorn and Gimli surrounded by Rohirrim. I had a sudden awful image of him saying 'you would die before your stroke fell' and staring Orc War III.
"What happened to our bald orcling anyway?" I wasn't sure I wanted to know.
Tas didn't have time to answer because Ashnarii stepped closer, stared at Liz and me with eagle-yellow eyes and said, in her Oxford accented alligator voice; "Why are you here?"
I exchanged an incredibly stupid openmouthed stare with Liz. Then looked back at the Dragonkin chieftaness, who looked a whole lot like one of those giant killer birds from Walking With Prehistoric Beasts. Or maybe a feathered version of one of the Raptor Pack from Jurassic World. The ring of Dragonkin was silent, eerily silent, eerily still, like hawks on hunting perches. Like crouched tigers. Tas stood, stance casual, one hand dangling near Legolas' arm. Nightcrawler's tail flicked against my boot and stayed there. We could be out of that deadly circle in a heartbeat.
But that wasn't why we were there. I held out both hands, empty hands, and nodded to my friends, also significantly empty-handed. Then I folded my hands in that gesture I'd seen Jon do. I felt a touch on my shoulder and looked up into Legolas' eyes. His face shifted into the slightest of smiles. He folded his hands in the same gesture.
A soft intake of breath ran around the circle of orcs. A sound of surprise and approval. I spoke; "One of our people used and corrupted many of your young males, trading human technology for your secrets. With those secrets, she pulled these two out of their worlds," I gestured to Nightcrawler and the Prince of Mirkwood, "away from their homes, families..." I studied the circle of hard muscled bodies, their poses comfortably close to each other, like a school of fish, or a wolf pack, or a sled team..."their packs. They are needed there, in their own worlds, and we need the way to send them back." Not much of an inspiring speech, but it was the best I could come up with, surrounded by so many teeth.
"Mae carnen." Legolas said softly, well done.
Ashnarii stalked up to Legolas, he moved away from me a step, drawing Ashnarii with him...leaving Nightcrawler more room to bamf me and Liz out of there if we had to.
"You are dangerous." she said bluntly, then her mouth opened, showing way too many teeth. It might have been preparation for a light snack...or a laugh. "Our young machine riders have already made you a legend, like that one." She nodded toward Tas. The grin widened impossibly. "We have told the youngest ones, those who admired the off-roaders, that they will have to deal with all of you if they follow that path. And you." She turned to Nightcrawler, "You resemble the Firstborn, especially the Nightwalkers, the Dark Elves, but yet..." she narrowed her eyes as if trying to see beneath the blue velvet skin.
"I'm from yet another branch in the stream of time. My folk are human, but born different; mutants." Nightcrawler said. He gave Legolas a quick questioning glance. Probably, I thought, wondering what Legolas knew, from the comic, about his family tree. Legolas' face revealed nothing.
"Yet," Ashnarii continued, "you resemble us, somewhat. And you too are dangerous; as swift and agile as our own, and with a magic not unlike ours. If you were lost from my pack, I would miss you."
Kurt bowed, as if before a queen.
She turned her head toward me, "You have some skill with words. Words which have power. Words to make our council fall silent. Words which stopped young hunters in their tracks."
"Words which stole Kurt Wagner out of his world." I said.
"I see you did not mean for that to happen."
"I just want to get him back. Them back. Both of them." Please. I thought. But what could I do that would convince this alien queen to help?
"What would you do to return them to their worlds, to their packs?" She leaned forward, cocking her head, birdlike. I could see every scale of her face, every tiny feather of her head, every purple shading of the great crest feathers. Every tooth.
"Anything." I blorted out.
"That may not have been the brightest thing to say." Tas whispered.