Story Downloaded from Open Scrolls Archive (http://www.openscrolls.net)

Title: Dawn Twilight (#231)
Author: Viv
Chapters: 20

Archive: Tolkien
Category: Alternate Universe (AU)
Description: What if some elves never went west, but stayed here instead? Well, Moira's introduction to elfhood comes via her way-too-hot linguistics prof... um, one Dr. Birdsong.
Published: 24 Aug 2003
Updated: 08 May 2008
Warnings: Sue
Type: General
Characters:


Chapter 1 - Meeting Dr. Birdsong

AN: I started writing this story in 2001 but took a long hiatus. You might have seen some of the earlier chapters here or on ff.net once upon a time. Recently I’ve come back to the story to finish it. Readers and friends have stoked my muse. Thank you so much.

Standard disclaimer: I borrow Tolkien's characters and concepts out of awe and appreciation, but they really don't belong to me. Tolkien, of course, wouldn't want Moira, so I'll keep her.

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Chapter 1: Meeting Dr. Birdsong

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Moira blew on her half-frozen hands and prepared to commit academic suicide: an 8 a.m. grad-level linguistics course with an as-yet-unpublished required reading list and an unnamed visiting professor. Yeah, okay. Looked like the gods of late-registration were determined to sacrifice her on the alter of unholy earliness this semester.

A Starbucks venti steamed under her chin, and her fingers wrapped around it for warmth. So far only she and one really nervous dark-haired guy had arrived for class. She’d been studiously ignoring the dude so far, but if he didn’t quit staring at her soon, she was gonna pop.

Then a blond chick waltzed in, all decked out in an army surplus jacket and tall leather hiking boots. Her hair was a wild tangle, but Moira knew a half dozen guys who’d fall over themselves to get inside those gray-camo pants. Amazing how some girls could look luminous in absolutely no make-up and dirty fingernails.

“Good morning,” the blonde chick singsonged. She glanced around the near-empty classroom and raised one eyebrow. “Is this the entire class?”

Moira resisted glancing over at the dark-haired dude, but at least she didn’t feel his gaze boring into her anymore. Whew. She took a sip of her tar-like coffee.

“I guess. So far, anyway,” she muttered.

The blonde shrugged and unzipped her backpack. “Very well. My name is Dierdre,” she said. “I’ll be your TA this semester. We will get started in a bit: Dr. Birdsong is usually a little late for these early-morning classes.”

“Wish I’d been,” mumbled Moira. “Could’ve used the extra sleep. Guess the prof ain’t a morning person either. That’s cool.”

“Morning pers ... ah. Well, as to that, Dr. Birdsong has a few morning rituals to perform before he begins his day,” Dierdre said, shifting her gaze like it was a big mystery what the prof did in the morning. Probably something utterly stodgy and professorish like doing the New York Times crossword or waxing his mustache. “In the mean time, here’s the syllabus and required reading.” Dierdre fished deep in her backpack and produced some Xeroxes.

As she was passing out the papers, two more students filtered in: a petite Asian-looking girl and a guy wearing a heinous floppy fisherman’s cap and a nappy orange sweater. The guy slid into the seat beside the nervous dark-haired kid in the corner, and they nodded to each other in that dorky chin-dip way some guys affected. They looked like two peas in a socially atrophied pod; Moira wasn’t surprised that they knew each other, though. Geeks were like that.

“Guess Dr B isn’t here yet,” said nappy-orange sweater.

“Nah. Morning rituals ‘n’ shit,” replied nervous dude, chewing on his nubby fingernail. Looked like he did that a lot.

Moira pretended to ignore them but wondered … it sounded like they knew something in advance about the visiting prof. Or they wanted to seem in the know. She absently waited for one of them to explain further. They didn’t of course. Geeks were like that, too: Always bringing shit up and then not explaining about it.

Bopping between bored and irritated, Moira scanned the reading list, yawned, and then read it again. On the third try, some of the meaning slipped in past her dewy half-hangover.

“We’re reading the Klingon dictionary? Whatthefuh?” Had she said that out loud? She expected the TA to be shocked or offended or something. About the last thing she expected was Dierdre’s low chuckle.

“Yes. I suppose the course description was kind of vague, mm? Dr. Birdsong is an expert on artificial language sociology. That is, the created worlds and peoples linked to made-up languages."

Uh huh.

The Asian girl exhaled loudly, kind of like a teen-chick at a boy-band concert. Moira caught herself before she rolled her eyes. She still wasn’t ruling out dropping this class, but it wouldn’t be a good move to make enemies, just in case she needed study partners later. For projects ‘n’ shit. A lifetime of anonymous public schools had taught Moira how to game this system, and she was something of an expert in that arena. Mentally she reviewed course offerings in this degree-plan slot and wondered if there was still space in upper-division physical anthropology...

“You know, my major is Spanish, not made-up languages. This is definitely gonna count for my credits, right?” Moira asked the TA. Because, dude, what good was it to wake up for an 8 a.m. class when it didn’t count for your degree?

“Um, I think so. The linguistics department is very open to this line of study,” Dierdre explained. “Some people in the field think it gives you some ways to structure the study of other languages, like…”

She might have gone on for-freakin-ever, but that’s when Dr. Birdsong decided to show up, and Dierdre, like everyone else in the room, fell silent and stared as he walked over to the big desk in the corner and started unzipping his backpack.

He was hot.

Like-whoa, deep-fried, finger-lickin’ hot. Platinum blond hair was braided down to his ass, and he wore soft, loose clothes and comfy-looking hiking boots. He was tall, probably about 6’ 4’’, and porcelain-doll beautiful.

Awake for the first time this semester, Moira decided that, damn-skippy she could wake up for an 8 a.m. class. And maybe even learn Klingon.


Chapter 2 - Student Stalkers

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Chapter 2: Student Stalkers

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So, Professor Birdsong hated being indoors, even when it was butt-numbingly cold. Which was how Moira found herself seated cross-legged on the half-frozen ground of the south mall, listening to the gorgeous sound of his voice as he grunted out a few sentences of Klingon.

Moira scribbled in her notebook absently, far too hypnotized by that voice to take real notes. She had read the chapters. Really. Okay, not word-for-word, but she’d skimmed pretty thoroughly.

Dr. Birdsong was leaning over on one elbow, an open book on the grass in front of him. His hair was loose and tumbled over one shoulder. Transfixed by an errant strand, Moira followed its pale gold path down his neck, over his leather jacket…

“… for instance, would someone like to translate ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ into Klingon?”

The two geeky guys in her class, Leo and Greg, chuckled like they knew some secret joke. Alicia, the Asian chick, flipped back in her notes, searching for the words and scowling.

“Leo?” prodded Dr. Birdsong.

“Yeah, there is no Klingon word for ‘jolly,’” Leo said, grinning.

“Correct. But that very fact is indicative of a whole cultural perspective…” and he went on, the cadence of his voice rhythmic and soothing. Moira sighed a little, louder than she’d intended. Dr. Birdsong paused and the other students looked over at her.

“Sleepy this morning, Moira?” asked Dr. Birdsong.

Moira felt her face flame. At least he’d misinterpreted the sigh as a yawn.

“No, Sir. Sorry,” she mumbled, looking down at her notebook guiltily.

“Quite right, though, it is terribly early, and I haven’t had my coffee as yet this morning. Which beings me to an announcement of sorts: As you might have noticed on the syllabus, I do not keep office hours. But I do have a coffee at Harry’s on the Drag every morning, and you all are welcome to come there with questions and comments. You can also phone me,” and he gave a phone number.

Moira wrote the numbers in the corner of her page, and then drew a little box around them. She drew a second curly-edged box and pondered the numbers. It wasn’t a university prefix, so this must be his home number. Oomph. Wow. Okay.

When she looked up, Dr. Birdsong had already dismissed class, and people were repacking backpacks and wandering off. Moira capped her pen, shoved her notebook into her bag, and stood. Damn: Her right foot was numb. She flexed her toes and winced.

“Magnificent, isn’t he?” gurgled a small voice to her right. Moira looked over to see Alicia, transfixed on a distant point, clutching her Klingon Dictionary tight against her chest.

Turning, Moira caught a glimpse of silver-blonde hair disappearing behind a stone pillar near Bradford Building A.

She nodded. “Yeah. It’s hard to concentrate sometimes,” she admitted.

Alicia smiled a little sympathetically, then, with another sigh, she wandered off toward the Student Union, still clutching her book.

#

Eew. They put tomatoes on her hamburger. Moira was picking the nasty, slimy things off and rehearsing how she was going to complain to the kid behind the counter, when somebody slid into the plastic bench across from her.

Three somebodys, to be specific: Leo, Alicia, and Greg, looking very much like they’d just spiked the punch.

“Hey,” said Leo. Again with the chin-bob nod. Moira hated to admit it, but she was getting used to it. Feh. Three major group projects so far had forced her to spend way too much time with these three, but she was beginning to feel comfortable around them. Even to like them a little, once she got past the obvious geek factor.

“Hey yourself. What are you guys up to?” Moira tried to be casual, but she sensed that something was definitely up.

“We… ah, we’re forming a sort of study group for our cultural linguistics class. Thought we’d see if you wanted to come with,” Leo invited.

Moira raised an eyebrow and pinched a tomato off her meat patty.

“What kind of study group?” she asked.

Leo shifted on the bench, looked over at Greg. Greg raised his eyebrows and looked at Alicia. Alicia blushed a little, but replied, “We looked up that phone number Dr B gave us. The address is in the hills, just outside of town. We were planning to, uh… go there tonight, and… uh…”

Moira dropped the tomato slice.

“No way. You guys are stalking him? That is so not cool. You could get arrested for that shit.” Moira, who had never actually been arrested, tried to exude some authority here.

“No, no… we’re not stalking. Nunh unh. We… we just want to know what this morning ritual thing is,” stammered Greg, by way of an explanation.

Moira looked at him hard. On the first day of class, she’d labeled him nervous. But there was a little more to him, Moira had come to realize. Nervousness wasn’t the same thing as intensity, even though they sometimes looked a lot alike. This guy was a walking, talking, string-bean of intensity. He sometimes didn’t bother with the little things -- like, you know, combing his spiky dark hair -- but he could go on for hours about shit like celestial cycles and 90s grunge.

“Don’t tell me you never wondered about the rituals,” Leo said, and Moira turned her disapproving glare on him. Leo was easier, calmer, not as into things as Greg. If she had to hazard a guess, Moira’d say Leo had thought up this crazy stalking plan. It was snarky and dangerous and totally invasive of the prof’s privacy. But, well, she really didn’t have anything planned for tonight. Unfortunately. And she had had quite lurid dreams of seeing one Dr. Birdsong first thing in the morning.

Slowly, Moira nodded.

“Okay…. Where do I meet you guys?”

Leo grinned.

“I knew you’d be up for it. I’ll pick you up around midnight. Somebody said you live at the co-op on Pearl Street?”

Moira nodded.

“Great. See ya tonight, then.” He flashed her a slick grin.

And then they were off, leaving Moira to dissect her burger in peace.

Well, not exactly in peace. Her mind whirled. She was going to spy on her professor, the man she’d been fantasizing about 24/7 since the semester started.

She indulged the naughty little tingle in her belly.

#

It was cold. Really, freaking cold in the hills just outside of town, where Dr. Birdsong’s house was. They’d parked on the highway and hiked up almost a mile off the road, to find his house nestled into the hillside, surrounded by a thick circlet of trees.

Leo had had the genius idea of climbing a tree to get a better look at the upstairs windows.

Moira’s feet were half frozen in her sneakers, and she was seriously having second thoughts. No way this was anything other than your garden variety stalking. Punishable by up to 6 and community service. Yeah, she was pretty sure jail was gonna suck.

But she wasn’t about to go back. Not now, with dawn only about an hour away. She shifted on the limb and squinted through the spindly branches. Alicia was hogging the binoculars.

“Hey, you gonna share those things, or what?” Leo nudged Alicia. She stuck her tongue out in his general direction, but held on to those binocs.

Leo turned to Greg. “Make her give ‘em up,” he whined.

“Shut up,” hissed Greg, staring hard through the trees. Almost as if he could see the house from here. Leo elbowed him in the ribs. Greg scowled and elbowed back. Their scuffle was so loud that Moira didn’t hear the soft footsteps in the leaves, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when Dierdre spoke from almost directly below them.

“Well, good morning. Decided to hike up a random hill this morning, did we?” Her voice was like a bucket of ice water, tossed over all their heads. Leo paused mid-shove with his mouth hanging open. Greg looked miserable, and still angry. Alicia damn near fell out of the tree.

Moira had a fleeting vision of herself in county-jail orange. She hated orange, looked awful in it. But she did manage to recover her voice first.

“It isn’t what you think,” she said, and thought she sounded convincing.

“No? Here’s what I think: you were spying on Dr. Birdsong. Are you about to tell me that wasn’t what you were doing?” Dierdre looked up at them, hands on hips. She had what looked like a nasty-sharp hunting knife strapped to her hip, and a feathered composite bow slung on her back. Hunting? Dear God, was she out to kill Bambi? Between orange unis and dead bambies, Moira was pretty sure she was about to be sick.

“Uh, yeah. You have it right, I guess,” said Leo, finally closing his mouth.

Dierdre fingered the leather strap on her hunting knife and eyed them for a long moment.

“Uh huh. Come on down, then. The professor wants to see you.”

#

There was coffee percolating in the breakfast nook, and the whole first floor smelled like java. It was heady stuff, and Moira suddenly remembered that she hadn’t had breakfast. The information filtered down to her stomach, causing it to gurgle uncomfortably.

But Dierdre didn’t stop at the first floor landing, damn her. She proceeded up the stairs and looked like she expected the students to follow.

Moira tried to soak in the view of this house while she clumped up the stairs on half-frozen feet, but it was just too much. Everything was pale gold, silver, and white. Threaded woodwork paneled the walls in the foyer, and everywhere uncurtained windows looked out on the forest landscape. Furniture was minimal and pale, soft, textured. It looked a little like heaven, but without all the cotton clouds.

Three flights up, Dierdre opened a heavy wood door, and chill midwinter air bellowed in. The group stepped out onto the roof.

Moira sucked in her breath. It was one tremendous garden up here, close to the summit of the hill. Delicate, gold-leaved trees with white trunks edged a tiny pool. Everywhere were evergreen shrubs and vines that looked like they must flower in spring.

At the far end of the garden, looking west, was Dr. Birdsong.

The sun was already rising behind him, and, with his pale gold hair, he seemed literally part of the garden, soaking in the first rays of dawn. His hands were flexed, held out from the sides of his body. He stood very still.

“What is he doing?” Leo whispered to Diedre.

Not turning her gaze, Dierdre replied, “He looks to the west each dawn twilight, hoping always to see his destiny there. It’s worse when the sea is before him.”

“Does he ever find what he is looking for?” asked Alicia in a small, wondering voice.

“Never. He is doomed to never find it, but he never stops hoping.”

Moira felt the pathos, and was, maybe for the first time in her life, without words.

When the sun had grown gold and steady on the horizon, Dr. Birdsong turned, a quiet kind of grief staining his beautiful face. But when he saw his students huddled atop the white roof, he smiled.

“Thank you all for coming. I’ve been expecting you. Shall we breakfast downstairs?”

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Chapter 3 - Coffee and Questions

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Chapter 3: Coffee and Questions

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Two teaspoons of sugar. No milk. And hot.

Moira watched, transfixed, as he made his coffee. After rummaging in the pantry and muttering something about no pancake mix, Dierdre had passed out some stale-ish pop-tarts. Greg and Alicia nibbled noisily, and Moira was absently pulling the edges away from the jam-filled middle.

Leo was trying to look as cool as possible, drinking his coffee black and so-obviously trying to blink back a grimace at the bitter taste.

“This is sort of a different forum for our class, but I rather like teaching linguistics in my pajamas,” Dr. Birdsong said casually, sipping the steaming coffee and leaning back onto a barstool.

Moira nearly choked, felt the pop-tart crumble between her fingers. Did he have to go and mention those? See, Moira had noticed the PJs. Yup. Not just any PJs either, but the nice silky ones with a matching dark-blue dressing robe. And Moira was fully aware that the thin material was the only thing shielding her yummy professor from pure air and a peep. Oh yes, Moira had entertained all kinds of nasty thoughts regarding those pajamas.

“You quite okay, Moira?” Birdsong asked solicitously, and Moira nodded, feeling a blush to her hairline. Thank god he couldn’t read minds.

Birdsong sipped his coffee and grinned at her over the rim of the cup. Knowingly. Shit. Could he read minds?

“So,” Birdsong said slowly, turning toward Leo with a faint grin still lingering. “What is your interest in linguistics?”

Leo tried his hardest to retain a certain sang-froid. He failed miserably.

“Don’t really have one; my academic advisor signed me up.” Leo must’ve caught the hovering grin on Birdsong’s lips. Suddenly standing up straighter, Leo declared, “But as an anthropology major, I’m really learning a lot of useful things about…”

Alicia’s inadvertent snort sort of cut him short.

“You couldn’t care less about linguistics, Leo. Just like Moira. Admit it,” Alicia goaded.

What? Who, me? Slitting her eyes in a look all women recognize, Moira turned on her classmate, ready for a tussle.

“Excuse me? You don’t know anything about why I signed up for this class. How dare you accuse me of being… like Leo.” she hissed, and was rewarded by Alicia’s flush and hasty apology.

“No, I didn’t mean that … I just…” Alicia threw up her expressive hands, and her voice trailed off.

“Moira, what she means,” interjected Greg, gathering everyone’s attention, “is that you didn’t know who Dr. Birdsong was before this class. Alicia and I wrote to him, asking him to come to the university as a visiting professor. We’ve, uh, been writing to him since freshman year.” Greg looked a little embarrassed by this admission, but Alicia just nodded enthusiastically, as if she hoped this explanation would calm Moira’s anger.

Moira glanced over at Dr. Birdsong, who, to her surprise, was chuckling softly under his breath. Slowly, the prof set down his coffee cup and held his hands out, palms facing the students.

“I call peace! Truly, there is no need to fight about this. I was simply wondering why Moira thought she was in my class,” said Birdsong.

Moira thought briefly and seriously about making up a grand-sounding linguistically dedicated reason for taking the class. But she looked up and saw Dr. Birdsong. Staring at her. With the most gorgeous and soul-piercing eyes she’d ever seen.

“I registered late, and this was the only course left that fit my degree plan,” she admitted. “Not that it hasn’t been great so far, of course.” Well, that was lame, but it was the sort of crap profs usually adored.

“Just an accidental student? No interest at all in ... cultural linguistics?” Dr. Birdsong asked, staring at her intently, with a tiny frown between his brows.

And then Moira heard quite clearly, though his lips didn’t move, “So why did you come here to my house this morning, Moira?”

Moira’s mouth went totally dry. Had she imagined him speaking into her head? Was it a trick? A delusion? Early-onset dementia?

And more importantly, how the hell was she supposed to answer that question? Couldn’t very well tell the beautiful prof that she had an itch to see him first thing in the morning in his PJs. Nope, nope, nope. Very bad student thing.

“Moira? You okay?” Concern threaded Alicia’s voice, and she placed a light hand on Moira’s arm. Nosy little critter; Moira shrugged her off.

“I thought it was a study group,” Moira blurted, sliding her eyes off Dr. Birdsong’s and hoping he’d let the issue drop.

Her classmates looked at her like she was nuts. Moira definitely felt nuts.

But Dr. Birdsong’s grin widened, and she could’ve sworn that he winked at her before he turned his attention back to the coffee cup.

#
Dierdre still searched for the phantom pancake mix, and Alicia and Leo continued with the pop-tarts. Moira nursed a cold cup of coffee, replaying the speaking-into-her-head scene over and over. She was sure no one else heard that last question. And she was pretty damn sure she was going loco.

Dr. Birdsong had retreated into the larger room behind the kitchen.

Clutching her lukewarm cup and gathering up her nerve in one big bundle, Moira followed him. He’d turned on the stereo real low, and the soft sounds of big band filtered through an invisible sound system. The house still reminded her of heaven, but it also had a touch of grandma in there somewhere. Too many pillows? Old-timey music? Tough to pin it down. Still, it was comforting.

“Dr. Birdsong?” Moira said slowly, sitting on an embroidered white settee and facing him.

“Yes, Moira?”

“I have a stupid question… I … um… when I said that, about thinking that coming here this morning was all part of a study group, I … Did you ask me that question, sir?” Oh, god. She really sounded like a dodo. Moira felt heat flood her face. Again. Second time in one morning. She must look like a tomato.

Birdsong was lounging in a huge white sofa, one elbow draped across the armrest, his bare feet propped on the glass coffee table. Pale hair rippled over his shoulders and stood out bright against the navy silk pajamas.

He was the picture of casual indulgence, and he let her finish her little speech without interrupting. Then he looked right at her, smiling a little, and said, “I did.”

Moira put her coffee cup down on the table. Her hands were shaking.

“But nobody else heard. I’m sure of it. I…I don’t understand, sir,” she murmured.

“Think about it,” he told her.

Moira stared back at her professor, feeling a strange reality niggle on the outside, worm through her skin, then settle in her belly. She’d had a sense of it in class, and a greater sense of it up on the roof. And now, watching him lounge in the white sofa with that soft grin on his face, she knew it for sure.

“You aren’t human,” she whispered. Where the hell had that thought come from? It made no sense, really. But she knew it in her bones.

Dr. Birdsong’s grin spread, lighting up his whole face.

“Brava, Moira.”

“Do the others know?” she asked, thinking of at least four other questions that needed answering right off.

“You mean your classmates? I suspect they’d have to. They invited me here, after all. Do you have any other questions?”

Moira fiddled with the zipper on her sweater.

“What are you, then? Can I know? Is it one of those ‘if I tell you, then I have to kill you’ things?” The questions bubbled out before she had a chance to think about how stupid they sounded.

“Edhel. Yes. No. Anything else?”

Yeah, what the hell was an ed-thell?

Aloud: “Are there others like you?”

His grin faded fast, and he broke eye contact. Even the conversation in the adjoining kitchen paused, and from the stereo came a lilting, lonely song. Moira hadn’t noticed it much before, but now that song curled into the air, and the easy, warm atmosphere seemed to chill. Dr. Birdsong’s face grew immeasurably sad.

“We are few yet, but yes,” he said.

#

Moira’s laptop whirred hot on the tops of her thighs. The co-op was almost silent; everyone else was in class.

After some searching and respelling and more searching, she’d found it:

“Edhel (n. Sindarin). Elda, Elf.”


Chapter 4 - Fellowship of the Geeks

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Chapter 4: Fellowship of the Geeks

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It was a dark and muggy night. Unwilling to beg a ride, Moira’d walked eight blocks. Her hair probably looked like cultured lichen, and her nose wouldn’t stop running. Moira felt like absolute shit, but she’d agreed to this meeting, and there was no going back now.

It had come to this. She paused, looked up into the infinite, cloudy night. It loomed over Moira like a thing from nightmare: the Honors Dorm.

She gulped, adjusted her backpack, and swished a stealthy glance around. It was too much to hope no one would see her enter, of course, but she was all about limiting the damage.

Keeping her head down so the damp wouldn’t drizzle down her back -- and also hoping she wouldn’t be recognized and forever after branded a frizzy-haired lurker in the honors dorm -- Moira slunk up the back stairs to room number 411. She knocked softly on the gnarled wood door.

“Moira? That you?” came a muffled voice from inside. Moira scowled.

“Yeah. You gonna let me in?” The question was punctuated nicely with a sneeze and sniffle.

Moira heard some scuffling from inside the room. Finally, the door squawked open like it hadn’t been oiled in a generation, and Alicia poked her head out and grinned like an over-excited anime character.

How the hell could she always look so happy? Moira’s scowl deepened.

“Come on in, Moira. Wow, you look cold. I have a space heater over there by the end table. And you are wet… jeez, did you walk the whole way from the co-op?”

Moira nodded miserably and ducked into the chilly dorm room. A hot-pink beanbag chair was squashed into the tiny space between the end table and the twin bed. Moira climbed into the beanbag and spread her hands out in front of the sputtering little space heater. Heat felt marvelous on her chilled hands.

Greg sat cross-legged and shoeless on one end of Alicia’s narrow dorm bed. He wore loud orange socks, and his hair, as usual, stuck out in all directions. A heavy book lay across his lap, and one ink-stained finger kept his place when he looked up to nod hello. He seemed pensive, more nervous than usual. Or was it excited? It was hard to tell with Greg.

Moira’s eyes wandered again to Greg’s orange socks. His fashion sense was, as always, a mystery.

Flopping onto the bed beside Greg, Alicia curled up into a little ball, legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her shins, and grinned at Moira over her kneecaps.

“So, out with it. What did you find?”

Moira unzipped the inner compartment of her backpack and pulled out a newish-looking spiral notebook. Then she took a deep breath.

“Well, like I told you, it sounds completely nuts. I wouldn’t believe it, but he told me, so I guess it’s true.” She stared at her classmates, silently daring them to say she was a loon. Then, clutching the notebook a little, Moira pronounced dramatically: “Dr. Birdsong is an ed-thell.”

Silence. Coulda heard a pin drop. Alicia and Greg had identical yeah-and-now-what looks on their faces. No shocked gasps. No bleating questions. Nothing. Moira narrowed her eyes. Had she pronounced it wrong? Opening the spiral to page one, she continued, referring to her notes.

“Well…so I did some checking. As far as I can tell, ‘edhel’ means ‘elf’ in this made-up language called Sindarin. A fantasy writer named J.R. Tolkien apparently made up the word, really the whole language. Get this: Some weirdos out in Indiana live in a commune type thing and speak the this stuff and publish a monthly magazine in it, and ... what?” Alicia and Greg had been darting quick glances at each other while pretending to listen to Moira’s little speech. What the hell? Was this some geek-love flirting thing? Moira felt pissed and just a little left out.

Then Alicia and Greg looked up at Moira and burst out laughing. What had she said that was so damned funny? She felt a blush warm her cheeks.

Finally, drying her eyes and limited herself to only shallow chuckles, Alicia pulled herself upright and grinned at Moira.

“Welcome to the club, Moira. We’ve known Dr. Birdsong’s little secret for a while. That’s why we invited him to come teach. I don’t think he knows we know. But he told you? Wow. He must really like you.” Somehow, Alicia made that sound not so condescending. Oddly, Moira felt sort of giddy to be welcomed into their little geek club.

“Yeah,” said Greg. “And it’s J.R.R., not J.R.”

Moira raised an eyebrow. “Meow?” she asked.

“The fantasy writer. His name was John Ronald Reuel, so J.R.R. He wrote about the elves. Sort of introduced them and their struggle to the modern world.” Greg shifted, stretching out his long legs and letting the book close over his hand.

“Struggle? What the hell are you talking about?” Moira asked. Her gaze had shifted again to those orange socks. They were hypnotic, really.

“The elves came first, before humans, to sort of put beauty into the world. Most of them left a long time ago for Aman, basically heaven. But we think some elves stayed here, trying to help humans defeat evil in the world. They have this ongoing struggle against evil,” Alicia said, her eyes getting that all-big-and-glowy look, like she was campaigning for the salvation of all things furry. Girls like Alicia needed a cause, and heroic elves, apparently, were Alicia’s.

“Uh huh,” said Moira blandly, wriggling so her feet dangled in front of heater. “Right. Are they winning?”

“Well, we think so,” Greg said slowly, but Alicia interrupted.

“And we wanna help them. We’re looking for them. They seem to be a little, well, scattered right now. Something big just happened. Or is about to happen. We want to fight with them.”

Moira drew a deep breath. She’d been prepared for some of this, but her brain was beginning to fizzle. It was getting really hard to stifle the nervous giggles, but Moira made one last effort. And caught Greg’s eyes briefly.

Those eyes burned, like they counted a Seurat pointelle, and the whole world depended on the outcome. That was not the look of someone playing a bizarre practical joke. That look was deadly serious.

“Will you help us?” Greg asked softly. It was impossible to breathe. The room seemed very stuffy, and the old space heater was only slightly louder than the blood thrumping in Moira’s head.

Moira remembered the professor, looking west on his rooftop at dawn. She recalled the yearning in his voice when he spoke of others like him. Professor Birdsong was the most incredible, compelling creature she’d ever met, even beyond his blond-god looks.

Suddenly there was nothing in the world she wanted so much as to help him.

Moira blinked.

“Where do I sign up?” she asked.

#

Compadres,

Info: The prof’s full name, according to university records and the Maine DMV, is L. Galen Birdsong. Dunno what “L” stands for. Here’s the weird thing, tho: I know he came from this tiny university in Maine called Wainright. That’s where Greg and me sent letters asking him to come here. His Wainright bio says he taught at Oxford.

But no L. Galen Birdsong ever taught at Oxford.

But, get this: A Laszlo G. Birdsong taught French and Italian at Oxford in 1929. No records after that.

Ali

*ps -- Maybe we should get together to discuss this stuff instead of sending e-mails?

#

Greg and Alicia,

Hey. So, I did some checking. Laszlo G. Birdsong shows up on a casualty list for the British army in 1921. Our guy’s grandpa, maybe? Way too old to be our Birdsong, o course. lol

More digging: L.G. Birdsong posthumously (after death… I looked it up *g) awarded George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. May have been sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp in the ‘40s…but records are pretty fuzzy on this.

BTW, what does BSOE stand for?

Still digging,

Moira

*ps-- Yeah, let’s get together. Belly dancing at the student union tonight. My friend Cassie’s in the show. We could get coffee upstairs after.

#

Ali and M.,

BSOE = British Special Operations Executive.

Didn’t anyone ever tell you elves are immortal? More or less.

G.

*ps -- Can’t make the bellydancing. So sorry. May not be in linguistics tomorrow either. Any way you guys can take notes for me?

#

Co-conspirators (hehe),

Did you know that Tolkien served in the British army in WWI? And taught at Oxford during WWII. Stranger still, Tolkien claimed all his life that his fantasy world, middle earth, was really Europe, and all the things he wrote about really happened a long time ago.

After suffering shell shock in the war, Tolkien immediately began to work on documenting his made-up languages and writing The Silmarillion, the history of the elves.

Sure looks like he saw something in the war that made him believe in fairies.

Wouldn’t be surprised if he met up with our Laszlo.

Ali

*ps-- Moira, meet me at the Wendy’s tomorrow after your 1pm class? There’s a chocolate frosty in it for ya if you show.

*pps-- Greg, What’s up that made you miss linguistics? Must be big. Yeah, I got your notes right here. *leers* We’re supposed to finish reading that Riddley Walker book by next Wednesday. Don’t freak: It’s mostly in English.

#

Hello out there…. Greg, are you there? Missed you in class again. We had a quiz. You okay? Please send us a message at least.

Even the prof is worried.

Ali

(and Moira’s here, too!)

#

Ali and Moira,

Sorry for ducking out there for a while, guys. Am on to something big, but I have to show it to you in person. You’re not gonna believe this.

Bring nice clothes and meet me at Moira’s co-op Saturday real early. We’ll be gone till Monday.

Greg

-------------------


Chapter 5 - Road Trip

--------------------------------------

Chapter 5: Road Trip

---------------------------------------

Moira swung her hot pink duffle and matching suit bag into the back of Greg’s Pathfinder with a heave. It was too fucking early to be awake. And not have coffee.

“Six-fucking-a.m.,” she mumbled to Greg, not liking his chipper grin one bit. Streetlights cast shadows under his spiky hairdo, striping his grin in darkness. He looked … um, bouncy. Was he a morning person? Oh, the horror.

“It’s a long drive,” he said, holding open one of the back doors and gesturing her inside. So, she wasn’t even going to be able to ride shotgun on this trip, huh? From bad to worse.

Moira grabbed the handle and prepared to climb in. Then she paused. Stopped in fact, right there on the curb. From worse to…

“Oh, hell no,” she said, gesturing at the far side and its occupant.

Greg’s grin turned sheepish, sputtered, and failed.

“Hiya, Moira,” Leo said from inside the SUV. He waggled an eyebrow. Was that supposed to be a leer?

Moira scowled.

“I, ah, invited Leo,” Greg mumbled, shoving his fists deep into his corduroy pockets. He looked more than a little uncomfortable. Good, thought Moira.

“Yeah, I can see that,” she said, climbing into the Pathfinder at last, resisting the urge to punch something. Greg closed the door behind her, not bothering to reply. Probably a good move on his part.

“Look, Moira,” Leo started in, as soon as they pulled away from the curb. “I know you’ve been avoiding me. And whatever I did to piss you off, well, I’m really sorry. Forgive me?”

As if. Moira rested her forehead against the tinted window and shut her eyes. She did not want to talk about Abby Greenblat’s party the weekend before last.

“Moira?”

Silence. She wondered if he was getting the point yet.

“Hey, you can’t go to sleep,” came a squeak from the front-seat area. Moira heard a really loud scuffling noise and was pretty sure Alicia was half killing herself, leaning over the seat.

Sighing, she opened her eyes and glared in Ali’s general direction.

“Why not?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. She’d perfected this face, and most people who knew her well knew to avoid her when that eyebrow went up.

Ali obviously preferred to be clueless.

“You have some reading to do,” said Alicia, hefting a thick book over the seat and dropping it into Moira’s lap.

The thing was huge. Monstrous. Probably broke her pelvis when it hit. Moira stared at it like it was about to grow fangs and bite her.

“It’s The Silmarillion,” came Greg’s disembodied voice from the front seat. “The history of the elves. You need to read it before we get there.”

Moira stared at the book for a minute longer, wondering if she could use fairy magic to get it to go away or something. Too bad she didn’t know any words in that made-up language. Might come in handy.

“Get where?” she asked absently.

Alicia, still hanging over the back of her pilot’s chair, giggled.

“New Orleans. Cool, huh? Greg found a lead there on our Search, and we’re hot on the trail…” Well, her mouth kept moving, but Moira finally succeeded in tuning her out.

“New Orleans?” Moira said, picking out the only two words that were in any way interesting. “I have a cousin who lives there. Nicolas. I should call him and tell him we’re coming.” Moira fumbled in her handbag, clutching her mobile phone like it was the holy grail. Maybe if she held it up to her head for long enough, all these other people would shut up and let her sleep.

“Great. What a coincidence! Maybe we can stay with him for the night,” chattered the ever-perky Alicia.

Moira searched her address book on the phone, seeing Nic’s number outlined in bright green. Then she remembered. It was 6 a.m. No way Nic would be up at god-o’clock.

She looked at the huge book in her lap. She’d read a while, until it was late enough to call Nic. Just a couple of hours.

#

Moira cried when Felagund died to save Beren in Sauron’s pit.

She swallowed the sobs quietly and hoped no one saw. She sneaked a look over at Leo: He looked more or less passed out, one leg hooked over the drink holder, head lolling against his shoulder. At least he wasn’t drooling. Greg seemed to be concentrating on the road; Moira couldn’t see Alicia.

She turned her face to the window, noting the damp gray of early morning, and the hazy skyline of Houston slipping past on the greasy horizon. Her hands spread the book open on her lap, and she felt the pages smooth and cool against her fingers. It was all true, then.

And Dr. Birdsong was one of these elves. Wow. Moira was having a hard time getting her head around it, but something felt incredibly right with the story. Familiar. Like she had dreamt it many times already.

God, did this mean she was a Greg-level geek?

Carefully marking her spot, she pulled the phone out of her purse and auto-dialed Nic.

#

Moira took a deep breath and knocked on the door. Much as she loved her cousin, Nic was a little intimidating. And she was bringing the Fellowship of the Geeks to stay with him tonight. Man, he was going to think she was a dork.

The door swung open, and a puff of smoke curled out. Lights inside were fairly dim, but she could see a silhouette, and it sure looked like Nic as she’d last seen him.

“Hey, Moira,” he said. Yup, definitely him. No way she could miss that not-so-concealed accent. He’d always been proud of their heritage and the fact that he’d grown up in Itay. “Come on in.” He stepped back and leaned the door wide.

Moira hefted her bags and scooted through the door, cringing as she realized that the rest of the fellowship was close on her heels. And Nic was studying each of them. Moira felt a twinge of embarrassment.

Moira’s eyes were adjusting to the dim lights, and she looked around in appreciation. Nic’s apartment was posh. A portion of what had once been an impressive St Charles street mansion had been renovated to form Nic’s apartment. The rooms retained that old-world charm, right down to the hardwood floors, 12-foot ceilings, and stained-glass transoms. It was an adult’s apartment, Moira realized, which made her a little sad. She’d all but forgotten the three-year age gap between her and Nic. But sometime in the last two years, he’d moved beyond college into the world of Adults.

“Thanks for letting us crash here,” she said, once the door had closed behind the last of her crew.

He stepped around the end of the leather sofa, ashing his cigarette into a cut glass tray on the end table.

“No problem,” he said, grinning. “You going to introduce us all, or what?”

Moira introduced her posse, happy that Nicolas seemed to not notice how geeky they were. Or maybe he didn’t care.

After introductions, he showed them the spare room, where the guys would sleep, and the large master bedroom, where Moira and Alicia would stay. Moira asked him where he was sleeping, and he grinned and told her he’d made arrangements. Which of course meant a girlfriend. Moira felt totally bumpkinish to have even asked.

“So you didn’t tell me on the phone, what brings you to town?” He leaned on the door frame, puffing at another cigarette. Moira stifled the urge to sneeze, and glanced over at Alicia, who was more likely to know Greg’s Big Secret.

Alicia, sitting cross-legged and big-eyed on the floor, looked up, opened her mouth, but, strangely, she said nothing. She seemed unable to look away from Moira’s too-pretty cousin.

“Dunno,” Moira finally shrugged. “Hey Greg,” she called across the hall. A moment later, Greg appeared over Nic’s shoulder. Wait. Greg was taller than Nic? Moira had never noticed that before. Maybe he just usually slouched or something.

“So, out with it,” she told him. “Why are we here?”

Nic half turned and raised an inquiring brow.

Greg looked at the assembled company, all staring at him, but he didn’t back down.

“I told Ali that I was looking for people with … uh, Dr. Birdsong’s background. Well. I found one. Here in New Orleans. We’re going to see her tonight.”

Moira just looked at him for a moment. Found one, what? Another elf? How?

“Is she expecting us?” Alicia asked. A pretty dumb question, apparently, because Ali blushed scarlet as soon as she asked it. Odd.

“Not really,” Greg admitted, running an absent hand through his hair.

“You know,” Nicolas said casually, “it isn’t polite to barge in on a lady on a Saturday night. She might have plans.”

Moira frowned. What was this, another stalking? There was no way she was going for that again. Criminal acts in the attempt to see Professor Birdsong in his PJs were one thing. Stalking a strange woman in a strange city where people ate alligator meat and stripped for beads… totally different situation.

“No, we aren’t gonna barge in on her. Nothing like that,” Greg assured them hastily, probably reading the look on Moira’s face. “She’s a singer. At a club. We’re going to go see her, er, perform.”

“What club?” Nicolas asked, suddenly standing up straight. His dark brows drew together over the bridge of his nose, making him look like some exotic predator.

Greg pushed up his sleeve and read the ink scrawl on his forearm, “The, ah, Red Room.”

Nicolas nearly dropped his cigarette. “You’re here to see the diva? No kidding?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Greg replied, puzzled.

Nicolas grinned. “I go there every Saturday, just one of her many worshipers.”

Alicia made a sort of choking sound. “Worshipers? Whadaaya mean?”

“You’ll see. There’s nobody like Minou.”


Chapter 6 - The Red Room

-------------------------------------------

Chapter 6: The Red Room

-------------------------------------------

The Red Room had a dress code, and the fellowship prepared accordingly.

Before the full-length, gilded mirror in the bedroom, Moira tilted her head back and lowered her lashes, practicing a vamp at her bad self. She smoothed her hands over the skirt of her micromini black satin dress.

Damn, she looked good.

“Moira? You about ready?” Greg asked briskly, rounding the corner and coming into the bedroom at full trot. He stopped, suddenly when he saw her reflection. The look on his face was priceless, and Moira felt a surge of pure glee: Some girls live their whole lives just to see a look like that on a guy’s face.

“Think I’ll do?” Moira asked.

“Wow, Moira. You look totally different,” Greg said, a little hoarsely. Then he seemed to realize his mistake, and he ran a nervous hand through his hair. “No, ah, I don’t mean that you aren’t usually pretty and all, but… Damn.”

Moira chuckled, walking toward him. He stood a little bit uncomfortably in his shiny black shoes and starched trousers, but his shirt was blue and looked soft. Nice. And he hadn’t gunked up his hair yet; it fell in a dark curtain to just below his collar. Again: soft-looking.

“Thanks. I like your hair like this, by the way,” Moira said, ruffling it as she passed by him on the way to the hall.

She thought she heard him swallow hard.

Holy crap, had she just flirted with Greg, the Super Geek? What was she thinking?

#

Nic also appraised the little black dress, raising an appreciative eyebrow and saying something about little girls growing up. That got him a nasty look. Moira held herself back from sticking her tongue out at him, as she might have done a few years back.

Leo, of course, leered like the lech he was.

The others had dressed carefully, too, Leo in a shirt that looked black until he moved, then it had this weird iridescent shiny red thing going on. What the hell? He looked rather like a disco ball with hair.

Nic, as always, looked some kind of beautiful, a thing that Alicia apparently hadn’t missed. Moira made a mental note to remind Ali to close her mouth once in a while; she was just this side of drooling over Moira’s yummy cousin.

“We all ready?” asked Greg, coming into the room behind Moira. He’d apparently gotten his hormones under control and was all cool business now, fetching coats and herding them toward the SUV.

#

The Red Room stuck out of the skyline like a rapier; it actually was built to remind people of the Eiffel Tower, and Moira could see the resemblance. And even though Nic had told her enough to prepare her, she still felt an electric jolt when she stepped out onto the red carpet, just like a starlet. Runway lights guided her to the entrance, which was flanked by bouncers in zoot suits. Both were dark and gorgeous, and when they saw Nic, they waved Moira and her troupe inside.

Moira’d had to read Dante’s Inferno last semester in lit. His hell was pretty boring. Somehow, she’d always figured that sinful people would create a much more entertaining place to spend eternity. The Red Room was it.

Everything was red and dark and soft, from the heavy curtains to the deep pile carpet to the fringed lampshades. Bars flanked the entrance, manned by a fleet of dishy bartenders.

Nic, Moira, and the gang headed for a sunken lounge area at the far end of the dance floor. Candles lit the little table, and Moira led the sliding into the red booth. Leather felt cool on the backs of her thighs, reminding her just how short that black mini really was. She was wholly determined to have a good time tonight and not think about dragons or dead elves or anything else from the book.

Dancing. She wanted to dance. Now. Of course, it only took her a few moments to note that the band onstage wasn’t playing real music at all: It was some kind of fonky old-people music. Kind of like what Prof. Birdsong had played that first morning in his hillside house.

“What’s with the music?” Moira asked Nic, leaning on the little table, not wholly unaware that she was giving Leo a nice eyeful of cleavage. She pretended not to see his mouth hanging open.

Nic looked over at the stage, then down at his watch.

“Any minute now, they’ll play a tango. She sometimes comes out and dances it. Then she’ll do one or two songs with the big band, they’ll leave, and her musicians will come on for the rest of the show.”

“What does she sing?” Leo asked absently, apparently having trouble detaching his eyes from Moira’s chest. Moira took a deep breath, rather deliberately, and sat back. Leo’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull.

“Jazz,” Nic replied, smiling. Of course it was jazz: This was New Orleans. Moira almost snorted; even she knew that New Orleans was all about jazz and booze.

“Anybody here know how to tango?” asked Alicia, her eyes lighting hopefully on Nic.

“Yeah,” Moira said. Then paused. Was there an echo in here?

“You too?” asked Greg, and Moira realized he must’ve answered too. She nodded, wondering how geeky Greg had learned something as sexy as the tango. She was just about to ask when he flushed a little and said, “My mom taught me to dance. I don’t think I’ve ever tangoed with anyone under 50, come to think of it.” He smiled a little sideways, and Moira narrowed her eyes. Was this guy for real? Ultra geek goes ballroom dancing with his mom? Could life get any more humiliating? Well, Moira felt a startling urge to champion the underappreciated. Even if that meant slinking along a dance floor with Greg.

“Our grandmother made Moira and me learn,” Nic replied. “Our family has included a lot of dancers and singers over the generations, and she seemed to think we needed to continue the trend. She’s not too happy that I’m a lawyer and Moira’s studying… what’s it this week, Mo?”

Moira frowned at Nic. This was not a good time for teasing, she wanted to tell him. Instead she tossed her hair back casually and replied, “Linguistics.”

“Thought it was Spanish?” Leo said, making a superhuman effort to drag his eyes back up to her face.

“It was,” Alicia said. “But Moira and I both changed out majors this semester.”

“Not because of a certain professor?” Leo asked. “Oh, that’s sad. You girls really have it bad.”

Moira felt her fury bubble pop. She aimed her nastiest gaze at Leo and gathered a singeing breath…

And paused.

A single violin shirred the air, and the silken opening bars of “Por Una Cabeza”* slid through the room. Greg stirred beside her and touched her shoulder, signaling her to slide out of her end of the booth. Moira looked up at his flushed face and instantly forgot all the nasty things she was about to say to Leo.

She slid and stood, stepping easily into the dance. Strange how she could forget stupid things like where she put her keys, but she never forgot dance steps.

Letting her steps align with the violin strain, Moira took Greg’s surprisingly dry hand, and felt him rest his other one at the small of her back. It felt far too warm and strong there.

Damn, he was tall.

The first steps were light, teasing. Moira concentrated on making her body obey the dance; she hardly looked at her partner, even though that was sort of the whole point of tango. She figured he was concentrating just as hard as she was. Neither of them were experts, after all. They were just college students.

The deeper piano chords thrummed in, and Greg pulled her closer, angling them to the outside of the dance floor. He led really well, and Moira realized she didn’t need to concentrate so hard. She looked up…

…and nearly stumbled.

Greg’s expression was fierce, wholly in control… and blazingly seductive. It seared down at her. Moira licked her lips, trying to get a handle on herself and not mess up her steps. Expression was part of the dance, she thought to herself. Tango was all about seduction.

But, damn, Greg was good at the expression part. She’d noticed the intensity of his grey eyes often enough, but she only noticed their color tonight. Pretty. Well, Moira figured she could give as good as she got. Her dance instructor had taught her about expression, too. Moira narrowed her eyes, pouted her lips, and vamped right back, easing back into a dip and feeling a naughty flutter as his hand traced the outline of her body on the way back up.

The song was a short one. Which was too bad. Moira’d just gotten into the spirit of the thing, and when the music ended, she couldn’t wipe that come-hither look off her face completely. Wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to. She found herself staring up at Greg, wordlessly.

The tension was palpable between them, and Moira couldn’t think of a single thing to say that wouldn’t sound horribly stupid.

Then Greg bent his head, and she thought for one wild second that he was going to kiss her, right here on the dance floor. And, god help her, at that moment, she wanted him to.

“Thank you for dancing with me,” he murmured, close to her ear. “You were incredible.”

And then he was leading her off the floor, and everyone else in the room was clapping furiously. Moira’s head spun. She glanced over at Nic as she scooted into the booth and noticed that he was standing, clapping, and grinning like a loon.

Moira followed his gaze toward the stage just as the music picked up again, still with the big band, but slower, with a throb now. And clear, vibrating in Moira’s blood, a voice rose into the club. Tinglingly confident, deep, and reverberating, that voice made the tiny hairs on the back of Moira’s neck stand up.

But it wasn’t just the voice that had stilled the large crowd. It was Minou.

She was far too beautiful to be real, Moira thought. Hair like black satin wound into a loose coil on the back of her head, and she wore a simple, spaghetti-strapped red dress. But she was anything but simple. Even the expression on her face was complicated: deep into the music but tragic, like she was in torment a thousand miles away. And she glowed. Really. Oh, you could blame it on the footlights, but Moira was pretty sure some of that light was coming from inside.

So this was another elf. Moira remembered Professor Birdsong, outlined against the dawn on his rooftop. He had seemed to glow, too, though not quite like this. Still, it was easy to see similarities. Curious, she checked the ears, but the singer’s hair swept over their tips, and Moira couldn’t tell if they were pointy.

Moira glanced back at Nic: He was still standing, seemingly enthralled by Minou. Moira almost snorted: He’d been right to call himself one of her worshippers. His expression was one of positive adoration.

Moira turned her head back to the goddess on stage and narrowed her eyes in study.

#

Moira was having a hard time breathing. Wasn’t sure whether it was because of the two mammoth Hurricanes she’d drunk or the hypnotic effect of Minou’s voice. But she’d sat in rapt attention for so long her ass ached and her legs were stuck to the leather booth bench.

There was a general stir, and Moira felt a change in the atmosphere. Had the lights dimmed a little? Was everyone holding their breath? Moira had a powerful urge to ask Nic what was going on, but her besotted cousin didn’t look like he wanted to be disturbed.

Moira watched Minou, head bowed, on the stage. Interesting. She didn’t use a microphone: all that was her natural voice. Wow. Talk about lungs. Moira wondered if she sang opera. Supposedly opera singers could project into a football stadium. Moira’d always thought such a thing impossible. But, maybe it was old hat to an elf.

There was a clatter on stage, and Moira watched as the three band members -- a pianist, a drummer, and a saxophonist -- packed up their gear and exited stage left. They just walked down the stairs and stood, like all the other fans, in silence in front of the stage.

And then Minou looked up, staring far past the red walls of the jazz club. Probably far past the furor of a Saturday night in New Orleans. Moira gasped. The look on Minou’s face was downright tragic.

***“I wonder how winter will be
with a spring that I shall never see
I wonder how night will be
with a day that I shall never see

I wonder how life will be
with a light that I shall never see
I wonder how life will be
with a pain that lasts eternally

In every night there's a different black
in every night I wish that I was back
to the time when I rode
through the forests of old

In every winter there's a different cold
in every winter I feel so old
so very old as the night
so very old as the dreadful cold

I wonder how life will be
with a death that I shall never see
I wonder why life must be
a life that lasts eternally
I wonder how life will be
with a death that I shall never see
I wonder why life must be
a life that lasts eternally”

Moira was weeping. She felt her soul expand and collapse in those lyrics; she knew that something important was happening here; she could feel it in her bones but couldn’t explain a lick of it. She hoped no one would ask why she was crying. But surely they all felt it, too?

When the last word wound out, lingering in the heavy smoke-filled air, Minou blinked once, and drew her brows together as though she might weep. And dipping her head finally, she said something under her breath. Moira barely heard it, and she had no idea what it meant:

“Tolo enni, Lasgalenen. Egor rado nîn. Please.”****

-----------
* “Por una cabeza” is a tango by Carlos Gardel. It’s probably the most well-known tango to non-ballroom-dance-type people, having been featured in both True Lies and Scent of a Woman.

** From “Deep Purple Sky,” lyrics by Artie Shaw.

*** Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament (©Burzum 1993) Although there are no Tolkienian references in this song, its structure is transparently modeled after Bilbo's song in Rivendell "I Sit Beside the Fire." The song title is given in German on the album cover (Erblicket die Töchter des Firmaments), but appears in English in the lyrics.

**** Really bad Sindarin for “Come to me, my Lasgalen. Or find a way to me. Please.”

-------------------------------


Chapter 7 - Backstage Pass

-------------------------------

Chapter 7: Backstage Pass

------------------------------

Moira took deep breath, tasting the thick, murky New Orleans air all the way down her throat. She nearly choked but caught herself, and ended up with a nasty case of the hiccoughs. Just her luck. She held her breath and counted to ten.

Without a word, the doorman handed her a handkerchief, and she was too emotional to even be surprised, or to thank him. She managed a watery smile and hiccoughed in his general direction. Which of course started the whole breath-holding and counting bit again. The guy was kind enough not to laugh.

In the thunder of applause after that a capella piece, Moira’s senses had mutinied. A low buzz had throbbed in her head, and her limbs had felt numb. She flexed her fingers now, feeling the starch in the handkerchief. Well, at least the feeling had returned to her fingers.

Weirdest thing, though, and what creeped her out majorly was the voice. She’d thought she heard a voice in her head. Again. It was sort of like Professor Birdsong’s little speaking-silently-into-her-head gimmick. But different: this one slithered and curved and made her belly drop like she was on a roller coaster in the dark. And it didn’t speak any language she recognized.

She had the strangest feeling that it wasn’t talking to her at all. So, how come she was hearing it?

“You okay?” came a voice -- out loud -- at her elbow, and she jumped. Then she shrugged. It was just Greg.

“Yeah. Show all done?” Moira asked, staring into the night. She didn’t want Greg to see her face; her eyeliner was probably all over the place by now. Moira rubbed at the corner of her eye, trying to get all the gunk off. It stung. She blinked furiously.

“Yup. Your cousin is trying to get us in backstage, so we can meet her. Real nice guy,” Greg said, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and absently blowing a stray piece of night-dark hair out of his face.

Moira waited for the next hiccough. It didn’t come. She decided it was safe to speak. “He is. He always took care of me when we were kids; neither of us have any brothers or sisters, so we kind of filled in for each other. Weird though, how he just happened to know the elf chick, huh? What a coincidence.”

Greg’s eyes lit, pale grey and unfathomable in the streetlights. “I don’t believe in coincidence,” he murmured.

Moira looked up into his face, feeling that strange tension again. Eek. How could she possibly be attracted to Greg the supergeek? Somebody must’ve slipped crack into her diet soda. But the fact of the matter was… well, she was attracted to him. She searched his face, noting a couple of things she hadn’t seen before.

One, Greg was not ugly at all. In fact, he was a little beautiful, in a sharp, nervous way. Too pretty actually; that’s probably why he was always slouching over and crapping out his hair. Otherwise he’d for sure have guys all over him.

Two, he was hiding all kinds of shit. Moira could just tell.

“Then wh…” Moira began, but Greg wasn’t looking at her. He was looking over her shoulder, toward the street. He stiffened, obviously catching sight of something disturbing. The casual, goofy posture vanished in a split second. Moira was knocked-on-her-ass stunned by this instant change in Greg. His silver eyes narrowed to menacing slits, a muscle twitched just above his cheekbone, and he muttered something low and wicked beneath his breath.

“Tôl achairn… shit.” With one movement, he had Moira behind him, placing himself between her and the street. All she could see was his back and the sky. She didn’t have a chance to breathe; he was pushing her around the side of the building. Her platform sandals slid on the cement, but Greg didn’t let her fall.

“Wait!” Moira began, now royally peeved and confused. “Listen, if I was after a grope, I coulda just…”

“Does Nicolas have a cell phone?” Greg asked once they rounded the corner. He didn’t stop entirely, but he slowed, letting Moira catch her breath. He stared into the murky night, tense, as if he saw invisible demons in the empty alley.

Moira nodded mutely.

“Call him,” Greg commanded. “Tell him to get his diva out the back door. Now. We will bring the truck around.”

“But…”

“Just do it, Moira.” Greg pulled her forward, forcing her into a jog. Moira wondered where he’d parked and was relieved to find that it was less than a block away. Her feet felt like they were on fire and her dress had ridden up till it was nearly bunched up around her hips. The sandals didn’t want to stay on, and her toes cramped painfully, trying to keep pace with Greg.

She heard the SUV’s alarm beep just as Nic picked up on the other end of the phone. And just as all hell broke loose in the front of the Red Room.

God, was that an explosion?

“Nic?” Moira yelled into the phone. She slipped to the ground, but Greg hauled her back to her feet, opened the truck door, and pushed her inside.

“Moira? Where are you? Are you okay?” Nic’s voice was pitched higher than usual; he sounded scared shitless. There were screams in the background; Moira could hear what sounded like gunshots coming from around front of the Red Room. She thought of the nice bouncer who’d lent her his handkerchief, and she almost threw up.

“I’m heading out back. Greg’s here. Get the others and Minou out the emergency exit near the ladies’ room. We’ll be there. God, Nic, please be careful,” she said, climbing over the console and perching in the passenger seat. Greg was peeling out before she had a chance to press End and get her seatbelt on.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Her teeth were chattering, though it was a warm night.

Greg’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. He was so focused on driving that Moira had to repeat her question.

“You signed up for a war, Moira, remember? Well, here it is.” Greg’s voice sliced into her like edged ice. He put one arm out, in front of her, and turned sharply right. The SUV fishtailed around the corner, laying rubber. Despite the seatbelt, Moira felt her center of gravity shift, and about the only thing that kept her from knocking her head against the window was Greg’s steady grip on her shoulder.

His fingers tightened as he slammed on the brakes, finally wresting the Pathfinder to a halt up on the curb beside the emergency exit. Dumpsters overflowed, black puddles stood, remnants of last night’s storm. Near the bare brick wall, some guy was hunched over, probably throwing up. A red exit sign lit the alley door.

Nic wasn’t there.

“Where is he?” Moira whimpered, craning her neck to get a better view of the exit.

Greg’s hold on her shoulder gradually eased. He took a deep, shuddering breath and turned in his seat, facing Moira. The hand that had held her safe in her seat slid forward, cupping her jaw lightly, drawing her attention.

“Moira? You all right?” Greg asked. His voice sounded funny. Accented, almost. Moira knew he didn’t have an accent. But she’d heard that sometimes people sound different when they’re scared out of their minds. She wondered if she was even now sounding like Minnie-fucking-Mouse. Wouldn’t be a big surprise or anything.

“No,” she said, on a whimper. “Somebody is shooting and I can’t find my cousin and I think I’m drunk and I need to p-pee.” She felt her face crumple into another round of tears. Greg’s long fingers pushed into her hair, massaging the skin behind her ear. Lordy hell, now that was a sensitive spot. He kept one steady thumb below her chin, though, anchoring them both.

“Shh, Moira. Calm down. You will be safe. I swear it,” Greg told her. It was a really goofy thing to say, Moira thought. What was even goofier was that she believed him. She blinked, totally distracted from the door and the distant sirens and the smell of singed something on the air. In fact, she couldn’t for the life of her look away from Greg’s face in the moonlight.

Somebody wrenched open the back door, and Moira yelped. She ducked down into her seat, closed her eyes, and prayed it wasn’t somebody with a gun. But then she heard voices, familiar ones, and she turned around and watched the fellowship and the diva pile in. Nicolas was holding the singer’s hand; his face was white as Moira’s ass in January. The diva paused a moment before following Nic into the back seat. Her head cocked to the side, and something that could have been surprise passed over her inscrutable face.

“Istin le... go-Eluchíl.” Minou blinked and shook her head, as if she were dusting off a memory. Again, the slither of a voice in Moira’s head; she was certain no one else heard it. This time it felt tense, dark. Moira wanted to scream.

But she didn’t have time to think it out, or even react. No sooner had the back door shut than Greg had the SUV in gear and the tires squealing. Moira only then realized that his hand wasn’t in her hair, or on her throat. She kind of missed it. For a second or two there, it had made her feel safe.

“Get us the fuck out of here,” Leo squeaked, turning around to stare out the back window. For the moment, it didn’t look like they were being followed.

“Take us to my house,” Nicolas said. “You remember how to get there?”

“What just happened? All-father, what just happened?” Ali squeaked, sounding like she was on the edge of losing it completely. Moira leaned around the seat and grabbed Ali’s ice-cold hands. Somehow the universe didn’t seem quite so fucked up when somebody was holding your hands.

“Do you know where the Lakefront Airport is?” came a voice out of the far back. Quiet. Confident. Filling every pore in Moira’s skin. Minou. With a single question, she silenced the nervous chatter. She made Moira feel less like a basket case and more like …a warrior. Moira looked over Ali’s shoulder and caught the steady gaze of the elf.

“Yes,” Greg said in a low voice, taking a right turn way too fast. Moira’s stomach lurched and her shoulder pressed hard against the seatback.

“Please take us there. Nicolas, love, we cannot go back to your flat. They will already be there.” Her voice was soothing, like a hot toddy on a cold winter night. She absently rubbed Nic’s knee, easing his tremor. Nic turned to look out the back window.

“Where are we going then?” Leo asked.

“We’re going to Austin,” Greg said through stiff lips. “Moira, do you have the professor’s phone number in your cell?”

“I have it memorized,” Ali admitted, before Moira could do the same.

“Well, call him. Have him meet us at the general aviation airport in Georgetown, about half an hour north of his house. Mîren, do you have a jet or prop?”

“Jet,” the singer said. Was there laughter in her voice? Something really strange was going on here. Above and beyond the guns and the explosion and shit.

“Good. Tell him we’ll be there in about two hours.”

“Who are we meeting in Austin?” Minou asked politely.

“L. Galen Birdsong,” Greg replied shortly, clipping the words like they were curses.

Moira felt rather than heard Minou’s sharp breath. Minou blanched, closed her eyes. Her fingers clenched hard on Nic’s knee; Moira saw him flinch at the pain. And Moira heard the silent words that followed:

“Elo… e cuina.”

---------------------

*Sindarin. “The avengers come.”
** Sindarin/Dorthinian. “I know you... son of Eluchíl?”
*** Sindarin. “(untranslatable exclamation)... he lives.”


Chapter 8 - Guns, Planes, and Magic Water

-----------------

Chapter 8: Guns, Planes, and Magic Water

-----------------

Well, hell. Just when Moira thought the night couldn’t get any weirder.

The Pathfinder rolled to a stop, and Greg cut the engine. In fact, for the first time since the shit hit the fan, Greg neglected to lay rubber when he stopped. Cautiously, Moira pried her hands away from Ali’s and opened her eyes. They were at the airport, apparently. Moira turned in her seat and looked out the window.

The elf in the back must’ve pressed a remote -- or used faery magic, whatever -- because the big-ass hangar just outside yawned open for them. Fluorescent lights hummed to life in the cavern, outlining a sleek jet. A big one. Silver with black markings and a fonky symbol on the tail, it looked like something out of a movie. Moira felt her mouth open, but no sounds came out.

“Whoa,” Ali said, and that about summed it up.

“Everyone out,” Greg said brusquely, already half outside the Pathfinder, his grey eyes scanning the darkness. Moira tensed and pushed open her door. She’d forgotten how bad her feet ached, but she remembered sure enough the moment she stepped out onto the tarmac. Shit. And she still had to pee. Didn’t look like this hangar had a ladies’ room, either. Double shit.

She was just working up a scowl when Greg made the corner, swooping down on her and herding her into the building. The others followed, obviously too slowly for Greg’s peace of mind. The boy was downright twitchy. Probably had something to do with the guns and bombs and shit.

“How long is preflight going to take?” Greg asked, scanning the dark beyond the hangar doors.

“Fifteen,” Minou replied, still with a faint grin hovering on her mouth. Her lipgloss shimmered in the fluorescents. How did she manage to maintain perfect make-up and hair even when she was being chased by monsters? It just wasn’t fair.

“Isn’t that a little quick?” Leo asked, actually speaking instead of cowering like the bug he was.

“Oh right. Forgot you’re a fuckin aeronautics expert,” Greg muttered. Moira almost laughed but realized she was too exhausted. Really, she just wanted to find a toilet and a pillow, in that order.

Minou paused, turned to Leo, and raised one perfect black eyebrow.

“I have a crew on site,” the elf said witheringly. “They are paid to keep the plane ready to lift off on short notice.” Her silver eyes held Leo’s and Moira thought she saw her classmate blanch. She wondered if the elf was saying something into his mind right then.

Leo was first to look away. Minou’s velvet-red grin widened.

“Shall we board? Ladies? Gentlemen? Et cetera?”

Moira noticed that her eyes cut to Leo at that last, and she wondered if the elf had just insulted him. Sometimes it was hard to tell.

#

The inside of Minou’s Raytheon Hawker 800 (apparently Minou was an aeronautics expert... go fig) was about the swankiest thing Moira could remember seeing. And yes, it did have a lavatory “aft” (aka “in the back”). Actually, the interior sort of reminded Moira of Professor Birdsong’s house: lots of white leather and soft carpet and polished blonde wood. Only the bar in this plane came with booze, not pop tarts.

Even before they were airborne, Nic and Leo fell asleep: Nic in the chair next to Minou and Leo on the long sofa near the jumpseat. Minou covered Nic with a blanket, set a pillow under Leo’s head, and strolled over to the tiny refrigerator as the jet climbed out of New Orleans. Moira watched, impressed: the elf had the balance of a cat. Maybe better.

After rustling up some cut crystal glasses, Minou fetched an unlabelled bottle out of the fridge and started pouring. She didn’t even ask if everyone was of age. Of course, living in Louisiana, she probably figured anyone not in diapers was certified for lushdom. Moira certainly didn’t feel like arguing... until Minou handed her a drink. She sniffed it, looked at the elf, and scowled.

“What’s this? Water?” Moira mumbled. It was cool but not cold, clear but not transparent. Her stomach was close to heaving, and the elf wanted her to drink water? A bloody Mary, maybe, she could understand that, but water...?

“Magic water,” Minou said, with a half smile. She finished playing hostess and sank elegantly into the big chair near the lavatory; her impossibly long legs stretched across the narrow aisle, ending in three-inch spike babydoll heels. Her feet probably didn’t even ache, Moira thought. Damn her.

Still suspicious, Moira sipped the magic water, held it on her tongue, and let the flavor sink in. Holy crappola! This was the most incredible stuff she’d ever tasted. She let it slide down her throat and instantly felt refreshed. Some of the stark terror fled, and the tremors in her hands stilled. She took another thoughtful swallow. The liquid worked into her limbs, to the ends of her fingers and toes, and Moira’s head cleared instantly. Almost like magic.

“Definitely not water,” she announced. “So what is it? No, wait.” She held up a hand. “Actually, I don’t care about the water. I’d rather know what the hell is going on. Big picture, now. Greg? You want to tell me what those things with guns were?”

“Knives,” Ali interrupted in a small voice. She sat cross-legged in an overlarge executive chair, a light blanket drawn up to her chin. Her eyes were huge, and she looked about four and half.

“Huh?” Moira asked.

“They had knives,” Ali clarified. “Long skinny ones, probably diamond-edged because the blood splatter . . . ”

“Eek,” Moira said. “Spare me the CSI version, ‘k?”

“They are tormented creatures,” Greg began softly. “Elves once, long ago. But they faded and grew bitter, forgetting their noble heritage. Now they function mainly as assassins. They have a hard time maintaining solid form, but they are invulnerable to most weapons, and they have a sort of innate awareness, which makes them good at tracking and hiding.”

“You called them something at the club,” Moira reminded him. “Ass-chairs?”

“Achairn?” That was Minou. She slid her gaze over to Greg and Moira heard the voice in her head again: low, rubbing, questing, and of course speaking in a strange language. Fuck-a-nut, Moira thought. Why hadn’t Prof Birdsong forced her to learn this language? Klingon was no help here. She heard the word “dill” or something like it. Not that it made any sense at all.

Moira fumed, but then something really odd happened. Greg responded. Silently. In the weird language. His interior voice was different: Where Professor Birdsong’s was thick and green and warm, and Minou’s was rough velvet and menacing, Greg’s silent voice was clear, sharp. Like the magic water. Or a diamond-edged knife.

Of course, Moira had no idea what he said. But a wave of well-being swept over her, so intense and delicious her toes tingled. Was he trying to make Minou feel less threatened? Moira remembered his stark desperation in front of the Red Room; it didn’t really gel with the peace he was projecting now. So which was the lie? And more important, why was Greg lying?

“Yes, they were definitely achairn,” Greg said finally, out loud. “I think Moira asked the question, though. Care to explain it to her?” He seemed unaware that Moira had “heard” his quick exchange with Minou.

Minou shrugged. “The achairn and the bright elves have been enemies for millennia,” she explained. “They serve a dark master, and everyone who opposes him is automatically a target for their vengeance.”

“How long have you been fighting them?” Ali asked. Her voice was still small, but the question was weird. Moira thought Ali already knew everything there was to know about these elves. Apparently not.

Minou didn’t blink, though her voice was weary. “Too many years to count. You have read the stories of the Ages? What was his name? -- Tolkeen? -- anyway, a precocious soldier published the annals, which is how most people have learnt of us. He would have said I was an elf of the first age, I think.”

Moira thought about the Silmarillion and let out a thin breath. First age... wasn’t that the dragon-splatty-elf time? Not to mention a long-ass time ago. How old was this chick, anyway? Must be at least 20,000. And no laugh lines or forehead wrinkles. Sophia Loren, eat your heart out, Moira thought.

“So, okay. You fought these baddies a long time, they finally picked up your scent, and then they showed up at the Red Room all fit to kill you,” Moira said, feeling that she was catching on. A little bit at least. She was actually rather proud of her newfound deductive abilities. Regular Sherlock Holmes, she was. With boobs and a kick-ass hairdo.

Minou’s smile widened and her silver eyes bored into Moira. Her interior voice slithered into Moira’s head: “Actually,” the voice said in perfect English. “They were probably trying to kill you Moinâ.”

#

Huh?

Moira couldn’t think of a single clever thing to say. She suddenly felt like she was drowning; had they hit a pocket of turbulence? Her stomach tightened; her nerves clenched.

Moinâ. No one but her father had ever called her that. How did this elf know her pet name? Were elvish mind-reading superpowers that good? What other secrets could that chick just pluck out of Moira’s mind? The jet cabin suddenly felt ice cold; Moira shivered.

“Yes, I was a likely target,” Minou said out loud, keeping her tone mild. As if she was used to fanged creatures trying to kill her. “Strange thing is, I’ve been in New Orleans for a little over six years. It seems they might have found me earlier, if they knew where to look.”

“Are you implying that we led them to you?” Ali asked suddenly.

“Implying? Oh, of course not,” the elf said, again with that half smile.

“Are they following us now?” Greg asked, leaning forward in his seat. His hair fell forward and he pushed it back impatiently. Moira watched the trek of his long fingers and sipped her water. She was much too confused right now to say anything.

Minou closed her eyes for a moment, and then blinked them open again. “Not yet,” she said at last. “If they were, I certainly wouldn’t lead them toward Lasgalen.”

It took a minute for things to click in Moira’s mind: Lasgalen was similar to Lazlo Galen... Birdsong. Aha. Well, it figured that two elves would know each other, right? There couldn’t be that many of them, after all.

“Where are the others?” Greg asked. “I always thought there was a whole army of elves, fighting the great evil. But so far, I’ve only found the professor, and now you. Two is hardly an army. Especially not against a dozen achairn.”

“Two is pretty impressive, Eluchîlion,” Minou said. “As you might have guessed, though, most of the, ah, army is hiding. It does us no good to show our numbers.”

“The dark forces are preparing to move, aren’t they?” Ali asked, breathlessly. Minou nodded.

“That is our best guess,” she confirmed. “We defeated a major force with the help of the armies of men in the last century. But evil is not so easily removed. Arda has a way of reasserting the balance. It is almost as if we who dwell here are doomed to fight.” Her voice sounded infinitely weary.

“You’re talking about World War II,” Greg said, obviously proud of himself for making the connection. Moira remembered their “research” back on campus. Hadn’t Birdsong been in a concentration camp, or something? Or was that the Tolkien dude? All the information ran together in her memory and she wished she had her laptop.

“I think that is what they call it,” Minou confirmed.

“And you’ve just been hiding since then?” Ali asked. Her voice was laced with sympathy. Somehow Ali could utter the sappiest, flakiest things and make them sound sincere.

“Hiding, yes. And searching,” Minou said. Her chin dipped, and she looked down at her lap, stared for a long time at her clasped hands.

#

The dawn was new when they arrived in Georgetown; no other planes moved on the lavender-brushed tarmac, and most people on their little plane slept. Moira only woke because she felt a nudge. Not a physical one; a mental nudge, sort of a soft whisper just inside her skull. Or maybe a sigh. She slitted her eyes open and looked toward the cockpit.

Professor Birdsong stood there, ducking a little in the confines of the plane. His pale gold hair was caught back in braids, and Moira could easily see the delicate ears, tipped slightly on the ends. He stared at a point beyond her chair, and a muscle in his jaw worked, but he didn’t speak.

The air thinned in the cabin; light from the tiny windows crept in, bright and blinding.

“We are ahead of them by a day, but they have found us at last,” Minou said, aloud, from the chair behind Moira. Her voice reverberated, catching Moira by surprise.

Professor Birdsong blinked. One long hand grasped a leather chairback beside him, as if he needed the support. He swallowed.

“Cuinach,” he murmured, his knuckles white. “I searched all of Rome for you, Mîren. Dozens of times. Ram said he saw you enter the baroness’s flat. But you were silent in my soul . . .” His voice trailed off, as if he could not bear the memory. His eyes were bright; they swam with tears.

There was a soft sound behind Moira, but she didn’t dare turn her head. By some miracle, these two didn’t seem to notice her, and Moira wanted to keep it that way.

“I left before the bombers came, but there was no time to tell you,” Minou said softly, edging up between the seats, until she stood right in front of Birdsong; her back was to Moira. The elf raised her long white hands and framed the professor’s face. As far as gestures went, it really wasn’t all that intimate. But Moira felt herself blushing; she felt like she shouldn’t be watching this. The moment was . . . precious.

“But then you were still in the Ravensbruck. No one left that place, you know. Not alive. I was certain he had you, but I never stopped looking, and I never stopped hoping.”

Birdsong closed his eyes, but it wasn’t any good: a tear squeezed out from under his eyelid. Minou brushed a thumb over it, smudging the line on his smooth cheek.

“They have tried to defeat us for four ages, Lasgalen, but we are too strong for them. They cannot best us, nor break our spirits. And, for all their schemes and tricks and efforts, they cannot keep us apart.”

#


Chapter 9 - Heroes and Legends

----------------------------

Chapter 9: Heroes and Legends

-----------------------------

Moira saw the professor open his mouth, as if he would speak. His blue-blue eyes glanced up, over Minou’s shoulder. He stiffened and frowned, then jerked his head to the side, away from Minou's hands.

“Is that who I think it is?” the professor snapped. Birdsong gestured over Minou’s shoulder, to the sleeping form of Nicolas. Minou turned her silver eyes toward Nic. Moira caught a glimpse of the elf’s smile: tight and tragic and ... tender?

“Yes,” Minou answered softly. “Moira’s cousin, Carlo’s son. He is very beautiful, no?” Almost reluctantly, she turned back to Birdsong. He met her with a disdainful glare.

“You’ve been keeping him,” Birdsong accused. “How dare...”

Minou’s spine stiffened visibly.

“I wasn’t keeping him from you; I was keeping him safe. Isn't that what you are trying to do by playing teacher to the son of Eluchîl? You know I was searching for that one,” Minou replied. “Don’t make judgements on me, Thranduilion. We are even.”

“Ah, yes. Greg. I was, ah, teaching him, as you say. But I wasn’t fucking him,” Birdsong said, and Moira flinched. For one thing, she’d never expected to hear the prof say that word. But it was his icy tone and contemptuous stare that made Moira nervous. How could Minou just stand there? If the prof were giving her that stare, Moira’d be on her knees begging forgiveness. (Or begging something. Despite her best self-control, Moira couldn’t clear her imagination of all other scenarios that involved kneeling before the pretty professor.)

“Gerin muir,” said Minou stiffly. Even though Moira had no idea what the elf had just said, she could see the challenge in Minou’s posture, could hear it in her voice. Oh, that was not the way to handle an angry man. Er, angry elf.

“Muir... egor mael?” The professor lashed back, drawing his brows together menacingly. Moira almost squirmed in her seat. Birdsong took a half step closer to Minou and seethed down at her. “E leithia muir lin?”

Tension roared between them. Neither spoke, aloud or otherwise. They just stared at each other, and Birdsong’s expression grew darker and darker. Moira could feel his anger building and wondered how she could stop this before it turned into a full-out fight. She hated watching other people fight, and she’d had just about as much violence as she could stand in the last fourteen hours.

Moira turned her head on the leather, closed her eyes, and let out a soft sigh. Just to remind them that there were other people in this plane. She couldn’t tell for a few seconds if her little sound had any effect at all.

Then she heard Birdsong’s voice again, and she could tell that his anger had calmed. Some.

“No, you are right. I should not accuse; rather, I should thank you for keeping him safe for me. Both of them, actually, after yesterday,” he said, his voice floating just beyond Moira’s closed eyes. She could tell that these words weren’t easy for Birdsong to conjure.

“No thanks are necessary,” Minou replied, accepting the olive branch. “Not until we are far away from here and can regroup, determine how the achairn found us. Our battles are never over, are they Lasgalen?” Her voice sounded infinitely weary.

“It seems they are not. But do not despair, Miren. We must have a purpose yet, else we would be permitted ...”

“Don’t say it. I cannot bear the word,” Minou interrupted sadly.

But Birdsong said it anyway, a silent whisper that slid into Moira's soul and grew warm and bright there:

Home.

#

Moira must have drifted off again; a warm patch of sunlight on her bare arm pulled her, fighting the whole way, from sleep. Moira shifted in the leather seat, wanting to slide back into her dream. It had been a good one. She couldn’t remember all the details, but Birdsong had been there, and ... screw it. She was awake. And not a bit happy about it.

“So, what’s the plan? Why haven’t we taken off yet?” That was Nic’s voice, filtering in from a humongous distance.

Moira tried to blink and noticed that the mascara from last night had stuck her eyelashes together. She rubbed her eyes and blinked again. Ah. Better. At least her eyelids weren’t permanently glued shut, which was a happy thought to begin the day with. She tried not to think of the inevitable morning-after raccoon rings. Instead she surveyed the cabin interior.

Ali was sleeping like a cat in the far corner, curled up and barely breathing. The professor was sipping coffee, long fingers wrapped all the way around the steaming porcelain cup (Moira had to drag her eyes away). Greg was leaning back in his leather seat, staring up at the ceiling, lost in his own thoughts. Moira didn’t see Minou right off... loo maybe? Bits of the convo from earlier floated into Moira’s mind. Was Nic really screwing the elf? Holy wow. Score one for her cousin. She flicked a glance over at him.

He was all business, fresh-faced as if he’d gotten plenty of sleep. Even his clothes looked unmussed. But Nic didn’t seem to note Moira’s stare; he was obviously deep in conversation with Birdsong.

“We aren’t entirely sure where we want to go next,” Birdsong confessed. Moira had the weird feeling that she’d missed a crucial part of this chat. Probably the part that would’ve explained it all. Inevitable, of course. But still: Shit.

“How about any place those ass-dudes aren’t,” she suggested wryly, stretching in her chair and noticing for the first time how stiff she was. God, for a yoga class right now. She absently wondered if elves were especially flexible...

“Yeah, clever plan,” Leo said, sarcastically. Crap. She’d forgotten about Leo. He was in the chair behind Nic. Moira tossed a scowl in his general direction.

“Oh bite me, you piece of shi...” she started in.

"Enough!” Birdsong interrupted. “Please, we need to consider our next steps logically. Our very lives are in danger. This isn’t calculus class.” He blinked twice, shifting his blue-eyed gaze from Moira to Leo and then back again. From the corner of her eye, Moira saw Greg grin up at the ceiling. Moira didn’t even bother to pretend embarassment. She was totally in the right, of course. Leo was a piece of shit.

Still, it hurt to be called a child by the luscious Dr. Birdsong. It was kind of like being spanked, and not in the good way. Moira was conjuring a moue when she caught Nic’s eye, and all her petty irritation faded. She'd always had a sense of what Nic was going to say before he actually opened his mouth. Even from childhood, she'd had this sixth sense where her cousin was concerned. And now she knew instantly what Nic was going to suggest, but she couldn’t stop him.

“Finestra,” he said. The word plinked in the cabin and just sat there. No, no. Moira hoped no one knew what it meant. She hoped...

“Interesting,” Professor Birdsong murmured, nodding. One long finger tapped the side of his coffee cup, and he pursed his lips.

Minou ducked into the cabin, coming from the cockpit up front. Her face was set in a look of concern, as if she’d overheard the word and didn’t like it one bit. “I don’t think...” she said slowly.

“No fucking way,” announced Moira, interrupting. She felt five pairs of eyes shift her way. Good. Moira’s hackles were all the way up. She couldn’t believe Nic had suggested Finestra. How dare he! Rat-bastard. No way. Not even for elves. Not even for hot elves.

“It’s an island north of Sicily," Nic continued, as if Moira hadn't spoken. "My grandmother lives there. Her estate is the safest place I know."

“Nic!” Moira yelped. But he ignored her.

“She doesn’t have an airstrip, but we could hydrofoil from Trapani. Takes a few hours, but it’s a smooth ride. Can this plane make a transatlantic flight?” He angled this last question to Minou. The elf paled visibly, but Moira was too pissed to wonder why.

“Yes, but...” Minou started.

“No!” Moira declared. “Look, guys. Nic must be on crack. Our grandma is just a little old lady with too many cats, okay? Her house has a garden and pink drapes and it smells like cookies. Not really a place for an elf army to lay low. Trust me. Now, on to Plan B...”

“Cookies? She bakes?” Professor Birdsong asked, which was, of course, way off topic. Moira wondered if the whole planeful of people had just gone totally nutso.

“Yes, duh, of course she bakes: She’s a grandma,” Moira snapped. “Didn’t you hear anything I said?”

“We heard you,” Minou said softly. She had a real sad look on her face. She glanced at Birdsong, who looked at Nic, who studied his hands intently.

For a minute, there was complete silence. Moira felt positively infuriated. What the fuck?

“I think somebody ought to tell Moira,” Greg said into the silence, “about the House of Telcontar.”

#

“Yes, tell me.” What? Tell her what? Moira wasn’t a hundred percent sure she wanted to know.

“Greg, what was the title of the account of the Great War?” Minou asked, perching on the arm of Birdsong’s chair. Her nearness seemed to bother him slightly. Greg’s soft smile widened.

“Lord of the Rings,” Greg answered.

“Right. Moira, did you read Lord of the Rings?” Minou asked.

“Saw the movie,” Moira said stiffly.

“They made a movie of it?” Minou grinned down at Birdsong. “Why, Lasgalen, you are famous.”

Strangely, Professor Birdsong seemed a little embarrassed. He didn’t blush but looked like he wanted to. He took a long sip of the coffee.

“They even got a blond actor,” Greg supplied helpfully.

“No! Really? How did they know? I mean, all the songs were about the raven-haired elf princesses ... Luthien and Arwen and the like.”

“Well, there was a description of Thranduil in one of the books...” Leo piped up.

Minou opened her mouth to continue; it was obvious she’d really warmed to this topic, to the exclusion of all others. Moira couldn’t figure out which she wanted more: to encourage this giddy chatter and protect her grandmother from an invasion of hunted elves, or to learn once and for all what the hell was going on.

In the end, it didn’t matter, because Nic spoke up.

“Yo! Everybody. Telcontar?” All discussion of songs and movies and blondes ceased. Minou’s grin faded; Professor Birdsong set his empty coffee cup on the narrow side table. The warmth in the cabin fled.

“Ah, right,” the Professor said. A shadow settled in his eyes, and he looked up at Minou, who was still standing. “Would you like to tell her, or shall I?”

“Go ahead. I took the last generation.”

From the fleeting look of distress that passed over Birdsong’s face, Moira guessed there was a side story here. Big surprise.

“Ahhhh.... just so,” the professor said mildly, not rising to the bait. He turned to Moira and smiled slightly. “You remember the King in the Return of the King?” Moira nodded, and he continued, “Well, that king ruled the realms of Gondor and Arnor, and when he died he was succeeded by his son Eldarion, who in turn was succeeded by his nephew. This family became known as the House of Telcontar. The third king of the house was named Eldolen.”

It felt like Moira’s blood turned to ice. Eldolen. A family name. Nic’s. Grandma’s. Hers.

“Through the millennia, the descendents of Eldolen have fought alongside elves. We have treasured their friendship, and protected them as much as we could. But their courage has often meant sacrifices. We cannot ask for such things. But you can offer them, Moira, if you wish. It is up to you: You and Nicolas are the heirs of what remains of Gondor and Arnor.”

-------------

AN: Tolkien once wrote that he visualized Middle-earth as Europe, and Mt. Doom as Stromboli, a volcanic island that sits just off the north-eastern coast of Sicily.


Chapter 10 - The Breaking of the Fellowship

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Chapter 10: The Breaking of the Fellowship

-------------------------

Moira assessed her reflection in the jet lavatory mirror. It was bad.

The hair was fucked beyond all recognition: sections of it had stuck together and there wasn’t any prying them apart. Who knew that hair gel left in for more than 24 hours would go solid like that? Moira had finally rinsed the mop that once was hair in the lavatory basin and knotted it in back. It still looked like shit and wet pieces kept slipping free, but at least it wasn’t defying gravity.

The bigger tragedy was the dress: that gorgeous black party dress had wrinkled overnight like a fuckin Shar Pei, and it had stains in the pits. Eew. Moira felt stuck to the once slinky-soft fabric. This dress had never been intended for multi-day use without some major laundering in between. Still, Moira thought the makers might’ve put a warning on the label: “Not intended for chased-by-hell-spawn-creatures use. Dry clean only.”

She didn’t even want to think about all the stuff back in Nic’s apartment. Stuff that those asschair dudes had probably pawed through and slimed on. Her favorite Juicy jeans with the lace-up front. The best push-up bra ever. Her toothbrush. All as good as ditched. Well, at least if a girl was going to get stuck with only one pair of shoes, she couldn’t go wrong with strappy Manolo Blahnik sandals. That hurt like hell to run in.

Clenching a damp face-towel in her fist, she rubbed at the raccoon-smudges under her eyes. A tentative knock sounded on the narrow lavatory door. Moira tried to ignore it.

“Hey, Moira? You okay? Can I come in?” The voice was low, considerate. Gentle. Moira gritted her teeth and rubbed her face angrily.

The little door-latch thingy jiggled, and Moira turned and flashed a look at it. No lock. How could there be no lock? Was this a bathroom or what?

“I’m in the bathroom, do you mind,” she growled.

“So? Wouldn’t be anything I haven’t seen before,” the voice said. Shit. She could almost see the smile in his voice.

“A nice person would totally forget that factoid,” she snipped. Before she could react, the door unlatched and swung out. Leo slipped inside and latched the door behind him.

“Hey! You’re still dressed,” he observed, with a shiteating grin. As if he’d fully expected her to be stark raving nekkid. Moira frowned furiously and squeezed the face-towel. The lavatory was already a little cramped and humid, but with Leo in there, it felt like she was squashed into a marble-and-polished-wood clothes dryer. Whilst wearing a stinky, sticky dress. In an effort to create breathing space between them, Moira edged over and sat on the toilet lid. Leo grinned and folded his long arms loosely over his chest.

Silence stretched. Moira pursed her lips. She wasn’t about to say anything. Talking would just encourage him. She shook the face towel out, laid it flat over her knees, and began folding it primly into squares. Ignoring him completely. Maybe he’d get the idea.

“You okay, Moira?” he asked, after a while. Again, with the gentle voice, no longer laughing at her.

“Of course,” she said briskly. “What makes you think I’m not?” She focused on the towel, folding it into ever tinier sections.

“You’ve been in here almost an hour,” he replied.

Moira said nothing.

“And it sounded earlier like you were horfing.”

Moira’s head shot up, and she glared at him. “You were listening at the door? Oh, you are such a perv.”

Surprisingly, Leo wasn’t grinning. He looked genuinely concerned. Which summoned some unpleasant memories for Moira. If anything, her scowl deepened.

“I could hear because I was sitting in the chair right next to the lavatory,” he told her. “I don’t think anyone else heard.”

Moira swallowed and pursed her lips again. She felt alarmingly close to crying. Shit! And she’d just spent the last half hour convincing herself that she could fucking handle this. Heir of the Whoosiwhatsit Realm et cetera. Hunted by pissy knife-wielding assassins. Sure. No biggie.

“Yeah, well you can just ...”

Leo pinned her with a gaze. She vaguely remembered that stare from Abby Greenblat’s party. It was one of the very few things she remembered from that night. She felt her face heating with embarrassment and hated herself for it.

“Moira, just let it out. You don’t have to do this alone,” he said. Soft, genuine, almost like he really cared.

Moira didn’t want to give in. And for-sure not to Leo. But she really did feel overwhelmed. Despite all the lip-pursing and frowning, she felt tears swell against her eyelids. She blinked, trying to maintain control. She closed her eyes, as if the fact that she couldn’t see the blur of her own tears made them somehow less real. But after a long moment, she felt the inner dam burst, and she just couldn’t stop it any more.

She didn’t even notice careful fingers in her hair, pushing errant strands out of her damp face. Moira didn’t resist. Nor did she flinch when he pulled the towel from her lap and wiped her face. She heard her own loud sniffles.

“I guess... I just keep hoping that I’ll wake up from all this. Think, ‘Whoa, I must’a drank too much last night’ and it’ll all be a weird, horrible stupor dream.”

“Which part has been the worst?” he nudged gently.

Moira thought about it. What was the worst part... Being chased by knife-wielding assassins? Losing her Gucci luggage in New Orleans? For-sure missing her physics mid-term on Monday? Being stuck in a lavatory with Leo? Or finding out that -- surprise! -- she was a major player in a global and secret war that involved elves?

“Not knowing,” she answered at last. “I fucking hate it that everybody else seems to know exactly what’s going on. I mean, they all knew who I was before I knew. How’s that supposed to make me feel, huh? I may act blonde sometimes, but I do have half a brain, you know. Why couldn’t they just tell me right off? Do they think I’m that f-fucking c-clueless?” The tears were back, but Moira swiped at them angrily with the back of her hand.

“They were trying to protect you, I think,” Leo said. He sank to his haunches in front of her, filling the slight space between them. For the first time in a long time, Moira felt no annoyance. Yeah, this was Leo. And yeah, she thought he was utter slime. But he was being really nice right now. She vaguely recalled that he’d been awfully nice at Abby’s party, too. Before the lemon-drops and table dancing, anyway.

“Yeah, well, I wish they’d just stop. Am I part of this Telcontar family or what? Warrior house ‘n’ shit, right? So you’d think I’d be all Xena Warrior Princess or something.” Moira drew herself up and stood. She felt a rush of strength, like all the generations of Telcontar warriors might actually have donated a scrap of courage. And all she had to do was pick it up and use it.

Leo leaned back on his heels and eyed her speculatively for a moment. He seemed to be looking for something in her face, and when he found it, he pulled a snarky smile. “Well, you would look hot in one of those leather bustiers,” he informed her.

“Don’t even go there,” Moira warned, looking down at Leo and suddenly remembering her beef with him.

“Where? Why is it that every time I flirt a little, you go all SuperBitch on me? I don’t mean anything by it, Moira,” he said. He waggled one eyebrow provocatively. How did he do that?

“Maybe it has something to do with that night at Abby Greenblat’s,” she snipped, remembering vividly why she didn’t like him.

Leo looked puzzled. “But, Moira, I thought you li...”

Moira never heard the rest of that thought. Because Fate -- or, more likely, Minou -- chose that very moment to yank the plane onto its side. The jet dove and spun, pulling Gs, and Moira lost her footing, slamming her elbow into the marble basin. Right before she collapsed on top of Leo.

#

“Moira! Let me in! Are you okay??” That was Birdsong at the lavatory door. Moira could see the door latch jiggling. And she could hear his voice, urgent and rough. But when she tried to reach for the latch, her arm stuck. It took her a few seconds to realize that one arm was jammed between Leo and the toilet, and the other was draped awkwardly underneath the paper dispenser.

Underneath? Why was it ...

Holy shit, the plane was sideways! Moira was just about to scream, but then the floor started moving, and she realized that she wasn’t really lying on the floor. She was lying on top of Leo. And her skirt had caught on the flusher handle on the way down (the way sideways?)... at any rate, her entire dress was ripped up the side. Oh, this wasn’t going to look good. Moira really didn’t want Birdsong to see her like this. With Leo.

“I’m just fin...” she began. But her breath caught mid-“fine”: In one smooth movement, Leo put an arm around her waist, set his back against the marble counter top and slid up, pulling her up with him. She should have known by his grin that he was up to something. But her brain was moving too slowly to stop him. She heard the door open, knew Birdsong was right there, and still couldn’t figure out what was going on.

That was when Leo kissed her.

Oh, not a real kiss. Not a suck-in-the-breath-cause-this-is-the-big-one kind of liplock. Just a brush of lips across hers. And another grin. The shit. He’d made sure Birdsong had seen it, too. But before Moira could protest or lay into him, Leo was handing her over to Birdsong. Just like nothing had happened.

The fleeting look on Birdsong’s face reminded Moira of his fury during that spat with Minou earlier. But the expression passed in a moment, and Moira couldn’t be sure she’d even seen it. Birdsong took her arm firmly, pulling her into the main cabin of the plane. He steadied his hands against her waist and urged her forward. Only forward was really sideways. Literally walking on the rubber strip between the paneling and the carpet, Moira battled wonky angles and vertigo all the way back to her chair.

“You need put your seatbelt on right now,” Birdsong told her calmly.

“What’s happening?” Moira asked. She glanced around, noting that the others were all belted in with over-the-head-and-across-the-chest harnesses. Ali’s knuckles shone white on her chair arm. Greg had his thumbs hooked into his harness, and he shifted between utterly calm and squirrel-nervous: typical Greg. Minou had disappeared again, and Moira wondered if she was a pilot or something.

“We’re under attack,” Birdsong explained.

Like some bizarre moment out of a Tom Clancy movie, Moira heard Minou’s voice drift in from the cockpit, issuing orders to her pilot: “Set 35 mils in the gunsight, go to ARM on those missiles, and set the centerline tank to blow off.” Moira couldn’t make sense of it, and didn’t even try.

Under attack. Again. Joy! Moira slid into the harness, secured it, curled her fingers over the chair arms, and held on for dear life.

“Ass-charn?” Moira asked the professor, trying to come off as very cool about this. Despite the fact that she was no longer entirely sure which way was up. And the plane apparently couldn’t decide on just one angle.

“Not this time, I’m afraid,” Birdsong answered. Moira scowled. Figure it to be something else she didn’t have a clue about.

Almost as if he read her mind, Greg spoke up, raising his voice over the thin air and roar of engines: “Dragons.”

No way. No fucking way. Moira was just about to point out that she had read that book, and the dragons died off in the first age, thank you very much. But then the plane lurched -- again -- and Birdsong even had a tough time keeping his balance. Which was saying a lot. Moira had never realized that being elfy meant having really wicked coordination. He made it look like some kind of raked-stage ballet as hopped from the side of one chair to the next, until he was back in his seat by the emergency exit.

“You mean dragons, like the flying, fire-breathing kind?” Nic asked, obviously having his own struggle getting his mind around this latest development. Moira felt strangely comforted by her cousin’s obvious confusion and distress. At least she wasn’t the only one confused as hell.

The plane hurked left; engines screamed. Moira clenched her teeth hard to keep from screaming in harmony.

“No,” said Alicia, very calmly. “These don’t breathe fire, or at least not enough to harm us. The great dragons are long gone. Of course, any dragon is dangerous.” Her voice had settled into a strange cadence totally at odds with the crazy angle of the plane and the thunder of jet engines.

Birdsong muttered something under his breath, and Moira stretched to hear it. But the plane banked again -- to the right this time -- and then Minou called back from the cockpit, interrupting all possible thought.

“Lasgalen, I need missiles! Damn urulóki are out of just range of the cannons.”

Birdsong nodded once and wrenched his leather seat backwards, so that it was facing the low teak sidebar. He slid his long hands under the lip of the paneling and nudged something there. The glossy surface rose, separated, and revealed a sleek control panel. Birdsong set his hands lightly on a pair of joystick-looking devices.

“Do you see them?” Minou’s voice streaked back.

Birdsong didn’t reply out loud, but he nodded almost imperceptibly, and one hand moved slightly on the control. The plane lurched, rolled, and thunder echoed from the left side, near the wing. Moira wrenched her head around to look out the oval window, and she saw a trail of white smoke streaking back to something behind them. Had they just fired a missile? At a fucking dragon??

Wiggling in her harness, Moira looked beyond the white streak, peering in to the painful bright sky until her eyes watered. But, just before the plane juked again, she saw it. Or rather, part of it. Just the tip of a leathery wing, beating furiously in the thin air. It passed over the white contrail of the missile, unwittingly maneuvering smack into the path of certain death. Just that wing was easily as big as her cute yellow Volkswagon beetle. And it was impossibly close to the plane. It could reach out one of those long talons and swipe...

Moira swallowed a wild keening that rose in her throat. The dragon dripped below her window, and she wondered if it was dead. She hoped it was dead. She’d never been so freaked out in her life.

“Scratch one dragon on the port side,” Birdsong said, almost as if he were calling a cricket match. Moira forced herself to breathe.

The air thinned, and the hair on Moira’s forearms pricked. She wondered how many silent conversations were whiffing through the air around her. She felt very left out and vulnerable.

And suddenly very, very pissed.

Pissed at reality, at her situation, at the fact that she couldn’t do anything to rescue her own damn self. She was also pissed at Birdsong for letting her take his farqin class in the first place. And at Nic for boinking an elf and not even bothering to tell her. Of course at that shit Leo for kissing her. In front of Birdsong. Oh, and last but not least: utterly and humongously pissed at the leather-winged monster that was attacking them this time: dragon, goblin, four-leaf clover. She didn’t much care which particular mythical creature had decided to mess with her today, but she wanted very badly to kick its ass.

And then, cutting through her fury and confusion: “Shh, Moira,” came the soft voice in her head. Sparkling and cool, like a sun shower. “This will be over soon.”

She struggled to turn her head -- the Gs were now pressing her back against the seat so hard her sinuses felt like they were on fire -- and looked over at Greg. He was staring back steadily, and she knew without a doubt that it was his voice in her head. Making her blood tingle and her breath come fast.

“I’m not scared,” she thought, half in wonder and half in defiance. Greg’s lips curled slightly, and his eyes crinkled at the edges. He smiled. Wait. Had she actually talked to him using her mind? Did she have mental powers? Well, it would make some sense, wouldn’t it, since her great-great-nth-grandma was an elf? Didn’t that king-dude marry an elf? Details from the movie blurred in her mind, but she thought the chick had pointy ears.

“That’s because you are a wonderous creature,” Greg said in her mind. And Moira saw the reflection of those words in his eyes. He meant it. She suddenly felt the air thicken in the cabin. It warmed, soothing her aching muscles, quelling her anger, dulling her panic. Making her feel, for the first time in days, perfectly safe.

Another missile ripped through the sky just beyond the jet cabin, and Moira felt the lurch of the plane as it climbed almost vertically, tearing blindly through the cloud ceiling. Something lit orange behind them, painting the clouds in garish colors.

“Impressive, Lasgalen,” came Minou’s voice, from the cockpit. “Another down, but I think their nasty little brother is coming around again.”

“We are out of missiles. Take us over 40,000. He cannot fly long at altitude -- the air is too thin. Your dark lord has not kept up with technology, it seems. Pity.” Birdsong’s voice roiled in the cabin, casual, almost as if he were chatting about subject-verb-object structures.

Moira’s sinuses screamed and her ears felt like they were exploding, but still the jet tore relentlessly upward. She gritted her teeth and kept staring into Greg’s fathomless eyes. That inexplicable feeling of safety webbed around her. Black lace edged her vision, burrowing inward. She felt light, insubstantial. Floating.

“Stay with me, Moira,” came Greg’s voice, out loud and from some distance.

Moira struggled to reply, but the black lace had woven tighter, and now all she could see was a pinprick of light, right in the center of her vision. Greg’s face was there. She wondered why he was out of his chair, how he could possibly stay on his feet when the jet was basically vertical. But then he was right next to her, pressing something over her face. Moira forced herself to breathe slowly and not panic.

“Gwonîn, help Nicolas. They can’t breathe,” Greg said, looking back over Moira’s shoulder. Moira blinked, felt movement, and in her periphery saw Leo scramble up the aisle toward Nic.

After an eternity or two, the sharp incline leveled off a little, but Greg still held the mask over her face. Moira heard some chatter from the cockpit, and Birdsong made a noise that could almost be described as a chuckle. Other voices filtered in as Moira’s vision returned to normal. But she didn’t bother translating them.

Greg still crouched beside her in the aisle; his hand rested on her shoulder. Moira took it without hesitating. She curled her fingers around his, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.

“All clear?” she heard Birdsong ask.

“Yes. We’re out of danger... for now,” said Minou, ducking back into the cabin. “I don’t have the last dragon on radar, and I can’t sense him either. But our plans have altered.” Moira opened her eyes slowly.

“What do you mean?” asked Nicolas.

“They’re tracking us, obviously. So we can’t just go straight to Finestra.” Minou darted a glance at Birdsong. Her face was full of meaning. “We’ll have to split up.”

---------------
In The Fellowship of the Ring I 2 The Shadow of the Past, Gandalf tells Frodo that, since the passing of Smaug, '...there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough...', so at least some dragons of this kind must have remained on Earth at that time. But they probably didn’t breathe fire.


Chapter 11 - Birdsong by Night

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Chapter 11: Birdsong by Night

-------------

Birdsong was in the shower, they’d been on the road all day, and Moira was bored. Bored, bored, bored. Any other night, she might have wandered down to the motel pool and done some laps in her skivvies. But a) she’d had a look at the “pool” on the way in and she was pretty sure there was shit growing in there, b) it was too cold to swim outside anyway, and c) Professor Birdsong had made her swear that she wouldn’t leave the room. He looked like a dude who took swears seriously, too.

Moira’d already chipped the remaining nail polish from her toenails, flipped through all the channels on the bolted-to-the-armoire tv, tried unsuccessfully to pick the lock on the minibar, and raided the tiny closet for an extra blanket and a towel to dry her damp hair. Birdsong had given her first crack at the shower, and it had felt divine.

Now, though, Moira was out of things to do. With a sigh, she rolled over and stared vacantly at her purse on the nightstand. It was her sole remaining possession, if one discounted the ruined party dress currently stashed behind the seat of Birdsong’s stolen pickup and the itchy WalMart-wear she currently sported. God, it was a good thing no one she knew was likely to see her here in the boonies of ... Alabama was it? She couldn’t remember the last state line sign they’d passed. That was probably a good thing, too.

Her eyes glazed over, and her mind drifted. In fact, she was so out of it that when her little black handbag started to move across the nightstand all by itself, Moira didn’t even bat an eyelash. Goody, she mused, either her purse was spontaneously levitating or she was hallucinating. Either way, she was probably fucked. Again.

So, bowing to the twisted whim of fate, Moira decided to let the purse continue its little trek. Maybe it was a sign. Yeah. Sign say, Wake up Moira: This is all just a sick dream brought on by equally sick fantasies of Professor Birdsong in the shower. Wet. Nekkid. With no available towels.

“Shut up, Brain,” she mouthed. But Brain paid no heed. After all, there was nothing wrong with fantasy. Every girl needed a good fantasy now and then. Like, say, the fantasy that she was happily toasted and back in her room at the co-op, and no hell-spawn creatures wanted to kill her, and her parents were safe at home someplace, and Nic had a normal non-elf girlfriend, and Greg had fashion sense, and ...

Unfortunately, Moira’s detailed discussion with her inner id was cut short when the purse reached the table edge, teetered dramatically, and fell with a plerp onto the thin motel carpet. The impact unlatched the main compartment, spilling the contents all over the floor. Moira just looked at the mess for a second. But then she forced herself to give a shit, rolled over to her stomach, hung her head and half of her body over the side of the bed, and began cleaning up.

A blinking red light made her pause, and it took her all of about five seconds to put two and two together. Red light. Phone. Duh. The purse hadn’t been getting all telekinetic after all. It was the phone. She’d switched the ringer over to vibrate when she’d gone in to the Red Room a lifetime or so ago, because hearing a ringer over club speakers just wasn’t gonna happen. And just now, someone must’ve called her, making the phone vibrate its little self right off the nightstand.

Big whew. Moira figured that she could use a few more non-supernatural, non-black-helicopter events in her life. She reached for the phone and thumbed to the incoming call log. The most recent number was unfamiliar, but Moira pressed Call and flipped over onto her back, staring at the ceiling.

After three rings, someone on the other end picked up.

“Hello?” Male voice, vaguely familiar.

“Hey. This is Moira. You just called me,” she said.

“Moira!” He said her name like it was a holy word, and her toes tingled a little. She knew right away who this was. “Are you all right?”

She smiled at the ceiling.

“Yeah, I’m good. We went to WalMart today so I could finally get out of that gawd-awful dress. I’m wearing corduroy, if you can believe it. It itches something hideous. Oh, and Birdsong lifted a car in Memphis. With a Swiss army knife and my student ID card. Did you know he could do that shit? Color me impressed.” She chattered on for a minute, knowing Greg wouldn’t have much to say. He rarely spoke anyway, but she could hear him breathing on the other end, and that was enough.

“So, who’d you end up with anyway?” she asked finally. Back at the plane, Greg had argued to stay with Moira when the group split up. There had been other arguments, too, the nastiest of which had been between Birdsong and Minou. It’d been in that weird th-sounding language, which had frustrated the hoohah out of Moira. In the end, Birdsong had grabbed Moira’s arm and yanked her along the tarmac. She had no idea who else had teamed up, or if everyone else had stayed together.

“I’m with Nic,” Greg told her now. “That’s how I got your mobile number.” Moira could tell that Greg was still on edge, but she was comforted by the knowledge he was with Nic. She remembered Greg’s fierce look back in New Orleans, and the way he held her hand on the plane. He just knew how to make other people feel safe, she decided. And she believed he knew a thing or two about keeping them that way, too.

“What about the others?” Moira asked.

“I have no idea.” She could almost feel Greg’s shrug on the other side. “I don’t know how to contact them, and I’m not even sure it’s safe to do so. Birdsong would probably filet me if he knew I’d called you.”

“Consider it our little secret,” Moira said. “I think he’s way overreacting anyway. Nothing has happened since we left Memphis. I mean, nothing dangerous or supernatural or vile. Oh wait, no: He did sing a lot of songs in the car.” She wondered if Greg could sense the eye-rolling she was doing now.

“We haven’t had any dangerous encounters either,” Greg said solemnly, obviously not picking up on her weak attempt at humor. “I think we’re okay for now. We’re keeping a low profile.”

“You mean you’re in disguise?” Moira queried, pitching her voice in dramatic masterpiece-theatre style.

“Yeah. Sort of,” Greg hedged. She could tell he didn’t want to give details, so her own sick mind filled in the blanks. Greg in drag. Nic dressed up as a lumberjack. Moira almost cracked herself up.

The phone connection fitzed, and Moira heard the sound of a distant electronic bell.

“Where’re you at?” she asked.

“Bus station. We’re Greyhounding down to Miami. From there, who knows. I have a few friends in the Caribbean, so maybe we can get there. What about you guys? I guess you drove out of Memphis....” Greg let his voice trail off.

“We’re someplace in the Deep South still,” Moira told him. “Alabama maybe, or Tennessee. I get all those southern states mixed up. Clerk at the WalMart even called me ‘ma’am’ if you can believe that shit. But anyway, some place with lots of fields, and ...cows.”

Greg laughed, and the weight of doom lifted for a moment.

“Yeah, you strike me as a girl who’s used to city life,” he chuckled, but then sobered a little. “This has to be hard on you...”

Moira heard the shower stop, and she pressed the phone closer to her face.

“Shit, I think Birdsong’s done with his shower. Gotta go; take care, and give Nic a hug for me,” she whispered into the mouthpiece.

“Shower?” Greg seemed unhappy with the thought, which made Moira grin again. “Well, er, okay. Please be safe, Moira,” he urged.

“Yeah. You too.” She pressed End before she was tempted to say anything else. Reaching a hand over the edge of the bed, she dropped the phone onto the pile of purse entrails and stared up at the ceiling. Even when she heard the little bathroom door open and knew Birdsong was right there, probably nekkid, she forced herself not to turn and sneak a peek. Oh, the self-control. Really, Moira was very proud of herself.

“You’re still here,” Birdsong observed. “Good girl.” Moira hoped he was teasing, but she sort of suspected he wasn’t. She knew he was worried, but he’d been ordering her around all day. It was getting on her nerves. She heard him open the little closet and poke around in their meager wardrobe.

“Good girl? If I beg, do I get a biscuit?” she returned, lacing her voice with sarcasm.

She saw movement, just a flash really, and by the time she focused, he was already tightening the white string on his sweatpants. Shitfuckgoddamn. Self-control, after all, was vastly overrated.

“Depends,” Birdsong said easily, and she was positive he was reading her thoughts right now. “Are you hungry?”

Moira’s mouth went dry. Had Dr. Birdsong, possibly the most gorgeous creature on the planet, just said something pervy? No, no, she must be misinterpreting.

“Bet yer boots I am,” she said.

#

Nearly 400 miles, eight pizzas, two hotel rooms, and thirteen gas stops later, Birdsong turned their stolen truck off the main highway and took a bumpy winding pseudo-road straight into the mountains.

Moira had never been this far away from civilization, but now she was so deep in hickville that even the cows were scarce. When night fell, she rolled the window down (manually: Birdsong hadn’t been thoughtful enough to lift a truck with power windows) and hung her head out. She had taken 6 hours of astronomy in college and now tried to remember her Drake equation variable for sun-like stars in the universe. This far away from artificial lights, it looked like she could see every single one of them.

She was a sucker for a starlit night, so she kept her head out the window as long as she could, and she wondered at Birdsong’s silence. He had been bitching at her to stay safe for days, and even Moira knew that hanging half out of a truck going around 60 on a dirt road was dangerous.

Finally she gave up trying to bait him into another reprimand. He was no fun tonight anyway. She pulled her head back in, though she didn’t roll the window up. Not yet.

“So when are you gonna tell me where we’re going?” she asked.

“When all the dark powers are vanquished and Arda is remade,” he replied sotto voce.

“Is that, like, never?” Moira rejoined. She knew this conversation; they’d been having the same one, more or less, for the last two days.

“Something like that,” Birdsong replied. “When are you going to stop asking me?”

“When asschairs stop chasing me and you stop acting like my dad and I know for sure that Nic is okay.”

“Touche,” the professor smiled, though he kept his eyes on the road.

“No seriously,” Moira continued. “I thought we did that whole split-up thing to throw those dragons off our scent or something. And we haven’t seen any dragons in days. I think we lost ‘em.”

Birdsong didn’t answer right away, but he slanted a strange look at her. After about half a mile, he dimmed the headlights and pulled the pick-up off the road. He drove it past the drainage ditch and deep into the tree line. Moira wasn’t even sure how he managed to fit it between the close-set trees without taking out either the truck or a good chunk of the forest.

When Birdsong cut the engine, Moira felt completely enclosed in the black forest. She didn’t dare stick her head out the window now, but if she had dared, she knew what she’d see: only black where the stars had been. The trees were that dense.

Birdsong turned to her on the bench seat. One long hand rested on the cracked vinyl between them, and Moira stared at it intently. His pale skin glowed in the stark darkness, but that no longer struck her as a weird thing. It just was: He was elf.

“Moira, we need to talk,” Birdsong said in a low, steady voice. “Our enemies have never been this good at tracking us. Over the years, Miren and I have developed some good methods of evading those who wish us harm. But this time, it is almost as if they had a homing beacon attached to us. Miren thinks that someone within our group betrayed us, but I have a different suspicion, one that I did not share even with her.”

“What’s that?” Moira asked, though her thoughts had hooked on to that word “betrayed.” She had a pretty clear idea of who might have done it. Dirtystinkincocksucker...

“Moira?” Birdsong’s voice cooled her anger in a word, and wrested Moira’s undivided attention. Her gaze traced the fine angles of his fingers, looking for the veins beneath. She couldn’t find any. Weird. Didn’t elves have blood?

“Uh huh.”

“You don’t happen to have anything in your possession… an heirloom of some sort?” he asked.

“Heirloom?” What the hell was he talking about? Moira forced herself to look up. “Well, let’s see. My mom’s vinyls of the White Album and Sgt. Pepper are in my room back at the co-op, strictly under lock and key. I think Grandma keeps some of dad’s old junk, but it’s nothing special.”

“Nothing else?” he pressed. “A piece of jewelry, perhaps?”

Moira’s eyes narrowed.

“Why?” she asked.

He stared at her for a long moment, and it seemed that his pale eyes noted everything. Her pulse, her soul, her memories, the smear of lipgloss on her tooth. Birdsong frowned slightly.

“No reason,” he said slowly. But Moira wasn’t about to let it go at that. That look had meant business: He wasn’t talking about vintage Fab Four or the silver trinket box her dad had sent her from Brasil when she was nine.

“Tell me,” Moira demanded. “I’m sick of everybody keeping secrets. I can handle it. Just tell me what you’re talking about.”

Birdsong sighed.

“There is a gem in your family, and Miren and I have long suspected that it has some meaning for our enemies. They have sought it in the past, and have shown that they are likely to murder for it. If you carried it, perhaps that would explain their ability to find us, and the risks they have taken in search of it.”

Moira knew exactly which gem he was talking about.

“The occhio della strega, you mean? The green stone?”

“The kings of old called it the Elessar.”

#


Chapter 12 - Over the Hill and Through the Woods

AN: Was that update quick enough, Rous? ;) Seriously, thanks folks for your incredible patience. I can't believe people are still reading. But I'm thankful for it.

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Chapter 12: Over the Hill and Through the Woods

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“Of course I don’t have it with me. Nobody carries around a 10-carat emerald just for the hell of it. What do I look like, a moron?” Moira paused, shifted her backpack, and flicked a stare at Birdsong in the dim moonlight. “Don’t answer that question.”

Moira’s breath was coming in thin puffs, her thigh muscles felt like they were on fire, and she figured it must be onward of 5 am because she was so tired she’d almost fallen asleep mid-stride several times. Plus her head kept flopping over to one side; without Birdsong’s intrepid lead, she probably would have ended up walking around in circles. But for the first time on this little adventure, Birdsong was the one asking the questions, and Moira had all the answers. That felt good.

After their little chat back by the roadside, Birdsong had loaded their supplies into a pair of cheap WalMart backpacks, locked the stolen truck (as if it mattered), and led the way up the hill. Only, that hill was beginning to look more like a mountain. Moira sighed deeply and tragically.

“Well, that’s comforting,” Birdsong said.

“What? That I don’t have the stone on my person?”

“No. That you aren’t a moron.”

Moira shot him a nasty look. She thought she saw a smile hovering around the edges of his mouth. Oh, this must be freakin hilarious to him. Grr. Moira resisted the urge to say something blazingly snotty. Instead she decided not to gift him with a reply at all. As expected, after a few thousand miles up the hill -- correction: mountain -- Birdsong finally got up the nerve to speak to her again. Moira decided to allow it.

“Have you ever seen it?” he asked. His voice sounded strange. Well, obviously it was irritatingly strange that he wasn’t the slightest bit out of breath, but even beyond that, he sounded odd. Tense. Distant.

“Oh, yeah. Grandma used hide it when Nic and I were kids, and we’d go looking for it. Kind of like hunting for Easter eggs, y’know. Nic almost always found it first. He lived on Finestra with Grandma, so he knew all the good hidey-holes.” Whew. Moira didn’t realize how tired she was until she tried to get a whole coherent thought out of her mouth. She put her hand against a tree for balance and paused to catch her breath. The breath turned into a yawn, and she didn’t even try to hide it.

Birdsong paused along with her, even though it was obvious he didn’t need to. The elf had really impressive endurance. Damn him. Birdsong slid his heavy pack down one bicep and unzipped the outer pocket. Moira watched his fluid movement and tried really hard not to yawn again. He lifted a water bottle out of his pack, unscrewed the plastic lid, and offered it to Moira. She took it with a mumbled thank-you, tipping her head back and taking a long swig. After the hike she’d just endured, plain water tasted like the nectar of the gods.

“Almost?” Birdsong queried. Moira had to mentally rewind to remember what he was talking about. Oh, right. The emerald-hunts in her grandma’s garden. Yeah. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and handed the bottle back. Birdsong took it but didn’t seem in a rush to move on. Moira closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the tree.

“Yeah. I guess it was the last time my mom and I went to Finestra together. I was thirteen and way too old to go egg-hunting. Nic wasn’t interested either. He had a girlfriend on the other side of the island, so I spent a lot of time by myself that summer. Fonkily enough, the stone just sort of showed up. I wasn’t even looking for it, really. I went down to the beach and climbed around on some rocks, and there it was. Poof. Almost like it found me.” Okay, Moira knew how stupid that sounded. Even stupider was the thing she hadn’t said: That day on the beach, she’d been sure that the stone was calling to her. Like, it even said her name in this sharp, nasty little voice. That was nuts, of course. She’d long since chalked it up to 13-year-old hormones and way too many Stephen King stories.

“You don’t say?” Birdsong said, again in that slow, careful, weird-sounding tone.

“Yeah. Completely whacked, eh?” Moira tried to gather enough air for a chuckle, but she wound up yawning again instead.

“Not at all. Your grandmother never told you the history behind that jewel, I suppose.” His voice seemed to slip into the natural rhythm of the forest and the night; Moira could no longer tell if he was standing in front of her or beside her, and she was too damn tired to open her eyes and tell for sure.

“Oh sure, the basic stuff. You know, like it kept driving Eldolens crazy until her grandmother tried to smash the sucker.” There were other, less pleasant stories about that stone and her family, of course. Moira figured she’d pretty much heard them all.

“Her name was Fabrizia,” Birdsong said. “Your great-great grandmother, that is. And she wasn’t born an Eldolen. She was from Rome. Her father was some sort of minor royalty, and she never let anyone forget it. Even after her son was born, she was always restless on the island, anxious to get back to her world. Her husband made her a gift of the elessar, hoping to win her affection, or at least her attention. She wore it often, until the voices drove her quite mad. Do you know that when she tried to crush it with a mining pick she struck it so hard that both her arms splintered? We did not find her until the following morning, and by then she was incoherent. Poor little one.”

This elf was born to tell stories, Moira thought. Every word from his mouth conjured an image in her mind. It sounded like one of those black-and-white art-house psychological horror flicks, the kind where everybody died in the end and it was supposed to mean something.

“Wait,” Moira mumbled, sliding down against the tree until she was sitting on the damp, leaf-pillowed ground. “Did you say something about... voices?”

“Yes,” replied Birdsong. Moira felt something soft against her forehead, and she wondered if it was his hand. Or his breath. Either way, a deep comfort settled over her. She hadn’t felt so at peace in days. Weeks. Months. A lifetime. Deft hands removed her backpack from her tired shoulders and set it beside her. She leaned over, using the lumpy pack as a pillow.

“When it speaks to you, Môina, what does it say?” he asked. Or maybe he didn’t. Moira was already so close to dreaming that she no longer knew if he spoke aloud or inside her head. Either way, that voice went right through her, like chocolate syrup swirled into vanilla ice cream until the whole mess just gave up and became chocolate. And Moira just couldn’t lie to chocolate.

“’t says that the stars remember, and that I oughta go home. What kinda hokey bullshit’s that?” Home, after all, was a four-letter word.

#

Moira felt chilled all over, but there was one especially cold spot, right above her left ear, kind of moving in her hair and tickling that sensitive behind-the-ear skin. She swatted at it drowsily, using her best half-dream-half-awake logic to guess that it might be a raindrop. Or a bird poop. Or a dollop of slobber from a mountain lion that was pondering having her for breakfast. Or, god-please-no, a spider.

It was the last thought that woke Moira up finally. She’d drawn breath for a scream, but she swallowed it as soon as she moved. ‘Cause the moment she sat up, that cold spot flared with sudden pain, and she winced. She might have muttered something curse-worthy under her breath. Her eyes flew open, but somewhere in between Birdsong’s dreamy bedtime storytelling and right now, the goddamn sun had come up. With a vengeance. It blinded Moira for a minute, and she felt completely disoriented.

“Jus git up now, real slow an’ easy,” somebody said in a gawd-awful accent, right up there with fingernails on chalkboards and the Barney song. No way that voice belonged to Birdsong. But if that wasn’t him, then where the hell was he? Had he scouted ahead, or had he finally gotten sick of her and just left her out here in the forest, alone, with... well, with what, exactly?

Moira’s eyes finally focused, and she realized that the, er, cold spot was in fact a gun barrel pressed firmly against her skull. Okay, bad. Now worse: On the other end of the gun stood a really short fat guy in overalls and baseball cap with a faded NASCAR logo on the brim. Even after she stared for a while, Moira couldn’t make out the guy’s features clearly: most of the bottom half of his face was furred over by a thick black beard so long he’d had to tucked it into his belt.

Moreover, he did not look pleased. At all. Well, fuck, thought Moira.

She slowly forced her stiff body into a sitting position, always keeping her hands in the air just like the criminals (or victims, whatever) she’d seen on TV. Part of her brain realized that she really ought to be scared shitless. She was, after all, stranded alone in a strange forest in the Deep South, held at gunpoint by a miniature Jed Clampett. How much more nightmarish could her life get? Still, in the last few days she’d seen some pretty scary stuff, so Jed here barely fazed her.

“Look mister, I don’t want any trouble,” she said, pleased that her first-thing-in-the-morning voice wasn’t nearly as slurred as usual. Score one positive for this life of minimal booze and still less sleep.

“Shet yer trap or Ah’ll...”

“You’ll what... shoot me? Go right ahead. I mean, fuck, mister, getting shot in the ear can’t possibly be worse than being swatted by dragons or chased by hellspawn. You’re just a little man with a bad accent. Pardon me while I totally don’t give a shit.” Well, then. That ought to do it, one way or the other. Moira leaned back over to the side, fluffed her very unfluffy backpack, closed her eyes, and tried to go back to sleep.

Low laughter oozed down from somewhere above her. She opened one eye, and then the other. She scowled. She knew that laugh.

So, apparently, did the little dude. He lowered the gun and looked up. The bushy beard moved; Moira thought there might be a smile somewhere in there.

“Well, looky here!” the guy with the gun beamed.

Moira rolled over on her back, still with her head on the pseudo-pillow, and gazed upward. Because of course that’s where he’d be. What was it with elves and trees? Duh, Birdsong was crouched on a limb about 20 feet up, defying gravity all over the place; he looked down at her and grinned. Well, she thought, at least he didn’t wave.

“You’ll have to forgive Moira,” Birdsong explained, turning back to their rude little visitor. “She has had a difficult few days and can be testy even at the best of times.” The hairy guy with a gun nodded sagely. Then they both fell serious and slipped into that th-language, that very same one that everybody on the planet except Moira seemed to know backwards and forwards.

Great. Awake three minutes and the morning was already frustrating as hell. Plus she’d used the word “fuck” already. Twice. Not a good sign. Moira sighed. Loudly.

Birdsong and the little guy both stopped talking. Almost as if they’d forgotten about her during their little chat but now suddenly realized that she was still there. Moira couldn’t tell -- and didn’t give a rat’s ass, anyway -- what the gun-toting dude was thinking, but Birdsong looked sort of guilty. Good. ‘Bout time. She stared up at him, through the leaves, and raised her eyebrows. His response was to leap to the ground. Yeah, from 20 feet up. He landed like a cat on the damp-leaf carpet beside her. Was he not using the same gravity she was using?

“I’m sorry, Moira. Harald is an old friend, and we have not seen each other for a very long time. I did not mean to leave you out of our conversation.” Birdsong reached down and gently tugged the strap of her backpack. Moira scowled but sat up, letting him heft the pack. She yawned once more, ran a hand through her hair, noting with some disgust that there were leaves sticking out of her braid. She didn’t even want to think of what she looked like.

When Birdsong reached out a hand to help, Moira thought about scowling again, or at least saying something rude. But in the end, she decided not to do either of those things. She let him pick the shit out of her hair like a good little monkey. Finally Birdsong stepped back, assessed her appearance with narrowed eyes, then he smiled again.

“Che bella!” he pronounced. As far as compliments went, it was about the suckiest she’d ever gotten, and it so totally wasn’t deserved (she knew she looked like hell this morning), but still it warmed her all the way to her toes. She was blushing -- seriously, blushing -- by the time Birdsong turned back to ... Harald, was it? Birdsong introduced them, cleverly not bringing up the fact that Harald had been pointing that gun at her just minutes ago.

“A pleasure, Miss Moira,” he muttered. Moira raised her eyebrow.

“No more with the gun, right? ‘Cause you could hurt somebody with one of those things,” she grumped.

“Oh no, it’s mostly for show, a good face for the locals, you understand. Please accept my apologies,” Harald assured her. He was smiling and nodding, very different from the nasty little troll that had wakened her...

“Hey... where’d your accent go?” It wasn’t like she was especially sharp in the morning, so it took her a while to notice.

“Oh that, well, it’s part of the persona, much like the shotgun. We are in West Virginia, after all,” he explained. So it was all in the name of fitting in? Somehow, Moira doubted it. Harald looked way too comfortable with a gun in his hands; she was willing to bet he was hiding something. Moira decided to keep an eye on him, even if he was Birdsong’s bud.

#

The walk back to Harald’s place was mercifully short. Moira’s legs hadn’t recovered yet from the midnight hike up the mountain, but at least walking in the daylight meant she could get a good view of the surroundings. It was awfully peaceful up here. She got the sense that this land was off-limits for most folks, probably for miles around. She didn’t see any sign of a road or electrical lines. About the only things moving in among the trees this morning were bugs, furries, Birdsong, Harald, and her. Well, that was unless you counted Harald as one of the furries.

Harald, Birdsong had explained patiently as they walked, was not a bumpkin. He was a dwarf. Uh huh. Elves, dwarves, dragons... whatever. She just wanted a shower.

They skirted some underbrush -- Moira had to duck some low branches, but noted that Harald did not -- and came sort of abruptly up to a pale yellow, cheerful-looking double-wide stuck up against the mountainside. Somebody had built a nice deck/front porch, and a welcome mat invited visitors to “Speak friend and enter.” Harald led Birdsong and Moira through the front door and set his shotgun carefully in a cabinet by the fireplace. Light poured through bright chintz curtains, the unmistakable smell of bacon wafted in from a kitchen off the main room, and hand-knotted rugs littered the polished wood floor. Moira felt some of her irritation ease. No way Harald could keep corpses or dark lords stashed in a place like this.

“Are the two of you traveling alone, or should I expect... someone else?” Harald asked solicitously. Moira noted that little pause and wondered who he was talking about. If he’d known Birdsong as long as all that, did Harald also know Minou?

“We are alone,” Birsdsong confirmed. “No one else knows where we are. Miren believes that our secrets are compromised and that the enemy is moving. Already.”

Harald nodded; the beard scruffed against his overalls. “The Lady is wise to be cautious,” he said. “I have also noticed some alarming patterns in the movements of our enemies, very unlike their typical cycles. Care to take a look? Or shall we have breakfast first?”

Moira voted for breakfast; Birdsong voted for info. Harald broke the tie, and they sat down to sausage, bacon, and fried eggs in Harald’s homey little blue-and-white kitchen. Moira could have kissed the hairy little guy. Well, she could’ve if she hadn’t been so busy shoving food into her mouth. Other than pizza, ding dongs, and slurpees, she hadn’t eaten in days, and she seriously doubted her grandma would consider slurpees real food anyway. She silently blessed the dwarf and took back all the bad thoughts she’d had about him just because he’d almost shot her this morning. Hey, anybody could make a mistake. Moira decided to live and let live.

The sausage was also heavenly.

“Dierdre is here,” Harald announced, when there were only two slices of bacon left and Moira was sure she couldn’t fit another forkful in her belly.

Instead of replying, Birdsong inclined his head. He didn’t seem particularly surprised.

“She arrived the day before yesterday,” Harald continued, “and she brought some personal effects you’ve probably missed. She was eager to leave for Europe, to secure your interests there, but I urged her to delay.” Harald dabbed at his beard with the corner of his napkin.

“Thank you, my friend. She will not like staying behind, but I think it is the only way.” Birdsong’s voice was crisp, and Harald raised a hairy eyebrow.

“So you mean to leave soon, then?”

“Yes,” Birdsong answered. “I cannot let Miren go it alone. Not again. And I believe that your defenses here will be safe enough for Moira, especially with Dierdre as reinforcement...”

“Oh no,” interrupted Moira, dropping her spork and almost choking on her sausage. “You are so not ditching me!”

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Chapter 13 - Princess Under the Mountain

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Chapter 13: Princess Under the Mountain

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Right then, at that tense moment during breakfast when Birdsong announced that he was planning to abandon Moira there in the sticks with dwarf-Harald and Safari-Barbie-Dierdre[tm], something very strange happened with Harald’s pantry.

The narrow slatted doors swung open all by themselves, racks of canned tomato juice and maraschino cherries slid soundlessly to the side, and Dierdre stepped out into the kitchen. Just like that. Moira figured that there probably wasn’t enough room in the pantry for Dierdre to have been hiding in there this whole time, so Moira deduced that must be a hidden passage behind the green beans. Kick ass.

“Dierdre!” Birdsong grinned, standing up. “You are safe.”

Dierdre reached out, touching her fingertips to Birdsong’s cheekbone. And then -- Moira wasn’t making this up -- Dierdre opened her mouth and called Birdsong a melon. Or was it “melony”? Odd, either way. He didn’t particularly look like a fruit, but then, you never could tell with elves.

Birdsong completely overlooked the mention of melons.

“For now we all seem to be safe,” Dierdre went on, slanting her eyes to Moira and smiling slightly. Moira wondered what all that was about. She’d never pegged Dierdre as liking her all that much, but who knew. “I have been in touch with our scouts, but no one has uplinks like Harald. This seems really the best spot for preparing a defense. Coming here was a good move, Lasgalen.”

Birdsong looked far too pleased with himself, Moira thought. Harald just raised his bushy eyebrows, as if he were suspicious of the veiled compliment of his... uplinks, was it? Poor little hairy dude, Moira thought: He probably didn’t get many compliments. Moira felt oddly like patting his furry head.

“Speaking of the monitoring equipment,” Harald said. “Shall we show Moira my office? Sometimes it’s easier to understand what we’re up against when you can see all the data.” He gestured toward the pantry.

Moira didn’t hesitate. She’d always wanted to use a secret passage in a castle, of course, but she could make do with a secret passage in a double-wide.

#

Harald had a bat cave. Really. The yawning back of the pantry led to a short hallway and a stainless steel door. Birdsong passed his hand over the steel, muttered a word, and waited for the door to whisper open. Moira, Harald, Birdsong, and Dierdre stepped into the elevator, and just before the door closed, Moira could see the pantry door slide shut and the lights in the short hallway flicker dark.

The elevator whisked them upward so fast that Moira’s ears popped. Her stomach, newly stuffed with sausage, lurched uncomfortably. Urgh. But she didn’t have time to complain, because almost before she could open her mouth, the cabin stopped its upward hurl and that stainless door opened again. Moira felt a warm hand at the small of her back, and she stepped out into the room.

Circular, cool, dimly lit, banked with monitors and other electronic equipment, and with a ceiling so tall she couldn’t see it. No doubt about it: this was Harald’s very own Bat Cave.

Moira started to her right, noting all the flashing blips and beckoning buttons. She liked buttons. Her fingers settled on a few, but she didn’t press anything. Especially not the red one.

The rest of the party had gathered in the center of the room, and Moira heard a fizzing/humming sound behind her. She turned to see a three-dimensional hologram of the Earth materialize out of light-bits, not unlike that hologram shit from Star Wars. Moira touched her tongue to her upper lip and edged closer. The more she got to know him, the more she sincerely respected Harald’s toys.

Birdsong and the others were focused on South America, where a whole shitload of bitty red lights clustered. Dierdre lisped into that th-sounding language for a while; the globe rotated, and Harald pointed to Siberia, again at a gaggle of lights, this time blue ones. They all chattered some more. Moira cleared her throat, and Birdsong looked up. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, as if to say, “In English, please.” Birdsong nodded and turned back to the globe.

“It is peculiar,” Birdsong mused, sliding into English. “It would seem that they have forces enough to mount a full-out war. But they have only had half a century to amass this strength, not nearly enough time. They have never been able to restructure so quickly.”

“Tecnhology,” Harald said, as if that one word explained everything. “You don’t think we’re the only ones who can turn on a computer, do you? They’ve been nosing at my system for months, and each assault is more sophisticated than the last. Eitri Junior has been prowling the network for the last year, discouraging intruders. I have motion detectors up at my perimeters, and those too have been tested. They must believe that I house something vital here.” He chuckled, but Moira felt a chill.

“You may not have guarded precious things before,” Birdsong replied evenly, “but I hope I can persuade you to do so in the future.”

“Moira, you mean?” Harald grinned. Moira thought he winked at her.

“Yes. And I hope Dierdre will stay here as well.” Birdsong pinned Dierdre with a long look when he said this, and Moira wondered if the two elves were chatting silently. By the serious looks on both their faces, she figured they might be.

“No,” Dierdre said, after a long pause.

“No?” Birdsong repeated. Moira was willing to guess that Dierdre didn’t defy him all that often.

“No,” Dierdre repeated. “I am leaving tomorrow. I have another commitment.”

“Our leaders are at Finestra,” Birdsong reminded her. “It is from there that we will mount our counteroffensive. I must join Miren there immediately and begin planning. I had hoped you would stay here to watch over Moira.”

“Miren can do this on her own, Lasgalen. She crossed the Helcaraxe without your help. She is far from fragile,” Diedre told him. “And I had no intention of going to Finestra. That may be the Eldolen stronghold, but there are other sacred spots that deserve to be protected.”

The globe rotated again, and Dierdre turned to it. Her hand hovered above it, indicating a region in central Europe. Moira wasn’t that sure of her geography, but she thought it might be Germany. Dierdre’s fingers moved almost imperceptibly, a caress of the insubstantial light.

“He is no longer there,” Birdsong told her.

“Yes, I know,” Dierdre replied. “I swore to him that I would look after you, and I have never broken that promise. But the borders of his realm grow weak. None of our kindred there are able to take form and fight, and you know their fëar will shine brightly in the coming darkness. Our enemies know they are there, helpless. After Finestra falls and the world is theirs, how hard will it be for them to destroy the forest once and for ever?”

Birdsong did not reply. His bright eyes fixed resolutely on the flickering image beneath Dierdre’s hand.

“Please don’t ask me to abandon them,” she whispered, still staring intently at the globe.

“I cannot. I love them, too,” Birdsong looked like it took a lot for him to say that.

Dierdre looked up at him; her eyes shimmered in the low light. She moved her hand then, raising it again to Birdsong’s face, like she had in the kitchen. This time it seemed like a benediction. She smiled.

“You are a good son,” she told him. Her fingers moved slightly, brushing his brow. Birdsong closed his eyes.

Soundlessly, Dierdre moved to the elevator, and with a hiss of the door, she was gone.

#

Moira tried real hard not to look at Birdsong. He was obviously dealing with some serious shit, and though Moira thought about hugging him or something, nothing she could think of seemed appropriate. He was her teacher, her mentor. A hug just didn’t seem respectful enough. She wondered absently when she’d stopped thinking of him as The Hawt and started thinking of him as a sort-of uncle type.

Moira caught Harald’s eyes. Harald raised a single bushy eyebrow. Moira shrugged. Harald flicked a switch, and the globe fuzzed into oblivion. The thick pathos in the room also dissolved, which made Moira a little less uncomfortable. She could have kissed Harald at that moment.

Harald cleared his throat loudly. “Well, if they're alert again after so short a while, and if it's not just because they have keen new computers, it must be that English linguist's fault,” he declared roundly.

Birdsong shook his head, crawling back out of whatever funk he’d just been in. “You mean Jack? Oh, surely not,” he said. He turned away from the elevator door and took a breath, shrugging off an invisible memory.

“He did publish the Red Book and expose us all to the world of Men,” Harald noted. Moira had to search her brain to figure out what Harald was talking about. She’d heard about a Red Book, she was sure of it. All she had to do was remember…

“But his account included rampant errors and wholly fabricated parts! After reading it, I thought it would do more to confuse our enemy than anything else. Besides, what is done is done.”

Aha! That’s what it was. Greg had said something about a Red Book of Westsomething back when they were doing all that elf-research at the university student union. God, that seemed like so long ago. Moira tried to remember exactly what the Red Book was, but, frustratingly, all she could remember was Greg’s dizzying plaid jacket over striped tee-shirt combo. Had she ever told him how lousy his fashion sense was?

“You could have stopped him,” Harald groused.

“No,” Birdsong said. “The book was not mine to give. And Lena was far too fond of him.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” Moira interjected, suddenly shoving aside the mental image of Greg’s shirt and fitting her mental puzzle pieces together. “My Grandma knew the Tolkien dude?”

“Of course,” Birdsong replied. “You didn’t think he made all that up on his own, did you?”

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Transmission logged: 27 March 17:23 EDT
Subject: Moira Eldolen to Gregory Macnair [Obvious, isn’t he?]
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You have one new message:

"Hey. This is Moira. It's boring as hell here under the mountain -- I did tell you that I'm living in a mountain with a dwarf named Harald, right? Well, anyway, I just called to say hi and I'm bored off my ass and Birdsong ate the last of the peanut butter and Harald says it's, like, 50 miles to the nearest grocery. How can anybody live like this? Ugh. But I'm safe and generally well-fed, and Dierdre was here for a while but didn't say a damn thing about my midterm. You know she's graded those things by now, the skank. So anyway, take care. Smooch Nic for me. Oh, well, maybe not. He might take it the wrong way, and I don't think Minou would appreciate the competition. [laughter] 'Bye!"

---------------------
Transmission logged: 27 March 18:01 EDT
Subject: Gregory Macnair to Moira Eldolen
---------------------

Beep:

"Moira, I got your message. Thanks for the update. Nic and I are at your Grandma's, and so far things are quiet here. [voices in the background] Dierdre says to tell you that you got an A on the midterm. Congrats. I can't talk long, but Moira [now in a lower voice] please stay safe. I miss you."

---------------------
Transmission logged: 29 March 11:18 EDT
Subject: Moira Eldolen to Gregory Macnair
---------------------

First saved message:

"Yes! I found the peanut butter! Is't in the laundry room on Level 2. Did you know he keeps spare grenades in there, too? That Harald thinks of everything. I told him how freakin bored I was, so now I'm assigned to nighttime monitoring. How's that for super-spy 007-type shit? Just call me Mrs. Peel. Oh, hey: You're on Finestra, right? I think the satellite passes over at about 10 a.m. your time. So step outside and wave at me, 'k? And speaking of, that's why I called: there's an info packet uploading to Grandma's server right now. It's got all kinds of Harald-type files, tracking estimates 'n shit. Turns out we didn't get that dragon after all. Little fucker made it all the way down to Guatemala, where he's holed up with some other nasties. I don't even wanna know what Harald had to stick where so he could track those things. Ick. Anyway, take care. And don't forget to wave!"

Second saved message:

"I saw you! [squealing noise] This satellite shit is so smooth! But what did you do to your hair?! Don't get me wrong: I like it. Just have to get used to it, I guess. Well, um, Imissyoutoo. ‘Bye.”

---------------------
Transmission logged: 5 April 22:43 EDT [Why the lapse in records? We seem to be missing quite a few transmissions. And there’s nothing else in here from “Greg.” Is he blocking us?! Note this in report to Feroul.]
Subjet: Moira Eldolen to Gregory Macnair
---------------------

You have one new message:

“I got your message. Um, yes. So anyway, what else is going on ... Oh! Harald's been teaching me Sindarin, that fonky sounding language that Birdsong and Minou use. You know which one I'm talkin' about? Harald says they used to call it the ‘Noble Tongue.’ I told him in that case some of the frat guys back at school could use lessons. Birdsong didn't get it, but I think Harald might’ve. Birdsong said it was criminal for an Eldolen not to know her own language. [snorting sound] Between the two of them, they've got me reading all kinds of shit. Poems and stuff, mostly, but at least one longish scroll doohicky. I'm actually picking up the language pretty good. Natural linguistics student. Who knew? Good thing I changed my major before all the shit hit the fan, though: I called the Dean and he is not at all happy that I've skipped out on the semester and filed for Incompletes. I think ‘hunted by monsters with fangs’ is a pretty fuckin good excuse. Have you checked in with your advisor yet? I can call for you, if you want. Birdsong is willing to write some excuse notes, though the university dudes aren't real happy with him at the moment, either. Well, anyway, that's about it. Call me when you can. [incoherent mumble]”

#


Chapter 14 - An Elf Thing

[AN: Thanks and chocolates to wonderbetas Maram68 and Terri.]

---------------

Chapter 14: An Elf Thing

----------------

“You couldn’t make a duck if your life depended on it,” scoffed Brock, the red-headed dwarf with the plaid suspenders. Moira had ordered him some new suspenders online, nice green ones, but they hadn’t come in yet. And so her eyes were still scourged by plaid suspenders, which even looked loud in the moonlight.

“May a dragon swallow ye sideways, ye stuffed up...” Elvis started in. Now, Moira knew she pronounced his name wrong -- it was really Alvis -- but well, he did look like the paunchy King of Rock n Roll sometimes. Just with a smidge more facial hair. Oh, and slightly less shiny wardrobe. She just couldn't help herself.

Besides, unlike Harald and Brock, Elvis had never bothered to refine his natural dwarvish accent, so he went around sounding half-Scottish half-hick. Moira found that accent nearly as annoying as Brock’s suspenders. Far as she could tell, he deserved to have his name pronounced wrong.

“We could all stand to practice a little more,” Harald interrupted mildly, upping the overall tone of the conversation and restoring the sense of peace and harmony on the mountainside. “Here, Moira, try this one.”

Moira reclined on a soft hammock strung between two hooks on an overhang. The dwarves preferred camp chairs, and Moira could sort of see their point: The unrailed ledge separating her and a gut-jerking fall off the mountain was razor thin. Still, defying certain death had grown on her lately. She even found it freakishly relaxing, especially when Harald and the other dwarves joined her out here on the aerie for a smoke, as they had a habit of doing.

Whilst the others waited in hushed anticipation, Harald twisted his face up into a fearsome snarl, made a hiccoughing sound deep in this throat, and exhaled slowly. Into the thin night air before his face, white threads of smoke curlicued, reflected the bright moonlight, and coalesced into an intricate design.

Moira watched the shape drift over the edge of the mountainside aerie and float above the empty space below. She was flat-out impressed.

Elvis whistled a low note under his breath. "Now see there, Brock! There’s a right fine ..."

"Shush, you! Moira’s supposed to guess," Brock said.

Three inquiring dwarf gazes leveled themselves on Moira. She studied the quickly dissolving shape.

“Giraffe?” Moira asked, after a long relaxed pause.

“Very good,” Harald smiled around the stem of his pipe. He raised one bushy eyebrow at Moira and said, “Now you try one.”

Moira pulled on the waxed briar pipe Harald had lent her. The relaxing flavor and warmth in her throat almost distracted her, but she forced herself to focus on the design. She puckered her lips as if she were about to kiss the mountainside, then emitted three short puffs in quick succession, shaping her breath as Harald had instructed. She tilted her head a little, watching the shape float out into the night sky.

“Hmmm,” Harald mumbled, studying her effort. Poor sweetie: he’d been stalling all night, never actually guessing. Probably because Moira pretty much sucked at blowing smoke rings, but Harald was much too kind to say so. The others had been similarly polite.

“Now that’s a fine example of ... a ... what is the word I’m searching for?” Brock attempted.

“Ice cream cone?” Moira supplied, giggling. Oh, yeah: giggling. She felt so relaxed here, like she could do anything and nobody was going to think she was a dork. Somehow, she just knew that Harald and the other dwarves would keep on liking her no matter what. That was a new one for Moira, and it was taking some getting used to. Still, since she’d been here, she hadn’t once blow-dried her hair or worried about what she was wearing. Hell, she couldn’t even remember the last time she looked in a mirror.

“Of course! The very thing,” Harald nodded solemnly. “Ice cream cone. A perfectly formed, er, ice cream cone.” Harald caught Moira’s eye and winked. Moira’s giggles deepened, stretching eventually into hiccoughs. However, hiccoughing and smoking proved a dangerous combo: one particularly violent hiccough burned in the back of her throat and set off a coughing fit that doubled her over on the hammock. Her eyes teared, which was fairly fortunate: she didn’t really want to see the lung it felt like she was hacking up.

“Try sitting up straight, there, Moira. Long breaths.” Harald didn’t get up or try to whack her on the back or anything, thank god. But when she tried his advice, wonder of all wonders, it worked. She wiggled and sat up on the hammock, and after a moment the coughing subsided enough that she could catch her breath.

“Whoa,” she muttered weakly, putting one hand to her throat, just to make sure it was still there.

“Indeed,” came a silken voice, and Moira looked up just in time to see Birdsong lean over snatch the pipe out of her nerveless fingers. Damn him; he still sneaked up on her all the time, and she’d been trying to listen for him lately. Of course, he never sneaked when she was paying attention. He waited for times like these, when she was obviously distracted.

Birdsong lasered one of those patented disapproving looks at each dwarf in turn. Elvis and Brock looked away, abashed. But Harald met Birdsong’s glare steadily.

“I wish you would not encourage this sort of behavior,” Birdsong said, sounding eerily professorish. But yes, it did occur to Moira that professorish might be appropriate for the… professor.

Harald removed his pipe from his mouth, smacked his beard-fringed lips, and smiled indulgently.

“As you wish, Legolas,” he said. “But you cannot keep her from experiencing the world, you know. She’s a girl, not an elf lord, and sheltering her from all things does not prepare her for the war to come.”

Birdsong harrumphed and turned to face the night sky. Moira could see his profile, and she wilted beneath his obvious disapproval. She could sense the furtive pitying looks of Brock and Elvis, and she felt chagrined, like a 4-year-old who’d just been caught nail-varnishing her mother’s fine china. But at the same time, she felt a little pissed off, too. Who was Birdsong to tell her what to do, anyway? Sure he’d saved her life, more or less, but it wasn’t like he was the end-all moral authority on the fucking planet. And she was an adult! Hell, she could drink legally in all 50 states. That oughta count for something in the grand scheme of ...

“Again you show your wisdom, my friend. Moira, do carry on.” Birdsong stretched out a long arm, handing the pipe back but still not turning to her. She leaned forward and took the pipe, noting how straight his back was, how narrow his lips. He seemed made of tension. He could probably have used a good deep-tissue massage.

No one else spoke.

Birdsong stared out into the night for just a moment more, some sad and strained look on his face. Then he turned on his heel like a soldier and strode back to the narrow crevasse that led into the mountain. Moira and the dwarves remained out on the aerie, looking after the retreating elf. Moira had the peculiar feeling that something deep and mysterious was going on, but, as usual, it was just beyond her vision, just out of her reach. And, also as usual, it frustrated the hell out of her. She scowled.

"That one needs a lass," Elvis observed dryly.

Harald blew a perfect ring of grey smoke into the night air.

"Probably," he agreed. "But you couldn't convince him of that. Believe me, I've tried. Miren, too, bless her. He says that his continued solitude honors his wife, who died long ago."

"No kidding?” Moira piped in. “Well that would explain the whole uptight thing. So what happened? To his wife, I mean." Moira actually felt more sympathy than her words implied. She had lost both her parents, and she knew a thing or two about loneliness. She’d’ve given anything in the world right then to crawl up on her dad’s lap and tell him that she loved him.

"You really ought to ask Miren,” Harald said. “She was there at the dawn of the age and actually knew the princess."

"Princess, huh?" Well, it would make sense. Birdsong did seem awfully hoity; no wonder he'd married some royal babe. Birdsong’s princess had probably been a gorgeous one, like Di or Grace or Buttercup. Or even Leia, really, though the honeybuns ... what?

Harald was looking at her funny. She couldn't have said why his expression looked odd -- it was so hard to discern any facial features at all, behind that beard -- but well, it did. He looked like her question surprised him.

"Yes," he said, after a long while. "He didn't tell you, then?"

Again, with that fonky tension in the air, a sense of things unspoken. As usual, it felt like everyone else knew and Moira was left out on the big sekrit.

"No, probably not," Moira said, bitterly. "Nobody ever tells me anything important."

"His wife was the daughter of the first Telcontar king,” Harald told her gently. "Their son was the third ruler of that house. Your cousin is the most recent heir, so in a sense, Legolas is your grandfather, many times great."

Moira’s mouth opened, and it didn’t close for a long time. "You gotta be shitting me," she said, after the longest.

Harald grinned at her, and his dark eyes sparkled beneath those heavy brows. “I shit you not,” he declared.

#

Moira watched the blips on her monitor, mentally naming each: Harald, sleeping soundly in his room just above the office; Eitri Junior, down in the double-wide, probably indulging in a late-night snack; Elvis and Brock tinkering in the little workroom just this side of the East Aerie, where her hammock was strung.

Moira counted again: four blips. She'd seen Birdsong's distinctive green dot earlier tonight, near the top of the mountain in a series of tunnels she'd never bothered to explore. And, of course, she knew he'd be out on the aerie come dawn, to welcome the sunrise. But in between... whatever devices Harald used to keep track of people inside his mountain, they didn't work too well on Birdsong. Which led Moira to believe it was an Elf Thing. She mentally filed invisible-to-sensors among her lengthy list of Elf Things.

Like sneaking.

"I thought Alvis was planning to relieve you at midnight," came his lazy voice from the arched doorway that led to the west-aerie tunnels. Moira harrumphed Harald-style. Sure enough, when she looked back at the monitor, there was Birdsong's green blip, plain as day, right beside hers in Harald's circular office. She knew that green dot wasn't there a second ago.

"He came by," Moira replied, trying to match his casual tone. "But I sent him off again. Can't sleep."

"I could help with that," Birdsong suggested. There was a time when Moira would have thought that low, slinky voice was intentional, that he was flirting. She knew better now. He just talked like that. Naturally. She sincerely felt for the hundreds -- thousands? -- of chicks who'd been lulled into lust by that voice.

"Nah, don't worry about it," Moira told him. "I don't mind pulling double-shift."

"Does sleep elude you because you are worried about your friends?" he asked. Moira flinched. How did he ... oh, right: Elf Thing. He just knew. She wondered if he only knew general stuff, or if he'd been talking to Harald about her secret phone calls. Her mobile had run out of juice shortly after she'd arrived here, and Moira had resisted ordering a new AC adapter online. Birdsong might find out she'd been talking to Greg, and Greg had specifically asked her to keep their chats private. Which, by the way, she also agreed was a good idea. Birdsong was way overprotective. Thankfully, Harald had been able to manufacture a recharger on the sly. She was still amazed by Harald's ability to invent shit on a whim, especially electronic shit. The little guy was full of surprises, in fact. Moira scowled, though, remembering his most recent surprise.

"Of course I'm worried. And it's not just friends. Nic and Grandma are family," Moira snapped, digging on the word 'family.'

"Ah," Birdsong said. Which of course meant nothing. And everything. He prowled over to one of the smaller chairs -- there was only one tall chair in the room, and Moira'd staked claim on it -- and folded his long body into it. Moira had no idea how he managed to fit in a dwarf-sized seat without looking squished, but he did. Someday, she was pretty sure, Birdsong was gonna do something that made him look like a bumbling awkward mess. She just hoped she was there to see it.

"What the fuck does that mean: 'Ah'?" she grumbled.

Birdsong didn't answer her right away. He reached out a hand and stroked the panel of buttons. A display above the keyboard hummed to life. Data scrolled, too quickly for Moira to make sense of it.

"It means," Birdsong said, studying the data, "that I am sorry."

Moira blinked.

"Come again? ‘Cause I thought you said ..."

Birdsong waved his hand and the data stopped scrolling.

"I am sorry," he repeated.

Moira tried to say something, but for the life of her, she couldn't think of a single damn word that made sense.

"I should have told you of our relationship from the outset," Birdsong went on. "In my defense, perfect honesty has oft proven unwise in the past. Some of your ancestors were less than thrilled to know that they were related to me." He smiled, just slightly. "Your mother, for instance, was never pleased to know the nature of the family she had married into."

That, Moira knew, wasn't a lie. Her mom had refused to speak of Moira's Italian relations, even though she reluctantly permitted Moira to visit Finestra. Moira'd always figured that Mom was just anti-European or something, maybe embarrassed by her own lack of money or family. Certainly the style Grandma lived in was way out of Mom's league. Moira doubted her mother ever knew the difference between Prada and Target. Now, it seemed more like Mom just wanted Moira to feel like she was normal.

"Guess it makes sense," Moira said, hearing the weakness in her voice. "I mean, that you knew Mom. After all, hell, you're like my fucking grandpa or something. And I bet she wasn't happy when you told her that her kid was a target in this global war thing."

"No," he replied, the smile deepening. "She was not. Her first thought was always to protect you. Which is how we lost you for so long."

After that last summer at Finestra, Moira had gone back to her Mom, only to be told that they were moving. Immediately. The next five years had been a series of apartments, a blur of public schools. Moira'd even changed her name a few times. And then, one autumn, her mother had gone out for groceries and hadn't come back. A week later, Nic and Grandma had shown up with the news that Mom was gone. Dead. Murdered in a stop-n-shop robbery seven blocks from the two-room Figueroa Street apartment that Mom and Moira had shared.

Moira had refused to go back to Finestra, and Nic and Grandma had finally stopped pushing. Nic had moved to the states instead, to be close. Moira loved him for that, but even having him a state away never really chased away the loneliness.

Moira was going to say something, confess her secret yearnings to this half-stranger elf who soothed her without even trying. She even opened her mouth and thought up the words.

But then she felt a vibration on her hip. Greg. Shit. She had gone to great lengths to keep her late-night calls a secret from Birdsong. Fuckfuckfuck.

She was pondering her options when Birdsong made it all moot: he cut his eyes to her lap, and he frowned. So, he could hear even such a low sound as the vibration of her cell phone, could he? Elf Things: crazy-making. Moira deliberately pulled her phone out and thumbed “Talk.”

“Hey you,” she said into the phone.

“Moira, are you okay? And is Birdsong nearby?”

“Yes, and yes,” she replied, holding Birdsong’s gaze defiantly. His pale eyes narrowed, but he didn’t interrupt.

“Thank god,” Greg said. “I know we need to talk about other things -- I haven’t forgotten, Moira. But right now, we have an emergency. Can you put us on speakerphone?” He’d asked a question, but it didn’t sound like a question. It sounded like a command, and Moira pressed the button even before she thought about it.

And then, into the cool air under the mountain, Greg’s voice knifed the silence: “We are betrayed.”

This voice was lightyears from the soft endearing thing she’d grown so used to over the last months, the comforting drawl that had talked her to sleep at dawn and salved her fears. This new one reminded her of the voice Greg used when he spoke in her mind: quicksilver and dangerous. He went on brusquely in Sindarin, and Moira struggled to keep up.

“Do not ask details, for this conversation is far from private. However, I do not deceive you when I say that defeat is imminent. You must bring Moira here immediately. This night, even. I have made arrangements.”

Birdsong’s mouth thinned into a line. He looked fierce in the blue light of the computer monitors.

“If what you say is true, that we are betrayed, then I can trust no one, especially not you. Moira is secure here, and here we shall remain,” Birdsong decreed.

A short pause followed, but Moira could hear the tension, could see the white on Birdsong’s knuckles as he gripped the narrow arms of the dwarf-sized chair.

“Legolas Thranduilion, do you not know to whom you speak?” Greg’s voice came, low and resonant, clipping each word as if it were a threat.

Birdsong swallowed.

“That I do.”

“Then remember this: When this world was new, your father pledged allegiance to mine, in perpetuity, until Arda is remade. That is an oath I hold you to this night. You are but a breath from forswearing your duty; do not force my wrath.”

Birdsong closed his eyes for a long moment, and Moira wibbled: They were fighting over her. This was so not right, but ... lordy hell, was it flattering!

“We are well-defended here. I shall not leave,” Birdsong said in a low voice.

“Then I shall come to fetch her myself,” Greg snapped. “And long may you rue this error.” Oooh, Greg was an asshole! But ... did it make Moira a freak that she found the suddenly assholey Greg really, really hot?

Lost in hotness ponderings, it took Moira a full minute to realize the phone was dead, that Greg had disconnected. That Birdsong was giving her a cool, snooty, curious stare.

And, finally, that the blips she was supposed to be paying attention to were moving. And holy fuck: There were a lot of new ones.

“Birdsong,” she whispered. “I think we’re under attack.”

----

AN: Alvis, Brokk, and Eitri are all old Norse names for Dwarves. Harald is an Old Norse name for a guy. The names Gimli and Gandalf come from the same sources.

Oh, and yes, Birdsong is Legolas. Big surprise, eh?


Chapter 15 - Durin's Bane

AN: When we last left Moira, she was turned on by Greg, who'd just gone all asshole on Birdsong. Oh, and the mountain was under attack.

This chapter is dedicated to everyone who has ever complained that my chapters were too damn short. Beware o grousing: some day you just might get what you asked for.

----
Birdsong moved so fast he seemed like a tall pointy-eared blur. In the space of a heartbeat, he was out of the dwarf chair, leaning over Moira's shoulder, intently studying the blip display. Again, as it had on the ledge earlier, tension wound him tighter than a violin string, and that telltale crease formed between his flared eyebrows.

"Well?" Moira prodded. "What now?"

Birdsong twitched, then looked down at Moira, as if he'd forgotten for a half-second that she was even there. Great. Just what she needed: an absent-minded-professor acting like field general. If she hadn't seen him firing the big guns on Minou's jet, she wouldn't have believed he'd ever done this war shit at all. He certainly had never come down for target practice with Moira and the dwarves. Harald had said Birdsong was a woodland snob, whatever that meant.

Birdsong's pale eyes bored into Moira, and he whispered a word under his breath. A new word, definitely not one that Moira'd copied painstakingly into her homemade Sindarin-to-English journal, either. Whatever it was, it sounded just filthy. Which, duh, made it an instant favorite. Moira itched to ask for a translation; it'd for-sure come in handy on congested interstates and in long grocery lines.

Instead she just sat there while Birdsong hurled instructions her way.

"Did Harald teach you how to lock down the mountain?" Birdsong asked. Moira must have nodded, 'cause Birdsong went on, rat-tat-tat: "Good. Do it. Then go and wake up Harald. Tell him this is a large-scale invasion force with ghosts, enties, dragons: you name it, it’s coming for us. If you two can get to the Chair, I'll meet you there. With weapons." At that last, a vicious grin flashed over his face, and Moira revised her earlier assessment. No absent-minded professor this: Birdsong was a warrior through and through. That smile alone scared the shit out of her.

"The armory is on level 2, by the peanut butter," Moira said automatically, as if reciting stats from a box score. She couldn’t let the meaning of that soak in. If she did, she’d go crazy. She concentrated on Eitri’s blue dot down in the double-wide.

Birdsong leaned down and swept the briefest of kisses across her temple.

"Yes, I know."

"There are red dots all over Level 2," she told him.

"Yes. Hurry, Moira."

“Be careful!” Moira mewled. She heard her voice break, and she knew that she was getting hysterical, despite her best attempts at calm. The march of red lights on the display continued inexorably, like a strobe in the corner of her vision.

And then he was gone, a blur again, through the tunnel arch. Moira blinked; even his shadow had disappeared. She turned back to the bank of computers, repeating Birdsong’s hasty instructions under her breath. Lock down the mountain...

Birdsong’s green dot vanished.

Moira swallowed a keening sob and rifled her mind for the administrator codes Harald had made her memorize. She didn’t remember the codes themselves, but her fingers knew the patterns on the keyboard. Two screens later, she was into the main grid. She shut down power to the elevator, the only way in to the upper levels as far as she knew. That ought to hold the invaders for a while. Quickly, she scanned the status screen and felt a sudden horrible sinking sensation. Oh, no. No, no, no. Eitri Junior was down there, stranded in a sea of red dots, and she’d just cut off his only way up. Unless he could get out of the mountain and into the forest ... Moira felt like throwing up. God. Had she just killed him? She looked down: her hands, hovering over the keyboard, were shaking.

When she looked up again, the red dots had surged in the elevator shaft. She double-checked: The elevator was definitely offline. Holy hell. They were climbing. Those little fuckers were climbing.

Level 2. Birdsong was on Level 2.

There were automatic defenses built into the mountain itself: a giant gun emplacement called Durin’s Bane at the summit and a series of behemoth steel doors that closed off whole sections of the tunnel system. She hoped the Dwarves and Birdsong knew shortcuts, because she systematically closed off every escape route now, sealing some parts of mountain airtight. (Why airtight, she wondered? Were there chemical weapons, too? She’d never bothered to ask.) If the status monitors were correct, nothing was getting out of that elevator shaft, not even air.

Alarms went off in a lower level; they rumbled the mountain like pissed off banshees.

Moira logged out, kicked the chair back, and took a long, shaky, likely-chemically-poisoned breath. Okay, mountain was locked down.

She reached beneath the desk and pressed a button. With a hiss of well-oiled metal, a neat half-moon opened in the ceiling of the room, and a narrow ladder descended. Moira had watched Harald do this dozens of times, but she’d never actually done it herself. This ladder led to Harald’s private suite, and she felt just a little weird going up there. What if he ... slept naked? Fond as she was of Harald, she really didn’t want to see that side of him, so to speak. And if this hadn’t been an emergency, she certainly wouldn’t have invaded his privacy.

Still, she slid her cell phone into her jeans pocket and climbed up the ladder. At the top, she clambered onto the ceiling, now her floor, and before she could even get a look around, the stairs folded back up and the half-moon whispered shut, enclosing Moira in this unfamiliar space.

It was dark in here, absolutely pitch black. Moira felt along the floor and couldn’t even find evidence of the steps she knew were there just a moment ago. Now, Moira wasn’t exactly a claustrophobe, but she felt totally disoriented.

“Harald?” she whispered. When there was no answer, she tasted panic in her throat. “Harald!” Her voice shrilled in the darkness. She crept on hands and knees straight into nowhere. “HAR--"

A soft blue light hummed on, and Moira gasped.

“Moira? Is that you?” Harald was scrambling up from the floor in the puddle blue light, amid a giant pile of what looked like bearskins. He was clothed, more or less, in a flowing linen robe that tied at the throat, and his beard and hair were unbraided and wild. For a split second Moira thought Harald looked sort of like those Bible Story Moseses, especially with the blue shadows making him seem, well, taller.

“Yeah,” she answered, tamping down the panic, now that she could see around. The mountain was still under attack and the people she loved were all still in mortal danger, but at least she could see. Moira was a girl who appreciated the little things.


“Harald, we’re being attacked. Birdsong said we had dragons, entities, ghosts, and ... I don’t remember what all. But a shitload of red dots. And Junior is down there. And Birdsong went to the armory, which is on Level 2, but Level 2 is fucking overrun with all those...”

Harald stood and set a hand on her arm.

“NTs,” he said calmly, nodding. “They’re rascals. Deep breath now, Moira. And look at me. What steps have you taken so far?”

Moira looked down into his furry little face and felt calmed.

“I locked down the mountain, like you showed me. And set the remote power switches on Durin’s Bane. It should be charged up within fifteen minutes, or so the screen said. Oh! Birdsong told us to go to the chair. Do you know what the hell he was talking about? Like an electric chair? What the...”

Harald smiled.

“It sounds to me that Legolas is fomenting a plan. Good. He is an excellent commander; we will do as he asked. Are you armed?” He swept a quick glance over her, and Moira almost blushed.

“Uh, no. That gun you gave me? I sort of left it in my laundry basket. I meant to grab it -- Junior was gonna make me a leg holster like Angelina Jolie had in Tomb Raider, so kick-ass ...” Moira was babbling. In fact, she’d babbled every time she’d opened her mouth up here. Harald smiled again, looking even more like a benevolent Moses.

“Not to worry,” Harald said. He kicked back a corner of the bearskin pile, lifted a metal plate on the floor, and revealed a shallow keypad with very non-English (and not even Elvish) characters on it. He typed something, and the keypad slid back -- along with about three feet of the floor. In that recess lay a regular arsenal. It reminded Moira of that scene in The Matrix where the long shelves of big-ass guns just appeared on command. And this was just the shit Harald kept beneath his pillow, so to speak. Why hadn’t Birdsong come up here to get his weapons?

Harald leaned in and grabbed two sleek-looking semi-automatics and some belts with little pockets sewn in to hold spare clips. He helped Moira into one of the belts and went over the simple mechanics of the gun, which looked somewhat different.

“It works more or less like the one I gave you,” Harald explained patiently. “To reload, thumb this lever to tilt the barrel upward. You can just slide the magazine in, like so. Now, Moira, look at me again.”

She obeyed. He slid the heavy gun into her hand.

“We are going to get out of here safely,” he promised. And, weirdly enough, Moira believed him.

Harald shoved a few other things -- grenades? -- into a small backpack and clipped a device that looked a lot like a GameBoy to his bullet-belt.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the GameBoy.

“Communication device,” Harald told her. “As each of our friends passes checkpoints emplaced in the mountain, the comm will send a signal. Therefore, we will be able to tell where they are and how quickly they’re moving. Same with our enemies.”

Moira took a quick look at the thing as its LCD hummed to life. Hmmm.

“You know it’s in Russian, right?” she had to ask.

“It’s Khuzdul, Moira: the language of the dwarves.” Fantastic. Another language Moira didn’t know. Just when she thought she was catching on, too. Bugger.

“Oh,” she said.

She followed Harald through a tunnel behind his bed-area, up another ladder, and through another series of tunnels, all lit with that thin blue light, which ran in a narrow strip along the floor of each tunnel. She was so turned around by this point that, despite all the time she’d spent looking at diagrams of the mountain, she had no idea where they were. Plus, it was obvious these tunnels had been formed with dwarves in mind: she could not stand up straight, and her back and neck ached something fierce.

Just when Moira was wondering how long she could keep moving full speed in a crouch, Harald paused. Moira took the opportunity to sit down and stretch out her neck. Wordlessly, Harald drew out the GameBoy communication doohicky and pressed some buttons. He flashed through a couple of screens, lingered over one, and then closed his eyes for a long moment.

“What?” Moira asked.

“Eitri has left the mountain. That is good news: He knows some havens out in the forest, though I no longer have a direct link to him. Brock is coming up, via the eastern ducts. Legolas -- great Mahal! -- has eschewed the tunnels and is scaling the mountain face. Elves! Too much stargazing has left them all barking...” Harald’s voice drifted off in a mess of Russian/Dwarvish curses.

Moira counted silently. Harald had already started moving again, but she put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Wait. Harald, what about Elvis?”

Harald did not reply, but his shoulder hunched.

Moira bit her bottom lip hard. Instead of saying anything, she just squeezed Harald’s shoulder and gave him a moment. When he rose again, she scrambled to her feet and followed him silently. Her thoughts raced. She felt the mountain groan and could’ve sworn she heard the sputter of gunfire, echoing through the honeycomb of tunnels. Once she caught a glance at Harald’s comm device and thought that the giant blinking red box couldn’t be a good sign. She bit back furious tears. Birdsong had better stay safe, she thought fiercely, or she was gonna kill him herself.

A few tunnels up, Moira’s ears starting popping, and she swallowed hard, trying to ease the discomfort. They must’ve been very high in the mountain now. She was just about to ask Harald if they could stop for a rest when the tunnel ended, abruptly just ... stopped. Dead end.

“Uh, Harald...”

But Harald could obviously see that the tunnel had ended. No dummy, that one. He had taken a glance at the comm device, frowned, and now was double-checking his gun.

“Silence now, child. Just listen to me,” he said. His gentle voice had taken on a rough edge. Moira could tell he didn’t mean it as an affront: He just needed her attention. So she gave it.

“In a few moments, I will open a hatch just above our heads,” he told her. “That hatch leads to a chamber that is open to the sky and is home to the gun emplacement you know as Durin’s Bane. The controls for that gun are wired to the chair in the center of the chamber. If you access the keypad on the right armrest, a sighting lens will appear. You’ll have to slouch; Durin’s Chair was made for dwarves, I’m afraid. But once you look through the sights, you should get a clear picture of the battle beyond the mountain. Do not worry about ammo, just shoo...”

“Harald.” Moira couldn’t take it anymore. Silence was killing her.

“Yes,” he replied tersely.

“Why are you telling me all this? Why can’t you control the chair?”

Harald looked up at her. The blue light strip was beneath his feet, and so she could not see clearly the expression on his face. But she figured it must be solemn.

“In the chamber above us, Moira, in the chamber of Durin’s Chair, are seven enemies: NTs, nameless things. These creatures are older than either of our races, and they do not oft climb into the light of the world. A foul power must be summoning them, a power beyond any I have ever known. I have never fought them; I do not know how can be killed, or if. If a bullet will end them, we will endure. If not ... In any case, you need to get to the Chair. As soon as you access the control panel, a bulletproof screen will rise and enclose you. You will be safe until help arrives.”

Or until I starve to death or they find some other way to get to me, Moira thought.

“What about you?” she choked out.

Harald’s beard moved in the blue light; she thought he sighed.

“Child, I promised Legolas that I would keep you safe. And I will protect you, even with my life.” He reached up and touched her hand. “Now, when I count to three, the hatch will lift. I’ll go through first, and you follow right away. Shoot anything that moves.”

Moira opened her mouth, but then shut it again. She was scared half to death, she realized. Sure she’d practiced shooting out on the ranges. And she’d seen some technical info about the weapon known as Durin’s Chair. But now that it came down to brass tacks... she was not ready for this!

But Harald wasn’t waiting. She heard him count down, and then, when it was far too late for her to yell “Wait!” he said, “One.” Two heartbeats later, the hatch slid back. Starlit night flooded their little tunnel, and Harald launched himself upward, into the breach. Moira could hear the retort of his gun, slinging bullet after bullet. She stood up, set one elbow on the lip of the hatch, and jumped up through it without even looking at the chamber. Her eyes were almost blinded by the sudden starlight, but she could see movement in her periphery. Following Harald’s instructions, she turned to that movement and squeezed off three quick rounds. The gunshots were deafening, but even worse were the other sounds: slithery, keening, nasty sounds, like an alien-flick special-effects crew gone nuts.

Moira blinked, and shapes coalesced. In the center of the chamber she could see a large hulking shape: Durin’s Chair. But in between her and the Chair were three NTs.

Somehow, she’d figured the NTs would be smaller, say, like a dwarf. No beans: These things were huge, black shadowy creatures with long snouts and sharp, shimmery teeth. They didn’t look to be armed with weapons, per se, but their teeth clicked, catching sprays of starlight and terrifying the holy hell out of Moira. She squeezed off another round at a bank of fangs to her right. It retreated with an ear-piercing shrill.

“To the Chair!” Harald called, and Moira remembered. Against all intuition, she turned, left Harald there next to the tunnel hatch, and read headlong into the chamber. Still squeezing off bullets, she sprinted for the Chair and made it more quickly than she expected. She could hear the cover fire Harald was laying behind her. A shadow loomed in close, uncowed by her bullets apparently, and an NT snipped at her ankle. She kicked and leapt, using the NT’s skull as leverage to propel herself into the chair. She didn’t bother to slouch as Harald had instructed, but just slid her hand along the right armrest and jammed the first button she found.

Actually, she pressed about four buttons at once; one of them, apparently, was the right one.

A transparent screen angled up in front of her chest, and a wall of plexiglass-looking stuff snicked up from the floor, forming a seal against another one that spouted from the far side. Together they fitted into a protective bubble around the chair. The sighting mechanism hovered just in front of her, and when she scooted down in the little chair, she could see it clearly. It was a lot like a videogame, she thought. She tried to remember the rough basics of The Sims2 but figured, after the fact, that those controls wouldn’t necessarily apply.

But one thing was pretty obvious: Above the mountain were three dragons, moving swiftly. Other, smaller shapes clung to the mountain itself: probably more NTs. Too bad there wasn’t a control as intuitive as, say, a joystick attached to the Chair. Moira glanced down at the bank of buttons by her hand. Hmm. Russodwarvish again.

“Harald! What do I push?” she screamed, trying to project her voice above the alien keening of the NTs and the steady fire of Harald’s gun. She wasn’t even sure if anybody outside the bulletproof bubble would be able to hear her.

But apparently Harald heard something, because he yelled something back. Only, Moira couldn’t understand him over the other noise. She leaned over, studying the panel and looking for other input devices. She found a button under the armrest and pressed it. But when the bubble began retracting all around her, she hastily jammed the entire button panel on top. The bubble stopped. About three-quarters of the way up.

“Er, I think I just fucked up!” she shouted. Which was dumb: Harald could see that the protective bubble was only partway up now. Moira cursed herself: this was not the time for incompetence, she told herself sternly. Get it together, Girl.

“Can you read the tactical display? Do you see any enemies above us?” Harald asked. He sounded much closer. Moira looked down and to her left: Harald had somehow moved across the room and was now right next to the bubble, using the command chair as cover. Moira shot a glance around, looking for NT carcasses. There weren’t any. Where had all the baddies gone?

“Yeah and yeah,” she said, answering Harald’s questions instead of asking her own.

“Good,” he replied, sliding another clip into his semi-automatic. “Just reach up and touch one.”

“With my finger?” Moira asked.

Harald, bless him, didn’t bother with an and-you-so-stoopid glance. He just aimed his gun and squeezed off a round. From the edges of the room, ringed in shadow, came a shriek followed by a clicking sound.

“Finger, toe, ass-cheek, Moira: whatever works. Just touch one of those targets.”

She obeyed. With her finger. There was a low vibration beneath the chair, but then silence. Uh oh. Weren’t guns supposed to make noise?”

“I don’t think I ...” she began, but then the air exploded. She slapped her palms against her ears; the sound was freaking painful! It was like lightning touching down right beside her or something. Like...

Slowly, her hearing came back: she could hear the comparatively tinny rat-tat-tat of small arms fire. And then Harald’s voice.

“... railgun?” He was laughing at her. Well, of course he was.

Oh. That explained it. Sort of.

She looked at the tactical display again. Sure enough, one of the dragons was gone. Just blipped right out of existence by her Very Noisy Cannon. Groovy! Pleased, she reached up and touched another dragon-blip on the tactical display. Take that, she thought. There was a humming sound, as if the gun were repositioning itself. She waited.

No ear-drum-thumping boom.

“Shit,” she said. “Harald, I think I broke your gun.”

An NT ventured close, but Harald aimed and fired at it in one smooth -- for a dwarf -- motion. The NT squealed and retreated, but didn’t appear to be particularly hurt.

“It takes a few minutes for the railgun to recharge,” Harald explained in the short lull that followed. “In the mean time, look over on the left armrest: the controls for the machine gun are over there. That gun doesn’t quite have the range, so you can only use it if the enemy targets are orange on the tactical display: that means they’re close. And toss me your ammo belt, will you?” He was shooting into the shadows that edged the room again. Was he already out of ammo? Moira frowned even as she unfastened and wiggled out of her belt.

What happened when her ammo was gone, too?

She scrambled to her knees on the low chair and flung the belt through the opening at the top of the semi-protective bubble.

“Hey,” she said. “Can I point the machine gun down at these guys?” She indicated the NTs, which had crept steadily closer to the center of the room.

Harald shook his scruffy head.

“You only have 45 degrees horizontal movement with those guns. They’re intended to be anti-aircraft. Don’t worry, though: you are doing well.”

Moira sort of doubted it. She experimentally touched the tactical display again, but again no Boom. And none of the dragons were orange. She felt like the most useless creature on the planet. Here her mountain was under attack, Harald’s barrage didn’t seem to be doing much more than annoying those little NT fuckers, and she couldn’t do a damn thing!

She puffed a thick exhalation into her cheeks and let it out on a harrumph.

Just for kicks, she touched another dragon on the display. The gun repositioned itself briefly, there was a pause, and then ... Boom. This time the stuck her fingers in her ears well in advance, so it didn’t take her hearing quite as long to recover. She watched the dragon-blip disappear from the display and felt a deep visceral satisfaction. Well, why not, she thought. War was in her blood. For the first time in her life, she felt like it was just possible. She could be a scion of legend, a warrior princess.

But when she looked around the chamber, her momentary euphoria vanished.

The NTs had slithered closer; they no longer seemed quite so afraid of Harald’s little gun. Moira had watched enough Discovery Channel specials to realize what they were doing. They were moving in for the kill. Even the tone of their keening had changed: the little fuckers sounded gloating.

“How many clips do you have left?” Moira asked Harald.

“Plenty,” he snapped back.

Liar, she thought, though she didn’t say it out loud, just in case the NTs could speak English. Or Sindarin.

“Come in here with me,” she told him.

Harald fired into the roiling sea of shadow and fangs and shook his shaggy head.

“Not enough room, princess,” he told her. He was right. But if they squeezed...

Moira felt a bubble of panic burst in her chest. It was followed closely by an equally powerful fury. She wasn’t going to sit here and watch Harald die! She just fucking wasn’t. She stood up on the Chair and followed the guide wires and tubing that connected the command chair to the gun emplacements. She put one foot on each arm of the Chair, careful not to step on any important buttons, and stretched upward. From this vantage, she could see the giant machine gun barrel. Its mount didn’t look all that secure. If she could just reach it, maybe she could do something about that 45-degree angle thing... She strained upward and grabbed the mounting. She yanked -- hard -- and a piece of alloy bent, just slightly. Aha!

“Sit down,” Harald barked, and Moira just about lost her balance. She looked down, just in time to catch a furious scowl on his face.

“I’m trying to save your furry ass!” she shouted.

“The railgun is charged again. Will you just get those dragons?” Harald returned. An NT hand/paw swished dangerously close to the hem of Harald’s robe. It caught some cloth and ripped, but Harald didn’t flinch.

Moira squatted down in the chair and leaned over the tactical display. One dragon left. She angrily stabbed at its little icon. She didn’t even bother covering her ears this time: the Boom was a welcome sound. And the sight of the dragon blipping out into oblivion was even better.

“Got him!” she crowed. “We’re all clear...”

She looked down, knowing that something was wrong, but for a moment not realizing what it was. Everything looked the same: Harald was facing down a swarm of Nameless Things, who were alternately feinting and retreating. They’d caught another substantial piece of his robe, but he was still there.

Only, he wasn’t shooting any more.

Oh, God.

The NTs seemed to understand the significance of this in the same moment that Moira did.

---


Chapter 16 - Moira Eldolen and the Chamber of Secrets

AN: Thank you so much Elfy, Queenie, and Keeksly for reading this at various stages of done-ness.

Chapter 16: Moira Eldolen and the Chamber of Secrets


Moira crouched there, behind her protective shield, and knew she didn’t want to see this. Couldn’t bear see it. Couldn’t let it happen. But she couldn’t look away, either.

“Harald,” she mouthed and pressed one palm ineffectually against the bulletproof shield, as if the gesture could ward off the inevitable.

She saw him unpin a grenade with his teeth and roll it toward the wall, and she recognized it for what it was: a last-ditch. The resulting flash and smoke plunged the whole world into chaos. Moira screamed; Harald shouted in dwarvish, “Khazâd aimênu!” Moira didn’t have a clue what that meant, but it sounded defiant, fierce. She longed to echo it but couldn’t think of a suitable chorus, other than “Fuck yeah!” but that didn’t really seem appropriate. Instead, Moira was just about to reach up again and try for the machine gun, but then a strange thing happened.

The shrieks of the NTs changed. In response to Harald’s battle cry? Whatever the reason, they no longer sounded triumphant: they sounded terrified, in agony. Moira could tell: she was a fucking expert on being terrified. She squinted through the smoke, but she couldn’t find Harald. He’d moved away from the Chair, and her.

Moira reached for the machine gun but knew it was useless. She heard her own voice, half yelling half keening: “Harald! Don’t leave me!”

“Shhh,” a voice flooded into her head, all green and warm and wise. She knew that voice! “I am here.”

Birdsong!

Moira stood on the chair arms, one hand still reaching up ineffectually for the machine gun, and blinked into the chaos of the chamber. Somewhere in the din and thudding, Harald fell back hard against the Plexiglass. Almost if he’d been flung in that direction. He was obviously winded and something wet and dark dripped from the pistol he still gripped tightly in one hand (shit: had he been bludgeoning the NTs with that thing?), but he looked intact ... and just as enthralled as Moira was with the scene that was playing out before both of them.

As the smoke cleared, Birdsong shimmered into view: a lithe elven cuisinart cutting a swath into shadow. He wielded two swords that seemed made of starlight and flung little slimy NT-bits from their silver arcs. Birdsong spun and feinted, slashed and stabbed; like a dancer, he was so smooth. Each time the NTs snapped or swiped at him, claw and fang just slid off of him, even through him, as if he were made of pure air. Where the NTs had seemed impervious to bullets, now they quailed before the relentless onslaught of Birdsong’s twin swords. He advanced, and the critters fell before him. It was just fucking beautiful.

And when the last NT collapsed in a dark wet heap, Birdsong surveyed his handiwork, wiped his swords clean of the gore, and turned at last to Moira and Harald.

“You’re late,” the dwarf grumped. Birdsong grinned.

“Nonsense,” he replied. “I arrived just in time.” He looked up at Moira and winked. “And thanks to Moira, my little climb up the outside was particularly uneventful. I only had to dispatch seventeen of the nasty buggers.”

Now, Moira’s emotions were still on the metaphorical roller coaster, and she felt like either kissing something or bursting into tears. That off-the-cuff praise from Birdsong just put her over the edge. With a wibble (out loud), she reached up and grabbed the lip of the partially closed bubble and hauled herself up over the edge. When she dropped down on the other side, she wasn’t sure who to run to first, so she settled for looping one arm around Harald’s precious hairy head and the other around Birdsong’s waist. She leaned against them both, not even caring if her sudden hot tears made her heinously girly.

She felt Birdsong’s chin against the top of her head; Harald patted her back but stepped away after a minute or two. He wasn’t a big fan of physical affection, Moira recalled. She was just glad Birdsong didn’t seem to mind; she wasn’t sure her legs could hold her up just then.

“Eitri got out,” Harald was telling Birdsong. “Alvis is gone.”

Birdsong muttered that word again, that delicious curse word that Moira had heard back in the control room.

“And Brokk?”

“In the eastern ducts. Now that you’re here, I thought...”

Birdsong moved, sheathing his swords without detaching Moira. He set one arm around her shoulders comfortingly.

“I do not like you wading again into the fray, my friend,” Birdsong said. His voice rumbled beneath Moira’s cheek. “But I understand that you must. I would do the same.” He squeezed Moira’s shoulders gently, and then stepped away. She sniffled and wiped her eyes.

Birdsong bent and retrieved a slender pack that he must have dropped during the fight. He reached in and withdrew a shorter sword, as brilliant as the two that he had used. He held this one out to Harald.

“They have interesting resistances,” Birdsong said. “The physical does not appear to damage them, but weapons imbued with spirit -- like these Noldo blades -- defeat them well enough. It took some time before I realized this, but I believe that the witch king was similarly invincible to the slings and darts of mortal crafting. It follows a sort of logic; these creatures are terribly old, after all, and could be more spirit than flesh.”

“Not like anybody we know...” Harald said, his expression arch. Moira didn’t get it, but she was used to things flying right over her head. Dragons, innuendo, whatever. Of far more concern to her right now was the growing suspicion that Harald was about to leave, to go back in to the mountain. As if he hadn’t just now escaped certain death. Brave didn’t even begin to describe this craziness. And he said elves were whacked!

Birdsong looked somewhat abashed.

“Careful of our audience, friend. There are things I’ve yet to share with Moira.”

No. Really?

Harald shook his head. “You know I think that is a mistake. The girl is no fool, you know. She saved your hide tonight. She did not panic once, and I would say she earned the right to sit in Durin’s Chair.” This appeared to be a high honor, so Moira resisted the temptation to point out that she had panicked. Er, a lot.

And despite her totally undeserved surge of pride, she was still worried. The dangers were still out there, trying to get in. Brokk was out there, too.

Harald fished some bungi out of his pack and fashioned a temporary sheath for his new sword, but he resisted putting it aside just yet. Instead he held it at the ready and with his free hand rifled through Birdsong’s pack. He withdrew a couple more grenades, because, as he said, a dwarf can never have too many.

“Concussions?” Harald muttered, hefting one.

“Naturally,” Birdsong replied. “And some armor-piercing hollow-point explosive rounds for your pistol, though like I said, bullets have no effect on the Nameless Things. A pity. Those slugs explode rather viciously on impact.”

At last Harald felt sufficiently armed. He scanned his GameBoy comm-unit contraption one last time, assessed the risk, and knelt by the trap door that led back down to the tunnels. He flashed a furry grin over his shoulder.

“Moira, you take care of him, now, you hear?” For just a second there, Harald drifted back into his yee-haw accent. And then, with a wink, he was through the trap door.

Birdsong passed a hand over the hasp after Harald left, sealing the only entrance (using magic, probably; Moira didn’t see any keys or locks). He made the perimeter of the room, checking for breaches and sealing (in similar elfy magical ways) the only one he came across. At last, he determined, they were alone on the mountaintop. The most obvious way in was through the roof, though, he admitted, getting in that way was far from easy. Together, Birdsong and Moira figured out the controls enough to get the protective bubble on the Chair to come down all the way. They checked the tactical readout, but the skies were clear of enemies. Moira finished detaching the machine gun from its mounts, and she cradled it uneasily in her lap. She knew it wouldn’t be a final solution against NTs, but if worse came to worst, she could buy Birdsong a little time.

Every once in a while, they could still hear echoes of fighting, deep in the mountain. And sometimes lower, growling sounds, like machines -- or burrowers -- trying to chew through stone.

But in the end, other than remain diligent, there was nothing they could do. Birdsong would not leave her to go aid Harald and Brokk. He said they were mature dwarves and knew the risks. And Moira wasn’t about to leave the relative safety of the mountain summit. They had no food, no water, and enemies approached steadily from the only way out, below. But for the moment, they were safe.

So they sat. And waited.

#

In the deepest night, beneath the Chair of Durin, they huddled, two beings on either end of history, fast in their defiance of fate, slowly learning the meaning of hope. As the silence stretched, Moira pulled her phone out of her pocket and watched the slow march of minutes. Birdsong wouldn’t let her call anybody -- their enemies could trace the signal and would send around another aerial attack, he explained -- but she could watch the clock and remember that there was a world beyond this mountain. That was both reassuring and oddly depressing.

“At least we’re not stuck in the tunnels,” she said brightly, to relieve some of the boredom and tension of constant vigilance. And also to stay awake.

“I loathe dark places,” Birdsong confessed. He sat on the floor near Durin’s Chair, his legs stretched out lazily and one long silvery blade laid across his thighs. Every once in a while, his fingers would trace the deep etchings carved into the long fuller. The letters looked elvish, but Moira couldn’t read them. Not Sindarin, then. Some other elvish-looking tongue.

“No kidding,” Moira said, appreciating Birdsong’s attempt at conversation. “Claustrophobic?” She didn’t mention her own fear of spiders. Somehow it was more fun to imagine Birdsong afraid of, well, anything.

“My father’s palace was delved by dwarves and riddled with tunnels and niches. So many hovels for the spiders to hide in.”

“Spiders? Bah! I’ll take your spider over an asschair any day. Hell, over a flying cockroach, even. Ever had one of those things in your hair? Nas-ty.” Moira even flipped her ponytail for emphasis and wondered if he noticed. Ponytail-flipping was an effective gesture at frat parties and study groups, but after a night of death and chaos, it seemed utterly... silly. Which was exactly the mood Moira was going for.

“These were very large spiders,” Birdsong said, looking like he might’ve caught onto the silliness.

“Oh yeah? How large?”

“Think Volkswagen Beetle.”

“Oh.”

#

“Said the thousand-legged worm as he gave a little squirm, has anybody seen forty-six legs of mine? For if they can’t be found, I shall have to hop around on the other nine hundred...”

“Enough! I think I comprehend the song now. It is revolting. Let us sing the beer one again, shall we?”

“Oh, fine then: One hundred bottles of beer on the wall, one hundred bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around...”

#

“It can’t be something that you already have,” Moira insisted. She looked pointedly at Birdsong. “Like telepathy.”

“You say this Rogue female can kill people simply by touching them?” Birdsong got hung up on the trivia sometimes. Moira had to wrench him back to the topic at hand.

“Yeah, but she wears gloves. Nevermind that, though. We’re talking about you ‘n’ me.” Moira waved her hand between them, indicating a connection.

“But Professor Xavier can do telepathy...”

“Look, how about I start? If I could have any superpower, I’d pick...” Moira paused dramatically. “... singing.”

“Singing?”

“Yeah. Like Minou does. I heard her, back in New Orleans. Talk about wow. I can’t even carry a tune.”

The faintest of smiles touched Birdsong’s mouth, but it eased Moira’s darkness.

“Elves are inherently musical creatures, and Miren -- that is her name, by the way, not Minou -- is exceptionally talented, even among our kindred. But the fact that you chose song as your, ah, superpower enchants me. You know, of course that desire is sometimes more important than the thing itself? Your family would be very proud.”

Moira glowed. Well, not literally of course. But inside, yes, she glowed.

“Now you,” she urged. “And remember, this has to be a new power, so not something like mad sneaking skillz or the power to conjugate verbs in seventeen languages.”

Birdsong sniffed, as if he were affronted.

“Seventy-six, if you must know, but that is beside the point.”

“Yeah. It is.” Moira paused. “Seventy-six, really? How do you... nevermind. Your speshul ability. C’mon: out with it, Gramps.”

He twitched a little, but he didn’t make her take it back. Gramps. She almost giggled. Almost.

Birdsong thought about it for a long time, and the more he thought, the more solemn his expression grew. After a while, Moira thought he might slide right into the mountain he was so glum. The darkness incurred, and the chamber felt a thousand miles wide, and painfully cold.

“Death,” he said at last. “I would like to be able to die. As Men do.”

#

“What was it?”

“Was what?”

“The thing that you were supposed to tell me, that Harald said you ought to tell me. The thing about you being invincible. The thing that makes you wish for death.”

Birdsong pinned her with an excruciating look, as if he were weighing her need to know against something else equally as compelling. Finally he held out a hand, explained about elven fading and hroar.

And then he showed her.

#

Moira had almost drifted off to sleep, but Birdsong’s voice roused her.

"Someone is coming."

"How do you know?" Moira was awake instantly. Shit, she must have been out for a while. She could see a tinge of dawn through the opening above Durin’s Bane.

"I hear sounds from the hatch," Birdsong said.

Moira didn't. But still... her recent experience with Birdsong and Inexplicable Elf Things [tm] had taught her to pretty much believe him when he said he heard things. Which meant that, any minute now, something nasty was probably gonna come barreling up through that hatch. Well, fuck it, Moira decided, and hefted the machine gun against her shoulder. Let ‘em come. They'd pay for the pleasure of killing her: she wasn’t going down without a fight.

Birdsong looked at her, warned her, and then did it -- he, for lack of a better word, faded. He’d done it for her earlier, when he was explaining the whole elven-body-fading bit, but shit. Moira still rubbed her eyes. One minute he was there, fully physical and looking like he was about to kick some ass, and then the air around him blurred like a curtain of water, and he just ... went away. Only, not. Moira could still feel his presence. If anything, the sense that he was there was even more powerful.

The air shimmered slightly, right in that space beside the hatch: an invisible force between Moira and whatever was on the other side of that door.

She heard the scuffling now, a slight footfall. A click and whirr beneath the hatch, but it didn’t budge.

Moira thumbed the release on her machine gun and chambered a round.

Something hissed below the hatch.

Moira's forefinger tickled the trigger, but just before she could pull it back, go out in a blaze of glory, Birdsong moved. She wasn’t sure how she could tell he moved, but she could. In a blur of air, he'd resolved himself again to physical form. He muttered something low and luminous, and the trap door crept open. Moira caught a flash of white, a hand, and then a shadow moved up into the chamber, faster than a regular human would move.

"You could have told me you were coming," Birdsong said, sheathing his sword and lapsing into Sindarin with an accent so thick Moira could hardly follow it. Miren just harrumphed vaguely. Her forearms and one shoulder were spattered with blood, and her silver eyes looked hard in the moonlight. They soaked in the sight of Birdsong for a moment, then slid to Moira.

The elf smiled.

“He said you were near the top. That boy; his senses humble me.”

Moira didn't even have to ask Miren who she was talking about. And it was a good thing, too ‘cause Miren didn't seem inclined to talk to Moira. Instead the elf thumbed a device on her belt and spoke into it rapidly,

“We are at the Chair, but the NTs have found the tunnel up. They were right behind me.” She flashed a sheepish glance at Birdsong.

Through the crackle of a walkie-talkie came Greg's voice, the delicious scary one: “Hold them just a moment longer, Miren. I'm coming to get you.”

Birdsong wasn’t paying attention to the walkie-talkie, though: he was standing over the hatch, looking down. Silently, he unsheathed one sword. That tell-tale crease formed between his brows. He heard something.

“They were right behind me,” Miren repeated.

“They shall not enter,” Birdsong said solemnly. Miren nodded and drew a sleek rapier-like blade from a short scabbard on her back. It looked delicate next to Birdsong’s more solid weapon, but even from across the chamber, Moira could see dark stains on Miren’s sword.

The mountain rumbled, higher up this time. It sounded like the baddies were close to the top this time, right outside. Or below? The rumble felt like it was all-over.

“Get her on the plane,” Miren told Birdsong. “I can handle this.”

Birdsong glanced from Miren to Moira, and then back again. He looked like he was in mortal agony.

“I'm not leaving you,” he told the elf.

“I'm right behind you.”

“You said that before.”

“Yeah, but this time I mean it.” Miren stepped in front of him, blocking his view of the hatch. Somewhere in the change of position, Moira was sure she saw a quick kiss, fleeting and hard. Aha, Moira thought, and left it at that.

The rumble intensified, and Moira braced herself against the back of Durin’s Chair. She fought to stay upright. Pieces of rock broke free of the mountain lip near the twin barrels of gun emplacement and rained down into the hollow below. Moira could hear screeches. Dragons? The bastards were back!

Moira cast a desperate glance at the tactical display on the Chair. Sure enough, there, just off to the edge, was something Big. Moira could only see a general shape on the radar, but it was winged and gigantic, and ... just hovering. Fuck. Bigger than a dragon? What nastiness had they brought along this time? She dropped the machine gun and clambered onto the Chair.

“Moira! Wait!” called Birdsong, and Moira halted. Wha?

And then a warm rush of air swept into the mountain, and a new screech -- mechanical, this time -- drowned out all conversation. Moira, one foot on the Chair, her finger just inches from the sighting screen, looked up.

Way up.

... at the silver underbelly of Miren's sleek corporate jet. And it was coming down. Not fast, down. It seemed to hover just above the mountain, as if it didn't play by the same gravitational rules as all other airplanes. A slat opened in the cargo rear, and a silvery rope ladder descended.

“Climb,” a voice ordered, speaking directly into Moira's mind. She didn't take the time to figure out whether it was Greg, Birdsong, or Miren. She just obeyed, using the Chair to get higher up before she actually grasped the filmy rope ladder.

Moira soon discovered that climbing a vertical rope ladder was harder than it looked in movies. For one thing, doing that hand-over-hand thing and hauling herself upward was a complete bitch. Moira knew she didn’t weigh that much, but it felt like she was trying to shove a rhino up a water slide. Very near impossible. And then, only when she’d managed to climb about fifteen feet or so, Moira had the ...

This might be a good time to mention that Moira was scared shitless of heights. She froze just then, dangling from a jet off the top of a mountain with baddies surging in the chamber below and dragons circling above and people she loved stranded right with her in this limbo, waiting on her scared ass to move. But she couldn’t even breathe.

“Go!” she heard Birdsong yell from below. For the first time in a long time, Moira really wanted to obey him. She truly honestly really did. But ... she looked down again. Her body shook, and it had nothing to do with the just-dawn air or the weird plumes of air that eddied around the jet.

“Close your eyes,” said a voice in her head. She knew it; it filled her whole body, smoothed the shakes out of her hands. She closed her eyes.

“Good. Now, one foot up.” Moira obeyed. “And one hand.” Again, she couldn’t stop herself. Her face hurt from the squinting, and her fingers felt ice cold. Still, she let the voice talk her up two more rungs. She wasn’t even trembling anymore. “You are doing it, Môina. You’re almost here. Come to me.”

She felt something solid when she reached up that time, and the wind no longer eddied around her head. She opened her eyes. Her head and shoulders were inside the plane. Only after she’d scrambled aboard and scooted away from the yawning hole in the floor did she indulge in a long, shaky breath. Or at least, it ought to have been shaky. She ought to have been totally freaked out. And she had been, on that ladder, for a little bit. Until he’d soothed her. Now she felt really ... okay.

“Thank you,” she pushed the thought into the air, hoping it went where she meant it to go. She wasn’t that good at the silent-speaking thing yet, but it was certainly growing on her.

“’Bout time,” said someone nearby, and Moira turned. She shook her head, looked again.

“Brokk?”

It was! He’d survived somehow. Moira almost killed herself tripping over soft white chairs to get to him and hug him silly. She felt movement behind her, and saw Birdsong heft himself up through the cargo slit and settle into one of those white chairs with a slight wave, as if he’d fully expected to find Brokk aboard. A planet-shattering boom erupted from the mountain, and it took Moira a split second to realize that that’s what Durin’s Bane sounded like from the air. Just a little different here on the target end, she realized. Miren was still down there, then, kicking ass. The plane wobbled, and Birdsong leaned over to the panel Moira had seen before, flicking the controls for the onboard gun emplacements.

Moira just sat there in the din, looking at Brokk and Birdsong and everything and nothing. She felt a little funny. Something wasn’t quite right, and ... it dawned on her just as Miren launched herself up into the plane, a fleeting blur of silvered air and dark elven hair.

“Brokk,” said Moira, “where’s Harald? He went back for you, said he had to ...”

Brokk took her hand and led her, angling his squat little body against the sudden shift of the floor as the plane took off, around to the pair of white chairs back near the washroom. Harald’s still form was lying across the chairs; blood caked a vicious looking wound on his head. Someone had laid a soft blanket over him, but that was about all they’d done. Moira guessed there just hadn’t been time.

She went to her knees, overcome.

“He ... is he ...?”

“He’ll be okay,” Brokk assured her gently. “It looks far worse than it is.”

Was he lying? Harald sure looked bad off, unconscious even. That couldn’t be good, even for a dwarf.

Moira tucked the blanket more securely around him, even as the plane banked viciously and picked up speed. Her ears popped. She steadied herself against the floor and held Harald’s head, to keep it from slamming into the back of the leather seat.

“Brokk, in the cabinet a few seats up is a jug of water,” Moira said. “Can you get that, please? And maybe a bowl for it? I think there’s a bowl of peanuts or something in there, too. We can just empty that out.” For some reason, she needed to clean Harald up. It wouldn’t heal him, of course, but it would help her feel useful. Some small part of her knew that this wasn’t exactly a good use of her time, what with aerial combat exploding just outside the plane and all. Miren and Birdsong were yammering away in Sindarin, and though Moira could understand them if she concentrated, she just didn’t bother for a long time. She leaned around the corner and swiped a cotton hand towel from the washroom. When Brokk returned with the water, Moira poured just a little bit into the shallow candy dish, wetted the towel with some of the cool water, and wiped the blood from Harald’s dear, furry little face. She wedged the dish between her knees, to keep it relatively steady, but the plane, although not nearly as wonky as it was on that hair-raising flight out of Georgetown, wasn’t exactly steady.

They did level out eventually, though. Moira noticed that the water stopped sloshing onto her knees, and the guns stopped hammering. Some of her cleansing had opened up a wound just above Harald’s hairline -- roughly heart-piercing height on a human, she mused -- and she folded the towel over and pressed it hard against the gash, to stop the bleeding.

Moira allowed some of the others’ chatter to seep into her consciousness, at least enough to realize that the battle was over. They had escaped. She wasn’t entirely sure where they were headed, but she didn’t care. With her free hand, she stroked a long lock of Harald’s bristly hair back away from his face.

Brokk sat on the floor near Harald’s feet. Poor little guy: he looked absolutely exhausted. Moira smiled at him wanly and gestured to her impromptu bandage.

“I can take care of him for a while,” she offered, “if you wanna get some sleep.”

Brokk shook his head slowly.

“Dwarves are a hearty folk,” he muttered. “Dinna need sleep so much.” But Moira caught the slight dip of his eyelids, much as he struggled to keep them open. Moira looked away, to give him some privacy. Dwarves might be hearty, she thought, but their egos were awfully fragile. She didn’t want Brokk to know she saw his moment of weakness.

Instead she focused on the others. One row up, in the executive arrangement where all the chairs faced each other, Birdsong and Miren reclined across each other, like prize fighters in opposing corners. Considering the amount of blood smeared on Miren’s sea-green tank, Moira figured the analogy wasn’t too far off. Birdsong was similarly spattered with NT gore, though his had long since dried. She watched their intense stares for a long time, figuring that they were speaking to each other silently. Funny that they even bothered, she mused. She could tell by Birdsong’s various facial expressions almost exactly what he was “saying.” Something probably along the lines of, “You, Miren-not-Minou, have managed to piss me off yet again, and it doesn’t matter that you fought through an entire mountain full of nasties just to save me and my goofy mortal grandkid, because clearly I am too stubborn and doofuslike to recognize that as anything approaching noble sacrifice or head-over-ears adoration.” Or something to that effect.

Birdsong glanced toward the cockpit. He frowned.

“I know what you are thinking,” Miren said tersely, “And you can just stop it. He flew all night, would not rest until you all were safe. He deserves your gratitude, not your suspicions.” She’d reverted to out-loud talking, so Moira, with some regret, left off making up their dialogue. Too bad, she’d been having some fun.

Birdsong did not look convinced. Moira knew his not-convinced look well.

“And the other one?” he asked.

“El ... er, his brother, you mean? What is he calling himself now...?”

“Leo.”

Their gazes met in that valley between the seats, and Moira could almost see the electric flash of wills at war there.

“Missing,” Minou admitted, looking away.

Birdsong nodded curtly, as if that proved whatever point he was trying to make. Moira watched this interchange obliquely, wondering if all elves were so incompetent at relationships. She shrugged mentally. It really wasn’t her business. She shifted the bandage on Harald’s head, peered beneath, and saw that the bleeding had stopped. She removed the bandage but didn’t budge from Harald’s side. His chest rose and fell rhythmically, a sign that he still lived. Moira needed that reassurance.

“Flew all night, did he?” rumbled Brokk, from beyond Harald’s feet. Moira started; she’d assumed that Brokk had fallen asleep some time ago. Or maybe he had, and all he needed was a catnap. In either case, he looked significantly less drowsy now.

“Well, then,” Brokk went on, as if someone had actually answered him. “Seems to me he needs a break.” Hauling himself to his feet, he waddled toward the cockpit. Moira wondered if he was leaving just to get away from the argument brewing between Birdsong and Minou. She didn't blame him, if he was. Those two argued all the time, it seemed. Unbidden rose a memory of that moment in Durin's chamber -- had it really been a kiss? or had she imagined it? -- and she shook her head. Almost all the time, then.

“ ... how he even knew we were in danger!” Birdsong was saying. Moira had missed the first part of that sentence. She dipped her cloth into the water dish, wrung out the blood and excess, and pressed it back against Harald's furry little head, with somewhat less pressure this time. He let out a muffled groan but didn't wake. A red stripe of blood whorled in the shallow dish, and Moira watched it intently.

“Perhaps Lena has satellite imagery that exceeds even Harald's technology,” Minou shrugged. “Perhaps he is especially sensitive to ...”

“... our enemy's movements? Listen to yourself, Miren! You are all but proving my point. Harald's system showed no hint of the invasion until it was fully underway. You're telling me that machines on the other side of the world could see what we could not? My dear, you are reaching.”

Moira stared hard at the dish. The whorl spiked, leaved like a deadly red tree in the water. She could still see Harald's determined breathing in her periphery.

“Stop putting words into my mouth! You do not trust him. Fine. I do. We'll simply have to agree to disagree.”

“All right,” Birdsong conceded. “But I will not leave him at my back, nor yours. And I won't have him near...”

“Moira?” Oh, that was a new voice. Or rather, an old one: one that Moira knew well. Her head bobbed up of its own accord, and warmth flooded her body. She knew that Birdsong and Minou had been arguing over him, that Birdsong at least was angry with him, but Moira couldn't help feeling the girliest kind of squee when Greg stepped into the cabin, ducking through the cockpit doorway. His face lit when he saw her.

She grinned.

Greg wasn't an idiot. He had heard most if not all of the discussion between Birdsong and Miren -- the plane wasn't that big. And Moira knew that he needed to address the accusations being made about him. But not just now. At that moment, he had eyes only for Moira. He entered the cabin, stepping over Birdsong’s outstretched legs in the aisle, and knelt before Moira. Without speaking or tipping the delicate balance of the water dish in her lap, he framed her face in his long hands, leaned in.

And kissed her.


Chapter 17 - Salacious Kissery

AN: Unbetaed! Read at your own risk! The quote at the beginning is from The Princess Bride, which everyone should see at least once. And yes, I know it's taken a while to get this story back on track. But Moira has hit a groove, I think. And we're off...

#

“Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”

Moira had kissed a lot of people: she was hardly a noob to this sort of thing. But no one had ever, ever, kissed her like this. Yes, the kissery itself was slithery succulent satin melting into her mouth and bones and soul. Yes, Greg’s very talented tongue had inherently located the sensitive holyfuckme spot behind her canines. Yes, the things happening in her mouth sparked whees to other parts of her body, resulting in instantly perky nipples and warm nethers. And yes, it totally lived up to all her nocturnal imaginings of Gregkissery.

But what it did more, the thing that made her want to both cry and kiss him forever, was that, somehow, aloft over the world at 40,000 feet and sure about exactly nothing, when Greg touched her, Moira felt home.

When he drew back slightly, Moira struggled to hold onto Harald’s water bowl on her lap. Her hands literally trembled -- and she’d thought that kind of crap was reserved for cheesy bodice-ripper romances. But here she was, quavering over a little ol’ kiss. And then she looked into Greg’s eyes and realized: this kiss was just a placeholder, a preview, a promise. A giant fleet of rabid butterflies set up shop in Moira’s belly.

“Greg ...” she whispered. He smiled slowly and opened his mouth to say something, but then the rest of the world rudely intruded. Typical.

“You leave her alone!” hissed Birdsong. He made a movement, as if he was actually gonna bring some shit right here on the plane. Moira flinched, but Miren was faster; she gripped Birdsong’s forearm hard enough to leave bruises on a normal man. Which, of course, he wasn’t.

“Lasgalen, as often as this happens in her family, you’d think...” Miren said, her voice oddly calm, even laced with a bit of amusement.

Birdsong turned on her and started in with the Sindarin. Although Moira could understand it all now, she sort of wished she was still ignorant.

“Remove your hand, Miren. You presume; this is a matter of family.” He might have said “intrude” rather than “presume,” but it didn’t matter. The meaning was the same, and it hit its mark squarely. Moira watched Miren’s already pale skin blanche. Her long fingers flinched away from Birdsong as if he burned.

Moira took the few moments of this power play to flail about for a plan. No way was she going to sit here while Birdsong and Greg fought over her. As a daydream it was sort of flattering, but in reality, she didn’t want to see either of these guys hurt, and especially not because of her. She shifted the bowl, spilling most of it on her jeans, and scrambled to her knees on the floor. Greg had placed himself between her and Birdsong, dang it. If she could just maneuver...

“Well, warms my heart it does, to see my ad hoc mobile-phone recharger bear such fruit,” rasped a familiar voice beside Moira.

And that effectively shut down all other conversation, threats, and insults.

Moira snapped her gaze to the seats by her elbow; Harald was staring up at her with laughing eyes, totally in contrast to the gnarly, though no longer seeping, gash on his head.

Dude! Harald was awake and, way more importantly, alive! Moira struggled to hold it all together. Her insides were fizzing; she couldn’t endure much more of this wild up-and-down night/morning/life.

“Harald? You’re okay? I thought you were...” Moira began. She reached out and touched his beard, at once knowing that dwarves hated that shit and feeling way too worked up to stop herself.

“Didn’t Miren tell you it was magic water, princess?” Harald told her gently, letting her continue her monkey-like grooming.

“It was wha.... oh.” Magic water. Moira hadn’t even thought of that, but now she recalled the water Miren had given her to drink after the Red Room attack. It seemed so long ago, that desperate flight. Er, that other, the first desperate flight. Hmm. It did cross Moira’s mind that she was getting way too used to desperate flights.

Not trusting herself to say anything else -- she was likely to either spout a giddy/relieved “wheee!” or a wholly inappropriate “well, fuck a nugget!” -- Moira bent her head and kissed the dwarf smack on his bulby red nose: another blow to dwarven decorum, sure, but this time Moira thought it was totally forgivable. Harald must’ve too, because he just patted her hand.

“That is it! There is altogether too much kissing in this plane!” snapped Birdsong. He sat, then, with a huff. Strange. Elves got downright weird when they were overwrought, thought Moira. Of course, she couldn’t exactly talk: she’d done some things of the weird lately. Suddenly embarrassed, she sat back on her heels and left off bothering Harald’s beard. Greg, sensing a shift in the tension, lowered his long self to the deck and sat -- not touching her, damn him -- close to Moira.

“Or not nearly enough,” muttered Miren under her breath. She too sat, but far away from Birdsong. She’d crossed her arms over her chest and looked not unlike a gorgeous petulant fairy. Miraculously, her lips looked glossed even after the night she’d just had. How did that even happen?

In the awkward silence that followed Miren’s comment, Harald sat up. Her harrumphed, straightened his beard, and stretched his stubby little legs, acting like he was fine as frog hair. If Moira hadn’t agonized over his inert body these last couple of hours, she wouldn’t have believed he’d been seriously injured.

“Legolas, come with me? Brokk, though clever with pickaxes and the like, should not be left alone with the controls of a jet.” Harald began to waddle his way up to the cockpit, and Birdsong had no choice really but to follow. Greg made a move like he would go along, but Harald raised a hand.

“No, you stay here, lad. Seems you and Miss Moira have a thing or two to settle.” Again he grinned at Moira, and she would swear that, deep in those fluffy brows, he winked.

Moira watched them duck into the cockpit and tried to collect her thoughts. But those slinky little thoughts kept slipping like spaghetti on an oiled spoon. A pause turned into a yawn that she didn’t even attempt to cover up.

“You need to sleep, Môina,” Greg murmured, pulling her into his arms right there on the hard deck of the jet. He snagged the blanket Harald had left behind and tucked it around them, blotting out the rest of the universe.

“Harald was right. We do have things to settle,” Moira said, leaning back against Greg’s chest.

“We’ll have plenty of time,” Greg said, “once we get you home.”

Moira yawned again and let the spaghetti thoughts slip.

“I’m there,” she thought. She might have even said it out loud.

#

She felt the plane’s deceleration but kept her eyes closed for a long moment, reveling in the input of the rest of her senses. She’d slid down sometime mid-nap, and now her head was pillowed in Greg’s lap. His hand moved absently in her hair, like an electric massage. She inhaled slowly; he smelled like leather and old books. And maybe it was the position or the contact or the fact that her tongue had fresh memories of his, but Moira struggled hard with the excruciating desire to do some way indecent things.

“’Morning,” he murmured, not ceasing the movement of his long fingers in her hair.

“Mmmm,” was about all Moira could come up with. She smiled but didn’t open her eyes.

“You sleep with your mouth open,” he observed.

Now she opened her eyes and stared up at him. She moved her head slightly, knowing exactly where it rubbed. He arched an eyebrow but didn’t look shocked.

It was hard for Moira to read him: their relationship had really grown through phone conversations, none of which had shown her his facial expressions. Now that she could see him again, she realized that what she could see was out of whack with everything else she knew about him. Because his smell, feel, voice, touch? All imminently fuckable. But he still looked ... like a geek.

Well, thought Moira, here was the test: She decided to check for sure that this Greg was the one she’d grown so comfortable with over the last months, the one she’d spilled her guts to more than once. The one who made the world and her weird place in it feel doable.

Concentrating, Moira tried to speak silently, directly into Greg’s mind. “Some folks might consider that an invitation,” she suggested, referring to his mouth-open observation.

He must’ve heard her just fine: He grinned fiendishly, and his thumb snaked in behind her ear, just beneath the lobe, rubbing a circle. Lordy hell! How did he know that particular spot was a weakness? Moira suppressed a groan.

Unfortunately, Moira wasn’t all that good at directing her silent chatter. A low rumble of laughter caused her to sit up guiltily. Moira glanced around the cabin. Birdsong was nowhere in sight. Whew. She couldn’t see Brokk, but he was definitely sleeping, ‘cause she could hear his locomotive-like snoring. Double-whew. Miren, however, lounged across two leather chairs up in the executive seating arrangement, looking as though mere mortal furnishings were too squat to accommodate her impossibly long legs. She favored Moira with a knowing smile.

“We’re landing soon,” Miren drawled. “You need not restrain yourself.” Moira’s head snapped up. Was she saying what Moira thought ... oh, that was just ... holy crap! Somehow it hadn’t occurred to Moira that elves could think pervily. Birdsong had always seemed so stiff, and not in the deliciously pervy way.

Miren drew those long legs up and stood. She looked down at the Greg/Moira body tangle and arched a single eyebrow.

“Remember from the mountain? The plane has V/STOL; you will hardly feel it land. That is all I meant. You have about twenty minutes. Also, by the way, I gave Brokk a sedative. And I am going to the loo.”

Such an announcement would have been ridiculous in other circumstances. However, delivered with that arched eyebrow and equally arch voice it was tantamount to permission to engage in wild monkey sex right here on her airplane. Moira watched the elf slither into the little bathroom and close the door with a click. Moira licked her lips.

“She’s very tactful,” Greg said. Moira caught him staring at the bathroom door, too.

“Yeah,” agreed Moira. “Why do I feel like she just encouraged us to ... ?”

“Probably because she did. Consider it her blessing.” Greg didn’t move a muscle. He’d even stopped that delicious fingertip massage behind her ear.

“Why would she do that?” Moira asked.

“She feels a sort of responsibility for my happiness,” Greg said. He didn’t exactly clam up, but Moira could tell he didn’t really want to talk about Miren. Which of course made Moira more inclined to do so. She could be a spiteful little critter, she knew.

“Motherly sort of shit?” Moira pressed.

“Yep,” Greg said. His finger twitched, and Moira suppressed another groan. She was gonna have to watch this guy: he had a talent for changing the conversation without saying a damn thing.

“She’s an elf,” Moira reminded him. He said nothing. “And she directs motherly sort of shit at you. Does that mean you’re an elf?”

“Not exactly.”

Oh. Well, damn. That had been Moira’s best guess. Elves seemed to flit into her life with mind-whirring frequency, after all. Still, Greg seemed to her way more than human. And he wasn’t hairy like a dwarf (she could tell because the top three buttons of his shirt had mysteriously come undone, revealing a taut, smooth, and whoa-touchable chest), winged like a dragon, or ...

“What’s V/STOL?” Ha! If he didn’t want to talk about Miren or elfiness, he could talk about aeronautics! That’d teach him to play games when she really wanted to ...

“Vertical take-off and landing. When we picked you up off the mountain, we didn’t have to land; we just kinda floated in. Y'know, like the Millennium Falcon.” Moira’s belly butterflies fluttered at the oblique comparison to Han Solo. She almost warned him to stay out of her little-girl fantasies.

Instead, Moira breathed, “Groovy.” She’d turned her head, and her breath raised goosepimples on that aforementioned smooth chest. Aha! So he wasn’t totally in control. She had an effect on him after all. Part of her really wanted to test the limits of that effect, wanted to once and for all resolve the Greg-in-her-mind versus Greg-in-the-flesh dichotomy. She sensed it wouldn’t be that hard; she’d learned a lot about appearances and deceiving and shit lately.

However, as it turned out, they had somewhat less than seventeen minutes: Miren hadn’t corrected for slipstream or jet stream or pebbly stream or somesuchshit. Millennium Falcon or not, this plane was tipping downward, squishing Moira against Greg, and not in the slinky sexy way she would have preferred.

She heard raised voices coming from the cockpit and then the clang of the bathroom door as Miren hurried out and forward, probably wondering what the hell the boys were doing to her plane. Moira wriggled out from underneath Greg (alas) and craned her head around the seat. She could see into the cockpit, just barely: mostly a foot here and an ass there.

“Why are we climbing?” Miren snapped, reaching for the control stick. Birdsong batted her away, somehow without even touching her.

“The landing pad is ... occupied.”

Greg detached himself from Moira and, dropping a quick kiss atop her head, scampered up to see what was going on. He was careful not to enter the cockpit proper, Moira noted. Good. Last thing this current disaster needed was another Greg/Birdsong scuffle.

“Occupied? What could you possibly ... oh.” Miren’s hand dropped to her side as the plane banked, rising, and she must’ve caught a brief glimpse of the ground out the pilot’s panoramic window. “Eru save us all.”

Moira knew who Eru was; she also knew that using the name “Eru” was pretty heady stuff for an elf. Birdsong had taught her as much, so she was a little surprised to hear Miren invoke the god.

“Radio to the ground; we need that landing pad clear. We’re on fumes as it is,” Miren said, now with a lot less sass.

“We have already tried ...” began Birdsong, blazing pomposity.

“The radio is out,” said Harald mildly, at once playing mediator between those two and trying to keep the damn plane in the air.

Obviously Sindarin had no word for “radio”; Birdsong just used the English. This hybrid language sounded even weirder than Dwarvish to Moira’s ears. Sindarin seemed too elegant to merge with something as patched up and dirty as English. But then, Moira reckoned, her whole family was a patchwork of beauty and filth. She wondered if she seemed as strange to the real elves as Birdsong’s weird English/Sindarin rang to her.

“I knew we were blowing systems when we were coming in to the Mountain -- those particular dragons had some ranged attack, like, you know, fire breathing -- but I didn’t have time then to make a full assessment then. Sorry. We’ve been flying blind since a while before we picked you up,” Greg explained. Birdsong risked a glare back to Greg, as if his ability to blind-fly a jet into hostile territory, effect a rescue, and then haul ass to safety made him even more suspicious.

Moira rolled her eyes at the still-cracking tension between Birdsong and Greg. Deliberately turning away from their (metaphorical, thank God, what with the confined space of a jet) pissing contest, she waited for the plane to make another turn, and then scrambled up to look through the porthole window, searching the tarmac below for ... occupants? She saw only the tar circle getting smaller and smaller as they rose. The violet dawn played a bit over it, and her vision blurred -- or something -- but then the jet was climbing again and she couldn’t see anything but mud-grey clouds. She wondered if she’d imagined the blur.

“Moira, can you talk to your cousin? Mentally, I mean?” Greg asked in a low voice, turning back to the main cabin.

“Dunno. I’ve never tried,” Moira admitted. Though, it ought to be possible; Nic was Telcontar, too, right? Heck, he was the true heir if she was remembering all the complicated genealogies she’d pored over back at Harald’s mountain. He should have all the abilities she did. She closed her eyes and concentrated on projecting “Clear the landing pad, you doof!” But after a few minutes she’d only managed to give herself the beginnings of a headache.

“Fuck. Well, I guess not,” Moira said. Greg was still staring out the window every time the plane banked, even though clouds were increasingly obscuring the view. Every once in a while, his eyes shifted to the horizon.

“Hey,” said Moira after a few minutes. “Why don’t we just call them?” She reached into her jeans pocket and drew out the jury-rigged cell phone, now held together with duct tape to keep Harald’s improvisational battery snug against the connectors. She checked the LCD and was pleased that indeed the thing still held a charge.

Greg looked at her phone as if it were the holy grail.

“Let me get this straight: you were on the run for your life, only steps ahead of Nameless Things in the mountain, stalked by dragons and all manner of badness, and you managed to rescue that phone?”

“It has sentimental value,” Moira shrugged.

Greg’s quick grin was totally worth it, almost as good as a kiss.

Moira dialed her grandmother without even looking at the keypad. Once upon a time, her mother had had Grandma’s number on the speed dial, but Moira hadn't talked to Grandma Lena in a long time and really had no idea what to say. Something along the lines of "Gee thanks for keeping pretty much everything a fucking secret." Yeah, that would go over well.

Luckily, the whole nervousness was moot, because Nic picked up the phone.

“Hey, Nic, th‘sis Moira.”

“Moira? Thank God... I’ve been watching the mountain all night. How did you get out? It’s still burning on the south side, and ...”

“Actually, I’m right above you.”

“Uh, come again?”

“Miren and Greg came to get me. Didn’t they tell you?”

“Uh...”

Apparently not. Odd.

“We’re trying to land, but the landing pad has some ... stuff on it. Or so Miren says. Can you get it clear in, like, ten minutes or so? We’re way low on gas and will probably fall out of the sky and explode into a flaming ball of yuck soonishly.” So she’d laid on the dramatic a little thick. Nic could handle it.

“Ten minutes? I don’t know ... Greg is with you? Well that would explain ... This is going to be complicated. But I’m on it, Mo. I’ll do my best.”

Moira pressed End with a muttered thanks to her cousin. Then she calmly backed into one of the giant leather seats and buckled herself in. Just in case, she released the oxygen mask from the ceiling and held it at the ready. All the while, she applauded herself for being so cool in such a horrible situation. She felt Greg looking at her, and she could tell he was impressed. Or at least that he approved. He didn’t have to say anything.

Sindarin crackled in from the cockpit still, and Moira actually didn’t want to hear. But she could hardly help it.

“Concentrate, Miren. Can you not reach someone on the ground?” Birdsong was nagging. This earned him the elven equivalent of an eye-roll.

“You know it does not work that way, Lasgalen, even for me. No one down there is woven in my fëa; we must have a mutual will, you know. I cannot just project spiritsong at anyone,” she replied, her voice edgy, as if she were confessing something important.

For her part, Moira wasn’t sure she’d gotten the translation right in her head. “Woven in fëa”? What the hell did that mean? And why didn’t...

“I only thought, since you know so many so well ...” he let that snark drift off, which was probably a good decision. Instead, he looked intently at the jet controls, as if he hoped to discern some code in the switches and lights that would save their asses.

“What do you mean by that?” Miren snapped, slithering into the jump seat and belting herself in.

“Young Nicolas, for instance...”

“Oh, Lasgalen, will you give it a rest?” Miren snapped, switching to English, which was much better suited for this sort of bickering. “I’m not fucking the Telcontar heir. Okay?”

No one else said anything on that jet. Not a peep. Even a moment later, when he realized that the obstruction had been removed, Harald just pointed downward and adjusted the stick to flatten the plane out, so they could descend.

So far as she could recall, Moira had only ever been in planes that landed in the usual way. Now, this V/STOL stuff shoved her guts way up in her throat and made her choke on them for a few minutes. Maybe they were coming in too fast or something, but it felt way wrong, like human beings oughtn’t be fucking with gravity like this. Of course, she figured, human beings weren’t meant to fly to begin with, so maybe the horfing urge created by a vertical landing was just God’s sick joke. Still, despite the ick of descent, the actual landing was butter soft, just a pressure against her rear and a decrease in the overall noise. And then, sort of magically, the world stopped moving (so far as she could feel; she had been awake during the planetary rotation lecture in astronomy, dude), and her guts went back down into her belly where they belonged.

Still, nobody spoke. Moira thought she could hear the breathing of each creature, each survivor, after the last engine powered down completely. They all just sat for a few moments, letting the shock of recent events wash over them.

At last, Harald released the stick and sat back in the pilot’s chair, which was way too large for his stubby little body. Brokk put one hand on his shoulder, and they both lowered their heads fractionally. They faced away from Moira, so she couldn’t see their expressions, but she thought she heard a whisper, something that was almost but not quite, “Alvis,” followed by a soft buzz of consonants: a soulful growl of dwarvish. Sensing the profound solemnity, Moira bowed her head.

She felt rather than heard when everyone else left the plane: first Miren, then Birdsong, and then a scuffling that must have been Harald and Brokk leaving together. A gentle pressure her on her shoulder was Greg. Her body knew his touch instinctively, but she didn’t raise her head yet and didn’t move.

Hard as it was saying good-bye to Alvis, who had become a friend to her in recent months, Moira dreaded even more saying hello to her Grandma Lena.

#


Chapter 18 - The Cats of Queen Lena

---------

Chapter 18: The Cats of Queen Lena

---------

“Are you ready?” he asked.

Sadly, the question wasn’t in any way naughty.

“I think so.” Moira said. She hadn’t told Greg the gory details of her family situation, but he must have noticed that in all those phone conversations she’d always asked him to give her love to Nic. Never to Grandma Lena. He would have caught a clue, she figured. Greg was real swift that way, most of the time.

Moira ducked through the jet door and blinked against the sunlight glinting off the Mediterranean and sunbleached white rocks. She’d imagined coming back here -- more often than she’d like to think about, actually -- but she’d never imagined it would be like this. She didn’t want to have to beg for Grandma’s protection. She didn’t want to have to beg for anything. Last time they’d spoken, she’d made her independence pretty clear. Coming here smelled a lot like defeat. Stunk, in fact. Still, Moira took a breath, clenched her teeth, and teetered down the narrow stairs to the tarmac. Greg was just behind her.

She felt a blurry, slithering sort of weight in the air, like slime hovering, suffocating her. Like she was being watched. Only not just in the regular way, watched. More like this unseen someone flayed her bones-out and bared her innards in just one glance. And then did it again and again.

She focused on that gentle pressure: Greg’s hand on her elbow. And Moira realized she could go on.

Grandma Lena’s island wasn’t home to Moira, but it was about as close as she’d come to having a regular home as a child. Her parents had met up twice a year in this place, with her. Her father had been in hiding for as long as Moira could remember. Now that she knew more of the Telcontar stuff, she realized that he’d probably been battling the same sort of shit she’d gotten hit with recently. And wow, he’d battled it for a long time. He was the elder of Lena’s twin sons, so he’d been the heir, she realized now.

Moira hadn’t heard from her father in eleven years.

But over there, along that rocky beachhead, he’d taught her to fish. He’d told her that music lured the fish in better than baubles, and then he’d spread his rich baritone out over the water and his little daughter had been enthralled.

And there, along that pebbled path now sadly overgrown, Moira had bullied a much older and serious Nic into playing hide and seek. She’d won, and he hadn’t even let her. The green stone she’d hidden in her pocket had whispered directions to a secret grotto, and she’d followed its advice. Nic hadn’t found her in six long hours of searching, and then she’d waltzed up that path pretty-as-you-please to claim the victor’s spoils. Which had included a tongue-lashing from both Mom and Grandma Lena for giving everybody such a scare. She hadn’t told them about the stone, and she’d put it carefully back in Grandma Lena’s cookie jar that night after everyone else was in bed.

Now, with Greg silent and watchful beside her, she went down that path again, literally and figuratively. She was no longer a child, she reminded herself. She wasn’t due for a butt-whuppin or a time-out. She could eat cupcakes for breakfast any old damn time she pleased (and, frankly, she’d had way too many cupcake breakfasts when she’d been on the lam with Birdsong; that elf had a stomach like a steel trap and a sweet tooth the size of Antarctica). She was an adult, for fuck’s sake. This island, that stone, her grandmother and every other damn soul on this planet had better get used to that fact.

At the iron gate leading to the west-facing terrace, Moira paused to buff up her courage and go over what she intended to say. Nothing so bald as “’Morning. I’ve been chased, shot at, bled on, and intermittently befuzzled of late. Plus I’m now an official university drop-out. How’ve you been?” of course. She lowered her head and took another deep breath. When her eyes focused, they encountered another set of eyes -- these almond-shaped and feline -- gazing up at her.

No way this cat could be Memphis, the black Abyssinian Moira remembered from her childhood. But it sure looked like him. Just like. The cat blinked. Without even thinking about it, Moira bent and picked him up. She was rewarded with a low purr and a scritchy lick on the inside of her wrist.

“Good to see you, Memphis,” she murmured.

“And you,” the cat said. Whoa, thought Moira. Cats talking to her; la brain was really going downhill fast. She needed a shrink or some... and then she looked up. Beyond the gate, there in the dappled shade of the terrace, stood Grandma Lena, holding another cat, a pure white one. It contrasted sharply with her black tailored dress and dark olive skin. Lena Eldolen didn’t smile with her mouth, but her sharp eyes gentled.

Moira opened her mouth to speak, but she hadn’t actually thought of a good opening line. She eyed her grandmother, immaculately dressed and coifed as usual, and thought of what she must look like in her filthy, bloody Wal-Mart wear. She must seem like a refugee. Shit. And wasn’t that what she was?

“May we come in?” Greg asked, rescuing Moira from the uncomfortable moment. She could have kissed him (and planned to). Grandma Lena didn’t look at him; her gaze was full of her granddaughter.

“Oh, yes. Come inside, do. I’ve made kolaches, the doughy Czech kind you like.” She stroked the white cat, and Moira was sure she could hear the purring, even from way over here. In Moira’s arms, the Memphis-lookalike purred in response.

“You knew we were coming,” Moira said. It wasn’t a question.

A corner of Grandma Lena’s mouth quirked.

“Nicolas can be a bit thick,” she said mildly. She inclined her head toward Greg, but she didn’t look directly at him. “Eluréd just spent four months living for those early-morning telephone conversations. With him missing and your hiding place under attack, I drew my own conclusions.”

Moira opened the gate and stepped onto the terrace. Eluréd? Now, why was that name on the tip of her brain? Huh. She stepped through the soft curtain of Grandma Lena’s perfume and into the house.

#

His name was indeed Memphis, and he hadn’t given Moira an inch of privacy since she’d gotten here. He sometimes scampered backwards and enjoyed staring at unsuspecting humans through the glass-block shower. Oh, and he liked the nut-centered kolaches best. Weird cat.

Moira balanced on a marble-topped kitchen counter, sandwiched in between a tray of fresh pastries and a collection of terra cotta canisters, and fed tasty bits to the cat. She’d had a shower, but her clothes from the mountain were burnable at best, and she hadn’t exactly had a chance to pack before leaving. Ergo, she was dressed in one of Miren’s bathrobes until more appropriate gear could be fetched from the mainland. She wondered idly what Harald and Brokk were wearing in the interim. Birdsong would be bopping around nekkid if the universe had any sense of the pretty.

Nic snatched a kolache from the tray and plopped the whole thing in his mouth at once. The way he ate, Moira had no idea how he wasn’t seven hundred pounds. He must work out like a demon.

“So what was it?” she asked, letting Memphis graciously lick her sticky fingers.

Nic, mouth full, raised a questioning eyebrow.

“The stuff on the landing pad. The stuff you had to remove. Duh, Nic. Swallow already; that’s gross,” she said. Nic dutifully swallowed, and Miren reached out an absent finger to brush the crumbs from his collar. Moira was sincerely thankful that Birdsong wasn’t around to see that particular gesture. In fact, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be in the same room with those three -- Birdsong, Miren, and Nic -- like, ever.

“I would not call them ‘stuff,’” Miren drawled.

“’Them, then. Who’re them?” Moira pressed, not at all liking how her grammar had degenerated over the summer. No way they’d let her back into the linguistics program at this rate. Though, of course, she couldn’t imagine a future that included finishing her degree. Them’s were breaks of this princessing shit, she figured.

“Elves,” Miren said simply. When Moira gestured impatiently, Miren went on. “Refugees. They have been arriving for years now, and they prefer to busy themselves out of doors as often as possible, hence their presence on the landing pad. They are all over the island.” She finished speaking and just sat there, folded neatly in a wrought-iron bistro chair, looking both passionate and tragic. Moira waited for a moment before speaking.

“Okay, and now the truth,” Moira said.

“I just told you the truth,” Miren insisted.

“Uh, no. I looked down there when we were in the plane, and I didn’t see any elves. Try again.” Moira was proud of herself for seeing through the bullshit. Some day folks were going to clue in and stop lying to her.

“She’s telling the truth,” Nic muttered, licking the last crumb of pastry off his pinky finger. “They’re invisible.”

Moira stared at him hard, but he didn’t flinch.

“They have faded, Moira,” Miren said sadly. “I thought Lasgalen had explained all of this to you.”

Moira thought back to that long night, and she tried to remember the specifics. She thought of how the air had blurred like it wore a film of water, and then Birdsong had disappeared. And yet, she had known he was still there, beside her. The important part of him had been there still, undiminished. Bodies, she reckoned, were like buttercream icing on the main elf cupcake.

She thought of that feeling when she’d arrived, the feeling of being watched through and through.

“Oh,” she said now, feeling only slightly noobish.

Nic grabbed the last kolache from Moira’s hoard, ruffled her hair with a careless hand, and wandered out onto the terrace. Moira didn’t even get pissed about the hair-ruffling. It wasn’t like she particularly liked being treated like everybody’s little sister, but she knew now that there were worse things in the world.

She watched her cousin slip through the glass doors and wander outside. He’d taken all this in stride, she realized. Like he’d known for a long time who he was and what his purpose in life must be. And yet he’d moved to the U.S. to keep an eye on her. Even if that move had put him in danger. Moira loved him in that moment more than she could really stand.

Miren, her gaze also following Nic through the glass doors, went on, “Lasgalen and I are rare among elves who yet inhabit this earth: we feel a need to walk among Men still, and so we cling to our hröar. But most elves long ago became creatures of spirit, and some no longer maintain the ability to clothe themselves in bodies. As you can imagine, being spirit mere offers some protection from physical harm. But it also leaves the spirit open to attack, and in the end, I’ve found, the houseless spirits are even more vulnerable to evil.”

“Vulnerable how?” Moira asked, interested for her own reasons. “Some mystical attack or something?”

“Certainly our enemies have such weapons,” Miren said, “but I also refer to the insidiousness of evil itself. Not all spirits must be tempted before they subsume themselves to evil. Some just ... invite it in.” For some reason Moira remembered Greg asking Grandma Lena if they could come in. Weird that that would pop into her head just now.

“Still doesn’t tell me what they were doing on my grandmother’s landing pad,” Moira pointed out.

“This place was never meant to be a haven for our kind,” Miren explained patiently. “Only in the last century or so, with the old forests dying or being hewn in favor of buildings and industry, have houseless elves been chased from all other places of refuge. They had nowhere else to go. So they came here. More even in the last few years.”

“Why? I mean, it’s not like we can protect them here, right?” Moira thought of the indefensible grottos below the island, some with tunnels leading right into the old storage rooms on the surface. This place was like Swiss cheese compared to Harald’s mountain, and their enemies had made quick work of that so-called haven.

“Do you really not know?” Miren asked. She actually looked surprised.

“Know what?” Moira’s mind had wandered (as it was wont to do), and she wasn’t, for a moment, even sure what Miren was talking about.

“They came because of the stone, Moira. The elessar. They can feel its power, even more keenly as they are without the shroud of a body. They maintain the faith that this stone, because of its unique voice and power, can lead them home at last, to Aman, where they can find peace from this constant struggle against evil and time.” Ah. Well, Moira’s mind had been drifting in that particular direction, too, lately.

“So why don’t they just use it and zat on out of here?” Moira asked, shifting uncomfortably on the counter. She felt Memphis press himself hard against her thigh, and she reached down to stroke his knobby head.

“They do not know how,” Miren said, now sadly. “If we knew how to use it, child, we surely would not be here now.” Miren smiled gently, and it seemed to Moira that for once she looked her age. Old, that is. Way, way old.

Moira didn’t say what she was thinking, what had been niggling into her mind the whole time she’d stayed in Harald’s mountain, the whole time she’d listened to Birdsong go on and on about the occhio della strega. She knew. She knew how to use the stone. The knowledge was so heady, so horrible, that she couldn’t share it, and certainly not with Miren. She needed to weigh this knowledge first and get used to it. She needed to think. But first, she needed to buy time and deflect Miren’s curiosity.

So Moira did her usual bit: She hauled another nagging question out of her endless vault of the suckers.

“So,” she said. “Birdsong told me to call you Miren, but that isn’t what you call yourself. So why do you call yourself Minou? Just to be all Creole-ish when you were living in New Orleans?”

Miren took the whiplash-inducing change in topic like a champ.

“It was part of a ... nickname. Is that the right word? Someone dear used to call me ‘Minuial.’ Using that name kept that person close to me, even though we were far separated. Does that make sense?”

Minuial. Dawn twilight. The first blush of morning after a long darkness.

“He doesn’t do those morning rituals anymore,” Moira said, fitting those pieces together on a hunch and wondering if she was right. “Dierdre said he did ‘em because he was looking for something, or calling to someone, I forget which. Maybe he’s finally found his dawn twilight.”

Miren looked down, shielding her eyes.

“He has, or he did. Many years ago, before the known histories. He has carried her memory to this day, and the loss of her grieves him still. If he no longer looks a’westerly for death and reunion, then that only means he has forsaken hope.” Miren’s mouth tightened, and she didn’t look up. Suddenly it seemed to Moira that she was less relaxed, less elegant than usual. Vulnerable. Yeah, that was it. Holy hell, the Good Witch Miren looked vulnerable.

“Or that he’s found something else to hope for,” suggested Moira, wanting to salve this obvious pain.

Miren’s hand flexed, just slightly, a futile gesture. She let out a puff of breath and stood, exuding a sort of restless energy, not unlike Greg’s annoying nervous twitchery

“That is less likely. Now, if you will excuse me.” Miren was so anxious to make her escape that she didn’t pay too much attention to Moira, just dashed off -- not to the terrace and Nic, Moira noted -- to hide her own turmoil.

Which was just how Moira wanted it. She reached over Memphis and slid the second-smallest canister toward her. The tallest held flour; the smallest sugar. This one had once contained cornmeal, and when Moira unlatched it and looked inside, she saw that it still did.

Then she reached inside, digging deep in the orange grit, until her finger rubbed against something sharp and hard and curiously warm. She pinched it between her thumb and forefinger and drew it out.

Evening sunset glittered soft on the platinum-set emerald, but just for a moment. Moira palmed it, closed up the cookie jar, and set it back amongst its kind. Then she slipped out of the kitchen, tuning out the persistent whisper in her head and the soft mew of Memphis wanting his dinner.

“Now,” the stone hissed into her mind imperatively. “Our time is now.”

#


Moira dodged cats as she followed Grandma Lena up stone stairs.

“I don’t keep them in the library,” Grandma told Moira. A black cat slipped between her ankles and leapt up two steps, then sat, waiting for the slow-pokes to catch up. Grandma Lena, however, didn’t miss a single step. Moira envied that balance.

“Then where...?” Moira didn’t get to finish the question, though, because just then they came to a landing, and Grandma Lena took a hard left. Three cats turned with her; one slithered up the baluster and sat on the railing, staring hard at Moira.

Grandma opened a door and stepped back, gesturing for Moira to go in first.

Moira, for all the time she’d spent on the island during her childhood, had never ever been in this room: Grandma’s bedroom and sanctum. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

Settled in between two windows was a narrow bed with simple white linens and a pink-embroidered down duvet. A side table balanced a single lamp, and a hand-knotted rug covered a wide circle of the cold hardwood floor. Above the bed, bolted into the bare plaster wall, was a long shelf, and there, bound in butter-soft leather, were the complete works of JRR Tolkien.

“Which one did you need?” Grandma asked, standing at the edge of the bed and reaching for the shelf. Some people kept Bibles at their bedsides, thought Moira. Her family kept the works of Tolkien. Was mad geekery in her genes or what?

Still, it wasn’t what she needed. Moira narrowed her eyes.

“I thought... I thought we had, you know, special texts. I’ve already read the Tolkien books. I thought there might be something else.” It sounded a little silly now that she said it out loud. It was dawning on her, finally, that nobody mixed up in this mess had all the answers. Not Birdsong or Grandma or even the Tolkien dude. No one knew the fate of Arda; hell, no one even knew the dinky little fate of Men.

Grandma Lena turned and looked at Moira.

“Everything I am or know, I told to Jack. He spent a lifetime making sense of it all, Moira,” Grandma said solemnly.

“But that’s the thing: it doesn’t make sense!” Moira said, her frustration spilling out. “He contradicts himself all over the place and is whoa-annoyingly vague. I thought we’d at least know the truth. And whatsis ... Jack? You call him Jack?”

“What do you call him?” Grandma asked, stretching up to retrieve a book and then handing it back to Moira.

“Cracked,” muttered Moira, reaching for the proffered volume, but Grandma Lena held it for a moment longer, her shriveled hands caressing away imaginary dust from the spine.

“He read all of my papers,” Grandma Lena said. “Many he took with him when he left. I burned the rest. So it’s all here, Moira. You’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Grandma’s black eyes softened, and her smile grew wistful. Moira didn’t dare interrupt her reverie.

“The allies thought Jack was a spy; our enemies knew better but wanted him anyway. It was hard work keeping Jack alive.” Grandma Lena was still looking at the book, her thoughts obviously far away. Not for the first time, Moira wondered about her grandmother, of the lifetime that had brought her to this point. When Moira had been a child, Grandma had been the source of cookies and kitties and sundrenched summers. Later, Grandma had been the grim reaper, always trailing clouds of doom. But all of these guises were just roles that Grandma played in Moira’s life. Moira had never delved into who the person was, the woman Lena Eldolen. Suddenly Moira didn’t want to know. It creeped her and made her way, way sad.

When Grandma Lena looked up from the book, her dark eyes glistened. She sniffled, shook her head as if to free it from cobwebs, and handed Moira the book.

Moira didn’t have to look to know which one it was. She took it awkwardly.

“Thank you,” she said. For the book. For sending guardians out after me, even though I didn’t want them. For keeping our history safe.

Grandma Lena just nodded, and when Moira left the bedroom, Grandma stayed behind. Moira saw out of her periphery that two black cats had leapt up onto the duvet and nuzzled their noses into Lena’s palms. Two other feline guardians flanked the door, and three more arranged themselves on the landing and banister. A dozen tip-tilted eyes watched her leave.

But Moira descended the stairs all by herself.

#

Moira had spent all afternoon reading until her eyes and brain and soul ached. Darkness had fallen outside, and downstairs Grandma Lena was putting the finishing touches on one of her famous meals. The smell of fresh tomatoes and basil wafted like a warm thing through the house, and Moira’s mouth watered at the thought of mozzerella, the real stuff, not that shit they sold in the ‘states. Grandma Lena, with raised eyebrows and tight lips, had sent Moira to call Greg down to supper.

On bare feet, Moira padded up three flights of stairs to the room Greg was staying in. She leaned against the Moroccan arched doorway and knocked.

“’s me,” she called.

She heard something crash inside, a short muttered curse in Sindarin (she really needed to know more of this functional vocabulary, she reminded herself), and then Greg hauled open the door. When he saw her, his face lit up like a spotlight.

“Dinner’s ready,” she told him, not moving from the doorway. He wasn’t dressed yet, and she had a good long look at half-naked Greg. Holy hell. For a long time, she’d guessed that much of his appearance was deliberate, a carefully constructed guise to help him fit in. The things she’d discovered about him in the last few hours -- amazing what a name and an Internet connection could yield -- had pretty much confirmed that theory, but looking at him now, she didn’t really need to know his name to know what he was.

“... Eluréd.” She wound her tongue around his name, tasting its phonetic liquids.

He took a step back and shook his hair over his shoulder. For a moment, something blazed in his face. It looked like defiance, or pride. Whatever it was, it made Moira’s belly wibble and other parts of her warm.

“Yeah, I guess we do need to talk about that,” he conceded, gesturing for her to come inside.

The room was small and lit only by a lamp; once upon a time the rooms this far up had been used by servants. Moira situated herself on the narrow bed and looked up at Greg, very aware, despite the serious conversation they were about to have, that she was wearing only a bathrobe.

“So talk,” she said, leaning back against the stone wall and pulling her bare feet up onto the bed. Greg watched her get all comfy. He swallowed and ran a long hand through his dark hair. He didn’t put gunk it that hair anymore, Moira noted, and he’d let it grow out over the summer. It looked more natural on him this way. And way, way touchable. Her hands fisted in the silky material of her robe.

"It's a long story," he said. "Which shouldn't surprise you.”

“Give me the Cliff’s notes version, then,” Moira said. When he still didn’t seem forthcoming, Moira pinned him with a look. “Nothing you can say will make me un-love you.”

“Does that mean you lo ... ?”

“Tell me,” she pushed. Again, he ran a hand through his hair. This time that hand trembled slightly, Moira saw. He hunched a shoulder, throwing his face into shadow.

Greg’s voice came to her from a thousand miles away, and though it rasped on the soft side, it had a note of steel deep down. “When I was a little kid, my home was attacked and my parents were killed. Miren was among those who attacked us, but she and I have made peace since then, and she feels a lot of guilt now for what she did. Still, although my brother and I escaped slaughter, we were very young and, in our flight, we got lost. The people who found us weren't necessarily nice folks."

Moira didn’t move, but she wanted so bad in that moment to hold him. He looked like he needed it.

"Did they hurt you?" she asked.

"A little," Greg confessed. "The first to find us were men who weren't sure what to make of us. They didn't know our tongue, and we struggled to learn theirs. We were young, y’know? Just trying to figure stuff out. By the time we could all communicate, those men died. Human life is so quick, but we mourned those strangers as if they'd been family to us. The next group we ran into were orcs."

"Orcs," Moira repeated. The word sounded bad, and she vaguely recalled something about orcs in the Rings movies. Weren't those the tall, scary, gooey guys? The orcs in the Silmarillion hadn’t been described all that well, but she tasted bile at the thought of those assholes hurting Greg.

"Monsters," Greg clarified. "A race that died out long ago. They were tormented souls, bred for evil purposes. The time I spent in their camp was not easy, though it was preferable to the torment that followed."

He paused, as if weighing what horrors she could stand. Unable to stop herself -- and really, not wanting to -- Moira held out a hand. Greg hesitated only briefly before he took it and settled himself next to her on the little bed. He didn’t relax, though, and his fingers were ice cold.

"My brother and I were separated and brought before the Dark Lord in his tower,” he went on. “We were curiosities to him: creatures who were neither elves nor men, but somehow both. He sought to corrupt us, and then to turn us against each other, but our spirits remained closed to him. I grew to adulthood in his care, though I use that term loosely."

Moira thought of Birdsong’s whoa over-protectiveness, of his suspicions of Greg. She thought of her grandmother ignoring Greg when they’d arrived, as if she hadn’t even seen him. She looked at the tiny room Grandma Lena had given Greg to stay in, as close to a dungeon as remained on this island.

"My family thinks he succeeded in corrupting you," Moira concluded.

"Yeah," Greg agreed. He waited, as if he expected her to pull away, as if he expected her to express shock or horror. She did neither of those things.

"They’re all so full of shit,” she whispered instead. Greg flinched and turned to look at her. Now, Moira wasn’t all that good at comforting people, especially folks she’d just prodded into laying bare their most horrible and painful memories. In fact, she could think of really only one way to comfort him, but then, she’d been wanting to do that for months.

Moira shifted on the bed, closing the small space between them. He felt cold to her, and she wrapped her arms around him. Slowly he relaxed, so slowly. She’d always sensed that trust came hard to Greg, but now at least she knew why. She felt him sigh beneath her cheek.

Seeking to dissolve the awkward silence, Moira turned her mouth to his bare chest and muttered, “You know, apparently, according to Miren, you are woven into my fëa. Whatever the fuck that means.” She lay her breath along the ridge of his collarbone and felt him tense again, but this time the tension wasn’t a bad thing.

He moved her hair away from her neck and rubbed the pad of his thumb behind her ear, tilting her face up.

“You mean, because we can talk to each other without using our mouths?” Greg asked. She loved how he said “mouths,” like he really wanted to do something with his. Something other than yammering.

“Yeah,” said Moira. “At least, I think so. You figure that’s a good thing?”

“It an unavoidable thing,” Greg answered, his voice downright growly. “I’ve known from the moment I saw you, shitfaced at Allison Haley’s midterm beer bash, that I will love you all the rest of my life.” As a moment of legend, it was a far cry from Beren and Luthien, singing together in a forest. But, still. Moira would take what she could get.

“Babe,” she replied, “What you saw then was just a little buzz. This is, y’know, love.” And she shut him up with a kiss so deep it licked his innards.

#

In the still-open doorway, Memphis bent his head and groomed a dusty foot, as if to grant the two occupants of the room a little privacy.

--------
AN: Abyssinians do not usually come in black. But I ‘spect they can if they’re magical spy cats. (For in-joke references, read up on Tolkien’s Queen Beruthiel.)


Chapter 19 - The Smell of Mithril in the Morning

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Chapter 19: The Smell of Mithril in the Morning

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The Eldolen house on La Finestra Sull'ovest wasn’t really a house. It was kind of an architectural tapestry of the island history: Italian marble shoved up against Mudéjar tilework giving way to Minoan porticos and polythyrons. Everything had a thick patina of age and had been hodgepodged together to the point that even Grandma Lena didn’t know all the secrets on this island. But Moira suspected that one person would know what she needed.

She went looking for him just after dawn. She knew where he’d be.

She’d reverted to the clothes she’d worn back in the mountain because at least they came with shoes. Of course, even three washes couldn’t quite get the bloodstains out. Those things had set deep. And there was something black and nasty splattered all over her sneakers: probably NT goo. Ick. Moira didn’t really want to think about it.

She scrabbled up a set of narrow stairs that, open to the elements for just this end of forever, had weathered to basically a bumpy stone water-slide. On either side grew scraggly olive trees, their twisty trunks dug onto the rocky ground like claws in concrete. Once somebody had probably tended them, but Moira knew for sure that no one had in the last twenty years or so.

She found Birdsong on the prominence at the top of those stairs, at the edge of a wide platform hewn from the cliffside itself. Someone generations ago had built a little pagoda here to watch the sunset laze across the sea, but like so much of the island, no one had bothered to maintain the structure. Only rubble marked its vague outline now. Moira had played knights and castles here as a child, but Nic used to tell her it was a sacred place. Seeing Birdsong here at the dawn, Moira was tempted to agree.

He was staring Westward, sitting on the rocks, his knees drawn up and his pale hair unbound.

“You missed dinner last night,” he said as she approached. Moira should’ve known she couldn’t sneak up on him. She plopped herself down beside him, annoyed that she was a little out of breath after the climb. She probably needed to get her ass to a gym, but she had a few other things to take care of first.

“Yeah,” she admitted cheerfully. “I was up in Greg’s room.”

Better to get all that shit out in the open right off, Moira figured. Birdsong could think whatever he wanted. Hell, they all could. Their naughty supposings weren’t too far off the mark, probably. And Moira was sick of secrets, save the one in her pocket.

“For three hours?” Birdsong queried, keeping his voice casual but giving her the raised-eyebrow treatment.

“Nah. More like eleven. You fishin’ for a blow-by-blow kiss and tell or what?”

Birdsong took the rebuke in stride.

“We had muffins for dessert,” he said, as if that made her absence all the more scandalous.

Moira’s stomach grumbled, and she longed for some of that grub she’d happily skipped out on the night before.

“I saved one for you,” Birdsong added, reaching into the knapsack by his hip and producing a paper-towel-wrapped muffin. It was sadly squished on one side, and it kind of smelled like paper towels, but Moira dug into it with gusto. After, she wiped the corner of her mouth with one sleeve, wadded up the paper towel in her palm, and stretched out her legs.

Across the water, sheets and sheets of sunlight were bleeding over from the east. Only in the furthest distance did night remain, a dark blur on the horizon. Moira could understand the mystery and beckon of the West at dawn. She’d read enough to know what it must mean to Birdsong, too.

“So I guess you knew I’d come up here,” she said, after a long while.

“Of course. You miss me when we spend a whole day apart,” he quipped, but Moira checked his profile just to make sure he was joking. His smile settled her nerves, and her fate.

“You bet. But also, I have some questions for you,” she said.

“Questions? You? I am shocked,” he said, his voice implying that he very much was not. Moira loved this side of Birdsong, all snark and sarcasm. Oh sure, she loved pretty much all of him, even his overprotective pompositizing, but she figured not many folks got to know how fun he could be when he let his guard down. Made her wish she’d known him back then, back in ancient times, when he was still happy. If he ever had been.

“First,” she said, “about this dark lord. It ain’t the same as the one in the book, right?” She needed to clarify that right off, because, even though the book said he was gone, if it was the same sonofabitch ... well, she had some serious machine-gun vengeance to wreak on behalf of a scared little kid named Eluréd.

“Completely different dark lord,” Birdsong confirmed. “Hmm. Perhaps we overuse the term? I suppose Greg told you what happened to him and Leo.”

No, not exactly, thought Moira. He hadn’t mentioned Leo in particular, but she’d been able to fit those pieces together on her own. She just nodded.

“He won’t betray me, you know,” she said, leaving the pronoun open.

“I have learned to trust few people,” Birdsong said simply. “And to love fewer.”

“Now see, that’s a problem, doc. Love doesn’t like being all caged up and then trotted out when you feel like it. It wants to be let out to play sometimes. Take Miren for instance...”

“I would rather speak of other things,” Birdsong said, but his tone was a warning: do not pass this way, for here there be dragons. Moira figured she’d butted into his business enough for one morning.

“Back to that dark lord, then,” she said, swinging the conversation around like a sit-n-spin. “So what’s the feud about nowadays, anyway? I mean, why are we all fighting? Did this dark lord dude run off with somebody’s magical bling again or somethin’? Seems like that happened a lot, back when.” She congratulated herself for working in bits of the research she’d been at recently.

“Bling?” Birdsong finally turned his head to stare at her in total and complete confuzzlement. Well, how ‘bout that? Gruesome details of her sex life didn’t seem to startle him nearly so much as modern slang. He stared at her for a moment, and then shook his head, as if to clear it. But, for once, he didn’t change the subject. Instead, he actually answered her question.

“We fight our enemies because they bring evil into our world. Their shadow fades us all,” he said.

“Dude, evil’s already here, or don’t you get it about the yin and yang, east and west, north and south, global dichotomy balance thingy? If there’s anything good in the world, there has to be evil. You know, I was an international diplomacy major once...”

“I thought it was Spanish...”

“Before that, I mean. Keep up with me, doc. Anyway, we learned in like the first week that no conflict is ever really just good versus evil. Most times, both sides have something that they want, and the trick to diplomacy is to come up with something both sides want, and then give it to them. Poof! Everybody wins.”

Birdsong shook his head minutely, and the morning sun spun it gold.

“Have you ever asked the dark lord dude what he wants?” Moira prodded.

“I would not recommend doing so. Moira, I know where you are headed with this, and I advise against it. No. More than that: I beg you to rethink it. I brought you here to keep you safe,” he told her. Now he was looking at just her, not at the sunrise at all, nor the lingering night.

“You didn’t bring me here,” she reminded him. “Miren and Greg did. And thanks for the advice and all, but it’s clear somebody has to do something. Besides, what’s life for if you don’t risk it every once in a while?” He was reading her mind now, she was sure of it. She tried to keep at least one part of her plan secluded. And really, the parts she left open for him to see would probably bake his noodle plenty, so he wasn’t likely to go hunting any further in there.

“You treat life like it is such a little thing,” Birdsong accused softly, wonderingly. He raised a hand, as if to touch her, but then dropped it back to his side. Moira smiled at him.

“Maybe that’s Eru’s big gift to Men: not to overthink death. What’s it folks say? Live hard, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” Moira winked.

Birdsong did not look amused.

“It is different for elves,” he told her. “The sundering of body and spirit is excruciating, the worst agony an elf can know. But at least when an elf dies, unless he has erred badly, he knows his soul will be offered the judgment of Namo and a place in the Halls of Mandos. So death is less an end than it is a transition.”

“Maybe it’s a transition for us, too,” Moira speculated, squeezing the humour out of her voice, so that he could see how serious she really was. “Maybe human souls go someplace, too. I mean, how can you be sure it’s all zat, fini, tootles? Seems to me like life’s a big fat waste if we don’t carry all the shit we’ve learned someplace else when we leave. Ya gotta have faith, doc.”

Birdsong’s eyes held steady, but he seemed right on the verge of tears. Morning was full in now, pouring heat onto the white rocks. Out in Moira’s periphery, the air moved, and she figured that bodiless elves were all around them, listening. Well, it was what she’d wanted, even if it did make her feel like she was giving a dissertation defense in her underpants.

“How can you be so young and yet be so wise?” Birdsong mused.

Moira leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on his jaw.

“Good genes,” she told him, and then she asked him what she really wanted to know.

#

“Mostly I need it to scare the shit out of folks,” Moira said. “You’ve seen how I fight, so don’t worry I’ll actually, you know, use the thing.”

Ignoring her completely, Harald hefted each sword carefully, weighing them in his thick but reverent hands. A half step behind Harald, Brokk didn’t even dare to touch the weapons; his furry face was blazoned with wow.

“This is ...” Harald’s voice slid off into mumbly awe.

“Precious,” supplied Brokk.

“How so, do you think?” urged Moira, trying to keep from sounding annoyed. They’d only been down here in the family vault -- a fancy name for what amounted to a really, really old heap of cast-off war-related stuff -- for half an hour or more. Eventually somebody was gonna wonder where they were, and explaining at this point wasn’t part of Moira’s plan. She was half a breath from telling them to get a freakin move on.

“Mithril,” breathed Harald, “though shaped by an elf. I never thought I’d see such a thing.” He’d kept his paws on one particular dagger for a while now, a pretty piece with an empty space in the handle. Probably a gem had fitted in there, back when. For all that warrior princess shit she liked to imagine, Moira’d long since accepted the fact that for generations her family had been more the sneaky kind and less the full-frontal-assault kind. Ergo, their need for weapons had deteriorated in recent centuries, and most of the good stuff had been crammed in here in lieu of improvised explosives and cute little 007-type handguns. Almost everybody living had forgotten about this vault. Birdsong, however, had known about it, lord love him. Living as long as the world endured? Nifty useful shit!

“It’s a Noldo doohicky, then? Imbued with spirit, and all that?” Moira asked, trying to recall Birdsong’s exact words in the Chamber of Durin.

“Well, probably not Noldo. I cannot imagine that much of their art exists still. But some Lindi studied with the Gwaith-i-Mírdain, and they weren’t all morons. See this script here?” Harald pointed to some angular characters on the blade itself: interlocking artistic swirls that might also have been letters. Moira nodded. “Those are not Feanorian glyphs, which more or less rules out a Noldo smith: Those sorts were always eager to put their names on things. Still, this is exceptional craftsmanship. And mithril! I just can’t believe that, after all these years...”

Uh oh: He was drifting out into gooey-on-the-awe land. Moira had to wrench him back to the topic at hand.

“And this one?” she pressed, indicating a longer sword, a real badass looking bit of shiny. Harald drew his bushy brows together consideringly.

“An excellent piece,” he said, “but not at all what you are looking for. That is a claymore, only a couple hundred years old, despite the weathering. No, don’t even try to lift it, lass. It’d probably knock you over, and there is no way you could wield such a beast.” Nevermind that he was half her height and hefting it easily, Moira thought. Still, her requirements were fairly specific. Too bad: she thought the claymore looked much more intimidating than the dinky dagger.

“Any of these others?” she asked, indicating the contents of another ancient chest, badly lit right now by her hand lantern.

“Hmm,” Harald mused. Meanwhile, Brokk had knelt down near a pile of age-old detritus: moldering leathers and a few empty helms that looked like they’d make damn fine planters, but not much else. Given that Brokk was definitely beyond the little pool of light cast by Moira’s lantern, she had no idea how he saw anything. And then she heard his sudden hiss of breath.

“Ah, gabil baruk khazâd!” Brokk whispered, reverently. Harald dropped to a crouch beside him and helped lift some junk off of a ratty old curved blade. No hilt or handle, just the blade: something that looked like it would fit on a guillotine, but covered with gritty oxidation and a dark stain along the edge that Moira didn’t even want to think about.

Harald and Brokk fell into that raspy dwarvish tongue, and Moira couldn’t follow. She took the opportunity to observe them, instead. Curious little critters, these dwarves. She watched as Brokk hefted the piece of metal, muttering to it as if it were a kitten. Harald let his hand rest on Brokk’s shoulder, then settle there. It was a casual gesture, totally something that people did all the time. Humans. Elves, maybe. Not dwarves, though. Dwarves didn’t touch each other unless they had to, Moira knew. But she’d noticed in these last couple of days that quite a few rules were off where it came to Harald and Brokk. She’d thought that their closeness was just their way of dealing with the death of Alvis, a reassurance that someone else was out there when they reached out a hand. But now she wasn’t so sure. Hadn’t Tolkien said that non-dwarves wouldn’t be able to tell a male dwarf from a female one?

Holy shit, thought Moira. Suddenly it made perfect sense why Harald had gone back into the mountain to save Brokk, even at dire risk of his own life.

Harald looked up, meeting her gaze over Brokk’s bushy ginger head. His face was an open book: raw emotion there, shining right through his grizzled beard. He opened his mouth, as if to explain the importance of the dirty axe blade. Moira forestalled him.

“Keep it,” she told him, feeling a lump form in her throat. Harald’s deep eyes filled with something that looked a lot like tears, and his stubby fingers squeezed Brokk’s shoulder hard.

With all that you’ve done for me, Moira thought, I should have thanked you before now. She should have made things right, instead of leading him into danger, instead of leading Alvis into death. Of course -- of course -- she thought about her current plan and what it could do to these dwarves, not to mention everyone else she loved.

Carefully she set the lantern on the stone floor of the vault, plucked up the dinky not-even-Noldo (but good enough, for her purposes) dagger, and left Harald and Brokk alone, in peace.

#

Grandma Lena kept her slim notebook computer in a well-lit, tastefully decorated drawing room, tucked within an antique roll-top desk. The banks of RAID servers and cables that connected the island’s systems to the satellite and the rest of the world were hidden tastefully behind a false wall lined with teak bookshelves. Grandma Lena believed, above all else, in maintaining a certain appearance. Not to mention a cutting-edge communications base.

Moira led Greg into the computer room, nudged him toward the roll-top desk, and closed the door. She locked it.

“You could just tell me ...” Greg began, but Moira shushed him. She lifted the top on the desk, booted the computer, and logged herself in. One by one, she opened the tracking programs, showing enemy movements as blips, much like the control room in Harald’s mountain. These displays were smaller and simpler, but the information filtering through them was fairly clear, at least to someone like Moira who’d gotten used to reading it.

She opened one final window, and then stepped back.

Greg leaned closer, though she knew he didn’t need to: his elf-eyes could read this doom from a room away, at least. His face didn’t move as he took it all in: Stromboli, only an hour or so from Finestra via hydrofoil, pulsed with a thousand or more blips, and new ones streamed in from all directions. Data tracked them in from as far away as Guatemala (those dragons that Harald had been keeping an eye on, perhaps?) and Japan (how odd, thought Moira, that a whole group of folks there were called Ainu).

“I ‘wath,” murmured Greg, touching the LCD with one long finger. “But you know, Moira, this has been happening all summer. They’re gathering, perhaps for an offensive. I’m sorry. I know you didn’t want anything bad to happen here, to your family. But you have to believe me when I say this was going on long before Miren and I got here. I didn’t lead them here.”

Moira shrugged off his defensiveness; he had a right to be a little paranoid, what with the welcome he’d gotten from her crew. He ought to know by now that she wasn’t holding any of that against him. She trusted him. And as far as the enemies went, he hadn’t said anything just now that she hadn’t already guessed at. She salved his paranoia with a quick, hard kiss.

“What happens once they all get there?” Moira asked, jerking her chin toward the map overlay of Stromboli. It wasn’t a question she meant for him to answer, but he did.

“They’ll come here,” said Greg. “To get the stone.”

“Fuck that,” Moira said. “I could just take it to them, you know.”

Greg didn’t even flinch. Damn, he was a cool customer.

“You have a plan?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Moira, “and I’m gonna need your help.”

#

They went fishing that Monday, taking a little boat that looked about a thousand years old but was probably only about twenty. Grandma’d said it had belonged to Uncle Carlo, and Moira’d shut up on the questions right then. Like Moira’s father, Uncle Carlo was a sore spot on Grandma Lena’s soul, a spot that folks weren’t supposed to poke too hard at. If this boat belonged to Uncle Carlo, Moira was pretty sure Grandma had kept it in good shape, even if Uncle Carlo hadn’t come back. Even if he was never coming back.

Moira didn’t ask for instructions on how to use the boat; permission was all she needed from Grandma Lena. She figured that if Greg was able to blind-fly a jet, he could figure out the finer points of gassing up a fishing boat for the afternoon. And as it turned out, she was right.

And so, with crusty new-baked bread, cheese, and sodas (Nic had an intervention-worthy Problem with importing bad beverage, and these were Irn Bru from Scotland, so not even the whoa-sugary crap that Moira was used to, but whatever), Moira and Greg had set out before dawn. To fish. Yeah. Like anybody on Finestra believed that load. Two hours out from Finestra and over water so deep even ships couldn’t weigh anchor, Greg cut the puttery outboard engine and sat back on the fake-leather seat.

“Okay, we’re all alone,” he told her. He even threw in a little eyebrow action, and Moira wished wished wished she had plenty of time to make good on the innuendo. Alas, she had a world to save and shit. Time for nookie later. She hoped.

For now, she was just happy they’d managed to outrun a group of invisible elves. They’d catch up soon -- she was counting on it -- but in the mean time, she had some business to conduct with an emerald. She straightened out her right leg, dug in her jeans pocket, and hauled out the occhio della strega. It looked bright in the sunlight, pulsing and alive.

“Okay,” she said to the stone. “We can talk now. I’m Moira, by the way. Moira Eldolen.”

“Eldolen?” the thing said, warming her hand. “You are indeed hidden, Elf. And tardy besides. Time grows short; already we are under way. If defense you must make against our enemies, be hasteful.”

“Yeah, about that,” said Moira. “I need to know a little more about what’s gonna happen. I don’t want to just a’splode a nuke in the middle of a whole buncha folks, y’know. Some of ‘em are my friends.”

“Nuke?”

“Nevermind. Look, just tell me what to expect,” she ordered.

“You may look for us from a’west. We glimmer with diamond dust sifted from the streets of Tirion, and we shine with the arboreal light of the Elu-naeth. We will descend from the heavens at the dawn twilight, heralded by the White Bird’s call.”

“Excellent. And now in plain Sindarin, if you don’t mind,” said Moira.

“We’ll arrive at dawn, over the water. Our bird flies on ahead, and she will find you first. You have mentioned the window-island. Do you still mean to meet us at that place?”

“I’ll be there with bells on,” Moira said. “And, hey.”

“Yes?”

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“You may call me Eärandil.”

--------------
AN:

“I ‘wath” = the shadow

Finestra = la finestra sull'ovest = the window on the west

gabil baruk khazâd = “great axes of the dwarves”

Elu-naeth = woe of Thingol = the Silmaril that was once part of the Nauglamir (see p. 258 The War of the Jewels)


Chapter 20 - Has It Got Forgiveness in Its Pocketses, Precious?

AN: Sorry about the length, but this is the Grand Finale, the last chapter, so I thought I'd wring it for all it was worth. Many thanks to Alassante and Maram for their editorial guidance. -viv

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Chapter 20: Has It Got Forgiveness in Its Pocketses, Precious?

-----------

Moira sipped a soupy warm Irn Bru and waited. She tried not to think of how much the soda tasted like that shit they make you drink before a glucose test. Or about, you know, death and mayhem.

“Isn’t he supposed to be here?” Moira muttered, more than a little on edge. Greg had told her that the Invisible Elves had returned and were well within hearing. Good. Sort of. Or really maybe not at all. See, now that her plan was in motion and irrevocable, she was starting to have some second thoughts.

“Patience,” Greg cautioned. Even distracted, Moira was amused that nervous Greg was telling her to be patient. She shot a look at his hand: yup, those fingernails were still benibbled down to nubs. It wasn’t like he’d become all zen in the last few months. So how could he be so certain now?

“He’s my brother,” Greg reminded her. Well, true. And just then he’d also, indirectly, reminded her that he could read her thoughts like a fuckin book. Thanks for the tip, thought Moira.

Greg raised her hand and brushed a kiss along the back of it, but his gaze remained on the glass-still sea.

A movement in the distance caught Moira’s eye, and she focused on it, trying to discern whether it was real or just a play of light. Sunshine all direct like this did strange things to a girl used to living under a mountain, after all. She blinked and looked down at the water just off the side of the boat, to get her bearings.

Which actually proved fortunate, ‘cause just then a seam broke the indigo surface, not more than three feet off the starboard; Moira would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking at just that spot. A moment later, a long white hand snaked up the side of their little boat. Moira yipped and scrambled to her feet, dropping her soda and drawing her Dinky Lindi Blade. It glittered in the bright sunlight.

But the hand wasn’t disembodied after all. Rising up from the sea came the rest of him: arm, shoulder, head, torso, and so on: Leo, pretty much all intact. He slithered onto the boat and flopped onto his rump, peeling off the flippers and goggles.

“Nice day for a swim, didja figure?” Leo quipped.

“Whine and complain all you want; Moira isn’t gonna fall for your bullshit,” Greg said, without brotherly preamble or greeting. Moira figured they’d already done all that subvocally anyway. “She knows who we are, so she probably figured that a little swim wasn’t gonna kill you. And, oh looky: it didn’t.”

Leo flexed his toes, now free of the flippers, and flashed a look at Moira. She was careful to keep her face bland; Leo’s cooperation was part of her plan. Wouldn’t do to get into it with him at this point. Much as she still wanted to wring his ...

Leo’s gaze slid to Greg, apparently accompanied by some brain-to-brain chatter.

“She’s getting over it,” Greg said out loud, as if in reply. “Bygones and all.”

“That true?” Leo asked, turning to Moira. “Have you decided to forgive me, for whatever?” His grin was as snarky and disarming as ever, but it seemed less threatening now that Moira knew more about his past. Kind of like putting up with the chain-smoking habits of recovering alcoholics or letting formerly abused kittens rip up your drapes. Context meant a lot.

“Yeah,” she said steadily. “Just tell me one ... oh, nevermind.”

“What?” asked Leo, wringing water out of his hair. He’d let his grow out, too, and Moira was startled just then by how much Leo and Greg looked alike. Duh, they were brothers, but they looked a lot like each other when their guards were down.

“I was going to ask about Abby Greenblatt’s party,” she said, trying to make it sound like not an accusation. “You know: You. Me. Lemon drops in pitchers. I-woke-up-naked. But you know what? It doesn’t even begin to matter in the bigger scheme of things. So, yeah. Movin’ on.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, nothing happened,” said Leo. His fingers moved impossibly fast, threading his hair into neat braids, to keep it out of his face. “I mean it. Lookit: You were wearing a leather skirt, if you’ll recall. I myself have slept in leathers, and believe me, that stuff chafes. I just wanted to spare you the agony.”

“That’s all?” asked Moira. She really could let it go. Honest.

“That’s all,” confirmed Leo. He wasn’t even grinning or looking sarky. “Besides, I mean, I knew my brother was head over ears for you. And have you seen him with a sword?” He shuddered dramatically and started peeling off the diving suit. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t anger him if I could help it.” The wink didn’t look so lecherous suddenly. It looked silly and kind of sweet.

“Head over ears? Really?” Moira felt a goofy grin coming on. She handed Leo a towel, a change of clothes, and a thermos full of homemade lemon liquor.

“Uh huh. He even composed songs and forced me to listen to ‘em. It was sick.” Leo grinned widely, slipped on the cotton trousers, and knocked back some of Grandma Lena’s home-grown version of magic water. He didn’t even wince, and, dude, the boy had no modesty. Good thing Moira wasn’t the comparing kind of gal.

Instead, ignoring his brother as much as possible, Moira turned a look on Greg.

“Songs?” she mouthed, eyebrows way up.

And she wished she had a notebook or PDA just then, because one factoid deserved to be filed for posterity: peredhil? Could totally blush.

#

She had three things to do before dawn, and already the moon was high. Moira’d come up through a grotto and switchbacked around the rocky cliff on the eastern side of the island. There weren’t any natural boat landings here, but that one tiny beachhead just down from the landing pad was probably the easiest approach from the water. She was careful to take it stealthily, staying close to the scraggly olive trees and hoping nobody was paying close attention.

About half the way up to the house, she felt something slither against her shin, and she nearly panicked. But when she looked down, it was just Memphis, come out to say hello. She bent and rubbed him between the ears, then thought about it and picked him up. He was the sort of cat who’d wake up Grandma Lena for no good reason. And Moira just happened to know that tonight of all nights, there was a good reason.

Folks who are the only inhabitants on a nearly inaccessible island generally don’t lock the doors on their houses. And even if Grandma Lena had, the long windows were all still open, so it would have been pointless anyway. Moira padded over the terrace and let herself in via the kitchen.

The study was on this floor, and Moira achieved it without making a lot of noise. She was waiting, really, for Birdsong to sneakily sneak up on her like a sneaky sneaker who sneaked, but he didn’t. Perhaps even elves slept from time to time, she thought, though she’d never seen him at it.

She sent Memphis into the study ahead of her, just in case. But Finestra wasn’t run like Harald’s mountain: no one was watching the steady march of blips on the computer screen. It appeared they didn’t stir unless an alarm went off. Folks here understood the value of sleep, apparently. Moira scooped up Memphis and seated herself before the roll-top desk. She had to open the tracking software and sign in, but it took only a minute or so.

Yup. There were all those dots indicating baddies. And yup, they were beginning to stream in to a point about a hundred yards to Moira’s west right now. She selected another overlay and saw digital representations of other heat sources on the islands. Moira’d spent enough time in the mountain wibbling at displays like this, but now she’d gone and caused one, she felt unexpectedly calm. Like somebody about to face a firing squad, she thought as she navigated to a control screen.

She unlatched the teak bookcase, reached back into the blinking blipping morass of wires and AI, and shoved a little USB stick into an empty port. The screen was kind enough to ask if she really wanted to do what it thought she was doing. She clicked Yes and watched a status bar appear, then disappear. She removed the USB stick and slid it into her pocket, and it rubbed up against the Elessar like the two were old pals.

The tracking map popped up again, but it looked different now. That overlay showing all the baddies surging onto Finestra at that very moment? Was gone.

Moira mentally reviewed her to-do list. Make the alarm blind to the invasion: check.

She moved the bookshelves back into their proper place, and pulled a tome off without even looking at its cover. She’d put it there, after all, and she knew almost every word of it, could quote long passages of it in her sleep. Still, she’d marked a page, and the book fell open to that spot with just a little nudging of the pages.

Rustling in a drawer at the escritoire, Moira produced a nubby pencil badly in need of a sharpener. And scowling beneath what moonlight she could soak in from the window and the dull green glow off the computer screen, Moira found the words she wanted. Her hand was steady as she underlined them.

She laid Tolkien’s complete Lord of the Rings -- Jack, according to Grandma Lena, had always intended it to be one volume, not three -- open to page 227, and there, amidst Bilbo’s song of Eärendil, these words bore a scraggly penciled underscore: “upon his breast an emerald.”

Mark the book: check.

She carried Memphis upstairs for a quick nap before going to meet her Doom.

#

When dressing for the mayhem, Moira had chosen something Grandma had purchased on the mainland: a gorgeous hand-stitched butter-colored mousseline sundress, paired with so-cute tribal linen sandals and a matching handbag. For a minute, looking at herself in the mirror, Moira had remembered the girl she’d been last January. So much had changed, and there was no going back. But for all that she had lost, Moira knew she’d gained more. She’d dressed beneath the watchful, unblinking eyes of Memphis, which was creepifying.Totally.

Then she’d hauled her ass up those slick west-facing rock stairs in the last dark before dawn. And now, in the breeze off the water, Moira entertained second thoughts specifically about the sundress. Maybe it was the cool air, or maybe it was nerves, but she was shaking like a rat terrier there on the cliff. That quaver just intensified when They started coming up through the long-abandoned stairs down to the grotto: Greg and Leo first, followed by some pale, almost translucent folks: elves whose bodies were fading despite their desperate attempts to hold on to hröar. They were also armed to the teeth. These, Greg had explained, were the achairn, AKA “asschairs,” who’d come after her back in New Orleans. The Shadow in Middle-earth had bleached more than their beauty: resentment at being abandoned here all this time had left them vengeful, thus the name. But even as they gathered up on that prominence and gazed Westward, Moira could see the Flame kindle within them. She hoped it would be enough.

Other Things crept up those stairs, and Moira’s trembles sure didn’t stop. She hadn’t seen those NTs up close back at Harald’s mountain, but they were scary as shit to look at, like nothing she’d ever seen in this world. And yeah, it did cross her mind that they didn’t really belong in this world. They were leftovers, things that shouldn’t have made it to the 21st century. She couldn’t believe she was standing here feeling sorry for the critters that killed Alvis. And yet, she was.

Alicia came up the stairs, too. Even though Moira’d been expecting this reunion, it was still awkward.

“So, Romestámo, I presume?” Moira asked. A dragon -- really, much smaller than Moira had expected it to be: more like a Rottweiler with giant wings -- swooped down from the dark sky and perched delicately beside Alicia.

“Yep,” said Alicia. “It means ‘east-helper,’ which you’ve probably already learned from your reading. Remember I told you I was all about helping the plight of the elves.” Moira did in fact remember.

“You know ...” Moira was going to point out that she too had been helping the plight of the elves, tromping around with Birdsong and Miren. Alicia, however, had disappeared at a critical time during all this mess, not to mention hanging out with dragons and NTs and all. However, whilst pondering, Moira forgot for a moment that others could pick her thoughts right out of her skull. In fact, Maiar like Alicia didn’t even need the soul-connection mutual-will thingy that elves did. Fuckers.

“Moira, those are only some of the elves,” Alicia explained patiently. “I’ve been helping the others, the ones that haven’t been protected all these years. The ones the Lords of the West more or less abandoned. I’ve gathered them to me, as you can see, along with the remaining great eagles...”

“Er, you mean dragons?” Moira said, cutting through the bullshit. She’d met some of these Rottweilery-dragon things before, after all. Blown up a few, too. Plus she suspected that eagles didn’t generally go head-on against jets.

“Well, descendents of both, and therefore lesser beings than either, really,” Alicia conceded. But then she went on, all preachy: “The old black-and-white designations -- calling some creatures evil simply because of accidents of birth -- are no longer applicable. We are all exiles here in a world of Men. We weren’t made for a world like this one, what with skyscrapers and oil tankers and strip mining. The world has passed us by, left us for dead. We just want to get to a place where we belong, can you understand?”

“Yeah,” said Moira, at last. She could, oddly enough, totally relate. “And about that...”

Was it her imagination, or did all the blood drain from Alicia’s face when Moira reached in her handbag and pulled out the Elessar?

“I think I can help,” said Moira.

And then the Good Guys started to arrive, and All Hell Broke Loose.

#

It had come to this. Lined up, like they were about to slaughter each other, were all the souls on this Earth that Moira loved. On one side stood her cousin Nic, Grandma Lena, Harald and Brokk, and Birdsong, flanked by his ever-loyal Miren.

Moira was standing on the other side, with Greg. She still didn’t regret, but she did feel sad.

“You do not really want this,” Birdsong told her. His voice was pitched low, but it reverberated, filled all the space between them. She could feel it between her shoulder blades, and she squirmed. She wasn’t proof against his voice, not really, or against his love. Even now, when it must look like she’d betrayed them all (inviting the Baddies here to Finestra sure wasn’t in Birdsong’s game plan), he loved her. A whole big part of her wanted to be over there, with them. But she’d made her Choice. She didn’t move.

“Yeah, I do. And you want me to, you just don’t know it yet,” she said.

“This is ridiculous and dangerous, Moira. You must stop it immediately,” Grandma Lena snapped, obviously beyond exasperated and probably just a little terrified. Moira was pretty sure it’d been Grandma Lena who’d found the underlined book passage and had hauled the rest of them up here. If anybody other than Moira had a clue what the Elessar could do, it’d have to be Lena Eldolen. Memphis had gone to her the moment she’d appeared on the clifftop, and now she stroked his silky black fur. Memphis growled, low and angry, and an NT not ten feet away took up the challenge.

Moira could feel feathers and scales and fur and feelings all bristle, and she figured this was about the right time to play her Dinky Lindi Blade card. She dumped the Elessar back into her handbag, grasped the dagger hilt, and yanked it out. It caught starlight and shimmered dangerously, and the growling paused.

“Now, listen,” announced Moira, “We're all gonna play nice for one hour, dig? Even Leo can handle that. So if you got a problem with truce, step forward now and discuss it with this here dagger, yeah?" She tried for her very best Pirates of the Caribbean sword-wielding and intimidating-tha-shit stance. She'd practiced it in the floor-length mirror last night, but now she realized that the lemon-butter sundress sort of spoiled the effect.

To her right, a dragon hissed nastily. Greg stepped forward and unsheathed his own sword, one he’d carried a long time: and now there was a delicious piece -- sword and dude, actually. ‘Cause with all that dark hair and jaunty lean physique, he did remind one of Capt Jack, in a silky non-funny, very intense way.

The dragon shut up right quick.

"Good," Moira said, after an only-fair pause. "Now, I know you all have big beefs with each other and want to more or less rip each other's throats out. Fine. But lookit: my beef is bigger than all of yours. This conflict -- that I didn't even start, mind you, and didn't get much a chance to avoid -- killed my dad. It killed my mom, too, and my uncle, my aunt. It killed my dwarf bud Alvis just last week, and that still smarts a bit, I can tell ya. This same conflict chased me, hunted me, and irrevocably fucked up my degree plan. So I get it why some folks wouldn't be able to get beyond the need for vengeance. But if we just sit around here on Earth and poke weapons at each other forever, who are we really serving? Not Romestámo, here. Not Eru. So, dude,” and she looked right at the dragon, then at Grandma Lena, then at Birdsong, then at Romestámo herself, “Grow. The. Hell. Up. Every single fucking one of you.”

She still held that dagger out, and she felt Greg all threatening and glowery, covering her back. And as much as her innards were wibbling all out of control and made her want to puke, that dagger didn’t tremble, not one bit.

Be proud of me, she urged Birdsong silently. And she watched his face, saw the understanding break there, like dawn itself. His eyes had never seemed so gentle to her; that look he gave her was like a big ol’ warm fuzzy hug. She could durn near see him letting those bygones go. And she could feel how much it hurt him to do it.

Nobody moved against her blade. Nobody attacked anybody else. For a split second, there on a private island in the Med, Middle-earth knew what Peace was.

And then the ship arrived.

It came just as Eärendil had said it would: heralded by a white bird, shining, rose-stained in the dawn as it soared over the western sea. The bird lit delicately on Greg’s shoulder, nuzzling its smooth beak against his ear. He didn’t shake it off.

And he wouldn’t, thought Moira. It was his sister, after all. Moira’d taken the better part of a year to get to this point, but now she accepted the oddness of the moment with quiet calm. Of course the man she’d fallen in love with had turned out to be half-elf and brother to a bird. That was just the way Moira’s luck worked. And she was cool with it. She really was.

The boat followed just after, its prow lit all bright and shit like it carried its very own sun. And in a real sense, it did, what with the Silmaril being strapped on there and all. Still, the vessel, when you got past all the glory of the light, was just a boat. A regular old sailboat, manned by a dude in a dress (well, robe, and he was very nice-looking). The Mariner dropped anchor right up next to the cliff face: the water was plenty deep, and Moira didn’t figure the folks who’d be getting on that boat would mind a short swim to reach it. Eärendil had no dinghies. Eärendil needed no dinghies.

“Well met, Moira Eldolen,” the Mariner called up from the boat. Moira waved back, then she turned to the company assembled on the prominence, looking all flushed with wonder and yearning. This was the moment she’d planned for, hoped for: None of them looked like they were gonna kill each other. An embarrassing number of them had already succumbed to overwhelmed and joyous tears.

“Okay,” said Moira, “I guess y’all can board up now.” And they did. Some jumped right into the water in their exhuberence; others went back down the stairs to the grotto and swam out from there. The NTs scurried down the cliff face in a spidery nasty way that gave Moira the shudder-huhs. She wondered if they’d be welcome in the West, since they weren’t elves, but she figured it wasn’t her problem. Technically, Eärendil had caused all this mess with his green stone and his original Voyage, so as far as Moira was concerned, he could figure out who got to go and who didn’t.

Instead, Moira just watched all the movement, the partings and sorrow and burgeoning joy, and, slowly, she let a dark thought unfurl itself in her brain: For this all to work, for all those elves to find the peace and light they desired, they had to leave her behind. Moira had known from the get-go that there was no passage to heaven for her. She was just a regular gal, a college dropout, and not even the Telcontar heir. Wasn’t Manwe’s fault that she happened to love some of the folks who had been summoned west.

Below, a clutch of wan-looking achairn, flitting in and out of visible light, floated up the silver ropes to the deck of Vingilot. Their complexions deepened the moment they were safely on board, as if just touching the Earth had drained them of color and promise. A dragon sniffed in question, and when Eärendil nodded, it took wing, sailing up above the tall silver mast, circling. Her brood, tiny by comparison, and not unlike snarly flying chihuahuas, joined her in the air. A few more achairn silvered out into the water, and then Moira saw a shimmer on the air: Invisible Elves, breaking from Birdsong’s ranks and heading downward.

Moira watched them all in silence and so intensely that she jumped a little when she felt a hand on her elbow. She looked down to see Harald. He wasn’t making for the boat.

“Our Mahal made us dwarves right here, lass,” Harald told her, “and we’ll stay where we’re put.” And you won’t have to be alone, his gesture said, more clearly than words. Moira covered his stubby hand with her own.

#

The boat rode low in the water, crammed full of beings so insubstantial that Moira wondered idly how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But even more folks streamed toward Eärendil’s Vingilot, and that Silmaril glowed warmly, invitingly. Greg and Leo had been helping elves down the stairs, and Moira watched them with her heart in her throat. She saw how comfortable, how kind Greg was with the elves, and she remembered that he was the great-grandson of their king. Here at the end, she thought, he sure looked it.

In the quiet, while dawn drowned Finestra in its gaudy glory, Grandma Lena, still holding a wary Memphis, came to stand beside Moira and Harald, and Nic and Brokk followed. Birdsong and Miren shuffled a little apart from the rest. Were they waiting for everyone else to leave? Were they pondering staying, even after all their struggles to get away? Moira ached to know, but, completely out of character for her, she just couldn’t bring herself to ask.

“Any ‘o you guys still leaving had better go soon,” Moira made herself say, once morning had blown in full-force. “See, he’s fiddling with that anchor doohickey; I bet he’ll raise it soon. Y’all only got a little while to get down there, else you'll be stuck here." And then in a voice so soft that she knew few could hear it, she added, "With me."

Some chattering started, some apologies and excuses and pleadings and arguments, but Moira tuned them all out. Because, over there at the head of the grotto steps leading down, Greg had stopped, turned, and looked right at her.

"Duh,” he told her, silently. “You had a doubt?" And Moira’s heart nearly burst right then. Seriously, she couldn't've loved him more than she did in that moment, but she didn't want him to be hasty. He had a ton of reasons for going West and just one reason to stay here. And even Moira wasn’t sure she was worth all that.

#

Moira’d just about screwed up her courage to have this Talk with Greg, but then a weird thing happened. And even in a morning full of off-the-wall shit, this thing was pretty durned important. It did draw the attention, at any rate.

All of a sudden, the morning that had been so bright and warm misted over, darkened, and filled up with drizzle. The sea, placid and bright before, now churned with a sudden storm. Moira felt the damp soak her sundress, and when she brushed stray hair away from her face, she wasn’t surprised to find it wet. She looked down and saw that Vingilot pitched violently in the heaving water now, and elves struggled up its silver ropes; many fell back into the rising waves. Moira looked back and saw that Greg and Leo had vanished down to the grotto, most likely to try and help the elves.

Unthinking, Moira followed down those steps, her sandals slipping dangerously on the stone, but she kept her balance well enough. Her handbag slapped against her hip, and it felt hot, as if the Elessar were burning to get out.

Down at the bottom of the stairs, a smooth sloping platform gave way to the sea, and Moira could see the waters rising as the sliver of light beyond grew thinner and thinner. Hundreds of elves in various stages of fading huddled in this cave, seeing their hope engulfed in seafoam. Now that, thought Moira, that ain’t gonna happen. It just ain’t.

She touched the warm leather of her handbag and told it, “Wait. You have to wait.”

“This maelstrom is not by my command,” Eärendil answered. His voice, via the stone, was harried, like he was more than a little distracted trying to keep his boat afloat.

“Then wha...”

The sliver of light on the horizon disappeared, and out on the water, Moira could see a wave getting taller and taller, blacker and blacker, and the sucker was coming right at her island. She knew with a sinking horror that she and everyone in this cave were gonna be swallowed up in that dark water, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. And even though time paused right then, allowing her to ponder and discard all options, even Moira, who had finagled a way out of so many tough spots, just stood there and let it come for her. She knew, after all:

Death rolled in at the head of that wave.

#

Or, well, actually, it wasn’t Death: it was a demigod named Ulmo, a real badass Vala obliquely related to Alicia (weren’t they all related somehow?), and whoa, he was scary. Just as the wave crested, he surged to the top of it, breaking from the water in a semblance of a physical body: mostly just a shell-horned, translucent shimmery mass of water and foam. And when he spoke, Moira could feel it in her shins and forehead, like a heavy metal concert gone way wrong.

“Children of Ilúvatar,” he intoned, seeping his voice into every soul and crevice, “it occurs to me that you need somewhat of a bigger boat.”

And so, the water leveled. Ulmo had brought his crew along, and they set to work uprooting Finestra. Moira wasn’t consulted on a damn thing, and, to that lady’s utter and complete frustration, neither was Grandma Lena. Eärendil did warn Moira and her family to grab what they needed from the house, which was kind of him, Moira thought. But in the end, she found herself shuffled into Uncle Carlo’s fishing boat along with Grandma, Nic, Harald, Brokk, and assorted cats, including Memphis, who kept a fierce eye on Ulmo just in case the Lord of Waters decided to slip him a bath.

And right about dusk, they finally got things sorted on the island; Moira felt a tug low on the water, and mist crept in again, obscuring the sunset and most of the other goings on.

“That’ll make it easier on the satellites,” Nic said, ankles crossed elegantly on the rail at the bow. Not for the first time, Moira marveled at his ability to stay calm, even when Major Shit was going down. “Imagine how many image analysts would shit a brick if they could see an entire island disappear under the waves. Though, dunno if you’ve been up on the surface the last few hours, but Stromboli is helping us out with a puff-and-rumble.”

Stromboli had been erupting for right around 2,000 years, so folks around here were pretty used to it. But Nic was right: the plume would help cover the elves’ getaway.

The grotto was empty now, and Moira felt small within it. It floated sort of loose on the water: probably a result of Ulmo’s efforts. Finestra had always seemed permanent in Moira’s universe, the one fixture in a totally uncertain life. But even that was leaving shortly, she realized. Only her memories would remain. And that was about par for the course of her life. She’d learned to subsist on memory before.

An echo-y scuff of feet on the stairs drew her attention, and she looked up as Leo and Greg ducked into the grotto.

“They’re about ready to shove off,” Leo informed her. “Guess this is good-bye.” He smiled in all kinds of jolly assholery, but his eyes were gentle, like he knew and regretted how those words sliced Moira’s heart to ribbons.

Moira nodded, bit her bottom lip, and motored on: “Yep. Take care. And thanks, for the leather skirt bit. You’re right: it would’ve chafed.” She couldn’t look at those sad eyes or she’d bust out crying, she knew.

Leo smiled again, but more wanly this time, and gestured for Greg, who’d come down the stairs behind him. When Greg didn’t move, Leo paused and looked back. Stillness hung in the air between them.

"Valar valuvar,” Leo whispered, sadly, and then: “I hear we won't be the first twins to live, ultimately, on opposite sides of the pond, so to speak.”

When Greg opened his mouth to speak, Leo moved his hand, and Greg lapsed back into silence.

"Don't say it, gwonin. I know,” Leo went on. The white bird flitted into the cave and lit on Leo’s forearm. “ 'Sides, with you out of the picture, I'm the heir of Eluchíl, eh?" He gave a waggle of eyebrow, but it didn't take the edge off of the moment. They just looked at each other for a long time, and Moira knew that a whole conversation was going on to which she wasn't privy. Once, she'd've been tempted to assign it all to their geek-unity. Now she knew better. These two souls had been together longer than recorded history, and today she was the reason they were even considering separation. Any way ya wrote it, that weren't right.

"Wait," said Moira. Reluctantly Leo and Greg looked over at her. The white bird turned her head, too, and floofed her feathers.

Moira wished for time. She wished for wisdom and clarity and a single moment that would last forever. For a wild half second, she wished she could go back and keep all this from happening, even at the price of keeping all those elves stuck here in Middle-earth: For that half second she was that selfish. But then the moment passed, and steeling her courage, she scrambled out of the boat, sloshed over to Greg, and put her arms around him. She’d never held onto anything in her life as tightly as she did just then, but when the embrace was over, after she’d indelibly imprinted his smell and feel and warmth upon her memory, she detached herself and stepped back.

“Think about it, babe,” she told him, not allowing herself to cry or show how much she hated these words. “You're important over there, in that poofty Elf Society. You’re their king-type thing, yeah? Plus, just the time has to amount to something. I mean, they've been looking for you as long as you've been looking for them.” The white bird chirred and rubbed her beak against Leo’s armpit. “And dude, if I could get on a boat and sail someplace to see my mom and dad again? I probably would. I do love you, I do. With every bone in my body and every hair on my head, and don't you doubt it for a second. But don't stay here for me. Go where you need to be."

Greg scowled as if he’d been ripped completely in half and was furious about it. Again he opened his mouth to speak, and again somebody interrupted him. (That, Moira guessed, did not make him any less angry.)

"Elves love but once," came that voice. A green voice, warm and sunlit and beloved. Moira looked up as Birdsong came down the grotto stairs, but he wasn’t even looking in her direction, and he definitely wasn’t talking to her.

"Eluréd,” he said, “if you leave her, you will breathe a thousand years alone and without hope. Even if time allows your heart to love again, you will always carry the knowledge that you are incomplete and will always be so. I know this. So think long before you abandon this chance at happiness. Aman is a place to succor wounds and sink into the steady rill of time. It is no longer a place for joy.”

And whilst Greg pondered the meaning and weight of these words, Birdsong did finally turn to Moira. He reached out two long hands and framed her face with them: that same intimate-looking gesture Moira’d seen Miren do to him back on the plane in Georgetown. Back then she’d wondered at the meaning, but now she knew: it meant ‘I encircle you, I protect you, I know you.’ Moira stopped fighting the tears.

“Be happy,” she muttered through a big ol’ wibble.

“As I can be,” Birdsong replied. Then he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “Good-bye, Moinâ.”

Moira watched him swim out to the boat. She wondered if Miren was already there, or if she was going by way of the island, or if those two had gotten their weird love-hate-love relationship sorted. On the dark water, that gleaming hair streamed out like a tendril of gold, and Moira’s gaze followed it all the way to the silver ship.

She turned back just in time to see Greg and Leo part: they’d leaned toward each other, forehead to forehead, and continued their discussion in the privacy of their own minds. But now they’d come to some sort of conclusion, and Moira couldn’t bear to watch it. She ducked her head, waded back out to the boat, and climbed in. Her sundress was soaked now and stuck to her legs. She unstuck it painstakingly and rubbed the cold goosepimpled skin on her shins. A soft splishing sound told her that someone else had taken to the water and lit out for Vingilot. Moira felt cold through and through.

Then the fishing boat dipped with a new weight, and something sidled up behind her. It wrapped itself all the way around her: I encircle you, I protect you, I know you.

"Moira," Greg said, resting his chin on her shoulder, right next to her ear, and warming her utterly. "You told me to go where I need to be. Well, I need to be here."

Harald fired up the little outboard motor, and the fishing boat puttered out away from the island. In the distance, Stromboli gave a big ol’ heave, and the whole sea undulated. Moira blinked, and Finestra was gone.

Just like that.


---------

Epilogue

---------

Oddly, an island disappearing overnight wasn’t the big news story Moira had feared. Ulmo had caused a bitchin’ wave, after all (big news in Surfer Magazine), Stromboli had done its part, and besides, apparently the news services were convinced that Finestra had been “uninhabited.” Pffft on all of ‘em, Moira thought.

#

Miren had, apparently, figured out early on that money was the key to human activity. She’d been amassing a serious fortune for centuries, and all the zeroes boggled Moira’s little mind. She’d also, apparently, been selecting an Eldolen heir each generation or so, to administer her empire just in case she got a chance to go Home. Sure seemed like hope had never been a problem for Miren, at least where Aman was concerned. Moira wondered if the elf still clung to that hope when it came to Birdsong.

At any rate, Nic was now a little financial god in his own right, and Moira could only look on in awe as he did his thang. He was good at this. He set up a half dozen organizations all over the world, funneling money into various Earth Reclamation projects. They expanded the wildlife preserve in the Great Rift Valley and were trawling trash in the equatorial morass and hauling cargo ships full of garbage back to land for recycling. Another Nic-funded group was buying up land and, through a series of seedings and burnings, nudging it to return to first-growth forest. A small army of forestry experts and environmentalists -- one with a penchant for wearing gray-camo and carrying a hunting knife -- were on payroll, and a small few even knew why.

Having seen the exiles saved, Nic now intended to save Arda itself.

In a swath of dense forest in Germany, the Lingerers lived on, just wisps in the wind, songs half heard and mostly the stuff of dreams. Moira went there once, quite a few years later, with Greg and their son. Elrún, she’d said, needed to know what elves sounded like. He was a quarter elf-boy, after all. When he filled out his geneology survey in seventh grade, his hoity private-school teacher gave him a D for “charming imagination but not doing the assignment” when he claimed Irish, Polish, Italian, Edain, Maiar, and Edhel ancestry. Moira thought he was a clever kid, if a little cheeky sometimes.

#

In an Earth connected by Internet and satellite communications and flush with a movement to legalize gay marriage, nobody thought it weird that the classically educated nephew and heir of Nicolas Eldolen was best friends with a short, hairy kid from the Appalachians whose parents both had beards.

#

Funny thing about them satellites, though: Finestra had been totally wired in, and when Ulmo had uprooted it, he hadn’t disturbed the servers or generators. So sometimes, early in the morning, Moira would brush Greg’s hair out of his still-peacefully-sleeping face, roll out of bed, and pad down to her study. She’d push through the linguistic manuscripts and textbooks on her desk, fire up her notebook computer, and plug an old USB stick into the port. After logging in, she’d brew up a cup of coffee (two teaspoons of sugar, no milk, and hot), sit back in her chair, and wait. And once in a while, just as dawn broke outside her bay window, a chat window would pop up on her screen:

GREENLEAF: Thought I’d find you here this morning.

MOINÂ : Yeah. When you spend a whole forever-or-so without me, you miss me.

GREENLEAF: Indeed. [pause] Now, for the good of all things, you must cease teaching my grandson Esperanto...


Fin.

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AN:

Seemingly random capitalization of Important terms in honor of “Jack.”

Description of Elwing in The Unfinished Tales: “like a white bird, shining, rose-stained in the sunset, as she soared in joy to greet the coming of Vingilot to haven.” Please forgive the blatant paraphrase/quotation.

Description of Ulmo from The Silmarillion,

“Valar valuvar” = “the will of the Valar be done,” p. 404, The War of the Jewels

Elrún = an early name for Leo/Elurín, pp. 350–351, The War of the Jewels

Moinâ = CE (common elvish) (primitive root = MOJ) trans. to modern Sindarin muin = adj. “dear”

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TO READERS:

What a ride it's been. Thank you a gazillion. Yes, I mean you.



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Printed from Open Scrolls Archive (http://www.openscrolls.net) on Wed May 22, 2019 6:03 pm