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To Rule Them All: A Tale of Middle-earth and the Middle Ages.

Chapter Text

 

January 25, TA 3019.

MORIA

The Istari Olorin, more commonly known as Mithrandir or Gandalf, was exhausted. How many hours, how many days, had passed since his battle had begun? Long ago he had lost all sense of time, his mind focusing ever more on simple survival. He had fallen through fire and water and crawled through the darkest pits of the world, gone through trials no mortal man, and indeed most elves, could ever have passed. But still his battle continued. Now, climbing the Endless Stair, he could feel his body finally starting to give out. Even a Maiar had limits. Soon, he would reach his.

With any luck, so would the Balrog. The Bane of Durin's fire seemed to be slackening, its movements slowing down. The Beast of Morgoth, horrible as it was, still had a body at least partially of flesh. But the Istar had little hope in victory by attrition. The Beast was still more dangerous than a thousand mail-clad knights, and its flame hot enough to melt iron. No, the one known as Gandalf would have to fight, and be victorious.

Mithrandir did not fear death, not in the sense that a mortal man would. Death, to him, was just another step in life. What he did fear was leaving the Balrog alive. Such a force, if put in service of the enemy, would be devastating. He feared what it could unleash upon Eregion and the other lands of the north. The Beast of Morgoth could easily accomplish what the Wizard had feared of Smaug, the great Dragon that had taken the Lonely Mountain. The Dragon had been defeated, yes, but at terrible cost. The Balrog had to be defeated. The wizard knew that much.

And so he continued his pursuit. Climbing up the Endless Stair, he followed the Balrog, striking at its heels, forcing it towards the peak. With every strike, he could feel his body giving out, but the battle was not yet over. After what seemed to be an eternity, they reached Durin's Tower, at the summit of Zirakzigil. Here, their battle continued. All around them, a ferocious storm raged, as if the mountains and skies themselves were trying to slay the two combatants. With everything they had left, the Istar and the Balrog fought on.

The one known as Durin's Bane was enraged. This little one, who had seemed at first to be no more than another mortal man (albeit one very funnily dressed), was clearly much more. No one, man, elf or dwarf could have survived preceding days and weeks of combat. And yet this one was still defiant. Their cloak was torn; a hundred wounds bled or blistered; their bones were cracked and broken. But their sword still struck out against the dark; their staff remained unshattered. And the Balrog, despite its power, was not invincible: the fall and the water had smothered its fire (although not extinguishing it), and even the endurance of Durin's Bane had been tested by the climb up to the peak. Its body was scarred, wounds carved into its mass of flesh, shadow and fire.

The Demon screamed, and advanced again. This one, who had defied them for so long and through so much, would fall, and would fall now. The battle had gone on long enough. With nowhere else to go, the Balrog pressed forwards, driving back the Istar, its hatred and rage pushing its flames ever hotter. It's flesh began to boil and burn, and the snow of the peak turned to steam below its feet. The power of Morgoth ran through the body of the Demon, and now that power welled to the surface as the Bane of Durin struck again and again.

At this moment, the Istar's body failed. The mortal frame, pushed far beyond its limits, crumbled beneath the onslaught, and the one called the Grey Pilgrim was forced to their knees. Their defenses were cracking. The fury of the Balrog's assault continued, pushing the Wizard further and further down, the Power of Morgoth threatening to extinguish his light. Finally, the Istar's guard was broken. The ancient sword Glamdring was torn from his grasp. His staff was broken and thrown aside. The Demon moved in for the final blow.

But the Wizard was not yet defeated. The power of the Valar flowed through the Istar as the power of Morgoth flowed through the Balrog, and now that power was unleashed. The one known as Gandalf, his mortal frame broken, called upon every last drop of this energy. Normally, the Istar was not meant to match strength with strength: they were meant to guide and lead the world, not fight the world's battles. But now, Mithrandir was out of options. The Balrog could not be allowed to threaten the world, no matter the cost. The one called the Grey Pilgrim, long limited, was now unleashed, and the powers of a Maiar of Manwe and Varda were unbound.

And when the Light of Manwe met the Darkness of Morgoth, the world exploded.

 

 

ISENGARD

The Istari Curumo, also known Curunir or Saruman, had no warning. One moment, he had been reviewing production quotas, scouting reports and other trivial, but necessary matters. He was thinking of how to speed the breeding of the Uruk-Hai, where to put a new forge to increase armor production, how many more trees he would need to cut from Fangorn to fuel his war machine.

The next moment, he was on the floor of his study, screaming in pain. He felt as if his very being was being torn apart, his soul being ripped from his body and thrown into the unknown. Through the pain, he barely noticed the Tower of Orthanc, one of the sturdiest structures in all of Middle-Earth, shaking like a child’s plaything.

All around the Tower, a furious storm raged. Lighting stuck down from the heavens, striking the shoddily constructed Orc watchtowers that had been thrown up around the base of the tower. The shaking of the earth collapsed these flimsy constructs, taking many orcs with them. Below the ground, the pits and forges of Isengard were subjected to the same tremors, and in the places where expediency had trumped caution during construction a bloody price was paid. Machines of war and industry, built for efficiency (not safety), collapsed, taking many orc workers with them.

After an what seemed an eternity, the quaking stopped. In his study, Saruman slowly pulled himself off the floor. Idly, he wondered if this was how Gandalf felt after having too much of the Halfling's leaf, or Radagast after too much mushroom stew. Exactly what he felt he couldn't exactly describe, but if he had to try it would be something along the lines of having an Oliphaunt jump up and down on his head for several hours. He was also unsure of exactly what had happened. He had felt a massive disturbance in the Great Music, to be sure, as if a percussion player had dropped a cymbal on top of a timpani during a flute solo. It had originated, he thought (or rather, had felt), somewhere to his north, further up the Misty Mountains. That blasted fool Olorin had probably done something stupid. He certainly had it in him.

Pulling himself into a chair, Saruman took stock of his situation. He began to notice the damage done to his study. Vaguely, he remembered the floor shaking beneath him as he had writhed in pain. An earthquake, then. The White Wizard frowned. In all the time he had occupied the Tower, there hadn’t been any tremors. Certainly, none that had been powerful enough to notice. Thinking about it (as well as he could with an Oliphant tapdancing on his skull), he realized that the disturbance in the Great Music and the earthquake might very well be related.

In the back of his mind, the Wizard thought about the earthquake: the damage to his forges that it had no doubt done, and thus the repairs that would have to be carried out, the replacement workers that would have to be trained. But at the forefront of his thought was the disturbance in the Music. That was the key, the question around which everything was centered.

Doubtless, the palantir would have answers. Climbing higher into the Tower, Saruman meditated further on events. There had been a storm, he thought. Not that Isengard didn’t have storms, but rarely did they come so suddenly. Yet another question in need of answering. Approaching the Seeing Stone, the Lord of Orthanc began going through theories on what had happened.

None of them was anything close to what he saw in the palantir.

LORIEN

Galadriel, the Lady of Lothlorien, had been through many things in her life. She had been there when the sun had first risen, after Morgoth poisoned the two trees. She had marched out from Valinor with her kin the Noldor, following behind Feanor as he had led them into Middle Earth. She had survived that journey, through the grinding ice floes of the far north and down into the now long-gone lands of Beleriand. She had survived all the battles of the ages, those that had claimed her brothers and so many of her kin. She endured in Middle Earth when even more of her people had returned to Valinor, through the second age and its trials. She wore even now Nenya, the Ring of Water, using it to conceal and protect her small corner of the world. She had driven out the Necromancer from Dol Gurdur. And now the One Ring itself had found its way to her doorstep.

The Fellowship had arrived little more than a week prior at the edge of her wood. There was eight of them: a Dwarf, rugged and strong. An Elf, Thranduil of Mirkwood's son. The men, a ranger from the north that had passed through her woods many times before and the Captain of the White City, both so devoted to their duties, but yet so far from the same path. And of course...the Ringbearer and his kin, so small, yet so much stronger than their frail forms would suggest. Perhaps not the likes of Beren, Elendil, Gil-Galad and the other heroes of old. But for this day and age...perhaps enough.

Yes, Galadriel had done much. But not since the Second Age had she felt as she did now. Even now, mere hours after the event, reports were trickling in, claiming that anything recognizable east of the Anduin had vanished, the fields and plains beyond replaced by foreboding mountains. They spoke of the lightning that had struck almost unceasingly, of wind that had uprooted ancient trees at the edge of the wood, of the shaking of the ground that had split solid stone. Galadriel had felt this all herself. But what she felt most had been the tearing, as if her very soul had been being ripped from its spot and thrown in a violent maelstrom to somewhere unknown. She felt torn, as if the fabric of her being had been sheared away and knitted into a new and unknown tapestry. The calling to the West, which she had felt since she had first set foot on Middle-Earth, had been dimmed, as if smothered beneath an oversized blanket.

For the first time in centuries, nay, millennia...Galadriel felt afraid.

 

RIVENDELL

Bilbo Baggins hadn’t been around as long as Galadriel, but he had still seen much in his life. He had faced the great dragon Smaug alone, and come through unscathed. By similar methods of hiding and staying away from anything that might kill him, he had survived the Battle of Five Armies. He had outsmarted both hungry trolls and the strange creature Gollum, as well as his own nefarious cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses.

That was all in the past. Bilbo was old now, and his body wasn’t as strong as it had once been. He had wanted to go on one last adventure after leaving Bag End; to wander Mirkwood, maybe, or perhaps see the Lonely Mountain once again. But nowadays he couldn’t climb a steep hill without having to pause and catch his breath halfway up. He’d barely made it to Bree before he felt like his legs were about to fall off.

In the end, he had stopped at Rivendell. The sanctuary of the Elves made nice enough final stop, he decided; the people here were always good to him, and the food...Still he had hoped for more in his final days. Perhaps he was being unrealistic. After all, what was he now? 120? 130? He could hardly remember himself some days. It was a fool’s dream to believe that he had any adventure left in him.

At least, that’s what he had started to believe. But then the storm had come, more vicious than any that Bilbo had experienced in several decades. The earthquake, too, was something that the old Hobbit couldn’t say he had been through before. Their effect together, he decided, was similar to the time during his first adventure when, passing through the Misty Mountains, he and the Company of Thorin Oakenshield had gotten front row seats to a sparring match between a pair (or perhaps a trio) of stone giants.

Like back in that cold mountain pass, it seemed like forever before whatever was happening passed by. When it did so, Bilbo got the distinct sense that something was afoot. The physical damage to Rivendell itself, protected by Lord Elrond’s enchantments (and, unknown to Bilbo, Vilya, the Ring of Air), was slight, a few of the more delicate structures needing repair and a handful of brushfires around the outskirts that were quickly contained, but the mental and spiritual health of Imladris had taken a beating.

Bilbo heard the rumors and stories, about everything beyond the Bruinen being unrecognizable, of the elves feeling as if their spirits were being ripped from place and hurled into a violent maelstrom, of the diminishing in the Call to the West. Lord Elrond was doing all he could to placate his people’s fears, sending out his own twin sons, Elladan and Elrohir, to scout into the lands that had seemingly changed. Bilbo himself, along with Elrond and his daughter Arwen, now poured through old records and ancient tomes, searching for answers to what had happened. Despite everything, Bilbo couldn’t help but smile to himself.

Maybe he’d get his Adventure after all.

 

MIRKWOOD

Grimbeorn the Skin-Changer wanted answers. In normal times, the son of Beorn had little worry for the world outside of his home (excepting, of course, when the dwarves needed him to clear the Carrock or the High Pass of orcs and wolves; then he gladly took their money [or whatever else they used to pay his tolls] but such interactions were increasingly rare). He hunted, he farmed, he killed any creature that was brave enough or stupid enough to enter his territory without his permission. In normal times, Grimbeorn the Old was troubled by little.

These were not normal times. The storm that had blown through had ripped apart trees older than he was, winds and thunder howling louder than anything he had ever heard, lightning shattering stone and igniting wildfires. The earth had shaken as if the whole world was being used as a dice in some giant’s game. By the time it had dissipated, there was fire seemingly everywhere, eating away at the shredded remains of the trees and undergrowth. The rain, at least, made it so the fire wouldn’t destroy everything, mainly by flooding anything that wasn’t burned or broken.

And so Grimbeorn was left with wrecked lands and no explanation of what had happened. The first order of business would be to rally his people, whatever was left of them, and find somewhere to regroup. Staying in Mirkwood might not be a good idea; doubtless, the storm would have stirred up the various dark creatures that stirred within. This wouldn’t normally worry him, but these times were decidedly not normal. From that line of thought, and idea occurred to him: who better to turn to in not-normal times than the least normal entity that Grimbeorn knew of? And going to them had the added benefit of perhaps finding some answers. The Skin-Changer hadn’t spoken to him in months, if not years, but from what he remembered, Radagast the Brown was, for all his eccentricities, was one wise.

Surely, the Wizard would know something.

______________________________________________________________________________

 

At the other end of Mirkwood, King Thranduil was worried. The storm and the earthquake had done much damage to his kingdom. Fires raged across his lands, many barely controlled; trees had been uprooted by the winds, tearing apart some of the outer defenses; the tremors had wrecked some of his halls, wounding (or worse) many therein; the rains had flooded many of the lower chambers that hadn’t collapsed.

What was worse, though, were the reports coming in from the western borders. The creatures of Mirkwood commonly prodded at the edges of his domain, but usually could be driven off with little effort. But now, with his kingdom in crisis, Thranduil’s borders were vulnerable. Already, dozens of spiders were spilling over his borders, his guards barely holding them back. The storm seemed to have stirred them up. In all likeliness, more would be coming.

The news from the east was somehow even more worrying. Apparently, everything and anything familiar beyond the eaves of the forest had been replaced. The Lonely Mountain was gone, replaced with unfamiliar country. All the elves had felt the disturbance in the Great Music, the sense that they had been torn from where the stood and thrown...somewhere, but this...this was unprecedented. But for now, Thranduil couldn’t afford to worry about it.

He, and his people, would have to survive long enough to do so.

 

THE LONELY MOUNTAIN

Disaster and despair had come to Dain, son of Nain, and the Lonely Mountain. Not since Smaug the Dragon had driven Thror out centuries prior had the Dwarves of Erebor suffered so much within their own keep. The storm had done harm, the lightning shattering boulders and throwing out deadly fragment and the downpour causing landslides that blocked a few secondary vents and passages, but much of that was only superficial. The real damage had been done within the Mountain, caused by the earthquake.

The mines and halls of the Mountain were sturdy and strong, reinforced over the centuries to withstand the constant mining of the dwarves, each tunnel strengthened so that digging more shafts would not cause the old ones to weaken. But the builders had never considered what had happened a possibility. The earthquake had made the very roots of the mountain tremble, shaking Erebor from its lowest vault to the highest peak. The mines and chambers of the mountain were designed to withstand tremors, but nothing like this.

Dain II Ironfoot, King Under the Mountain, surveyed the damage. Dozens already known to be dead, crushed as their ceilings had come down on top of them. Hundreds more were injured, struck by flying debris or pinned as the walls around them had fallen in. Three mineshafts had collapsed outright: it was yet unknown if the entrances were merely blocked or if they had completely caved in, killing all that had been working there. Many chambers and passages in the lower levels had flooded out, the rains seeping through the cracks in the mountain. Such a disaster had never been faced by the younger generation of dwarves, many of whom were frozen by grief or fear. The casualties continued to mount; not since the Battle of Five Armies had so many wounded lay within the halls of Erebor.

Dain had immediately sent out for aid from the men of Dale, but his riders had yet to return. For now, this calamity was squarely on his shoulders, and those of his kinsmen. But he would need to bear most of the weight. His people were shaken, doubt and fear filling their minds. Now, more than any time since the Mountain had been reclaimed, Erebor needed its King. There were dwarves in the lower halls, trapped beneath the weight of the mountain, pinned in the flooding caverns. There was the question of what had caused the quake, but now was not the time to answer it. Rather than a lore-book, Dain instead grabbed a pickaxe and a shovel.

It was time to get to work.

______________________________________________________________________________

 

In Dale, King Brand had problems of his own, but not structural ones. The city had been struck by the storm and the quake, but much less damage had been done than in Erebor. The stone of Dale had stood up to the winds and the lightning, and while the earthquake had been damaging, most of the city was intact. In fact, all in all, Dale was in rather good shape.

No, what concerned him was the fact that, whenever he looked south, he recognized nothing beyond the spokes of the Mountain. The River Running, instead of curving southeast near Ravenhill, seemed to continue westwards instead, its course disappearing behind the south-southwestern spoke of the mountain.

He was not the only one to have noticed this, of course. There was a certain tension in the air, the people of Dale wary of whatever had happened. In a sense, he was relieved when the riders from Erebor arrived. He felt grief for the dwarves, of course, and empathized with their plight. He himself would lead whatever men he could find in the aid of their old allies. But secretly, he was somewhat glad for the distraction, terrible as the cause for it was. He was in no hurry to face the unknown; the people of Dale were laborers, not scholars, and their King was no exception. The whole of the court of Dale was unlikely to have any answers for Brand’s concerns. No, better to bury himself in productive work than concern himself with something that he couldn’t understand.

Besides, what could have possibly happened?

 

ITHILIEN

Faramir, Captain of Gondor, was frightened. He was not so prideful as to say he was not. Even as he presented to his man an air of calm and discipline, internally he was as scared as a small child. There had been nothing to indicate that the day would be anything out of the ordinary. He and his men were encamped near the Morgul Vale, carrying out pestering attack against the orcs in the area; business as usual for the Ithilien Rangers.

The storm had caught his men unprepared, lighting striking down around their small, hidden camp, winds tearing apart their meager fortifications, the earthquake taking out whatever was left. When the maelstrom had finally passed, it was apparent that they could not stay. Fires burned around them, consuming what little cover there was and exposing their position. It was obvious that the Rangers could not stay in the open. If this were normal times, they would have gone west, back into Gondor. Back towards home.

Even in the hardest times, the times when the Rangers had botched an ambush and found themselves forced to retreat, dragging their wounded with them and forced to leave the dead behind, the men of Gondor could look to the west and see the White Mountains, knowing that the White City stood at their base. They took comfort from seeing their homeland and the knowledge that they were doing their parts to defend it. They took much of their resolve from this, and whenever the times grew dark, the Rangers would look to the west, and remind themselves what they were fighting for.

But now the White Mountains were gone, in their place a far more foreboding and unfamiliar range. The Great River was gone, only open plains taking its place. The Rangers despaired at this, their fear and uncertainty beginning to gnaw at their courage. In their hearts, they were all terrified, their Captain no less than any other man. But Faramir could not let his fear show. He had a duty to his men, which for all he knew were all he had left, and he could not let them down. Faramir decided on going north, towards the sanctuary of Henneth Annun, main base of operations for the Rangers, where they could presumably link up with the rest of the the men of Ithilien. Whatever had happened, the Rangers would face it at full strength.

And they would face it with their Captain leading them.

 

 

ZIRAKZIGIL

Here, the storm raged on. Above the peak, lighting cackled and thunder roared. The blinding snowfall and howling winds continued unabated. If one could have looked through the encircling clouds and hail and discerned the peak itself, they would have noticed that the Tower of Durin was no more. What was left appeared to have been cleanly sliced off, as if a massive axe had cloven the Tower from the mountaintop. If they looked closer, they would have seen a small figure in tattered and burned robes, lying still on a cliff some distance below. And if they could have listened through the wind, they would have heard two very distinct noises.

The screech of an eagle, and the roar of a demon.

Chapter Text

January 26, TA 3019/AD 1200

Krakow


Leszek the White, High Duke of Poland, knelt before the altar of God. A pious man (or rather, pious boy; he was not more than 17), he had come to Wawel Cathedral seeking council from the Lord. The Cathedral had always brought him comfort. For more than a century, it had been the beating heart of the Polish branch of the Faith. It was here that Kings (or, in Poland’s case, High Dukes) were coronated, and at the end of their reign were laid down among their forebears.
The history of Poland was all around Leszek, in fact. Wawel Hill, upon which the Cathedral rested, was a living testament to the legacy that he now upheld. It was here that the earliest settlement of his people’s ancestors was built, here that legend said the mythical King Krakus had slain the great dragon Smok Wawelski by feeding it a poisoned lamb (who’s bones were said to now be displayed within the Cathedral), here that the first crowned King of Poland, Boleslaw I the Brave, had established his keep. Here, upon this hill, all of Polish history sat on display.
That history weighed heavily on Leszek. A mere matter of months he had held the throne, being installed by the machinations of various minor nobles and clergymen in the place of his uncle Mieszko, and a calamity unprecedented in Polish history was dropped upon him quite literally out of the sky.
A great storm had been seen to the south, lighting cackling out of the sky, thunder sounding across the plains, snow so thick that nothing beyond the edge of the storm could be seen. The earth itself had trembled as the storm continued on, shaking like a leaf in the wind. When the tremors had finally stopped, the storm had blown north across the plains. Luckily, the lightning seemed to have been spent, and all that Krakow received was a fair few inches of snow.
But when the people of Krakow saw what was behind the storm, fear welled up within them, and uncertainty ruled their hearts. Now, where there had once been nothing but open plains, great mountains now rose out of the ground, dark and foreboding in the appearance, as if some malevolent force hid behind them.
In the day since the storm, some had come to the city from the countryside further south. These riders had been sent by various village heads, requesting the aid of the High Duke. They spoke of a great Black Gate in the mountains, of a mountain that spewed fire beyond, of a Tower upon which a great burning eye gazed out upon them. Most disturbing of all were the stories of monsters, demons that had come out from the mountains and struck at small villages and left few, if any, alive. The messengers begged for aid.
Leszek wished he could give it to them, but there were far too many questions that were currently unanswered. The tales that the riders brought him he would have dismissed as paranoia, the dreams of scared and uneducated men, but they were far too numerous and far too consistent to ignore.
His advisers were less than helpful, each having a contradictory explanation for what was happening, every one more fantastic than the last. The priests were worse, many going through the streets, claiming that the End Times were upon them and that the people had to repent or risk damnation. There was unrest in the streets, and the city guards struggled to maintain order. Leszek was in well over his head.
And so Leszek the White, High Duke of Poland, prayed. In the Cathedral on Wawel Hill, surrounded by the legacy of all of Poland, with what seemed to be the weight of the world on his too-young shoulders, he prayed. He prayed for strength for the task that he knew lied ahead, he prayed for wisdom to choose right against whatever was to come, he prayed for courage against the fears that gnawed at his heart.
In the beating heart of Poland, Leszek the White prayed for the Lord to save him.

 

Seville


Far to Leszek’s southwest, another Lord of Men was also praying, and for very similar reasons, although in a different way. He did not kneel before an altar, but instead stood on the battlements of his city. He recited the prayers laid down not by Jesus Christ and his Apostles, but those of the Prophet Muhammed. He was not silent and alone in his worship, as the High Duke of Poland was, but rather he shouted his prayers to the heavens, leading the men that stood besides him in calling upon Allah for strength and courage.
Muhammad al-Nasir was his name, and he was the Caliph of the Almohads. Two days before, there was little that troubled him. Seville was easily one of the safest cities in his domains. The ancient city was supposedly founded by the legendary Greek Hero Hercules himself, and it sat far from both the Christian Kingdoms that held northern Al-Andalus and the rival Muslim Banu Ghaniya Dynasty that probed at his borders in North Africa.
His father’s victories against the Crusader states had brought peace to his realm. Despite the machinations of the distant Banu Ghaniya to seize his holdings in Tunisia, his lands prospered. Gold flowed through the markets and trade ports, knowledge through the schools and universities, and the people were happy.
That had all come crashing down the previous day. To the east, a great storm had raged, making the earth itself tremble with its ferocity. When the earth had stopped shaking, the storm had passed over the city, dropping a great amount of snow upon the city. But this was not what brought terror to the people of Seville.
To the east had been mostly flatlands with the occasional hill, country that much of the heartland of Al-Andalus resembled. What there hadn’t been was a massive forest, reaching beyond the horizon to both the north and the south. As if the universe felt that the fear of an unknown forest taking the place of almost everything wasn’t enough, there was an air of dread emanating from the dark and twisted trees, striking fear in the hearts of men. And just to make sure that the people of Seville were terrified, large parts of the forest were on fire.
Naturally, the people were afraid. Muhammad would be lying if he said that he wasn’t as well. That first day, the citizenry had largely congregated in the mosques and other places that offered a sense of security. They had prayed in much the same way as Leszek the White did upon the Wawel Hill, kneeling silently before altars inside of the holy places. Then, there had been a sense of calm, that while the unknown was all around them they were not yet threatened.
But then the people from the east had come. They had started to arrive during the night, begging to be allowed within the city. They said that there were monsters in the forest, monsters that had began to come out across the countryside, slaughtering everything in their path. They spoke of great beasts, terrors like giant spiders and wild boars that could outrun horses.
Like Leszek, Muhammad would have ignored these reports, but for their number and consistency. He had put the city under lockdown, trying to head off any hysteria before it got completely out of hand. The guards of the city were mobilized, and soon Seville was crawling with troops. But still, the stories spread, and soon fear and uncertainty ruled. The people huddled in prayer, hiding away in either the mosques or their own homes, begging Allah for protection. Darkness had fallen upon the capital of the Almohads.
Dawn brought no relief. For when the sun rose, it brought with it naught but horror. With the first rays came warning of what was to come: inhuman shrieking and roaring sounded from the still-burning ruins of the forest, sounds that came from no known beast of the world. Gathering his men to the eastern wall of the city, Muhammad began to prepare for the worst.
What came was something he never could have prepared for. Giant spiders, hundreds of them, poured out of the forest, joined by twisted beasts that resembled, barely, such things as deer and wolves. They had been roused by the storm and the earthquake, and now struck out blindly, seeking to find food and shelter. The beasts of Mirkwood had stumbled into the outlying villages on their hunt, striking hard and fast, and now followed the survivors that had escaped them straight towards Seville.
And so Muhammad al-Nasir, Caliphate of the Almohads, stood on the walls of his city. Behind him were the terrified cries and desperate prayers of his people. To his side were fearful men, filled with dread at the great swarm of monsters that approached them. Before him were beasts from nightmare, creatures of hell that brought with them doom and despair. But the Caliph stood tall, raising his sword to the sky, calling his soldiers to stand to their posts, for Allah would not abandon them.
In the war between Europe and the Darkness, First Blood was about to be drawn.

 

Kiev

Rurik Rostislavich, Grand Prince of Kiev, was in a far better situation. The storm that had washed over his lands was far smaller than those that had brought great snowfalls to the heartlands of Europe, and had consequently done far less damage. The ancient trade city at the confluence of the Dnieper and Desna, heart of the Kievan Rus was largely untouched outside of all the snow that had to be cleared from the roads.
Still, the sense of dread and unrest that was now descending here too, although more as a thin mist than a thick fog. Relative to places such as Seville or Krakow, who had seen whole horizons change without explanation, the shift in the terrain around Kiev had been slight: a lone mountain, tall and mysterious, had fallen from the sky north of the city, bringing with it both a new tributary to the Dnieper and a long and narrow lake attached to said tributary. The terror that came with it was far less than that which came with the forest of Mirkwood, the Misty Mountains or the borders of Mordor.
Of course, Rurik had no way of knowing all this, and as far as he was concerned the people of Kiev were the most terrified in Europe. They demanded that their lord do something, anything, to give them comfort. In accordance with their wishes (and his own unanswered fears), he had called forth every wise man in the city to advise him.
The council that resulted was less than productive, going about as well as the ones called in Krakow, Savoy and a hundred other places across the continent. It fell into the usual pattern: the Holy Men prophesied about the end of the world, the learned men could offer no explanations and more questions were raised than were answered. After several hours of futile deliberations, Rurik realized that no answers were to be found within the halls of Kiev.
So now he called on his knights. If the wise had no knowledge for him, he would have to find knowledge himself. Assembling his bravest and strongest warriors, he prepared to march north. The people approved, joyful that their master was taking a proactive stance, and his call to arms was well answered. 300 in all was his company. More had come, but he had instead assigned many to the defense of the city, just in case.
And so, Rurik Rostislavich, Grand Prince of Kiev, rode north. He and his company followed the course of the new river, slowly working their way up the western bank. They moved slowly, wary of any and all potential threats, hands on the hilts of their blades, eyes scanning in all directions. The slightest sign of trouble was enough for the whole formation to be stopped, as it was understood by all that they were on unknown, and potentially hostile, ground. It was in this way that, as the column moved along the shore of the long lake, Rurik’s company was brought to a halt, for the men on the right flank spotted something clearly unnatural.
For below the waters of the lake, something golden glistened.

 

Across Europe

Such patterns continued across the continent, especially in places that had been near the great storm: the people cowered in fear in the Churches and other Holy Places, the sudden changes to the world around them sowing terror in their hearts. They would plea with the local lords for protections, for knowledge, for anything that could sate their fears.

The lords, in turn, would gather their advisers, the local clergy, anyone that might possibly have the slightest idea of what was happening, calling them to come up with some plan of action. Inevitably, these meetings would break down, as no answers could be found among those gathered. From there, there were a handful of paths that one could take.
Some, such as Count Thomas of Savoy, unknowingly imitated Grand Prince Rurik, sending out scouts to survey the changed lands (although few rode out themselves, as Rurik had done), hoping to find answers. In a handful of terrifying instances, most commonly in outlying villages deep in the mountains, isolated and alone, the answers found the people, as orcs and other fell creatures descended upon them, slaughtering all in their path.
Most, however, simply prayed. They prayed in Churches, they prayed in homes, they prayed on street corners and in markets and on city walls. They prayed for guidance, they prayed for strength, they prayed for wisdom and knowledge and, above all, answers. The people of Europe prayed for the Lord to help them in the darkest of times. They sent up their fears and hopes and questions to God.
But only one man received an answer.

 

Rome

In Rome, life continued on. Here, there were no mysterious mountains on the horizon, no sudden storms or earthquakes, no dark forests or black gates. Here was peace and tranquility (as long as one avoided the seedier parts of the ancient city). The living heart of both Europe and God’s Kingdom beat on, seemingly undisturbed by the calamity spreading across the rest of the continent.
The key word being seemingly. Deep in the heart of the Holy City, specifically at the Lateran Palace, once could find people engaging in similar amounts of frenzied activity as in Krakow, or maybe even Seville. Healers scurried to and fro, gathering supplies. Guards took up positions, curiously being stationed on rooftops rather than on walls. Scribes furiously duplicated a message, to be sent to all the Lords of Europe at utmost haste.
These scribes were sworn to secrecy, of course, but all the same stories about the content of the missive soon found itself being whispered about all across the Holy See, from the highest tower to the lowest chamber. Rumors swirled about, that the Holy Father had had a vision given by the Lord himself, that he had seen into the will of God Himself, that the message carried with it an account of a meeting with the Divine.
These stories, dismissed as false by many among the population, carried with them kernels of truth. Indeed, the letters now being sent out on the swiftest horses available held a within a description of a divine vision, a telling of what was and what was to come. This was the Revelation to Innocent the III, which history would long remember, translated into dozens of tongues and spread throughout all the world.
In the Greek translation, it's name was a single word: Apocalypse.

Chapter Text

Letter Sent by Pope Innocent III to the Christian Kings of Europe, Dated January 25, TA 3019/AD 1200.

To the Kings of Europe:

Greetings.

I, the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, and Servant of the Servants of God, call all the Lords of Europe to a great council in Rome. For a Great Shadow now descends upon us, plunging all our lands into darkness. If we do not face it as one, we are all doomed.

Doubtless, many of you are aware of the calamity that has come to us, having seen your lands be changed by the great storm that descended on the 25th of January, Year of Our Lord Twelve-Hundred. Perhaps you have heard rumors of Demons and Monsters, descending from the new mountains, devouring all in their path. I tell you now that all these tales are true. The Mouth of Hell has been opened upon the Earth, and all must gather to stand against it.

I know this because on the night that the storm descended, as I lay resting in my chambers, I heard a great voice calling out to me, asking for me by the name of my birth. I awoke at once, going to my door. Upon opening it, I asked my guards who had called for me. They replied that none come to my door. Returning to my bed, I returned to rest, only to be awoken again by the same voice, calling my name.

Again I rose and went to my door, and again my guards said that none had called for me. Now I recalled the tale of Samuel, who the LORD called by name. Returning again to my chamber, I knelt in prayer, saying “Here I am, LORD. Command me.” And then the great voice called out again, saying “Behold my messenger. Listen to him well.” And then my chamber was filled with light.

When the light faded and I could again see, there before me stood an angel, who rode a great steed and carried a great horn, and who said his name was both Orome and Michael. He said to me: “The One has willed that you ride with me, and for you record all that you see, so you may know of what is to come. For the tale you now find yourself a part of is dark and full of danger: if you are to survive, you will need to know of all that has come upon you” And in my hands I found a scroll and a pen, and so I mounted the steed with Michael who is also called Orome and rode out with him.

We rode above the clouds, with the world standing still around us. The steed carried us north and east, over Italy and the Adriatic, passing Croatia and Slavonia along the way. As we rode, I looked out to the east, and saw great mountains, cloaked in shadow, that had risen out of the ground. As I looked upon them, I knew they were not of this world. I asked Orome who is also called Michael: “What devilry is this, that these great peaks come from nothing? What power of Earth or Heaven could have thrown them up?”

The Angel looked to me and said: “Nothing in the memory of this world. In a far distant place, there were two, a servant of the One and a monster of the Enemy. They clashed against each other, and in their wrath and desperation part of their world was unmade. What remained has come here, as debris from the sinking of a ship. But woe unto you! What has washed up upon your shores is not mere ruins and wreckage, but something far more vile. Beyond those mountains lies the realm of Sauron, who is the Enemy of All the World.”

When the angel spoke that name, a dark chill came upon me, and I knew in my heart that he spoke of a great evil. Soon afterwards, the steed stopped, and the Angel said to me: “Look to the southeast! See with your own eyes the works of the Enemy!” And I turned my eyes as the Angel told me, and there I beheld for the first time the works of the Dark Lord.

There before me was a great black wall, standing between the mountains of shadow and ash. It was as high as any in the world, as tall as ten men, and forged of solid iron and black stone and steel. It’s tower’s were like great teeth anchored upon the dark peaks, their roots set deep into the unyielding stone.

Manning this wall were what could only be demons. Their stances were bent and their eyes full of malice; their faces were like wild boars, and their teeth like knives. A great multitude there were, all in arms with bows and swords and spears. Behind the wall were two great ramparts of stone, and upon them stood giants, chained to the wall. As I watched, a great horn was blown, and the giants marched forth along the ramparts, and the walls parted, like the opening of a gate.

Said the Angel: “This is the Morannon, door of Udun. Beyond lies the dark land of Mordor, where the shadow lies. Come, while the gate is open! There is much that must be seen. Do not be afraid, for none within may yet touch you, for they can not see, nor hear, no feel your passing. I am with you; I will light the way.” And so we rode on, through the black gate, into the land of shadow.

I can describe that place only as Hell. All was covered in ash and dust, and searing heat was present in all places and times. No green grass grew, no breezes cooled the air, no springs or streams cut through the ashen ground. Smoke and fire filled the sky, and the air itself was poison; I saw even the demons choking on the fell winds. And many demons there were; most small, with twisted faces and limbs and claws; some giant, as much as three men, crushing the lesser ones underfoot; some were twisted mockeries of beasts of burden.

But all this terror, all this horror, paled when compared against the Flaming Eye. Above all the horrors of that Hell it was perched, watching all that passed below. It turned and looked over all the lands of Hell, and when its gaze passed over me it felt like the burning of a great fire, fueled by hatred. In appearance it seemed like the sun at its most terrible, searing all that it shone upon. I looked upon it for but moments before I was forced in terror to turn, for seeing into its depths is to court madness.

Then I asked the Angel: “To whom does that great Eye belong? It must be that of the Devil himself!” And they in turn said to me: “Not the Devil, but near enough. That is the Eye of Sauron, from where he watches all the world, waiting to strike. It sees near all, be it in past or present. This sight is a strong weapon, and one he will wield against you. But come! Now is the time that I shall give you the same sight as he. I warn you, though: you will see this all through the eye of madness, and I can not guarantee that you will understand.”

The Angel lead us to the place where the Eye is perched, which he called Barad-Dur. It was cast from Iron and Steel and Black Stone, and rose higher than all the towers of the world. A great army of Demons stood upon its ramparts, of all breeds and shapes and sizes, and they spoke in a black tongue, whose very sound hurt my soul. We ascended the tower, and there at last I beheld him: The Dark Lord, who sat on a Dark Throne within the Dark Tower. His name is Sauron, and he is the Enemy of All the World.

Not yet is he of flesh, being as yet made of shadow and fire, but even as I watched his shape became more solid, his form becoming whole. But the small portion of him that has become tangible is a thing of terror. His helm is burned and black and harder than iron. His hands are like claws, sharper than steel and stronger than stone (I saw that he had only nine fingers, though. The tale of the lost digit I will tell later in this writing). The rest remains a dark spirit on a bad wind, shadows made from fear and hatred and rage, swirling around what has formed like a whirlwind of malice.

I asked the Angel: “How came this to pass? Does not the Devil have a fair form that he wears as a mask, to tempt the hearts of men? Why are only the head and hands made real, and the rest like smoke from a fire?” And the Angel replied to me: “For the same reason that he has only nine fingers. The tale is one of triumph against the dark, and the knowledge it will give you will be needed in the times ahead. Come, and I shall show you.”

We ascended high into the Dark Tower, passing many legions of Demons before coming finally to the uppermost chamber. Here, the Angel said to me: “Behold, The Palantir of Minas Ithil!” and indicated to me the stone in the center of the room. It was black, but could be seen through like glass, and was perfectly smooth. In it’s heart, I saw a great storm swirling around.

The Angel spoke again, saying: “By the use of this stone, Sauron’s sight and reach has grown long. It sees far, through mountains and across seas, and by its sight he has ensnared many.” Then, the Angel took the stone in his hands and presented it to me, saying: “Take the stone in your hands. I will guide its gaze, and show you all that you need to know.” And so I took up the stone, and within it the Angel showed me all things, past, present and future.

I was shown first the beginnings of the tale. In the beginning was the darkness, an endless darkness stretching on to infinity: Nothing was there. But then I heard the word, saying: “Let there be light!” and I heard a Great Music, like ten thousand choirs singing in unison, and the tune was perfect. From the tune itself I beheld the start of all of creation: I watched the building of all the world, the birth of all the creatures and the making of all the mountains and seas.

Then I saw there the Garden of Eden in all its glory, peaceful and beautiful and perfect, with all things living in harmony in the light of the Lord. Two great trees stood in the center of the Garden, and the grace of God flowed from them, lighting all the world in splendor, and all was good. All the creatures of the world praised the Lord, and the Lord walked among the creatures, demanding only that they not harm the great trees.

But then I saw a great Leviathan, who arose in might to challenge the Lord, and it poisoned the trees and made itself a King of all living things. It deceived all the world, and destroyed the trees and plunged the garden into darkness and chaos. The Leviathan turned many to his cause, and under its feet it crushed all that dared stand against it.

Now among those that bowed down to the Leviathan was one called Mairon. They were of a fairer complexion than most that served the Leviathan, being tall and well-shaped and possessing a handsome face. He was a master craftsman, greater than any other in the world, and their crafts were as near to perfection as could be found outside of Heaven itself. But still Mairon seeked improvement, seeked perfection, but he could not find it. Always in his works he found flaws, imperceivable to nearly all but existent nonetheless. In this was did the Leviathan enthrall them, saying: “Bow to me, and I shall give you the perfection that you seek,” and Mairon became the Leviathan’s right hand. Those that defied them cursed his name, and called him Sauron, the Abhorred.

For many years and generations war was waged between the Leviathan and his servants and the Lord and his servants, with much valor and horror on all sides and in all places. Finally, the Lord decreed that the world would suffer no more, and He Himself descended, and all the world was shattered and the Leviathan was thrown down into the pit, where it will be imprisoned until the end of time. Many of the Leviathan’s servants were captured, and taken up above the clouds to stand trial. But Sauron escaped, and went to hide in the far reaches of the broken world.

Now a long time passed, and the Leviathan and his servants faded away from memory, turning from history to legend and from legend to myth and from myth to nothingness. That which should have never been allowed to fade was lost to the ages. But although the world chose to forget the Leviathan and all his servants, Sauron did not forget the world. He went about to the blackest crags at the edge of creation, drawing out to him all the dark shadows of the world. In this way did he become ruler of all that spurned the light.

But his fair form he kept, and many a time he would go out into the light and give great gift to those that dwelled there, seeking to ensnare the Children of the One. He appeared at their gates as he had before his fall, and those that saw him said: “Here is a servant of the One! Come, let us go out and welcome him, for surely he is here for our betterment!” They called him Annatar, and it was in this way that Sauron deceived the world. Few among the Children of the One turned him away, and against those that did he swore terrible vengeance.

And so it was that in that time his power was ever on the rise. To the banner of the Flaming Eye rallied all the scattered servants of the Leviathan, who were seeking to unleash horrible revenge for their master’s fall. Under his thrall fell many kings of men, looking to go out as conquerors and conquered. To his side came all manner of dark beast, hungary and wild. But to those in the light he showed only his fair face, and in this way was his army kept in the shadows.

Now Sauron came to the height of his power. He looked over towards those that remained to defy him, planning their unmaking. Seeking not to risk his power, he went out to those in the light wearing his fair face Annatar, giving them great praise and gifting them great treasures. And so the Children of the one became ever more ensnared, for Sauron in this time forged great weapons, which could make and unmake the world.

20 of these great weapons I saw in all, and they were divided into groups of one and three and seven and nine. The Nine he gave to those that would serve him and now serve him still, for their hearts were weak and wills weaker yet, and they will be his thralls until the end of time, smiting all that oppose him. The Seven he gave to the earth itself, and the soil where they were planted became sick so nothing would grow but greed and fear, and then fire consumed them all, so that nothing remained. The Three were kept from his hands, and taken up by the Skies and the Waters and the heavens, and ever after were they defiant against him, holding back his black tide.

But the One stood greater than all the others. It was forged in secret, in the hottest and deepest pits of Hell, and its power was beyond all the others together. With it in his hand, Sauron would rule them all, all the people of the world. He would find all that dared stand against him, and bring them under his power and bind them in darkness. I saw it wielded against his foes: it makes nations crumble and Kings weep, and none could stand against it. With it he turned even the mightiest against the light, corrupting their hearts and souls and making them bow before the image of the Leviathan. All that would dare face him were thrown down or driven into the dark places, and tribute was paid to him by all the world. And so it was that the shadow ruled, and it fell over all the earth, and Sauron named himself Lord of the World.

And so it was that all of creation bowed before Sauron, and now he looked to overthrow the One Himself, and to conquer even the Heavens. It was at this time that he raised up a Great Armament from all the nations and kings that knelt at his feet, and he compelled them to build a great navy for him, to sail against the angels themselves. The number of slaves and soldiers and beasts of burden that gathered to sail in his name is beyond reckoning. When they set out a great cry went up, and their voices and horns and drums outsounded the thunder. For 39 days and nights the slaves rowed hard on the oars (for there was no wind), and on the 40th day they arrived at the Door to Heaven, and prepared to storm it.

But the One in Heaven looked down upon the vast navy, and, seeing that the only inclination of their thoughts was to evil, he swore that he would wipe them from the face of the earth, every pack animal and chained servant and weapon bearer, so that the world may be made pure again. But to those that remained true to the light he gave favor, and he said to one called Elendil (who is also called Noah): “I am about to destroy the great navy, but I fear that with it will fall much of creation. So I say to you this: Build for yourself and your wife and your sons and their wives a great Ark, so that you may ride out the storm and come through safe, while the shadow is thrown down.”

So on the 40th day after the Great Armament set sail, the One Himself came down and wrecked the entire fleet in a great storm, and threw down the lands from which they had sailed, and much of the earth was drowned under the sea. This included all the monuments built to the Leviathan and the all the great lands that had bowed to the Dark Lord and even the fair form of Sauron; all were lost under the waves. But Noah called Elendil and all his children and servants survived in their great Ark, and came out of the sea onto solid ground, and rallied that had stood in the light to their banners.

Now all those that had opposed the shadow rose as one, seeking to throw down Sauron, who’s strength was now much diminished. In a final and desperate alliance, they marched together to the great gates of Hell, where Sauron had now fled to regain his strength. It was there before the Black Gates that they waged ferocious battle against all the legions of shadow for days and weeks and months before their entry was finally secured. For seven years, then, did they lay horrible siege to the Dark Tower that holds the Dark Throne, and many great men fell to rise no more before it's black ramparts.

And then, finally, with the victory of the light near, Sauron himself came forth. He was now a twisted thing of shadow and steel and fire, his fair form forever lost; his new shape was like that of a Dragon in the form of a Man. His touch burned like a hundred suns, warping armor and swords like paper in a hearth. His own armor was harder than the hardest stone, and no blade could bite him. He wielded in his hands the One, the great weapon which can uproot the mountains, and terrible was the wrath he visited on all that dared challenge his might.

But the time had come that he would be unmade. His armies were broken and scattered to the four winds, and were pursued and cut down as they fled; has lands were trampled and overthrown, so that no more would rise to his aid; even the power of the One which makes the earth tremble could not overcome the vengeful light that now came down to cleanse the world. Even then, with all fortune having abandoned him, Sauron defied the alliance, smiting many princes and kings of the nations of the light, until finally the One that rules all the shadows was cut from his hand, and Sauron was finally himself thrown down.

Despite all of this, however, Sauron survived. So great was the malice and hatred that he had poured into making the One the cuts down kings that he endured even with his body reduced to dust. And the One, the great weapon, was not destroyed: the man that cut it from Sauron’s grasp, who’s name I will not speak (for they deserve no honor here), took it for themselves, for it whispered to them and made them love it, and upon their death it was lost in the waters of time. The Dark Tower was destroyed, but its foundations were not laid bare and remained intact. The black legions of hell were not pursued to the final end and so hid, seeking to regain their strength. And so, although the victory of the light was great, it was incomplete.

It was here that my visions of the past ended, and I began to see both what is now and what is to come. I warn you now: I was shown much of both what will be and what is at once, and not always could I tell one from the other. Thus, little that I saw is straight forwards. Much is out of order: I know not what was the beginning and what was the end, and there was little of anything that was familiar to me. Some, however, I recognized, for I had read of it before, and I had read it the Holy Scripture itself, in the Book of Revelations.

This is a cause for great terror, for that which I recognized from the writings of St. John of Patmos are writings of woe and pain and persecution. They foretell of great suffering for all that follow Christ. Many parts did I recognize, all of them telling of disaster and calamity to come. That which I noted as being told again are as follows:

I beheld The Great Dragon which has ten horns and stands at the shore of the sea, which I am now sure is Sauron, come to devour the world. In a likewise way, I saw one like the First Beast prophesied in John’s Revelation, rising out of the water. They had their own power and throne, and was granted great authority by the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne in his Dark Tower. Their mouth uttered proud boasts and blasphemies and stole the hearts of men, turning them into servants of shadow. They waged war, and conquered the people of God, and they were worshiped by many. I saw too arise the Second Beast, who will show great signs and make all the world serve the Darkness, who calls down fire from the sky and speaks like a dragon. All that did not worship them, the Dragon and the Two Beasts, I saw put to the sword.

I watched as God’s wrath was poured out on the throne of the Dragon, and his land was covered in darkness. I saw the three unclean spirits that are like frogs, that come from the mouths of the Dragon and the Beasts and deceive nations so that they may turn against the Lord, God Almighty. I saw the great earthquake, that throws down cities and kingdoms.

I watched the great star Wormwood fall burning from the heavens, trailing behind it fire and gold. It fell upon the rivers, and then poisoned all the waters. Those that drank the poisoned waters became cursed to be like Wormwood had been, and in this way many died. I saw the Dragon’s ten horns become like 10 Kings, who received authority from him and will wage war on all creation. I saw the darkening of the sun and the stars and the moon, and the moon turned as red as blood.

I saw all of these things come to pass, and I recognized them from the writings of St. John the Divine. This fact filled my heart with woe, for I realized that if this is what to come, then Revelation is being fulfilled, and the End Times are well and truly upon us. The rest of what was shown to me is less clear and contained no solid pieces of scripture, but all the same they indicate that these are indeed the times of Armageddon.

These visions contained many reasons for both horror and hope. The horror I will tell of first; I will preserve the hope for the end of this writing, so that it will not end in despair. I beheld the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne in his Dark Tower, and before him knelt 12 Forsaken Kings of Men, dead but yet unable to die. And then the Dark Lord said to them: “Rise, and come forwards to be armed.” To nine of them he gave swords, and sent them out to spread his shadow across the whole world. And they rode out on horrible fell beasts, whose wings were like those of bats and faces were like those of snakes and bodies were like those of elephants.

To the other three he gave daggers, and he sent them out in silence on the black wind, to strike from darkness against the light. The first I saw go to a great city, guarded by a two-headed eagle, who held a sword in one talon and orb-and-cross in the other. One half of its body had feathers of regal purple, while the other half was pure gold, and it wore a great crown on both heads. The bearer of the dagger entered the city in silence and struck the eagle in one of it’s heads. The eagle went mad, and the two halves began to strike at each other in a mad rage.

The second I saw go into the frozen wild. I saw it strike the fertile ground, and all around it withered and died and turned black. Then the one that the Dark Lord had sent there unleashed a great cry, and as I watched a great horde of wild men and beasts emerged out of the blackened land, gathering to the one that had born the dagger. They kneeled before the servant of the Dark One and worshipped the shadow. Then they rose as one and rode out like a swarm of locusts, going forwards to consume all in their path.

The third I saw enter into the wide desert. They went to an oasis, and there I saw a herd of camels, coming out of the east with the rising of the moon. When they came to drink of the waters, the one that Sauron had sent out plunged their dagger into the spring, and the water turned to shadow and poisoned many in the herd, and they began to stampede and trample those that had not been poisoned.

Then I heard a great roar of thunder above me, like ten thousand lions. I looked up to the heavens, and I saw the sky itself split apart, spitting lighting in all directions. From the seam that formed I saw came a great gust of wind, frozen like ice, and snowfall so thick that I could not see my own hands when I put them in front of me. And when the sky calmed, I saw before a multitude of mountains, rising like dark towers above the good earth.

Out from these new mountains which had fallen from the sky I saw come a great horde of demons and monsters. I watched as they descended upon the world, and none could stand against them. They are lead by a monster of fire and shadow and smoke, who served the Leviathan and now will march against all of creation in service of Sauron. It is wounded and scarred: twice has it fallen, only to rise again.

Finally, I saw a great tree which the Lord had planted in the world of man. It radiated His glory, and it’s roots spread out to all the corners of the world, and its branches and leaves were as numerous as sand on the seashore. It had four trunks which reached as high as the heavens, and to each the heavens gave a mark. One, the first and oldest, was given the stars. Two others, twined together and yet growing apart, were given the sun, one for its rising and the other for its setting. The last and youngest had been given the moon.

But Sauron came up to the great tree which the Almighty had planted, and he began to whisper to it with his silver tongue. And I saw the shadow on his breath, and it poisoned the tree so that many of the branches withered away and many of the leaves fell to the ground, where Sauron and his servants crushed them underfoot. And as I watched, the four great trunks turned dark, and began to strike at each other, each scarring the other’s bark.

All this I saw, and it caused me great despair. But so it is written: “Do Not Be Afraid.” I say the same to you now, that fear and terror do not overtake you, despite all that is coming to pass. For know this: the Lord, God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and of Earth, has not abandoned us; Not alone do we stand against this storm. The Maker of All of Creation has given to us great gifts, that we may face down this foe. I saw much that stands against the growing tide, that we may not be drowned in shadow.

I saw the light of seven stars shine down from the hand of the Lord upon the two-headed eagle. One head I saw the grace of God return to, and that half of the body I saw begin to heal. So to healed did I see those that had drunk the water poisoned by the burning fall of Wormwood: I saw a clean hand thrust into the dark waters, and they were made pure, and up from their depths the hand pulled those had fallen in, so that they did not drown. And I saw the heavens open up, and an army of angels descended into the world of men to take up the battle.

Then I heard a great cry from the skies, and from there I saw descend the Archangel, who will lead the Lords of Men through the dark times. He is cloaked in purest white, and is given power by the Lord, God Almighty: in their right hand they wield His sword, that he may smite those that would betray His children; in his left hand they wield his sceptre, that the Archangel may have authority over all that would defend the light. He carries with him the fire of the Holy Spirit, that he may give great courage and hope to all, so the hearts of men should not fail. He comes on the wings of Eagles, and all that serve the Dark shall rightly fear him.

Finally, I beheld the four elements themselves taking up arms and defying the shadows. I saw beings of unyielding earth standing against Sauron’s thralls; they have bones of steel, and skin made of iron, and his tongue cannot touch their souls. I saw a place of fire, and it burned away the darkness that surrounded it, and I saw it give hope to the hearts of men so that they could stand. I saw a great river coming out of the dark mountains, and it’s waters stood ready to cleanse all that the shadow had twisted into darkness. And I saw a great whirlwind descend from the heavens, blowing down all the legions of hell, and in its heart I saw our greatest hope.

For in the eye of that storm I saw the One, the weapon which reaps the stars, and I saw the way of its unmaking. A lamb has been prepared for the slaughter, and through their sacrifice the One that shatters the heaven shall be finally and totally destroyed. They do not bear this weight alone: with them I saw three shepherds, who will guard the lamb until the time that it is to be offered up, and the four corners of the world have sent forth the four elements to guide the way.

Up from the south has come a heart of burning fire that has been sworn to protect the lamb and the shepherds, and their oaths shall not be forsaken. Down from the north came the waters that washed away the one that failed and took the One that cuts down the sun and moon for themselves; they have come to redeem the line that was broken. Out of the west came a green leaf on the winds, cutting down all in its path. The east gave a golem of stone and steel, strong and brave and resilient.

This was all that I saw, and I hold that all of it is true. It was here that my visions did end, and Michael who is called Orome returned me to the Holy City, lest the Flaming Eye behold me, and see that I have walked in his tower and been given Revelation. As I dismounted the great stallion, Orome who is called Michael said to me: “My duty is unfinished, as is yours. Go, now, and call out all those that would stand with the Lord! Tell them all that you have been shown, and that the Angels of the Lord walk always with them. Remember this, from now until the ending of the Age: The One is always with you, and will never leave your side. So do not despair, even at the fall of the world, for you shall never walk alone!” And so the Angel rode away on their steed, blowing their horn so that all who heard would answer the call.

And so it has fallen to me to say to all those that would call themselves Christian: send your lords, your kings and your princes to me, so that we may stand as one against this tide. The Lord, God Almighty has called upon all of you; His messenger has come before me, and shown me all that is to come. Let every nation heed the call, for these are indeed the times of Armageddon: let your names be written in the book of life, so that you may live forever. If any shall not answer, their name is to be struck out, and for all eternity shall damnation take them.

May Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, be with you all.
Signed,
Pope Innocent the Third, Witness to the Lord.

Chapter Text

January 26, TA 3019/AD 1200

SEVILLE

The horde of demons and monsters drew ever closer to the ancient city of Seville, a seemingly endless stream of twisted beasts flooding towards his city. Most of them appeared to be some kind of gigantic spiders, their sizes ranging from that of an average dog at one end of the scale to comparable to a small bear at the other. Even from this distance, the men manning the walls could see their fangs gleaming like sharpened knives, their eyes glowing with malice.

With them were other beasts, somehow even more terrible: twisted versions of boars that had fangs the size of scimitars and glowing red eyes, deer with sickly green skin and black horns, gigantic wolves that were closer in size and build to the lions that prowled about Africa than any beast of Al-Andalus. Taken in with the still-burning forest behind the ravenous horde, which produced a terrifying backdrop to the whole affair, one could easily assume that the gates of Hell had opened up before the city of Seville.

Many of its inhabitants had, in fact, made said assumption, and now fear and panic swept like a fell wind through the capital of the Almohads. People ran screaming through the streets, desperately seeking any kind of shelter. Many fled into the mosques, throwing themselves on the ground in prayer, begging for Allah to save them. Much of the populace locked themselves away in their homes, praying that the coming storm would pass them over. Desperation and terror all-too-easily turned into violence: wrecked market stalls were looted, people brawled in the streets and old scores were settled. And why not? The world was ending around them, and anyone that could have stopped them was manning the walls of the city.

From his position on said walls, Muhammad al-Nasir watched all of this unfold. The Caliph of the Almohads grimaced, his hand tightening around the hilt of his sword. This was a disaster. No, it was far more than that. Muhammad doubted that there was a word in any dialect of Arabic, or indeed any language at all, to describe what was happening to Seville. Rioting and looting in the streets, a massive swarms of demonic beasts flooding towards the walls and the whole blasted thing happening in a not ignorable depth of snow (which, of course, wasn’t hampering the beasts of hell in the least). The Caliph of the Almohads felt as if nothing could possible go right for him, and the thought idly crossed his mind that the best thing for him to do might very well be to hop in a carriage and run for Cadiz.

Muhammad paused at that thought. Then he smiled mirthlessly at it, internally ringing with bitter laughter. As if running, fleeing, to Africa was the correct solution to the problem. For one, he was quite the fool if he believed that something so simple as a few leagues of distance, or even the waters of the Al-Zuqaq, would be able to protect him from the wrath of whatever Hell had emerged in his lands. For another, and far more importantly, Muhammad was the Caliph of the Almohads. He had all the responsibilities that came with the title, and that meant a duty to defend his seat of power against all challengers, even those of supernatural origin.

If he fled, there was no doubt in his heart that his men’s courage would fail totally, and the demons slaughtering the entire city was reduced from a possibility, albeit a likely one, to a certainty. In all likeliness, there would be no survivors. Muhammad had sent people to their deaths before, but those had been soldiers, fighting for a greater good. This would be...no, he could not live with an extermination on his soul. And to simply abandon his lands, his city, his people to the demons would attain for him a place in Hell’s deepest pit for the rest of time.

No, Seville needed its Caliph, now perhaps more than any time in its history. Muhammad al-Nasir would not shirk his duty. His men needed their commander; his people, their Lord. He could see the fear in the eyes of the former, threatening to consume them; he could hear the terror of the latter, crying out to him. It was time for him to answer. And so it was that Muhammad al-Nasir, Caliph of the Almohads, drew his sword and held it high, calling out to his men. His voice carried across the ramparts of Seville, even above the sounds of chaos within and the beasts without, and turned every ear to his words:

“Men of Seville! Listen! Listen now! Do you hear them!? Do you hear them!? Your people, you families, you wives and daughters and infants?! Do! You! Hear Them!? They cry out to you! From the streets, the homes, the mosques, they cry out! They cry out that you may guard their lives with yours, that you may keep them safe from what is to come! Will you fail them!? Will you flee from this storm and let your children feel its wrath!? Or will you stand with me, so that Allah may see that you are worthy of Paradise!?’

‘I know that you are afraid, as am I! But we cannot turn from this task! May Allah never forgive us if we did! We must not turn away from this evil, but rather face it, with our heads held high and our swords held ready! What kind of men would we be if we fled before this shadow, and let it pillage our homes and murder our families?! I would say that we would not be men at all! We would be nothing more than fearful rodents, pests to be rightfully cut down!’

‘So, Men of Seville, I bid that you stand against this nightmare! Stand and face this evil! For your wives, for your children, for your homes, for all you hold dear, stand up and fight! Let whatever Devil has sent these beasts know that we will not bow down before it! Whoever stands upon these walls today will be remembered by our people until the End of Days! Whoever falls in their defense will be given passage through the gates of Heaven! Now, as one! Let us beat back this darkness! Allahu Akbar!”

These final two words were echoed by Muhammad’s men, a great chant rising from the walls of the ancient city. The men of Seville raised their own blades to the sky, their cries sounding like thunder. Their voices grew ever louder, and soon the praises of Allah seemingly drowned out all else. In the hearts of the brave men standing on the walls, a great fire began to burn, driving back the darkness that sapped their courage and fueled their fear.

The beasts of Mirkwood, savage and cruel, continued their advance regardless. All they knew was that the assorted meats that they were hoping to feed on had suddenly gotten a lot louder. All the better to pinpoint their locations. The swarm surged ahead like a black wave of claws and teeth, threatening to sweep the ancient city away. A great roar rose from the horde as it closed in on the walls. The battle was about to begin.

First blood was drawn by the Almohads, who began to rain down hundreds of arrows upon the beasts as they entered into projectile range. Volley after volley plunged into the swarm, tearing into and through the exoskeletons of the spiders, the hides of the wolves and boars, tearing flesh and piercing organs. Dozens of creatures fell to the onslaught, but the rest were barely slowed. Wave after wave of arrows screamed out of the sky, but the beasts, fueled by a burning mixture of feral rage and animalistic hunger, barely seemed to notice. They lacked the capacity to comprehend the losses they were taking, and so pressed on with little to no regard for the shafts raining down around them. If anything, it only seemed to make the beasts angrier: their cries grew ever louder, and the swarm surged ahead even faster than before.

Muhammad al-Nasir continued to shout encouragement to his men, watching as arrow after arrow after arrow buried themselves into the flesh of the beasts. Pointing his sword to the field, he called out to his men, to look for themselves and see that, yes, the monsters could die, that what faced them was not an impossible task. To himself, he noted that said task was about to get a good bit harder. The spiders were the problem. The wolves and boars and stags would-hopefully-be stopped cold by the walls of Seville, which were-hopefully-to steep for them to climb. But the spiders, if they were anything like the insects that made their webs in any sufficiently forgotten space, wouldn’t find this a problem. Muhammad hoped and prayed that his theory was incorrect, but he doubted that his luck was good enough for that to be the case. His luck was about to be tested: the first of the monsters were almost to the wall, despite the best efforts of the archers to drive them off. They came like a storm: first a light trickle, as the faster beasts reached the wall before their kin. As the rest caught up, the trickle would become a downpour, the downpour a flood. Muhammad prayed that he would withstand the tide.

Sure as the devil, the damn things could climb. The spiders of Mirkwood scurried up the wall as easily as normal arachnids would climb up a window sill. The first few the archers handled, picking the beasts off either as they transitioned from the horizontal to the vertical or as the monsters moved up the near-vertical slope. But for every spider that fell screeching from the walls, there were three to takes its place. The archers were as good as useless in melee; once the creatures were on the ramparts, the bowmen would either have to pull back or be slaughtered. They would have a harder time affecting the battle if forced to blindly fire over the walls into the horde instead of having a clear line of sight, but Muhammad saw little choice in the matter.

In all likeliness, the monsters wouldn’t allow the respite from the hail of arrows as the archers pulled back go to waste, either: the slackening of fire would allow more of the beasts to close in and begin ascending the wall, and then the battle would become a melee, in which the Almohads would almost certainly be at a disadvantage. These creatures were almost completely alien to them, being twisted mockeries of the animals that they did know. The spiders especially were total unknowns: how does one grapple a being with eight legs? Learning how to do so on the fly practically guaranteed a massive price in blood would be paid for the lesson.

Cursing to himself, Muhammad readied his blade. No matter how badly thing could go for his swordsmen, it would go worse if his archers were forced into melee. And anyways, it was a reasonable assumption that driving a blade into the monster's’ heads would kill them rather effectively. With that thought in mind, the Caliph of the Almohads ordered his swordsmen forwards to cover the archers. Then the archers were pulled back, and his theory about attacking the head was put to the test.

It was very quickly confirmed to be true. Muhammad buried his sword in the first spider within reach, the blade cutting into its face as the abomination came over the wall. It fell screeching from the rampart, hitting the earth below it with a sickening crunch. Seconds later, another spider took its place, darting up onto the wall. This one the Caliph stabbed, driving his sword into the monster’s mouth. Two down, Allah knew how many to go.

As Muhammad had suspected, the spiders did have tricks up their sleeve, tricks that his men paid with their lives to learn to combat. The beasts extracted a monstrous cost for their teachings, paid in men pinned by webs as the creatures tackled them to the ground and tore into their necks, soldiers thrown off the wall by the spiders jumping at their chests with strength and from distances far in excess of what their appearances suggested of their leaping abilities and defenders paralyzed and poisoned by the beast’s venom, frozen helplessly in place as the monsters ripped them apart. All too often, with all too high a price paid for the lessons, the Almohads learned new ways to die, flesh torn asunder by the spider’s fangs or skewered by their claws.

Fear ate away at the men, fear of pain and death and slaughter. The ancient instincts inside of them, to either fight or to flee, took over. Some of them fled, abandoning all hope in victory and seeking to save themselves from the massacre that they foresaw. Others drew strength from the horror, fueling their desperate strikes and dodges with terror of what would happen if they failed to stand against the monstrosities facing them. Both groups screamed in madness and desperation as the beasts closed in on them, their movements becoming ever more wild as the primal instincts of the species, born from centuries as both hunter and prey, came to the forefront.

As the hours passed, corpses began to pile high atop the ramparts, streams and rivers of blood spilling down to the ground below. The walls became slick with the innards of the dead and dying, the latter of which’s screams rose above all else on the field of battle. This sound was driven by the monsters consuming them as a mid-battle lunch, viciously tearing apart their still-living meals one bite at a time. The men of Seville stumbled and slipped and fell on the bloodstained bodies of their brothers in arms, leaving them all the more vulnerable to the creatures. The heat of the sun, weak as it was in the depths of winter, bore down on the dead flesh, giving the whole city the stench of rot and decay and death.

The walls were practically overrun, and the battle moved to the courtyards behind and below. Some of the monsters broke through the porous and hastily assembled lines of the defenders, entering into the city proper. Here they sowed chaos, filling the already scared inhabitants of the city with panic and fear, flooding the streets with terrified mobs that ran every which way, desperate for protection. Hampered by the snow and slush in the roads, these crowds quickly became nothing more than free meals for the beasts.

The defenders, of course, did not simply lay down to die. Those that remained fought on like demons, burying their blades into the eyes of the spiders, hacking off limbs and and claws and crushing them with stones and even their fists if they could not reach a true weapon. Beast met beast upon the walls and the streets, and as the battle continued and the beasts being attacked learned the new trade of battling the monsters, they began to meet as equals. But still the spiders came, surging over the walls like a black wave, threatening to drown all the remaining defenders under their shadow.

The light, though, refused to be extinguished. The lessons in combating the monsters had been learned far too late for far too many of the defenders, but as the hours passed they had been slowly, achingly discovered. Now those men that remained applied their new knowledge with almost fanatical zeal, fighting with the strength and purpose of cornered wild beasts, striking down anything that moved against them. They payed back the ferocity of the spiders of Mirkwood with interest, hacking into any monster that came within reach and tearing them apart as a storm tears apart a young sapling. Arrows continued to pour into the horde, both inside the walls and out, and the creatures made little progress into the city, too occupied with those on the walls and immediately adjacent to make a deep push. Not all the blood and guts spilled upon the walls and streets of Seville belonged to its defenders: the juices of the spiders flowed just as readily, the sundered limbs of the creatures joining the piles of corpses in ever increasing numbers.

There was a small handful of other saving graces for the Almohads, beyond the valor of the men. They were tiny blessings, small thing that largely went unnoticed, but all the same gave the defenders a greater chance for survival. Not all of them appeared as such: few would have said that the spiders eating the men of Seville alive was a good thing. But every spider that stopped to consume the flesh of a dying Almohad (and there were many) was a spider that was distracted, a spider that wasn’t fighting, a spider that could be dealt with with relative ease. And the other blessings were clearer: the walls still stood strong, preventing the boars and wolves and any other hellish beasts that couldn’t climb from entering the city. The monsters of Mirkwood howled and roared from the base of the walls, but could do little else. The sun had come out and shone high in the sky, partially blinding and dazing the mostly nocturnal creatures, used to operating in near darkness.

The hearts of the men rose with the sun, and as it climbed ever higher, both the day and the hopes of the Almohads became ever brighter as they saw that yes, the monsters could die, that their battle was not one without hope. Many of those that had fled earlier in the day returned to the fray, eager to avenge their cowardice in the morning with bravery here at the noontide. Slowly, ever so slowly, the tide of the day began to turn in the favor of the men of Seville, the black wave that had threatened to drown them receding at a horrific cost in blood and flesh. The battle became one of attrition, pitting the creatures of Mirkwood’s desire for food and shelter against the men of Seville’s will to defend their homes. The fires of feral rage and hunger burned against the flames of desperation and courage.

Through it all, all the loss and the suffering and the pain, Muhammad al-Nasir, Caliph of the Almohads, had stayed atop the wall. Head to toe, his armor and body was stained with the bodily fluids of far too many brothers in arms and, as far as he was concerned, far too few of the spiders. He was covered, too, in scratches and scars and marks from Allah knew how many spiders that had tried and failed to bring him down. His eyes were wide and wild, and he screamed maniacally with every movement, cursing the spiders and encouraging his men. He fought with reckless abandon, fueled by a primal rage that coursed through his veins and gave him the strength to continue even as he felt as though his sword arm would fall off from overuse.

Most of his men were the same, bodies having long ago exhausted all their strength of flesh and blood. Only their hearts remained, beating loud and frantic like bass drums in their chest, powering the body with whatever desperation or fear or wrath that they could summon up. Hope had become the strongest fuel remaining, hope that the spiders would break first, that the beasts had an earlier limit to their stamina and courage than the men.

It was not a forlorn hope. Both the Almohads and the spiders were exhausted, covered in blood and gore and wounds, but the spiders had begun to fear the men, more and more of their number fleeing back over the wall, fewer and fewer braving the climb. The instincts of the beasts, once to find food and shelter, now told them to turn and flee from the stone place filled with prey that fought back as hard as anything that their short memories could recall. In contrast, the defenders had become ever braver and more bold, their spirits rallying and their courage returning. As the sun passed its apogee and began to descend, the spiders as a whole began to feel that taking shelter somewhere that wasn’t here would be a rather good idea.

Atop the wall, Muhammad al-Nasir continued to roar both calls to his men and damnations to the monsters, adding to voice like that of a lion the strength and ferocity of one as well. Those defenders that had been driven below the walls and into the courtyards below now came together, answering the call of their Caliph to drive out the beasts, that victory was nearing, that Allah was at their side. They stormed up the stairs and passages to the ramparts, screaming “Allahu Ackbar!” with a passion and rage that made the enemy, who didn’t even understand the words, cower before them.

Hope burned in their hearts, hope that they could see in the gradual retreat of the monsters, hope that the Almohads could feel giving him a last great burst of strength, hope that drove the defenders forwards and brought down their aching arms again and again into whatever spider dared to stay within their city. The men of Seville fought on, far beyond the point of total exhaustion, as the sun began to set behind them, as they gave their final strength to drive back the dark.

And suddenly they weren’t fighting anymore, as there was nothing before them to attack.The monsters of Mirkwood had retreated back below the wall, and most could be seen fleeing back into the dark and burning forest from whence they had come. A feeling of stunned disbelief came over the Almohads as they watched the creatures withdraw. Had they truly done it? Had they faced down a horde of demons and escaped with their live? Had they passed the test? In their minds, they hoped and prayed that it was so.

In their hearts, they knew it was just the beginning.

Chapter Text

January 25, TA 3019/AD 1200

THE DARK TOWER

The Burning Eye watched as much of the rest of Mordor, especially the rest of the Plateau of Gorgoroth, proved to be designed and build to a much lower standard than the Tower that served as its pedestal. Not even orcs willingly chose to spend any more than the absolute bare minimum amount of time in the hellscape that is northwestern Mordor. When inevitably forced into the burning plains by their masters, they tended to move through the blasted lands as quickly as possible on their ways to the relatively nicer pastures of the Ash Plains around the Sea of Nurnen or the outer fortifications at the Morgul Vale or the Morannon. The few and scattered buildings of the Plateau of Gorgoroth, as a result, were built to be no more than temporary hovels, and rarely repaired ones at that.

When an earthquake powerful enough to make the unbreakable tower of Orthanc shake like a leaf hit said structures, they did very good imitations of of delicate pottery being smashed against a stone floor. The storm took care of the rest, churning up dark storms of dust and ash that scoured the Plateau of Gorgoroth near as clean as the day that Sauron had first chosen Mordor to be his fortress.

The keep of that fortress, Barad-Dur, remained intact. In fact, it was all but untouched. The Black Tower was strong, quite likely more so than any of the other structures of Middle-earth. The foundation and black walls and shadowy ramparts had been designed by the Dark Lord himself, and the greatest master of the forge and hammer in all Middle-earth had built it well indeed. The original tower, on the roots of which the new had been built, had withstood the total might of the Last Alliance, a force second in all of history only the army that fought against Morgoth in the War of Wrath, for all of seven years. Even after the walls of the tower had been thrown down by the vengeful elves and men, the foundations had remained as solid as ever, unable to be made bare while the One Ring remained intact.

The new Tower, rebuilt on those same foundations, had been designed to be even greater. It had been drawn up by the Dark Lord himself, and it was built to his exact specifications. His design was beyond sound: such was the architecture of Barad-Dur that it could be easily and reasonably believed that if even if Sauron had decided to make his Tower entirely out of sand and then had allowed it to be rained on for a solid week, the impression was that it could have still held out against the entirety of the Gondorian Army for well over a month. The building materials, though, rather than mud, were the black stones of original structure, mined from the deepest pits of the Mountains of Shadow and Ash and as solid as the bedrock upon which those peaks were built, now reinforced with great bars of wrought iron buried in their hearts, and every single block and bar was imbued with the dark will of Sauron, his hatred and malice hardening them beyond anything in the natural world.

As a result, when the earthquake struck the dark land as it had all the pieces of Middle-earth torn out of Arda like carrots out of the soft earth, Barad-Dur was near-completely unaffected, the total of all structural damage done to the entirety of the Tower amounting to exactly nil. The affects of the storm were much the same: lightning strikes did not even scorch the stones, wind did nothing to rattle the walls, rain and snow melted away and became steam as they came anywhere close to the Tower of the Burning Eye.

The Eye watched all of this, silent and unmoved. It swept around its lands, taking note of the damages done. Mount Doom had burst into flame, being awoken by the quaking earth. It spewed fire and smoke and choking ash into the sky, blotting out the little light that came from the weak winter sun and plunging the land into darkness, finish off the little upon the Plateau of Gorgoroth that the tremors and storms had missed.

The burning gaze was then turned to the rest of Mordor, scanning for any locations in need of repair. But even as the Dark Lord did so, he felt...not fear, certainly, but perhaps unease. Something, he knew, had happened, besides a freak storm and a particularly strong tremor from Mount Doom. What he felt was all-too similar to what he had felt twice before, when the Valar had shattered Beleriand and also when they had sundered Numenor. Something had changed, something unforeseen.

And Sauron hated the unforeseen, more than all else in the world (excepting perhaps the malice he directed towards the heirs of Isildur). It had been his downfall before, more than once: against that elven bitch Luthien, who he would have captured without the unexpected strength of the wolfhound Huan; against the bastard elf Celebrimbor, who had forged the Three outside of his knowledge; against Eru himself had unexpectedly intervened against his conquest of Numenor. All else could be plan against, come up with counters and other ways to twist things to his advantage.

But the unforeseen...the unforeseen left him unable to do so, stuck stumbling around like some blind fool in the dark. And the Dark Lord hated such feelings. Unease, confusion, fear...such things were far beneath him, of course, but the current circumstances allowed them to ever so slightly creep in regardless. Now, then, he needed to peel back the unknown before him, tear it apart and turn it into weapons for his own use. The Morgul stone would serve well enough to do so, but it would lack fine details. Reconnaissance in force should be done as well

And for that, he needed his eyes.

______________________________________________________________________________

Ash fell upon the Plateau of Gorgoroth, choking the few living things that still stirred there. The skies were pitch dark: even if the sun had yet risen above the horizon, the clouds of smoke and ash were far too thick and black for any light to pierce. Fell winds blew across the plains, carrying rolling storms of dust and dirt that swallowed all in their path. With the exception of those that dwelt within the Tower of Barad-Dur, everything from Isenmouthe in the northwest to the spur of the Ered Lithui to the southeast was either dead or dying.

The Nine were affected by none of this. By all rights, they should have fallen into the former category. They were men by birth, with all the frailties that came with such lineages. In their lives, lived long ago, they had desired above all else to hold at bay the Doom of Men. Their wish had been granted to them by the Dark Lord, but with the words twisted and turned against them. They did not live, having instead a cursed undeath: a ‘life’ without anything that would have allowed them to be alive. They had no love, no laughter, no songs or stories. Only their wrath remained. Wrath, and their loyalty to Sauron.

This loyalty (enthrallment, perhaps, would have been a better word), now drew them to the Dark Tower to answer their Master’s call. They rode for Barad-Dur from the Morgul Vale, passing without comment or even notice the blasted remains the remains of the encampments along the roads. With the rising of the sun, feeble and week behind the darkened skies, they crossed over the flaming moat of the Tower and passed through its barred gates, entering into the black halls of Barad-Dur.

There within the Mouth of Sauron, Lieutenant of the Tower, met them, and had their shadowy horses taken to be be stabled and fed. Then he led the Nazgul into the Tower, up the winding stairs to the room that held the Dark Throne. The corporeal body of Sauron, shadow and fire and hatred given form, gave them no greeting. The Dark Lord sat only in silence, he Dark Lord sat only in silence, his black helm barely acknowledging them. He then beckoned them to kneel. He began to speak, his voice echoing deep within the minds of his servants, telling them of his new plans.

The Great Eye had seen much. The fortifications of Mordor were largely intact: the Black Gate was near untouched, only losing a few fodder thrown from its ramparts as the earth below had shaken and trembled. Minas Morgul had seen only a few building collapses, which the slaves would have repaired in a matter of days. The main damages within the Dark Lord’s realm were to the road and irrigation systems, slowing down troop movements and food production.

Outside the borders was a far different story. His slaves in Harad, Khand and Dorwinion had all vanished, as well as his armies in Ithilien. Only two lands, the Mountains of Mist and the Forest of Mirkwood, were recognizable, and both were in the completely wrong places. Saruman was still in his fold, but he reported being cut off from his puppet Theoden and having a not-ignorable part of his pits collapse.

But there was reason to believe that his foes, those damnable descendents of Numenor and the Eldar, had taken even worse losses. Gondor, that largest thorn in his side, was simply gone, vanished into thin air. Saruman said the same of the annoyance known as Rohan. There were elves and dwarves here, but they were in as much disarray as his own thralls, if not more. And the new world that they all found themselves in was one of men. Weak men. Divided men. Greedy men. Men that were already terrified by the mere appearance of his lands.

This chance could not be wasted. The men before him were scared and weak, but Sauron would not allow them to form effective resistance against him. He had learned the lesson of the Last Alliance: this time, he would strike first. The Mouth would remain in Mordor, enacting repairs, preparing the main body of his armies to march. Angmar would assemble all available forces in the Udun to march out and make an example of the city of men that now sat before the Black Gate. Khamul would issue forth from the Morgul Vale, laying waste to all in his path. The borders of Mordor would be made secure before any of these new men could raise a finger against him.

His other forces, those of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains, would have to be raised out against his new foes. He would send two wraiths to Dol Gurdur to prepare it for war. Two others would go to Goblin-town and Gundabad to do the same. Saruman would have to move as well, gaining a new puppet if possible.

They would unleash further terror in time, sowing the seeds of fear and doubt throughout these lesser men. And in their terror, it was all the more likely that they would throw themselves down before them to save their own pathetic lives, and in so doing would become his servants in this new world. And perhaps, seeing their neighbors falling around them, some would be much more accepting of his gifts: peace, his forces guarding their lands, maybe even a few small rings...

But there was one reason above all others to believe that his victory would come. The One was here in this world, somewhere within his reach. He could feel it, deep within the black fire that was his soul. It called to him, and he called to it. His three remaining wraiths would be sent out to hunt it, wherever it tried to hide. He would find it, despite all the efforts of his enemies.

And then he would rule them all.

Chapter Text

January 27, TA 3019/AD 1200

ESZTERGOM, HUNGARY

Here, in the city that was in many ways the heart and soul of the Kingdom of Hungary, chaos reigned. All semblance of order had completely collapsed: panicked mobs ran through the streets, composed of people that in normal times would have been perfectly respectable farmers, laborers, even nobles, now reduced to little more than cornered animals desperate for an escape. Children and mothers cried out and screamed on every corner, terror ruling their hearts and all across the city the madness of fear and despair turned to violence. Everywhere, it seemed, grudges were being settled, market stalls were being looted, people were being trampled beneath both hoof and foot by those trying to flee. The city was tearing itself apart.

The Shepherd of Esztergom looked on as his flock stampeded. Job, Archbishop of Esztergom, had held the Bishop’s staff for 15 years, but had been shepherding the souls of Hungary long before he had received his Bishop’s ring. Never, in all his years of shepherding the faithful, had he seen such madness. Not two sunrises ago, the city, and indeed the whole nation, had been at peace: in fact, before the events that had transpired the day before, the only recent disruption to the tranquility that Hungary had enjoyed had been the brief succession crisis after the death of Bela III in 1196 (which by now was all-but-settled in the favor of his firstborn, Emeric, with the younger son Andrew being forced to flee to Austria). It would be a lie to say that these lands, or indeed any of the lands of Europe, were completely at peace, but the realm of the Magyars could lay a far better claim to such things than the majority of the other states on the continent.

Or at least, it had been able to. Now, within the passage of a single day, the illusion that Hungary was a safe harbor from the ravages of the world had come crashing down, quite literally. Out to the east, a tall and foreboding range of black mountains that stretched beyond the horizon to both north and south had seemingly fallen out of the sky. The dark peaks had risen a mere stone’s throw away from the walls of the city, the plains that had previously stretched out seemingly without end to Esztergom’s east vanishing beneath their fall.

In response, like in Krakow and in Kiev and in hundreds of other places across Europe, from the smallest villages to the largest cities, King Emeric had called for council. Summoning all the cities priests, learned men and anyone and everyone else that might possibly have an answer, any answer at all, to the question on the minds of all, the grand hall of Esztergom Castle had been filled to the brim with dozens of men from walks of life as different as hunters and fishers to merchants and nobles. Job had answered the summons, and soon afterwards found himself watching and listening as everyone from himself and the other members of the clergy to tradesmen from places as distant as Rome or Constantinople had presented their thoughts on the matter at hand.

Or rather, their lack of thoughts: it quickly became rather apparent that no one among those assembled had any explanation for what on earth had happened. The wise could find no record; the tradesmen no tales from distant lands; the huntsmen no old legends or tales. The only clear thing was that this was an act of God, but none could give satisfactory cause as to why the Lord Almighty would do such a thing. The only idea presented which could be readily believed by all also being the most horrible to contemplate (said idea being that these were the beginnings of the End Times), the King had opted to go out and find his own, hopefully less Apocalyptic, answers.

Much like Rurik of Kiev, Emeric now called up his warriors: every brave man willing to go to into the unknown was to report to the Castle courtyard by first light the next morning. The summons was sent out through the whole city, and soon the scouting force had been assembled, 500 riders in all. As the moved as one towards that eastern gate, the people had come out to them, throwing flowers out into their path and saluting them, like they were crusaders bound for the holy land. Job had watched them go, giving his blessing to the formation as it had passed him by. Then he had returned to his Cathedral. Kneeling before the altar of the Lord, he had called for the Almighty to guard his King and the King’s companion, to light their path with his spirit.

Those prayers went unanswered. In the night, the remains of the company had returned, battered and bloodied and with them far too many wounded and dead. But the maimed and injured were not the worst thing they carried: that honor went to the horror stories that they conveyed, of monsters and demons and hellish beasts that had ambushed them in the twisting hills, destroyed the small camp they had established and scattered the Hungarians to the four winds. The number of their dead and wounded was unknown: the company had been forced to flee in all directions from the assault, leaving well more than half their number unaccounted for. Among the missing was the King himself, last seen trying to lead a breakout against the creatures that had encircled their camp.

These tales spread throughout the whole city, always growing in the telling, and soon the fog of madness and despair had descended, gripping Esztergom like a noose around the neck of a condemned man. With the world seemingly ending around them, the people of the city gave into their darkest desires, doing whatever pleased them in what they imagined to be their final days and hours. After all, who would stop them? The Lord, many thought, was condemning them: these were the End Times, were they not? What could man do against such things?

And so it was that Job, Shepherd of the souls of Hungary, watched his city begin to kill itself. He watched as more and more of his flock turned on each other, more and more resigning themselves to the cold embrace of oblivion. If he was another man, perhaps, he would have joined them, given in to the despair, to the fear and the terror. But no. He was the Archbishop of Esztergom, defender of the people’s souls. And now, with everything crashing down around him, he realized the reason that the Lord had placed him on this earth, the duty that he was to carry out.

What could flesh and blood do in the face of the Apocalypse, the people asked? They could guard the soul that they carried within. If this was indeed the time of Judgement, then it was likely that the bodies of all were about to perish. But the soul would live on. If the time had come for the end of this life, then it was also time to prepare for the next. Job, Archbishop of Esztergom, Shepherd to the Souls of the people of Hungary, do the duty prescribed to him to the Lord: he would lead his flock, until his last and dying breath. If he could not save their bodies, then he would defend their souls. He would not, could not, shirk away from the task at hand: if he did, the Almighty would rightly condemn his soul forever. No, Job would have to bear this cross.

He hoped that he wouldn’t have to bear it alone. Job prayed to the Lord that madness had not yet utterly overtaken the city, that he may still yet find enough good men to help him prepare it for the oncoming storm. Order would have to be restored, of course; that would be the first task, making sure that the city wasn’t burned down. Next would be the summoning of allies, the coordination and planning of the defenses, the levying of all the able bodied men (and possibly the elder boys) as soldiers to defend against the dark. There was much to do, and far too little time to do it.

After all, the world was ending.

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Emeric, King of Hungary, cursed many things, including himself, as he and the decimated remains of his company rode away from the slaughter. He cursed his idiocy in bringing a force composed mainly of cavalry into hill country, into terrain where foot soldiers or skirmishers would have been far more effective. He cursed his foolishness in deciding to divide his forces, seeking to cover the most possible ground to gain more intelligence as quickly as possible, valuing expediency over safety. He cursed his failure to keep his men in contact with each other, his messengers becoming lost in the unknown lays of this land, letting his formations become isolated and alone.

Emeric cursed his damnable belief that the people needed a show of force to reassure them that he had the situation under control; he should have just sent out a few scouts and be done with it. Instead, he had decided to take 500 very unsubtle riders into an unknown wilderness, and then, another thing about himself to curse, he had made the indefensible choice to establish a camp in these blasted hills.

When it had become apparent that reconnaissance in these lands was not going to be as simple as riding out and seeing what there was to see, Emeric should have gotten out while he was still ahead and immediately returned to Esztergom and planned out a better method for scouting the terrain. But rather than make what was no clearly the intelligent choice, he had went ahead and decided to stay out here in the wild.

But more than anything, he cursed them. The monsters, the demons, whatever you preferred to call them. They had come out of the darkness, picking off his men as they had wandered all but blindly through these cursed lands, riding what was best described as gigantic wolves and cutting apart the scattered columns of the Hungarians. Whatever these damnable things were, they were more than capable of carrying out ambushes, attacking from the cover of the trees and ravines and encircling their hapless victims before the Hungarians were even aware of their presence.

The first sign of trouble were the scattered and isolated groups that contact was lost with, those at the flanks that simply seemed to disappear. When the camp had been established, the sentries had thought that they had noticed or heard something prowling about just out of sight, but by the time that they realized that they were surrounded by a force that was not only apparently larger than their own, but also extremely hostile, it was too late: the demons and monsters were already pouring out of the woods around the camp.

The results of the attack were devastating. The Hungarians lost all cohesion within minutes of the the beginning of the assault, giant wolves and their twisted riders slicing through their camp and cutting down all in their paths. Those among the force of men that had managed to survive, be it by either skill or luck, now stumbled away in all directions, desperate to escape the creatures. But the lands that they were in were completely alien to the Hungarians, and with the sun setting the men had little-to-no way to find their bearings. They were driven in all directions by the onslaught of the demons, like leaves thrown into the four winds, not caring which way they went as long as the monsters did not follow.

But follow the monsters did, pursuing the lost and confused Hungarians across land that was at least somewhat familiar to them. They followed the men to the death, crying out for blood and manflesh, cackling madly as they hunted down the broken remains of the company. Nightfall would bring no respite: the howling of the wolves and the shouts of the demons echoed throughout the darkness, seeking out the men that cowered from them in terror, in bushes and trees and hollows of the earth.

Emeric, King of Hungary, found himself riding blindly in one direction or another, escorted by the bloodied remnants of his guards. He had a few dozen of his men had broken out of the camp, and no they spurred their mounts ever on, driven by the sounds of the pursuing beasts and their twisted mountains that were ever in pursuit behind them. In the darkness, many were lost, simply becoming separated in the shadows or picked off by their pursuers. Those that continued on were mostly wounded, untended wounds spilling blood behind the desperate riders. Others among them had lost their swords or parts of their armor in the earlier skirmishes. The sounds of pursuit continued unabated-if anything, they were becoming louder.

Emeric, King of Hungary, cursed it all.

Chapter Text

January 28, TA 3019/AD 1200

THE PEAK OF ZIRAKZIGIL

Here, high above the ancient realm of Khazad-Dum, high above its endless labyrinth of tunnels and mineshafts, at the top of the Endless Stair, the great storm raged on. Lightning flashed down from the sky, striking boulders and the cliff side and throwing deadly fragments in all directions. Thunder and screaming wind roared around the peak, creating a virtual wall of blinding ice and snow.

Despite all of that, Gwaihir the Windlord, greatest of all living eagles, flew on towards the summit, beating his wings furiously to overcome the raw power of the raging storm. The Eagle of Manwe’s will and the howling winds met struggled against each other, both seeking to overcome the other. The Silver Spike itself seemed determined that the hatchling of Thorondor would not pierce into the heart of the storm. Gwaihir disagreed.

As to why it was so urgent for him to fly to the the summit that hemmed in the southern side of the Redhorn Pass, the Great Eagle’s feeling were decidedly more vague. His eyrie was dozens, if not hundreds of leagues away, and he was doing his health no favors by taking flight through mountains that were always rather hazardous to fly through, even more so when storms more powerful than any in living memory tore through them as if they were prey in his talons. Rational thought said that in times such as this, when the roots of the mountains themselves were shaking like leaves and blinding snow limited even the vision of the Eagles, it was a good idea to simply take shelter within his nest and wait until better flying weather was available.

But it was not Gwaihir’s rational mind that was calling him to the summit. It was something...else. Something different, like a voice deep in the center of his mind, or perhaps within his heart or his soul. It called out to him, shouting in a whisper to take flight, to go to the peak of Zirakzigil, silently promising that he would understand once he saw the summit with his own eyes. He might have been disturbed by such a calling, but something deep within him, a part of him that he knew that no other had ever, or even could ever touch, told him to instead to listen, that the voice was the one above all in creation that was worthy of his trust.

And so it was that the greatest of the living Eagles continued his flight, battling against biting cold, wrathful winds and doing all he could to avoid wherever it looked like lightning was common. It was a difficult battle. Excepting perhaps some of his kin. If any other creature had attempted such a thing, they would have been either forced back or forced into the ground. But if Gwaihir the Windlord enjoyed one thing in his life above all others, it was a legitimate challenge, and this was easily the best that he had faced in years, if not decades. The Great Eagle plunged ahead, defying every attempt by the winds and the snow and the thunder and lightning to throw him back. For hours and days he drove southwards, ever closer to the heart of the storm. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he beheld the peak.

Gwaihir had flown past Zirakzigil before, and the summit Silver Spike was rather difficult to confuse with that of a different mountain. It should have been recognizable on sight, even to one that had only seen it a handful of times. Instead, upon reaching the Redhorn Pass and looking south to where the summit lay, the Great Eagle was forced to consider that the storm might have blown him off course. Whatever mountain he was looking at couldn’t possibly be the Silvertine.

But at the same time, it had to be. There below it was the pass and the Mirrormere, and to the north and northeast were Caradhras and Fanuidhol respectively. This was certainly the right place, yes, but it was rather obvious that something catastrophic had happened here. Instead of a majestic peak embracing the Tower of Durin, this mountain looked as if a giant axe had been swung at it, carving straight down like the cleaver of a titan. Gone was the Tower, the path of the slice passing through it from the ramparts down to its base. The mountain itself had been split open, a vertical seam running hundreds of feet down from the summit towards its roots.

For the moment, the Great Eagle was oblivious to the storm, taking in the terrifying sight of the shattered mountain before him. Then he flew on. He was being called here by something, he knew, and that something had held the unspoken promise of answers when he reached the peak. As much as it seemed that only new questions had been raised, the voice in his heart and his soul told him to go forwards, that all would soon be made clear. Slowly, still battling the storm, the Great Eagle worked their way towards the crack in the mountain. His eyes scanned the remains of the peak for something, anything that could tell him what had happened. Finally, they saw it: Something was glistening on one side of the seam, even through the blinding snow and hail.

When he reached it, he understood.
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UNKNOWN DATE, UNKNOWN PLACE

There was nothing. In fact, there was significantly less than nothing. He drifted through an infinite, endless abyss, far beyond all thought or time. He didn’t know what he was anymore, or where he was, or why. He was not frightened, or relieved, or anything at all. He simply...was. There was nothing to remember, nothing to forget, nothing to accomplish, nothing to fail. He drifted on through eternity, like a forgotten idea in someone else’s head.

And then, all at once, it was if that someone remembered him. There were voices that spoke to him, of him, all around him, calling him to them. The shouted to him in a whisper, that his mission was not yet completed. They gave warnings, that all had changed, that there was no time for his broken form to be fully restored if the Shadow was to be stopped. They said that he would return him to turn back the tide, that his time as the Pilgrim, as the fire of hope, was over, that his time as the Warrior, the Cleansing Fire had begun.

Then there was a great light, and then there was nothing again.
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Suddenly, there was cold. There was cold everywhere. Biting into his skin, his flesh, his very bones. Winds howled all around him, allowing the cold to cut through his naked body like knives of ice. There was, at least, one benefit to the cold: it dampened the sensation that followed. Pain shot through his body, dulled only by the all-encompassing cold. His body remembered his wounds, one by one, and one by one came from them pain anew. Flesh ached and burned; bones cracked and slipped. Even the slightest movement sent spasms through his body, so he instead simply lay there upon the mountain, wounds bleeding and boiling and filling his existence with naught but pain, watching as the storm raged on.

Something caught his eye. Slowly, painfully, he turned his head to face the source. There, laying besides a massive crack in the peak he lay upon, was a blade, long and silver and sharp. Glamdring. The word came to him from nowhere. Foe-Hammer. No, not quite from nowhere. He knew those words, but from where he had forgotten. From the same forgotten place, he knew that the blade was important to have. Ever so slowly, he rolled over onto his stomach and then, using only the slightest movements so as to not be crippled in pain, he began to crawl towards the blade.

As he did so, other words began to trickle into his mind, some which he remembered, some which he did not. Sauron, he knew, was something terrible, something to be stopped. Saruman was another, as was Angmar. Rome was one he did not know, but entered into his thoughts regardless. The same thing was true of the term Crusade. There were others, too, others that entered his mind unbidden and that he thought that he might have forgotten: Frodo, Rings, Pope...these words and others moved through his mind, one after another, some in flashes, others slowly enough that he could think on them. He was unsure of what any of them truly meant, but he knew that each was important, in its own way and time. He just didn’t know how or why or when.

Slowly, ever so slowly, he crawled towards the sword. Every part of his body throbbed at the excursion. Those bones which remained unbroken creaked and groaned in protest at the task. Those that had cracked sent stabbing pain throughout his body at the slightest of jostles, of which there were many. He pressed on, as each and every part of his body screamed in protest. He was unsure as to why, but he needed to reach the blade. Crawling on, eruptions of pain continued to rip through his body, until finally he could move no more, crippled by the burning and tearing and and stabbing that consumed his flesh. Darkness once more moved before his eyes.

Just before the shadow fell once more, he thought that he heard the call of an Eagle.

Chapter Text

January 28, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

Esztergom

 

In Hungary's beating heart, the duties of the King had now been taken up by the Archbishop, and now Job of Esztergom took faced his first task in such a position: bringing the city back under control. It was no mean challenge. Fear and terror ran unchecked through the streets, taking the form of screaming mothers and crying children, of rioting and looting. Bitterly, Job noted that the legions of hell may not be needed to lay the city to waste.

 

Pater Noster, qui es in caelis,

 

Restoring the peace through martial means would be all but impossible. The King had taken many of the city's armed men with him when he had marched out into the wilderness, and very few had yet returned. Those that did were almost always too wounded to fight, and carried with them horror stories of a demonic horde that had ambushed them in the night that only fueled the air of despair and hopelessness that engulfed the city.

 

Sanctificetur nomen tuum.

 

Already, the city guard had retreated back to a small perimeter encircling Esztergom Castle and a few other important points within the city, their backs pinned against the Danube. While they would be able to hold their own on the defensive, any attempt to push outwards had so far been crushed beneath the swarms of panicked and near-delirious citizenry.

 

Adveniat regnum tuum.

 

With force of arms not an option for restoring the peace, Job was forced to seek out other options. If order couldn't be reestablished, the city was doomed no matter what the monsters outside the walls did. There would be no hope for a defense, no chance for an escape, no way in all the world for the people of Esztergom to survive the storm that was surely coming for them all. This task, the Archbishop felt, was God's test to him, the weighing of his soul in what could well be the End Times. He could not fail it. He would not.

 

Fiat voluntas tua,

 

He was not a wielder of force. But there was another method, one that he had followed all his life, that had guided him from his childhood to this very moment, and never before had it lead him astray. But he could not do it alone. He alone could not bear this cross. Others would have to follow. He could assemble a few to begin, the rest of the clergy of the city, but still that would be too few. If the city did not follow...then all was lost.

 

Sicut in caelo et in terra.

 

He started with a mere two dozen, fellow Holy Men and a small handful of Sisters from the local convent. They began at the Basilica, the holiest ground within the city. They prayed first to the Blessed Virgin, She assumed bodily into Heaven, and to Adalbert of Prague, their other patron, bringer of the faith to this land and martyr on the shores of the Baltic Sea, far to the north. When those prayers were said, they began to march, ancient and familiar words spilling from their mouths.

 

Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,

 

The nobles joined them first, as they marched past the castle. One by one, the highborn of the city fell into the small column, heads bowed in prayer. The words were repeated, on every lip and in every heart. Next were guards, forming up along the side of the formation. Their blades were drawn as the procession exited their all-too-small perimeter and into the chaos of the city, fearing any move against them. They, too, chanted the words, as they looked all about them in fear.

 

Et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

 

The words grew louder. Those that prayed along the roadsides were the next to join, moving to join their voices with those around them, hoping with all their hearts that making the words sound as one would carry them up to the Lord, and that He would look down and deliver them. As they moved further away from the river and towards the heart of the city, towards the cries and shrieks that emanated from that place, the words grew louder still.

 

Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,

 

A great snake now wound its way through the city, coiling itself into knots as it turned left or right whenever the crowds or damages before it were too thick to pass. Whenever it passed a knot of people, it would grow, the crowds being absorbed into the procession. They marched through market squares and through the docks at the river, before the homes of the rich and the poor alike.

 

Sed libera nos a malo.

 

For hours they endured, continuing their winding course through the city. Ever so slowly, all other sounds died away, with only the words sounding out over Esztergom. The breaking of glass, the screaming of women and children, the roaring of men...all of them faded away into the darkness, replaced by either silence or the words. By themselves, in pairs or in groups, even the most crazed of mobs began to join with the march.

 

Amen.

 

They chanted on through the night, thousands of voices joined as one. Candles and torches had been lit among the marchers as they trod on, casting an eerie glow on the scene. The rich and poor, the young and old, the strong and weak...on this night, there were no such distinctions, only a common home and a common cause. As one, the column turned for a final time, back towards the Basilica. There they knelt before the altar of the Lord, the words continuing on.

 

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The impromptu service lasted until dawn. Over and over again, the Shepherd of the souls of Hungary had led his flock in prayer, calling for the intercession of the Lord to their cause, pleading to the Saints to pray for them, for the Virgin Mother to hear their prayers. The Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and Saint Adalbert was packed to its rafters, as common and noble, guard and criminal, beggar and merchant sent their voices to heaven.

 

Eventually, the sun rose, and the dull grey light of winter began to filter in through the windows. With that, Job rose to his feet and looked out over his children. They looked back up at him, eyes full of fear and questions, silently begging him for comfort, for hope. He prayed that he could give it to them. This was the next part of his test. Sending a quick and silent prayer to the Holy Spirit, he began to speak.

 

“My children...there can be no denying it. Mountains of darkness rise from nothing. Hordes of demons and monsters strike against us. The sky itself tears apart. This...I fear that this is the End.”

 

A terrified murmur went up from the assembled crowd. Job raised his hands to silence them. Praying again for the Lord’s guidance, he continued.

 

“Be afraid. I do not hold that against you. There is no shame in fear of such things. But whether or not you are afraid...that is not the question asked of you on this day! No, the question is not of if you are afraid: all of us are! Rather, it is what you shall with that fear!”

 

He had their attention now. Some of the assembly were rising to their feet, trying to peer over those in front of him as he spoke. Holy Spirit, work through me. Guide my tongue. Let the right words flow from my mouth. Let me save your people.

 

“Will you burn down your own homes!? Will you sack your own city!? Will you let this fear rule you, like it ruled Peter as he walked on the water!? If you do so, then may you fall in, as he did! May you be swept away in the coming storm, and all who would let their hearts be ruled by terror with you!”

 

“No! NO! Be afraid, but do not give your life to fear! Do not turn to violence and desperation and madness, not at this hour! For this...this is the final test! The final challenge! God is pronouncing his judgements! How will he find you! Where lies your heart!?”

 

“That is what you must fear! The wrath of the Lord, that he will find you unworthy of paradise! Fear God! Fear his righteous wrath against you, you who riot and rape and rob and burn! Fear the Lord! Not the monsters! Not the mountains! Not each other! But that God, the Almighty Father, will find you wanting!”

 

“The task is before us! Our final test! Will you allow yourself to fail!? Or will you stand with me, and let the Lord see that you followed in his path, until your last and dying breath!? Our bodies are condemned to die, those that wish us all damned to Hell say! They say, ‘why care for the Law, for we are doomed to die in the coming hours.’ To them, whom I condemn to the deepest crag of the black pit, I say this: That we may yet save our souls! We may yet walk in the light and grace of the Lord! Is that not a worthy cause!? Would you not answer such a call!?”

 

“Yes, this is the End. The old world is coming to its conclusion, a death that will surely be in fire and blood. But we yet stand. Not yet are we dead! We yet breath, and see and feel! And while we still live, we must accomplish the tasks that God has given us! We must pass this final test! The old world is over. Will you be given entrance into the new?”

 

The people roared to the affirmative. Job looked once more at his flock. He saw in them hope, for the first time in three days. Common and noble, saint and sinner, man and woman, all of them raised their voices to the heavens once more, calling out that they would not bow before the darkness, that they would not lay down and die. The Archbishop smiled as he raised his voice with theirs.

 

By no means would this be the end to his task. He had sworn many oaths to serve the Lord until the moment of his death, and now he intended to fulfill them all. The people were behind him, at least, but they still needed to be set to work. Already, the gears in the Shepherd’s mind were moving. Esztergom itself would be indefensible, especially in the absence of the King and a large chunk of his men. The city would have to be emptied, its people moved away from the mysterious mountains and towards safer lands further west or south. Beyond that, he did not know what he would do.

 

But come what may, he would walk in the light.

Chapter Text

January 29, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Erebor

 

Brand, King of Dale, was worried. In the three days since the earthquake, most (if not all) of those that still lived within the lower halls of the Mountain had been found and spirited to the upper halls to be cared for. The dwarves still did all they could to remove the rockfalls that blocked their paths into the deepest chambers, hoping against hope to find more survivors, but as the hours and days passed fewer and fewer of the wounded and maimed were carried away from the worksites, replaced more and more by the broken corpses of the dead. Although none said as much, it was an unspoken truth among the dwarves of Erebor that they were no longer searching for survivors, but rather working to recover the bodies of their friends and kin.

 

Dain, son of Nain and King Under the Mountain, worked with them. He had not slept and barely eaten since the storm had come. Every muscle in his body ached in protest as he continued to chip away at the massive stones, moving rubble out of the barred passages and doing all in his power to reopen the lowest caverns in the desperate hope that he might still find those unaccounted for merely trapped, not crushed,  in the depths. Ever did that hope fade, but still the Dwarf King worked, doing all in his power to move those parts of the mountain that had fallen.

 

With Dain continuing to lead those that worked in the depths, it thus fell to Brand to command those that remained in the upper levels of the Mountain, both the wounded and maimed and those that worked to heal them. He had arrived mere hours after the Lord of Erebor had summoned him to give aid, bringing with him desperately needed manpower and medicines, and since then had acted much like his counterpart among the Dwarves, rarely resting or taking sustenance as he did all he could to care for those that could no longer care for themselves.

 

From what his men told him, there was little chance of him getting his rest any time soon. The changes to the horizon that he had so easily dismissed all those days before were apparently not so dismissive of him, and now there were reports of an armed camp being established upon the shores of the Long Lake, near the ruins of Laketown. Rather distressingly, its inhabitants were apparently picking around the lake itself, and doing so dangerously close to the corpse of Smaug.

 

His own scouts had dared not pass to close to the fortifications, but there were those among them that were keen-eyed enough to see the glint of gold and the shine of gemstones as they were hauled up from the depths and spilled onto the decks of the small boats that now dotted the surface of the lake. Brand knew the tales, of how that cursed horde had driven great men and dwarves (and even, if you believed certain accounts, a few elves), to utter madness and total destruction. He didn’t know much stock he put in such legends, but he would be a fool if he didn’t have a plan if they were true.

 

Growling, the King of Dale began to plan. Whoever they were, those that now camped along the shore of the Lake could not be ignored. Optimistically, they had been motivated by simple curiosity and nothing more, simply seeking to find out the nature of the new landscapes around them. In such a case, the King would be more than happy to give them counsel, and to listen to their so as to learn of the new world that Erebor and Dale had found themselves in.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, there was the chance that the loot that they were robbing from the body of the Great Worm was already starting to turn them to madness, as it had done to the Master of Laketown and so many others, up to and including Thorin Oakenshield himself. It would be foolish to simply assume that the better possibility was the one that would come true.

 

Brand was no fool. His father had taught him well and raised him better. ‘Hope for the best,’ Bain, son of Bard, had always told him, ‘but prepare for the worst.’ He wished that his father were here, that the man that had given him so much could take away some of the weight on his shoulders, as he had done so many times when Brand was a child. When Bain, the mighty King of Dale, could banish away his fears with no more than a few clever words. But alas, no. It was Brand’s weight alone to bear now. The King of Dale stood, feeling for the first time, truly, all of his 61 years. Heavy was the head that wore the crown.

 

But he would have to bear the weight. This moment had the potential to either bring his Kingdom crashing down around him or to help protect it against whatever calamity had caused the world in all directions to so drastically change. Either these men would be able to tell him about this new world and would make invaluable allies or the curse of Smaug would consume them all and he would soon have an army at his gates. No matter which of those scenarios was true, he could not simply sit around and wait for his fate to be decided.

 

He would march out and meet it.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

On the shores of the Long Lake, Rurik, Grand Prince of Kiev, was growing impatient. It had been three days. Three entire, blasted days since coming to this place, and still there was little project made. He was encamped (stuck, really, if you wanted to be more to the point) besides the mysterious lake, he and his company having decided against moving further into the mysterious new lands to Kiev's north and choosing instead to create an outpost on the southwestern shore of the waters.

 

Since then, what had once been a small scouting force had been more than tripled in size,  swelling ever more in both number and equipment. More soldiers had arrived, of course, along with the cooks, animal-handlers and miscellaneous other support staff needed to maintain a small army, but far more important to the Grand Prince were the others, the fishermen and sailors and river-dredgers, the ones that were taking far too long in arriving and accomplishing far too little.

 

The reason for Rurik's impatience sat tantalizingly close, taunting him from beneath the clear blue waters of the lake. It was the reason that they hadn’t advanced further towards the mysterious mountain on the northern horizon in the first place, the reason that a rather large force of men now sat around on the shores of the lake. There, just sitting there right in the water, almost close enough to reach out and touch, was the the faint shine of what could only be silver, the sparkles of what must have been precious gems and jewels, the bright gleam of what had to be gold.

 

There must have been more treasure just sitting there at the bottom of the lake, ripe for the taking, than all the wealth that passed through the markets Kiev in a full year. Some of it was shallow enough that the men could simply strip off their armor and clothes and dive down to retrieve it. They surfaced with hands and pockets full of gleaming coins and flawless jewels, and soon it seemed that the whole of the army had been diving into the lake after the treasure.

 

Rurik had done nothing to stop them, instead simply laughing and smiling along with them as they came up from the depths, singing the praises of God Almighty as he did so. Truly, the Lord was a great and merciful one to simply hand him such a gift. The fears that had been eating at the Grand Prince’s heart since the mountain had first appeared began to slowly fade away, the treasure of the Lord instead filling him with a surprising amount of hope and optimism for the future.

 

Soon afterwards, he had summoned fishers, dredgers, sailors, anyone and everyone with experience in salvaging things from bodies of water, ordered them to recover the wealth that sat there, just waiting to be claimed. The method of simply swimming down to collect the god and carrying it back up proceeded at an absolute snail's pace when it was going quickly, which it rarely did, but it soon proved that other techniques had just as many flaws to them.

 

The fishermen cast nets into the waters, but their nets were designed for fish, and most of the gold and jewels and precious metals simply slipped through the many holes in the netting, bringing up only pittances of what they should have. The dredgers brought up more of the wealth, and did so at a faster rate, but still only a fraction of should have been pulled out of the depths had been, and did so along with large piles of muck and mud and weeds that had have the treasure filtered out of it and then had to be dumped back down into the lake. The sailors had promised him a series of great cranes, that they assured Rurik would have every single coin and jewel pulled out of the water in a matter of mere hours, but the assembly of the devices never seemed to move at a reasonable pace.

 

And on top of the slowness of the work there was another problem: what to do with all the wealth. Rurik had ordered that a great many chests and carts to be brought up from Kiev, to transport the treasure safely back to the city, where it would be entered into the treasury for the betterment of the whole State. The Grand Prince, although by no means a cruel or otherwise uncaring men, very much doubted that the rabble that had marched here with him could be entrusted with so much wealth.

 

Of course, there those that stole away gold and silver and jewelry that they thought wouldn't be missed, having the gall to steal from what rightfully belonged in the treasury of Kiev. Oh, the bastards claimed that they were only taking payment for their assigned tasks, that the so-called 'small' portions that they slid into their own damn pockets was a rightful reward for their labor. Rurik had payed them, all right, with lashings and beatings and other torments. If more damn fools decided that they were going to steal away from the Princedom (and by extension, from the Grand Prince himself), it may be that some of them may quickly find themselves with their heads on pikes.

 

It hadn't quite come to that yet. Most of his men seemed to realize and accept the truth: every last coin would be going into the treasury, and the majority of those that refused to acknowledge that fact were cowed by the punishments meted out against those thieves that had so far been caught. Still, Rurik was suspicious. The men of Kiev were by no means soft, and there would be a great many that would have enough daring to attempt to steal from the coffers. As Grand Prince, it would then be his duty to protect the trove from those that would take from it. For the good of Kiev, of course.

 

Lost in such thoughts, Rurik barely noticed the arrival of one of his sentries, a picket that had been sent to watch for anything coming out of the unfamiliar north. The man was dirty and sweating, with a ragged and fearful look in his eyes. It was not so much his appearance that alerted the Grand Prince to his presence so much as his heavy breathing, a rapid and shallow panting that one would have to be nearly deaf to ignore. The man slouched over, hands on his knees, working to slow his breathing. Watching the man, and more to the point watching him simply stand there and pant like a dog, Rurik felt a bubbling irritation rise within him. What did this man have to report that was so important as to disturb his peace?

 

“Well?” The Lord of Kiev snapped, a certain amount of venom behind the word. The man abruptly stood up to his full height, eyes wide with fear at the implied threat, before throwing his torso and head forward once more and entering into a deep bow. Taking a deep breath, he finally began to relay his report.

 

“Muh-my-huh-Lord,” the man spoke around his breaths, an annoyance that Rurik grit his teeth and bared, “Thuh-there’s-an-ah-army-huh-coming.”

 

“What!?”

 

The man took another long and deep breath, and Rurik’s molars could have ground stone as he waited for the messenger to continue.

 

“From the north, my Lord,” the man said, finally able to carry a normal conversation. “We’ve spotted columns moving towards us along the river, from the direction of the mountain. They seem to have stopped for the moment and are just...watching us. Like they’re waiting for something.”

 

Under his breath, Rurik cursed. Always with the damnable complications.  First the delays in the salvage process, then the thieves, and now this. Oh, what he wouldn’t give for all his problems to simply disappear! To have them consumed in the storm that had blown through! But of course, he would have to make his own solutions. God had given him this gift, and he would not be parted with it lightly.

 

“My Lord?”

 

Rurik turned to the messenger, sparing one last brief glance at the gold and gems piled on his table. It was only the smallest portion of even the meager amount that all of his scavengers and fishers and sailors had managed to bring up. Even stained as they were from the muck and sand at the bottom of the lake, their beauty was undeniable. They seemed to almost sing to him, promising wealth beyond measure once the rest of the horde had been brought to the surface, of unending prosperity for himself and his lands.  Truly, this was a work of God, a gift given unto him to make his Kingdom the greatest of all the Rus states, no, all of Europe, if not the world. If only he could hold onto it.

 

“Gather the troops.”

 

 

 

Isengard

 

The so-called 'spies' had easily been captured. Their clothing and complexions were similar to those that one would expect from Rohan, enough that someone unobservant could potentially confuse them for being one and the same, but their tongue was completely unfamiliar and their strange mannerisms, especially those of kneeling with clasped hands and chanting when confronted by the Orcs or Uruks, were similarly alien. Saruman, Lord of Orthanc, was well familiar with grovelling for mercy, but this form of begging, involving staring at the sky and heavy repetition of the same phrases over and over again, was something different.

 

No matter how these intruders begged, the Wizard of Many Colors was not feeling particularly merciful. The Palantir of Orthanc was powerful and long sighted, but it lacked the ability to show fine details. Landmarks were easy to discover, as were the sizes of given armies or cities. But names, diplomatic relations and other such particulars were much harder to find. The Eye could show such things (there was little that it could not see), but the effort of will involved was rarely worth the effort to learn such simple things, especially when much simpler methods were available. After all, why use an ancient and great power such as the Palantir when he could simply extract the necessary information from these natives?

 

Very, very few men could have resisted the tortures that Saruman employed, and those that could were mainly found among the high-born of Gondor or the Dunedain. The men of Savoy, mainly low-born peasants that had seeked out higher employ in the service of the Count, did not fall into this category. The language barrier was a minor annoyance, but not such an obstacle that a Maia of Aule could not overcome. Within a matter of hours, he had the information he needed. 

 

He was now bordered by a land known as Savoy, ruled over by a man named Thomas. It was just one of many dozens, if not hundreds, of small states that were strewn over what the captives called 'Europe.' There were only men in this world, with the likes of Elves, Dwarves and even Orcs relegated to places in legend and song. The powers of Sauron and even the Valar were similarly unknown to them, the only such strength to bend the world to their will apparently falling to a singular being known by half-a-dozen variations of the name God. Or maybe it was three of these gods, a Father, a Ghost and a man named Jesus. As far as Saruman could tell, these men believed in a system where there was a One who was also a Three at the same time, a system that struck the Wizard as rather odd.

 

Whatever these men believed, the fact was that his current situation was far more hopeful than he had first believed. Those petty kingdoms that surrounded him were weak and divided, constantly squabbling over tiny scraps of land and worthless titles, populated by weak-willed and uneducated rabble that were easily swayed to whatever cause their so-called 'Lords' assigned to them. Their only unifying factor seemed to be their shared faith in their One-in-Three/Three-in-One God.

 

Said faith seemed to everything to these peasants. Whenever they spoke of it, they did so with reverence and awe, in a way similar to how the uneducated of Middle-earth would speak of the old tales of long-gone ages or of the realms of the elves, as something beyond the reach of mortal men, something to be overawed by. A certain 'Pope' was mentioned several times, apparently the head of these beliefs, spoken of in tones of wonder. Saruman tucked away the knowledge of such a position, certain that such things would become useful to him eventually.

 

In the meantime, he started making his plans. His power over Rohan was lost to him, his connection to his puppet Theoden severed (the feeling of which was not dissimilar to that of a sailor cutting off the end to a too-long rope). His own forces were currently committed to repairing the damage to his holdings; while he had more than adequate numbers to mount a defense if it came to that, his ability to project power was sorely lacking. If he wanted to come out ahead in this situation, he would need to increase his influence in this new world, a way to wield power over these pathetic excuses for men.

 

And he knew just how to do it.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Thomas, the Count of Savoy, was anxious, despite the number of armed men that he marched with. Scores of spies had he sent into these mountains, to scout out the new terrain that seemed to have fallen out of the sky into his lands. Only a handful had managed to return, most speaking of an impossibly tall black tower surrounded by apparently bottomless pits filled with hundreds of blazing forges and manned by what the men described as demons. Thomas might have dismissed such reports out of hand, but every surviving scout told nearly the same stories, and those that did not had reportedly been chased away the demons before they had reached where the tower stood.

 

So now Thomas marched out in force. Already the stories and tales swirled around his lands, telling of the monsters that were hidden away in the new peaks, waiting to strike. In such times, the people turned either to the Lord, praying for His help, or to their lord, demanding that he take up action. There had been an unspoken threat of riots, rape and looting if he did nothing against such things, and in response Thomas had ordered his army assembled, calling on every brave and willing man in his realm to march with him into the unknown lands, a show of force that would both reassure his own people that he was answering their calls and (hopefully) deter any attempt by the monsters to attack his people.

 

They went north towards Lake Geneva, the reported location of the Tower and its demonic hordes. Archers, men-at-arms, knights...the assembled army numbered into the thousands, a stronger force than would have been necessary for anything short of a full-scale war in normal times. But these were strange times, stranger than any in living memory, and even with all his knights and foot soldiers and bowmen marching with him, Thomas felt uneasy at best. What would he find on the shores of the lake? Had his scouts been accurate in their reports? Was he marching headlong into a legion from the depths of Hell itself? What had been dropped from the heavens upon him?

 

He found answers to the first question soon enough, and the unease in his heart began to grow into outright fear. Yes, there was the black tower, reaching towards the heavens like the Tower of Babel. Yes, there were the deep pits, spewing fire and smoke into the sky like the breath of dragons. And yes, there were the monsters, the demons, manning the outer wall of the fortress, armored and armed and staring back at him and his men, to all appearances daring them to come forwards.

 

His first instinct was to immediately turn tail, return to his keep and build up his army, followed summoning the forces of every ally available to him. He was in no mood to challenge an army of demons, and a quick glance over his men showed him that neither were they. He had the information he needed. The task he had assigned for himself had been completed; logically, there was no further reason to stay here.

 

But something caused him to pause. Looking out over the tower, he could see that he and his men had been spotted, but no challenge had been sent out. No arrows were loosed against him, no riders sent out to scatter his men, no stakes or barricades laid about the grounds. In fact, the main gate of the ring sat wide open, the road leading to it flanked by what appeared to be some kind of an honor guard, the soldiers their easily being the most finely armed and armored, as well as being the tallest and strongest. All of them were adorned with a white hand. Standing in the gate itself was a man, wearing only what at this distance appeared to be an old cloak and leaning heavily forwards on an old cloak. Apparently, rather than with fearsome resistance, he was being met with a welcoming committee. 

 

Cautiously, he gave the signal to advance. He saw no reason to approach what could very well be a trap at anything less than full strength. His men creeped forwards, cavalry at the flanks ready to sweep in and meet any challenge, ranks of spearmen prepared to break up any assault his center, files of archers behind. Every step they took was slow and deliberate, every eye looking warily for the first arrow to come soaring towards them, every ear turned for the first horn to sound.

 

But the sound that they heard was no call to battle, but rather the most beautiful voice that many of them had ever heard, calling out from the gate. It was low and melodious, calling to the hearts of the men to calm, sounding wise and reasonable.

 

“Welcome, Count Thomas, son of Humbert and Lord of Savoy. I am Saruman of Many Colours, Head of the White Council and Holder of the Keys of Orthanc. I welcome you and your men to my humble abode.”

 

The fear in the Count’s melted like frost under a summer sun. Around him, the soldiers loosened their grip on bowstrings and sword handles. Even the horses seemed to calm. A creeping sense of shame seemed to filter through the assembled ranks at the size of the force arrayed against the tower. There was no hostility here, obviously. How dare they march out as if to arrest a simple and kind old man! Doubtless, this Saruman was just as confused as they were to suddenly find his surroundings changed.

 

“I apologize for coming before you so armed, Lord Saruman.” Thomas felt like a small child trying to explain themselves to a disappointed parent. “I simply feared the worse of you, given the suddenness and method of your arrival. I see now that I could not have been more wrong about your nature. Please, excuse any trouble that my scouts caused by intruding on your lands, and let us start again, without suspicion and fear ruling our hearts.”

 

“I find no offense in the actions that you have taken, Count Thomas. If I were to wear your shoes, no doubt I would have acted much the same. A good ruler must have no shortage of caution, especially in times such as these. In fact, I am quite pleased that you marched out here to meet with me. I had desired to meet the Master of the Lands that I find myself bordering, and I do hope that you would hear my council as I would hear yours.”

 

The Count smiled. The wizened old man had taken no insult from him then, and they could go forwards as friends. He briefly looked back over his men. Where once there was only fear and uncertainty, he now saw barely withheld hope. The old man who wore a cloak woven from every color, changing hue and tone with every passing moment, had soothed all their fears with but a handful of words. Without a single shadow of a doubt, he could only be a friend to the land of Savoy.

 

“Lord Saruman, I humbly accept your council, if only you would have mine.”

 

Saruman smiled then, his face showing only kindness and compassion as he looked out over the army before him. Internally, though, his smile was much more of an arrogant smirk. Yes, these men were weak. He had barely even needed the power of his Voice to sway them against taking up arms against him. Maintaining the face of a wise old man, all the while cackling to himself about the pathetic weakness of these men, he beckoned towards the Count.

 

“Then come, Lord Thomas. We have much to discuss.”

 

 

 

Henneth-Annun

 

Madril, Lieutenant of Gondor, had been lost. Those first hours, those first days, had been torment, to both him and his men. He had been left in command of the Rangers that had remained at the refuge of Henneth-Annun while Faramir, his Captain, had gone south with slightly less than half of the men to pester any orcs, Southrons or Easterlings moving towards Minas Morgul while Madril kept watch for anything coming or going through the Black Gate. It was a simple assignment, one much similar to others that the Ithilien Rangers had been carrying out since the fall or Minas Ithil and the desertion of Ithilien and contentment of Osgiliath. There was nothing to suggest that this time would be any different.

 

But it had been. The earth had shaken. The sky had screamed. The whole refuge had nearly collapsed in on itself, loose rocks falling from the ceilings and the walls cracking and threatening to fall. The Rangers had had the presence of mind to escape the hidden cave before the earthquake had brought it down, but the sights that greeted them upon exiting may have had them wishing, in the deepest and darkest parts of their hearts, that they had simply died in the storm.

 

Mordor stood seemingly untouched, that dark land apparently immune to whatever fell magics had come down upon them. But Gondor, but home...home was gone, swept away in by the trembling earth and howling winds and endless hail, replaced with unfamiliar flatlands nearly as far as the eye could see, a dark and unfamiliar range of mountains just visible on the far horizon.

 

The courage of the men had failed at such a sight. The White Mountains, the Great River, the Tower of Ecthelion; such things had always given them the strength to continue the battle against the forces of Sauron, had always reminded them of what they were fighting for, of all that they would lose if they failed. Now the storm had seemingly blown it all away. With Mordor itself apparently unaffected, the minds of the men turned to dark thoughts, that Sauron may have called down some power beyond that of mortal men and remade the world to his vision, that they were now left alone in a world ruled by the Shadow.

 

Such ideas had ruled the men's hearts for most of those first few days, the ominous sense that the Dark Lord stood victorious weighing heavily down upon them.  There seemed no point to anything anymore, with home gone and the Enemy unmoved; all hope for victory seemed to have died. The men went through the motions of treating their wounded, burying their dead and doing their best to repair their fortifications, but the unspoken word among all of them was that it was all meaningless, that whatever they did they were all doomed anyways.

 

But then the refugees had started to appear. They moved in obvious fear, looking all around them in terror of an attack, moving quickly and without the slightest rest, so that anything or anyone that became separated from the main group was abandoned to the side of the road. It was readily apparent that they had been forced to flee wherever they came from quickly; they were dressed in ragged and worn clothing, and carrying with them few provisions and even fewer personal possessions. They stumbled towards the north, and soon afterwards it became clear what they fled from: bands of orcs and wargs, those forces that the Enemy used to occupy Ithilien, pounded after them, hungry for blood.

 

Among the Rangers, there was never any question of what to do next. The orcs very suddenly found themselves shot full of arrows, utterly surprised when a hunt for largely unarmed refugees turned into an ambush performed by their hated enemies. The refugees themselves were similarly shocked at their unexpected salvation, some throwing themselves to their knees and shouting to the sky in some alien tongue, others embracing the Rangers, giving them universal signs of thanks and relief.

 

To Madril, the way forwards finally began to clear. Yes, home was gone. Whoever these people were, they were clearly not of Gondor. Their tongue and customs were completely alien to him, the two parties just barely managing to communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions. But they were men, and men being assaulted by the servants of the Enemy no less. Whoever they were, whatever lands they came from, he had a duty to defend them from the Shadow.

 

Here before him lay a new purpose, a new task to live his life for, and he took it up without hesitation. He gave his orders quickly. The Rangers would march south, to turn those thralls of Sauron that hunted for those fleeing before them into the hunted themselves. With any luck, they would also be able to link up with Captain Faramir and the rest of their forces, who had hopefully not been swallowed up by the storm.

 

Admittedly, there was much that had been set against the men of Gondor. Their homes had disappeared. Many of their number were wounded, much of their equipment lost. When they did march, they would be slowed further by the refugees, who seemed loath to be separated from their saviors. But despite all of this, the spirits of the men were lifting, for the first time since they had looked out over the aftermath of the storm to see everything that they had stood for vanished into thin air. Once more, they had a purpose to fulfill, a task to complete. The Enemy was here, bringing with them their wares of death and enslavement, hungry for battle.

 

And the Rangers of Ithilien would march out to meet them.

Chapter Text

January 29, TA 3019/1200AD

 

 

Northern Italy

 

The fringes of the storm expanded southwards, spreading outwards from its heart deep in the mountains. WIth it it brought great amounts of snow, of course, along with thick fog and bitings winds: everything to be expected from a winter blow coming down out of the Alps. Those that lived in the region, near the cities of Verona and Trento, simply shrugged their shoulders and went about their lives, having come to expect such things over the course of their lives.

 

But there was something else in the air. A dark feeling, not dissimilar to the fogs of despair and terror that had gripped Esztergom, Seville and so many other places across Europe. A feeling of deepest dread, like the breath of winter itself was blowing out of the mountains, carrying a cold that cut to the bones. But this wind did not blow down out of the Alps. It seemed to simply...cling to the entire region, as if something was hiding just behind the snow and hail, darting between the clouds and stirring up the storm. A small handful of peasants and hunters that went out into the storm for whatever reason swore that they had seen something in the storm, some kind of great beast that drove the howling winds and chilled the freezing air. Most dismissed such tales, putting the weather down to just being another winter storm from the mountains, albeit a nastier one than normal. They went back to their works without a second thought. The truth, of course, was far worse than their darkest imaginings.

 

By all rights, the ones that hid inside the storm should have been long dead. And in many ways, they were: all that stirred in what remained of their soul was pure hatred, an eternally burning black fire fed by the will of Sauron himself. Once, long ago, they had been great Kings of Men, lords of the wild peoples from the east. Those people were descended from the ones that the Numenoreans had, while listening to the whispers of the Dark Lord, abused and enslaved, and when Sauron returned, all those centuries later, they had followed eagerly, going forwards under the promise that the blood of Numenor would be spilled by their hands. Their Kings had sworn fealty to the Dark Lord for the promise of eternal life.

 

The hollow mockery of a life they now lived hardly deserved to be called such, but the former lords made no complaint. Only service to Sauron mattered now, as it had for the past several thousand years. And so it was that the one-time Kings continued their flights, spurring their Fell Beast on through the storm, continuing their endless search.The Ring was near. They could feel it. Its Bearer had passed through the Misty Mountains via the Mines of Moria according to the Wizard Saruman, likely bound for Lorien. Thus, the three Wraiths not assigned to ready Sauron’s armies for war were sent here, to watch the Golden Wood, waiting for the Ring to come out of hiding.

 

It was to be a long wait. The Wraiths had seen no hide nor hair of anyone within the forest, elven or otherwise, the inhabitants hiding away within the shelter of the trees. The sight of the Nazgul was sharp and long, but the Ring of Air, one of the three great Elven Rings, was even better at obscuring what its wielder wished to remain hidden. And despite all of their power, the Wraiths did not yet have the strength to storm the Heart of Elvendom in Middle-earth by force.

 

And so they continued in their duties, unmoved by such pathetic things as boredom and impatience, flying constant search patterns above the forest and circling around its fringes. If any of them still had the capacity to enjoy life, that ability was not currently being aroused. Still, the Dark Lord had given them their orders, and they would follow those orders until they either accomplished their assigned task or were sent to oblivion in the attempt. There was never any question as to that.

 

What there was a question to was what to do if any unforeseen complications were to arise. Say, for instance, if a giant eagle, very clearly carrying something in its talons, were to break out of the storm, struggling to stay aloft, not even attempting to hide itself as it flew south. Rare was it to see such beings out of their eyries, rarer still to see one so ragged. Wherever they were going, wherever they came from, their task was obviously of the utmost importance to those that dared oppose the might of the Shadow.

 

Sauron was not one to actively encourage flexibility in his thralls (hating when actions were taken that went even slightly against his greater designs, being of the mind that his myriad slaves were incapable of improving what he had already set in stone), but the Dark Lord did value initiative when such golden opportunities knocked. Here before them lay such a chance: whatever mission the Great Eagle was carrying out, well...they would not be given the chance to finish it.

 

Some among the lesser of Sauron’s forces, orcs and trolls and goblins, might have frozen in such a moment, lost without exact orders from their dark master on how to proceed. But not the Nazgul. They were hunters above all else, the long hand of the Dark Lord. And now before them came the perfect prey. Silently, without even a word being spoken, the plan was devised. One lone Eagle hardly rated their combined efforts. A single Wraith would be more than sufficient for the task of chasing them down. The others would stay here and continue to watch the forest, fulfilling their master’s orders.. With the tasks meted out, the Wraith designated for the hunt spurred his Fell Beast forwards, still staying in the cover of the clouds as he and his mount began to close on the Eagle. The monster moved with unbelievable deftness, like a whisper on the winter wind, moving into a position above and behind the Eagle.

 

And then, like a hidden dagger, they struck.

 

 

Rome

 

Lotario dei Conti di Segni, better known by his chosen name of Innocent III, lay awake in bed, unable to sleep. Not that he was putting up much of an attempt. Too many thoughts passed through his mind, each one demanding his attention in turn, and his head raced to keep up with each one. It felt as though he was standing on the middle of a debate floor as God Almighty only knew how many different people attempted to shout over each other, each one trying to be louder than the last.

 

It was rather close to impossible to misinterpret the Calling that he had been given, and a (relatively) simple Calling it was: assemble a Holy Crusade by calling together the Christian Lords of Europe and send it out to contain the greatest threat in world history. There could be no denying the holiness of this task: this was no battle against misguided heretics, or even with the infidels and heathens, but rather with the legions of Hell itself! Demons and monsters now walked in plain sight among men, and as the Shepherd of God’s Flock, it was his duty to drive back the wolves!

 

Yes, the purpose for which he had been Called was clear. The logistics of executing God’s Will were proving significantly less so. This was not an unfamiliar problem to him: he had been dealing with such things ever since his succession to the Papacy, fighting resistance to his call for a Crusade to once more reclaim the Holy Land. He was well aware of the primary issues he faced, and he cursed the politics and greed of men every time that they crossed his mind.

 

Issue the First: France and England were at each other’s throats. This was nothing new: the two Kingdoms had been trying to kick each other’s teeth in practically non-stop for well more than a century, each trying to wrest from the other control over Normandy and the surrounding counties, many of which had changed hands more times than he could count. They were far too preoccupied with planning to slaughter each other to allow themselves to be bothered with the outside world.

 

Issue the Second: Many of the more secular princes in the Holy Roman Empire were attempting to undermine his authority (and, as Roman Emperors, they were sneaking increasingly greedy glances at the lands of the Patrimony of St. Peter). If that wasn’t enough of a problem already, there was a brewing crisis within the Empire. The early and completely unexpected death of the previous Emperor, Henry the VI of the House of Hohenstaufen, had left the thrones of both the Empire and Sicily in the hands of his son Frederick, who was currently all of five years and two months old.

 

Innocent himself currently acted as Frederick’s guardian and de-facto regent of Sicily: the poor boys mother, Henry’s wife Constance, had passed away two years earlier, choosing him to be the child’s watcher. But it was in Germany, in the heart of the Empire, that the trouble was originating. It was not as if the Pope could be elected Holy Roman Emperor, and so now other men scrambled to seize the throne.

 

Once again, Innocent cursed the greed of man. It had at first seemed that the Duke of Saxony, Bernard III of House Ascania, would be the one to ascend to the throne. However, King Richard the Lionheart of England, not long before his death, had instead suggested the election of his nephew, Otto of Brunswick, Duke of Aquitaine, a proposal that was initially met with general acclaim.

 

However, this simple suggestion had opened the Pandora’s Box of Roman politics, as Otto was the son of another Saxon Duke, Henry the Lion (a rival to Bernard’s House), and Bernard and his supporters feared that if he ascended to the throne he would allows his family, the House of Welf, to press their claims on Saxon territory. Fearing the loss of their lands, the Saxons now threw their support behind Philip of Swabia, brother of the deceased Emperor, who had come to the election seeking to secure the succession of his nephew, and soon others had flocked to their colors, especially those that bitterly resented Henry’s attempts to make the crown purely hereditary. With their support, the reluctant Philip was elected King.

 

However, Otto’s supporters refused to accept the result, and three months after the election they held their own conclave to elect Otto as King, as Philip had not yet been coronated. Both Kings were coronated soon afterwards, but neither of them did so by the legitimate process. Philip was elected with the full regalia of the Emperor, but had not been in either Mainz or Aachen (the traditional location) and had not been crowned by the Archbishop of Cologne (the traditional authority). For Otto, it was simply the other way around.

 

The minor lords of Germany wasted no time in jumping to pick sides. Innocent himself had been dragged into the morass, his guardianship of Sicily (or rather, his answer to the question of how much sway the Papacy should hold over the Kingdom and whether or not Sicily should be integrated into the Empire), pulling him in, and with the death of Richard the Lionheart he had become Otto’s primary backer. The English backed the candidate of their late and beloved King, of course, and the French jumped at any chance to spurn their rival, siding with Philip’s faction. As the months passed, the crisis seemed to grow ever on.

 

Now, with the Devil’s hordes threatening the whole of the good earth, he realized how little it all mattered. Such disputes, about the possession of lands and the rights of certain factions, meant nothing at all, not against the ending of the world. What would a few more titles and and few more acres do against Hell itself? Innocent was wise enough to realize that the answer was nothing at all. He hoped, he prayed, that the princes of Europe would realize that soon. He sent out the message to all of them, regardless of politics or distance, and he called on the heavens that his warning wouldn’t be ignored.

 

In the meantime, all he could do was pray for guidance and organize those nations that weren’t seeking to rip each other’s throats out. Without the Germans, and potentially without the French or English, they would be woefully inadequate. In Italy, only Sicily (which Innocent himself effectively ruled) could be guaranteed to send aid, with the northern states such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice being far more interested in undercutting each other than unifying as one. The Kingdoms of Hungary or Poland would have been more reliable, but both were likely soon to be neck deep in Hell itself, if they weren’t already.

 

Looking further afield, the picture was slightly better, but still not what Innocent would call good. The Spanish and the Norse were brave and ferocious fighters, but Innocent feared that they would be too few in number to make a significant impact. The possibility of calling on their Orthodox brothers to the east brought with it other problems. The sheer distance to the Rus States made even simply contacting them difficult, and coordinating with them near impossible.

 

The Byzantines were no better, and were in many ways worse. Alexios III Angelos had effectively bankrupted the Empire trying to secure his reign after he had ousted his brother Isaac II from the throne, gutting the once-mighty Roman military, and his methods of paying for doing so with heavy taxation and plundering Holy sights and Imperial tombs did little to endear him to the people. Imperial authority, especially in the outskirts, was crumbling, and Alexios III’s rule seemed less stable by the day. And on top of all of that, there was the Double-Headed Eagle from his vision. Although he didn’t quite say so in his letter, he would have had to have been a blind fool not to at least partially understand the imagery. He wasn’t quite sure what the Eagle going mad ment (although he was inclined to believe that it foreshadowed a coming civil war), but couldn’t mean anything good for Christendom.

 

The best available forces to Europe, then, came from old plans that had never quite come to fruition. The Crusade that Innocent had been assembling with the intention of reclaiming the Holy Land was still mustering in Champagne, and likely wouldn’t be ready for months. Another attempted Crusade, which Henry VI had been organizing at the time of his death, had had its leadership abandon it after the Emperor’s death and now languished in Tyre after panicking and fleeing there without any steady hands to guide them.

 

If Innocent did not live up to his Calling here, if he was not the steady and guiding Hand of God on earth, then this Crusade was likely to meet the same fate. It was a terrific weight to bear. He would have to make hated enemies and rival act as friends and comrades, make greedy and petty men put aside everything else and lead them to the, in this case, very literal Gates of Hell. With that in mind, Innocent sent up yet another prayer to God, pleading now for wise hands to guide all of Christendom, if not all of the World, through the dark.

 

And then God gave him an answer.

 

 

 

Northern Italy

 

Gwaihir the Windlord’s wings beat on, even as it began to feel as if they would fall off at any moment. The Great Eagles were the mightiest fliers in all of existence, unmatched in skill, speed and endurance, and Gwaihir himself was the greatest yet living, but three days of battling non-stop against a ferocious storm, complete with blinding snowfalls, winds more powerful than any in an Age and an apparently endless stream of lightning bolts had pushed even him to his physical limit, aches running through his wings as he flew southwards.

 

Nevertheless, he continued. The not-quite-voice in his head prodded him forwards, pushing him onwards even as his joints began to burn with pain. He flew on southwards, destination unknown, guided only by instinct as he entered into unfamiliar territory. It was clear that he was no longer in the realm of Middle-earth. Behind him, the Misty Mountains had apparently been dropped into the center of another and alien range. Before him were clearly not the plains of Rohan or anywhere else that he could have flown to from the Silvertine. But still the calling in his mind continued.

 

At the very least it was readily apparent what he was supposed to do. He carried with him one who’s weight he had born before, the Wizard called Gandalf, Olorin and many other names. He was to deliver him, to who and where he did not know, but he felt that the fate of a rather great deal rode on his ability to get the Wizard safely to his destination. The voice whispered that much. And deep in his heart, his mind and his soul, he knew that it was right. He didn’t quite know how, but he did.

 

DANGER!

 

Said voice, usually barely more than a whisper in the center of his thoughts, suddenly screamed the word to him, through every part of his essence. Reacting on pure instinct, Gwaihir rolled swiftly to his right...and in doing so just barely missed being skewered upon the talons of the Fell Beast as it dove past him in deadly silence. The Great Eagle felt rather than saw its passing, a fell wind that promised death blasting past him at incredible speed. It’s silence gave way to a bloodcurdling screech, a sound of fury that its prey had escaped it. But already its rider was pulling on its reins, bringing it around for another attempt at gutting the Great Eagle.

 

Gwaihir didn’t feel like giving them the chance. As the worm swerved right at its master’s command, the greatest living Eagle rolled hard to the left, dropping towards the ground as he did so. In response, the Wraith slammed his reigns down, forcing his mount into a dive, keen to keep the claws and teeth of his beast pointed firmly in the direction of the Eagle. Both the Eagle and the Beast now began to shoot towards the ground, the latter rapidly closing the distance towards the former. Suddenly Gwaihir’s wings shot outwards, slowing him almost to a halt, and he performed another hard roll. With another angry and terrible scream, the Fell Beast shot past him once more. And once more, there was no time to celebrate: already, the Nazgul was pulling up, reorienting itself to make another attack run.

 

Normally, Gwaihir would have been thrilled at this prospect. Clearly, this beast would have given him a challenge to revel in defeating, being swift and strong enough to at least pose a threat to him, however miniscule. But he was in no condition for such a battle. He had had almost no rest in the last three days, and even less sustenance. Endurance wise, he was already at the end of his rope. And on top of that, he carried precious cargo, the kind that could not be risked in a duel to the death.

 

So evasion it was then. As he continued to roll, dive and swerve, always trying to keep the fangs and talons of the beast pointed away from him, Gwaihir considered his options for doing so. It was unlikely that he could simply outpace his opponent in level flight, especially in his condition. He a way to slip away from his pursuer, a method for slipping away from him that would leave Gwaihir clear to carry his passenger safely to his destination. And, unfamiliar as he was with the terrain of the lands below him, he was left with only one option.

 

The Wraith watched as the Eagle turned northwards, bolting back towards the storm. If the Wraiths could have smiled, they did now, wide and eager. The foolish animal thought that they could hide within the clouds and the snow, thought that they could run away on the fell winds. But there would be no escape. The storm was the domain of the Nazgul, of the Dark Lord Sauron, and it would not aid them in their flight. A horrible sound escaped from the Rider, a harsh mockery of laughter and joy. They spurred their beast onwards in pursuit, their cries echoing throughout the chill night air.

 

Almost as if listening to the Nazgul’s cries, and almost as if insulted by the Black Rider’s arrogant belief that it was the master of the winds and the snow and the lightning, the storm began to churn as the two beasts approached it once more, flying hard. It started small, almost unnoticeable, the skies dimming ever-so-slightly more, the winds starting to pick up by the smallest or margins, lighting flashing through the clouds just a bit faster. The two combatants hardly noticed as they madly darted all over the sky, each trying to keep the other firmly in front of them as they worked their way deeper and deeper into the storm. They darted through the clouds, tearing through the skies with movements punctuated by sudden swerves, dives and stops.

 

The Wraith snarled as he pursued the Eagle back towards the mountains. The skill of the beast was evident: every approach that the Nazgul made was countered, their every attack dodged with deft precision, almost as if they could see what was coming before the Black Rider made his moves. In response, he simply pushed his mount ever harder. It was clear that his prey was slowing down, wearing out: every attack he made was closer to landing a hit. It was only a matter of time until a blow struck home.

 

The Windlord knew this as well. Every move he made that was not a dodge was an attempt to conserve energy, riding on the existing winds and gliding as much as possible. There was no other choice. His stamina was long since drained, and every movement he made sent stabs of pain throughout his entire body. He clutched unto the Wizard in his talons with the last of his rapidly fading strength. The calling in his mind continued to echo, warning him whenever the Fell Beast came too close for comfort and lending desperate strength to his spirit. Even with his entire body burning under the strain, he continued to streak through the clouds, keeping just ahead of his pursuer. But it couldn’t last forever. Something needed to change.

 

And something did. The winds began to roar. Lightning screamed out of the sky at an ever-increasing rate, thunder echoing off the mountains. More and more snow began to fall, distorting the vision of even the Nazgul and the Great Eagle. They both began to feel it, that something else was within the storm, something far beyond either of them. Or perhaps two somethings.

 

One was a shadow, a deadly breath on the winds, laughing and mocking as the Great Eagle deeper into its embrace. The air itself seemed to freeze like ice, the snow and hail sticking striking them from all directions, threatening to encase him whole and drag them screaming into the earth. Lightning crashed down from every side, releasing bellowing thunder that’s power was felt in the bones rather than heard with the ears. There was a howling in the dark, a scream from all directions to simply lay down and die.

 

The other was just the opposite. Where the darkness shouted and wailed, this one whispered. When the ice and the snow threatened to drag him down, it became the wind beneath his wings keeping him aloft. When lightning streaked out of the clouds, it guided him away from the path that the carved to the ground far below. It was the slightest bit of light, cutting in through the surrounding darkness.

 

As the darkness around them closed in and the light did all that it could to keep the shadow at bay, the Nazgul and the Windlord continued their battle. The Wraith shrieked in fury with nearly every moment, the flaming wrath that was what remained of its heart and soul building up from a simmer into a raging inferno. How was it that this Eagle, this mere beast, could continue to evade the pursuit of his mount!? No matter how great the power of their body or the depth of their skill, the hunt should have been long over by this point. The damnable creature should have been killed by its own exhaustion alone far before now. As the winds howled and the thunder roared, the Wraith’s black heart burned with hate, the essence of its rage and fury pouring out through its shadow of a body.

 

If the air could have somehow become even colder, they did so now. The winds almost seemed to bend to the pure hatred that emanated from the Wraith like heat from a furnace, the skies themselves bending and contorting into a single column of air, forming a solid wall of wind that centered around the Nazgul as his fury leaked out into the storm. Even the Eagle could no longer overcome the raw anger of the storm now, the circling winds ensnaring them inside the column.

 

Seeing no escape in punching through the churning wall of clouds and shadow before them, the Eagle now shot upwards, trying to escape the reach of the Nazgul once more. The Wraith roared again, a scream that drowned out even the howling of the storm, and began his final pursuit, furiously pushing his mount after the Great Eagle. His prey would not be allowed to escape, not anymore. The two began to madly climb towards the top of the cylinder, the black walls slowly collapsing in around them, the Eagle in front and the Nazgul behind. With every beat of their wings, through, the Fell Beast drew nearer and nearer...they were 100 paces back, 50...20...10...they were level…

 

With one last furious scream, the Wraith drew its sword. Even in the dark of the storm and the night, the blade seemed to glow, the malice of its wielder flooding into it. He looked upon the Eagle before him, no longer able to escape his wrath. Now, finally, it ended. With a guttural cry, like that of a maddened feral beast, the Nazgul struck outwards, aiming for his prey’s underbelly.

 

CLANG!

 

Shock was not something that a Ringwraith was supposed to be able to feel. Their only emotions were meant to be hatred and its various derivatives such as sadistic glee. Nevertheless, the Nazgul froze as he saw the sword that had flashed outwards to parry his own blow. Their gaze traced the blade backwards from its point, seeing an old (but strong) hand clasped around its hilt, a scarred and blistered arm that lead back to a body that was battered and bruised and worn. The Wraith looked up from there, and found themselves staring into a pair of eyes that pierced back into the darkness, a great intensity burning behind them.

 

And then time started again. The Nazgul’s blade flashed out once more, as fast as an eye could blink, but again the silver sword was there to meet it, parrying away the blow. The Wraith’s blade struck out again and again, but every attack that the shadow unleashed found itself blocked, every thrust turned aside. With another furious scream, the Nazgul pulled on his mount’s reins, and the Fell Beast pitched hard, attempting to ram the Great Eagle out of the sky.

 

Again, as it had done so many times before, the Windlord rolled aside, allowing the Wraith to pass harmlessly by. But unlike all the other times, a flash of silver appeared in the Eagle’s talons, and a moment later black blood began to pour from a wound in the Fell Beast’s neck. The Beast spasmed wildly as pain shot outwards from the wound, the Wraith struggling to maintain control of their mount. And in that single moment, with the Nazgul distracted, the Great Eagle shot away, darting into the black clouds. Even as they struggled to keep their mount aloft, a howl of bestial rage escaped from the Wraith, louder than all the wind and thunder, a sound of pure hate that followed the Eagle and the Wizard even as they turned once more to the south, carrying on the fell black winds.

 

 

Rome

 

It was a rather odd sight: the Pope, wearing only his nightclothes, running at a full sprint through the corridors of the Lateran Palace. He tore through the halls, his 40-year-old body performing like that of a man half his age as he sped towards the Palace courtyard. He wasn’t the only one running. His guards chased after him, their armor clanking and their breath coming in pants as they thundered after the Heir of St. Peter. They were young and hale men, in their primes and at the peak of fitness, the very best specimens that Europe had to offer, for the Bishop of Rome deserved no less. And even then they struggled to keep pace with Innocent as he darted through the Palace, barely looking where he was going.

 

His gaze was fixed out the palace windows as he ran, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing. There, in the courtyard, calling out loudly to any that would here, was a massive Eagle, larger than any animal that Innocent had ever seen. He couldn’t always see it, either: the maids and servants of the palace had been woken by the screeching, and now many of them stood slack-jawed in awe as they stared out the windows, vacant and stunned expressions on their faces.

 

Even with only those brief and often-obscured glances, the Pope sped on, his heart filling with hope with every step he took. There could be no mistake. If this matched what he had been shone in his vision, then God had just answered his prayer for guidance. The Archangel, the guard against the dark, the Sword and Sceptre of God, had arrived. The Lord’s help had come to him.

 

With a last burst of speed, the Servant of the Servants of God pushed open the doors of the Palace and skidded into the courtyard. The Eagle turned and looked at him at the sound. It’s eyes seemed almost human as it looked him over, its gaze seeming to look far beyond external appearances. And then, after a moment, it nodded, either to itself or Innocent he was not sure, and spread its wings once more. It lifted slowly off the ground, it’s exhaustion evident to all who saw it, but it took flight with little effort regardless, turning towards the north as it gracefully returned to the skies from which it had come.

 

Looking to where the Eagle had landed, Innocent laid eyes on what he had been looking for. The one before him’s body was cracked and broken in many places, he could see, but they still stood tall and unbowed, seemingly not noticing their myriad wounds. In their right hand was a silver sword, tip resting gently on the ground before them, and in their left they held a white staff with some sort of stone at the tip. A simple white cloth around their waist was their only clothing.

 

Innocent briefly turned back to the palace behind him, his eyes passing over the frozen and shocked faces of his guards and his servants. Every set of eyes either stared at the Archangel before them all or at the Successor of Saint Peter, silently asking the Bishop of Rome what they should do. Innocent himself wasn’t exactly sure on how to act in this situation, but he still needed to lead.

 

“Gather the healers!”

 

That seemed to shock at least some of them into action, a few scurrying off to find the Palace healers. Even with their guest’s divine nature, he was battered and bruised. He would need the aid, as the men of Europe would need his. Innocent turned back to the Archangel, and for the first time met his eyes. A certain fire burned behind them, a fire that filled the Pope’s heart with hope and banished away, at least for the moment, all of his fears.

 

And with that, Lotario dei Conti di Segni dropped to his knees and praised God.

Chapter Text

February 3, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

Mordor

 

The noises of an army preparing for war sounded out across the Udun. Officers howled orders to their subordinates, and said subordinates cursed under their breath in reply. Dozens, if not hundreds, of forge hammers rang constantly, each blow of metal on metal carrying across the ashen plains. Their products clanked and jingled with every movement as the armorers fitted each set to an orcish soldier, roughly yanking straps tight and forcing iron plates into the correct positions. Horns blared as companies were formed, and soon afterwards the stomping of thousands of feet, the beating of makeshift drums and the cries of soldiers on the march were all but omnipresent. The Armies of Mordor were on the move.

 

The Witch King of Angmar watched them from atop his mount, his emotions ever unreadable. For the moment, his second, the orc Captain known as Gothmog, guided the proceedings, his eye critical and his tongue harsh as he moved through the ranks: the fodder of Mordor had not yet proved incompetent enough to merit the Wraith’s direct intervention in the muster of his army, and the Head of the Nazgul had more pressing matters to attend to than mere logistics.

 

Namely, gathering intelligence on his target and planning the assault that would reduce it to a pile of broken stones. Not that there was much need to be clever. The Wraith had flown over the city he was to lay to waste numerous times, hiding himself within the black clouds that clung to the skies around Mordor, pinned there by the fell magics of the dark land. Even from such heights, the city reeked of fear, with feelings of terror and despair bleeding from it like blood from a wound. The prisoners that had been taken, from the villages near the Black Gates and the pathetic excuses for scouts that had attempted to spy on the same, were reduced to gibbering wrecks by the mere appearances of the orcs, screaming to the sky in their strange tongues long before the implements of torment had even entered the same room as them. Even by the standards of men, it was almost pitiful. 

 

Of course, the Lord of the Nazgul felt no pity for them whatsoever: those that proved to be non-useful died in torment, their foreign screams dying on their lips. The raw terror that consumed the men of these lands like locusts consumed a harvest would simply make the Witch King’s job all the more simple. His Master wanted the lands before the Black Gate utterly destroyed, the spirits of their inhabitants shattered beyond repair. And his Master’s will would be done.

 

Before too long, the time had come. Formation by formation, column by column, regiment by regiment, the vast host of Sauron had reached their points of assembly, thousands of orcs, wargs and trolls organized to begin the march. Their officers could be seen, gesturing wildly and spitting madly as they stoked the fires of bloodlust and rage that would fuel the coming conquests. The cheers and stomping and beating of weapons rose from all corners of the plain as the Army of Mordor worked itself into a frenzy, eager for the blood of men to bathe in.

 

A single flick of the Witch King’s hand, and it had begun. The horns were blown again, and the roar of the host sounded out like thunder. Thousands upon thousands of feet stomped to the beat of the drums, the columns moving like a black wave towards the northwest, as unstoppable as the rising of the tide. There was one last blast of horns, and the Black Gate of Mordor began to creak open.

 

And the Legions of Hell were unleashed upon the Earth.

 

 

Krakow

 

 

In the days preceding, the countryside had been nearly emptied, its inhabitants fleeing as far as they could away from the Black Peaks that had descended from the sky. The majority fled northwards, a human flood rushing away from the mysterious mountains and whatever terrible things behind them made the air freeze and the hearts of men despair. The tales were everywhere, of hideous monsters that descended from the dark lands and ate the flesh of men, of the Black Gate that was manned by an army of demons and of the flaming eye that could be seen beyond it. Lesser Poland was a land filled to the brim with dread and fear.

 

Nowhere was this more true than in the beating heart of the land. Krakow, the capital of the realm, was filled to bursting with three things: wild tales from the southeast, refugees from the same region and the rampant terror that spilled from both. Even the army that now encamped within the city could do little to quell the horror that sprung from every corner of the city. All of Krakow waited with baited breath, waited for the next stage of this calamity to begin.

 

Leszek the White, High Duke of Poland, could do little but wait with them. Prayer was his only comfort now. He had sent for aid in all directions, north and south and west and east, but no reply had come. The tales from the southeast had grown more terrible by the day, if not by the hour. The people that carried the stories with them now were crammed into Krakow like fish into a barrel: nearly every road in southern Poland fed into the city at some point, and in the depths of midwinter moving off of the road was a sure way to be slain by the elements or starvation, whichever came first. This forced the seemingly endless columns of refugees into a bottleneck that slowed their northwards flood in to a trickle, crowding the city and stretching its larders and housing spaces to their limits.

 

So Leszek prayed, as he had without end since the storm had struck, since the mountains had fallen, since the first reports from the south had returned to him. He prayed for strength, for guidance, for aid, for anything that might light his darkest hour. On and on, pausing only to eat, sleep or discuss plans for the city’s defense, he prayed, calling out to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mother and every Saint whose name he could remember. Many joined him. Wawel Cathedral, that holy place on the hill, was packed to the rafters, every day and every night. Commoner, noble, criminal, guard...all of them prayed to the Lord, crying out for salvation.

 

It was not before that altar that Leszek heard the message that he had been dreading, despite all the hours each day that he spent there. Rather, it was within his castle that the runner had found him, listening to his Captains report to him their progress on stockpiling supplies, arming and training every able-bodied man they could find, fortifying every wall and gate. The man that delivered had eyes that were wild with terror, his breath shallow and rapid. Leszek had known at the mere sight of him. There was almost no need to ask, but still the words came from his trembling lips, barely above a whisper.

 

“Has...has the gate opened?”

 

The man nodded vigorously, his whole body shaking like a leaf. Leszek felt his breath leave him, the weight of his body seeming to double, no, triple, in that single moment. He felt his joints begin to weaken, his body slouching over as his mind tried and failed to process the information he had been given. He barely noticed as the other men around him succumbed to the same symptoms, their breathing becoming hard and sudden, their faces twisting in horror and dread. The Gate was open. The demons were marching. They were coming. Good God almighty, they were coming.

 

“How...how many?”

 

The words barely escaped from Leszek’s mouth, his tongue drying out and his lips cracking as fear began to spread like poison through his body.

 

“Suh...suh...some th-thousands, my lord,” the man stammered out. His words hung in the air as he regained his breath, trying to steady himself somewhat, regain the smallest measure of composure. “Demons, giants, monsters...I saw them with my own eyes. They’re all coming this way. It won’t be more than a day's time before they’re here.”

 

Leszek’s knees gave way then, and he slumped to the ground, practically forgetting the world around him. All his fears, all his horrors...they were about to be realized. He simply stared ahead, his gaze fixed at a point somewhere behind the messenger before him. Vaguely, at the edge of his consciousness, he was aware of the rest of the men in the room either joining him on the floor or begging him for orders. After what seemed to him an eternity, he finally found his voice again.

 

“God...God help us all.”

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

The black tide swept northwards, consuming all in its path. Villages were burned. Crops were put to the torch. Those refugees that had not yet reached the relative safety of Krakow were slaughtered like livestock, their bodies desecrated and looted for anything of value, then piled in heaps besides the road. The horde of Mordor moved like so many locusts, laying the lands before them to waste.

 

Far above, the Witch King of Angmar watched from on high with an emotion akin to satisfaction as the army advanced. All around him, the fell winds of winter howled, and snow and hail tumbled out of the sky on the lands below. The inclement weather did little to slow the pace of his hordes however, the orcs and trolls and other beasts being driven ever forwards by the bellowing of the officers and the beating of the drums. They made good enough time, for the moment. The Nazgul could turn his thoughts to other things.

 

Nazgul did not feel joy or happiness as living men did, if at all. The closest emotion that they could muster to such feelings was a certain sort of sadistic glee, an emotion that was somewhat like a hunter’s anticipation of slaying their prey. It was this bestial pleasure, the anticipation of a coming slaughter, that the Lord of the Ringwraiths now felt coursing through him, a savage pleasure that made the black fire of his soul burn like a blacksmith’s furnace. The coming ‘battle’ could hardly be called such: it was to be little more than a massacre. The city, despite all of its fortifications and defenses, was as ready to fall as a ripe fruit. One solid blow, and the whole rotting place would come crashing down upon itself.

 

And that blow was being prepared at that very moment. Orcish engineers tore down every sturdy building they could get their hands on, converting the materials into siege ladders, catapults and battering rams. The foremost columns of the army already stood before the city itself, taking up their positions for the general assault. Those behind them were herded to their own starting points, drums pounding and horns calling as the army arranged itself for the attack. Soon, oh so very soon, it would begin. The Witch King watched as his soon-to-be victims scurried about on their walls, their fear radiating off of them like heat from Mount Doom. It was no a matter of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’ And ‘when’ drew nearer by the moment.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Leszek stood on the wall. He looked out over the horde before him, but it was anyone’s guess if he actually saw them. The High Duke was in a near-stupor, his eyes barely focused and his body lax. The young man, no, young boy, had been guided to where he stood by several of his guards, looking for all the world like the 17-year-old child that he was: small, frail, and thrust into a spot far above his capability.

 

It had been a matter of some discussion of whether or not to allow the boy to the wall at all. He himself had muttered the order, that he be taken to see the legions of hell that now availed him, but many among his advisors feared that his appearance in such a state would do more harm than good, lessening even further the already flagging morale of the men. But the High Duke had stumbled in the direction of the walls anyways, and in the end his Captains had not stopped him. It was all that they could do to stop him from tripping over the things in his path.

 

Now they all watched, as what could only be the army of Satan himself assembled before their walls. Their number was difficult to count, especially with the falling snow and hail obscuring the sight of the Poles, but it was easily far greater than what was available to the defenders. A sally would be suicidal. As they had for so long, the soldiers of Krakow waited, waited for the hammer to fall. Most prayed. Some wept. All felt a sickening fear grow within their hearts. The insufferable waiting...it seemed to continue, on and on and on.

 

And then, as the sun fell on the night of February 3rd, AD 1200, they heard it. It was a terrible noise, painful to the very soul to hear. It carried on the dark winds, a black voice from within the storm all around them, a cry of the Devil himself. Loud and long it was, and the men of Krakow’s muscles froze and bowels clenched when they heard it. Then, there was another noise, a horrible cheer that rose on thousands of twisted throats, and the legions of hell began to move forwards, like a great wave threatening to sweep the whole city away.

 

The Battle of Krakow had begun.

 

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Jakub Kowalsky had not been a soldier for long. Not more than a week before, he had been another simple and poor farmer, just one more peasant among the thousands that populated southern Poland and northern Hungary. Then the storm had come, and the mountains and the tales of monsters and demons and soon he had found himself swept up in the great flood of refugees, leaving behind his livelihood and home in search of safer lands to the north.

 

He had hoped to make it further than Krakow by now (perhaps even as far as the border with Mazovia) but much like veins and arteries feeding into heart, every road in the country seemed to lead directly to the city, forming a bottleneck that slowed the human river roaring in from the south from a vast torrent to a feeble trickle. With traffic slowed to a standstill, Krakow had become less of a city and more of a great camp, with refugees taking whatever shelter they could in and around the city.

 

With it apparent that the vast majority of said refugees would be unable to move on anytime soon, the city officials did all that they could to both give support to the displaced (many of whom had only the close on their backs with them) and to gain some measure of value out of them. Every able bodied man had been levied into the ranks of either the defenders against the coming battle or as workers to build up fortifications in preparation for the same.

 

Jakub had fallen into the former category. They had given him a shirt of mail that didn’t quite fit right, a spear that felt just the slightest bit wrong in his hands and a few days worth of training in their use. It was not that he did not know how to use them (indeed, he had learned such things from his father, many years before, as had most of the men), but the thought of the battle to come filled him with dread. He could see it on the faces of the other men too, hear it in their voices when they spoke. Fear and terror clung to every corner of the city, a terrible thing that sat just at the edge of their thoughts, waiting to lunge forwards and consume them.

 

Now he watched in horror as the black tide swept towards him, illuminated by the light of hundreds of blazing torches, and the feeling of dread welled up within him once more. Every muscle in his body clenched together, and his every limb trembled as the legions of hell drew closer, a roaring swarm carrying wicked blades and fitted with twisted armor. The went out all along the line, for archers to pick their targets and fire at will, and within moments arrows began to fly, first a handful at a time, then in groups, and then one after another after another plunging out of the darkening skies, thinning the ranks of the demons with every shaft that struck home.

 

But the demons had archers of their own, and they responded in kind, black arrows streaking up from the grounds below, and soon the air was filled with the shafts of both sides, cutting down any that dared expose themselves. To the terror of the defenders, however, it seemed that for every shaft that was sent over the walls, the monsters would send three in response, uncannily accurate in the fading light. The howls of wounded and dying men sounded out from all across the rampart as more and more black shafts streaked in, forcing the men to take whatever cover they could find as well as pinning down the defender’s own archers, preventing them from picking their targets with any true accuracy.

 

The roars of the monsters grew ever louder, and they spat words at each other in their harsh tongue, a twisted and black noise that hurt to even hear. What they called for soon became apparent: the call went out across the wall that the foe was bringing up ladders. Jakub gulped, his throat dry. The storm of arrows flying overhead was bad enough. Now the true battle was about to begin. In mere moment, he would be facing demons, demons, with only a spear and a shirt of mail. Garbling a quick prayer to the Lord for protection, he lifted himself to a crouch, trying to keep himself out of the view of any prying bowmen’s eyes below. He risked a quick peek over the wall, and yes, there they were, dozens of ladders being carried to the base of the wall.

 

Some were already going up, men armed with pikes and hooks desperately trying to push them away. It was a deadly business: everywhere that a ladder reached the wall, a dozen bows sighted the men trying to push it away. Black shafts buried themselves into the pikemen, and into those that took up the weapons and tried once more to shove away the ladders. And the ladders were many: every one pushed down was replaced within what seemed an instant.

 

Eventually, the inevitable happened. Too many pikemen had fallen, arrows piercing through their flesh and leaving them to bleed to death, and one by one the ladders began to find purchase on the walls. Taking in a shuddering breath, Jakub readied his spear, watching as the ladder nearest to him shook with the steps of a demon rapidly beginning their ascent. Even in the rapidly darkening night, he saw the demon’s head as it came into view.

 

It was a terrible thing to behold, a twisted and scarred face with wild, blood-red eyes and jagged, dagger-like teeth. As the demon finished their climb, a wicked-looking sword held high above their head, Jakub found himself for the briefest of moments looking straight into its eyes, seeing the burning hatred behind them, the pure malice that made up the dark creature’s soul. Then, with a scream of animalistic fear and rage, he thrust his spear forwards, burying it deep into the monster’s stomach. They roared in pain, madly swinging their blade towards Jakub’s head, even as Jakub drove his spear further into their gut, pushing the demon back off the ladder and into open air.

 

So they can die, Jakub thought as he pulled his spear back and ducked for cover once more, a volley of arrows tearing through the air where he had stood a moment before. It was a thought that he took at least some comfort in. Maybe there was the slightest bit of hope that he would live long enough to see the dawn. The ladder before him continued to shake, another demon trying their luck. Another prayer on his lips, Jakub Kowalsky steeled himself to face another monster.

 

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Gothmog, Lieutenant to the Witch King, was not one to lead from the rear. He stood at the very front ranks of the Army of Mordor, screaming himself hoarse at the maggots that ran with him towards the walls. He paced the lines, hollering for the ladders and rams to be brought up, for his archers to pin down the enemy bowmen atop the ramparts, occasionally lashing out with the flat of his blade against of the grunts that dared to let their ranks waver.

 

Unlike the Nazgul, the Orc had a concept of joy, if a bestial and savage one. Gothmog was currently revelling in that feeling, his heart lifting with every scream that rose from the walls when a shaft found its mark, with the resounding CRACK! that accompanied the battering ram as it hammered at the city’s gates, with the terrified cries of the men at the walls as his maggots ascended the ladders and stormed the ramparts. It was what made him feel alive.

 

The only thing that made him feel any more alive was removing life from men, watching the light in their eyes blink out as he forced a blade through their flesh. He would have his chance to indulge such feeling in mere moment. The gates of the city were shuddering with every blow from the ram, the boards composing it beginning to crack and splinter. The arrows of the guards flew wide of their marks in the darkness, and the pressure being applied by his grunts on the other parts of the wall drew off more and more of defenders as the orcs threatened to overrun the ramparts.

 

He could see gaps in the gate now, holes that the defenders desperately tried to board up or shot arrows and thrust spears through. They targeted the maggots working the ram, of course, but every one that they managed to bring down was easily replaced, and the gate came ever nearer to breaking. With every blow, another plank broke, another beam snapped, and the anticipation of those behind the ram waiting to storm the city built. Finally, with one last CRACK, the gate fell away, those that had been bracing it hurriedly trying to form ranks behind where the gate had once stood. Finally, the Lieutenant to the Witch King could give the order he had been waiting to give.

 

“Trolls! Forwards!”

 

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Leszek heard the gate shatter below his feet. He had been standing practically frozen for hours, watching as the demons had battered down his defenses. While he had stared ahead with a blank face, his Captains running the battle as he remained in his stupor, madness had unfolded, the monsters finding purchase upon the walls and breaking down the gate. Now, finally, with the legions of hell storming forwards into his city, his eyes regained their focus.

 

Whirling around, his hand flying to the hilt of his sword, he watched in awe as half-a-dozen giants, pale skinned and wielding clubs the size of trees, pushed their way into the courtyard behind where the remains of the gate stood, smashing aside the defenders like a scythe cutting through wheat. At the mere sight, he almost froze again, but the he shook the feeling away as quickly as it had come. He had already missed most of the battle, God forgive him. He would not miss the rest.

 

“Archers! Bring down the giants! Bring them down! Bring them down now!”

 

His own voice was nearly alien in his mouth, but the words managed to carry out into the cold night air, and his men responded with gusto as volley after volley of shafts began to tear into the courtyard, plunging into the thick hide of the monsters. The giants turned slowly as the arrows ripped into their flesh, looking for the sources of the shots. They stumbled confusedly, dumb looks on their faces as the arrows continued to rain down, but it wasn’t enough. The monsters were still standing, even as they became more and more like porcupines in appearance, and with the defender’s attention pinned on the giants the smaller demons were starting to storm into the city. The giants needed to fall. And suddenly, Leszek had a rather stupid idea on how to bring them down. Shaking his head, he took a deep breath and said a prayer to the heavens.

 

Then he made by far the stupidest choice (in his own opinion, at least) that he had ever made: taking a running jump, he propelled himself forwards into the air above the courtyard, bellowing like a madman as he flew towards the nearest of the giants. His aim was true, and he landed square on the monster’s shoulders, desperately clutching onto its left ear as for support as the beast began trying to throw him off. With his right hand, he maniacally slashed at the giant’s skull, striking again and again and again, blood flying out of the wounds that he managed to open in its leather-like hide.

 

The monster roared and stumbled as he struck, gashes being sliced into the side of its head and neck. The archers focused their fire on the giant, feeding dozens of shafts into the target as it began to slow and weaken. Finally, black blood flowing like a river from its myriad wounds, the giant fell to first its knees, and then forwards onto its face. The men roared as its dying groans escaped it lips, their hearts filling with renewed hope at the sight of the beasts fall, at the actions of their Lord.

 

Leszek stood up, his whole body covered in the black blood of the giant he had brought down. There were still five more of the beasts in the courtyard, although the injuries that the archers had inflicted upon them were finally starting to slow them down. The smaller demons, through, were beginning to flood into the city, their way opened by the giants. The scattered defenders were trying to regroup and plug the hole, but there was no cohesion, no leadership. Leszek knew that if they failed here, there was nowhere that the enemy could be held except for the river, which would doom half the city to fall. Raising up his bloodied sword, the High Duke of Poland summoned up what courage he had left to him and shouted out his orders.

 

“Men of Poland! Of Christendom! With me! Seal up this breach, with your own bodies if you must! The line must be held here! For God, for your city, for your families, I bid that you stand! Your! Ground!”

 

And then he charged back into the fray. Behind him, he could hear the ragged cheer of his men as they formed up behind him, spears and swords clattering as they moved towards the battle. Arrows continued to rain into the courtyard, cutting down many of the demons, two more of the giants finally falling to the ground under the weight of the shafts. The blades of the defenders lashed out madly in the darkness, sending all those that they struck back to the pit from whence they had come. But it was anyone’s guess as to if it would be enough.

 

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The Witch King watched the battle, unmoved by what he saw. The defenders had taken serious losses, but were still managing to (somewhat) hold their lines against his forces. The wall was still in Polish hands, as was the courtyard beyond the main gate. Perhaps their valor and courage had been underestimated. Regardless, they could not hope to hold out forever. The losses that the men had taken were far more grievous than what they had meted out against the orcs, and the Army of Mordor could afford far more losses than that of Poland. Even the loss of most of the trolls was merely an inconvenience, if a larger one than had been expected.

 

Still, as the moon rose higher and higher into the sky, the Witch King had expected to make more progress. He should not still be fighting to control of the city’s wall and gate. In the black pit that was his soul, the Lord of the Nazgul made his decision. Mere men would defy him no longer. The defenders had bent, but yet remained unbroken. It was time, past time, for them to be completely shattered.

 

Pulling on the reins of his mount, the Witch King of Angmar took flight.

 

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When the scream reached Jakub’s ears, he thought that his skull would split apart. He fell almost instantly to his knees, the black sound now echoing across the battlefield piercing into the very depths of his mind. A feeling of pure pain emanated out from his ears, destroying his ability to think of anything else but trying to block out the noise. His own screams of agony were barely audible above the din, and he felt himself fall to the ground, writhing in pain.

 

It was lucky that he did. Vaguely, his wide eyes refusing to focus through the pain, he watched as some kind of dragon, with a body like a worm and wings like a bat, darted down the length of the wall, its sword-like talons tearing through any that weren’t pressed flat against the surface of the stone. There was another sound then, just barely audible below the black screeching: a horrible cheer that rose up from the demons below the walls, followed by the sounds of the monsters clambering up the ladders once more.

 

They were upon the defenders as fast as lightning, long before the men had even started to recover. In seconds, the battle had gone from something close to a stalemate to something close to a rout, as the demons raced up the ladders and onto the ramparts, tearing through the shattered remains of the defenders like sharp axes through dead logs. Few were coherent enough to stand, let alone fight. In the space of mere minutes, the wall was overrun.

 

Jakub, amid his mad spasms of pain, had rolled down one of the stairs that led up to the wall, and he now bore a dozen bruises across his body where the stairs had smacked against his flesh. He had lost his weapon in the fall. Looking back up warily, he saw the demons pouring over the wall, slaughtering what remained of the defenders there. Some were starting to come down off the walls into the city itself, eyes darting across the battlefield for prey. One spotted him, pointing him out with their blade, beckoning in its black speech for its fellow monsters to join in the hunt. Jakub ran.

 

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For a short while, Leszek had almost felt as if they had been winning. The giants had been brought down, arrows and spears stuck out of them like knives into cuts of meat. The smaller demons had been contained into the courtyard, hemmed in from all sides by shield and spear walls, while the archers had rained shot after shot down upon them. The lines had been holding. Leszek had allowed himself to hope.

 

And then the screaming had begun. The voice of the devil himself had sounded out on the winter winds, inspiring fear and terror in all that hear it, if not outright paralysis. The walls had fallen, the defenders cut down by a great flying worm. Those demons that pressed forwards through the gate had redoubled their efforts at breaking through. In as much time as it takes to tell, the Polish lines had been broken, the defenders fleeing in a mad dash away from the carnage.

 

What was left of his men were now desperately trying to hold the bridges over the Vistula, hoping against hope that they could hold the demons back here. It was a losing effort. The black screaming continued, freezing men where they stood and leaving them to be cut down, and more mundane problems were starting to rear their heads as well: The archers were running low on arrows, and many of the men had lost their weapons in the earlier melees. Simple fatigue from hours worth of battle was beginning to tell, and where the exhaustion of the men was apparent, the enemy had a seemingly bottomless reserve of fresh monsters to throw into the fire.

 

Leszek’s heart sunk. His men were fighting like wild animals, desperate to simply survive, but their number was dwindling further and further with each passing moment. Unless a miracle happened, there was no longer any hope in victory. Krakow would fall, that much was certain. All that he could change now was how much longer the city held out and how many would survive its destruction.

 

With those thoughts in mind, he grabbed one of his Captains, a man by the name of Pawel Jankowsky and gave what would be among his final orders.

 

“The battle is lost. We cannot hope to hold them back for much longer. I need you to assure that our people survive. Take as many people as you can through the Dragon’s Den, beneath the Cathedral. It will get you out of the city. Head north, towards my uncle’s lands. They must be warned about what is coming. I will buy you as much time as I can from here, distract them from your flight.”

 

“My Lor-”

 

“No, Captain, I will not run. I will not leave my men to fight on alone. Now go! Every second lost is one less that will escape the city, one second closer to darkness no longer being able to hide you!”

 

The man looked like he was ready to protest further, but he nodded anyways, accepting the orders. Then, with his eyes near tears, he bowed to his Lord, before turning away, gathering a small handful of men and heading back up towards the Cathedral. Leszek watched him go, his own eyes stinging as he watched his last chance to survive the battle leave. Then he turned back towards the river, where the demons and giants and monsters drove ever forwards, and plunged back into the fray.

 

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Gothmog pushed forwards with the rest of his grunts, across the bridges strewn with the bodies of the fallen. The river below ran red and black with the spilled blood of orc and man alike, but now, finally, it seemed that the defenders had broken. In the predawn gloom, he could see them falling back towards the citadel of the city, a castle of hard stone set atop the highest ground for miles around.

 

Gothmog drove his maggots forwards, keen on not letting the defenders regroup within their keep. It wasn’t hard to do. The men were covered in wounds, easy to catch up to and cut down. The ragged remnants of the defenders were clearly at their limit. They had held the walls and gate for hours, the bridges for hours more. Gothmog had almost been impressed with their tenacity. Now, through, the end was coming. The orcs’ reserves were already moving through the city, laying to waste anything that they could find. Much of Krakow burned, and the screams of the dying sounded out from all parts of the city.

 

The orcs began to ascend the hill. Only a handful of arrows screamed through the air to thin out their numbers now, whether from lack of ammunition or lack of archers Gothmog didn’t care. His own archers were quick to reply, returning fire at ten times the volume of shot, forcing the defender’s bowmen back down into cover, if not slaying them outright. The Army of Mordor pressed on, laughing at the pathetic resistance now facing them. They were already celebrating their victory.

 

And why shouldn’t they? The enemy was beyond broken, their city in flames and their defenses utterly destroyed. One door, that on the keep, remained to be broken down, and already a ram was rhythmically banging away at it, splintering the wooden planks and widening the gaps between them. Shouts could be heard from the other side, the men beyond trying to brace up the door. There were also screams, and anguished cries.

 

For the people of Krakow, the end had come.

 

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Leszek looked around the room. This was it. This was how he died. Over the objections of many of his men, he had chosen to stay. Perhaps it was an attempt to atone for spending so much of the battle in a daze, unable to lead. Perhaps it was a misplaced sense of duty. Whatever the reason, Leszek the White refused to flee, even with the opportunity presenting itself. He would stand his ground here, until he could stand no longer.

 

He was not quite alone in doing so, but it made little difference. Out of all of Krakow’s defenders, only some four score had survived the night, the rest dead, left to die or sent along to escort those that were escaping the city. There weren’t enough of those, those that had scraped through the limestone passage below the hill: the old and infirm that could not be moved and those too injured to stand could not be sent through, and the narrowness of the passage meant that there were still hundreds that had not yet been sent on.

 

Many of that number, seeing now that they could not escape, chose to go down fighting, taking whatever scant arms and armor they could find. The hard decision was made to seal the tunnel entrance, in the hope that the demons would not discover the escape of the city’s women and children so quickly. Leszek watched as his last hope for survival was blocked up, brick by brick, tears in his eyes. The men weeped bitterly as their doom was sealed, taking what little solace they could in that their sacrifice might buy their wives and sons and daughters enough time to flee to safety.

 

There was a certain lightness in the chamber, the calm that descends when one knows that they are going to their deaths. Waiting was the hardest part, as it had been earlier in the night, waiting for the assault to begin. The men said their last prayers, some thanking God for a life well lived, others begging for his forgiveness for some past sin. A pair of Priests made their rounds, hearing final confessions and administering the Last Rights. All the while the battering ram hammered away at the door, its rhythmic impacts counting down the last moments of the Poles’ lives.

 

Leszek stood up as the door began to give way. It was time. Breathing in, he prepared to give his final orders.

 

“Men of Poland, of Krakow...it has been my honor to stand by your sides, that you would follow one so young as me. I ask you now, not as your Lord, but as another man doomed to die here, that you follow me one last time. Let us not stay here, to be slaughtered like cattle. When that door breaks, I bid that you follow me once more into battle, that we may die like men. It is all that I will ask of you now.”

 

There was no great cheer of approval, but the men gave haggard nods, standing up once more and preparing their weapons for the final skirmish. They formed into a ragtag formation, those few remaining with shields in front, spears and swords behind. They waited, the battering ram’s thumps ticking their final seconds away. Then the door gave way, falling broken to the ground. With a bestial roar, a ragged and broken sound, the last living men of Krakow charged as one.

 

They attacked the legions of hell with broken swords and shattered spears and even their very fists and teeth as they gave their last and desperate effort. For one, brief, shining moment, the light of Krakow, of Poland, of Christendom itself lit up the night. It drove back the darkness, striking forwards and shining like a beacon in the night. For the briefest of times, it shone like the sun and all the stars together, forcing the shadow back and taking back its own. But the darkness rallied, and descended once more, encircling the small light. The light flickered and wavered, falling in on itself.

 

And then, like so many to come, it was extinguished.

Chapter Text

February 1, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

The Halls of Thranduil

Dominic of Osma was deep in prayer, trying to keep his mind off of...practically everything that had happened in the past week. It was a common practice for him, one that he had adopted long before becoming a Benedictine slightly more than a half-decade before. But as he fell into the familiar rhythms of his meditation, his mind couldn’t help but drift slightly, turning its attention towards the set of circumstances that had lead to his current status.

It had all started with the storm, a freak blizzard that had blown in from the southwest. At first, many had believed it to be simply another winter storm, something far from uncommon in January in the Kingdom of Castile. But then they had laid eyes on the forest, and fear had gripped their hearts. Practically every inhabitant of the small village of Osma had managed to pack themselves into the Cathedral soon afterwards, the lone exception being those sent north towards Burgos, the seat of the King, to request aid.

Dominic had prayed then too, along with all his brothers in the Osma Canonry. There was little else to do. Being only a small village with few inhabitants, Osma could not be fortified effectively, leaving the people there completely at the mercy of their new neighbors, at least until the King sent aid. And so, like in so many other places across the country, Dominic and his brothers prayed. For strength. For guidance. Above all, for answers.

There had been something that nagged at him then, as he had knelt before the cross that adorned the wall in his small dormitory within the Cathedral. At first he had simply ignored it, driving it to the back of his mind as he did most things that distracted him during his prayers, but the odd feeling had refused to go away, slowly building up within him as the days passed. He felt that it was no mere temptation of either the Devil or his own flesh, but rather something more like the feeling that had caused him to enter into the Priesthood in the first place. A divine call to action.

Dominic had alway wondered why exactly God had called him into His service. This, apparently, was the answer. When he had first discussed such things with his brothers, the looks on their faces had readily conveyed how much they were questioning his sanity at that given moment, but not a single one of them did not listen as he stated his case. They advised him to speak to the Bishop before doing anything else, as well as acquire the elder man’s blessing if he found Dominic’s case convincing.

Diego de Acebo, Bishop of Osma, knew Dominic well, and knew that he was not one to let the Devil or his earthly desires sway him. If the younger man was sure that this was God calling to him, Diego doubted that there was anything else that it could be. And the Bishop of Osma was not about to deny the Lord’s will. With his blessing, Dominic would be sent to explore the forest. He would not go alone. Unanimously, his brothers in the Canonry had decided that if he really had lost his mind, they wouldn’t let him go off and get killed alone. And so it was that there would be 12 that would go into the unknown, with only the Holy Spirit to guide them. The half-joking, half-serious comparisons to the 12 Apostles circulated among them as they completed their preparations. Prayer was offered that their mission would meet similar success. Minus the part where almost all of them died.

They set out the next morning just after dawn, the sixth day after the storm had come and gone. Dominic lead, his faith in the Lord holding at bay the apprehension he felt as he marched towards the forest. He was on a mission from the Holy Spirit. He would not, could not, fail. Whatever was hidden within the darkness, he would bring it into the light. He and his brothers prayed as they marched, the familiar words helping them to keep their thoughts away from both the cold of midwinter and their fears of the unknown before them.

Silence fell as the 12 reached the edge of the woods, the darkness within almost supernaturally black, as if some malevolent force beyond their sight was eating away at all the light. A long minute passed as the small company simply took in the sight before them. The thought went unsaid that this was their last chance to turn back. The looks that passed between the priests more than answered the unspoken question. Taking a deep breath, Dominic lead his brothers, all of them into the unknown.

He was unsure of how long they walked. Time seemed to both stretch and compress as they marched, and the cloudy skies prevented them from judging the position of the sun in the sky. Besides trying to head towards the highest ground available, Dominic had no real objective in mind for his exploration. Doubt began to scratch at the back of his skull, but he forced the feeling down as soon as it had appeared. The Lord would not lead him astray. He had to have faith in that.

Not long afterwards, his faith would be tested. They heard the danger long before they saw it, an echoing howl that tore out of the darkness around them. One after another after another after another, the sounds of a wolfpack made itself known, dangerously close and from all sides. The brothers of Osma took to the trees with a quickness that would have made even the fittest of men green with envy, hauling themselves up the branches with the reckless strength that is fueled by the fear of imminent death.

And not a moment too soon. Even as the last of the men pulled themselves off the ground and beyond the reach of the beasts, they arrived, massive wolves that put anything Dominic or any of his brothers had ever seen to shame. They roared like thunder, the whole pack soon clawing at the bases of the trees in which the men had taken refuge. The terrified men added their own screams to the din, both horrified shouts of fear and desperate prayers to the heavens.

It felt like an eternity passed while trapped in those trees, the wolves circling below and clawing at the bark of the trunks. In a small blessing, the Lord had apparently decided that these particular creatures would be unable to climb trees, but the terror of the men remained at the forefront. The pleas to heaven became ever louder, the words tumbling out of the brother’s mouths faster and faster as they stared the doom below them in the eye. They watched, begging to the Lord to save them, as the wolves began to claw their way through the trunks of trees, threatening to tear down the only things keeping the men alive.

And then, as if God had decided that he had seen enough out of them, their faith was rewarded. Very suddenly, one of the wolves below, a hulking brute nearly the size of a full-grown man, fell over dead. Then the one next to it hit slumped to the ground as well. And then the one besides them. In the fading light, the men saw nothing but the beasts around them begin to fall like leaves in autumn. The wolves roared in fury, and began to scatter in all directions, going after their unseen assailants on smell and hearing alone.

The men watched in astonishment, mouths agape, as more and more of the beasts fell, moving blurs in the shadows cutting through them like newly-sharpened knives cutting through overcooked meat. The swift blurs that darted through the pack hardly seemed to be slowed by the wild lunges and strikes of the beasts, the vaguely human shapes dodging the attacks with movements that evoked the graceful steps of dancers more than the savagery of a battlefield and countering with single, deft strikes of their own that struck home as fast as the men could blink.

And then it was over, the few surviving wolves either fleeing or being put out of their misery by the dark figures. Said figures now took the wolve’s places, gathering under the trees and calling out to each other in a strangely melodious language. Then, they began to pull back their hoods, and the men of Osma could only look upon them in wonder.

They were, in a word, beautiful. Oh, they were covered in a myriad of small wounds, and their cloaks were shredded and torn in many places, but looking at them clearly for the first time, Dominic doubted that he could claim to ever seen a group of people more fair. He couldn’t quite place his finger on why their features tantalized him so. It was almost as if the crowd below had some kind of glow to them, a permanent radiance that followed them wherever they went.

The equipment that they wore and carried with them only reinforced the stunningness of their appearance. Their armor was of a quality beyond anything that Dominic had ever seen, even the faded scratches and dents doing nothing to detract from the obvious skill with which they had been crafted. Their blades, he could see, had been forged with the same level of skill. They practically glowed in the dark, silver swords and spears shining like beacons in the night, not a single chip or nick visible on an of their weaponry.

Utterly agape at the sight before them, it took Dominic and his brothers a moment to notice that said weapons were now pointed at them. The beings below (Dominic’s mind refused to use the term ‘human’ for those that were more than likely not) were shouting at them in their alien tongue, a sound that would have been beautiful to hear if not for the violent undertones and angry expressions that were projecting it.

Crossing himself first, Dominic raised his hands above his head in what he hoped was an obvious sign of surrender. Looking down at those below him, a female (well, what he guessed was female) with auburn hair that seemed to be their commander was gesturing at him, pointing repeatedly at the ground. Nodding slowly, Dominic began to climb down from the tree. His brothers followed.

As he climbed down, Dominic returned once more to prayer. This time, instead of asking questions of the Lord or asking for strength or guidance, he sent up a prayer of thanksgiving. Although he didn’t quite say so out loud, the timing of his salvation by these strangers stuck him as being to convenient for a mere coincidence. The Lord, it appeared, was looking out for him, and if he was right in his beliefs then the Almighty was doing so with literal angels. Heartened by this thought, Dominic smiled, truly smiled, for the first time in a week.

And as his brothers joined him on the ground, thankfulness and hope apparent on their own faces, Dominic couldn’t help but feel blessed.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Thranduil, son of Oropher, King of the Woodland Realm, could scarcely remember a time he felt as he did now. Not since the turning of the previous age, when he had laid his father to rest along with two of every three with which he had marched to the Plain of Dagorlad and beyond to the slopes of Mount Doom itself, had he felt so much raw despair, so much helplessness. Everywhere he looked, there was only devastation.

His lands were broken. There was no other way to describe it. Everything above ground had been ravaged by the storm, everything below by the earthquake and those that lived in either had taken a severe mauling, from the battle or the storm it mattered not. The healers were far beyond merely overworked, a few having already collapsed from exhaustion. The wounded were everywhere that one looked, taking up every inch of space that was not in danger of collapse or attack, those that wore fewer and bandages and splints doing all that they could to aid those that were covered in them. They put cloths over the faces of those that were beyond helping.

Many of them could have been saved, if only the healers had reached them before their wounds had begun to fester and their blood had run out. But the beasts had come almost as soon as the storm had passed, forcing all that were able away from the wounded and towards the battle lines. For three days the monsters came, almost unceasing, like a swarm of wasps whose nest had been disturbed. Hundreds if not thousands of spiders flooded out of the burning forest, accompanied by wargs, black stags and other mockeries of nature.

The elves of Middle-earth, despite their similar appearances and shared tongue, were by no means a uniform peoples. If one were to journey through the Grey Havens, Imladris, Lothlorien and the Woodland Realm, one after another, there would be very little outside of their speech and form to indicate that they were related to each other. In the Havens you would find shipwrights and carpenters, always looking west and with little interest in anything beyond the Gulf of Lune. Rivendell was the home of the loremasters, the artisans and musicians and poets, preservers of the knowledge and spirit of long-gone days, a veritable window into the past glories of Gondolin and Nargothrond. The Golden Wood played most to the stories that travellers told of elves, a place of mystery and secrets to which few ventured and fewer still returned with more than whispered legends.

In comparison, the Elves of the Woodland Realm were warriors, first and foremost. They had to be. Oh, all the elves of Middle-earth were gifted in the art of war (with even the least among their armies trained for decades at a time), but only among the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood was skill in combat so valued. They were not entirely unlike their fellow elves, of course, but in the realm of Thranduil one would find a distinctly martial slant to their behaviors.

There were songs and stories, as one would find in the House of Elrond, but far more to the taste of the Woodland were tales of war and glory, not the old ballads of ages gone by. There were master craftsman, like those in the Havens, but their skill was in the manufacture of weapons of war. Like Lorien, they were a secretive people, but did so out of a pragmatic desire to keep their ambushes and traps hidden. These were a people for whom war was a fact of life, living under constant threat of attack from orc and beast alike. Mirkwood, which they lived on the edge of, was filled with all things dark and dangerous, even after the Necromancer had been driven out. His lingering evil oozed from the fortress of Dol Guldur like pus from a wound, twisting and corrupting all it touched.

So it was that, even after the earthquake shattered their fortifications, even after the storm scattered what remained to the winds, even after the fires had begun to burn and destroy whatever was left and their very souls felt as if they had been thrown out of a rather tall tower, the soldiers of the Woodland Realm had stood firm as the shadow of the forest burst forwards and attacked. They took up whatever positions they could, dug in, and set about applying all their years and decades (and in a few cases centuries) of skill in the fine art of killing anything that moved.

For three days, the battle raged, the sheer numbers of the beasts more-or-less evenly met by the magnificent skill of the elves. They moved almost as if in a dance, volley after volley of precisely aimed shots bringing down hordes of the monsters, lightning fast blades swiftly cutting apart those that made it through the storms of arrows, walls of spears and shields blocking off any attempt by their foes to advance. But there was no guarantee of victory. The doubts of the elves came not from any lack of skill, or even from the apparently never-ending stream of monsters. Rather, it came from simple fatigue.

The Firstborn Children of Iluvatar were a people who, despite their reputation for feasting required little in the way of sustenance and almost nothing in the way of sleep, but the seemingly endless battle tested even their endurance. Simple fatigue became the elves’ greatest enemy, as the sheer drain from three non-stop days of combat began to take its toll. A one of missed shot, or a blink late in reaching out with a blade-such things were the difference between life and death for the elves, and even their vast reserves of skill and endurance had limits. As the hours and days dragged by, many began to reach and surpass them, their movements becoming sloppy and slow.

Happily for the Eldar, it seemed that the number of monsters attacking them was faster to dwindle away than their remaining reserves of energy. Gradually, the number of attacks tapered away, the beasts apparently deciding to go after easier meals. They did not fully withdraw, with many small swarms remaining just beyond the reach of the elves’ bows, but the people of the Woodland Realm were more than happy for any respite.

Perhaps ‘respite’ would not be the right word. As King Thranduil looked out over his realm, he realized that there would be no rest for him or any of his people. The monsters of the forest were far from being driven off, and his army was too exhausted to do any more than sit and defend its own borders. Most of said army could be easily said to be walking wounded, either injured by the claws and teeth of the spiders or nearly too exhausted to even stand.

It has been said that the Son of Oropher was perhaps the least likeable of the Elven Lords in power by the time of the storm, with both friends and foe alike calling him all manner of less-than-positive names. They said that he was uncaring. Distant. Prideful. Arrogant. And perhaps he was all of them. It is known that he had a rather thin patience for Dwarves, and his temper for men was not much longer. But whatever he was in normal times, there is near nothing but good that could have been said of him during those days after the storm.

Whatever hardness he had in his heart was either made to disappear entirely or very well hidden. In those days, with disaster having come upon him, he was nothing but a shining beacon to his subjects, tireless in his work and compassionate to all. It seemed that he was everywhere at once, organizing rescue operations in the lower caverns of his halls, going amongst the healers and aiding the wounded, coordinating plans for defending against any kind of attack.

The three days since the end of the attacks had passed by almost without Thranduil noticing. Organization had come first, especially triage for the wounded. The grim task of selecting both those that were not mangled enough to prevent them from rendering aid and those that were past aiding had been followed by setting up at least an illusion of defenses. Next had come those that would be sent down into the lower halls to inspect the damage done by the earthquake and to search for survivors, however few they might be. After that, the elves fell into the rhythm of their work, and the hours began to blur together.

Despite his efforts, Thranduil couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t enough. The elves of Middle-earth were not a populous people to begin with, and the casualties taken in the preceding days had lowered the manpower available to him to dangerous levels. Even allowing those that had lesser wounds to continue working did little to alleviate the situation. There was simply too much work to do and too few hands to do it.

As if fate had decided that it hadn’t been cruel enough to him and his people, there was no one that he could call for aid. The allies of the Woodland Realm had always been distant, with the closest being the Dwarves of Erebor and the Men of Dale, who at the best of times were largely apathetic to their elven neighbors, a sentiment that was returned in kind. But the friendships forged in the Battle of Five Armies were anything but short-lived, and would not have been withheld among any of the three Kingdoms if another had asked.

That is, if Erebor and Dale had still been there to ask. That was easily the most disturbing aspect of all of this, that the Lonely Mountain and all the lands around it could simply vanish into thin air in the storm, replaced by unfamiliar terrain as far as the eye could sea. Thranduil had seen the evidence with his own eyes, felt it within him as the Great Music had gone haywire, as if its conductor had began to seize in the middle of the performance. The Son of Oropher had felt such a disturbance only once before, when Beleriand had been laid low. If such a calamity had come upon him...

If the Enemy, the Valar or even the One, had done such a thing, then there was little he could do. Regardless of what had happened, at the moment there was nothing to be done except aid his subject. He would have to work with what he had available and hope that the Valar would smile upon him. Until then...until then all he could do was work.

He was broken out of his own thoughts by the approach of the Captain of the Guard. The veteran she-elf looked ragged and worn, the stress and fatigue of the battle and the near endless series of sweeping patrols that she had been on since showing clearly on her face. Nevertheless, her eyes were fully alert as she bowed before him, her movements doing little to betray how exhausted she must have been. Returning to a standing position, the Captain began to speak.

“My Lord, I am sorry to disturb you, but I believe that you must hear this.” She looked to him, awaiting approval to deliver their report. Thranduil nodded, and she continued.

“My last patrol encountered a group of a dozen men in the forest, under attack from a pack of wolves. I believe that they may be natives of whatever new lands have replaced Erebor and the surrounding region.”

“And what, Captain, made you draw that conclusion? Could it no be that they are simply men of Dale, wandering the forest when the storm hit and lost since?”

“They were no men of Dale, sire, or of any other realm of men that we know of Their dress and tongue were completely alien to us. The most likely conclusion is that they were curious about how their lands appeared next to ours and came out to investigate, as we no doubt would have done had the beasts not assaulted us so soon after the storm.”

Thranduil nodded to himself at that, reentering his own thoughts. So the new lands to the east were inhabited by men. No doubt that these men would have lords of their own. The King of the Woodland Realm felt some unease at that thought. It had taken him far too long to build up relations with his old neighbors. Doubtless, making progress with these new ones would be even harder. He would have to start as soon as he could. Probably not a full envoy, but the gathering of intelligence and learning the lay of the land was a must. Suddenly, remembering a handful of those old neighbors, a thought occurred to him.

“How many did you say there were?”

“12, my Lord.”

At that moment, Thranduil started to experience a strange sense of deja vu. Apparently, 12 raggedly dressed strangers had stumbled into his realm, wandering semi-aimlessly through the woods until his guards had found them, and now they were held within his lowest dungeon (well, the lowest that had not been compromised by the earthquake). Mirthlessly, he allowed himself a chuckle. With any luck, this time it would go better for him.

“Take me to them.”

 

Seville

There had been no rest for Muhammad al-Nasir, Lord of Seville. The monsters had been driven back, at least for the moment, but they now prowled about in the fields around the city just beyond the range of Muhammad’s archers, occasionally coming forwards and testing the defenses. These occasional probes were easily beaten back, but the ring drawn around Seville was tight enough that no messengers could yet be sent out to call for aid.

The city itself had seen far better days. The chaos of the battle, as well as the riots that had preceded it (and in some cases had occurred concurrently), had ravaged several quarters of the city, leaving behind ruination in their wake. The defenses themselves, thank Allah, were mostly intact, but those that manned them had taken a savage mauling, with hundreds dead and hundreds more injured. The encirclement did little to quell the fear and uncertainty that continued to pervade every neighborhood and household, and it was quickly becoming apparent that Seville’s supply of everything from food and water to medicine and weaponry, while momentarily adequate, would not be enough to last against a protracted siege. The whole city stood on a knife’s edge, ready to tip into the abyss.

The Caliph of the Almohads had no intention of letting it fall. What little comfort his people took they took now from the faith of Muhammad the Prophet. He hoped to add to that the actions of Muhammad the Lord of Seville. The man had been all across the city the preceding week, overseeing the laying down of supplies, the training of new recruits and the strengthening of the fortifications, doing all he could to preserve and strengthen the resolve of his men against the darkness all around them.

He hoped and prayed that it was enough. He saw despair and fear everywhere he turned, through, the small fire of courage and hope constantly being threatened with extinguishment. It was only a matter of time before the people began to turn on each other. With uncertainty and terror reigning almost uncontested over the city, it was natural for the people to look for something, someone, to blame.

The Jews were natural targets. They would have been protected as dhimmi, ‘protected persons,’ under the previous Caliphate, that of Cordoba, granted near-equal protection and rights under the law in exchange for the payment of the jizya tax. But Almohad rule had long rejected this practice, the with Abd al-Mumin, the first Caliph of their dynasty, forcing the conversion of the Jews within his realm. Those that did renounce their old faith were made to wear dark blue or black identifying clothing that marked them as insincere Muslims. Those that did not convert were put to the sword.

Those few that remained became outcasts in their own lands, the far majority becoming at least nominal converts to Islam. They did all that they could to avoid drawing attention to themselves and their faith, practicing quietly if at all and generally trying to blend in with the background wherever they went. Even the fundamentalist Almohads could not maintain their fanaticism forever, and ever-so-slowly an attitude of apathy had begun to be adopted by the Muslims of Al-Andalus towards the infidelic inhabitants of their lands.

Now, with the End of Days seemingly upon them, the Jews found themselves a target once more. The whispers had been circulating for days now, spreading out through the city like an uncontainable plague. It started small, a few isolated attacks and arsons, but the number increased by the day. Seeing what was coming, the Children of Israel hid themselves away, rarely if ever leaving their homes. The whispers only grew louder, rumors flying everywhere that the Jew had enacted some secret ritual, and were securing themselves against the next blow to land against Seville. The people had found themselves a scapegoat.

Muhammad, far from a lover of Jews, was happy to give them one. He sincerely doubted that they were actually to blame for the calamity all around them, but thinking that they were was seemingly preventing his (far larger) Muslim population from turning on itself. If the Jews had to be sacrificed to maintain order among the rest of Seville’s inhabitants, so be it. Of course, he worked to keep said sacrifice from becoming literal, moving to simply arrest the Jews for the moment instead of slaughtering them all, but if his men being with a bit on the rough side during the arrests went unreported he wouldn’t complain. There were other, more important things to occupy his mind with.

For instance, trying to process the sight currently before him. The messenger that had delivered the report to him had been correct in saying that it would be far easier for him to see for himself than to try and explain it with words alone. But as confusing as the sight was, it was rather obvious why the man had spoken with a tone of hope and awe in his voice when asking for Muhammad to come to the walls.

It was an odd thing to see indeed. A rather small-looking man dressed in ill-fitting and ragged robes, riding a ramshackle sled made out of sticks that seemed far too fragile to make a functional vehicle. Said sled was being pulled by what looked to be, of all things, rabbits. Behind him trailed a small crowd of...bears. The man with the rabbit-pulled sleigh was being followed by a herd of 15 or 20 bears, of all colors, shapes and sizes.

If that wasn’t enough to make Muhammad question both his eyesight and his sanity, the sled man and the bears seemed to be fighting their way through the ring of monsters that had encircled the city, tearing through the spiders and wolves and other beasts almost like they weren’t there. In amazement, the Caliph of the Almohads watched with his men as the group carved a path of disemboweled corpses and spider guts through the black horde, scattering all before them as they moved towards the city.

The spiders and wolves tried to fight back, and for their efforts were rewarded with joining their kin in oblivion. Almost as quickly as they had come, all those days ago, they began to flee, running as fast as they could away from their assailants. Muhammad was utterly stunned, as were all who saw it. In what couldn’t have been more than an hour, the man and the bears had driven the monsters back into the forest from whence they had come, without so much as a scratch on them. Then, as if the Allah was laughing at his reactions to the insanity around him and wanted to see more of them, the Caliph of the Almohads could only watch with a slack jaw as the bears began to shift and change, morphing themselves into a group of massive men, women and children, even the smallest of whom looked as if they could snap a tree trunk in half without too much effort.

The small man now was walking the path before his gate, leaning a bit on an oversized walking stick with a jewel set in its top. Besides him stood one of the bear-men, a gigantic mass of pure muscle that stood easily above even the tallest of men that Muhammad had ever seen, even in his human form. There seemed to be some kind of argument going on between the two, going by the hand gestures and tone of speech. Even so, the group was now on the path to the city gate, slowly approaching the walls even as their conversation continued.

Besides the Caliph, his guards glanced at him nervously, awaiting orders, some anxiously fidgeting with the strings of their bows. With what he hoped was a subtle gesture, Muhammad motioned for them to stand down. He had no desire to make enemies out of a herd of manbears that had made mincemeat out off the very same monsters that had almost destroyed Seville the week before. He did not dare hope that the gate, strong and fortified as it was, would hold out against them if he managed to enrage them.

With that happy thought tucked away, the Caliph of the Almohads looked out over the crowd approaching his walls. Obviously, they were not of these lands. If the fact that they could become beasts of nature hadn’t tipped him off, their alien tongue would have. Muhammad had a sneaking suspicion that they had been brought here from wherever the forest had come from. Perhaps they had an explanation for what had happened. At the very least, they had attacked the monsters instead of leading them, which hopefully meant that they weren’t hostile to him. Whatever the case, they were practically at the gate now. He couldn’t just do nothing. Even if they didn’t understand him, greeting them seemed like the courteous thing to do. Steeling himself, and saying a quick prayer, he began to speak.

“Hello, my lords. I am Muhammad al-Nasir. I welcome you to the great city of Seville, of which I am lord. I wish to thank you for driving away our...infestation. Before your arrival, me and my subjects had been trapped within our walls. It is my hope that those monsters are an enemy we hold in common. It is my wish that we would hold each other’s council, to begin understanding this…”

He trailed off as the small man and the giant looked up at him, both eyeing him with...curiosity? Suspicion? Confusion? He wasn’t quite sure. The two looked back at each other, something nonverbal passing between them. Then the small one turned back towards Muhammad. Closing his eyes, he raised his stick in front of him, muttering beneath as he did so. The rock embedded in the tip of the stick glowed slightly as he did so. A minute or so later, during which the Caliph of the Almohads could do little except awkwardly look at him and pluck at their bows, wary of an attack, the small man opened his eyes, lowering his stick once more. Then, his mouth opened and out came understandable, if somewhat broken, Arabic.

“Lord Muhammad. I Brown Radagast, of White Council. This Old Grimbeorn and kin. We confused also by storm and earthquake. Wish to make council with you, find answers to what befallen us.”

With that the small man, Radagast, apparently, bowed before him. The giant Grimbeorn mirrored the gesture, somewhat reluctantly, as did Muhammad himself. Haltingly, the Caliph of the Almohads and the Brown Wizard began to converse, slowly introducing themselves and the peoples that they both represented, telling the compressed versions of their histories to each other as they did so.

As he continued to converse with Radagast, discussing what they knew, he found himself smiling for the first time in a week. He would be a fool to be incautious about the strange man and his band, especially after he had seen what Grimbeorn and the others could do, but a certain cautious optimism began to enter into his heart. Mentally, he said his praise to Allah. The Creator sometimes sent gifts in mysterious ways.

As he continued to speak to Radagast, he silently prayed that Allah had sent him a gift with all the subtlety of a herd of elephants.

Chapter Text

 

February 1, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Rivendell

 

The Sons of Elrond had returned. The Master of Rivendell now had a reasonable idea about what kind of situation he was dealing with. The term ‘unprecedented catastrophe’ came to mind, but the Keeper of the Ring of Water was well aware that what had happened did indeed have a precedent, or rather a pair of precedents. Of course, said precedents were the Downfall of Numenor and the War of Wrath, both of which did next to nothing to waylay his fears and in fact did much to increase them.

 

Imladris itself was largely unharmed, in a large part do to the power of the Ring of Water, but everything else could best be described as...wrong. All west and north of the Bruinen had been changed in the storm, becoming unrecognized and alien lands. The sun, rather distressingly, now appeared to rise in the north and set in the south instead of coming from the east and descending in the west. It was like that whole of the Misty Mountains had been torn from Middle-earth, rotated clockwise a great distance and then slammed down into some new world.

 

The more that he heard of his sons’ report, the more that Elrond felt that such a theory might not be inaccurate. The strange new lands were not the sparsely populated wilderlands of what was once the Kingdom of Rhudaur, but rather an apparently functional and vibrant realm of men. What Elladan and Elrohir had seen made it clear that it was no land of Middle-earth, or at least none that they new of: the customs of these men were almost unrecognizable, their tongue completely alien.

 

Now the Master of Rivendell looked out for himself over the alien lands. The sight of Elrond, Son of Earendil and Elwing, was long, and from the sanctuary of Imladris he looked out over this new world. Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel had been brought to this place, he saw, as well as Thranduil and his people and Dain Ironfoot and his (although the realms of the Woodland and Erebor seemed to have been thrown wildly to these lands, no longer lying by each other’s sides).

 

But that was the only good news that he had found. The rest of the Free Peoples, Gondor and Rohan and the Dunedain, had either been left behind or were otherwise hidden from his sight. Dark things were stirring, he saw, the beasts of Mirkwood and the Mountains coming alive, like wasps whose hive had been struck with a stone. Above all, the Enemy was here among them, like a wolf among lambs. He could see the Shadow rising, the armies of Sauron preparing to march out and set this world ablaze. The Eye of Sauron was ever watchful, his gaze already reaching out over this new world. He may well have been pleased by what he saw.

 

Like the elves, the men of these lands had sent many scouts into the places that they had seen arrive within their own. A good number of these had been captured in the foothills of the mountains, and Elrond had spoken to several of them. Their tongue was like none he had heard before, but not for nothing was he one of the wise, and soon he had learned much of the place he now found himself in.

 

It was a world of lesser men, more alike to the wild tribes of the east and south than to the descendents of Numenor. They were petty, squabbling over scraps of land and titles that to Elrond’s ears meant nothing. There habits were strange as well, with much of their time spent hands clasped together, chanting at the sky. Whenever they so much as looked upon the elves, they did so in reverence and awe, many throwing themselves to the ground before them. When they were questioned about such actions, they spoke often of a great King and Lord, a master of all the world, of whom they apparently thought that the elves were servants.

 

Now Elrond sat in thought, his mind churning with this new information. He doubted that the men of this new world were a threat in and of themselves. No, there were far darker things to fear. The greatest bulwark against Sauron’s might, the Kingdom of Gondor, had vanished, and those Free Peoples that remained were scattered, each with their own crises to face: shattered halls in Erebor, monsters in the Woodland Realm. There was very little left, then, to hold back Sauron's wrath and if left unchecked, the Enemy would rampage across this world, forcing all nations, of Men, Elves and Dwarves alike, to bow down before him. The world would be forever enslaved to the shadow, the Lord of the Ring its absolute master.

 

Elrond was no fool. If this world fell his people would fall with it. Sauron would not allow him to endure, or any that might dare upp. That much was certain. But how much faith did he dare place in Men? If the answer was none or little, then the only hope lay with the Fellowship, the Nine Walkers and their Quest. But if the lands of men fell, there would be no world left to save. What hope would there be, what kind of victory won, if those that remained had nothing to return to but ruin and ash, smoke and flame? The horrors wrought by the Dark Lord would be so terrible as to render the final victory against him moot, leaving them to stand upon a field of dust and echoes upon their return.

 

And so these lesser men, peoples of many weak and divided lands, would have to stand against the Black Tide, if anything at all was to be won in the end. Elrond put little stock in Men. He had been there, three millennia before, when their strength had failed utterly, when Isildur had taken the One Ring for himself instead of casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, and perished before he had been able to repent of his greed, allowing the One to be lost for so long. And now he would have to place more faith in them than ever before.

 

No. No, that wasn’t what he was going to do. He would not stand aside and let those that he had never met decide his destiny for him. He would not wait for these men to fall, like Isildur had. He would not waid for Sauron to slaughter those that dared stand and enslave the rest. If these strange men were to have any chance against the Enemy, they would need to first be warned of what was to come. Then they would need to stand as one, united against the threat. The Master of Rivendell would not simply sit in his house and wait for others to do so. Good thoughts would not save the world. Actions would.

 

There was work to be done, then. The armories of Imladris were by no means bare, but they were not full enough to wage a war. Whatever Lords of Men dwelled near him would have to be contacted, some kind of relationship established. The scouts that had been caught and imprisoned would be released to their homes as a sign of goodwill, carrying with them a message to their masters to meet at the Ford of Bruinen. From there, who knew what would happen, but Elrond hoped for the good. The men of this world would not be allowed to be destroyed without a fight.

 

Long had the time of the elves been ending; long had they been leaving the shores of Middle-earth and sailing for the Undying Lands. But now, with the world around them one threatening to fall and take them with, the people of Rivendell once more took up the call to arms. Even as the Calling to the West, dimmed though it was, cried out to them, they began to prepare for the coming storm, bracing themselves against the war that they now knew was to come. These were to be the last days of the Elves, in a strange and foreign land.

 

And what an ending it would be.

 

 

Lorien

 

 

Frodo Baggins had been raised for much of his life by a great scholar, even by the standards of the story and song minded Hobbits. Bilbo Baggins had always been something of an oddity among his neighbors, being somehow both something of a hermit and one of the most outroverted hobbits in the Shire, going out to every party and picnic and other gathering of his neighbors that he could find and then scurrying home as quickly as he had come, reportedly doing little but pouring over his old books and humming the songs of foreign parts.

 

Some of these habits, although by no means all, had been inherited by his nephew/adopted son. Frodo was by no means some foolish Took or Brandybuck, but he was a good deal more adventurous than the far majority of his peers, being far more keen about the happenings of the outside world. Bilbo had helped to foster such feelings, telling him tales of distant lands like Erebor, Rivendell, Mirkwood and beyond, singing him the songs of elves, dwarves and men alike. He had listened to all his uncle’s tales with rapt attention, doing all he could to learn the stories for himself. The legends of Middle-earth did not inspire in him quite the same passion as they did within his uncle, but compared to the other denizens of the Shire, Frodo Baggins was among the most prone to knowing of the world beyond the bounds.

 

Bilbo had not told as many stories of the Golden Wood as he had of other realms, but those tales he had told spoke of a magical and wondrous place, seemingly untouched by the relentless passage of time. Frodo heard descriptions that were full of words like ‘wondrous,’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘beyond imagining.’ The Ringbearer had always smiled lightly when his uncle had spoken of this land, almost rolling his eyes at what he had then believed had been obvious superfluousness.

 

Now, looking upon the realm with his own eyes, Frodo realized that all of the legends and songs that he had heard did little to no justice for the sights around him. If one was to ask him to describe that place with a single word, the young hobbit was of the mind that the task would be utterly beyond him. If there was a single place in all of Middle-earth that one could describe only as utterly indescribable, it would be the Golden Wood.

 

It was almost as if at the moment of Lothlorien’s creation, someone had frozen the entire land in a single moment and then repainted it one stroke at a time, taking as much care in drawing an inch of this land as had been put into the whole of the Shire. The artist had made not a single mistake, and although they had only used those colors that the Hobbit readily knew, it was almost as if they had discovered new shades of gold and silver and green and blue to use, painting every single detail in such a way that everything seemed to have an extra dimension, beyond height, width and depth.

 

The beauty of the place, indescribable as it was, could not wholly mask that which now transpired within. For the first week or so after the arrival of the Fellowship, there would have been only been peace and tranquility if not for all those that mourned the Fall of the Grey Pilgrim. Those Eight Walkers that remained had slowly began to mend of their wounds, the Lord and Lady of the Golden Woods allowing them to heal, and grieve, on their own times. Little of either had they seen after their initial report, Celeborn and Galadriel both going about their own tasks, out of either fear or respect for the One refusing to give counsel about the Quest.

 

But then something had changed. There had been a storm the tenth night after their arrival, one that seemed to dance around the edges of the forest, held just barely at bay by some invisible force. When the day had dawned, the Fellowship awoke to a realm that felt...wrong, as if the inaudible song that had emanated all throughout the woods had changed in key, from a beautiful and melodious tune whispered on the winds to some dark and foreboding song in a minor key, sounding out from below the earth.

 

The elves seemed... different. Scared, almost. The whole land was full of tension, like a rope was wound far too tight around almost everything. Soldiers appeared everywhere, but especially towards the north and west, eyes ever watchful for any intrusion of the lands of the elves, nervousness obvious in their features. Soon afterwards, the Fellowship had been summoned before the Lord Celeborn. The Master of Lothlorien had informed them of all that he knew had happened, of how all the lands south of the Celebrant and east of the Great River had been warped beyond all recognition, the plains beyond utterly alien to all who looked upon them. The dumbfounded Walkers had barely been able to grasp what he had told them, and when they asked if the Lord knew anything of why such things had happened their only answer had been silence. 

 

Since then, the Fellowship had done very little. Aragorn and Boromir had both gone off into the woods, trying to find space for themselves to meditate. Now they reappeared for meals and for rest, but the majority of their time was spent in each other’s company, discussing with each other about what had transpired. Legolas joined them at times, and at others could be found at the grove in which the the archers of Lorien practiced their skills. Gimli either slept or ate, with very little in between, and Merry and Pippin joined him.

 

Frodo himself wandered all throughout the woods, exploring the winding paths of the Golden Wood, his mind thinking of many different things: the Ring, the Quest, but especially about Gandalf. Gandalf, the wise old man that had almost been an honorary uncle to him, mysterious and wondrous as he was cheerful and kind. He grieved for the Wizard, missing him, from his bushy eyebrows to his quick temper to just his voice, those soft tones that had always soothed and calmed him.

 

A week or so since the storm had come over, and Frodo was yet to find any measure of peace. Neither had Sam, his constant companion, and so the two now walked together under the rustling leaves, wandering along the paths of the woods as twilight came down around them. Trying to take his mind off of his usual, and much darker, thoughts, Frodo spoke as he walked, he and Sam both trying to keep the subjects of their talk as light as they could.

 

“So, Sam, what do you think of elves now? Now that you’ve seen more of them, I mean; it’s been awhile since I asked you that.”

 

“Well,” said Sam, nodding to himself a bit, “I reckon that there’s elves and there’s elves. They’re all like each other, and yet not, if you know what I’m saying. These folks are a lot different from the ones we met back in Rivendell: these ones seem to belong here even more than we hobbits belong back in the Shire. It’s hard to say if they’ve made that land or if the land’s made them!”

 

“It’s wonderfully calm here,” Sam continued on, gesturing with his hands a bit as they walked further down the path, “Even with all the worry about the storm, its like there’s not much going on here abouts, and nobody really wants anything to happen. If there’s any magic about, its right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.”

 

Frodo nodded. “You can see and feel it everywhere.”

 

“Well,” Sam replied, “you can’t see anyone working it. It’s not at all like poor old Gandalf’s fireworks. You know, I’ve always wanted to see fancy elf magics, and to be honest I think that we might well be seeing them now. I’ve never heard of a better place then this. It’s like being home and on holiday at the same time, if you understand my meaning. I almost don’t want to leave. But all the same, my old gaffer always used to say that ‘the job you never start is the one that takes the longest.’ I don’t think that these folk could do much more to help us than they already have, magic or not.”

 

They both stopped for moment then. Sam looked over a Frodo, his eyes a bit distant.

 

“I think that we’ll miss Gandalf the most once we leave here.”

 

“That’s only too true, Sam,” Frodo replied with a deep sigh, his grief for the Wizard still all-too raw. “But before we leave, I would very much like to speak to the Lady of the Elves again.”

 

Almost as if answering on cue, they saw the Lady Galadriel herself coming down the path before them, tall and white and fair beneath the trees, her mere presence seeming to cast a soft glow on their surrounding, even in the fading light. She spoke no words, but silently beckoned the pair of Hobbits to follow her. The two complied, and she led them down into an enclosed garden. No trees grew there, and the whole enclosure was lit with starlight.

 

The Lady herself walked down into a deep hollow where ran a silver stream, and at the bottom stood a silver basin. Using a silver ewer that had been left besides the basin, Galadriel filled the basin to the brim. Once the water had stilled, the Lady of the Golden Wood turned to the two hobbits, tall and pale in the dark of the dell, and began to speak.

 

“This is the Mirror of Galadriel. I have brought you here so that you may look in it, if you will.”

 

Filled with awe, Frodo was the first to break the silence: “What will we look for, and what will we see?”

 

“Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal,” the Lady said in reply, “and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also shot things unbidden, and those are often both stranger and more profitable than that which we wish to behold. I cannot tell you what you will see, if you you leave the Mirror free to work, for it shows many things that were, are and may yet be. Do you wish to look?”

 

When Frodo did not answer, she turned to Sam, the same question going unspoken. Nodding, Sam spoke.

 

“I’ll have a peep, Lady, if you’re willing. I’ve always wanted to see elf-magics for myself. And I wouldn’t mind a glimpse of home: we’ve been away for what feels like a terribly long time.”

 

Frodo watched as his friend climbed up onto the foot of the pedestal and leaned over the basin, looking at his reflection in the waters. Then Sam smiled, a longing smile, chuckling a bit.

 

“Ah, I wish I was there! Come and see, mister Frodo! They’re all laughing and dancing and singing together! I think that it’s the harvest feast!”

 

Frodo smiled at that, as did the Lady, although Galadriel’s smile was a far more bittersweet thing. “Alas, Sam,” the Lady spoke, “What the Mirror shows one it rarely shows another. If Frodo were to look, I doubt he would be able to see the same smiles and dances.”

 

Sam frowned a bit at that, walking away from the Mirror. His eyes looked almost on the verge of tears. “I do wish that I could go back, right this moment,” he whispered, almost to himself, “I almost wish that I hadn’t looked. I don’t want to see any more magic.”

 

Sam sat on the ground, head in his hands. “I do hope to get back home some day, to go to those dances myself.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “But I’ll do it by the long road with you, Mister Frodo, or not at all.”

 

The bittersweet smile still on her lips, Galadriel turned to Frodo, speaking again.

 

“Do you wish to look, Frodo?”

 

“Would you advise me to?”

 

“No,” replied the Lady, “but nor would I advise against it. I am not a counsellor, here to sway you one way or another. You may learn something, for good or ill, that is useful, but at the same time it may not be. Seeing is both good and perilous. I do, however, think that you have the courage and wisdom enough to see, or else I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!”

 

Frodo mulled his options over for a few moments, deep within his own thoughts. Then he nodded to himself, and approached the basin. “I will look,” he said to the Lady, and he climbed onto the pedestal as Sam as had done, looking down into the dark waters.

 

The first thing he saw was a lone figure, which reminded Frodo all too much of Gandalf. He almost called out the Wizard’s name, but then he noticed that they were dressed in robes of white, not grey. A white hood was pulled over most of their face, and as the image became clearer he saw a white staff in one hand and a silver sword in the other, and all around him sat a large crowd of finely dressed men, the whole group trying to speak over each other.

 

The vision shifted, now showing Bilbo, and Elrond with him, both pouring over a massive pile of disordered papers, other elves running through the scene, carrying with them even more tomes, all of them looking restless and weary. The scene blurred, then cleared, Bilbo and Rivendell being replaced with a broken forest, shattered trunks thrown in all directions, small fires burning all around.

 

The scenes began to change more and more rapidly, one moment flowing rapidly into the next. A burning city on a river, orcs celebrating on its ruins...a lone mountain, a massive host battering itself against a great gate that had been hewn into the rockface...a fortress with massive stone walls and its back to the sea, a desperate battle being fought all around it...a long and winding road, corpses hanging from the trees all along its route...

 

And then, without warning, the entire mirror went dark, its surface turning as dark as the blackest of nights, a bottomless abyss that seemed to burrow down to the depths of the world. As Frodo looked into the darkness, a lone eye appeared, a terrible, flaming eye that grew ever larger, rapidly filling the whole basin. As the hobbit stood in terror, unable to cry out, the burning sphere started to rove in all directions, searching for something, and Frodo, in utter horror, realized that it was looking for him, and the Ring, sitting on the chain around his neck, became unbearably heavy, like a massive stone, and began to dip towards the water, curls of steam starting to rise from the Mirror.

 

And as suddenly as the Mirror had gone black, the vision faded entirely, the basin once more reflecting only the stars above. Shaking, Frodo stepped down from the Mirror, and looked over toward the Lady Galadriel, panting slightly as he moved away from the pedestal and the basin. The Lady looked over him, her expression somewhat darkened, her eyes ever unreadable.

 

“I know what you last saw in the Mirror,” she said, moving forwards towards him, “for it is also in my mind. But do not be afraid of it! It is not merely by hiding in the trees, nor by the strength of my people’s bows, that this land is defended and maintained against the Enemy. Even as I speak to you now, I see the Dark Lord and hear his thoughts about me and my lands. Always, he is trying to see me and hear my thoughts, but the door is still closed!”

 

She then lifted her arms towards the east, making a gesture of rejection and denial, and for a moment the Evening Star, Earendil, most beloved of the elves shone almost like the sun, the Lady of the Golden Wood, a silver-gold ring with a beautiful stone set upon it shining in the dark. Frodo looked on in awe, and he quickly realized that he was looking upon a master of one of the three Elven Rings.

 

Divining his thoughts, Galadriel smiled at him as she lowered her hands once more, turning her gaze upon him.

 

“Yes, Frodo. This is Nenya, the Ring of Air, and I am its Keeper. I am not usually permitted to speak of it, but it can not be hidden from the one who bears the One. The enemy suspects that I have it, but he does not yet know. And you, Frodo Baggins...your coming here is, to us, almost as the footstep of doom. If you fail in your quest, then Lorien and all its peoples will be laid bare to the enemy. And yet if you succeed, then the power of this ring will be ended, and my people will fade away, either into the West or to the simple tides of time.”

 

The Lady’s face was ashen now, and a great sadness filled her eyes. Bowing his head, Frodo could only stand in silence. Finally, he spoke once more.

 

“What do you wish?”

 

A small smile played at Galadriel’s face as she replied. “I wish only that which should be shall be. The elves’ love for their lands and their works is deeper than the depths of the sea, and the regrets that they carry with them are even deeper. And yet...we would cast away everything rather than submit to Sauron’s will. You are not at fault for whatever happens to us, as long as your quest is completed. If there is one thing that I wish for, it is that the One Ring was never forged, or failing that was never found.”

 

“You are far beyond me in wisdom and courage, Lady Galadriel,” Frodo said, “If you ask me for it, I will give you the One; it is far too great a matter for me.”

 

Galadriel laughed, sudden and clear, and Frodo for the first time that night truly saw the Lady of the Golden Wood. If one was not paying close attention, the daughter of Finarfin would appear the same as she always had: fairest of all the elves of Middle-earth, without blemish or fault upon her. But if they looked closely, they would she the clear signs of a creeping, unknown fear, of nights spent wondering about the fate of her people, of too many question that had gone without answer. Her eyes were as deep and timeless as they always had been, but now bore the slightest tinges of fear, and her face was stretched, like a bedsheet ever-so-slightly too tight. Galadriel, Frodo realized, was scared, scared of something that the young hobbit couldn’t quite put his finger on.

 

“I may be wise, but here I have met my match in terms of courtesy. I will not deny that my heart has many times greatly desired what you now offer me. Time and time again I have wondered at what I would do with the One in my possession. And now, with me and my kin facing the greatest calamity perhaps since the sundering of Numenor, a time when the lands around us are changed beyond recognition and the unknown surrounds us near completely, you would offer it to me freely!”

 

Galadriel seemed to straighten, a dark breeze blowing through the garden. “In the place of the Dark Lord you would coronate a Queen, not of the shadow but of the morning and the night! Fair as the sea and the sun and the snow upon the mountaintops! Dreadful as the storm and the lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All would love me and despair!”

 

For a moment, the Lady of the Golden Wood stretched out the hand which bore the Ring of Air, reaching out to Frodo. A great light shone all about her, but it was cast only on herself, and it shone on an elf who was tall and beautiful beyond all reckoning, and as she looked upon him Frodo reached out the One towards her outstretched hand and for a second Lady Galadriel of Lorien moved her hands towards it…

 

And then, almost as quickly as Frodo could blink, she drew back her hand, the light around her fading away. She fixed an intense gaze on a point that the hobbit couldn’t quite figure out, and then she turned from him, panting for breath. She seemed to have shrunken, not simply back to the form of a simple elf in white, but beyond, into a somewhat frail and tired thing, who slouched over and seemed just barely able to support herself.

 

“I have nearly failed the test,” she murmured, mostly to herself, “but I will remain Galadriel.”

 

She turned back to the hobbit after a moment, her breathing the only sound in the small clearing.

 

“I will not diminish yet. I will not go into the west yet. I will stand against the Black Tide that rises even now. But I will remain Galadriel. As for you, Frodo Baggins, we have now both chosen our paths. The tides of fate now flow freely. I will not send you blind into this new wilderness. For now, you are free to remain here. But know that the road you have chosen is now that which you must walk.”

 

With that, the Lady of the Golden Wood gestured to the pair of hobbits to follow once more, and the trio began the slow and winding walk back towards the heart of Caras Galadhon, no more words passing between them.

 

 

 

Below Zirakzigil

 

 

Doom...doom...doom...doom...

 

The drums sounded in the deep. The sounds were slow, like the heartbeat of the mountain itself, echoing all throughout the Black Pit. In the deep crags below the mountain, far below the dwellings the Children of Durin had delved through the solid rock, the shadows moved, darkness against darkness scrambling over broken stones, harsh growls sounding out as those that dwelled below rose out of the deepest holes of the mountain.

 

Doom...doom...doom...doom…

 

The cries rose, moving out of the shafts where the Dwarves had searched for gold and silver and jewels and Mithril, plundering the deep earth of its wealth. They were answering the call. In the heart of Moria, a black fire burned, drawing all the hordes of that horrible place out like so many moths. A terrible scream echoed through all the labyrinthine caverns, a hideous sound that summoned all the orcs and goblins of Moria to it.

 

Doom...doom...doom...doom…

 

Again and again, as the drums in the deep sounded ever louder, the Bane of Durin roared.

Chapter Text

February 3, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Hungary

 

Hungary burned. Khamul, second among the Nazgul, made sure of that. His host issued forth from the Morgul Vale like a swarm of locusts, devouring all in their path and leaving only ruins and death in their wake. Every village and farm that they passed was scoured from the face of the earth, those that lived there put to the sword if they were fortunate, bound in chains if they were not. The realm of Hungary, usually a green and idyllic place even in the depths of winter,, had been turned into a place of fire and ash, only black scars left behind where once the people of Hungary had lived and worked, the hollow shells of homes and farms standing as dark monuments to the power of the Host of Mordor. Khamul’s army spread outwards from the Morgul Vale like blood spilling from a wound.

 

None dared resist them. The people of Hungary fled in terror before the might of the Host, scattering to the northern, western or southern winds in their desperate bids to escape the onslaught. They brought with them horror stories wherever they went, dark tales of the monsters from the east, the Devil's own legions, come to devour the earth. Terror bred terror, fear bred fear, and even those that had seen nothing of the terrors of Mordor were gripped with despair. Chaos began to reign as panic gripped the nation to its deepest roots, a feral terror that turned neighbor on neighbor, friend on friend, brother on brother.

 

There were few comforts for them to turn to. The King of the realm was missing, having vanished into the dark lands that had appeared, and the lesser nobles that remained could do little to control the spread of chaos and fear all across the nation. The Church tried to bear some of the weight, but their authority was far too localized, unable to do little but give aid and some small semblances of hope to their own small flocks.

 

There was but one light against the darkness, and it was a fickle thing, feeble and ever-wavering against the shadow.  Job, Archbishop of Hungary, and by now its de-facto leader, tried to keep the fire of hope lit, small and pitiful as it was. It was no easy task. He  had found further success in guiding his flock than most of the other priests of the realm, but still was he able only to aid the citizens of his parish. The city of Esztergom, Capital of Hungary, in many ways its beating heart, had been emptied, from the palaces of the nobles to the houses of the tradesmen down to the slums of the beggars and the crippled. Now its people were marching behind their Archbishop and the rest of the city’s clergy as they lead them towards what he hoped would be salvation, or at least security, in Croatia and Slavonia.

 

The column was slow. The King had taken many horses with him on his failed expedition, and animals were now dearly missed among his subjects. They instead were forced to drag their supplies for the march, along with whatever meager belongings that they dared not leave behind in the city, in handcarts and over-encumbered sleds, a slow and arduous process that slowed the column to a crawl.

 

And being slowed down was something that they could ill afford. Already, the rear had been harried multiple times, almost from the moment that the people of Esztergom had fled their homes. They were small attacks that did more to scare and wound than destroy, but ever did they grow in both strength and frequency, a threat that had, with how few defenders the column had set out with, no simple solution, or indeed even anything resembling a viable one.

 

What little comfort they had they took from prayer. The city's Icons were raised high in the front of the column, the whole thing taking on the appearance of a rather bizarre and oversized procession, a faint echo of the march that had saved the city from itself when the disaster had first began. Prayer sounded out all along the slowly moving line, from every mouth and every heart. It was all that they had to take comfort from.

 

Ever so slowly, the great human snake slithered towards the southeast, the enemy ever hounding its tail, biting at the rear of the column. It was a wounded and bleeding thing, leaving behind it a growing trail of dead and dying flesh, even as the predators closed in around it. But still it forged on, driven by the strength of desperation, stumbling away from the growing disaster behind it. But ever did the predators close in on their prey.

 

Behind them, Hungary was put to the torch.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Emeric, King of Hungary, could do nothing to aid his people. He wished that he could. Oh God, how he wished that he could. A fire burned within him, a flame of righteous wrath that fueled his will, driving him on even as exhaustion and fatigue threatened to consume him. He had seen what these monsters had done to his people, and the King of Hungary swore that he would find justice for them, or failing that that he would avenge his realm. But he had with him only some 70 men, survivors of the assault against their camp from when they had first tried to explore these lands, and they were in no condition to face their enemies in the open. They had stumbled blindly through the hill country that had appeared to the west of the Mountains, utterly lost among its unfamiliar lays. The King thought that it had been near a week, but with the sky obscured and dark there was little telling how much time had passed.

 

The small company found near no rest in their travels. The monsters were all around them in these lands, hunting always for the King and his remaining companions. Over time, the men had lost most of the meagre provisions that they had brought with them, much of their armor and their weapons and almost all of their horses. They had shed much of it themselves, creating distractions and decoys and trying to shed anything that weighed them down as they tried to evade their seemingly endless pursuers. The majority were wounded; those whose injuries were to grievous for them to continue the rest were forced to leave behind, whatever they had carried with them taken up by the rest excepting perhaps a small dagger.

 

Those that remained meandered northwards, driven away from Esztergom by their pursuers. They won some miniscule victories, mostly against small and isolated groups of the monsters, but even these were few and far between, and brought them little encouragement. All too often, they would find the ruins of a village or a home, reduced to ash and a few shattered beams of wood, the bare bones left behind by the beasts as they had devoured everything in their path.

 

They had seen those that had unleashed this Hell into their lands. The company had beheld it only from a great way away, as they dared not stray closer, but even from such a vast distance it filled their hearts with terror and dread. It was vast, to be sure, but it was not its size that they feared. No, it was its composition: giants the height of three men, with black armor and clubs like tree trunks; great wolves, with teeth like daggers and bulging muscles; twisted demons, numbering easily into the thousands, with faces like beasts and weapons that were clearly designed to inflict as much pain as was possible.

 

The company may have kept their courage even then, having seen in their travels that such things could fall by the hands of men. But there was one among them, one that they dared to whisper could have been the devil themselves. He rode a black dragon, a massive worm-like thing with the wings of a bat and teeth like swords, flying high above all the legions of Hell. He was little more than a black shadow given form from the distance they saw him, but even that was enough to fill them with terror.

 

And he had screamed. It was a dreadful sound, a sound from the deepest, darkest pits of Hell, a sound of torment and pain and coming annihilation. It was the sound of the Devil, and of all his Demons, a sound of pure hatred and malice that mad minds freeze and bowels clench in terror. And with that single sound, the vast host had marched, spilling forwards across the plains of Hungary, going out like a conqueror to conquer.

 

The company could offer them no challenge. And so, unable to fight, the King of Hungary was turned into a thief and a scavenger within his own realm, sneaking around in the wake of the Hosts of Hell. He and those that remained with him would search the ashes of homes and farms, seeking food, water, anything at all that might be of use. What they found more often were the remains of those that had once lived there. Never did they find the living themselves, or at least any alive that were more than hollow and broken shells or those maimed so horribly that they could only be given some meagre comforts before they perished in agony, in agony and afraid.

 

If they had only been cut down, perhaps Emeric could have at least taken comfort in his enemies fighting a war according to some kind of a code. But it was not enough for the monsters, apparently, to simply put his subjects to the sword. No, the legions of Hell made sure that they died in terror and pain. There were those that had been hewn apart with swords and axes, their final screams frozen on their lips when the company discovered their remains. Others had been burned, their flesh reduced to ashes and their bones to brittle charcoal. Still others were found impaled, spears driven through their abdomens, left as messages to any that might find them. Yet more bore the marks of teeth and claws. Not even the smallest of mercies had been granted to them: the dead were left where they fell, stripped naked and left to rot.

 

The company could do little even to restore to the fallen some dignity. Ever weary of their pursuers, they could not spare enough time to do more than say some handfuls of words over the dead, a few prayers for their souls. Then they staggered on, directionless, their thoughts haunted by the horrors that they had found, by memories of fire and ash, of blood and gore, of far too many mothers found wrapped around their children, trying in vain to protect their babes from the wrath of Hell.

 

And Emeric, King of Hungary, could do little more than weep.

 

 

 

Barad-Dur

 

Sauron was pleased. Despite the chaos of his realm being forced into this new world, the Dark Lord had already begun to find success. Angmar had obliterated the city before the Black Gate, breaking the back of any resistance that this 'Lesser Poland' might have arrayed against him. There was little else to oppose the Witch King in the region, and already he was busy in pillaging the land for resources, appropriating the fortress city that the men had once used for themselves and rounding up prisoners to be made slaves in the service of Sauron.

 

Further south, Khamul was doing much the same. The realm that had replaced Gondor across from the Morgul Vale was aflame, its people fleeing like frightened rats. The Host of the Morgul Vale now turned south, eager to put those that had fled the city there to the sword before they could escape to lands further afield and try to raise the alarm. All immediate resistance to Mordor had, for the moment, been shattered beyond repair.

 

The repairs on his own realm were proceeding apace, the broken roads and damaged fortifications already partially restored, a process that would only accelerate as the new prisoners from Hungary and Lesser Poland were put to work in his service. And a great many of such slaves there would be: as Angmar and Khamul swept through the realms of men, soon to be joined by the rest of his servants, the fit and the able would be pressed into his service. They would soon wish for death.

 

With his center and his heartland nearly secured, the Dark Lord now turned his Eye back to his flanks and his rear, the latter of which had been the focus of his gaze almost from the moment of his arrival within this world. The new placement of his realm less than ideal: while the Mountains of Shadow and Ash still formed a near-impassable bulwark against those that opposed him, defending him from attack on either flank and indeed from the front as well, a rather severe problem had presented itself: the rear of his lands, once open only to his puppets and far too distant from his enemies for them to march and army to without being ravaged in open combat, was now a coastline instead of a desert. A coastline to a sea that appeared to be well-travelled by the mariners of this world, and was crisscrossed constantly by their ships.

 

This was a problem. The lands around the Sea of Nurnen were inhabited, so no army could simply march through without opposition, but the fortifications of that region had long ago fallen into disrepair, their upkeep allowed neglected without any force to threaten them. He had the raw numbers to repel any sort of invasion there, (short of an army the size of that of the Last Alliance, and even then by no means would his defeat be assured), but he had no desire to fight a war on two fronts, especially when one of those fronts was on his own ground.

 

But the Dark Lord had not gained all that he now reigned over by allowing those that opposed him to act of their own accord. Already, he was making plans, preparing to overthrow any that might challenge him for control of the sea. Fortune, it seemed, had granted him a small favor. Those that lived on the coast of the sea were little more than disorganized tribesman, of the ilk of the Easterlings and Southrons that had served him on Arda. They would become his thralls easily enough. The only realm that was anything close to a threat laid to his southeast.

 

There stood a realm that proclaimed itself to the world as the mightiest of all Kingdoms of Men. If that claim was true, then this world would fall far more easily than Middle-earth had. The spies that he had sent to his south painted a far different picture than the proud boasts of the Byzantines did. His agents reported a decrepit and corrupt realm, ruled by a family of bickering fools that had squandered its vast wealth and gutted its military, a land surrounded by enemies that would love nothing more than to crush it underfoot.

 

If the Dark Lord had had enough of a body to smile with he would have. Any that might threaten his new coast were either wild tribesmen or prideful and haughty ‘nobles.’ Still, he would not, could not, ignore what may as well have been daggers aimed at his back. The inhabitants of the coasts of this sea would have to be dealt with. But he would not have to break them by force, he realized. The Master of Barad-Dur would not have to stretch his legions thin, fighting a war on many fronts, depleting his reserves to unacceptable levels. No, there was a far better way, one that had toppled far mightier nations in the past.

 

After all, who could say no to a few small gifts?

 

 

Constantinople

 

Alexios III Angelos, Emperor of the Romans, was a troubled man. To call his reign chaotic would have been an understatement of the highest order. The five years that he had sat upon the throne had seen nothing but an endless series of crises, each one seemingly more threatening than the last. To the north and west, the Catholic Kingdoms were largely hostile, the Great Schism poisoning any feeling of goodwill between the Hungarians, Bosnians and Croats and the Orthodox Empire, while the Bulgars and Vlachs had thrown off his yoke, forming their own ‘empire’ that constantly launched raids into Thrace. To the east and the south, the Muslim states were becoming ever more bold, entrenching themselves in their holdings in Anatolia and Syria while probing his border for weakness. Their own so-called ‘allies’ in the the region, he Cilician Armenians, the Georgians and the remnants of the Crusader states, could hardly be called such.

 

The deepest problems, though, came from the home front. His brother, Isaac II, was no longer a threat, blinded and imprisoned as he was, but still there were those that conspired to enthrone his son, who they would call Alexios IV. His own position seemed to be built on quicksand, the entire court (with the exception of his wife Euphrosyne) seemingly ready to turn on him the moment he showed weakness. So much gold had he spent to secure his position that the treasury had practically been bankrupted, and those nobles in the outer provinces had simply ignored his advances and were practically in revolt anyways. And he could not force his nation back under one banner with military might, oh no: his fool brother had reduced the once mighty Roman military to what felt like a handful of peasants wielding sharpened sticks.

 

And now there were whispers, tales that came from the traders in the port and travellers from the north, stories of a massive storm that had wrecked even the greatest ships that sailed the Euxine Seas, claims that a great range of black mountains had fallen from the sky somewhere north of the lands that the Bulgars claimed as their own, tales of monsters and demons coming out of these new hills and laying waste to the land. Such were the times he lived in.

 

He did not take such claims seriously. If drunken sailors and equally drunken tradesmen from the self-proclaimed ‘Bulgaria’ decided that the world was ending, what did it matter to him? He had far more pressing things to give his attention to. Or he would have ignored such things, except that the staff of his palace had apparently decided to take the words of sick seamen and rambling travellers deeply to heart, and had decided to allow one such person into his presence. When he questioned them, they simply said that the man had seemed very important, apparently none of them having the capability to question anything about the strange messenger.

 

Instead of being turned away at the palace gate, or (preferably) being thrown into the dungeons, the man stood before him, ready to be questioned, not by a secretary or a guard or even a minister, but by the Emperor himself. Alexios could see, perhaps, why his own men had so readily accepted him into the palace: despite being clothed in naught but an all-black robe and a lofty helm of similar color, the man projected an air of subtle authority around himself, as if he, and not Alexios, was the one on the throne. His mere presence seemed to whisper to the whole room, a silent command to listen well. Still though, he felt that this whole incident would be nothing more than a tremendous waste of his time.

 

“I am told, messenger, that you are the Lieutenant of the new land that drunkards and wanderers claim has appeared to the north. Is that so?”

 

“It is,” said the man, his response curt and quick. “My master, the Lord of that land, has sent me here to see the lays of the lands around him.”

 

“Ah! So you are a spy then, come to see our weaknesses!”

 

“No such thing, my lord,” the man responded in an instant, bowing low, “merely a messenger, here to deliver my master’s greetings to you, oh great Alexios, Emperor of the Romans.”

 

“You know who I am,” Alexios noted, stroking his chin, “and yet I know nothing of you or your master. How am I to know that you are not simply a more convincing charlatan than most, or perhaps a spy of Kaloyan?”

 

“I am no mere actor or thief, your grace. Nor am I a servant of the Bulgars. You would think me such? Ha! My master has looked upon that so-called ‘empire’: he has put it beneath his notice. But you, great Alexios, he has seen worthy, beyond worthy, of his friendship and council.”

 

“So you come seeking friendship? Who are you to ask for it? More wanderers from the northern wastes, seeking fertile lands to settle? Why should I put you any higher than the Cumans or the Vlachs? Do you think yourself more than more barbarians to be crushed beneath my feet?”

 

“No mere wanderers are we, my lord, and you will, in time, find my master’s friendship worth far more than its weight in gold. But I understand; we have not yet given you any reason to trust us! Let me give you my assurances, your grace: in a month’s time, I will return, and by then you will know well of our strength, and you will see that we are most worthy of your friendship. Until then, though, I shall give you this.”

 

The man reached into his cloak and from it drew forth a small trinket, lowering himself to a knee and presenting it to Alexios. Upon examination, the Emperor of the Romans realized that it was a ring; a ring of silver, in fact. It’s band was wide and thick, with intricate designs carved into the metal, and upon it was set a great stone, a deep and dark blue thing, perfectly symmetrical as far as the Emperor could tell, and larger than any jewel he had seen that had not been set into a necklace or something larger.

 

Alexios almost burst out laughing. “A single ring? You would buy my friendship with a single ring?”

 

“No. I would not,” replied the man, his expression and tone ever unreadable. “It is a mere sign of goodwill from my master. Today I am here only to announce the presence of his realm to you: no more, no less. But as I have said, you will in time see the power of my master, and the glory of his works, and then I shall return, to ask if you have found us worthy of your time. Until then, do as you will, and my master will do as he will. But when I return, know that you will have to know where you will stand.”

 

With that, the man turned and strode out of the court, not waiting for any kind of dismissal. The court went silent then, some of its members watching after the strange man, others looking at their Emperor, unsure of how to proceed. In the quiet, Alexios III Angelos began to think. As if his reign had not already been complicated enough, now he had yet another nation that had taken interests in his lands. Still, the meeting could have gone worse.And perhaps the messenger truly did come from a powerful nation, whether they had come from a magical snowstorm or not. And if his master was as powerful as the messenger had implied, than he would be a worthy ally indeed. And if not, than it was not worth bothering about.

 

Either way, at least the ring was nice.

 

 

 

The Crimea

 

Those that lived along the northern coast of the Euxine Sea were strong and hardy folk, descended from the nomads that had come out of the far east in preceding centuries. Their reputation for ferocity and tenacity was well known to their neighbors on all sides, from Kiev and Hungary in the west and north to Byzantium and Khwarazm in the south and east. These were no flatland barbarians, wild tribes that could be cowed by the mere showing of the steel of more civilized peoples. No, they were a mighty people, a nation under arms that stretched from the mouth of the Danube deep into the heart of of Asia, albeit not one that could truly be called united.

 

In the language of the Rus and of Poland, they were called Polovtsy, a word derived from the the Slavic root meaning ‘blond,’ or perhaps ‘straw.’ Those that spoke German called them Folban, Vallani or Valwe: ‘Pale.’ In old Hungarian, they were Kun, nomads. In their own tongue, Kipchak-Turkic, they called themselves according to the name of their clans, of which there were nearly 40.

 

These clans, if they were ever united, may have been strong enough to bring all of Europe to heel beneath the hooves of their cavalry. But never did they crown a single King to rule over them: it was said of them that they only princes and royal families. The patriarchs and Khans of the various clans walked their own paths, some feuding with each other and others striking out against the Rus or the Hungarians or the Byzantines, their vast land never being more than a loose alignment between neighboring tribes.

 

Nevertheless, it was their tongue that was spoken all along the shores of the Euxine Sea, their faith (a mixture of Shamanism and Tengriism) that was practiced on the steppes, their banners and markings that flew in the eastern wind. They were respected and feared by all around them, those that could hiring them as mercenaries, the Kingdom of Georgia finding particular success in that regard, where tens of thousands had been granted land and arms in return for military service.

 

Yes, the Cumans were a great people, greater perhaps than any Kingdom of Christendom or Islam that might have been arrayed against them. But even the mightiest may be brought to their knees with but a single stroke, if one only knows where to land the blow. And, deep in that dark midwinter, even as those clans in the southwest of their lands were still reeling from the great storm, that dark and mysterious winter blow that had come up from Hungary and thrown their lands into disarray, even as rumors began to fly in all directions on the winter breezes, even as Shamans all along the northern coast tried to divine what had happened, the strike was being prepared.

 

It was a strike not easily seen. It was not some overhead swing of a broadsword, or a charge of 10,000 mail clad knights. No, it was a subtle thing, a shadowy thing, a single dagger in the dark that would bring a mighty nation to its knees. It was a single black ship, more decrepit than many of the other vessels that sailed the Euxine Sea, tying up in a port in the Crimea. It was a group of men in black robes, who rode atop black horses, riding north, into the wild. It was dark whispers on the wind: that some calamity had struck the Rus and the Hungarians, that now would be the time to take what was their by right, that the spirits of their ancestors were calling them to war.

 

In the depths of midwinter, the shadows closed in around the Cumans.

 

 

Erebor

 

Further north, the Principality of Kiev, greatest of those states that composed the ever-weakening Kievan Rus, was preparing for war. On the shore of the long lake that had dropped out of the sky, an army was being assembled, the once-meagre camp on the western shores of the waters ever swelling in size. Now, where once had been only silence, the sounds of an armed camp sounded out: horses neighed and whined, men shouted orders and their subordinates grumbled and thousands of set of armor were shoved roughly into place. Some three thousand soldiers had been assembled on the lakeshore, men from all across the Principality, and more were on the way. They were cavalry and archers, swordsmen and spear-bearers, warriors all. They waited only on their master’s orders.

 

Said master, Rurik Rostislavich, was both pleased and anxious. The assembly of his army had proceeded apace, and had in fact exceeded his expectations. He had believed that he would have to wait much longer for such a force to be built, especially with the weather uncooperative as it had been in recent days. But his call had been answered with all haste, and there was little more that his men could have done to please him (excepting only that they would stop attempting to seize the treasure of the lake for themselves; there were those among the camp, thieves and traitors all, that continued to steal, despite all of Rurik’s efforts to the contrary).

 

If the construction of his army was the only thing that was affecting his mood, than he would be the happiest man in the world on this day. But it was not so. There was another factor at play, one that he could not control, and this was the cause of all his anxiety, all of his fears and unsteadiness. To the north of his own camp, not more than three mile distant, another army was building, one whose size he could not quite discern. It was composed of other men, clearly natives of the mysterious region around the mountain, of alien dress and even more alien tongue.

 

The two camps were both growing, but which grew faster and which was larger were both open questions. Riders had gone between the two, bearing with them what was hoped to be universal symbols of peace and goodwill, white banners and small gifts to be given. They always returned with the same messages: none in the other camp could speak an understandable tongue, and whatever gestures that they made at each other were useless for communicating anything of significance. But some signs were more clear: the piles of weapons, the preparing men, the lines of stakes and the field fortifications.

 

Rurik grimaced. He had not wanted to fight a battle here. No sane man ever wanted to fight one. He was simply here to claim the treasure that had fallen within his lands. Did he march on wherever these other men came from? Did he look to pillage their homes and rape their women? No. Of course not. He was simply staking his claim on the gift that God had given him. If had fallen into his lands, had it not? And if they claimed that the lake as their own, which Rurik begrudgingly admitted was not beyond the realm of possibility, why had they not claimed it for themselves long before now? If he had found it, than to him went the claim. He simply wanted what was best for his people. Was that so wrong?

 

Apparently, there were those that thought so. And so, for now, the Grand Prince of Kiev waited and watched, building up his forces for the battle that seemed more likely by the day. Without any doubt, his opposite number was doing the same. God, he wished that they could speak to each other. So much could be avoided. But alas, speaking in tongues was not a gift that the Lord had given him. What the Lord had given him, through, was a treasure beyond reckoning.

 

And he would not give it away lightly.

 

 

Barad-Dur

 

The Dark Lord turned his eye further afield as well, towards the other pieces of Arda that had been thrown into this world. The news from those distant lands was most satisfying. The reports from the Misty Mountains were good. Gundabad was under arms, its orcs and goblins ready to descend from the mountains on his word. Goblin-Town was not nearly so ready, having nearly collapsed when the earthquake had struck, but the denizens had been thrown into a fury without their homes, and were hungry for blood.

 

The armies from those places would not be as powerful as those that now crushed what was left of Hungary and Lesser Poland underfoot, but in truth, the Dark Lord did not expect them to come anywhere close. They stood besides the stronger nations of this world, countries that he would not yet directly challenge. To meet them in open battle would be an utter waste of the forces of Gundabad and Goblin-Town, so instead the hordes of the Misty Mountains would be used to hinder his foes, not annihilate them. They would slow the assembly of the opposition, wear them down before the true battles began, weaken them for the Hosts of Mordor to destroy.

 

More important to his cause would be Dol Guldur, and indeed all of Mirkwood. Sauron carried no special sympathy for his former abode: it had only ever been a stepping stone to his return to Mordor, yet he could not ignore it now. On Arda, he had planned to use it as a springboard to assault Lorien, that damnable heartland of the Elves, and thus it had been the most prepared of his outer lands for battle, second only to Mordor itself. Now, however, it had been flung hundreds of leagues away from its intended target, leaving those preparations almost for naught.

 

Almost. Sauron did not appreciate being forced to improvise, but for the moment he saw no other choice unless he wanted to simply leave Mirkwood to do nothing. While Lorien had been, for the moment, put beyond his reach, there were other targets to turn Dol Guldur against. The peninsula which it now occupied was inhabited by yet more Kingdoms of Men, other nations that would resist his might unless they were broken over his knee. Even if the armies of Dol Guldur could not overthrow those realms, they would be able to tie down their soldiers.

 

But while Lorien could no longer contain the horrors of Dol Guldur, having been moved hundreds of leagues away from the eaves of Mirkwood, other Elves, those of Mirkwood, remained a potential obstacle. While their King that reigned over them was no lover of men, he despised orcs to a far greater degree, and while certainly not as powerful as Elrond or Galadriel, he was still one of the wise. If the King of the Woodland Realm could rally the men of the peninsula to his side, he might yet prove a threat. Of course, the possibility was not an overly great one, but Sauron remembered well other times that he had allowed what he had believed to be minor inconveniences become major obstacles by not dealing with them swiftly. No. The peninsula would be brought to heel. He would not risk otherwise. By his own estimation, his own force in the region might be roughly matched by those of the Peninsula Kingdoms.

 

It was time to shift the balance.

 

 

Tangiers

 

The port was crowded. It always was, even now in the depths of winter. Ships from all corners of the earth tied up in the quays, dozens of different shapes lining the harbor, from small fishing ships barely able to be called as such to massive galleons and everything in between. Strange things, it was said, passed through this place, as those plying their trade from as far east as the Crimea and Alexandria met here at the edge of the known world.

 

Perhaps that is why none noticed one more black-clad figure, moving through the shadows, heading south. No one asked about the strange box that they carried, or the dark mount that they rode. They passed out of the city without fanfare, riding into the dark of night, one more among the many that had moved through the port in recent days, coming from Al-Andalus. They carried many thing with them, from those with wares to sell in the heartland to other that brought with them tents of nomads to those that carried only the clothes on their backs.

 

And still others carried the rumors. These were the most common things carried southwards, along the road to Marrakech. Stories, told in whispers and hushed tones. Tales that lived in the wind. They blew through the ports, through the markets, through the meetings of men, both of good reputation and ill repute. They were told along the roads, at city gates, in inns and at oases. Some dismissed them out of hand, as jokes or the stories of drunkards. Others swore by them. From Tangier and Rabat to Fez and Anfa, the rumors spread, moving southwards as fast as the travellers and tradesmen could carry them.

 

The rider in black, on a black horse, outrode them all. They were a dark shadow on a fell wind, carried south on an ocean breeze. They said no words as the travelled without ceasing. Behind them, many others filled the silence that they left, speaking of the skies breaking open, of the land itself being shifted beyond any hope of recognition, of monstrous hordes that attacked and slaughtered men, and even the great city of Seville being put under siege by the Devil’s beasts. The man in black rode on.

 

In Marrakech, capital of the Almohad Caliphate’s African holdings, the commander of the region, the one known as Muhammad bin Abu Hafs, was unconcerned. He very much doubted the stories out of the north, of forests that fell out of the sky. Perhaps there were some grains of truth in them. Maybe Cadiz or Madinat al-Fath had received snow for the first time in living memory. Maybe some stampede of horses had trampled some men near Seville, and distance and speculation had turned it into a horde of hellish monsters. Whatever the case, it was not his problem. Doubtless, the Caliph would easily be able to manage whatever it was that spurred these outrageous tales. In the meantime, Abu Hafs had other tasks to contend with.

 

Namely, sorting through dozens, if not hundreds, of requests, demands and miscellaneous other messages, packages and gifts that had been forwarded to him from lower-level functionaries of the Almohad government. Even after his subordinates had dealt with the more...uneducated parcels, it was still a long and time consuming process. Not that there was much else for the Commander to do. The Caliphate had earned security on all its borders, the Crusader states to the north beaten back by Abu Yusuf Ya’qub five years before at Alarcos, and while the machinations of the Beni Ghaniya to the east were constant, but they made no moves to overt war. The Almohads enjoyed a hard won peace.

 

The Lord of Marrakech flipped through more messages, moving them to the piles that indicated their intended destinations. Delegate. Delegate. Ignore. Delegate. Forward to the Caliph. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Deal with himself. Delegate. It was tedious work, albeit necessary, and Abu Hafs grimaced and got on with his task. Delegate. Delegate. Send to the Caliph. Burn (how did this get past his subordinates?). Ignore. Deal with himself. Delegate. Delegate. Ig...wait. Hold on a minute.

 

The package that sat in front of him was like none that he had ever seen. It was a small thing, no larger than his closed fist, a simple box that, had it been made of wood, he would have ignored without a second thought. But this was no simple wooden box. It had been crafted from black metal, and silver inlays had been forged into intricate designs that twisted and wound around the whole box.

 

Turning aside for a moment, the commander of Marrakech addressed one of the servants that attended to him: “Boy! Look here. Do you know where this box came from?”

 

The young man shrugged slightly before responding. “I regret that I do not know, my grace. I was told that it was delivered at the palace gate early this morning, and that it was of the utmost importance that you receive it. Beyond that, I know nothing.”

 

Abu Hafs frowned slightly at that response. Strange packages were commonly delivered to the palace, yes, but more often than not they were not...desireable things to have. But on the other hand, such things sometimes turned out to be critical to some matter or another. Either way, there was no point just sitting here staring at the thing. If it had made it this far up the chain of command. He reached out and took the box in his hands. It was warm to the touch. Not the most surprising thing, especially not in Marrakech, but it still, it was worth noting. Raising it up, he examined it further. It was heavier than it looked, and he now saw the silver wreathing its exterior was interwoven with gold as well, the many hues coming together and making it seem as though the box was aflame. He shook it once, trying to discern what was held within, but no sound escaped.

 

Gingerly, Abu Hafs opened the box, unsure of what to expect. What he found was not...terribly far from his own ideas, but a strange thing nonetheless. It was a large ring, greater than any he had seen excepting those worn by the Caliph himself, and possibly even then. It was crafted from silver and gold, much like the decorations on the box, making the ring seem to burn with a hidden fire. Set on it was a large stone, a flaming orange crystal without the slightest of blemishes.

 

Abu Hafs took the ring in his hand. Like the box, it was warm to the touch. As he turned it over in his hands, examining closer, the commander of Marrakech noted that, much like its container, the ring was also lighter than it looked. It almost seemed to...call to him. Whisper. Seeing no harm in obliging himself, he experimentally slipped the ring onto his own finger. It felt...natural. Like it belonged there.

 

Sighing, Abu Hafs turned back to his paperwork, the ring staying securely on his left hand. He could not simply stare at the ring all day, as much as he might like to. He had more work to do. Idly, the thought crossed his mind that the ring may have been intended for the Caliph, and not for him. Almost as quickly as it had come, the commander of Marrakech dismissed the idea. Muhammad al-Nasir received many gifts, almost constantly.

 

He would not miss a single ring.

 

 

 

Barad-Dur

 

The Dark Lord had one piece yet to move. Saruman of Many Colors, as the Istar styled himself, had found himself in this world as well, and already was proving useful. The Wizard had apparently acquired for himself a new puppet, a certain Count Thomas of Savoy, and reported that the security of his own holdings was now all but assured with the addition of his new pawn’s forces to his own defenses.

 

If Saruman had expected praise for his initiative, he did not receive it. The Dark Lord was well aware that the Lord of Orthanc served only himself, binding himself to Sauron’s service only as long as it was convenient. The White Wizard seeked to take the Ring for himself, and then to usurp Sauron himself as rightful master of all of creation. A blind Oleg-Hai could see through the act that the Wizard put on, claiming to acknowledge the Dark Lord’s rightful authority. The Istar would betray him the moment that the chance presented itself.

 

But for the moment, he remained a useful, if begrudging, servant. His placement in this new world was particularly useful. He lay deep within the lands of the enemy, like a dagger being shoved between their ribs. As long as the Wizard did nothing utterly foolish, he would remain too valuable to be cast aside, his tongue even more so. He could turn these nations against each other, and the longer the realms of men stayed divided, the better. Saruman, for all his own machinations, might yet prove worthy of not being wiped out like a fly when the conquest was finished. If the Wizard could keep the men of the realms around him divided, the Dark Lord might be pleased with his service. Sauron had faced the full might of the united peoples of Middle-earth but once, but it had been enough to ensure his downfall.

 

He would not make the same mistake here.

 

 

 

Isengard.

 

Saruman of Many Colors had proven to be an excellent host, thought Count Thomas of Savoy, even after the Wise Man’s home had been smashed and broken by the storm and the earthquake. That he could have all of his holdings so thoroughly damaged and yet still provide so well for his guests spoke rather highly of both his character and his abilities. The Count was glad to have him as both a councilor and a friend. There had been no need for some dusty paper to be signed between the two to ensure the alliance between Savoy and Isengard: the Lord of Orthanc had thought that they had hardly needed to bother with such formalities, and Thomas had found himself agreeing.

 

Now the Count of Savoy was returning home to spread the good news to his people. He had sent messengers out ahead of him, some days prior, but no doubt there were those back in Turin who feared for his safety regardless. It would be well to soothe their anxieties. Soon, Savoy would be a joyous place once more, no longer living in terror of whatever might come out of the new mountains, but safe in the knowledge that the master of those lands was a true friend to the people of Savoy.

 

And a true friend to those beyond Savoy as well. At Saruman’s behest, Thomas would share this good news far beyond his own small borders. This was a good news to be spread across all that were afraid of the Mountains of Mist, that there was a good man who could give wise council to all that dreaded whatever may come in these trying times. If his orders had been followed, then his servant had contacted the other nobles of the region, and the Lords of several of his other neighbors, Provencians and Burgundians and Veronans alike, would be at his home to greet him.

 

And if providence was with him, they too would listen to the council of Saruman.

Chapter Text

February 5, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

Austria

"How much farther to the meeting spot? I do not want to be wandering in these lands any longer than absolutely necessary."

The man that Leopold VI, Duke of Austria and those under his command were following turned at that remark, a broad smile on his face. Bowing slightly, he replied, the wide smile remaining on his face.

"It is not much further now, my grace. I do bid that you have patience. I know that you are anxious, as would any man in your pace, but I assure you: this journey will not be for naught."

The man turned away again after that, beckoning for the Duke and his company to follow. Leopold stared at the man's back for a second as he walked further into the wild, absorbing that remark. Then he spurred his mount forwards, eyes fixed on the man's back, and his grip on the hilt of his sword tightening. The Duke was surrounded by guards, a small army on the path behind them, and they moved in broad daylight. If there was ever a time to confident in his safety, this was it. And yet...and yet fear gripped at his heart, and he cast wary glances at every tree and shrub the company rode past, waiting for something to go wrong.

He had reason to be afraid. In the ten days since the storm, a seemingly endless number of horror stories had come out of these alien hills, rumors of demons and monsters that swept out of the night and slaughtered all they came across. The tales were common enough, and similar enough, that any doubt to at least some of the accuracy was put to rest rather quickly. The cries for action from their people were loud and unending, and so Leopold, like most of the other nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, answered them, sending scouts into the misty lands that had appeared.

Few of these men returned, and even fewer returned with good news. Most could speak only to confirm the tales, having found only the ruins of the small and isolated villages that had dotted the foothills of the Alps, near always reduced to rubble and ash and with none still living that could speak of what had happened. There was little evidence to provide a clue as to what had occured, either: there were a handful of black arrows left and some spatters of dark blood, but near nothing else.

A small minority of those that went into the wild, though, told a completely different story. At least there seemed to be reason to this fact: all of them had been sent to scout out the same region, where a swift river had come suddenly plunging out of the hills. To a man they told the same tale: they followed the new river back into the alien lands, winding their way upstream onto unfamiliar ground. There, they had looked for anything that could help to reveal what had caused these new mountains to appear. In other places, the scouts had found nothing besides new causes for despair, but those that had gone up the river had apparently found something quite different.

Those men spoke of encountering people of inhuman beauty, who wore armor and robes and carried weapons that shone like the stars, who had revealed themselves as the men had started to explore the river valley. The scouts said that they had been taken to a beautiful city, hidden in the mountains, where they were treated as honored guests rather than as captured spies, fed feasts that would put the celebrations of royalty to shame, housed not in cells but in rooms that wouldn't have been out of place in the palace of a King.

There they met a certain Elrond, who said that he was the Lord of the City. By all accounts, he was the only one that had spoken to his men, seemingly possessing the ability to speak in tongues. This Elrond had spoken to many of them at length, both asking about this world and telling them of his own. Apparently, his people called themselves elves, and they had lived in the mountains for many long centuries, hidden away from the threats that hunted them, brought to this world by whatever mysterious act had transported the mountains themselves.

There was more to the story of his people than that, far more, but Elrond had apparently wanted to relay such tales in person. After a few days of back and forth questioning, the Master of Rivendell had released those in his care, asking them only to summon the local nobles for a council, to establish relations between the realms that had so suddenly found themselves to be neighbors.

And that was how Leopold of Austria found himself following behind one of his scouts, who was now leading them deeper and deeper into unfamiliar terrain. Perhaps he did so against his better judgement, his curiosity roused only be a desperate need for some kind of good news. In all honesty, Leopold felt very much like he was walking into a trap. He had been taught well, both in the art of war and in the wisdom of his faith. The Devil, he knew, did not always show himself to be a thing of terror. The Accuser could be, and often was, subtle, for why should one exert the effort to destroy their foes with force when many of them would walk open eyed to their own doom?

On the other hand, God could sometimes be as unsubtle as thunderstorm. If these people in the mountains were indeed Messengers of the Lord, as many of his scouts seemed convinced that they were, then it was his duty as a good and pious Christian to listen to their message. In such dark times as these, he needed all the help he could get. If God had seen fit to give him said help, then he would not be one to complain.

The Duke was shaken out of his thoughts when he noticed that the man they were following had stopped. Looking past the man, he saw that the company had arrived at a crossing to the river that his scouts, and now Leopold himself, had followed. Grimly, the Duke of Austria noted that the river was broad and swift, and, while crossable, the Ford was not wide enough for the whole company to move across at once.

Our backs are to a river, he thought, not good. Suspiciously, Leopold eyed the far bank. There was no one...that he could see, in any case. Still, the whole scene made him feel uneasy. He didn't know what it was, but he hadn't come as far as he had in life by ignoring his instincts. And his instincts were telling him that something was very wrong. His thoughts took a darker turn yet as their guide started to slowly wade out into the Ford, hands raised above his head, calling out to the far shore. This is it, Leopold thought, readying to fight. He gives the signal, and the trap is sprung.

But no arrows were loosed from the far bank. There was no sudden charge against the flanks or rear of the column. The only sounds continued to be the bubbling of the river and the crunching of snow under the nervous feet of horses and men. For a few moments, each of which seemed to stretch to eternity, nothing happened. The man stood in the river, the company watched the far shore, and the river continued to roar past.

And then, Leopold saw it: movement on the far bank. There was a column, seemingly smaller than his own, working it way up the path that lead to the Ford. His guide had seen it as well, and now turned back to the column, smiling broadly. "They are here, my Lord" Leopold nodded to himself, taking a deep breath. Silently, he steeled himself for what came next. Whatever the truth about those that his scouts had met, first impressions always mattered. Especially when those that you were meeting had been magically dropped out of the sky.

Finally, the approaching column broke the treeline, and the Duke of Austria beheld for the first time the people of Rivendell. His first thoughts were that his scouts had been surprisingly accurate in their reports; certainly, their exaggerations had been minor. There were roughly 100 or so of them, all dressed in brilliant armor, the descriptions of their beauty that Leopold had received being easily met, and indeed surpassed.

The strangers took up formation on the far shore, each one mounted on an armored steed, each armed with a bow and a lance. One of them, who the Duke judged to be their leader, and thus Elrond of Rivendell (or at least his adjunct), left the formation, riding forwards into the Ford on a white mount. At this, Leopold's scout beckoned his master forwards, and the Duke of Austria rode into the river himself, his eyes constantly scanning the far shore. He saw a good sign: none of them had bows knocked. They were not attacking immediately, at least. They met in the river's center, the scout between them. The two eyed each other, each trying to read the other's expression. Both noted that the other's gaze was one of suspicion. They simply stared for a moment, before the elf broke the silence, bowing slightly as he spoke.

"Leopold of Austria?"

"I am." The Duke replied, slowly, not lowering his guard, nor removing his hand from the hilt of his sword.

"I am Elrond of Rivendell." As the elf rose again to his full height, Leopold saw that he, too was armed, and that his right hand rested on the pommel of his own blade. His gaze was one, not of malice, certainly, but not one of much hope either, and his speech was tense and rigid. "We have much to discuss."

"That we do," Leopold replied, returning the elf's stare, "that we do."

 

The Halls of Thranduil

The people here were anxious. The air of nervousness was so obvious that even though he spoke not a word of their tongue, Dominic of Osma would have had to have been both deaf and blind not to notice the tense feelings that filled this place. It was readily apparent from the wary looks and tightened grips on weapons that the inhabitants of this place had, even as those that he could see were (presumably) far from any immediate dangers, deep in the heart of the caverns.

At least he was no longer in a prison cell. He and his brothers had been moved out of the deeper dungeons into rooms that were far more accommodating. Certainly, they were not bedded in the chambers of nobility, and there were many inns throughout Castile that would have been more homely than their current lodgings, but none among the brothers raised complaint. Their hosts, at the very least, no longer seemed to view them as outright threats, and treated them less as prisoners and more as guests, albeit that they were apparently guests of rather low standing.

Dominic was unsure of what to call said hosts. His conversation (that had been, in truth, far more of an interrogation than anything else) with what he assumed to be some kind of a King or other noble had established little, handicapped by the fact that apparently only the King himself could speak Dominic's language (and not particularly well at that), necessitating a rather large number of lengthy pauses as the two had spoken back and forth. What he had learned was good, at least: these people had no particular ill will towards their new neighbors, and were not here to conquer them.

But the young Priest had learned little else: the King had been far more interested in learning about his new surroundings than sharing about himself, and thus the flow of information had been rather one-way. The King had done little more than tell Dominic the names of himself (Thandule, or something similar-discrepancy in accents had proved to be another addition to the language barrier) and of his people (elves) before he had began asking questions of the man almost without ceasing.

Dominic felt that he had learned more being lead through the halls and caverns of this place than he had from its apparent master, in the short glances that he had stolen of other halls and chambers. He thought, at least, that he was not seeing it in its full glory. He felt that this land had much more magnificence than he had witnessed. At the moment, it seemed...broken. Hurt. He had not seen much of this land, having been taken swiftly to the cells with his brothers not long after arrival, and then just as swiftly taken before the King, but what he had seen was enough to fill his heart with woe.

Everywhere he had looked, it seemed, he had seen nothing but stretchers laid out for the wounded, caked in blood and dust and God knew what else, the tunnels and chambers echoing with a perpetual groans and other universal sounds of suffering and pain. Even his brief glances had seen far too many with their bodies covered up, what could only have been mourners weeping over them. His first few meetings with the King had done little to stir many feelings of friendship with him, but his heart went out to the King's people. No one should suffer like this, not while he could aid them. Personal animinity be damned, he was a Shepherd of the Flock of God. He would not simply stand aside as a great multitude of people (and they were people, regardless of how different they appeared or spoke) wept with little, if any, comfort.

Or he would have helped them, if the elves had not been locked back inside of his room whenever he was not being interrogated. While the King had decided that he and his brothers weren't threats, it had apparently been decided to keep them as out of the way as possible. They were fed at regular intervals, and the room was constantly guarded, but otherwise the elves attempted to ignore his existence, and Dominic did not know enough of their tongue to make the request himself. But, it seemed, the grace of God was upon him. Soon, the guards opened his door once more, signalling for him to come to them. It immediatley apparent that he was being brought before the King again, most likely for another round of questioning. Here, then was his chance. He prayed that he would not waste it.

The Throne Room, as it always was, was bustling. Guards hurried to and fro, delivering reports and receiving new orders. Servants moved quickly across the room, carrying supplies or scribbling notes, while what Dominic presumed were higher-ranking officers shouted orders, many voices trying to climb over the others. As he entered, lead by the guards, the King raised his hand, and immediately the room quieted. Then, he beckoned Dominic forwards. Mentally saying a quick prayer, the young priest moved towards the King, beginning to speak.

"Before we begin the questioning, your grace, my I make a request of you?"

The King looked taken aback for half a moment, before fixing a cold stare onto Dominic. "Which is?" he asked, his voice dripping with contempt, his eyes boring into the young priest's soul.

"I mean no disrespect, your grace," Dominic said quickly, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "Your hospitality to me and my brothers has been more than adequate. I have no issue with you, or with any act that you have taken in regards to me. I merely request that I may repay the kindness that you have shown me."

The King adopted a look of intrigue. "Continue," he said, a slight questioning tone slipping in beneath the contempt.

Dominic took a deep breath. Now came the hard part. "My grace, I have seen with my own eyes the devastation that has come to your people. I have seen the anguish and fear in their eyes, I have heard their weeping and their grief. I, and my brothers, cannot simply sit aside and allow any to suffer as your people do. I ask that you let us help you, in any way that you see fit. Let us do all we can to aid you, both for the sake of our consciences and to repay you for the great hospitality that you have shown us."

The King leaned forwards, looking Dominic over, his expression a mix of amusement and sadness. "A kind offer, my guest. A kind offer indeed. But I am afraid that the damages to my lands extend far beyond what you have seen. 12 men would make little difference."

"Then let us go home," said Dominic suddenly, "to gather others to aid you. Let us go to our people, and bring back medicine and healers and craftsmen and whatever else you need. Let my people help yours. Mine are a kind people; they will be moved to your aid, I assure you."

The King's expression hardened. "Do you think I need your aid, guest? My people are strong. They will lift themselves up."

"Do you need it? No, of course not." In his mind, Dominic was praying fervently. Another few wrong steps, and all would be lost. He steeled himself again, and continued. "The glory of your people, even from the little I have seen, far surpasses the glory of mine. You need no aid from me or my brothers or anyone else. But I do not ask to give you what you need. I ask to give you what would help you. Work done by many hands is light. Can two healers not treat a wound better than one?"

"Yes, but if the two dispute the treatment, the patient may be lost. A junior healer may ruin the treatment prescribed by a senior one. A younger hunter may scare off an elder one's prey with inexperience. Your people, from what you have told me, lack the experience or the skill to aid mine. I will not call on those that may do more harm then aid."

"So you will let your people suffer!?" Dominic found himself shouting, and the whole court turned towards his outburst. The young priest quite suddenly found quite a few spears being dipped towards him. Raising his hands above his head, he took a deep breath before speaking again. "My grace...I apologize for that outburst. But you must understand...a junior healer will listen to the senior, if the senior will accept his aid. I ask nothing from you, understand that. I ask only that you accept a gift that I wish to give. Is your confidence in your own people so strong that you will accept no aid? Is your pride so vast? What do you value most? Your pride or your people?"

Silence reigned over the Throne Room for a long moment, Dominic hearing little more than his own breathing. Then, after what felt like an eternity, the King sat straight up, waving off his guards. He fixed his gaze on Dominic once more.

"I will...consider...your offer. For the moment, I have more questions to ask of you, and I expect that you will ask no more of me. Understood?"

Dominic nodded, thanking God in silence. Mentally, he noted that the conversation could have gone much worse. As the new battery of questions began, though, a feeling of optimism moved through him, warming his heart. He had, at least, gotten the King to consider his offer. It was something. He felt that this might be a stepping stone, the beginning of something far greater than some aid lent between neighbors.

He had no idea how right he would be.

 

Hungary.

The Rangers of Ithilien were on the move. Faramir, Son of Denethor, led his men northwards, sticking to the shadows as they slowly worked their way back towards their refuge at Henneth Annun. They clung to the desperate hope that their brothers in arms had not been swept away in the storm, said hope being one of only three things that had kept them going over the course of the past week.

The other two things which drove the Rangers to continue forwards were the fear of imminent death at the hands of the patrols of orcs that roved through the countryside around them, and the sheer will of their Captain. Both were familiar feelings, emotions that had carried them through many battles and disasters before, the strength lent them by raw terror and by the courage of those leading them giving them the will to fight on, to survive, to continue. They used that strength like a crutch now, limping on towards their goal, their courage and will hanging by a thread.

On Faramir's part, he endured only for the sake of his men. His heart was filled with dread and terror, the apparent disappearance of his home sapping his courage and his will. But his men needed him. They were as full of despair as he, if not more, and he saw that they would only continued as long as he did. If he gave up, let the hopelessness overtake them, so would they. Despair would consume them all. Death would soon follow.

And so the Son of Denethor pushed on, leading his men back towards where he desperately hoped their Sanctuary remained. Their movement was slow, to say the least. They stuck to the shadows, doing all they could to evade the occasional orc patrols that swept through the countryside. The crept through the ruins of villages and underneath burned shrubs and trees, working northwards at a snail's pace.

Hours, then days, blended together, as the slow crawl continued. Their courage slowly continued to bleed away, mile by mile, skirmish by skirmish, but the men continued to drag themselves forwards, following their Captain, staying ahead of their doom. They won some minor victories over small patrols, they rested when and where they could, and they stumbled on, constantly seeking a source of hope.

Finally, they were given one. They had stumbled through the hills for several days by then, when a call echoed on the winter wind, sounding out from the north. To an untrained ear, it would mean nothing. It would be the call of a bird, or perhaps a frog: nothing of significance. But to a Ranger...the men moved towards the sound, cautious hope returning to them for the first time in days.

As they moved forwards, they sent out their own calls, each of which was responded to in turn. Croaks, whistles and birdsong drifted across the silent landscape, without a source to the untrained eye. Gradually, the two centers of the calls moved towards each other, until finally they had almost met, only a small clearing remaining to divide them. Faramir and his men were pressed to the earth, observing the land across from them. The Captain, hoping against hope for the best, gave one final call, a long, low croaking noise. Then he waited.

The reply came a moment later, a near-perfect imitation of Faramir's own call. Then, across the clearing, movement. A dozen or so shapes emerged from the brush, green hoods atop their heads, bows and swords visible in their hands. But, for the first time since their march had started, the Rangers had no reason to fear, for emblazoned on the figure's chests were White Trees, beneath the light of seven stars.

Faramir stood, a relieved smile on his face, and strode into the clearing. In front of him, more figures seemingly popped out of the ground, while those that already stood were lowering their weapons, taking their own strides forwards. His own men were also breaking cover, the sounds of reliefs escaping them. Coming towards him was an older man, far more beaten and ragged than the last time he had seen him, Faramir's own relief reflected in his face. They met in the middle, embracing each other tightly when they did so.

"Lieutenant," Faramir spoke after they had taken a step back to evaluate each other, "I do not think that I have ever been relieved to see you."

"Nor I you, Captain Faramir," replied Madril, a hollow chuckle accompanying the words. "Nor I you."

They continued looking each other over for a moment, soaking in this fleeting moment of happiness. Around them, their brothers in arms did the same, embracing each other and giving silent thanks for the turn of fortune. Still, as the Captain of the Rangers looked out over his men, he did so with a great sense of foreboding. They were to a man exhausted, their lack of sleep and food apparent on every face. They were still deep in enemy lands, and their supplies were nearing an end. Despite this turn, the situation remained grim.

Faramir sighed. "As fortuitous as this reunion has been, I believe that we'll have to move again soon. But give the men an hour or so to rest and regroup. I did not see any orcs on my way here. It should be safe for at least that long."

Madril nodded grimly. "Yes, sir. In the meantime, I have much to report. Casualties among my men have been low since the storm, but I have little other good news. The Sanctuary was smashed by the earthquake, and most of our supplies have been lost. We have gotten by by scavenging what we could from the ruins of this land, but that has provided little."

"Any news from home?"

"None whatsoever. It has vanished entirely, then. We had hoped that you would know what had happened."

Faramir shook his head. Madril looked taken aback for a moment, but then he took a deep breath and nodded solemnly. The Son of Denethor looked back over his men, men whose homes he was now sure beyond all doubt were at least beyond reach, if not gone entirely. He did not know how much longer their courage could last with such news. Surely, it could not be long.

As he looked out over his men, though, he noticed something. Many of the company that Madril had brought from the north could not have been of the Rangers of Ithilien. They wore no armor, and carried no weapons with them. They looked far more afraid than any of his men, and they huddled together in small groups, towards the edges of the forming camp. They looked about constantly, scanning the horizon with a ragged fear.

Pointing, Faramir asked "Who are they, Lieutenant? Surely, they are not of Gondor."

"We're not sure, Sir. As far as we can tell, they're the natives of whatever land we're in now. None of us know a word of their language, and none of them know a word of our, so there's not much that they can tell us, or the other way around. All we know is that the orcs were hunting them. Beyond that, you probably know as much as I do."

Faramir looked at them, thinking. They were no servants of the Enemy, then, if the orcs had been hunting them, or if they were, they were in open rebellion against him. That was good. At the very least, it meant that there were men in this world who were free from the will of Sauron, for the moment anyways. It meant that in this new world, there were men who might be able to fight against the Shadow.

He sighed. He was not mad enough to hope that this here was a war for him to fight, but the Captain of Gondor was wise enough to know that these people, who looked so frightened and broken, did not know what they faced, and would need protectors if they were to survive. He was also wise enough to know that his men, and he himself, needed a purpose, a reason to continue, with all good that they had known swept away.

And as he looked upon the strangers, those ragged and fearful folk, and had these two thoughts, he suddenly realized that he had a solution to both problems.

 

Bulgaria

Kaloyan, Tsar of Bulgaria, had a problem. It was not one of the sort of problems that he usually faced. In usual times, he contended with assassins, like the murderers that had claimed the lives of both of his elder brothers, or with the Byzantines to his south, who refused to acknowledge his people's independence, or perhaps with the Cumans and Vlachs to his north, especially those that paid little attention to his authority. But this was a different kind of problem, not one of those that was easly dealt with in the usual manner of crushing everything by force of arms.

Nor were these problems of the kind now being faced by many of the Lords of Europe, of freak storms and earthquakes that had shattered their lands, of new landscapes cutting massive swaths out of their realms, of the legions of hell itself trying to destroy the earth. Yes, from where Kaloyan stood the entire northern horizon had been replaced with dark and foreboding mountains, but the far majority of the lands lost had been north of the Danube, where there had been little he considered valuable anyways, and anything that stirred in those black peaks seemed to be, for the moment anyways, keeping to itself. No, the mountains were not his problems.

In fact, one could argue the problem that he currently faced was not his problem at all. It could be argued that it was the problem of Stefan, the Grand Prince of Serbia. Apparently, there were Hungarians, hundreds and hundreds of them, if not thousands, flooding over Stefan's borders like water through a broken dam. It was reported that they came practically without ceasing, begging for food, for shelter, for protection, for anything that anyone would give them. They carried with them only the clothes on their backs, if that, and horror stories, tales of hellish monsters and demon hordes. They swamped the Grand Principality, the pious Grand Prince doing all that he could to aid them. And he now had a grand plan for how to do so.

Stefan was wise enough to realize that the refugees would not stop unless there was nothing for them to run from. Whatever calamity had descended in Hungary, supernatural or not, it was clear that the Kingdom had descended into chaos. Stefan planned to march into Hungary and restore order, but he lacked the men to do so. And so he turned to Kaloyan. The two had been staunch allies in the past, and continued to be, Stefan seeing the Bulgars as the protectors of his nation from the Hungarians to the west and Kaloyan seeing the Serbs as a necessary buffer against the same Hungarians. And while Kaloyan had no particular fondness for the people of Hungary, for these ones, so pitiful and hopeless (and, just as importantly also largely Orthodox Serbs and Bulgars that had been conquered by the Hungarians long ago, who had no true loyalty to the Catholic Kingdom), he was willing to make an exception.

Or rather, he was willing to march in and take as much land as possible before the Hungarians could respond. Kaloyan held no illusions about his motivations for 'helping' the refugees, and for all his apparent piety, the Tsar doubted that Stefan's own motives were as pure as he espoused. Either way, it was not long before they were ready to march. Both of their armies were ever ready for action, a necessity due to the constant border skirmishes with the Hungarians, Cumans and Byzantines.

The two nobles rendevouzed at Ras, and then, to great fanfare, marched north, crossing the border into Hungary soon afterwards. They soon found that this campaign would be among the easiest that either of them had ever fought. At every village they came to, they were welcomed as heroes, as saviors, as the protectors that would banish the monsters back into the night. There was not the slightest resistance from anywhere. Kaloyan smiled.

This was going to be simple.

 

Bosnia

Andrew of Hungary had thought that his return to Hungary would be one that saw him reduced to little more than his brother's servant, living a life that was barely more than the exile that he had previously lived in. As long as his brother, Emeric, remained on the throne, it was certain that the former Prince of Halych would always be regarded as an underling. A pawn. It was no secret that there was little love between the sons of Bela III: the two's feuding had started in childhood, and their father had barely been in the grave before the brother's rivalry exploded into all-out Civil War.

Andrew had lost that particular fight, his brother uncovering his conspiracy to take the throne before the younger son had fully assembled his forces. Emeric, with the larger army, had been victorious in open battle near Lake Balaton, forcing Andrew to flee to the shelter of his cousin Leopold VI of Austria. The Pope, wishing for an end to the fighting (as well as wishing for Andrew to lead his personal pet project, another Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land), had sent a Papal Legate to mediate a reconciliation between the brothers.

The talks had been slow. There was too much bad blood between Andrew and Emeric for the either to be willing to give ground to the other, making compromise nearly impossible. But the Legate, a man named Gregory, had persisted, and the brothers had, after many months, nearly managed to come to an agreement. Andrew would be given Slavonia and Croatia as an appendage, while the rest of Hungary would remain in Emeric's hands, and it was made clear that Andrew could not inherit the whole Kingdom. Neither was particularly happy with this arangement, but both saw it as a step in the right dirrection: Emeric for controlling Andrew, and Andrew for dethroning Emeric.

Then the Storm had come, and everything had gone to hell. A matter of weeks, nay, days, before they were to have their final meeting and God had decided that no, that was not how the matter was to be settled. Andrew had been in Slavonia when the Storm had struck, readying for the last round of negotiations, and now he heard the constant tales out of Hungary proper, tales that spoke of mountains dropping out the sky, hordes of demons ravaging the countryside. Most intriguing to Andrew, they said that the King had vanished in this time of crisis.

The younger son of Bela III was not one to miss an opportunity. As Emeric had not yet sired an heir, the throne had legally defaulted to him. After all of his failed machinations and defeats, all of his setbacks, fate had decided to hand him the crown without so much as a fight. If he were to walk into Hungary, he would be its King, so long as Emeric remained missing. The whole of the realm was apparently in chaos. If he were to bring order, the people would welcome him without hesitation.

Of course, there was the reason for why the whole of the realm was apparently in chaos. Whether or not one believed the Apocalyptic stories coming out of the northeast, it was readily apparent that something catastrophic had happened. The question of if the invaders were of hellish origin or were simply a particularly effective group of Cumans mattered not; If Andrew was to claim his rightful throne, he would need an army at his back. He had raised some men in Slavonia and Croatia, but they were unlikely to be enough. He needed more troops.

Which is how he found himself in the court of Kulin, Ban of Bosnia. Nominally a vassal of Hungary (and thus subject to the will of its King, who was now Andrew until proven otherwise), the man effectively ruled his lands as an independent Lord, acting on the will of himself alone. Andrew and Kulin had never been close, and had in fact barely interacted before now, but strange times made for strange alliances.

Or they would, if Kulin would actually give Andrew control of his army. By all rights, there was no reason that the Prince, no, the King of Hungary shouldn't be able to control one of his subjects. But no. Kulin refused him. The man had been acting independently for far too long, and had grown used to not bowing before his rightful master. He saw no reason to march out for another man's sake.

But Andrew was nothing if not persistent. It was one of his better traits, the part of him that had allowed him to survive the war with his brother, remain patient throug the seemingly endless negotiations, and now, finally, come out on top. For three days, he had worked his way through through Kulin's court, speaking to anyone and everyone that might have the Ban's ear. And now his work was coming to fruition, and the King of Hungary strode confidently into the court of his vassal.

Kulin, for his part, did not look too pleased with all of this. The first words out of his mouth established Andrew's impression as fact.

"Let us be done with this, Andrew. I have told you, many times: I will not march out my army! Certainly, I will not march out behind you. This court is only gathered to humor you, Prince Andrew, and no more. Now speak your case. I have better business to attend to today."

"Better than the End of Days? It must be interesting indeed. You must tell me about it later."

He got some strange looks from the court for that one. Andrew smiled slightly. He had their attention, at least.

Kulin simply rolled his eyes. "Do not tell me that you believe the tales from the north! If the world were ending, there would be signs all across the world, not simply in Hungary. Your people are not special enough to warrant that kind of attention. It is simply a stronger storm than normal, or perhaps your brother is having trouble with the Cumans. Nothing more. And if it is something more, than I will face it from my own ground, and my own castles, not from yours."

Andrew held up his hands, smirking again. "I do not believe the stories of drunkards and peasants, no. But there are many that do. They come southwards, thousands of them, thinking that the world is ending. And where is my brother through all of this? Gone! Missing or dead or simply uncaring, it matters not. The point stands that, at the moment, Hungary has no King! No leader! No one to lead them through these dark times!"

"And you would make yourself their savior, the great hero coming to deliver them. And then, when it turns out that your brother's not dead, you get to call him a coward unworthy of the throne, use your newfound followers to get rid of him, and you get to rule as you think that you deserve. Am I right?"

"I will admit readily that you are. But, before you cast me out, Kulin, know that a good King remembers those that brought him to power. His good and loyal friends will find favor when he comes to power. But those that defied him, that tried to keep him from his birthright...those ones he will never forget either."

Kulin looked thoroughly unimpressed by this statement. "Do not try and threaten me, Prince. I know that you have no army. You may raise some peasants with sharp sticks out of Croatia, but not enough to march against me, or even against your brother. You know that you need my men to secure your crown; you would not be here otherwise."

Andrew had expected such an answer, and, with another smirk, gave his readied reply. "Does a wise gambler not hedge his bets? I have placed all I own on this roll, Kulin; do not think I did not weight the dice in my favor. Already, my cousin Leopold, the Duke of Austria, marches to my aid. If the Holy Father had not sent his Legate to negotiate between us, he and I would have waged war against my brother months ago. Now, with the realm in chaos, the Duke has seen fit to aid me in gaining my rightful crown. Leopold and I shall march in as its saviors, return the land to order within the month, and then...and then I shall deal with you."

Kulin looked taken aback at that. Good. He might see reason now. Of course, it was a colossal bluff, and Andrew knew it. Leopold would aid him if it came to that, but the internal conflicts of the Holy Roman Empire would limit the troops that the Duke of Austria could send. Kulin was right to say that Andrew was only here because he had no other options. The forces that he had raised in Slavonia and Croatia were not as weak as the Ban presumed, but they were still by no means a great army. Andrew was in no position to be making threats. But as long as Kulin himself didn't know that…

The Ban looked somewhat conflicted, hesitating to speak. Andrew decided to press his advantage, and spoke again.

"Kulin, my friend. Your lands are being overrun with refugees and beggars. I have seen that myself. You will soon be swamped, your people stretched to their limit. You know as well as I that the way to stop the blood is to close the wound. If you wish to keep your nation for your own, you will have to march out regardless. It would be best if you did not do so alone."

An angry grimace crossed over the Ban's face. Andrew smiled. He had won. Angrily, Kulin gestured at the door. "Fine then! I will march out with you, Prince! But for now, go back to Croatia! Meet with your armies! It will take time to raise mine. And then, not sooner, will I march out."

Andrew smiled once more, giving Kulin a look that he knew the Ban would like nothing more than to punch. "I march on Esztergom. Meet me there in a week." With that, the King of Hungary turned and left. Andrew smiled on his way out. He had both gained a powerful ally and removed a roadblock on his way to the throne. Things were looking up. Of course, Kulin could be lying, but if that was so he would find out soon enough from his own informants throughout Bosnia. If the Ban betrayed him, he would know.

In the meantime, he had a crown to claim.

 

Paris

There were whispers in the south. Philip II, King of France, had heard many of them. At first, they had been easy to ignore. Uneducated farmers, drunken huntsmen, et cetera, et cetera. There were far more interesting, and far more important, things for him to put his mind to. But they had persisted, the whispers increasing in volume by the day. Their claims were wild, outrageous, but so common and consistent that the Kind had begun to take notice. He had not yet taken any actions, but he listened to the tales, weighing each of them.

And then the missive had come, erasing any doubts from his mind and forcing him to face the truth. Either the Holy Father had gone mad, he was making a jest in the absolutely poorest taste possible, or he was telling the truth. And the more that Philip thought about it, the more that he realized that going to Rome was the only proper response to such a message, regardless of which of the three causes lay behind it. Whether madness, incompetence or Divine Will had driven Innocent III to send the missive mattered not. If the former two, the Holy Father had to be removed, by force if necessary. If the latter…

If the latter, than Philip would need his whole nation ready to march to war. It would be a simple enough task. His constant warring with the late Richard the Lionheart over Normandy and the surrounding regions had left him with a sizeable permanent army, battle-hardened veterans all, and despite Richard's death the truce that the two had agreed to the previous year was holding, regardless of the ongoing succession crisis in England, allowing him to have at least some confidence that he could pull men from the border garrisons without fear of invasion.

Philip was no stranger to war. In the two decades that he had held the throne, battle had been a near constant part of his life. There had been revolts by his vassals in Flanders, the constant battles with the English over Normandy and Aquitaine, and, of course, the gruelling campaigns of the Third Crusade. He had come face-to-face death from the Holy Land to Normandy, and many of the places in between, and so far escaped with his life. Philip knew war as well as any man alive.

But the coming war...if the Holy Father spoke true, then the coming war would be larger than all of those battles together, and more. It would be not for a single county, or even the Holy Land itself. No, if the Holy Father spoke true, then this would be a war for the entire world, fought against the Devil himself. It would be a war to shape the destiny of all of Europe, nay, all of mankind, and Philip did not dare say that he would stand aside. No, he would be there, leading the charge. He would fight, to the Gates of Hell themselves if need be. He would be known throughout the world, forever more, as one who had stood tall in the darkest hour, fearing no evil.

It would be his, and all of France's, finest hour...or their greatest defeat.

 

London

John, King of England, knew that he was unloved. He knew what his people called him when they thought that his ears would not hear. 'Lackland'. 'Softsword'. They said that he was weak. That he was incompetent. That he was a pale imitation of his late brother, and no more, a shadow that would never, could never compare. Many of those that said such things, in the hopes that he would be removed from the throne, had thrown their support behind Arthur of Brittany, his teenaged nephew, hoping that the crown of Richard would instead fall to the son of their treasonous and unmourned brother Geoffrey. And when he decided to negotiate with Arthur, and his sponsor, Philip of France, to avoid a long and bloody war that the nation had no reason to fight, they called him a coward, a scared boy running from a fight.

Why? Why did they hate him so? The obvious answer was that they loved his brother too much, and they pushed their grief unto his successor, their sadness turning into a bubbling rage in the process. John himself admitted that his own accomplishments paled in comparison to his late brother the Lionheart. The man had been a legend even while still alive, and the aura of glory around him only grew in death. But did they give him so much love that only hatred was left for John? Was that it?

Did they hate him for his attempt to restore order when the regents that Richard had left behind while he was Crusading proved incompetent? They called it a rebellion against the rightful King, but for many long years there had been no news of Richard. Was it not reasonable to assume that he had fallen on the Crusade, or was a prisoner rotting in some cell? Did they not remember that Richard himself had rebelled against their father, placing himself in allegiance with the French, the very same crime that they now accused John of? Did they forget that his brother had forgiven him for said crimes?

John was sure only of one thing: that the people of England, from the nobility down to the peasantry, seemed to utterly despise him. Their claims against him were utterly false: he was no coward or weakling, despite what they all might say. Had it not been he that held the line in Normandy, when the last war with France had been at its height? Had it not been he that had stormed Evreux Castle, and he who had pushed to within two days ride of Paris? Were his brother's accomplishments so legendary that all of his, great though they were, counted for utterly nothing in comparison?

Which was why, when John had received the Holy Father's missive, a feeling of utter ecstasy had come over him, a sense of utter relief in the fact that, yes, he would have a great destiny after all. Here was his moment. His chance. To show everyone, every peasant and lord, that he was not any less than a great man. That he was no weaker than his brother had been. That he was a worthy king.

His messenger had gone out swiftly. William, the 1st Earl of Pembroke, had already arrived in London, ready to fight for his King. Others would be soon to follow. This Crusade would be far greater than his brother's and the honor to be won at its forefront would be far beyond what the Lionheart had been given. Yes, he would answer the Pope's call, with an army greater than any that his brother had ever raised. He would lead the charge against the darkness, gaining glory that would put his brother's to shame. No longer would he be 'Lackland' or 'Softsword.' No, his people would see his greatness, and they would realize that he was just as deserving of their love as his brother had been.

And then John, not Richard, would be remembered as England's greatest King.

 

Mainz

The atmosphere was tense, so much so that Archbishop Conrad of Wittelsbach thought that the air could be cut with a sword. But he would have been surprised if it was any other way. The two men that this meeting had been arranged between, Philip of Swabia and Otto IV of the House of Welf, were at each other's throats, to say the least. And who could blame them? It was not often that the powers of the Holy Roman Emperor were within reach. He had tried to mediate between them before, to no avail. Power, especially as much power as was wielded by an Emperor, was not something that any man would give up lightly. With such a power within their grasp, neither man had been willing to yield.

Hopefully (although Conrad would hesitate to use the word 'hope' in a time such as this), the situation had shifted enough that the two would at least listen to reason. He would find out soon enough. Their heralds had arrived not an hour before: Philip and Otto, they both said, were not far behind, but taking extra caution in the uncertain times. Conrad had simply nodded when he had received the messages, and silently prayed that the caution was not being taken against each other.

His thoughts were interrupted by a commotion coming from the outer hall. The Archbishop rolled his eyes. Well, at least they had arrived safely. He made his way to the door, trying his best to ignore the ongoing, and escalating, shouting match coming from the other side. Sighing, he pulled open the door, and was greeted by the sight of two men in the finest dress, accompanied by a small army's worth of bodyguards each, and neither looking particularly happy to see the other.

The argument, which Conrad did not care in the least about, ended the moment that they both realized that the door was open. Silence fell in the hall. Seeing that neither man seemed willing to break it, Conrad did it himself.

"My Lords," he said, bowing slightly, a gesture that the two nobles, as well as their entourages, reflected, "I am glad that you have both arrived safely. I would ask that you would refrain from trying to kill each other as long as you are within my home; my servants have cleaned enough refuse from my floors as is. Now, come with me. We have much to discuss."

He turned without another word, only beckoning for Philip and Otto to follow. They walked behind him in silence, the only sounds within the halls of Conrad's home being the stomping of feet. He lead them deeper into the bowels of the building, finally reaching a small inner chamber. Both men, at least, understood the implication of meeting in such a small room, and left their weapons and guards outside.

The three men sat around a small, round table, the room illuminated only by candlelight. Silence reigned again. When neither of the perspective Emperors looked willing to speak, Conrad again took it upon himself to begin the dialogue.

"Let us pray that your guards don't kill each other before we're finished," he began, absentmindedly sitting down, "and let us also do away with the formalities. All of us know why I called this council," he continued, pulling from his robes the Papal Missive and placing it on the table. Philip and Otto both looked at him a moment, before reaching into their own robes and revealing their copies, also placing them before the others in the room.

"This Revelation...I believe that the Holy Father speaks true. I take it that you believe the same, it you are willing to come here to discuss it, yes?" When both men nodded, Conrad let out a sigh.

"Will neither of you say anything? If I wished to speak to silence, I have walls that I could talk to."

Both looked slightly taken aback at this response. They glanced at each other momentarily, before Philip of Swabia cleared his throat and began to speak.

"He speaks true. I have seen the new mountains with my own eyes, rising out of the Alps, and the scouts that I have sent south return with reports of the monsters and demons. I do not doubt the Holy Father's message."

"Good. Now that we agree on its authenticity, let us move on to larger tasks. I have called this council because I feared that the two of you would be more worried about each other than the task at hand."

"Can you blame us?" That was Otto, speaking at last. He cast an accusing look at Philip. "When men go against the will of the Holy Father? How can such men be trusted?"

"Or when men are crowned without regalia, and only after another man was elected!" Philip retorted, a burning look in his eyes.

Otto rose from his chair, fists clenched, and Philip did the same. Conrad, too, rose, and slammed his fists into the table, shouting "Enough!" at the top of his lungs. The Emperors stopped for a moment and looked at him, both breathing heavily.

Conrad signalled for both of them to return to their seats. A long moment passed before, begrudgingly, they did so. A bitter chuckle escaped the Archbishop's lips.

"I see that my fears are true," he said, lowering himself into his own seat. "Now, may we continue, please?" Both men nodded. Sighing, Conrad placed a hand on his forehead.

"Well, then, back to silence." He looked both men over again. There was still a simmering rage in their eyes, but there was something else as well. It took a moment to place, but Conrad soon realized that it was stress. He felt a sudden burst of pity for the would-be Emperors. Neither had hoped to take the crown. Neither of them had been likely choices for the position, or indeed wanted it: Otto's brother, Henry, had been the more likely choice, but he had been off on a Crusade at the time of the election; Philip had only intended that his nephew, the son of the late Emperor, be crowned. But both had found themselves thrust forwards towards the throne, and now both were loath to lose their chances on it. And now, a calamity beyond all reckoning had come upon the world. Was there any reason to doubt that they would be nearing wits end?

Conrad sighed again before continuing. "I called you here so that I could be sure that you would not murder each other in Rome. I still hope that that can be accomplished. But I have seen enough today that I doubt that we can accomplish much more here, yes?"

Both men nodded, and the Archbishop continued again. "We must be ready. The call has be sent and we must answer. Both of you must raise every man that you can. Those that have sworn their allegiance to you will likely have received their own missives, but call them up anyways. They must know as much as we can tell them."

Conrad paused briefly. They were at least paying attention to him. That was something. "The reason that I called you both here is so that I can be sure that neither of you is raising your army to strike at the other instead of the Devil. I know that it will be tempting to do so. But you cannot move against each other now, nor fear that the other is moving against you. I doubt that we can afford such disunity. So I would like both of you to swear to me, and each other: that you will have a truce against each other, at least until this threat is dealt with. Understood?"

Both men looked at him then, the emotion in their eyes certainly not one of goodwill. They were also resolutely not looking at each other. Conrad growled.

"For the love of God, men! Can you not see that this is bigger than either of you!? Did neither of you actually read the message!? The whole damn world is at stake! These are the end times, and yet here you are, behaving like petty children! Have you not minds to reason with!? Even this call is not answered, there won't be an Empire left to rule! Do you not understand even that!?"

The Archbishop hadn't realized that he had taken to his feet. He panted, looking between the two men. They looked somewhat stunned at his outburst. Growling again, he returned once more to his seat. Under his breath, he added, "And they would call either of you an Emperor." He chuckled slightly at the thought. It was a bitter sound. Hollow.

Philip and Otto, for their parts, looked at each other, then at the Archbishop, then back at each other. Then, Otto reached out his hand towards his enemy, slowly and hesitantly, and never breaking his stare at the other man. Taking a deep breath, Philip responded in kind, and the two men grasped forearms, tightly and rigidly, both trying to bore a hole in the other's head with their eyes alone.

Conrad let out a small laugh. When they turned to him, their eyes still burning, he only laughed again.

"So, miracles do happen," the Archbishop chuckled, a warmer sound than before, but still sounding hollow. "Well then? What are you waiting for? Go home! Raise your armies! There is much work to be done. It would be best to get a quick start."

The two would-be Emperors nodded, breaking their grasp on each other. They both made for the door, almost running over each other in their haste. When both started gesturing at the door, Conrad saw the inevitable coming and intervened, opening it himself. Philip and Otto filed out after him, both going to their entourages and rapidly giving orders. As they did so, the Archbishop reflected that these two men might be their greatest hopes against the coming storm.

And may God help them all if that was true.

 

Seville

Muhammad al-Nasir, Caliph of the Almohads, was still unsure of what to think of his guests. They were...strange, to say the least. The small man, who called himself Radagast the Brown, was more so than the other. He dressed only in shabby rags, and leaned heavily on his staff, a piece of gnarled brown wood. His scent was terrible, and he seemed permanently distracted. Birds and other small animals followed him everywhere, indoors and out, and he constantly mumbled to himself, staring into the rock embeded in the tip of his staff.

The other guests were less strange, but no more normal. In truth, they were outright terrifying. Muhammad had seen with his own eyes what these beasts (and they were beasts, just ones in the form of men) could do, when they had torn through the circle of monsters that had encircled Seville like axes though dead wood. Even in their human forms, they towered over the people of Seville like giants. Their leader, called Grimbeorn, was an utter titan, half again as tall as Muhammad himself when not in the shape of a bear, his arms as thick as tree trunks. Even as allies, he and his people were terrifying.

At least they were insocial, preferring instead to drive off any beasts that dared stray too close to the city, so their frightening presence was not so sharply felt within the city. Muhammad, as a consequence, spent much more time conferring with Radagast, the two trying to discern what had happened to bring their worlds together. Strange though he was, the small, shabby man had proved himself to be quite wise, and even more curious, and the Caliph of the Almohads thanked Allah for his presence. There were those in the court that were more wary of the man, and Muhammad himself could not say truthfully that he fully trusted him, but the two were certainly not enemies.

He had learned much from the self-proclaimed Wizard, his learning aided by the fact that Radagast's grasp of Arabic seemed to grow with leaps and bounds each passing day. He learned of the nature of the forest, of how it had once been a great and beautiful place, before a fell evil had twisted it to darkness. He learned of the great fortress of shadow within its heart, Dol Guldur, a place of torment and hellish evil. He learned of the unspeakable evil that had been rising in Radagast's world just before he had found himself here, and how the wizard still felt the same evil presence in this one.

Muhammad took note of all of this, and steeled himself to face the coming trials. It was as he had feared: the battle fought here would only be the first of many to come, regardless if the forest alone had come to this world or not. With the siege broken, the Caliph of the Almohads took action. Scouts went out both north and south, from the sea to the border of Castile, seeking the edge of the forest, while messengers rode hard for Cadiz, carrying calls to arms back towards Morocco.

He did not idly wait within Seville for replies. Supplies and reinforcements were already being brought up from Cadiz, as well as from further afield. The great city had held once, and the morale of the men rode high on such an accomplishment. The Caliph would not concede the ground, made holy by the sacrifice of his men. No, Seville would become his great bulwark, his rock, his anchor against the storm. He would not let it fall without making the enemy pay a price of blood beyond reckoning.

Despite all the progress made, a tinge of despair remained in Muhammad's heart. He knew why, of course: he stood alone. No allies were near enough to aid him, and despite Radagast's pleas he would not yet go grovelling to the heathens for help. There was too much bad blood there, too many battles and wars. He would call on them if the situation became desperate enough, but things were not yet so bleak. Not a single man from Africa, the heartland of his realm, had yet fought, and it would be a long time before times grew dire enough for him to call upon the Crusader Kingdoms to save him. And Africa was rich, with many veteran soldiers and supplies to throw into the fight. It would form the core of his fighting forces, the backbone of his armies. The Caliphate of the Almohads, stretching from the Sahara desert to the heart of Al-Andalus, was mightier than the realms to the north. If its full might could be brought to bear, Muhammad could drive back this darkness himself.

Yes, as long as Africa could be relied upon, he could hold.

 

Mazovia

Jakub Kowalsky was still alive, but he would have almost preferred death. The key word in that sentence being 'almost', as the probable cause of his demise would have been one that he wouldn't have wished on his worst enemy. Every night when he had rested, his dreams had carried him back to Krakow, to the Demons overrunning the wall, the giants that crushed men beneath their feet like ants, to the screams of the Devil, paralyzing all that had heard it. He had woken screaming more nights than not.

At least he had awoken. High Duke Leszek, and all those that had stayed behind with him, would not rise again until Judgement Day, which, Jakub thought morbidly, might be closer at hand than he thought. But they had done their duty, it seemed: those fleeing the city had done so unmolested, the monsters apparently more focused on wiping out the High Duke's last stand. The weather, too had been with them, a few small storms doing much to cover their tracks as the remnant of the people of Krakow had fled north.

The Fall of Krakow had left Lesser Poland all but defenseless, the legions of Hell now moving unchecked across the plains, destroying all in their path. Those that could fled north, stumbling through the winter landscape with whatever meagre supplies and valuables that they could carry in their hands or small carts. They abandoned whatever might slow them in their desperate flight, the roads being lined with at best the refuse and litter of those that had escaped, at worst the corpses of those that did not.

Jakub himself now languished in a growing camp in Mazovia. He felt that he would not be languishing for much longer. Not the day before, a herald of Conrad, Duke of Mazovia, had come to the camp, asking that all able bodied men be ready to assemble in three days time. An alliance, he said, was forming, between Mieszko the Old of Greater Poland, Conrad of Mazovia and Roman the Great of Volhynia. The three nobles had all heard the of the disaster that had befallen Lesser Poland, and knew of the monsters and demons that had spilled forth onto the green earth. It was hoped, and prayed for, that, together, their three nations could contain the might of Hell from expanding further, at least until nations further afield had been warned, long enough for all of Christendom to march as one against the threat…

Apparently, survivors from Krakow were now in the highest demand from Mieszko, Conrad and Roman, their experience in facing the legions of Hell now worth more than their weight in gold. Jakub had no desire to face the monsters again, but now he found himself being called upon. Satan's army would not stop at Lesser Poland, he realized. If they were not stood against, they would not stop anywhere, going out from their Black Gate until the whole world was consumed.

The terrors of Krakow tempted Jakub to think that the fight was one without hope. He had seen the horrors that the monster commanded, the power of their masters, first hand, and had seen how futile the efforts of men had been against such evil. But even as there were whispers of horror, of Hell and all its might, there were stories of hope, things to draw strength and courage from, that encouraged men to stand up and fight. These legends of battle began to overtake the horror stories, the light returning to the people for the first time since the storm had come. Tales circulated the camp, of how Leszek the White had cut down a giant alone, of captain that had held a bridge over the Vistula by himself while covering the retreat back to the fortress, of men who had cut down a dozen or more of the demons before falling themselves. They told the tales of the valiant fallen, tales that seemed to grow in the telling, but that many swore before God were true. They were tales of faith, of defiance, of courage. Above all, they were tales of hope, that gave the survivors of Lesser Poland the strength to carry on even now.

But the most hopeful of all came not from the survivors. It came from the courts of the nobles, apparently, a hopeful whisper that was giddy in the telling. They said that the Holy Father had heard of all the horrors, and that already, a great Crusade, even greater than those that had gone to reclaim the Holy Land, was being assembled, from all the nations of Christendom. The even more extravagant stories claimed that the Pope had spoken with God Himself, and that he had been given a Holy Revelation to the coming War, that The Lord Almighty had sent His messengers to aid them. And that was when Jakub remembered something, something that he had always been taught, something that he couldn't believe he had allowed himself to forget, something that kindled the fire within him anew, and gave him the courage and hope.

He remembered what was written: that God would never abandon his people, and that through him all things were possible. There were priests that went through the camp, saying these very things, encouraging the downtrodden, giving hope to the hopeless. They preached to those that had fallen into despair, into hopelessness, working to reignite the fire within them. And slowly, one by one, these broken men rose up, pulled from the ground by the the tales of hope that now surrounded them. He saw the fire burning within them, the fire of the Lord Almighty, giving them hope, courage and strength. He watched as those that had seen nightmares beyond imagining rose once more for battle, to stand against the coming horrors. There had been a call to arms.

And Jakub Kowalsky watched as it was answered.

Chapter Text

February 6, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Cumania

 

Here, in the wild steppes of the east, tales of what had happened in Europe spread across the land as fast as the riders could carry them. The whispers from the west grew more common and louder by the day, stories of raging storms, mightier than any ever before; of black mountains that rose out of nothing;  evil spirits given flesh. Konchek, son of Otrok, Khan of the Terteroba Clan, knew well of the tales by now. He made it his business to know the happenings of the realms to the west, so that he could know when to strike against them and when to bide his time. Now, though, the tales he heard were those that he could scarcely believe. But he had consulted the shamans about the tales, those wise men who could pierce the veil between flesh and spirit, and what they spoke of did nothing to dispel his fears. Instead, they told him of the ill omens that they had seen: The sky to the west going dark, Tengri’s eternal blue sky blocked by clouds as black as night that blown over the lands by fell winter winds; the strange behaviors of the dogs and the horses and the cattle, who seemed to smell something evil on the breeze; the signs that they had found within the entrails of their sacrifices, always of blood and fire and approaching death. The shamans had asked the Spirits many questions, from every method that was known to them, but had found no answers, only a message that dark times were ahead. 

 

The Son of Otrok’s heart filled with dread at such words. He had been raised and bred in the faith of the steppes, of the tides of nature and the spirits, and he was loathe to ignore what those that peered into the world beyond told him they had seen. He tried to take the consul of others, to find someone, anyone that might give him different tidings, but none could be found. He did not look for any that would willing lie about the omens, or those that would conceal the truth from him, far from it: Konchek had not lived on the steppes for near half a century by ignoring the words of the wise and showing disdain for the spirits. But he had hoped that in their words he could find a light in the darkness, a fire to hold back the shadow he suddenly felt was assailing his soul. What he had found instead had only invited it in.

 

The Khan did what he could, of course, to find comfort for himself, but that amounted to little: sending riders to find further news out of the west and searching for further omens were near the only courses available to him. He told none of what he had heard, still hardly willing to believe it himself. He tried occupying himself with his works, with hunting and caring for his horses and with his day to day affairs, attempting to keep his heart from obsessing itself with the omens. It was a losing effort. Even with only whispers and omens to go on, dread of what might be coming filled his heart, plaguing his thoughts with visions of fire and death. Sleep evaded him, and what little of it he found was plagued with nightmares, dreams of a nameless terror that followed him into his waking hours.

 

This particular night was no different. Konchek lay in his bed, his eyes wide, staring at nothing in particular. His thoughts came and went like a roaring river, passing through his mind faster than the swiftest steed. The black sky, the tales of evil Spirits given flesh, the hounds smelling darkness on the wind...thoughts of such things swirled through his mind, coming and going and coming again. His sense of time seemed to pass away, lost in the whirlwind of fear and questions. He lay there a long time, aware of nothing but his own thoughts.

 

And suddenly, he was no longer in his bed. There was a sudden jolt, as if he had awoken from a long dream, and Konchek found himself suddenly out in the middle of a great field. Startled, the Son of Otrok took in his surrounding. He was standing in a green plain of yawshan grass, that familiar covering of the steppes, that stretched without end far beyond the edge of his vision. Looking up, he saw that it was as light as midday, yet there was no sun in the sky. He turned his gaze to the ground, and at his feet the grass moved like waves in the ocean, the breeze blowing in his hair as it did the grass. So, too, could he feel his own hands as he felt his flesh, solid as it had ever been. He felt his tunic across his soldiers, the sandals on his feet, the warmth of summer on his skin. He could smell the familiar scent of the steppes, could taste the dust in the air. The Khan felt fully awake, and yet…

 

And yet, how could it not be a dream? It was winter in his lands, not summer. It was not so warm in the steppes this time of year, nor did the sun shine so brightly, nor were the fields so alive. And how could he have been brought to this place if it was not unreal? Where could he be standing but within his own thoughts, unless some evil spell had been weaved upon him?

 

“This is no evil spell, Konchek, son of Otrok, but you are right that I have brought you away from your home.”

 

Konchek whirled around at the answer to his thoughts, his body tensing. Behind him, where there had been nothing but the endless field a moment before, stood a woman, hands held up in a gesture of peace. She was simple yet beautiful in garb and appearance, with a green dress woven from what looked to be single vine, and golden hair that shone like the sun. Her face seemed to slightly shift with each passing moment, so that Konchek could not quite discern her features, but a serene smile stayed fixed upon her.

 

Nodding to him, the woman continued: “Peace, Khan of the Tertoba Clan. For I am no foe of yours, and you are no foe of mine.”

 

“Who are you?” the Khan asked, suspicion in his voice, “and what have you done to me?”

 

The woman laughed slightly, taking a few steps towards him. “Who am I? I am the one who planted the first trees, and cared for them as they grew, and I care for them still. It was the fruits of my labor that became the sun and the moon. You know me as the Spirit of the Earth, the mother of all things that grow. As to what I have done to you, I have only come before you to deliver a warning, which you may heed or you may not.”

 

“So you claim to be Eje, then? What proof have you of such a great claim?”

 

“When you have heard my message, I will leave for you my sign. But time is short, and there is much to be told. Will you listen?”

 

Konchek weighed his options. She was a Spirit, certainly, if she was appearing to him like this. The question was to whether she was one of Good or Evil. But in either case, he saw little that he could do. Wherever his Spirit had been brought, he doubted that he could leave without permission. His choice, then, had been made for him. All that he could do, it seemed, was to hope for the best.

 

“Alright," he said haltingly, his wariness dominating his tone, "I will hear your message, Spirit. Tell it quickly. But know that if you deceive me, you will regret doing so, no matter how powerful you are.”

 

The Woman smile, and moved to stand before him. "I am no deceiver, Konchek. I am here to warn you of the one that is."  She reached out to him then, continuing to speak. “Take my hand for it is better for me to show you the coming danger than it is simply to tell of it.”

 

Konchek hesitated for a moment, before reaching out his own hand to grasp hers, seeing no other option. When he did so, the scenery around him changed. The first thing that he noted the smell that filled the air, of smoke and ash and blood. Next he heard the screams, of agony and fear, sounding out from all sides. Looking around, he saw that he was now standing in the center of a small village, most of it burning, and all around, he saw people, many of them maimed and bleeding, all fleeing in any direction they could. Their cries were ones of terror, and in their eyes he saw nothing but stark fear.

 

A moment later, Konchek saw why. Behind the fleeing crowds came into view a line of hideous and deformed men, their eyes red and wild, their faces and limbs grotesquely shaped, like they had been made as a vile mockery of men. They carried with them savage and twisted weapons of war, and they cut down any that they could reach, sounding and looking like wild beasts as they did. Some of them rode massive wolves, with mottled fur and teeth like daggers, running down those that tried in vain to flee, driving wicked spears into them or tearing them apart with their claws.

 

“What is this madness?” Konchek whispered, in both horror and awe

 

The vision changed then, and now he saw a great city astride a river, its Citadel upon a hill. As he watched, an army of the savages marched upon it, storming its walls and battering down its gates, tearing apart all who resisted them with their swords and spears and ever their teeth. Among them were giants, as tall as three men, who held tree trunks like clubs and crushed men like insects. The men of the city tried to resist, but against the savage horde they could do little. Konchek watched as they were slaughtered without mercy, cut down where they stood.

 

Then he heard a terrible scream, a sound of pure hatred and malice that felt like a knife being driven into his very soul, forcing ice into his veins and freezing his heart and mind. Looking upwards, he saw a Black Spirit, faceless and in black robes, riding atop a terrible winged serpent, larger than any beast that the Khan of the Tertoba had ever seen. It had wicked claws that grabbed men where they stood, paralyzed with fear.

 

Then he saw the ruins of the city, and what little was left was ablaze. In its streets were mounds of corpses, upon which stood the twisted and wicked men, who drove their blades and spears into those that remained alive. Their roars of victory sounded out like thunder, echoing in all directions. The giants smashed down buildings that sheltered those that had tried to hide from the savages, exposing them to the wrath of the twisted men. In the heart of the city, standing on the ruins of what was once its Citadel, Konchek saw the Black Spirit, who gazed out over the city in silence, a sound like hateful laughter seeming to emanate from them. All around, the savages continued their celebration, tearing down and burning all that they could reach.

 

“What is this evil you show me, woman?” Konchek said, his heart filling with fear, turning to the Woman, a terrified look upon his face.

 

“It is the evil of the Abhorred One” the Woman replied, her voice tinged with sadness. “He is the darkest of all the Black Spirits, master of all the twisted men and giants and even the one who rides the serpent. And now he has come into this world, to bring it to ruin. Already, his hordes march across this earth, burning down all that they find and slaughtering all those that would resist. And if they give mercy, then those that receive it shall wish for death.”

 

The scene shifted again, and the Khan now saw a line of men and women, bound in chains. The savage men were leading them, beating any that slowed in their march, finishing those that could go no further with the sword or the spear or the axe. The latter of these, Konchek saw, were left at the side of the road to rot if they were fortunate. If not, he saw the savages take knives and hatchets and cut apart the bodies. Some of the meat they threw to their wolves. The rest was kept for themselves.

 

Another change. Now a different group of men and women, still bound and chained, still watched by the hideous ones. They were building a road, Konchek saw, one that wound through a scarred and burning landscape, and he could feel a hellish heat upon his face. As he looked upon them, he saw the people choking, their lungs filling with ash and dust. He was many collapse, unable to breath, and the savages watching them would beat them and prod them until they rose again or until they would rise no more. Those that perished were not cast aside, though: he saw them thrown into the path of the road, to be used as mortar for the stones.

 

“This may become the fate of all,” said the Woman, here voice thick with sorrow. “The Abhorred will enslave any that he does not put to the sword. All in the world, every last man, woman and child will be bound if the Dark One is not stopped. The whole earth will become choked in his ashes.”

 

“And how do we stop this?” Konchek asked, fear filling his voice. “What may men, any men, do against such evil?”

 

“This is not a battle without hope,” she replied, smiling again, her face still full of sorrow. “The way to victory has been laid out, and the route, while dangerous, is not impossible. But the path will take time to walk: until then, the line must be held. That is the quest that I give you, Konchek, son of Otrok: to take up arms, and hold back the growing tide. Call all those that you know of to you; they may not listen, but you must speak anyways. Tell them of what I have shown you. Lead them against the shadow. That shall be your duty in these times. Others will walk the path to the Dark One’s destruction: you must aid in giving them a victory worth winning. But before you begin, I must give you a final warning.”

 

His surroundings changed again. He was back in the steppes now, and a cold wind blew through the night. Gazing into the darkness, Konchek saw a Black Spirit, like the one he had seen upon the serpent, and they were riding a black horse, with eyes red like blood. As he watched, the Black Spirit rode through the wilds, and in their wake he saw the grass behind him wither and die, and whenever they paused for more than a moment Konchek saw all sorts of worms and insects crawl from the ground at the feet of his mount, gnawing at its hooves and making the ground around them turn black.

 

“Not only in the sword is the shadow’s might,” the woman said, pointing out the rider. “He sends out his agents even now, to deceive any that they might find. They look for those that might be corrupted, might bow down and worship the dark. The Abhorred looks to consume their spirits, and twist them into slaves to his will. This one, among others, comes for your people. They seek one to use as a tool, a weapon to bring your people to their knees.”

 

“And who is it that they seek? Who among my people would betray us to the dark?”

 

The Woman opened her mouth to speak, but then suddenly tensed, a wary look coming to her face. “I have lingered too long,” she said, a slight nervous tone to her voice. “His gaze is turning towards you. I must take my leave, before he places his vision upon you. Heed my message, Konchek. Before it is too late.”

 

“Wait!” Konchek called, reaching out to her, but the Woman was already gone. Not half a moment later, where she had been standing burst into orange flames, and the Khan of the Tertoba Clan felt as if his flesh was burning. As Konchek watched in horror, the flames took shape, and in the blink of an eye a great burning sphere was before him. Terrified, the Son of Otrok could do nothing as the shape morphed, and the heart of the sphere turned black as night, the fire becoming like a piercing eye, gazing into his soul. Paralyzed, Konchek began to scream as the eye grew larger, threatening to consume him, and in his mind he heard a terrible voice, whispering in a scream: I SEE YOU.

 

Konchek was still screaming when he opened his eyes and found himself sitting upright, back in his own bed. It took him a moment to realize that the burning eye was no longer before him. Panting, Konchek worked to calm himself, looking around at his surroundings. Yes, this was his dwelling, for there was his armor, there were his robes, and there his sword and shield. But something was different. It took a moment to place what, but then he realized that all around him, scattered about the tent, were wild flowers, of many hues and sizes, each and all in full bloom, even now in the cold of winter.

 

When you have heard my message, I will leave for you my sign. The woman’s words to him echoed in his mind. Standing, Konchek walked over and took one of the flowers in his hands, examining it. It was as green and healthy as any that he had ever seen, with not the slightest marking upon it. The Khan took a deep breath. She had been true in her claims, then. Eje the Earth Mother had come to him. And the message that he had been given was terrible indeed. Taking a deep breath, Konchek began to collect his thoughts.

 

At that moment, the flap of his tent was thrown open and into his room stormed his personal guard, a dozen men built like oxes and armed to the teeth. They were clearly expecting assassins and a battle: they waved their blades in the air, battlecries on their lips, searching the room for intruders.Startled, Konchek almost fell to the ground, stumbling slightly as he tried to maintain his balance. The commander of his guard took notice of him and spoke.

 

“My Lord, are you alright? We heard you screaming.”

 

The Khan paused before responding, still looking at the flower. The man spoke again.

 

“My Lord?”

 

Konchek turned to his captain, his face ashen. “No, my friend. No, I am not alright. Soon enough, none of us will be.”

 

The man stared after him, a questioning look on his face. Konchek sat down, the man’s eyes still on him. He continued to breath deeply, still trying to settle his thoughts.

 

“Send out riders,” The son of Otrok began finally, his breathing finally coming under control “Tonight, if possible. Send them to everyone, every last clan and hut. Summon them all. They are needed.”

 

“All of them, my Lord? Even the likes of Gzak and Kobyak? ”

 

All of them, my brother. The Kor, the Iiunesuk, the Berish, the Hotan...everyone. Before it is too late.”

 

The man nodded slowly, and he and his men turned and shuffled out of the tent. The Khan watched them go, listening to their question as they went. Then hunched over, his face in his hands, his mind trying to process the events that he had been shown. He breathed hard, his body shuddering. He felt the winter wind blowing through the open flap of his tent, and its cold felt deadlier, and eviler, than it ever had before.

 

For before, he had not known the evil that would come upon it.

Chapter Text

February 7, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

Hungary

Kulin, Ban of Bosnia, was an unhappy man. A certain kind of anger burned in his heart, a simmering rage that was directed against the his current lot in life in general. In large part, it was aimed at his nominal overlord, the self-proclaimed King Andrew of Hungary. The 'King' had ordered him to march out to his aid in 're-establishing order' in his own lands, demanding that his nominal vassal raise his forces and join him. In full truth, the Ban of Bosnia had no true interest aiding the younger son of Bela III in claiming the Throne of Hungary, and did so only under the threat of Hungarian invasion hanging over his head. Kulin had little desire to throw his lot in with the loser of the previous succession crisis, and even with the Hungarians breathing down his neck he had tarried and dawdled in raising his levies, and was lethargic in marching the forces he did eventually assemble over the border into Hungary. The Ban of Bosnia had been in no hurry to aid his 'overlord,' promised rewards be damned.

Of course, his damnable luck could not allow his life to be so simple as to allow him to simply ignore the call outright, and since his last meeting with the self-proclaimed King the situation had changed enough that he doubted that he could ignore it at all. His agents in the east reported that the armies of Bulgaria and Serbia, much like 'King' Andrew, were seeking to exploit the chaos unfolding in Hungary, and a combined army of Serbs and Bulgars was now marching northwest into Hungarian lands, their path bringing them dangerously close to the Bosnian border.

This was not enough for Kulin to massively change his opinion of his new Hungarian master, certainly, but it was definitely enough to bring about a change in the speed at which he mobilized his forces in the aid of said master. As much as he did not enjoy being brought under the thumb of Hungary, it would be a better alternative than being subjected by either of his eastern neighbors. Hungary, at least, was apathetic towards his self-rule, Andrew being more worried about securing his own rule and Emeric seeing him as a useful buffer against the Serbs and especially the Bulgars. Stefan, and especially Kaloyan, on the other hand, was actively expansionist, the former trying to establish themselves as more than a pawn of larger and stronger nations and the later seeking to turn the breakaway state that he had inherited from his brothers into a true Empire, and not caring who's corpse he had to march over to do so. If the Tsar of the Bulgars seized control of the region, the Ban of Bosnia had no illusions about how much sovereignty he would retain under his reign.

And so Kulin swallowed his pride and marched out his army, bound for Esztergom. He did not have the strength to challenge the combined might of Serbia and Bulgaria alone, and he would be alone if Hungary was to fall. Despite his personal feelings towards the self-proclaimed King of Hungary, the Ban of Bosnia had not retained his independence in the ever-chaotic Balkans by ignoring his wisdom. If he could not stand alone, then he would have to stand with 'King' Andrew. His pride could not be allowed to doom his people to the subjugation of the Bulgars.

If, for the moment, that meant aiding the self-proclaimed King of Hungary, than so be it.

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

There were many reason that Grand Prince Stefan of Serbia marched into Hungary at the head of his army, Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria by his side. In his heart, he told himself that he marched to bring to peace to a land that had exploded into chaos, to give security and leadership to a people whose King had apparently vanished, to restore order to a realm in turmoil. In his mind, he acknowledged that his motives were to stop the flood of refugees that came without ceasing from the northwest, to secure lands that were historically more Serbian than Hungarian, to show his strength to the court of Serbia, so as to secure his grasp on the throne of Serbia against the machinations of his elder brother Vukan.

Whatever his motive, the Grand Prince of Serbia was here now, and a creeping sense of worry had slowly worked its way into his heart. He had seen for himself the Black Mountains that had sprung out of the earth, dark and foreboding, and had heard without end the tales that came from those fleeing towards his lands, of monsters and demons that slaughtered and burned all that they could reach. And the more he saw and heard, the more he came to believe that such tales contained some amount of truth.

Such tales terrified him. He came from a house of Pious men, both his father (also named Stefan) and his younger brother Ratko renouncing all their titles and holdings and entering the monastic life. He had been tempted to do so himself, but his father had willed that he, his second son, should rule, and the responsibilities of the throne had precluded within the younger Stefan any desire to abdicate. Now, as Grand Prince of Hungary, he wondered whether or not his father and brother had had the right idea in renouncing all of their titles and becoming monks, and if he should have done the same. Certainly, it would have have made his own life easier, and perhaps Vukan would have made a better leader for the people, especially in a time such as this.

But no. It was he that was here, not his father or either of his brothers. It was upon his shoulders that this weight now fell. It was his mind that filled with dread when he thought of the Legions of Hell that might lurk in these lands. For the moment, at least, he could turn his mind from such thoughts: there was a much more immediate issue. Their agents to the south and west reported that the younger brother of the King of Hungary had managed to raise an army out of Slavonia and Croatia, and that the Ban of Bosnia was now racing northwards to join forces with him. They, too, marched into what remained of the Kingdom of Hungary, eager to secure a foothold in the chaotic region.

While the Grand Prince of Serbia's motives for marching into Hungary were more clouded, and possible more benevolent, those of the Tsar of Bulgaria were plain conquest, and Kaloyan did not take this perceived threat lightly to his gains lightly. Stefan advocated for consolidating their gains and preparing defenses; Kaloyan desired to march west and engage the Hungarians and Bosnians before they could pose a threat. The Tsar saw opportunity here: if the armies of Kulin and Andrew could be broken, perhaps all of Hungary would become ripe for the taking, and the western borders of the Bulgarian Empire could be forever secured.

His argument for a generation's security and peace against their foes to the west was rather compelling, as was the fact that the Tsar of Bulgaria provided the majority of the troops that composed their combined army. It was Kaloyan's plan that would be followed Hesitantly, with dread clawing at the edges of his heart, Stefan had followed, loathe to separate from the Bulgarians, afraid of what may lay in these lands.

He tried to keep his mind away from darker thoughts, focusing instead on how he would face the Hungarians and Bosnians when he encountered them. He wished to simply dig in in the lands that they had claimed, and wait for the Catholics to come to them. But he also heard the talks of the men, who spoke of smashing the Hungarians to pieces and conquering all lands that were rightfully Serbian or Bulgar. Now, moving deeper into the depths of a foreign country, the Grand Prince of Serbia realized that he could not simply back down. The men would sneer at him. Vukan would have him slandered as a coward, Kaloyan as too weak of an ally to be left without 'aid.' Despite his fears, he would have to march. With the eyes of his nation and his allies upon them, he could not be found cowering.

No, when the battle came, he would have to fight it.

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

Khamul, second among the Nazgul, pushed southwards, destroying all in his path. His orders had been altered. Originally, he was to simply subjugate this land, destroying any that might resist and putting the rest in chains. There was to be no great battle here, not yet at least. He was to take whatever he could hold in his hands, and no more. The Dark Lord's orders were explicit: under no circumstances was he to overextend his lines.

But now Sauron's long gaze foresaw and opportunity. The Burning Eye had seen that the nations of men that called these lands home were already mustering their forces, and preparing for war and now four armies of men were marching into the realm that they called Hungary. They were a pitiful assembly, led by petty men that were more likely to tear each other apart than pose any serious challenge to the might of Mordor, but the memory of Sauron was long. Although they currently marched against each other, it would not be the first time that armies opposed to each other had suddenly banded together against a greater threat. As one force, as the men and elves and dwarves had become at the Lonely Mountain all those decades before, they might prove...problematic.

Khamul, therefore, was to remove such problems. The second of the Nine was more than happy to follow his new orders. He would let these so-called 'Kings' bleed each other white, allowing them to spill their best blood for him. And once they had broken against each other, spending their strength, he would strike, breaking the spine of any potential resistance to his Master's might in this region. The 'Kings' that might dare stand against the Dark Lord would be destroyed, in one fell swoop.

And then there would be none to stand against the Shadow.

Andrew, the Self-Proclaimed King of Hungary, had been in a good mood. His march into the Hungarian heartland had come unopposed, all that he came across practically throwing themselves at his feet, thanking the Lord for his arrival. These people, many of whom had marched under his brother's banners five years before, now cheered for him, heaping praise and blessings upon him. With said brother missing, generally presumed dead, they turned now to him to be their lord, their protector, their leader. Their King. His heart had filled with joy and pride as he had marched through his lands, eager to claim his birthright.

But gradually, his mood was beginning to sour. It had began when his men had encountered a column of refugees coming from the direction of Esztergom, led by the Archbishop Job. While most of the column had been more than happy to see him, taking joy from the sense of security that he offered them with his arrival, much of the Royal Court...was not so joyful. The feeling was mutual: his brother had filled his court with those that had helped forced him into exile, and half a decade had not been nearly enough time for the feelings of ill-will to dispel.

At the moment, his beloved sister-in-law, Constance of Aragon, was being quite open with her dislike. Her first action upon seeing him walk through the temporary camp that had had sprung up where the army had met the refugees, her first action had been to slap him across the face. As Andrew massaged his stinging cheek, the Queen of Hungary fixed a burning gaze upon him, and soon she began to speak.

"How...dare...you," she seethed. "How dare you…"

"Save you?" Andrew interrupted. "Give you protection? Restore order? What possible fault can you find with such things, my dearest Constance? How can you deny the good that I have done?"

"I deny not the good you have done, Prince Andrew," she retorted, her eyes shooting daggers, "I deny the reward you claim for it!"

"You mean my birthright?"

"IT IS NOT YOURS!" Constance practically exploded, her veins bulging. "IT IS MY HUSBANDS'! THE THRONE IS HIS, SO LONG AS HE STILL LIVES!" She paused a moment, catching her breath.

"And he does still live." She practically whispered. Andrew noted that she had gone from about to attack him to practically about to cry. She looked him in the eye, her expression shifting back into one of anger. "I know it. And as long as he does, it is treason for you to have your heralds go out announcing you as King, Prince Andrew. Remember that."

With that, the Queen of Hungary turned and walked away, back towards the nobles of Esztergom. Andrew caught a glimpse of what he thought were tears as she did so.

"She is troubled enough. For God's sake, I ask that you do not add to them further.""

Andrew turned, and saw Job, the Archbishop of Esztergom coming towards him. Andrew nodded to the man, a small smirk on his lips. "I would give her such favor, Father, if she gave the same to me."

A dark look crossed the Holy Man's face, and he began to speak. "There are far darker things in motion than more machinations of the court, Andrew. The End Times have begun, and before the Lord passes Judgement on you, you would do well to prioritize your list of enemies. Queen Constance should not be on that list. Nor should any of your own people."

Andrew snorted. "And next you will tell me that I should allow the Bulgars and the Serbs to march through the Kingdom unchecked, or that I should allow the land to fall into utter chaos without a King!"

He laughed, and the Archbishop's frown grew deeper. Grunting, Andrew spoke again. "But perhaps you are right in some capacity. The Heretics should be put in their place first. They cannot be allowed to undermine my authority anymore than I would allow the vipers in the court to do so."

He turned to leave, planning to tell his commanders to ready to march eastwards, but Job caught his shoulder, and fixed a cold stare upon him. "Have you heard no new in the south of what has been unleashed?" He asked, his voice like steel, "Do you somehow not know of the evil that now rises?"

"Do not tell me…"

"That the Legions of Hell have been unleashed upon the earth? That the very world is at an end? I have seen the with my own eyes, Andrew, as have near all that I brought with me from Esztergom. They harried our whole march here, almost without ceasing. I swear before God that it is true, as would any man here."

Andrew paused, staring at the man. Job sighed in exasperation, then clutched Andrew's shoulders, looking into his eyes.

"It matters not that the Serbs and Bulgars have marched. In fact, all the better: if they join with you, you would stand a better chance. There are hordes of Demons marching south behind us. Their scouts cannot be more than a day behind us, and the body of their horde not more than three. This is not the time to allow your eyes to be clouded. Your mission must be clear."

Andrew grunted. "It is clear."

"Is it?," the Archbishop practically sneered, nearly spitting as he spoke. "What, pray tell, is your mission?"

"To restore order to the Kingdom. To protect its people."

"You claim that it is so, but you think that to do so you must seize the crown. Am I wrong?"

When Andrew didn't respond, Job sighed, taking a deep breath before speaking again. "You cannot worry about grasping the throne, not now. Within your reach or not, its reward is small against the reward of heaven, and if you insist on pursuing the throne like a wild beast pursues its prey than I assure you that heaven will be held beyond your reach. If you are here to protect the people of Hungary, than you cannot act in greed. You cannot act for yourself alone. You must act for the people that you claim to serve."

"And how, Archbishop," Andrew snapped, "would you have me act, that is not how I have already acted? Would you have me let let chaos reign here, as the court bickers and squabbles over who the true authority should be? Would you have me let the Bulgars and Serbs take what belongs by right to Hungary? Or would you let me restore the peace?"

"I would have you act like a King," Job replied simply, "for is that not what you wish to be? I say to you this: A King protects his people from the greatest threats before all else, no matter the cost to himself. It is his duty to do so. You yourself have stated what the mission of the Crown is: I implore only that you act upon it. It would be easiest to act if your heart was in the right place: if you fear more for your people than your throne, you will do more to act for the people than for yourself. But I do warn you: I would dare say that the Lord will cast out a King that ignores his duties and replace him with another, as he did to Saul and Ahab. You are no more special than they, and perhaps even less so."

Andrew fixed his on stare on Job now. "Was that a threat, Archbishop?"

"It was a warning. Here is another: the hearts of men are fickle. They turn easily to those that offer them protection, and easily away from those that abandon them. I ask you: do your people want protection from Serbs and Bulgars? Or from the Legions of Hell? The people will not appreciate you shielding them from one side while the scream for you to protect them from the other."

And with that, the Job turned and left, returning to his flock and leaving the self-proclaimed King of Hungary alone with his thoughts.

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

Emeric, the Crowned King of Hungary, was...uneasy. There were few other words that describe his situation so well. The Legions of Hell dominated the lands all around him, and his company had continued to dwindle, whittled down by small skirmishes and hunger and simple exhaustion. Now they were barely half-a-hundred in number, and with enough weapons to keep only two thirds of them in arms. What little food they had managed to scavenge was on the verge of running out, even after their mounts had been slaughtered for meat, and ever did the monsters hunt them.

The reason that the Crowned King of Hungary was only uneasy, and not terrified, was that he and those that remained with him had found respite. Or rather, respite had found them: a small army of strange men had stumbled across them some days before, saving them from a patrol of demons. They had ambushed the monsters, putting them down with ruthless efficiency, and no sooner had the last of the demons fallen then they came forwards with bandages and food for the men of Hungary. Their language was utterly alien, and their dress was not of any land that Emeric knew of, but they sheltered the King and his remaining company all the same. With them were also a slowly growing following of refugees, citizens of Hungary that assured Emeric that these men had protected them from the monsters, managing to drive away the demons and buy at least some safety for their charges.

The King of Hungary saw little choice but to trust these men: the alternative would be to continue stumbling blindly through the foothills, simply waiting for the demons to finish them off. No, this was better. What little communication could be passed between the people of Hungary and their mysterious saviors at least told them that the men would continue to protect them, and that they were looking for others to protect. The one that Emeric thought was their leader, for the strange men looked to him more than any other, had come to the King, and the King had thought that he had asked where they could go for supplies and reinforcements. And, Emeric hoped, he had asked where his people were, offering his aid to them in this time of desperate need.

And so Emeric, the King of Hungary, now led the strange company southwest, in the general direction of Slavonia and Croatia, where he hoped to find some form of sanctuary. He hoped, he prayed, that some of his realm remained yet beyond the reach of the Devil's hordes, and that seemed like the most likely spot. Idly, he realized that his best chance for survival may well have been his exiled brother, and a mirthless and bitter smile crossed his face at the thought of Andrew marching into Hungary at the head of an army, his greatest fear for much of the past half-decade suddenly becoming his greatest hope.

They marched on in silence, ever wary of the threats all around them, slowly making their way through the burned countryside of Hungary. As they did so, Emeric looked to his saviors, these strange men who bore the mark of a white tree under seven stars. He wondered who they were, why they were so quick to aid his people. He wondered where they had come from, and of the strange language they spoke. Were they simply a tribe of barbarians that he had never known of before? Were they natives of the black land, a resistance against the might of Satan? Or had God sent them, as a light against the darkness?

And if so, for what purpose?

 

Kiev

Brand, King of Dale, was not a man unfamiliar with war. Even the peaceful and prosperous times that he had inherited from his father and grandfather were not easily maintained, a lesson that the late King Bain had worked hard to instill in his son. Orcs and Goblins from the north raided constantly at the fringes of his lands, as did Wild Men from the east. The Dwarves of Erebor were friendly to his people, but still cared little for what happened outside of their Mountain, and it was much the same tale with the Elves of Mirkwood, so it fell mainly upon the Men of Dale to drive off the marauders whenever they appeared.

In his 61 years of life, the King of Dale had ridden out to battle more times than he could remember. It was not a task that he relished in, or that any sane man would relish in, but it was his duty, and he had done it well. Even as his body began to grow old, he had gone out and met those that would try to break the hard-won peace, fighting from the foothills of the Withered Heath to the shores of the Sea of Rhun, and near everywhere in between.

The fact that the world around him had changed, that such places had been replaced with new ones that were completely alien to him, did nothing to change that. No matter what calamity descended on his people, it was his duty as King to protect them. Indeed, it was his duty even more now than ever, with strange surrounding and allies either out of reach or with their own challenges to face.

And so it was that Brand, King of Dale, stood upon the shore of the Long Lake, gazing south upon the ever growing camp that had sprung up far too close the corpse of Smaug the Golden for comfort. Even in the mists of winter, he could see them, bringing jewels and gold and silver up from the depths, seemingly ignoring the bone-chilling cold of the water in their lust for the treasure. The longer he watched, the more that the King of Dale thought that the legends of the Curse that lay upon the trove of the Dragon may have been more than simple legends. The men that he had sent there with offerings of peace had seen little of the leader of the camp, but they describe him as wild-eyed and constantly tensed, as if expecting an assassination attempt at any moment. Their descriptions matched all-too-closely to those of Thorin Oakenshield in his final days, as the gold sickness had overtaken him.

But there was little that Brand could do about such things. He could watch. He had tried to speak, but been denied. The men of that camp spoke not a word of his tongue, nor he a word of theirs. He had continued to send emissaries to them, attempting desperately to find at least some method for communicating with them, be it hand gestures or scribbles in the dirt, but it had become more and more often for his men to be turned away at the boundary of the camp, until finally they had been barred entirely. Now only scouts dared cross the lands between the two encampments, both Brand and his opposite number trying to discern the strength and plans of the other. There was little to be learned, except that both now had with them a large and increasing number of armed men.

The King of Dale preferred peace to war, as all sane men did. But it was increasingly apparent that the leader of the other camp may not have fallen within the category of 'Sane Men.' And so Brand had prepared, digging traps and planting stakes, erecting fences and excavating ditches. And waiting. The insufferable waiting. The waiting for something to go wrong. He continued to send envoys, begging for a chance to speak to the leader of the camp, all of which went unanswered. The waiting continued, and the King of Dale's feelings of dread grew with every moment that it dragged on.

And then, in a moment, with a loud scream from the other camp echoing across the water, the wait was over.

 

Lorien

Boromir, Son of Denethor, tried to distract himself. This took the shape of finding a quiet clearing in the woods of Lothlorien and practicing his bladework. Day after day, whenever he was not either eating or sleeping, he practiced, trying to lose himself in the familiar movements, attempting to focus on footwork and his guard and all the other little things that would save his life the next time that he entered battle and on nothing else. He tried not to think of the quest, brought to a standstill when the world beyond Lorien had changed beyond recognition. He tried not to think of home, which he had not heard anything of for weeks, if not months. He tried not to think of his brother, or his father, or all those that he had served with in the defense of Gondor, now apparently swept away in the blink of an eye. In fact, he tried not to think at all.

Parry, parry, thrust, parry, chop, stab, stab, slash, slash. Remember to move your feet. Hit hard, but don't overswing and extend yourself to far. Stay light on your feet, but heavy enough that you can't be knocked off balance. Keep your guard up; a wound in your legs is difficult to deal with, but survivable; a wound in the head or chest less so. Use your shield: it, too, can be a weapon, but it's main purpose is defense. Remember all of this: think only of all of this. Don't think of your home. Don't think of your men. Don't think of the Horn of Gondor, sounding from the White Tower, calling you home…

"Your practice would have more value if you did not face empty air."

The Son of Denethor turned quickly to the voice, sword held up. There he found the Aragorn the Ranger, the Chieftain of the Dunedain, and he lowered his blade. The two men simply stared at each other for a moment, their silence hanging in the air. Then the man of the south nodded, and the man of the north came forward, drawing out his own blade. They walked to the center of the small clearing, and after a moment's pause they began to spar.

As the moved around the clearing, trading blow for blow, the Son of the Steward found himself taking notes on the Ranger's abilities. He had seen the other man fight before, in Moria, but this was the first time that he truly observed the man called Strider. Surely, his training had been different than what Boromir had received in Gondor: he preferred a Longsword over the shield-and-shortsword pairing that was common in the south, yet despite the weight and length of his blade he was remarkably quick on his feet, dodging Boromir's strikes more than he blocked them, maneuvering with a skill that would have gained the respect of any of Boromir's own men, using his superior reach to keep the Captain of Gondor at a distance. In fact, the Ranger's style reminded him a surprising amount of the techniques of his own brother…

And the moment that this idea crossed his mind, all of the thoughts that the Son of Denethor had fought so hard to keep at bay welled up within him, overcoming his thoughts and his heart in an instant. Distracted, he felt his guard drop by a fraction, and an instant later Aragorn's blade was held gently to his neck. Boromir felt suddenly weak, his body utterly overwhelmed by a sudden fatigue, and he sunk slowly to his knees, his sword dropping to the ground besides him. For a long moment, he simply knelt there, breathing heavily. Then, he slowly began to shudder. And then he began to weep.

It felt like a long time that he knelt there, tears pouring into his hands, his whole body shaking like a leaf. He finally felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Aragorn, the other man's eyes filled with a silent plea to speak, to allow him to help. Taking a deep breath, the Son of the Steward began to speak, his voice hitching as he did so.

"Have you ever seen it, Aragorn? The White Tower of Ecthelion, when the morning breeze catches its banners flying high? It is like...a glimmering beacon of silver and pearl, a light to all the world. The Tower of the Guard...do you know what it is like? To be called home by its trumpets? To hear its people singing?" He paused for a moment, his voice choked by sobs. Breathing deeply again, he continued to speak.

"For near 20 years I had fought for it, and my father for near twice that long before me, and his father before him. And for all that time, year after year, generation after generation, the strength of our people has waned. Mordor grows in strength, and our best blood is slowly spent holding it back. My father was a noble man, but his rule was failing. Every day, it seemed, we were driven further back, and every day our hope faded further. Our people lost faith. He looked to me to make things right. All of our hopes he placed upon me, that the glory of Gondor might be restored. This quest...it was our greatest hope. Perhaps our last one."

The Son of the Steward began to weep harder now, and tears fell from his cheeks like raindrops.

"But now...now all is lost! I am told that all that I held to, all that I hoped for, is swept away! Where may I take my hope, my strength!? What may I hold to!? We may yet destroy Sauron. We may yet complete the quest. But what victory would be won? That we may wander alien lands, never again to see all that we fought for? What, now, is the point!? Of anything!? What may men do against such evil!?"

Boromir spoke no longer, the only sound in the clearing now his weeping and his shuddering breaths. For a long time, it remained the only sound, as the Son of the Steward wept freely.

Finally, he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder once more, and he opened his eyes, tear-filled as they were. Now Aragorn spoke, his voice gentle, his eyes soft. "I know not what path to walk. I, too, am lost, cast adrift in this new world. I cannot see the path before me, and the path behind us is just as uncertain and dangerous. I do not see what may lurk in the darkness ahead, as much as I wish that I could. I do not know where I may safely trod."

The Ranger sat down besides the Captain, his own breathing also beginning to shudder. "But I do know this: we cannot stay this ground forever. Perhaps not today, or tomorrow, or the day after, but the time will come when, one way or another, we must choose a path. It will not be simple, and indeed will be even harder than before. But fate shall not wait for us: eventually, it will meet us, whether we wish it to or not. When it arrives, we must be ready for it. We cannot hide, or flee, or cower: we must face it, with all skill and courage that we may muster. With hope or without, with our dreams broken or whole, we must go out along the road one day, lest fate catch us unawares. We must find the strength to stand."

"And where might we find it?" Boromir asked, his weeping finally beginning to subside.

"I do not know," Aragorn replied, "But it will be found most easily together than alone."

Slowly, the Son of the Steward nodded. He breathed deeply. But not yet did he stand. Aragorn, too, remained seated upon the ground, now entering into his own thoughts. Galadriel had assured him of the safety of Rivendell, of Arwen, but there was little other knowledge that the Lady of the Golden Wood could share with him. The Ranger wished dearly that the Grey Pilgrim still walked with them. Surely, the Wizard would have had some wisdom for them, even now. But no. The weight of the quest now fell even more heavily upon Aragorn's shoulders.

He hoped that he, and the others, could bear the weight.

 

Moria

In the deep, in the heart of the Black Pit, a fire burned. It was one that had been ignited long ago, deep in the cursed pits of Thangorodrim, when a Maiar, name long forgotten to the sands of history, had sworn their allegiance to the Dark Enemy of the World, the one so mighty that even Sauron had bowed before them. That fell Master had been sealed away, but the sparks of destruction that they had ignited had caught, and even now their black fire continued to burn, carried by their twisted mockeries of creation.

This particular fire's journey had been long and bloody, a trail of carnage left behind it. In the days of the First Age, they had smote all that had stood against the Dark: springing the entrapment of Feanor; marching at the Vanguard of the Orcs when the Long Peace had been shattered, and the full might of Glaurung, the First Dragon, had been unleashed; aiding in the slaughter of Fingon and Huor and the capture of Hurin. Even after their Master had been thrown down, this flame that he had ignited had burned on.

For five millennia, the fire had smouldered, more like warm coals than a true inferno, buried and forgotten. But in the days of Durin VI, the dwarves had delved too deep and too greedily, and the flame had burned with vigor once more, consuming all in their path, and driving the dwarves out from the black pits. From that time, it was called Durin's Bane and The Nameless Terror, and it was undisputed master of Moria. The goblins and orcs of the crags and crevices feared it, and either fled or bowed before it in awe and dread.

Even Sauron did not dare to try and master it. Those orcs and trolls that entered the pit were sent more as tribute, as a gift, than as a conquering army. The Dark Lord saw that Moria would remain beyond the reach of those that would dare defy him: for now, that was enough. Let other fools try to reclaim the mines-there were other places that the blood of his thralls was better spent.

And so it was: for near 1000 years, the pit belonged to the last of the Balrog, and to them alone. Even when Azog the Defiler had entrenched himself in the upper halls, in the final days of the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, not even he had dared venture deep into the dark. When the Dwarf Balin attempted to reclaim the mines, they were burned out of the deep places, and the rest the orcs slaughtered. The Balrog was unchallenged.

Until, that is, they had arrived. A company of nine, half of their number appearing to be no more than children. They would have been left to the orcs, but for one detail. Among them, the Nameless Terror had felt a power that gave even them reason for pause, a power unlike any that they had known since the time of the War of Wrath. They were no mere trespassers in the domain of Durin's Bane, no: they were, for the first time in millennia, challengers to his rule.

The Balrog had met his challenger in battle. For 10 days and nights, they had fought without ceasing, the black fire of Morgoth doing all they could to burn their foe to ash. Finally, atop the very peak of Zirakzigil, their flame had burned so hot, so unchecked, that the Nameless Terror had felt the very world itself shake to its foundations as it had met with the challengers own white fire, and for a moment, the two blazes had combined, fueling each other, increasing beyond the control of either that wielded them, and the whole world had felt like it had shattered.

Sometime later, Durin's Bane had reawoken. It's physical fire was slackened, smothered by slime and mud and water from the roots of the mountains and the snow from its peak. Their flesh had hardened, and their skin was like stone. But the flame in its soul now only burned hotter, and now a great roar sounded out throughout all the Black Pit, the Master of the Pit exerting their might over all that still cowered in its depths. They rose once more, hatred and rage burning like the sun in their black heart.

Their only thoughts were of vengeance. A mad and feral power now rose within them, fueled by the pain of their scarred and stiffened body. The very world around them seemed to twist at their pure malice, and they sounded a dark call, like thunder in the mountains. It was answered. The orcs and goblins and trolls of Moria, weak willed puppets, felt a new master take control of their strings. Unlike Sauron's black whisper, there was now the endless scream, a sound that could not be blocked out. All that dwelled in that black pit heard it as it echoed in the endless caverns. The Nameless Terror, Durin's Bane, Last of the Balrogs, wanted revenge.

And they would burn the world to ashes to have it.

Chapter Text

February 14, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

The Mirrormere

 

 

The moon and stars shone in the waters of Kheled-zaram, the Glass Lake. Even as the clouds above continued to churn and boil, dark shadows clinging to the peaks of the mountains and closing up the sky, the Seven Stars of Durin’s Crown could be seen in the dark surface of the small lake. This was the eternal sign to enduring nature of Durin’s Folk, the heavenly monument to the resilience of the dwarves. Nearby stood another monument to these hardy folk: overlooking the road was a single stone column, weathered and worn and cracked, but still standing tall in defiance to the ages. Around the waters other small shrines and memorials had been built through the ages: here to Floi, slain on the arrival of Balin’s expedition, there to Fundin, a burned dwarf laid here after Azanulbizar, and in another place to some forgotten warrior, their name lost to all memory, worn away from their marker by time and nature. 

 

The still waters of the Mirrormere, holy ground of the Dwarven race, had reflected many things in their time: from the first Durin, before he had carved even the smallest stone, to the slaughter and desperation of the final days of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs. They had seen triumph and despair, hope and madness, creation and destruction. And through all, the Seven Stars had shone bright, a monument to the resilience and strength of the Children of Durin, a symbol more lasting than any carving or statue.

 

But nothing lasts forever.

 

In the darkness, there was a sound like a whisper in a dream: a drum, faintly beating, like the heartbeat of the earth itself. It was easy to overlook, to ignore, to dismiss, especially in the howling winter winds. But it persisted, the heartbeat hammering on as the winds began to fade away. As the night grew darker still, the drum continued in its rhythm, easier now to hear in the oppressive silence. No birds sang. No beast made a sound. No leaves or branches quivered or shook. But the drum continued.

 

Soon, it could be felt. The drum had become the pulse of the ground itself, and is if the earth was excited or terrified by something, something awe-inspiring and dreadful: the pulse was quickening, the heart of the earth beginning to hammer and throb in anticipation. The earth trembled and quivered, loose stone and earth shaking free and tumbling towards lower ground. Branch and leave shook as if they were in the center of a hurricane, but there was no wind. Every animal, from the smallest insect to the quivering rodents and the fleeing birds, fell silent. They felt, they knew, what was coming.

 

The surface of the Mirrormere, the unmoving deep pool, sacred place of the Dwarves, ever-impervious to the winds of winter and time, began to ripple. The earth trembled, and small eddies emanated across the surface of the dark waters, and the Seven Stars, the Crown of Durin, monument to the First of the Dwarves, flickered like a candle in the breeze. Pebbles and stones fell into the water, and the Crown of Stars became ever harder to see, distorted and obscured as the pool, once like a mirror, became like a stormy sea.

 

The drumbeat continued, and now it was a joined by other sounds, like an orchestra of fear and dread: the jingling and ringing of armor and blade; the cries and cackles of an army, eager for blood; the footsteps of an army, some light and skittering, others like thunderclaps. But louder than all else beat the drum, the heartbeat of the mountain, rising towards the surface. Faster, louder, faster, louder: the pulse of the mountain was impossible to ignore. It rose and rose and rose…

 

And then, in a moment, it stopped. For a fleeting instant, the drum, the heartbeat, went silent, and the Vale became silent once more. Not a single leaf or twig so much as shivered. The earth was silent once more. All the orcs and goblins and trolls, marching out from the shattered eastern gate of the Black Pit, froze where they stood, and looked back to the west, waiting. The waters of the pool calmed, and the Crown of Durin could be seen once more, shining bright within the Mirrormere.

 

And then the silence ended. A great roar sounded out from the Gate of Moria, a sound like thunder and fire and death, and it echoed in the vale and the mountains, a terrible roar that froze hearts and filled spirits with dread and fear. And as Durin’s Bane, the Nameless Terror, the Last of the Balrogs stood under the black sky, it’s warcry louder than thunder in the heavens, all its legions joined it: hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of orcs and goblins and trolls, all that the Master of the Black Pit could put under its might, and they, too, cried out and beat their blades and stomped their feet, and once again the Glass Lake shattered, the dark waters kicked into a storm.

 

And as the the Balrog and his army roared, the Seven Stars of Durin’s Crown vanished into blackness.

 

 

Hungary

 

King Emeric of Hungary felt only exhaustion. There was no dread left within him, no grief, no anger: simple numbness was all that remained within him. As his men and the strange company that they had joined continued to move southwards, as they came across burned village after burned village and massacre after massacre, the Elder Son of Bela III had lost his horror of the dead, lost any feelings of empathy that he might have had for the fallen. The men went through the motions now, in any task: What could be salvaged from the ashes was salvaged, be it food or clothing or weapons, but they did little more. There was no time to give the dead any more than the smallest of dignities: a stretch of cloth thrown over them, but no graves were dug or pyres built. Most were left to the birds or the worms.

 

They marched on, slowly, sullenly, in the general direction of Slavonia. Hunger and exhaustion ate at them from within, coldness from without. As the winter winds howled around them, biting through their oft-torn and ripped garments, the company practically dragged themselves on. They scavanged for food like crows and vultures, searching through burned ruins for passed-over crumbs and forgotten, rotting produce, the King of Hungary reduced to a rat sneaking through cellars.

 

The morale of the column continued to fall. The small patrols that they continued to encounter seemed to increase by the hour, and every skirmish whittled their already dwindling numbers further. Every few miles, yet another would fall to the roadside, finally pushed beyond their limits by hunger or exhaustion or wounds or some combination of all. Whatever could still be used was taken up by the rest. If the fallen still lived, they were left a dagger or a knife.

 

And now, the company halted again, frozen in fear and dread. When they looked out at the plains before them, their hearts were filled with terror: before them, stretching across the whole horizon, were the Legions of Hell, the black horde that the King and his men had seen before, burning their lands black and slaughtering their people. And they heard it again: the black scream on the black wind, the call of the Devil on his Fell Steed, and they felt in the ground the marching feet of thousands and thousands of demons. They marched southwards, south towards what little remained of the Kingdom of Hungary, blocking any path that Emeric’s Company could take to safety.

 

If the King of Hungary had still had tears to shed, he would have wept. But there was no grief left within him. His thoughts and movements were like those of an automaton, all emotion having left him and only the instinctual desire to survive remaining. If they turned back the way they came, the would starve or freeze. East took them straight towards the mountains, the home ground of the Devil. Any route west had been cut off. To simply stay their ground would invite the demons to crush them like so many insects.

 

And so one path remained. As the Devil’s hordes moved south, the ground trembling beneath their feet, the Company of the King of Hungary followed, crawling along behind them like snakes in the grass, staying as far back as they could. Emeric wished that there were another path to take, but this, it seemed, was all that remained before him. The column snuck southwards, just beyond the reach of the demons’ rearguard.

 

In howling winter winds, Emeric of Hungary shadowed the Shadow.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Kaloyan, Tsar of Bulgaria, raced westwards. His initial successes in this campaign had filled him with optimism, and he deeply wished for such feelings to continue. Every village and town that his men marched through greeted them with open arms, eager to pledge their service to the crowns of Bulgaria or Serbia, more than willing to let their lands be absorbed into their proper nations. If things continued as they had, the Tsar could easily claim a massive swath of territory without a single drop of blood spilled.

 

Fortune, of course, had decided to be more fickle than that: Andrew, the younger brother of the missing (and generally presumed dead) King of Hungary, had apparently raised a small army, and was marching eastwards with it as of the last report that his scouts had sent him. Somewhat more worryingly, the Bosnians had summoned their own forces, and were moving north to join with their nominal overlord. Individually, neither force would be a match for his own army. Together, though...

 

For the Tsar of Bulgaria, it was not a difficult choice to make: he would not to be upstaged in his quest by a childish pretender and his rabble of untrained peasants. He would meet the lesser son of Bela III in the open field: if Andrew could not defeat Emeric, who Kaloyan hardly considered a great man, the Self-Proclaimed King would hardly be able to challenge the might of the Bulgarian Empire. If Kaloyan could wage battle against the Hungarians before the Bosnians arrived, then Andrew wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

Grand Prince Stefan of Serbia had lodged a few protests against such an action, but he had fallen in line eventually. Kaloyan would not allow the Hungarians the chance to reinforce themselves or fortify their position any more than they already had. And so the Bulgars and Serbs marched westwards, some eager and some with trepidation, to meet the Hungarians in battle. Andrew ran before his might, desperately hoping to buy enough time for the Bosnians to reach him. The Tsar would not give him that chance.

 

As they moved further west, the eagerness of the Bulgars and Serbs began to taper away. They looked to the northeast and saw the black mountains that had risen from the earth, and ever more did the stories of monsters and demons circulate among the ranks. Even Kaloyan felt a dark chill in the air, something with far more behind it than the simple winds of winter. It was something beyond the cold of early February, something almost...malevolent, like a low, evil laugh on the wind. The Tsar of Bulgaria shrugged the feeling off.

 

He had a war to fight.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Andrew of Hungary was too nervous to sleep. He would never admit as much, of course, preferring to show his men a mask of pure calm and control, the mask that a King would wear. Behind the mask, however, hid a man that grew more worried by the hour. The Bulgars and Serbs had apparently sped their march westwards, and were now rapidly bearing down on him. The Bosnians were racing to link up with him, but they were still too far away to make it before battle was joined. If he faced Kaloyan now, what would follow would be a slaughter in his opponents favor. Their men were better trained and more experienced: with the Bosnians on his side, his advantage in numbers might have been enough to carry the day, but Kulin had been too slow in raising his forces for the battle to be fought on Hungarian terms.

 

And so Andrew had marched northwards, hoping to overextend the Tsar’s men and buy more time for Kulin to reach him (and thinking mirthlessly that, despite ignoring the Archbishop of Esztergom’s advice, he was now doing exactly what the old man had wanted). There was good news on that front: with his smaller force, the Ban was at least moving noticeably faster than the Orthodox forces were. Andrew doubted that Kulin would be able to beat Stefan and Kaloyan to the battlefield, and so he began to change his battleplans.

 

With their superior force, the Self-Proclaimed King of Hungary doubted that the Tsar of Bulgaria would hold anything or anyone back when the time of battle came. The Orthodox forces would attempt to crush him under-foot before the Bosnians could arrive. Andrew would let them try: he would dig himself in, turning his lines into a meatgrinder, and let the Bulgars and Serbs break against him like water against rock.

 

The previous few days, then, had seen the hilltop on which Andrew had chosen his ground turn into a small fortress, albeit one of wood and dirt. Barricades of earth had been hurriedly erected, and atop them sharpened tree branches to skewer the enemy as they charged. Caltrops and stakes ringed the bottom of the hill to dissuade the cavalry of the enemy. Let the Bulgars and Serbs come, Andrew thought, let them pin themselves to my barricades, impale themselves on my stakes. Let them bleed themselves white against me, and let the Bosnians crush them like a hammer when the time comes.

 

Still, worry built in his heart. If the Bosnians were too late, if he underestimated the size of the Orthodox force, if he had overestimated the skills of his own army...such things frightened him, lent anxiousness to his heart. But the greatest fear came when he looked to the east, and saw the black mountains that he had only heard whispers of before, when his sentries reported strange noises in the night. He thought back to the rumors he had heard in Croatia, that had allowed to come into this land in the first place. He thought of what Job had told him. He thought of the dark chill he thought he felt on the wind. He was worried enough about the Bulgars and Serbs, and tried to keep his thoughts limited to them. One battle at a time, he told himself. Fight the enemy that you know. Yes, the Orthodox Armies worried him.

 

But deep down, it was what was in the dark that he feared.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Khamul, second among the Nazgul, was not worried. There had been a small complication in his plan, but nothing that could not be quickly dealt with. Rather than simply slaughtering each other, it appeared that the men of these lands were instead dawdling in their pursuit of battle. One had almost turned his army around entirely, having to be practically dragged west by another man. The third ‘Lord of Men’ had taken his forces in a westwards arc to avoid the first two, and been tardy in raising his army in the first place, and the last had marched north and was now busy fortifying their position. In the past week, when the Second of the Nazgul had hoped that the nations of men would get rid of each other’s best men for him, they had instead entirely avoided each other and spilled not a drop of blood.

 

If a Ringwraith could become frustrated, then Khamul could have been described as frustrated. His army, and he himself, were hungry for blood. They were sick of waiting for a fight. They took out their frustrations on the few remaining farms and villages in the region, and by abusing the prisoners that they had taken, but the thirst for battle had almost began to boil over. Soon enough, the orcs might begin turning on each other.

 

Khamul had waited long enough. He gave his orders and took flight. If the nations of men would not shed it themselves, than he would shed it for them. There would be no more waiting for a battle that might take another week to fight: the Second of the Nazgul would destroy these so-called ‘Kings’ himself. If it must be done one by one, so be it. The one that had turned towards him, isolating himself from the rest, would be the first.

 

They would not be the last.

 



Lorien

 

Frodo Baggins’ eyes snapped open to the sound of blowing horns. Lots and lots of blowing horns. As he groggily sat up in his bed, he wondered idly how many different horns were being blown. As he became more aware, he wondered why they were being blown. The horns of elven heralds were of a different tone than this, and their hunting parties favored stealth: they made no noises to chase out their prey.

 

As Frodo pondered this, the door to his chamber was suddenly thrown open and in strode Strider, hurriedly pulling on his belt as he did so, looking somewhat disheveled and wild eyed. His eyes quickly scanned the room, and when he found Frodo, he nodded to himself and began to speak:

 

“We have been summoned before the Lord and Lady. Haldir tells me that they will inform us of what is happening. I believe it best that you pack your things before we go: I fear that we may not be staying in Lorien for much longer.”

 

Now much more awake, Frodo hurriedly jumped from his bed, already throwing on his clothes. There was little time: he threw on his mithril shirt on above his sleep-clothes, hurriedly, tying Sting to his belt. He stuffed his bag with what was left and hurried out into the hall, where he found the rest of the Fellowship, in various states of dress and awareness, each looking questioningly at the rest.

 

“Mister Frodo! What’s happening?” asked Sam, but the Ringbearer only shook his head. His own mind was filled with questions, but there was too much else happening for him to ask them.

 

He ran with the rest of his companions towards the center of Caras Galadhon, heeding the summons of their hosts. Legolas led, being the most awake, Aragorn and Boromir trailing not far behind. Gimli staggered along in the rear, still half asleep, but also keeping a good pace. Each of them half-led, half-dragged a hobbit with them, Frodo’s kin aware to various amount, but becoming more awake with each moment.

 

As Frodo ran through the Golden Wood, the hobbit saw the inhabitants of Lothlorien scurrying every which way like so many ants, clusters of swordsmen, groups of archers and phalanxes of spearmen darting in all directions. Horns rang throughout the forest, and the whole of the Golden Wood seemed to vibrate with activity, the ground humming with the movements of a thousand or more elves...and with them, Frodo thought, something else. Something far more sinister. As if something in the earth had come alive, something utterly terrible.

 

Finally, the Fellowship arrived at their destination. It buzzed like a beehive, yet more elves swarming around, hauling weapons to and fro, taking and giving orders. At the heart of the swarm were the Lord and Lady, gesturing to their various subordinates, receiving reports and shouting commands, dictating the hum of the room. As he looked upon them, Frodo frowned. Something, he wasn’t quite sure what, seemed wrong with them.

 

Yes, they looked much the same as they had before: regal, beautiful, in complete command of the room. Something had changed in them, though. Their movements were tense, rigid, and when the Ringbearer caught the Lady’s eyes for a moment, his frown only deepened. They looked somewhat...wild, the hobbit thought, and all too much like that night at the Mirror. It was as if the Lady were wearing a mask that had all of her usual features, but that it was ever so slightly cracked, and hiding behind it was someone scared, nay, someone terrified. And if something could scare Lady Galadriel...

 

The Lord and Lady now took notice of the Fellowship, and Frodo silenced his own thoughts. As soon as she saw that the full Fellowship was present, the Lady began to speak.

 

“Durin’s Bane approaches.”

 

“WHAT!?” cried Gimli, his eyes widening in horror. It was an expression mirrored by all of Legolas’ companions, and the hobbit felt as if those three words had pierced his heart like a knife. Dread filled him, and horrible memories awoke in his mind, of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, and of Gandalf...

 

“How cou-” Boromir began, but the Lady raised a hand, signalling for silence, and the Fellowship quieted once more, silent questions running through their minds. She spoke again.

 

“They have taken control of the orcs and trolls of Moria: their host has emerged from the eastern gate and now descends from the mountains. It is a matter of hours until they reach this land.”

 

“What do you need us to do, my Lady?” spoke Aragorn.

 

“When the battle begins, I fear that this realm will no longer have the power to conceal the Ring from the Enemy. It must be taken from this place, as soon as possible. There are a pair of boats on the Celebrant that have been prepared for you. They will bare you swiftly beyond the reach of the Shadow, at least for a time.”

 

“Haldir,” she said, gesturing to her Captain, “will lead you to them. Follow the river as far south as you can. Do not look back, do not hesitate. Fly from this place. I know not where your path will take you from here, but here you cannot remain.”

 

As if to punctuate the point, at that moment a terrible sound pierced the air, like thunder in the mountains, magnified ten thousand times. It was a sound of pure, burning rage, and to the Fellowship it was all to familiar, and in his mind Frodo’s thoughts flashed back to the Black Pit, and he heard the drums, felt the flames upon his face and he saw the terrible demon again, its whip cracking and dragging the wizened old man who had been almost like an eccentric uncle to him down, down into the pit, their eyes wide with fear…

 

Galadriel spoke again. “Go! To face this particular evil is not the task of the Ringbearer or his companions! Yours is another quest. I do not dare wager all of our hopes in defeating the enemy against this other foe. The Ring cannot be risked here. You bear with you all of our hopes: if darkness is to fall upon these lands, then I wish that some of our light would be carried on.”

 

The Lady paused for a moment, before fixing her gaze on Frodo, a small smile coming to her face. “I had wished that your parting from this realm would come in a kinder way, but alas. Fly, Frodo Baggins. I and my people shall hold back this tide. But I will not let you part with nothing.”

 

She reached into her robes, and from within produced a small phial. She placed it into Frodo’s hands, a bittersweet look upon her face.

 

“Keep this with you. It is the light of Earendil, which shines in even the darkest of places. No matter what shadows may fall upon the paths that you walk, it will light the way, a beacon in even the blackest night. A final gift from me and my people, Frodo of the Shire. Now go.”

 

With that, the Fellowship turned to depart, moving quickly after Haldir. The Lady of Light watched them go in silence, her thoughts a mystery to the companions. They sprinted through the Golden Wood, their feet thudding against the earth. As Frodo ran (or rather, as he was practically carried by Aragorn), his hands clutched to Galadriel’s gift. He almost felt as if there was a kind of fire radiating from it, a far different kind from the destructive blaze that was closing in on Lorien. It gave him a kind of hope, a candle against the darkness. A beacon, lit by the elves, for him to follow through the night.

 

And as the Fellowship boarded the boats and began to move down the Celebrant, Frodo wondered if this light was to be the last that the elves of Lorien would ever light.

 

 

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Durin’s Bane marched, the ground beneath them shaking with each step. Snow boiled away in their wake, and their feet left deep marks in the ground with every step. No living thing, not even among their thralls, dared draw close. Shrubs and grass ignited as they walked by, leaving a trail of fire, smoke and steam behind the Nameless Terror as they closed in on their first target. They were near.

 

The Balrog could feel it. A font of power, not dissimilar to what he had felt from the one that they had dueled atop the peak. As they drew nearer and nearer to it, it became increasingly clear that it was not the same person, but the wrath of the Nameless Terror made no distinctions. That they were not the old man did not matter. This one was before them, and the Master of the Black Pit could feel the defiance within them.  No, they would not flee or bow before the might of the Last Balrog. Their mind was decided: the one before the Nameless Terror would try and fight. It was a mistake that Durin’s Bane would not let them live to learn from.

 

They were drawing close now, close to the one that was much the same to that which had tried to throw the Balrog down. They did not try and hide or wait for the Master of the Black Pit. No, they were a brave fool: they had strode out before their own army, and were standing at the edge of the forest before the Nameless Terror. If possible, they looked even weaker than the previous challenger: this one carried no blade or staff with them, and where the other had been old this one was lean. They were almost mocking in their pathetic appearance. They stood tall, daring the Last of the Balrogs to challenge them.

 

And challenge them they did: Durin’s Bane roared. The sound was somehow even louder than before, a sound that was felt more than it was heard. At the feet of the Balrog, stone split and shook and behind their challenger, trees cracked and branches were torn from trunks. This was no mere battlecry: it carried with it a force like a hurricane, and as it carried on, the seconds seeming to drag towards eternity, ancient trees (as old, perhaps, as the world itself) began to shift and sway, their trunks tilting over and their roots beginning to tear out of the ground.

 

The roar was louder than any thunderclap, any earthquake, sounding like the Horns of Ar-Pharazon the Golden and his Great Armament. It was a War Cry like no other, a challenge and warning to any that might dare oppose the Last of the Balrogs, Master of the Black Pit, the Nameless Terror, the force of pure rage and power that was second in might to only Sauron themselves among all the Dark Creatures of the World. It shook the heavens and the earth, and filled the heart of all but the greatest that heard it with a paralyzing dread.

 

And the one that it was directed at, this seemingly fragile and frail thing, without a single plate of armor upon them or so much as a dagger for a weapon, this one dressed in garb more fitting for a formal feast than a battlefield, this one who dared challenge the slayer of how many hundreds, if not thousands, of great warriors, be they men, dwarf or elf, who had utterly mastered the Black Pit that had conquered so many others...this elven Lady had not so much as flinched.

 

The Last of the Balrogs felt it’s fire building. If their foe wished to stand, so be it. Then they would fall bravely. The power of Morgoth flowed through the Nameless Terror, all their pain and hatred and wrath growing beyond any hope of control. Durin’s Bane encased themselves within a towering inferno, so hot that the earth at their feet began to bubble and melt, becoming like glass, their sword like a pillar of flame, their whip like a bolt of lightning. With a final snarl, the second most powerful force of Evil in the world charged their opponent.

 

And their challenger, the lean, unarmed and unarmored Lady of the Golden Wood, stood their ground.

Chapter Text

February 15, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Hungary

 

Andrew, Self-Proclaimed King of Hungary, had not slept well. Truth be told, the younger son of Bela III didn’t think that he had slept at all. He had lay in his bed doing naught but tossing and turning, his mind far too active for rest to come to him. The coming battle with the Bulgars and Serbs had dominated his thoughts, robbing him of the ability to sleep. So, too, had thoughts of darker things, the nagging fear that had come over him ever since he had first beheld the black mountains to the east festering in his mind, gnawing at him from within.

 

No peace of mind had come Andrew that night. His mind had raced the whole night through, and as shadow had given way to the gloom of predawn, the Self-Proclaimed King saw that whatever slim chance he had had of sleep had passed. Rising from his tent, the younger son of Bela III began looking for something to set his tireless mind to, finally deciding on checking the fortifications of his camp. At the very least, the task occupied his thoughts, providing a much needed distraction from his increasingly dark thoughts. Many of his men seemed to have had similar problems finding rest as he had had, and even at this early hour the camp was coming alive, men whispering to each other and preparing for the coming battle.

 

The sky remained dark. The feeble winter sun tried its futile best to shine through the ash-grey skies, obscured as it was by the boiling skies above and black mountains to the east, but it could accomplish little. There was a bitter chill in the air, blowing down from the north: this was to be expected in the middle of February on the plains, but in their bones the men of Hungary could feel, somehow, that this was not the familiar winter wind that came down off of the steppes, but something...more. Something almost sinister. It chilled not just their flesh and their bones but their hearts, their very souls, and the whole camp was filled with a sense of creeping dread.

 

The feeling of foreboding, of coming doom, was excused by many as the common fear that came before a battle. The Armies of Tsar Kaloyan and Grand Prince Stefan were coming, they knew, and their army was superior to that raised by the prodigal Prince of Hungary. The fight to come was to be difficult, they knew, and they told themselves that the dark chill they felt was only the fear of a superior force of Bulgars and Serbs. They thought, or at least tried to think, only of the threat posed by the heretics, trying to drive out the fears that festered in their hearts, to silence the whispers that they had heard from those that had fled Esztergom and a hundred other abandoned towns and villages in eastern Hungary. Focus on what you absolutely know, they told themselves, and they spoke not of their other fears, perhaps believing that if the words were not said then that the threat remained unreal. None dared believe that the tales could be true, yet…

 

And yet there was no reason to disbelieve them, not when great black mountains rose out of nothing to their east, not when hundreds and hundreds told them the same story again and again and again, not when a fell wind, an evil wind, blew out of the north, with what felt like a black will (the devil’s own will, perhaps) driving it. Some wept in silence, tears prickling at their eyes. Others worked on the fortifications, trying with all their might to distract themselves. Most prayed. All waited, waited with baited breath and hearts full of fear, waited for what was to come, the battle that they knew was to be waged. They told each other, they told themselves, that it was only the army of the bulgars and Serbs, that their lines were well prepared and would bleed any enemy white, that the Bosnians would surely arrive soon enough to assure victory, desperately trying to convince themselves that they had nothing to fear, that there was no other great threat coming.

 

It didn’t work. Andrew could see his men, could feel himself, being eaten alive by the rising sense of dread, the terrible sense that something else, something far worse than any army of men, was coming. But what could be done about it? None dared leave the fortifications to find answers, good or ill, and so the men of Hungary could do little but stew in their fears and terrors, their minds breeding darker and darker thoughts. The waiting was near insufferable, with only dread and fearful men for company or comfort. They waited. The chill in the air grew colder. They waited. The terrified whispers grew louder. They waited. The darkness in their souls grew deeper. They waited. They waited. They waited, their imaginations running wild even as they tried in desperation to turn their thoughts away from such things. The wait: that was the worst part.

 

And then, finally, as the faint outline of the sun had risen just barely over the black mountains, they heard it. A black scream on the winter wind, that turned blood to ice and froze the hearts of men, a sound that none among them had heard before, a sound that was almost felt rather than heard, like a cold knife piercing the soul, a sound that seemed to make all the fear and dread of the men of Hungary multiply tenfold. A moment later, a great cry answered the scream, a black and twisted roar carried on the tongues of thousands and thousands, an alien chant that echoed in the chill air. The men heard the beating of an untold number of weapons, the stomping of God only knew how many feet, and together sounded like thunder on the plains, a great storm that threatened to swallow them whole.

 

In the camp, all eyes turned northwards. Even now, they clung to their last, desperate hope that only the armies of men marched against them, that those that seemed to almost make the earth itself tremble beneath their feet and filled the skies with their roars was only the might of Bulgaria and Serbia, but in an instant even this final, futile wish was shattered as out of the swirling winds and snow marched the Devil and all the Legions of Hell.

 

It was as if all of their fears and terrors had stepped out of their minds and into the world, every dread and dark fear within their hearts being made manifest in an instant. A horde of demons, thousands if not tens of thousands strong, their faces twisted and carrying all sorts of wicked-looking blades, had come, the ground seeming to shudder beneath their feet with every step. And with them walked a number of giants, as tall as three or four men, who wielded clubs the size of tree trunks, and massive wolves that had teeth like daggers and glowing, hungry eyes. Completing the vision of terror was a thing like a winged worm, where sat a black-robed figure, soaring in the skies above like death itself on high.

 

“To your posts!”

 

Andrew desperately screamed the order. It was too late to run: the monsters were practically upon them. The only chance for him and his army would be to hold their ground and hope, no, and pray, that aid would come, from their allies or even their enemies, before it was too late.

 

“For the love of God, get to your posts! If we can’t hold the barricades, then all is lost! We must stand until help can arrive! For the sake of everything Holy, get to your posts!”

 

The men of Hungary had begun to react. Some were already fleeing, running southwards in terror. Others were still frozen in shock. Yet more wept, or screamed prayers to the heavens. Many, though, were spurred into action, their movements fueled by the dual sources of utter desperation and sheer, stark terror. They scrambled to their lines, a few grabbing those that looked as if they would flee and forcing them into position. The mad strength of the will to survive flooded into them, and the men of Hungary, some of them at least, moved to hold their ground. Their eyes were wide in terror, and their knuckles white as they clutched their weapons. They watched as the demons closed in.

 

The Legions of Hell swept towards them like a tidal wave, their riders skirting the base of the hill, sweeping around the stakes and pits there and circling around the Hungarian camp, encircling Andrew’s army, cutting down those that had tried to flee and entrapping the rest. But it was not this that the self-proclaimed King’s eyes were drawn: behind the wolves and the riders was the infantry, moving inexorably forwards, like the rising of a black tide about to break against the rock that Andrew stood upon.

 

“Brace! Brace!” cried the younger son of Bela III, his own eyes wide and terrified. “Hold your lines! Hold, or all is lost!”

 

The black wave drew closer. First to reach the hill was the wall of sound, the roaring and cackling of ten thousand demons and monsters, the thumping of their feet against the ground like the beating of a great drum, and the scream, the scream of the one who was like death or the devil, high above on their terrible mount, and in rushed the Legions of Hell like the rising of the tide, flooding towards the ground the men of Hungary had chosen.

 

And then the black waters met the rock, and the battle had begun.

 

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The Ringwraith Khamul watched from on high as the assault began. The Lieutenant of the Nazgul could practically feel the fear radiating off of the army of men below, who scrambled like terrified vermin to meet his attack. Their disorganization was obvious: many had simply collapsed to the ground, some had tried to flee, and the rest skittered to and fro like ants whose hill had been disturbed.

 

But while the men may not have been prepared in mind and spirit, they were prepared in fortification. Stakes, pit traps and barricades lined the hill, laid out roughly in a series of concentric circles, a series of defensive lines that, while not enough to outright stop the advance of the might of Mordor, were proving something of an annoyance. Stakes had to be torn from the ground, pits avoided, the wooden fortifications atop the barricades either cut through or smashed apart. And each moment of delay bought a little more time for the men to stand to their posts, to take up arms and man the barricades, stabbing and cutting in mad desperation at those that worked to breach the defenses.

 

That was not all. The wargs were proving next-to-useless in breaking through the lines of the opponent, the stakes and pits preventing them from charging in and the sharpened tree branches atop the barricades dissuading any attempts to simply vault over the defenders, leaving an annoying large number of his troops with very little to do but look intimidating, a task that, while they were admittedly successful in doing, but at the same time did almost nothing to cut down the size of the army of men before them. The foot soldiers were left to grind their way through the defenses, the opposing archers doing all they could to pick off their targets, the spears and swords of the men making the orcs pay for every step forwards. It was a bloody grind, taking longer than it should have, and with a much higher price paid than there should have been.

 

Still, it was no matter. The battle remained near wholly in the favor of the shadow, despite the fortification of the men of Hungary and their almost manic efforts to hold them. Even the strength of desperation had its limits, and in time those limits would be far exceeded by the endless flood of orcs that worked to drown the men beneath their weight. For every man that fought like a warrior of old, worthy of the legends of Numenor, another was already dead or frozen in fear and terror, effectively out of the fight. Their panicked strikes, fueled by the will to survive, given a strength that in normal times they would never find, might hew an orc in half...or might miss entirely.

 

And they had no true counter for the trolls. A few had been brought down, yes, turned into pincushions by the Hungarian archers or their legs skewered with spears and then hewn apart with axes and swords, but the rest still stood tall, smashing through the defenses on the hill like the logs and earthworks were so many twigs and specks of dust. They broke through the lines of those that dared stand against them, opening gaps for the orcs to flood through. Yes, black blood doused the hill, and the corpses of the servants of Sauron blanketed the ground. But so, too, flowed the blood of men, and the army of men could not nearly so well afford the losses.

 

As the hours ground on, the men of Hungary were forced back, even as they fought to the last in a stand worthy of Gondor of old. But for all their courage and valiant effort and mad desperation, they were losing. Line by line, barricade by barricade, step by step, the orcs advanced. They were like frenzied sharks that smelled blood in the water, attacking without the slightest reprieve, eager to rend the flesh of men. Again and again they battered themselves against the ranks of the army of men, and again and again it was the men that were driven back, even as they extracted a great price in blood for the ground conceded. The host of Mordor surged forwards, an unstoppable, unceasing force, and the men of Hungary were like mice trying to hold back the sea.

 

And as Khamul the Black Easterling watched, the wave began to overwhelm them.

 

 

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Andrew was unsure of how long the battle had been raging. An hour, at least, perhaps several. It was near impossible to tell with the sky still obscured by the dark grey clouds above. What he was sure of was that it was not going well. His men fought like cornered wild beasts, lashing out at anything that came near, stabbing and hacking at the demons with even their dying breaths. It was the courage of despair that drove them on: there would be no mercy on either side, no surrender, and with no way to escape the men of Hungary were, nearly to a man, fighting to the death, preferring a fighting death to one spent begging for mercy that wouldn’t come. If they were to fall, the Hungarians had decided, then they would drag as many of the devils down with them as they could.

 

Andrew hoped, he prayed, that it would not come to that. He still clung madly to the desperate hope that he would not be alone in this fight, that others, allies or enemy, would come to his aid. The Bosnians, the Bulgars, the Serbs...he cared not which, but in his mind he begged the Lord that someone, anyone, would arrive before it was too late. His force was dwindling, reduced to perhaps half of what it had been. They could barely hold their ground, let alone break out of the noose that now surrounded them. If help did not come some, they would die to a man.

 

As the day ground on, the Self-Proclaimed King felt despair build ever more in his heart. With each passing minute that any possible ally failed to appear, anger and fear welled up within him, a growing feeling within him that these would be his final few hours. He channeled his rage and his terror into his blade, carving apart every demon that he came across, screaming and roaring and fighting like a bear, like fury given form, striking at all within reach. Anger at Kulin for his slowness in coming to his aid, anger at the Bulgars and Serbs their tardiness in reaching the field of battle, anger at the monsters that assailed him, anger at even himself for not listening to the advice of Job…

 

And then he heard the scream, the great cry like a knife in his very soul, and his rage was replaced with despair. As he watched, the black worm that had hovered over the battlefield since the beginning, its dark rider observing in silence, dove low before pulling level and to the ground and then began to streak towards him, and Andrew saw upon it one like the devil themselves, a sword blacker than the deepest, blackest night in their hands, hearing terrible scream freezing men where they stood, realizing that the great beast was flying straight towards him.

 

And with that Andrew, the self-proclaimed King of Hungary, screamed in desperation one last prayer to the heavens.

 

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Faramir, Captain of Gondor, watched as the battle raged on. If the recent auditions to his company were not enough to confirm to him that other men existed in this new world, than the scene before him pushed that fact beyond all shadow of a doubt. They were not overly like the men of Gondor, with strange customs and tongue and weapons and armor inferior to even the meagerest gear of the Rangers, but here stood an army of them in defiance of Mordor, fighting like wild beasts against their encircling foes, like an island of light in the sea of darkness.

 

But the black tide was ever rising, and now it was threatening to submerge the small island in shadow. Faramir had seen that the men of this alien land fought as valiantly as any army of Gondor against the terrible odds weighed against them, making the orcs pay in blood for every stride that they advanced, bringing down trolls with volleys of arrows and spears and swords, battling tooth and nail even as the vast press of the shadow closed in around them. Black blood stained the snow-covered ground, mounds of dead orcs building up on the hillside, and the men of this land still stood tall, fighting like rabid dogs for their very lives.

 

It was not enough. It was not nearly enough. The noose of darkness was growing ever tighter around their necks, the seemingly endless sea of shadow around them threatening to drown them: their fortifications were all but shattered, their lines finally starting to break. They stood trapped upon the hill, all lines of retreat cut off, and their numbers dwindled by the minute. Soon enough, despite all their courage, all their fury and all their desperation they would be slain to a man, their valiant struggle rendered utterly moot.

 

As he watched this unfold, a great debate raged within the Son of the Steward. Rationally, he knew, there was very little that he could do. His company, even with the advantages of surprise and skill, only numbered slightly over half of a thousand, nowhere near enough to inflict any truly meaningful amount of damage on the host before him. When faced with such odds, it was rare that the Rangers would dare engage, preferring instead to fade into the undergrowth and live to fight another day. The part of the Captain’s mind dedicated to reason and logic told him to go while the orcs were distracted, to use this moment to put as much distance between himself and the Host of Mordor as possible and preserve his own forces. Why fight what was sure to be a losing battle?

 

But his conscience, his sense of duty, utterly disagreed. It urged him forwards, if not to fight than at the very least to pester, to strike at the exposed rear of the Enemy and to wreck havoc within his reserves. If the men of Gondor were to survive in this new land, it argued, then they would need allies, and there were few bonds tighter than those that were forged in battle. As they could not yet simply speak to these men, the best way to show their intentions would be, as it had been with the scattering of refugees that they had saved, to fight to protect them.

 

And Faramir’s heart all but begged him to aid those men on the hill, demanding that he not abandon them to their fates, that he not make the pragmatic decision but rather the right one. Survival in these lands, it insisted, would not come by throwing away his compassion and kindness, but rather by embracing it, that he could not save his body by throwing away his heart and his soul. His spirit already ached enough, from being forced to leave behind so many on this trek southwards. How much more was he prepared to take?

 

“What path to take?” Faramir murmured to himself, watching the battle before him rage on.

 

“Sir?” asked Madril, his second, looking over at the Captain.

 

Faramir shook his head, sighing. “I see two roads before me, Lieutenant, and both seem dark and full of danger. I cannot bear in my heart to flee, but nor do I dare to fight against such odds. Whatever path I walk, I see little light before me.” He shook his head. “What may a man do at such a crossroads?”

 

“You are more learned in such matters than I am, Sir,” replied the grizzled old Ranger. “I do not envy the choice laid before you, and no doubt greater men than you, and certainly greater than me, would be so loathe to choose as you are now.”

 

“I can offer you only this consolation,” Madril continued, laying a hand on Faramir’s shoulder, “that no matter which path you choose to walk, there is not a man among this company that would not follow you. Whatever your choice, you will not face its consequences alone.”

 

Taking a deep breath, the Captain of Gondor turned his back to the battle, looking back over his men. They were worn, ragged, looking ever more like the following of refugees that they had accumulated than the soldiers that they were. Their faces were worn and weary, clearly lacking sleep and food, but despite all of that a certain kind of fire now burned faintly in them, a flame of determination and devotion, of loyalty and faith. And all of that, Faramir realized, was directed towards him.

 

Madril, he realized, was right: these were men that might well try to storm Barad-Dur itself if he gave the order. In the chaos of the last few weeks, Faramir had become something more to them than a superior officer or a brother in arms. He was the rock on which they stood, their anchor in the storm. With the vanishing of Gondor, he might as well have been all that they had left, and they clung to him for security. He had seen such a bond forged before, and he saw the strength that it could lend: during the reclamation of Osgiliath, many men had looked to his brother in the same way, and they had followed the Captain of the White Tower far further than they would have in other times.

 

The Ranger closed his eyes at that thought. He wished that Boromir were here, desperately so. He would have known the better path to take The Elder Son of Denethor II, surely, would have been more suited to this task than he: The Captain of the White Tower was a greater man than his brother, praise that even Faramir gave him without hesitation. The man that had retaken Osgiliath would have made the better leader to the men here today. But no. It was the Ranger of Ithilien that this choice had fallen upon. And it was the Ranger of Ithilien that would have to make a decision.

 

Turning his gaze again, the Son of the Steward looked upon those men of these land that the Rangers had taken to protecting. They looked even more pitiful than the men of his company, looking like ragged beggars in what was presumably their own land. Between one and two hundred broken and haunted souls, many who were closer to death than to life. They were all that the Rangers had found alive, in a land of dozens of villages and hundreds of farms, places that the armies of Sauron had by now put to the torch.

 

A small remnant of what was once a nation that, from what little intact that Faramir had seen, might once have been not so different from the lands of Anfalas or Lebennin in Gondor, who now clutched to their perceived saviors like scared children. Looking upon them, the Son of the Steward saw that they were a people who had lost almost all hope, that saw the orcs as all-but-invincible monsters, creatures that only men of Gondor stood a chance of defeating, who saw the Rangers as their only chance of survival.

 

As he looked upon the frail remainder of the people of this land, the Captain of Gondor made his choice.

 

 

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The Black Easterling’s mount screamed as the arrows found their mark, puncturing its thick flesh and forcing them to break off their attack on the hill. It was not enough to truly harm the Fell Beast, but the great worm still spasmed and shook, pulling up and away from the battlefield as its rider worked to regain control. For a short moment, all that the Shadow of the East could do was to keep from being thrown off, roaring in fury as he worked the reigns, willing the creature to cease its bucking.

 

When the Ringwraith had stabilized their mount, they gazed out across the battlefield, looking for who to mete out their fury to for daring to strike at them. Khamul’s gaze saw more shafts falling upon the Host of the Morgul Vale, the arrows following the same path that the attacks against his mount must have taken, but they did not come from the hilltop. They rained down into the rear of his forces, coming not from the encircled army of men but from some other point, in the direction from which the host had come. And as he saw where they came from, a great scream erupted out of the Second of the Nazgul, a sound of fury and rage that seemed to shake the heavens themselves.

 

Gondorians. They were Gondorians! The White Tree and Seven Stars were visible on their armor, even from this distance. Specifically, they were the hated Rangers of Ithilien, an ever-present thorn in the side of Mordor, who struck at isolated columns and Ithilien and slunk away before they could be demolished for their impudence. Evidently, not all the forces of Gondor had vanished when Mordor had been sent into this new world, and even after the vanishing of their homeland their defiance remained, volleys of arrows falling into Khamul’s reserves.

 

The unexpected assault was sowing chaos in the rear, as the orcs that had thought they would be able to wait out the rest of the battle were cut down in droves by precise shot or stumbled blindly around, looking for their attackers, but the Gondorians had worked to conceal their approach, leaving the orcs little hint as to where the volleys were coming from. And the Ranger’s wisdom had other tricks to use as well: They did not press forwards towards the host, where the sheer numbers of orcs would mean their certain doom, instead keeping their distance and releasing volley after volley from their bows, their loose formation protecting them from the handful of shafts that returned their shots. Those orcs or ward riders that tried to charge them were shot down before coming anywhere close, the lone, uncoordinated attacks doing more to help the Rangers than the host.

 

And they did well to at least try and keep Khamul from dealing with them personally. Ever did their shafts fly towards the Fell Beast and its rider, arrows threatening to cut through the worm’s wings or bury themselves into its flesh. The Nazgul saw that many among the men of Gondor kept their aims afixed upon him, waiting in dread for his approach, trying to keep him at bay. And as long as the Ringwraith hung back, the rest could fire with impunity into his ranks, breaking up the attempts of the orcish officers to mount a counterattack and generally felling any that they could get a clear shot at.

 

Khamul snarled. This interference could not, would not, be allowed. Already, the Shadow of the East could see the men atop the hill rallying, the intervention of the Rangers fueling within them the fires of hope and courage. They fought with renewed vigor and desperation, roaring in defiance as they hacked at orcs and trolls, spilling even more black blood out upon the plains, encourage by the arrival of unexpected aid. Where they had been near defeat mere minutes before, they now fought as if victory was at hand, and the morale of the Host had begun to fall, disorientation and surprise taking their toll.

 

Such things could not be allowed to stand. With another bestial roar, the Second of the Nazgul raised their blade and charged the interlopers, the great worm’s wings beating the air as it began its approach. As the beast shot forwards, a volley of arrows rose to meet it, soaring up from the bows of men desperate to bring down the worm. Khamul threw his mount into a steep dive, pushing the beast below the wall of shafts, before leveling out and spurring the fell creature on towards the men of Gondor.

 

The Rangers below scattered like a flock of birds, their already loose formation shattering at the Ringwraith’s approach. Like a plough through soil the Fell Beast cut through them, its talons plunging through armor and flesh like so much rotted wood. Only a handful fell with each pass that the Black Easterling made, but the desperate attempts of the Rangers to evade him, coupled with his terrible screaming, had stopped their assault dead: not a single shaft was loosed towards the Host of Mordor, and already some were in full retreat, scattering to the four winds. They looped around for another attack, then another and another. 500 Rangers of Ithilien there were to face the lone Nazgul, and the 500 began to break and flee under the assault of the one.

 

And now, finally, with the fire against them slacking, the orcs were mounting a proper response: a vast column marching out to where their master sowed death among the men of Gondor, a steady formation that would shatter the ranks of the Rangers. Warg riders closed in, running down those that tried to flee and moving to entrap the rest. The Second of the Nazgul roared in triumph as his forces closed in for the kill, the Gondorian interlopers within his grasp. Victory, which for a short moment had seemed nearly ready to slip from the Black Easterling’s hands, was his to take once more. Not only would the so-called King of this new land fall today, but the remnants of the hated nation of Gondor as well. This day, the Ringwraith thought, would belong to the shadow soon enough.

 

The lights, however, was still defiant, and no sooner had the idea of victory entered the Nazgul’s mind than as well-aimed shaft tore into his mount’s neck, sending the beast once more into a frenzy. As Khamul worked again to reassert control, he looked down in fury upon a particular Ranger, their Captain, no doubt, shouting orders and encouragement to his men, lining up their next shot, standing in defiance of the Shadow of the East.

 

Another arrow flew up from the man, aiming at the Nagul themselves. Khamul almost casually deflected the shot with his blade, even as the beast below him continued to writhe. More shafts flew towards the Fell Beast, other men imitating the efforts of their commander, a small volley rising towards the worm. The Nazgul roared as a few found their target, piercing hide and muscle, the beast screaming even as it remained aloft, flying blindly upwards to escape the attack. The Ringwraith pulled hard on the reins, and the climb turned around, readying to enter into a screaming dive, and Khamul roared as the beast prepared to plunge towards its target, talons splayed and teeth barred, hungry for its prey. Below them, the Captain of the Rangers still stood, bow drawn back, readying their shaft to fly. The Second of the Nazgul raised their blade in fury, spurring their beast to strike…

 

But no. It was not to be. For in that instant, the Shadow of the East, high above the battlefield, heard the sound of marching out of the south, even over the noise of the battle below, and with a snarl they turned their mount away from the Ranger. Loath though they were to do so, a more pressing matter than a handful of Gondorians was now presenting itself. Khamul the Black Easterling spurred the Fell Beast towards the south, towards the two new lords of men that were approaching with their armies, towards the next phase of the battle.

 

Victory, it seemed, continued to elude him.

 

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Stefan, Grand Prince of Serbia, had faced this day with dread, knowing that there was a battle to be fought. It was Kaloyan’s choice that had brought them here, over the Grand Prince’s objections, and it was with trepidation that he had marched east, ever fearful of the black mountains that now rose in the east, of the terrifying tales that they heard in every village and town they marched through, of whatever dreadful thing waited for them in western Hungary.

 

But even he had not expected to arrive to the sight before him, one of demons and monsters and of Hell on Earth. He looked out upon a scene out of the End Times, which with rising dread he realized it might well be: a vast host of demons and monsters, closing in on what was presumably the remains of the Hungarian Army, trapped upon a hilltop with the darkness encircling them. The rumors he had heard of them did little justice to them, now that he could see their source with his own eyes: they were ugly and twisted things, with wicked blades and black armor, and with them the giants as tall as three men and their clubs like trees, the great wolves with teeth like daggers. The ground was stained red and black with the blood of men and demonic ichor, corpses strewn all about, and high above a dark shadow rode atop a black dragon, and they screamed in a voice that froze the Grand Prince’s blood in his veins.

 

Besides him, the whole army was as still as statues, their minds numb to the sight before them. For a long moment, the men were too shocked to move, too shocked to weep, too shocked to do anything but stare ahead at the battle in a stupor. Finally, someone spoke.

 

“Turn the column! Turn around, now! Turn around!”

 

Stefan whirled at the orders of the Tsar of Bulgaria, breaking him from his state of shock. Kaloyan had away from the battle and back towards the men, and from atop his mount was wildly gesturing at his troops, waving for them to go back the way that they had come. The men didn’t need much encouragement: some had already turned, starting to head back southwards, while others began taking steps backwards, weapons clenched with white knuckles. Kaloyan started to move back himself, spurring his horse and waving for the men to follow. The formation, already wavering, began to do so. One by one, the men turned their back on the battle, fear and dread in their eyes, and they started southwards.

 

“Go back!” The Tsar cried. “Go back! We’ll escape while they’re distracted with the Hungarians! Go now, before they notice us! Come on!”

 

Stefan remained rooted to his spot, turning his head back and forth, looking at the battle one moment and the army behind him the next. His mount nervously flicking its tail beneath him, its feet unsteady. When he looked back upon his men, his eyes saw the fear in his men’s hearts. Their bodies shook in terror; a few had growing stains between their legs. When he looked forwards at the battle, he saw an ever dwindling circle of light in the dark, suffocating in an endless shadow. He knew why his men wanted to run, for the same thoughts entered into his own mind, becoming louder by the second: what possible hope could there be in victory against such things? What could mere men do against such evil? Was Kaloyan not correct in hoping to fight another day? Did it not make more sense to flee while they still could.

 

“No…” Stefan whispered, as the sounds of the battle behind him filled his ears. The sounds of pain and suffering. The sounds of terrified men, dying in agony, the roaring of demons as they tore them apart, the cracking of bone and armor. It was the sounds of hell, and the Grand Prince knew that he would never forget what they sounded like. They rang in his mind, and Stefan could almost here the desperate begging of the Hungarians on the hill, the hopeless men watching as the Serbs and Bulgars, the only ones who might have been able to rescue them, began to turn and run.

 

“No, no, no...stop. Stop!” He called out to his men, the cries of help from the Hungarians, real or imagined, filling his thoughts. Kaloyan continued to lead the men back south, the Tsar refusing to look back. “Stop! STOP!”

 

Stefan was a pious man, having been raised so by his father, Stefan Nemanja, now the monk Symeon at Mount Athos. The elder Stefan had done much to impart his faith to his son, instilling within him the value of faith and good works alike, showing him how to be kind and charitable, just and faithful, wise and courageous. He had taught his son to always stand tall in the dark, when all things seemed to have turned against him, for faith in the Lord would always see him through. It was lessons such as this that the younger Stefan had taken deeply to heart, growing up from a faithful boy into a pious man. Whatever troubles he had, he would lay them out for  the Lord to take. It was this faith that he took comfort in, even more so than his often distant and possibly unfaithful wife Eudokia, this faith that gave him strength in troubled times,this  faith that guided him when he found himself out of his depth.  And it was this faith that guided his decision now.

 

“HAAAAAAAAAAAALT!!” Stefan roared, his voice carrying over even the continuing sounds of battle behind him. The men listened to him now, freezing where they stood and turning back to face him, terror still apparent in their eyes. They looked at him, some questioning, some fearful.

 

“Look at you!” he screamed, his muscles tightening, “look at you lot! Slithering away like worms in the earth! Ready to abandon the field without so much as a whimper!”

 

The men’s faces had not changed. Stefan continued. “Do you not recall why we are here!? Do you not remember why we first marched out to this place!? Do you so quickly forget!? I tell you this: It was not for conquest! It was not for glory! I summoned you all, Serb and Bulgar alike, so that we could march as one in the aid of those that we had heard were suffering! We marched out to protect those that could that could not protect themselves! We marched out to aid the people of Hungary!”

 

Stefan swept back his arm at the battle, his fingers stretching towards the hillside. “Well, there are the people of Hungary! SHALL WE NOT AID THEM!?”

 

The army remained frozen for a long moment. The looks of fear remained, but joining them now were small flecks of shame, of men who looked down at their feet, unwilling to face him.  Stefan panted, trying to catch his breath. Behind them, the sounds of suffering and death continued.

 

As he had before, Kaloyan broke the silence: “Have you gone mad!?” He screeched, his face red, “or has your eyesight left you!? Can you not see what we would face!? You would march us all to our doom!”

 

“AND YOU WOULD NOT!?” Stefan bellowed in response. He paused for a moment, trying to bring his emotions back under control. His father had done well to teach him that screaming only worked on the easily cowed, which the Tsar of Bulgaria was not.

 

“You see their mounts, Kaloyan,” Stefan continued, rage seething in his voice, “swifter than any horse we have. They would run us down upon the road, would they not? Already, they have taken notice of us. It is too late to flee. We must fight this day, whether we wish to or not!”

 

The Grand Prince turned away from the Tsar, once again addressing the whole army. The men, at least, had stayed put, listening to Stefan’s piece. With a quick prayer for guidance, the Grand Prince raised his voice again.

 

“I do not begrudge you your fear, for the same terror fills my own heart! I see the Legions of Hell before me; it is right to be afraid, for such things are to be feared! But I will not let my terror rule me! I will not! I will walk in the shadow of the valley of death, and fear no evil! God is besides me! With faith and little else I may fell these giants, as David did Goliath! For not my own strength and skill, but rather the Lord will be my savior!”

 

The men stared at him, still no moving. Taking a deep breath, Stefan said another short prayer before continuing.  “And like David, I shall go forwards alone if I must! If none shall join me, than with the Lord alone I shall walk! For God shall be with me, and as long as that is true I know that I cannot be defeated! Even if I shall fall, then I shall go into my father’s arms! And is not that the greatest victory to win!?”

 

There was a small murmur in the army now. Stefan drew his sword. “Follow me! Follow me! Do as I do. Let us go out and meet the Devil!” The murmurs grew louder. “Who dies shall be with the Father! Now, follow me! God is with us! Follow me! Have faith, and follow me!”

 

Stefan turned back towards the battle, his sword raised high above his head, and he raised his voice high to the heavens. “IF YOU HAVE FAITH WITHIN YOU, FOLLOW ME!” He spurred his mount and charged, towards the battle, towards the demons and the great wolves and the giants, giants, towards the ground painted red and black with blood, towards all the Legions of Hell itself.

 

And behind him rose a great roar: a war cry, rising on thousands of voices, and the ground shuddered under their feet as the soldiers of Christ charged.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Andrew of Hungary fought like a man possessed. His prayers, it seemed, had been answered: for a too-long moment, it had looked as if the Kaloyan and Stefan would flee the field and leave his men to die, but now they surged forwards to engage, and Andrew fought his way towards the charging army of the Bulgars and Serbs, those that he would have placed among his worst enemies the day before becoming his unexpected (but desperately hoped for) allies in this battle. His blade, stained as black as night with the blood of demons, cleaved through monster after monster. Behind him, the men of Hungary were like wild beasts, giving their last to carve a pathway to their saviors, to survival, to hope.

 

The twisted creatures on the hill’s southern slope were caught like softened iron between an anvil and a hammer. The Hungarians rallied desperately towards those that so recently would have been mortal foes, plunging headlong into the press of demons and monsters, the mad hacking of their blades slicing a way through the horde. Their newfound allies smashed through the lines of the Devil’s Army, piercing their ranks like a spear through flesh, carving a bloody swathe into their ranks. They squeezed the shadow between them, like wheat in a millstone, being ground down beneath two great stones, the two wheels growing ever closer before they finally met and Andrew found himself before a man in ornately decorated armor atop a white horse, whom the younger son of Bela III recognized was no mere knight or noble.

 

“Grand Prince Stefan!” he called, smiling for the first time in days. “I am pleased that you and Kaloyan have decided to come to my aid!”

 

Stefan smiled, bitter and mirthless, shaking his head. “Just me for the time being. Kaloyan, curse him, has chosen cowardice, it appears.” The Serbian looked back over his shoulder, scrutinizing the horizon. “Although it seems that he has not yet fled. Perhaps he does have some courage in him.”

 

Andrew’s face dropped into a scowl. “So the great Emperor of Bulgaria decides to sit like a boulder while we face the Legions of Hell, then? Damn him.” He let out an angry growl. “We will not last long without his aid, though. Do you think there is a chance he will join us?”

 

Stefan shook his head again, grimacing. “Unlikely. He’s more likely to try and use us as a distraction to make his escape.”

 

Andrew clenched his fist, breathing hard. He turned to face Stefan again before speaking. “Fine then! If he shall not join the battle, then we must bring it to him!” Raising his fist, he continued. “My men are weary. They cannot hold much longer without a respite. Can you cover us while we retreat to the Bulgars?”

 

The Grand Prince smiled, nodding. “I can buy you as long as you need. Take your men and get to Kaloyan. I have your back.” The Serb reached out his arm, and after the slightest moment’s hesitation, Andrew grabbed his hand and shook. A great cheer rose up from their men at the symbol of this new alliance, born in the fires of battle, and they fought with a renewed vigor, knowing now that they did not stand alone.

 

“Rally to the Bulgars! Rally to the Bulgars!” Andrew cried as, for the first time in days, his spirits began to lift. Besides him, Stefan gave similar orders, calling for his men to stand fast and hold off the demons while the Hungarians retreated.

 

The battle, once surely lost, was now far from over.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Kaloyan, Tsar of Bulgaria, cursed his ‘ally’ Stefan of Serbia. He would have wished the man damned to Hell, but it appeared that they were both already there. The Devil’s Army stood before him, hacking at the Hungarians and Serbs, demons and giants and twisted wolves bashing themselves against their ranks, terrors that seemed to have stepped out of nightmares and into the waking world.

 

But they were not invincible, at least: their dead littered the ground, and it seemed that they had not expected for Andrew to receive any kind of aid, and Stefan’s assault seemed to have thrown them into momentary disarray. Now the remnants of the Hungarian army stumbled southwards through the corridor that the Serbs had cut, their sudden allies mounting a fighting retreat behind them, spelling even more black ichor onto the snow-covered ground. And behind them, the Legions of Hell roared, still pushing forwards, headed straight for where Kaloyan stood.

 

The men with him were unsteady, unsure of what to do. They looked to the Tsar for a decision, most of them not brave enough to charge after the Grand Prince but not so cowardly as to flee the field. They waited for someone to give them an order.

 

“Damn it.” Kaloyan whispered, before turning to the army. “Form ranks!” the Tsar called, cursing under his breath, “Form ranks now! We won’t stand a damn chance if we run! Form ranks if you don’t want to die!”

 

The men began to scurry, breaking out of their paralysis, forming lines and preparing for battle. The Tsar continued to mutter curses. For as much as Kaloyan currently wished ill on him, Stefan was right in at least one respect: fleeing would just invite the enemy to run him down as they were strung out on the road, an even worse prospect then standing and fighting: in the latter case, they at least had a chance. And they would catch them, even with both the Hungarians and Serbs acting as a distraction: the wolves that they rode were faster than most horses that Kaloyan had ever seen, and they did not seem to tire either. Besides that, it was likely that any retreat at all, even an organized one, would quickly turn into a rout, a scattered flight that would see the men cut down one by one. And even more to the point, the Bosnians were still somewhere on the road, and did not yet know fully of the threat coming down from the north. If they met the Bulgars on the road, they would be likely to attack.

 

Despite the Tsar’s misgivings, the Grand Prince was correct: it would be better for them to stand their ground. They were, at least being given a small blessing: a brief respite seemed to be settling over the battlefield. The demons had broken off their assault for the moment and were reforming their ranks, the rider of the flying worm rallying the Army of Darkness upon the hill where Andrew had been making his stand, allowing the forces of men to regroup as well. While Stefan and Andrew’s forces moved to join with Kaloyan’s, the Legions of Hell built themselves into a frenzy. Giants bellowed. Wolves howled. Demons screamed for blood and battle. The balance of power remained in their favor. Even after the grinding battle that they had already fought, their forces remained vast, between half again and twice the number of the three armies of men combined.  

 

Grimacing, Kaloyan watched the approach of the man that mere hours before he would have been attempting to kill, nodding to him before speaking.

 

“How long until the Bosnians arrive?” the Tsar asked, his voice one of rage mixed with annoyance. “Even with all our strength combined, I doubt that we will be able to hold for overlong. If they do not come soon…”

 

“I am not perfectly sure,” the Hungarian answered, “but Kulin’s pace was quickening last I heard. He should be here sometime this afternoon though, and no later, but that still...three, perhaps four hours.”

 

“That’s not soo…” the Bulgar started, but Stefan raised a hand to silence him.

 

“That will have to be soon enough,” the Serb sighed. “We can’t flee, they’ll just run us down. Ws stand our ground until the Bosnians arrive. Until then...until then we hold the line and trust in the Lord. It is all that we can do.” The Grand Prince’s lips twitched in the ghost of a smile. “We only have to hold these devils back for a few hours. I think that three great lords such as ourselves will be able to do that, no?”

 

“Four Lords.”

 

The three nobles turned towards that response, each with a look of surprise (and in Andrew’s case, shock) on their face. Striding towards them was a sight that none among them had truly expected to see: King Emeric of Hungary, looking far worse for wear than the last time that any of them had laid eyes upon him, with torn clothes and sleepless eyes and frail limbs, but alive and present nonetheless. Behind him were a small grouping of men, their unfamiliar armor adorned with the symbol of a white tree under seven stars, well armed and serious looking. He turned to Andrew, his expression one of contained contempt.

 

“I have brought help. These men are our allies: they slay the demons like none other, and there are 500 of them with me. They’ll stand with us.”

 

Andrew eyed the King, his expression tightening.

 

“Hello, brother,” the King practically spat. “You seem disappointed to see me. I believe that it would be too much to presume that you raised an army to look for me.”

 

Andrew started forwards, but Stefan stepped between the siblings before he could do anything. The Grand Prince looked back and forth, a disbelieving look on his face.

 

“I don’t believe this,” he said, exasperation clear in his tone, “are you seriously about to have this dispute? Have you two already forgotten the reason that we all aren’t trying to kill each other right now? If you have, I invite you to look north. You’ll remember, quite quickly, I guarantee you.”

 

As if to emphasize the point, at that moment the black scream that all present had learned to dread, the sound that made it feel as if the soul itself was splitting apart, began again, and again it was followed by the roaring of demons, sounding like the ringing of thunder. The earth began to tremble as the Legions of Hell began once more to march, and the four lords of men turned towards the Devil’s Army, their grips tightening on their weapons.

 

Stefan spoke again, this time raising his voice to the whole of the army. “We stand as one now!

 

As brothers in arms! Let old disputes,” he turned for a moment towards Andrew and Emeric at those words, “fall aside! Let all old quarrels be forgotten! Let us fight not for our separate nations, not for our separate tongues and practices, but for common survival! For our common Lord and God! Let us throw back the shadow together! For life! For Faith! FOR CHRIST THE KING!”

 

The men behind the four lords echoed the Grand Prince’s roar, a bellowed challenge to the charging might of Hell, an answer to their terrible battlecry, and an instant later, the battle had begun again, the armies of Christ and Satan clashing together like great waves. The nobles of the Balkans, of Hungary and Croatia and Serbia and Bulgaria, four men that on any other day might have been the bitterest of foes, mortal enemies that would not hesitate to strike each other down, stood as one, united against Hell itself, leading their peoples against the dark. They lashed out against all the monsters and demons around that dared approach, a shining beacon of light in the howling shadows of winter.

 

Their subjects, men that in normal times would not be caught dead helping each other, fought like born brothers, taking heart at the sight of their lords standing together. Hungarians stood back to back with Serbs; Croats stood over and protected wounded Bulgars. Four nations, four peoples, that on any other day would have been happy to see each other slaughtered, battled as one, united under the common banner of defiance and survival. They were Orthodox and Catholic, speakers of Hungarian and Latin and Greek and Bulgarian, but in this moment they were as one.

 

And so was waged the Second Battle of Five Armies, in the likeness of the first: an alliance forged in the darkest hour, with the enemy all around them. The Army of Mordor battled against Four Armies, seeking to drown them in the shadows. But the Armies of Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria and Gondor stood in defiance, together as one against the growing darkness, all differences forgotten. Men of four nations across two worlds worked to hold back the black tide. As the shadows boiled around them, as demons and giants and great wolves broke against them, as the Black Rider above dove from the skies and struck at them, his terrible screaming near unending, they stood as one. And on the plains of Hungary, in the swirling winds of winter, a great light shone against the darkness. The light of faith. The light of hope. The light of courage. The light of brotherhood. The light of survival. 

 

On the plains of Hungary, with shadow all around, stood a beacon to all the world.

Chapter Text

February 14, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Lorien

 

It was a battle like few others, before or since, both in scale and in impact upon the world. This was not because of the armies that clashed there, no: The meeting of arms was little different than any of the thousands of others fought between elves and orcs down through the centuries. It was, though, without doubt a tremendous clash, notable even among all the millennials of war between the Children of Illuvatar and Morgoth’s twisted mockeries of them: the dark denizens of Moria, their numbers like the leaves in the forest, surged forwards like a tidal wave of darkness, seeking to drown their foes in a sea of blood, flesh and metal. They were like so many wild beasts, snarling and howling as they charged without regard for their own lives, thirsty for blood and battle.

 

They were met first with volley after volley of precise arrows that plunged into gaps in their shoddy armor, tearing holes into their surging ranks, the elven archers calmy firing shot after shot after shot. The foot soldiers of Lorien met the charging horde with spear thrusts and the hacking of swords, quick and precise and extremely deadly, hundreds or even thousands of years of training and skill put to good use against the raging black horde.  

 

The melee would only grow from there. The Cave Trolls of Moria, with their great clubs and hide like leather and sheer size and strength, came forth, charging the lines of the elves like living battering rams, and with them other creatures of the dark: the wolves of the mountains, hungry and wild and with their teeth and claws like daggers, howling as they pounced on their prey; spiders of Mirkwood, taken from their homes long ago and bred in the crags of the Black Pit for war and war alone, now unleashed against the foes of Moria. These twisted beasts joined the other denizens of that dark place, and with club and fist and tooth and claw they tried to push into the forest, hacking and clawing and biting at all that stood against them.

 

But this was Lothlorien. This was the Golden Wood. This was the Heart of Elvendom itself, the realm of Galadriel and Celeborn, and the light that shone here would not be easily extinguished.

 

The people of Lorien knew well the ways of war: wedged between the dark forest of Mirkwood on one side and the Black Pit of Moria on the other, the elves knew that they were a tempting target for Sauron’s thralls, largely isolated from their allies by the Misty Mountains to the west and Dol Guldur to the east. They had long known that the day would dawn when the armies of the Enemy would march upon their lands, known that the time would come for them to take up arms and defend their homes, and for centuries, nay, millennia, they had prepared, building hidden fortifications and laying snares and traps wherever they could, spending whatever waking hours they had to spare training for the battle that was to come. As the shadow in the east had grown darker, as the passes over the mountains and the road through Mirkwood had become ever harder to walk, the people of Lorien had seen that the day they dreaded had been drawing near, and they had steeled themselves for the storm to come.

 

And so it was that when the battle did come, and all the dark and twisted inhabitants of Moria climbed out of their hiding places, took up arms and assailed themselves against the Golden Wood, descending this dark night from the Mirrormere like a flood of shadow from a burst damn, the elves of Lorien were ready. The forest had no wall or fence around it, no barrier against which the black tide could break. It did not matter: The elves built a barricade of wood and metal and flesh, of spears and shields and swords, and the walls of Minas Tirith could not have been stronger. High in the trees, their archers picked off their targets at will, while the infantry below formed an unbreaking line against the charging horde. Again and again, the endless waves of orcs and goblins and wolves and trolls broke against the lines of the elves, screaming and roaring and howling, fighting with blade and tooth and claw to break through into the forest: again and again, the lines held, a great dam holding back a raging black river.

 

Screams and shouts and the clanging of metal pierced the night as the wave and the wall smashed against each other, numbers and wild abandon favoring one side and skill and the terrain on the side of the other. Arrows rained down upon the field, from elves high in the trees or orcs on the dark ground below, the line of battle flexing and bending and even occasionally being pierced, but refusing to break in either direction. Blood bathed the ground, orcish and elven alike, and a winding ridge of dead and dying flesh began to pile up at the feet of the combatants. And still they fought, standing atop a slowly rising hill of corpses, both sides refusing to yield.

 

But for all the courage and valor of the elves, for all the savagery and strength of the orcs, it was not they who would decide the battle. The great armies, both thousands strong, for all their arms and skill in the arts of war, would not, could not, claim the victory this night. It was not they, those mere soldiers, who would determine the fate of Lorien. For on the west bank of the Silverlode, between the mighty river and the stream known as Nimrodel, stood those that would. The two great armies of elves and orcs, for all the blood they spilled, all the actions they took to defeat each other, were a skirmish, a distraction, a sideshow, a schoolboy’s fight compared to the duel besides the River Celebrant.

 

For it was here, on the western edge of the field of battle, that Galadriel, Lady of the Golden Wood would meet with Durin’s Bane, the Last of the Balrogs.

 

Perhaps it was destined that they should meet, now, in this new world, far beyond the bounds of Arda and Valinor, the lands of their births. Here were two monuments to the glories and dreads of bygone ages: The Nameless Terror, the final remnant of the terrors of Thangorodrim, last echo of the First Age; and the Lady of the Golden Wood, who’s people had long turned their hearts towards the west and the sea, who had slowly watched the fading of the Third. A new Age was dawning, one of light or darkness yet to be determined but dawning nonetheless. The Age of Balrogs was long passed; the Age of Elves was passing. But before the time of the new world could begin, the old still had a few final gasps to give. It was fitting, then, that these two pinnacles of their Ages would face each other now, in these strange times when the whole world seemed to have been change. They stood at the turning of the Age, almost as if to give the old a proper send-off. The Third Age of Middle-earth, it seemed, had saved its best for last.

 

None dared draw close to them, and rightly so: to do so was to court instant death, not at the hands of either combatant but from the collateral effects of their attacks and defenses alone. Very few had even the courage to so much as look upon them from afar, to gaze upon the mightiest of their respective kinds, to witness for themselves the full power of Elf and Balrog. This was not a simple duel or a battle between two warriors, oh no: here was a meeting of two forces of nature, each stoppable only by the other.

 

The earth shook like a toy in the hands of an infant, the ground trembling beneath their feet. The winds howled and roared, as if they had come alive and were screaming their battlecry to the heavens. With every assault, every defense, every action and reaction, the fabric of the world itself seemed to tear and fray around them, for as they moved and struck at each other, the very air through which they moved seemed to distort and bend to their wills. The whole atmosphere was charged with energy and power, building by the second. Two beacons burned in the black night, the storm around them ever growing, twisting, roaring, the twin hearts at its center aglow like the noonday sun.

 

A towering pillar of red fire and black smoke was one of these hearts, threatening to consume all things. Theirs was the flame of destruction and death, of approaching doom and torturous agony. This was the Master of the Black Pit, that Nameless Terror which had stormed hidden Gondolin in the First Age, laid low the mightiest of the Dwarves in the Third, and had fought against the Istari Olorin until the world itself had been broken. They stood as tall as even the oldest trees of the forest, and its black flesh was aflame, cracks of fire glowing in its skin like veins of magma. A twisted, dark flame of pure wrath and malice glowed in its heart, like unending hatred given form, a black heart pumping raw, unstoppable fury through the shadowy flesh. The waters of Nimrodel and Celebrant boiled at the mere presence of the beast, and all around the ancient trees of the Golden Wood warped and cracked and burst into flame, the waves of heat erupting from the creature igniting the timbers like dried leaves in a hearth. Wherever it steeped, the earth beneath its feet was fused into glass, and in its hands it held two terrible weapons, one in each hand: a great whip of fire, which cackled like lightning and shattered whatever it struck and a black, towering sword, wreathed in flames, which cleaved through ancient wood and earth and stone like so much air. They were like an unstoppable wildfire, an erupting volcano, their flame an all-devouring conflagration that threatened to burn all things to ash.

 

Among all the peoples of Lorien, all the warriors and wise of the Heart of Elvendom, there was but one that could stand against the inferno, one who could hope to contain the blaze. They stood before the Balrog, unbowed and unbent, standing tall and fair. This was the Lady Galadriel, Guardian of the Golden Wood, Ruler of Lorien. This was the Sister of Finrod, savior of Beren; the Daughter of Finarfin, veteran of the War of Wrath; Granddaughter of Finwe, High King of the Noldor. This was one born in the Years of the Trees in Valinor itself, one who had seen the first sunrise with her own eyes, one who marched across the Grinding Ice into Beleriand of old. This was the founder of the Realm of Lothlorien, the Heart of Elvendom in Middle-earth, the bearer of Nenya, one of the Three Rings of Power untainted by Sauron’s touch, the one who had banished Sauron himself from his fortress of Dol Guldur. She stood tall before the Flame in the Shadow, unarmed and unarmored, without so much as a walking stick for use as a weapon. Galadriel had no need of such meager things: every one of the Balrog’s strikes, by fire or sword or whip, was met not with steel or mithril, but with the magic of, perhaps, the greatest elf who yet remained east of the Sea. The Lady of Light lived up to her moniker, shining like the Star of Earendil in the moonlit night as the ancient lands of Lorien, so familiar to her touch, bent to her power and will. Her light was like that of all the stars together turning the black gloom of night into the brightest day as she turned away every strike that the Nameless Terror made against her. The winds bowed to her whim, and a great whirlwind swirled around the Lady of the Golden Wood, shielding her from harm and striking at the beast before her: lightning cracking from the sky, boulders and trees torn from the ground and hurled at her foe. Galadriel stood at the center of a small hurricane, daring her opponent to strike at her.

 

Durin’s Bane accepted the challenge, and so the two fought, in the heart of a storm of fire and wind and and light. Oh, how they fought. How could one possibly described the scene? What words could be used that so justice? No writer in the history of the world could tell the full truth. Homer, the greatest writer of the Greeks of old, would have perhaps seen the goddess Artemis, locked in battle with a monster from the deepest, darkest crag of Tartarus, but even all his skill with prose could not give proper justice to the scene. The compilers of the Poetic Edda, those Vikings of the far north, might have sung a song of Surtur himself, come forth from Muspelheim to bring about the end of Asgard, confronted by a great Valkyrie, or perhaps Freyja herself, but their songs and poems could not describe what occurred between Nimrodel and the Celebrant.

 

To merely say that the ground shuddered and buckled with every step that the Balrog took cannot possibly described the way that the earth shook that night: It cannot convey how the ground shifted and moved beneath their feet, cannot truthfully tell of how much the very foundation of the earth felt as if they were coming apart. The words are not enough. Likewise, to say that the wind roared like ten thousand dragons as the Lady of the Golden Wood molded it to her will, the dirt and broken branches carried on it flying so fast that they cut like Elven swords into the shadowy flesh of Durin’s bane is folly, because such words are not enough to describe the truth of what was happening. Language itself has failed: this duel is beyond its capacity to describe with accuracy. Even the word ‘duel’ is a lie, for it implies a small, personal battle between two foes; it is too small of a term to describe the truth. There is no word, in english or any other tongue that could be used for the showdown of the Nameless Terror and the Lady of Light. It was more than a mere confrontation, more than a simple duel, more even than an epic battle. To use such meager words is to lie and deceive, for such words are not enough to describe the truth.

 

What can be done to tell of what happened besides the Celebrant that night? What tongue holds the terms that are needed? To describe the scene would be an impossible task. An attempt could be made, of course: It could be said that what happened near the confluence of Nimrodel and Silverlode was the like a clash of two gods, one of light and the other of shadow, both working to bend the world to their will. It could be said that the winds were so strong that they became a wall of solid steel, unyielding and hard as the gates of Erebor or Minas Tirith. It could be said that the blade and whip of fire crashed against this wall like falling stars, burning as hot as the heart of Mount Doom. It could be said that every piece of stray debris caught in the storm, from the stones and trees down to the smallest leaves and flecks of dirt bit and cut like the teeth of dragons wherever they struck. It could be said that the foundations of the earth shuddered and groaned with every step taken, every blow and parry, threatening to break under the strain. All of this could be said, and every word would be untrue, for the mere words cannot come close to describing the meeting besides the Celebrant.

 

Here is what is true: there were two great lanterns burning in the night, terrible and awesome to all that witnessed them, a spectacle not seen before or since. One light was an all-consuming blaze seeking to devour all, fueled by hate and malice and pure, unrelenting wrath; the other a beacon of ancient power and wisdom, the light of the firstborn Children of Illuvatar. The legacies of Morgoth and Gothmog of Thangorodrim and of Feanor and Fingolfin were pitted against each other, the final spawn of Angband facing one that could well claim to be the greatest Elf that had not yet gone over the sea. Here was the culmination of the Balrogs, as the last of their kind, that Master of the Black Pit, that final veteran of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears fought with a savagery and fell might that even Gothmog, Captain of Angband would have been proud to claim as their own. Here was the zenith of the elves, as the kin of so many heroes of Ages past sood tall and upheld that lofty legacy will skill and valor and might that even Feanor would have noticed. One last time, the histories of the Balrogs and the Elves had intersected, and this last and desperate battle would be near the pinnacle of the legacies of both kinds.

 

More than 10,000 years of combined wisdom and power were theirs to command, and command it they did, every ounce of skill, wisdom and strength within both being used. Hours passed in stalemate, if such a meager word as ‘stalemate’ could have ever described how Galadriel turned aside each strike with a wall of solid wind, making the sky howl like an army who’s numbers were beyond reckoning, could have described how the earth beneath the Balrog had slowly turned into a sea of molten glass and rock, the debris in the wind igniting and turning their surrounding into a storm of fire, how every blow and parry sounded and felt as if a thousand bolts of lightning had struck the same spot, each one seeming to pound into the fabric of the world itself, cutting and slicing at the cloth…

 

But neither had yet to give even a single step. Each attack and counter was met, an endless dance that neither could take control of. The Balrog’s fire refused to slacken, and in fact grew hotter by the minute, their roars and bellows growing louder and more enraged with each failed attack. Galadriel, too, was yet unscratched, her defenses still beyond the Nameless Terror’s power to breach. For hours and hours, long after the setting of the moon and the rising of the sun, long after both their armies had ceased to battle each other, exhausted, and could now do little more than watch their duel in awe, long after day had broken and the winter sun had climbed feebly into the sky, they had fought, both unable to break the other.

 

As the battle raged on, Durin’s Bane felt the world around it beginning to warp and tear, and their anger burned even hotter as the too-familiar feeling began to return to them. All too well did they recall their duel with the one who had stood against them upon the Bridge of Khazad-Dum: the days of flight and pursuit, the endless running battle from the deeps below the Silvertine, up the Endless Stair and to Durin’s Tower. The Nameless Terror recalled the feeling of the world fraying, remembered unleashing all their rage and power on the peak, when the fight had reached total stalemate, could feel once more the wounds they had taken when reality had been shattered and they had fallen back into the darkness. This battle, it seemed, was set to follow the same path.

 

The Last of the Balrogs snarled, continuing to lash out, each blow a thunderstrike, all met and turned aside by the she-elf. The Nameless Terror could feel the fabric of reality continuing to fray with every movement and counter, but they continued the assault regardless, hacking away at the elf’s defenses with strokes that could have cleaved open a mountain. Perhaps they would have worried about such things once, would have feared the consequences of repeating the duel atop Zirakzigil, but no more. The sheer anger and malice of the Master of the Black Pit would no longer be contained. What cared they for the world? Hatred and wrath had long since consumed Durin’s Bane: all they desired was the annihilation of the one they had faced on the Peak. To accomplish that, they would happily burn down the entire world.

 

They would start with this one, this one who defied them, who had turned away strikes that would have laid low dragons, who still stood tall and seemingly without a scratch upon them. As they had atop Silvertine, the Last of the Balrogs pressed their attack without relent, the black fire of raw, unstoppable rage burning within them like the Forge of Aule, the dark power of Morgoth flowing through them like magma within a volcano.

 

And the volcano was erupting. The burning, melted ground beneath their feet churned and boiled as the Nameless Terror swung blow after blow after blow at their opponent, even as the walls of wind closed in around them, the air becoming like chains of solid mithril binding the Balrog’s limbs. The flames only burned hotter in response, burning through the barriers as quickly as they came, the unquenchable wrath of Durin’s Bane driving them to strike faster and faster.

 

But still the Lady of the Golden Wood was unyielding. The Balrog was like a second sun, the fires of their anger hotter and brighter than the breath of even Smaug the Golden, the heat rivaling perhaps even that of the fire of Glaurung, the Father of Dragons. Galadriel, though, shone even brighter, her whole body aglow with the power of the Eldar. The Ring of Adamant shone like a Silmaril, its light seeming to form an unbreachable shield around its bearer. Even under the Balrog’s unceasing attacks, strikes that were like falling stars smashing against the earth, her defense could not be broken. The Lady of Lothlorien, for hours, long after all but a handful yet in the world of the living would have been obliterated, had held her ground, taking not a single step back, refusing to allow the Nameless Terror to defile her realm.

 

But she, too, could feel the world around them beginning to warp and tear. She felt the Great Music, already so badly changed, building towards something dreadful, a dissonant chord even worse than before. It was a terrible crescendo, a rising sound and feeling of oncoming catastrophe. If this battle continued much longer, the whole world would lose. In horror, the Lady of the Golden Wood thought of what damage had already been done to the Music. Already, her home had been torn from its place and sent into this new world. Galadriel dreaded what might happen if the Music changed again.

 

The Balrog, for their part, had no such concerns. Their attack continued without the slightest hint of hesitation, their whip and sword two churning whirlwinds of fire and rage, twin instruments of destruction blazing with power as they hammered against Galadriel’s barriers. To the naked eye, they were no longer any sort of creature of the flesh, even one produced by Morgoth’s twisted works. No, their appearance was now only that of a towering inferno, orange and red and black, a living firestorm that strove to consume all that it touched. Again and again and again the flames leapt forwards, as fast or faster than the eye could track, blazing power slamming itself against Galadriel’s defenses, uncaring of the possible harm they might inflict upon the whole world. They had no love for this world, not even out of desire to rule it. They wanted only for those that opposed them to burn.

 

This one, they decided, had opposed them long enough. The Nameless Terror, Durin’s Bane, the Master of the Black Pit and Last of the Balrogs raised up their terrible blade and whip together, and two pillars of fire seeming to wrap around each other, fusing together, and with a final, terrible roar, one that shook the very foundations of the earth, they brought the entwined weapons down as one, as a singular, terrible strike, driven downwards with all their malice, all their wrath, all their hatred and dark powers, in a blow that could have cleaved a new pass into the Misty Mountains. It struck into the barriers that the elf had raised, burning through them like a wildfire consuming a dry field. Fire exploded outwards from the point of impact as the blade found its mark, a wall of terrible flame that fused and melted the earth below and scoured clear the air. The winds, which had for so long howled and roared like a hurricane, ceased, the remaining debris and shrapnel they carried crashing to the ground, aflame. Total silence fell, and the spawn of Morgoth took a moment to rest, their hands heavy upon the hilt of their blade. Even the storm of fire had died down: The Balrog’s flames had been expended, and now they stood as creature of smoke and stone only, their whole blaze put behind the final blow. After a long moment, they looked down upon their prey.

 

There stood Galadriel, tall and unbowed, her eyes ablaze with defiance. Her hands were raised above her head, Nenya ablaze with light upon her finger, and she was completely unscathed, with not so much as a speck of dust upon her. The Balrog’s blade strained against her hand, an impassable barrier of power and will standing between it and its target. For a moment, the two foes simply stared each other down, both breathing heavily, waiting for the next move to be made. Then Galadriel spoke.

 

“Enough,” The Lady of Light said. “This. Ends. Now!”

 

The Balrog roared in fury, their fire in an instant growing back to full blaze, even hotter than before, and they tried to draw back their blade to strike again, but already the winds had returned to hurricane strength, the air again turning solid and forming binding chains around the Nameless Terror.

 

“YOU HAVE NO POWER HERE, BEAST OF THANGORODRIM!” Galadriel called, her whole body radiating pure energy as the winds continued to build, her hands raised up in a gesture of banishment. “THIS IS MY DOMAIN!”

 

The Balrog bellowed in rage, the earth shaking as struggled against the forming bonds of wind, magic and light. Their flames burned like the heart of the sun, and once again they began to burn their way through Galadriel’s barriers, swinging their blade and whip against the invisible bonds. More appeared as quickly as they had vanished, though, and the Nameless Terror roared and thrashed as the Lady of the Golden Wood began to glow even brighter.

 

“GO BACK TO THE PIT FROM WHENCE YOU CAME!” the Lady of Light roared, her light glowing even brighter. “RETURN TO THE SHADOWS, SLAVE OF MORGOTH!”

 

Galadriel’s hands were outstretched, posed as if she were trying to physically push Durin’s Bane away. Like it had all those years ago in Dol Guldur, her voice began to twist and distort as she worked to banish the fell creature before her. A dark shadow seemed to fall upon her, as if she were absorbing the very light around her and was directing it against the monster before her. The Ring of Adamant was a point of pure light before her, light shining from her hand like a lance of power, directed at the Balrog’s heart.

 

“YOU ARE NOTHING! YOU ARE THE DUST OF A BYGONE AGE! BEGONE FROM THIS PLACE!”

 

The Master of the Black Pit roared in defiance, ablaze with a light of its own, a light of unrelenting pure hate, sheer rage pushing its flame hotter than ever before, driving them forwards once more, step by step, even as the winds began to tear away the Balrog’s very flesh. They staggered forwards, using their massive blade like a cane, digging their feet into the ground, the melted ground below warping and melting, pure, terrible will spurring the beast on, even as lines of blazing white light began to dig their way into its flesh.  

 

“BEGONE, SPAWN OF ANGBAND!” Galadriel ordered, her voice like that of a Valar, her features almost impossible to see in the brightness of her light. “JOIN THE REST OF YOUR MASTER’S REFUSE IN OBLIVION!”

 

There were no longer an elf and a balrog, no longer a servant of Morgoth and a child of Illuvatar, no longer two beings of flesh. There were only two fonts of pure, unstoppable power, both threatening to consume the other, in the center of a maelstrom of fire and wind. No more words or roars could be heard from either, the winds and flames too loud for anything to be heard. None could look upon them for more than a few moments without risking blindness. The armies of Moria and Lorien could only stare, transfixed, at the sight, all the remaining thousands, orcish and elven alike, watching as the two points in the heart of the storm seemed to draw closer together, beginning to merge and fuse…

 

And then, existence itself seemed to crack.

Chapter Text

February 15, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Hungary

 

Kulin of Bosnia was an unhappy man. He led his army north for a cause not his own, and one that his support of was half-hearted at best. His nominal overlord, the younger son of Bela III, said man having largely blackmailed him into marching to his aid, a fact that did not fill the Ban with zeal to support his so-called ‘ally’. The man, barely more than a boy, that sat on the throne of Hungary was no great man worth dying for: the crown had fallen to him only by default, not out of any loyalty or desire of his people. He was haughty and proud, his ego far larger than any skill that he possessed. The Self-Proclaimed King, in all his arrogance, probably liked to believe that Kulin had come to his aid because the latter was actually afraid of what the former might to do him. The Ban could almost laugh at such thoughts. As if Andrew’s veiled threats were his main concern.

 

In truth, it was a certain kind of fear that motivated him, but it was not fear of the immature child that claimed to rule Hungary. Kulin marched far more out of fear of the Serbs, and especially fear of the Bulgars, then out of any sort of loyalty to his nominal overlord. Tsar Kaloyan, ambitious, strong-willed and openly expansionsist, was more frightening to the Ban of Bosnia than brother of King Emeric could ever be. The Bulgar made no illusions about his aims for total domination of the Balkans. Other Orthodox nations he might have tolerated: Bosnia, no doubt, would not receive such a mercy.

 

And so Kulin had led his army out, to aid a man that he could barely stand against one that he outright despised. Larger threats, it seemed, made such allies as Andrew of Hungary seem much more appealing. For all of his failings, though, the Self-Proclaimed King had at least put together a half-decent plan. It was a simple thing: the Hungarians had turned northwards, drawing in the larger, but slower, Bulgar and Serbian forces, buying time for the Bosnians to arrive in the field. Andrew  would hold a partially fortified hill against Kaloyan and Stefan’s combined assault, trying to hold out until Kulin’s arrived to turn the tide. Ideally, the two armies would act like a hammer and an anvil, smashing the Orthodox between them, crushing Kaloyan’s invasion before it could fully develop.

 

The battle, then, would be well underway by the time that Kulin arrived, and he was well prepared for such a sight to meet him. Despite the relative peacefulness of his reign, the Ban was no stranger to war. He knew well what men could do to each other when properly motivated. This, he suspected, would be no different. The men of the Balkans would act as men had done throughout all of history, but no more than that. He had no idea how very wrong he was.

 

The first sign that something had gone wrong were the stragglers. These were lone men or small groups, fleeing southwards, most in some way wounded, their eyes wide in terror as they stumbled into Kulin’s path. Such a thing was not terribly rare thing near a battlefield, to be sure: the sight of those trying to escape death or capture was a typical sight whenever battle was joined. But these were neither deserters or the remnants of a routing army: The former would have been in far better shape, such men usually abandoning the battle long before receiving such grievous wounds, and the latter would have all been under the same colors. These men instead were Hungarians, Serbs and Bulgars alike, most of them babbling almost incoherently, tears flowing freely down their cheeks as the muttered about demons and monsters and the End of the World, clutching at terrible wounds  and moaning in agony.

 

His already sour mood worsening with every one of these men that he encountered, the Ban of Bosnia pressed on northwards, the whole army becoming more and more wary as they did so. Kulin thought, perhaps, that it was some kind of trick, a diversion to stop him from coming to Andrew’s aid, a distraction by the Bulgars to keep him at bay. He desperately hoped that it was such a thing, the alternative options being too horrible for him to even contemplate. He tried, without success, to stop such dark thoughts from entering his mind, his hand tightening around the hilt of his blade and his frown deepening with every mile.

 

Either way, however, he would have to see the truth himself. He did not trust the ramblings of these men who seemed to have gone almost mad due to whatever waited for him in the north, and did not dare believe that they spoke the truth. Whatever had happened, he would have to lay his own eyes upon it before doing anything else. At least he would not have to wait much longer: they were drawing close now. The sounds of battle, of clanging metal and screaming and dying men echoed out from the north, carried far on the winter winds, still somewhat distant but clear across the frozen plains. But the familiar noises of a war were joined by others, sounds that were alien to Kulin’s ears, great cries and roars and bellows that no man he knew of could have made. The column slowed, every step forwards now made in trepidation, as the men of Bosnia steeled themselves for whatever was to come. Their Ban led them on, mentally preparing for the worst. In times such as these, ignorance could be deadlier than any blade. He had to know. He had to see. 

 

But when they crested the last hill and looked out across the field of battle, that the men of Bosnia saw was worse than anything that they could have imagined. Andrew, was there, certainly, along with Kaloyan and Stefan of Serbia and all their armies, but the battle being waged was unlike any that Kulin could have possibly expected. Rather than facing each other, the men of Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria had joined together into a singular force, and besieging them from all sides was monsters that had come out of the Book of Revelation: twisted demons, monstrous wolves, scarred giants and above them all a screaming demon atop a terrible flying beast, screaming in a foul tongue that made Kulin’s blood freeze in his veins. Blood covered the ground, the whole landscape turned red, and it was joined by the corpses of thousands upon thousands of men and monsters alike.

 

To a man, the men of Bosnia stood frozen in a stupor, dumbly taking in the unimaginable sight before them. What they saw before them confirmed their worst and darkest fears: All the whispers that they had heard, of monsters and demons storming the earth, of the Legions of Hell taking up arms against world of men, of the End of Times, were, unless they disbelieved their own eyes, completely true.  In truth, the hushed tales and whispers that had made their way to Bosnia did little justice to what they saw now: this was all their nightmares come to life, every fear and buried dread they had ever had given passage into the material world. What they saw before them was horror incarnate.

 

The whole army wavered, slowly taking steps backwards. Kulin couldn’t blame them: his own first instinct was to turn around and start moving back southwards as quickly as possible. What could he possibly hope to do in the face of such evil? His own force was relatively small, and it seemed far more likely that joining battle would result in the death of most of his men then in winning victory against the Devil’s horde, who far outweighed the remnants of the other armies of men. He could see the remaining forces of Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria beginning to flag and fail, their lines slowly giving way despite the manic ferocity of those trying to hold them. Their defeat was all but inevitable by this point. The reasonable thing to do would be to retreat, using what was left of the the other armies to cover his escape. It was in his best interest to withdraw. To live.

 

And then what? The question entered his mind largely unbidden, almost as if it was not his own thought, but rather that of some other, invisible interrogator, whispering into his soul. No matter where the query came from, Kulin quickly realized that he did not have a good answer to give it. As he turned the question over in his mind, weighing his options, several realizations struck him, epiphanies that he could not escape.

 

Even if he escaped any sort of pursuit from the Legions of Hell, by no means a given thing, what would be, what could be, the Ban of Bosnia’s next step? He could return to Bosnia, prepare its defenses and summon help from...where, exactly? Before him stood what were probably the three strongest armies in the Balkans, battling as one against the dark. If they were to fall this day, who would be left? The Byzantines, who had gutted their military and could barely keep their own hinterlands under control? Bulgaria and Serbia, who had likely already called out their best men for this battle, leaving reserves of both lower quality and lesser quantity? Hungary, already missing its King and God only knew how many of its people? The Poles, on the far side of Hell itself? Distant Italy? The ever-feuding Holy Roman Empire? If this day was lost...then what hope could there be for tomorrow? From what nation could help possibly come from? Bosnia could not possibly stand by itself against this storm. If the armies before him fell, who would be left to ally with?

 

As such thoughts made their way through Kulin’s mind, the Ban of Bosnia looked out over the battlefield, watching as the monsters and demons did their manic best to tear apart the combined armies of men. Looking closer, looking beyond his initial beliefs of inevitable doom, Kulin realized that, somehow, the battle was not yet truly lost. Yes, the lines of the men were buckling and wavering under the constant assaults of Devil’s spawn, but they had yet to break. Black blood, presumably that of the monsters, caked the earth  just as much as the red blood of men, the soldiers of the Balkans paying back with interest every drop that the devils extracted from them. They were like cornered wolves, flurries of blades and teeth and death, striking down all that they could. The term ‘they fought like demons’ would be inaccurate: in comparison to the monsters all around them, they seemed to be fighting somewhat better.

 

But still, they wouldn’t last much longer, for all their courage and desperation. The black waves that broke against them threatened ever more to drag them under, sheer weight of numbers burying the men with flesh and blood and iron. Eventually, inevitably, the dam would burst, and the tide of shadow would sweep away the last vestiges of resistance. From there, the black wave would roar southwards, through what was left of Hungary, through Bosnia, Serbia, into Bulgaria and beyond, consuming all in its path, drowning everything in darkness. They would become utterly unstoppable, shattering whatever small resistance could hope to be raised against them. The whole of the Balkans and beyond would be lost. Unless, of course, someone shored up the dam…

 

Kulin took a deep breath, turning back to look over his men. He could see the fear within them, the abject terror. They quaked in their boots, eyes wide and faces pale. He could feel it in his own veins, his blood running cold, threatening to freeze him solid. He feared the Legions of Hell. He knew well that this battle could well already be lost. He knew that if he committed his men, he could well be sending them to their deaths. He knew how much the scale had been weighted against him.

 

He wanted to run, and many parts of his mind were still screaming at him to do so. He wanted to turn away before the demons set their eyes on him and his men, eager to devour them. He wanted to flee back to Bosnia, hole up inside his castle and wait for help. He wanted to cower from the Devil, wanted to curl up into a ball and beg God to save him. He did not want to face this threat.

 

But If every lord of every nation hid themselves away, who would be left to fight against the dark? If not he, if not his men, if not here and now, while there was still hope for the light to claim victory, then who would stand, and when? Who could possibly save the men before him, so courageous and valiant in their defiance of the shadow? Who could possibly live with the guilt of abandoning them to die?

 

With a deeply troubled sigh, his stomach turning over in dread, the Ban of Bosnia realized  what he had to do. Kulin considered himself a devout man, despite the accusations of heresy that the Serbs had levelled against him. In the seemingly ever-changing political landscape of the Balkans, it had been one of the few things that he had been able to reach for for stability and strength. Regardless of what claims others made about the legitimacy of his faith, the Lord  had seen fit to bless him with a long, prosperous and relatively peaceful reign, a good sign that the Father, at least, saw him as a faithful servant. Now, it seemed that said servant was being called upon. The men before them, surely, must be praying to the Lord for their salvation.

 

And despite all his fears, all his outright terror at the prospect before him, Kulin realized that God had made him and his army the instrument that would save them.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Khamul threw the Fell Beast into a steep dive, evading yet another volley of arrows. The damned Gondorians were living up to their reputations as expert marksman, shot after shot rising up towards the Nazgul and his mount, forcing the Second of the Nine to keep their distance. Even after hours of fighting, they managed to skill scrounge up enough arrows to keep up the fire, salvaging the black shafts of Khamul’s own orcs from the bodies of the dead and dying among their allies and enemies alike, firing the weapons of Mordor back at the servants of Sauron.

 

Their newfound allies fought on as well, the lesser men of this new world through skill and valor and sheer, utter desperation managing to hold their own against the Host of Mordor. With tooth and nail and elbow and fist they met the orcs again and again and again, refusing to yield or break, their lines still steadfast against the endless onslaught. They had paid a monstrous price to do so: their broken bodies covered the ground like a blanket of torn flesh, blood staining the snow red, those that remained alive and fighting nearly to a man mauled in some way by the days fighting, with crooked limbs or torn skin or open wounds or some combination of the three.

 

The same was true of the orcs: heaping piles of corpses had been erected by the fighting, a practical sea of black blood had soaked the ground. Thousands of Sauron’s slaves lay unmoving, thousands more mauled and bloodied. It was a higher price than the Ringwraith had intended to pay, but unfortunately for the men of the Balkans, it was one that they were perfectly willing to pay. The Host of Mordor remained vast, plenty of fresh flesh ready to be thrown into the grinder, while the army of men had slowly but surely withered away, dissolving in the sea of blood at their feet. It was clear that exhaustion was taking its toll: the movements of the men were slowing, becoming ever more sluggish and weak. Simple number had begun to show, and the black noose had once more closed around the neck of those that had opposed the will of Sauron.

 

But just as it had seemed that the day would be surely be won, that the strength of the men would finally fail and the Nazgul could finally claim victory, yet another army of reinforcements had arrived in the field, renewing the flagging courage of the men, who now found within themselves one last gasp to give. The newcomers charged in with with reckless abandon, cutting through the orcs and joining with the rest of the men, their desperately needed strength giving new life to the struggle. The newly-bolstered ranks, so shortly before sagging and about to break under the weight of the orcs’ assault, now hardened, beating back the continued attacks with refilled vigor, the few cracks that had been opened up in the defenses quickly filled with fresh, if not eager, men.

 

The Nine were said to have had more of an undeath than a life. They were said to be shadows, pale imitations of the living, once mighty kings reduced to meager echoes of themselves. They were shades, their Rings of Power leaving them as spectres who could be seen only by those who could see into the wraith world, enslaved utterly to Sauron’s will. Their unliving flesh could not feel the warmth of the sun or the cold of the winter wind, the bite of a blade or the embrace of a lover. The mangled remains of their souls could hold no joy within them. One thing, and one thing alone, could the Nazgul feel: wrath.

 

Khamul felt that wrath now, that black fire that had been all that they could truly call their own these long millennia. Fury burned within them, fury without direction or distinction. The Black Shadow of the East was furious at the armies of men, who continued to defy the might of Mordor, even as they paid an ever-growing price in blood for standing their ground. He was furious with the Rangers of Ithilien, whose precise shots with bow and arrow threatened to strike his mount, keeping the Black Rider at bay. He was furious at his own forces, bungling orcs and mindless trolls that had been so far unable to crush the men’s resistance. He was furious even at himself, for inadvertently helping forge the very alliance he had sought to prevent. His shrieks grew ever more outraged, becoming a near constant scream of raw, unbridled anger. Their rage seemed to leak out into the air around them, the winds gaining a dread chill as the Fell Beast pulled into a dive, their wings beating faster and faster, too fast for the archers below to take and accurate shot, their lone defense against the terrible creature rendered useless by the monster’s swiftness. The Nazgul charged into the fray, their terrible scream sounding out over the plains as they struck like a bolt of lightning into the melee below.

 

Their first pass was aimed at those accursed Rangers, even as they desperately tried to bring their bows up to drive him off once more. They tore through the damned Gondorians like a knife tearing through paper, the claws of the Fell Beast skewering those that hadn’t thrown themselves out of the way or to the ground fast enough, the jaws of the creature swallowing up several others into its gaping maw. The Second of the Nazgul quickly circled around for another pass, this one aimed at cluster of reserves being thrown towards the front lines. They scattered like rats before a lion, madly trying to stay out of the Ringwraith’s path, some throwing down their weapons in terror at the Nazgul’s cries.

 

Khamul came around for another pass, then another and another. They were like a wolf among a flock of lambs, gouging bloody swaths into the ranks of the men, wide gashes in their defenses through which the orcs poured like water through a cracked dam. The men scrambled to fill the breaches, fighting to hold back the raging tide with the mad strength of terror and desperation, hacking away with any weapon they could find or even their bare hands. They plugged the holes as best they could, with shields and blades and spears and their own flesh.

 

But every for every gap that was closed, the Black Shadow of the East opened a second, then a third and a fourth, far faster than the men could possibly hope to fill them. Soon, what few reserves that they had had left had been exhausted, and hole after hole after hole began to open in their defenses.

 

The line was breached, what was once a solid formation slowly becoming a group of isolated pockets, the army of men starting to collapse. This was it. Finally, he would have victory. Finally, the men would be broken, the fire of their resistance crushed beneath his heel. Oh, they still fought like the cornered rats that they were, working to either fight their way out to the south or simply to bring down as many orcs with them as they could, but now there would be no salvation, no other army coming to their rescue. Here, finally, was the end. Khamul roared in what was the closest thing to delight that a Wraith could achieve as they cut into what remained of the army of men, their victory all but assured. It would take an act of the Valar themselves, or perhaps even more than that, to defeat him now.

 

Having been sorely tempted, Fate decided to intervene: Not so much as a moment after such  thoughts began to cross the dark place that could be called the Nazgul’s mind, the Lieutenant of the Ringwraiths began to feel...something, something within the Wraith World they inhabited. It was like a building storm just beyond the horizon, a buzzing in the air. It was a feeling that they had never felt before, inasmuch as a Ringwraith could feel anything at all. It was impossible to ignore: the storm grew and grew, moving in from the edge of Khamul’s awareness, slowly seeming to come closer and closer…

 

And then the Nazgul felt as if they were aflame, their whole essence burning as if it had been cast into the flames of the Orodruin. It was as if the whole dark realm in which their soul had been ensnared was burning, the whole of the Wraith World being torn apart and reformed and torn apart and reformed again. Agony, a feeling alien to Khamul for centuries, if not millennia, tore through the Black Rider, their spasms of pain pulling driving their mount into a frenzy, the Fell Beast straying all across the sky like a leaf caught in the wind.

 

Below, the whole host of Mordor seemed to have paused, like puppets who’s strings, while not outright cut, had gone slack. By and large it was the power of Sauron that drove them forwards, the hatred and fury of the Dark Lord like a whip at their backs, focused by the presence of his thrall the Ringwraith. But now the Nazgul, the lens through which the dark might of the Enemy was focused, was in disarray, unable to guide their dark master’s power effectively, and the driving force that was Sauron’s wrath was no longer placed upon this single spot.  The whole assault, for the moment had attacked, the orcs no longer pressing their attack. Instead, they looked to the sky, confused and fearful, watching the Black Shadow of the East writhe in agony, unsure of what to make of the sight.

 

They simply stood there, waiting for something to happen.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Emeric of Hungary was like a dead man walking, a battered and ravaged corpse that should have long ago fallen into a grave. His cloak of mail was torn asunder, most of the links cut apart or having fallen away, the tunic beneath all but cut apart. His sword was nicked and chipped, covered in black blood from hilt to tip, clutched with white knuckles. Wounds of all kinds covered his body, his blood slowly dripping from many of them, his skin bruised and blackened in many places. His movements were slow and stiff, his breath heavy, his steps heavy. He looked as if he would tumble over dead at the slightest touch.

 

It was almost a miracle that he had even managed to reach the field of battle. Weeks of running and hiding from the beasts, of being hunted by them like some wild animal, of seeing his nation put to the torch, its people slaughtered like vermin, had left him nearly broken. He had marched south almost in a daze behind the mysterious company of men that had taken him in, completely unfeeling to all the horrors that he had passed, indifferent to all those that had fallen by the roadside, having seen so many that it no longer grieved him.

 

In the deepest, darkest place within his heart, where all his troubles accumulated and no light reached, he had almost wished to join them, to simply lay down and let all the horrors that he had seen go away, to go to sleep and simply never wake up. He was unsure of why he carried on. It simply seemed so...pointless. Defeat had already come. Death was all that he could look forwards to. His thoughts had entered that dark place and for some time had refused to return. He was almost dragged onwards, by the handful of his guard that remained or by other refugees or by those that seemed to have sworn themselves to their protection, his journey continuing only because others refused to let their King die. But his condition did not improve. He seemed barely aware of the march at times, stumbling on in a cold stupor.

 

And then they had come across the battlefield. Here, finally, some small spark seemed to have returned to him. Emeric watched as the armies of those that so recently he would have called his mortal foes, sworn enemies that he would have tried to cut down in an instant if given the chance, defied the dark, standing like a lantern in the black night. He watched as they had stood as one, disloyal vassals and plotting neighbors and traitorous kin, defying a far worse evil than all of their machinations put together, sworn enemies becoming like brothers. He had watched the as the demons, those that had slaughtered those that he had been charged to rule and protect, assailed them from all sides, those twisted creatures of Hell that had brought so much suffering down upon his people, and saw that yes, they were mortal after all, and bled just as readily as any man did. The tiny spark that the sight ignited within him warmed him, his heart and his soul, and finally his thoughts left the black pit in which they had become ensnared.

 

Feeling returned to him, the small spark that had been reignited within him grew and grew, taking on the form of a terrible, vengeful wrath that built hotter and hotter as he watched the battle rage. The men stood tall, the jaws of defeat not yet closed around them. If others would join them, they might not close at all. Here, finally, was a chance, a chance to pay back some small fraction of the terrors done to his people, a chance to defy the dark, a chance at some meaningful victory over the Legions of Hell. And without hesitation, Emeric leapt at the opportunity.

 

The remnants of his own men and and those that had guarded him in the wilderness joined the battle, adding whatever strength that they had left to that of the other armies, coming to the aid of those that they would have called traitors and heretics and invaders mere weeks before. As the battle had raged all around him, the King of Hungary was like an avenging Angel, reigning down death and judgement upon those that had laid his nation low, taking revenge for all that he had seen fall at their hands. Emeric fought like a madman, throwing himself with reckless abandon into the thickest parts of the melee, his eyes wild, roaring like a great lion as he fought to gain justice for the people of Hungary.

 

The other lords of the peoples of the Balkans were not to be outdone, each performing their own feats of strength and valor against the shadow: there was his brother Andrew, proving to all that saw him that he was just as dangerous with a blade as with his tongue, lashing out like a viper whenever an enemy approached, and there besides him Kaloyan the Bulgar, the man doing well to live up to his reputation as a great warrior, showing the strength that some claimed made him worthy of the title of Emperor; Stefan of Serbia stood tall as well, shouting encouragement to his men, keeping his banner held high like a beacon to all that fought against the dark, filling all that heard him with courage and hope; the leader of those that had found Emeric, the man who bore the symbol of seven stars above a white tree, was a true master of the craft of swordsmanship, his movements swift and almost graceful as he carved through demon after demon after demon; even Kulin of Bosnia, the latecomer to the fray, was making up for lost time, plunging his spear into demons and their monstrous wolves and even into the legs of giants. The men took heart as they watched their Kings and Princes and Bans and Tsars defy the shadows, encouraged by the actions of their lords, and they did all they could to live up to such examples, putting up a display that any army throughout history would have been proud to call their own.

 

But for all their righteous wrath, all their vengeful might, all their skill and courage and valor, the men of Hungary and Serbia and Bosnia and Bulgaria and Gondor, that ragtag army so suddenly formed, forged by fires of desperation and battle, was near defeat. For some time they had held back the raging tide, somehow holding their lines against the endless attacks. But then the Black Rider, that demon on high, had descended from the skies, too swift for any arrow to strike, and had torn through their defenses, gouging holes for the monsters to pour through. Faster than it takes to tell, the lines of the men were broken, the twisted creatures that assailed them running amok through their tattered formations.

 

Whatever hope that they had had left left them now. Simple numbers now would be their doom. At best, perhaps two out of every five of their combined number remained even alive, fewer still in any condition to fight; the enemy could call upon nearly twice their number. Despair ate away at what little remained of their courage, even the hardiest among them beginning to believe that doom was certain. Though they fought on even as the relentless attack continued, it was not out of hope in victory, or even escape. No, they fought out of utter desperation, or simply to drag as many of the demons as they could down with them.

 

It was at this time that Emeric found himself besides his brother, both men having stumbled back towards what they at least thought was the center of the army, trying their best to rally those around them back together, to gather them together to either break out or mount a final stand. The King of Hungary looked at the man who had tried to usurp him: his mail had been cut open in a dozen places, and several wounds were visible beneath what remained. A deep gash cut across his face, his left eye obscured by blood. Andrew looked back, a grimace on his face, his breath heavy. Even as the battle continued all around them, silence seemed to fall between the two men.

 

“I always suspected that one of us would end up dying besides the other,” the younger son of Bela III remarked, panting to catch his breath.

 

“As did I. But I do not think I am alone in believing that it would be at the other’s hand” Emeric replied, a bitter smile on his lips.

 

Andrew gave a half-smirk in reply, no mirth in his eyes. “Just another thing that you were wrong about, brother.”

 

Emeric grunted, shaking his head. Here they were, with the world ending around them, and his fool brother was still insulting him. Some people never changed, did they? Taking a deep breath to try and steady himself, the King of Hungary turned back towards the battle, looking for any hope that there might be left. He found none: the men still fought like wild beasts, but they were slowly being cut off from each other, forced into isolated pockets to be destroyed at leisure. Everywhere he looked were the dead and the dying and the endless sea of monsters that had produced them. As he breathed, he felt his wounds calling out to him, each one screaming for his attention. He watched as the demons began to close in on where he stood. He shook his head again, his fists clenching, before he almost burst out in mad laughter. Of all the people that he might have died besides, it would have to be Andrew. Given the past month of his life, it didn’t fully surprise him.

 

Emeric closed his eyes, waiting to feel the blade or bite of one of the demons that approached him. The fire that had burned within him for the last few hours, fueled by his anger and spite, began to flicker and die as the weight of the moment began to fall upon his shoulders, all the grief and pain of the past few weeks returning to him in this instant. His mind returned once more to dark thoughts: Here he was, a broken shell of a man. Everything that he had ever worked for, in a matter of days, had been utterly destroyed. The realm entrusted by God to his rule all but shattered at his feet. Demons and monsters walking the earth, surrounding and hunting him, the only ones left that he could call allies either heretics that would have tried to kill him days before or his traitor brother or strange men that he didn’t even know the name of. He was cold, tired and hungry, his whole body burning with pain, begging for relief. The King of Hungary breathed slowly, feeling as what little of his fury remained left him, every part of him simply...hollow. He dropped to his knees, no longer able to muster the strength or will to stand, uncaring about what happened next.Then he waited. He waited for it all to end.  Slowly, all around him, silence fell, and Emeric almost smiled as the world seemed to finally melt away. There was only peace now. Only silence.

 

Complete and total silence.

 

Then, his brother, almost in a whisper: “What in God’s name is this?”

 

Emeric opened his eyes, a flicker of annoyance at the interruption of his oblivion. What he saw before him, though, could not have been any kind of afterlife. It looked nearly the exact same as the scene he had just left. In fact, his body still radiated pain, and he could feel the cold wind upon his exposed skin. Despite everything, it seemed that he was still alive. Growling, Emeric moved to stand, using his sword like a crutch. He wondered, idly, why he wasn’t dead. Or maybe he was, and this was hell. It seemed that Andrew was here: if there was a perfect, eternal punishment for the King of Hungary, that would probably be it.

 

If this was not hell, then there was something very strange going on. The battlefield looked unchanged, but yet something was different, totally and completely. It took him a moment to place what it was: silence. The screams of men and monster, the hacking of swords, the tearing of flesh...for some reason, it had all stopped. The King of Hungary looked around at the battlefield. The demons, God only knew why, had ceased their assault. They stood still, seeming unsure of themselves, many looking warily towards the sky.

 

Emeric followed their gaze, and what he saw filled broke his soul once more from darkness and filled it to the brim with hope. A disbelieving look came upon his face as he gazed skywards, slowly shifting into one of utter elation. There, high in the sky, the flying monster that had torn apart the defenses, had single-handedly devastated the armies of men, had nearly alone destroyed any chance that there had been for victory, war careening out of control, almost falling out of the sky. Its rider, the terrible demon that’s voice froze men with fear, was making no effort to control their mount, looking for all the world as if they were in terrible, unrelenting pain. The Elder son of Bela III felt tears prick his eyes at the sight, a smile coming to his lips. Either madness had finally taken him, or he was witnessing a miracle.  Somewhere close by, he heard the men beginning to cheer, Stefan’s voice carrying above them all:

 

“Thank you, God! Thank you, merciful Christ! Thank you, Jesus!”

 

The King of Hungary was inclined to agree. Who’s hand could have done this but the Lord’s? Finally, after all the suffering and pain, all the misery and desperation, God had taken pity upon his children, delivering them out of the Valley of Death. Emeric sent his own praises towards the heavens, his voice soon joined by all those left that could still send up their voices. A great cheer sounded out across the frozen plains of Hungary, the men’s hope rising like the sun, breaking through the fog and shadow of despair that had enveloped them. All around them, the demons started to take steps back, their posture becoming more and more defensive, their eyes warrier and warrier, too stunned to respond to the seeming crippling of their commander.

 

“This is our chance!” Kaloyan’s voice rose above the din, “We need to move, now! This moment will not last forever!”

 

A moment later, and Stefan could be heard: “Attack! Attack! The Father himself has given the order! Attack, before they can recover! Like the Midianites before Gideon he has made them! In His mighty name, attack!”

 

A great roar sounded out, cheering and praise for the Lord and the battlecries of five nations. The men were wounded and weary, stretched to their physical breaking point, but still they bellowed as they charged once more, plunging into the stunned and disoriented lines of the monsters all around them, hacking and stabbing at all they came across with renewed ferocity. All despair was forgotten, all fear cast aside. God himself had shown his hand: how could the followers of Christ possibly lose? They carved into the ranks of the demons as the Fell Beast had carved into them, hoping to cut down as many as they could before their foe could recover their wits. The threw themselves into the fray, the light giving its last, best effort to dispel the darkness all around them.

 

Stefan, at least partially, was right: the monsters were utterly confused at the turn of events that had transpired, disorientation running rampant through their ranks. Their cohesion was dissolving, their resolve failing. Their dark master, wracked with pain, could give them no orders, could not force the power of Sauron to drive them forwards, could not be the whip at their backs. The raging black tide, so recently unstoppable, began to recede.

 

Truly, if any battle could be called miraculous, this would be the one.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The pain had finally subsided, and now it was joined once more by simmering fury. Khamul watched from on high as his army wavered, threatening to rout in the face of a force of perhaps half their remaining number. Useless fodder: Remove the whips from their backs, and they withered like grass in the desert, unable to stand against so much as the breeze. The men below exhausted and bloodied, many barely able to so much as stand, much less fight, but still they forced their way through the hasty and shoddy formations of the orcs, smashing through line after line, putting the Host of Mordor to flight.

 

The Lieutenant of the Nazgul’s hand tightened around the hilt of their blade, so wishing to indulge their rage. They so wished to tear apart everything below them, slowly and painfully, foe and slave alike. The Ringwraith desired little more than to bring agonizing death to all of them, the incompetents on their own side and those that defied the might of Mordor alike, to make them all pay for this defeat. The shadowy thing that was their soul almost demanded it.

 

But no. There was but one other driving force within them, but it was the far stronger one: the will of their master. From the moment that Khamul had placed the Ring of Power upon his finger, all those centuries ago, he had been a total thrall to the will of Sauron. The Dark Lord Called: the Nazgul answered. There was no question that was asked, no protest that was lodged: whatever desires that the Black Easterling had had for themselves, they were no irrelevant.

 

And said master had a new mission for him. Sauron’s eye had long been drawn away from the burning of Hungary, almost from the moment that they had felt Durin’s Bane declare themselves the complete and unchallenged Master of the Black Pit. The Dark Lord had watched with interest as they had emerged from Moria and assailed themselves against the hated realm of Lorien, knowing full well that the coming clash had far more important implications than any other battle being waged at the time. Sauron had seen as they and the elf Galadriel had torn the still-fresh wounds in the fabric of the world open once more, had howled in rage as the Wraith World had been warped and bent as the Music of Creation had been twisted and contorted around it.

 

Any lesser spirit would have been annihilated as the shadowy plane in which Sauron had been forced to reside was distorted almost beyond recognition before snapping back into place, broken and reforged and broken again and reforged again. The Lieutenant of Morgoth was not a lesser spirit. They were like a great ship which the storm had battered itself against, unable to do the slightest amount of damage, weathering the waves and winds without so much as springing a leak. The One Ring was their anchor, containing so much of their malice and wrath and soul that the rest of the Dark Lord could be affected by nothing less than its destruction. The Rings of the Nine, too, had kept the Nazgul intact, Sauron’s power preventing any lasting harm from coming to his thralls.

 

But now there was a different problem that needed solving. The world had been changed again, and once again the Dark Lord had need of the eyes and ears of their servants. Lorien was somehow obscured form his sight, either by the change of the world or elven magic, but regardless it would have to be investigated. That place, not Hungary, was the key to staying ahead of all that would dare challenge the might of Mordor.  Khamul was the closest at hand to the Golden Wood, and so he was to break off from the battle below and learn whatever their was to learn from realm of the elves.

 

Sauron willed it: the Ringwraith obeyed. There was no other option. Let the men here have their victory, paid for with far more blood than they could possibly hope to afford. They may win the field for a day, but their defeat was inevitable. Khamul would finish off these men in due time. Like the nations of Middle-earth before them, the Free Peoples of this world could have no hope in force of arms. But for now, there were far more pressing matters to attend to.

 

The Fell Beast turned northwest, away from the battle and towards a thing of far greater significance.

 

 

 

 

Unknown Date, Unknown Place

 

 

“I don’t suppose that any of us planned on this happening?”

 

“It shouldn’t have been possible. Not for them. They don’t have the power to do this.”

 

“Power didn’t matter. Not so near the origin of the first instance, not when the wounds were still so fresh, and especially not when one of them was among those that opened the tears in the first place. This wasn't them reshaping the world: they just widened the cracks that were already there.

 

“Hm. So we know why it happened. The more important question is this: Do we yet know how much damage was caused? Both worlds have already been warped. This new change cou-”

 

“We haven’t lost a continent this time, if that’s what you mean. More flotsam and jetsam,all of them smaller than what has already been shifted across the void. And the areas that they’ve displaced were either water or quite empty to begin with, so we were lucky there at least.”

 

“We’ve had luck in quality as well as in quantity. That which has been moved bears no loyalty to Sauron, either: most of it will readily stand against him, once they have managed to orient themselves in this new world. On that end, differences in speech should no longer be an issue: the old Tongues have been released anew.”

 

“And we know that dealing with the unexpected is not the enemy’s strength. Whenever his plans are thrown into disarray, he is slow to adjust them. When his sight is obscured, he will do near anything to restore it, even if it goes against his own interests. Already, he has made a mistake, pulling his thrall away from the battle in Hungary to reconteir Lorien. We may yet hope that he will make more.”

 

“Hm. I have the feeling that there isn’t much good news past that more past that.”

 

“I wish that I could say otherwise, but you’re largel correct. Little else has fallen in our favor. The primary concern is that the Music itself has been changed. It was already in dissonance after the first shift: it may very well become worse. Little has been joined to the Melody, but the entire Key of this world’s Music has been changed, and not for the better.”

 

“And by that you mean what?

 

“I mean that the rules of what may exist in this world have been changed. It was not built with the same Music as Arda was. When their Melodies were merged, the two didn’t flow cleanly together. They competed for control, may have completely drowned each other out if not for the corrections that were made. Arda’s tune remains stable, even with the chords that were lost in the merging: it will be much quieter from now on, certainly, but it will continue to exist. I fear that the same might not be said of Earth’s. With this new change in the Music, Arda’s strains are starting to become dominant. I fear that they have started a new Awakening in this world, bringing alive the dreams and nightmares of men. If I am correct, then we may have a whole new disaster to contend with.”

 

“Or a significant worsening of our current one. Most of what has been roused from slumber will be easily swayed to the Enemy’s side. Is there any chance that we can return them to their rest?”

 

“A few of them, perhaps, but many of them are already fully awake. And that is not all: There are new powers coming into the world, powers that those that live within it will barely be able to understand, much less control. A few of them may be helpful to us, but most…”

 

“I understand. I believe that we all know that some action must be taken. To stand idly by will invite this world’s destruction. I have already sent out servants, to hunt some of the worst threats, contain them before they destroy too much. I am preparing to send other”

 

“And I am raising up my guardians. It will take some time for them to be ready, though, so I would suggest that we explore other options. There are no armies for us to send, but there are several champions that could be summoned, either to lead the people of this world or to fight against the Captains of the Enemy. But whatever path, we must act, and quickly.”

 

“Yet we still cannot act directly. This land is barely being held together as things stand; we might shatter it entirely if we fight this war in person. As much as we wish it so, we must not ride ourselves. We can equip them, train them, inspire them, but this battle shall ultimately be fought by those that live within the world, not those beyond it.”

 

“Are we in consensus, then?”

 

“We are.”

 

“Them let us begin.”

Chapter Text

February 16, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Across the World

 

The sun rose on a changed world, one which had had its fundamental pieces rewritten. It was as if the very bones of the Earth had been broken and reset, its flesh cut apart and then sewn back together, like the very nature of the world had had a deep and invasive surgery performed by a surgeon that was somehow both remarkably skilled and criminally incompetent, whose hands at one moment had been guided with the utmost care and the next had trembled and shivered like those of an epileptic, the work done at some times with sharp and clean scalpels and at others with pointed rocks and heavy stones. The results were inconsistent: In one place, one’s senses would have to be keen indeed to notice the changes, in another, both blind and deaf to miss them.

 

Europe, where the first strike that had remade the world had found its mark, had been wounded again, but now the rest of the Earth also felt the blow. The days and weeks and months to come would be a time of change unprecedented and unmatched in the history of the world, when peoples of every nation and tongue would be tested like never before. These times would spawn epic tales of valor, failure and everything in between, written and spoken of by everyone across the whole of the world, from the scribes of the Song Dynasty and the recorders of the Kingdoms of India to the Shamans of Central Asia and the storytellers of wild tribes beyond the Old World. Every culture, every nation, every peoples of the Earth, for centuries to come, would look back upon these times in awe and wonder, those that lived and died within them becoming legends to their descendents.

 

No singular record could possibly be made of all that came to pass in those times: the mere attempt would fill every library in the world to overflowing. One tale has already begun to be told, that of the war that Sauron and his thralls waged against the nations of Europe and the Near East, and the Last Crusade that was fought against him; before any others are begun, that one will be completed.

 

And so it is those other stories of this age, of the acts of Emperor Ningzong and Temujin of the Steppes and all the thousands and thousands of others from every corner of the world are beyond its scope, and must be saved for another time. Those tales are no lesser than that already being told, surely, but to tell them all at once is beyond the ability of but a single chronicle. Perhaps one day, those archives will be opened, but for now...

 

For now, we return to Europe to resume the tale of the Fellowship of the Ring, and all the nations that their quest now touched...



Krakow

 

What had once been a great city was now a mass grave. The whole city reeked of death: even with the fell chill that remained in the air, the bodies had begun to decay, the processes of decomposition filling the air with an odor so foul that even the orcs avoided the mounds of rotting flesh whenever they could. This was a difficult task: strewn all across the city were the dead bodies of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Poles, men, women and children alike, all bearing the clear marks of a violent death. The Host of the Udun cared not for the bodies of their fallen foes: the corpses were stripped of weapons, armor and anything else useful before being cast aside, either thrown into the Vistula, which for days after the battle had run red with the blood of the fallen, or piled up in heaps wherever it was convenient.

 

Within one of these heaps, unbeknownst to the thralls of Sauron, lay the body of High Duke Leszek the White. It was not hard for his body to be missed: It would have been difficult for even his own mother to recognize him, so mangled and ravaged was his body. What seemed to be a hundred different wounds had torn his flesh asunder; most of his bones had been broken, leaving his limbs in twisted and inhuman positions; his flesh had begun to break down, and flies flew about the dead tissues of his body. An inhuman scream seemed frozen on what was left of his face, one of primal fear and rage, directed from beyond the grave at those that had cut him down.

 

His unseeing eyes would have been filled with tears at the sights around him: the city of Krakow, once the beating heart of Lesser Poland, lay now in the hands of the Legions of Hell. The demons that had brought ruin upon it working to rebuild it in their own image, tearing down what were once Churches and homes and markets and in their place raising up barracks and fortifications. Those few inhabitants of the city that had not been butchered that terrible night or the days that followed were now slaves to the monsters, forced to work to destroy the place that they had once called home beaten until they submitted to the wills of their new masters and fed either nothing at all or food that was not deserving of the name. Theirs was only a slower death.  

 

Leszek would have taken some comfort, perhaps, in knowing that his sacrifice had not been wholly in vain, that his final stand had allowed at least a few to escape this Hell, but Leszek was gone: one more body among thousands that lay exposed to the elements, slowly rotting away. Death had claimed him, as it had so, so many others.. The story of his life had ended that dark morning, in a blaze of glory, perhaps, but ended nonetheless.

 

Or had it?

 

The Polish people have an old legend, how the greatest among them never truly die. Instead, it is whispered that the very best and bravest Knights that had ever served Poland are saved from their deaths to join with their brothers beneath the mountain, to await their people’s darkest hour. It is said that there was a hidden cave beneath Mount Pisana in the Tatra Mountains, near the mastiff of Giewont (which many say greatly resembles a sleeping knight), where they waited. Rumor told of the secret tunnel that lay somewhere in the Koscieliska Valley, where one could go for themselves and see where the great army rested. Tales told of shining golden armor, of arms the likes of which the world has never seen, and of beautiful horses with golden shoes waiting with them. It was said that they would wake at the time of a great battle, when thunder shook the heavens and the earth, and on that day they would ride out to fight for Poland once more.

 

Leszek, certainly, met the criteria for joining them: already, his sacrifice was known to all that had managed to escape the Hell of Krakow, and his tale was rapidly spreading across Mazovia, Galicia Volhynia and Greater Poland and beyond, told by the remnants of his people. His name was now joined to the other great legends of the Polish people, like King Krakus or Piast the Wheelwright, his deeds of valor held up as an example to all that would call themselves Polish. But the story of the Sleeping Knights was only an old legend, was it not?

 

In earlier days, the tale would have been just that: a tale. A comforting story told by a people beset by enemies, a fairy tale that only children could ever truly believe in. None took the tale very seriously, and over time a number of jokes had sprung up around the legend: a mysterious man shows a villager the Sleeping Knights, telling them the legend...and the villager asks what in the world the Knights were waiting for, for Poland was (insert current crisis). That was what the tale of the Sleeping Knights was: a butt jokes. A cute story, nothing more.

 

But now...now, the world was remade, becoming a place where every tale and story might carry a grain of truth somewhere within. The legend, like so many others across the world, could now come to pass. Oh, not perfectly: as with most of the tales that came true in these times, there were many different variations on the story, and all of them strained against each other to become the one that would be told.  Details blurred together and were lost or altered in the process, the legend ultimately becoming not quite the one that was usually heard. But the heart of the story remained utterly true: slumbering Knights, hidden below the earth, waiting for Poland’s darkest day.

 

And so it was that below Wawel Cathedral, below the ruins of desecrated Krakow, in the cave where the dragon Smok Wawelski was said to have dwelled, a strange glow began to emanate. It was golden in hue, bathing the dark cavern in light like that of the dawn. If one had looked within the cave, they would have seen the outlines of an army slowly become visible, the golden light shaped into swords and armor, men and horses. A great army began to take form below the feet of the orcs that labored above.

 

For the moment, they still slumbered. Their day had not yet come: the night that now fell across Europe would grow deeper still in the approaching days and weeks and months. Only in the very darkest hour would the Sleeping Knights awake, and not a moment before. But in that hour of true need, when the shadow stood at every side, when all hope had been lost, when the people of Poland stood at the precipice of annihilation, the Sleeping Knights would hear the call to battle.

 

And in that hour Leszek the White and all that fell by his side would ride again.

 

 

Acre, The Kingdom of Jerusalem

 

In the seven years that he had served as Grand Master of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, Gilbert Horal had imagined many, many potential disasters. A veteran of many campaigns, the Spaniard knew that the strategic situation of the lands placed under his protection was bleak at best. The Outre-Mer (French for ‘Overseas’) states, the lands that the Crusaders had managed to reclaim from the Muslims, were a shadow of their former selves: Jerusalem had been lost, the Kingdom established to protect it barely managing to cling to the coast; Antioch was little more than a city-state, and the same was true for the County of Tripoli; The County of Edessa was gone entirely. The only exception to the rule was realm that predated them all, Cilician Armenia, founded by Armenian refugees fleeing the Turks. This New Armenia, as it was called, had survived, even thrived, becoming a full Kingdom, but that was not necessarily good news: their King, Levon, held barely-veiled ambitions of conquering his former allies.

 

But the Cilician Armenians were the least of Gilbert’s worries. Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubids, had a mere decade before nearly driven the Crusaders into the sea, the efforts of Richard the Lionheart and the other members of the Third Crusade only barely managing to hold onto anything at all. But in the decade since, the armies of the Crusaders, of France and England and the Holy Roman Empire, had left for home, leaving the Outremer states to defend themselves against continued Muslim attacks.

 

There was some hope on that front, at least: internal feuds had kept Saladin’s successors from finishing what he had started: The heirs of the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, like the Generals of Alexander the Great before them, squabbled and fought over the empire that their father had left them. For seven years since the death of the Sultan, the brothers and sons he had installed as Emirs over various territories had maneuvered against each other, in both each other’s courts and on the battlefield, trying to bring the realms of the Ayyubid dynasty back under one banner: their own.

 

But this external respite had seemed only to allow for internal problems to begin rearing their heads. Court politics had made the journey from Europe, bringing with it all the instability and infighting that it was known for. The Throne of Jerusalem had been disputed among various men almost from the moment that it had been established, who sat upon it becoming an almost-constant political struggle that robbed the small realm of valuable strength and unity. After years of machinations (and several near-Civil Wars) the matter seemed settled by the marriage between King Aimery of Cyprus, and Isabella of Jerusalem, widow to Humphrey IV of Toron, who had inherited the Kingdom on the death of Baldwin IV.

 

At first glance, not worth worrying about. But it was Aimery’s second marriage, and Isabella’s fourth. Not to mention that the Queen was half the age of the King, and that her previous husbands had respectively been captured on the field of battle, assassinated, and “fallen out of a window.” For the moment, it seemed that Aimery and Isabella’s hold on the throne was secure, but Gilbert was well aware of how quickly that could change: It would only take one man screaming “Illegitimate!” at the top of their lungs for the realm to collapse into chaos once more.

 

And even if Aimery and Isabella managed to keep their tenuous hold on the throne, or some other claimant managed to take it peacefully, the situation would remain utterly dire. It was a matter of simple mathematics: for every soldier that the Christians possessed, the Muslims possessed several. There just weren’t enough men to hold the Outremer without support from the rest of Christendom, and that aid could hardly be relied upon: such things came at the convenience of the lords of Europe, not at the request, or indeed begging, of the Christians of the Holy Land.

 

And the men that were on hand to protect the Holy Land were second sons and fortune seekers, those that had come looking to create their own holdings, out of the shadow of elder brothers and the nobility; hardly the best of the best. And the arms and weapons that they carried were not of the highest quality. Indeed, if they had brought equipment with them at all from home, they had come with old family swords and rusty mail, weapons and armor that were oftentimes in desperate need of repair. The men thusly relied mostly upon what equipment they could find here, but the armory of Acre, like those in the other remaining Crusader cities, housed weapons scavenged from battlefields, dredged out of rivers or pulled out of the desert sands, and sometimes all three. Most of them were ancient and/or falling apart. It wouldn’t surprise Gilbert if at least some of the spears sitting in storage, covered in cobwebs and dust, dated back to the times of the Savior, or even the Maccabees. It was possible, maybe even likely, that some unlucky fellow would have to go into battle wielding a Roman lance more than a millenium old as a weapon. 

 

What was left, then, to hold back the tide of the Ayyubids? By the Grand Master’s count, there were two forces with both the skill and the equipment to do so, three if one counted the young Teutonic Order (which the Grand Master did not: they did little more than control Acre’s port tolls). There were Gilbert’s own Templars, of course, well funded by considerable donations from various monarchs that appreciated their goal to defend the Holy Land, their numbers filled out by good, pious and courageous men that had cast aside all other ambitions upon taking their oaths to enter the order, renouncing all titles and holdings they might have pursued to instead give their whole hearts and bodies and souls to the cause.

 

Yes, the Templars could hold meet the Ayyubids in battle. They were the elite shock troops of the Crusaders,  soldier monks whose faith was shield, armor and sword. They were fearless, the dread of death holding no power over them, for what better way to die was there to die than in the service of the Lord? The very tenets of the order explicitly forbid retreat unless outnumbered threefold, and even then only at the commanders orders or if the Templar banner fell; to a Templar, it was better to die a martyr than to sound the retreat.

 

Success breeds imitation, and the near-legendary success of the Templars had bred several such attempts at duplication, the most successful of which were the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, typically simply called the Knights Hospitaller in conversation. Admittedly, the Hospitallers were not simply an attempt to copy the Templars (the former had been founded a full century earlier, and had already had Papal Recognition for a decade by the time the Templars had been sanctioned) but only in the last few years had they truly begun taking up arms in defense of the Holy Land: they had been founded as an Order of healers, not soldiers.

 

Recent events had changed that: The Holy Father frowned heavily upon some of the steps that Gilbert had taken to maintain the fragile truce with Saladin’s heirs, siding with those that believed his desire for peace showed collusion with the heathens. The Pope believed that if the Templars could not be fully trusted to make war with the Muslims whenever the call came, then another military order of the Church was needed.

 

And so it was that the Hospitallers, who had been founded with the goal of caring for those making the long journey to Jerusalem, had taken the final few steps to becoming a fully militant Holy Order: Armed escort of pilgrims and military protection of the Holy Places, before now always something of a secondary goal, now came to the forefront of their duties. Not that there were many pilgrims to protect these days, with Jerusalem in Muslim hands, but the point stood: Grand Master Geoffroy de Donjon was head of a military order.

 

The rivalry between the two Holy Orders was at least at a low point, both having no effort to spare for each other with the Muslims breathing down their necks. The sporadic conflicts with the heathens made sure that they instead focused on their true enemy: The Templars did all they could to hold onto Acre, the last lynchpin holding the Kingdom of Jerusalem while the Hospitallers did the same at the castle of Crac de I’Ospital, protecting all that remained of the County of Tripoli further north. With the manpower that they had, that was more-or-less all that they could do.

 

That, and wait for the hammer to fall. Another war, one fought against the full might of the Ayyubids, was always at the forefront of the minds of the people of the Outremer. On that front, the recent news was disheartening at best: the brother of Saladin, a competent leader and general in his own right, seemed to be on the verge of consolidating their hold over all the realms of the Ayyubids, about to unite the Muslims once more. Once the last of his rivals fell, he would be looking for his next target, and it did not take a genius to know where his gaze would turn.

 

And so the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon waited, along with the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem and the nascent Order of Brothers of the German House of St Mary in Jerusalem, and all those that they had been charged with protecting. They tried to go about their usual business, but always, they waited. They waited for two things: for the next war, the one that might well throw them into the sea; and for aid from afar, which they knew was their only chance for surviving the coming storm.

 

Unknown to Grand Master Gilbert Horal, and indeed the whole of the Outremer, both would come from unlikely sources.

 

 

Cairo

 

The man known to Europe as Saphadin stood victorious. It had taken seven years, but Al-Adil, Sword of the Faith, brother to Saladin, had won the title of Sultan. His nephew Al-Afdal had finally surrendered, besieged in Cairo after his army had been shattered in open battle near Bilbeis. After the better part of a decade spent monitoring shifting alliances, placating allies and fighting battles, the realms of Saladin would finally be reunified, and under a fit and capable ruler if Saphadin did say so himself.

 

Tomorrow, the Sword of Faith would be proclaimed to the people as Sultan of the Ayyubids, a mere formality, certainly, but one that would (hopefully) dissuade any further attempts at rebellion by his various nephews, children and siblings, finally establishing true peace. It was to be a splendid affair, a show of his prestige and power in order to sell the image he wished to project, that of the divinely chosen ruler of the Ayyubids. To that end, he had briefly considered bringing the Holy Banner of the Prophet with him for this triumph, if only for the symbolic value: The imagery of legitimacy and divine favor that the Sacred Standard could have given him was not to be underestimated.

 

But no. He had left the Sancak-I Serif in Damascus, along with the rest of the Prophet’s relics. It felt simply...wrong to use such things against other believers, especially those that were his own kin. What message would that give to his people, if he attacked his own nephew with one of the Prophet’s swords or bows or spears? That Al-Afdal was some heathen to be cast out? That Saphadin himself was a great warrior in the likeness of his brother? That he was readying for the next Jihad against the infidel invaders that had seized the coast?

 

The second of these points was entirely true: Al-Adil was talented in the arts of war, having served as his brother’s second for decades, and his own skills were not to be ignored. But the other two points were not ideas that he wished to foster in his people: For half his life, Saphadin had been fighting, almost without ceasing, against other Muslims and against Crusaders and against wild tribesman, sometimes all at once. Quite frankly, he was tired of war, tired of endless battles, tired of killing and tired of death. Now, finally, the wars were over: He and his brother had won them all. The man called the Sword of Faith intended to win the peace as well.

 

Already, the soon-to-be Sultan of the Ayyubids was making plans. The treasury had to be refilled, the preceding decades of warfare having left it nearly bare. Peace with his neighbors had to be preserved, of course: He wished to normalize relations with what the Christians called the Outremer, if only to prevent an new Crusade from waging war against him. There were still factions within the court that had to be brought into line, preferably without force, neglected fortifications to be rebuilt, neighboring powers to placate.

 

But finally, finally, finally, there was not a war to fight. Al-Adil would have time to carry out his consolidations, relatively without fear of outside threats. A new Crusade looked unlikely, and the Outremer itself was weak; the other Muslim powers dared not challenge him; the Byzantines were shadows of their former selves. Externally, for the moment, there was not a threat to the realms of the Ayyubids, something that hadn’t been the case since Saladin’s conquests had first begun, all those decades ago.  Saphadin smiled at his fortune, continuing his plans to rebuild his war-torn nation.

 

For unless an army of demons crawled out of the sands of Arabia, he would finally have peace.

 

 

Paris

 

In Paris, King Philip II was readying for war. The call for men had been sent out just over a week prior, mere hours after he had first received the missive from the Holy Father. The early signs of response were promising: nobles from across France had committed themselves to the cause, with several thousand men already promised to him and more expected in the coming weeks. From Toulouse to Flanders, the men and knights of France had heard the call, and from Toulouse to Flanders they were answering.

 

The lords in the southeast, those nearest to the new mountains that had sprung out of the Alps, were of course the most enthusiastic in their response, with men like Duke Odo III of Burgundy having already begun levying men even before Philip’s call had gone out, terrified of the tales that came from over the border in the Holy Roman Empire. In Champagne, older plans for Crusades to the Holy Land had been quickly repurposed: Theobald III, Count of Champagne, who had finally began the assembly of the Fourth Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land the previous year, now redoubled his efforts to build up his army and those of his allies for this altogether more imminent threat, aided by the fervent preaching of Fulk of Neuilly. All across France, similar scenes occurred, lords calling up their men to fight. Those same lords were also sending men to their King for the same purpose.

 

The outskirts of Paris had quickly turned into a massive army camp as men had begun to first trickle and then flood in from across the Kingdom. They came in dozens or in hundreds, alone or in pairs, some armed, some armored, some with only the clothes they had. They were soldiers answering the call of their King, young men seeking glory, nobles seeking favor. From all across the land, from every walk of life they came, the encampment outside Paris slowly swelling with each passing hour.

 

The scene was one that was hopefully being reflected across all of Europe. The King of France took heart in knowing that he was not alone in answering the call so early: already, the lords of the Holy Roman Empire, both those sworn to Philip of Swabia and those that were allies of Otto of the House of Welf were levying their troops, and not to fight each other: the fragile truce between the two so-called Emperors holding fast. Travellers said that the same was happening in Denmark, in Castile and Aragon, in Pomerania and Bohemia. And of course, not even far from where Philip stood, the English were raising their own armies, on both their island and in what they called the Angevin Empire on the mainland.

 

The King of France’s smile dimmed slightly at that thought. Philip’s relationship with the English had been...tenuous, as of late. He had fought wars with both Henry II and Richard the Lionheart over the western lands of France, especially the region of Normandy, and the battles that they fought besides each other during the Crusade could not fully blot such memories out. There was little love between the two nations. His final meeting with the Lionheart had proven that: he and Richard had simply stood shouting terms at each other from a ship deck and the banks of the Seine, trying to create lasting peace between their lands. The results of that meeting had been less than productive, establishing only an at-times barely holding truce.

 

Philip was unsure of what to make of Richard’s successor, John. He barely knew the man, having not met him face-to-face in over a decade, when he had supported Richard and John’s rebellion against their father to force Henry II, one of the countless attempts that Philip had made over the years to weaken the English. Even now, the King of France was the main sponsor of Arthur of Brittany’s claim to the English throne, thereby directly supporting a rebellion against John’s reign.

 

That matter, at least, was mostly settled, negotiations the previous month more-or-less ending Philip’s support of Arthur in exchange for John ending his support of independence among several of Philip’s vassals. The Crusade had taken the whole of their attention since: Over the last week, they had exchanged a few short missives, swearing on various things that these new mobilizations were not aimed at each other and generally trying to maintain the existing truce while both continued their mobilizations. At the very least, Philip was encouraged knowing that John knew there were larger events afoot than restarting the war between their nations, but the short messages that had been sent between the two had done little to tell Philip about John himself. Much could change in a decade: who exactly was the man who now ruled across the Channel?

 

That question would be answered soon enough. As a sign of mutual trust and goodwill (and to allay the suspicions that both men had of each other), it had been agreed that the Kings of England and France would travel to the council in Rome together, once they had both completed their initial preparations. Philip would have plenty of time then to work out just where he stood on this King John. Until then, the King of France would have plenty of things to keep his mind occupied.

 

His favorite of these was overseeing the training of the new meat, the turning of the roughest and rawest recruits into a real and capable soldiers. Physically, these men were highly variable, ranging all across the spectrum of strong and weak, lean and corpulent, tall and short. Not that Philip would turn any of them away, of course, being loathe to throw away freely offered service (knowing well that he would need every man that he could get). Besides, physical ability was not the first thing that the King of France looked for in a soldier.

 

Philip had seen, in his many, many campaigns that, while strength of the body was a key attribute on the battlefield, it was strength of the mind, heart and soul that more often carried the day. The world’s strongest man could be cowed easily if he had nothing to fight for; the world’s weakest would put the fear of God into men if he was fighting for everything. The key to warfare, he had found, was in motivating the men to willingly kill for and, if it came to it, to die for their cause. Once sufficiently inspired, all other things need in battle would seem to come naturally.

 

To that end, Philip had spent much of his time since the assembly had begun in the Paris encampment, encouraging the men that had come from all different walks of life to join him in the new Crusade. As he journeyed through the camp, surveying the assembly, the King of France worked to inspire them to the greatness that would be needed in the coming war, projecting an image of glory, courage and might that he hoped would encourage all those who saw to follow him.

 

It was not he alone that provided the imagery. He had had the Sacred Standard of the Oriflamme, the Banner of the King, removed from the tomb of St Denis, the Patron of France, in order to inspire the men. It now stood proudly besides Philip, held high as a call to all who saw it to take up arms in defense of Christendom, as a call to uphold the legacy of France. And that legacy was a great one indeed: whenever and wherever that the Cross had been threatened, good Frenchmen could be found defending defending it. From the times of King Clovis they had kept true to the faith, and other great Kings like Charles Martel and Charlemagne had seen made sure that that legacy remained unstained.

 

Now it was the turn of King Philip II. But at such thoughts his heart became heavy: the challenge he would soon face would surpass that of any that had ever come before, and doubt crept into the back of his mind about his ability to carry the weight placed upon him. He had fought for the faith before, of course, in the Crusade a decade before, but this coming war, judging from the Holy Father’s missive and the ever-increasing reports coming from the southeast, would make that campaign seem like a small skirmish. Charles Martel had stopped the Muslims; Charlemagne had subdued the Saxons; Philip II would have to face the Devil themself.

 

These things weighed heavily upon Philip’s mind and spirit, not entirely filling, certainly, him but still working to increase his worries and fears. Did he have the faith, the courage, the strength and the guile to stand besides the two greatest leaders that the French people had ever known? Could he even come close to them? For centuries, their legacies had been the ruler by which all Kings of France had been measured, and those Kings had done all that they could do to come even close to their likenesses. Did he have what it took to live up to them?

 

Even now, Philip wore the sword Joyeuse, said to be the blade of Charlemagne himself, with some legends claiming that the spear that had pierced Christ’s side had been used to forge it. These days, it was a largely ceremonial blade, used by his father and grandfather at their respective coronations, having not seen combat for decades, if not centuries. He had taken it out of storage for the same reason he had taken out the Oriflamme, for its value in inspiring those that saw it. But now, Philip felt as if there were more to it than that.

 

Idly, the King of France pulled Charlemagne’s sword from its sheath, examining the ancient weapon. It felt almost...strange, in his hands. He would be hard pressed to describe the sensation: it felt light, as if it was made from the air itself, but at the same time heavy, like it could split stone if even lazily swung. Yet it didn’t feel wrong: the pommel felt perfectly at home in his grip, and the blade almost seemed to sing to him, ready to be used. Philip wasn’t sure, but there was a feeling within him, one that he couldn’t quite put into words. It was almost as Joyeuse itself were alive, as if the spirit of its previous wielders resided within it, calling on him to uphold the legacy that they had written.

 

Resheathing the ancient blade, Philip pushed such thoughts aside. The feeling didn’t quite go away, settling into the back of the King’s mind, silently waiting to be called on as needed. But a sword, no matter who it had once belonged to, was still simply a sword. The greatest sword in the world would be useless in the hands of a fool. It was the man who wielded it that mattered. The sword had been wielded by a great man before, by Charlemagne, the founder of an empire the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Rome.

 

Now, King Philip II of France hoped and prayed that it would be wielded by another in the coming days.

 

 

Glastonbury, England

 

King John of England was tired. For the past week, he had been riding across England, crisscrossing east and west, north and south as he tried to raise up an army to answer the Pope’s Call to arms. He had hoped that his haste in mobilizing his people would be able to win him some respect from both his own court and the other nobles of Europe. In theory, having a battle-ready army before the other Kings of Christendom were more than partway through their own preparations would win him favor with the Holy Father, gaining him praise for his zeal and the honor that would with the Pope’s blessing.

 

But his plans had hit quite a snag: it had quickly become evident that his subjects did not share his enthusiasm for this new Crusade. They were slow to believe the stories that trickled across the Channel from France, and few were eager to follow a King that they held little-to-no respect for on what they viewed as a pointless and inconsequential errand. As a result, the mood in England towards the call to arms ranged from apathetic at best  to almost outright hostile at worst. A few places dropped the ‘almost’ out of the latter phrase: Nottingham, in particular, had been...eventful. The King of England had made a mental note to deal with both the apparently utterly incompetent local Sheriff and the merry band of hecklers and subversives personally at a later date.

 

Greater success was reported in his French holdings. The people there, it seemed, were much more willing to believe the realness of the threats arrayed against them, and William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke (who had gone ahead into the Angevin Empire while the King stayed in the homeland) was proving to be a more popular and more effective recruiting figure than John was. This news disheartened John more than it should have: despite the threat of the Earl’s popularity eclipsing his own, Pembroke was more loyal than most men in the Kingdom, and the dire situation had no place in it for pride. But being outshone by a subordinate did little to lighten the King’s spirits.

 

Still, John was nothing if not resilient, and persisted in his mission, continuing his efforts on the faint hope that each town would be more receptive than the last. And then, more often than not, he would have those hopes dashed. Still, there were a few other options open to him: If he could not find willing men in his own realm, then he would have to cast his net further afield. Over the next week or two, he would embark on a trip to Wales, putting his case before the lords of Gwynedd and Deheubarth, before a short jaunt across the sea to rally the Lordship of Ireland to his cause, all three being at least nominally his vassals. After that was done, he would sail south, finally joining with Philip II of France for the journey to Rome for the council.

 

With such a vast distance to be covered in such a short time, John did his best to get his rest in now. Glastonbury Abbey was as good a place as any to do so: It was a holding of one of his relatively reliable allies, a certain Savaric FitzGeldewin, who had traded the city of Bath to the late King Richard for the rights to the Abbey. He had hoped that by seizing the abbey he would finally be able to end the longstanding feuds between England’s Bishops and its Monastics. That had not been the case: instead of a consolidation of power, a long and complicated series of political maneuvers had followed, and now Savaric awaited the Pope’s final judgment on the issue. Not that the King cared much for Church politics: what it all boiled down to was that, for the moment, Savaric remained an ally of John, if only because the King could offer him some form of protection if worst came to worst.

 

And so it was that the King of England found himself at Glastonbury Abbey this night, trying futilely to sleep before his journey would resume in the morning. It was by no means an uncomfortable place rest, far from it, but still John was...uneasy, being here. There were certain legends about this place, legends that troubled the current King of England. After the monastery had burned in 1186, and the resulting lack of pilgrims had begun to drain the Abbey’s coffers, a Royal Clerk named Giraldus had started a rumor that the tomb of the legendary King Arthur had been found during the renovations. It was a fraudulent claim, of course, a stunt to increase the number of pilgrims and raise funds for the restoration of the monastery, but still: John could almost hear the whispers behind his back, with the King of England being compared unfavorably to Arthur as well as his brother.

 

John ground his teeth at those thoughts. Yes, peasants, unloyal nobles, hecklers and liars, compare him to two half-mythical Kings, one of whom might not even exist. That was fair of them. It was not as if the weight of Richard’s legacy alone was already doing its level best to crush him under its weight: add Arthur’s as well. Truly, John needed to strain himself further, especially in such a time as this. Truly, putting him under even more stress would allow him to be a better King.

 

With such ideas dominating his mind, John found rest to be impossible, despite his best efforts. He tossed and turned in his bed, sleep remaining ever elusive. Thoughts of his brother kept him awake most nights: they were joined now by thoughts of Arthur. Arthur the monster hunter. Arthur, who had driven back the Saxons. Arthur, whose achievements no mortal man could ever hope to match. Arthur, who they compared to John anyways, and never favorably. Whatever small thing those that whispered behind his back could use, they used. It made John’s blood boil.

 

So consumed was John by these thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that he was no longer in the bedchamber that had been arranged for him. In fact, he was nowhere within the Abbey at all: rather, he stood overlooking it from the top of the nearby Tor, the terraced hill which stood not quite a mile distant from where he had been. And his nightclothes were gone, replaced by the armor he wore in battle; but his sword did not hang by his side.

 

John’s muscles tensed as he pondered this strange turn of events, his heart falling into his stomach. Yes, he had been restless, but not so much as to rise from his bed, put on his armor and hike up the hill. And this was no dream: he could feel a slight wind upon his face, the cold of the night air, could smell the dew on the grass. No, there was more at work here than his own wandering mind. Nervously, the King of England looked about himself, fear building in his heart. Something else nagged at his thoughts, something very important that he was missing, and the feeling only made his heart fall yet further.

 

It took a moment to remember the critical information that the Tor was topped by a wooden church, yet the hill he stood upon, overlooking Glastonbury, had nothing atop it at all. He looked all around him, seeing the village below and the rest of the familiar geography, confirming his position, yet the Church of St. Michael remained entirely absent. And that was not all: as he looked at the horizon, he noticed that the entire sky was as black as pitch, with not a single star to be seen, despite the clearness of the night.

 

“What devilry is this?” he wondered aloud, his hand clutching for where his sword should have been sheathed, panic starting to build within him.

 

“It is not devilry at all.”

 

John whirled around, desperately trying to draw a sword that wasn’t there. Sitting on a stone behind him (which had not been there a moment before) sat an unassuming blonde woman in simple dress. She paid no attention to the King of England, instead focusing on what was in her hands: a long tapestry, which she wove with a skill and speed the likes of which John had never seen. The rapidly completed cloth fell in folds to her feet, shimmering as if the strings had been made of precious metal, and the woman, too, seemed to shimmer and glow, her image wavering in and out of focus like a candle in a breeze.

 

Seemingly taking notice of John for the first time, she glanced up from her work, looking the King of England over with a quick and critical eye. Nodding to herself, she set the end of the tapestry down in her lap, folding her hands over it before speaking again.

 

“Unless you believe me to be a devil. I do not think of myself as one, but you might think differently.”

 

“Who are you?” John demanded, hoping that whoever she was, she didn’t hear the fear in his voice or see the quiver on his face.

 

A half grin appeared on the woman’s face. “I am just a humble recorder,” she said, “here to show you what you refuse to see.”

 

With a flourish, she grabbed the tapestry from her feet and shook it out into the wind. John watched as the glimmering banner unfurled, unfurled and kept unfurling, becoming far longer than it should have been, wrapping itself around the hilltop in a wide circle around John and the woman before him. It seemed to hang from the air itself, rippling in the gentle breeze yet not falling to the ground, the whole thing shining like a sunbeam shining through a window of stained glass.

 

Despite himself, John found himself looking at the images that the tapestry portrayed, which themselves moved and shifted, the characters on them seeming to come alive. The tapestry showed a great many men, of a great many different walks of life doing a great many different things, yet each and every scene, each and every participant in them, was somehow vaguely familiar to John, their faces stirring his memories….

 

With a start, the King of England realized that the tapestry’s tale was his own, and it was showing the whole of his life, from his birth to this very moment. There was he was coming out of the womb, on Christmas eve of 1166, and there was him being given to the care of his mother’s wet nurse not long after. There were his early lessons at Fontevrault Abbey, under Ranulf de Glanvill, and his travels with his father during the rebellion of his elder brothers, followed by his expedition to Ireland. It showed the political crisis that had developed when Richard had left on his Crusade, the war against the French that had broken out upon his return, the succession crisis after his death. All this and more it showed, all in detail that not even John’s own memory could compete with. And all of this terrified him.

 

“Who. Are. You.” John whispered in awe and fear, eyes wide in shock. The woman simply smiled.

 

“I told you, John of England: I am but a recorder of histories. Of late, I have taken particular interest in your, and I must say: I do not like where it seems to be headed, and neither should you.”

 

The woman’s hands moved faster than John’s eyes could follow, and in seconds she had produced a new length of cloth. The woman held out her hands, offering John the piece. Taking the cloth, the King of England saw upon it himself, lifeless and broken. Around his body stood many men clad in the clothes and armor of nobility, some that he recognized, most that he did not. The scene on the cloth shifted and moved as he watched, and the men standing over his image kicked and spat on it, disgust on their faces, cursed on their tongues.

 

“What it this?” John demanded, trying to tear the offending rag to pieces, his hands ripping at seams that didn’t seem to be there. The fear he held for the woman quickly morphed into rage. When the cloth refused to break, he threw it to the ground, howling in rage, crying out: “What witchcraft is this!?”

 

“It is what is to come, John of England,” the woman spoke, again not looking up from her work.  “It is the tapestry that I will have to weave, if you do not abandon the path you walk.”

 

“Speak clearly, woman! Not in riddles!” John strode towards the woman, an enraged look on his face. He moved as if to grab her, but without so much as glancing upwards the woman made an offhand gesture towards the King of England, and the man felt himself become frozen where he stood. John tried to move, but found his whole body unresponsive, as if gripped in great iron chains. He struggled against the invisible bonds, unable to so much as squirm in their grasp.

 

“I do not speak in riddles.” The woman set down her work again, now standing to face the King. Her gaze fell upon the man before her, who in an instant was cowed, John’s rage vanishing like dew on grass, replaced once more with paralyzing fear. The woman continued to speak.

 

“What I say should be clear to any who hear it. You are simply too deaf to listen.”

 

The woman motioned with her hands, and John was unfrozen, falling to his knees. The tapestry moved closer, the woman now examining it. She spoke again as she did so, still not turning towards the King.

 

“I show you only what has been, and what is likely to be.” The woman’s tone was neutral, but still the King of England flinched when he heard it. “Whatever you see upon my tapestry is what you have put or may yet put upon it.”

 

With a gesture of her hands, the woman pulled the tapestry yet nearer, putting it before both herself and John.

 

“I have seen your history, John of England. I have seen your arrogance,” she indicated the scene depicting his expedition to Ireland, which showed John pulling on and laughing at the beards of the locals.

 

“I have seen your deceit,” the woman pointed to another part of the tapestry, where John spoke to the people, telling them that his brother had died in the Holy Land, and that John himself should be crowned King as a result.

 

“I have seen your wrath,” the woman gestured towards an earlier scene, one from his childhood, portraying a young John bitting at the fingers of a retainer that had angered him.

 

“I have seen all of this and more. And I and those that work with me to protect this world dread them, because in time they will spell doom for you and your whole nation. We had hoped that the people of England, that you, could be relied upon in the coming war. But so far, it seems that we are mistaken.”

 

“What are you saying? That I am weak? That I am unworthy of the crown?” There was some bite in John’s voice, but there was far more fear.

 

“I am only telling you what I have seen, John of England,” the woman replied, her tone still quite neutral. “Do you believe that the crown is yours by right to have?  You would do well to remember that you are a fifth son, King by no right but default.”

 

“I am a fifth son, yes,” John said, his voice almost pleading, “But I was my father’s favorite. And of my elder brothers, one died an infant and two others rebelled against our father. Richard...Richard was better than me. Even I do not deny that, but to say that the crown is not mine by right by his death without heir is-”

 

“The crown is yours by right of lineage, not right of action,” the woman interrupted, shaking her head. “You have done nothi-”

 

“No!” John cried out, standing once more. The woman’s only reaction to the outburst was a slightly raised eyebrow.

 

“No!” John repeated, his breath becoming hard. “No! I have not done nothing! I have not done nothing! I have fought dozens, no, hundreds of battles, and been victorious! I have conquered castles! I hav-”

 

“Such actions,” the woman spoke again, annoyance and frustration tingeing her voice, “do not make you worthy of a crown. It is one matter to win a city; it is another entirely to win the hearts of its people. And your actions in Ireland and while your brother was on his Crusade have proven to us that you are incapable of the latter.”

 

“Neither of those were my fault!” screamed John, his face red. “Hugh de Lacy sabotaged me in Ireland, and Longchamp was an incompetent that had to be removed from power! I am blameless in what you accuse me of!”

 

“And therein lies your doom, John of England!” The woman’s voice had developed a dangerous edge, and she took a step closer to the King, who immediately drew back in fear. “In that you refuse to acknowledge your faults! You would walk open-eyed to destruction, because you cannot see what all others do! That you! Are! To Blame!”

 

The woman paused. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening them again. In an instant, her expression had returned to a neutral one, and now she picked up the end of the tapestry once more, resuming her work. John, for his part, had toppled to the ground, hands raised in terror, a wide look of fear in his eyes. It was a long moment before she spoke again.

 

“You push fault upon all others, refusing to see your own. Yes, you are a King, by right of lineage. But you have yet to become one by right of deed. You are like a petulant child who throws a tantrum whenever they do not get their way. And that is why you are on the path to destruction, John of England. And the fault is no one’s but your own.”

 

Another long silence. Finally, the woman resumed speaking.

 

“This world has soldiers. It has great warriors, and strategists, and engineers. What it needs are Kings. It needs great leaders of men, who can inspire those that follow them to new heights, champions for others to rally behind. The French have one in Philip II. The Germans shall have Philip of Swabia and Otto IV. Who will the English have? You? A man who they see as greedy and cruel, petty to the extreme, the pale shadow of his predecessors? Is that who they will die to follow? Who they will fight to protect? Who they will follow through the gates to Hell?”

 

The woman crouched down before John, taking his chin in her hands and making him look her in the eyes.

 

“You are a good general. You are an able administrator. But against what is coming, you will need to be so much more. There is no other man to lead England: Arthur of Brittany is too young, William Marshall will never take a crown, all others too low to raise up without protest from every side. You must become a far greater man than you currently are.”

 

“And how do I become as such,” John asked in barely more than a whisper, “when all the men around me scream that I cannot possibly do so? I am surrounded by critics and hecklers, who denounce my every step, refusing to hear from me even the smallest orders! I cannot lead such men!”

 

“Yes, you can,” the woman spoke, sighing. “It will not be easy, by any means, but it is possible. If you wish to disperse those that say you are unworthy, than do nothing that would vindicate them.”

 

“How can I, when they find flaw in all I do?!” John wailed. “Everything I do is wrong in their eyes! I cannot take the smallest step without being belittled!”

 

“Watch the steps you take, John of England, and you might see that their cries are more correct than you think. You cannot control the flaws of others: you must learn to control your own instead of foisting blame. Only then will you be the King that you think you already are.”

 

The woman turned away, looking towards the southeast at something beyond the horizon, frowning. When she spoke again, her voice was soft, tinged with worry.

 

“We need you, John. England must have a true King if it is to survive the coming storm. Resume the mission that you have planned. Go to Wales, then Ireland, heeding what I have told you. Continue to Rome for the council. Upon your return to England, come once more to this place. At that time we will speak again.”

 

She turned back towards John, a dark look on her face.

 

“If you wish to prove that the critics are wrong about you...you must begin now.”

 

And then she was gone. So was her tapestry, and indeed the entire hillside. Instead, John found himself once more within his bedchamber in Glastonbury Abbey. He bolted up from his bed, a cold sweat upon him. He reached up to mop his brow, his body shuddering. It took a moment for him to realize that there was a small cloth in his hands, that had been there since he had awoken.

 

It was the piece of the woman’s tapestry that showed his corpse, abused and spat-on by many men. John stared intensely at the shard, looking over his broken form. The cloth had become still now, the images no longer moving. He shifted his gaze to the men that surrounded him, who kicked at his body, jeering and cursing at it. They who despised him, and wished for him misery and a painful death. Those who decried every action he took, who called him out on every occasion that they could, who…

 

Who, for the first time in a very long time, John wondered if they might be right. While the woman had, quite frankly, terrified him, she had spoken true when she said that her tapestry showed had no embellishments. John remembered Ireland and his mockery of the natives, his usurping of the nation while Richard had been away, his anger and rage dominating even his youth. All the accusation that were levelled against him, all the charges made against his character…Were they true?

 

Normally, John would dismiss this line of thinking out of hand, but the meeting with the woman had shaken him to his core. The power that had seemed to radiate off of her could not have come from the Earth, only from above or below. And from either place, her vantage point on his life would have been far better than his own. Bowing to the wisdom of others was not a skill that John usually employed, but in this case…

 

In this case, what? Shouted one part of his mind. Listen to a woman who might well have been a witch? No, said another, listen to one who was clearly of the divine. This line of thinking continued, neither side of the argument truly gaining ground on the other. The debate raged on and on in the thoughts of King John of England. Whatever the case, the meeting with they mysterious woman had planted a seed within his mind, one which had firmly taken root.

 

But was he to treat it as a crop or a weed?

 

 

Mount Athos, Greece

 

This was Holy ground. The name of the peninsula and the mountain that sat astride it came from the pagans, named for the Giant that they said Poseidon had buried beneath it after the Gigantomachia, but in these days it was the Cross that stood above this land. The local legends claimed that the Virgin Mother had been going to Cyprus to visit with Lazarus when a storm had blown her ship off course and forced it to anchor near the port of Klement. It is said that Mary had gone ashore and, amazed by the beauty of the mountain, had blessed the land and asked that her Son make it into her garden. The tales say that a voice had answered her from heaven, saying: 

"Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.”

 

From that moment, the Mountain was a consecrated place to all those of the Orthodox Faith, the Garden of the Mother of God.  Ever since, hundreds upon hundreds of monks and hermits had taken up residence here, seeking harmony with the Lord. It was a place without distraction from the outside world: In 885, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I declared Athos to be a place for monks and monks alone, where no farmers or cattle-breeders could dwell. Monastics came from as far as Egypt and the Rus to live here, seeking God.

 

Naturally, monasteries dotted the mountain, with names such as Xylorgou, St. Pantelimon, Xeropotamou, Vatopedi, Konstamonitou. The newest among them was Hilandar, built on the ruins of ancient and abandoned Helandaris Monastery. The restoration had begun only two years before, but was still home to hundreds of Serbian monks, with many more expected to arrive in the coming years. The central church, that of the Entry of the Lady Theotokos into the Temple, was already complete, along with two towers and most of the monastic chambers.

 

Among those that lived there was the new Monastery’s founder, a certain Sava of Serbia, who had been granted the land for the Monastery and been given its Charter by Emperor Alexios III Angelos. Once, Sava had been royalty: he had been born as Prince Rastko of Serbia, youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja. For a time, he had served as the Governor of Hum under his father, quickly gaining a reputation for being charitable, kind and fair. The signs of his truling were quick to appear: He took to Asceticism at a young age, and he showed no interest in the accumulation of wealth, no love for the pursuit of fame and, indeed, no desire whatsoever for the throne of Serbia. Before two years had passed as Governor, he renounced his titles journeyed to Mount Athos to enter the monastic life.

 

Receiving the name Sava, the former Prince had found his life’s vocation. In no other task had he ever found so much fulfillment as he did in his studies, first at St. Pantelimon and later Vatopedi, and in no other place had he found such peace as he did meditating in his chambers. His father tried to persuade him to return to Serbia, but Sava would not be swayed, instead suggesting that his father, by then having passed his 80th year and having tired of ruling, abdicate the throne and join him in true Christian life.

 

On March 25, 1196, the aging Grand Prince took his son’s advice, passing the throne to his middle son Stefan at an assembly at Studenica, taking monastic vows the very next day (along with his wife, Ana). The elder Stefan remained at the monastery at Studenica for a year, being given the name Simeon, before joining Sava at Mount Athos in the autumn of 1197 , where he would be welcomed with open arms (Ana, granted the name Anastasia, retired to a different monastery, at Kursumlija).

 

Since then, father and son had worked together to return Hilandar to its previous glory, working with their hands and primitive tools to rebuild the walls and roofs and floors of the crumbling structures. Funding and help were easy to come by, at least: the younger Stefan, now Grand Prince of Serbia, was quick to offer money whenever he was asked, and a steady flow of new monks from Serbia flowed almost constantly, eager to follow the examples set by their former lieges.

 

Still, it was long and often grueling work, perhaps more fitting for paupers and peasants than for former royalty. Yet neither Sava nor Simeon made the slightest complaint, and in fact had rarely felt more fulfilled and joyful in their lives. Perhaps it was the Lord lightening their hearts for doing His work; perhaps it was the peace of mind that came from no longer having to deal with the machinations of nobles and lords; perhaps it was simple satisfaction at working, building, with their own hands, knowing that this was a thing done by themselves and not by their servants. Whatever the case, the both former Grand Prince of Serbia and former Governor of Hum could be said to be totally at peace, and their lives were all the better for it.

 

Alas, their tranquility could not last forever. Simeon was, after all, nearing his 90th year, a fact that could not be disguised by any measure of good cheer and physical exercise. For close to a year, Sava had watched his father’s health slowly begin to deteriorate; the elder man, it seemed, had only held on so long by seeking peace both within himself and with God, and having found both with his son at Mount Athos he was ready for the Father to take him home.

 

That day had drawn closer and closer through the winter, and even as spring slowly began to approach Simeon knew that his earthly time had been coming to an end. He had wished to go to Constantinople for his last days, to lie before the Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria in his final hours, but it was not to be: a sudden storm had come up at the end of January, preventing him from leaving Mount Athos. If the once-Grand Prince had been dismayed by this development, he did well to hide it, smiling even as his son and monastic brothers fretted and worried about him dying in the incompleteness of Hilandar

 

In the end, it was decided that he would be taken instead to nearby Koutloumousiou Monastery, to expire before what was said to be the largest Relic of the True Cross. And so it was that the monk Simeon, once Grand Prince Stefan of Serbia, founder of the Nemanja Dynasty, would enter into heaven, with his son Sava, the former Prince Rastko, by his side and all those he had joined in the monastic life praying for his soul.

 

The hour was drawing near. The silence in the Monastery Chapel took on a weight of its own, and now it pushed the hearts and spirits of the gathered monks down beneath it. Simeon would not have wanted them to weep for him, not as he entered into the presence of the Father, but how could they not? The old man was beloved by all, endearing himself to many within the community even in the short few years that he had been with them. His life would be remembered fondly in time; for now, they mourned in silence as their brother drew his final few breaths.

 

“Rastko...Rastko...Rastko, my son…” rasped the founder of the Nemanja Dynasty, his eyes cloudy and unfocused. He had been laid down before the Relic, and until now he had lied still excepting for the shudders of cold that occasionally ran through his body. Sava looked up at the mention of his name, and saw his father beginning to sit up, his face contorting in obvious pain as he did so. In a second, the younger man was by Simeon’s side, trying to get him to lie back down.

 

“Rastko...Rastko…” Sava looked into his father’s eyes, but saw only empty orbs. Taking a deep breath, moisture pricking at his eyes, he responded, gently trying to lower his father.

 

“I am here, father. ” he said slowly, not sure the older man had heard him.

 

Simeon shook his head, grabbing Sava’s shoulder with strength that the younger man didn’t expect. He fixed his empty eyes upon him, and Sava thought that perhaps, just perhaps, he saw the faintest trace of a spark within them. The older man spoke again, now rasping for breath.

 

“Rastko...listen...to me. You must...hear me. You must…” Simeon broke off into a hacking fit, his whole body shuddering. He pitched forwards towards the ground, falling into Sava’s shoulder. The younger man caught him, gently lowering him back towards the ground.

 

“Father, please. You must be still, if not for your sake then for mine.”

 

“No...no…” the one-time Grand Prince, the founder of a nation, sounded utterly pitiful, and his son felt the tears begin to fall. The old man groaned again, his eyes still dim: “No...Rastko...I must tell…”

 

Another coughing fit. Simeon’s breath became sharp and short, his eyes going wide. Again they looked at his son, and again Sava wasn’t sure if they saw him.

 

“I must…” a horrible hacking noise escaped Sava’s father before he resumed. “Must...must tell you...what I have seen.” More coughing. Red droplets came from his mouth, the bloody spots clearly visible on his rapidly paling lips. “You must...know...you...mu-”

 

More blood. Sava clutched to his father, the tears coming freely now. “Father…please...be still, for my sake. I do not want to see you in this pain. Please.”

 

“How...can I be...still?” Simeon’s whole body was shuddering now, dribble falling freely from his mouth, droplets splattering everywhere as he spoke. “How...when...I have seen...what I have seen?”

 

“What have you seen, father?” Sava was kneeling over his father now, mentally chanting every prayer he could think of. Some of his brother had joined him by Simeon’s side and were doing the same out loud. Simeon continued to shudder, still trying to rise. Even now, he continued to speak.

 

“You.” Sava blinked. His father was looking straight into his eyes now, with an intensity that would have cowed a charging beast, but still he was unseeing. For a moment, his breathing calmed. “I saw you, Rastko. You, and...and your brother.”

 

The moment passed, and the cough returned, worse than before. Sava shook his head.

 

“Father...you have seen me every day for nearly two years...what do you mean by ‘you saw me?’ And...Stefan stayed behind in Serbia, to rule in your stead...”

 

Slowly, Simeon shook his own head, starting to mumble his words now.

 

“Rastko...Rastko...you must listen to me...you must hear me...do not...deny me...this…”

 

The old man closed his eyes and laid back, finally ceasing his struggle to rise. He continued to mumble, repeating over and over and over again… “Rastko...Rastko...Rastko...Rastko…”

 

The other monks looked to Sava. After a moment had passed, Sava tried to suck back his tears before leaning over the dying man.

 

“I am here, Father. I am here.”

 

“Rastko?” The words were barely a whisper now.

 

“Yes. It is me.” Tears cascaded down Sava’s cheeks. “I am here.”

 

“Good...that...that is good. I must...I must speak with you...to tell you wh-what...what I have been shown.”

 

“I am listening, Father.”

 

“Good...good, good. Listen well. I...there isn’t much time.”

 

Simeon was completely still now, his words coming in a whisper. His face, nay, his whole body were deathly pale, his skin cold to the touch, his eyes closed. His breath was barely there, but on it he was still speaking, his lips and tongue almost imperceptibly moving. Sava leaned in close, straining to hear the words, even as the rest of the small chapel went as silent as the grave, a fitting expression if ever there was one.

 

“I...I saw your...your brother...when I dreamed last. But...not in a way...that I had ever seen him before. I...saw him...and...it was like...as if he were...an angel. He was soaring...in the heavens...he had the wings...of eagles...the stars...they were guiding...his path.”

 

Simeon’s body began to shudder again as he struggled for breath, and tears streamed freely from the dying man’s eyes.

 

“But...but then...I saw the shadow...it...it gazed...with a burning eye...all it saw...aflame…”

 

His breathing quickened, his whole body now shivering.

 

“Stefan...he...the shadow...it...it closed in...all...all around him...every side...blocked the stars...and...so many...snares...demons...hiding in it. Your...brother...tried...but...but…”

 

Sava looked down into his father’s eyes. They were wide with terror, terror of something that only he could see, a mortifying fear that the younger man had seen only in the eyes of condemned men. But still he continued to speak.

 

“But...but...a man...his left hand...dead...dagger into...his back...your brother...he fell...and...was taken...taken in chains...to...to the eye…”

 

Simeon paused then, his shudders momentarily subsiding, leaving his son to absorb what he had just heard. Sava was unsure of what to make of it. Delirium? Premonition? He had just begun weighing the chances of both when he felt a frail hand taking his. He looked down again, and for the first time he looked back upon his father, the man who had once been a Grand Prince, not the frail and dying man that lay before him. His eyes were full of light, and he fixed upon his son a gaze that might have cowed a charging lion.

 

“But then...I saw you. You...you were...were ablaze...with light...surrounded...b-by...by beautiful...beautiful swans, thou-thousands...thousands of them. You went...to your brother...and...without blade...or armor...you cast aside...the demons...broke...broke his chains...you…you...placed a crown...upon his head...”

 

The old and feeble man returned, the one-time Grand Prince’s eyes going dim again. He lay back on his mat, his body becoming still.

 

“My...dream...it ended...then…” he whispered. “You...were both...st-still in...the dark, but…”

 

Simeon’s breath slowed for the final time. His eyes closed for the last time as well, a peaceful look descending on him.

 

“Pro-prom...promise...promise me...that...Stefan...will...will here my...will here my message. I...must...believe...that I have...been...shown...what...the Lord...wished...for me...to see. So...so must you...Go...go...to you brother...I know...that...you...are...meant to...meant to save him...go...I know not...what from...but you...you must...you must protect...you brother...my son…”

 

His words were almost inaudible now, a soft murmuring of “go...go...go…” Sava closed his eyes, blinking back tears as he clasped his father’s hands in his. His own response was a whisper.

 

“I will, Father.” His voice shuddered with emotion, his mouth barely able to form the words. “I swear it.”

 

The smallest of smiles formed on Simeon’s face. He had heard his son’s oath. But he would hear no more. At that moment, with a final shudder and a drawn-out, rasping breath, Stefan Nemanja, called Simeon, once the Grand Prince of Serbia, founder of a Dynasty, builder of a monastery, father, brother and friend, breathed his last, in the company of his monastic brothers and in the arms of his son. And at that very moment, as if to mark the occasion into the annals of history, there was a great rumbling sound that began in the distance, like that of an avalanche mixed with the thunder of a terrible storm.

 

It was coming from the south.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

There were those that would call this place the cradle of civilization. The Greeks, to many (especially their descendents), were the first great culture, the cornerstone on which the whole western world now rested. These lands had produced Homer and Euripides and Aristophanes, the great storytellers of old, inventors of drama and comedy. These lands had yielded Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, who between them had created the bedrock of philosophy, that even the Church, ever-wary of Pagans, acknowledged the wisdom of. These lands had bred Leonidas of Sparta and Pyrrhus of Epirus and Alexander of Macedon, who had been legendary in their own times and whose glories only seemed to increase with age.

 

Other lands, like Egypt and Mesopotamia, might have had longer histories, but Greece’s, it was thought, carried the most weight: Greece had, after all, conquered both of the former, exporting its culture and its language in the process. It was a legacy that refused to go away: even after the Romans, the mightiest empire in history, had laid them low, it was the Greek gods that Rome adopted, the Greek customs had persisted and in the end, when the western half of the empire was overrun by barbarians from the north and a wide myriad of problems within, the eastern half, the Greek half, still survived. Even now, the old legends of Herakles and Odysseus and Achilles survived and were still told, in spite of the efforts of both Christianity and Islam to do away with legacy of the pagans, living on as plays and poems and epics. The gods of the Greeks might have been long dead, their shrines destroyed and temples converted, but the Heroes of the ancient era and all the monster that they had faced were well and alive, if only in story and song.

 

But there were many that thought that Greece’s time in the sun was passing, that its great legacy had been failed by those that had come after. They looked upon the slow decay of the Byzantines and saw a people desperately clinging to their past glories, unable to face the present. They saw the ascendancy of the Franks and Italians and Turks, slowly eating away at the edges of the Empire, working their way year by year, decade by decade closer to Greece itself. Greece was the Cradle of Civilization, they agreed to that, but Civilization had long since outgrown its Cradle.

 

Those that said so did so at their own peril. This land was older than the Cross, older than the Crescent, had been old while even Rome was still no more than a tiny village on a hill. If no one else remembered that, the land itself would. And so it was that a cold winter storm descended across the whole land, and hidden in the roaring winds and crashing thunder and thudding hail were other sounds, the roars and cries and cackles of the thousands and thousands of nightmares that this land had inspire come to life. The people had forgotten their respect for this land.

 

It was high time that they were reminded of it.

 

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Further south, one could find the island that had once been home to a civilization even older than that of the Greeks. Crete had once been home to the Minoans, who had lived and thrived centuries before the mainlanders had ever dreamed up even the oldest of their stories. In fact, they served as the main inspiration for at least two of them: Plato’s Timaeus and his Critias both speak of an ancient nation, that was old even when the city-states of Greece were young, that fell out of favor of the gods and was struck down for its hubris, sinking into the sea. In truth, the Minoans were not destroyed by the wrath of the gods, but rather by volcanic eruption so large that it destroyed one small island and set most of the others in the Aegean Sea aflame, before destroying whatever was left with a combination of earthquake and tsunami.

 

The island never truly recovered its past glories. In these days, Crete was a backwater. It had been nearly a quarter of a millennia since the last major battle had been fought here, when Nikephoros Phokas had stormed the great fortress of Chandax, reclaiming the island from the Saracens, and had been more than a century since the short-lived revolt of Karykes. Ever since, the island had remained little more than one more theme of the Byzantine Empire.

 

Nominally, it was the headquarters and main base of the Byzantine Navy, but that was hardly a claim to glory when the Navy was a pale imitation of what it had once been, or even what it should have been. It had been a claim to glory once, and had remained one even in within the bounds of living memory: Under the Komnenos dynasty, the Navy had been strong, much like the rest of the Empire. The efforts of Alexios I and John II to restore Byzantium to a state worthy of the legacies of both Greece and Rome had been fruitful, undoing much of the decay that had set in during the anarchy after the fall of the Macedonian Dynasty.

 

But the death of Manuel I and the subsequent machinations of Andronikos I had thrown all that under the window, a popular uprising had installed the much weaker Angelos Dynasty on the throne. The Angelos quickly proved themselves to be squabbling fools, more interested in their own wellbeing than that of the state entrusted to them. The military was quickly neglected, the navy in particular losing much of its funding and forced to rely on foreign allies and/or mercenaries to carry out basic functions such as deterring pirates. It was under the ‘watch’ of Alexios III Angelos that the megas doux (Governor of the Themes of Hellas, the Peloponnese and Crete, as well as head of the Navy), a certain Michael Stryphnos, had been allowed to enrich himself at the expense of the entire fleet, stealing the funds marked for its upkeep and selling off that which had been placed in his care; some rumors said that he had even sold the very nails of the decks for his own gain.

 

And so it was that Crete found itself a backwater once more, a nowhere in particular overlooked by the world at large. It was the mainland that held the interest of the Byzantines and their rivals, the fronts in Anatolia and Thrace receiving the lion’s share of Imperial attention and resources (at least, whenever the machinations of the court and restlessness of the regional governors didn’t take precedence). The world spun on; Crete remained quiet and unnoticed, being quietly lumped in with Hellas and the Peloponnese for any administrative purposes, its fleets and fortresses allowed to rot away.

 

Chania, occupying the neck of one of the three small peninsulas that jutted out from the western side of the island, was just one of these decaying cities. Reflecting the similarity of their names, Chania was something like a smaller version of the local administrative and military center of Chandax, originally built as a fortified city designed to deter Muslim raiders from attacking the island.  And like Chandax, the Angelos Dynasty had neglected its upkeep, the smaller city being even quicker to feel the effects of being ignored by those higher in the power structure. Gone were the great galleys and that had struck fear into the hearts of the Normans and the Muslims, replaced with nothing more than a small fleet of fishing ships. What was once a mighty fortress was now little more than a backwater market and fishing town, just one more like hundreds of others across the Aegean Sea. Those that lived here lived quietly, going about their business without a care for the outside world, so long as no fleet of hostile pirates appeared over the horizon.

 

All that was about to change.

 

There was very little, at first, to indicate to the people of Crete, and of Chania especially, as to how important that they had just become. The storm that descended around them was fiercer than usual, certainly, but the people of Crete knew well that the Aegean could be ferocious under the right conditions. The howling winds and roars of thunder and blinding snow and rain were more typical of December or January, sure, but for such a storm to come in mid-February wasn’t entirely unheard of. Shutters rattled, doors creaked and the people put their pillows over their heads and tried to sleep through it. This was Crete. This was Chania, Crete; nothing important happened here.

 

Of course, when things happen in a place where nothing ever happens, they tend to be very large things. The inhabitants of Chania rose from their slumbers that morning expecting, perhaps, some storm damage that would need to be repaired, their main concerns being with the amount of sleep that the thunder and winds had stolen from them. They put on their clothes as they did every day and cooking small, simple breakfasts, pausing only to do some small, trivial thing before stepping outside and beginning their day’s work. And at some point in the morning, they glanced northeast.

 

And then they did a double take. Then a triple take. And then they stared long and hard at the sight before them, their minds refusing to believe what their eyes were telling them. For if they did, then they would have to believe that the small peninsula that Chania sat at the neck of had spontaneously doubled, no, trebled its size, what was once a relatively short stub protruding out into the Aegean now stretching a good distance towards the horizon.

 

And that was not all. The peninsula had had very few man-made features, being dotted only by small fishing outposts and dirt pathways, with a permanent population that numbered only a few dozen at absolute best. Now, though, the people of Chania looked out and saw a great city covering up most of the peninsula, the likes of which many had never seen. It was a fortress, clearly, with tall white walls and towers emblazoned with the image of a Swan, and not a neglected Byzantine one: this place had clearly been lovingly maintained, with not even the slightest sign of crumbling walls or rotting ramparts.

 

And it was large. The city, whatever city it was, sprawled across the whole of the new peninsula, dominating the horizon. The city was larger than any on Crete, certainly, perhaps any in all of Greece. The entire shoreline had been turned into one gigantic harbor, putting Chania’s tiny docks to shame, and many of the city’s quays were filled with magnificent ships, larger than any galley that the Byzantine Empire had ever put to sea.

 

If one had a keen enough eye, they could tell that it was actually two separate cities lying adjacent to each other, a visible seam in the center where certain design elements had been changed from one to the other. Not that the people of Chania took much note of such subtleties. They reacted as the other people of Europe had to seeing entire horizons change: Mainly, they stood there in shock, wondering what power of heaven or earth could have done such a thing, unsure of what to do. Some ran, either in fear or as messengers to Chandax to try and find someone who would know what was happening. Others hid, hoping that this was all just a sleep-deprived dream yet knowing that it was very, very real.

 

Crete, in an instant, was a nowhere no longer.

 

 

The Fjords of Norway

 

A lone figure stood along the seaside, looking out over the waters. Not a man, certainly: although their appearance was mostly similar,  there was a certain radiance to them, a subtle glow that no human possessed. No, they were a child not of the Earth, or indeed even of any part of Arda that was open to mortal beings; Rather, they were one born of the Land Across the Sea, that place of paradise inaccessible to all but those that could sail upon the Straight Road.

 

But they had left that place behind long ago, and to it now they dared not return.

 

Instead, they had trod the coasts of the whole world, always looking west but never allowing themselves to make the journey. Long had they wandered the shores of the sea, long beyond the living memory of all but a very few, singing a low and mournful tune. Since the fall of Beleriand of old they had stood by the sea, singing their song of sorrow, the ages passing them by. In that time, Numenor had been raised out of the waters and thrown down back into them; Sauron had deceived nearly the whole world, rallying all manner of dark things before being overthrown by the Last Alliance; the Rings of Power had been forged, the One and Three and Seven and Nine, bringing fortune or disaster to all who bore them; The realms in exile, Gondor and Arnor, had been founded, their powers waxing and waning with the times. All this had happened, and still the lone figure had walked along the shores of the sea, undisturbed, still singing their song of mourning.

 

Over time, the song had slowly been altered. The tune, certainly, remained one of loss and despair and grief, but as the seasons and years and ages had worn on, the words that were spoken changed. In the most distant mists of time, if the singer had had an audience, one would have heard the word Silmaril quite frequently. Over time, the word Feanor became more frequent, then Maedhros, Amrod and Amras, Celegorm, Caranthir and Curufin. These were joined later by Alqualonde, Doriath and Sirion.

 

In time, other terms became more frequent: Nerdanel.  Dagor-nuin-Giliath, Dagor Bragollach, Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Elrond. Elros. On and on, without ceasing or even rest, the song continued, a verse sung for each word in turn before beginning once more. It was clear, even if one understood not a single word that was said, that this was a song of lamentation, crying out for what had been lost, for what could never be regained.

 

But today, for the first time since it had begun, for the first time in six-and-a-half millennia, the song had ceased. Today, there was only silence, as the figure on the shoreline gazed out over the western waters, frowning. A few hours before, a sudden storm had come upon them, freezing winds and crashing waves and rolling thunder mingling with their song. The figure had trudged on, ignoring the flashing lightning and blinding snow around them: they had experienced far worse in their time.  

 

And then the storm had ended, and when the figure could see again the tune which they had sung for eons gave way to shocked silence. They turned and looked upon the lands behind them, at the steep cliffs that hemmed in the waters below. In 6,500 years, they walked along every shore of Middle-earth, without exception, growing familiar with their lays. This land was not one he recognized. In their millennia of life, the figure had seen many, many things but this...this was a new experience.

 

The figure thought on this, wondering what could have possibly happened. They would soon receive an answer.

 

“Maglor. We must speak.”

 

At the sound of his name, which he had not heard for several millennia, the elven prince turned to see who had spoken it. Standing before him now was a somewhat small and timid looking woman, clothed in a simple, hooded grey cloak, her face one of care and concern, and her image blurred and came into focus with each moment, as if she were here in but a dream. Despite her humble appearances, though, the woman subtly radiated power, the air around her seeming to softly sing a song of mourning and lamentation that carried as much emotion in an instant as Maglor’s song had in six millennia.  Taking a deep breath, the last son of Feanor bowed low before her.

 

“Lady Nienna. If I may ask, what has brought you here? It must be serious indeed: I am unworthy of your presence, even as a mere projection, much less to speak to you.”

 

“I have been brought here by what I am always brought by,” the Vala of Mourning, Pity and Mercy responded, “I am here to bring comfort to the weary and the grieving, to soothe the pain and suffering of the world, however I may. And...I am here to bring healing to you, as well.”

 

The son of Feanor looked up at the Lady at those last few words, a tinge of confusion in his eyes. She looked back into his eyes with a look of pity, continuing as she did so.

 

“You have seen for yourself that the lays of the land have been remade, and as was happened before, when Beleriand and Numenor fell, much woe and death has been unleashed in the process. Two worlds have collided, and now the war of one is the war of both.”

 

The Lady of Compassion now signalled for Maglor to rise, continuing to speak as she did so.

 

“This whole world lies injured: I can not walk here myself without deepening the wounds, none of the Valar may. And so we must raise up Champions to fight in our steads. Manwe’s are already here; Yavanna is preparing hers. I have chosen you to be mine, if you are willing. I wish for you to act in my name, to aid in the protection of this new world.”

 

At those words, a look of shock took up residence on Maglor’s face. No. No, this...this must be a mistake. No, he must have heard her wrong. Champion? Be her Champion? Him who had sworn the accursed Oath of Feanor to recover his father’s Silmarils, even if they were held by the hands of friend and kin? Him who had ignored the Prophecy of the North, foretelling the doom of the attempt? Him that had aided in the massacre of fellow elf not only once, but three times? Who had stolen the last of the Silmarils, which had rejected him, burning and scarring his hands when he had merely attempted to hold them? No, no, no, he was not worthy to so much as beg for the Vala’s forgiveness, much less serve them again. Surely, the Lady had not said what she had said. No, this must be a misunderstanding, and the fallen hero of the First Age began to tell say as much.

 

“I am sorry, my Lady, but you must be mistaken. I ca-”

 

“I have made no mistake.” Nienna’s voice her tone one of compassion and mercy. “This world needs heroes in this time, Champions and Warriors the likes of which have not been seen in this age. We cannot send those that have already passed out of the lands of the living: those doors have been shut even to us. But you, Maglor...you remain east of the Sea.”

 

The Vala offered her hand to the elf. “And so I offer you the chance to again be the hero that you once were. I offer you the chance to redeem the legacy of your house. I will not force it upon you: your path is yours alone to walk. But I beg that you at least consider this chance, if not for your sake then at least for mine.”

 

“My Lady,” Maglor began, swallowing hard. “I...I cannot. What you ask of me is impossible. My line, the line of my father...the stains of our crimes cannot be washed away. The blood of the Teleri, of Doriath and the Havens…it marks me still. If the weight of only one were upon me, then...then...perhaps. But all that I have done…”

 

They paused for a moment then, the only sounds in the air the crashing of the waves below. Then Nienna spoke again.

 

“I recall what you did, as you do,” she said slowly, fixing her eyes upon the Son of Feanor. “But you recall only your failings, your greatest mistakes. I recall your greatest victories: riding hard to your father’s aid at the Battle Under the Stars, cutting through all the Balrogs of Morgoth to save him. I recall you protecting your people from the assault of Glaurung, the Father of Dragons, when he attacked your lands, guarding their retreat to Himring. I recall you defending that city during the Battle of Sudden Flame, holding it even as Morgoth continued his endless onslaught. I recall your valor during the doomed campaign of the Union of Maedhros. You did many wonderful things, Maglor.”

 

“AND THEN I NEGATED THEM ALL!” Maglor screamed suddenly, his voice one of pain and self-loathing and utter despair. He stood up, his eyes wild and full of tears, his arms gesturing wildly.

 

“FOR EVERY GREAT DEED I DID, I COMMITTED TWICE AS MUCH EVIL! THRICE I SLAUGHTERED MY OWN KIN, THRICE! AND IF THAT WAS NOT EVIL ENOUGH, THERE WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE MASSACRES: THERE WAS NO REASON ANY OF THEM! NONE! NONE AT ALL! THE FIRST WAS FOR THE SAKE OF SAILING INSTEAD OF MARCHING. THE THIRD WAS TO KILL THE SURVIVORS OF THE SECOND. AND WORST OF ALL?!”

 

Maglor looked towards the heavens and screamed, an agonizing wail that told of a pain beyond reckoning. Nienna watched in silence, a grieving look upon her face. Maglor continued.

 

I HAD EVERY CHANCE TO CHANGE! I HEARD THE DOOM OF MANDOS! I KNEW THAT THE ACTS THAT WE COMMITTED AT ALQUALONDE WERE EVIL ONES! I WATCHED ALL MY BROTHERS DIE BECAUSE OF WHAT WE WERE DOING! AND YET I DID NOT CHANGE! EVEN AFTER CENTURIES HAD PASSED, I MADE THE SAME MISTAKES TWICE MORE! AND THEN!

 

At this, the Last Son of Feanor fell to his knees, panting. His whole body shuddered in grief, this mighty prince of elves shaking like a leaf. He was silent for a long time. Finally, almost silently, he spoke once more.

 

“And then...after everything I had done...after all the crimes I had committed...even then I still held to the Oath. After the War of Wrath, after we stood victorious over Morgoth...still, I...I killed my own kin. Me and my last living brother...all the others dead because of our crimes...we entered into the camp of the Host of the West, slew those guarding the Silmarils that had been recovered and stole them for ourselves. And rightly, they rejected us for our evils.”

 

Maglor held out his hands then, showing them to Nienna. They were both covered in terrible burn scars, horrible red and black marks crisscrossing the flesh. He showed them to the Vala, his voice becoming even softer.

 

“These scars are testaments to my failings. I am...I am sorry, my Lady. I am truly flattered by your offer, but...I cannot be your Champion. Too much evil has been done by my hands for me to ever be a hero again. You must find another...whom the Silmarils would not burn. I am sorry, but these marks can never...will never...be healed.”

 

Maglor closed his eyes, his breathing deep, tears flowing down his cheeks. He turned his face away from the Nienna, unable to meet her gaze. His shame burned within him, deeper and hotter than it had in centuries. How dare he even speak to her, one of the Vala, much less scream and wail? He had lost the privilege to even kneel before her by the evil deeds that he had committed.

 

And yet here she was. Nienna the Compassionate curled her hands around his, gently grasping the maimed flesh. Even at her touch, perhaps the softest that could ever exist, Maglor flinched, stinging pain welling up from the wounds. Delicately, as if they might shatter in her hands, the Vala lifted Maglor’s hands up before her eyes. And then, as she had done a number of times beyond all reckoning, Nienna wept.

 

Like falling rain were her tears, a torrent of grief and pity that entire nations in mourning could not have matched. She wept for the victims of Maglor’s crimes, who could no longer weep for themselves. She wept for the other sons of Feanor, sworn to a cursed Oath that had led them to doom, all of whom had perished before they saw fully the error of their ways. She wept for Elrond, whom Maglor had raised as his own son and now found himself faced with a peril that he could not face alone. Above all, she wept for the elf before her, blind to the good within himself that still remained, trodding dangerously close to the fate of his final brother, Maedhros, who had thrown himself into a fiery chasm in despair.

 

And as the Vala wept, something extraordinary happened. Her tears fell upon the burned skin of the Son of Feanor, and wherever they fell the red and black scars began to fade away. The pain they caused, a fundamental part of Maglor’s existence for all these millennia, while not vanishing, was numbed. When the Lady released his hands, he could do little more than stare at them in dumbfounded amazement: The scars were still there, but instead of twisted flesh before him were but dull markings, like old cuts that had long since healed. He looked up at Nienna, eyes full of wonder. The Vala smiled at him, her tears still falling.

 

“These marks may not be healed,” Nienna whispered, eyes gleaming, “but they can fade, if only you allow them to. I have heard your lament, Maglor, your endless grief and mourning. It was a beautiful song, and it broke my heart to hear it.”

 

Nienna drew close, lowering herself to where Maglor knelt on the ground, their eyes meeting. She sighed, shaking her head.

 

“But with every verse you sung, you only worsened your wounds rather than let them close. So lost in your grief did you become that you never gave yourself the chance to heal. Do not misunderstand me: to mourn as you did for your evils was not an incorrect choice. If only a few were as remorseful as you for their misdeeds, the world would be a far brighter place. But to grieve a misdeed is only the first step in correcting it. You have wept long enough, and further grieving will not heal you, or any other; even my tears cannot make your scars fade any more than they have.”

 

“It is not the scars on my body I weep for, my Lady,” said the son of Feanor, shaking his head. “I weep for the scars that I inflicted upon others, and for those upon my very soul.”

 

“Nothing can be done for the former, Maglor,” spoke Nienna, a tremor in her voice. “No matter how much I wish that it were otherwise. But as for the latter...I do not deny that your wait in the Halls of Mandos will be long. The Doorsman of the Valar will ignore none of your crimes. But nor will he ignore any of your heroism. There is still time to add to the latter. The wounds upon your soul need not be left to bleed.”

 

She turned the elf to face her one last time, her eyes full of pity and grief.

 

“Please, Maglor. Your father died in anger, your brothers in wrath or mourning. The same fate need not befall you. No, nothing you can do can save the souls of your victims, but you can still save your own. Enough souls have become trapped in Namo’s Hall by inaction. I beg that you do not join them.”

 

Maglor swallowed hard, the weight of his conscious still crushing down on him. He spoke his thoughts, his voice continuing to tremble. “I don’t deserve another chance, my Lady. Not after all I have done.”

 

“Perhaps not,” Nienna spoke, a bittersweet smile coming to her lips. “But I am willing to give you one regardless. You need only to take it. Be my Champion. Redeem yourself. Redeem your line. Be the hero you always should have been.”

 

Maglor shook his head, the mighty son of Feanor quivering like a child. “My Lady. I...I wouldn’t know where to start.”

 

At that moment, there was a sound in the waters below, a bellowing that could not have been the crashing of the waves. Elf and Vala looked down into the valley to see a dark shape, long and serpentine, breaking through the surface of the waters. Two others were besides it, black shadows beneath the waves, following the first, all three moving further inland. The elf turned his gaze towards where the creatures were headed, and when he did so his heart filled with dread: in the distance, far down the valley, was the outline of a small village.

 

“You can start by saving them,” Nienna said, indicating the houses in the distance. “Protect that village. Save perhaps a hundred lives. Then find another village and then save a hundred more. And then a hundred more after that, and after that, and keep going until you can’t anymore. Save as many as you can, and perhaps, one day, you will have saved more lives than you have taken. And even if you are to fail...at least you will have tried to heal your soul, instead of leaving it to rot.”

 

At that, the Vala’s image began to fade away into the mist and clouds, one last whisper reaching the elf’s ears:

 

“Mourn no longer for those that you could not save, Maglor: act to save those that you still can.”

 

And then the last son of Feanor was alone once more.

 

No. No, he was not quite alone. That was not quite the correct word. He still had the company of his grief, of course, and that of his conscious. There were the cold winds, the crashing of the waves below. There were the creatures, breaking through the surface on occasion, their cries carrying well in the clear night air. There were the cold, hard cliffs, and the stars above, and the grass and flowers that managed to survive the dearth of winter.

 

And there was a chance. It was a chance given to him by a Vala herself, a chance to be her Champion, a chance to be a hero once more. A chance to show that the line of Feanor was not yet ended, nor had it been wholly lost in the darkness. A chance given to a mass murderer. To a thief. To a kinslayer. A chance given to a protector of his people. To an elf that had mourned all his crimes, without ceasing, for millennia. A chance to do good.

 

Maglor sprinted towards the village.

Chapter Text

February 17, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

 

Kiev

 

Here, too, there had been a battle, albeit one that paled in comparison to the others of the time. Its place in the history of the world was destined to be a small one: In the tales written of these days, it would be rendered little more than a footnote, often overlooked and forgotten. The eyes of history were turned elsewhere, towards Poland and Hungary and Spain, and when the times came to write the records of these early days, of those first few battles fought against the Shadow, the focus would be nearly entirely upon those distant realms, on the Fall of Krakow and the assaults on Seville and Lorien and on the Second Battle of Five Armies. Compared to those clashes, those battles where whole nations, indeed the whole of the world may have hung in the balance, the brief skirmish on the shores of the Long Lake were hardly worth mentioning.

 

In terms of scale, this assessment of importance is more-or-less correct: during the ‘battle’ (if the small skirmish could actually be called as such) very little of note actually happened. It was a half-hearted thing, a skirmish waged by two armies that didn’t truly desire battle: Grand Prince Rurik of Kiev wished only to protect the treasure that he had found; King Brand of Dale had come to try and talk, not to start a war. Even as both of their camps had swelled in size, the small forces that the two nobles had brought with them swelling into small armies, both men had at least tried to avoid being the aggressor, instead focusing on digging in and preparing for an enemy attack.

 

In another world, a battle might not have been fought at all: If the two men could have spoken to each other, Rurik probably would have been content to listen to the warnings of Brand of Dale, however unlikely he was to actually heed them, before going about his business trying to salvage the treasure in the lake. Brand, for his part, most likely wouldn’t have pressed the issue, the King of Dale unwilling to fight an offensive war while his closest ally sat decimated in their own keep. Brand would have simply withdrawn to Dale, wary of the signs the other man showed of the Gold Sickness, and worked to repair and fortify his city.

 

But no: Any chance at diplomacy was stillborn, as the men of both camps spoke a not a word of the others language. This left ‘negotiations’ between the two limited to drawing circles in the dirt and hand gestures, neither of which was conducive of good relations between the two camps.  The tension on the lakeshore continued to build with each passing day and hour, like a kettle left too long on the stove.

 

Not helping matters was the a dense and persistent fog that clung to the lake, limiting visibility to perhaps 100 paces. A winter wind blew across the waters, forcing the mists over both camps, the cold and fog sapping the strength, heart and judgement of men. Left half-blind, the nerves and wits of men became frayed as they looked out trying to see through the white wall before them. The fear of a sneak attack was present everywhere, men jumping at the slightest of unfamiliar sounds. Some thousands waited besides the lake, anxious and tense, waiting for something, anything to happen, their muscles and minds like taugt ropes about to snap.

 

Eventually, the inevitable happened. No one is sure, exactly, how the battle began, but the few accounts that exist generally agree that either a patrol or a foraging group sent out from Brand’s camp stumbled into the other by accident in the thick fog and were thought to be a raiding party by the Kievans. A scuffle ensued when they were discovered, blood was spilled and the men of Rurik’s encampment raised the alarm, screaming that the men from the north were attacking. The entire camp, now believing that they were under attack, grabbed their arms and went out to meet Brand’s men, who heard their battle cry and, fearing an assault, picked up their own weapons. Battle was joined soon afterwards.

 

No. ‘Battle’ is too strong a word. The proper term would most likely be skirmish: This would not be some epic clash of heroes, a battle worthy of legends. The whole affair is best described as ‘half-hearted,’ and/or perhaps ‘confused.’ Other battles of these times would be described with sweeping prose and gripping words, could fill whole chapters, nay, whole volumes in the histories that would be written of these times. The skirmish besides the Long Lake? It could be described in a few paragraphs.

 

The two armies did not charge at each other on the plains between the camps, but rather stumbled into each other in the mists. Neither side were willing to charge in at a fortified enemy camp, especially not in the by now nearly all-obscuring fog, and so they did little more than vaguely moving towards where they thought the enemy was while trying desperately to not attack their own side by accident. For a few hours, the forces of Dale and Kiev would slowly and blindly skirmish in the fog, trying to zero in on the sounds of the enemy, their horns and foreign shouts and more often than not failing.

 

The results are best described as chaotic. Neither commander could see what was happening, rendering them unable to give effective orders. This left the men on both sides to fight either in small groups or individually, destroying any sense of cohesion as the mists seemed to thicken and close in even further. Confusion reigned supreme: it was not uncommon for two groups of Kievens or Men of Dale to attack their fellows in the fog, an event that occurred so many times that it would not be too far of a stretch to believe that more blood was spilled that day by friend attacking friend than by any action of the enemy.

 

After a few hours of this mayhem, King Brand decided that enough was enough. He would not fight a battle blind, and the lands here, barren and frozen wastes that held nothing of value, were not worth killing and dying for. No, if there was a battle to be fought, he would choose better ground than this to fight it on. Thusly the retreat was sounded, and the Men of Dale made an organized withdrawal back towards their home (or rather, as organized as was possible in the mists). Even as he did so, he bit back a curse: if the men besides the lake had not been poisoned by the Gold Sickness before, than the skirmish here, meager though it was, would have surely done the trick. The King of Dale feared that war would soon be brought to his Kingdom.

 

Brand was right to be afraid. His fears that he held about his opposite number, those of the corrupting influence of the Hoard of Smaug, were being fulfilled. Greed, a terrible and all-consuming greed, had infected Grand Prince Rurik, spreading through him like a cancer. He pressed his men forwards blindly through the fog, trying to pursue his foe to the death. Only the fall of night stopped his efforts, even then his general almost having to drag him from the field. When the mists cleared away next morning, Rurik surveyed the ground that had been conceded to him. The price he had paid for control of the lakeshore was minimal. His enemy had completely withdrawn, leaving his hold on the lands here (for the moment) absolute. By all rights, the Grand Prince should have been, if not happy than at least content.

 

But no. Instead, his heart and mind were both aflame with rage, his thoughts like those of a ravenous beast. He paced like a wild dog, wringing his hands and grinding his teeth, an accusing glare directed north by flaming eyes. How dare they! How dare these men attack him without the slightest justification! He had done absolutely nothing to provoke such an outrage-he had been assaulted without cause, attacked as if by bandits along the highway! They had no reason to fear him, certainly: The only measures he had taken were to protect what was rightfully his! Did these thieves and murderers have no concept of right of salvage!? He had found the treasure-it belonged to him! Whatever right they had to it, they had forfeited it by not claiming the trove first! By right, all the treasures at the bottom of the lake were his, Grand Prince Rurik of Kiev’s, and they would not be taken away from him by a ragged mob!

 

They would come back, though. Oh, they would come back. Of that, Rurik was sure. They would come back like the dogs they were, and in greater numbers. Oh, that the damnable mists had not kept him from pursuing! The threat of the men from the north would have been eradicated by the day’s end! But no. No it could not be so simple. Instead, he the Grand Prince would have to fight for what was rightfully his.

 

Rurik growled. Fine. So be it. Only the fog had spared his foe this day. Next time, he swore, next time such devilry would not save them. Next time, there would be a true battle, not like the meager skirmish that he had fought here but instead a true clash of arms, a decisive battle to secure the treasure of the lake. And he, Grand Prince Rurik of Kiev, would be the one to emerge victorious. Of that he was sure. He would crush these men from the north beneath his feet like the worms that they were, securing totally what was his by right. And he had just the plan to do it.

 

In the days since the skirmish, Rurik had sent messengers in every direction, to Turov-Pinsk and Pereyaslav and Chernigov and beyond, calling for men to aid in his righteous cause. Stories from the west told of monsters coming down from mountain that had fallen from the sky-it was a simple thing to invoke such imagery regarding the lone mountain that had appeared north of Kiev. The Catholics in the West, it was said, were preparing a Crusade to march against the monsters that they faced. Rurik would do the same here against whatever fell forces now moved against the Rus from the mountain, for clearly, if demons were now descending out of the Alps, than wicked men must live in the mountain to the north. What reason would there be in monsters appearing in one place and friendly men in another? No, the men that came from the north were surely devil worshippers, no more than a scourge to be gloriously wiped from the face of the good Earth.

 

To do so, the Grand Prince of Kiev prepared to build the largest army that the Rus had seen in decades, perhaps in centuries, an assembly built from the best men from all the Princedoms of the east. The missives that he had written, he thought, clearly showed his fellow the nobles the stakes: the crisis that the Catholics faced in the west was now faced here as well, and it had to be met with the same, if not greater, force. And if he was embellishing slightly in his descriptions of the men that had attacked him and was somewhat exaggerating their acts in order to encourage his fellows to follow his lead, then so what? The trove of gold that had come into his hands was surely worth a few white lies. At the very worst, it would only mean that his allies would refuse to join him and go home; it was not as if they would ally with strange, foreign men that they had never met.

 

While he waited for the other Princes of the Rus to give their answers, Rurik had plenty of other things to occupy his mind. Namely, continuing the salvage of the treasure, too much of which still sat almost tauntingly beneath the waves. On that front, at least, the news only continued to improve, as vast quantities gold and silver and jewels, the values of which were beyond reckoning, continued to be dredged up from the depths. The Grand Prince smiled wide, his eyes aglow, as his rightful treasure, every last coin and trinket, was brought to the surface. Once the whole of the treasure had come out of the water, Rurik’s wealth would be beyond all measure. The Emperor’s of Rome, the Kings of Persia and Babylon, the Pharaohs of Egypts: none of their treasuries would be able to compare to that of the Grand Prince of Kiev. Soon, oh so very soon, Rurik, son of Rostislav, would be the richest man alive, if not the richest to ever live. He needed only to deal with those that would dare challenge his right to the trove.

 

Another snarl came from the Grand Prince at that thought. There were many, too many, that defied that right. There were the men from the north, of course, but also those within his own ranks that, thieves and traitors and other vile men that tried to steal from his treasure, mostly peasants and other lowborns that thought that they could defy their liege. The first of these he had dealt with by way of the lash or the rod. The message of pain was easily understood by even the most uneducated of them, who had renounced their ways and begged forgiveness, but small few more required more...permanent solutions to their vices.

 

Soon enough, those same solutions would be necessary for the outside threats, for the men from the north and whatever other foes dared to try and claim the treasure, and they would be necessary in far greater numbers. The Grand Prince smiled almost beastially in anticipation of what was to come. His right would be secured in the battle to come, of that he was sure. He would be wage his war without the slightest hints of mercy upon his enemies. No one would be allowed to separate him from a single coin. He would fight for as long as it took, against as many as it took, to make utterly sure that the trove stayed fully within his hands.

 

Yes, when history looked back on these days, the small skirmish that was fought besides the Long Lake would almost always be forgotten. It was short; the forces involved were small, the lists of wounded and dead even shorter; it occurred around the same time as far larger and more famous battles which would overshadow the skirmish in nearly every record written. Few songs would be sung of the skirmish, few tales written. Only a very few would remember it.

 

But the war that followed it would never be forgotten.

 

 

Toulouse

 

Count Raymond VI of Toulouse was a deeply troubled man. This was not a particularly new development: Even before the storm had come, there was much at work to darken his thoughts. His hold on the County of Toulouse was threatened from all sides: to the north was his cousin and nominal liege, King Philip II of France, who slowly but surely had worked to undermine Toulouse’s de facto independence, trying to reduce Raymond to nothing more than a vassal; eastwards lay the Holy Roman Empire, who the Count also owed fealty to due to his hold on parts of the County of Provence-both Philip of Swabia and Otto of the House of Welf had reached out to him several times in the preceding years, asking for his aid in deposing the other or threatening him he if moved to support the rival claim; his western border was with the lands of Aquitaine, owned by King John of England, who through his mother Eleanor had a claim on Toulouse itself, a claim which the English were not keen to let slip away; closing him off to the south was the Kingdom of Aragon, ruled by Peter II, who was continuing his late father’s policy of trying to spread Aragonese influence north of the Pyrenees, hoping to eventually restore to their holdings the lands which they had held in the times of the Visigoths.

 

Faced with so many external threats, Raymond had few resources to spare on internal ones. He instead tried to appease and placate them: He kept taxes as low as he dared, he allowed the various communes and towns across his territory to act more-or-less autonomously and in general worked to keep the peace as well as he could within the borders of his holdings, hoping that by keeping his subjects content that they would not rise against him. It didn’t seem to be quite enough: many of his vassals, especially those in the east, remained stubbornly unreliable at best, with a small few that could be called outright rebellious. The Count of Toulouse considered himself a man of culture, a poet, and was loathe to wage war for any reason-he hardly wanted to spend his days leading armies and crushing rebellions, and he had instead continued to try to find a diplomatic solution the restlessness in Provence.

 

Despite all this, Toulouse had managed to remain relatively stable, and indeed even prosperous. Raymond held no illusions about his situation: it was by no means ideal, and it was entirely possible that it could collapse at a moment’s notice, but there were far worse places to rule over than the County of Toulouse. For now, at least, he had peace. For Count Raymond VI, that was enough.

 

And then the storm had come, and so did Raymond’s troubles begin.

 

They started with the Albigensians. He had had some small troubles with them before, of course, and no wonder: The Albigensians had been declared heretics just over two decades before, condemned by the Pope as nothing more than the latest in the long line of Gnostic and Dualist heresies that the Church had been fighting against almost since its inception. The teachings preached by the Albigensians were nothing new: The Macrionists, Paulicanists, Bogomils, Manicheists and dozens, if not hundreds, of other schools of thought had produced and reproduced what amounted to the same set of ideas over the centuries.

 

The conclusions about the nature of the World that the Dualists reached appealed easily to many, if only for their beautiful simplicity and seeming obviousness. Countless philosophers, from the old Athenian Plato himself to the likes of Paul of Samosata and Marcion of Sinope in the times of the Roman Empire to others almost beyond number in the centuries since Rome’s fall had seen the same sights: they observed a world in which Good and Evil seemed to be locked in a perpetual struggle for control of the Universe, each trying to wrest Creation away from the other, leaving everyone who ever had, did or would live to be a battlefield in the unending war between the Light and the Darkness.

 

Seeing Good and Evil all around them, the minds of the various thinkers turned their thoughts towards explaining how and why they existed, the philosophers seeking the ultimate source or sources of both, believing that if said sources were found than that ultimate understanding of the functions of the Universe would be achieved. They made further observations on Good and Evil and their unending war, looking for patterns that might lead back to a point of origin in how the two rose and fell, in how men were driven to follow one or the other.

 

Compiling their notes, the Philosophers saw what they thought was the patterns that they were looking for, the twin trails that led back to the sources of Good and Evil with humanity. What they saw was this: in the eyes of the Dualists, what drove men to do wicked things were the urges of their bodies, their mortal flesh, with evil arising from the lust and gluttony and rage that were inherent in the animalistic flesh that mankind found itself trapped within. Conversely, all positive attributes of humanity, such as love and wisdom and courage, came from what was assumed to be some kind of an immaterial soul, untainted by the bestial natures of the mere flesh, the pure and true nature of mankind. What the Dualists saw, or at least thought that they saw, was all Evil seemed to come from material things, from the urges of the body, and that all Good appeared to come from the realm of the spiritual, from the mind or the soul.

 

If one accepts these observations as being true, then the conclusions that the Dualists drew from them were by no means unreasonable ones. They defined what was spirit as inherently good and what was flesh as inherently evil, with Good coming when the soul dictated the actions of the person and Evil coming when they were ruled by the urges of the flesh. As to how this arrangement had happened, it was postulated that the spirit had once been free from the limitations of the material world, that it had been originally created as a pure and beautiful, if not perfect, immaterial thing. God, the driving force and source of Good within Creation, had done this, and all had been Good.

 

But at some point in the distant past, a powerful force which the Dualists called the Demiurge had built the material world, and in doing so had diabolically trapped the pure and noble spirits within prisons of flesh and blood. Some schools of thought said that the Demiurge was simply ignorant or misguided, trying to imitate the perfection of God’s work; others argued that they had to be actively malevolent, a being of spite wishing to destroy all God’s creations. Whatever the case, the end result was the same: the Divine Spark was ensnared within a weak, bestial and corrupt body, its Good all to often beholden to the evil wills of the flesh.

 

These were only the general ideas of Dualism: there were many, many teachers who produced many, many interpretations and reinterpretations of these ideas, some lasting and able to spread, others short-lived and local. It enjoyed periods of popularity and survived times of ridicule, details being changed, added or lost. But the fundamental premise of the concept, that of the division between spirit and flesh, remaining unchanged. The ideas resonated with those that heard them, and over time the ideas of Dualism worked their way into those of other faiths: in the east with Zoroastrianism and certain strains of Hinduism and in the west, of course, with Christianity.

 

In general, those that were Dualistic Christians (or, rather, Christian Dualists) were referred to as Gnostics, a term derived from the Greek gnosis, ‘to know.’ They believed that the path to escaping the physical world would come from knowledge, by gaining special wisdom from the divine on how to free their Divine Sparks. This was an ideal that had been espoused as early as the times of Plato, and many, many had in their times said that they were the ones that had either found or had been given this knowledge.

 

When Christianity spread from its craddle, Gnosticism was there to greet it. The teachings of the Christians were easy to cross with those of the Gnostics: Thinkers like Mani, Valentinus, Secundus and other grafted the ideas of Dualism onto those of Christianity, often with great success. It was not an overly difficult thing to do so, for the Christian communities openly preached that several ideas that meshed well with Dualistic beliefs: the Christian God was an immaterial one, a must for a Dualist school of thought; Jesus was called a Teacher by the Christians-it was easy for the Gnostics to say that He had the secret knowledge of escaping the material world; Christian Theologians said that mankind was a two-fold, flesh-and-spirit being-so did the Gnostics. Especially in the first few centuries after the beginnings of Christianity, the Gnostics found much success in spreading their teachings within the nascent Church, the Gnostic message fitting easily within a Christian framework.

 

The Catholic and Orthodox Churches, for their part, viewed every last one of these movements as utter bastardizations of the faith, their teachings to be cast out and burned. Despite their apparent similarities, it was obvious to anyone with basic understanding of the Theologies of both Gnosticism and Churches that the two were ultimately utterly incompatible. Gnosticism concluded the existence of two distinct gods, one of matter and the other of spirit-Christianity argued that there could only be one. Gnosticism called Creation a prison-to the Christians, it was a gift. Jesus was a particular point of contention, with the Gnostics claiming that He had to have been fully Spirit, unlimited by mere mortal flesh, while Christianity as a whole hinged on Him being both fully God and fully human.

 

Competing Holy Texts were written and circulated, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the Christians and those of Judas, Mary, Philip and Truth among the Gnostics, both sides claiming that the other’s writing were character assassinations of the Messiah, with the Gnostics accusing the Christians of making Him too human and simplistic, for how could any man of flesh be truly divine? The Christians retorted that the teachings of Gnostic Jesus were little more than duplications of the works of earlier Philosophers, copies of the writings of Plato with the names changed, with the Son of God either reduced into being just another human preacher or into an entirely inhuman thing, a mere spirit who could not have died on the Cross for mankind, nor could have been resurrected to defeat death.

 

On and on and on these debates would rage, with men like Irenaeus and Augustine and Ambrose writing for the Church and the likes of Simon Magus, Basilides and Cerinthus backing the Gnostics. Gnosticism and Christianity worked constantly to try and devour each other. Whenever one weakened, the other grew in strength. The tide had ever so slowly shifted in Christianity’s favor, but still Gnosticism refused to be destroyed, biding its time, only having to wait until a particularly charismatic scholar to rediscover its ideas before rising again.

 

Which brings us to the case of Toulouse. This version of Gnosticism had come out of the east, believed to be an offspring of the Bogomil movement in Thrace. As was often the case, the ideas of Gnosticism had reemerged at least partially as a response to general dissatisfaction with the clergy, who were in these times viewed as increasingly corrupt and earthly. The Gnostics actively condemned the Church, and their anti-clerical stance won many to their side. They provided an alternative option that to to supporting the seemingly-decaying Church while critically to the masses, remaining nominally Christian, and many in throughout Europe decided to convert to this apparently new system. In southern France, the center of Gnostic authority quickly became the city of Albi-hence the name Albigensians.

 

Up until recently, Raymond had tolerated, even somewhat supported the Albigensians-they had managed to prove useful politically, their anti-clerical stance easily manipulated into an anti-French one in opposition to the Count’s pious (and thusly extremely pro-Church) nominal overlord Philip, turning the Albigensians into an effective and reliable force in support of Raymond’s continued independence. The movement flourished in Toulouse as a result, the Albigensians gaining relative freedom of worship and the Raymond gaining a much-needed group of allies. This particular strain of Gnostics had some oddities in their practices, certainly, but turning a blind eye to those traits was a small price to pay for help in making sure Toulouse remained more than a vassal to France. Or at least, it had been a small price. Now, though, after the storm?

 

It was a monstrous one, one that Raymond could not allow himself or anyone else to pay.

 

Most of the Albigensians stranger habits (such as their renunciation of the Sacraments, their refusal to sire any children and their rejection of oath-taking) were not particularly harmful, at least not to Raymond. And indeed, when the Tribulation began, it was none of these beliefs that would lead to tragedy. For but one trait, the events that would burn Toulouse’s place into the annals of history might have been avoided.

 

This trait was their view of death. The Albigensians took the Dualist belief that the material world was a prison to its logical extreme: They taught that not even death would allow the soul to escape it, believing that only when the material self was completely and totally rejected would the soul be set free. Until then, the soul would be simply trapped in a new body over and over and over again upon the old body’s demise, forever condemned to live in the corrupt world until either the self was rejected or the world was ended.

 

However, if the self was rejected, then immediate death became preferable in order to free the soul from the shackles of the flesh, before the soul might become once more corrupted by the body. This rejection often came in the form of what was called Consolamentum, which was a form (or bastardization, depending on who you asked) of Baptism. The ritual itself, reflecting the decentralized nature of the Albigensians, varied widely from place to place, but it generally involved the readings of Gnostic scriptures and various blessings, occasionally involving the sprinkling or dousing of the subject with water. It was the only Sacrament recognized by the Albigensians, and the ritual would occur only twice in a lifetime: first upon conversion to the faith and then, second and finally, close to the time of death as was possible. After the first, the convert would be expected to become celibate, become a vegetarian and to spend the rest of their days teaching the doctrines of the faith to any who would listen. After the second…

 

Opponents of Albigensianism would tell you that what occurred after the second Consolamentum amounted to the ritualization of suicide. This was not a hard conclusion for an outside observer to draw: after the ritual was completed, it was not uncommon for the dying to completely reject any sustenance, along with exposing themselves to extreme heat or extreme cold in order to speed the approach of death. This practice was known as endura, and it was the single most controversial point of the Albigensian faith.

 

The Albigensians themselves would be quick to point out that the second Consolamentum was only performed when the subject was on the verge of death anyways, and thusly that endura would only be performed by someone that was already dying-it was not as if the Albigensians believed that perfectly healthy people should be committing suicide. Rather, they saw it as the final purification of the soul, not dissimilar to the Christian Sacrament of Last Rights, a way of assuring that the spirit would make its way into heaven. The endura was seen as nothing more than accelerating the soul’s journey back to its Creator, a method for making sure that the Consolamentum was not wasted.

 

The Church of course disagreed, but also believed that the matter could be settled peacefully, by way of missionaries sent to reconvert those that had joined the Albigensians. Thusly, before the storm all of this had resulted in little more than a few deaths accelerated by a matter of days or hours and some rather interesting arguments about the natures of the human soul and material world. Both sides believed that the issue was one to be settled by debate, not by sword, and the conflict between them had been so far limited to trying to out-proselytize the other. For the moment, the Albigensian view on death had not yet resulted in truly large-scale bloodshed, with the endura being performed quietly and privately and those that opposed its continued practice content to fight a war of words over the issue.

 

And then the storm had come, and as it had done in countless other places across the world it turned a relatively minor quibble into a problem that demanded immediate and potentially drastic response. Before now, the Albigensians had always been content to await the approach of natural death before performing the second Consolamentum, unwilling to inflict an unnatural death upon others and thereby staining their own souls. Endura was meant to accelerate the death of a purified soul, not initiate it. Prison the material world might be, but it would not be escaped by bloodshed.

 

But now it seemed that the world was ending: stories from the northeast were heard constantly, of suddenly appearing mountains and bloodthirsty monsters and black towers that reached towards the sky. The King of France and the lords of the Holy Roman Empire were calling up their levies in preparation for a war unlike any that the world had ever seen, to be waged against the Legions of Hell and the Devil himself. To many, the signs could only be interpreted in one way: this was the End of Days, and soon, very soon, the Final Judgement would be pronounced on all of mankind.

 

In the eyes of far, far too many of the Albigensians, there was no longer any reason to wait before performing the second Consolamentum. The hysterical and half-mad voices of terrified preachers who saw before them the End of everything rose up from God only knew how many places, their message one of rapidly approaching doom. These men screamed that the Gates of Heaven were closing, and that if the souls of the peoples were not purified and returned to God now then they would forever be sealed in the prison that was the material world, a prison that was about to be burned to the ground. They said that surely, all these works, all the demons that had sprung forth and mountains that had fallen from the sky, were the work of the Demiurge, the jealous enslaver of mankind. What else could these things be but the evil works of the one that had trapped the Divine Sparks of mankind in their prisons of flesh, finally coming forth to finish what they had started all those eons ego?

 

The people, terrified and panicked, listened. Tragedy ensued. The slow death of starvation was no longer the preferred method of the endura, not when waiting to die might condemn the soul for an eternity. Other, quicker methods had taken its place: Strangulation. Immolation. Poison, where it could be found. Among the truly desperate, even the blade was no longer beyond the pale. The ‘how’ hardly seemed to matter anymore, only that the deed was done.

 

Over the last week, perhaps the last two, the reports had come almost without ceasing. The first had come from Albi, the center of the movement, and the madness had spread outwards from that place like a virulent plague, carried by madmen that might as well have been vermin. The lists of the dead grew by dozens or scores or even, a mercifully small number of times, by hundreds, and they simply kept growing and growing and growing without stop. And they came without end, from all across the County, from the cities and the villages and the hill country and the coast.

 

Raymond did all he could to stop the insanity, to try to contain the spread of this spiritual disease.  He tried to muzzle the fanatics that spread the terrible message, ordering as many as could be found locked away in an attempt to silence them. The Church joined his efforts, of course, preaching with every voice that they could a message of courage and duty and hope and whatever other idea seemed able to stem the tide of madness, trying desperately to counter the message of despair that had seemed to grip the whole region. A portion of the Albigensians, too, saw what their brothers and sisters were doing for what it was, and worked to try and contain the damage. They argued with those that listened to the madmen, taking the position that destroying their flesh with blades or fire or deadly poisons scarred their souls, and that by actively ending their own lives they managed only to further entrap their souls.

 

But still the insanity continued. If anything, it only seemed to be accelerating: Arrest attempts led to violence and bloodshed, and the Church was simply ignored by those that they had branded as heretics. There was no central leadership to condemn or contain-every madman was acting practically on their own, and every one that was silenced seemed to to be replaced with two or three more. Some hundreds, if not some thousands, now lay dead, and by the day more and more of the Albigensians seemed to join the ranks of the madmen, the half-mad preaching of an ever-increasing number of fanatics swaying them away from their sanity, every tale that came down from Savoy or France or the Holy Roman Empire seeming to increase the evidence in favor of their stance.

 

In the end, the same desperation that drove the Albigensians to take their own lives would work to ensure the downfall of the Count of Toulouse. Raymond watched almost helplessly as his holdings began to collapse, chaos gripping the whole region. The suicides were only the first of the dominos to fall, the beginning of a terrible chain reaction that threatened to tear the whole County apart. Now there were reports of looting and rioting among his Catholic subjects as a different kind of insanity, that of frenzied panic, took root among them. His small army, already stretched thin trying to somehow stop the Albigensian crisis, was now pushed dangerously close to its breaking point.

 

Raymond had sent begging messengers to several of his neighbors begging for men to help restore order in his holding, but he knew that with preparations for a full-scale Crusade underway that aid was unlikely to be spared for him. The Count had also sent missives to the Holy Father, pleading for more priests to try and contain the Albigensian message.  He had yet to receive a response. For the moment, at least, he stood alone. He stood alone in a place where rule of law was breaking down, at a terrifyingly rapid pace, where sanity itself seemed to be on the verge of disappearing.

 

And so it was that when even the slightest chance a solution presented itself, the Count of Toulouse would take it without a second thought. A message had come to Raymond, addressed to him from Thomas, the Count of Savoy. Thomas said that he had journeyed into the new mountains with his men, seeking answers as to how and why they had come. There, he had apparently found a powerful man named Saruman, whose Wisdom on all matters, but especially those regarding what had appeared after the storm, was unparalleled in Thomas’ experience. This Saruman hadn’t given Thomas all the knowledge that he had been looking for, but he had at least given him a start. Now, the Count of Savoy wished to help share this wisdom, and had invited many of the neighboring nobles, Raymond included, to meet with the man at a council in Savoy, to spread what the wise man knew to as many as would listen to him.

 

The Count of Toulouse had responded to the affirmative without hesitation, immediately beginning preparations for a journey to Savoy. Here, finally, was a chance for good news. It was perhaps a dim chance, but if this Saruman was worthy of even a third of the praises that Thomas had sung of him, then it was likely that he would have to have at least some kind of a solution to Raymond’s troubles. And if not, then the Count would at least have the chance to meet with other relatively powerful men at Thomas’ council, to beg them for aid in restoring some small measure of sanity and order to his holdings.

 

Either way, given the crisis he was faced with, Count Raymond of Toulouse had nothing to lose by going meeting with this ‘Saruman of Many Colors.’

Chapter Text

February 17, TA 3019/AD 1200



Dol Amroth

 

As the highest ranking of the southern fiefs of Gondor, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth had spent most of his life looking southwards towards the sea. He had to: Sauron waged all but open war on the greatest remaining Kingdom of Men, and he did so with the vile Corsairs of Umbar at his side. The descendents of the Black Numenoreans and those that had supported Castamir the Usurper during the Kin-Strife raided the southern coasts constantly, sacking small villages on the shore and burning whatever they could, whenever and wherever they were given half the chance to do so.

It was therefore the duty of the southern fiefs to make sure that these chances did not come often: with the majority of Gondor’s land forces committed to holding back the Black Tide of Mordor to the east, it was the responsibility of the shipwrights of Pelargir and Dol Amroth and other, smaller coastal cities to wage the naval war. In these days, the Gondorian Navy was perhaps a mere shadow of what it had been in the glory days of the distant past, when the whole coast as far as Umbar itself had been under Gondor’s rule, but the fleet was still a force to be reckoned with, more than capable accomplishing its designated tasks of both guarding the lands of Belfalas, Lebennin and Anfalas from raiders and keeping the Vales of the Anduin shut to Umbaran ships.

As the campaigns in Ithilien and the clashes in Osgiliath continued to grow ever more vicious, seemingly by the week, aid from the cities farther inland became smaller and less timely in arriving as the lords of the northern lands committed forces to the enemy that increasingly threatened to break down their gates. The same was true in reverse: the raids of the Corsairs increased in frequency and intensity with each passing month, the naval war off Gondor’s coasts escalating just as quickly as the land war on its eastern border-the southern fiefs had little strength to spare to send north, instead committing what strength that they had to protecting their own cities.

So it had been for several years, if not several decades: Imrahil had sailed up and down the shores of the Bay of Belfalas, trying to head of Corsair raiding parties before they could land, while his brother-in-law, Steward Denethor II, tried to fight off the Enemy’s overland incursions. Both took to their assigned duties with their whole hearts, and as time had gone by the Prince of Dol Amroth had become intimately familiar with the lays of the coasts that he had been tasked with protecting. Every skirmish and battle had slowly drilled intimate familiarity with these lands into his heart and mind. The shapes of the coastline were as well-known to him as the back of his own hand, as well as the sounds of the seashore, of the gulls and the lapping waves and the smell and taste of salt in the air: all of these and more had been etched into his memories, into his very being. Year after year after year after year of sailing past the same locations, of fighting before them, had imbued in him the exact lays of the lands that it was his sworn duty to protect.

Currently, all of these things served to amplify to Imrahil the fact that wherever he currently was not the southern coast of Gondor. Everything, every little detail of where he was currently standing, was just slightly different. The call of the gulls was the wrong pitch-the air tasted different, blander, the salt being much less potent-the winds blew from the wrong direction relative to the sun-the whole horizon was unrecognizable, the coastlines of Gondor replaced by an unfamiliar shore in one direction and a scattering of small islands in the other.

The beginnings of this...whatever it was had been simple enough: A storm had come up out of the sea, not a rare occurrence by any means, least of all in the ending days of January. There had been no sign beforehand that this one would be any different. But the storm that had come proved to be of a ferocity rarely, if ever, recorded in the annals of the Kingdom of Gondor. It hammering the whole coast without ceasing, thunder and wind roared like dragons in the sky, lightning and snow and hail tumbling from the pitch-black clouds. At some, uncertain point during the maelstrom the ground had begun to shake and tremble, slowly at first and then in ever increasing intensity, and then…

And then what? What had happened next was at best difficult to describe, at worst outright impossible. If pressed, Imrahil would have said that it somewhat similar to being in a dream, floating through a world that was somehow both very real and yet very much not. Everything seemed to freeze in that singular moment in time, a moment that lasted for what could have been the blink of an eye or several years: from the perspective of the Prince, the passage of time had become nearly impossible to determine, flowing as quickly as the Anduin to the sea at some times and at others as frozen as the Ice Bay of Forochel.

And then, as quickly as it had started, the moment came to an end, and the Prince of Dol Amroth had been thrown into the true crisis. Now, Imrahil had long been preparing for catastrophe, but he had always thought that it would come in the form of war: Four years before he had been born, Sauron had declared himself openly to the world and began the rebuilding of Barad-Dur. The year of his conception, Mount Doom had burst into flame, and the last of the Gondorians that had inhabited Ithilien had fled over the Great River. Ever since, the shadow of Mordor had grown ever darker, the reach of the Dark Lord becoming longer and his grasp tighter by the year. The endless skirmishes along the coasts and in the region of Ithilien, and how such small battles continually were becoming larger and more frequent, proved that much. The disaster that Imrahil had feared was that of a catastrophic defeat, of the loss of Gondor’s navy and the Corsairs gaining a foothold along the shore from which they could not be dislodged.

But this...this was not something that he, or indeed anyone short of a Valar, could have possibly prepared for. What had happened was still terrifyingly unclear, but its results were apparent: the whole of his city, the fortress of Dol Amroth, had been plucked from where it stood guarding Cobas Haven and had been thrown into some unfamiliar land, the only recognizable thing being the fellow Gondorian city of Pelargir, which had been apparently swallowed by the same storm and had been spat out besides Dol Amroth in whatever this place was.

The walls and citadels of both cities were both thankfully still intact, but everything within them was a mess: much had been toppled by the storm and the quake, the less sturdy structures within the great walls proving far less resistant to whatever forces had been applied to the cities. Similarly, most of the ships of the Gondorian fleet were intact (or at least salvageable), but many of the vessels had had their rigging badly damaged or outright destroyed, and almost all were in need of some form of repair.

Fear and terror, of course, reigned supreme. In a small blessing, such feelings had manifested in the people mainly as frozen shock instead of rioting and looting, although how much longer the stunned silence that had fallen across the two cities would last was anyone’s guess. For his part, Imrahil had sprung into action, if only as a way to keep himself occupied. His orders were given quickly, and within a matter of hours every soldier and guard within both Dol Amroth and Pelargir were in the process of reporting to their posts; the gates to the cities had been closed and barred; what ships were ready to sail had been moved to guard the harbor entrances. In the face of whatever they were facing, the soldiers of the two cities needed little motivation to prepare to protect their homes. The Prince of Dol Amroth desperately hoped that such actions would prove unnecessary in the coming days, but recent events did little to hearten him to such idealistic thoughts.

With the city at least momentarily secured, Imrahil turned his thoughts to other tasks. His mind briefly touched on the question of what, exactly, had happened to his city, along with the question of how and why, but the Prince of Dol Amroth quickly moved on from such ruminations. It would be a wasted effort to think on such things: Imrahil and the men that he consulted with were by no means dullards, but the leader of the Swan Knights was well aware that such questions would be far beyond their capacity to answer. Better to focus his energy on facing the issues that he had the resources to face. The more that the Prince of Dol Amroth turned his thoughts to these seemingly lesser problems, though, the more that he realized just how badly things might turn out.

The first issue would be that of food. While it was true that both Dol Amroth and Pelargir had laid down food and drinkable water for fear of a Corsair siege, these stores were relatively small, having been depleted slowly through the winter in anticipation of the spring harvest, and what was left could be counted on to last perhaps a month at the longest. The sea, of course, could be harvested for fish, but Imrahil did not relish the idea of sending ships into alien waters, largely due to the issue that Imrahil was currently being directly faced with.

That issue was the one of the Gondorian’s new neighbors: A small city of them was now all but a stone’s throw from the walls, and many of its inhabitants had started to gather in the lands between Dol Amroth’s gates and their own homes, looking towards the cities of Gondor with what seemed to be curiosity, and perhaps apprehension. They were men it seemed, or at least they appeared to be, but were of no land that the Prince of Dol Amroth or indeed any among the Gondorians recognized, and their tongue was completely foreign to Imrahil’s ears.

It was apparent that things would soon be coming to a head with Gondor’s new neighbors. There seemed to be some kind of a commotion among them, and it did not take long for Imrahil to see what it was: a small crowd of them were now approaching the walls. In particular, they were an armed and armored crowd, the members of which held the clear postures of trained soldiers, albeit rather nervous ones. These men came forwards under a red banner emblazoned with two golden stripes that formed a cross over its center, the four corners each holding an identical symbol, also in gold. They also carried another banner, one of pure white, which Imrahil hoped held the same meaning as it did in Gondor-a call for a truce.

“Who goes there?” the Prince of Dol Amroth called down from the ramparts as the group drew near the gates. They stopped, a murmur too soft to hear erupting amongst the small party. There was a long moment as the foreign men took council among themselves before, finally, one of them stepped forwards from the rest, clearly the leader among them: He wore no armor and carried no weapon, dressed rather in fine clothes, presumably those of a noble court.

“Can you speak more greek than that lone phrase?” the man called up in a loud voice, “Or must I find an interpreter?”

“What is this ‘greek, and why should we be speaking it?’” responded Imrahil, brow creasing slightly in confusion. “You speak clear westron-it would be far simpler to continue in the language that we both know, rather than whatever this ‘greek’ is.”

“What do you mean, ‘what is greek?’” the man called back, raising his own brow. “You are speaking greek at this very moment! Do not tell me that you do not know the name of your own language!”

“No,” spoke Imrahil again, further confusion edging into his voice, “it is you who are speaking westron ! Unless it is called by the name of greek here-I suppose that such things are certainly possible, and in light of recent events I would not be overly doubtful of such a coincidence.”

The dialogue between the two would have continued, but at that moment both of them noticed something, or rather, something made itself known to them: floating above the other man’s head had suddenly ignited a flickering flame, like that of a candle. This only added to Imrahil’s confusion, who was stunned to look above himself and see a similar fire, but the other man seemed entirely taken aback, as did his entire company, most of which were now staring agape at the small flame.

Another long moment passed in near silence, interrupted only by the renewed whispers that had erupted below. Looking down, Imrahil saw that several of the men below were now bowing down below the man with the fire above his head, and others were furiously gesturing at the flame with their hands. Even more confused, the Prince of Dol Amroth decided to begin speaking again, reasoning that doing nothing would answer none of his questions, and hoping that the men below, who apparently knew more of this phenomena than he did, would share in their knowledge.

“I am Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth,” he called down from the ramparts, “and I do believe that whatever these flames are, they are related to the question that we both must share. I readily admit that I have no knowledge of how my city came to these lands-am I right in assuming that neither do you?”

“I am Michael Stryphnos, megas doux of the Roman Empire, governor of this land,” the man replied, his company starting to regain their composure. “And you are correct in your judgement, at least about that. I, too, cannot answer the question of how or why your lands entered into mine. It would be best, perhaps, if we explored that question together.”

“Yes,” Imrahil answered back, a ghost of a smile coming to his face. “Perhaps it would be.”



The Duchy of Burgundy, France

 

Odo III, Duke of Burgundy, had thought that he would have more time. Despite his relative proximity to the Alps, and thusly to the demons and monsters that were said to now reside within, Odo had been confident that his own lands were beyond the reach of the coming storm, at least for the moment. The County of Burgundy, his name-sharing eastern neighbor in the Holy Roman Empire, made a convenient shield between himself and the mountains, and even if they were completely overrun there were several natural barriers that guarded the Duke’s holdings from attacks from the east, ranging from dense forests to hill country to the Saone River. All of this, the Duke had thought, would allow him some breathing room.

This did not mean that Odo had tarried in preparing for the coming war, far from it. Indeed, the Duke of Burgundy had been among the very first to begin levying his men and preparing fortifications in anticipation for what was coming. He had heard the whispers that had come from Germany and had read the Holy Father’s warning for himself, and had found both sources to be rather credible ones. By the time that the orders to mobilize had come from his liege, King Philip, Odo had already raised several hundred men, with hundreds more expected within the next few days and weeks.

Many of those men he had sent to join up with the main French army that was now being assembled at Paris, fulfilling most of the Duke’s feudal obligation to his overlord. What remained on hand were second-line troops, the younger and older generations that required more time to raise, train and equip, but this fact was not one that made Odo overly worried. It was a reasonable assumption to make that the veteran troops were not needed in Burgundy for the moment: the closest monsters were easily a hundred miles distant, and in a direction from which they would have trouble attacking.

In times of war, though, assumptions can bring disaster, and so it was in the case of the Duchy of Burgundy. Another storm had come the previous night, some three weeks after the first, its winds howling as if it were still the depths of midwinter and not nearing the coming of spring. Thunder roared in the heavens, and then, hidden by all-encompassing sleet and blinding flashes of lightning, then came the monsters, suddenly appearing in the wilds from little more than thin air. They were like the nightmares and horror stories of the French and Germans come to life, the horrific legends of those two people all gathered together and brought to this single place to unleash hell upon the poor, underprepared people of Burgundy.

Within hours, the defenses that Odo had prepared along his eastern border were almost completely overrun, the men stationed there fleeing for their lives or slaughtered at their posts. By dawn the next day, the line of fortifications along the Saone had been pierced and the fell creatures were flooding outwards in all directions, pushing into both the Duchy and the County of Burgundy to the west or east or following the Saone north into Lorraine or south towards Auvergne, quickly overrunning what little resistance could be hastily thrown into their paths.

The monsters had struck like lightning, and now Odo found himself decidedly on the backfoot. The sheer suddenness of the attacks, coupled with the lack of readiness among what little local forces remained, wreaked havoc on the Duke’s desperate attempts to organize some kind of defense. Events were unfolding too quickly, the situation changing too rapidly for anyone to know what was actually happening at any given moment, making proper response almost impossible. The constant flood of information into Dijon, from where Odo desperately tried to establish some kind of plan, was incomplete and often contradictory. Reports came in that they were attacking Chalon-s-Saone-no, Chalon-S-Saone had been bypassed, Paray-le-Monial was where the threat was greatest-no, the largest push was in the south, towards, Macon-no…

Worse yet, no one seemed to know exactly what was attacking them. If the Burgundians didn’t have accurate information on what they were facing, their defenses would be all the worse for it, and they had no accurate information. The defenders were facing monsters, certainly, but as to what kind there was, again, endless contradiction and confusion: there were sightings of everything from trolls to oversized wolves to goblin-like creatures to river spirits to even a few scattered claims of seeing a damn dragon. All of these reports disagreed about the sizes of the monsters, of where they were and in what numbers: the trolls were simply oversized men-no, they were fat, hulking, grey-skinned monstrosities. The wolves simply had glowing eyes and sharper teeth-no, they could change their shape into those of men. And so on and so forth, the ever-present question being what the Duke of Burgundy was actually fighting against. Odo prayed that the correct answer to that question was not ‘All of the Above.’

What was known for sure was that Duke Odo was facing a catastrophe. The County of Burgundy to the east had, for all intents and purposes, already fallen to the onslaught, all but a few holdouts like Vesoul and Besancon said to be overrun. Riders had been sent out in all directions to beg for aid, but many had been ambushed and killed, their messages never reaching their destination, and those that got through arrived at locations that were already being attacked. In the Duchy itself, most of the remaining defenders had started to coalesce near or within Dijon, facing constant pestering attacks that drove them further and further back towards the city. Soon enough, Odo would be under siege.

In such a situation, the Duke would be able to hold out for some time, but he feared that it wouldn’t be for long enough. Odo didn’t have the men to dare risk attempting a breakout, but trying to hold out in Dijon was hardly a more appealing option. Once the siege started, there would be few that would be able to help him: the other local lords were facing the same crisis as him, if they had not already been overcome by it-they would not be able to send any aid. That left army gathering at Paris would be his best, if not only chance for salvation, but by the time it had finished assembling and was ready to march south, it would likely already be too late to save the Duchy of Burgundy.

There was, however, one other option, if a somewhat desperate one. A week or so before, Odo had received a missive from Count Thomas of Savoy, describing the latter man’s expedition into the new mountains that had formed in the Alps. Thomas reported meeting with a man who he said was called ‘Saruman of Many Colors,’ a wise man that had come to this world along with the new lands. The Count of Savoy claimed that the wisdom of this Saruman would be critical in the coming days, and had invited most of the lords that neighbored his lands to Savoy to meet with him.

The Duke of Burgundy had not paid much attention to the invitation at the time, instead focusing on preparing his forces to join with those of the King, but now, with an army of monsters running rampant through his territory, Odo saw Thomas’ offer as, perhaps, his one chance to save his lands. King Philip, the Duke knew, would come as soon as he could, but that time might well come too late for the Duchy of Burgundy: too much of his territory was already lost, too many defenders, and what remained was too little to hold out against any kind of sustained attack. Odo could not dare wait so long.

The offer of the Count of Savoy seemed the better bet. Thomas’ lands were a good deal closer than Paris was, and from what Odo knew the Count had already fully raised his armies, and indeed had launched a small expedition with them. The Duke reasoned that the Savoyards would be able to come to Odo’s aid long before the King could, and at the very least, going to Savoy would allow the Duke to beg whoever among his other southern neighbors came to the council for help.

He did not dare go himself: he would not entrust the defense of his keep to another, and he could not bring himself to abandon his people in their time of need (he was also more than a little fearful of being attacked by monsters along the road). A letter would have to suffice. Odo’s message was brief and simple, doing little more than begging the Count of Savoy for whatever aid he could sent. The Duke of Burgundy would have to place his trust in the other man, and pray that it was not misplaced.

And he would have to pray that this “Saruman the White” was indeed who Thomas said he was.



Burgos, Castile

 

For what seemed for all the world like an eternity, King Alfonso VIII of Castile had been able to do little more than languish in his castle, waiting for something to happen. Ever since the damn storm had come, heralding the appearance of the dark forest that had consumed roughly half of his Kingdom, the surviving son of King Sancho III had been on edge, desperately desiring to do something, anything, but constantly stymied as to what.

Alfonso was, first and foremost, a soldier. He had been fighting since he was all but a child: his father had died young, leaving Alfonso himself to be proclaimed as King of Castile at the tender of age of two. His childhood had been spent hiding and fleeing from the various noble houses that had hoped to gain control of his regency, with factions that ranged from the Houses of Lara and Castro within the Kingdom to his uncles Ferdinand II of Leon and Sancho VI of Navarre without, and more than once he had only escaped capture, or perhaps death, by only the thinnest of margins.

It had taken literal decades for Alfonso to consolidate his hold on the throne of Castile, but once he had, his reign had been all but unchallenged. For a time, at least, the King of Castile had had peace: The Navarreans had been subdued with the aid of his father-in-law, King Henry II of England; his nephew Alfonso IX of Leon had been similarly all-but vassalized, the peace between the two spanish Kings secured by the younger Alfonso’s marriage to the elder’s daughter Berengaria, a political match that had proved to be a stable romantic one as well. The one remaining threat to his rule was the Muslims to the south, a point that had been proved by the disastrous Battle of Alarcos five years earlier, but the Almohads seemed to be content with their own holdings, at least for the time being. Castile, and indeed all of Iberia, had seemed to have finally found stability.

And then the damn storm had come, and once more it seemed that the Kingdom of Castile was to be plunged into utter chaos. Toledo, the capital and largest city was simply gone, consumed by the roaring thunder, howling winds and cackling lightning, as had almost everything else south of Valladolid. Those lands, representing a terrifyingly large percentage of Castile’s population, wealth and arable land, had been buried by a dark and foreboding woodlands that very few dared to enter, even under Alfonso’s orders, and from where even less returned, the survivors telling horror stories of bloodthirsty monsters that consumed men alive. Terror reigned supreme, and the people begged that their King do something, anything to allay their fears.

But what could Alfonso do? He was a soldier, not a scholar or a magician. This was not an enemy that he could lead an army against, not the kind of war that he could fight. He could raise what levies he had remaining, fortify the villages nearest the forest, call on any and every ally that he could, but all those measures were only preventative, actions that anyone could see could only stop the catastrophe from becoming worse, not truly make things better. Whatever terrible thing had happened to the southern half of his country was not one that the King of Castile could undo.

And despite taking what preventative actions that he could, it seemed that the crisis was growing anyways. Reports from the lands at the edges of the forest trickled in, claiming attacks by twisted versions of boars and wolves, sightings of massive spiders the size of dogs and perhaps larger. Unrest was everywhere, reports of riots and looting thankfully rare, but still present, and (terrifyingly) growing more frequent by the day. The number of troops that had so far been raised was distressingly small, the army of Castile having been reduced to a fraction of its size mere weeks, those that would have filled out its numbers having vanished in the storm. There was very little good news to be found anywhere in the kingdom.

The people turned to prayer, but even in their faith they could find little comfort. The reason for this was simple: those Castilians that remained looked to the south, to the half of their nation that had been destroyed, and wondered how a kind and loving God could let such things befall his followers. If the Devil had done this, than why had God, who was said again and again and again to be stronger and wiser, not stopped him? And if it was an action of God Himself...then why inflict such a terrible thing upon His children? Surely, this could not be retribution for some sin: if Castile had offended God, than why did half of the Kingdom remain intact? If this was punishment for the defeat at Alcaros, then why wait so long to inflict it?

The answers that the clergymen gave were less than hopeful ones. Some of the priests were as lost as their flock was, fear and doubt dominating them as much as it did the common people. Most of the rest, it seemed, said that these were the end times, that names were being read from the Book of Life and that soon the whole world would be put through its final tribulations. This, such men said, was only the first test of many yet to come, and each one of the approaching trials would be more terrible than the last.

Some took courage at these notions, trying to redouble their faith in the face of Armageddon. King Alfonso VIII was not one of these men. His world, for all intents and purposes, had already ended, being destroyed when Toledo had been. He himself had only been spared by sheer, dumb luck, the King having journeyed to Burgos because of some minor political squabble that he couldn’t even remember the reason for now. But his entire court, his entire family... none had been so fortunate as he. A month before, Alfonso had had five children and a wife. Now he had one child and was a widower.

Eleanor, his wife of 26 years, who despite marrying to gain a military alliance he had come to dearly love...his daughters, Urraca, Blanche and Mafalda, all of them still very much children, but God, they would have grown into wonderful women...Ferdinand, his heir, the only one of his sons that had survived infancy, the pride and joy of his life...in a single moment, all of them had been taken from him, not by war or plague or famine, but by something that the King of Castile could hardly even begin to comprehend.

Anger and grief were the only two emotions remaining to Alfonso now. If he had had an enemy to fight, perhaps he could have lost himself in battle, could have buried himself working to avenge himself on whatever had taken his family form him. But no: besides the small groups of monsters that occasionally came out of from the dark trees, there was no enemy for him to face. What could Alfonso do against plants and animals that would bring comfort to his heart? That would allow him to channel his furious rage?  He could not wage war on a forest any more than he could on the wind or the seas or the stars. He could cut and chop and burn the trees for a thousand years without doing serious damage.

Never in his life had Alfonso felt so utterly helpless: all he could do, it seemed was to scream and cry and wail at the heavens. He cursed and spat at the forest in lieu of trying to single-handedly cutting down every last tree, ordering his men to try doing so anyways, without success: the thick bark of the ancient wood slowed any attempts at cutting down the forest, and the trees, dampened by snow and sleet and cold, dark rain refused to burn. The dark woods stood, all-but impervious to Alfonso’s pathetic attempts to destroy them, silently mocking the helplessness of King of Castile.

Rest refused to come to him. His nights passed without sleep, filled with tears and thrashing and anguished screams, and this one, three weeks since the storm had first come, was no different. The darkness outside had been dispelled by the rising of the sun some time before, but no light could banish the shadowy thoughts of the troubled King. The feeble glow of the february sun, obscured by the seemingly omnipresent grey clouds above, brought no warmth to Alfonso’s heart, or indeed to any part of his flesh, the chamber of the King of Castile feeling for all the world as if it were still the depths of midwinter, the bitter, stinging cold of loss robbing the room of any and all warmth.

In the deepest and darkest part of his mind, at the very heart of the despair and grief that had taken root within his heart, evil thoughts began to stir. His anger and rage had fueled his will for some time, but after three weeks of helplessness and grief such emotions had burned themselves out, replaced with only further misery or a simple, empty void that seemingly nothing could fill. The entirety of the King of Castile’s life began to feel more and more meaningless, more and more hollow and empty. What could he, could any man, do against the disaster that had unfolded, and was continuing to unfold, in the south?

There were whispers from the northeast, ones that offered a potential answer: he could die, and leave this disaster to those that remained. The people of Toulouse, the Albigensians, it was said, chose suicide in the face of this crisis, consumed by fear and despair. There was, Alfonso realized, a certain amount of appeal to such a choice. It would be so simple, perhaps, to bring an end to all of his suffering, to have the burden of facing this catastrophe pass out of his hands, to have no more grief or rage or helplessness...

“No. That is not the answer to any question.”

The voice shook the room, a booming sound somewhat like the beating of drums and blowing of trumpets. The weak sunlight that entered into the room suddenly multiplied by what seemed a thousand fold, flooding Alfonso’s chamber with a golden glow. After a moment, the light faded slightly, and Alfonso peeked out from under his covers, looking around the roome to dare and try to discern the source of the light and the voice.

He did not have to search for long: Standing before him, giving off radiant golden glow, was a man of ruddy complexion, his hair and beard like woven gold and his face ablaze like the sun. They were, in a word, gigantic: not in height, no, but rather in build, with muscles as thick as sailor’s ropes, wrapped around limbs that were like tree trunks. They continued to speak, their deep voice rumbling like thunder in the mountains.

“You would find no comfort in death’s embrace: The Judge of souls does not take kindly to many, least of all those who hurl themselves willingly into his halls. I tell you that the Houses of the Dead would be the last place the you would find the peace that you seek.”

“But enough of such morbid thoughts,” the figure said, straightening up and striding over towards where Alfonso lay. With a broad sweep of their arm, they grabbed a chair that had been sitting across the room, pulling it up besides the bed of the King of Castile and taking a seat. “There are other matters to attend to this day.”

The figure’s gaze bored through Alfonso, their golden eyes not simply at but rather into the king, looking there for something immaterial. The twin orbs glowed with a stunning intensity as they did so, both blazing like the noonday sun as they darted across the man before them. For a long moment this continued, the two staring at each other in silence, before finally the glowing figure nodded to themselves, reassured of something.

“I’ve gone mad.”

The words slipped from Alfonso’s mouth almost unbidden, a loose thought that had managed to escape from his mind before falling freely from his slack jaw. The figure simply shrugged in response, a small smile coming to their lips.

“Perhaps you have, they said with a half-chuckle, “but perhaps a small spark of madness is needed in days such as these. I doubt that any man has stayed wholly sane after all that has occurred.”

“Perhaps,” mumbled Alfonso, still unsure as to whether this was all in his head or not. Perhaps he had finally been broken by his grief, but then again, perhaps not. Certainly, stranger and more terrifying things had happened in the previous month. Trying to make sense of the sight before him, Alfonso asked the most basic question that he could think of:

“Who are you?”

“I am Tulkas the Valiant, but you would know me better by other names, none of which are overly important to this moment. What you must know is that I am here as a messenger of the Lord, and that I am here to help you save your Kingdom.”

“Save it?” Alfonso’s tone was one of utter bewilderment, the King of Castile throwing aside his covers and rising from his bed, standing before the golden figure. “Save it how? If you wish to save my Kingdom, than I am sorry to tell you that you are three weeks to late! Half my lands have been destroyed already, an-”

“And half of them yet remain to be defended,” the figure interjected, their eyebrow briefly creasing as they, too, stood up to their full, gigantic height. “Tens of thousands of your subjects are just as terrified and bereaved as you are, and are in desperate need of a light to lead them out of this darkness. When they look to you, their King, for that light, what will they find? This?”

Tulkas looked down at where Alfonso had fallen to the floor, cowering in terror. Watching the shuddering man, the giant continued.

“A broken shell of a man, contemplating taking his own life to escape these trials? If you fall, Alfonso of Castile, than know that your Kingdom, and all the other Kingdoms of Iberia, will fall with you. But if you rise...”

Tulkas stopped speaking then, simply looking down at the King, studying them. Then, after a long moment, they sighed, returning to their seat and gesturing for Alfonso to do the same. Slowly, still shuddering in fear, the King of Castile did so, taking a seat on the edge of his bed as the giant resumed speaking.

“I will not say do not grieve for what has happened, no: let your grief come out, let your tears fall, let your wails sound to the heavens. But know that nothing can be done for the past, no matter how much we wish it were so. A time must come to dry your tears, stand up and carry on, and I dare say that there is no time like the present to do so.”

“How?” whispered Alfonso, “how can I?”

“That is what I am here to tell you,” Tulkas boomed, “and you had best listen well: I cannot dare remain long, lest the eye of the Enemy fall upon you, so my time here must be brief.”

“The Enemy?” the King of Castile asked: the way that the giant had spoken sounded as if that had been a specific name. “Are they the one responsible for this disaster!?”

“Indirectly, yes,” Tulkas spoke, nodding. “There are two others responsible for bringing their world to yours, but without the Enemy, they never would have had reason, or even the chance, to do so.”

“So how do I fight this enemy!? How do I avenge my children!?” Alfonso roared, standing once again, rage reigniting within him.

The giant laughed in response, smiling broadly as he did so, standing tall once again. After a long moment, Tulkas looked down at Alfonso with a wide grin upon his face.

“It is good to see that your fighting spirit remains, Alfonso of Castile,” he chuckled, sitting back down, “you will need such a fire within you, and soon. As for how to fight the enemy, I will tell you what I can.”

“Now,” the giant continued, once he was sure that he had Alfonso’s full attention, “My time before the Enemy turns his eye upon me is short: too short to tell you all that you will need to know. Therefore another will have to do so: there is a certain man coming to your court, a priest from the village of Osma by the name of Dominic. When he arrives, you must listen to every word that he has to say: he will tell you much of what you need to know to face this darkness: the enemies that you will face, the allies that will stand by your side. But before he arrives, go to the Abbey of San Pedro de Cardena. There you will find the blades of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, Tizona and Colada. Take them up. You will need them to face the coming shadow.”

Tulkas paused then, waiting to see that the King of Castile had heard and understood what he had been told. Alfonso waited for him to continue, and when he did not, the King frowned deeply.

“Is that all?” Alfonso said, a slight moan in his voice. “Is that all that you can give me: two old swords and visit from a priest? What am I to do with so little against so much?”

“I wish that I could do more for you,” spoke Tulkas, bowing his head somewhat, “but even now my time draws short. The eye of the Enemy draws nearer this very moment. I must take my leave, and soon.”

To illustrate that point, the giant once again stood to their full height, starting to move to leave. Over their shoulder, Tulkas spoke once more:

“The fate of all of Iberia, and perhaps beyond, lies with you, Alfonso of Castile. This war has only just begun, and the road ahead of you will be long and gruelling. But you must walk it regardless, for if you fall, than your Kingdom will fall with you. You must rise above this shadow, before it consumes you and all that remains of your realm and your family. Remember what I have said: take up Tizona and Colada. Dominic of Osma will bring you further news, as well as a small part of the comfort that you seek."

Tulkas began fading from view then, his light slowly beginning to diminish. As he left, his final words echoed through the small room: "I do not envy the task that you have been assigned. But I know that it must be done. You cannot back down. Do not shrink from this task: soon enough, you will see that you do not walk alone."

And then the giant was gone, and the light that he had brought with him disappeared. King Alfonso VIII of Castile was once again left alone in the dark, the shadow around and within him his only company. His thoughts remained somewhat shrouded. Tulkas, as the giant had called himself, seemed to have given him very little indeed, doing little more than telling him to recover a pair of swords that were both more than a century old, and then to await the arrival of this Dominic of Osma. The King of Castile very much doubted that such things would be anywhere close to enough in the face of the disaster he faced.

News that there was a force behind what had laid his country low, and enemy (‘The’ Enemy) to face, was better to his ears. Tulkas had left before giving him details, apparently relying on this ‘Dominic’ to tell him what he needed to know. It was some comfort, at least, to know that he could fight back against this disaster, but he wished that he had been given more to work with than what the giant had given him.

But the giant had given him something, Alfonso did have to admit that much, and from what information he had the King did not overly bemoan that he had not given more: the ‘Eye of the Enemy’ metaphorical or not, was clearly not something that he wanted to have upon him. Tulkas had given him tiny, seemingly insignificant things, yes, but after such a long time of absolutely nothing there seemed to be little choice but to accept that this meager offering was all that Alfonso would receive, at least for the moment.

And who knew? These meager offerings might yet prove to be like pebbles that started an avalanche, the first tiny steps towards something far greater, towards avenging his wife, his children and his whole Kingdom. That might be an overly optimistic view, but Alfonso was more than ready for an interruption to the endless stream of malevolent thoughts that had dominated his mind for three weeks. Tulkas had lit a fire within him, however small that it was. Two swords and a priest, and an enemy to fight.

It was not much, no, but at least it was something.