She had been in Bree when it started raining. She was trying to sell a deer pelt from her latest hunt. The shopkeeper was trying to swindle her out of her money, but a hard glare made him back off. With her money pouch heavier by a few coins she exited the shop and stepped into the heavy rain. Finding shelter out in the woods would take her too long so she decided to stay the night in the Prancing Pony.
She got a room, but decided to stay down at the bar for now. She bought a pint of ale and sat in a dark corner away from all the people. It had still been empty when she sat down. Only a few customers were drinking, the village dunks and people staying the night like her. She barely made a dent in her drink when the room started getting more crowded. As the rain was intensifying, more and more people wanted to get warm with some ale or cheap wine, maybe even a beer if the day was good. Surprisingly enough, Strider entered the bar.
They weren’t friends, but they weren’t far from it, really. They trusted each other and in this day and age, that was enough. He knew very little of her, only that she lived in the woods, was a good tracker and had caught a few glances of her healing powers. Even her face was a mystery to him and so was her gender. In turn he told her little of himself, she knew he was a good hunter and tracker, that he was skilled with a sword and bow, and his real name - something she found out by accident.
In the past, they had gone on a few hunts together and she had helped him and the Rangers on a few occasions with their duties and healed a few wounds. She remembered their first meeting eight years ago. She had left her home only two years prior. She had been hunting some wild game when she noticed another following the same tracks. She hadn’t felt like competing so she politely asked him to leave by pointing an arrow to his face. Fortunately for him, Strider was good with words and he somehow convinced her to share the kill as he needed food and she needed a place to sleep.
But today he was tense, there was a great burden upon his shoulders. His eyes kept darting around the room checking and rechecking everyone with great suspicion. She could guess why - Black Riders. Nazgûl had been sniffing around Bree for days now, asking for a Baggins, a hobbit. She had never seen one but she knew the stories well. Nine rings given to men, to kings, and one they stole from the dwarfs. Eventually the rings corrupted them fully. Once great kings, now mere servants of Sauron. With the way things were developing she was sure she would be meeting one face to face … Well, face to hood, soon enough.
Strider’s eyes stopped on her form, half hidden in the shadows. He gave her a long searching stare before sitting beside her. He said nothing, just continued to stare at the door. She could ignore him, too. Strider must have felt her mood because with a sigh he gave in.
“Harry.” he greeted.
“Aragorn.” she greeted back. Strider tensed at the name.
“Don’t call me that, not here.” he hissed at her.
“Then don’t call me Harry.” she retorted sharply. He gave a sigh of defeat.
“Fine, Padfoot. I don’t understand why you insist on such a silly name.” he huffed before taking a long swig of his drink.
“That tells me nothing.”
“It tells you more than enough.” and with that they lapsed into silence. Strider kept scanning the room, his eyes often straying towards the door. “You seem tense.” she remarked. Light blue-grey eyes turned towards her. “Why?” his shoulders slacked at the question.
“I cannot tell you much.” he said.
“Then tell me what you can.”
“It has something to do with Gandalf, I cannot say what.”
She took a long sip of her drink while staring at him, her toxic green eyes searching. “It has something to do with the Black Riders, doesn’t it?” he tensed and that was answer enough.
A dark feeling fell over her. It was suffocating. It felt as if a dark hand was around her neck and was slowly squeezing. She couldn’t breathe. It felt familiar. Then there was a voice. A whisper or a hiss - she couldn’t tell. It was seductive. It promised things. It beckoned. ‘I could make you great, powerful. I could make you a queen, loved and feared by all.’ She could see it. A throne, a crown, a kingdom. She would usher in a new age. She would mark history as the greatest queen to ever rule.
A heavy hand fell on her shoulder and the spell was broken. The voice disappeared. The images shattered and she was now staring at the worried blue eyes of Strider. She immediately slammed her mental shields up. No such thing happened to her in Middle-Earth before and she got lazy. Safety was a great illusion. Were it not for Strider she would not have broken the spell so easily. Her eyes snapped towards the quartet that just entered the Prancing Pony. Four hobbits. Three blond heads and one dark brown. The dark feeling was still there, but muted, as if it was behind veil, as if it retreated. It was coming from around the brown-haired hobbit. Not really from him, though, but from something he carried.
“It has something to do with them.” she felt Strider turn his head and tense up. The hand gripped her shoulder now. “Or more precisely with the vile”, she hissed out the word, almost switching to Parseltongue in the process ,“the vile thing the brown-haired one carries.” Striders hand was painfully gripping her now.
“You cannot tell anyone.” he said, both of them followed the hobbits with their eyes as they disappeared upstairs towards one of the rooms.
“I hope you are getting rid of it.” she had no idea what it was but she knew it needed to go and it needed to go now or bad things would happen. “What is it, anyway?” she asked as the hobbits disappeared from sight, taking the foul feeling with them.
“Something that should have been destroyed a long time ago.” and with that, Strider left. She leaned back and tried to relax. The feeling of the thing Strider was after reminded her of something, but she couldn’t quite place it. She was sure she never felt such a thing in Middle-Earth before, which meant it was connected to her past life. This didn’t narrow it down any. In hundred and fifty-seven years, you experience a lot, both good and bad. Besides, the memories of her past life were still somewhat muddled. Events were clear, but faces were blurred together and feelings were dialed down, the personal connection she had with the events just wasn’t there anymore. It was as if her past life was just a book she read once upon a time.
Normally that would be good, but just this once it got in the way. So, while Strider tried to get past the owner to the hobbits and the foul thing they carried she got comfortable, closed her eyes and tried to remember. Her gut told her it was something from her early life. A lot of horrible things happened then. She had despised her old family and the way they treated her. A bug-like reporter and her lies got a rise out of her. She loathed a kind looking old man and his manipulations. A pink toad of a woman, just that image made her angry, even now. Hell, she was sure she hated her even more than the Dark Lord. Wait, the Dark Lord. Her eyes snapped open.
His horcruxes had the same feel about them as that thing. Every one of them was different, true, but only to an extent. They all had that same foul feeling about them, the one that left a bad taste in your mouth, but only after you were out of their influence. While you were under you felt powerful as it whispered things to you, wonderful things. It promised you your wildest dreams and then twisted them to fit its own purpose. And you would be too far under to notice or care. It needed to be destroyed. Her hand slipped to the hilt of her blade. Her sword was rarely used, because of the venom, but just this once it would be right. She just hopped it would be up to the task. While it had been enough last time, things in Middle-Earth were different.
Strider dropped back in his seat, he looked defeated. Her hand slipped away. “He is not letting me see them.” he said. “Doesn’t trust me.” there was a slight bitterness in his voice now, one she could understand.
“Strider,” he looked at her “I don’t know what it is you want from them, but I hope you don’t want to use it.” it would consume him, she knew that much. Strider as he was now would slowly fade and in his place, would be a horrible creature driven by power lust. She didn’t like that one bit.
“No, no.” he said quickly. “I need to get it somewhere safe…” he paused “…it and the hobbits, I, I couldn’t” he swallowed “I couldn’t handle carrying it.” he explained. She frowned.
“Such a thing wouldn’t be safe, ever. There is no place on Middle-Earth where that, that thing would be safe.” she paused so her words would sink in. “It needs to be destroyed. And it needs to be destroyed as soon as possible. Before it does any more damage.”
“Padfoot, that isn’t on me to decide.” he said slowly.
“It shouldn’t matter.” she snapped in frustration. The damn hobbits were walking back out of the room. The damn thing was trying to influence her again and was giving her a mighty headache in the process. She straightened her mental walls and took a deep breath to calm herself. “Strider,” she began slowly, calmly “that thing, it shouldn’t exist.” she struggled to put her thoughts into words. She couldn’t reveal how much she knew about horcruxes and she was sure this thing was one. Now only the similarities were in question. But if she revealed too much information it would raise questions she didn’t want to answer.
A hand landed on her shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Padfoot, I know.” said Strider. “And I agree, but as I said it isn’t on me to decide what happens to the ring.” he continued, and Harley’s eyes lit up.
“So it is a ring you are after.” she whispered with a smirk, not that Strider could see it. He groaned. The dark air that seemed to gather around them dispersed.
“Not a word.” he warned.
“Well then oh great ranger, you might want to watch your charges before they do something stupid.” she nodded towards the four hobbits as they sat down around a table and ordered. Strider nodded before leaning back, letting his hood fall over his eyes. He took out his pipe and started to smoke all the while starring at the hobbits. She had to roll her eyes at the scary dark stranger act he was putting on. Not that she should be complaining what with the dark garb she wore, only her green eyes were visible.
The hobbits were half way through their dinner and two blondes were starting to get into their cups while the third blonde kept sending their table discreet and nervous glances. “Scare the shit out of them before you even meet them, why don’t you?” she snarked at him.
“Quiet you.” he said between puffs. She rolled her eyes at him again. Why he was going for a silent intimidation act she couldn’t tell, especially since she knew the man could be a real marshmallow at times. She watched as the sober blonde hobbit leaned over and whispered something to the brown haired one. The brunet one looked up towards them. He stared at Strider before accidentally making eye contact with Harley. She saw him swallow before quickly looking back down at his plate. He stopped the owner as the man was passing by their table. Normally she wouldn’t be able to hear what they said but magic was such a wonderful thing.
“Excuse me,” the hobbit swallowed again “those two in the corner, who are they?” the both of them glanced at Strider and her.
“The one with a pipe, he’s one of them rangers. Dangerous folk. What his right name is I’ve never heard, but around here his name is Strider. The other one, no one knows much about, but he hangs around Strider a lot. Strider refers to him as Padfoot, whatever that means.” and with that the man left the hobbits to serve his other costumers.
“Looks like your little intimidation act worked.” she remarked as she watched as the old Butterbur skittered to the other end of the room.
“You helped.” he said. She threw him a glare before glancing back at the hobbits.
The brown haired one had his eyes closed, it seemed as if he were in some sort of trance. Sweat broke out on his brow. “Something’s wrong.” she whispered to Strider. It was the ring. It was influencing him or at least calling out to him. “It is the ring Strider, something is happening.” she whispered and from the corner of her eye she saw Strider tense.
“I know.” he whispered back.
“Baggins?!” a loud voice broke through both of their tension and through the hobbit. All three of them turned to the blond hobbit at the bar. “Sure I know a Baggins. He’s over there.” he said and pointed back at their table with his pint. “Frodo Baggins.” he exclaimed for the whole room to hear. “He’s my second cousin, once removed, on my mother’s side…” the blonde hobbit continued on. She watched as the newly named Frodo rushed towards his second cousin, once removed. There was some sort of tumble and Frodo slipped and fell. Something shinny and golden flew into the air. Strider sat up. The golden thing fell back down and the hobbit disappeared. She blinked. Invisibility wasn’t a common trait in Middle-Earth, was it?
“That can’t be good.” she murmured as all the other guests stared at the spot where a hobbit had once been. At once everyone started talking in loud voices.
“The Riders will sense the ring now. They will come for it.” said Strider as he got up. “Will you help me?” he asked and looked at her.
“Not my circus, not my monkeys. My apologies Strider.” she said before leaning back in her seat. Strider nodded.
“Fair enough. I cannot force you, yet I still hoped. I’m sure your skills would have been useful.” and with that he turned away from her. She watched as he grabbed the newly visible hobbit. They talked in hushed voices for a moment before Strider literally carried Frodo upstairs. With that they were out of her sight and hearing range. She took a slow sip as the other three hobbits followed only moments later. She snorted when one of them grabbed a stool while the other one went for a candlestick, one with three lit candles still on it.
“It might not be your circus, master, but you will still help them. Will you not?” a new voice spoke from Striders seat. She knew this voice very well. It was flat. Not cold, not warm, merely there. This was an old friend, someone who knew her too well. She gave a sigh of defeat.
“Yes I will. Strider might not be a friend, but he is the closest I have to one.” she glanced at the man sitting next to her and met a cold blue stare. “Besides that thing needs to be destroyed and unfortunately I am sort of an expert.” she added.
“This one isn’t quite like the ones Riddle made.” he warned.
“I suspected as much. This one feels more powerful, more vile.” she wiggled her nose in disgust.
“It is, but that isn’t the only difference, master.”
“I guessed. Well it looks like I’m going on an adventure.” she paused “To slay the dragon.” she grinned.
“There will be no dragons.”
“I know, Dean, it was a joke. Like that song, you know, we are the chosen ones … We sacrifice our blood, we kill for honor… We are the holly ones, our armor stained with blood … We kill the dragon. Nothing?” her joke, like many others, fell on deaf ears. Dean never did have much of a funny bone.
“Besides you are more likely to try and befriend it rather than kill it, and fail, might I add.” he remarked.
“That happened once.” she huffed back.
“One time too many.”
“Why are you here Dean?” she asked as she slacked back in her chair in defeat.
“I am here to give you a warning.” he stated simply, making her look at him in question. “This journey will be full of perils and trials, both for you and any who come along, especially for the ringbearer.” he continued. “If you fail, Middle-Earth will be shrouded in darkness, if you succeed the war will be short.” he finished.
“So there will be a war no matter what.” she sighed. She knew a war was brewing somewhere on the horizon. The question was only when it would get to their quiet corner, not whether it will. “Then I don’t have much choice, do I?” She said to herself.
“You always have a choice, for you are my master.” And with that final sentence he disappeared as quickly as he came. She blinked and he was no longer there. It was a cryptic answer and she wasn’t sure what it meant. Did it mean she could just choose a side? Could she just stay out of it? Or would she be allowed to just leave this world at the drop of a hat if she so desired? It was something to think about at another time, a time when Black Riders weren’t mere hours away. She looked around the inn. Most have left to either their homes or their rooms here at the inn.
“They will come when everyone is asleep. Well, I still have time till then, might as well pack.” and with that she disappeared upstairs to her room. There wasn’t much for her to pack. She had little in the way of material possessions, and what little she had, she could carry on her person at all times. Two changes of clothes and weapons took up most of the space in her magically expanded bag. There was some long-lasting food and a water sack made of skin from some animal or other. There was also medical stuff, but since this world had little in the way of magical plants, it was mostly bandages with very few salves and draughts. Both the salves and the draughts were relatively weak. To her, who was used to the magical ‘drink this and your whole bone will grow back’ type of healing, they were very weak. In Middle-Earth, however, where such things took months if they were possible in the first place, they were possibly the best potions out there.
She spent the rest of the night watching through her window and waiting. They would come, she had no doubt about that. It was Strider and the hobbits she was truly watching out for. When they left, she planned to follow. She was going to follow from the shadows and help them move along as much as she could without them noticing. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to revel herself. They barely trusted Aragorn, no surprise there, the man didn’t exactly look like the trustworthy sort. She looked even shadier. The lower half of her face was hidden behind a mask while the rest was hidden with a hood and shadows. The rest of her clothes was just as dark and hid as much of her body as possible. Her eyes were the only thing truly visible.
She was jolted out of her thoughts by a loud bang. Something or someone just slammed the inn doors open. She narrowed her eyes - the Black Riders were here. They had a feeling about them; an aura of sorts they brought with them. It was cold and filled with sorrow. It reminded her of dementors, yet not quite as harsh. Still, a well-placed Patronus should work against them just as well. A few minutes passed. A few minutes when it seemed like the whole world was holding its breath and stopped. A loud screech split the air. A cold shiver went down her spine. It was so unlike anything she had ever heard before. More screeches followed. They were screams of anger, she realized. They hadn’t found the hobbits.
She felt the cold aura leave the village. An invisible weight left her, making her shoulders sag. She sat down at the window and waited. Soon Strider and the four hobbits would leave. Strider wouldn’t dare wait any longer than necessary. He would wait for the Riders to get far enough from the village before leaving. Sure enough, not even thirty minutes later the small group left through the village gates with a pack pony trailing after them.
“And so, it begins.” With that, she left her cozy room.