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Dragonsoul

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Prologue:

The quiet of the Firien Wood was shattered suddenly by a vortex of black-violet light.

All the animals in the clearing fled with cries of alarm, darting into nearby bushes and scrambling quickly up the nearest trees.

They and the trees and the stars far above were the only witnesses of the sight of a gasping woman emerging from the swirl of light, clutching a blanket swaddled bundle to her breast. The light vanished and less than a moment later, the woman collapsed, her entire body heaving with quiet sobs as she came to her knees.

The wind stirred in the branches and the trees seemed to lean closer ever so slightly, as though they, like their animal inhabitants, wished to get a closer view of this strange sight.
For it was plain now that the woman was badly injured; the scent of blood tainted the air, and the woman’s leather armor bore a large hole in the lower left abdomen. The space beneath this hole was covered with a liquid that looked black in the dark beneath the weakened light of the stars.

The woman’s ragged hair, the same color as the shadows beneath the trees, fell over her face as she lifted the bundle up to her lips.

“I’m sorry, my dear one,” she whispered, voice ragged with pain and tears. “I will not be able to stay with you, but I have managed to get you away from them.”

A quiet cry, sounding upset and confused, emanated from the bundle.

“I’m sorry,” the woman whispered again, pressing her lips to the top of the bundle. “Be strong, my little dragon. Be strong and brave for me.”

Another cry from the bundle, louder and more desperate. Two small arms became visible, reaching up for the woman’s face. The woman gave a brief smile, taut with pain, as two tiny hands pressed against her cheeks. She closed her eyes, more tears slipping free as she reached up with her left hand, holding a much smaller one in her own. She opened her eyes again.

“Mama loves you, baby girl,” she whispered; the effort it took made it seem that the whole of the woman’s soul was contained in those words. “Mother loves you so, so much.”

Almost the moment the last words left her lips, the woman collapsed, eyes closing for the final time. She fell on her left side, the bundle still clasped to her chest. Her breath rattled in her throat once, twice, before her chest went still.

The heavy silence of death hung over the clearing.

It lasted only a few moments before being shattered by a cry. For, as the animals and the trees had suspected, the thing in the bundle was a child, a human baby that couldn’t have been more than a few months old. The child was now struggling out of her blankets, loud, wailing cries leaving her mouth nonstop, tears rolling freely down her cheeks as she tugged on locks of black hair and slapped at bloodless cheeks, trying desperately to wake her mother.

The trees began immediately to whisper among themselves. The animals in the branches joined in. One, however, did not, and instead stepped from the cover of the shadows and approached the source of the commotion.

All chatter in the trees ceased as Carantar, leader of the Firien wolf pack, walked slowly toward the child, who in her distress and confusion at her mother’s unresponsiveness hadn’t noticed him.

The forest held its collective breath as the wolf came to stand over the child, who still had yet to notice him. Carantar lowered his head, scenting the child’s tufted black hair.
Startled by the sound, the child turned about, unbalancing herself in the process and collapsing onto her dead mother’s shoulder. She stared up at the large, gray thing towering over her, tear-filled green eyes filling with curiosity as the wolf lowered his nose toward her face. Her cries stopped the instant his soft, velvety muzzle came into contact with her head, and with a questioning gurgle she raised a hand up toward his nose.

“Carantar!” at the voice of his mate Nimril, Carantar raised his head and looked over his shoulder at his white-furred alpha female as she trotted toward him. “What in the name of the stars and rivers are you doing?"

“Her scent is wrong.”

The white wolf stopped and blinked, perplexed. “What?”

“Her scent; it isn’t human.”

Puzzled and curious now, Nimril came to stand beside her mate and lowered her head, taking in the child’s scent. The baby giggled as the she-wolf’s whiskers tickled her head and proceeded to reach up and bat playfully at the wolf’s nose. Her first blow was right on target and Nimril drew back with a startled snort. The baby laughed and clapped, and Carantar’s tail twitched in amusement as his mate wrinkled her nose, more in indignation than out of any real pain.

“You’re right, it smells human and yet… not,” Nimril said. She lowered her head, mindful of the child’s waving arms this time, and examined the baby critically. “Do you think there is something wrong with it?”

“It does not smell like an illness, and the child seems healthy,” Carantar said, studying the infant himself.

“Do you think this is why it and its mother were attacked?"

“I would not be surprised,” Carantar said dryly as the child, the novelty of the wolves having worn off, returned her attention to trying to wake her mother. He watched as the child pressed a tiny hand against her mother’s cheek, nudging gently with a small sound of confusion. When her mother didn’t respond, the child’s pushes became harder, her sounds becoming steadily more distressed. Before the child could fully panic, Carantar gently nosed her away from her mother’s corpse, pushing her toward him.

“Carantar!” Nimril said as the child tried to move back to her mother and Nimril’s mate gently grabbed her by the back of her woven shirt and pulled her away again. “You’re not planning on keeping it, are you? It’s a human baby! You know how helpless they are!”

“I do not intend to ‘keep it’,” Carantar answered, nudging the baffled infant as she came to lie between his forepaws. “I intend to take it to humans who can raise it.”

“The nearest village is five days’ hard run from here! The pups are nowhere near strong enough to make such a journey,” Nimril said.

“I will wait until I deem it safe to leave the pack to itself for a while, and then I will take the child.”

“That will be at least a month,” Nimril said. “How do you plan to feed it?”

“Mithlas is producing plenty of milk, as are you.”

“What ?” Nimril barked while her mate lowered his head, both to nuzzle the infant and hide his grin., “You expect me to feed it?”

“No,” Carantar responded. “Mithlas has enough milk herself, and I’m certain she will be more than willing to take the child. You may help her if you choose to.”

Nimril flicked her tail in annoyance. Carantar huffed in amusement, then returned his attention to the infant that had latched itself onto his right foreleg and was making questioning little mewling sounds.

“Hush, little one,” he said, gently licking the tears from her face. The child did quiet down, then proceeded to giggle as the wolf continued his wash. With a happy coo, she reached up to touch his face. Carantar allowed the touch, pressing his nose to the infant’s forehead in response.

His mate growled, startling him into looking up. Nimril wasn’t looking at him, though; she was looking to the East, her lips pulled back in a snarl.
“Carantar, grab the pup and run!” she growled.

Stunned by his mate’s sudden concession, Carantar opened his mouth. As though sensing his hesitation, Nimril whipped around and growled at him.

“The Deadwalkers are back, and I am not so heartless as to leave any sort of pup defenseless with them around!” All the fur along Carantar’s spine rose at the mention of those creatures. As though cued, a wailing cry shattered the nightly silence. Another piercing cry answered it, and this one was considerably closer to the clearing. Carantar reached down and snatched up the child, who had gone rigid with terror upon hearing the first cry. Nimril sprang past him as he turned, leading the way back into the shadows of the trees.

~*~

Realms away, a figure sat on a throne constructed of books. His eyes were closed, though none could tell by looking at him; he wore a golden mask, shaped in the manner of some tentacled beast.

He was not happy. He had been trapped in this realm for several millennia now, and had been plotting his escape practically the moment he’d discovered his imprisonment. Finding a way out wasn’t the difficult part; all the knowledge of the universe was at his fingertips, after all. No, it was keeping his movements and plans hidden from the daedric prince who ruled over this little corner of Oblivion.

Hermaeus Mora. The man’s lips sneered in derision at the thought of the creature’s name. Oh, yes. Soon, Master, I will be free of you. And I fully intend to make you pay for trapping me here.

It was almost time; he was simply waiting for word from his servants in Tamriel that they had completed their tasks, and then he would be able to begin working to free himself without having to worry about interference from the other side.

“Lord Miraak.”

The Seeker’s garbled words took him abruptly from his thoughts; he’d been so absorbed he hadn’t noticed the creature’s approach.

“What is it?” he asked, allowing enough annoyance to color his voice that the creature was visibly unsettled.

“Your servants on the mortal plane have send a message, my Lord.”

Finally. “And?”

At this point the creature became even more agitated, beginning to drift side to side as it hovered. “They… they report that they were able to find and slay all remaining members of the Dragonborn bloodlines…,”

“But?” Miraak prompted. There had obviously been one at the end of that sentence.

“One of them… escaped. A woman. Your servants report that she was mortally wounded but… she had a child.”

“And they are certain this child was hers?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And if she was mortally wounded and holding a child, how, perchance, did she manage to escape them?” Miraak hissed, his anger stirring the dragon’s blood in his veins. The Seeker flinched as though struck.

“My Lord, she was a mage, a powerful mage, very knowledgeable in the school of conjuration. When she saw that she would not survive, she grabbed the child and opened a portal.”

That got Miraak’s attention. Few mages were powerful or skilled enough to accomplish such a feat. If her progeny turned out to be Dragonborn…

“A portal to where?”

“They do not know, my Lord.”

At this Miraak fell silent, leaning back on his throne as he pondered this development. Several minutes passed in silence, the figure on the throne so motionless that when he finally straightened the Seeker was visibly startled.

“Well, all she has likely succeeded in doing is trapping the child,” Miraak laughed. “And if she traveled to one of the planes of Oblivion, then she’s doomed the child to a far worse death than it would have suffered at the hands of my followers.”

With this Miraak pushed himself to his feet, walking past the Seeker to the edge of the platform and raising his masked face to the putrid green sky of Apocrypha.

“Relonikiv! Het! Nu!” he Shouted, the summons echoing across the wide expanse of poisonous black liquid. Barely a moment later he felt the dragon’s answering call.

“Geh, Thuri. I come.”

Wherever the child had ended up, it was as good as dead. With all the other Dragonborn lines wiped out, no one would have any hope of stopping Miraak when he returned to the mortal plane.

And if the World Eater should chance to return as prophesized… well, Miraak would be more than happy to send the worm back to whatever plane of existence he had first crawled from.

Tamriel belonged to him, and him alone.

Chapter Text

 Chapter 1:

Carantar’s tail twitched in amusement as the human pup tumbled with Rochanar and Amonthel. The pup had grown well; she was a little on the scrawny side, but the village the pack had left her in was not very well to do, from what Carantar understood. Whenever the pack was nearby they would try to leave a kill near the human home where they had left the child eight summers ago, and by what the pup had indicated it was very much appreciated. The human pair that had taken her in had had two other pups a few years later, and sometimes they had trouble getting enough food.

Carantar’s breath left him in a rush when Amonthel fell on top of him after a strong kick from the human’s hind legs sent her flying. He sat up and snapped warningly at the young she-wolf’s hindquarters, ignoring Nimril’s amused yip from beside him.

The pup hurried back over to her playmates, ears and tail slightly lowered in embarrassment. The human and Rochanar also had their heads lowered, slightly sheepish. The alpha directed an annoyed look at the two-legged pup, who slunk forward on all fours, belly close to the ground. When she reached him she gave a low whine and bumped her nose against his chin in apology.

Knowing no harm had been intended, Carantar gave a reassuring huff and proceeded to wash the pup’s face. The pup made a happy sound and relaxed, obligingly turning her head when he’d finished with an area.

“Irideth!”

The pup lifted her head and looked in the direction of the voice. Carantar, meanwhile, continued his wash along the now-exposed skin of her neck and most of her shoulders.

The source of the voice crested the rise on which the pack was resting. It was a human man, fairly large, with short, lanky brown hair and a beard of the same color. He wore leather boots that were worn through in several places. His clothes, though fairly clean, were also very well worn; his brown pants were practically covered in mended tears.

The pup, after turning and quickly bumping her head against Carantar’s chin in farewell, stood and ran over to the man with a happy cry. Laughing, the man reached down and swept her up in his arms, swinging her around in a circle as the child squealed and laughed with delight.

“I do believe Master Wolf is right, child,” the man said as he brought the girl close to his chest and got the chance to observe her dirt-smeared face. Actually, it was more like dirt-smeared everything. “Your mama is going to insist that you take a bath before dinner.”

The girl pouted. “I’m not that dirty!”

The man laughed again. “Good luck convincing your mother of that!”

Carantar huffed at Edwenor, his Beta. The light grey male wagged his tail once. The pack’s gift of a deer haunch had been delivered.

The man- if Carantar wasn’t mistaken his name was Seldor- bowed in his direction, grinning. “Thank you, Master Wolf, for watching my daughter today and for your lovely gift. My family and I wish you well, and we hope to see you and yours here again soon.”

Carantar tipped his head slightly as he stood; it was mid-autumn now, and though the weather was still mild it would be turning cold quickly in a few weeks. The pack would soon be heading further south, where there was enough prey to feed them through the winter. The trip over the mountains was long, and they would need to leave in the next few days before the passes were covered with snow.

Nimril had trotted over to the humans, looking up at the girl. The man obligingly knelt so the she-wolf could be at eye-level with the child.

“Mind yourself now, little one,” Nimril said, giving the child’s cheeks a farewell lick. The girl buried her face in Nimril’s cheek for a moment before pulling away.

“Be careful, Nana,” the girl said.

The rest of the pack came forward one by one to say their goodbyes. The pups took a bit longer than the others, as did Mithlas and Celephinnel; they had been the pup’s main caretakers during her brief stay with the pack.

Then, as one, the pack turned and vanished into the shadows of the Firien Wood. Man and child, meanwhile, made their way back down the hill, talking and laughing the whole way.


 

“Irideth, my word, were you rolling in the dust?”

That essentially summed up Irideth’s mother’s reaction to her eldest daughter’s state of uncleanliness. Her younger brother Cevin had been helping in their father’s workshop and had come in minutes before covered head to toe in sawdust. Two dust-covered urchins was apparently more than Dea Evjen was willing to deal with and she’d quickly hustled the guilty parties upstairs to the bath, to many half-hearted protests from the elder siblings and happy giggling from five-year-old Adina at her family’s antics.

Sitting in the small brass bathing tub in her room, Irideth leaned back in the warm water with a happy sigh. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for a while yet; she had time to lounge in her bath for once.

A knock on the door had her sitting up and facing it. “Irideth? May I come in?”

“Yes, Mama.”

The door opened to admit her adoptive mother, still in her apron with her nut-brown hair tied back in the bun she kept it in while working over the cooking fire.

“Did you leave Papa in charge of the kitchen again?” Irideth asked in astonishment. Her mother rolled her eyes.

“I’m certain he can go a few minutes without setting fire to the hearth rug. Or dropping the roast.”

Irideth giggled. “Isn’t that what you said last time?”

Mama gave a mock-horrified gasp, slapping the water and splashing Irideth in the process. “Oh, no! Don’t tempt Fate, little one! Knock on wood! Knock on wood!” She cried, continuing to splash the water at her child as Irideth squealed and laughed in delight, occasionally managing to splash back. Eventually Irideth relented, leaning over the edge of the tub to rap both knuckles against the wooden flooring while her mother laughed breathlessly above her.

“By the Valar, child, you never seem to run out of energy,” Mama said, reaching for the little bar of soap lying on the stool next to the tub. Irideth deflated a bit as she lathered up her hands, but she relaxed immediately as her mother began massaging the suds into her scalp. In about a minute the child’s eyes began to drift closed.

“You’ve been having the nightmares again, haven’t you?” Mama said quietly.

“No,” Irideth answered, a little too quickly.

“Mm-hmm,’’ Mama said, in that disbelieving way only a mother could.

Irideth bit her lip, staring down at her reflection in the water. Bright green eyes in a worried face stared back.

“Irideth, I’ve told you to tell me when the dreams start getting bad.”

“It makes you upset,” Irideth muttered as her mother scooped some water up in her hands and pured over Irideth’s soapy head.

“Of course it does. I’m a mother, I get upset when my babies are hurt.”

“I’m not a baby!” Irideth protested indignantly.

“You’re my baby,” Mama said, wrapping her arms around Irideth from behind and apparently uncaring of the water that soaked the sleeves of her dress. “By blood or no, you are my baby, and nothing and no one will ever change that.”

Irideth found it hard to swallow past the lump in her throat. She had no idea where she was from or who her birth parents were. She knew her birth mother was dead; Carantar had told her the story of how she’d come to live with the pack just this spring. She’d peppered the alpha with questions afterward, but he could provide very few answers. The pack, too, had no idea where she was from, or who her father was, or where she might find him.

In truth, Irideth didn’t think she would care to. Turning so she could press herself close to her mother’s chest, the girl could not imagine having parents other than Seldor and Dea. She couldn’t imagine not having a sister like Adina. I might not even be able to live without Cevin, annoying though he usually is.

After about a minute Irideth slid out of her mother’s embrace and began cupping water in her hands, pouring it over her hair to get the soap out. Mama helped by rubbing the water deeper into her scalp to make certain no suds were left.

“What was the dream about this time, dear?” Mama asked quietly.

“Same as it always is,” Irideth answered in a monotone.

Mama wisely let the matter be at that.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2:

“Sissie! Sissie!”

Irideth was woken shortly after dawn by her five-year-old sister somehow managing to leap all the way onto her bed and landing right smack on Irideth’s belly. The eldest sister jerked awake as her breath left her lungs faster than a horse who’d spotted a snake.

“Adina! Land sakes, you’re getting too big to keep doing that!” Irideth wheezed, leaning over and clutching her now-sore belly while Adina laughed loudly at the foot of the bed.

“Come on! Come on! Daddy’s going to see Master Geirwulf today and he says we need to come, too!”

Irideth laughed. “Okay, I’m coming! You have to get out, though, so I can get dressed!”

Adina, thankfully, was too excited to argue and ran out the door with one more yell to “hurry up!” Irideth pushed the covers off and slid out of bed. She ran over to the little wardrobe her father had made her for her last birthday and pulled out one of her two working dresses, the dark green one. Pulling it over her head and tying and old leather belt around her waist, Irideth ran out the door. She could hear Adina hopping about in the kitchen, and sure enough when she walked in Irideth was met with the sight of Adina hopping from foot to foot in excitement while Mama tried to convince her to eat something for breakfast.

Irideth giggle quietly, slipping behind her exasperated mother to grab a small slice of bread and one of the apples Cevin had picked in the orchard yesterday.

“Look, Adina! Look how red this apple is!” Irideth exclaimed, pretending to be in awe of the fruit in her hand.

Adina gasped, running over and bringing Irideth’s hand down to her eye level. “It’s pretty! And so round!”

Irideth gasped too, as though an idea had just come to her. “I know! You can eat half this apple, and when we go see Master Geirwulf, you can give the rest of it to Aisling!”

At this marvelous suggestion Adina became too excited to speak. She managed a squeal between excited bounces, then grabbed the apple and bolted out the front door almost faster than eyes could track. Irideth almost couldn’t breathe through her laughter. She was barely aware of Mama’s loud sigh from behind her.

“That child, sometimes,” Mama muttered, walking forward and lifting Irideth back to her feet from where she’d collapsed on the floor. “Thank you, Irideth,” she said, turning the girl around and brushing strands of grass from her dress. She smiled down at Irideth. “What made you think of Aisling?”

“Adina loves that pony to death. Suggest she do anything for Aisling and she’ll do it without a thought,” Irideth answered.

Mama smiled. “My clever girl,” she said, pressing a kiss to the top of Irideth’s head and holding her close. “Run on now, before she decides to run off to Geirwulf’s without you.”

Irideth giggled, pressing a quick kiss to her mother’s cheek before running outside after her sister. The village the Evjen family called home was not very large, consisting of barely more than fifty residents. There was a single inn with only two rooms which were rarely even used; the village was not situated along any main roads or trade routes. People traveling from Gondor to Rohan, or vice versa, rarely traveled so close to the Firien Wood; they would take more direct routes. The only reason the inn had lasted so long was because Derda, the innkeeper, knew a thing or two about brewing ale. It didn’t hurt that she wasn’t a bad cook, either.

Most of the town’s income came from Geirwulf, who bred horses for the Marshals of the Mark. His herd was small compared to most of those raised by families closer to Edoras, but from what Irideth had heard Geirwulf’s horses were the smartest in Rohan.

Geirwulf’s home and the town stable were just a few houses down from the Evjen’s, at the end of the street so there was plenty of space for the horses. Irideth walked about as quickly as Adina could manage, holding her sister’s hand to keep her from running off after whatever insect or plant caught her attention. She kept her gaze straight ahead, ignoring the narrow-eyed looks directed their way from the few neighbors who were out this early. Most people didn’t act on it beyond dark looks, but Irideth knew these people didn’t trust her relationship with the wolves, and the looks still made her nervous. A few of the men would sometimes go as far as name-calling; Tyrhir had on more than one occasion even thrown rocks at her.

He’d steered clear of her since her father had given him a black eye when he’d caught him in the act, and Geirwulf, who’d seen the whole thing, had promptly thrown the degenerate drunkard into the pig’s feeding trough. The message had been felt quite keenly for a while; Geirwulf, as Horsemaster, was the most respected man in town. Seldor was well-liked as well, and when both had made it clear that they would defend Irideth the bullies had backed off for the most part.

Still, Irideth was determined not to hang about in the street any longer than necessary, and she pulled Adina along until they stood in front of Geirwulf’s stable doors. Heaving together, both girls pushed it open and were confronted with the sight of their father kneeling beside a stall door, inspecting some sort of damage done to the boards and devising a plan of repair with Cevin.

“Hi, Daddy!” Adina called, running over to the pair while Irideth ate the slice of bread she’d grabbed from the kitchen, reveling privately at the sweet scent of oats, hay and horse.

“Hello, there, little lady,” Father said with a smile while Cevin rolled his eyes behind him. Irideth grinned as she finished off her bread.

“Look, Daddy! I brought an apple for Aisling!” Adina said proudly, showing off her half-eaten fruit.

“Why, so you did! I’m sure she’ll like that very much. Why don’t you go with Cevin and give it to her?”

“What? Why me?” Cevin interjected. “I thought I was helping you!”

“I don’t have the right nails we’ll need to fix this; I need to go back to the house and get them,” Father explained, glancing at Irideth as she made her way down the aisle toward them. “And Geirwulf wants to talk to your older sister.”

Irideth blinked in surprise. “Me? What for?”

Father grinned, ruffling her hair. “I think it’s about that stallion you’ve gotten so friendly with.”

A grin of her own spread over Irideth’s face before she could stop it while her heart leaped in her chest. Father laughed again as he stood.

“All right, run along all of you lot! I need to go back home and get the nails. I believe Geirwulf’s in the eastern pasture, Irideth.”

The three children ran off almost instantly, Cevin and Adina further down the row of stalls to fing Aisling and Irideth out the door that led to the eastern pastures. She spotted Geirwulf almost immediately, leaning against the fence and watching the horses milling about in the fields.

Irideth reached the man at the same time someone else spotted her, and with a whicker a young buckskin stallion broke from the herd and began trotting over to the fence. The second the horse had turned toward them, Geirwulf recognized what the steed’s attention meant and looked down and saw Irideth come to a stop beside him. With a broad smile, he leaned down and picked the girl up, setting her on the top rail of the fence just as the horse reached them. Irideth immediately extended a hand, palm out. Snorting happily, the horse quickly pressed his nose into it. Irideth giggled, reaching up to scratch between his ears. Irideth felt Geirwulf’s laugh rumbling in his chest.

“He’ll be ready to train soon. He’s just turned four summers.”

“He’s grown a lot,” Irideth said. Geirwulf chuckled again.

“You youngsters tend to do that,” he said.

“You’re not that old, Master Geirwulf!”

“Oh, no? Thank you for saying so, Irideth, but it won’t be long before I’ve got more gray in my hair and beard than yellow.”

Irideth giggled, but she really didn’t think Geirwulf was as old as he said he was.

“You think you’re going to be up to the task, girl?”

The abrupt turnabout had Irideth blinking owlishly for a few seconds as her mind worked to catch up. Was Geirwulf saying that he wanted her to train the stallion?”

“You want me to train him?” Irideth asked.

Geirwulf nodded. “Him, and if you do well enough, the mares in his band as well.”

Irideth’s toes curled against the wood of the fence anxiously. Training one of Master Geirwulf’s horses was a distinction none in the village had had in half a decade, not since Aevrin Herenssen had been caught trying to sell some of the prized foals to a shady character out of the East. Thankfully he’d been caught before the deal had been struck; most of the horses Geirwulf bred and trained were sold to the Lord of the Mark, King Theoden, for use by the Rohirrim. The horses were the little village’s livelihood since the trade routes had dried up with rumors of war in the East. If Aevrin had stolen the best foals of the stock, the town wouldn’t have survived the year.

The boy had been run out of town after being publicly disowned by his family; no one knew what had become of him, only that he had been heading in the general direction of the Dagorlad when he fled.

No one spoke of that anymore, except perhaps in hushed whispers in the inn after a mug or two of hard ale.

“You want me to train… all of them?” the girl asked, feeling her face blush when she realized how high-pitched her voice had gotten; she sounded like a scared mouse!

Apparently following her train of thought, Geirwulf nodded solemnly. “You have the makings of a Horsemaster in you, Irideth. A great one. You can get these animals to listen to you better than some grown men can.” At this he laughed. “Heck, some of the younger ones listen to you more than they do me!”

“You cannot be serious, Master Geirwulf,” came a low, rasping voice from behind them. “You’ve habe the wolf girl watching your horses?”

Irideth felt bile rise in her throat as she and Geirwulf turned together to face Tyrhir sitting on a rock by the side of the road, half-empty bottle of what smelled like mead in his hand. Irideth’s hands clenched on the fence, nails digging into the wood when he sneered at her.

“She’ll probably feed the whole lot to her pets,” the man went on, taking a long swig out of his bottle when he’d finished, then throwing it away upon realizing it was empty.

“If Carantar and his pack wanted these horses, they could get them easily enough without my help,” Irideth said, eyes narrowing. “Besides, they don’t like horse meat. Too stringy.”

Behind her, the stallion snorted as though insulted. Irideth giggled when he nuzzled the back of her neck, nibbling lightly as though demanding of the thought that were true. She reached up and stroked his nose in apology.

“Get back to your seat at the inn, Tyrhir,” Geirwulf said. “There’s none here that care to hear your words.”

“Probably none at the inn, either,” Irideth muttered. The stallion whickered.

“Respect your elders now, Irideth,” Geirwulf chided, though she noticed the slight upward twitch of his lips.

“Only those who’ve earned it,” she answered evenly.

At this Geirwulf turned and eyed her speculatively. The girl met his gaze evenly, one hand reaching up to pet the stallion when he nosed her shoulder. Eventually Geirwulf saw something that appeased him, for he smiled thinly.

“Fair enough, I suppose,” he said.

“With all due respect, Master, ya can’t trust the b…. girl,” Tyrhir amended when Geirwulf turned his head to glare at him. “She’s friends with a pack of wolves! You know better than anyone the old stories! How those beasts served the Dark Tower! She’ll be runnin’ off with the whole herd over to the Black Land before any of us can blink!”

“Like Aevrin?” Geirwulf’s voice had gone dangerously soft as he began to stride slowly toward the other man. “Like that young man everyone claimed was so upstanding? So honorable?”

The last word was little more than a growl, uttered as Geirwulf came to stand over the man sitting on the stone before him. Tyrhir’s smirk had disappeared, but he was still not moving, just sitting there glaring up at Geirwulf. He didn’t realize h danger until the larger man had grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him up so his feet were at least a foot off the ground. Tyrhir squealed and thrashed like a stuck pig but Geirwulf was strong, body conditioned by years of hard labor in the fields and the town’s single orchard; there was no way someone as scrawny as Tyrhir was getting away from him.

“You are despicable, Tyrhir! A born wretch!” Geirwulf spat, face twisted and reddened with rage. “You care for none but yourself; you never do a lick of work around here, living off coin you cheat from those so mazed with drink they can’t see straight or those that don’t know your tricks!” Now he brought the man’s face closer to his own. “And now you have the nerve to accuse a child… an innocent, eight-year-old girl, of working in league with the Enemy?”

Tyrhir opened his mouth to reply, but surprisingly seemed to think better of it when he noticed the disbelieving looks he was getting from some of the nearby villagers. Geirwulf threw him roughly away; the man landed with a painful-sounding thud but managed to scramble into a sitting position within a few seconds, glaring balefully up at Geirwulf as he did so.

“Get you gone! And do not return, lest I set my dogs on you!” Geirwulf’s voice was a low growl.

Tyrhir glared, but the man was nothing if not cowardly; he stumbled to his feet and half ran, half tripped his way down the street, a few people throwing jeers and stones his way.

“He’s not the only one, you know,” Irideth said to her feet as Geirwulf came back over, still fuming. He gave her a questioning look and she elaborated, “He isn’t the only one who is afraid of me being friends with the wolves. They aren’t going to be happy about you taking me as an apprentice.”

“‘They’ who?”

“The rest of the village.”

Geirwulf stared at her for a few seconds, then sighed. “Girl, why’d you have to be so smart?”

Irideth couldn’t help her giggle. “Papa says that sometimes, too.”

Geirwulf laughed. “I bet he does, clever little sprite that you are. And don’t worry about the rest of the villagers; they’ll come around in time.”

Privately Irideth doubted it, but she smiled at Geirwulf anyway. She had no warning before the man lunged forward and scooped her up in the biggest bear hug she’d ever received in her life. Irideth shrieked, laughing breathlessly as the man held her easily with one arm, ruffling her hair with the other.

“Come on now, little beauty, let’s get you and this horse into the ring and see what you can do.”

xxXXxx

Irideth emerged from Geirwulf’s training ring several sweaty hours later, covered in dust but grinning from ear to ear, the buckskin stallion trailing obediently a few feet behind. Geirwulf, who’d been leaning on the rail chewing a piece of grass as he observed, nodded in approval.

“Not a bad start at all, girl,” Geirwulf said. “Not all of them will trust you as quick as this lad; he’s known you since he was barely a weanling. You’ll work them around to you, though.”

Irideth simply smiled again and raised her hand, signaling the horse to approach her. He did so eagerly, trotting a couple of steps forward to press his nose into her open palm.

“Have you chosen a name for him yet?” Geirwulf asked; Irideth could tell he was smiling slightly behind his beard.

“No. I haven’t ridden him yet,” Irideth replied. In Rohan, trainers named the horses, and usually did not do so until after they had ridden a steed.

“Well, then we’d best get to it, hadn’t we?” Geirwulf said, face breaking into a broad grin. Irideth barely kept her jaw from dropping.

“You’re… you’re letting me ride him?”

“You’re his trainer, aren’t you?”

Fair point, Irideth decided. She glanced up at the stallion, who was staring at her expectantly.

“Don’t think we’ll need to bother with a saddle with him, and his lead will work just fine as a rein,” Geirwulf said.

Then they both froze. From the other end of the village came the sound of a horn blowing, loud and rapid bursts, as though whoever was blowing it could barely hold it steady.

“The warning horn,” Geirwulf breathed in disbelief. “Orcs are attacking the village.”

As though cued by his word, a piercing scream rent the evening air, followed by fainter snarls, grunts and the sound of clashing metal.

Irideth went to run back toward the village, feeling her heart wanting to burst out of her chest. She screamed in protest when Geirwulf, moving impressively fast for someone of his age and size, seized her by the waist and hauled her up onto the horse’s back.

“Stop! I have to get back to my family!” Irideth cried, moving to dismount. Geirwulf grabbed her shoulders and kept her in her seat.

“Your parents are clever folks, they’ll be able to get themselves and your siblings to safety. It’s the horses the monsters are no doubt after; we’re in the most danger anyhow! I need you to lead the herd away from here and possibly distract the beasts. Do you understand, Irideth?”

Irideth nodded and gave a shaky smile. Geirwulf grinned and clapped a hand on her knee. “That’s a brave lass; now go! Quickly!”

Irideth straightened and dug her heels into the stallion’s sides. Trumpeting to the skies, the horse took off at a fast canter. With loud whinnies, the rest of the herd galloped to catch up.

Irideth simply held on for dear life, allowing the stallion to choose their direction; she’d ridden before, of course, but never bareback at such a rapid pace. It did help not to think about the scent of smoke she was now picking up on…

Irideth abruptly leaned back, bringing the horse to a stop as she threw her head back and howled, a distress call that echoed far over the fields and forest. Then, using the lead and her feet as cues, she eventually managed to turn the reluctant stallion back toward the burning village.

“He wanted a distraction,” Irideth muttered, digging her heels into the stallion’s sides again, harder than last time. He took off at a steady canter and Irideth, breathing deeply and gripping the mane, kicked him into a gallop.

She guided the herd around the outskirts of the burning village, gritting her teeth in her effort to ignore the screams and horrid, guttural laughter that punctured the evening air. They came upon the main attack force from the south-east; Irideth realized how lucky they were that the wind had blown the smoke to cover their approach. With a loud cry, she drove the herd right into the middle of the orcs’ war party.

It was immediate chaos. The orcs, not expecting an onslaught from the war-horses, scattered every which way to avoid being trampled. Those who had been mounted on wargs were for the most part flung off as the beasts reared and howled in alarm. The villagers the orcs had captured or been in the process of attacking seized their chance and fled.

And Carantar and the Firien Pack, howling for blood, attacked from the opposite side as the horses, trapping the orcs in a deadly pincer maneuver.

Irideth drove the stallion toward the wolves, guiding him to trample as many orcs as she could. The stallion, apparently over his initial hesitation, trumpeted loudly as he drove through the enemy ranks. Carantar and Mithlas, having spotted Irideth, began driving their way through the orcs to get to her, Mithlas fighting with all the fury of a mother intent on saving her pup.

Suddenly the stallion leaped sideways; Irideth barely managed to keep her seat. She was about to yell at the horse when she realized, heart in her mouth, that he’d just saved her from getting her leg bitten off by the largest warg she’d ever seen.

And astride this warg was an orc carrying a black banner with the symbol of the Eye stitched into it; the captain.

The orc sneered at her, baring what few teeth he had. “Little tark. Lost your little mama, did we?”

Irideth tightened her grip on the stallion’s mane, only now recognizing the familiar burning pain in her gut; it always happened whenever she was angry or scared. Sometimes it even felt like her throat was full of fire, or that she was capable of shouting loud enough to knock down a tree.

These creatures dare invade MY home, MY territory, and have the audacity to mock me?

“I haven’t lost anything,” Irideth growled, happy her voice only shook a little bit.

“Not yet,” the orc agreed, drawing a wicked-looking sabre from a scabbard concealed at his side. “But ol’ Nargush will make sure you lose that pretty little head!”

With the last word, Nargush spurred his beast forward. The stallion, trumpeting furiously, startled the attacking pair by rearing, driving a hard kick to the warg’s head and killing it instantly.

Unfortunately the unexpected rear sent Irideth toppling off backwards; she cried out as she hid the ground, all the breath leaving her lungs practically instantly. She could hear Nargush snarling in fury, could see through swimming vision the stallion moving to stand protectively over her.

Irideth rolled from beneath the horse so he stood between her and the orc, eyes stinging, tears sliding down her cheeks because of the smoke. Hearing a howl and a pained scream, Irideth turned as quickly as she could to see what had happened.

Too quickly. The smoke had affected her worse than she had thought and she found herself tumbling over backwards, landing in front of the horse.

Only… Irideth felt a moment of confusion. Her horse’s legs weren’t black the whole way up. Her horse wasn’t completely black. Her horse wasn’t wearing a saddle, and he definitely wasn’t wearing an armored bridle.

Irideth felt a chill run down her spine. Her mouth opened of its own accord, but no sound made it past her lips.

The strange horse’s rider was garbed completely in black, the hood of his cloak completely concealing his face, armored boots just barely visible in his stirrups.

A Nazgul.

And, even with her blurred vision, Irideth could perceive that its hooded face was focused on her.

When the figure began to lean toward her, reaching out an armored hand, Irideth did scream, a loud, terrified cry. The creature reared back as though in alarm; the black horse startled as well.

And with furious howls and snarls, Carantar, Mithlas, Nimril and Edwenor all fell upon the dark rider at once, biting at the horse’s legs and fetlocks.

The Nazgul gave a piercing cry and Irideth knew no more.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3:

Irideth woke feeling chilled all over. She could feel that she was swaddled in blankets, but it still felt as though she’d rolled in a pile of snow.

She was staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, lying in her own bed with a warm washcloth resting on her forehead. Irideth startled when a face appeared in her line of sight, then she relaxed.

“Mama!” she cried, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck and burying her face in her chest. Strong, warm arms came to wrap around her in return.

“Oh, my beauty. My brave, brave beauty,” Mama whispered, voice choked and heavy with tears. “What were you thinking?

“Wouldn’t we all like to know?” came the voice of Master Geirwulf. Irideth peered over her mother’s shoulder to see him and her father sitting in the far corner of the room. Her father stood and made his way over to Irideth and her mother, wordlessly wrapping his arms around them both. Irideth tilted her head up so she could bury her face in her father’s neck.

“Child, when I said a distraction, I meant lead the herd away from the village to draw the orcs off, not go charging through the middle of their ranks. Though I’m impressed you thought to call your wolves for help,” Geirwulf said.

“You just wanted me out of the way,” Irideth said as her parents pulled away.

“Don’t you understand why, Irideth? Look what happened to you, attacked by a Nazgul of all creatures! If Carantar and his pack hadn’t come when they did, I…,” Father wasn’t able to finish.

Remembering her encounter with the creature, Irideth shuddered. She didn’t know why, but something told her that the creature hadn’t been trying to kill her. It had, for a few brief seconds, actually looked like it was trying to pick her up.

“Is Carantar and everyone else alright?” Irideth asked in a small voice, attempting to shake off the image.

Father’s eyes softened. “Yes. Everyone in the village escaped serious injury, thanks to you. Nonetheless, what you did was extremely reckless and you will be punished for it.”

Irideth lowered her eyes to her hands, fiddling with her blankets. “Yes, Papa.”

“But, Papa, that’s not fair!”

Everyone looked up in surprise to see Adina and Cevin run into the room.

“You just said it yourself, Irideth saved the village!” Cevin continued, outraged. Next to him, Adina nodded fervently.

“Yes, but by putting herself in great danger,” Mama said with a stern look in Irideth’s direction. Irideth kept her eyes cast downwards.

“I think it would be best if we spoke of this further in the morning,” Geirwulf aid. “It has been a trying night for all of us, and Irideth needs her rest. Off to bed, you two.”

Cevin, with one last rebellious glare, leaped up onto Irideth’s bed and planted a firm kiss on her forehead in a rare show of sibling solidarity. Irideth giggled and kissed him on the cheek, then hugged Adina when the youngest sister leaped onto her lap. Then her two siblings ran out of the room, presumably to their own rooms. Presumably; this was undoubtedly why Father and Master Geirwulf stood a moment later, Father planting one last kiss on Irideth’s forehead. Both men left then, Master Geirwulf giving Irideth a slight nod as he did so.

Irideth sighed quietly, flopping backward onto her pillows. Mother smiled softly at her, leaning forward and planting a gentle kiss on her head.

“My sweet, brave girl,” she whispered, tucking Irideth’s blankets around her shoulders. “Get some rest.”

Irideth was asleep practically the moment the last word left her lips.


 

Irideth woke to pitch blackness and someone clapping a hand over her mouth. She stiffened at the feeling of cold steel at her neck.

“You scream, girl, and I’ll slit that pretty little throat of yours. Understand?” Tyrhir breathed into her face. Trembling, Irideth nodded. Satisfied that she wouldn’t cause any trouble, the man proceeded to tie Irideth’s hands together with rough cord and hoisted her over his shoulder, carrying her to the bedroom door.

The second he stepped out of the doorway Irideth screamed at the top of her lungs. “Help! Mother, Papa, please! It’s Tyrhir, he’s…!”

Irideth’s voice was cut off as Tyrhir, cursing breathlessly, tucked her under his arm and shoved a cloth in her mouth as a makeshift gag. He then proceeded to bound down the stairs with a speed and agility belied by his usual state of drunkenness.

Irideth could hear her parents running out of their bedroom just as Tyrhir made it to the main door. Irideth spat the cloth out of her mouth, thrashing and screaming as her kidnapper dragged her outside and ran with a speed she never would have thought him capable of.

She could hear the door of her house bang open a second time, could see her father’s furious and terrified face in the light of the torch he carried as he looked frantically around the street. Cevin sprinted out into the lane beside him.

“Daddy! Cevin! Help!” Irideth screamed, feeling tears begin to slide down her cheeks.

“Tyrhir, you rat-hearted bastard!” her father bellowed, immediately taking off after them, Cevin hot on his heels. “Release my daughter now!”

Tyrhir only ran faster; even carrying a burden, he was considerably lighter than the town wood-smith.

But he wasn’t faster than the wood-smith’s son. As Tyrhir gained ground on Seldor, Cevin gained on Tyrhir. Running small and light, Tyrhir didn’t hear Cevin over his father’s furious bellows until the boy was on him.

“Let my sister go!” Cevin shouted, at the same instant leaping and latching onto the man’s legs. Tyrhir went down with a startled cry, dropping Irideth at the same moment. Irideth’s head struck the ground and she saw stars for a moment. Moaning softly, she rolled over and pushed herself up on bound hands, just in time to see Tyrhir kick Cevin in the head. Hard.

Her brother dropped like a stone.

“No! No! Cevin! NO!” Irideth screamed as she tried to get up. She kept screaming as Tyrhir picked her up again and ran on, even faster than before. Through falling tears, Irideth could see her father drop to his knees beside Cevin’s still body before Tyrhir turned a corner. Irideth screamed one more time before dissolving into quiet sobs. Her spinning head and the ache in her chest didn’t allow for her to register much after that; the night was so dark with only a half-moon shining that Irideth could barely see where they were going anyway.

A sob caught in her throat as Tyrhir suddenly came to a stop and a sharp chill descended over her body in that same instant. Tyrhir shifted his hold on her so she was facing the same direction as him and dropped to his knees.

“My lords,” he said breathlessly, holding her upward slightly as though she were an offering. “I bring you the girl.”

Irideth, seeing black hooves and the edges of a black cloak, didn’t dare look up.

“Did I not tell you to extract her quietly, wretch?” a voice hissed- literally hissed- in anger. “We could hear the screams from here!”

Tyrhir and Irideth both flinched, both for different reasons; Tyrhir because of the plain rage he was being addressed with, Irideth because a pair of armored hands reached down and scooped her out of Tyrhir’s arms.

She gave a breathless sob of terror as the wraith lifted her up and over his horse’s neck, depositing her in front of him in the saddle. Irideth briefly considered sliding off, but almost the second the thought entered her head two black clad arms had encircled her and gripped the reins, beginning to turn the horse away from the man on the ground.

“Wait! What about my reward?” Tyrhir shouted.

The wraith holding Irideth stopped. Irideth could hear and feel him shifting in the saddle as he presumably turned to face the man again.

“You did not complete your assignment as instructed; you’ll receive nothing from us.”

Us? Irideth thought, feeling her terror reach new heights; a glance to the left indicated that there were two other mounted figures present, undoubtedly other Nazgul.

“But… But the wood-smith saw me taking her! I may have even killed his son! They’ll sentence me to death if I go back! If they find out I gave her to you, I’ll be drawn and quartered!”

Irideth closed her eyes, fisting her bound hands and biting back her sobs as a fresh wave of tears made its way down her cheeks. Cevin, oh Valar, Cevin…

“You had better start running then,” the wraith next to the one holding her said. If Irideth wasn’t mistaken the voice sounded… vaguely pleased.

The wraith holding her made a quiet sound that seemed strangely like a laugh, then spurred his horse into a quick canter. Irideth gave a hitching gasp and would have fallen out of the saddle if it weren’t for the wraith’s arms carefully steadying her.

It took her a few seconds to synchronize her movements with the horse’s, and even when she did she was trembling so badly it barely made a difference.

Apparently sensing this, the wraith shifted the reins to one hand and placed the other on her shoulder.

“Sleep.”

There was power in that word, and Irideth was unconscious before her next breath.


 

When Irideth woke again, it was broad daylight. At least it would have been if she wasn’t under a canopy of leaves.

Remembering the events of last night, Irideth went rigid and her eyes widened as much as they were able; whatever spell the wraith had put on her had not completely worn off.

The next thing she knew the figure behind her was dismounting and she was being dragged out of the saddle to be cradled in a pair of black-clad arms. Irideth screwed her eyes shut, partially out of the pain in muscles stiff from riding all night, partly-mostly-out of fear.

Irideth heard horses stomping and snorting, several sets of footsteps. She felt the arms that were holding her shift, then flinched when something was pressed against her lips.

“Drink,” the wraith said, sounding much… gentler than he had last night. He even sounded a little bit more human. “It is only water.”

Irideth wanted to refuse, but her throat felt like it was perilously close to cracking. Trembling, she opened her mouth as what she assumed was the rim of a water bottle pressed at her lips again. The water was surprisingly cool, and Irideth felt better after a few swallows. When the bottle was pulled away, Irideth dared to open her eyes a fraction. When she did, she immediately wished she hadn’t.

There were not one, but three hooded heads peering down at her; she could discern that she was being held by the tallest wraith.

“I am aware that she is an anomaly, Murazor, but did you have to take her?” One of the wraiths asked the one who held her. “Khamul and Adunaphel will pitch a fit when they see this.”

“Yes, thank you, Uvatha,” the wraith holding her-Murazor- said dryly. Returning his attention to Irideth, he asked, “How old are you, little one?”

Irideth swallowed thickly before answering “A… almost nine,” she said quietly.

Silence for a few beats. Then the wraith who had yet to speak chuckled. “Plucky little thing. Most men in her position would be a sniveling wreck at this point.”

Uvatha and Murazor seemed to agree, while Irideth was too stunned by the fact that she’d just been complimented by a Ringwraith to respond.

“Um… could you put me down, please?” Irideth asked softly after a few moments. “I promise I won’t try to run away.” And she meant it. Tyrhir was a foolish man. The wraiths, on the other hand… Irideth did not want to be on their bad side.

Murazor complied and set her down on unsteady legs. She took a couple of steps first left, then right, then forward to get the blood flowing again, working her bound wrists as she did so

 Apparently noticing this, Murazor said, “Akorahil, examine her wrists while we water the horses.”

The order having been given, he and Uvatha began leading the horses toward a water source Irideth could neither see nor hear. Her view was blocked when Akorahil knelt down in front of her and gently took her bound hands in his, deftly untying the knots and revealing the bruised and bleeding skin beneath.

Akorahil muttered something in Black Speech that sounded highly inappropriate to Irideth. “These will have to be bandaged. I’m afraid I don’t have the proper salve prepared, but there are a few strips of linen I can use to bind them for now.”

Irideth nodded her understanding and the wraith turned and began to rummage around in the saddlebags that had been left behind by the other two. A few moments later he was kneeling in front of her again, holding a set of clean white bandages. Irideth kept her gaze on the ground as Akorahil bandaged her wrists, occasionally wincing at the pressure on a particularly raw patch of skin. The wraith finished his work just as the other two returned, leading the three horses.

“Finished?” Murazor asked. Akorahil replied in Black Speech, again something that Irideth felt was not meant for young ears. Murazor responded in kind while Uvatha worked at reattaching and adjusting the saddlebags. Irideth considered running, but dismissed the thought immediately. If the stories were true, they’d catch up to her in no time. And they’d probably be mad, too.

But there was something she wanted… no, needed to know, and as Murazor reached down and scooped her up to place her back in his saddle she asked, “Why did you kidnap me?”

Murazor stilled for a moment, then said, voice strangely heavy, “Your life force. We can see other beings’ life force in daylight. Yours… yours is practically invisible.”

Irideth’s heart skipped a beat as she was placed in the saddle. “Is that bad?”

“I do not think so, but… yours does not seem to be what we would categorize as a human life force,” Murazor said as he mounted behind her, once again enveloping her in his arms as he grabbed the reins. “Lord Sauron will wish to see this.”

Irideth froze. “You’re… taking me to Sauron?” she whispered so quietly she barely heard herself.

Even so, Murazor responded with a somber, simple “Yes.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:

All things considered, captivity was actually pretty boring. The wraiths rode essentially the whole of the nights and through a good portion of the days as well, stopping only to rest the horses and allow Irideth to eat and stretch her cramped muscles. They also spoke little, which bored Irideth even further as well as kept her slightly on edge. Though it was nice, Irideth supposed, not to know how close they were drawing to Mordor and her ultimate fate; she probably wouldn’t be able to bear the constant anxiety.

The only thing that had broken the monotony of the journey had come today, when her three wraiths had met up with another three whose names, Irideth had learned, were Khamul, Adunaphel and Morgomir.

As Uvatha had predicted, Khamul and Adunaphel were less than pleased with the fact that Murazor had kidnapped her, and the three were currently having a very heated debate in Black Speech in the middle of a forest grove. Irideth sat on a log with Akorahil while Uvatha and Morgomir tended to the sweating horses.

“What are they saying?” Irideth asked in a whisper, watching as the three fighting wraiths hissed back and forth at one another.

“Murazor is adamant that we present you to Lord Sauron; Khamul is torn. He agrees that Lord Sauron will wish to examine you, but he has reservations about taking you to Mordor because of the orcs and our Master’s other… less than savory servants. Adunaphel is displeased with the whole affair and believes we should leave you at the nearest village,” Akorahil answered.

“Why?” Irideth asked.

“Your age,” Akorahil answered simply. “She is currently arguing that it would be possible to set a ring of spies about you, observe, and if necessary retrieve you at a later date.”

Irideth blanched at the thought. “What if I ran away?”

“We would likely be sent to retrieve you immediately.” At this, Akorahil turned his hooded head to look at her. “Child, whether you like it or not, Lord Sauron will be made aware of you in one way or another. There is no escaping him now.”

Irideth felt a chill run down her spine and looked at her hands, interlacing her fingers and clenching her hands into one large fist.

“Do you… is it… possible that… that Lord Sauron will decide to let me go?”

“It is impossible to say, little one. And even if he does decide to release you, you will never be unwatched again.”

“Help! Help!”

Irideth glanced up in surprise at the crow that had spoken, startled that one would be speaking in the Royal tongue so far from any elven settlements.

“Help! Help!” the crow called again. Irideth blinked in confusion. It was plainly not a Royal crow, yet it spoke the Royal tongue Carantar had taught her…

Irideth realized then what it meant and her heart leaped in her chest. The crow didn’t need help; it was telling her help was here! Carantar and the pack had followed the wraiths! They were going to rescue her! Carantar must have taught this crow, it was the only explanation.

Irideth ducked her head again so Akorahil wouldn’t see her smile. She tensed as though afraid, turning away from the wraith and lying down so her body was draped over the log. She closed her eyes and after a few minutes, when her breathing had evened out, she heard Akorahil get up and head in the direction of the horses.

Barely a minute later she felt a velvety nose pressing against her face. She opened her eyes to see Carantar standing beside her, crouched slightly so he was hidden by the log. After a quick glance at the wraiths showed that none of them were looking, Irideth grabbed the scruff of Carantar’s neck and swung herself onto his back. Satisfied that she was settled, Carantar turned and made his way back into the trees without a sound. As Carantar walked, they were soon joined by Rochanar, Mithlas, Celephinnel and Nimril. Irideth greeted each of them with a silent, grateful look.

As though on some silent cue, the wolves all picked up a steady, ground eating trot in a bid to get as far from the wraiths as possible before they realized their prisoner was missing.

They had made it a little more than a mile when they heard the first cry. Carantar and the wolves immediately broke into a run while Irideth buried her face in the alpha’s fur, doing her utmost to keep from trembling.

“We can’t go back to the village; that’s the first place they’ll look,” she said to Carantar as they ran.

“I am aware. You will be staying with the pack for a time,” Carantar responded between pants.

They kept running. Before too long, however, the wolves’ ears pricked up.

“Hoof beats. They know we went this way,” Rochanar said, baring his teeth in a frightened snarl.

Irideth’s heart froze in her chest. “You can’t outrun them, not while carrying me.”

“No,” Carantar agreed. “But we can hide you.” That being said, he reached back and grabbed ahold of Irideth’s shirt in his teeth, pulling her off his back and dropping her in a large tussock of ferns with a startled yelp.

“Your false furs blend well here. They should hide you well enough. We will lead the Deadwalkers away and return for you,” Carantar said.

Irideth leaped up and gave him a quick, hard hug. “Please be careful, all of you. I couldn’t… I couldn’t bear to lose you, too,” she sniffed, barely keeping her tears in check. Carantar, Mithlas and Celephinnel all gave her face a brief lick before the wolves all dashed off in different directions. Irideth hunkered down between the leaves of the ferns; there was nothing to do now but wait.

She didn’t have to wait long. Within the span of minutes she herself heard the sound of hoof beats, then saw the hooves of the wraiths’ horses as they went trotting past her hiding place. However, they paused barely a moment later. Someone… Uvatha or Khamul… said something in Black Speech, and a short debate sprang up.

They know the wolves have split up, Irideth realized. She screwed her eyes shut, resisting the urge to clap her hands over her ears as the wraiths’ voices seemed to chill the surrounding air.

The debate seemed to last an eternity to Irideth, but finally the wraiths split up, each following a different wolf’s path. One, to Irideth’s horror, remained in the clearing.

Murazor’s horse paced in slow circles as his rider turned his hood left and right, examining the ground. Irideth hardly dared to breathe as he rode past her again and again, feeling that the slightest sound or shift in position would give her away. Eventually, Murazor guided his horse down one of the wolves’ trails at a steady trot, disappearing into the foliage.

Irideth still didn’t dare move; she suspected a trick.

After several minutes, however, Irideth shifted her position just slightly so she could lie down, pillowing her head on her arm. She had a feeling she would be here a while; she might as well rest while she could.


 

The sound of crackling leaves woke Irideth with a start. She nearly screamed, then realized with a sigh of relief that it was only Celephinnel, coming to stand over her. It was twilight, Irideth realized with alarm. According to all the stories she’d heard, the Nazgul’s power grew in the night; they would be able to see her without the aid of their horses.

Unless… Murazor had said that her life force was practically invisible. Maybe they wouldn’t see her.

But they could find the wolves.

“I don’t think I should go with you,” Irideth said abruptly. Celephinnel tilted his head to the side, puzzled.

“Murazor… one of the wraiths… he told me that they can’t see my life force, but they can see yours. I have a better chance of escaping them if I’m alone,” Irideth explained in a rush.

“You are certain they were not lying?” Celephinnel asked.

“Yes; that was the only explanation he gave for taking me. He said… he said that Sauron would want to examine me, to find out why,” Irideth answered with a shudder.

Celephinnel snarled at the name of the Enemy. Then he said, “If this is true, you should go alone. Travel south-west; you should find the rest of the pack within three or four days. Those of us who came here will find you when we can.”

Irideth hugged him quickly, planting a quick kiss on his nose, before running off in the direction he’d indicated.

Barely five minutes later, she heard a cry from one of the wraiths coming from the direction of the clearing; it sounded absolutely furious.

Irideth broke into a sprint.


 

Murazor glared daggers at the wolf that was snarling up at him, fur bristling along its spine. The wraith grasped the hilt of his sword, drawing it while his horse snorted and pawed the ground threateningly.

“Where is she, wolf?” he hissed. “Lead me to her, and I will allow you to live.”

The wolf’s only response was a low growl, which Murazor correctly interpreted as direct refusal.

“Well, then. If you will not assist me in that way, perhaps you can assist me in another.”

Faster than the eye could track, the deadly silver blade came flashing down.

The wolf yowled in pain as he fell.


 

Irideth crouched beneath a bush, shaking. Celephinnel lay in the center of the clearing she had just left, whimpering quietly every now and then. There was a large wound in his left side, blackened by poison; he would bleed to death in less than half an hour if left like this.

Irideth swallowed thickly, tears running silently down her cheeks. She wanted to go to him, to comfort him at least, maybe try to help him, but… Oh, Valar, this was obviously a trap!

“Child… do not…”

Irideth screwed her eyes shut at Celephinnel’s whine. He wasn’t looking at her, but he plainly knew his role in whatever plan the wraiths had crafted. He could smell her, he knew she was here and he wanted her to run.

Another pained whine had Irideth ignoring all sense and running out into the clearing, dropping to her knees by his side.

“Celephinnel,” she whispered, voice thick with tears. “Celephinnel, I’m so sorry!”

The sound of crackling leaves drew her attention to the other side of the clearing. A black horse stepped from the shadows, guided by Murazor, whose hooded gaze was fixed on her.

“Child,” the wraith said. “I can heal him, if you will come to me and submit to being bound.”

“What?” Irideth said, unconsciously fisting her hands in Celephinnel’s fur. “You…,” she swallowed, then ducked her head. “I don’t want to be tied up,” she whispered, biting back a sob.

“You have proven yourself too troublesome to be left unbound and unsupervised. That condition is nonnegotiable,” Murazor said.

Irideth screwed her eyes shut, burying her face in Celephinnel’s fur. There had to be a way out of this; there had to be! What if Murazor was lying? Celephinnel would die without medicine! She couldn’t let that happen, she’d just lost Cevin!

Celephinnel’s surprised woof drew her back to herself; she realized her hands felt strangely warm, as did her core. Irideth raised her tear-stained face and blinked, gasping in surprise.

Her hands were glowing faintly with a warm golden light and Celephinnel… Celephinnel’s wound was healing! The blackness had already receded, and the wound had begun to look like it was days old, not a few minutes.

Irideth’s brow furrowed in concentration as she focused on the exposed sinews and torn skin. The glow increased and the wound began healing faster; in a matter of seconds it was almost gone.

After a few seconds though Irideth had to sit back, gasping, perspiration dripping into her eyes; she felt strangely drained, as though she’d been running too hard for too long. Celephinnel sat up, looking at his mostly-healed side in astonishment.

“Child, what did you just do?” Murazor hissed.

Irideth, suddenly remembering her audience, gulped. “I… I don’t know I’ve… never done anything like that before. It just… happened.”

Then she screamed when Murazor drove his horse forward, armored hand darting out faster than she could track and latching onto the front of her dress, hauling her upward. Celephinnel howled in fury, biting at the horse’s side and forcing it to move sideways. Murazor, however, kept his seat and his hold on Irideth.

Irideth, feeling that strange burning feeling in her core again, decided to grab onto Murazor’s arm. Let me GO!

She was just as surprised as the clearing’s other occupants when bright orange flames flowed from her palms, igniting the wraith’s dark cloak. Murazor dropped her with a pained shriek, the flames traveling rapidly up his arm and over the rest of his cloak. His horse reared in a panic and dashed off into the trees while Celephinnel nosed a winded Irideth to her feet. Irideth quickly hauled herself onto the wolf’s back and they too ran off into the trees, in the direction opposite the one the wraith and his horse had taken.


 

Uvatha and Khamul would not stop laughing, and it was getting annoying.

“It’s not funny!” Murazor snapped for the umpteenth time. He’d expected the reaction from Uvatha, but to have his lieutenant joining in was a little bit insulting.

“Not funny? The Black Captain, the Witch-King of Angmar, being out-fought by an eight year old girl isn’t funny?” Uvatha asked between laughs. Khamul cracked up again, while Akorahil snorted and Adunaphel coughed into her fist. Morgomir and Indur, at least, were blessedly silent. Judging by the noise behind him, Hoarmurath and Ren were cackling to themselves as they loosened the horses’ girths.

They had been joined by the final three wraiths shortly before dawn, and eight of them had been conversing when Murazor rode up to them, still patting out the flames on his cloak. Uvatha hadn’t shut up since.

“This is more serious than I initially thought! The girl is a magic-user!”

That got everyone sobering up a bit.

“Magic? Are you sure?” Khamul asked.

“Where else would she have gotten fire from? Carrying a torch in her skirts?” Murazor said. “She can heal as well.”

If the magic had sobered everyone up, this turned several heads.

Healing? A human with healing magic?” Indur asked incredulously.

Murazor turned his head to glare at him and Indur raised his hands in a placating gesture. “I don’t mean any offense, it’s just… that’s unheard of.”

“So is a being without a soul,” Adunaphel pointed out.

Silence reigned for a few moments. Then Ren said the words they’d all been dreading.

“If what you say is true, we need to report this to Lord Sauron. Immediately.”

“And return to him without the girl?” Hoarmurath shot back. “He won’t be pleased about that.”

“Khamul and I will go,” Murazor said. “The rest of you, track down the girl. We will rejoin you once we have delivered our report. If you find her and you see an opportunity, capture, do not kill, and try to avoid unnecessary injury.”

“If she can set fire to things just by touching them, that might prove to be a bit of an issue,” Uvatha muttered.

“It will be an even bigger issue if we return to Lord Sauron empty-handed a second time,” Murazor responded gravely.

If wraiths could gulp, those present certainly did so.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5:

Irideth splashed water from the stream onto her face, sighing in relief as the cool liquid slid over her face and down the back of her neck.

It had been five days since she had escaped the wraiths, and she still jumped every time she heard leaves or branches crackling among the trees.

She hoped to meet up with the pack soon; in case she was still being followed, she did her best to make her track as hard to follow as possible. She knew how the wolves tracked their prey and did her best to think like a clever rabbit.

No matter how much she might hate that particular comparison at the moment.

With a pang Irideth remembered her family, the village. Were they all alright? Had the Nazgul returned to the village seeking her? Would they harm her family, as Murazor had Celephinnel?

Irideth shook her head, violently slapping her hands down in the water. It would do no good to think like this; she couldn’t go back to the village and risk putting everyone in danger. It was only a chance that the wraiths had gone back there. They might still be tracking her, for all she knew.

Sighing heavily, Irideth stood. She had to try to find some food; she hadn’t eaten since early yesterday evening, and it was already almost noon. She should be able to find some edible roots this close to the stream, and she’d seen what she believed to be a blueberry bush a little further up the stream. It was going to be a long day of traveling; she would need to eat as much as she could find.


 

Murazor managed to keep from wincing as his master withdrew from his mind; no matter how quick and efficient Sauron was when searching the minds of his servants, there was often some degree of pain for those on the receiving end.

“Rise, my friend.”

Murazor did as bidden, rising from his kneeling position as his master turned away from him and began to pace back and forth across the floor in front of his throne.

“You did well in returning to me when you did. We need to bring this girl here as soon as possible,” Sauron said, turning to face him. “Have you any idea where the other seven are?”

“Unfortunately no, my lord,” Murazor answered. “I ordered them to keep tracking the girl and to attempt to capture her if an opportunity presented itself.”

“Hmm,” Sauron hummed noncommittally as he began to pace again. Silence reigned for several minutes, the only sound the clicking of boots against the polished floor.

“How long has it been since I left this fortress, Murazor?”

The suddenness of the question, and the oddity of it, floored Murazor for several seconds. “My lord?”

Sauron was gazing up at the chandelier that hung from the ceiling, the light of the candles suspended from it tinted red by covers of glass. He was smiling slightly, Murazor noticed; a rare sight these days.

“Yes… it has been too long since I myself took part in any of the affairs of my servants. I can, after all, sense the others’ rings much more strongly than even you, my Black Captain. I shall accompany you on your hunt for the girl.”

Murazor didn’t know whether he wanted to leap for joy or go sprinting out of the room to tell Khamul to ride ahead and warn the others; their master’s moods could be rather unpredictable of late, what with all the time he spent in the Eye.

Nothing to be done about it now; hopefully some time away from Barad-Dur would be enough to steady Sauron’s moods, bring back a bit of the Maia Murazor had come to know all those years ago.


 

Irianna sprinted through the streets of Riften, tail streaming behind her as she clutched her hard-won piece of bread to her chest.

Why did the jewel-smith even care that she took an old crust of bread? He was certainly rich enough to provide for himself; a starving khajit cub taking this day-old thing should barely matter to him.

“Stop, in the name of the Jarl!”

Cursing rather inventively for an twelve-year old, Irianna ducked behind a barrel, tucking her tail around her bare feet precious seconds before the guards that were chasing her ran into the alley.

“Where’d the little gutter-rat go?”

“Damn khajit. Even the little ones are no good thieves,” the other one spat.

Behind her barrel, Irianna bristled. It’s not like I had a choice! It’s either steal or starve for me, stupid Nords who won’t employ a milk-drinker kitty, they said!

Then her heart skipped a beat when she heard the guards start down the alley. Screwing her eyes shut, she tried to push herself closer to the wall, but her fur was a rather distinct shade of copper; there was no way the guards were going to miss her.

Which was why she was so surprised when she heard them walk right past her.

I’m dreaming. I have to be. I’m going to open my eyes and they’re going to be standing right over me, she thought.

When she did open her eyes, someone was standing over her, but it wasn’t the guards.

It was a large golden dragon. A transparent golden dragon; she could see the wall behind him.

Irianna blinked. “I didn’t summon you,” she blurted; she was rubbish at Conjuration, it had always been her worst school of magic. The Thalmor would worship Talos on their knees before she conjured anything as magnificent as this creature.

The dragon… it was definitely a dragon… chuckled. “No, you did not, my mon. I have come here to speak to you about your sister.”

Now Irianna was really confused. “I don’t have any siblings; Mama always said I was her most precious because of that.”

“Not by your mother, you have no siblings, but by your father… you have a blood sister, Irianna.”

The little khajit’s brow furrowed. “Does she have black hair and green eyes? And looks kind of like an Imperial right out of Cyrodiil?”

The dragon chuckled. “Yes, my child. Black hair, green eyes, brave, somewhat reckless… rather like yourself.”

Irianna’s jaw dropped. “The girl from my dreams! I’ve been dreaming about her all my life! I have a sister? She’s my sister?” she exclaimed, leaping to her feet.

The dragon laughed again. “Yes, my mon, yes, but she is lost! You must find her and bring her back home.”

“Where is she?”

“Far from here. She was taken far away, to keep her safe from the same threat that killed your mother.”

Irianna ducked her head at that. “She… she lost her mama too, then?”

“Yes, my dear one,” the dragon said softly. “But you must find her now, child, so that she… so you may both… meet your destiny.”

Irianna wrinkled her nose like she’d just smelled something foul. “Destiny? What destiny? I don’t know if I want a destiny.”

The dragon laughed, loudly this time, and Irianna had to cover her ears. “It will find you whether you want it to or not, little one! For now, seek out the College of Winterhold. They will be able to guide you further. Farewell, my mon.

Irianna realized with a start the dragon was beginning to become even more transparent.

“Farewell,” the dragon said again, voice fading just as his body was. “Bring your sister home, Irianna.”

The little cub opened her mouth to ask him how in Oblivion he knew her name, but the dragon was already gone. Irianna was left staring dumbly at the wall.

“Well, that’s just wonderful. How am I supposed to get to Winterhold? I don’t have money to pay for a carriage!” Irianna griped. “I could walk, though getting provisions for the way might be difficult…,”

“You there! Halt!”

“… Guess I could run there, too.”


 

Irideth sighed quietly, burying her face in Mithlas’s belly as she lay in the relative warmth of the den. She had been living with the pack for close to three weeks, and it was wonderful being with her surrogate family but… it just wasn’t the same. She missed cooking with Mother in the evenings, helping Adina with her letters, riding with Master Geirwulf, she missed Papa. She even missed Derda’s backhanded compliments.

She wouldn’t let herself think about Cevin; she’d tried once and had cried for hours until her gut ached and her throat felt like it was on fire.

She wanted to go home, but that just wasn’t an option; she didn’t dare give the Nazgul any reason to return to her village, to hurt anyone else she cared about.

That brought up another memory that left a sour taste in Irideth’s mouth. Carantar and the others agreed it was very unfortunate Irideth had discovered her magic in front of a Ringwraith; they would undoubtedly report it to their master, along with any other oddities they may have noticed about her.

Irideth believed she’d never be able to live in civilized society again; she’d be hunted for the rest of her life.

“I don’t want to disappear,” Irideth muttered out loud, feeling tears threaten again.

“Hush, little one,” Mithlas said, licking Irideth’s cheek. “Carantar and the others will be back from the hunt soon; you may speak further of your plan then.”

Irideth screwed her eyes shut, but nodded. Suddenly she felt Mithlas tense and sat up.

“What is it?” Irideth whispered, reflexively curling in on herself while Mithlas pricked her ears, staring out past the rock that hid the entrance to the den mostly from view on the outside.

“I do not know; the scent is very strange. Get behind me, little one,” Mithlas growled quietly. Irideth did as she was told while Mithlas stood, beginning to creep forward toward the den’s entrance.

She’d barely poked her nose out when she was suddenly yanked outside so quickly Irideth didn’t even see what had happened.

Irideth bit her hand to keep from screaming when she heard Mithlas’s pained howls, mingled with the snarls of what sounded like… another wolf?

This went on for several minutes, Irideth covering her ears and burying her face in her knees to block out the sound. After what had happened with Celephinnel, she didn’t dare leave the den.

After a time, Irideth realized that it was quiet outside. Dead silent; not even the wind was blowing.

Gulping, Irideth crept forward on hands and knees, keeping to the shadows as she peered out of the den.

She barely bit back a cry at the sight of Mithlas, badly injured and bleeding what seemed like rivers, lying on the ground beneath the largest wolf Irideth had ever seen; it looked to be the size of a small horse, with fur that gleamed like molten rock in the sun.

Mithlas whimpered, and the other wolf leaned down and fastened its jaws over her throat.

Irideth didn’t even think. With an angry shout, she leaped from the den and threw herself at the other wolf, surprising it enough to knock it away from Mithlas. Irideth crouched protectively over the she-wolf, glaring fiercely at the other creature and growling low in her throat.

Then he raised his head and met her eyes and Irideth was frozen where she was.

The wolf’s eyes were the color of lit embers, glowing like fire.

The creature seemed… if Irideth wasn’t mistaken, he was smiling at her, a grin that was all bloody lips and sharp teeth.

“Who are you? Why have you attacked my mother?” Irideth growled.

The wolf, instead of responding, leaped forward so fast Irideth couldn’t track him. She cried out in pain as she was knocked away from Mithlas and thrown to the ground. She screamed as the creature’s jaws fastened around her throat, screwing her eyes shut as she waited for him to snap her neck.

Only… the killing blow never came.

Irideth after a few moments dared to open her eyes just as the wolf released her throat. She stared up into those eyes, terrified green meeting smoldering amber. When she tried to get up, though, the wolf’s head snapped forward and his jaws fastened around her throat again. Irideth flinched, but the hold remained gentle… a warning. Don’t move.

Shakily, Irideth relaxed and lay back down. The wolf released her, but remained standing above her. Irideth’s gaze drifted back toward Mithlas, and she froze.

Stepping out of the shadows of the trees were the Nazgul, all nine of them, Murazor and Khamul in the lead.

A trap.

But then, how did this wolf…?

Irideth could feel the blood drain from her face as she met her four-legged captor’s gaze again.

He seemed to smirk back at her.

Irideth let her head drop back to the ground, breathing becoming rapid with terror as a loud ringing sound began to reverberate in her ears.

The wolf brought his face close to hers and exhaled softly.

Irideth’s world went black.


 

Murazor thought it a mercy when his master used a spell to knock the girl unconscious; she had plainly been terrified out of her mind and likely would have passed out before too long.

Murazor and the rest of the wraiths came to a stop when a wave of power swept through the clearing, and then where the wolf had stood now stood the familiar form of their master, red-gold hair flowing just past his shoulders, black and crimson robes stirring slightly in a faint breeze as he reached down and scooped the girl up. Sauron cradled her close to his chest as he stared down at her face, troubled even in sleep.

“You were right, Murazor,” Sauron spoke softly after a few moments. “I cannot sense her fea; not at all.”

A quiet grunt drew all gazes to the bloodied female wolf lying on the ground. She was snarling, glaring at Sauron with a fury unrivaled by anything Murazor had ever seen as she attempted to push herself to her feet.

Sauron was kneeling by her side in an instant, one arm holding the child while the other gently pushed the wolf back down. “Hush, beautiful one, it’s all right. I have not harmed her, she is merely sleeping, see?”

The she-wolf snapped weakly at Sauron’s hand as she fell, but could do little more. No doubt sensing the wraith’s odd looks, Sauron allowed his attention to be drawn to his servants for a few moments.

“She sees the child as her own pup,” he explained before returning his attention to calming the injured wolf.

“Hush, now. I will not harm your pup, dear one,” Sauron murmured, running his hand through the wolf’s bloodied fur.

The wolf gave a quiet whine, but Sauron hushed her again and sent her off to sleep with a murmured word. He stood then, returning his attention to the child, resting his hand on her forehead. The girl flinched slightly, then relaxed, and Murazor realized his master was sending her into a deeper sleep. Then Sauron’s gaze was leveled at him.

“Murazor, you and Khamul fly her back to the fortress and make it clear that none of the orcs are to touch her. Place her in one of the tower cells; try to make her comfortable and leave her some food and water. Bring her to me when she wakes.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6:

Irideth woke with an aching head and a dry mouth. Wherever she was, it was cold, too, and she huddled further beneath the blanket.

Wait… blanket?

Eyes snapping open, Irideth sat up with a start and immediately regretted it when it sent another stab of pain spiking through her head and revealed where she was.

She was lying on a straw-covered stone bench in what was plainly a cell. It wasn’t too small, but was clearly meant to house no more than one or two people. A gray linen blanket had been draped over her shoulders, and a jug of water and a small tray of bread and cheese had been left on the floor by the bench she was lying on. A single window above the bench allowed a little light to filter in, but most of the light was provided by a torch affixed to the wall opposite her cell’s locked door.

Trembling, Irideth pressed herself closer to the wall and wrapped the blanket around herself, burying her face in her knees. She stayed that way she didn’t know how long, only moving when her thirst became too much to handle and she drank a few swallows of the water.

A door somewhere further down the hall banged shut and Irideth flinched, curling further in on herself as footsteps proceeded down the hallway toward her cell. She attempted to become even smaller when the footsteps stopped right outside her door.

“Oh, little one,” Khamul said; Irideth dared to peer up for half a second and saw him and Murazor standing in front of her cell door. Irideth buried her face in her knees again, hugging them close to her chest when Murazor unlocked the door and pushed it open, wishing with all her might that she would disappear into the wall.

She flinched when Murazor’s hand brushed over her arm as he moved to pick her up and less than a second later she heard him still above her.

“Child, there is no need to fear,” Murazor said softly. “We will not harm you, and I strongly doubt Lord Sauron will, either.”

Irideth swallowed thickly and looked up at him with suspiciously shining green eyes and the most miserable expression Murazor had ever seen on a child her age. Even though he didn’t need to, he exhaled heavily as he picked the child up despite her flinch and tucked her against his chest.

Irideth buried her face in Murazor’s robes as he carried her out of the cell and down the hall. A metal door slammed shut as he carried her out of the cell block and began descending a flight of stairs. She quickly lost track of how many twists and turns they took; even looking up barely made a difference. All the halls looked the same.

“Where are we?” Irideth asked quietly as Murazor carried her along.

“Barad-Dur; we are approaching the throne room’s antechamber.”

Irideth went rigid. “Th… throne room?”

“Yes; we are going to present you to Lord Sauron.”

Irideth felt as though her heart had frozen in her chest when Murazor came to a stop in front of a set of double doors that blended almost perfectly with the walls that enclosed them.

“Child, when we enter, I would recommend remaining silent unless you are directly addressed. Answer any questions Lord Sauron puts to you as completely and honestly as you can. Is that understood?” Murazor asked, gentle yet stern.

Irideth gulped. “Y… yes, sir,” she answered quietly.

Murazor examined her critically for a few moments, ascertaining her honesty, before facing the door again and pushing it open with a near silent whoosh. Irideth screwed her eyes shut, shrinking as small as she could when Murazor walked forward. She did her best to keep her breathing steady, feeling that familiar burning pain begin in her chest and throat. Feeling just brave enough, she opened her eyes.

Her damnable curiosity overpowered her fear for the briefest instant, drawing her gaze forward as Murazor stopped and bowed low; Irideth reflexively grabbed onto his robes.

And abruptly froze when her eyes met a pair that glowed like hot embers.

Sauron was not a shadow or a disfigured wraith, as Irideth had expected. In fact, if it weren’t for the eyes, she would have thought the figure was an elf.

Sauron was pale, plainly tall even when seated on his throne. His hair was a shade of orange-red, slightly curled and falling a few inches past his shoulders. It was partially hidden beneath a crown that looked to be made of wrought iron. He wore black robes trimmed with crimson; a cloak with a crimson underside was draped over the throne beneath him. The symbol of the red Eye was embroidered across his chest.

Sauron’s gaze moved from her to the now standing Murazor, and Irideth could breathe again.

“My Black Captain,” Sauron greeted.

“My Lord,” Murazor returned with a slight bow of the head. “I bring you the girl.”

Sauron made a ‘come hither’ gesture and Murazor walked forward. Irideth nearly stopped breathing, eyes impossibly wide as she was deposited carefully in Sauron’s lap. The first thing she felt was the heat that radiated off of him, as though he were a living furnace.

Then a hand gently grasped her chin, the other arm encircling her back to prevent escape, and Irideth once again found herself meeting that burning gaze. If anything, his eyes were now more intense, and it took all Irideth had not to look away. The burning in her chest intensified, her throat feeling like it was on fire.

Enemy. Threat, a voice as familiar to Irideth as her own whispered in her mind. She swallowed thickly.

“Why can I not sense your fea, girl?” Sauron asked quietly, gaze boring into hers.

“I… I don’t know, my Lord,” Irideth said so quietly it was nearly a whisper. “Mur… the Captain said he couldn’t see my life force, either. At least not very well.”

“Where are you from?”

“A small hamlet in Rohan.”

“Were you born there?”

“I… no. No one knows where I was born, sir, I’m an orphan.”

“You were not born in that village?” Khamul asked, surprised.

Irideth shook her head as Sauron released her chin.

“She is telling the truth,” the Dark Lord said after a moment, for the benefit of the wraiths, before returning his focus to Irideth.

“You say no one knows where you were born? You were raised by adoptive parents, then?”

“Y…Yes.”

“How did you come to be in their care, then, if not by the will of your birth parents?”

“I was rescued as a baby by a pack of wolves.”

“The same pack that sheltered you from my Riders, yes?”

Swallowing thickly, Irideth nodded. Sauron, to everyone’s surprise, chuckled.

“What an interesting creature you are, little one. You did well to report her to me, Murazor.”

Irideth shuddered while Murazor-the Witch King, as she now knew-nodded. Then Sauron brought his hand up to her forehead, murmuring in a language Irideth did not know, though it sounded vaguely Elvish. He didn’t put her completely to sleep, just sedated her enough that she wasn’t able to fight back when he made her look in his eyes again.

This time Irideth felt a slight twinge of pain in her head, like something had just landed on the fringes of her brain. She inhaled sharply, closing her eyes and trying to turn her head away.

“Hush, now. It will be more painful the more you resist,” Sauron murmured, surprisingly gently. “Just let me in.”

With how exhausted his spell had made her, Irideth didn’t really have a choice. She bit back small whimpers as the Dark Lord moved through her mind, sifting through it as carefully as a miner would a pan of silt. She quickly realized he was searching through her memories, probably checking to see if there was anything to explain her condition.

In the space of a few minutes, Irideth was forced to relive her entire childhood. Playing with Carantar and the pack, Cevin caring for her injury after one of the village boys had thrown a rock at her (after beating the other boy into the dirt), Master Geirwulf teaching her to ride almost as soon as she could walk. Mother singing lullabies and stroking her hair after a nightmare, Adina’s birth, helping care for the new baby, Papa picking Irideth up and swinging her about and laughing.

Irideth didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the gentle brush of fingers over her cheeks, wiping away the tears. She flinched slightly and opened her eyes to meet Sauron’s; his face was expressionless, but his eyes had softened just the slightest bit.

“Are you in any pain?” he asked her quietly, moving his arm so it supported her back.

Irideth had a bit of a headache, but other than that the pain was all emotional. She shook her head, hastily wiping away the rest of her tears. She more felt than heard Sauron’s sigh, stiffening as he shifted his grip on her so she was tucked against his chest, one hand coming up to card through her hair almost absently.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Irideth,” Irideth responded quietly.

Sauron gave a low hum, continuing to run his fingers through her hair. “Well, Irideth, what to do with you now, hmm?”

Irideth’s throat immediately closed up and she couldn’t have answered even if she’d known how.

“My lord, if you intend to keep her, you will have to ensure some means to keep her safe,” Khamul said. “Mordor, after all, isn’t the safest region for outsiders at present.”

“Indeed not,” Sauron said, sounding both thoughtful and amused.

The throne room was silent for a few moments. Then Sauron mused, “It has been some time since I have had a personal slave.”

Had she not frozen, Irideth’s jaw would have hit the floor. Judging by their suddenly slack postures, the wraiths were in a similar position.

“It is the safest position she could have,” Sauron went on, apparently amused by the effect he’d had on them. “None in this fortress would dare interfere with what is mine, after all.”

“That is true,” Murazor mused as Irideth inwardly bristled at being labeled as property. That rage immediately turned to cold fear with the reminder she would become the Dark Lord’s property; he could do whatever he liked with her and none would be able to say otherwise. She tensed as Sauron stood, taking her in his arms as he did so.

“Well then, let’s go and get you settled, my little one,” Sauron said, still sounding slightly amused as he walked down the steps of the throne. “Murazor, Khamul, I expect to see your reports on my desk by this evening,” he called over his shoulder as he carried Irideth toward a near-invisible side door.

Murazor responded with a simple, “of course, my Lord.”

Irideth swore that she heard Khamul groan before the door shut behind them with a resounding thud.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7:

Irideth remained silent and frozen as Sauron carried her through many dark halls before ascending an intricately carved onyx staircase.

“These are the upper levels of the fortress, where my chambers are housed. You will be staying in a room adjacent to mine and will get to know this area well,” Sauron said as he walked along. Irideth managed a nod and nothing else in response to that.

Sauron finally came to a set of double doors at the end of a long hallway and adjusted his grip on Irideth so he could push them open with one arm. When he did so, irideth had to look around for a few seconds in awe. She had never seen such luxury in her life.

Most of the room was taken up by a large canopied bed draped in red silk, with pillows that looked to be made of the same material except that they were black. A large rug covered the rest of the floor. A chandelier made of patterned steel hung in the center of the room. At the right hand side of the room were a wooden chair and desk, with several piles of papers stacked neatly on top. There was also a hand-carved wardrobe, table and vanity set, finer than anything her father had ever crafted. Just off to the left of the bed were two leather chairs set in front of a large hearth. Behind one of the chairs was another door, again very finely carved.

“This is my room,” Sauron said, setting Irideth down on her feet. “Your quarters are just through there,” he said, indicating the door on the left.

There was a pause, just long enough that it would have been deemed awkward in pretty much every other situation. Irideth glanced hesitantly up at Sauron, who arched an eyebrow at her.

“Well?” He said. “Go and take a look.”

Irideth swallowed thickly, then nodded and walked over to the door, having to stand nearly on tiptoe to reach the handle.

When the door swung open, Irideth could barely do more than blink in astonishment.

The room she was looking into was nearly as luxurious as Sauron’s own. It was simpler, most certainly, but barely less luxuriant for it.

There was a single full-sized bed tucked into the back right corner with a pair of white pillows and grey linen sheets and blankets. The bed was finely carved and lacquered. At the foot of the bed was a small desk and chair set, facing the wall. At the right side of this was a small bookcase A copper bathing tub was resting at the far left corner of the room, behind a fireplace and small cooking pit that dominated that side of the room.

Expecting this to be some sort of trick, Irideth spun around, fully expecting to see the Dark Lord smirking maliciously at her. Instead she saw him standing the doorway speaking with a lean young woman wearing a sky blue dress with a simple white apron. The thing that caught Irideth’s attention was the fact that, underneath locks of light brown hair, the woman wore a leather collar with a single red gem in a silver setting resting beneath her chin.

As though sensing her attention, Sauron returned his gaze to her.

“This is Halla,” he said, indicating the woman beside him. “She will assist you in bathing and preparing for dinner. I have other business to attend to, but I will see you later this evening.” With that the Dark Lord turned and swept out of the room, leaving Irideth alone with Halla.

Irideth met Halla’s surprised gaze for only a moment before ducking her head and staring at the floor. She heard the woman sigh, then startled when she felt gently hands on her shoulders turning her back into… she guessed it was her room now.

“Come on then, little one. Let’s get you cleaned up,” Halla said, guiding Irideth over to the bed and lifting the child onto it. Irideth fixed her gaze to the floor and kept it there as Halla grabbed a bucket to begin drawing water for a bath.


 

Sauron sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he leaned back in the chair in his office. He understood Murazor’s reasoning in reporting the child to him, but at the same time… why? Sauron was named “Gorthaur the Cruel” for very good reason, but he’d never taken any pleasure in harming children. It was something that had puzzled Melkor exceedingly about his lieutenant, but even then Sauron had been adamant about not harming youngsters.

Murazor knew this, which was probably the only reason he’d gone after the girl immediately upon realizing her… oddities. None of the wraiths were particularly disposed to the mistreatment of children, either, and if Murazor had thought his master would harm the girl he would not have attempted to capture her in the first place.

Even after all these years, the trust his Captain placed in him astounded Sauron.

Of course the child- Irideth, Sauron recalled- knew none of this. It was plain as day that the girl was terrified of him, and her situation was making her utterly miserable. Sauron, of course, couldn’t fault her for that in any way, but he didn’t want her feeling such utter despair. From what he’d seen in her memories, Irideth was a clever, vibrant and energetic child, traits he’d always appreciated in his slaves in the past; it was a refreshing change from the dullness of the orcs. Sauron had always treasured bright things, after all.

But how the get the girl over her fear, while at the same time keeping her from running away?

Caring for her was the foregone conclusion. There was a problem, of course; Sauron knew essentially nothing about caring for human children. Wolves and dogs weren’t a problem, but human young and the amount of effort that went into their rearing had always baffled Sauron.

He’d have to talk with Murazor; he seemed to know a little bit about dealing with children, given that the girl had looked at least marginally more comfortable in his arms than Sauron’s.

Sauron’s gaze moved to the Palantir resting on its pedestal beside his desk. Curumo – Saruman, as he insisted on being called now- was late on reporting his progress in converting his fellow Istari again. Perhaps, Sauron mused, now was the time for a little bit of intimidation.

When he’d walked over to the stone and placed his hands on it, however, Sauron found his mind once again drawn back to the girl and that strange emptiness he’d felt when trying to see her fea. A being completely lacking a fea was unheard of, and from what Sauron had witnessed in Melkor’s experiments with elves and orcs, a fea couldn’t be destroyed, either. Twisted quite horribly, yes, but not destroyed. So what was the explanation for the girl’s apparent lack of a soul?

Noise from the Palantir drew Sauron’s gaze to the orb; the stone, having sensed his thoughts, was projecting an image of Irideth sitting in the slaves’ mess with Halla. Irideth was sitting at the edge of the table, fiddling with a spoon in an as yet untouched bowl of gruel. She would allow a blank smile to slip onto her face whenever the others around her would laugh about something or other, but when their attention was not on her the smile would fall from her face and she would return to staring at the table or fiddling with her food.

Sauron frowned. According to Murazor’s report, Sauron’s sleeping enchantment had lasted for nearly three days; she should be hungry enough to eat a horse at this point. Although considering the emotional distress Sauron had sensed when delving into her mind, he supposed that she would probably find eating a little difficult.

That being said, she needed to eat something or she would collapse from hunger. Removing his hand from the stone, Sauron walked over to the door and opened it.

“Send orders to the kitchen to have a bowl of broth and some bread sent to my chambers,” he ordered the servant standing by the door. The man looked puzzled, but nodded his head and trotted off to do as he’d been told.

Sauron, meanwhile, turned his attention to his desk. Walking over to it, he opened a drawer on the top right side and pulled out a long, fine-linked silver chain.

He highly doubted the leash was entirely necessary at this point, given how frightened the girl was of him, but at the same time he wouldn’t put it past her to try and sneak away at some point; best to get her used to this now, until he was confident she wouldn’t try to run away.

Looping the chain around his right hand, Sauron left his office and began the long downward trek to the slaves’ mess. The halls of Barad-Dur were dark and mostly abandoned at this hour; the only ones still awake were the palace slaves, the servants and a few overseers plus the tower guard. This suited Sauron just fine. Anyone who saw him presently would know what the chain in his hand meant and the story would be all over the fortress by noon tomorrow. And of course everyone would be curious about their Lord’s choice of slave.

Such attention was the last thing Irideth needed.

Finally, after descending many staircases and crossing through many halls, he had reached the slave’s mess. Light shone out into the hall, and laughter occasionally echoed off the walls. Sauron drew the hood of his cloak over his head to hide his rather distinctive red hair from the light of the flames, then stepped into the entryway.

Thankfully Irideth was sitting closest to the door, still focused on the table. Halla was trying in vain to coax the child to eat something while their fellows at the table talked and laughed together, having decided to give the girl a bit of space to adjust.

Using a spell so that only his intended target would be able to hear him Sauron called softly, “Irideth.”

The girl stiffened for the briefest instant before turning to face him with widened eyes.


 

Irideth barely kept from shouting in alarm when she heard Sauron’s voice behind her. Turning about, she was faced with the sight of the Dark Lord standing in the doorway. Then the torchlight glinted off the chain in his hand and Irideth swallowed thickly.

Sauron gestured for her to go to him and, hesitantly, she obeyed. When she stood roughly two feet in front of him, Irideth stopped and tilted her head back, offering easier access to the ‘training collar’ Halla had affixed around her neck earlier.

Sauron smiled gently, looking pleased. “Good girl,” he murmured, reaching forward and attaching the end of the chain to a small iron ring at Irideth’s throat.

When he turned Irideth quickly fell into step behind him, but Sauron kept the chain slack; he didn’t jerk her along as she’d expected.

Sauron led her through so many halls and up so many stairs Irideth despaired of ever learning her way around the fortress. As they moved through the upper levels Irideth began to feel lightheaded, stumbling every now and then. By the time they’d reached Sauron’s rooms she was having trouble keeping her feet.

Sauron, apparently having picked up on her worsening physical condition, turned around and scooped her up in his arms after opening the door.

To Irideth’s surprise, a small dining table had been set up at the foot of the bed. Two chairs were positioned at one end, and on the table rested a bowl of broth and a plate with a few slices of bread.

Sauron carried her over to one of the chairs (one with a cushion on it so she could actually see over the top of the table) and set her down, removing the chain as he did so. Then he sat next to her at the head of the table, fixing her with a stern look.

“Consider this an order, if you will,” Sauron said. “You are going to eat as much of this as you are able, and then you are going to bed; we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Irideth was so stunned she couldn’t speak or move for several moments. She didn’t know what she had expected, but Sauron ordering her to eat dinner and go to bed was not it.

Breaking from her stupor and realizing said Dark Lord was still watching her expectantly, Irideth felt heat rise in her cheeks.

“Umm… I’m not… hungry. My Lord,” she hastened to add, casting her eyes downward.

“Yes, you are. You are simply too distressed to realize it.”

Irideth, startled by the suddenness of the reply, jerked her head up to meet Sauron’s gaze.

“You have been under a sleeping enchantment for the better part of three days; most in your position would feel ravenous upon waking. Your emotional distress, however, is making you feel too sick to realize that you need to eat,” Sauron said.

Irideth ducked her head again; he was probably right, but her stomach was roiling so much she wasn’t sure she’d be able to swallow anything without throwing up. Still, she forced herself to sit up again, taking the bowl of broth in her hands and lifting it to her lips taking a few hesitant sips.

The broth was actually very good; savory beef spiced with something Irideth couldn’t identify, but she could only manage four swallows before she could feel her stomach begin to protest. She set the bowl down as quickly as she could without spilling anything, and was met with the sight of Sauron nodding in approval. Slightly encouraged, Irideth grabbed one of the smaller pieces of bread, nibbling at it at first, then finishing it in a few bites. She managed to eat two more slices of bread and finish half the bowl of broth before her stomach felt sated, on the edge of being sick.

“Very good, Irideth,” Sauron praised quietly when she pushed the bowl of broth away and glanced hesitantly over at him. When she blinked questioningly, he elaborated, “When I give you an order, I expect you complete it to the best of your ability.”

Irideth, very suddenly reminded of her new status, swallowed thickly and nodded. She tensed, letting out a small yelp when Sauron’s hands fastened around her waist and she was lifted up and into his lap.

“Peace now,” Sauron said when he felt her trembling, bringing a hand up to card through her hair again. “I will not harm you.”

Irideth seriously doubted it, but she screwed her eyes shut and allowed Sauron to do as he liked. True to his word, though, Sauron did nothing to harm her; he didn’t even try to read her mind again. Eventually Irideth found herself being stroked into a quiet doze; she didn’t even register that she’d relaxed into Sauron’s embrace until she heard his quiet chuckle. She felt that she should sit up, distance herself from him, but she just couldn’t find the strength to do so.

“That’s it. Go to sleep, my little one,” Sauron murmured, continuing with his carding, even beginning to hum softly to her.

In a few minutes, Irideth did just that.


 

Darkened skies. A black dragon, red eyes full of rage, maw opened wide to swallow her whole. A man with skin pale as the snow, eyes also glowing a malevolent red, with teeth as sharp as a wolf’s. A cat-like woman, smiling at her and holding out a hand as if to say, “Come run with me.”

And then it all fades to black.

There is a flash of poison green light, and there he is.

The man in the golden mask.

His back is to her this time; he is speaking with a pair of those tentacled creatures and then he turns toward her and roars, and his being becomes enveloped in a red-blue glow. He roars again, and Irideth screams as pain, agonizing, soul crushing pain rips right through her body, her very being. The man’s mask, where his eyes should be, seems to glow brighter. But, for the first time, he speaks.

“I will devour your soul, Dragonborn.”


 

In her bed in Barad-Dur, Irideth jerked awake with a scream.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8:

Sauron quickly set to work fastening his cloak about his shoulders. He had decided yesterday to take Irideth to Orodruin to forge a proper collar for her. One that would bind her to him in more ways than one, but would also have powerful protection enchantments woven into it. He wasn’t entirely certain why, but something about the girl spoke of strength, of latent power. It was something he was determined to keep close to him, if only to see how that power ended up manifesting itself. Perhaps he would then find out why the girl possessed no soul.

When he entered his new slave’s quarters, however, she looked anything but powerful. She was curled up at the head of the bed, the blankets tussled at her feet. Her eyes were open, and she’d apparently been staring vacantly at the wall until he’d come in. One look at her red-rimmed eyes made it plain she’d been crying at some point, and judging by the bags under her eyes she hadn’t slept well either.

Sauron only caught a brief look at her face before Irideth buried it in the pillows.

Well. That wouldn’t do.

“Irideth,” Sauron said, crossing the room in a few large strides and kneeling by the bed. After a moment’s hesitation, he placed a hand on her back. She tensed, but Sauron ignored that; she needed to get used to his touch. He then remembered a few scenes from her memories; the girl suffered from nightmares. Considering her circumstances, it would be unsurprising if she’d had bad dreams last night.

“Little one, did you have another nightmare?”

“No,” Irideth answered, voice muffled. The response was quick, plainly automatic.

“Irideth,” Sauron said, warning plain in his voice.

“…Yes,” Irideth said, slightly quieter and still not lifting her head up. Sauron sighed inwardly, standing up and drawing the girl into his arms with a startled yelp as he did so.

Recalling a few more scenes from her memories, Sauron sat on the bed and held Irideth close, bringing a hand up and beginning to stroke her hair again. It worked to an extent; Irideth relaxed marginally.

“Would you be willing to show me? I know you do not enjoy discussing your dreams.”

To Sauron’s surprise Irideth buried her face in his chest, clutching almost desperately at his clothes as she shook her head.

Sauron laughed softly as he resumed his stroking. “All right, little one. You don’t need to tell me anything if you do not desire it.”

Irideth relaxed immediately upon hearing that, but she kept her face buried in his chest. Sauron chuckled again, beginning to hum as he had the night before.

“That’s it, little one. You’re safe here.”


 

It didn’t take long for Irideth to fall asleep, given how exhausted she was. When Sauron felt her breathing even out he stood, wrapping the child up in his cloak as he did so, and strode out of the room and through the darkened halls of the fortress. It was still fairly early in the morning and the upper halls were virtually abandoned.

Sauron hated these types of mornings; everyone with an ounce of sense was still in bed. The ash clouds from Orodruin covered the sky until about midday, leading to very chilly mornings that cut through him like a knife; he’d always been sensitive to the cold.

The Nine, by contrast, rather liked the cold, so Sauron was unsurprised to find Khamul, Adunaphel and Murazor up early and ready to practice flying formations with their Fell Beasts when he emerged on the landing platform.

The second he did so, all heads turned toward him and the wraiths bowed as one with a collectively murmured, “My Lord.”

Sauron nodded in acknowledgement, and then felt the ghost of a smile reach his lips as all attention became riveted on the snoozing bundle in his arms. It seemed his wraiths had already become a little attached.

Sauron jostled Irideth gently, getting her to open bleary eyes as the three Nazgul made their way over. “Wake up, my little one; you have visitors.”

“Good morning, Irideth,” Murazor greeted, peering down at the child as she blinked up at him and the other two wraiths.

Her response amounted to a mumbled “Too early” and tucking herself deeper into Sauron’s cloak.

Sauron laughed. “I believe we’re going to get along famously, little one.”

“Where are you going so early, my Lord?” Adunaphel asked.

“Orodruin, to forge Irideth a proper collar.”

That got Irideth’s attention, as she lifted her head out of the folds of his cloak.

“You intend to bind her to you?” Murazor asked in Black Speech, rather surprised.

“Yes,” Sauron responded in kind while Irideth looked back and forth between them suspiciously. Sensing the surprise of the rest of the wraiths, Sauron glared faintly at them.

If they’d had mouths, they would have snapped shut.

Satisfied, Sauron walked past the wraiths to one of the saddled Beasts. Irideth quickly ducked back into his cloak, tucking herself closer to his chest. Sauron chuckled, reaching a hand up to stroke her hair while the creature lowered its head, inhaling his scent. After a few moments it raised its head slightly, growling in what Sauron had come to recognized as a pleased manner.

Satisfied that the beast wouldn’t attack him or his charge, Sauron walked over to the creature’s left side, lifting Irideth into the saddle before mounting himself. In front of him, Irideth gripped the front of the saddle while he grabbed the reins.

“Hold on tight, my little one,” he murmured to her. “This is going to be a windy ride.”

Judging by the way she tensed, Irideth did not like the sound of that. Smiling to himself, Sauron kicked the Fell Beast into the sky.


 

“I think I left my face back there somewhere,” Irideth said, momentarily forgetting who her company was as Sauron lifted her very much cold-stiffened form out of the saddle. Sauron chuckled, holding her close to his chest as he wrapped her in his cloak again. “You’ll be quite warm in a minute, my little one.”

Irideth didn’t doubt it, considering they were standing at the entrance to a volcano. Even so she curled closer to Sauron’s chest, trying to leech off as much of his heat as possible as she shivered beneath the folds of his cloak. She heard Sauron remove something from the creature’s saddlebags, then heard him crooning to it softly in Black Speech. The beast purred back; there was really no other word for it, but it was startling to think a creature of such size could make such a sound.

Then Sauron was walking, undoubtedly toward the massive doorway Irideth had seen carved into the mountain.

The heat, Irideth found, didn’t increase gradually; it hit in an oppressive wave. She quickly pushed herself free of Sauron’s cloak, gasping at the sudden rise in temperature.

The reason for the intense heat soon became apparent; Sauron was standing on a large stone walkway over a river of lava.

Irideth flinched when Sauron turned swiftly about to face the wall of the mountain. As he leaned forward to set several large packs down, Irideth noticed a pair of steel manacles hanging from chains attached to the wall itself. Sauron removed his cloak, setting her down on top of it before gently taking both of her wrists in one of his large hands, fastening the manacles about them so they hung  suspended an few inches above her head.

Irideth glanced uncertainly up at the Dark Lord, who smiled reassuringly at her before removing his tunic and gloves in favor of a more form-fitting tunic. That being done, Sauron grabbed what looked to be a very heavy pack from beside her and continued down the stone path to what Irideth assumed to be a blacksmith’s table at the very end. Once he’d reached it, Sauron set the pack down, tied his hair back in a simple braid. He donned a heavy leather apron and a set of forge gloves and set to work.

Irideth did her best to see what Sauron was doing, but most of the view was blocked by his body. That and then there was the fact that she knew next to nothing about blacksmithing, so whenever Sauron pulled a new tool or a piece of material out of his pack, Irideth usually had no idea what it was.

Soon, however, her attention moved from Sauron’s doings to the oppressive heat. Though Sauron didn’t seem bothered at all, Irideth quickly began to sweat profusely. Breathing already felt difficult, and her arms dangling in the shackles wasn’t the most comfortable position.

Irideth settled herself as comfortably as she could, focusing on her breathing. It was something that would usually calm her after a nightmare. Almost immediately she fell into herself, floating on a sea of comforting blackness.

But this time something was different. Irideth could sense, without really realizing how, that she wasn’t alone.

The other presence was faint, yet all-encompassing. It didn’t feel malicious or benevolent, it was just… there.

Even so, it was startling to sense such a large presence become focused on her, solely on her.

“How did you come to be here, little one?” A voice half whispered, half hissed in her mind; Irideth could in no way distinguish the voice as male or female.

“I don’t know,” Irideth answered truthfully. “I’m not even entirely sure where here is. I come here sometimes when I’m upset.”

The voice made a hissing sound that Irideth realized was a laugh. “A strange place to come when one is upset; you are in the Void, little one.”

“What is the Void?”

“The space between worlds, Child of Akatosh. Though…,” the voice paused, and Irideth could feel… something pass through her, examining what felt like… she could only describe it as something using her body as a window or a seeing stone focus.

“What in all the realms of Oblivion are you doing in Illuvatar’s domain, Child?”

Now Irideth was really confused. “You make it sound like there’s more than one world. And that I shouldn’t be in this one.”

“There are, and you shouldn’t be, Child of Akatosh. Though it certainly explains what my little Listener has been up to, that meddling old dragon…,”

“Why do you keep calling me ‘Child of Akatosh’? Who is…?”

Something touched her face and Irideth jerked awake with a start. She found herself faced with Sauron, kneeling in front of her and smiling gently.

“Easy now,” he murmured, continuing to wipe the accumulated sweat off of her face and neck with a cool, damp cloth. “Are you thirsty?”

Her mouth felt like sand. Irideth nodded and Sauron set the cloth aside, picking up one of the bottles he’d set beside her, holding it up to her lips. Irideth tilted her head back and swallowed several mouthfuls before Sauron pulled the bottle away.

This process continued for some time; Sauron would periodically leave his work to cool her down and offer her water which, though these actions were undoubtedly needed, interrupted her attempts to get back in touch with the presence from the Void. It seemed to have retreated upon realizing Sauron was with her.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, Sauron returned to her bearing something in his hands; a silver collar encrusted with three rows of small rubies, Irideth saw when he knelt before her again.

Then, to Irideth’s alarm, Sauron produced a small dagger from a scabbard attached to his belt. Almost faster than she could comprehend, Sauron had grabbed her bound right hand and made a small cut across the center of her palm. It was over before Irideth could even think to blink. By that point Sauron was holding the collar so her blood fell onto some of the gems, singing softly in that vague, seemingly Elvish language, this time with strains of Black Speech mixed in. To Irideth’s fascination and mild horror, the rubies seemed to drink up her blood like flowers would water. Then Sauron, still singing softly, fastened the collar about her throat.

Pain. Mind-numbing pain, so intense Irideth couldn’t draw breath to scream.

You are mine, Irideth Evjen.”

The voice was Sauron’s, but it echoed in her mind, not her ears.

The last thing Irideth remembered before blacking out was a powerful burning at her very core, and a roar with a voice similar to that of the black dragon of her nightmares, though more feminine, echoing in her mind.

Nid, Mey!

Chapter Text

Chapter 9:

“Will she be all right?”

“I’d imagine so; she’ll simply be feeling a little battered when she wakes up. She fought me tooth and nail even while unconscious.”

Irideth did indeed feel like she’d just gone up against Rochanar and Amonthel during one of their rough-housing matches and lost quite badly. With immense effort she opened her eyes.

And found herself lying in Sauron’s lap as he sat on his throne, all nine Nazgul gathered in a ring about them.

Uncertain about being the object of such interest, Irideth reflexively curled closer to Sauron, tucking her face into his chest. He laughed softly, bringing his arms up to wrap around her in a loose embrace.

“There’s no need to be shy, my little one. None here wish you ill.”

Irideth was surprised enough when the wraiths began to chorus their agreement to uncurl herself slightly and peer cautiously outward.

She was greeted with the sight of nine identical black-hooded heads peering down at her.

“I can’t tell any of you apart,” was the first thing to make it out of her mouth. “Except you, Murazor; you’re tallest.”

There was a pause before the wraiths all began laughing, much to Irideth’s surprise.

“I told you she was a plucky little thing,” Akorahil said.

“I like this one,” an unfamiliar wraith said. This was followed by a mental introduction from Sauron to Hoarmurath, Ren and Indur.

Irideth barely suppressed a shudder at the reminder of her connection to the Dark Lord, and she flinched slightly when Sauron’s hand came up to lightly trace the collar at her throat.

“It suits you rather well,” Sauron said quietly, tucking a strand of hair behind Irideth’s ear. Irideth, feeling a sting behind her eyes, swallowed with some difficulty and said nothing.

“It’s beautiful; the rubies contrast your hair and eyes wonderfully,” Adunaphel said. Irideth realized with some surprise that the female wraith was trying to make her feel better about her situation and offered Adunaphel a small smile.

“Now, I believe it is high time we discussed your duties, Irideth,” Sauron said, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Everything suddenly went deathly silent and still.

Two months later:

As it turned out, the most difficult of Irideth’s duties was getting Sauron out of bed on cold mornings, which in Barad-Dur was basically every day.

“Master Sauron, come on,” Irideth said, yanking the covers off of said Maia. “You have a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture in less than an hour!”

Sauron rolled onto his back with a groan, not even opening his eyes as he pulled the blankets back up over his torso. “He’ll wait as long as he has to; I’m Lord of this fortress, and he knows that. And haven’t I told you to dispense with the ‘Master’ while we’re in private?”

“Apologies, it’s a force of habit. I’m going down to the kitchens to assist Halla soon, I won’t be able to help you dress,” Irideth said.

Sauron’s only response was an incoherent grunt as he rolled over to face away from her.

“Come on; I’ve stoked the fire for you,” Irideth coaxed. Indeed there was now a nice, large fire burning merrily in the hearth. “You can go and sit by it while I run and get your breakfast.”

No response. Irideth sighed.

“Do you want me to ask him to move the meeting to this afternoon?”

“If you would.”

Irideth sighed again, albeit inwardly this time. Everyone in the fortress knew the identity of Sauron’s new slave at this point, but she was still only nine years old; not many of the officials Sauron often had to meet with took her that seriously. She’d never met the Minister of Agriculture, but hopefully he was one of the ones who realized her words generally had Sauron’s authority behind them.


 

Irideth entered Sauron’s office to find a man with black hair and olive-colored skin, dressed in green formal robes, seated at the chair in front of the desk. He stood and turned at the sound of the door opening and made it halfway through a bow before he realized who stood before him, a look of surprise spreading across his face.

Irideth quickly dipped into a curtsy, gathering the folds of her red dress in her hands and lowering her eyes. “Good morning, sir. I regret to inform you that Lord Sauron will not be able to meet with you this morning, and he wonders if it would be conducive to your schedule to meet with him after the noon meal.”

Irideth straightened and glanced up at the man from behind the shelter of her bangs. To her shock, the man was smiling at her.

“My, such wonderful manners from a child so young! Your parents schooled you well, little one!” the man said in fairly accented Westron, though he spoke it better than the other ministers Irideth had had contact with. It was also surprising that he didn’t assume like the others that Sauron was the one who’d taught her how to address people.

“Thank you, Minister…?”

“Kamaal, little one. And your name would be…?”

“Irideth, sir.”

“Irideth. Well, little one, I won’t keep you; I suppose you need to be getting back to your Master. Would you tell Lord Sauron that I shall meet with him one hour after the noon meal?”

“Of course, sir,” Irideth said with another curtsy.


 

Kamaal, Irideth thought as she made her way back toward Sauron’s quarters carrying a breakfast tray, was a first. All of the other ministers Irideth had met would turn their noses up at her, barely even deigning to address her. She was, after all, a slave, no matter whose she was. Kamaal, from the little interaction she’d had with him, seemed to treat her like he would any other person.

Well, then there were the Nazgul and Sauron himself. Irideth’s duties were basically those of a domestic servant; making Sauron’s bed, getting his meals, helping him dress and making certain his room was clean (which he tended to keep neat, anyway).

These chores usually took up a good portion of the morning, but after that Irideth was allowed to assist either the wraiths in the stables or Halla in the kitchens at her discretion. In the evenings before dinner, she would return to Sauron and he would instruct her in Black Speech for an hour or so. After dinner, he would inspect her magical ability and give her some instruction in controlling her power over fire. After these lessons, Irideth would help Sauron prepare for bed, then go to bed herself. The cycle started over again each morning.

The wraiths, meanwhile, had taken over from Master Geirwulf as far as training her in horseback riding and horse training. Murazor would usually summon her to the stables at least once a day so she could ride and work with some of the horses.

It seemed to Irideth that the Nazgul had also appointed themselves her unofficial babysitters, strange though that sounded. One of them was always nearby when Sauron wasn’t around, most noticeably when she had to speak with or be around ministers who were prone to physical violence with their own slaves. She didn’t know if they did this on Sauron’s orders or their own initiative, but she wasn’t about to argue either way.

Irideth’s musings halted as she pushed the door to Sauron’s rooms open with her hip, careful to keep the tray balanced in her hands.

Sauron was out of bed and partly dressed in black pants and a black tunic when she entered, sitting in a chair by the hearth and staring into the flames.

“I spoke with Minister Kamaal; he agreed to move your meeting to one hour after the noon meal,” Irideth said, moving to set the tray on Sauron’s bedside table.

No response.

Uh-oh.

Irideth moved slowly over to Sauron’s side, carefully studying his face. His expression was completely blank, but his eyes… his eyes were glazed with what looked to be a deep, age-old pain.

This had happened twice before during Irideth’s time in Mordor, when Sauron seemed to become trapped within himself, unable to move his mind from whatever memory had captured his attention. It was similar to when he would turn his attention to the Eye, but this time his eyes hadn’t bled completely red.

Normally Irideth would fetch Murazor or one of the other wraiths, but they had all left early this morning to return to Minas Morgul to inspect the troops stationed there. They wouldn’t be back for at least two weeks.

Which left things up to Irideth; no one aside from her and the Nazgul knew about Sauron’s occasional catatonic states, and she highly doubted the Dark Lord would be pleased should anyone else find out.

Hesitantly, Irideth placed her hand over Sauron’s. “My Lord?” she questioned quietly.

Nothing.

“Sauron?”

Nothing.

“Master?” It really annoyed him when she called him that in private.

Still nothing; not even a twitch.

Irideth pursed her lips, withdrawing her hand. Then, taking a firming breath, she walked to the front of Sauron’s chair and hauled herself up into his lap, pressing herself to his chest.

Sauron came out of his stillness with a start, though he was careful not to dislodge her. “What… Irideth? What are you…?”

“I’m lonely. Hold me,” Irideth said, tucking her face into his shoulder.

Sauron stayed stiff with surprise for several moments. Eventually, though, his arms rose from the chair’s armrests and wrapped around her in a loose embrace. When Irideth shifted slightly they tightened, and a low chuckle made it past Sauron’s lips.

“My beautiful little one,” he murmured into her hair. Irideth’s only response was to bury her face in the crook of his neck.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10:

“Inga, be careful of that…,”

“Look out!”

Irideth leaped sideways purely on instinct; she managed to avoid the sack of flour itself, but not the explosion of white powder that followed. When the dust had settled, Irideth, Inga and the younger kitchen staff who had been standing nearby were covered head to toe in flour.

“Irideth! Are you alright?” Halla called from the other end of the counter where she’d been helping Minnah pluck chickens.

“I’m fine,” Irideth answered, spitting flour out of her mouth. “Just a little paler.”

Everyone in earshot chuckled or rolled their eyes, going back to work as Halla stood and moved over to her charge.

“Oh, goodness,” she sighed as she took in the sight. Irideth blinked back, screwing her eyes shut as the woman ruffled her hair and sent up another white cloud. “Look at you; you’re positively ghostly!”

Methinks the wraiths would disagree, Irideth thought. Then she went still for a moment as she felt a nudge against her mind, a brief passing of thought and the impression of an image. When she looked up at Halla again, the woman gave her a questioning look.

“Lord Sauron’s meeting with Minister Kamaal is going longer than they thought; he wants me to bring a decanter of wine and some food,” Irideth said.

“Of course,” Halla sighed. “He didn’t send for lunch, did he?”

“If he did, he didn’t tell me.”

“That’s a no, then. And you looking like this,” Halla said with a despairing look at the flour-covered figure before her.

“We can just dust most of it off; I don’t think anyone will care as long as I don’t go tracking flour all over the fortress.”


 

When Irideth entered Sauron’s office, carefully balancing a tray in her hands, she was met with the sight of Sauron and Minister Kamaal leaning over the desk, studying a production budget if the snippets of conversation Irideth managed to understand were anything to go by.

Hoping to be as unobtrusive as possible, Irideth stepped quietly over to the side of the desk and set her burden down at a distance she felt it was safe from being knocked off.  As she stepped back, Kamaal glanced sideways and smiled briefly at her before looking back down. And then he did a double-take.

Irideth was mostly flour-free, but she was aware her hair was still quite white and it was impossible to tell the original color of her dress from the front.

Sauron, having noticed Kamaal’s silence, followed the man’s gaze and blinked at the sight Irideth presented.

“Ask no questions and I will tell you no lies,” Irideth said after a second or so of baffled staring.

Kamaal blinked, not sure what to make of that response. Sauron’s sigh was visible in the relaxation of his shoulders. “I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as you aren’t completely destroying the kitchens.”

Excuse me, WHAT? Irideth thought. A minute upward turn of Sauron’s mouth was the only indication of his amusement.

“Remind me never to send you to the armory or the forges.”

Irideth made a face while Kamaal glanced uncertainly between the two of them.

“Oh, and Irideth, I will be attending a state dinner with my advisors this evening. I would like you to complete the reading and grammar exercises in chapter seven of the book we’ve been working through. I will go over them with you tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir,” Irideth acknowledged with a dip of her head. “Was there anything else you required, my lord?”

“That will be all, Irideth.”

Irideth dipped into a quick curtsy before leaving, shutting the door behind her.


 

It took Sauron a few seconds after Irideth had left to notice the odd look Kamaal was giving him.

“Is something troubling you, Minister?” he asked, tone just a bit too polite.

He didn’t miss the small quirk of the man’s lips. “Nothing of import, my lord.”


 

Irideth was trotting quickly through the halls back to the kitchens when someone turned a corner barely ten feet in front of her.

She froze.

Someone turned out to be three someones: Siraaj Halim, one of Sauron’s chief war ministers and his son and daughter, Muzammil and Azeema.

Irideth recovered herself quickly, dipping into a curtsy and lowering her eyes to the floor.

“Good day to you, Lord Siraaj, Lord Muzammil, Lady Azeema.”

Despite being only seven, Irideth had to admit Azeema already had an impressive haughty sneer; she could feel it without even looking at the girl. The weight of her father’s eyes was not much better.

“Where is your Master, slave girl?” Siraaj said, voice putting Irideth unpleasantly in mind of snake before it struck. Not to insult any serpents, of course.

“My Lord Sauron is in a meeting at the moment and does not wish to be disturbed,” Irideth said as she straightened, keeping her gaze fixed on the man’s left shoulder rather than his face. She could still see the downward turn of his lips from the corner of her eye. “He will likely be finished within the next hour if you wish to speak with him.”

“You think it your place to tell me what I can and cannot do, girl?” Siraaj snarled. Irideth stiffened again when she noticed his hand falling toward the short wooden cane he kept tucked into his belt. “This matter is urgent, and I will not be kept waiting by an impertinent slave.”

Irideth wasn’t his slave or one of the palace slaves, but that likely wouldn’t stop him from beating her. Though the Dark Lord and the Nazgul had made it tacitly understood that no one was to harm her, Irideth wasn’t foolish enough to think that most of these nobles wouldn’t try to find a way around that. Siraaj was undoubtedly one of the ones who figured that if there weren’t visible marks, she was fair game.

Well, there was the link, of course. None of the nobles or ministers knew about it, but Irideth wasn’t certain how Sauron would react to her using that to call for help.

“I would never presume to do so, my lord. I am simply telling you that Lord Sauron does not wish to be disturbed; if you wish, I can deliver a message for you.”

A quiet snort drew Irideth’s gaze to Muzammil. “Please, Father. The slave wouldn’t even understand it.”

Irideth noted that her throat was starting to burn.

“Of course not, uncivilized swine that she is,” Azeema said. “You are one of the horse-herders, yes? Probably grew up rolling around in the dirt with the dogs.”

“No, my dear. This one was born in the wilds,” Siraaj said, a nasty smile etching its way across his face. “Raised by savage wolves, the word is.”

Don’t they know that Sauron was at one point known as Lord of the Werewolves? Irideth thought.

A strange feeling of pressure at the back of her skull had Irideth turning around for reasons she couldn’t exactly have explained.

She found herself faced with an enormous wolf that appeared to materialize out of the shadows themselves.

She was peripherally aware of the war minister’s startled inhalation behind her, heard Azeema and Muzammil crowd closer to him. Irideth’s focus, however, was on the wolf’s glowing amber eyes. She quickly dropped her gaze, shrinking in on herself.

Sauron walked toward her, and once he’d reached her Irideth gently pressed her forehead to the underside of his chin in a show of submission. Sauron gave a low huff, apparently pleased. Then he grabbed the back of her dress in his teeth and, to Irideth’s surprise, swung her onto his back.

Once Irideth had settled herself, Sauron remained where he was for a few seconds; judging by the look on Siraaj’s face, Sauron was glaring and/or snarling at him. Then he turned abruptly and trotted back down the hallway.

Irideth briefly lost track of the twists and turns they took, but once they were back in a familiar area she realized Sauron was taking her back to his rooms.

Once they’d reached their destination Sauron came to a stop and Irideth slid off his back.

You should probably go take a bath.

Irideth jumped at the dry voice in her mind. She turned around to see Sauron giving her the canine equivalent of a raised eyebrow. She felt heat rise in her cheeks and quickly ducked her head.

“Sorry for getting flour on you,” she muttered.

There’s a sentence I never thought I would hear.

Irideth was startled when she realized she was holding back a grin. Sauron gently nudged her in the direction of her room and she went without complaint.


 

Irideth emerged from her room about an hour later, hair wrung as dry as she could get it and wearing a flour-free dress. She was surprised to see Sauron, still in wolf form, lying in front of the fire in a manner reminiscent of Master Geirwulf’s hunting dogs.

Feeling a painful twinge in her chest, Irideth pushed the thought away and took a few cautious steps forward as Sauron raised his head and fixed his gaze on her.

Come here.

Exhaling in the hopes of easing some tension from her body, Irideth walked slowly toward him. When she reached him, she was surprised when he nudged her to lie down tucked against his side.

Get some sleep, Sauron ordered. I know you haven’t been sleeping well lately and the last thing I need is you collapsing on me.

Irideth opened her mouth, but one look from Sauron had her shutting it immediately. Hoping she didn’t look as uncomfortable as she felt, Irideth slowly settled herself, letting her head rest on Sauron’s flank. His fur turned out to be softer than it looked, and she was asleep in the space of a few breaths.


 

Upon waking Irideth found herself pressed against a black-clothed chest and surrounded by several large, furry bodies.

A quick scan of the room showed that they had been joined by at least a dozen of Sauron’s wolves. Sauron himself was back in his humanoid form. He was sitting with his back supported by the bedframe, holding Irideth in his lap and speaking softly to a pair of wolves Irideth assumed were the alphas of this particular pack.

A light tug at her scalp drew Irideth’s attention to the fact that Sauron was stroking her hair again, which had her relaxing almost before she realized it.

She tensed in surprise when someone licked her ear. Turning around, Irideth was met with the sight of a male wolf- likely a beta- studying her closely.

Sauron chuckled, lifting Irideth off his lap and placing her among the wolves.

Irideth hunched in on herself as the wolves took turns examining her by both scent and sight. When a couple of them tried to groom her, Irideth gave a pained yip and leaped away from the offenders. Apparently agreeing that she needed a bath, one of the wolves behind her gently nudged her to her knees, then pressed her to the floor like an unruly pup and proceeded to lick her face and neck.

“Oh, come on, I just took a bath! I don’t need another one!” Irideth yelled, trying to push the wolf away and squirm out from under his paw at the same time.

Sauron laughed when she finally broke free and dove past him to hide under the bed. “Come, little one, you have lived with wolves before!”

“I was a baby at the time, and I do not remember them being this nosy!”

She heard Sauron chuckle, and then he reached under the bed and drew her into his arms as he stood.

“I have placed you in their care for the night,” he said, setting her down on top the bed. “They will stay with you until I return.”

Irideth nodded her understanding, then made her way to the other side of the bed before sliding off. “What robes are you wearing tonight, sir?” she asked, trotting over to the wardrobe before the wolves could get in the way.

“Unfortunately something formal,” Sauron said, moving to join her. “Something with basic colors, though; it is not a gala, thank goodness.”

After a few minutes of deliberation, Sauron selected a simple but elegant black robe with a red pattern stitched across the shoulders and collar. A deep crimson sash, black gloves, a few simple rings and the wrought iron crown completed the look.

“You’ve gotten better at this,” Sauron said as Irideth finished tying the sash, giving himself a cursory once over in the mirror.

“All I ask is that you don’t ever make me assist you with hair beads,” Irideth said as she hopped off the stool she’d been standing on. Noticing the look he was giving her in the mirror, she elaborated, “unless you want your head looking like an ugly tapestry, of course.”

Sauron chuckled as he turned to face her. “Weaving was never a strong suit of yours?”

Irideth clasped her hands behind her back and shrugged, moving her gaze to the bedside table. “My mother was the one who made and repaired our clothing; according to her, I was working with our village’s Horsemaster almost before I could walk.”

“Somehow that does not surprise me,” the Dark Lord said, making his way to the door. “I will likely not return until late; I do not want to see you awake when I return.”

You could just say ‘don’t wait up,’ Irideth thought as Sauron bade goodbye to the wolves, scratching ears and chins and murmuring softly to them.

And I really hope he didn’t hear that.


 

Irideth had no idea where she was. It looked like part of a castle keep, a communal living area. The walls were made of stone, and in the center of the room was what looked like a well. It didn’t hold water, though; instead there was a bright blue-white light hovering a few feet above the center. Dozens of smaller blue lights drifted upward around it, passing through a hole in the second story and vanishing several feet below the ceiling.

This strange well was surrounded by single bedrooms, all simply furnished; a bed, a table, a wardrobe and chest, and a couple of chairs.

And the top of almost every available surface in these rooms was covered with a strange assortment of items; flowers and herbs, crystals of various shapes and sizes, skulls of various animals, dead insects, books, colored bottles.

And on the floor of the room closest to Irideth, journal open beside her, strange design painted in chalk on the floor and several strange… ingredients, Irideth supposed?... set upon the chalk design, was the cat woman from her dreams.

Only she looked much younger.

“Okay, so the void salts amplified it well enough. I’ll need to try this again with more powerful soul gems. Maybe I can sweet-talk Enthir into getting me a daedra heart…,” the cat muttered, picking up her journal and scribbling down what looked to be detailed notes on a near-covered page. Upon finishing she snapped the book shut and looked up.

And froze when her eyes met Irideth’s.

For several moments they did nothing but blink at each other.

“All right, I’m assuming you can see me,” the stranger said slowly. “Are you able to hear me?”

Words still beyond her, Irideth did nothing but nod. The woman’s eyes widened.

“By Aetherius, it worked!” she whispered, clutching the journal to her chest.

“Wh… what worked?” Irideth said.

“I’ve been trying to find a way to contact you for months! I have never been so happy my mother made me study magic when I was younger, it probably would have taken me decades to complete this otherwise! Oh, I’ll need to thank Urag for lending me those books, and Phinis is going to be thrilled that his idea for the ectoplasm and butterfly wing worked! He’s been studying leads on trans-dimensional travel and communication for over twenty years, I’d never have been able to do this without him!”

“But why go to all this trouble to contact me? And… trans-dimensional communication? What are you talking about?” Irideth asked, brow furrowing.

“Well, we’re in different worlds, aren’t we? And as for going to all this trouble… well, you’re my sister.”

Chapter Text

Irideth runs through the field, grass grabbing at her dress as she goes. She lifts her skirt higher, laughing as she hears Master Geirwulf's dogs barking in excitement behind her. The girl picks up speed as the pasture fence comes into view; she can already hear the rustle of the dogs approaching her from behind.

Then she sees her father and mother speaking with Master Geirwulf, Cevin crouched in the dirt poking at ants with a stick close by. Mother is holding baby Adina swaddled in blankets, cooing to the baby every now and then.

Irideth calls out to them; they all turn, smiles blooming on their faces when they catch sight of her. Father crouches down, arms open wide. He catches his daughter an instant before the dogs can, laughing loudly as he swings her up into the air.

"Practicing so you can keep up with the horses are you?" he asks, spinning her in a circle before bringing her close to his chest. Mother smiles, holding Adina with one arm and holding her free one wide. Father passes Irideth to her; Irideth giggles, wrapping her arms around her mother's neck as the woman holds her close. Irideth peeks over the blanket at her younger sister; the baby smiles up at her and gurgles, raising one chubby hand and gripping her sister's little finger.

"I wouldn't be surprised," Master Geirwulf laughs, raising his left hand and tickling Irideth's cheek with a finger. Irideth giggles, then shrieks with laughter when she feels her brother tickling her feet with a strand of grass. She feels her mother's laughter, can hear Adina's happy shrieks.

"Cevin...!


 

Irideth's eyes snapped open. She sat up, sniffling as she wiped the tears off her cheeks and tried to ignore the ache in her chest and throat.

'I've heard people say you miss people less the longer you're away, but I think it only gets worse every time I remember anything.'

'My lord!'

Irideth blinked, brow furrowing. 'That was not me.'

'My lord, please! I will not leave you! Not now!'

Irideth's breath hitched as she felt the pain in her chest worsen, heart skipping a beat. 'It's... that's Sauron.'

'Mairon, you must go! I will not have them take you, too! I may go to my fate with some small peace, knowing that you are free.'

Irideth was beginning to see things now; not clearly, but she was someplace dark, deep underground judging by the shaking and the faint rumbling she could hear. There was someone standing over her... no, standing over Sauron, but she couldn't distinguish much; only that they- he- was tall and pale, clad in black with equally black hair that fell nearly to his waist.

'My lord Mairon, we must go!'

'No, I will not leave you! My lord, you will not be able to fool them again! Please, my lord, I can't lose you again!'

'Go now, Mairon. Take the tunnels; lead what remains of our forces out. That is an order. Captain, get him out of here!'

Irideth closed her eyes, pushing the sounds and images to the back of her mind as she stumbled out of bed; only now did she feel the heat of the collar at her throat. She managed to open the door of her room after a few seconds of fumbling with the handle. Nearly tripping over her own feet, Irideth took a few steps forward before turning her attention to Sauron.

He was lying in the bed, asleep, but it was plainly not a restful one. His face was set in an agonized grimace and his breathing was labored. His hands gripped the sheets so tightly it was a wonder they hadn't torn.

Irideth ran over and leaped onto the bed before she could think about it too much. She gripped the Maia's shoulder and shook him as hard as she could manage, which considering their respective sizes wasn't all that hard.

"My lord," she said, just shy of shouting. "My lord, wake up! You're only dreaming, it's just a nightmare! Wake up!"

Sauron didn't even stir; Irideth flinched at a stab of pain in her head. Which gave her an idea.

Taking a deep breath, Irideth raised her hands and closed her eyes. Blocking the link between her and the Dark Lord as best she could she focused.

'Healing is an ability all races in Tamriel are born with,' Irianna had said. 'Usually we can only use it on ourselves at first; healing spells require at least a basic sense of life energies and their natural flow. It takes practice and study to get acquainted enough to improve; there are a couple of books I have here you can read as long as I can maintain the connection...,'

Having managed to slow her breathing and center herself, Irideth placed lightly glowing hands on Sauron's shoulders and allowed her senses to expand. For a minute or so she focused only on locating the twists in his energy that were the primary source of the nightmare. Then, slowly, she opened the link as much as she dared. Ignoring the sights and sounds as best she could, Irideth instead worked on manifesting her own intent.

'Ease the pain. Allow for quiet rest. Bring peace to a tortured mind.'

Through her eyelids Irideth became peripherally aware that her hands had begun to glow brighter, a sign her spell was working at least to an extent. Her brows furrowed as she sharpened her focus.

'Bring peace. Ease pain.'

Once she felt a slight shift of focus through the link, Irideth opened it further to allow Sauron to feel the ease that came with her deepened breaths. 'At peace. Safe. Safe. Safe. Safe.'

She was only able to maintain the connection for another minute before her swimming head and heavy-feeling limbs warned her that her magicka reserves were running out.

Irideth canceled the spell and opened her eyes. A little too quickly, she realized when the room tilted violently sideways. She was falling backward before she'd registered it.

A hand wound around her back before she hit the mattress. Blinking bleary eyes, Irideth found herself faced with a very much awake Sauron, eyes thoughtful as he studied her.

"So that is your healing power," he murmured, mostly to himself as he drew her closer.

Irideth opened her mouth but didn't have the strength to formulate a response.

"Hush," Sauron said softly as he lay down again, pulling her to him so her back was pressed against his chest. "Go to sleep; you've nearly exhausted yourself."

Irideth didn't want to fall asleep. 'If I remember something else about home I don't think I'll be able to get up tomorrow.'

As though that thought had triggered it, the bone-deep weariness Irideth always faced when thoughts of home arose returned. Her limbs became heavier than stone and even drawing breath became an immense effort.

Irideth's eyes slid closed because she didn't have the strength to keep them open.


 

Sauron had nearly fallen asleep when he noticed that his connection with Irideth had become nearly imperceptible.

Alarmed, he nudged at the link as he pushed himself to rest on his elbow, watching the girl for any sign of movement.

She barely even twitched, and the moment the link opened Irideth... the only way Sauron could think of to describe what he felt was that she fell away from it. And then she tried to close it off.

The Maia frowned. The only way the girl could have entered and influenced his mind as she had was a distinct deepening of the connection, which normally took a high level of skill with mind magic and an intimate knowledge of the other party to achieve.

But it could also happen if those included in the link experienced "synchronization" of a sort, usually emotional in nature.

Given what he had been... experiencing a few minutes ago, and what he could sense from Irideth now, this was anything but good.

"Oh, no you don't," Sauron said, gripping her shoulder and turning her over so she faced him. She remained completely limp, barely even managing to open her eyes and look at him. Sauron pulled her closer, threading his fingers through her hair and gently tilting her head up to keep her focus on him.

"Do not close yourself off like that," he said, firm but gentle so as not to frighten her. "It serves no purpose aside from lengthening your pain."

The look on Irideth's face indicated she knew this full well but couldn't quite bring herself to care.

Seeing that words weren't going to get anywhere, Sauron pulled her to his chest, moving the hand in her hair a bit lower to bring her head to rest on his shoulder, using the other to gently stroke her back.

He was surprised when Irideth pressed herself closer to him but managed to stay relaxed. His hold on her tightened in response and he pressed his lips to the top of her head.

"Sleep, my little one," Sauron whispered, drawing on his power to weave a spell over the child. "No more dreams will trouble you tonight."


 

Murazor couldn't say he was surprised when no none had any real idea where his Master was when he and the other wraiths returned to Barad-Dur. When Sauron was in one of his fouler moods he would sequester himself in one of the hiding spots he had around the fortress. The usual suspects were his personal forge, workshop, lab, or the library. A bit more recently he had also taken to going to the lava pools beneath the fortress to bathe in the molten rock, but the wraiths preferred to avoid that area if at all possible.

When it became clear upon their return that today was one of the days Sauron had made himself scarce, the Nazgûl had split into teams to seek him out.

His lab, workshop, forge and the library were all empty. After a brief debate, Khamul and Ren were sent to check the lava pools (they'd been making utter pests of themselves the whole way back. It was no surprise everyone had thrown them under the carriage wheels).

When they returned empty handed, the wraiths congregated in a hall in one of the quieter areas of the fortress.

"Has anyone seen Irideth?" Hoarmurath said. "Even if she didn't know where Lord Sauron is, she could find him faster than we can."

"No; Akorahil and I checked the kitchens, too. She wasn't there," Adunaphel said.

"In that case, they're both probably in Lord Sauron's chambers," Uvatha said. "Irideth essentially never wanders around the fortress on her own; if she isn't in the stables or the kitchens, she's almost certainly with Lord Sauron in his chambers."

This was met with eight heads nodding assent.

"Very well. I will go and see if they are there," Murazor said. As he began making his way toward Sauron's chambers, however, he heard the distinct clicking of armored boots behind him. Turning around, he was met with the sight of the rest of the Nine following behind him.

"I can do this on my own, you realize," he said.

"It's not like we have anything better to do," Khamul said with a shrug as the rest of the wraiths caught up to their Captain.

"Don't you have reports to write?"

"As I said...," Khamul trailed off to the snickers of the other wraiths.

"You do know that if Lord Sauron isn't awake yet, he's bound to be in a bad mood?"

"He's bearable with Irideth around," Morgomir said. At this the wraiths all shared a look, though no one else would have been able to tell.

As they got closer to Sauron's chambers, their senses told them that their master was indeed still there. When the Nazgul reached the door, however, they had a few second thoughts about Morgomir's earlier statement and there emerged the problem of who was going to knock. If Sauron was in a bad mood, no one wanted to receive the brunt of it.

"It's still fairly early; he might not be up yet," Indur said.

"Which means he'll likely be in an even worse mood when he does wake up," Uvatha retorted.

"We could just wait for Irideth to wake him," Morgomir said.

"Oh, sure, just throw the child in the dragon's mouth, why don't you?" Ren said.

"She does it essentially every day and hasn't been injured yet," Adunaphel pointed out.

"She's a human child. She's... what's the phrase the maids use?... too cute to kick," Akorahil said.

"You forget the fact that Lord Sauron liked her enough to claim her as his own. He's not going to be inclined to hurt her no matter what mood he's in," Khamul said flatly.

"Shh!" Murazor hissed, suddenly and lowly enough to startle the others into silence. Apparently, while the other wraiths had been arguing, their captain had actually taken initiative and opened the door. Curious, the other eight gathered around him to look inside.

They were met with the sight of their master lying in the bed, apparently asleep. That in itself wasn't unexpected, but what was unexpected was the fact that there was something in his arms. The bundle, upon closer examination, turned out to be Irideth, curled against Sauron's chest with her head resting on his shoulder.

As the wraiths watched Irideth shifted suddenly, a discomfited expression on her face. Sauron's eyes opened and immediately fell to the child. He drew her closer to his chest, speaking softly to her as he carded a hand through her hair. After a few moments Irideth relaxed. Sauron gently guided her head back to his shoulder, keeping an eye on the girl for a minute or so before closing his eyes again.

The Nazgul shared a look with each other. In unspoken agreement, they backed quietly away, closing the door behind them.


 

Irideth woke to the scent of frankincense and sage. Which was a bit confusing; her room smelled more like sandalwood. This scent reminded her of...

Irideth's eyes flew open and she went rigid. She was lying in Sauron's bed, in Sauron's arms, for crying out loud!

Her nerves eased slightly when she realized he was still asleep.

Irideth cocked her head. Sauron didn't really look like a Dark Lord like this. He was... relaxed, peaceful, even. His hold on her was gentle, not restrictive in the slightest. It was actually...

Irideth remembered the events of last night and wanted to bang her head against something. What had she been thinking, using her healing power on the Dark Lord, of all people?! This was the being who was trying to take over the world, to kill or enslave all of the race of Men and whatever Elves still remained. And she had used her powers to wake him up from a nightmare?

Well, Mama had said Irideth was at times too kind for her own good. Valars' sake, her healing power was what had gotten her into this mess. And she had just reminded her captor why she was so singular, why he had decided to keep her here.

Before Irideth could continue beating herself up, Sauron's eyes opened and he looked down at her.

Irideth tensed again, but managed to keep her unease off her face.

"Good morning, my lord," she said, voice only slightly hoarse.

Sauron cocked an eyebrow. "I do not believe it is so for either of us. Are you well?"

Irideth blinked back at him, baffled by the question.

"You had very persistent nightmares last night. You woke several times, shaking quite badly."

Irideth swallowed. "Oh. I don't remember any of that. I feel fine."

"Hmm," Sauron hummed, not quite sounding like he believed her. Irideth broke her gaze from his.

"I'm sorry for waking you, sir," she said softly. "And for... um, using the... link like that. I didn't mean to intrude, truly I didn't, but it was the only way I could think of to...,"

Irideth cut herself off when she realized Sauron was laughing.

"I believe that is the first time I have heard someone apologize for trying to assist me," he said, smiling at her. "I know you meant no harm, dear one, and you did none."

Irideth didn't know how to respond to that, so she simply nodded once. Sauron's smile widened and he wound a hand in her hair, fingers scraping lightly over her scalp. Irideth immediately relaxed, leaning into the touch before she was conscious of it. She heard Sauron chuckle when she sighed and let her head drop back, letting him support most of her weight as she tried to let her mind go blank.

She could sort things out later; preferably when Sauron wasn't around to pick up on her thoughts.


 

Irideth was washing vegetables with some of the younger kitchen maids when movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention. The sudden hush in the area surrounding the door as everyone became very suddenly engrossed in their work gave her a good idea of who was waiting there.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she turned to look and saw Morgomir standing there, keeping mostly out of the torchlight. He beckoned to her and Irideth set her unwashed vegetables in one of her partner's pails before trotting over to him. The wraith turned the moment she reached him and the two walked down several hallways in silence.

Deeming that they were far enough from prying ears, Irideth asked, "Did you volunteer to come and get me, or were you doing something else?"


Morgomir snorted. "It gave me a good excuse to get away from the others for a few minutes; Murazor is trying to harass Khamul into doing his paperwork and everyone else is choosing teams."

"Who's Ren working with this time?"

"I believe he has chosen to back Murazor, but it's difficult to tell this early on."

Irideth giggled quietly as she fell into step beside Morgomir. To Irideth's surprise, Morgomir led her to a part of the fortress she'd never seen before. She kept glancing around as they walked, trying to commit their path to memory.

She had managed to keep from getting utterly lost when Morgomir pushed open a wooden door on the left side of the hall and gestured for her to go inside.

Irideth did so after a moment's pause. She was immediately assaulted by a sharp scent, a mixture of herbs if she wasn't mistaken. The air here was warmer than in the hall and the ambient lighting was brighter.

The room stretched far back. Each side was lined with cots covered with white sheets. At the back was a raised section of flooring, with six more cots. Behind these were several large cabinets and tables, similar to the smaller tables Irideth now noticed placed between the cots. These tables were covered with mortars and pestles, all manner of dried herbs, rolls of bandages, jars of various salves and several types of metal tools Irideth didn't want to examine too closely.

A door closed somewhere on the right, and a moment later a figure appeared at the top of the steps at the back of the room.

Irideth blinked when she saw clearly who- or perhaps what- the figure was.

A female orc. Intellectually Irideth had known there had to be female orcs (Geirwulf bred horses, she knew at least the basics of the baby-making process), but she'd never really thought about it beyond that. All the orcs she'd seen so far had been soldiers (though admittedly she hadn't seen many. Sauron had strictly forbidden her from going to the lower levels of the fortress or the training fields on her own). As far as she could tell they were all male.

This orc was slightly smaller than the soldiers, with narrower shoulders and smaller ears. Her face was also less... Irideth didn't know a word for it. Softer, she supposed? Stern-looking, but not set in a permanent glower or snarl.

The orc's eyes landed on the girl as she made her way down the stairs.

"There you are, little one," the orc said, striding over to Irideth, who had to resist the urge to shrink away when the woman touched her shoulders. The orc's eyes moved to the door for a second.

"Thank you, my lord," she said with a nod in Morgomir's direction. Irideth heard the door close as the orc placed a hand at the small of her back and began pushing her toward the back of the room.

"I am Asha," the orc said as they ascended the stairs. "I am one of the fortress' healers."

Irideth could scarcely do more than nod before she was pushed behind a screen next to one of the cabinets and ordered to change into the white shift that had been left on a stool there.

Irideth did so quickly; the shift was similar to her nightgown, leaving her shoulders mostly exposed, but the skirt didn't quite reach as far as her ankles.

When Irideth emerged from behind the screen, the orc woman- Asha- immediately set to work. She checked Irideth's weight, skin, nails and teeth. She tested the girl's hearing, balance and vision and asked her about any past illnesses she could recall.

By the time Asha was satisfied, Irideth's head was spinning so much she didn't register the woman leading her to a door on the right hand side of the room until she was being pushed through it.

Irideth was surprised enough to see Sauron standing there that she was jolted out of her daze. The Dark Lord quirked an eyebrow at her.

'You look like you've just been run over by a cart horse.'

Mindful of the other presence in the room, Irideth gestured vaguely in Asha's direction as the orc brushed past her to fetch something from a cabinet in the corner of the room.

Sauron smiled. 'Asha is one of the best healers in the fortress, in part due to her efficiency. As long as you do what she says when she says it you have nothing to worry about.'

Irideth tilted her head to the side, a slow grin spreading across her face. 'You sound like you've had some experience.'

The look on Sauron's face told her all she needed to know. Irideth's grin broadened. Sauron's eyes narrowed into a glare that didn't really hold any heat. Irideth adopted her best innocent expression.

"If you two are quite done," Asha said from behind Irideth. The girl yelped when the orc scooped her up from behind and placed her on the elevated bed in the middle of the room. "She is a little on the thin side, my lord, but aside from that she is perfectly healthy."

Irideth shrank under the withering look Sauron gave her. "Have you been skipping meals again, Irideth?"

"No! I just might not... um, eat very... large ones... sometimes?" Irideth said, nearly squeaking at the end of her sentence as she did her utmost to sink through the bed and into the floor.

Sauron exhaled heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I understand you're not used to eating all that much, Irideth, but from what I understand it can cause long-lasting health problems in humans."

Irideth blinked, then remembered that Sauron himself technically didn't need to eat and thus likely would have had to do some research. Care and keeping of a human slave, she supposed.

"I'm sorry," Irideth said quietly. "I'll try to pay more attention to it."

"See that you do," Sauron said with a stern look. Then he grinned. "Or I might just see fit to mention this to Akorahil."

Irideth blanched. You wouldn't. He'd tell the others and they'd never leave me alone.

That is the purpose.

Fine! I'll watch it!

Sauron chuckled. "If you'd lie down please, Irideth."

Irideth hesitated for a moment, a thrill of alarm racing through her, but she pushed it back and did as she was told.

She seriously reconsidered the decision when Sauron took something from a nearby table and turned back to her. He was holding a plain white cloth, which Irideth correctly guessed was drugged. Irideth tensed, moving away a few inches on instinct before stopping herself despite a racing heart.

"Good girl," Sauron murmured, pressing the cloth against her face. "This will only put you to sleep for a few minutes. Just breathe and try to relax."

Well, she didn't really have any other option. Scarcely two breaths later Irideth's vision began to swim. One more minute, and she was dead to the world.


 

"I don't know that you appreciate just how brave this child is," Asha said, checking Irideth's pulse while Sauron placed the cloth back on the table behind him. "If I were her, I would have been doing my damndest to get away from you just now."

"And how effective would that have been?" Sauron asked as he turned around. "She is no fool; she knows it would have achieved nothing."

"Given how badly she likely wanted to run, I would say her ability to reason that far in such a situation at her age is admirable," Asha said as she stepped back. "Her pulse is steady and strong, and her breathing is regular. She should be fine; she'll likely wake up in the next half hour."

"Good," Sauron said, taking Irideth's right arm and pulling it to the side. He dipped a washcloth in a bowl of warm, soapy water and rubbed it along the inside of the girl's elbow. Replacing the cloth, he picked up an empty syringe and a strip of leather before turning around. He tied the leather into a tourniquet above Irideth's elbow, then gently rubbed the area just below the joint until a vein became prominent. Sauron removed the syringe's cap and slid the needle into Irideth's arm.

He drew two vials of blood before removing the needle and tourniquet, pressing a small piece of gauze to the insertion point to stop the bleeding and keep a bruise from forming. He tied a piece of cloth around Irideth's arm to hold it in place.

Once that was done, Sauron returned his attention to the blood he'd drawn. He picked up the vials and held them up to the light, a slight frown tugging at his lips.

Blood was a powerful component in many rituals and spells, but that usually had more to do with the being it came from than the blood itself. The more powerful the being, the more potent the spell, and Ainur could sense this better than any other being in Arda.

Him more than most; he'd had millenia of practice at this point.

Now, though, he couldn't sense... anything, really. He may as well have been holding vials of water, for all he could read. Humans always posed more problems than the Eldar; the human race was not bound to the fate of the world as the others were, which made reading their presence and potential difficult.

Irideth, though, seemed even more intangible, like she wasn't bound to the world at all. It was remarkable, what a problem she'd posed for the Nazgûl. If it weren't for their horses, Sauron had no doubt Irideth would have been able to slip right by them without being noticed at all. And Sauron himself appeared even less able to perceive her in any sense but the physical.

This bore further study. And her blood was a good place to start.


 

Author’s Note: I’ll probably be rewriting the beginning of this story; I’m not happy with a lot of the characters and their development. I’m not sure if I’ll just replace the relevant chapters in bulk or take down the whole story for a while and then repost the new one. I’ll let you know as I make more progress.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12:

Irideth’s head was spinning even before she opened her eyes. When she did open them, it made the vertigo so much worse she immediately closed them with a disgruntled sound, then made another one upon realizing her right arm was sore. She was shifted; someone was holding her, and when Irideth had a few moments to process what her nose and ears were telling her she didn’t have to guess who.

The girl buried her face in what she assumed was the Dark Lord’s chest. A moment later his hand wound its way into her hair, nails scratching lightly at her scalp. Irideth relaxed and fell asleep again a few minutes later.

When Irideth woke again her head cleared after she’d opened her eyes and blinked a few times. As it turned out she’d been correct in her assumption; she was once again on Sauron’s throne, lying in his lap and curled against his chest while Murazor and the rest of the Nazgûl spoke with him.

Irideth felt Sauron open the link. She tensed, but he wasn’t trying to read her mind. She realized he was examining her physical state, using the connection to feel what she felt. He pulled back after a few seconds, satisfied, leaving a brief impression of thought encouraging her to rest.

She certainly wasn’t complaining. Irideth lay against his chest, quietly reveling in the heat he provided while paying only half a mind to the conversation going on above her head.

After a few minutes she wasn’t even doing that, dozing lightly and listening to the quiet rumble in Sauron’s chest as he talked.

A sudden silence jolted Irideth back to full awareness. A quick survey of the others showed that all attention was on the throne room doors, and the Nazgûl didn’t seem all that happy. She could swear she could see Khamul and Akorahil bristling. Murazor, who stood closest to the throne, seemed more collected but was nonetheless giving off an air of displeasure. And how the heck did she know this?

A pleased feeling at the periphery of her consciousness clued her in; she was picking up on Sauron’s perceptions of his servants, reading them as he did. And damn if that wasn’t unnerving.

The sound of footsteps from the doors drew her attention back in that direction. A moment later the doors were pushed open. Siraaj entered, Muzammil and Azeema a few steps behind and flanking him, with several other ministers in tow, a few with their own heirs at their heels.

It was not lost on Sauron, and consequently Irideth, the way the Nazgûl arrayed themselves on either side of the throne, hooded gazes fixed on the newcomers. The ministers, all human, noticeably lost their confident stride under those stares. Some of the wraiths hissed quietly, pleased with the reaction.

This was not a popular crowd, apparently.

Judging by what Irideth could pick up, Sauron was just as annoyed at the interruption as the Nine. He was also very much amused by the humans’ reaction to his undead servants. And he was pleased with the way they were looking at her.

Irideth brought her attention to Siraaj upon noticing that last tidbit. The war minister was indeed staring at her, eyes slightly widened. His children and several other ministers were doing the same; Muzammil’s jaw had dropped and Azeema looked a mix of stunned and horrified.

Irideth felt Sauron’s pleasure grow. He brought his right hand up and began stroking her hair, fingers tracing the collar at her throat when they trailed low enough. Irideth, recognizing the tacit statement in the gesture, played along and relaxed, even leaning into the touch just enough to make it noticeable. Judging by the way certain ministers tensed, the Dark Lord’s message was quite clear.

She is mine.

That left a bitter taste in Irideth’s mouth, but if it would keep certain parties away from her she wasn’t going to fight on it just now.

Sauron tugged lightly at her hair. Irideth complied and leaned back against his chest. She felt his satisfaction at her complacency through the link.

‘Good girl, my dear one.’

“You have something of importance to tell me, Minister Siraaj?”


 

Irideth (and she suspected the Nazgûl as well) did her best not to laugh as she and the wraiths walked down the hall on the opposite side of the ministers, who were plainly uncomfortable with their proximity. Irideth for her part was surrounded by the black-robed figures and remained utterly unbothered, which unnerved the other humans even more.

The wraiths didn’t help things when they started hissing quietly amongst each other, just loud enough that everyone in the hall knew they were doing it but wouldn’t quite be able to tell why.

Well, Irideth could. Khamul was asking questions about exactly what reports they were supposed to have filed when and Murazor was telling him he should have done this all yesterday when he’d asked. Morgomir, Indur and Hoarmurath appeared to have taken pity on their lieutenant and were filling him in while Adunaphel, Ren, Akorahil, and Uvatha were betting on how long it would take him to actually get his work done.

Input through the link nearly had Irideth losing it.

“Lord Sauron puts 10 silvers on three days,” Irideth said under her breath, biting her lip almost hard enough to make it bleed. The four wraiths burst into snickers while the humans at the other side of the hall startled visibly, some moving as close to the wall as they could get.

‘Irideth, stay with the wraiths until I summon you,’ Sauron said. ‘I must call a meeting with my war ministers or they will be bothering me incessantly for the next week. Murazor will be able to find something for you to do, I’m sure. And you may need to keep him from strangling Khamul.’

Irideth grinned. ‘I will guard him with my life, my lord.’

She sensed Sauron’s laughter before he cut the connection. Irideth managed to tone down her grin before anyone human could notice anything.

It would be nice to have a bit of a change of schedule.


 

Irideth had never before had a chance to observe the Nazgûl in an office setting. It actually had never really occurred to her that the Ringwraiths would spend any time doing administrative work, but here she was organizing files while they did whatever work had been assigned to them.

She had been surprised to see the Nine had their own communal office space. Though there was likely some reasoning behind it; Murazor had strategically placed himself at the desk closest to the door so no one (read: Khamul) could leave without him noticing. Said lieutenant had snagged the desk furthest from the door in an attempt to get some shielding between himself and the Black Captain’s murderous glares; Irideth believed quite solidly any mortal that fell under it would keel over dead from sheer terror. She could feel when Murazor was doing it even when she was clear on the other side of the room.

Thus she had situated herself on a small couch between Adunaphel and Indur. She alternated her time between sorting papers and working her way through one of the simpler books she’d found in Barad-Dur’s library to practice her Black Speech. She was proficient at reading runes at this point, but some of the grammar posed a problem and her vocabulary wasn’t as extensive as she would have liked. Irideth had also started teaching herself Sindarin from the few books on Elvish language she could find; she didn’t know if Sauron would approve or not, so she’d opted to keep that quiet for now.

The wraiths turned out to be helpful tutors. Murazor, Akorahil and Adunaphel especially were valuable when it came to working with more recent modes of the language. Sauron and the Nazgûl were among the only ones who still used the ancient “pure” dialect, but the tongue had changed over the past two thousand years. There were several more dialects now, but according to Uvatha there was one that was spoken throughout Mordor except in the more isolated villages. Most variations of Orkish stemmed from this dialect, and Irideth would have to learn both the ancient and modern variations considering she worked both with Sauron and the palace servants.

The task was headache inducing, to say the least. Phrases to conjoin sentences, particles, runes that didn’t quite translate, gendered endings, all sorts of things that Westron either didn’t have or Irideth gave no thought to when speaking it.

The wraiths laughed when she face-planted into a cushion with a groan. Forget what they said, language was hard.


 

Sauron could have just summoned Irideth back to his chambers via the link, but he figured the walk to the Nazgûl’s corner of the fortress would do him some good. If he didn’t have an outlet for at least some of the energy his irritation provided, he would probably run a knife through the skull of the next person who talked to him. Or just burn them to death; that one was probably more likely. His hair was already sparking a bit.

Irritation gave way to curiosity when he sensed the wraiths’ telepathic communications as he approached their shared office. They didn’t need to speak to each other and often didn’t when around people other than himself, but when they were alone or with him the verbal back-and-forth could go nonstop for hours. Especially when Khamul was supposed to be getting paperwork done, Sauron thought with an upward quirk of the lips. Previous happenstances considered, he should have been able to hear them well before he reached the hall.

When he entered the room though, it was completely silent save for the occasional rustle of paper and the scratch of quills. The Nine were all seated at their own desks working away, save for Uvatha and Hoarmurath who were examining a map at the far side of the room.

Sauron halted for a moment, amazed. He’d never seen them working so quietly and diligently when they were all together like this. Out in the field they were a fine-tuned machine, but put them together to do a little quiet office work and you might as well have tried to herd cats across a river.

The reason for their quiet became apparent when he located his slave. Irideth was lying on a small couch between Adunaphel and Indur, a stack of books and a few boxes of papers resting at the foot of it. Irideth herself looked like she’d fallen asleep sitting up and eventually collapsed on top of a cushion; a quick check of the link proved she was dead to the world.

The wraiths all bowed their heads by way of greeting; Sauron nodded in acknowledgement as he made his way over to the couch.

Irideth didn’t wake when he lifted her; she made a quiet noise that sounded like a complaint, then curled into him when he brought her close.

Sauron felt something dangerously akin to fondness swell in his chest as he gazed down at the child, a smile tugging insistently at his lips. Though that could have been partially due to vicariously sensing the wraiths through their rings; this was a human slave, for crying out loud.

The Dark Lord glared around the room when he sensed the words denial and cute being thrown around, but the Nazgûl were studiously avoiding looking at him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13:

8 months later:

Irideth had known pregnant women who were more emotionally stable than Sauron was at the moment.

She couldn't pinpoint exactly when he'd gotten this bad. It had started with a particularly bad nightmare; he hadn't slept for three days afterward, opting to spend most of his time on top of the fortress in the Eye.

His mood was positively foul as a result. Irideth didn't know what all ran through his head (or mind, really, considering he was bodiless?) when he was up there, but from what she could feel from the link it consisted mainly of staring and brooding. Mostly brooding, along with thinking black thoughts about essentially every other being in Arda.

Sauron, among his myriad other talents, was apparently very inventive when coming up with curses of both the four-letter and 'doom on your people' variety.

Irideth wasn't certain if he knew she could pick up on his thoughts and emotions even when he was bodiless, but it didn't really matter if he didn't block the bond.

So Irideth had practiced closing the bond extensively when this had first started; she probably would have been completely incapacitated otherwise. It had gone better than she could have hoped; she could now block the link on a whim.

The Nazgûl were having their own issues with the situation. They were restless, agitated and (though Irideth would never say it with them in earshot) nervous. Murazor was doing an admirable job keeping them busy, though; he'd taken over running several aspects of the fortress, with Sauron being indisposed most of the time.

Irideth knew this because he'd enlisted her aid. She spent a good portion of her days in the wraiths' shared office now, filing and organizing reports. The Nine had also begun teaching her the basics of the accounting and finance process (along with the necessary arithmetic). Irideth deemed it likely they would eventually have her double-checking expense reports and budgets.

Most surprising to her had been when Minister Kamaal had begun providing additional tutelage in basic economics when he'd realized what was going on. He'd also started taking her to the stables a few times a week when he saw how nuts the work was driving her; he and the stablemaster, Sabir, were apparently good friends.

Sabir was another one of the few people in Barad-Dûr who treated Irideth like a human being despite the fact of his higher social standing. He'd been thrilled to have a Rohirric slave around, especially one who'd been training with a Horsemaster, however briefly. He and Irideth would spend hours discussing foal training techniques quite easily, and more recently they'd started arguing the merits of various methods of starting a horse under saddle.

Irideth would never admit it, but she'd been flattered when Hoarmurath told her Sabir had adopted the Rohirric method she'd taught him for desensitizing horses to loud noises and movement close to their bodies.

Irideth had been more than happy to oblige when the Nazgûl asked her to exercise and "give their regards to" their horses. It seemed that, despite tales told in Rohan, the Nine took very good care of their steeds. They actually held some measure of affection for them. Though, considering what she'd seen when she'd first been captured, Irideth supposed she shouldn't have been quite so surprised. The horses had been very well behaved, but Irideth had initially assumed that was because they'd had all the fight beaten out of them. But then she'd seen how the wraiths cared for them when they rode; they never overworked them, would take the time to cool them down when the weather was hot or they'd been running for a long stretch, and fed and watered them as regularly as they could manage.

The girl had been soundly shocked the first time Murazor and Adunaphel had brought her to the stable to introduce her to Sabir; their horses had whinnied an excited greeting, and when their respective riders came over to them had immediately begun demanding attention like all the other horses Irideth knew with beloved riders. It was… cute.

And then it felt like someone had punched her in the chest when an image of the buckskin stallion came to the forefront of her mind.

She'd wanted to avoid the stables at first because of this and similar reminders of home, but she was of Rohan, no matter where she'd been born. She had horses in her blood, and it didn't take long for her to be able to simply enjoy the familiar smell of a barn, the feeling of sweat and dust on her face and hands, muscles sore from riding and horse hair all over her clothes.

It helped that Sabir immediately liked anybody who treated horses the way the Rohirrim did. He held a great respect for her people, he'd told Irideth as soon as he thought she'd be able to understand his language (he didn't speak Westron), and it showed in the way he treated her.

"I do not like the idea of slaves," he'd told her one day when she'd stayed late to help him pack a salve into a lame gelding's hoof. "I do not like what the idea of ownership makes people do. They feel they own something, they think they can do anything they desire to it, that it must do as they wish. That is fine for a cart or a mill, but not for thinking creatures, especially not for humans. You can think and feel as I do; I would not like someone demanding I do things for them because they think they own me, so I will not treat you as such."

Irideth had been a bit embarrassed when she'd noticed the tears on her cheeks, but the stablemaster just smiled and patted her shoulder. "You are a brave child. You have trouble with anyone, you tell me, yes?"

That had cemented Irideth's liking of the man. She was happy he had started sending for her in recent weeks, whether it be to help train a specific horse or just help with turnout and feeding. The wraiths would grumble about the loss of an extra hand, but it hadn't taken long for Irideth to realize they were joking (and Nazgûl with a sense of humor was still a concept that took some getting used to).

Of course, Irideth wasn't stupid; no one had said it aloud, but she knew the almost sole purpose of these extra demands on her time were to keep her away from Sauron as much as possible. The wraiths had started the whole thing because they could sense the Dark Lord's worsening temper before the rest of the fortress. When Irideth had noticed Sabir studying her closely when he thought she wasn't paying attention, and later seen Kamaal doing the same, it had confirmed her suspicions.

They were afraid that, with Sauron's black mood, he was going to hurt her.

Irideth certainly didn't discount the possibility; she doubted he'd gotten the name "Gorthaur" for nothing. She'd always been wary of him and maintained a level of watchfulness about her words and behavior. She cranked that watchfulness up several notches the testier Sauron got. When his mood was particularly bad she wouldn't even return to her room in the evenings; she'd just sleep with the kitchen slaves.

But Sauron had still made no move to harm her. He didn't speak to her as often as he'd used to, and when he did his tone was usually sharp and his words clipped, but he didn't raise a hand to her. He hadn't even said anything cruel; he had pointed out a few perceived superficial errors in her chores that Irideth acknowledged with an insincere "Apologies, my lord," before bringing his focus back to whatever he'd been working on.

A few weeks ago Irideth had been far too tired to deal with his pettiness and the 'apology' had been very noticeably not meant. Sweet Yavanna, Irideth had realized a second after the words had left her mouth she'd used the same tone she used with Adina or Cevin when they were complaining about some imagined slight or other, and she'd explained to them over a dozen times already it had not actually been her trying to be mean just because she was the oldest.

To her surprise, though, Sauron had actually calmed down a bit. Heck, he'd almost smiled. Although that had probably had more to do with the great, I just sassed the Dark Lord and I am going to frickin' die now expression on Irideth's face.

He hadn't acknowledged it the next morning, either, and he'd been a bit less grating for most of the day.

He was back to sour mode by the evening, but it had made Irideth think. Sauron was a Maia, he didn't technically need to eat or sleep, but he did appear to enjoy doing so now and then. Social interaction also wasn't a must; Sauron actively avoided it when it came to most people, but the Nazgûl and some of his ministers (Kamaal most noticeably) were often able to lighten his moods at least to a degree. He made some effort to remain at ease when Irideth herself was around.

Thus, Irideth had begun a subtle counter attack.

She'd started by leaving plates of food on his desk or bedside table. It wasn't anything that would constitute a full meal to a human; she doubted Sauron would pay much mind to it otherwise, he rarely took the time to eat a full meal these days.

Irideth had noticed over the past several months that whenever she brought Sauron a tray of food, the things that vanished most often were berries or a small pastry or two, some variety of fruit juice or a sweet tea or wine.

Ergo, the Dark Lord apparently had a bit of a sweet tooth. So she would leave something to cater to this each time.

Sauron ignored it for the most part at first, but after a few days Irideth noticed that at least some of the sweeter entrees would be missing from one or two of the plates (which she found strangely hilarious). A few days later, the plates would be almost completely empty.

It took a couple of weeks for there to be a notable improvement, but Irideth deemed it safe enough to move on to the next phase.

She started staying in Sauron's room in the evenings (to the great alarm of her caretakers). She didn't speak unless addressed, just folded clothes and blankets, organized files, or practiced her Black Speech vocabulary.

Sauron essentially ignored her, sitting at his desk and reading over old tomes and maps or scratching down notes on something or other. Irideth occasionally felt the weight of his gaze; if it lingered long enough, she would look up at him with a politely inquiring expression until he returned to his work.

Irideth was immensely gratified when she noticed the relaxation of his shoulders on the third night of this. The atmosphere became a little less heavy, and she didn't have to focus as much on keeping her body language easy and relaxed.


 

Irideth had been doing this for about a week, but she was still surprised when she entered Sauron's room after an agonizing day of reading and filing accounting reports to find the Dark Lord seated in a chair by the fire reading a book.

Irideth blinked; as far as she'd been able to tell before she'd blocked the link again, Sauron had been in a pretty bad mood for most of the morning. He looked relaxed enough now, but Irideth didn't know how much patience he'd shored up and didn't dare poke at the link for fear it wasn't all that much.

She didn't think he'd paid her entrance any mind, but when she shut the door behind her and turned in the direction of her room, he lifted his head and moved his eyes to her. She froze.

"Come here, Irideth," he said quietly. Feeling no small measure of trepidation but not daring to disobey a direct order, Irideth walked over to him. Sauron had set his book down before she reached him, and when she came to stand in front of his chair he reached down and lifted her into his lap, facing him.

Irideth went rigid for a few seconds; it had been so long since he'd held her that the sudden rush of heat, though pleasant, was startling.

Not to mention her concern about his temperament wasn't exactly easing.

Sauron was gentle, though. Irideth took a quiet breath and made herself relax when his hands ghosted along her arms, stopping briefly to trace the collar at her neck before cupping her face. Irideth felt herself tensing again when Sauron tilted her head back, making her eyes meet his. She felt him prodding at the link and unblocked it without further prompting.

The Dark Lord smiled at her, and she felt his approval as a brief, light warmth through the bond. Irideth couldn't quite hold back a grimace of pain as he entered her mind. He hummed softly, thumb massaging her cheek by way of apology as he sifted through some of her more recent memories and, to Irideth's surprise, gauged her physical and emotional state.

He withdrew after a minute or so, pulling Irideth closer as he leaned against the back of his chair. She didn't protest, turning so her back rested against Sauron's chest as he began stroking her hair. She felt more than heard his quiet laugh when she relaxed against him.

"So, my little one, what have you been up to these past few months?"

Irideth blinked, surprised by both the question and the fact Sauron had asked it at all; why the heck would he care?

"Didn't you just… see that, my lord?" she asked.

"I did not examine anything in great detail," Sauron answered, tucking a rogue strand of hair behind her ear. "And I did not feel your own thoughts on matters. I would like to hear your own rendition of your experiences."

Irideth was suddenly very glad he'd severed the connection, because she was completely baffled. She was his slave, why was he even taking the time to ask her this?

Deciding now was not the time to ponder such things, Irideth launched into the epic tale of Khamul vs The Rest of the Ringwraiths in the Avoidance of Paperwork.


 

Irideth, as it turned out, was an animated storyteller.

Sauron knew she was nervous; he'd felt that the second she'd opened the link (and when had she gotten so adept at blocking it?). But she was doing an admirable job of concealing it. Her bearing betrayed little, and her voice essentially nothing. Brushing his awareness over her mind lightly enough that she wouldn't sense it, the Dark Lord realized she was pretending (or trying to) that she was reciting an old legend or song to her younger siblings.

He couldn't decide if he found this annoying or amusing, but as he turned more of his attention to her words he admitted to himself he was surprised. Sauron doubted she was aware of it, but she was far more observant than would he would have expected of a child her age; she'd noticed and deciphered a good deal of the Nazgûl's individual mannerisms without faces to read. It was rather impressive.

And entertaining when she began relaying how eight of them had, on some unspoken agreement and led by Khamul, begun tag-teaming each other so Murazor would at least be less likely to notice when one of them skipped out on office duty. Irideth had apparently helped cover for them more than once.

Murazor had noticed, of course, and figured out what they were doing quite quickly. Apparently when Irideth could see he was particularly irritated she would put in a bit of extra time herself, which would mollify him at least to some extent.

It often didn't stop him from telling off the culprits. Irideth described a few of these instances in detail, and Sauron found it hilarious picturing his wraiths behaving much like chastised children (a state he knew Murazor was more than capable of reducing them to when suitably annoyed).


 

"I was actually thinking Khamul and Uvatha were going to sink into the floor; I had no idea they could make themselves look that small," Irideth said, gesturing for emphasis. "Everyone showed up and put in some overtime for the next three days. Then we actually got ahead of schedule and it started all over again. I think Murazor's seriously considering chaining everybody to their desks until we at least get the budgets for next quarter done."

Sauron laughed. Irideth blinked and stiffened in surprise for a moment. It wasn't a cruel laugh, as one would expect from a Dark Lord (although to be honest, she'd never heard him do so), and it wasn't the quiet or soft laugh she usually heard from him. This was a full, throwing-his-head-back laugh, and it was… pleasing, actually, to hear.

Annnd we are stopping that line of thought right now.

"I can certainly see him doing so," Sauron said once he'd gotten his breath back, eyes and voice still full of mirth. "It is likely the only way he will get them to complete anything."

"He doesn't have anything small enough to hold me, does he?" Irideth asked, adopting a horrified expression. "I'd like to see the sun one last time before I die."

Sauron laughed again, and Irideth's mouth curled into a grin before she could stop it.

"I'm certain he will not be able to find anything," the Dark Lord said, smiling as he ran a hand through her hair almost absently. "And if he does keep you overlong, let me know. I'm certain I will be able to find some excuse to claim your time that he will deem suitable."


 

Sorry, sorry, sorry it's taken me so long to update! School sucks SO MUCH right now (doesn't help that it's midterm season)! Let me know what you think via PM or review (seriously, helps me get off my ass).

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14:

1 month later:

Irideth's first indication something was seriously wrong was that she couldn't eat.

Well, she could have, she supposed; it was just that eating... actually, even the smell of food, was enough to make her feel nauseous.

Despite this, she tried something small. Just an apple. Not even a big one; a horse could have eaten the whole thing in one mouthful.

She barely took three bites before feeling like she was going to be sick.

Perpetual exhaustion was the next thing she noticed. It was all she could do to stand sometimes, and often when she walked it felt like she was moving through molasses.

She ached, too. Her joints hurt almost constantly, and some days she was plagued by a headache that just wouldn't go away.

Irideth wasn't certain what to do about any of this; she didn't have a fever and wasn't showing the usual cold symptoms. Willow in her tea at meals did little to alleviate the pain.

She tried using her healing magic; it worked better than the tea, but the aches always returned within an hour and it did nothing about the exhaustion. Considering the continued magicka drain, which only exacerbated things in the long run, it just wasn't worth it.

And then there were the dreams; she barely slept most nights, jerking awake at all hours from half-remembered nightmares, covered in cold sweat. Whenever she did remember a dream, it was often something about her family. She almost preferred the nightmares; waking up to reality was far harsher after a dream like that. Her chest would ache, she would feel weighed down and moving would take extra effort for a while.

Valar's sake, what she wouldn't give for a decent night's rest.


 

"What's wrong with me?"

Irianna had managed to re-create her spell, and she was absolutely delighted that the connection appeared stronger this time; Irideth was less transparent.

Despite this, she looked worse than she had the first time they'd spoken. She moved too stiffly for Irianna's liking, and she looked... wan. Worn, which was unsettling to see in a child her age.

And when Irideth described her symptoms, the khajiit became even more worried.

"You... um... your Master... Sauron, you said... he isn't hurting you?" Irianna asked, keeping an eye on the figure sitting with her legs crossed on the opposite side of the spell circle. Irideth, who had been staring at the floor the whole time, shook her head.

"Nobody's trying to withhold food? Or water?"

Another headshake. Irianna felt her jaw clenching, tail twitching unconsciously behind her and nearly knocking over a bowl of bone meal.

"You say you've noticed no other cold symptoms? At all?"

A nod, followed by a morose poke at a swirl of chalk. "I wouldn't touch that, if I were you; these types of spells can be... volatile if they're messed up."

"Sorry," Irideth mumbled. Mara's sake, she sounded drunk, almost.

Irianna's claws dug into her robes almost unconsciously. Colette had been studying something like this a while ago, she remembered the older apprentice had been spending hours in the Arcaneum, muttering to herself about the mind and life energies...

"Irideth, how long ago were you kidnapped?"

Irideth's eyes snapped to the khajiit's, spine jerking into an upright position, mouth opening and closing like a stunned spadetail.

Then she went still. "A... almost a year," she said, so softly even Irianna's ears almost didn't pick it up. "I've been in Mordor for almost a year."

I haven't seen my family in almost a year, Irianna translated to herself.

"Irideth, you're homesick," Irianna said quietly. "You're... I don't really know how to explain this, one of the other apprentices here, she focuses mainly on the Restoration school, she... um, she thinks she's found... Damnit, I really don't know how to put this, but her research indicates links between life energies and the state of a person's mind. Sentient creatures can form associations, be it with objects, other creatures or even a particular date or time of year. She says it's mostly subconscious in humans, but these associations can influence the body, like a panic response to a certain smell. It's the same with other emotions, too. You were kidnapped, by wraiths, torn away from your family and everything safe and friendly you'd known. That's frightening by itself, and being subsequently enslaved to someone known throughout your whole continent as the 'Dark Lord' or 'Nameless Enemy' wouldn't help things."

Irideth snorted. Irianna managed a momentary grin.

"Would I be correct in saying you don't exactly trust him?"

Irideth was silent for several seconds. "No," she said. "I expected him to hurt me... and he did, with the collar, but I expected more than that. I thought he would talk down to me, beat me, treat me like a working animal and then ignore me. He's... done none of that, not really. He's really unpleasant to deal with when he's in a bad mood, but he hasn't hurt me, not even when he's really angry. I... it seems like... I think sometimes he even tries to stay away from me when he's angry, but... People are obviously afraid of him. Most of his ministers are terrified of him; even Kamaal was looking out for me when Sauron was in one of his rage fits. He knows him far better than I do, and that... I don't know how long this can last. What will happen when he does lose control? He's a Maia, he could kill me without even trying!"

A tear fell onto the girl's hand and Irideth jerked slightly before brushing at the wet tracks on her cheeks; Irianna didn't think she'd even noticed she was crying until now.

"And then there's...," Irideth had to pause, inhaling shakily several times before continuing. "He's... he'll talk to me, ask me about what I've been doing and hold me sometimes but... I don't think there's... there's nothing in it. It's..."

"He doesn't mean it," Irianna said quietly. Irideth nodded, rubbing at her streaming eyes again.

"I almost wish he was cruel to me, so I wouldn't remember. So I wouldn't..." Irideth broke down again, hands covering her face as her shoulders shook with the force of her quiet sobs. "I want my family. I just want to go home."

Irianna reached forward before she could think, then paused when she remembered she couldn't actually touch the other girl. She withdrew slowly, teeth biting into her lower lip.

"Is... Is it at all possible for you to escape?" Irianna asked quietly.

Irideth wrapped her arms around herself and shook her head. "I wouldn't even be able to get out of the Tower, I don't think, much less across Mordor without getting caught. And with this," here she gestured to the jeweled collar at her neck, "I think Sauron is able to... not track me, exactly, but... feel me. He can read my mind, speak to me no matter where I am. He would be able to find me no matter where I went."

"Can you block him?" Irianna asked.

"Yes, but only when he's not actively trying to read my thoughts. If he is... I haven't really tried to stop him then," Irideth said quietly, gripping the fabric of her nightgown in clenched fists.

The 'because he would probably hurt me' was heavily implied.

"Well, that does put a damper on that plan," Irianna said after several heavy seconds of silence. Irideth's lips twitched into a smile for a moment.

Silence for several seconds.

"Irideth, I... I don't really know what to tell you. I want to help you, I do, but... I can't figure out how I can, aside from maybe helping you learn a few spells," Irianna said.

"You wouldn't happen to have an invisibility spell, would you?" Irideth asked, smiling thinly.

"Actually, there are invisibility spells," Irianna said; Irideth blinked in surprise. "But they're some of the most advanced Illusion spells; I've barely managed to cast adept-level. Illusion's one of my worst schools, aside from Conjuration. And it takes a lot of magicka to cast even the weakest ones."

Irideth's dismay at this revelation was quite visible.

"Keep practicing, Irideth," Irianna said, a steely undertone seeping into her words. "You told me last time that Sauron encourages you to practice with your flame spells. Do it. You learned Frostbite and Magelight; use them. It's like exercising a muscle; the more you practice, the more your magicka reserves will grow."

"But what if he finds out?" Irideth cried. "He searches my mind sometimes, and I never know when he'll do it and I can't stop him or he'll know something's wrong!"

Irianna cursed under her breath. "I'll have to speak with Urag and some of the instructors, see if any of them know anything about mind links."

Irideth, meanwhile, had wrapped her arms around herself and was staring at the floor, tears still falling steadily down her face.

"We'll figure something out, Irideth," Irianna said. "I'm not giving up on you; we'll find a way to get you home."


 

Irideth woke with still-wet tear tracks on her face. She sat up and wiped them away, sitting for a moment to wait for a dizzy spell to pass. Once it had, she dressed as quickly as she was able; her limbs were in no mood for cooperation, apparently.

Sauron was still asleep when she entered his room. Deeply asleep for once, judging by the depth and rate of his breath.

Since he did not have any pressing obligations that she knew of, Irideth opted to leave him be. Making her slow, quiet way to the door and closing it behind her, she proceeded to drag herself to the kitchens.

She only realized she'd arrived earlier than usual when she saw that everyone was only prepping their stations. The girl felt herself tensing when she noticed the questioning looks shot her way; she did her best to ignore them and made her way over to Inga when she spotted the woman.

"Irideth! What are you doing here so early?" Inga said, almost dropping the eggs she was holding when Irideth pulled a chair over to the counter.

"I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep," Irideth said, pulling herself onto the chair and standing with effort. Inga looked askance at her but didn't say anything as Irideth began helping her prep several batches of pastry dough.


 

Murazor was quite impressed when Halla walked up to them; he, Adunaphel, Akorahil and Khamul had been speaking with Kamaal about supply chain issues with Nurn when they'd noticed the woman. Being close to him and the other wraiths was plainly unnerving to her; her hands were visibly shaking and her lips were bloodless.

Nevertheless, she dipped into a low curtsy, keeping her eyes lowered as was the protocol for a slave addressing nobles or high-ranking officers.

"Forgive me, my lords, for interrupting, but I would speak with you," Halla said, only a slight tremor in her voice. Murazor was aware of his subordinates backing away a little bit, movements fluid and quiet enough not to be noticed.

"Of course, Halla," Kamaal said, smiling. The woman relaxed at his easy tone. If Murazor had still been possessed of eyebrows, they would have ascended his also non-existent forehead; he hadn't been aware the two knew each other.

"I... believe there's something wrong with Irideth," Halla said, raising her eyes for a moment to gauge Kamaal's reaction.

None of them moved, but Murazor sensed the other wraiths' sudden spike of agitation, which mirrored his own, peripherally. Kamaal made no effort to hide his concern.

"What makes you think so, Halla?" the man asked, voice quiet but plainly worried.

"She has been... moving oddly for the past fortnight or so; at least, that is when I first noticed it, but it has recently gotten worse. She's almost like a wooden doll, as though moving her joints pains her," Halla said. "She has not been as talkative as she usually is, either, and I don't think she's been eating or sleeping well, if at all. She seems exhausted all the time, and Inga told me this morning even her speech seems slowed."

Does that sound like any illness you are familiar with?’ Murazor asked Akorahil.

Akorahil was quiet for long enough that his fellows’ hooded heads all turned toward him, startling their human companions.

…Nothing physical comes to mind,’ Akorahil replied after several moments.

‘…But?’ Khamul prompted.

‘Well, severe or prolonged mental or emotional strain has been observed to present physical symptoms like the ones Halla described,’ Akorahil said.

‘Oh!’ Murazor almost jumped at the force of Adunaphel’s epiphany. Once he focused on her train of thought, though, he felt rather foolish for not having realized it sooner.

“It has been roughly a year since her capture,” he said out loud, visibly startling the humans. “I am uncertain whether Irideth recognizes this or not; however…,”

Halla’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, my goodness, you’re right! Oh, the poor girl!” Suddenly remembering who she was addressing, the woman’s gaze dropped to the floor again while Kamaal looked distinctly pained.

Silence reigned; no one had any idea how to pursue the topic.

It became a bit of a non-issue when another slave- Inga, if Murazor remembered correctly- all but ran up to them, curtsying hastily before turning her focus to Halla.

“Halla, I… the other girls and I, we think Irideth’s in trouble…,”

“Yes, Inga, we’ve just been discussing that,” Halla said, low and urgent, casting a furtive glance at Kamaal and the wraiths.

Inga took a deep breath. “No, not that… it’s… Nafal, he’s been hanging around the kitchen for the past hour…,”

“What?” Halla said, turning her head sharply toward the younger woman.

Inga swallowed. “He said something about not having time to go to the mess… ridiculous, of course, we all knew that. He always seemed to make his way over to Irideth’s end of the kitchen. We kept him away from her as best we could, but the way he was watching her… she had to go to the storerooms; we thought he hadn’t noticed, he was looking the other way, but then a few minutes later he was gone! Not one of us saw or heard him leaving, and Irideth isn’t back…,” Inga took another deep breath, sounding close to tears. “Halla, you know he serves Basaam, what they do to their younger slaves, especially the females…,”

Murazor did not need to hear any more to know where this was going, and judging by the alarm he could feel in his subordinates, neither did they.

Find her,’ he told them. ‘Quickly!’


 

Being grabbed from behind had done a marvelous job banishing the heaviness from Irideth’s limbs.

When she opened her mouth to scream, a hand clapped over the lower half of her face, and Irideth found herself being pinned against someone’s chest.

She kicked and thrashed, uttering muffled cries as she was carried she wasn’t sure where; she tried to twist around and get a look at her attacker, but he- judging by the build, the person was male- had her almost completely immobilized.

Irideth’s heart almost stopped when she was dragged into a darkened room, lit by only a few sparse candles.

The girl almost stopped breathing when she was able to discern a desk at the far side of the room, and leaning against it, the shadowed form of Minister Basaam.

The tiny smirk curling the corners of his mouth sent a shock of cold dread shooting through her limbs, her whole body beginning to tremble. She knew that look, had seen how his slaves reacted to it. Oh, Valar, no!

“No one saw you?” Basaam said, quiet but no less menacing for it, as he stepped forward. Irideth heard her captor chuckle.

“No.” Nafal, of course. “Little scum was practically dragging her feet. Was easier than grabbing a flightless bird.”

Basaam made a tutting sound, pulling something… a stock whip, Irideth realized with a chill… from his belt, placing the tip of the handle beneath her chin as Nafal released her mouth, forcing her head up. “I’d have thought laziness, at least, would have been beaten out of you by now, slave.”

Irideth’s throat burned, heat flooding her blood just as quickly as the cold had before. And I’d have thought you would be more sensible.

“Please, my lords, I must return to the kitchens before I am missed,” she said; it took no effort to make her voice tremble. “Lord Sauron will be angry with me if I…,”

She cried out when Basaam struck her sharply across the face with the whip, the sudden, harsh sting bringing tears to her eyes. “You do not speak unless asked, girl,” the man said, as if he was reprimanding a dog. Apparently the threat of his Lord’s ire wasn’t enough to put him off; either that or he didn’t think Sauron would care that someone else was manhandling his slave, in which case he was obscenely stupid.

Irideth flinched away when Basaam grabbed her chin, gritting her teeth to keep from making a sound when he dug his fingers very deliberately into her injured right cheek.

The heat in her throat expanded into her chest; her blood burned.

Moving impossibly fast, Irideth jerked her head out of the man’s grip and sank her teeth into the offending hand, feeling the skin break a moment before the metallic taste of blood swept over her tongue.

Basaam yelled in pain before spitting several curses and trying to pull his hand free. Irideth bit down harder, twisting her head viciously to the side, practically tearing the back of his hand open before letting go and throwing her head back into Nafal’s nose.

Irideth was promptly dropped, as she’d hoped. She managed to land on her feet, but was so off balance she toppled sideways, catching herself on her right arm.

She had pushed herself up and turned to run for the door when her left arm was seized in a vice grip and she was yanked backward with brutal force.

Irideth screamed as a stabbing, searing pain jack-knifed through her upper arm, an awful grinding noise seeming to reverberate through the inside of her skull. She didn’t have time to process much else as she was lifted and thrown backward as though she weighed nothing.

The breath was driven from her lungs when her side and head struck the desk Basaam had been leaning on. Irideth saw stars; knife-like pain lanced through the right side of her chest, worst around the lower ribs. Her mouth opened in a soundless scream when the recoil from the impact sent her rolling onto her left arm, the pain sending black spots dancing across her vision and making bile rise in her throat.

Irideth managed to roll onto her back, shaking, breathing ragged, ears ringing, eyes unfocused. Vaguely she could hear her attackers cursing; she couldn’t discern the words, until…

Irideth turned her head to the left when she heard approaching footsteps; she recognized Basaam immediately, a hollow feeling growing in her stomach at the twisted look on his face.

“I will make you pay dearly for that, you insolent little witch!” he hissed. Irideth tensed, rolling onto her side and curling into a ball as best she could, screwing her eyes shut and bringing her uninjured arm up to cover her head when she saw him raising the whip.

“Will you now?”

Everyone froze. Irideth’s eyes opened, widening further when her gaze found the door.

Sauron’s beguiling smile was completely belied by his voice; smooth and soft as it usually was, but Irideth had no problem detecting the coldness beneath his words. She was used to him presenting a suggestion of menace whenever he was displeased with his servants, but now… his hair looked almost like living flames, and his eyes, instead of their usual soft glow, appeared almost lit from within by a fire of their own. They were more red than amber, Irideth noted, and the look in them promised bloodshed.

Eru, he was furious.

Irideth checked the link when the Dark Lord stepped further into the room. Sauron was blocking it, she realized quite quickly, which was why she hadn’t sensed him coming. It was also the only reason she wasn’t terrified out of her mind; sensing his rage from a distance was bad enough.

Basaam, meanwhile, appeared to have snapped out of his own stupor and moved to kneel. A flick of Sauron’s wrist had the man flying across the room, slamming into the far wall hard enough that Irideth could hear the air leaving his lungs quite clearly despite her ringing ears. She carefully moved her right arm from its defensive position to be able to see better. The girl blinked in confusion when she saw Nafal lying on the floor near Basaam’s prone form, clutching his left arm and bleeding from a wound to the head, face bloodless and twisted in a pained grimace.

How had that happened? Irideth didn’t remember seeing or sensing Sauron make any move against him. Had she hit her head harder than she’d thought?

“What, in all of Arda, gave you the idea that you could touch my slave?” Sauron said, voice still soft but considerably colder, advancing slowly and purposefully toward the two men. Both drew back as much as they were able.

“M…my lord, forgive me,” Basaam croaked, a steady trickle of blood flowing from his mouth. “The slave was…”

Sauron’s gaze somehow became deadlier. “Do you think to lie to me, Basaam?” he purred, and somehow that was so much more terrifying than anything else Irideth could have imagined him doing.

Basaam was apparently of the same mind; he ducked his head, unable to meet the Dark Lord’s eyes, trembling visibly. “Forgive me, my lord,” he said again, voice barely more than a whisper.

Sauron was now standing over the two men. He smiled, showing far too many teeth for it to be considered anything but predatory. “No. I don’t think I will.”

Faster than Irideth’s eyes could track, Sauron reached down and seized Basaam by the throat, hauling him upward as easily as he would a feather, holding the man so his eyes were level with the Dark Lord’s. Basaam gave a strangled scream, both hands wrapping around Sauron’s wrist in an instinctive attempt to ease the no doubt choking grip. Sauron’s hold only tightened, his clawed gauntlets digging deep into the man’s neck and drawing blood. Irideth felt a thrill of horror when she noticed the blisters forming beneath Sauron’s hand, smelled charred hair and burning skin.

A sudden chill, made all the more noticeable by the heat of Sauron’s rage, drew Irideth’s attention back toward the door. She was just in time to see Murazor and several other wraiths entering, their pace seeming rather hurried. Akorahil, who had entered just behind his Captain, immediately made his way over to Irideth, followed closely by Adunaphel and Ren.

Another horrid scream from Basaam sent a chill down Irideth’s spine and she flinched despite the pain, eyes moving toward the noise instinctively.

“Don’t look,” Akorahil said softly as he knelt beside her, gently supporting her head while Adunaphel carefully rolled her onto her back. “What hurts?”

Irideth blinked, taking a moment to catalog things. There was a throbbing pain at the top of her left arm, an inch or two below the shoulder; everything below that was almost numb. She tried flexing her fingers experimentally. The action sent a sharp pain through the injured area, and as far as Irideth could tell her fingers hadn’t moved much, if at all. Breathing hurt; every inhalation was accompanied by a jagged pain in her right side, most prominent near the lower ribs. Her head was pounding, her vision was blurred, and judging by the wetness she could feel on the side of her face and the tang at the back of her throat, her nose and a cut somewhere on her head were both bleeding.

Irideth swallowed. “I think my left arm is broken. Just below the shoulder,” she managed, voice ragged and scarcely more than a whisper. “Breathing… my chest hurts. I can’t see very well; my head hurts.”

“Yes, that looks like quite the blow to the head you took,” Akorahil muttered, half to himself. “You likely have a minor concussion. Are your ears ringing? Any nausea?”

Irideth nodded as best she could.

“Minor concussion, then. Can you move your left hand at all?” Akorahil asked.

“Not really,” Irideth answered, wincing internally at the thinness of her voice. “I…,”

Everything suddenly tilted violently sideways. Irideth blinked rapidly, letting herself go completely limp in an effort to stabilize things. The spinning only got worse, the ringing in her ears becoming deafening before the world faded to black.


 

Sauron was still seething when he entered the healing wing; even the most senior healers all but scrambled out of his way as he headed toward one of the smaller rooms in the back.

The nerve of Basaam! The sheer, utter temerity of the minister and that impudent assistant of his, to even think of laying a hand on something that belonged to him! His personal slave, no less!

Sauron was very pointedly ignoring the memory of the unpleasant feeling in his stomach when he’d seen Irideth on the floor, face covered in blood, curled into a ball in an effort to protect herself from a man more than twice her size…

Sauron growled in annoyance as he flicked away a spot of flame that had ignited in his hair.

No. He was not going there.

The Dark Lord was distracted enough that he almost didn’t notice Uvatha, Indur, Adunaphel and Akorahil exiting the door he was approaching. He stopped briefly when they bowed, then moved forward when they stepped aside.

Join the others,’ he ordered as he moved past them. ‘I will be with you when I am finished here.’

He sensed no small amount of glee as the wraiths set off purposefully for the dungeons. Sauron smiled, rather darkly, as he stepped through the door, closing it behind him with a small wave of his hand.

His smile faded, being replaced by a study of blankness when his eyes found Asha, who was pulling a blanket over a sleeping Irideth. There were bandages wrapped around the child’s head, and the dried blood on them did not escape his notice.

The orc glanced up when she heard the door shut. She immediately began listing her patient’s injuries. “Her left humerus is fractured an inch or so below the shoulder; I’ve wrapped it in a make-shift cast for now. She’s mildly concussed. She woke up for a few minutes after the wraiths brought her in and was quite confused, but seemed to remember at least the gist of what happened after a minute or so. It’s difficult to say how much of that is due to the injury and how much is the effect of the overall trauma. There’s a nice gash on the right side of her head, but it doesn’t need stitches, thankfully. I believe some of the lower ribs on her right side are cracked, and she may have a bruised lung.”

Sauron was fairly certain he could hear his teeth creaking, his jaw was clenched so hard. Noticing the way Asha was looking at him, he took a quiet breath and forced his muscles to relax.

“Rest assured, Asha, it is not her I am angry with,” he said, much softer than he would have thought himself capable at the moment. “How long do you estimate it will take her to recover?”

“She’s young; the bones will heal relatively quickly. Her ribs will probably take two to three weeks, the arm will likely take a bit longer, I’d estimate between three and five weeks. I’m going to keep her here overnight to monitor her. I’ll probably have to change her bandages at least one more time today. I’ll have her come in every day for a while so I can check the head injury and change them as necessary, or have Akorahil do it,” Asha said. “I have her on some fairly strong painkillers; she’ll be asleep for most of the day.”

Sauron nodded in acknowledgement. “Leave us, Asha.”

The healer’s eyes widened momentarily, but she nonetheless bowed her head and made her way quietly past Sauron to the door.

The Maia didn’t move until he heard the door click shut. He moved to the head of Irideth’s bed, doing nothing but study her for several moments.

He didn’t like the way she looked like this. She looked so small, so… fragile. Why were humans so breakable?

Sauron felt a wry smile creeping over his face before he could stop it. It wasn’t really something that had bothered him before. Humans were just beneath his notice, for the most part. Some of them were useful to him, or interesting, but he didn’t care for them. Well, the Nine had grown on him after a while, admittedly. But this was a child, a slave. She was certainly interesting, but she wasn’t integral to any of his plans.

Yet. He hadn’t determined the significance of her lack of a soul, the silence of her Music. If nothing else, it might provide some useful insights. The girl was an experiment; that was all.

A sudden pressure at the front of his skull drew Sauron’s attention to his still-blocked bond with the child. He looked down at Irideth; her head had turned just slightly toward him, and her expression was mildly pained.

Sauron unblocked the link, slowly so as not to wake the girl. He wasn’t surprised that what little he could discern was muddled; she was in a drugged sleep. But she could apparently still feel the pain of her injuries, dull though it was. And there was definitely fear lurking at the edges of her consciousness, half-visible nightmares only fueled by the memories that pain brought.

Sauron had reached forward almost before he’d realized it, gently cupping the side of Irideth’s face in his hand as he wove a calming spell around her, accompanied by a pulse of soothing energy across the bond.

Shh, little one. You are safe now,’ he said, stroking her cheek with his thumb. His effort was rewarded when the child relaxed, the turmoil in her mind becoming almost nonexistent. Sauron used another inflection of power to push her into a deeper sleep before stepping back, closing the bond again as he turned for the door.

He could feel his anger rising again as he left the healing wing. He was barely conscious of the sparks igniting in his hair. A snarl threatened to take over his face. He had torn through Basaam and Nafal’s minds before ordering Murazor and Hoarmurath to toss them in a cell; he knew what they’d intended to do to the girl, and he suspected the Nazgûl did as well.

He did hope the wraiths had left their minds mostly intact; he wanted Basaam awake and aware when he flayed the skin from his back. Maybe he would use heated knives on the chest… he hadn’t done that in a while.

Neither man would be leaving the dungeons alive.

And likely not in one piece, either.


 

So, yeah, darker chapter with a darker ending. Basaam and Nafal are pedophilic creeps and are totally going to pay for it. I feel no remorse about that. I suck unbelievably at writing torture scenes, so I cut that bit out (pun not intended), but I did want to hint at some of Sauron’s more sadistic tendencies. He is still a Dark Lord, and as the name ‘Gorthaur the Cruel’ implies, he’s supposed to be a very skilled torturer.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15:

Irideth was floating.

At least that's how it felt. It was nice; peaceful, quiet and dark.

'Hello again, Child of Akatosh.'

The voice wasn't as startling as it perhaps should have been.

'Am I in the Void again?' Irideth asked.

'Yes. A bit deeper, too,' the voice answered. Then it paused. 'Are you well, Child of Akatosh?'

Irideth frowned. Or at least, it felt like she did. Was she dreaming? Or sleepwalking? She remembered Asha saying something about the medicine…

'No,' the girl answered after a while. 'But I don't really want to talk about it.'

'No, I wouldn't expect so,' the voice answered, sounding a touch dry. 'You must find a way to return home, child. Preferably before you are killed.'

Irideth bristled, pointedly ignoring the shock of dread the voice's words brought. 'You think I don't want to get out of here? That I don't want to see my family again?'

'Not exactly what I was pertaining to, but that would be a start, I suppose.'

Irideth was momentarily confused. 'Pertaining?'

'Referring to, talking about,' the voice answered.

'Oh.' It was Irideth's turn to pause. 'Then what were you talking about?'

'I am uncertain it is wise to tell you, considering your current state of affairs,' the voice said. 'I'm certain you'll figure it out on your own eventually. You have all the necessary information.'

'What?' Irideth asked.

'I would not think it wise for your resident daedra to discover much of anything further about you, thus I will not tell you plainly what you can figure out for yourself.'

'Resident what?'

'Ah, yes, you call his class of spirit Maiar,' the voice said, sounding pensive. 'I had forgotten; Arda is truly not of much interest to many of us these days.'

Irideth was completely lost at this point. 'What are you talking about?'

There was a noise that resembled a chuckle. 'In time, child. I must go now; there are other things that require my attention.'

'Wait! What are you…?'


 

Irideth came out of unconsciousness slowly, head spinning and pounding in equal measure. Her left arm was throbbing, she was cold, her mouth was dry and her throat sore. Actually, most of her body hurt, noticeably worse than it ever had over the past fortnight. She opened her eyes as slowly as she could manage.

Where…?

Oh…

Irideth felt bile rise in her throat and closed her eyes again, swallowing with considerable difficulty. She heard footsteps approaching the door and shrank in on herself as much as her aching muscles and joints allowed. The girl flinched when the door opened.

"Irideth? Are you awake?"

Asha, Irideth realized, opening her eyes and moving her gaze to the healer as she shut the door behind here.

"Yes," Irideth said. Whispered, really; she barely got the word out.

Asha walked over to the girl's bedside, reaching out a hand and keeping Irideth down when she tried to push herself up. "I wouldn't move about on your own just yet; you developed a fever during the night, and you don't currently seem to be doing any better."

Well, that explained the sore throat and body aches. Irideth lay back as Asha picked up a cup of water sitting on a table by the bed, pouring the contents of a small vial into it and stirring. The orc set the cup down briefly, helping Irideth sit up before handing it to her.

"The medicine I just mixed in will help keep your temperature down as well as dull any pain you might be feeling," Asha said. "Be warned, it tastes as foul as it smells, so I would recommend not breathing and taking it all in one go."

Irideth gave the cup and its slightly viscous contents a dubious look. She could already smell it; a rotten scent that reminded her of the small swamp in Firien Wood where she and her siblings would go to hunt frogs.

Taking a deep breath, Irideth lifted the rim to her lips and tilted her head back, pouring the liquid right to the back of her throat. She swallowed before she could have much time to think about it, grimacing as a bitter, earthy taste remained. Asha chuckled when the child stuck her tongue out, emphasizing her disgust as she handed the cup back. The orc placed it back on the table, picking up another cup and filling it with water from a small metal pitcher before giving it to Irideth. Irideth took as many swallows as her burning throat allowed; it tasted a little metallic, but it was better than the medicine.

"Well, I think it's clear you know your name," Asha said when Irideth handed the cup back. She placed it back on the table. "Do you know mine?"

"Asha," Irideth answered.

"Do you know where you are?"

"Barad-dûr, in the healing wing."

"What month is it?"

"August."

The orc hummed approvingly, placing clawed fingers beneath Irideth's chin and tilting her head back to examine her eyes. "Are you dizzy at all? Seeing any spots?"

"No," Irideth answered, turning her head slightly to the left when Asha applied gentle pressure to her jaw.

"What about your hearing? Are your ears ringing?"

"No."

The orc nodded, releasing Irideth's head as she straightened. "You appear to have recovered from the concussion; unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of your injuries."

Don't have to tell me that, Irideth thought, biting her tongue to keep from saying anything out loud.

"When is the last time you ate, Irideth?" Asha asked. "A full meal," she said when Irideth had barely opened her mouth; her pause had apparently been long enough to be conspicuous.

Asha sighed when Irideth remained silent. "I carried you here when the wraiths first brought you in; I could tell that you've lost a significant amount of weight. I'm guessing it's been several weeks since you've eaten properly."

Irideth's eyes dropped to the blanket. "I can't… remember, really," she admitted quietly.

She heard Asha sigh again, looking at the healer as she pulled a stool from behind the bedside table and placed it by the bed. "Can you tell me why you haven't been eating?" she asked, voice softening just slightly as she sat.

Irideth began studying the cast on her left arm with undue fascination. When Asha didn't move for a minute, though, Irideth took a quiet, fortifying breath.

"I… feel sick, whenever I try," she said quietly. "I can only ever eat something like half an apple or a small slice of bread; any more than that and I feel like I'm going to throw up."

"Can you remember how long this has been going on?" Asha asked.

Irideth thought about it for a while; her memory hadn't been the best recently. "A little less than a month, I think."

Asha nodded. "Have you noticed anything else?"

"I… a little bit after I couldn't eat I started having trouble sleeping," Irideth said quietly, swallowing to clear her throat and then wincing at the pain. Asha handed her the water cup again and Irideth took a few sips before continuing. "It… I've had nightmares for as long as I can remember, but they started getting worse. I don't really remember them, but most nights I'll wake up every few minutes sweating and shaking. Then I started feeling tired all the time. It was almost like… I don't know, like I was moving through cold molasses. My whole body feels heavy all the time, like my clothes are made of lead. My arms and legs hurt, too; I feel like I can't bend them, sometimes."

Irideth took another swallow from the cup, then stared down at the contents. The small ripples she could see made her realize her hands were shaking. She felt a familiar sting behind her eyes and blinked, hard.

"Well," Asha said after what felt like an age. "I can give you medicine to help you sleep; we'll need to be careful with the dosage, though. You can become dependent if you use it too often, and in some cases it will worsen other symptoms."

Irideth glanced up at the woman. "Do you… know what's wrong with me?"

Asha studied her for a moment. "What you described to me are symptoms of what many of the healers here call melancholy or melancholia. It's an illness more of the mind than body, strange though that might sound. It's far more commonly observed in prisoners and captured slaves rather than born ones, which makes us think it is caused by periods of prolonged emotional strain."

Irideth looked down at the cup again.

"You were captured about a year ago, weren't you?" Asha asked quietly.

The child nodded morosely.

"You said it's your nightmares you don't remember," Asha said. "What about pleasant dreams?"

"They might as well be nightmares," Irideth muttered into the cup. "Dreaming about my family, then waking up here and remembering I'll probably never see them again is worse than some nightmare-vision I'll forget in an hour."

Asha did not seem to know how to respond to that.


 

What to do with this child? Asha thought, watching as Irideth stared without seeing at the water in her cup. The girl was no dullard; Irideth was able to look ahead and consider consequences far better than any other child her age Asha had ever seen. This had likely saved her life on more than one occasion, but in this instance such a skill was also a bit of a curse. Asha knew that it was extremely unlikely Irideth would ever see her home or her family again, and it wouldn't help the child any for the healer to deny it. Asha believed such knowledge would have brought most of the adults she knew to their knees long before now. For a child to have to face a realization like that…

Irideth glanced up at her. "Do you… need to change my bandages?"

Asha nodded as she stood, not commenting on the obvious change of subject. "I'll be back in a few minutes with fresh bandages and some soup for you," she said. "I know you likely don't feel up to it, but I would like you to try to finish the bowl."

Irideth did not look at all pleased with the order, but she nodded all the same.

Asha left quietly, pace picking up to a brisk walk after she'd closed the door behind her. Considering how much Irideth understood about her situation, coupled with the fact of her melancholy and that she didn't seem at all confused about how she'd been so badly injured, Asha didn't want to leave her alone for too long and risk the child having a panic attack.

She had already suffered more than enough.


 

Irideth had tried falling asleep again, but Asha returned before she was able to drift off.

It still took considerable effort for her to open her eyes and sitting up was virtually impossible; she felt like there was an anvil on her chest.

Asha apparently noticed her struggle, because she set the bandages and a small soup bowl on the bedside table before propping a few pillows behind Irideth's back and slowly helping her into a sitting position. Irideth murmured a thank you, then broke off into a fit of very painful coughs.

Irideth leaned back against the pillows with a grimace once the fit had subsided; the pain in her throat had flared up again, and the right side of her chest felt like there were dozens of tiny daggers scraping against her ribs. She tensed when Asha touched her right shoulder, flinching before she could stop herself.

Asha didn't appear to pay it any mind. She held the bowl of steaming soup up to Irideth's mouth, waiting until she'd taken a few swallows of the thin broth. Irideth felt her muscles relax slightly when the pain in her throat eased.

"Lie back," Asha ordered softly, setting the bowl down before bringing both hands to Irideth's shoulders. Irideth did as she was told, allowing the woman to guide her down so her back was at an angle, her head draped slightly over the back of the pillows.

Irideth tensed when she felt rough hands just above the collar. Asha applied a gentle pressure to the front and sides of her throat, massaging carefully up and down until Irideth relaxed. The child was surprised a minute or so later when she realized breathing had become much easier.

"Are you ready for me to change your bandages?" Asha asked after another minute or so.

Irideth, who had closed her eyes by that point, opened them and nodded as best she could. Asha gently gripped her shoulders again and helped her sit up before setting to work.

Irideth held still, wincing every now and then at either a tug on her hair or pressure against the wound as Asha unwrapped the old bandages. The girl barely concealed her grimace as Asha parted her hair and prodded gently at the wound.

"It looks to be healing nicely; no fresh blood, no signs of infection," Asha said after a moment. "I'm going to keep putting antiseptic salve on it for a day or two; best err on the side of caution, as far as I'm concerned."

Irideth nodded her understanding. She screwed her eyes shut, biting back any sound as Asha spread an herbal-scented ointment over the injury. It wasn't really an open wound at this point, but the salve still stung horribly when it was applied. Asha worked quickly, thankfully, and the pressure of the bandages helped ease the pain.

"Are you alright?" Asha asked as she finished tying a small, neat knot just above Irideth's right ear. Irideth nodded.

"I might be a bit more convinced if you were breathing," Asha said dryly.

Oh, yeah. Irideth felt heat rise in her cheeks as she exhaled.

"Better," Asha said, slightly amused. "Now I want to take a look at your left arm. Can you move your hand at all?"

Irideth's gaze moved to the aforementioned appendage. After a few seconds, she managed to curl her fingers into an almost-fist, gritting her teeth against the pain around the fracture.

"Don't push it too much," Asha cautioned, voice stern but gentle. She smiled when Irideth glanced guiltily upward. "I know; a broken bone is nothing to envy, but it's better to take things slowly than risk re-injury."

Irideth managed a wan smile in response.

"That looks promising," Asha said, gesturing to Irideth's hand. "I don't want you moving your arm if you can avoid it; you'll need to wear a sling while walking or sitting upright for the first two weeks. If it doesn't hurt too much, I would like you to try touching the tip of each of your fingers to the tip of your thumb," she said, demonstrating the exercise with her left hand. She nodded in approval as Irideth copied her, albeit much more slowly.

"Good," the healer said. "Do this three times a day, if you can. In a week or so I want you to try flexing your wrist up and down. If that's bearable, start doing that in addition."

"Yes, ma'am," Irideth answered quietly.


 

Sauron almost growled in annoyance when he heard a knock on the door. Some things never changed, and him being irritated whenever someone interrupted him while he was working was one of them. He turned toward the door.

"Enter," he said, sounding much calmer than he felt.

Sauron wasn't at all surprised when the door opened to reveal Siraaj, who grimaced momentarily at the undoubtedly astringent smell of blood and burnt flesh. The Maia's irritation eased just slightly when he noticed the man's cheeks lose some of their color when he noticed the bloodstained blade in Sauron's hand; the man very visibly avoided looking at the rack behind the Dark Lord, as well as the Nazgûl milling about in the shadows at the cell's corners and rear wall.

"My Lord," Siraaj said with a bow. "The scouts from Ithilien and Osgiliath have returned; the captains wish to give their reports as soon as they may."

"Yes, I am aware. I will see to them when I am finished here," Sauron said dismissively, already turning back toward his latest… subject. The bound man made a choked sound; he undoubtedly would have cried out had he been able. The terror in his remaining eye, clouded though it was, was impossible to miss.

Sauron felt a devilish smile overtaking his face when he heard Siraaj's alarmed intake of breath behind him; he could feel the man's horror without even trying.

He was impressed Siraaj had recognized Basaam so quickly, considering his face was lacking most of its distinctive features. As well as most of the flesh.

The Dark Lord turned back toward the door, raising a questioning eyebrow when he felt Siraaj's turmoil increasing by the second. Honestly, why was he so surprised? The man was a fairly gifted torturer himself. He'd never witnessed anything quite this extensive or visceral, Sauron knew, he didn't know anywhere near enough about keeping victims alive for extended periods, but gore had never bothered the man before.

Ah… Sauron realized what the issue was when he sensed the question the man was currently unable to voice.

"Nothing you need concern yourself with, Minister Siraaj," Sauron said, allowing his amusement to color his voice when he beheld the man's now completely bloodless face and his gaping mouth. "Basaam and his assistant merely thought it wise to touch what is mine."

The wraiths hissed quietly from the shadows, their version of a collective growl. Basaam twitched and whimpered as much as he was able; the body at the far corner of the cell, barely recognizable as human at this point, made its own pitiful sound. Sauron's gaze moved to it momentarily.

"Hm. He can still speak," the Dark Lord said in the same manner someone else might comment on some mildly interesting flora. "I am a little bit impressed."

He smiled slightly when he sensed the Nazgûl's amusement.

That smile turned more than a little dark when he sensed the moment Siraaj made the connection, both to just who that thing in the corner was and his Lord's declaration of his (former) colleague's crime.

Siraaj bowed his head hastily, turned about on shaking legs and all but leaped out of the room, almost slamming the door behind him. Sauron heard him take six very erratic steps down the hall, then the thud of the man's body hitting the floor when consciousness fled.

The wraiths cackled. Sauron allowed himself a small chuckle as he returned his attention to his work. He studied the bloodied, mangled form before him and savored the feel of the man's agonizing fear.

Sauron clucked his tongue thoughtfully, twirling the blade idly in his hand. What to take next…?


 

This chapter's a bit of a filler. We get a little bit more into Irideth's head, and Sauron gets to screw with his human minions and partake in some semi-recreational torture. What's not for a Dark Lord to love? Things lighten up a tidbit in the next chapter, so bear with me, y'all.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16:

Siraaj stumbled through the halls like a drunkard; he was in no way certain how much time had passed since he’d woken on the stone floor. He also had no idea how long he’d been unconscious, but judging by the stiffness of his joints and limbs it had been several minutes at the least.

Of course, the man hadn’t taken much time to survey his physical state before all but running out of the dungeons as fast as his nerveless legs would carry him.

He’d known Basaam had been eyeing the girl. He’d suspected the man would try something; he and the other ministers had thought it immensely foolish, of course; Lord Sauron did not take kindly to others coveting what was his, and all had known Basaam would face harsh punishment should his plan be discovered. But this… the girl was a slave, not a singularly crafted blade or finely bred horse. There were thousands like her; she was replaceable. Even so, Basaam wasn’t foolish enough to cause noticeable harm. The girl would have been able to continue working with no problem.

Though admittedly Siraaj was uncertain what it was about the girl that had drawn Lord Sauron’s attention in the first place; according to rumor it was the Black Captain himself who had first captured her.

The Captain she, according to rumor, spoke with on a regular basis. She spoke with all the Nazgûl, without ever displaying the slightest hint of fear as far as anyone knew.

Siraaj had to brace himself against a wall when the tremors in his legs grew worse, head beginning to spin again. The girl… she spoke with the Nazgûl in ancient Black Speech, the pure dialect that only the Nine and Lord Sauron himself still knew. Which meant Lord Sauron had deemed her important enough to invest his most powerful servants’ time in educating her, had perhaps even taught her himself.

Siraaj’s legs almost gave way. What else might he have been teaching her? Was he grooming her for something? That might explain what he’d done to Basaam, Lord Sauron certainly did not tolerate anyone meddling in his experiments…

“Lord Halim?”

Siraaj’s head jerked upward, meeting his colleague Lord Jasaad Amiri’s eyes. The other man’s brow was furrowed, almond eyes concerned. “What is the matter, my friend? I have never seen you so…”

Shaken, was likely what the man wanted to say.

Siraaj opened his mouth to speak. He could not even get a word over his lips. He closed his mouth again, then shook his head briefly. He swallowed several times before trying again.

“Lord Sauron…,” he said, voice far thinner than he would have liked. “He… he discovered Basaam’s… plan.”

Jasaad nodded, expression becoming grave. “Yes. I had heard as much. What…,” it was Jasaad’s turn to pause. After a moment he went on. “What is his punishment? None of us have had word of a sentence being passed down.”

Siraaj only realized the tremors had spread throughout his body when he saw his arms shaking.

Blood… all that blood, the smell of burned flesh. The ruined face of the man he had worked with, side by side for decades, mutilated almost beyond recognition. The raw terror in his clouded eye, the other nothing but a gaping, bloody socket.

Glowing eyes. An obsidian knife, blood dripping from the blade… that smile, that horrid, knowing smile…

“Lord Sauron…,” Siraaj brought his left shoulder to lean against the wall as his arms gave way. His legs felt as though they’d follow shortly.

“Lord Sauron has taken him… for… for the Nine and… himself,” the man finally managed, all but whispering the words. His throat was burning, his vision beginning to swim all over again.

Jasaad went pale, eyes widening in a way that might have been comical had the situation not been what it was. “Lord Sauron took him… in the… is that where he has been for the past day?”

Siraaj didn’t answer. Jasaad, if possible, went even paler. “Did… is that where you have just been?”

“I went to report that the scouts have returned. One of the orc generals told me where I could find him. I thought he was interrogating a prisoner at first, I did not realize…,” Siraaj trailed off. “I did not recognize him. I did not recognize either of them. He has kept them…they are still alive, Jasaad, and all the Nine were there as well…”

Jasaad looked like he might keel over any moment. “Over a slave girl?” he whispered, incredulous.

“There is something we are not seeing, Lord Amiri,” Siraaj said, managing to straighten slightly. “Something we do not know… the girl speaks with the Nazgûl in the ancient tongue, she does not fear them. This… Lord Sauron has likely been teaching her himself, he sees something in the girl that we have missed.”

“You believe he is training her for something,” Jasaad murmured, half to himself.

Siraaj shook his head, feeling dizziness strike again. “I am… uncertain, but she is… important to him, somehow.”

Jasaad nodded, eyes serious, thoughtful. “We must tell the others. That Lord Sauron would go this far…”

Siraaj could only manage a strained hum of agreement. If Lord Sauron would do this to one of his best war ministers, for barely touching the slave…

It would be wisest to leave the girl to Lord Sauron and the Nine.


 

Sauron exhaled heavily, passing a hand over his eyes as he leaned back in his chair. He was in his office, having spent the last hour or so going over the scouting parties’ written reports after hearing the captains’ verbal accounts of their mission.

He was barely resisting the urge to set the papers (and their authors) ablaze. They’d told him essentially nothing he didn’t already know; the only pertinent information was a marked increase in the number of Rangers in Ithilien.

Pests. They would be of no ultimate consequence, it would just be a minor issue when he eventually sent for the Haradrim to bolster Mordor’s main host.

No new information on Gondor’s troop movements, their numbers, plans, their relationship with the Rohirrim, whether or not it was likely the old alliances would be honored…

Sauron had stood before he was conscious of it, moving to the door without much thought. Upon entering the hall, he turned and began walking briskly in the direction of the healing wing.

He had not had the chance to ask Asha about Irideth’s condition since his initial visit. He did not believe any of the Nine knew, either, considering they’d been with him most of the time since then.

Sauron barely withheld a snarl when he felt anger burn in his chest again, but he pushed it down quickly. Continued anger toward dead men wouldn’t serve him now. Though there was certainly some satisfaction to be had, considering exactly how their demise had come about. He would have liked to draw it out more, preferably for a month or two, but he did not have the luxury of time at present.

The healing wing was virtually abandoned when Sauron entered; he hadn’t realized how late it was. The few healers still milling about at this hour quickly bowed and averted their eyes when they noticed him.

The Dark Lord paid them no mind, expanding his awareness to locate Asha. He found her just as she was leaving the main apothecary’s lab, where the fortress healers made most of their medicines.

Sauron had wondered more than once if the woman could sense his attention, and he found himself musing on this again when he sensed her moving in the direction of one of the more out-of-the-way storerooms.

The fact that she was facing the door when he entered, not looking at all startled, seem to be a point in favor of the hypothesis.

Asha bowed, tucking a small opaque vial into the pocket of her apron as she did so. “My lord.”

Sauron tipped his head in acknowledgement. “How is Irideth faring?”

Asha’s lips were pursed as she straightened. “She has recovered from the concussion and her head wound appears to be healing well. I fitted her for a sling this morning; the apprentices will have it finished by tomorrow quite easily. Her right side has developed some bruising, and she does still experience sharp pains if she breathes too deeply or turns too far to that side, which confirms my suspicion of cracked ribs. No complications with the arm thus far. She developed a fever last night that abated little during the day.”

Sauron was peripherally aware of himself tensing. “How ill is she?”

“Nothing unusual; sore throat, mild fever, chest congestion, chills and body aches, all common cold symptoms. Considering all the stress she’s been under recently, I’m not surprised,” Asha said.

Sauron didn’t think anything had shown on his face, but Asha must have noticed something; she went on, a bit more quietly, “she’s going to be fine. She’ll miserable for a few days while the sickness runs its course, but I have seen people far frailer than her recover from much worse.”


 

Irideth shifted slightly; if her throat hadn’t been so sore, she might have groaned. One of Asha’s apprentices, an orc girl called Raska, had propped pillows on both sides of Irideth’s chest. With a broken left arm and cracked ribs on her right side, Irideth could only lie on her back; the pillows were intended to keep her from rolling around in her sleep. It had proven quite effective, but one downside was the fact that Irideth did not sleep well on her back. Raska had helped by stacking several pillows behind her so she lay at an angle; this, aside from being a bit more comfortable, also helped ease the symptoms of her chest congestion.

She’d been in the healing wing for four days, by her estimate; it was difficult to tell with how much she slept. According to Asha, Sauron wanted her to remain here until her fever broke and her temperature stayed down.

Recalling that conversation still made Irideth uneasy; judging by the way Asha had… well, the girl wasn’t certain, exactly, but something about the way Asha had spoken told Irideth the healer wasn’t telling her everything she knew.

And boy, if that didn’t set her nerves on edge. She tried not to think about it.

She had only dared check the bond once. Sauron was still blocking it, and blocking it completely; she may as well have tried to read a rock wall.

Asha visited on a regular basis. The healer would check on her every few hours, often to deliver food or medicine, supervise Irideth’s exercises or make sure she had water. She would also make certain Irideth actually ate the food she was given; the orc would not leave if Irideth left anything uneaten, no matter how nauseous it made the girl. If Asha thought Irideth had been sleeping too long, she would wake the child, throw on the sling and make her walk around the room a few times.

If Asha was too busy she would send in Raska, who was far friendlier than Irideth would ever have expected of an orc. She would chatter on about anything and everything, with even the slightest (and sometimes no) prompting. And she often wouldn’t stop until Irideth drifted off to sleep (and according to Asha sometimes not even then).

This was one of the rare moments Irideth was awake and had some time alone. Which meant it was a chance to give something a try.

With Sauron blocking the bond as he was, and her being left alone and not expected to work, this was a golden opportunity to practice her magic.

Meditation, however, was proving far more difficult than Irideth had expected. At this point she had a decent grasp on feeling her own ‘life energy’, but she hadn’t been able to cast a more focused healing spell. She had been able to strengthen her general healing ability, but when it came to healing specific injuries she hadn’t had much luck. Well, on herself, at any rate.

Irideth exhaled slowly, doing her utmost to ignore the pain in her throat and side, and relaxed. She had, through repeated efforts, managed to discern the difference between the normal energy flow and the disruptions, ‘twists’, that were her injuries. She just couldn’t for the life of her figure how to focus the spell on a specific area. She’d tried to remember how it felt with Celephinnel in the forest (Valar, did that feel like a lifetime ago) without much luck. All she could seem to recall was how frightened and desperate she’d been, which would in turn disrupt whatever calm her meditative state had brought.

Now she was going to try something she could recall with a bit more emotional distance and thus, she’d found, with more clarity.

Irideth inhaled, held for a moment. She focused her attention on the disruption caused by her cracked ribs.

She exhaled and, as she remembered doing with Sauron, used her magic to tease at the edges of that snarl, trying to coax it into line with the surrounding energy.

Immediately a feeling of warmth bloomed in her right side, accompanied by a very intense tingling sensation.

Irideth’s eyes snapped open in surprise. The sensation vanished as quickly as it had arisen.

The girl pushed herself upright as quickly as her aching muscles allowed, staring at her right side for a moment before carefully pulling up the edge of the oversized gray shirt Asha had given her.

Her skin was completely unmarked; the ugly purple-yellow bruises that had mottled it were gone.

Irideth inhaled deeply, a bit hesitant. No pain.

She moved her hand to the bottom of her ribcage and, after a moment’s hesitation, poked at the bottom three ribs. Nothing.

Oh, my gods. I did it.

Irideth felt a grin beginning to creep over her face, a pleasant warmth that had nothing to do with magic filling her chest. I did it! I cast a focused healing spell!

Her grin became a full smile as she tugged her shirt back down, reveling briefly in the lack of pain.

The smile vanished instantly when she felt the familiar brush of another mind against hers.

Irideth? What are you doing?’ Sauron asked.

Irideth could have sworn her heart stopped. ‘Um…’


 

Sauron had been about ready to kill someone (a few dozen someones, really; his hair was more flame than hair, and he’d felt his hands beginning to glow with heat) when he’d felt a strange, warm… something at the front of his skull.

In his rage-addled state it had taken him several moments to realize the source was his bond with Irideth.

He’d calmed himself enough to be confident the girl wouldn’t feel his attention when he unblocked it. What he’d sensed had puzzled him enough, however, that his rage was immediately forgotten. Irideth was immensely pleased about something, and what that could be given her current state Sauron could not fathom.

Irideth? What are you doing?’

The change from happiness to alarm was so quick it nearly had his head spinning. ‘Um…’

Sauron blinked when Irideth withdrew slightly; the girl’s trepidation was almost palpable. Valar, what can that child have managed to do?

Well, he didn’t need her panicking. Taking a moment to gather himself, Sauron projected a feeling of reassurance across the bond. ‘I could sense that you were pleased with something. What is it?’

Irideth had apparently calmed down enough to respond. ‘I… um… I was… practicing my healing magic.’

Eru, even through a mind link he could barely hear her. Did she think he’d be angry with her about this?

Sauron nearly rolled his eyes. Obviously.

You were successful, I take it?’ he asked, allowing amusement to color the question.

‘I… think so? It looks like it… the bruising on my right side is gone, and it doesn’t hurt when I breathe anymore,’ Irideth answered, still hesitant but feeling much less like she was barely suppressing a wave of terror.

Sauron felt his irritation threatening to spike again and took a quiet breath to quell it; if Irideth sensed it now, that would set things back quite a bit.

‘You would know better than I would,’ he said. ‘Have you tried healing your arm?’

‘I… don’t know if I could do it again,’ Irideth answered.

Sauron felt the muscles in his jaw tighten when she withdrew further; he could practically see her shrinking in on herself. Why was she being so reticent? She didn’t normally shut down like this.

‘Alright, little one. Get some rest. I will see you later this evening.’

After I speak with Asha, he added to himself.


 

“From what you’ve said, though, she’s recovering fairly well. If her temperature stayed down for most of the day…,”

“Her temperature was never too high to begin with; it’s been a prolonged, low-grade fever that…,”

At least I can no longer get headaches, Murazor mused as he listened to Asha and Akorahil’s back-and-forth. He had been pleased to hear Irideth would make a full recovery, and likely a quick one; he couldn’t imagine she was finding bed rest all that thrilling. He turned his attention from the two bickering healers to the room just down the hall, feeling some amusement as he listened to Raska talking animatedly about one of her fellow apprentice’s unrequited affections for a third apprentice, neither of whose names Murazor recognized. Irideth for her part was barely able to get a word in, much less a full sentence, but she would ask questions here and there that would send Raska off onto the strangest tangents; judging by Irideth’s tone she found her companion’s chatter quite entertaining.

Hoarmurath laughed quietly next to him. ‘It’s good to see Irideth friendly with someone close to her own age.’

Murazor nodded his agreement absently. ‘That was likely Asha’s intention in assigning Raska to her; if Irideth has developed melancholy, it will be good for her to have a companion to take her mind off things.’

A familiar feeling, slight though it was, had Murazor turning around to face the end of the hall. He was met with the sight of Sauron turning the corner, moving with barely a sound.

Murazor immediately went to meet him, Hoarmurath stepping to take his captain’s place to provide a little bit of cover. Murazor directed a brief flare of appreciation to his subordinate.

Sauron had stopped about halfway to the gathered crowd, waiting for Murazor to come to him. The wraith bowed his head briefly as he came to stand in front of his Master.

“My lord,” he greeted quietly. “What troubles you?”

Sauron blinked; Murazor felt his question, though nothing showed on his face.

“You have been an essential embodiment of rage for the past several days. You are still quite agitated, yet you are moving very quietly, making yourself unobtrusive. Ordinarily when you are this displeased you make sure everyone in the vicinity knows it,” Murazor said, allowing his amusement and the barest hint of concern to creep through the bond created by his ring.

“The last thing I want is a mess in the healing wing,” Sauron answered tersely.

Yes, definitely still agitated, and apparently the cause was something he was either not willing to discuss or not willing acknowledge.

Murazor decided not to pry; going by what he could discern from the bond, it was almost certainly the latter, and pressing would only make things worse. “If I may make a suggestion, my lord?”

The sour look the Maia gave him was more than enough indication he wasn’t in the mood, but the Dark Lord gestured for him to continue nonetheless.

Hopefully he has a decent control of his temper…

“However frustrated or angry you may be, my lord, you cannot take it out on Irideth, especially not now.””

Sauron’s exasperated expression made his thoughts clear enough without the bond; how stupid do you think I am?

“I know,” Murazor said as he raised his hands, half placating, half amused. “You just tend to have a much shorter chain when your servants are being… foolish.”

“Are you currently counting yourself among that number, my Black Captain?” Sauron asked; judging by his tone he’d been going for menacing, but the upward quirk of his lips betrayed him.

“Which answer is least likely to make you assign me to arms training with the generals for the next month?”

A genuine grin spread across his Master’s face as he laughed softly. “There’s no need to worry about that, my friend,” he said, laying a hand on the wraith’s shoulder. “I have far more important work for you.”

“Please say it doesn’t involve Khamul and paperwork in the same sentence.”

“I wouldn’t push your luck, Murazor.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 17:

Asha bowed her head as Sauron came to stand in front of her; she was peripherally aware of Akorahil moving to join Murazor and Hoarmurath toward the end of the hall.

“Finally decided to scratch that itch, my lord?” she asked as she raised her head, quietly enough that she hoped the wraiths wouldn’t hear. It was difficult to be sure.

Sauron blinked in astonishment. Well, it was better than glaring or threatening, the orc supposed.

Asha gave him a deadpan look. “Irideth is my only resident patient at the moment; I’m able to keep a very good eye on her. I am well aware you’ve been coming down here in the small hours of the morning for the last two days.”

She immediately noticed the change in his expression and groaned inwardly; his guard was up. Unfortunately, being direct was often the only way to get him to tell her anything. The only issue was gauging his mood; if Sauron was irritated or frustrated enough, it didn’t take much to set him off. By what she’d been able to observe over Akorahil’s shoulder, Murazor had put him at ease at least a little bit, but far too frequently there was no telling just how quickly his patience would wear thin.

“She will make a full recovery, my lord. And a quick one, at least in the physical sense,” Asha said carefully. “However, I would expect some setbacks on the emotional side of things.”

“I would expect as much,” Sauron answered dryly. “How bad is it?”

Oh, what to tell him? “She is… uncertain,” Asha began. “Nervous. Much more hesitant, more easily frightened, though she certainly puts on a brave front. I suspect she’s been having very persistent nightmares, but she takes frequent, small naps throughout the day, so it is difficult to tell. You would be better able to gauge the changes than I; you know her far better than I do.”

Asha kept a careful watch on the Dark Lord’s face for any indication of his thoughts as she spoke; he betrayed absolutely nothing, either through his expression or his stance.

“Well, then,” Sauron said after a few moments of silence, moving to walk past her. “I suppose I shall have to find out for myself.”

It took tremendous effort for Asha to keep her expression blank. Now I suppose I’ll just go and pray this doesn’t go up in flames.


 

Irideth was more than half asleep, lying back against the pillows and trying not to laugh as Raska talked about one of the senior healer’s methods of drying and cooking fish; she couldn’t even remember how the conversation had taken this turn, but here they were.

“You can smell it for miles, I swear,” the orc girl said, dropping the roll of bandages she’d just finished winding into the basket by her feet before reaching for the next set. “And for the first day or two it’s like you’ve stuck your head into a fisherman’s bait bucket if you go anywhere near that hall. Mirna’s been tempted to go down there and smack him across the face with a pike -the fish, not the spear thing – because she hates it so much. I think that’s because she was bitten by some fish or other when she was little…,”

A sudden, familiar… pull, Irideth supposed, had her sitting up before she’d even realized it.

Her gaze moved to the door a moment before it opened, revealing, as Irideth had guessed, the Lord of Mordor himself.

Irideth immediately ducked her head, a sort of abbreviated version of the usual curtsey she greeted him with while in public. Next to her, Raska had gone silent (as well as completely rigid).

“Good evening, my lord,” Irideth said; her voice was quieter than she would have liked, but at least it hadn’t wavered at all.

Sauron tipped his head in acknowledgement of the greeting. “Good evening, little one,” he responded as he stepped further into the room. Asha followed a pace behind; she stopped just in front of the door and gestured for Raska to leave. Raska, to Irideth’s surprise, shot a worried glance in Irideth’s direction. Irideth smiled back briefly, hoping it looked more reassuring than it felt.

Apparently it was; she saw the release of tension in the orc girl’s shoulders as she picked up her basket and stood, bowing to Sauron briefly before trotting over to her mentor, who quickly ushered her out the door.

“Thank you for spending time with her, Irideth,” Asha said once she’d shut the door. “None of the other apprentices can stand being around her for very long; they don’t want to put up with the constant chatter.”

Irideth shrugged as best she could. “I don’t mind. I can’t really do much else.”

Asha grinned. “I apologize for taking advantage of your being a captive audience.”

“Yes, you appear most contrite,” Sauron said, one corner of his mouth curling upward.

Asha shrugged, looking decidedly unapologetic. Sauron grinned briefly before returning his attention to Irideth. “How are you feeling, little one?”

Irideth swallowed. “Better than I was, my lord. I… the head wound hasn’t bothered me in a while; Asha says it’s almost healed. And I can move my hand much more easily than before.”

Sauron nodded. “And your ribs?”

Irideth barely kept herself from biting her tongue. “They’re… they feel like they’re completely healed, and the bruises are gone, like I said before.”

Sauron hummed quietly, turning his gaze to Asha, who was looking very confused. “I am guessing you have not had the chance to examine her since her little experiment?”

“No,” Irideth said before she could catch herself. She tensed, rounding her shoulders slightly when the Dark Lord’s attention moved back to her. “I… um, I didn’t… tell her about it.”

“Plainly,” Sauron said, sounding amused. Looking to Asha, he said, “Irideth possesses a healing ability, the extent of which we are unaware.”

“And you used this on your ribs?” Asha asked, raising an eyebrow at Irideth. Irideth nodded, taking a slow breath and sliding her shaking hands under the blankets as discreetly as she could manage.

Asha stepped forward, gesturing for Irideth to lie back as she approached the girl’s bedside. Irideth did so, swallowing thickly as Asha pushed her shirt up to her chest. If the healer was surprised, she hid it well.

“The bruising is certainly gone,” the orc reported, prodding gently at Irideth’s side. “Does that hurt?”

When Irideth shook her head, she pressed a little bit harder. “How about now?”

Another headshake. “Does breathing cause you pain? Are you able to twist to this side at all?”

“Breathing doesn’t hurt anymore, and I can move like I do normally,” Irideth answered quietly.

Asha gave an incredulous huff, pulling Irideth’s shirt back down before turning to Sauron, who had come to stand a few paces behind her. “I believe she’s correct; it looks and feels completely normal.”

Sauron nodded, eyes once more moving to Irideth. The sudden intensity of his gaze was very unnerving, and Irideth found herself…

Trying not to snarl at him? Valar, did she have a death wish? But, no, her chest and throat were burning. Her fingers curled against the blanket into something resembling claws.

Her head was hurting too, but Irideth realized quite quickly this had nothing to do with… whatever was going on. Sauron was pushing at the link and, somehow, she was blocking him without having realized it.

Irideth leaned away when Sauron stepped toward her before she could stop herself, clenching the blankets in tight fists when his hand moved toward her.

But all the Dark Lord did was gently grab her chin, tilting her head back and drawing her eyes to meet his.

"Easy, little one," Sauron murmured, fingers brushing lightly over her jaw.

Irideth swallowed thickly; she wanted to move away from him, his touch was bothering her like it never had before, but his eyes were just so...

Sauron's grip tightened slightly and Irideth's breath hitched; she only realized then that she'd been trying to pull away from him.

"Breathe, Irideth," Sauron said and the girl almost flinched. His voice was different; lower, lilting, and… strangely melodic. "I'm not going to hurt you, little one. Take a deep breath... yes, like that."

Irideth was managing to breathe a bit more deeply, but she was still very much aware of the tension in every muscle of her body. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking another tremulous breath.

"That's it," Sauron said, so quiet it was almost a whisper. "Now just relax and let me in."


 

Sauron was very surprised at the resistance Irideth was posing; even more astonishing was the fact that it appeared to be entirely unconscious. Reading her thoughts hadn’t been this difficult even that first time, and that was before he’d created the bond with the collar.

What was going on? The modifications he’d made to the collar’s protective enchantments could have something to do with it, but that was extremely unlikely. She did seem to have some natural resistance to his power, as evidenced by weaker sleeping enchantments not keeping her nightmares at bay, but this

Her deepened breaths had relaxed her slightly, but what little he could now sense wasn’t encouraging. The connection was still dangerously tenuous, though Sauron could tell the girl was trying to keep it open despite how afraid she was.

Breathe, little one. You’re trying too hard,’ Sauron said, taking care to keep his words and his emotions measured and calm.

I… I’m sorry,’ Irideth answered, mental voice far more tremulous than her physical one. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong, I…’

‘Shh,’ Sauron said, bringing a few more small threads of power to the fore. ‘I know, it’s all right. Just keep your breaths deep and try to relax.’

Irideth closed her eyes and nodded; she was trembling slightly, but nonetheless straightened her spine and inhaled slowly.

‘Good. Very good. Now, I want you to think back to when you healed yourself…,’


 

Irideth’s head was pounding fiercely and spinning, eyes stinging something terrible when Sauron withdrew after what felt like hours. It had never been so painful when he’d read her thoughts before, and if she’d… felt correctly before he’d drawn back he still hadn’t managed to find what he was looking for, whatever it even was.

“Could you try healing your arm, Irideth?”

Irideth blinked; Sauron’s voice sounded strange, like she was hearing him from underwater. Nonetheless she nodded numbly, turning her head to look at the cast on her left arm. Slowly she drew her shaking right hand up, bringing her fingertips to rest lightly on the cool plaster. She closed her eyes, taking a few deep breaths as she tried to focus, to feel the twists and snarls of energy that made up the injury… Valar, her throat was on fire.

Why is my chest feeling so tight? And my head is swimming so much… I can’t even tell where… why…

When she realized what was going on, she felt, for the briefest instant, a rage so intense it was almost blinding. And then she was just terrified.

Oh, Valar, what do I do?

“I’m sorry, I… can’t concentrate. My head is… I’m too dizzy; I can’t focus,” Irideth said, deliberately furrowing her brow. She didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t dare look at Sauron, didn’t dare meet his gaze.

Her suspicion was confirmed when the dizziness lessened almost immediately.

“It’s all right. Just breathe for a few moments and try again,” the Dark Lord said. His voice was still a calm lilt, but it had lost a bit of the echoing quality it had had a minute ago.

Irideth took another deep, bracing breath. The tightness in her chest eased.

It still took her a minute or two to be able to focus enough to discern the twists of energy of the wound well enough that she felt she could begin healing it. Lips pursed, brow furrowing slightly, Irideth began working at teasing out the snarls and bringing everything back into line. It seemed easier than last time once she’d gotten a decent start; the girl wasn’t certain if this was because of her greater familiarity with the process or a sign of strengthening of her healing magic.

Once the rush of warmth that had accompanied the spell vanished, Irideth opened her eyes. Still not looking at Sauron, she lifted her left hand and curled her fingers into a fist before flexing her wrist up and down.

Irideth went still when Asha came to stand at her right side, not moving an inch as the woman drew a small dagger Irideth hadn’t even noticed her carrying and deftly cut away the cast. Then Asha gently grabbed the girl’s elbow, lifting until it was about level with her shoulder.

“Do you feel any pain?” the healer asked.

“No,” Irideth said softly. Not in my arm, anyway. Her head, on the other hand…

She remained dutifully still as Asha prodded her arm and guided her through a few more exercises, answering the woman’s questions in as few words as possible.

After a few minutes Asha looked back up at Sauron. “Completely healed, by all appearances,” she said. If she was at all surprised, Irideth certainly couldn’t tell.

“Her fever broke early this morning and her temperature has stayed down for the entirety of the day,” Asha went on. “I believe she is fit to leave the healing wing, but she should not resume her regular duties or working hours for at least another five days. I would recommend very light work for the next day or two; she’ll need to get her muscles working again after being on bed rest for so long, but I don’t want her overdoing it and coming down with another fever.”

Irideth felt that she should be irritated with people talking about her like she wasn’t present, but she was just too drained to muster the feeling. She was lying back against the pillows before she’d realized it, eyes half lidded, unable to pay much mind to the conversation.

The girl was essentially asleep when she felt arms sliding beneath her knees and shoulders. She jerked slightly, making a small sound of surprise as she was lifted.

“Peace, Irideth,” Sauron said softly as he brought her close, holding her against his chest. “Go to sleep, little one.”

Well, she wasn’t going to complain about that. Not that I have the strength to, anyway.

Irideth let her head rest above the Maia’s heart, eyes falling completely shut as she turned into him. Sleep did not take long to claim her.


 

Sauron was not at all surprised at how quickly Irideth fell asleep; despite whatever was impeding the bond, he’d been able to sense her exhaustion without much effort.

“Try to make sure she eats at least semi-regularly for the next few days,” Asha said. Sauron looked up in time to see her rubbing her eyes. “She won’t be able to eat much, and definitely nothing too rough on the stomach; I’ll be happy if she can get something down two or three times a day. I’ll have some medicines sent up for nausea and headaches, just in case. Probably a sleeping potion or two as well.”

“Are you certain she’s fit to leave?” Sauron asked after a pregnant pause.

Asha gave him a look that was just this side of a glare. “It’s not going to do her any good being stuck in a bed down here. She needs to start moving around and getting back to something resembling her usual routine, and I do not have the time to look after her.”

“And if I ordered you to make time?” Sauron’s question wasn’t entirely serious, but Asha was certainly glaring now.

“I do not know her or her schedule well enough to properly monitor her. I’m certain the wraiths will be more than willing to assist you. They’ve certainly been making regular circuits down here; I suspect they planned a rotation.”

Sauron blinked; since when had that been going on?

Irideth shifted suddenly, curling further into him; she’d begun shivering. Sauron adjusted his hold on her to accommodate the movement, raising his body temperature slightly and draping part of his cloak over her. The Maia studied the sleeping child for several moments before suddenly going rigid.

I know nothing about caring for a sick human child!

What have I gotten myself into?


 

Asha could tell the exact moment the realization of Sauron’s position dawned on him; thankfully she’d already made it to the door.

This should be interesting, Asha thought as she made her way briskly down the hall, nodding to the wraiths as she passed them; if she wasn’t mistaken they were snickering amongst each other. He’ll be fine once he calms down enough to remember to use his brain.

… I hope.


 

Irideth woke with aching muscles and a sore, dry throat. She grimaced when she swallowed, trying to roll onto her back; the cobwebs of some nightmare or other still clung to her mind, but she wasn’t altogether certain wakefulness was much better.

The girl flinched when she felt a hand in her hair.

“Good morning, Irideth,” Sauron said.

Irideth tensed before she could stop herself; she inhaled slowly to help herself relax before opening her eyes.

She blinked once to clear her vision; she was lying on the bed in her room, under an extra layer or two of blankets if the weight was anything to go by. Sauron was sitting beside her, gaze assessing. He smiled when her eyes met his.

Irideth's chest tightened; she fiercely reminded herself to school her expression despite her stomach twisting into a knot and bile rising in her throat.

“How are you feeling?” Sauron asked, gently brushing a strand of hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear.

Irideth barely suppressed a shudder, closing her eyes and turning her head away from his hand and into the pillow. “I’ve been better,” she said, voice still slightly raspy. She coughed once to clear her throat, opening her eyes and daring a quick glance at Sauron’s face before moving her gaze to the far wall.

“I would expect so,” Sauron said, sounding amused. Irideth closed her eyes again as he kept stroking her hair, drawing the blankets more tightly around herself and bunching them in a fist.

“I’ve told Halla to bring you some soup and tea,” Sauron went on. “Asha was rather adamant you not return to your regular duties just yet, so Murazor has decided to take advantage. He has requested that I send you to him and the others to assist in untangling whatever mess they’ve let pile up.”

Irideth, despite everything, found herself biting back a grin at his annoyed undertone. “Yes, my lord,” she replied.

“You are free to join them when you wish, but I strongly suspect at least one of them will find their way here to escort you if Murazor gets too irritated,” Sauron continued, amused again. Irideth hummed in response, smiling slightly at the tacit when he gets too scary for them to handle.

She then wondered how her life had reached a point where being used as a human shield by eight Nazgûl against an angry Witch King could be considered a good day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18:

Irideth wasn’t surprised when Adunaphel and Hoarmurath showed up about an hour after she’d finished breakfast.

But she was glad of it. And glad that Asha had apparently told Sauron she wasn’t supposed to eat much more than soup, because she’d noticed the Dark Lord watching her more closely than was his wont. The bowl Halla had given her was small enough that Irideth was able to finish it without feeling too nauseous, which appeared to satisfy the Maia. Still, the girl made certain to sip at the tea (medicinal tea, she realized when she noted the bitter aftertaste) while she puzzled her way through a book passage detailing the geography of the Mountains of Shadow. Irideth thought she might have heard Sauron chuckle once when she face-planted into the pages when she got stuck on a passage full of sentence structures she wasn’t familiar with.

The girl had gone without complaint when the Nazgûl had arrived, bidding a polite goodbye to Sauron before following them out the door. She remained mostly silent as they walked while Adunaphel and Hoarmurath spoke quietly to each other, though the girl was aware they were keeping a close eye on her.

When they reached the wraiths’ office, Akorahil insisted on performing a cursory medical exam on Irideth. Irideth didn’t think her annoyance was that visible, but judging by the poorly concealed snickers she could hear, that was not the case.

When Akorahil was satisfied, Irideth retreated to her usual spot on the couch (the extra few blankets and pillows on it did not escape her notice). It didn’t take long for Irideth to fall into her usual routine of organizing and filing reports and studying Black Speech, though she did keep herself wrapped in a blanket this time.

She got tired far more quickly than normal; she didn’t think it had been much more than an hour before she found herself beginning to nod off. Irideth took a deep breath and forced herself to sit up straighter, though she had to blink a few times to make sense of the figures on the page she was looking at.

“Go to sleep, Irideth,” Akorahil said; he and Murazor were working at the desks flanking her couch. Irideth jumped slightly at the unexpected interruption, turning her head to see the wraith’s hooded gaze fixed on her.

“You’re recovering from an illness; the more rest you get, the more quickly your health will return,” Akorahil said, gentle but decidedly stern.

Irideth, against her better judgement, opened her mouth.

She promptly discovered that Nazgûl, despite having no faces, could certainly give the impression of a raised eyebrow and convey the meaning behind that look better than most eyebrow-possessing individuals.

Irideth closed her mouth and set the papers she’d been sorting in neat piles on the floor. She stacked a couple pillows against the arm of the couch and lay down, drawing a blanket over her shoulders and closing her eyes.


 

Sithis wasn't the type of being to interfere directly with matters. Not ordinarily, at any rate, not anymore. Things had been different in ages past, of course, but now the Dread Lord preferred to watch things unfold as they would. Between the Daedric Lords mucking about in the mortal plane, either for their own amusement or using mortal champions in their squabbles, and his own children's exploits, Sithis did not often need to extend his own hand in order to achieve his desired ends.

Of course, there were exceptions to every rule.

"Father."

Sithis had sensed Lucien's approach, and he suspected he knew the reason for the man's disquiet. For now, though, he brought his attention to the assassin.

"Yes, child?"

Lucien didn't - couldn't, really - tense or fidget, as he might have when he was flesh and blood. Not that such things were necessary for Sithis to read his former Speaker; nonetheless, the lengthy pause would have made it easy for even the most dense of creatures to see Lucien's unease.

"It's... the lesser daedra, the young one from Illuvatar's realm. He's stirring again, and much more... violently, than he ever has before," Lucien said.

Interesting. "He has come close to awakening fully?"

"The closest he has since you took him into your care, according to Mother," Lucien answered.

Oh. That certainly was interesting.

"It seems the little Dragonborn might be causing more of a disturbance in Eru's tune than I thought," Sithis mused aloud. "How marvelous."

Lucien cocked his head, questioning.

"The Vala seeks his bondmate," Sithis said. "Even in this state, that is his overarching desire. Eru has sealed his realm off so completely from the rest of Oblivion, however, that any attempts at contact from either of them were doomed to end in failure until very recently."

"Until the disturbance caused by the portal created by the girl's mother," Lucien said, posture straightening as he caught on.

Sithis hummed his approval, creating what to Lucien was an undoubtedly pleasant ripple of energy. "He patched it up as soon as he noticed, of course, but his long isolation has led to him becoming decidedly unfamiliar with the rest of our realms, and the powers and beings within each."

"He couldn't fix it completely," Lucien said.

"Indeed. And fine though the tear in his veil may be, it is enough for things to leak through. Nothing much, but just enough for his eldest son and his bondmate to sense each other again, however faintly."

"Do they know?" Lucien asked. "Do they recognize each other?"

"I doubt the Maia does," Sithis answered. "On some level, perhaps, but they have been sundered for so long I very much doubt he is entirely conscious of what he is feeling, though it has certainly had an effect."

Before Lucien could respond, a new ripple of energy drew the attention of both beings.

“I suppose I had better go put him back to sleep; he’ll do no one any favors if he wakes now,” Sithis murmured, more to himself than anything.

Lucien nodded his assent. “Should I accompany you, Father?”

“No, my child. Return to your own rest for now. You have done well.”

Lucien bowed; Sithis only paid marginal mind, turning his awareness away, out into the vastness of the Void, until he found what he was looking for.

The Night Mother was aware of him before he was fully present, raising her head and closing her eyes, sending him a wordless greeting. The Lord of the Void greeted her in kind, threads of darkness manifesting and winding their way about her shoulders and back. She sighed, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she relaxed into the embrace.

‘How is our wayward child, my dear Blood Flower?’

‘Restless,’ she answered, running a gray-skinned hand through the ebony hair splayed across her lap. The Vala did not appear aware of it, though his breathing was much more rapid than it should be. There was a slight grimace on his face, the minutest of twitches running through his body. ‘He suffers; he calls for his bonded, but the younger one cannot listen, cannot answer. He remembers being cast out, the sundering, and it hurts him.’

As though in response the Vala jerked suddenly, a small sound barely managing to escape his long-unused throat. The Night Mother hushed him gently, stroking his hair and leaning forward, pressing a kiss to his forehead. ‘Will you help me put him back to sleep, my love? Waking now would cause him such pain.’

In answer, Sithis brought his awareness to bear on the young daedra. Two larger dark tendrils emerged, forming arms and hands paler than sun bleached bone. They wrapped around the Vala, dozens of wisps of shadow doing the same, pulling him back to rest against a newly formed chest as the Night Mother began to sing softly, brushing hair back from a scarred face.

Sithis felt the youngster relax, sensed the slight quieting of his soul’s turmoil. But he was still struggling, still fighting to wake. Sithis focused a bit more of his power, the shadows at his back and the Night Mother’s beginning to wind their way around the Vala, their quiet whispers joining his wife’s melody.

“Hush, child,” Sithis whispered, newly formed lips nearly touching the young one’s temple. “Return to your rest. You will see your bonded again soon. Things have already been set in motion, and your insufferable fool of a father will not be able to stop them.

The Dread Lord’s efforts were rewarded with the complete surrender of the body he held, the soul within following soon after.

 “Yes,” Sithis murmured. “You will walk your father’s realm once more, but the time is not yet right. Sleep in peace, Melkor, and know it will come soon.”


 

Irianna was about ready to start ripping her fur out; she’d been poring over the notes Phinis had given her on his latest experiment for nearly two days straight. She’d even gone to visit Nelacar at The Frozen Hearth, but even he hadn’t been able to make much of the results.

Which meant Irianna was still only able to communicate with Irideth when the other girl was asleep, and she still wasn’t able to even touch her. She had hoped Phinis’ latest tests would provide some clues as to how she could modify her own rituals and spells. She needed to figure out something that would enable her to at least give Irideth objects like scrolls and potions; something, anything, to help her escape her captor.

Unfortunately it didn’t seem there was any way to do that without entering Oblivion in some way, shape or form. And going by Phinis’ research and all the books in the Arcaneum Irianna had read on the subject, the odds of you getting back were not good. By all accounts, most mages who did so ended up trapped in whatever plane they’d been exploring unless they made a pact of some sort with the Daedric Prince who ruled it.

Which was not something Irianna wanted to do. Not that that was a possibility, really; not until Irianna had contacted Irideth had it been confirmed that Illuvatar even existed, much less that he had a realm of his own. There were no shrines to him anywhere in Tamriel, no symbols or objects of significance, no orders or cults and whatnot, so there was really no way she could contact him even if she’d wanted to.

So it was back to square one.

Seven months, seven gods-damned months of research and experiments had turned up nothing. It didn’t help that most components for Conjuration spells and rituals were rare and therefore expensive.

A knock had the khajiit turning her attention from the notes and ingredients spread out before her. She was met with the sight of Brelyna standing at the door of her room. Colette peered in less than a second later, eyes going wide when she saw Irianna.

"Are you still at it?" Colette asked, incredulous. "Irianna, you haven't slept in over a day!"

Irianna blinked. "Really?" She hadn't thought it had been that long... had it?

Brelyna stepped forward, lips pursed. The Dunmer's sigh was visible in the relaxation of her shoulders.

"Irianna, I know this project is important to you," the elf said, placing a gentle hand on Irianna's shoulder. "But you're not going to get anywhere if you can't focus because you've exhausted yourself. When's the last time you ate?"

Irianna was silent for several moments, considering. "Lunch today. Or yesterday, I guess? What time is it? What day is it, come to think of it?"

Colette exhaled so heavily it was half a growl, stepping into the room and pulling Irianna's chair back, nearly knocking both her and Brelyna to the floor. The khajiit yelped indignantly when she was dragged to her feet by the front of her robes.

"Pajamas, now," Colette ordered, shoving Irianna toward her wardrobe. "I'll go get you something to eat, and then I'm going to make sure you go to bed. I don't want to see you so much as glancing at those notes for at least 24 hours, got that? The last thing we need is you blowing up the Hall of Attainment because you're too tired to keep proper wards in place."

Irianna knew better than to protest when Colette used that tone of voice. She obediently opened her wardrobe, pulling out her nightgown and laying it over her bed. Colette only left when she began removing her robes, practically storming out the door.

"I can hear you giggling back there, you know," Irianna said over her shoulder as she pulled off her undertunic.

"It's not you," Brelyna said, voice mirthful. Irianna shot her a look; the dark elf had a hand over her mouth. The khajiit raised an eyebrow and Brelyna's eyes crinkled.

"Okay, maybe a little bit. But, honestly, it's mostly Colette. I've never seen her getting so strict with anyone."

"She's a scholar of Restoration; she knows how badly we can mess ourselves up when we don't eat or sleep," Irianna responded as she kicked her boots off.

"Yes, but the worst she does to anyone else is make a pointed comment here or there. You she'll actually drag off; I think she'd even tie you to your bed and force-feed you if Mirabelle would let her," Brelyna giggled.

"That's what you get for asking a mage about their research, I suppose," Irianna muttered as she dragged her nightgown over her head.

Brelyna's eyes softened. "Irianna, you're the only one who's shown any interest in her work."

Irianna gave the elf a look.

"First one to show any genuine interest," Brelyna amended. "And you are the only one who's assisted her with research. She considers you a friend, Irianna; she's worried about you."

Irianna grumbled something unintelligible as she lifted the covers and slipped into bed. Brelyna grinned and sat beside her.

"So, no luck with Nelacar, I'm assuming?"

Irianna's ears flattened against her skull as she lay back. Brelyna's face fell and she sighed, laying a gentle hand on Irianna's thigh. "You'll figure it out, Irianna, I know you will. I've never seen Phinis so energetic; you two have made more big strides in the last few months than he has in the past twenty years!"

"It's just... I'm worried, Brelyna. I know it sounds strange, I've never even met this girl, but...," Irianna sighed, staring at the ceiling. "It's almost like something's... driving me, compelling me, almost. Zenithar, I can't really even remember how I learned of her, but now that I do... and the situation she's in, separated from her family, enslaved by a daedra, I just...," Irianna trailed off into a hiss, claws nearly tearing the sheets as she clenched them in her fist.

"The gods work in mysterious ways sometimes," Brelyna said softly, moving her hand from the khajiit's thigh and gripping Irianna's hand. "I've no doubt you started on this path for a reason. You're making progress; you'll find her, Irianna."

Irianna huffed loudly, turning her gaze to the ceiling and blinking hard. Her eyes were feeling quite heavy all of a sudden...


 Irideth was … she couldn’t tell where she was. She was standing on a floor made of stone, black and shining. There was something that looked like a well in front of her, an orb, similar to those produced by the Magelight spell Irianna had taught her, hovered a few feet above it. The girl could see nothing beyond this sphere of light; everything was pitch black.

 Irideth shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. It wasn’t so much the cold (though it wasn’t warm here by any stretch of the imagination), but the air was just… everything was so still. And quiet.

 “Irideth?”

 Irideth barely kept herself from shouting in alarm when she turned to face the voice; she couldn ’t stop the relieved sound that left her throat when she saw Irianna standing on the other side of the well.

“I need to get out of here,” was the first thing to make it out of her mouth.

“Um… well, yes, I agree,” Irianna said, glancing around and looking just as nervous as Irideth was certain she had a few moments ago. “Only I don’t know where here is. Or how I got here, either.

“Where… wait, you didn’t… this isn’t you? It’s not one of your spells?” Irideth asked, feeling a chill travel down her spine as her gaze moved to the all-encompassing darkness, looking, listening for any sound, any indication of something stalking them from the shadows.

“No,” Irianna said, glancing around herself. “I’ve been experimenting with different components and rituals, but I didn’t set anyth… wait, are you asleep?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmm,” Irianna hummed, bringing a fist to rest against her lips as she stared thoughtfully at nothing.

“…What?” Irideth asked after several seconds of silence.

“I think,” Irianna said after another brief pause, “that someone has a vested interest in seeing you freed. Probably several someones, now that I think about it.”

Irideth shuddered. “That’s… I don’t know if I like the sound of that.”

“No, neither do I. Daedric Princes can be fickle creatures,” Irianna said dryly, studying the darkness more intently. “Have you ever been here before, Irideth? Remember anything like it?”

“I… what? Why would I…?” Irideth began, utterly baffled. But then… “No. No, I have been here before.

Irianna gave the younger girl a worried look. “What?” Irideth asked, sounding more defensive than she would have liked.

“Irideth… I… think we’re in the Void.”

The Void …then this was where she’d first heard…

‘Enough.’

Irideth could have sworn she felt every single hair on her body stand up straight. Irianna ’s ears flattened against her skull, fur bristling as she peeled her lips back from her teeth and hissed in alarm. “Sithis!”

‘I am uncertain I can give you credit for being clever, my child; your knowledge of Oblivion and Aetherius has increased rather dramatically over the past several months,’ the voice said, sounding amused. Irianna’s tail, fully fluffed out, was sweeping back and forth, and Irideth could see the tenseness in her muscles despite the darkness. ‘However, I did bring you both here for a purpose; I would prefer you did not deviate.’

Irianna’s gaze suddenly jerked downwards, and less than a second later she was leaping backwards with startled hiss, clawing and batting at something that was winding its way about her body. Irideth tried to go to her aid but found herself falling to the ground after taking one step. A horrid coldness had her turning her head to look at her left ankle; a strangled shout left her mouth when she saw what looked like a black snake had wound around her ankle and was working its way up her leg.

Irideth reached down to try to push the thing off; to her horror, her hand passed right through it. The thing wasn ’t a snake; it was a shadow, a tendril of darkness that moved as though alive.

And there was more than one, Irideth realized when she felt more stabs of cold, saw more wisps of shadow emerging out of nowhere and wrapping themselves around her limbs and torso, creeping ever upward, closer to her neck and head. The girl opened her mouth to scream, but one shadow wrapped itself around her mouth, another winding over her eyes a moment later.

 ‘Ah, there has been much on my mind lately; I had forgotten the importance of setting. Let’s try this again, shall we?’


“I have to get out of here,” Irideth said, sitting cross-legged across from Irianna in the khajiit’s room in what Irianna called the Hall of Attainment.

Irianna blinked. “I agree, but… if I may ask, what has you so… raring to go, all of a sudden?”

Irideth ’s eyes fell to the floor; she clenched her hands in her lap, swallowing thickly. “I… It… he…” The girl paused, taking a shaky breath as she felt her eyes begin to sting.

“He…,” she swallowed again. “Sauron… I… I think he tried to hypnotize me. I’m not really sure how to explain it but… something was blocking the bond he created with the collar. I’d been practicing my healing magic and he wanted to…,”

“Wait, practicing your healing magic?” Irianna asked, straightening, the hints of a snarl curling her lips. “Did he hurt you?”

Irideth ’s hands fisted in the material of her skirt. “No. It… it wasn’t him.”

A tense silence followed for several seconds. Then a sigh drew Irideth ’s eyes upward to Irianna’s face. “You don’t have to say anything about it if you don’t want to, Irideth.”

Irideth managed a thin smile before returning her gaze to the floor, watching Irianna’s tail as it flicked slowly back and forth. “I had been practicing my healing magic and he… I think he wants to figure out how it works, humans in Arda don’t have magic. He tried to look into my memory to see what had happened and… he couldn’t. I don’t know why, I wasn’t doing anything to stop him even though I didn’t want him to see but… and then when he couldn’t see the memory he tried… I don’t know exactly what he did, but I just felt strange. Like I was floating, light-headed, dizzy, like I’d been spinning in circles or breathing too fast. When he told me to use the spell again on my arm, I didn’t even think of not doing it. I knew something was strange, but it still took me a while to be able to do anything about it.”

It was silent for several seconds.

“Well, that’s certainly not good,” Irianna said. “If he ever figures it out, much less sees your memories of our meetings…,”

Irideth couldn’t suppress a shudder at the thought; her heart began racing just thinking about it, and she felt suddenly sick to her stomach. Eru, what would Sauron do to her if he ever found out?

“I’ve been working with some other mages to try to modify known rituals so I can… send things to you? I guess that would be the word?” Irianna said, drawing Irideth’s attention from that horrid line of thought. “Is there anything you can think of that would make it easier for you to escape?”

“An invisibility spell and a horse? Or a giant eagle?” Irideth muttered bitterly, clenching her hands as she felt what would undoubtedly have been a hysterical laugh catch in her throat. She felt tears welling, raising a hand and hastily wiping them away.

“The invisibility we can manage easily enough, once the transfer ritual is completed,” Irianna said, pulling a notebook and a piece of charcoal out of apparently nowhere and beginning to scribble furiously. “I can purchase potions and scrolls easily enough. A horse or… You need a way to put a lot of distance between you and Barad… the Tower or whatever you call it,” Irianna muttered, waving a hand dismissively. Irideth smiled at her stumbling over the name.

Irianna glanced up at the younger girl. “What is Mordor’s geography like?”

Irideth swallowed thickly, brow furrowing as she tried to remember the book she ’d been looking at earlier. “The region Barad-dǔ r is located in, Gorgoroth, is almost completely surrounded by mountains. There ’s a large volcano, Mt. Doom…” Here, Irideth began sketching a rough map in the air, “about fifty miles west of the tower, which covers most of the area around it with ash and makes growing most crops difficult because of the lack of sun. If you get too close the air is almost impossible to breathe for long. The only ways in or out of Mordor from Barad-dǔr are to cross Gorgoroth north-west to the Morannon and the Black Gate, or go south and west to Minas Morgul. You could also go south to Nurn, but that would take me over a hundred miles south and only get me closer to Harad, and I would still need to get over the Mountains of Shadow, and then go north again if I wanted to get back home.”

Irianna nodded absently, then after a moment or two held up a very roughly-sketched map that had Irideth laughing at her cartography skills before pointing out a few more details and corrections. When Irideth was satisfied Irianna spent a few moments studying the map before glancing up at Irideth. “You’ve been giving some thought to this, haven’t you?

Irideth swallowed thickly, feeling her heart begin to quicken again. “I… after everything that’s happened, I just… I was… thinking if it’s possible.”

Irianna nodded, then looked down at the map again. “You’re right, you will need a horse or something to get you across this much open land; you’ll need to move very quickly to avoid being caught. I wonder… there are no spells for conjuring horses, but wolves...”

Irideth blinked in astonishment. “Conjure a wolf? How does that work?”

Irianna smiled. “Wolf spirit, really; most mages use them in combat to attack unsuspecting enemies. I think, though, they’re large enough that you should be able to ride one as well. The wolf is bound to your will once summoned, and you could have it carry you out of Mordor, and since it’s a spirit it won’t tire. Unfortunately, considering the distance you have to go, you’ll need to recast the spell several times to keep it from fading.”

“Do you have a spell book I could read?” Irideth asked.

“No; I’ll see if Phinis or Faralda have one they’d let me take. Meanwhile, Irideth, you might want to learn how to meditate or put up a mental shield, something to keep Sauron from reading your thoughts. If…,” Irianna began.

“I know,” Irideth snapped, wrapping her arms around herself, shuddering. If Sauron ever discovered she was seriously considering escaping, let alone planning something

The thought was too frightening to ponder for long.

 


 

Irideth woke feeling chilled to the bone despite the thick blanket she’d covered herself with. Screwing her eyes shut, she curled in on herself, shivering. Stars, it hurt to even move.

A few moments later she forced her eyes open when she felt something being draped over her. She was just in time to see Murazor tucking a black fleece blanket around her shoulders.

It took her tired brain several seconds to process the image. “Wha…?” she said. Slurred, really, she was so sleepy. Murazor made a sound she recognized as a laugh.

“You were shivering. Go back to sleep, little one,” the wraith said as he straightened, moving back over to his desk.

Irideth stared, blinking stupidly at the blanket for several seconds before deciding against further consideration of the matter and lying down.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, yawning before closing her eyes again.


 

“You’ve been sketching this whole time?!”

“No! Just the past… hour, hour and a half, maybe?”

“Khamul!”

“Oh, come on, Murazor, we’ve almost finished the new plans anyway. He gave you the updated report you asked for this morning already.”

I like it.”

What in the name of…? Irideth thought, opening her eyes and blinking a few times to clear her vision. She was met with the sight of all nine Nazgûl gathered around Khamul’s desk. Murazor was grumbling something unintelligible and Hoarmurath and Indur looked to be placating him, while everyone else was examining a piece of paper - a drawing? - on Khamul’s desk. Khamul himself looked slightly… hunched, like he often did when Murazor laid into him for something

“Impressive though your artistic ability may be, Khamul, I would prefer it if…,” Murazor began.

“You do like it!” Adunaphel crowed while the rest of the wraiths snickered and Khamul shrank further in on himself.

Murazor exhaled heavily after several seconds of tittering and ribbing by his subordinates. “Yes, I think it is quite well done.”

This declaration was met with further snickers and not-so-subtle (but apparently good-natured) jabs. Khamul, strangely enough, did not seem to be joining in. He did straighten slightly, though, looking up at Murazor as the Witch King rubbed his forehead in exasperation (how did that even work?).

Was… Khamul embarrassed about something? Irideth thought, tilting her head slightly.

A sudden burning sensation in her forehead made Irideth grimace, raising a hand to rub it purely on instinct. This wasn’t a normal headache, though. When Irideth paid more attention to the sensation, she tensed immediately upon realizing the source and jerked her head up to look at the wraiths.

“I’d get away from the door if I were you,” she called, voice hoarse but thankfully still carrying well enough. The wraiths looked up at her, a few of them actually jumping in surprise, but they at least heeded her warning.

Barely in time, too. Less than a second after Murazor and Indur had taken a few steps back the door flew open to admit a very, very irritated-looking Sauron.

Silence reigned for several seconds as the Dark Lord entered and shut the door behind him. Then Murazor seemed to clue in and asked Sauron something in Black Speech; Sauron’s response was a near growl.

Irideth didn’t understand much of the ensuing conversation, but she did pick up enough to understand that the source of Sauron’s frustrations were trade issues with Nurn; he’d apparently just come from a meeting with the agricultural and economics ministers.

Irideth didn’t even notice her head had been drooping until it had hit the pillow. She didn’t bother trying to raise it again, it was spinning so badly she wouldn’t have been able to follow anything even if she’d wanted to.

Not to mention I ’m less likely to attract Sauron’s attention if I’m sleeping.

Taking a deep, quiet breath, Irideth sank further into the pillows and closed her eyes

She must have fallen asleep, because she sat up with a start, nearly leaping out of her skin, when the blankets were pulled off and less than a second later a large weight settled itself behind her. Heart pounding, Irideth turned around. She felt her eyes going wide when she saw that Sauron, who had removed his crown and outer robes at some point, had apparently thrown himself down on the couch behind her, lying down and stretching himself out over the length of it. Baffled, Irideth blinked for a moment before turning and beginning to slide to the floor; if the Dark Lord wanted the couch, she wasn’t going to argue with him.

She let out an involuntary yelp when an arm slid around her waist and dragged her back up.

“Don’t. Move,” Sauron said, voice just shy of a growl, but thankfully with little heat behind it; Irideth could sense that the anger wasn’t directed at her, anyway.

The Maia turned her so she faced him, pulling her to him and tucking her against his chest before pulling the blankets over both of them.

Irideth was so utterly stunned by this behavior she didn’t have any idea how to respond. She remained frozen as Sauron wound his hand in her hair, running his fingers through it absently as his other arm pulled her against him a bit more firmly. This close she could feel how tense he was, could hear that his breathing was slightly roughened.

Not daring to look at his face, Irideth took a quiet breath and relaxed as best she could, bracing one hand against Sauron’s chest as she curled into him, closing her eyes as she buried her face in his shoulder. She kept her focus on her breathing, keeping it deep and slow both to give herself something to focus on and to keep herself from tensing. Though the warmth Sauron provided, a bit excessive though it was, was helpful with the latter.

Eventually, assisted by that warmth and Sauron’s continued stroking of her hair, Irideth found herself dozing off. She opened her eyes when she heard Sauron exhale heavily, felt the muscles in his chest relax. He continued stroking her hair, though a bit more slowly and with a slight increase in pressure. Irideth blinked in surprise, but she leaned into the touch nonetheless. She felt more than heard Sauron laugh softly, burying his face in her hair for a moment as all tension seemed to bleed right out of him.

When Sauron pulled back Irideth managed to raise her head enough to catch sight of Ren and Adunaphel at the far side of the room, shoulders shaking with silent laughter at her predicament. She furrowed her brow at them, mouthing an exaggerated what? and looking pointedly at Sauron without moving her head.

They only started laughing harder.

Exhaling heavily in annoyance, Irideth glanced at the Dark Lord’s face. He was smiling at her, eyes more than half closed, apparently amused. And far more tired than Irideth had ever seen him.

Irideth let her head fall back to Sauron’s shoulder, closing her eyes as she curled into him again. As his arms tightened around her in response, Irideth thought absurdly of the little stuffed cat Adina always kept beside her when she slept.

And then she found her mind wandering to the lullabies Mama would sing to her youngest daughter, and sometimes to all her children, when the winds were howling outside or the thunder was particularly loud in the deep of night.

 

“The sky is dark and the hills are white

As the storm king speeds from the North tonight.

And this is the song that the storm king sings

As over the world his cloak he flings:

“Sleep, sleep, little one sleep,”

He rustles his wings and gruffly sings

“Sleep, little one sleep.”

On yonder mountain side a vine

Clings to the foot of a mother pine.

The tree bends over the trembling thing

And only the vine can hear her sing:

“Sleep, sleep, little one sleep;

What shall you fear when I am here?

Sleep, little one sleep. ””

And sleep she did.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19:

Sauron’s eyes opened slowly. He had slept deeply for once, and he was about as loathe to wake up as he was to walk outside in a blizzard.

And he wasn’t the only one, the Dark Lord realized as he looked down at his slave.

Irideth’s breathing was steady and deep, body completely relaxed. The same could be said for her expression; there was no furrow in her brow, no frown, no tenseness of any sort.

Sauron pushed himself slightly upright and leaned against the back of the couch, moving slowly so as not to wake the girl. Irideth barely moved when he brought her close; Sauron felt a smile tugging at his mouth when she sighed, curling into his chest and burying her face in his shoulder before going still again.

A foreign feeling of amusement drew Sauron’s attention to Murazor, who was working at the desk just behind his head.

‘I am pleased she was able to find restful sleep,’ Sauron said through the connection provided by Murazor’s ring. ‘I am concerned I frightened her earlier.’

‘I wouldn’t say frightened,’ Murazor responded, not looking up from the document he was studying. ‘You certainly startled her quite badly, but considering how quickly she fell asleep I do not believe she was genuinely scared.’

Murazor did look up from his work then, turning his hooded gaze to his Master. ‘You do not want her to be frightened of you?’

That gave Sauron pause; he slowly turned his gaze back to the child he held. ‘I do not wish for her fear to be overbearing. I know that she is still wary of me, but it is pleasing that she no longer seems ready to flee at the slightest notice when she and I are in the same room.’

He could almost hear the wraith cocking his head. ‘I had not thought that was the case for quite some time,’ Murazor said.

‘She is very guarded, still,’ Sauron answered. ‘She has no Song that I can hear and it is… difficult, for me to gauge just how much her fear has lessened.’ The last part was said with no small part of irritation and a hint of bitterness.

‘So, no further luck with your research?’ Murazor ventured. Sauron shot him a what do you think look. He then returned his attention to Irideth, idly stroking the side of her face.

‘There are a few rituals that may provide answers, but I am loathe to attempt them with her being such an… unknown variable,’ Sauron said, running a strand of Irideth’s hair through his fingers. ‘I have a few more experiments in mind, but I will need some more of her blood.’


 

Irideth woke slowly, with a leisurely stretch and a large yawn.

Wait.

The girl’s eyes flew open and she looked around, bewildered.

How did I get back to my room? The last thing she remembered was falling asleep in the Nazgûl’s office… in Sauron’s arms. Again. Well, not that he’d really given her any choice in the matter; Irideth still didn’t know what to make of that.

Irideth heaved herself upright with a large sigh; her body was feeling too heavy again. It took her several seconds to gather herself and slide to the floor. She took a minute to brush the tangles out of her hair, then turned to the door.

When she’d mustered up the courage to open it, Irideth was a bit surprised to be met with the sight of Asha standing in front of Sauron’s desk arguing quietly with him about something; the orc was gesturing harshly for emphasis while the Dark Lord’s expression was slightly baffled. Halla was there too, her back turned to the other two and looking like she was trying her best not to laugh as she set a dinner tray down on the side of Sauron’s desk.

When the woman raised her eyes and saw Irideth, she glanced quickly at Sauron and Asha, who had yet to notice anything, before making her way quickly over to the girl.

“Irideth,” Halla said softly, to Irideth’s surprise holding out her hands. Irideth placed her own hands in them as Halla knelt before her, studying the girl’s face closely. Irideth was even more surprised when the woman gripped both of her hands in one of hers, holding them close to her chest while her other hand moved to cup Irideth’s face. The child blinked when she noticed that Halla’s eyes were shining suspiciously.

“Are you well, little one?” the woman asked, voice quiet and strained.

Irideth managed a thin smile in response. She moved her hands and gently gripped the one that held hers in both her own.

“I’m fine, Halla,” she answered, just as quiet. Halla smiled back, shaky though it was. She abandoned the effort after a moment or two.

“I’m sorry, Irideth. I’m so sorry,” she whispered, stroking the girl’s cheek with her thumb as a few tears slipped free.

Swallowing thickly, Irideth closed her eyes for a moment, leaning into the hand pressed against her left cheek, before opening them again and meeting Halla’s gaze. Irideth’s smile widened.

“It wasn’t your fault, Halla,” Irideth said softly. “None of it was your fault. Not you or Inga or any of you.”

A choked sound left Halla’s throat, and before Irideth realized what was happening Halla had pulled her into an almost crushing hug. Irideth found she didn’t really mind it, wrapping her arms around the woman and returning the gesture. She buried her face in the crook of Halla’s neck, breathing in the scent of nutmeg and vanilla that clung to the woman like a second skin. Irideth closed her eyes, the leather of Halla’s collar digging into her cheek as her own tears slid down her face.

Irideth wasn’t certain how long they stayed that way, but her eyes were (mostly) dry when Halla released her. The woman was looking a bit better, Irideth noted gladly; the smile on her face wasn’t forced this time.

“Make sure you eat something this evening, all right, Irideth? Asha has been adamant about that,” Halla said, brushing a strand of hair from Irideth’s face.

Irideth’s stomach roiled at the thought, but she nodded nonetheless. Halla smiled in response, squeezing Irideth’s hands one more time as she stood.

Irideth turned her attention to Asha and Sauron as Halla walked back to the desk. They appeared to be wrapping up their conversation (or Asha her lecture, more accurately, considering Sauron’s expression).

The girl followed Halla over to the desk. She began organizing the documents the woman moved out of the way, placing them in their respective files and putting them in the bookshelves beside the desk in the order she knew Sauron kept them.

When Irideth turned around after placing the last file, she almost jumped when her gaze met Sauron’s. The Dark Lord gestured for her to go to him and Irideth complied before she could think about it, taking a firming breath as she walked.

When she reached him, Sauron lifted her into his lap, holding her against his chest with one arm while the other hand began carding gently through her hair. Irideth allowed herself to relax against him, closing her eyes as she let her head rest on Sauron’s chest, breathing in the now-familiar scent of frankincense and sage.

‘What were you and Halla speaking about earlier?’

Irideth tensed before she could stop herself, eyes opening in her surprise. She listened to the low murmur of Halla and Asha’s voices at the other side of the room to keep herself calm. ‘We… it was about… about what happened.’ Irideth did not want to go into detail but judging by the way Sauron stopped his carding for a moment and tensed, she didn’t need to. ‘Halla felt like it was her fault. The others probably do, too. I told her it wasn’t.’

Irideth released a quite breath when Sauron didn’t respond beyond a small hum, picking up his carding again as he leaned further back in his chair. She glanced over her shoulder when she heard someone – Asha, it turned out – approaching the front of the desk.

“I must take my leave now, my lord,” Asha said. “I don’t dare leave Borza alone with the apprentices any longer than I absolutely must; the last thing I want to spend my time doing is brewing replacement potions and poultices because someone’s temper flared enough for things to start flying.”

What the…? Irideth didn’t remember Raska mentioning any brawls in the healing wing, which, given the young orc’s love of gossip, she highly doubted Raska would have forgotten.

A warm… tickling feeling at the front of her head, Irideth supposed she’d describe it as, alerted her to Sauron’s amusement.

‘Her concern is well warranted,’ Sauron said. ‘She tries to keep fights to a minimum, understandably, but when something does occur it is rather spectacular.’

“Far be it from me to keep you,” the Dark Lord said out loud; Irideth almost jumped in surprise. “Thank you for your assistance, Asha.”

Asha bowed briefly before turning smartly on her heel and heading for the door.

“Thank you, Halla; that will be all for tonight,” Sauron called over his shoulder. Irideth craned her neck to see behind him, just in time to see Halla close the wardrobe door and curtsy before making her own quiet way toward the door.

Irideth tensed when she felt Sauron’s attention return to her once Halla had left. She barely kept from flinching when the Maia placed two fingers beneath her chin, tilting her head back and making her eyes meet his. She did tense when she felt him pressing at the bond. The girl was so nervous she almost didn’t notice the initial brush of his mind against hers, it was so light.

That didn’t last long; once Sauron discovered that whatever had been impeding the bond before was apparently gone, he immediately pressed deeper. Irideth’s eyes slid shut before she could stop them. She winced at the pain as Sauron… it almost felt like he was trying to immerse himself in her mind, embed himself in her consciousness, but to what end Irideth couldn’t fathom…

Her memories.

No! Oh, no! Irideth’s heart almost stopped; she felt like her stomach had just dropped to her feet. He couldn’t she couldn’t let him see…!

The pain suddenly increased tenfold. Irideth couldn’t stop the small cry that escaped her, flinching as though struck as Sauron was essentially flung out of her mind. The Dark Lord blinked in surprise, barely managing to catch her when she nearly toppled over backward.

Irideth was barely aware of anything at that point; her ears were ringing, vision hazy, throat burning, mind swimming. She might have been crying, but she couldn’t tell. She was shaking, she was pretty sure, minute tremors running through what seemed like every inch of her body. Her blood felt like it was burning.

A sudden increase in vertigo had the girl blinking slowly. Her numb mind registered a few blurred shapes, realizing slowly that Sauron was pulling her closer to him. Irideth felt her heart jump again, but she could barely even move; her limbs were completely without feeling.

Dimly the girl was aware of a hand cupping the right side of her jaw, tilting her head back. She could barely make out Sauron’s face. She could see that his mouth was moving, he might have been speaking, but the roaring in her ears was so loud there was no hope of her deciphering his meaning.

Irideth tried to shake her head. She managed, to a degree, blinking a few times to ensure that the Dark Lord would understand her lack of a response.

He must have gotten the gist, for he closed his mouth and leaned back, drawing Irideth closer. Irideth curled into him as best she could, closing her eyes and burying her face in his chest as she did her best to stop shaking.


 

Irideth didn’t know how long she stayed that way. She wasn’t truly aware of anything beyond her spinning head and the noise ringing in her ears. When she’d regained some semblance of equilibrium, she swallowed thickly, inhaling a few times before taking stock of things.

She’d apparently regained control of her limbs at some point; she’d curled into a tiny ball, and her left hand was clutching the fabric of Sauron’s shirt in a veritable death grip. Her cheeks felt damp… she had been crying at some point, then. She was aching absolutely everywhere, and her body and her eyelids were so heavy.

Irideth tensed when she became aware of a hand brushing through her hair, gently tugging errant strands back from her face. She promptly decided against opening her eyes, screwing them shut even more tightly and burying her face in Sauron’s chest again. The girl felt the Dark Lord tense slightly, and then his chest fell as he exhaled, picking up his carding again while his other arm, which was currently wound about her waist, held her a bit more firmly.

“Are you alright, little one?” she heard him say, just loud enough for her to hear.

No. Irideth nodded, inhaling as she forced her grip on Sauron’s shirt to slacken. The rest of her muscles, however, refused to follow suit.

“Do you need me to send for Asha?”

Apparently she hadn’t been convincing. Taking another deep breath, Irideth shook her head, uncurling herself as best she could as she opened her eyes.

“I’ll be fine.” Her voice certainly didn’t sound fine; thin and scratchy, like the sawdust that always covered the floor of her father’s shop.

Irideth’s throat closed up immediately following that thought, chest going tight, a burning sensation beginning behind her eyes. Valar, what is wrong with me? She usually had much better control than this!

The girl’s eyes fell shut again as she allowed herself to fall against Sauron, who promptly tensed again, so minutely she almost didn’t notice. His relaxation a few moments later felt just as forced as her earlier attempt, though the Maia was far more successful than she had been. He began stroking her hair again. A minute or so later he started to hum.

It was quiet, so quiet Irideth more felt than heard it. The melody was easy and slow, putting Irideth in mind of… she wasn’t exactly sure. The notes did not quite sound like something a human throat could produce, but then, Irideth supposed, what would you expect of a Maia?

The girl had relaxed before she’d even realized it; she only noticed when her legs slipped to dangle off the arm of Sauron’s chair. Sauron didn’t appear to pay this any mind, continuing with both his stroking of her hair and his humming.

After some indeterminate amount of time, Irideth began to feel… lighter. Not the light-headedness of her earlier vertigo; this was a far more pleasant sensation. She sighed quietly, body going almost completely limp. She was aware of a rush in her ears, unlike the one that had assailed her earlier. This was…

Water?

Yes, it was; Irideth didn’t know how, but she was hearing… actually hearing… waves crashing against a shore. Is this the ocean? She’d never been anywhere near the sea, so she wasn’t certain, but it certainly wasn’t a river or a lake she was hearing. She was… Irideth could swear she was tasting salt on her lips, feel the water drying on her face. There was sand beneath her feet, warm and fine. The breeze lifted her hair off her shoulders…

Irideth jerked involuntarily, trying to push herself away from Sauron on what she could only call instinct. A feeling of hollowness grew in the girl’s stomach when Sauron’s arm tightened around her waist, the hand that had been stroking her hair falling to her right shoulder. His grip was gentle, barely even there, but to Irideth in that moment it felt as restrictive as steel-wrought chains.

‘Let go!’ Irideth cried before she could stop herself. ‘Let go!’

Funny, her mental voice didn’t sound anywhere near as hysterical as she’d have thought, Irideth noted distantly as she kept trying to get away from Sauron. The Dark Lord’s grip on her shoulder tightened, as did the arm around her waist. Irideth’s heart, already beating rapidly, began feeling like it was about to crawl up her burning throat and into her mouth.

The girl could have sworn that was exactly what it did when Sauron pulled her to his chest, wrapping both arms around her as he started to sing softly.

Irideth opened her mouth, whether to scream, shout at him, plead with him to release her, she wasn’t entirely certain. No sound, save a small gasp, made it over her lips.

‘Let me go!’ Irideth cried once more when she felt Sauron pressing at the bond, gentle but so insidiously insistent. ‘Please let me go! Please!’

Sauron did nothing of the sort; on the contrary, his grip tightened further. Irideth was peripherally aware she was still squirming, trying in vain to free an arm, kick him, do something, but his voice, his song was echoing not just in her ears but in her head and she didn’t understand it there were no words but the notes meant something he was doing something to her she couldn’t…

‘Do not Fear.

Breathe.’

Well, she was, she was almost gasping like a landed fish…

‘Do not Fear

Breathe.

Breathe easy

You are Safe.

Breathe.

Do not Fear.

Breathe easy.’

And she was breathing easy, without any conscious effort at all. Because this wasn’t her effort, was it, it was Sauron, it was his song, the notes weren’t just a song they meant things, he was casting some sort of spell on her…

‘Do not Fear

Breathe easy

You are Safe

Sleep.’

Irideth felt her body go all but completely limp in Sauron’s arms, head falling to rest against his chest, directly above his heart. Her eyes started to droop, vision beginning to swim and darken…

‘Do not Fear.

Sleep.’

Irideth’s eyes slid closed, breath deepening still further…

‘Sleep.

Sleep.’

Her throat began to burn, pressure building in her chest.

Irideth’s body spasmed, her head jerking up as her eyes flew open, the hands that had been clutching the fabric of Sauron’s shirt curling into claws as the girl’s lips drew back in a snarl, blood blazing.

‘NO!’

Sauron reeled back as though she’d struck him, eyes so wide it might have been comical in another setting, grip loosening in his shock, song faltering.

That lasted less than a second; Sauron recovered himself so quickly he’d dragged Irideth back against his chest before she had a chance to even turn away from him. He began singing again, louder than before, voice more lilting and melodic, taking on the same otherworldly quality his humming had had before. Irideth gave a strangled, wordless cry, half fear, half rage.

‘Release me!’

‘SLEEP.’

Irideth went limp, strength vanishing from her limbs as quickly as wind snuffing out a candle. Her head spun, exhaustion overwhelming her in an instant. Her eyes slid shut of their own accord, and she was only dimly aware of a hand coming to rest in her hair.

‘Sleep.

Sleep, and Forget.’

Everything faded away.


 

Sauron could only stare at the listless body in his arms for several minutes.

What in the name of all the Valar had that been?

NEVER had a human resisted his Song like that. If the girl were an Elf, it wouldn’t have been so startling, but even then a creature so young, so inexperienced and lacking much knowledge of the world should not have been able to resist him like that.

The Dark Lord barely resisted the exasperated sigh wanting to escape him. No answers and yet more questions regarding you, my little one, he thought, looking down at Irideth. He adjusted his hold on the girl so her head rested on his shoulder as he stood, moving toward the bed.

He would have preferred writing down his observations right then; things tended to be more vivid the sooner he completed notes on any of his experiments, but he needed to complete the memory spell immediately to make certain Irideth remembered nothing he didn’t want her to. Sauron had no doubt that if she recalled anything of the past ten minutes when she woke, there would be… problems.

Sauron walked to the left side of his bed and drew back the covers, setting Irideth down with her head resting on the pillows. Placing his hands on either side of her temple, Sauron began his Song again.

The Dark Lord was not surprised that the spell took longer to perform than it should have, nor that it took a good bit of concentration on his part despite his psychic link with the child. Her strange resistance to his power had grown significantly in just the past day, and he was willing to bet this latest incident had made it even stronger.

At least I can be certain it is not something she controls consciously, Sauron thought as he straightened, studying Irideth’s vaguely troubled face. Not entirely consciously, at least.

Her shield had strengthened remarkably quickly; even if Sauron had been training her, he would not have expected such rapid progress. Though Irideth had proven herself adept at shielding, given how quickly she had learned to block the link during his latest… episode.

But she had never once tried denying him access, Sauron mused as he ran a hand through the girl’s hair. He’d never had to force anything before yesterday; all it took was a nudge from him, and Irideth would allow the link to open without resistance. He did not believe she had knowingly fought him at any point; she knew full well he could force her compliance should she try.

Whether or not he would, though…

Sauron did allow himself a quiet sigh as he sat next to the child, idly stroking her cheek with his thumb. Forcing his way through, while it would likely satisfy his immediate curiosity, would have disastrous consequences. It would almost certainly cause some sort of psychological damage, not to mention it would be agonizingly painful for Irideth. It would undoubtedly destroy whatever fragile trust the girl had developed in him.

Shaking himself from his thoughts, Sauron stood and made his way back over to his desk. Opening one of the drawers, he withdrew a small leather case before going to the table by the mirror and retrieving the small bowl of water and the washcloth he’d told Halla to deliver.

Going back to the bedside, Sauron placed the case and the bowl on the small table there. He opened the case and withdrew a strip of leather and a length of gauze. He took Irideth’s right wrist and pushed the sleeve of her dress up almost to her shoulder. When the girl didn’t stir, he rubbed the damp washcloth at the crook of her elbow before tying the leather into a tourniquet a couple of inches above the joint.

Making certain to keep some of his attention on the bond in case Irideth began to wake, Sauron took a needle from the case and slid it into the vein just beneath the girl’s elbow. Thankfully there was no indication from either the bond or any movement from Irideth that she felt anything.

As before Sauron drew two vials of blood before binding a strip of gauze over the insertion point and removing the tourniquet. He would have preferred taking more, at the very least three, but given that the girl had barely eaten anything more substantial than soup for the past several days...

Sauron smiled. He’d be in for an earful from Asha if she ever found out, something she had an uncannily frightening ability to do. She’d advised against him taking any of the girl’s blood for another week to give her body more time to recover from her illness, but there were a few time-sensitive experiments he wanted to attempt. Asha had eventually conceded, but two vials at most or you get to deal with it when the poor girl is too weak to stand. And you’d better make DAMN sure she eats tomorrow morning, or it’ll be BOTH your heads.

Though he might get it anyway, given that Irideth hadn’t eaten anything tonight

Sighing again Sauron stood, placing everything neatly in the case before turning back to the girl, drawing the covers up over her shoulders.

Why did I put her in MY bed? He could just as easily have done this in her room, what in Arda had he been thinking, honestly…

Sauron shook his head at himself. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose.

One final check of the bond told him Irideth was still deeply asleep. Satisfied, Sauron gathered the vials of blood he’d drawn and everything else into the case, closing it and heading toward the door. Once in the hall, Sauron began walking toward his personal lab. It was practically on the other side of the fortress, but it was just one floor down; he should be able to complete at least one experiment before dawn. Possibly he’d have time to set up another, but… well, he would see how quickly things moved.

Once Sauron reached the lab, he walked over to the main worktable and set the case down, throwing his outer robe over the back of a chair. As he bound his hair back in a braid, Sauron returned his focus to the desk, eyes scanning the notes he’d laid out earlier.

‘No indication of Elven or Maiarin ancestry… signs of power bound to the blood, no confirmation whether the blood is the source of her magic…’

Rolling up his sleeves, Sauron moved to the shelves at the back of the room where he kept most of his herbal ingredients. He wrinkled his nose slightly when opening the leftmost shelf sent a cloud of dust flying; he rarely used this section of the lab, he really needed to dust back here.

Belladonna… ah, bittersweet, the Maia recited to himself, taking a sprig of dried red berries from the topmost shelf and closing the door. Looking out the window, he checked the position of the moon. Sauron smiled to himself, humming quietly in satisfaction as he went back to the table. Setting the berries down, he opened the case and withdrew one of the blood vials while he drew a small mortar and pestle closer with his free hand.

He needed to time the casting of this spell with the position of the waxing crescent moon for the best result. Of course, it meant he’d have to delay writing down his earlier observations even further; not ideal, but there really wasn’t much he could do about that. Thankfully he’d at least thought to purify the quicksilver last night; he was right on schedule.

If I can’t determine your lineage, let’s see if I can at least find out where you come from, my little one. Now, where did Murazor leave those falcons’ feathers?


 

Irideth woke with a racing heart, a sore right arm and an absolutely searing headache.

She bolted upright, almost gasping for breath as she tore the covers off. She more fell than climbed off the bed, vision swimming as it was; the blankets tangled around her legs and sent her tumbling to the floor.

Irideth gasped, kicking like a trapped animal to free herself, clawing at the silken covers and the bandage on her arm like a wild thing.

Valar please, I have to get out of here, I have to run, I…

I can’t.

A hitching sob stuck in Irideth’s throat as she closed her eyes. She allowed herself to fall face-first into the carpet; her heart was still racing, she was shaking, she felt so horribly sick and why in the name of all the Valar did she feel so afraid?

I… Halla and Asha were here, Sauron asked me about what Halla said, then… he asked me about… sending for Asha? Why did… he tried… did he try to see my memories again?

Irideth swallowed thickly against the onslaught of tears, fisting the carpet in her right hand as her jaw tightened. Her head was pounding something awful and try as she might she could not remember how on earth she’d ended up in Sauron’s bed, alone.

I can’t remember.

Irideth swallowed bile as her heart jumped again, breath quickening, muscles tensing, eyes opening as she turned her head to the side. She cast her eyes about, unconsciously seeking the threat every inch of her was screaming was somewhere, she had to run, had to get away from it…

I can’t. I can’t run.

Irideth stilled, turning the thought over in her mind for what could have either been a minute or an hour.

Then she screwed her eyes shut again, a quiet sob leaving her mouth as her tears began anew.

I can’t get out of here… even if I leave I can’t get away from him… I’m…

I’m trapped.

Irideth didn’t know how she was able to stand; she was barely aware of pushing the blankets from her legs, pulling the bandage off (why the hell was that even there?), of pushing herself to her feet and walking toward the door to her room like one in a trance. She had no conscious thought as she entered, closing the door behind her and going to the bed. Climbing onto it, she pulled the covers over herself, curling into the tiniest ball she could manage and burying her face in the pillow as she cried silently.

Mama, papa, Adina… Cevin… I miss you so much.

I love you.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 20:

"We're going to die."

"We're already dead, Khamul."

"Well, then, we're going to die again."

Murazor would have rolled his eyes had he been able.

"Look, I know you can sense his moods better than the rest of us. You know he's been stewing about something all night, and Lord Sauron torching us in a fit of rage is not how I want to go out," Khamul said, casting a sidelong glance at his captain who, despite Khamul's best efforts, still didn't slow his stride.

Murazor wasn't looking forward to this any more than his lieutenant was; 'stewing' was putting it quite mildly, if you asked him. He knew Lord Sauron was in his personal lab; he'd been there for most of the night. The Nazgûl had been well aware of his steadily increasing frustration for the past several hours. Undoubtedly whatever experiment the Dark Lord had attempted had gone wrong in some way.

Unexpected results alone, however, wouldn't be enough to get him this riled up. Sauron sometimes enjoyed unexpected results as much as anticipated ones. He would spend hours going over his experiment design, his procedures, his materials, theories and notes to see just where he might have gone wrong or why his hypothesis might be incorrect.

If, however, the experiment was something like a new spell or weapon intended to give Mordor and its allies an edge in the war and Sauron couldn't figure out why he wasn't getting the desired results, well…

There was a reason the wraiths had set up temporary quarters for themselves in Minas Morgul. And at the outpost in Cirith Ungol more recently; by the time Sauron thought to look for them there he'd usually calmed down significantly, and the dressing-down they might receive for such "unauthorized missions" was nothing compared to the (sometimes very literal) firestorm they would face if they hung around Bard-Dûr.

But the information Murazor's spies had brought back was critical and sensitive; he was not willing to divulge it to an orc or human general to bring to the Dark Lord.

So there wasn't really any choice, was there?

He was glad Khamul was here, if a bit surprised his lieutenant had offered to come when he was usually the first one out the door when the Nazgûl decided it was time for an "unauthorized mission".

"Your spies certainly know how to time it, don't they?" Khamul muttered bitterly when they finally reached the lab doors.

"At least there are no scorch marks this time," Murazor said, examining the floor near the doors.

Khamul's huff indicated that this did little to assuage his concerns.

Taking a deep breath (a habit that even after all these centuries he still hadn't quite gotten rid of), Murazor knocked thrice on the large ebony doors.

"Enter!" Sauron snapped from inside.

Oh, no.

"We could make it to Cirith Ungol by nightfall if we left now," Khamul muttered, looking like he just might turn and sprint back down the corridor like a startled deer any second.

The suggestion was more appealing than Murazor would have liked to admit, but it was too late to back out now.

Pushing open the door, Murazor saw that, while there weren't scorch marks near the door, there were certainly scorch marks in several other places. The wall next to the door on the left was smoking finely and several tables were nicely singed. The scent of burned wood and heated metal was thick in the air; a human would have probably found it cloying.

Murazor's gaze was quickly drawn to his Master, who was standing at the largest table, hands braced against it, glowing red glare fixed on the little ball of light hovering over the edge of a map of Middle Earth.

The Witch King paused. This was what Sauron was so upset about? It was a tracking spell, by the looks of it, albeit a fairly complex one.

Sauron must have sensed his puzzlement. "Inconclusive!" he hissed, eyes glowing a bit brighter as his temper flared. "I cast the spell three times to be certain I followed all the correct procedures. All of them gave inconclusive results!"

It took Murazor a few moments to figure out what his Master was referring to. A quick scan of the table Sauron was leaning on revealed a small bowl, full of what looked to be crushed berries, a bird feather, some stones Murazor couldn't identify, and a red liquid the wraith realized must be Irideth's blood. Ah.

The Witch King took a few cautious steps forward, conscious of Khamul doing the same a pace or two behind him. When he was certain his Master wouldn't have a (literally) explosive outburst, he came all the way to the table, standing opposite the Dark Lord.

Murazor recognized the spell as one that was meant to determine the place of the subject's birth and trace familial lines. He could vaguely recall that variations of it had been used in Numenor, usually to determine if some upstart heir was who they said they were. The addition of tracking family lines made the spell quite complex; only highly practiced sorcerers had ever been able to cast it, but it was infallibly accurate.

Or perhaps not so infallible, Murazor mused as he observed the little ball of blue-white light drifting slowly over a patch of the westernmost edge of the map, over the Great Sea.

"Is it possible…?" Murazor began.

Sauron shook his head once, sharply. "She has no Elven or Maiarin ancestry; the tests I ran several months ago confirmed that, at least, without a doubt."

Murazor shared a quick look with Khamul before both wraiths once again returned their attention to the map. The ball had moved away from the western edge of the map and was now drifting lazily eastwards toward Rohan. It reached a point near where Murazor believed the Firien Wood and Irideth's home village to be and paused there for a moment, then went bobbing right back the way it had come in a sort of slow circle. No other lights were present; nothing to indicate where her mother or father had been born, or their parents before them.

"It is as though she just appeared one day, no parents to speak of. Perhaps Vairë missed a few threads somewhere along the line," Sauron said, voice frighteningly acidic. The Dark Lord's fingers curled against the polished wood of the table; Murazor noticed with some trepidation there was a fine trail of smoke wafting up from beneath his right hand.

"My Lord, we have brought reports from our spies around the Lonely Mountain," the Black Captain said, hoping his Master wouldn't notice how hurried his words were. When Sauron glanced up at him, Murazor was relieved when the red glow in his eyes dimmed slightly. Murazor reached into his robes and withdrew a slim packet of folded parchments.

"Several of them contain information I believe to be potentially sensitive; I have summarized the pertinent details for you, but the full reports are also included," he said, extending the parcel toward the Maia. Sauron took the papers without a word, unfolding them and quickly scanning the first page.

The Dark Lord's ire lessened noticeably as he leafed through the documents. When he reached the last page he sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead with his right hand.

"This is going to take some work to sort out," he muttered, flipping to the first page again. When Sauron looked up at Murazor, the Witch King couldn't say he was surprised that his Master looked a bit worn.

"Would the two of you be able to check on Irideth for me?"

That, however, was surprising; Murazor and his lieutenant shared another startled glance before they faced the Maia again. The Maia who was currently looking at the papers in his hands with what Murazor considered unduly intense scrutiny, posture oddly… stiff.

"She had an… episode last night," Sauron said, still not moving his eyes from the page. "As Asha has been insistent that the girl eat at least somewhat regularly, I would like you to confirm that Irideth is following her orders."

Murazor felt Khamul's alarm nearly as distinctly as his own. 'He did something to her!' Khamul hissed across the bond of their rings.

'Not here!' Murazor snapped quietly back.

"Of course, my Lord," he said out loud, bowing his head for a moment, Khamul doing the same at his side before they both turned and walked toward the door.

When the wraiths were about halfway down the hall their pace quickened.

"What do you think he did?" Khamul asked, voice tense.

"I haven't the faintest idea," Murazor answered, sounding calmer than he felt. "Though the fact Lord Sauron did not seem willing to discuss the details is a worrying sign."

"Oh, you don't say!" Khamul snapped as they turned toward the staircase that would take them up to Sauron's rooms. "I just hope he didn't hurt the poor girl; the last thing she needs at this point is a personal reason to fear him."


When the wraiths entered Sauron's chambers, Murazor had to pause for a moment in shock. Sitting around Sauron's desk, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, were Irideth, Raska and Sabir the stablemaster. Irideth and Raska sat opposite Sabir; between them were plates of toast and eggs, a small tray of bread with a bowl of broth (likely for Irideth), breakfast sausages, cheese, grapes and strawberries. A pitcher of something, likely fruit juice, sat to one side.

Sabir was smiling, holding a forgotten piece of toast in one hand while he gestured animatedly, talking about a young mare he had just started taking outside of the arena for training. "Terrified of water," he was saying. "I took her to a little stream the other day, no more than ankle deep, not very fast. I feel the lead go slack, then hear a loud noise on the other bank. She had jumped over the stream! Absolutely would not go in it! I walked through it in front of her, I jumped in, splashed around, even lay down! She refused to move until I walked Sable through. Then she acted like nothing had happened at all. Until we came to a small fallen branch lying across the trail. A very small branch, no twigs, less than three inches high, maybe five feet long. She took one look at it, lay down and refused to budge."

Irideth and Raska were both laughing so hard they were barely breathing. When Raska had recovered herself enough she nudged the plate of grapes closer to Irideth.

Irideth groaned. "Raska, I already finished my toast. I'm fine."

"You didn't eat dinner last night. Just eat the damn grapes," Raska answered.

Irideth 'hmphed' quietly, but nonetheless grabbed two grapes and pushed them into her mouth. She proceeded to glare at Raska when the young orc placed a few slices of cheese on her plate next to the grapes.

"I will spit these at you," she warned around her mouthful. Sabir and Raska laughed.

'She looks all right,' Khamul said through the bond.

'Her mood certainly seems to have improved,' Murazor agreed, amused as Irideth moved to swat Raska's hand away when the orc attempted to pile more cheese onto her plate.

Then the young orc caught sight of the two Nazgûl standing by the door and froze.

Irideth turned to see what had caught her companion's attention and immediately ducked her head in a sort of abbreviated bow. Sabir, for his part, merely grinned and waved.

"Good morning," Murazor said, addressing the general assembly. Turning his attention to Irideth, who had looked up but was avoiding meeting his gaze, he said, "Lord Sauron asked that we made certain you ate."

The Witch King did not miss the way the child tensed at the Dark Lord's name.

"It looks as though someone beat us to it," Khamul said, plainly amused. Sabir's grin stretched. Raska blushed, something rare for an orc, and dropped her gaze to the floor.

"I'm not about to let my best assistant starve herself," Sabir said, mock-affronted. "What do you take me for? A vainglorious nobleman?" He spoke the last two words as though they were the gravest insult in the known world.

"I would never make that mistake, I assure you," Murazor answered dryly. Irideth giggled, poorly attempting to conceal it as a cough.

"Neither would any of the vainglorious noblemen. Trust me on that," Khamul muttered, snickering. Sabir puffed out his chest; in his red jacket, he looked rather like a strutting rooster.

Irideth must have thought something along the same lines; she took one look at the man and burst out laughing. Raska for her part looked to be fighting a grin, but was plainly nervous with the two Nazgûl in the room.

Sabir, still grinning, leaned back in his chair. "I am planning to visit the herds in the southern pastures; you should come, Irideth."

Silence reigned for several seconds, mainly due to incredulity on the Nazgûl's part and sheer bafflement on Irideth and Raska's.

"I… am thankful for the invitation, Sabir," Irideth said eventually, sounding as uncertain as she looked. "But… from what you've told me, that is at minimum a five-day trip. I very much doubt Lord Sauron will allow me to accompany you."

Murazor agreed with the sentiment; despite his frustrations with the puzzle Irideth presented, Sauron would not be pleased if the girl were out of his immediate reach for any length of time. Especially if he suspected there might be an opportunity for her to escape, though Murazor doubted Irideth was foolish enough to attempt anything of the sort.

Sabir waved his hand dismissively. "You need sun. You are far too pale. Being inside so long is not good for one's health, especially a young girl. You need wind in your face and dirt on your hands, good, solid earth under your feet."

Irideth glanced down; Murazor could see her swallow, even from where he stood. Her hair fell so that it curtained her face from his view, but he could still see her hands fisting the folds of her dress.

'When is the last time she left Barad-Dûr?'

Khamul's quiet question made Murazor pause for a moment. Then he went rigid.

'She has not left the fortress since we first captured her.'

Murazor knew for a fact the only times Irideth went outside were when she helped Sabir in the stable, which was often only a few days every month for a few hours at a time. And she had not left the fortress grounds since the day she had been brought here. Well, save for the... excursion with Sauron to Orodruin, and that was truly barely worth mentioning; it had been one time and lasted less than a day. After spending her entire childhood in the forests and fields of Rohan, out in the sun, the rain, the snow, the blue skies of summer and the grey skies of winter, free to do almost anything she pleased…

A knock drew Murazor out of his unpleasant musings. Turning around, he was surprised to see Akorahil peering through the half-open door.

His subordinate sent him and Khamul a brief mental greeting, then said, "Irideth, would you come here for a moment, please?"

Irideth tensed. Murazor didn't need to guess why; Akorahil using that business-like tone meant he was in healer mode, which undoubtedly meant a thorough examination of his chosen patient.

When Irideth hesitated, Khamul said, "he's being polite. I think that means he'll go easy on you."

"If you don't make him drag you out by the ear," Murazor grumbled before he could stop himself. Khamul snickered, undoubtedly recalling the several instances Akorahil had done just that to his immensely stubborn Captain (and occasionally their equally bull-headed Master).

"I heard that!" Akorahil yelled from the hall.

"It's true!" Murazor yelled back.

"Because the more you protest, the worse your injuries are!"

"That is not…!"

"I bet I could plot a direct correlation between the amount of fuss you put up and how severe the damage is! You and Lord Sauron both! You're like children afraid of a needle every damn time you get hurt badly enough to need medical attention," Akorahil said from behind the door.

"Why haven't you done it then?"

"Because it'd be a pointless exercise; we all know it's true," Khamul cut in, laughing. Murazor glared daggers first at his lieutenant, then at the door.

"You can stop gloating, Akorahil," he hissed.

"I didn't say anything!"

"You didn't have to! I can feel how smug you are!"

"Stop prying then!"

"I'm not! I don't have to!"

"Well, then, excuse me for having feelings!" Akorahil said haughtily, but with a noticeably amused edge.

"You are not excused," Murazor said, equally haughty and with an equal lack of sincerity.

"How would that even work?" Raska asked from behind; Murazor turned to see the young orc's brow furrowed in puzzlement while Sabir and Irideth tried to muffle their laughter. Then Raska seemed to remember who she was talking to and immediately ducked her head, peering shyly up at Murazor through her ragged hair. "I mean… you're wraiths, aren't you, my Lord? How would you even get hurt without bodies?"

"Certain enchanted blades and sundry other spells can do some damage," Akorahil said, peering around the door again. "You would not believe what a shift that was, learning how to heal ethereal wounds rather than physical ones. Didn't help that most of our lot are absolute nightmares in the healing wing. I remember one time…,"

"Irideth, please go with him before he talks everyone's ears off," Murazor said. "We'll be here until high noon tomorrow if he continues."

"I think it's interesting, sir," Irideth somehow managed between giggles. Murazor tilted his head.

"Please?" he said. Irideth laughed.

"I suppose, since you asked so nicely," Irideth said, attempting a put-upon sigh and failing miserably when she started snickering again as she slid off her chair.


Irideth could feel her smile fall slightly as she stepped into the hall, curtsying briefly to Akorahil.

"Oh, none of that. There's no one around to see," Akorahil said, turning and walking down the hall toward the staircase. Irideth followed close behind him.

"I apologize for the ruckus this early," the wraith said as they went. "Everyone's in a bit of an uproar this morning, apparently."

Irideth shook her head, even though he couldn't see it. "I know what all of you were trying to do, Akorahil. And thank you. It… helped."

She saw Akorahil give the barest nod before his pace sped up. They continued in silence, and before long Irideth recognized the route they were taking as the one to the healing wing. She groaned internally. Not again!

To her surprise, though, Akorahil led her to a part of the wing she'd never been in before. As far as she could tell it was empty; through a set of double doors there was a small room that resembled an entrance hall. There was a desk off to the right side, with a bookcase of what looked like old files sitting just behind it. Beyond this there was another hallway lined with doors on both sides.

"This part of the healing wing hasn't been in consistent use for some time," Akorahil said as he led her down this hallway. "There haven't been any large-scale battles to necessitate it. I've essentially commandeered it for myself."

Irideth felt a grin creep over her face. "Is it helpful when Murazor pitches a fit?"

Akorahil laughed. "Immensely! You would not believe the yelling, and it always terrifies the orcs! If he's being difficult I can just drag him down to this section without sending all the healers and their patients scrambling for cover."

Irideth laughed at the image. Even so, she couldn't help her sudden tenseness when Akorahil stopped by one of the rooms at the end of the hall and gestured for her to enter.

Once she did, Akorahil followed and closed the door, gesturing for her to climb onto the exam table in the middle of the room. Discreetly biting her bottom lip, Irideth obeyed. Valar, the scent of old herbs in here was… cloying, for some reason. It tickled the back of her nose and made her throat feel tight.

"Lie back, please," Akorahil said as he came to stand at her right side. Swallowing thickly, Irideth did, staring resolutely at the small chandelier dangling above the table.

"I'm going to cast a few diagnostic spells; they may feel strange but won't cause any pain. It will, however, be necessary for me to touch you. Such contact with a wraith is usually… unpleasant, for humans, particularly one of us. Please tell me if it becomes too much for you," Akorahil said quietly.

Irideth smiled thinly as she glanced at him. "I've ridden with Murazor for several days at a stretch. He's held me at his chest multiple times. You've examined me more than once; I'll be alright."

"This is going to be a bit more invasive than anything I've done with you before," Akorahil said, dry and yet somehow… amused? No, it was something else, but Irideth wasn't certain what.

Deciding not to think about it, Irideth exhaled heavily and relaxed as best she could. "Do what you need to do," she said quietly, blinking and fixing her gaze back on the chandelier.

She closed her eyes as Akorahil placed a hand on her throat. "Breathe deeply and try to keep as still as you can," she heard him say. She nodded.

Irideth barely suppressed a shudder when she felt a strange coldness suddenly fill her body from head to toe. Akorahil was right, it wasn't painful, but it was most definitely not something she liked.

"Deep breaths. You're doing well," Akorahil said; Irideth felt two fingers move just beneath her jaw, presumably to check her pulse. "Good. Now I want you to keep breathing like that and count back from ten."

Taking another breath, Irideth did so. She clenched her jaw when the cold intensified briefly but resolutely kept up her count.

"Good," Akorahil said when she relaxed again, moving his hand from her neck to her chest, just above her heart. "Take a deep breath and start again."

Irideth did so, gritting her teeth when the cold intensified again, worse than before, and it lasted significantly longer.

"You're doing well," she heard Akorahil well enough, but scarcely had the presence of mind to comprehend the words. "Just a little longer; keep focusing on your breathing."

Irideth did, doing her utmost to pay attention to the sensation of air filling her lungs to the exclusion of all else. She wasn't certain exactly what Akorahil's spells were supposed to do, but for some reason the feel of them was dredging up… things she really didn't want to ponder.

He might not just be checking your physical state.

The tingling feeling in her head certainly seemed to indicate as much; it was almost identical to the feeling she had when Sauron…

Irideth jerked involuntarily, breath catching in her throat as her eyes snapped open.

Apparently she'd done very well with the 'focus on your breathing' part; she hadn't even noticed Murazor and Khamul enter the room, and definitely hadn't noticed them coming to stand on the left side of the exam table.

She tried to push herself away from the three wraiths as quickly as her cold-weakened limbs would allow.

"Easy, Irideth! It's alright!" Akorahil said as Irideth dragged herself upright, pushing herself further back so she rested against the wall, breathing becoming rapid, wide eyes darting between the three Nazgûl as she gripped the thin sheet that covered the table with whitened knuckles.

"That's quite the block you have there, Irideth," Akorahil said gently when Irideth did nothing but stare at him for several seconds.

He must have noticed her tense further. "I'm not going to pry if you don't want me to, Irideth. My spells just detected some significant knots in your life energy. I wanted to see if I could determine the source."

"I thought you couldn't feel my life energy," Irideth said tersely.

"We can, though it takes more effort than it should. It's your soul, your fëa, that we can't see," Murazor said.

"What's the difference?" Irideth said, voice increasing a couple of octaves on the last word.

Akorahil sighed. "It is… rather difficult to explain to someone not well versed in magical theory. Seeing life energy is something healing mages often use to detect both physical injury and emotional distress, though the latter is a skill that takes considerably longer to master. The soul… being able to see a being's soul allows us to see the state of their being, who they are as a person, if that makes sense. It is what I and the other wraiths see normally, along with life energies, though the latter to a lesser extent. With you, though… we can only see your life energies very faintly, and that is only with conscious effort. We cannot see your soul at all."

Irideth sighed, dropping her head to her chest and winding a hand through her hair. "I… guess that… sort of makes sense."

Silence reigned for several more seconds. Irideth continued to play with her hair, not looking up at the wraiths again.

"Irideth, your life energy is very… knotted. In several places, and you have a very solid mental block," Akorahil said softly. "It is something I would expect from a mage well practiced in the mind arts, not from a child as young as you, even one who has experience with psychic links. It is rather concerning."

Irideth tensed, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

"Little one, did something happen that may have caused this?" Khamul asked.

Irideth buried her face in her knees, feeling her eyes beginning to sting. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Irideth, I believe this is a symptom of your emotional distress. I know it has become so severe it is affecting your physical health as well; you are not eating, you are losing weight and you aren't sleeping. What is wrong, little one? What is bothering you so?" Akorahil asked quietly.

A hysterical laugh bubbled up in Irideth's chest. "What's bothering me? Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact that I've been kidnapped and enslaved by the Dark Lord! My chances of seeing my family again are essentially zero. I don't know if my little brother is still alive or not! Never mind that said Dark Lord can see my innermost thoughts whenever he likes, no matter how much I might not want him to. My future, my life, my mind isn't my own anymore, but why on earth would that be distressing me?"

Irideth didn't know what on earth she was thinking, saying all of this, being so blatantly bitter and disrespectful and so open, but once the question was out there she just… couldn't stop. She could feel herself trembling and oh, Valar, Murazor was probably going to report every word she'd just said to Sauron, wasn't he, and… what had she just done?!

Irideth buried her face in her knees as she began to cry silently.

She flinched when she felt a hand come to rest between her shoulder blades, curling further in on herself.

"Oh, little one," Murazor said softly, beginning to gently stroke her back. "You've kept this to yourself for quite a while, haven't you?"

Irideth didn't answer, far too distressed to even consider formulating a response. She only started crying harder, shaking, throat so tight it felt as though she had to gasp for breath.

Murazor continued stroking her back, touch becoming a bit firmer. After a few moments he paused, then moved a bit closer to the table and lifted her into his arms.

Irideth tensed for a moment, then decided she was beyond caring. She turned toward Murazor and curled into him, crying into his chest. Murazor took it in stride, sitting on the exam table and threading his fingers through her hair, holding her close.


'I didn't really think this through,' Murazor thought to Khamul and Akorahil as he carefully stroked Irideth's hair. Humans avoided the Nazgûl, particularly him, like the plague, even when they weren't trying to be threatening. Murazor knew of none who could stand to actually touch him save for Irideth herself.

So Murazor was severely lacking in experience in this area. He'd never really been the physically affectionate sort, even when he'd been alive.

'I'll say you didn't,' Khamul said. 'Akorahil, any ideas?'

'Well, she doesn't seem to be panicking, so I'd say you're doing just fine,' Akorahil said dryly.

'You say as I hold a hysterical child in my lap. How do I calm her down?' Murazor retorted, nearly snapping the last sentence.

The press of several curious minds against his own made Murazor indicate for Akorahil to forestall his answer. Opening himself to the inquiries, the Witch King found himself bombarded by the questions of the other six Nazgûl.

Once he'd relayed the necessary information via words and images, he received six variations of 'I'm on my way' in answer.

'The others are coming,' he informed Akorahil and Khamul once he'd severed the connections.

'Are you sure that's a good idea?' Khamul asked. 'All nine of us together, when she's like this?'

'She seems alright with Murazor holding her. I don't think the presence of the rest of us is going to suddenly frighten her out of her wits,' Akorahil said. 'It certainly hasn't appeared to bother her before, but…,'

Akorahil trailed off with a worried glance at Irideth. The girl was still crying, but she was breathing a bit more steadily and had stopped shaking a minute or so ago.

Murazor continued stroking her hair and back as the door opened to admit… the other six wraiths. Irideth tensed momentarily, but when she saw who it was she relaxed again and once more buried her face in his chest.

'Did you go into full wraith form to get here?' Murazor asked. When in full wraith form the Nine were completely invisible to mortal eyes; they could also move impossibly fast, which was the only way they could have gotten here as quickly as they did.

Hoarmurath, the foremost, shrugged. His compatriots all sent mental affirmations.

Murazor sighed inwardly. 'I supposed it's a good thing you had the sense to materialize outside the door.'

'When you showed us that you had a lap full of crying child, we figured that would be best,' Ren said dryly.

'What happened?' Adunaphel asked, she and the others studying Irideth as closely as they could without increasing their physical proximity.

'We're still trying to figure that out,' Akorahil said.

Uvatha projected the mental equivalent of a snort. 'It can't be anything good, considering she seemed relieved to see just six Nazgûl running into the room.'

'I'm honestly surprised it took this long for her to break down, considering everything she's been through. Particularly after what Basaam and that beastly assistant of his did,' Morgomir said, practically hissing the last sentence. Thankfully he hadn't been speaking out loud; that probably would have scared the girl, no matter how used to their presence she'd gotten.

Irideth, thankfully, seemed to be calming down a bit. Her sobs had stopped now, and her grip on his robe was a bit less… desperate. Her breathing was still erratic, but it was deepening as she tried to gather herself.

After a few more deep breaths the girl went almost completely limp in his arms. She turned her head so she could see the rest of the room, taking in the sight of the gathered Nazgûl almost dispassionately.

Murazor, if he was honest with himself, was concerned by how blank her expression was.

Akorahil picked up on it. 'She's exhausted,' he said, across the ring bond so the rest of the wraiths could hear as well. 'Physically and emotionally, no doubt. According to Asha she hasn't been sleeping well for the past several weeks.'

'Can you do anything about that?' Indur asked Akorahil.

'I have a potion that would put her to sleep for a few hours, but I'm sure you know that's only a temporary solution,' Akorahil said.

A sudden, strong burning sensation radiating through what felt like his entire being made Murazor tense. The others immediately went silent; though this particular summons was directed only to their Captain, they could feel it through their bond to him.

'Murazor, come to me. NOW.'

Murazor was standing almost before he'd realized it, passing a suddenly rigid Irideth to Khamul as he did. Oh, no. She sensed that, didn't she?

Well, she hadn't heard the summons, but she may have felt the exertion of Sauron's power through her own bond to the Dark Lord. If she had, she would no doubt be aware that he was less than pleased at the moment.

"Do you want me to go with you?" Khamul asked quietly.

"Or one or two of us, at least?" Hoarmurath said.

"That will not be necessary," Murazor answered shortly. It was a very bad sign when they were volunteering to go with him, not joking about running for the hills.

"I could go with you," Irideth said.

Nine heads snapped to look at her in shock. Irideth shrank in on herself for a moment, then straightened as best she could in Khamul's grip and looked dead-on at Murazor.

"I'd be a better buffer than they are. I'm human; I'm more easily damaged. He might be a bit more hesitant to lash out if I'm in the room."

'Sweet Valar, this child has a death wish!' Uvatha hissed across the bond, incredulous. The sentiment was echoed by every single one of the others, including Murazor himself.

"Yes, you are more easily damaged, which is why you will not be anywhere near him until he's calmed down," Murazor said, bristling in horror at the thought. Seeing the worried look on Irideth's face, he said, "this is nothing new. I can weather whatever he might do; I've done it before."

"He's furious, Murazor," Irideth said quietly, voice cracking in the middle of her sentence, eyes shining. "I don't know what about, but he's very angry. I've never felt him this mad before."

Murazor hadn't felt Sauron this mad about something in a long time, either. Which meant his Master had interpreted the spies reports much the same way he had; this, somehow, involved the Ring.

The others had apparently figured this out, too, given the sudden alarm he could feel resonating through their collective bond.

"None of you will be going with me," Murazor said firmly.

'Are you crazy? When you're probably going to get your mind ripped apart?' Khamul hissed. It was his lieutenant's turn to bristle, but Irideth's startled inhalation at the sudden expansion of his dark aura was enough to bring him back under control. Khamul glanced quickly down at the child to make certain she was unhurt; thankfully, aside from looking a tad pale, she seemed fine. Khamul murmured an apology before glaring at Murazor.

'It won't come to that,' Murazor placated. 'I can show him my memories of their verbal reports easily enough. He'll likely mull through them several times, yes, but that will likely be all.'

The dubious looks the others shot him was enough indication of how convincing they found that statement.

"You will not be going with me," Murazor said, "because I agree with Sabir's sentiment."

Cue seven blank looks and two confused looks from Khamul and Irideth. Murazor's gaze swept over the general assembly.

"I believe it's time for an unauthorized mission."

A feeling of understanding passed between the wraiths. Irideth, plainly understanding that something significant had just been said but having no way of knowing what it was, sighed in apparent resignation and collapsed against Khamul's chest. Khamul glanced down, adjusting his grip on the girl and running a gentle hand through her hair before looking up at his Captain again.

'Are you certain?' Khamul asked privately. 'You want to go alone?'

'Yes. Better just one of us in the line of fire,' Murazor answered. He looked once more at Irideth, who met his gaze with worried eyes.

Murazor addressed his final order to all the wraiths.

'Take care of her.'

Chapter Text

Chapter 21:

Irideth woke with a dry mouth and a dry throat. She coughed lightly, raising a hand to rub the sleep out of her eyes. Once she had, she found herself blinking up at the wooden roof of the stable. Turning her heavy head, she saw that she was lying in the hayloft, on top of a large fur cloak she recognized as one of Sabir’s heavier travel garments. A thin blanket had been draped over her.

What happened? How did I get here? She remembered breakfast, the healing wing… Sauron summoning Murazor.

Irideth swallowed thickly, screwing her eyes shut and curling in on herself. She’d only felt the Dark Lord’s rage for the briefest instant before she’d slammed the bond closed, but Eru that feeling would be fueling her nightmares for the next month, at the least. What had she been thinking, telling Murazor she’d go with him?

Irideth shuddered when she remembered how oddly… detached she’d felt after her crying fit (as if that hadn’t been bad enough, breaking down in front of all nine Nazgûl). She’d been aware of her emotions, had noted being worried, scared. She’d felt the tightness in her chest, the ache in her throat, the tears on her cheeks, but it had been like watching it happen from a distance, to another person. It was almost like that time she’d been stunned when Viful, one of the village boys, had thrown a rock at her and hit her in the back of the head. Only this had been worse, and it had lasted longer.

The girl buried her face in the cloak, inhaling the scent of dry hay and the faint hint of flowers and clear air that always seemed to hang about Sabir. Valar, everything was such a mess!

After Murazor had left, she vaguely recalled Akorahil coming over to her and Khamul, holding a small bottle. Sleeping potion.

Well, that explained the nap. But why on earth would the wraiths have brought her here?

Irideth exhaled, letting her body go slack. She felt heavy again. Getting up just wasn't worth the effort.

A creak had her turning her head toward the ladder that led down to the main floor, just in time to see Sabir's head emerge. His eyes found hers and he smiled.

"Hello, little beauty!" he said. "Are you ready to go?"

What the heck was he talking about?

Irideth closed her eyes. "No," she mumbled. Her head was spinning again, and there was a funny rushing noise in her ears. Eru, even thinking was too much effort.

She was vaguely aware of more shuffling and creaking noises. She felt the displaced air when Sabir knelt beside her (at least, that's what she assumed he was doing). She didn't move when he lifted her, cloak, blanket and all, and held her against his chest. Irideth was aware of the man moving, felt him adjust his grip on her and begin descending the ladder.

There was a familiar... feeling in the air when Sabir made it to the ground. Irideth only had the inclination of pondering it before deciding she was too tired to bother. She turned her face further into Sabir's shirt to better block out any light.

"How is she?"

Indur, Irideth's mind supplied.

"Still sleeping. She has had a long morning," Sabir said. "I told you we should not fly. Not a good idea to carry her like that, not when she is like this."

"It will cut our travel time in half. We would be able to get out and back before this goes further downhill." That was Khamul.

"I'm inclined to agree with Sabir." Akorahil. "A long time away, out in the sun and with a chance for some more sustained exercise will be better for her."

"I know that, but we can't just take her off somewhere for a fortnight! We'll be in for it as it is once Lord Sauron learns we took her without his permission," Khamul said.

"We'll all be keeping an eye on her, and we'll be out and back in a week, nine days at most. She needs this, Khamul; I'm more than willing to tell him so." That was Akorahil again.

"Tell him it was my idea. You wouldn't be lying," Sabir said.

"Oh, yes, and everyone knows you're powerful enough to wrangle eight Nazgûl into doing your bidding, no questions asked," Khamul said. Irideth, still paying only half a mind to the conversation, almost giggled at the near-tangible sarcasm, never mind that... this was a serious discussion, right?

What had they been talking about?

Irideth only had a moment to try and recollect things before unconsciousness claimed her again.


When Irideth next woke, she could feel a sort of rocking motion. Her stomach had yet to decide if it agreed with this or not.

It was warm, too. Very warm; she was sweating in her long-sleeved dress. And the air here smelled... fresh, wherever here was.

Irideth turned her head, grimacing at the brightness; even with her eyes closed, it was...

The girl opened her eyes.

Sunlight. And white clouds, not the ash-blackened things that hung around Barad-Dûr ceaselessly.

Irideth realized she was lying in the back of a wooden cart, among a pile of what appeared to be bedrolls, packs of spare clothing and a few bags of dried food. She was still wrapped in Sabir's cloak, head resting on a pile of hay.

A cool breeze blew the hair out of her face. Irideth tilted her head back, smiling as the scent of fresh grass and damp earth mingled with that of hay and horses. Her heart felt so full it might just burst.

It was funny, she mused, how much she'd missed just being outside, under the sun.

A black hooded head suddenly appeared above her. Irideth jumped in alarm.

"Sorry; I didn't intend to startle you," Ren said.

"Well, what did you expect, her seeing your ugly mug first thing when she wakes up?" another wraith, Morgomir, Irideth thought, shouted from somewhere further off.

There was scattered laughter. Ren snorted, and Irideth got the impression he was rolling invisible eyes as his head disappeared over the side of the cart again.

Irideth managed a hoarse laugh of her own. "You forget, Morgomir, I can't actually see any of your faces," she said as loudly as she could manage, struggling into a sitting position.

She could still barely see over the top of the cart, but from what she could see Sabir (who turned and waved to her briefly) was driving down a dirt road through a sunlit field. Sable, Sabir's black mare, was hitched to the front of the cart by a lead rope, walking quietly at her rider's left hand as he drove. Nasra, the chestnut pony Sabir and Murazor usually had her ride during her lessons, was hitched to the back of the cart. She was saddled, Irideth noticed, but was wearing only a halter; her bridle was dangling from the saddle horn. The bay mare Sabir was training, Rahiq, was hitched opposite Nasra, and looking quite nervous about the presence of Hoarmurath, Uvatha and their much larger horses a few yards away.

The Nazgûl for their part were fairly scattered. Khamul and Morgomir were riding ahead along the road; Irideth could barely see them with the bright sun. Uvatha and Hoarmurath were traveling in the back, while Adunaphel, Ren, Akorahil and Indur rode on either side of the cart in the grass. Occasionally one of the wraiths would trot or canter in a wide circle; Irideth could see most of the horses weren't thrilled with the easy walk they were going at.

Irideth was drawn out of her observations when Nasra trotted forward, sticking her nose over the top of the cart and whickering loudly. Irideth laughed, raising herself to her knees and stroking the pony's face, scratching briefly behind her ears. "Hey, girl! Nice to see you, too!"

Nasra whinnied, then tried to push her nose even further over the back of the cart.

"I'm not giving you any hay," Irideth said. The pony whickered, sounding put out.

"No, I don't believe Sabir's been starving you."

Nasra whinnied again, as though saying 'well, what good are you, then?' Irideth laughed before planting a quick kiss on her nose and turning to make her way toward the front of the cart.

Once she'd reached her destination, Irideth clambered into the seat beside Sabir, who grinned at her before passing her a bundle of floral-patterned cloth.

"To protect your head from the sun," Sabir said at her puzzled look.

"I'm already sweating like a hog in a butcher's shop," Irideth muttered, giving the cloth a dubious look. Sabir laughed.

"I noticed! You will be able to change when we stop to feed and water the horses; I packed some spare clothes for you that are more suitable for the weather further south."

Irideth cast a sideways look at Sabir; she had no idea where he would have gotten such clothes. All the clothes in her wardrobe were basically the same as what she was wearing now; wool or heavy linen dresses, most with long sleeves. Well, save for a few more threadbare leggings and tunics she wore while riding, and a couple of nightgowns, but those were hardly suitable for traveling.

Sabir must have noticed. He laughed. "I asked Minister Kamaal if he would be willing to lend some of his daughters' old clothes. My mother has also been sending me a few of her old things after I began writing her about you."

Irideth blinked. Minister Kamaal had children? She'd known he was married, had heard him speaking about his wife, but... yes, he did have kids. Irideth could recall a few meetings the minister had had with Sauron that had run long, when the Dark Lord would ask her to bring food for them. She vaguely remembered Kamaal telling Sauron something about his son, and a daughter or two, but... honestly, she couldn't remember anything too starkly. And she couldn't for the life of her recall Sabir talking about his family in any capacity.

The stablemaster must have noticed her downcast look; he clapped her on the shoulder, smiling when she looked up at him. "You've had bigger things on your mind, my dear; no need to feel bad. Now wrap yourself up! There are still many hours before sunset!"


Sabir stopped their little caravan an hour or so later; Irideth was surprised by how the Ringwraiths seemed to defer to him. Well, maybe defer wasn't the right word; by what she'd observed, Sabir had his own... mission, she supposed, and the wraiths were simply tagging along.

The thought would have been amusing if it weren't for the almost tangible tension that had descended over the wraiths once, due no doubt to the very conspicuous absence of their captain. It didn't help that their horses had picked up on their riders' grim mood, prancing nervously and nipping at each other now and then despite some admonishment from the Nazgûl. The wraiths had thankfully had the sense to keep well away from the cart; poor Rahiq had been sweating, she was so nervous. Even Nasra, Sable and the cart horses, Zahir and Muruj, who were far more used to the Nazgûl and their aura, had been skittish. Sabir had been noticeably paler, valiant though he'd been in his efforts to remain upbeat.

Irideth didn't think she'd fared much better; she wasn't certain if the tightness in her gut had been due to the Nazgûl's intensified auras or her own concern over the situation. Murazor had said 'unauthorized mission', which implied this little trip (certainly her part in it, at least) had not been approved by Mordor's resident Dark Lord.

Irideth did not want to think much about what that would mean, for her or the wraiths, when they returned to Barad-Dûr.

She didn't doubt Sabir had guessed her train of thought; the moment he'd brought the cart to a stop in a small dip between two hills he began directing her to help him unhitch the horses, guide them to a nearby creek so they could drink, and then unload a few of the packs. The wraiths took this as their cue to gallop off down the road (though they didn't go far; Irideth had certainly seen two black mounted figures at the crest of the next hill, about a mile off, when she'd looked).

Once the cart was unloaded and the horses unhitched and watered, Sabir handed Irideth one of the packs from the cart and directed her toward a patch of bushes near the tree line to change. Irideth went without complaint; she was all but dripping sweat at that point.

As she set the pack down behind the bushes Irideth wondered absently what part of Mordor they were in; she couldn't remember having seen any sort of greenery on her short flight with Sauron to Mt. Doom. Though it had been rather dark, and admittedly she hadn't been paying much attention to the ground...

Sighing, Irideth opened the bag and found it was filled with what appeared to be several sets of light robes, all rolled up neatly and tied with twine. Drawing out a bundle of cream-colored cloth, Irideth untied it and let it unfurl.

Irideth didn't know if she'd call this a robe or a dress. It was sleeveless, with a dark blue band around the waist area, but other than that there weren't any too distinguishing features. The cloth seemed sturdy, though she didn't know what it was.

The girl shimmied out of her dress, exhaling in relief as she felt the air brushing over her bare, sweat-dampened skin. She slid the new dress over her head, examining herself briefly as she straightened it out. It fit well enough, though the waistband was a little too wide and the skirt a tad too long. But it was far better than sweating buckets the whole trip.

Irideth rolled up her old dress as tightly as she could manage, tying it with the twine that had been used to secure the one she was now wearing and tucking it back in the bag. Sabir smiled when she walked out into the open again.

"It fits well, yes?" he asked as Irideth threw the pack back into the cart.

"Well enough," Irideth answered, glancing down at herself again. "The material feels a bit... fine for this sort of thing, though."

Sabir's smile widened. "For you and me, probably. For Kamaal's daughter, however, this was a simple traveling dress. You are right, it is a fine cotton, but it's quite durable, and far more suitable for travel than anything in your wardrobe."

Irideth couldn't dispute that, so she just nodded absently as she climbed back onto the cart. Sabir climbed up onto the seat next to her, digging a bag of almonds and a water bottle out of the provisions and passing them to her. Irideth accepted the offer gladly; presented with food, her stomach was letting her know how unhappy it was that she'd skipped lunch.

They sat in amiable silence for a while, watching the horses graze as they ate. Sabir eventually drew out another bag of food, a dried fruit of some sort that Irideth was not at all familiar with and that Sabir did not know the Westron translation for. He grinned as Irideth took one, examining it for a few moments.

"What even is this color? Dark brown? Or a funny red?" Irideth asked, furrowing her brow at the wrinkled thing in her palm.

Sabir's grin only widened when the girl took a tentative bite. She chewed slowly, then said, "it's... edible, I guess."

Sabir laughed, taking one for himself and popping it in his mouth. Irideth did the same with the rest of hers. She promptly discovered that the thing had a pit and almost spit the whole fruit out in her surprise, making Sabir laugh again. The next several minutes saw Sabir lecturing Irideth on proper pit-spitting technique, complete with demonstrations. Before long they were both laughing so hard their sides hurt, needing to grip the back of the seat to keep from falling off.

Suddenly Sabir sat up, listening. Wiping a few tears off his face, he turned his head toward the hills to the south. "Ah, here comes our entourage."

Straightening herself, Irideth knelt on the seat to see over Sabir's shoulder. She was met with the sight of what at first was just a rapid-moving mass of black. She quickly realized that it was the Nazgûl, galloping their horses back down the road toward them.

"Are they racing each other?" Irideth asked, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun so she could see better.

"It looks that way," Sabir said, doing the same. Then he chuckled. "Oh, this is going to be a close one; Khamul is in the lead, but I doubt he'll be able to keep ahead of Indur for that long."

Sabir turned out to be correct; Khamul and Indur were neck and neck when they sped into the clearing, Morgomir less than a head behind them. The wraiths quickly checked their horses to a canter, then a trot, and proceeded to guide them in circles to cool them off. They debated who'd won as they rode around each other, Irideth and Sabir watching in amusement. The cart horses, Sable, Rahiq and Nasra, deciding the clearing was far too crowded now, moved to the shade near the bushes behind the cart.

Eventually the wraiths, having reached a stalemate, asked Irideth and Sabir if either of them would be willing to cast a tie-breaker vote. Both of them agreed it was too close to call, half because it was the truth and half because it was amusing watching the wraiths bicker amongst each other.

After several more minutes of bantered back-and-forth it was declared a tie. Laughing, Sabir jumped to the ground and clapped his hands loudly to get everyone's attention.

"Time to get a move on, everyone! We have many more miles to go before nightfall! Irideth, help me hitch Muruj and Zahir, and get Nasra's bridle on. It's high time you got back in the saddle."


Everything hurt. He couldn't see, he couldn't sense much of anything, and everything really, really hurt.

Murazor was confused about this for several seconds. He didn't have a body, after all, there weren't many things that...

Oh. Now he remembered.

Murazor flinched when he felt a sudden warmth in the region of his face.

At least he still had some semblance of a form, then.

He felt the press of his Master's mind against his, and despite the pain he was in and the alarm the contact caused, he put up no resistance when he felt his Master's presence envelope him.

'Peace, my loyal servant,' Mairon said; Murazor could not tell in this state whether the Maia was speaking both in his mind and physically, but it didn't really matter. The warmth of his Master's presence intesified, easing the pain and drawing Murazor closer.

'Peace,' Mairon murmured again when Murazor relaxed. The Witch-King was now aware of a feeling like arms wrapped around him, holding him against someone's chest.

Murazor, words beyond him at the moment, sent a curious feeling across the bond to his Master. It was rare the Dark Lord showed this sort of... attention to any of the Nine, and given his generally horrid mood these last few decades, and considering what had just happened, why on earth was he...?

The warmth deepened still further; Murazor felt the embrace tightening, once again felt the brush of his Master's mind.

Murazor would have startled if he could have at the feeling of lips brushing over his temple.

'Rest, my loyal Captain,' Mairon murmured. 'You have served me well.'


When consciousness returned again, Murazor's senses returned along with it. He was lying on a bed in a darkened room, one that he supposed could be considered his, in the loosest sense of the term. The Nazgûl didn't have much occasion (or need) for rest or sleep, after all, but the Dark Lord had appointed this wing for their use anyway. Murazor would admit it was a pleasant retreat when they wanted some quiet and solitude.

His gaze immediately found his Master, who was sitting beside him. When the Maia noticed Murazor's wakefulness he smiled, bringing his hand to the left side of the wraith's head.

Murazor still, after all these centuries, did not understand how his Master could make it feel like he was stroking his hair, but when Mairon desired it he could make the Nine feel perfectly the physical sensations the wraiths were no longer capable of perceiving when he touched them.

"Welcome back, Murazor," Mairon said softly, smile growing when he felt his servant relax into his touch.

Murazor couldn't help the flare of alarm he felt when he felt the touch of his Master's mind again, but it remained gentle, barely even a brush. Asking this time, instead of demanding. Murazor yielded as he always did, barely managing to quell his surprise at the brief flare of appreciation his Master directed at him before the Maia turned his attention more fully to his task. Murazor felt Mairon examining his state, determining how well his bond to the living world had withstood the earlier onslaught and how much pain Murazor was still in. Murazor would have sighed if he could have when his Master used small flares of his power to ease whatever hurts he found, checking periodically to make sure Murazor was both still lucid and not frightened by the depth of his examination.

Apparently he hadn't been as lucid as he'd thought; when Mairon drew back after Murazor wasn't even certain how long, the Witch King was startled to discover the Maia was holding the wraith's right hand between both of his own, as he had whenever Murazor had come to him for counsel in days he could now barely remember.

"You rarely needed my counsel, even when you asked for it," Mairon said softly, drawing Murazor's gaze back to him. The Maia was smiling at him, eyes glowing a soft orange yellow, like a fire in a hearth. "You were the cleverest I had ever seen, in matters of state, of magic, of war. Powerful, driven, and a born leader; I was pleased you were not hindered by so inane a thing as 'common blood', as humans call it. Though I'll admit I would have been curious to see how you worked around that," Mairon said with a chuckle.

He perceived Murazor's question before he asked it. "Don't act like you wouldn't have; your personality would allow for nothing else."

Yes, he was probably right.

Mairon smiled when he felt Murazor's acquiescence. "That is one of the reasons I chose you, mimë valief tar. Why I chose you as the leader of my Nine," the Maia said, voice becoming softer again. If he had not been a wraith, Murazor would have sworn he'd felt a shudder travel down his spine when Mairon's fingers traced over the base of his left ring finger, where his Ring had rested when he'd been alive.

Murazor sank into a state he would describe as a sort of doze when his Master's caresses continued, fingers trailing over his knuckles down the back of his hand while his thumb traced the contours of Murazor's palm.

"Have you any idea," Mairon began after a while, "where the others are, Murazor?"

It took Murazor a few moments to even process the question. "I suspect they went with Sabir to the southern pastures," he said, voice far quieter than he would have preferred.

"And I suppose Irideth is with them?" Mairon asked as he placed Murazor's hand over the wraith's chest before loosening his grip.

Murazor nodded. "I told them to look after her."

Mairon hummed in acknowledgement. "And how was she, when you last saw her?"

That brought Murazor out of his relaxed state in an instant.

"She was...," barely recovered from sobbing in my lap "... distressed."

"How so?" Mairon asked.

All right, this was going to take a bit of delicate handling; it was never a good thing when the Dark Lord's tone went that flat.

"She was feeling overwhelmed, I believe," Murazor said after a moment or two. "I am uncertain how much of the reality of her situation she has been cognizant of until now. Most of it, I think, but being attacked as she was likely brought it to the forefront of her mind again, as it was when she was initially captured. What has Asha told you?"

"She thinks much the same as you do," Mairon answered, gaze moving from Murazor to stare at the far wall.

"My lord, if I may ask, do you have any idea what may have triggered the... episode you mentioned to Khamul and me?" Murazor said.

To Murazor's relief the Dark Lord did not decide to take offense at the question. The Maia only sighed, eyes becoming distant as they moved to a small round table at the center of the room.

"Something has been blocking my bond with her since the attack. I do not know what the cause is; I do know it is nothing conscious on Irideth's part. I have tried to overcome it, or at least determine its source, a few times. The last time I attempted it, she had a very adverse reaction. Somehow I was thrown out of her mind; I didn't realize until after the fact how much pain my continued efforts had caused her."

"It appeared to linger for some time after I had stopped, and Irideth was of course distressed by the situation. I got an inkling, then, that this trouble with the bond may be linked to her emotions; an instinctive defense, if you will. So I attempted to calm her through Song."

"And I suppose that did not end well?" Murazor asked after close to a minute of silence.

"No," Mairon said, a wry smile pulling at his lips. "If anything, it made things worse. At first it was going well; she was relaxing, and it appeared that the spell was not causing any sort of pain. Then she seemed to realize what I was doing; I am uncertain what exactly she felt, but I believe it frightened her, badly. She started struggling, so I strengthened the spell. Again it seemed to work at first, but then she suddenly pushed herself away from me, physically and psychically. The spell's effects were gone. I had to put her in a deep sleep to keep her from fighting further."

Mairon paused for a moment, then sighed. "I may have made a mistake then; I modified her memory to prevent a repeat incident. Given how... inconsistent the results of my spells have been with her, I would not be entirely surprised if it didn't work as intended."

"I do not think it did," Murazor said. At his Master's curious look he elaborated, "Irideth became nervous when Khamul and I mentioned that you wanted us to check on her. I don't know if she remembers exactly what you did, but she knows you did something. And if she doesn't remember, that may very well be making her unease worse; she's uncertain of what to expect from you now."

The Dark Lord studied him for a few moments before looking back to the wall. After a few seconds the Maia sighed again, burying his face in his hands for a moment.

"That girl has proven to be a source of endless frustration of late," Mairon murmured, brushing his hair out of his face as he straightened.

He must have sensed Murazor's worry; he turned and smiled at the wraith. "No need to concern yourself, my Captain. It's not her fault she has proven to be such a puzzle."

Murazor relaxed again; he hadn't realized he'd done so noticeably until he saw Mairon smile, bringing his hand to rest briefly over Murazor's as he stood.

"Rest, Murazor," the Dark Lord said as he made his way to the door. "You will not leave this room until you are recovered."

Murazor felt a familiar warmth bloom in his chest as his Master closed the door behind him. He smiled, settling back against the pillows.

That was as close to an apology as the Dark Lord ever seemed to get.

The Witch King once more felt the brush of his Master's power, and again the world slipped away.