Chapter 1: Abducted by Aliens

Bridgette Gustafson knew it was going to end up a bad day. She knew only too well that it was her hormones that had trapped her, causing her to lose focus. Ned Johnson was one of the nicest guys at school, and the discussion they'd had after school today had been fascinating. They'd reached a lot of the same conclusions independently and Bridgette was surprised in retrospect how closely that satisfaction compared to sexual satisfaction.

Evidently Ned had thought the same thing, because out of the blue he'd leaned close and kissed her. Bridgette wasn't about to close her eyes and remember what happened after that. If she didn't crash her car, she'd turn around and go back and see if Ned was interested in finishing making her a woman.

They'd gotten awfully close as it was. The kisses were nice; the attention he'd paid to her modest breasts had been deliciously wonderful. What had brought the whole thing to a crashing end was her cell phone buzzing; her mother calling to find out if she was all right.

The biggest surprise in the world was finding it was after eight at night.

There was no way that her parents weren't going to grill her about what she'd been doing ... not when she was four blessed hours late getting home from school.

She had reached the conclusion that honesty was about the only thing with the least possibility of success. She was a senior in high school, with just six weeks left. She would confess, emphasize that she hadn't totally lost her mind and that her virginity remained intact. She might be grounded; she might have her TV and computer privileges docked. She would probably have to promise to limit her cell phone use. She smiled at that thought. The only calls she ever made were home to one or the another of her parents.

They lived near a small town north of Battleground, Washington. Their house was well off the beaten path, two miles of dirt road at the end of a series of twists and curves. The first of the two miles were county-maintained dirt roads -- that meant every two years the county oiled the dirt to keep down dust. Then there was another mile of "private lane" that led to her house. There was just one only house at the corner, then a mile over rolling terrain.

She made the last turn and had gone about two hundred yards when, without warning, the car died. The lights went, the engine stopped and she quickly rolled to a stop. Bridgette mentally sighed with relief, in spite of the car problem. Back in the day, she'd walked the last two miles home -- that was where the school bus dropped her and a couple of others off.

She'd be another five minutes late and have to explain a dead battery -- maybe it would distract at least her father? She pulled her phone out and silently cursed. It was dead as well. She was so screwed! Things were piling up! She'd have no luck explaining this!

She gathered her book bag and got out, meaning to run the half-mile the rest of the way home. If she arrived winded she might get some sympathy. She knew she was grasping at straws. When she got out, she mentally screamed. The car had stopped in a narrow spot of the road. Her father was going to have to tow her car out of the way before anyone could leave in the morning. He taught biology at the local high school -- her high school -- and he routinely arrived earlier than she did.

Bridgette had ridden the bus for years, and the car was her seventeenth birthday present. Her eighteenth birthday was due in a few weeks, and her heart had a tendency to hammer in her chest at what her parents might give her for a graduation/birthday present.

She sidled past the car and took two steps, and then tripped on something she hadn't seen. It was a dark night, but she should have seen the obstacle!

She tripped again, staggered and managed another short step forward when a hand pressed down on her shoulder, bringing her to her knees. Someone ran a cotton gag through her mouth and cinched it tight in one smooth, quick move. She tried to turn her head, but she had to turn her whole body. Instead, about the time she'd turned ninety degrees, a bag come down over her head, cutting of what little light there had been.

Someone jerked her upright, none too gently. She swung out, hoping to connect with whoever was there. She was no dainty waif, standing five eight and weighing one twenty-five pounds of fierce competitor. Well, the good news was that she connected -- with that a hand grabbed hers in an iron grip. Bridgette reached out to try to pry her hand loose, only to have her other hand clamped as well. Before she could say, "Oh shit!" ropes were applied, and she was quickly and expertly bound. Someone spent a few moments tying her feet together.

At that point Bridgette forced herself to stop struggling. Her attackers -- there were two or three she thought -- were too strong. She decided to collapse bonelessly to the ground. That strategy worked for less than a second. She was caught by the ropes binding her hands, and pulled back upright.

There was a moment where she wasn't sure what was happening. Then someone wrapped their hands around hers and closed her hands around pole about four inches in diameter.

She felt them thread the pole between her legs, then without warning, someone picked up her feet. Startled and partially disoriented, she spent a few seconds trying to recover. She had maybe one second and then they were moving, carrying her horizontally, trussed up like a pig for barbeque.

She hadn't really been disoriented -- just surprised. Thus she knew they were moving west. They must have cut the pasture fence, was her inane thought. Her father was going to really furious! A hundred head of cattle grazed in that pasture, and if any of them found the hole, there'd be hell to pay!

It wasn't quick, but the two men carrying her rapidly picked up the pace. In spite of a lifetime being immune to carsickness, being carried at a run, swaying beneath a pole, was a sore trial. In just a few minutes she was impressed. Most people, even Bridgette, jogged. These men, and she was sure that was what they were, ran. She was no featherweight and running with her had to be tough.

Then the path dipped down and Bridgette mentally raised an eyebrow. West of the road, across the flat pasture, where the ground sloped slightly up, not down. There was a two hundred foot hill across it, leading up to the top of one of the ubiquitous lava flows that dotted the area.

But down? That was a surprise! Worse, she was going headfirst and could tell that they were still going downhill after more than a few seconds.

She spent a few seconds calming herself, trying to think. So far they'd not given her any time to collect herself. She mentally reviewed her sensations. There was no doubt in her mind -- her head was lower than her feet.

How far could they go downhill? There weren't any long slopes around her house. She could count seconds adequately, without a watch -- she'd played piano long enough to have a metronome in her head. She took a deep breath and exhaled, calming herself further. The metronome started ticking and she started counting footsteps. Heaven knew, the jolt of the feet of the men carrying her hitting the ground was clear enough.

She quickly grew confused. A typical step was thirty inches, two per second, the classic 120 beats per minute. Marching cadence. She tried to figure out how far steps would be at 240 beats per minute. The first number she got was pure fantasy because she did the math wrong. The next time she came at it more carefully. She assumed thirty-inch steps and this time got the calculation right. Two hundred and forty steps per minutes was 240 x 30 and were 7200 inches a minute, 600 feet. That was 36000 feet an hour, nearly seven miles an hour, which was less than an eight-minute mile. No big.

Still, when she arrived at reasonable at answer, her head was still down and it seemed like the pace had picked up. And at least ten minutes more had gone by. They were beneath the ridge -- and she was sure that there weren't any caves or tunnels this big around that no one had found before. Except, of course, here she was, head down, her captors stepping right out.

Then the tunnel pitched down more steeply and for a scary few seconds, her hair was brushing the ground. Bridgette knew it was past time for a haircut -- but even so she was sure she had nothing more than two and a half feet -- it did go down between her shoulder blades. How could she be so close to the ground?

The men carrying her had to be midgets! Worse, they picked up the pace again and when Bridgette went to count the steps she couldn't. She spent a couple of minutes being frustrated because she kept losing count. She remembered her last visit to the doctor and the nurse taking her pulse; she'd only monitored Bridgette's pulse for a few seconds. She counted eighty steps in ten seconds. The second trial, she got eighty-five.

She took another deep breath. Her assumptions were wrong, once again. Midgets didn't have thirty-inch steps -- more like twenty. So the first speed she'd guessed was eleven-minute miles, which made even more sense. Because if they'd been doing eight minutes miles and doubled their speed, that would have been a four minute mile, which was an Olympic time.

Half speed was more like six minute miles, another reasonable number -- a lot of the long distance runners at school could crank out six minute miles.

The ground had leveled out, and the men carrying her seemed not to have tired. What had it been now? If not an hour, close to it. She was seven or eight miles from home and several hundred feet lower. She hadn't sensed any turns, but she knew if there had been a gradual bend, she'd have missed it.

She was bound and gagged. Trying to talk was pointless, trying to struggle was pointless, and she was sure if she was going to be raped and murdered they wouldn't have waited this long. The one thing she could do was keep her spirits up, no matter what. At some point the journey would end, the sack, gag and ropes would come off and then it would be her mind against theirs. Bridgette made a mental bet that they weren't expecting a karate and judo black belt, and a pretty-near rocket scientist on top of that.

Relaxing wasn't possible, but she mentally started putting her house in order, thinking about what she was going to do as soon as she had a chance. She hadn't seen any weapons, but that was tempered by the fact she hadn't heard them speak a word. Only time would tell, and she was willing to meet anyone -- midgets or not -- and deal she'd with them.

Two hours later she considered her earlier thought and laughed at herself for brazen hypothesizing. One of the things her father had taught her early on was "Never assume." She'd clearly been assuming. The pace hadn't changed since the tunnel leveled out, and she still couldn't tell if they were still heading west, or had changed directions. It had been nearly three hours now, and they were at least two dozen miles from her home, and who knew many feet below ground?

For the life of her, she couldn't figure out where they were. She'd tried to figure out how far they had descended, but she doubted it was a mile. Of course, her house sat on the three hundred and twenty foot contour line, and if she'd descended nearly as far as she thought, that put her well below sea level. And the two dozen or so miles they'd come were an appreciable fraction of the distance to the coast ... about a third.

The break, when it came, wasn't nearly as slow as the start. One moment the men carrying her were going at the pace they'd held for hours, then they quickly slowed. Before Bridgette was quite ready, the men carrying her had stopped, the pole was tilted upright and removed.

A deep masculine voice spoke. "I'm going to take off the bag and the gag. It's entirely up to you if they go right back on." It was, she thought, a deep bass, speaking unaccented English.

The hood came off, then the gag. The light was dim, but she could see well enough. Not midgets, she thought. Dwarves. They were about four feet or so tall, heavily bearded and clearly more heavily muscled even, than bearded. She couldn't tell which of them had carried her -- all of them seemed to be breathing normally.

One of the dwarves leaned his head back and laughed. "You are what we'd hoped, Lady Bridgette Gustafson. Welcome to Middle-earth."

"Do I get to meet Frodo or Bilbo? Gandalf and Elrond? The king, Aragorn?"

"Most of them have traveled to the Western Lands long ago. There is still a great-grandson of Aragorn on the throne of Gondor."

He bobbed his head. "Now, Lady Bridgette, you need to see to yourself. We can only stop a short time; this is not the safest of places. Your wrists and legs are numb, and if you look, you will find that you've suffered some hurt. If you are the woman we think you are, you can fix that."

"And if I'm not?"

"You will travel hereafter on your own two feet. You are in good shape, and while you can't travel as fast as we can, here the risk isn't great. Still, as I said, this isn't the safest of places. The longer we're here, the greater the danger."

While he'd been talking, Bridgette had lifted her hands close to her eyes. She swallowed. Her wrists were blistered; the blisters had blisters and at least twice more. She was bleeding steady drips. Made aware, she realized her ankles were in similar shape, if not worse.

"I should be crippled," she murmured, studying the damage.

"Lady Bridgette, you deserve an explanation. You won't like it, but I think you will come to understand why it happened."

"What is it? How exactly do you expect me to fix my hands and legs?"

"We don't have much time -- for now the explanation will be brief. Your family is very old -- and very powerful. We knew within a few minutes of your birth that you existed and ever since have kept on eye on you. We knew that you would not come into your own quickly, nor would you understand at first. Study your injuries. Imagine what it would take to fix them. Do that for a few minutes. This isn't Kansas, Lady Bridgette, like I said. Prepare to be surprised. Do hurry, though."

She looked at her wrists. She needed to stop the bleeding, and then she needed to cover the wounds, long enough for them to have time to heal. Many times in her life she'd had cuts and scrapes -- they had all healed quickly. Her mother had explained it simply, "Not all people heal as fast as you, dear. Some do, but most don't. It's like a foot race -- some are faster than others."

The more she thought about it, the warmer her wrists felt. After a moment, she realized that the bleeding had stopped. Another moment and her wrists itched, where the skin was healing. She watched bemused as the last traces of the blisters vanished.

She turned her attention to her ankles, which were in slightly better shape. It didn't take long.

"I imagine this will come in handy," she said sarcastically.

"If someone knocks you on the head and spills your brains, it is of no utility at all."

Bridgette made a face.

He waved around them; the blackness was all-encompassing. "You can't see the chamber because you don't know how to look. There are sixteen entrances or exits. If you run, you have one chance in sixteen of even beginning to head the right way. Some passages would lead you for miles and you would be just as lost at the end as when you started. Others would lead you quickly to ruin. One leads you home -- that is if you make fourteen correct guesses as to which way to turn at a junction. Only one path leads out. Half, Lady Bridgette, lead to your quick death. You can do as you wish, but following us would be your best choice."

"Will I ever get home?"

"Of course. Bilbo, Frodo and the other heroes did after all -- and the dangers they faced make yours pale in comparison. Saruman is dead, as is Sauron. Mordor is a tourist attraction. Not, mind you, that a misstep won't doom you, but the danger here will be at the hands of more modern enemies."

'Are there Elves as well as Dwarves? Humans and Hobbits? Orcs, Goblins and the like?"

"The Elves never liked helping others. They thought everyone else should help themselves and leave them alone. A few still exist, but you aren't likely to see one. Dwarves are pragmatists -- we are in no rush to drink the Kool-Aid. Men grow like ice plant or kudzu. You can't get rid of them. Hobbits, as soon as they found that the Elves regularly sailed for the Undying Lands of the West, happily took it upon themselves to leave.

"Orcs and Goblins and a whole lot of other, nastier creatures, still exist, but vast numbers died at the Black Gate to Mordor or at Isengard, but while that was most of them -- it was not all of them. There are no mages as powerful as Gandalf, Saruman or Sauron that we know of alive today. There are still wizards, but mostly they are a puny lot."

"But you are threatened?"

He laughed. "You got that one in one! Please, we've stayed over long. You stink, Bridgette. Sex, perfume, deodorant, your coming moonblood. They will know a foreign presence was here and strongly suspect a human."

"I stink?" In spite of her thought that she was capable of dealing with anything, that hurt.

"My lady, you do. Lady Bridgette -- you pretend that you don't smell to satisfy your sensibilities. But to an uncivilized nose your passage is like you blaring a horn as you go -- anyone who passes will know. And they will have a good idea where you are from."

"I have never had sex."

"You know the truth of that, and I could care less. The body produces certain chemicals and fluids when aroused. Your body produces hormones that control the moonblood. All can be smelled by someone who doesn't have a civilized nose. Ask any elf, or for that matter, most men: dwarves aren't civilized."

"Is there a place to wash up then?"

He shuddered. "Lady Bridgette, from now on I'm going to call you 'Lady B.' Using your real name isn't a good idea at the best of times and very bad here. There are small fountains here that are safe to drink from. People would be -- unhappy -- to find you bathing in one. Any open expanse of water is to be watched carefully, and never, ever leapt into. This is the Hall of the Mountain King, Thrain.

"On your world it was said that all roads led to Rome. Here it is reversed -- the roads that lead from this Hall lead everywhere -- getting back is harder. In a few hours we will be out of here and I promise you can bathe in a nice fresh mountain stream. True, the water will have been snow not long ago, but it would be good to wash the stink off. I have some clothes that will fit you and will not be as out of place as those you wear now."

Bridgette took a deep breath and the exhaled slowly. The man grinned. "That's the ticket, Lady B! Now, how good are you at running?"

"Not as good as you are," she told him.

He made a face. "Dwarves are poor runners, compared with men. Elves don't even notice running."

"I thought you said Elves weren't very common these days? If they aren't around, why don't you stop comparing yourselves with people who aren't here any more?"

"Now there's a thought! Of course, I'm certain there is no faster way to get an elf to show up than to start pretending they don't exist. Come, let's run."

He started off slow enough and soon he was moving as fast as Bridgette could manage without going through her stamina like a knife through butter. He seemed to sense what her limit was, and kept his pace down.

There was one dwarf in the front with a torch, the dwarf who talked to her was in the middle, and a dwarf with a torch brought up the rear. It wasn't much light, but it was enough. She tired, she was really tried, but she'd risen at 6 AM the day before and was pretty sure the sun was up again -- it was more than a full day since she'd woken.

The transition to sunlight was abrupt. They went around a corner and there was a little light. Another corner a hundred yards further and the light at the end of the tunnel was clear. Then they were outside. The dwarf leader fell in next to Bridgette.

"Two hundred more yards, Lady B. Then we'll rest most of the day."

She nodded and they descended a rocky scree. Then they stopped and dwarves from the party started setting up a camp. Bridgette had a few minutes to look around. A few miles away, at the base of the mountain, there was a wide shelf, at least a half-mile wide, and then a large river. She'd seen the Mississippi River at St. Louis before; this was like that.

"That's the Anduin," the dwarf told her.

"That's the main river of Middle-earth," she told him.

"Indeed. Where else would you find dwarves, men and elves?"

"Where I'm from it's a fantasy."

His chuckle was a deep rumble. "One man's fantasy is another's hard reality. Your people have a unique ability to see what they shouldn't be able to see. Surely you can understand it you can start where you started and finish here -- others could as well?"

He gestured towards a dark patch of trees. He dug into a pack and pulled out something like a hatchet. "This is a child's axe, a first weapon. Come with me."

Bridgette followed him about a half mile to the trees; they were further away than they looked. "You need a walking stick," he said simply. "We have much rough ground to cover -- no more dwarfish freeways. Find a staff, trim it and return to us. If you run, you are on your own. Getting home again would be nearly impossible."

She eyes the dark trees. "And if I meet something unpleasant?"

He laughed. "Lady B, the most unpleasant thing you will find in this copse is your reflection."

"From your point of view," she answered.

"What's to like about a virtually hairless giantess? Lady B, we have only a limited time to rest. The longer this takes, the less time you will have to rest."

Miffed, she took the hatchet and strode into the woods. If she needed a walking stick, it needed to be a couple of inches in diameter, at most, and five or six feet tall.

She walked through the woods for the better part of a half hour. Most of what she saw were trees; a hundred foot tall tree that was five of feet or more, in diameter and the small hatchet wasn't going to work ... in any case the branches that would work were high in the tree and she had never been a tree climber in her youth.

Most of the branches on the ground were too short; others had too many branches. Then, off to one side, she found a very strange tree. Half was dark wood, half was light-colored. It was, however, the perfect size to fit her hand and roughly the right height.

The dwarf hadn't said anything about cutting down a living tree; from what little she remembered of the esoterica of Lord of the Rings, she thought they were Greenpeace types. Screw it, she thought. She was tired; this was the right size and shape to be a walking staff.

She thought the dark wood would be tough, while the light colored wood would be softer. She had it backwards.

She waved it at the dwarf. "One walking stick."

He laughed. "You realize an elf would give his left nut for that? Actually, if you bargained hard, you could probably get both?"

"It was just a small tree."

"It was two trees, joined together. Do you understand grafting?"

"Yes."

"Occasionally, rarely, trees in the wild form natural grafts such as these two have. Aii! Holly and laburnum! Who would have thought it!"

"Obviously, not an expected combination."

"Laburnum is the dark wood. Every part of the tree is poisonous. In many species the seedpods look like common peas. But feed someone a portion of those 'peas' and they die. Holly's poison is overrated, but it is very hard wood. Both have mystical properties."

"Will holding it poison me?" Bridgette was far more concerned about poison that "mystical properties."

"Of course not. I mean, if you ate the entire laburnum branch, that would make you ill -- it would probably even kill you. But I doubt if that's in the cards. Tree branches aren't very tasty, even if you're starving."

"Not hardly. Particularly not warned. If I get hungry, I'll eat grass."

"Come and rest, Lady B. Keep your walking stick close to hand; you never know when a quarterstaff might come in handy. And those two types of wood are very strong and very powerful."

She walked over the where the others were briskly making a camp, swinging the stick as she walked. They stopped at a pile of blankets and he motioned to them. "These are for you. We are stopped for a few hours, until after midday. If you need to find a bush, swallow your pride and tell one of the guards."

"I don't speak your language."

"Say, 'ugas' and they will know what you mean. We'll take care of the language problem here shortly."

Bridgette smiled. "I am rather handy with languages. I picked up German, French and Spanish rather well, even though I only took them for a year each."

"It should come as no surprise to find that no one here speaks any of those. But we have our own way of doing things. We have ten days to practice until we reach Minas Tirith."

"I'm handy with languages, but not that handy. I'm not a rocket scientist in linguistics."

"Pity, that. Good rocket scientists can earn a fortune here and then some."

"What on Earth do you need rockets for?"

"This isn't Earth, and 'fireworks' is the answer. Gandalf was famous for his fireworks displays. If you can create one a tenth as good as he could, you'd be rich beyond avarice."

"You're all crazy."

"Rest, Lady B. We need to put some distance behind us before nightfall. I promised to return you home in two weeks your time, a month of ours. It's ten days to and from Minas Tirith. That doesn't leave much time for contingencies. There are always contingencies."

Bridgette waved at something coming up from the south on the river. "Could we save time taking a ship?"

"You'll notice it hugs the other shore. If we were to wave and attract their attention, they probably wouldn't shoot at us ... but they certainly wouldn't get close to this side of the river, particularly not here, and certainly not for a party of dwarves.

"Lady B, we have several days. I promise you, I will explain the political situation -- and a lot more -- over the next few days."

"And my parents know where I am? They aren't going to worry?"

"Your family is both old and powerful. If we'd let them know in advance, they might have been able to stop us. So, no -- they don't know where you are. Further, they were old and powerful long ago. As in hundreds of years ago. They have been out of touch now for a long time. Still, the bond still exists between your family and mine. We knew when you were born; we've followed your life with interest.

"Please Lady B, rest. I'm going to catch a nap, no matter what you do." Bridgette watched him lean back and close his eyes.

The morning was mild and she felt no need to burrow into the blankets, using them instead as a pad against the rocky ground. She wasn't sure why, but the last thing she remembered before she herself fell asleep was reaching out and wrapping her hand around the walking stick.

She was quickly asleep, and afterwards she couldn't remember any dreams. She remembered waking up, though! Her muscles hurt, the pain in her hands and ankles was back with a vengeance. The dwarf just shrugged. "Nothing is forever, Lady B. You fixed it before, you can do it again."

"Surely you have cream or liniment to ease the aches and pains?"

"Nope," he said. "What will happen is that we'll run most of the remainder of the day, rest tonight, then run tomorrow -- and so forth and so on. In nine days, when we reach Minas Tirith, you'll hardly notice any discomfort."

He was stuffing his blankets into a bag with a drawstring, and when he was finished started on Bridgette's. "I can do that," she said.

He laughed. "Lady B. in your dreams you can stuff your blankets as tight as a dwarf. Relax, Lady B ... this is something we can easily manage."

They had something like lunch -- more dried meat and something like warm beer. Then they started walking. "I thought you were going to start teaching me your language."

"In a few minutes, the next time we stop for a bit. Trust me, it won't take but a minute."

"Trust me, I can't learn a language in a minute -- not unless it is nearly identical to one I already know."

"Lady B, you are going to see things over the next few weeks whose only reasonable explanation is 'magic.' Honestly, you know some of our history and you have to know that magic figures prominently in most of it. True, the last thousand years, the power of magic is starting to fade -- but it is like trying to sweep all the sand from a beach with an old broom.

"History is where I'll start. There was the war that you've heard of -- where Sauron and Saruman were thrown down. A lot of good folks died in the war -- dwarf, human a tithe of elves.

"Elves have motives for doing things that don't seem to make much sense to anyone else. After the war was over, most of the remaining elves, most of the hobbits and some few men traveled West to the Undying Lands. My grandfather was one of the few dwarves who made the trip. That stupid dwarf was smitten by the elf queen, Galadriel. When he was 120 years old, Legolas stopped by for a visit to mourn the death of Aragorn and he mentioned that Galadriel's husband hadn't made the journey west, and had no intention of doing so. My grandfather let Legolas convince him that he had a chance with her, so off they went.

"He left my grandmother behind, to care for his three children. My father was twelve when my grandfather left, leaving his wife a regent -- by then he was styled 'King of the Shimmering Caverns.'"

"Your grandfather was Gimli?"

"Gimli, son of Gloin," the dwarf agreed. "He was faintly of the old royal line but he was like 23rd in the succession. I am not going to excuse his actions. He was besotted with that damn elf." He stroked his beard. "Most dwarves have dark brown beards. Lighter colors are virtually unknown. My grandmother was a redhead. Galadriel's hair was silver-gold, according to the stories, and grandmother was as close as he could find.

"Like I said my grandmother was more fair-haired than most -- she was from the far north, and she must have sensed how Grandfather felt. She named her oldest son Wotan. Evidently, some of the elder gods didn't like that. She was asked by Arwen to come and present her children to her, so Grandmother gathered them up, and made a rare journey outside the caverns to comply -- Arwen was another elf, the one who married Aragorn."

"I know who she was," Bridgette told him.

"Well, the Gods decided to strike my Grandmother and the children dead with lightning. Somehow she shielded them from the first bolt, but it, in turn, killed her.

"My father, Wotan, had never believed any tales of the Elder Gods, but his favorite weapon was a hammer. He got his six year old brother and four year old sister up on a rock and stood over them with his hammer, attracting one lightning bolt after another to it, brandished over his head.

"The legends say the elder gods so admired his bravery, that they let him live. My father thinks they got bored. He counted 435 lightning strikes, but admits that he lost track a couple of times."

He patted the weapon on his belt and for the first time Bridgette noticed it looked like a sledgehammer, not an axe or sword.

"Your father is king?"

"Not any more. I'm Jotan, son of Wotan. When he got to 850 years old he felt it was time to retire, so he left the job to me."

"You're the king of the dwarves?" Bridgette asked, amazed.

"Well, a king of the dwarves. At one time there was seven, now there are five.

"After the war, with many of the elves, men and hobbits headed for the Undying Lands, and rest of the men consumed with rebuilding their cities, we dwarves were left pretty much alone. My grandfather built Aragorn a new Great Gate to Minas Tirith. Plus he helped out with some dwarfish improvements to city planning.

"That Gate has been a pain in the bottom ever since. Making it of steel was not the problem -- the problem was embellishing it with a lot of mithril. Ever since men have come to the Glittering Caverns to steal some of the metal. It is a source of much friction with men, because we kill thieves. The rumors of vast riches in the caverns are dying out, but they aren't yet gone.

"Faramir, the last Steward of Gondor, married Eowyn of Rohan. Her uncle had been king and her brother succeeded him in the succession, when Theodren was killed in the great battle before Minas Tirith. At one point Eowyn had tried to attract Aragorn's attentions, and Faramir and Aragorn had fought side by side again the forces of Sauron. Thus Gondor and Rohan became even closer than they had been -- in truth, Sauron had nearly destroyed their ancient alliance. Dwarves hated elves, elves didn't like anyone and everyone had to ask, 'What's a hobbit?' Men have never trusted anyone, not really, not even each other.

"Still, the ancient alliances held up rather well, but time and the lack of a threat like Sauron to bring peoples together has loosened ancient ties.

"However, it is short-sightedness on everyone's part. The Great Ring was destroyed in the war. Three of the great rings went with the elves to the Undying Lands of the West. The six rings for the dwarfin kings and the nine for the human kings were lost in the war. Sauron had them all, and when his tower fell, it buried them.

"Sauron died then; Saruman was murdered by Grimma Wormtongue and the King of the Nazgul was killed by Eowyn. However the other eight of the Nazgul survived and fled -- they haven't been seen since. It would be too much to expect of such evil that they willed themselves out of existence. They are out there in the world plotting. The men of Gondor keep a stout garrison at Orthanc, but the long absence of a visible threat weakens their will.

"The evil that is stirring now is more modern and has modern roots. Men have long been the most avaricious of species. Elves seek lives of peaceful contemplation, although they too like things of beauty as much as anyone. Elves have been noted taking a few shortcuts over the ages in acquiring such things, but it is an individual thing. Dwarves love pretty things of the Earth -- mithril, gold, silver, and gemstones. We use them for adornment, and the honest truth is that a dwarf is happiest when he has a great pile of such treasures hidden away from prying eyes.

"We steal those treasures from the bowels of the Earth by the sweat of our brows. Elves do not covet the possessions of others, dwarves might be jealous of another's treasures, but we'd never countenance stealing it. Men, however, are different. Some men, certainly not all, covet anything and everything others possess. An elf or a dwarf would starve before stealing a loaf of bread from another. Some men would steal such a loaf just so he would have two -- even if it meant another had none.

"That's some men. Some men are giants and their honor knows no limits; the lengths they would go to to succor the innocent is boundless. Elves and dwarves may not covet other's possessions, but at the same time we are indifferent to the plight of others. It takes only the most extraordinary motivations to move us to assist others. It can be done, but it is a great undertaking."

A cry went up and they stopped for a breather. "It is time, Lady B."

"Time for what?"

"One thing heard often where you are from is the phrase 'This is going to hurt me more than it will you.' Lady B, I'm a dwarf. This is going to hurt you like you've never been hurt before.

"I beg of you, Lady B, to go down on your knees before me."

"And what will I get for crawling to you on my knees?"

"The symbolism is unfortunate, but I need to look into your eyes, with my hands cradling your cheeks. You have no reason to trust me, and you are not going to be very happy with me afterwards for any number of reasons. Earlier, when we were breaking camp, you were fed some aspirin. It is a medicine known to you and known to ease muscle aches.

"Please, Lady B, go to your knees."

Bridgette stared at him for a long moment. She was aware that the others in the party were watching with great interest. She sighed and did as bid, using the walking stick for balance.

"You are a woman of old," he whispered. He brought his hands up and placed them on either side of her face and then looked into her eyes. "It is true, that had we more time -- a few months -- we could fill the empty bucket without difficulty and in a slow and measured fashion. You would not be happy to spend the months necessary and in truth there is not the time. I'm sorry, Lady B. If there is anything you wish after this, you need but ask it of me."

Bridgette had no idea what to expect. His eyes seemed to blaze and for a minute she heard a great rushing sound -- remarkably like a bucket filling rapidly. Then there was a blinding pain between her eyes and extending back and down her spine.

Without the walking stick, she'd have found it impossible not to flop helplessly on the ground, but as it was, it was a near thing. Pain reached a peak and started to fade. She looked around, shaking her head helplessly.

"Ouchies," she said mildly.

"Lady B, if the situation wasn't desperate, I never would have contemplating kidnapping you or trying this. Do you hear the difference between how I speak now and how you speak your native language?"

If she focused, she found that his speech wasn't English, but a stronger, more guttural language, sounding a bit like German, but none of the words were familiar ... and yet she understood them just fine.

"I can hear a difference."

"Lady B, this isn't a good way to learn a tongue. There is nothing to keep the words you've learned from running out of the bucket -- except repetition and use. From now until we are on the way back, you need to speak this language. You need to talk to me, to others, as much as you can. I will go back over what I've been telling you for the last few hours. Ask questions, seek clarification. Use long-winded questions, the more complicated the better. Use as many words as possible. This is like memorizing hundreds of words from a dictionary. You will start forgetting them as almost at once if you don't use them."

"I can hear myself speaking the language. What language is it, if I may ask?"

"The language of the men of Gondor. Can you stand?"

She levered herself up. "Can I have some beer to clear my throat?"

"Of course, Lady B." Someone fetched a small barrel, like she imagined a St. Bernard would carry whiskey in. The plug was pulled and a wooden mug filled. She swallowed a hefty gulp.

"Now I have two different buzzings in my head. They are not in harmony," Bridgette grumped.

"It is what you'd expect from my husband," the dwarf who had supplied the beer told Bridgette.

She couldn't help her jaw dropping. The voice was a tenor, not a baritone. Even though the beard was every bit as long as the other dwarf's...

The dwarf understood her expression. "Lady B, my husband will get around to it soon, and in truth he has already alluded to it. The men of his family aren't to be trusted around women with white hair. That's in spite of there are no half-elf, half-dwarves. When you hear someone is a half-elf, the half that isn't an elf is a man. Elves think that dwarves are little better than monkeys and an Elvin man would never dream of defiling his body with someone other than another elf, or at worst, a man.

"And for some foolish reason he thinks that knowing who he is will prejudice you. Know that he is Jotan, son of Wotan, son of Gimli, son of Gloin of the royal line of Thorin Oakenshied and Dain, King Under the Mountain. Not that Dain was king for very long. He is King of the Glittering Caverns ... at least the dwarves that live there."

The dwarf woman waved the keg. "More beer, Lady B?"

"I'll pass, thanks." She turned to her dwarf host. "Sir, if we walk for a bit, I'll be better. I don't think I'll be able to run for a bit yet."

He laughed. "Lady B, you have the constitution of a dwarf! Most would have needed an hour to stand. That you can even contemplate walking is proof of some dwarfish blood in your history."

Bridgette handed the wooden mug back to Jotan's wife. "Thanks."

"We'll speak later of things males shouldn't hear."

Again Bridgette heard the recitation of the history of the peoples of Middle-earth since a war that echoed through their history.

Finally they stopped for the evening and Bridgette sank wearily down on a rock. Again the other dwarves busied themselves setting up camp, while she and Jotan were mostly ignored. Mostly; she couldn't help noticing that Jotan's wife hovered.

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