Disclaimer: I own neither Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Lord of the Rings, or any of the characters from either of the aforementioned series.
I am so, so sorry for the ridiculously late update. I wish I could promise to update the next chapter faster, but I can only post as quickly as I can and hope that you will forgive me for the wait. Thank you all so much for sticking with the story and yelling at me to update; truly, that has sped along the process. If this happens again *knocks on wood*, feel free to keep yelling at me to update, and don't forget to be awesome.
This was definitely shaping up to be Aragorn's second-worst birthday ever. Despite Sauron being defeated, the Haradrim were amassing again, the Lords of the court were being completely unreasonable, and he was currently on his way to fight another Necromancer. As if the Valar gained personal enjoyment from torturing Aragorn, it had poured earlier that day, drenching the group and creating large mud puddles the horses unhappily sloshed through.
Darkness started creeping up on his band, and he called a halt. At his order, the group of fifteen dismounted and started making camp for the night. Out of the corner of his eye, Aragorn saw Sam over by the cooking fire, gesturing enthusiastically to a nearby man; the only Hobbit in his company, Sam was probably talking some poor soldier's ear off about the proper way to make potato stew. Despite the gravity of the situation, Aragorn couldn't help but smile at the thought of his friend's antics.
They were only three days' ride away from Weathertop, where reports of dark activity had come from. With any luck, the problem would be over quickly and he could get back to Gondor soon. At that thought, Aragorn nearly snorted out loud. When had things ever been that easy?
As if he had spoken out loud, Aragorn spotted Lord Malvegil heading his way. The unpleasant lord had demanded to come along "as protection for His Highness", although Aragorn doubted his intentions were as noble as his title.
Forcing a smile, Aragorn turned towards the approaching man. "Lord Malvegil," he greeted. "How may I be of assistance?"
The stout man sniffed. "King Elessar," he said, "We really must discuss your plans regarding the capture and subsequent execution of the Necromancer." Aragorn cut him off before he could continue.
"Lord Malvegil, as I have already explained, I will wait to pass judgment on this Necromancer. I wish to first find where his allegiances lie, and perhaps how strong he is-"
"Yes, yes," the noble interrupted, waving his hand as if swatting at an annoying fly. "I am aware of your plans. But should not it be better for us to make the first move instead of wait for the Necromancer to strike us while we are unready? No one who practices the dark magic can possibly be doing what's best for the free people of Middle Earth. We should just be done with it quickly!"
Despite Aragorn's dislike of the man, Lord Malvegil made a reasonable point. If the Necromancer was dabbling in the dark arts, then it would be reasonable to assume that he would follow Sauron's path; neither he nor the rest of Arda needed another war like that. Yet at the same time he could not ignore Arwen's words that perhaps this Necromancer was not like the previous one. He didn't know if it was Elvish intuition or his wife being her usual wise self, but he knew better than to dismiss Arwen's words.
"My lord!" One of the scouts ran up, cutting through the two nobles' conversation. From the corner of his eye, Aragorn could see Lord Malvegil's beady eyes narrowing, muscles tightening in obvious preparation to confront the man who would dare interrupt his conversation with the king.
"What is it, Glortham?" Aragorn quickly asked, anxious to prevent a dispute between the two men. Even before he received an answer, he could see the scout's hand absently grasping his sword, fingers twitching even as he reported to his King.
"It's the Wainriders, My Lord, not two leagues from here and heading this way." Glortham paused. "My Lord, there are some... I do not know how to explain it other than work of Sauron himself."
Aragorn tensed. For a moment, he was sorely tempted to question the scout about these foes, but he knew that he did not have the time. They could not fight, not with so few soldiers, and he would like the chance to examine the new threats before meeting them in battle.
"Take cover!" he yelled to his men. "Cover up all traces of our presence here!"
The soldiers hastened to do as he commanded. Water was dumped over the small fires they had lit, and the ashes were scattered. The group - fourteen Men and a Hobbit - quickly led the horses into a nearby wooded area, where they hid in the trees' shadows and waited.
The first enemies to appear were the Wainriders. Cloaked in navy, a golden compass glinted proudly on their chests. The empty circle had four points that marked North, South, East, and West; however, in the middle of the circle stood a strange symbol Aragorn had never come across before -an upside-down horseshoe with two branches on the bottom. There were nearly fifty of them. Though the men still outnumbered his soldiers three to one, Aragorn was still confident the Gondorian soldiers could best them in a fight if need be; however, the Wainriders only made up half the procession.
Despite their training, Aragorn heard several of his soldiers gasp in shock. They watched in horrified awe as the creatures flooded past them. Some of the women among the pack had the lower halves of snakes, while others limped with one bronze leg and one furry one, like that of a donkey. Leaping among the pack were giant dogs with ruby eyes and razor-sharp teeth, bounding away from the group to sniff nearby trees then fall back in line. Overhead, chicken-women hybrids weaved among silver birds that gleamed in the sunlight, beaks sharp enough to peck out a man's eye.
The soldiers of Gondor held their breaths as the procession continued, trying to remain unnoticed. It was a solid five minutes before the last of the monsters filed out of sight, the clanking of armor fading to a distant jingle. The soldiers waited quietly long after they had left, waiting to make sure that the last beast was gone before revealing themselves.
A full ten minutes later, Aragorn gave two low, short whistles, signaling that it was okay to come out. One by one, the soldiers emerged, and Aragorn did a quick head count: thirteen men, one hobbit, and one indignant noble flicking leaves off his robes. All present.
"What were those things?" Sam voiced what was on all their minds. Instinctively, everyone in the company turned to their king for guidance.
Aragorn sighed and shook his head. "I do not know. Never before have I come across such beasts."
"They're obviously the work of the Necromancer!" Lord Malvegil pushed through the ring of soldiers, making his way in front of Aragorn. "Nothing but pure evil could have created such beasts of wickedness."
Aragorn closed his eyes. "Let us pray that is not true." His eyes flicked open. "These new foes are unknown threats. Having seen them for yourselves, I give you the option to turn back now; none here will think any less of you should you choose to do so." Lord Malvegil shifted uneasily, as though he was contemplating the offer, but he remained silent. Aragorn looked at the other soldiers (and hobbit) who had not so much as twitched at his offer to return home. Seeing the fierce loyalty and devotion in their eyes, Aragorn could not keep a grateful smile from his face.
"My lord." One of the younger soldiers - Peletar - spoke up. "There were nearly a hundred beasts and men combined. That group was too small to be an army and too large to be a scouting expedition. What were they doing here?"
Aragorn's brow furrowed. The young man brought up a good point. "I do not know. One more thing to ask our Necromancer when we find him. For now, we continue. If we ride through the night, we should make it to Weathertop in another two days or so."
Walking over to Brego, Aragorn started saddling his horse when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. In one fluid motion, he withdrew his sword, pivoting to come face-to-face with an arrow pointed at his forehead.
"By the Valar, Aragorn, you're getting old." Aragorn grinned as Legolas slung his bow over his shoulder. Aragorn pulled the elf in for a brief hug before withdrawing.
"It is good to see you, too, mellon-nin* [My friend]," Aragorn said. The smile fell from his face. "But I fear that there is some grave news of late."
Legolas nodded, growing somber. "We rode by Minas Tirith as we came here, and spoke to Arwen. She told us about the Necromancer, so we set out to find you. We saw the orcs from afar..." he paused, lowering his voice. "What were those beasts, Aragorn?"
Aragorn sighed, shaking his head. "I do not know, but we must find out where they're -" he broke off abruptly, remembering something his friend had said. "We? Who else travels with you, mellon [friend]?"
"Well, it's about time you acknowledge the rest of us," a gruff voice called from behind Legolas. Aragorn smiled as Arod trotted up, with Gimli awkwardly clinging to the saddle. The dwarf grumbled as he tried to dismount, eventually having to drop the last two feet to the ground. Aragorn stepped forward, about to greet his friend properly, when another horse emerged from the blackness behind Gimli.
Expecting to see another familiar man, dwarf, or elf, Aragorn was surprised to when he picked out the form of a female child. She rode stiffly on the horse, as if unused to riding, but still appeared to have no trouble keeping her seat. The girl wore a silver circlet and carried herself like royalty, but her eyes told the tale of a soldier, scanning Aragorn's men with barely concealed suspicion.
"It was an Omega."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at the girl's abrupt declaration. "Pardon?" he asked.
The girl's eyes flickered to Aragorn and lingered there, seemingly recognizing him as the leader. Aragorn slowly assessed her, as he knew she was doing to him; the girl's weapons and attentive gaze identified her as a warrior. Yet behind the suspicion, there was something else - determination and a fierce protectiveness. This only added to Aragorn's questions; she was obviously very loyal, but where did her allegiance lie?
"Thalia, what's an Omega?" Legolas interrupted the staring contest. Blinking, Thalia looked back to the elf.
"It's a letter," she explained.
"I have never come across it in my studies," Aragorn replied, but Thalia just shook her head.
"No, not your alphabet, it's the one my cousins and I use -" she cut off, seeing that she was losing the others. "Never mind. Look, the important part is, it's the last letter. My cousin once said he thought they used it as a symbol of The End, death, and all that bright and cheerful stuff."
Aragorn wondered again where his friends had picked up this girl, but put it aside for the moment. "You've run into them before?"
Thalia's hand wandered to a silver bracelet on her left hand. "Some of them," she admitted, fiddling with the jewelry. "The really ugly ones with horns or snakes for legs? Yeah, I've fought them."
Aragorn's eyes narrowed. First the necromancer, then the new beasts, and now this child? She claimed to have fought the monsters, but Aragorn didn't completely trust her just yet.
"Not the human ones, though," Thalia continued. "Never seen those before."
"Those are the Wainriders," Legolas said. "Their ranks consist of Easterlings and some Haradrim."
Thalia stared at him, bewildered. "You know I have no clue what you're saying, right?"
Aragorn sighed and attempted to explain. "Gondor has had an uneasy alliance with the Easterlings since the end of the War of the Ring. However, some of the Easterlings disapprove of our agreement and join with the Haradrim, who have no great love for Gondor. The ones who join into this alliance are called the Wainriders."
Thalia nodded slowly. "So, really evil guys and slightly-less evil guys pair up with monsters and form their Avengers Gang of Evil," she clarified. "Have I missed anything?"
"Only the Necromancer, Commander of the Dead, darkest wizard since Sauron's time," Gimli said, taking Thalia's explanation in stride despite not understanding the reference.
"We do not know where his allegiances lie yet," Aragorn cautioned, keeping one eye on Thalia, who had slightly tensed at the mention of the Necromancer. Aragorn turned to Thalia, addressing her directly. "I presume you are accompanying us?"
Thalia grinned. "Wouldn't miss it," she said devilishly.
"Then we should be off," Aragorn decided. "It would not do well for us to tarry, but we must be doubly careful now with these new adversaries."
As his men quickly packed up and Sam, having remained hidden when Thalia emerged, enthusiastically greeted Legolas and Gimli, Aragorn continued to watch the girl, who was remaining by her horse and watching the action around her.
Aragorn could only hope that the Necromancer would be on their side, Thalia was not a traitor, and the Wainriders-monster alliance would be easily conquered. He shook his head, grinning ruefully. He might be turning ninety-three years old, but he was still pretty sure he only had one birthday wish.