Caught — caught — how dare they, how dare she!
—How long it has been since any has dared to smite him, to strike at him — how long since his flesh has been broken, this earthly form that he wears for earth's mastery, how long since Elf of Aman as of Endor has not feared to come at him in combat clear, his shield of powers welded from this world's working bent to his will, forged of his cunning and honed with practice, and fed with pain…
Not since a full handful of years, when he burned with fast-driven fire, the wood's long wrath striking through hand as through glove and mail, sent by hand that feared not retribution, by archer deaf to the song of his sorcery and blind to the shadow he sent forth, and he felt the fury, far-distant, of She who sang the Trees… Woods burned that night, leagues of them, but assuaged not the flame in his riven flesh and splintered bone.
—But that was long ago, and the dealer of that blow has well-learned his power, and the ways of shame, and fear, and his own folly, where he awaits the caress of torments sweeter still, for so long as his mortal flesh may endure… Yet that pleasure shall not come to pass, for he is stricken down himself now, though still he comprehends it not fully, nor accepts it. But disbelief shakes not the fangs from his throat, nor closes the furrows torn deep in his hide beneath the protection of his pelt, nor lets the air come clearer through his strangled windpipe — he is well-caught, and well-shaken, and his Enemy has neither fear nor doubt nor pity…
But still he wonders how this may be, and how the Laws that bind the world have cheated him, as with some part of the sense that is left him he wonders why they have come here to challenge him… For is he not the Master of Wolves, and knows he not all his minions, and their girth, and is he not the greatest?
—Fool, the Hound laughs at him, joylessly, did you not heed the words? Not — the greatest that walks the world, but — shall ever walk the world — and now thy time is done: now the Master of Wolves must kneel and yield him to the Nightingale he would cage. Surrender to my Lady!
No matter — he can flee, as his captives might not, and leave behind this damaged dwelling for a better, gift of his great Master. He struggles to unleash the couplings of his will from the bonds of the flesh he has worn for this Age, wrestling against the well-wrought making and his agony alike, his venomed slaver burning his own wounds where it froths from his jaws, distracting him from his song, choking from within and without and the deep-pressed claws of the terrible Hound weighting him in the torn tenderness of his underbelly, gouging still deeper to his innards, his bitten forelegs throbbing like the ceaseless rhythm of thralls' hammers — he writhes, fëa as hröa, endeavoring to abandon the field of his defeat—
And a voice commands him, shaking body and spirit together:
Next to him, to them, she is a tiny thing, a moth, a slip of snowflower, a small bird barely a mouthful for either — and both combatants are subject before her, one for his love, the other of dread. The light that flames from her is a storm of silver, endless arcs and whorls boiling forth like the white foam of the sea, and she is not even aware of it as she advances upon him, her gaze burning into him like a blow from a sword of crystal. It is not hatred she casts upon him, for the taste of that he well-knows, having found it sweet many times beyond numbering, hurled upon him from the hearts of his breaking — but purest wrath, raging clear and undiminished by any tainting of self-concern or savoring of his pain…
He looks into her eyes, and is caught — the song that she sent through his stronghold was not the greatest expenditure of her power at all, but barely the least skimming of it, as the white of the wave is but the barest surface of it, and the full weight of her will is turned on him, like the weight of the wave that comes from the deep ocean, and it crashes upon him and spills him now open like a casket left carelessly on the strand, and his thoughts are scattered loose before her, beyond his gathering—
(… and still behind the wave there is the Sea…)
In her brilliance there is a light that he recognizes — remembers — and how had he forgotten the glory of it, faded in recollection to a mere disdained illusory shimmer? He wants to devour it, consume this small vessel with its spark of the first Light that wanders wayward through his dominion, to blot it from his sight that it not reproach him with what he has become—
"No, chosen—" her soul rebukes him—
—and at the same time he wants, most desperately wants, to be taken by it and made welcome and all wounds forgotten forever as in far-distant Days before the Sun…
—No! I am not your Hound, he snarls, and the teeth in his ruff stab deeper and slam him against the stones, and his glazing eyes dim at the renewal of agony.
"I care not what you are, Hound of Morgoth, so that you obey me."
She sees in his mind that he has minded to abandon this fast-held shell, and she smiles, and it is the most terrifying sight of his long, long existence, more dreadful than the wrath of the Wrestler, than the Hunter on his rampaging steed, than the sorrows of Uinen rising in storm, than the grim jaws of her champion even — this girl-child, not even a warrior of Finwë's scions to master him, not even true Power, who has seen not full ten of her people's time-measures, smiling down without mirth upon him in his anguish—
"Go, then, to your Lord, and to his good welcome. No doubt he will thank you well for losing him the hold on this vale, that guards the wide way to his gates, no doubt reward you most generously for it—"
Her words are a mirror held up to hold him, reflecting back at him his own knowledge — as though she, not the Hound, had her foot at his neck, battering his soul beneath relentless blows of her will, he cringes, whines, the wolf-shape yelping in terror and desperate wish to escape — but escape there is none, for his fate will be worse in his Master's holding than in the grip of the Hound, horrible though that be. He has not thought, in the chaos of his defeat, has not considered the truth of his plight—
She does not tear from his mind what she seeks, no more than she takes what he would rather withhold of his secrets: the fact that he plotted her capture, long gloated over the image of Angband's proud rivals in anguish, Doriath's dearest treasure taken in thralldom, his hunger to see her abased, great Melian's daughter a shivering slave at his feet, to be given in tribute to the Lord of the Void, and sent forth soldiers to snare her… it is simply that her power has smote him like the storm-deep upon the sea-tower, and as though his soul-castle were but sand it has fallen in ruin, or a log wet-rotted in woodland, struck by the shoe of a galloping steed, crushing asunder and all the creeping, scurrying things, sticky-pallid and glassy-black and slick-brown, all hasten for their homes in vain…
He strives to send forth his will to see her thought, know her will, her reasons for hence-coming — but it is as though he stared into the Sun's face directly, no more can he see of the figure therein, but only a brightness that blinds him and wounds him. There is neither fear nor the disgust that is fear too (and more crippling) that will not regard but must look away, in the gaze of the maid who has mastered him: his cruel ambitions to use her as pawn do not daunt her, she but glances past, as one who scans a page of dreariest chronicle, seeking some one pertinent fact in the record.
There — she has found what she seeks, the fact of his knowing, the way into his stronghold, past ward, past guard, needless of battle, the words of unbinding, of opening, of revealing — the mirror-brilliance of her thoughts, like a shield of silver and adamant, sends fear-flight deep into his heart—
"Give them to me," the command shivers through his spell-fashioned bones, "or believe me that I will set the Lord of Dogs to serve you in such wise as you have served so many hundreds, that your fell sovereign may set you in your turn houseless in darkness, your pleas heard but unanswered! Now!"
From the wreckage of his thought he gathers together and offers them to her, upheld, soul bending in supplication, that she not rip him apart like a falcon her prey, not send him shrieking hither to his Master's calling, unbodied, helpless, to be harrowed and seared, left a mere wraith in the bitter cold of the North-night, or made into other, reshaped into form far from his choosing—
He has no thought of deception, for once, now; no treachery dares to cross his mind, lest she slay him, her will not a hammer of hell-forged iron but a sword of clear crystal to sever him, through the teeth of her liege — or a sickle, bright as starlight, sharp as the points of stars, keen, irresistible, fashioned in Valinor, wielded by the wrath of the Lady…
—The keys are hers, the words that rule all his wardings and Workings set through the citadel, all of them laid in her thoughts as though on a ring in her hand. She has no need of him now, this Maia of Morgoth's, less in his worth than the youngest Dark-elven child — than mortal—
—Ai, yes, than mortal!—
—he flinches, grovelling into the pavers, under the weight of her wrath — that deemed himself mightier than the Valar even in his cruel lordship, his arrogance sinking him still lower in the slough of his evil, that seeks not nor sees need for escape. Death he deserves, and torment after, and small pity indeed—
But a bargain has been made, and there is no taking it back, and breaking it were to set at work such forces counter to her Working that it were better she had never set edge to strand than come so far and fail. Were it not for his dangerousness, when recovered, it would not even be consideration. He is less than nothing to her now, that she has defeated him, and has no more to gain of him — his vaunted might and mastery and scorn such wretched, pitiable things to deem exaltation that his downfall is scarcely worth triumphing over.
—What greater punishment is there, she wonders, than to bear the burden of self that is yourself? What greater misery than to gnaw bones in the dark, and believe that mastery over the wide world? Poor starving fool, that will not take gift of bread and water free-given!
And with that he is gone from her thought forever, swept aside in more worthy concern, and this is yet another score across his soul as he shapes his tooth-scored hröa into a form more suitable for flight, hatred filling his spirit yet not sufficient to drive out fear, of her companion's fangs, but far more of her fearlessness, that clove through his works and ways and wards with the ease of a sword's edge through cobweb — and does not even deem him sufficient for her hate, which is as venom poured over his wounds—
Already she has turned from him to face the Tower, now hers; he is forgotten, to go on his wounded way, wheresoever he chooses — but where is there to go, that will welcome him? Until he has redeemed himself he cannot return to his Master; until he has recovered his powers he dare not venture anywhere within range of his foes — his many, many foes! With his inner sense he can see in the night a darkness far other than the simple lacking of light — eastward a Shadow malevolent, brooding, wary and hungry abides. He will be hated there, no less than all others, but the burnt and broken wood of Tar-nu-Fuin is savagely to his spirit's liking — hatred and death and pain aplenty to draw from, dark stream of suffering to plenish his soul…and none will dare trouble him there, not even his Master's wrath shall easily pursue him to that twisted fastness.
He would like to rend at her with his wingclaws of iron, striking at her disdainful lack of regard, but she is not foolish, only trusting — trusting of Huan, loyal Lord of Dogs, whose lean shaggy jaws raise paling of spikes like the ice-tipped Pelóri between her foe and his Lady. At last he gathers himself from the ground of his breaking and writhes himself up into the sky, ungainly lumber of limbs not meant for such earthborn efforts, so much of his might spilled out there, blood upon stone, strength shaken from him by one who should not have been even his equal, let alone ever his master—
—and still he wonders, as he goes, as he will wonder long ere he knows the full answer, (and never to know it in full, being beyond his soul's comprehension) — why he has been thus struck down by Doom without warning…?
Before his wingbeats have ceased to trouble the night air above them he is pursued by a cry terrible and strong, triumphant without rejoicing, cry of victory without gladness — the dark words of his Mastery yet made beautiful despite themselves, for the glorious voice of the Singer who sends them. Still, though he flies, can he not escape minding of his defeat, still can the Abhorred One find yet neither peace nor place: without even gambling, without choosing this match, he has hazarded and lost all to the Elf-maid behind him. She, for her part, cares nothing for any who hate her…
In her urgency she pours out all her terror and longing and lost hope returned into her call, so much more of herself than is called for: gem casket lids spring off, iron-bound chests fling themselves wide, doors unlock and slam open in a thunderous chorus of liberation through the masterless fortress before they shall be poured out with the stones that unravel beneath them — and chains are reft open, the iron collars of thralldom parting from bowed neck, shackles falling from lean, galled limbs in the far subterranean hovels. Trembling the wearers look up, hollow eyes growing wide in terror of change — and those who were awakened, who heard that unstoppable song and rose up from blank being into true dreaming, feel something more — something that savours of fear in its outward ways but is far other — that might, almost, be the memory of joy…
The stones tremble, mortar falls at an instant to dust as the full strength of her voice strikes it, the roof-slates melt like winter ice from a dwelling-roof, slide down themselves to shatter so far, far down upon the courtyard below, shards of them dancing over the stones of the causeway even almost to where they stand. Facing of marble loosens, pulls out from itself, unravelling like a scrap of gauze; the upper rings of the tower begin to spiral free, unwinding as the spun thread is unwound from the rod upon which it is wrapped, falling one by one, and then faster and faster still, as the hailstorm begins with one fallen stone, and then another, and then grows in sound and strength until it is a roar too loud for hearing of voice.
—And yet her voice is still heard, over it, through it, woven into its making, unbinding, opening, parting, shifting, stirring and loosening as a thousand years of wind and rain would not so shake it, nor aught but strength of earth shaking, stone-under-stone rolling in sudden thunder of the depths. Only spell shall do so besides — but never thought any that such thing be accomplished, one to wrest the control from the Wolflord — far less one ancient in the naming of Men, yet she but a child to the Power that ruled here, lesser Power though he be, and old beyond reckoning in the ways of mastery and entrapment, nor one of those Firstborn who had set self and sword in defiance of the Northern shadow, the mighty of Aman, proud in their little towers, never thinking that those towers faced a fortress built of mountains, what that should mean—
And now the tower, raised by Elven hand and spell, is cast down by a Song, the servants of Morgoth's servant realizing that they are lordless and defeated, and not even stopping to ransack the treasures that now lie open everywhere to hand or claw they flee in disarray, those with wings hurling themselves from aerie, shrieking, piping, sending call of mind and voice afar seeking guidance, seeking after their fled lord in their own flight; while those of foot, two or four, hurl themselves into the river, daring Sirion's wrath rather than face the Singer who holds the bridge and the fangs of her liege.
Many are swept under, sucked down by the fast current, not knowing how to swim who abhor the spirits of water, that cannot be burned or uprooted as the trees, but only fouled and dammed, but not forever… Those who make it to shore do not wait to see what comes next — many do not even know what has happened, only that their world ends about them, their lair is broken, the power they trusted to guide them and send them in safety on their ways of destruction has forsaken them like smoke blown away on the wind, and they are routed utterly.
Northward they fly, scattered like Autumn leaves, thinking of nothing but themselves, each for own self only, each dreading to hear the baying of the Hound in its ears, to feel his teeth laying them by heel or hackle, fleeing still more the sound of the voice that rings through their souls like brightest crystal, piercing notes that are terrible in their clarity as arrowshafts, as the lights of heaven, as the Valaróma's long-forgotten call…
That same clarion summon others as strongly as it banishes the rest, though they still cower in the shelter of their caves, while the thunder of stones overhead and the groaning of the earth deafen them, (yet never so much that that Song is overwhelmed), while above them the citadel opens like a white rose of stone, unwrapping itself in uncanny grace, buttress and finial and architrave floating apart, falling like the petals of a rose full-blown in a wind of Autumn, yielding all that it holds, defends, conceals, to the wakening sky…
—Sirion rises from the stones below as if the steams of a destroying fire, leaping up to consume the Bridge of Sorrow that unbinds itself in swift collapse, falling into the tide as a handful of pebbles cast into a stream by a child, up to the very feet of the sacker of the Citadel—
…and at last, when the silence is deafening, when the bedrock no longer trembles around them, and from the night about them the words of command no longer pulse like the beating of their own blood in dread of hope, and only the fading Stars are to be seen above them, not the dim roughness of smoke-blackened masonry, those who have been so luckless as to be doomed to imprisonment here instead of death now venture to climb forth, as of out of their own graves.
They fear not the water, but they are weak, and fearful of all, and the Moon blinds them, who once freely walked beneath not only Moon but Sun, and it is some time before in resoluteness they gather at the bridge's shattered head, and helping each other, making bridge of arms linked and guiding hands, they make a way across the river that they never thought again to cross in flesh, never thought to see in life again, strongest carrying the weakest, all supporting each other as they can, starting in terror, and then smiling in fierce vicarious triumph to see the crushed bodies of the werewolves jammed about the blocks beneath their slipping feet. —And then, as one, they look up to see who has done this thing, and know not what to think.
One of the twain who waits at the height of the further shore where the causeway is torn from the bridge's breaking, tide of destruction flowing downwards and outwards from the topmost tower that was the Necromancer's place of pride, is familiar, though strange: Huan, the great gray Hound of Valinor, fame gone out through all Beleriand, not only in the lands of his master. Surely it was he who slew the wolves, cast them down in slaughter, but the other—! The other is stranger still, both considered in plain sight and in the regard of the spirit, so far at odds with each other, in seeming at least.
Outwardly she is a woman of their own race, no great majesty or awe about her, not any warrior from the West beyond the Sea, looking only frail and uncertain in the moonlight. But seen with tercen she is far other, something new and never seen before, something terrible beneath the Stars…
She who sang now stands silent, her eyes unblinking fixed on the further shore, waiting. In the silence, as the slow fading of near-winter night stretches on, darkness slackening its soft hold upon the world, while yet no light of day or dawn is present, they are silent, and after the yammering of the wolf-horde fleeing the cataclysm and the shrilling of the vampire-covey and the wildness of the stone-storm the river's sound, which seemed so faint a thing in the heat of battle, is a loudest song in the stillness, when even birds (if any dare dwell in the shade of the Wizard's Isle) do not yet stir and speak amongst themselves.
She is brighter than the very Moon, light pouring from her as foam from the rapids, ever-new, inexhaustible — she stands, hair hacked unkemptly short even as theirs as in mark of servitude, with her garments in rags, pale tatters and starry blue, and barefoot, her eyes hollow shadows in the pallor of her moonlit face, and about her swirls a high-tide of darkness and rest, her wide cloak rippling on the slight breeze over the water as though it were the lightest of gauze, tumbling over itself like ink dropped in water, or long dark hair upon a dancing surge of wind.
From the place where the Lady waits, staring past them unseeing, towards the stronghold that is no more, come upon the cold and bitter air of the Island of the Tower of the Wolves and the eaves of the Nightshade instead the sweet clear fragrances of summer forests and unpoisoned, flowing water — and even those who are come of Aman, who have walked among the Powers of the world themselves in days of joy beyond remembering, do not know if she be of their Kindred or of far mightier name.
Little by little they venture to approach, (yet not too closely, not yet) and to bow trembling at a distance from her feet, whispering their gratitude in voices yet meek and uncertain after so long duress, weeping with the gladness and unbelief of it, and still she looks beyond them, as though they are but ghosts unhoused upon the night wind, too dim for seeing, too faint their voices to be heard by one living and complete, consumed with her own thought and needing nothing that they might offer her.
—Where are you? where are you — O my love, answer me again, come to me — must I go to find you in that Darkness, must I go into that—? such terror at the end of the terrible path that yet daunts me — or am I too late? —too late in the coming, too late in departing, and only the memory of thy voice shall I save? O Beren, return to me, return—!
At last when no more straggle across the gap to the shore where she stands, the frailest sustained and welcomed by friends, kinsmen, strangers, she turns to the great Hound beside her and exchanges a long look, and haply more, for all they know.
Then, slowly, so slowly, as though she is walking into a high wind of Winter, she begins to make her way down the slope up which they have climbed, down to the rocks and half-broken vaultings of the bridge beneath her, her strange companion by her side, whom she holds to by shaggy fur as though to a friend's hand, as though she durst not go forward without the Hound's companionship.
They begin to pick their way across the blocks that bar and bridge the river, slipping and catching themselves, until at last at the great Hound's nudging she yields and climbs dripping onto his back, clinging hard to the fur of his hackles while he surges forward without the halting, careful pace he kept to stay her and shield her from the frothing tide. Like a trained courier's remount he gathers his strength and expends it by need, and she sits him as confidently as any King's messenger over the uncertain terrain.
Like a star burning across the earth she goes forward, bearing night with her — they watching her from the bank, increasingly from afar — over the broken bridge and its sunken arches, she and her shadowy steed, over what once was the barrier to all their hopes, now but a tumble like to a sculptor's model half-crushed for rekneading and fashioning into new.
Slow their passage and careful their going hence on the wet stones, even as their own in leaving — but some who saw it before they were taken remember, and cannot put from their thought now, nor leave off from speaking of it, how once another rode over the broken land, star-shining, unstoppable, into the Dark — Somehow, despite that, despite the dread of that Island she ventures, their hope is not quenched that she will come back to them…
The darkness that has overlain the island for almost a decade clings to her ankles, clutching her bare feet like black mud, oozing-cold and poisonous in its touch — she can feel it trying to scald her, eat away at her soul and her hopes, and in weakness wishes she had not dismounted just yet — but if Huan can endure it and must, then so too shall she. But she sees him, catlike, shaking each paw in disgust as he lifts it from the layer of shadow-vapour, and so is less troubled.
They have left the bridgehead — or what was that, once — behind them, and now labour upwards to the footings of the Tower. She had tried to use the tumbled stones from the upmost stories that are heaped thickest at the outer range, the curve of spans and buttresses taller than she, to aid her in her climbing; but the web of horror that coated them made them too awful to touch, and like wet moss her hands slipped back from them, so that now she only holds fast to the long coat of her savior, her friend, and trusts to his strength to carry them both up the rise of the mount.
Behind them, though they do not know it, where they have passed over the track of their passing is clear — the light that surrounds them melts away the residuum of the Necromancer's wardings, and the clotted veils do not roll back behind them — rather, the clear darkness of before-dawn continues to wash wider on either hand, and where the shade of her mantle sweeps over it the bitter earth softens, as under the rains of the far-distant springtime…
…Heart should not be able to bear such burden of dread, such cold weight of anguish growing like ice-weight on branches, crushing slowly and with such insidious increase, every step like another drop of freezing rain, catching, coating, unable to slip off as snow may, or be shaken by hand or wind, so that the burden is gone, to be renewed, but with a brief while of ease…the pain growing, breath by panting breath, not the dull weight of stones that crush, now, the dead weight of hopelessness, helplessness, the weariness of the trapped that cannot break free, can see no way out of the deep-dug trap, the walls falling in upon the leaping creature, the chain and collar fast about neck, no way to even gnaw self free in flight bloody-footed but better than other…
This is slow, too, but sharp, sharp as the rending of wood deep within bough, wound unseen but no less fatal, wider-tearing as the time draws near, when weight shall be too much and self shall be rent, soul ripped as the heartwood, unless the Sun shall haply rise in time ere the breaking, ere the moment of breaking inevitable, even though freed of the ice-prison—
Is it her own fears only, that drag her down towards the earth, towards the foul footing of the Island? Or the darkness that has drenched it so long, the welling residue of death-magic outpoured by its robber-lord, the memory of dread wielded to overthrow its defenses so long ago, so brief a time in the ken of the Eldar, and yet so long in the living of those held here in thrall — how can she know, how tell them apart, when they are one and the same?
How strange that to her this last, briefest journey should be more fearful than all the rest, this short walk uphill more of heart-freezing terror than the long drop of Hírilorn, when there could be no resting, no pause, only to keep going, down, and down, and yet down, as the slow Moon passes over, fearing to be seen despite working of Song and shuttle, pressing bared foot against bark so smooth that any carelessness of ankle means slip, and shock, and trembling dread, only arm's strength and angle of leaning holding one from fall and death of breaking, and never a thought of turning back, only step after step as the thin cord sears hands already worn raw with the work, too much in too short a time, with never rest for healing, never pause to reconsider, nor ever a regret…
No regret now, not that, but such reluctance as never encumbered her earlier, dark webs of apprehension tangling her, holding her, through which she must force her way ever onward, dragging at her like wet mud soaking the hem of her dress, her mantle, slowing her steps ever as she must ever force herself to keep pace with Huan, Huan who will not leave her behind nor stop, so must she then go on. Not in the worst weathers of the rough lands she traversed alone, veiled in shadow and dream, fretting sleeplessly where she tried to rest, and plodding onward in weariness for having neglected rest, did she ever face such difficult going.
The Bridge of Sorrow was not so dreadful, even as wolvish minions stalked her down its span, cold green eyes filled with wrath and hunger and nothing more, save hate, as this cumbered slope from which all enemies have gone in haste and terror of their coming, battle won at a stroke of challenge, the field forsaken and left scattered for them to take at leisure. Open battle, pitched and engaged, filled with its own particular and distinctive fear, the taste of which never had she known before, save in others' Telling, leaves no room nor time for any other fear or thought of bleak surmise: there is nothing, in that moment, but the moment itself…
The shock of the Wolflord himself, huge beyond mind's ability to comprehend, too big for the world about him, falling upon her like a wave of poisonous shadow as she stumbled backwards in recoil of body and mind, that was a little like to this, with its rending sharp stroke of fear through her heart as she imagines the blow of a sword would be like, but that was quickly ended as it begun, her self defending herself as though she were twain, the Lúthien that fell back before the Enemy that had shadowed her people all her life long, whose dread and works had darkened the horizons of her days, though the present be clear and cloudless — and Tinúviel, who no more fears beast or blade in hand than a nightbird on the wing, crying a note upon the envenomed wind that stopped that Enemy in mid-leap as surely as any spear—
—who was no more than sight and will and fiercest hope, without any recollection of hröa standing on the cold stones of the causeway, while the Lord of Dogs and the Lord of Wolves battled for the mastery of Doom in that hour, and the latter learnt most hardily that Fate cannot be fooled by the tricks of a conjurer, and the lies of one whose greatest art is but deceit…
Ai — she is here, now, at the brink of it, where the tumble of blocks is worse than the snow heaped of a midwinter, and she clings to Huan's strength again, holding to his neck with her face pressed against his shaggy coat as though he were a horse taking steepest bank of a river, shaking too much to climb over of her own strength without slipping. Over what was the arch of the eastern gate he struggles, huge haunches driving him tireless onward, even after the long night's battles. Until, now, they look upon the uppermost of the foundations of the tower, opened before them as an anthill by the turning of earth, the maze of half-built caverns and shaped delvings that hold no more of their unwilling, saving only those who cannot come forth—
Her tongue cleaves to her dry mouth, she could not sing now if life again depended on it, cannot even whisper, her ribs so tightly bound by fear that breath itself is pain — the tide of horror is so strong here, the echo of the Necromancer's dark Song trembling still in every stone and scrap of mortar, every grain of sand that made its mixing, pressed into all by year, month, day, hour, breath of sorrow and destruction that she can scarcely hold, would flee as the enslaved, wiser, perhaps, than she, whom all name foolish—
So deep is the shadow of death-spell and memory of agony and deceptions worked for cruelty that she cannot sense, so close though she is, any presence within it. Only Huan's sure press forward, seeming to know where they must go, as though he can scent trail through this mirk of horror, carries her past stillness of despair into the warren of stone. —If after so far, so long, so much struggle and strife she should be too late — Perhaps it would be bitter justice upon me, that delayed so long to follow him, — but not for any other —! No— She forces the cruel and useless thoughts aside, dwelling only in body, only in present, this scrape of stone on knee and thigh, palm and sole, the feel of sandy mortar through stretching cloth, this straining of sinew in bending of limb and lifting of self, the placing of weight as a dancer must, to counter fall, ever changing, ever yielding, ever recovering as water over stones—
But this only defers, and for so long, as they scramble down through to below the upmost layers of the honeycomb of rock, and stand at last upon the brink, looking down into the well of darkness, this vast fosse of sorrow, into which so much anguish and suffering have been poured in so short a time, scant years of the Sun, years of nightfall and pain…
If it were not for Huan's seizing of her shoulder in his gentle maw she would topple, drowned in the overflow of Shadow that spills forth from it like poison steam from furnace of Morgoth's making, her heart frozen, her spirit overwhelmed by the darkness that is not fear for her own harming, but far, far worse than that…
—Peace, she whispers silently to any who linger yet, unhoused, upon this isle, within these walls, peace and quiet rest, with such forgetting as thou wilt have— But there is none that her sense can descry, remaining, none yet bound here without shelter. Only the memory of their pain, in the stones that she must steady herself on, memory of defilement and despair, clinging to her as though she touched half-dried spill of blood, too thick to be shaken off…
Down and yet down, they work their way over rubble and through blockage of fallen column caught on the barrier of the steps cut in the living rock, and ever she must lean upon Huan's strength as she grows weaker, her pulse so rapid that it seems she will faint as she goes, but she compels herself to remember breathing, and though it does not feel as though it helps, she is not yet ever overcome by dizziness…
It is as though she swam to the bottom of a well, clawing her way down along the side-stones of it slow hand-press by hand-press, when not only the crushed frame but spirit as well both yearn and strive for light and air, forcing herself deeper against the mounting strength of dread, layer upon layer of anguish like water ice-cold and colder, each descent more difficult by magnitude than the last, so that all one's self becomes focussed on the task, on not slipping and failing at end, now, and so when end is reached, of this portion of journey's ending, at the least, it is as a wonder, and a dream, and one does not believe it, and staggers, trying to step down where there is no further down.
—Only across, across a space level and dim, scarce brighter than full darkness, more dreadful than the distant mountains one's ancestors crossed so far ago, following a Call, and a Light, that some had seen, and others only heard of, to where the overwhelmed inner sight believes, or is deluded, that there is yet light—
It is so cold here that she cannot stop trembling, or that is what she tells herself, and this is likest to what she has known before, the fear that has no name but must be named, and not self-blinded pretense raised as false and frail shield of gauze, against both the smiling evil and the silent turning-away of those who stand by and refuse to name it so, pretending ignorance and hence formal innocence of complicit guilt — when only love, and painful sacrifice may save one whose defenses are nonexistent, when only the withholding of power for its own purpose against prey delays Doom — she puts her arm over the back of her faithful steed, letting his strides carry her, letting the heat of his side warm her own as her hair does not in the abyss—
Each step deeper into the mire of misery and soul-defiling horror that fills this space, each movement more reluctant than the last, as though one should wade into a vale filled with the overflowings of innumerable distillations of venom, knowing that it shall only grow more painful as one goes on, nor grow used to it, easier with familiarity — the faint radiance of the coming Sun barely shifts the night here at all, and her vision can glean little as yet, but still she seeks with eye as with heart… Sound affrights her, and she realizes that it is felt as much as heard, bearing through flesh as much as upon ear, the low growl of anger that Huan gives unceasing now…
A roofless pillar looms up beside, like a bare and branchless tree, dead in swamp, giving home but to carrion crow, or fire-burnt pine, and as they near it the impress of torment, of terror, agony, shame, despair so oft spilled at its footing reaches at the same instant sight discerns the tangle of curves pale and dark, bone and black iron, and the comprehension — unwilled, unwished, undesired and inescapable — dashes her to her knees as though a hammer had felled her, and when she would push herself to her feet her elbows fold beneath her own weight and she cannot but bow under the terrible weight of knowledge, the cold of the stone paving flowing into her like venom into her pulsing veins, and she pants for breath and cannot even draw a full measure of the foul air where she gasps, shuddering, broken by a truth past any imagining.
Though no seen or scented foe threatens, the Hound bestrides her at once, thews like trunks of thick-barked oak, like gateposts to either side, gateway guarded by vigilance sharper than spears, spear-sharp the defending weapons, and his hackle-raised anger a flame like unto torch blazing to defy the night. The heat of him shelters her, the strength of his love braces her, so that she can brace herself against his strong forelegs and thrust herself up from the floor, leaning against his muscled chest as though he were war-horse, the two of them pressed now against each other for comfort, both shaken with horror and rage and dread of what may find, pressing forward in bleak determination now, knowing the secret of abyss they have fathomed…
…past each lonely outpost, where so many have yielded self without volition, crushed in sacrifice to the ambitions of the tyrants, greater and lesser, who would master all, if mastery means destruction of what will not yield, and surely here would the unrestful dead be most likely to remain, but she senses none, hears no word of reproach or lamentation, no glimpse of any faintest lingering light, though she is too unsteady to speak or answer did any reply, all her strength of spirit forced to the forcing of self onward, to find the answer she fears she knows already…
Until at last they have reached their long-sought end, and still she does not know if they two be but two, alone, here: for the wolf-demon at which Huan bares teeth snarling in ready instinct of defense is lifeless as its fellows that lie in the riverbed far above, and her kinsman whose body lies in its fatal embrace is likewise gone, and he that huddles so near to them, hand stretched towards as though straining against the now-opened shackle, neither stirs nor attends to their approach.
Again, as on the bridge in the heat of battle her own flesh fades from her awareness, all that is her drawn into one consuming flame of seeking, the questing spirit fixed only on that which is without, so completely that the rest might be left behind, and only mind, only yearning self, remain and never mark the loss. Without perceiving the motion she has flung herself down by his side, turning him with trembling hands, not only her own form but all the world beyond, past and present, lost to her sense.
—Beren — Her lips trace the name, but her soul shouts only —Too late — too late — and her chest is too tight to breathe, to take that which speech requires, as though her very ribs were iron claws closing ever more fast upon her efforts. Iron is still caught about his bleeding wrists: she reaches up to pull the chain free, and the evil in it is so fierce that she flings it from her as though it were an adder, its poisonous bite burning into her fingers even through their benumbed coldness.
Briefly she is aware of her own bodily existence, as a bewildering thing, this sudden sense of weight, of presence, of the soft brush of cloth against her skin, lifted by the risen hairs of her forearms, of the unholy thickness of many layers of blood beneath the press of her ankles, slightly sticky despite passage of time ever, as paint overlaid too soon and never drying fully hard, of the steaming of her own breath against her face, taunting hint of warmth in the abyss… Then the moment, lightning-flash perceiving, as if such a storm-light should reveal another, a stranger, unknown and at hand in darkness, and its startlement, is past, and quite forgotten.
How strange it is, to come to it at last, that moment past all postponing, when there is no more least room for uncertainty, no least distance between might and is, and that which is, is so far beyond all worst imaginings that thought stands still, as though one found blank wall of stone where door should be, and all words of opening swept from memory, and the way back too is now unmarked stone, and there is only now, and here, and thus—
She cannot tell how he is wounded, nor how gravely, no more than she can say if he lives or not: the blood on him though drying is not all old, and perhaps not all is his, but he moves not save by her moving of him, and she finds long tears beneath when she rubs away what she can of the masking stains with a handful of her sodden clothing, and not even that hasty scouring of rawness sparks resistance as such usage does with one who merely sleeps, and the tiny candle-glim of hope so long carried, so carefully and painfully borne through betrayal and captivity and fear and darkness dims to a blue-hollowing glow, too weak for breath of air to revive.
The horror that he has known since that worst day, when sorrow that she had thought could grow no greater was shown to be as light as the truth of all she had believed in, pours into her soul as though the thin strand of sense that bound them were become a wide and raging channel of knowledge, told not by word but by flesh, the press of bone through what was lean and now lies gaunt, hardness of ribs so deeply carved it seems they lie as bare beneath her searching hands, the face so clear in recollection that fades beyond recall, replaced by the cruelness of features yet familiar when so cruelly changed that few else would even know him, for mask of filth and agony and hunger.
It is as though she herself has become a Void, a space empty of even the memory of joy or beauty, holding nothing but suffering now. —There is so much of it, no matter how much I take there shall be inexhaustible and ever-renewed more… The taste of certainty is different from fear, even as one fear differs from another, horror like the savor of burnt bread, bitter, where terror stings upon the tongue like cold iron, and sudden shock like a mouthful of warm blood—
She touches him, seeking pulse or breath or beat of heart, but the blood that roars in her own temples is louder than the torrent of Sirion over the broken stones, and her hands are so chilled that she feels nothing, and there is no warmth against the palm she places at his mouth, and her breath too fails, the bonds that clench her ribs, hard as iron, cold as ice, tightening at last beyond her strength to battle against.
Under the deep weight of shadow she sinks, settling like a drift of dark silk through the still air, fitting herself against him, drawing his strengthless arms about her in unknowing embrace, and like a drowning swimmer caught in a raging flood, slips finally from the long struggle into the grim tranquillity that comes with relinquishment of all hope, all thought, all seeking after flight…
They have gone, the Lady and the Hound, down into the Pit, where none save the servants of the Dark go willingly, and their light is quenched beneath the power of Death, and they do not return. Nor do any of those who watch from freedom expect, truly, any return.
For none comes back from the Pit, not though breathing flesh be hauled hence, surrendering, yielding, opening all hidden thoughts and entrusted faiths to the Wolflord's gaze: that which the Pit expels is not any longer what was given hence, no more than are the exhumed bones of one buried live, though fëa creep on for days after, unable to believe no longer bound — who was sent thither has truly died there, in that refusal to die, betrayed self no less wholly than those friends betrayed by broken love, and the saved flesh more loathsome thereafter than to be trapped, were such possible, in hröa falling with decay.
And yet they wait still, for there is nothing else for them to do — they wait for one to step forward to lead them, but none does, there is no hope for them among themselves, and so they wait, and wait, and wait—
—Far, so far above them the dimming Stars turn upon the Sickle's hilt in the slow-lightening sky…
This dream, too, is familiar to him, though only from his own soul's sending, nor from memory, and long since any strength remained to blossom forth or hold onto its welcome untruth. Yet there are small facets of it that are simply wrong, elements that pry away at the simple unity of illusion, disquieting enough that together they suffice that singly might be disregarded. Greatest of these is the cold beneath him, for no bed would be so chill at dawning, and where would he, save in his own great hall, where walls shelter warmly and loft and bower alike fend out the winter's cold? —Surely not, willingly, by campsite, cold at back, warm only where facing the fire.
And it is too quiet: ever, even in the deeps of night, some noise, stirrings of folk, shiftings of rafter and beam in the ancient architecture, grumbling of hound or nightjar's whistle without. There is as well a strange tickling against his face, like the brush of finest fleece, or the down of seeds in Summer on the breeze, and the light that glows present even to eyes fast closed is cold, not the ruddy tinge of banked hearth coals.
Any of these apart he might not even mark, or could choose not to regard, as the half-felt sense that someone not long since has called his name, knowing that no friend lives to hail him now; but all of them are too great a strangeness, drawing the dream away from him would he or no, and thus he yields, will slowly moving the reluctant spirit to attend half-fearfully to its damaged shell, stirring from the illusory safety of sleep to wakefulness and knowledge of the harsh world without…and to memory, that fearful foe that waits so raptly for least opening to leap—
—Eyes open, that most absolute gesture of awakening—
That which is before his gaze, never this view present ere now, is but a field the dim grey of a dove's wing, scarcely brighter than shade of night and of no color — but it is light, so clear and transparent that it seems as endless depth of purest water, so far off and unmarred that it might not be real, save that sheer breadth and clarity prove its presence unfashioned of imagining. This is no dream that he but falsely wakes, no more than the rest—
Impossible though it be, beyond any chance or strange enchantment, that his beloved does lie upon his waking body, warm flesh against cold, matching his frame with her own, holding him pressed thus that he might not rise even had he strength for it, save by lifting her, her head against the hollow of his shoulder, her brows and cheekbones dimly sculpted as if in ancient silver — it is as impossible, and as real, as the faint light that so barely traces her to sight (scarcely sufficient for seeing) — as real as the sky…
But for his eyes attuned to the darkness it is enough, and nearly more than, and it is a wonderment to him, and beyond his compassing, and so he can only accept it, for the moment. —As he accepts, without either understanding or belief, that she is neither dream nor memory nor ghost, lying warm between his body and the lax hold of his arms. Never in any dream would she appear so, haggard and careworn, her eyes dark and tearstained hollows, her lips set in the severe line of one who has forgotten how to smile, yet too proud yet to concede defeat, surrender—
—Tinúviel — and she hears him, though he has no voice left, and her eyes open suddenly with the clear flash of gems uncovered in casket and the start of wonder that leaps through her then stabs through him like a lightning-bolt, like a sluice of cold water, the pounding alarm of her heart through her breastbone, through his, like the slap of hand on lazy steed, sending wit bolting wildly across fields of surmise—
His hand moves roughly, in a hesitant arc that startles nerves in the fashion of one jarred awake by fall in troubled sleep, passing through a froth of fine curls like the bubble of foaming stream against palm, fingertips brushing clumsily down tear-wet skin, sliding from cheek to lips, fingers spreading to embrace and tilt the parting jaw, raise her head that is set so heavily and immovably upon his shoulder—
As he strives against his own weakness, reluctance of soul to encounter harm no less encumbering than the inability of muscle, he realizes with astonishment that is almost fear in its strangeness that the pain is not merely kept from his awareness, as one shields with hand a sight too terrible for friend's knowledge, but less — that the careless deep-drawn breath of surprise does not meet a clawing as of thorn spikes, that the ache as of arrow-point touching bone in joint and limb does not lock against his moving, that the formless and cold-burning touch that has drenched his veins and thoughts so long is gone, as he had not remembered it could be otherwise.
Slipping through his unruled grasp like water rising from a fountain she lifts herself a little, enough to look down upon him in glad astonishment, her expression not plainly such save to him, so drained of hope and weary is she, whom never has he seen other than glad and proud in strength — even in that distress of their last parting was she still unbroken, confident in her love, lordly in her manner as befits the daughter of a King and Lady of lands divine…
"—Beren," she exclaims, nigh as hoarse as he, and her face is transformed in wonder and becomes glorious in its distrait pallor, of all sights the fairest that ever he has beheld in waking or in dream, under Sun or Moon, a thousand times lovelier than when first she came to him after hope had died in the bleakness of day, as her voice calling him through tears is beyond the beauty of that song that stole heart and life from him to give back changed so long ago…
She traces her forefinger along the height of hollowed cheek and nosebone, across beard's roughness to bareness of broken lower lip, and the sensation of touch that is not dream, not pain, is more almost than starved sense can bear, and he shudders, drawing convulsive breath, forgetting again the long-known need to drink but shallowly of the chill night's cruel draughts — but it is no matter, the breath he takes is hers, warmth of steam exhaled upon the shadows like the river's that rises at the dawning, and it cuts him not; and the fine mist flows into his parched body, and the Life which claims him he accepts at last, surrendering to it without comprehending it, no longer warding self against hope with shield of disbelief.
Her hand slips down to the stones beside his head and her face lowers to his in overwhelming nearness, and as he trembles, fëa reeling in flood of sensation, trapped thus between inexhaustible floods of heat and cold, her mouth brushes over the path her finger has blazed, but pauses, tongue flickering to part his dry-grained lids, melting the hard matter that crusts lash and inflames eye, and that most intimate of intrusions, touching that which bears not touch, unharming, — not even that brings return of fear or defense, seeming as natural as the brush of falling leaf on brow… Touch, gentler than ever hand's shall be, caresses away scalding spatter of poison here and there… Lip claims lip, lightest pressure against the cracked flesh, and again that liquid touch, so soft and harmless, delves into the dry rifts, and fleeting pain fades as though she but lapped it up with the seeping blood. His soul founders beneath the tide of pleasure as though drenched in strong wines, almost fainting at the surfeit—
Before he is completely overcome, swept into swoon for his weakness not by torment but too-great joy, she raises herself again from him, this time to kneel upright, hands outspread in excess of wonder, staring down at him with such amazement and delight as though he were the fairest of her own people, shaking her head a little as though not even evidence of solid hröa were sufficient to sway disbelief — and then, finally, he recalls his present state: that he stretches beneath her clothed but in clotting blood and the salt bitterness of dried sweats, torn, emaciated, rank and befouled beyond words, and he would recoil, hide the horror of his flesh from her sight, if it lay within his power.
Yet as he suffers in abject shame, mute under her rapt gaze that holds no revulsion, a shadow in darkness that stirs behind her sends fire of terror through soul as through clenching heart — the gray bulk looming with lowered head and heavy quarters pacing towards — and two divergent thoughts hurtle madly through his battered mind, the one that this joy granted him past all possibility is but an Eilinel fashioned for him alone, image stolen from his thought to set against him, thus to steal his dearest secret, and wield it for weapon against those whose power still meets and matches and thwarts the power of Morgoth.
And even while thinking it as much likely as haply that she be but such a ghost of memory, forced upon his dreaming self with the vast might of their sorcerous foe, he lunges up with outspending of strength that only direst need could have called forth, forgetting all in fear for her, injury and nakedness alike — but succeeds only in pitching a small ways to one side, too weak to interpose shield of self between her flesh and fang—
But as he gives strangled, wordless cry of fury and dread, the grey and rough-coated beast whines, so like any mortal dog, and leans pressing over her shoulder in gesture both seeking and bestowing of comfort, concern shared with master in doglike fashion, and absently as any mortal mistress she reaches backwards up to caress long panting muzzle, and the eyes in that great head look down upon him with no less pity, and as he shuts his own in gasping relief, empty with that exhaustion of limb that is beyond ordinary weariness as starvation is beyond hunger, he sees yet, as the brightness of flame impresses its memory upon sight in darkness, their shapes wrought of light, though no earthly cause is there for it in this dimness…
—Who are you, lord? he asks in thought, but the Hound answers him not; or belike not in words: for the other, whose long hair is patched and matted with blood and slaver, though he moves not as though wounded, draws near to stand beside, warmth of breath gusting over him from the half-bared jaws, clean animal reek strong as any mortal hound's, a single clear droplet splashing like Summer raindrop on his laboring chest from the lolling tongue. With feeble, ungoverned effort he reaches out to stroke the other, succeeds only in striking softly against the tangled locks of foreleg, wet-clinging and sand-rough as any dog's that has lately swum a stream, and the Hound keens softly through those massive fangs, instinct lifting hoof-large paw at his touch, and then stoops to lick his fallen hand penitently.
A silken brush, like fall of apple-blossom in late springtide breeze, against collarbone and scratched sides and hollow of belly beneath rib — dappling touch of fingertip brings another formless gasp of startlement, forced past the damming dryness of his throat, recollecting himself, his crushed and weary mind, to her presence — and his own disgrace.
He must lie before her even as one dead on field of battle, helpless to cleanse himself as to cover, and shame burns with the cruel searing of strongest spirituous liquor into wound; for flesh yearns toward her thus kneeling over him, his thigh caught firmly between her calf and ankle, her body's heat like a bed of coals against his hip where her knee presses him, countering the inward cold that renders hröa stonelike-still.
Yet even as he flinches from her look, turning for distraction to the mystery of her shorn hair, blood rising in burning face as well, her voice compels him, summoning him with his name, and his eyes are caught by hers, and there is neither answering shame, nor confusion there, nor anything but sorrow mingled with joy as water of stream with heady wine, sunlight and shadow at the slide of afternoon to even, and wisdom far older in bone and blood and the fashioning of flesh than his thought can compass.
And the crumbled ruins of memory give up this truth, that she has been Healer as well as dancer for long Ages before his people ever crossed the Ered Luin, ere he himself had bloodily been drawn from between his mother's thighs, to be rested in weary disarray on Emeldir's sweating breast, famished and thirsting and new-assailed with the chaos of the world…No more should there be shame than to bathe naked beneath the Stars, to rest beheld by the starlike gaze of her who so anciently has known of war's wretched harvest, long years before a child born of Men ever knew that men come not back from the field of battle, or but in part, body divided by blow of iron, or soul divided by hurt of parting from brother and friend, no more than those who must live in this world's bonds should (or ever do) know shame to be so seen by the Kindler of those lights or her kingly lord…
(—But would one of the holy Powers ever weep so, tracing the scores rent across gaunt rib and hollowed flank, the gouged haunch and deep-bruised jaw, and claw-torn scalp, gaps where gift of life outpoured in claiming of him mingled with his own…?)
But still there is shame, to be so broken, naught more than a half-dead beast lying so under her eyes, that see in this twilight far more than his own might, no grace of dark to mitigate the ugly image of his ruin, and with such fierce effort as brings prickle of sweat to brow and sides and wrists he forces mind to shape thought, mouth to shape sound, offering of word, of knowing, that speech that raises mere flesh to folk, of any Kindred, that signifies self, that is not mere matter—
"—Lúthien," he says, hailing her as herself, King's daughter, distant legend, —Lúthien, a name in song, of song renowned, Princess he had never dared to dream of, far less ever court, and then as she looks at him sorrowfully, the memory of Menegroth and shining lights of trees and spears strong between them both, he names her:
— my nightingale —
—and she smiles again that radiant joy that is like the fairness of moonlight on lake water, and bends forward to caress him full, not for her own sake, her own savouring, but for his salvation…
Beneath her hands his body softens like beeswax beneath the candle's flame, joints opening, sinews untwisting, knotted muscles easing into the deep rest that healing requires, gentle impress of heat more delectable than ever sunlight on a Spring morning after bitter Winter — her touch shapes his flesh as sculptor does wax, recalling the limits of form from out of darkness, where, blinded, and then driven deep within by cold and agony and kindness of binding spell, his senses crippled and crushed, he long since lost that knowledge rightfully bequeathed to him at birth.
It is not all comfort, that she gives to him: as living skin and meat recovered from bite of frost must surely feel deep and lasting pain in the undoing, so too hröa so enslaved, so wounded for so long, must know deep change in exercise of healing, and though it is not the same either as the horrible webs that meshed him fast, delaying harm and supplying lack, nor as the enforced mending sacrificed to him by service of friend that seared in quick completion, hastening nature to swift scarring, still — it is change, though change as the new growth of youth or season's turning, and disturbance of that which would easier lie still, though that stillness should work only to death's last change.
And so he groans, as wood might groan were it quickened with a year's growing in less than a single hour of the Sun, and the Hound whines again in echo of his suffering, and the liquid silver of his true-love's song fills the interstices of his frame as slow rise of ground water through fissured rock, low melody of healing trickling along the riven paths that necromancy has eaten, privation widened, clean untwisted growth stirring withered fibres from dry sleep of Winter…
He writhes a little, in unwilled brute resistance to the ingress of strength and harsh kindness, but her hands and voice cease not from the work of clearing and refashioning as after devastating gale the forest makes itself anew; and the broken crevices of his inward parts, fëa no less than flesh, move and melt together like the parched land at drought's long ending, remembering their ways of working, speaking mind and cleansing bowel and the hot heart-marrow of the supple, growing bone, and he slackens in her arms at last.
Briefly she lays him down upon the hard chill of the pavement, but to remove the shadowy cape from her shoulders: against her pale dress the flare of her mantle about her sides minds him of the proud white breast of the dark-winged hawk rearing to claim its tattered prey. Once more her hands shape him, molding the cloth about him, enough to wrap him and more than to spare, and as he settles his face against its comforting folds, breathing in its familiar fragrance as of countless blossoming trees, recognition comes, and he comprehends the doubled fact of that one lack, this addition, and knows that which laps him is his love's lost hair, and does not understand it, and does not need to, now.
And the Ice that locks his inmost heart begins to thaw, and the warm Summer midnight surrounding him is briefly sprinkled with a short rain of tears…
Wistfully he drifts back to that dream of bliss, of home about hearth-light and sturdy oak-hewn marriage-bed, the life of Men that he was born to, the sunlit joys and sorrows that dwell in shadow of things greater as the hall-roof before the mountains' roots, to which the wars of Powers and sorceries and strong-sworn Vows alike were strange and distant — or so seeming — and then, not without regret, gives up the dream, relinquishing it as he turned from his homeland and the place of his birth, knowing it lost to him forever, and choosing this life, this place, this real world of Arda for the present over all dreams and memories…
For this moment he is held safely, twice shielded from the cold by her body, and the Void driven off by the rich darkness of her love, and her light washes away the despair that clogs his soul like clotted blood, and the sky changes, warming to rose upon silver, like the sheen of turning plumage on a flight-spread wing, or the flush of life in fish's scales leaping in the splendor of Spring…
Forever — until Arda should cease to be, the Stars themselves fade for the last time into dark, not dawn, and the boundary twixt World and Void be broken: for so long she could cradle him, or hold him out of turning time for a measureless Age even as her own mother held her father, and not weary of her burden — thus, at least, it seems to her. But he is mortal, and swift as the great river beyond them runs time for him, and every pulse-beat is one smallest flicker nigher the Sea of parting, and this is no place for those who live, nor can she hold back that forceful torrent any more than she might restrain the tide of Sirion above.
But when she speaks of this to him, shifting him a little in her encircling arms as she readies to rise with him, he shakes his head, struggling with speech again, and the pain that overflows his heart and chokes him freezes and stifles her as well, so that she can only rock him until it eases enough that he can manage language once more, and she attend:
"I cannot leave him here," he whispers, and his anguish makes her jaws ache in mirrored pain, "I must not abandon them…in the Dark." For immeasurable span of sorrow they cling to each other in mute mourning, one linked tangle of grief and regret, guilt and heart's breaking; but then that other that is also her arises, as she must, since none else shall do it for her, casting about in thought for answer, and with the mad practicality that won passage through depth of height and wolf-haunted night discovers a resolution, most elegantly simple.
"I can carry you," she tells him, "all of you, I, and Huan — but I am not strong enough to descend here again." And it is true, for not alone could she manage it, not even with Huan to stay her, and she will never make him return here. His answer chills her like a sudden gust of wind, for when he assures her that there is nothing unfitting in her plan the word that he uses is not the usual, nor is the form, and she does not think it but accident, nor the different uses of their speech, of lands far sundered though of tongue the same, that he says:
"It's of no matter — we'll not mind."
—We, not they — shall, not would — But of that she makes nothing, says no word of her own, only lays her cheek against his before rising to unwind her long blue mantle from where she has wrapped it tightly folded around her hips for the climb.
Like a wandering star, or the lamp of the Moon crossing the twilit sky, she goes from them then, swiftly moving from resting-place to resting-place, gathering the dead: the long bones and the little, the broken with their splintering, needle-sharp, where the rich darkness of marrow was drained out, the rounding of ribs, the sharp angles of jawbone riven from hinge, the cup-curve of skull fragment crushed between massive jaws, the heavy strength of hip and the supple strength of spine, unstrung now, the smooth flat of bladebone pierced where no hole should drill its plane, the pitting as of acid's wash where venom etched, the rough grooves of gnawing on all…
Each one she gathers, cold as the stone from which she takes them, that once were warm with the life that burned through them, that they bore, and each is precious beyond measure, and each is not his, and she thanks each one who gave them, though knowing her thanks unheard, honouring no less for all her haste than as if she gathered the spill of sun-rich grains from basket at harvest-time, lest the garner be lost into wasteful stones…
The ice in her bones has gone past pain to numb clumsiness when she strives to reknot for the last time the corners of the fabric, and yet as her burden has grown her soul has risen beneath it, not lightness of heart at all, but a brightening of spirit, as a coal buried deep in ash, slowly uncovered, warms to kindling strength in the breathing of air, strength that will suffice to save life in mid-winter, when no hope had been left: Soon we shall go from here—
Though reason knows it but for soundest reasons and shortest while, soul cries out nonetheless at being forsaken, though voice troubles not the motionless air of the abyss, though body feels yet lingering presence, tangible heft of valour and devotion, weft of strange devising…
But the other abides, third of three, strangest of all saviours of this night's struggles, and the fear that four-legged vastness evoked is transmuted into wonder, and bittersweet sense of boyhood's returning, when his father's hounds were horse-high to him, and in their might was he guarded, wrestling fearless with strength that could shatter bone so easily, ignorant of danger where there was none to him, sleeping warm on bulk of hairy side…
…as though his memory did summon, loud as whistle or clap of hands, the Hound moves to lie down beside him, curling about his head, shaggy fur damp against his skin — as was her gown where it pressed upon him — Did they swim the river, then? Surely not possible — but his thoughts scatter like young mice when byre door is opened, and only grief remains, that needs not words to hold itself in mind's constructing… Will is moved to accomplish, moving unwilling flesh—
—Scaling the sheer ledges of Ered Gorgoroth was not harder than hauling weight of limb that bare span of level stone, to where the brief battle, close of too-long war, came to ending vain it seemed and foolish at the instant. Shadow hides much, much of destruction veiled from flinching view, but there is light, silver-pale and faint though it be, and sight must bear bitter witness to their Enemy's work—
Almost past recognition, for the marring of hröa, for pain-wracking and smear of blood and scald of venom, for starved gauntness and deep-scored suffering of helplessness — yet no breaking could ever make him turn from that beloved flesh in horror, no ruin or decay ever cause aught of disgust, nor mar fairness of memory — but still bond of mingled reproach and shame and veneration holds him, folly though it be, and his grieving withholds hand, though neither vanished spirit nor cold and broken house should mark such embrace, no more than living should have minded.
But the Hound, in the way of dogs, wise simplicity, but nuzzles the King who held his heart, regardless of master, and whimpers in the hound's grief that cuts soul and ear like chill wind, like broken ice, like keenest knife, and almost it calls tears from his own self; but the weight of sorrow that presses upon him chokes him, and he can only rest his palm on the horse-long head that leans towards him, and fight for breath against the pain…
…and the whelming tide of sadness and guilt and regret and love drowns him, shared utterly, equally, between the silent spirit whose coming not only here but to this realm, this world, is Mystery, and he whose life may be compassed in days, and each knows the other for Kindred, needing no words, needing no likeness of form to show the truth of it.
Together they lament their lost, with speechless pure outpouring of grief, and wearily the young Man bows his head to the still heart's broken shelter, bared muscle of breast cold as the stones now, and the Lord of Dogs drops against them both, covering the mortal's lean waist with outstretched foreleg in hound's gesture of affection, licking impartially at the living warrior's scabbed wrists as the unhealing wounds of the dead…
As halfway down a sheerest height one may falter and weaken and know that this cannot be allowed, that there is no safety nor sure rest until the ground is reached, and still unmoving after profoundest terror and the utmost certainty that more and worse awaits and after it bitter dying, find new breath, and go on almost in laughter at one's weary folly (save that too were folly) — so now this return of strength, limitless as the storms of Autumn, carrying all upon their dancing gusts. No force either of earth or Undeath shall restrain her, slow her strong-pounding heart or steal her wind renewed by slenderest victory.
—Not this ungainly burden she leans beneath, nigh twice the weight of a warrior living, or lately dead, to lower heavily to the paving stones once more, close to where the last awaits. The sickened horror returns upon her again, so that only the tithe of hope sustains spirit, looking upon him that she has flung off all bonds for sake of, who lies in hopeless misery beside the ruin of her long-loved cousin, kinship of blood preceding the first Sundering of Elven kind, but kinship of heart freely given, as none else of Noldor lineage returning, saving only the family and following of Finarfin's son.
Under the graying sky all of her small past dreams of hope, the few that struggled into kindled flame and were not dashed out at once by the icy gusts of long and recent fear, all the night's imaginings with which she heartened herself when the trackless way grew strangely daunting and the arches of the forest seemed to stretch on for leagues that twisted back upon themselves, the same returning as though she had strayed into the snares of her mother's great devising, the little dreams of rescue and gladdest embrace, of subtle scheme and daring escape, all seem in the cruel shadows of dawn no more than the fancies, whim and ornament and art sublime, wrought for feast or friends' delight, yielding their unsolid substance when mind relinquishes thought of them.
Between the extremes of that which is known in thought and that which is known in flesh is the median of witness, but the distance between is not equal: no horror told of, imagined, recounted and lamented, shall ever be the same as that which is known and present — all remembered tales of grief and grimmest fears, too, fade into the morning mists, lost like clouds torn on the winds of the real.
—This is not the reunion I hoped for, she mourns, as much for her own lost hopes and the world that is forever changed for her, as it shall be for all others, as for the casualties of war, a reunion that should be like all those that came before, only so much the more — How far indeed from it! — not too late for thee, but in vain for him, for all of these, that your heart holds to even as body — How lately lost? How little time more of delay should have seen thee, too, lost to me — forever?
But such musings serve no useful purpose, and most purposeful is she, having started on her northward road, staying or turning for nothing, despite impediment. Obstacle is aught but to be evaded, avoided, escaped, or cast aside — and here is yet one more.
She grips the wolf's body by scruff and shoulder, hauling at it, but the night has taken of her strength and she stumbles a little, faint again; but recovering thereafter in short moment she renews her effort, dragging it back in a single slowed stride, so that it is mostly away from its victim before Huan heaves to his feet and hastens to help her, his massive withers tensing and knotting as he closes teeth upon furred pelt and backs off, drawing it farther into the shadows.
But when she would gather her dead kin as well, kneeling beside that pale wreckage revealed by their effort, her love fends at her, lifting eyes that scarce can see to stare at her wildly in the gloom, striving to keep off perceived despoiler with hand's strength less than that of Elf-child half his age, and she overmasters him not, but only touches his lean temple with pity…and the desperate wildness fades from his mad look, yielding to anguished misery that is worse than blow to her, but he does not relinquish his guarding grasp.
"—Shall we not take him from here?" she asks, (so carefully chosen that word, we—!) and the thought penetrates his half-healed mind, and slowly the bitter confusion slips away and his countenance clears to comprehending sorrow, and he nods mutely, letting her hands join his in linked embrace, before permitting her to lift the forsaken dwelling of his lord and friend from the place of his leaving, and without further resisting allows the wasted form to be enfolded with the rest who came here with him, who alone remains…
In the shadow of the walls that stretch above them on all sides the midnight blue of her garment is nigh as black as the one woven of her hair, as the shadows of the abyss, and the star-gems sewn upon it give back no gleam of light.
—So ends hope, she thinks, her thoughts sent back along the skein of days to so long since, when bright and brave her cousins rode to greet them, offering grace and service and honor in such innocent pride, their coming a source of mirth and confusion together, like a great wind blowing through the stillness of the deep woods' shade, like the Sun breaking through those bending branches…and now they are dead or scattered, so too their followings, and the mighty endeavor, the vaunting boasts, the ambitions of all things made new all done — So end the mightiest among us — and how, how shall the rest of us endure, go on, far less conquer—?
As though he has heard her exclaiming Beren then looks at her, startled eyes raising to her own, and perhaps he has; but he says no word, and when she moves to help him up, calling Huan hither, both attend her, obey her direction with only calm acceptance. Once again the Lord of Dogs bows down like best-trained of steeds, and with her assistance the last of all prisoners of this Pit makes ready to depart, lifted upon the recumbent Hound more like to smallest child set on pony, lying down at once from weakness, as of the instinct of one who knows not how to ride — or no longer has any sense of balance — to cling flat upon mount's back, while she wraps more securely about him the gentler darkness of her self's strength.
—Do not let him fall, she begs, and the Hound presses his muzzle into the hollow of her shoulder, comfortingly, needing not voice to tell her that her trust in him is well-set, that he will guard her love as surely as he guarded her person. Then she in turn takes up her lighter burden, thrice heavier, but easier, safer, for that no stumble nor misstep of hers shall cause the slightest harm to those she bears.
Then, while the night's grip is slowly broken on the world beyond, the Sun's light inexorably flooding up from beyond the Blue Mountains afar off, though the well of darkness about them remain brimful, they begin the return, the journey none has ever made, ever thought to have made: up, from the depths of stone, from the dark, from the keeping of death, towards the sky…
Neither Star nor Sun is in the sky now, only a warm silver field, gray melted with gold as leaves of gilding overlain with fine enamel or layer of translucent stone, and the light is not enough to dispel the cold that is stronger than sense, the grey chill of dawning when morning brings no promise of joy. But still they wait, watching the crest of the Isle, friend clinging to friend, weak held by strong, hoping though they dare not admit it even to themselves, far less each other.
Almost in the half-light do they miss the reward of that unlikeliest of hopes, the sight of return — the radiance of the dread Lady and the dark awe of her Hound alike bedimmed, so that they are lost in the grey shadow that swathes the vale yet, and seem but as wavering ghosts moving down the rubble-strewn slope towards the waves.
And they are not alone, though the freed ones do not recognize who accompanies them, not for distance and lack of light alone: neither as individual nor of what Kindred do they know that other, nor may even those who have known those of the Secondborn name him as mortal until but the span of Sirion divides them from the three, so changed is he from others of his kind to their sensing. (Yet what surprise in that? when none escapes the annealing of the Lord of Wolves but twisted, suffering meant not to melt, destroy entire, but to warp, to soften, so that bent beneath that pressure soul becomes fit tool, to spy, to serve, betray one's fellows, devise new punishments, surer weapons, nor shall such torsion ever be released, thus set in forge of deathless power, in life.)
They do not go to where the fallen bridge bridges the course of the flow, but a little ways upstream, where the strand lies more level, washed stones made smooth by untold Ages' polishing, eaten from the cliffs that cut the higher borders of the island, whose eaten caves offer vain hope to the newly taken thrall of hiding-place, not knowing yet how impossible escape from their Master's spell-wrought chains shall be. —But he is fled, vanquished, and the fetters opened—
—and so they follow, on the eastward shore, waiting still, for what shall be done, by those who act, have acted through this long night's ending—
A bowshot hence, more or less, across the course of the river she crouches, lowering her careful burden, bundle shrouded in the ells of night-blue mantle that she no longer wears, that is too much of bulk for but one— Then, with hand upon the smoke-wreathed muzzle like that of horse's in deep Autumn, as if leading an ordinary steed, she wades out, far into the current, to where the water runs clean of the tainting touch of the Isle's polluted banks, leaning against the Hound as she goes, and they shiver at that, Eldar though they be, for the season is late and the Sirion bitter cold, and there is not one of them that would gladly do so — yet she appears to feel it not, and where her dark cloak floats out in the water beside them the steams of the morning seem strangely to rise more densely.
They have come to where the water is breast-deep on both her and Hound, and there they halt, and the Lord of Dogs stands crosswise to the current, shielding her, while she pulls the rider (no less shrouded, no less still) from his back and plunges him beneath the torrent. He struggles, then, a sudden spasm, undirected, but she clasps him to her tightly, holding his head against her shoulder after, smoothing away the water from his face and kissing him softly, giving him water in her free hand to drink.
Cradled equally in her long arms and the river's might he stills, closing his eyes as though in sleep or death, and she begins to wash him as one slain in battle, before burial, opening the fabric about him to stroke away the filth of his torture from every finger's-breadth of skin. The dark weft swirls about them both, whether she holds to it or not, as though clinging to them in spite of the river's current, tumbling in a soft and constant caress around the one she stays…
There is no question, as the slow light broadens, and the vapors of the morning are seen more clearly over the water's surface, that the mist is thickest about the three, soft veil of silver over the dark Sirion, as over a hot-springs such as those found in the lost North, as at Rivil… It is unimaginable, the power that could warm so much of a swift-flowing river filled with wintry cold, letting it pour away in the flow unheeded, and never mark the loss — yet it is true, and truly perceived, no less impossible and no more than the fact that the air that pours over the waters to them in the breeze is fragrant with the flavor of seasons long lost and stolen from them.
The richness of thawing earth is in it, the wholesome scent of the winter grass that feeds the new growth of Spring in its surrender, the sweet, sweet smell of deep woodlands, the smells so familiar and forgotten that they bring tears to the eyes of all who breathe them, and also too, familiar not to all, yet seeming so, the heady fragrance of wind-tumbled flowers, not only roses and others of Beleriand, but blossoms never grown beyond the sound of Valmar's bells, of the shining sight of the holy mountain, of the touch of the Light of the Trees of Gold and Silver…
The light grows stronger, making them flinch as under a blast of snowy wind, more than their strength is equal to, to heal as yet eyes so long wrapped in shadow and sullen flare of torch-flame. Yet they do not recede to the shelter of the forest, not yet, unable to turn away from the wonder that is before them. There is something frightening in the look of her face, the set fierceness of it as she gazes on him, like the tenderness of falcon to blind nestling, the knife-sharp beak bent in caress that only the most foolish hand would think to defy in theft for its present gentleness.
(—The last Wolf crouches, deep in shadow, barred by the daunting force of water unbridged by stone. It can afford to wait, its hunger will abide—)
—Warmth as of a forgotten dream, longed for and unrecoverable, encloses him, defends him, and touch, gentle as breath, inescapable, escape unwished-for, both soft upon him as the light that should sear and crush his night-bound eyes, but impossibly does not… If this is healing it is so far different from aught he has known as the light of pine-torch searing at the hand is from the daylight of high Spring, when Sun and wind together are a torrent of Life bathing the earth and all things on it — shame is washed away by love, soul does not flinch under gaze of pity that does not flinch from what it looks on, no more than flesh beneath the press of fingers slipping between limb and limb to free that which is most fragile of foulness, free of shame…
He reaches up to her and it is not a dream now, this weak movement of scarred limb, stretching up like shoot from depth of soil to brush her lips, and she bends in answer to his asking and quenches a greater thirst than that which she has already ended, and as her mouth closes upon his own their faces dip for a heartbeat beneath the surface from her bending, but he does not struggle this time, for in this moment there is no more fear or pain or sorrow—
(— In the dark where no light reaches the last Wolf lies resting, watching, so patient in its hunger…)
At last they turn back to the farther bank, the Hound flanking the Lady who carries her love to the shore, she striding tall and unbowed, straight-backed as a queen for all her burden, silver as a birch tree in a rainy wood in the shadow of the cliff-footing. In the light which clears away the depth of night, though the full light of the sun has not cleared the shading hills, they see that the banks, for all downstream of where she has stood, are washed clean of the ash and the acid smeltings, the rust that has more than one source, the darkness that is not only of nature that fouls all the isle to its borders. But in her gestures there is nothing of notice, nor surprise, whether it be that she expects it, or is merely oblivious of all save the one she bears in her arms to land.
She lowers him then to stand against the Hound's tall side, clinging unsteadily with shuddering limbs to the unyielding shoulders while she braces him with her own side as she draws the shadow-dark cloak from him and with swift efficiency wrings it out, water pouring over her feet upon the water-smoothed stones. For her wet clothing she might as well be as naked as he, and as heedless of it, as though they two and the great Hound were the only living in the world…
The black fabric flares out from her hands, seemingly dry already, seeming to obey her thought as she folds it round him again, floating like a shaped mist as her arms ease him down to sit beside the river, touching his face again and not once in that brief passage, lightly, lightly, before drawing away, turning aside with that same relentless slowness of step that they watched return into the hells of stone whence they had fled.
They know, have guessed without doubt, the burden that she returns unto, that Doom which they might not leave behind, however far from the Wizard's Isle they may journey — yet still they cannot help but shiver at the unknotting of the blue cloth, that hides at least from outward sense, and thus may be in willful pretense ignored, the presence of Death. But she who kneels white as a wraith over the dark bulk in the shallows has no more weakness, no more unwillingness to turn mind or sight to things unwelcome, and unsparing of herself, spares them not either.
That which her hands uncover and shift, pallidly grey in the deep banks' shelter, shaded from the rising tide of light, is familiar in its kind, but unknown, unknowable: the twisting arch of a cheekbone, eye's orbit separate as a single petal of a white lily, gives no sign of whose sight it sheltered, whose smile anchored, no more than the birdlike bones of hands recollect their holding strength, scattered and mingled past discerning, laved in the thin depth of the river, separated from the pale stones by the wide cover of her mantle.
And ever she moves them further, her face still, wide-eyed gaze unflinching as a statue's, setting them gently aside like shells on the sea-strand, until her ceaseless efforts reveal not bone, but skull in seeming, dead face so gaunt that it is not until her fingers free the long matted tangle of wheaten hair — rarest royal color that not even blood has altogether darkened — that they know him, even those whose fealty was sworn to him, who daily saw and spoke and rode in his company: Finrod, called Felagund, eldest of Finarfin's scions, founder and first in Nargothrond's dominions, oath-holder of the House of Bëor, lord over Noldor and Sindar and mortal alike, Prince, King, — and murdered slave.
Outcry then, clamor of shock and rejection and appalled belief, as beyond their willing they are drawn to the water's edge, and further, though the tide be too strong to cross here where no stones span the way, still those hale enough must splash out as deep as they are able, to better see that which they would not, but self-willed blindness will change naught, and they cannot help but look—
The Lady's long hands are careful, as though it should make difference, how she lifts the cold limbs into the deeper shallows, as though pain might yet follow carelessness. She is heedless of them now, as though for all of her care they may witness or not, concern all for those she has brought up from the Isle's black heart: the dead whose wounds she washes with handfuls of water whose freshness is made sharp with salt of tears that fall unmarked while she works, though her face is a pale unmoving mask carven as of ice or marble; and the living, who creeps so painfully to bend beside her, laboring with lowered head and shaking hands to unknot the hardened mats in the skein that streams palely gold in the current.
About each wrist that the dark cloth slides from is band of livid scarring, and though no tears sheen the bowed mask of anguish, the clearness spilling from those wounded hands could not express more grief, poured so gently from hollow of palm over the ravaged corpse of him who takes neither healing nor counsel from Sirion's waters now. And there is gold, there, too, darker gleam on finger shining amid the paler threads—
—And surmise, born not of fact open and single but of many, fragmentary, half-buried like wrecked ships abandoned on storm-washed shore, and some begin to whisper a name, a House, though no tale yet attends upon that word…
The light is broadening, but still the coolness of the Sun's vanguard rays, no gold yet, nor even bar of cloud to burn with shell-rose band against the almost-blue of ceiling-dome, when task is done, and the ghostly mourners in white and black shroud again the broken dwellings of companions absent but unforgotten. And still none dares yet to recross that narrow unsteady way, return to place of breaking, though fëar torn with yearning — for truth if not for comfort, for guiding and protection — urge that crossing ever…
The Hound returns, whom they have not seen go hence, riderless bounding down the steep bank like wild goat or puppy, not the carefulness of horse on stony slope, dashing out into the water again, this time to drink, and then to lift long grey head to stare at them, measuring their worth, it seems, who tremble inwardly at each glimpse of him, whose shape and height and color are so similar in outwards to his foes.
Now that he is beside them, circling before pressing between, in the busy way of dogs' motion, the Lady comes to some inward resolution, and with some brief reassurance of touch and word unheard across the rushing current she leaves them all at the water's edge, the living who trouble for her and the dead whom nothing troubles. Once more out into the deeper stream, and then farther still, whence she dives otter-like beneath the surface and swims to the center of great Sirion, faint whiteness seen like silver flash of scales under the river's swell.
After so long that blood runs chill in shudders of imagining that cold purgation she rises again and pulls to the shore, standing in the lesser depth with hands joined, doubled cup of icy draught, not to drink but to bear to land, gaze fixed, will fixed wholly on that plain treasure, unshod step most deliberately placed with heed for footing, though seeming oblivious to all about her — up that rain-scoured wash of steepest track, like bedraggled sleepwalker on errand of madness, singing—
—not the unbounded power like sea-storm of light unearthly that smote the Gaurhoth down, cast down Sauron and dispersed his following like smoke upon the wind, not such is this, but a simpler power, the deep strength of water rising from depths of stone, gathered in the roots of mountains from long harvest of rains, heavens' eternal gift, pooling slow, rising to trickle forth at last from smallest rifts, seeping down the crags to form freshets, foaming streams joining as they fall, ever growing, ever gathering in answer to the ocean's call, returning to the source of their rising, the vast Sea from which the rains arise—
At the height of the island's rise where the solid bedrock gives way to earth, that once was judged too soft for surety of building, and given over to growth of copse, thicket and grove and grasses green and wild-flowering alike, charming the sight and breath alike as well of those who held this first, that now is iron-hard, beaten naked of all life, sown with such poison that nor shall green thing ever thrive upon it — there she stops, standing with upheld arms, her Song rising as she lifts face to the dawning sky, and in that instant—
—in that instant she is no tattered wanderer forlorn in the wasted land, but one far other, standing like a column of white stone, unshaken by war, like a tree unswayed by blast of storm, like a fall of water from tallest cliffs, in whose voice all hear the ring of Power that is of the ancient earth, of binding roots that delve within it, of cascade's roar, as she lets her guarded measure slip from fingers' hold like fall of ceaseless tears—
In that instant the Sun clears full the eastern woods, the eastern mountains, and the sky changes from softness to the brilliance of adamant, and a sudden gust of the morning breeze takes the spill of water as it runs like a crystal strand between her hands and the shadowed earth and flings it wide in a spray like the sea on the cliffs at dawning, and every drop is a sun-spark itself, and the light is so much that they must hide vision beneath it, far more than the flashing of liquid on the wind may account for, as if again for the first time She rose from beyond the Sea upon the darkened world.
It is only for an instant, and then it is but full morning, too bright for eyes enslaved by shadow still, but not beyond the workings of the world's days, and the world is as it was — and is not. For where the Elven-maid sags pale and worn, no longer a Mystery in darkness, the sun shines down upon bare earth, hard, beaten into clodlike ironhard dullness, but not vile with the effluvia of sorcery and foundry, mixed into a layer of spirit and substance that none willingly would ever touch…
…and it is not only there, but everywhere that unclean power soiled the island, everywhere that the unknown dead lie, that bone splintered and ground to dust and burnt to ash in forge-fueling is spread, everywhere that the Shadow claimed is claimed back in one stroke, as in that first trumpet-hour an Age ago, when hope was bright and glory within grasp, and all things seemed surely swiftly to be accomplished…
But that first Day is long past, and the world grown cold and ashen in defeat, and nothing changes, or little, and not that which would be changed, and slowly the one who has rescued them climbs to her feet again, pressing her hands on the hard dirt to lift herself, and swaying a little she strides with the heavy step of exhaustion down the bank to lean wearily beside her liege and her love, and her face betrays that dismay that is almost fear that still, still there can be no rest yet, that blank expression that at a heartbeat may slip to tears, or mad laughter.
—How can I make such ascent again? even for thee — bearing thee, bearing thy companions, even with Huan's help? Is this the weakness that mortals know all of life's passing, is this how it is ever for thy kin — and ai, how then may you endure, strive so, hold out against such storms as rend our embattled land—?
A little longer — but a little longer — but still she is kneeling upon the graveled shore, leaning as much against her love as he to her, weary beyond either sleep or waking, and the gold-cerulean of the sky deepens in blue, and still she cannot rise from her knees, lift head from shoulder and warmth of shared breath, press of skin warm through veil of clean water, this tired embrace that asks no more, nothing else of the world, having attained goal at bitter last—
—Over the water a deep clamour arises, the Lord of Dogs crying — Attend! — as though the hunt were up, the fell game at desperate cornered stand, summoning outriders to the battle. His gaze is fierce, his ears lifted in alert posture, his belling is command: in that bayed note could not be clearer word — Come! Help! Do not stand like witless kine, agape, adrift!
And so, at last, they return to the place that was Tol Sirion, and is a tomb; that was Tol-in-Gaurhoth, and is a field of rout; that was place of power and contention over vast angles of the land, that is now but an island in the course of the wide river; all those who are able, who have strength enough for that unsteady concourse over stones and streaming rivulets, making bruised and frightened way to where the Hound watches over the unmoving figures by the water's edge.
There they come to give, offering not of pity only but duty, giving of hands' strength to lift them living and dead alike, to raise and stay and support to the high ground again, to give thanks more solid than mere words now, gift so hard to share, greatness of gesture hidden in meagerness of offered rations hidden and carried against guards' notice, of spare garments worn always against the threat of theft and spoiling by their captors — small and of little value, either in themselves, or against the magnitude of their loss, would seem—
Yet in the giving, deed to raise self from less-than-earth, make Speaker again that long was prey, lift honour from the grave in honoring the Secondborn (that none would ever now name Engwar, being all Sickly Ones alike themselves), whose story now they hear, in tale that shall take many tellings, faltering, slow, from she who if she willed it, might command them all as Queen, though her awesome power be dimmed now — yet not as expended, depleted, burned away, but rather as a banner furled, the standard of an army wrapped close around the slim spear-shaft, to be flung out in time of need, flowing in the hour of challenge and desperate contest to lead and hearten and call forth…
(—And the last Wolf sleeps, ice-cold eyes quenched for the present, invisible in darkness, until it shall wake in the dark hours of the night, the cold watches before dawn, the grey and starless time when there are no names, no defenses of thought or doing, but only self—)
The hill is dark beneath the Sun, an uplifting of darkness under the daylight; but it is not Shadow, not the darkness of burnt things — only the dark of fresh-dug earth, solid and real, shaped with simple effort, no spell nor sorcerous binding to make swift its raising. Those who set their strength to call it up by work of hands do so full freely, neither asked nor ordered, but purely of their own will, and the wish to join him who wears the King's sigil as though it were his by blood-right, kin-right, as though brother or brother's son to bear without challenge, as none thinks to challenge, who speaks never to them, only to the Lady, and to the Hound. He labors beside them, as he began it, so to the finish, he and the Lord of Dogs, with whose first help he began to break up the packed ground and loosen clods of the sterile soil to heap up above the grave.
It is a mortal custom, this building of new hills to mark the dead, but it is one that well they comprehend, the wish to make some lasting sign upon the earth, some fixed and changeless mark, not easily to be overthrown or hidden, and if it come of a race so short-lived and swiftly given to death that distinction be needed to signify a life spent more rarely in great service — still they understand this now.
—Not after losing first family to the nameless Ice, where mark was neither possible, nor in those first dreadful times of knowing Death, should have been desired nor comprehended; after war, but after the slow but steady losses, over the Long Peace, and more so after the cruel defeat, when none lost might be buried, save those only who lived long enough to die in such safety as might be scantly found; and most particularly now, when all have lived a daily dying, spirit and hope and love as well as body, reduced to little more than breathing earth, whether High-elven or Grey-elven mattering nothing now, when all are so brought low.
And now they are free, and they will do this thing, because none may forbid them to it, and because they will no longer hide from Death, who have been the prey of the Necromancer these sorrowful years, turning away in fear no longer from what they cannot compass, and not least — not least of all — because he wills it.
And they are his now too, though he commands them not, makes no demand nor presumption of them, merely accepting their assistance without question, as from the first when seeing him struggle with his burdens, the immeasurably small handfuls of earth, carried so carefully from below, followed by the Hound and the Lady, who assists him, though she does not fully comprehend his need, those who did perceive, and understood, stepped forth to aid the work, asking nothing but to be seen in return. And this recognition he gives them, always.
He suffers their touch — though he startled at first — without anger or contempt, no more than the great Hound that stays by him ever, staying him when the Lady is elsewhere. For they cannot help it, no more than can help stroking the Hound's heavy fur, brushing him gently with hands scarred as none of Elven-kind should be, touching his wrists, his scars, who alone has ever returned from the Pit, the prize won from the Dark at such price, who looks on them without the horror that those of their own folk would regard them with, that in other days they themselves might have turned on such as they…
Never does he speak to them, no more than the Hound does, but he ever returns the gesture, with a gaze that utters more than any word, stroking their own galls of iron and whip in his turn, his eyes speaking only of mercy and regret. There is no power in this Man, no gift to bestow upon them, it would seem — and yet there is healing in his touch no less than his Lady's, healing of heart as he pours out his pity and understanding upon their wounds, who knows, knows all too well—
He will allow no stones to be used in its fashioning — not one of the one of the worked stones of the castle may be reused, all must lie where the Lady downcast them. He does not speak, nor needs to, and all obey him. It must be of earth, and earth they bring, in hands and cloths and baskets woven of the stunted willows that struggle to live on the tainted banks of Sirion, carrying it carefully across the rough-fashioned causeway that planks the fallen bridge at changing levels, as though it were more of worth than gold or jewel or clean water And thus it rises ever, hour by unnumbered hour, with speed past mortal believing, even for all their weary weakness, by night as day.
They would not dare to remain on the Island at night, daring the nightmares that must still dwell here, in its shadows and hollows, beneath the nooks of stone and round of arch, and most especially in the deep well of darkness that is never emptied, not even at full noon, too far sunk in the bedrock to ever be touched by daylight — did not they bide there, by choice, working in starlight and moonlight, or sleeping, when they do sleep, though they seem to draw more rest from speaking, or merely looking, to each other.
And so they too work, bringing, or building, or fashioning tools and shelters and seeking food in the woods nearby or in the river, and like their ancient ancestors — nay, far less efficient than those — they make a strange simple village of branch and packed leafage, of small useful vessels that are the greatest part of property, foraging and preparing fare scarcely finer than their meager sustenance as slaves — yet better far than anything ever tasted in their first freedom it seems to them, this simple stuff of garnered chestnut and sharp rose-apple, of bland and bitter, fungus and fibrous water root and fish seared on stone, and what the Hound hunts for them.
Straggled out across both sides of the water, it is an inconvenient and unwarded way to remain, but they know through some mysterious common sense, some shared Sight unspoken, that it is but for a brief while — even as they are sure, without any seeking for proof, that there is no danger to them for the present, that while the Lady bides here nothing dark shall dare draw near, none banished by her presence have courage to return.
—And besides this, how else shall they be with him, who remains only upon the island, as though bound to it — or to his task: for it cannot be that the river daunts him, neither the waves nor the tenuous crossing, who has struggled down the shallows as soon as his returning strength allows it, not only to wash but to wander, over and about the rocks and hollows, seeking nothing, apparently, save to see the boulders, and match muscles' agility against them, and look on the water from this point, and not that, as though he were of their race, in happier days, seeking out new vantages for mere curiosity and gladness of the world.
She goes among them, even beyond the bridge that was, and orders them, and sets some to this task, some to that, and chides them for folly who would be too loathe to seek out the bread of their captivity remaining in shattered cell and all such useful things as might be found, setting example; she speaks to them, answering such questions of doings in the world beyond as they may ask who have been entombed for a handful of years, or more. Her strangeness is more akin to theirs, than his, though she is twice foreign to them, for her heritage of ancient mystery and remote realm as for her sundered kinship with them — and yet there is bond deeper than blood between the Man born scant days ago in their reckoning, and they who have been held by the same dreadful Power upon this place.
They hold him in awe, not dread, and yet there is much the same between the two — mute, he holds such power over them, for having followed so much further into the Night and yet returned to day, that were he indeed to give command, to make request, they could refuse no more than did he speak with the proclaimed authority of their dead King. But they do not even know how much of this he perceives, how great his sway upon their wills, or whether he thinks that they, too, but act upon the heart's free wish, like falcon following the changing winds.
One thing is constant, and that is that one or the other of the two is ever nigh him, either the Lady or the Hound, whether he sleeps or wakes, works or wanders the shore. Another as well, and that is more of concern to them: when he does sleep, whether guarded by her embrace, or by the Hound's watchfulness, it is at the foot of the raising barrow. Thus they must always take heed, though he rests far off enough that he might not impede their labours, still they must be careful of him.
And yet it makes it easier to give him what they would also, moved by forces of spirit which have no easy name nor comprehending, for as they dare not touch him when his spirit is hidden from them, would not presume so much (no more than they dare use his name to hail him, though they speak it low amongst themselves, hailing him only as Edain), so when he looks on them with that mute clarity are they thrown into confusion, and thus bring their offerings, their small and paltry tribute, only while he sleeps.
—A gold leaf, still bright, found clinging to a spindled branch in thicket, or a stone washed smooth with a vein of glittering crystal like stars at midnight; or a pale willow withe, braided and knotted into a memory of woven silver; a few strands of thread, saved from a garment of one long vanished; a bit of clay from the riverbed, molded into the semblance of a recumbent horse, fired in secrecy amid forge-coals, small enough to be hidden in hem; a snail shell, art not worked of hands; a single acorn, undamaged by borer or decay, beautiful in its myriad shades of brown; and a feather, blue as the sky, fallen in reeds from a kingfisher's wing—
—Of such are the gifts they leave, the small treasures of slaves, each given not without pang, each given yet gladly; and each he considers most carefully, turning them over in hands, staring long and close at these tiny fragments of beauty and color new-gleaned or long-hoarded, giving each the heart-praise their worth demands, and they are glad, despite the pain of losing. At first he was bemused by such offerings, left in silence, unclaimed by the givers, uncertain though cherishing of them, and did not know what to make of them, or do with them after, no more than they. But then the fittest use became plain, and his troubled expression cleared, and now he places each deep in the mound where they build, molding a careful hollow for each, and setting it within, and covering its brightness most gently with earth.
And they are glad, for they never could have done so themselves, and he has done it for them, and their meager gifts, twice given, gain in worth so that the thought of them does not bring shame for the paltriness, and though he does not nor would ever name himself their lord, nor do they claim him so, all know that in this, in some strange fashion he stands in the place of lord for them, as he is leader in this tribute that they raise…
At last it is high enough, taller than he, and he turns from that work, wordless as ever, and begins to hunt among the stones of the citadel. Leaderless and lost, they must watch him, wandering amid quoins, wondering what it is that he seeks for, for never has he gone, as the boldest of them have done, as she has done, hunting for such useful things amid the wreckage as have perchance survived the downhurling and the fall of stones, to be scavenged for repair, for usefulness and their survival.
Finally he halts, after long searching far and wide, and drops to his knees so suddenly that they fear some break in the ground has felled him, as though struck down by a heavy blow, and when they draw near in disquiet their spirits are disquieted still more, seeing what he has found. The Hound at his heel growls low, too, hackles rising in anger, not fear; but the Man does not shrink from setting hand to the blackened stone, nor look aside in dread of vision not of this day but of the endless night of the Gaurhoth, when this huge slab was of the lowest step of the dais, set before the blood-splashed throne of the Necromancer.
It is cracked, one large corner gone, and chips have been dashed from the face of it leaving white patches, as of splintered bone in a wound; but it is the same, and not one of those who have been slaves upon this isle does not know it in waning daylight as in memory and dream, no less vivid in the latter twain — indeed it almost seems far less real, here, in the open and apart from the place it had, and holds in mind still. Undaunted, the mortal runs his outstretched fingers across it, as though it were aught precious to him, and leans against it, eyes closed, for long whiles while they wait, silent, for him to act.
Then he rises, with that swift abrupt grace that has returned to him with healing, liker to animal than Eldar, neat as a dog-fox springing from sleep to waking down a sunny rock, and goes quickly down to the southern shores of the island, where sand is washed in protected bars in the lee of it. From thence he returns with hands full of the fine wet grains, spilling it down heavily onto the middle of the stone, and tearing another piece from the given tunic that will scarcely miss the loss, begins to abrade away what covers the fallen block of marble. All through the long watch he scours it, scraping away the writhen masses, frozen falls of darker-than-amber, dripping from birchen pallor under scourge or edge or fang
It is their blood he scours away, their shame and torment, wrung from them for the delight of their old Enemy, their memories of mockery and destruction, mutilation and betrayal, sacrifice of love and faith before the weight of power, the dark taste of hellish knowledge poured down their throats, the blood of their breaking — It is long, long before any of them can bring self to draw near, again, to that step of slaughter, the blood-drenched footing of the throne of their loathéd Master, reclaimed for its true lord by hand of one yet faithful, if but in vain…
Not until he pauses for exhaustion, head bent against the clotted surface, and they see that his hands too are bleeding from the effort do any dare come, offering late their own strength, own hands to the work, while the Hound softly licks his worn fingers and presses against his side. Then only do they compel themselves to come close, to take up sand and shred of rag in hand themselves and set their wills to it, wresting aside their own horror, and begin to wear away the stain of their own destroying…
When the Lady rises from sleep and sees what he has wrought, she weeps, kneeling at his other side and taking his hands in her own, kissing them and healing them and then unfolding her cloak so that she may wrap it around them both, pulling him so that he rests in her lap while she takes up his task for the while. As the face of the step is freed the carving on it becomes clear as well, and the deeper-graven patterns now stand, white against a field of grimmest black, the raised Stars in band enscrolled, cunning work of hands, fashioned in love, freed by love and hands' hard work…
As fingertip traces the round and hollow, following line and dint, shaping the shape beneath in clearing out the defilement, memory of more returns, remembrances of beauty made, and one who once knew the ways of stone and setting chisel is moved to carry the band full about, so that all sides shall be matched, and meet, and with his small haft of broken iron blade set in blunt of wood for eating, and a round stone of the river-bed that fits well his hand, begins to work in the pattern along the shorter face of the slab.
But it is so long since, so long forgotten, that sinew remembers not the way of it, and limb labors in almost-vain, and the symbols that shape from the hollowing stone like ice forming in a pool look so crude, so unsteady and rough that they seem a mockery of the forms they pattern after, and he weeps at his own loss, and despises himself that he cares of it, when such greater loss is all about him, and looks at his own work in bitter contempt.
A gentle touch upon his shoulder startles him, and the artist looks up in the defensive flinch of one caught in weakness, and into the foreign eyes of the Man standing beside him to see what he does. Controlling the impulse to cover his folly he waits, cringing inwardly as the mortal kneels and traces blood-grained fingers over the new-cut star-shapes, brows drawn together in a slight frown.
—I will hack it off, and at least it shall be plain, and not ugliness, he vows in his mind, as certain of his companion's displeasure as of his own. But his hand is caught, and taken in the other's, and held with wonder, and as the would-be sculptor looks up from his weary shame he finds that for the first the other smiles, the faintest lightening of countenance, as a glimpse of the Sun's light on a bleakest day of Winter, and his heart begins to pound as though in fear as fear departs, and tears well up from within as from a spring so long clogged with ash and cinder, trickle slow, yet purifying, sure—
—and he is himself caught, and folded into a fast embrace, so that he may weep without heed, supported on shoulder, until the flood-tide is past, like the crest of a storm of Autumn, and he looks up clear-eyed into the gaze of a pity deeper than words, and is released to the work, that he resumes without trouble of heart, nor comparison, nor self-compare, only steady striving, to learn again, and anew…
It is a strange thing, how purpose can give strength, where effort would, one would think, take away from such store, hinder recovery, yet it is far otherwise in truth. Not all can bring themselves to it, many have not the will for it, cannot face that stain, that stone, but only support those who may. Yet all of them give to it, even if only in yearning, in gratitude, that it be done. And thus the guilt that is born of unreason, of ignorance not deed — We did not know! a cry of shame, not defense — little by little is assuaged…
It is soon readied, whitened with scour of sand and rasp of sharpened stick, washed of the flakings with water from the inexhaustible source at hand, and the broken face made a part of the whole with the carrying of design about all edges. The swiftness of this, too, seems to amaze the mortal, by his expressive silence, the wondering way that he circles it, touches it, though to them it has been a slow and lagging labouring against their own weakness, learning again to work in full daylight, to simply work, without fear of punishment, without any other need than that which is being done, and to take satisfaction (if not, alas, delight) in the making.
There are chains that could be better used to haul it, to be found amidst the wreckage, links and hooks that might be fashioned into harness and gear more suitable, but they will not touch them. Easier, far easier to weave of wood and willow, birch and reed, a soft sledge to case it all around, working the withes beneath with patience, and to make a track of water, slide of wet earth, so that it may be both drawn and pushed along the course of mud by many hands. Dirt and plant bear no nightmares in them, and with so many helping it is so swiftly done, for their strength so far exceeds the Man's that his assistance is immeasurable — and yet did he not set hand and stay upon the course, it would not come to pass.
When it is set upon the center of the mound they rest, without triumph, yet with satisfaction: it is meet, it is needful, it is done. There are embraces, and touching of hands, but they recede then, waiting upon him, for this is his working, not theirs. What he does next surprises them, though they could not say why. He goes around it, smoothing down the furrowed earth of its track, and patting it down smoothly about the sides, brushing the spilled clots of it from the face, though not with great care — it is but earth, only earth after all…
And then he stands at the foot of the slab, simply stands, staring at the blue clarity of the sky, unmoving, and something seems to pass from his spirit then, some tension of bearing, to be replaced by a profoundest calm. And still he only bides there, and they too wait, yet in patience, until he half-turns, to where the Lady stands, a little apart, a little nearer to him, with the Hound beside her, and holds out his hand in plea. At once they go to him, and she takes his hand, and strokes his face while he gazes at her, and kisses him freely upon the lips, and with hands clasped, side by side, they turn again to the white stone, and he lifts his head again, closing his eyes, and draws in a great breath of sunlit air—
And then — he sings. No lament: it is not a song of sorrow, nor of regret, nor even of farewell, not a song of deeds, but only a song of beauty, naming the Stars, and many things, a song of peace, of praise, of joy-in-Arda that does not forget the sorrows of earth but looks past them, not to what might be, in hope that may be deceiving, but to what is, even no less than as the sorrow is, and which fails not. The cadence of it is changed, even the melody is changed, but it is enough the same that they know it, and guess truly why it is that he makes this gift, for it was given in depths of time by the one to whom it is returned…
—They are in wonder that they could have forgotten, since forbidden, that no death was well-honored without a singing-forth, that this mortal must remind them of it, child who learned it of them in days long past, and it is strange, and troubling to many that one not of their Kindred should take charge of this the honoring of their people. But then it comes to them: he has no people, none to claim him save she who stands beside him, who is of their people, and of race more ancient than this earth alike. He has suffered for them, as one of them, in darkness not of latter date alone, and still he claims them as his own, no less than the one whose words he offers for them…
They would hold the moment poised, were it within their power, changeless, flawless, to dwell within forever — that being impossible, they hold it within memory like a blossom set within crystal, carved of perfect stone. For all too soon it passes, and the present world asserts its timeful power, and the power of that beauty but recollection, overswept by the ongoing of that which is.
Even as they wonder what shall follow, the mortal stoops, sweeping his hands again across the white, uncarved upper face, as though to brush away some last scatterings of earth, and leaning forward lies full-length upon the stone, pressed against it as though he would sink beneath its surface, and the taste of the salt of his tears is strong upon the wind. The Lady kneels too, beside him, and lets her hand glide upon his back, her eyes filled with understanding, and upon his left the Hound lies couchant and rests his great head softly upon the Man's shoulders.
And thus they bide, for hours, while the warm Sun pours over the three mourners on the chill stone, and the day wanes; and as clouds begin to ride in upon the currents of the air from the western horizon, hiding the Sun's light, the late thralls go silently across to the river's shore, slipping away by threes or twos or singly, not speaking, waiting still in patience for sign, guide, leader, sensing that some time of change draws near.
The overcast gathers heavier, darker, water riding it like weight of ash upon the air, troubling in its image, but it yields no stink of burning, rather a fine rain, not pelting nor whipping cold, but most rarely warm, an unseasonable West wind bringing weather that is not from the deadly North, and though the freed ones retreat to the margin of the woods, and to shelter, the others do not stir from their place, save that she unfolds her cloak to draw it over him as well, when she pulls it up over her head against the mizzle.
Only when the rain has ended, and some silent signal has passed from the clearing heavens to the three that a just measure of time has gone by do they rise then, as one, he letting the other two help lift him without resistance, without protest of pride, they steadying him until he is sure of his footing again, one arm about the Hound's lowered neck, the other held by the Lady. Thus do they make their way down from the white crown of the dark hill, poised forever like the pale crest of a vast wave, down the arc of the island to the side where once causeway arched, and with the same tedious caution that all others must use, pick slow path to the river's shore, the Hound warding them with his sturdy support, though he might easily swim over where clear of the rubble runs the torrent.
And there in the grey light of the fading day, when all the browns of the rainy woods are sharp and dark like polished agate in the wet, the three causes of their freedom cross the shore of Sirion together at long last: he who battled with sinew and blood to overthrow usurping power, she whose challenge drew forth to that battleground, and he for whom all fighting was accomplished, all obstacles overcome. A time of change has come once more, and they fear it, fear the words the Lady speaks, though inevitable it be, and well indeed they know that so it shall ever be upon this Hither Shore.
"Huan will lead you home," she tells them, "he will protect you and guide you through the secret ways to Nargothrond." Some object — their return is forbidden, they will be turned back to find solitary lives, or shelter with what village dares to harbor them, or fade — but she shakes her head. Huan will bring them safely home, and none shall turn them back — and between the calm assurance of her voice and eyes, and the great Hound's mighty presence, and their own memories of the manifest power that banished wolf and Wolflord on that night so short a while, so long since fading into memory, their arguments subside — but not dismay.
—But ye twain shall not be with us! they cry in answer, and to this she has no word, only gaze of pity and sad understanding. And so they look to him, as though he might sway her, on their behalf, and reach out hands to his, who does not flinch from their need, meeting touch with gentle touch, with look of regret, but without yielding.
"There is no road back for me," he says then, speaking to them for the first time and alike the last, and hearing his voice, that soft, rough accent familiar to many, reminding of days of ease and peace when Beleriand was free to both their Kindreds, they weep for lost lives, and not theirs alone. "—Thence we may not return," and though his reasons are both clear and manifestly true, still are they distraught, and fear the lonely ways without their Lord and Lady to ward them through the shadows.
But they are resolute, and do not debate further, but only stand arm-clasped, not to be turned from their will, by argument nor plea. Until finally weariness wins out, and those who were bound here, and are not, submit to power not of sorcery nor other violence but only will unchangeable, and accept that they have no choice but to bide here as ragged fugitives, or make way with helping guard to hope of shelter.
One last time do they make fire together, encampment upon the river's bank, one last time to share light and food, that which they have learned, either anew or from the first to prepare as their earliest kin, of him who gladly has shared his wild learning with these forewandered Firstborn, even the preparing of the meats that he does not partake. Looking at each other with hungering gaze, they understand at last that though they have taken of strength from him, innocent theft of touch, he too has drawn of them in vision, all those firelit evenings when mute he watched them, staring on their faces in the changing glow until consternation concealed by heat of flame brought rush of blood to cheek, discomfiture, that ever faded in the shameless innocence of his wide-open eyes, even as smallest child — or ancient Hound — might stare without offense meant or taken.
And this time they make other gift, willed, free-offered also, gift of music, of song, hesitant, half-remembered the ways of voice, of rhythm, faltering and clumsy, but never failing utterly, erring and uncertain and all mistakes mattering not, matter for small mirth, and passing on to other tune, other verse better known, or known to all; and the Lady smiles in childlike delight at their efforts, whose Song is past attaining, and so past envy, save to smallest of spirit, and claps her hands in gladness to hear melodies of her Sindarin folk, and joins softly in the chorus of the songs she knows, whelming none with her power; and the mortal Lord but listens, rapt, leaning against the Hound, his face a mask of wonder, though to their own ears the melodies and harmonies be but frail, feeble echoes of what once was.
And too soon it is dawn again, and the promise of true Winter is in the grey air, and they must go their severed ways, and again the two weep, parting from friend, embracing the Hound long, leaning against his broad chest and bone-ridged brow, clinging to shaggy neck without heed for witness, while he in turn licks their hands with sad thin cries; but end must be made, or beginning never shall be, and thus at last they draw away, letting him go downstream to where the multitude awaits, leaderless, for him to guide them.
When the freed ones look back after a time, before the river's turning takes them entirely out of sight, to where the Fortress once stood and the causeway fell, they see but one small dark figure, two so close together that they cast but a single shadow, walking slowly northwards, unarmed towards the dangerous borderlands, where never willingly would any think to go…
The riders go in silence under the wind-tattered sky, the clouds ripping and racing in the stiff breeze like the pennants of the lance-guard, blue lighter and clearer than lapis now by turns masked and revealed by long heavy shreds of white, not the warm white of summer skies, touched with softest gold and melting rose, but the white of marble that shades to grayed blue, boding of storms even in fair weather. There is not sound of bell, nor song, nor even voice this riding-forth: even the horses, sensing their masters' mood, curb their own exuberance and frisk little in the wind.
They are heavily armed, and armoured, and though they are a strong company they ride warily, despite all that they have heard; but the woods are quiet, and the plain of the river is still and bare of all that moves, save deer, hunting through the sere grasses for undevoured shrubbery, that stare at them as though they have never seen horses, nor such riders — and most probably they have not — before dashing off, still wary of anything that goes in these lands that they venture to reclaim.
The hushed cavalcade follows a bend in the river, rounding the headland that hides the plain northward from view, as they journey to find what they already know they will find, yet cannot imagine, and come to the place where they can see to where, for long years of remembering, so that mind does not even hold image of horizon without it save for effort, the Tower has stood, watching over and holding the vale, first for its builders, then for its captors, Tol Sirion, Tol-in-Gaurhoth, Tower of Guard—
—Where nothing now stands, no silhouette of home or gloom, nothing to match memory, all changed beyond recognizing, past knowing, so that did they not know this were the place that they sought, were there no other place it could be, they would think themselves in a strange country… —Only the island, scattered with quoin and corbel as with the petals of Spring blossoming, blown from the trees of the wood that is now bare beside the waters, yet where grass still holds green, as though defended from the weather by sheltering nook of wall or hollow of land, where never Winter spared this shore in bygone seasons.
(Those who fear most seek such reasoning to allay their unspoken dread, telling themselves that the winds are unusual this year, an unseasonable spell of mildness, though they rode through snow to get here — but they dare not admit what is beyond even their ken, who have seen all manner of hell-wrought evil wrenching and slewing the workings of earth in their lifetimes, this unsought, unexpected beneficence of nature…)
—Only the hill, that rises upon the farthest slope of that isle, across which those must fare who by foot, not astride, must make wary way through stones, damp-splashed and cold, as they have made their way over the shattered bridge not as they left it, in haste, but slowly, as though reluctant — as in truth they are. There are flowers, small yet bright like stars in the field of heaven, and others green-white as scattered pearls, bending softly beneath the tread of their boots, too many to avoid in the new grass that yet grows as though of a full season of Spring. (—Yet ever they spring back from underfoot…)
At the crest of the hill they halt, all of them, for a brief span of time, as if having received a message in a foreign tongue, pausing to draw forth its meaning before pondering its significance. Then one walks slowly forth from their midst, while all others hold back, he going as though he has right, and therefore duty, of it, to stand at the side of the white stone that lies there, while the rest look about them, over the island, and out across the vale, as though to find any presence or sign, even, of those who have wrought this change — But they are the only ones whose spirits, troubled, trouble this place; and where those two have gone, none now may discern.
Their leader sinks upon his knees, running his hand along the edge of the slab, and slowly, as if in a dream, then reaches up to remove the winged helm, silver-crowned, that he wears, and as though struck from behind, unseen, by javelin or well-shot dart, he folds over the stone and lies there, curled against it, bent and still, save for the sobs that rack him, his shining mail no defense, no more than his many strongly-equipped warriors, neither King nor proud Lord of the West in this hour, but only one bereft, alone—
About the Island there is only the silence of the world, silences of wind and water, voices of forest and field, singing of air upon stone, stirrings of life in the stillness. Where Spring has visited so briefly, and yet lingers, here there is peace — though there is darkness still upon the northeast shore far off, and in the North a menace bides that lies unseen by eye for distance, but ever in mind's knowing. —Yet here, for a little, in war's shadow, is peace, still guarded yet by love that death has mastered not, that masters Doom—