No Going Back
by Sauron Gorthaur

There was no going back and I was running for my life. I knew it full well; if my pursuers were to catch me, there would be an end to all I had known of life and gloried in. The hunters had become the hunted; the slayers, the slain; the destroyers, the destroyed. All I treasured I had watched crumble down around myself and my Master, and I alone had escaped the ruin of the accursed Valar.

There could be no going back. I heard the horns in the distance and, long though it had been since I had seen him, I could imagine Oromë blowing upon the Valaróma and setting out in pursuit of all that remained of Thangorodrim's once mighty host, the hooves of Nahar pounding like the drums of defeat to all who had served Melkor. Angband would be torn apart until every stone lay dismantled and Taur-nu-Fuin would burn with the wrath of the army that had poured out of the West. Everything that had been so grand, so perfect, had fallen, and I knew that it would never again be built. So I kept on running.

My tattered robes, ragged as a vulture's wings, flapped about me, mocking remnants of my power and dark glory under Melkor. I, who had been his lieutenant, who had ordered his armies, who had forged his grandeur, was reduced to fleeing like a fallow hart. Was it possible for me to fall any further? I had gone from everything to nothing, and I could now only flee. Ai, ai, Melkor, what shall I do?

I fell, as my foot caught on a jagged rock, and I barely caught myself with my hands before my body struck the stony earth. But even so, I felt the searing pain streak through me and when I looked at my hands, the palms were red. The pain took my already ragged breath away, and my blood dripped to the rocks that had cut me. For the last Age, every day I had witnessed pain, but always in others, inflicted it, perfected it like the shaping of gold at the forge, but I had rarely felt it in myself, save for the ever-present gnawing anguish within of unsated desire and the unfulfilled lust for power. But now, I remembered from long ago, and I stood staring at the red drops on my skin, recalling a time I had long thought forgotten…

…A single drop of red blood glistened on the carved stone tiles of the floor, which were already lit red in the firelight. I stared at my hand from whence another drop welled, pain creeping through my broken skin.

"That's what you get for being overeager, Fiery One."

I gazed into the bright, golden eyes surrounded by a mane of brown hair and saw the patient smile in their depths. "But, Master, what have I done wrong? I was merely following your orders."

Strong hands, scorched and weathered by fire's heat and long labor, gripped mine. "You swing the hammer too swiftly, with no control, and hold the tongs too tightly, with too much control. You are not trying to beat the gold into obedience, but to shape it to perfection. If you go about it like that, letting the tools control your movements instead of your own wrist and arm, then of course you will be hurt. Now feel how I do it, Fiery One."

He guided my hands – my grip was his – and swung the hammer down in a flowing movement. I felt both power and care as we shaped the malleable metal. I was surprised to see it take shape, for his delicate blows succeeded where my strikes had failed, and soon it was no longer a formless lump. Lifting the tongs gently, hands still guiding mine, he dipped the metal into the water, and I saw it froth and steam from the contact. When he drew it out again, he released my wrists and left me standing with the tongs.

"Take it up," he said quietly. "See what patience and skill can make. See what you can make."

"You made it, Master," I said meekly.

"Perhaps," he answered. "Take it up."

I held it in my hand, a small, plain ring, finely made with no marring to its smoothness and no signs of the blows that had formed it. "It is beautiful, Master."

"Then keep it," he said with a smile. "We have been given a great task in life: to fill all Arda with our works and created beauty. Never forget that task, Fiery One. And do not forget that a subtle tap can accomplish what many mighty blows cannot."
"I will remember, Master," I murmured, staring down at the ring in my palm.

He smiled, and his eyes twinkled in the firelight…

…Suddenly, I wished I could see those eyes again, that smile once more. There had been so much to learn, much more than all the Ages of Arda could have given me, and I had learned so little. Perhaps, even after all that had happened since that day, there was still a fire burning, a forge hammer lingering, a band of gold waiting, burning, lingering, waiting for me to use them once more to shape a thing of beauty, something I had missed and longed for in the darkness and among the twisted, hideous creations of my Lord. A subtle tap…

But no, I knew there was no going back, not now when I had betrayed everything Aulë had tried to teach me by using my knowledge to create atrocities for Melkor. So, I rose to my feet and kept on running. Ai, ai, Master, is there no beauty left?

Already I felt as if I had been running for years, as if an Age had passed since Thangorodrim fell. Is this what fear is like? Slowing down time until a mere month, a single year, is dragged out into an eternity of anguish and horror under the glare of the moon, when the very stars seem to mock a being who once defied them without a second thought. Death to law, to light, to love. Cursed be moon and stars above. And all in evil ended be in the moaning of the endless Sea. Melkor had cursed the Valar as freely as I had and more often, and now he had been dragged away by those he had cursed, dragged away to a fate unimaginable by one so mighty and so great as he sat enthroned in the darkness, crowned with stolen glories, crushing the world and all in it under his foot. And I had aided him. In all he had done, for more time than any other, I had aided him, and the Valar would not forget it. If Oromë caught me now as he had helped take my true Master, then could I expect any punishment less than the Void?

I raised my eyes to the mocking stars of Varda and felt the despair of no escape, nowhere to go into a realm that I had once ruled as its lord, I, high lieutenant of King Morgoth. "I was your lord!" I shrieked at them. "I knew the sky of Arda before you came to sully it. Was it you who betrayed us to your Mistress? Was it you who brought down a mightier king than the lords you serve?"

But the stars did not answer. They merely glared back at me, as if to meet my challenge. "Yes," they seemed to say. "We betrayed both you and Melkor. But, ah, what of it? Melkor has fallen and you are fleeing for your life, all your lordliness stripped away until you are laid bare to our gaze. What can you hope for now, Maia of Melkor? What can you possibly do to us now?"

Ah, what? Once I could have blotted you out, covered the face of the sky with my clouds and wrath, wreathed you in smoke from a thousand campfires of war, hidden you from all life by enslaving that life in the prisons of Angband and Gaurhoth. Once. But what use was it cursing the stars? Now it was I who was pursued by wrath, Thangorodrim that sent up smoke to the heavens, and Melkor who was imprisoned far beyond the reaches of the world. I had lost.

Yes, I had lost. What good was there in denying it, as wounding to my pride as it was? In the end, I had put my hope in the wrong Master and now I was feeling the pain of the consequences that such a choice must bring. What glory could possibly have come from that path…

"…What glory could possibly come from that path?"

Her voice budded in my heart, deep, deep down even in the darkness. But she had that power, the power to bring forth life, even when there was no light to nourish it. I tried to kill that voice deep inside, knowing what it could do if it took hold, but she was stronger than I.

"What glory is there in the path I follow now?" I answered her.

I saw the pain in her face, like a black spot on a flower petal or a wilting leaf. "Sauron," she whispered. That was not the name she had used then, long ago or yesterday, but that was the name my memory said because I could not remember my other name now. "Sauron, why would you wish this? You are one of us. All tasks that Eru sets before us are great and lead to glory."

"Where then is the glory of the forge?" I demanded. I lifted my hands and scattered my many works across the floor: rings, brooches, medallions set with gems, each proof of hours of labor. "What difference do my little trinkets make? I toil for hours and all I have to show for it is jewelry to charm a lord or lady. And even my fair works seem dim beside those of my lord Aulë. Do you know what it's like, to work so hard and produce naught but vanity, vanity that is shadowed by the far greater works of a greater craftsman?"

"Your works are not worthless," she answered quietly. "And should not the works of the master outshine those of the apprentice? What then would you have to learn if you were Aulë's equal? What has Melkor offered you that is greater than the task Eru has appointed you to? Would you betray us, Sauron?"

I stared back, even though her gaze was hard. "That is all a point of view. If all were to accept Lord Melkor as Master, I would not be a traitor. And as for what he has offered me, I will have endless lordship and the power of a Vala under him, more than Aulë can offer me with his hammer and gold and endless lessons."

"So you have already chosen," she said. "Melkor has promised you much, but he also promised to do Eru's will as an Ainu. Perhaps you have been deceived by his promises of glory and his fine words."

Anger flared in my heart. "Eru has gifted me with an eloquent tongue as well as a skillful hand. Do you think I would be deceived by fine-sounding words?"

"Perhaps you may be deceived for that very reason," she replied.

Wrath blinded me. I struck out with my hand, and a gold ring on my finger, which I had spent hours setting with a ruby after Aulë had helped me forge it, cut a streak of red on her face. She stood as a stricken tree, tall and straight, gazing solemnly at me, but a single tear slid down her marred cheek, mingled with the blood, and dripped from her chin.

I backed away in horror. "Mistress," I choked, "I am sorry. I did not mean… I did not see, Mistress."

Her stare was like thorns in my skin. "You will serve your new Master well if it has taken him so little effort to blot out your vision. You used to see so clearly. Your pride is great, and it will choke all sense of duty and noble work from you as it has from Melkor. When you have tread the path he leads you down until it is utterly closed and you see nothing before you but ruin, remember my warnings and know that I loved you, that Aulë and Yavanna loved you, Sauron."

I turned and fled…

…I looked around at the barren landscape and knew she had been right. It made me want to scream, but what was I to do? Deny the truth that was staring me in the face? I had put all my trust in Melkor and his promises, and he had failed me in the end, left me with nothing and nowhere to go except into exile. But I had chosen exile long ago, exile from Aman, all those years ago when I had chosen Melkor as my lord. There was no going back. I realized that now. I realized now what Yavanna had seen all along, that ruin was all that could come from Melkor's path, my path. I had been a fool, blinded by pride. I had thought that Melkor could make me greater, but he had succeeded in doing the exact opposite.

How long had it taken the love of Aulë and Yavanna to turn to hatred? She claimed they had loved me once, but I knew better than to suppose there was any room left in the heart of an Ainu for me. I had betrayed them, destroyed their works, and all I could expect in return was their hatred. But why should I want their love, I who had lived with nothing but hatred for so long? When they had first taken Melkor, before the light of the Sun, they had shown him mercy, perhaps even wretched pity, but there had been no true forgiveness, no love. I could receive no treatment different. Or could I?

Melkor had opposed them openly from the start, before ever Eä was, but I had lived among them as one of them. If I went to Aulë or Yavanna, swallowed my pride, forgot my hatred, showed them that I was capable of a second chance, what might I expect? What would it take to win back their approval once again? I remembered the sparkle in Aulë's eyes when I brought him some new treasure I had newly forged, the smile on Yavanna's lips when I made the fire blossom and produced flowers of gold for her. Ai, ai, Master, how long has it been?

But I realized I had stopped and had been dreaming these last few minutes or hours. Grand schemes and hope can vanish in a hammer stroke. I had learned that all too bitterly. How could I dream of going back, back to a time when my greatest worry was whether to put an emerald or a diamond into a ring or a bracelet, back to a time when I had cared, had a duty, even loved? All that had burned away in the first fires of Angband. There was no welcome for me in Aman. There was no going back.

So I lifted my weary feet and kept running.

My spirit might be of immortal power, but the mortal flesh that clothed it tired like the flesh of other beings, much as that angered me. Few times indeed had I been forced to stretch the limits of my body, feel the throbbing of a heart overworked, feel the pain in muscles not used to being strained. I had not been as dormant as Melkor, sitting on a dark throne surrounded by servants, but neither had I suffered a hard life as lieutenant of the King of Arda. I had been both Black Captain and Lord, leading armies when it suited my Master and dwelling in luxury little less than his when he had no need for me. There had been times when I was called forth from Gaurhoth, but those times had been few and usually painless. Usually. My hand ached suddenly in memory of an old wound and I recalled a flashing sword and eyes filled with vengeance. Eyes filled with hate and anger and dark retribution. And other eyes, burning eyes, eyes surrounded by darkness and lit with three jewels…

"…And for a time you had such success. It is a pity that you should fail me now."

I could feel his eyes searing into me, even though I knew better than to look up and meet his wrathful stare. I was great among his servants, but a servant nonetheless. "I have failed you, Master," I whispered, but the echo of my voice bounded from the cavernous halls. "I am sorry."

"Yes, you have indeed failed, although perhaps not utterly," he answered, his heavy voice mingling with the black plumes that rose from the fires about his throne. The fires were one of three sources of light in the vast void of darkness in the hall, while the other two were the shining jewels on his brow and his blazing eyes, points of light that I felt as pain on my skin. I felt the pressure of that gaze and pressed my wounded, bandaged hand to my breast.

"Though perhaps not utterly…" His will drew me to my feet, forced me to look up, straight into his eyes. "I must admit that I was pleased when reports were brought back to me of your cunning in dealing with this Gorlim and of the ravaging of Tarn Aeluin, but I expected you to bring me the rebel's head and his ring, as I ordered you, Sauron. Neither have come, and a terror worse than Barahir roams my lands wreaking havoc on all who stand under my banner. And now even my chief commander comes slinking back to me, wound in hand, whining about the son of Barahir."

I winced underneath his cutting scorn, but he was not finished with me. His words and disapproval bit into me like a steel blade, and the heavy stench of smoke clogged my throat and made my breathing come in harsh gasps. "I had hoped much of you," his voice throbbed. "Is Barahir indeed dead or do my servants bring me news of a ghost that cuts down their companions? Or did you merely weave a falsehood when you sent me news of Barahir's demise, thinking to beguile me when you could find no way to rid the land of this plague of Men?"

I knew I was meant to speak. My voice was hoarse. "Barahir was indeed slain, Master, and it is a new threat who roams your lands, a man who cries vengeance for Barahir as he strikes. But I shall slay him, my lord. He cannot fight an army alone."

The dark will released me, and I stood, cold and hesitant, my spirit stripped and laid bare before the Lord of Angband. At last, a flicker of a smile burned across his face. "Yes, of course, empty Gaurhoth against him and the orcs of Gorthaur shall track him down. Rid my lands of this stinging gnat. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I should do it. I do not want another pestilence to escape and go freely, unhindered, through my kingdom. Yes, perhaps Morgoth's hand is not as easily cut as Sauron's. Angband's army shall pursue the son of Barahir, but Gaurhoth's forces must wash and bind the wounds of their lord."

I pressed my injured hand closer and closed my eyes, burning inwardly. In the height of my triumph, I had failed and become an object of my Master's scorn. Hate and anger, long nourished and stored, bubbled within me. I would prove to Morgoth that I was still the chief lieutenant of Angband. I would bring him a prize yet, far greater than anything he could have imagined, and once again he would look on me with favor. Once again I would be able to hold myself with pride. But for now, the shame of failure and humiliation and injury wrenched bitter resentment from my spirit…

…Failure. The word still weighed heavily on my soul, for now I had suffered the ultimate failure. I hated it. I hated the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. I hated the shame. I had always hated it. I had hated it in Aulë's forge when I had accidentally marred a project I had been working on for days, watching my work twist and melt in the fire before my eyes. And I had left Aulë, left my failures at the forge to seek one whom I had thought would free me forever from the crushing feeling of humiliation.

But, ah, how wrong I had been. True, my failures had been less frequent under Melkor, but they had been greater and the shame following more deep and cutting. I had felt the shame of all Melkor's defeats as well, when he was taken captive by the Valar, when he had been driven back to Angband's depths wounded, and now when he had been cast into the Void. And I was a pathetic fugitive, mindlessly fleeing. I had trusted Melkor, hoping to rise beyond the reaching of failure and shame, but, ai, I had failed even in that!

In Aulë's halls, my failures had angered me, but Aulë had not scolded me. Rather, he had shown me how to perfect my skills, hone them until my mistakes were fewer. But when I came back empty-handed and bleeding to Melkor, he had scorned me and ridiculed me, before going and failing himself. I had born the ridicule because I wanted the power Melkor gave me, power I had not believed I had in Aulë's halls. But Aulë never mocked me as Melkor had. Perhaps my bargain had never been as good as I had thought it. Perhaps after all, respect and tutelage were better than raw power coupled with cruel scorn. Perhaps I mistook my life for one of the golden bars I would beat until it became a thing of power and beauty, that once ruined was lost and twisted forever, or so I had often imagined. But how often had Aulë helped me retrieve such a lost work from the fire, mold it again, start anew, and return it to its original, destined shape. Was my life too marred a trinket to fix? Was there no second chance for failure, as Melkor had so often delighted in reminding me? I had thought it so, but would Lord Aulë? If I went to him as I used to, would he help me as he used to or would I receive nothing but the derision of Melkor for my failure?

But see how I dream. As if my life could be compared to a golden band twisted in the fire. If the band were charred black, hardened beyond aid, could even Aulë save it? Whether for good or ill, Melkor had taught me well how failure was received. He had taught me that there was no redemption, no second chance, no going back. What could I do but run? Ai, ai, Melkor, whose lessons should I remember?

At last, my legs could bear me no further. My spirit longed to flee from every fear and memory of Melkor's ruin, but my accursed flesh would not allow such a desire to be fulfilled. I felt as weak as a Man, whose flesh so easily fails. I sank down on the barren rocks, drawing my wretched remains of a cloak about myself in a vain attempt to ward off the cold that penetrated even my fiery skin.

In the distance, I still heard the horns, still pursuing. How soon would it end? How would it end? Would they drag me to the Ring of Doom when finally they had chased every breath from my beaten body? Despite my pride, would I grovel, beg, scream for mercy when Mandos pronounced my fate and sent me after Melkor? My whole body shook at the thought, and I felt that my throat was being constricted. My cheeks prickled to a foreign sensation, and when I lifted a hand to my face, I found it wet. Tears? Many years had passed since I outwardly wept, though my heart had drowned a thousand times in its misery. What point was there in withholding now? Bending my head, I wept in fear, in physical pain, in mental anguish. I wept so hard that it hurt deep in my chest, and though I was blinded, I could still hear the braying horns.

And another sound.

I paused my sobs and lifted my face, still wet, and listened, my body tense, eyes wide, like the prisoners I had seen roused suddenly from a nightmare with the echo of its dreadful memory still clear in their minds. Surely, my ears had been wrong. I prayed that I had been wrong, though what god or fell spirit would accept a prayer from me, I did not know.

My heart sank in a cold sweat of fear as I heard once more the dreaded sound amongst the horns. Baying. Oromë had brought his hounds to hunt down the remnants of Melkor's hosts.

Impulsively, my hand went to my throat and fear made my vision swim. Pain. I felt the pain in my throat, the pressure, the terror of gasping and feeling my lungs empty but unable to take in more air. I remembered the horror of knowing my life was slipping out of my defeated, broken body…

…The dog's teeth were sunk deep in my neck, and though I knew my wind pipe had not yet been punctured, the pressure of his jaws cut off my air supply. The pain was unbearable. Panic and terror surged through me as I fought, frantically trying to free myself, but getting weaker every moment. So this is what it's like to die: to feel your flesh being torn from the spirit to leave it pain-filled and terrified. I had not imagined dying before, but no nightmare could be as dreadful as reality. Now I understood the horror in the eyes of the dying, the ones I had commanded to be mercilessly slaughtered. Now it was my turn.

I had tried everything I could to break that agonizing grip, but no power, no form, whether that of wolf, serpent, or Maia, could free me. My heart throbbed madly within and I could feel the blood pounding through my neck, but there was no manner in which I could release the panicked energy that coursed through me. Instead it rushed to my brain, there to sear the memory of these torturing moments forever clear in my mind. For the first time, I knew utter defeat and despaired.

"Yield unto me the keys of Gaurhoth and you shall go free. Otherwise, I shall send your naked spirit fleeing to your Dark Master in shame."

The voice spoke with such command and anger that I could hardly believe it was the same fair voice that had sung in such a sad manner but an hour ago. That voice had lured me from my fortress and been my doom. Now through the blood and hair and agony, I saw the elven maid standing on my bridge, offering me freedom or death. Either way, I would be forced to skulk back to Melkor, defeated and humiliated, but I still felt the dread of imminent death lurking, and I did not want to learn what it felt like to have my body and soul ripped apart.

I felt the unmovable grip of Huan slacken slightly at Lúthien's bidding, and I felt the air rush into my aching lungs, not much, but enough for me to gasp out in a panicked flow of words: "Enough! I yield the keys!"

The hound's teeth came out of my neck, but he remained on top of me, pinning my body to the ground. I clutched my throat, trying to stop the blood, and panicked again as I felt the gaping wounds all along my neck. My vision danced from agony and weakness. And humiliation. Never before had I lost like this, left in the dirt and pools of my own blood, so weak I could hardly move. I lay there on the bridge, gasping, throat on fire, cursing my enemies. Lúthien was to have been my prize, my redemption, the gift that would have made Melkor forget all of my past misdeeds. But instead, she had seen me grovel before her, seen that my blood was as red and easily poured out as any other being's, and she would remember and tell others. Never again could I be as great as I had been. I was left, alive, but ruined, breathing, but humiliated. And suddenly, shame rose like bile in my bleeding throat to choke me and I hated it. I hated it more than anything I had ever known before…

…As the pursuing hounds bayed again, I sprang forward, limbs quivering from weariness and fear. I remembered the iron grip of Huan even now as I put my fingers to the soft flesh of my throat and felt the knotted scars that would never let me forget that fearful encounter. There could be nothing worse than being dragged back to the Valar like that, bleeding, completely humiliated, in agony. The panic I had felt on the bridge of Gaurhoth coursed through me again, twisting my thoughts until my cunning schemes and wisdom turned to madness. It was then that I knew but one thing: I could not go to the Valar like that. Never again could I bear that humiliation, that pain, that terror. There must be someone who would help me. Perhaps Aulë had not forgotten his fiery apprentice or perhaps Yavanna's love had not completely vanished. Perhaps they would pity me as one of Melkor's many victims. Perhaps.

I would go to them and ask, plead if I had to, for forgiveness. I would go back. Surely, if I came of my own accord, there would be no need of hounds and piercing teeth. Perhaps I could even retain some amount of dignity and pride. I could not be humiliated again. I had to believe that I could go back.

I forced myself to halt, forced my shaking limbs to rest, put a hand to my chest and willed my heart to slow to its normal, calm rhythm. Although panic clawed inside me, I closed my eyes and waited until I had regained my regular composure. I was a lord, was I not, a Maia, whose voice had sung a world into being, who had created countless wonders under the tutelage of one Vala, and who had commanded the mighty hosts of another? I was not a deer, a fox, mere prey that fled when it was hunted. Eru had given me many gifts and now was not the time to forget them. I had beguiled Elves and Men with my voice and face, so why should it not be the same with the Valar?

I heard the horns and the bay of hounds in the distance again, but felt pride creep back into my spirit when I neither flinched nor let my heart begin its frantic beat again. Humble, yes, I must be humble, but there was no call for me to go back whining and cringing. I was the one coming to them – they had not caught me – and it was on my terms that this meeting would take place, even if they held the keys to my doom.

I looked down at myself and loathed the sight of what had once been a rich and beautiful robe. It was stained and torn now after my flight across this rocky, dust-laden land, and my skin, both hands and face, were smudged with unsightly dirt, blood, and sweat. No, this was hardly the way to appear before anyone, let alone those who would be deciding my fate.

Slowly, I drew my sword from its sheath. I had never preferred such a weapon, armed as I was with the powers of a Maia, but I had seized it when I fled from the ruin of the North, not knowing what I might be facing, and it was short and light, not too heavy a burden, although by now every additional weight seemed heavy on my weary body. The blade shone bright, and I saw my own reflection clearly in the burnished metal. Grimacing at the first glance, I examined myself more closely, considering how best to appear before the Lords of the West. Ha, such lords! They had not even managed to catch a fatigued, frightened Maia with all the mighty host they had brought from Aman. But no, I could not forget myself. I could not forget that my doom would rest with them. I could not forget that they were the victors, and even though they had not yet found me, my chances of escape were slender. Humble; contrite, but not broken; proud, but not haughty; comely, but not overbearing…

I watched my reflection change until I was pleased with what I saw. I wore the face I had most often worn in Aulë's halls, fair, noble – a Maia's face – with eyes that shone with a deep, green light, but were shaded as with a passing shadow that made them unreadable and closed my mind to any who might attempt to know it. My lips betrayed only the faintest hint of a smile. The brow – narrow, proud, that of one confident and calm, not creased by worry or wrath. The hair took more thought. Perhaps gold, shining with sincerity like the sun who rises every day to a new beginning? Or brown, a humble color, certainly not an overbearing color, the color of earth? But no, I was not going to the Valar to deny my past, but to stand before them as Sauron, a repentant Sauron, but Sauron nonetheless. I refused to be humiliated by who I was, and there was no point in denying my past actions that doubtlessly were already known to them, for it was those actions I was going before them to recall. So I chose black, long and loose, as I had worn during my days as Lieutenant of Morgoth, but had also worn sometimes as the servant of Aulë.

And as for my garments, these tattered black robes, besmirched and reeking, did not match the fair form I had chosen for myself. I ran my hands over my clothes, using my Maian powers to change their appearance, a phantom cover that would suit me better. Soon I was garbed in new clothes, or so they seemed, dark blue rather than black, and trimmed with gold. I briefly considered my plain golden circlet that I wore on my brow as a symbol of my lordship, but I took it off. A lord I might be, but I did not want to remind the Valar too blatantly of what sort of lord I had been and what king I had served under.

Misgivings rose again in my mind, brief, but strong: the terrifying thought that I was going to my doom, to share in the same fate as Melkor. But I pushed these thoughts away, along with my doubt and fear, and hid them deep in my heart. I knew the Valar. They were noble and good. I knew how to play on nobleness, convince them that sparing me was the right thing to do. I was ruined and desolate, but I had not been utterly destroyed like Melkor. I still had full rein of my powers, and I recalled well enough the power of the right words and a beautiful face…

…My robes glittered blue, blue as the Sea and white as foam. I had little love for the Sea, as little as my Master, but I knew it would please him. He looked at me now keenly, piercingly, and the waves lapped at our bare feet.

"Melkor is no friend of the Maiar or the Valar," he said at last in a wavering voice as unsure and shifting as the waves. "He is our Enemy."

"He needn't be," I answered nonchalantly and I smiled at him, but he only frowned in return.

"I am not as willing as you to change sides for idle promises, Sauron."

I laughed, pushing back my long hair from my face where the Sea wind had tossed it. "Idle promises? And who says the promises of Arda's lord are idle? The promises of the one who has learned the secrets of the world, toiling in darkness while the other Valar bask in the light of Aman, content to know nothing more of the world. Do you think his promises are truly idle?" I opened my hand and stretched it forth, summoning shadows of the wide world to set before his eyes: vast, unexplored oceans, violent waves, and unfathomed depths flickering with ghostly lights.

"I know little of the Sea," I whispered, "and Melkor cannot rule such vastnesses unaided. Ulmo would be satisfied to sit upon the shores, watching the endless, tame waves pounding upon his sand, tame as a trained kitten."

I closed my hand, and the visions faded, but the fey light of those unimagined depths flickered on in his blue-green eyes, ever changing, changing for the better. I knew from my mirror what desire looked like, knew how it enslaved the heart. "Tame as a kitten," I repeated, "with no lord to rule over it, except one who will not let it play, will not accept its true power."

He licked his lips, and his fingers trembled. "What exactly is Lord Melkor offering?"

My smile was sincere, beaming like the sun on a calm day over the ocean. "He's offering you everything."

He glanced around, a trapped beast, ensnared in his own desire. When he looked back at me, there was both relenting there and the anger he was famous for, the anger Melkor wanted under his control. "If you and your Lord are playing me false, Sauron, the Sea will be your enemy for all eternity."

I smiled my most charming smile. "Turn down Lord Melkor's offer and you will long for the power and freedom you might have had for all eternity."

His brow creased, but the stormy light in his eyes was less threatening. I smiled outwardly, but inside, I laughed. I knew I had won…

…Of course, that had been only a frail and temporary victory, but even then, before I had truly learned the subtleties of deception, I had won a stroke. Ossë had indeed served Melkor, if only for a time, until the Valar had stopped him. He had pleaded for pardon, foolish, rash Ossë had pleaded, and the Valar had accepted him. I had heard that Aulë himself had personally requested that pardon. If Aulë had desired the pardon of another Vala's Maia, how might he receive my pardon? If the Valar had granted the requests of pathetic, wavering Ossë, surely they would consider my request, elegantly worded as I could make it. True, my deeds had been much greater and more terrible than the brief rampage of Ossë, but, ah, when I begin to hammer out my words and craft my rhetoric, would even the Valar be freed from the beguiling spell I could cast?

My confidence flamed up once again and cast shadows upon my soul, as I turned aside from my previous path of flight and followed my own trail back towards the ruin of the North. I had not heard the horns or the hounds' baying for a time now, but that did not trouble me. It would still be easy enough to find them, and it would make it easier for me to meet them on my own terms if they had called off the hunt for the time being.

How long I traveled through that dark night I could not guess, but I marveled that my fear-driven legs could have borne me so far. Ever and anon, fear would touch my heart again, the dread of dark dungeons, humiliation, the Timeless Void. But my resolve was set, my words carefully planned, and should I fail, I did not know where else there was to hide.

Dawn light touched the sky before I reached the broken lands, the only remnants of a country I had once known so well. All was destroyed in the wrath of the Valar, and I felt my hatred for them creeping back into my spirit. Disgust and fear and hatred for their terrible anger that had annihilated everything I had hoped in surged back through me, but I suppressed it. I had come this far back – I could not forget myself now.

I saw the great camp as I reached the highest ridge – great cracks ran all across the changed countryside from the battle the Valar had waged. It was a smaller camp than I had expected however, and when I saw the banner, Manwë's eagle, streaming from the largest tent in the camp's center, my heart leapt with a new hope. I had expected, but dreaded, an encounter with Oromë, but this was no gathering of Oromë's people. Doubtlessly, he was nearby, for I had heard his horn and his hounds, but if I did not have to meet with him, I would count it a stroke of luck on my side. And if I did not have to speak to the Valar at all, I would call it a blessing.

Slowly, I made my way down the ridge towards the sleeping camp, eyes flickering for any sign of movement, but there was none. Perhaps indeed some dark power was aiding me or perhaps my own cunning was at last serving me well. There were no guards about the encampment – fools! – for what did they think they had to fear? Morgoth was overthrown and they had routed his hosts. All those who had stood under the black banner of Angband were fleeing, dead, or cowering before their wrath… or so they thought. Well, one at least had decided to flee no longer, but I was not going to complain about the way events were turning out.

The dawn light was streaks of scarlet across the sky, each beam sundered from the others by dark clouds upon the horizon. The countless fingers of light led the way for me, but it was dark enough still for me to be concealed from any who might be watching, as I slipped among the tents and dead campfires. I knew where to go; the eagle banner fluttered before me from the peak of the grandest tent. I straightened my robe and ran my fingers through my long hair, images flashing before my mind's eye of dungeons and the empty Void, but my doubt lasted but a moment. I smiled, aware of the comely figure I made, and let my words of obeisance, repentance, and beguilement rise to my lips, ready for my use. Proud and humble. Yes, that was my task now. I must use Aulë's subtle taps and be proud and humble. I was a defeated lord – they the victors – but I had come to them of my own will, unasked, uncaught, bound to no one.

Carefully, I brushed back the tent flap and stepped inside. It was spacious and glowed with the faint light that filtered through the translucent blue material from the rising sun outside. A mat covered the dusty earth, a rack of armor with a great burnished shield was set against the wall opposite to me, and beside the rack was a cot, on which reclined the tent's owner.

I had not seen Eönwë for many years, but he looked little different than he had in Aman long ago, save that he was dressed in traveling clothes rather than his lordly robes. His back was to me, as he sat, propped by pillows, holding something in his lap, while his golden hair flowed over his shoulders, which were hunched as he bent. He seemed to be reading something – I caught the soft murmur of his voice – but even bent as he was, he seemed tall, even for a Maia.

At the sight of one of my own kind whom I had not seen for many years, though he and I had hardly been close, I once again felt the longing to return to simpler times. I had a chance to forget and to go back to the days when I had not needed to worry about enemies and war and retribution. But almost at the same time, anger flared up as I considered how Eönwë had been one of the destroyers of my life, one of the reasons I was here to humble myself and hope for mercy.

Perhaps he sensed my presence, for he straightened his shoulders and lifted his head as if listening. He glanced over into the bright shield hanging before him, and we locked eyes.

He froze, shock written on his face, and he leapt to his feet and turned upon me in a movement made swift by fear. A sword was in his hand, and I realized it must have been lying beside him on the bed.

"What are you doing here?" His voice was harsh and tight with righteous anger and hatred that showed clearly on his face. I had not expected a different reception, but it gave me a sense of pride. Defeated as I was, I was still a threat, someone to be faced with sword in hand, someone who could inspire awe and dread in another being. But I was not here to threaten and dominate; I was here to convince Eönwë that I was not a threat, not something worthless or dangerous to be tossed in the fire, but a marred trinket that could be repaired and made to shine once again. It was not a high role, but it was better than that of a prisoner or a bodiless spirit flung into the Void.

"I am here to speak to you." I could not bring myself to call him "lord" as if I was a lowly Elf or Man, but I lowered my head and put humility into my voice.

Eönwë's brow was still furrowed in anger, but I sensed his bewilderment as well. However, it was only anger that suffused his voice. "To speak to me, you faithless traitor? What would you speak of? Shall we speak of the destruction and horror that you and your cruel Master rained down upon Eru's fair world? Shall we speak of the thousands of prisoners and slaves we found broken, tormented, and dying in the pits of Angband? Shall we speak of that, you fell monster of Morgoth?"

I did not look him in the eyes, but instead lowered my gaze to the ground. "There is no need to speak of deeds already known to both of us. What is done is done. I have come to speak of the future."

Eönwë laughed bitterly. "All that needs be said of the future is that it will be brighter for Eru's children now that Morgoth is overthrown, and it will be brighter still when you follow after him."

My stomach twisted in fear, but I let none of my emotions show on my face, save for sorrow and regret. "Brighter, yes, for all of us, I hope. I have come to repent of my evil ways…my lord." The last two words were infinitely difficult to spit out, but I spoke them with all the humility I could muster.

"Spare me your lies and false honors, Shadow of Evil," Eönwë said harshly. "What you mean is that your might has proved less than you believed it to be, and now that it has fallen around you, you are afraid. So you come to me, begging forgiveness in fear that your fate will be the same as your Master's. If you had gone down fighting, perhaps then I should have pitied you for the utter destruction you wrought in yourself at last, but I can find in my heart no compassion for a wretched, defeated lord who comes bowing and begging for his punishment, which he has earned ten-fold, to be lessened. How many lords that you had defeated came begging you for mercy and how much did they receive? For it is mercy you seek, is it not?"

I bowed my head a little lower, seething inwardly, but successfully maintained my calm and contrite outward appearance. "I do not deny anything you have said. You are right – I have been defeated, I do fear the wrath of the Valar and their punishments, and I am here with the hope that my repentance will be received and believed." It was all true – I had no reason to lie to Eönwë, not yet, not in this at least. I glanced up and searched his face briefly, looking for a hint of some weakness in his features, some place where I might worm my way into his heart. And I saw it, flickering in the depths of his blue eyes. Despite his words, behind the rage, he did pity me, and I seized my chance.

"You have been here long enough to see the ruin of Morgoth's reign," I whispered. "You have seen all the destruction and death. The Valar came here to end a war, and they have, to release Middle-earth from its pain, not to cause more suffering. My destruction would be just, I do not deny it, but must yet another be added to the list of casualties in this evil war? Would it really be a victory for the Valar to destroy yet another victim of Morgoth's rule, when he went down on bended knee and pleaded for pardon? I do not ask to go free, unpunished, but to prove my good will to a fellow Maia. Will you not believe me, Eönwë?"

His eyes were conflicted. Pity and desire to trust me warred with anger and justice in his face. My words were sinking in, but he was not yet convinced. He frowned.

"Curse your silver tongue, Sauron," he said. "It would be better I feel, if you followed your Master into the Void, for I fear you are as false as Morgoth ever was. But, yes, much ruin has come from Morgoth's reign, and I would have it ended with as little pain and bloodshed as possible." Anger crossed his face again, but he turned to gaze at his shield beside which he hung his gleaming sword. "If you are playing me false, may the curses of the Valar rain on your head. You are lucky that it was my encampment you stumbled upon and not Oromë's nearby, for he would not be as merciful."

A hope, which I had been afraid to nourish lest it fail me, sprang within me. "Am I to be pardoned then? You will not regret it. I have longed before this day to return to my forge in Aulë's halls and to resume my tasks under Eru's will if it is permitted that I do so. I will make whatever oaths you desire."

Eönwë turned back to me, grim laughter in his face. "Oaths? Yes, I fear you would make many oaths, thoughtless words and promises, if you believed they would save your skin. But you are becoming overeager, Sauron. Make whatever promises to me you desire, but it will do you little good. You may be fallen into deep darkness, but still you are a Maia like myself and were great among us once in the East. If you were a Man, or even one of the Eldar, I would be granted the power to forgive you if I wished, but it is not my place to pardon one of my own order. By coming to me, you have not spared yourself a journey to the Valar, to stand in the Ring of Doom and plead your case."

My heart suddenly beat faster at the dreaded name. It was that fate exactly that I had hoped to escape when I came here. I struggled to keep these new, unexpected emotions from showing on my face, but I must not have been entirely successful this time, for Eönwë looked into my eyes and shook his head.

"Has fear truly clouded your mind so thickly that you looked for immediate pardon at my hands? You were clever with Maian wisdom, and I admit that your words have not left me unscathed. Sauron, I wish I could believe your promises, wish that you would go to the Valar to face your fate and there perhaps remedy some of the evils of this Age and thus be saved in the end from the path of destruction that Morgoth led you down. But I fear you are still too proud and have come merely from fear and not because you are sorry for the horrors you have wrought in this world."

Fear, anger, pride, longing. I hated that my heart could be ruled by so many emotions. I wished sometimes that I had Melkor's heart of steel, as hard and unwavering as his crown, but that had never been me. I was Aulë's Fiery One, as prone to any emotion as a fire is prone to leap or die at a single gust of wind, as shifting as a shadow cast by the light upon trees. I wished I could feel sorry, that I could in good faith bow my head and repent, but I knew Eönwë was right. My words were bred of fear, and I was angry at Eönwë for seeing through to my heart and presuming to know my mind. How could he possibly dare to suppose he knew my thoughts or had any idea of the anguish in my spirit?

Eönwë came forward suddenly, his eyes shining and his face sad. I straightened and stepped back, but he stood in front of me with his earnest, sad eyes still gleaming. "Please, Sauron!" he suddenly cried, almost desperately. "You are right. We are all worn from this accursed war. There has been agony beyond measure, so many deaths, so much pain. Melkor has fallen, but that does not need to be your path. There is hope yet. Humble yourself and go to the Valar. Tell them what you have relayed to me. Repent and let the fell memories of Morgoth's reign fade forever!"

Go to the Valar. Humble yourself, Sauron. Repent. I took a step back and felt the brush of the tent flap on my cheek.

Eönwë moved forward again and caught hold of my arm. I sucked in my breath and jerked away from him, but he had a tight hold. He stared directly into my eyes. "You said you longed to return," he whispered, his previous anger all but gone. "I do not think you told a lie, even if you believed it was so. One who weaves so many falsehoods may in the end beguile his own heart. Please. Perhaps I was mistaken, and there is more to this than the madness of fear. You were great once and good. It can be that way again. There has been enough suffering. Prove your good will and you shall be forgiven."

I pulled my arm slowly away from him, and this time he released it, pleading with his eyes. He made it sound so easy, that all I had to do was prove my good will. But no, there would be punishment, less harsh perhaps, but just as humiliating. I thought of Aulë's face, soot-smeared and smiling, of tears in Yavanna's eyes when she had told me my doom. I thought of Ossë who had fallen and been pardoned. I thought last of all of Melkor, who had given me a taste of power, who had given me freedom and enslavement, who had doomed me.

"I want…" The words escaped my lips almost as a sob, but I did not know what I wanted. Perhaps I wanted time to go backwards, to be able to start everything over again. Perhaps I wanted to believe that I was not lying to myself when I told myself I wanted to return. Perhaps I wanted to go back. Or perhaps not.

The sun had risen high enough that I could feel its warmth on the back of my neck. Soon the hunters would awaken. Even time was my enemy. I hated it.

Eönwë did not move again. He simply stood and stared at me, waiting silently, but with pleading eyes filled with sadness. He knew what my answer would be as well as I did.

I backed slowly out of the tent, almost afraid to turn my back on him, but once outside, I turned as if in a dream and began running south once again, my every step filled with pain. I had failed.

How could Eönwë or any Maia understand? How could the Valar understand? How could they comprehend the yoke that had been laid on me by Melkor? I could pretend, but I would never be anything other than what I was. How could they know my hate, my fear? There was no going back. If I could not even dream of humbling myself to the Valar, how could I dream of returning and trying to patch together the shattered remains of a doomed life? How could I live there, knowing and being known for what I was – the defeated, the tamed lord of Melkor, the traitor? No! As my feet pounded the earth and my tears fell like rain, I knew once and for all what I had known all along. Ai, ai, there was no going back.

A/N: Several people have commented to me after reading this story that they wonder what might have happened if Sauron had repented and gone back to Valinor. If you are interested, I am currently working on a novel-length fanfic that explores just that. "Gorthauro Estel" is my AU version of what would have happened after this story, had Sauron not fled here at the end. Check it out if you are interested! - SG)