In Brethil's Shade

"I cannot tell him that!" The Elf-lord is aghast at the very image of it, his eyes widening and his long slender hands lifting in gesture of protest, gold gleaming from ring and collar and swordhilts as he moves. Too slight in seeming to be the Hunt-Lord, for all his white horses and hounds, too solid for ghost or shade, he sits at their hearth-circle as though he had dwelt all his life in the wild, at ease from his first visit to their rough encampment as no others of his folk have been. But this has shaken him at last.

"Sure ye can, me lord." The chief's eyes glint with merciless humor, in full appreciation of his present and forthcoming discomfiture. "And let not be changin' the words any, to make them smoother to His Majesty's taste. I said, and I meant, and so be it." So changed the language is, what they have done to good Sindarin, mangled, some would call it--!

"But--" Headshake, and a curled smile that bares crooked teeth in a lean long jaw. "Please--" Again denial, and he sighs. "Very well. I will say that your words to him are thus: 'Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the King of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to Men.' And then I will hastily find cover."

"Still ye be polishing my speakin', lord," the chief retorts, but she is laughing nonetheless, not truly angry, not more than the anger that burns in her like a flame upon an arrow's point always.

"My lady, I cannot tell my elder kinsman, 'If ye think that I'm aye to make merry with the butchers that ate my twin and our father-lord, and mickle other score, then I'll not be saying how that makes me misdoubt of yon Elven folk and their care of they own kin!' --This is bad enough by far."

"Aye well, bind bright bands and fair feathers to axehilt or spearshaft as ye will, the edge be no less the keener. It'll do," she shrugs, and again she grins in wicked anticipation of his awkward mission.

"I wish you'd just let me say 'Certainly,' and leave it at that," he says rather forlornly. But the chief of the Haladin sits forward, hands on her bare knees, and replies in earnest tones, "As well he knows who's dealin' with, me lord, and so from first. Saves mickle of trouble after, it does. Sure we'll guard our own flanks from our foes, and his the same whiles, and what kind of fools do your folk take Men for, that we'd do otherwise? Fool's question gets fool's answer. --And now that's done, let's us have ease."

They have thrown a lynx pelt over a fallen log for him to sit upon, and poured out a small measure of mead into a bowl of hollowed horn -- a most rich gift, from some far-carried store that they can ill afford to spare. But he may not refuse, not without being far crueler than in acceptance, this bare-bones hospitality that is more gracious than a throne of gold and miruvor in a cup of crystal. And so he accepts -- the smoothness of the well-polished oxhorn a sharp contrast to the rough-callused hand of the hostess who sets it in his own --and drinks, sensing the disbelief and sympathy of his companions behind him, and tries to tell himself that the raw bittersweet liquor is more interesting than disgusting in its savor.

He almost succeeds at it: he does succeed in giving no sign that such rough brew is beneath his noble rank -- or rather, merely alien to his tastes. They are almost totally bereft, destitute indeed; and yet he has never seen anyone to whom the term 'abject' was less applicable. --They have less possessions, yet they had less to begin with; they are in far better shape, yet they traveled far less distance in less harsh circumstances -- the comparisons are inevitable, yet uninstructive, and he forces them aside.

Across from him, painted in changing hues of light cast redly from the small fire beside them, the chief of the Haladin sits on a tree stump across which a wolfskin has been spread, her arms folded firmly like a defensive pale across her midriff, her legs beneath her blue-woven kilt like the bends of oak boughs, her cross-girt boots planted immovably on the packed earth.

There is no grace, no graciousness, none of the amelioration of gesture and position that is innate to the Firstborn, whether male or female, about the Lady Haleth. She is short, barely breast-high on him when they are both standing: her people are very unlike either his own Men, or the tall children of Hador who stand Elven-high, in both form and speech. Her voice is rough as fresh-hewn wood, strong to shout or roar order or battle cry at need, and her face and arms bear scars, some of sharp edges, others of heat, and still others sinister and strange, as of venom or claws, were there such large enough to leave such marks indeed. Silver threads her hair, just barely, though he is nearly certain that she is not old enough for that in her race's years.

He is pleased to see that the red darkness of the scars is beginning to fade, not merely upon her skin but upon all of those who follow her and bear them as all do, and that the knife-sharp bones of face and wrist are only high-relief now. The negotiations have gone on several months now, and he has done what he could for the Haladin -- what they would permit, that is, and what complex negotiations those were, that would almost put to shame this treating with Thingol of Doriath!

About her brow a knotted strip of leather holds three crude disks of amber, worn smooth with many hands, one opaque, cold-white, one clear gold as honey, one the dark red-gold of banked coals. He wonders if some far-carried rumor of the Silmarils has birthed this Mannish custom, some tale drifting on the wind of breath like dust recalling Fëanor and his glorious works, or if something deeper and stranger still moves both Kindreds to bind three gems upon the brow in mark of lordliness, some movement in the soul that springs of Arda, beyond ancestry and imitation.

But this lure of wandering thought he resolutely puts aside for the matter at hand -- though he will yet wonder, though he never learn the truth of it. The cord that holds them, he has perceived, is so stained with blood that its hue is changed, saturated past any hope of cleaning. But they have not replaced the leather thong, though they have mended it where cut . . .

Behind and around her primitive high seat stand boys with axes, in armor of leather pieces stitched together -- No, he corrects himself, only one is a boy, and he her kin: the rest young women, hair cropped as short as their chieftain's, faces masklike and mysterious in the fire-circle's cast light. Yet even after all these meetings and the report of her scattered folk throughout his dominion -- and of his own sense -- he still finds it strange to think of this girl-guard, though they do not seem to think it so. Their language is not fully clear to him yet, and he is not sure if they simply do not make the distinction, or if the usage is deliberate, but he believes they call her 'sir' and whether it be as strange to their ways as to his own, it is not done in irony.

"Nay, lord, pity them not," she said to him on their first meeting, when he had first made the realization and was still considering the knowledge. "Would ye ha' them unhandy to the iron when the Orcs come on them? Would gentleness well serve them then indeed?" And he had started, wondering if she had some Gift of Elven sense to read his thought as he might read those of Men -- and she had laughed, though not cruelly. "Nay, lord," she said again, "it's plain there in your eyes to see. Were some thought it ill when first I did it, but not one has no lost a child to the Glamhoth now, or lover, or parent, and Orc-blades bite no less hard on a maiden's flesh, nor Orc-fangs on a mother. None be forced to take up axe, but none forbid. --Forbidding's not much in our way, anywhiles."

But nonetheless he is saddened, thinking of his niece a warrior, of her companions and all the fair ladies of Nargothrond obliged to forgo the arts and workings of their choosing and set their hands to the hard skills of sword and spear, and the pains of such learning, even if never obliged, as these children have been, to hazard them in battle. And once again he wishes that he could bring all to some place of safety -- but there is no such place outside his walls, and it is not in any case the will of Men to dwell so, regardless of the advantages that might be seen in such a position of security, strongly encircled by stone and law. They would not build a city of their own, even if given all aid to -- most especially not if bidden to!

A shoat darts through the clearing, notices some fallen bit of bone and diverts from its flight to root at the campfire for forgotten scraps too small for gleaning; she fends the young pig off and boots it towards her nephew, who hastens it on its way with a nudge of his axe-haft. His companions stir behind him, more in mind than in outward motion, and he sighs.

The young scion of the Haladin says something then to his aunt, in their own tongue which he does not quite yet have the mastery of, for all its differences. She but shakes her head in answer. He avers again, she denies, and he shrugs; but he looks at their guest with a judging gaze, and the Elf-lord, suppressing a smile, gives a questioning glance to the Lady, for he is fairly certain what was bruited about just then.

Haleth answers him blandly, "He believes he could match ye, lord, but I told him nay to challenge."

"I thank you for your consideration, my lady." They share a complicit mirth, which touches not their expressions, only eye and soul together.

"I was telling him ye'd but change him into a swine like yon piglet ere he laid iron to ye, but happen I think he doesna believe me."

"Sad, the folly of youth these days," he replies, shaking his head.

"Sad that of elders too," retorts the Lady, fast as fire, "and will your grandsire's brother be hearing your words, think ye? Why troubles he so much for us, that be few and nay foe to him?"

Not wishing to go into the matter of the dark intimations of the future that his kinsman has Foreseen and thus endeavors to stave off by banishing all Men from his holding, he explains to her the concerns of Doriath's rulers that forces more powerful and well-equipped and ruthless might overwhelm their more fragile and unworldy people, either to drive out or to drown out all ancient ways and customs, supplanting them with newer songs and louder, yet not perhaps better for all of that. And this is true of any who come hither, whether Firstborn or Secondborn, and he himself but on sufferance for the bond of blood.

"But 'tis true that your folk have little in the way of great might to daunt any -- yet also true that you bear axes, even as your foes the Orcs, and to the chance watcher might seem ill for that, and true as well that you hew and build and burn, among the woods. And these are matters of trouble to the Elven-kind of these lands." He does not say, nor needs to, that the fact that they wait not on permission, but continue to settle in through all negotiations, quietly and steadily and without overt offense, is itself disquieting in its silent message -- We will not be stirred hence, unless we bestir ourselves, or at great cost to you yourselves.

"And sleep all Elf-tribes here but under leaf and stone?" she retorts ironically. "Does your kindred-king make but a reed hut with fallwood fire? I saw gemflash and scabbard o' graven oak on his Rangers that came to bear his words to me. And look you, see how we dwell here -- ha' we indeed cut more trees than need for our place, or hewed great path ahint us? The woods are home to us, aye as ever were -- and what fool burns his own house over his head?"

Graciously he bows his head in concession of her true words, and goes on to that which is haply hardest, for them both, for the unchanging fact of it.

"Most of all it is for that you are lately of my cousin Caranthir's domain, my lady, which for long sad history is unfriend to Doriath, and likewise any that hail of him or his House."

The Lady stares at him, then, glowering beneath her dark brows, her deepening scowl of such gloom and bitterness that he must look away then -- but that is little ease, for then he must see their trophies spiked against the walls of her hut, the skulls of Orc and hides of Warg, and horrible as those are, the stranger and more hideous and hard-won prizes of revenge, that the newcomer only slowly comprehends, discerning the vast gleaming rounds of many eyes and darkly-gleaming fangs in the hollow shells of monstrous spiderlings.

"Ken ye why we came so far out of the ways we'd long worn for ourselves?" she asks him suddenly, savagely, leaning forward with one arm bent, the other driving at him in a gesture like a spear-thrust. He shakes his head, wordless, for that has never yet been made full clear to him, always veiled in hint of vague threat and the uncertainty of the borderlands. "Nay, for never I've told ye. I'll tell ye now, then, and ha' done wi' it." Her breath is coming quick then, and her eyes both angry and troubled, he can sense the rising drumbeat of her pulse, and the shifting of her guards then is like the warning crackle of sparks when a forest blaze begins to catch.

"I listen, Lady Haleth," he replies, for she awaits his answer. When she answers there is a different rhythm to her words, almost a hammering, as of axeblades clashing, and he recognizes that this is something from her own language that smoulders through without her willing or knowing it.

"In the day, the darkness, that we thought to die in, in yon watch of the night that we waited the Glamhoth, when the great lord rode in at his riding's head, wi' his many warriors in bright array -- en then at my gates' guardin', at my wits' endin', I wondered -- How had he kenned not as we were assailed, or how had he come in scant edge o' time, to be savin' the such of us as still did remain, when we did dwell in his own land's measure? --Else he'd come quicker, else he'd come in the burnt time, when naught to be done but work o' revenge. I looked in his eyes, yon dragonfly lord, as late had swooped cleavin' my foes' heads before me, and I feared in my heart --"

She straightens, her nostrils flared wide, like a warhorse's, proud and defying any to mock her. But he only waits, in silence, while all strain to listen, the Eldar who have not heard this tale, and the Atani who have lived through its doing, the Telling shaping and changing its sense as it's told -- More calmly she goes on, then:

"And after, when weeping-time was well on us, and seeking the slain in the fane o' the gates, and farther in grim grievin' at the Glamhoth's campfires, I heard o' my men that yon Caranthir did go amid them, blade-givin' and hailin' as heroes, and speakin' loud and oft of how other Elf-lords had Men for their followin', and mayhap he had erred to neglect same himself. And I rose up in that watch, and I went out to the blood-ground, and I sought long and long whiles til I found where our father-lord lay half-gnawed, and I took up his chief's necklace from under where they'd tossed it like trash, bein' nay gold, and I bore it in my hand when he came to offer regret, like a bit o' honeycomb to a weepin' babe. And I tell you, and true, that I had warnin' of it in my hands, and I made no insult to that great Elf-lord in his high helm, and I did him courtesy of my House, and I was thankin' of him, and tellin' him that my folk had nay heart left for fightin' and had heard o' soft lands to the west and would go there."

What she says not aloud, in that telling, is how she rose from her own sick-bed and sore with her wounds went alone in the dark to seek for her dead, disdaining perhaps pity, or thinking it no matter of import. But he hears it in her remembrance all too plainly...

"And when he left us I named them my people, and these named me their Lord, and I set the circlet where any might see it, and I set my folk to the gatherin', and we fled. --Aye, me lord, we fled, that had not fled the Orcs and their wolf-beasts, we ran like the deer o' the forest when lightning makes fire. And we rested, and I heard that his brothers were somewhat nigh to where we stayed, and lords thereof, and we fled again where I heard they'd not ever go, so far as we stand, though not all would follow, and not all who followed be here. And that be the whole of it."

He is silent, then, not knowing what to say, and she shakes her head slowly, and the harsh cadences fade out of her speech as she leaves behind the Telling, "Nay, but the way yon Caranthir looked at me, the hot hunger in's eyes, that shone like the hottest coals -- only I did know we were three, still, though I be all as left of us, the strength of them twain to shore me to either side, of brother and father -- I had failed like a twist o' tallow in that flame. Never had I seen, never hope to see, any Man or Elf regard me so, that I be consumed in that gaze--!"

There is a breath of discomfiture behind him, from his own people, and her reverie is broken, and she grins with her crooked teeth at their misunderstanding, and her laugh is rough as a rook's call, and as loud.

"Nay that way, me lord," she says derisively, "only as ye yourself might look on a neighbor's fine hound or herd-bull and covet it for's own holding, or the spear-blade silver-set of a kinsman's forefather, and dream it into own hand, and aye think it more fitly there."

He does not laugh, not even inwardly, seeing that shine of spirit that blazes from her as though she were the single flame of many lighted torches cast together, light drawn from her people's love even as she gives back radiance to lead and ward them through the Dark. He can see too well why Morgoth would wish to crush these folk, to bind their fire to his service, or quench it in the event that should not prove possible, and how their waywardness would menace his cold rigour and ever-uncertain dominion. Nor does he doubt her tale. --But he has long known that none, or few at least, among his own people, see the world as he does, and does not even wonder at it much, these days. --Even the fact that he sometimes thinks in that mortal phrase of time, reckoning by days, though it be mere habit of language from association, would be strange to them.

And this final fragment of information is well to hand, something to further allay the fears of Elu Thingol with, after such provoking message as he must bear. Still, he would himself prefer to have the Haladin within his own holding, not to wield in his wars against the northern foe, but simply to have one less care upon his mind, one less weight of worry that he cannot solve upon his soul. On this he has long thought, and deems he has a meet solution, offering both ease and advantage to these people who have suffered so much. He knows that it will be a difficult work of diplomacy, but guesses not how much so.

In words and in far more, by the ways of skill he wields innately, he sets forth the wide-open lands of the coastal plain, for the most part uninhabited, where a small population could settle without difficulty, where there are marshes of birds and small deer and animals aplenty for hunting, and high fallow ground that could be farmed and near enough to the sparse shore woodlands that timber for building lodges could be easily obtained -- the wide lands, under the open sky, warded against any possible attack from their Enemy from the sea by the watchtower at Brithombar, and far from the dangerous borders of that Northern kingdom, and within his own protection, or the mountain-guarded nore of Nevrast's forsaken coast.

She looks horrified in turn, and is angry at him for having witnessed her discomfiture. The mere vision of such a land, open and measureless under the high arch of the sky, unbounded by hill or tree, unlimited in its horizons reaching to the farthest verge of the sea, without shade and shape, fills her with a nameless terror -- even Haleth the Hunter, who has faced death at the hands of Orc-horde and shadow-twisted beasts in the sharp-stoned gulfs and the intrigue of Elven-princes without daunting, even she is undone at the thought of flat and shelterless expanse where one must walk unprotected beneath the gulf of the air and open to all eyes --

--What would such a place do to her poor people, who have lost all their own, and only here find a home that reminds them of their own lost homes? And yet how can she refuse such a reasonable plea, and generous gift, without seeming to cling to folly and to betray her people's trust? Her anger and anguish and dismay are like searing flames to his soul: he cannot erase the memory his words and will have called forth, but he can undo at least the bond of concern they have caused:

"Please, my lady -- I meant you no insult. I but sought mine own advantage, with more of honesty than my kinsman to move you to consider my proposal -- but if you will not accept grant and gift, for your people's custom, then it is an issue that will not be spoken of again." And it is not a lie, for it would be to his advantage to have the littorals inhabited by friends, and Nevrast no longer a place of memory and shadow, and to not have to trouble about these mortals' well-being . . .

Flickering firelight makes her seem less substantial then than the shadow-painted boughs overhead, their dead, dry leaves rustling in the chill night breeze, for they are oaks, that do not yield their covering until new growth has come to take its place. In her lean, scarred smile there is full comprehension of the depth of his apology, how he offers a gracious covering for her shame at the dread of open land without shelter, and his perceiving of it. And acceptance, too.

"I take not insult, lord." She signals for the bowl to be filled again, and in her knowing, wicked eyes there is awareness of how he loathes the taste, and she matches his rueful gaze with her own as she drinks first, in token of peace and trustworthiness of a host, and when she places the smooth-worn vessel in his hand that he may do penance for his thoughtlessness, there is only the barest mouthful of the bittersweet drink left for him to swallow.

"And now let me set aside the mantle of Messenger and fulfill my duty as Healer, if any there be that command such skills as I command," he requests, in such wise as offers no insult, no smooth intimation of superiority and indebting.

This custom of his visits is both awaited with eagerness, and with anxiety, for the ways of Elven healing are deeply troubling to mortals, he has learned, even though there is no such pain as comes with mortal ways, even when they are worked to the benefit of Men. One way he diverts their minds from the strangeness of song and touch and weave of herb and water is to give his signet to the stricken child to play with, delighting in its brilliance, and to seek the hidden shapings of it that keep it fast on any hand that wears it. "Magic," they call it, as they call his healing "magic," and his illusions that he works for their delight, and he does not seek to correct Men now upon such things, but only to understand how differently they see the world, that all three appear the same to them.

There are always more children sick than those full-grown, and this seems the most grievous Marring to him, but the most sorrowful task he undertook was that of a woman who had been to be the first to birth child here, and who had been so full of joyful readiness, and whose infant had been born already dead. Though she, far more fortunate than many of the Haladin, had still to her three living children in good health, and their father though him half-lamed, and though her husband strove to comfort her, still she lay in her furs and would not stir from the pallet, nor would she eat nor speak, though her other sons and daughter cried and called to her.

In desperation they had begged him to attend her, to see if perchance the fëa of the dead child possessed her, though he assured them that newborn infants had no cause nor strength to cling to the world as ghosts, or if her heart had been broken in the bearing. As soon as he took her listless hands in his own, she who did not stir nor even look up at his coming, he knew at once that her body was not ruined, that in all likelihood she would conceive again and bear other babes, and at the same time knew that her thought had no care for this at all, no fear of fallowness, or yearning, save for the lost one. (--How can it matter, when she never knew the child? he senses his own folk wondering, and behind that, (but not far behind) is the thought that it should not matter so much in any case, for Men should be used to such things, and ready for them, that being their nature.)

What consolation could he give her in that, then, that her health was not harmed, when she did not care? any more than to console her with her three living children, when she already was well aware of them, and her husband's love for her? As though she herself were one of those troubled children he gathered her in his arms so that her cheek lay against his breast and smoothed her tangled hair and sang for her a song of Miriel, putting into the Lament all the sorrow of her House and kin with all his power, so that though the words be so far strange that even those who know the Elvish tongue of this shore would be hard pressed to glean aught of them, the shape and shadow of it would be sent forth--

She stirred then, opening her half-closed eyes, dim with hunger and heartache, to look up at him and stretched a bone-shadowed hand to his cheek, catching his tears upon her fingers wonderingly, amazed that his people and hers should know the same grief, mourn for a birth-broken mother no less -- he did not speak to her, to counsel her, for what words of advice could be sufficient? But in a while he convinced her to sit up, and to take some broth, and after a time she reached to caress her little ones, and to stroke their father's hand gently with her own, before taking her daughter to nestle against her while she slept at last, tired and heart-wounded, but no longer on the verge of fading.

Afterwards, strangely shy of him as though she had never seen one of his folk before, she told them a tale of a dark land that it seemed she wandered within, where all was empty and forlorn, from which she could hear her family calling, but could not answer them until his song fell upon the grey wastes like rainstorm and sunlight together -- a tale that filled him with curiosity and wonder, as to what manner of place that was, and if it were the same where spirits of other kinds wandered, willing or unwilling -- yet another of the countless questions that clamor for answers he has not discovered, since coming for the first time to his ancestral homeland.

But this time there are no great sorrows to care for, no terrible marrings, only the brief flames of fever and the slow flames of old-age pangs and the common injuries of the day, and these he disperses or eases as he may, while his younger patients and their friends pass his ring from hand to hand behind him, beside him, in effort to confuse him as to who has it now. It is wonder to them that he always knows where it is, no matter how stealthy Their parents no longer worry now that the treasure will be lost, and some of them even take part in the game, and that too is a pleasing thing, that mirth has returned to them.

At last he reclaims it, with one last flourish that he learned of Men this time, a mere Working of swiftness and distraction, that delights them the more for that the quickest-eyed can spy out how it is done. His work is not done yet, though they return now to sit by the log-fire, all the folk clustering around closely now that the chieftains have finished their tense dealings where words must not be missed, letting the children riot through the round of light, though some even of them would rather hearken to him than cavort like young deer in the tall grass.

He works for them small Glories, little birds that sing in the campfire's flames, and butterflies, and at the last an image of the Two Trees, so bright in its scintillations that none marks the glint of water in his eyes; while he tells their elders again the stories they always ask for, of brave Tulkas and his dancing Lady of the White Deer, of Varda setting high the Swordsman of the Stars and his Hound to recall the duty of struggle against the Dark, and the one they love best, of the Queen of the Earth and her comrade the Hunter sounding the Horn to call the great woods from the darkened land -- Somehow it is the story that is not of open battle nor of victory nor of joy, but of striving and being overcome and striving again, that satisfies the deepest . . .

He is nearly ready to depart, when Haleth's kinsman once again takes her aside and converses with her in an undertone, half-pleading, half-insisting, until at end the Lady merely shrugs, stepping back with a sardonic curl of her lip, letting his fate be his own. With such indifferent permission the boy approaches him, not insolently, save in his proud confidence, and asks him if he would honor them by taking part in such a friendly contest of strength as is their custom?

It occurs to him that they have never seen him save in the guise of gentle healer and herald of his great-uncle's words, and so perhaps it is no wonder that they cannot imagine him as other. Against his dark and warlike cousin he can scarcely make comparison, he deems -- and he thinks of kinslaying Caranthir in his crested helm and fine-wrought armor and flashing array, in the torches of that night, and receiving his thought the Lady narrows her eyes in averring smile.

Watching the youth watch him in turn, he realizes that -- strangely -- the mortal would in a way prefer to be beaten in fair fight, to know that they have set their trust and their hopes in one worthy of their regard in all things, not simply the ways of graciousness but of this world's wars. --I shall endeavor not to disappoint, he pledges silently. He avows himself willing, but expresses his concern at what contest might safely be undertaken -- they use not the sword, and his people use not axes, in the fighting, and he fears lest one of them be inadvertently harmed lastingly.

"Nay, we've the blunted axes for the fightin'-practice," Haldan declares, and when he objects that surely those could break skin and bone for the mere weight of them, only shrugs, his face that expressionless mask that so often means disdain in either of their Kindreds.

"As you will have it then," he agrees, amiably, "we will let my unfamiliarity with the way of it stand against all other advantages, since you will have it so." He has not ridden out in armour, journeying through his kinsman's lands that are at peace for present, and so the mortal lordling insists on putting off his leather plates as well for fairness, which means he must rule his strength so much the more -- assuming he does not simply find himself directly at a loss.

Though the chieftain herself will take no part, not to judge, not to approve, but only stands with arms folded, leaning against a tall tree watching with lifted brow, her maidens are foremost in readying and interest, bringing out the blades and testing their edges, honing off where one is gouged into sharpness, and scribing a ring where the combatants must remain or forfeit. One lends him a strip of rawhide at his request from her kit, to bind back his hair simply for this gaming match; another brings him an axe, satisfied with its weight and work at last.

His brother takes him by the arm as he waits for them to finish marking out the diameter of the circle in the earth with peg and cord for compass.

"Do you really mean to make a fool of yourself so?"

"Oh, I trust not," he returns, frowning, "though I'll not know ere the doing, of course. But I have used pickaxes, and handaxes for cutting wood, so I should be able to work it out well enough as I go."

He tests the weight of it, hefting it in two hands first, then in one, switching it from one to the other. The balance is odd, the swing slower but more forceful at ending; he practices halting it and reversing it, finding the center of it and the way the curve of the metal brings its own arc with it. Having found it, he can see how such a weapon could be wielded in art, no less than sword or spear, not simply to hew with heavy efficiency as the Orc-armies use them. And seeing that, he fathoms out the ways of doing so, how the arm's swing shall start through and the head-weight carry the swing and the spine's turn shift it, and works through a series of simple passes to test his theory.

A ripple of shock like a small eddy of the night wind runs coldly through the clearing, and he looks about him to see the stares of the awe-struck Haladin. The Lady's nephew is watching him with a look of alarm that rapidly deepens to Doom, seeing what he now knows to be a proficient fluency with the strange weapon in his hands, reflected in the boy's consternation. In pity he sets down the axe and asks him, "Lord Haldan, would you allow a change of weapons, axe for spear-haft? I'm not at ease with it, and know not its full capabilities, and I like not sparring with the bladed spear in jest."

"O' course, me lord," the youth replies, still uncertain that he is not being mocked or marked for greater fall, and the girls bring them long hardwood shafts from which the gores have been unbound. After determining that the lengths are exactly equal, by careful trimming, which he considers unnecessary and even that Haldan should have advantage for the difference in their heights, and which would be appalling insult did he suggest so, they are ready for combat.

They circle, stalking about the invisible axle-pin between them like hounds debating the merit of a challenge -- whether to stand with fang or flee or to shoulder over and bare throat in surrender -- and he notes approvingly the easy balance of the boy and his unthinking placing of foot and hip's weight as he turns, the seriousness of his gaze, all bravado set aside in his work now.

A sudden flurry, a jabbing darting that would have been dangerous had the weapons been bladed, had he not turned it swifter than mortal thought -- his adversary's quick recovery and the sudden hailstorm of haft-blows given and given back, the wood both spear and shield at one, some of them landing upon either as they must, until the Haladin warrior feints and reverses in a stunning flash of swiftness that lets him bring the butt of his spear in a brutal crack against the bone of his shin just under the knee.

He staggers slightly at the force of it and the pain, and in as quick return the haft flips again and comes at him in thrust meant to take him hard in the ribs, painful and fight-ending, but not meant to be lethal. He approves this wisdom and restraint, without surprise, not making the mistake of thinking it a quality due to age, any more than to the youth's rank or kin or race -- and in that nigh-instantaneous flicker of passing thought he blocks the blow.

The end shaven for the socket is still pointed enough, and it catches and rakes along his forearm up to the elbow as he deflects it and ducks under to flip the haft in his hands broadside and bear the boy down beneath it -- slammed between the ground and the wood across his shoulders he loses his breath, and his eyes go blank for an instant before clarity returns and he stares up in alarm at his vanquisher. Ascertaining that the chieftain's nephew is not hurt, beyond what such a fight should give in its crafting, he springs aside and proffers a hand to draw Haldan to his feet when he is ready.

"Well fought, young Man," he tells him, "bravely fought, and wisely fought. But needs must learn to reckon against a foe that does not flinch from blows received -- that is a dangerous presumption to make in any fight." --You should not have judged beforehand that I would give ground before taking wound, is the message behind his unmocking words. He hands back the spear-shaft to the girl who brought it him, and would have strode back to the central firepit to conclude farewells with Haleth before departing -- but the rising clamour of the Haladin circles him in, their shock palpable as the rising of the breeze. It was not that impressive of a duel, he thinks, but they hold otherwise.

It proves to have three roots, this wonder of theirs -- that he limps not from the blow that should have toppled him, that he favors not his sides where the boy's haft rapped him like flung stones, as Haldan winces ruefully, grinning, making test of his own bruises, and a true worry for the injury taken to his arm in the scuffle. Indeed, there was a fair amount of blood, pouring across the back of his hand, though the fabric which roiled and slid and did not tear witholds none of it due to the fineness of the weave and working. But though he assures them that it is small matter, they are not satisfied -- he gleans that some of them are considering whether he had indeed concealed mail beneath his tunic, and in good humor he disproves their doubts.

He has never stripped before them, his time with them all of formality and brevity; they have not seen his lack of scars, which surely would have occasioned more talk and doubt and likely wish to challenge. Shirtless, the bruises on him already fading, nor half as harsh as mortal's would be, he stands before them neither ghost nor god, bearing only the marks of his travail on the Ice, when no injury healed properly, in that time of weariness and famine, though time has faded them, too.

This small gesture breaks down such rampart of reserve as neither his healing nor his sharing of their hospitality have done -- their scrutiny is unguarded now, and the touch of their eyes upon him is scarcely less intrusive than the cold fingers of the boldest young ones, tracing the old damage and the new, remarking as though it were cause for wonder that he has a navel even as they. He cannot help but imagine proud Caranthir held in a ring of Men like a strange caught beast, prodded at by children, stared at by their elders, equals in curiosity; and though he did not mean for it, the Lady gives a bark of laughter, catching his wayward thought.

His people are growing restive and troubled at the sight of their King and kinsman made as they see it sport for a barbarian mob, but he knows that this too is needful, for the balance of things, his price for humiliating their young lordling though the fight be fair in seeming -- it harms him not, and indeed as their Lady has said, it is well to know another's measure, both that he can be harmed so little by compare, and at all. And it is not all of one side, either: they wish him only well, in their ways, and the Lady's guards bring him water to drink, and wash the blood from his arm and bind his wound, though it be half-healed already, and salve his contusions though needlessly, even as they attend their own champion.

It is not such a strange thing that young ladies of the court should cluster about their leader's nephew -- but surely rare indeed that their first concern should be the way of the fight, and the order of blows traded, young Haldan most seriously demonstrating in slow fashion the switch blinding-swift to mortal sense he used, and his defeat, with sundry of the girls taking either part, or offering criticism, as they watch. How quickly custom changes among Men, to be forgotten or nigh so that it was ever other! The yearning to stay, and watch the changing as a sunrise over the Sea, he must, alas, put aside for duty.

At last he ends their diversion for the night, drawing laughter and blushes by asking if they require him to draw off his boots and leggings as well, to prove no hidden greaves or cuisses defended him from that shin-cracking strike. With the resumption of his upper garb comes the distance of his resumed role as powerful Elven-lord and Speaker for their cause; he frees his hair and returns the lacing to the axe-girl who lent it him, and quietly notes, with wonder and some small dismay, that she knots it carefully about the amulet of pierced stone she wears.

His folk already are mounting up and await him, but he comes slowly behind, to speak the longer with the chieftain, sharing the concerns and cares of leaders. Lady Haleth stalks beside him, every line of her sending forth her sense of equal worth, not turned to him in deference or care for his approbation, her strides free and steady, though for some part of the way she has a child too young for speech of clarity wrapped fast about her far leg for the swinging ride . . .

. . . He remembers that from Estolad, and how in time they dared that with him, as they dared to scale him like a tree, scrambling to perch upon his shoulders while he feigned obliviousness, marking out timbers to cut for the building, or setting hammer to chisel in the ornamenting of them, though times it was hard enough when a shrill squeal would break forth beside his ear, or an unconfident hand catch balance in his hair. . .

"Good on ye not to cripple the cub," she remarks, as though it would have been only his right, and he but replies, "An ill-return for hospitality, indeed. --Can I not persuade you to better lands than these?" looking up at the lowering boughs overhead that block out the night sky save here and there where chance starglints point through. She does likewise.

"If good enow for a king, then good'now for us, nay?"

And with that he cannot argue. Still he sighs, thinking of his task now.

"It might ha' been worse, lord," she says solemnly. "I could ha' sent ye back wi' my brother-son's words." He waits, knowing how Men speak, now, and sure enough she follows with the conclusion, when some sufficient mysterious time has passed for it to be proper: "He'd a had me say, 'What, can your Elf-King and all his Rangers no' do their own fightin'? Well then, we'll be aye and glad to show yon folk the right way to go about it!' "

"It were kind of you, Lady Haleth, to spare me such a mission," he returns with equal grave humor, bowing his head.

"Nay," she says, shaking her head -- the tree-gems gleam forth strangely in the dimness, like the scales of fish in deep pools -- and this time he senses that there is more seriousness to her words, "we stand tired o' fightin', and would nay be truth to say glad of it. We'll to it an we must, but we'd ha' the peace now, to build new what had we before times."

"I will do what I can to see that you have it, my lady," comes the grave reply. She nods.

"And ye'll do it, too," she says. "And we'll remember your name in song always, and be praisin' aye for it."

"That is not why I am doing it," he returns at once, shaking his head, as though it were important that they not misjudge his motivation, and sighs at his own arrogance.

"And well we twain ken that, but naytheless truth, for all on it. --Ye've the Gift of Sight, ha' ye not, lord?" Before he can think how to answer her, not fully knowing how she understands the word, she goes on to answer for him, "So the legends of ye say, and I see in your eyes for truth, even as our grandmother had it, and no doubt but as much more than we hold as all else to thee."

"Indeed," he admits to her, "I sometimes can perceive that which is or will be beyond the common power to observe, and judge, but it is not a thing at my command, not a matter like healing or illusion over which I have mastery." She is untroubled.

"Aye, that be ever the way on it," with a shrug. "Can ye tell me this, then?" All lightness and humor leaves her lean-boned countenance then, and an intensity almost frightening in its totality fills her brilliant eyes. "Did I well to drag me folk anent the ways and wilds, through the fell beasts and the Haunted Lands and far from our own clearings? Or did I but flee the shadows of me own fearings and false seeing, where had been nay but honest friendship offered me and mine?"

It is a terrible thing she asks, the knowledge of doing well- or ill-done, the most terrible thing a leader can know, that one has led amiss, led friends and family to their deaths, in needless care or error. And yet she would rather know than not, and he cannot tell her, though he does try to See for her, so far as either is the appropriate word, listening to the stillnesses, letting his sense of Arda stretch out across the empty spaces of time and land, stilling his own thoughts and questions that he not miss any shadow or whisper in the plenitude of Ea. But there is nothing beyond what he knows already, as he had feared.

"The Gift is not given me tonight," he tells her, with the faintest irony upon the word gift, that he knows she understands very well. "All that I can give you of comfort is this, cold though it may be -- though I know you ask not comfort, but truth -- which is what my own time of rule and responsibility tells me. And that is, were I given such a choice, to remain as liege or subject of my kinsman of the North, of broken strength and doubtful hold upon mine own, or to flee with such things as I could bear away, as far and as fast as I was able -- I would not stay in his domain. Not even I, being who I am, would take that offered hand for pity, that knows not the same."

She nods, then, slowly, the lights of lordship flaring on her brow, saying nothing, and he continues:

"I think your folk might have done well enough, in time of peace, for a wise landholder treats well his beasts for the slaughter -- but I think you would never be yours again. And when war comes again, as it will, your axes would be set far before any line of his own household. However much my mother's father's brother might begrudge you right of trespass, his price is but a fair one, as he will not send folk here now that you have taken it, and the Crossings must be guarded -- yet though he asks it of you, he gives you mark of regard in that he trusts you able to it, and he asks of you no more than you would already do for yourselves -- as you have indeed said."

The Lady looks at him then, her eyes narrowing, assessing his meaning as she might judge the straightness of an arrow-shaft or spear-haft to keep or to throw into the fire.

"Never doubt that he knows that full well," he tells her, impressing the conviction he holds into his voice as fully as he may. "He will not set hazard upon you, nor even -- though this is but my judgment, and not my Sight or certain knowledge -- will he leave you to your own defense in extremity -- unwelcome guests and unwished-for tenants though you be. No more than he will meddle with your doings and your ways, so you keep to your bounds and trouble not any of his other subjects, should you chance to meet."

"Ye do think well on him," the chieftain of the Haladin says softly, "--I will let me folk bide here then."

He has taxed his companions' patience long enough, and delays their departure but little longer, but there is one more thing he wishes to leave them with before he goes from them, never knowing in this harsh realm if he will return again. From his saddlebow before mounting he takes the small silver flask that is always with him against need, and exerts all his charm to convince her to take it in care for her people.

She answers, "Yon healing drink? Ye ken I can nay take gift of ye, sir," not angrily, only resolute as the stone deep under the wood.

"Think of it not as my gift but my duty as guest," he urges. She shakes her head, the firelight splashing against her high cheekbones and the crooked bridge of her nose.

"Ye'll pay me for bearing me messages, then, or for to be me Healer? --I think not."

"Then as exchange of friendship, between lord and lord, my lady, for your own?" He gestures to the flask she carries at her own belt, deerhide with stopper of horn.

"It's the stuff that fair makes ye gag, me lord," she says, frowning, "worse than the mead -- that of the juniper berries."

He remembers that occasion all too well, the sympathetic looks of the graybeards and boys of the Haladin -- for not all indeed prefer the bitter, fiery spirit -- and thinks again how curious it is that something should be accounted both rare and precious, and yet regarded with wariness and even revulsion, by a people. Haleth continues, "And if ye take, ye must drink, en as I must, in mark o' faith," and there is nothing of malice or humor in her words or voice now.

"You know I cannot be poisoned," he reminds her, and she only shrugs, returning, "Aye, so ye've said, yet my folk ken nay be it true, and would trouble did I break custom."

"Even now?"

"Most particular now, for what ha' we left us but custom, lord?"

He reaches for the flask, then, unhesitating, and her approval is tangible, like the crackle of the fires in the air. This time he does not try to gulp it down untasting, allowing scantiest passage of it in his throat, for that is what throttled him last time: instead he takes a pungent sip that fills all his mouth with inescapable fire before he swallows, slowly, as though it were the finest of vintages, and it burns eyescaldingly, but does not strangle him this way...

...The taste of distant trees transmuted by the alchemy of Arda into a liquid flame, searing and fragrant without sweetness, inundates his senses; and in that instant of full acceptance it is revelation of Mortality -- that at its best, it is to take and hold and burn through in one brilliant hour all that Eldar experience in slow lives, across the long years of the stars -- time unfurls before him like a scroll lit by a single candle, shapes stretching far though dimly seen, and he knows it is a Sight of truth.

"Haleth, hear me," he says to her then, without honorific, quick and quiet, before it goes, as though he called her attention to some bright rare bird in the deep brush. "You will see your scattered ones come back to you, many and many a one, and they will all name themselves your children, though you have no lord yourself, and your name will be theirs until this world is changed, and your life will give courage to them, and when neither you nor they remain within the circles of the world, still will they be remembered for you, and you for them. --Do not question me, friend, for I know not how I know it, but this is a true telling."

She does not speak, then, only meets his gaze steadily, wonderingly, her eyes bright with the cordial's power, considering what he has said, and neither disbelieving nor taking it for consolation, only setting it with all her other tools of leading, the knowledge and skills and study of hearts that are hers. His hand she takes in her own, then, in firm grasp that does not nonetheless seek to contend nor crush in contest, and smiles with ever-renewed delight as he springs to the height of his charger, as one who sees, again, a falcon taking to the air.

--And you, too, are beautiful, O Lady of Brethil, he sings in his thought, and all the ride along the wooded ways to Doriath he is filled with troubled wonder and humbled joy that he should be so richly gifted . . .

"Do they not realize you are a King at least the equal of Elu?" His youngest brother's voice breaks in upon his musings, half dry disapproval, half appalled amusement -- and all of it incomprehension of his delight.

"In their language 'lord' is a term of higher esteem than 'king', which means stranger and tyrant, as I gather," he answers, carefully and without umbrage.

"And how do they understand 'lord' then, my King?" with rich irony.

"As we use 'king', nearly -- to mean the head of the household, that holds many folk in it. But they have no word of their own that fits it exactly -- it's curious, but so far as I can tell, her people call her 'father' or very like in their own tongue -- a diminished form that signals affect, not disrespect."

"I suppose then that's why she's so rude to you," sighs his brother. He does not try to explain further that which he so clearly perceives, and others do not, that it is far from rudeness, these plain-spoken ways of Men, how oftimes profoundest courtesy is used to mask the deepest disdain by them -- instead he only says, maddeningly as well he knows, in innocence, "She reminds me of 'Tari, actually."

"You jest!"

"Never," he avers solemnly, to amuse the other, knowing that it were worse than useless to endeavor to explain how this fierce, dark, illiterate little woman-chieftain, proud in her scars and prouder still in her people's faith, burns with an unquenchable brilliance even as their tall and golden sister of renown in ways of skill and strength and wisdom on both shores of the Sea, whom he teases by shortening her name as though in mistake to the word for 'queen'...

"Did you live like that in Estolad?" A sudden thought has struck his sibling, far belated, but no less in its shock for all that. "That year or so you were at the Encampment, or on the way -- you didn't live in such conditions, surely!"

It is as yesterday to him, as this very morning -- the mornings of packing the yurts and dousing the fires, loading the burdens on the rough-coated ponies and the massive-chested dogs, before taking up his own pack and walking-staff, his tall horse ridden by as many delighted children as could manage not to fall off . . .

"No. We had small tents of wool or hide, round, that fitted over frames of willow, and Balan's tribe used dogs to carry loads, or to pull light triangular sledges that skidded on their points over the leaves. The Haladin make anew the shelters they live in, where they have come, from what materials are to hand, being workers of the land and dwellers long in a fixed abode, and only newly fled, with little time for consideration or to grow used to it."

"But like that, truthfully, with pigs and dogs and filthy children running around?"

Shaking his head, he replies, "No, the pigs came later, with Marach. They brought most of the northern livestock with their marching. We hunted along the way, mostly."

"You know what I ask, Finrod!"

In pity he replies, tormenting his brother's patience no more, "It was very like that, yes. Not far from life in the field of war, or while out hunting a long trail."

"I cannot imagine . . ." Orodreth's voice fades, but the efforts to picture his elder and the head of their family on this shore -- King though not High-King in Middle-earth of the greatest of the High-elven lands, lord and founder of a vast and refined subterranean city, dwelling like a savage among savages -- spill from his imagining like tapestries of troubled dreaming.

"It was not so far different from the Ice," he remarks mildly, "saving of course the Sun and Moon and the warm weather and so forth."

"Only you," declares his sibling, "could think of comparing anything favorably to the Helcaraxë!" and shakes his head in rueful mock-despair at his wayward whimsy. "Our brothers have much to be grateful for that you have civilized the Beorings."

He does not make further return. How can he show them, who see only the squalor, how he had felt as though he were Oromë himself on the shores of Cuivinen in the earliest breaths of the world, seeing a people arise and from the darkness build themselves a speech and self of his teachings? How the privilege was his, to see children learn words and namings, the ways of language, nor how he dares to wonder if perhaps it had not been better had the Powers themselves bided in patience, waiting, to watch the Firstborn arise -- for then had not fear mayhap never troubled them in the darkness of the beginning? Another question, born of answer, bearing so many more within it like the squalls of a stormfront...

For a while he allows the discussion, and dismay, and small good-natured triumph of those who already were well aware of the roughness of his stay in the East, and the efforts to imagine such a sojourn and custom upon themselves. And then, the path straightening and opening for a while here as they near to where Teiglin joins Sirion, so that the sky be visible overhead now and the ground flatter underfoot, he lets the steed he rides open into smooth full strides, as all wish to, and without the breaking rhythm of the trot to shake him he gives voice, leading them as ever they follow, his friends and kinsmen, for all his mad ways no less than the Haladin their Lady, in the Song In Praise Of The Stars.

They sweep through the darkness, a score and more of white horses and bright riders, voices upraised in lyric harmony, each note a crystalline perfection to echo the pure and lasting lights of the high heavens, their King knowing nothing of the stories of the Wild Hunt come anew that his riding gives rise to among the hidden and secretive folk who claim his kinsman's protection.

He looks up, and sees there the Vanimar, the Unbodied, dancing in the clear air that in its cold is so empty of elemental water that their pure essence can be seen undimmed. They leap tonight in a vast uprearing ring, the Beautiful Ones, palely red, not rose nor gold, yet somehow red all the same -- flames pouring through the lace of the trees, between the stars, rising to the crown of the sky's vault.

A knowledge comes to him then, deeper than words, as it so often does, unsought, and in joyful wonder that there are so many and so different in Arda he laughs aloud and lifts his voice still further in a clear descant free-fashioned over their singing to match and mirror the flickering lights of the heavens that are so strange, and brief, and so perfect in beauty--

begun 06/24/02 - completed 07/25/02