A/N: Hello there, dear readers. First of all, yes, I am dreadfully, painfully aware that it has been 14 months since this story has gotten an update, and that fact has been an agonizing nagging in the back of my thoughts. Like with so many other creators, I have found myself sapped of energy and creativity and inspiration over the last 13 months with everything going on in the world right now. I've fared a lot better than a lot of folks - I've stayed completely well physically and I've had steady, reliable employment the whole time - but this past year has kicked me in the face mentally and emotionally. Anyway, it pains me how long this chapter took to create, but I thank everyone who has continued to read, favorite, and follow this fic even with a last update of over a year ago. And I hope those of you reading have been able to stay safe and well, too.

Please enjoy this next chapter, and all the best. - SG

Chapter 20

"Mairon?"

He did not know how long they had been sitting here, he and Sirenúr, together at the rim of the lake, with the glitter of the cavern dancing in their eyes off the water. The young Maia of Ulmo had been swinging his legs back and forth, bare feet dipping into the cool underground lake and sending out soft ripples that made the thousands of reflected crystals and Mairon's intricate golden filigree undulate like flames. The soft splash of his feet was an echoing patter that filled the air of the cavern, rising in spirals around them like smoke.

Mairon himself was sitting with his legs demurely crossed, his eyes closed to bare slits and his fiery power radiating warmth and light around the two of them. His fëa ached gently in the best of ways, and satisfied pride nestled warmly in his chest. The vibrations of his Song, with which he had crafted this cavern into his masterpiece, still lingered at the edge of his pleased thoughts. Lord Aulë would be so proud when he saw what his Maia had wrought. With an even warmer thrill in his heart, he considered what Lord Eru might think of Mairon's contribution to His world.

Was this very cavern part of Lord Eru's themes? Is He pleased that I brought this work into His creation?

He thought back to the notes of the First Theme that he himself had sung. Back in Eru's Halls, with no conception of physical bodies, gold, stone, or anything else that would come to be, the themes had been impossible to understand, even if he could comprehend some of the emotion with which each note was laced. Looking back though, he could pick out bits and pieces that made greater sense now: the rising swell of notes that were the conception of mountains, the soft patter of voices that heralded rain, and so much more. Examining the notes that he had known instinctively to sing, he saw the themes of stone and gold and craftsmanship that he had not known to recognize when the notes were upon his lips.

He remembered his first moments of being, a sudden awareness of light and music, and the powerful Will that had formed him from Thought cradling him in a golden glow. He remembered his first spark of recognition of Self, a sense of individuality and identity coming both from his own spirit and from the One who had just formed him.

I am the Admirable. I am Mairon.

"Mairon?"

It was only Sirenúr's second soft query of his name that brought Mairon out of his reverie.

Mairon opened his eyes fully, bringing his awareness back to the present. There had been something in the tone of the younger Maia's voice that brought his senses tingling back to complete alertness.

Something had changed, nearly imperceptible, something more than the cessation of ripples and patters as Sirenúr drew his feet up from the water and tucked them beneath himself, instinctively shrinking closer to Mairon's side as the older Maia rose to his feet. Mairon listened, his fëa as alert as his physical senses, trying to perceive the change that they both had intuited.

Then it came again, faint and immeasurably distant, but there.

The ground trembled.

Mairon's fiery eyes hardened, the light from his spirit flaring and making the walls glow an angry yellow-orange. Sirenúr had risen too, and to Mairon's surprise, the water Maia slipped a hand into his. "What is it, Mairon?" Sirenúr asked, but the trepidation that tinged the words made it clear that he already knew.

"We should return to our lords," Mairon stated calmly, hiding the turmoil in his own heart and only letting themes of cool confidence show in the patterns of his fëa. Something about the slippery hand tightly clutching his and the other Maia's breath against his shoulder gave him strength. "Come, Sirenúr, it will be all right." He offered the younger Maia a suave smile that concealed the sliver of dread piercing through his spirit.

They made their way swiftly upwards, unclothing themselves from their physical forms so that they could pass effortlessly through the layers of rock, stone, and soil that separated them from the world above. Mairon led the way, bright and sure, whilst Sirenúr followed trustingly. In this form, Mairon could not feel the continued trembling of the ground that pursued them in threatening ripples, but he could sense the shockwaves of power emanating from behind them.

They emerged onto the surface. The darkness was different here, vaster and greater and emptier than the close, pressing blackness from which they had come. The light from his fëa illuminated raw elements that had not yet been shaped that lay around them and faded into the darkness of the upper air like a single candle flame in a vast chamber. He stretched out his awareness as far as he was able, searching for where the others were gathering. There. He felt the presence of many of his peers, along with the stronger hints of power from several of the Valar, and there, brightest and clearest, the strong and steady presence that he knew and trusted best: that of his Lord Aulë. They are not far, he spoke to Sirenúr, though he could feel in the other Maia's thoughts that Sirenúr had sensed them too.

As they approached, they clothed themselves in their fánar again. Sirenúr slipped from Mairon's side, and he felt the water Maia glide away towards the presence of his own lord. Satisfied with Sirenúr's safety, Mairon turned his attention elsewhere.

"Ah, there you are."

Eönwë appeared beside him, his fair face grim. He was clad in his golden-haired form modeled after the likeness of the Firstborn that they had seen in the vision of Eru's themes, but two great eagle wings arched from his shoulders, confirming Mairon's fears. There was only one circumstance in which Mairon had ever seen his friend mingle his two principle fánar into a single form. "It seems we've had our time of peace for this round," the Herald said grimly, falling into step beside him.

Mairon nodded, but said nothing. There was no need to. The worsening tremors in the ground said everything that needed to be said.

Suddenly, the sky was lit with a bloody red light. The ground had split open, tearing a ragged, gaping wound across the landscape that bubbled with molten blood. The stench of sulphur reached Mairon's nostrils, causing him to choke as he watched the thick, sluggish fire vomit itself up from the depths of the earth that they had all been working to form for the last Age.

This stretch of peace had come to an end, and their Enemy had risen once again.

A battle raged that day: the Maiar against the heat and fury of the Valaraukar and the fourteen Valar clashing against he who had once been the mightiest of them all. Mountains were hurled down, the depths of the earth were split open, and darkness and chaos howled around them like a hurricane. Mairon fought alongside Eönwë, the Herald summoning great gusts of whirling wind that caught Mairon's flames and drove them against the enemy. Mighty wills strove one against the other, but Mairon did not waver as his nimble flames did their part in holding back the furious darkness. And at long, long last, he felt the darkness withdrawing, unable to continue fighting the combined power of the Valar and their Maiar, and then it dissipated. All Mairon saw was a huge shadow that stretched itself up and up and up, taller than the new jagged mountains that had formed from the battle of the Powers. For a moment, the shadow turned, and Mairon saw eyes of pitch blackness that festered with an anger and a hatred he could barely comprehend, and then with a scream of rage, the Dark Vala was gone.

And Mairon joined his peers as they began their work anew, picking through the ruin left behind and ordering it once again into the vision of the world about which they all had sung.

~o~o~o~

Mairon. Mairon. Mairon.

The name pounded through Sauron like the pulse of blood, no matter how hard he tried to shut it out, no matter how hard he tried to lock it away. He gritted his teeth as he bent over the stone in front of him, his chisel clacking rhythmically as he worked.

Mairon. Mairon. Mairon.

It had been three days since he had returned to the Halls of Aulë, three days since his ill-fated journey to the Halls of Nienna. Three days since the Valië of Mourning had unleashed this accursed chaos inside of him with a single name that he had somehow forgotten in the depths of Angband. Three days since he had unceremoniously fled rather than face the memories of what, of whom, he once had been.

That is no longer who I am. I am Sauron now.

But that is once who you were and it will always be a part of you, a gentle voice whispered back, a voice that sounded far too much like Nienna.

The first several days after his undignified return, he had all but cowered in his quarters, sure that the Valar would arrive any minute to drag him away to punish him for lashing out at Nienna. But no one had come, and even Aulë had not mentioned it. The only feasible explanation he could come up with was that Nienna had not told anyone what he had done, though that choice made no sense to him. He shuddered internally. Who knew what went through Nienna's thoughts anyway? He had thought he understood the Valië and her domain, but he had been wrong. And Sauron had no words in any language for how much he hated being wrong.

Instead of his humiliation, he tried to focus on the moment when the Shroud had unfurled inside of him with a fury that surprised even him and lashed out with a power he had not thought possible. Revisiting the moment in his memory brought no greater clarity to what had happened. His own powers were bound – that was a fact he was painfully aware of day in and day out – yet somehow he had used them. No, that was not quite right. Sauron knew what it felt like to use his powers, and that moment had been different. He had not been the one at the helm; instead, it was as if the power that had surged through him had used him, rather than the other way round. He had merely been the vessel, the conduit, for something beyond himself.

Whatever it had been, it was gone now, or else it had sunk back down deep, deep inside of him. He had failed at summoning it again, in any accord, though not for lack of trying. He was once again as pathetically helpless as he had been, his powers tightly bound in the core of his fëa. He was not quite ready to admit it to himself, but part of him was glad that the unknown power that had flowed through him to attack Nienna was gone, for now at least. There had been something terrible about the way it consumed him, using him as if he were no more than a simple tool, unlike his own powers that he had wielded with precision and the keen intent of his will. Sauron had never liked the feeling of being another's pawn.

He finished the stone on the work table in front of him, and together he and Eönwë moved it to the pile of completed blocks, where the transportation unit would come to collect it on their next round.

Sauron watched the Herald out of the corner of his eye as they lifted the next unshaped block into place. If Eönwë had noticed anything amiss with his ward, he'd had the decency not to comment. Sauron turned his head away and bent over the stone, aware of Eönwë returning to the awning behind him. "I'm going to get more water," the sky Maia announced before heading off towards the well on the far side of the quarry.

Eönwë the Herald. Many of the memories loosed in Sauron's mind featured the sky Maia. They had been friends, or something like it, once upon a time, but the memories were old and worn, like a parchment that had sat crumbling in dust and mold for years. Sauron scowled. What use were memories? Just like an old name that was no longer his, the memories were like looking through another being's eyes. It seemed hard to believe that his life had once contained such things: laughing with friends, melding his powers with theirs to create greater and more beautiful works than he could have accomplished on his own. At first, he'd felt the urge to sink into the memories and let them soak through his fëa, to feel the soft quietness of his soul that threatened to settle upon him if he mused on the memories for too long, akin to that stroking gentleness that had caught him so unaware in Nienna's Halls. But he knew better than to fall for such tricks, whether it was some influence of Nienna's reaching out to him across Valinor or something from inside himself, and he pushed the memories away as best he could, refusing to examine them in any detail.

We might have once been friends, but you remember how that ended. How they all turned on you. Eönwë was no friend when he rode to war against Lord Melkor, when he tore Angband apart with those he chose to serve. Eönwë is part of the reason your powers are bound, why you are sitting here chipping stones instead of ruling over a vast kingdom, why you are nothing now but a husk with a handful of rotting memories.

Maybe Nienna had hoped that unleashing his forgotten memories would invoke a change of heart in him, but no. Sauron had no intention of forgetting who his enemies were, no matter what things had once been like.

Let the accursed memories sink back into oblivion for all I care. They are nothing to me.

Nienna had found a small crack in his armor and exploited it. Well, good for her. He could appreciate a well-executed stratagem. But he wouldn't let any of them use that weakness against him again. His walls were rebuilt and refortified, and that annoying little crack had been taken care of. Memories were simply ghosts of things that had once been and would never be again. He would not grant them any power against him.

He was Sauron the Abhorred. Mairon the Admirable was a name on a crumbling parchment in his heart.

Eönwë returned with both a bucket of water for the stones and a flask for each of them. Sauron finished the block in front of him then accepted one of the flasks and fetched his lunch. He let out a sigh as his back muscles relaxed as he sat, lounging back with his legs stretched in front of him, though he'd noticed that slowly his body was acclimating itself to the hard labor over the last several weeks and he was no longer the groaning, aching mess he had been at the beginning. Though he did not entirely like the implications that he was growing accustomed to his new life in any capacity.

He flicked open the flap of his luncheon satchel and reached inside, then startled slightly as his hand brushed against something foreign laying on top of his food. He leaned over and found a hastily folded piece of parchment tucked against an apple. Frowning, he pulled it out and surreptitiously unfolded it.

A block of ice settled hard in his chest as he stared at the words written on the paper.

Natyë i Cúman.

You belong in the Void.

He quickly crumpled the paper in his hand, sharp eyes darting up to survey his surroundings as his mind went to work on calculating who had access to his satchel.

His gaze fell on Eönwë sitting several meters away, bent over his own food.

He had no way of knowing that the Herald had written the threatening words and slipped the paper into his satchel. Eönwë also didn't strike him as the type to resort to the pettiness of an anonymous note, not when they'd faced each other in battle and Eönwë had personally tried to stab him through the heart. No, Eönwë would say it to his face, and pretty much had. On the other hand, there were a limited number of individuals who had access to his belongings and could have slipped something inside while he wasn't looking.

He would have to keep his eyes even sharper.

With false nonchalance in case Eönwë glanced his way, he dropped the crumpled note back into his satchel and pulled out his food.

No doubt there were many in Valinor who thought he belonged in the Void.

Perhaps he did belong there.

But Sauron was used to being surrounded by enemies and he wasn't going to let a single parchment with a scrawled slight distract him from the revenge that he would one day, somehow, bring down upon all their heads.

~o~o~o~

Saiwend Gilruinion of the House of Áragil unceremoniously tossed his satchel down onto the table of the Great Hall and glared at it. Around him, the other elves from his maquet were setting down their satchels as well, where they'd be taken to be cleaned and refilled with food for tomorrow's lunches. His dour expression deepened, and anger bubbled inside his chest. But then, anger had been his near-constant companion for almost as long as he could remember.

He was a Noldo, and the Noldor did not forget their enemies.

He had seen the quarry for the farce that it was all along, but now the Valar weren't even pretending. How dim-witted did they think his people were, that he was? It was more insulting than if they had decided to do nothing whatsoever, just like they'd done for an entire Age while the Noldor died scores upon scores in Beleriand. The Valar didn't care about the Noldor. All they cared about was keeping the precious peace in their land of paradise.

Time upon time, the Valar had shown their true hands, but the older elves, like his father, refused to acknowledge what was blatantly evident.

At this point, the Valar were simply mocking them and all the blood that had been shed.

Every day, he had to go to that Void-cursed quarry and see that Void-cursed Maia sitting less than one hundred meters away, a daily slap in the face of just how little the Valar cared.

If the Valar cared about justice, if they cared about the Noldor, that Maia would be in the Void right now.

For many years, the Enemy had been a faceless monster for Saiwend. He had never met Morgoth, but he remembered the darkness into which he'd been born and the stories of the two trees that had lit the world before the Enemy destroyed them. Morgoth was a name, a name he knew to hate from his youngest years from when he first understood what hatred meant, but he had been nothing more than that.

But now the Enemy had a face, a beautiful face shaped as a mockery of his very own kin. A face with glinting eyes of dark fire and a cruel smile that held no regret for the elven blood he and his master had spilled.

And the Valar, the Valar sat and did nothing!

Just like they'd done before.

Tipping his head back, his grey eyes flashing, Saiwend turned and strode towards the great doors of the hall.

He'd not gone more than three paces when Findeláro fell into step beside him. Even though Saiwend did not look, he could feel his red-haired cousin watching him curiously and anticipated the question that came just moments later. "Will you join us for stories in the Hall of Fire later, Cousin?"

Saiwend glanced over at Findeláro, a mixture of annoyance and near-reluctant fondness in his gaze. "I'll think about it," he responded, as he almost always did when his cousin asked that, or similar, questions.

"Mindocar has promised us a rendition of the Valarin Age and the great battles between the Valar and Morgoth before the wakening of the Eldar," Findeláro said with clear appreciation in his voice.

Saiwend's own expression instantly soured. Any chance that he might have showed up dissipated like morning fog. The last thing he wanted to hear were his fellow Noldor singing the praises of the Valar's long ago feats of grandeur. No doubt the stories were exaggerated anyway. Though, if the Valar had fought Morgoth back then with the same enthusiasm (or lack thereof) with which they had confronted him during Saiwend's own lifetime, then it was a wonder the world had come into existence at all.

No, Saiwend did not want stories of heroics and distant days. He did not want to linger in the past with all its bloodshed, save as a spur to bring about present change. He wanted a future where his people had obtained justice and the last traces of Morgoth's dark stains were washed from the earth, and where the Noldor were a proud and great people once again like in the days of Fëanor's youth.

Findeláro shrugged, an air of discomfort settling over him, as he likely interpreted his cousin's stony silence. "Are you going down to the forges?"

"Yes." Saiwend's curt answer was enough.

They had reached the doors to the Great Hall. Findeláro glanced at Saiwend again, his brows creasing slightly, but he knew better than to comment on the other elf's dour mood. "I'll see you later, Cousin," he acknowledged, then he turned and headed deeper into the halls. Probably to sit in front of the great fires in the Minstrel Hall and listen to Mindocar Tánolind's ballads of olden days. Saiwend shook his head slightly. Findeláro was loyal to the House of Áragil and good of heart, but he allowed himself to be overawed by the Valar and the Noldorin elders, and he listened to far too many stories that coated the past in a gilded sheen and forgot the smudges and stains that still affected all the Eldar, but most of all the Noldor, to this very day. It was easy to pretend that the Great Evil was a thing of the past, defeated and vanquished by the glorious Valar once and for all. It was much harder to face the reality that the Valar had pardoned Morgoth's greatest servant and that he now dwelt among them, his hands dripping with Noldorin blood. It was harder to face the truth that the fight was not yet over, and Saiwend had no intention of laying down his arms, no matter how hard the Valar tried to convince him to do so.

He headed towards the outer halls towards the forges and had just reached the colonnade when he heard a voice behind him calling his name. Fighting back a curse, he turned slowly to face his pursuer, schooling his features into a smooth façade.

"Yes, Father?" he asked, even though he suspected what was coming, and rage boiled up inside his chest at the thought.

"There you are, Son." Gilruin halted a few paces away, his eyes scanning Saiwend's face in a clear, cautious appraisal of his mood. He linked his hands together nervously in front of his body. "I was wondering if you have had sufficient time to reconsider the Smith's proposal?"

Saiwend did not try to hide his scowl and his eyes instantly turned stormy. He turned and started at a brisk pace down the colonnade, forcing his father to fall into an awkwardly quick step at his side. "I told you, I have done all the considering that I need," he grit out.

"But will you not even entertain the idea? It is a most unique offer, one that could prove-"

Saiwend stopped so abruptly that Gilruin almost bumped into him. His grey eyes spat fire. "A unique offer?" he snarled. "Unique in its utter brazenness perhaps. Or better, yet another in a long list of humiliations heaped upon our people by the Valar. You cannot surely think I would consider submitting myself and our House to such an insult, Father!"

Gilruin blinked owlishly and shrank back, discomforted as always by direct confrontation and his son's raw anger. "I am sure it was not meant as an insult."

"And yet it is!" Saiwend turned, teeth grinding together as his clenched fists rose in frustration then dropped to his side. "How can you fail to see it, when they rub our very faces in it as if we were nothing but swine to them?"

"But to learn from one of the greatest of the Ainurin smiths-"

"To be mocked by our Enemy! The one who would happily see the ruin of the Noldor made complete! The Abhorred One!" Saiwend spat the foul name with all the disgust and anger it deserved. "No, Father, there is not a single iota of knowledge which that abhorred shadow of Morgoth can teach me. I cannot believe you would insult our House by even suggesting it. How little is my honor worth to you, that you would have me labor under the tutelage of our tormentor and Enemy? How little do you think of the great learnings of the Noldor that you would assume I would even need his accursed knowledge? Is it not enough that I have to see his face every day at the quarry? I have agreed to do my part at Corimendturë. The quarry may be a false gesture of unity from the Valar, but at least it provides some true aid, however sparse, to our kin in Endor. I will tolerate that, but no more. Certainly not this new disgrace they seek to heap upon our heads!"

Gilruin shifted uncomfortably and held up his hands in a placating gesture. "There is no need for these brash accusations. The Valar have pardoned Sauron and seek to reconcile him to those he has injured, in a gesture of goodwill, and this is one opportunity. Perhaps if you looked at it from a different perspective. The Valar simply desire peace-"

"They desire silence," Saiwend snarled, his voice low and dark. "They desire for us to forget what has been done to us, to forget that they banished our kindred for an entire Age in Beleriand, and to settle for the scraps they have thrown us now. The Noldor have taken enough scraps. I will not take this one."

He turned his back on his father and strode from the hall without another word.

~o~o~o~

Finished with his labor for the day and released to his own devices, Sauron sat and glared moodily out over the Gardens from his position on a low-hanging branch of a thick oak tree, his back to the trunk and his leg dangling over the limb on which he lounged.

First, the threatening note in his satchel and then the news that Aulë had brought him that the elf Saiwend Gilruinion had refused his offer of apprenticeship.

He couldn't really say he was surprised. The elf clearly despised him, but he had hoped that the temptation of knowledge might prove stronger than hatred. You never could tell with elves. It wasn't a totally closed avenue either; after all, Fëanor hadn't exactly doted upon Morgoth and yet Sauron's old master had still managed to influence him. It would just take some extra creative thinking, which Sauron wasn't in the mood to currently do. But nonetheless, he tucked the thought into the back of his mind for later revisiting. He wasn't sure how just yet, but something deep and dark inside of him told him that Saiwend had a part to play in what was coming.

Ironically, the first thought that had come to him as Aulë told him about Saiwend's choice had not been disappointment concerning his plans; rather, he'd felt petty disgruntlement over the fact that he no longer had a potential apprentice to flaunt in Curumo's smug face. He knew he should have kept his mouth shut until the apprenticeship was certain, but he hadn't been able to resist the convenient jibe when it had presented itself so neatly. No doubt Curumo would be nothing short of intolerable when he got wind of what had happened.

For some highly curious reason, Sauron hadn't felt like going to the forges.

In his current mood, he hadn't felt like working on A Treatise on the Mind and Spirit of the Traitor-folk either, so instead he'd taken a detour to the Parmarmard. Even though it had been close to a week since he'd visited the library, he'd easily found where he left off in Aulë's alcove. As with every time before, he'd felt a nagging sensation that he was missing something crucial, but he shrugged it off and plucked the next book on smithcraft off the shelf and headed out to the Gardens to find a quiet, secluded place where he could read away the afternoon.

He tried to immerse himself in the words, but the memories released by his old name kept fluttering to the surface of his mind, distracting him even as he shoved them back down as quickly as he could. A vivid image flashed through his mind of himself sitting at the edge of a vast underground lake that danced with a million white and gold lights, another Maia sitting companionably at his side. The cavern of gold and crystals that he had shaped in the days before light, in the days when he had been Mairon. Before he could resist it, an intense yearning swelled in his heart, just long enough to poison his thoughts before he pushed it away.

Don't forget how that story ended, he reminded himself harshly. What is crafted is broken. What is made is unmade.

He forcefully returned his attention to the book.

An hour or so later, he was distracted again, this time by the sound of light-hearted whistling. Lowering his book with a scowl, he glanced down the hill towards the source of the irritating noise, which was exiting the orchard and heading towards the herb garden in a trajectory that would take him directly past Sauron's tree.

Aiwendil had a bird on either shoulder and was swinging a large watering can in one hand. He whistled to one bird, then the other, and they chirped back in what made for a truly nauseating pastoral scene. Sauron held the book up over his face, hoping the bird-brained Maia was distracted enough by his avian companions that he wouldn't notice the figure sitting in the tree that he was about to pass by.

"Oh, hello Sauron!"

Apparently, that was too much to hope for. Not that he ever got what he hoped for, Sauron considered morosely.

He lowered the book to scowl at Aiwendil, but either Aiwendil did not notice or else he was simply chronically unperturbed by Sauron's scowls. "I'm going to water the herb garden," Aiwendil informed him cheerfully.

"Really, I thought you were getting ready to bake some pies," Sauron muttered.

Aiwendil frowned. "Why would you think that?"

"Because obviously that's what you do when you're clearly walking towards the herb garden with a watering can," Sauron said with a roll of his eyes and his voice oozing with sarcasm so thick that even Aiwendil couldn't miss it.

"Oh," Aiwendil said.

Sauron raised his book again and made a show of continuing with his reading.

Aiwendil whistled back and forth several more times with his bird companions, until Sauron inhaled sharply. "Aiwendil, I thought you were going to water the herb garden," he snapped. "Either go do it and leave me in peace, or keep quiet. Your Valar-forsaken whistling is giving me a headache."

Aiwendil made a chirping sound and the birds flew off, singing jauntily. "If you've got a headache, you should try drinking a feverfew tea. You could even nibble some peppermint. It always does wonders for me when I've got a headache."

"I'll keep that in mind," Sauron snorted dismissively with another eye roll.

Undeterred, Aiwendil kept babbling on. "There's all sorts of ailments that the plants in this garden can take care of for you. A little ginger can help a stomach ache and arnica can help with bruises and rosemary is great if you have sore muscles. I mean, I'm not the plant expert here in the Gardens – I prefer the animals – but I bet there's a plant for any ailment you might have. Lady Yavanna always says that there is greater power in plants than anyone gives them credit for."

Sauron was only half-listening, but one particular word in Aiwendil's spiel caught his attention. He looked up, distracted. "What did you just say?"

Aiwendil looked surprised but delighted that Sauron hadn't been completely ignoring him. "Lady Yavanna says that most people don't realize the power that plants have. Athelas, for example, can ward off evil and bring healing to the mind. And there's another flower-"

Sauron's mind was suddenly racing, and he could feel his heart pounding as his thoughts began to weave together. He recognized the sensation. He was right on the edge of some sort of revelation. "Is it true that there is one of every kind of known plant here in the Gardens?" he asked, keeping his voice calm and nonchalant to disguise his sudden intensified attention.

"Yes, it is!" Aiwendil said, clearly proud to boast about his Lady's domain. "All except a few that grew in Beleriand, I think. But every creation of Lady Yavanna's grows here!"

Sauron nodded slowly. Lord Melkor had gone through a phase of experimenting with some of Yavanna's plants and twisting them to his own purposes. In particular, he remembered the deadly darkness of Melkor's nightshade, the cruel flower that haunted the deepest parts of Taur-na-Fuin that confused the mind and brought whispers of despair to those who breathed in its poisonous scent. Those experiments hadn't lasted long – plants couldn't scream and plead and bleed after all – and Sauron himself had never had any interest in such things when he had his forges and powers of sorcery to bend to his will, but now…

Now with his powers bound…

Aiwendil was still prattling on, describing the various properties, both natural and supernatural, of various plant life in the Gardens, but Sauron was no longer interested in anything Aiwendil had to say. He suddenly knew what the next step of his plans required.

"Yes, that's all very interesting, Aiwendil," he drawled, keeping his excitement tucked away deep inside and only allowing a caustic air of boredom to permeate his voice. "But I'm fairly sure none of your miraculous flora is going to water itself." He raised an eyebrow pointedly.

Aiwendil held up his watering can and looked at it as if he'd forgotten it was there. "Oh, I guess you're right. Would you like to come along and help?"

"With great reluctance, I think I'll pass," Sauron responded, leaning further back against the tree trunk and returning his attention to his book.

"Well, if you're interested anytime, if you want to come along, let me know."

Sauron grunted in response.

He surreptitiously watched Aiwendil wander away towards the herb garden, whistling for his bird friends once again. Once he was out of sight, Sauron slowly finished the current chapter of his book, then closed it and meandered back towards the Halls, making sure he did not look like he was heading anywhere in particular in case anyone might be monitoring his movements. Once in the Halls, he made his way to the Parmarmard.

He glanced around, checking to see if the vast library was empty. There was a small group of elves gathered in the alcove dedicated to Varda's domain and a lone Maia in Nessa's alcove. No one seemed to be paying him the least bit of attention.

He returned his book to its place in Aulë's alcove, but instead of choosing the next book on the shelf, he exited the room and focused his attention on the second largest alcove in the Parmarmard. He allowed a small, triumphant grin to twist his lips.

Now he understood the nagging feeling of doubt that had plagued him about this place. Now he understood what he'd been missing.

He'd been searching in the wrong alcove all along.

Glancing around one more time to make sure he was unobserved, he stepped into the alcove of Yavanna's domain.

Lady Yavanna always says that there is greater power in plants than anyone gives them credit for.

How ironic that the domain of the Valië who had proved his greatest enemy since he'd arrived might provide the key to what he'd been searching for.

A dark malice burned in Sauron's eyes as he scanned the rows of shelves, taking in the wealth of information in front of him, information that he suddenly found himself keenly interested in. He found a promising title and pulled it off the shelf, tucking it under his arm and quietly exiting the library to head for the privacy of his room.

Perhaps this day would not prove so terrible after all.

~o~o~o~

For a long time and a time again, Mairon worked alongside his companions under the leadership of Lord Aulë and Lady Yavanna to undo what they could of the vast damage that had been wrought in the great battle against Melkor and his dark servants. The molten rock that had spilled from the center of the earth had left ugly black scabs all across the landscape, and new chasms stinking of sulphur had opened up like hungry mouths and new spurs of broken rock thrust up at cruel angles like monstrous teeth. The young saplings that had begun to take root had all been hurled down and charred.

Yet, Lady Yavanna had discovered that the hardened lava made fertile soul for new plant life, and Aulë and Ulmo worked together to run great rivers down the chasms to bring water to the plains where new life had begun to grow once again. Slowly but surely, the Ainur shaped the land back into the Vision of Eru.

After a time, as Melkor and his servants remained hidden, the Maiar were permitted to go forth alone or in pairs to work on their own projects once again, and Mairon's thoughts turned back to the beautiful cavern that he and Sirenúr had made together before the battle.

The fiery Maia unclothed himself and passed down bodiless through the layers of dirt and stone and rock, his senses guiding him to the place where he had created his greatest wonder. And finally, he emerged into the cavern.

Or, more correctly, he emerged in the place where his cavern had been.

Nothing was left of the work at which he had labored so long and joyfully, in which he had taken such pride. Half the cavern was completely collapsed from the ravages of the earth during the battle and half the lake was filled with a combination of debris and more of the scabrous boils of hardened magma. The walls of the cavern had been shattered, and it looked as if someone had physically stripped away and stolen the gold that he had so carefully woven into the stone, while the few remaining crystals blinked at him in sad mockery. What remained of Sirenúr's clear lake was now dark, and the stench of sulphur filled the entire space.

It was all gone.

The first thing Mairon felt was a numbness that crept from his chest to his stomach then out to his limbs, freezing him in place, his mind empty as it refused to take in what it was seeing. But as the memories of what his creation once had been and the knowledge that none of the Children would ever now discover and take delight in what he had prepared for them settled in his thoughts, a different sensation burned through his spirit. Anger, then rage, overtook him, and he flung rubble into the poisoned lake as his fëa flared so brightly and so hot that it scorched the walls all around him and even made the dark waters steam.

Finally, drained by his fierce rage, he fell to his knees, chest heaving, face hot, anger and helplessness and grief all mingling in his breast. It was gone. It was all gone.

What was the point of creating, when it was all going to be destroyed yet again by their Enemy sooner or later? Why pour his heart and soul into his projects, when all that was crafted would end up broken? Why make when all that was made would be unmade in the end?

Why would Eru give Melkor the power to destroy and thwart all their efforts again and again?

Briefly, Mairon wished he had the power of the Valar, even a power greater than the Valar. Then nothing would ever be destroyed again. The world would be beautiful and perfect forever, just like how he imagined it in his mind.

But Mairon did not have that power, so he turned his back on the ruined cavern and left it behind him.