2. Betrayals, Renunciations - I
The winter night settles upon the earth, the darkness a present weight as of earth itself, wind stirring the dead stalks of the grasses in a hissing shiver, the frozen ground colder still, the fallen walls and gray-rotted timbers of the angle he huddles under invisible in the deepening gloom. He is bleeding out, slowly but sure, from countless wounds, the cordon proving unbreakable, the noose not to be slipped, run to ground at last, but a little ahead of his hunters: his sword is locked in his hand, but he could not unwrap his fingers from it any more than could wield the blade, no more than he could rise to fight the foe-fiends that track him — but if he may choose the place of his dying, then let it be here, in his own hall, where once he knew happiness…
A touch upon his hair that is not the wind's brings memory of gesture, though movement is past him, fire of sinew that yields not action from limbs drained of life, and the iron in his hand rings soft, like a distant bell, on the hearthstone scraping.
—Nay, 'tis but I — the voice in his thought quenches alarm. You cannot stay here — we will freeze do we not keep moving. Come, I will help you—
It is agony to move, to stir, to rise, though he is lifted more than his own efforts provide — yet must he make effort, for the companion who carries him half-staggering, arm about shoulder, cannot lift him alone. Far easier to stay still in darkness, unmoving, than follow the one who bids him from the hollow shelter of his own house out over the snow-buried threshold to — not to rescue, not to escape, not to freedom, for there is none to be given: but to a still-deeper dark, a cold yet more killing, beyond any Winter of his recollection or imagining—
But he must: for how can he do other? His soul could no more refuse that call than could strike at the caller, though he follow but to destruction — not blindly, not unknowing, but free, and free-choosing—
—So careful one is, so exquisitely careful, when the least carelessness brings return of pain threefold — one's own, and then again, as it is mirrored back, and then of sorrow for the causing. In such unenviable state, one does nothing — seeks to do nothing — that will disturb the scant rest of one's comrade, yoke-mate and fellow in suffering.
One does not, for example, click the link-rings of one's chains against the floor, however softly, in resistance to the monotony of silence underlain by sinister hum of spell-weave crackling in the nerves like fever, so as not to madden the companion whose senses are tuned so finely that the least vibration sets them ringing like a stringed instrument in an empty room. —Nor does one revisit, exchange by bitterest exchange, word and thought and gesture, glance and sigh, every decision and word and deed of the past six centuries and more that might, if done otherwise, have led to other than this pass… What one can endure, the other cannot, fëar and hröar mortal and Undying each having reached their limits, and beyond, and must endure nonetheless…
—It is possible, only just, by hooking one's fingertips over the plinth of the pillar to hold the forearms at an angle, so that the iron of shackles is held balanced upright on the stones of the floor, and the wrists braced so that none of the thinned flesh encircled therein touches the spell of the metal, and the sores are not worsened the while, and no strength of comrade must be stolen to repay the debt of injury… It is effort, and robs in its own right the failing reserve of the other, but slower, no more than the cold. And it is something to do, to be doing when the dullness that passes for sleep will not come, and dreams are too great an effort—
For he is bleeding to death, and not him alone, life bleeding from him by heartbeats, draining into the limitless thirst of the stone and the dark, the chill that covers him numbing without dulling pain, the only good of it that the cold of the air quenches the death-reek of the Pit, the charnel stink of carrion from the bones of them that have won through to freedom, and there is none left to lend strength to either of them.
He is in need of massive healing and rest, far beyond what the King may give him, beyond what even all might have surrendered him, starving, limbs wasting as his lord's from the winter-chill of the Night that entombs them all, mortality made subject to a torment that had wrecked even a Noldor prince, held famished and thirsting in hell-wrought bonds against hard stone — not open to the elements, true, but given to the cruellest, whether the victim be Man or Elf, the cold that is only a little less than that of Ice…
Yet ever as it is stolen from him and his spirit ebbs, drifting towards a darkness from which there shall be no arising, more is given him, by the lord who shields him from a foe cruel beyond measure and past any dream of mercy, whose thought and will keep safe his name in a Song of power, as he defends his own, has defended his own, all who set faith in him, nor failed him, despite failure. Slipping from dreams to waking, or from dream to dream — there is no clear border between — the markless hours sift down upon them like silt, weight upon weight of time and darkness, the depth of stone over them a terror ever in thought, a terror beyond reason. There is no blame, no reproach, not even now, not even now—
Only of self for self, as now he blames himself, for coughing—
The deep ache that grows in his lungs like a knot of ice on a doorstep has caught him, flung him sideways and shattered the fragile hold upon the worked footing of the pillar he presses against, striving so hard to maintain. In frustration he loses all control, wrenching violently against the chains until they cut of their own edge, not only the sorcery that eat away all living flesh that touches them, and slams his head again and yet again upon the pavement under him, until his frenzy rouses the King from his stupor and he forces him into quietude with a soft blow of power that yet leaves the mortal stunned and barely half-aware, while as lightly as he may, the Elven-lord weaves healing into the raw places, sealing the worst of them, sparing as little strength as he must.
—Please — the cold grows too much now — and warmth is given to him, just enough to draw him back from the numbness that crushes him, though pain follows on it; and with it the eternal apology that it is no more, that no more dare be given, ever quenched in boundless pity—
—Is it selfishness or mercy that they cling so fast to each other, refusing to die, refusing to let slip away who might? The question is without meaning, as though other were possible. Even as the greater will sorrows at necessity of such stinting gift, as firewood dealt out by strictest measure in waste where nothing grows and no light warms of nature, and the weaker blames self for the same in other wise, there is no question of denial, not on the part of the one who gives any more than of the Man who sorrows for his mortality…
In his thought there is the shape of a thing, black and vile with slime, clinging to flesh, stealing life from veins unknowing, from the depths of chill water… To this in turn, denying, is countered the vision of one, solitary, alone in this hall of death, no other voice in thought, no light of spirit to stay one, bereft in the dark of all companions, fëa trapped and forced to abide at their old Enemy's pleasure…
But briefly, briefly, for the thought is too terrible, for either of them, and the wound of that image leaves him stunned and sickened, and his lord begs forgiveness for his roughness, murmur that can scarcely be heard in the abyss, save in mind.
Alone — it has been an Age, days with out number, weeks, moons, they cannot tell — since that word had any meaning for them. But such small separation as was possible before is gone, leaving only the slight drifting apart as weeds upon one tide may drift away and back again, still woven fast together at the roots — not since the last dying, in fact. They harbour their shared strength against the final need, now, waiting in a dark so absolute that it is as though the air itself were the cold, black mud of a marsh, enmired in bonds so fast that even to stir thought is difficult, now, far less limb, and in which there is no variance but the imagining of eyes, distantly approaching, agleam with hunger and delight.
The pain cannot be mitigated now, for there is none but the two of them to share it, and no strength to be spared in shielding the weaker from it — but it is shared, each drinking the other's portion in exchange of bitterness, and that is enough, and more. Only in the worst of need does the stronger expend more, as now, to quell the madness when it comes on most fiercely. Apology, too, accompanies, pardon asked for the misjudged blow, weakness robbing the griever of control, dealing clumsily more of darkness than needed or meant, though it causes no pain, but rather the contrary — but it is theft, nonetheless, of self, of spirit, of time—
So they hold fast to awareness, because that is all that they have, each other; they guard that sense as one guards a flame in a windy night, begrudging every lapse into unknowing, every gap of thought that comes and goes as clouds cross the Sun. So long as they may they will cherish it, until the final dividing, that last dying that awaits them, when they will cheat their Enemy for the last time, and escape him.
They do not speak, nor think of this now, not in words, for there is no need — it is always in their thought, like the Song that binds them, how the King means to spend the last hoarded measure of his strength to lay a final binding of healing sleep over him as he summons the wolf to him, and so they shall both slip the torturer's claws, the killing cold taking the mortal unawares in undeserved ease — but his lord will have it no other, refuses him right of witness to his agony, in pity, that he calls pride, deceiving neither of them, who share one thought—
—Do not send me from you without farewell, he has begged his King; ceding in the matter of that last struggle, dreading only to part unknowing.
—I could not bear it either, the rueful reply is made, and so the worst of terrors is eased, and the inevitable made bearable in its awaiting, the fear that is worse than the state of famine and thirst that is kept upon them, almost to madness but not quite, worse than the cold, worse than the darkness even…
Thus it has been, since the tenth coming of the wolf, whether it be the same or different they do not know, for all have seemed to know their weaknesses and the humiliation of their destruction, and there is no way to see the hell-beast in its Master's night, save for gleam of eyes, and there is no small way of self about each one as even Orcs may have, each, or it, but a mind of icy hunger and contempt, ancient and bare of all furnishings but hunger, a spirit of fangs and venom and yearning to destroy…
In that time, hour or hours, while he lay mute and blasted in the Void of the space under-tower, mind seeking helplessly for other, for friend, knowing it vain, having lived that dying in heart and dreaming, and even in flesh as the King's strength faltered, unable to shield him in full measure, he found only silence in his soul's hearing, no least stir of thought, nothing save barest presence in the Night of death. Again and time again he strove to speak, to call out, to comfort, and could not, the thought freezing in his mind, his voice stopped, all strength of will taken from him by despair.
And then in the changeless dark there was change — not answer to his unvoiced call, not comfort, not anything directed towards him at all, but away—
Flight, not reasoned, not considered, not anything but willed, now, not even away but after, a wrench of grief and loneliness and anguish beyond any power to speak, sorrow a force like a great wave driving all small ships and flotsam upon it unstoppable, battling in ways beyond mortal ken against the spell-wrought strangling mesh that binds fëa to hröa as long as flesh breathes, fighting against the unyielding tendrils in headlong plunge of madness, effort to fade a striving as mighty as any struggle to live—
Yet the fugitive is not alone, not singly left in the Pit, and bound still to one who cannot resist nor withhold self from the binding—
It is as the first hour of their entombment, when the Wolfmaster's power sank into his masked mortal flesh and destroyed his reason with its touch. In its renewal, unmitigated, made worse now for distancing, still worse for the struggle, the pain, scarcely bearable to Firstborn, rends him through and through like freezing fire, tearing every shred and fibre of his being with searing venom, every effort to fling off the bindings met with renewed fastening of the mesh, plunging through mind as through muscle, nerve as memory, defiling every secret hollow of self with its lashing touch—
He cannot help but fight it, wrenching in turn against the web of death-magic though mind know it vain as ever, resist the sluice of foulness overflooding his defenseless self, spasming in motion as violent as blow of fist or heel upon his body, dashing gaunt frame against unyielding stone of pillar and merciless chain, teeth clenched upon bloodied lips, sorceries coursing his veins, seeming the stronger for this latest of their losses—
Still he will not break faith, will not cry out the name that might turn attention to his plight, enduring the agony even as he adds to it, struggles tearing at flesh as at spirit, his fëa too closely bound perhaps to its mortal dwelling for one to strive and not the other. —Hold— he implores, but cannot be heard in the storm, please, his mind begs, unregarded, and he racks himself against the foundation stones, and a cry of torment that is yet wordless rips from his aching lungs, and is heard.
The tempest stops, almost in an instant, quelled in shock at the devastation left in its path. —Ai, no, thou— Words die as soon as born in mind, insufficient, sparks thrown off into the endless Night of the Ice, horror added to surfeit of horrors, the red heat of spilled blood freezing into stone, shame at forgetting, abandoning, betraying, wounding… Without time-squandering of apology the King pours forth strength to ease him, spending himself beyond reason in love as he has done just now in grief. Yet it is not enough: the convulsions are ended, limbs locked in healing weft, but his mind recoils from every effort to bespeak him, to calm him, every touch of power to mend injury of body or spirit sends him flinching in agony towards the black gulf of madness.
And thus, not without dread nor regret the other stills him fëa as hröa, severing him entirely from sensations of his own flesh, the which would have broken him utterly, had he not at the same instant drawn him completely through the bond into his own dreaming, his own song — not knowing if in turn he should know such tearing, the fear-strength rending him in his weakness, as a drowning swimmer may drown in turn his rescuer. But the mortal's spirit merely rests, daring not to stir, half in fear of doing such harm, partly in awe of the vast unfathomable that encompasses him, and part — of dread, the inherent terror of self-loss that is at the back of all thought of devouring, unreasoning though it now be…
—Beren — here, in the inmost fastness of his King's soul his true-name is given him, and the use of it calms him — be welcome, friend — and thus gently he is drawn forth from the shelter of his fears, and he dares to open his thought, his mind questing ever so carefully in the hold of a link far deeper and more complete than any he has yet known.
Often in life has he lain beneath great trees, following them upward with eye to the sky- fields beyond, or even upon a broad supporting bough, seeing the sway and lean of height so vast and infinite in its variation, each branch opening into a score more, and each lesser branch bearing as many twigs, all as different as they are alike, and each twig unfolding its leaves, and each leaf veined in multifold mirror of the tree itself, until he is made dizzy and silent even in thought at the truth that there is so much in the plain world about him — even so in its way is what he now — beholds — in realm unseen, after such fashion as his mind is capable of comprehending. If a forest were of light, all of gold-white light, and grown of crystal, strong as stone yet fine as needles of springtime pines, rising high as the tallest of ancient growth in all directions…
He remains still, awe, and terror that is not of harm, filling all his being, as he huddled still and unmoving even after the wounding had faded when first the King bound him away from the mesh into shelter of light and companionship, out of the full blast of the cruelty of the Master of Wolves…
—Am I dead? he asks, wondering, almost without fear of whatever answer may come.
—Nay, and there is almost tearful mirth in the reply, I but hold thy dreaming self waking in my thought. And dared to look, no doubt should see thine own light shining even as I behold it— But this is followed by a cold shadow across the spirit, like a sudden cloud across the face of the Sun, and he asks — What is wrong? — fearing that his very presence is pain. Far other the answer—
—What I have done to thee is little different — if any — from what Morgoth inflicts upon those whose wills he would rule, drawing their thought within his, bending their sight beneath his, setting a Song of his own in them that sleeps not — are not all these but the same?
—But for everything — he counters, presuming to contradict, (yet where is presumption, speaking to self…?) —But for harm.
—How can I know if harm has been done? I am not even sure of what it is that I do, far less how it shapes thee — I know not how I have harmed thee in my madness—
—I— live, my lord, he answers simply, — I — live — He turns then, motion of soul not of flesh, he could say not how, to the world outside their shared selves, to the manifold layers of being that encompass them both, now, and perceives the ceaseless weaving of the veil that protects their minds from the Wolflord's as a whispered music like that of falling water over boulders, ever-changing, ever shaped anew over barrier and hollow, though stone be cast into it or branch be caught, reflowing and remade, yet the same stream yet…
His foot moves, then, shifting to turn on side, and he is shocked from contemplation — it is wrong, all is wrong, this is not his shape, his length, his bones do not lie so long, his weight does not fill them so, he does not breathe thus — his hearing is not so keen, to hear fall of sand from mortar in the distance in a maddening hiss, the cold should be more present, not less, the spell-bonds a sullen crackle like wet wood, not words in them that he cannot understand and yet does—
He starts up then, half-raising on elbow, head lifted like wild beast startled by sound, ready for flight — This is worse, for now he is present, and he should be blind as stone in the stone chamber, and yet he can see, somehow, a dim radiance that is not the illusion of eyes burning with weariness, at a distance that conjoined memory sees as pillar carved of reddened light cast of torches — and yet at once from under, hewn capital looming above like a threat, and from beside, seeking in desperation one who must be concealed — and in other memory yet, in clear daylight, open under a blue sky, as the deft balance is changed and the stone raised as light as a bird flies, scaffolding all about, and the turned earth, and green grass beyond where many work in fierce resolution and yet in hope—
He shakes his head, frantic to escape thought he cannot compass, and there is no escaping, and worse — his sudden movements bring a spurt of terror in veins that is and is not his own, his own for that he wears this flesh, but the terror is somehow other and apart from him — to be shaken, mastered, worn like a garment, hands knotted in unwilled tension, spine taut as bowstring, helpless to resist—
—or haply not—
His hands uncurl, the left open on the pavement as his arm folds at elbow, thigh twisting in hip-socket to set him flat once again, head pressed against stone as though by soft hand, yet no touch is there upon skin, and his breathing slows to measured rhythm — and he is thrown into greater fear and must fight, sinew resisting self, surge of fear-strength pulling within in opposing directions, pain burning in muscle—
and the struggle ceases, and he is free to stir, or be still, so far as the chains allow. He startles, mazed with strangeness of balance not his own, even lying so prone on floor—
Gently, gently — I am tall, but the house is narrow and we must share it as one hauberk between us — and in this terrible pass the image comes to him as a grisly jest and he cannot but laugh at the impossible thought of two men struggling to wear a single mail shirt, and the laughter is his own, though the voice is not, hoarse and parched almost beyond recognition though it be, — and in silence it is joined with other, familiar from the lonely roadless ways, so long ago that it be an Age, it seems, and fear dies in it — or rather he is afraid, still, as his comrade too fears, but it does not matter.
Ai, such a pair of fools we make, I to lead, thou to follow — neither scorn nor resentment in the thought, only a fond sadness at their shared predicament. — I must heal you now — far easier, thus — would you see how it is done? — And he is lured to attend, ever-dangerous that curiosity of Men…
First to untangle where the chains in convulsing have been woven around, tangled fast and redoubled about wrist and hand, searing skin that does not flinch in defense from the pain, stirring the unwary hröa to turn as in sleep, letting the bound sense guide will as at a distance the wind's song guides weather-knowing — but this is a thought of madness, none of his, and he gasps, and his start is echoed back into him, and becomes laughter again at their needless terrors, like to children scaring themselves of a night with shadows. —It is no more than the hand of a parent turning a child tangled in blanket to lie at ease, unknowing, he tells himself, or is told, it matters not which.
Then, as a child on mother's knee, carefully guarded from danger of task, watches the flashing heddle and crashing bar move to yield as by magic the woven cloth from the hollow harp-like weft, seeing without understanding the act, he watches the other working to repair the late-inflicted damage from without, within, apart, in his own sleeping self, and is made faint, dazed, in effort to follow.
Healing he knows, from being mortal, the ways of mending and nourishing the body's vessel from the chance-caught blows and subtle wearings of daily life, all his own life long, and far more in later years, when war's destruction came hardly home and none escaped injuring in the long, slow refusal to accept defeat. But this is nothing like what he thinks of as healing, to cleanse and bind, to draw out and salve in, application of caustic liquor or mollifying oil, heat or cold, herb to purify and assist — it is not even like to feeling it, from within, even with the echo of the other's sense of the working through the weft of spirit and spell.
In his thought it is like the lattice of leaves washed to fine thread after the Winter's rains as if such should grow back to wholeness, or the making of ice in the freezing of a pond, almost too subtle for perceiving, or the stitching of a little round of softness about a caterpillar, darting too swift and small for the seeing of how it is done, as it weaves its own watershed hairs into the cocoon that will keep it warm until Spring…
As a child, baffled by work of elders inexplicable and unexplained, goes off in what the unknowing name boredom, so too he retreats, drawing back from the almost-sickening consideration of his own flesh as but matter to be worked by a craftsman, metal for welding, and the complexities that neither birth nor training have taught him to know, and turns instead to the veil defending them. No less complex, no less strange, but somehow less horrifying to him than the other, though no less near to him either in its entwining of spirit, though he does not fully perceive this as yet.
As one who plays with Spring runoff, excess of snowmelt to build artifice of earth and wood and water he touches it, marveling at the fairness of it, though he could never put words to what it is he encounters; moves into it, shifting the patterns as one shifts the small flood in its course with a finger, sending it stronger where it seems thinnest, as when earthen bank crumbles, eroded, blocking the stream until washed away, unless intervention speed the way — not by rough abrading of the barrier, but subtle direction of water's strength…
Suddenly afraid, realizing what it is that he meddles with, he wonders if his presence shall disturb the working, break the effort that holds the veil together—
—Nay, for you are of it, and it of your strength so much as mine, comes the answer in the same instant, bewilderingly. Be not troubled, my gentle and considerate guest — Understanding follows: it is as though a child brought wood for the building, reinforcing of gates, help so small that it scarce matters, but no hindrance.
Thus given permission, he turns further in his thought to that which surrounds him, and begins to understand, beyond the simple and unquestioning understanding that is inborn in all living creatures, how difficult, how harsh and unnatural, the severing of fëa from flesh must be, how it is not so simple as walking from one room to another, or out of the hall at a morning knowing that one returns upon the noon for the meal — but did he not always know this, long years at least, how hard it is for any to flee the home of their birth or their bonding, the house of their building and birthing of children, leave all behind and abandon the known ways and well-loved walls—?
For it is not so simple as a lamp set under roof merely, but the whole of it, the light on the walls and the warmth of the hearth that keeps damp from decaying the rafters, the timbers that hold the high roof to keep out the rains and the snows that would crush out the flame, flesh is shaped by spirit indwelling, thought resides in bone and brain, nerve and sinew call and answer, at one and the same, one may not simply wear another's self as one's Enemy wears seeming in the tales of treachery long told of him…
The thought of Morgoth's work, binding spirits to bodies of his own building, or breeding, reshaping to strangeness and forms not of nature in weapons living and undead, makes him almost ill then, sickening the thought of what is so dreadful when done without malice or worse, heedless using — how else can they be, but cruel, being so cruelly used in their making? He never wished to think of his enemies with pity, but having done so he cannot elsewise, and he becomes still more lost, wondering where he is, and what remains of him, taken from his flesh and so changed—
—What is there of Beren, but a ghost, a gray shadow in the wind? and as though in contradiction he trembles and the chains ring a grim bell-note in the dark, the hröa that he rests in shaking in answer to his anguish, and that is worse yet — What am I, what have I become—?
—My friend, as I am yours, the answer is in him, inescapable, and unhesitating, always, in flesh or unhoused fëa, — even in wolf-shape thou hadst not been other, been changed, had our foe taken you by force for that — there is nothing of cruelty in you for him to fasten upon.
—You cannot know that, he demurs, and again there is laughter, not his, this time, though he feels it in throat and ribs, a source of amazement and confusion to him.
—How shall I not, that am bound all this long dying beside, long ere I have given you the keys to my own hall? How else had I dared—? Again the strangeness, wrongness, that his King, his lord, the light of his people should fear him — but no more than the wrongness that is the whole of this ruin to which they are brought, to which he has brought them, that which has hunted him down at the last…
—No more — the thought is hushed by his host, with a patience infinite and peremptory for that, the argument having gone on too long for any further articulation to be needed. He recedes, the Elven-senses and the unfamiliarity of form too much for him, nestling deeper into the light that enfolds him as a child beneath his father's woolen cloak, fleeing the Winter's cruel wind…The dizzying sense of height, of gap of air too far for measuring all about him, does not leave him, does not even grow less, but the dread is filled through with trust, both equal, both existing at once, though he could not tell how…
—Send me home swiftly, lord, or the severing will be too hard, he entreats.
—Soon, bravest of all thy brave House — and even had he doubt of truth he could not now, here, as he is, word and thought and mind being one, misdoubt that praise. Sleep, now, and fear nothing of the Dark without while I stand guard.
And sleep he does, then, as he has not ever been able since taken by the trammels of their foe, true sleep, dreaming deeply of a place of water and scattered sunlight under trees, and a wide clear lake of stars beneath the Northern sky, and a road that leads to a fastness built long ages of his own people past, simple but beloved, and his true-love walking with him hand in hand beside…
—I have mended thy house, my friend — his mind is stirred from stillness to the waking dream that is them, and the thought is relief and mercy to him. But he resists, unreasoning, pang of terror driving through one flesh, one heart, where two reside, when the moment of departing is on him, aware as he was not in his seizures of the change — Hush, 'tis no matter — bide as you will —
Indeed, he could remain here, unhurt, quiescent and dreaming, fleeing the struggle without — allow the other to bear all his pain, leave all the fight to the stronger of them. But he may not, in honor, may not abandon his friend in the darkness, choosing rest, however ungrudged, howso freely given.
—I must go back. Help me — Even as he asks, it is answered, and instead of being merely sent is borne like a child from room to room, as the other, with reluctance, not of fear for himself, nor aversion, but of concern for worse injuring, accompanies him back to his own dwelling.
It is almost a relief, this familiar pain, familiar weight of weak flesh and weariness, worse now than before for their battle, almost a gift in itself. —Yet not without price, for it is his turn: he now strives to master terror as his limbs are moved without his willing, shifting yet again so that skin bruised to bleeding between bone and stone under hip and heel is not so hard-pressed, so that ache in shoulder-socket is lessened, and the testing of sense, turning so that sound brushes first more on this ear and then that, — how strange a thing to hear one's own breath from without! — a small exclamation of surprise at the savor of illness, that this is how fever tastes from within, the dismay at the dulling of perception, and the rising terror of being so trapped within such cage—
That which he has offered, in ignorance, now accepted, he will not refuse to give, and simply yields, soft and mild as lake-water on a still evening of Summer, to the struggles of the fëa that resides so dangerously within his completion as though one should close a huge sharp-tined stag of many seasons in a cramped stall. Yet there is little to not resist, for his guest is no less careful than he, and the greater might is ruled by still greater mind, and soon the mad panic is over, the panting of terror as one strives to hold, unmoving, unharming, not to tear at wounds barely healed again with the frenzy of flight passing into a weary laughter, self-mocking, and a sigh—
—I think it cannot be the same for us, visiting, as strangers, each other's home, friend—
—Is it ever? Can any place be same to one born of it, and one who comes thereto? asks the mortal in turn, finding it bewildering to find what he has known all his life a strangeness and a daunting oppressive prison, as it was not even bound and broken, before now.
—As I find my own self no vast daunting cavern, comes the answer, thoughts running together like inks wet upon the page, like honey and water blent together for baking, like sea and sand at tide's turning, both familiar ideas and foreign, and the latter no longer to him, who has gone so far from his own home, but not so far as the other self that now rests as he rested, accepting welcome without struggle. And even so it must be, ever, indeed, rightly say you so—
Perhaps the strangest of all strange things, to the Man's thinking, is that curiosity again has supplanted terror, and carries not scorn in its seeking — and at that thought comes apology — I make free of thyself, careless as a child in a strange house, and scarce think on thee as I pry — and he makes nothing of it, turning aside regret with thought of sunlight on fields — how can there be trespass? For the other's thought is no more than that, touching his own.
—It is not so hard as I feared, he wonders, it is not ill, only other — surely you might bide here, at the last, leave thy flesh lying unfeeling for the wolf-beast and we twain go into the cold together, he dares offer, hope, wish for…
—Nay, this is nigh the least part of my will, my self, that I send with you. I should whelm thee, otherwise.
—Little loss, that—
—Not so — So firm the rejection of that thought that he cannot resume it — the presence diminishes, easing back from his awareness ever so slightly, as one may slip from a room that one entered without realizing was occupied, disturbing the other not at all. —How fare you?
—Lost, he answers sadly, alone and lost and afraid—
—Is that of thyself or mine own, friend? And in all truth — he does not know. I too, the same — save not alone—
The hold upon him is light, but unbreakable, the link present but not overwhelming his separateness, simply sustaining, as one might support a companion half-drowned above water; he needs do nothing more, save accept; and he turns and returns the gesture, clumsy in his effort to imitate but no less real for that, nor is he thrown off, rejected, in the deed of offering.
—Not alone, he returns, never alone—
Since then, though released to his own feeling flesh once more, there has never been any moment when their thoughts were not full-linked, whether through unforseen consequence of unprecedented act or simply that neither of them can bear the least touch of solitude now, not even the King could say. Even heartbeat is one, now, even breathing, slowed pulse of bodies yoked through workings of welded power, fused beyond seam or undoing: still more so of mind, woven together so closely that it were impossible to say where one dreamer ceases, the other begins.
And yet there is still self and self, though often neither is full sure which is one and which the other, there is not oppression, nor devouring, though one outmatches the other in strength of will as of body so much as a mother's her tottering child, that clings to her fingers, swaying in effort to stand… For them there is neither shame nor anger, no resentment of intimacy, no refusal of pity — only gentleness, and carefulness of the other self's weaknesses, and gratitude, for every instant given to them in the darkness, where lacking any measure of earth or of sky, be it hours or days, they cannot know.
—Never does it occur to them that their Enemy waits for one to savage the other, to turn and surrender and offer up in place of one's own life the other, swearing service to the Master of Wolves… How could it, indeed? What betrayal possible, when all that one has of value is another, when nothing is desired but the impossible, the saving of the other? Shall the heart rend itself, then, each side striving, right against left? It is beyond their comprehension, and hence no temptation at all now. They do not understand the delay, but since there can be no counting, they deem it perhaps the illusion of slowness, as a moment may stretch out beyond madness, slow, eternal, or fleet by before knowing—
Once there had been sharing of light, of memory, of memory of hope, though not hope itself, of things real and substantial, if lost; now there is nothing left to give, saving only presence…
Even thought is mostly beyond them, now: true thought, reasoning, recollected; such thoughts as they have still are made strange and unfathomable even to themselves, flickering past and gone before properly realized. The mortal can distinguish his own only sometimes, the ones familiar, like small birds glimpsed in flight flashing through a stray pillar of sunlight in the deepest forest, where those that are faceted and radiant as a crystal in starlight are not born of his thought, but so much that is common between them (or has become so) cannot be told apart.
Mostly they dream now, dark dreams, filled with terror and holding no hope of escape, dreams of Shadow, dreams of Ice… When they are his own, it is a realm of gulfs and sheer angles of stone, drowned in a twilight where every form is a cause of dread, be it only half-glimpsed branch or trapping web, or hellish living nightmare that must be fought, or fled, one bracing the other in belayed slip or ascent, hands locked about wrist in grip painful but saving, crawling over a wasteland of stone, filled with the maddening keen of the wind over rock-teeth and the tantalizing song of water that is a melody of evil, sustaining and destroying at once if dared to be tasted…
But still despite everything the King is the stronger, and his will overwhelming, and ever he wrests them from the shadowy vales and the steep ledges to the sharper and darker plain of the frozen wasteland where the wind itself is a poison draught, rasping all the senses, and the darkness is without relief save for the life-light that is in them, where they seek, and seek, and seek, and cannot remember what it is that they set out to find… staggering over the ground that is not like any snow of the Winter, but frozen harder than stone, unyielding as iron, rucked and tortured into folds that bruise like sharpened hammers when one falls against them, where gulfs no less lethally-deep than the mountains' await them unseen,
—Yet that is not all of it, nor sufficient for comprehending, for once in the Ice dreams, his lord often yields him the leading, or they take it in turns to be each other: sometimes he is the one carried, and other times he is the bearer, and either case his form is not his own, strange to him and yet not strange, for the dream is complete and he held in it, the language he speaks in the few words they gasp foreign to him, but yet understood, height and balance all changed, his face beardless whether he be the one who melts ice-shards in his mouth to spare from heat-losing the one he cradles in the shelter of frost-clotted furs, or the one who rests, wounded, accepting gift of warmed water more idea than actuality in this driest of deserts, fashioned most cruelly of nothing but water…
And still his self bleeds into the dreaming, so that the two small figures who stagger across the nightmare landscape built of echo and pain and iron-hard water must huddle betimes in dread in the lee of ice-shelves, while eyes of venomous flame roam the dark, Ungoliant and all her children wandering impossibly the farthest ranges of the Helcaraxë…
A bird-thought, flame-bright wing, sparks for a moment in the darkness and is gone, swallowed up by the night, denser than mere air…perhaps it will come again, as betimes they return, or perhaps the twisted shadows of the burnt wood have devoured it… But this one, he remembers, is important, and he follows it, listening, avoiding the brush of the iron-hard boughs, blackened like forge-metal from the burning, lest they burn him with their hate that he cannot heal, only pity…
He stops walking, not aware of it until he is shaken so hard that his teeth snap together, making his tongue bleed, and he thinks about getting up again, but deed follows not thought, however he wills it. Anger scorches him, frustration and fury, so that he does try — but there is nothing left in him to give for now, and the burning of the other's temper that sears without warming fades away, and a thinnest icy touch like the beginning of Autumn sleet feather-brushes his cheekbones, tears that freeze even in the shelter of heavy cloak before they land on skin too cold to melt them.
…Not worth the weeping, he murmurs, and a rough-gloved hand gently mutes his numbed lips before dragging him up to kneel slack against side, and then to haul his useless body around to hang from shoulders, dead-weight held fast by iron grip upon arms too weak to clasp about neck, warmth that he cannot but name rather stolen than lost trapped about them by the cape that covers them both, fine hair clotting his shadow-blind eyes as his face is pressed against hard knot of spine-bones, borne onward by one who has scarcely strength left to carry burden of own weight, let alone his…
Beyond the dream he stirs, as much as he is able, being far past the coordination that would allow him to hold away from the chains, and folds his fingers together, right hand to left, acknowledging the gift of strength sent him, and feels it as in echo, or dream, reflected, as he tastes twice the metallic heat of his bitten tongue, the shivering that wracks him, as in his own throat he feels the burning mass of tears that are not his, the sticky salt that clots lashes though he does not weep himself.
—It is wrong, this enmeshing of spirit past all reason, past parting, past all thought of untangling, strange and horrifying and sorrowful this unmitigated indwelling, and yet how can it be otherwise? Bereft of all else, they must stay each other, and will not forsake in treason more cruel than any they yet have known.
In woods near his home there was a tree fast-grown for countless years against a rock of granite, as trees will grow through each other, each one itself, yet sharing bond of bark not to be unfastened — but this had grown about stone, the two so unlike in very selves, it would seem, destroying to each other, and yet not so: for the tree flourished and the stone was not crumbled by the trunk's slow grip; until a Winter of killing frost more harsh than any he could remember, or his elders, when rains fell and then froze, and then a brief spell of sun would taunt with clarity of sky, and then the ice would fall again, binding all beneath it, breaking roof and branch, wresting the hall-stones from the floor with press of ice from beneath it, making Man and beast alike to stumble, breaking bones and sinews—
Springtime found the boulder split, ice cracking it deep upon hidden faultline, and the tree rent where they met, wood like muscle ripped lengthwise, clear through, but not fallen…but the tree yet lived, torn open, and strove to heal and grow anew, and the rock endured, riven as it was, though whether he could say lived as more than mad fancy he did not know, knew not whether the sense he had betimes felt from stone that custom called "living" for the seeming of it having grown of earth, of welcome, of watching, in fashion inexplicable, upon the upland cliffs and the bare heath, not hostile, and the whispers that seemed to warn him in latter days when all was still beyond even his hearing of foes' approach, were anything but latent madness now full-blown…
The Ice knocks beneath them, around them, knocking the one who carries to his knees, knocking him from his feet — such a quiet, such a little name for such a sound! It is as a hammer on an iron forge, as someone pounding on hall-door with message of disaster, as a thunderstorm in the bare mountain pass, and none of these are great enough — as stone falling in landslide perhaps, but even that is not such a noise of dread as this. It wails as it thunders, screams with the aching of branches bending under a wind too great even for oak to abide, the deep rending cry of wood pushed toward the breaking, the thin creaking of spars bent ever by the surging of the sea, as the waves crash hollowly under the quay, the pounding of water on cliff-stone…the Voice of Doom in the storm…
Shelter they should seek after — but what shelter is there, when the Ice itself may open beneath them in hungry rift, or tear down the face whose lee shelters them from the wind with its knocking? Too tired and bruised to crawl onward, the stronger of them draws the younger against him, making of his own frame where he lies a scant lee of protection against the wind, shrouding them both in fur-cloak to hold in breath, at least, though the Ice steals relentlessly their last warmth as though no layers of cloth nor fell defended them…
Drowsing lightly, body and soul alike attending for the betraying sound of fate, the groan of the Ice before it devours them, they rest in each others' arms, eldest and least of brothers, clutched so tightly that it seems not even death could part them…
—We must get up, the voice by his ear whispers plaintively, we must go — must find — must find — Mind and flesh together protest, denying the need, but no more able to argue why than the other can give reason for—
Suddenly it is quite plain to him, and he laughs quietly — not madly at all, no, he is quite sane now—
—No need, no need at all—
—What? How mean you—?
—I know what it is we seek, he laughs, I know what we seek, over and again, until at last in answer to the repeated urgent demands he gives that so-simple explanation: Only us — only ourselves. We are the last — the rest are safe. And we — are here. So it matters not…
And he wakens to the stony hell, the little Angband, the lesser Void about them, the chains of iron and of enchantment and the chill air that is like the touch of iron upon the length of flinching, trembling flesh.
There is a peculiar clarity that sometimes follows upon a dream, particularly upon a dream of sorrow, most especially upon the dream that haunts him, that he wishes his mind would not flay him with, wondering why his own fëa should be so cruel to him — and then remembers it is but just for what he has wrought — the sound of softest weeping, enduring long past exhaustion, past any tears, to the point when breath itself is pain, and still the sobbing will not end — a grief that voiceless he yet recognizes, though never has he heard it, for never in life has he heard her weeping… But it has been long since he has heard it last…
In this fragile clarity, like a pool of rainwater briefly mirror-still under a lowering sky, he makes the first request, the easier, of the inevitable denials that he must make and take in turn — the plea to surrender his own self, his frailty, his slow-dying hröa to his lord at the last, sparing him wolfish slaughter and shame — This time the answer is more than simple refusal:
—Do not tempt me again, my friend, for in my fearing I might accept when my trial comes—
—You — afraid?
—Aye, the answer comes with the sad humor that is all that is left to them in their plight, deem not it grows any easier for me, nor dare I boast it shall be other with me than with our friends — and — still — There is silence, then, though not solitude. He demands the unfinished thought, no thought of presumption now, with wordless gesture of spirit as of a lifted brow, in the shared dimness that is them… the reply is a whisper of shame, barely forced out against the anguish:
—I fear to stand before the Master of Spirits in my turn, and make justification for my deeds, before all those many hundreds my folly has slain, though indeed they should plead for me no less than I for them, still are we all outlaws the same. I fear the long Ages unhoused in the dark halls, even as I acknowledge them the price of my choosing — The sorrow and humiliation are rank in their thought as the underlay of rot in the air, poison shared helpless between them, venom corroding the soul…
—No Kinslayer thou! he cries back, but the Noldor lord denies his denial:
—One need not wield a sword to slay, my friend — death may be dealt by the choosing of this path and not that against other's will—
vision, far easier than words now, shows him a jaggedness of flame-edged darkness, black and smooth as water at midnight (—or as glass…) and tumbled far beyond the range of lamps and sight, rising too steep for climbing, the split plain falling as sharply downwards, the way back long for retracing — and a tall woman (whose gaunt face, familiar-strange, and golden hair in frost-rimed crown alike are stabs of sorrow—) harangues him, dragging him upright and out of the enmiring slough of guilt and harrying him back to his post, leading those of whom so many will be left behind, too weak and weary to go on, and the more so for the long tracking-back, in tomb of endless Ice—
—by weakness, to see the risk of another's will and yet not choose to resist it—
—a tent, so far from such a thing that it seems a strange jest to call it so, made of fabric as fair as leaves in Summer sunlight, and a lamp of leaves of gold encircling a ball of something smooth and bright as water, shining with a clarity no smouldering tallow or even beeswax ever had, and about the table whose cunning hinges are inlaid with gold are many warriors all bright and terrible in their fierce fairness, strange to sight and yet familiar as one finds a friend's brother familiar, attending, yet unwilling to hear counsel of battle, and the folly of allowing lull of complacence before a sleepless Enemy, and in heart-weariness one ceases argument, and seeks ways to strengthen the besieging barrier of strength instead…
—or by choosing without knowing all, as none of us born of Arda, and yet must still choose…
—a darkness more awful than even this in in its heavy foulness and the dread that fills it, the terror of uncertainty, that is worse than being utterly unknown, coming upon those who have never known even the simple night of Arda, fear and betrayal and bitterness, heartsickness as every choice is an ill one, and anguish at leaving behind one loved for a duty that cannot be laid aside, and that no other can or will take up: but the work is there, present, and one can pour all one's pain so strangely into labour of hand and thought, and there is so much to be thought of, the harshness of weather in the old lands, the lack of such things as all take for granted here, folk so long severed that they shall be as foreign even to those who might have known them in bygone years, and the need of their help and the need of things to offer in return for it, all these must be named and ordered, everything taken useful, in one way or other, when none else thinks of these things unless he compels them to—
—and every heartbeat that is spent, every object laid in case, every decision and change of this or that or not this, is another death of friend and more than friend, slaughter and destruction as though the first of that Night were a contagion spreading — and yet had not these things been done, how few should ever have lived to reach these shores—?
—Ai, must thou ask, of all Eru's children? Small excuse, small worth, to say at end: Yet meant I well…
—Forgive me, the Man dares then to return, you well know how little I know — ever knew — but — can it be any worse than what our Enemy works on us? Have you not told us that the Valar work to good, not harm? Shall Mandos be harsher than the Necromancer to thee?
The silence is long, thereafter, as they know it, a breath, a heartbeat, two and then three, stretching out across the lightless plain. He has, no doubt, gone too far, dared in his ignorance what is plain to the one they had named Wisdom, lord of the Wise—
—The reply is filled with that ghostly gladness that is better than warmth of body to him, faint echo of the fëa before battle-breaking:
—Wise-hearted — wise-hearted as brave, you bear my gift back tenfold — name not self ignorant, friend — the soft brush of hand against hand's back, mirrored in his own aching knuckles, melting the ice in his bones as the torture-spell of their Enemy is made the means of their reaching — the praise is like wine in the bright cup, ale in horn, water on a day of Summer caught up in hand after the hunt — yet he forces himself to set it aside, to ask, yet again, while he still has wit for asking, while there is still time—
Again he pleads, in thoughts arrayed so painstakingly for persuasion, caught like small birds from the greenwood to set singing each in turn, how he, being but mortal, being no leader of Arda, no lord over Men and Elves both, nor wise, to give aid and counsel to their long War that must be maintained, renewed, the defense that must hold, the return that needs must come in time, retaking what was lost and more, in the balance is of no worth, and so should give himself over to be slain, so that the greater of them might be saved at least for such deeds—
It is so very clear to him, as it is not to his lord, and he presses his argument past the point of insistence, past the steady denial of his offer, until impatience colors the refusal, and rising anger, past the complicated explanations that require such effort on the King's part to order, of blood-debt and binding and kinship that is not kinship of birth but the part of kin nonetheless, to stand in the place of brother, as brother though not of like Kindred, and hence as father's brother to that brother's son, fatherless, and all of this be perhaps true, but the measure is not equal, has been paid out not ten times but measureless, for the worth of his own brevity against their loss, and the debt not commensurable…
Until at last, this time, the Elf-lord begins to laugh, and weep, both together, and chides him for his stupidity, in failing to comprehend that there is no escaping for them, no bargaining possible, none of it but a lie, all lies, even as his own father was pulled down by the wolf-lies of the Master of Wolves, no lesser betrayal to buy him freedom, and only worse to follow from such folly. Slowly, patiently, with words garnered more laboriously than grain from field wrecked by early storm of Summer:
—Think you truly, that did he know I were here, I, the King of Nargothrond, Finrod Lord of the House of Finarfin, the one who set thy people to hold his soveriegn's southern border 'gainst him, and Beren son of Barahir of Bëor here too, who has cost him so much in the breaking of that border, us both of ancient hatred to Morgoth's treachery, think you I should go free then? Or is it not so, that this would be but a shadow to what torments he will lay on us? Will he not set us to Angband, then, until all secrets — all — are spilled from us long ere our blood is spent?
—Some obscure caution yet holds him from that last revelation, and most sacred, yet it is small matter, now. For the veil has fallen, unnoticed, his strength so worn down that he cannot maintain it, nor marks the lapse, and all that they have striven to hide from their Enemy of their names, their thoughts, they have given him freely, spilled out as thoughtlessly as a child spills water over table, or pearls on the strand…
—But such error were less delightful, lacking the savoring, the hearing of the whetted knife, the longer tasting of defeat in the darkness, awaiting not death but worse — Else had they might not have known, until Doom came upon them unheralded—
It is beyond all comprehension, the vile thought that enters their crumbling minds from without, the mocking laughter, the promise of the wolf for the mortal, cast aside as worthless in his ignorance as much as source of amusement, too brief, too weak to know much or serve long as diversion — the promise of infinitely worse for the King, death too easy, too merciful for such a foe, even such death as they have known, whose fate shall be indeed such greater tortures even than this, as he has foretold for himself only now — and fate of Nargothrond as well, doom for his city, held for ransom or for guilt-bond, as prisoner never to be released, thrall to the Lord of Fetters, who hangs lords of the Firstborn from mountain walls or collars them in the Hells of Iron to fashion for him at his forges his weapons of living doom…
The suddenness of it shocks them into alertness, as cold water dashed upon a sleeping drunkard, driving them apart for the first time since their companions were slain, shock and horror and agony of guilt for having failed the other self, fear like a scourge, harsher than blows of iron-hooked whips, colder than wind of Helcaraxë, rougher than smoke of Alqualondë, more terrible than the fires of the North…
—This is not what I looked for, but it is even sweeter, laughs the Necromancer, best of all the betrayal of those who would not. Aye, curse each other, who thought to foil me, for each of you has bettered the other's reward beyond measure! Yet the King scarcely hears him as he fights to regain his scattered wits, as he scarely hears aught but his own dismay, the wild hammering of his single heart in rising terror. In panic and futility he strives to close the riven concealment, waste of effort that he foolishly yet seeks for long moments, before recollection; the anguish of his companion slashing at his soul in shame that he cannot assuage, for his own equal share in it.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.