1. Dark Morning
"[He] fought for the Lord of Gondor by land and by sea; and then in the hour of victory he passed out of the knowledge of Men of the West, and went alone far into the East and deep into the South, exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron."
(from Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers)
White was the color of dawn. Every morning the expanse of sea to the east would lighten and lighten, the layers of black and blue diluting bit by bit until nothing was left but the blinding white light of the sunrise. You could burn your eyes staring at it for more than a minute. They said it could drive a man mad to stare at it for too long: light so great could sap a man of his strength, his sanity.
The priests called it the hour of the gods.
Essir, her grandmother told her over and over again, her voice rich with accusation, was born on a morning with no sunrise at all. For the Lahe, the Sea-people, the hour of one's birth was perhaps the most important characteristic of one's life. The hour of one's birth and the events surrounding it were what gave you your secret name. The priests engraved the old-language name onto a rock when you were ten days old, and when the time came, when you were old enough, you were allowed to see it, to hold the little round beach-washed pendant in your small hands and understand who it was that you were truly born to be.
Of course, everyone already knew, for instance, that the child born during a summer storm would always suffer unrest, that one born in a thick fog in autumn would never be lost at sea, that one born, like Essir, in the hour of the gods when the sun was hidden by dark, portentous clouds and the air was deathly still… suffice to say she was not a favorite of fortune.
But how could her mother have known the hour or the weather from inside her stone house? She had been in labor for almost two days. And when her own mother begged her to wait just a little longer – just until the hour had passed – how could she obey? She was at the end of her strength. Yet later in her life the woman deeply regretted her choice, wishing instead that she had died rather than birth the child. So Essir came to be.
Her childhood was a lonely one: half of it was spent ducking out of sight of the mother and grandmother that looked down on her with such remorse, half of it spent running away from everyone else – other children who called her names and turned their backs on her, men and women who shooed her away without feeling. Her mother, of course, never had to explain; her grandmother did so with relish, it seemed. You were meant for that hour, the crippled old woman would say. Some demon sent you to us! Your father died in that storm! Dark child! Unlucky child!
And Essir's mother would ignore the words and go on feeding the toothless, crippled woman her morning soup without a look at Essir. It went without saying that her grandmother was crazy, but Essir always suspected that her mother, along with almost everyone else, silently sided with the old crone nonetheless. And over the years, with her husband and first daughter (the lucky daughter) dead and only Essir and the grandmother to look after, Essir's mother grew more and more silent, until one day she went down to the shore for abalone and never returned. That was when the High Priest of their town gave Essir her name-stone. To make her understand.
And after that the whispered litany of her grandmother settled into the girl like a slow white fire: bad luck to your father, bad luck to your poor sister, bad luck to your mother. You are a child of a sunless dawn. Bad luck follows you.
Such a dishonorable child should descended the dark cliffs as sacrifice to the cave-demon as soon as she was able. Essir did not. And when the other town children were too afraid to work with her or play with her she went to her mother's brother, a priest. (He had been born under a cold and starry new-moon sky in midwinter: the gods smiled on him, and he was wise.)
Together they would fish, or dig for clams, or wrest mussels from the tidepools, or do something else useful to pass the time while away from the town and its people. Her uncle had no desire for her to feed herself to any demons. In fact he spent a great deal of time on these trips trying, unsuccessfully, to keep her away from the sharp rocks that she loved to climb. He was the wisest man in the town, so no one would dare look down on him for befriending the unlucky child. And he spoke with her like no one else would. He had an answer for every question.
"Uncle, what is east of here?"
"Only the sea."
"Does it go on forever?"
"Then where does the sun come from?"
"The sun is brought every morning from the heart of the sea. It rises out of the water in the east."
"Where does it go at night?"
"It sinks into the western sea and is extinguished."
"But there isn't any sea in the west, is there? I thought it was all forest and mountain."
"Far to the west there is another sea."
"Are there people there?"
"What are they like?"
"They are pale and sickly. They speak in strange tongues and dress in blue."
"Are there gods that live in the west too?"
"What about tree demons?"
"Only they know."
"What about the cave-demon? Are there others like him?"
Her uncle looked down at her sternly. "Little girls do not ask questions like that," he said quickly, avoiding her gaze. He strode off without another word. He had an answer for every question, just not always the answer she wanted. Of course no one, man or child, would speak the name of the cave-demon for fear of incurring his wrath, but to mention his existence was bad enough. The cave-demon had taken her own sister, they told her. Another bit of bad luck.
But Essir didn't care what little girls should and shouldn't want to know. She was unlucky: she would never have any status in town society and would never be married. Everyone knew her by the hour of her birth and no one would associate himself with her anyway. Essir was free to be as unconventional as she liked.
She had always been curious about the tree-demons, and no one but her uncle would have warned her away from them. When she announced to her grandmother one morning after breakfast that she was going to see the tree-demons, her grandmother simply replied, "And good riddance!"
Essir knew that it was said the tree-demons sometimes killed people that wandered into their territory but had never known of anyone who died in such a way. During her life she had known of many that were lost at sea or who had been devoured by the cave-demon, but she had never heard of a tree-demon killing anyone specific.
At first they were difficult to find. She would walk through the forest day after day, hoping to catch a glimpse of one, sensing their presence, but not a one of them showed its face to her. She felt somehow that they were watching, judging. When at last she came upon a group of them one day, she was sure she could not have caught them by surprise. They must have planned it.
They were smaller than the men in town, their skin light and glowing but painted with strange symbols, and their clothes hung on them as naturally as leaves on a tree. Each one carried a light spear whose point was long and, to her eyes, deadly. They kept to the limbs of trees above Essir and she, looking up at them, was made to feel very small indeed. They spoke in a strange tongue amongst themselves, pretending not to see her, and then all but one of them vanished.
He was smaller than the others and seemed lithe as a squirrel. When he spoke, she was shocked to hear her own language coming from his mouth, although his odd tones and funny accent made it seem unfamiliar to her at first.
"Girl from the stone town by the shore, why do you come here?"
She stared back at him unabashedly. I have nothing better to do was untrue: she could be doing something helpful for her aunt, who cooked the daily meals for her and her grandmother. Honesty seemed to be the best option – she had the peculiar feeling that he would know the truth anyway, no matter what she said. "I was curious," she said. "I wanted to see if you would kill me or not."
The tree-demon made no sound or movement; still, gazing up into his small face, she sensed something like humor in those eyes.
"This reason only?" the tree-demon asked.
Essir thought again. "No. I have questions, too," she said.
The tree-demon stood up and began walking back and forth along a length of horizontal branch no wider than her leg, only he walked as comfortably and evenly as if he were on flat earth. She noticed that the branch didn't seem to move with his footsteps, as if nothing he did could really disturb it anymore than it would be disturbed by a bird alighting. "Your name, girl?" the tree-demon said.
"They call me Essir in the town," she said.
"No – your true name. We here in the forest know some of your people's customs."
Essir bit her lip. She knew what he was asking. And here she thought she could escape that! But it seemed that bad luck would indeed follow her. She wondered if she could pretend to have been born on a sunny afternoon in spring with a sea breeze and a rich catch brought in, as her older sister had been. Yet she sensed, again, that he would know a falsehood for what it was the same way her uncle often did.
"I was born on a dark morning before a storm, in the hour of the gods when the air was still." She said it quickly to get it over with. She wondered if this tree-demon would turn his back on her now that he knew.
But he only nodded. "I am Aol. The hour of my birth was many years before yours, even before your grandmother's, and I do not know what the weather was like. Now you may ask me what you will."
Essir didn't hesitate. "Please – what is west of here? Is there really a sea beyond the forest?"
The tree-demon looked down at her with his mysterious dark eyes. "Sea?"
"Like the one in the east?" Essir felt more and more foolish by the minute. Beyond the forest there were mountains, that was all. "Big water, you know? The blue place where the sun rises?"
The tree-demon nodded. "Of course I know this word. One hears tales of the western parts. They are dark tales."
Essir's spine tingled. "Dark tales? What do you mean?"
The tree-demon stood on his branch and pointed west. "West of here the sun dims. West of here there is darkness."
Essir shook her head. His solemn face made her think that his words had lost some meaning in her language, only she didn't know exactly what. The tree-demon was looking soberly into the forest toward the west. "West," he said again. His voice was strange and low. "The further west, the darker. In the west great clouds of ash grow that can swallow the land and the sun both in a day. In the west there are monsters that lust only to kill: forests, creatures, our people and yours. Here new days are born, but West is where they go to die. You understand?"
Essir wasn't sure whether she did or not. She was confused and not a little frightened. "The cave-demon comes from the west, doesn't he?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
The tree-demon nodded. "The cave-dweller? Ai. From far in the West."
Then he said something to her in his own language, saying it so naturally that she felt she could understand it if he could only say it just a little louder and slower. "What was it? What did you say?"
"Our people say that in the greatest darkness may shine the greatest light," the tree-demon said. "You understand?"
Essir visited the tree-demons now and again, and Aol suffered from her many questions, but she knew of none that left the forest until she was twelve years old. In that year there appeared a man on the borders of the village land the like of which no one had ever seen. He was absurdly tall with a beak-like nose and skin that was unnaturally pale.
The town gates, which had never been closed before in Essir's life, were closed to this man, and the brave and bravely curious among the Lahe townspeople stared out at him from the top of the stone wall that surrounded their town. For two days nothing was heard, and no one came or went from the town except for the grown men. Some of the priests called him a demon; indeed, he looked more like a tree-demon than a man. Her own uncle's answers to her questions were evasive.
And then – the strangeness of it! – before the stone walls of the town there came a tree-demon. All the priests gathered on the wall to stare down at him in apprehension, and beside them there were many men with spears ready to throw. But the tree-demon was unarmed, and they were all afraid to incur the wrath of his people. "Essir!" the tree-demon yelled to them. "I call out Essir!"
It was Aol.
Essir could feel the hundreds of eyes on her as she walked away from the stone walls of the town. Her uncle the High Priest had tried to hold her back. Her aunt and everyone else had been silent. Essir, not one for hesitation, had been out the door before they could whisper behind her back.
Aol looked out of place on the bare stone of the ground outside the town. He was hardly taller than she was, and his features seemed even more alien up close. "I'm here," she said when she reached him. "Why did you call me out? Is it about the tall man who walks on the border of the forest?"
"Yes, he has come to us," Aol said. "He has questions about your people that would be best answered by one of you."
"He speaks in my tongue?"
"No, in an ancient tongue that few of us still know. He is difficult to understand, but I will try to translate for you, if you will come."
Essir bit her tongue for a moment. She was used to being the one with questions, not the one with answers. "You had better call on a priest instead," she said.
Aol shook his head. "None of them would have come out or would have spoken freely if they did."
Essir felt a little dread, but it was only a moment before she answered, "Very well then."
As they walked to the edge of the forest, she thought she heard that tone of amusement in Aol's voice when he asked her, "You are not afraid?"
"Yes, of course I am."
"But more curious than afraid."
"How did you know?" she asked.
The tree-demon said nothing, but she thought he smiled. With Aol it was always hard to tell.
The tall man waited for them not far from the edge of the forest. She realized that from where he was he would be able to watch the town without being watched himself.
When they met, he bowed lightly to her, and she returned the gesture courteously. The appearance of the man from up close was far more startling that the tree-demon's had been. Everything about him was strange to her, from his dark ragged clothes to the strange objects that hung from his belt to the pallor of his skin. "He looks more like your kind than mine," she said to Aol. "Are you sure he isn't a demon?"
"As for that, even I am not sure, as you use that word for many different things," Aol said. "We thought him to be only a man, but his qualities are mysterious. He may be a new kind, neither your kind nor mine. He calls himself only by a name that means 'Traveler' in the old language. Like your people, he keeps his true name secret."
"Tell him my name is Essir and I greet him, and what questions does he have?"
The tree-demon and the Traveler spoke. When the Traveler spoke he looked directly at Essir, as if he expected her to understand, or as if he were judging her.
"He says that there is a great evil in your town. He wants to know about it."
Essir felt a sudden weight in her stomach. She knew the Traveler watched her carefully. Well, and so it went, she thought. No use trying to hide from it. "Yes. I am the evil. You may tell him the hour of my birth. He might as well know," she said.
"I do not think that this is what he means," Aol said. Again she thought she saw humor in his eyes, but with Aol it was impossible to say.
"What else, then?"
"The cave dweller. Tell him about the cave dweller."
Essir felt both a wave of relief and another wave of dread. But she spoke nonetheless.
"The gods chose this town for my people because of the fine bay and because it was easy to defend from others, and here the gods settled and we made our home. Years later, the cave-demon came. It lives in the caverns far below the town. It came from some other place along the shore. First they say it ate only fish, then the larger creatures of the sea, and then finally when night fell it sometimes crept out of its lair and devoured people in the town. The people were afraid, but they didn't leave their town. The priests asked the gods for guidance. The gods told them that if they gave the demon sacrifice every full moon night that he would keep to his lair and not climb the cliffs to the town walls.
"At first they fed him only enemies captured in battle, but when there were no more of these the gods decreed that the sacrifice must be chosen from the townspeople. Whenever a night of full moon approaches, if there are no foreigners to sacrifice, the gods choose from among the people. The chosen may be anyone who can walk the cliff path. The chosen goes down the cliff path to the mouth of the caverns before sunset, and there she gives her last obeisance to the gods and calls the cave-demon by its name. When the cave-demon hears his name, he always comes out."
It was long before the tree-demon could translate all this so that the Traveler could understand it, and while they spoke Essir thought of the older sister she had never known. When she was just an infant and the pall of bad luck had settled on her family, her older sister had been chosen. That was her fault too, of course. Her whole family had suffered from the bad luck she brought.
"He wants to know why your people never left your town when such evil infested it," Aol said, interrupting her thoughts.
"Because it is our town," she said simply. "The gods chose it for us, and they reside here. If we leave the town, we leave our gods, and that is… unthinkable." She struggled to put it into words. The truth was that if they left, they would no longer be Lahe. They would have no gods. They might as well be dead. "And the priests say that the cave-demon follows the smell of men, and even if we were to leave, to abandon everything, it would follow us, and then it would find us without our home and without our gods."
Aol and the man spoke at length again before Aol said, "He wants you to tell him the name of the cave-demon so that he may call it out and do battle with it."
Essir, stunned, felt her back erupting in a shudder, and she was sure her face went bright red. "I cannot say the name," she said, looking back and forth from the tall man to Aol. "If I say the name the cave-demon will come out of his lair now to feed. I cannot and I will not say the name."
Aol quickly translated.
"Very well, he says. He wants for you to take him to the cave-demon and call out its name, if you will. Tomorrow morning. He says you may run from it as soon as you have spoken. He aims to kill the beast."
For possibly the first time in her life, Essir felt the need to hesitate. Minutes of silence passed while they waited for her answer.
It seemed like they were asking her to do what everyone seemed to expect her to do since she was born: to give herself up to the cave-demon voluntarily, to forfeit her life of bad luck so that a more valuable person would not have to suffer. It made sense. The storm that was brewing during her birth had killed her father: that was the first token. And because this was so obviously a sign of bad luck, her sister had been chosen by the gods as a sacrifice. Her mother, years later, had gone down to the caverns and given herself up in despair, while her grandmother's mind and body rotted away in their little stone house. Bad luck followed her wherever she went. She ought to have given herself up long ago.
But she had always been afraid – at the very least, afraid of dying before all her questions were answered.
"I will do it," she said finally. "I have a wish to see this demon face to face myself. I will do it."
Aol and the tall man, the Traveler, spoke for some time. It seemed they had some difficulty understanding one another. Finally Aol turned to her and conveyed one last question. "He wants to know why they all call you bad luck."
Essir figured he must have told the Traveler all about her. "Tell him I was born on a dark morning before a storm, under the worst of omens, and bad luck is my fate," she said with some regret.
The tree-demon turned and spoke with the tall man again. But now a strange alchemy took place on the man's features: his mouth curled up into a smile, and his long white teeth were bared. He laughed! And then he spoke again.
The tree-demon translated, "He says to you, 'I am also born on a dark morning before a storm, and my morning was by far darker than yours. I am not afraid of you.'"
Essir spent the night with the tree-demons. It was strange and frightening at first to be outside the town walls when the sun went down, and she was not sure at all that she liked the way the trees and bushes made shadows among themselves, but the tree-demons lit a fire in a small clearing for their guests and seemed quite at ease. Essir was shocked to hear the warmth of their laughter. She had often heard, in legends, that they cackled at their prey, but their laughter was, after all, only laughter, and she felt instinctively that she had nothing to fear from them so long as she did them no harm. Around the fire they set up a feast for their guests and among themselves they told stories and sang songs whose words she didn't understand.
Essir was wide-eyed and silent through all of this, but even so she didn't notice when the tall Traveler disappeared. Later, when she saw that he was gone, she went to Aol and asked about him. "He is not content to stay in any place," Aol said. "He must always be wandering, always searching, until he believes he has earned the right to be still."
"How strange," Essir said. "Hasn't he got a home?"
"Home? Yes, of course. The West is his home."
She wondered whether he had come so far just to fight the cave-demon, all the way from the sea in the West where days died.
"Aol," she said, "Will you tell me more about the West?"
"Someday, yes. Not tonight."
"Why not tonight?"
Aol's eyes were shadowed, and his voice, as ever, was barren of emotion. Even so, she felt her chest tighten fiercely when he spoke. "Because the West is a place of darkness, where dark things breed and grow strong. Even to speak of the West and its evils gives evil things strength. And tonight the Traveler goes down to the caves to seek out this evil beast from the West."
"Is he mad?" Essir asked after a moment. "Or is he very brave?"
"Only brave, we think," Aol said. "Very brave, very strange."'
"Is he really a man, or is he a demon?"
"Both, and neither," Aol said evasively, and that was his last word on the matter.
Before she drifted off to sleep – in one of the net-like hammocks they made in the crooks of trees – she spent almost an hour staring at the starry sky through the boughs of the trees, full of wonder at this strange practice of sleeping outside. She thought a great deal about her luck and the meaning of her birth hour. She wondered whether her luck would have been so terrible if no one knew the hour of her birth – and she wondered, as she often did, if there would ever be a way to convince the gods to bless her with good luck for a change.
And just before she fell asleep she looked up to see the moon, waxing very close to full.
She woke up in darkness, but it was not complete darkness. The forest around her was suffused with the glow of pre-dawn, and being unfamiliar with this time of day in the forest her eyes were wide open to it. The trees were a million shades of shadow and dark green, only the shadows were tinged with milky dark blue, and through the treetops the sky was dim, dim gray.
She rose slowly. Now that she was awake and remembering where she would go this morning, it would be useless to try and go back to sleep. Being unused to such things, the hammock was awkward for her to climb out of (and left marks on her skin, even though it had been perfectly comfortable), and the only other thing in the tree to help her climb the twenty or so feet to the ground was a long, slender rope. She grasped it tentatively. It was strange rope that felt almost like a living thing, like a vine.
For not the first time in her life she wondered what, exactly, the tree-demons were. They acted like men sometimes and sometimes like animals. Stories swarmed in the town of the Lahe: the tree-demons were the corrupted spirits of lost warriors, the guardians of the forest, or the agents of evil from some far-off place. Essir mostly took them as she found them, and she found them to be like people. Strange people, but people still.
Cautiously, clinging to the rope, she climbed down to the ground. The forest seemed to be empty. She knew well enough by now that the tree-demons almost never showed their presence when it was not necessary, and the canopy above her might be full of them. But still she felt alone.
She sat down by a tree stump, drew her knees up to her chest, and watched the colors of the woods around her lighten and lighten, trying not to think about how soon dawn would come.
Aol appeared, as always, as if by magic, dropping from a limb somewhere above. He said nothing for a few minutes. He sat near her on the ground and picked a stone out of a pocket in his garment, and he began to sharpen the tip of his spear.
"Where is the Traveler?" she asked. "What did he find last night?"
"He is not far away. He found nothing last night. How could he? He could not find the path to the caverns. We will leave soon. Are you prepared?" he asked her.
"Of course not, Aol," she said. "But I… I think I am ready."
"How is that?"
"I have been thinking of the cave-demon. I think it is my fate to meet him."
Aol was silent again, until he said, "There are many things that are mystery to me. I do not understand why the birth hour is so important for your people."
"It is important for everyone. It is the gods' hour of your life," she said, although when the words had passed her mouth they sounded childish and simple, and she felt the stir of doubt again.
"My people know that time brings many uncertainties. And one's nature is brought about by time. To say such things as luck exists is foolish to us. The birth hour is only as meaningful as any other hour of one's life. Why must the birth hour for your people have more meaning?"
She was about to say, because the gods make it to be so, but she did not. Instead she said, "I don't know, Aol."
A cloudbank had drifted in from the sea and blotted out the sun so that the sky was pale whitish-gray and very low. Fog drifted lazily on the sea breeze that was only just waking. Later in the day the fog would burn off, but for now it left the stone town in a haze.
Hazy too was the forest when they left it behind them. The three went alone: Aol, Essir, and the Traveler leading them. They walked across the stony ground to the lip of the cliff above the caverns. Essir looked to the town that was to the north and slightly above them on its outcrop above the seashore. She was sure she could just make out through the mist the silhouettes of tall men on the town walls, watching. She thought she could even see her uncle among them. She wondered what he would think of all this. Would he think she was going to sacrifice herself? Yes, certainly. Would he stop her? Never. Even his love for her had its bounds. No one stopped my mother, Essir thought. No one stopped my mother, even if they knew that she wasn't going out for abalone. No one ever does anything. We all just go on living like it isn't there. And then she knew that what the Traveler had said was right: there was evil in the town. There was evil, and it wasn't just the monster that lived in the caverns.
The Traveler looked down at the caverns with concern knit in his brow. "He wants to know where the path is," Aol said.
"It is right here. Doesn't he see it?"
Aol smiled, almost imperceptibly. "I don't think his people are as accustomed to climbing steep cliffs as yours are."
"It's not that steep! Look, the markings are as plain as day."
"For you, yes. But remember how you yourself find it difficult to climb a tree without a rope. To him it is like that."
Essir pursed her lips. "I will go down first," she said. "He can watch me to see how I climb."
The cavern path was easy by her people's standards. A child could climb it. Children sacrificed to the cave-demon often did. But she tried to be obvious and precise in her movements so that they could be seen from above. When she reached one of the landings at the bottom she looked up and saw that the Traveler and Aol had begun their descent.
Now the path traveled through a maze of boulders. In the gaps between them the ocean seethed, spraying up where the waves were caught between rocks and lending a salty taste to the air. Essir looked down and saw a mess of kelp, barnacles, and mussels at the base of all the boulders. The tide was low.
She did not wait for Aol and the Traveler, but made her way toward the caverns. The path wended its way deeper into the array of stone that was the base of the cliff. Just around an outcrop where the path was cut into the rock, she saw the opening to the cavern. Because of the angle of the rock wall it was blocked from the early morning light, and the opening was only a patch of darkness at the base of the cliff wall, a gaping maw of terror amid the scattered gravel and rock.
She stared with an open mouth. The darkness there took on a life of its own. The hissing and gulping of seawater at the feet of the boulders seemed to become a voice whispering strange and evil secrets. And the mouth of the caverns had its own magnetic pull. Without even realizing it, she was walking closer, as steadily as if she had known the path from birth.
What was the cave-demon, anyway? It was not a demon like tree-demons or sky-demons or the demons of the waters. Somehow it did not quite fit in with the rest. Of all other kinds there were many, but of the cave-demon there was only one. Perhaps it is an outcast like me.
Now the opening gaped before her, and she was nearly under the cave's roof. She looked down once briefly to see that she was standing in a painted circle just big enough for a man, and it was surrounded by symbols of the ancient script. She didn't know what they meant, but she had an idea what the circle was for. Here the sacrifice stood, and here the sacrifice called out the name of the demon.
"Essir!" Aol called out from behind her. "Be careful! You should have waited for us."
Essir opened her mouth to speak, but found it too dry. In a moment she felt a presence beside her. She turned and looked up at the Traveler. His eyes were shaded, his face troubled. He did not look at her but into the caverns. With one hand he clenched a spear like Aol's, with the other another thing that was long and cold and gleamed like water. Essir had never seen such a weapon.
The Traveler, still not looking at her, gave a nod. And Essir turned toward the darkness and spoke the word she had never even heard before, except in her mind: a word that was only shown in writing, and then only in one very protected place inside the town's temple. "Siir-allas! Siir-allas! I have come!"
For a minute nothing stirred but the waves. Even the wind was silent. Then, like a breath, the cave exhaled a warm, rancid wind. Essir gagged, coughed, and fell on her knees – her eyes stung and dripped tears. She could not breathe or see. She felt strong hands gripping her arms near the shoulders, and she was lifted and dragged away down the path to where the wind blew from the water. "Go now!" said Aol in her ear as he put her down. He was quickly gone.
She lay on the stone, gasping for breath. It came easier after a moment, although her eyes were still clouded. When she stopped coughing she listened – she heard the sound of water in the rocks, and then something else. An odd clicking, like a walking stick plodding along on a flat stone path. They clattered like gravel falling down a cliff – yet like nothing she had ever heard. And then: a shrill squealing hiss.
She could not see! She could not see anything! The stones around her were hazy masses to her eyes. She rolled onto all fours and felt her way up the side of one boulder, to where she would have been able to see the cavern's mouth if only her eyes would clear up. She could just make out a tall dark figure on one side and the slighter figure of Aol on the other, but the darkness was – the darkness –
In the darkness was a form she did not know. A great hulking mass, green as kelp, moving quick like a fish through water, made of claws – and now her vision was clearing as she blinked frantically. Her eyes were wide and she could not rip them off of the sight of the monster rearing up on his many legs. No eyes. His mouth had the teeth of a shark, his back was plated with shell – his back arched like the back of a great fish, but hung with armor that was green and oily and covered with rough gray spots and barnacles like jagged knives. Aol's spear could not pierce it. The Traveler's spear glanced off the side also. The Traveler stood before the monster with his gleaming weapon uplifted, his feet dancing on the scattered boulders. Essir was sure he would fall between them. Essir knew he would fall between them. But the Traveler's poise was perfect, his eyes wholly on the creature as he led it outward, outward and on – away from the caverns – teasing, hypnotizing with his weapon that danced back and forth across what must have been the creature's face. If it had eyes they were too small to see from where Essir lay. Its gaping mouth emitted puffs of steaming breath, but the Traveler was unfazed as he backed away from it, boulder by boulder. When the cavern-demon jabbed with its claws he met its jabs with a flashing, glancing blow of his weapon.
Aol was now behind the thing, between the creature and its cave. He must have seen a gap in the monster's armor – his spear flew again, straight at a crack between the plates of shell. But the creature was too fast. The spear glanced off; the monster turned so quickly that even Aol, dancing lightly across the boulders, was not fast enough – the creature lashed out with one of its hideous claws, hit Aol and instantly threw him. Aol's body hit the side of a larger boulder and tumbled down into the dark crack in front of it. At the same moment the Traveler sliced off one of the beast's arms, regaining the thing's attention, and the dance became frantic.
But Essir was no longer paying attention to the Traveler. She did not scream when Aol fell because she was too afraid to even scream, but her body without the help of her brain began scrambling across the rocks. When she reached the crevice she looked down and saw his body floating in the dark, swelling surge of water among the kelp and weeds.
Pinning one leg against the boulder he'd hit and another against the opposite, she carefully made her way down into the crevice. She knew that if she lost her footing it would be nearly impossible to get out. She reached the water – one of the rocks stuck out a barnacle-laden edge at the bottom, and she braced one foot against it – she held onto the rock with one hand whose palm the barnacles had already cut to shreds and reached into the water with the other, grabbing him by the back of his tunic. She tried to haul him up – he was too heavy – she let go of the rock, grabbed with both hands, prayed to the gods she wouldn't lose her footing. The side of one of the boulders was at an angle. She heaved him onto it, and he stuck only because the barnacles caught on his clothes. His eyes were closed. Holding onto him with one hand for balance, she used the other to pound his back once – twice – until he coughed water and began to breathe. Essir felt something inside of her crack open like an egg – the feeling was too good to call relief.
One glance passed between them before he reached out and began to lurch up again, and she climbed on ahead so that she could help pull him up from above. It was a quick glance, and his eyes were, as usual, inscrutable.
When he reached the more even surface of the boulder he was quickly on his feet again, although not quite as fleet as before – she thought she saw blood on his leg – he might have scraped it on the barnacles – and he must have hit his head because there was a trickle of blood on his neck. He was off toward the creature. Essir climbed to where she could see. The Traveler had led the thing out, almost to the open sea, and the way was strewn with several of its crab-like legs. And now as she watched the sky that had brightened and brightened peeled away a flap of cloud and unveiled the sun, the blinding white sun. The monster flailed sightlessly, striking out at the air. Striking out at nothing. Essir saw a flash of sunlight on the Traveler's shining weapon, and the tall man drove it into the creature's open mouth as it reeled. There was a screeching, gurgling squeal. The Traveler yanked his weapon out of the creature. Aol tossed him his spear. The Traveler impaled the thing again, and when the long spear went through it stuck up through the thing's body, emerging between two of its armored plates. Black, oily blood spewed out from its mouth, spilling over the boulders around it. Slick and shiny, it reflected the bright sunlight of the hour of the gods.
For a while they all stared, waiting for it to move again. Then the Traveler walked off and began to clean off his weapon. Aol sat down and briefly inspected the gash on his leg. Essir pulled her belt off and ripped off some of the fabric from her long tunic and tried to put a binding on his head wound, which was still leaking blood. She noted in passing that his blood was as red as her own. Nothing like the black blood of the cavern-demon.
Then she went to have a good look at the thing. Her eyes were clear now. Everything was clear. It seemed to be an animal – an evil animal, but only an animal. It stunk like dead fish that had been left out to rot. The jagged shards of its armor reminded her of the shell of a crab. Deep in its face above its mouth there were indeed two tiny, bead-like eyes, and they stared uncaring into the nothingness of death. Already the seagulls had landed on it. Not far away there were dozens of them picking at its claws.
It is dead. It was all that she could think. It was the only thought in her mind. It is dead.
"So this is you, Siir-allas," she said.
They climbed back up the cavern path in a haze. Essir was shaking with excitement and could barely feel the rock beneath her feet. She could not believe what had happened. All her life she had never imagined such a thing was possible. It seemed impossible to concentrate on the task at hand, but she knew she must, because Aol could not climb the cavern path without her help. It was difficult to balance weight with him leaning on her, and the Traveler could hardly offer assistance.
The Traveler climbed on ahead of them. It was much easier to climb up the rock wall than to climb down. When the Traveler reached the end of the cavern path he threw a rope down to them, much to Essir's surprise, and Aol, half climbing and half pulled the rest of the way, was able to ascend very quickly.
Essir climbed the whole way and caught up with them at the top. Her head cleared suddenly when she looked down at Aol, sitting on the ground. She could see now that his injury was much worse than she had thought. A long gash snaked its way down his leg, and the bruise on his head had darkened.
The Traveler spoke quickly. "What is it? What did he say?" Essir asked anxiously.
"He said to go back to your people and tell them what is to be told. He will take me back to the forest."
"I'm not going to leave you now!" Essir cried, aghast.
"I will be fine," Aol said. "I look much worse than I am. My people are hardy. Go home for now, and we will speak later."
Essir glanced back at the town. The crowd of people on the walls was clearly visible now, and some had begun to come tentatively out of the gate, although none were close. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned. It was the Traveler, the warrior unscathed. He held his spear in the other hand, point upward, and he took one of her hands and closed it around the shaft. Essir stared at the spear, dumbfounded. The Traveler spoke again.
"It is his gift to you," Aol translated. "He said that because you came unafraid and of your own will, you brought him good luck. It is only the monster that had bad luck today."
She stood outside the town walls alone, and she felt the weight of every gaze on her small form. The air was thick with their silence.
The beast is dead. Again and again the words rang in her head. She could not speak or think because of them, she could only feel the horror of seeing the thing, the pounding rush of the battle, and the utterly weightless sensation of joy.
The white sky above her meant nothing, and neither did the wind in her face or the rock beneath her feet or the heaving sea. The beast was dead. They were delivered. It had not been foreseen by the gods or the priests or any of the Lahe or tree-demons: but the beast was dead. The Traveler could overturn fate as easily as he threw his spear. Everything will change now. Except for the people. The people could not and would not change. Can't they? Can't anything change now? Isn't anything possible? Can't I tell them I've thrown off my skin of bad luck and am born again as something new? This morning is not dark at all!
She found that the answer came from the same voice that asked the question: Yes. Things can change. If someone makes them change.
She could feel the black blood of the gargantuan beast dripping from the spear's shaft onto her fist. Somehow the sensation of the sticky liquid on her skin gave her an absurd feeling of power. She understood now that there was no bad luck or good to be born with, only the luck made with one's own hands. They would not understand, these people. Not yet, anyway. There would be a time for that. Later. First things first: they owed her a lifetime of recognition.
"See!" she cried at them, unafraid, shaking her bloody spear. "See who has suffered my bad luck now!"
Years afterward in the towns of the Lahe along the eastern coast the legend of the god from the West spread and grew until he was a giant ten feet tall with the strength of a whale and skin as white as the rising sun.
And the tales vary on how the daughter of a dark morning brought her town its savior. Some say she lured him in with magic spells, others that she tricked him with a trail of flowers, still others that she traveled to his far-off kingdom on the wings of a gull and begged for his assistance. But it is common knowledge even among storytellers that she became the first Lahe High Priestess, the wisest, most powerful holy woman the East had ever known. And to every town she traveled, she traveled with her head held high, the stained spear riding on her shoulder.
It was true that she was born in a dark morning, they said. But they would add the old words whose source was, for them, lost in the depths of memory: in the greatest darkness may shine the greatest light.
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.