2. Part One
Caught — caught — how dare they, how dare she!
—How long it has been since any has dared to smite him, to strike at him — how long since his flesh has been broken, this earthly form that he wears for earth's mastery, how long since Elf of Aman as of Endor has not feared to come at him in combat clear, his shield of powers welded from this world's working bent to his will, forged of his cunning and honed with practice, and fed with pain…
Not since a full handful of years, when he burned with fast-driven fire, the wood's long wrath striking through hand as through glove and mail, sent by hand that feared not retribution, by archer deaf to the song of his sorcery and blind to the shadow he sent forth, and he felt the fury, far-distant, of She who sang the Trees… Woods burned that night, leagues of them, but assuaged not the flame in his riven flesh and splintered bone.
—But that was long ago, and the dealer of that blow has well-learned his power, and the ways of shame, and fear, and his own folly, where he awaits the caress of torments sweeter still, for so long as his mortal flesh may endure… Yet that pleasure shall not come to pass, for he is stricken down himself now, though still he comprehends it not fully, nor accepts it. But disbelief shakes not the fangs from his throat, nor closes the furrows torn deep in his hide beneath the protection of his pelt, nor lets the air come clearer through his strangled windpipe — he is well-caught, and well-shaken, and his Enemy has neither fear nor doubt nor pity…
But still he wonders how this may be, and how the Laws that bind the world have cheated him, as with some part of the sense that is left him he wonders why they have come here to challenge him… For is he not the Master of Wolves, and knows he not all his minions, and their girth, and is he not the greatest?
—Fool, the Hound laughs at him, joylessly, did you not heed the words? Not — the greatest that walks the world, but — shall ever walk the world — and now thy time is done: now the Master of Wolves must kneel and yield him to the Nightingale he would cage. Surrender to my Lady!
No matter — he can flee, as his captives might not, and leave behind this damaged dwelling for a better, gift of his great Master. He struggles to unleash the couplings of his will from the bonds of the flesh he has worn for this Age, wrestling against the well-wrought making and his agony alike, his venomed slaver burning his own wounds where it froths from his jaws, distracting him from his song, choking from within and without and the deep-pressed claws of the terrible Hound weighting him in the torn tenderness of his underbelly, gouging still deeper to his innards, his bitten forelegs throbbing like the ceaseless rhythm of thralls' hammers — he writhes, fëa as hröa, endeavoring to abandon the field of his defeat—
And a voice commands him, shaking body and spirit together:
Next to him, to them, she is a tiny thing, a moth, a slip of snowflower, a small bird barely a mouthful for either — and both combatants are subject before her, one for his love, the other of dread. The light that flames from her is a storm of silver, endless arcs and whorls boiling forth like the white foam of the sea, and she is not even aware of it as she advances upon him, her gaze burning into him like a blow from a sword of crystal. It is not hatred she casts upon him, for the taste of that he well-knows, having found it sweet many times beyond numbering, hurled upon him from the hearts of his breaking — but purest wrath, raging clear and undiminished by any tainting of self-concern or savoring of his pain…
He looks into her eyes, and is caught — the song that she sent through his stronghold was not the greatest expenditure of her power at all, but barely the least skimming of it, as the white of the wave is but the barest surface of it, and the full weight of her will is turned on him, like the weight of the wave that comes from the deep ocean, and it crashes upon him and spills him now open like a casket left carelessly on the strand, and his thoughts are scattered loose before her, beyond his gathering—
(… and still behind the wave there is the Sea…)
In her brilliance there is a light that he recognizes — remembers — and how had he forgotten the glory of it, faded in recollection to a mere disdained illusory shimmer? He wants to devour it, consume this small vessel with its spark of the first Light that wanders wayward through his dominion, to blot it from his sight that it not reproach him with what he has become—
"No, chosen—" her soul rebukes him—
—and at the same time he wants, most desperately wants, to be taken by it and made welcome and all wounds forgotten forever as in far-distant Days before the Sun…
—No! I am not your Hound, he snarls, and the teeth in his ruff stab deeper and slam him against the stones, and his glazing eyes dim at the renewal of agony.
"I care not what you are, Hound of Morgoth, so that you obey me."
She sees in his mind that he has minded to abandon this fast-held shell, and she smiles, and it is the most terrifying sight of his long, long existence, more dreadful than the wrath of the Wrestler, than the Hunter on his rampaging steed, than the sorrows of Uinen rising in storm, than the grim jaws of her champion even — this girl-child, not even a warrior of Finwë's scions to master him, not even true Power, who has seen not full ten of her people's time-measures, smiling down without mirth upon him in his anguish—
"Go, then, to your Lord, and to his good welcome. No doubt he will thank you well for losing him the hold on this vale, that guards the wide way to his gates, no doubt reward you most generously for it—"
Her words are a mirror held up to hold him, reflecting back at him his own knowledge — as though she, not the Hound, had her foot at his neck, battering his soul beneath relentless blows of her will, he cringes, whines, the wolf-shape yelping in terror and desperate wish to escape — but escape there is none, for his fate will be worse in his Master's holding than in the grip of the Hound, horrible though that be. He has not thought, in the chaos of his defeat, has not considered the truth of his plight—
She does not tear from his mind what she seeks, no more than she takes what he would rather withhold of his secrets: the fact that he plotted her capture, long gloated over the image of Angband's proud rivals in anguish, Doriath's dearest treasure taken in thralldom, his hunger to see her abased, great Melian's daughter a shivering slave at his feet, to be given in tribute to the Lord of the Void, and sent forth soldiers to snare her… it is simply that her power has smote him like the storm-deep upon the sea-tower, and as though his soul-castle were but sand it has fallen in ruin, or a log wet-rotted in woodland, struck by the shoe of a galloping steed, crushing asunder and all the creeping, scurrying things, sticky-pallid and glassy-black and slick-brown, all hasten for their homes in vain…
He strives to send forth his will to see her thought, know her will, her reasons for hence-coming — but it is as though he stared into the Sun's face directly, no more can he see of the figure therein, but only a brightness that blinds him and wounds him. There is neither fear nor the disgust that is fear too (and more crippling) that will not regard but must look away, in the gaze of the maid who has mastered him: his cruel ambitions to use her as pawn do not daunt her, she but glances past, as one who scans a page of dreariest chronicle, seeking some one pertinent fact in the record.
There — she has found what she seeks, the fact of his knowing, the way into his stronghold, past ward, past guard, needless of battle, the words of unbinding, of opening, of revealing — the mirror-brilliance of her thoughts, like a shield of silver and adamant, sends fear-flight deep into his heart—
"Give them to me," the command shivers through his spell-fashioned bones, "or believe me that I will set the Lord of Dogs to serve you in such wise as you have served so many hundreds, that your fell sovereign may set you in your turn houseless in darkness, your pleas heard but unanswered! Now!"
From the wreckage of his thought he gathers together and offers them to her, upheld, soul bending in supplication, that she not rip him apart like a falcon her prey, not send him shrieking hither to his Master's calling, unbodied, helpless, to be harrowed and seared, left a mere wraith in the bitter cold of the North-night, or made into other, reshaped into form far from his choosing—
He has no thought of deception, for once, now; no treachery dares to cross his mind, lest she slay him, her will not a hammer of hell-forged iron but a sword of clear crystal to sever him, through the teeth of her liege — or a sickle, bright as starlight, sharp as the points of stars, keen, irresistible, fashioned in Valinor, wielded by the wrath of the Lady…
—The keys are hers, the words that rule all his wardings and Workings set through the citadel, all of them laid in her thoughts as though on a ring in her hand. She has no need of him now, this Maia of Morgoth's, less in his worth than the youngest Dark-elven child — than mortal—
—Ai, yes, than mortal!—
—he flinches, grovelling into the pavers, under the weight of her wrath — that deemed himself mightier than the Valar even in his cruel lordship, his arrogance sinking him still lower in the slough of his evil, that seeks not nor sees need for escape. Death he deserves, and torment after, and small pity indeed—
But a bargain has been made, and there is no taking it back, and breaking it were to set at work such forces counter to her Working that it were better she had never set edge to strand than come so far and fail. Were it not for his dangerousness, when recovered, it would not even be consideration. He is less than nothing to her now, that she has defeated him, and has no more to gain of him — his vaunted might and mastery and scorn such wretched, pitiable things to deem exaltation that his downfall is scarcely worth triumphing over.
—What greater punishment is there, she wonders, than to bear the burden of self that is yourself? What greater misery than to gnaw bones in the dark, and believe that mastery over the wide world? Poor starving fool, that will not take gift of bread and water free-given!
And with that he is gone from her thought forever, swept aside in more worthy concern, and this is yet another score across his soul as he shapes his tooth-scored hröa into a form more suitable for flight, hatred filling his spirit yet not sufficient to drive out fear, of her companion's fangs, but far more of her fearlessness, that clove through his works and ways and wards with the ease of a sword's edge through cobweb — and does not even deem him sufficient for her hate, which is as venom poured over his wounds—
Already she has turned from him to face the Tower, now hers; he is forgotten, to go on his wounded way, wheresoever he chooses — but where is there to go, that will welcome him? Until he has redeemed himself he cannot return to his Master; until he has recovered his powers he dare not venture anywhere within range of his foes — his many, many foes! With his inner sense he can see in the night a darkness far other than the simple lacking of light — eastward a Shadow malevolent, brooding, wary and hungry abides. He will be hated there, no less than all others, but the burnt and broken wood of Tar-nu-Fuin is savagely to his spirit's liking — hatred and death and pain aplenty to draw from, dark stream of suffering to plenish his soul…and none will dare trouble him there, not even his Master's wrath shall easily pursue him to that twisted fastness.
He would like to rend at her with his wingclaws of iron, striking at her disdainful lack of regard, but she is not foolish, only trusting — trusting of Huan, loyal Lord of Dogs, whose lean shaggy jaws raise paling of spikes like the ice-tipped Pelóri between her foe and his Lady. At last he gathers himself from the ground of his breaking and writhes himself up into the sky, ungainly lumber of limbs not meant for such earthborn efforts, so much of his might spilled out there, blood upon stone, strength shaken from him by one who should not have been even his equal, let alone ever his master—
—and still he wonders, as he goes, as he will wonder long ere he knows the full answer, (and never to know it in full, being beyond his soul's comprehension) — why he has been thus struck down by Doom without warning…?
Before his wingbeats have ceased to trouble the night air above them he is pursued by a cry terrible and strong, triumphant without rejoicing, cry of victory without gladness — the dark words of his Mastery yet made beautiful despite themselves, for the glorious voice of the Singer who sends them. Still, though he flies, can he not escape minding of his defeat, still can the Abhorred One find yet neither peace nor place: without even gambling, without choosing this match, he has hazarded and lost all to the Elf-maid behind him. She, for her part, cares nothing for any who hate her…
In her urgency she pours out all her terror and longing and lost hope returned into her call, so much more of herself than is called for: gem casket lids spring off, iron-bound chests fling themselves wide, doors unlock and slam open in a thunderous chorus of liberation through the masterless fortress before they shall be poured out with the stones that unravel beneath them — and chains are reft open, the iron collars of thralldom parting from bowed neck, shackles falling from lean, galled limbs in the far subterranean hovels. Trembling the wearers look up, hollow eyes growing wide in terror of change — and those who were awakened, who heard that unstoppable song and rose up from blank being into true dreaming, feel something more — something that savours of fear in its outward ways but is far other — that might, almost, be the memory of joy…
The stones tremble, mortar falls at an instant to dust as the full strength of her voice strikes it, the roof-slates melt like winter ice from a dwelling-roof, slide down themselves to shatter so far, far down upon the courtyard below, shards of them dancing over the stones of the causeway even almost to where they stand. Facing of marble loosens, pulls out from itself, unravelling like a scrap of gauze; the upper rings of the tower begin to spiral free, unwinding as the spun thread is unwound from the rod upon which it is wrapped, falling one by one, and then faster and faster still, as the hailstorm begins with one fallen stone, and then another, and then grows in sound and strength until it is a roar too loud for hearing of voice.
—And yet her voice is still heard, over it, through it, woven into its making, unbinding, opening, parting, shifting, stirring and loosening as a thousand years of wind and rain would not so shake it, nor aught but strength of earth shaking, stone-under-stone rolling in sudden thunder of the depths. Only spell shall do so besides — but never thought any that such thing be accomplished, one to wrest the control from the Wolflord — far less one ancient in the naming of Men, yet she but a child to the Power that ruled here, lesser Power though he be, and old beyond reckoning in the ways of mastery and entrapment, nor one of those Firstborn who had set self and sword in defiance of the Northern shadow, the mighty of Aman, proud in their little towers, never thinking that those towers faced a fortress built of mountains, what that should mean—
And now the tower, raised by Elven hand and spell, is cast down by a Song, the servants of Morgoth's servant realizing that they are lordless and defeated, and not even stopping to ransack the treasures that now lie open everywhere to hand or claw they flee in disarray, those with wings hurling themselves from aerie, shrieking, piping, sending call of mind and voice afar seeking guidance, seeking after their fled lord in their own flight; while those of foot, two or four, hurl themselves into the river, daring Sirion's wrath rather than face the Singer who holds the bridge and the fangs of her liege.
Many are swept under, sucked down by the fast current, not knowing how to swim who abhor the spirits of water, that cannot be burned or uprooted as the trees, but only fouled and dammed, but not forever… Those who make it to shore do not wait to see what comes next — many do not even know what has happened, only that their world ends about them, their lair is broken, the power they trusted to guide them and send them in safety on their ways of destruction has forsaken them like smoke blown away on the wind, and they are routed utterly.
Northward they fly, scattered like Autumn leaves, thinking of nothing but themselves, each for own self only, each dreading to hear the baying of the Hound in its ears, to feel his teeth laying them by heel or hackle, fleeing still more the sound of the voice that rings through their souls like brightest crystal, piercing notes that are terrible in their clarity as arrowshafts, as the lights of heaven, as the Valaróma's long-forgotten call…
That same clarion summon others as strongly as it banishes the rest, though they still cower in the shelter of their caves, while the thunder of stones overhead and the groaning of the earth deafen them, (yet never so much that that Song is overwhelmed), while above them the citadel opens like a white rose of stone, unwrapping itself in uncanny grace, buttress and finial and architrave floating apart, falling like the petals of a rose full-blown in a wind of Autumn, yielding all that it holds, defends, conceals, to the wakening sky…
—Sirion rises from the stones below as if the steams of a destroying fire, leaping up to consume the Bridge of Sorrow that unbinds itself in swift collapse, falling into the tide as a handful of pebbles cast into a stream by a child, up to the very feet of the sacker of the Citadel—
…and at last, when the silence is deafening, when the bedrock no longer trembles around them, and from the night about them the words of command no longer pulse like the beating of their own blood in dread of hope, and only the fading Stars are to be seen above them, not the dim roughness of smoke-blackened masonry, those who have been so luckless as to be doomed to imprisonment here instead of death now venture to climb forth, as of out of their own graves.
They fear not the water, but they are weak, and fearful of all, and the Moon blinds them, who once freely walked beneath not only Moon but Sun, and it is some time before in resoluteness they gather at the bridge's shattered head, and helping each other, making bridge of arms linked and guiding hands, they make a way across the river that they never thought again to cross in flesh, never thought to see in life again, strongest carrying the weakest, all supporting each other as they can, starting in terror, and then smiling in fierce vicarious triumph to see the crushed bodies of the werewolves jammed about the blocks beneath their slipping feet. —And then, as one, they look up to see who has done this thing, and know not what to think.
One of the twain who waits at the height of the further shore where the causeway is torn from the bridge's breaking, tide of destruction flowing downwards and outwards from the topmost tower that was the Necromancer's place of pride, is familiar, though strange: Huan, the great gray Hound of Valinor, fame gone out through all Beleriand, not only in the lands of his master. Surely it was he who slew the wolves, cast them down in slaughter, but the other—! The other is stranger still, both considered in plain sight and in the regard of the spirit, so far at odds with each other, in seeming at least.
Outwardly she is a woman of their own race, no great majesty or awe about her, not any warrior from the West beyond the Sea, looking only frail and uncertain in the moonlight. But seen with tercen she is far other, something new and never seen before, something terrible beneath the Stars…
She who sang now stands silent, her eyes unblinking fixed on the further shore, waiting. In the silence, as the slow fading of near-winter night stretches on, darkness slackening its soft hold upon the world, while yet no light of day or dawn is present, they are silent, and after the yammering of the wolf-horde fleeing the cataclysm and the shrilling of the vampire-covey and the wildness of the stone-storm the river's sound, which seemed so faint a thing in the heat of battle, is a loudest song in the stillness, when even birds (if any dare dwell in the shade of the Wizard's Isle) do not yet stir and speak amongst themselves.
She is brighter than the very Moon, light pouring from her as foam from the rapids, ever-new, inexhaustible — she stands, hair hacked unkemptly short even as theirs as in mark of servitude, with her garments in rags, pale tatters and starry blue, and barefoot, her eyes hollow shadows in the pallor of her moonlit face, and about her swirls a high-tide of darkness and rest, her wide cloak rippling on the slight breeze over the water as though it were the lightest of gauze, tumbling over itself like ink dropped in water, or long dark hair upon a dancing surge of wind.
From the place where the Lady waits, staring past them unseeing, towards the stronghold that is no more, come upon the cold and bitter air of the Island of the Tower of the Wolves and the eaves of the Nightshade instead the sweet clear fragrances of summer forests and unpoisoned, flowing water — and even those who are come of Aman, who have walked among the Powers of the world themselves in days of joy beyond remembering, do not know if she be of their Kindred or of far mightier name.
Little by little they venture to approach, (yet not too closely, not yet) and to bow trembling at a distance from her feet, whispering their gratitude in voices yet meek and uncertain after so long duress, weeping with the gladness and unbelief of it, and still she looks beyond them, as though they are but ghosts unhoused upon the night wind, too dim for seeing, too faint their voices to be heard by one living and complete, consumed with her own thought and needing nothing that they might offer her.
—Where are you? where are you — O my love, answer me again, come to me — must I go to find you in that Darkness, must I go into that—? such terror at the end of the terrible path that yet daunts me — or am I too late? —too late in the coming, too late in departing, and only the memory of thy voice shall I save? O Beren, return to me, return—!
At last when no more straggle across the gap to the shore where she stands, the frailest sustained and welcomed by friends, kinsmen, strangers, she turns to the great Hound beside her and exchanges a long look, and haply more, for all they know.
Then, slowly, so slowly, as though she is walking into a high wind of Winter, she begins to make her way down the slope up which they have climbed, down to the rocks and half-broken vaultings of the bridge beneath her, her strange companion by her side, whom she holds to by shaggy fur as though to a friend's hand, as though she durst not go forward without the Hound's companionship.
They begin to pick their way across the blocks that bar and bridge the river, slipping and catching themselves, until at last at the great Hound's nudging she yields and climbs dripping onto his back, clinging hard to the fur of his hackles while he surges forward without the halting, careful pace he kept to stay her and shield her from the frothing tide. Like a trained courier's remount he gathers his strength and expends it by need, and she sits him as confidently as any King's messenger over the uncertain terrain.
Like a star burning across the earth she goes forward, bearing night with her — they watching her from the bank, increasingly from afar — over the broken bridge and its sunken arches, she and her shadowy steed, over what once was the barrier to all their hopes, now but a tumble like to a sculptor's model half-crushed for rekneading and fashioning into new.
Slow their passage and careful their going hence on the wet stones, even as their own in leaving — but some who saw it before they were taken remember, and cannot put from their thought now, nor leave off from speaking of it, how once another rode over the broken land, star-shining, unstoppable, into the Dark — Somehow, despite that, despite the dread of that Island she ventures, their hope is not quenched that she will come back to them…
The darkness that has overlain the island for almost a decade clings to her ankles, clutching her bare feet like black mud, oozing-cold and poisonous in its touch — she can feel it trying to scald her, eat away at her soul and her hopes, and in weakness wishes she had not dismounted just yet — but if Huan can endure it and must, then so too shall she. But she sees him, catlike, shaking each paw in disgust as he lifts it from the layer of shadow-vapour, and so is less troubled.
They have left the bridgehead — or what was that, once — behind them, and now labour upwards to the footings of the Tower. She had tried to use the tumbled stones from the upmost stories that are heaped thickest at the outer range, the curve of spans and buttresses taller than she, to aid her in her climbing; but the web of horror that coated them made them too awful to touch, and like wet moss her hands slipped back from them, so that now she only holds fast to the long coat of her savior, her friend, and trusts to his strength to carry them both up the rise of the mount.
Behind them, though they do not know it, where they have passed over the track of their passing is clear — the light that surrounds them melts away the residuum of the Necromancer's wardings, and the clotted veils do not roll back behind them — rather, the clear darkness of before-dawn continues to wash wider on either hand, and where the shade of her mantle sweeps over it the bitter earth softens, as under the rains of the far-distant springtime…
…Heart should not be able to bear such burden of dread, such cold weight of anguish growing like ice-weight on branches, crushing slowly and with such insidious increase, every step like another drop of freezing rain, catching, coating, unable to slip off as snow may, or be shaken by hand or wind, so that the burden is gone, to be renewed, but with a brief while of ease…the pain growing, breath by panting breath, not the dull weight of stones that crush, now, the dead weight of hopelessness, helplessness, the weariness of the trapped that cannot break free, can see no way out of the deep-dug trap, the walls falling in upon the leaping creature, the chain and collar fast about neck, no way to even gnaw self free in flight bloody-footed but better than other…
This is slow, too, but sharp, sharp as the rending of wood deep within bough, wound unseen but no less fatal, wider-tearing as the time draws near, when weight shall be too much and self shall be rent, soul ripped as the heartwood, unless the Sun shall haply rise in time ere the breaking, ere the moment of breaking inevitable, even though freed of the ice-prison—
Is it her own fears only, that drag her down towards the earth, towards the foul footing of the Island? Or the darkness that has drenched it so long, the welling residue of death-magic outpoured by its robber-lord, the memory of dread wielded to overthrow its defenses so long ago, so brief a time in the ken of the Eldar, and yet so long in the living of those held here in thrall — how can she know, how tell them apart, when they are one and the same?
How strange that to her this last, briefest journey should be more fearful than all the rest, this short walk uphill more of heart-freezing terror than the long drop of Hírilorn, when there could be no resting, no pause, only to keep going, down, and down, and yet down, as the slow Moon passes over, fearing to be seen despite working of Song and shuttle, pressing bared foot against bark so smooth that any carelessness of ankle means slip, and shock, and trembling dread, only arm's strength and angle of leaning holding one from fall and death of breaking, and never a thought of turning back, only step after step as the thin cord sears hands already worn raw with the work, too much in too short a time, with never rest for healing, never pause to reconsider, nor ever a regret…
No regret now, not that, but such reluctance as never encumbered her earlier, dark webs of apprehension tangling her, holding her, through which she must force her way ever onward, dragging at her like wet mud soaking the hem of her dress, her mantle, slowing her steps ever as she must ever force herself to keep pace with Huan, Huan who will not leave her behind nor stop, so must she then go on. Not in the worst weathers of the rough lands she traversed alone, veiled in shadow and dream, fretting sleeplessly where she tried to rest, and plodding onward in weariness for having neglected rest, did she ever face such difficult going.
The Bridge of Sorrow was not so dreadful, even as wolvish minions stalked her down its span, cold green eyes filled with wrath and hunger and nothing more, save hate, as this cumbered slope from which all enemies have gone in haste and terror of their coming, battle won at a stroke of challenge, the field forsaken and left scattered for them to take at leisure. Open battle, pitched and engaged, filled with its own particular and distinctive fear, the taste of which never had she known before, save in others' Telling, leaves no room nor time for any other fear or thought of bleak surmise: there is nothing, in that moment, but the moment itself…
The shock of the Wolflord himself, huge beyond mind's ability to comprehend, too big for the world about him, falling upon her like a wave of poisonous shadow as she stumbled backwards in recoil of body and mind, that was a little like to this, with its rending sharp stroke of fear through her heart as she imagines the blow of a sword would be like, but that was quickly ended as it begun, her self defending herself as though she were twain, the Lúthien that fell back before the Enemy that had shadowed her people all her life long, whose dread and works had darkened the horizons of her days, though the present be clear and cloudless — and Tinúviel, who no more fears beast or blade in hand than a nightbird on the wing, crying a note upon the envenomed wind that stopped that Enemy in mid-leap as surely as any spear—
—who was no more than sight and will and fiercest hope, without any recollection of hröa standing on the cold stones of the causeway, while the Lord of Dogs and the Lord of Wolves battled for the mastery of Doom in that hour, and the latter learnt most hardily that Fate cannot be fooled by the tricks of a conjurer, and the lies of one whose greatest art is but deceit…
Ai — she is here, now, at the brink of it, where the tumble of blocks is worse than the snow heaped of a midwinter, and she clings to Huan's strength again, holding to his neck with her face pressed against his shaggy coat as though he were a horse taking steepest bank of a river, shaking too much to climb over of her own strength without slipping. Over what was the arch of the eastern gate he struggles, huge haunches driving him tireless onward, even after the long night's battles. Until, now, they look upon the uppermost of the foundations of the tower, opened before them as an anthill by the turning of earth, the maze of half-built caverns and shaped delvings that hold no more of their unwilling, saving only those who cannot come forth—
Her tongue cleaves to her dry mouth, she could not sing now if life again depended on it, cannot even whisper, her ribs so tightly bound by fear that breath itself is pain — the tide of horror is so strong here, the echo of the Necromancer's dark Song trembling still in every stone and scrap of mortar, every grain of sand that made its mixing, pressed into all by year, month, day, hour, breath of sorrow and destruction that she can scarcely hold, would flee as the enslaved, wiser, perhaps, than she, whom all name foolish—
So deep is the shadow of death-spell and memory of agony and deceptions worked for cruelty that she cannot sense, so close though she is, any presence within it. Only Huan's sure press forward, seeming to know where they must go, as though he can scent trail through this mirk of horror, carries her past stillness of despair into the warren of stone. —If after so far, so long, so much struggle and strife she should be too late — Perhaps it would be bitter justice upon me, that delayed so long to follow him, — but not for any other —! No— She forces the cruel and useless thoughts aside, dwelling only in body, only in present, this scrape of stone on knee and thigh, palm and sole, the feel of sandy mortar through stretching cloth, this straining of sinew in bending of limb and lifting of self, the placing of weight as a dancer must, to counter fall, ever changing, ever yielding, ever recovering as water over stones—
But this only defers, and for so long, as they scramble down through to below the upmost layers of the honeycomb of rock, and stand at last upon the brink, looking down into the well of darkness, this vast fosse of sorrow, into which so much anguish and suffering have been poured in so short a time, scant years of the Sun, years of nightfall and pain…
If it were not for Huan's seizing of her shoulder in his gentle maw she would topple, drowned in the overflow of Shadow that spills forth from it like poison steam from furnace of Morgoth's making, her heart frozen, her spirit overwhelmed by the darkness that is not fear for her own harming, but far, far worse than that…
—Peace, she whispers silently to any who linger yet, unhoused, upon this isle, within these walls, peace and quiet rest, with such forgetting as thou wilt have— But there is none that her sense can descry, remaining, none yet bound here without shelter. Only the memory of their pain, in the stones that she must steady herself on, memory of defilement and despair, clinging to her as though she touched half-dried spill of blood, too thick to be shaken off…
Down and yet down, they work their way over rubble and through blockage of fallen column caught on the barrier of the steps cut in the living rock, and ever she must lean upon Huan's strength as she grows weaker, her pulse so rapid that it seems she will faint as she goes, but she compels herself to remember breathing, and though it does not feel as though it helps, she is not yet ever overcome by dizziness…
It is as though she swam to the bottom of a well, clawing her way down along the side-stones of it slow hand-press by hand-press, when not only the crushed frame but spirit as well both yearn and strive for light and air, forcing herself deeper against the mounting strength of dread, layer upon layer of anguish like water ice-cold and colder, each descent more difficult by magnitude than the last, so that all one's self becomes focussed on the task, on not slipping and failing at end, now, and so when end is reached, of this portion of journey's ending, at the least, it is as a wonder, and a dream, and one does not believe it, and staggers, trying to step down where there is no further down.
—Only across, across a space level and dim, scarce brighter than full darkness, more dreadful than the distant mountains one's ancestors crossed so far ago, following a Call, and a Light, that some had seen, and others only heard of, to where the overwhelmed inner sight believes, or is deluded, that there is yet light—
It is so cold here that she cannot stop trembling, or that is what she tells herself, and this is likest to what she has known before, the fear that has no name but must be named, and not self-blinded pretense raised as false and frail shield of gauze, against both the smiling evil and the silent turning-away of those who stand by and refuse to name it so, pretending ignorance and hence formal innocence of complicit guilt — when only love, and painful sacrifice may save one whose defenses are nonexistent, when only the withholding of power for its own purpose against prey delays Doom — she puts her arm over the back of her faithful steed, letting his strides carry her, letting the heat of his side warm her own as her hair does not in the abyss—
Each step deeper into the mire of misery and soul-defiling horror that fills this space, each movement more reluctant than the last, as though one should wade into a vale filled with the overflowings of innumerable distillations of venom, knowing that it shall only grow more painful as one goes on, nor grow used to it, easier with familiarity — the faint radiance of the coming Sun barely shifts the night here at all, and her vision can glean little as yet, but still she seeks with eye as with heart… Sound affrights her, and she realizes that it is felt as much as heard, bearing through flesh as much as upon ear, the low growl of anger that Huan gives unceasing now…
A roofless pillar looms up beside, like a bare and branchless tree, dead in swamp, giving home but to carrion crow, or fire-burnt pine, and as they near it the impress of torment, of terror, agony, shame, despair so oft spilled at its footing reaches at the same instant sight discerns the tangle of curves pale and dark, bone and black iron, and the comprehension — unwilled, unwished, undesired and inescapable — dashes her to her knees as though a hammer had felled her, and when she would push herself to her feet her elbows fold beneath her own weight and she cannot but bow under the terrible weight of knowledge, the cold of the stone paving flowing into her like venom into her pulsing veins, and she pants for breath and cannot even draw a full measure of the foul air where she gasps, shuddering, broken by a truth past any imagining.
Though no seen or scented foe threatens, the Hound bestrides her at once, thews like trunks of thick-barked oak, like gateposts to either side, gateway guarded by vigilance sharper than spears, spear-sharp the defending weapons, and his hackle-raised anger a flame like unto torch blazing to defy the night. The heat of him shelters her, the strength of his love braces her, so that she can brace herself against his strong forelegs and thrust herself up from the floor, leaning against his muscled chest as though he were war-horse, the two of them pressed now against each other for comfort, both shaken with horror and rage and dread of what may find, pressing forward in bleak determination now, knowing the secret of abyss they have fathomed…
…past each lonely outpost, where so many have yielded self without volition, crushed in sacrifice to the ambitions of the tyrants, greater and lesser, who would master all, if mastery means destruction of what will not yield, and surely here would the unrestful dead be most likely to remain, but she senses none, hears no word of reproach or lamentation, no glimpse of any faintest lingering light, though she is too unsteady to speak or answer did any reply, all her strength of spirit forced to the forcing of self onward, to find the answer she fears she knows already…
Until at last they have reached their long-sought end, and still she does not know if they two be but two, alone, here: for the wolf-demon at which Huan bares teeth snarling in ready instinct of defense is lifeless as its fellows that lie in the riverbed far above, and her kinsman whose body lies in its fatal embrace is likewise gone, and he that huddles so near to them, hand stretched towards as though straining against the now-opened shackle, neither stirs nor attends to their approach.
Again, as on the bridge in the heat of battle her own flesh fades from her awareness, all that is her drawn into one consuming flame of seeking, the questing spirit fixed only on that which is without, so completely that the rest might be left behind, and only mind, only yearning self, remain and never mark the loss. Without perceiving the motion she has flung herself down by his side, turning him with trembling hands, not only her own form but all the world beyond, past and present, lost to her sense.
—Beren — Her lips trace the name, but her soul shouts only —Too late — too late — and her chest is too tight to breathe, to take that which speech requires, as though her very ribs were iron claws closing ever more fast upon her efforts. Iron is still caught about his bleeding wrists: she reaches up to pull the chain free, and the evil in it is so fierce that she flings it from her as though it were an adder, its poisonous bite burning into her fingers even through their benumbed coldness.
Briefly she is aware of her own bodily existence, as a bewildering thing, this sudden sense of weight, of presence, of the soft brush of cloth against her skin, lifted by the risen hairs of her forearms, of the unholy thickness of many layers of blood beneath the press of her ankles, slightly sticky despite passage of time ever, as paint overlaid too soon and never drying fully hard, of the steaming of her own breath against her face, taunting hint of warmth in the abyss… Then the moment, lightning-flash perceiving, as if such a storm-light should reveal another, a stranger, unknown and at hand in darkness, and its startlement, is past, and quite forgotten.
How strange it is, to come to it at last, that moment past all postponing, when there is no more least room for uncertainty, no least distance between might and is, and that which is, is so far beyond all worst imaginings that thought stands still, as though one found blank wall of stone where door should be, and all words of opening swept from memory, and the way back too is now unmarked stone, and there is only now, and here, and thus—
She cannot tell how he is wounded, nor how gravely, no more than she can say if he lives or not: the blood on him though drying is not all old, and perhaps not all is his, but he moves not save by her moving of him, and she finds long tears beneath when she rubs away what she can of the masking stains with a handful of her sodden clothing, and not even that hasty scouring of rawness sparks resistance as such usage does with one who merely sleeps, and the tiny candle-glim of hope so long carried, so carefully and painfully borne through betrayal and captivity and fear and darkness dims to a blue-hollowing glow, too weak for breath of air to revive.
The horror that he has known since that worst day, when sorrow that she had thought could grow no greater was shown to be as light as the truth of all she had believed in, pours into her soul as though the thin strand of sense that bound them were become a wide and raging channel of knowledge, told not by word but by flesh, the press of bone through what was lean and now lies gaunt, hardness of ribs so deeply carved it seems they lie as bare beneath her searching hands, the face so clear in recollection that fades beyond recall, replaced by the cruelness of features yet familiar when so cruelly changed that few else would even know him, for mask of filth and agony and hunger.
It is as though she herself has become a Void, a space empty of even the memory of joy or beauty, holding nothing but suffering now. —There is so much of it, no matter how much I take there shall be inexhaustible and ever-renewed more… The taste of certainty is different from fear, even as one fear differs from another, horror like the savor of burnt bread, bitter, where terror stings upon the tongue like cold iron, and sudden shock like a mouthful of warm blood—
She touches him, seeking pulse or breath or beat of heart, but the blood that roars in her own temples is louder than the torrent of Sirion over the broken stones, and her hands are so chilled that she feels nothing, and there is no warmth against the palm she places at his mouth, and her breath too fails, the bonds that clench her ribs, hard as iron, cold as ice, tightening at last beyond her strength to battle against.
Under the deep weight of shadow she sinks, settling like a drift of dark silk through the still air, fitting herself against him, drawing his strengthless arms about her in unknowing embrace, and like a drowning swimmer caught in a raging flood, slips finally from the long struggle into the grim tranquillity that comes with relinquishment of all hope, all thought, all seeking after flight…
They have gone, the Lady and the Hound, down into the Pit, where none save the servants of the Dark go willingly, and their light is quenched beneath the power of Death, and they do not return. Nor do any of those who watch from freedom expect, truly, any return.
For none comes back from the Pit, not though breathing flesh be hauled hence, surrendering, yielding, opening all hidden thoughts and entrusted faiths to the Wolflord's gaze: that which the Pit expels is not any longer what was given hence, no more than are the exhumed bones of one buried live, though fëa creep on for days after, unable to believe no longer bound — who was sent thither has truly died there, in that refusal to die, betrayed self no less wholly than those friends betrayed by broken love, and the saved flesh more loathsome thereafter than to be trapped, were such possible, in hröa falling with decay.
And yet they wait still, for there is nothing else for them to do — they wait for one to step forward to lead them, but none does, there is no hope for them among themselves, and so they wait, and wait, and wait—
—Far, so far above them the dimming Stars turn upon the Sickle's hilt in the slow-lightening sky…
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.