3. Part Two
This dream, too, is familiar to him, though only from his own soul's sending, nor from memory, and long since any strength remained to blossom forth or hold onto its welcome untruth. Yet there are small facets of it that are simply wrong, elements that pry away at the simple unity of illusion, disquieting enough that together they suffice that singly might be disregarded. Greatest of these is the cold beneath him, for no bed would be so chill at dawning, and where would he, save in his own great hall, where walls shelter warmly and loft and bower alike fend out the winter's cold? —Surely not, willingly, by campsite, cold at back, warm only where facing the fire.
And it is too quiet: ever, even in the deeps of night, some noise, stirrings of folk, shiftings of rafter and beam in the ancient architecture, grumbling of hound or nightjar's whistle without. There is as well a strange tickling against his face, like the brush of finest fleece, or the down of seeds in Summer on the breeze, and the light that glows present even to eyes fast closed is cold, not the ruddy tinge of banked hearth coals.
Any of these apart he might not even mark, or could choose not to regard, as the half-felt sense that someone not long since has called his name, knowing that no friend lives to hail him now; but all of them are too great a strangeness, drawing the dream away from him would he or no, and thus he yields, will slowly moving the reluctant spirit to attend half-fearfully to its damaged shell, stirring from the illusory safety of sleep to wakefulness and knowledge of the harsh world without…and to memory, that fearful foe that waits so raptly for least opening to leap—
—Eyes open, that most absolute gesture of awakening—
That which is before his gaze, never this view present ere now, is but a field the dim grey of a dove's wing, scarcely brighter than shade of night and of no color — but it is light, so clear and transparent that it seems as endless depth of purest water, so far off and unmarred that it might not be real, save that sheer breadth and clarity prove its presence unfashioned of imagining. This is no dream that he but falsely wakes, no more than the rest—
Impossible though it be, beyond any chance or strange enchantment, that his beloved does lie upon his waking body, warm flesh against cold, matching his frame with her own, holding him pressed thus that he might not rise even had he strength for it, save by lifting her, her head against the hollow of his shoulder, her brows and cheekbones dimly sculpted as if in ancient silver — it is as impossible, and as real, as the faint light that so barely traces her to sight (scarcely sufficient for seeing) — as real as the sky…
But for his eyes attuned to the darkness it is enough, and nearly more than, and it is a wonderment to him, and beyond his compassing, and so he can only accept it, for the moment. —As he accepts, without either understanding or belief, that she is neither dream nor memory nor ghost, lying warm between his body and the lax hold of his arms. Never in any dream would she appear so, haggard and careworn, her eyes dark and tearstained hollows, her lips set in the severe line of one who has forgotten how to smile, yet too proud yet to concede defeat, surrender—
—Tinúviel — and she hears him, though he has no voice left, and her eyes open suddenly with the clear flash of gems uncovered in casket and the start of wonder that leaps through her then stabs through him like a lightning-bolt, like a sluice of cold water, the pounding alarm of her heart through her breastbone, through his, like the slap of hand on lazy steed, sending wit bolting wildly across fields of surmise—
His hand moves roughly, in a hesitant arc that startles nerves in the fashion of one jarred awake by fall in troubled sleep, passing through a froth of fine curls like the bubble of foaming stream against palm, fingertips brushing clumsily down tear-wet skin, sliding from cheek to lips, fingers spreading to embrace and tilt the parting jaw, raise her head that is set so heavily and immovably upon his shoulder—
As he strives against his own weakness, reluctance of soul to encounter harm no less encumbering than the inability of muscle, he realizes with astonishment that is almost fear in its strangeness that the pain is not merely kept from his awareness, as one shields with hand a sight too terrible for friend's knowledge, but less — that the careless deep-drawn breath of surprise does not meet a clawing as of thorn spikes, that the ache as of arrow-point touching bone in joint and limb does not lock against his moving, that the formless and cold-burning touch that has drenched his veins and thoughts so long is gone, as he had not remembered it could be otherwise.
Slipping through his unruled grasp like water rising from a fountain she lifts herself a little, enough to look down upon him in glad astonishment, her expression not plainly such save to him, so drained of hope and weary is she, whom never has he seen other than glad and proud in strength — even in that distress of their last parting was she still unbroken, confident in her love, lordly in her manner as befits the daughter of a King and Lady of lands divine…
"—Beren," she exclaims, nigh as hoarse as he, and her face is transformed in wonder and becomes glorious in its distrait pallor, of all sights the fairest that ever he has beheld in waking or in dream, under Sun or Moon, a thousand times lovelier than when first she came to him after hope had died in the bleakness of day, as her voice calling him through tears is beyond the beauty of that song that stole heart and life from him to give back changed so long ago…
She traces her forefinger along the height of hollowed cheek and nosebone, across beard's roughness to bareness of broken lower lip, and the sensation of touch that is not dream, not pain, is more almost than starved sense can bear, and he shudders, drawing convulsive breath, forgetting again the long-known need to drink but shallowly of the chill night's cruel draughts — but it is no matter, the breath he takes is hers, warmth of steam exhaled upon the shadows like the river's that rises at the dawning, and it cuts him not; and the fine mist flows into his parched body, and the Life which claims him he accepts at last, surrendering to it without comprehending it, no longer warding self against hope with shield of disbelief.
Her hand slips down to the stones beside his head and her face lowers to his in overwhelming nearness, and as he trembles, fëa reeling in flood of sensation, trapped thus between inexhaustible floods of heat and cold, her mouth brushes over the path her finger has blazed, but pauses, tongue flickering to part his dry-grained lids, melting the hard matter that crusts lash and inflames eye, and that most intimate of intrusions, touching that which bears not touch, unharming, — not even that brings return of fear or defense, seeming as natural as the brush of falling leaf on brow… Touch, gentler than ever hand's shall be, caresses away scalding spatter of poison here and there… Lip claims lip, lightest pressure against the cracked flesh, and again that liquid touch, so soft and harmless, delves into the dry rifts, and fleeting pain fades as though she but lapped it up with the seeping blood. His soul founders beneath the tide of pleasure as though drenched in strong wines, almost fainting at the surfeit—
Before he is completely overcome, swept into swoon for his weakness not by torment but too-great joy, she raises herself again from him, this time to kneel upright, hands outspread in excess of wonder, staring down at him with such amazement and delight as though he were the fairest of her own people, shaking her head a little as though not even evidence of solid hröa were sufficient to sway disbelief — and then, finally, he recalls his present state: that he stretches beneath her clothed but in clotting blood and the salt bitterness of dried sweats, torn, emaciated, rank and befouled beyond words, and he would recoil, hide the horror of his flesh from her sight, if it lay within his power.
Yet as he suffers in abject shame, mute under her rapt gaze that holds no revulsion, a shadow in darkness that stirs behind her sends fire of terror through soul as through clenching heart — the gray bulk looming with lowered head and heavy quarters pacing towards — and two divergent thoughts hurtle madly through his battered mind, the one that this joy granted him past all possibility is but an Eilinel fashioned for him alone, image stolen from his thought to set against him, thus to steal his dearest secret, and wield it for weapon against those whose power still meets and matches and thwarts the power of Morgoth.
And even while thinking it as much likely as haply that she be but such a ghost of memory, forced upon his dreaming self with the vast might of their sorcerous foe, he lunges up with outspending of strength that only direst need could have called forth, forgetting all in fear for her, injury and nakedness alike — but succeeds only in pitching a small ways to one side, too weak to interpose shield of self between her flesh and fang—
But as he gives strangled, wordless cry of fury and dread, the grey and rough-coated beast whines, so like any mortal dog, and leans pressing over her shoulder in gesture both seeking and bestowing of comfort, concern shared with master in doglike fashion, and absently as any mortal mistress she reaches backwards up to caress long panting muzzle, and the eyes in that great head look down upon him with no less pity, and as he shuts his own in gasping relief, empty with that exhaustion of limb that is beyond ordinary weariness as starvation is beyond hunger, he sees yet, as the brightness of flame impresses its memory upon sight in darkness, their shapes wrought of light, though no earthly cause is there for it in this dimness…
—Who are you, lord? he asks in thought, but the Hound answers him not; or belike not in words: for the other, whose long hair is patched and matted with blood and slaver, though he moves not as though wounded, draws near to stand beside, warmth of breath gusting over him from the half-bared jaws, clean animal reek strong as any mortal hound's, a single clear droplet splashing like Summer raindrop on his laboring chest from the lolling tongue. With feeble, ungoverned effort he reaches out to stroke the other, succeeds only in striking softly against the tangled locks of foreleg, wet-clinging and sand-rough as any dog's that has lately swum a stream, and the Hound keens softly through those massive fangs, instinct lifting hoof-large paw at his touch, and then stoops to lick his fallen hand penitently.
A silken brush, like fall of apple-blossom in late springtide breeze, against collarbone and scratched sides and hollow of belly beneath rib — dappling touch of fingertip brings another formless gasp of startlement, forced past the damming dryness of his throat, recollecting himself, his crushed and weary mind, to her presence — and his own disgrace.
He must lie before her even as one dead on field of battle, helpless to cleanse himself as to cover, and shame burns with the cruel searing of strongest spirituous liquor into wound; for flesh yearns toward her thus kneeling over him, his thigh caught firmly between her calf and ankle, her body's heat like a bed of coals against his hip where her knee presses him, countering the inward cold that renders hröa stonelike-still.
Yet even as he flinches from her look, turning for distraction to the mystery of her shorn hair, blood rising in burning face as well, her voice compels him, summoning him with his name, and his eyes are caught by hers, and there is neither answering shame, nor confusion there, nor anything but sorrow mingled with joy as water of stream with heady wine, sunlight and shadow at the slide of afternoon to even, and wisdom far older in bone and blood and the fashioning of flesh than his thought can compass.
And the crumbled ruins of memory give up this truth, that she has been Healer as well as dancer for long Ages before his people ever crossed the Ered Luin, ere he himself had bloodily been drawn from between his mother's thighs, to be rested in weary disarray on Emeldir's sweating breast, famished and thirsting and new-assailed with the chaos of the world…No more should there be shame than to bathe naked beneath the Stars, to rest beheld by the starlike gaze of her who so anciently has known of war's wretched harvest, long years before a child born of Men ever knew that men come not back from the field of battle, or but in part, body divided by blow of iron, or soul divided by hurt of parting from brother and friend, no more than those who must live in this world's bonds should (or ever do) know shame to be so seen by the Kindler of those lights or her kingly lord…
(—But would one of the holy Powers ever weep so, tracing the scores rent across gaunt rib and hollowed flank, the gouged haunch and deep-bruised jaw, and claw-torn scalp, gaps where gift of life outpoured in claiming of him mingled with his own…?)
But still there is shame, to be so broken, naught more than a half-dead beast lying so under her eyes, that see in this twilight far more than his own might, no grace of dark to mitigate the ugly image of his ruin, and with such fierce effort as brings prickle of sweat to brow and sides and wrists he forces mind to shape thought, mouth to shape sound, offering of word, of knowing, that speech that raises mere flesh to folk, of any Kindred, that signifies self, that is not mere matter—
"—Lúthien," he says, hailing her as herself, King's daughter, distant legend, —Lúthien, a name in song, of song renowned, Princess he had never dared to dream of, far less ever court, and then as she looks at him sorrowfully, the memory of Menegroth and shining lights of trees and spears strong between them both, he names her:
— my nightingale —
—and she smiles again that radiant joy that is like the fairness of moonlight on lake water, and bends forward to caress him full, not for her own sake, her own savouring, but for his salvation…
Beneath her hands his body softens like beeswax beneath the candle's flame, joints opening, sinews untwisting, knotted muscles easing into the deep rest that healing requires, gentle impress of heat more delectable than ever sunlight on a Spring morning after bitter Winter — her touch shapes his flesh as sculptor does wax, recalling the limits of form from out of darkness, where, blinded, and then driven deep within by cold and agony and kindness of binding spell, his senses crippled and crushed, he long since lost that knowledge rightfully bequeathed to him at birth.
It is not all comfort, that she gives to him: as living skin and meat recovered from bite of frost must surely feel deep and lasting pain in the undoing, so too hröa so enslaved, so wounded for so long, must know deep change in exercise of healing, and though it is not the same either as the horrible webs that meshed him fast, delaying harm and supplying lack, nor as the enforced mending sacrificed to him by service of friend that seared in quick completion, hastening nature to swift scarring, still — it is change, though change as the new growth of youth or season's turning, and disturbance of that which would easier lie still, though that stillness should work only to death's last change.
And so he groans, as wood might groan were it quickened with a year's growing in less than a single hour of the Sun, and the Hound whines again in echo of his suffering, and the liquid silver of his true-love's song fills the interstices of his frame as slow rise of ground water through fissured rock, low melody of healing trickling along the riven paths that necromancy has eaten, privation widened, clean untwisted growth stirring withered fibres from dry sleep of Winter…
He writhes a little, in unwilled brute resistance to the ingress of strength and harsh kindness, but her hands and voice cease not from the work of clearing and refashioning as after devastating gale the forest makes itself anew; and the broken crevices of his inward parts, fëa no less than flesh, move and melt together like the parched land at drought's long ending, remembering their ways of working, speaking mind and cleansing bowel and the hot heart-marrow of the supple, growing bone, and he slackens in her arms at last.
Briefly she lays him down upon the hard chill of the pavement, but to remove the shadowy cape from her shoulders: against her pale dress the flare of her mantle about her sides minds him of the proud white breast of the dark-winged hawk rearing to claim its tattered prey. Once more her hands shape him, molding the cloth about him, enough to wrap him and more than to spare, and as he settles his face against its comforting folds, breathing in its familiar fragrance as of countless blossoming trees, recognition comes, and he comprehends the doubled fact of that one lack, this addition, and knows that which laps him is his love's lost hair, and does not understand it, and does not need to, now.
And the Ice that locks his inmost heart begins to thaw, and the warm Summer midnight surrounding him is briefly sprinkled with a short rain of tears…
Wistfully he drifts back to that dream of bliss, of home about hearth-light and sturdy oak-hewn marriage-bed, the life of Men that he was born to, the sunlit joys and sorrows that dwell in shadow of things greater as the hall-roof before the mountains' roots, to which the wars of Powers and sorceries and strong-sworn Vows alike were strange and distant — or so seeming — and then, not without regret, gives up the dream, relinquishing it as he turned from his homeland and the place of his birth, knowing it lost to him forever, and choosing this life, this place, this real world of Arda for the present over all dreams and memories…
For this moment he is held safely, twice shielded from the cold by her body, and the Void driven off by the rich darkness of her love, and her light washes away the despair that clogs his soul like clotted blood, and the sky changes, warming to rose upon silver, like the sheen of turning plumage on a flight-spread wing, or the flush of life in fish's scales leaping in the splendor of Spring…
Forever — until Arda should cease to be, the Stars themselves fade for the last time into dark, not dawn, and the boundary twixt World and Void be broken: for so long she could cradle him, or hold him out of turning time for a measureless Age even as her own mother held her father, and not weary of her burden — thus, at least, it seems to her. But he is mortal, and swift as the great river beyond them runs time for him, and every pulse-beat is one smallest flicker nigher the Sea of parting, and this is no place for those who live, nor can she hold back that forceful torrent any more than she might restrain the tide of Sirion above.
But when she speaks of this to him, shifting him a little in her encircling arms as she readies to rise with him, he shakes his head, struggling with speech again, and the pain that overflows his heart and chokes him freezes and stifles her as well, so that she can only rock him until it eases enough that he can manage language once more, and she attend:
"I cannot leave him here," he whispers, and his anguish makes her jaws ache in mirrored pain, "I must not abandon them…in the Dark." For immeasurable span of sorrow they cling to each other in mute mourning, one linked tangle of grief and regret, guilt and heart's breaking; but then that other that is also her arises, as she must, since none else shall do it for her, casting about in thought for answer, and with the mad practicality that won passage through depth of height and wolf-haunted night discovers a resolution, most elegantly simple.
"I can carry you," she tells him, "all of you, I, and Huan — but I am not strong enough to descend here again." And it is true, for not alone could she manage it, not even with Huan to stay her, and she will never make him return here. His answer chills her like a sudden gust of wind, for when he assures her that there is nothing unfitting in her plan the word that he uses is not the usual, nor is the form, and she does not think it but accident, nor the different uses of their speech, of lands far sundered though of tongue the same, that he says:
"It's of no matter — we'll not mind."
—We, not they — shall, not would — But of that she makes nothing, says no word of her own, only lays her cheek against his before rising to unwind her long blue mantle from where she has wrapped it tightly folded around her hips for the climb.
Like a wandering star, or the lamp of the Moon crossing the twilit sky, she goes from them then, swiftly moving from resting-place to resting-place, gathering the dead: the long bones and the little, the broken with their splintering, needle-sharp, where the rich darkness of marrow was drained out, the rounding of ribs, the sharp angles of jawbone riven from hinge, the cup-curve of skull fragment crushed between massive jaws, the heavy strength of hip and the supple strength of spine, unstrung now, the smooth flat of bladebone pierced where no hole should drill its plane, the pitting as of acid's wash where venom etched, the rough grooves of gnawing on all…
Each one she gathers, cold as the stone from which she takes them, that once were warm with the life that burned through them, that they bore, and each is precious beyond measure, and each is not his, and she thanks each one who gave them, though knowing her thanks unheard, honouring no less for all her haste than as if she gathered the spill of sun-rich grains from basket at harvest-time, lest the garner be lost into wasteful stones…
The ice in her bones has gone past pain to numb clumsiness when she strives to reknot for the last time the corners of the fabric, and yet as her burden has grown her soul has risen beneath it, not lightness of heart at all, but a brightening of spirit, as a coal buried deep in ash, slowly uncovered, warms to kindling strength in the breathing of air, strength that will suffice to save life in mid-winter, when no hope had been left: Soon we shall go from here—
Though reason knows it but for soundest reasons and shortest while, soul cries out nonetheless at being forsaken, though voice troubles not the motionless air of the abyss, though body feels yet lingering presence, tangible heft of valour and devotion, weft of strange devising…
But the other abides, third of three, strangest of all saviours of this night's struggles, and the fear that four-legged vastness evoked is transmuted into wonder, and bittersweet sense of boyhood's returning, when his father's hounds were horse-high to him, and in their might was he guarded, wrestling fearless with strength that could shatter bone so easily, ignorant of danger where there was none to him, sleeping warm on bulk of hairy side…
…as though his memory did summon, loud as whistle or clap of hands, the Hound moves to lie down beside him, curling about his head, shaggy fur damp against his skin — as was her gown where it pressed upon him — Did they swim the river, then? Surely not possible — but his thoughts scatter like young mice when byre door is opened, and only grief remains, that needs not words to hold itself in mind's constructing… Will is moved to accomplish, moving unwilling flesh—
—Scaling the sheer ledges of Ered Gorgoroth was not harder than hauling weight of limb that bare span of level stone, to where the brief battle, close of too-long war, came to ending vain it seemed and foolish at the instant. Shadow hides much, much of destruction veiled from flinching view, but there is light, silver-pale and faint though it be, and sight must bear bitter witness to their Enemy's work—
Almost past recognition, for the marring of hröa, for pain-wracking and smear of blood and scald of venom, for starved gauntness and deep-scored suffering of helplessness — yet no breaking could ever make him turn from that beloved flesh in horror, no ruin or decay ever cause aught of disgust, nor mar fairness of memory — but still bond of mingled reproach and shame and veneration holds him, folly though it be, and his grieving withholds hand, though neither vanished spirit nor cold and broken house should mark such embrace, no more than living should have minded.
But the Hound, in the way of dogs, wise simplicity, but nuzzles the King who held his heart, regardless of master, and whimpers in the hound's grief that cuts soul and ear like chill wind, like broken ice, like keenest knife, and almost it calls tears from his own self; but the weight of sorrow that presses upon him chokes him, and he can only rest his palm on the horse-long head that leans towards him, and fight for breath against the pain…
…and the whelming tide of sadness and guilt and regret and love drowns him, shared utterly, equally, between the silent spirit whose coming not only here but to this realm, this world, is Mystery, and he whose life may be compassed in days, and each knows the other for Kindred, needing no words, needing no likeness of form to show the truth of it.
Together they lament their lost, with speechless pure outpouring of grief, and wearily the young Man bows his head to the still heart's broken shelter, bared muscle of breast cold as the stones now, and the Lord of Dogs drops against them both, covering the mortal's lean waist with outstretched foreleg in hound's gesture of affection, licking impartially at the living warrior's scabbed wrists as the unhealing wounds of the dead…
As halfway down a sheerest height one may falter and weaken and know that this cannot be allowed, that there is no safety nor sure rest until the ground is reached, and still unmoving after profoundest terror and the utmost certainty that more and worse awaits and after it bitter dying, find new breath, and go on almost in laughter at one's weary folly (save that too were folly) — so now this return of strength, limitless as the storms of Autumn, carrying all upon their dancing gusts. No force either of earth or Undeath shall restrain her, slow her strong-pounding heart or steal her wind renewed by slenderest victory.
—Not this ungainly burden she leans beneath, nigh twice the weight of a warrior living, or lately dead, to lower heavily to the paving stones once more, close to where the last awaits. The sickened horror returns upon her again, so that only the tithe of hope sustains spirit, looking upon him that she has flung off all bonds for sake of, who lies in hopeless misery beside the ruin of her long-loved cousin, kinship of blood preceding the first Sundering of Elven kind, but kinship of heart freely given, as none else of Noldor lineage returning, saving only the family and following of Finarfin's son.
Under the graying sky all of her small past dreams of hope, the few that struggled into kindled flame and were not dashed out at once by the icy gusts of long and recent fear, all the night's imaginings with which she heartened herself when the trackless way grew strangely daunting and the arches of the forest seemed to stretch on for leagues that twisted back upon themselves, the same returning as though she had strayed into the snares of her mother's great devising, the little dreams of rescue and gladdest embrace, of subtle scheme and daring escape, all seem in the cruel shadows of dawn no more than the fancies, whim and ornament and art sublime, wrought for feast or friends' delight, yielding their unsolid substance when mind relinquishes thought of them.
Between the extremes of that which is known in thought and that which is known in flesh is the median of witness, but the distance between is not equal: no horror told of, imagined, recounted and lamented, shall ever be the same as that which is known and present — all remembered tales of grief and grimmest fears, too, fade into the morning mists, lost like clouds torn on the winds of the real.
—This is not the reunion I hoped for, she mourns, as much for her own lost hopes and the world that is forever changed for her, as it shall be for all others, as for the casualties of war, a reunion that should be like all those that came before, only so much the more — How far indeed from it! — not too late for thee, but in vain for him, for all of these, that your heart holds to even as body — How lately lost? How little time more of delay should have seen thee, too, lost to me — forever?
But such musings serve no useful purpose, and most purposeful is she, having started on her northward road, staying or turning for nothing, despite impediment. Obstacle is aught but to be evaded, avoided, escaped, or cast aside — and here is yet one more.
She grips the wolf's body by scruff and shoulder, hauling at it, but the night has taken of her strength and she stumbles a little, faint again; but recovering thereafter in short moment she renews her effort, dragging it back in a single slowed stride, so that it is mostly away from its victim before Huan heaves to his feet and hastens to help her, his massive withers tensing and knotting as he closes teeth upon furred pelt and backs off, drawing it farther into the shadows.
But when she would gather her dead kin as well, kneeling beside that pale wreckage revealed by their effort, her love fends at her, lifting eyes that scarce can see to stare at her wildly in the gloom, striving to keep off perceived despoiler with hand's strength less than that of Elf-child half his age, and she overmasters him not, but only touches his lean temple with pity…and the desperate wildness fades from his mad look, yielding to anguished misery that is worse than blow to her, but he does not relinquish his guarding grasp.
"—Shall we not take him from here?" she asks, (so carefully chosen that word, we—!) and the thought penetrates his half-healed mind, and slowly the bitter confusion slips away and his countenance clears to comprehending sorrow, and he nods mutely, letting her hands join his in linked embrace, before permitting her to lift the forsaken dwelling of his lord and friend from the place of his leaving, and without further resisting allows the wasted form to be enfolded with the rest who came here with him, who alone remains…
In the shadow of the walls that stretch above them on all sides the midnight blue of her garment is nigh as black as the one woven of her hair, as the shadows of the abyss, and the star-gems sewn upon it give back no gleam of light.
—So ends hope, she thinks, her thoughts sent back along the skein of days to so long since, when bright and brave her cousins rode to greet them, offering grace and service and honor in such innocent pride, their coming a source of mirth and confusion together, like a great wind blowing through the stillness of the deep woods' shade, like the Sun breaking through those bending branches…and now they are dead or scattered, so too their followings, and the mighty endeavor, the vaunting boasts, the ambitions of all things made new all done — So end the mightiest among us — and how, how shall the rest of us endure, go on, far less conquer—?
As though he has heard her exclaiming Beren then looks at her, startled eyes raising to her own, and perhaps he has; but he says no word, and when she moves to help him up, calling Huan hither, both attend her, obey her direction with only calm acceptance. Once again the Lord of Dogs bows down like best-trained of steeds, and with her assistance the last of all prisoners of this Pit makes ready to depart, lifted upon the recumbent Hound more like to smallest child set on pony, lying down at once from weakness, as of the instinct of one who knows not how to ride — or no longer has any sense of balance — to cling flat upon mount's back, while she wraps more securely about him the gentler darkness of her self's strength.
—Do not let him fall, she begs, and the Hound presses his muzzle into the hollow of her shoulder, comfortingly, needing not voice to tell her that her trust in him is well-set, that he will guard her love as surely as he guarded her person. Then she in turn takes up her lighter burden, thrice heavier, but easier, safer, for that no stumble nor misstep of hers shall cause the slightest harm to those she bears.
Then, while the night's grip is slowly broken on the world beyond, the Sun's light inexorably flooding up from beyond the Blue Mountains afar off, though the well of darkness about them remain brimful, they begin the return, the journey none has ever made, ever thought to have made: up, from the depths of stone, from the dark, from the keeping of death, towards the sky…
Neither Star nor Sun is in the sky now, only a warm silver field, gray melted with gold as leaves of gilding overlain with fine enamel or layer of translucent stone, and the light is not enough to dispel the cold that is stronger than sense, the grey chill of dawning when morning brings no promise of joy. But still they wait, watching the crest of the Isle, friend clinging to friend, weak held by strong, hoping though they dare not admit it even to themselves, far less each other.
Almost in the half-light do they miss the reward of that unlikeliest of hopes, the sight of return — the radiance of the dread Lady and the dark awe of her Hound alike bedimmed, so that they are lost in the grey shadow that swathes the vale yet, and seem but as wavering ghosts moving down the rubble-strewn slope towards the waves.
And they are not alone, though the freed ones do not recognize who accompanies them, not for distance and lack of light alone: neither as individual nor of what Kindred do they know that other, nor may even those who have known those of the Secondborn name him as mortal until but the span of Sirion divides them from the three, so changed is he from others of his kind to their sensing. (Yet what surprise in that? when none escapes the annealing of the Lord of Wolves but twisted, suffering meant not to melt, destroy entire, but to warp, to soften, so that bent beneath that pressure soul becomes fit tool, to spy, to serve, betray one's fellows, devise new punishments, surer weapons, nor shall such torsion ever be released, thus set in forge of deathless power, in life.)
They do not go to where the fallen bridge bridges the course of the flow, but a little ways upstream, where the strand lies more level, washed stones made smooth by untold Ages' polishing, eaten from the cliffs that cut the higher borders of the island, whose eaten caves offer vain hope to the newly taken thrall of hiding-place, not knowing yet how impossible escape from their Master's spell-wrought chains shall be. —But he is fled, vanquished, and the fetters opened—
—and so they follow, on the eastward shore, waiting still, for what shall be done, by those who act, have acted through this long night's ending—
A bowshot hence, more or less, across the course of the river she crouches, lowering her careful burden, bundle shrouded in the ells of night-blue mantle that she no longer wears, that is too much of bulk for but one— Then, with hand upon the smoke-wreathed muzzle like that of horse's in deep Autumn, as if leading an ordinary steed, she wades out, far into the current, to where the water runs clean of the tainting touch of the Isle's polluted banks, leaning against the Hound as she goes, and they shiver at that, Eldar though they be, for the season is late and the Sirion bitter cold, and there is not one of them that would gladly do so — yet she appears to feel it not, and where her dark cloak floats out in the water beside them the steams of the morning seem strangely to rise more densely.
They have come to where the water is breast-deep on both her and Hound, and there they halt, and the Lord of Dogs stands crosswise to the current, shielding her, while she pulls the rider (no less shrouded, no less still) from his back and plunges him beneath the torrent. He struggles, then, a sudden spasm, undirected, but she clasps him to her tightly, holding his head against her shoulder after, smoothing away the water from his face and kissing him softly, giving him water in her free hand to drink.
Cradled equally in her long arms and the river's might he stills, closing his eyes as though in sleep or death, and she begins to wash him as one slain in battle, before burial, opening the fabric about him to stroke away the filth of his torture from every finger's-breadth of skin. The dark weft swirls about them both, whether she holds to it or not, as though clinging to them in spite of the river's current, tumbling in a soft and constant caress around the one she stays…
There is no question, as the slow light broadens, and the vapors of the morning are seen more clearly over the water's surface, that the mist is thickest about the three, soft veil of silver over the dark Sirion, as over a hot-springs such as those found in the lost North, as at Rivil… It is unimaginable, the power that could warm so much of a swift-flowing river filled with wintry cold, letting it pour away in the flow unheeded, and never mark the loss — yet it is true, and truly perceived, no less impossible and no more than the fact that the air that pours over the waters to them in the breeze is fragrant with the flavor of seasons long lost and stolen from them.
The richness of thawing earth is in it, the wholesome scent of the winter grass that feeds the new growth of Spring in its surrender, the sweet, sweet smell of deep woodlands, the smells so familiar and forgotten that they bring tears to the eyes of all who breathe them, and also too, familiar not to all, yet seeming so, the heady fragrance of wind-tumbled flowers, not only roses and others of Beleriand, but blossoms never grown beyond the sound of Valmar's bells, of the shining sight of the holy mountain, of the touch of the Light of the Trees of Gold and Silver…
The light grows stronger, making them flinch as under a blast of snowy wind, more than their strength is equal to, to heal as yet eyes so long wrapped in shadow and sullen flare of torch-flame. Yet they do not recede to the shelter of the forest, not yet, unable to turn away from the wonder that is before them. There is something frightening in the look of her face, the set fierceness of it as she gazes on him, like the tenderness of falcon to blind nestling, the knife-sharp beak bent in caress that only the most foolish hand would think to defy in theft for its present gentleness.
(—The last Wolf crouches, deep in shadow, barred by the daunting force of water unbridged by stone. It can afford to wait, its hunger will abide—)
—Warmth as of a forgotten dream, longed for and unrecoverable, encloses him, defends him, and touch, gentle as breath, inescapable, escape unwished-for, both soft upon him as the light that should sear and crush his night-bound eyes, but impossibly does not… If this is healing it is so far different from aught he has known as the light of pine-torch searing at the hand is from the daylight of high Spring, when Sun and wind together are a torrent of Life bathing the earth and all things on it — shame is washed away by love, soul does not flinch under gaze of pity that does not flinch from what it looks on, no more than flesh beneath the press of fingers slipping between limb and limb to free that which is most fragile of foulness, free of shame…
He reaches up to her and it is not a dream now, this weak movement of scarred limb, stretching up like shoot from depth of soil to brush her lips, and she bends in answer to his asking and quenches a greater thirst than that which she has already ended, and as her mouth closes upon his own their faces dip for a heartbeat beneath the surface from her bending, but he does not struggle this time, for in this moment there is no more fear or pain or sorrow—
(— In the dark where no light reaches the last Wolf lies resting, watching, so patient in its hunger…)
At last they turn back to the farther bank, the Hound flanking the Lady who carries her love to the shore, she striding tall and unbowed, straight-backed as a queen for all her burden, silver as a birch tree in a rainy wood in the shadow of the cliff-footing. In the light which clears away the depth of night, though the full light of the sun has not cleared the shading hills, they see that the banks, for all downstream of where she has stood, are washed clean of the ash and the acid smeltings, the rust that has more than one source, the darkness that is not only of nature that fouls all the isle to its borders. But in her gestures there is nothing of notice, nor surprise, whether it be that she expects it, or is merely oblivious of all save the one she bears in her arms to land.
She lowers him then to stand against the Hound's tall side, clinging unsteadily with shuddering limbs to the unyielding shoulders while she braces him with her own side as she draws the shadow-dark cloak from him and with swift efficiency wrings it out, water pouring over her feet upon the water-smoothed stones. For her wet clothing she might as well be as naked as he, and as heedless of it, as though they two and the great Hound were the only living in the world…
The black fabric flares out from her hands, seemingly dry already, seeming to obey her thought as she folds it round him again, floating like a shaped mist as her arms ease him down to sit beside the river, touching his face again and not once in that brief passage, lightly, lightly, before drawing away, turning aside with that same relentless slowness of step that they watched return into the hells of stone whence they had fled.
They know, have guessed without doubt, the burden that she returns unto, that Doom which they might not leave behind, however far from the Wizard's Isle they may journey — yet still they cannot help but shiver at the unknotting of the blue cloth, that hides at least from outward sense, and thus may be in willful pretense ignored, the presence of Death. But she who kneels white as a wraith over the dark bulk in the shallows has no more weakness, no more unwillingness to turn mind or sight to things unwelcome, and unsparing of herself, spares them not either.
That which her hands uncover and shift, pallidly grey in the deep banks' shelter, shaded from the rising tide of light, is familiar in its kind, but unknown, unknowable: the twisting arch of a cheekbone, eye's orbit separate as a single petal of a white lily, gives no sign of whose sight it sheltered, whose smile anchored, no more than the birdlike bones of hands recollect their holding strength, scattered and mingled past discerning, laved in the thin depth of the river, separated from the pale stones by the wide cover of her mantle.
And ever she moves them further, her face still, wide-eyed gaze unflinching as a statue's, setting them gently aside like shells on the sea-strand, until her ceaseless efforts reveal not bone, but skull in seeming, dead face so gaunt that it is not until her fingers free the long matted tangle of wheaten hair — rarest royal color that not even blood has altogether darkened — that they know him, even those whose fealty was sworn to him, who daily saw and spoke and rode in his company: Finrod, called Felagund, eldest of Finarfin's scions, founder and first in Nargothrond's dominions, oath-holder of the House of Bëor, lord over Noldor and Sindar and mortal alike, Prince, King, — and murdered slave.
Outcry then, clamor of shock and rejection and appalled belief, as beyond their willing they are drawn to the water's edge, and further, though the tide be too strong to cross here where no stones span the way, still those hale enough must splash out as deep as they are able, to better see that which they would not, but self-willed blindness will change naught, and they cannot help but look—
The Lady's long hands are careful, as though it should make difference, how she lifts the cold limbs into the deeper shallows, as though pain might yet follow carelessness. She is heedless of them now, as though for all of her care they may witness or not, concern all for those she has brought up from the Isle's black heart: the dead whose wounds she washes with handfuls of water whose freshness is made sharp with salt of tears that fall unmarked while she works, though her face is a pale unmoving mask carven as of ice or marble; and the living, who creeps so painfully to bend beside her, laboring with lowered head and shaking hands to unknot the hardened mats in the skein that streams palely gold in the current.
About each wrist that the dark cloth slides from is band of livid scarring, and though no tears sheen the bowed mask of anguish, the clearness spilling from those wounded hands could not express more grief, poured so gently from hollow of palm over the ravaged corpse of him who takes neither healing nor counsel from Sirion's waters now. And there is gold, there, too, darker gleam on finger shining amid the paler threads—
—And surmise, born not of fact open and single but of many, fragmentary, half-buried like wrecked ships abandoned on storm-washed shore, and some begin to whisper a name, a House, though no tale yet attends upon that word…
The light is broadening, but still the coolness of the Sun's vanguard rays, no gold yet, nor even bar of cloud to burn with shell-rose band against the almost-blue of ceiling-dome, when task is done, and the ghostly mourners in white and black shroud again the broken dwellings of companions absent but unforgotten. And still none dares yet to recross that narrow unsteady way, return to place of breaking, though fëar torn with yearning — for truth if not for comfort, for guiding and protection — urge that crossing ever…
The Hound returns, whom they have not seen go hence, riderless bounding down the steep bank like wild goat or puppy, not the carefulness of horse on stony slope, dashing out into the water again, this time to drink, and then to lift long grey head to stare at them, measuring their worth, it seems, who tremble inwardly at each glimpse of him, whose shape and height and color are so similar in outwards to his foes.
Now that he is beside them, circling before pressing between, in the busy way of dogs' motion, the Lady comes to some inward resolution, and with some brief reassurance of touch and word unheard across the rushing current she leaves them all at the water's edge, the living who trouble for her and the dead whom nothing troubles. Once more out into the deeper stream, and then farther still, whence she dives otter-like beneath the surface and swims to the center of great Sirion, faint whiteness seen like silver flash of scales under the river's swell.
After so long that blood runs chill in shudders of imagining that cold purgation she rises again and pulls to the shore, standing in the lesser depth with hands joined, doubled cup of icy draught, not to drink but to bear to land, gaze fixed, will fixed wholly on that plain treasure, unshod step most deliberately placed with heed for footing, though seeming oblivious to all about her — up that rain-scoured wash of steepest track, like bedraggled sleepwalker on errand of madness, singing—
—not the unbounded power like sea-storm of light unearthly that smote the Gaurhoth down, cast down Sauron and dispersed his following like smoke upon the wind, not such is this, but a simpler power, the deep strength of water rising from depths of stone, gathered in the roots of mountains from long harvest of rains, heavens' eternal gift, pooling slow, rising to trickle forth at last from smallest rifts, seeping down the crags to form freshets, foaming streams joining as they fall, ever growing, ever gathering in answer to the ocean's call, returning to the source of their rising, the vast Sea from which the rains arise—
At the height of the island's rise where the solid bedrock gives way to earth, that once was judged too soft for surety of building, and given over to growth of copse, thicket and grove and grasses green and wild-flowering alike, charming the sight and breath alike as well of those who held this first, that now is iron-hard, beaten naked of all life, sown with such poison that nor shall green thing ever thrive upon it — there she stops, standing with upheld arms, her Song rising as she lifts face to the dawning sky, and in that instant—
—in that instant she is no tattered wanderer forlorn in the wasted land, but one far other, standing like a column of white stone, unshaken by war, like a tree unswayed by blast of storm, like a fall of water from tallest cliffs, in whose voice all hear the ring of Power that is of the ancient earth, of binding roots that delve within it, of cascade's roar, as she lets her guarded measure slip from fingers' hold like fall of ceaseless tears—
In that instant the Sun clears full the eastern woods, the eastern mountains, and the sky changes from softness to the brilliance of adamant, and a sudden gust of the morning breeze takes the spill of water as it runs like a crystal strand between her hands and the shadowed earth and flings it wide in a spray like the sea on the cliffs at dawning, and every drop is a sun-spark itself, and the light is so much that they must hide vision beneath it, far more than the flashing of liquid on the wind may account for, as if again for the first time She rose from beyond the Sea upon the darkened world.
It is only for an instant, and then it is but full morning, too bright for eyes enslaved by shadow still, but not beyond the workings of the world's days, and the world is as it was — and is not. For where the Elven-maid sags pale and worn, no longer a Mystery in darkness, the sun shines down upon bare earth, hard, beaten into clodlike ironhard dullness, but not vile with the effluvia of sorcery and foundry, mixed into a layer of spirit and substance that none willingly would ever touch…
…and it is not only there, but everywhere that unclean power soiled the island, everywhere that the unknown dead lie, that bone splintered and ground to dust and burnt to ash in forge-fueling is spread, everywhere that the Shadow claimed is claimed back in one stroke, as in that first trumpet-hour an Age ago, when hope was bright and glory within grasp, and all things seemed surely swiftly to be accomplished…
But that first Day is long past, and the world grown cold and ashen in defeat, and nothing changes, or little, and not that which would be changed, and slowly the one who has rescued them climbs to her feet again, pressing her hands on the hard dirt to lift herself, and swaying a little she strides with the heavy step of exhaustion down the bank to lean wearily beside her liege and her love, and her face betrays that dismay that is almost fear that still, still there can be no rest yet, that blank expression that at a heartbeat may slip to tears, or mad laughter.
—How can I make such ascent again? even for thee — bearing thee, bearing thy companions, even with Huan's help? Is this the weakness that mortals know all of life's passing, is this how it is ever for thy kin — and ai, how then may you endure, strive so, hold out against such storms as rend our embattled land—?
A little longer — but a little longer — but still she is kneeling upon the graveled shore, leaning as much against her love as he to her, weary beyond either sleep or waking, and the gold-cerulean of the sky deepens in blue, and still she cannot rise from her knees, lift head from shoulder and warmth of shared breath, press of skin warm through veil of clean water, this tired embrace that asks no more, nothing else of the world, having attained goal at bitter last—
—Over the water a deep clamour arises, the Lord of Dogs crying — Attend! — as though the hunt were up, the fell game at desperate cornered stand, summoning outriders to the battle. His gaze is fierce, his ears lifted in alert posture, his belling is command: in that bayed note could not be clearer word — Come! Help! Do not stand like witless kine, agape, adrift!
And so, at last, they return to the place that was Tol Sirion, and is a tomb; that was Tol-in-Gaurhoth, and is a field of rout; that was place of power and contention over vast angles of the land, that is now but an island in the course of the wide river; all those who are able, who have strength enough for that unsteady concourse over stones and streaming rivulets, making bruised and frightened way to where the Hound watches over the unmoving figures by the water's edge.
There they come to give, offering not of pity only but duty, giving of hands' strength to lift them living and dead alike, to raise and stay and support to the high ground again, to give thanks more solid than mere words now, gift so hard to share, greatness of gesture hidden in meagerness of offered rations hidden and carried against guards' notice, of spare garments worn always against the threat of theft and spoiling by their captors — small and of little value, either in themselves, or against the magnitude of their loss, would seem—
Yet in the giving, deed to raise self from less-than-earth, make Speaker again that long was prey, lift honour from the grave in honoring the Secondborn (that none would ever now name Engwar, being all Sickly Ones alike themselves), whose story now they hear, in tale that shall take many tellings, faltering, slow, from she who if she willed it, might command them all as Queen, though her awesome power be dimmed now — yet not as expended, depleted, burned away, but rather as a banner furled, the standard of an army wrapped close around the slim spear-shaft, to be flung out in time of need, flowing in the hour of challenge and desperate contest to lead and hearten and call forth…
(—And the last Wolf sleeps, ice-cold eyes quenched for the present, invisible in darkness, until it shall wake in the dark hours of the night, the cold watches before dawn, the grey and starless time when there are no names, no defenses of thought or doing, but only self—)
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.