1. Flame of the Desert
Like a devotee of fine wine, the spider delicately sampled droplets of sweat beaded on Elrond's bare chest. All told, the creature was at least as large as the span of his entire hand, and its body the size of a large walnut. Thousands of tiny hairs, tipped with yellow blending into crimson and darkening to black, bristled from its legs.
Elrond lay still as a stone. The dream of his wife tickling his skin with her hair had immediately transformed into the stuff of nightmares when he awoke to find the eight-legged horror crawling onto his chest. It was all he could do to resist swiping it off his body, but he feared that any movement on his part would startle the spider, which in turn might send it leaping toward his neck and face. He recalled the brightly colored dragon spider that had bitten Elros' thumb and the swollen outcome of that debacle of more than two Ages past. This spider appeared more sinister yet.
Elrond risked darting his eyes toward the shadow that glided across the outer wall of the tent. The spider did not heed the tiny movement, but vibrated above Elrond's pounding heart. Oddly it seemed to like the vibrations, hunkering down closer to his skin. The shadow moved again, but the spider remained in place.
The next sequence of events transpired so quickly that Elrond was only able to remember them later when he had time to parse the images that had flashed across his field of vision. A plate descended to his chest from behind his head, scraping his skin with its thin edge, and lifted the spider onto it. Eight horrid legs waved for a moment before a bowl slammed down on the plate, trapping the creature. Then the shadow, which was Glorfindel, pushed past the flaps of the tent with the bowl pressed firmly against the plate. Elrond allowed himself to shriek then.
"Sweet merciful Nienna!"
Gilfanon, the other occupant of the tent, sat bolt upright, his eyes wide, and then crushed them shut, groaning and wrapping his hands around his head plastered with tangles of sweat-soaked black hair. "Ai! Elrond! You scream like a woman! Shut up, will you? Shut up!"
Elrond would have shrieked again at the top of his lungs just to torment Gilfanon, whom he blamed for this whole fiasco of a journey, but for the throbbing pain behind his eyes. Gilfanon groaned and flopped down on his pallet. Elrond considered lying back on his own bedding, but his skin quivered in awful anticipation of hundreds of phantom legs picking their way toward the most vulnerable parts of his body.
Instead, he rose to his full height in the high round tent where the sand floor was covered with patterned wool rugs and soft cushions. He yanked on loose violet trousers, shrugged a yellow robe over his shoulders, and wrapped a large orange and red checked scarf over his head, holding it in place with a thick circlet of black cord.
What was it that Glorfindel had called this headdress? Some strange Haradric word. Keffiyeh, yes, that was it. Outlandish as the rest of this get-up, thought Elrond. He supposed it was an improvement over the grating Valarin word that Glorfindel had first used for the large squares of fabric that protected their heads and necks from Anar's unforgiving light. He wondered what he looked like in this garish garb, so different than his customary clothing of subdued silver and twilight grey. But then he did not have much choice, for all the clothing now at their disposal offered nothing other than the most vivid colors imaginable.
He shook out his boots vigorously, convinced that there must be an army of spiders and scorpions lurking inside. But only ever-present sand fell out so he shoved his bare feet in them. Nonetheless, he was convinced he felt the pricks and tickling of hairy legs and pincers.
"I'm going outside," he said. Gilfanon only grunted and rolled over.
Pushing aside the flaps of the tent, Elrond stepped out into the early morning light, already hot. He surveyed the campsite near the brackish pool of water that seeped from beneath a cluster of red rocks; the lank reeds that encircled it hung still. The coach was tucked away in the nearby grove of date palms. The beasts that drew the vehicle lay about around it, but there was no sign of Glorfindel.
He made his way toward a tumble of rocks, thinking to climb up them to get a better view of the West. Logically, he knew he would not be able to see their destination nor was it relevant because they did not know precisely where the Rock of Omar was located. It just made Elrond feel better to look ahead.
He scrambled up the stones that rose above the sand and achieved the highest point. By his reckoning, they had about four hours before they would need to seek shade and rest in the heat of the day. Then they would travel again through late afternoon until night fell. At this rate, who knew how long it would take them to attain the Rock?
When he turned to descend, he glimpsed a flash of white that disappeared behind a hillock of sand. So that was where Glorfindel was. Elrond leapt down from one rock to another. He picked his way across the hard pan of the desert floor toward the sand hill, and then climbed up its shifting slope. Walking on the sand was as difficult as wading through deep snow. Once he reached the edge of the dune, he stopped and watched the spectacle below.
With his arms outstretched, Glorfindel held his white robe away from his body like wings and dashed about in a wide circle. He appeared an ungainly seabird caught in the desert as he ran this way and that, twirling around and strutting, his white keffiyeh lifting from his shoulders with his vigorous movements. Glorfindel had made a point of hoarding all the white clothing that he found stowed in the coach, likely as a means to avoid the gaudy robes and trousers which Gilfanon and Elrond were now compelled to wear.
Elrond watched him silently for a time, amused at first and then disgusted. If he blamed Gilfanon for planting the insidious seed that led them on this expedition, he also blamed Glorfindel for its absurd execution, which made this display of his vanity that much more insufferable. Elrond waited patiently while Glorfindel spun around, sweeping the white fabric to and fro. Just as Glorfindel leapt high, arcing with elegance over the desert, Elrond called out:
"Time to pack up, eh?"
Nothing gratified Elrond more than watching Glorfindel lose all grace in mid-air and land on his arse. He pushed himself up to his feet, brushing red dust off the white cloth as best he could, cursing all the while. Glorfindel trudged up the sand hill, joining Elrond at its crest.
"Varda's blinking stars, Elrond! Why did you sneak up on me like that?"
"Sneak up on you? No, I was enthralled with your display. Rendered speechless, one might say."
"You're a vicious brute, you know."
"So you have said. Thank you for dispatching that spider by the way."
"Think nothing of it."
"It looked venomous."
"It probably is."
"What did you do with it?"
"Turned it loose, of course. Over there by those rocks." Glorfindel pointed at the tumble of stone that Elrond had climbed. His skin crawled again.
Glorfindel squinted at the rising sun. "It's time to break down the campsite. Where's Gilfanon?"
"I left him in the tent. He's still feeling the effects of the cactus liquor."
Glorfindel huffed. "I swear! These ancients cannot handle spirits. Let's roust him. We'd best be ready for the road as soon as we can manage."
There is nothing like night sky in the desert, Elrond thought as he pulled back on the reins of the beasts, bringing the coach that lumbered along the starlit road to a halt. He leaped down from the perch as Gilfanon and Glorfindel emerged from the coach, preparing to set up camp for the night. While the others unhitched the beasts, he walked out into the desert, tilted his head back and slowly turned.
Like the sky over the ocean, the horizon was largely unobscured so the dome of the heavens was huge, far more expansive than it appeared in the eastern lands where forest, hills and mountains hemmed in the sky. Unlike the ocean, the sere air allowed a clarity that was astounding. Even without Isil in the sky, the road ahead was visible in the starlight and glinted with tiny crystals like diamonds captured in the sand. The beauty of the stars above, which seemed so close that he thought he might reach out and scoop up a handful, was almost enough to compensate for this reckless venture in which he had managed to get entangled. Almost enough.
It had started when he accepted an invitation to a party at Gilfanon's estate, the fabled House of a Hundred Chimneys. Gilfanon was known to celebrate at the least provocation, a characteristic, Elrond had learned, of many of the most ancient of the Eldalië who often suffered from profound boredom here in Elvenhome. This time, it was to celebrate the successful cultivation of a rare rose that Gilfanon had been nurturing for who knew how many years. Celebrían was away visiting her great-aunt in Alqualondë so he had no compelling reason to remain at home. Glorfindel was at similar loose ends so the two of them hired a carriage to travel to Tavrobel. There they entered the House of a Hundred Chimneys where they were treated to a sumptuous feast, an evening of dancing and music, and had indulged in a little innocent flirtation with a few of the comely maidens in attendance. After most of the guests stumbled to the quarters available for them, Gilfanon had taken Elrond and Glorfindel to his study where he uncorked a hoary vintage of limpë.
They had proceeded to become inebriated on the potent stuff. Gilfanon was always quite the storyteller, but once into his cups, he became voluble beyond reckoning. Among the stories was one of a mysterious rock named Omar in the middle of the great desert of Valinor.
"Tis said the rock is blood-red and stretches across the desert even though it is one rock alone." Gilfanon gesticulated wildly, spilling limpë from his glass. "Legend has it that the rock was once Amillo, he who is named Omar, the young Vala of song and music, who angered the Elder King by gazing too fondly upon Varda. In a fit of jealous rage, Manwë hurled Omar from the skies, and he landed on the desert. He was grievously injured so Manwë in his mercy changed him into a rock. It is said that on the nights when Isil turns his back on the world, the rock may be heard to sing the Ainulindalë, longing for his lost life and love."
Glorfindel leaned forward, his eyes gleaming if slightly unfocused. "What a fascinating tale!" He lifted his glass of limpë. "I propose that we go listen to the rock's lament!"
"Aye!" Gilfanon agreed. "That is a splendid idea! This calls for an oath, I say. An oath for brothers-of-the-road," the elder man hastily added. "We shall seek the Rock of Omar and listen to it sing. Let no man nor god hinder us," he intoned.
"Hear! Hear!" Elrond blurted.
"An oath bound by limpë!" Glorfindel agreed.
They clinked their glasses together and gulped down the liquor. Then Elrond lay down upon a comfortable settee in Gilfanon's study and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
Daylight brought the agonizing acuity of senses that was the inevitable consequence of overindulgence in limpë: birdsong rendered too beautiful, morning light that was too poignant, colors and patterns that glowed with excruciating intensity. Elrond squeezed his eyes shut at the overwhelming flood of sensation, but Glorfindel, who evidently had departed while Gilfanon and Elrond slumbered, came into the study, his hearty greeting hammering against Elrond's skull.
"Awake, my good men! While you have slept, I have visited the market square and found transportation for our journey. Greet the day and prepare to depart. Our coach awaits."
Gilfanon groaned and rolled over on the rug before the hearth where he lay, but Elrond, rubbing his face, squinted at Glorfindel.
"What in the name of the Three Fathers are you talking about?"
Elrond helped Gilfanon to his feet, and they followed Glorfindel outside. There in the court before the House of a Hundred Chimneys was the most bizarre coach Elrond could have imagined.
The large vehicle's shape was reminiscent of a melon. It bulged with extravagant moldings, which depicted prancing horses and dancing maidens who were just shy of being nude. Atop its roof were racks, carved in the fantastical shapes of serpents, on which cargo and luggage were secured. Its four large wheels had spokes painted in rainbow shades, but over all the coach was a painfully vibrant pink. "Magenta," Glorfindel called it.
Stranger yet were the six beasts that drew the coach. Elrond had become accustomed to the odd fauna of the Blessed Lands, the living results of the tinkering of the Valar who could not resist applying their immense creativity to all things, but these animals were truly peculiar. They had the appearance of mules with long ears, horse-like heads and hooves, but like camels, their lips were fat and split in the middle and humps rose on their backs. Their hide was a burnt orange color with faint stripes on their haunches.
"Isn't it wonderful?" effused Glorfindel. "Who would have thought I might find such a contraption! It's an overland coach. It's completely outfitted with all manner of gear for crossing the desert of Valinor. Dried meats, fruit, olives, wine, water skins, clothing, cutlery...it's all there. The fellow who commissioned its construction had planned to travel to the western shores of Valinor and back, but he had to withdraw from his plans so he sold the whole lot for a cut rate."
"What are these beasts?"
"Ah! The seller said they are a hybrid of some sort that Lord Oromë created. They are desert hardy: tough and strong like mules but able to travel great distances with little to no water. They store water in that hump."
They seemed docile enough, but when Elrond approached one, it snorted nervously. He applied his people's renowned charm with animals. "There, there, boy," Elrond crooned although it was not at all obvious if the creature was male or female.
As soon as Elrond laid his hand on the flank of the beast, it rolled its yellow eyes, jerked its head around and curled back its lips to reveal ivory fangs. It snapped at him, its jaws clashing like a trap. Elrond jumped backwards and retreated to a safe distance. The beast covered its fangs but continued to rumble deep in its throat.
"Stars above! That thing could have ripped my hand off!"
"Nothing to worry about," Glorfindel said. "The seller claims they are gentle as lambs."
"Gentle as lambs, my backside!"
Glorfindel was not at all convincing when he tried to argue that these things were meek creatures, and he likewise maintained a safe distance from them. Elrond took note of the fine network of scars on the hides of the beasts, suggesting that they turned on one another.
But oaths were oaths as all three men knew, so they prepared to depart. Elrond and Glorfindel wrote notes to family and friends to inform them of their journey, and Gilfanon sent his fleet messengers to deliver these. The three men set off before the bells in one of the many towers of Gilfanon's home chimed the fifth hour after sunrise. By early afternoon, they had reached the ferry to Valinor. They boarded easily, the other passengers giving Oromë's growling and snapping beasts a wide berth. Then they were on their way across the strait that divided the island from the continent of Aman, and they journeyed on through the Calacirya after a short stop in Tirion.
That had been twelve days ago. What started as a drunken holiday had become a dogged quest when they entered the red desert where Anar scorched the land, where gnarled shrubs, clumps of dry grass and thorny trees grew and eked out sparse drops of water, where lizards and snakes hunted amid the sand and rock, and where the little jumping mice danced on the sand dunes under Isil's silver light. None of the three men dared call a retreat because of the limpë-soaked oath.
So they slept that night while the stars spun in their stately dance overhead, and they traveled on the next day. When the late afternoon sun bathed cliffs on either side of the road with fire, the interior of the coach was hot as a potter's kiln. Elrond could hardly breathe in the heat, but knew once the sun set not long from now, the night air would be chilly.
"According to the map, there should be a stream ahead," said Gilfanon, calling out the window to Glorfindel who drove the beasts. "We can camp there for the night."
Gilfanon's map continued to be accurate, but as they approached their destination, they heard voices calling, grunts of camels, bleating of sheep and yipping of dogs. Others had reached the stream before them. When they arrived, they found a narrow vale that cut through the desert; large outcroppings of rust-colored rock formed deep pockets of shade, and an arched stone bridge spanned the narrowest part of the chasm. By Elrond's count, about sixty people, a mix of men, women and children, all covered from head to foot in indigo robes, clustered around the bridge, setting up tents. With them was a collection of horses, camels and a large herd of sheep and goats.
As soon as they were in sight of the tribe, small black and white sheepdogs barked raucously, and Lord Oromë's beasts answered with growls and a fearsome noise that fell somewhere between a bray and a roar. That sent the dogs into a frenzy of yapping. Three indigo-wrapped men walked along the road toward the coach, their hands on the silver hilts of knives sheathed in leather scabbards on their silver-studded belts.
The three tribesmen approached Elrond, Glorfindel and Gilfanon who had disembarked from the coach and stood side-by-side in the middle of the road, their vibrant robes thrown back to reveal long-knives and swords at their sides. The shortest of the indigo men, who appeared to be their leader, unwrapped the veil of cloth that covered the lower half of his face, revealing fine Telerin bone structure partly obscured by a full silver beard.
Gilfanon and the bearded Teler embraced, slapping each other on the back.
"By the stars, but it's been a while!" exclaimed Gilfanon. "I didn't realize you were still out here in the interior. Nice beard by the way."
"Your beard's not so bad either, old man," Elmo said. Gilfanon rubbed his neatly trimmed black whiskers at the compliment. "Yes, I've been out here with my folk in the desert for some time," Elmo continued. "I'm not ready to return to the sea because, well, honestly, the very idea of being back in Alqualondë bores me to tears. You know how it is. What brings you out here?"
"We're off on a lark. A quest if you will. Tavrobel has been an absolute burden of ennui lately, so our little journey is proving to be just the thing for a bit of excitement." Gilfanon turned toward Elrond and Glorfindel. "Forgive me, I should introduce you. This is Glorfindel, formerly Lord of the House of the Golden Flower in Gondolin and more recently returned from the Outer Lands. And this is Elrond, former master of Imladris."
Elmo shook their hands firmly but with courtesy. "Yes, Glorfindel! Back again, I see. Ha, ha! I'm sure you hear that all the time. And Elrond, my boy, so good to meet you at last. You and I are distant kin, you know. I'm Elwë Singollo's youngest brother."
"Pleased to meet you." Elrond recalled that Elmo had been referred to as "The Runt" in the family tales, thanks to his legendary short stature compared to the tall Olwë and looming Elwë.
Elmo squinted at the lowering sun. "We're driving our sheep and goats to new pasturage in the north, but camping here for the night. I say, why don't you fellows join us?" The Teler eyed the coach. "Unhitch your beasts from that outlandish contraption and lead them down to the stream. Then take a rest. I'd like to hear more about your quest if you don't mind sharing that tale."
"We'd be glad to tell you and take you up on that offer. Take care when handling those animals," Gilfanon advised Elmo's companions.
"Your beasts are most...unusual," said Elmo. He and the other men moved toward the animals slowly but with confidence. Each man murmured something that sounded like a chant. Elrond was impressed that the beasts did not snarl at the strangers but instead stood mesmerized, allowing themselves to be unhitched and led away from the coach. Elmo slapped the flank of one of the creatures. "Yes, most unusual."
"They are hybrids created by Lord Oromë," offered Glorfindel.
Elmo looked over the beasts again and arched a silver eyebrow, spinning his finger at his temple. "These Balai must be crazy."
Elrond, clean thanks to a much-needed bath in the stream and content with a belly full of spicy mutton stew, leaned back against the rock still warm from the heat of the day. He stared at the billowing sparks that lifted from the massive bonfire and mingled with the stars above. Several of the desert-Teleri came to the fire carrying long wooden pipes, thick as a man's arm and some as long as the height of a man. When the men settled themselves on the ground, they put these curious pipes to their mouths and blew into them, producing deep notes of various pitches. Elrond lost himself in the rhythmic drones that recalled not only the vast desert but also the rolling waves of the sea. The women cast aside their indigo robes to reveal lithe bodies clothed in diaphanous gowns. They danced and swayed to the sonorous music with the same grace as their sisters who dwelt in Alqualondë.
Next to him, he caught snatches of Gilfanon and Elmo's conversation; Gilfanon was telling the Telerin prince of their quest. Elmo listened intently, nodding at times, his grey eyes shining with the light of the fire and the stars.
"So you seek the Rock of Omar," Elmo said while stroking his beard. Gilfanon grunted in reply, likewise rubbing his dark beard thoughtfully. Elrond noticed that these elders were forever touching their beards. He wondered if he would be thus obsessed when he reached the time in his life when his whiskers made their appearance.
"You are on the right track, but the Rock is not so easily found."
"How can that be? The Rock must be huge!"
"It is, but fell glamours surround it and obscure the pathways there. You will need a guide."
"A guide? Might you or one among your tribe lead us there?"
"No." Elrond thought Elmo shifted uneasily, but dismissed this as a trick of the firelight. "But I know who can. He is a Vanyarin ascetic who wanders the desert. He is known as Salmar."
"How do we find this Salmar?"
"You will not find him. He will find you."
The tribe broke camp at dawn the next day, eager to move on before Anar turned the desert into a furnace. The beasts grumbled and growled, reluctant to be hitched to the coach again, but just as the sun rose above the eastern horizon, Glorfindel snapped the reins, and they were on their way.
For three days, they followed their accustomed pattern of traveling in the morning, resting during the heat of the day, resuming their journey late in the afternoon and halting in the evening. Every night the stars were close enough to touch. Glorfindel often regaled them with his knowledge of the constellations and other mysterious objects in the heavens, nattering on and on until Elrond advised him to just be quiet and enjoy the starlight. Glorfindel had also acquired one of the long pipes of the desert-Teleri and attempted to play it, producing sounds that Gilfanon deemed worthy of a dying goat.
It was on the morning of the fourth day that they saw the figure far ahead on the dusty road. Whomever it was stopped and waited for them to approach. The figure resolved into a man wrapped in tattered grey robes and a dingy black and white checked keffiyeh. Like an ancient among mortal Men, he leaned on a gnarled wooden staff, but his gold and silver beard was the only sign of his age. His sun-browned skin was a smooth as a youth's save for the crinkles around his pale blue eyes. Anar's fiery light had bleached his gold hair almost white.
Gilfanon and Elrond climbed out of the coach to greet the man while Glorfindel held the reins of the beasts, keeping them in check while they growled at the stranger who bowed graciously to them.
"I am Salmar." His voice rasped as if he had not spoken for a long time. "You seek the Rock of Omar, is this not so?"
"It is," replied Gilfanon. "Elmo, Prince of the Teleri, said that you might guide us there."
"Yes, I can do that. For a price, of course."
Elrond glanced at Glorfindel who raised an eyebrow but Gilfanon replied, "Name your price."
"Nothing more than a few bits of clothing and food. I devote myself to Eru Ilúvatar by wandering the desert and foregoing many comforts, you see, and it is a harsh life."
"We most certainly can give you food and clothing! Why, we have an abundance of these in our coach," Gilfanon effused with generosity. Elrond thought the gleam in the ascetic's eyes was more avaricious than expected in one devoted to denial of material possessions.
"That is acceptable," agreed Salmar. "I will take you to the Rock of Omar, but to experience the lost Vala's song at its most poignant, you must also seek the Flame of the Desert."
"The Flame of the Desert? Right, right!" Gilfanon waved his hand dismissively. "I don't suppose you can assist us with finding that as well?"
"Oh, yes, that is no problem. We will find the Flame of the Desert on our way to the Rock of Omar, be assured."
Salmar proved to be an adept guide, giving them directions to a road that was not on Gilfanon's map and split off from the main thoroughfare that crossed Valinor. He was able to guide them to waterholes and springs along the way. He was also exceedingly pungent.
Elrond knew that his own scent was none too palatable, but he, as well as Glorfindel and Gilfanon, on occasion rubbed their bodies with olive oil and then scraped their skins with strigils to remove sweat and dirt. Then they lavished a blend of sandalwood and vetiver oils over their bodies to at least cover the powerful odors that inevitably developed from lack of bathing. But Salmar reeked of a body long unwashed, and his unseemly fondness for the raw garlic in the coach's stores only served to exacerbate his stench.
After four days in Salmar's odiferous company, he ordered them to halt in the late afternoon. Salmar pointed to a jumble of rocks and shrubs in the distance. The shrubs were thick with red and orange foliage so that they had the appearance of being in flames.
"There is where we shall find the Flame of the Desert. Do you have large jars with wide mouths and stoppers?"
"Yes," Elrond said. "We have several."
"Then you each must bring one. Let us go."
The ascetic led them across the burning rock and sand to the cluster of fiery shrubs where a small spring welled up from among the stones, forming a little pool of water. Around the pool and in shady nooks of the rocks were large spiders, the very same as the one that had sat upon Elrond's chest. He froze in his tracks, his skin crawling as he imagined hairy legs creeping across his bare skin and pedipalps waving.
"Here they are, the Flame of the Desert. You must collect them," said Salmar.
Glorfindel reached for the succulent red and orange leaves of a nearby shrub, but Salmar rapped his knuckles with his staff, eliciting an indignant squawk from the former Lord of the House of the Golden Flower.
"Do not touch the leaves! They are very poisonous. Nay! Here is the Flame of the Desert!" He gestured toward the vivid spiders covered in black hair tipped with orange and yellow like tiny candles.
Cold sweat joined the perspiration already running down Elrond's neck. "You expect us to collect these spawn of Ungoliantë?"
"Do not insult them so!" cried Salmar, rounding on Elrond. "These spiders are the creation of Palúrien and dear to her. So be gentle with them."
"Are you sure we must have these to listen to the song of Omar?" Glorfindel asked.
"I am sure, but if you do not wish to hear the song in its full beauty, then you may forego the Flame of the Desert."
"We will collect the spiders! Come now, lads." Gilfanon took the stopper out of his clay jar, bent over and put it next to a fat spider. Using a small stick, he carefully urged the spider to enter the mouth of the jar, slapping the stopper back over the opening once the spider was contained. Glorfindel followed suit, trapping a spider, and left Elrond standing alone, holding the clay jar in his hands; a stream of sweat trickled along the same path as the nervous tremor that ran down his spine.
"Remember our oath, Elrond," Gilfanon admonished.
"Varda protect me from the insane!" Elrond muttered, but he steeled himself to bend over and nudge a spider into the jar. The creature was cooperative, but the occasional scuttling noises within sent chills across Elrond's skin.
The next day, Salmar urged them on. "We must reach the rock soon for Isil will turn his back on the world tomorrow night."
That afternoon, Glorfindel brought the coach to a halt. Elrond stepped out of the coach to see a churning red wall of sand some distance ahead. It stretched across the horizon.
"We must seek protection," Glorfindel said, readying himself to leap down from the perch of the coach.
"No, stay!" cried Salmar, leaning out of a window. "Let me get out and join you. Those are the sands of glamour that surround the Rock of Omar. We must travel through them."
Once Salmar climbed up to sit upon the perch, Glorfindel ordered the beasts forward, his tongue clicking and buzzing with the Valarin commands the creatures obeyed. When they reached the howling clouds of sand, Elrond watched Salmar climb down from the coach and walk forward, waving his staff while chanting verses in Valarin even more jagged and grating than Glorfindel's words. The sandstorm parted, opening up a clear corridor just large enough for the coach to pass through. The beasts balked, but Salmar turned and spoke to them sharply. They settled down and followed him.
As they passed through the sandstorm, Elrond heard unearthly screams of fear and defiance, so woeful that his heart was torn and a tear rolled down his cheek. He stole a glance at Gilfanon, who sat across from him in the coach. Likewise, tears tracked down the elder man's face and into his beard. The howls intensified, becoming painful. Elrond clapped his hands over his ears, and Gilfanon openly wept.
"What are these cries in the wind?" Elrond yelled to Gilfanon over the din of the storm.
"I have no idea, but they are horrible!"
The coach rolled on, and the cries of pain and sorrow dissipated. Elrond looked out the window to see a clear sky the color of sapphires and the sun lowering toward the West. After Glorfindel brought the coach to a halt, Gilfanon and Elrond wiped their faces with folds of their robes and stepped out onto the road.
There to the south was what looked like a long low hill in the distance, but when he focused his sight, Elrond could see that it was a massive rock stretched across the desert. Its shape recalled a man lying on his side, and its color was that of blood.
"Behold the Rock of Omar!" Salmar cried dramatically over the wails of the sandstorm behind them. "We should reach it by mid-day tomorrow."
Elrond turned back to look at the sandstorm. The passage had closed.
"Those howls within the storm...they were terrible," said Elrond.
"Ah, yes. Manwë captured the screams of Melkor when he was hurled into the Void and entrapped them in the storm as an added hindrance to anyone seeking the Rock. You are most fortunate to have me as your guide."
Just as Salmar said, they reached the edge of the Rock of Omar when Anar soared directly overhead the next day. The Rock loomed before them, huge and somnolent in the baking heat. Glorfindel and Elrond unhitched the beasts, leading them to a patch of shade and prepared to rest where Gilfanon had already settled himself beneath the tent until Salmar clucked with disapproval.
"If you wish to experience the song of Omar in its full beauty, you must do these things: you must take the Flame of the Desert with you, and you must reach the other end of the rock, that is to say, Omar's head, before nightfall for we are at Omar's feet now."
"Then we cannot rest," said Glorfindel, putting his keffiyeh over his gold hair now darkened to a muddy ochre color with sweat. "We must leave at once." Gilfanon groaned in protest. Glorfindel snapped at him: "The oath, Gilfanon! Remember the oath!"
"Why must we take the spiders with us?" Elrond asked, now wary.
"You must let the spiders bite you. It is their venom that enhances the song of Omar. Otherwise, you will only hear its faint echoes."
"Ai! You're shrieking again, Elrond!" Gilfanon snarled. "Very well. Let us be off." Gilfanon donned his emerald-green keffiyeh and tucked the jar with his spider in it under his arm. "What about the spiders, Salmar? What must we do so that they will bite us?"
"Oh, just ask the spider to crawl onto your forearm," Salmar said genially, "and then tap it lightly on its back three times -- not two, not four but three times -- with your finger. It will oblige you. Now go on. I will stay here with your beasts and the coach."
Elrond's guts convulsed in horror at the prospect of allowing the spider to bite him, but Remember the oath! reverberated in his thoughts. How could he have been so stupid as to swear an oath while drunk on limpë? He imagined the guardians of his childhood -- Maglor and Maedhros -- rolling their eyes at the idiocy of swearing an oath of any sort, and here he had done it. Nonetheless, he lifted the jar with the spider and followed Gilfanon and Glorfindel to the path that led up the rock.
They reached what they assumed to be Omar's head just as Arien drove her flaming vessel to the horizon on her way to the Door of Night. The land bled with her crimson light when Elrond placed the jar on its side, propped between two rocks so that it would not roll about, and opened the stopper. The black mouth of the jar gaped open, sucking all light into it. Elrond wondered if the spider might be dead. Although it was an uncharitable thought, he half-hoped it was.
"What do I do now?" he asked no one in particular, but Gilfanon responded.
"Ask the spider to come out and crawl up your arm."
Elrond said nothing, but felt the fine hairs on his arm rise.
"Go on!" urged Glorfindel. "It's easy enough. See? Mine's already in place." Elrond glanced up to see the eight-legged creature spread across Glorfindel's inner arm. "All I need to do now is tap it. One...two...three...Ai! Blood of the stars, but that stings!"
Glorfindel's reaction only served to send chills down Elrond's spine. The image of the spider poised on his naked chest loomed large in his memory.
"Remember the oath, Elrond. Remember the oath," said Gilfanon darkly. "Ask her nicely."
Her? So he gritted his teeth and hissed, "Come out, please, daughter of..." Elrond stopped himself before he said "Ungoliantë," remembering that Salmar said that was an insult. "Come out, please, daughter of Yavanna."
Two bristly legs poked out of the jar, and then two more until the entire hairy black spider crept out, the yellow tips of its bristles glowing faintly in the dying light of the day. The spider stepped onto the outstretched palm of Elrond's left hand. Shivers shot up and down his arm. He wanted nothing more than to flick the spider off his hand and run screaming. But Remember the oath!
The spider crawled up to the soft skin of the inner crook of his elbow and halted. Elrond remained frozen. Sweat trickled down his forehead and into his eyes, burning them. The spider touched his bicep with her front two legs expectantly.
"Go on, Elrond! Just tap the bloody thing! Get it over with!" Gilfanon barked.
He sucked in his breath, poised his right forefinger over the spider's torso and then averted his eyes. He could not watch this. One...two...three...
He gasped when the bite came, but for all the spider's formidable size, the sensation was no worse than a bee's sting. He looked at the spider; she waved her forelegs, tickling him gently on the spot where she had bitten him, as if she wished to sooth the sting. Then she calmly ambled off his arm, joining her sisters to scuttle into the shadows.
Although the bite itched, delicious warmth blossomed under his skin. Placing his palms against the rock, he pushed himself up and rose to his feet. He joined Glorfindel and Gilfanon who stood together at the edge of a precipice, facing the sunset, and a light wind ruffled the white, orange, red, green and blue fabric of their robes and headdresses.
"Well, we did it," said Glorfindel.
"Look at that," mused Gilfanon, who gazed into the lowering sun and absently scratched his arm where an angry red welt rose. "All that space."
"What do we do now?" Glorfindel raised his arms, his sleeves flapping in the wind.
"We wait," said Elrond, the warmth in his arm climbing toward his shoulder.
They did not need to wait long before the spiders' venom took effect. Elrond's head swam, forcing him to sit down on the stone where he stared at the stars blooming in the night sky. The sight entranced him for what seemed like an age while the stars turned into rubies, diamonds and sapphires embedded in the firmament. Out of nowhere, Gilfanon broke out into a fit of laughter, infecting all three of them so that they were reduced to breathless guffaws at what they did not know. Then they lapsed into silence again.
Still, he heard no song. The wind whistled through the desert, sighing when it passed around him, but it said nothing more. Elrond listened to the thud-thud of his heart and the blood rushing through his veins, and wondered if all this had been a misty tale of the Fays with no basis in reality, that they had taken this journey for nothing.
Then he heard the first notes. They seeped into his bones rather than through his ears. Silver droplets of single flute rippled up his spine. Rills of a viol snaked up his arms, leaving violet trails in his muscles; the swift blue glimmerings of harps strummed across his ribs. His breath became the golden call of trumpets; his blood sounded with the crimson resonance of an organ's pipes; and his heart beat with tympanic thunder. The melodies of his body harmonized with the melody of the Rock, which in turn joined the great music of Eä.
At last it came: a voice of extraordinary beauty engulfed him, ringing through bone and tissue and exploding with a thousand sparks in his thought. The joyful voice glittered and chimed, its strange tones coalescing into a song that praised the vast creation of Varda's jewels scattered across the plains of Ilmen. Elrond marveled when the stars ceased their infinite wheeling to listen to the song. They gathered and swirled across the night sky in clumps as dense as a flock of birds and then fled before the wind.
The singer extolled feminine but inhuman beauty. The stars massed again to form the shape of a woman who glided across the heavens with galaxies as her crown and nebulae dripping from her fingers. The Rock sang the yearning pangs of unrequited love, and the star-woman turned to him and smiled with millions of suns in her teeth. But the wind gusted ferociously, and the figure of the woman blew away like smoke. The singer cried out in protest, and the winds answered with fierce dissonance. All joy became anger, resentment and fear.
Elrond no longer felt the warm stone beneath him. He hurtled through the expanses of Ilmen, his body slicing through the stars like the keel of a ship through glittering waves at night. Down and down he fell until he crashed against the earth where great cracks opened and mountains erupted with fire. Although the singer screamed in pain, he continued to sing with exquisite beauty. Pain became sorrow. The lament spread over the expanse of the desert, and its beat thrummed like a giant's heart through the great rock.
The singer's lamentations were just as acute as the screams of Melkor in the sandstorm, but when coupled with the magnificence of the stars that wheeled overhead – so beautiful, so untouchable – his grief and longing became that of tragic but terrifying beauty. Elrond curled into himself, his serene stoicism rendered impotent as he tried to quell the sorrow and regret that stabbed at his heart. He was vaguely aware of the sound of weeping, and he saw two others huddled on the stone in the starlight, rocking back and forth. The pain became unbearable, but the singer did not let Elrond go even when he begged for release. The Rock of Omar sang its lament until Time became Oblivion, and Elrond knew nothing but the eternal stars, the unending desert, and the anguish that consumed his entire being.
Elrond grimaced at the wretched taste in his mouth when the first rays of dawn struck him. One side of his face was pressed against the rock, his eyes and cheeks crusty with dried tears and snot. He lay still for a while, gaining his bearings, before he pushed himself to a sitting position. Glorfindel and Gilfanon lay nearby but also were stirring. Glorfindel sat up, rubbing the crust from his eyes and wiping his face with the edge of his soiled white robe.
"By the Three Fathers, that was an experience!" Glorfindel croaked.
"I will never be the same," Gilfanon rasped.
"Let's go before we are baked to a crisp on this monstrosity," growled Elrond.
They trudged in silence along the ridge of the rock, its contours reminiscent of a man's ribs and hips, with Anar's heat flogging them onward. When they came to the path that led down to the desert, they stopped as one, looking down at the coach and three, not six, beasts. Smashed jars, rags of clothing, and broken chests and other pieces of their belongings were scattered over the ground. Salmar and the other beasts were nowhere to be seen.
"Ai! That bird dung of a Vanya has robbed us!" cried Gilfanon, and he ran down the path. Glorfindel and Elrond followed him, slipping on loose stones.
Panic gripped Elrond's chest. The three remaining beasts could not possibly pull the large coach. If Salmar had left them with no food, that was one thing. They could travel for some days without nourishment, but water was an entirely different matter. He breathed deeply, attempting to still his frantic thoughts.
"Let us see what Salmar has left for us."
Upon inspecting the ransacked interior of the coach, they found several large jugs of water, and empty water skins. Their store of lembas, intended for dire need, was gone, but two sacks of dried fruit, one of figs and the other dates, remained. With careful rationing of these diminished supplies, they would be able to put a good distance between themselves and the Rock.
They spent the remainder of the day gathering what Salmar had left behind, including a bundle of dried herbs, to which he had attached a note, advising them to throw these into the sand storm and to chant the Valarin incantation he had inscribed so that the storm would part for them.
Gilfanon and Elrond prodded Glorfindel into experimenting with the beasts to see if they would bear the weight of a rider. Two growled but allowed him to perch on their low humps, but the third nearly laid its fangs into Glorfindel's thigh, necessitating a good deal of singing ancient Elvish taming songs to the animal until its gold eyes glazed over. They constructed make-shift saddles from the few rugs and cushions remaining and headstalls from the coach reins and tack. After filling all the water skins, they were on their way.
They reached the churning wall of the sandstorm before the sun set. Glorfindel tossed the herbs into the winds and chanted the grating Valarin incantation as instructed. The passage opened and they rode through, subjected once again to Melkor's defiant and terrified screams.
Using the stars as guides, for Salmar had also stolen Gilfanon's cherished map, they reached the main road where they turned East. They had refilled their water skins at brackish springs along the way, but their supply of fruit was dwindling. At their rate of travel, Elrond reckoned they had at least two more weeks on the road before they reached the Fields of Yavanna. It was already a grueling journey, but with the prospect of empty stomachs for much of that time, even worse.
They often rode in silence for the immensity of the desert swallowed any need for conversation, and each man retreated into his own thoughts. Elrond drowsed upon the beast that swayed with a hypnotic rhythm and dreamed of his comfortable, quiet estate on Tol Eressëa, so green and cool with the sound of many fountains and the rushing of a stream with its many artfully constructed waterfalls, a place of peace where the orderly progression of days blended together in perfect harmony.
But the desert was not altogether silent. As they traveled on, Elrond heard the echoes of Omar's song in the wind that hissed across the sand and rock. At night when he rested and gazed at the sky, Omar's song was at its strongest. The stars shimmered and quivered at the edge of his sight as if they were posed to swirl and dance as they had during the night upon the Rock. Elrond wondered if the spider's venom had a lingering effect.
Gilfanon behaved strangely, too. When they camped in the evenings, he wandered out into the desert, but returned with a dreamy look on his face. Once, after one of his walks, he exposed his forearm when he reached for a water skin.
"What is that on your arm, Gilfanon?" Glorfindel peered at the elder man who quickly pulled down the sleeve of his robe.
"It looks like a spider bite." Elrond frowned. "You have been seeking the Flame of the Desert, haven't you? That is why you walk out into the desert. You have been asking the spiders to bite you!"
Gilfanon turned toward them, the pupils of his eyes so large that his grey eyes were now black pits. "You are too young to understand. Forever becomes so boring. One must seek out the new." Then he looked up at the stars. "Listen! Can you hear it?" Then he was lost to them for the rest of the evening.
With each passing night, the song became more distinct, still beautiful, but in the day, its quality began to change and sounded as if one of the little desert mice that hopped across the night sands was singing. It was a persistent and oddly familiar tune, muffled but irritating to Elrond's ears. Apparently, the squeaky daytime voice of the Rock offended Gilfanon's sensibilities, too. One day while they rested beneath a hastily erected bolt of cloth that provided the only protection from Anar at its fiercest, he snarled at Glorfindel.
"That awful sound! It's coming from you!"
Glorfindel sheepishly reached beneath his dirty white robes and produced a red pebble. The squeaking song became louder, and it was obvious the noise came from the small stone in Glorfindel's palm.
"I took this as a memento from the Rock. I didn't think it would keep singing like this."
"May I?" Elrond extended his hand, palm upward. Glorfindel placed the little stone there.
The pebble babbled and chattered in a maddening way until its ditty resolved into a mocking "Tra-la-la-lally! Tra-la-la-lally!" Elrond threw the pebble as hard as he could out into the desert.
On the morning when they had eaten the last fig and the last date, they saw a cloud of dust break the surface of the mirror-smooth mirage that gleamed across the road ahead. Elrond's hopes rose at the prospect of meeting other travelers. Perhaps they would spare a few morsels of food.
Three indigo-clad riders emerged from the dust cloud with four camels trailing behind them. The rider in the lead clicked his tongue, and his camel halted, groaning in protest but kneeling so that its rider could dismount. Elmo pulled aside the veil across his face and beamed at them.
"Well met, friends! I am glad to have found you! We heard that you wandered, and I feared that you might be in want of food and water."
"How did you know we were wandering?" Gilfanon asked.
"Three of your beasts found us. Among my tribe is a woman who speaks the tongues of Oromë so one of the beasts told her that you were lost."
Elrond folded his arms, narrowing his eyes at the Teler. "Did the beast tell you that scoundrel of a Vanya robbed us?"
"Ai! No, the beast did not tell us of such a thing. I am sorry to hear that. But look! We have brought camels and supplies for you. We will take the beasts off your hands in exchange."
"Why ever would you want these animals?" asked Elrond, incredulous that anyone would desire to own such foul things.
"They are wonderful guards for our flocks! Better than the dogs even. All they request is that we sacrifice a lamb to them now and then. Not too much to ask really. The creatures have been diligent and have kept wolves and jackals at bay so we would like to keep them."
"We will gladly make the trade!" exclaimed Glorfindel, sliding off his mount's hump while it growled and snapped with menace.
So it was done, and after fortifying themselves with lembas and miruvor that Elmo had brought with him, they mounted the camels and bade farewell to the Teleri who rode off into the desert. A gust of wind caught their indigo robes, lifting them and revealing violet trousers on one of the men.
"Did you see that?" Elrond cried.
"Yes," said Gilfanon dreamily. "Yes."
"Ai! Look!" Glorfindel exclaimed when white cloth flashed beneath the indigo robes of the other Teler. "Do you suppose Elmo was in league with Salmar? That he meant to steal our belongings and take those creatures all along?"
"Possibly. Probably. Does it matter now?" Gilfanon took another bite of lembas and chewed as deliberately as a camel.
"No, I suppose not."
Elrond watched the cloud of dust recede while his indignation transformed into longing and, much to his surprise, envy. He considered Elmo's peculiar life in which he had turned his back on the ocean, embracing the wilderness of the harsh desert with all its fierce beauty, where he and his tribe faced daily challenges, where they welcomed strange beasts to guard their flocks, and where the necessities of their chosen life made them steal, or perhaps they stole simply for the thrill of it. He considered what he experienced on the Rock of Omar, and however awful and frightening it had been, the adventure had been one of a lifetime -- a very long lifetime. He thought about Gilfanon's powerful need to seek novelty that drove him to pursue such a quest and to let the Flame of the Desert bite him again and again.
Elrond then tucked all those troublesome thoughts within the deep vaults of his memory for examination at another time. He turned his back on the road that led into the desert. He kicked the sides of the camel, and they went on, the song of Omar becoming ever fainter as they approached the green breezes of eastern Valinor and beyond that, Tol Eressëa where the days blended into days upon days of constancy and perfection. But at night, the stars still trembled.