1. How the East Was Won
Somewhere many miles east of the Sea of Rhûn
Common sense informed Mairon that he ought to skirt the kill, but intense curiosity drove him forward, drawn by indignant roars and unearthly cackles. With a soft nudge of his heels, he urged his raw-boned mount through the rippling tawny-green waves of the steppe, approaching the spot marked by the spiral of carrion birds wheeling in the sky.
A chorus of shrieks raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and his guts clenched, poised to lighten flight should it come to that. The mare snorted, skittish when she caught the scent of death. He dismounted, ensuring there was a good distance between her and the hidden scene of carnage. He stroked the beast's muzzle while he reached into the blur of equine sentience to assure her that he would return, and she must stay put. He touched the hilt of the long knife, satisfied that it was ready should he need it. Approaching the site from downwind, he picked his way through the grass, crept along on his hands and knees, and once within sight of the kill, he inched forward on his belly.
The wind rasped through the grasses and masked any remnant of sound he might have made as he pulled himself forward with his elbows. He parted the curtain of coarse brown-green stems and suppressed a gasp. A trio of scimitar cats guarded the bloody carcass of an auroch. They snarled at the pack of seven cave hyenas that encircled them while small brown ghosts in jackal form orbited the kill in hopes of stealing cast-offs. The stink of shit, blood and fear hung over the carcass.
He barely breathed, less out of fear than amazement, while he looked upon this rare tableau of primitive creatures. These cave hyenas and scimitar cats were probably the last of their kind. Within a hundred years or so, they would be extinct, just like the giant harts that the exiled Noldor had hunted to the last beast when they returned to Middle-earth. The extinct deer's massive racks of antlers once hung in the halls of Nargothrond and Menegroth; he had acquired the rack that Felagund proudly displayed in the great hall of the tower that he had captured from the elven-lord and subsequently lost to that half-Maiarin witch. Now all were drowned beneath the sea.
The fangs protruding over the jaws of the large cats daunted the hyenas, but the draw of the kill was too much for them to resist. One darted toward the carcass, burying its teeth into the dead auroch's exposed rear leg. A cat swatted the offending scavenger, and its claws found their mark, raking through skin and leaving bright red tracks of blood slicing through the spotted fur. The beast retreated, howling with pain and frustration, but another of its pack attacked the carcass and then another. The yammering creatures beset the snarling cats, creating a dreadful cacophony that surrounded the carcass as the animals all vied for survival. If the hyenas continued to press, the cats would soon be driven from the kill.
As fascinating as this drama was, it was in his best interest to leave the scene before the cats retreated and caught wind of his horse. Nor did he particularly wish to satisfy their palate. He retreated through the tall grass, relieved to find that the obedient mare had not bolted although she stamped her hooves nervously when she saw him emerge from the grasses. He secured the rigging on the panniers and patted the horse's chestnut-brown flanks, crooning reassurances to her. She was all too eager to depart, trotting through the tall grasses and leaving the sounds of slaughter, conquest and loss behind them.
His master had described to him the strange megafauna that once roamed the expansive prairies and dark pine forests of Palisor in ages past. Many years later, he counted himself fortunate to have seen the scimitar cats and cave hyenas. Morgoth's creatures indeed, he thought. They were just mammals, albeit spectacular ones and the last of their kind.
Last summer, when he traveled to the East, putting the destruction of the world behind him, a violent thunderstorm had rammed against the Hithaeglir range, catching him in the foothills. Every ion in the roiling clouds discharged against the mountainsides. He had sought shelter in a cave where continuous flashes of lightning revealed glimpses of strange figures on the walls. He lit a small torch then, and saw clearly the paintings of hyenas and scimitar cats, as well as mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and aurochs, along with the figures of human hunters: the fathers of Men and Elves. The people who had taken shelter in the cave millennia before painted these images with mineral pigments, an artistic ritual to make meaning of their lives in this dark, brutal world. They passed their histories by oral tradition, and their stories became distorted with each re-telling. Large mammals, adapted to life on the steppes and the forests at the foot of the glaciers, thus became fantastical monsters with supernatural attributes.
The yelps and snarls of the kill receded behind him, replaced by the soughing of the wind in the tall grass, the hoof-strikes of the trotting horse, and the steady beat of his own heart. The mare was a swift creature even with the burdens of the panniers and his weight. She pulled at the headstall, pressing to break out into a gallop. He loosened his grip on the reins, and she stretched out her legs, the keel of her chest parting the waves of grass. The wind whipped through his hair and swept across his face with refreshing coolness. The contractions of his thighs met the horse's rhythms, moving as one with the animal. His exhilaration became joy, an emotion long absent from his life, and he let loose a whoop of exultation. At last, he was a free man.
His path to freedom had not been an easy one. On the night of the invasion, three turns of the sun past, he had cowered, paralyzed with fright, peering out a high window in one of the towers of Angband. He could not tear himself away from what he saw approaching in the heavens. Historians of Middle-earth would later write fanciful tales of the Valar's culminating battle with his master: flocks of white birds and eagles escorted a mithril and elven-glass carrack that glided across the sky with a bedazzling jewel strapped to the brow of its captain, born of Man and Elf. The fire-drakes, led by Ancalagon the Black, had answered the challenge, flying into the sky and attacking them all.
He supposed that was how an ignorant scribe of Middle-earth might describe the incomprehensible that had borne down on the ancient stronghold that night: a sleek destroyer of worlds, helmed by the same unlikely mariner, cast lethal brilliance from its Silmaril beacon into every shadow while thundering darts erupted in answer from Thangorodrim.
The destruction had been horrifying. He had escaped from the fortress, leaving behind Melkor's earth-shattering bellows that resounded through its halls, chambers and dungeons as the besieged Vala tried to wrest control of the chaos that consumed his lair. The screams of dying orcs and thralls alike pierced ozone-torn air when the weapons of the Valar found their marks. The mountains lurched, their foundations pulverized.
He had run down spiraling stone stairs, now cracking and crumbling beneath his feet; stone groaned all around him as the tower swayed. Once free of the disintegrating fortress, he had commandeered a horse, dispatching the frantic Easterling rider with his sword, the warrior's severed arteries anointing him with blood. He –- Melkor's great lieutenant –- had been reduced to panicked flight along with the escaped thralls and screeching orcs.
He forced the beast to run to its limit. He could not see it, but he knew it approached: Varda's great weapon, rolling through the black cold of Ilmen, on an inexorable collision course with anguished Beleriand. He knew what would happen to the land behind him. He slew another rider -- Man or Elf, he did not know and he did not care –- and took that horse when the first rolled to the shaking ground and died. And then a third horse after the second died after he drove it to the east. Then a fourth. The last beast dropped dead from exhaustion when Varda's fiery hammer entered the realm of air and struck the western lands, sending shock waves through earth, air and sea. He sprawled flat on the ground, covering his head in terror while the tremors from the convulsing lands behind him rattled body and mind.
Three nights later, he had willed his sore legs to move in his quest to find the Herald among the host of his estranged kindred now camped on the rugged highlands overlooking the new sea that churned brown from sediment released by the cataclysms. He concentrated on each step, consciously contracting and relaxing muscles, and inched his way up the path that led to the encampment, glorious in its studied anachronism. Many peaked tents were clustered on the high plateau, and standards snapped in the cold wind. So artfully constructed these were that they bore the appearance of holiday pavilions rather than accommodation for warriors.
He found the Herald alone, seated in a simple camp chair within a circle of light cast by sputtering torches. Cirrus clouds of white hair whipped around the Herald's sharp-featured face, and lapis eyes on either side of a narrow aquiline nose bored into him when he approached; he flinched under that icy gaze but maintained steady eye contact with the other. Although no other was present, he knew that many other eyes watched him near the Herald.
"Thank you for not pinioning me on the spot, Eönwë," he said, relieved that he had been allowed to come unhindered into the camp. He hugged the tattered cloak around his body against the foreboding chill.
The Herald rose from the chair, the torchlight sending a golden ripple of a thousand sparks from the hauberk he wore beneath a stained tunic that bore the symbol of Manwë.
"Come with me," the Herald said, indicating that he should follow him through the arched entrance of nearby tent, and so he complied.
"Please sit." Manwë's chief servant gestured toward a pile of blue and violet cushions tossed with seeming abandon on a patterned wine-red rug spread over the cold ground. Upon closer inspection, Mairon noticed that the cushions had been precisely arranged. Although he could not say why, this unnerved him.
"I would rather stand, thank you," he replied.
"Suit yourself. I daresay you could use a drink. Will you take a dram of limpë? "
"That I will accept."
Eönwë had poured the clear cordial into two fine-cut crystal glasses. With battered, filthy fingers, he took the glass from the Herald.
Eönwë sipped the liquor and raised his eyes, looking at his guest through long white lashes. "You're a wreck, Mairon."
"I know." He swigged the cordial down at once, its divine warmth igniting a fire within his body, driving back the cold that had lodged in his bones. He extended the empty glass to his host, who refilled it promptly. "Do you know why I have come?"
"I have a good idea," replied Eönwë, refilling his own glass. "Your message came to me two days ago. And we know what you have done."
"I will be direct then." Again he drained the rest of the cordial from the glass, not bothering to savor the flavor of distant meads and strange sunlight. He fingered the empty glass nervously. Eönwë had not ordered him taken captive and had even welcomed him into the tent. The Herald of Manwë's kindness echoed the warm camaraderie of the past that they had enjoyed before they emerged from the gates they had sung open above Arda. Surely he could trust Manwë's servant, his former colleague.
"Please, go on..." said Eönwë, so warm, so encouraging, yet with an overeager expectancy that sent a chill down Mairon's spine.
He inhaled deeply, willing the words to spill from his mouth.
"I wish to repent. I wish to repent of all that I have done: the pain, the sorrow, all the deaths I have caused. I was in error, Eönwë. I beg the forgiveness of the Guardians. I beg your forgiveness." He slumped his shoulders and bowed his head, attempting to look the supplicant as well as sound like one.
Neither man spoke. The wind, bearing the scent of wood fires, the sea and acrimony, battered the tent, its fabric bulging inward as if trying to capture him. A nightingale sang far off in the forest; Mairon's guts knotted with reflexive fear at the sound. His heart thudded in his chest, its anxious percussion throbbing in his ears. Then the Herald laid a hand on either of his shoulders. He tensed, and he knew the other felt it.
"I wish I could pass judgment, Mairon," Eönwë said, "but you know that I cannot. You must stand before Manwë and the rest of the Guardians."
He raised his eyes to examine Eönwë. The Herald's voice, his expression, his posture -– all were nothing other than kind and sympathetic -- but not his eyes. For a split second, malicious triumph leaked from them and in their blue depths Mairon saw himself stripped naked of his physical form, left vulnerable and writhing in agony in the center of the Máhaxanar. A curtain of empathy slid shut across the horrid scene that had escaped from Eönwë's mind. Mairon resisted the urge to flee, knotting his hands into fists. Eönwë's hands tightened their grip on his shoulders.
Fear had driven him here, but now fear threatened to drive him away. How could he know that he would not meet Melkor's fate? He had assumed he would find trust and certainty from his former colleague, a remembrance of their past and what he had once been. What he had glimpsed was the desire for revenge.
His thoughts raced. He considered that Aulë would speak on his behalf, and possibly Ulmo and Nienna, too. He knew the Valar were often not in agreement with one another and that might work in his favor.
Pain he could withstand. That he knew from the punishments he had endured at Melkor's hand. He even thought he could smooth his fierce pride. Then he considered his greatest fear: if he subjected himself to Eönwë and returned to Aman, he would forfeit control of his life, and the prospect of that shook him to his very core.
Nothing was more important to him than control. In a remote time and place, he had been safe and loved, but that security had been shattered into fragments. He had witnessed the horrific deaths of those he had loved and who had loved him in turn, but he had survived because of an innate talent, one that the Valar had noticed, they who had been indirectly responsible for breaking his life into shards. The Guardians had taken him –- young, confused and reeling from his loss –- into their fosterage and made him into what he was. But the vision of that moment in time when the order of his world crashed down around him had never disappeared. Nightmares of the horrible scene haunted him, and ever since then, he struggled to maintain control over his life and the world around him. He glanced at the pile of cushions again -- none of them out of place -- and imagined a life of servitude in Aman where every moment of his existence would be under the exacting control and surveillance of others. He could not bear the thought.
"Might I remain here in Middle-earth and offer my repentance by giving my knowledge and skills to Men and the Firstborn?" It was a dull attempt at negotiation, and he knew it would fail before he finished speaking.
"No," Eönwë answered abruptly, but then layered conciliation onto his voice. "Again, I tell you that I cannot exact the nature of your judgment. Only the Guardians may do this."
"But not my peers. Because we are the lesser…"
"That is correct."
"Then we are at an impasse."
"It is your decision."
"To give up any and all freedom."
"A fair exchange for what you inflicted on others and for aiding and abetting Melkor's cause."
Silence. The wind had lessened, and the sides of the tent now fluttered. He heard Eönwë's breath, heard the murmurs in the encampment and the pop of a burning log in a distant campfire. He stared at his feet.
"I am sorry, Mairon."
There was nothing more to be said. Alone, he turned his back on the light. He entered the night beyond the torchlight and made his way along the path that hugged the cliff. The wind in the pine forest below hissed with contempt.
Bereft and ashamed, he halted at the foot of the cliff, listening to the sounds of the encampment above him: the whinny of a horse, the clank of metal and singing, some songs reverent and some bawdy: the songs of friendship and camaraderie.
All he had to do was turn around and hike back to the encampment and offer himself for judgment, fair or not. Images coalesced in his mind: He saw himself kneeling before Manwë in the circle of Máhaxanar, his head bowed with humility. He saw his first mentor's face, heard the excitement in Aulë's voice when together they discovered something new, and the laughter and the ribald songs that they sang when they celebrated a new invention. Maybe he could face them. Before he turned about, the malignancy entangled in his conscience stirred, announcing itself with a whisper that swelled into a disembodied but familiar voice at once soothing and sickening:
Be yourself, don't take anyone's shit, and never let them take you alive.
He slipped into the shadows beneath the pines.
A day after he had stumbled upon the hyenas and scimitar cats, the scouts of the hunting party that followed the herd of aurochs spotted him. He dismounted, waiting while the hunters on horseback thundered through the waving grasses. Within minutes, compact, wiry Men, mounted on small dun horses with stiff black manes, surrounded him. Fifteen spears of finely chiseled flint were aimed at his vital parts.
He held up his hands with a gesture of peace. He imagined what they saw: a Man with copper skin and wavy black hair, high cheekbones and dark brown eyes – the form he had painstakingly crafted so that he could move among the various tribes of the Easterlings. However, all his teeth were accounted for and gleamed with unblemished white enamel, and in spite of the steady diet of meat and greens that had stripped his adipose tissues to a bare minimum, his muscles and skin reflected robust health.
In contrast, although the Men's hair shone in the sun and their eyes were bright, the obvious ridges of their ribs and jutting shoulder and pelvic bones provided evidence that they had only recently regained their health. Little wonder, Mairon thought, given that the cataclysms in the West had shadowed the sunlight for more than a year, disrupting weather patterns and causing herds to thin and crops to fail.
He listened intently as the little hunters spoke among themselves, assessing him, the interloper, at their spear points. He processed every combination of syllables and cross-referenced them with all the languages he knew and these were many. He recognized many words derived from an ancient tongue, indicating contact with primeval Elves. Other words and sentence structure resembled the language of the Haladin. He discreetly probed the outer shells of their minds while they spoke and was soon able to piece together enough of their language to communicate in a basic fashion.
Their chieftain rode forward, his spear pointed at his heart.
"Who are you, and where is your home?"
He scanned the Men and their gear, seeking signs of talismans and found them: the wolf pelts that many of them wore, and the crude images of wolves scarified on their brown skin.
"I am Fajad'râk. I come from the lands northeast of the inland sea." Hardly an original name, he thought, but the best he could come up with under the circumstances.
" 'Fajad'râk.' That is a powerful name if it is your true one. I am Turo, chief of my people. You travel on our hunting grounds, and we have killed strangers for such trespassing. But it would be of ill omen to slay one named for the wolf's spirit, especially when we will hunt the auroch."
Had this Turo known of the power that he -- their captive – possessed, the little chieftain's bravado might have been more tempered. Contained within his human form, Mairon retained the abilities that would allow him to paralyze Turo and his followers using silent language of command, leaving them vulnerable to his knife across their throats, or to create an illusion in all the tribesmen's minds that would let him slip away into the steppe or reduce them all to gibbering terror. Yet Mairon was an avid student of human behavior and well understood that the chieftain must appear strong before his tribesmen. He lowered his eyes in submission.
"Then I am thankful that I was named well," he replied, raising his head again when the chieftain grunted with satisfaction.
Through almond-shaped dark eyes, Turo scrutinized him up and down. "You are tall and strong. You are not an elenâ, are you?"
Of the star-folk? "No, I am like you – a Man. My people are tall. We live among plenty."
The chieftain snorted derisively. "Plenty means softness. What is your purpose in this land?"
"I travel to the Lands of the Dawn where it is said there are many wonders, and so I must cross your territory."
"The Lands of the Dawn?" The men muttered among themselves as their chieftain made a warding sign and continued. "You will be burned to a cinder by Anâro when he rises from the Eastern seas. But that is your folly. You have leave to cross our lands, but do not tarry." The chieftain signaled his hunters, and they made ready to leave.
"Wait!" Mairon called to them. The chieftain turned his horse, and the others hesitated. Mairon squinted and gazed off toward the horizon where a rusty cloud of dust marked the passage of the large herd. ""You say that you hunt. I would join you if you are willing, and re-pay you for sparing my life and giving me leave to travel across your hunting grounds."
Turo smirked. "You may join us, Fajad'rak. Let us see if you are worthy of your name. Maybe you can run down an auroch with those long legs of yours." The rest of the Men laughed heartily, in the typical exaggeration of minions when their leader shows marginal wit, something that Mairon recognized all too well from doing the same in the past. The hunters spun their horses and galloped away.
His mare nickered, nudging his shoulder affectionately with her muzzle. "Well, Lintë," he said, stroking his neck. "Let's see if you're true to your name, and I will be true to mine."
He removed the panniers from the horse to lighten her load and protect their contents. He tucked his sword and scabbard beneath the panniers, and then stripped off his buckskin tunic and the soft shirt beneath it. To mark the location of his gear in the sea of grass, he thrust a spear into the earth, and tied his shirt to its apex. He then shut his eyes, concentrating, and reached into the unseen structures of the soil around the panniers, and from the chemicals of the humus' fungi and bacteria, he crafted a predatory stench that would ward raiders away from his food supplies.
He then checked the tension of the recurve bow, adjusted the bowstring, and slung it and the quiver of steel-tipped arrows on his back. He leapt up onto Lintë. She took flight, now that she was free of the panniers, bearing down on the hunting party swiftly.
The hunters had reached the herd that rumbled across the steppe. The men maneuvered their horses to cut off five beasts from the rest. One auroch veered away from the group, and the hunters tore off after it. The animal was not an old creature nor was it a cow burdened with a calf, but an adult bull that crashed through the tall grass, stirring a whirlwind of red dust.
A vigorous young bull was not an ideal choice for a kill, but if he could bring the auroch down, it would aid his cause. He dug his heels into Lintë's flanks. She flew past the hunters and their stocky horses until she ran parallel to the beast. Dust filled his nostrils; he repressed a sneeze. The percussion of the bull's hooves against the dry earth combined with Lintë's cadence to create a determined rhythm as prey tried to escape predator. Amidst the male stench of the bull, Mairon smelled fear and forced back the lupine growl that threatened to emerge from his throat.
He met the pounding movement of his horse with his thighs and hips, controlling the mare's path with the pressure of his heels while he notched the arrow to the bow. The bull tossed its head menacingly and veered in front of his horse. The agile Lintë swerved, but he lost the opportunity for a shot. He resisted the urge to reach into the beast's dim brain and manipulate the pathways that controlled its pace and stance, thus easing the kill. As a matter of pride, he wished to bring the animal down by his skill with the weapon alone.
He lined up his galloping horse again, and the bull turned its neck slightly. He let the arrow fly. Its razor-sharp point drove into the base of the animal's skull, lodging deep in its small brain. The bull stumbled, flipped over and then crashed to the ground.
He slid off the mare and approached the beast, thrashing in its death throes. He glanced over his shoulder briefly to ensure that the hunters approached and that they had seen him take down the animal with one arrow. At that moment, searing pain raked across his bare chest. He gasped and jumped back. The animal's spasms had caught him unawares, and one of the bull's horns had gouged his upper left pectoral. It was a glancing cut but alarming. Fortunately, the horn had missed his neck, but he judiciously hung back and watched the beast twitch and finally still while the hunting party gathered around the kill.
The men let loose an ululating victory cry. They dismounted, and one man brought forward an oiled leather sack with a wide mouth. He gestured to the bull's neck.
"It is your kill. You have the right of first blood."
Mairon drew his steel knife from its sheath at his side. The metal flashed in the sun, and the men murmured amongst one another at the sight of it. An insistent urge to bare his teeth welled up from a dark place in his mind, a primal reflex that haunted him from a time when he had assumed a radically different form. He quelled the urge. The keen edge of the blade sliced through hide and muscle to sever the jugular vein. He snatched the sack from the tribesman and held it beneath the red stream, collecting the blood in the leather vessel. When the blood had reduced to a trickle, he had stepped away from the carcass, and the rest of the men set to skinning and eviscerating the beast.
Turo swaggered forward, halting directly before Mairon. The chief dipped his fingers into the bull's blood and smeared it across Mairon's forehead and on the curved white scars on either side of his neck, which burned hot as soon as Turo's fingers marked them with gore. The chieftain hummed with approval at the bleeding gash across his chest. Turo ran his forefinger across the cut inflicted by the bull's horn. Mairon remained stone-faced at the stinging pain and suppressed the thought of all the bacteria that Turo rubbed into the wound. With his forefinger -- now bloody from Mairon's injury -- Turo traced a stylized outline of a wolf on Mairon's chest.
"Perhaps you are well-named, Fajad'rak."
Sparks drifted toward the black dome of the heavens, tiny yellow-orange meteors that defied gravity while the heat of the fire drafted them higher and higher until they winked out. Mairon's back was cold, but the heat of the crackling campfire warmed his face and torso. The tribesman standing before him placed the hollowed out skull of a wolf into his open hands. He lifted it to his lips and sipped the blood, its metallic flavor sharp and salty as seawater. He passed the bowl to the man on his right. After the bowl made its way around the circle of men, the last to drink, an adolescent boy who must have just come of age, returned it to him.
As the hunter who made the kill, Mairon held the place of honor: he drank the first blood, and he was to finish the rest. The Men grinned with gapped toothed smiles when he tipped the skull and drank the blood down without pausing. He licked his lips, suppressing a feral memory, and smiled back at them, certain that his teeth were stained red. He would have greatly preferred wine, but this was not the first time he had imbibed blood.
Just at the edge of the firelight, a scarred, grizzled old fellow pounded out a rhythm on skin drums, now joined by the haunting fluid notes of a crude wooden flute, played with surprising skill by a young man. Three men leapt into the circle of firelight, one draped in the still-bloody skin of the auroch that Mairon had brought down, and the other two covered in the crudely cured pelts of wolves, the spirit-guardians of this tribe of hunters. The wolf-men stalked the auroch while the Men in the circle began to clap in time with the drumbeats. The rhythm became more frenzied and the flute's notes were shrill. The hairs on the back of Mairon's neck rose, and his thighs tensed, ready to spring forward. He shuddered, driving back the beast within, and beat his thighs in time to the rhythm of the drums. The dance reached its climax, and the auroch succumbed.
The Men hooted and clapped him hard on his back, reminding him of his fundamental humanity. The drums and flute picked up a lively tune, and the rest of the hunters rose and capered in the firelight. A roughly cured leather wineskin was passed around. He took a swig from it, expecting wine, but the effervescent acidity of fermented milk shocked him. He resisted the urge to spit it out, swallowed the foul stuff, and then took another swig for good measure.
The Men laughed, "Good, good, yes?" He laughed, too, and feigned his agreement by taking one more swallow of the disgusting stuff.
The chieftain's joviality was forced. No doubt his prowess as a hunter secured his status, and this morning, Mairon had demonstrated that his abilities and weapons outstripped those of Turo. Now was the time to begin. Mairon left the circle of firelight and pulled one of the steel-tipped spears from his gear. He returned to the circle of dancing hunters and stood before the chief, his head bowed and the spear extended.
"Honorable Turo, I offer this gift to you for sparing my life and for allowing me to join your hunt."
The little chieftain rubbed his sparse beard and eyed the weapon, and then met Mairon's steady gaze. With dignity, Turo took the spear. He stroked the oak shaft and examined the steel head. He ran his finger along the metal. A sharp intake of breath followed when he sliced his index finger on the keen steel, drawing blood.
"The cold stone of your weapons takes a sharp edge. Do you delve into the earth to find this stone? Or does it come from the fire-eyed demons of the West?" Turo's slanted eyes squinted with suspicion.
The fire-eyed demons. The Noldor. Mairon doubted that these mortals had ever encountered the Exiles who brought their considerable skill acquired in Aman to the backward Outer Lands, but had been loath to share it with most mortals. The Noldor's reputation of conquest and sense of superiority had spread by whispers and rumors among the Men of the East and was abetted by the long-simmering hostility that the Avari held against their Western kin.
This is perfect, Mairon thought with an inward smile. The Noldor and their mortal hangers-on may as well have shot arrows into their own feet when, in their arrogance, they had disregarded Men beyond the Ered Luin.
"I made the steel myself. All of my weapons are of my own craft," Mairon said. "I have the same knowledge of iron as the fire-eyed demons." He let that sink into the Man's brain and continued. "I can teach this and more – much more - to you."
"You would teach us to make such stone for our spears? And for our blades, too?" In the reflected firelight, Mairon saw the greed and ambition that flared in Turo's dark eyes.
The chieftain stroked the metal spearhead with care, but nonetheless smeared blood on it. "There is another tribe over the ridge," Turo jerked his head toward the dark north, "that now moves upon our hunting grounds. Such weapons might aid us against them."
"He whose tribe possesses such weapons would become a formidable leader. I will give you this knowledge," Mairon said, making note of the chieftain's contemplative expression.
The chieftain knotted his brows. "Such knowledge does not come without a price. What do you ask of me?"
"Nothing more than taking me to your home. I know you must have one, a settled place, for your women and children do not travel with you."
He laughed then. "That is all? I will take you back then, but it will be the Mother who must accept you into our settlement. If she does, then you may teach us."
"Very well. Take me to her then." Mairon knew that he had broken the first barrier, but now he would face another. The Mother. A woman was their spiritual leader. These Men had referred to the sun as male, so he guessed that the Moon's aspect was female. Perhaps this was a goddess-worshiping society whose men likely yearned for the virile dominance of a father-god, and he knew just who that god would be.
The skin of fermented milk was offered to him again, but he declined it with courtesy. He sat cross-legged by the chieftain, and together they watched the young men gambol in the flickering orange-red light. As the night drew on, the hunters became progressively more inebriated. Finally, they stumbled off to their crude leather tents. One of the Men gestured to him, inviting him to seek shelter from the cold night air with him. He shook his head, and spread his bedroll over a deep cushion of grass beyond the light of the fire. The prospect of sharing close quarters with these exceedingly pungent men did not appeal to him. Judging by the moans, grunts and the rhythmic slaps of flesh against flesh, they also had little compunction about lack of privacy for carnal indulgence as they succumbed to drunken lust with one another in the absence of their women.
Mairon turned over on his back and withdrew his attention from the bestial atmosphere of the hunters' camp. His thoughts raced back to a time and place lost to him, a place where all manner of craft was at his disposal. He purged the many regrets that bubbled up from their deep hiding places in his long memory. He had chosen to come to this world that had so captivated him; the decision was irreversible. The consequences of his decision had turned out to be far different than he could have ever imagined.
He soothed himself by meditating on the stars and thinking of his plans that would arch over Middle-earth like the heavens spread over the earth. Today had proven a success: one gift and he had been invited to come to the tribe's settlement. Even though Eönwë had rejected his proposal, Mairon was determined to adhere to it: to pay his penance for joining Melkor by freely sharing his considerable knowledge with others, to teach Men and the Dark Elves and bring order and control to the chaos of this world. His new strategy was not to overwhelm these primitives by force or torment, but to persuade them, winning them over to his cause so that they would give their allegiance to him. The rumors of great civilizations that had arisen far to the East drew him as well. There, Mairon believed he might learn from these Men as well as teach them. If the rumors were true, they would make powerful allies.
Snores now growled from the tents. A half-smile formed on his lips while he listened to the sleeping camp and the shifting of the guards in the grass beyond the firelight, his thoughts now diffuse, signaling the onset of sleep. He required no guard; a sliver of his consciousness would remain alert in the night, protecting him from danger, but surely those snores would drive any predator away. He closed his eyes, and let the rest of his mind sink into the peace of sleep.
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.