Beyond the Dawn

translated by Tauriel, Eledhwen
http://arashi-opera.livejournal.com/


Chapter 1. Beren

Just as the snow began to melt and mountain paths were cleared, he was surrounded. Sauron and Boldog left nothing to chance: wolves and Orcs combed forest after forest, ravine after ravine, tightening the semicircle ever so closely around the hidden gorge in the foothills, where the old witch's hut stood.

The witch died on the day of Sunturn and Beren was left alone with her goat. He buried the witch and wanted to slay the goat, but then decided not to touch it till need came. The winter had passed and the need did come: the Orcs were approaching and there was no way to break through the encirclement. Beren butchered the goat and dried its meat. He packed what he could not afford to leave behind and set out.

On the next day, from the Wuthering Mother's shoulder he saw Orcs and wolves milling around the hut. But Beren was already far away and wet snow has covered his tracks.

When a month later Beren came down from the other side of the Ered Gorgor, there was not much left of him, and when he got out of Nan Dungortheb, he was almost completely wasted. Not discerning day from night, rocks from trees, bushes from animals, possible enemies from possible friends, he moved on—slowly, tenaciously and thoughtlessly, like an intricate Noldor clockwork toy. The pebbly riverbed that filled up only at springtime—the weidh—gave him direction: where water could make its way, so could a man. Beren went on. In his agony he missed the moment when pebbles stopped hurting his feet. All around him was dark, and he could no longer tell whether it was night or complete blindness.

Then he saw a light in the distance, heard laughter, voices and music, and gasping for breath, he stumbled that way, no longer hoping that these were people and not some phantom, conjured by his fevered mind.

* * *

It was a delightful spring night, one of those moonless nights, when the stars are especially bright and large, and the air is filled with scents of life awakening. There were about two dozens of them: Lúthien, Nellas and Nimloth, a flock of other maidens, and as always, Daeron and Ilwerin, and their friends with harps and flutes. Here, on the outskirts of Doriath, they revived in song and dance the days when the world was young and the Eldar wandered under the stars.

"Let us go a little further", suggested Lúthien.

"Here lies the boundary of Nan Dungortheb. It might be dangerous here", said one of the men.

"But we are not out of the Girdle just yet", Nellas shrugged. "And we are not yet tired. Indeed, let us go further, let us walk until the sun sets!"

And they went on until the sun has finally set, and when it has, they settled themselves in a small glade, covered with hemlock. At first, all who did not sing and made music, danced, then they danced and sang in turns, then Lúthien danced and sang alone. With her song she created white flame and light, and danced in the circle of light. She sang of what had befallen in these woods long ago: of the wondrous meeting of her father and mother, and her voice marvelously intertwined with the tune of Daeron's flute… Time was parting, as if the dancer's hands drew back the dusty curtains of years. In a little while, Lúthien knew, the magic of this night and the magic of the song would do their work: the listeners and the watchers would see before themselves the very things she sang of. The stars and the forest will be young again, and on this glade Elu Thingol, the Elven-king, and Melian, the star descended from heavens, will join their hands…

The song was interrupted by a woman's scream, and almost immediately Daeron grabbed Lúthien's hand.

"Run! Danger, evil within our borders! Run, Lúthien, run!"

The spells were broken—she barely had time to see tangled, dirty hair above the forehead and on the face—or was it a muzzle? —piercing grey eyes, chapped and blackened lips—and almost nothing else: Daeron was dragging her by the arm, and he didn't have to make special effort—Lúthien's feet were carrying her away from the frightening apparition. Somewhere afar the others were calling to one another. Daeron released Lúthien's hand, certain that she was following him—and so she was, for a while. Lúthien ran headlong from the place where some unknown terrible creature burst through the enchanted Girdle of Melian, until she regained her wits. However terrible those spells that overcame the spells of her mother might be—being so close, she should have sensed the disturbance of powers. But she has not.

She stopped. Not noticing, Daeron ran ahead, calling from time to time to those who ran on his left and right.

Closing her eyes, Lúthien reconstructed in her memory the face (she was sure it was a face, not a muzzle) of the unknown creature. It was quite scary—but now Lúthien could name what she beheld in that brief moment in the depth of the stranger's eyes: suffering. Whoever or whatever he was, he was suffering and needed help.

As swiftly as before, Lúthien rushed in the opposite direction. The glade opened before her. The nightly newcomer was still there—on the edge of the glade, where Daeron first saw him. He had not ventured to move from that place—only fallen to his knees. Standing behind a tree, Lúthien heard his hoarse, uneven breathing, and her heart wrung: the stranger was weeping. It was a frightening dry wail without tears, a wordless howl of despair. Writhing in his weeping, the strange guest tumbled onto the soft carpet of dry leaves, scratching the earth with his fingernails, clutching humus and moss in his hands. Lúthien came out from behind the tree and drew closer to him, stood almost right above him… She was not afraid. She saw now how weak and exhausted he was. He was dirty, he smelled badly… Apprehension flashed like a sudden lightening—ha had passed trough Nan Dungortheb! His sword lay nearby—a long blade of the Noldor, in a worn-out leather scabbard. So, he's a warrior. A golda-warrior. Can a golda really be brought down to such a state? No, he's not an Elf. And not an Orc, either… He is…

Suddenly he ceased to writhe in a fit of dumb agony, jumped abruptly on one knee, his fingers closing around the sword hilt. His stare met Lúthien's gaze—his strained squinted eyes told her his sight was poor in the darkness…

A Man. A mortal… Adan…

She bent slightly, so he could make out her face and lay aside his fears. How long they stood there like this, she did not know. Then Lúthien asked, as softly as she could:

"Who are you?"

His lips twitched in an attempt of a smile—and cracked: a drop of blood appeared in the fissure. He obviously tried to say something, but his throat caught again, and only a hoarse exhalation escaped his chest. Stretching his hand forward, the man briefly touched Lúthien's outstretched hand—and fell in a dead faint, like a tree cut down.

He was not dead, only unconscious. Lúthien knelt beside him, examined him more closely—she perceived with both her first and second sights that he wasn't seriously wounded. He was fading from physical and mental exhaustion. He needed water, food—but Lúthien had none with her. The man was unconscious and his soul was not about to leave his body just yet. She had time at least until dawn to find the other runaways and get from them everything the man needed.

As she was leaving the glade, she glanced back for the last time. How did he manage to walk trough the Girdle of Melian without disturbing it? Is he a sorcerer? Her breath caught with burning curiosity: she has never heard of sorcerers among Men before. When she has taken about six hundred strides from the glade, she heard Daeron's quiet call…

* * *

The habit of jumping at every stir of air did not fail Beren—but this sudden movement made his eyes go black, and if there was an enemy standing over him, he could have taken the man on the spot.

But it was no enemy.

A maid… Beren did not remember right away how these heavenly creatures are called before they turn into old women… Blue silk embroidered with gold, fair and delicate skin, black hair, eyes like live silver…

My death is upon me, he thought. Because this earthly realm cannot possibly give birth to such beauty. I am dead, and a Valië is come for my soul…

"Who are you?" she asked.

He reached out and gently touched her hand. Her fingers were dry and warm—Beren realized that he was still alive. He tried to say: "I am Beren, son of Barahir". Tried to plead: "Help me"—but his dry throat produced only a wheeze.

The stars grew dim, the trees swayed, the hemlock leaves rushed to his face—Beren fell and oblivion covered him whole.

It seemed that he was unconscious only for a short time; when he opened his eyes, he saw the same stars above him.

The maiden was gone.

Beren listened intently. Nothing, only rustle of leaves. He had either imagined her, or she had fled, leaving him there.

Madness retreated, leaving only indifference. Whatever that beauty had been—a reality, a dream, a delirium brought by sleep deprivation or thirst—it did not matter. He was dying? Who cares.

The noises of the forest drifted indifferently on the night air, the wind shifted in the treetops, a stream babbled in the distance…

A stream!!! You fool! A stream!

Beren turned on his stomach, tried to get up. He could no longer lift his backpack and sword. Freeing himself from the straps, he crawled towards the sound of running water… He drank like an animal, lapped like a dog, till his teeth hurt, till his stomach ached, till color spots danced before his eyes…

Then he vomited.

Rolling on his side, he lay for a while at the roots of the nearest tree. Then he returned to the water once more, but this time he drank carefully and sparingly. After that he crawled back to the tree and sat, leaning his back against the mossy trunk.

He heard anew the noises of the forest, but now those were the sounds of life. After quenching his thirst, he could reason calmly. Even without finding people and aid, he could survive on his own if there was water, forest, and such wonderful spring…

…They were not a phantom, the ones whose enchanted fire drew him out of the wasteland. But they were not Men, either. Elves. The Grey Elves of Doriath.

Beren couldn't have imagined such a luck. The Elven marchwardens of Doriath—that meant that there were no Orcs here, whom he wouldn't be able to handle now. Of course, intrusion could be interpreted as a hostile intention, but crossing the borders of Doriath was impossible. So said people who knew.

He should go back and pick up his backpack. Pick up his sword, which he had preserved in the mountains, in the terrifying labyrinth of lava fields and pebble roads of the weidh.

The walk from the stream to the glade and back took forever and drained him of his last strength. After dragging his simple possessions to that same tree, Beren tumbled on the fallen leaves and fell asleep in a moment, as if his senses were blown out like a candle.

* * *

Seeing Lúthien, Daeron lowered his eyes.

"Abandoned me, did you?" she asked, hiding a smile. "Fled on your own?"

"I thought you were running behind me", answered Daeron. "Why did you go back? Do you realize how dangerous is the creature that is capable of defying the Girdle of Melian?"

"Do you even know what that creature is?" asked Lúthien. "What is that mighty and terrible beast, endowed by mysterious magic?"

Daeron could not endure her gaze and bent his head again.

"It's a Man", Lúthien said quietly. "A mere mortal. Hungry, thirsty and worn out with suffering. He came from Nan Dungortheb—what has he seen there? What has he gone trough? That is whom we were so afraid of. Whom we fled from like mad…"

"I have some lembas left", said Daeron quietly. "Is he still there?"

 

Beren was having a nightmare, which has become familiar in four years: black birds on ice, blood, screams… Fire in the night. A window with an oblique transom—crosswise, as was the custom in Dorthonion…

Gorlim, don't go. Don't go, Gorlim, it's a trap!!!

A cry… A cry!

Ei-li-neeel!

Laughter… Inhuman laughter, although there were Men among the killers. No, he who serves Morgoth is no longer human… Laughter… Birds, black birds on white ice… "Aark, aark… Late, too late…"

…He woke up in cold sweat, like he did so many times since that night.

On his left babbled the stream. His right arm has gone mercilessly numb… Beren sat, rubbing his right shoulder.

It was hot noon.

He was thirsty again.

In the light of day, this place seemed more lively and beautiful. Blessed would be the right word. Its very air healed both body and soul—Beren felt much more strength in himself that a mere night's rest could provide. Or has he slept for more than one night? In Nan Dungortheb he had not slept at all, falling asleep there meant falling asleep forever.

The stream from which he had drunk at night was actually a spring that was born right there, at the roots of the old tree. He did not know what sort of tree it was: there weren't any of that kind in Dorthonion. Somebody had cleared and carefully inlayed the spring's bed with small stones, shaping it in the likeness of a round chalice. The Elves, the Sindar; nobody else would do that. Beren bent over the spring and looked into the eyes of the man on-the-other-side.

He had bad eyes. The gaunt, dirty face, half-hidden in an ugly beard would pass for an Orc's muzzle, or even a wild beast's. The eyes would fit an animal as well: grey wolf-like stars in the depths of the eye sockets. No wonder the night dancer has run away from such a vision.

Beren slapped his hand on the water to drive the dreadful image away. He would run away from himself too—if only he knew how…

Tears rushed into his eyes suddenly and violently. His father would have given him a good scolding for these tears, disgraceful and unbecoming a man. But Beren was no longer a child, and his father has been dead for four years now…

He had seen people brought down to a level not even of wild animals, but of thoughtless cattle under the yoke. He himself has long led a life that was more befitting a bear rather than a human being, but he had always thought that he would sooner die, than reach or allow himself to be driven to the state of a mindless beast that has lost and forgotten all human semblance. And now he couldn't remember what he had looked like before the streaks of dirt have covered his face, before his eyes have sunk and his beard has become tangled and sticky from the goat fat he used to smear his face to cheat the sun, and from the pus from the burns; for the sun could not be cheated after all and his face was covered with blisters.

He tried to recall the face that he once beheld in the mirror. Beren was considered a handsome youth. Some said he looked like an Elf. Who has done this to him? Who made it so that he did not even look like a human anymore? What has he done to deserve this, what sin has he committed to be condemned to become a beast among beasts?

He knew what sin it was…

…Something wrapped in fresh silvery leaves lay just under his nose; engrossed in his torment, Beren did not notice this thing that was probably put here while he was asleep. Reaching out, he unwrapped the unexpected gift.

Lembas. This thing was called lembas.

Tales were told about the Elven waybread that were impossible to believe. For instance, they said that one such a loaf was enough to feed a strong man for a whole day, and not for a day of slouching by the fire, but for a full day of laboring, marching or fighting. They said that every time its flavor changed, becoming what at that moment you were craving most. They said it cured all sorts of ailments; not that it could raise the mortally wounded or heal the plague-stricken, but if you had scurvy or night-blindness, or suffered from a bloody flux, or your old wounds have opened from hunger—then it was sure to help.

Smart people did not believe these stories. Beren did not believe, he just knew they were true. At the crossing the Fen of Serech with the remains of the company of Finrod Felagund, he ate lembas. And all its healing qualities were very welcome right now, because his gums were bleeding, his eyes saw poorly in twilight and the wounds and scratches he had received in the mountains and wasteland simply refused to heal.

Taking one loaf off the stack, Beren wrapped the rest in the leaves and put them in the sack. He took out a leather flask, filled it with spring water, and sat under the tree, in a comfortable gully between the roots. Breaking off small pieces of the loaf, he put them in his mouth and waited for them to melt. He washed them down with water, to increase the sense of repletion. He was thinking.

So, the Elves did not abandon him. They even helped him. With the help of these lembas he will recover in two days, and then he will manage on his own… The old plan still held: to head south till he comes upon the Girdle of Melian—there was no mistaking it for something else—and then turn west and march to Dimbar… Or east, to the Hill of Himring? Once it had been so important: only west, and only to Dimbar—that was the decision he had made for some reason… He forgot. Damn it. Beren fumbled in his bosom and took out an amulet on a cord—it has served as a calendar of sorts. Beren has been tying a knot on it each day since he had left the hut. Now the spring was at its height and the white clouds floating among the foliage could be nothing but apple blossoms. He counted the knots: thirty-five. The last few days were not marked: they passed in fever and madness, and he lost count of them, though it couldn't have been more than five. So he had been wandering in the mountains and dragging trough the waste for forty days.

Beren laughed. He couldn't have survived this journey. There were legends told of the horrors of the Ered Gorgor and Nan Dungortheb, and Beren winced when he remembered what had seen and done there, and yet survived and reached this place near Neldoreth. Now he can go to Dimbar with the blessing of the Valar. To tell King Felagund…what? What was in that compartment of his memory, which was sealed and buried like… Like that well in a nameless village? Voice and speech, and what else? Again Beren knocked against the blind black wall of oblivion. Nothing. He moaned soundlessly and drove his fist into the ground.

The lembas tasted of honey, milk and strawberries.

Strawberries with milk and honey were his favorite treat in childhood. Beren and Rowan were gathering them in the woods, going there for days at a time… There was a third person with them, but Beren could not remember who it was, no matter how hard he tried. And all three of them gathered round the big dish, where old Andreth would put the washed strawberries in; and got their hands slapped with a wooden spoon if they poked them into the honey-glazed strawberries before they had time to give juice… Then milk was poured into the dish—and there! Shoving each other's shoulders, they gulped down the dainty, and sometimes fought over the right to drink the sweet pink juice that could not be scooped out with a spoon… Little Morwen began to go with them for strawberries, and Beren, the eldest, had to carry her on his shoulders.

He tried to recall his mother's face, as it was then, in the days of his childhood…

He couldn't.

Instead, another face came to his mind—the face of the maiden that was dancing in a pillar of light and singing… Memory retrieved her voice, and there was nothing more beautiful in the whole world. This voice has led Beren out of darkness to the light. It has given him life.

Beren thought of a name for her: Tinúviel. His people spoke a blend of taliska and Sindarin, and his own name was one an Elf could understand. Tinúviel meant "child of twilight", the Elvish name for a nightingale. A small grey bird that sings at night under the deep blue sky. Tinúviel, Nightingale… He was certain that Nightingale was the one who has brought him lembas. It was possible that by her request the wardens of Doriath did not detain him.

Now, after drinking and eating his fill, thinking of her, Beren realized how foul and dirty he was. Since it was such a warm day, he should rinse his rags and bathe.

It did not feel right to offend the spring with washing his old threadbare clothes in it. He got up and stumbled down the course of the stream. His feet hurt. His boots, which had been begging for mercy since the Ered Gorgor, have passed away in the waste, not surviving the torture; and what was left of them scarcely protected his feet from stones and thorns. Fortunately, there were none of them here. The thick soft grass caressed his skin, the earth was still cool, and it seemed as though his wounds and cracks were healing as he walked. Two hundred paces down there was a swift shallow rivulet with a sandy bed, into which the stream fell. A fallen tree has barred it in one place, creating a knee-deep creek.

The water was surprisingly warm.

Beren took his clothes off and lay down in the water—his head on one bank, his feet on the other. Having rested a little, he washed himself with sand, washed his clothes and laid them on the bank to dry. He was not aware of falling asleep—bliss and serenity overcame caution. He woke up when the sun came down behind the treetops and the air grew cold. He washed again, checked his clothes—still damp—took out a knife ad a whetstone, sat with his feet in the water and began to work. He had to sharpen it well: he intended to shave, in order to distance himself as much as he could from that wild thing that had frightened the night dancer.

* * *

The Man was dangerous.

Right now, he was so weak that Daeron could deal with him with ease. Any woman could have dealt with him. He swayed under the weight of his sword and his empty sack, and had to lean against a tree to relieve himself. After getting in the river, he almost immediately fainted again, and Daeron was afraid he would have to get him out before he drowned. But he didn't. The mortal got out on the bank safely—and fell asleep again. He could be taken with bare hands—and yet he was dangerous.

Daeron, a minstrel, who was used to bending words to his will, could not find words to explain this danger. The feeling was vague but strong, and it would not go away. Making sure the mortal was asleep, Daeron came closer and looked at his sword and knife. The sword was of golodhrim making, and Daeron never thought well of the golodhrim. Where the hilt met the blade there was a badge of the House of Arfin and a small personal sigil: a sharp tongue of flame.

Aegnor. Aegnor himself, son of Arfin, brother of Finrod Felagund, had forged this sword. A man carrying such a sword could hardly be a common warrior. The four sons of Arfin had in their service Men of the People of Beor, the People of the Vassal. So, if this man, sprawled on the grass, was not just a lucky looter, he was a Beoring.

The knife was of Men's smithery, like those that were used by the people of the House of Beor that have recently fled from beyond Ered Gorgor and found refuge in Himlad: long, single-edged, with a light wooden handle. The knife confirmed Daeron's initial guess: this was a Beoring, and not a commoner, but one of noble birth. Everything pointed to that; the weapons, the shreds of his clothes, his appearance: tall as an Elf, dark-haired, with sharp, massive, but refined features… He looked like a golda, if not for the beard. Daeron noted something else: battle scars and scars on his wrists. This Man had fought and been taken prisoner. His luck has betrayed him, but it seemed that it has not run out completely, since he was fortunate enough to come hither. And another thing: a long scar, beginning on his shoulder and running across his chest almost to his right nipple—this wound had been stitched, and stitched by the hand of an Elf.

"Why did you come here?" Daeron thought with irritation. "Why could you not have gone to your kind, to Himlad? And how did you manage to avoid the Girdle?"

The Man's eyelids twitched, and Daeron stepped back into the thicket. The Man clenched his fists, breathed heavily and hoarsely, turned suddenly in his side, and woke up.

For a brief instant he was still there, inside his dream—and it could hardly have been a pleasant dream: there was sweat on the mortal's brow. But he quickly came to his senses, shook his head, washed himself, touched his clothes and began to sharpen his knife. It seemed he suspected nothing.

While he was sharpening his knife and shaving, Daeron carefully examined the rag in which the whetstone was wrapped. The final thing that supported his conclusion was this rag, which had once been a clan cloak, woven in three colors. The rag was dirty, but the colors and the design could still be discerned: black, blue and white, oblique plaque.

Having shaved his beard off, the mortal did not look any better: the knife removed a thick layer of dead skin, and beneath it there was a pink and fresh one, so the Man's face resembled a tuber of new earth-bread. He trudged into the woods to gather firewood. He carried each large branch separately and took lengthy rests. Daeron wrapped himself tighter in his cloak, lowering his hood almost to his chin and bending his head—the mortal walked right pass him, unnoticing. He did not notice Dionwë of the frontier guard, either.

"Is that him?" asked the archer quietly, leaning closely to Daeron's ear. "How did he come here?"

Daeron spread his hands.

"What shall we do with him?" asked Dionwë.

"That matter is for the King to decide. We have to hold him here for the time being." Daeron was speaking quietly, yet made no special effort to conceal himself—the mortal was breaking through the forest like a mounted golda and could scarcely hear anything around him. "The princess has done something already, I do not know when he will discover it."

"How did he pass the Girdle?"

"That is what I wish to find out."

"Why not now?"

"Let him rest—that is Lúthien's wish. Would you have liked it, being questioned hungry and barely alive?"

"There is no great difficulty in feeding him. Why not arrest him and deliver him to Menegroth?"

"Lúthien fears he will not endure captivity. And I am inclined to agree with her. He's still… not himself. Jumping at every sound and tossing in his sleep. He will be much better here."

"Did anything happen to the princess? I've heard that she had met him alone."

"She was the one who was the least and the most afraid."

"Of him?"

"For him, it seems, and not of him."

Dionwë raised his eyebrows in surprise, but said nothing.

"Why don't you speak with him, at least?"

"Not now; first let him come to his senses a little. I have already… discovered something, and I want to be certain. Tell me, have you been on duty on the west marches?"

"The last time was three moons ago," said Dionwë.

"Do you know any of those crazy highlanders that have settled in Brethil?"

"I know Narvo of the Darramars," said Dionwe.

"Cloak of what colors does he wear?"

"Yellow with brown and black."

"And who wears white, black and blue?"

Dionwë thought for a moment, then said with confidence:

"I have not seen such cloaks on anyone."

Daeron nodded.

It did not support his guess directly, but in some way it did help. He tried to drive away this guess, to lay it aside: such premature conclusions often stand in the way of the right decisions.

"Does Beleg know?" asked Dionwë.

"We have sent Gilthanon with the tidings; today or tomorrow he will learn of it."

"What should I do if the mortal tries to advance into Doriath?"

"Nothing. Lúthien has already dealt with it. You must make sure no one of ours bothers or approaches him."

"Why?"

Daeron was prepared to leave, but glanced back.

"He is dangerous."

* * *

The stream.

Beren knelt down in exhaustion. That damned stream again… That damned tree, which was so comfortable to lean against… The moss and the humus, dug by his feet…

The second time he had followed the river, so as not to lose direction, and headed ever downstream. How did it chance that he came to the Morgoth-cursed stream again?

Magic. Elvish spells… Perhaps that was what the Girdle of Melian was like—forever returning him to the same place. If so…

"Fine," he thought. "Fine… They did not let me peg out—I should be grateful for that, at least… Well, Dagmor, then we will head west tomorrow, following the sun."

"Why not east?" asked Dagmor. "Or, now that it has come to it, why not stay here a while? You have nothing to bring west yet. A fine spectacle you will be, having dragged yourself to King Finrod and not being able to explain who you are, and where you came from! With your closed throat and sealed memory…" Beren took the last lembas out of the sack, broke off a bit, put it in his mouth, swallowed… This time the lembas had a slight flavor of mint…

There was that feeling again: he was being watched. Beren leaped up, turning abruptly toward the rustle, hoping to see a flash of an elven cloak between the trees… No. There was nothing there. He was alone, like some fairy-tale knight in an enchanted forest—magical loaves appeared all by themselves, magical maidens danced in the glades, but there wasn't a soul around, and all the paths led to that same spring. Biting his lip, Beren lowered himself into the gully between the roots—the same one that had served him as a bed during the first night.

Once, in his sleep, he thought he felt someone's presence. Catching up, he barely had time to discern a silvery cloak blending with the darkness, golden pins in a shower of black hair…

"Tinúviel!" he leaped, stumbled upon a root came sprawling in the grass… Cursing himself, spitting dry grass and leaves, he got up and returned to his "bed". A vision, a dream… Tinúviel.

 

Daeron's house was in the caves near a small forest lake. If the court bard was not in Menegroth, he was probably at his home. Or abroad—Thingol would often send him as an emissary, and Daeron often left the Hidden Kingdom on his own accord.

"Daeron!" she called, stepping over the threshold.

"I am here!" she heard a voice from above. "What brings the princess to the humble abode of a loremaster and a poet?"

He always spoke such stilted words with easiness, jokingly, and Lúthien liked that tone, just as she liked so much about him, so much that she loved Daeron. Loved him as a brother and a friend. He expected a different kind of love from her, but… it was not meant to be. She knew of his feelings, and he knew how she felt, and both of them tried very hard not to recall that old conversation, and because of this effort they recalled it with each meeting.

Smiling, she climbed up to the highest cave, which was open to the winds. Daeron was sitting there with a scroll and a flute.

"Did you discover something?" she asked.

"And what did the King decide?" he answered with a question.

"Father agreed to grant him freedom. Surprisingly quickly. I even thought… I do realize that it's absurd, but I thought that he was afraid that the human might be brought to Menegroth. Did you speak with him? Did you see him?"

"Not everything at once." Daeron climbed down, took a pitcher of wine, cheese and some apples out of a hamper, setting everything on the cloak that Luthien spread over the grass as he spoke. "I did not speak with him yet. No one has spoken with him. It appears that he is mute."

"Mute?" Lúthien asked in surprise.

"Those who guard him have told me that he often tosses in his sleep, as if troubled by nightmares. But he does not moan or scream, he does not make any sound at all. If his vocal cords were damaged, he would at least mutter under his breath. If his tongue was removed, he would moan audibly in his sleep. It appears to be a spell-bound muteness—but I have been very close to him and have not sensed any spells."

Lúthien recalled their first meeting: the Man was trying to say something, and choked.

"So you know naught about him," she lamented.

"No," Daeron's eyes flashed slyly. "Naught indeed… Only his name and clan, and the short story of his life and his last years—so little that it could be called naught fair enough."

"Daeron! Do you enjoy teasing me so? Speak at once."

"I looked at him and his belongings while he was sleeping on the bank. Aegnor himself had tempered his sword. Your golodhrim kin do not present weapons to first comers, so he is either a noble or a fearless fighter, who had earned such a reward. I assumed that he was a Beoring. He could have come only from Dorthonion. His face is burnt by the sun, his hands are bitten by frost, — he passed over the mountains, straight through the Gorgoroth. But he did not abandon his sword, so he is a warrior by birth and upbringing. This guess was confirmed by his scars: several battle wounds, one of which had been stitched by a golda-healer. He had fought on their side. The last of the Elves had left Dorthonion nine years ago—so he could only have received this wound during the Dagor Bragollach. I heard that Aegnor and Angrod perished in the first onslaught and none of those that were with them survived: the first was caught in the running flames, the other was slain with his entire company. If so, the Man could not have received this sword from either of them as a prize for valor, yet there had been no opportunity to display it before. This sword had been received before the war, or inherited—and that points to a son of a lord once again. Furthermore, the Man had several things made of the same cloth: wool, with oblique black, white and blue stripes crossing. I know that the Beorings distinguish clan and family by these cloaks. On my request, the archers of Beleg should have made inquiries on the border of Brethil about who wears blue, black and white."

Lúthien did not interrupt Daeron's teasing silence, and he continued.

"I have received the answer this morning: the white, blue, and black belong to the descendants of Beor himself. The man that has intruded on our merrymaking, Lúthien, is Beren son of Barahir."

"Who is Beren son of Barahir?"

Daeron smiled.

"Barahir was the younger brother of Bregolas, the ruler of Dorthonion. Bregolas had two sons, Baragund and Belegund; Barahir had only Beren. The House of Beor, as you know, had received a fief from Finrod Felagund, brother of Galadriel. Bregolas had died ten years ago on the northern marches, and the rule had passed to Barahir… Well, there is nothing left to rule there anymore: that land was ravaged by Sauron. Those of their people who did not wish to live under Sauron Gorthaur's hand, have fled to Brethil and Hithlum. Barahir had tried to engage the forces of Sauron in one more battle—in the valley of Ladros, at Callaghan castle. They fought bravely but were defeated. The remnants of his men became outlaws under Barahir's leadership, and plucked Sauron's forces quite a bit. But their numbers were dwindling, until there were only twelve of them; they were hiding in the woods, attacking wagons and small troops. It lasted a year, and the people's hearts were uplifted, seeing that a handful of brave men wore out Sauron himself. Many wished to follow their example; Thû and his minions clearly could not allow that to happen, so much the more because it was the rightful ruler and his three heirs on the loose. What a bad example for his subjects! They had to be captured at all costs. It became known that one of them—his name was Gorlim—often came to the valley of Lake Aeluin, where his wife had lived. Their house stood empty, but Gorlim knew that she had not left with the rest, and came to his house in hopes of her return. It is told that Sauron devised a phantom of this woman with his witchcraft. And when Gorlim came to the village and saw a light in the window, he could not restrain himself and approached the house. He was caught, tortured—and he revealed where Barahir and his men were hiding. Then the wretch was put cruelly to death. Barahir and all others were surrounded. They resisted desperately, and so they were all slain, save one of the warriors, who was away from the camp. Rumor has it that it was Beren. At night he attacked the Orc camp, killed one of the chieftains and stole the right hand of Barahir with the ring of Felagund on it, which they have taken as proof. After that the bold assaults continued—but now there was only one assailant. The heads of the punitive units, their willing aids, the local conens that switched sides to join with Sauron—were being killed. It was said that Beren was a sorcerer, that he could turn into a bear or appear in two or three places at the same time, that he understood the language of birds and beasts, that he killed no living creature that did not serve the Enemy, that he did not eat meat… The people of Brethil and those that serve Maedhros the Fëanorian place their hopes in him. They believe that sometime he will return, and, rallying under his banners, they will free Dorthonion."

"Indeed?" Lúthien shook her head in astonishment. "Are you sure you are not mistaken?'

"Fairly so. Do you remember the snow leopard, a gift from the Dwarves, that had spent many years in a cage? Broken pride. This Man has the bearing and the eyes of a lord, but at times he bends on the inside, stoops almost to the ground. He is divided, torn in half. It hurts him."

Lúthien sighed.

"Not so long ago Mother foretold that a Man, a mortal, shall come from the North, and the Girdle will not restrain him. And his coming shall mean that the hour of Doriath draws nigh. What will befall, and how—this was not revealed to her, but this Man shall forever and irrevocably change the fate of Beleriand."

"Oh!" This was the first time Daeron has heard of this foretelling. Melian had spoken it in the presence of her husband and daughter alone. So that is the matter… King Elu, Grey-mantle… He is proud, it is hard and painful for him to acknowledge someone's power over himself, even if it's the power of Doom. And he is wise—he knows that there can be no disputing Doom. It can be avoided, but that is very, very difficult… And only in small matters.

"Father wishes to apprehend the mortal to understand how his doom is woven with the fate of the kingdom." The princess lowered her lashes. "I thought that he would bid to let Beren go. Daeron, I do not wish to lead him in circles any longer. If Father wants to keep an eye on him, why not allow the human to settle somewhere on the outskirts… In your hunting cabin, for instance?"

"That is a wonderful thought," said Daeron. "We shall do so tomorrow."

* * *

The path was leading west.

How did it appear there, where there was no sign of it yesterday? Or was it there all along, and he didn't notice it? Nonsense, he could not have missed a path… So where did it come from, when everything else is as it was yesterday?!

Elvish magic. He wished to go west, so he is being led west. If not in a circle again. Worry was fading: Beren did not notice any sign that he was being led in the wrong direction. When the day waned, he saw a house.

Men would say it was an enormous old oak, hollow inside, that someone has adjusted for a comfortable night's rest: there was a curtain, a rolled hammock, some linen blankets. Beside the tree there was a well, edged by natural stone. The grass on the clearing was soft, high and thick, and in a cool little pit under a root someone has left a basket of food. Everything fit: an enchanted house for a fairy-tale knight…

Least of all he wanted to break into someone else's dwelling, especially into the dwelling of an Elf. Beren decided to limit himself to an outside inspection, and almost immediately noticed a piece of birch bark, covered with the runes of Daeron.

"Beren, son of Barahir. You have entered the realm of Elu Thingol and must abode by our laws. The food, clothes, weapons, bed and shelter are yours. Remain here until you are permitted to depart. Wait."

Beren sat on a protruding oak-root, turning the message in his hands. So he's in Thingol's realm… But he couldn't have passed the Girdle! He couldn't have… Or could he? He took out the amulet from his shirt, untied it, and let a long lock of chestnut-colored hair and the ring of Felagund fall onto his palm. He stroked the lock with his fingers and put it back. The signet ring remained in his hand.

Two serpents—gold and silver, with emerald eyes—fought over a crown, their bodies intertwined. Not so much a piece of jewelry as a sign of power. The badge of the House of Finarfin… the only Noldor House that the borders of Doriath were open to… Beren returned the ring to its place. He didn't like looking at it: he remembered all too vividly how the Orc chieftain held aloof the cut-off hand of his father in the dark, and the emeralds sparkled in the light of the fire…

He had to settle down. Had to find someone of the Elves and inquire at last about the road to Dimbar.

In the "house" Beren found a bow and a quiver with arrows. Besides blankets, there was also an elven cape with a hood. There was a coat and two shirts of fine linen. There were new boots, high and soft, the kind of Elves used to wear. There were breeches—not tight and festive ones, but loose, suited for travel. Everything was worn, in grey and green colors.

Beren thought it appropriate to scribble down words of thanks on a piece of bark and to hang it outside, pinning it with a knife. He spent the night in the house, and woke up in the morning to the sounds of a flute.

The bark was gone, the knife was stuck in its place. Beren stood motionless for a few moments, then ran from the glade towards the sound. Almost instantly a path appeared—Beren did not even wonder about it not being there yesterday. The music was drawing closer, and after the first turn he saw the flutist—a tall black-haired Elf, clad in a simple hunting attire, similar to that which Beren was now wearing; but it fit the Elf with such grace that he looked elegant.

Finishing the tune, the Elf took the flute from his lips and said:

"I am Daeron, the Voice of King Elu Grey-mantle. And you are Beren, son of Barahir, aren't you?"

Beren nodded.

"Are you really unable to speak?"

Beren shook his head, raised his hand to his throat and lips: when he was trying to speak, his face and throat convulsed. In the mountains, it had not bothered him: the witch, undaunted by his dumbness, talked for two. For three, if you count the goat. Now his inability to restore his speech and memory would drive him to despair at times. He didn't know whether to weep or to laugh: Beren Taliskaran, Beren Sharp-tongue—and mute as a tree… How glad would have been those he had mocked in the past…

"Very well", said Daeron gently. "The King has asked me to deliver this to you. You have violated our boundaries, and now you must await under guard the decision of the King's council."

Beren jerked his belt off, quickly tied his hands over, and stretched them towards Daeron. There was a mocking question in his eyes.

"No, you are not a prisoner," objected the minstrel. "You are more of a guest."

With the same faint mockery, Beren bowed, clasping his hand to his breast, then motioned north and west with the same hand.

"No, you cannot leave yet. If it pains you being forced to converse in signs, here is a slate and a style."

He took these things out of his bosom. The Man grabbed them and began to write. When he returned the slate to the Elf, it read:

"A guest may leave at his will. He who cannot is a prisoner. I must get to Dimbar."

"No," Daeron shook his head. "Not yet."

The Man took the style and the slate again. This time Daeron read: "Take me to the king."

"All in due time," said the Elf. "First I must question you. You see, it will be difficult for both of us, but it must be done. Then your words will be verified. And after that you will appear before the King and hear his judgment. You will be under guard in any case. What do you prefer—being here, in my house, or in the caves of Menegroth?"

Beren pointed his finger to the ground: here.

"Are you willing to answer my questions?"

Beren nodded.

"Very well. So, have you come from Dorthonion?"

 

When Daeron fell silent, no one spoke for some time—everyone was pondering his words. Mablung was the first to break the silence.

"If it's true, we must release him without delay, as soon as we receive confirmation of his words. He is a worthy leader, and it is not proper to place such a warrior in custody."

"I cannot argue with this," Thingol spoke slowly, glancing at Melian. "But you forget about one thing: Doom. The prophecy. The prophecy declaring that the Man who defies the Girdle will be the cause of the ruin of Doriath."

"Not so, my husband and king," Melian shook her head. "I did not say he will be the cause, neither did I say he might be—but one thing precedes another."

"The name of Beren already carries enough weight," Beleg, the captain of the archers, raised his voice. "I would like to support Lord Mablung's suggestion, my King Elu. Let Beren go. Even if he had crossed the border, it was by chance, not by ill will. It is not his fault, only a misfortune. There is no sense in detaining him."

"There is, noble Beleg," objected Daeron. "There is, until we establish the truth. What if this Man is not who he pretends to be? Or if he does not know all things about himself? The chance is slim, but it is there. Let us assume for a moment that the Enemy has somehow succeeded in capturing Beren, that he tormented him until he revealed all his secrets, and then put his knowledge inside the head of some poor wretch, whom he has deprived of his own memory. This Man is not entirely sure that he is really the one whose name he bears."

"But you said he did not lie to you."

"He did not lie, but he refused to answer certain questions, and could not remember the answer to some."

"Each warrior has things he wishes to hide," objected Beleg.

"This Man tries desperately to remember something," continued Daeron. "Almost unceasingly."

"You have used gosannu without his consent, Lord Daeron?" Queen Melian raised her eyebrows.

"Is that possible? I only read his emotions, which he was not trying to conceal behind the veil of avad. He suffers precisely because he cannot remember something of great importance."

"If indeed Morgoth has learned to erase and change the memory of the Eruhini, then truly his might is greater than I deemed." Melian's fingers tightened on her shawl. "Go on, Lord Daeron."

"But if this Man is indeed Beren, son of Barahir, it does not obliterate the prophecy of the ruin of Doriath. And we do not know in which case it will be fulfilled. There is something bound to this Man. He does not understand his doom, though he believes in it. Think of it: he has passed through the Girdle. What if he realized how he did it? What if, being released, he shall fall into the hands of the Enemy, and the latter will reveal his secret? Furthermore, even if he's not mad, he's dangerously close to madness. Should we release him now, what happens? He will come to Brethil, mute and fey, muster his kin—and what then? Make war to regain Dorthonion? If so, what shall befall afterwards? My King, I call only to prudence."

"In which case could he become the cause of the fall of Doriath?" asked Thingol. "If we detain him, or if we release him?"

"It cannot be estimated, and I cannot foresee it," answered Melian. "But this I will say: nothing presages a peaceful ending even if we should detain Beren."

"Saeros," the King turned to the Elf with dark hair, braided and twined around his head in the Nandor fashion. "You are one of those who know the humans well. What say you?"

Saeros bowed slightly.

"I have seen him from afar. He does not look like a messenger of fate. He is a common murderer, like those whom he serves."

"The house of Arfin is guilty of no murders," Melian objected softly. "And Finrod, the noblest of the edhil, would not have chosen common murderers as his vassals. You are too quick to judge, Saeros."

"Alas, Lady, I know of what I speak: there, in the East, they killed us without pity, with no regard for gender and age. Their whole kind is tainted with Morgoth's touch, even the best ones among them. What of it if this Man killed Orcs? They kill one another and fight among themselves, yet we do not enter into an alliance with one of their tribes against another. And Finrod, truly the noblest of the golodhrim, could have been simply deceived, for he measures everyone by his own merit and first assumes good in everyone."

"They've been serving the House of Arfin for six generations," remarked Mablung. "And none of them has ever been guilty of treason. None of their chiefs has ever deserted to Morgoth, though he lured them with promises and with threats. Why should we be less noble than Felagund and assume the worst of him?"

"Eventually you have to decide which you want to be: noble or alive," said Saeros.

"You have been under the Shadow too long," Beleg shook his head.

"So what is your advice, counselor?" Thingol inquired of Saeros.

"To kill him. So that no one will ever learn of him. Or to imprison him here to the end of his days. However he is supposed to change the face of Beleriand, it would be evil, and if he is destined to bring great changes, it shall be great evil."

"And what would a secret murder be?" Mablung's restraint finally gave way. "Good?"

"No, evil. But it would be a lesser evil compared to the ruin of Doriath. He cannot serve the cruel fate dead. Even imprisoned, he would be far more dangerous. The Queen said that Doriath shall fall whether we release or detain him. Then we must choose a third alternative: to kill him."

"What would we become after that?" Beleg jumped to his feet. "If such is the price of saving Doriath, I refuse to pay it, for secret murders and imprisonment are the surest path towards the Fall. What Girdle will avail us if we let evil reside in our hearts?"

"You are right, Beleg Strongbow," nodded Thingol. "And yet we must reach a decision."

"He should be detained for his own sake at least, if not for ours," Daeron spoke again. "A long rest will do him good, otherwise this madman will exhaust himself to death."

"Daughter," Thingol turned to Lúthien, who was silent until now. "What say you?"

The maiden lowered her head for a moment, twisting a strand of raven black hair in her fingers. Then she raised her eyes and looked at them all openly, steadily.

"Much was said here about prudence and Doom," she said. "But not a word about mercy. Much was said about what Beren could be, and not a word about what he could feel. Daeron mentioned that he is mute and partly deprived of memory, only to complain about the difficulty in questioning him. But have any of us considered what a torment it is to be bereft of memory and speech? It was said that he could be dangerous because of his inclination towards madness—but no one has observed that he might suffer because of it and need healing."

"He is a Man," Saeros shrugged. "The Secondborn do not think and feel as we do."

Lúthien paid no attention to his words. She continued.

"Father, if you wish to detain him, allow me to try to heal him. But if you wish to leave him as he is now, it is cruel to hold him captive and separate him from his people."

"I agree," Thingol rose. "We cannot decide anything because we know too little. And the only way to know more is to detain Beren and cure him. I do not see any danger in it, for I have trust in you, Beleg, and your archers. Justice is above all, but mercy is above justice. We know too little to make a truly just decision, so let us make a merciful one. Let Beren stay where he is. He will be allowed to move freely between Esgalduin and Aros, but he must not cross the border of Dor Dinen. I allow my daughter to commit to the Man's healing. Lord Daeron, your duty will be to verify what Beren has told you through the marchwardens and Finrod's subjects. But you must keep silent about Beren being alive and in Doriath."

All those who have been named rose and bowed.

"I only wish to remind you, my King," Mablung rose as well, "and Melian the Wise shall not let me err: many prophecies were fulfilled because those whom they concerned tried to avoid them."

With these words the chief captain of Thingol also bowed to the King and left.

* * *

Beren couldn't sleep at night, tormented by desire to see the Elven-maid. He was torn between this desire and the fear of that feeling, which he had thought he had long since quenched in his heart. He dreaded that feeling, for it made him defenseless against… against those who awakened it.

Beren dreaded this feeling so much that he dared not name it. After the death of his father he was not involved in any relationships that would resemble friendship, let alone love. He was worn out by losses, and the surest way to avoid losing people dear to you is to stop having them. He had accepted help from his people because they were his subjects. He could kill the tax collector and give the money to a starving village, could slay the forage team and secretly give the grain back to the people without ever feeling something for those whom he was doing it for. First, because such actions guaranteed him support, second, because he despised the new masters of his land. He had no friends, in the huts or in the castles.

Having been starving his heart for four years, he longed to open up to any stranger. His anxiety was lulled in this place; time flew by, and he did not want to think about anything unpleasant, he wanted to feel alive at last. He wanted to remember what beauty was, and what was beauty if not Nightingale? He would have given half of his life just to see her again, to hear her singing. But what if he had only dreamed her? What if she is just a mirage, evoked by this place, woven of mist and waving grass, of starlight and tree shadows by his imagination, by his entire being, his longing for love?

He lay on a blanket, spread on the grass (the Elves have given him a hammock, but he couldn't sleep suspended above the ground). He called for sleep to come—but it didn't. Funny. He had never suffered of insomnia before. To find a place where he could sleep from sunrise till sunrise, untroubled by fear of Orcs, wild beasts, trolls, men or wargs—he seldom had such luck during the four years. He had always slept with one eye open, waking from every sound—and if he could find a safe spot, he would fall into a dead slumber. So why couldn't he sleep here?

The full moon shone brightly through the curtain. And he had arrived, when the moon was still young… Why can't you sleep, hinyo—don't you know that only werewolves are awake when the moon is full? But I am a werewolf now, dady… You don't know, you died long ago…

Too much peace and too much time for reflections… The Elves have ridded him even of the need to provide for himself: once every two days he would find a sufficient amount of food—cheese, bread, apple cider or ale, dried berries and nuts. He could live on that. Two or three times Beren went hunting—not so much because he wanted meat, but because there wasn't anything else to do. He explored the boundaries of that patch of wood, which he was not allowed to leave—to the west and east they ran along rather wide and cold rivers, which names he didn't know. To the south it ran along the verge of a sparse growth of trees and a very old dense forest. When he attempted to walk in under the canopy of the enormous trees, Beren received a warning: arrows plunged into the trunks on his left and right—he shrugged and turned back. To the north it ran along the line of the weird stone hills of Nan Dungortheb; Beren needed no Elven arrows to prevent him from going there. This space could be crossed in two days. It was the best prison in the world—spacious and bright, yet he could not escape from it. He was constantly being watched; that he did not doubt.

There was another reason for his hunting trips, which he returned from empty-handed more often that not. Wandering along the edges of his confinement, he dreamed of meeting Tinúviel. And he was afraid to admit it, too, for he knew, how foolish this hope was—he had frightened the maiden, and she won't come here second time… She had given him bread—but now she must know already that he no longer needed bread. He regained his strength and was hale, even if he did get tired faster than before, but it was passing with each day. She had pitied him, but now he no longer needed pity. She will not come…

Returning to the "house" from yet another trip along the borders, he thought he will fall asleep quickly, since he was wandering long and was weary. But apparently, he was not that weary after all—he couldn't sleep anyway… Was he so used to having enemies now, that he could not be without them and made himself his own enemy, when others were not to be found?

And what if she was wandering somewhere near? Somewhere close to him—and he could not even cry to her? Only rush towards a flash of blue and silver in the green of the forest—to discover that it was only a patch of the sky, visible through the branches, or grey moss on the bark of an oak…

"If only you would come," thought Beren. "If only I could tell you… scrawl on a piece of birch-bark, on the ground… how tired I am of being alone…"

When doing nothing became unbearable, he jumped to his feet, grabbed his sword, and darted outside, into the cool night air. He performed the most basic forms with the sword: the "windmill", the "sea serpent", straight and avert blows with thrusts, from above and below, parrying blows with the sword or an imaginary shield, evasions and counter-attacks. The blade dance in the moonlight was mesmerizing, and Beren switched to more complicated thrusts and moves. He did not do very well—his body, weakened by long journey and hunger, was not strong enough for such a work, it could give in any moment, and that was truly dangerous: there were cases that during such exercises warriors who were unprepared or who were not fully recovered from injuries, maimed themselves. For instance, Beren could easily dislocate his shoulder, if his muscles should give in to sudden weakness. Or worse: he could stab himself in the foot, which would not be not only painful, but plain embarrassing.

But danger did not stop him, only urged him on. And only when he has completed the last, the most difficult phase of the sword dance, Beren hurled the sword into the trunk of the nearest tree.

"Fool", he told himself silently in the twanging of the trembling blade.

He walked to the tree and jerked the sword out. From the wound in the flesh of the tree a tear of sap appeared. Beren wiped the thick drop off with his finger and licked it. The tree's blood tasted sweet, like a maple's—but it wasn't a maple.

He returned to the house and wiped the blade dry with a shred of his dirgol. His mother had given these dirgols to him and his father, when she sent them off to the Vale of Sirion. Barahir's dirgol now served to wrap his body that was buried in a gorge in Taur-nu-Fuin; and Beren's was so worn out after four years that it could only be used as a mop. The whetstone was wrapped in one shred, the rest he had used to tie around his feet in Ered Gorgor and Nan Dungortheb. The last piece, the cleanest one, was used to wipe the sword. Holding it in his hands now, Beren smiled wryly: a true image of what was left of the glory of the Beorings. Sheathing the sword, he put his cloak on and trudged towards a still forest pond. Frogs leaped from a fallen, half-submerged trunk, shattering the moon's reflection with splashes of water.

The warm water of the pond did not provide the sensation that Beren yearned for, the Enemy take it. Still, he got what he wanted: he had worn himself out so much that he would fall asleep as soon as he drops.

And yet he had a lousy sleep: he dreamt that the moon was casting a flimsy shadow on the door curtain, and he, unable to resist, was getting up, flinging the thick cloth aside, taking in his arms the one that was standing on the threshold and carrying her into the house…

 

Lúthien was walking, remembering everything Daeron has told her. Ten years have passed since the last day of the Dagor Bragollach. Much has changed during that time. Maedhros had succeeded in regaining the Pass of Aglon with the help of the surviving highlanders of the last army of Barahir. Besides, there was a reinforcement of Men from the east, who called themselves vestkhaenelet; the highlanders and the Elves called them Easterlings. Hithlum had also been spared, Sauron's assault in Ered Wethrin had failed, and now the Hadorings were a constant threat to the tower of Minas Tirith, which was now named Tol-in-Gaurhoth, 'Isle of the Werewolves'. The tower was won by the dark sorcery of Sauron from Orodreth, brother of Finrod Felagund. Orodreth himself had fled with a few survivors, and after that the King of Nargothrond has never attempted to reclaim Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard.

The Elf-kingdoms have been drained by this war. Even those that stood firmly could not even consider an offensive. And now doom was hanging over Doriath. Over home. Lúthien peered into Daeron's cabin: the human was not there. Should she go looking for him? She asked the forest and learned that the Guest—such was the name the creatures of Arda called the mortals—has gone east. That he was half a day's journey away, somewhere near Aros.

This Man has lost everything. His land, his family, his happiness, his speech… Only his freedom and honor were left to him, and even that was achieved with tremendous effort. What would it be like? Lúthien was walking east, looking around her. Doriath would fall—would Orcs prowl in these woods then? And if she was fortunate enough to survive, would she be forced to wander in strange forests, like women of the people of Beor?

She tried to picture it in her mind: here she is, alone in her own land that has become strange to her; ungols weave their webs in the branches of her beloved tree, and wolves roam where deer have grazed. The Shepherds of the Trees are leaving, and Trolls coming to their stead… And she is all alone: she has no friends, and she buries her last kin with her own hands, and turns into a walking death in order to survive…

She had to picture it to realize—it would not be some strange land, but these same trees, this same grass, this river—all of this would be taken, disfigured, marred… And her soul would be marred as well…

Oh, Elbereth! He has been living like this for ten years, four of them on his own. Ten years—Daeron said he was about thirty, and according to human measures his youth ended with the Dagor Bragollach. He has spent a third of his life in constant wanderings and fighting… Lúthien tried to imagine what it was like—to spend a third of one's life in such a torment. She would go mad or die…

"And what if I'd have to?" came a sudden thought. "What if I am walking the very path that will lead to the ruin of Doriath? What if the Man you intend to heal is that ruin—even unwillingly so, even if he does not wish ill to anyone? And all you think about—fire, death, horror, and pain—will happen because of him? What would become of your father and mother? Of your friends? Of yourself? Does this human deserve more mercy than they?

Lúthien halted, her heart pounding, though she wasn't walking very fast.

It cannot be, she told herself. My heart has never lied to me before. Even if Doriath should fall, it would not happen because we were too merciful, but because we were too cruel, or proud, or foolish. A good seed does not bear evil fruit.

To drive away her fear she looked around: a wide glade, covered with hemlock, on her right, a bright birch wood on her left. The sun was hiding in the clouds, glancing from time to time from the rents in the heaps of white swan-feather, joining earth and sky with golden pillars.

"Ha!" cried Lúthien, threw up her arms and sang, and danced on the glade—a fast and merry spring dance, swirling so that her dress would round in a whirlpool; snapping her fingers in the rhythm of her simple, but piercingly joyful song.

Her head was already spinning a little, and her fingers were beginning to tire when she realized that she wasn't alone on the glade. A grey poplar has joined the light white birches.

Luthien didn't even recognize him at first: he was clad in elven hunting clothes, he had shaved the hair off his face and twisted his hair in a knot, which was held by a shard of an arrow. He looked very much like one of the golodhrim. Lúthien stumbled and staggered, but he rushed forward in vain—she regained her balance, and he froze in a silent waiting.

It's not fair, she realized her own thought, as if someone else's. I should have caught you off guard, not the other way around.

She stepped back, turned as if to walk away—will he follow her? — made another step…

And the cry found her, like an arrow in the back:

"Tinúviel!!!"

She spun round, not believing her ears—he stood there, clasping his hand to his mouth in dismay, not believing himself…

"Say something else", she asked quickly.

He went down on one knee, took a knife from his belt, and laid it at her feet.

"Don't go, Lady Nightingale. I have no sword with me to lay down at your feet, but I declare myself your vassal."

He even spoke in the golodhrim manner—the Sindar express themselves differently.

"You speak again," she stooped down to him in joy, stepping over the knife. He was startled—she must have offended him somehow, being unfamiliar with the human customs. "Oh, please, pick up the knife… I accept your service, I did not want to offend you."

"You did not offend me," he shook his head and picked up the weapon. "How can I ever be offended by you, Lady Nightingale?"

"Who told you my name? Daeron?"

"Is it really your name?" she sensed a surge of timid joy, but the Man's face remained unmoved, as if he was ashamed of this feeling. "Daeron told me nothing. I made it up. On that first night you sang like a nightingale…"

"Truth be told, it is not my name, but a nickname. Everyone calls me Tinúviel."

"May I know your name then?"

"I am Lúthien, daughter of King Thingol."

Beren bowed his head again and knelt before her.

"The Noldor say," he said quietly, "that we, Men, are heard by the One Himself… That our prayers go directly to Him pass the Valar… I believe it now."

She made him a sign to rise.

"Have you truly prayed to Him for a meeting with me?"

"Only yesterday."

"Well, here I am." Lúthien spread her arms. "To speak with you. Shall we talk here, or will you invite me under your roof?"

"Let us go," said Beren.

Only now, walking on his right, Lúthien noticed that there was a small, but a well-fed rabbit dangling from his belt.

"What did you wish to talk to me about?" she began.

"Firstly, I would like to thank you for saving my life," he said.

"There is nothing to thank me for," Lúthien shrugged. "You have reached Neldoreth, so you would have survived, and any of us would have shared bread with you."

"But I would not have gotten out of the waste, if it wasn't for your light and singing," protested Beren. "Lady Enchantress… And I would like to apologize for frightening you and your friends in the glade, ruining your celebration."

"Well… there is no need to offer an apology for that, though I accept it. It was nothing special, we just decided to spend the first moonless night of the spring together."

Beren creased his brow, and Lúthien explained:

"We count the seasons differently than the golodhrim. We call the first month of the spring "gwirith". I love the first new moon of gwirith. It reminds me of the days when these woods were young. On nights like these the stars are bright and large, and the land sings…"

"The most beautiful stars," said Beren quietly, "are to be seen on a winter night in the mountains. If you lie on your back in the dense snow… it seems as though you're flying. Floating without moving, soundlessly in the black sky, with only the stars around…"

"Do you like doing so?" Lúthien was curious.

"I have done so only once in my life…" he suddenly faltered, and she urged him:

"Well? Beren, do not be afraid to appear boring: I know so little about Men, and I am very interested."

"I didn't lie in the snow because I liked it, but because I couldn't get up," he confessed. "I made a bet with… a man that I would climb to the top of the Lonely Fang, which no one has climbed before, save King Felagund… It happened then… I was weakened, I had to lie in the snow and take long rests… It's hard to imagine something worse that spending the night on a mountain side… If there was a moon that night, I would have continued to descend, but being smart as I was, I climbed the mountain on a new moon. I was very lucky not to freeze to death."

"And still you thought about how beautiful the stars were…"

"I did not think about it," Beren halted for a moment, his eyes dimmed slightly—as if his gaze has pierced this spring day and carried him back to that night. "I just was. I was one with the stars, with the snow, with the mountains and the valleys below… I can't describe it."

"But I do understand," said Lúthien. "This is familiar to me. And, to be honest, I did not know that this is familiar to humans as well. Many times have I admired the peaks of Crissaegrim and Ered Gorgor from the northern marches, but I have never thought it possible to climb upon one of them… But now I want to. I want to see the stars on a winter night in the mountains."

"There is no need to take such risks, Lady Nightingale," smiled Beren. Lúthien listened to his emotions—there was some bitterness in them. "I would not have done it now."

"Do you love the mountains? They seem so high and pure from here."

Beren thought for a moment.

"They are high and pure," he agreed, "but ruthless. Before we had learned about Valinor we believed the mountains to be the dwelling place of the gods. And they were grim gods… Forgive me, Lady Nightingale, I'm talking too much—that is because I have been silent for so long, and now I am afraid the miracle might end."

"It shall not end," Tinúviel calmed him.

Talking amongst themselves, they arrived at Beren's house. He intended to go to the stream and tend the rabbit, and would by no means let Lúthien help him. She laughed—did he think that she had never seen how the game is cut after the hunt? He sighed and let her start the fire.

When the sun reached its peak, the rabbit was already baking on the coals.

"Are you fond of hunting, son of Barahir?"

Beren shrugged.

"I was in the past," he said. "I had three hounds: Morco, Fang and Wing."

He smiled widely and warmly at that memory.

"I named Wing so because he had huge ears… Like this," he showed with his hands. It was impressive indeed, for Beren had big hands. "When he was running, they were flopping," Beren demonstrated with his fingers, making Lúthien laugh. "Morco grew up to be big and black, he was a wolf-hound… And Fang could bite through an arm-thick wooden stick…"

"And where are they now?" asked Lúthien incautiously.

"Dead. Wing was killed by a wild boar before the war… And Morco and Fang were killed by Orcs… They have killed every living thing in the Harding castle…"

I should remember, said Lúthien to herself, not forget for a moment that his past is a bleeding wound.

"…Forgive me, Lady Nightingale, but maybe it would be better if you told me about yourself. Do you have a dog?"

"No," said Lúthien. "But I have cats. Most of them are grey, their name is Mieo. All my cats are called Mieo. No one but me is interested in them, and I do not need to call them by name to tell them apart. They've been living in Menegroth for a very long time, first of them were tamed by my mother when I haven't been born yet. When I was little, it grieved me that they cannot be immortal, like us. I would ask Mother to make at least one kitten immortal, and I could not comprehend at first why it cannot be done… Only in time did I realize what a torment it would be for a creature with a mortal soul to have an immortal body."

"And for a creature with an immortal soul to have a mortal body?" asked Beren. Lúthien bit her lip.

"I do not know whether I can talk about it. I think I shouldn't."

"Yes", said Beren, visibly saddened. "It is to no avail. Lady Nightingale, would it be impudent of me to ask why you came here?"

He awaited her answer with a strange emotional trembling. At times it was somewhat frightening to talk to a man who showed his feelings so openly, because she could not understand those feelings. What does this inner tremble mean? Why is the answer so important to him? She came here to cure him of muteness, forgetfulness and nightmares, to drive away the ghosts that haunted his sleep. But… he spoke as soon as he had seen her, fearing that she might leave! If the cause of his muteness was a great shock, then the cause of the restoration of speech would be a shock no less strong.

"I have heard from Daeron that you need help," she said. "That you are dumb-stricken, that you are raving at nights and that you are trying to remember something from time to time."

"How could he know that?"

"It may be news to you, but your emotions are open. Using gosannu, anyone could read them and sometimes your thoughts as well."

"So all this time," Beren lowered his head, "I have been as an open scroll to you?"

"For the most part, yes," she said. "But I did not look at the pages. I know no more than you wished to tell me."

"I did not wish to tell anything."

"If you truly did not wish it, the unwillingness would not have let me read your feelings."

"Is that so? And what do I feel?"

"Pain," answered Lúthien curtly. "You carry it within you, constantly. Allow me to release you from it."

He thought for a while, then said:

"No. Not yet…"

"Why?"

"For a long time I… haven't felt pain… Because I have been… dead." A dry twig snapped in his hands. "It was necessary, because… a dead-man is invulnerable. So I thought. I was used to being dead. I did not have to fear for my life, to think about what I would eat tomorrow, about whether I would be caught… Whatever happened—I could cease to move, to speak to fight—but I could not become any more dead than I already was… It truly was frightening, Lady Nightingale, but to be alive was more frightening… But now something happened that made me realize I was deceiving myself. That I am alive, that I must feel the pain, otherwise I will be worse than a werewolf. The dead should lie in their graves, and the living should walk the earth and feel pain. If you take it away from me—I'm afraid that I would not know whether I'm alive or dead again."

After some time Lúthien said:

"There is a flaw in your reasoning. Pain does not exist in itself, it's only a sign that something is wrong with our fëa and hroa. He who does not feel pain is either dead or healthy. The dead one does not feel pain, because he is bereft of the ability to feel it, and the healthy does not because all is well with him, and his fëa and hroa are whole. The healthy differs from the dead by his ability to feel pain, and from the sick by his ability to feel happiness. Do not be afraid—you shall not be deprived of your ability to feel pain…"

Beren was silent and his unwillingness was stronger than a shield. Now Lúthien had to rely solely on her reason.

"Do you think that by being rid of your suffering, you shall betray those who had suffered to the end?"

Beren shook his head and smiled sadly.

"You cannot rid me of this, Lady Nightingale. If my fëa is suffering, it is because it remembers too much. And I will not give up my memory. There is a god-sized hole in it already, and it does not make it easier. I can't even decide whether I want to know that which is hidden, or no."

"How long is the period that is absent from your memory?"

Beren frowned, took the pin from his hair, and bent over the coals, poking the ashes with a small twig.

"I remember myself clearly up to the day when I made for Minas Morcrist; it was on the third day of hithui. I remember some things of my… staying there. I remember killing a guard. But what I was doing there and why I came there is completely lost to me."

"And further? When do you start remembering yourself again?"

"A village I don't know the name of… Don't ask me what day it was. It was probably in the middle of hithui; when I got on my feet, the first snow has fallen, and I have been lying with fever for no less than two weeks. The old woman that tended me was half-mad, I was mute—a fine pair we made! she couldn't read, and I couldn't ask. Three weeks had passed until the woman finally blurted out that it was the day of Solstice. That was how I learned of the day of my recovery… Since that day I remember myself clearly."

"And before that?"

"Before?" Beren looked at his feet. "Only bits. And… some things that are hard to believe in a sober mind…"

"Like what, for instance?"

"For instance—that I would turn into a bear."

Lúthien was so amazed she did not know what to say. And what was flickering in Beren's eyes? Challenge? Mockery?

"If it is not too hard for you—please, tell me more about it," she asked at last. "I have never met anyone who could turn into an animal before."

Beren broke his "hairpin" in half ant threw in on the coals.

"There is a belief," he said, "that a man from the line of Beor can turn into a bear. It comes from those times when our people crossed the mountains the Dwarves call the Misty Mountains. In return for safe passage through his domains, the man who lived there, the master of that land, demanded that our leader, the great-great-grandmother of Beor the Old, should be his wife for a year. She was wise and fair of face, and he needed an heir… The Dwarves would not let us pass, and there were Orcs to the north… For the good of the tribe, Imdank agreed. That man could turn into a bear. The twins that Imdank bore him also had that ability. One of them stayed with the man and became his heir. No one knows what became of him. Imdank raised the other as one of the tribe. He was the great-grandfather of Beor the Old, his name was Finbeorn, Halfbear. After so many years and generations, this ability has diminished. A distant descendant of Imdank, such as myself—there is no telling whether he can turn into a bear…" Beren took a breath and continued. "The Orcs knew about this belief… I liked to fool them… At nights, I would wear a bearskin cloak and an iron glove with welded steel claws… In the morning they would find one or two of them—with their throat torn out, with their stomach ripped open, with a flock of bear fur in their fingers… Half of what you cannot do fear will do for you…"

Lúthien felt a chill running down her spine.

"They killed people—women, children… threw the corpses into the well and shouted, taunting: 'Show your strength, Beoring, turn into a bear!' Well… it seems as though they got their wish. I turned into a bear, wrenched the tethering post out of the ground—I still couldn't tear the ropes—and killed one of them, I think… Then I turned into a man again—and collapsed under the weight of the log…"

Beren fell silent.

"You were in such a rage that you forgot yourself, and your strength tripled," suggested Lúthien. "I do not think that you had really turned into something."

"Well, I don't know… It's not important anyway, for it did not help anyone. I thought it a good prank… And they wreaked their fear on that village."

"And on you," said Lúthien quietly.

"But I'm still alive… That is the second thing I marvel at, and which is not clear in my memory: after… all this they tied me up and threw me into a shed. And… how did I get out of there? Do you know what I fear the most? That I was let loose on Sauron's command. That hunting me down was just a trick to make me leave. That they took away the memory of me pledging to serve the Enemy. Or betraying someone to him… Or something of that sort."

"Beren," Lúthien's voice was utterly serious. "King Thingol fears the same, and he has sent me here to resolve his doubt. I understand from your words that you shall be my ally in this matter."

"Lady Nightingale," said Beren fervently, "I am so grateful to you that I would be your ally even should you decide to scrape me over some bread and eat me with butter."

"If this rabbit will not prove enough, I shall consider your offer," said Lúthien, hiding her smile.

…Beren cut the rabbit with a few swift strokes of the knife and offered Lúthien the best bits on the flat wooden plate. He stretched the skin over a self-made crosspiece.

"What do you intend to do with it?" asked Tinúviel. Beren shrugged.

"The fellow will take it." He was probably referring to the Elf standing on watch nearby. "I am spared no food or drink, so I should give something in return. Last time I left him a bunch of goose feathers—he took it. Perhaps he'll take the skin too, to make gloves for his kids."

Lúthien laughed. The children of the "fellow" had grandsons of their own.

"You do not take offense at being guarded?" she asked.

Beren shook his head.

"There was a foretelling about you," said Lúthien, unexpectedly even for herself. "The doom of Doriath is bound with yours."

"Is that so?" Beren's hand stopped short of his mouth. "And what is this foretelling, if it's no secret?"

"If a mortal of the House of Beor passes the Girdle of Melian, great changes shall befall Beleriand, and Doriath may fall. King Thingol is in a difficult position, since the first part is already fulfilled…"

"If I were in your place, I would throw myself out, the sooner, the better."

"You do not understand," Lúthien washed down a piece of meat with some wine, passed the flask over to Beren and continued:

"It does not say that you will bring about the ruin of Doriath by being here. It also does not say that you will be a direct cause. You see, the King has to do more than to choose between two evils. He must choose between them blindfolded. Beren, please stop putting pieces on my plate, I have more than I can eat already."

Beren heeded her request and concentrated for a while on the rabbit. But then, throwing a bone into the ashes and drinking some wine, he continued the conversation:

"I am glad to hear that I will not have to destroy Doriath with my own hands. But if it is as you say, lady—it seems that the future is already predestined, and we cannot choose our path, only flow in a set course, like water from melted snows. A poor lot. The followers of the Dark One reason in this spirit, boasting they want to save us all from Predestination. It seems that they do really strive to that, but they have only one way known: to kill everyone within their reach."

"Those that say the future is predestined and cannot be altered are mistaken, no matter which side they are on. Many seers perceive not only one possible path, but several—so how could there be any Predestination?"

"And what several paths lie ahead of me? Forgive me, Lady Nightingale, for keeping talking about myself: the barefoot always talks of shoes."

"Let us first discover what it is that you bear in your memory. It may help clear the situation."

"But what if…" It was hard for him to find the words. "What if it turns out that I…"

"There is no such magic that good will cannot overcome," Lúthien interrupted.

"How I wish it were so." Not saying another word, they cleared the leftovers of the meal, washed their hands in the stream, and finished their "introduction feast" with two apples from Lúthien's knapsack.

"When shall we begin?" asked Beren.

"Now, if you have no objections."

"How long will it take?"

"I hope a few days will be enough."

Beren raked his fingers through his hair, disarranging it; though it was disarranged anyway.

"And how will you be doing it?"

"I am doing it already. We speak together, and I am discovering more and more about you. But it is not enough. We must use osanwë. You must open your mind and your memory to me, willingly."

Beren closed his eyes for an instant, turning his face to the sun.

"And what if I'm unwilling?" he asked.

"It would be much more difficult for me to help you. It would be just like bandaging a wound over the clothes."

"And would you be willing to take your clothes off in front of a strange man?"

"Were I wounded and needed bandaging—yes. Does human decency forbid it? Would you die rather than defy it?"

"No," Beren stretched his palm outward in a resolute gesture. "But… If you were… though it can't even be imagined… unclean and ugly… so much… that perhaps you really would rather die?"

"Beren, I do not entirely grasp the meaning of your question."

"I'm afraid to offend you, Lady Nightingale. Even unwillingly. And there are many things inside my head which could offend you. I'm afraid to think what you might discover in me…"

"Beren,"—Lúthien was looking him straight in the eye, and he did not look away. "Even during this very conversation I have already discovered much that shocked me. I discovered that you might like deceit and murder. That you are afraid of being rejected because of your spiritual wounds, so it is not considered uncommon among your people. A healer that runs away from his patient when he beholds a festering wound is a poor healer. I hope that I have mercy enough."

"But what if…" Beren squeezed his throat with his hand for an instant, "- mercy is exactly what I am… afraid of?"

"How can you be afraid of mercy?"

Beren said nothing.

"Will you give your consent to the contact of minds?" asked Lúthien.

"I don't know. Let me think about it."

"How much time do you need?"

"I don't know. Are there other ways?"

"There are. I can put you in some semblance of sleep—and you shall relive in those dreams that which was erased from your memory. I can give you a potion which will allow you to overstep your boundaries. But I can do nothing without your consent. And all these ways are bound with the same danger that you wish to avoid: opening yourself to me."

Beren sighed.

"Fine," he said. "Fine, but only if you give me your word that all my secrets will remain your secrets."

"I swear to you, no secret of yours shall escape my lips", said Lúthien.

He was hiding his feelings behind the avad again, but his gaze was very strange. He looked as though he was saying goodbye to her.

The sun was setting. They have talked long.

"Lady Nightingale, where do you live?" asked Beren in concern. "How much time does it take to get to your home?"

"If I were to leave now," said Lúthien, "I'd arrive there at midnight. But I do not wish to return today. I intended to spend these few days here with you."

"This house is yours," answered Beren courteously. It seemed to Lúthien that he was embarrassed by something, and in the evening this mystery was solved.

When it grew dark, Beren invited her into the house, but took his grass bed outside. He probably wished to sleep in the fresh air, and Lúthien thought it necessary to warn him:

"It might be raining tonight."

"No matter, Lady Nightingale," he answered curtly.

She hung the hammock inside the tree, climbed into the net and wished Beren a good night. He kept turning and tossing in his bed, and when he finally fell asleep, his dreams were troubled.

Lúthien got out of the hammock and took from her knapsack what she had prepared exactly for such an occasion: a carved wooden comb with long teeth. She cautiously drew the curtain aside and climbed down to the Man, who was sleeping near the roots of the tree. His breathing was uneven, the short exhalations sounded almost like moans. He slept with his face down, and this was to her advantage. Carefully, trying not to wake the Man, Lúthien combed his hair—from the top of his head down along his back. Beren's hair was dark, almost black, but there were silvery threads gleaming in it. It was hard to comb, but Lúthien was not concerned with the beauty of his hairdo—the comb served a different purpose. Ilwerin had carved it, and the spell on it was put by her—a long time ago, for a little boy of the Danas tribe, who had survived an Orc attack on his village by miracle. The boy had also been suffering from nightmares, and Lúthien had asked to make a comb of the kindest wood—the juniper. The boy grew up into a man, and the comb had long lain useless. Beren's ancestors have not yet settled in the hills of Dorthonion, but lived in tents on the lands of Amrod and Amras, when Lúthien had laid the comb aside and forgot about it.

The tension that would not leave Beren's body even in his sleep disappeared—he was breathing as any sleeper now, his shoulders were loosened. Lúthien returned to her hammock, leaving the comb in his hair. She knew that now he will sleep soundly, if not till morning, then at least till the thunderstorm breaks—and it was near: the air became heavy, the sky was completely covered with clouds, and the full mood was hidden.

She fell asleep and woke to the sound of the rain: the drops were pounding on the leaves, and the grass was rejoicing at the rich gift of the heavens. Lúthien opened her eyes and saw Beren sitting on the threshold: his feet set against one "lintel", his back against the other, with his arms around his knees, his eyes half-closed. The comb was still stuck in his hair. A wet blanket lay at his feet, a dry one covered his naked shoulders. He got wet in first moments of the rain. What a strange stubbornness!

Detecting a rustle, Beren turned his head to her. There was something birdlike in his pose, and the quick movement only intensified this impression.

"I seem like a complete fool to you, don't I, Lady Nightingale?" he asked softly.

Lúthien lowered her feet to the floor. Beren looked away, so as not to embarrass her, though he could have hardly seen anything but the white cloth of the nightshift in the dark. Luthien suddenly thought that her suggestion, which was nothing out of ordinary for an Elf, might have seemed strange from the vantage-point of the human customs. This assumption was supported by a naked sword which lay on the floor, dividing the tiny shelter in half.

"I think I behaved no less foolishly from your point of view," she said, getting dressed. She did not know whether she should step over the sword, and so remained on her half. "Asking to spend the night under the same roof with you, have I violated some human custom?" He shook his head.

"Why did you lay the sword between us? Does it mean anything?"

"It means that we didn't… didn't lay together as man and wife. If someone came in, he would have seen it."

"He would have seen it anyway," smiled Lúthien. "Even should we lie close to each other, embracing for warmth. We are not husband and wife."

Beren suddenly laughed soundlessly, and Luthien thought it a wicked laugh.

"Wait," she said. "Human decency compels you, when left alone with women that are not your wives, to arrange everything so that no one would think that you have slept with them as with wives. It means…"

"It means," he said sharply, "that human men are capable of sleeping with a woman before she becomes their wife, and with a woman who is someone else's wife, and with a woman who will not be wife to anyone, and with a woman who does not even wish it. If you really intend to enter my mind, you will learn many such hideous things about me and Mankind. Get used to it, Lady Nightingale."

He turned away, sat with his feet dangling outside, stretched out his hand, and, waiting till it got wet, passed it over his face.

"Beren," said the elf-woman. "Be you an Elf, I would consider this situation improper. But you are human, you are not like us…" Suddenly she was slightly warped by the recollection of nearly the same words, uttered by Saeros.

"Yes," nodded Beren. "We are more like animals. In this, and in many other things."

"In this matter it is us Elves that are more like animals," objected Lúthien. "We marry in order to bear children, like they do. Two join their bodies so a third would emerge. How is that possible—to join with a woman who is not your wife? For by joining with her, you become her husband. Ought else is impossible, just like it is impossible to enter water without coming out wet. If you join for the sake of a third, then you are already husband and wife. And if you do not—then for what?"

Beren laughed again—the same wicked laugh.

"Really, Lady Nightingale, you made me blush. Sometimes you speak like a wise old woman of our people, sometimes like a child, and if I did not know that you are innocent, I would think you shameless."

"Your men do not speak of it with women?"

"There is no need for us to speak of it, these things are known to all."

"But what shame is there in speaking of things that everybody knows of anyway? Why do you join, then, if not for the sake of begetting a child?"

"For pleasure."

She was baffled by these words. Pleasure, joy, happiness—she connected all these words precisely with having children… She did not know whose children they will be. She knew what she would want him to be like—but she has not yet met him. If Beren were an Elf—then, perhaps, he would resemble the one that she was waiting for. But he is not an Elf.

"I can say the same to you—at times you seem wise to me, wiser than Daeron or my father, and at times it is more difficult to talk to you than to a child. We Elves cannot imagine pleasure apart from having children. Is begetting a child a greater pleasure than lulling him to sleep together, teaching him speech and all other things he needs?"

"Some people think that children are not a pleasure at all, but somewhat of a payment or a punishment for the attained pleasure."

"This is wrong," said Lúthien resolutely. "However different we may be, the One could not have made you so that children would not bring you any joy."

"I did not say that we are all like that. Though in youth, when desires are awakened, children are the last thing on our minds. No one is very saddened if they do not come right away."

"You speak as though you do not know during which years and days conception is possible."

"During all the years of the woman's ripeness, until she grows too old. And not every woman knows her days, and not every man asks her."

"So," she attempted to summarize, "you are capable of begetting children while not being joined in marriage and not wanting them; you lay together for pleasure, but if you manage to conceive a child, you sometimes see it as a punishment. Sounds like "dry water", but let us assume that it is so. The pleasure, which you attain by it, is not bound to the commitment of marriage. So it is fleeting?"

"More fleeting that being besought by wine."

"Human children grow up faster than the Elves do, but it still takes quite a long time, in your reckoning. It means, that those who see children as a burden pay with years of punishment for a fleeting pleasure. Do they not know that if you lay together, there will be children?"

"They know perfectly well."

"Then what drives them to risk years of atonement for a moment of joy?"

"Lust. Desire."

At first Beren said a human word, that Lúthien did not understand, then explained it with the Elvish word mael, "thirst".

She was familiar with this word—it was used when recalling Ëol, who had desired a golodhrim maiden, sister of Turgon of Gondolin. However, Beren seemed to have something else in mind, for Ëol had desired Aredhel precisely the way an Elf desires a woman, and took her to wife, although he had won her heart with magic spells, against her will. And what is a desire that has not marriage or children as its object? Only momentary pleasure? But can a desire of a momentary pleasure not be momentary in itself?

"It can," said Beren in answer to this question. "It can burn within the two… or the one… For years… It can easily be mistaken for love."

"But if it can be such, why not turn the desire into love, being joined in marriage?"

"Because the desired woman may already be married. Or because you don't want to marry her, only to satisfy your thirst and leave her."

This time it was Lúthien's turn to laugh. She did not laugh at Beren, but at herself: might it be that what seemed to the Elves as a shadow of madness in Beren was simply some human trait? Perhaps it was in Men's nature to lose memory and suffer, go mute and being cured spontaneously—just as it is in their nature to desire women, whose children they did not want, and marry someone other then the one that they were attracted to?

"But this order of things cannot be natural. It is mad."

"Of course", agreed Beren. "It is best when two people are in love, and marry, and raise children, and desire no one but each other. They are blest and happy, and men who quench their thirst with other men's wives or unmarried maidens are considered criminals among us, and women who thirst for many men and quench their thirst, are scorned. The reasonable, unmarred part of our nature strives for the right order of things, when love, marriage, desire to have children and attraction are one. And the mad, marred part calls to tear it apart, to burn yours and the other one's lives for the sake of an intense momentary experience, which, however pleasant, comes and goes. That is why our laws of decency are so long and complicated: we make up axan where your lives are governed by unat."

"Praise the One, we are finally speaking the same language. I was afraid that one of us will go mad. So, your axan dictates that, being alone with a maiden, you must arrange everything so that no one who would have seen you might think that you have broken another axan. That is why you have laid your sword between us. But how would it protect us, were you to decide to break this axan?"

Beren lowered his head again.

"Do not humiliate me so, Lady Nightingale. I still have my honour, and I am not some wild beast, unable to conquer my yearnings."

"So you did not sleep outside out of stubbornness," said Lúthien slowly. "You were escaping temptation. And I was stupid, and did not realize… Forgive me, Beren."

"Forgive you what? That I dared look at you with unclean eyes—and you want my forgiveness for that?"

"If it is indeed akin to thirst—it is dishonorable to hold a cup of water in front of a thirsty man and not let him drink."

"It is akin to other kind of thirst," grumbled Beren. "But you Elves do not know it either. I know that you sometimes get drunk—but you never become drunkards; wine does not replace for you the whole world. But that happens to us sometimes. Well, now you know about yet another human vice."

"It is actually the same vice: you are governed by your yearnings," said Lúthien softly. "But what shall we do with you? Perhaps, when the rain ceases, I will go, so as not to torment you, and send one of the men who are skilled in spells."

Beren laughed again—this time openly and almost happily.

"No, Lady Nightingale, it is no torment! At least, not now, when I have said it all and… rid myself of it. Stay. Let one Elf know the worst about me, rather than two Elves—half of the worst. The more you discover about me, the further you move away from me. All will be well. I am at peace—and Dagmor is between us."

"Very well," said Lúthien, suddenly offended, though she knew not why. "But I do not strive to know the worst about you. I don't understand why you hurried to convey this to me."

"Out of fear, Lady Nightingale. Out of fear that you will discover it by yourself and recoil in disgust."

"Is it the way of humans as well—this fear of shame that makes you shameless?"

"I am like that, my lady. I cannot speak for all Men, but I am a great coward. I fear pain so much that I run to meet it. I fear shame so much that I condemn myself before the one that I… admire does it. I fear each choice so much that I make the wrong choice—just so I would know that it couldn't get any worse."

Lúthien shook her head.

"Indeed, here is the most pitiful coward in Beleriand," she said softly. "He was so afraid of the pangs of conscience that he has been avenging his father and comrades for four years on his own. He feared Orcs so much that he traversed Ered Gorgor and Nan Dungortheb on his own. He cowed so much before the possibility that he might be a tool of the enemy that he was ready to destroy himself in my eyes. Wish I that the father of my children would be such a coward as you, Beren son of Barahir. Sheath your sword—we shall not sleep anymore tonight."

Beren did what he was asked without a word, fumbled for his shirt and put it on, turning away.

"When I stepped over your knife, you were startled. Did I break some custom of yours? Did it offend you in some way?"

"It doesn't count," answered Beren quietly. "It was a knife, not a sword. If a woman accepts the man's service, she picks up the sword and returns it. If she steps over the sword, it means she agrees to become his wife. But you did not know of our customs, and it wasn't a sword, so it means nothing. Nothing at all."

 

For Lúthien, the difficult part was that she had to act not as she was used to, but in exactly the opposite manner. The Elves forget nothing, and the ailments of their sannat originate in remembering too much. They would live out a horrible dream, almost waking, unable to stop. The semblance of sleep, which Lúthien immersed them in, served to give the patient a chance to behold himself and his horror with slightly different eyes during the contact of thoughts, to see himself as if through a misty glass, to separate himself from his fear, to learn not to return to it, to strengthen his will against being drawn to the painful corner of his memory.

It was the other way around with Beren: his memory kept returning to an empty place, to a black abyss. Lúthien did not even know how to explain human forgetfulness—is their memory like a vessel, able to contain only a limited amount of knowledge? And perhaps that, what she seeks for so intensely, has simply "spilled over"? But how is it determined, which events should be replaced by others? Beren remembered by heart long snatches of lays, many legends and tales of his people, and had forgotten what happened to him. If only the unnecessary things are lost—why has he lost the important ones? If only the bad things are lost—then why so selectively, why haven't all the nightmares been erased from his memory?

The walked the glades and copses of Daeron's forest, talking at length, and the more questions Beren answered for Lúthien, the more questions came to her mind, like new branches springing from the old one. She was looking for a foothold, something she could make a start from, immersing him in an enchanted sleep.

Beren trusted her like a child. After that hesitation, after a morning of questions and answers, there was only 'As you say, Lady Nightingale. As you wish, Lady Enchantress.' He did not try to seem any worse or better than he was anymore, as if he was plunging into a dark ravine, not thinking about what he will find at the bottom—sharp rocks, a piles of fallen leaves, a cold river… And still—he was testing her with his answers, just as she was testing him with her questions; but with each answer, it grew easier for her to pass the test.

She understood now why Finrod, the Friend of Men, spoke so little about them to other Elves, why Galadriel, Aegnor and Angrod kept silent; like everybody who knew Men closely. On hearsay alone it was indeed easy to assume that Men were rotten and loathsome. To avoid this mistake, one had to meet at least one of them face to face to understand that strange duality that aroused both pity and respect: that was the way a cripple, who had remained a warrior, was respected, like Maedhros the Fëanorian. Their bodies constantly claimed their rights over their souls, their yearnings did indeed strive to govern them—and because of that men like Beren, who were capable of reigning in those wild horses and turn them the right way, were worthy of admiration. Men were seemingly torn within themselves, and that was more of a grief than a fault. Many troubles arose because their mind could not understand itself. What Beren had told about the relationships between men and women, judging by his own slips of the tongue, was true for everything: friendship and animosity, art and craft… All the concepts seemed to be disintegrated in Beren's eyes, or woven of different parts, like a rope is woven of separate threads. The difficulty was that Men could not always pick out the right thread and did one thing while expecting another: it was like picking out the brightest rope, thinking that it would be the strongest.

Now it was clear what Beren meant when he spoke about "being dead". He hoped to be rid of unrealized desires; but could one be rid of them by denying their existence? That also was not right, and there was the same duality in it.

After the rain, during one of the walks, she has immersed him in an enchanted sleep. He was telling her about the hut where he had been hiding during the last days before his departure from Dorthonion. His osanwë was clear and sharp, and Lúthien felt as if she was there, in the cramped foul shack. He could not turn his memory to the day that preceded his arrival at this hut. Lúthien bid him to forget the conversation upon waking—and was horrified at the outcome: awakened, he did forget it.

That has never happened to an Elf—in the past Lúthien and others have tried many different things with the enchanted sleep—partly for the sake of new knowledge, partly for fun. No Elf had ever forgotten what has happened to him in this sleep. A Man could forget. One who could immerse a Man in an enchanted sleep, had a terrible power over him. Lúthien thanked the One that such power was possible only by a willing consent. Yet still it appeared that Beren's suspicion was not unfounded: he could be ordered to forget—and he could forget upon bidding. She did not want to believe that he was capable of allowing someone of the Enemy's servants to do this… But how could she know for sure? What had Beren had to go through, in what ways could they have tried to wrench this consent from him?

Lúthien had to disperse these doubts, and in order to do that she had to venture a frightening thing: to bring Beren to the very depths of his nightmare in his sleep, and go there with him. It was hard for her to ask him, for she did not know what this action would entangle for him, but she knew that the answer would be 'As you say, Lady Nightingale. As you wish, Lady Enchantress.'

* * *

It was all so new and strange that Beren simply didn't know what to think.

It couldn't be—that an Elven princess would come to him, that she would sleep under the same roof with him, speak with him, heal him…

Beren discovered that he is now capable of recalling much without an inner shudder. His feelings grew numb, or more accurately, there was a new feeling, that made all the others seem insignificant.

He resisted with all his might. It was wrong. He knew too well how these things ended—events of the recent days have slipped from his memory, yet the "Debate of Finrod and Andreth", by which he had learned to read in his childhood, remained firmly in his mind. And maybe it was not in vain, maybe the story of Lord Aegnor and Andreth is exactly what he should remember, should recall every minute, so as not to drive himself and her into the same trap.

He walked the young woods of Neldoreth with her, answered her questions and submitted to her healing, to the strange sorcery with a shining mirror and a slow singing without words. She put him in a strange sleep—and in this sleep he was answering questions, which he could not answer awake. Sometimes he would fall asleep at her will at noon, and wake at sunset, though he could have sworn that he had talked in his sleep only for five minutes. Sometimes it would seem as though he had lived half a life in this dream, and the sun did make two steps in the sky, and shone through the same clear space in the foliage.

He was no longer concerned about what she and other Elves would think about Men after these talks. After that first grim conversation, he was certain that her attitude towards him will not change to the worse, but remain the same compassionate interest; and he did not care about any other Elves.

And still, with each day he realized increasingly, that this interest is changing somehow. He was almost sure in his own feelings now, although he was still afraid to call them by name. Oh, no, he thought, this is wrong. No more of this all-overcoming passion; remember your shame, remember poor Gorlim. You have no right to sacrifice anyone on this altar but yourself. He who truly loves must suffer alone.

And he kept silent, not allowing the feeling to break through the avanirë. When she was near, this suffering was sweet. Perhaps that was another reason why he did not dare to reveal himself: a confession would require some action on her part. She would either leave or… stay. He did not know what would be worse. No. He could neither part with her, nor doom her to love. Let everything remain as it is; he understood that it could not last long, but for as long as possible…

And it lasted until the day she proposed to make the last step, to peer into that corner of his memory which he was most reluctant to see.

He consented. He simply could not refuse.

Just as it was before, he sat on the grass and she stood before him, playing with the mirror—according to her, there was nothing magical about it. He asked her to make it so that when he awake, he would remember everything.

"Very well," she said, and after some time, Beren fell asleep.

When he awoke, she was sitting on the grass, crying—and he did not remember anything of their conversation.

"You promised," he was hurt, unexpectedly deeply.

"I could not keep my promise. Forgive me." She was silent for a while. "You will remember everything—but in time, gradually. I have found the answers, and here they are. You are not a traitor. You are not a tool of the enemy, you have freed yourself on your own."

Lúthien smiled amidst her tears.

"The urge, which drove you beyond the mountains, is your own urge. A man has given you a message, which you thought to be so important that you have decided to cross the mountains. But the first attempt to reach the mountains had failed. You were captured… You shall awake tomorrow morning, remembering everything, but you must know this now: you have deceived them all. They did not reveal your secret, and I did not reveal it either. If you want to tell my father about it, you shall tell him yourself."

Lúthien wiped away her tears and smiled at Beren again.

"I am proud to have met such a man as you," she said.

"Lady Nightingale…"

"Say not a word! Beren, I do not wish to be sad. Can you dance? Show me the happiest human dance!"

As it turned out, he had forgotten how to dance. He followed her as a meek and happy pup, holding her fingers in his, repeating the steps of the dance—but his feet, so light and quick in the dance of death, so steady in both a thrust and a stand—refused to obey. He was stiff, his movements were belated, he fell out of step and stepped on her tows—and she laughed, a clear, ringing laugh, not at all offensive. However, she learned the steps of the narya quickly and deftly: the guard probably had a lot of fun watching them… They circled around the glade…

"Why did you stop?" asked Lúthien.

…Because, after making a full circle in narya, the man had to embrace the woman in his arms, pressing her against him, lifting her off the ground and turn on his heels to put her down on the other side… Just a figure of the dance…

"Because I still have strength enough to stop…" he whispered. "Do you know what is happening to me, Lady Tinúviel? Do you know what I feel for you?"

"How could I know, if you say nothing?"

"But how could I say it?.. How could I ask, for if you answer 'no', I will die then and there…"

"But why are you so certain that I will answer 'no'"?

"Because if you answer 'yes'—it would be worse. It would mean I have brought suffering upon you, for my doom is an unhappy one. To ask someone to share it is like to offer a cup of poison."

"Is that what you wished to ask of me?"

"No, no…" he raked his fingers through his hair, disarranging it. "Were you an adaneth, I would have tried. I wouldn't have cared so much what is it that you feel for me, for it is enough for a woman of Men to feel simple attraction, or friendship, or even pity, and for a man—even less… I would have asked your father for your hand, and we would have been happy for as long as we could. Perhaps we could even have a child—and then it would be easier for me to go West, if such was to be the will of the One… You would have mourned, and then sought happiness with another, while you were still young… But you are an elleth. You cannot join with one another unless in love, and those that love deeply, suffer terribly when separated. And you cannot imagine love other that the merging of fates… Your doom is a clear forest stream, mine is a wild mountain torrent, where dirt mingles with water from melted snows, and snags drift along the current. All right, let it be is as it is; but I don't want to bring disaster upon you."

"You're so strange, Beren. For if I could say 'yes', it would mean that I was already in love, and would suffer when separated…"

"Not so greatly, my lady, and not for long. It is one thing to have loved and lose; quite another—not to have had it… It is easier to end it without having started."

"But he who has had and lost, would have been happy, if only for a little while… And he who refused to grasp it because he was afraid to lose it, was never happy… He would still grieve upon parting, and his suffering would be greater, for it is the lost opportunity that seems the most alluring…"

Beren laughed bitterly.

"'Andreth adaneth, the life and love of the Eldar dwells much in memory; and we would rather have a memory that is fair but unfinished that one that goes on to a grievous end…' Were thirty years not enough to learn to avoid the same blunders that your kin and lords had made?! Andreth the Wise, once Andreth the Fair, beloved of Prince Aegnor… she said I had the memory of a horse… She could not read herself, but she would often ask me to recite her old conversation with our King Finrod… 'If any marriage can be between our kindred and thine, then it shall be for some high purpose of Doom. Brief it will be and hard at the end. Yea, the least cruel fate that could befall would be that death should soon end it…' Morgoth take Doom and high purposes, I don't want "the least cruel fate" for you. Go away, Lady Nightingale. Leave me here. In two weeks' time I will stand before your father… And if he shall release me, there, at war, I shall find peace. Amidst the dangers I shall find serenity. I don't want to ask you of anything, don't want to hear the answer. I still remember the suffering of Aegnor and Andreth, my lord and my grand-aunt. Andreth died on the day of Dagor Bragollach. She beheld the glow of the fire from her window, clutched at her heart and died. So I was told. I was away from Cargond at that time, I did not see it."

Aegno, Fell Fire…

"Finrod was right. My King is always right," Beren lowered his head. "If a human and an Elf fall in love with each other, like Aegnor and Andreth did, the best that could befall them is to die on the same day…"

"Well, then we shall part, son of Barahir. If you and your king are right—it would be best for both of us."

"I will see you home."

"How? My home is two leagues down the stream, and you are forbidden to go that far."

"Far as much as I can."

"You shouldn't, Beren. I am in Doriath, at home, nothing will happen to me here."

"I will see you home," his pressed lips and the crease between his eyebrows meant he made a decision and would not change it.

He did see her off—to the place where ran the invisible border, where Esgalduin ran its course in the twilight of the old forest. Lúthien went away and did not look back, and he, having parted with her, did not look back either—but it cost him so much effort that, returning to his house after midnight, he swooned on his bed and slept through the next day.

Chapter 2. Doom

"Kill, but first listen!"

This was the first thing Beren remembered when he woke up.

Mardighan. Finweg Mar-Mardighan, the traitor who'd gone over to Northmen.

"Kill, but first listen." Why did Beren break his custom? He used to kill before listening, knowing that he could be easily moved to pity. He never gave his victims a chance, he already knew everything they could say: family, children taken hostages, humiliation, torture, forced labour. To keep himself from feeling pity to the scoundrels he recalled in memory the images of those who really deserved pity: children eaten by their own mothers who went mad of hunger; old men and women burning themselves alive in their huts just not to be driven to Tol-in-Ghaurhot to feed the wolves; young girls raped and beaten to death… His hand was steady then and he could look into his victims' eyes without hesitation.

But he failed to do that with Mardighan. His childhood memories came back to him, he saw again the strawberry clearings in the pine woods of Emyn Tonion, and his hand faltered for a second. It was enough for Mardighan to tell the most important thing: Sauron prepares to strike Hithlum.

Mardighan did not know for certain. He was ordered to gather a troop able to fight in the mountains and take fortified passes. But in Dorthonion all the passes were already taken…

The troop had to be ready by spring, when snow melts in the mountains.

Life had meaning again. Beren got out of Minas-Morcrist, his long-planned bloodbath for the Black Knights left unfulfilled. He had to go away from Dorthonion and bring the news. The Pass of Anach was guarded, as was Aglon. Beren decided to take the risk and go through Nahar, an unfriendly place even in summer. He came down to Sarnaduin to replenish his supplies, and the Orcs got him.

The people of Sarnaduin were giving him aid. After all, he couldn't just pass by, seeing the Orc gang outraging the village…

 

'Will you come with me, respected Treebeard?'

They said he could command forest spirits. Nonsense. No one commands the Ents, one can only ask them for help.

'Hm… Will I come with you, the Murderers' Killer? I can't make a decision so easily, give me some time to ponder about it.'

Beren waited for about ten minutes without showing his irritation—this was the last thing to be shown when talking to the Ents. But his temper finally took over.

'How much time do you need for consideration, respected Fangorn? Are you going to ponder until the first star shows up or morning comes?'

'You are so hasty, the Murderers' Killer. The first star… How can I make a decision of such importance so quickly? I would prefer to think until tomorrow evening if the question is not so complicated as I have assumed before.'

'If I were thinking day and night on the clearings at Aeluin, there would have been nothing left from your young growth!'

'Hmmm, true,' agreed the forest creature, 'but your people have arms and legs, and those stupid axes they so love to brandish… People can defend themselves, the trees cannot.'

'There are only old men, children and women in this village.'

'But they cut wood nevertheless. The Murderers' Killer, have you ever told them not to cut living trees, only the dead ones?'

'They can't…' Beren shut his eyes, feeling unable to explain to Fangorn the meaning of the word "tribute". 'Orcs and Morgoth's servants demand wood from them.'

'So you will defend forest only from the Orcs,' said the Ent dolefully. 'If treekillers are people, you do not see anything special about it, hommm? Then why did you stop that felling near the lake? Because you wanted to save the grove or because you hate treekillers?'

'I wanted to save the forest.'

It was almost true. Beren couldn't make himself love trees as much as he loved celvar, but this grove near Tarn Aeluin… The sacred forest of Este and Nienna, the forest where Andreth lived, where he had passed the Purification ceremony…

Fangorn turned and strode away. Beren bit his lip, trying to convince himself that he didn't count on the Ents from the very beginning. Six Orcs and not much more of Men… Scum, just waste. He will manage on his own. Not the first time, after all.

His common sense told him: don't go, what you carry in your head is much more important. But when did people, who shared with Beren food and shelter, listen to common sense? Especially when it could lead them to death. Besides, this gang wasn't controlled by anyone, even Sauron. The Black ones used to hang the scum like that themselves, so Beren was not afraid they would burn the village down in revenge. It will be easy—a bow, a knife, a few silent deaths before others, busy by plundering, have noticed the danger… And then it would be too late.

But Beren was unlucky. He didn't know that the head of the village had sent her son to the neighbour village to ask for help. And this boy had met a mixed punitive squad on his way, led by a young Half-Orc. Beren had no time even to understand what was happening. When his last enemy was shot from a crossbow, he was already kicked to the ground and tied to a tether.

Now he didn't wonder why he has forgotten Mardighan's name, Mardighan himself and the words he had said. Above all else he wanted to forget this name, to make sure he would never say it aloud, even in a delirium, even by accident. To give Mardighan, should he ever hear about Beren's death, a chance to send another messenger. Or to gather his courage and run away himself. That's why Beren had told them his name, knowing perfectly it would cost him dear, him and the villagers.

* * *

'Enough, I said! Enough, Varga, you rotten son of a bitch! You'll kick the very breath out of him!'

'What, you're sorry for him? So merciful, ain't you? And I want to know where Barahir hid his gold!'

…Oh yes, the fools still believe the tales about Beorings' innumerable treasures that they got from the Elves…

'One more word and you'll get this red-hot horseshoe into your mug! Want to explain to Boldog why we didn't bring his son's murderer alive? Then go ahead but I pass. You will pay Boldog for his death, not me.'

'Don't take me for a pup, Toorg! He's not the first whose tongue I'm loosening!'

…Loose the tongue… When he spoke true about "the Beorings' gold", they didn't believe him. Let's see what they say when he lies…

He had no idea what would happen if an Orc blew a horn four times on a clearing near three springs. But somehow he was sure it would be bad for him, and for other Orcs, too.

'Three springs…' the leader repeated with doubt. 'To blow a horn four times… What's that stuff? Bullshit.'

'No, I don't think so,' Varga took the bait at once. 'Not nonsense, magic… Elvish sorcery! But don't you worry, when we melt the golden trunkets, all the sorcery will vanish. He's smart, isn't he?' The Orc grabbed the prisoner by the hair. 'He knows what happens if he lied, right, Beoring?'

'Boldog will bite our heads off if we don't bring him alive,' reminded the leader.

'Right, alive…' Varga was already captivated by the visions of the gold. His heart's eyes could see it glitter, his heart's ears could hear it jingle. 'The main thing is alive, but no one said how exactly alive…'

'Hey, going already? Think you're the clever one, you cave scum? We'll go together and don't you spill it out to anyone else!'

…The barn roof, clad with turf, was torn away abruptly, as if by a sudden storm. Soil clods and flinders fell down on Beren's head, stars could be seen in the open sky, but brighter than stars two eyes shone, big, greenish-yellow. A gigantic gnarled arm reached out, grabbed the man like a kitten and lifted him up to a three-men height.

'Are you alive, the Murderers' Killer?' a low, deep as thunder but still melodious voice rumbled.

"Who are you?" — Beren wanted to ask but fainted.

After that there was a faltering memory of some walking—he was carried on a shoulder, his head was dangling. When Beren regained consciousness, he wanted to ask to be carried in a more suitable way, or this way of traveling would kill him, but he began gasping and fainted again. Then he came to his senses once more. This time he was lying on a stone table. A few humming, rumbling voices could be heard around.

'Fangorn, I know not what to do with him. If only the Elves were here, then they might have taken him and healed him. But there are none. I know how to cure trees but not those two-legged. Half of his bark is stripped off, he is trickling, and he is all dry and hot. When I try to give him water, he bites the cup, shivers and splashes the water all over. Maybe we can put him into the water, and he will drink as a tree does?'

'No,' said the deepest voice. 'The two-legged drink like us, like birds and the four-legged ones, but they cannot drink with their bark, so putting him into the water will not help. If they are trickling, they wrap linen skins around this place. This thing which you took for his bark, is the skin of this sort. His own skin is badly damaged but it's not stripped off, otherwise he would have been drained of all his sap. He cannot drink because the cup you give him is too large, and he is choking. And the shiver is because he's very cold without half of his skin.'

'How can it be if he's so hot?' wondered another voice, deep, but somehow managing to sound feminine.

'The two-legged are strange. Their bodies are hot all the time but they can feel cold nevertheless. The Elves once told me about this but I do not feel like repeating it all again.'

'I have no smaller cups and no skins you told us about. He must be taken to his people.'

'We can't take him to his people. He has killed many murderers today, and I have killed many to save him. If the murderers find him among his people, they will kill him for good and kill all the people. I have seen how it happens.'

'But he can't stay with us. We do not have the things he needs. He will die anyway if he stays.'

'We were going to leave,' said the third voice. 'I would have taken him with me, but he's so weak, weaker than a yearling shoot. He would not survive the whole way. Let us leave him here. If he is destined to live, he will live.'

'Hommm, I have to think,' said the deepest voice.

Suffering and half-conscious as he was, these words caused Beren an inner smile. While this creature is thinking, he would freeze to death.

'Let us cover him with moss and dry leaves to warm him,' said the voice, as if echoing the man's thoughts, 'and we shall think then.'

After some time the two hands raised Beren a little to put him on a mossy bed. Beren almost lost consciousness again. Those unfamiliar creatures (something told him they were not quite unfamiliar, that something about them ought to be known to him) obviously wanted to help, but they seemed to be completely ignorant about pain and turned him around like an insensitive sack. And he couldn't even open his mouth to ask them not to put him on his back.

'I made up my mind,' Beren heard through the buzzing in his ears. He had no idea how much time had passed but he got warmer. 'If we walk fast day, night and a day more, reach the mountains and go down to the hollow near the Wuthering Mother, we'll find a human who lives all alone, only with a four-legged creature. The murderers have never come there. If we leave the Murderers' Killer there, they will not find him. A human should know how to treat a human. There is nothing more we can do.'

"To walk fast day, night and day? From here to the Wuthering Mother?! I'm done for…"

 

Lady Nightingale was right; he was saved by the Ents, who had never served the Enemy. It was such a relief to learn that he wasn't a pawn for Sauron's plans, not directly, not marginally.

Time without Nightingale was dragging on and on. He felt as if his heart has been pierced through, and the hole was incessantly aching. Why does it happen? Every new pain seems unbearable, even though you know perfectly that the pain you had already borne seemed unbearable, too. It means you will bear this new pain as well. He was thinking about his further actions, about this war, knowing that it is all useless, so much will change… To escape from there and to find the even worse torture to forget this one… Since he is such a master of seeking troubles on his head. He wasn't good at anything useful, but this business had never caused him any problems…

Two days later he began wondering if Nightingale's work had been to nothing: he was going out of his mind again.

* * *

Coward.

'Are you talking to me?'

Who else? There is no one here besides you and me, and this Elf on a branch. So be sure, it's you who's a coward.

'Then you're the coward's sword.'

Oh yes. I'd prefer to rust in a swamp than to serve such a dithering idiot as you are.

'Hey, ease off a bit! After all, you're not really talking to me, I've thought it out myself not to go crazy from loneliness. I can make you silent if I want.'

You can't. A warrior's sword is a warrior's soul. And you can't shut your soul up. You have run away from the field of battle. You were scared, son. Not Sauron, not Boldog have made you retreat. You've cowardly run away from an Elven maiden.

'And what did you want me to do? To confess to her and to ask for her hand? But I don't know if she loves me or not! She never told me.'

She didn't because you didn't let her to. It was you who started to fool around: I won't bear a refuse, I'm afraid of a consent… You're not only a coward but a fool also.

'Why that? I made a right choice. We can't be together anyway, so it's better to part at once.'

What a wonderful reasoning! People die anyway, so let's drown them in wells right after birth! Or before it, together with their mothers. Go on, trample down your hope, hero. But when fate gives you a good kick, don't forget it was you who turned your back to it! What's up with you, son? You have never done things by halves! "Yes" means yes, "no" means no.

'I'm not what she needs.'

How do you know, you never asked her! What did you expect, you dummy? That she would throw herself on your neck?

'She hardly could have fallen in love in a fortnight.'

And how much time did you need to fall in love with her? A moment? Two? Forget this manuscript at least for a second, think about yourself and her and not about Aikanaro and your grandmother Andreth! They had their own lives, you have your own. Live it, damn you, live it so that one could make a worthy song about you when you diminish in the West!

'Have I not done enough for it?'

There can be only one measure: if you have done ALL you could or not. Or at least tried to do instead of wearing your pants through and whining about your cruel fate.

'Listen, shut up, would you? I'm sick anyway.'

Feeling sick—go relieve yourself. Don't plague me with your stupid look. If you throw that nonsense out of your head, maybe you'll bring yourself to go to her, to tell her everything, and to accept everything that happens.

'You're forgetting about one thing: I am guarded.'

Damn it all! Did that ever stop you? What are you afraid of? The worst thing that can happen to you is death, and it was you who claimed that Nightingale was worthy a thousand lives and a thousand deaths, wasn't you?

'Fool! I don't fear for myself, I fear for her!'

Don't. She can perfectly fear for herself and she needs no help with this. After all, she's older than Finrod the Wise, whom you like to refer to so often. So she knows a thing or two about life. She can decide for herself, don't worry. But don't expect she will decide for you as well. You are ner, the man, and you must choose your ways by yourself. Decide now, or I am your sword and aidant no more. I will abandon your hand in the first battle or break myself.

 

Gilthanon, whose time of the guard was in between evening and night, sighed with relief when the mortal pulled his sword out of the soil, cleaned the blade with a rag and put it back into the sheath. Those conversations with a sword made Gilthanon feel uneasy, as if he were peeping at something very personal. Indeed, the mortal didn't look saner after having been healed from his silence.

The moon was waning. In five days Isil completely disappears from the sky, and for a sole night the stars will look the same as the Eldar first saw them on the shores of Cuivienen when they had first woken up. Beren will be taken to Menegroth, the King will carry out his final judgement about this mortal, and Gilthanon will be dismissed from his hard and unworthy service of a warder.

He carried nothing personal against the Beoring, but he took his duties very seriously, for Lady Melian ordered to guard this man, and such an order was a reason enough.

Gilthanon had no idea of what the man was discussing with his sword. With some effort he could have made out the words, but he had no desire to do that. The warder's duties were distressing as they were, and no one told him to eavesdrop on the others' personal secrets beyond that.

Recently the mortal started to behave quite oddly. He walked at night and slept during daytime, even with his clothes on, though sometimes it was another way round. He seemed to have forgotten the difference between day and night. He stopped hunting and ate only the food he was brought and the things he could find in the forest. He stopped joking and taunting his guards, his mood became gloomy. Gilthanon thought it impossible to keep him prisoner any longer. Despite the Lady's orders, it's just not possible, or he goes insane. But it's only five days left, Gilthanon reassured himself. By our measures it's almost nothing. And by their, mortal measures? Is that time enough to be driven into madness? But the Lady is silent, and her thoughts are concealed.

No one knew Melian's mind, even her beloved husband Thingol, even her daughter Luthien, who had inherited her power and her wisdom.

* * *

Long were those days for Luthien.

She should have left the Willow Estate and gone to Menegroth, or even somewhere to the southern borders of Doriath—to the Nine Waterfalls or to the ploughed fields. But she saw that it is too late and useless.

This man used to come to her in her dreams. The fate of Doriath is bound to him—but how? If she is doomed to fall in love with him, how will that affect the kingdom's fate? Should she listen to her fea, striving after his? Or should she struggle against it with all her might?

She loves him, now there can be no doubts. He is right—there is no simple attraction for the Eldar, only love. Sometimes it can come slowly, by force of habit, sometimes it strikes like a lightning bolt. But any Elf will immediately recognize it when he feels its breath. The shuttle was flying quickly, the loom was pattering. Black threads were in the basis, blue and white—on the shuttles. She was weaving a dirgol for Beren. But she will not carry it to him, oh no. He must come for it himself. It will be the sign of Doom. If he guesses her thoughts and comes, she won't need any more proof. Others may need, she won't.

Black, blue and white threads were winding around her fingers, the thinnest wool, the pattern of oblique checks, difficult and austere design… She loved blue color—deep and promising, she loved white—pure and clear, and black was eternal mystery.

It had been predicted: a mortal comes who cannot be hold by the Girdle of Melian. Is this the meaning of the prophecy? That a king's daughter will fall in love with a man?

A prophecy is a double-edged sword. To follow it or to reject?

To reject?

Well, it may be the right path. Maybe Beren is right and Finrod was right also—to prefer the memory of a dream to bitter reality? The shadow of a shadow to real suffering… But did King Felagund act in that way when he had changed the bliss of Aman to the road through ice and to vague hope? When he had said these words to the old woman from Beor's house, what was inside them—wisdom or his own bitter grief?

There is no hope in memories. They may be beautiful but they give no hope. There is no victory in retreat.

She can live through parting with Beren and he will be taken by death soon, even if war spares him. Days, years, hundreds of years—she won't be able to forget him. The Eldar do not forget. But she may console herself and find someone else who wakes her heart and heals it. Or it may open up eventually to meet the one who waited so long and patiently…

One way or another, now it was not for her to choose her fate. Now Beren, son of Barahir, had to choose.

Days have passed, nights have flown by. Time cut piece after piece from Isil, there was only a thin crescent left. It will disappear today. And then she, as usual, will walk the clearings and meadows, lit by flowing starlight. She will sing and remember the days of her childhood.

If Beren does not come, she will give him the cloak through Daeron and return to Menegroth. And they will never see each other again, the fate of Doriath will take its normal course. She will wait, but he has to choose himself, for he is ner, the chief, and it is his destiny. Luthien finished her work and cut the fabric off the loom. She put it on her knees and started to plait the fringe threads. The sun disappeared behind the trees and the light has faded but her skilful fingers needed no light. She was braiding the threads and singing softly, without words, as children and birds do.

She sang, and forest listened to her, and fog thickened in the rush.

No one could read Melian's thoughts, even her daughter Luthien, who has inherited her power and her wisdom.

* * *

Having wrapped up in his cloak, Dionwe put his arms on his knees, his head on his hands and felt asleep, without noticing it himself.

It can't be possible. An Elf, suddenly falling asleep, and more—while standing on guard—it just can't be possible.

But it happened.

Yes, the mortal had made him to run by walking back and forth through all the territory assigned for him, from one river to another, but Dionwe needed much more to become exhausted. What then could make him so sleepy? Was that the milky-white fog, rising from the water and hiding the contours of the forest? Dionwe could only see the old oak-tree as a dark hazy pole standing on a clearing, but he couldn't stay near all the time. He couldn't allow himself to appear before the mortal too often, so he stayed on the edge of the forest, coming closer and checking the human from time to time.

And the human was sleeping after wandering the forest. As usual from recently, he didn't even take off his boots: one of his feet could be seen from under the curtain. He did not wish to sleep in a hammock and when he slept on a floor, his feet were sticking out of the hut. As were now. Dionwe walked back, sat down in his favorite hollow and fell asleep for some reason.

He was alone here, except for the human, so no one had noticed a tall, slender female figure in a long cloak, thin like a cobweb. This cloak made her visible only when she moved and now she was standing above the sleeping Elf and looking in the direction of the old oak.

'Whether I am right or wrong, son of Barahir, I know not,' whispered the woman. 'But I have done for you everything I could. I have not the strength to do more, for I am the mother and all this is about my child. There are some things that even a Maia will not do, even for the sake of Arda. The Doom will obtain the final choice. The human, the warrior, the man. I am leaving.'

* * *

Beren did not hear or see her. He could not. He could not know that his guard was sleeping. Neither could he know that be Dionwe awake, even fog and other ruses would not have helped him.

When the Elf moved away—for a few moments he could see him through a small hole in a curtain—Beren said to himself "Now".

As he was assuming, there was a hollow place in the oak's core, eaten trough by time to the very ground. The narrow crack, choked up by moss and fallen leaves, should be cleared very carefully, without being noticed from outside. So he was pretty busy during daytime—and at night he used to wander the forest, to make his guards believe he is sleeping during days and mornings.

Having got out, Beren tried to make it all look like before. A brief glance will not discover that the moss is lying improperly. Second task: to act quickly and quietly.

After that, trying to move in such a way that the oak would cover him from the watcher's sight (this Elf has become quite careless recently and stopped changing his watching points, that's why Beren had chosen his duty, the second half of the night), he started to crawl to the edge of the forest. And only having reached the safe cover of trees and bushes, he rose, turned around and ran to the ford.

He ran noiselessly but didn't care about leaving traces. It wasn't important for now. Carefully he stepped into the water—no noise! — reached the other shore and ran to the heart of the forest, not paying attention to his traces again. Two excellent footprints were left on the sand.

But after five hundred steps he stopped and went back—this time slowly, very carefully, without leaving any footprints, and stepped into the river again, taking a dry snag with him.

Like many other highlanders, he couldn't swim—he just couldn't make himself believe that he is lighter than water. The snag was supposed to hold him on the surface and to trick a possible watcher. A floating snag is just a snag, nothing special…

Half a league at least, and then he could run again. Damn it, but how to measure distance while floating the river? With what speed does Esgalduin stream?

Unlike the stream Beren was swimming in before, the river water was rather cold. Not cold enough to be frozen to death—Beren remembered the Orc hunt at the Fen of Serech, but still an hour of motionless stay there cost him dearly. When Beren climbed to the shore, he was clunching his teeth not to chatter them through the whole forest. To run. Running will warm him.

Only now he realized that he didn't know the exact location of Luthien's house. Somewhere two leagues downstream, but how far from the shore… He can miss it easily.

But still he ran on.

The fog was becoming thicker down to the ground but stars were seen clearly if Beren rose his head. Ancient trees, huge as rocks, were surrounding him. It will be dawn soon, Beren noticed, and his disappearance will be discovered. They will be searching for him and they will find him—here they cannot miss. But it doesn't matter. He was led on by a sort of obsession. He has to tell Luthien everything openly, and to hear her answer. He didn't care about anything else.

He heard a song and stopped, looking around. Where to? North.

Fog has fallen down—now it was waist-high to Beren, then became knee-high until it disappeared entirely. He was walking up the hill, a big grassy hill, covered by alder-trees and willows. The song was heard somewhere closer to the top, and he knew what waits for him there—a glade with silver grass and a dance in a starlight.

* * *

Luthien was singing and laughing, laughing and singing.

Beren was coming to her.

Trees, grass and river spoke: a Guest is coming to her, whose spirit is burning like flame. And she thanked them with her song; asked to carry him quickly and fluently, not to wash him ashore and not to draw into whirlpools; asked not to switch him with branches and not to put roots under his feet; asked not to hide paths from him…

Her heart was beating faster and faster. She could already hear him coming—he walked noiselessly, almost like an Elf, but the forest sang of his approaching. And she fell silent when he appeared on the glade—all wet, heated from running, in clothes, plastered to his body.

'Tinuviel,' said he, without adding "Lady". He said it very, very quietly, but she heard. 'I have come. I've escaped the guards to get back something that is mine. Something that you took with you when you had left.'

'What is that, Beren? I will give it to you happily if you say.'

'My peace, princess. You have taken my peace. Have pity, Nightingale, give it back to me.'

'I will,' replied Luthien. 'But let it be a fair exchange, Beren, son of Barahir. Return my peace to me as well.'

'Then let each of us tell what's inside his mind and his soul, and the other one will listen and accept it.'

Luthien nodded.

'Then listen. I love you, Nightingale. You're dearer to me than my life. I will ask King Thingol, your father, for your hand, if you agree. I've been thinking a lot and I have decided that I must tell you this. Nothing else matters. I don't care about this prophecy, I will never be happy without you. I love you. I dream to share my life with you. To hold you, to kiss your lips. To… why keep back… to perceive you like a man perceives a woman. I want to have your children. I'm asking you to share all my life with me—as much as the One allows me to have—to be with me in joy and in sorrow. And I'm warning you that there will be more sorrow, much more, I think. Now tell me: do you agree to be my wife or not? I will accept any answer but here and now. You have no time for reflection.'

'I do not need it, Beren. I love you and I agree to share a single fate for two of us. Be you cursed or blessed, it was your call, which my heart has answered to. By the laws of Eldar it means that you are my husband and that I am doomed to love you. And as for the laws of Men, them I do not know.'

With beating heart Beren stepped forward, put his arms around the maiden's waist and drew her closer, carefully touching her brow and temples with his numb lips. Then their lips met… Luthien's dress got wet at the front when she was pressed to his shirt. His wet hair tickled her wrists and stubble, unknown to the Elves, pricked her hands when she was caressing his face.

He was kissing her as if for the first time in life. As if for the last time. He couldn't imagine before that such thing was possible. That initial desire he had experienced in the first day was… No, not gone but was utterly absorbed by another, more powerful feeling—like fire absorbed fire. Now even this fire was replaced by a new, more powerful and pure flame. In this flame all the filth inside the human soul has been first revealed and then burnt out completely, without even ashes left. He could not make a name for this new fire but he saw it in Luthien's eyes and he understood that he had been wrong all his life by calling other things with this name: the boyish obsession with the first call of awakening masculinity; the exiled loner's unspoken yearning for warm and care; the admiration at the singing half-goddess and the call of flesh; the worship of the greatness of mind and soul… None of these disappeared but they have been cleansed, changed and took their own and not other's places in thoughts and in soul. Beren was reigned over by love, free and pure.

How long they were standing there in embrace, while he had been experiencing this purification, he didn't know. Not very long, for he hasn't got chilled yet.

'Come,' said Luthien, 'You may get cold.'

Without releasing her hand, as if afraid to lose her again, he ran after her.

The Willow Estate was nearby—a small house on the river shore, almost on the precipice. A flet, an awning, a room with a fireplace. Coals were smouldering in a small bronze furnace. Luthien added more wood to the hearth.

'Take off your clothing, it's all wet. Put this on.' She hold out a rolled dirgol to him.

Without a single word he threw off his garments, took a simple cloak and wrapped it around. He was obeying her with ease now. It was as if his innocence returned, though he hasn't forgotten anything. Memory was clear as never before.

She spread out his clothing on a bench near the hearth. They sat down by the fire, on the different sides.

'I love you,' said she. 'And I will belong to you. By the Elvish laws no one can stand between a woman and her chosen one, but I want you to know: her family has a right not to accept him. And know also that today you have interfered the Fate of Doriath. Now the doom of the Hidden Kingdom depends on you.'

'I swear,' said Beren, 'that evil will not enter Doriath through me. But do your words mean that you'll have to leave your land?'

'This can happen. And I will go where you will.'

'I won't deprive you of your royal dignity,' Beren shook his head. 'I will bring you to my castle in my arms, or I will die, trying to win Dorthonion back for you.'

There was some confidence in his voice that Luthien hasn't heard before.

'You will return under the Shadow, won't you?'

'Yes, Luthien. I must. Thanks to you I remembered who and why had sent me. And this is the news that gives us hope.'

'You have escaped,' said Luthien. 'They are searching for you already…'

'I will return by the dawn, go with Daeron and appear before your father's trial. I do not wish to let down neither you, nor Daeron.'

'Give me your hand. I must think what we should do next.'

Without questions Beren hold his hand out to her. A day before he would have gone insane from this half-closeness, trying either to hold her or leave, but now the touch of two palms meant more than before the contact of the bodies did.

"This is how the Elves love", he thought.

Time has stopped again. But when the coals in the fireplace went out and the dawn looked to the windows, Luthien said resolutely:

'Let's go.'

Beren had no idea why she took a piece of bread and a cup of water with her. They walked out to the glade and went down to the river, to the soft grass. Everything around was still in dusk but the tops of the faraway mountains were already painted with gold and they were floating above the twilight, which surrounded Beleriand. And lo! the first sunrays stroke the water and the river blazed. All colors and sounds awoke at once, the birds' rejoicing reached the fading stars, the shadows grew long…

'Eglerio!' whispered Beren.

…And the sun rose.

Luthien turned to the man, held the bread and the cup up and out to him. Beren understood that he has to touch the gifts, that they must hold them together.

'Father will not agree to our marriage, that had been opened to me,' said Luthien. 'And I cannot let you go under the Shadow like this. I am choosing my fate also, Beren, son of Barahir. Here, now, in the name of the One, I call you my husband. I take you as my husband by my free will, love and consent, to be with you in joy and sorrow, and now I will share bread, cup and bed with you to confirm it, and everything the fate will choose to send to you. I swear by the name of the One.'

'And I, Beren, son of Barahir, swear before all Arda, by the name of the One and I call upon Namo the Judge to be as witness, that I take you, Luthien Thingol's daughter, as my wife, to share with you any fate, good or evil. I take you by my free will, love and consent and I swear to be loyal to you on this side of the world and on the other. I swear to share with you everything your fate will send to you, and to confirm it I will share bread, cup and water with you now.'

They took a sip of wine, then ate some bread and took a sip again. Then they left bread and wine on the grass and embraced.

They could hear each other's heartbeating.

The dirgol fell down to their feet—during the last minute it was held on place only by a tightness of the embrace. Tinuviel unfastened the clasp on her cloak and the heavy pearly-gray silk slipped on the ground also, spreading over the thick woolen cloth. Beren kneeled before his wife and unfastened her belt; she unfastened the clasps on her dress herself.

He was learning everything anew, because his previous experience was of no good. He was learning to be tender, because she was small and delicate like a moth; he was learning to be strong, because she was stronger and wilder than any of the plain horses-mearas; he was learning to be proud, because she would not have tolerated pettiness; and he was learning to be meek, because she would not have stood rudeness and arrogance. He was learning to be like rock while she was like water; he was learning to be like water while she was like wind; he was learning to be like wind while she was like fire.

At some sparkling point everything's changed: just now he was like a torch in her twilight, like an apple in her hand, he filled her with himself, and suddenly she became solid as a gem, she became shining—and he was clear, empty, translucent, permeated with her light.

And when osanw… had disappeared and the invisible world had faded, Beren understood what a great treasure he has found. Now he has no way back: he must be worthy of this treasure. He wanted to cling to her knees, but she laughed, turned him on his back, wrapped her arms around him and put her head on his shoulder.

It was already time to leave, to appear before the guards—his escape had been certainly discovered, they were searching for him… But the morning sun was giving such a gentle warmth, and the night had exhausted them both, so their final langour turned into deep sleep.

* * *

Daeron found them on a glade, not far from the Willow Estate. Light-hearted in their sleep and nakedness, they were lying on a spread-out checked cloak, on the grass near the river. Long black locks of Luthien's hair got entangled with the thick mane of the bluegrass. The princess' head rested on the mortal's shoulder. An empty cup, covered with a piece of bread, was standing near on the grass. At first the Elf didn't feel anything, he just couldn't put it all in place in his mind: bread, cup and bed…

Then he decided he must be dying. A gnawing emptiness, sort of a sickness, filled his chest, a cry was stuck in his throat and it couldn't break through only because his chords were paralyzed also. If only the last few minutes could have been crossed out of his life, if only he hadn't turned off his way, hadn't come to the Willow Estate, longing to see Luthien… He would have agreed even to go back to the day of the Thingol's council and to say together with Saeros: "Death to the mortal!" Or at least to insist after Mablung and Beleg on leading this vagabond to Brethil! What was he thinking about? Oh, the fate of Doriath! Here it is, the fate of Doriath: sleeping with the princess' head on his shoulder, as if he has the right to this! Next thought was to kill them, here and now, or at least, him—an ungrateful thief of the other's love. Daeron had never felt any sympathy to dark and furious…ol, but now the minstrel was ready to understand him. He was ready to understand even the insane murderer F…anor—that's how it feels when you lose everything you had at once, everything that was dear to you!

Desire to kill them and then himself was so strong and pungent that Daeron took a few steps forward and then, very quickly—a step back, unfastened his belt with a dagger and threw it away. He wanted just to take the dagger and to throw it off but he feared he would not be able to control himself when he touches the handle.

It must have been this noise that woke the man up. Or maybe he awoke earlier—when the Elf's shadow fell upon them. Beren quickly sat up. A few moments—eyes to eyes—passed in a strained silence. Then Beren lowered his eyes and looked around, searching for his clothes. Daeron turned away. Luthien woke up and gasped. The Elf remembered that he had already seen her naked, although she had been a child then. Thousands of star years and four and a half hundreds of sun ones he was trying to win her heart, and how much time did this mortal need? A month, even less. My Father, the One, the Valar, for what do you punish me so cruelly? I wish it was someone else… I wish I was told about it—and didn't believe… I wish I'd bitten my tongue off before insisting to detain this vagabond in Doriath!

Daeron picked up his belt and fastened it back. He wasn't afraid of falling into a bloody fury any more. His rage was cold and calm.

'If you are dressed, Beren, let us go and talk.'

He heard the steps squeaking and some time later Beren came out to him—fully dressed, with a knife in his belt, the cloak they have just been lying on was laying over his right shoulder.

'I am ready,' said he. 'Let's go.'

Bang! The punch almost made him crash into the trunk of the nearest willow. With a force and dexterity, surprising for a minstrel, Daeron gave him a box on the ear. Beren gasped, more from surprise than from pain, then stood straight.

Luthien stiffled a scream. A blow in the face was a terrible offence—Daeron wanted to fight to death.

It seemed for some time that Beren is going to snatch out his knife or to strike back, but he undid his fists and said through clenched teeth:

'I am sorry. I did not know.'

Daeron, angered by this, swung his arm again and hit him on the other cheek.

'Take out your knife and fight!' cried he. 'Fight, be you not a coward!'

This time it was much harder to restrain himself and not to answer Daeron with a good punch, but for a moment Beren saw himself with Daeron's eyes: he had crawled almost on his belly, was healed, dressed, fed and put under a shelter—and suddenly played such a dirty trick, took away a beloved woman who Daeron must had been admiring with in times when the Men couldn't even melt bronze…

Inspired by a success, the Elf grabbed Beren by the collar and swung his left arm to hit him in the nose. But instead of defending himself Beren put his forehead under the blow, the area where the hairline starts, the most solid bone both Elves and Men have, much harder than the hand bones. Elves do not wield fisticuffs art, so Daeron clenched his fist incorrectly and knocked his fingers out of the joints. Gasping, he stooped down and pressed his hand to his chest.

'I am sorry,' repeated the Man, taking him by the shoulders. 'Sorry, do you hear me? I didn't know you were in love with her. You've hit me twice, now I don't owe you anything. Come, we've lost much time already.'

'Right.' Daeron drew himself up. 'Give me your knife.'

After a pause Beren took his aikanar out of his belt and held it to him.

'Daeron, leave his weapon to him,' said Luthien and wind in the trees rose like a spurred horse. 'He is my husband and that is my home. We will go to my father but by our own free will and not like prisoners.'

'He will go as I say!' Daeron rose his voice. 'For he is a trespasser and disobedient to the King's orders. As you are, princess. Only of my respect I do not make you share his fate.'

The willow branches flew up and stroke Daeron's hand he was holding the aikaran in. Some twigs twined around the knife and pulled it out; the other ones coiled around the minstrel's hand—he was struggling fiercely, tearing the leaves off, stripping the thin bark, wounding his own wrist.

'I knew you would hide behind her skirts, mortal!' More and more branches were grabbing him, twining around his waist, neck, arms, legs… Having snatched out his own dagger, he was chopping them, but in the place of a fallen branch ten of the new ones appeared. Beren picked up the aikaran and ran to Luthien who was standing between the willows like a statue of Nienna between the two withered Trees of Light.

'What do we do now?' asked he, taking her by the hand.

'Run,' said Luthien.

'I do not wish to run, princess. I have left my sword there—it would be better for me to go back and to surrender.'

'Trust me, Beren, Daeron is not himself now, he desires only your death, and father will listen to him especially. I do not wish you to be taken to the palace in chains, I do not wish them say that the king's daughter chose a fugitive slave as her husband.'

'They will find me anyway.' Beren and Luthien were already running through the forest. 'Listen, that's what I've thought of: I am the liege of the House of Finarfin, it means that of Lady Galadriel, too. If I surrender to her, it will be an acceptable way out. Let her do what she wishes—I'm sure she won't let anything disgraceful happen, it would mean a disgrace for her House also.'

'A reasonable judgement'. Luthien ran down to the back-water where a boat was tied. The maiden's slender fingers could not untie the tight and wet knot. Beren slashed the rope with his knife, helped Luthien to climb into the boat and jumped in himself, pushing it away from the shore.

* * *

The Firstborn Elves had no parents but nevertheless, there were some ties between them that allowed them to call each other brothers and sisters. So, Olw…, Lord of the Valinor Teleri, and Elw…, called Elu Thingol now, were brothers by Creation.

No one could explain why Olw… and Elw… were twins and Elmo was their younger brother, although all three had awoken at the same time. Just as no one could explain why Mablung and Beleg, who had awoken together with them, were not their brothers or relatives. It was just so. And ties of Creation were as close as ties of direct blood relationship; and years meant nothing to these ties—or almost nothing. That's why Teleri, killed by the Feanorings in Alqualond…, were mourned over by Sindar, who had parted with them thousands of years ago, as deeply as over the Elves of the people of Denethor, who had been living near them during all that time.

Celeborn, husband of N…rwen Artanis Galadriel, son of Galathil, son of Elmo, was Thingol's grand-nephew. This put some obligations upon him: he was assuming he had no right to conceal Beren. But Beren had come not to him but to Galadriel. And he asked not for shelter but for fair hearing of his case. After some thoughts Celeborn agreed to keep the secret of Beren's stay in Tarnelorn Estate until Luthien returns from Mehegroth.

Galadriel and Celeborn have invited them to supper and gingerly asked about the facts of their case. Then the women took themselves off and Beren was left alone with Celeborn.

Lady N…rwen's husband was nothing of the kind Beren imagined him to be. Human experience shows that a strong woman usually has either a husband, stronger than she, or a weak one. Celeborn was neither. Though, Beren decided, a dull-witted one would take him for the latter—he talked rarely and quietly in his wife's presence. To learn how Lady Galadriel changes when her husband is near, one should have seen her there, in Bar-en-Emyn: the fiery huntress in man's garments, tireless in the most desperate gallop, not relinquishing a step to her brothers in the chase, ready to battle a bear, a wild boar or even a troll… She was giving orders to the beaters like an experienced commander; to obey her was natural and joyous. Fifteen-year-old Beren wished he had been a hound from her pack. And her husband seemed to him at least a moving-mountains warrior—who else could have tamed this shining hurricane?

Here she was different. Not sister, not princess but wife, tender and loving. Here she herself obeyed freely and with joy. Or both husband and wife obeyed love. Silent Celeborn somehow never lost his magnitude in her presence. Once Beren had seen Lady N…rwen in fury—and was happy that it wasn't he who had caused it. But he shuddered mentally at the thought that he might cause the fury of Celeborn. Most of all the soul of the silver-haired Elf lord resembled a river, wide and calm, whose slow and fluent current is unstoppable and indomitable.

'Human', said the Elf, 'I heard so often about your people but know so little. I decided to give you refuge even if somebody discovers you there or gives you away. You will go to Menegroth under my protection, my patronage. But first I wish to ask you, son of Barahir, of one thing. I've heard that to Men loyalty in marriage is not an unat but axan only. Is that true?'

'Yes', replied Beren, hoping he didn't blush.

'If I happen to learn that you were unloyal to Luthien, or hurt her, or left her—I shall find you anywhere, Beren. Find and kill you. For suffering that your marriage had condemned her to can be redeemed by a great love only.'

'Lord Celeborn,' said Beren, 'I will not repeat the vows I've made to Luthien before the One, for they are to be said only once in life. You are right in everything: if I had been mistaken, if what I feel to Luthien is not love, than this mistake deserves death. But death may be waiting for me in any case. Lord Celeborn, give me a promise.'

'What one, son of Barahir?'

'If the King considers me a criminal and decides to execute or to imprison me, send Lord Felagund a message about this. Does this not contradict your honour?'

'I promise. Anything else?'

'If Thingol executes or imprisons me, tell Lord Finrod as soon as possible that next spring, when snow melts at the passes, Sauron will attack Hithlum. To confirm my words send him back my sword—it was certainly taken by Beleg's warriors; and the ring he had given to my father after the battle at the Fen of Serech.'

'I promise to do that.' For a moment Celeborn lowered his lashes. 'Do you not fear death, son of Barahir? First time I encounter a mortal and I do not stop marveling at you. Some of us think that you do not fear death at all, for it is ineluctable for you. Others assume that of this you fear it doubly. Who is right?'

'None, Lord Celeborn. We fear it but I doubt that we fear it more than you do. Do not judge by me—for ten years I had been sleeping in death's embrace and got used to it. I think that for us it is the same way as for you, save for details. We can leave in our allotted time and we can leave earlier; we can die at the time the One chooses for us and we can be killed impertinently. Neither you, nor us know the time of the end. Neither you, nor us have no other hope save for the good will of the Father.'

'You are wise,' said the Elf bitterly. 'Be you not seeing how difficult it would be for Luthien to live through your death?'

'We both see. But we have chosen. Now it is time for all others to choose.'

* * *

'Leave, everybody.' ordered Thingol and all who had been in the Small Turquoise Hall, left.

'Where is he?' asked the King.

'Father, I shall not tell you. And you can not find him yourself.'

'I'll order to turn the whole Doriath upside down!'

'You can't humiliate your subjects so. And you have no need to do that. I shall bring him to you myself.'

'Well, do. I am dreaming to see your… chosen one.'

'Father, give me your word.'

'What?'

'Swear that you shall not harm him in any way, shall not execute or send him to prison… and shall not order anyone to do that… and shall not let this happen.'

'Are you offending me with mistrust, child? Are you thinking I shall look for gaps in my vow?'

'I know that you are very wrathful.'

'Indeed. You have broken my heart. Tell me, Nightingale, why you need him? Did you think I would have objected, should you choose any of the Doriath Elves, or even a golda, be he not from the cursed House of F…anor? And what did you do? I learn that you have shared bed with a mortal, a vagabond, a tramp who even his boots and garments got by my grace!

'Father, by the grace of those like this tramp we now live in a relative peace.'

'So… You have had time to learn about his great deeds? Is he a boaster in addition?'

'Bards in your palace are singing about his deeds. This man for ten years had been fighting with the Enemy. He has come to us by mistake. We've detained him ourselves against his will. The only thing he wishes is to leave Doriath freely and to join his people.'

'The only thing?'

'You have the right to refuse him in other respects.'

'And I have no right to refuse in this one?'

'He did not commit any crime.'

''He took my daughter, the heiress of my throne, as his wife without my consent!'

'I chose him by my own will. I love him, father.'

'Oh Eru the gracious…' Motionless, Thingol stood by the window, turning his face to the morning breeze. 'How can it be possible?'

'I do not know, father. It must be in our blood.'

'What?' Thingol turned on his heels and took her by the shoulders.

'Have you ever thought what a gulf lies between you and mother? And how much it had cost her to cross this gulf? And why did she do this? Equal to the spirits of sun, moon and stars, she came to you, because she loved you.'

'You cannot compare.'

'Who and when took this right from me?'

Thingol again turned his back to her—and faced the tapestry that was woven by Luthien herself long ago. To the extend of her yet unformed, but already obvious talent she pictured this meeting—of her father with her mother…

'You say that if I declare him free, he will go away and stop being my eyesore?'

'Yes, father,' answered Luthien against her will.

'So be it. I swear that should you bring him to the palace, I won't do him any harm, won't order or let anybody do it. Is that enough?'

'Even more than. Thank you, father.'

Alone, Thingol had been looking at the tapestry for a long time.

'Doom,' he whispered. 'An unseen and insidious enemy. Cannot be pursued, or caught, or stabbed with a sword… You can't defeat it, you can't make yourself obey… Curse doom.'

* * *

Menegroth was overwhelming with splendor. Beren had visited Tol-Sirion and Barad-Eithel castle, but they went pale in comparison with Menegroth. He'd better forget about his own castle, Cargond, or he immediately recalled the word "shack".

The hall, to which he, Luthien, Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel have arrived on boat, was no less than a hundred yards wide and thirty high. Unusual burls were flowing down from the ceiling and rising from the floor as columns; walls, covered with small crystals, were shimmering in the light of the vials; and the floor was almost at the same level with the underground river, and of the same black-green color. The upward staircase amazed with its size: ten horsemen could have aligned on it without any special difficulties.

Supporting Luthien by the elbow, Beren was leading her upstairs, and the court was giving them way and bowing their heads. With his very body Beren felt condemnation, tension, tickling curiosity from the others—but looked only forward or to Luthien, who was smiling back. This smile carried him like on wings. She was not going to make excuses for her love, she was proud! Look and envy, her eyes spoke, this is the hero, and he loves me!

Well, Beren thought, then Morgoth himself won't scare me. If Thingol is thinking that all this splendor will make my soul sink, he is wrong. He squeezed Luthien's fingers a little firmer—and they entered the upper hall.

Everything was different here—regular vaults of the ceiling and jasper columns were rising upwards to an inaccessible height, and the ceiling itself was laid out with mosaic, portraying the creation of the world. The third hall was laid out with malachite. Beren clenched his teeth not to open his mouth wide like a village fool at fair. If the fourth hall is of pure gold, it would be of no surprise…

The floor of the fourth hall was of matted grey color, like old silver. The hall itself seemed to have no beginning or end, for one could not make out the place where the floor closes in with the wall, as if they were inside a giant sphere. The same grey stone covered the walls, free of any decorations; nothing was standing out, and eyesight was deceived by their round and concave shapes… The lamps were burning with steady white fire, spreading along the walls through the sides of tiny crystals.

At the distant wall in tall armchairs, made of precious mallorn, the King and the Queen were sitting—Thingol and Melian.

No mortal had ever seen the face of the lord of enchanted kingdom, and Thingol surpassed all the stories, told about him, by his real beauty and dignity. Long ash-grey hair, crowned with a thin silver rim, were flowing down his shoulders and the king's silver cloak, edged with fur of the northern white fox. The skin of his calm face was of baked milk color, deep green eyes were sparkling with live fire.

Melian… That's whom Luthien took after—in face, figure, hair and eye color. Only the skin color was from her father, all the rest was from Melian. But Beren would have never dared to approach Melian herself—such a sensation of calm, insuperable power was emanating from her.

For the last time Beren looked at Luthien—a small golden spot among grey shadows—then took ten steps forward, as she asked, and kneeled before Thingol. For a moment he lost all the words of greeting he had prepared, but before he could have gathered them again, everyone heard the voice of Elu Thingol:

'Who are you, mortal? Why have you come to my land as a thief?'

From the height of the throne his voice was rising to the ceiling and falling down. It seemed to be sounding from everywhere.

The Man looked at the King—and grew a little angry. Whoever Thingol was, Beren did not deserve to be treated in such a way. He rose and put his hands on his belt—an old habit. Felagund's ring—the only decoration of his appearance—was on the third finger of his right hand. No, be Thingol three times a king, Beren will answer him as he ought to.

'Father, he is Beren, son of Barahir,' Luthien replied first. 'Lord of Dorthonion, foe of Morgoth. The tale of his deeds is become a song even among the Elves.'

'Let him speak,' Thingol cut her short. 'Speak, unhappy mortal, what were you looking for in my realm? Why did you not stay in your own land, why did you come hither? If there is a reason why I should not punish you for your insolence and folly, name it now and do not test my patience.'

'I do not want anything in your lands, O King.' The sound of his own voice also seemed too loud to Beren. 'I was brought here by fate and blind doom, they are the ones to blame. I have passed through perils such as few even of the Elves would dare. And only now I see where doom led me to. Here I have found the most precious treasure of the whole Arda, which I would give away only together with my life. Neither rock, nor steel, nor the fires of Morgoth, nor all the powers of the Elf-kingdoms can withhold it from me. For this treasure is your daughter, O King, and she is the fairest of all Children of Iluvatar, both Elder and Younger.'

Only after he finished speaking, Beren realized that there were some noises in the hall: cloaks and dresses were rustling, Thingol's subjects were whispering along the walls. Now everything fell into dead silence. Everybody was standing speechless and motionless. Then the hall started to buzz like a swarm of disturbed bees. Men clenched their fists, women covered their faces with kerchiefs.

Beren looked into the King's eyes, then on his fingers, clenching the chair arms, then into his eyes again; and saw that Luthien was right, having made him to give an oath—he was ready to kill Beren right on the spot, even if by hands of the others. He had to make a single gesture and Beren, unarmed, would be captured and beheaded before he could even say "Sindar, you are wrong".

The struggle in Elu's soul had almost no effect upon his face, only his eyes were blazing with fury. He spoke when he managed to deal with himself.

'For the words you have just spoken I should sentence you to death.'

'To death', echoed Daeron, who stood on the right from the throne.

'And I would have done it, be it not for the oath, of which I now repent bitterly. You are free, Beren, and the best thing you can do is to leave Doriath as soon as possible. To crawl back as quickly and stealthily as you had crawled hither, who in the realm of Morgoth has learnt to creep and to hide in secret.'

'Enough, King!' Beren cut him short.

'What did you say?' Thingol's whisper was heard as clearly and neatly as the words, said at the top of his voice.

'I said enough. Have you not heard this word from anyone before? Am I the first whom you are defaming wrongly? Or were all others too cowardly to object? If you wish to execute me, do that, for I am in your power and you are in your right. But stop casting unfair insults upon me, I have not earned any! Here is the ring that Finrod Felagund gave to my father after the battle at the Fen of Serech. I an son of Barahir, nephew of lord Bregolas, the last descendant of Beor the Old. For ten years I have been battling with the Enemy on my lands. I am not a bastard, a traitor or a thrall for you to treat me like this, and I am ready to defend the honour of my house before anyone, be he three times a king!'

'"Beor" in your language means "servant",' said Thingol slowly through clenched teeth. 'If you like this name, then be proud.'

'"Vassal"', corrected Beren. 'We are vassals of the House of Finarfin, and I am proud of it. Lady Galadriel will confirm: we served loyally to her House.'

'Beware, my husband,' Melian bent aside from her chair, and her voice could be heard only by those who stood near the throne. 'The fate of your kingdom is wound with this warrior's.'

Luthien came along and took Beren's hand.

''I see the ring, son of Barahir,' Thingol smiled with the edge of his lips. 'But a man would not hide behind his father's deeds. To win the daughter of Thingol and Melian you must prove yourself worthy. To be a descendant of a house, feudatory to Noldor, and a lord without land is not enough.

'What will be enough then?' asked Beren calmly.

'A treasure. A treasure that is withheld by rock and steel and the fires of Morgoth, more precious than all the powers of the Elf-kingdoms. If true you are led by doom, it will bring you to it. I swear by my honour that I will give you the hand of Luthien Tinuviel and accept the right of your descendants to call themselves my descendants, should you put into my hand the Silmaril from the Morgoth's Crown. I hear you say that you're eager to give your life for my daughter; then the Silmaril would not seem to you a price beyond your strength.'

It was like a blow under the belt. The Silmarils! The stones, stolen by the Morgoth from the Blessed Realm! For them had been the blood of King Finw… and the blood of the Elves of Alqualond… spilled, for them F…anor himself had died. The stones, which even the Lords of the Elves could not win back with all the strength they had. Easier to get a moon from the sky than to bring one of them…

The Elves laughed, and Beren had no choice but to laugh also—the last and the loudest laugh.

'So the Elven King is willing to exchange his daughter for a Noldor trinket!' said he. 'Do the Sindar value their daughters so little that they are willing to sell them for gems and rings? All right, if this be your will, Thingol, I will perform it. When we meet again my hand shall hold a Silmaril; for you have not looked the last upon me.'

He bowed to the King, who was almost gasping from fury, and to the silent Queen, then turned to Luthien.

'Goodbye, my beloved. Decide where you shall wear it—on your head or on your neck. I hope it will be worthy of your beauty.'

They could not allow themselves even a fleeting embrace, like brother and sister. Beren took Luthien's hands and nodded farewell. He could not find words, the words were crushed by pain.

'Daeron, see our… guest… off. Make sure he leaves Doriath as soon as possible.' Thingol rose from his armchair, Melian rose also. 'Everyone is dismissed.'

In the empty hall the words sounded distinctly and clearly.

'Father, you outwitted not doom,' Luthien stood with her face pale, 'but only yourself.'

'He will never be my daughter's husband,' Thingol replied softly. 'Even if he returns alive to Menegroth and brings the Silmaril.'

'Then I am your daughter no more.' said Luthien as softly. Her golden dress disappeared in silver shadows. Thingol and Melian were left alone.

'Say something.' When at last silence became unbearable, Thingol took his wife's hands, repeating Beren's gesture involuntarily. 'Melian, my love, equal to sun, moon and stars, say what I have done wrong…'

'I always knew that I am destined to lose you both,' Melian quickly brushed a tear off her cheek. 'Only I did not know who would be first… If Beren dies, trying to perform your will, first will be Luthien. If he brings the stone, first will be you. I knew this but I didn't suppose that it all happens so fast…That it hurts so much…'

She was the spirit of Arda, one of those who move earth, sun and stars, but seeking for consolation she nestled to Thingol's shoulder, whose life was only a grain of sand in the sandglass of Ea. As if he were more powerful than Doom itself…

'And what if the human comes back alive but without the Silmaril?' Elu asked. 'What then?'

Melian shook her head wordlessly. Thingol felt this movement on his shoulder and understood: this man will never step back, so there cannot be a third way out.

"Then me," Thingol thought. "Let it be me."

* * *

For some reason Beren assumed that he would be brought right to Brethil, through Neldoreth till the river Mindeb; but Daeron thoroughly followed the King's orders and chose not the way that Beren was thiniking of, but the road to the nearest border of Doriath—to south, to the river Aeros. So Beren would leave Hidden Kingdom in less than two days. But now he had to walk on foot for about ten-twelve days to reach the forest of Brethil. It was no use to argue: besides Daeron, he was accompanied by three more Elves from the border guards, and one of them had a grudge against Beren for escaping from under his watch. Celeborn, who was with them also, could do nothing, for the King's will was clear.

'Here's your sword. Take it and go.' Daeron pointed at the road, which was winding far down the hill. 'Right to Angband. And you're not obliged to return.'

Beren sighed, trying to think of something to say that could not be considered a direct offence, but of such sort that he could obtain the final word.

'We Men have tales of a King who sends his daughter's fiancee, or the husband of the woman that he himself took notice of… Well, doesn't really matter. So, this King sends him after such a thing that doesn't exist in the world…'

'I totally care not,' said Daeron.

'I just wanted to say that all these tales have a very bitter end… for the King. Farewell, Daeron.'

'Farewell already? And what about your promise to come back?'

'I assume that when I come back, you wouldn't wish to see and meet me again. So, have we already crossed the Girdle of Melian?'

'We're about a hundred yards beyond it.' Daeron pointed down. 'This is the road that leads to Brethil. Be careful not to get somewhere else. To Nargothrond, for instance.'

'There dwells my King.' Beren took a direction. 'Farewell, Daeron. Farewell, Lord Celeborn, and thank you.'

'If indeed you are going to see your King,' said Celeborn, 'send him regards from me and from his sister. Farewell, Beren, though something tells me that I have not looked the last upon you.'

 

Chapter 6. Dimbar

On the fifth day of their journey they had crossed the mountains and rode along the swift cold stream that flowed into Sirion. There lay really dangerous places and the Elves had clothed themselves in chainmail and helmets. Beren also put on the Elven chainmail that he was given in Nargothrond. Gili couldn't even imagine that he too would get such an expensive thing as a chainmail, but out of his saddlebag Beren took another chainmail shirt and a helmet, though a leather one, with only a rim and two half-hoops that crossed on the back on the head, made of iron.

Add to this a belt with a scatha that Beren had given Gili in Barad Eithel to make clear how unspeakably heroic the boy thought himself to look. Though all his heroism has completely vanished by the evening—under the chainmail and his felt jacket he grew all wet, his shoulders were aching, and the lack of his evening exercises with Aimenel seemed to be the only joy in life. The Elves tried to make as little noise as they could—they already had a whole herd of horses with them, who weren't as quiet as water on the stops; and the clank of blades would have resounded in the ravines for leagues. So Gili's torment was interrupted for two days—until the group came into Dimbar, into safe places, guarded by highlanders and Doriath Elves. Here the Elven escort left them and returned to Hithlum.

Ouch! — while pouring water into a cauldron Gili looked at his poor palm. His father and other farmers were wrong when they called warriors "softies". Warriors also rub their hands sore when they're learning fighting; they get corns on thumbs and forefingers, on wrists… Gili was wearing a rag on his hand for three days, Aimenel was smearing his palm with fragrant ointment made of wine and honey, but to no use. The wondrous ointment cured one blister, and on the next day there was another. Gili's rough hands were that of a village boy but the place that used to rub away during the fencing was still soft. And now it was coarsing and cracking. But it wasn't a reason to stop training. On the second day of this torture Gili said to Aimenel:

'Listen, let's finish it a bit earlier, my hands are aching.'

'All right,' Aimenel agreed. 'When we're attacked by Orcs, you'll tell them that your hands are aching and they will get away at once.'

Gili blushed and took the stance. They continued.

But one should give credit to Aimenel—he stopped the training himself if he saw that Gili was really tired or suffering from pain. And Gili felt that he never hit in his full strength.

They were getting closer and closer, the Elf could already speak the mixture of taliska and Sindarin that was used by the peoples of Eastern Beleriand. Gili tried to learn Elvish and often made Aimenel laugh when he repeated some words after him. But Aimenel's laughter wasn't offensive. He was eager for new words himself and never hesitated to have fun when some human expression seemed amusing to him. Once Gili said "fishing duck" and the Elf immediately wondered what he meant.

'That's just an expression… When you're angry at something…' the boy explained.

'A fishing duck?!' The Elf was amazed first, then he burst out laughing. His laughter was so contagious that Gili couldn't help himself and started to laugh also. Really, it's funny—every now and then to mention a duck that is fishing…

Two days of riding, crossing Sirion—and they were in Dimbar. They spent the night at the frontier post, sent a messenger and in the morning a small detachment came, led by grey-haired Bregor and his son Brandir. From the snatches of talking between Beren, Finrod and these two Gili understood that Brandir was appointed chief over those whom the horses were intended for.

The boy hoped with all his heart that their further way would lie through the Brethil forest, to the House of the Lady, but soon he realized that it didn't. They were supposed only to hand over the horses, to make some arrangements and then to go further. So Gili, when he had time, free from errands and sword trainings, used to simply lie in the grass, enjoying his rest.

Behind all this bustle he didn't notice that summer came. When they departed from Hithlum, cherry trees had just shed their blossoms, and now birds were picking ripe fruit.

He and Aimenel were sitting on the branches of a cherry tree, gathering red berries—one to the skirt of the shirt, tied up to the waist, two—to the mouth. To be exact, Gili was sitting and the Elf was flying among the branches like a squirrel. The tree was old and spreading, the tastiest fruit, as usual, were on the highest branches, where Gili was climbing with dread, and Aimenel was running like on flat earth, using his hands only when he had to go up.

'Hey, Rusco!' he called from above.

'Ahoy!' echoed Gili.

'Come up to me!'

Gili sighed deeply and looked down to the faraway earth. For the third time he was giving himself a promise—not to climb higher…

Putting out his tongue from tension, Gili climbed two fathoms more and found himself at Aimenel's side, above the leaves' crowns of other trees. Cherries here were thick as beads on a necklace, but many berries have been already spoiled by birds. Aimenel, whistling, was choosing the untouched ones, standing on such an insecure branch that Rusco caught his breath.

'Look,' he said, moving away a twig and pointing at the north-east, at some spot between the peaks of Ered Gorgoroth and the green sea of Dimbar, that was of color of clotted blood.

'What's there?' Gili screwed up his eyes but still couldn't see anything.

'The Nan Dungortheb waste. A bad place. We will cross Mindeb the day after tomorrow and get there.'

'Why?'

'Because, Rusco, only by this road we can get from there to Himlad. Or we should go round Doriath from south.'

Gili didn't ask why they must go to Himlad. Must—then must.

'Why don't you hold with your hands?' he asked instead. 'I'm afraid to look at you.'

Aimenel laughed and played such a thing that Gili's heart sank: jumped high on the branch and landed on it, using his hands only for holding the shirt, full of cherries.

'My mother is a Telerë from the Havens! Our kin had never had any fear for heights!'

'You may have never had,' said Gili reasonably, 'But I have. Do this one more time and I can put in my pants.'

'Why?' the Elf didn't understand.

'Of fear.'

'Are you sick?' worried Aimenel genuinely.

'No! It's just an expression… Though it can happen indeed, if you're very scared…' Gili was confused absolutely and blushed. He always forgot that the Elf understands many things in their original sense, not knowing their true meaning. 'Listen, let's climb down before they started searching for us.'

'Us?' The Elf looked down where their horses were picking up fallen fruit. 'They won't search for us till tomorrow morning. Hey, look!' He raised his hand and picked a cluster of cherries—big and red, shining temptingly. On the Elf's open palm they were lying like gems, even with sort of facets on them—the berries grew so densely that some of them became flat on the sides.

'They must be very sweet,' said Aimenel softly. 'I don't know why, but these cherries seem sweet as never before… Take some, Rusco.'

Gili took half of the cool berries.

'That's because they're first,' he said.

'My amilessë is Tinvel,' said Aimenel suddenly. 'Call me so, if you wish.'

* * *

'What should we teach them?' asked Brandir. He took his new duties very seriously, even severely.

'Break in horses,' said Beren. 'Store up more hay, make shields, let them learn fighting with sticks and axes. Divide them into two companies, each company—into four long hundreds, each long hundred—into four troops, thirty men each. When the moon changes, I will send there men, who will teach them to march and will command troops and hundreds. And you, Brandir, shall appoint foremen, but do not choose the noblest or the strongest. Choose like this: make each ten chop a tree for constructing the camp fence. And watch who of the boys will organize the process. And one thing more: I know what's it like—ten hundreds of boys, gathered in a single place. Don't let them brawl, farrie. Generally speaking, don't give them time to breath—make them do something all the time.'

Bregor opened his mouth to say something but Beren cut him short with a gesture and told Brandir to leave. When they were left alone, Beren turned to the one-legged warrior.

'Speak.'

'I don't approve your plan,' sighed Bregor. 'Eorn, I've carried out your orders precisely but I don't aprrove all this and I don't approve you appointing Brandir as a commander. He's too young.'

'Hurin Hadoring rules in Hithlum at his age,' objected Beren. 'He's even younger than Brandir, he's twenty-four.'

'That is another matter, eorn Beren. Hurin Hadoring is an eorn, like you. And Brandir is a boy, and you made up his army of boys also…'

'Yes,' agreed Beren. 'Because warriors, whose hair had turned grey in combats, I would have to persuade all the time, to explain why and how they have to do this and not that. And the boys don't have such troubles, they will do what they have to do and how they have to do. Next?'

'Conen Halmir asked your mother about buying supplies. She answered as you and King Finrod have told her—that this is for new frontier troop that will cover the country between the rivers. He looked satisfied.'

'Good…'

'Where shall we find weapons, eorn? And armor?'

'Weapons will arrive after two moons pass. Ox-hides for armor and boots—buy them from Haladin yourselves. I will procure iron. Don't worry about this. Oh, and one more thing: gather long horse hair for bow-strings.'

'Are the hempen ones not good for you, eorn?'

'The hempen ones won't stand. And never, do you hear? never argue with me in your son's presence.'

* * *

The sparse forest of Dimbar was sinking into twilight.

It was light and spacious there save for the fir-woods. Poplar, aspen, birch groves, old cover of fallen leaves, thick grass—these places were respiring Doriath. The delicate, velvety reverse side of the poplar leaves was of the same color as Luthien's cloak.

Beren didn't ask why they have to go so far and what Finrod was seeking for, and if it was dangerous here, and if they were being watched. He relied on the Elf completely. And he seemed to be able to walk like this forever—easily, almost dancing, picking up a wild strawberry from time to time. This forest abounded in strawberry.

At last they stopped on a small clearing, surrounded by hazel shrubs. A spring was running nearby that has turned the neighbor clearing into a sort of swamp. Finrod put down his knapsack and cloak, unfastened his sword and placed it against a small rowan-tree. Beren followed his example, then untied the collar of his shirt. They went to the spring and washed their faces.

'Do we have to do this at night?' asked Beren, glancing westward, from where the melted gold of sunset was trickling through the trees.

'No', said Finrod. 'But it's better to begin at night. It's not quiet enough in the daytime.'

They went back to the clearing. Finrod sat down cross-legged and put his sack in front of him.

Beren sat opposite. He was terribly nervous. His fear was on the verge of growing into panic.

The Elf untied his sack and unfolded the cloth the Palantir was wrapped into.

'You've already spoken with Nendil about this,' said he. 'What did you remember best of all the talk?'

'That without guiding mind and will this thing is no more than a sinker for a fishing net.'

Finrod nodded in agreement.

'You can do two things with Palantir's' help,' said he. 'First is exchanging thoughts at distance. But generally speaking, there are no distances for osanw…, if two minds are close enough.'

"Like Aegnor and Andreth," thought Beren.

'But the Palantir allows to do that even those who don't feel soul kinship and closeness between them. The second thing that can be done with the Palantir is studying the current state of affairs somewhere far from you. The same way as I was searching for the road to Hithlum. Searching with the Palantir is more effective when you can clearly imagine the thing you wish to find and the place you wish to look at. It's almost impossible to explore meaningly the places you've never been to or to find someone you don't know well. You can learn the past the same way.'

"Like Fingon," thought Beren.

'All those qualities of the Palantir are based on its permanent bond with the matter of Arda, and the matter keeps memories about everything that had ever happened to it. It's very important to realize it: not the Palantir but we turn this knowledge into images. That's why Nendil has said: mind and will. Will for not losing yourself in the flow of information that will sweep over you; mind for finding the very pearl you wish in this immense sea. Wait…' Seeing that Beren wants to interject, he raised his hand. 'One more thing before I finish. Then, in the treasury, you have been led by a powerful feeling. It's a simple way—and dangerous. Love led you to Doriath—but think where hatred would have led.'

Beren imagined where he could have been led by hatred and he felt ill at ease.

'The third thing I hope to do with the Palantir is to teach a man osanw….'

He lifted a crystal ball with one hand.

'You can already do a bit. You can "cover", you know what avanir… is, you can "speak". But you cannot "hear". You never heard me when I "spoke", trying to reach you. Have you ever "heard"?'

'In fact, I have,' murmured Beren, cursing his face that gave him away with pallor or with blush.

'Oh,' said Finrod. 'But that method does not suit for us. Let us do it otherwise. Touch the Palantir. Take it—together with me.'

Beren put his hands on a cold stone that was already glowing faintly on Finrod's palms. Familiar quiver ran through his fingers and his palms filled with biting coolness, as if they were rubbed with spurge leaves from inside.

The Palantir was drawing Beren's gaze, it was almost impossible to turn away. Beren felt that the crystal will soon absorb his attention completely.

'Do not try to speak aloud,' whispered Finrod. 'When you enter the stone, search for me with your thought, as you already did. But don't try to speak to me by voice…'

His words faded away, all sounds of the world disappeared—Beren found himself alone again inside the silent glow. But when he tried to listen, he heard flows of other thoughts, subtle and resonant like echo. They were crawling into his mind, threatening to burst with an avalanche of visions and dreams, to bury the insolent one, who dared to enter the realm of mystery…

Already knowing how to do this, Beren recalled in memory the image of Finrod: austere face, framed by the golden hair, keen grey eyes… And Finrod came—or rather Beren found himself on the clearing again, sitting on the grass with the Palantir in his hands. But now the stone was shining with silver glow, it was hot and light as a bull bladder, filled with hot air. It seemed to be trembling and tearing up from Beren's hands; he had to make some efforts to hold it in place.

The stone wasn't showing pictures, like last time; it was shining lightly and steadily, and in this light Beren saw everything anew: trees that surrounded the clearing became strange, as if there were more of them; and it seemed sometimes that one tree was growing inside another one; all were sort of thin, ghostly. These are all the trees that had ever grown there, Beren realized. Such as they had been… He looked up and saw the stars flowing together around a single one that is called Nave. He glanced at Finrod and saw him surrounded by a golden light, coming from nowhere—and from everywhere, as if thousands of rays, invisible with a naked eye, gathered around the Elf's slender, chiseled figure. No—it was he that was glowing, steadily and warmly, cloaked in amber-colored mist.

"Good. You see me, I see you. You can hear… Speak."

"What?" Beren was suddenly scared.

"Anything you wish. We're exchanging our thoughts freely."

"This is it? This is osanw…?" Despite his will Beren remembered his experience with Luthien—her feelings as his own and his rapture, flowing into her… It was only a moment and then Finrod broke the contact abruptly—as if a sudden avalanche fell on Beren and cut him away.

When the highlander came into himself, he hid his face in his hands. What has just happened was too fearful to talk about it. If by his carelessness someone—be that even Finrod—saw their coition, Beren wouldn't have been ashamed more. Nom, such as he was, became imlicated with Luthien's deepest secret; for a second he went through her most concealed delight. As if he were third in their bed. He too is feeling uneasy now. He wished that no more than Beren. And all this is because of Beren's wanton thought.

'You do not control your thoughts,' the Elf shook his head. 'They are controlling you. I didn't wish to learn what I have learnt. It has happened before I had time to understand it and to break the osanw…. Beren, casual thoughts pull lots of very vivid images from your memory.'

'I'm sorry,' said Beren through clenched teeth.

'You haven't done anything wrong yet but we must do something. You can't let your memories fall on your interlocutor as raindrops from a branch fall on anyone who touches it.'

'I know.' For some reason Beren started to sicken of Finrod and to feel angry. He's a Man, he's born as he is and he can't do anything with that!

'Concentrate on one thing. On a vivid image that would fill all your thoughts.' Again Finrod hold out the stone to Beren on his open hands.

Familiar feeling in fingers, concentration, immersion… At the first moment Beren was close to horror—he wanted to wish, but he couldn't, and the more he wanted, the clearer he saw that he wouldn't be able to make himself. The more he wanted to open up, the tighter the shell of unwillingness was closing. Now he felt as if he were put into a solid armor, with a heavy helmet, gauntlets, knee-caps, a chainmail hood, a Dwarvish war mask—now he saw Finrod as if through a small opening…

"Finrod," said he, putting the Palantir down, "Nom, I'm afraid to open to you. Inside me… there are things that can't be shown to anyone… I suppose I'll never comprehend that skill of yours."

"Beren, look at me."

The Man raised his eyes.

"All this time we were communicating telepathically. None of us had said a word aloud. You have learnt to speak and to hear from the very beginning; the Palantir had awoken you. Now we have another task, more complicated—to teach you to speak only what you want to."

"I'm trying…"

"You're trying wrong. When you wish to send me an image, you're bound by avanir…, because you always remember what you can't show. Do it otherwise: remember what you can show me and then concentrate on it. Go ahead."

In a second Beren looked over all his life and remembered very easily what he always loved to remember—this bygone day from his youth when he had bet with Cregan Half-Troll and risen to the top of Errahanc…

The cold weight of the Palantir burdened his palm…

 

'Rowan,' thought he after immersing into white light. And the stone depths showed him the face of his friend—the same as he had been in those old days… Stout, broad-shouldered and stocky—such as those who are said about "Easier to jump over then to go around". Eyelashes—long and thick, like a girl's; thick—each hair to hair—brows; large and moist eyes; lips, childishly swollen, such as are called "sweet". Black hair on his upper lip is covered with… hoar-frost? And are there tears trembling on his lashes?

'Beren! Beren, you stupid! What's up with you, why are you silent? Speak! Say something, or I'll kill you myself!'

'Fool,' whispers Beren soundlessly.

'What?' Rowan shakes him by the shoulders, then pulls off his own dirgol, covers his friend and shakes him again. 'Wake up! Wake up, you walking log! Say something!'

He can't contain himself and embraces Beren, pressing him to his chest, and they both fell in the snow; and the sky above is colored with pink; and the snows on the eastern slopes are already shimmering with blue; and gods, it's so beautiful! And this fool Rowan doesn't see it and shakes him again… As if his life is of some importance for these mountains… For sunrise… For himself…

He doesn't want to answer to Rowan, he fears to spill what he has brought from the top. He's light and limpid now, he's so calm and so excited as never before in his whole life. He cries and his tears burn through the snow…

White, unbearably beautiful, there rises above them the peak of Errahanc. Almost regular four-heral pyramid that he has… conquered? It's funny even to think about it—he has come and gone, as each winter does the ice from the top. What he has come for—boyish daring, boasting before girls, pride, wish to prove that a mortal can achieve the same that an Elf had done—everything has flaked off and fell from him on this height. Only the silent admiration with the beauty of Creation has been left. Silent—because all words from all languages that Beren had ever known were burning away and fading before it.

Rowan shook his friend again—and a blue steel dagger, with two snakes of the House of Finarfin, already fairly touched by rust, fell from under his shirt and disappeared in the snow. The proof that he had indeed been on the top of Errahanc. Beren glanced at it with indifference. Now he didn't care whether they will believe him or not.

Looking over Rowan's shoulder, he could see far ahead to the north from the saddle before the top. And there, in the north, where the grass of Ard-galen billows under the wind, there the omnivorous white flame was rising to the skies.

'Fire,' he whispers, clenching Rowan's arms. 'Fire on Ard-galen!'

'Quiet… Are you insane—that's just the sunset, playing on the clouds, you stupid! Your head is spinning from this air. We have to go down. Down—do you understand? Oh, what the devil made me go with you…'

Without releasing Beren, Harding bent down and picked up the dagger that Finrod had left on the top of Errahanc three hundreds years ago to mark that all lands that can be seen from the peak, belong now to the House of Finarfin.

 

The vision was so clear that Beren experienced those moments once more and got cold—at warm summer night! What was more, he realized that he can recall in his memory the smallest detail of everything that had ever happened to him in any moment of his life—probably even in infancy. He didn't try to test it—he was simply afraid and let go the ball of the Palantir, which was tearing to the skies.

And the ball filled with heaviness, cold and solidity, so that the crystal would have fallen to the grass, should Finrod fail to catch it.

"Good. See, I was right. But you're experiencing everything too vividly, that's why you're wearing."

Beren didn't say anything, he was still gasping from the rarefied mountain air. The trees grew dim and became common trees again, stars stopped their race.

'You might have gotten into a more dangerous vision,' continued Finrod aloud. 'You must remember constantly that it's not happening with you in reality. Do not immerse into the Stone completely, you should leave part of yourself outside…'

'Listen,' said Beren, 'When I touched the Palantir and began to remember… I recalled many of the things that I've utterly forgotten. I think that with this Stone I would be able to remember everything I've ever known. Even the days of infancy.'

Judging by the expression of Finrod's face, he was astounted.

'Is it true?'

'Yes. All these things—that Rowan's had frozen tears on his lashes, that I've dropped the dagger and dreamt of the fire—I didn't remember them! I was like… mad. And now I saw this again as it had really been. And I am… grateful to you for that.'

Finrod was lost in thoughts for a while, then he said resolutely:

'We'll talk about it later. And now let us try without the Stone. First I will send you an image, then you to me.'

He put the Stone into the grass.

Beren concentrated, "hearkened" — now he could do it without the Palantir—and saw a white city on a hill.

The city was looking westward. Everything there was designed to have as much windows and as few walls as possible—to prevent houses from screening light from each other, the light that was coming from a single place and wasn't spreading along the whole sky. This light was somehow thick and it seemed to be able to permeate even to shadow places, to where twilight was supposed to be… Beren gasped—he had never seen anything more wonderful in his whole life. Nargothrond was fair and one couldn't claim that it has been designed over Tirion upon Tuna, for Nargothrond, the hidden city, was all inside itself and it was fair from inside; and Tirion was all outside…

The stairs of crystal and marble were running down the western slope of the hill; and the dark eastern one was covered with thick pines. You could run down these stairs, breathing in the fresh air—and you could roam in piny twilights. What had always been a tale, an unrealizable dream to Beren, the dream of a magic land without tears and troubles, where none save the dead ones can go, and for a short time only, for Finrod was only a memory from his youth, as were the level stones of Cargond and Harding to Beren, as was the magnificent beauty of the Lone Fang, the thoughtful charm of Tarn Aeluin lake…

And Beren grew envious. Fiercely envious to that who had grown up in the Blessed Realm. He tried to make himself remember that he can yet go back. Yes, he can—to the ruined, outraged Dorthonion—but still can. And to Finrod, who had joined the rebels, there is no way back to Valinor. For him those youth memories are torment. He was reproducing part of his pain with them, Beren could feel it. "But he had it!" something raged inside. "What he had lost was much dearer than what had been taken from me! We had never been offered to go to Valinor, no one had ever come to teach us and to protect! Only that one… But was it our fault that we had fallen?"

"Beren, we had fallen also." A new image came to his mind—the fires of torches are flying up, merging into constellations and then into rivers of flame. And in the ring of fires a tall stately Elf with blazing eyes is standing and speaking. Beren couldn't make out the words but he knew old legends too well and remembered their meaning.

Finrod wouldn't show Alqualond…; Beren tried to reach this part of his memory by force—and failed. But he saw the black sky of Araman, all in large cold stars, and huge hills of grinding ice… Well! Oh right, everything was planned to show me the impossibility of reading the thoughts from someone's mind when he wants them to be hidden, Beren thought with gloat.

The Man could control himself no more. He was fevering with envy and anger, and also because he has shown it to Finrod in all its disgrace.

"You… You were fools to have exchanged your paradise for Middle-Earth and war! You had too much provided to learn to appreciate it! And we… We had been betrayed, betrayed from the very beginning, left to the mercy of Melkor and his servants! We had never, never had anything like this and we will never have it—and you want us to respect you, who had left it all? Oh, if only we had been given something similar—we would have held it with all our hands and teeth! We would have never let anyone to turn us off the road! We would have never been tempted to any promises, our time is too short already to wish to reduce it! Neither Melkor, nor Feanor would have bought us so cheap as have bought you—immortal, wise, fair… You've lost your mind from your well-being!"

He felt Finrod's reply—not words but a warm wave of love and pity; and this enraged him more than any angry, harsh, wise rebuke.

'Don't you dare to pity me!' cried he aloud; he snatched out his sword, jumped up and rushed away to the forest without choosing the road, chopping the bushes and catching cobwebs with his face. He stopped only when the echo of the Elf's thoughts could reach his mind no more. He fiercely chopped an innocent hazel bush, then with all his might stuck his sword into the soil and fell down before it, his face down, his hands clenched on the back of his head.

* * *

'You were wrong, Finarato.'

The King was twiddling the Palantir in his hands, not enlivening it with thought.

'To eavesdrop is bad,' said he at last. 'Sit down, Meneldûr.'

'I wasn't eavesdropping, it was he that yelled through the whole forest. He hates you.'

'I know. But hatred is not the only emotion that he feels to me.'

'You've made a mistake. He's the same as are all of them—self-obsessed, envious, vain.'

'Are such few among us?'

'Less than among them. This resentment can't be undone—they think that they had been betrayed by both us and the Valar. It's useless to explain. They always think that everybody owes them something—we, Valar, the One…'

'Then why did you come with me, Meneldûr?'

The Elf raised his eyes.

'You are my King and I've given you an oath…'

'That's not enough. Many have given it.'

'You're right. I was hoping that you would change your mind… see him as he is… and go back.'

'Having broken my vow?'

'Do not speak to me of your vow. I was there myself and I heard every word you've said! You promised to never refuse aid to anyone from the House of B…or—and you've already fulfilled your promise. You gave him gold, alliance with Hithlum, bail to Maedhros. You don't owe him anything.'

Finrod was silent.

'Tell me, my friend and King: how long are you going to punish yourself for what is not your fault? Even your inaction is not, for you would not have been able to prevent that from happening.'

Finrod lowered his head. The silence lasted, and Meneldûr have thought that the King would not answer.

'Meneldûr,' he said suddenly, 'What had happened then—did it have any point?'

The Elf could not find an answer and Finrod continued:

'The Fall can be stopped in the only way: each must stop it inside his own heart. No one could have done it for us then. And no one would now do it for Beren. He hates me now—that is true; but this truth is incomplete. And that is not what I'm worrying about. Now he is fighting the Fall inside his heart—and I believe that the Fall can be overcome.'

He replied to Meneldûr's amazed silence some time later:

'I did not wish this experience to happen. It's too cruel. But it has happened by itself and believe me, it's better in this way. If he worshipped me blindly or calmly used me—with this I would have been grieved much more. There is very much hatred in this world and if we have nothing more to make love of—than we shall make it of hatred.'

'You… you knew that it would happen?'

'With all my heart I hoped that it would happen not.'

'And what now?'

'I shall wait. Go, Waiwei.'

'He's dangerous. He…' Meneldûr listened. 'He wishes your death! Please, let me stay.'

'Go, Waiwei. That's an order.'

'How can I?'

'You must, if you do love me. If hatred wins in Beren, then I've made a mistake, the cost of which is life. I shall pay it myself. Obey your king!'

Meneldûr shook his head.

'You will die.'

'Yes,' agreed Finrod. 'As did those who had come here from Valinor. As does each who has chosen Fall.'

Meneldûr glanced at the clearing where other Elves have set their camp.

'Do you still have faith in him? Even now?'

'What else does he have to rely on if not my faith?'

'I wish to find faith also, my King. I'm trying. But I cannot.'

'Then go.' It wasn't an order, just a request, dictated not by the King's will—by the love to his friend.

'How would I go?'

'Would you prefer to torture me with the knowledge that I am leading you to death which you think is useless? Go, Waiwei.'

Meneldûr enfolded his knees with his arms and bowed his head. Dark curls were flowing down his shoulders and reaching the grass.

'I can hear him through the forest,' said he at last. 'It seems to be storm that is raging on a clearing—such struggle is going inside his soul. If he realizes something indeed, then you were right. I will have faith. If not—I will go.'

Finrod took his hand and long looked into his eyes, then let it go.

'All right,' he said. 'As you wish.'

* * *

So, my friend… You didn't need Dagmor till you had a better talking companion—and now you're at loggerheads with him…

'I hate him!'

Aha! You've said it aloud and now you feel better, don't you? There's an old legend, son—call a demon's name and it will go away.

'It won't.'

Then say, why do you hate Finrod?

'Because he's immortal. Wise beyond my imagination. Fair. Noble beyond all measures. Skilful. Because I had never been and will never be able to come up with him.'

But Lúthien probably surpasses him in some things and her you can't hate.

'I love her.'

You can possess her. With all her immeasurable virtues. And Finrod has been—and will always be on his own.

'That has nothing to do with it… She won't despise me for what I am.'

And would Finrod? Come on, son, you perfectly know that he wouldn't.

'That's why I hate him. Because if I were on his place, I would have. But it looks easier to scoop the sea dry than the measure of his patience and nobility.'

Oh yes, he has the whole sea… And what do you have—a jug? A bucket? A mug? All right, splash out what's still left. He's alone there and unarmed—go and kill him. Destroy the one who reminds you of your paltriness with his very existence. Destroy everybody who is higher than you, better than you, and you shall be the greatest…

'I'd better break you against my knee with your counsels!'

Good. You're starting to realize a little. Head is meant not only for wearing a helmet on it. Tell me, why don't you want to follow this way?

'This is the Fall. This is the way of Morgoth.'

But you had been driven to it long before your birth. The One—the all-mighty, the all-knowing, could have easily whispered to the Valar about where the Mortals had awoken. They could have easily taken you to Valinor and made there a corner for you to dwell in. Then why hadn't they done it, if it was of no trouble to them?

'I don't know.'

Then take revenge on them! Take revenge for everything they hadn't done for Men! Seize their strongholds and wives, be a first human King of Middle-Earth!

'I do not want to become like Morgoth.'

But you're already becoming. When envying, hating, hardening your heart—you're becoming like Morgoth.

'But why? Why do we have to be the second, why are we stepsons to this earth while they are her children?'

And why did Melkor have to be second after Eru? It turns out that he too has the right to feel offended and deprived. And will parents love their stepson more if he kills their own?

'You're turning everything upside down.'

No, son, quite the contrary. Look: or you admit without reserve that Eru knew what he was doing, and then any envy has no point—you have your own path and your duty is to walk it with dignity; or you think that Eru was wrong, that he betrayed you, deceived you and left you—and then your place is at Melkor's side. I bet he would be happy to have such an ally.

'All right! All right, the One is right and if I think differently, then I am missing something. For example, why are we subjected to diseases, temptations, hatred? Mortals—all right, let it be mortals, but why are we weak?'

Ask the one who had made those diseases, weaknesses, temptations and hatred. Though I have no idea what he would answer… Most likely would shift the blame upon Eru.

'Stop dodging! Eru could have made us such as that all this would have slipped from us as dew from a wheat leaf!'

He could. Those of the Old Hope believe that we had been like this in the very beginning. You know who had marred us.

'But how could he do this? Why had we been given to him?'

Hey, why are you whining now? You knew it all before, your father, grandfather and great-grandfather knew also. Are you assuming they hadn't thought themselves deceived?

'They didn't see what Finrod has shown me. When I only knew—that was one thing. But when I saw it myself… It's absolutely different.'

I see. You wasn't envious when you didn't know what you had been devoid of. Well, there are people who sincerely consider themselves honest—until they see a purse that is lying in a temptation's way.

'Why are you such a pest!'

Remember: Thingol saw that land—and has given it up. Avari and Grey Elves have given it up for the love to Middle-Earth.

'But why has Finrod? My Gods, he didn't spill the blood of his kin, he had no love for F…anor, and he had the woman he loved there—what devils made him go to Endor…?'

Why don't you go and ask him yourself?

'After all I've said? Have thought?'

Are you afraid that Finrod will give you such a dressing that your father had given you at times?

'That's just it. He won't. He has already forgiven me.'

Oh yes, that's hard to bear. You won't be scolded or cursed—you're already forgiven… How annoying! If he scolded, cursed, scorned you, then everything would have been fine—I'm a pig and you're a pig. Easy and simple. But no! He loves you. As brothers he had lost, as a son he had never had…And being worthy of such a love is a hundred times harder than being a simple vassal. And can you imagine: he for some reason thinks you worthy. How will you return his love?

'And how must I? Tell me, if you're so clever!'

You know. You know what he wants you to do. Why he has faith in you.

'But I have deceived his faith. I'm not… what I had to be.'

Not saint. You know, son, for some reason I suppose that he had been informed about it. He thinks himself by no means a saint, too; and it would have been rather strange for him to assume the presence of sanctity in you and then to disappoint bitterly. But he seems to believe that you can serve to the Old Hope without being a saint.

'That's why he's spending time on me?'

Do not palter. He would have been "spending time on you" anyway. He takes the words he had said very seriously. And how you take your words—that is your business. You may continue playing fool and bearing a grudge against the whole world. Or you may come back and ask for pardon for all stupid things you've said and thought. Make yourself worthy of pardon.

 

Beren sat in the grass and passed his hand over the sword's hilt. A blue gleam sparkled on the star-faceted amethyst that was set into it.

'All right,' the highlander whispered. 'All right.'

It was easy to find a way back—he has been forcing there like a bear, without caring to hide his traces. Broken branches, crushed grass, chopped bushes—as if an Orc had been tearing through the forest.

"I wish my passions would burn only me! But no, they make suffer everything I can reach…"

The Elf was waiting for him at the same place. The highlander approached him and sat opposite.

'I was a great fool,' said he. 'I… wish to ask for your pardon, Sire…'

'Don't mention it.'

'Wait. You don't know all the matters. You think it's no novelty for you, for Men must have already accused you of things you hadn't done… And you forgave them, for that is not their fault, they are such as they are. But now, Sire, the matter is different. When… When I had been realizing only with my mind what lies between us… While Valinor remained only a tale, I wasn't too envious of you. I was even proud with this.'

'I made a mistake.'

'No, everything was right. King, you showed me not Valinor but my inner self. My werewolf as it is—eyes to eyes. I was thinking about killing you, Sire. Because my most burning wish is to come up with you in wisdom, skills, beauty; to become worthy of Lúthien. And I will never be able to do this. I simply have no time. And the feebleness to change anything turns my wishes into base envy. Like a river that is blocked with landfall overflows its banks and crushes the barrier; and then drifts further, destroying everything on its way… I can turn this hatred on the one who had really deserved it, but I am unable to get rid of it completely. Wait, don't say anything yet… I know, it had been foreordained, it had to happen… Probably to make us understand that we have nothing to wait and nothing to lose. I can't think of a better explanation. Let it be so. Forgive me, my King. Forgive for my inability to repay you with what you're expecting from me. In the time that we spent together… You took the place of a father, of an elder brother in my heart. But… I had always been a disobedient son and a bad brother… Here's my sword that I wanted to raise on you. Use it as you wish,' Beren hold out to the King his sword with its handle directed forward. 'Whatever you decide, I thank you in advance.'

Finrod accepted Dagmor, held it for one-two moments as he has taken it—with its edge directed to Beren; then took it by the blade and gave back.

Beren wiped the blade by his sleeve and put it back to the sheath. The shame was burning his heart.

'How can you know,' asked the King softly, 'what you are able to do and what not? Have you reached the edge of your life? Have you tested your fate till the end? Have you already done everything you could? Or do you know what I am expecting from you?'

Beren raised his head. It was dark but the face of the Elf was seen clearly, as if lit by some faint light.

'…If any marriage can be between our kindred and thine, then it shall be for some high purpose of Doom…. What is this high purpose, o King, for the sake of which you have chosen to help me? And what is my doom that you see?'

The Elf spoke after a short consideration.

'Before I answer, I wish to know what you had been thinking about there, on the clearing. And how you have managed to leave the idea of murder.'

Beren overcame his fear and shame, clutching the handle of his sword. The touch lasted for a single moment, but into this moment went all his talk with Dagmor, the voice of his own soul.

'Good,' said Finrod. 'And now wish to learn my thoughts.'

And Beren wished…

 

…How careless they were…

They heard about pain and evil but it had no concern with them, had it? It was somewhere there, in the Mortal Lands where the followers of Melkor were yet persisting, where his apprentices of Maiar were hidden. They, loving, creating, fair and light-hearted had no concern with it…

Rivalry between Feanaro and Nolofinwe, slight mocking at the too thoughtful Vanyar and the too careless Teleri; ambitions of Artanis… Some disapproved of it but it had nothing in common with evil, had it? Evil is ugly, black and humpbacked, disgusting from inside and outside; if Evil comes here, to Valinor—the fact that can't be imagined in itself—maybe it would come out of the Teleri's sight; maybe the Vanyar, living at the Valar's side, would fail to notice it; but the Noldor, so wise and so keen, would discover Evil at once and certainly!

Thus Melkor spoke after he had been released from his prison; and he must have been smiling to himself.

How naive they were…

Even then, standing on the Tirion square, where dancing flame of torches made F…anaro's shadow treble, even then many had been thinking that Evil was something distant from them; that Evil could be overtaken, captured and bent down to earth; and its head could be cut off with a single stab… And they were full of resolution to do that.

And only on the Alqualondë piers, while calming down after a bloody combat, they realized that Evil had always been with them, since the very beginning of their lives. It had been sleeping in their hearts as seeds in soil. And there appeared somebody who had cautiously poured the seeds, fertilized the sprouts of arrogance with fecund flattery, loosened the soil over the roots of anger, supported the branches of envy on which the red-black fruits of evil were ripening…

…And when they'd realized evil, so close and yet unreachable, they were gripped by despair. Some still continued to think that evil could diminish if that who had brought it into the world, would be killed. Melkor destroyed—and the indelible sin of Alqualond… would disappear by miracle, dead would rise from graves, living ones would forgive… The others told themselves: evil is us. We have no forgiveness and no return. We can only fight to the end and redeem the deaths of others by those of our own. Only the queer, funny Findarato thought at heart that salvation is possible for all. Even for F…anaro. Even maybe for Melkor. The mercy of the One should be as infinite as his power, and if Evil can be redeemed, He would show the way how.

If arrogance, envy and anger led the Noldor to Fall, then they must repudiate arrogance, envy and anger.

That's why he never hesitated when Fingon revealed to him his plan—to go to the Iron Hills and to rescue Maedhros. Fingon insisted on doing it alone. But someone had to wait for him in the appointed place with a small troop, spare horses, supplies… He couldn't appeal to the sons of Feanor—his father wouldn't let the son go to their camp and arrange anything with them. He couldn't even ask his own brother—Turgon wished Maedhros killed, being unable to forgive his wife's death to any of the Feanorians. And Fingon came to the sons and daughter of Arafinwë.

Having overcome arrogance, hatred and envy, Fingon rescued Maedhros. And rescued the whole people of the Noldor from disorder and enmity.

Finrod saw this as a sign.

And then there was another sign—when Finrod, wandering in the forests of Ossiriand, saw lights on the slopes of the Blue Mountains and heard the song of the people, of which before he knew only vaguely, from Melkor's obscure hints and reserved stories of the Valar.

Balan said that when Sun had risen, the people of Men were split. Many were displeased with their former life, and Balan's kin were from those who had yet heard the Voice-from-the-Dark. It was concealed, it was feared by even those who heard it, but Balan's folk had always worshipped old gods and feared the new ones. And once Balan heard the Voice. It is time, He said. Tomorrow you shall see a sign and those who are faithful, shall escape the Darkness. They shall cross three mountain chains and come to land that is flowing with milk and honey. Then they shall make a feast and make sacrifices to the old gods with bread and wine. After that they should make a harp and go to sleep without posting guards. That who comes and plays the harp, should be followed after. He will show the way to salvation.

And those who worshipped old gods and refused to acknowledge the new one, took a beor to Balan's forefather and went after him. On their way they were joined by two more peoples: golden-haired horse-breeders and wild forest Men with slightly slanting eyes. But the highlanders who had taken beor, still led the host. They had murmurs in their ranks, for their way ran through dangerous lands—and fair lands as well. In first people died in combats with Orcs, Trolls, once even with Dwarves by chance. In the second people left and settled.

The lands beyond the Blue Mountains were splendid and most of beor's men said: enough! Here are places wonderful, pastures and fields rich; why make another painful passage through the mountains? How many will they lose among these snows again?

But Balan, who had been young then, said that he would cross the mountains, as it had been told in the prophecy, even if he had to go alone.

He did not—a thousand of people agreed to share his march. Dwarves, whom they've met on the way, showed them the pass. And when they had crossed it—in the shining rays of the sun before the Men Beleriand lay open. They went down to the valley, and lit fires, and made sacrifices by bread and wine, and they sang and danced, celebrating the end of their long journey and the fulfilling of the prophecy…

Someone drew nine more strings on a simple ash bow—a harp came out. It was lying on rising ground, covered by someone's cloak, as if put there on purpose. And Finrod took it, not yet knowing that it had been indeed.

'What had you been escaping from?' he would ask afterwards. But not Balan, nor others would answer.

Another fallen people sought ways to salvation, looking at Finrod with hope. And this way he knew not. He tried to find traces in their past but they concealed it.

And here a human came to him. A man, whom he remembered as a youth and a child. Who was madly in love with his kinswoman. To Finrod he seemed as Feanaro among Men. But Feanaro could not change his way of thoughts and actions—that is called the Doom of the Noldor. Elves change too slowly. Men are free from this doom, for they are able to change swiftly. At his heart Finrod envied this ability, realizing that envy is an unworthy feeling and being unable to get rid of it entirely.

Through Beren and the Silmaril there could come salvation—as through F…anaro and the Silmaril there had come death. That was what Finrod sought in him. That was what he wished.

'I don't know,' whispered Beren, breaking a short but wearisome thought exchange. 'I don't know, Nom, if I can. But I shall try till I gain what I want or till I kill myself. Listen… You have opened to me in things that…'

'That you were afraid to confess to yourself? Yes. Openness for openness. At times I feel envy at you. At all Men. When I'm angry with you, I become filled with thoughts that many of the Eldar feel sometimes: that you're the people, irrevocably marred, low, rude, ungrateful.. And then I remember about one simple thing: if I experienced everything that had befell on you, I would not withstand it. Most likely I would have died. Or even worse—have turned to evil. Do not look at me in such surprise—the measure of evil that an Elf can admit to his heart and to remain himself at the same time is much less than that of a Man. You fall to temptation easier but remorse comes to you easier as well.'

'Nom,' the Man sighed, 'But you don't feel temptations such as sometimes come to Men. Twenty times I've been repenting my wish to kill you—and such thing would never come to your mind!'

'It wouldn't. But why do you think it's for good?'

Beren even opened his mouth wide of surprise, and Finrod continued:

'If the temptation to hit the opponent till blood have occurred to the hearts of the Noldor when they had been playing with swords, they would have been afraid of that temptation and thought differently of their pastime. They would have felt this temptation once, twice, thrice—and learnt to withstand it. But they had felt it once and were broken… Temptation is not sin, it is test. To resist temptation you must first become aware of it. To overcome Fall you must realize it in yourself. As you have done today. You can't even imagine what a great victory over Morgoth you have just gained. You struck him heavier than Fingolfin, for he had only wounded his body while you have cut one of the roots that delve into our souls and nourish his strength. We are feeding Morgoth, Beren. Only when we stop doing that, would he be defeated.'

Beren picked up a grass blade and chewed the sour-sweet stem.

'That skill, osanw…… Will it always stay with me? Even without the Palantir?'

'Now—yes.'

'And I will hear the others' thoughts?'

'If you try to reach an open mind or if someone tries to reach yours. But beware: reaching the weaker mind and suppressing it is basely. Whatever noble and necessary the purpose of such an action seemed to be. And there's another important thing that you must know. It may be useful to you. Your sama is not whole.'

'Nightingale once said something like this but I couldn't understand… What does that mean? Am I insane?'

'No, not at all. It doesn't make the impression of something wrong. It's not whole more as a combined bow or a collapsible sword, do you see? More as a machine than a statue.'

'And what of it?'

'I don't know yet. If we had more time… And one more thing. At first I and other Eldar supposed that when you forget something, you forget it forever. That because of the Marring your minds have some defects in them, like spots of rust that eat iron away. The story of your healing in Doriath made me cast that thought away, and today I've learnt that you, like Eldar, remember everything, from the first day till the end of your lives. But your memory is not like an unfolded tapestry; it resembles a tapestry that is rolled up. No, not even a tapestry, but a skein where layers of threads can be seen through each other. Only the upper ones are seen clearly; the closer to centre, the less. As if you're reeling up the new and new coils of existence. Now I see the meaning of your word "to for-get". You for-get indeed.'

For a second Finrod Stopped being a King—before Beren there was a tireless explorer, burning with the lust for learning and rejoicing at the new knowledge like a child at a new toy.

'Noldo,' Beren, surprised, looked into the face of his King. 'You will never find peace, won't you? Till you penetrate the very roots of the earth with your mind, till you reach the heavens? Where did you come from like this?'

Finrod laughed softly.

'Where did we come from? We had always been like this, Beren.'

He lay down on his back and put his hands under his head. Moon ans stars were reflecting in his eyes.

'We are striving to cognize Arda, for our f…ar are its essential part. But where did you come from? Why? And what does become of you? Who will tell me? You, maybe?'

'Why not?' Beren followed his example. To tell the truth, he was very weary. 'Maybe I will.'

For some reason he winked at the lopsided moon and closed his eyes.

* * *

In the morning the master was sort of absent-minded, and as for Finrod, he was sleeping on horseback with his eyes open, like all Elves can do.

They've set out before dawn to reach the Mindeb river by evening. Again helmets and mails, again shields and bows… Frontier. A wall of mountains was rising in the north, seeming deceptively close in the clear morning light. From there, from behind those mountains, from Beren's native lands Orcs used to come. They were gathered into small bands, seldom more than fifty members, told yesterday the captain of the outpost, a tall higlander named Narvo. Not that was five years ago, no way! Then there were real fights—they were swarming like ants, sweeping off the outposts, burning down the whole villages and farms as far as the Andram ridge. Happy were those who managed to hide their families in the woods. Now it's quite another matter: they try to go through the outpost stealthily, to attack some small settlement, to slay everybody and to take everything that can be carried on their backs. Some were caught by the marchwardens of the Doriath Elves, some by the Men of Brethil, some by highlanders… But it happens that they crawl through at times, yes… 'I heard they were driven by hunger', another warrior put in his word. Ard-galen is burnt down, the cattle has no place to pasture, and the Black One doesn't want extra mouths to feed… And there's nothing much to plunder in Dorthonion: what Sauron has taken from us, that is of no use for them. 'All ri-ight,' Narvo drawled darkly. 'We will feed them… Feed with earth to their fill.'

Here, on "no man's land", the small troop seemed to be easy prey. After all stories about Orcs' customs and laws Gili started to glance northwards with alarm, though he knew that should any danger appear, the Elves would notice it first.

Fair was Dimbar. There wide meadows alternated with small groves, and as they moved on to the north, the groves grew sparser, the meadows wider—the troop was riding along the border of this sparse growth and the flat stripe that went lengthways to the mountains. Anyone who moved or walked from the outside of the mountains would be noticed sooner or later—and they were covered by coppice all the time. Unlike the Elves—Aeglos, who never lost the mountains out of his sight, Lauraldo, ready to draw his bow in any moment, Wilwarin, watching the Crissaegrim closely—Beren was looking southwards more often.

Gili casually asked Aimenel about what was there and the Elf answered simply: Doriath, the realm of Elu Thingol.

A month before Gili had already been just as close to Doriath—when he had traveled with merchants. Maybe because of the long and boring road, or because the Hidden Kingdom was near, merchants and carters every evening told stories about Doriath Elves, one scarier and weirder than another. About a young man who had been watching an Elven sorceress when she bathed, and she turned him into stone—he stands there still, charmed by her beauty; about babies that Elves steal because they need soldiers for war with Orcs that can wield cold iron in their hands, and that only Men and Dwarves can; about a drink of immortality, the secret of which the Gods revealed to Elves but hid from Men… These talks ended when the line was joined by Beren. A couple of times he pulled the most zealous gossips up, and when he was near, no one had ever dared to tell tales of Doriath Elves.

Gili again began pondering on the mystery of Beren's appearance there, on the road. Judging by his words and the elven-talks, he was coming from Dorthonion. But then he couldn't miss Himlad—and there he hadn't been. Could it be… Gili didn't wonder about that before but now it occurred to him by itself—could Beren have visited the Hidden Kingdom?

Gili couldn't dare to ask him or the Elves.

The sun was already setting, when they noticed a cloud, coming from the east. Dark-grey and thick, it seemed to press down the mountain tops and under it rain was hanging, like a translucent slanting linen. Ragged and ruffled cloud edges were creeping in all directions.

First blasts of the biting wind made trees and grass shudder.

'Luck, bitch,' murmured Beren, looking eastward. 'Now it's gust.'

'We can get to the Mindeb's shore before it overtakes us,' said Lossar. 'Let's look for some cover.'

'There we will find no cover,' Calmegil shook his head. 'I know these places.'

'Those spinneys won't protect us from the gust,' added Meneldur. 'But we'd better turn into the grove: I'don't seek meeting with a lightning.'

'Then let us do that,' said Finrod.

'I have another proposal,' Edrahil half-rose on stirrups, peering into the darkness that spread over the east. 'Let's gather more wood and cover it with horsecloths whe we get on place. Then we shall have dry kindling.'

'And a lot of brushwood, if I know something about life!' Beren summed up. 'Hurry!'

They spurred up their horses and galloped forward. The wind blew harder and stroke in their faces, getting colder and colder. Beren and Nendil, as one, began their race again and soon only the croups of their horses could be seen far away as two small points: silver-grey and black.

The others did not race but also galloped fast, and Gili at the first time felt some difficulties with his Lhaeros. When trotting he went so smoothly that even a child would keep his place on his back, but galloping required a lot of efforts from Gili. When they rode out on the shore of Mindeb, the boy grew all wet and they had a lot of other things to do: to find a place for a camp, to unsaddle horses, to gather brushwood, to stack it and saddlebags, to cover them with shields and horsecloths…

They had scarcely done all this, when all started. First twilight covered the shore—such black and thick the cloud was; but low sunrays still shone through it as through the lean-to of a tent. The wind began to blow hard, as if from all directions; first raindrops stroke leaves with single arrows; and the cloud-burst fell down at once with all its might, as if a bucket had been toppled over in the skies.

The horses were neighing nervously and jerking on their leashes; the Elves at thir side tried to calm them down. Gili was also holding his bay by the neck, and he felt his tremor with all his body, when lightning tore apart evening twilight or thunder covered the growth. Lightning began to flash more often and Gili threw down the shield he was covering himself with. Anyway, the wind gusts were tearing it out of his hands and threw handfuls of water into his face from the most unexpected sides. The boy enfolded Lhaeros' neck with both arms and Aimenel did the same with his own horse. The wind was now blowing with such strength that to simply keep one's balance was hard indeed. The rain spurts were tearing branches and leaves from the trees. Gili thought that he soon will plunge into the soil knee-deep, as legendary warriors after their enemies' blow. He couldn't even raise up his face—water, falling from above, choked breath. It remained only to press the head in the shoulders and to watch with a corner of the eye what others were doing.

Beren stood with his head lowered, having wrapped into his cloak to the very eyes, and holding his mare by the bridle. Mithrinor seemed to have no fear of lightnings, thunder or heavy whips of the downpour that could knock a man down. The horses of Nendil, Finrod and Elluin behaved the same way but the rest were nervous. Darkness was thickening more and more and even through the drumming of the rain the moans of the trees, bending under the wind, could be heard. Gili clasped the horse's neck just not to be carried away by the storm… Right in time: it became so terrible… Branches and leaves were flying, trees started to creak, waters of Malduin were really boiling, earth and sky mixed together.

A sudden crack was heard and Gili thought at first that a lightning stroke near. But it was no lightning: a tree, half elm, half ash—he couldn't make out in the dark—cracked and tumbled down. Gili flinched, imagining how a tree that grew near the clearing, would fall and crush everybody with its trunk. But the Valar were merciful—young ashes were cracking and bending, but didn't break. Only their branches fell down. One of them hit Gili painfully by the back, Aeglos barely dodged the other.

Gili has lost any hope to see blue sky again and to turn his face to sunrays, when suddenly it was over as swiftly as it had started. The deadly downpour turned into simple rain, sun began to shine brighter, blue color appeared in the gaps of the cloud. Soon the edge of the cloud could be seen only, its tail, striking the slopes of Ered Gorgor.

After some time the storm had passed completely. Only broken branches and trees were left, Malduin's waters were troubled and dragged along different rubbish that had been brought by the wind, and wet grass was sparkling with dew. All the rest was the same as before. Gili recalled himself a half an hour ago—trembling with fear, worn out by struggling against the wind, and wondered—was it a dream? No, it wasn't—he's all wet and Lhaeros is breathing heavily and rapidly. Poor fellow, have endured much…

The Elves sorted out brushwood and their belongings that have been covered by shields and horsecloths. The expectation was right—saddlebags stayed dry. Or rather those stayed dry that did not lie on the edge. There was a lot of dry brushwood also, which was very handy—everyone was hungry and wanted to get warm.

All save Aeglos and Meneldur went for fallen branches. They didn't need to go far, all the clearing was covered with them. They had only to chop and pile. The pile was getting large, for the Elves were going to maintain fire during the whole night to get dry and warm.

'Ela!' cried Beren suddenly. 'Come here, Eldar, it is right in your line!'

Gili too hurried at the summons, though he wasn't an Elf. He started running although he stood closest to Beren. But when he reached the place and stopped, catching his breath, he saw that all others are already standing around, breathing so evenly as if they had been standing there and not come in a great hurry.

The clearing was overgrown with wormwood. There were a lot of other grass also, but merciless rain has beaten it all down, only elastic wormwood resisted. The air was filled with its bitter smell and its silvery green made the clearing shine. But that wasn't the reason Beren has called the Elves of. The reason was that on the velvety fluffy leaves raindrops were gleaming, as precious gems. One shone with sunny gold, others blazed with pure fire, third were piercingly blue, and fourth—green as gems in the master's rting. Should Gili know the word "emeralds", he would think "as emeralds". But one had only to make a move—all colours suddenly changed and living rainbow ran through the clearing.

'Hey, Noldor,' Beren broke the devout silence that bound everybody for a minute. 'Yavanna, Ulmo and Manwë by incident make gems no worse than you do. Pity they are so short-lived. The sun will not set yet when this dew vanishes.'

'But I shall remember.' Lossar kneeled over one warmwood stem, examining it closely. 'And I shall make this beauty long-lived. Some day I shall do that…'

'Silver?' Lauraldo squatted at his side. 'With adamant?'

'No, hardly. Silver is too dark and heavy for this even at the first glance… Some other metal. And you cannot facet adamant the way I need… Crystal. Or even virin.'

'Yea, you are probably right…'

The sun hid behind a tree and twilight dimmed the charm of the clearing. Gili suddenly realized that it was very cold. He complained to Aimenel and he offered to take swords and to get warm.

Gili didn't like that idea at all but he couldn't think of anything better, so he took his scatha and went with Aimenel to the shore, to the wet sand.

The exercise they were practising lately was called "mirror", and now Aimenel made it more complicated: now he was striking blows not the way Gili was used to—two up, two down—but where he wanted, without any warning. Gili saw that the Elf moved slower than he could but he didn't always have time to parry, and the scatha stopped short within a hair's breadth of his cheek or thigh. And the wearier he became, the more often it happened.

He became hot and sweated. The Elves have gathered such a huge pile of fallen branches that this would have been enough to build a small shack. They made a fire of dry brushwood and began putting large wet branches above it, in form of a shelter. The branches were shooting, sparkles flew to the darkening sky and died down. Golden-red flashes were running along the swords' blades, for a moment white sparkles appeared and vanished again. Aeglos and Meneldur were back, they have been lucky to track down a roe. Gili wanted to help them to cut it, but Beren made him return to his exercises and did it himself.

At last Aimenel, as always, stopped the training when Gili has been worn out completely. He cried something in Elvish and Calmegil threw him a rolled blanket. If Aimenel didn't catch it, it would have fallen to the water, but Aimenel couldn't fail to catch it.

He and Gili wrapped themselves into the blanket and sat down on the earth. Aimenel smelled like a sweated child.

Gili was gloomy.

'I won't make a swordsman,' he said sadly. 'Those fellows were right. It's probably too late for me to learn.'

'It's never late!' argued Aimenel. 'You're doing well.'

'Hey… stop that, will you?'

'No, listen! I haven't learnt it right away, too. Besides, it's not the main thing. Are you thinking that Orcs are good swordsmen? Such are few, very few. Should you encounter an Orc in close combat, you'll see who wins.'

'The skill is not everything,' Beren quietly approached them from behind. 'Only courage matters, Rusco. Sometimes a well-taught person does not have the courage to strike the first blow and then all skill useless.' Beren frowned at some his unpleasant inner thoughts.

'Lord Beren,' asked Aimenel, 'And why don't you teach Rusco yourself?'

'I'm a bad teacher. First, I'm a lefthander, second, I'm too impatient.'

'Will you not be offended if I ask you something?'

'Ask, and we shall see then.'

'You, Men, learn swiftly. Far swifter than we do. But only if you begin early. And if you start learning at a mature age, you learn much slower. Why is that? How can one lose his ability to learn?'

Beren sighed, wrapped himself in a blanket and enfolded his shoulders with his arms.

'You've asked a question which I do not know the answer to. Only that, maybe… When we are young, we learn as… Well, as dogs and horses do. We do not think about how we should learn—we just do something and learn in the process. And we have no memory of how it happens. You don't remember how you had learnt walking or speaking, do you?'

'Why?' Aimenel was surprised. 'I do.'

Beren opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything. He bit his lips, narrowed his eyes, began to think… Then he jumped up.

'Eldar! Does anyone wish to warm himself with a steel dance?'

'Indeed, Beren, I've got really chilled even here, by the fire.' Finrod replied. 'I wouldn't mind getting warm.'

'It's an honour for me, aran.' Beren slightly bowed in greeting. To Gili's surprise, Finrod returned the bow.

'Such is the custom,' whispered Aimenel with glittering eyes, and Gili saw that the young Elf feels the same as himself—the foretaste of a interesting duel. 'The opponents bow to each other. You should love your opponent, be grateful to him, for he is teaching you. Look!'

King and Beren took the swords, threw the scabbards aside and stood opposite to each other. The sun was setting and the shadows of the friends-opponents were so long that stretched to the far shore of Malduin. They stood with their blades lowered down, holding them in a position, completely different from which Gili was already used to (Aimenel explained in whisper that the primary stance is convenient for a beginner, while an experienced fighter begins as he wishes to). Both were naked to the waist, with wet hair, tall, slender, broad-shouldered—suddenly they seemed to Gili alike as brothers, though they had nothing else in common. Finrod had golden hair and pale skin, Beren was dark-haired and tanned; the skin of the Elf was smooth, on the Man's skin old scars shimmered with nacre; the Elf stood straight, Beren was stooped a little. But still each resembled a strange mirror of the other.

Gili didn't notice who has made the first move. The blades began to ring with such fierce and haste that it seemed as if it would cost someone his head. But looking at the faces, Gili didn't see any fury—both opponents looked at each other with warmth, as if they were dancing together. And suddenly he realized that each allowed his opponent to nearly complete the move, each wanted more to play up then to take advantage of the other's slip, each nobly gave his opponent a beautiful move.

At last a moment came when the swords met the last time and froze tensely: Beren was trying to complete his parried attack, Finrod was resisting. Thus a few moments have passed.

'That's all,' said the Man, withdrawing his sword and bowing. 'Thank you, my King. Did you see?' he turned to Gili.

'Yes,' the squire breathed rapturously.

'Then don't ever try to do that yourself.'

Gili was surprised.

'If we fought in the right way, one of us would have hit another in the groin, or with his head in the face, or with an elbow in the teeth. Should you be pressed upon, that's the best thing to do. As I've said, courage is more important than skill.'

They put their swords back into scabbards, went to the fire and sat down. Beren touched his shirt that was hanging on a branch—still wet. Elluin offered him to share a dry cloak for two. Finrod was a happy owner of a dry tunic that he have thrown over his shoulders.

'Water, water,' grumbled Beren, covering himself with his edge of the cloak. 'It's good that it has rained. We won't need to take it with us.'

'There is no water in Nan-Dungortheb?' asked Aeglos.

'There is,' said Beren, 'but not for drinking.'

'Today's storm has washed away all bad things for some time,' said Lauraldo.

'What things?' wondered Aimenel.

'It's a bad place…' Lauraldo frowned. 'It's difficult to explain, you start to feel that only when you come there…'

'Sorcery?'

'That too. It is said that the Enemy had a part in that place.'

'That's easy to believe,' said Aeglos. 'But shortly before you have come from overseas, it became worse than it used to be. Some Morgoth's creatures appeared…'

'Not Morgoth's,' Beren objected with confidence. 'I do not know what those creatures are, they're uglier than a nightmare, but if Nan-Dungortheb is the creation of Morgoth, then they are not his. He… doesn't make anything deformed…'

The Elves watched him in stunned silence.

'Are you sure?' asked one of them.

'I see what Beren is talking about,' Wilwarin cut in. 'The creatures of Morgoth—wolves or Orcs—they can be dreadful but not ugly. I can't recall a suitable word but he does everything…'

'With elegance.' Edrahil prompted.

'Yes! Exactly. He loves everything beautiful though he has marred the conception of beauty. There is pride in his creatures, as if he is asking: who else can do that as I can?'

'Precisely,' agreed Beren. 'And what dwells there… Well, Aeglos knows.'

'I do not, I'm curious myself!' the Elf argued. 'Have you seen them? What do they look like?'

'Like an ungol that was inflated to the size of a cow and then was beaten up until all its legs were broken.' Beren winced. 'And then was dragged in manure to its very eyes. But Eldar, do not ask how many of those eyes it had—I had another matters to do…'

'Then maybe it was a common ungol, simply marred by Morgoth?'

'And I say that Morgoth doesn't mar anything in such a way! He mars when he can make use of it, and that scum is useless to anything, even to itself! It is destruction itself.'

'I think I know what you are speaking of,' Calmegil exchanged looks with Finrod. 'How many of those did you saw?'

'I don't know… Five, it seems. Three big ones and two small.'

'It seems or it is?'

Instead of an answer Beren fumbled in the grass, took his sword and half-unsheathed it in the light of the fire, holding it so that everyone could see notches on the blade, half-erased by a whetstone.

'I've chopped first of those creatures in a minute and then I've been throwing up for half an hour, sorry for such a detail. It smelled even worse than it looked. The second was so huge… I didn't even think about fighting it, my only wish was to get away. But… This bulk was moving fast and it seemed hungry. I… let it catch up with me and then I've cut its sting off. Then… They are very hard to kill, Eldar. You cut and cut it, and it still fights and fights… A wolf is better; at least it can be killed with one stab. And after that I've made a terribly stupid thing, Eldar: I've drunk from a nearby stream. Those creatures wait for their victims near the watering place. From that water I began to walk like delirious. And then I've stumbled upon the third and the fourth one. Or just one of them…' Beren looked at the notches again. 'When I regained consciousness, I found these marks on the blade. But there was slime also. One time I've chopped a real creature and then a stone. Or I've chopped real ones both times and after that a stone… I can't remember. That poison is worse than spiders—who knows, we may start fighting with each other… So water must be taken from there.'

'And what was next?'

Beren put his sword away and ruffled his hair.

'Nothing. Almost… There was a small one, I've killed it with a stone.'

'If they are so numerous there, the way is more dangerous than I thought,' said Lauraldo. 'Formerly you could have walked far into the waste and you wouldn't meet a single one.'

'Formerly both Doriath Elves and the Fëanorians cleaned that place. And now, I heard, they can wander even into Nan Elmoth,' added Aeglos. 'But they are not dangerous for such a large troop as we are. They never walk in packs, only on their own.'

'We should beware of those who themselves beware of spiders. Who is more perfect than they, who is created by Morgoth himself and not by that Void he had summoned… ' Edrahil glanced at the dark east.

'Right,' agreed Finrod. 'Tomorrow we shall again spend our night without fire and songs—Wilwarin, please, take out your lute.'

* * *

As usual during their travels, Gili woke up because of the cold. And still half-asleep, he heard a quiet splash and a horse snort. He pricked up his ears and opened his eyes.

It was again his and Beren's duty to stand on guard in the dawn, but he fell into a doze and then into a deep sleep. Now he jumped up, fearing that the master would give him a dressing-down.

But his fear was in vain—Beren wasn't going to scold his servant. He was standing up to his neck in water near his Mithrinor, stroking her mane and talking to her quietly.

'So you're awake,' he muttered when he noticed Gili. 'Are you cold?'

'Yes.' Gili enfolded himself with his arms and rubbed his shoulders.

'Take off your clothes and go to the water, it's warm.'

'I was… ' Gili shook his head towards the forest.

'If you go to the bushes, put on your boots. I saw a viper in the grass.'

When Gili was back, Beren has been already dressed, cut a piece of meat off the roe's carcass and was blowing ants away, saying:

'Get lost. My king hasn't invited you to the feast.'

The Elves were still asleep. Last night they sang again—Gile has fallen asleep before they finished. And now it seemed to him that the song to which he was falling asleep, is still sounding; that's why the sky is clearing up and the pale moon is roaming in mists.

He took his garments off and entered the water. It was warm indeed. His morning rigor has vanished without a trace. He thought about waking Aimenel but then changed his mind. The Elf was sleeping sweetly as a child, with his arm stretched out, and yesterday he was splashing and diving merrily as a child. In no way Gili could comprehend what it was and how it happened: the Elves, so wise and immortal, are indeed like grown-up children. They see the world in such a way as if they don't expect anything bad from it, and sometimes, when you listen to them, singing something to themselves ot laughing suddenly at their inner thoughts, they look like pure infants. Finrod at times behaves with his subjects as a herdboy among the same boys; and they return such behaviour. Looking at it, can anyone believe that at his wish Finrod can be a mighty and great king, wise like a god from the sunset land, fair like sun and frightening like flame? But he is sleeping now—and in his sleep he is pretty like a girl, and he is smiling slightly at something… And should Gili not remember what eorn Beren and Aimenel had told, should he not know the story of the ice journey of the Noldor and the songs of the Glorious Battle, he would never say about this Elf at a friendly talk that he is one of the greatest warriors in Beleriand.

Gili walked out to the shore, got dressed and noticed that Beren is also looking at sleeping Finrod. Then he turned around and glanced southwards, to where the dark forest of Doriath could be seen. And such anguish was in this look that Gili's heart shrank. Lord Beren has lost almost all his friends, relatives, but there was no such anguish in his glance even when he spoke of them or looked at the north, at the mountain chain that surrounded his country like a wall.

'Master,' called the boy softly. Beren recovered from his painful vision but he interpreted the call in his own way.

'Sit down,' he said, pointing at the grass at his side. 'Here.'

In his hand there was a piece of meat, wrapped in a burdock leaf. Gili took it and began to eat.

'Some guards we are,' said Beren quietly. 'One is drowsing, another is staring to the north and not the south…'

'Why didn't you wake me up, lord?'

'I didn't want to. There is no danger for us here, Rusco—we're near the borders of Doriath. Yesterday two of their marchwardens came to us. Aeglos spoke to them. I wish I've noticed them first!'

'You… You have someone there, don't you?'

'My second half. Funny, Rusco, the whole troop knows that, save you. Lúthien Tinúviel, the daughter of King Thingol. She will be your mistress if we live… How do you think, will we live?'

'Up to what?'

'To the fall of Angband. And we do—how old will I be? And should I marry only to die on my wife's hands? You're a simple fellow, Rusco, and your opinions are sound. Tell me, which in your eyes is the price of the victory over Morgoth?'

Gili considered it intensely for some time. At last he decided to say honestly:

'I don't know, lord. I've never thought about it in that way. We gave bread to Elves and Dwarves, and they protected us from Orcs. As far as I remember myself, as did my father and grandfather—it have been. I knew that the Enemy exists, but I could never imagine that I would stand against him. And I can't imagine it now. But I will go where you will go. Or where you will bid me go. If Morgoth is your enemy, then he is mine also. If Lady Lúthien becomes your wife, she will be my lady, too, and I will honour her. And what you will give to defeat the Enemy, that I will give.'

Beren was surprised. Gili had never spoke such long speeches in his presence before.

'All right,' he said. 'You may not understand completely what you have just said, but it doesn't matter. Wake the Elves up.'

* * *

Beren entered Nan-Dungortheb not without fear. Of course, it was absolutely different than the last time—he rode with a considerable troop, armed and clad in mail, but he was kept by foreboding.

The next day it has come true.

The downpour washed away all dirt and filled the hollows with clear rainwater. Horses drank their fill, but Men and Elves, however, used water that they have taken from Mindeb. The troop was guided by Lauraldo and Aeglos, who had been in those places before. Without them they would have been wandering long among the numerous rusty-red rocks, rising to the skies like frozen tongues of flame. There were rocks like staircases, like rivers, or like combs, or sharp-clawed paws. Valleys were covered with trees and grass but foxy basalt was ruling over the green. It grew there not because it has to grow, but because stone was not bothered by those poor attempts of life to seize upon its majesty.

The yesterday storm has crushed those trees and bushes and wrenched them out of their pebble beds. The troop was working their road through them, sometimes with swords and axes, so they moved slowly and in complete silence. The weather was hot: the stone was heating from the very morning and hot, dead air filled the valleys. In the evening the travelers have fallen asleep before sunset, and by the morning each felt himself worn out. Lauraldo said that by noon the road should lead them to the watering hole—a large stone cup that had to be full of fresh water. There they were going to eat and to rest, and to wait through the hottest hours.

And by that watering hole they've come across the "black ones". They couldn't miss them—they were also going to the pond.

'S-salamander,' said Wilwarin under his breath.

'Fishing duck,' added Aimenel.

They were about thirty; only two riders, all the rest were Orcs unmounted. So the Elves did not retreat, though they could have gone away on their horses. But they prepared to fight.

Aimenel and Rusco were left with the horses, others stood on the shore and under cover of the boulders began firing at their opponents across the lake. The enemies returned only a few shots, having made sure that the Elves had better bows and archers, and rushed to the attack through the water which was only knee-deep in the deepest place.

But before they could reach the shore, one of the Men dashed away, clearly with the agreement of the other who was at the head of the attack. Finrod flapped Beren on the shoulder, the Man perceived everything, ran back to the horses and pulled out of Rusco's hand the rein of Mithrinor.

He caught up with the hostile rider very soon—there was no place to run away, since the valley was blocked by two walls of rock, the enemy's horse was not as fast as Mithrinor, and it was weary. Beren wasn't going to kill him, only if it came to the pinch. He planned to unhorse him, to stun him and to tie him up—that was most certainly a scout and he might know something. But the rider, seeing that there's no escape, turned his horse and rode on Beren with a spear ready.

Without slowing the speed, the highlander released the bridle, pressed his legs to the horse's sides and raised his shield with his right hand, putting the left one on his sword's handle. He didn't have a spear, but his plan proved right: Beren stood the blow and the opponent's spear was broken. The black one did not count on a meeting with a left-handler and didn't expect an attack from under the shield. After a blow in the teeth with the handle of the sword he fell from the saddle. Beren jumped down after him. From the blow the dark rider's helm has fallen. Beren saw his face, not covered by cheek and nose plates, and cursed: it was a girl.

He had never killed women before.

'Well,' he said, 'I wasn't going to kill you anyway.'

'You won't get me!' She snatched her sword out of the scabbard and attacked boldly. She was trying to get into close combat, knowing that she wouldn't stand a long and exhausting fight; but that was what Beren was imposing to her. She fought very well but the lack of weight and strength can be compensated only with experience, and that she had not.

But she had courage and Beren underestimated the measure of that courage.

When she was worn out and the sword was kicked out of her hand, she cried:

'Tano!'—and threw herself at the highlander's blade. He managed to turn his weapon upward somehow and the sword pierced her chest not where heart was, but below the shoulder.

'Tano,' she whispered again and fell on Beren's hands. She took a dagger out of the top of her boot, but had no strength to stab her enemy at the side and dropped it. Beren picked up the dagger, cut the straps of her mail and tore her clothes. He plugged the wound with her own shirt, tied it up with his belt and lifted the girl with him on the saddle.

She had almost no weight in her and was flaxen-haired and plain, but to Beren every woman now resembled Lúthien. He didn't want this little fool to die and hurried Mithrinor as fast as he could. The girl's wound wasn't fatal in itself, she could only bleed to death. Beren hoped that the Elves will be able to stop the blood permanently.

They tried as best as they could.

They wanted to capture the second one alive as well, but failed. Calmegil was fighting with him and the black one seemed to be gaining upper hand. Thus it seemed from the outside. And no one could come to his aid—there were two Orcs for each Elf. Aimenel couldn't control himself, he was afraid and with a shout 'Atarinyo!' he shot an arrow at the black one, though he had been strictly forbidden to interfere in the combat.

There were no losses—only Wilwarin had two ribs broken by a spear. Now he was sitting on a stone, wincing, and Lauraldo was untying his armor on him. Edrahil was wounded, too: his thigh has been gashed.

'My leg will live till tomorrow,' said he, noticing Nendil's glance. 'Better help her.'

'Are you sure?' asked the bard. He has already taken off his gauntlets and rolled up his sleeves, ready to occupy himself with the wound.

'We should try,' said Finrod, bending over the girl. 'We may succeed this time.'

'What do you mean "you may?"' Beren was angry. 'The wound is not fatal! Cast a spell to stop bleeding, you can do that!'

'We can,' said Finrod, helping to take away the bandage that has been put in haste. 'But I fear that this skill will not help us.'

'Why won't it?!' raged Beren. Finrod cast at him such a glance that the highlander lost any wish to argue. He was holding the captive's head while Finrod took her hands, trying to calm down the pain, and Nendil laid his hands over the wound. He and the King started to chant a spell:

An nardh omin, iest tul thenin.

 An nardh odad, i luth kuinad.

 An nardh neled, anim erthad.

 An nardh ganad, i luth gwedhad.

 An nardh leben, i luth bennan.

 An nardh eneg, i'…l veleg.

 An nardh odog, o nordh ar linnod.

 An nardh doloth, i elenath.

 An nardh neder, ha gwero, Gwir!

Their faces were strained and concentrated, eyes seemed fixed on the world unearthly, and voices monotoned three of four tunes in a drowsy and hypnotizing rhythm. Suddenly the girl screamed and writhed; Finrod's face got distorted and the sweat stood out on his forehead. It was painful for her and for him, too, but he raised his voice, overcoming the pain; and soon the girl calmed down, her look obtained sense, and blood stopped trickling from under Nendil's fingers. Beren decided that the business is almost done, but then she screamed again:

'Tano!'—and added: 'Kori'm o anti-ete!'

And she faded like a burning chip in the wind—there she was and then went away. A moment ago her eyes were alive and thin lips were pink, now a corpse lay on the sand.

Beren put her head down, stood up and took a few steps back. Men—and once an Elf—died many times on his hands but that happened the first time. He could have sworn the most terrible oath that her wound was not fatal; the blood be stopped—and the girl would live a hundred years… And there she lay dead, and he stood rooted to the ground and stared at her.

'As always,' whispered Nendil, releasing the body. 'As always…'

'I haven't killed women before,' for some purpose said Beren. 'Never…'

How old was she? Eighteen, twenty, twenty-five? One couldn't tell by her face. Her ash-grey hair now were brighter than face, and eyes, looking at Beren, cried: "Woman killer!" Nendil passed his hand over her face and closed her eyes.

'It wasn't you who did this,' he said. 'Morgoth did. We can't cure those who are captured wounded. Life seems to slip away from them and our touch for them is torment. They simply say "My heart is on your palm"… And he grips the palm…'

'Bastard,' whispered Beren.

They buried the Men nearby, at the hollow, the Orcs were just put in a heap. Only Men had horses—them they took. Beren and Gili went to the place where he was fighting a woman warrior, to take back what he had left there. The girl's helmet should fit Gili, Beren thought. Besides the helmet, he took one more thing: a small flat purse the girl has carried on her breast.

That day they haven't gone far because of the wounds of Edrahil and Wilwarin. They made an overnight stop far before darkness fell, searched the territory to make sure that there were no spider holes. Fire they didn't make—it was dangerous and the night promised to be warm; besides, they had enough of yesterday's meat. Beren began to fit the helmet exactly to his squire's head, Aeglos, Nendil and Finrod started to treat the wounded. Edrahil's wound was simply stitched, and Wilwarin's ribs had to be knitted by spells. Beren knew that the Elves use this skill very seldom, for it takes a lot of strength both from the healer and the patient. And that proved right: when they finished, Wilwarin was all in sweat. He ate reluctantly, almost forcing himself, and fell asleep at once, having wrapped himself in a cloak. Nendil, weary from his curing spells, followed his example.

'What does "atarinyo" mean?' asked Gili.

'Father,' answered Beren, pulling the next strap. He was in a depressed mood.

'And why is the King so pale?'

'While Wilwarin was being treated, he took his pain upon himself.'

'You err.' It turned out that Aimenel heard their conversation. 'That is a common belief but it is wrong. The pain cannot be taken upon oneself.'

'And what then?' asked Gili. 'I saw that the King was not feeling well.'

'He felt Wilwarin's pain, yes,' nodded Aimenel. 'When the bones are knitted, that is very painful. He felt it and cast a spell upon himself, and it passed to Wilwarin, do you see?'

Gili did not.

'It's useless to simply take someone's pain,' Aimenel clearly lacked of the human words. 'You do not wound yourself, if your friend is wounded, do you? This is the same thing. Pain in itself means nothing. It signifies that integrity is broken. By the means of osanwë a healer can feel the other's pain as his own to diagnose an illness. But it's not treatment. He has to restore the integrity, to make bones, flesh, skin as they had been before. Body can heal itself, it needs only time. And when there's no time, then the spells are used. But seldom, very seldom. Nature does not like being hurried up, faster, faster. Usually there is a small pain and you endure it—for a week, a month… And here is done in a hour what is usually done in a month. All pain at once. That's why the one who will calm the pain is needed. Otherwise you can die.'

'And how can the pain be calmed down?' Rusco continued to wonder.

'If one has a strong mind in a strong body, like the King, then he fills the patient with himself. That is also osanwë. Who treats the pain is hale and who is treated, feels hale also. Do you see? No? Wilwarin has let the King enter his mind and felt his body as the King's body. As a hale one. As is he had left himself. As if the King covered his mind with a shield from his body. That's a high art, few can do it. I can't, father can't, Wilwarin can't by his own. Aeglos will be able if he learns as much as he had already learnt.'

'Aimenel,' said Beren. 'And what about Nendil? Did I get it right that he also entered Wilwarin's mind, felt his body and treated it as his own?'

'You got it,' smiled Aimenel. 'Yes, they do it. He shared the pain, too. A healer can't be relieved of it by anyone; to cast a spell he must feel. But the pain does not become abated when it is shared. As noise does not become reduced when it is heard by many.'

'And the girl?' Beren asked softly.

'Oh, that is very bad,' Aimenel sighed ruefully. 'She is marred, she does not have much of what she has to have. This is Morgoth. The bards know, they've tried to treat them. They do not have avanirë at all. They are always opened to him…' the last word was said by a half-whisper. 'That's why they are so difficult to heal. The bards every time have to get in touch with him…'

Beren felt a cold emptiness in the stomach. That was what he had been asking of Nendil and Finrod… What they had agreed to do without a hitch…

'It's not as terrible as you think,' Aeglos cut in. 'We do not get in touch with Morgoth himself, only with his power.'

'It's not too pleasant anyway, is it?'

'It is frightening. If you had a second sight, you would have seen it as a hole. It's like a black opening in the person's mind; there is nothing inside it but he can appear there in any moment. That's a back entrance for him that he keeps open all the time.'

Beren felt tingles down his spine.

'We tried often to close it,' Aeglos continued. 'But we could never do that. And for them it is a terrible pain. That is in where the stories of cruel Elves who torment their prisoners, originate. What is worse, that we can't calm this pain—osanwë with an Elf is painful for them as it is. This is only a moment. If only one of them made a step forward, he would have overcome the pain. But they always have a back door. They call—and their fëa slips away through that black hole. To nothing. We never resigned a try to cure a marred man but none of them had any success.'

'And… it can't be done?' asked Beren.

'The only thing is needed—free will. That none of them had ever had.'

Edrahil began to look through the trophies while it was still day, the King joined him, soon all, who did not sleep, gathered around. Some time later they called for Beren—he has just finished fitting the helmet for Rusco. The girl's helmet fit him right and was much better than the leather one that Hurin had found for him.

'You must have seen it before,' Edrahil showed to Beren the purse that have been taken from the girl, then opened it. Inside was a book in leather cover. Small one, each page of the size of a palm. It suited to be carried in the top of the boots, in the belt. A thick one: the letters were large, even a semiliterate could read. It was written by Cirth runes, and the second one that Finrod was holding in his hands—with Rumil's letters. No pictures, no flourishes—the writer's skill was not in decorating but in saving the expensive paper.

Beren compared it with the first page of the other book and he made sure that both books began in the same way: "There was Eru, the One, that in Arda is called Illuvatar…"

At the edges the letters were fuzzy and blurry.

'Soldiers of Morgoth carry "Ainulindalë" with them… Strange.'

'Read further,' Edrahil advised. 'Very interesting.'

Beren began to read, every now and then glancing over Finrod's shoulder to compare the texts. The quentas, written by Cirth and Tengwar, indeed repeated each other with exceptional accuracy and were written in the same language—good Sindarin.

On the first page there was a passage from "Ainulindale", without any distortions. Beren consulted the Eldar—yes, said Finrod, the text is translated into Sindarin most accurately as the translation allows, and is not distorted anywhere. The Melkor ingolmor must have been using the Rumil's book that they had captured somewhere. But next…

'It is never written in such a way!' exclaimed Aeglos, expressing everyone's thoughts.

Yes, it had never been written, no one had ever composed words in such a manner. They does not write in such a manner, they think, they feel—and who reads these lines or listens to them, becomes at once inspired with this thought and these feelings, as if he had experienced them himself. That was stronger than the skill of Elven-singers, for visions, weaved by them, are experienced from outside or looking at yourself, and here the reader was beginning to feel as one of the Valar…

As Melkor.

Beren slammed the book loudly and gave it to Edrahil so quickly as if it was burning his fingers.

'It's sorcery,' he said. 'It… It can't be allowed to fall in our hands. This book must be burned…'

'It's no sorcery,' Finrod shook his head. 'Those books have nothing magical in them. Those are not even very good verses.'

'Verses?' Beren was astonished.

'Are they not? I've heard some of the human stories—they sound like this. People do not speak in such a way.'

'We think in such a way, Nom!' To make his words more clear, Beren knocked himself on the forehead. 'Have you forgotten? We feel in such a way! Our thoughts look like this, as if someone pulled them out of our heads and wrote them down, while they are still fresh. And this is the other way round—Morgoth's thoughts are taken and put right into your head!

The Elves exchanged looks.

'Do you really think like this?' asked Edrahil, surprised. 'So… disconnectedly?'

'And I suppose you think as from the book?'

'There are two kinds of thinking—with images or with words. We choose the one which we consider more convenient,' Aeglos explained. 'But thinking with words is different from thinking with images. What is the point? These ways are good because they differ from each other. And here everything is written as if someone tried to state the image thinking with words. Why?'

'Because,' murmured Beren through clenched teeth. 'Look at me, Snowstorm—I've always been the Morgoth's bitterest foe! I can't even think of reconciliation with him! He had taken everything from me, turned my life into walking on the dead bodies, and what now? I've read two pages, and I'm ready to get into Morgoth's skin! That is sorcery, Eldar, it can't be called otherwise. If you do not perceive it, then it's not yours, Elven-sorcery, it wasn't intended for you.'

'Then it's a weapon,' Finrod said softly, leafing through the book. 'No less deadly and terrible than a sword or a crossbow. And it has been created by Men against Men.'

'I know who those were,' Beren hit his palm with his fist. 'Dark preachers. And they were going south—to spy for Morgoth and to spread his contagion.'

'We've guessed,' said Edrahil. 'We had already come across them. They always travel in pairs—a man and a woman. And we had seen such books before.'

'They're going to poison the whole South,' Beren concluded. 'Gods earthly and heaven, they are really going to attack! A year before Bragollach such had become to appear among us…'

'We've seen them, too,' Edrahil mused. 'But they had no success.'

'Hm!' Lauraldo raised his brows. 'I haven't heard anything about it.'

'The sons of Fëanor are a scarecrow for them,' explained Lossar. 'They have never crossed the March of Maedhros. But they would come to Hithlum and Nargothrond very often. At times, when King Finrod had the mood to listen to them, there would be a curious performance…'

'Well, not as curious as they wanted it to be,' Finrod smiled. 'They have left their idea rather soon. Must have decided that Elves are incorrigible and turned their attention to Men.'

'Listen!' cried Aimenel, looking over Calmegil's shoulder into the book. 'It turns out that Light is not hostile to Dark, some Un-Dark is! And to Light some Un-Light is hostile!'

'Oh indeed…' Aeglos sighed. 'Then, I suppose, water is not hostile to fire, some un-water is hostile to it. But why then fire can't burn where water is…'

'And to head butt is not hostile,' grumbled Beren. 'Some un-head is.'

He wanted to seem rude for some reason, to oppose a rude mockery to the elegant, delicate beauty of the style.

'Eldar,' he said. 'This contagion is worse than plague. Let's burn it before we reached the Men's settlements. Should it fall into the hands of one who can read, it would not be possible to stop it. People like to prattle and talks about kind Morgoth would spread like fire.'

'Why be so hasty?' Lauraldo objected. 'Not every human settlement has a loremaster in it. I see this book for the first time though I've heard a few things about it. I'm curious.'

'All right. Satisfy your curiosity and then destroy this writing! It can't be allowed to spread among Men. Trust me, Eldar, I know what I'm speaking of!'

'Beren,' said Finrod. 'Do you believe in what is written here?'

'In what? That Morgoth was a true Creator and Eru was a tyrant? That Morgoth's servants were innocent children and they had been disposed of so cruelly? That their Teacher wishes only good and the bad Noldor scoundrels are willing to hang themselves just to spite him? No, I don't.'

'Then why does that book fear you? Why do you deem others to trust it?'

'Because people are fools and have a taste to trust nice fables. And this fable is very nice, and it plays very well in the tune of people's current wishes: to stay aside from your war. "It's no concern of mine". Or even with good conscience to join the one who deems himself a winner!'

'Do you really think so ill about Men?' Calmegil asked, amazed.

'I know their worth. Each would take up arms against Morgoth only when his own garden is trampled down, not before. We had already heard those songs before Dagor Bragollach: why you, Men, should interfere in the war between Orcs and Elves; they are kin to each other, so let them fight between themselves, and we'd better care of our own houses. Lords got their lands from Elves, and conens—from lords, and bonds—from conens; so let them wage war; it's not the business of ours… Besides, Morgoth is not so bad as Elves spoke of him to be, the eyes of fear see danger everywhere. He by himself will help us to fight off those Orcs that Elves did not kill…

'But even before the war had begun, you did not trust those tales?' Finrod was not asking, he was rather specifying.

'I did not.'

'And why?'

'What do you mean "why"?' Beren couldn't even find an answer at once. 'Eldar, why are you asking, you know yourselves! Or were it you who had taken my house from me? Were it Elves who had slain Bregolas, his sons and my father? Were it you who had been tormenting our earth and our people for ten years? Or were it your arrows, swords and whips that had left scars on my skin? Why do I trust you and not them? Because they're murderers, robbers and liars, because their arms are covered with blood up to the elbows, their mouths are full of slander and their bellies—of human flesh!'

'But that you learnt only when the war had started. And before—what reasons did you have for not trusting the tale of Morgoth the kind?'

'Aran, you know. Our legends tell that he had been a human killer from the beginning. Why should we trust him now?'

'But they speak the same of us and the Valar,' Edrahil objected. 'How do you think, if Dagor Aglareb ended with the fall of Angband, would we have allowed the Orcs preserve their way of life, would we have not made them change under the treat of death or exile, would we have not established our power there—with a hand of steel? Would we have not driven the peoples of the North away from their familiar spots, have not destroyed Angband, have not slain chieftains and warriors? What would you have done when entering Angband as a winner?'

'I would have exterminated everyone who makes water upright, but that's another case!' Beren got angry. 'I would have left alone women and children. We all had to kill by necessity but none of us would have done evil only for pleasure!'

'Here it is,' said Edrahil, tapping his finger on the book. 'The evidence that those who we deem the pillars of truth in this world had done disgraceful and senseless massacre only for pleasure. Why do you think this evidence to be false? What we—or they—have said, you can take only on trust. Why do you prefer to trust us? Or I'd rather say: if you had not seen any evil from them, would you trust this writing?'

'No,' Beren shook his head. 'No… Aran!' Feeling the ground slipping away from under his feet, he cried, like a drowning man cries from the swamp to the one who is standing on the firm soil. 'Tell me, what do they want of me! I am on your side, my sword rises and falls by a single word of yours! Is that not enough?'

'No, Beren,' the King replied calmly. 'That is not enough. Will you go against the truth if I order you to go against it?'

'You will never do that! You had always been acting on behalf of truth!'

'How do you know?'

'You never lie!'

'How will you test my words?'

'Damn it!' Beren jumped up, rushed back, forth, and, running past amazed Rusco, climbed up to one of the stone hills. There he long sat, playing with his knife and feeling angry at the whole world.

The sun was setting. The sky was lined with long clouds, light and straight, and the sunset rays dyed them with crimson. The vault of heaven seemed to be sundered apart, showing the red inner side; of the same red were the hills and rocks of Nan-Dungortheb, bulging out of the earth that had been once split…. At that our it was very easy to believe that this place had been touched by the hand of Morgoth—the arrogance itself was striving to the skies as the pillars of granite. Beren was raging silently and biting his finger joints until the sky was dark and the stars came out.

Devotion was not enough for Finrod—the Morgoth's knights were also devoted to their master. Reckless loyalty and love were not enough for Finrod—Morgoth could also awake love. He wanted the Man to understand why the truth was on the side of the Elves.

Beren was feeling bad that evening. Worse than three nights ago. Then he doubted himself but made sure of his loyalty. Now he doubted loyalty. He sat on the rock but felt himself as if he were floating in the air without any support: falling and falling into the bottomless and endless chasm. That was worse than in that ice crack, worse than in Sarnaduin. Then his tormented flesh refused to obey him but his spirit was gathered in one point. Now it has dissipated and had nothing to cling to. When the world was pressing on Beren with terrible power, he didn't care where his middle was—he was all solid like a diamond. And now he has crumbled like sand. The thoughts were slipping away. And to hell with them! — he decided, and they have gone away. All save for one that would leave him only together with his life. The highlander turned his face to the direction where Doriath lay. Beren could not see the forest beyond the heaps of rocks but he knew it was there.

How much time will pass before I cross that border again? — he thought. And will that ever happen?

The hugeness of his task rose before him, like the mountain seems more huge and frightening as one comes closer to it. Even if next spring everything is successful and for Elves and Men Dorthonion is the same as it was for Sauron—a stronghold, a place for gathering of armies—no less then 10 years should pass before this war could be started. One way or another, that will be the last war of Noldor and the Enemy. Ten years… He will be forty or forty-one—the beginning of the old age by the human measures. He will change as much as he has changed since he was twenty.

Will he still love her?

This thought made his soul shrink in pain—he can't think so! Damn it, if he begins to doubt anything, this rock under him will crumble into dust and he will fall down like a rooster, hit with a stone.

But it seemed that an evil spirit was whispering into his ear: what had been once, could happen again. You've already been suffering and driving yourself mad, and have been ready to turn the world upside down just to destroy the order of the things that did not allow you and Andis be together. And what now? The world and the order were destroyed without your aid, Andis stopped loving you… Not for you, but for Borweg she dressed herself as a man and went with the troop of archers; her image in your mind was replaced by Tinuviel. During all the years of sorrow and separation—would there be a third woman, whose life you would destroy? Destroy inevitanbly, for it is not in your habit to renounce your own words, even should you not seal them with oath? You cannot approach those who wear dresses. You both bring misfortunes to each other…

"My friend, my King, why did you sow those doubts? I must go through them and find the truth that will remain even when wind turns these pillars to dust. I must find the stronghold in which my heart will find peace."

The moon crept to the sky—yellow, already waning. In her light the hills achieved somehow supernatural look that would give shivers to anyone. The most hideous of the spiders Beren saw in the moonlight also but then it had been even thinner, like a smirk of a vile man. During daytime spiders attacked only those who came near their dens and at night they would crawl out and walk rather far.

He should have returned to the camp. Having climbed down the hill—very carefully, backwards—Beren unsheathed his sword and went to the stand. Not to threaten someone but to feel the danger. When Orcs or other perilous things were near, Dagmor started to glow with pale blue light. But the blade remained dark all the time that he had been walking to the camp.

He didn't notice the sentries (and nice they would have looked, should he had done that) but he found Rusco and the bed that the boy has prepared—cleared the place from stones, put the dry grass over it and covered it with a cloak. He was sleeping sweetly but Beren could not sleep and tossed and turned all the time. And when at last he has fallen asleep—the moon was already high and pale—he had a bad dream: he wandered alone in the hot, stuffy ravines of Nan-Dungortheb, and the slain woman-warrior walked after him, not approaching but neither falling behind. And each time he glanced back, he saw her frail figure, pale face and a dark black hole in her forehead, indeed looking as an open wound or a third eye…

* * *

On the next day the road went near Dor-Dinen. Strange stone pillars still stood around but the real green forest already rustled below. Gili felt better when from the edge of a precipice they saw an endless carpet of green crowns. Although they didn't come across any of those spiders that Beren had been talking about, that place, Nan-Dungortheb, was an unpleasant one. There even the wind seemed dead and Gili was dripping with sweat under his chainmail and felt shirt. And here, on the edge of the waste, a cool breeze made life tolerable again.

When they were lucky to encounter the Orcs, Gili had no time to get afraid—it all ended so quickly. Aimenel was right—Orcs are bad fighters. They attacked the Elves by two or three—and fell down. One, two, three… A good swordsman was only a Man that Aimenel has shot. And Gili saw that the young squire of Finrod is upset by his act no less than Beren who has slain the girl. He heard Finrod's order to capture him alive. But Aimenel forgot about the order when he saw that the Man with the blow of his shield knocked Calmegil down to his knees. None of the Elves scolded him or reproached, but he looked more gloomy than thunder. Is it always like that when one takes the other's life for the first time?

And Gili was also shocked that only now and only from Beren he has learnt that Aimenel is Calmegil's son. How's that—they've been traveling together for such a long time, together ate and slept, and he didn't say a word. And Gili almost at once told him everything about his family, his father, mother and sisters…

'Why didn't you tell me anything?' a question burst out from him.

'But you never asked!' said Aimenel surprised. 'I would have told you!'

Gili bit his lip. It never occurred to his mind that he had to ask. It was different among the human boys: when one told something, another used to say "And my father…" — and so on.

'You were very scared?' he asked.

Aimenel's eyes flashed and Gili noticed, as if for the first time, how large and sad they were.

'Yes, Rusco. I thought—how would I be without him… Stupid. He's an excellent swordsman. It was just a trick to make… that one… lose his balance. But for a second I was frightened—what if it wasn't a trick and father had really stumbled.'

Gili wheezed, then said:

'I've never killed anyone. How is that?'

'And I've never lost anyone. How is that?'

'Horribly nasty.'

'You know… Killing is, too. How did you say? Horribly nasty….' The Elf dropped the reins for a second, raised his hand and looked at his palm. 'As if I took the matter of Being and tore a piece out of it. Now I see why nissi do not like hunting and war games… But it is different with animals. You ask kelva for his life and he gives it to you… And eruhin, he cries even when he dies silently. That's why lord Beren is agrieved, isn't it?'

'I don't know,' Gili shrugged. Since the morning he didn't try to speak to Beren without necessity—he answered shortly and angrily. 'He had never killed women before. Or maybe it's because of that book you have been reading the day before.'

Aimenel looked at Beren. He and Finrod rode ahead and were silent most of the time, only occasionally exchanging a few words with Lauraldo who was working the way.

'And to me, there's nothing so special in it,' Gili grew bolder. 'Poor you, written ones. It looks as if your head will soon split from runes.'

Aimenel smiled.

'No one is upset because of letters, Rusco. They are upset because of what the world is, not because of how it is described. If you trust that book, Rusco, then the Creator designed the world to be bad. Invariable, more than this stone block. And Melkor actually did good to it… Lord Beren is upset because that is very easy to believe.'

'And what if it's true?' asked Gili.

'The truth is often difficult to believe in. If in winter you had been told that you would join the suite of an Elven-king, would you believe it?'

'No,' Gili shook his head. 'But it is not always like that, that the truth is difficult to believe in. If I had been told that I would wear a helmet and a mail, that's one thing. And if a shirt and breeches—why wouldn't I believe it?'

'You mean that you believe common things,' Aimenel specified. 'But besides them, unusual things can also come to pass. And the creation of the world can in no case be considered a common thing. It doesn't happen every day. If the worlds were created every day and we saw it happening, then we could have been more sure of what was common and what not. But the world had been created once and we have only one example to base upon.'

Gili was listening to his interlocutor with a mixture of surprise and admiration. At one moment Aimenel was a boy, and at another he spoke of such things that only maybe old men could comprehend. But from his lips even those things became clear. After all, what else did they have to do besides talking? The road was going on and on, he had only to hold the reins of his horse with one hand and the master's spear—with another.

'But it was so long ago,' he said. 'The world exists as it is and we can do nothing about it.'

'But that's the most important question! What we can do and what we have to do!' Aimenel argued. 'If the world had been designed invariable, then we don't have to do anything in it. But it is very hard for me to comprehend how that can be…'

'And for me it's easy. Sometimes you don't want to do anything, just to lie and to rest, but you always have to do something…'

'But why then did you always seek for some occupations when you had time to rest? Why did you climb the cherry tree with me, or knit a pipe of the reed, or cut out some face on the handle of a knife?'

'I was just… Bored.'

'That's it. Your nature seeks for activity and mine too. Does it mean then that we had been created for the invariable world in which all actions are needless?'

Gili shrugged. In his former life people worked not for changing the world but for not starving to death. What he didn't hesitate to tell Aimenel. But he would find new arguments even more swiftly then he parried the strikes of a scatha.

'But if we had been created for the invariable world, we wouldn't have had a necessity to get food by the way of changes.'

'Well…' Gili could not find an answer. 'I've said it just to make you understand…'

'What?'

'Well, that it is all unnecessary—how and why… My father ploughed and sow, he had sheep, pigs and geese… He just did it and never thought why he did. The world should be as it is, and who cares what we have to do? We just live and live on.'

'Tell me, how did your father plough land?' asked Aimenel suddenly. 'Did he cut forest on the plot, wait a year for the trees to wither, set fire on them and then sow grain on this clearing?'

'What you're talking about! Only maybe Orcs now act like that and the invaders. They don't care about anything, just want to sell more grain to Dwarves. We had a piece of land for winter wheat, a piece for crop and a piece for fallow. With cutting and burning the soil would be impoverished in three years and nothing would ever grow there.'

'But during the first year, on the ashes, you would gather a hundredfold harvest. And on the fourth year you could go to the other place. And your three fields, though they can feed a family for a few centuries, would never give such a harvest. Why think about the future when you can live this day? As you have said, "who cares, we just live and live on."'

Gili frowned—mostly annoyed by his own behavior. Aimenel spoke of things simple and obvious, but these simple things have never occurred to his mind before. Does this mean that he is completely dumb? It is indeed obvious that when you live on the same place and do not wander around, you can't spoil everything like an Orc. But no one had ever adjusted this simple custom with the creation of the world.

'So what?' he asked. 'What are you getting at?'

'It is unlikely that Men and Elves had been created for the invariable world.'

'Let's assume it is,' Gili agreed.

'Of this the dark preachers conclude that Men are made not by the One, Who Had Created the World. He had created only Elves and Men had been made by Another… Whom we call Morgoth. He has put the passion for change into their hearts. Thus the book that we found yesterday, claims. Thus they were going to teach the Men of Beleriand.'

'Aimenel,' Gili was suddenly afraid. 'And what if… I mean, what if it's true? You would start hating me?'

'You can't even suppose it to be true!' Aimenel said hotly. 'If He, Who arises in Might had indeed created you as changers of the world, you should deem every change to be good. But do you like that senseless destruction the Orcs indulge themselves in? And if not every change is good, then which is? Look around, at these stones—how fair and majestic they are. But tell me, do they appeal to you?'

'No,' Gili shook his head. 'They don't.'

'I can feel the dislike of this place,' Aimenel shivered a little. 'Here everything seems to shout: me, me, me. It seems that those rocks are ready to crush you simply in mockery.'

Gili would never be able to express his feelings with words so distinctly. Alas, it couldn't be helped, the Elves have more ready tongues.

'No, Rusco, we are strange to him as you are, too. The book lies at least in this—Morgoth did not create you. But if you were created by the One and at the same time He wished this world to be invariable, why both in us and in you lives the passion for changes? Why can't we get even a piece of bread for ourselves without changing anything?'

'If you're asking me, I don't know. I think that all this is nonsense.'

'I think the same. But look around—how great this world is and how wisely it is designed! Why then are we so absurd for it? Or are we not, and the world had been designed to change in our hands? Then in this the book lies also: the One wasn't going to create an invariable world. But is the world now the same as it had been designed and created by the One?'

'I wish I knew… Only you, Elves, can speak to the Gods…'

'The Valar are not the gods, Rusco, and I never spoke to them. I was born here, in Middle-Earth, and haven't seen the Blessed Realm, but even my heart tells me that the world is worse than it could have been. It had been… spoiled. Marred. As if you watch the colors on a picture fade, a fair tapestry decay. This is what we can't forgive to Morgoth. It's easy to say that the world had been designed invariable and needed changes—but the very essence of the Children of Eru opposes death and fading. If they are natural, why are they so detestable? Even to you, Men, death is disgusting, for you leave the world not in time and not by your own will… It had to be a Gift, but Morgoth had spoiled it as well.'

'Aimenel… Tell me, and if the world wasn't marred… Would my family have died from smallpox or not?'

The Elf bit his lip, thinking. Then he said:

'The writings of Rumil tell that in the Music of the Creation the theme of Men appeared after Morgoth had marred the Song in the second time. Some think that this theme is meant to overcome the marred theme of Melkor. Men are created to fight the Marring, and if not for the Marring, they would have never come to pass, the Creator would have been content with Elves. But there are others, and King Finrod is one of them: they deem that "after" does not always mean "as a result". Men have appeared after the Marring, but they had been forethought from the beginning. I know not who is right and no one does, save maybe for the One. But for some reason my heart inclines to the second interpretation. It might be because the first one gives some people the basis for praising Melkor. So, in the first case your relatives wouldn't have died, for they would have never come to the world, either come as Elves, who are not subject to any disease by nature. In the second case your kin would also have stayed alive, for their bodies wouldn't have been marred, marked by the Fall. Anyway, the change that Melkor is boasting of, have brought you only grief.'

Gili wanted to scratch his head by habit but his hand stumbled upon the helmet. To tell the truth, this thing was disturbing him considerably, though after what has happened the day before, he didn't dare to say that it's useless. But he couldn't concentrate because of it and Gili felt that the conversation went far away from its original point.

'All right,' said he. 'You've never lied to me before, so why you should do it now. You explained it so clearly and in detail. But I doubt that eorn Beren is more stupid than I am. He must know all these things better than we do…'

'Ah, that's the case. He knows it better than we do, and he is ingolemo by cast of mind. He has wisdom in him. But in some things he, like you, can rely only on words against words. Our words against their words. And where you think of one objection, he finds ten, but he it is who refutes them. What he had gone through convinces him in the truth of his own—and our—words. But this book, according to him, possesses some charm that makes you feel another thing. And lord Beren is used to trusting his feelings, he is sure that the feelings must go in harmony with mind. But when he reads that book, his mind tells him one thing and feelings—another.'

'I see,' said Gili. 'This is like when you see a pear, bite a piece and it tastes like nuts…'

Here they had to interrupt their conversation, for the road ahead was again blocked with fallen trees.

* * *

According to Lauraldo's words, they would reach Amon Himring in two days and tomorrow they should be in Himlad and meet the marchwardens of the Feanorians.

'By that time,' said Beren, 'the iron arrow-heads will bounce off my butt.'

Lauraldo laughed and shared some of his thoughts, concerning how in that case one has to meet the enemy—face to face or otherwise.

He was cheerful but not as Nendil. Nendil was cheerful because he was whole, and Lauraldo was cheerful, but cracked from inside. He was distinguished by nonchalance and emoted lightness, as was the way of many Elves who followed the sons of Feanor. So careless and derisive for show are people who carry some deep wound inside; who seek to forget themselves. Who suffer but fear compassion, and by all means try to show that they know no suffering. They throw themselves into searching for adventures and love to talk about them with laugh; but in reality they seek death. Beren himself was of that kind before he met Luthien. How Lauraldo and silent Lossar became friends—that was a riddle, but they fit each other like flame to a lantern. Lauraldo used to speak of everything and nothing with everybody, but only with Lossar he could be silent. Lossar didn't speak a word but in his presence Lauraldo wasn't oppressed by silence. He would stop mocking at the world, for he would stop fearing it.

The troop made a night stop near the shore of one of the small rivers that further on the plain flow into Esgalduin. Lauraldo, Aeglos, Lossar and Beren searched the land—are there any spider holes? — and went to the river-head to make sure that water there is fit for drinking—their water sources were running to the end.

Here it was more dangerous than on the place of their former stop. Bare stones there made everyone feel bored, and here more plants grew and not all trees had been torn out by the storm. But among bare stones, where nothing lives and grows, spiders have nothing to do either—there is no prey for them. And here, where common forest creatures began to appear, spiders could also dwell.

Nendil still wasn't feeling well after yesterday's treatment, Edrahil also looked pale from the loss of blood. Like all Elves, he could stop blood by his wish and let it trickle down only for fear of poison—Orcs had such a low custom. But they were unprepared to the fight and had no time to smear their blades with poison. Edrahil was sleeping in saddle almost all day long and in the evening he drank only herbal tincture with wine and fell asleep again as soon as his head touched the saddlebag.

Before dark Finrod offered to draw a sarat—a protection sign—around the camp. This sarat wouldn't be effective against a creature of thinking, but a wild beast or a spider would be scared away. But there was a detail—after the sign was drawn, none could leave the borders of the circle. Here the Elves started to hesitate: they were always troubled by the lack of privacy and here they all would have to use the same bushes, almost in everyone's sight. But Beren reminded of a giant spider he had once killed nearby and his vote decided the case. Finrod sacrificed a pound of flour—he poured it out around in a line. And only then he began to draw on it with the edge of his knife. That took almost all the time till dark and tired him awfully.

When it was still day, Beren was reading the captured book. He thought about many things while reading but most of all he was surprised because the book was different from what he imagined it to be. He expected it to preach the rule of force, that whose hand is heavier is right, that there's no point in pity for the weak ones who are destined to be thralls from the beginning… But the matter concerned absolutely different things. This book was emphatically evoking not anything, but the love to Morgoth. Love and… pity. That was strange—a Vala who needs pity. But that was it. A sufferer misunderstood and lone, hated by his foolish brothers ans sisters, persecuted by his ruthless Father… First Beren felt annoyed—what a ditherer! — but then… Then he began to understand…

It was sorcery. It didn't affect Beren—he saw and experienced enough to laugh over artificial suffering of this book. He could not cry over Morgoth's followers, slain in Valinor (if they had ever existed)—all his tears for such innocent victims he had cried out near the tethering post in Sarnaduin, over slain village women and children. His heart wasn't moved by the death of the messenger—he had been a witness to more terrible and foul killings. He wasn't troubled by the slander on the House of Finwë—he had learnt enough nasty things about himself to tell false from real…

…But should this book fall into his hands twelve years ago… When he was foolish and hot-headed, dreaming of feats and sacrifices… Deeming laws to be ridiculous bonds and order to be old men's tales… Oh, then this book would have come in handy! Then his heart would tremble in its tune like a board of a lute trembles in the tune of a string! He would understand with all his soul the one, who hated the Father, for he also hated his father then. Hated with all sincerity of a loving son. Finrod was right—hatred is close to love, closer than indifference. Maybe even Morgoth loves the Father in his own, twisted way. Maybe all his cruel deeds are a desperate plea—notice me, notice, mark me out with Your hatred at least! Maybe his hatred to the Children is jealousy of the elder one to the younger, helpless but beloved. Maybe his yearning to rule us is the jealous wish of the elder son to stand between the younger one and the parents, to become necessary both for him and them. It is love still. Perverted and abominable.

He closed the book when it was already dark, and put it into his boot to give it back to Edrahil tomorrow. He has reached only the middle—next will probably be the story about the flight of the Noldor, about the Melkor's view on it and about the capture of Maedhros—it must be interesting to read about what a justification to the cruel torment of prisoner the Morgoth's annalists had thought of… Interesting, but not important—one could bet that would be a revenge for those allegedly crucified on a rock… The main… The main thing is that Beren understood…

"Beren?" he felt a mental call.

"Sire!" So Finrod wasn't asleep, though he sat, leaning against the saddle with his eyes closed.

Meneldûr—he was sitting on a high rock and watching the weidh—suddenly turned his back to them. Beren remembered that he never spoke a word with Meneldûr since the night of osanwë.

"What did I do to him?"

"Do not think about it now. Tell me—what did you understand?"

"I understood that the One was right, for He had created this world. He knows better. The book constantly tries to contest his power, like a boy contests the power of his father. And the more the boy argues, the better it is seen that the father is right. He loves, and the loving one… The loving one sometimes has a right to give a good box in the ear. For at times only a blow can bring a man back to consciousness."

"Morgoth accuses Him of murders."

"He lies. I know how murderers actually feel and think. I am a murderer myself. And the One has the right to take back what he gave. Besides Him, no one could have given a life. Besides Him, no one has the right to attempt on it. My mind tells me that He is not a murderer. Should He be the murderer from the beginning of the days, He would have never hesitated to destroy us when we had fallen, and to make us anew. But His heart seems to be full of pity."

"And what if he does not have the strength to do that, as Melkor's servants claim?"

"We had passed through places that were created by Morgoth. How much strength was needed to rise those stone pillars higher than your towers on the place larger than the current realm of Nargothrond? And that was only a small part of his strength. I've seen Ered Engrin that he had raised alone and he also spent only a little bit of his strength. The strength of Morgoth alone would be enough to destroy all Men—then how much strength He, Who had created all the Valar and Morgoth with them, must have?"

"And if He had wasted himself in creating as Morgoth is now wasting himself in destruction?"

"Then Valinor and the Mountains of the Pelóri are built on sand," smiled Beren. "But for some reason the powers of other Valar are not wasted. Mountains stand, rivers flow and winds fly, and Arda is cloaked in the cover of living things. Morgoth is separated from the source of Powers—and he grows weak. So weak that Fingolfin had wounded him to blood, so weak that he can't even heal his own hands."

"But Varda and Yavanna could not heal the Trees either."

"But they had created Moon and Sun. The one and the same child can't be born twice but one can bear and bore another. Is this a lesser deed?"

Finrod was smiling without opening his eyes.

"And yet Morgoth could destroy the Trees."

"We have a proverb, King. Not an elegant one but it is right: to spoil is not to draw. Big deal, destroyed the Trees! I can chop down all trees in Nan-Elmoth—and can I grow any?"

"So Morgoth is wrong?"

"Yes. Right is the One and those who are at his side."

"Whatever they did?"

"No! Who does Morgoth's job is for Morgoth."

"And what else did you inderstand?"

"That Morgoth wants to catch a man on what is good with him, and not on what is bad. It is good. It means that there is more good in us and that it's more reliable if even Morgoth stakes on it. On the other hand—I'm upset because even good he tries to use for his profit…"

"And what else?"

"Else, Sire—that osanwë is a very good thing if it allows us to speak and to crack nuts at the same time!"

Finrod laughed soundlessly. And suddenly as if a cold wind flied above them. All three who were awake jumped up. The horses became nervous, Rusco twitched in his sleep and groaned: 'Mama!', but didn't awake.

Meneldûr stood straight, his sword slipped out of its scabbard. In the dark the blade was slightly glowing with blue, with the same light the blade of Dagmor was shining, blazing brighter and brighter. Meneldûr turned to the King—Finrod was standing a bit behind Beren—and both heard his silent question: should the alarm be given? Finrod replied with a sign: no need—and pointed at the horses, then at the sleeping Elluin. Meneldûr without sound jumped from the rock and a moment later both were near the horses that were tied to the bushes.

Beren and the King were looking around, standing back to back. Meneldûr and Elluin were calming the horses down. The darkness around the camp was not disturbed by anything, only the blades blazed brighter and brighter, lighting up a small space around them. The horses snorted and pawed the ground nervously. The sign could not be broken through from outside but could be from inside. Beren's heart sank when he heard the quiet rustle of pebbles, on which the countless legs were stepping. Before that noise he didn't know where to look but now he glanced back at the rustling of the small stones. At that place night was darker than everywhere around. The piece of shadow grew and moved, then there was a foul smell, as if all the most disgusting things of the world were brought together—and the creature appeared near the line. Its eyes—how many did it have? — were glowing with pale green, articulate legs pawed the ground. The creature could not understand with its tiny brain what kept it back.

The creature's eyes were glowing on the level of Beren's stomach; it meant that the beast was the size of a donkey. Beren could slay it alone, if only he could restrain himself from throwing up—its only smell made the nuts he has eaten for supper ask to go outside. That creature smelled of the hundred-year-old rottenness, it had more of death in it than of life…

It crawled here to the smell of people and horses, but could not find where it came from. The sign was holding it back and it was scurrying about the border, not daring to step onto it, looking through the Elves and Men and not seeing them, though any intelligent creature would see them clearly as in daytime—their blades glowed blue-white.

'Should we kill it?' asked Beren.

'No,' Finrod answered softly. 'It will soon get away by itself.'

He was right—the creature crawled over the stone aside the circle and disappeared in the dark. Soon the sentries heard it splashing through the river. Their blades' glow went out.

Meneldûr came up to Beren and shook his hand wordlessly.

'In one thing that cursed Book doesn't lie,' he said. 'It is insatiable Void itself.'

Nothing more happened—neither this night, nor the day after it. Save for the meeting with the large patrol of Elven-riders, whom they recognized from afar by the white eight-pointed stars on the shields and black and red garments. Those were Caranthir's rohirs, so Finrod introduced himself but said nothing about who Beren was. They didn't ask and seemed to know.

The troop was already in Himlad.

Chapter 9. Autumn

The harvest was rich; some said it was because of the generous spring rains in the foothills, others—because no Orc gangs caught farmers on the fields during the crop. Now not the squad of the sluggish Halmir guarded Brethil, but the fellows much more dashing. No one knew where they got money to gather and to arm such a large band—about one and a half thousand of highlanders, youths mostly. But those who had seen and spoken to the band's fellows knew that they were commanded by hardened warriors.

All of them went on horsebacks but would fight unmounted. Though "fight" was not quite proper word: all Orc gangs they would meet on their way they would simply shoot down. Their troops, thirty men each, would ride between Mindeb and Malduin, and should they notice Orcs on the stand, they would run them down and exterminate. And since one could not reach Dimbar from Anach or from the Pass of Sirion without taking one stand at least, no Orc gang had ever bothered the Haladin that summer.

Those fellows called themselves "The Brethil Dragons". Why they had decided to take the name of the monster, no one knew; the simplest explanation was that a coiled dragon—the badge of one of the largest Nogrod workshops—stamped most of their weapons.

They lived in dugouts, on the northern edge of the forest. Their commander was some Emyndil, who called himself Kinless; the right hand of his army was ruled by Randir Fin-Rowan, the left one—by Darn Din-Kregan from Himring, and the middle standard—by Brandir Fin-Rogan. In Brethil itself those men would show up seldom. Only once they were seen all four together—they've come to chief Halmir for some reason. One of the rich Haladin who took part in Halmir's council, looked long at the Kinless and his squire, a silent pock-marked boy, but didn't dare to come up to them and to try to talk.

Everything was calm this autumn. And no one was surprised when the Dragons bought beer for all their company—they weren't drinking for nothing.

* * *

In wood there's a glade near the rapid spring.

Blossom, barley, blossom!

Where fair elven maidens garland their wreaths.

Blossom, barley, blossom!

And there wild horses graze in the fields,

And the soldiers drink for the honour of King.

Blossom, barley, blossom!

The fire was hot, the song loud, and for the first time Gili, when singing together with everybody, was glad to hear his own playing and didn't feel shy because of it.

Of course, two moons were not enough to learn to play a lute; for two moons one could only learn to "row the strings"—that was the most decent expression that Beren used for describing his squire's playing. Usually Nimros would play and the master ordered Gili to sing his songs, because Nimros's voice was weak. When the chieftains would gather before this army of boys, it used to be like this: Nimros played and Gili sang. But here, among the common soldiers, Gili's playing didn't rouse any censure. Here no one's heard Maglor the Pale Lord, or even Wilwarin, and everybody liked Gili's playing.

So let us sit at the table of feast —

Excite, barley, excite!

Let lively songs fill the west and the east —

Excite, barley, excite!

I don't have eternity waiting for me,

And time should be spent in the revelry —

Excite, barley, excite!

'Rusco, your master's calling for you,' someone jabbed him in the back.

It could be a joke—and a trick to take his place by the fire, but Gili could not wave the joker away. Anyone, but not him.

A bit annoyed, he was leaving feast and song, and following him were flying the words:

Pass the glass of ale!

Pass the glass of ale!

Nimros composed this song recently but he would almost never sing it himself, though the soldiers liked it very much. But so it came out that cool, reserved Nimros was took as the heads by the simple shieldmen, and Gili wasn't. And if they wanted to sing "Barley", they would call for Gili.

The roof was low: the Dragon's houses were half-dugouts, so everyone who entered it had to bow perforce.

Beren was sitting at the hearth and drawing something on the earthen floor with the edge of his knife. Last days he has been thoughtful and hot-tempered. Gili knew why: the scouts that had been sent to the North didn't return yet. Are they back? — he thought; but he realized at once that in this case the master would have sent for Randir, Darn and Brandir first, and maybe for Nimros—to draw a map. And Gili himself wouldn't have been called at all. And if he was summoned now, and there were no others, then it is not the news from the North. Most likely, because of his anguish Beren would now tell him to saddle the horse, then he would go to the east and ride along the borders of Doriath…

'The Sire is back,' Beren said softly, raising his head, joyful sparkles dancing in his eyes.

'How do you know, lord?' Gili looked around—was there any messenger sitting on the bench, whom he didn't notice?

'I know,' answered Beren. 'We shall go to him this evening. Bring me clean garments and dress yourself in new as well.'

'Yes, lord,' Gili left the house.

A woman from the nearest house did laundry for them. Once she saw the boy by the river, messing around with the coloured shirt of thin fabric and nearly tearing it, scolded him and agreed to do laundry for them three in exchange for game. Gili was glad to be rid of this job—not because he was lazy, but because before he only had to deal with things of rough linen and simple cloth.

At the woman's house he also kept the most elegant raiment, because Beren used to put on the first thing he saw, be that an embroidered thin shirt or a rough unbleached linen; and if he wanted, he would get into thorny bushes or into a swamp in it, or would start wrestling, or playing ball—and the shirt was finished; Rusco, take a needle. So let him tear and spoil rough linen and not the thin cloth, and elegant garments would better lie in a safe keeping.

Gili put his boots on, girded himself with a scatha, took five apples for the road and went to the nearest village.

'So you want clean shirts?' asked the hostess. 'And what will your master do in the clean one? Flay a deer or run swamps after game?'

'He will go on a visit,' said Gili and thought at once: why does he have to report to a Haladin about the lord? 'It's not your business, woman.'

The woman laughed and brought their shirts, the ones they have been given in Himring, and jerkins of thin cloth that Lady Emeldir has made for them.

When he came back, he saddled the horses, and he and Beren rode to the river. On the shore they packed their clothes up, crossed the Sirion at a sort of a ford—though they had to swim about twenty fathoms, holding on to the saddles—and on the other shore they dressed themselves in clean garments.

Gili was surprised to see that the master knew where to go, though he hasn't been informed about it before. Who brought him the message? An Elf? A Man? A trained bird?

It was already growing dusky when they entered the thick young birch grove. Thin trunks were glittering with pure gold, faded grass on a clearing was cut down—but between the trees, where one couldn't swing a scythe, it stood waist-high.

'Stop,' said Beren, and having stopped himself, he unmounted. 'Hobble the horses.'

Gili carried out the order.

'What now, eorn?'

'Do what you want. What have I interrupted, your strumming? Go ahead, strum, if you still want it.'

Gili blushed: though after hesitations, but he took the lute with him. Who knows, he thought out an excuse, maybe Wilwarin would want it back.

Trying to escape Beren's glance, he took the cover off the lute, tuned it up, and pulled down his sleeve.

'Don't muffle the strings,' Beren said suddenly.

Gili tried to hide his surprise—in this skill he almost learnt to imitate the Beorings. Usually Beren would only spit of his musical labours. He could sing very well, he had a great voice; though a bit cracked, but still fair. But as for playing, he was better than Gili, but not too much. Once Gili saw, though he concealed it, how Beren tried to pull the strings for his left hand, tried to play—but for ten years when he didn't touch the instrument, his fingers forgot how to change the frets, lost their swiftness and dexterity. Beren was upset almost to tears, twice hit the board with his fist, then pulled the strings back and even tuned the lute up again, as if no one had touched it.

So the request not to muffle the strings was unusual for Beren, but Rusco did as he was asked. But now it obliged him to play more accurately.

'What should I play?'

'That one, about the barley.' Beren stretched himself on the grass and put his hands under his head.

Gili didn't reach even a half of the song, when he noticed an Elf. Or rather, the Elf let himself be noticed.

'Aimenel!' Gili cried joyfully and jumped up.

'Aiye!' cried the Elf as joyfully. 'Eorn Beren! Rusco! Meneg suilad!'

'Indeed,' Beren responded. 'See, Rusco, how quickly we were found by your yells. Even more quickly than I thought.'

'I like it when Rusco is singing,' the young Elf objected. 'Tis good that he took a lute with him. The King will ask him to sing.'

'Come on,' Rusco was confused. 'You can sing much better, why you…'

'How can you speak of worse and better, if we sing absolutely differently?' Aimenel was amazed. 'The worse and better can be only when it is the same. When two Elves sing the one and the same song, we can say worse-better. And if two Elves sing different songs, it's difficult. Your songs are different and you, when singing, seek for other things. How can you say?'

'But we can't sing as you can,' Gili tried to argue.

'Don't do as we do!' the Elf objected ardently. 'You can do otherwise. It is good.'

'Enough babbling,' Beren thrust into Gili's hand the reins of his horse. 'Come on. We are waited for, are we not?'

* * *

Magic.

Under leaves the Elven-lamps were glowing with different colours. They were not real vials that can glow for centuries with an inextinguishable light, but small balls made of something glass-like. During daytime they seemed to absorb light and at night they started to glow, if were warmed in a hand, and they could glow till the dawn, if before they lay the whole day in bright light. This secret belonged solely to the House of Finarfin. Luthien had some of these balls—a gift from Lord Angrod. Very handy, if fire could not be lit. It was a pity though, that as time went by, the balls would die and turn into cold lifeless pieces of glass.

All Elves were sitting in a half-circle under a tree, and gleams of steady golden light were illuminating their faces.

'A laita, Aran Findarato,' Beren bowed. 'Did I understand it right that you summoned me?'

'Oh yes,' agreed Finrod. 'I am glad to see you. So let us sit at the table of feast,' he smiled, pointing before him. 'Rusco, pour some wine for your master.'

Right on the grass there was a table cloth, and on it there were bread, meat, two pot-bellied travel wine-skins… Gili untied one of them and filled the cup that Aimenel held out to him, feeling the apple smell. Fresh apple wine, of this year, in sound new wine-skins, branded with an image of a small ship.

The wine from the Havens.

And the words from the song were not said without reason. The King gave to understand that they were not for first day here, and much has been seen and heard.

Suddenly Gili noticed a new face among the familiar Elves. Beren saw it, too.

'To the meeting,' he said, raising his cup. 'And I am glad to see you here. I've already begun to miss you, Eldar, can you believe it? And did Lord Gwindor decide to join us?'

The new Elf replied nothing, just raised his cup to his lips and made a sip. Beren had to follow his example.

'But still,' he put down his cup and didn't want to refuse the inquiries started. 'I would like to get an answer.'

'No, earnil Beren,' Gwindor said coldly. 'Quite the contrary, I was sent by my lord Orodreth to ask the King to come back.'

'There can be only one King in Nargothrond,' Finrod said quietly. 'And this King is Orodreth.'

'Orodreth is willing to give up the crown,' Gwindor replied as quietly. 'It is a burden for him. He had never had any love for violence, and without you the Feanorians are getting more and more insolent. Come back, King. Without you we soon shall have bad times.'

'Was it I who has renounced Nargothrond?' Finrod's eyes blazed. 'No, Nargothrond has renounced me. The city council did not wish even to hearken to one of my most faithful vassals, the man who had been fighting for our lands when we all became disheartened. If my will wasn't taken into consideration once, how can I be the king now?'

'Now all is changed. Then we thought that your decision have been caused by fey, and now…'

'And now you got rumors about Fingon and Maedhros gathering an alliance,' Finrod said bitterly. 'Now your marchwardens saw the Brethil Dragons destroy almost ten Orcs gangs in one moon. Now you know that Hadorings and Hithlum took a plan that you have refused. Now even Dwarves do not wish to stay aside. So, I tell you, now it is too late. I have not any more faith in Nargothrond. It is I who is forging this chain, and I do not wish to insert a weak section in it. If I stay alive when everything is over, I shall come back. But I shall not accept the crown from Nargothrond.'

'Why, aran?'

'My words are not gloves or stockings; they cannot be put in a belt or turned inside out. Nargothrond renounced my power and I shall not be lord in Nargothrond. You listened to the Feanorians, so may you have courage to follow them.'

'They are leading us to death.'

Finrod lowered his lashes. It was obvious that though it's painful for him, he will not change his decision.

Gwindor cast a glance at Beren. He was very, very reluctant to hold this conversation in the presence of a mortal, but Finrod, in his turn, showed with all his calm look: this man is in one boat with me, my business is his business. Beren was grateful to him for that.

'Tell me, Gwindor, did you ever think why, when I decided to build a city, so many followed me and took me as their king? Why did not they stay with Fingolfin, or go away with Maedhros, why did Sindar leave their forests and join us? Tell me—you must remember how it all had started.'

'You were loved by many,' said the Elf.

'This love did not awaken for sudden—it had existed before. But until some time none of you had spoken: come on, you shall be our king.'

'We began to speak of it when we felt your power.'

'And where was it hidden before? Think, Gwindor, and tell me.'

The Elf could not answer, or did not wish to.

'Then I shall tell you,' Finrod broke a piece of bread. 'Each of us chose the leader that was seeking the thing we believed the most desired. Maedhros—vengeance. Fingolfin—peaceful life. Cirdan—joy of distant travels. And I sought hope. Not just hope that Morgoth would be overthrown someday, but something greater. Something that we shall find together—Noldor, Sindar, Avari… Men. Dwarves. All free peoples of Middle-Earth, as many or few of us as we were.'

'Long have I been waiting for the messenger of this hope. And when he has come, Nargothrond did not accept him. Did he seem too plain to you for a hero whom the Times shall give way? Or did the thought of a marriage between a mortal man and an Elven maiden seem odd to you? Or did the thought of a Silmaril anger you? No. Resistance that you have shown was not the resistance to hatred. I know none of you who would despise mortals, yield for the Silmarils or have a great love to the sons of Feanor. In other time, should Celegorm speak such words, he would have been thrown away at once. And then you hearkened to him more than highly. Why? You were afraid, Noldor. Not of a siege or a war. You were afraid of choice. Of what great the mistake would be, should I have chosen wrong.'

'And if you have chosen wrong?'

'Then all who agreed on this by their own free will, shall drain this cup with me. And no one else. We know the price, Gwindor. It will not become lesser, be it shared between twelve, or a thousand, or a hundred thousands.'

'Then farewell, King,' Gwindor touched his hand lightly. 'Fare thee well…'

He got up, picked up his backpack and stepped over the border of the light. Only once could be heard the rustling of branches, closing behind his back. And after a few moments somewhere nearby the soft fading sound was heard—the hooves on the old cover of dry packed grasses, on fallen leaves…

'Aimenel, son, pour wine for us all,' said Calmegil after a short silence. 'After all, he has brought good tidings to us—our kin in Narogard is well.'

'Lord Beren,' said Wilwarin, smiling. 'Will your squire lend his lute to me this evening?'

'But it's yours, Lord Wilwarin!' the boy gave the lute to him.

'Gifts cannot be taken back,' Beren whispered severely, nudging Gili.

'And I am no lord,' added Wilwarin, accepting the lute. He passed his finger over the strings, and the edge of his lips lowered down discontentedly. Gili blushed—he knew that the Elven hearing is keener than human but nevertheless he was ashamed of his rough tuning. But at that moment the Elf winked at him.

He tuned the lute up to his liking and began to play. Lossar took a small flute out of the top of his boot and accompanied him. Together they sounded like the wind in the reeds over a clear spring.

Nilmo vanwa ar hecil vantala,

Haryan ha'iya-vaha'iya mi'rie:

Lo'te loctala, su're lindala,

Alassenya na' alat sinome.

Na'n hlaranye i simpa Yavio,

Telpine ilmenyelli tingala,

Na'n cenanye i fanya pantala

We i alquo ra'mar mi Fanyamar,

Ar enyalan i nyere oiale,

Nyere ya'n ena'nye i neuro,

Ar no'anya Nu'menna hlapuva,

Ar hendinyar topuvan matinen.

(My lost friend, that from home was exiled,

Faraway my delight remains yet:

Flowers blossoming, breeze that's laughing,

Here stays my great happiness.

But I hear the flute of autumn,

And the sound of sky bells ringing;

But I see the cloud in heavens,

That is spread like the wings of a white swan.

I remember the endless sorrow,

Sorrow grey that I have inherited.

And my thought to the West is flying,

I am shading my eyes with my palms.)

'Can I ask you a question?' Gili dared at last, when Wilwarin finished his song and the silence grew too oppressive.

'Yes, Rusco?'

'Why do the human songs have a concord and the Elven ones don't?'

'Our songs do not seem concordant to you?' asked Lossar.

'Speaking about Wilwarin's songs, he is not the only one who thinks so,' chuckled Lauraldo.

'No, no, that's not what I meant!' Gili felt embarrassed. 'I just… In our songs the words… they seem to pair, to fit each other with similar endings…'

'I see,' said Nendil. 'This is called rhyme, Rusco. When words call up with each other like echo, right? It is indeed absent in Quenya verses. The rules of the language do not allow it; there are not so many words in it that are similar in sounding. But in Sindarin songs there often is rhyme.'

'They rhyme endings with endings,' Lossar winced slightly. 'Diriel-miriel… Light-flight, sixteen-nineteen…'

'These are women songs,' Gili could not yet determine the Elven mood by their voices, but it seemed that Aeglos rebuked Lossar. 'Such is their structure and such are the laws according to which they are composed.'

'There is nothing to argue about,' the King slightly stretched himself. 'The rules and the structure of the verse always exist for expressing in words what is hidden deep inside a heart. One is inherent from another.'

'Inglor, but you shall not deny that a clumsy song, be it all filled with deep strivings of a heart, is not good,' Edrahil objected, and by that home, family name of the King Gili understood that the friendship between those two is older than Finrod's royal dignity. He leaned back to look at them all and at once, by some inspiration, marked out, besides Edrahil, also Meneldur, Calmegil and Elluin. What connected these five there, in the legendary land overseas? And how had it changed here, when one of them was told, "You shall be our king"?

'A clumsy song can express the deep strivings of a heart as well as a crooked mirror can reflect an image,' said Finrod. 'So the argument has no point.'

'It has,' objected Lossar. 'When composing songs, we seek for a word that suits most to the sense of what you desire to say, and not for the word that fits the rhythm and has the suitable ending.'

'This shows only that you do not understand women,' Elluin shook his head. 'Try to tell an embroideress that she must use not the colour that suits to the pattern, but the colour that can best express her, hm, inner strivings. She would do you a great favour if she does not laugh at you at once—she wishes to embroider a particular pattern, and this is her inner striving. Women love things well-ordered, repeated and rhythmic. They just do not have that contradiction you are speaking of. When they make endings call up and intertwine, this is what their hearts desire. They want you to listen to the speech and not to the words, as you listened to your mother's heartbeating in her womb, when it was the only sound you heard.'

'Noldor,' murmured Aeglos. 'Your smiths talk about versification, your men—about women's desires… It is no wonder that bards and kings have no choice but to be silent when you open your mouths.'

Beren muttered to himself:

'You shall punch and I shall kick; you take stone, I take stick.'

'Here is a rhymed human song for you!' laughed Lauraldo. 'And quite masculine. Wilwarin, leave them with their arguments; those quarrels are older than a ploughshare. Sing some more.'

'To put an end to this dispute…' Wilwarin took a chord on his lute, and Gili recognized the beginning of a highland song about a butterfly.

'I've put it into Noldorin,' the Elf said. 'Because, it is a pity, there are too few songs about my beloved gwilwileth. I had to rhyme it, for it had been rhymed initially, and, alas, Lossar, I have been rhyming the endings as a Sindarin woman, for I could not find a better way.'

He started to sing, and the charm of the old highland song seemed to acquire new colours. Gili could make out only some separate familiar words in the Noldorin melody: naur, camland, bein… Why so strange, he thought. The Elf is singing an old song, the song he heard so many times from the highlanders; but coming from Wilwarin's lips it sounded as a new one, and he could weep again, as for the first time…

'That is indeed the end,' sighed Lauraldo when the song ceased. 'But for some reason I deem that this song had been composed by a woman.'

'It had been indeed,' Beren confirmed. 'The authors of many songs are unknown, but this one was composed there, beyond the mountains, by Gwareth, Starling. A bad thing happened to her—she fell in love with a man who was cold to her, and she bought from a witch a love-potion to charm him. And the witch for a long time wanted to avenge upon her, and sold her a poison instead of a love-potion. Gwareth's beloved died before her eyes in terrible throes, calling her a murderess. She composed a song to his funeral—not the "Butterfly", another one, and after that she drowned herself.'

He bowed his head and started to sing, first softly, then, raising his head, louder and more confidently:

From the south and the west,

From the north and the east,

Four roads run forward

And meet at the well.

By the well is an apple-tree,

She has boughs of silver,

Leaves of crystal,

Fruit of gold.

From the south and the west,

From the north and the east,

Four winds have come.

They blew my apple-tree about,

They tore her leaves away,

Broke her boughs down,

Made her flowers fall.

The single flower was left,

Was left and was set.

Shed petals, grew heavy.

In the sun it basked, basked,

Until it turned into apple.

The apple fell into the well,

Who shall fetch it for me?

I sit and my tears drop,

It fell down, my golden one.

For what to the world have I come?

The day that was long has set,

The moon has risen above.

I see it—here is my apple.

But how shall I get it from there?

The sky is high, oh, too high.

No ladder I have, no rope.

To the well now I look, down,

And there is another moon,

On the water mirror lying.

And water is close—here.

Over the well I bent then.

And the moon is whispering to me:

"Come closer to me, my girl."

And closer I bent, and my braids

Trailed in the water heavy.

And the moon is still whispering, yellow:

"Closer, come closer, my dear!"

And closer I bent, and fell down

To the well's pit, cold and dark.

My braids drowned me, chained me.

Good people were sorry for me:

"She fell to the well, stupid,

When drunk she was, slow-witted."

'How much despair…' Aeglos said under his breath.

'Well, not more than in Maglor's songs', said Lauraldo. 'Here is one who perfectly can turn the movements of his soul into words. But I wish he could do it worse. After his victorious song at Aglareb he did not make a single joyful one, I believe. And when such a master has in mind to drive everyone into melancholy, he would do it without effort. Maglor alone could have cast Morgoth down, should he get into Angband and sing there one of his last ones. Bauglir would have died of sorrow. I am really glad not to have lived last years in Himring. I did not like the way our people have changed after Bragollach. There everything is sodden with despair.'

'They do not notice it,' sighed Nendil. 'As a fish does not notice water around it. But you are wrong about Bauglir. He had a chance to hear songs that were filled with even more despair.'

'Might it be from the Elven-prisoners?' Aeglos frowned.

'Nay, from his servants,' said Finrod. 'You have not seen the times when they would come to us, before Nargothrond had been yet built. It was then when I decided to found the House of the Bards—to withstand it somehow.'

'They didn't sing anything when they came to us, they only talked,' said Beren.

'Yes, the matter is with their language,' nodded Nendil. 'It sounds similar to Quenya, we can understand it, but it is… dreadful. Its melodious sounds seem to hypnotize your mind. You cannot learn it even if you understand it, for to speak it freely one has to adopt the Enemy's way of thinking.'

'How is that?' Beren wondered suspiciously.

Finrod caught his look.

'Do you remember how you said that his legends are a weapon against Men? And his language is a weapon against Elves. Young, enjoying their speech. Tasting the words and playing with their meanings. Beren, in this language "to choose" and "to accept" are the same word. "To ask" and "to teach" are also the same. "To release" and "to forgive"—the same.'

'But it's nonsense! If, say, I was captured and taken to Morgoth, and I knew their language, I would ask to release me…'

He paused with his mouth half-open. Finrod smiled.

'Go on.'

'Then by this I would have admitted my guilt, since the innocent one does not ask for forgiveness. Cunning.'

'They can understand each other excellently,' said Nendil through clenched teeth. 'But only in such a way he wants them to do it.'

Gili suddenly felt the bard's anger and surprise must have reflected on his face. Nendil undid his fist, and his voice became softer when he was addressing Rusco:

'Our forefathers called themselves Quendi, "those who speak", when they had awoken on the shores of Cuivienen and naked walked in the woods of that faraway land. Only by our skill to call things with names and to speak those names with each other we distinguished ourselves from other animal world. That, who outrages speech, outrages the mind and the soul. He can chain my hands and feet, draw me down to the very bottom of humility and plunge me into torment—I would still remain myself. But if Morgoth succeeded to put his language into me… The language that replaces and cheats all thoughts… I would have been destroyed. The Dwarves mock at our love to words and speech but if the Mirroanwi were bereaved of their skill to speak and to think with words, we would be animals.'

'Until I got acquainted with this language, I thought all stories about Elves, who served Morgoth and had been exterminated in the War of Powers, to be false,' said Finrod. 'But I have changed my mind when I examined this dialect. If Morgoth captured someone in youth and made him think with the words of this language, then those Elves had existed indeed. And they had all perished. I fear that precisely because they were not able to see difference between "choosing" and "accepting"…'

'But not how it was described in that book!' Beren exclaimed irritatedly.

'No. That was the war of powers, who once made earth open wide to create seas, who raised it and made mountains, and those who remembered it, told us, their children and grand-children, about the flame in the north and about the earth trembling. There no one could have stayed alive.' The King fell silent and after a few moments addressed Rusco:

'Sing now you, boy. Sing the songs of your motherland, I do not know much of the songs of the East.'

Gili began to sing a sad song of a maiden who has been given in marriage to the faraway lands. She dreams of turning into a bird to fly back to see her family and pleads the wind to bring her news from home.

Wilwarin and Aeglos caught the song up and led it to the end.

'How strange,' said Meneldur. 'We are so different, yet we dream of the same things.'

'Oh no,' Lauraldo rolled his eyes. 'I thought you were done with this.'

'I shall be done with this no sooner than I gain my aim, Alarco.'

Gili realized that Meneldur called Lauraldo with his mother-name. It was very hard to perceive who and how was related to whom, since almost all looked of the same age, only Aimenel looked much younger.

'So you, Meneldur, believe that a Man or an Elf is able to fly like a bird?' asked Beren.

'Oh, nay. That would have been impossible and just foolish. I believe that a Man and an Elf should fly like a Man and an Elf.'

'How can that be?' Beren raised his brow. 'Once I flied like a Man. It was not long and very painful in the end, and if not for the snowdrift below, I wouldn't have been telling you this now.'

'Waiwei discovered seven ways of flight,' said Lauraldo, laughing. 'It's a pity that none of them can be applied in practice.'

'I'm all ears.' Beren even put his bread away.

'All right,' Meneldur also gave up his food and put his fingers together. 'The first way: wind and air itself possess some elasticity; otherwise wind would not be able to fill sails. In Valinor children and grown-ups sometimes would amuse themselves with flying kites. And what if we could make a kite that would fly in the air by itself, without any rope? I succeeded in building one. But a usual kite is uncontrollable and without the rope it can fly only in small wind and only forward. I took it as a model and built a new, big one that could carry a teenager. So there is an Elf who has flied once.' He smiled.

'Not for long, either,' Lauraldo interjected. 'No, Beren, nothing had happened: the kite was being tested on a rock above the sea. In the wind its ribs have been broken, and I was drawn out of the water safely.'

'It was very fragile but it couldn't be fastened. If thicker wood were used, the kite would be too heavy to fly,' Meneldur nodded.

'I got it about the kite!' Beren raised his hands, palms turned to the debaters. 'And other ways?'

'Wood floats on water,' Meneldur continued. 'So will a bladder, filled with oil, for oil is lighter than water. And hot air is lighter than cold one. If a large bladder was filled with hot air and a basket was attached to it, you can float in the wind as on water. You will float until the air gets cold.'

'These are two ways, and I like them,' said Beren with enthusiasm. 'And the third one?'

'Have you seen a maple seed falling?' Meneldur twirled his finger. 'You can make big vanes, like it has, and if you spin them fast enough, they will go up.'

'Three ways to fly! And the fourth one?'

'In the ocean there dwell octopi who have eight legs that all grow from their head. They draw water into themselves and then push it out with force, thus moving forward. If something could draw air into it and push it out, it would be able to fly.'

'Someone would have to eat a lot of peas. No, I'm not laughing at you, go on! I've learnt four ways of flight and I'm dying to know what the fifth would be.'

'The fifth one is still only a figment of my imagination. All bodies fall down, one way or another. The wisemen say that there is some earthly traction. If there was heaven traction without the earthly one, then we would soar up to the skies, and not only we, but also everything on earth, save for trees. Some say that there's no heaven traction; some say there is, but it is too weak. And I still believe that heaven traction exists, for high and low tides are connected with how Isil roams in the sky. If some magic could be devised that made earth let me go, then Isil would draw me to it, like it draws water.'

'Well, this way is only for Elves, for Men cannot wield magic,' Beren shrugged. 'The sixth way is similar, isn't it?'

'No, it is a bit like the first one. The currents of warm air rise from the earth. If you made a kite of solid hollow wood that doesn't grow here, the kite that would look as one large wing, it would lie on these currents and raise with them.'

'That sounds better than magic. And the seventh, the last one?'

'There are substances that dilate when heated. If you solder a cauldron up and put it on fire, steam would tear the cauldron asunder and scatter the shreds around. But if you make a small hole in the cauldron, and the cauldron itself is light, then it would be thrown in direction, opposite to the current of steam. If there was a substance that would dilate even quicker than water, and dilate not wholly, but by small portions, like exhalations…'

'It's easier to grow feathers and hollow bones for you,' Lauraldo put his arms under his head and stretched on the grass.

'Do not mock, courageous rochir!' Beren defended Meneldur. 'The first, second and sixth ways seemed quite realizable to me. And which will you use when we are done with our business?'

'I don't know,' Meneldur shrugged. 'The eighth one, I think.'

'The eighth one?' asked Beren, amazed. 'And what is that?'

'Only body needs something to pull it off the earth,' said the Elf with a crystal voice. 'F…a is weightless and unbodied. When my body dies, it will rise beyond the clouds and float to the West by itself, to find peace at the Halls of Mandos.'

'This way does not appeal to me, o Noldo with the winged heart,' Beren shook his head. 'Better choose one of the first seven.'

* * *

In the morning the Elves woke first and disappeared in the golden twilight before dawn. The lute, carefully put into cover, was lying near Gili's hand, and the skin with apple wine—near Beren's. Their horses were grazing nearby, into Lhaeros's mane a small bell was plaited. Nothing more could tell that last evening and night the Elves here celebrated the meeting.

The echo of the last song still seemed to soar around in the morning fog. They didn't want to disturb it not with words, nor with clatter of horses' hooves, so they rode silently. Beren was twiddling something in his hand all the time, and only in the very end of the way Gili saw what that was—a dead, faded lamp ball.

It was cold in the morning, so they didn't want to get into water and rode almost a league downstream, where there was a ford in a waterlogged place. It was only belly-deep for the horses. Beren turned his Mithrinor forward, she leaped from the high shore, and a swarm of dirty sprays blotted his nice clean shirt. But he, as usual, paid absolutely no attention to it.

* * *

The scouts returned on the fourth day.

Beren knew of their arrival, as before he knew of Finrod's coming—by his own, secret way. Some noticed strange silver glow under the curtain at nights, and in the morning Beren would look pale and a little slack. And there began rumors that lord calls the moon to his bedroom and it tells him everything it saw when roamed the sky, and he pays it with his blood, that's why he is pale in the mornings.

This morning, when he learnt of the scouts' return, he was also pale but excited. He ordered thirty Gwair warriors to saddle horses, Gili also, and led the troop to the north-east.

They came across the scout when the sun was already high, as it can be in autumn, and became rather hot, making everybody sweat. They were all wet, but the scout felt chilly and he staggered. All were surprised at the lord's wisdom—should he not order to stir the troop up, the scout might not reach the place.

…His name was Awan, and he was of the Dregan family, the best hunters and pathfinders in Dorthonion, who walked all the mountains over and felt themselves beyond the everlasting snow border as comfortably and easily as by their own hearth. But even to him this reconnaissance cost much: his garments hung loosely, his skin was burnt and peeled off, and he could barely stand on his own feet.

One of the Dragons took him on his saddle and tied to it by his dirgol. On the way to the settlement Awan lost consciousness.

When he came to his senses and drunk some broth, Awan told the most important: that Anach is guarded by Orcs and wolves, Nahar is, too. The second of them three, Dirmad, was killed by a wolf; the third one, Sador, died in the mountains—they were going back through the Tiylir col, he grew blind from the white glint, and fell to the abyss.

When he has told all this, Awan fell asleep again and he slept two days and two nights, like a log.

On the second of these nights Gili again noticed silver glow from under the curtain.

And in the morning Beren went hunting alone.

* * *

The sun was giving autumn warmth already: its rays were hot, but air remained cool. They rode quite far away from the camp. From their first meeting Finrod didn't say a word about the Brethil Dragons, and Beren wouldn't ask him, till his patience went out.

'So, what do you think, Sire?' he said. 'How are my fellows? Do you know how many Orc gangs have we destroyed? And how many men have been lost?'

'Nine troops of different strength,' replied Finrod. 'And you have lost four men. During the summer you've made these boys into real warriors, Beren. They know how to fight and they have no fear, for they have not yet suffered a defeat. My gold was not spent for nothing; you have proved that during winter Hurin and Fingon will have time to prepare several such troops. Maedhros is glad…. That is good…'

Beren stopped, having picked up a bunch of fallen leaves with his foot, and threw them in the air.

'And that's all? No, my king, I did not expect you to be enraptured with it, but to say honestly, you now speak with such a tone, as if I at least had drunk your gold away. What happened? What have I done wrong? What has Lord Maedhros done wrong?'

'A deer,' Finrod cast a look at the undergrowth.

Beren noticed him, too—a nice broad-chested stag with branchy antlers. Both the Man and the Elf drew their bows fluently. The deer, already familiar with that movement, turned and leaped to the bushes. Two arrows darted simultaneously; the animal's convulsive jerk and a short groan showed that at least one of them found its aim. Finrod and Beren followed the blood-stained trace.

The stag was badly wounded and didn't run even a thousand of steps. On a hill among young aspen-trees he fell down and now he was dying, looking at the hunters without anger or plea, only with pain. Beren's arrow caught him in the shoulder, Finrod's—in the liver, so by hunting custom the trophy belonged to the Elf and he had to finish the animal.

Having chopped a pole, they tied the carcass to it and went to the nearest spring, carrying the deer on their shoulders.

'I know,' Beren smiled bitterly, squinting at the sun. 'You do not believe in victory by war. Well, you may think that at this time we will defend ourselves, but you don't believe that we can take Angband, do you?'

Finrod turned his head for a moment.

'Even in the years of our strength,' he said, 'after Dagor Aglareb, during the siege, we could not break the gates of Morgoth's stronghold. Maedhros believes that we can do it this time. Well, better this trust than nothing. But the defeated party will inevitably lose everything.'

They came to the spring and took the deer off the pole. The carcass was cut quickly and skillfully—both had a great deal of experience. Then they made a small fire—to fry the heart and the liver, while blood will be trickling down.

'I know what you want,' murmured Beren, rubbing his hands with grass in the spring water. 'You want a miracle.'

Finrod didn't make any objection, and Beren continued:

'You want me to come to the gates of Angband and to knock: you know, Morgoth, I want the Silmaril, and without it I can only throw myself into a river. So I challenge you to fair combat, hand-to-hand, till one of us falls. Morgoth would creep under his throne and give me the Silmaril at once. Or he would rather split his sides with laughter and thus I will get all three Stones.'

Finrod laughed, stood up and shook his wet hands off.

'Well, maybe not exactly, but you expect something like this,' Beren rose also. 'A miracle. A thing that cannot be confused with anything else. Is that right? Or am I mistaken?'

Felagund went back to the fire, sat down, stirred the coals with a small twig, turned the sticks with pieces of meat on them and took a pouch with salt out of his belt bag.

'Melkor's power,' he said, 'penetrates and destroys all Arda. This cannot be changed. Even if he were killed, even if Angband is destroyed, his power would stay in Arda until its end. And Arda can be healed only if Melkor himself is healed. Or destroyed utterly, together with his mighty spirit. For that Arda Healed shall be greater than Arda Initial, Arda Unmarred…'

'Nom, my King,' Beren sat on the grass opposite to him, 'You may be right. But then I am indeed not what you expected. I am just a man. A warrior. Not ingolemo, not istar… I might have healed someone, be I a healer. But I am not—and I would never be, if speaking of Melkor. I need the Silmaril, and I see no other way to get it besides taking the crown off Morgoth together with his head. To heal him? After what he has done to me, and my life, and my land? Let him die like a dog, and be cursed, and burn with eternal flame! But to destroy him is beyond my strength.'

Finrod replied nothing. The sun was bright, the air—clear. The last smile of summer in the face of coming autumn.

'I have seen much,' Beren said after some silence. 'I do believe in the One, and the Valar, and Doom. But not in miracles. I am sorry, King…'

'When shall you go back?' asked the Elf.

'In the end of narbeleth,' said Beren, and his heart ached, as always at the thought of returning under the Shadow.

'Through the Anach?' the King pointed at the Crissaegrim mountains with a twig.

'No. Through the Pass of Sirion.'

About half a minute they watched each other.

'How many men shall you take?'

'Nobody.'

'You shall not pass…'

'I would have not, should I take a troop with me. Alone—I will.'

'Why there?'

'I've sent the scouts… Khyrist and Boldog, they are not so simple. All passes through Crissaegrim and Ered Gorgor are guarded; in each village near there is a spy… Sauron is on alert, he is waiting. I can't go through the passes, and through the mountains… You've risen to the Lone Fang, you know how that is. When I get down, I'll have to rest for a few days, and during that time someone will find me. No, the Pass of Sirion is safer because there nobody expects any trick. And patrols there are not much denser than in the rest of Dorthonion. Gangs of vagrants, spies and other rascals are gadding back and forth… I can break through. But even if I am captured, even then I will have a chance to stay alive. Sauron, he seems to want me more alive, than dead.'

Finrod nodded.

'Sauron never kills those who can be of use to him. Beren Beoring, who is alive but who has betrayed his king and his faith would be much more useful to the conquering of Dorthonion, than the Beren dead or executed. People, faithful to you and your House, shall swear allegiance to Morgoth next to you, people, faithful to us, shall turn away from you and lose heart. And after you with other traitors bathe in the blood of Men and Elves of Hithlum, you shall have no way back… And you, in your turn, hope to trick Sauron, having pledged to him by word, and in business you shall continue to prepare rebellion. It's a mistake, Beren, grave mistake—to believe that Gorthaur can be cheated in such a way. Sauron would either obtain full allegiance from you, or get at least what he can: execute you in Cargond in public. I know that there are some things that you value more than life. But if Sauron sets on you, are you sure you would be able to keep in secret all information that you now have in your head?'

'I am,' Beren said firmly. 'Or I would feed him with rubbish up to his throat. I will tell him…' He laughed. 'Tell him that I'm heading to Angband to get a Silmaril! Tell about Luthien, and Thingol… I won't even have to pretend absolutely mad from love, since I am almost ready to leave everything and to go to Thangorodrim on foot… Ten years at least… Ten years before we can attack… I will go insane during that time.'

'Let us eat,' Finrod offered. 'Something tells me the solution is close. And when it is close, and you have no new knowledge to help you to find it, you should for a while stop thinking about it and let your thought go.'

'…Let it loose,' added Beren, taking the twig with meat from the fire. A flying gossamer glittered with blue for a second. The forest was silent and bright, the air clear and cool.

'Is there golden autumn in Valinor?' asked Beren.

'There is in the North, in Araman. I seldom visited it, and never at that time. But it is all… different there.'

'Better?'

'Different… I love this time in Beleriand, these ten days, last before withering. And today it is especially nice.'

'Good hunt.'

'Not only. It's like the last trill of your highland flute—the sound fades, but soft aspiration still lasts for some time. I wish I could stop this moment as it is now—let it last, and I want nothing more…' the Elf closed his eyes.

'Yes… If only there was a flack of ale, I would want nothing more. If Sauron indeed grabs me, there would be a lot of things I would regret… And not the least—that today we didn't have ale for such a nice deer.'

The Elf stared at him silently for some time, then laughed.

'It is amusing how at times our ways of thinking can differ, Beren. I've just thought the same but in a totally different way. It's been a long time since I have had such a good hunt and I doubt that anything of this sort is going to happen in the years next. And I thought: I wish I could tell the time "Stop! Stop now—it cannot be better and I want nothing more!" And at that very moment you said aloud that you regret the ale.'

Beren was at loss.

'But it's really a pity that I didn't bring the ale that my fellows have bought from the Haladin. Wouldn't it be nice?'

'It would—but if you had the ale, you would wish it to be wine; and be it wine, you would wish that there were more of us; you would wish your friends and my Elves to be there, and this boy, Rusco; and when you had there everyone you desired to see, you would regret that you don't have another deer. Am I wrong?'

Beren had to admit his defeat.

'Such a people we are, my lord, that we always look a gift horse in the mouth, and demand a spoon to the honey. It is seldom, very seldom that a Man is content with everything and does not desire for more, and does not envy anyone. I dare not judge if it is good or bad.'

'Like everything in Arda, I think that in the beginning it was good but it had been marred afterwards. I like in Men this unquenchable thirst for being. And I dislike that sometimes… more often that one would think… it turns into unquenchable thirst only. And this thirst consumes a Man, leaving nothing behind.'

Their meal passed in silence—both were thinking about the same, but each in his own way. Then, when he has put down the fire, washed his hands and drunk some water, Finrod asked:

'Your illness—that Luthien had healed you from—has it ever come to you again?'

'You ask if I had any fits of oblivion? No, King Nom,' Beren threw away in the bushes the last stick with the remains of meat and put his hands into cold water. 'And it would have been good if this illness could come and go by my will. Though, by Luthien's words, it had come exactly by my will… And my lady had to labour much to drive it off.'

Finrod became serious at once, and they finished their meal in silence. Then they covered the coals and tied the deer to the pole.

'A thought occurred to me,' said the Elf, when they have walked about a half way to the camp. 'Let us drop the burden and I will tell you.'

They put the deer down and sat on the ground.

'I've talked to you about the structure of the human memory. That you actually do not forget anything, just wind new turns of events on the old ones. That is what you call "for-getting".'

'Right.'

'I doubt that memory would reveal a difference between real events and visions, woven over them.'

'Yes…' Beren began to perceive the core of the idea.

'But you must act with your real memory. And when it comes to the worst, you won't be able to create a false memory on your own. I believe none of the Incarnates is able to do this for himself. I've been thinking… And I have decided that the false memory could be created but would sleep for a while. It is possible… probably. It will awoke from a word spoken, as a key opens a lock, and hide real memory beneath. For a time.'

'Sire,' said Beren, feeling a chill running down his spine, 'Are you not afraid of your own power? If you can make me forget what was, and remember what was not, then you can do it with any of the Men. And if you can, so can… he, who is mightier than you and me. It is power. Terrible power, Sire.'

'Terrible indeed,' agreed Finrod. 'But that is what I hope for: even He, Who is mightier than all, had never intruded into that sanctuary where free will reigns. The Allmighty, He could have easily torn this lock off but he desires it not. Then he desires not any other to do it as well. So the key from this lock is given to us and only us, and nothing can break the free will, if it is strong enough. Against your wish not I, nor any other can do with you what you fear so much.'

'Right,' agreed Beren, getting up and taking his end of the pole. 'If it is so bad that Sauron gets his hands on me, no risk would be too big. Even should you think out something because of what a single word makes me forget everything that had come to pass in the last year, and I could not betray it even in a delirium, that would be good already. But human memory is straw, King Nom. The key that The One has given to us we handle like a careless housewife handles a key from her husband's barn. Men will sell freedom for the promise of happiness.'

'And that is why I shall demand an oath from you, should my plan come to pass. An oath not to betray our secret, Beren. By any price.'

'And I, though I hate taking oaths, shall take it, Sire. For this—I shall.'

* * *

'Master?' asked Gili, raising his head at some noise.

'Are you not asleep?' said Beren with a displeased voice.

'No, master.' Gili was dozing, but with one eye open, so it was almost true.

'Well, maybe it's for the best. Get up.'

Gili rose from his bed. It was cold already, so everyone wore underclothes, and slept in them. His shirt and breeches were near, under his head. Beren didn't lit any fire, and at first Rusco put his shirt back to front. He found the neck from the rear, took his arms out of the sleeves and adjusted it.

'When you put your boots on, call Randir and this fellow, Awan.' Beren dove under the curtain and began to rustle with his bed.

Gili pulled the woolen stockings on, tied them under his knees, put his feet in his boots and jumped out of the house.

The moon was faint. Gili crossed the clearing and entered the dug-out that was closest to the forest. There Randir with his fellows lived.

'Hey, who're you?' a night guard called, who was sitting on the earthen roof. There were two of them, both wrapped in brown sheepskin cloaks, so Gili didn't notice them at first among the sticks on the roof, where different clothes were hung for drying.

'Rusco,' he said. 'Don't you see?'

'Yeah, it is Rusco indeed. What d'you want at night?'

'The lord summons Randir.'

One of the guards jumped down, entered the door, and Gili didn't have time to count five dozens, when Randir came out, yawning and buttoning his jerkin. The guard climbed the roof again, and Rusco went to another dugout—to call for Awan.

At last all three were at Beren's house. He has lit the hearth already, put a dipper of ale on the table and unwrapped the cloth with cold deer meat.

'If you're hungry, eat. I'm full.'

'Should I leave?' asked Gili without an order. Sometimes he would be allowed to attend at such meetings, but usually he was told to leave.

'Stay,' Beren said strictly.

There was another thing on the table, covered with cloth. When Randir and Awan had a drink of ale—no one would eat—Beren took the cloth off, revealing a strange round object.

Rusco and Randir couldn't help an amazed gasp at the sight of it. It was sort of a glowing glass ball, but larger—about a baby's head size. The hearth was reflecting in dark glass, and the shadows it cast were thin, for it was very clear. Beren took a dark ball into his palm, threw it up a bit and Gili understood by a weighty slap that the ball was heavy.

'You will tell no one about this thing. Under tortures or threat of death—you will be silent. For if it gets into Morgoth's hands, nothing in Beleriand will be able to hide from his eyes,' Actually Beren didn't think it would be so terrible, but he was keeping them in awe just in case.

Gili froze and felt chill in his stomach, when the dark ball on Beren's hand began to glow with silver.

'Come closer and watch,' he said.

They took a step forward, as if hypnotized. The glow wasn't silver any more, it showed bright day in the mountains. In the crystal depths the peaks of Ered Gorgor were flying towards them.

'When in the middle of hithui the autumn storms are over, you three must cross Ered Gorgor in the place where you, Awan, had crossed them. You will carry this thing with you. Whatever happens, you must go and take it with you. Do you recognize these places?'

Inside the ball the lake mirror was glittering with blue.

'Tarn Aeluin, lord,' said Randir.

'Tarn Aeluin,' Beren repeated. 'The western shore. Maedh and Gwaedh.' Two forest-clad hills stood above the lake. 'And the cleft between them.'

Now everything in the ball was seen as if from a man's height.

'In spring and autumn it can be easily found by weidh. Where trees close up above the cleft, you will find a stone mound.'

The mound was tall, taller than a man's height; it was all covered with moss and in some places thin sprouts of alfirin twined around it.

'Here you must hide the ball,' Beren said. 'In that mound. And then you will stay nearby till I find you.'

The glow in the ball became dim and faded.

'Nobody must know about it,' Beren reminded. 'Even our folk. If I am… not able to come, if you have no knowledge about where I am, stay in Dorthonion for all winter, and in spring, before snows melt, any of you should go back to that place and take the ball in his hands, as I did. Look into it closely and think of Lord Maedhros. Concentrate all your thoughts on him, and when he appears in the ball, speak to him. But do it only if during winter you don't hear anything about me. Or if you know truly that I am dead or captured. And never reveal the secret of the ball to anyone. If you are doomed to die, then let it die with you. Swear to me.'

'We swear,' With numb lips Gili repeated it after the other two.

'Now I tell you what tomorrow will be told to all: I am leaving. Going back under the Shadow. Prepare and do not relax your vigilance, for the hour is close. I am going to raise Dorthonion. Should I fail—it will be your duty. Now go.'

'Master…' Gili said perplexedly.

'Don't say anything. Go, farrim, and you, Rusco, go to sleep.'

Awan and Randir went out of the dugout and Beren put the faded ball in the head of his bed.

'King Finrod's gift,' he said. 'When I leave, keep it as your own eyes, Rusco.'

'But you said you'll take me with you, mardo,' Gili was ashamed to admit it but he felt relieved when he learnt that it won't be too soon.

'I changed my mind. Where I go, you won't pass with me. Besides, I will walk fast, like an Elf.'

'Fly slowly?'

'Right.'

Seeing Gili's sadness, Beren took him by the chin.

'I will allow you to see me off to the place where I leave my horse. It's good that Mithrinor wouldn't have to look for the way back by her own. It would be a pity to let such a nice mare be caught by wolves.'

During that night Gili couldn't sleep. He was tossing and turning, listening to the horses snorting behind the fence, wrapping the blanket around him. Only at the dawn he dozed off.

* * *

Leaves have already turned yellow and their edges became brittle, but they still filled the trees.

'When they fall, I will leave,' said Beren.

'A wise decision,' agreed Finrod. 'After this there will be a few warm days. The foothills of Crissaegrim are forest-covered, so you will have a shelter. There is no better bed than leaves recently fallen.'

'There is,' for some reason objected Beren. 'A good haystack. But Orcs do not stack hay…'

They sat down on the river shore. Yellow-greenish leaves would at times fall from the ash-tree and float on the water surface, like small ships. Or spinning seeds would disturb the mirror of Mindeb… The Doriath oaks rose on the opposite shore, like a cloud, hanging over the growth.

'Shall we wait for the night?' Beren asked.

'No need.'

Like then, in that summer night, the Palantir appeared from the sack.

'What should I do? Look where?' asked Beren, clutching the stone in his hands.

'Into yourself. Into the past,' Finrod put his palms on top. 'Wander the roads of your memory, dissolve in it and vanish, do not think of anything else.'

It was a joy but joy did not come easily. Some part of him remembered constantly that what he was experiencing was only bright, visible images of the memory, strained to the limit. It was painful to go through the meeting once more, already knowing about the parting forthcoming. As if he became double, Beren, on the one hand, followed his wanderings and torments, and on the other he roamed the charmed paths, regained speech at the scalding and frightening thought that Luthien would now go away; with her walked the forest clearings and escaped from the house of his imprisonment to make a declaration of his love. And on, and on… Finrod warned him that nothing must be concealed. It was probably more difficult to him to utter this condition aloud, than for Beren to agree on it. But now Beren didn't care. Oh, what a sweet poison it was… What a good fortune that he did not think of it before by himself—who knows, the weakness might have overcome him, he might have allowed the Stone to drink all his life dry…

Conversation with Celeborn, King Thingol's anger and hazel twigs over Aros, closing behind his back… Beren strained every his nerve and broke out of the vision. Warm and tickling sweat drops were running down his cheeks, his shirt was wet in armpits.

Finrod was pale, too. He tore his fingers away off the Palantir with a seeming effort.

'Lay down and rest,' Finrod rose. 'Your Song will be in the dawn. What words do you wish to hear or to say to make the charms come into operation? It must not be casual words that can be heard in every second, but also not the words that cannot be said in every minute without arousing suspicions…'

'I know,' Beren said and named a Dwarven proverb that he has heard from Melchar. Finrod did not keep back his laughter.

'All right, that will do.' And he became serious at once. 'Now rest.'

For some time Beren just lay on the dry grass, staring at the sky and watching thin gossamers, flying in the wind. Then he dozed off. But evening chill hasn't yet crawled under his cloak, when Finrod woke him up. Two early stars shone over the Elf's shoulder, as if an invisible bird with bright eyes were sitting there.

'Beren, wake up. It is time.'

The highlander jumped up and roused himself.

'Will you also drive me into magical sleep, as Tinuviel had done?'

Finrod smiled.

'The song was composed and sung, Beren. You have simply forgotten it, because you had to forget.'

'It's a pity, King. Nobody will ever hear your best song…'

'And that is good,' Finrod said sharply. 'Nobody must have heard it. It even shouldn't have been sung…'

'What now?' asked Beren. 'If gods protect me from captivity, should I walk with this the rest of my life?'

'There are a lock-word and a key-word,' said Finrod. 'The lock is in your power, but the key you should pass to someone else besides me. You may even tell it to many without explaining its meaning,' the Elf named the words of the key.

'The spell can be removed easily—you must say the lock and then somebody says the key. And you will be free. If I do not err, you shall remember this Song as just a song.'

'And under the spell?'

'I wish I could say it with confidence… I have done everything for you to remember the Song under the spell as something that had really happened to you. But will it be so or not, I fear I shall not know it until the very end.'

They've talked about many things till the dusk set. The last warm night of this year.

* * *

"Fear not. The Valar are with us, for we are right." These words still sounded in Gili's heart, though Beren have said them in the morning, and now the day was waning.

…Leaves fell in one night, as if by agreement. Once in the morning Gili went out of the house—and on the earth there were more of them than on the trees. Their golden colour was so fresh and bright that it was hard to believe in their swift dying.

Gili's heart sank—Beren set his depart on the day of the fall of the leaves.

…Now the moon would come out early and hang in the sky together with the sun. It was already waning and looked like a truckle of rich yellow cheese, or like a face of fat old woman that suffers of toothache. In short, it didn't look pleasant, not at all like when it waxed and had translucent ashen whiteness. It was floating behind the trees with the same speed with what Mithrinor and Lhaeros moved their legs; its pale light was entangling in the dark lace of the branches and seemed to be reflecting in the remaining leaves.

They haven't set out too early, Beren did not want all that should listen to him to be half asleep. All the morning he had been talking to the commanders and said his farewell word from the saddle.

'Be watchful,' he said. 'I do not know myself when I come back. Do not lose vigilance for a day, for an hour. For you cannot know who comes from the North earlier—me or Orcs. Be ready to prepare in two days and to ride where I say to. Be ready to repulse an attack, should I not come back. Hope for the Valar and summon them every day; honour King Orodreth and lord Halmir; obey your chieftains and give no quarter to anyone else.

'Do not fear death: none had escaped it and suffered it twice. Do not seek signs, do not believe rumors, ignore fortune-telling. Look only northwards.'

'Every day practice your fighting skills, compete with each other, do archery. Let no belt decay, no bowstring grow damp, no sword become rusty. Let me find you more skilled and strong than you had been when I left you.'

'Luck be with you, earn,' said Brandir, who was appointed chief.

Beren nodded to him.

'You have not looked the last upon me.'

He gave a kick to Mithrinor and jumped over the fence, without waiting for the gates to be opened.

If Gili attempted to play such a trick, his horse would have been hanging on the stakes of the fence with his belly ripped open; so he waited calmly for the fellows to take out the stakes that supported the wall, and to pull the wooden gate aside.

Nobody told him goodbye; he was to return.

Now they rode together through the sparse growth. On the right the cold steel of the Sirion glittered at times through the trees, on the left the smoky web of the branches glided on the chubby moon. Gili didn't have to make any efforts to remember the road—the Sirion would be a guiding thread for him. Beren didn't say a word to him during the whole day, though he wasn't silent but sang softly to himself almost all the time.

They stopped for the night at the place where the Sirion joined the Ornolin, a small river, flowing down the slopes of Ered Wethrin. From there the tops itselves of the Misty Mountains could be seen, blazing brightly with evening fire. But the peaks of Crissaegrim, reigning over this whole land, overshadowed their shine.

Beren and Gili stopped in a thick grove, in the shadow of old elms. It was almost the border of the guarded lands; there no fire could be lit.

Only at the halt Gili dared to start a conversation.

'Lord,' he said. 'Have you told Brandir anything about… well, about the Elven ball?'

'No,' Beren answered with his brows slightly raised, as if surprised by such a silly question. 'Brandir knows that you are scouts. He doesn't have to know more. What else do you want to ask?'

Gili tossed dry leaves with his foot.

'I thought you took me with you for some purpose, you wanted to say something. 'Cause Mithrinor, she would have found the way by herself.'

'What else did you think?'

'Well, nothing… Why me, and not Randir, not Awan?'

'Because you, Rusco, look a complete calf, no offence meant. And those who expect a dirty trick from Randir or Awan, will never expect it from such a country simpleton.'

Beren stretched himself, and then pulled his cloak closer.

'If I am alive but captured,' he said softly, 'Awan and Randir will be of small hope, for I will be guarded. And you may have a chance to get to me. And then you should sing, "Nightfall quietly crept in and changed us all." Remember this song?'

Gili nodded.

'And what happens then?'

'If nothing—you will do with the Palantir what I said. And if something happens, I will let you know.'

'And whose song is this, earn?' Rusco asked suddenly.

'Mine. I've composed it when I was only a bit older than you. About the shadow that had fallen on Valinor… Then, at war, I would remember it often. Who left the hearth the same as he had entered it? And does ore desire fire that makes it metal?'

Rusco was silent—anyway, the question wasn't appointed to him.

'Earn,' he said some time after. 'And what if I… well, if they capture me?'

'Who, Orcs?' Beren's eyes blazed from under the hood. 'Continue to play simpleton. With some luck they will beat you and go away. If I'm not mistaken in you, you are of those that are harder inside than outside.'

'And if they catch me on something… hot?'

Beren closed his eyelids, as if remembering. His memories were not easy: the lord's lips turned into thin line, wrinkles appeared from the nose wings to the lips' corners.

'First thing,' he said after a pause. 'Die. Think of yourself as of already dead. Begin today. Then there will be no fear, no desire to preserve life. For we are all doomed to die from the beginning of our lives, and the day of its coming matters not.'

'Second thing: hate. Let hatred only live in you, for its spirit is strong, and flesh is weak. Remember: the only way to avenge is to keep your secret.'

'Third: keep silence. Games with executioners are a dangerous business, they are not for you. Seal tightly your lips and soul. If you let a word come out, they will draw out all the rest. And believe none of them. Should they promise you life, reward, know that it is all lie.'

'I'm afraid to go under the Shadow,' Gili blurted out with a sigh.

Beren laughed shortly and joylessly.

'You think that I am not? And it's not only because I can be killed or captured, Rusco. The very air there seems poisoned, it bends you to the earth… There, lad, you forget about hope…'

'Earn, and maybe you'll still go with us through the mountains? You're going to the very jaws…'

'Rusco, Rusco!' Anguish sounded in the master's voice. 'Shut up, you straw head. There is no other way: I've checked all the paths there through the magic ball. Traps everywhere. The mountains are closed for me.'

'And what about us?'

'You're quite another matter. When you pass, Sauron will already know that I'm not in the mountains, and will slacken his patrols. Do not fear it, better fear to freeze in the mountains.'

Gili did fear this. Mountains charmed him and frightened him with their ice purity. Since the passage through Ered Wethrin he knew that mountains hardly tolerate strangers.

'And what if I die in the mountains?'

'Then when you fly to the abyss, try to shout the magic word to the fellows,' Beren smiled. 'No, there you won't die. You have a pure soul, Rusco, luck loves people like you. The Elves liked you not without reason. And my soul turned to you at once when I first saw you.'

Gili felt embarrassed.

'Do not blush; you're not a maiden. I wasn't going to praise you any more, not to make you too proud. Go ahead, cover with your cloak, put your nose outside and sleep. I will be on guard till the Virgin comes to the sky.'

He kept watch till the middle of the night, then he woke Rusco up, and he stood on guard till the morning—or rather until that hour when the cold became intolerable, and not cloaks, nor heaps of fallen leaves kept any warmth.

Cold urged the traveler on. Beren took his backpack that yesterday was attached to his saddle, put his sword on the other shoulder, fondled Mithrinor for the last time—gave her a handful of anariloth seeds and ruffled her mane, and then said goodbye to Rusco, as the highlanders do—joining their arms, bended in elbows.

The horror of waiting receded. Gili suddenly felt so strong and brave that he dared to ask:

'Take me with you.'

Beren shook his head.

'Do what I said. Do not deceive my hope, Rusco. Then, if we win, I will name you my younger brother.'

He has disappeared in the distance, and the sound of his steps has faded much earlier, when Rusco came to his senses after these strange words.

After some thought the boy decided that it was a joke after all.

* * *

The Elves caught up with Beren where another affluent of the Sirion blocked the way and Orcs could be expected in any moment. The highlander suspected for their presence yesterday already but feared to trust his feelings. Sometimes he would make his horse gallop to rid of the sensation of shadowing but after an hour of slow riding it would come back. The day before Rusco has been completely out of breath because of these changes. Beren thought he managed to get rid from the shadowing by the evening but in the morning it started again.

At first he thought it were Elves from the Nargothrond frontier guard but after riding far up along Ornolin, searching for a ford, he realized the marchwardens would have had nothing to do here.

The guess made cold sweat stand out on his forehead. No, he thought, it could not be so…

But nevertheless he sat down on the ground, his face to the side from where he felt someone's attention; his legs crossed, his pack put in front of him.

He didn't have to wait for long. Some movement occurred behind the trees and tall dry grass, and from there the Elves appeared, as if were woven from sun and thin air. All ten—and Finrod with them.

'Aiye,' Beren said darkly and got up. 'You shouldn't follow me, Eldar.'

'You will die without us,' said Finrod.

'You will die with me.'

Finrod shook his head.

'You will die without us,' he repeated. 'I know you had looked into the Palantir and searched for the road. You believe there is no way other than through the Pass of Sirion. You were wrong: it's not the way either. I have been gifted to foresee the future: you shall not pass without us.'

Beren swallowed the lump in his throat. His soul was tearing into two: one half was yelling triumphantly: yes, yes! The people of Dorthonion will rise, if the Lord returns together with the King! And your wanderings through the woods won't be lone. Agree, you fool, what are you waiting for? And another was objecting: no! You know that each hour, spent under the Shadow, is a torment for an Elf. You cannot, must not risk so; with your friend it is more or less acceptable, but with your King—never! He has already done for you more than you could have asked for.

'This is my war, Eldar,' he said hoarsely. 'The Elven-king cannot risk his life for the Edain.'

'Maybe the Elven-king will decide for himself what he can or cannot do?' Finrod asked icily.

Beren realized he behaved insolently but he wasn't going to apologize. Better to offend the King than to cause his death.

He had no idea why dark doubts suddenly filled his heart. Just a few moments ago, going to certain death, as Finrod said, he felt nothing and saw no signs of doom, occupying his mind only with search for a ford. And now, looking into the King's eyes and refusing to accept his help, he knew well that there is death ahead. Whatever Finrod thought about himself, there would be no escape.

'Sire,' he said softly. 'Nom, come round. It was not foresight that you had, it is fey that leads you to death.'

'Why do you care,' Finrod replied as softly, 'about how I perceive signs? Why do you care about this, Beren, if you call me your king and yourself—my vassal? I say I desire to go north; I desire to be the first of the warriors of our alliance to step on my own land that had been captured by enemy. I desire to build again with my sword those borders, defending what my brothers had died for. Such is my royal will. And what do I hear from you? Same speech as in the throne hall of Narogard. Are you renouncing me, too?'

Beren felt deathly anguish fill his heart and blood rush from his face.

'Nom,' he whispered. 'If I have to renounce you to save you, I will do it. You shall scorn me, you shall curse my name, but you shall live. You gave me life—how can I repay you with death? You gave me the thread of hope, as thin as it may be. How then can I lead you to death? No, King Nom, the Beorings know what gratitude is.'

'Do they?' Now Finrod was whispering as well. 'Then why do you refuse my hope to me? Why do you offer me what only a coward will accept—life? What are you tempting me with, hypocrite? What you scorned yourself when you have agreed on Thingol's term.'

'You know that I can't live without her.'

'And I can't live, knowing that all blades and fortresses of the world would not save my people and me from the Doom of the Noldor. Or do you deem yourself the only loving person in the world? Do you know whom we had left there, on the farthest and fairest of the shores? Whom I had left? Do you know how terrible it is to hear from the lips of the Lord of Fates the word "never"? I am indeed glad that my faithful vassal cares so much about me: with his blood I shall buy myself a few thousands of years, full of grief—till the fire of my soul consumes my flesh completely!'

He said his last phrases aloud, and some Elves laughed bitterly. Lauraldo laughed loudest: such is the laugh of a doomed one; such was the laugh of Beren himself when he stood in the throne hall of Thingol.

'So are you seeking death, Eldar?' he asked, looking at them; most closely—at young Aimenel and at Aeglos, who was a Sinda, free from the Curse of Mandos.

'Not death, Beren. Deliverance,' Edrahil answered.

'There is a rift in the armour of Fate,' Calmegil said as to himself.

'And you know where to strike?' asked the Man, not believing his ears.

'Where you will,' Nendil smiled.

'You are insane, immortal ones!'

'Ah!' Meneldur said joyfully, 'He noticed. You were right, Inglor: they are quick-minded. The moon has renewed only five times.'

Beren gave up on them; he felt a complete fool.

'I may find the damned rift in the Fate's armour,' he uttered at last. 'Though I do not know where it is. A dog finds an herb when it suffers from stomachache, though an herb master hasn't taught it. But there is a riddle more complex than all your Noldor philosophizings: where is the ford?'

The Elves exchanged looks.

'There is a horse ford upstream; if we go now, we shall reach it by noon,' said Edrahil. 'But why do you need it? Is any of us mounted?'

'I see an alder and an elm that stretch their branches to each other, as if they want to embrace,' said Lauraldo. 'And there is always a ford for me where I have a rope and two strong trees on the opposite shores.'

'If Beren needs two ropes,' said Nendil (his smile looked generous and tasted bitter as a cluster of rowan-berries), 'then I have one, too.'

'And if he needs three…' Aeglos interjected.

'I will need three when I get blind, lame and lose all my teeth!' Beren grumbled, worn out by their mocking. 'And now, if you allow me, I can manage with one!'

He didn't take a rope with him, because he couldn't make knots strong enough, enduring hard tension but becoming loose from a sudden jerk. And he didn't want to leave a rope as a trace.

Beren's words about one rope were considerable bravado: he walked tightrope quite long ago last time. But stepping from the branch on the grey rope, slightly bending under his weight, he felt relieved: his body remembered how to make this trick. The only weakness he allowed himself was keeping his balance with a spear, borrowed from Wilwarin.

He crossed the river next to last. Last was Aimenel. Looking at his slender, delicate figure as he ran between the trees—only a few moments, Beren remembered a song about a girl that went after her beloved to the land of the dead and crossed the abyss, walking the goddess's hair that was stretched between the rocks.

Aimenel took Calmegil's spear out of the elm's crotch, pulled the rope in a special way, and the goddess's hair broke, flicking the water like a silver snake.

* * *

They didn't walk a league off the ford, when the wind has changed and brought the smell of burning.

Aimenel climbed a tall maple and saw that there is fire indeed somewhere to the east. More of it, Aimenel said that this is the smoke of burning habitation.

Beren realized with surprise that everyone is waiting for his decision.

'Let's go there,' he said, having an ill foreboding.

Turning off the road meant a half-day delay but Beren didn't hurry so much to the Pass of Sirion to be sorry about this. By the evening they have reached the source of smoke.

It was the dugout of a "free hunter", who was finishing his business and going to return for winter to some hamlet. These places were dangerous already, the Elven-wardens and Brethil Dragons fought Orcs here, so only desperate heads dared to settle to the north of the river: fugitive thralls; horse thieves; murderers, hiding from the blood feud; seducers, run away with others' wives; lepers or marked with terrible curses…

Who were this man and his two women, Beren did not know. Most likely, he stole young cattle in spring when the litter is difficult to count even for experienced shepherds; at summer pastured it away from lord's and king's power, and sold it in autumn, making both ends meet by hunting, apiculture and selling of baskets, wreathed by women. Should the three get to Brethil Dragons, Beren would arrest them and inquire Halmir after them; should anyone be an infringer, he would give them away to the Haladin completely. But now they were dead, and questions about their sins were to be decided by Namo the Judge. Beren was to decide if he should avenge them or not.

His experienced eye perceived quickly what happened by the traces that the Orcs have left. The man was killed at once; ants and foxes have already worked upon his body. The women had to cook for the whole gang, and they were raped from time to time. Part of the Orcs lived there for two of three days; part was gone to the south where the battle had been. They probably planned to make a few raids, using this place as a stand, but they were defeated in the very first one. Two wounded were brought from there. One of them was burning out together with the dugout's roof—that was the most complicated funeral ceremony the fleeing Orcs were capable of. Another must have been able to get up and walk. The Orcs were not pursued or they had managed to break away. In any case, they've spent there some time, healing their wounded and taunting women. If not for their annoyance because of the defeat, both of them would have stayed alive. Maybe even free. But the Orcs wanted to vent their anger on somebody, and the women were crucified on the ground, nailed by wooden pegs, and raped to death. Then the Orcs butchered all their cattle, and what they couldn't carry away, they threw on the burning roof of the dugout.

Beren glanced at Edrahil. He shrugged.

'This is your war,' he answered the unasked question.

The highlander clenched his teeth. The chase for the Orcs would not take much time; the gang went where they were going to move themselves. But… Could it happen that in the stupid encounter someone especially… valuable… dies? Clenching teeth from the hatred to himself, he admitted that now he was doing what he always hated in others—counting the value of his life. No, there's no subject for thoughts—to take the bastards and to chop them to pieces. Besides, some of them might know something…

No matter how disgusting it was, Beren rummaged the stinking heap with a stick and examined the reeky corpse. The Orc was tall, almost as tall as Beren, if his bended back was straightened. Someone gave a nice blow to him—his ribs were slashed by some sharp and heavy blade. The Orcs stripped from their fallen comrade almost everything before throwing him into the fire. There was no weapons, or armour, or decorations. The Orcs were squeamish only about the underwear rags and leather vest, all sodden with blood. And it was this vest that provided Beren with some information.

The low ranks soldiers from Wolf Troops wore like these instead of armour. So they were not simple Orcs but Boldog's scouts. And some of them might indeed know something.

Twelve daggers dug the tomb for the men quickly. Beren gave up his summer cloak to gather the remains of a man. The Elves wrapped the women in one cloak; both were lean and not too tall. One was much older than another but they were alike: maybe sisters, maybe mother and daughter… Beren made a hasty fire on their grave, and the pursuit began. The highlander finally realized what caused his yearning, what filled his heart with lead: there were twelve of them. Like then, in his father's troop—twelve… A dog comes back to its retching, doesn't it, dady?

It was difficult for a Man to move as the Elves did, as swiftly and quietly, though he jauntily boasted this ability before Rusco. By the evening he felt absolutely exhausted, ate his piece of corned beef with his eyes closed and fell asleep like a log. But when the sky began to clear up a bit, cold made the avengers get up and continue their chase.

At first they followed Orcs step by step but then turned off the path: the Orcs were now keeping the beaten track, and that meant they lost their fear and felt safe. The Elves continued their pursuit but held aloof, ready to hide in any moment, should the Orcish troop draw near.

Beren noticed another odd thing: at least one of the Orcs was the scout of Boldog but the rest… They would defecate anywhere, like northern vagrants that did not recognize any order; they did not care at all about concealing their traces. Even the burning of the dugout wasn't like the scouts' usual actions: Boldog's orcs killed, their wolves tore victims into pieces, but they would burn only when they wanted to summon the witnesses of their bloody slaughter and make the destroyed village an example to all others. It wasn't even foolish to make this in the faraway lot—it was senseless. The only thing the murderers have achieved was vengeance on their heads.

There could be no explanation to this, because Boldog's scouts were all Uruk-Hai, the big rascals from the northern slopes of Ered Luin, and inclination to senseless slaughter and reluctance to take two steps off the road to relieve themselves was the way of Uruks, short vagrant tribe that lived in the north of Ard-galen and in Lothlann after Dagor Bragollach. Even in delirium Beren couldn't imagine Uruks and Uruk-Hai to be in one troop.

The riddle was solved by next evening, when the pursuers caught up with the murderers who have set their camp on an old site, footworn already and with a longstanding fireplace. Two thirds of the troop were indeed Uruks. Feeling safe and almost at home, they posted no guards and bickered among themselves. Their camp was near a nameless river, small and swift, that flowed into the Sirion. The Elves and Beren sat in the bushes on the opposite shore and after half an hour they already knew what has happened between the Orcs.

There were two troops: Boldog's scouts and vagrant Uruks. The first crossed Anach by order to… well, their captain Harraf had enough wits not to yell about this, though about all the rest he yelled loudest. And the troop of Uruks, commanded by some Nechmar, was just one of the scattered gangs that were driven from Dorthonion to south by Sauron, for they could not be applied to any business. They were allowed to go southwards from Emyn-na-Ton, but scorched earth couldn't feed their poor herds, and they were always fighting between each other and attacked Hithlum at random (exactly what Sauron wanted). They were also allowed to cross the Pass of Sirion freely, if they wanted to test their luck in Dimbar.

These were out of all luck when they've encountered Brethil Dragons. Part of their gang survived only because they wouldn't appear on the plain and watched from the bushes as their comrades were being destroyed. The Boldog's Orcs have suffered from the Doriath marchwardens, lost all their wolves and most of the soldiers. They've escaped to Nan-Dungortheb, and only there the Elves stopped pursuing them. They didn't dare to cross the mountains in that place but they could not go back through the Anach—the approaches were guarded by some riders (Beren counted the time—it turned out to be the day when he had sent a troop after Awan). Hiding in the woods, moving at night, the Orcs have managed to cross Dimbar and reached the lonely dugout, where they encountered the vagrants. The meeting wasn't peaceful: the vagabonds have already finished their amusement and set the house on fire (it was the smoke that the Uruk-Hai have found them by). Someone rebuked them, one word led to another, and Uruks killed one of the scouts. The rest of the way, like this stand, was unceasing brawl. The Uruk-Hai were half as numerous as the Uruks but they were much better fighters. No one dared to start a knife-fight when the forces were equal. Or maybe in these places both were already led by a will much more powerful than their own…

Already at that moment they could have killed half of the troop from their bows, but then the rest would have escaped to the woods. No, they had to act otherwise: to surround the gang quietly and only then attack.

'The captain must be taken alive,' Finrod whispered.

Beren nodded, they got out of the reeds and went noiselessly through the water. It was thigh-deep in the deepest place. The fire made a small circle of light, and only those who were sitting away from it and looking in the dark long enough could see something beyond its borders. There were no such among the Orcs: all their attention was drawn by the sheep carcass that was roasting on the coals; and all their thoughts were occupied by the task of how to divide it into equal parts.

The Elves made almost no efforts to hide themselves—Beren saw Calmegil and Wilwarin to his right and left, he saw them drawing their bows and put an arrow on his own string, taking his dagger into the mouth. Nine others vanished in the bushes without a sound, without a rustle.

Beren stayed under the steep, took his bow in an Easterling way, so that the arrow lay on the shaft, and aimed at the nearest Uruk-Hai. Big, yellow-faced, looking as a vampire in his black cloak, he was fidgeting nervously as if feeling his death tickle his shoulders. "Indeed," Beren whispered soundlessly. "Namo is my witness, it is indeed…" Cold water up to his knees, Orcs in the changing light of the fire—it all reminded him so vividly of that bygone hunt in the Fen of Serech, that his blood rushed amuck in his veins, and all muscles began to itch from strain.

'Coo-hoo!' Finrod made an owl-cry.

'What's a damned bird yelling at night?' One of the Orcs raised his head. His comrade made no reply—he fell to the fire with Beren's arrow in his side. The second arrow pierced the inquirer's undefended throat. Ten more arrows whistled, eight Orcs fell—some were hit twice. Others scattered in all directions: four Uruks and the captain of Uruk-Hai.

He was running straight on Beren, and he hit him on the legs with his bow without rising on the steep. The Orc fell to the river not in the way he was going to, but with his face down on the shallow and rocky riverbed. Beren threw the bow away and jumped on his back, giving him no chance to get up. He was pressing the Orc's head to the bottom, holding him by the hair with one hand; by another he found sort of a cord on the Orc's neck and twisted it, tightening the noose around his throat. The Orc was breaking away and writhing, but Beren was strong and heavy, and the captain after a blow against the bottom was getting weaker. Beren noticed in time his attempts to take out the knife and pressed his elbows with his knees. The Orc stopped writhing, and Beren raised his head above the water not to drown him completely. A strong jerk from backwards… Beren looked back—Meneldur tied the Orc's legs and pulled the rope.

'Stop washing him, he won't be much cleaner,' the Elf said.

They pulled the Orc to the shore by his legs. While he was coughing and spitting, they tied his hands with a strap; and when he regained breath, they gagged his mouth with the handle of his own whip and tied the whip around his neck.

All other Orcs were stripped of their garments, thrown to the nearest gully and covered by brushwood by Finrod's order. Their armour, weapons and clothes were piled up. Aimenel was busy with the dying fire. Beren sat nearby—to dry off.

'What plan do you have, Nom?' He didn't want to reveal Finrod's title and name in the Orc's presence.

'You shall see,' the King smiled. 'But we should eat first.'

The sheep carcass that fell to the fire was shook off the ashes; Lossar and Lauraldo took out large flasks—the Noldor "winter wine". The meal passed quickly and in silence. Each realized that now they are under the Enemy's shadow, and if they want to survive, they must have ears of a bat and eyes on the backs of their heads.

Even the easy victory did not bring joy. Ten years ago no one could ever imagine there Elves hiding and ambushing Orcs that wander freely. And ahead there was Tol-Sirion and the proud watchtower of Minas Tirith, once built by Finrod…

After the meal Finrod spoke of how he was going to pass through the Sauron's lands. The boldness of his plan was on border with insanity, but this insanity had valiancy that was favored by luck. Beren was surprised though, because Finrod was not giving orders, but spoke as if seeking council.

'It can work,' he said when Finrod finished his speech. 'It can work indeed, Eldar!'

But looking at the Elves, he noticed no sign of ardour.

'You… don't understand,' Aeglos said under his breath. 'It is… horror.'

'Horror? Horror will be when Thû catches hold of us! Or does your honour forbid you to disguise as an enemy?'

'Well, if this plan works, I wouldn't boast it before anyone,' Nendil chuckled darkly. 'And none of us would. But that is not the matter, Beren. An Orc… that is what each of us dreads to become. Dreads more than death.'

'But it is only a pretence!' Beren glanced at Finrod. 'Nom, is it not?'

'Not quite,' Finrod clutched his fingers till they crackled. 'Be it just a pretence, I would have simply given an order. But I can create sorcery and all others can perceive it only if each of us turns his thoughts to… to what is worst in him.'

'I don't understand,' Beren pursed his lips. 'I know it's not too pleasant. But I also had to pretend drunken and to wallow in liquid manure not to be recognized in one of the castles; and I tied tainted meat round myself to pass for a leper. But that's for business and only for a time; to escape the worst!'

'We speak of different things when we say "worst",' Aeglos frowned.

Beren felt Finrod's summon to osanw… and responded.

"I shall try to explain it to you through the thing that most of us can't even imagine and you call it a perversion. Imagine that to achieve your aim—to collect information, or to kill someone—you have to seduce another man as a bugger. No, not to commit any loathsome thing, just to pretend for some time… To look and to behave as…"

'Nom,' Beren rubbed his face. 'Enough. I understand. Eldar, I was a fool and I ask for pardon. I can only be excused because I thought that it is only changing clothes, that's all. I believe that it would be best to do as I said, Sire: turn into Orc me alone and lead others away. If even you could not demand it from your vassals, then I can't even ask.'

'Don't hurry,' Nendil raised his palm. 'None of us have yet said "no". It is just difficult to bring us…'

'Actually, we have already made a decision,' Edrahil let out a short laugh. 'At least some of us. Since we are here, it's senseless to turn back.'

'Right,' With determination Lauraldo broke a stick against his knee. 'I'm yours, Finrod. I think even your power is not enough to make a real Orc of me, and I can live through the rest.'

'No point to hesitate,' Calmegil stood up. 'Aimenel, melt some mutton grease in a pot; I shall pound charcoal. And it would be good to clean the Orc rags from the parasites a little.'

'They will taste Elvish blood and die off,' Lauraldo chuckled.

'I wouldn't count on this,' Lossar remarked, taking a jacket from the heap and shaking it out over the fire.

'And you, Beren, take care of the prisoner,' Finrod ordered. Intentionally loud, it seemed, so that the Orc could hear him.

'Will be done.' Beren stepped over the log and approached the tied up Orc. He sat beside him, broke in four parts a hard stick that was taken from the brushwood, put four pegs on the ground and began to sharpen the fifth one, the longest and thickest. At times he would cast a look at the Orc and smile, as if estimating something.

The Orc began to fidget, glancing nervously towards him.

Beren sharpened the peg from two sides, then tempered its edges in the fire. Now, if it were driven into the ground, it would stick up for about two palms. Having finished the first one, Beren took the second peg. Now the work was proceeding faster, as it had to be sharpened from one side.

The Orc made a muffled growl, biting the whip handle.

'Yes, my dear friend,' the Man said, sounding like a full cat. 'You guessed rightly. These four are for your hands and feet. And where goes the fifth, the thickest one—did you guess it, too?'

The Orc growled something. Even through the gag Beren could make out: "I had you and your mother!"

'Well, in that you're definitely wrong,' he replied calmly, taking the third peg. 'You, scum, I see the first time in my life, and that woman was not my mother. But she was the woman of my folk, and in my heart I have sworn that I will avenge for her death. That I will do with the leader of the troop the same as he did with her, with men's anatomical correction. You yelled at others so loud that it was obvious: you are the leader, so it's you who is held responsible.'

He put the third peg into the fire and then brought it, still fuming, to the Orc's muzzle.

'Look, are there any twigs? Look closely: it's gonna be stuck in your foot, not some other's!'

'Beren,' Finrod came up to him and touched his shoulder. 'Are you sure you want to act like Orcs, tormenting the prisoner?'

It was against the customs—the prisoner was captured by Beren and only he could decide his fate. But by Finrod's eyes Beren perceived that he guessed his plan and played up.

'Be there your women, Eldar,' said Beren, not moving, 'and should you want to make a soup of him, I wouldn't have said a word to you.'

The Orc watched him with eyes dilated.

'Why are you staring?' the highlander snapped. 'Heard a familiar name? Yes, it is me, Beren, son of Barahir. Do you know him? I see you do: you're distorted as from radish and pepper. Heard about Sarnaduin, too? How do you think: am I itching to settle scores with you?'

He smiled to the Orc again. The prisoner shook his head.

'You say you hadn't been there? I know you hadn't. All who had were torn by forest spirits to pieces. But were you there, stinking wretch, you would have done the same the others had. The Elves have the custom to kill your vermin swiftly and mercifully, but I have seen so much in ten years that I don't have any mercy left.'

Harraf growled again. The Man suddenly caught the echo of his rushing thoughts. If Beren bawled at him, beated him, if in the Man's eyes the Orc saw the familiar lust for blood, he would have been less scared. But now the Man reminded Harraf of him whom he feared more than death. He also did not raise voice and always smiled when giving orders about tortures and executions.

'He might know something,' Finrod "insisted". 'And you will torture him to death for nothing.'

'He can't know anything,' Beren snapped. 'That scum always carries out their orders blindly. If I strip his skin off, tan it and pull it on a drum, of beat there would be more use then of his words.'

'I still want to try to interrogate him.'

'Vain trouble,' Beren grumbled but put his pegs aside and took the gag out of the Orc's mouth, leaving the whip itself around his neck.

'If you open your jaws wider than needed, I will strangle you at once,' he warned. 'But not to death, don't hope.'

Finrod sat beside them. The Orc turned to him his face, distorted with hate.

'You, sorcerer, get away from me with your terrible eyes! Better let him torture me, he at least won't think out what you can!'

'Did you hear, Nom? He likes me better.' Beren pulled the noose around the prisoner's neck tighter, just in case. 'We can finish our talk at once.'

'Talk, and both of us will leave you alone.'

The Orc's thoughts now could be read clearly and distinctly. He didn't even have that involuntary avanir… that Men were able to. He "talked" all the time without realizing it.

Beren looked around and saw Nendil, also sitting nearby and listening.

'Do you know I can hear your thoughts?' asked Finrod. Beren closed his eyes tight for a second: why the King cannot be dishonest even with an Orc?!

'You're lying, sorcerer,' Harraf hissed. 'Only the Great One can hear thoughts, and Gorthauer!'

'Think so if you wish,' Finrod shrugged. 'Who sent you to the South and why?'

'Oh yes, like I will tell you at once,' the Orc snorted. 'You, damned highlander, bring your pegs.'

But there was fear in his thoughts, and a name glimpsed: Narogard.

'How many were you? Whom do you serve, who is your commander?' Finrod continued the interrogation.

The Orc only gritted his teeth, but his thoughts flooded again, one had only to take the names out.

'It was Boldog who ordered you to scout in the South? Not Sauron?'

'I won't tell! I won't, sorcerer!'

Boldog. Copper badge, had time to make it out… The Crown and the Stones… The order from the very top…

Boldog received the order about reconnaissance in the South over Sauron's head, from Morgoth himself. Beren felt his heart sink. Be the order given by Sauron, that would mean only the momentary war need. But Morgoth!!!

'How did you move? What did you see along the road?'

Anach… Dimbar… Elves… Arrows from behind the bushes, scary shining swords in the dark… Flight… Days in the coppices. Riders ahead. Cannot pass… Finish the wounded. Ungal, brother… Move at night. No booty, no fun… No food for wolves. Kill them… Along the Sirion… Vagrants… Fools, bastards! We wanted to rest, to taste warm woman's flesh… Fight, sword and axes, Sarnach is killed… To the fire, no time to bury. Because of these dolts half of the Elven marchwardens will come here galloping…

'We found you by the smoke,' Finrod smiled.

'Scums!' The Orc couldn't restrain himself. The curse was obviously applied to the vagrants. 'We didn't do there anything! Wanted to hinder them… It's true…'

'But not the whole. I know why you wanted to hinder them.'

'He can hear your thoughts, scoundrel,' Beren reminded.

Thoughts… Thoughts, curse them… How to hide? How to stop thinking of Michur, Narwag, the Lord?

'What garrison does your Lord have in his castle on the island?'

Don't think! About one and a half hundreds, hell knows… Those fools of the Wolverine don't like to show up from their island…

'Where do the patrols go? How often are the guards changed? Words for the passage?'

I don't know! How to tell him, this sorcerer! I don't know! He won't believe, give me to the Man, and he'll impale me on a stick…

Finrod sighed.

'That is all. We have nothing more to do with him.'

Neither Beren or the Orc noticed his movement. The Orc twitched and froze with his teeth bared.

Finrod pulled a long, thin knife from under the prisoner's jaw and drove it into the ground several times to clean the blood off of the blade. Beren licked his suddenly dry lips.

'You didn't have to do it… yourself.'

'Yes,' Finrod put the knife in the top of his boot. 'I could have told you and my hands that were clean up to now, would not have been stained… Let us leave that converse. Undress the corpse and throw it to the gully.'

Beren began to untie the Orc's coat. He caught the intent look of Nendil, who was cutting the lace off his shirt.

'I wasn't going to torture him,' he said. 'It's true.'

'I know,' the bard answered.

'If I wanted to learn something, I would get it out very quickly, without long torment.'

'Why are you justifying yourself?'

Beren jumped up and flapped the crumpled coat against the ground.

'I'm not an Orc!'

'I know.'

Beren kneeled near the body again and began to pull the boots off.

'He's shit,' the highlander uttered through clenched teeth. 'He deserved death thirty times. But why do I feel as if I…'

'Had been torturing a cripple?' Nendil suggested.

Beren thought for a moment, then said:

'Yes…' and more firmly, 'Yes.'

'He was a cripple,' Nendil explained. 'They are all terribly wounded. Did you notice—he had no avanir…. It is the reverse side: he cannot "hear". He can only "speak".'

'So what?'

The bard's face became slightly strained, and Beren felt the echo of inner pain.

'They are descended from Elves, crippled by Melkor. In their blood lives the memory about times when they were able to "hear" and possessed the gift of second sight. They desire to "hear", but their crippled samar cannot hear words, only screams. They can hear a living and intelligent creature only at the limit of pain. They make others suffer, for otherwise they suffer themselves.'

'That's not an excuse,' Beren said sharply.

'Yes,' Nendil agreed. 'But if we behave like them even for a moment, our fault will be a hundred times heavier than theirs.'

'You mean they should be killed out of mercy?'

'It is better than to kill out of hatred…'

He paused and then added:

'By the laws of King Fingolfin, that who is marked by Shadow and does not wish to be healed, is bound to death.'

'And yet you wonder at some people who are afraid of you probably more than of them,' Beren murmured.

Together they took the corpse by arms and legs, dragged it to the gully and threw in the dark. Then they went back to the fire.

'So, let us consider it the last time,' said Finrod when everyone besides two guards (who also managed to listen) sat around in a circle. 'Does anyone wish to dispute my decision?'

'There is nothing to talk about,' Elluin tossed his head. 'However disgusting it is to be in their skins, I could not have thought of a better way to go through the Pass.'

'And there would be no troubles with crossing. We'd just pass through the Angrod's Brushwood,' Lauraldo said.

'Well,' Finrod took a pin out of his hair and threw it on the cloak that was spread near the fire. 'Let us start then.'

The Elves and Beren had to leave behind everything that could not be captured in combat or taken from the dead. The vagrant Orcs were of small height and their boots did not fit the Elves, so they had to rumple, sully and maim their own. Off their undershirts (it was beyond their strength to put on the Orcish ones) they cut lace and embroidery. Breeches (three Orcs were so small that their breeches did not fit even Aimenel) they threw to the dust, made dirty with their feet and only then put them on, having cut off lace and clasps. For some time they hesitated: should they take Elven supplies with them or not?

'I have some lembas still,' Nendil said. 'Only three, but…'

He handed the Elven bread to the King.

'Yes,' said Finrod. 'We shall not need them there.'

Each of the cakes he broke in half and again in half. Twelve quarters lay in the stretched palms, but nobody hurried to eat. Everyone turned to the West that was covered by midnight's shade.

'Let courage never leave us,' Finrod said softly. 'And our hope be fulfilled.'

'And us have forgiveness,' spoke Lauraldo.

'And doom become mercy,' added Nendil.

'And us meet again the ones who are waiting for us,' Calmegil covered the lembas with his palm as gently as if it were a living creature.

'And stay faithful,' Meneldur lowered his lashes.

'Even when… if it gets to the worst,' It seemed to Beren that Aimenel's voice quavered.

'We shall remember our songs,' Wilwarin whispered.

'And our oaths,' Lossar said severely.

'And be firm on our way, in the name of all that is dear to us,' Elluin raised his head.

'And preserve love in our hearts,' In the light of the fire Aeglos's hair shimmered with scarlet.

'And perceive the last of the truths,' Edrahil breathed to the dark.

'And it shall make us free,' Beren finished.

Lembas tasted like strawberries with milk and honey…

Having completed his disguise, Finrod, looking absurd in the cloak and coat of an Orc captain, let his hair down, scooped some black grease and passed his hand over his head, turning his hair, the beauty of which gave him his name, into something suitable to an Orc: black dirty tangles and icicles, braided in three slipshod plaits… Beren gasped quietly—such desecration of beauty was hard to justify even with the word "must". Others, who needed it, did the same: Lauraldo, Aeglos, Aimenel, Wilwarin, Calmegil and Meneldur.

Lossar didn't have to do anything with his hair, it was already black as a raven's wing; but he blackened his face, neck and hands with a nut sap. Finrod, Wilwarin and Lauraldo followed his example.

But still the Elves did not look like Orcs. They looked like Elves—although dirty, dressed in stinking rugs, with their hair untidy—but still Elves.

Their belongings, decorations, weapons they put in the pit they have dug under the elm's roots.

'To the circle,' Finrod ordered.

Not yet perceiving the matter, Beren stood in a circle between Nendil and Elluin. They put their hands on his shoulders, he did the same. His fingers met the fingers of those who stood farther—Calmegil and Aeglos. Their hands, joined together, formed a close circle that made all twelve into one.

Then Finrod threw something into the fire, joined the circle and began to chant.

He chanted in the human language, like then, over the cup, but this song was fast, wild, and Beren remembered almost no word of it, only that swift, abrupt rhythm they were beating out with their feet in the dust, making a dreadful dance around the fire. There was a smell of burning hair and something sweet that caused acrid whitish smoke. In the rings of this smoke the friends' faces were trembling and changing—or was it just tears in Beren's eyes? His throat was aching; his voice became hoarse and sharp. Shoulders filled with weight, unfamiliar before; he felt bent to the ground but at the same time he felt strength; strength and delight. Icy fire flowed in his veins, muscles strained so much that he expected his bones to crack. Fingers, lying on his shoulders, became hard and dug into his flesh; and he also griped someone's shoulders till his waist joints crackled. Was he feeling pain, was he hurting someone, he did not care. Rich yellow moon was flowing through bare branches and laughing at the dancers. Laughter… Sharp, terrible laughter joined the song—again and again… Beren suddenly realized it was he who was laughing, hooting and howling, raising his head to the moon like… like…

An Orc.

Finrod made a cry, the fire blazed and died out; and Beren at last could unlink his hands. His legs could not hold him, and he fell to his knees. At his side, as heavily, Elluin fell on the log. Someone was groaning hollowly in the dark, as if he felt sick—Beren recognized Aimenel's voice.

A handful of brushwood into the coals, and tongues of flame highlighted the Orcish muzzle. Slanting eyes were burning with evil fire from under the beetling brows, teeth were bared in a wicked grin, and reversed nostrils were bulging… But something in the features remained the same and allowed Beren to recognize…

'Wil…Wilwarin?'

The Elf smiled… The Orc grinned…

'Am I… too?' Beren touched his face. By touch it felt the same: thin lips, straight nose with a small rising—he broke it in childhood…

'You too,' Wilwarin said.

The fire flared up, and now Beren could see everyone. An Orc gang was sitting by the fire. Too quiet for a usual Orc gang—no brawls, no yells—but still absolute Orcs. Five Uruk-Hai: Beren, Finrod… No—Ungal and Harraf, Michur and Sarnach, Dugush… And seven vagrants, smaller and lighter: Nechmar, Wadra, Rish, Lashan, Iwur, Meidra and Woch.

Finrod's song created charms of guise and surprinted into memory in a special way: now it was light and easy for them to think of themselves as of Orcs.

'And now sleep,' Finrod's voice also sounded low and hoarse.

'No,' Beren corrected him. 'Sleep, horse spawn!'

* * *

They traveled without hindrance almost all the next day. Twice they met Orcish patrols with wolves, and after exchanging greetings, they let them pass without any word. But the third time they were stopped by a more numerous troop—thirty, "rhank", as Boldog's orcs called it.

'Luck, bitch,' Beren grumbled to himself.

'Hey, look, vagrants!' the rhankar grinned. 'And where are you going, eh? Dragging your butts home, to your shitty wives? And who let you, eh?'

'And what a flea on a butt are you that we have to talk to you?' Finrod roared back. Beren was even amazed—from where's such a skill of talking to Orcs?

'And I'm such a flea on a butt that I can tear your jaw in half, and I won't catch anything for that! I'm Tevrach, the rhankar of Wolf Guard, and if you still have eyes on your head, you must recognize this badge!'

'Then look there,' Beren pointed his finger first at his own breastplate, then at Finrod's. 'We're no vagrants, we're from the North, and these vagabonds we grabbed along the way, to have some fun. We're waited with report, and you're hindering us! Push off while you're safe!'

Sauron's orcs began murmuring, but their captain raised his hand.

'With report, you say? Don't you know that all who pass there must first report to the Lord of Warriors?'

'Time presses,' Beren wheezed. That was indeed a slip.

'And why haven't we ever seen you there before, eh, scouts?' asked the foreman.

'Cause we passed through Anach, you dumbhead! We would go back there, but they pressed us in Dimbar. We were sent by Lord Boldog personally, and you're playing a big bug out of yourself!'

'Then all's well,' Tevrach chucked. 'Then you'll go with us. 'Cause your precious Boldog should be here any day now. So move, vagrants-scouts, move and sing!'

'What? Fuck off, you…' Finrod enraged. But thirty bows, aimed at his troop, two at each, and at some even three, made him cease. 'All right, all right…'

'Now we got into a scrape,' Nendil whispered.

'We'll get off somehow,' Beren uttered, though not counting on it too much.

Chapter 10. Sauron

They arrived to Tol-in-Ghaurhot in the evening, having run all the day before without halts. Beren was seeking desperately for the way to escape—there was none. Tevrach's rhank almost at once joined another rhank that changed after a week patrol, and now almost sixty pairs of eyes watched the dozen of the detained ones. The watch was dense: Orcs didn't like each other anyway, and now this dislike was joined by fraction between tribes and rivalry between different parts of Sauron's army that he stirred up so thoroughly. The Wolf Troops did not like the Wolverine Guard, holding them cowards and lazybones; Wolverines despised Wolf Troops, dolts that could not be entrusted with honourable and responsible business of guarding Ast-Alhor, so these fools were suited only for running the woods after rebels. In short, the Wolverine frontier guards could not miss the opportunity to humiliate the Wolf Troops' scouts, and to mock at such scum as vagrants was at all natural.

At the suspension bridge near the Isle Tevrach and Urweg, the chieftain of the second rhank, squabbled long with the guards, not so much out of business, but of the guards' chieftain's desire to prove himself an important person as well.

Beren hoped with all his heart that now they would throw them into some pit till the dawn where they could lie down and have some sleep, and with a clear head think out some suitable tale. Like raug: in the prison courtyard Tevrach was wrangling with local guards for half an hour, demanding to see the "chief" to report.

'Who else do you want, Lord Gorthauer perhaps?' the guard captain objected. But finally he gave up: the "chief" seemed to have agreed to receive the detained ones. A tall man, clad in black, appeared, who heard Tevrach out and led him away. They came back in ten minutes, and the frontier Orcs were changed by prison guards at the Man's nod. They were accompanied only by the rhankar now.

They were being led by corridors somewhere upwards and Beren glanced at Finrod: does he recognize his own castle? The face of the Elf—or rather the Orc's muzzle—was impenetrable.

A blonde-haired man, clad in black with silver, sat in a high armchair by the fireplace. Besides him and guards, the hall they have been brought to was empty. On the man's breastplate was incused a crown with three lightnings—the sigil of korna'taero of Morgoth's army.

'Who are you?' the man asked.

'Harraf is my name,' Finrod replied in the rough blend of taliska and Sindarin that Men used. 'And that is my half-brother Ungal. We're of the Wolf Troop, master, have been sent as scouts to Brethil and to the borders of Narogast half a moon before. We were fifteen but all have died.'

'What about the rest?'

'The vagrants, scum. They've been plucked in Brethil and joined us.'

The man nodded—it was obvious that wanderings and losses of the vagrants were of no interest to him at all. How many of them have left or come—no one cared. Their camps in Lothlann made up for losses duly, and they were not expected to have much sense. The main thing was to keep borders in constant fear.

'Why without report?' This time the man addressed Beren. 'Why did you round the outposts?'

Beren cleared his throat and said what he managed to think out:

'We don't like Uruks. We're Uruk-Hai.'

'I can see that by your mugs,' the man interrupted him. 'And I don't care about your likes and dislikes. There is order. Those who go northwards by Ast-Alhor, must report. Or are you of the Wolf Troop special? The order's not for you? Why are you silent, Ungal? Did you swallow your tongue?'

'No, master… But we didn't mean to go northwards, we wanted to return through Dimbar… and there they got us, we barely escaped.'

'Who got you, how many?'

'The Brethil marchwardens. Those highland snot noses…' Finrod made a grimace. 'Didn't we kill them enough…'

'Cause you killed women and pups!' Tevrach broke in. 'And when you see a warrior, you put in your pants and flee!'

'Shut up your jaws!' Beren snapped.

The man stroke his whip with force against his chair's leg; the sharp sound broke the quarrel off.

'Where do you think you are, at the market?' the korna'taero frowned. 'Can't you keep your tongue at place, Tevrach? Bite it off then. You talk when I say, and now…' He broke in a half-word, jumped from his chair and made a low bow.

The incomer wore a simple undone jacket, a dark shirt, leather riding breeches—no piece of garment, no sign of his authority, save for the regal bearing and look.

He was really tall, a half-head taller than Finrod, should he stand straight, but even crooked in an Orc way the King wasn't short; very much like a Noldo—dark hair, light clear eyes. Rolled-up sleeves showed muscular forearms and thin wrists: these were arms of a swordsman.

A smile played in the chiseled Elven features; not only on the lips, but in the whole face—eyes, slightly uplifted brows. But Beren doubted this smile revealed his true thoughts; more likely concealed them. The incomer looked dangerous, and this danger charmed, like the dance of a snake. Easy and simple manners even tensed the fear; the opponent was so self-assured that he found it unnecessary to stress his position with any garments or haughty gestures. His lips were smiling, for he had no need of stern grimaces. Everyone here knew already who their master was.

Sauron Gorthaur…

He took a seat in the now free chair and glanced at Beren and Finrod with cheerful curiosity.

'Well, Alfang, who are they?'

The man briefly stated the story "the Orcs" have told. Sauron nodded, then addressed Finrod himself.

'How far have you advanced to Nargothrond?'

'We've stopped near Amon Rûdh, Lord,' Felagund rose from his knees and bowed. Beren followed his example. 'We could no way move farther.'

'And what have you seen there?'

'They're gathering an army in Narogast, Master. And there's some stirring in the frontier forts. They must've decided to fight the Island.'

'My knowledge is different. I heard there had been a rebellion, and King Felagund is exiled. It's the sons of F…anor who now rule there.'

'There rules Orodreth!' Aimenel couldn't help himself. Edrahil slapped him on the ear.

'Don't you open your mouth when you're not asked to!' he hissed. 'Sorry, Master.'

'Orodreth it is, that's right,' Beren supported. 'We did hear Felagund's been thrown out, but now Orodreth sits there, not the F…anorians.'

'You know much, particularly for those who haven't been in Nargothrond…'

'Caught one of them and loosened his tongue,' The Orc-Finrod's grin was so believable Beren felt a chill running down his spine.

'You inquired him about the matters in the Mountain Kingdom, learnt that an army is being gathered but failed to find out how to get there?'

'Didn't have enough time,' Beren snapped angrily. 'He croaked.'

Tevrach spit pointedly. "I'd have pulled out everything" was written on his face.

'Too bad,' Sauron shook his head. 'So, they're gathering an army to fight me? When?'

'In a year, after the harvest. When they collect each one who can wield a sword,' Beren lied without thinking. 'Must've been sick of sticking in their dens,' he laughed; other Orcs and even Tevrach joined him.

'Well, I wish them luck,' Sauron walked round Beren and Finrod, inspecting them closely. 'Because there was not so much of amusing lately. You know, I like you, Uruk-Hai. You seem good, loyal fellows. I'm even planning to entice you from Boldog. What think you?'

'As you wish, Lord,' Finrod bowed his head. 'But wouldn't we be of more use at chieftain Boldog's? We stick to scouting, shadowing, not guarding…'

'The lads as smart as you could always learn a new business,' Gorthaur seemed to increase his pace. 'But your loyalty to Boldog appeals to me. Yea, great virtue loyalty truly is; it deserves a reward while betrayal deserves punishment. Treachery, like yellow rust, from inside and outside gnaws at hearts and fair cities, pouring evil into souls. Icy coldness of the void pierces through the living world, turns creations into dust, noble deeds like ashes perish; it enshrouds thee in poison; thou shalt glance into its eyes, and thy spirit daunted shall be; and thy charms shall melt like snow; thou shalt see the wreck of hope as a rotten trunk is falling, by its hollow core defeated…'

 

Having uttered the last words he stopped and looked Finrod straight in the eye, piercing, as Beren felt, through the false Orc's skin. For a moment it seemed that Nom would indeed quaver and fall. Beren flinched but felt he was unable to move, as if he'd frozen in the thin air and could barely breathe.

Felagund did quaver, but only for a moment. He stood straight, the Orc mask was slipping away, wind was blowing his hair… how could there be any wind…

 

'With soul that burns like a flame, one cannot be daunted and frightened. The light he possesses, it shall not die out in shadows. Courageous and faithful, no torment, no death does he fear. He who had lost what he had but soul unstained preserved, shall always have hope in the Blessed Kingdom beyond. Hope that shines above all earthly sins and temptations, shines brighter than gold, is more precious than gems, is fairer than songs of the beautiful maidens; sweet is its taste, sweeter than viands and wines of the world. Doubts and fears are burnt by its flame, and warrior's strength it refills in the fire of combat; firmness of spirit is born within one who's imprisoned; and those whose spirit is free, are not daunted by fear and chains…' In the edge of his bewildered mind Beren realized that Finrod began speaking in Quenya, and words of the High Speech tingled with such a music that even stained-glass windows trembled. It was as if the castle remembered its former master and reached out to him, like an old half-withered dog. No wonder Sauron hastened to intercept the chant and lead it in his direction.

'What hope art thou singing of, wretched one? Who of the Powers and when made that promise to you? The Warder it was, who gathers the homeless souls and takes them away, as a rat in a barn. Indeed, only there have thou thy pitiful hope—the halls of the Dead, without sound or memory; here, on Isle of Werewolves, as my thrall, thou shalt not regain it: in torment and horror, o Noldo, shalt thou writhe, Darkness shalt devour thine mind; here brother shalt brother betray for the ghost of escape; by chains of flame shalt thy body be bound; by fearsome cold shalt thy spirit be captured; thou shalt perceive then who masters thy life and thy death, and thy very soul…'

 

'Thou art not the master of mine, nor dost thou master my friends and our souls, and souls of Elves and Men. Thy malice is impotent, thy pride is ridiculous. Thou canst not rule those who are in thy hands, how then canst thou speak of those whom thou canst not have? Behold! the proud white city stands on the hill. Behold! The shore is caressed by tender green waves. Behold! lies the fair land beyond the Sea, that cannot be defeated by Shadow. Behold! rays of the light-giving Trees sing at the mingling… In that land craft has more power than time, shining joy of love is stronger than pain… Sweet are the cool waters of crystal springs, strive aloft slender ship pines, waves play with the pebble in havens, ships with white sails sleep by the piers—proud sea horses wait for the time of travels… Behold! tears of dew on the palms of the leaves. Behold! songs of the maidens at the mingling of Trees…'

 

Valinor! The vision was so clear Beren gasped. The castle walls were trembling, he heard this boom; the castle remembered the city Finrod was thinking of when he'd been building it; and it was getting free of what Sauron has laid on it. Right here, under Beren's feet, the grass on the shore turned into clayey slope; and the coast beneath glittered with many-colored pebbles; and behind him the pine wood rose aloft; the light was unusual—melted gold and silver, mingled in the sky, flashing and spilling over each other… Aman, the Blessed Realm. The home I have not…

 

'The silver light faded away, the golden died out. Impenetrable dark fell on walls that were white once; crimson is the torch-light, crimson are the blades in the night; sea waves shalt turn into blood in the Haven of Swans! Gone are the songs of the maidens, both Noldor and Teleri; only rattles of death, and ringing of steel, and the whistling of arrows. The lot of the dead is twilight in the Halls of Mandos; terrible doom for survivors—treason and feud. Where is that hope thou hast threatened me with? In Alqualonde it lies, foaming with vermilion blood; in Helcaraxe it is, screaming and sinking in ice; in the Firth of Drengist it burns with scorching omnivorous flame; in Thangorodrim it is, chained in cold dungeons; there is no hope for ye, Noldor, cursed ye shall be for all time!'

No! Beren cried silently. That's a lie! It's all wrong, Finrod, don't give up!

Too late…

With the last words Sauron raised his arms and visions dissipated, the walls and the floor still again. The unknown something that has been chaining Beren let him go, and he fell face down on the straw-covered floor. Darkness obscured his eyes.

When his clouded mind became lucid again, like ice before breaking, Beren realized he lay on the floor, stone and straw under his cheek, and that darkness was not in his eyes, it was all around…

Sauron was gasping for air as a horse after a run; Finrod, prostrated on the floor, showed no sign of breath at all.

Staggering, holding on the backs of the chairs, Sauron walked to the window and leaned out almost up to his waist. He was the only one in the hall who could stand on his own feet; all the rest lay sprawled on the floor as did Beren and Finrod. One of the guards was groaning softly, holding his temples with his hands, another had a bleeding nose. The torches and the fireplace have died out, and blood seemed black in the moonlight that was filling the hall.

The drumming sound of footsteps in the corridor…

'My Lord!!!'

'Leave it,' Sauron staggered back to his chair and sat down—or rather fell down. 'You wouldn't have been of help anyway… Pick up the guards, carry them to hessamar… Tomorrow they all will rest. Give them a mug of red wine… To those, too. I do not want them dead… not yet.'

'My Lord, what if…'

'No,' Sauron shook his head. 'No more. He tried, now he's in my power… But it was a good start. Finarato Atandil, am I right? Feel proud… you almost got me… Almost.'

He fell silent. The servants knew their business. The last thing Beren remembered was him being dragged downstairs by his elbows…

* * *

The cell was large enough to lie stretched to the full height. And small enough to spit from one corner into a filthy bucket that stood in another. But for the most part Beren lay down; he was absolutely spent and recovered slowly, though Sauron's order has been carried out, and Beren was given his mug of diluted red wine. It didn't give much strength but at least it made life tolerable. As tolerable as the wait for soon and terrible death can be.

Guards have changed four times, once they've brought food—a cup of tasteless mush that a well-disposed eater would call grinded barley. Beren wasn't a well-disposed eater but he was very hungry and ate everything he was given. Now he was spitting, trying to get rid of the mouldy after-taste. There was no more wine, only water. At this he had no complains, it was good water from a well.

Time passed slowly, and it would've been stupid to hasten it. Scorching pincers, rack and hooks have been waiting for him for several years and they could wait some more without growing rusty. Once he endured horror and disgrace of torture; he would endure it again. Fear had no place in the most of his heart; in the last ten years Beren got used to the thought of his unnatural would-be death. The cause of pain was not fear but disappointment: Finrod… Yes, it was an honest attempt—but it had failed. If you walked over the abyss and fell down, would it matter whether it was your last step or not? Pain was caused by thoughts about Tinuviel… Beren knew he has not yet reached real despair, indifference to life. He could still weep, could knock his head against the stones cursing the doom. And that meant he still had strength, and it had to be spent on something useful. On reflection, perhaps. When, where, how had he been wrong?

He had to go through the mountains… Exhausted, starving, half-blind—they would have got him, but him alone, not the Elves.

A thin thread he and Finrod have woven—would it help? The spell of false looks had been torn off easily by Sauron; could he figure out the false memory? And would he desire? Beren remembered the advice he gave Rusco and chuckled: if he was going to set this thing to work, then he'd have to do everything the other way round. He'd have to start a perilous game and win it, for the stake in this game would be the life of the King.

But to be able to play meant to remember everything. False memory was woven to remain till the end and to make him sure that even in delirium he wouldn't think or tell of anything that could destroy all. If he decided to play, he couldn't say the key.

To play, he determined. Otherwise it wouldn't be fair—the Elves had nothing to help them keep silence.

…The wait was over at last. The door opened, he was told to go out. Two Orcs, big bulls, and a wolf with them, a full-grown trained gaur.

He expected to meet Sauron in the torture chamber, but he was wrong. Only Orcs were there. Two guards, the executioner and his assistant.

'Well, will ya strip off yerself or should we help?'

The late fear made him clench his teeth. In a swift, snake-like movement Beren pulled his chain out of the Orc's grip and stroke it to the right, himself rushing left…

He did not take account for this being anticipated: prisoners were not always meek and resigned once they got to this chamber. At the sight of simple but effective devices even the most submissive could reveal the fighter's spirit. For this case each guard had a small leather sack filled tight with sand tied up to his wrist. It came down on Beren's head at his first jerky movement.

The world twitched and went in a mad whirl, like a potter's wheel. Beren fell down and lay very quietly trying not to fall from this wheel till it came to a stop. While the Orcs were unshackling his chains, the world's rotation got slower. Beren decided to make another try and managed to kick one of them in the cheekbone. The Orc didn't even seem offended, he just took a short thick club from a corner and hit Beren on the back several times, kicking out his will for resistance together with breath.

Helpless, he was undressed. A tall scraggy man with dead eyes rose out of the dark corner. On his left cheek a brand could be seen, the silm… nuquerna rune, probably meaning "snaga", a slave. Dressed in rags, he smelled with pigs but his long slender fingers showed that once he had studied some high skill. The man listened to his heartbeat, his breath—obviously he was a healer; looked at how his pupil converges in light; after that he made Orcs happy by the news that the prisoner was in good health, wasn't going to die in near future and hadn't been hit on the head too hard, so he could understand everything and answer the questions.

Hearing the poor wretch's speech—hard "h" and soft "r", Beren quavered inside: the slave-nestar was a highlander. A fellow countryman, did a good turn… Where and how had he been captured? Could he recognize his lord or not? And if he did, would he betray him or keep silent?

The Orcs began their work, and Beren has had a hard time. He wasn't asked any questions, just tested to strength. It would be good if the prisoner began speaking himself, but if he didn't, that was not a problem either; they had a lot of days and nights in store. Being hitched up isn't too pleasant, is it? And with a weight tied to your legs? Then neither this wretch in the corner, nor even Lord Orthanner himself wouldn't help his arms. Until the end of his life (which wasn't far) he wouldn't be able even to relieve himself without aid, wouldn't be able to eat. And if he didn't care about this, let him think about other entertainments that were enough in there. Scorched irons, grips and wedges, whips and boiling oil… These walls have seen many who'd deemed themselves firmer than stone, and all of them either died or turned into sorts of this bone-setter in the corner.

Beren didn't respond and didn't even curse. He just bit the strand of his hair and kept silent. He wasn't going to compete with these monsters in wits, he wanted to see Sauron. Finally he lost his consciousness. Not for the first time during this day, but before the Orcs would quickly bring him back from oblivion by cold water and slaps on the face. This time he came to his senses and found himself on a bench, the nestar setting his shoulder. The Orcs were murmuring loudly in the corner and paid no attention to them.

'The Elves,' Beren whispered. 'Have you… seen?'

'Yes,' the bone-setter said quickly. 'Three of them. One golden-haired, the other with black hair and very pale skin, the third very young. They said nothing.'

It was impossible to speak further, as the Orcs turned their attention to them again.

'Well, are you done? Fucking a wench takes less!'

The nestar walked aside; the business was done, the joint set. The Orcs dragged Beren off the bench, again tied up his hands and threw the rope over the pulley. They didn't hurry to hitch him up, but still the rope was pulled and fixed tight not to allow him to fall, should his legs fail to hold him. The door opened and the person for whom Beren's been waiting came in.

This time the Lord of Warriors was dressed in a grey shirt, leather sleeveless jerkin and leather breeches. Sharp horse smell made its way through the stink of the chamber—Sauron has traveled somewhere or just been on a ride.

Here, in the vault, he didn't look such a nice fellow he seemed upstairs. Grey eyes glittered coldly and steadily. His slight smile invoked fear. Beren suddenly realized that should Gorthaur approach and touch him, it would be worse than anything Orcs can think of. The key, the key, cowardice was whispering. But the Elves suffered as much as him, maybe even worse, and they had no secret word that could save them… It would be dishonorable to use Finrod's gift now.

Gothaur had a mug in his hand. A barrel stood in the corner, and executioners had a drink from time to time; their work wasn't the easiest one. Must be good beer if Sauron himself didn't disdain to drink it.

'Has he said anything already?' asked the Lord, placing himself in a wooden armchair with belts on its back and legs.

'No,' the executioner replied. 'My Lord, let us use something different or at least tie a weight. 'Tis toys for him, he doesn't even whimper.'

'Silence itself is eloquent sometimes. A simple warrior would have talked.'

'A simple warrior would've told you who your mother was and what things she did in a pigpen with a half-Orc slave,' Beren growled. 'And I know who you are, that you didn't even have such a mother, you vampire!'

Sauron smiled; insults don't catch on very much when you can return hundredfold for every word that's said. Gorthaur made a barely noticeable sign to the executioner with his eyebrows, and Beren was hitched up.

…They let him down, gave him time to recover breath…

'A whetstone was found in your backpack, wrapped in a piece of highland cloak. Tribal colors of the Beorings. Did you serve them?'

Beren said nothing. The rope was slightly pulled. He prepared himself to a new torment…

'You'd better speak,' Sauron said calmly. 'Silence is pointless.'

He came to Beren, took him by the chin and raised his head to look him in the eye.

Cold chill between his shoulder blades… With every step Sauron made the heart of the Man was sinking down, and at his touch he felt as if he grew numb to his guts. He felt his spine freeze, his stomach tied up in a knot, his man's distinction shrinking and trying to hide inside body like a snail in its shell…

'I can read your every thought, Man. I can delve into your mind so deeply as you himself did not delve.'

"Lie, you viper. Avanirë you cannot break."

'So, who are you?'

…It was as if icy wind was tearing his flesh and skin off the bones; a death during life. Now he wouldn't be able to answer even if he wanted to; his voice didn't obey him, no muscle submitted, his heart seemed to stop. For some time he even stopped feeling pain, of all his feelings only one remaining: endless fear, turning into horror till madness, till complete lose of self-control…

…Numb fingers slipped and lost their grip, he was falling, falling down among the icy grit, hitting against frozen, bluish-green walls of the bottomless ice crack… The only anchor were those eyes, the only hope and salvation was to tell the truth, not even tell—open up, let those eyes inside, let them find what they desired…

But somewhere deep inside an island of warmth still remained, and he reached to it in the last despairing attempt to regain… no, not salvation, but courage and honor before the face of the unevitable…

Tinúviel.

Her look, her laugh, her voice… Forgive me, vanimeldë, I could not… but at least I tried… So all that is left is memory… And no one can take it from me, even Sauron…

'Futile,' Sauron said coldly. He released his fingers; Beren realized he was free. 'It will be worse, Man.'

The highlander laughed hoarsely. The worst thing was to go through pain and die a miserable deceived traitor, like Gorlim or this poor healer.

'You don't even have to talk. No one will say you betrayed Finarato. A Man has no power over his thoughts, especially in the moment of suffering. Just open your mind and let me in.'

'It's mine to choose whom I want to let in. Beg from Morgoth.'

Sauron made a sign, the executioner twisted the winch. Nothing was left in the world besides his wrenched arms and the grey eyes of his enemy.

'Babble, if you wish. Sooner or later you will tell what you have to. So, who… are… these… Elves… Why… were… you… heading… north?'

Tinúviel, Beren thought. The thoughts of her brought a sparkle of warmth and light to his cold chest. Lúthien Tinúviel… The grass so soft…

'Were… you… heading… north?'

Crunch… Scream, crushed against his clenched teeth. Cold sweat all over his body.

Tinúviel!!!

Speckle of sunlight… Avalanche of her black hair over it—like a tent… Her face is laughing, her eyes are laughing… With a laugh she throws her hair over her shoulders and opens to the sunlight—opens whole…

Crunch! — too much pain for these memories; hatred is easier…

Time has passed. Only demons of pain and Gorthaur knew how much. Beren came to his senses, lying on the floor.

Sauron was sitting in his chair, his legs crossed. What a fool one must be to annoy him further? Beren asked himself. A fool like me.

'Why're you sitting, you bastard?' he croaked. 'Tired of torturing me?'

For some time Sauron retained his calm demeanor, then he rose and walked up to the Man, looking at him top-down, as at some piece of manure.

'You have more boldness than wits; in this you're a real Beoring. You shall see someone… I think he will appreciate your jokes. You and him are on the same level.'

He gave a quiet order, and the guard ran away. Minutes of waiting hung heavy. The guard came back, and with him came a monstrous figure that blocked the doorway: a huge Orc with arms hanging almost to the floor, large yellow eyes and crushed nose.

At the sight of Sauron the Orc bowed respectfully. At the sight of Beren a wide grin spread across his face, as if he met an old friend whom he considered to be dead long ago.

'Hello, ya son of a bitch!' he exclaimed almost tenderly. 'Gotch' ya, son of a bitch!'

'So you know him, Boldog?'

'Like a nail in my boot, my Lord, like a thorn in my side. That's Beren, curse his guts, Barahir's son. You can't even imagine, Beoring, how I wanted to see you again! At this very place and in that very pose.'

'Don't wet yourself in joy, I beg you.'

'Save your worries, I'm a grown-up already,' Boldog snapped his fingers, and the executioner's assistant handed him a mug of beer.

'Are you sure, Boldog?'

'No doubts about it. He has special signs. Look, ayan'taero,' he kicked Beren in the stomach, and when he doubled over, bent him down to the floor by the hair. 'His back. Those idiots in Sarnaduin worked. And here's the burn on his chest in the shape of a horseshoe. "Lucky horseshoe", they'd said. They remembered it all very clearly, such things are not easily forgotten. Only two of them managed to escape the forest spirits, and one's gone nuts eventually. Is this proof enough?'

'Quite enough.'

Boldog pulled the rope up and fixed it, making the prisoner stand up.

'So, how d'you feel being our guest on the Island of Werewolves? Do we treat you generously enough? Want some beer?'

Beren contrived to spit into the mug. The Orc held his nose, threw back his head and thrust the mug into his teeth, making him drink. The executioner, his assistant and two guards watched the scene with obvious regret: apparently they had their own plans for this beer.

'Can I ask, my Lord, how did you capture him?' asked Boldog, when he had his fun.

'Oh, that was interesting. I saw a dozen of Orcs, heading north. They seemed strange in some way. Not mine, one of the vagrants' gangs. But why did they move so boldly, without a report? I ordered to bring them to me. Rhankar Tevrach with his troop brought them, they were vagrants indeed. Two of them posed as scouts from your team. I began interrogating them and felt something wrong. Threw a spell and saw that there was not a dozen of Orcs, but eleven Elves and a Man. One of these Elves turned out to be—whom do you think? — Finrod Felagund, and I can't say it was easy to take him over.'

'And why did they head to Ast-Ahë?'

'I wish I knew. The Elves are silent, as is Beren.'

'Give him to me, my Lord,' Boldog grinned. 'I swear he will speak.'

'No, Boldog,' Sauron shook his head. 'You're too… interested. And I don't need his corpse but information. Get him down,' he told the Orcs. 'Untie him and get this one to him.'

One guard removed the hook and dragged the prisoner to the bench, another helped the executioner to untie Beren. The nestar inspected him again. The highlander lay before the healer and executioners as a meat carcass before a cook. They didn't even tie him, it was unnecessary; he couldn't even blow out a candle now. One of the Orcs was holding his hands, just for appearance's sake.

Beren caught Boldog's look and shut his eyes in humiliation. But even through closed eyelids he saw—recognized? felt? — how Sauron bent down to him. Sun can be seen through eyelids—and Sauron looked like a dark spot.

'Beren,' Gorthaur's voice was soft like a snake's rustling on a stone. 'I know you do not fear death. Or at least believe that you do not. But death can be different. I do not mean hard or easy death. But death can be glorious and disgraceful.'

'Disgraceful? You mean traitor's death?' Beren uttered. 'Thanks for reminding.'

'You're trembling.' Sauron was so close that the Man's stomach shrank again. 'To tell the truth, you are quite a sorry sight, highlander. And it is not even three hours since you've been brought here…'

What? Beren was horrified inside. Did he say "three hours?" Not three weeks, three days—three hours?

'…More of it, it was my order not to cripple you. I can take it back. Do you want it? Do you want to die here naked, in blood and torment?'

'Ela,' Beren tried to chuckle. 'I was born naked, in blood and torment. What's there to surprise me?'

'That, at least…'

Beren expected a blow; he was wrong. It came from inside. Sticky pre-emetic saliva filled his mouth, his stomach turned inside out; even the trained guard jerked back his hands and released the prisoner, when he squirmed from sharp pain and fell down from the bench. Lying on his side, his face in the stinking puddle, he was choking with bitterness, forgetting even about his dislocated shoulder. Waves of ice were washing over his whole body. The second spasm made him spew a few clods of blood.

'You mortals are so dependable upon your hroa,' Sauron's voice sounded from afar. 'It is so easy to affect you through it.'

With a light push he turned the prisoner over to his back, touched his forehead with a cool hand—and the dry spasm cramping the body was released.

'How was it?'

'Like a nice hangover,' the highlander moaned. 'What a surprise…'

'Are you seeking for new knowledge then? All right. Do you know, son of Barahir, what pain is? It's a vibration, similar to waves, spreading over the body by the very thin fibres, thinner than a hair, that run through every inch of the hrondor. They are connected with spinal column, and through it with brain. It is not hroa that feels pain, it's brain. You have probably seen people who were wounded in a temple in combat and stayed alive. They stop sensing pain, because this part of their brain is dead. The Mirroanwi can be subjected to a reverse action: your body is not hurt, but you will feel pain in full measure. And to whom you shall prove then that you have betrayed not of fear or greed, but because you could not bear this?'

The Maia's slender fingers touched the prisoner's neck and closed down; Beren felt a jerk, and against his will he rose on his knees. Most likely Sauron did not want to bend, and now he was holding him hanging, as a pup by its nape. And then it came…

It was as if someone was pulling his spine out of him alive. Beren shut his eyes, clenched his teeth till the ringing in his ears, and screamed with every breath he draw and released. And with each of them he died. But Sauron did not let him die.

'To realize it's over brings more delight than lying with a woman, I have been told by those who had survived my touch. Is it true, Beren?'

It was, almost. Beren have known no joy as sharp as the joy of this torment end. Almost… But Sauron will first shed his skin like a snake in spring before he hears it from him.

Try yourself, if you're not a coward or a eunuch, the Man wanted to say but his tongue didn't obey him. His body betrayed him in this and betrayed in another thing as well: Sauron touched Beren's cheek with his finger and picked up a drop. He brought the finger to his opponent's eyes and placed it on Beren's lips, making him feel the salty taste of his own tear. Then he smiled and released Beren's neck. Beren fell down like a log, unable even to put his hands in front of him to protect his face.

'Wash him. Dress him and put him back in the cell.'

They threw at him some water and put his clothes back on him, though he had only his undershirt and breeches left. They put him back in chains and returned him to the same cell. In half an hour he began to shiver with cold and bury himself in the straw, but there wasn't too much of it…

Guards changed six times. No food and water was brought. Chains were drinking up the last poor remains of warmth from his body. It was bad. Beren knew that cold, hunger and thirst sap a man slowly, but certainly.

He was licking moisture from the wall, when the door opened and two came in: a Man and an Orc.

'Come out,' the Man commanded.

Beren crawled out. He was dragged upstairs, to the post where a tall woman waited, dressed in a black cloak fastened by a bat-shaped clasp. An Elf-woman. Beren was too spent to be surprised. She printed her ring on some waxen seal, and the wardens handed Beren to her and her assistants. Up again, the spiral stairs, and they came out of the prison. At the exit the woman and the guard exchanged their coin-looking badges.

They crossed the courtyard and entered another tower. Beren lost count to turnings and passages, but from the rare windows he was being dragged by, he could see not the stone yards, but…a garden? Yes, a garden. He was being led in the living part of the castle, to the tower of Minas-Tirith.

'There,' the Elf-woman opened the door.

Beren's eyes grew clouded, his breath was taken away, sweat stood out on his forehead…

In the hot-heated room hung the thick shroud of steam. The light of four lamps could be barely seen through it. The steam was coming from a huge water-filled tub.

'Undress,' the woman ordered.

'Won't you even kiss me for a start?'

'Not funny.' The woman's words were accompanied by a hard push in the back.

It was pointless to object. He let his clothes be torn off and climbed in the tub; he washed himself as well as he could, then two men pulled at his manacles. The woman wound his hair around her hand and scraped his chin, hardly and thoroughly. After that they unshackled the chains and gave him a piece of linen to dry himself and a comb. New garments were put on a bench—black breeches, dark-green shirt, black woolen jacket and light soft-soled boots. He got dressed.

'Well, that's all,' the woman put her jacket on and threw her cloak over her shoulders. 'Let's go.'

They passed through a few more corridors and got into a small narrow hall. The windows were curtained, fire was crackling in the hearth. The hall was empty, save for one man, sitting at the head of a long oak table… No. Not a man.

Sauron dismissed the guards with a gesture.

'Are you sure, my Lord?' the woman asked.

'And what can he do to me?' Sauron raised his brow. 'Kill?'

The guards bowed and left.

'Sit down,' Gorthaur pointed at the table. 'Wherever you wish. The second cover is for you.'

'And the third one?' Beren sat before a plate. At once he felt cheekbones cramp, saliva filling his mouth. To retain calm face Beren clenched his fingers under the table till they ached.

'For your king. He will soon join us. Do you want some wine? Nan Tathren, year 55.'

'Have you captured it together with the castle?'

'Yes. There are excellent wine-cellars. Have some food. It's hare, baked with sour cream, mushrooms… Do you like mushrooms?'

Beren's gulp must have been heard on the opposite shore of the river. He was starting to feel sick of the roasted meat smell.

'Thank you, I'm not hungry.'

'As far as I know, the last thing you ate was a bowl of musty barley mush more than two days ago. So do not tell me stories, Beren, eat. Cheese, cold pork, greens. Choose. Or are you afraid I shall poison you? Admit that it would have been inconsistent. I could have killed you in a simpler… or more intricate way.'

'Sauron, do you know that by our laws, if you share bread with your enemy, it means you've forgiven him everything?'

'I do, Beoring. That is exactly what I mean. I am willing to forgive you everything.'

'I see… But the point is that I am willing to forgive you nothing.'

Sauron shrugged.

'I admit, you have the right to owe me a grudge. But I too can feel to you hostility at the least. People you have killed were my friends, apprentices, even subordinates; I still have responsibility for them. It turned out from the very beginning that we were on the opposite sides of a blade, and this does not make me happy at all. Too much blood have been spilled to become reconciled. But believe me, the only thing I wish is peace.'

'Eternal?' a word escaped from Beren.

Sauron laughed.

'Gorthaur, we shall have peace only when one of us gets away beyond the last shore. It turned out that most likely it will be me. We're on the opposite sides of a blade, it's you who's holding the handle, so don't drag it out, I'm ready.'

Sauron thoughtfully fiddled with his fork.

'You think,' he said, 'that it is some sort of cruel game? That I have invited you to dinner as a main course, to mock at your feebleness? Beren, I know what Elves say about me. And I shall not deny that I am cruel indeed. But I have never done senseless cruelty, evil for the sake of evil. Didn't you ever have to be cruel yourself? Hanging pillagers to avoid the corruption of the army? Slaying prisoners when there was no food and no guards for them? Torturing captured enemy soldiers to learn whether there was an ambush for you? Everyone who wishes to achieve something has to be cruel at times. It is like fever during an illness. When the illness is over, so is the fever. I have no need to be cruel in the north, there are no rebellions here. How cruel I shall be with Dorthonion, depends upon how soon Dorthonion will stop rioting. Beoring, have some bread at least.'

'Thanks. I don't want to leave off prison food. I know already what song you'd sing, Thû. You'd say that if I want to serve my country, the best thing for me is to become a Morgoth's fief there and pledge allegiance to him. You'd explain to me all the hopelessness of the Elven business as two by two, and Finrod, exhausted by hunger and torment, will sit there as a proof of your rightfulness. You'd offer a choice to me: you or Boldog; go back to the vault, on bread and barley mush, test the skill of your executioners on my own back; or to enjoy food like this and wine every day, to sleep on a soft bed and to suffer only from constipation or hangover. I know what choice I'll make, so I'd stuck to prison food, thank you. To spew the rack with musty barley would be—I won't say "more pleasant", but somehow easier.'

Sauron listened silently, leaning back in his chair; Beren had to make a considerable effort to look the Maia in the eye, knowing what these eyes could do to him.

'It is a pity indeed, Beoring, that a man like you is fighting against me,' Sauron said, twiddling a fork in his left hand. 'There are few who can endure my look and touch. And when I gaze into a soul, I see there mostly cowardice and a petty hurried search for something they can sell me in exchange for their life. But you have some shield, solid as adamant. Is it love? Who is she?'

'Sauron, I can't remember, have I already told you about your mother? There's another rumor—that the first Orcs were born not from the crippled Elves, but from you when you've been Morgoth's wife…'

Gorthaur stood up and pushed his chair aside.

'My questions have to be answered otherwise, Beren. You may be misjudging about your person, but I shall change your mind with ease now. Thûrineithel, where is our second guest?'

'Here, my Lord,' the woman opened the door, letting in Finrod with two guards.

Felagund was also wearing clean garments and had his hair combed. He looked as cool and calm as always, but walked with a slight limp. His hair was cut short above his ears, and not too accurately.

'Greetings to you, Cave-hewer,' Sauron said with a smile. 'I do not ask you to join the dinner, for business is more important. Have these two follow me.'

Beren stood up, walked around the table and followed Sauron under the eyes of the guards. Pushing away one of the chairs, as if he wanted to clear his path, he asked Finrod with only his eyes: now? Finrod gave a slight nod.

Again they walked the corridors; it seemed that this time they went backwards, to the barracks. Finrod, who had built this fortress, made sure that each location could be reached from inside, due to fell autumn rains.

When they have reached the final destination, Beren inwardly approved his decision not to eat: now he would have thrown up for sure. Here, in a small stone-paved courtyard, it smelled like at the shambles.

Sauron walked out on a small gallery that surrounded the courtyard. They were led after him. Two guards were joined by two more, they grasped Beren and Finrod by the arms and led them to the railing.

'You…' Beren gasped. He did not finish his phrase: not of the fear of Sauron, but because he could not find a curse fell enough. All that he knew seemed too mild.

The courtyards' perimeter was set with wooden posts that lost their original color long ago. Their tops were dark because of rains and winds, and the bottom parts were thickly smeared or rather sodden with something brown…

To the two poles the Elves were tied—Calmegil and Wilwarin; their arms were twisted upwards, their clothes tattered, the hair hacked away. No one offered a bath or a dinner to them.

'Do you know what is this?' asked Sauron, not looking at Finrod and Beren. 'The training ground for young wolves. Cubs must taste blood. Wolves—you know that, Beren—are trained to attack the throat, or if they're ordered to capture someone alive—to knock off the feet and to bite a hand. But the cubs do not know it. They will bite whatever they want. Lift the grate!'

Somewhere beneath a chain began to rumble, winding up on a winch. Beren felt burning pain in his throat and chill in his stomach. He cast a look at Finrod; the Elf kept his countenance, but pain filled his eyes.

The grate opposite the gallery blocked a long low passage, and now the wave of grey furry bodies, hungry yellow eyes and sharp white fangs was breaking against it.

These were lop-eared cubs, in size of a common shepherd-dog. Once they reached full stature, they would grow taller than calves. Now they bunched near the grate, scenting their prey; the rear ones were jumping on the backs of the front ones, biting their shoulders and ears to force their way through; the front ones were pushing their muzzles and paws through the bars and whimpering, demanding their food…

Beren wanted to howl himself from rage and feebleness. As if feeling his despair, the guards twisted his arms more violently and pressed him to the railing. The Elves were standing near the posts with their heads bowed and didn't look at the wolf-cubs or at the gallery; maybe they were too exhausted, or didn't want to give their enemies a chance for amusement and tempt their friends with a sudden plea that could flash on their faces.

'Beoring,' Sauron called. 'I could have ordered to lift the second grate as well and to make you both enjoy the sight of what the cubs will make of your friends. To repay your words at least. I know that Finrod would not even quail. Elves have their own mind about hostages; remember the story of Maedhros? He wouldn't have flinched should even his own father be tied to this post, needless to say you. It would hurt him terribly, but he would not speak. As would none of these Elves, should Finrod be there, at the post. Such is their nature and their notion of honor. I know that your notion is different. You can keep silence, of course, it will cost you nothing. Only them. Your heroism will cost you cheaply—ten deaths only. You won't go there and you won't be tortured, I promise. Only them. So, I repeat my question: where were you going and why? Either you speak, or I order to lift the grate.'

'Beren,' Finrod's voice was flat. 'His words are nothing. While we are in his hands, he will always be able to make you answer the second question, and the third one—till the very end; and then he can feed us all to wolves, and execute you in Cargond. You cannot not save us by speaking.'

'Us is the wrong word, Finrod,' Sauron grinned. 'I wasn't going to feed you to the wolves as well. You risk only the lives of others, you buy Beren's silence not at your expense.'

'He wants to use me as a living picklock to Nargothrond,' Finrod closed his eyes for a second. 'Beren, if you speak, it may cost life and freedom to all the dwellers of the city.'

Beren strained his whole body, sharply feeling his feebleness. The guards also had to make an effort to hold him.

'Be you not so proud,' the mockery in Sauron's voice was well concealed, 'and have you eaten something, you might have managed to break this railing, as there, in Sarnaduin, you had moved the tether… You would have jumped down and had time to slay somebody… And what then?'

'Nom,' Beren murmured hoarsely. His voice did not obey him. 'I can't. I… shall… speak. I beg of you, Gorthaur, let them go…'

'What? I didn't quite catch it because of this barking. You said you shall speak, and then?'

'Let them go.'

'No, there was something more…'

'I beg of you.'

Gorthaur smiled.

'How can I heed not a humble request?'

The wolf-cubs behind the grate started to bark furiously, seeing their food being untied and led away. By Sauron's nod Beren and Finrod were led back to the dining-room. The highlander's teeth were chattering.

They sat down at the table: Sauron at the head, Finrod was made sit down on the right, Beren on the left.

'Speak,' Gorthaur tapped his fingers against the table.

'Just a moment… My mouth is dry,' Beren took a bottle and a goblet, poured some wine and drank. He had no food for almost a day and a night, it'll affect him soon… 'Strange things happen at times… You only get screwed once, and they call you a sucker for the rest of your life.'

He barely finished the line, and darkness obscured his eyes…

…so that's how it is…

Darkness, dead and somehow stench… Beren shook his head, keeping out from the source of the stink, and sneezed…

'…exertion of physical and mental strength. Rumors usually attribute such swoons to women, though I know from experience that they are more peculiar for men.'

What a stink… A small flask the Sauron's elf-maid was holding in front of his nose smelled as if all the Orcs of the North had been pissing there for a hundred years.

Sauron. Interrogation. Wolf-cubs. Elves…

Beren tried to say something; his throat extorted a weak growl.

He was in a swoon only for a few moments—the wine spilled from the goblet he's toppled over was still dribbling on the floor. But in these moments the whole world was poignantly changed. What the matter was, he could not understand. And didn't try.

'Seat him back and pour more wine,' Sauron ordered, rising from his chair. 'So, Beren, let us return to the subject of our talk: where were you going and why?'

A moment of panic: where were we going? Why? Beren forgot. Indeed, joking aside—he forgot! He was raking through his memories as a hungry wolf through a pile of leaves where field mice live. And he found… Oh, good fortune, he found!

'We were going to Angband… For the Silmaril. I'm telling the truth!' he cried, seeing that Sauron is going to give some order.

'I do not believe you.'

'Check it! Do what you wanted then, look into my thoughts, I will open!'

'Beren, don't…' Finrod whispered. 'You shall destroy Nargothrond…'

'He is your king, of course, and his word is law,' Thû smiled. 'But think about this, Beren: it is yet unknown whether information that I learn from you helps me to destroy Nargothrond; and that I shall send all besides you two to the training-ground—that is certain. And you shall watch it. The cubs are still hungry. Choose.'

'Nom,' his voice quavered. 'Forgive me.'

'No,' Finrod replied.

'Are you ready?' Sauron asked.

'Go ahead'.

…This must be how women feel being raped. Sauron burst into his mind in "boots with spurs", as they say. He was forcing his way through, casting needless things aside and drawing out the most important, as a kernel from a nut. Slaughter at the lone lot… Chase and vengeance… Back… Nargothrond… Celegorm and Curufin… Back… Doriath. Thingol. Tinúviel…

A laugh…

A laugh?!

Sauron was laughing like a human, with his eyes closed, his head thrown back. He did not see Beren rushing to his side, did not notice the guard twisting his arm and hitting the highlander's face against the table. Another guard grasped Finrod by his hair and pressed a knife to his throat.

'So you've had Lúthien Tinúviel?' Sauron laughed again. 'I would have given much to see Thingol's face when he learnt that his daughter has slept with a mortal!'

'I have heard a lot about you, Gorthauer,' Finrod said coldly. 'That you're a murderer, executioner, oathbreaker and shapechanger. You also like to peep through a chink, it seems.'

'I said "Thingol's face", not something else.' Sauron wiped his tears away with his sleeve. 'Oh, Eternal Flame, what an incredible thing…'

'I'd like to tell you,' Beren uttered hoarsely, 'that I did not see his face at that moment and can't show it to you, no matter how you threatened the Elves. As for the rest, yes, here I'm in your power. Haven't you ever done this with a woman? Or did you miss some things when creating a hroa for yourself?'

Sauron made a sign, and he and Finrod were released.

'Tinúviel and the Silmaril,' the Maia said thoughtfully, looking from Beren to Finrod and back. 'It is too incredible to be a lie. Nobody tells lies so foolishly and absurdly, therefore it must be true. Thingol is arrogant and foolish, and… it does not matter. So, the Greymantle did indeed send you to certain death? He really demanded to bring the Silmaril to him?'

Beren nodded wordlessly.

'And what if we drive him into his own trap?'

That is how it happens, Beren realized. You don't have time to put your eyes away, and for a moment agreement shows up in them, like a curious wench shows her nose out of a window. Your opponent notices it, and you're already caught… You become a traitor not accepting the enemy's offer aloud; first you betray in your heart.

'Tinúviel…' Sauron mused. 'Tinúviel and the Silmaril. I can give you both.'

'Beren,' Finrod interfered, and his face was such as if hoar-frost would appear on his lashes. 'Melkor is the father of lies, and you're speaking to his best apprentice.'

'Are you saying we lie?' Sauron turned to the Elf. 'And do you know why you have lost our combat? Because you doubted in your own rightness. How can one who does not trust himself, accuse the other of telling lies? Findarato Ingoldo, you got entangled in your own net. Go ahead, be honest with yourself: why are you helping Beren and Lúthien get together? Since when have you gone into matchmaking? Because you feel guilty for destroying the alliance of Aicanaro and Andreth! I have read, Findarato, a curious treatise I got in Cargond. The record of your debate with a certain old woman… Very, very lofty—especially taking into account the fact that you did not allow your brother to marry her. Look, Beren, he's hiding his eyes!'

'I do not hide my eyes.' First time Finrod showed some emotion that resembled anger. 'It is just your sermon with a blade at my throat disgusts me. Why play the hypocrite? You have humiliated us both quite enough. You can obtain what you want from Beren, pull everything out of him and then kill him. Well, do it. Do not seek justifications, in your eyes you're right anyway, and in our eyes you will never be.'

'Speak for yourself, only for yourself, Findarato. It is not your own life you're selling, and your nobility costs cheap. Even if I finish all of you, you will pass through the Halls of Mandos and be reborn in the blessed Aman. And Beren does not know whether he will be reborn or not, here or somewhere in another world. And if he vanishes in the black nothingness, and his fëa disappears without a trace? You demand from him a sacrifice much harder than from yourself.'

'Beren, remember: if Sauron promises you black nothingness after death, for serving him you will get this very nothingness.'

'Phew!' Sauron whistled. 'I, the best apprentice of the Father of Lies, am being accused of keeping my word!'

'This word is very easy to keep. Nothingness is a good that's enough for all.' Beren said.

'I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that these talks about nothing from one side and Healing from another are not supported by anything. It's only Finrod's thoughts he stated in "Athrabeth". No one had ever returned from another world, Beren. No one knows what happens to you after death. He says: you go beyond the borders of Ëa to take part in the Third Theme. I say: it is the gift of my Teacher; you are not bound to the Third Theme but are free to create your own. He says: give your life for the Elves. I say: take from life everything you can. He promises salvation after death; I promise the Silmaril during life. A year, only a year later you'll get it and pass it to Thingol, and Finrod with those ten will be set free. All I want from you is a year of service. Not all your life, just a year. I do not demand loyalty of a vassal, only submission. It's a deal, Beren. A year of service—for the Silmaril and the freedom of the Elves.'

'And you won't go searching for Nargothrond?'

'I care not about Nargothrond. All these Nargothronds, Gondolins, Doriaths are already doomed; not by me, not by Melkor—by history itself. Half a century earlier, half a century later—who cares? If they sit in their mountains and do not show up, they are no danger to us and we do not need them. And if they show themselves, we will crush them in a moment. I don't want information about Nargothrond, and I give you my word that I won't be searching for it. Should I add that in the case you refuse this will be the first thing I do, according to the rule "a flock from a black sheep"? So, give me your promise that you will serve me for a year and a day, and I give you my oath that in the end of your service you will get a Silmaril and the Elves will be free.'

'What is oath to someone who had already broken one?' Beren said lifelessly. 'Let's do it otherwise, Gorthaur. Let's conclude a written treaty, in the Dwarves' fashion.'

Sauron snapped his fingers.

'A quill and a paper!'

A man with a band on his left eye brought writing materials.

'Write,' Sauron strolled along the table. 'I, Orthanner Gorthauer, Ayan'Taero Ayanto of Melkor, in his name and for the sake of the Crown of the North conclude this treaty with Beren, son of Barahir, of Beor's kin.'

'From my side I undertake to:'

'- Do no harm to eleven Elves that will remain prisoners in Tol-in-Gaurhot for a year and a day as pledge for Beren, son of Barahir, to fulfill his part of the treaty. I undertake to treat them as my warriors and servants, without oppressing them in any way, only limiting their freedom. Tell me the prisoners' names, Beren, to avoid any confusion: a treaty is a treaty.'

'Findarato,' Beren said obediently. 'Aimenel, Edrahil, Calmegil, Meneldûr, Lauraldo, Wilwarin, Elluin, Aeglos, Nendil, Lossar…'

'After a year and a day, counting from the day of concluding the treaty, I undertake to release all the hostages,' Sauron continued, after the list of names had been composed and checked by Beren. 'If Beren, son of Barahir, fulfills his terms of the treaty, I undertake also to grant one of the three Stones, called the Silmarils, to his full and undivided property, which he can handle as he wishes after a year and a day, counting from the day of concluding this treaty.'

'From his side he is obliged:

— For a year and a day to serve in Dorthonion in the dhol-laerte of the Helgor Army.'

'I won't kill my men,' Beren objected. 'Better…'

'I do not insist. Write: Beren, son of Barahir, has the right to choose his position and duties at his own discretion. You can be a clerk or a cook, if your pride allows it, Beren, it matters not to me. You only must be at the staff of the army.'

'In the case of an attempt of escape, suicide or riot from Beren, son of Barahir, I, Orthanner Gorthauer, have the right to treat him and the hostages as I will.'

'Are you taking me for a fool, Sauron? What can hinder you from killing them the next day and accusing me of an attempt of escape?'

'…But only after the guilt of Beren, son of Barahir, is confirmed by osanwë. Rejection of osanwë regards as an avowal of guilt.'

'And if Boldog strangles me on the sly and tells you I committed suicide?'

Sauron raised his finger.

'In the case of a possible suicide all who surrounded Beren the last three days will be interrogated by osanwë. Rejection of osanwë is equal to the avowal of murder.'

'Freedom of movement for Beren, son of Barahir is not limited within Dorthonion, but a supervisor, appointed by me, Orthanner Gorthauer, must follow him wherever he goes. An attempt to get rid of the supervisor for a longer time than a half an hour is equal to an attempt of escape. Guilt or innocence will be determined by me by means of osanwë. An attempt to avoid osanwë regards as an avowal of guilt.'

'Beren, son of Barahir, must follow the dhol-laerte of the Helgor Army everywhere. Refusal is equal to an attempt of a riot.'

'Beren Barahir's son must keep in secret the existence of this treaty. Only he and his supervisor, appointed by me, must know about it. The breach of this clause of the treaty is equal to an attempt of a riot.'

'The breach of any clause of the treaty by me, Orthanner Gorthauer, relieves Beren, son of Barahir, of all his obligations under this treaty. The contrary is also correct: the breach of his obligations by Beren, son of Barahir, relieves me of all my engagements. Below: I, Beren, son of Barahir, of Beor's kin, being of sound mind and sane memory, accept my obligations under this treaty. As a sign of agreement with all the clauses of the treaty here is my hand.'

Sauron took a quill from the one-eyed clerk and traced his signature with fine, sprawling runes of Fëanor; superlinear and interlinear tails were of excessive length. Then he took off his belt a dagger of wonderful workmanship; its blade shimmered with blue, two snakes were intertwined on the handle. With the dagger he made a small cut on his hand. Blood appeared. He put the dagger back in its sheath, passed his thumb over the bloody trace, put a finger-print near the signature and moved the document to Beren. The clerk handed him a quill.

Finrod met Beren's eyes—and turned away.

The quill picked the ink-pot and traced the signature: "Beren ion Barahir."

'You're a lefthander?' asked the Black Maia.

'I am.' Beren confirmed.

Sauron handed him the dagger; the blade burned. Blood was imprinted on the paper with an intricate pattern of the thumb.

The chancellor folded the document and put it into a leather case. Beren poured himself a full goblet of wine.

'Have a meal,' Sauron offered.

'No, Orthanner Gorthauer… I don't want to eat. I want to get sozzled… Absolutely.'

* * *

Gorthauer met them on the road, where Angrod's Brushwood began that was built through the Fen of Serech. Illyo felt warm gratitude: the utterly busy Gorthauer could have sent anyone to meet them—Alfang or Machtaur, but he preferred to come himself.

Along the road he was light-heartedly, almost carelessly, asking the newcomers about the business in Ast-Ahë, but Illyo saw behind these questions something more than Gorthauer wanted to show: anxiety.

Welle for a long time tried to build a new brushwood over this boggy fen of mistrust that lay between the Teacher and the Apprentice. The Teacher believed the Elves should be left alone at last and that they are no more dangerous after such a terrible lesson that Dagor Bragollach was. Orthanner thought that they will not be dangerous only after the last of their kindgoms falls and only scattered settlements of the Eldar remain in Middle-Earth. The sons of Fëanaro will not calm down; so neither will Gothauer. Welle made attempts to reconcile Melkor and Gorthauer, but they had no success.

They devoted themselves to different things: the Teacher to the matters of peace, the Apprentice to the business of war. It was no surprise that among their followers disorder have stirred as well, for sooner or later each of them had to choose.

Illyo made his choice after Artahir's death. No, there were other reasons, but it was like an arrow released from a crossbow. Orthanner was right; they had to cease this war as soon as possible. Now it was time to move here and to utterly devote himself to the business of the Helgor Army.

He took Elweg with him, for communication and special errands; Soll, who was a clerk able to find any mistake or discrepancy in reports, though the boy wasn't even nineteen years old; Ethil, the healer, and Daeireth, her apprentice. The latter he wasn't very eager to take: the girl wasn't too reliable, though she had talent and showed obvious turns for the way of the Seeing and Mindful… and it was a bit curious how she, a born highlander, will look at her once native land. But still she was a weak unit. Illyo would have left her with an easy heart, should Ethil agree to go alone; but the girl's training was precisely at the stage when a teacher and an apprentice must not be ever apart. Well, then he'd have to tolerate her long tongue, her arrogance, and worst of all—her girlish love, which Illyo had absolutely no idea how to deal with. It was his weak point; he had not a faintest notion of how to treat women who were hopelessly in love. His well-known celibacy delivered him from the necessity to say "no", but what had he do with poor verses that he at times would found in his room; embroidered kerchiefs with the girl's hair intertwined in the threads; this constantly admiring and intent look?

But thankfully, after six days of riding it became easier: Daeireth, weary to her limit, had no desire left for romantic sighs and looks.

Still, the day of their arrival was spoiled by an unpleasant meeting: in Ast-Alhor there was Boldog who arrived for fresh forces for his wolves. The animals had to get used to their new guides, and Boldog with his troop had been running the woods two weeks already. For the sake of peace, Orthanner said, it would be wise to go to Dorthonion together: Boldog with his team and the six of them.

Illyo did not make any objection, though Boldog was the last in the list of persons whom he wanted to share the road with.

Orthanner sighed, having guessed the reason of his expression.

'Be patient,' he said. 'Boldog is far from the worst of them, and very soon your roads shall diverge.'

Illyo nodded. To use an yrtch was a sad necessity, and Boldog indeed was not the worst of them, but it did not make him more pleasant. They said his belt was made of human skin, and it was not the most loathsome rumor about the Wolf Troop's commander. Illyo had no idea whether this gossip was true. Barahir's men had killed Illyo's sworn brother, but… There was a limit to any revenge.

Two days of waiting have passed in vain. Erweg and Daeireith began to flare up slowly, when Welle came.

He was leaving Dorthonion, and Illyo was riding to change him. It had been already known and agreed.

The converse was difficult. Welle was weary.

'Do you remember how once we had accepted ahir?' Welle said flatly. 'The blade of a warrior of Ast-Ahë shall never be crimsoned with the blood of a woman, a child or an old man. I have broken my ahir, Illyo. By my order old men, women and children were killed. Because these old men had strength to shoot from an ambush, women poisoned resting soldiers with henbane, and children set fire to the stables. I reckon that this land cannot be put down. They have no fear of weapons and will accept no kindness. There is only one way: to slay everyone until the last baby, or it will start again. I know I speak terrible things, but when you lose someone every day… They are worse than Orcs and Elves. They are like… like Boldog's wolves, adoring their masters who acquainted them with a whip for the first time and let them taste blood. In the last three years we've lost eight warriors of the tairo-iri; two of them were women! Loremasters, healers, explorers of the land… They do not care whom to stab. We are enemies to them, they do not want to think or to hearken. Have you heard about norpeich, the fiery ale?'

'No. What's about it?'

'It's a heady drink of the north-western highlanders. The secret of its preparation is inherited in the Regan clan from father to son. Mar-Ragan killed his son and committed suicide not to let us learn this secret. Foolish. As if because of this ale we would've had them tortured. It was eight years ago, and they still sing of the defense of the Regan castle as of a great martial deed. Gods of earth and heaven! A heroic song of how four drunkards defended their wine-cellar till the last drop of blood!'

'Yes, it is foolish…' Illyo agreed. 'But some are loyal to us. Yet we have managed to make of the locals eight standards of infantry. More than three quarters are those who mind guns.'

'Yes. What else do you know? For example, do you know they had been recruited in these troops under the threat of destroying their villages at the first sign of rebellion?'

'I do. And I understand very well how unsafe it is. Do not worry, I am already looking for other ways.'

'Have you found many?'

'Not yet…'

'Are you placing your hope in children?'

'Them too. When they begin coming back by tens, and not by one… Could they lift a hand against their own children?'

Welle cast a heavy look at Illyo.

'I fear they could not only lift, but lower it as well.'

He got up and walked to the exit. At the door he said:

'Do not trust Frecart in anything. He's a rare scum.'

Illyo was alone. He poured himself more ale and stood by the window, looking through the stained glass at the river and its hilly shores.

Welle… It was worse than Illyo had expected. Well, sometimes even the strong ones can be broken.

Firm are the oak roots,

But crimson heather

Has covered them…

So, it is time for him to go north.

Illyo heard nothing new. Yes, the beorings were hard to conquer; yes, death or leave of their chief Beren did not change anything; rather the turning point came before his disappearance. Yes, they'd probably have to doubt their loyalty till the very end. The mistake of Welle and many others occurred because they had no love for this country. Here they gathered troops and taxes, and dreamt about conquering it as soon as they could and return home.

Illyo was different. He had learnt to love and for some part to understand. At that time, when they'd been taking Barahir's lot in the Ladhros valley at the Kellagan's castle, he had time to begin to love this country. The highlanders were capable for selfless and passionate love, like the knights of Ast-Ahë did. But they were savages unable to convey their love in high words. They viewed it in all its naked simplicity: it is our land and we love it; and if we love it, we must kill the northerners. One could even say they were jealous of the strangers. Illyo liked the ballad of fiery ale. He too would not suffer enemies learn the secrets of his craft.

Of course, the scum like Boldog and Frecart spoiled the whole picture. At first there was a need for them, but now… Now it was time to leave violence as a main tool aside, considering that for one case of justified violence there were ten cases of the unjustified. Frecart was thinking only about stuffing his chests and his stomach, and Boldog… All right, Boldog and his wolves could be of some use for now.

Along the road Gorthauer implied that it would be easier to suggest a new love to the Dorthonians if they were stripped of the old one; and that he already had a way of doing it. But Illyo knew nothing of Gorthauer's secret and counted only on himself. His intelligence, his ability to invoke love and respect, and… Well, and his blood, too. He was an Elf in looks, and at first it disturbed him in the North. Until he got into Ast-Ahë, he had to fight for his right to live. But here, in the southern lands, where men were raised to respect to the Elves… Here it would be a great help to him.

'I love you, Dorthonion,' he whispered, looking at the eastern shore. 'And you will love me, too.'

* * *

'That's how it must be done, respected Boldog. And it would be good for you to learn it. For a dead enemy's just a dead enemy, and a living one, when used properly, is like a breath of plague in the opponent's camp. Dorthonion will be suppressed with the same weapon it uses to resist us: the personal and vassal loyalty of its people. Armed forces are nothing in comparison with it, for it's people's hands who hold weapons, and people are moved by their passions. One has only to find the strongest thread and pull it. You would have broken all the Beoring's bones and achieved nothing. I have not harmed an inch of his skin or flesh and got important information about Nargothrond and Doriath, about the relations between Elven kingdoms, and laid a foundation of one of our forthcoming victories.'

'Lord of the Warriors,' Boldog sighed. 'I'm just an old Orc, a cutthroat and a fighter. But on this matter I do have some thoughts, if you allow me to speak them. To send the Beoring into Dorthonion, as you said, is like throwing yeast into a cesspool. I won't deny there are people who can be used; most of them are like this. But not the Beoring. You've seen him, Lord. He's insane.'

'You mean a possessed one or something of this kind?' Thûrineithel interjected.

'Shut up, woman. Call him possessed, I don't care. I've been chasing him for three years and could not take him, because there could be no guess where he'd appear or what he'd do. No one ever knew what he had in mind. Take the story of his escape from Dorthonion, for example. Nobody could ever imagine that a man can pass through Gorgorath and Nan-Dungortheb and find a shelter in Doriath. That he could go to Angband for the Silmaril with only a small troop, and to draw an Elven king into this business. When you've told me this story, I believed it at once, 'cause it's very much like Beren: to do things a normal man can't even think of. But it's precisely of this, Lord, that we should kill him as soon as possible, stick his head on a stake and put it at the gates of Cargond. Then he may be of use to us.'

'Can't part with the idea of vengeance, can you, Boldog?' asked Thûrineithel.

'And you can't wait to drag him into your bed? Don't trouble yourself, after Thingol's daughter he won't lay a finger on a wolf-bitch like you.'

'Shut up, you old goat.'

Gorthauer crashed a tin goblet against the table.

'Shut up, both of you,' he said. 'I understood your objections, Boldog. You are dismissed. Thûrineithel, you will stay.'

The woman noiselessly walked across the room and sat in the chair left by Boldog.

'You, of course, will report of everything that has happened here.'

The corners of her thin pale lips raised a little. The woman nodded with only her eyelids.

'Was it your wish to conceal it, Ayan'taero? From the Lord?'

'I was not going to conceal it,' the Maia said crossly.

'But first you would like to do what you want and then to present an accomplished fact to the Lord. This can be explained.'

'You won't understand.' His eyes blazed from under his deliberately messed black hair. Many, many girls in Ast-Ahë sighed for this hair; many youths too. 'Do you want him?'

Again Thûrineithel smiled with the corners of her lips and nodded with her eyelids.

'Take him, if you can.'

The woman raised her lashes in surprise:

'I thought you were holding him with his Elven love as a bait…'

'I need him to get rid of it in the end. Not at once. He had not had women for a long time, so Lûthien left a… strong impression on him. You must be stronger.'

'A nice gift,' the beauty purred.

Gorthauer's hand rushed forward like a black snake; Thûrineithel shrieked. Gorthauer jerked her to him; his eyes were very close.

'It is not a gift. Remember this. If you agree—and you have volunteered—you will have to gain your ends. And if you harm him, then beware.'

Thûrineithel was thoughtful for a moment.

'I can take him only as a woman takes a man?'

'You can take him as you will,' Gorthauer smiled. 'Including the way you like best. But only by his consent, not otherwise; and don't be carried away, I need him alive. He must live long.'

'He will live long,' she purred. 'If only you allowed me to exchange blood with him…'

'No!' Gorthauer snapped. 'He must remain a man of flesh till the very end.'

'And if I ask the Lord, and he allows me?'

'Just you try,' Gorthauer's eyes narrowed. 'Just try!'

'The Teacher knows a thing about your business,' Thûrineithel said. 'How do you reckon, could he decide you are striving to go without him?'

'Go ahead and report it,' Gorthauer uttered through clenched teeth. 'Everything the Lord knows he has learnt from me. Should he decide to interrogate me, he will not find anything I have not told him myself. But if I learn your message was the reason of my troubles…'

'Enough,' Thûrineithel said. 'I'm convinced. So, the Beoring is mine…'

'Yes. And if you ruin the business, the punishment is yours also.'

Thûrineithel nodded and slipped out of the room. Her light feet made no noise, only the fabric of her dress rustled on the move.

* * *

Beren's been drinking for three days already. There was enough wine and food; not so much to get as drunk as he wanted, but enough to keep his head a little dizzy. Then the sense of his baseness was not so painful.

The Elven woman, Thûrineithel, was appointed his supervisor. There was something wrong with her, and Beren could not make it out. He would not ask; he was afraid. What could they have done to her that she served Morgoth? She was loyal to Sauron, otherwise she wouldn't have become his supervisor. But the Beoring couldn't help himself but to look upon her as a fellow-sufferer. But for all that he could not look upon her only in this way.

She said that in the eyes of all outsiders they must seem lovers. Only this way their constant stay together could be explained. And it was obvious that she indeed would not mind it. Beren knew that threats to the life of those dearest to you—or almost dearest—could broke anyone. Especially a woman, albeit an Elven one. But what sorcery could make an Elven woman lustful?

She did not conceal her desire. Since the first day, when he awoke and found himself in bed, undressed, with her at his side, dressed in the dark-red dress of delicate fabric, with earrings and bracelets. He couldn't get out of the bed, because his clothes were put away on a bench, and she laughed at his embarrassment and said she had already seen him in the bath, so she wouldn't see anything new, though he's handsome and well-built, and she liked him, not knowing herself why.

The worst thing in all this was that Beren felt the same for her. Even if she did not invite him, he would be attracted by the curves of her slender thighs under the thin dress, small delicate hands and the hollow between her breasts that was open by the low neck of the dress.

He decided to fight it. He must stay loyal to someone. In something…

Together with her, with Sauron's permission, he checked how the Elves in the tower were treated. Sauron kept his promise: they did not suffer indignity or privations. Their rooms were small, but light, with bars on the windows; but the prisoners were not in chains, each had a warm bed and nice garments. They were not put to torture or starvation; the food for them was brought from the soldiers' kitchen. It was rough and not too exquisite, but filling. Beren did not know whether this state would change when he left. He hoped that until some time it would not.

But despite the lack of privations save freedom, the Elves were… No, not sad. Beren had no words to describe it. If a Man spent his days like they did—sitting on his knees or cross-legged for hours, with his eyes closed or staring somewhere unknown, Beren would have thought this Man turned insane or wanted to kill himself by suppressing his will to live. But Sauron calmed him down, telling that such concentration was the usual way of the Elves. Many of them could even refuse food and water for weeks and slow their breath and heart-beating so that they looked like marble statues or dead. Their thoughts were dwelling in the past at this time.

'You may come in. Speak to them, if you will.'

Beren entered Finrod's cell. The prisoner made no move when the door opened. He said no word, even his lashes did not move when Beren sat on the bed at his side.

The man touched his hand; it was warm—the Elf did not slow the circulation of his blood. But his thoughts were away from this world.

Beren had no idea what to say. The talk was being overheard, so he could not say anything important. Beren had a feeling he didn't even know anything important. The dark, pressing will of Sauron's could delve into his mind at once, should he weaken his resistance for a second. Beren was afraid to speak with Finrod mentally. Being himself always in the focus of Sauron's will, the highlander for the first time. felt sorry for Orcs

'You are kept as hostages,' he said.

The Elf made no reply.

'They will release you in a year and a day. I do not know whether I can believe Sauron in this, but I have no choice.'

Not a word.

Beren languished of despair. Should Finrod call him a traitor, spit him in the face, hit him, it would have felt easier. Probably.

'You know why I've agreed on this. For you,' he said helplessly.

The Elf made no movement, even his breath did not change.

Thûrineithel woke Beren at night; she said he moaned and tossed in his sleep.

From this day on his nightmares would come back. The Elf-woman prepared soporific potion and made him drink it. It would help at times; and at times not.

…This time food was not brought into the room. Thûrineithel came in.

'The Lord summons you for dinner,' she said. 'He wants you to meet somebody.'

* * *

'I want you to meet somebody,' Gorthauer said. 'I must warn you, it can be a test for both of you.'

'Why?' asked Illyo. 'Who is he?'

'A man. Of Beor's kin.' It was obvious that Gorthauer didn't want to tell more. 'He had suffered much during this war; for him it was very long. And he hates us.'

Orthanner raised his head, and the look of his eyes—clear, even wide open—was like a gust of fresh wind for Illyo. Gorthauer did want to save this soul. Did need help.

Illyo swore in his heart that he would help him, whoever this man was. Should he be even a thug from Barahir's gang.

'Let's go,' Orthanner said.

'He was captured not so long ago,' he continued to talk along the way to the dining hall. 'And I had to… treat him harshly. You must understand how he feels towards me now. That's why I can't do it. I have nobody to rely on besides you. Erweg is too hot-tempered, Soll is still a boy, Ethil… She can better convince with examples than with words. And the main thing is…'

Illyo strained inside.

'He is of the Edain,' Gorthauer continued. 'He has this sort of weakness for the Elves…'

Illyo nodded.

…At first it was hard in the village: those without knowledge spread rumors about his "cursed", "spoiled" blood; boys gathered together seven against him alone to beat him… He had to work hard to make them take him seriously, to respect him and with time even to love. He could even be his father's heir, though at first everyone thought that was out of the question. Should his father die after his mother, the baby Illyo would have been slain the first day after. But at ten years he was already the leader of all boys in the village. He could become the chief of the White Foxes after his father, but he relinquished this position to his stepbrother, for he desired more.

The Teacher admitted Illyo to Ast-Ahë at his father's special instance, not at fourteen, as usual, but at ten years. The Stronghold was very different. Nobody there loathed him for his Elven blood, its signs caused friendly curiosity, even some interest from girls and sometimes boys; for a long time Illyo could not understand the nature of this curiosity. The Elves mature late. But it did not matter anyway; when joining the Order, Illyo vowed celibacy.

Sweetflag roots

Are drinking clear water,

Piercing the barren soil…

Everyone considered it to be a high and noble impulse. Illyo thought a bit differently: having a family would have been a burden for him. And affairs without marriage were against his nature.

First he wanted to be a man as best as he could. And how could he be an Elf, born from a woman, raised in the Stronghold… But in his thoughts, movements, small details that at times only he was able to notice there was… something. And he learnt to use it. He loved mystery—the cool fern. Mystery attracted people and made them keep distance at the same time. And his look, definitely Elvish, added to his mystery.

All the rest were already present in the dining room: Erweg, Soll, Ethil, Daeireth… The man Illyo was supposed to meet entered almost at the same time through the other door. Thûrineithel accompanied him.

He looked like… Like a common beoring. Tall, slightly stooped, but his look was open, he was not hiding his eyes. Light eyes, dark hair with grey tresses in them. In the corners of his eyes and between his eyebrows there were early wrinkles.

'Suilad,' the half-elf decided to take a first step. 'I am called Illyo'.

'And I am called like this', the man made a beckoning gesture with his finger, pushed the chair aside and sat down. Illyo followed his example, not wanting the first sign of insolence to ruin the meal and the talk.

'This is Beren, son of Barahir,' Orthanner informed with ease, almost carelessly.

Daeireth's fork fell from her hand. As the youngest, she could restrain herself worst of all.

'The assassin of the Noldor!' she blurted.

'You're wrong, girl.' Beren nonchalantly dipped the piece of bread into the sauce. 'It was Gorthaur who hired me, and for the Noldor I killed by my heart's call.'

Illyo, looking straight at Beren, challenged him to look back.

'I'm glad to see you,' he said.

'Everyone was. Boldog was nearly moved to tears.'

'I was dreaming of crossing my sword with you,' Illyo teased, and the highlander jerked up his head.

Yes! A hit!

'You will have a chance,' Gorthauer smiled broadly. 'You can go dance with swords even today in an hour or two, after the meal.'

'Why wait?' Illyo said suddenly. 'I am not hungry.'

'Me neither,' Beren rose too. 'Let's go.'

Illyo cast an inquiring look at Gorthauer, the Maia nodded. Erweg could not resist a temptation to watch; with him, of course, went Daeireth. Thûrineithel joined them as well.

Illyo knew the way to the training hall; he saw it when it had been left by Elves and took trouble to keep it as it was without any changes. Without Orcs ruining wooden dummies on the chains, stealing dulled exercise swords and spoiling the floor. There they had no free rein; Gorthauer, when assaulting the castle, wanted to take it safe and sound, with all its treasures and goods preserved.

Illyo did not yield his turn to anyone. He chose a long and thin Elven-blade, and without even looking at Beren he knew that the man took the same weapon. The hall was warmed only by the heated bodies, and the air was chilly in this empty and scantily lit room. They breathed out vapor, but Illyo took off his jerkin and shirt to keep them clean; Beren did the same. There were some bruises on his chest and belly; he has been beaten recently. But it did not seem to hinder him from moving. Gorthauer has indeed had to treat the man harshly but he was lucky: Illyo knew some men that Gorthauer had to treat even harder. It was good when they could stand up after a month of such treatment. It couldn't be helped, war was war.

'Helmets, armlets?' asked Illyo.

Beren shrugged.

'What are we, pups?'

Illyo was glad: he didn't like to use protective gears in the training range. Better to fight all the time as if you don't have any armor on you, even the lightest. And Beren was hardly so unskillful to kill him by accident, and so foolish to do it on purpose.

From the very first sonorous strikes he understood that it was not a second-rate swordsman before him. Beren's movements were swift, his strikes heavy and dangerous; Illyo parried them not without effort. He was glad to have such a good opponent; he was able to feel joy of such things.

At his sign Erweg loosed the first dummy from its hook. It was released without a warning or a word, but Beren noticed the shadow that was flying to him, and dodged it. He parried two Illyo's attacks and the dummy flied back on its chain that was fixed to the beam of the ceiling. Beren moved away to let it fly before him and hit it with his sword to regain his balance. Then he jumped aside and kept aloof so that the dummy swinged on Illyo's way, hindering him from fighting.

Erweg and Daeireth loosed two more dummies; those were fixed in other places and swinged in different directions. The combined movements of all three became so unexpected that Illyo was first to miss one and he got a passing hit on the shoulder. He fell down into the sawdust, and rolled away at once; Beren was not going to be generous and let him stand up. Besides, according to the unwritten rules of training in Ast-Ahë, it was supposed to be like this: in real combat no one will play at nobility. Illyo rolled away, jumped up and rushed to attack again. Shadows were moving on the walls in accord with the jerking flames of the torches.

Maglor

Ah! The white-foamed haven, coasts of pearls…

The sea laughs not, it grieves;

The wind sings not, it groans.

Uinen weeps. Answer to me, brother of mine,

What is on thy hands? Is that crimson of wine?

Is that the forest berries… sap?

Tell me, brother of mine…

What is on thy blade?

Is that a rust that devours the shining sword?

Answer to me, brother of mine…

What is on thy face?

Are those sparks of waves?

Are those raindrops? Dew? Tears, brother, tears

Are running down my cheeks.

Can't return the hurrying time,

Can't remedy what was made.

The blood, brother, that is the blood

That has stained my blade, and my hands,

Stained my name. The worst woe, brother of mine,

Has overtaken the Immortal Land.

Not against enemy — against friend I have lifted my hand.

With the blood of my brother I have stained my sword.

I shall never cross the threshold of the pearled coast,

I shall not see Tirion on the white hill…

The darkness of Endore will be my lot.

Battles and grief for those who have chosen the wrong way.

Ah! The coast melts away, vanishes in gloom,

At another coast we'll search for redemption.

Are we destined to find it?

 

When the word "hope" will die on thy lips,

then your prays will fly to the External Sea.

In the waters of the External Sea

the seaweed does not live,

and the fishes do not live,

and boats do not float there,

for this sea is the eternal haze,

and the eternal haze flows in its currents.

Noble Lord Ulmo is not the lord of this sea,

of the dark sea.

It is our destiny,

the end of our path,

the end of all paths.

Hearken, the tempest is howling,

hear a thunder-storm raising,

look, the ancient darkness impends to the coast of thy.

Meet the Tempest!

The palm that is opened

does not keep neither gold, nor grief -

But the time will come,

will come next to you,

And then which word

You will tell to the water,

to the glacial water of the External Sea,

to the pale water

that is going, declining, impending,

to take thy soul?

 

Now cold, as ice, mountain peaks -

like ardent blood…

Echo-lies, I have heard

the hateful lupine howling.

Thou are going in twilight,

thou are going in a secret hall;

deep wounds and Mandos

are calling thou, master of a kin.

Here is the force of wrath and a secret knowledge -

the broken mountain's path

black immortelle is blossomed out

between ascending slopes of mountains.

The scarlet flame and the red gold

will kindle from our shields;

the rage and the horror will be

released free from the heavy sheaths.

Oh, my noble brother, rap out the song of crying.

I have broken my mind in the pieces,

But the sword is still keen. I shall see his face

And his palm, giving the form to the treasure,

Until the hunt will be stopped,

Up to the end.