Chapter 1 - Harbinger
Drunkenly asleep, tenderly awake,
clouded with grief, laughing like lightning,
angry at war, quiet with gratitude, we are nothing
in this many-mooded world of weather
but a single brushstroke down,
speaking of presence.
-Rumi from A Year with Rumi
Then Beleg departed from Menegroth and went back to the north-marches, where he had his lodges, and many friends; but when winter came, and war was stilled, suddenly his companions missed Beleg, and he returned to them no more.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Children of Húrin
The North Marches of Doriath, 486 First Age
I crept up behind a fallen tree and watched intently as the young buck cropped the frosty grass. The breeze brought me the smell of him, ripe with musky rut, but he foraged beyond my bow’s range. Slowly, I reached back for an arrow, fitted it to the string. Come hither, son of the forest. My companions are hungry. A snowflake appeared as if by magic, drifting lazily down.
Alerted by something outside even my well-honed senses, the buck jerked up his head. Then, with a flash of his white tail, off he bounded. Aiiii! Curse it! I struck my thigh with my fist. Warg’s teeth! The better part of an afternoon wasted tracking that beast, only to lose him. I can hear them now, the others in my company—we call ourselves the Shields, for that is what we are, shields of flesh between Doriath and the pits of Angband—the Shields will say ‘Mablung, Heavy-hand, returns empty-handed—again. He must have lost his touch.’ Disgusted, I shoved the arrow back in the quiver nigh its fellows, laid my bow on the log, which seemed dry enough, and tugged off the leather gloves to blow on my cold-reddened hands. I turned my right palm upwards, revealing the rough scar, and could almost see the jewel still there, glittering with the brightness of a star come to earth.
The sun was going down like blood, staining the clouds and the craggy snow-topped mountains of the Crissaegrim to the north. To my left, the river purled and clattered its cold music, the restless surface touched rosy-silver in the gloaming. My breath came like smoke.
Once again, that sense of foreboding that had been following me all day, arose in my gut. Where in Arda was Beleg? He should have returned by now from his little scouting foray. I could not help but imagine the worst and I’d seen enough of it to know. I saw my beautiful companion-in-arms overcome by a horde of orcs, lying broken and naked on the ground, raped bloody, flesh sliced into jagged pieces, or trampled into the mire until there was naught but a mass of blood and bones within a flared circle of long, dark hair. No good will mighty Belthronding be to you then, my heart. I heard the river begin to cry. The image of the Balrog looked up from King Fingon’s body, blood dripping from his hand, and he whirled his whip. Go away! I held my head, feeling the pounding return.
Ever since the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the battle so aptly named, these visions had troubled me, both during the day and in my dreams. All those bodies and legs and arms and heads strewn so thick upon the ground, the ground so black with blood. All those elves who had been so fair. The clouds of crows and kites shrieking, circling, and settling. It was incomprehensibly monstrous. Just last night I’d come awake with a start, sucking in air, reaching for Delugrist, my sword. And where was Beleg all this time? He ought to have been here, here defending his land, not off with Túrin, that reckless and ungrateful mortal. I had tried to master the anger, but it came upon me at odd moments. Then a fortnight ago, the doughty Beleg returned unlooked for out of the wild, bearing a new sword, a gift from our King. By the Belain’s mercy, I was glad to see him and I think he was glad to see me. But it was not the same as it had been in the long years past. Beleg’s body might dwell amongst his old companions, but his mind was clearly far off. What had transpired between him and Túrin, he would not say. And I, I would not ask.
I glanced down, noticed the whitened knuckles of clenched fists. Setting my jaw, I tugged the gloves back on. Mablung, you must calm yourself. It’s nigh on winter, not a time for war. There are neither Balrogs nor orcs nearby and Beleg Strongbow can well take care of himself. He’s done it all these long ages since the Beginning. So I said to myself with my dispassionate voice, the one that saved me countless times in the heat of battle.
The uneasy feeling grew. I am not too proud to say that as a warrior of Doriath, I am battle-hardened and as wary as that hart I just lost. These are the instincts of survival, so I heeded the feeling. Looking all about, I listened intently; heard naught but the racing river, the honking call of a goose in a nearby fen, and the tinkling creak and crack of ice along the banks of the Mindeb. Bits of snow drifted down.
Slowly I stood and then strode to the place where the hart had been grazing and continued my vigilance. Glancing northward, I took a moment to admire the mountains in their winter-dressed splendor, their peaks reaching to hold up the sky. A raft of clouds hovered low behind them, tinged with fire, and moving in my direction; I smelled moisture on the wind. More snow coming. I should get under cover soon, but drat! I had hoped to hole up in the lodge with a cache of meat to go with the barrel of wine I’d put aside in case Beleg did not come home. Curse that twitchy hart!
Then behind me and to the right towards the fen, there came a sound no hunter wants to hear—a deep snarling growl. Close by. It rippled right up my spine, startling me so badly that my whole body hurt. I turned and saw a dreadful sight: a mountain-sized auburn shape with ears flattened to her head was hurtling towards me with unnatural speed: fur rippling, snout open, teeth gleaming. A bear, by the Belain! And shite, one that meant business! And there was my cursed bow out of reach, back on the log! How could I have been such a lack-wit!
I scanned about me. Nowhere to run; no nearby tree. No choice but . . . with a shout, I drew Delugrist and raised it two-handed, just as the beast crashed into me, butting me with her huge head and knocking me flat onto my back. In a thrice, she reared over me, like a tower of wrath, and slung about with her front paws. Her jaws stretched wide with their wicked yellow teeth and she let out a bellow, like to shatter my ears.
“Easy now, mother, why so vexed?” I cried, although this one was clearly beyond reasoning with. She swiped heavily at me, knocking my helm so hard that it rang. I rolled away out of her reach, then tried to stand, managed to get to one knee, to raise my steel to ward the onslaught but she was upon me, batting me back and forth with the force of a sledgehammer. Knocked back to the ground, I swung the sword at her, but from my position, I could not put any force behind it, and the sword merely snicked her side, sending her into a treble fury. Three sharp claws raked down my cheek with a vicious sting, narrowly deflected from my eye by the raised visor. They did not spare my arm though, landing full upon it and knocking the sword from my hand. It clanged sickeningly down the slope of the river bank.
Desperately, I tried to pull my knife, but by then the bear was throwing her weight into her front paws, and thumping my chest repeatedly, so that I could scarce breathe, much less reach for anything. The arrow-filled quiver at my back helped matters not at all. Then, there sounded a crack that I felt more than heard. Pain shot through my side. A rib no doubt, perhaps two. Is this how it ends, then? After surviving more battles than I can count, facing down hordes of Morgoth’s foul beasts, Thingol’s much-honored captain will end up in a bear’s belly, become a bit of fat to feed her during the long winter slumber? How laughable.
The bear paused. Still resting her considerable weight on my chest so that even had it not hurt hideously I could have hardly breathed, she stared at me with small black eyes, lit by a frightening intelligence. Then curiously, she lolled out her tongue and flapped it about my face. Tasting me, no doubt. She was panting with a sharp huff; her carrion breath hit me in hot blasts. I wanted to vomit, but dared not move.
She snarled again, then leaned down and bit my shoulder right through the cape. There was a metallic crunching sound as her teeth met the rings of my mail shirt. Blessed be Telchar, the dwarf who wrought it. She liked that metal not at all, grunted, and snapped her jaws. I prayed to the Belain, assuming they cared. I was willing to hope they did. My fucking ribs hurt.
She sat back on her haunches, with a blessed shift of weight off my chest and clawed repeatedly at my mailshirt. Foiled, she swung her head back and forth for a moment, moved downward, sniffed at my leg, then sank her teeth into my thigh through the leather breeches. Pain!
With a shout, I lunged at her, punching her nose hard, startling her so that she released me and pulled back. Now it was time to imitate my prickly brother, the hedgehog, and play dead. Thus had Morgil, one of my march-wardens, fended off a bear attack. Unfortunately, he had not been so lucky at battling orcs. I flipped myself over, tucked in my head and arms, and lay as flat as possible, pulling my knife from the sheath as I went. I held it ready under my belly and waited.
The bear seemed maddened by the taste of blood. She placed a heavy paw on my back, ripped off a mouthful of my cloak, and spat it on my head, for which I did not thank her, then swatted at my quiver, clawed my backside, and tried diligently to flip me over. I lay, face pressed into the ground, inhaled the smell of cold clay, wondering if this was to my grave, while a sliver of flint dug into my clawed cheek. Each breath scorched my lungs like fire. The fluttering voice in my head, the one of despair, was laughing. How futile your life has been, Mablung, it said. But that other voice, the one that had been praised by the King for calm thinking in the midst of battle said to me: you must not lose consciousness. Surely you can save yourself. In truth, you’ve been in worse straits before. Remember when you and Beleg sliced your way out of a ring of thirty enemies, gaining the ridgetop? Ah, but then, whined the voice of despair, we were forced to watch from afar, impotent and gnashing our teeth, while the valiant Fingon died. Would Beleg and I ever live down that shame? I bit back a moan. Perhaps this was best: to make an end of it. Still, I would not lie down without a fight because that’s what I am, and perhaps all I am, first and foremost, a warrior.
Gripping the knife, I waited. The bear worked her paw under my chest, curving it around trying to get a grip, and when I deemed the time was right, I struck as hard as ever I could, like a darning needle, in and out. The bear roared and jerked her paw back with such force that she nearly ripped the knife from my hand.
There was a blessed pause in the assault. I looked back under my arm, saw her sitting hunched, her paw dripping blood. Her snout, wet as a dog’s, wrinkled as if she were sneering. Son of a warg, the beast wasn’t giving up. Lying so close to her, I could see her dulled coat, the ribs of hunger, and in her eyes I saw my death—which would give her life. It was the cycle of all things, in truth, we all must eat. It was just that I regretted my own end, having lived for so many years now, I was used to going on. Had it been worth it? Was my life spent defending Doriath, my King and Queen, my friends, even that best beloved and maddening captain of my heart, would it even be worth a song? Perhaps not.
So be it, I thought, as my hand closed over the hilt of my finely honed knife. If this was to be the end of Mablung’s life, at least she would pay dearly for taking it. Resolve hardened me to a keen edge. I rose up, wincing with pain, seized the knife in both hands, and holding it overhead, flew straight at the mountain of claws and teeth.
Just before I was upon her, the bear stood up on her hind legs, seemingly surprised by my audacity. I fell forward. Using my weight, I aimed to plunge the knife between her front legs right into the heart. But at the last moment she swerved and I missed the target, instead stabbing her just behind the shoulder–into her lungs, so I hoped. She bellowed, the sound like unto a battle cry, that was the only word for it, and seized me in a grip of terrible strength. I sawed the knife, forcing it deeper, while she slavered and tried to bite first my head, then my mail-clad neck. We embraced, almost like lovers, her fur pressed against my face, her stench engulfing me. Slowly her grip relaxed and she sat back abruptly on her haunches.
I broke away and ran with all I had in me over to the log, seized my bow, and turned to see her charging at me again, bent on murder. I hardly felt the wrenching pain in my side as I plucked an arrow from the quiver, fitted it, pulled, and sent the shaft directly into her chest. Although slowed, she was still coming in a jerky gait, so I sent another one just below the first.
The bear staggered, stopped and swayed for a long horrible moment, then crashed onto her side with a pitiful moan. She twitched and jerked for some time before lying still.
My heart hammering like battle drums, I sighted another arrow. Black spots danced on the landscape. No, I must be sure she was . . . and then the world spun around and I with it.
I became aware of the constant roar of the river and, found myself face down, one arm outstretched, hand still gripping my bow. My poor limbs were sluggish, hardly able to move with the cold. More snowflakes were floating down. The bear lay stiff and immobile about ten feet away, her magnificent strength reduced to a sad mound of reddish fur with a frosty white coating. It’s safe, I thought. Get up! By the gods, get up, or die of exposure!
With a hiss of pain, I pushed myself into a sitting position. I was atop a slight rise where the river had undercut the bank. My leather breeches were dark with blood over my left thigh. It seemed the cold had slowed the bleeding. I shook myself, wiped off my bow with a corner of my cape, , and stowed it over my shoulder. Was I hale enough to get up and walk? Shading my eyes, I watched as Anor lowered herself, with flared skirts, below the rim of the world. Upriver a bright orange spot appeared mid-stream—the dying light reflected on the water. Was it not?
I blinked, then squinted and watched as the image resolved itself into what seemed to be a burning craft, moving towards me. A boat aflame? With no discernable pilot and in this wilderness? What devilry was this? I could see the smoke and undulating flames but could not smell any burning. That was queer since I was downwind of it. My body prickled with apprehension. Was my mind playing more tricks?
I crawled closer to the bank of the river until my hearing was overwhelmed by the water’s angry roar. The boat swiftly approached, pitching in the current. It was heaped with weapons and adorned by two shields on the gunnels. A funeral boat. But whose? And why had it been set adrift in the river? I had heard that men might send a burning ship out to sea to bury a great warrior but it was not the custom of my people to do this and I should have received a message from the ravens if men had entered the borderlands of Doriath. The contents of the boat were nearly intact, meaning someone nearby had lighted it. And that was worrisome.
Although still far out in the middle of the channel, the craft was drifting closer, sooty smoke wavering this way and that. I discerned a human form lying prone on a raised bier, golden with flames, and I felt an urge to run, which I may have done if I had not been so banged up. Still, I could not tear my eyes away. The boat floated closer until it was just opposite me. Without warning, the thing in the boat sat up, turned a featureless face towards me, and raised a burning sword, as if in warning. The sword was black.
Ah shite! No. I tried to get up, instead fell back onto an elbow, and received for my trouble a shooting pain down my arm. My heart thundered in my chest, far louder than the fight with the bear had rendered it. I reached for Delugrist, but of course, my sword was not there at my side. I’d dropped it. When I returned my gaze toward the apparition, the entire craft, along with its eerie occupant, shivered and dissolved into nothingness.
Frozen into immobility, I stared and stared where the boat should have been. An ill omen for certain. My whole body tingled with it. Was it for me, this terrible vision of death? Was I dying? This was never how I imagined it would be.
As the remaining light bled out of the land, I became aware of the icy ground underneath me. My whole body was throbbing, more so in some places than others. Surely if I were dead, I wouldn’t feel pain, unless everything I’d imagined about death was wrong. And so it might be. The Mindeb began to sing, something ancient, wild, and incomprehensible. I lay back, giving myself to the cold.
Nearby, a fire crackled and there was a wonderful aroma of stewing meat that caused my stomach to growl. My thoughts swam up slowly through layers of haze and I discovered that I was lying in bed: naked and warm, covered in soft furs, my torso bandaged tightly. My ribs ached as if a smith had been beating out a sheet of metal on them. The left thigh was bandaged too. Well, that was something. Opening my eyes, I looked up into the smoke-blackened rafters, filled with baskets, furs, rope, strings of dried herbs, fish weirs, tools, and weapons. My lodge. Which meant I had been rescued, unless of course, this was Bannoth. If so, I thought that Badhron, the Doomsman, could have commissioned better rafter adornments than this, and I chuckled at the thought. Ow! My ribs wouldn’t let me do that again any time soon.
“Back among us, are you?”
It was Beleg. I would know that light voice with its thoughtful authority anywhere. Relief and gratitude pricked my eyes and for a moment I could not speak. I turned my head and saw him sitting in a wicker chair by the fire, his long legs crossed at the ankles, that cloud of dark hair loosely tied back from his face. He was wearing an unadorned deerskin jerkin that left his powerful arms bare, grey woolen leggings and something new, a necklace of curved bear claws. I could see tension in the lines of his forehead, but he gave me a smile that warmed me to the core.
“You’re here,” I said uselessly, turning my gaze back to the rafters. “Did you find any orcs?”
“Not a one,” he said. “They appear to be holed up somewhere, as all creatures should be this time of year. I did happen upon a wounded hunter passed out in the cold, and curiously enough, nearby lay a monstrous she-bear, dead as nails. I thought, there is a tale here.”
“Hunh,” I grunted. “Why did you rescue the fool?”
“Well, it seemed a waste of good chain mail to let him lie.”
“And my sword?”
“Safe. I found it balancing on the edge of the bank. It’s hanging up over there.”
I raised myself painfully and there was Delugrist’s hilt sticking out of the old leather scabbard. That made me feel better. Next to it hung Beleg’s new sword, its black hilt rising ominously above the sheath of gold-adorned leather.
“Did you get the bear?” I asked.
He laughed, then gestured at the pot. “As you see. I sent men out to gather the meat. They skinned and butchered her. Enough to last us a while. We’ve got bear soup if you’re feeling up to it. As for the rest of her, we tanned the hide.” He pointed to a huge reddish-brown skin stretched out on a frame at the other end of the room. “And,” he lightly touched the necklace, “we took her claws since she didn’t need them anymore. This is yours, when you’re ready for it. Well done, my friend.”
“Well done indeed,” I snorted. “She caught me napping, separated from my bow. The mistake nearly killed me.”
“Nearly is the key word,” Beleg said. “Do not slay yourself over it. You are still here, and she is hanging about my neck.”
“She got in her licks,” I said. “As you saw.”
“I did indeed. You’ll have some new scars to add to your collection.”
“Well, my face was never my best feature,” I said, grumpily. “So perhaps it will be improved by a set of claw marks. But I do not blame her. She was hungry.” I traced three rough lines slashed across my cheek. Scabbed over. That was odd. They should not have healed that fast. “How long have I been out?”
“Two and one-half days,” he said. He rose, came towards me, and sat on the bed, which depressed with a sound of crunching straw. He took my hand in his and his eyes were grave. “My friend, you were well on your way to Bannoth when Algaron and I found you. We carried you back here on a makeshift litter. You don’t remember? You spoke to me.”
“No,” I said. Although now I did remember unfocussed faces peering at me and talking in quietly urgent tones; then the sensation of jostling back and forth as I was carried in a sling. It hurt something fierce.
“‘Twas a heroic journey back here as you are no lightweight,” Beleg said with a chuckle. “Fortunately Algaron and I are doughty folk. We put you here by the fire under a pile of furs to warm you up. I bandaged your wounds and gave you a sedative for the pain. It has the added benefit of making one sleep. I daresay, you’ve been a perfect patient, no talking back, no fussing.” He smoothed the hair away from my face and I found myself trying not to respond to his touch.
“Are you saying I’m usually a difficult patient?”
He laughed. “I recall many times when I had to practically tie you to the bed.”
“You remember, eh? Even after being gone so long with that sulky son of Húrin?”
He frowned, but didn’t say anything. I attempted to sit up and groaned with the effort.
“Easy now,” he said, with a gentle but firm hand on my bare shoulder. “Two of your ribs were cracked; one broken. I did the healing on them, sang the songs. They should knit well if you rest and do not try your luck too quickly.”
“It’s good then that it’s winter and not the killing season,” I said. Suddenly weary, I lay back, content for the moment to rest my eyes on his handsome features. He looked much as I’d always known him, perhaps more weary and less cocky than of old. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with powerful, veined muscles in his arms and chest from years of wielding his bow. His eyes were intensely blue, like a deep lake in summer, a spray of starlight in each iris; his face long and narrow with a strong, straight nose, a sharp chin and the high cheekbones of our kind, which currently looked red from the wind. There was a small white scar on his right cheekbone. I remembered the sword cut that caused it. In fact, I remembered where every scar was on his body, having been at hand when many of them were inflicted; having traced them all with my fingers and mouth in the dark nights when all we had to keep us from madness was the immediacy of our warm bodies. The scabs on my cheek itched. I rubbed them with rough fingertips.
Beleg caught my hand. “Don’t scratch it and the scars should heal clean,” he said. “Do not worry about your pretty face. The scars are thin. Besides, you’ll be able to scare off enemies all the better with a visage that declaims, ‘here is one who survived a bear’s loving caress.’”
“I suppose that’s all my face is good for anymore—to frighten our enemies, and perhaps our friends as well. How long ‘til we’re naught but a web of scars, held together by a few sinews and bone?”
“Until some weapon finally wounds us beyond healing,” Beleg said gravely. “Can you eat some soup?”
I nodded. “It was the smell of it woke me. Where are the other Shields?”
“Baimeldir is leading a patrol,” he said as he rose and went to the simmering pot to ladle the thick brown liquid into a bowl. “I imagine the rest are either hanging the bear meat in the smoke house or sitting in the Fire Hall, drinking the wine that arrived yesterday—sent up by the Queen in reward for our watchfulness. Something to cheer the long winter nights, so the note said. They’re all quite ready to make merry withal. I chased them out last night but I fear they may show up before long.”
“And I slept through all that? You brew a powerful sedative.”
“Are you sorry?” His smile was white and strong in his wind-burned face. He came back to my bedside, carrying the steaming bowl.
“Not at all. I could use another dose before they get here,” I said as I accepted the hot bowl of soup into my hands. In truth, all I wanted was deep oblivion and to wake finding his arms about me. We rarely get what we desire.
I was standing by the river, watching the fiery funeral boat pitching about in the flood. The man on the bier sat up and brandished his sword; flames licked up and down the length of it. Smoke rose about him like a flock of crows and I awoke with a gasp.
A cold blast of wind stirred my hair and the front door banged shut. There was Algaron Wolf-bane just coming in, bearing a wine cask on his shoulder. He set it down with a thump on the table. Algaron was very large-boned for an elf and wore his sable hair in multiple thin braids caught up together into one long tail. He was followed by the brothers, Maedion and Gaelfaron, both cursed with hair the color of moonlight, which normally they had to cover with helm or hood when on patrol because it stuck out like waving a flag. For many years now, we had been comrades-in-arms, and sometimes we’d shared more than friendship. I found myself glad to see them.
“How fares our bearslayer?” Algaron said in a hearty voice.
Beleg looked up from the chair by the fire where he’d been doing some mending, pulling the needle through the cloth in fine stitches. I noticed it was my cape he was repairing and that he was patching a large mouth-shaped piece. “Sleeping,” he said, “or he was until your party blew in.”
“Your nursemaid has kept us out for three days,” Algaron said to me. “Most everyone else is in the Fire Hall, but we thought we’d bring you some cheer. Are you hale enough for company? We want to hear your tale.”
I waved him in weakly, found that I was sweating, and flung the furs away from my chest. “There’s not much to tell, but I’ll take a cup of Queen Melian’s gift,” I said, as I struggled upright on the pillows.
Algaron grinned. Maedion set down his harp, and then the three of them stomped their feet on the mat, untied their capes, shook off the dusting of snow, and hung them up.
“Hand me a hammer, Cúthalion,” Algaron said and once Beleg had risen and found the tool, Algaron produced a wooden tap, which he proceeded to drive into the top of the cask. The brothers busied themselves finding tankards in my cupboard and were waiting when at last Algaron flipped the cask over on its side and turned the tap, filling the one Gaelfaron held out. Beleg had heated an iron rod in the fire; he withdrew it from the coals and held it out to Gaelfaron, who thrust the tankard onto it with a sharp hiss, and then brought the cup to me.
“First one goes to the hero,” he said in his raspy voice, which had been damaged many years ago by an orc arrow. He handed me the steaming vessel.
“That would not be me, then,” I said.
“Oh, he’s going to be difficult, is he?”Gaelfaron said to Beleg, who merely raised his eyebrows.
“Take it so we can toast the King and Queen,” Beleg said quietly.
“Very well. Anything for the Queen,” I said. Gaelfaron pressed the cup into my shaking hands.
The vintage was strong and well-aged so it wasn’t long before we were all in much better cheer, laughing and singing. The four of them sat near the bed, their faces lit by firelight. Algaron tilted his chair back against the wall near my head. He sat opposite Gaelfaron. Those two were the noisiest, toasting to nothing, and telling stories. Maedion sat further away, hunched over his harp. In between songs, he plucked the strings quietly, head tilted as if experimenting with the sound. His hair hung down like a silver-white curtain. Over by the fire, Beleg was mostly silent, although he smiled at their chatter and every so often he would contribute something. Algaron and Gaelfaron were waxing garrulous, retelling every bear story they’d ever heard.
“Caegaran was stuck up in that pine for nearly two days,” Algaron was saying with a laugh. “There was nothing he could do. He even resorted to pissing on the beast, but it had no effect. The bear just snarled at him and camped there, occasionally rocking the tree to try to shake him out. He said he thought it would never leave.”
“Where is Caegaran now?” Beleg asked. “I haven’t seen him since I got back.”
Algaron gestured with his cup in a southerly direction. “The King gave him leave to go home to Nivrim so he could marry his betrothed. Caegaran said the poor woman had waited long enough. Last I heard they had a little one. A boy.”
“A baby boy, well, that gladdens my heart,” Beleg said.
“Good for him, at least someone around here can go home,” Maedion said. I heard the note of longing in his voice.
“Caegaran had seen enough killing,” I said. “He was done.”
There was a pause as we looked at one another, for a moment made sober. In many ways we were all done—long ago. If all the countless skirmishes and earlier battles of Beleriand hadn’t accomplished it, the fifth battle, the Nirnaeth Arnoediad had, even for those who had not witnessed it for themselves. I often wondered what kept us here, except the King's orders and the knowledge that since that terrible defeat there weren’t enough of us to man the fences, and one gone home meant one less to help those who remained. As for myself, what else was I to do? I had no desire to marry. My inclinations did not run that way. I was a warrior and that was all. And yet . . . if I allowed myself to think of it, I too, had dreams.
Then Algaron said, “Come now, Mablung. Tell us your tale. It’s not often that someone takes down a bear single-handed.”
I thought of the bear’s eyes looking into mine, of how terrified I was. “I’m not a hero, Algaron. I set my bow on a log, walked away, and she came seemingly out of nowhere. I thought I’d made my last mistake.”
“Oh a ghost bear that manifested from the air, then?” Gaelfaron grinned.
“I wish,” I said, “I’d have preferred less substantial paws thumping my chest to the ones she used.”
“How did you fend her off?” Algaron asked. I shook my head. He shifted forward so that the front legs of his chair landed with a bang. “Curse it, Mablung, don’t worry about a moment’s lapse. We all make ‘em from time to time and the fact is, you are still here. As for us, we’ve been stuck doing orc patrol in the mud for the past month with nothing near so exciting to tell of. I want to hear your story.”
“It’s still too raw in my thinking. Maybe later when I’ve rested, and then Maedion can cast it into verse if he likes.”
“Heavy-hand is being cryptic,” Gaelfaron said. “I think we should invent the story ourselves, Algaron. Isn’t that what the bards do anyway? Embellish on the truth?”
“Very well, we’ll act it out.” Pleased with his idea, Algaron plunked down his tankard rather too hard on my bedside table, and leaped to his feet. “I’ll just relieve you of this, Strongbow,” he said and lifted the string of claws off Beleg’s neck and wound it around one hand, which he brandished.” Beleg laughed. “Too bad the skin is still curing in the stretcher,” Algaron said. He took up one of the hides from my bed—a large wolf fur. “This will have to do,” he declared and flung it about his shoulders, tying two legs about his throat.
“It becomes you, Wolf-bane,” I said.
“You’ll have to pretend I am a bear rather than a wolf,” Algaron said. He grimaced and arched his clawed hand. Now then, Gaelfaron, you are Mablung, the Fearless.”
“This is epic poetry we’re creating, so of course our hero is fearless whether he believes it or not himself. Isn’t that usually how it is?” Algaron walked unsteadily towards the wall and lifted Delugrist off its peg, took my helm from the stand and tucked it under his arm. He paused and contemplated the sword Anglachel. “I don’t like your new sword, Beleg,” he said. Beleg merely nodded.
Algaron returned. “Wrap this around your lusty loins,” he said and tossed my sword to Gaelfaron, who caught it like the deft swordsman he was and buckled the belt about his waist. Then, with much show, Algaron shoved my helm down on Gaelfaron’s head and clanged shut the visor. Gaelfaron wheeled about drunkenly as if he could no longer see.
Maedion was watching with a grin. He thrummed his fingers across the strings. “I’ll sing the opening,” he said.
“What about Beleg?”
“Cúthalion can be a mouse since he’s always disappearing like one,” Algaron said, causing the others to hoot.
“It’s a talent you lack, apparently, even when you’re told to get lost,” Beleg replied, the corners of his eyes crinkled with mirth. He chugged from his tankard, set it down and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
“Beleg could be the hart I was trying to shoot,” I suggested.
“Oh, there was a hart?” Algaron lifted a brow. “You see, I told you we could get the story out of him. Very well then. Beleg, you go stand over there and sniff the breeze looking regal and empty-headed. It should not be too hard.”
The Shields were such jokers. We had to be or life would have soon become unbearable. As much as I was resisting them, their antics were lifting me out of my dark mood and I couldn’t help smiling. Beleg, watching me, seemed affected by the spirit of play himself. He curled his fingers into horns and held them over his head, then moved to the end of the room where he proceeded to perform an uncannily accurate imitation of a deer, bending down and then suddenly lifting his head to stare this way and that, still chewing.
“Very good,” Algaron crowed. “Now then, let’s begin. Maedion, I yield to your skills . . .”
“As you’ve yielded to them often enough,” Gaelfaron said with a smirk.
“‘Tis not so. I yield to no man. Your brother bunks best on the nether bench,” Algaron said. It was a line from a bawdy poem, and it made us laugh.
“Do you wish me to play or to have fun insulting me, because you won’t get both.” Maedion tossed his head, but he was smiling.
Algaron went to him and, swaying a bit, got down on one knee. “Please good minstrel, who I am given to understand never takes it up the arse, even though I’m privileged to know otherwise, would you please sing for us?”
“Only if you prove properly entertaining,” Maedion said. He plucked a series of discordant notes.
“I’ll entertain you properly later,” Algaron said and caught the back of Maedion’s head, pulling him into a kiss.
Beleg cleared his throat from his position across the room. “Are we doing this, or not? If not, you’d best entertain yourselves elsewhere.”
“Said as if you and Mablung have never been seen rolled up in your cloak before,” Gaelfaron said. “Come along brother, give us a tune.”
Pulling away from Algaron, Maedion strummed a chord and began:
“Sing we now of the fair Mablung march-warden
Powerfully built, and girt with hard steel
Who tackled the fell wolf Carcharoth, sliced him open
Retrieved the Silmaril from his fire-scorched belly
Held it aloft, the sparkling jewel
The hard-won token, dazzling all eyes
‘Til the weight of it bent Mablung down
Scorching his hand, so he was renowned.”
“They know all that, Maedion,” I growled. “Get on with it.”
“Famous for his prowess” . . . at this Maedion winked at me and I felt myself blush,
“The hunter set forth, with sword and with bow
To bring the Shields meat to cheer the cold winter
Strode to the river Mindeb, searched far and wide
And there he beheld a rough-coated hart
Head crowned by a rack, a massive ten-pointer.”
“Two-points,” I said, with a laugh.
“Hush, this is poetic license,” Gaelfaron said. “Go on, Maedion.”
“Swiftly he crouched and his bow made ready.
Carefully he aimed, pulled the string slow and steady.”
Maedion stopped, nudged Algaron with his foot. “I have set the scene, get in position now, Bear.”
“Quite so,” Algaron said. He lunged to his feet, then shambled about the room, hunched over, grimacing, growling and waving his claws about in such comic fashion that we were all laughing until the tears came. I tried to restrain myself to avoid hurting my ribs, but it was hard.
“So, friend Mablung,” Gaelfaron said. “What happened then?”
“Well, I would surely have seen the bear if she’d been making a racket like that, so for veracity’s sake, you had best shut up, Algaron. As for the hart, I’d been tracking the beastly thing all afternoon and when I finally got up close enough to shoot . . .”
“Stop there,” Gaelfaron cried. “I’ll act it out.” He drew an invisible arrow from over his shoulder and then began creeping up on Beleg, his hands positioned as if drawing a bow, while Maedion strummed rapidly.
Beleg pawed the floor and snorted. Algaron released the invisible string. “Did I hit him?” he called.
“He ran away before I even got off one rod,” I said.
“Run away, Stag,” Algaron called.
“I don’t even get to tackle him,” Gaelfaron mourned. “I was looking forward to that.”
Beleg strolled back to the chair by the fire, picked up his tankard and refilled it. “So far this is not terribly enlightening,” he said.
“When did the bear show up?” Algaron asked.
“Just after the hart took off. I . . . felt something strange,” I said. “I left my bow on a log and went to investigate.”
“Go on then, Gaelfaron,” Algaron said. “Go stand like an idiot in the open so I can maul you.”
Gaelfaron dragged his chair out, pretended to lay his bow upon it, then went to the center of the room and shaded his eyes, looking about exaggeratedly. “Where are you my dear?” he called. “Come out, dear fellow, so you can join me for dinner.”
I said, “At that moment the bear appeared, seemingly out of the air, and came at a gallop. Before I could prepare, she knocked me on my arse.”
Algaron came flying out the corner, his arms flapping about like some great bird, growling and frothing at the mouth. He flung himself on Gaelfaron who stumbled backwards and fell right over the chair, somersaulting over it with Algaron on top of him. They landed on the floor in a tangle of limbs, where they lay, laughing themselves breathless. The rest of us roared and I hung onto my sides.
“It’s a wonder that bruin didn’t kill herself at the first pounce,” Algaron said as he attempted to right himself. “I think I impaled myself on Delugrist.”
“And here you told me you never play the sheath,” Maedion said with mock sorrow. “It seems I could have turned the tables on you. I have been wronged.”
This set off another gale of laughter until Gaelfaron called, “What did she do then, Mablung?”
“She licked my face,” I said, “and apparently liked the way I tasted because she tried to make a meal out of my thigh. Go on Wolf-bane, try it!”
Algaron stuck out his tongue and licked Gaelfaron’s face in one long swipe, from chin to eyebrow. Gaelfaron grimaced, shoved at Algaron’s chest trying to get away, and making terrible sounds of disgust. Algaron held him down as he straddled his hips and proceeded to hump enthusiastically against him. “I will take my pleasure, elf, before I eat your face!” he crowed. Gaelfaron struggled and kicked his feet up and down.
“That is enough!” Beleg said in an icy voice.
I felt my smile dissolve. Maedion ceased strumming his harp; Algaron and Gaelfaron paused in the midst of their grappling and looked at him in surprise.
“I am in earnest,” Beleg said, frowning. He got up and gestured at them with his tankard. “We are elves. We should not act like the Gaurwaith, the uncouth wild men of the woods.”
Algaron and Gaelfaron’s expressions fell, both looked a little shamefaced. Algaron rolled off Gaelfaron and said, “It was only in fun, Beleg.”
“I know and that’s how it begins,” Beleg said more softly. “We should let Mablung rest. He’s only just awakened this afternoon.”
Algaron nodded and both he and Gaelfaron picked themselves up from the floor. Gaelfaron took off the helm and sword and hung them on the pegs while Algaron removed the wolf skin, and unwound the bear claws from his hand. He offered the necklace to Beleg, who took it and set it on the table.
“We’ll go on to the Fire Hall, then,” Maedion said. “I am not yet tired and could sing some more. What say you?”
“That suits me,” Algaron said. “I challenged Thorvalan to a game of darts earlier.”
“Thank you for coming,” I said. “It did cheer me. I promise I shall tell you the whole tale of the bear when I’m more fit for company. Just now I find it weighs too heavily. It was a near thing.”
“I look forward to it,” Maedion said. He stood with his harp tucked under one arm, came over to me, bent and kissed my brow. “Glad I am to see you in better spirits, my dear.”
“Good night, friends,” Beleg said. “Leave some wine for us.” He gave them a rueful smile.
“You stopped our saga in the midst of the action. As penalty, your wine is forfeit, Strongbow,” Algaron said, as he tied on his cape. He hoisted what was surely a much lighter cask onto his shoulder. “Good night and sleep well. Come on lads.” The others put their hands on their hearts and bowed, shrugged on their capes, and with some of the high spirits resumed, Algaron slung his other arm about Maedion’s waist and followed Gaelfaron out the door.
-to be continued-