~ The sky burned red as a conflagration, as if some god had lit a vast fire below the rim of the world. And he had indeed been called a god, and the inferno he ignited was war. In Mordor, long quiescent Orodruin was still in sullen eruption, turning the sunsets crimson and purple, setting the clouds aflame. Red. The colour of blood, the colour of war.
The falcon flew as if hunted by demons – one demon, at least, for was he not that, and the greatest? There had once been dragons that ruined cities and wrecked mountains in their fall, valaraukar creatures of flame with whips of fire, werewolves, orcs, trolls, and Melkor, master of them all, now banished from the world. But he, he had survived.
So she flew, a falcon’s flight into freedom, away from imprisonment, away from the destruction of the truth that wrapped around her mind like fire, like fetters. As he had tried to.
But she was weary, close to exhaustion. The power she had opened herself to was greater than any she had tapped before. It had been there, waiting for her, belling a warning even as it beckoned, but there had been no choice, at least for her. And so she had grasped at it, gulped it down like too-potent wine, like the legendary white mead of the Valar – and fled.
She had no fixed destination at first, the to less important than the from. She fled from torment and she fled from betrayal; that latter reaching far beyond the anguish of a woman whom had loved her father, would have trusted him with her life. Perhaps she would never recover from the brutality of that betrayal, but what came after was a treachery of such magnitude that it spanned Ages, went back into a time beyond her knowledge. It would shatter kingdoms and change the world.
A crucifying spike of memory, of his strong arms holding her when she was a child, frightened of the storms breaking over Ost-in-Edhil, gave her a fresh impetus of rage. Her wings seared the air.
She had been flying all day; through passes in the grey Ered Lithui, veering South, feeling the East wind off the steppes sleeking her feathers. She flew, and the sun paced across sky.
Perhaps, in the recesses of her mind, there was a destination that guided her flight. He had spoken of lands in the South and East, rich, exotic places, but across the Harad stretched the Dune Sea and the Mirror of Fire. Trade roads crossed them, but such a journey would be savage.
Behind her, like a vast, fiery shadow rising against the sky, she could sense him, his towering fury. It terrified her beyond measure, the truth of him, his power. That he had power, she had always known, that he was a Fey, but she had not come close to guessing how much. Or whom he was.
Her mother had known his true identity though, and almost from the beginning. For a time she had hated Culinen, retreated into horror and fury, suicidal. Terrified of herself, of what she might do. Blood of Fëanor, blood of the Ainur. What might she not do?
Aulendil, Annatar...Gorthaur the Cruel. Sauron. The names seemed writ before her eyes in flame, trailing into a long, bloody past. Melkor’s lieutenant, whom had walked the deeps of Angband, the Hells of Iron, whose essence went back into a time before Time. Enemy of Elves and Edain.His dominion was torment.
Her father, Aulendil, sometimes frightening, always demanding as much of herself and her intelligence as she could give. He had no use for mental laziness, and she sharpened her own mind on the whetstone of his, was buoyed by his praise, glowing with pride when he bestowed it, knowing it was earned.
Her father, Sauron, whom had tortured Maedhros in his captivity, broken Finrod Felagund before succumbing to Lúthien’s own Song of Power. And not a half of his deeds of cruelty were known, she suspected, less than that.
And despite it all, despite everything, she had never truly thought he would hurt her. Neither had he, not personally, but she did not know if he had ordered her torment in the Barad-dûr.
Clouds were building a cross her path, giant white thunderheads whose tops frayed into ice crystals, the anvil-shape of storm clouds. She could not avoid them; they were towers higher than Barad-dûr, mocking her with their enormity. A vein of lightning flickered toward the ground.
She had to land, to Change, find shelter, rest. In her fatigued state, it was easy to imagine that he reached out his hand from the north and brewed the storm to hinder her. Whether that was true or no, she could not fly through the rain.
The sun vanished; the air, dark now, crackled with energy. A curtain of rain enveloped her, lightning broke the air in blazing arteries, and the shock of thunder sent her hurtling, with a hawk’s scream, toward the ground.
She saw the crumpled shadow of hills split with narrow green verdure, the pallid gleam of buildings, a pool glinting in the last of the light, grass whirling up to meet her...And there was a music, somewhere, awful, beautiful...and his voice saying his name for her: ‘Náryen.’
Hearing returned first, peering from the soft darkness of sleep. She heard the musical dance of water, as if a fountain were playing nearby, the soft whisper of a breeze. The air smelled of linen dried in the sun.
Her limbs were bedded comfortably, her head pillowed. She thought for a drowsy, delicious moment, that she was at home, drifting betwixt sleep and waking, untroubled, unthinking but slowly a deeper sense, never fully asleep, lifted her into consciousness.
The room was spacious, filled with the golden light of late afternoon. Its walls were hung with tapestries in rich reds, yellow, orange, hot, bright colours; long drapes stirred in a warm breeze and from beyond them came the light, endless music of a fountain.
A low couch was set against one wall, a table at its side. Near her, a smaller table held a jug in a wide bowl and a cup. A sense of disorientation sparked through her mind. Just so had she awoken after almost committing suicide, unable to bear the knowledge of whom her father was, of what she herself might do. Blood of a monster. But she had been followed, Sámaril and Thorno had pleaded with her, caught her and carried her back to her home. When she woke she had been alone, but her mother’s scent lingered in the room.
Mother. Another crevasse loomed, deep and black. Her mother was dead, her spirit called to those dark Halls in the West. So much for her romantical thoughts of changing Sauron through love. No-one could change another person, not the core of them, that choice had to come from within. And he had chosen power.
She propped herself up cautiously, concentrating her mind inward as her father had taught her, to assess, to heal. She could find little amiss with her body that more rest would not put right. (But, oh! the Changing had hurt!) Her mind was another matter, scorched, tender.
She reached for the jug and paused, noting her bare arm, its cleanness, the faint trace of a flowery soap that clung to the skin. Her hair, too, had been washed of grime and combed. But her wrist looked too lean and there were scars, already fading to silvery lines. On one finger gleamed the superlative mithril ring he had made for her. Her captors had not seemed inclined to remove it. She had tried, wanting to hurl it far away, smash it to pieces, melt it to slag as she had that other ring she had once worn – I want nothing from you! But it resisted her efforts, even as her hand thinned through self-imposed privation, its subtle power purring against her skin.
It was an effort not to knock the jug across the room. How could he? His voice echoed back to her across the years ...My little love. I will never let anyone or anything hurt you.*
Her lips pressed together, trembling. She wanted to scream, rage, hurt him.
Deliberately she lifted the jug, poured.
It was water flavoured with mint, lemon and honey, and cut through the dryness at the back of her throat like an elixir, spread down her throat and into her stomach. The torpor of long sleep faded; a pity, she thought, since now she would have to face everything she had fled from. She straightened her shoulders. I am Fëanorion. Half, anyhow. The other half...She lifted her chin.
A quiet knock sounded. She stiffened, but the sound was gentle rather than peremptory and would not have woken a sleeper. She had the feeling that if she told them to go away they would do just that.
‘Enter.’ She pulled the sheet up over her bare breasts and then, as the door opened, so did her mouth.
The man who walked in looked like a god, if a god could look like an Elf. He also looked familiar, although she had never, she knew, seen him before. He was wide shouldered and slim, with endless legs shod in black breeches and leather boots. His hair was drawn up, falling in a thick braid which swung above his knees. His skin was a flawless cream, with a straight nose and moulded mouth. And his eyes were purple, glowing under thick lashes like jewels set in silver. It was not the light of the Trees, for she had seen that. It was harsher, far colder. His presence was like a punch out of the dark. In the tranquil room he blazed like a luminous black torch.
Horribly aware she was not – yet – in any condition to fight or draw on her powers, she stared, holding herself rigid, holding harder to what she knew. She knew she had flown a long way, yet here was...whatever he was. She wondered if he had somehow confused her flight, taken her back to Mordor because she felt, and for no real reason at all, that this strange man was connected in some way to Sauron. But this was not the Barad-dûr. There was none of that tang in the air, the oils and metal of the great machines that throbbed like a distant, perpetual thunder through the titan edifice of the Tower. The light was too calm and golden to belong to the desolation of the Gorgoroth.
Emboldened by her march of logic, she pressed all the power she could summon into her eyes and glared.
The man said: ‘I am glad to see thee awake, lady.’
His words were like an ancient scroll unfurled, the voice smoky-rich as incense in some unknown temple. The Sindarin was antique. It cast her back into confusion mainly because there was no threat in it. She had become almost to expect verbal violence, with a greater violation promised. Her hands fisted in the sheet.
‘Who are you?’ she asked abruptly. ‘Where is this?’
‘My name is Vanimórë,’ he said. ‘And this is Saikan.’
Her mind scrambled with a mental map. ‘The Harad?’
‘On the edge of the Mirror of Fire, Lady. May I?’ He indicated a footstool, and when she shrugged, drew it forward with one foot and sat down, folding those long legs. He was dressed simply in black doeskin, its severity like a uniform. A knife rode in a sheath at his thigh, another at his waist. His hands were long-fingered, bare of rings, but she saw the sword callouses as he rested them on one knee, and he moved with the confident grace of a warrior. She caught the scent of bath-clean skin and the woody musk of sandalwood.
‘Did you...’ she hesitated. ‘find me?’
‘We were hawking.’ He nodded toward the shrouded windows. ‘And a storm came on. It was strange, that storm, so swift and violent. It seemed to come out of nowhere. We turned to come back and found thee by a small lake a league or so away. It looked as if thou hadst tried to reach the water and collapsed. Thou wert drenched and chilled. We brought thee here.’
‘And washed me?’ Her voice was wary around the edges.
‘The women of the house bathed thee, tended thy wounds and put thee to bed. They watched over thee until it was clear thou wert in a natural sleep.’
She nodded, relieved, yet annoyed that she was grateful for simple consideration from a man. How easily the expectations of a lifetime could be stripped away! She remembered how her pride had been stung when her father and Tyelperinquar had refused to allow her to work on the Rings. ‘Not suitable for a woman,’ her father had said and explained, after, that such use of curwë would involve opening herself to the minds of Men. That was not a place he wished his daughter to explore. She had thought then, it was a clumsy excuse. No excuse at all, in fact. Was it, rather, that, as his daughter, it would have brought her too close to his mind? **
But in one thing he had not lied: the minds of men could be a cesspit. To be a woman meant more than injured pride; there was the dreadful helplessness of being seen as an object, her body used against her. She was no fool, knew such things happened among Men (and even to males themselves; rape as a weapon of war was as old as history) but one could know a thing and yet have no real knowledge until it was there, there in the pinching hands and leering mouths, the power in the eyes that made you nothing, stripping you (and all your accomplishments, your intelligence, your individuality, your fine, fiery pride) of personhood.
Fear had lashed her into fury, had opened her mind to the power that waited, seething, in her veins, power that she had not wanted to even touch when she learned from whence it came. But, when she needed it, it came like a hawk to the lure.
‘Thank you,’ she said stiffly polite. ‘would it be possible to call in one of your wives? I need the use of the necessary.’
‘Certainly,’ He rose again. ‘Thou art quite safe, lady. Try to rest and heal.’
She was not so certain now that he did have anything to do with Sauron. But, as she reached towards his mind, she found a steel-hard wall erected. It would wait. She inclined her head, gave him something back for his courtesy.
‘I am called,’ she said. ‘Mélamírë.’ And you call yourself Vanimórë, but what are you?
She did not see the man for several days, but when they learned their guest was recovering, the women came to spend time with her. In the beginning they were visibly nervous, as if she were an exotic creature half-wild, possibly dangerous, yet they also seemed fascinated by her. She could not, at first, understand their tongue, but one advantage to having both Elven and Maia blood was a facility with languages.
The wives, of which there were many, were large, lovely brown-skinned creatures with huge eyes, who twisted brilliant scarves about their heads and whose ankles and wrists chimed with heavy silver. When she indicated she was ready to leave her rooms, they lead her out into the small courtyard bright with potted flowers. A high wall blocked the view, and though it was a pleasant enough place to sit in the morning or evening, watching the women talk, sew, sip their tea, Mélamírë could not imagine living in such enclosed circumstances.
But their obvious contentment went some way toward calming her. When she moved past their initial wariness, she found them kind, generous, inclined to humour. Whomever (whatever) their husband was, there were no fingerprints of cruelty in their minds.
That the strange man was the women’s husband was a misunderstanding corrected during one of these idle afternoons. They referred to ‘our Lord’ and ‘the Prince’, when speaking, and Mélamírë had assumed they were talking of the same person, but no: their lord and husband was Prince Tonda-kai of Saikan. Prince Vanimórë was ruler of Sud Sicanna. She did not know this? But surely – she had the eyes of the Shendi – like him – she knew this, no? Ah, she was teasing! They chuckled.
Shendi. What did that mean? Oh, (with some embarrassed looks) the White Ghosts of the North, immortal, killers, half-demons. That is how the stories went, did she understand? But of course, they did not mean she was a demon (more furtive glances). Elves, Mélamírë thought. They meant Elves.
Her confusion and curiosity bloomed afresh. In his long absence from Ost-in-Edhil, her father had written letters from the south and east, even passed through Sud Sicanna, but never mentioned anything about the ruler; it was the kind of news that would travel especially if, as she had gleaned, he had been ruler for ‘many, many lifetimes’.
Anger spiked again. Those letters, filled with news, affection and the hope of soon being united with his family, had been lies, a smokescreen, the smoke that of war. Damn you. Damn you!
Decisively, she rose. ‘Would you be kind enough to tell Prince Vanimórë that I would like to speak to him?’
He came with that long-sliding walk and she frowned. She was still certain she had seen him before, or someone like him.
‘Thou art looking better, Lady Mélamírë.’
‘Thank you.’ She still felt fatigued at times, near to tears and closer still to anger. She clung to the anger; it was, she felt, more healthy, easier to deal with. She had never been a woman who wept easily, and she did not intend to become one now.
‘I depart within a few days,’ he continued. ‘and I do not know whether thou wouldst wish to remain here. The Prince will house thee as long as thou doth wish, he has assured me–‘
‘That is generous of him,’ she interrupted, ‘but I mean to go on.’ Somewhere far away where his hand could not reach.
‘And fly where, Lady?’ She started. ‘I saw thee come out of the north on falcon’s wings, smelling of the lightning. I saw thee fall, but when I found the place, there was a woman.’ He raised a hand, palm upward. ‘It is none of my business, but I am curious. Who would not be?’ ***
She thought furiously, and to give herself time, said, ‘And I am curious too. Who are you and how do you come to rule a city-state in the Harad.’
A little silence fell. He smiled radiantly, but it was like a slap in the face. It was her father’s smile, a memory of a time long ago and forever lost. There was not even any comfort in it.
‘Fair enough.’ The smile faded. ‘It is no secret, but thou – thou art a mystery. Thou wert imprisoned, tortured, shackled. Thou wert fleeing for thy life and thou didst speak in thy dreams. I would like to help thee if I can.’
She folded her arms, a defensive gesture, and she realised it with some annoyance. ‘What did I say?’ she asked warily.
He did not answer immediately, those brilliant eyes on hers. When he did speak, he seemed to choose the words with infinite care.
‘Thou didst speak of thy...father. Words both of love and of hate. Of thy mother. Of betrayal. Of a war in the north, in Eregion, Ost-in-Edhil.’
Mélamírë blew out a long breath. ‘You know of these places?’
‘I do, yes.’
‘You’ve been there?’
‘Yes, long ago.’ There was no expression on his face.
‘He...gathered armies to him from the East and South,’ she said almost to herself. ‘You...Sud Sicanna do not follow him?’
He raised an eloquent brow. ‘Him?’
She swallowed bitterness. ‘They call him the Zigûr.’
This time the silence stretched out. From the garden a small bird called two sleepy notes.
‘Sauron. Yes, I know him.’ The words came oddly flat. Then: ‘Ah, Hells, I thought there were no others, only one, and she long dead.’ He stopped, took a long breath then: ‘There is no way around this, Lady. Thou art familiar with ‘sanwe?’
‘Why?’ she hedged.
‘I prefer not to use it if there is any other way, but I will allow thee into my mind, lady, because what I am going to tell thee will, I know, be unbelievable, and thou wilt need proof. I cannot think of another way to give it to thee. Or not one thou wilt believe.’
‘Proof of what?’ Every muscle tensed as for fight or to flee.
He looked down at her hands; she felt an impulse to cover the gleaming mithril ring.
‘First, let me tell thee that I know who thou art. Or what. Sauron crafted that,’ he nodded to the ring. ‘for thee.’ A peculiar expression flashed across his face. ‘Thou art his daughter, and I – I am his son.’