One month earlier . . .
Iaun knew that, for all its distance from Angband, this place could not be considered precisely safe. Time passed strangely in these forest-lands that limned the border of fair Melian’s realm. As the story went, Elwë Thingol of the Teleri had been on his way to join the call to sail west, when he was bewitched by the appearance of a beautiful woman, who was in truth a mighty spirit from another land. Oh, Iaun had heard all the tales that said that Elwë had meant to lead his people to Valinor, really he did.
But then he had laid eyes on a Maia of rapturous beauty, and she had come to meet him, and they had stood in the forest for long years lost in rapt contemplation of each other, until his companions at last despaired of him and abandoned him with great regret, continuing their journey on. Some of them did cross the great water and reach the legendary land of the West. Others did not.
Those who turned aside did not always find ill fortune, for the forest and pasturelands had been green and fertile, and sometimes still Oromë sounded his horn on the hunt, and, as the Elves left behind had been told, it was the wise and kindly voice of Ulmo that muttered softly in the rivers and little streams, to bring comfort to the children of starlight.
Comfort could be scarce in the times when the once-peaceful lands of Beleriand and Ossiriand to the east were plagued by the foul and deadly creatures warped by the hand of Melkor and drawn from unknown lands to his fortresses. It was all well and fine to tell tales of the deeds of the good Valar - but they seemed remote indeed when there was only one Vala whose works and will were hardest borne by the Elves of forest and riverside. When the fell wolves and bloated spiders, and, worst of all, the Orcs came upon them in raids, rending and killing wantonly and defiling living and dead alike, capturing and taking some who were never seen again, the Elves of Middle-earth felt themselves to be very much on their own.
Some of those who had fought in these battles felt themselves unable to return to settled life after the things they had seen and done - there were many of these wandering ones now, haunted by horror and by memory of loss, furtive and aimless in the forests. One of these, a Green-Elf of the scattered, dwindling people of Lenwë, hesitated on the borders of Melian’s land, lingering long before requesting sanctuary there.
Iaun was his name, also sometimes called Hossiôn, Son of the Army in the Sindarin tongue - for he had little memory of the family lost to an Orc raid early in the time of the stars - and though his given-name meant sanctuary, he was not entirely certain he was fit for safety.
Yet no judgment did he pass on those who dwelt in the sheltered regions, and from all tales, had built great beauty in their realm. The armies of King Thingol had indeed proven their valor in battle many times over - although the remoteness of their land did at times mean they came in late hour, when too many had already fallen. And there was much in Iaun that longed to join those who dwelt in safety - to build, to trade metalwork and lore with the visiting Naugrim with their gifts for delving and jewel-craft.
Still, frozen with doubt, he lingered. The forest he knew, with its beauties and its dangers. It was not a place to speak of comfort, but he understood its ways, and he felt no shame if the forest saw his wounds and his weakness, and the wilderness would keep his instincts sharp.
Now, in this uneasy place between safety and the deadly lands all too nearby, Iaun was gathering nuts beneath the beeches when he was brought up short by a sound. Creeping slowly as he had long known how to do - yet hindered by the sinews of shoulder and thigh that no longer flexed as seamlessly as they once had - Iaun crept forward beneath the cover of the great ferns, one hand on his staff and the other on the hilt of his sword. Hoping that his silence would hold, and he could keep the advantage of surprise should this sound turn out to be from some hostile being.
An Elf the stranger in the glade at first appeared, like Iaun himself, and yet clearly of a different kindred and status entirely; he had the rich robes and dark hair and grey eyes of the Noldor, and a haughtiness in his bearing beyond even the greatest of them. Rumor had come even here of an angry host returning from across the Sea bent on vengeance and war; fast-riding couriers had spread tales of burning ships, and the spirits of the waters spoke wary and mournful. Iaun was resolved then to slink away, and let this strange one never lay eyes upon him if it could be helped, for surely it would lead to ill.
And it was to no avail, for Iaun stepped upon a branch that cracked beneath his feet as if Yavanna herself had betrayed him; and a star shone upon his location as if even Elbereth herself wished him seen. The gaze of the lank stranger landed upon him, and Iaun found himself beguiled by the gleam of starlit waters in his eyes. The Enemy could deceive with fair face and words for a time, and yet Iaun felt that he was not in danger, not presently - naked and exposed as he felt beneath that stare.
“You have been in Angband, I perceive,” the stranger said.
Iaun stood still and silent, and gave but one terse nod. “Have you some power of sight?”
“Observation,” the stranger said. “You are Elven, but not Noldor, not Vanyar, and only tenuously Teleri. Clearly Moriquendi, you’ve never been to Valinor. Your green raiment marks you as one who has often dwelt in the forest, but you are not quite so . . . feral . . . as some, so I deduce that you are one of the people of Lenwë, who heeded the summons of Oromë at first but later turned aside down the Anduin. You adjust your body weight as one who has worn armor in the past but now does not, preferring stealth in what you see as your maimed and weakened condition. You have a steel sword, well-made if plain and simple, and it is obviously not of Noldorin make, so clearly you have had contact with at least someone who has had at some time had trade with the Naugrim, most likely by way of Doriath. You know how to use it, but the callouses on your hands and the way you carry yourself tell me that you are more confident with your bow and arrows - or at least you were before you sustained a wound to your shoulder that did not heal as completely as it should. Therefore, you were wounded in battle with the cruelest of enemies, who prevented you from access to immediate healing, most likely by taking you prisoner for a time. Though you have your own skill in healing - I can tell that by the scent of the herbs in that pouch you keep close to your chest - you were not able to bring it to bear enough to repair the damage fully. It must have been the battle in which Lenwë’s son Denethor fell, was it not? You were taken by surprise while trying to help an ally. You have a strong moral principle, but you are wary and slow to trust. Oh, and you are small of stature among your people, and you hoped to compensate for that in deeds of renown. You are motivated to take risks, and you are drawn to dangerous situations.”
Iaun had nothing to say to this for long stretched moments, holding the stranger’s gaze. Finally the stranger sighed and started to turn away, but his eyes lingered long.
“That is . . . wondrous,” Iaun said, for he suddenly wished this strange being would not leave him so soon.
“Truly?” asked the tall Westerner - for that, at least, Iaun could feel certain he was, one recently come from the legendary land across the sea. A strangely radiant smile split that angular face. “That is not the most common response.”
“And that might be?” Iaun asked, unable to restrain a smile of his own.
The tall Westerner’s eyes flicked sideways and down. Was he Elven, after all? What else could he be? Yet there was something in him that made Iaun awed - especially when he shattered his own dignified image for a moment by muttering something in the tongue of Valinor that still rang in Iaun’s ears as very rude. And all Iaun could do was laugh helplessly, and finally, extend his hand.
“I am Iaun of the Nandor, also called Hossiôn,” he said. “And I have wandered these lands for many turns of the stars.”
“Alone,” the stranger said softly, without giving his own name in fair trade. “Iaun, sanctuary, yes, in the Grey-elven tongue? Sanctuary - do you seek it or offer it, I wonder. And Son of the Army, yes? Your parents are dead, then, and gone even beyond your memory. I am sorry for it. Alas, though, I must go swiftly. If you seek shelter within the Girdle of Melian, you must go quickly and make your case at once, for soon her borders will be closed even more tightly against strangers than they presently are. War is coming. It has crossed the sea and marches at great speed. The Noldor are returning, and they bring with them a great wrath, and a curse that will change the shape of these lands forever. Now I know where they will strike, and when. I have no time to lose.”
“You travel alone also?” Iaun said, with a stirring of unaccountable regret. He had indeed spent too much time in the forest, licking his wounds and mourning his losses, shunning all lasting society.
The stranger turned away with a wave, leaving Iaun bereft with knowledge that regret would haunt him. But suddenly, he stopped and turned, and a willful gleam was in his eye, and a star seemed to shine on him, in his silvery eyes and his dark hair with its unusual curl and wave. “You are a warrior and a healer. Any good?”
Many of my people died and I am maimed, Iaun thought. So am I any good? Certainly there are many who are better. That is not what he said. “I am very good.”
“You have seen much of warfare in this land, you understand its ways.”
“Do you want to see more?”
Iaun almost wept as the “yes” burst from him - his secret regret, exposed in this stranger’s gaze, open and unhidden at last in the starlight. But he indicated his walking staff, his stiffened leg and scarred shoulder. “Yet you said you must go swiftly. I fear I will only slow you down if I try to match your pace.”
“Oh, perhaps not,” said the Westerner with a grin. “I am not deemed especially important in my land. But I may be owed a few small favours, for the occasional lost item found.” He gave a long whistle, melodic and sweet and searing through the perpetual twilight, lingering long and carrying westward.
They waited long moments, and then Iaun heard it - a soft and heavy thrumming of graceful hoofbeats. Soon the creature breached the horizon and galloped over the dew-gleaming meadow, starlight catching on his withers and mane. He was the loveliest horse Iaun had ever seen - dapple-grey he seemed in the lingering twilight, spattered with ink-like markings that seemed like of writing in a mysterious language.
“There you are,” the nameless stranger said to the horse fondly before turning to Iaun. “The Hunter gave him permission to aid me again, in a different land. He is wise among horse-kind. He was smart enough to abandon me once before when I sent him away before going into danger alone. I value such wisdom in my associates.”
“He’s beautiful,” Iaun said admiringly as the horse whuffed into the stranger’s hair, and bent his noble neck to be petted by the stranger’s long-fingered hand. “What is his name?”
“Soon to be unspoken in that tongue in this land, if I read the signs aright. And I do,” the stranger said. “Here we will call him Certhasath. I believe that is close in your tongue to ‘Shadowtext’?”
Iaun nodded, “It will do. And will he carry us both at the speed we require? I am not sure I can . . . “ And he stood still for moment shivering as the stranger’s sharp eyes glanced down his body, lingering on his thighs.
“You can,” the Westerner said. “You were a strong rider once. You are still, if you will only believe it. There, Cersathath bends to help you mount him. Swiftly now, be upon him. Take his mane, he will not mind. You need no saddle - he rides smooth - you need no bridle - he will follow your will. Well, up to a certain point.”
Iaun was shocked and surprised at how easy it felt, to swing himself and all his burdens up onto the great horse’s back, and how fitting he felt there, though he’d never imagined himself astride a steed so fine.
“And you?” he said, holding out a hand to help his new companion up.
“I need not ride just yet,” the stranger said, with a smile. “You’ll see. Now we must be off, no more delays - towards Angband. Do you feel fear? You can still turn back, though this may be your last chance.”
Iaun shivered, but he never thought to shrink from this glory, for courage and excitement sang in his blood and roused in his breath, and for many a long year, he had not felt so young or so free of the weight of slow despair. “I will go. I do not even know your name.”
“I am Sérelókë of Valinor, and I am a hunter of criminals. We go to the meeting of two of the greatest. Now come away with me. Follow if you can!”
And Sérelókë was off on his own long legs, and for a good while he was far in the lead, though the great horse was the swiftest Iaun had ever seen. Truly kin to Nessa he must be, the fair young Valië who dances in the forest and outruns the deer. Of whom Iaun had only heard tell, of course. What a wondrous sensation he felt, at last to believe himself on the fringes of the tales and legends he’d thrilled to in his youth, only to learn later they were not for his kind, at all.
This strange and fey Sérelókë probably led him into death - but that Iaun did not mind so much, for this wild starlit ride felt like nothing so much as rekindling of impossible hope.
“Come, Iaun,” Sérelókë cried out in his deep voice, his breath only slightly ragged as he stood upon a hillock, white steam filling the chilling air from his mouth, as Certhsath paused and huffed, bringing Iaun close. To the North, a range of sharp and craggy mountains blotted out the stars. This could not be their route. “Curse these mountains in our way. What are they called again?”
“We call them Ered Gorgoroth.”
“That doesn’t sound pleasant,” Sérelókë chuckled.
“Mountains of Terror.” Iaun nodded.
“Your tongue is straightforward,” said Sérelókë. “I like that in a . . . tongue.”
Iaun suddenly became uncomfortably aware of his own, swiping across his lips against the dry air.
“There,” said Sérelókë pointing. “Oh, I do hope that valley does not lead on too long, but I perceive that once out of the wood, it bends towards the north along the River Sirion, and there we shall meet someone else’s destiny.”
“Er,” Iaun said, and relieved he was when Certhasath began to shift and fidget underneath him. At least he was not the only one who wished to be many leagues away from that darkling, tangled wood. “Yes, that is a fairly direct route if we must go to the Fen of Serech, yet I would choose nearly any other.”
“Does it have an equally appealing name in the local vernacular?”
“Nan Dungortheb,” Iaun said cheerfully. “Valley of Dreadful Death.”
“Marvellous,” Sérelókë said with a little jump for joy atop his earthen mound.
“You know not what lurks there,” Iaun said carefully.
“Ah, but you do,” said Sérelókë.
“Will your gift of sight show you the answer?” Iaun asked. “Or shall I tell you? Or would it amuse you to guess?”
“I do not guess,” Sérelókë started to say, and then he appeared to stop himself, as if he had been about to speak further. Iaun felt even more closely studied by his gaze, and yet there was some strange sympathy there.
“All will be well,” Iaun said carefully. “It is just . . . They are terrible to look upon, and far worse to hear them feed. I would take a hundred Orcs before facing one of those. Though, perhaps with your talents we might defeat them.”
“Indeed,” Sérelókë said as he stepped down from the little hill to walk for a while beside the Elf and the horse. “So, what is the nature of these enemies you fear so much? No, do not be ashamed, as fear is often a sign of foresight. Listen to that voice when danger lurks. Courage is the facing of fear, not the absence of it - that is merely foolishness.”
“There are hungry creatures in this valley,” Iaun said carefully, as if he feared to invoke their name. “Horrid beasts, as big as a horse, with too many eyes and eight jointed legs all tipped with claws, and jaws that drip poison. Ungol.”
“Ah,” said Sérelókë, nodding, and Iaun could not understand why he laughed to himself, turning away as if to hide his slightly shaking shoulders. “Yes, I have encountered their kind.”
“Well, I suppose I am reassured by your mirth,” said Iaun, feeling nothing of the kind, especially since Certhasath began to hesitate and nod his head. “Your horse, he—“
“He’s not my horse,” Sérelókë said quickly. “He is his own horse, and is in the service of one greater than I.”
“Sounds like it cost you something to admit that,” Iaun said with a little smile. “He seems a little frightened, though.”
“No more than you. Though what he fears most is a pen or a cage, and these twisted trees and vines begin to bend in too close for his comfort.”
“For mine as well,” Iaun said. “Forests I know well, born and bred to them, and I can tell at once when one has turned poisoned and cruel. Eat no food you find here. Drink no water. There is nothing here that likes us.”