Three miles from the village, Moryo and his riders found the first dead, about a dozen men piled like wood for a bonfire. All of them were missing their heads. The drizzle kept the birds away but did not discourage a fox. At the riders’ approach it pulled its head out of a corpse and bared its teeth. Moryo immediately dismounted and found a rock to throw at the scavenger and hurled a second after it in frustration. The odor of rot smothering the scent of the rain, attached to some instinctual part of his mind and commanded it, keep away. He bit back a curse.
“Come again, lord.”
He cleared his throat, not repeating himself. “Well, we’ve come this far. We might as well continue, even if there’s not much left for us.” And he shut his mouth tightly, trying to seal off his windpipe. The tainted air made him gag.
“These corpses are some days old, lord, but in this weather, perhaps the beasts that did this are still afoot,” said Soronto, at his right hand. “If victory shall not be ours, let us take our vengeance instead.”
Moryo instinctually tried to seal off his nose and mouth from the stench. It wasn’t very effective, of course, because breathing was necessary. He felt frustrated and felt deeply inadequate. If he were any of his brothers or his cousins, he wouldn’t feel like this. Tyelko would have laughed and promised revenge on Morgoth’s brood. Irissë would have said something inspirational, urging her riders forth to victory. Maitimo wouldn’t have allowed for his vassals to be killed and plundered beneath his nose in the first place. None of them, he thought, would be left standing in front of a mound of mutilated bodies, dripping like a wet dog. But none of them were here, it was only himself, and Soronto, who was the next best thing to either Irissë or Maitimo.
If there were appropriate words to say in a situation like this, Moryo didn’t know them. He spurred his horse on.
Some of the heads turned up a quarter-mile on, perched on a dry-stone wall like hideous pumpkins, missing eyes and tongues. (Tyelko had taken heads, after Alqualondë. Moryo thought he’d gotten the idea from the practice of taking hunting trophies.) Beyond that they met the shells of homesteads guarded by gaunt mongrels with matted hairy hides, who bayed and snapped at the riders when they showed anything approaching curiosity towards the fire-gutted remains of their holdings, and the black broken shapes of slaughtered farm animals. So when they approached the village, they did not expect to find much in the way of life.
They were mistaken. The spit between the riverbanks teemed with vermin, the foot soldiers of the Oppressor, and his cavalry with their wolf-mounts. Moryo didn’t wait; he winded his horn, twice, and charged.
Taken by surprise, his men trailed behind. There were forty of them, fresh and well-trained compared to between eighty and a hundred of the dregs of the Iron Hells. Dropping his horn, Moryo reached for his quiver, lost his first javelin in a goblin’s neck, and his missed with his next. The third stuck in its target’s shield, forcing the goblin to drop it. Moryo drew his sword and finished the creature off, and at that point there were disorganized infantry swarming around his horse’s hocks. Some ran towards him with their teeth and scimitars bared, others went in the opposite direction and a few stayed put and waited for death. It was all about keeping their weapons away from him and his horse and hammering blows down upon any exposed bits he found, which, considering that the Enemy’s soldiers tended to go lightly armored, were many. Aim for the throat, Moryo, but don’t be picky—throats, necks, ear holes, wherever he saw a flash of parchment-colored skin, he struck.
A trumpet sounded, starting as an ominous drone and swelling to a triumphant, full-throated call, a sound that was vaguely familiar but which Moryo did not have time to place, before a spear struck his shield, and his entire left arm could not move. A glance told him why—the spearhead was lodged in his shield, and the other end was weighed down by a particularly solid and resilient goblin. He extracted his arm from the straps and dropped the shield, spurring his horse to get around the soldier, but as he did, there was a punch to his right shoulder as the second spear grazed him, and the world tilted.
He nearly fell but was saved by his four-horned saddle and harness, the wood and leather biting into his thighs. All was noise and disorientation, men and orcs and atani screaming, horns blowing, wargs howling, and his only clear thought was, Don’t fall. Find the enemy before—you know. Recovering from the shock, he flipped upright and looked around.
He didn’t have time to kill his goblin. As he spurred towards it, three arrows sprouted in its back, and it folded into the mud.
A large empty space had opened up behind it, littered with the detritus of the enemy camp. The space meant a clear shot for the atani archers, stationed on top of the wooden stockade. The archers provided covering fire for the advancing atani chariots, but at least one of them had abandoned his mark to save Moryo’s skin.
Somehow, he had got himself to the far end of the battlefield, almost to the banks of one of the streams that formed the village’s natural moat. The main thrust of the battle had born past his position and to his right. There was little left to do where he was. The couple orcs that remained dropped their weapons and fled when Moryo turned Hala’s head, put his heels into the stallion’s sides, and cantered to catch up. Hala rode right over the corpse of the orc that had cost Moryo his shield. The bright blue fletching of the arrows in its back caught his eye.
A wedge of the Enemy’s creatures, six deep in some places, cut Moryo off from most of his own soldiers, and so he fought with the atani. The atani didn’t use cavalry, the nearest they had were the chariots, no-nonsense, two-wheeled carts that did not compare to the light vehicles used by the Noldor, or even the Sindar. And even the chariots were only used as platforms for the spearmen, until their spears were spent. In the meantime, Moryo met up by chance with some of his own, Vëantur and a few other good men. They led strikes against the enemy’s flanks and kept out of the atani’s way.
Ineffectual, thought Moryo, during a gap between the first and second waves of attacks. None of his brothers would have gotten into this situation. And he’d have to talk to Soronto when it was over, gods damn, he preferred the orcs.
A second trumpet blared, and now the atani leapt from their chariots and pressed forward, as the ranks of their infantry welled up between them, and the chariots trundled off to wait at a distance. Moryo added his horn to the atani trumpets, rallying his little knot of Noldorin cavalry, and advanced with them—as Moryo joined the host, some of the warriors called out in Sindarin, Hail, Lord Caranthir! The enemy was caught, between Moryo’s cavalry and the advancing atani shield-wall, their line was ragged. Moryo rode Hala chest-deep into their ranks, the living, moving river of vermin, and thus, the enemy broke.
Moryo felled a couple of orcs, hewing with his sword, but only the two, before he was wholly surrounded by bronze atani spearheads and leather atani helmets, then there was a cry: Fëanáro’s blood! Forth the House of Finwë! And his men were all around him, Captain Soronto’s flowing crimson plume only a few places over. The goblins either lay dead or were fleeing. A warg bowled a horse over, bringing it and its rider to the ground, but did not stop its flight, it leapt the sunken bed of the northern fork and the combined strength of the atani and the Firstborn surged after it, pushing what was left of its orcish masters into the stream. Some of the atani actually splashed into the water after the vermin, Moryo was impressed—he had expected a huddled, stinking mass of frightened peasants, but these men (and women, he saw at a second look) had courage.
There was a blast of atani trumpets, an answering blast from the archers on the ramparts, and Moryo threw his head back and added his own horn to the cacophony, once, twice, thrice. And then dropped his horn, tugging at Hala’s reins to stop the stallion in his tracks, aware suddenly that he was breathing hard and that sweat was running from beneath the rim of his helmet into his eyes. The atani surrounded him, small, ugly people who wore helmets decorated with boars’ tusks, armed with barbaric bronze weapons, faces smeared with blue paint. They pressed against Hala’s flanks and slapped Moryo’s calves with what was probably comradely approval. The air stank, overpoweringly, of sweat, horse, and gore. His heart pounded in his ears, beneath the tempo of the atani’s chant.
Hail, Lord Caranthir! Hail, the Star of Feanor!
Totally unexpectedly, Moryo found himself surrounded by a crowd of hairy strangers changing his name, and gradually part of a procession flowing back inside the village. An adolescent…boy, probably, (Moryo was still uncertain about atani gender distinctions) grinned up at him through crooked teeth, bobbed his head, and took hold of Hala’s bridle. This sudden display of reverence toward him made his neck and face flush, but he also found himself unwilling to resist.
The noise rose to earsplitting volume as the atani took up a rhythmic chant, mostly in their own language, punctuated with drumbeats. Ever the horns droned on; Moryo was becoming tired of them, though he admitted they did not quash the celebratory mood. Even the sun appeared, peeping from behind the clouds once or twice.
The throng flooded the gates of the wooden stockade and spilled into the central square (square is a grand word. It was an empty space of scattered grass and trampled dirt) and stalled, as the warriors kissed and hugged their loved ones. A…girl?…with freckles shoved her way through to bring Moryo a horn of mead. He drained the vessel—the alcohol was excellent—and held it aloft, because that seemed the right thing to do, and lead another round of cheering. Then he was not sure what to do with the empty horn. Continuing to wave it in the air like a lame attempt at a tribute to the great god Tulkas made him feel stupid. So did cradling it awkwardly in the crook of his elbow, but at least the latter was easier on his sore arms.
The village entirely consisted of squat round structures of various sizes, which, at a closer look, seemed to have been woven out of branches, like gigantic wicker baskets, rather than built. Small rectangular openings peeped beneath shaggy thatched domes. In front of the largest, the boy at Hala’s bit stopped, and another youth appeared at the stallion’s side to assist Moryo’s dismount. Following the beckoning of a withered, hideous, white-haired woman, he ducked beneath the low lintel into a poorly lit room smelling of smoke and livestock. A central hearth explained the first smell, and the latter owed itself to a handful of goats penned in the back. Yet there were also benches, beds, and baskets tucked against the walls. Dear gods, they live with their animals.
The stench overpowered Moryo to the extent that he gagged and tried not to breathe. Obviously this only worked for the short term. Eventually he forced himself to inhale, gagged again, and struggled to breathe normally. He got used to the smell eventually, but the meantime was hellish.
Not that he was ungrateful to his hosts—he supposed this was truly the best they could do. Though he thought the living-with-their-goats arrangement could neither be healthy nor necessary. Certainly, the atani seemed eager to do everything in their power to make Moryo comfortable. Someone finally took the stupid horn from him, and then helped him remove his plumed helmet, his sword-belt, and cuirass of segmented plate. She directed him to a bench and, in broken Sindarin, bid him to remove his tunic—although the hut was still busy with people coming in and out. They gave him a bowl of water, with which he washed his hands, face, and torso, and then the withered woman knelt before him to undo his sandals. He did not want her touching him, and recoiled at first, but—a vision of his mother flashed in his mind’s eye, giving him a grim look to please not embarrass the family. Gingerly, he extended his legs, as if the basin at his feet contained flesh-eating fish.
It was over eventually.
Now the hall was filled with warriors and musicians, the latter of which were more subdued than the commotion that had brought Moryo here, bearing harps and flutes instead of drums and trumpets. Thank the gods, Moryo thought if had to hear those damn horns again he might have someone killed. He only understood the little of the conversation that was in Sindarin, but from what he could tell, much of it was directed at him, with smiles and much laughter. Moryo tried to smile politely back.
How long has it been, since I had something like this, in Niquelossë with my men? A while, if ever. Perhaps when Tyelko visited.
A woman approached him. Her hair was red; her face was redder. Her features were asymmetrical, her lips oddly lopsided. Quick as a cat she sat next to Moryo and cuddled up to his side, to a general cheer from the watching warriors. Hesitantly, Moryo wrapped his arm about her waist. She was not a beauty by any means, but she was a better sight than the withered foot-wash woman, and she looked at him with eyes full of awe.
It had, literally, been centuries since Moryo had been this close to a girl. Actually, the last time had been at Tyelko’s fiftieth conception day, when Moryo had been seated nest to Artanis during the feast. They had both been children, and anyways, cousins didn’t count, regardless of whatever Maitimo thought. Well, here was this female person who was not a child and certainly not Moryo’s cousin…
He knew his neck and face were red. He could feel the heat.
The way his hand was positioned at her waist made him uncomfortable, it was too…intimate. So instead he tried draping his arm over his shoulder but…no, he still worried it looked like he was groping her. As a compromise, he removed his arm and curled it against his side, between himself and the young woman.
Her smile faltered. He felt his own stretch until his lips were taut, and he gave her the thumbs-up, to assure her that all was well, but all she did was stare at him blankly.
“My lord Caranthir,” said someone, Moryo and the redheaded girl’s savior, rescuing them from mutual embarrassment. Moryo looked up at another woman, more worn than the girl at his side, short, stocky, with thick, frizzy brown hair and dark eyebrows. Her dress was fastened at the shoulders with intricate bronze brooches, and she wore strings of beads wrapped about her neck, so maybe she was the chieftain’s daughter or some similar person. Perhaps it was the bad light, but it seemed that her cheeks were hollow, and there were shadows around her eyes. Across her nose and cheekbones, she had painted a horizontal blue stripe, some hours ago judging by the smudging. She bore a second horn of mead.
“Oh,” said Moryo. “You speak well. You speak Sindarin well, I mean.” He knew his face was turning even redder than it had been already; he probably looked like a freshly cut beet. Oh, gods. This always happened.
“I know,” said the woman with the face paint and brooches. “I’ve worked hard at it, and I’ve dealt with the Sindar and the Laegrim often on my father’s behalf.” She looked him straight in the eyes, without fear or awe, which gave rise to a complicated mass of feelings within him—part anger, part admiration. “That was Haldad—my father, our chieftain. Who is dead now, along with my brother and plenty of others. Which I expect makes me the chieftain now.”
Moryo felt it would be tactless to congratulate her on her sudden promotion, given the circumstances, so he kept his mouth firmly shut.
She offered him the mead. This horn was more ornately carved than the first, and it took Moryo an uncomfortable few minutes to find a good grip, and when he did his hands closed over the tops of her own, warmly.
Gods fucking damn…was it possible for him to be normal around women for even the time it took to blink? Even ugly, insolent atan-women, dear Manwë and Varda.
“I’m Haleth,” she said. “I and my people owe what’s left of our lives to you and your soldiers, I suppose. Tonight, my home is your home.” Her hands, which had been tucked under his up until now, dropped to her side. “I bid you enjoy yourself.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled. “My thanks. For your hospitality,” he added, more clearly. Something still felt missing. “And I’m sorry for the deaths of your family and the others. Truly.” He thought about his parents, his family and few friends left behind in Aman, and something writhed in his chest.
Haleth’s lips pressed together into a thin line, and she turned on her heel and left.
As she stooped to get out the door—it was still daylight outside, he realized, it seemed rather timeless here in the dimness of the hut—the quiver she still wore on her back caught in the sunlight. The fletching of her arrows were dyed bright blue.
This chapter contains a smattering of Welsh, standing in for the Haladin language. Note that I am not a Welsh speaker; my exposure to the language comes through Duolingo and the internet. I have almost certainly made mistakes. If you do speak Welsh, please comment or message me and I will gladly make corrections.
When Moryo left the hut himself, he was flushed, sweating, so that even the manure-saturated outside air was refreshingly cool, and muzzy from alcohol. His brain felt like a wet rag that had been twisted and wrung out, and he desperately needed to pee. Which he anticipated raising a panoply of problems.
First of all, Moryo had no idea where was the appropriate place to go and sniff the evening breeze, and he thought he might rather die than ask. Taking care to move normally and not look like he was in any kind of discomfort whatsoever, he made for the open village gate, hazy in the evening. He didn’t feel like a prince or a lord. He felt like a schoolboy on his first excursion to the Lonely Isle, one who hadn’t been smart enough to visit the rest stop before getting on the ferry.
Before he got outside he was accosted by two burly warriors reeking of beer and smoke, one with a graying beard and the other with a thin, gaunt face, the blue paint on his forehead smeared by sweat. The warriors must have read Moryo’s stricken expression, because their own faces twisted in concern.
It turned out that their Sindarin skills were practically nonexistent and so the ensuing conversation involved a lot of hand gestures and facial expressions that alternated between worry, confusion, frustration, and embarrassment. As the situation unfolded, it also became clear that the warriors were utterly shitfaced; they talked too loud and laughed too often. Finally Moryo got his point across by emphatically gesturing below his waistline and shouting “MAKE WATER!” which apparently was hilarious because the two men doubled over laughing. When they recovered themselves, they gestured down an alley, apparently directing Moryo to the backsides of the huts, so Moryo thanked them and tried to go.
They followed him. His stomach dropped down to his knees.
So, he understood that some of the gestures he’d made while asking for the loo could be interpreted, um, suggestively. The two warriors hadn’t seemed to make those interpretations, but on the other hand, Moryo knew a very small amount about atani communication and facial expressions and even less about the people’s sexual mores. What was their culture’s position on male-to-male relationships? Moryo didn’t…he’d thought it over back home and it didn’t appeal to him. And if they take me a courtesan’s house, I might die. (Tyelko had used to made fun of him, back home, for being scared shitless of courtesans.) Though this village entirely consisted of crude huts, and Moryo didn’t see any of the fashionable opulence he associated with courtesans back home. Which brought Moryo back around to his original point: he knew so damn little about these people and their culture. Not while they were sober and certainly not while they were drunk.
What ended up happening was not quite as sensational as Moryo had expected, though it was still awkward. Without any fuss, the two warriors faced a stone wall (it looked like a pen of some sort) and did the needful, right there, in the open, and in desperation Moryo gave them a good twenty-foot berth down the same wall and relieved himself in turn.
The whole awful situation finally ended and the two warriors moved off down the wall, laughing and singing snatches of song. Moryo considered heading back to the chieftain’s hut, but the blue-painted atan gestured to him so, hesitantly, he caught up.
“Dwyn,” said the blue one.
“Um,” said Moryo. “Hey. Hello. You know, I’m sorry ab—”
Blue Forehead smiled crookedly and raised an eyebrow. He thumped his chest, twice, with a closed fist. “Dwyn.” He indicated his bearded friend. “Lugos. Dwyn. Lugos.”
“Oh. Shit. I misunderstood. I’m sorry, I meant—”
“No. Sh—not that. Cross that out.” He gestured as if rubbing out marks on a chalkboard. “I’m—” Morifinwë Carnistir Fëanárion, my brothers called me Moryo. “Caranthir.”
“Caranthir… oh, Caranthir! Hail, Caranthir son of Fëanor, y tywysog dewr, hei?, O fy duwiau! Hei yno, Lugos, edrych pwy ydyw!” He rambled in his own language for several minutes, Lugos occasionally interjecting in a deep rumble more difficult to understand than Dwyn’s clear tenor. Was it just Moryo’s imagination, or did the bearded warrior seem skeptical, as if he doubted Moryo was who he said he was?
Grinning his lopsided grin—his jaw was slightly deformed—Dwyn leaned back against the wall, thumped Lugos on the arm and held out his hand. From his belt pouch, Lugos produced a wad of something dark, which in the dusk reminded Moryo of something he might have dredged up out of the drain, if they were still in a country with indoor plumbing. Dwyn popped whatever it was in his mouth, and Lugos offered some to Moryo, who wanted no truck with the stuff but didn’t feel he could refuse. He cupped the damp substance in the palm of his hand.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Nuh-uh. You say, da diolch.”
The sounds were not so different from Sindarin, which was good, because languages came slowly to Moryo and one foreign tongue was difficult enough. He tested the words in his mouth, repeating them carefully. Da diolch, da diolch.
Dwyn nodded, looking pleased, and chewed his whatever-it-was. Lugos seemed to have lost interest in Moryo, and stared thoughtfully into the distance. He began to sing softly, his voice untrained but pleasant, the trills and rhythms of the song unlike anything Moryo had heard before, in Aman or Beleriand.
Dwyn spat, and added his voice to his friend’s. He motioned to Moryo and, hesitantly, Moryo began to sing too. (He at least was not half bad at it. He’d had lessons as a child.)
Dwyn was patient, he was kind, he sang clearly and repeated lines whenever Moryo became lost. Lugos’ black eyes bore into Moryo, appraising him, as if he were a horse he was thinking of buying—not a bad horse, exactly, but certainly not one worth the trader’s asking price.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” It was almost dark now, and Soronto’s long shadow loomed towards them from the mouth of the alley between the huts. Moryo’s captain came closer and switched from Sindarin to Quenya. “My lord Carnistir, I see you are enjoying yourself and hate to interrupt your merriment—such as it is—but I’ve something requiring your attention.”
All of Moryo’s remaining goodwill vanished like smoke. “Yes, Captain. A moment.” He turned to Dwyn and Lugos. “I, um, I have to go with him,” he said, and gestured and repeated himself until the message sunk in.
Dwyn raised a hand in Soronto’s direction as the two warriors left. “Hail, the House of Fëanor!”
“Hail, the people of Haldad,” said Soronto, with professional, disinterested politeness.
“Hwyl fawr!” Moryo called after them, remembering a touch too late one of the phrases Dwyn had taught him. Soronto shot him a look.
“A pleasant evening, my lord? These folk might be primitive, but they hold well the laws of hospitality.”
Moryo just realized he was still holding the wad of muck that Dwyn had given him, now congealed into paste. He tried to shake his hand clean, and, when that failed, wiped it on his trousers. Soronto exhaled heavily through his nostrils. “Yes, rather. I drank. I sang. And there was this girl I sat next to, she had red hair and we—” I’m babbling. He shut his mouth. “Out with it, Captain, I know you’re not here to chat.”
“I wish to speak frankly, lord, with regards to the leadership you showed today in the face of battle.”
Moryo sensed danger, but saw no way out of it. “Yeah, all right, say away.”
Soronto shifted, and took a step closer, his nostrils flared, his jaw taut. Oh gods. It’s worse than I thought.
“I marked your stunt on the field this afternoon, and I will say that if you do not think of your men, a day will come when they will follow a commander who does.”
Moryo’s mind was blank, the channels of his thoughts sealed as if with concrete, and it was several minutes before he said anything.
“Are you threatening me, Captain?” His knees trembled slightly. He shifted his weight to make it less noticeable, and tried to stiffen them.
Soronto didn’t break eye contact with Moryo. “Long years ago—” Here his polite, professional manner cracked, and his voice took a husky timbre. “I swore to serve a young Lord Fëanáro, and so I have, ever faithful, though the way has taken me across the Great Sea and incurred the judgment of the Gods. Because the Lord Fëanáro, in spite of of his flaws, was one who could inspire men.”
The captain recovered his composure. “Alas, Lord Fëanáro is dead now,” he added, with an edge to his voice.
“Yes, my father’s gone. May one day we stand together in the Halls of Mandos. And in the meantime, you’re saddled with me, and of course I’m not fit to lick my father’s sandals, let alone try and fill him. Fill them. His shoes.”
“My lord Carnistir. Far be it from me to judge your fitness as Fëanáro’s son.” Or lack thereof, Moryo heard in his captain’s pause. “I ask only that you spare a thought for the lives of those sworn to serve you.”
“Sworn to serve me, Morifinwë Carnistir Fëanárion, not Soronto. I am the one who rules in Thargelion, not you.” He sounded peevish, he knew, and hated it. “I, and not you, and, and I—” as he stuttered, he felt his neck burn. “I…” He gave up.
“Fucking…shit, man. I told you five days ago that we were coming south, marching south, to drive…the…” Words were difficult for Moryo. While they flowed so easily for Soronto, for him, each was a struggle with himself. “To drive the brood of the Enemy from this godsforsaken country, and so far as you should care, that…that is the beginning, and the end, of it.
“Get gone, Captain, before I do something I regret.” Moryo meant it, too, though he was at this point unsure what that something would be. Fuck. He might never be loved like Maedhros, but if he tried, he felt he could be feared as much as Tyelko.
Soronto was unmoved, except for a twitching of his lips. Moryo hoped he was frightened. I could have him executed. It was possible. Moryo had never done something like that before. He’d had a lieutenant’s hand chopped off once, for insubordination, but that was a few years ago.
“Very well, my lord. I thank you for your time. And I must tell you: we have bivouacked in the field outside the gates. I have instructed sentries to man the walls, or what is left of them. All await for your return from your…merriment.” Soronto bowed stiffly, and departed.
Moryo spat and loped off through the rutted streets.
On his way back to the chieftain’s hut, he bumped into her. Haleth. Preoccupied with his recent confrontation with Soronto, and weak in the knees, Moryo didn’t watch where he was going, and they collided. “Hei!” she snapped, not looking at him, and dodged past. In the torchlight her cheeks shone with tears.
Days passed, slowly. Things weren’t nearly so fun after the first night—the next morning a few hundred men and atani woke up with hangovers to greet a partially ruined village with next to nothing in its barns and storerooms except hungry people and hungry animals. The surrounding farmland was trampled, burned, or both, the crops utterly destroyed, and this late in the summer, there was little that could be done in terms of planting before winter set in.
A council was held: Moryo, Soronto, Haleth, and several of her people. Dwyn was not there, but Lugos was. They sat in the dimness of Haleth’s hut (it was raining again) and discussed, wanly, what to do. Everyone was listless, and the council dragged on due to no one having any simple solutions. Finally it was agreed that Haleth’s people would have to move to new territory, although when this would happen and where they would go was anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, the best they could do was try to ensure that everyone was fed, housed, and protected until the injured were stable enough to be moved.
Moryo saw a fair bit of Haleth during this time. He wasn’t sure why this mattered—well, aside from the very obvious, which was that she was a woman and he, Moryo, was really very lonely. There were women, obviously, among the Exiles, but the majority of Noldor who had left Valinor were men, the difference being that women faced more pressure to stay and care for the children that remained. This went double for the House of Fëanáro, whose presence in Beleriand was mostly made up of retainers from Fëanáro’s personal household, the private army he had built and trained to sate his paranoia. So it was that the gender ratio at Moryo’s base at Niquelossë was rather skewed.
Even more embarrassing than Moryo’s obvious desperation was the fact that Haleth wasn’t even pretty enough to be worth pining over, she was an atan, for fuck’s sake. Her hair was coarse, brown, and frizzy, and beneath her warpaint, her cheekbones had been so damaged by the sun that they were practically covered by one vast freckle. Her skin was blotchy in places, her arms and legs covered in fine dark hair, and far from being tall and willowy, she was short and stocky. Most of the time that Moryo saw her, she looked tired and drawn. No one would ever write a ballad celebrating Haleth’s beauty because she had absolutely no beauty worth celebrating.
Nothing came of Moryo’s stupid infatuation anyways; she only spoke to him as a professional, one leader to another. Their conversations were entirely perfunctory and unmemorable, and whenever it drifted so they weren’t talking about the defenses, or supplies, or the damage to the farmland, Moryo could not for the life of him think of anything interesting to say.
For example, one evening a few days after the arrival of Moryo and his men, he and she were up on the ramparts. She suggested that they move a unit or two of Moryo’s mounted archers into the village, just in case, and he readily agreed. Then they lapsed into silence.
He found himself noticing again the quiver of arrows on her back, with the fletching dyed bright blue. He knew the chances of Haleth being the one who had saved his life that day were slim, blue was a popular color with her people; blankets, baskets, cloaks and even sometimes people’s skin were dyed the same vivid color. Yet, however, nonetheless…
And any words he thought of to bring the matter up sounded awkward even to him. How could he thank her for something he wasn’t even sure she’d done?
Then the moment passed, and a runner approached to alert them that more warg-riders had been sighted less than five miles upriver, probably remnants of the vermin Moryo had fought a few days ago. So, this added a few more pounds of problem to the burden already weighing them down. He swore and ground his teeth and she said, “Well, let’s hope they’re not hungry tonight.”
They both new they were too weak to send any significant numbers of men away from the village to hunt beasts on the moors, especially in the dark, when the Enemy was strongest.
Merely an hour later, however, Moryo donned his helmet with its brilliant crimson transverse crest, the mark of an officer. His aide helped him with his lorica of segmented plate, and he laced his hobnailed sandals. Upon his back he wore a full quiver of javelins, and his straight-bladed sword hung at his waste. The aide he finally dismissed in anger—the boy was too hesitant to obey, and clumsy. He mounted and Vëantur, the decurion with the long, hooked nose, caught hold of his foot.
“My lord Carnistir—you know what? Fuck courtesy, Moryo, I’m talking to you as a friend. This is a horrid and, frankly, asinine idea. The absolute best case scenario, here, Moryo, is that you die, the worst—”
“I’m a prince of, a prince of Finwë’s line. I have no friends, only brothers and servants. That is all.” In a corner of his mind, he knew he was being peevish, but in his anger he did not care. “If I die, I die. Honorably. In battle.” The words that had sounded so impressive in his head a few seconds ago, revealed themselves to be trite and pathetic once released into the wild. “And I won’t be captured. I won’t let myself. My brother…you think I don’t, I don’t…I know what happened, what happened to Maitimo, Vëantur. I was there, Vëantur, I was there, there when he was captured, I won’t let, I won’t let myself—” Something broke in his mind, and Moryo deeply hated himself, hated whatever was wrong with him that prevented him from speaking like a normal, functioning adult, hated how his very presence made everything worse so that everything he touched turned to shit. “Fuck. Fuck! Leave me before I kill you.” He kicked himself free of Vëantur’s hand.
The auxiliaries tending to the horses stood around gaping. “You peasants, you filth. What are you looking at? Get back to work, and if any man follows me, if any man follows me, I shall kill him.”
He dug his spurs into Hala’s flank and galloped from the camp, onto the moor.
After leaving Haleth on the ramparts, he had argued with Soronto again, so hotly that Moryo barely remembered what had been said. He remembered there had been insinuations, threats, the sudden, open acknowledgement of the fact that Moryo’s existence was a mistake, that he was an insult to the blood that flowed within his veins, and to his father’s memory. Moryo remembered his anger, and he knew he had confronted Soronto about his insubordination, his treachery, the way he made Moryo’s weakness known about camp, humiliating him in front of his men.
Soronto had swallowed, betraying his fear, but his gaze and his voice had been steady when he said, “If you are Lord Fëanaro’s son, act like it.” So Moryo had buried his dagger up to its hilt in his captain’s stomach.
He picked up the orc’s trail easily enough, there was a number of them, and they had been using the paths made by Haleth’s people. He knew it was them by the discarded gear, and corpses, left along the road.
The landscape was a stark gray beneath the black, cloud-covered sky, the hills rising into bare, smooth-sided, otherworldly hulks, falling into gorges—he had seen land like this nowhere else in the world, it didn’t even look real. It looked like a dream, or surreal art, the kind of incomprehensible sculptures his mother had made back home. In the dark, amid the trilling of nightjars and insects, Moryo dismounted, and lay with his ear pressed to the ground. He heard the goblins moving about behind the peaks, no more than half a mile off, the padding of their wolf-mounts, and the hoofbeats of a single horse coming from the direction of the camp. He led Hala into the shadowed area among the shrubs and a lonely, gnarled tree, and waited.
Hala gave him away. The other horse whinnied, and Hala responded with a friendly nicker.
“I ordered you not to come after me.”
“You didn’t order me to do anything.” It was Haleth. “I saw you lit out from your camp like a fox from a den and got curious. It’s a funny time for a ride. You got a death wish?”
Haleth’s tone wasn’t half as deferential as Soronto’s could be, especially when he wanted something, but it didn’t annoy Moryo as much as he’d thought it might. “No.”
“Fine. I like to joyride too sometime. In the dark, through goblin-infested moorland.”
“You are…you’re brave to speak like this, mortal.”
A brief moment of silence, as of someone caught off-guard. “I guess. I mean, I figured since it’s just us, you know, without the ceremony or scads of people observing, there was no need to put on airs.”
“Never mind. It’s not important.”
“Mm. Also, to be honest, I’m worried about you.”
Worried about me. For some reason, he was glad of this. It felt good. Although, he was embarrassed that she’d caught him.
He didn’t think she could see him well, but she could interpret his silence. “I wasn’t joking about the ride, Caranthir. Or I was, but only halfway joking. Riding does lots to clear your head. Get on your horse, let’s go.”
The path descended a series of switchbacks into a gorge. Next to the ribbon-like brook, there was room enough for them to ride side by side.
Moryo felt a need to explain himself, and what he was doing out here on the moors.
“Fëanor, my father—they say, they always said he was the greatest of our people, the Noldor. He died fighting demons. I was there when it happened. The Dark Lord ambushed our first camp in Mithrim. We won easily, and then my father lead us, my brothers and me, further into the land, until we were nearly at the gates of Angband. Then we were ambushed.”
This was not strictly true. They’d seen the valaraukar at a great distance over the plain of Ard-Galen, columns of fire as tall as towers, brazen against the night sky. Their father’s eyes had shone in the starlight before he spurred his warhorse on into their ranks, and not even Maitimo had protested. Their father had ridden an especially good horse—Lëavinya, one of Hala’s ancestors, in fact—and if he hadn’t outstripped them, they would have followed him into the fire without a second thought.
Haleth said, “It’s no shame to want to die.”
“No. I heard you. I don’t.”
“Well,” she continued, after a pause, “I can’t talk about death all night, it’s bad for me. Your father, tell me about him.”
“Well, I’m sure you had fun together before you all rode off to fight fire demons.”
Moryo remembered sitting at the foot of Maitimo’s bed as a kid, acutely aware of his urge to climb under the blankets and cuddle against his brother’s side, while downstairs their mother and father screamed so loudly it could be heard clearly through the floor. That had been after his father had been fired, banned, and forcibly removed from the premises of the Academy at Tirion, after having been found guilty of smuggling over 2,000 scrolls out of the library. The scrolls had been stacked like firewood in the loft of the stable at their house in Tirion. Most of them were erotic love poetry.
Haleth must have read something in his silence. “What about your brothers, then? Hey, I know, tell me about something you did as kids that your parents never found out about.”
Moryo swallowed. He couldn’t just air his family’s dirty laundry to a stranger, so he searched his brain for something somewhat socially acceptable to tell. “My brother Curufin,” he said. “Curufin, my younger brother. Was playing with me once. And we knocked over a vase, and swept the pieces into a brazier without telling our mother.”
“Caranthir. Do I need to explain to you what a story is?”
He swallowed again. “Right. I—I guess I have a few. A few stories. About shit—sorry, things I did with my brothers. When we were kids. So, back home, in the market sometimes, we would get…mattalissë, there isn’t a word in Sindarin, it was this very sweet food, that we loved. I can’t—I’m trying to describe it—it was these little balls of soft, white cheese, flavored with honey, fried to this deep, perfect brown, and soaked in rose-water. Then a lot of the time they’d be decorated with seeds and wrapped in colorful—leaves.” There was no Sindarin word for paper, either, so he substituted. “Anyway, when we were kids we were all mad about it, we used it like money, to bribe each other into doing what we wanted.
“It was Tyelko—Celegorm’s idea, but I didn’t try to stop him.” He’d always been a little afraid of Tyelko, growing up, but he’d also felt proud to be included in his schemes. “Celegorm was the next one older than me, so we were together a lot. Well, until Curufin grew up, and then really he took my place. So T—Celegorm, he saved up all his mattalissë leaves for the gods know how long. He had quite a collection; I swear he could carpet his room. Then I stole the seeds from the kitchen, we went out into the meadow, where the—fuck, I forget the Sindarin name—animals. Wild animals. Lapattë, we call one in Quenya.”
“Fuck no. This was way too close to the city for bears, first of all. And anyways, they’re smaller, less carnivorous, they have ears like…this...” Reins between his teeth, he held his hands upright over the top of his head, simulating long, floppy ears. “It jumps, it makes soup—or it doesn’t make soup, you make soup with it, good soup...”
There was a moment of silence from Haleth.
“Cach,” she hissed. “I know what you’re talking about, but I’ve also forgotten the Sindarin word. Cwningod, that’s what we call it. The stupid little animal…fuck.”
“A couple of idiots we are,” said Moryo.
“Shut up, I’m thinking.”
“Rabbit,” she said, a short while later. “That’s the bitch. So what about the rabbits?”
“Tyelko and I—you know, the little piles of rabbit shit? How it forms little round—”
“I do know what rabbit scat looks like, believe it or not.”
“So we collected it, and we sprinkled it with seeds and wrapped it carefully in leaves, just like mattalissë fresh from the market—and later, when we went to my half-uncle’s house for a feast, we passed them out to all the cousins.” He smirked. “Findarato ate 10 of them—and he wasn’t even a child, he was a grown man, apparently born without fear or doubt or a sense of taste.”
“Shit, you fed them shit. And here I was, thinking that elves were all stodgy serious folks singing hymns to the stars. And no one noticed anything at all?”
“Well, Artanis, Findarato’s little sister—she realized pretty quickly that something was off and told the others…but this was already after Findarato had—”
“Ha. Well, Caranthir. I am impressed.”
“I showed you mine, now you show me yours.”
“Gods.” She whooped with laughter, into the night. “Gods damn, elf, if you want me to go to bed with you, just come right out and ask.”
Caranthir laughed nervously. In retrospect, his choice of phrase did sound oddly sexual.
“Well. It’s fair, I suppose. If you must know, the village wisewomen said I wouldn’t live to see my fifth birthday. I was cursed at birth, you see. Still am. See, for the first month I was alive, I didn’t have a name. My twin brother was named Haldar, that was easy enough, after my dad’s dead brother, but for me…my mother was torn between Hana, my great-aunt’s name, and Haleth, her sister’s. Lots of family politics involved, you know how it is. So, obviously, not having a name combined with my being a twin, a girl-twin, second-born—I was born under an ill omen, and everything I’ll ever do is doomed to end in disaster.”
Moryo did not see how this was ‘obvious’, but he worried it would be rude to ask.
It was fully dark now, and Moryo was chilled beneath his clothing and armor, the skin on his calves puckered into gooseflesh where they weren’t warmed by Hala’s side. The gibbous moon peeped down upon the moorland, and the stars seemed as close as glow-worms upon the ceiling of a cave. The land was utterly black, and if Haleth had not been in the lead—since when had that happened?—Moryo was sure he would have become lost.
She was right, riding does help clear the head. Whatever impulse had driven him to ride out into the night, while not dead, was fading.
He didn’t want to find the orcs anymore. Well, he would not have minded finding them, and venting what was left of his aggression upon them, but he didn’t want to bother to look for them. He’d have been just as content if they had evaporated like morning mist, and the camp and the village, the knife-hilt impaled in Soronto’s torso, his captains, soldiers, brothers, and cousins, and the Enemy in the North could all go with them, for all he cared, and he’d be well rid of them. Or he could keep riding, through Thargelion, past the Blue Mountains, to a simpler and more peaceful land. Haleth could come, if she wanted.
Rage felt childish now. What was left was a potent distaste for the world and for himself.
“Of course,” said Haleth, interrupting his stream of thought. “I’m supposedly the cursed one, and yet I’m the one left alive while my—”
In the distance, there was a scream.
“Yes, I know. Nothing to worry about.”
“Yeah. Nothing to worry about. Nothing.” She cleared her throat. “Actually. If we follow this gorge around the bend, it ends up joining with the South Stream, and we can head back to the village that way.”
“I…would rather not.”
"Well, fuck what you want, I need to go back home.” She sighed. “They need me.”
“You’re not tired? I could sleep for a year.”
Her horse snorted with surprise as it stopped in its tracks, and Hala’s nose bumped its tale. The other horse—a boney, ill-bred animal—gave a little buck and kicked at Hala, who danced away.
“You’re joking,” said Haleth, after she had regained control.
“Joking about what?”
“You fucking know what sleep is, don’t lie.”
“I do, just how are you tired? And can’t you just sleep in the saddle?”
“I might yet, the night’s still young, but then how would I get us back, smart one?”
“…Using your eyes. You know this land in the dark, don’t you?”
“How would I use my eyes if I’m asleep?”
“What? Why would your eyes be defective just because you were sleeping?”
“Gods dammit, elf,” Haleth shouted with rage. She stopped her horse again, and Moryo hissed through his teeth as he and Hala narrowly avoided another collision. “We need to stop here, and have a serious conversation about what you think sleeping is.”
“Hey. Sh—be quiet.”
“Don’t you dare shush me, Caranthir, we are having a discussion.”
“No. No, it’s not you. Didn’t…you didn’t hear that?”
There was another call across the moorland, a shrill, animal call, of something wild and dark.
“That ain’t a fox this time, that’s a gob—”
“Haleth, be quiet.”
He brought Hala abreast with Haleth’s mount, and the two of them halted in place. Without the dull thudding of hooves, the night was quiet except for a nearby cricket, as they peered into the black. Another cry sounded across the moorland, and this time, a second answered, uncomfortably close at hand. In the moments that passed next, Moryo counted every beat of his thudding heart, until finally it stilled, and then he remained frozen out of caution.
An orange light sprang up in the valley ahead, misshapen forms passing too and fro in front of it. From silence, the shrill crying burst like blood from a wound, dozens of voices, too many to distinguish, rising into an riot of sound, and joined by the howling of wargs.
Moryo swore. “Just hold my reins while I—”
Moryo slid off Hala, and advanced on foot a few paces down the path. Again he lay down, with his ear pressed to the cool earth. He remained there for some time, making sure of what he heard. At last he sat up.
“Is there another quick way back to the village than through this valley?”
“There is, but not a quick one. And it’ll be a time to find it in the dark.”
The remnant of the fic is complete but still being edited. Due to a poorly-timed move, I was unable to finish editing before the deadline. It will be posted in the coming days.
Shoutout to my boyfriend, Rain, who helped me edit this despite not being quite sober at the time. <3
“A little further down the gorge,” Haleth whispered, “there’s a pass and a trail leading back up onto the moor. Now—”
“How far down the—”
“Furlong. Furlong ‘n’ a half?”
“That means nothing to me.”
“Oh, you know, a—whatever. Never mind. It should be between us and the vermin, is what I’m saying. The thing is, though, this way is steep, and it’s narrow—remember how we got down here? That was well-tilled earth compared to the way I’m thinking about taking us.”
“Can the horses do it?”
“Caranthir, do you think I’m stupid?”
“And this will get us out of this gorge?”
“I said, do you think I’m—”
“You know, I’m tired of you taking that tone.”
“Hey elf, funny thing, I thought you wanted to fucking get out of this gorge—”
“Just shut up. Shut up. I—what I’m getting at—what I’m trying to say—it’s better to go this, this new way, than it is to go back the way we came? Because it sounds to me that you’re taking us closer to the—damn—closer to the Enemy.”
“Well, yes, for a piece, but at least we won’t be trapped for much longer, and we’ll have a straight shot home across the moors once we’re out of this gorge.”
“Then let’s go.”
“Yeah, fuck it, am I right?”
Moryo clenched his jaw. “Fuck it, let’s go!” had not quite been the words that his father had used, before he’d tried to ride down the valaraukar on the plane of Ard-Galen.
Moryo’s vision, although keen, was only so much use to him in the dark. Lit by the stars and moon, a dim hemisphere extended around and above him, in which he could, to a limited extent, make out his surroundings. A matter of paces out, it blurred into undifferentiated night. The tors above him were only visible as toothed black voids where there were no stars.
He wondered if things looked any different to Haleth—perhaps atan-sight was different from quendi vision? If so, what would it be like to see through her eyes?
Haleth led again, of course, although her horse wasn’t keen on it. It stopped frequently, snorted, and then Haleth would cluck to it and squeeze its side with her calves to encourage it on. Whenever he rode up abreast with it, he saw its ears were pricked like spearheads, the whites of its eyes showed, and its head was pulled up and back as Haleth kept it on a tight rein. Hala, the trained warhorse, was not so badly fazed by the smell of orcs and wolves on the breeze; still, sometimes he hesitated, swishing his tale.
Another wave of wild singing broke from around the fire further down the valley, a moment later joined by a howl that seemed to come from the shadows just beside them. Both Moryo and Haleth swore, and she started so badly that she almost fell from her saddle. Her horse panicked, jumped straight into the air, so that all four hooves left the ground as one. As she struggled to check its bolt by controlling its head, it arched its neck and whinnied. The stealth advantage having been effectively martyred, Moryo let up a bit on Hala’s reins, permitting the stallion to trot.
A trot that became a gallop as the noise of barking, clear as a fox’s scream, erupted behind them. Having the better horse, he overtook Haleth in a matter of strides. He heard her horse screaming, and her shouting, in her own language.
Risking a look over his shoulder, he glimpsed the long form of horse and rider, and the shining greenish stars of over a dozen eyes. So I’ve found my fight. With difficulty, he restrained Hala’s head, and forced the stallion to turn, as Haleth flew past in a blur.
He pulled the first javelin from his quiver and loosed it in the direction of the nearest pair of eyes, although he had no way of knowing if it hit, and now he had only four in his quiver.
Haleth was well out of sight, and Moryo could hear only yips and barking and keening war cries as he was surrounded, the wargs encircling him and his horse just outside the limits of his perception, so that only their eyes showed, reflecting the moonlight, level with his stallion’s head. Upon their backs clung goblins, child-sized, deceptively slim, their armor shining, and their eyes as well. They called to each other, in shrill bastard-Sindarin, and several arrows flew at Moryo from the ring. With their night sight, luck was with them: one arrow bounced off Moryo’s lorica and another grazed Hala’s neck.
Wait for them to dart in.
Guiding Hala with his calves, he turned the warhorse in a tight circle. But surrounded as he was, his back was always to the enemy.
I’m going to die here.
Indeed, several wargs hung back, forming the circle’s parameter, their riders loosing arrows at Moryo and his horse. One at a time, at first, though by moments growing bolder, others darted out, to harry Hala’s flanks, their riders bearing down upon Moryo with axes and clubs.
The first staggered under the impact of Moryo’s second javelin. It was far from dead and its rider was still in action, but it limped back to the parameter. Moryo was lucky with his third cast—it pierced a warg’s throat. The next missed its target completely. The last javelin missed the warg, but threw its rider from the saddle, and Moryo was left with nearly a dozen enemies, his horse, his sword, and his dagger.
I will die here, unless I can get out of this ring.
Emboldened by his lack of ranged weapons, the wargs rushed him in pairs now, Moryo keeping his seat as Hala reared and kicked, striking hind and fore at warg-riders at every opportunity. Hala’s bugling roar was like a sword-stroke across the cacophony of vermin, but even louder seemed the sound of Moryo’s labored breathing.
The stallion was more than a match for ordinary wolves, but against these monsters, he was little better off than a billy goat. It bode ill when two wargs clamped down upon the stallion’s legs and haunches, and though Moryo hacked at their heads, he knew that even if the horse somehow survived he would never ride Hala into battle again.
A pale, nearly white warg lunged, and seized Hala by the nose, dragging the screaming, struggling stallion’s head downward, and Moryo knew his ride was ended. A fourth warg rode abreast of him, and its rider clubbed Moryo over the head and shoulders several times, Moryo’s defenses proving inadequate, until, with a final blow, Moryo fell.
The next thing he knew, he was lying crosswise across the shaggy, slippery back of yet another warg, staring up into the face wide-eyed goblin, his thighs still caught in the saddle and trailing harness. The saddle soon hit ground, and Moryo joined it, helped along by the affronted goblin. His head struck a rock—fortunately his helmet protected him—but there was a jar of impact and a ringing, metallic clang as his crest flew off. He lay, bruised, in pain, but somehow, still conscious.
Moryo struggled to his feet. His ride had carried him outside the wolf-ring, and he suspected that this was as much of the gods’ favor as he would see tonight. Putting his back to Hala’s death screams, the shrill yipping of frenzied wolves, he fled blindly.
In the dark, he slammed into an orcish foot soldier. Stepping to the side, he slashed with his sword across its hamstring, reversed his swing, and dealt the orc a blow to the neck. A second foot soldier smashed him across the head, and he cut open its sword-arm, forcing it to drop the weapon. And not checking to see whether it was dead, he sprinted.
He thought he was running in the direction that Haleth had indicated, the direction of the path up to the moor, but he had no way of being certain, and found that he only cared a very little, in an abstract sense. Indeed, at first he fled uphill, his eyes stinging, his vision blurry, and his palms slick inside his gloves whenever he had to haul himself bodily over the lips of rock ledges, which was often. An orc-archer was troubling him again, shooting at him from further up the height. Moryo rushed the creature, darting in close where the arrows couldn’t harm him, several bouncing off his armor. He bowled the orc over, stabbed it through his mouth, and found himself on top of the height.
Then he was running downhill, as quickly as he dared with his limited visibility. Only one thing was on his mind, to put distance between himself and the sounds of the pack devouring his horse.
He met one more orc, at the bottom of the hill, a straggler snuffling about the rocks. When it saw Moryo, it shrilled and fled. He caught up with it, wrestled the slight body to the ground, and cut its throat, to a feeling of release, relief, and satisfaction.
Further on, in another valley, gods knew how far away, the light of the setting moon glinted off spring-water trickling from the limestone hillside. Moryo took off his helmet, pushing back loose, greasy strings of hair. He felt thoroughly unclean, with sweat, dirt, and blood caking his skin. He touched his chin. There was a shallow cut there, and blood running down. He couldn’t remember getting it.
Moaning, he washed his face, although he could feel it did him no good except to coat his skin in a fine layer of mud, and cause his eyes to sting all the more when the filth got into them. He filled his helmet with water and drank.
Finally, he wholly realized that he was alone.
“Shit.” Perhaps it was aloud or perhaps he thought it, at this time he didn’t care about the difference. “Damn atan-bitch, more trouble than she’s worth.”
The moon slid below the crest of the tor.
“Well, what am I supposed to do? Gods, I’ve just got, I’ve just got me here, and there’s what, I saw at least a dozen, shit, fifteen orcs and at least as many wargs, and however many are further down the valley, fuck, and they would have come when they heard their friends getting action. And she could be dead by now. She’s probably dead by now.”
“What am I supposed to do? There isn’t anything I can do.”
“She’s not even one of mine.”
Finding his feet, he started back the way he came, following his ears. The wargs still howled, and the goblins still cried, a terrific commotion, especially from the hilltops.