Ash and Stone: Food for Thought

Land stretched on as far as the eye could see. Warm lands with rolling fields and dancing forests. Living lands with spring in full bloom. The Enedwaith welcomed life.

A dun goat grazed on the crisp greens of the meadow eager to fatten itself after the harsh winter months. Grass sweet and warm after the full day’s sun filled his belly. His nostrils flared. Clover. Raising his graceful head, he scanned the meadow for the source of the scent.

His eyes caught what his nose had missed: movement in the line of the woods. Stock still, he scanned the copse for the Wild Men he expected to smell there, but he only saw trunks and branches and leaves.

A thunderous crack split his eardrums; the pain was swift and all encompassing, but soon there was nothing but the smell of burning goat hair.

“A bit dramatic, don’t you think?”

The young man who spoke smiled, amused, as the older gentleman stepped out from the veil of shadowy trees.

“As long as it is effective. Chasing that last rabbit halfway back to Rohan soured me on simply setting them on fire.” The man raised his arm in a flourish. “Besides, this way is much less…cruel, don’t you think?”

The words seemed foreign on the man’s lips. His upper lip curled as he tasted the mercy of his thoughts.

The younger man hummed approval as he joined his elder to gaze down at the goat. “Though we could forage still and live well enough. We do not have to kill at all.”

“Ah, but steak, my dear boy,” he said with a chuckle as he knelt to begin skinning the animal. His robes were far too fine to be doing such work, and his delicate, fine hands were uncertain with the blade.

“Gather some wood; we will feast tonight and tomorrow we shall hopefully reach the Windfalls. We are making good progress.” The man wiped his bloodied hand on the grass beside him. “Yes. It is good.”

He watched the young man with a smile as he went about gathering fallen branches for their campfire. He admired the way the sun played in his hair, light breaking in the mists of the afternoon showers still clinging to his luxurious strands. He was captivated by the slope of his back as he stooped to gather fuel.

For him, this new life.

He touched the tent of logs and set them ablaze without flint or tinder. He watched his fellow spit and roast the goat meat as the sun set behind him and he smiled. He drank from a skin of fresh water and once again marveled at how sweet water could taste. He was like a child waking up to the world around him now that he walked in the light.

Pharazanû’s light. Never again would Zabathôr allow that light to fade.

When the meal was eaten and their passions spent beneath the starlit sky, Zabathôr of Mordor stroked the silvery white hair of his young lover. He contemplated the irony of the lands of the ancient capital of Arnor serving as their refuge. Once the great enemy, now fallen into its own shadow as Gondor rotted to the south. It would serve as their cover. And he heard it was beautiful.

He counted the lights in the sky and dedicated each one to the slumbering form in his arms. He considered the distances between their bedrolls and the nearest settlement. He weighed the risks of revealing themselves to the Dunlendings. He thought about Pharazanû’s suggestion they forgo hunting for a life of nuts and berries. He thought about building a home and living without fear. He thought little of the power left behind on the banks of the river in Rohan.

Now was not the time. The witch was dead. Again. The man he coveted was in his arms. There would be time to find answers. But for now, he rested beneath the open sky and was at peace.

Advertisements

Blinded

Eirikr rode in silence. He did not want to look at his companions as he kept Kvígr close to Taja’s steed. He had given Pharazanû back to him after the man mounted up and he rested limply against the Lossoth. The gleam of the young man’s pale hair shone even in the fading light as they rode toward Lothlorien. The White Witch’s Wood. O, he tried not to recall the tales of the place as they drew ever nearer.

He had half a mind to stay with Langafel’s men at its border, but that would be cowardly. His place was with his company. His place was to protect his company, even if it was from themselves.

He had to hand it to Oen; the man had an interesting recruitment philosophy. And he knew that aside from Cwen and Eruviel, he hardly knew the other members. They seemed hot-headed and and quick to draw. And while at first everything seemed black and white, he began to feel that things were not quite what they seemed with the enemy. Still, he watched. He waited. He spoke only when he felt it absolutely necessary. And while everyone’s hatred for the sorcerers clouded their judgement, he tried to remain objective and true to his core beliefs.

After all, it wasn’t personal for him. He had met Atanamir a mere handful of times, and they were in passing. He thought the gentleman could make his own decisions, and he did: he chose the sorcerer.

He just hoped he would never have to kill him for it one day.

Still, there was a long road ahead to Lorien and things could possibly change before they returned. If the eaves of Mirkwood had taught him anything, it was you could rarely see what was around the next bend in the road ahead.

~~~***~~~

Zab's flowersHe did not see.

The nights when Pharazanû came to him burned feverishly in Zabathôr’s mind. Now as he stared at the letter in one hand and held the stem of the flowers carefully with the other, he pictured him lying beneath the coverlet with dozens of the tiny blue blossoms in his hair.

His chest tightened.

Was he getting too old for this?

Age was hardly an excuse. He had spent a mere half-century walking the paths of the Eye, give or take a handful of years. The journey kept his body healthy and fit while his mind stayed sharp. The only thing that had changed was that he no longer walked it alone.

Something blurred his vision as he tried to reread the letter Pharazanû must have left before they had marched to the Flame.

What was this?

He rubbed his eyes to clear his vision and his fingers came away wet. He had not cried since he was a boy of seven and his own foolish machinations had set his own hair on fire. A surge of anger welled in his chest now, and he grit his teeth as the air crackled with heat around him.

Zabathôr took several deep breaths and willed the flush out of his cheeks. He turned from his bedside table and went to the chaise where he pushed several books to the floor before lifting a leg to fall to the cushions.

He laid himself back against the support and thought about how much Pharazanû had changed in the past months. Ambition and drive to complete the Flame had not left much room for Zabathôr to contemplate matters of emotion. Emotion was messy. It was too complicated to deal with and made one weak. It was best left to the other side. The “free peoples.”

He read the last lines of Pharazanû’s letter and again it sounded like a goodbye. He thought of his last words to the boy, and he realized they had not been enough. As that wretched company took him to Lorien, they took him further and further from his grasp. He closed his eyes to block the fading light that bathed his chamber now that the shadow was gone.

He did not want to think about tomorrow when the Four Lords would be three, or even worse, halved. What would happen to them now that they were drawn and quartered? Would the Eye send them to the far corners of his empire as slaves to remind others what would happen if they failed? The gift of life seemed so new and precious to him suddenly. And was it such a gift if it meant living in torture as nothing but a mocking shadow of his former self.

The day will dawn and one way or the other, he thought it would bring freedom to his young lover in life or death. And with its light, Zabathôr realized he did not know the path before his feet and he could only stare out the window at the setting sun.

~~~***~~~

The bear was grumbling to himself. Of course, if anyone happened to pass by, his complaints sounded like growls and snarls and slobbery lip blowing. But he was complaining, though he knew no one would understand.

He just did not understand why Anya had asked him to stay up all night watching for the past week and a half. He missed the sun and the Broken Cask and the way the light sparkled on the lake. He wanted to go look for another beehive and eat the guts out of it.

Anya wouldn’t tell him why he was watching or what he was watching for, but so far it had been a stray dog (which Anya did not let him keep despite the big bear eyes) and several squirrels. Oh, and a rabbit. The rabbit didn’t like him very much and moved on from Anya’s small garden rather quickly when it caught scent of him.

Still, he’d watch. He wouldn’t fall asleep and he hadn’t really fallen asleep the past two nights. It was hard to stay awake with the sounds of the night lulling all around you. She had to understand that, right?

Besides, there was nothing to see.

He could be sleeping right now.

But then again, out here, he couldn’t hear his sister crying at night. Sometimes, he thought she’d make it without tears, but inevitably, he’d hear the sniffling and then the sharp gasp and he’d try not to roll his eyes as her feet hit the floor and she shuffled across her room to the opposite corner of her bed. Sometimes Sally Stitches would let out a plaintive meow or one of the dogs would bark, but after a few minutes, the bed in the other room would creak again and the room fell silent.

The bear huffed and turned his big head to gaze up at the stars. The light was growing at the tops of the trees and he slowly lumbered across the lane into the yard of the little cabin. The floorboards of the wagon creaked as he climbed into the back with the intention of changing back into his lanky self. But instead of a shimmer and a shift, there was a slump and a sigh and Abiorn fell asleep there in the wagon with the cover blocking out the first rays of the morning sun.

And he did not see the stray dog, turned away two days back, sitting up on the cliffs of Pinecrest overlooking the cabin.

Shift

After the meeting with the surprise sorcerer, Eirikr strode back and forth rather angrily in his tent. The impromptu interrogation session with the Black Numenorian had put him in a foul mood and though now they had options, he thought they had more questions than answers. Eirikr Tenorbekk did not like being in the dark. Especially when at that very moment, Eruviel was on her way to Ost Celebrant with Langafel.

Eirikr knew her to be a capable scout and an excellent fighter. A kind and humorous companion. But he had never known her like this before.

When he looked at her now, he did not just see an Elf clad in leather armour with a bow on her back and a sword on her hip. He saw the soft curve of her lip and the gentle fall of her braid across her shoulder. He saw her smile and heard her laughter and felt her fingers upon his brow. Delicate. Precious. Irreplaceable.

He scowled as he realized his thoughts made it seem like he did not value her before. He had, of course, but sometime between Evendim and Rohan, things had shifted inside of him when it came to her. He had not meant for it to happen. In fact, if he had been truly aware of it, he would have put a stop to it immediately, but perhaps now it was too late.

The truth was, his agitation sprouted from this new intense desire to put her in a safe, secure place and protect her from the Black Numenorians she now rode toward. He wanted to pull her close and shield her from the darkness. He wanted to do all these things that he never thought he’d want to do again and he hated that he would never be good enough to do any of it. He hated that he did not want to be good enough.

He did not want to cause her pain in any way, and a love between mortal and immortal could end in only that. Didn’t the legends say only by the intervention of the Valar themselves did Beren and Luthien find peace? And didn’t they have to die first?

Eirikr scowled again, his heavy brow drawing down deeply over his stormy eyes. He reminded himself that Eruviel had survived things he could hardly imagine. She would continue to survive things long after his bones had turned to dust, if not in this world, then across the Sea with her people and away from this land of strife.

He slipped through the flap of his small tent and looked out across the camp. Miss Cwen was meandering away from the main fire holding her lute; Hallem sat there still looking solemn by the flames.

Deciding that he could not sit by and not do anything but wait, he stalked after Cwen. The Black Numenorean may have slipped through their grasp, but he could still get answers from somewhere, and that was doing something.

~~~***~~~

Cwendlwyn of Rohan was digging through trash bins. She did not remember discarding the item she was looking for, but she knew that she packed it then and she needed it now; she did not wish to go to bed that night without it. Without flinching, she pulled over a partially broken crate filled with broken bits of metal and leather and scraps of frayed rope. Carefully, she tried to search the bin without having to dump it out.

She mumbled to herself in a bare whisper as she searched. Ever since Pharazanû had vanished, she acted more eccentric regardless of who was around. She simply gave less of a damn about what other people thought than before and she had hardly cared at all to begin with. Still, she began to suspect that Langafel’s men had begun to suspect that she was a bit daft.

Maybe they were right.

Feygil and Eirikr had criticised her choice to force the Black Numenorean to heal her arm seeing it only as a verification of the sorcerer’s abilities. Both of them and Hallem had asked her why any one of them could trust him. The looks on their faces might have upset her a year ago. She hadn’t bothered to pay any attention to her companions’ reactions when she tested Pharazanû, but that was because she had been so intent on his response.Camp

Cwen was certain that few of them if any understood what she did or why, but that did not matter. It was not, nor had it ever been, about trusting the man.

After all, what was trust, really? Could anyone be truly trusted?

She did not trust the sorcerer any more than they did. She just understood something about him. She saw him differently. She did not peg him as evil just because he was the enemy. Even enemies can have respect for one another, and, besides, in his eyes, wouldn’t they be the enemy? Yet he came to them with information. They seemed intent on the same goal. And what else brings people together more than a common goal?

The more she pondered these questions in the passing time between waiting and worrying, she began to question more and more.

For instance, what is the difference between an Elf and an Orc?

The legends say the black pits of Thangorodrim twisted the prisoners kept there into the ghastly race today known as orc. Their fates altered, they were forced to adapt or die. They were forced to serve, to listen to their master, and obey the commands given them in order to create a more powerful structure of society. Common purpose. Greater good.

Hold a moment–which society was she thinking of? The Elves that obeyed the summons… the orcs twisted by Morgoth? Obey. The Valar let the Elves decide their own fate. Was that the difference? Apart from the physical, the brutish and the beautiful, is that what separated Orc and Elf? The choice?

If an Orc was given the choice, would he be able to choose mercy if all he’d learned was brutality? And was it his fault he did not know of the other choice?

Was it an orc’s fault, then, that he was an orc?

Was it that man’s fault he was born beneath the shadowed sky instead of the open plains of the Mark?

What would she have been like if she had been born in Dunland instead of near Cliving in the Norcrofts? How would her life had been different if her father had taken her to his clan’s homeland instead of settling on the western edges of the Gap?

“It’s all perspective,” she murmured as she went into the bucket of scraps from the night’s dinner with both hands. “People don’t know how to change perspective.”

Her fist pushed past something squishy and warm, then closed around something hard and cold. Cylindrical.

“Aha!”

She sat back on her heels and wiped the slime away from the little blue vial of liquid. She kept it in her bag with the other mixes and medicines she thought might be useful, but only after she had sworn to herself she would never use it on herself again.

So how it found its way into her sleeve at mealtime, she had no inkling. Her head had ached; perhaps she thought it was the willow bark tincture instead. But then, when she realized what she had and how much she wanted to forget everything that was going on around her and how much she missed them, she slipped the vial back into her sleeve to forget it and it must have fallen when she tossed away the bones of the water fowl they had roasted that evening.

That night, she found it especially hard to sleep with no moon to tell her to rest and no sun to help her wake, and soon she realized she was not going to be able to sleep. Not enough to be good for anything other than a rambling, distracted fool, at least, and she rose from her bedroll and slipped out of the tent and ignored the curious looks from the men on watch as she went from bin to bin searching for a means to stop the noisy questions.

So many questions.

There was one to which she knew the answer as she carried the little blue vial in the palm of her fist and returned to her tent.

People who fall in love suddenly see the world differently; they operate under different motivations than before love and sometimes, they find they are strong with that single purpose directing their choices. They take risks to protect and to prove themselves worthy of their affection’s heart, and sometimes, the risks they choose go against everything they ever were or ever knew before.

But for now, Cwen chose to forget love and sorcerers and orcs and men. She closed her tent off from the shadowy sky, took a sip of the sweet blue liquid, and finally fell into a dreamless sleep.

~~~***~~~

Zabathôr seethed as he stood at the window of his rooms in the high tower of Ost Celebrant. He stared down at the splash of pale hair that told him Pharazanû still knelt before the necromancer’s body. The man’s penetrating gaze bore down on the scene in the courtyard below and the air around him warped and steamed.

It was too soon. The enemy had moved too quickly and seemed far too confident to suit Zabathôr’s needs. What if the fool had managed to do real damage? And the surrender.

Really. What was that?

Zabathôr snorted with disgust as he turned away from the sight in a flurry of dark robes. The door to his chambers cracked against the wall as he stormed through it and to the stair that led to the roof of the tower. The climb was steep and narrow, and when he emerged at the top he could see the land in all directions.

Far below, he thought he could see Pharazanû still at the foot of the shrine built for the fallen man.

What was his name? ‘O’ something, wasn’t it? Oh, yes. Orthan. A tolerable, seemingly competent young man and a skilled sorcerer. Pity he could not have been put to more use before the Horseman ended his miserable existence.

Zabathôr turned to look away from the fortress and out toward the land as if to find the camp that held the ones who dared to challenge the Great Eye. He placed both of his delicate yet powerful hands on the stones that formed the battlements and closed his eyes. He sent his thought into the stone and felt along its strengths and weaknesses. Deep, deep into the living earth to seek the fault lines far beneath the surface of the dying grass.

He sought until he grew tired from his searching and glared out over the land in frustration. No great crack in the earth existed in a manner that would not also topple the fortress he stood upon. He turned from the wall to descend quickly into the tower and back to his rooms.

“Call the Four,” he ordered the guard as he brushed past him. “Immediately.”

The guard saluted and barked orders to his subordinate to find the others of the four lords before the door swung shut behind him. Zabathôr returned to the window and calmed his breath as he stared at the unchanged scene below.

His fingers flexed.

The air sparked.

He was still in control. If he could not move them by moving the earth, he would find another way to shift the advantage back to his side of the game.

And he would win.

ScreenShot00462

Ash and Stone: Good News for Us

Dol Guldur
Dol Guldur

The main gate was small from the high tower, but he knew that the visitor was no friend of Mordor. No orc nor goblin walked with such an air of high confidence and no Man would come here without a guard. The shouting and commotion (ugh, orcs) had drawn his attention, but what he saw kept it until the man was shackled and hustled inside.

His suspicions were confirmed when he returned to his room that evening and found the note on his bedside table.

It smelled of him. Youth and eagerness and conflict. Zabathôr felt it in his young lord and he read it between the curves of his fine penmanship. He read the words: Azulgar’s slave had returned to him. It was one less thing Zabathôr now had to worry about, had to plot and plan. The gentle admission of enjoying their talks outside of the incessant schedule of meetings and planning sessions and inspections.

The note brought a smile to Zabathôr’s lips, but first things first: the news that Azulgar’s lover willingly returned to his loving embrace.

While his first instinct was to spend his jubilation twirling about his room, Zabathôr knew something about the young man’s sudden appearance right at the gates of Dol Guldur was rather convenient, and if he had learned anything in his half-century of life, it was nothing was ever without a price. Especially if it was convenient. He was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, at least not in front of the givers. But the cost

His window offered a fine panoramic view of the decaying forest around the fortress. Far below, a row of slaves toiled before the great furnaces that allowed the armies of Dol Guldur to grow at such an exponential pace. Soon they would be travelling south with the armies under his command. His guidance.

It all came at a cost. The fires had to be fed; the faults would widen and spread. All that was green in the world would fall victim to the spread of industry and the power of the Dark Lord. And he, Lord Zabathôr of the Four, would be there at the forefront of the battle with his…

Truly, he did not know what he would have or whether he would ever see such a thing as actual war. Was not such a thing below a great Lord of Mordor? Surely it was so. And yet, he longed for a chance at glory. He long to be feared.

Dark Flight over Dol Guldur
One, two, three four. The Four Lords, not the Three Lords or the Two.

What fear would his name bring if all he was known for was succeeding where so many others had failed with the Flame? How is power and triumph shared among four? It was lessened to be divided so, yet Mordor created them. Made them into one, and without the whole, they could never achieve success. The Four Lords, not the Three Lords or the Two.

Two. One, two.

His thoughts drifted to the the author of the note and he looked down at it still in his hand. A poisonous wind tried to rip it from his grasp and he stepped back from the window brushing his pale hair from his eyes. Rereading the note, he crossed to his bed and pulled the cord to summon a slave or servant, whichever did not matter to him.

“Yes, my lord?” Collared and downcast, the woman stood with her hands clasped in front of her to support the chains that cut into her wrists.

“Summon Lord Pharazanû to me. I don’t care if he’s sleeping or eating or in the middle of plowing a dirty little imp like yourself. Now.”

The woman dipped into an obedient curtsy and hurried out the door.

Zabathôr tucked the note into a box sitting on the top shelf of his armoire. He slid out of his heavily decorated robes and into a more casual one.

He would celebrate the acquisition of Azulgar’s lover. But quietly, privately, and with caution.

He waited for Pharazanû to arrive.