In the middle of the journey of life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.
Pipe smoke unfurled into the air, the flights and fringes of it lingering upon the mallorn branches. Soft conversation fell silent as if the gathered company below expected a sudden change of color in the smoke, a vibrant red, or a flowering green, reminiscent of old fireworks. But the grey merely hung there above their heads like ashes until a breeze worthy of spring, though it was midwinter, wafted it away.
"The tale of Túrin is known to many of this company, I think," the storyteller began, long legs crossed leisurely at the ankles, back reclining against the expansive silver bole of the tree that sheltered their circle. His pipe glowed between strong, scarred fingers as he drew on it. "But though it was asked, tonight is not the night to tell it. The name of Morgoth is best left to its long slumber."
"Then we must also pass over the Lay of Leithian and all of the First Age, if that is the case," remarked a golden figure sitting cross-legged upon a cushion. His fine-tipped eyebrows arched like bowstrings at the storyteller. "You are left with scarce a story to tell, my friend."
"Well, then, if we toss out this tale and that, it sounds like we're having another evening of sitting around and staring at each other," protested a bucolic and rather indignant hobbit-voice from across the circle.
The storyteller smiled at the indignation on two such different faces. "I have promised you a tale, Mr. Gamgee, and so I will tell you one. One that, perhaps, not even the eldest amongst our little company has yet heard." He cast a sly glance at the first objector who had spoken. "One that happened long before Túrin though his tale is bound up in theirs. However, I shall warn you that though Morgoth is not master of this tale, his darkness may taint it before the end."
The night was black. Beneath the trees it was yet blacker, but he did not slow. Great pillars towered on every side. He swerved and dodged. The rabbiting beat of his heart tripped as it fought to keep up with his frenetic pace. He was utterly lost in these confounding woods, but he considered it little. His purpose had not been to find anything. Thorn thickets and briars snatched at his sleeves and hair, but he wrenched through them with the desperation of one escaping a worse fate than their rending. A tree root caught at his ankle, and the forest floor opened up beneath him.
He landed hard facedown. Breathless and rather bruised, he lay there, wracked with the exertions of his heart, now far outstripping his legs. He thought of nothing in particular though he remembered thinking a great many things. If anything, he thought of lying there on the cool earth until it would receive him, and he vanished into a fall of old, scarlet leaves. Somewhere deep in the woods a clear, high note sounded.
The little flame within him stirred. He lifted his head. He had fallen into a hollow at the foot of which whispered a little, black creek. Catching the gleam of moonlight on water, he realized his throat was parched to dust.
He crawled down the bank and greedily plunged his face into the water. After slaking his thirst, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand only to taste the sting of iron on his tongue. His hands were bleeding. The sight and taste disturbed him for he rose shakily to his knees and began scrubbing his hands hard with banksand. Even after he had washed them, he could still see the clotted gleam of something between his thumb and index finger. He scrubbed harder.
So intent was he on this task, he did not feel the eyes upon him until the watcher stood nearly at his shoulder. He scrambled backward into the creek, instinctively snatching his sword from his side and dropping into a battle-ready crouch.
The stranger remained where he was and raised his hands up in a gesture of placation and surrender. An unstrung bow protruded over his shoulder, but he made no move for it. Even in the skeletal moonlight, the wanderer could keenly see he was of the Firstborn, like himself. And yet unlike for his head was of gold and shone like sunlight upon which the moon had set filaments of white flowers. All the woodland was knotted in it, and he was all over with silver blossoms as if the forest itself had birthed him. His gear was well-kept if rough, and his clothing of grey and green. A true son of the forest.
Of remarkable beauty, he was slender in girth with fine, strong limbs, and a mien fairer than any of the Eldar that the wanderer had ever seen. There was no age in his face that betrayed either youth or number of years for it was altogether smooth and unblemished by touch of war or shadow. In those ageless eyes was a clear light that seemed to have seen all the world and none of it at all.
The wanderer stared wide-eyed at this unearthly apparition, his guard lowering a little in astonishment.
The stranger or phantom lowered his hands slowly in an echo of the relaxing guard and smiled, an expression so redolent of reassurance and sweetness that, but for the darkness on his heart, the wanderer would have returned it fully. After a short pause, the mysterious Sindar set his instrument upon the ground, a great ox horn, banded with silver.
"You look as if you have come far." Even the voice was mellifluous, like the budding of spring given voice. "What is your name, my friend?"
Following the other's gaze, the wanderer glanced at his ragged clothing self-consciously, but, still wary, he answered nothing. The sword remained in his hand.
"My name is Beleg," the huntsman said, taking a small, cautious step forward. "Do you understand? Perhaps you only speak the tongue of the Noldor?"
The guard sprang up instantly, and the wanderer retreated deeper into the water. "Come no further!" The Sindarin words rasped thickly, a file against stone. He had forgotten how long it had been since he had spoken to another.
Beleg obeyed, yielding his pace, hands spread. "I will not harm you. You have my word."
"That is not what I fear."
"Are you lost? I dwell in these woods and know nearly every deer-path in it. Tell me which way you wish to go, and I will lead you thither."
The Noldo wanderer smiled humorlessly over the edge of his blade. It felt more like a death-rictus. "Were I but lost in the trees, I would be grateful." Though Beleg frowned in confusion at this enigmatic reply, he did not explain further. The night was dark enough. Instead, he looked up at the great canopy of branches whose denseness cast them in deep shadow, "What is this place?"
"Doriath. You are come to the realm of King Thingol." Beleg regarded him steadily for a moment or two longer. He seemed supremely unconcerned by the threat of a naked blade. "You are worn and hungry, I warrant. Come. Put up your blade. You shall stay the night with me, and on the morrow, I shall take you to Thingol. He is generous to those in need. He can help you find your kin or—"
"I have none," the Noldo interrupted with such vehemence that Beleg's tongue stilled.
"Well, then, perhaps we shall find a place for you in the king's service. We ever have need of men, though the sight of the Noldor is still new to us. Come," he entreated with a touch of exasperation when the other showed no signs of stirring. "The night is late, and whilst I can sleep anywhere, if you set foot any deeper, you will drown. This creek, for all its slender size, is quite deep in the center."
The Noldo thought on this, then, with a perturbed glance at the dark water lapping at his calves, he nodded once and sheathed his blade.
"Good! It's settled then." Beleg plucked up his horn and readjusted his cloak across his shoulders. "I live but a few miles from here. It is not far."
The Noldo made to follow him then halted as if remembering something. "Mablung."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I am called Mablung."
Cold. Always the cold first.
Crackling, crashing, screams and splashes. The air ruined with smoke and ash, in his eyes, in his mouth and nose. Wooden planks stained bright red with the light of it…with something else. Stained like his hands.
He was cold. He was so close to the flames, but he was wracked with shivers that coursed one after another after another up his spine. He could not look at the dock beneath his feet. He would not.
Water about him, underneath, ice to either side…He floundered, fought hard, but the ice, a feral creature with a pinching grip, dragged him down, down into darkness and silence… Flames red on the water…
His mouth filled with saliva; his legs flew out of bed, slapping shakily onto the cool, earthen floor. Tremors rolled up his back as he fought the ejection of his stomach. Jaw locked, he remained half-bent, eyes shut tight against the tears threatening to escape. After an interminable time, the shaking at last eased; Mablung swiped his eyes and moist face on the bed sheet and glanced furtively about the moonlit lodge. Fortunately, Beleg still slept in the bunk across from him, moonlight spilling across the pillow and illuminating his fair face, surprisingly young in repose.
Mablung envied him the conscience that allowed him so deep and peaceful a slumber. Sleep was lost to him, and he remained awake the rest of the night, watching his comrade's face as if hoping the answer to peace's endless riddle lay within it.
"Archers! Let fly!"
Beleg's stentorian call cut above the roars and screams, the clash and fracas of joined combat.
The vengeful whir of a score of arrows whipped through the trees, showering death and spinning leaves upon the heads of the enemy like autumn.
It was the signal Mablung had been waiting for. With half a dozen of his fellows, he burst from the concealing foliage with a wild call to echo Beleg's. "Out now, men, and slay!"
The incursions of enemy bands and spies had grown more and more frequent, the onset of summer heat bringing fresh vigor and malice to their strokes. Melian's Girdle which protected Doriath's borders could only confuse and mislead the enemy, not kill them. To that end, the wardens waged endless war upon their bitterest and most hated foes. In these perilous times, even the sword of a stranger and Noldo was welcome.
As Beleg had said, Thingol was generous…and shrewd. The idea of sending a messenger among the princes of the Noldor, a messenger who could speak and understand their language, understand their customs and, moreover, who was loyal only to Doriath, intrigued him. Seeing in him a capable and just, if a little arrogant, ruler, Mablung held few qualms in placing his sword and honor at Thingol's disposal. Though not quite a stranger to court life, he was secretly relieved when Beleg stepped forth and requested he join the company on the northern marches in the anonymity and freedom of the woods.
And he fought for that freedom now dearly.
Hard handstrokes rang as they drove hard upon the desperate and now overwhelmed enemy. The elven charge thrust like a gale against the orcs' defense and shattered it. The craven hearts' of the enemy failed them. They scattered far and wide, abandoning their dead and wounded. But they were pursued and cut down even as they fled.
When the screams faded, Mablung slacked off his pace, allowing his comrades to continue the hunt. He threw a jaunty salute to Beleg, perched in an oak above him, and plunged his blade into the ploughed-up soil with satisfaction. "A fine day, is it not?"
Beleg bared his teeth in a vicious grin as he loosed a shaft and was rewarded with a screech of pain from the foliage. "Indeed. And better still when the last of these foul creatures is run to earth." He leapt carefully to the ground but stumbled a little with a gasp.
Mablung caught his arm, steadying him against the tree trunk. "You have taken some hurt?"
Grimacing, Beleg straightened and glanced at the free-flowing gash in his leg. "The one who dealt it was not so fortunate. Never mind—"
Mablung thrust him hard aside. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his friend's injured leg crumple, the rest consumed with the evil-glittering eyes over the archer's shoulder.
Dazed and breathless, Beleg pushed himself up on his elbows. "Mablung, what—?"
But the sound of his name had sensation: a breath-taking impact.
Distractedly, Mablung glanced at Beleg. His head turned jerkily. Someone had filled his joints with grit. He could taste the breath hissing in and out between his teeth…and lower down, thick and metallic at the back of his throat. A deep burrowing ache sprang up in his breast. Glancing down with his rapidly narrowing vision, he realized his white hand clutched something at his chest.
A black dart. Or what remained of it, a few inches of shaft and fletching.
He thought it was the wind that swept his knees from under him, it buffeted his ears…so loud he could not hear, could not see or feel, anything, but the cold. Someone's hands were on him, pulling at him. He was drowning in cold. The flames on the water, esurient in their fury, consumed him and went out.
"You are going to the war."
The song of whetting over his blade fell silent. "And you should have been a messenger rather than a warrior—you are more well-informed on what moves within and without these woods than the King's own councilors." Mablung tried to laugh wryly, but it got lost and twisted somewhere around his heart and came out as more of a weak exhale.
"Did you intend ever to tell me?" Beleg's gaze drilled into Mablung like a pair of knives. "Or would I have had to seek news of you from Annadir when your bunk lay empty for days on end?"
"I had intended to tell you."
Beleg laughed, but it was a fey and far cry from his usual easy levity. "Whilst I slept, perhaps?"
The hurt in his tone stung Mablung more than the unjust accusation. He dropped his eyes though Beleg had no right to chastise him so. "That is unworthy of you. You know I never intended to remain overlong."
"And yet you have remained."
Mablung returned no answer. Yes, he had remained. Longer than he had intended. Longer, even, than his usually sound judgment deemed wise. "I fear to wear out my welcome in Doriath."
"Thingol knows well enough that I vouch for you…Tell me truly. Is this but some noble notion of forgotten honor that begs you to commit this foolishness? Does nothing hold you here?"
Mablung cast Beleg a look both withering and imploring. "What would you have me do? They are my kindred…Or have you forgotten that I am of the Noldor?"
Beleg made a dismissive gesture. "You bear no resemblance to those…You have naught to do with the sons of Fëanor and their bloody deeds. What they did to the mariners of Alqualondë—"
"Thingol has decided not to send aid to the kings of the Noldor, and only under the severest strictures did he give me leave to go." Mablung said quietly, but something in his face severed the end of Beleg's sentence as cleanly as a knife.
"Then…you are going alone?"
Mablung had not considered it quite so baldly as that, but once spoken, he could not deny the truth of it. He gave a short nod. "To Hithlum. Fingon's host is gathering there."
"And what of Doriath?" Beleg crouched beside him. "What of the north marches? What will become of your comrades while you are gone? They have come to rely upon you more than, I think, even you know."
Mablung read the unspoken question beneath the carefully-phrased and answered both. "I have every faith that they will be as they have always been and look to themselves in the days to come."
"And, what of you? Who will be there to pull you from the fray and the arrows from your chest if I am not there?" The archer's fingers idled restlessly over a shard of flint, but the puckered scar hidden beneath Mablung's shirt gave an almost visceral thump, nonetheless, as if it recognized the nearness of those hands that had knit the flesh whole and stopped the breath and blood from leaking forth. With a tremendous effort, he forced it to stillness.
"Beleg, your place is here. There are perils beyond these woods that you do not understand."
"And how shall a Noldo, as you have proclaimed yourself, know what the mind of a Sindar understands?"
"Because the understanding is too great even for me!"
"Yet you would still share in those perils," Beleg insisted. "I will not have it said that Cúthalion would have no part in the great deeds of our time. And, if truth be told, I have grown fond of you in my own way, Noldo. Though you may not think it my fight, I find being parted from you a rather disagreeable thought."
It was not a stark admission, but so achingly spoken that Mablung felt tears start in his eyes, and he rapidly bowed his head over his blade, grateful for the dark fall of his hair that at least partly concealed his face.
"That," he said when he had won mastery over his voice: the cooperation of his heart, however, was too much to ask, "I cannot help."
And without giving his friend the chance to retort, he went from the lodge. The night had grown cool, and he wandered long under the cloud-swept stars. The wind, blowing strong from the north, brought him no comfort.
Dawn stroked the sky to life in lively colors of cobalt and pearl. Even so early, it promised to be a bright and humid day. Mablung glared balefully at the traitorous sky that so betrayed his mood with clarity and hope.
In silence, he fetched his pack and gear, saddled his horse, and turned its head northward. When a grey figure appeared, also mounted, he treated it for his own shadow, despite the scents of leather and steel and the incongruous aroma of beeswax that drifted occasionally to his nostrils. It followed him silently out of the thinning trees, the last traces of Melian's protection withdrawing, even to the Iant Iaur. There before the ancient stone bridge, Mablung reined his horse to a stop and awaited his ghostly pursuer.
Beleg drew up alongside him, Belthronding strapped upon his back beside a rank of new-fletched shafts of white and grey. They spoke no word. But after a moment, Mablung urged his horse on, and Beleg followed.
Though Doriath's enemies eschewed the frontiers as death and a well-earned and dearly-bought semblance of peace descended, Mablung could not help wondering if such was worth the cost of a winter night like this.
Battalion after battalion, wave upon wave of snowflakes battered relentlessly against the bulwark of roof, windows, and door. The wind, displaying more cunning and cruelty than any orc, had found every un-stoppered chink and crack in the walls of the lodge and blew nearly as hard inside as without. If that were not discomfort enough, a malicious chill seeped through the openings the wind had made and sought out every bit of flesh and bone it could touch and caressed it into numbness.
Mablung had fortified himself as best as could be with several rugs across his lap, around his shoulders, and a mazer of warmed and spiced wine to hand. A number of braziers, heaped high with coals, let off a dull heat that just managed to repulse the worst of the chill. The lodge was in imminent peril of catching fire, but Mablung weighed this possibility philosophically. If it did burn, at least he would be warmer.
The Anfauglith's gasping heat I will take and take gladly. He had disentangled himself only long enough to shovel another heft of fuel onto the coals when the door burst back on its hinges with the full force of the wind which rushed in gleefully and snatched away every scrap of hoarded warmth from the chamber. The braziers darkened redly.
"Shut the accursed door!" Mablung called, throwing himself in front of the nearest coals to keep them alight.
The slight pause before the thunk of wood and the descent of the wind suggested an order carried out somewhat grudgingly. Mablung, after assuring himself that the brazier would burn awhile yet, turned to greet the incomer. His smile faltered, and a hearty greeting sank on his lips.
But Túrin did not acknowledge this rather unenthusiastic salutation. His grey eyes roved the room as he unfastened his sopping cloak from about his neck and dropped it carelessly beneath the row of hooks set there for just such a purpose. Whatever he sought, he did not find and walked to his bunk in the farthest corner of the lodge without a word. Too accustomed to Túrin's moods to be nettled, Mablung merely watched him until his figure dimmed out of the firelight.
It was not that he disliked the son of Húrin to any great extent. On the contrary, he honored him for the deeds of his father in the Nirnaeth and for the boy himself. Though scarcely into manhood, Túrin had already acquitted himself well in the forays and heated skirmishes on the marches. At sometimes great cost to himself, he had taken many a wound for a warden. He was also Beleg's closest friend and companion, second only to Mablung himself who had known the archer longer and better. That, in itself, was enough of a feat to endear him to his compeers. But not so entirely with Mablung who had had occasion to read the hearts and minds of men moreso than his Sindar companions.
And regarding the son of Húrin, he thought he saw Shadow.
It was not a constant feeling. It flitted through his mind, no more substantial than a shadow of the wind, the idea of a color, the shape and scope of an invisible cloak that tugged at the man's footsteps….reasoned away with confessions of fatigue, overwork, or more important matters…to be tucked neatly away into the corners of his mind until some action or remark of Túrin's recalled it.
Yet there was an undeniable dourness of spirit and hardihood of nature in the man that tended to wither friendship, still laughter, and turn all works of his hand that were not of bloodletting to little account. Not unlike the sons of Fëanor, Mablung thought. Not unlike the Noldor themselves. Not unlike myself…Surely, though I have not seen its like in other men, his grim mien stems but from that strange gift that is Men's mortal nature, which they are so quick to blame for the burden of their souls.
They do not know what burden eternal memory can be.
With a brisk shake, Mablung chided himself for his brooding and poured more wine into a fresh mazer.
Túrin had come fresh from a hunt it seemed, but one that had proved unsuccessful for his snares bore no blood, and he carried none of his catch in with him.
"Few things are abroad this night," Mablung commiserated with a nod toward the windows.
A noncommittal grunt.
"Speaking of which, have you seen aught of Cúthalion?" Mablung continued, bound and determined to draw more from the taciturn youth.
"He is not with me, Captain."
Mablung suppressed the urge to raise his eyes heavenward. "I can see that."
"Then you ought also to see that if he is not with me, I know not where he has gone."
"Very well." It was not that he disliked the son of Húrin to any great extent…but that did not mean Mablung did not occasionally wish Thingol had taken a heavier hand to him in his youth to temper some of that arrogance. He moved past Túrin to stare out at the window.
"You arrived in weather like this," he said as if ruminating aloud to no one in particular, but he was ever conscious of the wary sidelong look boring into his back.
"I do not remember it."
"That is not to be wondered at—you were half-frozen. Had Cúthalion not been hunting in the region at the time, the north marches would have found itself sorely lacking one of its most valiant defenders."
Túrin was as susceptible to a little flattery as any man, and chances were, if his pride were pleased, he would warm somewhat to conversation. This time, Mablung was glad to see, was no exception.
"Beleg located a warren close under the sedges along a stream some miles east of here." He pointed vaguely at the back wall of the lodge. "Hare. They were close under though. We have set up a marker that will not be buried or effaced, so we may return to it when the storm abates."
He sniffed and passed his sleeve across his nose, betraying a less stalwart constitution against the cold than his hard demeanor led one to believe. He pushed his black hair off his forehead, and quaffed the wine Mablung had set down for him in a great gulp. He coughed, wiped his eyes, and said hoarsely, "He has told me many tales about his hunts and battles. He said you went to the war with him."
"Rather, he went with me." Mablung said, re-wrapping one of the rugs about his shoulders.
"He saved your life." It was not quite a question. It could not be since Mablung knew he bore the truth of it in the scar in his breast.
"You admire him very much." It hardly needed saying. For all his bluster, the man had never been skilled at concealing his feelings.
Túrin shrugged, attempting anyway. "He is worthy of admiration."
"That he is." Mablung conceded. "But not necessarily of emulation."
Túrin raised an eyebrow, nonplussed.
"Beleg…is not like the other wardens on these marches. He is unlike any other elf in Doriath. He has been something of a law unto himself ever since he came here to abide. A worthy quality in a scout who must rely on his wits to survive, but an ill for one who hopes to lead men someday—as you do, Túrin…"
"A pox on that old complaint." Túrin's face darkened. "You have ever begrudged me his company. I told you, I will not be parted from him."
"Whether you will it or will it not, I am captain here. And you will join Annadir's patrol when it departs in three days." He had hoped to soften the blow, that Túrin's intractable nature would be soothed somewhat by friendly conversation. He'd been wrong.
"You forget to whom you speak, Captain." Inflection twisted honorific into slur. The brazier in the corner cast Túrin's face in a cruel light. "I am not one of your elves to command, but a Man."
Mablung rose. He still held half a handspan over Húrin's son. The satisfaction he felt at this shamed him only a little. "Have a care, boy. Your opinion of your race and your rank as Thingol's fosterson seem to have given you the mistaken impression that you may bandy loose words with me and not feel the sting of rebuke."
"And I would expect so base and red-handed a threat from one of the Noldor," Túrin spat. "It was ever a wonder to me that Thingol appointed you the chief of his wardens when he has so oft claimed before my ears that he trusts not a one of them, has banned their tongue from his realm, and names them all proud and overbold in speech and deed. And so it proves."
Mablung exhaled slowly to calm his heating temper. It did not help much, but there was little honor to be found in a duel of words with Túrin—even if his pride had been pricked. "Such words in a child's ears should be repented of."
"You think it is not true?"
"I know it is true." Though Mablung refused to be baited by Túrin's belligerence, neither did he feel the need to explain himself to one scarcely out of childhood. "But that you should feel free enough to speak so in my ears, shows an astonishing lack of judgment on your part. Though it has been earned, I will not take you to task for it. You are upset because I would part you from your friend, Beleg."
"Do not patronize me so, Noldo! I do not care if you lash me," Túrin said. "In fact, gladly would I take it if it meant Beleg and I could roam the wild again, far from your prying eyes. I have seen the way that you look at him when you believe him unguarded. Covetous. Covetous and envious, like all your kind," he said, so viciously that spittle stung Mablung's cheek. "Bereft of the Silmaril which you took from the gullet of the wolf, you would covet another, brighter, fairer light. The light of his spirit. You would close your hand about it and strangle it. You are well-named." He laughed, but it was a fell sound and utterly without merriment.
Mablung schooled his face to lithic composure in an effort to conceal just how much off-balance the remark had thrown him. And yet, again that hint of disquiet, that impression of Túrin as if he viewed him through a dark veil. "You speak of things beyond the reach of your thought and lifespan, boy, and tread on very dangerous ground if you liken me to the sons of Fëanor."
He was certain Túrin would argue, would snarl something, and then he did not know what he would do. But he did not. In fact, the youth seemed to be unaccountably enraptured by Mablung's hand. For the first time, Mablung noticed the pain in his fingers. He glanced down with some surprise. His hand, of its own accord it seemed, had laid itself upon his sword which hung on a belt beside his bed. His fingers had tightened around it with such vigor that the hilt hurt him.
The door blustered open with a bang, and a tall, strapping frame ducked quickly inside, kicking it shut as if to dispel the wind with his strength.
It dispelled also the tableau of the two combatants in mid-argument. The cold wind washed over Mablung, drowning the fire in him, and he snatched his hand away as if burned. He felt sick and drained.
"It is dreadful beyond all bearing out there!" Beleg toed off his wet boots and dusted melting snow from his cloak and hair. "Túrin, I see you've made yourself comfortable." His jocular greeting softened just slightly as he saluted only half-seriously since formality had never stood between them. "Captain. Mulled wine, I see, just the thing to get rid of this chill!"
When neither returned an answer, still staring at each other tensely, Beleg's mood sobered. "What is it?"
Beleg took a few more steps nearer. "What is this?" he asked again, looking from one to the other, his eyes settling on the youngest first. "Túrin?"
But Túrin could no more answer his friend's query than could the walls of the lodge. He stared at Mablung, his captain, as if he had never seen him before.
Mablung did not know who he was, himself. Tearing away from that accusatory gaze, he moved for the door, but Beleg caught his arm and whispered his name. Lifting his head, Mablung stared straight into his eyes, eyes filled with question and concern. And behind...flickering like a star but brighter—so much brighter! He could not bear it. With a jerk, he released himself from Beleg's grasp and turned on his heel without a word.
Suddenly, he preferred the cold.
"You are going to seek him."
"Yes. I must."
Snow creaked beneath their boot heels as they walked lightly along a covered deer-path that wound about the ravine shoulders above the Esgalduin. The air was glassy, the wind sharp, the sun shone high and cold in a cloudless sky. Every bush and naked branch glittered, encased in a diamond sheath.
"Thank you for coming thus far with me, Captain. I am glad of your company," Beleg confessed as he awkwardly readjusted the straps of a wide pack and the great sword, Anglachel. "I am unused to such heaviness at my side. Even in the Nirnaeth, I did not bear such a blade."
"It looks as though it could cleave through iron," Mablung remarked. "You will become accustomed to it and scarce feel its weight given time."
"Not soon enough." Beleg laughed. "I fear I shall topple over in some snowdrift ere I reach Amon Rûdh. A companion on the road would be helpful lest I need to be unearthed."
There was a vague question in his eyes that Mablung hesitated to answer.
To give himself time to think, he quickly turned away and drew Beleg's attention to the edge of the ravine that overlooked the river. Their little, black creek was stilled with a rime of grey ice, and though not even the deep of winter could halt the Esgalduin, the deep current chattered over its rocky ledges.
"I shall have to look for new places to fish," he remarked.
"There are many merry little streams on the open plains." Beleg said. Arrayed in his ermine cloak and white tunic and with his golden hair unbound, he looked bleached of all color and younger than his years. "Why will you not come with me?"
Mablung's mind groped but could not find any evasion for so direct a question. "Beleg, I owe you more than a lifetime's worth, a debt that no weregild can repay….but I…cannot." It was a feeble excuse.
And Beleg knew it.
"So you said when last I asked this of you, though I have yet to hear why. But scant years past, you could not hasten enough to leave Doriath, fearing for your welcome. What has happened since that you are now so infirm of purpose?"
"Say not 'infirm,'" Mablung said, gently still. "If leaving Doriath meant that I would have your companionship through all the years of my wandering, I would go at once and think it no loss though I do love this realm as my sanctuary and my home. But it does not, and I would not." Beleg was not satisfied with such an answer, and Mablung sighed, his breath spooling out into the frosty air that had grown suddenly piercing between them. "These years with you have been…undeserved…and being so, I wished I had cherished them all the more."
Concern melted the pinched disappointment around Beleg's mouth and eyes. "I have never heard you speak like this. What do you mean, 'undeserved?'"
"But now I have left it too late," Mablung continued as if the archer had not spoken. "Being of the Eldar, I foolishly supposed that my hands were full of Time…that I could draw from it forever, water from an endless well. Once such a thought would have filled me only with despair."
"My friend, you are talking in circles." Beleg laughed, a little uncertainly.
"Yes. Annadir was ever a worthy lieutenant and would make an excellent captain in your stead," Beleg pressed, his handsome face full of earnestness. "Túrin, even, has not forgotten your words to him at your parting, and how you let him fare free as he wished."
Mablung's mouth twisted with renewed bitterness though the taste of it had long gone sour on his tongue. "Somehow I do not think he will welcome my presence as heartily as you deem. He is very…protective…of your friendship. And he has no love of me—however otherwise you have always gilded it. I would hinder more than help you."
"He does not come to friendship easily. And that which he does win, he tries constantly, guards jealously. Yet he is faithful and valorous. I am sorry you would not see him again." Disappointment seeped into the fingers pushing restlessly through golden hair and adjusting the pack straps yet again. "I did not think you would yield at this late hour. But I did not see any other way to retain your company."
A gust whisked Mablung's reply—nay, plea—from his mouth and flung it up into the delicate tracery of branches where it lingered, lost somewhere between them. It was not something he could ask of Beleg, who loved Túrin dearly, as comrade-in-arms, friend, brother, and son. Though Mablung prided himself on his friendship with the renowned warrior, he knew better than to think Beleg could only belong to him. Though he might have been a king's councilor in his own right, Cúthalion disavowed the company of others, a solitary creature, most content wandering deer paths, strange woods, meadow, field and dell. He belonged to the wood, his father—and to Túrin.
At the moment, Mablung did not know which he begrudged more.
Burdened by the unspeakable weight of his own resignation, he sank onto a lichen-covered seat. The stillness of Doriath in winter was not the thoughtful quiet that fell across every wood come the cold season: animal sounds muted, the life of trees and flowers withdrawn, color save for white and black faded and blenched.
Doriath held the echo of a maid's beautiful spring song though she had died and lived now in a land that none could touch, her flowers buried deep within the heart of the snow. In its cliffs and hollows, Doriath bore the baying of the Hound of Valinor as he fought and slew the Wolf that came from the gates of the Dark Lord Himself. And in its bare and skeletal canopy it cradled the glittering light of the Silmaril, a cold, clear star caught in sleeves of ice. The darkness of the past, the familiarity and certainty of the present, the tremulous notes of a future susceptible to nothing but Time, all contained in a quiet wood, full of snow.
Mablung was aware of all of this at once and none of it at all. He never knew what made him speak of what he had never spoken of to anyone before.
"Valinor has many such trees. Yavanna made them and loved them. I was sorry to leave her groves. But other woods and other lands called to me—as they called to many of my people. Enflamed by our prince, Fëanor, we left the realm of Blessedness for one of hardship and cold. The Noldor needed ships to pass the Grinding Ice, but the Teleri, mariners most of them, would not part with their ships, dearer than their children. Fëanor…was not pleased with their refusal.
The Noldor's hosts—nay, I shall own this once and all—we were driven to madness. I do not know who struck first or who fell or why, but there was blood upon the quays and on the lamplit streets, and torches had set alight the fair docks… I was near the seawall with a gathering of Fingolfin's men. We had raced to secure one of the white ships and found the Teleri in arms against us. Their slender bows kept us back for a time, but my brother and I slipped beyond their sights and came up over the gallery rail. In close quarters, we had the mastery. .." He paused. His tongue locked, and it was only through the silence that Beleg granted him that he could work it back into motion. "There was a mariner, a boy still. Túrin's age, perhaps a decade older. He held a…an oar that he could scarce lift, let alone wield. The ships were very tall, you see."
Then he was shaking, and he could not stop. He covered his head with his hands and sucked in a sharply ragged breath, dragging into his lungs like breathing water. The words left him like blood jettisoning from the wound in his chest after the arrow's removal and soaked into the air about them. "I dream of it still. Of killing him. I do not know why…He lay there, a child…When I reached this shore, I parted company with my fellows, fit for none and they unfit for me. I wandered for a very long time, an exile and justly so. I have never—"
But he could not finish.
The poison of his confession ebbed away his strength, and he surrendered to the silence as a drowning sailor surrenders to the black water closing over his head at the last. He did not know how long he remained that way, but he was roused by the softest shifting of the snow near him, and a tingling warmth that spread from his shoulder all the way to his fingertips.
"It is not my place to grant you absolution."
"That is not why I told you." Mablung lifted his head with an effort but did not see the damning in Beleg's eyes that he had expected. "I—I know well enough that I will never have absolution. Not though the spirit of that young mariner should entreat Mandos for me…Not though my brother, who was braver than I and cast himself into the cold sea and Mandos' merciful hands, should counsel me to follow him. No. For the sake of our long friendship, and that alone (though I have no more claims to such), I would ask that you consider...If we who have seen the light of the Blessed Realm are capable of such…what might Men, who have never known aught but the Darkness, do? What will Túrin do? I fear for you, Beleg, and my heart quails at this errand as it did not even at the crossing of the Helcaraxë or the hunt of the Wolf."
Instead of answering, Beleg looked at him for a long time. And when he finally spoke, it was not to answer but to question. "What would you have me do? Let him run to nothing in the wild? Túrin is guiltless, thus far, of blood on his hands. Would you have had me forsake you once I had known of the shadow on your own heart?" Mablung blanched, but Beleg held on. "If you can throw off the yoke of your doom, why cannot he do the same?"
Mablung said nothing.
"Now." Beleg stood briskly and hefted his pack once more onto his shoulders. "Will you fare me well, Mablung? Or must a 'fare free' suffice?"
Mablung rose unsteadily. "Both."
At the path's confluence with the north-leading road, he let Beleg embrace him and felt the brief press of lips against his temple in the traditional Sindarin farewell of a long parting. "We shall meet again. Perhaps in spring."
Mablung said in a long-ago echo. "I—I find being parted from you a rather disagreeable thought."
Beleg regarded him with infinite, smiling sadness, and yet, his beautiful eyes were already far away, seeking over the hills for one he would not be parted from. "That, I cannot help."
He set off down the northward road towards the Iant Iaur with long, confident strides until he passed out of the woods of Doriath and even Mablung's long sight. And came never back to the marches.
Of Túrin only did he ever find sure and sorrowful tidings.
But on the slopes of Taur-nu-Fuin, the dark woods that bordered Morgoth's realm, in a little thicket of thorn trees, he found a length of chain, the color of old blood from the onslaught of the elements. They bore iron cuffs at the end, shorn and broken by some sharp thing. Mablung did not handle them long for they looked evil, especially so stained, but he looked long on them as if recalling something familiar though he hardly knew what.
Not six yards distant lay a little mound, blossoming with myriad flowers. Though autumn was dwindling into winter again, the flowers still held tenaciously to their soil: celandine, roses and dogwood in the full flush of their youth. It was odd, seeing woodland flowers in such a desolate spot of hillside as this.
For a reason he did not know, Mablung plucked a little white flower from near the head of the mound and brought it briefly to his lips as he might kiss the top of a child's head. Slipping it into his belt pouch, he quickly descended.
He was asked once upon the road if he were Noldor or an Elf of Doriath. He answered simply, "I am a friend of Beleg Cúthalion."
"I've never heard that tale before, Strider," Frodo said into the stillness that followed the end of the tale.
"It is not one widely known," the storyteller, Strider, said, scratching his chin. "My foster father kept a very extensive library. I stumbled across it while idling away a rainy afternoon. Its author was not known, but Erestor surmised that it may have been written by Annadir, Mablung's lieutenant, after his captain's death and the fall of Doriath."
"It is sad," remarked the golden-haired elf, arms draped about his knees, "that Arda has lost so much of its ancient realms and beauteous woods. The mellyrn here are very fair indeed, but I am told the beauty of Doriath in the springing time was rivaled by none."
"But some beauty lingers still. And that is enough," Strider said, tapping out his pipe against the wide, silver bole. He rose and stretched with a soft groan. "But if you would compare the merits of Doriath and Lórien for the remainder of the night, seek the Galadhrim. I, for one, am weary enough for sleep and a fresh start at dawn."