I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 40, Part 137
April 6, 1452
Releasing the sweet pungency of fermented kaktush, the elf took a long pull from his winesack and wiped his mouth before he began his tale. "Men once called me Lanethil, when they still could see me, although long before that my own kind named me Atelanedhel--the Lost Elf. The name that I received in my first youth I will keep a secret still, for none remember it except for Mandos and myself, and I have no other treasure save for that.
"I walked this Middle Earth before your kind graced it, Frodo, and before the fathers of the first men woke--nay, before Orome called my people westward, before any elves had seen the light of Valinor." He paused, and stared keenly at the hobbit--"Why do I see that light gleam in your eyes, Frodo? For I have only known the like in the gaze of Elu Singollo, and in the eyes of the Noldor returning."
"It is a long story--tell me yours, first."
"Ah, but mine is necessarily longer, as you surely know by now. And yet not so, in its way, for much of my life repeats itself...endlessly repeats." He gestured to the rock. "Have a seat, Frodo. Long tales are best heard in comfort."
When Frodo had settled, the elf spoke no more, but stood before Frodo and sang. Frodo had not heard elvish quite like it before, akin to the Sindarin and yet more rustic, at once sharper and softer, like an angular carving of the sound in old and weathered wood. Yet, as will happen in elvish well-sung, the images sprang up in his mind without translation. Frodo closed his eyes, lay back on the boulder's sun-warmed surface, and let the music cast its spell.
His head whirled as he seemed to fall into the music itself, into a laughing childhood by a forgotten lake, with the sound of his parents' singing echoed in the ripples of the star-strewn water. Other elves lived there as well, fearless in unending night. They dressed in the skins of animals, they dwelt in the boles and hollows of trees. His sisters and his mother gathered nuts and wild herbs with the ladyfolk, graceful shadows moving between the trunks, while he and his father hunted beside the other masculine elves; the stone-headed spears arced from their hands beneath a sunless, moonless canopy of stars. Even before he reached half-height he could run as swift as any deer. He often threw the spear wide, in childhood, but it hardly mattered, for his father never missed the mark. Then would he skip home again beside the hunting-party, over root and fallen bough, bringing back the bloodied prize for mother and sister to dress and roast, tired and happy and full of expectations of still more hunts and feasts and family laughter and song, of sleeping and waking and sleeping again, of rain like shivers of laughter upon the skin and wind following after to caress him dry, cycle after cycle after cycle, as the stars wheeled overhead, with nothing to interrupt the joy.
Then came The Dread Hunter, swifter than any elf--a shadow blocking out the stars, a breath of cold that froze the lake, a thunder of hooves that shook the earth, a horn that drove the spirit mad with fear. Nothing in all of their existence had prepared the elves for that looming horror, or the shock of seeing their own fall slain before its feet. Time and again the elves ran and scattered and regrouped, and each time they gathered together fewer than before. No one knew whether loved ones wandered free somewhere, searching for their kin, or whether they had died, or whether the Hunter had taken them away. Time and again the fell horn brayed, now from this quarter, now from that, sometimes seeming to come from all directions at once, throwing the elves into yet another panic. Time and again the survivors would find who they could of each other, and count the missing faces, and move on. Somewhere along the line Atelanedhel lost even his family, though he did remember a sister's distant screams, carried further and further away.
Now he dwelt alone, gathering for himself what his sisters used to find, hunting small things with the knife upon his belt, his mother-sewn leathers falling into rags--a quick and furtive animal on two legs. He spent several years like this, yet elvish reckoning still accounted him a child when he made his last scramble for freedom and finally failed--a pain lanced through him, just like any deer, and he learned that he could die.
But the Dread Hunter would not let him die. A burning power gushed into his wound and coursed throughout his veins, and he stood up whole again. He found that when he did, he stood inside a stone-walled pit, and stone arched overhead, cutting off the stars. A lash that burned like fury steered him to his work: crushing rocks to melt and pour. They worked him till he fell unconscious, the snickering of the guards the last thing that he heard.
He discovered more captives beside himself, brothers and sisters in toil, crowded together in filth and fellowship. No more did he bathe himself in the waters of Cuiviénin, but grew accustomed to the smell of self and others, and even came to like it, as a sign at least of living things, different from the poisonous stench of metal manufacturing. No more did he dance the adventures of the hunt, but songs he still sang, as did the others, to the pounding of pick and hammer--songs in voices now gone hoarse from fumes, songs of hatred and revenge that only made their captor laugh. Sometimes they saw only by the light of the forge and the glow of the crucible; sometimes they had torches, smoky and foul; sometimes they crawled away for rest into a darkness so thick that it choked the mind. He learned about ore, and metal, and smithcraft, and the sweat-pouring, ache-inducing labor to make all that the Dark Lord desired, from the moment that his overseer dragged him up from a stunned sleep on the floor, to when he fell back down to the same stained spot at night. Only by this could he count time.
Marriages still took place, in that sad existence beneath the whip, and children came to birth. But the Dark Lord Melkor played a trick upon his captive elves, worse than any wound or degradation he had yet devised. For sometimes in a dark so great that even elvish eyes could not perceive in it, a darkness that penetrated to the heart, he would switch spouse with spouse, unknown to them or to their partners. And then, too exhausted by their labors for speech, or indeed to distinguish aught but the most basic touch, couples would think that they had found each other, and take the only solace afforded them in all their nightmare lives--only to find, after it became too late, their captor laughing over them, his sudden lantern raised on high to reveal the horror!
For the elvish heart does not stray as human hearts might do. Once they bestow themselves, body and heart and soul, upon one other, they have married for all time; they cannot imagine any other way, and still persist as elves. Yet Melkor forced them to imagine the unendurable. Hearts broke, minds broke, eventually spirits broke, as torment-crazed, the former elves threw themselves into consolations quite against their natures--after their throats had tired of screaming, after they could bear no further loathing, after they began to laugh and call all suffering a joke, their own or others all the same.
Atelanedhel still had not quite reached an age for marrying when he escaped. But he remembered all that he had seen, for Melkor held no love for privacy except his own. He escaped, and lived a long and lonely life once more, fur-wrapped yet never fully warm, in the snowy outskirts of his former master's realm. At first he tried to rescue others of his kind, until they changed so much that he could only fend them off to save himself. Later the Noldor would speak of kinslaying and hang their heads, yet they and the "cleaner" elves felt no remorse, it seemed, to slay orc after orc after orc, and Atelanedhel took note. For he never forgot what the others did not wish to guess--that he had almost become one of these, and only a grace of chance had spared him.
The world underwent many changes. First the moon arose, and then the sun. New flowers bloomed, in colors yet unseen, caressed to life by radiance. New warmth and possibilities awoke, even as the old began to feel its age. Walking in the newmade light, he traveled south and found new elves with skills acquired from the Powers of Heaven itself, and nothing seemed impossible!
He found himself a place in fellowship once more. He forged shields and swords and helms at the commands of Noldor smiths, who welcomed "dark elves" to the workshop (if not to a common table) and paid them well in board and bed and better goods than they could fashion by themselves. Atelanedhel found the new elves kindly enough, even in their haughtiness, and did not ask for equal place, only for company and purpose. There he learned new arts of metalcraft, and there he dedicated himself to stopping Melkor, now called Morgoth, at any cost. If the Dread Hunter had stolen pretties that the Noldor princes coveted, so much the better for him, that it gave him new and potent allies in his ancient feud. His hammer beat to the rhythm of old, coarse songs that he could not forget, as he forged the weapons to slay the peers whose suffering he'd shared.
A raid burst into the hold where he had plied his trade, seizing new slaves to replace the slain. Once again Atelanedhel found himself a prisoner of Morgoth. But this time mortals shared in his captivity. At a guard's careless moment he sought--and failed to find--a chance to escape again, bursting out only into another compound, ringed by barbs of steel. Yet at least he could now lose himself into the ranks of the human serfs held in this other prison. It eased his heart a little; he had dreaded more than anything to see what progress Morgoth had made with his former labor-mates, or to watch the same sad changes corrode his newer friends.
By now he had long since reached maturity; grief-wrenched and weakened in spirit, one night he sought a full-grown solace in a human woman's arms. Horrified afterwards, he lay awake all night, frantic for some answer as to how to protect so frail a creature from the malice that he feared must follow soon. Yet in time he learned that Morgoth did not bother to play the same old tricks on fickle-hearted human beings, less innately virtuous than elves to where it hardly mattered, though the Dread Hunter found other ways to mar their souls. But as for their deeds of flesh, the Dark Lord did not care!
And so it passed that Atelanedhel knew this much consolation--that he could have a real marriage in secret, even in the Dark Lord's hell, a hidden heaven all his own and Finsuliel's beside him. Long they supported each other, and remembered love and light, and when, in the treeless wastes of Angband, they hauled sleds full of ore across the northern blast, he could hide himself in Finsuliel's veil of hair that blew between him and the Dark Lord's gaze, watching the years transform her locks from black to silver, as a night-dark lake might fill with more and more of the rippled beams of stars.
There came a day when she fell beneath her load, and did not rise again. He took the withered limbs into his own undying ones and wept--until the whips compelled him to his feet again.
A long time after that he labored like a beast, knowing nothing save for work and fodder and a place to shudder in cold sleep alongside other beasts. But at last he looked around him, and saw that the fragile fairness of the daughters of men still trembled forth beneath the grime, and he realized that he need not carry on alone. So he took another bride, and so revived. And another after that, when Morgoth used the woman up, and another one to follow. It scarred his spirit but did not break him, for he knew himself faithful by the human law. Yet he also accounted himself corrupted in the eyes of elves, and hid himself among the Men till they themselves forgot the difference. They died so fast beneath the Dark Lord's hand that they seldom had the time to note how he lived on and on.
There came a day when an aging bride of his stumbled at her work, and the overseer beat her, and something snapped in Lanethil, to see his latest lover crushed beneath the blows. He turned upon the overseer, fighting with his chain, his teeth, his claws, fighting like a wolf, a rat, a torment crammed into a skin. Blood flew, orc-blood mingled with his own. In his last act he reached out to his dead...one finger managed to caress the crushed-silk textures of her wrinkled cheek...and then he walked a long, dark hall...
...At the end of the hall he met the Lord of Mandos, and began his reckoning. Bitterness welled up in him. He expected accusations, but he did all of the accusing, demanding to know how the Valar dared to judge him, or any of his brethren in slavery, even to the foulest of the orcs. He received answers, patiently repeated, but he could not fathom any of them, and he grew still more frustrated and wroth. At last he threw up his hands and cried out, "Judge me, then! Condemn me to whatever hell you please, even to the Outer Darkness! I have seen enough of torment to fear nothing, and all of your punishments shall fall on me in vain!"
But Námo merely smiled, and passed the tapestry of Atelanedhel between his cold, pale fingers, and shook his head. "What shall I do with you, my friend?" the Vala asked. "I have always taken care to reunite a reborn elf and his spouse in where I bestow their births--but you seem to have taken it upon yourself to marry the human race! So be it."
After suitable reflection and instruction, he came back among the Moriquendi, but he could scarcely toddle before slavers came and caught him up again. His careless captors mingled elf and dwarf and man together; he soon found his preferred company, and there took wives. But in time he despaired at what he took for a punishment undeserved, and after losing several brides in swift succession, he took his life.
And much to his surprise, Lanethil found himself reborn so soon thereafter that all of his time of reflection in a dark, warm chamber turned out to be mere months within a womb. The womb, that is, of an elvish woman lately taken captive by Morgoth. She died after his birth of a broken heart, and the overseer found no spare breast to suckle him among the elves, only the weeping dugs of a human slave who had miscarried in the Dark Lord's service. So he grew up among the mortal kind, until he reached that age when memory returns to elves in full--and then he threw himself upon the guards until they slew him, as he knew they must.
He should have known by now that for elves the penalty for discarding a life on purpose was to return without delay to another just as bad, but he repeated the drama many times, captivities by Morgoth giving way to ownership by orcs as independent agents, giving way to enthrallment to Sauron as a new Dark Lord. Eventually he calmed, and accepted his lives as they came to him, slain now sometimes in noble stands but never by his own hand more. At last he saw no penalty in the judgment upon him, but a mission given to him--the husbandry of humankind.
Married to the human race--he now saw what Mandos meant. For he could make a little bit of difference in these captive lives, grown so beloved to him by now that no ballad of noble romance could compare. A word spoken here, a song sung there, an example of kindness or courage given, a reminder of beauties that still flourished beyond the Dark Lord's pall--he scattered these things like stars across the night, and Men found their way a little less dark for him. He cherished the hope in human hearts as he had cherished every wife he ever had. As he had once needed his wives, so now he found that he needed human beings as a race to give him purpose, to help him to remember what it meant to be something other than an orc. To keep him in love.
Wherever, within Mordor's thrall, a father recognized and loved his child, wherever a woman held her head up, undestroyed, wherever men and women sang at work of something mightier than cruelty or coarseness, wherever slaves gazed up at stars between the smokes or saw a flower breaking through the pavement and approved, wherever shoulder met shoulder underneath a burden lightened for the sharing, or where folk passed on crusts of bread to one who hungered--wherever human beings remembered beauty, love, dignity, respect devoid of fear--there Lanathil had walked among them. More than his elvish blood leavened the ranks of slaves even in the darkest corners of that land, leaving here a sparkling eye, there a musical voice, elsewhere a grace unbroken by the whip. He passed on his soul to everyone who came in contact with him. And passing it on, it never diminished, but grew, as fire grows the more it spreads its sparks.
That is why, he knew, that even though rumors told him of Men made into still worse orcs than before, yet some Men could resist. He had sown resistance among them. That is why no elvish blade would ever glow with anger in his presence, not though sometimes labor in the tunnels of Mordor would bend his back and bandy his legs, so that it took him years to straighten himself again, not though sometimes his skin grew pallid and foul with the funguses that can infest but cannot kill immortals too long held in filth beneath the ground, not though to every appearance he might sometimes seem an orc indeed.
Those labors had not bent him now for nearing forty years. Fairer than he had been, it hardly mattered, for humankind had ceased to see him, and he took no more brides, nor did he need that consolation any longer. He had only one work remaining to him, in the restoration of love and dignity to all of his children in the ruined lands. And in that his purpose met well with that of Frodo Gardner.
Frodo opened his eyes to hear this, and sat up, and saw how the long shadows all around him revealed the hours in the hearing of this tale. "But what of the mud-pool?" he asked, rubbing his eyes. "It has your name upon it--or had, I guess, until I took the tile. What have you to do with the mud-pool that saved our lives?"
Lanethil smiled almost slyly, with a twinkle in his eye. "Well you know, Frodo, sometimes I did escape, now and then. I could not return to my own people, for my appearance took long to heal, and I never quite looked elvish again before I'd find myself a prisoner once more. But in those intervals I would listen at windows, unobserved, for all devices that detected orcs would let me be. I would steal scrolls and return them the next day, memorized. I would in secret observe the magic cast by my fairer brethren. I would haunt the libraries of the great, and go uncaught. I learned many things, over the course of years so long that even the Lady Galadriel was a child next to me."
"You made the pool--is that what you are saying?"
"Hold a bit--long singing of sad songs makes for a thirsty throat." He drank deeply of his wineskin, and then, in a huskier voice replied, "Yes, I made the pool. Hard labors had equipped me well to hew stone and haul it. But I did more than fashion the pool itself--as you have guessed. I brought the magic there."
"Brought, you say--not made."
"Astute as ever, my dear hobbit!" Gentle claws reached over and fingered the lens upon its horsehair thong. "Yes, I brought the magic there. I found four warring maiar--it doesn't matter now which sides they originally defended, for they had wearied to sickness of all the conflict in the Poros Pass, yet none dared lower guard to flee. I brooked a truce between those four--one maia each of fire, water, earth and air--that they might heal each other. Between them they produced a warm and steaming mud of healing power. I created the container for that power, and bade them guard it and maintain it, and put all emnity aside, and to this they readily agreed, rather than return to the horrors from which they had escaped. And so I left them there, where travelers who needed help the most might find them. Long habits of consent now strengthen their bonding to the place without my help; the spells within the tiles matter no longer." Playfully he flicked the shard in Frodo's hand. "So you need not worry about purloining that small bit."
"I am so sorry! It never even occurred to me that removing it might cause some harm."
"Luck stayed with you this time. But in the future, Frodo, never remove anything lightly from a place of magic."
"I thought elves didn't like the word magic."
"We simply prefer to distinguish different categories and intentions, for which the tongues of men have no subtlety." He shrugged, smiling in a surprisingly endearing way for one with jagged fangs. "But then, neither do I. The common tongue is good enough for me."
Frodo rose. "It's getting late. Won't you come to my home for dinner? I know I can't cook like an elf, but..."
Lanethil laughed. "It would far surpass most of what I have eaten in my life! But I must decline your invitation for now. Later, when I have amended my appearance more, perhaps. For I can feel by the powers in your lens that you have made elves visible to mortals before now. I should like nothing better than to feel no shame in visibility, and at that time break bread with good folk 'round a table by a hearth. I will look forward to meeting you again--for remember, you still owe me a tale, yourself!" And with that he slipped away so fast that Frodo hardly had time to blink in his surprise.