Fëanor and Nerdanel rode until the light waned and the sun vanished, and still Silmelindo did not slow his pace. As the stars blossomed in the cold expanse of the sky, Fëanor hunched over the neck of his stallion and guided him through the treacherous terrain, following Nerdanel’s calm instructions.
As the path turned progressively northwards, a cold chill began to grow in Fëanor’ back. Of course he had heard the stories told by nursemaids of the dark power that lived here and killed all that passed. The exiled Valar, some whispered, others spoke of a mistreated Eldar. Whatever it was, Fëanor thought now that its existence was undoubtedly real. He could feel the malice oozing from the rocks, the dark watcher that lurked beyond every turn.
The night passed on its silent wings, and the morning dawned gray and cold. The sun, if it had ever risen, was hidden entirely behind a mass of black clouds. Fëanor and Nerdanel’s breath made frosty puffs in the air, and Silmelindo snorted and huffed as he charged on.
Fëanor thought it was around midday when it started to snow. It came softly at first, then harder, pelting down from the sky and chilling them to the bone. The edges of Nerdanel’s dress were frozen hard with ice. Fëanor couldn’t tell if he had toes. His fingers were frozen on Silmelindo’s reins. It was hard to see more than a few feet in front of them.
“Fëanor, we must stop!” Nerdanel cried.
“No!” Fëanor shouted. “I will not stop until I find her!”
“Fëanor, this is madness!” Nerdanel shouted back. “I cannot see the trail; in fact, I’m not sure that I didn’t lose it several hours ago. If this continues, we shall more likely than not ride straight over a cliff.”
Although Fëanor’s heart was crying to go on and reach Leoselde, he had to grudgingly concede that Nerdanel was right. His faithful stallion was slipping and stumbling in the blinding snow and cold, and for a moment he let a fearful whinny.
“Shh, Silmelindo,” Fëanor murmured, dismounting with difficulty and staring about through the whirling whiteness for any shelter. He shook his ice-encrusted hair out of his eyes and began to stumble laboriously after Nerdanel, who seemed to have seen something.
His entire body was a sliver of ice. Silmelindo’s steps, like his master’s, were growing uneven and ragged. Fëanor was only wearing a tunic, pants, and boots, completely unprepared for the viciousness of the storm. For her part, Nerdanel had only a silk dress.
Suddenly, Nerdanel vanished directly in front of him. For a second Fëanor was terribly afraid that she had fallen, perhaps over a cliff, and he did not dare go further for a moment.
Then Nerdanel’s voice called faintly to him.
“Fëanor – here!”
Fëanor looked about blindly. “Nerdanel!”
At last, he vaguely found Nerdanel’s hand waving through the gloom. Stumbling and coughing, he staggered over to it and found that she was hidden beneath a mammoth fallen tree. It was big enough to hide both Elves and Silmelindo.
Fëanor wavered down with it, leading Silmelindo, and pressed his back against the bark, worn smooth by time. His eyes were heavy and blurred, and even though he was very cold, he wanted to go to sleep.
“Don’t!” Nerdanel said. She had obviously sensed his moment of weakness, and put her hand on his arm. Her grip was chill and unyielding, like iron. Fëanor winced, but she did not let go.
“Melkor knows we’ve come,” Nerdanel said. Her voice was low and raspy, and her grip on his arm tightened unexpectedly. “He knows we’re here. Orcs – orcs will be after us.”
“Orcs?” The word was unfamiliar to Fëanor, and it left a strange, bitter taste in his mouth. He did not like speaking it.
He tried to look at Nerdanel, but it was impossible to make out her features through the raging storm. The only sign he had that she was still there was her cold grasp.
“No one has told you of orcs?” The terror in Nerdanel’s voice was palpable, and suddenly Fëanor moved toward her, wrapping his arms about her slender, shivering body and drawing her against him in hopes of sharing a bit of their body warmth. She was shivering convulsively, her teeth chattering, and he pulled her close. She was small, and her fragile limbs delicate.
“What are orcs?” Fëanor asked, burying his face in her golden mane of hair. She smelled sweet, like flowers. He twisted his fingers in the pale flow, then let go when a gasp from Nerdanel made it apparent that he had hurt her. Still, he could not help his hand from straying back to the silken curls.
“They are horrible, brutish creatures. It is rumored that they were once Eldar, but they bear little resemblance to our race. They are twisted and deformed, vile, evil things. They say they eat the flesh of their own kind.”
Fëanor recoiled in spite of himself. “And have you seen one of these abominations?” he whispered.
“No, not alive, but my father has, and one day he showed me the carcass of one he had killed,” Nerdanel said. “It bore no resemblance to anything of the Eldar. It was a monster from the deepest pit of blackness.”
“Valar!” Fëanor swore, gathering Nerdanel nearer and hugging her, aware of how small and slight she seemed. “Well, we can’t go until this storm lets up; like you said, you’ve long since lost the trail. But…are you sure that these orcs are hunting for us?”
“This was no ordinary storm,” Nerdanel replied with conviction. “It arose too swiftly and too strongly to be borne of nature. And it is too cold,” she added, as the wind screamed across the bare rocks and drove knives of ice into both of them. Silmelindo reared and whinnied as one slashed him across the withers.
Fëanor let go of Nerdanel at once and leapt to his feet. Already he could see the blood spreading across the gray flank. He pressed his hands against the wound, having nothing else to slow the bleeding with, but the blood trickled through his fingers and down his arms.
“Oh – sweet Elbereth – ” Nerdanel gasped. “I will wager anything that that stroke was directed by the Black One himself. If we have no horse, we have no hope. Fëanor – move aside – ”
The slight elf-woman shoved Fëanor aside and began whispering frantically to Silmelindo, who was rearing and screaming in the pain. She pulled dried herbs from a pouch at her waist, crushed them, and patted them into the wound, holding grimly to Silmelindo’s bridle when the stallion tried to buck again. Snorting and stamping and tossing his head, he at last calmed. Nerdanel ripped the hem of her dress and wound the length of cloth around Silmelindo’s muscled flank.
She stroked the horse soothingly, and he stood still, watching her with expectant dark eyes.
“That should stay the blood, for now,” Nerdanel said. She staggered to the edge of the hollow and reached out; Fëanor had a moment of fear for her sanity before he realized that she only intended to scoop a handful of the wet snow, to slake her thirst.
When she had done so, she wandered to the back of the hollow again and crouched down, her hair falling about her like a shining blanket.
Fëanor crawled over to her. The cold was creeping insidiously over him, dulling his brain and slowing his reactions. Strange things seemed to dance around him, just out of reach and out of sight the instant you looked for him. Nerdanel’s face seemed oddly rippled, distorted to unnatural proportions.
“Shh,” she said. “Let go. I will give you herbs for safe sleep.”
Unable to think, only able to react, Fëanor obeyed clumsily. He took the herbs she gave him and swallowed. They left a bitter, burning taste in his mouth, but then a strange lightness and warmth spread over him, and he was gone.
The crumpled, broken figure of the elf-woman was silhouetted faintly against the darker gloom of the cell. Heavy chains, as wide around as her pale wrists, held her in a continuous, brutal upright position, so she could not even lie down a moment to rest her head. An overturned iron bowl lay nearby; by the dark stain beneath it, it had once contained wine. Huge, mangy rats, their eyes wide and red in the heavy darkness, ran around, squeaking and biting at the slowly spreading stain.
Leoselde slowly raised her head. Silver hair hung in tattered ribbons about her face, and there were two long, deep wounds down her cheekbones. Her fine silk dress was little more than tatters, there was a rushing in her ears, and spots swam in her field of vision. Yet she was alive.
“Fëanor,” she whispered, forcing her cracked, broken lips to form the word. “Fëanor, find me. Please. Soon….I cannot last forever…”
There was a slithering sound, as if clothing was being dragged through slime, and she laboriously turned her head to see – Enwina. The old hag shuffled nearer the bars, wheezing and cackling with obscene laughter.
“Enwina, may all the Valar cast you to a fiery death!” Leoselde exclaimed. “What did I ever do to insult you? Or is it that you capture elf-women for fun?”
“Ah, little duck, little duck, is it mad?” Enwina said coyly, one wrinkled hand twisted about the bars. Leoselde’s dried blood was still visible on her broken fingernails. “Enwina does not mean harm to it.”
“Then why did you give me these?” Leoselde hissed angrily, moving a shoulder to indicate the wounds on her back, which were still seeping.
“Ah – Enwina means no harm to sweet duck. But Masters – masters are powerful. If they want you, they will have you, and you, my duck, interest them greatly. You do know of the prophecy about you, do you not?”
“Prophecy?” Leoselde said, caught off guard.
Enwina cackled, her long fingers lovingly tracing the shape of the rusted lock. “Ah, sweet duck, you do know that you never had a name? Leoselde, Fëanor calls you. It only means little shadow. Ardelen, you were called by others. Do you know what that means?” Enwina pressed her face against the bars, eyes bulging horribly. “It means that you are accursed.”
“I don’t believe you,” Leoselde snapped.
Enwina laughed in a sinister way, then turned and shuffled back off into the depths of the darkness. “Master!” Leoselde heard her calling. “Master! Ardelen is awake now!”
Leoselde took a deep breath and steeled herself for whatever horror would emerge from the blackness. She breathed slowly, in and out, trying to will away a sudden fear that had gripped her. Then she waited.
A tall figure materialized out of the gloom, clad in heavy, spiked iron armor and holding a deadly mace casually by its side. Leoselde made herself look into the nightmarish face and coolly make contact with the red eyes beneath the dark helm. She forced herself not to flinch.
“You know me, then,” Sauron said. His voice was rasping and harsh, but dangerously soft. He took several steps forward and stood, a terrible nightmare looming above her into the fathomless murk. “Ardelen, you have come.”
“Why am I Ardelen?” Leoselde said. Her voice was suddenly no more than a faint, hoarse whisper.
Sauron’s eyes were flat and hard. “Because she – ” he pointed a sharp finger at Enwina – “made a prophecy when you were just born. A prophecy that ran like this – Enwina, repeat it.”
Enwina, nodding and grinning a gap-toothed smile, shuffled forward. “Listen, ducky,” she wheezed, crouching by Sauron’s side.
He gave her a biting glance and snapped, “Get on with it already!”
“Aye, Master,” Enwina croaked, then straightened her filthy rags and looked at Leoselde with a mocking glint in her eye. “Hear this, Ardelen.”
One will come forth of the flame
One called Ardelen, although truly without name
She will know love, not without cost
The one that loves her will be lost
For love of her the Black One will fall
Or, perhaps, evil’s last hall
As long as she remains out of reach of the night
She will be all of goodness’s greatest light
She will be called the Star of the Silmaril
What this means, find out if you will. [I]
“You see?” Sauron said as Enwina gleefully finished her recitation. “It is quite clear. If we keep you prisoner, the terms of the prophecy cannot be fulfilled. If you were free – you could destroy us. Of course, we cannot let that happen.” His eyes had a cruel pleasure in them. “It will be enjoyable to watch you die.”
“Why?” was all Leoselde could think to say. “Why?”
Sauron’s lips twisted slowly in a mirthless smirk. “Because you are worthless to others, girl, only good for furthering our ambitions. And my Master is very interested in meeting you.” He stared maliciously at her.
“Master?” Leoselde said. Something flashed to mind. There were whispers, frightened stories of another Valar, a fifteenth Valar, cast from the circle of fourteen. Melkor, who had waged a deadly battle with his kindred for the future of the Children of Ilúvatar, and had created evil with his very voice. Surely this was not who Sauron meant?
“Yes,” Sauron breathed, reading the thoughts on her face. “You are sharper than others, girl, but that will not avail you before my Master. He is greater than all, and you are like weak clay in his hand. You will wish for the peace of this dungeon when he comes.” Finishing his threat, Sauron turned and strode away.
Enwina wheezed a dry laugh. “Poor sweet, poor duck,” she giggled, hobbling away. “Poor duck will wish for this calm.”
And then, with another laugh, she was gone.
“Give me a sword, and then face me if you dare!” Leoselde called in a fury after them. She would have risen, but the heavy chains kept her firmly down. Trying not to cry in rage and anxiety, she let her matted, bloodstained silver hair fall over her face. She bit her lip so hard that she broke the skin.
She could not understand how the poison had taken hold of her, she had passed out, and then awoke bound in the depths of Sauron’s foul fortress seemingly all right. Her face worked in a snarl. Something was afoot here besides the prophecy, although she was not yet sure what it was.
Leoselde took several deep breaths, but her throat was parched and she almost wished that she had not overturned the bowl of wine, although it no doubt contained some poison or drug. If she was as important as they said she was – not that she trusted them – she would be all right. They would not dare to harm her.
Closing her eyes, Leoselde tried to fall asleep. She would need her strength for the ordeal that was to follow.
Immediately, she seemed to be lighter, and she was no longer in the dungeon. Ecstatic though she was to be free, if only for a short time, Leoselde was keenly aware of the fact that this was only a dream, and she was not yet truly unbound.
Her spirit swept the open paths of the sky, rejoicing in its momentary freedom, as a bird that is released from a cage that it has long been held in. She searched for anyone that could help her, and found the only person that could.
He seemed to be lying in the shade of a spreading tree, golden hair spread across the verdant earth. She ran to him, feet pressing into the thick soil and making no sound, and knelt.
He awoke instantly, his mind-presence jerking upright to take her in his arms. He held her tenderly against his chest, and she clung to him, desperate to be held, wishing that this was not only in a dream.
“Leoselde,” he said, his voice soft and urgent, “where are you? Nerdanel and I were coming to find you, but we were caught in an unnatural snowstorm and delayed. We’re waiting now, and I am sleeping with the aid of herbs Nerdanel gave me.”
Leoselde stiffened, pulling partially away from him, and looked up at him. “Fëanor – did you say that Nerdanel is with you? Nerdanel, daughter of the smith Mahtan?”
“Yes,” Fëanor answered, puzzled at her bewilderment. “She knows the land well, and she was helping me track you.”
“I’m surprised that she would do that,” Leoselde spat. Fëanor was alarmed to see that her body had gone rigid in his arms, and sudden rage flashed in her dark blue eyes. She cast a disdainful look at Nerdanel, lying serenely beneath the tree, alongside Fëanor.
“Leoselde, leave her, where are you?” Fëanor said.
Leoselde’s lip curled, but she replied, “I believe I am in Tol-in-Gaurhoth, Sauron’s fortress. Make haste, Fëanor, please – his Master is coming and I have no doubt that he means nothing well.” She rose, as if to leave.
“Please, don’t go!” Fëanor cried, jumping to his feet and taking a step toward her. “Leoselde, I must know – how is it that Nerdanel’s name is a plague to you?”
For a long moment, Leoselde did not answer, than she said, “She is my sister, and Mahtan my father. They abandoned me when I was just a babe after hearing this prophecy. They left me to die, and hoped that I would, to avoid the Black One coming upon us to search for me. If it was not for you, I would have.”
Fëanor stared at her.
“Yes, and – ” Leoselde began, but Fëanor never found out what she was going to say.
She stared over his shoulder in terror. He looked, but only saw a hint of shadow before a fiery scimitar cleaved them cruelly apart, and Leoselde’s mind-presence shimmered and vanished.
“Leoselde!” he cried frantically, but the scimitar struck him across the throat, and a burning pain flared through him. He staggered, lost his balance, and fell backwards into oblivion.
As for Leoselde, she also saw Fëanor’s body vanish, and she screamed in vain and reached out to find him. But the fiery scimitar flashed back toward her and struck her across the chest.
There was a horrible, unending pain, and she screamed and screamed. Falling backwards in a haze of agony, she thrashed about in vain and searched for anything to grab, but nothing was there.
She was falling back into existence, her body throbbing with a wordless pain, and it was even a strain to force her eyelids open. Her vision hazy, she comprehended that she saw a tall, gruesome figure looming above her, and terrible laughter echoed from it. Then, unable to bear the agony any longer, she let go and fell from consciousness.