17. Fair and Foul
Iaurel and his wife had been of those who found themselves under the stars by the Water of Awakening before ever the Valar knew, though he lost her long ago, soon after the last of their three children was born.
When many of the Quendi undertook the Great Journey, he and his children, afire to see the land of which their leaders told them, traveled with their people across the ancient land beneath the wheeling stars. As they passed through Middle-earth, their love for the land kindled and grew. Though they followed the kings toward the lands near the Sea, their reluctance to cross it grew as well.
The wars came, the Wars of the Jewels, but that did not quench their love of the lands they knew; when after long starlit years the Sun first rose in glory, they wished only to remain.
After the War of Wrath, Iaurel knew himself fortunate to have survived with all his children, though they had lost everything else; even the lands they had lived upon now lay beneath the waves. With the exile of the Dark Lord, all the remaining lands seemed brighter, more open and joyful.
For a time they wandered across hill and valley, over river and mountain. At length, they settled with other survivors of the War in a village beside a wide river. There, in the time of peace, after long-years of being unwed, all three of his children found mates.
Iaurel at first welcomed the years of peace and plenty; he welcomed, too, the children of his daughter and sons. Time passed, and he grew restless, wishing to visit again the lands he had known and loved. He set out with blessings from his children and traveled the wild lands and the settled, though the village where they dwelt remained the home of his heart.
Eventually he felt the tug of home and family, and turned his steps toward the little village by the river.
As he traveled over the mountains toward his home, a great storm blew up. He staggered through the snow, fearing for his life every moment. After some hours of creeping in the cold along the mountain slope, he encountered a narrow crack in the hillside. Gratefully he slipped into it. To his surprise, instead of a shallow cut into rock, it widened and deepened as he walked forward.
Though the pale daylight receded quickly with but a turn or two of the tunnel, a dim flicker ahead drew him forward. The cave grew warmer; he tiptoed on.
A larger cavern opened before him. On a hearth in one wall a fire burned; furs lay on the floor. On a low flat stone near the fireplace stood a flagon and cup and plate with food and drink.
He gazed about the cave. It presented at once an air of luxury and austerity, for the furnishings consisted of few rough stone tables, or benches heaped with furs. Glinting crystals suspended in metal fittings threw light upon smooth bare walls and colored pebbles strewn or heaped here and there. In one corner, a small stream ran in, pooled briefly, and ran out again.
A dark archway stood opposite the entrance. He crossed the room and peered into it, but the darkness was impenetrable. In any case, he found himself far more interested in the food and warmth.
Although he was famished and thirsty, he hallooed and clapped his hands before setting to, that he might not be found devouring his unwitting host's own dinner, but neither person nor answer came in reply. He sat before the fire, drinking the pale mead and eating the nutcakes and sheep's cheese; then washed hands and face before wrapping himself in furs and falling asleep in the comfortable warmth. As he drifted off to sleep, it seemed the crystals above dimmed and went out.
When he awoke, the fire had died to warm coals. On the table-stone now stood a mug of mint tea and a steaming bowl of nut porridge. Someone had tiptoed in without waking him and brought more food. After breaking his fast, he washed again, taking care to wash the cup and bowl and spoon.
He straightened the room, set the utensils tidily on the little table, then bowed deeply, more or less in the direction of the dark archway at the back of the cave.
"Many thanks, my host," he said. "You have saved my life with your hospitality. I wish I could thank you in person." He waited, but again no reply came.
He bowed again, turned, and walked down the rock hall. The storm had blown over altogether, and the morning sun streamed into the little entrance chamber. It sparkled on the floor, glinting on the many colored pebbles lying there. They shone in red, blue, green, yellow.
Thinking, I will take one stone for each of my children as a memento of my strange adventure, he picked a red one for the older son, a lilac one for his daughter, and a clear crystal for the youngest.
A loud growl filled the chamber and his ears. With a harsh grating sound, a stone door slid shut and cut off the sun at the entry. He rubbed his dazzled eyes, for he could barely see the outline of an orc standing before him.
"How dare you steal my things," cried the orc. "I have fed and housed you, and this is how you repay me!"
The orc stood taller than most orcs, nigh as tall as Iaurel himself. He held a gleaming sword in one hand and a sharp dagger in the other.
"I but thought to take a token of my visit here to my children, that they might believe my strange tale," replied Iaurel. Fear of the orc and astonishment at his benefactor's identity filled him with confusion. The stones fell to the ground.
"Ah, you have children!" said the orc. "Instead of killing you here and now, I will give you leave to go to them and take leave of them forever. Unless one of them agrees to take your place, you must return to dwell here with me. Do not think you can escape me, for now that I have your scent in my nostrils, I, Gathnur, will hunt you down anywhere you may go.
"Hold out your hand." The orc sheathed his blades, picked up the fallen stones and dropped them into the man's hand. "I will give you one month. Now go!" He pressed the wall in a complex pattern and the door slid aside again. He let no sliver of sunlight fall upon his form.
Iaurel bowed and hurried out into the bright day, grieved and puzzled and fearful, bewildered by the orc's strangely gracious home and his peculiar mercy.
In the aftermath of the storm, he made his way easily down the mountain path, and within a very few days was once again in the village where his family lived. They all rejoiced to see him well, and if they noticed that he was quieter than was his wont, none remarked upon it.
Iaurel spent the first few days of his return enjoying the company of his daughter, sons, their spouses, and particularly his grandchildren. One evening he gathered them all together and told them his tale. He did not mention at all the orc's proposal that one of them take his place.
As he had expected, his children were ready to take arms and go fight the orc. "No, no, my dears, you must not do so. I believe I will come to no harm. Indeed, I was at his mercy until I took the stones from him unbidden. In any case, you cannot leave your children."
So he prepared to leave the village a few days before the month's end. He bade farewell to all and set out on his way.
When he came to the mountain path where the cave opening had stood, he found but a blank wall of stone. The rock door had been shut, and could not be seen from the outside. He waited there until the sun had fallen into the West. Then, when the first stars began to show in the sky, the door opened, and there stood the orc, Gathnur, his host and now jailor.
"Welcome," he said. "Please come in and be comfortable."
Iaurel entered, and the door shut behind him.
He had a fine suite of cave rooms near the sitting room in which he had first stayed. Where Gathnur slept, he knew not, for after dinner each evening, the orc would sit without speaking for a while and then vanish swiftly down an unlit corridor.
During the day, and surprisingly he knew when it was day, for a few of the rooms had great light shafts cut through the rock to the south side of the mountain, they would talk, or practice arms together. Iaurel learned rapidly that he could never best the orc at swordplay; the orc was quick and far more well-versed.
Iaurel had been there some weeks when one morning Gathnur said, "Let me show you more of the caverns." He picked up one of the light crystals and led the way along a twisty, branching path. Iaurel soon lost track of the turnings, but followed along behind the orc.
At length they came to a large cavern, or series of caverns, each more fantastic than the one before. A stream ran through them all, and water dripped ever from above, and trickled down the walls and marvelous stone pillars that rose from the floor or, improbably, hung from the ceiling. Waves and buttresses of stone in incredible shapes met his eye wherever he turned.
Together they wandered through the grottoes, pointing out to each other the unlikely shapes, here a face, there a tree or a bear.
"Thank you," said Iaurel when they turned back. "That is a wonderful sight. I am so glad to have seen it."
On another day, Gathnur led him upward to a small, dry cavern. Here the orc kept such books or scrolls as had come his way--mostly ledgers of bookkeeping, but some were books of science or history, even of poetry. Iaurel was permitted to bring one or two at a time down to the sitting room, though Gathnur warned that they must be returned to the library, "for", he said, "the air here does them no good."
Though they conversed of many things, Iaurel had refrained from asking Gathnur of himself, and how he came to be here, seemingly alone, so different from other orcs. At last, he gathered his courage and did so.
Gathnur was long silent, so that Iaurel feared having offended him. "I may tell you only some of my tale. You know that orcs are considered to be both wicked and cruel. That is true. I have both performed and received great cruelty and wickedness. Indeed, my earliest memories are of pain and evil."
"Have you no kinder memories of childhood?" asked Iaurel.
"I have no recollection of childhood; only pain that had no beginning, but even then I was as fully grown as I am now."
"Then it is true, that orcs have neither father nor mother, but were created by the Enemy?"
"That part is untrue, for as it is said, he cannot truly create, but can only bend and mar. So we bear children as other creatures do; indeed, I have borne them myself."
Then Iaurel's sight twisted, for he had thought until now that Gathnur was male, and she became at once both less and more terrible, for what he took to be misshapenness was a travesty of a woman's shape, not a man's.
"You are a woman?" he said. "You have borne children?" and he fell silent in astonishment.
"If you give me that name in courtesy, if you call me Woman, who am Orc, then yes, I am a woman," replied Gathnur. "As for my children, some are dead, some have gone I know not whither, a very few serve me here. You have not seen them for they are even less couth than I.
"As for how I came to be here, I may tell very little. At the fall of my Master, the Enemy, many of us died. I was spared, but given a, a, task, of which I may say no more."
They each retired in silence after this, Gathnur down her dark hallway, and Iaurel to his own suite where he lay long without sleeping, thinking of his host, or rather hostess and her children, and then of his own children.
After that, Gathnur began to allow her Orc-children to join them, only one at a time, for short periods in the evenings. Iaurel counted three of them; "There are no others," said Gathnur, when asked.
The children were shy and well-behaved, for the most part, though occasionally given to sudden outbursts of temper. He was surprised to find they were not, in fact, children, but ranged in age from a few to several long-years.
"They have known nothing the length of their lives but pain and evil. I brought them here, hoping to find what good there is in them. I hope I have; I believe I have." She paused. "Surely there was good in me before the pain? Good I can no longer remember?"
"There is good in you now," replied Iaurel, thinking of her patience with the children and unfailing courtesy toward himself. Surely a fëa dwelt in that hróa, unlovely as it was. He attempted to touch her mind with his own, reflecting that even the Aftercomers were hróa-wrapped fëar. He felt no response; she did not even raise her head. From time to time, he tried again, each attempt met with failure and followed increasingly with sorrow, that they could not speak so as friends.
As the months turned to years, his longing for his family grew ever stronger. His mood turned gloomy and sullen.
Gathnur bore his surliness without comment, but one morning she asked, "What troubles you?"
"I miss my children," said Iaurel. "Won't you let me visit them? I will return, just as I did the first time."
"I can deny you nothing," said Gathnur, "though I foresee..." She went silent.
Iaurel, in his excitement over seeing again his children and grandchildren, paid no heed to her words of foresight and her gloomy mien, but instead began thinking of how he would travel, and all he would say when he met them again.
Gathnur turned away, saying, "In three days time you leave. We will prepare travel rations and gear for you."
A little pang went through Iaurel at that. He hastened after her. "I will come back; how could I not? Though we speak not mind to mind, I ... , that is, you have become dear to me."
"If you do not, it will be the death of me." She strode away down her dark corridor. He did not follow.
Three days later, they stood together in the entry. The orcs had prepared food and bedroll, travel cloak and pack for him. Gathnur opened the door. She bent to the floor and picked up three colored gems. With her dagger-point she pierced her fingertip and let one drop of blood fall upon each.
"Carry these also with you. If one becomes cloudy, you will know I am failing. If two grow dim, it shows I am near death. If all three have faded, you need not return, for I will be gone."
He looked at her in dismay; she merely put the stones in his hand and folded his fingers around them. In silence he shouldered his pack and walked into the sunshine. Once again, the door closed behind him.
His children and grandchildren were filled with joy to see him again; his joy reflected theirs. He settled into his old chamber in the house he'd shared with his daughter. The three gems he put into a little crystal dish on a shelf by his bed, and told no one of them.
At first, he basked in the love of his family, with scarcely a thought of Gathnur. After some days, he felt something wrong. He examined the stones. They seemed a little dull, but not cloudy or faded; surely all was well back inside the mountain!
One morning, Iaurel looked at the stones as usual. Two had turned dim and cloudy; the third barely retained color. Cold clutched his heart. He rushed to collect his pack, and only just remembered to seize waybread and a waterskin. When his children pressed him to stay, he brushed past them, leaving them bewildered.
He wanted to run along the path, run up the mountain, beat down the stone door of the cavern. He forced himself to keep a steady pace that would not leave him exhausted. Every evening, he walked until he could scarcely stand, then rose with false dawn, picking his way under the stars.
The colored stones he could hardly bear to look at, and could not bear to hide away, for worrying that the last had faded utterly.
Such was the pace he kept, that by midday of the third day he found himself on the long, bare path toward the door, toiling upward in the heat of the sun. Something gave him pause, he knew not what. He halted.
A faint moan came from the steep slope below the trail. Fear smote him. He hastened down, sliding on pebbles and clutching stones. Gathnur lay on a narrow ledge, fully in the sun, her leg twisted under her, blood caking her head and clothing.
"Oh, my dear, what has happened?" he whispered. She did not answer. He unfastened the waterskin and dripped water into her mouth. Some dribbled out, but she swallowed. Heartened, he set down his pack and continued giving her water drop by drop.
He moistened a corner of his cloak to bathe her face. When his hand brushed her cheek, he found it burning and dry. "If only I could get you out of this hot sun," he murmured, but he feared to do her even more damage by carrying her back to the path.
His cloak served as a makeshift sunshade; though the heat was hardly lessened, he knew well the sun was torture for orcs. He continued to bathe her face and give her water, hoping he would be able to find a spring or stream to replenish the waterskin.
As the sun fell toward the shoulder of the mountain, Iaurel rose and scrambled up to the path. He quite ruined his knife, but managed to cut a branch which he carried back to bind against her broken leg, though she seemed not to notice. Just as the sun passed below the ridge, he set out again.
He walked back the way he had come, listening and hoping for the sound or smell of water. It was farther than he wished, but finally he came upon a trickle running down a rocky cliff-face. He filled the waterskin and hastened back up the slope; twilight was deepening rapidly by the time he returned to her side.
Again he poured a little water at a time into her mouth; she seemed worse, and appeared to swallow none of it. Soon she began tossing and moaning. He lay beside her, fearful that she would further injure her broken leg with her thrashing. His heart thudded when her body stiffened in seizure; now he was terrified another seizure would carry her over the edge of the cliff to the rocks below.
He wrapped his body around hers. He pressed his face against her burning cheek. His tears fell on her face. "Don't leave me," he whispered.
Once again, he opened his mind to hers, more in desperation than in hope. To his surprise, a glimmer of awareness flickered up. Her fëa felt like the fëar of his own people, starlit and wild.
His arms tightened around her in astonishment as her body relaxed against his. Their two fëar touched shyly, slowly. His astonishment turned to wonder.
Here was his wife, pale, body still tortured and misshapen, and yet herself; and in her eyes there was peace now. Here was the dear wife of the sweet days by the Water of Awakening.
"Well, this is the end, Iaurel," she said, tears running down, mingling with his own.
"No," he said, low. "No," more loudly. "No, I have lost you once, I will not lose you again," and he poured his strength into her fëa, giving and giving and hoping and despairing.
At first both fëa and hróa wavered. Their connection faltered. He held her grimly, never ceasing to drain his strength for her. Through the night, as the stars circled over them, they both battled together for her damaged hróa and her newly-awakened fëa.
When the stars began to fade and the dawn to lighten the sky, Iaurel realized that the seizures had dissipated, and the fever was gone. Gathnur lay quiet and sleeping against his breast. He smoothed the hair away from her still-bloody face and kissed her forehead.
"Awake, my dear," he said. "We must get you away before the sun arises." She stirred and woke and smiled at him. Though to outward view she still appeared as Orc, to the eye of love, the eye of his mind, she was without peer.
He rose to his feet, and carefully, gently, picked her up. His strength, too, was almost gone, but before the sun's rays touched the side of the mountain, he stood before the door of the cavern.
"You must open the door, love," he said. "I do not have the secret."
From his arms, she reached to the rock and pressed it here and there. Iaurel watched the door slide open with relief. He carried her straight to his own chamber and laid her on his bed.
Side by side they slept there. Iaurel, being unharmed, woke long before she, and went to find food and drink. When she awoke, he helped her to eat and drink and bathe.
Only then did he ask, "How did you come to be in such a state, near death at the cliff edge? More, how did you come to be as you are? I remember, so long ago, searching through the dark forest for you, and feeling your fëa wink out, and knowing you were dead. And yet, here you are."
"When you went away a month ago," said Gathnur, "I despaired of your returning. I set out at night to follow you, but as I left the caverns at dusk, I was waylaid, by orcs I assume, though I saw them not. I fought them, but they beat me and flung me for dead from the cliff. I lived only because I landed on the ledge where you found me."
She paused and sighed.
"Much of the memory that was taken from me in those distant years may never return. Until our minds touched, I had no recall at all of the time before, when we were together by the water under the stars. Even now, I know only dimly that under the pain and torture of the Enemy, I closed my mind not just to him, but to all, even to you. Even, it appears, to myself.
"After the Great War, when the Dark Master was led away, and all around was in ruin, and my companions lay dead about me, I stood before the Herald of the Valar." She shivered. "His silver eyes looked through me like daggers. He said, 'Though you have done much ill, you have received ill in equal measure.' I looked at my life and deeds, and renounced all the evil and hurt I had perpetrated.
"I spoke none of this aloud, but he smiled and said, 'Very good; I may be merciful. You shall be under my command. You may not speak of me, or of my words, until one shall love you despite your deeds and appearance. When he does, then you shall be free of my compulsion; moreover, what you have lost, though you know it not, shall be returned to you.'
"And now, thanks to you, I am free not only of the cruel Dark Lord, and the compulsion of the Herald, but of the theft of my self and memory."
So there, in the orcish cavern, Iaurel and Gathnur wept and laughed together in joy at their reunion, unlooked for and beyond hope.
Embedded quote from "Mount Doom", RoTK.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.