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Stranger in a Strange Land

baragund

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PROLOGUE

This was John Bates’ first vacation since high school and, at age 27, he was exhausted.

He had graduated from college with a degree in engineering five years earlier while holding down two jobs to help pay his tuition, and immediately entered a trainee program for NorCon, one of the top five international construction companies in the world. Thus began a routine of 70-80 hour workweeks, including most weekends, on the construction of a billion dollar oil refinery located on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Fourteen-hour workdays, six days per week were the norm and much of his salary went to paying the student loans that put him through college. He slept in a plain one-bedroom apartment in an inexpensive part of town and his main source of diversion was his participation in various company-sponsored sports leagues like softball, soccer and flag football.

His was a work ethic marked by thoroughness and willingness to take on even the most mundane of tasks. He had an unobtrusive yet engaging personality that earned him friends among laborers and management alike. Soon he was marked in the company as an employee worth keeping and nurturing but at the same time wringing every last bit of production out of him before he “burned out”. Shortly after his third anniversary with NorCon, John was offered the opportunity to return to university for his MBA while continuing his work as a project engineer. He was being groomed for senior management. True to form he eagerly accepted and effectively doubled his workload by attending night school while maintaining his regular job responsibilities.

For the next two years, John’s life became an endlessly repeating cycle of work and study. Five hours of sleep on a given night was considered an unaffordable luxury. At times, he would ponder why he was subjecting himself to this but he reasoned a short time of crushing work was worth a lifetime in a secure and prosperous career. During this time, he met, fell in love and eventually became engaged to his classmate Jennifer Mullen, an ex debutante, a blueblood who saw in him the means to a continuing life of wealth and power, the wife of a bright young star with a promising career in one of the most powerful corporations in the country.

Somehow he got through the program. He successfully defended his thesis and graduated. Now, before beginning serious planning for their upcoming wedding, the young couple was on a two-week vacation in Bermuda. They booked a picturesque cabaña on a private beach shaded by palm trees and they spent their time swimming, snorkeling and relaxing on the beach.

One day John booked a daylong deep sea fishing trip, plying the waters west of the island. Jennifer had wanted to spend the day shopping; shopping was not one of John’s favorite activities so this arrangement was considered a “win-win” for both of them.

He set out at first light with Stan and Martin, residents of a neighboring cabana he had befriended and they soon arrived at the municipal docks. The boat they were hiring was on the small side, about forty feet, but it seemed serviceable enough. The captain was a gregarious Jamaican who had a broad smile, but a quiet air of competence that resulted from many years on the water. They stowed their fishing gear along with coolers full of cold beer and sandwiches and set off, heading west by southwest.

It was a hot, still, cloudless day and it wasn’t long before the men peeled off their shirts in the bright sun. The sea was calm, like a pond, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze. Still, the companions enjoyed themselves. Even though there was a curious lack of fish, they swapped stories, ate, drank and enjoyed each other’s company, as their boat made it’s way further out to sea.

They made their way thus for several hours. Shortly before noon, the western sky began to grow dark as if a bank of thunderstorms were approaching them. “Bloody weathermen,” cursed the Jamaican. “They said no rain today. Well, we’ll take a long slow turn an’ cruise home just ahead o’ the thunderheads. No loss though, you’d sooner catch a cold than catch a fish wi’ your luck!”

John didn’t mind. He was starting to get a headache from all the beer he drank in the hot sun, and he didn’t mind not catching anything. Being out on the open sea with good companions, no deadlines and no pressures was more than enough for him. He reclined in his seat, pulled the bill of his ball cap down and closed his eyes so he didn’t notice the look of concern that creased the captain’s face when he started to make his turn but his compass did not indicate any change in direction. From looking at the boat’s wake, the captain reasoned they should be headed more or less north but the compass still showed south by southeast. He began tapping the side of the compass, thinking it was stuck when the engine sputtered, coughed and died.
 
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baragund

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DEPARTURE

John sat up and looked around when the engine died. The black thunderheads were noticeably closer but it was still dead calm where their boat lay. The captain was now cursing a blue streak and the tone of his voice was starting to veer off from mere irritation to genuine concern as he removed the access panels to the engine and began searching for the cause of the breakdown. Stan was helping by producing a toolbox from the hold and shining a flashlight into the dark engine compartment. Martin sat down next to John and, while opening another bottle of beer, said in mock concern, “Well, we are in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle you know” and he started humming the theme song from “The Twilight Zone”.

“Shut up, Butthead,” John laughed, but he was starting to get worried. The thunderheads looked like it menacing and, judging from how hot and still it had been all morning, he did not want to be stuck on the open ocean on a drifting boat in what could be a nasty storm. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket to call his fiancée Jennifer and his eyes creased with concern when he discovered it was dead.

“Hey, let me use your phone. Mine’s dead,” he said to Martin, now listening with greater attention as Stan and the captain continued working, unsuccessfully, on the engine. “I want to give Jen a heads up.”

“Oh you are so whipped already”, Martin joked. “Have to call Mom at the drop of a hat.” John mouthed an expletive in reply. His joking stopped when he retrieved his own telephone from his backpack and discovered it too was dead.

“What the hell…” he murmured. “I charged this thing this morning.

“Hey Stan,” he now called. “John’s and my phones just crapped out. Let me see yours.”

Stan tossed his phone to his friend while the captain tried unsuccessfully turning over the engine. The starter motor started cranking slower and slower and, finally, stopped altogether. A quick look revealed that Stan’s telephone was just as dead as the other two. A breeze began to pick up and the boat started rocking gently as the thunderheads blotted out the noon sun.

“I’m a-callin’ for help,” the captain announced. He reached for the radio that was located next to the steering wheel and discovered it worked no better than any other mechanical device on the boat. “What the f--- is going on?” he cursed. “How can everything stop working at…”

He stopped in mid-sentence and stared in disbelief at the compass. Whereas before it was stuck in one direction, now it was rotating at a steady pace of about a revolution per second even though the boat was still motionless.

The captain looked up at the three men with a look of real fear etched on his face. “You best get your life-jackets on, an’ get ready for anything”, he said in a sober tone.

The first puffs of wind and raindrops arrived as they donned their gear and within the next minute, it escalated to a gale and a torrent. Powerless and adrift, it would not be long before the boat would be swamped. Already, the waves had turned the boat athwart and each subsequent wave made the boat rock more dangerously. The fishing boat was too small to have its own life raft but too large to maneuver with oars. All they could do was pray that the storm would play out before they were sunk.

But it was not to be so. The storm rose in intensity to the point where it looked like the sea was boiling. A wave came that rose half again as high as the top of the cabin. It crashed over the boat, capsizing it. The men were tossed into the sea and separated. As he was being tossed, John’s knee hit the gunwale hard and stars flashed in front of him from the pain. Fortunately, he was a strong swimmer so he had no trouble getting away from the boat as it foundered and sank. A large white ice chest that was to be used for their catch bobbed by and he grabbed onto it. He called out to his companions but there was not response. It was dark as a deep dusk so he could not see clearly more than twenty or thirty feet and he saw no one.

A couple of bungee chords were attached to the handles of the ice chest. These he managed to wrap around his arms at the armpits to secure himself better to his makeshift life raft. Even though it was full of water, it floated well enough to support him.

So this was how he rode the storm. Each time a wall of water would crash on him, his ice chest brought him back to the surface. He did not know how long this lasted, for his Rolex watch also stopped working, but he guessed it had to have been a couple of hours.

But the storm did stop. The clouds broke, revealing a brilliant sun low over the western sky. The earlier hazy, hot, humid weather was now replaced by a crystal clear blue sky with a fresh breezed out of the west. It was noticeably cooler now and John began to shiver, for all he wore were shorts and a golf shirt. His sneakers he kicked off so to swim better. The pain in his knee gave way to a dull throb but he could feel the swelling and he knew he could not bend it very well.

He looked about him and there was not a trace of the boat or his companions. There was not even a trace of debris or an oil slick from the fuel tanks. But he had never smelled air as fresh as he did when the clouds broke and the late afternoon sun shone down on him.
 
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baragund

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John took stock of his situation. Although he was trim and a decent athlete, he realized he did not have a lot of time before thirst and weariness would overcome him. Also, cold was becoming a major concern. He noticed the water temperature was significantly lower after the storm than before, and the temperature was dropping noticeably as the sun set. The ice chest to which he clung was made of white plastic so, he reasoned, any aircraft searching for his party should be able to spot him. Fortunately, the sea was not too rough despite the stiff breeze out the west and this enabled him to somewhat climb on top of the chest. Also, he was grateful that the skin around his knee was not broken even though it hurt like hell. He knew that any bleeding into the water would attract every shark for miles around.

So a cloudless night fell with John half lying, half clinging to his ice chest. And it was the longest night of his life. The air became quite chilly and he was soon shivering violently. His limbs were stiff and sore but he could only move with the utmost care or he would tumble off of the chest into the cold water. Agonizing cramps alternated with excruciating numbness. To pass the time he sang out loud in a croaking voice every song he could think of. Rock and roll, country and western, show tune, even Christmas carols. When he exhausted everything, he looked at his watch it only read 11:00 PM. He cursed in despair and wondered if he would get through the night. In his gloom, he took to simply watching the second hand sweeping around the dial of his watch; minute after minute after minute.

As his spirit wallowed, thoughts of ending his suffering crept into his mind. It would be so easy to just unfasten the bungee chords, let go of the chest, take off his life preserver and sink below the waves. He checked the time: 2:00 AM. So long until dawn and the warming sun and so easy to just let go…

But now an odd thought popped into his mind. When he checked the time again, he noticed how bright it was that night. He picked his head up and saw, for the first time, how the stars blazed as if, well, as if they were closer or as if they were brand new. It was as light as if there would have been a full moon but there was no moon that night. John puzzled over this. In his first days with Norcon, he worked as a roustabout on oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico, so he was familiar with how bright the stars can be on a clear night far from the lights of any town but this was something different. He turned himself as best he could to study the sky better.

He took an astronomy class in college and now he tried to pass time by identifying individual stars, planets and constellations. This is better than seeing them through the telescope at the university, he thought. As he gazed he noticed a constellation far in the north he did not remember. It had seven stars and it was sickle shaped. “What is that?” he wondered aloud. He went through all the stars and constellations he could remember from his class again and again but he could not recall what it was. But as he continued looking at them, the desire to slip into the sea that had been growing in his mind somehow faded and went away.
 

chrysophalax

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Cuivienen...creation, awakening.

The distant sound of horn and hoof...these were Nilme's first memories. A great being, born on a great steed led them Westward and as they travelled...he met a kinsman, a kinsman who would become his master...for a time.

They discovered that they were named...Quendi, People of the Stars and the great being, who called himself Orome, loved them. Many feared him, yet Nilme was among those who followed.

Long years passed and in that time, kingdoms were established, and the Elves flourished in all things. Doriath was one of those kingdoms and there he came under the apprenticeship of Eol. He admired Eol's independence and so, when Eol chafed at being within the Girdle of Melian, he took with him a small band of willing servants, each cunning and skilled in their own endeavours. Nilme's strength lay in attention to detail and his love for birds of prey. Eol made him steward to his household and thus it remained...until the Lady came.

Nilme winced at the memory even as he sat on a hillside, looking out over a harbour he knew not the name of. He sighed heavily as he remembered his lord's anger at finding the Lady and his son gone. He and the other servants were forgotten and many left to go their own way, but he had waited, until at last word came to him that all, all of the house of Eol were slain. Grief took him and he began wandering he cared not where.

His birds, ever faithful, stayed with him. Aran and Tari, a mated pair of peregrines and Alcarin, his pride. She was a beautiful falcon, much larger than the pair, her feather pattern beautiful bars of black and brilliant white. As he sat, she settled on his shoulder and began preening. Nilme ruffled her chest feathers lightly and her black eye fixed him with a haughty stare. High above, the pair glided effortlessly, no doubt hunting the evening meal.

Sadness filled him as the thought of yet another friendless night made itself known. Never very open, Nilme nevertheless enjoyed the companionable feeling of having someone there, someone to converse with. Regrets, Nilme? You? When did you ever need anyone or anything? You..always so self-relaint and strong? He grimaced at his inner voice, then rose and began walking, this time down to the harbour, hoping to drown the voice inthe rushing noise of the surf below.
 

baragund

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ARRIVAL

5:00 AM. Another hour before sunrise and John was struggling to stay awake. But he had to stay awake. If he dosed, he would loosen his hold on the chords and slip beneath the waves. So he began banging his head against the hard plastic of the ice chest to introduce a new and different source of pain. And he recited aloud anything he could think of: children’s stories, letters he had written, the Declaration of Independence, anything. With maddening slowness the time passed.

The slightest hint of pink and orange appeared in the east. He stared at it, not yet daring to believe that daylight was finally coming, but the colors grew and the night stars began to blend in with the morning sky. Morning had come. Normally he was not the spiritual sort, but this morning John uttered a prayer of thanks.

At the earliest light there appeared to be a bank of cloud on the eastern horizon, but as the light grew and gave definition to the shapes, he realized that was not cloud but land! Beyond his wildest hope the western breeze that blew all night and the previous afternoon brought him back to the shores of Bermuda.

Or was it? As the sun broke the horizon, he saw this was not the low-lying tropical island coastline he left the day before. This was a great land, with rugged bluffs tumbling down to white beaches. And the hills were clad in mixed forests that mark a temperate climate, with broadleaf trees and pines, not the palm trees and other tropical plants he was expecting. Absent also were the towns, resorts, watercraft and other signs of human habitation. It was completely empty. “What is this place,” he wondered. “This is too big to be Bermuda, and the climate’s all wrong.”

He figured he must have somehow entered the Gulf Stream and was blown north as well as west. But where? He went through the possibilities in his mind: The Canary Islands? The Azores? Good God this can’t be the Portuguese coast! No, all those places were hundreds of miles away and he was adrift for less than 24 hours.

As he studied the shoreline trying to solve this puzzle and find some sign of human habitation, his eyes rested on a great promontory of land that jutted out into the sea away south. On this promontory there arose a great tower of stone. It was huge, at least as tall as the Washington Monument but more massive, with openings and ledges on multiple levels. It looked like it could serve as a lighthouse, but also as a medieval fortress. And its architecture indicated it was old, ancient even, but it looked like it was well restored, or even new. John wondered at the architecture and tried to place it but couldn’t: Moorish, Gothic, Romanesque? None he could think of quite fit but it had an organic quality that he found quite beautiful.

He started to try to swim toward the tower but quickly realized that the current was bearing him north. His disappointment turned to new hope as he now saw the opening of a large bay or harbor to the north and the current was taking him there. What’s more, it appeared the tide was going in. He guessed he was a couple of miles from shore and he wanted to make land before the tide turned. He had to swim to make it.

His muscles and joints, which had been locked in one position all night, resisted fiercely as he untied the chords, heaved himself off the ice chest and began to swim. Sharp stabs of pain coursed up his leg from his injured knee as he kicked his legs. Often he had to stop and rest, letting his life jacket hold him above the water, but slowly, the shore came closer.

The sun was almost at its zenith when John rode a wave to the beach and he touched the white sand. He had never been so spent in his life. He pulled himself up the beach as far as was needed to keep the surf from pulling him back out and there he lay for many minutes, chest heaving, staring at the clear blue sky. After a while, he gathered enough strength to try to get himself out of the water altogether. Slowly, painfully, he tried to stand, but his injured knee buckled under when he tried to put weight on it and he crumpled back into the surf. Spitting sand and salt water from his mouth, he half crawled half dragged himself past the surf line and onto dry sand. He stopped, letting the warm sun caress his back and, within a minute, he was fast asleep.
 

chrysophalax

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Dawn found Nilme no less pensive than all the years in recent memory, however...this dawn had brought him at last to the sea.

The Sea!

Of all the songs orchestrated by Iluvatar, the most loved by the Teleri. His face lit by an unaccustomed smile, Nilme made his way down to the water's edge, his avian friends disdaining to share in his joy. They rode the currents of the air as he plucked several shells from the waves and turned them over and over in his hands.

A cry from above called his attention down the shore to where a figure lay in seeming sleep. Curious, he began to walk along the beach, tucking his newfound treasures in his pouch to inspect later. As he neared the prone figure, he halted. Something was very wrong about this person. For one thing, the clothing was very strange. He appeared to have a short vest of brilliant orange and very short breeches...and no boots. Why?

Nilme began to fear the Elf was dead and sorrow filled him. He ran the last short distance to the body and knelt beside it to see whether or not...Valar aid me! He thought as he recoiled. This was no Elf! His ears were rounded and he had hair on his face...what was this? Nilme retreated slowly lest he awaken whatever, whoever this was. Was it some form of Orc? Surely it was no Dwarf...he had seen and spoken with many of the Naugrim while in Eol's service. Hand on his dagger, he slowly paced a circle around the fallen figure and thought. It appears to be half-drowned, yet it lives and is possibly gravely injured. Should I aid it?

Many things caught his inquisitive eyes, such as the band on it's left wrist, the reddened skin that now bore blisters. He felt he should do something, but his distrustful nature nearly made him turn away. A groan made him glance reluctantly back over his shoulder, only to see he was being watched. Without conscious thought, he drew his dagger and waited.
 

baragund

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MEETING


Three things caused John to wake up. First, the breeze freshened again and despite the warm sun, chilled him through his wet clothes. Second, his mouth was as dry as if it had been stuffed with cotton wadding. He had had nothing to drink in over 24 hours and he could not work up any saliva in his mouth no matter how hard he tried. Finally, hunger and thirst had given him a headache that could kill a mule.

Groaning, he lifted his head and looked in front of him. The beach was perhaps 30 yards to where the jagged bluffs tumbled down meeting it. At this spot they were around 100 feet high and they were topped by dense old-growth forest. It had to be old-growth for he had never seen trees of such a height or girth.

A feeling that he was being watched crept over him. He looked to one side and saw nothing. He looked to the other side and saw, standing not five paces from him, what he thought was a man. The stranger was white, youngish-looking, slender with long straight dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. He wore clothing that John did not recognize and would not associate with beachwear. He wore a well-tailored shirt or tunic, tight-fitting knickers or breeches and supple boots that laced up to the knee. But what really got John’s attention was the knife in his hand and the crouching stance that showed this person was about to attack. “Oh great”, he thought. “After all this, some ***hole wants to rob me.”

Still lying on his stomach, John held his hands over his head and said in a loud but croaking voice, “My knee is hurt and I can’t walk. I’ve been in the water for over a day with nothing to eat or drink. I was on a fishing boat that got swamped in the storm yesterday.” And then he proceeded to tell the newcomer the name of the boat and the port he sailed from in Bermuda.

“If you help me, I’ll give you a reward that would be better than what you’ll find in my wallet,” he concluded. “But I need water, and we need to contact the Coast Guard.”

The stranger did not answer but assumed a less threatening pose. John didn’t know if he understood so he repeated himself in Spanish. Still no response. He tried greetings in other languages where he knew a few words: French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. Still nothing.

He slowly and painfully rose to a sitting position, studied the stranger more closely and noticed for the first time his pointed ears. Now he tried hard not to stare but this was a first. John had heard of cultists and others out on the fringe who alter their appearance: crackpots who file down their teeth to look like werewolves or vampires. But he had never heard of anybody who cropped his or her ears, like a Doberman Pincher or a Boxer. “Must be one heck of a Star Trek fan,” he thought to himself. Still, he needed help from this person so he was not going to do or say anything to offend.
 

chrysophalax

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Nilme lowered his dagger as the being before him spoke. He used several dialects that Nilme had never heard before, but it was obvious to him that this one was quite intelligent. He moved slowly toward the person, who winced in pain as he shifted position in the sand. Could this be a messenger from Ulmo who had somehow become injured? Could one of Ulmos's messengers even become injured? He sheathed his dagger and opened his hands, palm outward, to show he meant no harm and the person held very still as Nilme crouched next to him.

"Whence come you? Have you been sent to me from Ulmo?" The man's face looked dismayed and Nilme sighed. Apparently Sindarin was not among the tongues this one knew. Nilme carefully looked the man over and noticed that his knee was swollen and bruised. "Can you move it?" he asked, bending his own knee at the same time. The man's eyes followed his movements and he shook his head in negation. The Elf stood, looking along the beach and gave a satisfied chuckle. Not far up the beach there lay a large piece of driftwood, large enough to be fashioned into a staff with any luck. Without wasting another moment, he ran along the strand to the wood, which upon inspection turned out to be too long. Silently cursing, he wondered why he was going to the trouble of helping this unknown creature. After all, hadn't he been happy living alone, venturing when and where he would? The answer came back to him, "No, thou fool...you cannot hide forever. This one has done you no harm. Trust!"

With a sigh, he had to agree with his inner voice. Perhaps by aiding someone, Nilme could at last learn to trust again. But first, he had to find a way to get this foundling up the steep sandstone cliff. Doubtless he was hungry and thirsty and from the look of his skin, probably in pain from more than his knee. Nilme looked around and there against the base of the cliff lay another. smaller piece of driftwood. This he caught up and brought back to the man.

The man groaned when he realised what the Elf intended and he spoke several harshly inflected words. Nilme let the "staff" fall as he helped the man to rise. He let him lean on his shoulder to get his balance, then bent swiftly and helped him grasp the staff. "Come with me." Nilme said, hoping his voice sounded encouraging even if he wasn't understood. They hobbled together a few steps and the man stopped, breathing heavily through gritted teeth. "John." he said, pointing to himself. He then gestured to Nilme and shrugged his shoulders, a question in his eyes. The Elf smiled, for what felt like the first time in years. "Nilme..." Then he held out his arm and whistled shrilly. Within moments two small falcons came to rest on his forearm and John ducked as a third landed on Nilme's shoulder, only to take flight again. Nilme chuckled. "Alcarin." he said, his eyes following her upward spiral. "Tari i Aran." The pair looked at John fixedly, then he tossed them skyward with a laugh. John shook his head and they began again the long trek up the cliffside.
 

baragund

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John was grateful that the stranger sheathed his knife and held out his hands in a gesture of assistance, but he was still wary that this person was armed. But then the stranger spoke and much of this suspicion gave way to curiosity coupled with an unexplained reassurance.

It was a language he could not place; it was musical and soothing and it somehow put him at ease. One word seemed to stand out from the others: “Ulmo”. He had no idea what that was. When the stranger ran off to retrieve the piece of wood to be used as a makeshift crutch, John wondered if that was his name. As he was making their way up the beach, one arm on the crutch and the other around the stranger’s shoulder, John stopped, indicated his own name then pointed to the other asking, “Ulmo?” The other laughed out loud in reply, a sound that struck him as clear, as pure, as joyous a sound as the pealing of silver bells. This sound put his mind further at ease, and the remaining suspicion over the dagger faded away. Still chuckling, the stranger then indicated that his name was Nilme and they continued on their way up the beach.

As they reached the head of the beach, John saw steps cut into a deep cleft in the cliffside. These steps were smooth to the point of being polished and broad with a finely wrought bronze handrail fastened to one wall. These steps took no small level of skill to cut. They were cut into the rock with no fillers or other materials to smooth and even them. Yet they were perfectly shaped and spaced. Slowly they made their way up the steps and when they reached the top, a sight greeted him that made him softly whistle in admiration.

It was one of the most exquisitely built and sited homes he had ever seen. It was constructed of stone and timber in that unfamiliar style similar to the great stone tower he had seen away to the south. It was not particularly large but the stone and wood included a delicate curvilinear pattern of fitting and of detail carving that indicated a level of skill possessed by only the finest craftsmen. The roof was slate and steeply peaked. The house was situated in a kind of glade in the forest of gigantic old-growth trees in such a way that the tree canopies seemed to cradle and protect it, but a roofed patio extended from one side that offered a spectacular view of the ocean and harbor. After seeing the strange tower, this person who spoke in a language he had never heard and who could command falcons as if they were pets, and now this other-worldly home setting, a unsettling thought began to grow in John’s mind: “Where am I? This is not like anyplace I have ever been or read about.”

Within the roofed patio was a grouping of comfortable chairs and couches. Nilme guided his unexpected guest across the immaculately manicured lawn to the patio, helped him ease into one of the couches and propped up his injured leg. He then retreated into the house and soon returned with a large pitcher of water and a cup.

John gulped down two cups of water as if his life depended on it. When he started a third, Nilme motioned to him to slow down or he would get sick. John nodded in understanding and began to pace himself. As he continued to drink, he drew his wallet from the pocket of his shorts, pulled his driver’s license out and handed it to Nilme. He held his hand up to his ear with the thumb and pinkie extended in what he thought was the universally understood pose of making a telephone call and said in a slow and carefully enunciated voice, “I need to call for help. May I use your telephone?”
 

chrysophalax

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Nilme found himself quite puzzled by John's actions. Why was he making such odd hand gestures? He divested himself of the small pack he carried with him and settled himself on the ground near where John sat. The small oddly coated piece of aprchment in his ahnd drew his attention and he looked at it carefully. Interestingly enough, it bore John's likeness, though his face assumed a peevish, impatient look in the image. There were also many symbols and when he turned it over, it flashed in the lowering sun. He handed it back to John, who looked at him most urgently. "Well?"

With a heavy sigh, Nilme pondered. He had always been good at dialects, having even picked up several Orcen phrases from several raiders. Quenya he chose not to speak as it seemed to be the privilege of the High Elves alone. Therefore he took this as a challenge and if he were to help this one, it was imperative that they understand one another. John held up his fingers again in that same odd sign and Nilme shook his head, shoulders shrugging. John's fingers clenched around the cup so hard it cracked. John yelped as water spilled into his lap and Nilme, despite himself , began to chuckle.

A string of strongly worded invectives were hurled at Nilme, along with the remains of the cup which he easily dodged. He rose and disappeared into the home of Linwen, a healer whom he had hoped would be able to help John, but she was probably out gathering herbs somewhere. He rummaged around and brought out an old grey tunic that was clean, then returned only to find john struggling to rise from the couch he had been disposed on. Nilme went to his side but was rebuffed. He raised a sardonic eyebrow and tossed the tunic across John's lap, resuming his seat on the ground. If John was going to be stubborn and re-injure himself, he could do it without the Elf's aid.

His face red with anger and frustration, John had stripped off what was left of his shirt and was trying to dry off the cold water. Couldn't this guy see that he was in trouble? Miles from nowhere, no decent hospital probably...He ran his hands throgh his hair, trying to think. If he couldn't make Nilme understand him, he would be s.o.l. and he knew it. He picked up the tunic Nilme had dropped in his lap and was amazed at the softness of the material. It was nothing fancy, but the texture was like silk, only thicker. After looking it over, he pulled it on over his head, then nodded curtly. "Thanks." Nilme bowed his head graciously, going more on the tone in John's voice than anything else.

John spread his arms and looked about him, then back at Nilme. "Where is this? Is this yours? Your house?" Again, Nilme shook his head, trying to think how to get through to John. He reached for a shard of the cup, holding it up. "Yulma." He reached forward and touched the tunic. "Laupe...Linwen's laupe." He then gestured to John and touched his own tunic, a question in his eyes. For the first time since the accident, John grinned. Eagerly he replied, "That's a shirt and that..." he pointed, "is a cup. Now...where in hell am I?"
 

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Breakthrough


John immediately regretted his flash of anger. It was not Nilme’s fault that they could not understand each other. His feelings of frustration were now being replaced by puzzlement and curiosity. John again took in his surroundings. This was a most gracious home; it’s quiet, unobtrusive and harmonious setting could easily distinguish itself in the most exclusive suburban neighborhoods of New York, Boston, London or Paris. Yet, as he studied the house and its surroundings, he realized that there was no sign of electrical service. No power lines leading to the house, the fixtures besides the doors were clearly lanterns of some sort, and there were no electric lights or signs of any electrical appliances in the house. He then studied the tunic that Nilme had given him. The quality of the garment was better than what one would find at the finest department stores yet it was obviously used like it was as ordinary as a well worn sweatshirt.

He looked at the pieces of the cup on the ground and the large fragment that he hurled at Nilme and he felt like an idiot. He pointed at the fragments and spoke apologies as clearly as he could. Then he gestured at the cozy laupe and said thank you as clearly as he could. Nilme nodded in understanding.

As John removed his wet shirt and put on the laupe, an idea crept into Nilme’s mind. He had wondered at the generous helping of body hair that covered John’s chest, stomach, arms and legs, not to mention the four-day growth of what promised to be a thick beard. “He has hair like a Dwarf,” he mused. “But he’s taller than me. Could this be one of the Edain?”

Nilme had heard of these newcomers, who had wandered into Beleriand from the East some twenty years earlier, although he had never met one. He knew that some of them were closely allied with the Noldo Finrod and that they had settlements to the north. They had their own peculiar manner of speech and he tried to recall the phrases he had picked up from other scholars.

He motioned to John to get his attention and then began to speak in a slow and measured tone. There were a lot of words that John did not understand and there were unfamiliar words that sounded like proper names such as “Beor” and “Hador”, “Dorthonion” and “Hithlum”. But then there was a phrase, heavily accented like he had never heard before, that sounded like “…from whence you came”. John sat up in attention, stopped Nilme and repeated the phrase. The Elf brightened and repeated very slowly, “Tell me from whence you came.”

Finally, John thought, a breakthrough. He will tell this helpful but strange person where he’s from; he’ll get to another house that has a telephone and get himself rescued. He picked up his driver’s license, pointed to the address and repeated the name of the town on the gulf coast where he was presently living. The Elf shrugged his shoulders. John pressed, “It’s on the gulf coast of Mississippi”. Nilme responded “Mississs..?” “You know,” John continued. “In the U.S.A.” “Yoo-Esss-Ayyy?” Nilme answered in an uncomprehending voice, and then asked if John came from “beyond the Eastern Mountains.”

Frustration began to build again. John asked, “Do you have a map?” Nilme indicated that he did and retreated into the house. He returned a moment later with a rolled scroll of parchment. He unrolled it and showed John a hand-drawn map of Beleriand and the lands of northwest Middle-earth. John studied it, confusion growing within him. The lettering was in a fine beautiful script but he couldn’t place with any written language he had ever seen. And although he knew his world geography pretty well, the depicted lands depicted on this map was of no coastline he knew.

With a sickening feeling in his stomach, John got up from the couch with the aid of the piece of driftwood. He hobbled to the edge of the patio that overlooked the ocean. “Where I am from,” he prompted to Nilme. The Elf nodded his head eagerly. John pointed to the horizon at the setting sun and said emphatically “U.S.A.”.
 

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An unbelieving eyebrow was lifted as John pointed to the West, apparently claiming that was his homeland. He was on the verge of kneeling to him, when Linwen came walking down the path which led back up the slight hill behind her dwelling. She was bearing a basket filled with fragrant flowers and several herbs, nearly full to over-flowing. Nilme called out a greeting and went to her, speaking rapidly as he gestured to where John sat impatiently.

"Linwen, I found him on the beach. He's injured, lost and he says he comes from the West! Is that possible? He's not an Elf...I don't know...will you help him?" She cut him off with a laugh. "Nilme...so foolish, of course I will! You spent far too many years cloistered away with Eol, my friend! It's obvious to anyone with eyes that he is one of the Edain and as for coming from the West..." Here she looked the man over critically. "There could be many islands of which we have no knowledge. Perhaps he comes from one of those." She knelt down next to the man, who looked at her in fascination. She too had gracefully pointed ears and was taller than most women he knew of. However it was her eyes that held him. Silvery grey they were, filled with wisdom far beyond anything he'd ever imagined. He would have found himself attracted to her, but while she appeared quite young, the eyes told him that she, like Nilme, were deceptive in their looks.

She looked at him questioningly as she knelt beside him and he cautiously nodded. He'd never been triaged like this before! He grimaced as she carefully explored his cuts and abrasions first, then his knee. Her brow furrowed she she probed gently, bending it slowly. John bit his lip to keep from crying out as she manipulated the knee carefully. He was sweating by the time she finished. She spoke softly to Nilme, then picked up the basket and went inside. Nilme came over to where John sat grumbling, then crouched at his side. "Linwen will help you." he said, speaking carefully. "She tells me that you are atan , one of the Followers. Perhaps your island is one not on our maps. Tell me of this place. It may help to distract you while she tends your hurts."
 

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It took a moment for John to find his voice when the second Elf approached him. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. Her hair was the color of honey and she wore it in a single braid that extended almost to her waist. Her skin was a lighter shade of the same hue and contained not the slightest blemish, freckle or imperfection. But it was her silvery-gray eyes that held him. They gleamed like they had a light of their own and they seemed to peer through him as if he were made of glass, seeing every thought, fear, feeling, memory and desire he had. This effect was at first frightening and he had an impulse to turn away, run and hide. But within a couple of seconds, this fear was replaced by a feeling of reassurance, of well being, of understanding that she was aware of his flaws and nevertheless welcomed him.

Those warm feelings were in turn quickly replaced by sharp pain as she started manipulating his knee but it seemed to him that she knew exactly what she was doing so he did his best to cooperate. Presently, she finished her examination retreated into the house to fetch some medicines. As he stared after her, he realized Nilme was speaking to him in that strange yet pleasant accent. ‘Atan’, ‘followers’, ‘my island’: Things that made that nagging feeling of unease grow in the back of his mind.

“My island?” he murmured and the Elf nodded. John thought for a moment. Is it possible that this person never heard of America? How can that be unless you are some kind of hermit or a pygmy in the deepest part of the Amazon or someplace? And Nilme certainly is neither of those. So John started to describe landmarks and other things that he thought anybody who didn’t live under a rock their entire lives would recognize: The Statue of Liberty, baseball, McDonalds, Niagara Falls, the Beach Boys, the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge, Coca-cola to name a few. Incomprehension and a growing look of amazement etched Nilme’s face as John talked.

Linwen returned bearing a broad stoneware basin and long strips of soft cloth. The basin was filled with steaming hot water that looked like it was steeped with herbs of some kind. An aroma unique but vaguely reminiscent of cardamom filled the patio area that soon made John feel extremely relaxed. The Elf knelt in front of John and began dipping the strips of cloth into the warm water and tightly wrapping them around his injured knee. A feeling of warmth soon began to penetrate to the center of the knee joint but it was soothing and pleasant, unlike the harsh heat from, say, Ben-Gay or some other muscle-ache salve one would get at a drugstore. “Your knee is strained but there is nothing broken,” she told him. “I will change these wrappings every few hours and in a couple of days you will be able to walk.”

Already he could feel the ligaments in his knee loosening. As she worked, he found it hard not to stare at her. Perhaps it was the effect of the scent from the herbed water but before he knew what he was saying, he found himself blurting out stupidly, “Your ears and your husband’s. How did you have them done? Was it surgery or are they prosthetics?”

Linwen stopped, gazed at John in the eye with a curious look, then over at Nilme. Then the two Elves erupted in laughter that had that same sound of pealing bells. John felt at once sheepish but not humiliated for the joyous sound of their laughter had no trace of malice or mockery in it. “We are not joined, Johnbates,” Nilme told him. “I am only sojourning here for a short time. But what you ask is so strange! All of the people here appear thus. It is you Atani, you Followers, who appear different, with rounded ears and hair on your face and body like a Naugrim.”

The soothing effect of the scented water was being replaced with a sickening feeling in John’s stomach and his throat felt like it was being squeezed. With a tight sounding voice he asked, “And who are you people? Why do you call me Follower? And what the hell is a Naugrim?”

Again the two Elves looked at each other. This time Linwen spoke: “Well, Nilme is one of Eol’s people, so he is Avari. I of course am one of Cirdan’s people so I am Teleri but we are both Quendi naturally, just like Finrod, to whom your forefathers pledged allegiance.” She saw a vacant look of incomprehension in John’s eyes. She and Nilme spoke to each other in their own language for a moment, then she continued in a matter-of-fact voice, “I believe the word in your tongue for Quendi is Elves.”
 

chrysophalax

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John's jaw dropped open. "Elves? ohhhhhhhhhhhkay..." He rolled his eyes and eased himself back on the couch. Glancing at each other, the Elves sat down near him, the better to answer his questions. Nilme spoke first. "We are the Children of Iluvatar, the Firstborn. You are Atani, the Secondborn, a Follower. Naugrim are..." Here he looked to Linwen and he spoke a question in his won melodious tongue, then nodded. John could have sworn he heard..."Dwarves, I believe you would call them. You look much like them with the hair on your face and chest."

The looks and the sense they were both getting from John told them he was as lost as they were. Drawing a deep breath, Nilme closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. "It is always wise to begin a tale, or a friendship at the beginning. Therefore, I will tell you of our beginning, if you will." John waved his hand expansively. "Sure, go ahead! I should have known...a cult...Children of Iluvatar... " He snorted, then was suddenly chastened by the look on Linwen's face. "Go ahead.." he mumbled.

Nilme's countenance took on a serene expression as he spoke, his words unfolding like a treasured scroll long denied the light. "Iluvatar created this...Arda...the world upon which we live and breathe. We live in the land of Beleriand and that...is the Bay of Belagaer." He said, pointing to the westering sun. We are the Firstborn...first made of Iluvatar...and you...all the Atani came after. You are the first I have encountered. I sojourn at times with Linwen when my steps bring me to the sea, but oftimes I travel east of here, in Doriath where I dwelt for so long with my master, Eol. I was among the first to awaken in the east."

A flash of humour lit his face. "How old do you think me?" John looked Nilme over for a few minutes, then shrugged. "Thirty?" Silvery laughter made his ears burn. "You flatter me! I am many millenia old and will continue on for many millenia after this day has passed. In truth, none of those who first awakened know their true age, for time has only been measured since the appearance of the Sun."
 
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baragund

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The rational side of John’s mind was screaming at him that all of this was a hoax, that these were kind people but they were odd recluses or cultists. But then he studied their faces, which looked youthful but also had a depth he could not explain, and he was not sure. His surroundings, which did not fit into anything he could think of, added to this doubt. Even the stars, which now began to shine with the deepening dusk and displayed that otherworldly brightness that he noticed the previous night, stopped him from making any more skeptical remarks. As he looked at the stars, a thought seized him.

“Oh my God,” he whispered to himself. “I didn’t get through last night. It was so cold. I must have slipped off the cooler and drowned. I’m dead and I passed on to… where?”

“No, you have not passed,” Linwen said in a soothing voice. She calmed him by placing her hand reassuringly on his shoulder. “But I think you have come from afar. Tell us, from the beginning, from whence you came.”

“You’re right,” he said slowly. “It’s best to start at the beginning.”
 

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“But tales are meant to be told on a full stomach, and I daresay you could use a good meal,” Nilme interjected.

At the mention of food, John’s stomach began to growl and he began to realize he was feeling a little shaky from hunger. After all, he had not eaten since breakfast the previous day. Linwen produced a quite serviceable crutch and, with help from the Elves, John hobbled into the house.

The interior of the house was as comfortable and inviting as the outside. The doorway that connected the patio to the house led to a kind of sitting room or study. Deep overstuffed armchairs were gathered about an inviting stone fireplace while bookshelves and a writing desk lined the walls. A seascape painting occupied the wall above the fireplace that included sailing ships of a kind John had never seen before. They were reminiscent of Viking longboats but much more graceful and beautiful. And instead of the prow being fashioned to look like a dragon or gargoyle, these mimicked swans. On another wall hung a painting of a medieval battle scene; with one army of people who appeared like Nilme, but who appeared filled with a terrible rage and the other army of… he was not sure what. They did not appear quite human. Indeed, they appeared almost like gargoyles or something like a child would have nightmares about. It appeared in the painting that the army of people that resembled Nilme and Linwen was decisively beating these…beings.

The Elves deposited John in one of the armchairs and propped his leg on an ottoman. Nilme began to build a fire in the hearth to ward of the evening chill while Linwen retreated to the kitchen. “Nilme, I really appreciate everything you two are doing for me,” John said as the Elf worked. “I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know what happened to me. This place doesn’t look like any place I know. Not in person, not in books, not on TV. Not knowing what’s going on scares me and if I sound like a jerk, that’s the reason. But I am thankful that you two are being so nice to me.”

“I can see you are uncertain, and that frightens you,” Nilme responded. “But I think after we break bread together and talk fully and freely, we will understand each other better.”

Nilme went back to building the fire without saying anything more. John looked at the books lining the shelves and dully shook his head as he realized that the print on all of their spines were in the same alien hieroglyphs he saw on the map the Elf showed him.

Soon a cheerful blaze was crackling in the fireplace and candles were lit. At about the time Nilme finished his work, Linwen returned to the study carrying platters of cold meats, cheese, bread, butter, salad and pitchers of a mead-like drink. John ate and drank with relish and he had to try pretty hard not to wolf his food, but eventually he had his fill. Between the full stomach, warm fire, the mead and the aromatic wrappings around his knee, he was now feeling very relaxed and some of the anxiety had ebbed.

But despite feeling better and despite Linwen’s earlier reassurance, he still semi-believed he had drowned the previous night. He had a feeling that he entered some kind of afterlife and that Linwen and Nilme were his guardian angels perhaps? Or maybe they will judge him, like Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates? As he drained his second goblet of mead, he decided to tell them everything about him.

So he told them the story of his life as a confessional. He described his childhood as the youngest son in a large family growing up in the suburbs of New York. He talked about his coming of age, his enlistment in the U.S. Navy after high school, going to college and his career. He talked about the times where he behaved badly: The time when he was an altar boy and he stole a bottle of communion wine and used it to get drunk with a buddy in the church parking lot. The times when he cheated on exams. The time he hit on his best friend’s girlfriend in college. He confessed a short temper, a tendency to judge and a lack of charity as his biggest personality flaws. He talked about his fiancée and how it was a marriage of convenience and a strategic alliance: He was marrying into one of the oldest families on the Gulf Coast and she was marrying an upwardly mobile professional in a lucrative and powerful business.

And then he described the events that brought him to these strange shores. The fishing trip, the unexplained break-down of the boats’ engines and instruments, the sudden storm, the boat being swamped and his separation from his companions, floating alone through the night, the appearance of the stars and the never-before-seen constellation in the northern sky, the strange yet majestic watch-tower he saw from off-shore and finally his landing on the beach.

As he talked, he made frequent allusions to the world he knew. He described suburban life with its’ tract housing, shopping malls, highways and automobiles. He talked about life in the military and his service on a destroyer. He described the cities and the countryside of the eastern United States where he lived or visited. He talked about his job as a construction engineer on a billion dollar oil refinery.

The fire had burned down to embers by the time he finished. When he brought his hosts up to the point where they rescued him on the beach, his voice was hoarse. Silence filled the room. He poured himself another goblet of mead, took a long drink, looked at the two Elves and asked in a nervous voice, “Well, what’s to happen to me? Did I lead a good enough life to be let in?”
 

chrysophalax

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The two Elves exchanged glances as John looked at them, concern and anxiety in every line of his body. Nilme moved to sit beside him. "John, we are not here to judge you. You have not gone to Mandos, if indeed your kind can enter therein. You are in Beleriand which lies in Middle Earth. The sea is Belegaer which glitters in the dying rays of the sun. I beg you, calm yourself. You have suffered much and rest is what you need."

Linwen rose soundlessly, vanishing into the darkening house as Nilme assisted John to his feet. "Come, mellon. Sleep yet awhile. We will watch over you, you need have no fear. Once you have rested, I will do all I can to help you find your way." John nodded wearily as he slowly made his way through Linwen's home. Even in his current state of exhaustion, he couldn't help but appreciate the simple touches of beauty throughtout the small abode. Here a wind-chime of shells, bits of horn and wood tinkled, moved by the light evening breeze...and there, a harp-like instrument leaned in the corner. He sighed as they entered a small sleeping area at the back of the house. Soothing candlelight and a sleeping pallet piled with furs almost made his eyes drift shut of their own accord and he swayed where he stood.

Nilme's arm steadied him and the Elves made him comfortable as he gingerly lowered himself onto the pallet. His mind wanted, needed to know more, needed to find the answers to all his questions and he struggled briefly to stay awake, the thought occurring to him that he was being entirely too trusting. At Linwen's urging, Nilme left the room and she spoke to John softly, setting a pitcher of cool water and a cup on the table beside his bed. Weariness took him at last and he drifted, listening as the gentle sound of the harp came to his ears, a sound he found oddly comforting.

Linwen watched John's eyes close in sleep, then left the room to join Nilme as he sat near her hearth, his fingers deftly plucking the strings of her instrument. He greeted her with a smile as she sat across from him. "Tell me what you're thinking, my lady."
 

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Concern etched the features of the fair elf as she drew near to Nilme. She was consumed by the appearance of 'John.' He was unlike any Linwen had met before, few though they had been. This man, while he resembled the Edain in body, seem foreign in spirit. They were strong, innocent and at peace with themselves. John, in contrast, was deeply supicious, agitated and self-conscious.

"Tell me what you're thinking, my lady." Nilme's voice broke through her reverie.

Linwen kneeled down, leaning lightly upon a large cusion and repeated her thoughts. Then her face broke into a smile as she added, "Though I cannot say I would feel differently were I him." Linwen's musical laughter stole out softly in the darkening room. Oustide she could see the brilliant stars, pinpricks in the vastness of the heavens, cast faint shadows upon the earth with their frosty light.

"His body is weary," Nilme said, "Perhaps after a night of rest, he will see things differently."

The healer nodded. "I believe he may have been soothed by your skill with the harp," Linwen hesitated a moment before continuing. "Perhaps you have soothed others, sir minstrel? Your master, Eöl, it is rumored, was troubled in spirit. Mayhap it is that you were destined to aid this man.
"I can heal his body, but his mind is beyond my skill as a healer. Herbs and salves can only do so much," she added wistfully. "But my home is his, as long as you stay."
 

chrysophalax

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Nilme smiled wanly as he set aside the harp. He had cringed inwardly at the mention of Eol's name, for he would have given everything to be able to soothe his master's troubled, restless spirit. However, he also knew that without it, Eol would never have crafted such fine weapons, pouring into them his essence, much as Feanor had in his own handiwork. He raised his head and looked toward the door to the room where John lay now in fitful sleep.

"Your words are kind, Linwen, and I thank you for them, but neither healer nor minstrel am I. As my name implies, I am faithful to those whom I trust." With a sigh, he looked away...Trust, are there any I trust now? "But I will help him as I may. It would be cruelty not to." He slid his eyes to look at her as a thought occurred to him. "He may stay as long as I remain? Why is that, Lady? I know you have sheltered many under your roof that needed succour for a time. My presence has never been a requirement before....or does his strangeness frighten you?" He shifted forward on his seat to look at her more closely and touched her hand. "I detect no evil in him, no more so than lies in any one of us. He is merely...alone."

Again a chord sounded deep within him as he spoke and he felt a sudden kinship with John. They were both lost, displaced, though under entirely different circumstances.
 

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The Healer's curse...

The almost imperceptible blanch in Nilme's expression did not escape the notice of Linwen. His pain was summed up in one word- "Alone." It hung like a vapor in the stillness, darkening her sight and numbing her; numbed even to the warmth of Nilme's hand upon her own.
The healer was suddenly struck by the irony of her calling. To have the gift of restoring a body, but not a spirit. Linwen had a special love for all things living and a love for natural beauty. It showed in all she did. Her home was a reflection of herself. Again she was forced to recognize the sadness that tainted everything she did. The ability to restore in body only... That was her grief.

The silence grew stifling as Linwen flushed with shame and lowered her gaze. Nilme still awaited answers to his questions. Why did she ask her friend to stay? Was she so disquieted by the appearance of the stranger that she would fear to be alone with him?
Nilme's words echoed faintly in her memory, No evil in him... The fire snapped and popped, casting dancing shadows upon their faces as Linwen replied in a soft voice.
"Though I must confess a certain unease in the presence of the Edain, the source of my concern has little to do with himself. I wonder what is to happen to him. Those who dwell under my roof come only for a time. They seek healing and rest, and when they have found it, they go.
"It shall be no different with this one. I do not think he would remain long content in my home. Where then would he go? What would he do? I do not foresee him finding his home by returning over the sea.
"You know that I rarely travel abroad. I would be of little help to even point him in the right direction!"

Suddenly, Linwen laughed at the humor of it all. Her own self-pity that now seemed so distant and the strangeness of John, so far from everything he had ever known (What he must be thinking!) struck her as amusing. The darkness lifted from her sight and she again felt warmth and life in her blood. She felt merry and as she smiled she said, "Give me my harp, my friend..."
 
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