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Stranger in a Strange Land

chrysophalax

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Distractedly, Nilme caught up the harp and handed it to Linwen, who began tuning it to suit her higher voice. He then rose and wandered back toward the bedroom where John lay sleeping. Soon, a sound of soft music filled the small cottage, causing Nilme to smile briefly. Never at ease, ever eager to set his feet to new pathways, he leaned against the opening to where the man lay sleeping and wondered what would come of this chance rescue.

John's chest rose and fell slowly, sleeping the sleep of the totally exhausted. Having satisfied himself that the man was well, Nilme walked back through the main area of the cottage and out into the night. A light breeze lifted his hair, making it waft like a banner behind him. Stars shone above him. Every night he sang a song of remembrance to them, the first light to greet the eyes of the Elves upon waking in the East. As he sang, his heart was gladdened to hear that Linwen's ear had caught his music and had quickly adapted her playing to compliment him. He felt certain that the stars turning above him delighted not in his song as much as he reveled in their beauty, but he cared not, as long as he able to tell them.

A sudden melancholy crept into the song as his thoughts turned again to John. How would he, Nilme, react were he to find himself washed ashore in a land, in a time he had no reckoning of? The words faltered and died on his lips as the enormity of the man's situation sank in. What if there is no returning for him? What if he is an exile here, separated from his kin, from everything he has ever known...how will he live with that knowledge? Icy fingers of fate closed about him and he shivered, though the wind held no chill.

Dawn would find him gazing out across the water from the cliff's edge, wondering why Ulmo had chosen him to guide this stranger from a land far stranger than his own.
 

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That was probably the soundest and deepest night’s sleep John Bates had ever experienced. It was the kind of dreamless sleep where it seemed he had closed his eyes for a brief moment when in fact many hours passed. But his waking was gradual. First he was aware that he was awake while his eyes were still shut. He listened to the distant murmur of the surf, a gentle breeze whispering in the trees outside and blowing through an open window, the song of meadowlarks, the tinkle of wind chimes. He smelled the fresh sea air enhanced by a subtle scent of blossoms. He felt the softness of the bed linens under his body.

At first he thought he was back in Bermuda in the bedroom of the beach house he had rented with his fiancée Jennifer. But then he opened his eyes and saw the unfamiliar surroundings. He was in a small bedroom with wood paneled walls, a wooden beamed ceiling and candle sconces on the walls. A small wardrobe and writing table stood against one wall. The open window looked inland into a primeval forest. At that moment he noticed the dull throb in his right knee, looked down and saw the cloth wrappings. Then the memory of the last two days flooded back to him. “Idiot!” he muttered to himself when he recalled the part where he stated to his rescuers his belief that he had died. The ache from his knee, the sting from his sunburn and other assorted minor hurts from his being shipwrecked told him pretty clearly he had not left his body… yet.

He got to his feet and found, if he was careful, that he could put weight on his injured leg. He gingerly walked to the window and took in his surroundings. He studied the trees that were for the most part recognizable varieties but they were enormous, as if they were hundreds of years old. Yet they had a vibrancy, as if each one of them had been dosed with Miracle Grow each year of their existence, that was not found in any forest he had ever known. It was becoming clear to him that this place was like no place he knew on God’s green earth. Then he thought about his hosts, Nilme and Linwen, and his brow knitted further in concentration. They too were different. Like the trees, they seemed to him youthfully vibrant yet old and wizened at the same time. “Elves?” he asked himself. The term conjured ridiculous images of Tinker Bell and Santa’s helpers. These people were no more like that than he was, but they had an otherworldly quality he could not put his finger on.

Turning his mind back to figuring out where he was, he recalled the history of unexplained disappearances on the seas west and south of Bermuda, of planes and ships that vanish without a trace, of compasses and other navigation equipment going haywire, of whales and migrating fish losing their sense of direction. There were hypotheses that The Bermuda Triangle was some kind of portal to another world or another time. Was that what happened to him and his fishing boat? Given the only other alternatives he could think of were death and insanity, this was becoming a more palatable option.

He turned from the window, crossed the room and opened the door leading from his bedroom to the rest of the cottage. Other than the tinkle of the wind chime all was quiet. He made his way down a short corridor to the kitchen where he found Nilme seated at the table reading a book in the same alien script he noticed last night in the study.

“Hey there,” John said in friendly greeting as he sat down. “I’m feeling a lot better now, but I would kill for a strong cup of coffee. Does Linwen have any?”
 

chrysophalax

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An elegant eyebrow arched upward as Nilme glanced up at John next to him. "Coffee?" John lowered himself carefully onto the bench across from Nilme. "You know...coffee. A drink brewed from coffee beans grown in South...nevermind, forget it." He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying not to show his impatience with the situation. No coffee...perfect!

"Would there be breakfast then?" he asked hopefully. Glad that John was up and walking again, Nilme set aside the book and went to the window under which the table sat and spoke rapidly to someone outside whom John suspected was Linwen. His suspicions were confirmed as she entered the cottage through the back entryway a few moments later, bearing a basket brimming with fruit and what looked like a second cousin to the tomato.

Her face was flushed, her smile brilliant as she greeted both of them, Nilme with a chaste kiss on the cheek and John with a light pat on the shoulder. John grinned at her, his mouth beginning to water as the smell of fresh berries reached his nostrils. Nilme had gone to fetch bowls, mugs and a pitcher of some kind of fruit juice, all of which he brought to the table on a large wooden tray. John sat back as he watched the Elves, marvelling at their grace as they wove back and forth past each other in such a small space without spilling or dropping anything.

His thoughts began to drift to intimate dinners he and Jennifer had made together, brushing against each other, teasing and whispering...No! He closed his eyes briefly. It would do no good to think along those lines now...He opened his eyes to see two concerned faces looking back at him. He drew a steadying breath, then reached for a mug, which Nilme filled with the ruby-coloured liquid. John sniffed it cautiously, then sipped it. It's taste was tart and sweet at once and before he knew it, he was holding out his mug for more.

A small tray of honey-cakes caught John's attention as Nilme and Linwen served him fruit from the basket before serving each other. Cakes soon followed juice, then berries that tasted vaguely like raspberries. "I'm pleased to see your appetite restored. You mend quickly!" John grinned at her as she turned to Nilme and tapped him on the arm. "And you...you were outside on the cliff brooding all night. Does something trouble you, mellon-nin?"

Nilme carefully cleared his throat. "Nay, Linwen...nothing. I was...watching the stars." John hadn't risen swiftly up the corporate ladder without knowing something about character and Nilme's words rang false to him. What was the Elf hiding?
 

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John watched the two Elves with quiet admiration as they worked together in the kitchen. They moved together as if each knew the next move of the other ahead of time, or as if their motions were choreographed. “Either they’ve been living together for decades or they can read each other’s minds,” he thought to himself. This scene of domestic tranquility made him recall Jennifer, his parents, his brothers and sisters, and he closed his eyes, giving in for a moment to a feeling of helplessness, that he would never see his home or the people he loved ever again.

When he opened his eyes and saw his hosts watching him with curious expressions, he blushed, feeling rather embarrassed. He owed his life to these people and they were showing him such kindness, he did not want to seem difficult or ungrateful.

The breakfast of delicious but somewhat alien fruits and cakes allowed him to bring his mind to the current situation. If he could learn more about the surrounding area, maybe he would find a clue or a reference to the world he knew. When Nilme spoke about watching the stars last night, an idea came into John’s head. “Are you interested in Astronomy?” he asked. So far, the night sky was one of the few things that were common between this place and the world he knew.

“As-tron-o-my”, Nilme sounded out the word slowly. Obviously, the term was not known to the Elf. “You know,” John pressed. “The study of the heavens, the stars, the cosmos. It’s a bit of a hobby of mine. I’ve always enjoyed the night sky and I know the basic constellations. The other night when I was floating out there,” he jutted his chin in the direction of the ocean, “I had a lot of time to stare at the sky. Where I live, the sky is the same as here except for two things. For one thing, I’ve never seen the stars so bright! Now I’ve spent time at sea and in the country where no light from nearby towns would dim them but here they are so bright, you can practically read by their light. And second, there are seven particularly bright stars in the northern sky that are in the shape of an arc, or a sickle maybe. I’ve never seen that constellation before. Do you have any idea what might explain those things?

“Also, I saw the most amazing structure yesterday morning as I was reaching land. It was a tower of some sort or a maybe monument, located a few miles south of here high on a headland and it has a commanding view of the ocean on three sides. It’s huge, at least 500 feet tall and based on the stonework and styling, it should be ancient but it looks like it was built just a short time ago. Either that or it's been restored. Who built it, and what purpose does it serve, and how long has it been there?”
 

chrysophalax

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Glad to have escaped any enquiries into his comments, Nilme spoke up quickly. "It gladdens my heart to know you enjoy the lights of Varda as well. The sign you see in the night sky is the Sickle of Varda, set there as a warning to Melkor, he of evil name. We speak of him with hatred for he it was that...along with Ungoliant, a foul spirit in spider-form, drained the light of the Two Trees, so it has been said...though I was never blessed to have seen them.

Linwen's face took on a look of sorrow at the mention of the Trees and Nilme reached out and took her hand. "Forgive me, Linwen, I should never have spoken thus in such a peaceful dwelling as this." He turned again to John. "I see that I speak of that which you have no understanding, forgive me once more. You are...a new experience for me. I will attempt to explain more fully."

Nilme leaned across the rough-hewn table ashe began to speak in earnest. "Varda is one of the Valar, as is Melkor. There are many Valar, all of which took part in the Music which sang everything into being...even myself. I am among those who first beheld the stars and I have always loved them. Linwen was born to this world, here on Arda, whereas I have no sire save the Music. Many have been the battles Valar have fought amongst themselves...and death has even touched some few of us as well. You see...we are deathless, John. We cannot die, save by sorrow or some mortal hurt. You Edain have been given what some whave called a gift, the gift of Death. I myself wish to never discover this gift of your people."

His face grew dark and he feared that he would make the others uncomfortable as well. " No story-teller am I, for my thoughts drift and have no reason. It has been far too long since I have been in the company of others." He sighed. "I...have neglected my friends. I should go and see to them. They sometimes become restive if I become distracted by other things." He grinned for a moment. "They are much like younglings at times. Linwen...please, tell John of the tower. I will return soon." The Elf left quickly and they heard a piercing whistle outside as he called the falcons to him. John and Linwen were left looking at one other awkwardly, uncertain what had darkened Nilme's mood yet again.
 

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Linwen was as intrigued by John as he was of she and Nilme. Even while she was preparing breakfast, she could hardly take her eyes off him. The initial shock had worn off, along with her instinct to comfort and care for. In its place there was an almost childish excitement.
So strange, so foreign, so... Different.

The feeling was very similar to when she was small. Everything was new and wonderful. Her blush escaped the notice of her guests as she somehow channeled that energy into her role as hostess. The expression she wore as she seated herself at the table was a mask of cool composure.
The healer expressed her gladness that her ward was mending well. He had a goodly appetite! She briefly wondered if she had prepared enough. Her thoughts then turned to her other visitor.

Nilme had always been quiet, but his mood was darker than it had been for any of his other stays. Linwen felt that John had something to do with it. She wondered again what the future might hold for these two. She felt strongly that they had been fated to meet and, at least for a time, journey together.
Linwen was saddened that Nilme did not trust her enough to confide his disquiet, but she was not offended either. Time heals all wounds, she thought, but whether it heals well or ill...

When Nilme and John discovered they had simliar interests, the lady smiled. John asked many questions and Nilme would answer, but soon his disposition shifted like the wind and he was making his excuses and retreating from their presence. John watched the tall elf until he turned a corner and was lost to sight.

"'They are much like younglings?'" he repeated to Linwen with a look of curiosity. "What was he talking about?"

"Nilme finds pleasure in many things. The heavens, as you know, weaponry and falconing. He caught a pair of fledglings many years ago and their descendants belong to him still. They keep him company in his travels."

"A man of many talents, huh?" John asked.

"Indeed," Linwen replied with a brief smile. Her expression became somber again as she continued, "Now, your other questions about the tower. It was built by the Lords Finrod and Cirdan. It was they that built the havens of Brithombar, which lies nigh to the south on the river Brithon, and also Eglarest. The name of the tower is Barad Nimras, Tower of the White Horn. It watches the sea to the West, a sentinel against our enemy. Nilme has told you of the Valar and the one named Melkor," Linwen shuddered before she was able to continue. "You cannot know how much horror even the mention of his name inspires. His deeds are great and terrible. When the elves dwelt under the stars, without light of sun or moon, we lived in fear of his malice. Many are the stories of the loss of a loved one to the deep darkness. We did not know what became of them until they returned, broken by cruelty in body and spirit, not knowing who they were.
"Blinded by pain, fear and hatred, they devastated everything beautiful. They became slaves to his will, hating even their own kind. I cannot even imagine the-" Linwen choked on a sob before she could finish.

John lowered his eyes, shocked and embarrassed. He was amazed at the story she wove for him. This was their history! Something John would have imagined in a horror film back home was what they lived with. He felt clumsy with his knee raised and wrapped heavily in poultices. He wished he could comfort the distraught elf, but some hacked sense of prudence prevented him.

"I- I'm sorry," he muttered lamely.

Linwen shook her head, then looked at him and smiled. "No. I am sorry. I shouldn't have troubled you, of all people, with my own fears and sadnesses. I am sorry."

John cleared his throat, trying to fill the heavy silence. "What, um, what purpose did you say it served and how long has it stood?"

"It is a sentinel against our Enemy," Linwen repeated, more brisquely this time, "I do not know how best to tell you how long it has stood. I have heard that men reckon time far differenly than the elves. I suppose that you would best understand it to be nigh on two hundred years of men."
 

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John was concerned that he said something to cause Nilme’s abrupt exit. “I’m sorry,” he told Linwen after the other Elf departed. “I didn’t mean to touch a nerve.”

“Nay,” Linwen replied soothingly. “Your words did not offend. But your presence here is as puzzling to us as it must be to you. Still, Nilme has been preoccupied of late.” This last part she murmured, almost to herself. Something was bothering her longtime companion and she worried for him.

Brightening, she encouraged her guest to help himself to more breakfast and then announced that the wrappings on his knee needed to be changed. As she set about preparing the warm aromatic liquid that aided the healing, John decided to broach what has tying his brain in knots. He had to get off his chest the sheer incredibility of this entire situation.

Nilme’s talk of being ‘among those who first beheld the stars’, and of being “deathless” was still too much to fit into John’s perception of reality. Then there was Nilme’s description of these ‘Valar’. They sounded to John like gods of some sort, but gods that lived in a physical place, in this world, and that one could go visit them.

“Linwen,” he began earnestly as she started to place fresh wrappings on his knee. “You need to know that, where I come from, there are no such thing as Valar, and there are no such thing as Elves, or Quendi. And I suspect there are other things here that do not exist in my world. Yes, the term Elves exists, but they are known to me and my people as nothing more than myths, fantasies, the stuff of children’s stories. As for these Valar, they also do not exist where I come from. Depending on how we are raised, we have our own beliefs regarding gods or, for most people, a single God. But where I’m from, the only sentient beings that exist are what you call Edain.

“If you are telling the truth, and I have not completely lost my mind, then I must be in a fundamentally different place…or time I guess.”

He paused a moment then continued, “You mentioned the names of those Lords who built that tower I saw, Finrod and Cirdan. Who are the current rulers or Lords in this area? Maybe they traveled throughout what you know your world to be. Maybe they know enough to, I dunno, help me get back home or at least explain how I got here.
 

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Now it was Linwen's turn to be confused and bewildered. As she wiped her hands on a linen cloth, she tried to understand exactly what John wanted to know. To her surprise, she found it was a challenge to explain the things she had always known. Her reality was so far removed from his... Where to begin?

"I believe you to be sound in the mind," Linwen assured him, "Strangely displaced in body perhaps, but not deranged. Quite simply, neither Nilme nor I can find the words to explain to you just how different your world is from ours.

"The Falas, or coasts," she said deliberately, "Belong to Cirdan. Finrod has lent him aid many times in the past. They rule their lands in watchful peace and will do so until this world ends. The elves are deathless, John. Perhaps you do not fully grasp the meaning of that. There are those, like Nilme, who have been alive longer than time has been counted."

In the contemplative silence that followed, one of Nilme's falcons called to the other as they soared lazily in the clear sky overhead. The sound faded into the incessant rush of the waves, the cool breeze blowing in from the vast sea and the lonely cry of a seagull.

"Our worlds may be almost completely different," John said, "But some things seem to be the same no matter where you go. The ocean, pesky birds on the beach, and-"

"And dishes that need washing, I'm sure!" Linwen said, laughing softly. "Come, we can talk more as I clear the table.
"If it truly is your wish," she continued while gathering the empty bowls, "I think that we can arrange for you to take a journey to the city of Brithombar. It may be that you must continue on to Eglarest to find Cirdan. Perhaps then you will come closer to finding the answers you seek.”
 

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A week passed before John’s leg was healed sufficiently to make the journey to Elgarest. During this time, the two Elves started to understand just how alien their guest was to them, even for an Edain. Everyday activities would lead to a discussion that would leave Linwen and Nilme shaking their heads in wonder or dismay. One such exchange took place as Nilme returned from a morning of hunting. John was exploring the forest surrounding Linwen’s house, testing how far he could push his knee without re-injuring it.

“You look like a passable Teleri wearing my old cloak but you need to shave. And you make more noise in the forest than an entire company on parade!” Nilme laughed.

John was startleded so badly he jumped. The Elf had come up behind him completely silent. “God, you scared me,” he exclaimed after hurling a few epithets. But it was all in good nature and soon the two were laughing and joking.

Nilme was holding a wild turkey in one hand and his bow and quiver were slung over his other shoulder. “I see you bow hunt,” John stated, obviously impressed.

“Of course,” Nilme replied. “How else would I shoot game like this?”

“Well, don’t you have a shotgun?”

“What is ‘shot-gun’?”

John blinked stupidly for a moment, not comprehending that someion who can live off the land does not know what a shotgun is. “You know, like a rifle?” Nilme shook his head. “Firearms?” Nothing. “Gunpowder?” Still nothing.

So John proceeded to explain the operating principles of firearms, of their beginnings during renaissance times and how they evolved over the centuries, of how common they are and how armies have used them exclusively to fight wars.

When he finished, Nilme was staring at him with a mixture of amazement and fear. “These weapons that hurl projectiles by fire of which you speak, they sound like some evil conjured by Morgoth!”

“I don’t know about this ‘Morgoth’ fellow,” John said. “Gunpowder came to us from the Chinese and we simply built on that to invent these weapons and then refine and advance them over the generations.”
 

chrysophalax

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Shuddering at the thought of such destruction, Nilme shook his head, trying to clear the images conjured in his mind by John's words. "How can you live in such a place? Life to we, the Eldar, is eternal, sacred. This...gunpowder, these weapons of which you speak could steal the lives of many at a single stroke." The implications of what John had said filled him with sadness and horror. He slung the turkey over his shoulder and began to head back to Linwen's cottage, moving slowly so that John could keep up.

"You heal swiftly, my friend. Perhaps it is time to satisfy some of your curiosity. Would you wish to visit Cirdan?" John's footsteps faltered. Nilme turned to glance at him as a look of puzzlement spread across John's face. "Cirdan? Linwen told me about him. Shouldn't he be dead?" Nilme grinned, then chuckled. "Cirdan and I are the same age, John...we have been on Arda many generations of the Edain. Indeed...I know not truly how old I am by your standards. However, I do know that if you wish to learn more of my people...and perhaps, your own, I ask you to come with me."

In companionable silence, they returned to Linwen's cottage and as she prepared it, Nilme spoke further of his decision to move on. "If you can ride, we will travel overland to Eglarest. There you will meet others like myself and Cirdan, who is counted wise among us. As you sleep, I will travel to an acquaintance of mine. He owes me a debt and I will ask him to repay me by lending me his horse. If you can manage, you will ride. If not, we can go double. Are you able?"
 
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“I would very much like to go to this place ‘Eglaraest’”, John told Nilme as the three of them prepared dinner. John knew his way around a kitchen and he was eager to repay some of the kindness his hosts have shown him over the past week. He had prepared an herbed stuffing for the bird and a dry rub of seasonings. A delicious aroma filled Linwen’s cottage as the turkey slowly roasted in the kitchen hearth.

Despite the camaraderie of preparing a meal together, John sensed a distance had developed between him and the Elves since he told them of the nature of warfare and their weapons. The Elves were still pleasant but they were more reserved, almost fearful, in how they addressed him. He tried to address the matter as they took their supper. They were seated around a small table on the lawn beside the cottage beneath the shade of a gigantic oak, glimpses of the western sea’s horizon could be seen through the trees.

“I’ve told you about some of the more unpleasant aspects of my people,” he began, not sure how to address such a sprawling topic as human nature. “We have fought many horrendous wars throughout our history; wars that I think would make your ‘Battle Under Stars’ and your ‘Glorious Battle’ look pretty tame. But you need to know that is not all what we ‘Edain’ (as you refer to us) are about. We create lovely works of art, music and literature. We love our children more than ourselves, we respect our parents and elders, and for every act of hate and cruelty, there is an act of love and kindness. For every wicked tyrant there are selfless statesmen who place the welfare of their people over his own.

“As for me, I’ve known love and hate, anger and joy and sadness. I’ve been generous and stingy, forgiving and ruthless, loving and vindictive. I try to be a good person and treat others the way I would like to be treated, but it’s not always easy, or it’s easy to forget. Most of my people are the same way. So I hope I haven’t painted an overly evil picture.”

John refilled his cup with wine before continuing. “So I hope you are still willing to take me to see your leader Cirdan. At least I can be led to where other ‘Edain’ dwell. But I must warn you. I’ve been on a horse only once before. If I need to go anywhere, I just hop in…my…car…”.

He rubbed his forehead in resignation as his last statement drew yet another look of complete bafflement from his hosts.
 

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During a hushed discussion with Nilme, Linwen again began to feel apprehensive about allowing John to stay under her roof. Of all things the elves feared, treachery was the worst. John had described his people as fickle and prone to fits of passionate rage. Everything that loved order and peace rebelled in the healer's mind. But... She glanced at the man wrestling off a pair of boots that she had found that fit him. When he noticed her looking at him, he smiled and gave a nervous chuckle. I cannot believe they are all alike, she thought, smiling in return.

Even so, the evening meal was prepared and eaten in somewhat strained silence. Despite her fears, Linwen gave credit where credit was due. John's skill as a cook was worthy of admiration.

Linwen had grown more accustomed to the men lodging with her, so she was not afraid of silence. She finally felt free to listen and consider the picture the Edain before her sketched of his people. Not all alike... So very diverse. Indeed, we are not as different as we appear, I think. But the healer's confusion was compounded yet again when John mentioned 'his car.'

Of course, she thought with a smile as John sighed in frustration, It would be far less entertaining if we had everything in common.

Quickly hoping to ease the discomfort of the situation, Linwen brought the conversation around again.
"I have a horse you can ride, John," she said, touching his hand, "She is quite well behaved. Nilme can show you how to mount and hold your seat tomorrow while I pack satchels for your journey."

"Thank you, Linwen," Nilme said with a curt nod, "Two days."

*****
Later that evening, as the fire burned down to glowing, red embers, Linwen sat playing her instrument. She had tied herself so completely to the music that she didn't hear John leave his room and seat himself beside her. When she suddenly became aware of his presence, her hands faltered and the strings sounded dischordant. Promptly, she placed her palms flat on the strings to cease the noise.
"You surprised me," she said softly. Her eyes bore a hint of accusation.
"I didn't mean to," he replied while rising to his feet, "I got up for some water." He showed her his cup as evidence.
"Of course," she murmured, "Good night."
"Good night."
"John?"
Obligingly he halted and turned to face her, but she was distracted and silent. "Yes?" he prompted.
Still gazing at the distant images in her mind she continued, "I believe you shall find what you seek. Be willing to learn along the way. You often discover truth in surprising places."
When it became obvious she would say no more, John returned to his bed. Deep, soothing sleep enveloped him as the harp, played by unseen hands, filled his dreams.​
 

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The next few days saw John and Nilme preparing for a long journey. Bedrolls, extra clothing, food, skins filled with clear water, tools and other supplies sufficient for a journey of many days were gathered and packed for travel by horseback. John was given the same kind of tunic and breeches of his hosts so that he now appeared like them, except for the thick growth of dark brown beard that had been accumulating.

“It is a pleasant journey,” Nilme told him while they were packing food into their rucksacks. “The terrain is gentle, the forest is kind and well stocked with game and things to forage. And with the Siege, evil things hardly ever enter these lands. Still, it is customary to be armed while traveling so I would rest assured if you carried this.”

The Elf presented a long curved hunting knife that could easily kill a man if wielded properly. It was sheathed in a black leather scabbard. John gently pulled the knife from the scabbard and saw his reflection in the polished blade. It was obvious it was sharp enough to slice a silk handkerchief tossed in the air. He looked at it dubiously and said, “I don’t know how to use this. Once I was in a fistfight in a bar with some jerk that tried to hit on my girlfriend but I don’t know the first thing about fighting with weapons. And what ‘evil things’ are you talking about?”

“Don’t worry. I will teach you,” Nilme reassured him. “And none of Morgoth’s creatures has been sited in this forest for decades.” John said nothing more but these references to ‘evil things’, ‘creatures’ and a siege bothered him. There will need to be more discussion of this, he promised himself.

The day the two friends would set out dawned cool and overcast. Nilme had his own mount but Linwen ‘gave’ her own horse for John’s use. “I can’t accept this,” he protested. “Nonsense,” she replied. “I am lending her to you. She will protect you and keep you on the best paths. Her name is Rana, after the Moon.” Linwen’s mount was a beautiful jet-black mare that in a later age would be known as a mearas. The horse looked at John with a mixture of contempt and resignation, as if saying ‘I am doing this for my mistress’ sake, and you have no idea what a gift you have been given’. He mounted with considerable ineptitude, barely managing to not fall off. “You realize I don’t know a thing about horseback riding, don’t you?” he said. “Yes I do, and so does she,” she replied. “You are in good hands”.

Nilme was already mounted and trying his best not to laugh at the Man’s clumsiness. John thanked his host profusely: “You saved my life and have given me so much. How can I repay you?” “There is nothing to repay,” she replied. “I only pray that the Valar guide you and help you find the answers to your questions. Fare well wherever you fare!”

Linwen raised her hand in farewell, her silvery gray eyes looking on him with reassurance and fellowship. John could not help but feel a little in love with her at that moment. With that, the two turned their mounts and rode off onto the forest path.

They will travel in an easterly direction, cutting across the cape that separates the two bays that contain the cities of Brithombar and Eglarest
 
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Mirelena

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Linwen watched her guests until they disappeared over the crest of a hill. Silently she returned to the house. A strange stillness lay within the healer's dwelling.
A sweet song suddenly filled the hall. A lark had alighted outside a window and begun singing with all its might. Seizing a berry basket, Linwen smiled and followed the sound.
Her friends would be all right. For now, she must prepare for their return...
 

baragund

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A path paved with green grass and wide enough for the two companions to ride abreast wound through the forest. Oak, beech, hickory, chestnut and other hardwoods formed a cathedral-like canopy yet the gray sky peeked through here and there. An under story of dogwood, rhododendron, laurel and other varieties gave the forest a lush and vibrant feel yet somehow stopped short of becoming tangled or overgrown. The forest floor was covered with various ferns, grasses, and ivies along with a soft carpet of last year’s leaves and a generous sprinkling of various berries, nuts and other edible plants. Here and there bubbling streams of cool clear water crossed their path. There was an air of wholesomeness and well being in the forest that led one to think that a small child could wander alone at will without the slightest danger or the risk of going hungry.

They spent the morning riding at a gentle walk, stopping at streams to water the horses and allow them to graze. The conversation was pleasant with John describing various aspects of the workaday life he came from and Nilme doing the same. Around midday, the path they had been following joined a larger and more improved road. “This road joins the tower of Barad Nimras with the cities of Brithombar and Eglarest,” Nilme explained. “We will continue east but soon we will come to a fork with the left fork bending north toward Brithombar. We will meet more folk on this road. But first, let us take our midday meal.”

They stopped about a quarter mile further east where the larger road crossed a good-sized stream with a gracefully arched bridge of stone. A floodplain meadow of grass and clover lay next to the road and here they allowed their mounts to graze and drink at will while they ate a leisurely lunch of cold meats, flatbread and dried fruit. As they ate and lounged in the meadow, John broached the subject that troubled him that morning:

“Nilme, this morning you made reference to ‘Morgoth’s creatures’ and ‘evil things’. You also mentioned a siege. Despite the peaceful setting we are in, it sounds like you are at war, and your enemy isn’t exactly, well, normal. Funny, but to listen to you talk, it kind of sounds like they’re not even human! Isn’t that funny?” John laughed at his last remark but it was a little forced.

“So who is this enemy? What does he want? What’s the purpose of this siege and is it close to where we are? Why not make peace with him instead?”
 

Gúthwinë

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Cadmiel stumbled along the hill, he had been observing the two closely since they had appeared from the hill. Yet he was assured that they were peaceful creatures, The half-wild elf swung from the branches of a chestnut tree and spoke to them though out of sight. "Who are you?" His voice boomed, he drew his bow and put a Bodkin arrow to the string. " Friend or foe?" He silently shifted from one tree to another, he was gazing at them, trying to figure out their weaknesses. He kept concentration, so that they would not make any sudden movements.
 

Mirelena

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“It is impossible,” Nilme replied simply. He began to pack up the provisions and indicated that John should follow suit. After slinging his saddle bags over his horse’s back, he silently helped his companion mount.

“Is that it, then?” John asked. He sounded perturbed as he continued, “Don’t you have to at least try before you can rule out a diplomatic solution?”

“He will not be respond to diplomacy, John. Morgoth is a dark tyrant who wishes to break all to his service. Before the siege, there was a great battle and many of our kin were ruthlessly killed before our eyes. It is the siege and the threat of the powers in the West that keep him at bay.
“The realm of the Dark Lord is in the north. The kings and princes the rule the lands closest to it keep watch by day and night. They are our first line of defense should the Deceiver ever issue forth with his hoards.”

“That’s the other thing I don’t understand,” John interrupted, “Who is his army? What is his army?”

Yrch,” Nilme spat. The malice in that one word made John marvel. The blackness of his countenance belied the fairness of his face. “Foul, twisted forms that Morgoth shaped by his own means. Orcs are the mockery of elves. Elves who were stolen from their homes and kindred, then tortured and the Valar alone know what else. They are among the least of his servants, but the devastation they cause is immeasurable.

“There are other, evil things he uses. Wolves, were wolves and dark-hearted animals. I am certain that there is validity in a rumor that he is gathering corrupted spirits to his service.” Nilme sighed in frustration, “What are we to do against such powerful hatred?”

The day was clear and pleasant, but the mood was dark and stifling. As night came on, the breeze became chill. Silvery stars began to dot the twilit sky and the cry of sea birds was stilled.

A passing fox stopped to sniff the air and twitch its ears at the passersby. John had found his seat upon the bareback mare and was riding easier, though a far cry from the light grace of his elven guide. The fox barked a laugh before continuing on to his hole where several pups were whining for supper.

"Nilme?"

"Yes, John?"

"Don't you think it's time we stopped? I mean, it's getting to be night and, I have to admit, I'm kind of hungry. But if you don't want to stop, I can keep going. It's no problem!"

After considering what the man had said, Nilme decided it was time for a break. John's leg had recently been injured and he had complained little for his first day of riding. That would come tomorrow, the elf knew. "Of course," he replied, "There is a place I know not far from here. We will camp there for the night."

They continued on in silence, but as he drew near to the sheltered spot, Nilme grew increasingly uncomfortable. The ground had fresh hoof prints and the acrid smell of smoke reached his nostrils. A few hundred yard further and he could see the red light of fire. Soon the sound of laughter and song reached his ears. "I believe that we will not be camping alone, John. We seem to have company. With any amount of luck there will be hot food ready to share."

Nilme spurred his horse to a faster gait, John following suit and cursing slightly under his breath.
 

baragund

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The road broke out of the forest into a clearing that apparently was intended as a wayside rest area. The cleared area was carpeted with a lawn as lush and well manicured as anything John had ever seen. A fire pit lined with stones with firewood stacked nearby, and a well occupied one corner. The space was obviously intended to accommodate large parties.

Seated around a cheerful blaze in the fire pit were three figures. They were cloaked in black and their hair was black. They had the same wiry yet graceful build and similar facial features as Nilme. “Elves,” John thought to himself. He still felt odd using that term for actual flesh and blood people but seeing more of them were in a way comforting to him. It validated that he was not having some kind of giant hallucination or that Nilme and Linwen were not isolated freaks of nature.

“Mae Govannen”, Nilme called out as the two companions entered the clearing. The seated figures called out in return and rose to greet them. They were speaking differently from the language that John had been learning from his hosts. It sounded similar, but more formal, like the difference between Italian and Latin. He had to listen hard to make out what they were saying, and there were a number of words he could not decipher.

Introductions were being made as John gingerly dismounted. He was not used to the saddle and his knee was throbbing again. Nilme seemed to know them, if only by reputation. “Nilme, of the House of Eol,” he said at which there were handshakes and more fair words of greeting. “I am Annael, and this is Curunir and Edhrahil. We are of the House of Caranthir and we are journeying to the tower to join our kin there and take our turn watching the seas for signs of the Enemy.” With that there was renewed friendly banter. It seemed that both Nilme and the three strangers had skills as craftsmen who specialized in metalwork, and they soon fell into talking “shop”, commenting on each other’s work and describing particular projects.

Feeling a little uncertain, John walked into the circle of firelight where the others had already taken seats. “Hey there,” he said as cheerfully as he could. The three fell silent and their smiles quickly faded into looks of concern bordering on suspicion and disdain when they saw for the first time his beard, his short cropped hair that revealed rounded ears and his relatively stocky build.

Annael stood and regarded John as a school teacher would a naughty student who did not do his homework. His eyes were ice blue and they were cold and hard as flint. “And who might you be?” he asked condescendingly. “Nilme, I did not realize it was so difficult to find an attendant that you had to recruit among the Engwar”. The other two laughed derisively and Nilme looked uncomfortable.

“You look like you hail from Dorthonion,” the Noldo continued, “but your speech sounds strange. Are you from the East?”

Before John could reply, Nilme broke in: “Yes, he has recently journeyed over Ered Luin and is seeking his kin in Dorthonion.”

“Well, better here in Beleriand than living with the rest of savages in the wilderness,” Curunir interjected. Resentment at being treated like some kind of inferior reared up inside John but, seeing as the three wore long swords at their sides, he did not feel altogether comfortable with arguing with them so he decided to follow Nilme’s lead.

The three Noldo had opened a cask of wine and there were a couple of freshly dressed pheasants that were about to be roasted over their fire. They welcomed John and Nilme to share in their meal. Nilme retrieved some fruits and seed cakes from his pack to contribute to the meal and soon the five of them settled in around the fire eating and drinking and talking.

Edrahil was seated next to the wine cask and asked John if he wanted his cup refilled. The man nodded in reply and reached out to hand his cup to the Elf. In so doing, he exposed his wristwatch, and the firelight glinted off of the stainless steel band and sapphire crystal. Annael regarded what he first thought was a trinket with some curiosity. But then he sat up and his eyes gleamed with curiosity when he saw the dial and the hands. Gesturing to the watch, “What is that?” he asked with some interest. “May I see it?”

“Um, OK”, John replied. He set down his cup, unclasped the watch and handed it to the Elf.

It was a Rolex diving watch that had been given to him by his fiancée as an engagement gift. It had a mechanical rather than the usual quartz movement so it was not affected by his journey across the sea. It featured a date indicator, a second hand that swept around the black dial, and one could hear the soft tick-tick-tick when held up to the ear.

The look on Annael’s face went from curiosity to amazement as he examined John’s watch. “What is this device?” he asked with a hungry interest. “What does it do? How does it work? This is like no craft I have ever seen. Where did you get it? Is it from the Naugrim?”
 

Elorendil

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The sound of clear, tinkling laughter filled the crisp evening air, accompanied by the crackling of a fire. In a small clearing, three elves sat gathered together beside a roaring fire, preparing the evening meal. A few horses grazed nearby, waiting patiently for their masters to resume their journey at first light. Starlight glinted off a silver blade as the tallest of the trio wiped it clean and returned it to its sheath. "Curunir, are you nearly finished dressing that pheasant?" he asked. "I have already cleaned the other two entirely!"

Curunir turned and regarded Annael. "Yes, I have finished. Forgive me if I am not as skilled at the dressing of game as you are, O Master Huntsman," he said sarcastically. Curunir produced the pheasant in question, at the sight of which Annael burst out laughing.
"Is that what you call preparing the game? That pheasant looks more like it has been massacred then dressed!" Annael exclaimed, surveying the mangled fowl.

"It is well that you are more skilled at smithying than you are at the dressing of game, my friend," he laughed, surveying the game, "Else all your works would be little more than mutilated lump of metal! Next time, remind me to dress the game."
Edrahil joined in his laughter and the sound of their clear laughter rang out through the darkness. Curunir's opened his mouth for a cutting retort, but the words were stilled on his lips by the sound of approaching hooves. The trio looked up to find two riders approaching.

"Mae govannen," called one as they drew near. Annael rose and returned the greeting. Curunir and Edrahil followed suit. The travelers came to a halt before them and dismounted. The taller of the pair introduced himself. “Nilme, of the House of Eol,” he said.
Annael stepped forward and extended a hand. “I am Annael, and this is Curunir and Edhrahil. We are of the House of Caranthir and we are journeying to the tower to join our kin there and take our turn watching the seas for signs of the Enemy.” He gestured for Nilme to seat himself by the fire and soon the foursome were engaged in a lively conversation regarding their craft as metalworkers.

Annael had all but forgotten the other traveler when he stepped forward into the firelight. "Hey there," he said. Annael and his companions ceased conversation as they got a better look at this traveler. To his disgust, Annael realized this was no elf, but one of the Atani, the Aftercomers. “And who might you be?” he asked in a patronizing tone. “Nilme, I did not realize it was so difficult to find an attendant that you had to recruit among the Engwar,” he mocked. Curunir and Edrahil laughed contemputously at this. Annael returned his attention to the Hildor. “You look like you hail from Dorthonion, but your speech sounds strange. Are you from the East?”

The Atani seemed to be searching for a reply, but Nilme cut him off. “Yes, he has recently journeyed over Ered Luin and is seeking his kin in Dorthonion,” he said.

“Well, better here in Beleriand than living with the rest of savages in the wilderness,” Curunir interjected. Annael and Curunir joined him in derisive laughter. Once their laughter had died away, Annael invited Nilme to stay and share in their supper. The Elf accepted gratefully and soon the travelers were gathered around the fire, sharing a meal of seed cakes, pheasant and wine. Annael paid little heed to the Man, choosing instead to converse with Nilme, until the gleam of metal and jewels caught his eye. He regarded it curiously. "What is that?" he asked curiously, pointing to the strange trinket clasped about the man's wrist. "May I see it?"

“Um, OK,” the man replied, removing the wristlet and passing it to him. Annael examined it in the flickering firelight, intrigued by its strange make. The band was wrought of a silver-like metal with blue crystals set into it. In the center was a strange, round dial with runes Annael did not recognize and small lines pointing toward them. To Annael astonishment, one of the lines moved!
As he scrutinized the marvel, undoubtably the work of a master crafstman, his keen hearing picked up a faint ticking sound. He looked back up at the Atani before him and asked in amazement, “What is this device? What does it do? How does it work?" He demanded, eager to know the secret behind its making. "This is like no craft I have ever seen. Where did you get it? Is it from the Naugrim?”
 
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Mirelena

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The deliberate slight on the part of the noble elves did not escape Nilme's notice. Nor did the flame of greed that was kindled in the eyes of Annael. Nilme shuddered at the memory of that same light gleaming in the eyes of the High King. In an instant, his mind was made up to give no reason for John's presence.

When John cast a bewildered look in his direction, Nilme quickly intervened.
"I believe my friend is weary," he said, indicating the yawning man, "We have been riding most of the day and he is unused to it." This information elicited another round of scoffing as John said a hasty 'good-night' and extricated himself from the circle of light. Nilme watched his retreating back and sighed.

"What troubles you, Nilme?" Edrahil inquired.

Nilme regarded the trio with distaste. "Only twice before have I been so ashamed by my own race," he said simply, rising and preparing to follow his companion.

"Be cautious, old-one," Curunir replied, rising with Nilme and clamping his hand upon the elder elf's forearm, "By our hospitality you have been fed and warmed this night. It would become you to show more gratitude."

The tide of anger that came over Nilme required him to maintain a stoic silence. Hatred seared his veins like ice and hardened his eyes. Curunir met his gaze, but wisely released Nilme and dropped his fisted hand to his side. Son of snakes, he thought, my effort is wasted upon you. The silent confrontation ended only when Nilme spoke his peace.

“And it would become you to display better courtesy,” Nilme said with a voice under tight control. “Even if you are of noble blood. Though he is one of the second-born, it does not bestow upon you the right to mock him. There is more to his story than what meets the eye.”

“Oh?” scoffed Curunir. “I pray you would enlighten us. As I have heard it, men east of Ered Luin are barbarians. The vassals who dwell in Beleriand would be no better but for the charity of Finrod. I see little use for them except as miserable serfs. Furthermore, it would be of interest to me to learn where he acquired that pretty trinket. I'll warrant he's dishonest. I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that he is a crook- and a friend of the Dwarves, besides!”

"I doubt it, Curunir," was Nilme's vague response, "I sincerely doubt it."
 
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