Lightning crackles through the air and illuminates the darkness.
I am suddenly shocked into consciousness. Lightning blinds my eyes, and a deafening roll of thunder reverberates through my frame. It is freezing cold. Rain lashes at my bare skin.
Through a veil of mist I see the tall black shapes of trees looming around me.
I am gasping. I am gulping cold air into hurting lungs.
I am breathing. I live.
I was born into one forest. I am reborn in one again.
Hair blacker than the surrounding night falls across my face. I raise a hand to push it back. My elbows and knees scrape on wet gravel below.
Then another sound, surreal, as though heard through water. The familiar howl of something wild and dark, bringing a chill of fear.
I scramble up and plunge forward, every move done with agonizing slowness… stumble through the rain and forest, brush against low branches that snag my dark hair, bare feet racing over grass, twigs, gravel.
I hear it. It is right behind me. I pick up a fallen branch as a weapon. It is so heavy.
I turn to see the lithe, black form with yellow eyes bounding closer. It leaps. A swing of the branch, and a cracking sound on impact. But I am weak. So weak. The beast should have been dead, or at least stunned; instead, it merely stumbles with a yelp. Then with a snarl and bared fangs, it leaps upon me again. I jam the broken, jagged end of the branch into its jaws with all my strength as it knocks me upon the ground, and it shrieks. Its claws rake my arms. I clench my teeth at the pain and utter no cry.
The warg, wounded by the branch stabbed into the tender parts of its mouth, falls writhing to the ground.
The black bark of the nearest tree is rough against my bare palms and soles and scrapes my shins. As I pull myself up, I see below another set of yellow eyes and black fur leaping at the trunk, fangs bared. Its jaws close on my ankle. I cry out at the pain, and am so startled at the sound of my own voice, I almost let go of the branch I am clinging to.
A whistling sound and a thud.
The beast releases my foot, falls with a whine, a long shaft in its side.
The warg I had injured with the branch is whimpering and getting to its feet. Lithe figures edged with starlight drop from above or leap in from the right. An elven blade flashes and plunges into the beast’s throat.
I am shivering as I cling to the branches of the tree with numbed, trembling hands, angry at my weakness. My vision swims.
Voices. Sindarin voices. The accent is strange, unfamiliar to me.
“Not quite a child…”
Who are they talking about? I feel so weary, so heavy. So weak.
“Are you hurt…?”
“I shall climb up and bring her down…”
“Varda, not a thread on her…”
In a moment, the face of a female elf in a green hood and cloak is near mine, grey eyes glittering. “Suilad, young one. Fear not. I shall help you down.” She smiles gentle reassurance at me as she reaches out a hand.
I glare at her in shock, any gratitude I might have had for my rescue eclipsed by the magnitude of this condescension.
“I have no need of help, woman,” I say through gritted teeth, and almost fall out of the tree at the sound of my voice.
Not my voice. No. That is not my voice.
With the wave of bewilderment and panic comes a surge of weakness. In the end, I am carried, half-fainting, down from the tree. By an elleth.
On solid ground, my vision is swimming. I feel hands wrap a cloak around me. The rain has settled to a light drizzle.
“Child, where are you from?” A male elf’s voice.
I push away the two ellith holding me to stand alone, but sway and fall to my knees. Arms go around me to lift me.
“No, let her rest.”
I am leaned against a tree. My vision still swims, but I make out a fair face in a hood as it draws level with mine. Keen grey eyes the colour of slate scrutinize my face.
“What is your name, child?”
Child? My lips tighten with annoyance. I am no child, I try to retort. But now no sound comes forth but a faint squeak which mortifies me. A flask is lifted to my lips, and a warm, smooth liquid courses down my throat and spreads its warmth from my belly right to my fingertips and toes.
I open my eyes and see a circle of five elven faces around me, all hooded in grey and green.
What is my name?
Suddenly, my mind is a blank. A wave of horror and panic sweeps over me.
“Where did you come from?”
I come from… from… I see in my mind a dark forest, and high mountains capped with snow. I can only gaze dumbly at my questioners.
“Are you badly hurt?”
“There are scratches on her arms and face, and the left ankle has suffered some mauling, but none of the wounds look deep.”
“Once the rest return, let’s get her back to the house.”
Almost as soon as he has spoken, four other elves run up swiftly.
“We killed six in the pack. The rest have escaped.”
“Where there are wargs, there may be yrch nearby. Let us hurry home.”
Strong arms lift and carry me. I could not even protest if I wanted to. The sensation of helplessness infuriates me, but whatever drink they gave me takes effect. My eyes shut, and all goes dark.
Half-waking, I hear more Sindarin voices.
“Watch the ankle for infection. Aside from that, she should be fine. Call me if there is a fever.” A low voice, calm and authoritative.
“How old do you think she is, hîr-nín?” A lighter, higher voice, lilting and sweet.
“Hmm… Forty perhaps. Hard to say. Still a child.”
The voices come from behind me. I am lying on a bed, half-facing the wall.
“Forty years… yet what soft hands and feet she has, soft as a newborn babe’s. As though she has never worked, never even walked much. Might she be high-born?”
“It is possible. Yet I would have thought I knew virtually all the noble families in the elven realms and settlements across Ennor. She might be from Mirkwood. Or a remote tribe of the Nandor or Avari. She spoke a strangely accented Sindarin, says the patrol, and seemed disoriented and a little hostile.”
Are they truly talking about me?
“Well, the poor thing. Eru knows what she has been through. To be naked and alone.”
“I think our patient might be awake,” says the calm, measured voice. “Young maiden, can you hear me?”
That is someone else. That is not me.
“Gweneth?” says the elleth healer softly, and lays a gentle hand on my shoulder.
I stiffen and pull away. Every fibre of my being is in revolt, in denial. This must be a dream. My next thought: There are no dreams in Mandos. And then, as I wince from the pain of my sudden movement: There is no pain in Mandos. My arms and my left foot are swathed in bandages. As I turn in bed to glare at the elleth, she attempts to help me. I give her a withering look that would have caused many a man of my House to turn pale and quake in their boots. She smiles sweetly at me.
“Let her be, Thalanes. She can turn on her own.”
I look about the room, then at the ellon. He is tall, grave, dark-haired. His maroon robes are of a rich fabric, a simple silver circlet on his head. His face is calm and stern and he holds himself like a king. He reminds me of my king. I flinch from the memory. He smiles kindly at me.
I have many pressing questions. Where is this? When is this? But I wait warily for him to speak first.
“Mae l’ovannen, gweneth. Hail and well met, young maiden. How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” I try not to react at the sound of this new voice, so much lighter and higher than mine had been. I stare down at my fingers, peeping out from under the bandages on my arms. White, pale, slender fingers. Ridiculously delicate fingers, with shapely oval fingernails. I want to scream and weep and curse and bludgeon someone to death. Like a Vala named Námo.
The maroon-robed elflord is looking at me with disturbingly familiar piercing grey eyes. If he calls me “young maiden” once more, I am going to call violent curses down upon him and his family line.
“You are in Imladris. It is a place of safety, and a place of rest and healing,” he says kindly, anticipating my question. “And I am Elrond, its lord. What is your name?”
I open, then close my mouth. I remember now. I had two names, in that first life. Neither will do now, nor does any feminine name come to mind. I give a small shrug. “I… know not,” I mumble in stilted Sindarin. I do not wish to speak this tongue. I have hated speaking it ever since my father’s death.
The grey eyes give me a penetrating, searching look that makes me uneasy. “Did you travel alone? Can you recall aught of what befell you?”
I jump a little. His lips had not moved. To my mind had he spoken, and in a form of Quenya.
I am silent for a while. His eyes hold mine.
“I recall naught,” I say aloud, calmly and fluently in Quenya. “Save that I awakened in the darkness and the rain. I heard the howl of the ráca… and ran.”
He catches his breath and stares at me as I speak. I realize how unwise I might have been. Perhaps I should have pretended not to understand Quenya, but my pride in my mother’s blood had asserted itself. Did he trick me? Is there a penalty for speaking Quenya here, among these Sindar? But the look on his face is not censure, but compassion.
“What said she?” murmurs the elleth healer to her lord, looking bewildered.
A knock at the door. “Come in,” calls Elrond, and the head of a tall elf appears. His shining golden hair spills over his shoulder, his blue eyes sparkle in the lamplight.
Oh. No. Not him. Not again.
I turn my face away to the wall.
“Lord Elrond, pardon the interruption. A word, please, once you are done?”
He speaks in Sindarin as well, his accent, matching theirs, altered from what it had been of yore. His voice has not changed, though. Confident, cheerful, courteous. Annoying.
“I… I am weary. I wish to rest,” I mumble, also in Sindarin. And it is true. I feel a wave of weakness overcome me.
Elrond reaches out a hand to touch my forehead and looks grave.
“Rest then. We shall speak later.”
There is an inaudible murmur of voices. The door shuts. I am alone.
This is happening. This is real. I give vent to my anger and helplessness. I curse the Valar as they have cursed me. I clench my fists till the delicate nails draw blood from the soft white skin on my new palms. Hard, dry sobs of sheer rage wrack me as I lie on the bed. Weak. Feverish. And female.
Thalanes returns and slides her arm under my shoulders to lift me, puts a cup to my lips. I strike out at it and send it flying.
“Leave me be!!” I snarl.
The healer’s eyes, golden-green, are wide with shock. I watch weakly as, without a word, she cleans up the mess on the floor, goes out, and comes back with another cup. There is neither anger nor annoyance in her face, only kindness. “You have a fever. Please, drink this to grow well and strong again.”
“Very well. Give it to me,” I growl. I hold out my hand for it, but my hand is shaking. She hesitates, then gives it to me. I manage to bring it to my lips and swallow it. The empty cup falls onto the sheets as I sink back onto the bed.
“Losto vae,” she says gently as she picks up the cup.
And I surprise myself by mumbling, as I drift into sleep, “Le athae.”
elleth / ellith (S) – elf woman, elf women
suilad (S) – hello
yrch (S) – orcs
hîr-nín (S) – my lord
mae l’ovannen (S) – you are well met (formal)
gweneth (S) – young maiden
ráca (Q) – wolf
losto vae (S) – sleep well
le athae (S) – thank you (chosen over the usual form for thank you, “le hannon”, because “le athae” has the additional meaning of “you are kind”)