The following day they feasted on the small surplus held among the people reserved for honored guests, and sported and played; surrounding their games as a halo upon the steep slopes ringing the gorge stretching itself across the valley, grew a cloud of fog, as though observing the day, the hosts, and those soon departing. At times the clouds would creep down, reaching forth to touch the lands as fingers dipping into a basin’s bottom, a whiteness that gave the day against the deep blue sky a blessing, as like ancestors come glad to hold back any evil from interfering.
Then the earth groaned and shrieked, rocks tumbled down and split, and the earth too divided in places, and waves of soil rolled across the valley, turbulent.
From unseen fissures issued steam, scalding all it ran upon, then flying upward vanished and thus the people were divided. Looking out for a road north, Zhera’ saw before him a train of masked bodies, some chained or bound by rope, others bearing heavy loads upon their heads and backs, all driven by whips, and the whips were of maidens’ hair, braided, and maidens shorn wielded them, cruelly, slashing at the bodies to drive them forth, even into the pits and fissures, or to be flayed by issuing steam; and behind-most the train, high seated, emerging from the mists, was Ifariel, upon a beast, plodding, huge, and docile; but careless, and treading down flesh and tree before it.
To him now ran his daughters, cowering while Umma lifted the twins, and set them in her arms. Ifariel halted the train, and ordered all to her, to hear her decree; and it was given thus:
Naurgos! Here I now come, bearing word of our ancient mother, that the House of Janus is broken, and Judas now shall be made foot of Hazad, for having set aside the visage of our forefathers, your chief has laid in waste the protection and promise of beauty long extended; thus our mother Uffa: she brings forth your lost men, boys, and aged!
And the hooded figures held in chains and ropes were unhooded, and the fissures no longer spewed, and the land grew silent to hear the ringing of horns and clanging cymbals, and the drums beaten about the valley. Cheers went up, while the men ran as they might, or crawled, some hobbled or propped upon a crutch, sought out amid the reek settling at the gorge’s edges, kin and lovers.
The king was then dragged before, Janus under hood of maiden hair, strangling at whips thronged about his neck, and set down before the great beast, and it stank.
Ifariel stood upon it, and doused the chief in a white milk poured from a horn, crying for an end to his reign, and to her voice gathered many men, and their women stood to watch, as the men – at the horn’s blowing, first spewing forth last milk, then gurgling out a call as from one strangled – the men knelt in the mire stirred up, and covered themselves in filth.
As though turned to stone, Zhera’ and his family stood, huddled, afraid to move, to draw the eyes of the mob assembled; then as Ifariel seemed to move to drive her beast upon the king, Zhera’ ran forward, standing before him. He called to Ifariel by name, saying that no slaves kept this man, nor anything unjust accused of him, by any known to Zhera’; and to halt, for madness enough had the earth brought this day. She swung down a rope, and stood before him, Janus, and called for the women to release their whips, then pressed her boot down upon his head, until his face was driven into the filth drooled down from the beast, as though to drown the king.
Zhera’ picked up a rope from the group, and cast it about Ifariel, pulling her to him, at which the king lay prostrate, and the mob assembled erupted into cries, shouts and elated cheers, to hail the new couple, ancient mother-and-father renewed! Zhera’ looked upon the king, desperate to raise him and to see him well, and the man kneeled up out of the muck, wiped his face, and gave Zhera’ a wink, knowing.
“Father arose from the mud of the earth, and go forth to plow it, line by line; to sprout of it green things fragrant; to fly from it, fowl and wind. Go forth, bring out Mother!” The woman stood before him, and pulled him forth, until he stood, bowed. “Mother! I have found Mother,” he shouted, and again the people erupted, cheers echoing about the valley, wall to wall ringing out, at what Zhera’ could not guess. Her falcon mask she brought forth, and brought it down upon the king’s head, setting her talons upon his shoulders.
What next would follow, Zhera’ never learned, for again the earth bellowed, and the ground rolled up, and spread outward, and steam issued, sending the folk scattering from the gathering place amidmost the settlement, mostly in ruin. And new shrieks bounded across the valley floor, as a sickly pale cloud crawled in from the north gate at Esk, several leagues distant, but raised up for all to witness – scorching all it ran upon or touched, withering plant and trees nearby. This reek spread outward, to drive out the whiteness set upon the hills, and surround the valley; men ran, and fled, throwing their bodies into the earth’s divisions, or thrust knives into their necks, while others knelt, sobbing, pleading to some power.
Ifariel climbed her beast, turned him about to face the encroaching fume, before which all others fainted, swooned, or if too near, were burned of flesh and turned to living skeletons, to tumble upon the boiling earth.
The king stood near Zhera’ and told him it was as foretold by Ifariel: the whiteness pale, cloud to burning. For his house and his father’s being lost, could no longer restrain the anger of deep vents, nor the reckoning kept by the mountain. “All were warned, she warned every clan hereabouts, but we heeded not, and now perish.”
Again the earth shook and from the west came blowing over the mountains a cold wind, glittering with the swirl of snow, and from it was formed the visage of seven women most fair, flying about the narrow valley, to gather all that remained toward the center, and these spirits pushed back the cloud burning, but into the gorge ran rushing a torrent of lava, and a river of ash and broken slag, melting the mountains, as it poured in from the north.
To this flow the spirits now turned, driving it back, and turning to stone its edges, until a solid wall was itself shaped, damming up the flow. Then as if a spike thrown down from heaven as the day turned to night, and the stars shone high above the settling fumes and the dying river; as a spike thrown down, a black spear of mist substantial, and it smote upon the spirits, entangled them, and dragged each under the earth, pulled down into fissures. Then out of these tears in the land flew out spirits unnumbered, beautiful, lovely to look upon, singing praises from prison escaped, let loose by Asenath’s holy seven, daughters of twilight; great praise they scattered throughout the land, and it was covered as with a fine powder of snow, but it was joy, tears, for the Power of Judgment saw not their escape, nor ever would discover it.
Then shooting forth out of the torn and broken earth came seven stars, climbing up to heaven, beyond Arda to make a place amid the shores of the sea of time, restful and eternal, washed clean.
The lands thereabouts for many hundred leagues surrounding had been broken and covered in a rain of ash, or spread about by the yellow cake left after the passage or dispersal of the burning cloud, sulphuric; long planned, this vengeance of Gorgoroth came of the being of Gothmog, mightiest of his servants, whom we do not name. And bringing about our day’s Age of Fading.
Zhera’ and his house indeed soon thereafter [departed], being no longer welcome to dwell, nor desiring themselves to be housed in that land, foreign in all ways, and no longer wholesome. With him came, to delight his heart, the chief of the people, with his two sons, and a washerwoman maid many years older. The spouse of this man had perished soon after giving birth to the boys, and her espoused widower said nothing more of it, for he would not now darken their way by talk of the past. With their herds of sheep and goats they departed through the southern gate at Tel, having now a herdsman learned in the paths of this wilderness, its green places even amid the new ruined fields wrought by the mountains; and of wells and the customs of use he also knew, and was friendly with many tribes and clans of those parts, that otherwise looked upon Zhera’ with disdain, seeing in his bearing and bent-tongue the overlords of the sea, demanders of flesh and of wealth, bringers of woe, pestilence, new laws unfit for these lands.
Often he laughed with Zhera’ as they walked, winding this way and that from valleys to hillsides and higher places hidden, giving histories and folklore, the matter of the masks (one for each clan), how the ceremony witnessed is regularly conducted, passing the Chair of Decision to another house; though Ifariel was not next to sit there, she had gathered to her dominion many, and it was doubtful the wearing of masks would thus continue among the council, save it be to hide one’s face from others more feared, or less crooked.
“Call me now Emmer, friend,” and Zhera’ revealed now the course of their wanderings, why he searched rather than knew for certain his daughters’ homeland, and told of the recent years; to this long tale which even Umma had only heard rumor, Emmer wondered, and said it was wise to keep these doings small-told, for indeed he had heard of such a man, and that kings sought for his head, and offered many boxes of gold and gems. Then he laughed, and explained his people’s ways, in joking and causes of laughter, for no news or inquiries had to his ears come regarding Zhera’.
Yet how it was, and why, for what purpose, Ifariel had come to that coastal village, and told a tale to Zhera’, neither could guess. Perhaps she merely thought it sport to act so, and to give the part of hero in some quest to one she figured both least likely – winking as he explained to himself, as it were – and also most able.
“Friend-brother, my lungs breathe out here, my legs joy in the walking, my staff – here won’t you hold it for me while I walk – is the only dead thing I bear, being accursed and a plague to any that touch her,” again laughing suddenly, and calling to his sons to set up a camp, and to teach the daughters of his kinsman something of milk-work, while they were tutored in the meaning of mincing feet, having the girls’ attention, for once (being somewhat younger, yet eager for any sign given by a girl of her slightest care or interest in them). The daughters of Izilba played well with the father and the boys, learning as they travelled much of milk’s varieties and storage, and of the boys’ inquisitive subtlety.
Much was ruined, yet some fields and meadows for pasturage remained, as they headed first south, then bending westwards, hoping now to come upon Zhera’s homelands, before trying the ways inland where it was supposed these girls had been born into captivity.
“The black kings rule all these lands and give to lords more cruel the daily government, whose laws are the taking what is made, for the better keeping; and the giving of beatings, when worse can’t be. They demand flesh offerings, when I first came to the chair, it was heard outside Kiliath that beasts useful were demanded – and it was then that the house of Hazad acquired that monster, yet small it was. And now we have learned that man-flesh is now paid in tribute, along with gold and other mine-fruits: gems, creatures of the underworld, weapons, and women. Many new markets now are seen, but Kiliath had little to offer, and less to purchase with, and until now our people were content in the bliss of the valley of light, and pleased to hide from mightier tribes, or ones more subtle in craft.”
The sun rose and set as they walked, day upon day, at times they came upon survivors of the burning clouds, and healed them as best they could, or comforted them, and yet all wandered off in the night, or were dead soon thereafter, so that despite their wandering by strange and winding roads, they would have added many to their company, yet arrived to the places-just-inland that Zhera’ recognized from his youth, as the same numbered the day departing Kiliath: Zhera’ and Umma, five daughters, two boys; with Emmer and his sons Uthir and Hazol, and the woman Grendt.
Nothing had they learned of Izilba, or of Doral, yet direction enough could either contrive from the voice and tales of Zhera’; so he hoped to find them, as friends seated on a bench before his house, to feast among kin long separated, before embarking restful on the tour to find the homes of his daughters.