To Izilba came, of all the chances in the world, the same man she had cut down from Zhera’s trap, and though she knew him, the man called Al-For by sight, he showed no recognition of the hill-witch, of whose night-flights, child-taking, and man-feasting many rumors told across these plains. He led her to the covered and unroofed pens, walking behind her in the fading light, his heavy bootfalls and breath the only sound.
At the pens indeed the women displayed no bonds, nor evidence of capture, though ill-housed on torn sheets of cloth and broken fence for their beds. “Do you wish to join our offering, Hill- Witch?” he asked, reaching around her neck with a rope, pulling it tight. “Thy evil wains we long ago spied, filled with the flesh of ^our boys, for thy fattening, and now we shall cook thee on a spit, and our women shall eat and be made fruitful.”
Izilba let go the rope that burned as the man pulled it across her bare neck, sawing as if to dislodge her head (for witches, it was held by the rude folk, breathed not the air). Her right hand had reached across her nave[l], and into the robe closed at her hip; as she struggled to stand against the power of the man, with no sound but his heavy breath, and grunt, and the chant of the penned women, low, humming as they lay prostrate in the dirt, be-glowed into long shadows by small fires around the fence. The hilt of Makmahôd hot she grasped, and swung it from the robe, turning in a flash of fire upon the shadow that held her; no sound came [of] it, as it fell in a heap, and a dark fluid drained into the dry earth, staining it black.
She untied the noose about her neck, and turned to cut open the fences about the broken women, and yet these women shrieked, calling names in a strange tongue. Into the hills she flew, burying again the sword in her robe, but seeing into the darkness behind her, as firelight upon torches gathered and then scattered toward the hills. She circled back, first southward, then west, coming to the sea where only the quiet fall of waves, and water drawn against sand could be heard, as the moon in its horns rode up the eastern sky, above the high range.
She peered into the night northward, seeing no men; and made her way north along the coast, hoping to see in the distant east the captive-camp; pondering the trap sprung too soon, laughing and weeping as she moved with the waves along the shore. As dawn approached, a sea fog crawled upon the land. She guessed that many miles south now was the band of men and their captives, so she walked, bending in a long great arc to the ^north east, surprised by the joy in her heart, and the peace of rests taken between long hikes. For several days she passed this way, a-glow in love for the sea and its coming to shores of sand and carven rock, overwatched at times by white birds high up.
By night under starlight she could see the fine outlines of following shadows, spirits of the dead, joyless but perhaps hoping she might lead them whither the light came, that no living eye sees.
In her days of youth and fostering among kings on Westernesse, Izilba had known little of this peace and love, indeed, no word did she have yet for the Elves’ estel, that now alone, without food or shelter formed by man, this burning consumed weariness and hunger, through the nights and days, resting only to assure the flesh and sinews of her body that these would not yet be cast off.
On Westernesse she had known the sickness of a reaching dark, its smothering of breath, and clouding of her mind, though so slow had been its onset, only now did she realize its encompassing of her spirit. By night in a dream she came again to the Holy Mountain of that blessed land, seeing as in a day the preparations of offerings to Dark Eru; following kingsmen up a blood-blackened stone path to the house of Pharazon, now steward to King Ziggurun, in every manner.
They spoke in a tongue unknown by her, but she understood that they foresaw the frequent comings and goings of Amandil and his house, Lords of Andune, setting a watch for several years and ears throughout the lands of his dominion.
Izilba saw Amandil make preparations at last to move his whole habitation from that land, to the north coasts of Middle Earth, amid the harbor towns of elves thither. Yet his ship broke from the fleet as it headed north^east, and circling far out about to the south, turned in a wide bend into the Forbidden West.
This was known to the king, high upon his seat upon the tower, and trailing craft disguised in sable were sent, pretending to Pharazon to keep him from breaking the Ban, and ^so bring the wrath of the Powers-distant again upon the Holy Isle. From atop the Meneltarma, Izilba saw afar the swift craft of Amandil enmeshed in the deceits of waves running in confusion, and winds that turned seeming the sky around; she looked in pity upon Amandil, yet knowing he had first broken of all men, the Sacred Ban. She looked upon his person, and saw him hold a crystal, pleading for aid and direction, hesitantly given by one upon Eressëa.
She saw in horror his approach to that magic isle, half- believed in and feared in the last days of Numenor, rising in majesty and glory as a greater dawn in the West, before the sun that halted its own arising. Then eastward grew chill, and a great blast of air, black and substantial, rushed upon and over Amandil’s ill-prepared craft, and in the mist-begotten shadows she spied the trailing spies sent of Sauron, who grappled Amandil, and strangled his crewmates. Bond he was returned to the king, prostrate before Pharazon, silent, proud, unbent by threats to his house, in punishment of so great a pride as to betray Men. “Ours is the land Undying, once-friend, and by your tack against the will of the Dark Eru, almost you subverted the fate long ago decreed upon the House of Earendel that ever in the West would they look, without hope of arriving thereto, until the Last King; to whom should come a messenger of Wisdom and Might.”
From this scene Izilba fled, for the mind-eye of Thû reached into her, feeling her upon his land, and he sent forth spirits to discover her hiding place. Thus it came to pass that she awoke as the sky grew light, while in the east the shadow of mountains impassable looked upon her, without concern.
Long she pondered this dream, while east and north she wandered, hiding at times from distant feet and hoof, and hidden often by the sea-fogs in the day.
It came to pass that inland many leagues, after rising over rocky land, she saw in a marshy highland valley, a far off, amid a moving mist of jaundiced fog, men of stature and dress of Numenor, doing battle with black-figures robed in shadow. From the affray ran young girls in every direction, though bonds kept them near to an overwatching figure, of might and wizard-cunning, as it were the tent-pole stake of sickness in the land.
Now she rushed down the slope, drawing the black sword as the sun rose over the distant peaks, and the fogs rose high as if to battle clouds, lifting as she descended, then just as suddenly, falling upon her, and setting thick upon the swampland. The crystal about her neck, sea-glass twice given, now lighted her mind, and revealed to her all the forms and dispositions of men and shades, creeping hither about to throttle the noble men, even as they followed the sound of cries of the maidens pure. As one also beguiled, Izilba wandered, awaiting the visible forms, hewing them in two as they approached upon her back and sides; the Huntress returned.
But stray she did, chasing a figure that clutched a girl-child, a phantom that turned to mist, choking the air from her chest, and burning without ceasing her throat and lungs, eyes and nose. It was now, she later discovered, that the high tables of poison fog were split, and seven Holy Spirits fell upon the shadows, amid the cry “Narsil,” sounded by the girls fallen in terror, their faces giving back the red and white fire lashing open before the glorious personages True-White. She swooned in the burning within and the shock of Heavenly Flame without, the Huntress verily hunted, falling upon her face in a marsh sulphuric, gasping, and dropping the dark sword in the mire.
Throat and mouth burning, Izilba awoke under the stars, seeing campfires to her right and to her left, in the distance. She had been lain upon a byre (?)8My question mark indicates I did not know this word, and doubted I had written it correctly. Apparently it’s an old word for a cowshed, an appropriate bed for convalescing in marshlands. and wrapped in a blanket of fine wool, her face, arms and legs washed and anointed in fragrant oils. One watching not far now stepped forward, and spoke gently, holding her hand. He was Amarf-til esquire of the House of Elendil, first among elf-friends in esteem. He told her the Six Undead Ones had fled, and in the reek the young ones, girls to their eyes, had also ran, tracks pointing southward would be taken up by daylight’s providence. The air had been cleaned, the yellow mist blown in every direction, scattered, so stars shown without film.
A concoction to cool her throat she was given, and in the morning she readied to join the small band, in whose leader’s face she saw the son of Amandil, and by this recognition shrank from his inquiry over breakfast, for she did not trust his purposes, nor herself to keep from ^him the unguessed fate of his father. And the sword, it seemed, misgave her intention to join the search southward, reminding her of Dyacôm, lost among the dead shades whither none knew. She told the men her path ran eastward, and they asked if she knew the hidden passes through yonder walls of stone, pointing with their swords thither. “Join us,” they asked again, “for we’ve heard the folk of these hills have lost or given away many such girls as you saw here, and secreted in mountain hoards, they huddle, awaiting perhaps a better day in southern lands, or passage by ship to the towers of the Western kingdom of Thû, there to be burned and offered to false gods.”
“Mounds of offered flesh I have come upon, in wandering nearer to the Foglands yonder, upon the feet of the Mountains White,” she replied, “and of those, what know ye?”
The men looked to one another, and said they had heard of assaults upon villages and farmlands, that fogs and shadows search and clasped, at random, it seemed, slaying them and transporting the corpses. Another added, “but this is lore of folk for long kneeling in the darkness, ignorant of the Wind.” “They speak of hill-witches and troll-men, also,” “That come after the Dead Fog.” “A plague, it may be, moving thither, so again, we counsel, join us southward, stray not west into plagued homes, cursed to sink into mires.”
It is guessed, for she revealed nothing of it, that Izilba was known to Elendil by face and name, though both had suffered hardships in wilderness and desert, moss-rock isles and stone ways, loneliness, weariness beyond flesh, and the ever-present oppression of the spreading sickness, the soul’s primordial Dark, Morthu. Perhaps she and he understood the past, the present danger, and so said nothing of their days passing in the City of Light among the kings of men, in gardens splendid, fragrant and vibrant with life and industry. Though not families, nor kin, both Izilba and Elendil recognized even then the spirits of not-enemies, as the sickness of Thû spread among friends and gardens, spoiling the waters and land, air itself.
How she had come to wandering alone, with a great sword, how he had landed with a small company far from Northlands, Formenos and the Great Road, neither apparently regarded as a telling worth the pain of recalling the past. Both perhaps knew secrets regarding the other’s beloved ones, better unsaid. So in these days of sickness, two old nobles of the high seats accepted the breaking of the world, one man from his ally, she from a confidant.
Izilba would have stayed in the small camp, tending to the wounded men, while their leader took the more able southward to gather the young girls, and to see what else betide. While boiling water for a steam of herbs distilled, she heard not far upon the slope a cry, and learned that hacked and hewn bodies of girls were being discovered, seeming even as they returned to the campfires in the night. One girl of ten years or so was found hideously hewn, dismembered, but staunched of blood by the burning flame of the blade of Repha-Nilim. She was tended to by Izilba alone, who held the body ruined, hopeless of surviving the hour, her face sliced, the burned flesh left and even placed to surround her body, though she had no arms to reach out and feel, nor eyes to see what Izilba beheld.
“Sweetheart,” she sang to the child, holding her close to give what comfort she might, “where you are going, all is light, by the Name Eternal, and there you shall join these friends in rest and, in time, a merry feast. Sweetheart,” Izilba let her own hair fall upon her face, singing of the girl’s beauty, the strength of her limbs, the fineness of her fingers, delicate to weave and strong for gem-craft.
The men looked on from a distance, silent; those warriors who delighted in dismembering enemies, now wept; or staggered in from the horrors surrounding, revealed by day, and many vomited, and held one another, grieving. “Had we not waited for day,” many whispered, unable to finish out loud the wish. Izilba returned, and led out seven men, leaving three to tend to burials and to watch over their wounded, and met Elendil as he too returned, having himself come upon a slaughter and wreck of bodies at mid-day. Here they made plans, in the dried grasses and grey-silver stone paths amid the encircling rock walls, to rush south as a party, while sending scouts east and west to search for survivors or stray victims.
And it came to pass they marched upon the White Mountains, where a spur northward jutted out for many leagues, and they searched out every pass and path, without rest. On the third day they came upon the gate formerly known to Izilba by the warning of the trailing spirits. Despite a dread of sickness, and fumes of burning flesh of long years a-cooking, residue upon the narrow black walls of the cavern’s tunnels, the band proceeded. After many hours in darkness that pushed against their small torches and stones of light, they heard afar off voices, chanting, punctuated by screams. The torches snuffed, they proceeded in silence through the maze of passages, distraught and confused by the bouncing sounds of men putting girls to tortures.
Following the glow of her sea-glass, and guided by the heat of Makmahôd, Izilba led the men to a high window overlooking a vaulted cavern-hall, in the midst of which was a carven hold, a pit of stone into which girls had been thrown, upon others, kept for purposes known to her, but not to the men.
Here the seed of Earendel was gathered by men of the plains, whose forefathers anciently had served Melko, and betrayed their own kind, in the battles of that First Age of the Noldo’s Exile. A seer among them told long ago of plagues, and falling seas, and rising lands, shadows in the skies, and a faltering of the wombs of their women, and he revealed that out of the Paths of the Dead would come a high-one, mighty to save the people and its land from the consuming darkness, Aragorn u Arwenna. Here the men of the mountains placated the darkness in worship and offering of animals, and prayer; and here too had come to them the thought, that from their lineage of old and for many thousand years of the sun, burdened by their father’s collusion against the gods of the West and their servant Eldar, that the burden of Ancient Transgression would be lifted by the birthing of the High One, and for them was the duty of his springing forth, come; thus they collected virgins, and prepared their bodies in dark rites of purification for the quickening, and here they were kept until the Bearing Forth.
Over the few years, babes had been born, indeed, and displaying no signs of Might and Power Divine – it was said a white reek would come of the womb and fill the cave upon his birth – these newborns were torn from their mothers’ breasts, and carried ^out from the mountain, and thrown into the sea. It was these tiny corpses that the women Onodrinlim had secretly collected and grieved for, offering burial to each, and counsel for the dead child’s soul. This they had done under the guise of sea-glass gathering, while also hunting for the source of the bodies that seldom washed ashore.
Izilba led a rope from the window, and first climbed down, waiting for the other men, two of whom remained, preparing to pull the rescued girls to safety. The grey ones crept along the walls, and slew every man they found, even as Izilba and others set down ladders to the captives, and aided their climb from the pits. Some girls were late in pregnancy, and others too ill to walk or stand, and these they carried forth by ropes, until all had been lifted and huddled in silence, upon the floor of the vaulted hall. It was now that the two men of their company who waited in the high window ledge landed, headless, upon the small crowd. And rushing in, came a host of maddened men, bearing clubs, axes, and swords, lighting the hall from a cauldron of fire borne before them, to the blinding of Izilba and Elendil’s band.
The skirmish, as she called it, was brief, though it was fought in many corridors of stone, slick with blood. Though strong and well armed, the mountain men despite advantage of numbers were all slaughtered, save one or two as fled into the mazes dark. Of these, one carried on his shoulder a small girl, pregnant and screaming, seen only by Izilba who ran after them into the mazes. Hunting her quarry by vision of mind, she found the man cornered, clutching the girl, in the absolute black of the mountain roots.
Her breath he heard, however, and so threatened to break the girl, if he wasn’t led out and set free. To this demand, Izilba drew Makmahôd, flashing in the dark, and removed the man’s head from his body. The girl fell to the stones, in a swoon. Again Izilba held a victim of this sickness close, praying for healing, and guidance, crying to Silmariel to send the girl’s soul back to her body.
The girl awoke, and was strong enough with aid, to walk. Yet neither [knew] the way out, and in her haste to kill the man, Izilba had swung her sword too deeply, and it had broken against a pillar of granite that grew out of the floor, before which the evil man had stood. No words came of the sword, nor heat nor dull light, though the pieces were gathered in the torn hem of the girl’s robe, and the hilt with its dead shard placed upon Izilba’s hip. Miriam was the name of the girl, though little else of her words did Izilba yet comprehend.
They came never back to the vaulted hall, nor to any of the men of Elendil’s band, but descended deep into the bowels of the earth, finding there a rushing stream, a torrent and aqueduct, flowing down, and into the east. In this underground stream they were washed clean and carried to a vast dark lake, and over two days the pair hiked up a spiraling tunnel road, lighted by a distant day by narrow pipe-tubes carved into the rock that carried also the cool, fresh air to some ancient dwellers there.
Izilba and Miriam emerged at last from the earth, to look upon a forested land that sloped away northward, down into the valleys neither had heard of, nor in the twilight could discern clearly. They slept, holding one another, Izilba gently feeling the womb of Miriam, and the child there remained moving about. Trailing out of the caves came halting, spirits of girls, among them the one called only Sweetheart.