One Last Spring
A wether is a castrated male goat or sheep. Just to avoid confusion, you should know that this story uses a Silmarillion compatible version of the Round Earth creation story.
The Singing Rock caravan should have already begun their migration north, toward the summer pastures in the high plains. After the unnaturally mild winter – an omen, some of the elves whispered - the spring growth is a thick, voracious green. The ewes have dropped the last lambs, and the does have their newborn kids at foot.
None of his people have complained, but Nuin hasn't missed their curious glances edging toward impatience these past few suns. The elves can't wait any longer, or their animals will miss the best of the summer grazing.
The chieftain of the Kinn-lai rises to his feet, and tosses the twig he's stripped of bark into the fire, throwing a shower of sparks. “People of the Kinn-lai, brothers and sisters of my wanderings!” he calls, raising his arms and speaking with enough strength that even those working at the edges of camp can hear him.
The elves scattered around the firepits know that resonant tone; it means Nuin is speaking as their chieftain, not their friend, and they quiet and pause, listening to his words.
“When the sun rises tomorrow, we will prepare to break camp and move north.” There is a bubble of pleased noise as the caravan hears the news. It ill suits the Kinn-lai to remain long in one place.
“You will take our herds and return to the summer camp at Singing Rock by the quickest way – but I will not be going with you.” A few elves cry out denials, and the mood turns agitated.
Nuin gestures for silence, and waits for the chaos to die down. “I know you have wondered why we still remain here,” he says, beginning to pace in front of the fire. “The omens have been ill, these past seasons. After the Powers in the West came, the veil over the sky was diminished, and the world lightened. But now the haze and clouds have grown dark once more, and the sun itself dims. The sky is blackened with ash and smoke from the north.” Reflexively, Nuin looks in that direction, before he catches himself and turns back to the fire.
Reaching his hands toward the flames, Nuin confesses, “The Lord of Dreams has sent me a sign.”
An awed murmur rises among the watching Kinn-lai.
“Every night I see in my dreams a pregnant ewe and a pitched camp. The Lord of Dreams is telling me not to go, and I will obey. But the rest of you must leave, or our herds will not fatten enough for next winter. I will take most of our trade goods and the male yearlings for sale, and with the help of a few others I will remain in the south to visit our trade partners. The rest of you will take the herds and push straight north until you pass the Sea of Awakening.”
Nielthi, his younger sister and his second in command, comes to Nuin afterwards. “You're certain?” she asks, her expression tight.
“Yes,” Nuin replies simply.
She furrows her brow, an her hand tightens around her wrist. “Those chosen by The Powers...good does not always come to them, Nuin.”
He has nothing to say to that.
“I'm coming with you,” his sister announces, and their eyes meet, both the same grey color.
“Who will lead the caravan?” Nuin counters.
Nielthi brushes away his objection like a gnat. “Brother, we travel the same path every year. A child could trace it, and I'm not the only one with a head on my shoulders. Besides,” she reminds him, pointedly raising an eyebrow, “I followed you when you had the mad idea to found a new clan. If the Lord of Dreams is calling you, I'm not leaving you wander off alone.”
Surrendering the debate, Nuin throws his head back and laughs. “That was a long time ago, Nielthi. Look at us now! Larger than the Cuind and the Penni - I wasn't the only unsatisfied heart among the Avari who chafed under the ways of our elders. Now they call the Kinn-lai the greatest traders and nomads of the speaking peoples, and I say it is a title well earned!”
His sister shakes her head, and playfully pushes him toward his shelter. “Go help pack, you strutting pheasant. We'll be busy tomorrow.”
Nuin squints up at the sky as he walks, judging the quality of light. The haze is even thicker than it was twelve suns ago, when the Singing Rock caravan headed north, and the spring has turned unseasonably chilly.
Nuin, Nielthi and the remaining Kinn-lai took their animals to trade with a nearby village of Hwenti, as they did every spring, exchanging goats, sheep, and fine crafted goods for a considerable quantity of fish, eel, waterfowl and other gifts of the Sea-Lord. Nielthi and her persuasive tongue even managed to obtain two pearls in return for their best bronze knife – a prize worthy of a chieftain! Nuin's lingering sense of unease and his recurring dreams have been put aside for the moment as he basks in the satisfaction of a good deal.
Another twelve or so suns trading once they reach the Windan, and the Kinn-lai will have a good array worth presenting to the Stone People of the mountains. For exotic foods and materials, the short, squat Stone People trade the caravans exquisite works in metal and stone. Though the Windan possess no less skill and craftsmanship, and the knives they make keep a keen edge, the Stone People mine finer ore, and have gold and gems in great quantity.
Breathing in, Nuin tastes ash on the wind, and the desire to roam and see new places crests like a wave in his breast. “Nielthi?” he calls over his shoulder.
His sister grunts as she shifts a heavy pack with her new acquisitions. “What, windy-thoughts? You were staring at the air like it might turn into honeycakes.”
“I'm going off for a while,” Nuin tells her.
“What, now?” Nielthi replies, surveying her brother from head to toe.
“Yes,” he says. “Alone.”
His sister sighs, recognizing his famous tenacity. “At least take a guard-dog, and a couple of pack goats,” Nielthi tells him, familiar with his habits and resigned to her chieftain occasionally sneaking off to trek uncharted wilderness.
Too potent a strain of Tatyarin blood, went the family joke. Nuin always countered by reminding them that he was half Nelyar as well, through both sides, and it was hardly his fault if he liked to go on the occasional walk.
Nuin clasps his sister's forearm in gratitude, and the siblings exchange smiles.“I'll visit Morwë when I'm finished, and you can meet me there,” he says, before whistling for a dog.
The chieftain of the Kinn-lai goes east, always east. East to the end of the world.
His dreams drive him; every morning they feel like a string tied round his neck, pulling him forward with each step. No elf has ever explored this far, not even the Windan. But beneath his feet Nuin can feel the path, real and solid as stone. He's seeking something. There is a purpose he is drawing towards – a reward? A treasure?
The first wether-goat drowns in a river crossing. Nuin recovers the waterlogged pack from its body, butchers it, and moves on. His dog's neck is snapped by a charging auroch bull as they near the coast. Nuin wraps the body in a cloth and buries it, and the next day he watches the golden sun-disk rise out of an endless, rippling sea. The second wether-goat breaks a leg sometime after they double back inland and bear south, and Nuin has to slit his last goat's throat as a mercy. The elf washes his bloody hands clean within sight of a strange mountain with slick, perfectly round walls like obsidian glass, sheered off at the top as though someone took a hot knife and passed it right through the rock.
That's also the day the sky begins to rain ash, settling quietly in grey heaps like snow. Nuin takes it as a sign, and does not move on. He camps at the base of the strange mountain as the days grow darker and colder, and the sun hides its face. Something is wrong in the world.
Nuin keeps hold of his faith, and waits.
On the darkest, coldest night yet, Nuin awakens to a tumult of noise, a crashing and a rumbling he can feel ripple through the earth. The elf knows that deadly sound from the mountains of the north – an avalanche.
But here? There's no rockfall here. The land is nearly flat, except for that strange, perfectly circular mountain towering over the forest and gleaming in the dim remaining sunlight. Nuin spent seven suns trying to walk around it, but the monolith is so large he had to give up and turn back without discovering its true size. In the dark blackness without stars, Nuin can only wait until morning to discover what's happened.
The elf doesn't sleep, just huddles in the shelter he's built, trying to tease out the tattered pieces of his dream before the rockslide woke him. Dawn is not far.
Is it his imagination, or is the gloom thinning, and the moon shining more brightly than usual? Nuin's intuition, or perhaps the Lord of Dreams, tells the elf that something is coming, like a storm bearing down on the whole world.
Raising his head from his chest, Nuin listens. No birds sing. No wind blows. The world has gone quiet.
And then it happens – dawn, the first real dawn in the world. It's glorious and terrifying, ripping the ash and clouds and smoke from the sky. At the touch of this new light, the blackness dissolves like a cloud of locusts, and for the first time since the Quendi awakened by the sacred waters, the faint morning star can be seen rising in the east. Frightened as much as awed, Nuin almost throws himself down and hides his face, but gathers his courage instead, leaves the tree cover, and ventures into the clearing.
I didn't know anything about light until this moment, Nuin thinks as the first burning rays from that disk of fire break over the horizon. Is bright a color? Because if so, that is the true color of the sun. The light feels so warm on his skin, Nuin marvels, reaching out to touch it. That foul haze must have dampened the sun's fire as the light passed through.
Everything has such brilliant colors – Nuin never dreamed the sky could be such a kindly blue, or that grass could look so wonderfully green. Even his own hair has changed; beneath the unveiled sun, the dark color reveals undertones of bronze when illuminated.
Overcome, Nuin raises his hands to the sky. “El-ā!” he shouts in the ancient tongue. “El-ā! Glory to the Queen of Night! Sing praise to the Star-kindler, the Lady of Power, Sky-Ruler, she who has defeated the Dark One with her light! El-ā!”
Like one dreaming, Nuin goes to the mountain.
A way has been opened for him. During the night, the mountain's shining white surface has broken away to reveal a passage twice his height, stretching away deep into the rock. Nuin enters the cool, shadowy tunnel without fear. The Powers have guided him here, and though he walks through the jaws of Death, things that are appointed by Fate will not be denied.
What the elf finds is more strange and terrifying then all that has come before. Like an orchard surrounded by a wall, inside the mountain is a valley full of fruit trees, nuts, berries, and all manner of foods, all unnaturally ripe at once, though some plants only bear fruit in autumn and others only flower in spring. But even that unseasonable bounty is not the strangest thing.
Everywhere he looks Nuin finds sleeping bodies of strange form, laid out on the ground in pairs. Though they resemble elves, they are oddly proportioned, and ugly; some seem to be male, and others female.
Frightened and amazed, Nuin wanders through this enormous garden, finding not a single soul awake, just more sleeping not-elves. Though hunger gnaws in his belly, Nuin dares not touch a single fruit. He does not think this bounty was meant for him.
Finally, Nuin comes upon a fountain issuing from the ground, and stoops to drink. The water is clearer and sweeter than anything the elf has ever tasted, and it shakes him down to the core. “The water of awakening,” he whispers to himself, laying a hand over his heart. So the elves awoke, beside the Waters of Awakening. Nuin trembles, knowing he steps on holy ground, and misses his sister keenly.
Then the elf hears a cry, not far away. Nuin races toward the sound, nimbly dodging through the sleepers, straining his ears for another sound. Rounding a thicket of berry bushes, Nuin spies something moving. He stops short, and his breath catches.
Two of the sleepers are miraculously awake. Flopping and squirming, they move like infants too young to know how to crawl. The poor things don't seem to understand what to do with their newly discovered limbs. The larger one, the male, gives another pitiful, helpless cry.
Nuin's heart is moved, and he goes to the helpless creatures. The female is the first to see him, her dark eyes going wide and round, innocent curiosity surpassing her distress.
“Welcome, and may the Powers and the One bless our meeting,” Nuin murmurs in a low voice, trying to soothe them.
The male is watching now, his head tipped to the side at the sound of Nuin's voice. But the female is a fearless one, and she wriggles closer to explore.
Smiling, the elf kneels down, and reaches his hand out to the newborn.
She takes it.
About the Author
Anthropologyarda is a lifelong fan of Tolkien's works with a particular interest in exploring obscure corners of the legendarium, and applying science to Middle-earth. Their Tolkien-centric writing can be found on tumblr here.