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Sanguine Prayers

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Story banner: a clip from a watercolor painting of two elves riding a horse, dogs running beside them. Cursive script says the title, Sanguine Prayers, and below it are the names of the author, ingenious_spark, and the artist, huanhoundofvalinor.

It started, as many things did for Turcafinwë Tyelcormo Fëanárion, with a dog.

He heard the trundling crash of something in the woods beyond the stream first, and looked. He saw, not a person on horseback unused to traveling quietly as he thought he might, but a thing that at first glance appeared to be a boar. It burst through the thick, tangled foliage, chasing a smaller animal whose pale fur was tangled and dirty. It was a large dog, barking in fear, calling for help.

Tyelcormo had his bow in hand before he truly thought about what he was seeing. He nocked an arrow and nudged his horse to go faster, breaking into a gallop as he barked to the dog, a sound of 'help-is-here'. Huan leapt across the stream to the other dog's side, and Tyelcormo shot the pursuing beast deep in its black, red-glowing eye, the arrow driving deep.

The thing didn't even stumble. Cold dread pooled in the pit of Tyelcormo's stomach. Black ichor seeped from the pierced eye, and the fletching of his arrow withered like a dead leaf. He barked a warning to Huan, who was darting back and forth in front of the not-boar. The pale dog dove for cover in a dense pricker-bush as they distracted the creature.

Huan howled, darting in to nip at the creature's shoulder to keep its attention, then doubled back towards the stream. Ah- Tyelcormo understood his intent. This beast was corrupted by foul magics, or created from them wholesale. If they got the thing over the stream, they could likely disrupt the magic enough to destroy it. He barked to the strange dog, trying to get it across the stream to where it was safer too. There was no telling how long they'd be able to keep the not-boar's attention from its desired prey. The pricker-bush rustled, and the not-boar's attention was diverted back to the pale dog as it made a desperate, limping run for the stream. Clumps and tufts of pale fur remained among the thorns, some dyed with blood. Tyelcormo shot three arrows in quick succession into the strange, bubbling hide of the beast, stymieing it for long enough that the dog could dive into the water. Huan splashed out, large enough to reach the bottom, scruffing the smaller dog and pulling it to safety.

The boar-beast trumpeted in anger, rearing to paw the air with overgrown, gnarled hooves. Then it charged the stream, making Tyelcormo's horse shy. Tyelcormo vaulted to the ground letting her run from the fight, shooting another two arrows in quick succession as he was airborne. Both arrows dug into the beast's other eye with great force as it splashed into the stream, but Tyelcormo didn't pause to see if it had worked, using his new angle to put three more arrows in a tight cluster where its jugular vein should have been, if it were a real boar. It squealed horrifically, making Tyelcormo's ears ring, rearing again. The water was foaming around its legs, and Tyelcormo made a last, desperate shot at the belly of the beast. Finally it collapsed in the stream, motionless. The water foamed up furiously around its corpse, and as Tyelcormo watched, the flesh dissolved into the water as though it had never been, leaving behind a pile of black-stained bones.

"Oromë's bowfingers," he breathed in shock, riding his adrenaline high back down. "Huan, are you well?" He asked, calling for his gelding, Orna, who luckily hadn't gone far. Huan barked an affirmative, gently licking the ears of the other dog, who was collapsed on the ground, sides heaving with labored breaths. Tyelcormo took a moment to finish catching his breath, and then moved closer to examine the dog, movements slow so as not to spook it. It looked strangely familiar, in a way he couldn't place.

"Hello, little one," he murmured quietly. "Let me check your paws?" He extended a hand, palm up, and waited. The dog set one paw into his hand, and he inspected it gently, sweeping his eyes over the rest of the dog's body as well. The dog was a bitch, and her paws were raw and a little bloody. Tyelcormo nodded to himself, making a decision. "I'm going to pick you up, and we're going back to my camp to get you cleaned up." That niggling familiarity was bothering him. He rose from kneeling to crouch by the dog and lift her into his arms, head and forepaws resting against his shoulder. She was a big dog, but luckily not as large as Huan, so he was able to do so without difficulty. Her fur, where it brushed his cheek, was matted and dirty, and he wondered sadly if he would have to shave her in order to restore her surely beautiful coat. He wasn't even entirely sure what color the dog was supposed to be- pale yellow? Light brown? Grey? White? Whatever the case, they would soon find out.

He walked back to his camp, about an hour on foot, Huan and Orna following behind. When he got back, Nahta and Hlóna sat up, barking eager greetings, clearly woken once more from the nap he’d left them in. He set the strange dog down on a soft patch of grass and set his hands on his hips, considering his options. He had all of his dogs’ brushes and combs. He had vinegar, in case of fleas, and a soothing ointment for her paws. They could find another stream as well, bathe the poor sweet bitch. Unluckily, he was still about nine days’ ride from Nargothrond- he’d been visiting the ever recalcitrant Carnistir. He was a ways outside of the wood the Doriathrim called Nan Elmoth, and advised everyone, even those they did not like, to steer clear of.

Tyelcormo opened his saddlebags, pulling out his brushes and turning back to the dogs. Huan, Nahta, and Hlóna had formed ranks around the pale dog, and he laughed, wading into the pile of furry bodies and wagging tails. He knelt and began the laborious process of brushing out the dog’s fur, taking note of any mats too badly entrenched to come out. Those would have to be cut out, unfortunately.

“There we go, my girl,” he murmured softly and the bitch nuzzled against his hand, gently dabbing him with her soft black nose. She gazed up at him with soulful dark eyes, big and trusting, and he leaned in with a soft coo, pressing a tender kiss to her snout. “You’re such a beautiful girl,” he said with gentle confidence. Her fur, now that it was less dirty, seemed to be white. Her build looked even more familiar now, and it suddenly came to him. She looked like one of the snow-dogs the Ñoldor had bred as companions when they were considering if they should try to cross the Grinding Ice, or attempt a sea crossing.

“You know, my dearest friend Írissë had a dog like you. She called her Findel, for her beautiful coat. So fluffy. We’ll have to get you nice and fluffy again.” The snow-dog’s tail was suddenly wagging so hard Hlóna let out a yip of protest when it hit her. Tyelcormo frowned. That was a recognition response. But- Írissë was supposed to be with Turucáno, in the other hidden city in Beleriand. She’d never let one of her beloved dogs range this far from her, or get into such horrible shape. Not unless she had no other choice- or unless her choice had been stripped from her. “Findel?” He asked, dread pooling cold and heavy in his stomach. The bitch gave a happy, affirmative bark, and Tyelcormo exchanged a deeply worried look with Huan. “Findel where’s Írissë, girl?” He asked, sitting back on his heels. Findel whined mournfully, raising her head to look in the direction they’d come from. “You mean- she’s in Nan Elmoth?” Tyelcormo asked, and she gave a small, sad affirmation.

There was only one conclusion Tyelcormo could draw from that- Írissë was a captive in Nan Elmoth somehow, being held against she will. There was no other way around it! She’d never let Findel get into this state if she were free and well.

“Shit.” Tyelcormo muttered, scrubbing his face with shaking hands. “Okay. What do I know about Nan Elmoth.” He’d asked Carnistir once, if he knew why even the Doriathrim were so wary of the place. Carnistir had told him of a Sinda sorcerer, a practitioner of dangerous and possibly even forbidden magic. Elu Thingol himself had made a deal with Eöl, giving him Nan Elmoth in exchange for some kind of magical sword. A strange deal, in Tyelcormo’s opinion- a single blade for a portion of a kingdom? No matter how beautifully forged or deeply enchanted, he didn’t think it was worth it. But then, he wasn’t Elu Thingol, thank all the Valar.

His mind flashed back to the thing that might have once been a boar. Definitely some construct of forbidden magic, especially with how the stream had boiled away its simulacrum of flesh. Did the Sindar even have the same concept as the Ñoldor did? So, forbidden magic, to create constructs that looked at least mostly like animals. Could their creator see from their eyes, hear from their ears? Tyelcormo could not afford to assume otherwise. So how would he steal into Nan Elmoth, if it was potentially full of cleverly-hidden spies? Tyelcormo sighed, heaving himself to his feet. He could think more on this while giving poor Findel a bath. He fetched his soap and, after a moment’s consideration, shucked out of his own clothes. He could give himself a bath at the same time as he bathed the dogs and save time.

He whistled to his dogs, scooping Findel up into his arms, and led them off to the river. He made certain they were upstream from the place where the stream from earlier fed into the river, not wanting to run the risk of getting some kind of spell residue on the dogs. Luckily he found a bend in the river that formed a calm little pool. He splashed in, followed by Huan, Nahta, and Hlóna, all barking joyously. He gently set Findel, who was wiggling eagerly, into the water, and grabbed the soap.

It was a very chaotic chore, attempting to bathe four wet, slippery, excited dogs, but eventually, Huan nudged everyone into order so Tyelcormo could finish soaping everyone up. Findel looked a lot better as they all soggily dragged themselves out of the river and onto the grassy bank to dry. Tyelcormo ducked behind a tree as the dogs all shook themselves out, trying to avoid getting any wetter as he squeezed out his own hair. He wished, not for the first time, that he could just shake it off like dogs could.

It was a warm day, so Tyelcormo strolled back to the campsite with Findel in his arms, letting the breeze finish drying them all off. Once they were back he mixed vinegar with water, applied it to a cloth and gave each dog a good rubdown to deter fleas. He dressed and braided his hair, and sighed.

“There’s only one option I can think of, Huan.” He complained. Huan dabbed his hand with a wet, soft nose sympathetically. “I need to pray.” He said grimly, and Huan whined.

Tyelcormo still paid homage to Oromë during every hunt, but he no longer actively prayed. He wasn’t sure how the Valar would take prayer from one who had been sentenced under the Doom of the Ñoldor, and especially a son of Fëanáro. To invoke the name of a Vala in prayer was to turn their eyes upon the invoker. That was the whole reason his father had sworn the Oath invoking Manwë and Varda in the first place.

He was scared. Scared Oromë had already turned his back on Tyelcormo, never to hold him in his favor again. Tyelcormo’s skills at hunting had not suffered, Huan was still at his side, he could still communicate with all manner of animals when he wished to. The signs of Oromë’s favor had never been revoked, as intrinsic as they were at this point. But he was still afraid. It was clear that Huan would not abandon him, not unless he did something horrible, but his other gifts could be fouled. He could be cursed with ill luck at hunting, or the animals could no longer heed him or-

A wet nose was suddenly nudged against his brow, and Tyelcormo startled. Ah, he’d been spiraling there, hadn’t he.

“Thanks Huan,” he murmured, pressing his face into Huan’s thick grey fur. Huan chuffed gently. Tyelcormo sighed. “You’re right. I need to have faith.” He muttered, though he made a face at that prospect. He stood smoothly, collecting his bow and arrows once more. “Stay here, you guys. I think I need to do this alone.” He told Huan and the other dogs. Huan caught his eyes and sat, dark eyes full of faith. Tyelcormo choked down an inexplicable sob, and wiped his eyes roughly with his arm. He ruffled each dog’s ears in turn, mustering up a smile. “I’ll bring back dinner, don’t you fear.” He said with only slightly false bravado.

Tyelcormo avoided Nan Elmoth proper, sticking to the wooded hills. He found a deer herd easily enough, and settled on a smaller young buck for his mark. One shot, one kill. He could do this- he had done it before, several times. But it was the challenge that always drew him back to hunting in this particular manner. Nestled in a tree above them, he drew, sighted, adjusted his angle for wind speed and any other atmospheric variables, and waited, arm muscles singing under the pressure of his draw.

And released, arrow singing through the air to bury itself neatly in his chosen buck’s throat.

The rest of the herd promptly scattered, tails showing white in alarm. Tyelcormo climbed down, wading through the high grasses to his kill. He retrieved his arrow, noting that it was undamaged. A good sign. He knelt, taking a deep breath and staring his prey in its unseeing eyes. He dipped his fingers into the trickle of blood from the wound and anointed his brow.

“To you, as ever, I dedicate this kill.” He sang, low and rough. Macalaurë would hate how un-fluid, unpracticed he sounded right now. Then again, he’d never particularly liked any of Tyelcormo’s hunt-songs. Always trying to tell him how to make them better. Never quite getting that Oromë preferred the raw and unpolished hymns of his faithful, the improvisation of them. Tyelcormo loved his brother- all of his brothers. But in this, he had always been alone, save for Írissë. Which was why he had to get her back. “To you, Hunt-Lord, the Seeker, He Whose Way is Unerring, I give you homage, first blood of my prey.” He swallowed hard. “Lord Oromë, Hunting-Horn, fleet-footed and fair. I pray of you, as He Who Loved Us First, to help me bring forth a lost member of your Hunt into the light, into the fold of your loving host. I have strayed far, but remained faithful. Allow me this blessing and I will run joyfully back to your side as soon as I am unbound from oaths that keep me.” The words felt like bitter almond on his tongue. He regretted the Oath of his father bitterly, but he could not promise even his patron Vala to revoke an oath made before Manwë and Varda, invoking Eru in the highest. “This I pray, as your faithful.” He concluded, throat somehow already sore. Though that was perhaps the work, more than anything, of the apprehensive lump lodged in his throat.

Nothing happened and he wasn’t sure what he expected, if anything. A sign he was heard? An arrow from the blue come to smite him down for daring to pray to that which he forsook as filial duty?

Tyelcormo let out a shaky sigh and stood, dragging the carcass a little ways away to gut and blood the deer and bury the unusable offal. The blood dried tacky on his brow but he was careful not to wipe it off. If Oromë extended his blessing after all he wanted some tangible connection to it. A superstition, probably. He heaved the carcass over his shoulders and returned to his camp. Huan leaned up against his back as he skinned the animal expertly, chuffing softly into his hair. Tyelcormo felt tears threatening at that blatant show of support.

“Huan, I can’t cry while skinning,” He muttered, a faint childish whine creeping into his voice. Huan chuffed cheerfully, licking the back of his head in one fell swoop. Tyelcormo squawked in alarm, Huan’s tongue pulling weirdly at his hair, even in its braid. “Huan I just washed that you ass!” he howled, and the other dogs immediately crowded around to see what was going on. “Come on you guys, I need to finish if you want dinner,” he complained, gently shoving Nahta’s brown and black brindled body out of his face. She yipped in indignation, as if to say that she needed to be the center of his attention right now . Such a needy girl. Huan gave another deeply amused sound, before gently herding Nahta and Hlóna back off of him so he could get back to work. He looked over his shoulder, and Findel was resting her head on her paws with a big doggy grin up until Hlóna sat on her. He chuckled a little and finished with his work, carving off a chunk of the shoulder meat for himself, along with a bit of the nice organ meat to make a good stew. He set aside the hide to tan it with the brain after he was done prepping his dinner, and then stood with a soft groan.

“Have at the rest of it, just let Findel get a decent amount, okay? She needs to get her strength back.” He told the dogs, and they descended on the carcass with enthusiasm. He made his stew and tanned his hide and brushed the dog slobber mostly out of his hair before re-braiding it.

He slept uneasily under the vast expanse of the stars, restless and afraid.

He got up before the sun rose, shedding the shreds of ill dreams like a dog would shed water.

“Time to go,” he grunted, and the dogs all bounded to their feet, Findel seeming recovered enough to walk on her own. He broke camp and led Orna and his pack to the edge of Nan Elmoth, somehow knowing where the true border of the forest lay, but the way the dim glow of the impending sunrise balked to enter that dark place. He pulled his cloak from Orna’s saddlebag, pulling the green and brown garment on. He would not take his sword nor his bow, only his knives and the arrow with which he had killed the deer earlier tucked into his boot.

“Wait here for me, and hide yourselves,” he murmured, rubbing Orna’s nose gently, and scratching each of the four dogs between the ears. Huan looked at him reprovingly. Ah. That was an argument he didn’t have time to try to win. “Fine, yes, you’re coming too.” Tyelcormo sighed. Huan looked insufferably smug. Together they plunged into Nan Elmoth proper. The light changed from the dim grey of predawn to the dark of a moonless night. Even the starlight, it seemed, feared to enter here. Tyelcormo stole through the dim trees, Huan a grey wraith by his side, until he reached what seemed to him a dark palace complex, surrounded by high walls. The walls were made of dark stone, and seemed more grown than built, but not in a way that comforted him. As a result they looked to slick to climb, and offered no handholds or placed to dig in either dagger or spike. The tops of the walls were lined with distinctly unfriendly iron spikes. The gate was flanked by two people that seemed to be animated suits of dark armor more than actual elves. Pale balefire served them for eyes staring forward out of their helms. They carried staves topped by green crystal that shed a somehow ominous pale light, and wore swords at their hips. Tyelcormo nodded to Huan, and they skirted the perimeter of the structure, looking for another way in.

They found the waste outflow gate first, low-set and heavily barred. An unviable entrance, though perhaps acceptable as a last resort. On the opposite side of the palace, they found a smaller gate, though thoroughly locked and barred from the inside, unwilling to budge when Tyelcormo set his shoulder against it. Huan lifted his nose and whuffed softly, and Tyelcormo followed the dog to a stand of trees. Ah, he’d caught the scent of groundwater; there was a well here, built of dark stone but roofed in ordinary wood. There was another green crystal set into a metal sconce on one of the supporting beams to light it. There was no bucket on the crank, only the hook for one. Tyelcormo peered down it, straining his eyes, and caught a glint of water at the bottom. No way for Huan to get in, unfortunately. Unless he could let him in through the door once he was inside?

“Wait by the door,” he told Huan in a subvocal murmur. Huan trotted away into the gloom, clearly agreeing that he could not get in through the well. Tyelcormo swung himself over the lip of the well and by pressing his hands and feet tight against the walls of the shaft, scooted his way downwards until his feet hit water. He let go, entering the water with a muted splash. The water was up to his hips, so he wouldn’t have to swim. He slogged grimly forward through the absolute darkness, hands in front of him so he wouldn’t crash into any walls. He had to wade stooped over, his head occasionally brushing the wet roof of the low passage, catching and pulling at his hair.

Soon enough Tyelcormo saw a faint green light from above, and determined he had reached the inner palace well shaft. Using the same method, he shimmied up the well shaft- then paused. Over the top of the well were glimmering strands of something, stretched tight in a crosshatch patten, with only enough space for the bucket to be lowered in the center. Carefully he shifted his weight enough to touch one of the strands, and bit his lip to contain a pained noise when it sliced open his finger neatly. It was a shallow cut, nothing too bad. Pressing his feet more firmly to the walls, he freed his hands and reached for one of his knives. Carefully and quietly he cut the strands of wire, leaning out of the way of the tensile recoil. Soon enough all the strands were cut, and he peered out over the lip of the well cautiously. He saw no movement in the green-tinted shadows and vaulted silently out.

It took him a moment to gather his bearings, seeing that he was just outside a building that looked like a smithy, to Tyelcormo’s practiced eyes. Just beyond the edge of the building he saw the smaller gate, lit by a single crystal in a wall sconce. He stole over, relieved to see it was barred and bolted rather than locked. He pulled the bolt across first, then got his shoulders under the beam, lifting in a surge. For one less physically strong than he, lifting that beam would be impossible, and even for him it was a strain. Carefully he reached behind him, pushing the gate open and making a slightly wheezy chuff to signal Huan. Huan slipped inside and he pulled the gate back closed, carefully lowering the bar back in place. Turning, he slid the bolt back across, rolling out his shoulders with a grimace.

Tyelcormo nodded to Huan, who put his nose to work. They slipped across the courtyard and paused at a building that looked to be a barn. Huan whined faintly, and Tyelcormo peered in the door, whipping back, heart pounding, as a creature of some kind made its way out of the structure. It looked sort of like an elf, but skeletal, with skin like leather stretched over bone that appeared to no longer have flesh, pale balefire glowing in the pits it had for eyes, a few lingering strands of hair straggling over its skull. It was dressed incongruously neatly, in dark breeches and boots and a dark tunic with what Tyelcormo surmised to be the sigil of Eöl’s house neatly embroidered on the breast.

Luckily it plodded away single-mindedly, without seeming to look around at all. Tyelcormo took a second to calm his racing heart before slipping into the barn. There were stables along the back wall, one housing a sleeping black stallion. The one right beside it housed an animal that it took Tyelcormo longer than he would have liked to identify. It was a familiar blue roan gelding, but he had a sword jammed through his head, the hilt resting beneath his chin and the blade erupting from his head, just forward of his ears. The horse wasn’t dead, though, and whickered softly when he saw him. He too had pale balefire for eyes, and Tyelcormo’s heart ached to see Írissë’s prized Hortalë so abused. They wouldn’t be able to take her horse with them, not with how he had been transformed by foul magic. Low whimpers met his ears, and he turned to the third stall, peering over the door. There were Fúmella and Thala, Írissë’s other two dogs, barred behind a grate of iron, looking thin and matted and sad. They gave pathetically eager whines when they saw him, and he quickly pressed a finger to his lips, nudging Huan. Huan chuffed quietly to them, and both dogs moved to a corner of the stall. More razor wire now covered what looked to be a tunnel- probably dug straight out beneath the wall. That was probably how Findel had escaped. Were they using it to escape and hunt? It warmed his aching heart to realize that they must be staying here for Írissë’s sake.

“Good pups,” Tyelcormo murmured, inspecting the iron gate. There was another iron gate clamped over the top edges of the stall, roofing them off as well, which must be why they had dug instead of jumping. There was a gate built into the front of the grate, with the latches loaded with springs so the dogs could not try to open them. He opened it and beckoned them out. “Wait by the servant’s gate, but take care not to be seen,” he told them, and they slunk off to presumably do just that. Tyelcormo turned to Huan again, who wagged his tail briefly, and then led the way to the main residence. The front entrance was guarded by two more of the animated suits of armor, and when they did a circuit around the building, he could see more of the skeletal servants moving silently around inside.

The sheer silence of this place was starting to eat at him. The only sounds that seemed to exist in this bizarre pocket of reality were the sounds of the wind through the trees beyond the walls. Not even birdsong dared breach the desolate silence. Tyelcormo saw no other animals within the walls, though he had seen a few out in the forest. Not nearly as many as he thought there should be, but it seemed a horrible place for anything to live. He wondered if the animals he had seen were bound here somehow, because he couldn’t imagine anything willingly living here.

At last he reached a window connected to a deserted room. He pulled free a dagger, jimmied the lock open and pulled the window outwards, letting Huan jump inside before following, closing the window softly after them, and latching it once more. Tyelcormo peered out into the hallway, and nodded to Huan, who slipped by like a grey ghost. The place was decorated in a manner that did not invite coziness or comfort. The furniture itself seeming hostile, all offensively straight lines, spiky ornamentation, and a distinct lack of any upholstery whatsoever, not even cushions or throw pillows. The inside of the palace was lit with more crystals, but instead of the green from outside, these were blue, which Tyelcormo did not actually find comforting in the slightest. The walls were bare of tapestries or paintings wherever he looked, though there were some strange statues formed of dark stone and animal bone. He thought he should find them interesting to look at, since he was fond of building interesting sculptures from animal bones himself, but he only found them deeply unsettling.

They made slow progress through the palace, dodging more skeletal servants. It was only sheer luck or Lord Oromë’s blessing that they weren’t caught. Tyelcormo’s heart never quite stopped racing, every single time they caught the faint footfalls of the revenant servants and had to duck aside into shadow or a different room. Finally, upstairs, they found a corner of the palace that seemed promising. Instead of the dark grey, black, and dark, steely blue of the decorating downstairs, this area seemed to be decorated mostly in cloud-soft pale grey, tinted bluish from the lighting. There was still a lack of soft comfort, but the overwhelming hostility seemed rounded off at the corners, so to speak.

There was also a distinct lack of the skeletal servants. Tyelcormo took this opportunity to glance into the rooms along the hallway. One seemed to be a workroom with a bench below the window, a basket of what seemed to be embroidery lying abandoned upon it. There was a large table made for drafting and cutting clothes there as well, and a large chest made of cedarwood by the smell, likely for keeping cloth in. There was a tall chest with many cleverly crafted drawers that most likely held thread, scissors, needles, and other sewing supplies. A clever mannequin made of fine mesh wire on a sturdy post of dark wood stood towards the other end of the room, exactly the height he remembered Írissë to be. Tyelcormo had to cool a flash of rage in his breast. Sewing was never a pastime Írissë enjoyed, though she could tolerate it well enough. Of her family it was Turucáno who had truly enjoyed it, along with embroidery. This spoke to Tyelcormo as someone trying to rewrite Írissë’s personality to fit some ideal they had invented from whole-cloth.

Írissë’s true workshop would, and had, smelled of leather and oil, sawdust and glue, not the faint aroma of cedar and naught else, for her passions lay in the same vein as his own. She loved to craft with leather, and could make even the daintiest slippers fit for the fussiest of elves given only a hide, her tools, and time. She made her own bows and arrows, and took pride in her skill at fletching. Many fond afternoons the two of them had spent, racing to see who could fletch their arrows the neatest and the fastest, and the prettiest as well, when Tyelcormo could get his hands on dye for their goose-feathers.

Tyelcormo realized with a start that the palace was practically scentless as well, smelling faintly of the oils used to polish wood, and the strange, lingering scent of dusty leather and very subtle dry rot that seemed to belong to the skeletal servants.

He took a deep breath and gently closed the door of the horrible sewing room. It seemed to him like the double door at the end of the hallway ought to be the bedroom, so he’d try that first, before checking the other rooms. Huan stopped along the wall, and Tyelcormo glanced back at him in concern. Huan sat down facing the way back into the main house, and pricked his ears forward, in an alert posture. Ah. He was going to stand watch and give the alarm if anything was coming. He backtracked a couple of steps and gratefully stroked his head. Then he hurried for probable bedroom, setting his ear against the door briefly to see if he could hear anything.

Tyelcormo heard gentle, slow breathing, as though in sleep, coming from a solitary inhabitant within. He eased the door open, grateful all the hinges in this place seemed so well balanced and well oiled, and slipped inside, shutting the door behind him. Within he saw the first soft thing he’d seen within these walls: a large bed with dark blue curtains, tied back with white silken, tasseled cords. The linens were crisp and almost alarmingly white, with a dark blue and grey quilt folded at the foot of the bed. Across the stark white pillow lay a spill of blessedly familiar black hair. A familiar, graceful form lay just covered by the sheets, one delicate brown hand resting on her hip, her face turned away as she slept on her side.

“Írissë!” Tyelcormo breathed in knee-weakening relief. He hurried to the bed and sat gently on the edge, reaching out to shake her shoulder. “Írissë!” He spoke just a little louder, trying to rouse her from her slumber. She made a blessedly familiar discontented noise, turning her face into her pillow with a muffled complaint. He couldn’t help the relieved grin curving his mouth, making his cheeks hurt with how broad his smile was. “Come on, Írissë, don’t be lazy. Or shall I call you Aredhel? Do you prefer that now?” He asked, shaking her shoulder again. She let out a truly grouchy noise and sat up, hair tumbling into her face before she pushed it back over her shoulders. It was shorter than he remembered. Tyelcormo met her eyes with an adoring smile, and his heart dropped like a stone, smile and lighthearted mood shattering.

There was no recognition in her beautiful grey-blue eyes. She seemed to look through him, rather than at him.

“Írissë?” He whispered, heart in his throat, reaching out to touch her cheek. That sparked a reaction- she jerked away from his touch. He pulled his hand away quickly, folding his hands on his own thigh. “Írissë- Aredhel , it’s Turco. Celegorm.” The Sindarin version of his own name had always felt awkward on his tongue, and now it felt even more so. She frowned, though, a look of concentration. “We rode the Wild Hunt together, remember? We’ve known each other since we were young, back in Valinor.” He tried desperately. “Please, Íri- Aredhel. I’ve come to get you out of here. Findel found me. You remember Findel, right? And Fúmella, and Thala? Huan is here, in the hallway. He’ll be so glad to see you, Aredhel.”

“Findel…” she murmured, a hand raising to knead her brow, like she had a headache.

“Yes, Findel, your snow-dog. She’s the reason I knew you’d be here, Aredhel, you’d never abandon your dogs.” He ached to reach out to her, but given her earlier reaction he refrained, twisting his fingers together in his lap.

“My dogs.” She muttered. “He told me Findel died. I cried. I wanted to find her body so I could bury her and he got mad, sent me back up to my rooms. I begged him, and he sent me to sleep.” Írissë- Aredhel?- sounded like she was asking a question more than making a statement. Tyelcormo bit his lip hard. She should be able to remember easier than this. That she couldn’t- that meant more spells had been woven around her than a mere compulsion to sleep. The faint scent of blood tinged the air and he licked his lip, realizing he had bitten it bloody.

Ah.

Blood. That might be the answer. If Eöl had woven his spells using her blood, that would make a lot of sense. It was forbidden among the Ñoldor for very good reasons. It was far too easy to abuse. Suddenly Huan slid into the room, giving a warning chuff. Someone was coming. Tyelcormo looked around frantically, and saw her wardrobe first. He pulled the latch open and slid inside.

“Under the bed!” He hissed to Huan, who obeyed with alacrity. Tyelcormo pulled the door shut after him, letting it latch as well, despite locking him in the cramped space. He could always force the lock with one of his daggers later. He focused on keeping the sound of his breathing as faint as possible.

The door opened, and with it came the scent of cooked food. The creak of a wheeled cart, and then the soft clatter of dishes being transferred to some other surface. There must be some kind of breakfast table in the room he hadn’t seen. After all, the sun had probably risen by now, it was likely breakfast time.

“Eat your food.” The order was given in a voice that made Tyelcormo want to cover his ears- like they’d start bleeding if he continually listened to it.

“Thank you,” Írissë murmured, and he heard her stand from the bed, heard the light sound of her footsteps and the soft scrape of a chair being pulled out.

“He will see you when you are done.” The voice said again. It had to be one of the skeletal servants. He hadn’t known they could talk. Honestly, he wished he still didn’t know.

There was a pregnant pause.

“…I understand.” Írissë said, her voice hard, sounding deeply uncomfortable. He heard the creak of the cart being wheeled back out, heard the simultaneously light and heavy tread of the servant exiting the room. Heard the door softly latch behind it.

Heard Írissë catch her breath in a muffled sob.

Tyelcormo quickly pulled out his knife and forced the latch of the wardrobe, spilling out ungracefully. By the time he pulled himself to his feet, Huan had beaten him to the punch. Huan laid his head in her lap where she was, indeed seated at a small, round breakfast table, a sumptuous spread laid out on a tray before her. Good dark bread gleaming with melted butter, a pot of dark jam beside it. Thin-sliced smoked fish were artistically arranged beside thicker slices of sausage on a small plate and a boiled egg sat in an eggcup beside them. Two little egg-custard pastries sat on another dish, beside a small bowl of cut strawberries glistening with a thin coating of honey. It made Tyelcormo’s stomach, currently filled mostly with waybread, what berries he could scrounge, and meat, grumble a little at the variety and delicious scent. Írissë sat with her face in her hands, however, ignoring the food. He hurried to her side, kneeling next to Huan and wishing he too could lay his head in his most beloved’s lap.

“Aredhel,” he said, and she looked up, confused. Like she couldn’t recall that they had spoken, that she had seen him.

“You’ve dirt on you,” she said in a confused tone, eyes and cheeks glistening with tears, reaching out to his forehead. He jerked away before she could wipe away his prayer, and she snatched her hand back like he had earlier. Instead she lowered her hands to Huan’s head, gently and deftly scratching his ears.

“Sorry, Aredhel.” Tyelcormo felt he had to apologize. “It’s important that it stays there.”

“If you say so, stranger.” She said, peering at him through her lashes. Once again his heart sank. What would it take for her to recognize him?

“I heard you crying.” He asked desperately. “What cause has an elf as beautiful as yourself to cry?” Gentle flattery had always inspired her to laugh at him, because they both knew she did not have it in herself to love romantically. Realistically he knew the old trick wouldn’t work, but he tried anyway, more fool he was. She looked away from him, out the window. The window, he noted, that had no hinge or latch. The more he saw the more he recognized this place for what it was- a beautifully appointed prison.

“I don’t wish to go to him. I’m sure it will be more tests. More attempts.” She said in a very flat tone. “I haven’t told him yet.”

“Told him what?” Tyelcormo coaxed gently.

“Told him that it’s worked. That he’s done it.”

“Done what?”

“Impregnated me.” The words dropped into the ambient silence like a stone into a pond, spreading more silence in its wake. Horrified silence on his part. It was supposed to be completely impossible to get an elf pregnant who did not want a babe, for to made a child both parents had to put parts of their very souls into the child. Unlike humans, who could conceive even from the horrific crime of rape. But it sounded as though she did not what this child, so how could she be carrying it? Indeed, when they were young, she had always said she would not marry nor lay with another elf simply because she could and because it felt good, because she had no desire to. If she wished for a child, she said, she would call upon a friend to grant that wish. It had been very controversial back in Tirion.

“Írissë?” Tyelcormo hated how fragile he sounded in that moment. Írissë frowned at him, the type of puzzled expression one made at being called by someone else’s name.

“You were calling me that before.” She said expectantly.

“It’s your name,” he replied helplessly.

“My name is Aredhel,” she asserted, looking confused.

“Aredhel was a name you took up later, when you reached Endórë from across the Helcaraxë. Írissë was your name in Valinor, the one your mother gave you. We all changed our names to try to reach common ground, and because the king of the Sindar outlawed the use of our language.” Tyelcormo tried to explain. Really, there were many cultural pressures that had led to them adapting their names, those were just the two most prevalent. Írissë held her head again, looking vaguely ill.

“I don’t…” she shook her head, her eyes drawn back up to his forehead. “Is that blood?” She asked, and Tyelcormo frowned. That was the second time her eyes had been drawn to that spot of flaking blood on his brow. Perhaps that was the key. He stood enough to pull the arrow from his boot, and used the sharp head to break open the cut he’d received from the razor wire over the well. He pressed his bleeding thumb to his forehead, where the dried mark was and then reached forward, waiting until she lowered her immediate defensive flutter of hands to press his thumb to her brow too. Then he leaned forward, pressing his head to hers, the blood smearing between them.

“Lord Oromë, hear the prayer of your faithful,” he dared not sing his prayer as was appropriate, and murmured it in the space between them instead. Írissë’s eyes went huge and round at the name of their patron Vala. “I seek to dispel magic laid on one of your beloved, cast with intent to harm, and against her will. I seek your benevolence- cast the magic from her mind!”

Again there was no reaction, no tangible feeling of frisson, no arrow come to strike him down. But Írissë’s hands came up to catch him in a desperate embrace, even as tears rolled down her face.

“Get me out of here, Turco.” She choked back a sob. “He’ll know, he’ll know,” she moaned.

“Then we gotta run. Is there anything here you can’t live without?” Tyelcormo said, rising to his feet and pulling her up with him.

“I don’t care, it’s all replaceable. I left mother’s necklace with Turno, and that’s the only thing I can’t replace.” She said, and he nodded, pulling her out the door. “He’ll know!” she hissed, glancing wildly back at the door. “You can’t kill the servants, and they’re unnaturally strong!” Írissë spoke from experience, he knew that tone of her voice. When Eöl had taken her it was deeply clear she hadn’t gone without a fight.

“Well we can’t go out the window, either, so we have to make a break for it. The dogs are waiting by the servants’ gate.” He muttered, and she swore quietly, following him out. Tyelcormo wished they had the time to get her into something more suitable for sneaking than what she wore- a long, sleeveless white nightdress was, needless to say, deeply impractical, even after she took a moment to gird her loins, tying the fabric up around her thighs. She’d picked up the arrow he brought at some point, holding it in a white-knuckled grip They hurried down the stairs, Huan taking point. They slid into the nearest room that Huan indicated was empty, and Tyelcormo immediately went for the window, unlatching it and shoving it open. Írissë went first, and he realized with dismay that she was still barefooted, in addition to the white nightdress. It was far too late to try to do something about it, though, so they continued their flight. He tucked Írissë under his cloak as they moved, the green and brown better at hiding them in the shadows as they moved to the servants’ gate.

Once they reached the gate, Tyelcormo immediately put his shoulders under the gate bar, and Írissë shot the bolt across before kneeling to greet Thala and Fúmella.

The bolt across the door felt even heavier somehow. He strained against it, lifting with all the power in his legs.

It was only when a pale, dark-clad figure appeared around the corner of the smithy that he found the burst of strength, born through panic, to move it, raising it out of its moorings and letting it slide off his shoulders and to the ground in an almighty thud that shook the ground. Írissë whipped around looking off balanced and ill at the sight of the elf. That made him Eöl, then, Tyelcormo thought grimly, throwing the door open. All three dogs darted through, and he held out his hand to Írissë.

Two elves stand in a green-lit open doorway. Celegorm, clad in green, holds out his hand to Aredhel, clad in white. She is looking back through the doorway. Three dogs are fleeing through the woods in the foreground.

She did not come.

Panic doused him like icy snowmelt. Eöl laughed, a quietly cruel, silky sound.

“Do you really think she’ll run from me, you scion of the Noldor? She is my wife .” He was, Tyelcormo supposed, a handsome elf, were it not for the casual cruelty in his mien. “She no longer belongs to your people. She is Sinda now through our marriage, and has shed the shame of the Noldor.” His black hair seemed to reflect the light of the green-glowing crystals, making it shimmer like oil poured over water.

“Írissë belongs to herself, you entitled asshole ,” Tyelcormo snarled, reaching out to her more beseechingly. “Írissë, we can still get out of here.” He pleaded softly. He saw he knuckles go white around the arrow. Eöl laughed, walking towards Írissë and putting a controlling hand on her shoulder. He had a superior little smile on his face, as though he had already won.

“I’ll show you mercy, this once,” he said condescendingly. “Take the mutts and go. The dogs are more trouble than they’re worth.”

Írissë moved so fast Tyelcormo barely even saw her. One moment she was standing there passively under his hand and the next she had lunged, burying the arrow she still carried deep into the meat of Eöl’s armpit, rendering his arm useless. Dimly, the only thought that crossed his mind was that it was a pity she hadn’t gone for the eyes- then again, he was decently taller than her, so she’d probably gone for the closest target.

“You asshole, those are my dogs ! Oromë blight your withered cock , you shit-swilling goat-fucker!” She shrieked, tearing away from his grasp as he howled in shocked pain.

All the Valar as his witness Tyelcormo loved Írissë so much .

“Come on!” He called again, and this time Írissë darted to his side, taking his hand and pulling him out the gate. He chanced a glance behind them and saw Eöl trying to pull the arrow free. Ha, good luck with that, fucker, Tyelcormo used broadhead arrows.

They fled through the forest, relying on Huan to navigate them out. They could hear Eöl’s minions crashing through the forest behind them, but their quintet was better at passing quietly through these types of terrain, and soon enough the flailing of Eöl’s minions faded from their ears. They broke the treeline and Tyelcormo whistled sharply for Orna and the rest of the dogs. The dogs barked merrily at each other, jumping and nuzzling and carrying on, in joyous reunion and Tyelcormo swung up onto his mare.

“We can go to Carnistir’s,” he offered. “I was just there, it shouldn’t take us too long.” He hesitated. “Unless there’s somewhere else you want to go?” He offered, because Írissë had so many of her choices stripped from her in that place. He couldn’t do that to her. He wouldn’t. Írissë hesitated, fussing with her half-fallen down skirt, undoing the knots since they were coming undone anyway.

“Carnistir doesn’t even like me,” She objected, finally taking his hand so he could pull her up onto the horse in front of him. Tyelcormo rolled his eyes.

“Moryo doesn’t like anyone, I’m pretty sure. And I do include myself in that statement.” He said dryly. “But he does love me, and he knows I love you. We’d be welcome there. Plus he has this ingenious- well, I’d hesitate to call it a city, but it’s built up in the trees. Very hard to locate unless you already know where it is.”

“Carnistir it is, then.” Írissë agreed, and Tyelcormo felt his heart soar. He nudged Orna forward, and whistled softly for the dogs. Orna’s hooves clattered over the stones of a small bridge built over a stream, even as Findel splashed joyfully through the water. He felt Írissë relax against his chest, arms around his shoulders, as she shed tears that seemed to be from sheer relief.

A watercolor image of a forest in autumn. Two elves, one clad in green with blond hair and the other clad in a white dress with black hair ride on a brown and white palomino horse. The horse is crossing a stone bridge over a stream. There are six dogs crossing with them.

“I’ve got you, Írissë. For as long as you need me,” he promised softly, and she nodded against his chest. The tension Tyelcormo had been carrying since he found Findel began to unwind finally, and he dropped his head to nuzzle at Írissë’s hair. She smelled of soaps scented with night-blooming flowers- gardenias and jasmine. It was an unfamiliar smell on her, when she used to smell of dog and leather soap most of the time, and her favorite lemongrass scent the rest of the time. Still, just the fact that she was here, in his arms, leaning trustingly into him even after everything she’d been to brought joy to his heart. His joy was so full to overflowing that he began to hum a tune that was probably one of Macalaurë’s. Írissë joined in softly, growing in strength until she let out the first, almost faltering notes of a hunt-song.

“You have delivered me, my lord, my beloved,” she sang, closing her eyes and turning her face towards the sun. The sun she probably hadn’t seen for however long Eöl had her captive. Tyelcormo harmonized wordlessly. “You have sent unto your faithful a hunter, a hunter, to free one of your own! Oromë, Seeker, One Who Loved Us First, you have delivered your faithful from the halls of darkness!”

“Oromë, He Whose Way Is Unerring, you have guided me through the darkness to liberate your beloved,” Tyelcormo sang in counterpoint. “You have given me the weapons to arm your faithful, that she might save herself!”

“Keep us from harm, my Hunt-Lord, until we make sanctuary! Until we can sing your praise in hunt, and sound your call, O Hunting-Horn!” Their voices twined around each other, a half-step ahead, then a half-step behind as they found the words together; creating prayer in the manner that most pleased their lord. The dogs sent up a howl to complete the prayer their own manner.

All the dogs save one. Huan paused, looking behind, ears alert, and Tyelcormo reined in Orna in. Írissë’s arms tightened around him and the notes of joy faded in her throat. His own relief grew cold once more. Then Tyelcormo yelped, looking down at his hand. The cut on his finger looked suddenly swollen and infected. Írissë swayed against him, looking abruptly ill, her body’s temperature rising against him, feverish as if she too had a poisoned wound.

“He has our blood.” Tyelcormo realized, voice thin. He’d cut his finger first on the razor wire over the well, and opened the cut again in Írissë’s bedchamber. For an elf who practiced blood magic, whose fortress was as saturated as Eöl’s was, locating a few drops of Tyelcormo’s blood even without seeing or looking for them was, like as not, child’s play. He might not have even known Tyelcormo had shed blood within the palace at all and just gotten lucky. And Eöl had had unfettered access to Írissë’s blood, which never should have happened. Had Oromë abandoned them after all? No. No, he had to have faith. He needed to have faith, else he might shatter. He heard the heavy thud of galloping hooves behind them, accompanied by the jangling of armor.

“Ride on, Orna!” He gasped, and Orna broke into an alarmed gallop. In his arms, Írissë let out a sob, her face a mask of mingling despair and angry frustration. “Have faith,” he exhorted, before glancing over his shoulder. He saw the big black stallion break out of the darkness of Nan Elmoth, followed by eight others, to his count, animated suits of armor riding deformed animals like the boar he had fought rescuing Findel. One was even riding the construct Eöl had made from Hortalë, the iron sword through the horse’s head glinting faintly in the late-morning sunlight. With the light on it, he could tell the implement was rusted, or still bore dried blood that had never been cleaned from it. Darkness seemed to precede them, like a cloud moving over the sun.

“Hortalë,” she moaned despairingly. “I’d forgotten what he did to him.” Írissë pressed her face into his shoulder, shaking her head.

“Come on, Írissë, pull yourself together. My bow and quiver, they’re with my saddlebags.” Tyelcormo told her. Írissë glared up at him.

“It’s not strung, you idiot. How am I supposed to get enough leverage to string it on horseback?” She snapped. Still, annoyance was better than that horrible despair.

“I believe in you! Besides, I won’t let you fall.” He flashed what he knew to be his most annoying smile at her. All of his brothers hated that smile, hopefully it would have the same effect on Írissë. After all, spite was a truly excellent motivating force. True to form, Írissë let out a foul curse and reached around him to unbuckle his bow and quiver from his saddlebags. He held the bow in one hand when she thrust it at him to belt the quiver around her waist, his other hand loosely holding the reins as he gave Orna her head.

“You’ve gotten even bitchier for not seeing you,” She griped, taking the bow back and looping the string over the bottom and top ends before sliding the bottom end into the nock. She shifted her weight, getting the bow hooked under her thigh, the nocked tip resting on top of her opposite ankle. Then she heaved, easing the string up until it fit neatly into its nock.

“Oh come on, like that was hard,” he teased her, glancing over his shoulder again. How were their pursuers gaining on them? Írissë pulled the bow back off her leg.

“No time to warm it up. This thing had best not break!” She warned him grouchily. Tyelcormo made a soft sound of offense.

“As if my craftsmanship would break.” He scoffed.

“I don’t know, I seem to remember a time when we were, oh, a hundred thirty, hundred forty?”

“Silence, that never happened. Hurry up and shoot them already.” Tyelcormo cut her off. She laughed at him, soft and breathy.

“Huan, can I ride you?” She asked, and Huan barked and affirmative. He pulled in as close as he could to Orna, and Írissë slid off, throwing herself bodily onto Huan’s back. “Sorry!” She gasped, sounding winded, and wriggled until she could sit up, facing backward to better shoot. She drew and loosed and arrow, and when Tyelcormo glanced back, the animated armor had slid off of Hortalë’s back, crashing to the ground and remaining still and unmoving, parts rolling away as black smoke wisped from the joints. He twisted, drawing the sword also strapped to his saddlebags, just in case they got any closer. Írissë shot again, and he heard another clattering clunk. Another construct down. Two riders gone, but still six and eight abominations of sorcery to deal with. And that wasn’t even taking into account Eöl himself, astride that enormous black stallion.

The wind changed suddenly, howling into his face, making him cover his eyes with his arm, squinting through tears. He saw Írissë fumble and fall flat against Huan’s back, luckily keeping her grip on the bow, but losing the arrow she’d been about to nock. Something pale caught the arrow, but he could not see what it was. Orna pulled to a stop, flanks heaving, pawing restlessly at the ground like she wanted to rear in fright. The dogs clustered close to Huan, tails tucked down between their legs. If Tyelcormo could hear anything save the howling of the wind, he was sure he’d hear them whining in fear.

An entire herd of deer bolted past them, parting like water around Orna and the dogs, heading straight for Eöl and his band. Except- it wasn’t just deer. Boars, wolves, foxes, bears, even badgers, raccoons, rabbits, porcupines, and squirrels. It was as if the whole forest had come together to bear down upon Eöl. Tyelcormo wheeled Orna around to see, and Írissë moved to sit more comfortably astride Huan as all six dogs also turned to look.

Flickers of pale, wraithlike figures came clear on the back of any animal large enough for an elf to ride. Tyelcormo exchanged a wide-eyed look with Írissë. Could it be…?

“Your sorcery will not save you!” Eöl shouted above the wind, and it still somehow reached their ears against all natural laws, fury like chained lightning in his tone. Tyelcormo shrugged helplessly.

“We have wrought no sorcery, fool!” He shouted back, the wind seeming to steal his words as soon as they were out of his mouth. The band of animals- the Wild Hunt, then reached Eöl’s band, swarming the seven constructs of sorcery. Hortalë reared, braying a confused whinny, and when his hooves hit the ground once more, a flickering personage of white light sat astride his saddle, head crowned with majestic, shimmering antlers.

A hunting horn sounded, loud and clear and bright.

The wind stopped dead.

And Hortalë charged the black stallion, head lowered, rusted, bloodied sword aimed straight for Eöl.

He tried to turn his horse, tried to run, but the black stallion would not listen, pawing the ground anxiously, unmoving. It was too late to dismount. It happened in the space of seconds.

The sword with which he had desecrated Írissë’s favorite, beloved horse plunged through his chest like hot butter, the full force of a charging horse behind it. Eöl was thrown from his horse in a hot spray of blood as Hortalë passed through the black stallion, suddenly as intangible as his rider. The stallion reared and bolted, the saddle and tack of fine dark leather vanished in the morning light. The animals passed on through the forest, leaving behind piles of already-rusting armor and black-stained bones. The wraiths flickered and vanished as quickly as they had come, leaving only the rider astride Hortalë.

Hortalë, whose coat now glowed an ethereal white, whose newly feathered hooves gleamed faintly silvered. Hortalë, who no longer had a sword jammed through his head, but a delicate white horn gracing his brow, as long and surely just as deadly as the sword had been. Hortalë whickered to them softly, and his new rider bowed his head to them, before they vanished like steam in the morning light.

Eöl’s body sprawled gracelessly over the forest floor in a spreading pool of blood, unseeing eyes turned towards the sun overhead.

Tyelcormo pulled Írissë from Huan’s back up to Orna’s and they silently rode away.

A week and two days later, they rode into Carnistir’s tree-village, stripping Orna of her equipment and turning her loose to graze. Tyelcormo heaved the saddle and pad over his shoulder, and Írissë put the saddlebags over hers, draping the rest of the tack along with it. Tyelcormo showed her the best way to climb up to Carnistir’s front door. They stood on his doorstep, both a bedraggled, dirty mess, and he knocked.

“What the fuck are you doing back here?” Were the first words out of Carnistir’s mouth when he answered the door. Tyelcormo laughed tiredly, and Írissë descended into manic giggles.

“It’s a long tale, brother,” he replied, wrapping an arm around Írissë’s waist to keep her upright. Carnistir glared at both of them indiscriminately.

“I thought I was rid of you.” He complained, “but now you’re back, and with Írissë? I have not the patience for any shenanigans, understand?”

“Perfectly. It’s a long story, and I’m not sure you’d believe us if we told you. But it can all be boiled down to I rescued Írissë from a bastard who held her captive and forcibly married her.”

“I seem to recall some mutual rescuing after a certain point.” Írissë said tartly. Tyelcormo nodded in acknowledgment. Carnistir’s eyebrows rose, and he looked at both of them in an emotion Tyelcormo fondly thought unique to Carnistir’s face, mingling disgust and intrigue.

“I suppose you’d best come indoors then. I expect the full story, Turco. No wriggling out of it. Why are you wearing a nightdress, Írissë?”

“No shoes too,” she said helpfully, sticking her small and very dirty foot out from under the stained and torn hem of said nightdress. “Because I was asleep before Turco came for me. I didn’t exactly have time to grab a bag.”

“Nor to put on shoes, I see. Well, wait here while I get a basin. You’re not coming in my house with feet that dirty.” Carnistir disappeared back into his treehouse. “You’ll have to bathe the dogs down in the river before I even think about lowering the crank platform!” He called over his shoulder, referring to the clever device that operated to raise heavier loads into the treehouse complex.

“He’s so nice sometimes.” Írissë said happily. Tyelcormo smiled warmly down at her.

“Told you so.”