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Laer  by Alassiel

It began with the sound of rushing water, not a steady sound, but an ebbing and swelling, like a great breathing. Then came the smell—sharp, clean, cold, and the coolness of moist wind on her face. This was not a place she knew, this open slope of powdery sand; yet at that moment, wonder eclipsed fear. For now, there came another smell, blowing toward her, a scent of sweet clover, of rich earth, of—unidentifiable flowers.

The sound of the breathing water was behind her now, and she sat on the rough rounded surface of a log, with the whispering of trees all around her. She no longer heard the water, only this sighing of wind-moved leaves. She lifted her face and took deep breaths of the keen air.

She perceived the song, though it had begun with the rush of the water. The voice was deep and rich, but quiet, and accompanying it was the sound of a harp. She knew that harp's sound; she had heard it not long before, but the one who played now stroked the strings into a music unlike any she had heard. It rippled and breathed like the water. It sparkled like the smell of the air. It woke joy within her—and sadness.

Still the song went on, deepening and widening with every note. Not one singer but many now, their voices deep and solemn, clear and high, singing in many-sided words, in long phrases of language for which she had no name. The joy within her was now akin to fear, yet she did not wish to flee. There came a gust of wind, lifting her and upholding her on its smoothness. Then—water again, a clear tingling of mist. Then, the feeling of leaves brushing her face. Then other images—of solemn stillness, of dancing, of rest, of tender sorrow. And all the while, the first singer spun out his notes, supported by the familiar somewhat cracked sound of the old harp.

The smell of the campfire, acrid now in its embers. The springy freshness of evergreen boughs beneath her—and the song, still the song, in flowing cadences of words and melody. It ended, and Barach, for that was her name, gave a low cry of loss, echoed by many others around her. She was awake. This was no dream.

For a time, no one spoke, no one moved. Then, in a voice filled with awe, Balan, lord of the folk, said,

"Who are you? Are you one of the gods? Have you come to guide us at last?"

Long silence. Then the singer spoke, his words unknown, and Barach shivered with delight at their sound and the timbre of his voice.

"Forgive me, lord," said Balan, " I do not know this tongue. But be well come."

Again, there was silence. Then, slowly, as if he was questing for words, the singer spoke.

"I—thank you."

Someone cast wood onto the fire with a hollow thunk. There was a flurry of crackling and the sweet smell of burning fir wood. Around her, people were stirring.

"Grandmother," she whispered. "What is he like?"

"Hush!" her grandmother hissed softly. She felt a brush of air go past her, but heard no footfalls. Then the singer, who had been on the other side of the fire, spoke a little behind her. Again, his speech was unfamiliar.

Balan, who had evidently come to the singer said, "I will make you a shelter if you wish."

"It—is—not—needful," said their guest. "May I—share your fire this night?"

"Surely. But—are you—are you…" Balan stopped. Normally one of action and decisiveness, he was obviously overcome by strong feeling

"Do not fear me. I am—no enemy." Balan laughed, a sound of pure joy, and Barach found herself smiling, for it was that which had mastered him, just as it had all of them.

Barach did not remember later if anyone slept for the rest of the night. They had gathered around Balan and the guest, listening to the slow exchanges of speech between them. Then, after asking permission of Balan, the guest sang and played to them again; waking and fair dreams blended until the sound of thrushes in the woods behind the camp told of the coming dawn.

Their guest did not leave them—not that day or for many days. Instead, he worked beside the people as they ordered the camp. From time to time, as he grew more fluent in their speech, he offered quiet suggestions as to how to better it, and no one felt as though he usurped their authority.

It had been a difficult journey over the mountains, and much needed doing. Barach went with her grandmother to gather wood and do other chores, and, when she was sure they were alone, she asked again, "What is he like?"

Her grandmother ruffled her hair affectionately, then, in a low voice said, "Tall. Taller than any of us. Slender as a sapling. His hair is—do you remember sunlight, lambkin?"

"I still see it."

"Well, think of it plaited into long hair. His face is—no, I have no words for it."

"Like his voice?"

"Yes, like that."

In the evenings, he sang to them, and Barach began to understand that it was a story he told them. The story was of the world itself—how it had come to be. She heard again the many-voiced song, and knew that those whom her people called the gods had sung it before time. She heard of the One, who was the source of all—even of the gods. She heard of other things, not all of them fair; of the shadow from which her people had fled and that it was here as well. All this came in clear images of emotion and sound and smell and touch, and even taste, and sometimes his song would merge with her own dreams so that, as on that first night, she did not know whether she slept or woke.

It had rained, a steady soaking rain which had turned the ground to a slurry of mud and wet leaves. Barach was moving more cautiously than usual  toward one of the cook places to help with the morning meal. It was at the top of a slope, and as she started up, she began sliding backward. She flung out her left arm to grasp one of the trees at the edge of the trail and a protruding branch sliced across it, ripping her sleeve and starting a flow of warm blood. She stood still, with a hiss of pain, and was about to go on when a quiet voice spoke behind her.

"Barach, are you—oh, I see that you are. The healer's lodge is just the other side of the field. Shall I guide you there?"

"I would be glad of it, Lord Wisdom," she said, giving him the title her people used. He took her uninjured hand and led her swiftly but carefully up the remainder of the hill, across the meadow and to the door of Magra's dwelling. He tapped on the frame, and, receiving no answer, he pushed aside the doorskin with a soft rustle.

"She has taken her bag. Barach, I have some skill at healing, if you will allow me to aid you."

She turned her head toward him, smiling a little wryly. He laughed, apparently understanding her look—or her thought, she was not sure which.

"No, I do not know everything. It is just that I have had to deal with wounds before."


He led her to a stool and helped her to sit. Then, he moved quickly about the dwelling, building up the fire, pouring water into a pot and gathering what was needed. He came back to her and gently lifted her left hand. Her sleeve was wet, but the flow of blood was not serious and was already slowing. He pushed back the sleeve to expose the wound. With a light, deft touch, he bathed it with warm water into which he had put cleansing herbs, while Barach sat silently.

"It will need a few stitches, but it is not grave," he said quietly.

She heard him preparing the sutures—the click of the needle and the hiss of drawn thread. Then, he laid a hand gently on her shoulder and said something in his own speech.

Water again, this time the soft high sound of a small stream. The grass was cool beneath her and the air smelled of willows, a tart fresh scent. Yet this lovely image was almost insignificant beside the sense of peace—seeming to expand outward from within rather than being imposed from outside. She felt the needle pierce her skin, but only as quick cold touches, then the pulling of the stitching. When it was done, she felt the bandaging, and the image slowly faded.

"Where is that place?" she asked, made bold by wonder. "Is it real or but a dream?"

"It is real, and I have stood there, beneath the silver trees. It is in Valinor and is called Lorien. He paused, then went on.

"May I ask you something, Barach?"

"Yes, lord."

"How were your eyes injured?"

"There was a plague. Many died of it. My mother and father died."

"A plague? I do not find this word."

"A sickness. The body burns and shakes with cold. There is great pain in the head. There are evil dreams. Some people come back. Others die."

"This is a wonder to me, Barach."

"Do your folk not sicken?"


"You have told us that you are not one of the—the—"


"Belain. Then you must be  like those my grandmother told me of—the dwellers in the woods. I have never met them."

"What did she say of them?"

"They live in lodges in the treetops. They have fair voices. They are woodcrafty and are not often seen. They do not sicken—like your folk."

"Then I think your people have met some others of the Quendi, Barach. It is a word we have for all my folk."

"I would like to learn your tongue, lord. It is beautiful."

"Then you shall, Barach. But now," he added, as she covered a yawn with the back of her unwounded hand, "I think you should rest. I know little of the bodies of your people. Perhaps you bled more than I thought."

"Lord, I thank you," she said, bending her head in respect.

"It is well, Barach."

He helped her to stand and led her to Magra's bedplace beside the fire. "I will tell the cooks where you are and wait for Magra to return."

She lay down and fell asleep while he set things in order.

One afternoon, Barach and some of her friends were gathered about lord Wisdom. He had promised to tell them how his people came to be. He was speaking in his own tongue, interspersed with theirs in such a way that they all understood. It was his usual method of teaching language.

"Shall I tell you or show you?"

"Show us—please," said Melech a maiden of five winters.

"So then, little one. I am afraid I will need my lap for the harp."

Leaves rustled as Melech settled beside him. Then, there was silence as he gathered his thoughts for the sending. Barach shivered in anticipation—and the sky opened above her. A cry tore the veil of dreaming, and all turned to see Barach stumbling up and running away, blundering into trees.

Lord Wisdom laid the harp aside and sprang up to follow, but Magra the healer, who had been sitting just outside the circle had already reached Barach and was speaking earnestly. Barach tore herself away from the older woman and, flailing at the brush along the trail with the stick she used as a guide, went on.

Magra turned back, her face a mask of contained fury. When Wisdom came to her side, she turned on him and said in a low fierce voice, "This was ill done, lord! Three years it has taken for the wound to heal and you have torn it open in an instant!"

He did not answer, but bowed gravely to her, then followed Barach.

"Would you torment her further?"

"No, lady, I would not," he answered, but continued on. Magra followed.

They found Barach sitting with her back against a tree at the side of the trail, her broken stick beside her. She was bent forward, hands over her face, and her body shook with continuous fine tremors—like the chills of the plague. Wisdom came and stood in front of her. He reached down and gently took her hands. She did not resist, but lifted her face-blazing with joy. Her lips moved, but no words came. He said nothing, but looked into the gray eyes which did not quite meet his. Magra stood beside him, her expression still fierce. After a time, Wisdom spoke.

"Tell me—if you can, my friend."

Barach shook her head. "I do not have the words, not in my tongue, not in yours, lord."

But he perceived that he had no need of words, for her joy was so intense that he saw what she had.

Stars—stars—stars! Like those she had seen on winter nights in the mountains—like those she had seen with her father. He saw them as she had—with the poignancy of long waiting, with the wonder of discovery, as his people had on first waking. Then, at the zenith, the light seemed to coalesce, to shape itself into a form of loveliness and majesty. The image dimmed into ordinary daylight, and Barach's face was before him again, wet with tears of blended grief and delight.

"Her stars are fair, lord," she said, very low. "I had forgotten how fair."

"Yes. I think I must tell you all somewhat, Barach. Will you come with me?"

"I will, lord." She got to her feet. Magra followed them down the hill and into the clearing where the gathering had been. Everyone was still there, and Melech ran to lord Wisdom and tugged shyly at his sleeve. He bent down to her so that their faces were on a level.

"Where is the lady?" the child asked.

"Not here, Melech, but come and sit down please."

When everyone was seated, Wisdom too sat down, and looked around the circle of intent faces.

"In childhood, my mother and father told me the tale of One, Two and Three, the first of my people. They told me in the way I meant to tell you. It is a way we have of teaching one another. When I first came to you, I discovered that I could understand the thoughts that you wished to express in words. Now I know the road runs both ways, if there is strong feeling. So, I would have you know that you can close the curtain of your thoughts when you wish."

"Can all your people talk like that?" asked Melech, not at all frightened.

"Some can, some can not, little one, but it is wrong to do so without leave."

"How do we draw the curtain?" Magra asked. "How can we keep intruders out? We are not as you are."

Wisdom looked at her kindly, ignoring the biting tone in her voice.

"When I send to you, you feel it, do you not, Lady?"

Magra nodded curtly.

"Not all your folk do, just as not all my folk can send. So, refuse to receive. It is as if Alech was telling you a tale of your ancestors. If you do not wish to listen to him, you can rise and leave the tale fire. So it is with—interchange of thought. Imagine a barrier between us, a curtain, a wall—whatever seems strongest to you.

"So,  I will tell you the tale without the sending." With that, Wisdom picked up the harp he had laid aside earlier and sang. As he began, Barach sat, head bent, struggling with tears. Slowly, the rich clear voice, and flowing notes of the harp calmed her, and she listened—if not with the pure delight she had known earlier, at least with content.

Afterward, as he watched Barach moving away, guided by one of her friends, Wisdom became aware that Magra stood beside him. He turned to her, his face grave, and, without bitterness, she spoke.

"Could your folk heal her, lord?"

"I do not think so, lady. As I told her, sickness is unknown among us. Wounds, poison and grief we can suffer, but not what you have called dis-ease. If wounded, we heal more swiftly than your folk, as I have seen, but even the greatest healer among us can not restore a severed limb. What befell Barach is, I think, like such a severing."

"Yet, lord, much of the healing lore I have learned came from one of your people."


"I met her when I was young, while our folk were still on the other side of the mountains. She knew about the healing properties of herbs and had other skills as well—something like your—tale-telling, which she used in her healing. I asked her why her people needed such knowledge, and she said that though they did not sicken, their friends did. I am not sure what she meant."

"Nor am I, Lady. Perhaps she had met others of your folk. Was she with you when the plague came?"

"No, she had gone back to her people by then. But what she taught me stood me in good stead, and I think more of the folk would have died without the herbcraft I had learned."

"And the other skills, Lady?" he asked gently.

Magra, who had been gazing at him, dropped her eyes for a moment, then, looking up, she said, "Yes—those too Lord. I will never be able to send as you do, but I can calm a fevered child or help to ease pain."

Wisdom smiled, knowing that the potential enmity between them had gone.

"So then, Lady. I am glad to have spoken with you."

"What of Barach, Lord? What she saw today…"

"came from her memory, in part, but it was also a gift, and not from me."

Magra's eyes widened in astonishment. Then she spoke, a little sadly, "May she consider it so, Lord." With that, she bent her head in respect. He returned the gesture, and they parted.

The following day, Wisdom left the encampment with a party of hunters. The hunters returned in the evening, with two fine bucks and a number of game birds, but he was not with them. They reported that he had helped them to catch and dress the game, but then had said that he had an errand further up the mountains. When he returned several days later, he immediately sought out Barach. He found her helping her grandmother to wash clothing in a stream near the camp.

"May I speak with you a moment, Barach?"

She turned toward him and smiled, a little sadly. "I am nearly finished with this, lord," she said softly.

"I will return in a little time."

When he came, she was seated on a fallen log, not far from the stream. He sat down beside her, and after a moment, he said, "I have brought you something which I hope will aid you. May I have your right hand?"

Hesitantly, she held it out to him. He took it gently and slipped something soft over her wrist, then closed her fingers around a cool smooth shaft. "It is a staff for walking. I have set a virtue on it so that whatever you touch with it will be sent back to you almost as if you found it with your hand. Will you try it?"

She did not answer for a moment. Then, turning toward him, she said, "Why that one, lord? I did not see any of the others."

"I do not know for certain, Barach. Perhaps you were open to it in a greater degree. Perhaps, as I told Magra, some of what you saw came from your memory."

"But not all, surely. Not the--Lady? She stopped, her eyes filled with awe.

"No, but I did not send that."

Again she was silent for a time. Then, she said, "At first, I was angry with you—for waking my memories; I had tried to forget the world of sight—to forget color and shape. But every time I let my anger rise, I remembered what I last saw in that vision. How could I not wish to see such beauty?

"I would like to try your gift, Lord. How do I use it?"

"Just as you would any other staff, Barach, but let me see how it is with you."

He helped her up, and she began walking along the stream, moving the pliant staff ahead of her in sweeping arcs. At first, it was a little startling to feel leaves and stones and grass, almost as if she touched them with her fingers, but, the staff seemed to impart confidence along with touch, and after a while, she moved more freely.

"This is wonderful, Lord. Thank you."

"You are most welcome, Barach. I had hoped it would be helpful."

"Will you ever send to us again, Lord?"

"Only if you wish it, Barach."

She stopped and, smiling slightly, she said, "Yes, even if memory wakes again. I would like to know more of the world's tale in that way."

And so, in the evening, the folk were gathered about the tale fire. And Wisdom took up his harp. "Remember what I have said. You need not open the curtain."

But Barach did just that, imagining the doorskin of her dwelling pulled aside to admit the dawn breeze. Again, the sky above seemed to fill with stars, but they were fainter than she remembered, and there was no moon. Someone was walking toward her, a tall figure, shining with soft green light. Barach caught her breath, as the woman came to stand on a slope of grass, whose color seemed to waken at her coming. Then, lifting her arms and spreading her fingers, the woman sang. Her voice was low and soft, a mere crooning at first, like a mother lulling her child, but the singing deepened in power and presence until it filled all Barach's mind with thoughts of growth and flourishing. There was no other sound, not the rustle of a leaf, not the chirp of crickets, not the flow of water, only the song. Then, a little in front of her, the grass parted, and the tip of a branch emerged—and another and another, and the Tree grew upward as though he stepped from some underground doorway. And with him came light—silver fire on stem and branch and opening flower. The woman sang on, but the song, though still of growth was different now, quicker, almost lilting like a dance tune. And another Tree leaped from the earth, her branches reaching upward in gladness. And golden fire came with her, mingling with the silver of the other Tree, flooding outward, illuminating grass and standing woman.

Wisdom's song ended, and those who had opened to him sighed with wonder. Even Magra, who had not, preferring to let her own mind form pictures from his words, smiled. She glanced at Barach and saw unalloyed delight on her face. So, she thought, it had been a gift after all. Then she looked at the lord, who returned her gaze calmly. Magra, gathering all her concentration, sent, "If you can hear this, lord, I think it is time I learned more of your people's—skills." His expression did not change, but he rose and came around the fire to her. She looked up at him and waited.

"I have been with your people for nearly a sun-round, and I will soon return home. Balan has asked to come with me, and I am full willing for it. I think, Magra, that when I tell my kindred of your folk, others may come to you, for they will desire to know you. If you wish, I will send a healer to you."

"My teacher said that there were things she could have showed me if I was willing, but I was—afraid. Now, I am willing lord, for the sake of Barach and the others I could not help."

"Even if such skills might not help them?"


"And your fear?"

"We shall probably never be quite—at ease with your folk, lord. You are—too different from us. Yet I have seen healing tonight, of a deeper kind than that of the flesh, and I would learn what I can of it."

He nodded, smiling a little. "Then I will do as I have said. A good night to you, lady."

When he had gone, Magra looked across the dying tale fire to where Barach was engaged in animated talk with Melech. Barach lifted her head, laughing at some remark of the child, and Magra found herself smiling. Then she rose from the log on which she had been sitting and made her way through the quiet encampment to her dwelling. For a moment, she looked up through the trees at the flickering stars, undimmed by any moon, then went in to take her rest.




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