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4
Birds and Feathers

An Elvish Tale from Rivendell


~~~

Some years ago, in the Cloven Valley, there lived an elven youth. He loved the all animals of forest and field. Especially, he loved the birds of the air. He spent days, months, even years wandering through the hills and valleys near his home following the birds. He had befriended the Brown Wizard, and importuned him for instruction in the language of the air.

The young man spent all his time talking with the birds, birds of all sorts, from the smallest Wren to the lordly Eagle. The birds, for their part, came to love the youth, not just because he would help them unasked, but because he loved them and took pleasure in all parts of their lives.

One day, while walking rather farther from the Vale than was his wont, he strayed into the steep mountains, home to orcs. There, indeed, he was captured by orcs, and dragged into their caverns. They kept him there for weeks, far from the fields and open sky, for what purpose, he could not tell.

There in the close tunnels, without air and sun and his bird friends, he began to droop and wither. The orcs, though they cared not at all for him, were dismayed. It seemed he was destined for some great spectacle, and if he appeared weak and sick, he would provide poor sport for the entertainment.

The orcs consulted together, and hit upon a plan. One of the tunnels sloped upwards. It opened at last as a small cave-mouth high in the mountains. Below it and above it were naught but sheer unclimbable cliffs.

"We shall leave this sickly elf there," said the orcs. "He will not be able to climb away, and the cave mouth is too small for the Eagles to land and snatch him from us. We will bring him food at night when the Withering Light has set. He will grow fat and strong for the Games."

It was just as they had said. There was a small opening in the mountainside, large enough for the youth to put his head and shoulders into the air and sunlight. Over it reared a great projection of rock, such that no bird as large as an Eagle could come near. All day, he lay there in the open, and at night he was dragged back into the cave by the orcs, who teased and bullied him ‘til dawn.

Soon enough, one of his bird friends, a Falcon, found him. She comforted him as best she could, but as she was small enough to come near him, she was also by far too small to carry him to freedom. The Falcon carried the tale of his capture to the other birds, even those normally counted as enemies. They came from far to visit their friend, and tried to think of a way to release him.

Thus it went for some weeks. The birds would gather at dawn to keep him company, and leave at dusk when the orcs pulled him down the tunnel.

The youth knew from the orcs’ chatter that their Games were approaching. He thought he would take a great risk. "Better to die quickly on the stones than from slow torment by the orcs," he thought.

He begged a feather from each bird who visited, and hid them in his clothing. He was almost ready to dare the winds when one of the orcs noticed a blue jay feather peeping through his tunic. "What is this?" cried the orc, "favors from your daylight cronies? I’ll take those!" And the orcs stripped all the feathers from him and squabbled over them. The winners thrust the feathers here and there on their armor as ornaments.

The young man saw his hope dwindle. Nevertheless, the next day, he once again besought feathers from all his friends. "But do not give them to me now," he said. He asked his friend the Falcon to assemble as many birds as possible on the next day.

When the day broke, a steady stream of birds flew in to his little cave mouth. Each left a feather there for him. The falcon even brought two huge Eagle feathers. "The Eagles, too, are dreadfully worried for you," she said "for the Eagles have an implacable hatred of orcs, and are loth to give you up to them without a struggle."

The sun drew near the western horizon. The youth knew that he must take his chance before it set. He wriggled back into his cave with all the feathers, and began to set them into the fibers of his clothing. He affixed them as best he could, securing the Eagle feathers on his shoulders, and the Falcon’s feathers (for she had given him two of her own, as well) on his breast.

With great care he inched up the tunnel, not wishing to dislodge even the smallest Sparrow feather. When he reached the cave-mouth, he pushed himself farther out than he had ever done, until he balanced on the very edge of the rock. He spread his arms and leaped into the air.

Of course, he fell. Faster and faster, and then. Then, there glided in the last rays of the setting sun the ugliest bird ever seen. Its feathers showed a patchwork of colors from every kind of bird for leagues about. The awkward flaps of its first flight matched the strange, shabby plumage. As twilight deepened, the youth-turned-bird made its way over the mountain slopes with great effort.

His bird friends accompanied him, though when dark fell, the daytime birds dropped to roost among the trees. The Owls and Nightingales stayed by him. They guided him at last, drooping with weariness, to a tall treetop on a ridge. They brought him rabbits and field mice for dinner, which the bird-self ate with eagerness, though the man-self shuddered and would have turned away.

He slept but little, for he had not much trust in the bird body. Would it vanish, and leave him easy prey for the orcs? He could hear their shouts far behind him in the high mountain canyons, where they had discovered that he was missing.

In the morning, he looked from the tree atop the ridge into a deep, narrow valley. It looked almost as far as the cliffs down which he had plummeted yesterday. He trembled there on the topmost branch for a while. At last, he shut his eyes, opened his wings and leaned forward into the air.

His muscles hurt. He opened his eyes. The valley rushed away behind him. Spread out before him were the mountains and foothills of the Misty Range. From the air, he could not tell where he was, but soon he was surrounded by his friends. They swooped under and over and around him, leading him southward towards home. He had to stop and rest often, for he not only was wholly unused to flying, but was still weak from captivity and torture.

Within a few days, they reached the lands he knew well. In the late afternoon, he settled slowly to a meadow, followed by his friends. They had rejoiced to see him free, and had delighted in teaching him to fly. "Can you not remain thus?" begged the Falcon, and she spoke for all. "You are our dear friend, and we would love to fly always with you."

"Alas, my friends," said the youth, "I am of the Eldar. Though I love you dearly, and give you all honor and gratitude for my rescue, the man-shape is my true form. I must return to that shape, or abandon my true self. I am now and always your true friend."

With regret he spread out his wings for the last time, for he had loved soaring over the woods and hills. He dwindled to the figure of a frail young man. A cloud of feathers drifted to the ground. He searched out each one, even the smallest, and stowed them carefully in his tunic. Then, with his friends circling round him, he turned to walk the last few miles to his home.

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