He put out my right eye first. My eyes had been much admired, and I was proud of them, as doubtless he knew. A rare amber colour, though my brother would have said 'golden'. Elwë used to say that looking at me reminded him of Valinor - my golden eyes and my silver hair. He put out the right eye and dripped acid into the left, careful only to disfigure, not to blind. He wanted me to see how hideous I was becoming. He cut off my hair like starlight, and burned the flesh beneath, so it would never regrow. And he made me believe that I had felt more for my brother than the love of family. Eru forgive me! Though it was Morgoth, the master of lies who told me this, I did believe it. And I was so ashamed.
He showed me those I loved. My son's wife, dead, my son so eaten out with grief he seemed a dead man walking. He showed me the nightmares of my grandsons, orphaned and inconsolable because I had not the strength to protect them, because of me. I saw my niece's death, my brother's murder in the caverns of his home, where he should have been untouchable. His grandson murdered, and mine - Oh Galathil - hacked down by fellow elves.
"I have devoured your family," he said. "And you are all alone, my orc."
I believed him. How could I not? I had seen it.
So on the day when he finally let me die, I did not answer the summons of Mandos. I was afraid that Namo would see me - vile, foul thing that I was - and seeing he would reject me utterly. Better not to go, than to go in hope and be turned away. So I thought. Such a fool I had become.
How many millennia passed, I cannot say. I drifted as the shadow of clouds over Middle-earth, hiding from Men and Elves. Continents and countries changed, and evil fell to rise again. My people fled, and died, and sailed; and then, at last, they were all gone. I was altogether alone. Too late, I repented of my cowardice. Too late I wailed into the autumn wind 'yes! Yes, I accept your summons, let me come!' My voice could no longer reach the gods, and if they ever had cared, they cared no longer.
Then the native stubbornness of my race, my House, awoke in me again. Perhaps, after so long isolate, untouched by cruelty, I had begun to heal. Coming to harbour towns, I found ships - any ships sailing West, and I embarked - a bodiless passenger, clinging to their sails and ropes, holding tight to their masts.
"Yssion!" I cried, with the silence of those who can no longer speak, "Yssion, aid me!" And he did what he could - never again will I call him the Terrible One, kind as he was to this morben shade.
They do not sink, the ships that carry me, but nor do they pass into the joyful waters of Elvenhome. The world has been remade, shut in upon itself like a mind beneath Morgoth's torment. While I travel with Men, the Straight Road is closed to me. Yet all of my kin are gone. I want Valinor. I have the right to come to Valinor. I was an elf, once, was I not? But again I was left behind. Forsaken. This time with no brother-king to lead me, no wife to console me, no children and grandchildren to bring me joy.
I am a fëa, a weary, heart sore, houseless fea, and I cannot find rest.
"...and he walked slap-through the bulkhead into the MEO's office. The MEO at his desk didn't see a thing, but everyone heard him whistling as he ran from one end of the keel to the other, and out onto the wharf."
"Is that true?" The girl Petty Officer Dave Simpson had brought with him leaned forward, displaying a distracting swell of cleavage as she stubbed out her cigarette in the white plastic ash tray. There were small flecks of glitter all over her skin - bronze and pink and gold.
"God's own truth," said Simpson, beaming as he topped up his lager. Neither he, nor this month's choice of his disposable girlfriends, nor for that matter John himself, who was here only as a guest, fully fitted into the ambience and free flowing intellectual banter of the Officer's Mess. But Dave drank there because he could, and John because... well, Dave was an old mate from school and didn't really have anyone else to ask.
John 'Scotty' Argyl, though not entitled to be here by rank, nevertheless liked it better than in the rating's barracks. The Engineering Officers - whether Mechanical or Weapons Systems - would have got on well with his father, a Church of England vicar so radical that he had finally argued himself into faith at the age of 40, after having tried everything else.
"How about you?" said the girl. Her name, he finally remembered, was Caroline - though she preferred 'Carole'. "You got any ghost stories?"
Simpson laughed with the sort of drunk contempt he wouldn't remember tomorrow, "Scotty doesn't believe in ghosts. He's too 'rational'."
And somehow, though they weren't the audience he'd have chosen, he had to tell them. They were better than no one, and he felt as if it was burning in his head like flames, and if he didn't speak, it would burst out of him in pinpricks of brilliance, like Carole's metallic shine.
"I didn't, it's true," he said, opening a new packet of ciggies. "Not until last week, when a ghost saved my life."
Several pairs of sharp military eyes turned their way, and though it was hard to tell if it was the swearing or the Americanism they objected to, still the glances were enough to quieten both down. Carole leaned forward again, this time in fascination, and even Dave, though he took a cigarette John had not offered, looked intrigued. "What happened?"
"Well," John leaned back and blew out a thin stream of smoke that hung in the air and billowed as the clouds had. He could almost feel the yaw of the ship as the first great wave caught her amidships. He could almost taste the diesel below decks and the wailing darkness above. "The Iron Duke was running for home in a high sea, a quartering sea. The wind was blowing about 70 knots, and the waves were..."
He caught Carole's eye, she looked frustrated by the details, but grimly determined not to say so, and he thought maybe she did have some pride after all. "The waves were higher than a house," he said and, seeing her smile, decided to go for atmosphere rather than accuracy.
"It was the night of All Hallows Eve," he said, though it hadn't been - it had actually been the day after, "and the storm was so bad I'd been sent out on deck to rope down the helicopter. The deck at the stern is completely flat, right? It's the landing pad. There's nothing round it to stop the force of the sea except for a little grab-rail like a... like a chicken-wire fence. And with waves that big the helicopter might have been swept right off.
It was pitch black, and howling when I got up there. You ever had one of those power-showers where you could hardly breathe? The rain was like that - like a solid sheet of water, driving down, and the waves..." he shook his head, marvelling at being alive to sit here in a dingy bar with Queen's 'We are the Champions' on the duke box, a pint of beer and a mouth full of warm smoke. "They were picking me up, hammering me into the barrier - I had a line on, clipped to the top of the rail, so I wasn't worried about going overboard, but sh..." he remembered the officers, "sugar, it was cold. Bloody brass monkeys cold."
Down in the ratings' mess they served the beer in plastic, here it was a proper glass tankard, and it seemed to make it taste better. Though everything had tasted better, looked brighter, felt more... magical since that night.
"Anyway, 'Luck is valour's companion' as the badge says, and mine seemed to be holding. I got round abaft the helicopter and started lashing it down. Big padded gloves I had on and my fingers were numb inside them, and I had to hold tight to the struts of the chopper - the sea breaking across me, tonnes of salt water slamming into the helicopter's gear, pushing me into its side. I could feel it shuddering and sliding with each push, inch by inch across the deck. I got the first line clipped down when... God, I don't know... something happened."
John couldn't find words for the vertigo, the vortex of water, the way the deck had risen up under him and stood against the sky like a monolith, and he'd seen it with a kind of awe, looking at eternity in the ship's running lights, before the moment of stillness had broken and everything had been rushing at him. "I guess they were trying to change course to run into the wind, and it was bad luck for me that the ship heeled over the same way we'd been sliding, and the next wave was like a skyscraper falling, and the lines snapped, and shite..."
How do you describe gut wrenching terror? He sat, dazed by the memory until the cigarette burned down to his fingers and the small stab of pain brought him back. Grinding the stub out, he smiled apologetically and spread his hands on the table to support himself. "The lines snapped, and me and the helicopter went spinning over the deck like a billiard ball, and I'm trying to get myself free of this huge lump of metal - cos when that goes down it's going to drag me down with it - and the sea's slapping me back, having fun with me, like. We reach the edge of the deck and the grab rail buckles and snaps. The chopper teeters on the edge - Duke's started pitching back again. There's just this one moment where everything's balanced, and the next wave hasn't struck. I can see the Bitter End just below me and I let go and drop. But the stern's rising up now, and I'm falling and I nearly miss it..."
He laughed, and took too large a mouthful of beer, wiping the excess from the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand, and not really noticing. Carole and Dave didn't seem to notice either. "I just got it by one hand as the helicopter fell into the sea."
Now the worst part was over - the part he didn't want to relive - and he could go on and share the marvel. His heart, galloping in remembered fear, reached a peak and began to slow. Lighting up again, he drew a thankful breath of bitter, calming smoke. "So I'm hanging to the anchor rode with one hand in the worst storm I've ever known. And I told you about the gloves didn't I - I've got these big gloves on. I can feel my hand pulling out.
"My lifeline must've slid off the end of the guard rail when it got broken, cos I'm not attached to the ship anywhere else. The rail itself is swinging down by my face, but the ship's still rolling and pitching and I can't grab it - I'm afraid to swing too much in case the other hand comes away, and I think 'I'm going to die! I'm gonna die! God help me I'm gonna die!'
"And I don't know, maybe He heard me... or someone did." John sighed, and wondered if he'd have the words for the next part. No. Not even if he was Shakespeare, so they'll have to take what they can get.
"Everything goes quiet all of a sudden, and there's a light around me. The sea - it smoothes and falls and we're rocking like a rowboat on a pond. Maybe we're in the eye of the storm, I think, but I can see - I can see the end of the rail. I catch it, climbing up the wire in a daze, cos it's just so peaceful and I don't see how it can go from one to the other in a heartbeat.
"I get to the top of the rail, roll onto the deck and lie there for a moment, shivering. There's something - something going on with the deck, it's as though it's alight. All the spilled water's gleaming as it's draining away, and I'm gleaming, and the rain is glittering as it falls. Then I look up, and there's a fire on the masts - little flames on the sensors and the antennae, little cold blue flames flickering... everywhere."
He looked up, and he must have looked as radiant as he felt, because Carole gave him the first genuine smile of the evening and said "Oh, how lovely."
"That's not a ghost story," said Dave, annoyed that John was impressing his girlfriend, "loads of people have seen that. That's just a meteorological freak of nature."
"They haven't seen what I saw next though." By way of apology he got another round in before continuing; rum and coke, lager and bitter. Should he tell or not? It suddenly seemed very private. Something perhaps he had not been meant to share. But Carole had seemed genuinely to understand, so he tried.
"The rain's slacked off a little - it isn't like being under a fire hose any more - but it's still pretty heavy, and it's shining, like I said. As I get used to the light, I notice the rain's splashing off something. But it can't be - there's nothing there. Right on the starboard edge of the deck the rain's doing that bouncing thing it does when it hits the ground, only it's doing it in mid-air. I.. I don't know what to think, so I squeeze my eyes shut and rub them - maybe I'm seeing things. But when I open them it's still there - a hole in the rain the shape of a man.
"And now there's splashes on the deck, one after the other, one after the other - like footsteps. It's walking towards me. Some thing, someone's walking towards me; someone I can see right through."
"Weren't you scared?"
"Creeped out maybe a little, but no, not really scared. It stopped, you see, when it got to the middle of the deck, and I thought it turned round. Then it spoke - like bells, like... plainsong? The kind of sound that makes you feel high. It said; Na vedui le govadin! Telin le tegibar. And no, I don't know what it means, but it was kind of hard to forget. It wasn't a human voice at all - too happy, too beautiful.
"And then, Oh God, I wish I wasn't making such a mess of this. I wish you could have seen it! Then the ghostly flames poured down onto the deck, all of them together, like they were guided - like they were some kind of creature themselves. All streaming and shimmering towards this one point, bright but pale; blue and silver and white. Just for a for a moment, outlined by cold fire, I could see him - the man, the creature who stood on the deck of the Iron Duke and looked like he belonged in a better world. Pretty nearly seven foot tall he was, all gleaming silver and long pale flaming hair; like those pictures of Michael the Archangel you see, throwing the devil out of heaven. He had the face of an angel..."
Dave laughed mockingly, and it was more than John could take. He had seen something sacred and he wasn't going to have it belittled. "I'm not talking about pretty girl angels," he said furiously, "fake little tinsel nativity angels. I'm talking about the ones in the Bible, where the first thing they have to say to you is 'don't be afraid', because just seeing them is like you're going to die - you can't take that kind of splendour, that kind of power - you're too frail even to look at them. He looked like that. And I... I don't know what I would have done if he'd seen me there. But he wasn't looking at me. He looked out into the flames and spread his arms, and gave a great smile of joy. He's still half invisible, you know, outlined by living light.
Dabo nin le mabathon, daerada!
And the flames get more intense - they're in a globe around him, they're sinking into him, he's fading away even as I watch. There's a last glimmer of ghost light behind his eyes, then they blink and he's gone.
"You really weren't afraid at all?" the girl's voice was hushed. Drawn in.
"No," he said. "Not once I'd got back on board. It didn't feel like the kind of thing you had to be afraid of. More, kind of, suspended, awe-struck. But I'll tell you something else. When I'd got myself back together - remembered who and where I was - I hauled the swinging rail up and did a bodged job of repairing it. Then I turned to go below.
"Dawn was just glimmering in the east, and the storm had turned into a strong following wind. I looked out and saw, just passing over the horizon, a little grey viking-style boat, with a sail as white as the moon. I don't know whether that had anything to do with my ghost, whatever he was, but I stood there enchanted, like you can be by music, until it passed away into the West. Then I went below, and didn't say a thing."
In the charged pause that followed, John waited for their verdict. It didn't really matter, after all. He knew it was true.
"I believe you," said Carole, smiling. Simpson put an arm around her shoulders and smirked.
"I believe you; thousands wouldn't."
After all this time, I thought they had forsaken me. I thought I would never know peace again until the end of the world, and maybe only oblivion after. But my grandson, whom I left a little lonely child, did not forget me, and now I ride behind his eyes as we walk together in the empty places facing the walls of night.
He says everything is given back, and everyone awaits me - my brothers, both of them; my wife; my family; my people. Not once did they give up hope that I would come, he says. They kept faith with me, as I once kept faith with Elwë.
I do not deserve this.
Quietly, we reach the mouth of Namo's halls, for everything is quiet here. It stands, a gape of darkness enclosed in black stone walls so polished they might reflect the sunny sky, if the sun ever rose. There are no stars in the night and the ground beneath our feet is fine dry dust. My grandson is the only thing in this place on which colour rests. I see him in the black walls, as he walks alone, down and down the shallow slope into the abyss of Mandos. He does not look afraid, but we feel together how his skin chills, and his heart slows.
"You may go no further."
The voice is like the shadow - soft but endless - and its authority is final. We stop, and the Doomsman comes. There is a tiny flutter of terror, in both of us, and I wonder - Eru forgive me - if maybe I could just go on like this, take my grandson's body, his will; a guest who kills his host.
You would not, he says. You who would not steal your brother's crown, would no more steal my life.
He does not know what I have been. I do not deserve his trust.
Namo looks down on us, quietly. I had not thought he would be fair. Still and shadowy and cold, but fair. Looking into his face I understand the darkness of his domain - it is the darkness behind closed eyes, the kindliness of ultimate rest. Is he not the brother of sleep and pity? I will not be a thief of life when I might lie down and at last find ease.
My grandson kneels in the dust, head bowed, and I come out of him like a mist of light. When I see him next I will have my own body - I will be able to throw my arms around him and hug him, and he will not recoil, seeing an orc. Perhaps that too was a lie; perhaps I never did become as utterly corrupt as Morgoth said I was.
"Come, Elmo," says Mandos, and treads, heavily, further into the darkness.
I look back and Celeborn is watching me, his eyes bright with tears, in that place where tears are blessed. "Go. We will be waiting for you, when you are ready."
"Thank you," I whisper, though my voice does not tremble the air. I think he hears me still. I turn to follow Death, and for just a moment I see myself reflected in the wall; insubstantial strokes of ash grey light. I look old, and scarred, weary and shrunken. But I am an elf. I am an elf with golden eyes.