Burning Bright - Part 11

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'Burning Bright'

 

11. The Edge of Tomorrow

Eregion
 

The bridge at Tharbad was held against them, forcing Elrond to lead his army across some of the wilder parts of Eriador. They were guided by one of the Silvan trackers whose family had lived in the land since before the sun, or so he claimed. Whatever the truth of that, he brought them to a ford that crossed the Gwathlo well away from habitation, shielded from casual sight by the rocky hills on the far side. The water, though shallow, was turbulent, and it took time to struggle across with horses, carts, and all the paraphernalia of an army on the move.

Turning south once they had regrouped, Elrond sent out scouts to check the lie of the land while they moved cautiously towards Ost-in-Edhil. Terrified refugees searching for a crossing not held against them all told the same nightmare tale of a mighty army out of the east, bulwarked by strange, fell creatures, that had fallen upon Ost-in-Edhil in the hour before dawn and rampaged through the streets sacking and killing, firing buildings, raping, and casually torturing. The Noldor had fought back of course, it was what they did, but they had been overwhelmed by sheer numbers and slowly, street by street, the city had fallen. 

No one could tell Elrond what had become of Celebrimbor, save that he had been taken on the steps of the House of the Mírdan in a vain attempt to defend the doors and was most likely already dead. No one knew anything about Erestor either, but he had travelled with Gildor and possessed solid survival instincts, so Elrond decided to believe this was good news. He was embarrassed to make a fuss about one person in the face of so much unfolding horror and after a few careful enquiries he held his tongue. The most chilling reports came from those who had fled Ost-in-Edhil at the last possible moment. As well as fire and looting, they spoke of a phalanx of heavily-armed warriors approaching the city with wolves for outriders and a great banner of scarlet and black being carried before. The conclusion from each frightened informant was the same: Annatar had returned.

The scouts never came back, although Berior’s head was returned to them, fired into the front line by slingshot when Annatar’s outriders hailed them with his challenge. There was very little time to be shocked or even to send for the warrior’s son and offer a few words of sympathy – Elrond was sure Ereinion would have done that – because climbing the next ridge was all it took to find the enemy. 

Annatar or his generals had picked the ground well. The land spread out within a crescent of hills with a small, forested area behind, which would serve to protect supply lines. According to those refugees who had chosen to join them and fight, the mass of men spread out in battle formation below was no more than a portion of the invading army. Many banners were missing, they said, including the Deceiver’s own. 

They were expected, there would be no chance to retreat and come at things from a better angle. After a brief conference, Elrond agreed with his captains that at least there was some advantage to be had in the impetus of a downhill attack. Keeping their deployments simple , he wasted little time on preliminaries. Setting the archers to let loose a volley of covering fire, he ordered a three pronged attack and sent them down the hill, hoping almost reckless speed would gain them some kind of an advantage over the chillingly efficient-looking enemy.

The battle was little short of a rout. The enemy force was made up of experienced fighters directed by someone who knew what he was doing. Elrond, in the rare moments when he had time to stop and think, wondered who the mysterious commander was. Not Annatar, whose scarlet and black banner was absent from the field, but someone whose colours were green and gold and who did not take part in the fighting but remained stationed on a nearby hill under his flag. He was communicating to his men through a system of coloured flags; Elrond filed the concept away to explore later.

In the end it was Caedion, one of the Sindarin veterans, who fought his way to Elrond’s side and shouted at him to call for the retreat while they still could. Elrond froze, sword arm extended. He had been in a tight, small world that excluded everything but the young warriors who formed his bodyguard and the easterners who met the business end of his sword while he fought his way towards that hill with the green banner. His arm was aching, and the sun had moved a distance along the sky. For a while he had gone against his training and lost track of everything except his goal, and in that time the battle had been lost.

He looked around, taking in their reduced numbers, the bodies, the screams of the wounded. “Have them sound the retreat,” he said briefly to his standard bearer Angion, Caedion’s son, who had his father’s steady good sense and clear blue gaze. “Tûriel, fetch the horses. Let’s get out of here.”

~*~*~*~*~

They retreated, kept moving after sunset and travelled on under starlight. For a while after dark they heard the distinctive calling of orcs one to another not far behind, but Annatar’s general let them go, perhaps preferring to confine his battles to daylight hours. Shortly after sunrise they found a wooded area with a small stream for clean water and an outcrop of rock to protect their back. The temporary camp was neither homely nor comfortable, but it was sheltered and there were good vantage points that would provide ample warning should anyone approach. The healers’ tents were organised up against the rocks, with a well guarded exit into the trees should anything go amiss. There were far too many wounded to evacuate should the worst happen, so all Elrond could do was hope no one came looking for them.

Behave as you wish to be perceived, Maedhros had been wont to say, usually earning him a sardonic snort from Maglor. With this in mind Elrond had found a flat rock with a good view of the camp, thrown his very expensive fur-lined cloak over it and
ordered his standard planted firmly behind it, creating a makeshift command station. Looking around from this vantage point, the overriding colour pervading the camp was grey: the land, the leather armour almost everyone wore, even the sky now the sun was setting. Elrond was one of the few to sit alone, the men had gathered in groups to talk while they ate, repaired armour, sharpened swords, bolstering each other’s courage. 

While the camp was being set up, he had called for a head count from his captains, and after visiting the wounded – Maglor always did that before anything – he had studied the lists and tried to merge or create new cohorts, reassigning men in an effort to close the gaping holes in what had been a carefully structured whole. These new groups were now getting to know one another over dinner. He had allowed a few fires at the suggestion of his small band of veterans, because the companies patrolling the perimeter were certain they were alone in that corner of Eriador – or Eregion, he was not wholly sure which this was – and the burial party, who had been sent back to gather their dead and burn them rather than allow the bodies to be defiled, had reported no sight of Annatar’s army.

He retained less than half the warriors who had marched past Gil-galad and Glorfindel the day they left Mithlond, an event that somehow felt further away now than memories of his years in Maglor’s household. The lessons of a childhood spent moving from fort to stronghold in pursuit of Morgoth’s forces had more to contribute here than the hasty preparation back in Lindon. He found he still remembered things like deploying sentries in threes, digging the privy downstream, not eating a morsel more than your men and making sure they saw it. 

*There’s nothing moving anywhere in half a league,” Caedion interrupted his thoughts, waiting for his nod before sitting down next to him. “Haven’t heard back from Navinai yet though.”

“That’s good at least. We can let them keep their fires a while longer. Firelight always gives courage. I remember…”

What he remembered was lost as a young warrior – most of them were too young, he thought – came up and stood a respectful distance from his rock. “My lord? Riders approaching, sir. Elves. They think it might be Prince Celeborn.”

Elrond pushed himself to his feet. “Welcome him, tell him where I am,” he said. Looking around at groups of tired warriors, many squatting on the ground and ready to sleep where they were, he called, “Anyone seen Celair? Ask him if there’s more soup. It seems we have company.”

Celeborn when he arrived looked exhausted but energized at the same time if that were possible. He stopped once or twice to exchange a few words on his way to Elrond, clasping his arm in brisk greeting when he reached him. “I heard you took them on outside Tharbad? How many did you lose? We’d have come along to help, but we got word too late.”

Celair came up with a bowl of soup which he handed to Celeborn. Elrond nodded his thanks. “We had no idea what we were walking into. I lost over half my men…”

Celeborn’s face was expressionless as he tasted the soup, a concoction of no particular flavour, its best feature being that it was warm. He looked around the clearing at the remains of Lindon’s army, the extensive shelters erected for the wounded, then muttered an eloquent curse and went to sit on Elrond’s rock. After a moment, Elrond followed him. “It happens,” the prince of the former realm of Doriath said eventually. “Not that it will make you feel any better, not for numbers like those, but – you lose men in war. You never get used to it but the surprise grows less, if that helps.”

Celeborn had fought in Beleriand under the stars, Elrond knew, back when the world was a younger though no less violent place. He was no stranger to war. “I’ll make no excuses, we were ill-prepared for what we found. We weren’t even sent out here to fight, just to act as a deterrent.”

“It’s that damn fool Celebrimbor’s fault,” Celeborn said grimly, his face tight with contained anger. “Galadriel told him any number of times to tell Ereinion what he knew and get help, but he swore it was Eregion’s business, not Lindon’s. By the time she got through to him, it was too late. Erestor made good time to Mithlond with her report then?”

Elrond wavered between relief at the suggestion Erestor was safe and utter confusion. “Erestor? What has he to do with…? He’s all right? I was worried.”

“Ah. Then you’re here due to Ereinion’s good sense and whatever intelligence reached him. You’d have been better prepared had Galadriel’s message reached Lindon before you left. She sent Erestor and Lindir with a full accounting. I had doubts about the musician, but she was quite definite. She said he’d be good for Erestor, whatever that means. I’m not in the habit of trying to interpret my wife when she’s being inscrutable.”

Something shivered Elrond’s skin as he listened, a confusion of music and light that was meaningless under present circumstances. He pushed it back firmly; this was no time for one of those glimpses into an unintelligible future. Celeborn’s fighters were moving in, several greeting old acquaintances, spreading out and finding places, and he concentrated on them till the echoes in his head faded. Packs were being raided, pots put back over coals, while the newcomers passed around wineskins. Celeborn smiled. “I allow them one or two cups a night, no more,” he told Elrond who was watching this with a raised eyebrow. “No one overdoes it, when it runs out we’ll be dry and they know it.”

“You brought supplies from the city then?” Elrond was aware Celeborn had taken to the hills to harry Sauron’s forces with a carefully picked fighting force, mainly survivors of Doriath willing to follow their prince wherever he led, but he was surprised at their number. They all had the look of professionals doing a job they knew well, in stark contrast to the formal army which was made up largely of new recruits and peacetime warriors.

“Brought some, raided where we could. Not much chance now and not much left of the city either. They’re dug in at the Tower, or were when last we heard, tearing the place and Celebrimbor apart.”

Elrond stirred. “He’s alive? We should…”

“We should nothing,” Celeborn said firmly and sipped the soup. “Not bad – your cook’s done this before. We can do nothing. Sauron himself is in the city, probably questioning him personally and overseeing the search. He has an iron ring of fighters around the walls and they’ll stay there and fight and die while he’s still inside, because they are far more afraid of him than of either of us. They’ve started searching the rest of the city now, too. I suppose they didn’t find what they were looking for first try.” 

His voice was dry, and the implication made Elrond frown. The words behind the words raised yet another echo of – something he should know. Someone brought him a bowl and a torn off hunk of bread which he broke into pieces and left to soak in the warm broth. He had eaten earlier, but it was basic courtesy to break bread with a guest. “Onion, tomato and a handful of mushrooms,” he said, indicating the bowl, “and a hint of rabbit. Enough to share. We don’t eat well, but we’re not short of food. What are they looking for?”

Celeborn squinted at him then returned to his soup. “Nothing I’ll talk about here. Nothing you need to hear right this minute either. If Erestor’s reached Mithlond, Ereinion will know all he needs to by now.”

Elrond opened his mouth and closed it again, knowing better than to insist. He would find out in time. For the present there was something reassuring about having Celeborn and his people there. If the enemy ventured a night attack, they would be sorely surprised. Celeborn himself sat eating, seemingly untouched by circumstance. He had his hair in a braid with a jaunty little flower tucked above one ear, the tunic over his leather armour looked stained and a bit worn even in that dim light, but his face was calm and untroubled.

“Galadriel,” Elrond asked at last. “She’s not with you. She went with Erestor then?” 

“Still waters run deep,” Celeborn said cryptically, fishing a chunk of bread out of his bowl and eating it. “No, she went her own way for her own reasons. Haven’t heard from her and don’t expect to for a while. But she has our daughter with her so I know she’s all right. She’d rip the throat out of anything or anyone threatening Bri.” He spotted someone near the fire with a wineskin and raised his voice. “Hey, Thórion? Over here. Two cups.” 

He waited till the wine had been brought and till they were alone again before he continued quietly, his eyes on the fire. “It’s a part of being bound. I know she’s alive, I can sense her, I can even tell when she’s waking and when she sleeps.” Which was less time than he liked. “But how she is? I have no idea. That’s for another time, for when she knows she’s safe. Till then, I just have to trust in her Finwëan bloody-mindedness. She’ll be all right. She always is.” 

 

Khazad-dûm
 

Galadriel woke to the sound of laughter and young voices. She lay listening while the world came back into focus, before sitting up and pushing her hair back over her shoulders. Celebrían was on the other bed with Thorhof’s children and the three were playing some kind of a naming game. The flood of words and laughter stopped so abruptly when they realised she was awake that Galadriel regretted not pretending sleep a while longer. Bri had been enjoying herself, and learning a few words in the dwarf tongue might stand her in good stead later in life.

“Morning, Nana. Where were you last night?” Celebrían asked, pausing in the act of brushing one child’s hair. “I woke up and you were gone.”

“I’m sorry, were you worried?” There was a cup of water beside the bed and she drank it thirstily after a first, cautious sniff.

Celebrían shook her head firmly. “Oh no, I wasn’t afraid. All our things were here, so I knew it was all right. It just seemed very late. I thought you had gone to the bathroom but then I couldn’t remember where that was… I tried to stay awake, but I was too tired.”

“That’s all right,” Galadriel said, getting out from under the covers and swinging her legs off the bed, feet on the cool floor. “I was asked to go and greet our host, the lord of Khazad-dum. Royalty is like that sometimes, keeping hours others find strange. You haven’t had breakfast yet, have you? I’m starving.”

~*~*~*~*~


Breakfast was oatmeal, rough but tasty, and a cup of light ale. She was in two minds about allowing Bri to drink it, but as it had been poured for the two young dwarves as well, it would have been rude to object. After, Thorhof suggested she get their packs together so that an early start could be made. They took their leave of Gez, and Celebrían surprised and pleased everyone by giving two warm scarves to the children as parting gifts, one her own and the other liberated from her mother’s pack without prior agreement. Looking away, Galadriel’s lips twitched approvingly. She was a firm believer in doing what was necessary with minimum fuss, although there was no need for Bri to think her belongings were fair game.

They followed winding streets, finally coming out onto a main thoroughfare that Galadriel suspected was the same one they had travelled down from the West Gate. In answer to her question, Thorhof said merely that yes, it was The Way and traversed Khazad-dum, stretching from one gate clear through to the other. They passed more dwarves than they had seen the previous day, and this time, as Thorhof had predicted, there was less curiosity, and more brief nods of greeting were  directed towards them as well as their guide.

Thorhof stopped at what Galadriel thought was close to midday, entering a little grotto beside one of the rivers, Tables and chairs were set up under a lacy trellis strung with tiny, sparkling lanterns, and diners were already busy with food. Celebrían was thrilled with it, even though it proved not to be the eatery whose lights they had seen the previous night. The meal was plain but tasty: bread, cheeses, thick stew heavy with the scent of turnip, carrot and herbs. “They need ducks,” she said a little wistfully, gesturing towards the swift-flowing water. “Then it would be just like the park down the road from home.”

Galadriel nodded and made much of finishing a mouthful of roll and cheese and taking another spoonful of stew. She wondered if their house still stood, if the staff had taken her quiet advice to put as much distance between themselves and Ost-in-Edhil as they could once she and Celeborn left, where Brim was, if he still lived, if she would know if... Thorhof looked up at her from under heavy brows, understanding clear in his eyes, then turned to distract Bri. “You will see ducks aplenty when you leave, young one. They roost along the water year round and we are forbidden to trap them; they had their home beside the lake before ever dwarves dwelt under Baranzinbar.”

~*~*~*~*~

They stopped late in the afternoon, by which time the tiers of apartments, the bejewelled grottos, the colourful squares, the little paths running off the main road had lost their charm and blurred into a tiresome sameness, and Celebrian was growing irritable with the endless walking and with having to leap to the side of the road at the first sound of an approaching cart drawn at speed by tiny, shaggy ponies. She had tried to pat one they saw waiting at the side of the road outside what appeared to be a shop, but it snapped at her and Thorhof warned her off. It seemed the dwarves’ mine ponies were not the good-hearted beasts known beyond Khazad-dum.

Thorof had arranged for them to pass the night in his brother’s house, a small, two floored apartment in one of a cluster of buildings facing onto a brightly lit square where one of the city’s many fountains bubbled and splashed. Years later the sound of a fountain always put Galadriel in mind of the great underground city of the dwarves. A group of children stopped in the midst of a complex game to watch them pass with eyes wide; they would never have seen an elf before. Celebrían, being Celebrían, waved. Her experiences thus far seemed to have increased her confidence and Galadriel was more surprised to realise it had been lacking than she was by its growth.

Thorhof’s brother Hohreb spoke the common tongue fairly well. His wife on the other hand was shyer than Gez and escaped their company as soon as she had been introduced. A room had been made ready for them, which Thorhof explained belonged to his nephew who had recently married and moved into a home of his own. Thorhof was to sleep downstairs on cushions. He seemed quite cheerful at the prospect.

Hohreb turned out to be well travelled and had a great interest in what was moving in the world beyond his home. Over a cup of light ale he extended an invitation for her to visit the gemsmith’s workshop where he was employed, which she accepted before he had a chance to change his mind, leaving Celebrían with firm instructions to stay in the apartment and bother no one except Thorhof. Thorhof himself was busy with another pipe and mug of beer and nodded cheerily when she told him she would not be long. 

The workshop was only a few streets away, and Hohreb showed her around with eager pride. They went through a series of interconnected spaces where dwarves sat at long tables cutting and polishing stones and stopped a while in a room carved into the rock, where a tiny forge burned in the corner and a goldsmith busied himself with intricate settings. She received a great deal of suspicious looks, but work continued and she was even invited  by an old dwarf, introduced to her as Kog, to sit quiet and watch, fascinated, as he etched images upon a dark green opal, tiny scratches transforming a grey streak into a seagull, lifting a gold spray into a tiny, glowing sun. 

When at last they returned to Hohreb’s home, it was to find Celebrían outside with the children, playing a game that involved tossing a stone into squares drawn on the ground and hopping from one to the other. Galadriel was about to call her in, but the sight of her active and laughing, her hair flying as she took her turn, kept her silent. “I will fetch her when it is time to eat,” Hohreb told her quietly. He was also watching Celebrían thoughtfully. “She is still very young, yes? Young things see differences less than we who are grown. They have not yet learned to judge the present with the eyes of the past.”

~*~*~*~*~

The next day’s journey took them into older parts of Khazad-dum, moving ever uphill, not steeply but following a distinct incline. The cavern narrowed until finally there was room for only a single row of tall buildings set into the walls on either side of the road. Worn stonework and subdued decorations formed a contrast to the main part of the city, as did the quiet demeanour of the dwarves they passed and the lack of local traffic.

This section ended in three broad steps leading up to an open archway with flaming torches on either side. Passing through took them into a vast hall down the centre of which marched a double row of pillars carved into the likeness of trees, their branches reaching up into the dimness of the ceiling to join and twine. Gold, silver and jewelled inlays glinted and danced in the soft light and the walls faded off into shadow on either side, while the lanterns hanging from the branched ceiling hinted at subtle patterns and variations in the floor of highly polished grey rock.

There were fewer dwarves in this place where footfalls struck echoes from floor and walls and even Celebrían’s endless stream of questions, many of which had started being framed as ‘How do you say…?’ were stilled. The hall, referred to by Thorhof as the Second Hall, stretched on ahead and they walked until finally brought to a halt where the floor stopped abruptly, falling away into darkness. Carefully placed lanterns lit either side of a great chasm, otherwise walls and ceiling were swallowed up in gloom.

There was a guard station manned by incurious dwarves who had clearly been told to expect them and paid them little heed. “Across the bridge and up the steps and we shall be in the First Hall, almost at the East Gate,” Thorhof said, gesturing casually. “Not far now.”

Ignoring the guards, Celebrían was staring at the bridge over the abyss, her entire body radiating horror. She looked up at her mother and the light was not too dim to show how pale she had turned. “No!” she said flatly. “I can’t.”

Galadriel decided that now was not the time to placate but for firmness. She kept her voice quiet and level. “Celebrían, it is a strong, solid bridge, no more than fifty feet long. There is no need for a rail, it is more than wide enough. All you have to do is look straight ahead and walk fast. Your father could do it in his sleep. Don’t you dare embarrass me, we have an audience.”

Celebrían’s lower lip trembled a little. Galadriel gave her a steady glare. “I will go first and you will follow, Thorhof will come along behind you. I’ll set a nice, even pace, and you will keep your eyes fixed on the back of my head. Understood?”

Celebrían continued staring at her.

“And don’t you dare cry. Elves do not cry in public. Nor are they scared of heights. In fact, we Noldor are not afraid of anything. Never forget that.”

She strongly suspected Bri hated her, but then she had hated her own parents singly and together on any number of occasions and they had all survived it. Without further discussion she walked to the foot of the bridge then paused a moment to look around. The cavern was of red stone, as was the bridge, a slender, arching stretch of rock, not quite wide enough for two to walk abreast but still comfortably broad. It had been evened out underfoot and strengthened in places with patches of mortar. Above and below, empty air drifted, and a light breeze from nowhere ruffled her hair and dress. When she glanced down the drop seemed bottomless, and the lantern light on either side filled the space with an eerie, reddish glow. Not looking back, she stepped out over nothingness and started walking.

The cavern was eerily quiet, even her footsteps were soundless, swallowed up by the vast distances around her. She walked with her shoulders down and her back very straight, and it was only when she was half way across that she remembered she hadn’t made sure Celebrían’s pack was as well-balanced as her own. She gritted her teeth; there was nothing she could do about her lapse now. Not for the first time she wondered if she had been cut out for motherhood. She loved her daughter fiercely, but the little details always seemed to pass her by. Celeborn was far better with that sort of thing.

The far side drew nearer and she could see that beyond the steps the light changed, hinting at the possibility of sunlight. They had been in Khazad-dum only two nights, but already it felt a long time since she had walked under sun or rain. She forced herself not to hurry at the end, then she was off the bridge and approaching the steps. Not wanting to distract Bri, she waited till she reached them and only then did she turn.

Instead of Celebrían, Thorhof was behind her. For a moment her heart stopped, but then she saw her daughter close behind the dwarf. As they stepped off the bridge almost as one, she realised he was carrying Bri’s pack and that she had a hand on his shoulder for support. He turned, offered her a hand, and they stood together while he returned the pack to her, taking care with the straps. He gave Galadriel an expressionless stare that told her exactly what he thought of her maternal skills then gave the girl a gentle push. “And so we are on the ground again,” he said to her. “No time at all, just as I told you.”

“Next time you’ll be more at home in high places,” Galadriel said neutrally. “You see, nothing to it once you’ve done it.”

Celebrían looked at her and nodded, her eyes saying as clear as words that there would be no next time if she had anything to do with it.

They passed through the vast doorway at the top of the steps, turned a corner, and walked into daylight. She recalled the shock from her days in Menegroth, when eyes grown accustomed to artificial light were once more exposed to sunshine. There were shafts open to the sky set up into the rock at the sides of the passage and from the strength and angle of the light that flooded down, she assumed it was mid-afternoon. Up ahead, the sounds of voices and activity grew louder with each step.

The passageway opened into another great cavern, slightly larger and far busier than the one Thorhof had called the Second Hall. Shops and storage rooms were crowded together along both sides of the hall, broken by alleyways that led off out of sight, Long windows set high at the far end lit the activity within. The main focus was the large, open market; there were barrows and stands piled high with fruit, vegetables and grain, and Galadriel saw a long table given over solely to cheeses of all shapes and sizes. Looking around with a delighted smile, her experience of the bridge now behind her, Celebrían touched her mother’s arm almost shyly and pointed out basins and tubs where cut flowers were being sold in bunches. 

“This is where we trade life’s necessities,” Thorhof explained. “Storekeepers from the different districts come here once a week or whenever seems necessary to purchase their stock. Things have changed though, always the doors stood open during the hours of daylight. Now I see they are closed and the guard increased.”

The doors – huge, hung from immense doorposts – were indeed closed, and a party of battle-armed dwarves stood watch. Durin had wasted no time in seeing to Khazad-dum’s defences.

Thorhof took his leave of them at the doors, but not before digging in his pocket and coming up with two small items, one wrapped in pale green cloth, the other not. The green cloth disclosed the opal Galadriel had admired, the sea bird and the sunburst, set simply now in gold and hanging from a golden chain. “Kog thought the stone spoke your name,” he explained, handing it to her. “And I was told to say Durin offers it as a gift, in memory of an old friendship and a bright haired elf lord.”

Celebrían’s gift was simpler, a silver ring set with an amethyst, tumbled smooth but unpolished. She recognised it at once. “That was my stone from when we played the jumping game last night,” she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling.

“Even so,” Thorhof said. “They asked my brother to set it for you, as a reminder of the friends you made here under the mountain. Think of them when you wear it, they will not forget you.”

He stepped back to speak to the guards at the door before bowing his head deeply, first to Galadriel and then with a smile to Celebrían. Galadriel took a final look around the great hall with its vendors, its barrows, its laden tables, with dwarves going about their day and pretending to pay no heed to the two strangers. It was a place unlike any she had seen before and despite his dislike for Aulë’s children, she knew Celeborn would be sorry to have missed sharing this adventure with her. Then the great doors opened on a whisper of sound and the fresh, cold air of winter’s end greeted them. 

She took Celebrían’s arm, drawing her attention away from the market scene, and led her out onto the top of yet another flight of stairs. The doors closed behind them with a rush of air and an almost soundless thud, abruptly cutting off the sounds of the First Hall and leaving them alone on the mountainside, looking out over the Dimrill Dale as it dreamed in the weak afternoon sunshine.

~*~*~*~*~

They stood on the top step with the wind tugging fitfully at their hair and clothing, the land dropping away below them. The steps ended at a brick pathway that led down to and alongside an oval lake surrounded by a grass sward of purest green. There was not another living soul in sight. “I’m - sorry I was rough with you about crossing the bridge,” Galadriel said carefully when the silence between them began to stretch too long. “For me, it’s easier to be brave if I’m not allowed to act scared. I was – not as kind as I might have been, but there was no other way for us to leave.”

Celebrían’s face twitched slightly but she nodded anyhow. “Yes, Nana. It’s all right. Thorhof told me to hold onto him and not look down and it was fine.”

There was no answer to that. Silence returned. “That is where we would have climbed down had we crossed the mountain,” Galadriel finally said, pointing north to where a river brightened the shadows as it leapt down the side of the mountain in a series of waterfalls, the air misty and shimmering with their spray. 

Celebrían looked at it open mouthed. “Down there…?” She turned wide eyes on her mother and Galadriel couldn’t help smiling at the horror. “There are steps cut into the mountainside. Some places are like a ladder, in others they are deep and awkward but yes, we would have come down there beside the river. Very carefully, very slowly.”

Celebrían raised an eyebrow in a startlingly adult manner and gave the waterfall a final dark stare before turning away with a small shudder to study the lake instead. “The water – it looks as though someone filled it with ink, it’s such a dark blue.”

“Nen Cenedril is not like any other lake,” Galadriel replied. “While we walk I’ll tell you the story of how Durin, the first Durin, looked into the water and saw the crown of seven stars above his head. There’s even a stone to mark the very place they say he stood.”

Celebrían nodded noncommittally, still taking in the view. The valley was already half in shadow, clouds streamed across the sky and the chill wind bit sharply. The lake lay still and strangely untroubled, the Mirrormere’s startlingly dark blue giving the entire valley an unnatural, almost surreal appearance. The brick path circled the lake, passing mounds planted with trees, fir and birch, to a final abrupt ending at the south end of the dale. 

“It’s like a park, a big park,” she said with a tentative smile. They were both speaking quietly, careful of the glen’s stillness. There were birds, but they too were subdued, and the Dimrill’s leap down the mountain was far enough away to somewhat mute the water’s rush. “There are even statues. Why…?”

“I’ve never asked, child,’ Galadriel admitted. “To honour dwarves of an earlier time perhaps. We can have a look as we pass through, see if we can guess.”

“How far do we have to walk?” There was no confidence or trust in her young voice.

Galadriel shrugged. “A day perhaps? Though we’ll need to rest overnight, it’s not wise to attempt a new trail in the dark.”

Celebrían tried to hide her relief. “That’s not too bad. And they gave us food before we left, enough for several days. Will we stay here by the lake tonight, or…?”

Galadriel shook her head. “No, not here. This is the place of the dwarves, we have no business lingering. We’ll go on beyond the park. I recall a sheltered place where the rivers meet, we can stop there. That should be --- around there, in that huddle of trees, see? And then it will be just a short walk tomorrow. That’s our destination over there, that forest beyond the dale. Those spring green trees mark Amdir’s land of Lórien. This time tomorrow we’ll be there, and tomorrow night we’ll sleep safe within its borders.”
 

~*~*~*~*~

Part 12

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Nen Cenedril - Sidarin name for the Mirrormere, translates loosely Lake Looking-glass.
Baranzinbar - dwarf name for Caradhras
Beta: Red Lasbelin