Burning Bright - Part 5

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'Burning Bright'

 

5. The Road

Ost-in-Edhil

 

Slipping out of Ost-in-Edhil unnoticed proved surprisingly easy. Two heavily laden carts bound for market reached the gates almost simultaneously, leaving barely enough space for horses to pass in single file while the drivers shouted at one another about who had the right of way. They edged past with heads bowed and Celeborn in the lead, hoping that anyone watching on Sauron's behalf would be diverted by the confusion and assume they were yet another group of refugees heading for Lindon.

They rode in silence, the world slowly coming awake around them, until they reached the place where a red clay road met the Tharbad thoroughfare. Looking incongruously out of place, it ran north, arrow-straight, through the rocky plain beyond Ost-in-Edhil to the great holly hedge that marked the boundary between the lands held by elf and dwarf. Galadriel reined in her horse and turned to look back the way they had come, the others following suit.

The city was coming awake, early sunlight catching gilded spires and delicate trelliswork, lifting the colours from pre-dawn grey to the vibrant shades so popular in this Noldor enclave. Still in shadow, the sturdy tower above the Guild-house looked almost menacing in comparison to later structures. It belonged to the very earliest settlement, back in the days when this had indeed been a stronghold as the name implied: Fortress of the Elves. The old city walls dated back to the same time, and, built to last, could still be seen in places, incorporated into other buildings as the town expanded.

The light-sensitive lanterns in the main streets were beginning to dim and would soon fade and vanish until the night came around again. By now the birds would be singing in the parks, where bare branches traced lacy shapes across the sky in contrast to their evergreen counterparts. She knew Celeborn had never loved Ost-in-Edhil, but Celebrían had lived there longer than any other place in her short life and called it home, while Galadriel had loved its energetic, challenging nature. And soon it would be no more.

Erestor was watching the city, his face inscrutable. She caught his eye and said softly,” Hurry, but take no more chances than you must. And give him all my love when you get there.”

He raised circled finger and thumb to his brow in salute, nodding. “I thought we could try riding alongside one of the larger groups,” he said, with a glance at Lindir for confirmation. “No one will bother with us, we’ll be safe enough. Enjoy your adventure, Bri,” he added, touching his fingers to his lips and holding them up with a quick, warm smile that drew one in return from Celebrían. Galadriel silently blessed him for trying to lighten the moment. She watched them dip their heads to Celeborn and ride off at a trot, then turned her horse to follow Celeborn along the red-baked dwarf road.

They travelled in easy silence as they had so many times before, and the city soon lay behind them. The land grew bare and rocky, all save for the bright green strip along the banks of the Sirannon that flowed bright and cheerful under a scattering of trees. Two cairns of heaped stones marked a ford across the river, beyond which lay a well-tended path leading up onto the mountain that towered above them, still snow-clad almost to its midway point. Celeborn gave her a meaningful look. “The snow’s still heavy.”

She nodded slowly, frowning, her eyes following the trail. “Yes it is, but the dwarves keep the way clear for us. They also use it at times.”

He lifted an eyebrow but said nothing more, They rode on, till a turn in the trail brought them to a steeper incline, and there they stopped. Trying to make it sound like the most natural thing in the world, Galadriel said over her shoulder, “Al right, Bri, down you get. We walk from here.”

Celebrían looked around in confusion, eyes wide as she complied. “Walk? But, but where to? There’s nothing here but…”

“Nothing but us and maybe a few dwarves, yes,” Galadriel agreed briskly. “The road over the mountain is too steep for horses. From here we rely on our own feet, not Gallant’s.”

Celeborn dismounted and brought Celebrían’s pack, forestalling further questions. He made a few minor adjustments before settling it on her back while she stood very straight, trying to look brave. “You heed your mother, she can be a very knowledgeable woman, or so they tell me,” he said as he worked. “Take care of her when she forgets to eat and wants to keep walking longer than is sensible, and I’ll see you both in a few months.”

Hearing the soft tone he used only with his daughter, seeing the care in every movement, each touch, Galadriel ached for him. Celebrían was the centre of his heart, holding a place not even open to her. She knew she could hardly have borne to leave them to face danger while she went on alone, and not for the first time she was in awe of his strength.

She and Celeborn had always found looks more eloquent than words, which meant that instead of declarations of love and concern they spent the last few minutes dealing with practical matters while their eyes said all that was needed. She asked questions about supplies, weapons stores and the like, while he checked that she had what he deeded the essentials. They brushed against one another as they moved about, storing the closeness and familiar warmth for later memories. There was very little to do, and all too soon it was time to move on.

Neither of them was any good at prolonged goodbyes. When he was ready, he rested a hand on her shoulder and bade her take care, then hugged Celebrían once more and mounted his horse. Galadriel felt his physical absence as though he had already left, even though he would always be part of the fabric of her inner self, a space of light and belonging.

“Till star rise,” he said, looking down at her. “There is no distance too great for us to truly be apart.” Then he started back along the path, taking the extra horse with him. It was always good for a warrior to have a second mount.

Galadriel stood watching him leave until she felt Celebrían move closer. She looked down into sad blue eyes, and with what she hoped was a reassuring smile said, “Come on, cheer up. Think of the stories you’ll have to tell your children one day.”

Celebrían wrinkled her nose and look unimpressed. “I can tell them my parents put me down in the middle of nowhere and told me to walk?” she suggested. “What’s up there, Nana? Where are we going?”

Galadriel took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, shifting the weight of the pack she carried. She wondered if she really needed the extra shoes and how long it would take before she left them at the roadside. Warm clothing, that was the important thing. “We’re crossing the mountain to Lórien,” she answered. “You still like snow, don’t you? Might be a bit chilly, but all we have to do is follow the road over the Pass and down the dwarf stair and we’ll be right there.”

On The Road

 

The road to Tharbad was busy, and not with the usual merchant traffic. The more fortunate rode or led horses laden with as much of their owners’ worldly goods as they could manage, but many families made do with hand carts for the heavy stuff, carrying the rest on their backs. Erestor saw none of the city’s upper class, most of whom he knew by sight from functions in the Dorians’ house. It was as though the idea of flight had not yet spread upward to Ost-in-Edhil’s elite.

He and Lindir skirted the town itself, crossing the Gwathlo at the ford to the south. The water was swollen by winter rains, but not impassable as it would be later when the snows melted in earnest. As they followed slowly behind a family group who were struggling with two carts and a bad tempered horse, Erestor had time to look back. Tharbad’s walls were more businesslike than Ost-in-Edhil’s: the city elders had long experience with pirates coming up river. He had visited there often on Galadriel’s account in the old days of her dealings with the Numenoreans and had good memories of the town. He wondered how long they could withstand Annatar’s army and shivered.

He thought about this and the lack of any sign of Ost-in-Edhil’s nobility while they rode, but said nothing until they stopped for the night. The countryside offered little variation and their campsite was almost identical to the previous night’s and the one before that. The only difference this time was the proximity of a narrow, sluggish stream, which at least gave respite to their meagre supply of drinking water.

They had already settled into a routine of sorts, so while he went about the eternal task of checking the horses’ hooves, Lindir set to building a small fire. He used mainly twigs because the land was open and rocky with low-growing bushes and few trees. The rough ground made for uneven travelling, and a distance that a fit horse would normally cover in three or four days took almost twice as long.

Lindir looked up from laying the fire, his smile cynical. “Ordinary people don’t have as much to lose,” he pointed out. “No big houses, no jewels or beautiful clothes, no stables of fine horses. Makes it easier to pick up and move on. Most of the well-born are worried about the situation, frightened even, but not ready – yet – to do anything about it.”

“Not ready to leave their wealth for the easterners and run, you mean?” Erestor said, wiping the probe on a clump of straggly grass. He frowned, looking past Lindir. “There’s something – unelven – about being so wedded to possessions. I left a lot behind that I’d grown fond of, but even if I’d been given a choice, it would hardly seem worth my life to stick around and guard it.”

“Yes, but you’re sensible, and I don’t get the impression you feel the need to impress people either.” The sentence was punctuated by harsh blowing as Lindir tried to encourage tiny flames to spread and grow.

“I’ve been poor,” Erestor granted. “I’ve been quite comfortable too – well, I’ve lived in very comfortable circumstances. What you have matters less than who you are. And you? None of this seemed to surprise you much.”

Satisfied with his fire, Lindir sat back on his heels to watch Erestor work. “When I was travelling, collecting songs, meeting people, I got a sense for when it was time to move on, specially when I was in the far south amongst men. When you don’t know the language or the customs well, you need to rely on your instincts. I’ve had the feeling for weeks now that it’s time to visit my family. When Lord Celeborn approached me, it was – like hearing something I already knew. Even without this, I’d have left.”

As he spoke his eyes strayed to their packs stacked in the shelter of a tumble of rocks. The neck of his oilcloth-wrapped fiddle was plainly visible.

Erestor finished running his hands over the horse’s legs and gave it a push as he got up. “Go graze, you. If you can find anything without breaking your teeth on rock, that is. We need to ration the trail mix.” He came over to take a look at the fire. “Be nice if we had more to cook than a handful of roots, wouldn’t it? I always heard this place was teeming with game – they must have gone south for the winter.” He followed Lindir’s glance and also considered the packs. “Not a common errand, is it? Haven’t you been tempted to take it out and have a look yet? Try and see what this is all about?”

Lindir had accepted Celeborn's explanation that they were carrying important information for King Gil-galad with a quizzical look but no questions. Now his eyes met Erestor’s. “The harp, you mean? Not a chance. Whatever’s hidden in there won’t yield easily, and I’m not of a mind to have the High King asking me difficult questions. You know what it is though, don’t you? You have the report, so…”

Erestor shook his head. “I have no idea. Something that has to be taken out of harm’s way. That’s all I know, and it’s quite enough for me, too.”

Lindir gave him a crooked smile. “So here we are, crossing – what do they call this place? Eriador, right? - with a mystery gift for a king and we don’t even know how much trouble we’re in if the wrong people catch up with us. You’d think we’d be more curious about what we might end up dead for.”

“I wasn’t given permission to die,” Erestor said dryly. “She was quite definite about me surviving to get all this to Gil-galad. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be faced with questions from the Lady moments after I finally leave Mandos.”

“That’s why there’s two of us. In case one of us does something inconvenient like getting killed.” Lindir held his hand out palm up as he spoke and made a sound of disgust. “It’s starting to rain again. I am getting so damn sick of this weather.”

Erestor got up, taking their cooking pot to fetch water for the night’s soup – the sparse contents would hardly justify calling it a stew. “How about a song while I get the pot ready?”

Lindir rolled his eyes. “Not a chance, unless you sing one yourself. It’s wet, cold and miserable and I can’t relax with that harp sitting over there waiting for something to go wrong. Let’s just practice our bad Haradrim while dinner cooks. It’s not a musical kind of day.”

Erestor laughed mirthlessly. “Welcome to my life.”

Mithlond

 

Elrond stalked into the kitchen muttering and flung himself into a chair, his cloak billowing about him. Thin stuff, fashionable. He’d have to leave the court clothes behind when he went off with the army Glorfindel thought, quietly amused. The Half-elf liked to dress well.

“They can’t all have left - where’s Círdan, Maeriel? He knows who sailed and who stayed. Ereinion just says yes, well, most of the Noldor were dead tired, those who weren’t just plain dead, that is, and – sorry Glorfindel,” he added, apparently just realizing he had company at the table. “What I mean is most of the Exiles may have sailed when the ban was lifted, but most isn’t all. And there must be plenty of experienced Sindar warriors… just not keen on captain’s posts. Say ‘Eriador’ and there’s a deadly hush.”

“Eriador?” The land had changed in what he chose to think of as his absence, which was a more comfortable way of looking at it than the more blunt ‘when he was dead’. Glorfindel mentally called up an image of the current map of Middle-earth and placed Eriador in relation to Lindon.

“Empty place between here and Eregion.” He had hesitated too long and Elrond had noticed. “It’s a fancy name for the space between the Blue and Misty Mountains. I’ve been to Ost-in-Edhil and it took forever. A few mortal settlements, only one or two big enough to call towns, rock and dry grass as far as the eye can see, leagues of heather and bushes, the occasional tree. And sheep. Everyone talks about sheep for some reason.”

“That would be because it is a good place for sheep and goats,” Maeriel said equably. She was folding laundry in the corner and had been humming to herself in contentment before Gil-galad’s newly created Herald destroyed the peace of her afternoon. “Open land, clean air, plenty of space to roam. My people always loved the land between the mountains, you know. What remains now is just a portion of great Eriador, penned up between the Red Mountain and the river. Dwarves on the one side, water on the other.” She seemed quietly amused by this. “For what would you be needing Noldor then, young one?”

Elrond, like Gil-galad, had spent years in Maeriel’s home. Had it been anyone else asking, Glorfindel suspected the Half-elf would have rolled his eyes at this point. “I need captains,” he said instead, his voice suddenly tired. “Battle experienced captains, men who’ll know what to do when I don’t. That means I need older elves, those who came over here to fight the Enemy. So far a couple of Maedhros’ people have stuck their heads up, but that’s about it. I thought Círdan might have some ideas.”

“It’s a good approach,” Glorfindel told him, and saw Maeriel give a small, satisfied nod. “I don’t mind a commander who isn’t afraid to say he needs help. It’s the ones who think they know it all that made me nervous.”

“I’ve done some fighting, but I’ve never been in charge of anything before,” Elrond started to play with one of the pretty, woven placemats Maeriel made in her spare time. “I know how Maedhros did it, but I’m not sure that’s much use. After the War, we were busy building Lindon up and I was learning to be a healer. Turning orcs out of their dens and hunting down mercenaries never appealed to me much. That was more Ereinion’s thing.”

“Ah.” Glorfindel turned this over. “It’s - unusual for a healer to go to war, isn’t it? At least it used to be. Assuming there will be a war of some sort.” Intelligence had been minimal, leaving Gil-galad seething with frustration. He had sent out scouts, dispatched couriers to his aunt and Celebrimbor, even taken the somewhat extreme step of sending to ask the Dwarves for news, all to no avail.

“I’m the heir, so it’s me or Ereinion. And the Council won’t let him cross the mountain unless they know what’s waiting on the other side.”

Glorfindel noted the irritation without comment. Elrond was not the first to find himself out of his depth due to an accident of birth. “So you’ve been asked to put aside healing to show the flag and carry the honour of the crown?” he asked instead.

“I’m a healer, Glorfindel. I’ve gone out with patrols, but not as a soldier. Lately I’ve been trying to find new ways of dealing with broken bones and scarring.” Leaning forward, he warmed to his subject. “I’m studying Men as well – so much more goes wrong with them, things that don’t touch us. It’s centuries worth of study just to know the basics. And then there are troubles of the mind, of the soul… Anyway, this appealed to me a lot more than running around with a sword in my hand like a lot of my family did. Now of course, I’ll have to follow in their footsteps.” His mouth twisted in a smile that was less than humourous. “Maybe they’ll make up songs about me, too. Like my father.”

“It’s not a good thing, glorifying death and pain,” Glorfindel agreed gently. “They sing about Gondolin, too, I think? I know the only book I’ve read so far spoke the biggest amount of nonsense I’ve ever seen, all about heroes. There is nothing heroic about fighting for survival against impossible odds. Heroism implies there was a choice.”

“Well, I suppose your friend Ecthelion was a hero,” Elrond suggested, leaning back in the chair. “He did a lot of damage before it was over.”

“Thel was as stubborn as an ox,” Glorfindel chuckled. For him, that explained it all; words could never do Ecthelion justice. He leaned his cheek against his hand and swirled the water he had been about to drink when Elrond arrived. “You know, you could do worse than use whatever you learned from watching Maedhros. For all his faults, he was a good soldier. Unnumbered Tears wasn’t brilliant strategy, but the disaster was more about trusting the wrong people. We spent years dissecting it… we’d lost before we even begun. And perhaps veterans aren’t the best choice for what lies ahead of you either.”

Elrond quirked an eyebrow. “That’s new. I’m not used to hearing Maedhros described as a good solder. You’d not use veterans?”

Glorfindel shrugged. “He was a fine soldier who made a strategic error in one rather well-known battle. The business with the Oath, the burning of the ships, things that I’ve heard happened here later – they can’t detract from his ability. As for veterans, I think it’s rather like one of His Majesty’s reasons for not letting me go along with you. He rightly pointed out it takes time to learn new ways of doing things.”

One of the cats idled in through the garden door, gave them a look of pure disdain and leapt up lithely onto the old sack Maeriel kept beside the hearth for them. Glorfindel fell silent as he watched. It was the white cat with the black splotches, the one Maeriel referred to as Her Ladyship. After a moment he continued. “If you go looking for men experienced in the battles of a previous Age, you risk them seeing everything in the light of those battles – just as I might be more inclined to think what I learned in the Tears was immutable. What you need are leaders who know the area, understand the terrain. And they’d have a greater stake if they love the land they’re protecting.”

“The Sindar walked little enough in the land between.” Maeriel broke in unexpectedly. “If you look to my people though – they serve the king as trackers and advisors in his army. You could do worse than to ask a few of them for their thoughts on how best to safeguard Eregion.”
 

~*~*~*~*~

The private terrace outside the High King’s rooms offered a magnificent view over the rooftops and across the bay and was Gil-galad’s preferred refuge on those days when the wind wasn’t blowing directly off the sea. It was a very personal space. He had some simple plants in tubs that he looked after himself, a little statue of a boy with a fish he admitted to having found in the market at Forlond, a collection of glass bottles in various colours and a number of other unlikely novelties.

There was also a ginger cat stretched out in the sun. The idea of felines as house pets was still alien, but this time Glorfindel had ventured over to rub the soft stomach and had been batted at lazily by big paws, thankfully with claws sheathed. This was the closest he had been to a cat thus far and he was fascinated to see the different shades in each individual hair and to find the white fur was somehow softer than the ginger. Light green eyes considered him lazily before closing in boredom as the animal proceeded to ignore him and go back to sleep.

“You think he’ll cope well enough then?” Glorfindel asked once he was settled with his wine and they had exchanged the usual pleasantries.

“Elrond?” Gil-galad looked at him quickly. “He’ll be fine. He doesn’t think so, but he and his brother grew up travelling with Maglor. Horses, swords, shields and warriors, natural as breathing. He just doesn’t realise it yet. He will. And if that doesn’t work, there’s good, solid warrior blood in the family as well, albeit mortal.”

“From what I’ve read, I suspect Lúthien was the brains in that partnership,” Glorfindel said dryly. “But yes, Beren probably had a good sword arm. Even if he did hide under the throne while his lady did all the real work.”

Gil-galad leaned his head back and laughed. “That’s almost sacrilege,” he pointed out. “They’re the Great Romance, beloved of the poets – the Hero and the Sorceress. Completely agree with you though, he was a waste of time. Must have been damn good in bed, can’t think what else she’d have seen in him.”

They exchanged companionable grins. In Glorfindel’s experience it took time to get to know people, but occasionally he met someone and hit it off with them right away; Gil-galad, like Ecthelion, was one of the latter. Beneath a friendly if reserved exterior Glorfindel possessed an irreverent sense of humour, and in the High King it had met its match. He hadn’t really known Artaresto, they were from different generations, but he could recall nothing that suggested Gil-galad had his wit from his father. Or from Círdan, for that matter. He wondered if he had spent much time with Artanis in his formative years.

“What will the army do once they reach Eregion?” he asked now. “Will they head straight to Ost-in-Edhil, or…?”

“Hah,” Gil-galad said, swallowing a good-sized mouthful of wine. “Oh yes, and I can see Celebrimbor’s face right here in front of me. He’d have a fit. Probably think I’d decided to invade and take over his mithril treaty with the Dwarves. It was bad enough when he was still in Lindon, never quite believed I had any kind of authority over Fëanor’s grandson. That’s what sent him off to Eregion, wanting out from under my banner. They’re very touchy on the subject of their autonomy over there.”

Glorfindel, who rather hoped he would get a chance to meet Curufinwë’s son and see how he’d turned out, made a non-committal sound. “Well I can see how an army descending on them could be misconstrued,” he admitted. “So where does that leave you?”

Gil-galad frowned. “No idea. So far no word’s come out of there except for rumours about easterners in motion towards Ost-in-Edhil. The Dwarves seem to have gone to ground – no reply there either. They’re always the first to get their heads down when trouble’s coming. No, Elrond’s orders are to march into Eriador, stop when they reach the Gwathlo, and send heralds to invite Celebrimbor over to pool knowledge. Should keep him happy. Sheer numbers should be a deterrent if there really is trouble down there.”

‘Sounds fair enough.” Glorfindel badly wanted to get to Ost-in-Edhil and not just from curiosity and an urge to see Artanis again. In his briefing before he left Tol Eressëa, it had featured as the danger point The Weaver had discerned in her tapestries. He decided a little dissembling was worth a try. “Why not let me go out with them? I could give Elrond basic advice on how to handle a command without getting involved in strategic decisions. I could see at first hand how your warriors deploy, which is the best way to learn, and Celebrimbor might be curious enough about me not to feel threatened.”

Gil-galad gave him a cool look, the good-natured blue eyes shrewd for a moment. “Yes, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Instead of idling around here. I wouldn’t get that past my Council on my own behalf, and you won’t get it past me. Can’t say I blame you, but I can’t allow it either. Yes, it makes its own kind of sense, but nothing would be a good enough reason right now to send the Valar’s gift into harm’s way.“

“I’d be travelling with an army,” Glorfindel countered. “Easily as safe as being here in the palace.”

“Only if I know what they’re likely to run into,” Gil-galad replied. “And with just my gut to go by – no. You’re too – exceptional to risk. I have no problem in principle with you visiting Ost-in-Edhil, you’ve already told me how much you’d like to see my aunt, but it’ll have to wait till we see the lie of the land.”

Glorfindel respected intuition, and rebirth seemed to have honed his own to a knife edge. He felt the air prickle around him. “Your gut’s not happy with what they might find?”

Gil-galad was direct kin to Findaráto and Artanis, both of whom had been born with the Sight, a gift that manifested in only a handful of the Eldar, setting them apart from those who merely had good instincts. The Sight was something more, a knowing that could skip forward without warning to see what the future carried, much as when Elrond had spoken of impending doom just after his arrival. Amongst Arafinwë’s children this gift had been less random, an altogether more controlled, directed thing. It had not occurred to him till then to wonder if some measure of this had passed to his great-grandson.

The King was looking down into his goblet, dark hair falling forward to hide his face from view. He took so long to reply that Glorfindel thought he might disregard the question. Eventually though he looked up and said quietly, “My gut tells me there’s trouble coming out of the east, my friend, great trouble. It tells me that I would be a fool to let you travel to Eregion now, that it would be best for Elrond to remain here, too. My gut says the wind’s turned. We’re no longer fending off random gusts, the storm is almost on us. My greatest worry is that we left things too late. My gut tells me we’re almost out of time.”

 

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Part 6

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