Burning Bright - Part 6

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'Burning Bright'

 

6. Unlikely Encounters

The Road to Lorien

 

By mid morning the day’s early promise had faded. The sky was overcast and the cold had begun to bite in earnest. Galadriel glared up at the clouds, defying the threat of rain. They were not equipped to deal with ice on the path. Celebrían had been walking in thoughtful silence since realising her mother was in earnest about crossing the Redhorn Pass, but finally she broke her unaccustomed silence.

“People come over here to trade with the Men who live beyond Elven lands, don’t they? As well as to visit the tree realm? I wonder what it’s like? I’ve never met anyone who’d been to Lórien.”

She spoke quietly, even so the words sounded loud in the clear air. As though the mountain was listening, Galadriel thought, before telling herself not to be fanciful. “People come and go, and of those who’ve been to Lórien, you know me, don’t you?” she asked, not slowing her pace.

“You’ve been there before?” Celebrían sounded impressed.

“Yes, it was about – oh, five hundred years ago now. There’s nothing much there except trees and Silvan elves really. It’s a good, peaceful place to meditate, but not exactly a hub of activity. When I travelled before you were born, Lindon was always more attractive… old friends to visit. Or sometimes I went north, to see how the Men living on the shores of Evendim fared.”

They had reached a series of broad steps that had been cut into the road to soften the incline. The way was narrowing to a path, overgrown in places, the marks of winter neglect everywhere.

“What are they like? In Lórien, I mean. And why didn’t they put a hand rail here? It would have been so much easier. The pack’s making me overbalance.”

“When we stop I’ll take a look. Perhaps we can move a few things around. The people of Lórien? Quiet people, they like to keep to themselves. Singers. The nights are beautiful, filled with song. They light little lanterns under the trees and sing and talk right through till dawn.”

“So – when do they sleep then?”

Galadriel hoped Bri would outgrow this habit of asking awkward questions, something that amused Celeborn vastly as he said the child had it from her mother. “They sleep when the spirit moves them, when they’re tired, be that day or night, but they’re more night people I suppose than we are – were – in Ost-in-Edhil. Daylight is when the work gets done; night is for enjoyment.”

“Even the children?”

She compressed her lips briefly. “Yes, Bri, even the children. It’s their way, not ours. When I was a child we were expected to go off to bed and leave the night to the adults, which still seems right to me.”

The steps – step, walk several paces, step again – were tackled in silence while Celebrían digested this. “How did you know it was night if the trees gave light all the time?”

“Yellow light, day, silver light, night.”

“But did you call them day and night, or…?”

“Time of work and time of rest.” She had no idea what they used to call them; it was a very long time ago and other cultures and experiences had overlain the memory, but she had to say something.

“You’re making that up, aren’t you?” Celebrían asked shrewdly. She wasn’t normally this direct, at least not with her mother, but it was just the two of them and would be for some time. She seemed to have taken that knowledge to heart.

“Well, it was something along those lines. There was a division between what we did at which times, just as there is here with the sun and moon to shape our days, though the Trees were more reliable, they never varied. At least not that I recall. The most beautiful time of all was when both lights mingled – that was the best, the time for singing and dancing.”

The drop on the far side of the trail was increasing and the paving had become progressively uneven underfoot. Low, greenish-grey plants and straggling bushes with strange, hard flowers grew alongside the path and down the tumbling slope, clinging to the spaces between the rocks. Galadriel found herself agreeing with Celebrian about the need for a handrail of sorts. They were at the wrong angle to see across to the city so the view was minimal and the air was cold, the snow disturbingly near.

“I never liked the idea of it being light all the time. Was that why everyone was so upset when the Trees were killed? Because they didn’t understand dark?”

“Celebrían, we weren’t ignorant savages, we knew most of the world lay under dark skies. All we had to do was leave Tirion and travel along the coast, or go to the other side of Tol Eressëa…”

“Well there’s no need to get cross, I was only asking.”

“I’m not cross, I’m just… All right, yes, it was unnatural, but we had nothing to compare it to at the time. Our fathers did, though, or our grandfathers. They lived over here under starlight and hid from monsters until the summons came. It might have been sensible to create the sun and the moon right then and get it over and done with, but…”

“Mother? Over there.”

Although curious and full of questions, Celebrían seldom interrupted her elders without good cause. Galadriel stopped mid-heresy and looked, then resumed walking. “Oh really, Celebrían, you startled me. It would be strange not to see a few dwarves on the mountain.”

“Well, they live under it,” Celebrían said sensibly. “Not on it. And he’s not doing anything, Nana. I think he’s watching us.”

The dwarf sat on a flat rock at the side of the path and made no attempt to engage them when they came level with him. Galadriel inclined her head politely as they passed. “Good morrow and good fortune, son of Aulë. May it be well with you and yours, and long life to your king.”

Celebrían picked up her cue and said softly, “Good day and good fortune, Master Dwarf.” It was a fair greeting from a young person to one long in years, although Galadriel wondered if the Dwarf could tell an Elf’s age on sight. She would be hard pressed to make such a distinction amongst Dwarves.

He nodded to them and placed his hand casually over the centre of his chest, but said no word. They continued along the path, aware of his eyes on their backs until they rounded the next bend. Privacy restored, she and Celebrían exchanged looks.

“Creepy,” was Celebrían’s verdict, with which her mother could find no argument.

On The Road

 

“North-west. If we keep moving north-west we have to hit the river in the end.”

“The ford’s a bit more north. We need to angle over - that way a little…”

“I know where North is, Lindir.”

Erestor and Lindir stood glaring at one another in the scant shelter afforded from the drizzle by a pair of giant boulders. A short distance away their mounts waited, determinedly cropping the sparse grass. It had been raining steadily for two days now, and they had kept on regardless except when lashing wind forced them to seek temporary shelter. Somehow in the poor visibility they had lost the faintly discernable trail that traversed Eriador between the Gwathlo and Baranduin fords.

Lindir was pacing a circle half out and then back into shelter, fingers threaded through damp curls the colour of dark honey and massaging his scalp as though to excise a headache. Turning back to face Erestor, he held up a placating hand. “Right. Let’s think this through logically. We were definitely on the track what, two days back? Before the last stop and this morning’s guesswork, yes?”

Erestor leaned against the rock and let the rain drip down on him. So much for all the talk about Eriador being a delightfully unspoilt and largely uninhabited wilderness. The weather explained that. “If we go too sharp north, we’ll miss the river altogether. Walk north far enough and all you’ll find is ice.”

“Might run into some ice giants?” Lindir said dryly, his expression eloquent. “No, I don’t believe in them either. Wolves though, yes. So – what do you want to do then?”

Erestor gave the sky a disgruntled look. “Well, this won’t stop any time soon, so there’s no point in waiting till the weather clears. I think we should just keep west, myself. When we reach the Baranduin we can follow it north till we find the ford. After that there’s even something close to a road in places.”

Lindir nodded. “That sounds like the best idea. Get along now or let the horses rest longer? I’m not happy with Urvaer’s leg, he’s limping ever so slightly.”

“Noticed that, yes. All right, we can give it a while. Pity we can’t make a fire, but we can still…”

Whatever he had been about to say was swallowed up into silence as an Elf rounded the side of the boulders and stopped in front of them. He had the alien look of one of the Avari, clad after their fashion in loose fitting trousers and a long tunic, all woven in a soft blend of greens, greys and misty violet and belted at the waist with a swirl of rose cloth. His hair was the colour of old stone, his eyes dark green. He looked from one to the other of them and shook his head. “Sea elves lost?” he asked without preamble in a sing-song voice.

They exchanged glances; Lindir looked as shaken as Erestor felt. Catching his breath, he was about to explain they weren’t Telerin, the shore dwellers, but Lindir spoke first, all careful courtesy. “We lost the path to the ford in the rain. Of your kindness, could you guide us? We have nothing to offer in return for your aid, but I could make you a song if that would answer?”

Sharp eyes fastened on him. “Song is good. Make music with the land?”

“With the river water, rather,” Lindir replied, “This is a new land to me, it would be a liberty to sing of it as though I knew its secrets.”

Erestor kept quiet and watched attentively. The answer appeared to satisfy the Avar, who nodded again then waited expectantly. Moving towards the horses, Erestor found his voice again. “We go now, yes. How did you know we were here? You weren’t following us, were you?” The next thought brought with it a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. How many pairs of eyes might have been tracking us unnoticed through the rain.

“Not follow. Called. Find lost sea-elves.”

Erestor went ice cold. Lindir’s eyes met his thoughtfully across Urvaer’s back, then moved fleetingly to the covered pack that protected the instruments from the weather. “Called by who? Or what?” he said, his voice low.

“Let it go, don’t get into complicated conversations,” Erestor muttered. There was no need for more, his own thoughts were mirrored in Lindir’s blue eyes. “You’ll make a song?” he asked, speaking a little louder, aiming for discreet rather than secretive. “What made you suggest that?”

“They like that.” Lindir matched his tone, two elves having a private conversation that might easily be overheard by a sharp-eared listener. “I met Avari before when I was travelling, they value songs as we do pearls. Haven’t had their taste corrupted yet.”

Erestor snorted softly. “Yes, I suppose. Though I don’t understand why he thought we were Telerin.”

“Huh? Oh, the ‘sea elves’ bit, you mean? Noldor, people who came from the sea with the sky lights and the land hasn’t been quiet since…”

“Maeriel says that rather a lot. She’s Silvan, too.”

“Maeriel? Your lady?”

Erestor grinned as Lindir tried to hide his confusion. “I’m a realist, it’s not ladies whose names get linked to mine,” he retorted. “No, she’s Lord Círdan’s --- companion might be the right word, they’ve never bound, don’t know why. I’ve known her for a long time, she always says we Noldor would be improved by a touch of civilization.”

“Sounds right.” Lindir turned to the new arrival. “All right, we’re ready now. What may we call you?”

The Avar had been waiting patiently to one side, ignoring the rain which had diminished into a fine mist. “I am Badger in your tongue. Let the bearer walk, do not ask him to carry. He hurts.”

Lindir considered the horse and then the Avar. Behind him Erestor offered quietly, “I was about to suggest that. Give him a rest. You’re no great weight, but still, he shouldn’t put extra stress on that leg.”

Lindir considered for a moment, his face expressionless. Then he reached up and removed the pack containing the fiddle and harp, slinging it over his shoulder with a simple, experienced motion. Fastening the carry straps, he nodded briskly. “All right, I’m ready now. Let’s go find the ford.”

Khazad-dum

 

They spent the afternoon retracing their steps. Celebrían noted cheerfully that coming down was a lot easier than going up. Once she got the knack of leaning back a little to keep her balance, she proceeded to strike up a conversation with their guide, who gave his name as Thorhof, which he was at haste to explain was merely the one he used amongst outsiders. Content to let someone else deal with her daughter’s seemingly endless curiosity, Galadriel followed behind.

“Yes, but where do you get your food from? You can’t grow it under the mountain, can you?”

“No child, you are quite right. Grain does not grow in the dark. We trade for it, offering one of the earth’s gifts for another, metals for grain.”

The questions had been going on for a while and he answered each with a gruff kindness that confirmed all Galadriel had heard of the Hadhodrim’s fondness for children. To her he was polite but firm and she would not have liked to overtax his patience, but Celebrían chattered away freely and was in her turn indulged.

He led them upstream from the ford to where a series of well-placed stones crossed the Sirannon, after which they returned to the path she and Bri had ridden along with Celeborn, who was now long gone up into the hills with his fighters. At the fork they took the other arm this time and followed the red clay road, the sound of the little river that flowed growing ever brighter and stronger.

They reached the holly hedge close to sunset. Beyond it the road narrowed and turned, turned again, leading them towards the sound of leaping waters where the river leapt and danced down a sparkling, rainbow-lit waterfall. The road led between two giant holly trees and stopped before a pair of great doors set within the sheer rock of the mountain, the entrance to Hadhodrond, the underground city of Durin’s folk.

Late rays of sunshine peeked out from the clouds and glinted off the designs on the doors, making the ithildin shine like captured moonlight. Celebrían had fallen silent after exclaiming at the beauty of the waterfall and now turned wide, wondering eyes to her mother.

Galadriel said to their guide, “Dark times indeed. I recall when these gates stood open to the world, back when your great-grandsire hung them and my kinsman made the marks.”

“We keep to ourselves these days,” he replied glumly. “Less and less do we stray far from the sound of the Sirannon, and the word to open them is now known only to those of us with business in the outer lands.”

She smiled softly and walked forward to trace her fingers over the ornate whorls of the shining tree. Celebrimbor had been so damn proud of that tree. Tears pricked the backs of her eyes, making the silvery lines shimmer and multiply. She blinked them back determinedly. No one would see her mourn Brim. That was private, between him and her.

Stepping back she looked up at the Feanorian Star, crafted in possibly the last place her uncle would ever have thought to find it. She remembered arguing with Brim about whether he would have been pleased or annoyed. She still thought his ego would have relished the idea of the sign of his house holding pride of place upon the entrance to a dwarf realm.

At the time Brim had said he doubted his grandfather knew there was any such thing as a dwarf, but neither of them could be certain; Feanor’s knowledge of the world had been wide-ranging and exceptional and not often shared.

She brought her thoughts back to the present. “Mellon,” she said in a clear, steady voice and the great doors instantly began to move, open and outward. She even managed a smile for Celebrían. “Celebrimbor never could resist sharing what he thought of as his cleverer touches.”

Celebrían hesitated for an instant, glancing back over her shoulder at the fading light of sunset, the beginning of the between time of dusk, then moved closer to her. Galadriel tried to recall if they had ever taken her underground anywhere before. No, this would be a new experience. Best be light about it then.

She waited for Thorhof to cross the threshold ahead of her then took Celebrían’s hand and followed him. As the doors began slowly to swing shut behind them, Celebrían’s hand clenched convulsively around hers. She squeezed back firmly. “Look about you,” she said quietly. “We are beyond fortunate. This is not a sight many Elves can claim to have see - Khazad-dum, the deeps of Durin’s folk.”

Great lamps burned in a massively vaulted hallway. The polished floor kept just enough roughness underfoot to prevent someone in haste from sliding. From what they could see the walls were bare, but they had no need of adornment. A great staircase stretched upward to a level beyond their sight, lit at intervals by tiny lanterns that were held by intricately wrought iron brackets.

“Welcome to the Halls of the Dwarves,” Thorhof said formally. “Just a short climb now, youngling, and you will be amongst my kindred. When we reach my dwelling, you can rest.”

“So many steps,” breathed Celebrían, enthralled, any fear of being enclosed clearly forgotten.

“Two hundred stairs in all there are,” their host informed them. “Count them as you climb, it makes the task lighter and will take your mind from the weight of your journey. The road to the other side of the mountain is straight now and smooth. “

Galadriel nodded but passed no comment. She thought it best not to mention to Celebrían that the way down the Dimrill Stair involved more steps than this and no lanterns. One thing at a time. First, Khazad-dum.

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Part 6

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Beta: Red Lasbelin