Burning Bright - Part 7

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'Burning Bright'

 

7. Prelude

Mithlond
 

“I’ll send Echvellas with reinforcements when they’re ready. He can’t fight since he lost the leg, but he can still get them from here to Eregion and keep discipline while he’s doing it.”

“Military discipline’s a very new concept to most of them.” Elrond’s tone was dry. “You don’t shake off centuries of freedom overnight. The standing army are fine, they’ve seen it all before, but – well, you know the number of veterans in relation to new recruits as well as I do. Better.”

Glorfindel reached for another parchment and let the words wash over him. Elrond’s newly appointed captains had just left after attending their final briefing, and he and Gil-galad had taken their wine over to the window that overlooked the sunset garden while Glorfindel remained at the table, moving maps around as he tried to see the lines as actual land mass, rivers, mountains. The new coastline still made him a little queasy, cutting off as it did most of the land he had previously known, and he kept his attention away from it, concentrating on what lay further inland.

His primary objective had been to reach Ost-in-Edhil as soon as was decently possible after his arrival, but no one over the sea had foreseen the restrictions with which impending war might hedge him around. His carefully casual requests to accompany Elrond had each received the same firm demurral from Gil-galad, and while he understood the reluctance to place him in harm’s way, it was becoming increasingly clear his business lay across the mountains in Eregion, not here in Mithlond.

Chin on hand, he considered distances and potential cover, wondering if he could somehow shadow the army until they were too far out from Mithlond for Elrond to send him back. It meant directly disobeying the king, but with no authority to disclose the true nature of his mission, there seemed no other option. He had to reach Ost-in-Edhil in time.

A glance showed him Gil-galad and Elrond still on either side of the window, Gil-galad leaning against the sill, the low sunlight finding red tones in his hair, while Elrond stood with arms folded, frowning. The half-elf had been steeped in military preparations for weeks now and seemed almost resigned to his lot, though if pressed it was clear he still resented his temporary change in vocation.

“They’ll get the idea after a few days on the road,” Gil-galad was saying. “It always seems like an outing to begin with, but a few hundred leagues puts things into perspective.”

“There’s something to be said for keeping the entire population under arms,” Elrond said a touch grimly. “It’d be a normal part of life and…”

“… and you’d have squealed like a stuck pig at the suggestion back before this,” Gil-galad returned equably. “Never saw anyone raised in an armed camp less eager to heft a sword.”

Glorfindel smiled and returned to the map. It was probably as Elrond had said previously: rock and long grass as far as the eye could see. The open landscape defeated his needs. There would be little cover for a horse and rider, and if Elrond were to see him too quickly he would be politely and regretfully escorted straight back home. Of course, he could always try and pass unseen in the general mass of the infantry he thought, leaning back in his chair and absently twisting a blond braid round his fingers. Glancing at it he rolled his eyes ruefully – not much chance of anonymity there. Over by the window, the discussion had turned to equipment and Glorfindel began to pay attention, the spark of an idea forming. Perhaps a helmet…

“Maglor’s men only had leather armour towards the end, too,” Elrond was insisting. “There was no time to work metal. At least we now have those round caps with the copper band at the edge to protect the temples and the back of the neck.” When Gil-galad made a discontented sound he added, “They’ll make a good show tomorrow morning anyhow, all those pennants and helmets in the rising sun.”

There was no way to tell if Elrond was laughing. Gil-galad, who was on record as being less than enthusiastic about leather armour, most certainly was not. “I’ll get the court painter out there to make a few sketches. Could use a good piece for the main entrance, just before the stairs.”

Something else occurred to Glorfindel: no one ever really looked at the healers… “How many healers will you be taking along? Besides yourself, I mean. We went off to support Fingon with only two between nearly six thousand warriors. With hindsight, we were overconfident.” Plain bloody stupid, he had said at the time, but his words had fallen on deaf ears.

Gil-galad turned back from the window. “Got that wrong too, did they? The brave ten thousand is how they’re described in all the songs and written accounts of Unnumbered Tears. Huge force, came just in time to allow some kind of an orderly retreat. You had the rearguard, didn’t you?”

“I had the rear, yes,” Glorfindel said, temporarily distracted. “Shared that with Ecthelion. And there were definitely only about six thousand of us, including support services. Ten thousand fighting men – I could wish. Gondolin just wasn’t that big.” He pulled a sheet of scrap paper towards him and a stick of graphite and began making a rough list. “I think I can still remember how many for each house, I certainly know my own…” How many had ridden out, how few had returned… 

“Never know what you can believe.” Gil-galad sounded put out. “And the people who were there don’t put themselves out to get the record straight either. Like that business about your mother turning into a bird, Elrond.”

Elrond made a dismissive sound, Glorfindel looked at him properly for the first time, noting the blue lines under his eyes, the tight set of his shoulders. “You need a good night’s rest before you leave,” he told him, putting down the pencil. “It’ll be a long day in the saddle otherwise.”

“He’s right there,” Gil-galad agreed. ”Anything left undone by the second watch, leave it and just get up a bit earlier. I did most of my organizing before dawn in the old days. Seemed to work best for me.”

“Fingolfin was like that,” Glorfindel recalled, getting to his feet. “Good luck and safe journey, Elrond. I’ll be watching from the terrace, there’ll be a good view up there.” The terrace would be crowded, it would be simplicity itself to slip away and post himself somewhere along the road, waiting for a chance to unobtrusively attach himself as the new healer from the northern territories.

“No need for that,” Gil-galad said lazily. He had a languid way of stretching that put Glorfindel in mind of a cat, though not of the domesticated variety. “Clean forgot to mention you’ll be keeping me company during the march past. Didn’t think to ask, I figured a lord of Gondolin would understand the need for the odd morale booster. Give them a look at a legend, give me someone to talk to. Inspections seem to go on forever.”

Glorfindel spared the western horizon a jaundiced glance. Plotting an unsanctioned visit to Eregion had been an interesting exercise, but doomed for failure, as he had suspected from the start. The king was watching him, pale blue eyes giving nothing away. He missed little, which like his easy charm was probably in the blood. Glorfindel, a courtier for much of his life, smiled at him. “…Yours to command, Sire. Though I have no idea how a hero dresses. What would you suggest?”

“Blue and gold, with half armour. You’ll find it all in your rooms waiting. Had a bad feeling you’d need armour as soon as I met you, so I had Círdan get your measurements from the tailor. Should all fit like a second skin.”

 ~*~*~*~*~  

They stood side by side on a temporary dais set up outside the central barracks, a compound within sight of the palace, situated above a small pebble beach. The sky was overcast so there was none of the promised sunlight glinting on helmets, but the horses had bright plumes, the banners cracked and fluttered in the early morning breeze, and at first glance the hastily gathered army made a brave showing.

An experienced eye might be inclined to linger on the abundance of ill-fitting leather armour and inadequate shields, note that there were too few archers, not enough cavalry…

“Is it me or are most of them really young?” Glorfindel asked under cover of the sound of marching feet and trumpet music.

“Got what you’d expect from a rushed recruitment drive,” Gil-galad spoke without taking his eyes from the passing parade. He was dressed in purple, with a pearl and opal-studded crown of twisted mithril strands on his dark hair and looked unquestionably royal. By contrast, Glorfindel had been fitted out with gold-plated half armour, a blue tunic emblazoned with his house crest and a scarlet cloak which he thought overstated matters but which Gil-galad assured him would go down well. “Section commanders wear red. Makes them easy to spot,” he had explained cheerfully.

“You don’t really expect fighting, do you? And it’s interesting – you said there was no time for me to train in the new ways, but I’d have been ahead of these boys. At least I know which end of a sword goes where.”

“I lied, yes.”

“Kings do that.” Glorfindel agreed dryly.

Gil-galad’s lips twitched but he kept a straight face. “That we do, when it’s necessary. And it was necessary. I’m not letting you over the mountain and into an ambush or some kind of natural disaster or… to be dragged by a horse stung to madness by a swarm of hornets…”

“Has that ever actually happened?” Glorfindel asked in spite of himself.

Gil-galad’s voice carried laughter. “No idea, but they went to the trouble of releasing you from Mandos, then rehoused your soul and sent you back over the sea. I’m thinking I should take very good care of you in case some day I have to answer for the state you’re returned in.”

“And if this really is as bad as the silence from Eregion  suggests? What then?” Glorfindel persisted, refusing to let Gil-galad distract him with humour.

The king was quiet for a while, watching the ranks march past to the main gate and the first stage of the road out of Mithlond. Finally he shrugged. “When we reach the point where my Council can’t find a good reason to keep me at home and my common sense tells me you’re needed in the field, then we can talk. Till then you’ll stay here and we’ll share the frustration. Now try and look like the mighty Balrog Slayer. Give them something to live up to if they ever have to use those brand new swords.”
 

Khazad-dum
 

“It feels so strange, knowing there’s a whole mountain above us. There’s enough air for everyone, isn’t there? Are you sure it won’t come crashing down on top of us and…”

Galadriel kept impatience firmly in check. “There’s no need to be fanciful, Bri. Look around you, this city has stood even longer than Ost-in-Edhil. They would never have stayed had there been any danger. No one knows rock like the dwarves they can sense faults unseen by the naked eye. We are as safe here as anyone can be anywhere right now.”

They found the first hint of what lay ahead at the top of the stairs; a fountain that leapt and bubbled within a broad basin of white stone, the water spurting from the mouth of a fat, silver fish. A paved path circled the pool before branching into three on the far side. They took the right fork which led up at a mild incline, passing what might have been storage rooms before it turned a corner and they found the city of the dwarves spread out before them.

There were banks of apartments rising five levels by Galadriel’s count, reached by balconied walkways with elaborately carved arches. They stretched off into the distance, curving along the wall of an immense cavern lit by a myriad lights that ranged from tiny lanterns in doorways to great lamps that lit the way as clear as though they walked by daylight.  A jumble of sound reached out and surrounded them, the hum of a city going about its day.

Stone, metal and wood, an entire world like and yet unlike life beyond the mountain. White pebbles defined the edge of a stream that snaked silently level with the ground, spanned in the distance by a narrow bridge carved from red stone and embellished with silver. Paths and walls were inlaid with bright mosaics, little grottos that seemed the underground equivalent to parks were decorated with precious gems.

Everywhere they looked they saw realistically carved and painted statues of animals and birds, fantastical beings, and dwarves going about their business.  Of flesh and blood dwarves there were any number. Everyone who passed them made a point of greeting Thorhof and shot curious glances their way. There were occasional questions, but his answers were too softly spoken for them to follow.

Thorhof led them down the broad road, then along another, smaller way and over a little stream that bubbled and rushed around its stepping stoned crossing much as it might have above the ground. Celebrían paused half way, her head tilted to the side, listening. “It sounds happy,” she decided, “not afraid of the dark at all.”

“He is a good friend to our city,” Thorhof told them. “Even in the driest summer, he never fails us. We have not far to go. Your day has been long with much walking, so tonight you will rest in my home. Tomorrow we can make an early start. By then word will have been passed that you have permission to be here. There will be less staring.”

Galadriel thought that might matter to him considerably more than it did to either her or Celebrían.

~*~*~*~*~
 

Thorhof’s home was on the third level. Once long ago, Galadriel had lived for a time in Menegroth, but still the view from the balcony was like nothing she had ever seen before. She walked slowly, taking it in. Celebrían kept well away from the edge, she said the lights calling in the dark made her stomach uneasy. Galadriel thought this was mainly due to tiredness, nerves and lack of a filling meal since yesterday; elves were seldom bothered by heights.

A concentration of little golden lights beyond the river caught her eye and she touched Thorhof s arm briefly. “What is that? Over there in the distance? And – is it my imagination or is it growing darker?” She suddenly recalled her agreement with Celeborn to think of one another at dusk and wondered how she would know the hour in this place? Celeborn might have to pass their first star-rise apart alone.

“Did you imagine we lived in eternal day here under the mountain? The light dims as evening draws in, much as happens in the world beyond, and later still it will be as though you walk under moonlight. As for the lights over there, that is a popular eatery down by the lake, they are making ready for the evening meal.”

“Like – like a tavern?” asked Celebrían, craning her neck to look while being careful to keep away from the edge.

“And what would you know about taverns, young one?” he said, amused. “But yes, it is as I have heard taverns in mortal lands to be. They might well have learned the idea from one of my brothers.”

Galadriel smiled inwardly and kept her silence, instead resting her hand on Celebrían’s shoulder. “You can come closer, the railing seems strong. Just hold onto it if you feel strange. Take a look, it’s quite beautiful.”

She saw Thorhof s expression brighten at her praise of his city before he turned away quickly, rubbing his beard. After Celebrían had looked her fill and asked the requisite questions, they walked a little further and finally stopped outside a door identical to all the others. “My wife will have food for you and a place to sleep, but our ways are not yours, so I hope it will fit the more delicate needs of elves.”

The door opened into a well-lit room with doors leading off on both sides. Large cushions and a couple of sturdy wooden chairs were ranged round a low table with a mosaic surface. A spray of artificial berries made from little garnets strung on wires livened up a corner, woodcuts and tapestries brightened the walls. A smaller, more slender dwarf with a wispy-soft beard came hurrying in as the door closed. Thorhof stepped forward to her side and said formally, “This is my wife, Gez. Welcome to our home.”

So the rumours that Aulë’s daughters looked uncommonly like his sons were true  “My greetings, Gez,” Galadriel said gravely, hand to heart. “My name is Galadriel, and this is my daughter Celebrían. Thank you for offering us your hospitality.”

Gez bowed her head quickly, more like a bob, and Galadriel promised herself she would disown Celebrían if she so much as looked too hard at the beard.. A sound made her glance round, instantly alert in this strange, otherly place, but Celebrían was already smiling at the two little heads peering round one of the doors at the visitors. “How pretty your children are,” Galadriel added to their hostess, trusting Thorhof to translate. “We are doubly honoured to be welcomed into a family home.”

Dinner was waiting and the meal saw them all seated on wooden stools around a plain stone table. The food was simple fare, a vegetable stew and crusty, flat bread still warm from the oven. There were no cooking smells in the apartment and curious, Galadriel said as much. Gez had neither Sindarin nor the common tongue used by men so she addressed her question through Thorhof.

It told her something about the relationship between husband and wife that he first translated Galadriel’s words and then waited for Gez to respond instead of simply answering himself. “Ah, you cannot have every household cooking of an evening. Imagine the smoke. Instead there is a kitchen for every ten households and we all contribute food. The women take turns in cooking and cleaning up and the meals are shared out equally. Tonight there were two extra bowls because we had guests, another night someone else will have family from one of the other levels. In the end no one is out of pocket.”

“That’s so clever,” Celebrían said admiringly, following the explanation with bright interest. “So everyone works together and no one goes without? This must be such a nice place to live.”

Thorhof and Gez exchanged glances as he translated and both looked fondly at Celebrian while Galadriel struggled to keep a straight face. Bri had clearly overheard far too much about the competitiveness and politicking that were - had been - a standard feature of life in Ost-in-Edhil.

The children sat close together and ate in silence, their eyes darting regularly to the two elves. Gez communicated basic questions about more bread and water through hand gestures and smiles. It was a quiet meal but companionable. Galadriel felt the tension in her back and shoulders ease a little. They were alone in an alien culture, but for now she was sure they were safe.

After dinner Thorhof sought out one of the low chairs, lit a long stemmed pipe and leaned back with a satisfied sigh. Gez came hurrying with a mug of what smelt like beer for him and he accepted it with a grunt of thanks. He sat thus, drinking and smoking for a good while, during which time Gez took the dinner dishes down to the kitchen after first showing Galadriel and Celebrían the room with its two small beds where they were to sleep.

In a flurry of gestures and miming Galadriel expressed concern for the children being turned out of their room, and Gez reassured her that there was more than enough space for them to pass the night with their parents. While this maternal exchange was taking place, Bri busied herself settling dolls into a friendly huddle at the foot of one bed, clearly enjoying herself. Galadriel felt a pang of guilt; when Bri had been of an age to play with such toys, they had been on the road. Her true childhood had been brief.

There was water for washing, cool and clear with the smell of deep wells about it, and after cleaning off the dust of the road, she and Celebrían stripped down to their underclothes and settled in the beds. There was an oil lamp on the table between them, and they agreed to let it burn with the wick turned down low, allowing just enough light to hold back the dark. Galadriel knew that Bri would be unable to sleep in total blackness. Hopefully their hosts wouldn’t mind.

Sleep surprised Galadriel by coming almost as soon as her head touched the pillow. She had no idea how long she spent in the dreamless rest that comes after long hours of exercise, nor what woke her. Her fingers were already curled around the hilt of the dagger hidden beneath her pillow when her sight cleared enough for her to see the hand on her shoulder belonged to Thorhof.

Galadriel blinked once, again, and sat up slowly. He stepped back immediately. A glance showed her Celebrían sound asleep, curled on her side with her hand under her cheek. Satisfied, she looked up at Thorhof, sleep a distant memory. “What’s wrong?” she asked just above a whisper. “It’s not morning yet, surely?”

“No, ‘tis night’s midpoint,” he replied, his voice equally low. “Word was sent. You must dress, elf-woman. Just you, not the youngling. She can pass the night here without fear. But you are summoned, you must go now.”

“Summoned?”

Thorhof nodded gravely. “Aye indeed. Word came from the high places. Our elders keep the hours that seem fit and well to them and you are not the first to be sent for after midnight. Come now. We do not ask the lords of Khazad-dun to wait upon our leisure.”
 

~*~*~*~*~

Part 8

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Beta: Red Lasbelin