Burning Bright - Part 8

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'Burning Bright'

 

8. At the Ford

On the Road


They had strayed far from the faint track that led across Eriador. Badger was adamant there was nowhere to cross the river this far south, and although the new route drew them away from the mountains, he led them due north for a full day before turning north-west with a sharpness that suggested a marker unnoticed by his companions.  

Erestor had learned that too overt curiosity had its own set of risks and liked to keep quiet and watch what people did, but Lindir had no such qualms and hailed their guide who had taken to walking two horse-lengths ahead of them. “I should learn the signs of the land for my return. How did you know to turn there? Which landmarks do you watch for?”

Badger kept silent until Lindir drew level with him. “Sea elf must learn to watch the mountain,” he explained. “Heron’s head, beak points to the sea. We follow her, listen for the river’s voice.”

The two Noldor stared at the looming line of the Ered Luin and exchanged glances. Lindir shook his head very slightly, Erestor shrugged. He wasn’t sure, but he suspected Badger snickered. They went on in silence and after a time could hear the distant rushing sound that heralded the Baranduin. The horses perked up perceptibly; despite the rain, running water had been scarce. 

The river was spanned by a sturdy wooden bridge. Erestor at least had expected to find refugees making their way across and into the comparative safety of land held by the High King, but as chance would have it there was no one in sight on either bank. They looked for a place to made camp for the evening, agreeing without words that the next leg of the journey was best begun at dawn. Badger had been confused the first time they stopped at sundown until he understood the horses needed to rest after dark. He now sought out a flat rock from which to watch the sun setting, a ritual he took seriously; he would likely ignore them till starshine.

“Your turn to see to the fire,” Lindir told Erestor as they set about unburdening the horses. “And your luck should be better than mine was last night, it doesn’t seem to have rained here today. There might even be dry wood.”

Erestor, who preferred to see to the horses, gave a grunt of acknowledgement and looked around. “Put everything under that bush beside the rocks there?” he suggested. “If the rain finds us, there’ll be some shelter at least.”

“Anything that can’t take a little water is already ruined,” Lindir said with a grin. “But yes all right, over there. And while you look for wood, I need to think on Badger’s guide price. We’re at the bridge, he’ll be expecting his song soon.”

The land was greener now, Erestor noted as he went off through the long grass in search of twigs and windfall, and to the north it looked lush and inviting. That was where men had their villages, he remembered, in the fertile land before the trees were overtaken by the endless snows. Bushes and trees already boasted new green shoots, and after a glance to make sure Badger wasn’t standing directly behind him as had happened once before, he broke off a couple of bare branches. He was always careful to first speak soft words, telling any spirit inhabiting the greenness that his need was only for a little of its bounty, but even so the Avar had been shocked. 

The river sounds made him feel quite cheerful, as did the nesting calls of water birds and the presence of the green and brown ducks he recognised as kin to those in Mithlond. He looked up past the bright orange of the setting sun, and in the deep blue beyond could already discern the first star. The sky shaded down from that rich blue to pink and purple before meeting the line of red cloud near the horizon. The air was cool and fresh, smelling new-washed now the rain had passed for a time. 

Could almost believe this was spring, he thought, not the final throes of winter. Despite the rain they had been fortunate with the weather, because although the mountains were still heavy with snow, they had seen very little, just patches in the hollows beside the track.

He had no idea when Lindir begun singing. As much part of nature as birdsong, the soft voice wound itself under his skin and into his bones until, without thought, he knew it for what it was. The words were indistinct, left off in many places to allow for a simple cascade of sound instead. He had said he would sing the river, Erestor recalled, but this song conveyed not just the white rush of water passing through the crossing point, but took in the new greenness, the crisp air and clear sky, the setting of the sun and the promise of starlight.  He stopped to listen, entranced.

Belatedly aware he had enough wood for a fire, he started back to the camp site, still wrapped in the music’s spell. Moving quietly, he put the wood down and set to work. It took a few more moments before he realised that Lindir, sitting cross legged a short distance away, was playing – not his fiddle but the harp. 

Erestor opened his mouth to say something, remembered himself and was still. Galadriel had offered no warning against handling the instrument, but common sense insisted there was more to the harp than they understood. Lindir was playing it with a deep certainty in every touch to the strings, and his voice wove around their magic with a life of its own. Erestor had heard him sing and play before, though granted not on the harp, and a tiny frisson of unease ran down his spine. He was a fine musician, but nowhere near this good. This was a mastery worthy of a Maglor or at the very least a Daeron.

Badger hadn’t moved from his rock, but his stance had altered. Where before he had seemed relaxed and at peace in the red-gold light, now he sat straighter, eyes closed, breathing in the music as though each note fed something within him. For some reason Erestor had thought he would watch the sky and the slowly emerging stars, but perhaps this song was best savoured without distractions.

When the last notes faded into the air, the fire was already a small, merrily burning brightness in the gloom. The horses kept close to it, as insecure in strange surroundings as anything that went on two legs. Badger remained on his rock, eyes still closed, and Lindir was holding the harp in his lap, a dazed expression on his face. It was chance that had Erestor looking in the right direction at the exact moment Badger opened his green eyes. They fastened on Lindir with a flare of palpable malice, lost when he looked down. 

Erestor left the fire and strolled across, dropping to one knee in front of the singer. His pose might seem casual but his weight was distributed in such a way that he could rise and turn instantly, and the hilt of the dagger strapped within his boot was a finger’s length away. “That was magnificent,” he said, resting an easy hand on Lindir’s thigh. More softly he added, “Are you all right? I think you got a little lost inside there.”

Lindir raised his head slowly and gave Erestor a confused look. “I… Lost, yes, maybe. It wasn’t meant to be so…” His voice trailed off. 

Badger had risen now, uncoiling like a feral cat, and was making a business of stretching. Keeping his hand on Lindir, hoping the physical contact would help ground him, Erestor turned and favoured the Avar with a smile. “I hope that was to your taste, my friend, and that the payment fitted the task of guiding us?”

“Can cross the water, show the road to the long slopes down to the bright place, Prince’s home?” Badger started towards them, but seemed to think better of it. 

“I can find the way from here,” Erestor told him. “It’s north for half a day and then west over the watch hills and down to the sea. We’ll be fine now, we just needed to find the bridge, which you’ve kindly helped us with.”

He kept talking, giving Lindir time to get a grip on himself. Finally the musician turned the harp so he could cradle it in the way of players after a song, holding it secure against him. He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes, ran his fingers through his eternally unruly hair and gave a tired sigh. “The song was of the water and a little of the things growing here, of the going down of the sun and the first star’s greeting,” he said, his voice still hazy with the music. “I trust this thanks was adequate for your time and trouble, Old One?”

Badger made a sound in his throat. “The gift was good. I will return to my tribe and share the sense of it with them. Pictures of power grew in the air, it was a great telling. There is a strength in the music-maker.”

Lindir shuddered. Concerned and trying to hide it, Erestor got to his feet and extended a hand to him. “Come on, you need to warm up by the fire. I’ll brew some tea, shall I? And maybe after you’ve eaten you can give us something cheerful on the fiddle.” In other words, there should be no more experiments with the harp. 

Lindir acknowledged the heavy hint with a straight look as he accepted the proffered hand and rose. His movements were usually quick and sure, but now he was like a sleeper newly woken. Erestor put his arm about Lindir’s shoulders and walked him to the fire, getting him seated with his back against a rock. He glanced around the clearing as he did so, sizing up secure points, places from which to protect their backs, possessions, horses. The song was over but something lingered on the air, a buzz of power, a tension similar to that before a storm.

He doubted he would have much sleep that night.

~*~*~*~*~

A quarter moon gave the land eerie shadows and contours where daylight would swear it lay flat. They had eaten a little from what remained of their meagre store and spent less time than usual beside the fire before seeking their rest. The horses huddled close together under one of the trees as though for comfort, and Erestor and Lindir lay in a wrap of cloaks and blankets, their packs stored against the rocks behind them. Normally they slept apart, but this night was not as other nights. The air in the clearing still thrummed faintly in the aftermath of Lindir’s song, and with night’s fall unease had grown for Erestor, not lessened.

“Where’s Badger?” Lindir whispered, his voice close to Erestor’s ear.

“No idea. He went up the hill a ways. I thought it was to watch for the moon again like he did last night. You all right?” Erestor had tried to avoid making an issue of things, but the mere fact that Lindir had wordlessly agreed to their shared sleeping place spoke for itself.

Lindir made a small, amused sound at the question. “Sleep might help if I could get to sleep. Still feel – not quite connected. Looking at the world through a rainbow veil.”

“What happened there? You were in another world and – don’t take this the wrong way, you’re a good musician but I’ve never heard you play quite like that. You’d have given Maglor a run for it.”

“At least Maglor would be relying on his own Valar-blessed gifts, nothing more.”

“Ah.”

Lindir stayed quiet as though listening to something, and after a few breaths Erestor heard it too. “Badger,” he hazarded. “Getting ready for the night.” Badger always found heath or rushes or something of the kind and tramped it down much as an animal would before settling. These were his noises. They had heather for their bedding too, laid under one of the cloaks, but not flattened in the thorough way of the Avari.

“Right, well at least we know where he is now.” 

“We’ll be alone tomorrow, it’ll be all right.” Lindir seemed to be trying to reassure both of them, not just Erestor. “You’re sure you know the way from here?”

“North and then west. And we’ll feel and hear the sea long before we reach it. Once we’re in sight of that forest along the Emyn Beraid, I know my way. We don’t need a guide.”

“Good.”

The night settled around them with all the little sounds normal to it, of leaf and grass, of hunting and hiding. The air grew colder and Lindir wriggled deeper into the improvised bedding. Erestor stayed where he was, a rolled up tunic under his head. The last thing he wanted was warmth lulling him to sleep. 

Lindir turned abruptly and propped himself up on an elbow, blue eyes grey and urgent in the pale moonlight. “The music was like a living thing that picked me up and held me within it and showed me where to find the right notes,” he whispered, his lips almost brushing Erestor’s ear. “I could hear singing but it hardly seemed to be me. Something else made that song, Erestor. What in the name of the Void are we carrying?”

Erestor found the musician’s shoulder, pressed gently, and Lindir shuffled closer to him. “We are carrying something an Aman-born princess royal of the Noldor saw fit to send to her nephew the king with all speed and secrecy,” he whispered back. “They made – things, Lindir. I only know little bits, snatches I gleaned, rumours. Things that – someone asked me about a few times. I can take a guess, but it’s not really important that we know, just that we both understand this is …”

“…way beyond our strength and training, yes I know that. I know that better than you do. It played me, remember. And I can still feel it. It’s – it’s awake.”

“That’s partly in your head,” Erestor told him firmly, ignoring the strangeness on the air. “You need to sleep it off, like too much wine. Come here, get warm.” He reached for Lindir, and after a momentary hesitation the musician moved into the circle of his arm, his tawny head finding the hollow of Erestor’s shoulder. Placing a chaste hand on Erestor’s waist he exhaled gustily and lay still. Silent minutes passed and slowly his body began to relax. “Sleep and I’ll watch for us,” Erestor murmured. “Everything including the harp is safe against the rocks. Sleep. You’ll feel better in daylight.”

Lindir’s eyes glinted in the faint light. “It will never leave me, you know… remembering how it felt. It’s how I imagine being touched by one of the Mighty must feel. Kind of – breathless and shivery and frightening. Like standing at a great height and not sure you won’t fall, feeling the ground call to you…”

Erestor drew him closer, and his mouth seemed to find Lindir’s of its own accord. Lindir made a low sound in his throat and his lips parted. As the kiss deepened they explored one another with quiet intent, hands in hair, under clothing, caressing and exploring bare skin. Erestor’s fingers tightened in soft, wild hair as Lindir’s tongue danced across his palate and along the inside of his lower lip, sending little bursts of fire through him that made his skin prickle.  Heat flaring in his loins, he rolled the musician onto his back, his hips finding a faster, more urgent rhythm, matching Lindir’s own. A hand still wound in tawny curls, he was reaching down between them to unfasten more clothing, release achingly hard flesh, when he saw a flash of something from the corner of his eye. 

He moved from almost blind lust to action in a heartbeat. Drawing his dagger, he pushed Lindir down hard and flung himself up to meet Badger as he lunged forward, metal glinting in the moonlight from the dirk in his hand. Later Erestor was sure the burning sexual urgency in his belly aided him, propelling him forward with a speed and determination that would have been lacking had he been lying half asleep when the attack came. As it was, he wrestled Badger back to an unintelligible flood of hissing, spitting words The Avar’s face was twisted in rage, his eyes shone green in the dark like a cat. 

He was strong, with muscles like corded steel, but Erestor had been trained to fight and win. They smashed into each other, over-balanced, and struck the ground rolling. Erestor managed to grasp the wrist of Badger’s knife hand, keeping it at arm’s length just long enough to find his feet and spring back. “Why?” he demanded harshly, holding his own blade out level between them in warning. “What were you trying to do? I never heard it said before that your people were treacherous.” Mine, yes.

“Song-maker not for you. All, sea-elves took all! Song maker – ours.” On the last word he shot forward, his blade aiming for Erestor’s throat. Erestor feinted and ducked under the blade, raised his own as though about to strike, and brought his knee up between his opponent’s legs. Killing another elf wasn’t just counter-intuitive; it was an ingrained horror since the events at Alqualondé, present even in those not born until long after the Noldor settled in Endor. Badger made a whooping sound that came from deep in his chest and doubled over, coughing. Erestor grabbed his arm, intending to try and restrain him long enough to tie him up, but Badger whipped free and came at him, eyes murderous, teeth bared. 

Icily calm now, training took over and Erestor let him come. He was aware of the night around him almost as though he had stepped out of his skin and had leisure to look around, take it all in. The air was cold, the ground an uneven patchwork of light and shadow, the trees stood tall against the sky, the grass sank in on itself beneath his feet. Badger was all hoarse breathing and motion, motion that took him straight in and onto the waiting point of the dagger Erestor held in exactly the right place at exactly the right angle to slide between Badger’s ribs and find his heart, forced in by the impetus of his own forward rush.

He checked Badger’s throat for a pulse, although he barely needed to do so; he knew the Avar was dead. When he needed to kill someone, he made no mistakes, though granted the victims had not previously been elven. Once he had made sure, he looked around for Lindir. The musician stood motionless near their bedding, sword in hand. A glance told Erestor their packs were directly behind him. Their eyes met. Lindir lowered the sword with a nod down at Badger. “He’s dead?”

“I tried not to, but he gave me no choice. I wanted to tie him up, leave him food and water, but…” 

“I saw him go for you that last time.” Lindir was startlingly calm. “I don’t think there was much else you could do. Did he say… he was talking but I couldn’t follow it properly, did he explain why? From his side of it, I mean. I know why.” 

“We took what was theirs, I suppose – the land, their peace. The starlight. And this would have been a payment, the… song-maker. Not another treasure for the Noldor invaders.”

Lindir nodded, looked around to make sure they were alone, and came over to him. He closed his long, musician’s fingers loosely around the hand still holding the dagger. “You had no choice, you did what you had to,” he said evenly. “Put it down now, all right? Are you hurt at all? He was strong.”

“I’m all right.” He probably wasn’t, because he had started to shake a little, the reality of what had just happened coming up behind him and touching his neck with icy breath... ‘I killed an elf.’ “I’ll – I’m all right. We have to bury him.” 

“You’ll sit down for a few minutes first,” Lindir told him. “I’ll build up the fire, you’ll drink some tea. Then we’ll work out how to dig a grave without a spade. For now --- he can have my cloak, at least. Come and sit, I’ll see to the rest.”

 
~*~*~*~*~

Lindir brewed tea then went to scratch through his pack. Finally he came up with a metal cup, a pretty thing with stones around the rim that caught and threw back the moonlight. “I’m fond of this,” he admitted wryly, “but it’s all we have that’s strong enough for the work. You finish your tea, I’ll make a start. We can take turns,” he added, seeing Erestor about to protest.

They buried Badger under a low-growing cluster of bushes, where the disturbance would be least obvious. Erestor wanted to put rocks over the grave to dissuade foraging animals but Lindir shook his head. “We need to make this look like a camping site that was tidied up before we left, nothing more. You know stones will speak too loudly to his people when they finally come looking for him,”

Erestor knew, but was having trouble getting the world to stop whirling long enough to let him think. “You believe they’ll come looking for him and then follow us?” All his training and experience seemed to have deserted him. He was badly shaken and the litany his mind kept repeating - ‘you killed one of your own’ – made it hard to concentrate.

Lindir frowned. “Not at once. They mainly go their own way, I doubt they’d be concerned enough to search for him yet. I don’t know if they could follow him – they move like mist and leave little trace – but we need to be sure there’s nothing here to suggest he was with us when we stopped.”

“How did you learn to be so calm? You act as though this is an everyday part of your life,” Erestor asked, scanning the ground for anything they might have overlooked. “Not that I’m complaining - my mind seems to have stopped working, so it’s as well you can take charge, just… I hardly expected it.”

“I hardly expected anything about tonight,” Lindir pointed out with a quick, warm glance, “but I was worried about him, certainly didn’t trust him. Even before the song, he’d been throwing strange looks at our packs. He said at the start something had called him, and I was afraid he’d get curious enough to try and find out what it was. After the song --- even with you awake beside me, I’d have had trouble sleeping. Music is like pearls to them, remember I told you? He knew the song was only part mine. Anyhow – wasn’t as surprised as I might have been, and I learned early that it’s when you let yourself panic that things go wrong.”

“You can’t think fast enough, yes,” Erestor agreed. “But it’s one thing to know that, another to put it into practice. Left to myself, this might have ended up a right mess. They can train you to do almost anything, but not to shed kin blood. That’s – a thing of its own.”

Lindir seemed about to speak, but in the end he just squeezed Erestor’s arm and stayed quiet. 

 
~*~*~*~*~

They took turns sleeping after that, with no attempt to return to the heated encounter previous to Badger’s attack. Erestor felt tired inside and Lindir, who had an empathy for mood, took his own turn to watch and then stayed up for the dark hours before dawn as well instead of waking him. Erestor roused around sunrise to find himself alone with the cloaks wrapped firmly about him. Sitting up he was amazed to discover that at some point in the night, snow had fallen.

Lindir was nearby, forcing life into the fire, and grinned at him. “Snow, can you believe it? After yesterday when I thought spring was stalking us?”

Erestor looked around, shaking his head. “Where did this come from? I know it was cold when I finally slept but hardly enough for this.” He got up as he spoke and shook the top cloak out. It was dusted lightly with white. “Why didn’t you wake me to watch?”

“You were tired and I used the time to think. I’d have woken you to move under shelter but it was a short fall so I thought you’d be all right. It’s not really wet. Come, I’ve got tea brewing and we still have oatmeal, I think. Warm us up for the day’s travel.”

“Snow’s good,” Erestor remarked, heading over to the horses. “Covers tracks. There’ll be no way to tell where we might have parted company.” 

They ate quietly, not uncomfortable but getting used to the new balance between them, and then tidied up and loaded the horses again. They were careful to leave nothing behind and to put the fire out properly as was normal for elves on the road, but this time they were more thorough, double and triple checking for signs that three people had stopped to pass the hours of darkness while only two had left. They burnt part of Badger’s bracken bedding, scattered the rest widely, and made certain there was no sign anywhere of blood.

They were almost ready to leave when they heard the sounds of carts, horses and elven voices talking with no regard for any lurking danger. Lindir touched Erestor’s arm. “More refugees?”

Erestor took his hand and held it a moment, the first chance for anything personal since he had woken. “Sounds like a good number. I think we can stop travelling alone for a while?”

“Two more running for Lindon and safety, nothing more,” Lindir agreed, lacing their fingers together. “And glad of company on the road. I might even offer them a song or two come sundown.” He moved closer as he spoke so they were standing almost toe to toe, and Erestor started extricating grass and small twigs from his tumble of hair. They shared a smile but neither was quite ready to kiss again without the chance first to talk. There would be time for that later.

“Fiddle, not harp. You’re not touching that thing again, once was enough.” 

Lindir looked at him seriously. “Erestor, you have no idea how it felt. I’m not tempted to try again, not even if it promised me the Noldolantë with a skill exceeding Maglor’s. It was like holding fire in the palm of my hand… Whatever this is, it’s for people like the Lady to tame it, not me. I know my limits. Fiddle it is, all the way home.”

 
~*~*~*~*~

The group was larger than either of them had expected or dared hope, four families whose horse-drawn carts carried as much as they could salvage from Ost-in-Edhil. Only two of the party were mounted; a woman mid-term with child and a man who they later learned was the only one previously to have travelled to Mithlond. He rode ahead at regular intervals to make certain their map was accurate and the trail true. Children rode in or ran alongside the carts, and the whole scene was one of barely contained chaos.

They welcomed Erestor and Lindir without question and cheered visibly when they discovered Lindir’s profession. Erestor said he was just a friend who knew the way and who had felt it was time to go home and see his family and friends. Everyone nodded sagely at this, no one said a word about the real reasons for leaving Ost-in-Edhil.

The snow kept up a light presence for two days, which gave Erestor and Lindir an excuse to share bedding, making jokes about being undersupplied with blankets which was in fact the truth; both had assumed a faster and somewhat warmer journey.

On the fourth day they made camp early to give the horses a good, long rest, and Erestor found himself at a loose end. Asking around produced sufficient flour to make bread and shameless begging gained him a jar of beer and an earthen pot. He got down to work in front of an audience of children and those adults with time to spare, first co-opting Lindir to dig a hole to use as an oven. This the musician did with wry good humour and nothing to suggest recent bad memories connected to digging.

After the dough had risen, Erestor lined the hole with hot coals from the fire, placed the bread in its pot on top of them and was heaping more coals over it when they heard the first sounds of something approaching, a faint shaking of the ground coming from the west.

“What is that? Can you hear it?” Lindir asked, coming to crouch frowning beside the improvised oven. 

Erestor didn’t look up. “Movement, horses and many, many feet. We’ll see them soon. No need to hide, they can only be from Lindon.”

Lindir thought, then nodded. “That’s true. Right, do we put sand over this or leave it open?”

“Sand, yes. Do it carefully.” Straightening up, Erestor pushed hair back from his face. ”That’s either our army or the mortals have mobilized, and I doubt they could raise these numbers.”

The bread was almost ready by the time the army came into view, a surging mass of elves, perhaps two thirds of them marching, the rest on horseback. Banners and pennants fluttered at intervals, and at the head of the column a small group rode carrying the flag of Lindon, the High King’s banner and the colours of…

“…Elrond Eärendilion,” Erestor murmured. Unobtrusively he unclipped his long, black hair and let it fall forward and shade his face. There was nothing he could tell Elrond that could be of use to him, not if Gil already knew enough to send out an army, and it was important not to draw attention to himself and Lindir.

Sensing him move, Lindir looked away from the might of Lindon. “Something’s wrong?”

“Hush, nothing. Just – people who might recognise me, and that would lead to questions here.”

The musician looked around quickly. Everyone was on their feet, watching as the army passed close enough to make out individual faces and read the displayed house colours. 

“He would know you?” Lindir asked just above a whisper. “Eärendil’s
son, I mean.”

Erestor nodded. “Yes, he would know me. So would a few others if there’re veterans in that crowd. I was on Balar with the king back in the old days. It was a small world, we all knew one another.” It was as much of the past as he felt ready to share.

“Questions would be bad,” Lindir agreed, moving in front of Erestor in a way that was perfectly natural but would block a casual glance. “Just two ordinary elves heading home before trouble comes, a singer and a scholar who can bake bread along the road. That’s us, nothing more.”

~*~*~*~*~

Part 9

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Beta: Red Lasbelin