A Little More Conversation 8

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'A Little More Conversation'

 

Part Eight - Safety

 Part Two

Dear Erestor,

Right now the rain is still beating down, but I think it might snow again before the courier leaves. My tent has sprung two leaks, which need to be patched when the weather clears enough to take it down for a while. I suppose I could ask one of my men to see to it, but it hardly seems right; this is a matter of my own comfort and should not be made their concern.

I brought a cup of wine back with me tonight, something I seldom do, and drank it while reading over what I had written to you earlier, words penned back where the fire was warm and voices surrounded me. At the time I gave very brief answers to a couple of your questions, although now I suddenly find I have so much more to add. Something insists that I could sit over wine with you on a night like this and share the things I have kept to myself for too long, and you would understand. You might even prod me to tell you about dragons once I finished my mental wanderings.

I know we were introduced before I left for Eriador, but I met so many and (embarrassingly) cannot put a face to your name. Yet I feel I know you well, because your personality shines through even the most formal of your communications. The questions you ask, your willingness to offer ideas and listen to my enthusiasms, and the thoughtful way you approach discussion are at one with someone who knows the family situation of a courier and would think to send me a new cloak just ahead of winter. Therefore, before the thoughts scuttle back into their shadowed corners, I will chance writing them down.

You asked about moonrise and Gondolin. Be warned, you are about to receive several pages more than you bargained for. Remember how we agreed that people start to make up stories if the facts are not known, and those stories make the reality small? That idea has sat with me and grown into this need, almost a compulsion, to explain how things really were, to lay out my thoughts and memories, keep them fresh and alive. And share them, because what use is the truth if it is not shared? And if I am to share this with anyone, I want it to be you.

Moonrise. All our festivals on this side of the Great Sea are based on a solar calendar, on the turning of the seasons, and yet there was a time before Sun or even Moon when we walked under the stars. I often hear voices lifted here to greet the rising moon with odes to his beauty, but the oldest of us were not born children of the moonlight, and his first appearance received no such welcome.

No one really knows how long we spent crossing the Ice, though Finrod always maintained it took years. There had been no tally of supplies when we set out, otherwise we could have tried to estimate how many people would have eaten what amount of lembas wafers or dried fruit in how many weeks, months, years. The food ran out before we arrived, of course, although by then our numbers were not what they had been at our departing. However, I digress. Moonrise.

The sky changed. Whenever the mists lifted, it was always the same velvet dark studded with stars, but now the stars grew faint and we sensed something new approaching. We stopped our march to talk about it, drawing close together, fearing some ruse of the Enemy and us exposed and vulnerable. One point on the horizon grew brighter, brighter still, and then suddenly a ball of purest silver rose into view.

No one spoke, I think some of us stopped breathing. The light threw shadow where none had been before, ice glittered diamond-bright and at first the snow-whiteness was near blinding. Some, like Artanis and Aegnor, wanted to try and shoot it down, others insisted we should hide (I remember wondering where) while we tracked its path and estimated its menace. That would have been Fingon, he was very fond of watching and waiting, often until it was too late and events finally overtook him. Whatever it was, it made an already cruel landscape appear harsher still and hurt eyes grown accustomed to nothing brighter than starlight and the gleam of the occasional, jealously preserved lantern.

Fingolfin finally told us to start walking again, that this was a sign from the Mighty. He pointed out the light had appeared at almost the same instant we left the Ice behind us and that solid land now lay beneath the snow. This was news to most of us, although we had seen the mountains drawing closer and knew we were almost at journey’s end. The light was similar to lost Telperion, he said, what further proof did we need? And he ordered trumpets sounded, as much to put heart into those who remained uncertain as to announce our arrival. I suspect half the job of command involves appearing confident in unlikely circumstances. He did it well.

At least Rna’s softer light gave our eyes time to grow accustomed to something brighter than the stars before Vsa rose in golden fire. By then we were more ready to expect the unusual, though it took me days to convince my mother that the fire above was not an agent of the Enemy, and the heat and brilliance would not suddenly swoop down and incinerate us all. I know many myths have grown up around the making of Sun and Moon, and that this probably answers none of them, but I know only what I saw. The sky lights are what they are.

You also asked about Gondolin.

We were told that no return to Nevrast would ever be possible while the Enemy lived, that those of us who knew the way could never leave again lest we accidentally betray its whereabouts. Of course, this turned out not to be strictly true. In the early days messengers went between us and the High King and returned with replies, but those who trod that path did so with the knowledge that their wives and children resided within the king’s tower and at his command. We learned fast that one of the things Turgon looked for in his emissaries to the outside world was a happy family life. No one in that service was likely to linger at the High King’s court a day longer than was necessary. Later of course, their place was taken by a flock of carefully trained homing pigeons.

The city itself was beautiful. White marble, coloured quartz, mosaics, exquisite tiling… much of it copied from Tirion, the rest a variation on similar themes. What we saw first, however, was a broad plain laid out for farming, with sections for crops, pasture for our horses, and fenced-off areas for pigs, chickens, goats and ducks. There were pools of water that bubbled to the surface from below ground, and this was channelled into a great reservoir, from where pipes carried it to the hill that dominated the plain, a hill we soon began referring to as the Rock. And on the Rock stood the city, looking out towards the mountains over the careful order we were about to inherit.

Every resource was counted. So many chickens, so many pigs, so much barley for a family in a year. So many lengths of carefully spun cloth for clothing and bedding. Adults received two pairs of shoes every five years, one stout pair for walking, the other for court wear. Firewood was rationed literally by the stick, while lamp oil was measured out as a monthly allowance dependant upon status and profession. Not even the king’s household burnt lamps indiscriminately. Candles were precious, wine was drunk only by royalty and by nobles like the heads of houses. Yes, I always had wine available. For the rest, a kind of ale was made from grain, and there was a colourless liquor distilled from, of all things, potatoes. I have not seen mention of it in Demmion’s book. I wonder if anyone makes it still? We drank it chilled on ice, and it had a kick like a recalcitrant mule.

Everyone had their assigned tasks, even if it was simply to be a gracious lady like my mother, who hosted well-planned dinner parties, just as she had back in Aman. We had need of artists as well as artisans, because the arts had to be seen to be pursued, and boys were trained as gold and silversmiths even if their preference lay elsewhere. Marriage was a matter arranged between families, and over a certain social level was only entered into with the king’s sanction, sometimes indeed at his insistence. I managed to avoid the incessant match making with a little aid from my mother and a lot from my cousin Idril, who was well-placed to come to my rescue.

Well, I am sure my attempts at matrimonial avoidance can be of no interest to you. I apologise. It would look worse if I crossed it out, so I will let it stand. Are you laughing?

Were we happy? Erestor, I have no idea. How do you define happy? By the time we had been on this shore long enough to understand the dangers we faced, it was too late to go home. Yet this had not started out purely as an excursion of warriors; whole families had made that crossing with the intention of setting up a new realm on this side of the sea. Mothers looked at their children, husbands at their wives, and all eyes turned to the king. Fingolfin was busy setting up a capital and creating an army, so they looked instead to Turgon, whose wife had been taken by the Ice, who had a daughter in his care. Then he claimed Lord Ulmo came whispering to him in dreams, and after that he did the best he could.

I suppose Ulmo really did talk to him. After all, Finrod was sensible enough, and he went off and started delving an underground realm, and on a rare visit to Vinyamar, Artanis told me he had also been guided in his decision by the Lord of Waters.

What I am trying to say is that people were afraid, and the grey stone town growing up beside the sea had not set their minds at rest. They wanted strong walls around them, security from an enemy they could barely imagine. What they really wanted was to go home, of course. My mother spoke of it often. But the road back was barred against us, so Turgon did the next best thing. He attempted to take us out of the world and recreate home within a mountain fastness, locked around by a system of walls and gates.

I loved being close to the sea. I missed Vinyamar. And only a very few of us admitted to a concern that seemed not to have crossed Turgon’s mind, that the walls that kept out danger also sealed us in. Gondolin’s boundaries were patrolled day and night. Every wolf's passage, every goat's trail was noted and assessed for malice, and yet when the end came, it was without warning. All those gates, all those watch stations, were to no avail. It has left me with a sense that security should be less oppressive, less fanatical. We lived as though under siege all those years, and for what? When the end came, we were trapped.

I am trying to do something very different here in Imladris. I suppose that is why I was upset when Elrond failed to comment on our security measures. I, not my men, was the one who needed reassurance that the new approach we are trying works.

I was not surprised when they attacked. They came with fire and thunder on one of the rare festival days when there was no work, when we all turned out in our best clothes with flowers in our hair. They seemed to pour down the sides of the mountain and across the plain towards us, and it was as though I had already lived through those moments, as though I knew each crest, each banner, each roared threat with prior familiarity. I had always known one day they would come, and we would not be able to get out in time.

How do you describe how it feels to be fighting not just for your life but for the lives of everyone you hold dear, for the very existence of your home? I have no words for that, in fact most of it is one long, desperate blur of effort. The books say I wore my armour. Actually it was more like half-armour, enough to protect my chest and stomach. I had to send someone for it, and that was all he could carry at a run. Plus he brought my sword. People died around me, the screaming never stopped. I tried so hard to prevent the fools from sending their women and children into hiding. I knew there was no hole dark enough, but no one was listening and I had no time. I had orcs to fight.

When I and what was left of the fighters of my house withdrew to Idril’s secret exit, no longer so secret, I saw I had been right, there were far more men than women, hardly any children. No one had time to go back, the killing was well underway. The screams will ring in my ears for all eternity, a part of my personal music, the song of our failure to keep safe those who looked to us for protection. Had I left wife or child back there in some less than secure hiding place, I could no more have gone through that tunnel than I could have flown, but there were those who were quite prepared to save themselves. I will never forgive that.

I wonder if Demmion had a family? He must have been amongst them.

We were strung out along the cliff path, smoke and flame rising from darkness into darkness, when they came: orcs, other fell creatures, and in their midst was a balrog. Life narrowed. I could see them so clearly, could tell for the first time that orcs, just like elves, have features that distinguish them one from another, they do not all look the same. There was even one I had a notion felt pity for us, something about the eyes, the way it looked down the line of fleeing elves and back briefly to its captain. And then down, as though not wanting its thoughts perceived.

They kept their distance from the balrog. It might have been almost as much a trouble to them as it was to us. That whip went everywhere.

My mother was on the path ahead, my cousin Idril, dear as a sister, and a few young survivors of my own House. I never saw a choice, just that it had to be stopped, or at least held back. There was nowhere to run, the path was really not much more than a narrow ledge along the face of a cliff. If they could get to the pass, they could hold it, perhaps. At least I thought so. That was as far as thinking took me; I shouted at those closest to me to keep moving, and then I just stood there and waited for it. And yes, I was fairly sure I was going to die. And I was afraid, Erestor, so afraid. Dying by fire has always seemed so horrific to me, and this thing approaching me was fire personified.

It walked in smoke and flame, its sound was like an approaching storm, it was more than twice my height. And its eyes were not those of an animal, it was a sentient being, one of the Maiar who had followed the Enemy and taken this form for its pleasure. I do not remember the fight, just that I was faster and fear added to my speed, and I kept telling myself that every minute I could hold it back, and the orcs milling behind it, gave my mother and the rest time to reach the pass, and maybe Idril could get her son to safety. I lasted longer than it expected, long enough for it to give vent to its frustration. That was when it spoke to me, calling me by name, mocking me for my lack of height, for my pitiful armour, for the way my sword arm tired, for the fear it could smell on me.

After it was over, I looked down towards the pass, my eyes burning from smoke and dazzled by flame, and saw people had moved further along than I would have expected. It had all felt so quick and yet at the same time as though it had gone on forever. I knew I had done what I could, which was what we were drilled always to do, our best for the city, our best for our people. No one thanked you for doing your best, and no one would have thanked me for what I had just done, only my family, or so I thought. I felt lonely then. It would have been so good to have someone special outside of that circle to tell me I had done well, though there would not have been time because the orcs were making up their minds to charge, and I knew I could not fight them all.

And then I was falling, and that seemed to last a very long time. And no, I do not eat meat, Erestor. I respect life, all life, as a great and glorious gift, but also I have a deep aversion to the stench of burning, cooking flesh. I have sometimes wondered if its flame was doused when it struck the ground or if it continued burning, but only the Wind Lord could answer that, and I have nothing to say to Manw’s feathered watchers.

The eagles could have come before then. I assume they decided it was not their war or some such. They must have been watching, only arriving after the balrog fell. Perhaps great Manw sent the Wind Lord to retrieve my body as an encouragement to Idril, or a sign, or something of the like. I have no way of knowing. Just that we traversed their path in what was their territory, and they waited until the fire being had fallen before coming out to help. They had not been willing to face it, they had not dared.

I told you we used to see them sometimes on patrol. Huge birds, bigger than any bird has a right to be. Creatures of the Valar. My mother thought they might really be Maiar, and my mother was a very wise woman. Raucous cries, huge beating wings. They kept us from certain parts of the mountains, we assumed at Turgon’s wish, but perhaps there were reasons outside of our knowledge. If you climbed too high, they would fly at you. More than one unwary warrior fell to his death before we learned to keep our distance.

I never liked them. All right, I was always a little afraid of them. They never gave me the sense that they would protect us, rather that in some nameless way they were our jailors until such time as Turgon received a sign that we could leave. When we rode out to aid his brother and Maedhros, I half expected them to fly at us as we went through the pass and chase us back. I remember only starting to breathe when we were quite a way down the mountain.

Does that all sound as paranoid as it looks? To be afraid of Manw’s servants? But I was, and I assure you I was not alone. Ecthelion would not go near their nesting place for any price. I think he would have disobeyed a direct order from the king, had it been necessary.

So, there you have it. The first moonrise, the city of Gondolin, and the giant eagles. No dragons, I fear. Perhaps another day we could share thoughts on the possible nature of dragons, why people think it appropriate to write of these creatures of immense, malevolent intellect as though they are no more than over-sized reptiles, but not tonight. The lamp grows low, and we have to be as careful of lamp oil here as ever we did in Gondolin. Strange, I feel less alone now, almost as though you were sitting here talking to me. The wine and the rain make me fanciful, I fear.

I would normally read through what I have written, correct it where necessary, and in this case decide if the letter should even be sent, but an instinct says to let it go. If you have read this far, I can only hope you do not think less of me for having shone the light of truth on what may be dearly held fantasies.

I wonder if I would like mountaineering. Perhaps, when the war is over, you would consider teaching me? We have many mountains here.

You have not lost touch with the land or the lessons of your childhood, so enjoy the comforts of city life, they too serve their purpose. It gives my heart pleasure to know you are safe in that green land between the mountains and the sea. Go well, Erestor.

Fin.
 

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Part 9

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Beta: Red Lasbelin