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'A Secret Gate'
A Secret Gate
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.
It was raining again. They had spent the day trudging across Eriador, over rocks and scrubby bushes, around clumps of heather and the occasional stand of trees, too sparse and occasional to serve as cover. Gildor had long since come to the conclusion the only ones having a good time were the horses, because they got to walk at the plodding pace set by the refugees.
The group that had gathered around the remnant of Elrond’s army were a rag-tag assortment of survivors, mainly from Ost-in-Edhil and the little farming settlements that had fed and secured the city. There were more women and children than men, because the men had sent them into hiding while they stood and fought – and died – leaving them with no support or safe haven and in most cases only the vaguest idea of the way to either Lindon or Lorien.
Today one of the war parties the Enemy had hunting them came too close for comfort, and the rule now was to move quietly on foot, lead the horses, talk only at need, and keep to whatever cover they could find. The rain and the general greyness of the day would work to their advantage, said Elrond, who looked unimpressed by his own enthusiasm. He remained on horseback so people could see where he was, which he felt should keep everyone going in the right direction, whatever that was. When Erestor pointed out tartly that he was also making himself a target should they be spotted, he simply shrugged and said he trusted his family’s luck to hold. Gildor had no idea if he was being serious or facetious and thought it better not to ask.
“There’s a hulking great crevice across our path up ahead,” Erestor said, falling in step with him. His horse, a small black creature with an evil nature, was following him like a dog. They had a good relationship, Erestor and the black horse, though it would take a braver man than Gildor to suggest this might be due to any similarity in temperament.
“Now what? How far does it stretch? I’ve never been up here before.”
“I thought you’d been everywhere.” Erestor shot him a look, amber eyes sparkling in the approaching dusk.
Gildor returned the look wryly. “Oh, I have – everywhere that’s worth visiting. This was not on my list of places I must see before I settle down.”
“Wonder why? It’s so fascinating, all this endless grey rock and rough grass… The scouts said it goes on for a way and then vanishes into the side of the mountain. Elrond’s looking for somewhere to hide for the night right now.”
“He’d better find that before full dark. These aren’t soldiers, they’d be useless in a night march.”
“They can’t help it, Gildor, they’re doing their best to...” Erestor broke off to wrestle with the black horse which had suddenly decided to try and take a bite out of Gildor’s mount. Gildor’s Deneb was justifiably unhappy and it took a few minutes of firm handling to restore peace.
“I know that, but we can’t keep going round in circles like this,” Gildor said once they were walking again. “I’m starting to get the sense we’re being herded.”
Erestor pulled a face. “Not so much herded as they’re cutting off escape routes as they find them and we’ll end up with no options.”
“What happened to the distraction? I thought all those little groups of fighters were meant to keep their attention off us while we get the non combatants closer to Lindon?”
“Well maybe they’re leading them off or something? I don’t know. You’re too impatient with this pace, you should have gone with them.”
“Want to be rid of me, do you?”
“Ha. No, not quite, but when you’re restless you’re as bad as this girl here.” He patted the black horse’s nose affectionately.
“There has to be a core of fighters around Elrond,” Gildor said. “He was sending everyone who’s any use with a sword to hold off the enemy, but he can’t really tell me what to do so I stayed. And don’t argue with me, I know it’s why you’re here too.”
“I don’t have your experience,” Erestor shrugged, “but I’m useful with a knife. I can even -- look at that, the ground just falls away into nothing. Why does it do that?”
Gildor stopped next to him and they looked at the bushes and straggly trees that seemingly grew on the edge of nothing. Erestor, his face pale and dark-eyed in the gathering gloom, shoved his horse’s reins into Gildor’s hand and hurried forward, fascinated. He stopped at the tree line. “That’s why there’s mist all around – it’s coming from down there…”
Gildor listened past the sound and motion of the horses on either side. “Stay away from the edge, that’s a strong and angry river down there. Come, we’re being signalled. I think they’ve found somewhere to make camp.”
“Wonder what else is down there?” Erestor came back reluctantly to take charge of his horse. “All I can see are tree tops.”
“It’s a sheer drop. Just hope we don’t lose a child over the edge.”
“It is, yes, but there’s water down there, and we’re starting to run short. I’m going to talk to Elrond. Maybe there’s time before it gets dark to take a look.”
“Everyone always thinks I’m a bad influence on you,” Gildor pointed out, “but if they only knew, it’s the other way around.”
“That’s a bad idea, Erestor. It’s almost dark.”
Elrond was in no mood for nonsense. Two major military defeats, running battles across Eriador and a growing tail of refugees had gone a long way towards flattening his appreciation for the absurd. Erestor’s face took on its stubborn look, one Gildor had reason to know well. “It’s almost dark but there’s still about an hour and all I want to do is go back along the cliff and see if there’s a way down. I wouldn’t try it after star-rise.”
“And if you fall over the edge and break your damn fool neck, I’ll have to send men down to retrieve your body because Ereinion’s fond of you and would be unreasonable about us not giving you a proper burial.”
“I’m happy to give you a waiver,” Erestor said airily. “You can leave me down there for the little animals to feast on like some of the Avari do.”
“Oh for --- no. There’s no point. We’ll move further north tomorrow. Sharp north. They’ll be expecting us to try and head west.”
“Yes, but we need water…”
“Erestor, enough. We will find water.”
Erestor’s expression said no, it wasn’t enough. Gildor sighed. “How about if I go along so there’s someone to scrape him off the rocks if he falls?”
Elrond gave him a jaundiced look. “This was probably your idea in the first place, it has that kind of feel.”
“No, I think he’s crazy too, but he’s set on doing it so I may as well go along and make sure he gets back in time for dinner. Stop worrying, Elrond. We won’t be long.”
“Of all the stupid damn ideas...”
The rain was falling steadily, the light was low and back at the camp it would be supper time. They had been arguing quietly about whether it was time to turn back yet and how well Erestor could see at night relative to Gildor who had crossed the Helcaraxë under starlight when Erestor lost his balance on the loose stones at the cliff’s edge and went plummeting over and out of sight.
Shouting was out of the question. Fighting down the sharp pang of fear and the twisting anxiety that followed, Gildor dropped down flat and looked over the edge; he had no intention of being the next one to fall.
Erestor was a dark shape below, holding onto a precariously swaying bush. “I’ll get down there as fast as I can;” Gildor told him, his voice low and urgent. “Stay put.”
“Asshole! Where am I likely to go?” Erestor growled.
Grimly refusing to laugh, Gildor looked for and found a possible route with a few plants to hold onto rather than barren rock and began a slow decent. He reached Erestor quite fast and leaned over, offering his hand. “Here, hold on. There’s a ledge just a little below, see if you can get your feet to it.”
“There’s – something that might be a goat trail a bit further down,” Erestor said, taking his hand but not moving yet. “I’m sure I can get to it…”
“Erestor, bugger it, that’s enough. Get onto the ledge, catch your breath, and then we need to work on getting back up.”
Erestor’s hand tightened warningly. “Horses. Coming this way.”
Gildor said a very ugly word he had picked up in Harad and flattened himself against the rock. “Do you think they followed us?”
“They’re not being quiet, not acting as though they’re trying to catch an enemy unawares. Maybe this is just coincidence. It’s dark, they don’t see as well as we do.”
“As long as they don’t find our camp.”
“There’s only a handful of horses. Scouting party?”
“Why do you always say hush like a maiden aunt, rather than shh?”
“Because shh is louder, Erestor – now shut up.”
The horses slowed to a walk and kept moving towards them. “Maybe they’ll miss the edge and go right over,” Erestor breathed.
“We should be so lucky. And then the one who stopped in time would try and rescue them, and here we’d sit.”
“Wouldn’t they just leave them? Messing around at the top of a cliff in the dark is dangerous.”
Gildor snorted. “Noticed, have you? No. Orcs wouldn’t stick around, but these aren’t orcs. “
“True. Damn. We need to get lower in case they take a look down here.”
“You can’t see in the dark. Let me go first.”
“Of course I can. Aman-born elves – think you’re vastly superior to the rest of us.”
“Of course I’m superior to you,” Gildor hissed, “I have common sense. Can you go a bit lower so I can get past?”
“You’ll grab me if I fall, right?”
“Don’t be daft, you climb like a goat. Speaking of, where’s that goat trail?”
“Right over… here,” Erestor said, pointing. “It goes into the trees. We’ll be invisible there.”
They started down carefully, moving from one precarious hand or foothold to the next. They could hear voices above, but there was no suggestion of alarm or excitement. Gildor’s main concern was that the rain made everything slippery underfoot, but the trees they were heading towards would offer shelter. He was drenched but had been wet for so long now it hardly registered with him.
The trees thickened into a virtual wood and ahead of him Erestor stopped. “I didn’t realise it was so dark down here. There are so many trees…”
“Let’s find somewhere to rest a while and think this through.” Gildor kept the relief out of his voice. He had half expected Erestor to insist on going further and it was hardly the time and place for that kind of argument.
“I can’t see a thing...” For the first time today Erestor sounded hesitant.
“I can’t see this trail you claim we’re following either. The rain’s getting heavier and the mist’s thicker. We need to stop now and wait for dawn.” Gildor kept his tone light. If he tried, he could still pick out the trail, but there was no need to make an issue of his stronger night vision.
“Elrond will have a fit.”
Gildor put a hand on Erestor’s shoulder and could feel him shivering, hardly surprising as he was soaked. They stood together looking out into the dark, listening to the rain on the leaves and the rush of water far below. “He’ll get over it. Whoever’s on watch would have seen the horsemen, he’d know we had to hide.”
“Probably. What do we do? We can’t stay here all night.”
“Time to find a place to stop,” Gildor said, squeezing Erestor’s shoulder before moving on. “We need shelter, even if it’s just a hollow in the rock. Need to go slow, feel around.”
“I suppose you know what you’re doing.” The rain and the darkness had conspired to subdue Erestor. “Just don’t go too fast, my feet are frozen.”
It took them at least an hour of following goat trails amongst the suspicious trees and along faults in the wet and treacherous rock. As Gildor led them down and along, the river sounds grew louder. The rain stopped for a while, but they were barely aware because by then the mist had grown heavier. From the noise, Gildor thought they must be close to a waterfall. Finally, behind a cluster of bushes that would serve as protection from the damp air, he found exactly what he was looking for: a scooped out hollow in the cliff.
The loose sand underfoot had turned muddy and he braced himself while he let Erestor go first. There was a ledge with just enough space for the two of them to sit. He got his arm around Erestor, who always felt the cold more than he did, though he would never admit it, and they sat in silence listening to the river. After a time the rain started again but the wind was blowing away from them now and they heard rather than felt the drops. Erestor was cold to the touch and Gildor knew he was no better. “Come here,” he said. “Share some body heat, it’ll warm us up a bit.”
Erestor leaned away from him instead. Gathering his dripping braids together, he wrung his hair out like a wet towel then tucked it up on top of his head. “There’s nothing more miserable than wet hair, water dripping down your back,” he explained, moving closer. “Think I need a jacket with a hood like yours. I don’t suppose you brought anything to eat?”
Gildor snorted. “Trust you to be hungry. No, you didn’t say anything about staying out all night. We’ll just have to starve till morning. We might find some berries on our way back.”
“If we haven’t frozen to death, yes.”
He could point out this had been all Erestor’s harebrained idea, but the last thing he wanted was to spend the night arguing about whose fault it was that they were dripping wet on a ledge above a river in the dark, with nothing to eat, no dry clothes, and nothing to look forward to but more of the same till morning. “Nothing is that easy,” he said, putting his arm round Erestor. “We’re more likely to survive the night and find those easterners waiting for us at the top. Now be quiet and I’ll show you the quickest way to warm up, wet hair and all.”
Gildor woke to the sound of birdsong and rushing water and for a moment had no idea where he was. He was stiff and a bit cramped, but Erestor formed a warm, familiar weight in his lap and for a while he was contend to lean against the rock and just be. Eventually he opened his eyes on the sound of starlings arguing and looked around, stifling a yawn. What he saw made him straighten up, wide awake, and take in their surroundings. Then he tugged an errant black braid firmly. “Erestor, wake up. We’ve found it.”
“I didn’t know we’d lost it,” Erestor muttered, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “I cannot believe I actually slept. The sun’s almost...” His words trailed into silence and just as Gildor had, he straightened and looked around.
The mist had lifted during the night. There was a hint of spray in the air but otherwise it was dry and the sky was silver-pale and clear. They were on a ledge in the midst of a small forest, the trees clinging to the steep slopes through some magic of fertile soil and moisture. Water sparkled diamond bright on foliage, while tiny purple, red and blue flowers grew in cracks and around the roots of bushes. Below them the river rushed and leapt down rocky falls, singing as it went. Birds darted from tree to tree, Gildor even saw a frog hop past almost close enough to touch.
Beyond the narrow gorge the land appeared to flatten and spread out, with a hint of forested land beyond the bend in the river. A valley. And below them...
“An army could camp down there and have space for the horses too,” Erestor said in something like awe, pointing.
“If we can find a simpler path and mark the way down, there’d be plenty of room for everyone,” Gildor said quietly. “And the beauty is you’d never even know this place existed from above. Open land against the cliff, running water, easily defensible - and there’s more space round the bend amongst those trees.”
“A proper safe haven, like Gondolin but with a way out and no balrogs.”
“You have a weird mind, have I told you?”
“People say I spend too much time with you, I -- oh, look at that!”
Although they were still in shadow, the sun had risen high enough to kiss the edge of the mist above the river, and rainbows glittered and danced in its path. Gildor found himself smiling and when he looked down, Erestor’s expression of delight mirrored what he was feeling.
“Now that is beautiful,” he said. “Beautiful and welcoming.”
Erestor stretched and then relaxed against him, still smiling. “Coming down here - it wasn’t my worst idea ever, was it?”
“No,” Gildor said decisively, “I think we showed very good instincts there.”
“We?” Erestor punched him only half playfully. “So it’s ‘me’ when we’re hanging onto a bush and hiding from eastern soldiers, but it’s ‘we’ when we find a beautiful, untouched valley? Typical.”
“About the size of it, yes,” Gildor agreed cheerfully. “Never mind, people have short memories - usually. Let’s get back and tell Elrond what we’ve found...sorry, what you’ve found.”
“That’s more like it, Your Highness,” Erestor said approvingly, rising carefully to his feet and bending to rub a stiff shin. “Tell him what I’ve found - what we’ve found. Do you think he’ll let us name it? The Valley of Rainbows would be nice.”
Gildor looked out across the many shades of green, the rushing water, white capped as it leapt down falls, at the blue rock of the mountains and the green, open land beside the river, protected on either side by towering natural walls. “No,” he said softly. “That’s a good name, but there’s only one that really fits this. Imladris, the riven dell. And to people who have lost almost everything it might have another one some day - home.”
Erestor’s hand found his. “We’ll let Elrond decide. Come, let’s see if it’s easier to go up than it was to get down. I’d like to get back while there’s still breakfast to be had, even if it is dry and cold and tasting of roots. Right now I’m too hungry to fuss. Dry clothes too, but first food.”
“Just a quick look around before dinner,” Gildor said with a grin. “And look where that led? A secret place we might have passed by a hundred times and not thought to explore, like a hidden path to the moon through a secret gate. Felt like longest night of my life since crossing the Ice, but they’ve both been worth it for what lay at the end.”
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though we pass them by today
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
Beta: Red Lasbelin