Burning Bright: Answers in the Dark

6. Fortresses

The Wood

The living wood wrapped itself around her, tree upon tree crowding in, blotting out the sun. The leaves whispered to one another and branches creaked and crackled in added emphasis. Some of their intent she could follow, for there had been trees enough in Doriath and Melian had taken the learning she’d had from Yavanna and focused it so that she could interpret the softer voices of these children of Endórë, so unlike the trees of Aman. Even so, this wood chose not to speak to her. Not yet.

Doriath had been Melian’s own, shaped and tamed by her will, but this forest was tamed by no elf. It grew thick and watchful, neither a part of the trees to the north nor the greater forest to the west. Galadriel had come here seeking a fortress, a place so impenetrable that the enemy would pass on by, knowing it not worth the time and manpower to attempt, but that would only be possible if the wood willingly stood as a barricade against outsiders, every tree vigilant. She knew some day this would be vital, but the reason lay just beyond the edge of her Sight. For now this future bulwark was just a great, whispering mass of trees and she felt stifled by them, much as she had been by the stone walls of Menegroth or Finrod’s Nargothrond.

She wondered what Celeborn would have made of the wood, and it of him. Celebrían’s first responses had been ambivalent, and the rope bridge across the river had not endeared it to her. She had followed Amdír, crossing just ahead of her mother, with a set, grim face old beyond her years. Galadriel, with memories still fresh of the bridge in Khazad-dum and how she had left the child to cope alone, tried to reassure her this time, only for Celebrían to tell her in a distant voice that it was no matter and would just have to be done. An intent stare said more clearly than words that she was to stop fussing.

The fact was she had not been embarrassed to admit fear in front of Thorhof because their host in the dwarf realm was someone she liked and trusted, but her own kind were another matter entirely: it was mainly pride that straightened her shoulders and kept her chin resolutely up. Galadriel would have liked to believe the new-found determination was due to her lecture on how the Noldor never showed fear, but suspected it was more to do with personal issues, namely the fact that Haldir had crossed the river with them. Celebrían was of an age where she was not yet sure of the opposite sex and the admiring glances she was starting to draw left her self-conscious and defensive. Galadriel was in no hurry to see that change.

The main settlement, when they reached it, was as quaint as she remembered. The Nandor of the wood still lived in little woven shelters joined together to make communal structures and had encouraged edible plants and herbs to grow nearby without overtly farming the land, just as they had persuaded little rivulets off the Celebrant to flow towards their living areas and the nearby ablution place with the sun-warmed water and smooth rocks. They had also worked fallen branches together into a fence around a pasture for their small herd of treasured horses. There was not much space for a horse in a forest, Amdír told her, amused at her surprise to find so few. These were kept for travel beyond the wood’s eaves, something which happened ever less now the troubles had come.

She had learned about things like the lack of travel a few days after their arrival, when Amdír took her up a rope ladder to near the top of a great tree, where a platform was anchored, offering a view across an ocean of green to yet another green sea marking the horse plains beyond the forest, and the sparkle of sunlight on the Anduin. Galadriel drank in the view in silence, reaching out to it, getting its sense. Nenya had half roused but she quieted the questing fingers of energy at once: they were too close to Amdir.

Now she walked alone amongst the trees, touching as she went, her hands passing over bark both rough and smooth. She saw no one, although she knew they were watching her. They had been watched ever since they arrived, the Noldor from Eregion come with the threat of war at their backs, though to her face she was treated with the uttermost respect: she was the wife of Celeborn of Doriath and the mother of his child. Her royal pedigree was meaningless amongst these people. To them the Noldor were all the same, bright-eyed outsiders who had brought the sky lights and warfare the like of which had never been seen before, people who rode tall horses with saddles and iron shoes, fought with the straight, two-handed sword, and conducted incomprehensible feuds amongst themselves.

As she walked she could feel the pulse of the earth energy around her. Nenya knew it was there too, tasting it with a breathless wonder that put her in mind of a child – but then the ring was new and still learning about the world. Lines of power shimmered beneath her feet, swirling, spiralling, and somewhere lay a point where they crossed and blended. She knew it was there, would have known even without Amdír’s mention, but was unable to find it because the wood had its own power, its own strength, and was using it to mask the path to the well. Whether it was deliberate or simply the way things were she had no idea. She had done nothing to earn the wood’s enmity, but it too, like the Silvan folk, was watching her, assessing.

This thought led her to wonder if the trees grew completely wild and unguarded, because if not there might be another way to win their trust. She and Celeborn had once met two of the tree shepherds, great, long-limbed beings with piercing eyes under brows like shaggy bark and deep, slow voices. That had been further south and in a time when less open land had lain between the woods. She wondered if there were still Ents in Lindórinand; not only would she like to see them again, but they might even be willing to help. She could ask Amdír but the king told her what he wished and otherwise kept his own counsel. This was his kingdom and he was slow to share its secrets.

Still, at least he was letting them stay and was not completely opposed to extending his hospitality further. Watchers had brought word that, as she had expected, there were other Noldor heading towards Lindórinand. They travelled in small groups of two, four, five, the guards reported, and after taking himself off to walk amongst the trees and think, Amdír had said he would find the refugees a place once she had seen and vouched for them. Galadriel disliked the idea of vouching for people she had never before met, but he left her little choice but to agree and be prepared to resort to threats if necessary to prevent any incidents.

The sun had sunk lower, the signal that it was time to stop ruminating and go back: it was almost time for the evening meal. There were a string of communal fires around which food was shared out, and they were expected to eat with Amdír’s household. Celebrían had explained it all to her, rattling on about the clan setup and how you couldn’t just eat anywhere, and how certain people sat alongside one fire and not another. She would have to get her to explain that again slowly. Bri was already getting to know people and asking questions, and Galadriel had a feeling that soon all she need do to understand the social structure of Amdír’s people was ask her daughter. It was a disconcerting prospect.

It wasn’t long since they had left home and yet Celebrían had grown in that short while, she thought, turning to retrace her steps, her fingers caressing a beech, her mind automatically sending it her name and her liking. She was less shy, more certain of herself, of being liked and welcomed. Galadriel wished she could take credit for the change, but it had probably been in spite of her, not because. Smiling wryly she hurried her steps, casting around and finding the little path that would take her back to the living space and dinner. For now, she supposed this was home.

The Valley
The waning moon hung low in the sky when Elrond left the infirmary he had set up against the cliff in a corner well sheltered from the river spray. In the past two weeks the men had brought in a total of eleven wounded elves, seven of them warriors and one heavily pregnant refugee whose time was close and whose husband was missing although she swore he was still alive. The beginnings of an informal town was growing up against the cliff, occupied mainly by non-combatants. His soldiers were encamped closer to the barely accessible trail up to the moorland, while Celeborn’s people had taken up residence near the waterfall. Elrond put that down to Telerin blood and a love for water that tolerated mist and spray.

“Everything all right there?” Celeborn materialised out of the darkness beside him. Elrond, who had sensed him before he saw him, gave a half shrug. “Nothing that won’t mend except for that boy your people brought in last night. I’m not happy with his wounds, they had time to get infected before he was found. Otherwise everyone’s settled for the night. Héolystan’s likely to have her child in the next two or three days – just wish we could find the father for her.”

“If he’s alive he has to run into one of the patrols eventually,” Celeborn said. “They’re turning people up all the time.”

He seemed distracted and Elrond said as much as they strolled through the dark towards the improvised tents. Celeborn shook his head. “The night feels too still, that’s all. The same airlessness as before a storm. I’ll feel better once the patrol gets back.”

They sent men out at irregular intervals, day and night, to check the land above the cleft they sheltered in and make sure they were still alone. Like Celeborn, Elrond found it hard to relax till he had news of the world beyond. Tonight though… Celeborn had something, the night was too still. The air felt wrong in some indefinable way he had known without awareness till now. He started to listen for what was different, but then remembered that this was wrong. Listen for what’s missing, he could almost hear Maglor say. When sounds that should be there are absent, then you know trouble looms.

The river was the same, the frogs called softly, the other night noises seemed right. There were the sounds of a settlement getting ready to turn in for the night: low voices, occasional laughter, the brief cry of a baby. There were no fires. Celeborn had advised against fire at night and it fitted with what Elrond recalled of making camp in unsecured territory, which was how Maedhros had defined any land beyond their ever-shrinking heartland.

Suddenly the comforting night sounds vanished into flat blackness and he was standing in swirling mist. Voices called, harsh, guttural, and strange beasts cried – no, not beasts, orcs. That was a hunting call. The earth beneath him began to vibrate to the march of a thousand booted feet. Now he could hear the river again, hear it rising, calling warning. The thrumming of his heart was so loud it threatened to drown out all other sounds, his stomach twisted and heaved and there was the bitter taste of bile in his mouth…Then the world swung back into view and he knew what had been missing – the trees were silent.

“Get them up!” Later he would smile at the look on Celeborn’s face: he had done the impossible and made Galadriel’s husband jump. “The warriors, yours, mine – get everyone up, reinforce the watch, every trail. Secure that crossing down the river… Now, do it now! Sauron’s army is coming. There’s no time to lose, no time left…”

Someone else might have argued. Celeborn gave him a hard look, then swung on his heel and was off across the rock and gravel and tufts of grass to where his followers were encamped, calling people out of tents and shelters as he passed. Elrond followed suit, forcing the residue of the Sight back and making his body obey. There was no time now for weakness and regrouping of strength now. He could almost smell the approaching army on the moist air. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled.


“May as well allow fires,” Celeborn said with a shrug. It was the next evening and he was watching the sun sink behind the mountains. “It’s not as though they don’t know where we are now.”

Elrond nodded. “They followed someone back, didn’t they? I keep wondering who, everyone was so careful.”

“It just needed one spy, one lone watcher following a party of elves who had the look of people with a set destination. It had to happen sooner or later. They might even have seen us arrive, in fact that wouldn’t surprise me at all. We were a large party moving slowly with stretchered wounded. But we will never know and there’s nothing to be done about it now.”

Elrond wondered if anything ever unsettled the prince. Of course, he was married to Galadriel which in itself would call for sound nerves. Elrond didn’t know her well, but what he knew often left him distinctly uneasy. “So – we set cooking fires and just carry on as though there’s nothing amiss, as though there isn’t a besieging army encamped above our heads?”

“Something like that, yes.” Celeborn was leaning back against a rock ledge idly working his hair into a fresh braid. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world. “They are up there, we are down here. Every possible entry into this valley has either been sealed off or is so well manned that nothing could creep through. We have people out making triply sure nothing has been overlooked. We may be unable to get out, no one ever mounted a successful assault up a cliff, but they cannot get in either. What do they call it in that eastern game my wife loves so much? Stalemate?”

“Stalemate, yes.” Elrond looked up at the top of the cliff, at the stunted trees, the uneven lie of the land with the occasional figure, black against the sky, crossing his line of sight. The day’s end was fast sliding into night, a glimmer of stars had already winked into view. They were at the bottom of a tree-filled fissure, so deep that even during the day there was the occasional hint of starlight The trees grew thick along the lower slopes of the cliff, effectively hiding the river and their encampment from above. Celeborn was right: their party were the most likely to have been followed.

The broad shelf they were on above the river widened further down, offering more room for the creation of a proper village for the refugees, but from the start an instinct had warned him to keep away. It had been right; there was less space where they were now, but they were up against the side of the mountain and as safe as it was possible to be under such circumstances. Later they could also make use of the wide green bowl of a valley that their shelter opened into, but until it had been proven secure, he would allow no one beyond the closely guarded curve in the river.

He was about to mention this when a rush of feet made him swing round instead. One of the older boys and two children came to a combined halt in front of him. “You need to come now, lord,” the boy said. “It’s Mistress Héolystan. Thoron says her time’s come and he’s trained to deal with broken bones and sword gashes, not childbirth.”

Celeborn, about to sink into the meditation Elrond had noted as a constant come sundown, snorted with laughter. Elrond rose and brushed his pants off, a futile exercise considering no one was washing clothes. That would have to wait for one of the shallows further down the river to be declared safe. “One day he’ll realise there’s more honour to bringing new life into the world than in sewing up wounds and listening to stories of how the sword’s wielder was big enough to be Turin returned.”

As he was hurrying off he saw Celeborn beckon the boy back and heard him drawl in an amused voice, “Go spread the word that we’re allowing cooking fires tonight. And stop off at the barracks and tell Eleneth. Otherwise she’s likely to have them put right out and I can’t be the only one heartily tired of cold food.”

As far as he could judge, the dinner had gone well. Captain Gimilkhâd, seated beside Gil-galad, gave the impression of enjoying both food and company equally. He had two young men with him, introduced as the sons of lords with unpronounceable names, and they too had been given places on the royal dais. As had Erestor, tonight a creature of dark fascination in velvet only a shade less black than his hair and glittering with a king’s ransom in diamonds that Glorfindel assumed had been borrowed from the Treasury. He wondered about it until Gil-galad gave the speech wishing their guests safe journey and mentioned that Erestor of Nargothrond would return with them to Númenor carrying letters and gifts for the queen and her nephew the co-regent. Then the diamonds made sense; a display of wealth to make up for his lack of a title.

Glorfindel had slipped away in the after-dinner confusion to enjoy a few quiet minutes outdoors while the tables were removed or set back against the wall, the musicians struck up and the dancing began. He still found Mithlond boisterously noisy at times – exciting, invigorating even, but louder and faster than either Gondolin or his rebirth home in Aman. When it all grew a bit too much he had found it helped to go for a walk and breathe in clean salt air.

The ferry was in view when he came out and he idly watched its light as he crossed the grass till it turned towards shore and was lost from sight. The sea’s voice brought Elsúrië to mind and he spent a while musing on what she would have thought of the dinner, and if it was night over there as it was here in Endórë, and if they shared the same view of Ithil softly lighting the waves. Not the same stars though, they were quite different this far east.

He stopped near the harbour steps and stood watching the lights on the far side of the strait, chance or fate once more bringing him to the right place at the right time. He was aware of footsteps on the stairs, and waited, curious, till a small band of warriors trudged into view, their clothing the worse for wear, their bodies drooping with tiredness. He followed instinct, moving out of the wall’s shadow into the light of the torch that flared in its sconce at the top of the steps. “Well met, brothers in arms. What news of the war?”

They hesitated, startled, as he’d expected, then one of them said something low voiced to the others, and they all came to a respectful halt. They had seen him at the march past when they left Lindon, he guessed, when he had stood beside Gil-galad, seeing them on their way to action in Eregion. “Evening, my lord. We were sent over to speak to Master Callonui. We just got back from Eriador…”

“Did they feed you over on the south shore?” he interrupted. “If not, get along to the kitchen once you’ve spoken with him and have a bite. Just follow the scent of roast meat. If you wait here, I’ll have someone call him, he’s in the Hall somewhere. Bad news?”

He had now established himself as someone who knew the whereabouts of Lindon’s senior general and would send someone for him rather than going himself. And he was offering them food. In other words, he was Command. They all started talking at once, relieved to have an audience with authority.

“Eriador’s a mess, my lord. Barely got out with our lives.”

“There’s fighting all over, best we could do was join up with Celeborn’s boys and try make life difficult for the enemy. They usually have food too. That helps.”

“That was before he and Lord Elrond got themselves trapped like rats in that valley Lord Elrond found,” the man who brought up the rear told him, the first to get to the meat of the story. “They’re making a sort of healing centre and safe place for refugees. I just got back there when half the eastern army showed up at the top of the cliff above them. Army can’t get down, they can’t get out.”

“We’re only here because we’d been riding reconnaissance and got trapped outside.”

They were gathered around him now in a ragged semicircle, not too close but close enough to be confiding. They were men looking for a captain to report to, he recognised the signs well. “Lords Elrond and Celeborn are trapped in a valley by part of the eastern army?” he repeated, looking for confirmation. Heads nodded in unison. “This valley – how secure are they?” In other words, how urgent was this siege, affecting as it did a prince of the Sindar and the king’s heir.

“It’s pretty tightly sewn up, my lord. They had that all in place before it happened. Lord Elrond was showing off, letting the Prince see how safe he could make it.”

“Just as well,” the first speaker cut in grimly.

“Great, huge gash in the ground, like being at the bottom of a pit,” another volunteered. “Then it opens up into a sweet little valley, plenty of space for crops and whatnot, all fed by the river.”

“What, homesick are you?” someone mocked.

“Shut up, you.”

“So they’d be safe, just not able to get out? How many men with them?” Glorfindel used his ‘command’ voice, knowing it would never cross their minds to wonder if they should share this sensitive information with him before reporting to Callonui. He was unsure about that himself, but the more he knew, the stronger his position.

“Most of ours – Lord Elrond’s. And Celeborn took a good handful of his and two that were wounded. No idea who’s taking his place while he’s gone. We took a vote and decided to get back here rather than go look for them.”

Glorfindel stood with arms crossed over his chest, hand to chin, and considered this latest disaster, the music from the hall forming an unlikely accompaniment to the saga. He’d had a better look at them now and could see the dust of a heavy journey, the need for rest, the residue of fear. “How big is this army, what’s the estimate? Are most of Sauron’s forces tied up outside this valley?”

They exchanged looks. “Don’t think so, my lord. We heard the main army’s based in what used to be Ost-in-Edhil, with a bunch of roving companies scouring the countryside. Course just the companies are close to the size of our original army before – before we started losing people. The lot penning everyone into the Riven Dell are under the commander we faced after we crossed the Gwathlo. He’s good.”

“Word is Annatar’s consolidating Eriador and Eregion, making sure the dwarves don’t cause trouble before heading this way.”

Glorfindel felt the tension build on the air at the thought and flattened it firmly. “We’re ready for anything that might come this way, and we have the mountains as a natural wall,” he pointed out. “Nothing to worry about this side of the border. You men wait here. I was on my way back anyhow, so I’ll get Callonui out to debrief you and someone will tell you where to go after you’ve eaten. Wait here.”

“Thank you, my lord,” several voices chorused, though at the prospect of repeating their story for a third time, they must have felt the night would never end.

He made his way back across the flower-studded grass and through the side door, then hurried along the passageway that led back into the main Hall. The buzz of voices and bright, energetic music grew louder, popular tunes whose titles he kept confusing. Before the dancing, there had been a few serious numbers, but the only one that stayed with him was from Erestor’s friend Lindir, who had sung of lost love, a moonlit maiden on a windblown hill, with such quiet certainty that Glorfindel could almost see the girl, smell the pine on the air. He was working with the other minstrels now, providing accompaniment for the dancers.

Gil-galad was on the far side of the Hall, where a canopy had been set up over a small cluster of chairs for the king, his guests of honour, and a few privileged courtiers. These included Erestor, who was sitting graceful and still, listening with the hint of a smile to one of the young Númenóreans. Glorfindel crossed to them, moving at an angle to come up behind Gil. He gave the company a court smile. “I’m sorry, please excuse me. Something His Majesty wanted to be kept informed of…”

Gil-galad half-turned, surprised, and opened his mouth either to ask what he wanted or to introduce him. Not giving him time, Glorfindel leaned closer, almost cheek to cheek, breathing in hints of expensive spice from almost-curly dark hair. His own hair brushed Gil-galad’s broad, velvet-clad shoulder as he whispered, “You need to come. There’s something you have to hear for yourself, about the war. Outside.”

Erestor’s amber eyes met his briefly. Glorfindel tried to convey urgency with a frown and received a brief nod, then Erestor turned to the company in general, spreading his hands and smiling. “I suppose we should let His Majesty attend to business, even on a night like this. Come gentlemen, I think the time has come to stop talking. It’s a shame to waste the music – we need to find you ladies to dance with.”


Chapter 7