9. Lessons Learned
“I wish I could see his face,” Elrond muttered.
He and Navinai were tucked into a crevice in the rock opposite their camp, a line of holly bushes shielding them from view while they watched for movement above. This side of the gorge offered no space for shelters but a natural track along the bank led down into the valley, only accessible with difficulty from the other side. So far they had seen an occasional horse or warrior, but the main activity up on the moorland was centred around the great green and gold banner the besieging force had hoisted near the only visible access to their haven.
Navinai gave the cliff top a hard look, but there was no one in sight. “Whose face?” she asked.
“Their commander,” Elrond said grimly. His legs were cramped and there were stones digging into his back. “When we fought them earlier I almost got to him but I never saw his face. And here he is again, with his soldiers and his orc pack and his magicians or whatever they are.”
“Well, that’s what Celeborn says they are,” Navinai said. “For all we know, they’re travelling entertainers, keeping up morale.”
Elrond was forced to smile in spite of the discomfort. “If that’s the case, they have strange tastes in music. All that chanting and howling – you have to wonder what they’re doing.”
“Not me,” she said with a shiver. “At times you hear screams above the chanting. I don’t need to know what that’s about.”
Navinai, a blooded warrior, wasn’t the only one who talked a little louder when the chanting started up. There was something sinister and unclean about the way the air changed to contain the sound and Elrond, for one, was aware of tendrils of something charged and ugly stretching out towards them. This far they had been easy to block and reject, but they still left a cold unease in their wake. “I think whatever they do is connected to the moon,” he said, trying without success to get comfortable. “I never gave moon phases a thought the first time it happened, but the next was definitely mid cycle. We’ll see in about a week.”
“Do you think they practice human sacrifice?” she asked quietly. “That’s what’s being said, you know.”
Elrond shook his head, watching as two careful forms crossed their sight line. The patrols kept their distance from the edge of the cliff now; there had been a misstep a while ago, leaving a dead and battered body lodged in a tree near the river. “Erestor had a book on eastern beliefs and there was nothing about that, more about self mutilation and …”
“Young priests sometimes emasculate themselves during ceremonies. They ingest mind-altering drugs and then the music whips them up into a frenzy, and…” He made a slicing motion with his hand.
“El, that’s horrible!”
He grinned at her expression. Navinai was Erestor’s first cousin and Elrond had known her most of his life and loved teasing her. Laughter lit her sensible face to something close to beauty and as her shoulders shook they set her dark curls dancing. “Different cultures, different ways. I wonder what they think of… look!”
She followed where he was pointing, shading her eyes. They were being careful up there, but it was possible to see shapes moving between the trees. “Enough of them to shake the bushes… where are they going?”
Elrond frowned. “Nowhere, just closer to the edge. They’re waiting for something. Get ready to signal.”
Nothing happened for a time, then a cart trundled briefly into sight and vanished into the bushes. The two elves exchanged a look but neither could venture a guess. There were more hints of motion, a brief stillness, then the brush that grew between the trees started to shake. Navinai grabbed his arm. “Look!”
The cart hove into view and stopped, teetering on the edge of the cliff. Smoke poured off it as flames sprouted and licked hungrily upward. It hung shuddering, then jerked forward and began falling. It was too heavy or too well balanced to twist and turn, rather it fell straight down, wheels first, spitting fire and tearing off branches along the way. As it passed, trees began to smoulder and catch. If nothing deflected it, the point of impact would be right beside the main camp.
Navinai needed no instructions. Whistling the urgent signal for ‘look out above’, she was already off down the cliff, Elrond close behind, heading for the rope bridge that would take them back across the Bruinen. They were almost half way when the cart finally struck something solid and shattered, raining fire in all directions. It was followed by an ear-splitting explosion that sent red and orange light blasting through the trees.
“What in the Pit…?” Navinai shouted without slowing down.
“Black powder, the explosive used in fireworks,” Elrond shouted back. He lacked her perfect balance and clutched the guide rope, trying to ignore the way the rope bridge swayed and tipped under his feet. “They packed it in the bottom, made some kind of a trigger. Come on, we have to get the fire under control.”
When they reached the other bank thick smoke came billowing towards them, carrying glowing cinders within its swirling heart. Eleneth, Celeborn’s second in command, already had a bucket chain organised down to the river with people using any container they could lay hands on, and was sending others in pairs into the smoke with wet sacks and blankets to beat down the spreading flames. Navinai headed to the river to take charge while Elrond looked around for something useful to beat flames or carry water in.
“You should stay here,” Celeborn said from behind him. “Get them ready to move their belongings if we can’t contain it.”
“Someone else can do that,” Elrond snapped. “I’m more use over there, fighting the fire.”
“No, you are not,” the Sinda said calmly. He sounded as immovable as one of the old oaks that grew in the valley. “You are needed here, helping the refugees make ready to cross the river if it becomes necessary. Your presence will give them confidence and they will be more likely to do as they are told. One of the captains is just another person shouting orders, but you are the authority from Lindon.”
Elrond frowned but it made sense. “I need to make arrangements for the wounded as well,” he conceded. “All right. And you?”
“I gave orders that the bridge be made more accessible for civilians carrying property and children. After that – if we can, the trees must be saved. I have people who can work with the river. Perhaps they can help.”
There were seven patients in what had become known as Elrond’s Tent: the mother with her newborn babe who he had thought were better off there than in a leaking shelter half open to the elements, the young warrior whose leg he had finally been forced to amputate, and four others who were in various stages of walking wounded. Ninniach, the Nandor wise woman, was redressing a wound when he got there.
“Those who can walk are ready to leave,” she said without looking up. “This boy will be well enough when I’m done too. The wound will not open easily now. The other boy though – he will need to be carried.”
“We might not have to move them,” Elrond told her, stopping to watch what she was doing. Her ways and his were not the same, but he had soon seen that she got results and had the sense not to try and retrain her. His ways were Lindon’s, Noldor based, while hers were of the land and people of the dark years. Neither was wrong.
Ninniach looked up, ancient eyes glinting in her pointed face. “The wind comes this way. They want to burn us out, but the captain says we will go down into the valley?”
“I’m not happy about that, but if the fire spreads we might have to,” he agreed, dropping down beside the amputee who was awake though tranquil from the precious poppy which Elrond only used where absolutely necessary. When it was gone there would be no more and although he could lead minds into quiet as all the great healers did, he was still dependent upon drugs to make it last effectively. “Nothing to worry about,” he lied to his patient. “A small fire sent down from above. They’ll soon have it under control.”
Her bandaging finished, Ninniach rose in a rustle of brown and blue, her bead necklaces clicking, and went to look out the entrance. There was a lot of shouting out there, and he could hear a child screaming hysterically. The smoke came in as she opened the tent and Elrond tried to wave it away from his patient. The last thing the boy needed was to start coughing. “Close that flap, it’s bad enough in here.”
“They can see down through the trees if they stand on the edge,” she told him calmly. “I gathered herbs up there before they came. They can hide behind the smoke and see how we fight the fire.”
Elrond was thinking how to get a stretcher across the bridge and it took a moment for the words to sink in. When they did, the feeling was like a stone dropping into deep water, still and cold. He went over to join her and kept his voice low so the patients couldn’t hear. “How much could you see from up there… ?”
“Scouts have walked it and the silver lord has asked me this before,” she replied. “Not here where we have our home, no, the angle is too steep, but further down, deep in the trees there are vantages. Also from above the pool they want to use for washing, where the water runs slowly.”
A picture flashed into his mind. “Not the bridge?” he asked, suddenly urgent. “Can they see the bridge?”
She turned slate grey eyes on him. “Not with ease no, it is too close to the waterfall where the rock curves. But if a man came a little down the slope and could find a place to stand, perhaps.”
Strategy lessons came back to him. How do you outthink your enemy, he heard Maedhros ask. He had been fond of throwing out questions without warning, at dinner, on the horse lines, making sure the lessons he gave them had sunk in and become part of their reasoning process. And the answer was this: think as he thinks, see what he sees, find the weakness he overlooks. Elrond reached out, tried to be the enemy commander, the faceless easterner with the green and gold flag.
And then he had it. “Get water,” he told her sharply. “Wet the tent and the ground around. I’ll send someone to help.”
Her people had survived the dark years by knowing when time spent on questions was a luxury. She nodded and left without a word, pausing only to take a bucket with her. Elrond thought of passing the word around, but there was no point in adding to the growing panic. He also suspected there would be arguments and some at least would ignore the order and tell others to do the same. Instead he went in search of Navinai, weaving between anxious groups, telling anyone who tried to speak to him to get their possessions together and stay put.
Navinai was directing a line passing containers back from the river. “Get someone else over here, I need you to do something,” he told her, blinking his eyes against the stinging smoke.
She frowned, but he had been raised by princes and knew how to give orders. She left her post and stepped aside with him, still keeping an eye on the distribution.
“I need you at the bridge,” he told her, taking her arm and pitching his voice low under the noise. “Now, before anyone starts a panic about the flames being too close.”
“What would I do there? They’re strengthening it, adding extra lines so even children can cross…”
Elrond took her by the shoulders and locked eyes with her. “I want you down at the head of the bridge with your sword ready. No one crosses. I don’t care what’s happening here. I’ll send support as soon as I find people I trust to do this properly.”
“No one crosses? But…”
“No one crosses. That’s our only way over the river and they must know it because he’s trying to drive us towards it. It needs only a couple of archers on the side of the cliff, balancing on a ledge or something. Archers with flaming arrows, and the bridge full of families, children…”
She was quick; it only took her a moment. He watched confusion change to understanding as she took in the idea and saw the potential. She straightened away from him, nodded. “No one will cross. But then the flames have to be doused before they reach here. Otherwise we will have no choice. Even a drawn sword won’t force people to risk being burnt alive.”
“Not now though.” They were standing close together in the middle of a crowd, with buckets passing them full on one side and empty on the other. They had to raise their voices even though their heads were close together. “Later we need to cross further along, where the cliff slants more strongly and the trees grow thicker. For now we have to contain the fire.”
“It’s spreading faster than we can hold it. The wind is in their favour.”
“They were waiting for it to turn,” Elrond said bitterly. “They’ve been watching it, sitting with their fire cart at the ready.”
“No point in worrying about how it happened,” Celeborn told him. “We need to make it stop. I have them carrying water and cutting breaks, but the wind is driving it towards us.”
“Earlier you said you had people who could… work with the river?” Elrond had no idea where he was going with this, but some inner knowing insisted.
Celeborn looked curious but pointed to where two elves sat out of the way, staring at the Bruinen as though oblivious to the commotion around them. “Doron and Garavon,” he said. “The one on the left is Doron.” Elrond nodded his thanks and threaded his way towards them, barely avoiding the next rush of water bearers.
From a distance he thought they were Nandor, but their eyes and the texture of their hair marked them as Sindar, his mother’s people. They did not look up when he joined them, so he sat quietly just behind, legs crossed as theirs were, and made himself relax. The trees clamoured loudest in his mind now that he had stopped being busy, and he forced himself to step away from their distress, let it sit in the corner where things belonged that he could do nothing about. The shouting, the occasional screams went next, as did concern about whether Navinai could stop terrified refugees from forcing their way across the bridge. Instead he sat on impatience and any sense of time, and waited.
After a while the two elves moved apart, allowing him to sit between them. No word was exchanged; they never looked away from the river.
The first new thing he sensed was wetness, the cool flow of water against skin on a hot day, its taste on a parched tongue. He opened to this feeling, letting it expand into him, finding other images, other memories for it to weave through: coming in from training to cold water with lemon slices floating on the top, one of Maglor’s few indulgences, being out in the rain in the middle of a baking hot summer, or the water caressing his body and swirling his hair the first time he had braved the river below them.
He stayed with that memory, feeling for the spirit of the Bruinen as it had touched him before. But the river was too far from the fire, too low, with no way of reaching the flames. One of his companions touched his wrist to get his attention and pointed downriver towards the bridge. For a moment he was puzzled and then he realised he was being directed to the waterfall beyond the bridge, where the Bruinen thundered down from the moorland into the gorge between the mountains and into the valley.
What was a waterfall? Falling water. Strength, power, speed. Weight? He dismissed each as it came into his mind and then abruptly he saw it. Mist.
Now that he knew where to focus, he let the river go on its course and thought himself into the falls instead. He seldom called upon the Maian part of his heritage. There had been no time for his mother to teach him how to manipulate the fabric of the world, in fact Ereinion said it would have been outside her experience as well. Dior had not lived to train her, so like her sons she would have been alone with a sense of immense power and just enough wisdom to avoid tapping into it blindly. Even her shape-changing the night Sirion burned, his cousin had said, bore the signs of desperation, the urge for life being stronger than fear or habit.
Ereinion had known her most of her life, so he probably knew what he was talking about. Although, young as he was when the world changed, Elrond remembered his mother had been afraid of a great many unlikely things.
The Bruinen thundered into the hollow below the falls, carved into the rock over the ages, and as it fell and struck it threw off clouds of icy mist. When the sun shone on it the air was studded with rainbows, which had given the place its Silvan name, Valley of Rainbows. He felt rather than saw the mist, let it wrap around him, let it intertwine with the warmth of his fëa. On either side of him he could feel two other minds striving for the same oneness he was reaching for and suddenly, blindingly, knew he was about to do what they could not: he could make the final leap and be one with the mist.
The world faded, even the grass beneath him felt insubstantial. Somehow he was in two places at once, sitting above the river but also clinging close to the edge of the howling water, stretching and arching in the sunlight, smiling at the rainbows glittering around him. Someone nudged him before he could fall too deep into the experience and lose himself, and he remembered why he was there.
Holding onto the mist with part of his awareness he reached out to them with his mind and showed them the path, using abilities he had never before known he could access. And then one became three and between them they had the power to bring the mist in towards them, past them, wrapping the camp in cool droplets before going on and spreading it over the crying trees, soothing them as the fires sputtered, flickered, and slowly died.
“My wife would have enjoyed that,” Celeborn said conversationally, dropping down beside him at the small cooking fire outside the healing tent. The ground was still wet but the flames flickered tamely and a pot of tea stood on a flat stone, drawing.
Elrond sat with a blanket thrown round his shoulders, lost in thought. He looked over, puzzled. “Galadriel?” Galadriel’s sometimes dark humour went right past him, although Ereinion seemed to like it. He supposed he was too serious.
“She is always happy to watch skilled work done well, especially if it involves unusual achievements like blanketing a camp with mist.”
“Ah. Well if she’d been here I’ve no doubt she’d have done it better and faster.” He had not consciously intended sarcasm, but as the words came out he could hear the bite. The Lady was a byword in Noldor circles for her more esoteric gifts. He made a tired gesture. “I’m sorry, it’s left me feeling a bit like I was just run over by a charging boar… It’s not something I’ve had any formal training in. Ninniach said I needed tea, some concoction of hers, no idea what’s in it…”
Celeborn nodded equably. “Yes, Garavon thought you would be tired. All their energy was focused through you. He said today put them in mind of the Nightingale. That would be Lúthien,” he added, seeing Elrond puzzle at the name.
“I’m like…? Well at least I didn’t dance. My singing’s nothing extraordinary either.” He tried to laugh at the image it conjured, of him dancing for Beren or entrancing the Dark Lord with song, but it was forced. Surprisingly, Celeborn laughed with him.
“She was Melian’s daughter and carried her share of the Great Mother’s power, which is what they felt in you. It would have been tempting fate to say you reminded them of the Queen of Doriath herself of course, even at this distance in time.”
Elrond looked into the fire. He could feel the valley around him almost like a living entity, had done ever since he separated from the mist and saw the sun still shone through the fog that shrouded their part of the ravine. He could hear the river talking to itself, the trees making settling noises to one another as they rooted deeper, drew up more moisture. These things were more real to him than the prosaic sounds of voices and movement, the stench of damp, scorched earth. He pushed the strangeness back and concentrated on the fire and on Celeborn instead. “I – never learned how to do whatever it was we just did,” he said finally. “What little my mother knew she took with her, because we were too young to learn. I’ve always seen flashes of the future, but this… I had no idea I could do this.”
Celeborn gave him a placid look. “It is what it is. It’s as well not to be afraid of it, but it is also best not to tweak its tail without need. Even after all this time and all her training, Galadriel still startles herself. Best be prepared for that, then it will have less impact when it happens.”
“You’re saying she might also find out she can raise mist and not have realised it before?”
Celeborn seemed about to say something, then shrugged and shook his head. “Perhaps. I have seen her use mist as a cloak, but not on this scale. I think her Sight unsettles her at times, and some experiments are more successful than she expects.” The smile was reminiscent.
“So just let it go and not give it a thought until the next strange thing happens? And not wonder why I never knew this about myself before?”
“I might be able to explain the why,” Celeborn suggested. Elrond looked up from the fire, raised an eyebrow. “You are in a strange place dealing with unique circumstances. It would bring out sides of yourself you had no need to confront in Lindon and would not have embraced before. This valley is open to such a thing. The trees are well disposed towards you and the land will follow. The river you have already touched.”
Elrond watched the camp for a while. Everyone seemed to have calmed down. Other cooking fires were springing up and shelters were being reinforced to offer protection from the mist that had not yet wholly dissipated. The warriors were doing the main work there, those not keeping extra watch on potential routes down the cliff or exploring the river for a place narrow enough to cross but invisible from above. It all looked very ordinary, so ordinary that the way his skin felt, sensitive and exposed, seemed at odds. He did not feel ordinary.
Celeborn nodded to the teapot. “Have some tea, let your fëa find its balance,” he suggested. “Then perhaps a walk to clear your mind?”
“A walk? Perhaps, yes. Tea first though. I thought of wine, but…”
“Wine is not for such times in my experience,” Celeborn agreed in the tone of one who knows. “Drink tea and then go and walk among the trees. They are the heart of this place. That is where you start.”
“Start what?” Elrond swirled the teapot and sniffed the contents. It seemed ready.
“Getting in tune with your valley, of course.” There was a hint of laughter in Celeborn’s voice. “You found it, you settled it, and you protected it. Now you must start learning to hear its voice.”
AN: Ninniach = Rainbow