6. Chapter 6
Isildur was gone.
It was as the blow of a hammer against a vessel of glass.
It was a matter too large for thought, too deep for comprehension - and yet so prosaically commonplace that to feel pain over it seemed trite and insignificant. The destruction of the Ring had been his duty this day; the only tragedy had been his failure to carry it out - and it was Isildur who would pay the price of that failure, a thousand times over. To feel pain because Isildur had left him was but irrelevant folly.
He was dimly aware of the hand on his shoulder, but it was a thing distant and unimportant. Círdan's voice, offering him aid, was remote and far-removed also. He had failed in his duty. He had destroyed Isildur.
Isildur was gone, and all was dark and empty. For him there was left only solitude and silence.
"There is nothing that can be done. Isildur is beyond help." he said lifelessly. "You know this."
A credo of despair. He felt the hand on his shoulder tighten its grip, as though trying to send a message to him that was beyond words.
"I was not speaking of Isildur. And you know that." The words did not make sense.
"What else is there that can be done?" He raised his head and looked up, his eyes falling on the entrance to the tent, hazy through the brazier's smoke. Through that door, Isildur had gone; and through it he would never return. "Go, Círdan - go back to your troops and leave me. You can help nobody by remaining here."
"I will not do that."
There was steel in the words - a half-hidden force that compelled the attention, and Elrond glanced at him, startled. The old Elf's face was set, the pallid blue eyes hard and bright with resolve. "No," he said again. "I will not go."
"Why?" *Why?* Why not simply turn away and begone, and leave the matter to take its own course? What was there to be gained through such perversity?
It gained him no answer. Even the long stare which Círdan's eyes gave him was devoid of answers. But Círdan's silence was more oppressive than any words could be; and almost against his will he found himself goaded into speech.
"You need not fear for *me*, Círdan," he said harshly. "I doubt that it is given to the Peredhil to die of grief."
A flash of understanding in the pale eyes. "*I* had not thought that. Had you?"
<<No - I ...>>
"I do not know."
A death from grief ... Isildur would doubtless have regarded it as contemptible weakness, would have seen it as evidence not of deep affection, but of inability to adapt to the changing fate of the world.
Perhaps it was true ... perhaps. Isildur would never have died in such a way.
Elrond had watched over him, in the hard days after his brother Anarion's death, and at first it had death had filled all his thoughts. He had seen him succumb, at first, to his sorrow, seen him later grow and recover, seen him return to the battle, with a new edge to his nature like tempered steel, stronger and harder. And though sometimes he would return from his labours wan and grieving, and wishing only to hide in the secrecy of his tent, at length those times grew fewer and less painful, and he would recall his brother more with affection, less with pain.
It must be sweet indeed to remember the beloved dead in such a way - with joy as well as sorrow, and, most of all, with acceptance. But Isildur was neither dead nor dying. Elrond did not have the priviledge of grief.
The reminder caused him almost to flinch away, as if from some imagined pain. He heard, distantly, Círdan speak his name, but did not heed it. <<What then? Should I have slain him?>> he asked himself desperately. <<Was that what my path should have been - to destroy him if he could not destroy the ring?>> The thought wrenched from him a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob. <<It would have been such wretched cruelty!>>
<<It would have been greater kindness than letting him live.>> For Isildur would be corrupted, his noble spirit choked and tainted, he would be twisted by the Ring into the enemy's tool, he would, he would-
-he would be destroyed, and all their labours would have been for nothing, and all would become once more dark and hollow.
If he could but have stayed watchful, if Isildur could have held out but a little longer, then perhaps he would not have fallen so. Perhaps he would not have forsaken him thus.
Forsaken ... always forsaken. Perhaps it was his doom. Since the earliest years of his life - since the terrors of Sirion - it had been his fate to be forsaken.
* * *
The streets are burning.
Elrond can smell the fire. He can hear shouts and screams out in the street. People outside are being hurt.
Mother tells them to be calm. She says all will be well and she will keep them safe. She sounds frightened, and the light of the Jewel she wears seems to flicker.
Elrond watches it, but he's scared, and he grips his brother's arm hard. Elros whimpers slightly, shifting in his cot to move away from Elrond. He is too little to understand. Elrond doesn't cry, of course. He's a big boy - nearly old enough to begin learning his letters - and big boys don't cry. That's what his mother always says, and she never cries.
He wonders why Mother doesn't try to run away. He wonders what will happen when they come. He does not wonder how he knows that they will.
They sit, quietly. They wait for what is almost forever.
It still scares him when the moment comes. It starts in the room below, and there is shouting and breaking glass. He lets go his brother's arm and rushes to Mother.
- No, Elrond. Stay there. Look after your brother.
Elrond sits down again, though he does not want to, and picks up Elros from his cot, curling himself round his baby brother's body. Elros gives him an indignant whine, and then falls silent as the door bursts inward.
It is too fast to follow; too strange to comprehend. The two elves are pale and dark with blades in their hands and eyes that blaze fire. They close on his mother.
There is blood on their blades already, and their burnished black armour runs with it.
Elrond does not dare call out. Ever after, irrationally, he will wish he had.
Give it. Give it.
They threaten, intimidate, blackmail. One of them - the shorter - even holds a blade to Elrond's eye, hovering it but a hair's width from the eyelid. But Elwing is implacable, as the taller of them closes on her, his blade held in his left hand.
And then - in an instant, just as his concentration wavers - she turns and springs like a hart to the edge of the window, flinging herself out and away from them. The taller Elf swears and rushes forward, blocking Elrond's view of the window.
Blocking his last glimpse of his mother.
She does not look back. She said she would keep them safe. She said. But she went and never said farewell, and left them to her enemies. And Elrond has not been bad for almost a week.
At length, the taller Elf turns away from the window.
- So again we fail, he says with harsh bitterness. - Let us go, Maglor, before the day turns further to our ill.
His companion sheaths his sword, and Elrond lets his closed eye flicker open. The taller Elf is deformed in one hand. He wonders irrelevantly whether it hurts him.
- What of the little ones?
- Leave them. They are worth nothing.
Elrond can feel himself starting to shake. He clutches his brother tighter, and once more Elros offers a whine of complaint.
- What if their mother returns for them?
- Not she! Think you she will return *here*? Then think again.
- They are but young! We shall not leave them here alone.
- Forget them, Maglor! Would *you* be a mother to them?
- I would not have them left here, that is all.
He sighs slightly, his voice awed. - What kind of woman would leave her children to her enemies. And for a bauble such as that?
- Shut *up*, Maglor. Are we leaving or no?
The taller Elf turns away and makes to leave.
- Oh ... take them if you must ... but do not expect me to have a hand in the changing of nappies.
The shorter Elf comes towards him, one hand held out in a gesture of help, murmuring meaningless words of comfort and consolation. Elrond watches in silence as he crouches down beside him, beseeching Elrond to come with him, telling he will look after them.
There is red blood on his armour. He scared Mother. He scared Mother, and she jumped out of the window. She is not coming back. She is never coming back again. She wanted to save the Jewel, and so she left them behind, and she did not even look back.
From somewhere locked deep inside himself, Elrond hears himself start to scream, time and time again, hoarse, torn sounds that rend the soul, until he falls silent, too sore and exhausted to continue.
The Elf waits for him to fall silent, and then reaches out a hand to him once more. - I am not your mother, he says nervously, his eyes flickering uneasily. - But I will care for you in her stead.
Elrond looks at the hand, and he looks at his brother, and he looks at the open window from which his mother has gone. He looks at that window for a long time. Then he reaches out his own hand, shutting his eyes until he feels the Elf's hand close round his. It feels less like treachery, that way.
- Like a beggar, the taller Elf says with amusement. - He settles for what little he can get. He will be a wise one, if he survives.
The other does not smile. He crouches down so that his face is level with Elrond's. - Come, little one, he says. - Tell me your name.
* * *
He could still feel Maglor's hand on his shoulder, in a grip that was almost painful; could see, through the haze before his vision, the face dimly before him, the dark, bloodstained armour below it.
<<Like a beggar. He settles for what little he can get.>>
And then, with a start, the mists began to clear, and he realised that it was not Maglor's hand on his shoulder but Círdan's, and the desertion was not Elwing's but Isildur's.
He saw Círdan reach forward with his free hand as if to touch his face, and then pull it away, his eyes unreadable except for their concern.
"Elrond," he asked for the second time. "Is there nothing I can do to aid you?"
He wanted to say help me, stay with me, do not leave me alone, but he seemed unable to speak.
And then he felt himself falling forward, and, dimly, was aware of someone catching him as the dust and ashes of unconsciousness swirled up around him.
* * *
Glorfindel pulled himself up into a sitting position, scowling and rubbing at the bruise on his head, not quite able to recall how it had got there.
Tuor. He could remember Tuor.
"You should not do that, my friend."
He looked up, to find he was being watched closely by a dark-haired Elf with almost-black eyes, and lowered his hand from his temple.
"Galdor ... what time is it? And what happened?"
"It is about an hour after sunset," Galdor said. "As to what happened, I was not there, but I understand somebody hit you."
<<Somebody *hit* me?>> "Who? And why?"
Galdor shook his head. "I could not say. The Lady Narglin brought you in, and she did not tell me. She said she would speak with you when you woke." A healer from across the room hailed him, and he walked off quickly, stopping to give orders to two other of the Falathrim.
<<Ai, Elbereth! And that is all I need!>> For a fleeting moment he wondered if it had been Narglin who had hit him, but decided it was probably not.
In truth he felt unprepared for almost anything. Every second he had spent in this fell land seemed to have sapped his strength and dulled his senses, leaving him little better than the Men, who seemed almost unaffected by the foul air and water.
But he remembered Tuor. He had never been able to do so before.
Tuor had been short, even for a Man, pale of hair, with blue-green eyes which seemed to change their hue with the weather. He had been solitary by nature, but never remote - warm and passionate, rather, with courage that nothing could quench.
He had loved Tuor, once - loved him more than he had thought it possible for an Elda to love one of the Followers, with a fire greater than he had thought could burn in Elven hearts. A fire dulled only by his shame, at feeling affection for one of a lesser race.
But how if he had spoken? Would Tuor have loved him, or had his heart been set from the start on Idril? Would all have been in vain? Perhaps Idril then would have united with Maeglin, and the whole tragedy of Gondolin would have been averted.
Perhaps not. It was not the Elven way for close kin to unite, after all, and Idril and Maeglin had been cousins - not to mention the fact that Idril (insufferable prig that she was) had loathed the very sight of Aredhel's son. And what was the point now, after so long, in scraping old wounds? He had sworn to protect Tuor's descendents forever until their line ended, and so he would. There was nothing more to say on the matter.
"So. You're awake." As usual, Narglin could not be still, even when speaking to a patient. Her eyes, after a piercing glance at Glorfindel's face, were scanning the room, and he saw her gesticulate to two of the healers in one corner, bidding them go to the dispensary area. How any Elf could be so infernally, impatiently Dwarvish in her manner was something of a mystery to Glorfindel. He wondered for an instant if her hand signals were a variant of the Dwarvish iglishmek, and if so, how she had persuaded them to let her use it.
"So I believe. What happened to me?"
"Isildur hit you, if you really want to know."
"Isildur ... Oh."
The tide of remembrance rolled over him, somehow fused with the older memories. Isildur, Tuor, the falls of Gondolin and of Sauron, fire and flame in the night, somehow become part of Oroduin. He took in a long, shuddering breath. So much. So newly remembered.
"Are you in pain?"
Isildur. Tuor. So different, but yet so alike. Only Isildur's eyes reminded him of Tuor's gaze. And so much the same spirit burned in those eyes.
"...I remembered Tuor... I've never done that before." He shook his head, and came back somewhat to himself. "No. I am well, I thank you."
For the first time, Narglin ceased her silent communication with the Healers across the room, and gave him her full attention. "He was most remarkable - for a Man." And then a pause, in which the piercing blue eyes bored through him. "Isildur is his descendent, you know - every whit as much as Elrond is."
She had already turned away to some other chore, long before Glorfindel could think of any answer.
<<Yes...>> He could not forget that any longer. Not with the recollection of Tuor burning holes in the delicate fabric of his soul. Not when Tuor and Isildur carried so strong a resemblance between them.
He had sworn to protect Tuor's kin as long as his line should last. There was probably something ironic about that, but for the life of him, Glorfindel could not think what it might be. He sighed and rose slowly, seeking out the door.
* * *
Círdan blinked and shivered; trying to take stock of his situation.
There was no anwer. Elrond had collapsed against him, seemingly into unconsciousness; and the weight of the senseless body against his was deeply disturbing. For the first time, Círdan blessed the fact that he had not had time to remove his armour.
He lifted Elrond's head carefully, so that he could look into the unconscious face. The eyes were open and empty, the breathing far too shallow. His body ... there were bloody smudges down his torso from Círdan's armour, still heavily stained as it was with Thranduil's blood.
Círdan looked at the smudges uneasily, at the way they marred the pale skin, clogging and sticking, in places, the fine black hairs scattered across the Peredhel's chest.
To see any Elf thus marked with Elven blood was a profanity.
He eased Elrond down across his knees, drawing up Isildur's cloak slightly to cover his nakedness, and reached for his water bottle. The motion flicked more blood from his armour, and Círdan sighed. He had not realised that Thranduil had bled quite so copiously over him. <<And that is hardly a wonder,>> noted some distant part of his mind. <<Oropher and his kin do nothing by halves - not even the shedding of blood.>>
He worked the buckles of his armour quickly, and cast the armour off with difficulty, tossing the arm-guards after it. Then he unstoppered the flask and retrieved a clean cloth from his pouch.
He looked down at Elrond, and the sight brought forth another sigh. So like Finandil, and yet so very unlike. Bright, beautiful Finandil who had always seemed so very carefree. He, too, had been strongly built for an Elf, though still slender beside the children of men. He too had had eyes of such grey, though they had been always bright with joy and starlight, not dulled by distant pain or darkened by the weight of responsibility.
Something deep within Círdan seemed to clench and tighten at that thought, and he shook his head ruefully. <<This is no time to dream, old one,>> he told himself firmly.
He unstoppered the bottle now, and poured a little of the water onto the cloth. With the armour gone no barrier now lay between him and the weight of the body against him - none save a single layer of cloth - and he felt his heartbeat quicken involuntarily, the nagging unease returning in full measure. Too long had it been ... for long centuries he had kept distant and aloof, and now his close proximity to another was disturbing beyond anything he had yet experienced.
<<Would that this task had fallen to another...>>
Though that, of course, was a foolish wish. He put the thought from him and moistened the cloth in the water, washing the blood away with broad, firm strokes, until the whole was gone.
It took some little time to accomplish, and he paused, awkwardly, with the cloth idle in his hand. Elrond still had not stirred, though where their bodies touched Círdan could still feel the feeble, thready pulse that maintained him.
Once more he was most uncomfortably conscious of his close contact with the Half-Elf, and now that his labours were done he had no distraction from it. He shifted uneasily, but it but made matters worse.
No; inactivity was an ordeal not to be borne. As much to distract himself as because it was needful, Círdan lifted the water bottle once more, and began, with delicate touches, to wash the grime from Elrond's face.
It was only when the last of the grime had been washed away that he looked down to inspect the face, and saw the first sparks of wakefulness in the dulled grey eyes.
"Elrond?" he asked cautiously, watching as the eyes cleared and focussed.
"Círdan..." Of all things, Elrond sounded surprised. "Why are you here?"
Because it is my duty. Because I care. Because it matters. For Isildur's sake. For your sake. For my own sake and for that of Finandil, whom you never met.
He laughed, a little sadly. "I have too many reasons to speak of, my friend. Shall we just say that I do my duty?"
The mention of duty caused something unreadable to flicker over Elrond's face. "I failed, Círdan. I could not save him."
"We have all failed, Elrond. Do not take the failure to yourself."
"What else have I left?"
Not even the glib tongue of an Elf could find words to answer that, and Círdan did not even attempt it. Elrond had not tried to sit up or break the contact between them - proof, if any were needed, that he was not truly himself.
Still, if it were needful, what reason could Círdan have to refuse him? Only his own crippling self-pity, which was no reason at all.
"Rest, Elrond. You're weary," he said quietly. "I will watch with you."
He had half-expected a refusal, but none came, and Elrond's eyes when they met his were filled only with the kind of shamed gratitude that has just pride enough left not to give itself words. He felt his heart twist within him, and his breath for an instant caught in his throat.
"Sleep now," he said, with difficulty. "Sleep and take your rest."
His hand reached out, unbidden, to touch his comrade's forehead; and this time he did not let himself draw back, stroking the dark hair as one would comfort a wounded animal.
A part of his brain was aghast at his own forwardness, but he carried on, focussing only on the feel of the thick, coarse hair under his fingers, trying to keep himself detatched from the situation, aware that detatchment, here and now, was far beyond his reach. It was both far too long and too brief before he felt Elrond slide from waking to dreams.
Círdan glanced down at Elrond pensively, his fingers still stroking the dark hair, smoothing the slight lines which marred the forehead.
<<I thought I was guarding my heart,>> he thought shakily. <<All those years I kept my distance from others, and I thought I was keeping my heart from further harm.>>
And yet, all the distance he had given himself had served only to lay him open. The first word - the first contact - had left him defenceless before it; and now he knew not what to do nor how to protect himself.
It was not truly love - not even he was such a fool as that - but it might as well be for the havock it was wreaking upon him. He shook his head in frank acknowledgement of his own folly.
He would remain with Elrond as long as he was needed: that was the heart of the matter; and he would worry about the state of his own sanity later.
* * *
The road was dark before him; it was hardly even a road. He could feel ash and cinders crumbling under his feet. At least he had managed to avoid the thistles this time.
Isildur stumbled and let out an oath, his foot connecting heavily with some small creature. A Morgul-cat, he supposed, from the wailing yowl it gave out, and he watched it sneak away, a buff-coloured form in the darkness, the kinked tail wagging angrily behind it.
Hateful, good-for-nothing creature. He walked on, ignoring it, fixing his eyes on the looming shape of Mount Doom ahead of him.
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