4. Chapter Four
The path grew steeper, and the green grass that colored and softened the foothills gave way to mossy scrub. To either side of the path, the trees thinned to a few hardy pines and firs, and after a time those, too, disappeared. Then there was only bare rock and the snowline lowering blue-white above them with the promise of deeper chill; the vale was warm under the summer sun, but as they climbed frost hung smoke like in the air with each breath. Glorfindel heard women and children shivering and moaning in the cold; he could do no more for them than to urge them to keep moving.
In the eastern sky the first stars began to appear, faint, twinkling lights against a backdrop of deep blue, and the light upon the trail grew dim. Up ahead, a shoulder beckoned in the path, black against the blacker mass of the mountains; beyond it, the company would forever leave sight of Tumladen. Many turned to glimpse what they could, and gasped at what they saw.
After a day of clinging haze, now at sunset the mists that shrouded Gondolin lifted and they saw the ruin of Amon Gwareth. One last burst of flame lit the sky as the last tower fell. Tuor gave them a moment before urging them on again.
Twilight fell, then night, but Tuor would permit no lanterns as the way narrowed and became close. Scouts of the enemy could easily be lurking in the hills, close as they were to Angband; the company could not take the chance when there were too many likely places among the crags for ambush.
“Now we must string out into single file,” said Laiqalassë. “The path narrows even more and Cirith Thoronath is near, less than a quarter of a league.”
“How long before we are through?” asked Egalmoth.
“By day a sure-footed warrior can take the path in an hour or two, but we are going in the dark and in places the walls are very high; there will be little or no moonlight to ease our way. Most of the night will be needed.”
Tuor ordered the company to a halt that he and his captains might arrange them for the passage. Galdor and his spearmen, led by Laiqalassë, would go foremost with the most able-bodied women and those injured who could walk. Idril and Voronwë with Eärendil would came after, followed by Tuor, Egalmoth and all the warriors of the White Wing bearing the most severely injured. Glorfindel would hold the rear with the largest company of warriors, survivors from the Harp, Swallow and Pillar who were to guard those women with small babes, children and lamed men. Of his own House, Glorfindel counted no more than nineteen warriors, and less than thirty women and children of the Golden Flower were with them. Next to the Houses of the Mole and the Hammer of Wrath, he thought despairingly, we have fared the worst.
Once arranged in single file, the company crawled along at a shuffle, a foot or less at a time. Glorfindel found the pace irksome. Some encroaching shadow was waiting for them, some evil that would overtake and overwhelm them if they tarried too long in one place. He bit his lip to keep from urging those ahead of him to move more quickly. Tuor, on Laiqalassë’s advice, had ordered no one speak, for the high walls of the cleft carried echoes long and far.
As the night deepened, snow began to fall, whirling down in icy eddies that blew into faces and unprotected eyes. People huddled together for warmth as far as the narrow confines of the trail would permit. All the more reason to pick up the pace, thought Glorfindel; the longer it continued at this crawl, the greater the chance people would begin to succumb to the elements.
At last, he saw the figures lying stiff by the side of the road, frozen faces upturned and white under the moon. A shudder passed through him that did not entirely come from the cold, and he felt a silent hand touch his shoulder in reply.
The gap that marked the pass loomed up before him, and the trail wound up toward it in a last, steep climb that left him breathless. In whispers, he passed the word back to remind his people of the instructions Tuor gave him hours before. Stay close to the wall, as in some places the way was dangerously narrow. Do not stop for any reason, as there are others coming from behind who cannot see you. Do not light any lanterns, and above all do not speak.
When it was his turn to enter the pass, Glorfindel put his hand to the wall at his right and felt his way, as he had felt his way through the tunnel. He could not see how deep was the jagged drop to his left, and could barely discern the edge of the path, but from far below he heard the rushing waters of Thorn Sir and felt the cold air that whistled up to sting his face and whip through his hair.
Suddenly, from up ahead and above, echoing and reechoing upon the high walls of the pass, he heard shouting and screaming, and then the uncouth tongue of Angband. Orcs had found them. Even as he drew his sword and heard the ring of a dozen or more swords being drawn around him, stones began to fall from the heights. The ambush was coming from above, yet the walls of Cirith Thoronath let him see nothing; he could be struck by a boulder and fall to his death before he ever knew what happened.
He pressed his back to the wall of the pass for whatever safety it could offer, urging those on either side of him to do the same and not panic.
Higher up, he heard yet more cries, the sharp shrieks of eagles descending. “Thorondor. Manwë’s Eagles have come for us,” Ondollo murmured, before shouting it aloud.
The steward’s cry still reverberated off the walls as a commotion began in the rear of the party. Orc shrilling filled the air, overtaking the shouts of warriors taken unaware. The clash of steel hammered at the entrance to the pass; Glorfindel saw several dark shapes tumble into the chasm, yet could not tell whether they were Orc or Elf.
A flash of flame and smoke leapt from crag to crag, overstepping the spurs of rock that sometimes jutted out from the path over the chasm and crushing them in its wake. Glorfindel did not have to hear the cries of alarm to know it was a Balrog. And now it was overtaking them, passing them to descend on the women and sick, and he had not enough men or room to go after it.
Biting his lip, he shoved the warrior before him against the wall, seized the warrior’s shield and went after it.
“Erunámo! Áva carë!” Ondollo’s despairing cry fell away behind him as he danced along the edge of the path, pushing startled people aside as he ran after the Balrog. Why are you leaving your company, Glorfindel? Tuor’s warriors are ahead of it, and Egalmoth’s. They can already hear the shouts, they will stop it. Why are you running?
Up ahead, he could see the demon waver and turn, snapping its fiery whip in the direction of its pursuer. Stones skittered loose from the wall as the whip struck it; people cowered, whimpering as the Balrog passed and crying out in alarm at the lone figure who flew past them after it.
Balrogs he had slain before, at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad and by the score in the Great Market and the King’s Square, but this one, that came between him and all he had left in the world, ignited a fury in him that cared not how close to the edge he ran or that an Orc’s stone might take him from above. His world suddenly encompassed only the Balrog, himself and the narrowing distance between them. For all he knew, this was the Balrog that killed Nárello—for all he cared, it was.
Again the whip sliced the air, but he came under the lash of the thongs and his blade swept up, hewing the Balrog’s arm from its shoulder. Black blood sprayed him as the whip went tumbling, a snarl of flaming tendrils, into the darkness. The Balrog’s bellow of pain filled his ears. It flung itself at him; his next stroke swiped its shoulder as its momentum plowed into him and sent them both tumbling from the path onto a crag. His sword went flying, falling into the depths of Thorn Sir after the whip.
Glorfindel barely had time to draw his dagger as the Balrog drove itself at him, clawing and raking at his armor. The heat was scorching. Sweat beaded on his forehead as flames billowed against his shield; his lungs screamed for air in the choking smoke. It did not need to pierce his armor to kill him; it would simply suffocate him.
“Sercë Nárellon!” Gathering what strength he had left, he shoved all his weight behind his shield and jammed it into the Balrog’s face, while with his right hand he plunged the dagger into its belly.
Its howl filled his ears even as it fell away from him. And then, at the moment he lowered his shield, clawed fingers grasped his hair and yanked, hard enough to rip some of it out by the roots, and he was falling into space. Voices screamed above him, but they grew fainter as he fell farther into the Balrog’s roaring embrace.
His shield was gone, a silvery disc spinning moon-like into the abyss; there was nothing now between him and the Balrog. He felt his flesh blister and burst, and his hair caught fire. He opened blackening lips to scream, but there was no more air in his lungs.
The sizzle of flame meeting roaring water filled his ears, half a second before gravity slammed into him and the darkness took him.
* * *
“Erunámo! Áva carë!”: (Quenya) “Erunámo! Don’t do it!”
“Sercë Nárellon!”: (Quenya) “Blood for Nárello!”
Tolkien states that Glorfindel actually stabs the Balrog with the dagger in his left hand. This would suggest Glorfindel was left-handed. Being right-handed, however, it simply seemed more natural for me to have Glorfindel hold the shield with his left arm and strike with the right hand.
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