4. Chapter Three
There was little left of the green country of south Eriador. Sauron’s forces ravaged as they went, stripping the land of whatever they could carry and destroying the rest. Well they knew the needs of the army Elrond led out of Lindon, and did their utmost to assure he would find neither food, fodder nor shelter as he marched east. Baggage trains were harried, supplies often intercepted before they could reach the Elves.
When Celeborn at last found them encamped on the banks of the Mitheithel, they were a ragged echo of the force they had been. Weary, cold and hungry, had Elrond’s soldiers been mortal their ranks would have been crippled by illness as well; the wounded were already more infirmity than they could spare. A wavering cheer rippled through the ranks as the silver-haired lord rode into the camp with supplies and reinforcements, both of which were sorely needed.
The tidings he brought were not so joyous.
Tight-lipped, with Glorfindel and two other captains at his side, Elrond listened as Celeborn told of the fall of Ost-in-Edhil. Sauron had at last broken through the makeshift defenses and laid waste to the city, demolishing the House of the Mírdain and seizing Celebrimbor, who, foolishly refusing to flee, made his stand before the doors of his house.
“What torment was dealt him, I cannot say,” said Celeborn. “My scouts report that he is dead and his body….” He paused, taking a steadying breath before continuing, “The enemy has stripped his corpse and uses it now as a banner. I am told it is mutilated and riddled with Orc arrows. I pray only those wounds were given after his fëa escaped to Mandos.”
“I would not count on any such mercy from the enemy,” Elrond replied.
Glorfindel could not help wondering why Celebrimbor did not flee. His initial reaction was horror and pity, though a part of him had always held the Elven smith in contempt. It was wrong, he knew, to despise one he had never met, who had severed his ties with his father Curufin and the rest of the House of Fëanor long before they descended upon Sirion and slaughtered the remnants of the House of the Golden Flower, yet he did.
You cannot hate one who repented long ago of such rash deeds. You cannot be so unforgiving. And yet, he was. Kinslaying was a grievous matter, and he cared not what the reason. Maedhros, Amrod and Amras were dead, but Maglor lived on, somewhere. If I should ever see him, if our paths should ever cross…
He stopped himself before the thought came to fruition. Nay, I will not become that which I despise, however just my anger.
After he stepped outside in the blustery winter air and had a moment to collect himself, he realized he should not have been so surprised that Celebrimbor insisted on staying to defend Ost-in-Edhil. Turgon had done the same, refusing to leave Gondolin even when his captains urged him. The image of Celebrimbor, or any Elda, hanging mutilated upon a pole stirred possibilities Glorfindel did not want to confront. After we fled, did the enemy impale Ecthelion’s head on a spike, or drag Turgon’s corpse through the burning streets?
He frantically pressed his hand to his eyes as if to wipe away the images that came like tears. The ruin of Gondolin could not have been any other way, he knew, yet he did not want to think on it. More pity should I have for Celebrimbor, and any who stayed with him.
An hour later, a messenger came. He was one of Celeborn’s scouts, harried and bespattered with mud and gore, some of it his own. The news he bore was grim, and Celeborn summoned both his captains and Elrond and his captains to hear it. Sauron’s forces were on the move, two full Orc regiments pushing northward from the ruin of Ost-in-Edhil toward their position.
“How many days behind you do they march?” Elrond wanted to know.
“No more than a day, hir-nín.” The messenger spoke raggedly, his eyes drooping with exhaustion as he sipped at the tankard of hot liquid someone pressed into his hands. “They march mostly under cover of darkness, yet do not stop the entire time they are afoot,” answered the messenger. “Others trail them, harrying any refugees they find, and burning and looting wherever they can, by day and night. These two regiments do not stop even for that.”
“Go now and rest, Calmandur,” said Celeborn. “We will send for you later.”
He waited until one of the guards led the messenger from the tent before speaking again. “It is clear Sauron desires an engagement. An Orc regiment can number as many as two hundred. Usually they are not well-trained, but my scouts and warriors have found that this is not always the case. Sauron has spent much time preparing and training his armies. This treachery was long-planned.”
“What news is there from Lindon?” asked one of Celeborn’s captains. “Does the High King send reinforcements?”
“He has sent all that can be spared,” replied Elrond. “Mithlond and Harlindon are being fortified to the banks of the Gwathló. Emissaries have been sent across the sea to Númenor, yet word is slow to come of their progress.”
Gil-galad reported that Pallando himself undertook the voyage, yet on the winter sea, even with Círdan’s most experienced mariners at the helm, the Maia would not make landfall in under a month. And Tar-Minastir, if he responded favorably, would need additional time to mobilize his forces. The earliest reinforcements might arrive was in the summer or even autumn of the following year, far too late if their fortunes continued on this downward course.
“We cannot hold this bank,” said Elrond. “The land lies too low, and the enemy will come upon us from higher ground.” A dog-eared map lay across a wooden plank, held fast at the corners by daggers and blunt arrow heads. “Here, where the Mitheithel meets the Bruinen, we are flanked on three sides by water. It is a more defensible position.”
“But too vulnerable. The confluence of the rivers is too shallow at this time of year; it would not stop an advance, and the Bruinen is too easily forded to the north. We would soon find ourselves encircled. Now farther north along the river there is higher ground.” Celeborn’s finger traced the line of the Bruinen toward the mountains. “And here, near the High Pass, I believe Oropher’s people have found a sheltered valley. If memory serves, the approach is narrow and could be defended should we need to make a retreat.”
But the valley, if such existed, was not marked on the map. “I will not send my troops into the reaches of the Hithaeglir in the cold of winter on the slim chance that the scouts of Greenwood know what they are about,” said Elrond.
“We need a winter camp,” Glorfindel pointed out. “Our ranks are swelling with refugees, and half of those we send on to Forlindon are intercepted and slain along the way.”
Pursing his lips, Elrond nodded. His inability to protect the survivors of Ost-in-Edhil and the outlying communities was a sore matter for him, and Glorfindel did not speak of it unless absolutely necessary. For you know now what I know, what pain it is not to be able to save those who look to you for protection. “We have sent what escort we could.”
Perhaps it was deliberate, this continuous preying upon those noncombatants who tried to flee west, for it meant the refugees would have to stay in the vanguard of Elrond’s camp where they would hamper his movement. Or perhaps it was but an unintended disadvantage provided by an inherently cruel enemy.
Glorfindel continued, “It is not safe to remain here. If we were to turn north, we might be able to hold the high ground and send those who cannot bear arms through the mountains to Oropher.”
“He has not sent word back to us for the duration of this war.” Elrond glowered at the map. “Ever have he and his people distanced themselves from the High King’s affairs, though he has oft been told that that evil which threatens us will not leave him in peace should we fall. But he is stubborn and will take no counsel from us, so we should not expect any aid from that quarter.”
“Messages have been sent, but my lady and I have not been able to prevail upon him,” murmured Celeborn. “Amroth is more amiable, though he has few warriors to spare. Glorfindel’s counsel is wise. We cannot hold this shore, Elrond. We must turn north, to higher ground, and we must do it swiftly.”
* * *
Where the Mitheithel met the Bruinen, the land rose slightly, affording a comfortable view of the country beyond the confluence of the two rivers.
Elrond grudgingly took Celeborn’s advice, bypassing the juncture entirely for the mountains, but not without sending Glorfindel to the rear to scout out the enemy’s advance. Pockets of Orcs had been detected moving through the fog about a mile back, but these were stragglers rather than part of the main force, and did not give any indication they were aware of the Elves; they were prowling the thin woods on the opposite bank as if in search of food or fodder. Glorfindel thought it wiser not to engage them.
Half an hour, that was all he could spare on the lookout. Elrond, determined to put as much distance between his force and the enemy before they realized he was headed into the mountains, set a bruising pace. All too much it reminds me of retreats long past, of the march of tears from the Nirnaeth Arnoediad and the flight to Cirith Thoronath, Glorfindel thought. I wonder if the Hithaeglir will be as cold as the Echoriath, or if there will be Eagles to watch over our ascent.
Remembering how his last retreat had ended, he shoved the brooding thoughts from his head. Another life, another Age, he told himself. I will not dwell on it.
“Cáno, look there,” called Alagos, motioning down the slope toward the far bank of the Bruinen.
Running haphazardly out of the mist, stumbling toward the water, were a group of six or seven people. More refugees, who had somehow managed to elude the enemy until now. Orcs swarmed on their heels, dragging down two from the rear; the thrust of a crude scimitar ended their struggles.
“Roqueni!” shouted Glorfindel, his blade already drawn. He did not have to look to know his warriors were behind him; he heard the ring of their steel and snorting of their mounts as they plunged into the river. The water was not deep or particularly fast moving at this time of year, but frigid where it moved against Glorfindel’s ankles. His momentum carried him across and scrabbling up the opposite bank.
He could see the first Elf stumbling toward him, and see the other recoil in a moment’s horror before he realized Glorfindel and his warriors were not Orcs. Fear and desperation swam in the his eyes, and perhaps hope as he strove for the protection of the gweth, yet from behind him came a dark blur that embedded itself between his shoulders and flung him facedown to the ground.
Bellowing his fury, Glorfindel spurred his mount directly into a swarm of Orcs who were greedily stripping one corpse. A head went flying, spraying his horse’s white flanks with blood, to be joined by an arm that raised a scimitar at him. The others hung back, and he saw fear in their eyes; these were not the well-trained Orc soldiers of whom Celeborn had spoken, but brutes accustomed to terrorizing those who could not or would not fight back.
Those who did not resist broke ranks and fled; Glorfindel saw an arrow take down one before their dark shapes disappeared in the mist.
His body trembled with the aftermath of battle as he slid from his saddle to see what carnage had been wrought. Already his warriors were moving among the bodies, quickly dispatching wounded Orcs and searching for survivors among the Elves. He saw Alagos helping an elf-woman into a sitting position while he probed a gash in her arm. She was moaning in pain between sobs, alternately clutching at Alagos and pushing him away. Another warrior bent to inspect her leg, which was twisted at an odd angle; she cried out when he touched it.
Blade still in hand, Glorfindel turned, eyes searching every corner of the battlefield. Bodies lay sprawled across the ground, their meager possessions scattered. None stirred. One, that was all we could save? Anger and shame filled the back of his throat with the taste of bile. Had he the numbers, he would have charged after the Orcs and cut every last one of them down.
“Cáno!” shouted Hathol.
The archer was pulling at the corpse of an Elven male, gently shifting him aside to reach something lying pinned underneath. Muffled sobbing reached Glorfindel’s ears; he saw a dirty face streaked with tears laid against Hathol’s shoulder, and a pair of arms come up to twine in a death-grip about the archer’s neck.
“Is the boy injured?” asked Glorfindel.
Reddened eyes opened and went wide at the sight of the warrior walking toward him; as Hathol turned, still holding him, the boy turned his head to follow Glorfindel in mingled terror and fascination.
“He is bruised and badly frightened, cáno, but he does not seem otherwise injured.”
“Then you will carry him. We cannot linger here.”
Alagos and the other warrior swiftly lashed together a makeshift stretcher for the woman, whose leg was shattered. The Elven dead were left where they lay, though it pained Glorfindel to do so. Once they were gone, the Orcs would surely return to finish the grisly work they had begun.
That night, surrounded by massive oaks and the rushing waters of the Bruinen, camp was made. Warriors from every gweth were set on patrol, stationed at regular intervals along the perimeter and watched over by archers in the trees and on a low promontory overlooking the river, so no ground was left unguarded.
Elrond was not pleased that some Orcs had escaped Glorfindel’s charge, though he readily acknowledged that the captain had had neither the numbers nor sufficient time to pursue them. “You did what you could,” he said. “Our only hope is that the enemy is not close enough behind us that they will attack this night.”
“Such stragglers do not venture far from the main force,” said Celeborn, “yet that is not assurance that battle will find us tonight. The day’s fog has concealed some of our passage, and they know we send scouts far abroad. They are not especially perceptive, these raiders; they are not likely to suspect our main force is so close at hand.”
“I would prefer not to rely on such matters of chance. It would have been better had none of them lived to report our presence. This march into the mountains is an uncertain one,” replied Elrond.
“My scouts report the way is not difficult.”
Of Oropher’s valley, there was yet no word. Elrond did not hold much faith that such an ideal mountain vale existed, or that they would find a suitable defensible site before the enemy overtook their rear. With so many non-combatants, most of whom had not the stamina for a forced march, they could not afford an ambush.
It felt too much like the flight from Gondolin. Glorfindel avoided the refugees, for the hopeless faces with their tears and frightened queries were too familiar and stirred foreboding in him. At least then our guides knew the way to take. Now we are blind and fumbling in the wilderness.
Uncertainty and dread slowly gave way to anger. I was not reborn only to die again on the same path. The Valar would not send me back for so brief and empty a purpose. Yet he could fathom neither Námo’s foresight nor the design embroidered in Vairë’s tapestries, for much that seemed without reason had been woven there.
Elrond found him brooding by the tent flap. “No rebuke did I intend, gwador. You slew as many of the enemy as you could, and saved two of our own. I had been meaning to ask how they fared.”
The perelda had not seen the boy and woman Glorfindel brought back. His healing gifts had been sorely taxed in the last months and Gil-galad had sent orders that he was not to strain himself in this way, regardless of how much he might be tempted to ease the suffering he saw. “Healers you have supplied with in plenty,” the High King wrote, “that you might turn your energy to other things. Only through the strength of your command may you secure the peace with which to practice the arts dearest to you.”
“The woman’s leg is broken,” replied Glorfindel. “She will have to be carried. As for the boy, he is frightened but not much hurt.”
On his return, he had given both over to the camp healers and expected to see neither again, but when he joined his gweth around their fire, the boy was there. Nestled between Alagos and Ondoher, he watched Glorfindel’s movements with rapt eyes.
“His name is Lindir,” said Ondoher, gently patting the boy’s arm. “He does not have anyone among the refugees. We let him stay here by the fire where it is warm.”
By Elrond’s order, few campfires were permitted that night, and those that were lit were kept small, so the enemy might not sight them across a long distance. And even if they saw, they would greatly underestimate the size and number of the camp.
Glorfindel stared down at the boy. Lindir was slightly-built, and did not look to be anywhere near his majority. “This is a gweth camp, pen-neth,” he said sternly. “Unless you can bear arms, you do not belong here.”
Lindir’s eyes grew large, and he bit his underlip as if in an effort not to cry. He did not seem capable of speech, even when addressed, though Glorfindel shortly learned that in fits and pieces he had told some of his tale to the warriors.
While Glorfindel took a small ration of lembas from his pouch, Alagos leaned over and gave him the tale. “He is from Ost-in-Edhil. They lived in the wild since summer, he and the others, but yesterday eve the enemy found them and pursued them through the night. Eight or ten others there were, that they lost on the way, and the ones that died today. It was his ada’s corpse that saved him.”
Scores of similar tales haunted the refugee camp. Glorfindel hardened himself to the grief of the widows and orphans, quickly shutting away the sorrow of those who faded on the march. “This is no place for a child, no matter how fond you are of him. There are mothers in the camp who will gladly take him in.”
“I know it, cáno,” replied Alagos, “but he is badly frightened and says he wants to stay with the lord with the golden hair, because you will protect him.”
“I can protect him far better if he is not underfoot.” Glorfindel washed down the morsel of lembas with a draught from his waterskin. “He may stay here the night, but in the morning you will find him a suitable guardian.”
Lindir nervously glanced from one warrior to the other, but his eyes lingered longest on Glorfindel. Alagos patted his shoulder to reassure him. “Lord Glorfindel is not wroth with you, pen-neth.”
The boy blinked at him. “Glorfindel? Like the hero of Gondolin?” he whispered.
Awe filled Lindir’s voice. How much more would you be if you knew the truth? Glorfindel was aware of the way Alagos and some of the other warriors, those who heard the boy’s soft spoken query, anticipated his answer. He had never confirmed or denied that he was the reembodied captain of the Golden Flower; that he rode under Elrond’s Star of Eärendil banner rather than his own and flavored his speech with Quenya did nothing to alleviate the rumors.
Why do you shy from the truth after so many years? Is it so inconceivable a thing among the Eldar to have been reborn? It was not that he had been dead once, for his memories of Mandos had grown less with time, until they were little more than wisps of faintly remembered cold or grayness; if anyone had been rude enough to ask outright, he could not have told them what death was like.
Glorfindel decided it was easier to be a living non-entity than a dead hero. No one would expect from him anything more than what he was able to give.
“Yes, like the hero of Gondolin,” he replied, his throat constricting around the word. “Go to sleep now, pen-neth. We have a long march in the morning and we cannot carry you.”
* * *
Hithaeglir: the Misty Mountains
cáno: (Quenya) commander
roqueni: (Quenya) knights
pen-neth: (Sindarin) young one
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