49. Chapter Forty-nine
Seeing Gildor leave to join the archers on the right flank of Gil-galad's army Glorfindel pondered their last exchange. 'Why are you doing this?' he had asked.
'Because Beregar does.'
'Would you jump down a cliff if Beregar did so?'
An impatient shake of the head. 'Did you see the look on his face when... when we buried Zaba?'
Glorfindel nodded. He had also noticed the look on Gildor's face.
'If he is that desperate, he may yet commit some folly,' Gildor assured him.
Glorfindel sighed. Could he insult Gildor by telling him not to shoot arrows at the Ciryatur until the man ordered his entire army to defect?
Apparently, his face was an open book. Gildor shook his head. 'I did listen to you, earlier today, Glorfindel. Have no fear that I will dishonour Zaba's memory by committing some rash act that will result in my death. It would be as if she would die once more with me, would it not? Trust me.' He smiled briefly before adding: 'But this is all I can say, as I cannot tell what Beregar has in mind.'
Assailed by doubt though he was, Glorfindel nonetheless chose to do as Gildor asked him, and to retain some faith in sorrow as a teacher of wisdom. 'If he should need your protection,' he replied at last, 'I trust that you will provide it. May the Valar guide your mind and hands.'
'And yours.' Gildor smiled again. 'I have to go now.' And gone he was.
Glorfindel eyed his receding back thoughtfully. Before they had embarked on their voyage he would not have hesitated to say that he understood Gildor Inglorion well enough. Now, however, he was less sure, and he could only guess what it was that had changed. Maybe their easy rapport had never been more than shallow. Short as their sojourn had been so far, it had affected both of them deeply.
And I remain more of stranger here than he does, Glorfindel mused, while I have changed less. In Valinor, they had been equals in deathlessness, for almost nothing could kill them. In these mortal lands, though, the omnipresence of danger and death had driven a wedge between him and all others, including Gildor. They had never died. He was the only one for whom physical vulnerability and mortal peril were a choice. In a way, this separated him from the younger Elf as thoroughly as it separated the Eldar from mortal Men - almost as thoroughly as it had separated Gildor from Zaba.
He laughed softly. Of all the people pondering death at this very instant, he, Glorfindel, had to be the strangest. But why dwell on that which divides? It would merely feed the Dark One's desire to dominate.
There is always more that unites us than what divides us, he said to himself. Both love and life were larger than death. This was a land of the living, the place where his body breathed now. He would defend it until there would be no more air to breathe.
He had made sure that he was close to both Gil-galad and Celebrían; the King was at his left and she was at his right, with Argon on her other side. Argon will watch over her, Tárion had assured himself; being the Captain he had a right to delegate. Except that he had promised that he would protect her personally. And so he would.
They were crossing the river. At the Sarn Ford, the Baranduin was shallow and the far bank did not rise too high, but it was thronged with orcs hailing them with barbed javelins. Soldiers felled by Elvish darts fell into the undeeps, their bodies raising an additional obstacle for the attackers. Progress was slow, like plodding through loose sand or heavy snow.
Gil-galad skewered an orc who leapt up from the water, trying to slash the belly of his war-horse. Tárion beheaded another who launched himself forward from the corpses of his fallen comrades. Hearing a shriek to his left he ventured a glance and saw Galadriel's daughter pull her blade from a slain enemy.
Yes, she could fight.
An arrow grazed his mailed arm, another one of his horse's ears. The animal neighed loudly and reared, hooves smashing into warriors pushed into the water by pressure from behind. The orcs kept surging forward. Aiglos entered Tárion's field of vision, its tip dripping crimson. It pointed at the heart of the vast, dark host, where Sauron was waiting for them: unmoving, irrepressible like the awareness of bad news. Sauron, who belonged to Gil-galad.
Black specks in the skies above cawed coarsely: crebain and other winged scavengers gathering to feed. Winds began to blow the clouds apart; they might yet see the sun set.
Celebrían, a strip of pale skin between dully gleaming cheek plates and shadowed eyeholes, was still nearby, flanked by Argon. Tárion's mount scrambled onto the riverbank. A brief moment of danger: with a whiplike movement he darted forward to deflect a spear aimed at the chest of his horse. Then he was on the far side of the Baranduin, wedging into the masses, hacking at bared fangs and foul snarls (how can a mere maid bear to look at these? She must have a hard core).
His arm found a cadence. He did not love to fight but he would turn it into something he could avoid to loathe. For this, too, was an art: drawing with sword strokes, sharp lines, cutting deep, blood red on black, the dark craft of slaying that all warriors had the duty of mastering against their innermost desires. The thought crossed his mind that he could paint this with cruel passion carried over from the field - if there would be anything unstained left to paint it on. If they were victorious he would do it, in harsh colours to lay bare the soul of battle.
If they wanted to win - and they must - they had to cut to the quick. When he saw an opening, slightly to his left he moved in, together with the King, shouting to the members of the King's Guard to follow.
The battle went on after evenfall. The Dark Lord's forces kept trying to drive their enemies back across the river, and as the Elves and Númenoreans were not prepared to give up their hard-won territory, they could not afford to cease fighting.
At the coming of dusk, the clouds had begun to disperse, but the half moon was hazy, as if a veil hung across it. Its presence hardly slowed down the orcs, while its light was to dim to be of much use to the Men. The Ciryatur had withdrawn his archers and the section of his cavalry that he had sent into the fray so far, in order to avoid broken horses' legs and arrows spilled in the dark. The Elvish riders had dismounted and fought on foot, but he did not. He needed time to think anyway.
The battle hung in the balance. The troops marching Northeast from the mouths of the Baranduin could tip it. But the Ciryatur knew they would not march by night, and this meant they would not arrive at dawn. He wondered what Annatar, who styled himself Lord of Arda, could achieve. The odds were in his favour and would remain so when the reinforcements arrived. But whatever the admiral held against the arrogant, haughty Eldar, they were undoubtedly the better fighters. They were slicing through the orc ranks like the proverbial hot knife through butter, he thought, mildly amused. It would take Sauron himself to stop Gil-galad.
Provided that Annatar could be vanquished at all. Listening to the clamour further to the east, the Ciryatur could feel the ring underneath the fabric of his surcoat. What would an alliance with this mysterious lord bring him? Power, and a realm of his own? More life? A silver-haired maiden? Conjuring her naked image before his mind's eye he felt the stirrings of arousal, only to see the maiden replaced by a naked Elvenking, in chains, and kneeling on all fours.
He chuckled, knowing who among his high-ranked officers would find this an interesting sight... Then he shook his head. Gratifying as the image was, he must not allow it to distract him. Even if he would ally himself with Annatar, the prize that was Gil-galad would hardly go to him. Again, his fingers crept toward the hardness of the ring. Perhaps he should put it on his finger and ask its master some more questions. Annatar had told him to come in person, but how would his minions know not to kill him? Was there a secret to this ring that could help him to survive their unwanted attention?
The Ciryatur frowned. The bloody trinket was getting on his nerves. He should be considering the advantages and risks of changing alliances, make a mental list of officers who would object and possibly rebel. Pondering tactics and strategies and politics. It was decidedly too early for another exchange. Leave me alone, he thought, or so he imagined, but to judge by the startled looks of the captains sharing his campfire he had said it aloud. He shook his head when one of them asked if he considered it wise to be alone at a time and in a place like this.
`I was addressing a ghost of doubt,' he added, allowing his mouth to curl as if in a smile. Turning his back to them his hand crept towards the ring again.
It had to be past midnight, he guessed. Away to his right, the Elves were still fighting the orcs. The men of both sides, hindered by their mortal eyesight and a somewhat weaker constitution, were resting. Beregar heard rather than saw the battle going on despite the sickly moonlight and the red glare of torches filtering through the shrubbery where he had sought shelter with a group of other warriors. Most of these were men, but the troops of both armies had mingled, and a few were Elves.
Gildor, for instance, who had never left his side. Right now he was cleaning a scratch across his chin with water from his drinking flask, but Beregar suspected that Gildor was watching him all the same - and all the time. Stalking him.
They would have to talk this out before the night was old. Beregar rubbed his thigh; he suspected he had strained a muscle, but he had not felt it until he sat down. Gildor put away his water flask and closed the distance between them. Without forewarning he laid a hand on Beregar's leg, his strong, supple fingers pressing into the young man's flesh. 'Hurt yourself there?'
'Just muscle cramp,' muttered Beregar, feeling uncomfortable, even though he knew Gildor was not making any overtures. 'Will be over by dawn.'
Gildor began to knead the sore spot as if he knew exactly where the problem was located. A warm feeling crept into Beregar's thigh, and the pain diminished. 'Why are you following me?' he heard himself ask.
'To protect a comrade - and have his protection for myself?' the Elf replied.
'Do I need your protection?'
'You may want it yet.'
'Elvish riddles! ' Beregar snapped. 'I'll buy such an answer in peacetime. Not now. Speak plainly.'
'All right.' Gildor let go of his thigh. 'I think you are looking for a chance' - he lowered his voice - 'to avenge Zaba.'
Beregar felt caught out - until he realised why the other must have guessed this so easily. 'So are you ,' he whispered back.
The enemy was blacker than any night could be. The hours between dusk and dawn were absence of light at worst, but Sauron the Deceiver was presence of darkness. This presence was the heart of his army, and to reach it their forces would have to cut a wide swath through the ranks of the orcs as if their flesh was withered grass. Yet whenever Gil-galad thought they had made progress, the heart of darkness was no nearer than before: it kept receding, as in a waking dream spun out of control, and his hatred did not carry him fast and far enough.
He began to feel his limbs; his muscles seemed to have acquired a life of their own and groaned when he spurred them on. Aiglos his spear, that none could withstand, became heavy with death. The rank smells of fury, pain and despair assailed his nostrils. Corpses were strewn everywhere, the majority of them orcs, yet too many of the eyes staring at Varda's lights without seeing them were Elvish. Not all members of his own Guard were still with him.
The Númenorean auxiliaries had failed to arrive before dusk, and he knew in his heart that they would not come with the dawn either. By noon next day, the battle could be lost, and with it life, love and all that was precious to Elves and Men of good will. Gil-galad wished that he could hold himself blameless, though he knew such thoughts were futile and would fail before Mandos the Unmoveable.
There was a lull in the fighting; the orcs seemed to pause, though they did not retreat. 'Should we not let our arms rest for the remainder of the night?' asked Tárion softly, turning towards him. 'It is not as if we have any advantage to push right now.' Half of the silvery stars on his surcoat were extinguished by blood; gazing down at himself Gil-galad saw that his own heaven fared no better.
He nodded; Tárion's remark sealed the hated decision. 'We will not draw closer to the Abhorred One tonight, I think. Still, the southeastern bank remains ours.' And the Ciryatur had not turned his cloak. Yet. No need to say it aloud; he knew that Tárion was thinking the same thing.
The signal given, they sat down surrounded by those members of the Guard who were alive and nearby. That Celebrían was among them was a greater relief than it should have been; why would her life's worth exceed that of the next guard? Yet he was forced to think of her as something to be treasured above the one he loved best - despite the fact that he knew Galadriel's daughter did not think of herself that way.
Stretching his weary legs he heard Tárion ask her if she was well. He noticed that she took her time to reply, and when the answer came it was almost inaudible; all he could hear was: '...fail him.'
Tárion's answer was soft but clear, and very short. `I know.'
Gil-galad pulled his helm off; it had a minor, but irritating dent near his right temple. He groped about for a suitable piece of rock to hammer it out.
Her makeshift mirror dawned in hues of grey and pink and purple. If Anar were to reveal her face today, she would blush with the colour of blood and hide herself before noon. Frowning slightly, Galadriel breathed on the surface of the water, waiting for the ripples to ebb away.
When they did, the images that she saw were not of the battle at the Sarn Ford, but of a army on the march. They were Númenoreans, she thought, and they seemed to be crossing a bleak, brown plain with nary a river in sight. These warriors could hardly be the Ciryatur's auxiliaries heading Northeast along the Baranduin, yet she knew they were facing a grave danger.
Before she had time to wonder about this, the scene shifted. She was looking at something that resembled a stern finger stabbing at a pale autumn sky. When her gaze drew closer, like a eagle soaring on the wind, Galadriel realised that the finger was a watchtower on an island in a river. She winced, knowing who it was that held that tower, and who lay bound by chains of iron and sorcery in the deepest dungeon underneath: this was an image of the past.
Long, golden hair like her own swept away the tower. It was the bare head of an Eldarin warrior who had removed his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow. Slowly he turned towards her and it was Finrod, her beloved brother, or so she thought, until he cocked his head in a certain way and it occurred to her that it could be Finrod's grandson Gildor.
When the warrior put the helm back on the surface of the mirror misted over and cleared, and he became Gil-galad, standing on a mountainside. He was facing a huge shadow that she knew to be Gorthaur, her brother's bane; he burned with a dark flame. The High King raised his spear -
- I have to hold on to this vision! She knew that it was of great importance, and sensing the dark will of him who attempted to wrench it from her grasp. But she was unable to use Nenya and by the time she had mastered the mirror the scene had changed once more. This time, the water showed her the battle at the Sarn Ford, flaring again after sunrise.
Sauron's mortal allies rushed to the attack in an attempt to regain the lost riverbank. Wave upon wave pounded against the Elvish thangail(1), and broke. Galadriel bent forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter among the identically armed members of the King's Guard. Could she be among the warriors shooting arrows at the throng of foes defending the black serpent banner? Entranced, Galadriel watched the small group of mounted archers, early sunlight flashing on their mail coats. The surface of the mirror glistened brightly and her head bent forward until her braid almost touched the water.
One of the archers was felled by a javelin through the eye.
Galadriel forgot to breathe. Her heart forgot to beat. She almost lost her grip on the mirror, and once again her mind battled the ancient enemy.
When she recovered, regaining control, another image had replaced the battlefield scene.
1) Sindarin, meaning 'shield wall'