1. Four Rings 1
Elladan was dead. An orcish arrow, thick and graceless and smeared with a foul black paste, had pierced his neck. Within seconds he had fallen from his horse, and had succumbed to death a mercifully short time after that. Elrohir had seen it in the very corner of his eye, though at the time he had not registered what had just taken place. It would be impossible for Elladan, the braver of the two, the stronger, always the first to ride into battle, to fall. And so, it did not happen. At least to Elrohir's mind.
But now that it was finished, now that every wretched orc in the host had been slaughtered, only Elrohir remained standing. He stopped where he stood, listening to his own heavy breath, and looked for his brother. But he looked to the wrong place. Elladan no longer stood at his full height, and could not be seen while Elrohir sought his eyes. Now, he had become nothing more than one of many poor corpses fallen as leaves to cover the hard and half-charred ground. His blood fled his body in a widening pool to be tainted and ruined by the fouler blood of orcs before it sank into the earth. Elrohir knelt down beside him, knees and feet cursed by that blood that had an hour earlier been so close to his own, and choked on his breath.
Elladan was dead.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
No-one could fault Elrond for his behaviour. Less than forty years had passed since the death of Celebrían, and now his eldest son had died at the hands of those who had killed his wife. He screamed in anguish and then refused to speak, beat his fists against the walls and then lay as one dead himself. Glorfindel's words offered little comfort and did no good.
Elrohir could only sit and watch, frozen and still even disbelieving. Erestor's hand lay on his shoulder, but as a distant, wooden presence that he scarcely noticed. His mind was bound to Elladan. This was the fate of his twin, whom he would never see, never speak to, never smile at, never fight with again over some truly stupid little thing, as he always did. In the morning, Elladan would never again be there at the breakfast table to complain when Elrohir used the last of the honey. He would not be there at noon to pretend that he failed to hear the dinner call so he and Elrohir could continue their argument about the speed of their horses. He would no longer come to supper in dirty and torn clothes simply because he knew it made their father scowl.
And Elladan's bed was empty, as it would now always be. Elrohir dreaded the sight of the grey and cold room as he walked the corridor. But still he stopped in the door, a familiar movement made strange by circumstance. His fingers pressed against the wall. A pristine bed stood in sad twilight blue. Elladan's things still filled the room.
Elrond found him there after hours had passed. Neither spoke, but Elrond sat beside Elrohir and covered his shoulders with a tentative and desperate arm. Elrohir leaned back against his father. Somehow, after more hours, they found themselves lying down, each clinging to the presence of the other. And somehow they slept, fitfully and plagued by torturous dreams.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Elrohir woke while Elrond still slept. His father's arm was draped across his shoulder in such a way that Elrond's hand just rested its fingertips on the mattress inches from Elrohir's face. The thin fingers cast long shadows in the morning light, shaded lines interrupted only by the mass of the Ring. It had belonged to Gil-galad once, Elrohir knew. It had been crafted by Celebrimbor, aided by Sauron, as one of the four Rings of the Elves. Its etched gold band held a strange, spherical stone of shining black and green.
Lúmya, it was called, the Ring of Time. When Sauron's forces had threatened Eregion so many years ago, Celebrimbor sent the ring to Gil-galad, who later passed it on to Elrond. The three other Rings had also been hidden, with Nenya going to Galadriel, Vilya to Amdír, and Narya to Oropher. When Amdír fell in the Last Alliance Vilya had been taken by Círdan, who kept it yet. But Narya had been lost with its master. Oropher, charging recklessly into battle against Gil-galad's call, had been surrounded and overwhelmed by the orcs of Sauron. They had taken it and kept it for their own.
Narya was the source of their power now. The ring made the orcs grow stronger than they had ever been under Sauron's rule: strong enough to leave Mordor altogether and found their dark kingdoms throughout Eriador and the south. Arnor had fallen after years of war, and the people of Gondor had been all but pushed into the sea. Now Lórien threatened to diminish in flame and when it did, Imladris would not be far behind.
Elrohir knew his father's worries. Elrond's ring, rumoured to be the most powerful of the four, could offer some protection and a measure of hope. But it would not make the valley invincible. There were cracks in the defences and flaws in the strategies of those who worked to keep the armies of the orcs out. After enough time, even the most secure of the Elven realms would be ended. So long as the orcs held Narya, their power was secured and Elven defeat was inevitable. There were simply not enough Elves to fight this war.
The previous day, this thought would have made Elrohir's spirit burn with the bright flame of defiance, and he and Elladan would have ridden to prove that Elves were not so easily overpowered. Hiding among the trees, striking from unexpected points, they had learned to use the landscape to their advantage and could manage a horde of thirty between them. Elladan always claimed he killed more. On this day, though, the prospect of defeat seemed to Elrohir to be too terribly real. Elladan had fallen, and another would follow: Glorfindel, Erestor, Elrond, or Elrohir himself, until none was left.
A sick and heavy feeling stuck in Elrohir's chest at the simple thought of this eventuality. The valley, now vibrant green, would burn and blacken under the iron tread of the orcs. Those that he loved would continue to die off, one by one. Inwardly, Elrohir screamed to himself to keep hope and refuse the weakness of despair, but the more primitive force of emotion beat reason into the ground. He exhaled in graceless sobs and clutched at his father's hand.
The Ring, Lúmya, was almost hot against his fingers.
The Ring worked tirelessly, Elrond had said once, exerting all the force it could manage to keep the valley secure. But still, that was not the Ring's true power.
What could it truly do, then? Elrohir pulled Elrond's hand closer, careful not to wake him. The Ring sparkled in the sunlight. He caressed the smooth stone. What is it that you can do? he silently asked. Surely there must be a purpose to Rings? You cannot be solely for defence, or we here would not be in so poor a position. Are you for power, then? You are called the Rings of Power, are you not? Is that why the orcs have such strength with only Narya in their keeping? They use their Ring for force, while we use ours in our ever passive place. Narya is an aggressive Ring, but could Lúmya not be as well? Could our position be improved if I took you and used you for power?A small voice, his reasonable voice, answered the question as quickly as it had been posed. No, it said, they are still too many, and we are too few. Even with the Ring we would die, as Oropher and Amdír did. They were not protected by any power, nor did their Rings grant them any power. We would fall too, and the orcs would take Lúmya.
Then why, he debated, are the orcs so strong with their Ring, while we have no way to stand against them with ours? They have their power, and such power it is, killing and ruining and burning. They control the power of Fire.
Then, Elrohir stopped as his breath hitched. The orcs had Narya, the Ring of Fire. They were backed by the violence and terror of flame, overpowering and all-destroying. They knew their Ring's true power and abused it without conscience. The Ring had granted no protection to Oropher because he did not use its advantages. Narya demanded a crueller master. Lórien, though, still stood after centuries of war because Nenya, the Water Ring, protected its borders. No fire could cross the sacred streams so long as Galadriel's hand reigned.
And then there was Imladris, the timeless valley, which, in peacetime before the orcs, had risen and been a refuge for the weary and aged to recover their health and prolong failing lives. Under the Ring's influence, time slowed and life grew leisurely. That was its true power, Elrohir realised. Lúmya had no love for war, defence or submission. It would give no certain aid in this war; time could do nothing against fire but outlast it. The Ring could help the Elves of the valley endure, but only so long as they could fight for themselves. Time was indifferent to good or evil.
But still another thought nagged at the back of Elrohir's mind. Rumours existed of a power afforded the orcs by their ring, seldom seen but well known in the collective fear of the few remaining free realms of Middle-earth. Those who had seen it spoke of a crushing inferno great enough to swallow entire cities and hot enough to melt the very stone of the mountains, a fire that burned relentlessly even days after all in its path had been reduced to chalky ash. Minas Tirith had been ruined utterly by such a fire, and the greater part of Fangorn Forest. Survivors spoke with a hollow fear of what they had seen, or did not speak at all.
One Ring, Narya, had the power to do all this. Its bearer could create a blaze out of nothing and destroy recklessly with only thought and will as fuel. And Vilya had the same power. This Elrohir had once seen for himself, as Círdan brought howling winds down from the sky to stir the sea into a storm and break hideous orcish boats upon the waves. He suspected Nenya could do the same with its water. But what of Lúmya?
The Ring of Time, it was called. An absurd smile spread on Elrohir's lips. Narya controlled fire, Vilya air, and Nenya water. None of them had ever been called more powerful than Lúmya. Was it not then reasonable to assume that Lúmya's name was given as truthfully as the others? Could Lúmya, by this logic, not control the very flow of time?
Scarcely daring even to breath, Elrohir took his father's hand gently in his own. Then, slowly as he could manage, he slipped the Ring from Elrond's finger.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Elrohir recognised the place when they came to it. The path was narrow now, but less than a quarter-mile ahead it widened into a clearing. There, with little warning, a troupe of orcs would meet them head-on. A frenzied battle would erupt, and before it ended, Elladan would be dead.
Elrohir knew the outcome. He had lived it the previous day right through to the terrible end. Now, with a second chance, he would not see it lived again. "We ought to turn back now," he called out.
Elladan, riding ahead on the path, slowed his horse and glanced back over his shoulder. "Now?" He glanced up at the sky. "It is mid-afternoon only; we have hours yet before nightfall. And we are only a short way from home. We can ride a while longer."
"Then let us ride a different way," said Elrohir. "I do not like the look of this path. We should turn south, down that trail we passed not long ago."
Elladan frowned. "I can neither see nor feel anything wrong here. And we have not been this way in a long time; I would like to know where the path goes. Besides, we are well-armed. There is little danger so close to home." Facing forward again he urged his horse on toward the clearing.
"Elladan, please!" Elrohir called, as loud as he dared in the quiet woods. "I do not want to go this way! It gives me an uneasy feeling. I can sense danger here. This path will lead to nothing but an evil end, I am sure of that. Please, let us turn back."
Laughing, Elladan slowed again and turned back to face him. "Are you now blessed with foresight, brother, to know what the future will be?"
Elrohir said nothing in reply.
"Come," Elladan continued, "we will go only a little further and I will show you that there is nothing to fear."
"I will not go," Elrohir flatly stated. "Nor will you. We will turn around and return home. Please, Elladan, you must listen to me. And do not ask how, but I know that-"
He abruptly silenced himself as Elladan raised his hand and gave a sharp glance down toward the end of the path. Not far away, a low and ugly horn sounded to penetrate the clean forest air. The noise was accompanied by the muted but growing clamour of many iron feet as they scuffed the ground and broke the green things that grew there.
"Orcs!" was all Elladan said before he took off at a gallop down the narrow path.
"Elladan, wait!" In a second Elrohir bolted after his brother, dodging sagging trees and ducking under low-hanging branches. "There are too many! We must turn back and call for help-"
"No!" Elladan shouted back. "There is no time! They could have the whole valley alight in minutes! We must stop them now and not suffer any of their filth so close to our home!"
A moment later he flew out from the forest path and into the clearing, which had already started to burn with the fire of the orcs. Elrohir followed close behind. Almost immediately, they were surrounded.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Elrohir sat up all that night on a wooden bench outside Elladan's bedroom. The death of a brother was no easier to take the second time. Beyond the door, Elrond alternately slept and sobbed on the bed. Friends filed past nervously, unsure of what to say or think or do. Everyone seemed tired and weak.
Gandalf, who had always been a comforting presence, was now reduced to simply another sad body. He sat down heavily beside Elrohir and for a long time neither spoke.
"I had hoped to bring good news," Gandalf eventually said. "Though I see I've come at the wrong time."
"Oh?" said Elrohir.
Gandalf nodded. "I have been in Lórien this past while. The siege is ended now, and in our favour. The orcs that were not killed have been forced back into the south." He paused, then sighed. "Though no-one can say they will not return to start the cycle again."
"Hmm," Elrohir said quietly. "How is my sister?"
"Ah, she is well," Gandalf replied, and he smiled. "She sends her love, as always. I brought a letter from her for your father."
Elrohir gave a weak smile in return. "He will be glad of that."
Gandalf nodded again and allowed another short silence before placing a soft hand on Elrohir's shoulder and bending closer to his ear. "It is no easier to bear a second time, is it?" he asked in a low voice.
Elrohir's face snapped up to look at him. "What?" he hissed, and almost choked on the word.
Slowly, Gandalf leaned back to rest his head against the wall and look down at Elrohir with concerned eyes. "The Ring," he said. "You used the Ring to try to change your brother's fate. You have lived this day before, to the same end."
Elrohir was quiet for a long, tense moment before speaking again. "How do you know?" he asked in a shaky voice.
"A Wizard can tell," Gandalf said simply. He gave a strange, sad half-smile. "As can the Powers in the West. We know all interruptions in the flow of time, when a day is repeated or when it is skipped, just as plainly as you who caused the interruption know. You have lived both days, and so have we. Time can never be undone. It can only be redone."
"I... I do not understand," said Elrohir.
"Time is a straight line, Elrohir, always moving forward. It cannot be stopped or erased any easier than you can erase the stars from the sky. The Ring has allowed you to relive a day in your life, and that is what you have done. Time has started again from that point. But the first version of that day can never be undone. It will always remain in the memory of some."
Gandalf squeezed Elrohir's shoulder. "But," he said more kindly. "You do not need to understand. You need only know that, regardless of such interruptions, time will continue and find a way to complete its work. You cannot change fate. Everyone has his set path that cannot be changed so easily. For reasons that we will never know, it was Elladan's fate to die today. It is his place in the world."
Elrohir frowned, shaking his head. "I do not believe that."
"But you must," said Gandalf. "You have seen yourself that the will of time cannot be altered. You can try again and live this day a thousand times, taking every precaution, but still Elladan will die. You must understand that once the path of fate is chosen, there is naught you can do to stop it. And it is for the best. You might not see that now, but Elladan has his part to play in the life of this world. As do you."
"I do not see what part he can play by dying," Elrohir softly said. "Or what good it does to have him dead." He felt suddenly drained, as if defeated by this heavy realisation of the cruelty of fate. His eyes stung with the threat of tears. But Gandalf's hand slid around to his other shoulder, the Wizard's arm draping as a familiar, comforting weight across his back.
"Perhaps there is no good," Gandalf said. "But it is not our place to judge. Not yet, at least."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Elrohir awoke he found Elrond's arm once again draped protectively around him as they lay together in the shelter of Elladan's bed. Elrond still slept, breathing calmly as he always did despite the twisting pain that Elrohir knew was still strong in his heart. The Ring shone from his finger.
I cannot change fate, Elrohir said to himself. I could use this ring to relive yesterday over and over, and still accomplish nothing. Or so Gandalf says.
He reached out to touch the Ring, to stroke it. It was as warm as it had been the previous day, or the previous attempt at this current day. The stone gleamed. Elrohir bit his lip.
I cannot change one day, he thought. But perhaps I can change many...
Orcs, they said, came from Elves. Aeons ago, before time was measured, they said Elves had been taken by the darkness. Over time, those Elves became orcs. Over more time, the orcs multiplied and changed and became the hideous creatures that ever after plagued the world. And finally, the orcs had killed Elladan.
Elrohir smiled. He could see his reflection ghosted in the stone of the ring. If Elladan was killed by orcs, and the event could not be undone, there was only one simple solution. All Elrohir had to do was prevent the race of orcs from existing.