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18. Unnumbered Tears
Eithel Sirion, First Age 472
It was Mid-Year’s Day, and Aerneth was shaking with the effort of upholding her connections. She had not anticipated how physically draining water magic could be; normally she hardly even had to think about it when calling someone, but now in her assigned room in the fortress Barad Eithel she was dead tired – and yet the war had not even begun.
On a table before her were three bowls of water. In the first she had a connection with her friend Galdor, who was hidden in the mountains west of the fortress with the rest of her father’s people and the Noldor from Hithlum. In the second bowl a bearded man with curly hair and tanned skin looked back at her, she did not know his name. He was one of the human warriors who also hid in the mountains, some of whom were from the Forest of Brethil near Doriath and the rest from the southern part of Hithlum. The humans were led by two brothers, Húrin and Huor, who had fought with the elves before.
The final bowl was connected to an ellon from Nargothrond named Gwindor. He was leading a small unit from that city, who had left against their ruler's will. Orodreth, just like King Thingol, held a deep mistrust of the sons of Fëanor after the trouble Celegorm and Curufin had stirred in his realm when they imprisoned Lúthien there, and he had refused to aid them in the upcoming battle. But Gwindor had told Aerneth he needed to come; his brother had been captured in the last war against the Dark Lord and he could not rest until he had avenged him. The few who followed him here had similar reasons.
Gwindor and his followers had positioned themselves right beneath the fortress together with another, equally small unit of march-wardens from Doriath under Captain Mablung’s command. They were effectively covered by a dense mist from the spring of the river Sirion, called forth by Uinen on Aerneth’s bidding, much like that time when Thranduil was chased by orcs.
Aerneth would hold the three connections open continually, only taking short breaks. It was the perfect way for Fingon to stay in touch with the various parts of his western host and make sure they would make a coordinated attack when time was nigh.
The minute he found out about Aerneth’s abilities Fingon had assigned her with this task, only regretting she did not know anyone of Maedhros’ people of the eastern host so she could have established a line with them also. But it did not matter very much; the two parts of the Union of Maedhros would fight independently.
Fingon was outside on the parapet now, looking for Maedhros’ signal, but in the room with Aerneth several messengers were ready to fetch him as soon as he was needed.
Maedhros’ plan was well thought out. He was leading the larger, eastern host, consisting of his younger brothers and other elves from eastern Beleriand and of his allies; a large company of men called the Easterlings and fierce dwarves from the Blue Mountains. With this great force he would march north from his realm in Himring, through the Pass of Aglon to the southeastern part of the desert Anfauglith and continue towards Angband, Morgoth’s fortress. This would alert the Dark Lord, who hopefully would respond to the challenge by coming out to meet them.
As soon as Maedhros had entered the desert his banner would be spotted by lookouts in the Dorthonion mountains, right between Fingon’s and Maedhros’ hosts, who would then light a large beacon. This was the signal for Fingon’s troops to leave their hiding places and march northeast, where the two hosts would catch Morgoth between them as hammer to anvil.
It was a good plan, but everybody knew that no plan was flawless. Anything could happen, and it was anxious waiting for the battle to begin.
Another face joined Gwindor’s in Aerneth’s third bowl, one framed by blonde tresses. Galadriel. She and her husband were among the few who had followed Captain Mablung and Beleg Cúthalion when the king finally gave them permission to join the war – under the condition they would only be in Fingon’s western host and have as little as possible to do with Maedhros and the other sons of Fëanor.
Thranduil had stayed in Menegroth on Oropher’s advice, his father was no doubt hoping the captains would be killed so his son could get a promotion.
“Hello Aerneth. Tell Fingon we are ready down here.” Galadriel looked different in helmet and chainmail, fierce and unstoppable. “You seem tired. Are you well?” she added.
“I can handle it.”
When Galadriel disappeared, Aerneth pondered over her own words. Could she handle it? If she already felt this exhausted, how could she keep the connections open for an entire war, which could take many days – weeks even? But she had to do it. Fingon and Maedhros must win.
Perhaps it was her personal worries that made the water magic more taxing. Her mind kept returning to the morning she left her husband and father-in-law. How Thranduil had looked at her like she had betrayed him – his face was devoid of emotions as usual, but he had not managed to banish the deeply hurt look from his eyes.
And then came Oropher’s frosty parting words, which still sent a chill through her whenever she recalled them: “I am done trying to talk you out of this madness. You know it is not right for a wife and husband to go separate ways, and yet you persist, risking your life and our goodwill with the king to help a foreign people. Well, you obviously are a stubborn and cruel elleth, caring only for yourself. If you survive, do not bother to return. You are not welcome under my roof anymore.”
Just like that, she was thrown out.
And Thranduil had remained silent. Why had he not protested? Did he not want her to come back either? The thought made her furious. He would not have hesitated to leave her had his king sent him out, but when she wanted to go he acted like this?
The worst part was how much she missed him already. Despite everything. She hated sleeping alone, hated sitting here not knowing how he fared. Did he miss her too? Was he sad? Worried? Angry? She had no idea.
Galdor’s voice came from the first bowl: “Our lookouts have spotted movement in the desert. It seems to come from the direction of Angband, but so far we cannot say exactly what it is. Only that it’s coming this way.”
“Wait, I will notify Lord Fingon.” Aerneth refused to refer to the Noldo as ‘king’. She was under his command, but her ruler was still Thingol, no matter how much she disliked that ellon.
One of the messengers in the room had heard and instantly left, returning after a minute with Fingon and his advisors in tow.
The high king of the Noldor was tall just like his cousin Galadriel, but with his thick eyebrows and nearly black hair, neatly braided back from his face, he looked very different from her. On his head he wore a thin gold circlet, and his plaits were decorated with gold threads, but apart from that he appeared no more kingly than anyone else in his worn chainmail and stout leather vambraces.
Coming to stand beside Aerneth, he listened carefully when Galdor repeated his message.
“I do not like this,” he mused, tapping the table with his fingers. “Why is there no signal from Maedhros? If he has not yet reached the desert, I cannot charge to meet this new threat.”
“What shall we do, my lord?” asked Galdor.
“Hold your positions.”
In the other bowls the human and Gwindor repeated the instruction to their bystanders: “Hold your positions.”
More anxious waiting followed, with Fingon restlessly walking to and fro, and every now and then disappearing out to alternately study the desert and look for the signal. Where was Maedhros? Had something gone wrong?
An ellon came in with refreshments, and Aerneth gratefully emptied a goblet of water and swallowed several pieces of lembas. She was moist with perspiration now, and her fingers trembled as she ate, but the food strengthened her. Afterwards she felt a little less fatigued.
“We think it’s orcs. The movement we saw, I mean,” said Galdor after perhaps an hour. “They wear clothes in the same colour as the sand, that must be why it has been so hard to spot them.”
“Devious! I never knew those filthy creatures could be that clever,” growled Fingon. “How many are there?”
“We cannot say for sure, but they cover a large area. A great host, most likely. What are your orders?”
Fingon did not reply directly, apparently thinking hard. His fingers again thrummed the table nervously.
The human in the second bowl spoke, his strong accent making it somewhat difficult to understand: “My Lord Húrin ask: He can talk the high king?”
The man disappeared and soon the face of the human leader became visible. Húrin had golden hair and blue eyes, reminding Aerneth slightly of her father.
“Your Highness,” he greeted politely, dipping his head. “I fear it could be a trap, they want to lure us out into the open. I advise you to let us stay hidden as long as possible and allow the orcs come close to the fortress. When they arrive, we can attack them from all directions.” His accent was much less pronounced than that of his fellow’s.
“Hm. Maybe you are right.” Fingon contemplated the plan a moment. “Well then, for now we abide, but keep your eyes open for any changes in their route.”
“Aye,” came answers from all three bowls.
Fingon went to a map that had been rolled out on another table, its four corners weighed down with stones. He gazed at it in silence, probably musing over the strategy.
Aerneth could understand his unease. If Maedhros had encountered problems in the east, Fingon would have to beat the orc legion alone. Could he do it? His western host was much smaller than its eastern counterpart.
A great host , Galdor had said. How many orcs did that mean?
She wiped her forehead, wishing she could go outside and look at the orcs for herself but did not dare leaving the bowls. Holding the connections open was hard enough as it was. She was curious, but also horrified about seeing an orc up close, and not a little frightened that they would soon be just outside these walls, perhaps firing arrows at the building or fighting with Galadriel and the others down by the river.
She had been hot from the effort of working water magic for so long, but now she felt a cold tendril seep through her body. The war was near. This was for real. Would they lose against Morgoth even before they had a chance to come close to his abode?
In the bowls she saw that the others were nervous too. The battle had not even begun properly and already the plan had gone awry. Everybody wondered the same: Why had the signal not come? Where was Maedhros?
Then a sudden sound from afar made them flinch, a series of sharp, brazen notes. Trumpets.
Fingon hurried to one of the arrow slits facing southeast, peering intently through the narrow window. “Another host… another host comes down from the mountains. They are countless! Many thousands at least!”
“Can you make out their banner?” asked one of the advisors.
“I do not have to, I know those trumpets. It is my brother!” Fingon hastened back out on the parapet.
The revelation produced a buzz of excited voices from the others present.
“Turgon! He lives! The hidden city exists!”
“Wonderful! More warriors to our aid!”
“Reinforcements! What perfect timing.”
“With Turgon, we can do this. We can beat the orcs!”
Aerneth felt a wide grin form on her face. Fancy that... the hidden city that Thranduil’s friend had always talked about really did exist! Amroth would gloat so much when he heard the news.
But of course, now that she was banished from Oropher’s home she would never get to see that. Her grin waned.
Outside, she heard Fingon’s voice, strong and exultant, carrying far across the open expanse surrounding the fortress.
“The day has come! Behold, people of the Eldar and Fathers of Men, the day has come!”
From the mountains and the river came answering calls from the hidden troops, soon melding into a single war cry: “The night is passing! The night is passing!”
Aerneth could not help but join the chant; the jubilant ambience was contagious. “The night is passing!” she cried. “The night is passing!”
“Gondolin comes?” asked Húrin, who had lingered in the second bowl.
“What?” Aerneth had no idea what he was talking about.
“Gondolin, the hidden city… I promised never to speak of it, but if they have come I guess the secret is out.” He smiled under his beard.
“ You have been to the hidden city?”
“Aye, with my brother. When we were merely young boys. The fog – you helped create a fog that time, or so I am told?”
Aerneth nodded, vaguely remembering Thranduil telling her about that battle and the lost boys. “It was the Maia Uinen who called forth it, not me. But aye, I was involved.”
“We were separated from the others and got lost in the mountains. There were monsters – giant spiders and such, and we thought our last moment had come. But a couple of Great Eagles picked us up and took us to Gondolin, where King Turgon treated us kindly and allowed us to stay for a long time. The elves taught me almost all I know about warfare, and...” Húrin broke off, looking at something Aerneth could not see. “The orcs are nearing, I must go. Halvar, you take over here.” The last was to the man with the curly hair.
“Do you see the orcs yet?” asked Aerneth, turning to Gwindor in the third bowl.
“Aye, and they are within hearing range,” he murmured, keeping his voice down to avoid exposure. “They are saying some rather nasty things.” He frowned.
Fingon had come back inside and heard the last part. “Do not let their taunts get to you. Stay where you are.”
“A smaller group is detaching, they approach the fortress,” said Galdor. From his position in the mountains he had a good view over the orcs’ movements. “They are dragging someone after them in a rope. It almost looks like… Oh no! It’s an elf. They have an elven prisoner!”
“Hold your arrows,” Fingon ordered. “We cannot risk hitting their captive.”
“No… no! ” came Gwindor’s anguished cry. “It’s my brother. The captive – it’s my brother. And his eyes…” His voice broke. “They have blinded him. Cut out his eyes.”
How could they do something so cruel? Aerneth swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat.
The orcs were so close now that their foul voices could be heard inside the fortress when they yelled: “How d’you like our pretty elf, eh? We changed him for the better, don’t you think?”
Aerneth was glad she was inside and could not see.
“Let me kill them,” growled Gwindor. “Please My Lord, let me rescue him.”
But before Fingon could answer, the orc continued: “We got many more such at home, but you must make haste if you wanna find them – for we’ll deal with them like this when we return.” And then came the most heart-wrenching sound Aerneth had ever heard; four drawn-out wails of utter agony. They ended abruptly.
Fingon had run back to the narrow window at the same time as Galdor reported in a strangled voice: “They cut off his hands and feet one by one… and lastly his head.”
From Gwindor came no sound at all, he had abandoned the bowl.
“He has gone after them alone,” said Fingon from the window. “And I cannot blame him. We must punish these orcs, this black deed cannot go unrevenged.” He returned to the bowls. “Make ready to charge. When you hear my trumpets that is the signal. Let us get those monsters!”
He turned to Aerneth. “You can close the other connections now and open one with me instead, I will take a bowl with me on my horse. You stay in the fortress, but move out on the parapet where you have a good view over the mountains. Maedhros may still come, and when they light that beacon I need to know.”
“Aye, My Lord.” She bowed, hugely relieved. Holding just one connection with Fingon would be effortless in comparison to this morning's hard work.
Soon Aerneth was alone. She took the bowl with her to the parapet, and for the first time she could see what was happening on the battlefield. Out in the desert a dust cloud showed the progress of the Nargothrond elves with Gwindor in the lead, and in their wake lay the scattered bodies of the orcs who had killed his brother. The main orc host was still a dense mass further away, their yellow and brown clothes making them blend in well with the background.
To the west, humans and elves scurried down from the mountains, forming orderly ranks at the edge of the desert. Her father was among them, she saw his banner with the white seagull against a blue background. Her mother had designed it.
Refusing to worry about Círdan, Aerneth forced her gaze away.
Right beneath her vantagepoint, Fingon emerged from the mist, flanked by his advisors and the march-wardens from Doriath. She easily spotted Galadriel and Celeborn, two light hair manes among the dark heads, and not far from them Mablung and Beleg shared a hard hug before taking off to join the others.
One of the king’s advisors put a trumpet to his lips. The clear sound echoed between the mountains and the stone walls of the fortress, and soon the entire host was on the move, charging over the desolate sand of the Anfauglith.
In Aerneth’s bowl Fingon’s face was grim. The Fifth Battle of Beleriand had begun.
Mercifully, Aerneth did not have to experience much of what happened when Fingon’s host and the orcs clashed together, for after only a few chaotic images Fingon must have accidentally emptied the bowl. But what little she did see of those horribly distorted faces was enough to make her nearly sick with a mingle of fright and disgust.
In her head, she kept picturing such monsters forcing themselves on ellith, like she had seen in Galadriel’s mirror – only, in the mirror their faces had been vague, but now she could envision them in all gory detail.
When a male voice unexpectedly called up to her, she was relieved to get something else to think about. He had spoken Quenya, the language of the Noldor, but when he saw her peering out through the battlements he switched into Sindarin, the common speech: “Hello? Anyone else there?”
She saw two unusually handsome ellyn below, one golden blonde and one dark.
“Only me. Who are you?”
“I am Glorfindel of Gondolin.” The fair one greeted her in the customary way with his hand over his heart.
“And I am Ecthelion. We are with King Turgon,” said the other.
“He did not follow Fingon to the battle then?”
“Nay, our king decided our people should guard the Pass in case there was a trap,” said Glorfindel. “Morgoth may have more orcs up his sleeve.”
“That would be crowded,” remarked Ecthelion.
“I meant it figuratively.” Glorfindel apparently lacked humour. “Can we come in? Our king sent us here to gather information on how his brother fares, and it will be easier to see from up there.”
Aerneth went downstairs and unbolted the gate, letting them inside. This close, Glorfindel was even more good looking than she had first thought, almost on a par with Thranduil. He wore a mantle in the same colour as his hair over a long chainmail shirt, a sheathed sword and a shield with a yellow sun. As his gaze trailed over her with equal curiosity she felt a flutter within. She pushed it down firmly, this was not a good time to be attracted to a stranger, she had been separated from her husband too long, that was all.
Instead she led him and Ecthelion up the stairs and out on the parapet.
Glorfindel shadowed his eyes as he peered through the battlements. His hand was large and looked strong.
“I had hoped to see the combat better,” he said after a while, sounding disappointed. “Everything is covered by that infernal desert dust.”
“Maybe if you wait a while, Fingon will reopen the connection. Assuming he survives.” She showed them the bowl and explained her water powers.
The ellyn were very interested in her gift.
“Distance communication? That is a useful talent indeed!” said Glorfindel, giving her an admiring look that made her stomach flip.
“Are you hungry? Shall I bring something?” She was suddenly eager to get away from the confined space.
The others nodded gratefully and she went to fetch some lembas and dried fruit in the storage room. She glanced at a wine amphora but decided against it, she needed a clear head when Fingon reconnected with her.
The sun had disappeared behind the western mountains and the parapet was dark when she returned, making the hour feel later than it was. Out in the desert the battle still went on but had moved further away. Did that mean Fingon’s host was winning?
They shared the food among them in the twilight, not daring to light the lantern in case there were enemies nearby.
The ellyn made very pleasant company despite being Noldor. Without them, Aerneth would probably have been both frightened and lonely when the hours went by without Fingon calling, but now she almost forgot the time as she listened to their friendly banter. Ecthelion was clearly the brightest of them, witty and talkative, reminding her very much of Amroth back in Doriath. Glorfindel was more of the strong, silent type which she really preferred, and there were moments when he was so like her husband she had to avert her gaze.
Soon they had an interesting conversation going about Gondolin, that exciting city which had been kept secret for so long. The ellyn would not reveal its exact location as Turgon wanted it to remain safely hidden, but described what it looked like with such fondness that Aerneth felt herself longing to go there too. And not only because of the looks Glorfindel gave her. Did he not mind that she was married?
After a while Ecthelion took out a flute and entertained them with sweet music. Aerneth rested her back against the battlements beside Glorfindel, not quite touching him but sitting so close she felt his body heat. Being near another elf was comforting and made her feel safe, but also terribly guilty. Her eyes kept being drawn to his linen shirt under the chainmail, slightly open in the front, and every now and then she would perceive a whiff of his scent, a mixture of metallic armour, masculine musk and something flowery from his hair oil. He was not Thranduil, but close enough for her treacherous body to react like he were.
She loathed herself for having such inappropriate emotions in the middle of a war, when her father and friends might even now be killed by orcs – even if he had been her husband it would have been disgusting. But her brain would not listen to reason.
Well into the night Aerneth finally felt Fingon think her name, and she hurried to reopen the connection. It was hard to see his face in the darkness, especially since he seemed to be coated by a fine layer of dust, but it looked like he was still on horseback.
“We have defeated most of the orcs with hardly any losses, and the rest of them are falling back towards Angband. We are pursuing them now. Any news from Maedhros?”
“Nay, nothing. But I have two lords of Turgon’s people here with me.” She moved back so Glorfindel and Ecthelion could take over. Fingon clearly knew them well, and soon they talked animatedly about what sounded like common acquaintances and a shorter version of the history of Gondolin – since they spoke Quenya Aerneth understood only in part.
While they conversed, Aerneth again thought of her father and friends; Galadriel, Galdor, Celeborn. Were they among the ‘hardly any losses’ or had they made it? Before Fingon closed the connection for a few hours’ rest she took the opportunity to ask him, and learned that her friends were still alive and unhurt. Of that worry, at least, she was relieved.
When the sky became rose-tinted in the east, the two Gondolindrim decided they had been away long enough. It was time to bring their news to Turgon.
“Must you go?” Aerneth said, suddenly frightened to be left alone.
“Maybe I can stay with her, and you go to our king?” Glorfindel suggested. Ecthelion gave him an odd look but then shrugged.
Glorfindel sat down next to Aerneth again, closer now. His arm felt burning hot against her own. What was he doing? What was she doing? Had she encouraged him with her glances? It was because he reminded her so much of Thranduil, but now her guilt increased tenfold.
“Try to get some rest,” he said. “I will keep watch.”
She nodded and tried to relax, but it was impossible. Restless thoughts tumbled around in her head like broken butterflies; worries for the future, remorse about the past.
She was a horrible wife who had abandoned her husband, and now at first opportunity she flirted with another ellon. The war would not go well either, somehow she knew it would not. The forebodings she and her friends had seen would come to pass.
Tomorrow or the day after, Fingon would reach Angband, and still the greater part of the host had not come; Maedhros and his allies.
In the last war, the Dark Lord had had both a dragon and balrogs – his fearsome fire demons. It was obvious he still had many more monsters to send against them. What if this whole maneuver with the orcs and the killing of Gwindor’s brother was his way to lure the eastern host out into the desert? If so, Aerneth would probably never see her father and friends again.
What would become of her then? She could not return to Doriath unless Oropher decided to forgive her, which was not likely, and in Eglarest her mother would be broken with grief. And Thranduil… since she left, he had not tried to contact her even once.
Did he care about her at all? He had never said he loved her, but she had thought… hoped that he did, deep down. That underneath the emotionless face he showed the world, there were still some genuine feelings. But now… Far away in this Valarforsaken place she felt doubt. What if his mother’s death had taken away his ability to love?
A sharp pang of longing hit her, an almost tangible pain, like an arrow to her heart. She wanted Thranduil’s arms around her and his body close – not in a sexual way, not this time, she just wanted to hear him breathe and smell his familiar scent.
She was lost, a wanderer gone astray. She needed him. Only with him she felt at home.
“Is something ailing you, My Lady?” Glorfindel’s voice was soft, and somehow she found herself leaning against his shoulder.
“I worry about the war… my friends, and my father,” she said, not wanting to talk about Thranduil when almost in another ellon’s arms.
“I understand,” he said kindly, and now his arms really were around her, his fingers stroking her back soothingly. He touched her cheek, turning her face up to meet his gaze. His eyes were large and dark.
She saw what he was about to do but did not stop him when he bent down and kissed her. Just a peck on the lips, but she let him do it, and when he deepened it she responded.
The Valar damn her! Every particle in her body screamed at her how wrong this was.
At last she managed to murmur feebly: ”Nay…”
“Sorry,” he said and instantly broke the kiss. “I should not have been so hasty with a maiden I only met yesterday. But I feel like I have known you longer.”
Maiden? Did he think–
“These are troubled times and I may not live to see another day. I shall take this memory with me and cherish it. Perhaps, if we win the war–”
“I am no maiden,” she blurted out.
“What?” His eyes widened.
“Surely you can see… Surely you knew that–” She stared at him but read only puzzlement in his honest eyes. Then his features changed. Surprise, shock… disappointment.
He hastily rose, pushing her away as if he had burned himself. “You are married?”
“I thought you knew,” she whispered.
He shook his head vigorously. “You think I am the kind of ellon who would kiss a married elleth? I was never good at perceiving such things. How could you let me do it?” His voice was accusing.
“I… I don’t know.”
“I must go.”
She could hear him running down the stairs like chased by wargs. When he was gone Aerneth buried her face into her hands and wept bitterly.
Aerneth received a new visit the next day. When she heard the knock she jumped with fright, fearing it was Glorfindel coming back to lash out at her for tricking him. Instead another ellon stood outside, looking so much like Fingon that she in her confused and distressed state of mind almost thought it was him.
The ellon was Turgon, the king of Gondolin, coming to speak with his brother for the first time in several hundred years.
The brothers’ reunion via the water call was hearty and they talked for a long time. When Turgon finally left the bowl his eyes were red with unshed tears and Aerneth respectfully turned away until he had composed himself.
”Thank you for this, My Lady,” he said at last. ”I shall keep guarding the Pass of Sirion while my brother heads onwards to Angband. I leave two elves here with you to keep me informed on how he fares. In addition, can you establish a new connection with one of my scouts? I am sending him to find out what happened to Maedhros.”
Aerneth readily agreed, not at all minding to handle two bowls again; the increased strain would keep her mind busy. She did not want to think.
She was also thankful for the ellon and elleth the king left with her, both for keeping her company and for not being Glorfindel. She hoped she would never meet him again so this horrible mistake could be buried and forgotten.
Two days later, after riding hard along the Dorthonion mountains, Turgon’s scout reported he could finally see Maedhros’ host. The troops still lingered north of the Pass of Aglon in the outskirts of the desert, and as far as the runner could tell they seemed unhurt. He saw no particular reason for their remaining behind.
Aerneth passed the information on to Fingon, who had just arrived at Thangorodrim, the three volcanic peaks that guarded the entrance to Angband. He had not been able to catch up with Gwindor and his followers, who had ridden day and night in their murderous rage and were already pounding on the black gates.
It worried Fingon greatly to hear that Maedhros lingered. “Has he deceived us?” he mused. But soon he got something else to think about. “Tulkas help us!” he exclaimed.
Aerneth felt a trickle of chill when she saw the king’s pale face. “What happened?” If he invoced the Vala of war there must be something gone terribly wrong.
“Gwindor’s company has disappeared through the gates but more orcs are pouring down from the cliffs and out from caves in the volcanoes… I have never seen so many. They are cutting us off from the others. I must go, but I shall try to keep the connection up as long as possible.”
With that he charged against the orcs, and soon the bowl was flooded with chaotic battle images. Aerneth tried not to look, all the blood and cut off body parts made her sick, but she could not shut out the sounds. The shrill shrieks of agony from the most grievously injured were the worst.
“I shall bring word to my king of this new threat,” said the elleth Turgon had left with her. “I think we must march now, this does not look good.” She indicated the turbulent images in the bowl.
While the fight went on outside Morgoth’s black gates, Turgon’s scout arrived at the eastern host and was taken to see their leader. Maedhros was just appearing in her second bowl when Aerneth felt another presence in the back of her mind, a warm, red glow she instantly recognised. It was Thranduil. Of all possible moments, he had chosen this chaotic day to finally reach out to her – but of course he could not know how hard-pressed she was.
Even if she had not been busy, Aerneth was not ready to face him just yet, and thus it was with some relief she shut him off. Instead she focused on the eldest son of Fëanor before her, regarding the famous ellon with curiosity. His hair colour was striking, it had an auburn hue she had never seen the like of before, and his face was angular with a slightly too big nose. He looked grim, and knowing some of his history it was not hard to understand why.
“I heard that my cousin has already reached the gates of Angband,” he said. “Loath though I am to admit it, I realise now that I have been deceived by my own men. I had human scouts sent west to watch the Pass of Sirion, and they reported back to me that Fingon had been delayed by assaults from hidden Angband forces. To no avail have I remained here, waiting for word of his arrival. I know not if the mortals were mistaken or wilfully duped me – but they shall be punished, for sure.”
“How unfortunate. Fingon is even now battling a large host of orcs, and I do not know how he fares, but Turgon has come forth from the hidden city with a great number of elves so maybe all is not lost.”
“Good news indeed.” Maedhros brightened. “I shall march north at once, and hopefully between the three of us, Fingon, Turgon and I can still succeed.”
Now Fingon appeared in the first bowl, his face dirty and a sprinkle of red drops scattered over his chainmail. “Was that Maedhros you spoke with? Tell him he must hurry, we are hard-pressed. The Brethil humans have all been slaughtered, and I fear the same goes for the elves of Nargothrond. The rest of us are falling back into the desert now.”
Aerneth did as told, conveying Fingon’s message and then Maedhros’ reply, becoming a facilitator for a tactical conference between the cousins. Although the bowls were placed side by side, the ellyn could not hear each other or communicate directly.
During their conversation she glanced at Maedhros’ stump of a hand and shuddered at the thought of how that had come to be. Caught by Morgoth, he had hung from his right arm for three decades, shackled by his wrist to one of the peaks of Thangorodrim. Fingon had valiantly braved the Lord of Dark and gone there alone, finally spotting his cousin in his plight. Maedhros’ had begged Fingon to end his misery with an arrow to the heart, but instead the other had called upon the Great Eagles to help him and been able to rescue Maedhros by cutting off his hand.
No wonder the ellon wanted his revenge on Morgoth. It was not only his oath to his father – the promise to retrieve the Silmarils – that drove him on. This was personal.
After the ellyn had ended their talk, the hours passed slowly. Turgon had begun his march, taking his messenger with him and leaving Aerneth alone, and he had brought a water bowl to communicate with the other leaders through her magic. Again she was forced to maintain three simultaneous connections and the exertion made her so weak she could barely hold her eyes open.
Thranduil tried to contact her several times, leaving her with a nauseating pang of guilt. She could not avoid him forever; soon the battle would be over and she had no excuse to shut him out. What would she do then? Admit to what she had done or try to hide it? She was not sure she could manage the latter, but the thought of doing the former frightened her. Thranduil had a horrible temper, although he controlled it better than his father. Yet, did she not deserve his wrath? Should he turn her away and never want to see her again, it would be a justified punishment.
But who was she fooling? He already had turned her away, or at least his father had – without him protesting. Maybe the easiest solution was to return to the Falas with her own father after the war. Keeping her distance to Thranduil until long enough time had passed for her to be able to conceal her infidelity.
On the sixth morning since Fingon had left Barad Eithel, two of the hosts finally met as Turgon came to Fingon’s and Húrin’s aid. Aerneth witnessed the happy reunion of the elven brothers as well as the reunion of Húrin and Turgon who had known each other in Gondolin. In the midst of everything, they found a moment’s joy.
With great relief, Aerneth ended the connection with Turgon, again back to only two bowls.
The battle instantly turned in Fingon’s favour; with Gondolin’s great numbers and strong weapons behind him he could finally push back the orcs. In addition, Maedhros was almost there now too, Fingon and Turgon saw the cloud of dust announcing the rapid progress of their cousin’s troops.
This was when Morgoth released his real strength.
“No…” whispered Maedhros, his face ashen as he stared at something in the distance. “The dragon… he has multiplied! The Valar protect us! Glaurung is leading his brood hither – a crowd of smaller dragons.”
Dragons. Aerneth went cold, for she could see them herself now, despite the distance – that was how huge they were. One of those fire-breathing monsters was bad enough, and here came several.
Right then Fingon cried from the other bowl: “Balrogs and wargs are coming at us from the north! Their numbers are countless.”
Aerneth’s stomach twisted painfully. This would not work. Dragons and balrogs! The balrogs were twisted Maiar with immense powers, both magical and physical. They wielded deadly whips of liquid fire, and their frames were surrounded by smoke and shadow.
Wargs, although less deadly, were fast and strong, twice the size of normal wolves and possessed with evil spirits making them both fearless and bloodthirsty.
“I have to fall back,” said Maedhros grimly. “I have no chance of beating the dragons in the open, but if I can lure them south between the cliffs of the Pass they cannot attack all at once. I hope Fingon and Turgon can manage alone.”
“They are facing balrogs and wargs,” said Aerneth.
“Damn!” swore Maedhros. “I will try to get to them, but the dragons are between us.”
Suddenly there was some disturbance, Aerneth could hear screams and yells from the ranks surrounding Fëanor’s son. His face disappeared for a short while and then returned. “I have to close this temporarily,” he said hurriedly. “Some of the Easterling humans are attacking our rear. I am betrayed by my allies – I should have known they were all rotten when they brought false news of Fingon. Treacherous pigs!”
When he had gone, Aerneth stared at the empty water. It was all coming apart. They would lose.
In the other bowl Fingon was fighting again, she heard growls from the wargs and saw glimpses of matted fur and glowing eyes. Then he too disappeared as the bowl was beaten from his hands, but this time another caught it, an ellon Aerneth did not know.
“The king is fighting the leader of the balrogs,” the ellon reported through clenched teeth. He seemed to be on the ground, sitting or lying, and blood poured from a deep gash cleaving half of his face. “The fight is over for me, I shall die soon,” he continued impassively. Then he smiled crookedly, unable to move the damaged part of his face. “King Fingon appears to be winning. It’s… I have never seen anyone fight like that.” He looked awed. “The balrog is bleeding now and takes a step backwards, and my lord king is onto him. His sword moves so fast it looks blurred – or maybe that is from the blood in my eye. The balrog retreats again and ouch! Good hit. The king stabbed his foot. Now the balrog tries to lift his axe but the king sweeps it away with his sword. That sword is some good quality! And now– No! Another balrog joins the fight. He caught Fingon with his whip. The Valar help him… The balrog leader lifts his black axe.” The ellon silenced. A loud clang made him flinch and shudder. “He is dead. The balrog cut his head in halves, right through his helmet.” His voice was strangled. “They are trampling him and his banner into the dust. The monsters… the monsters!” He rose shakily and with a roar he left, making one last, mad dash against the offenders. ”For Fingooon!” The cry ended abruptly.
In the abandoned bowl Aerneth now saw nothing but the sky as the sounds of the battle continued around it. The grievous moans from the wounded shook her to her core.
She did not want to hear any more and closed the connection. Crawling away from the empty bowls she huddled against the cool stone wall, biting her knuckle as her mind raced. Fingon was dead. What was she to do? They were losing. Should she abandon her post and try to flee back to Doriath?
Before she had time to decide, she again heard battle sounds, this time coming from outside the fortress. She peered through the battlements. What remained of the western host came slowly closer, fighting still but being forced backwards step by step.
Hugely relieved, she discerned Turgon’s and her father’s banners in the chaotic mass of elves, humans, orcs, wargs and balrogs. They were nearing the wetlands east of the Pass of Sirion, probably trying to protect the way south. If Morgoth gained access to the Pass, all of Beleriand would be open to him.
It was Turgon’s scout. Was it Faraion his name was? Or Faron? She could not remember. With a sigh Aerneth went back to the bowl. She did not really want to hear his news because she knew they would be bad, but of course she had to, Turgon might contact her again and he would want to know how the situation was in the east.
The ellon who looked back at her was almost unrecognisable from the one she had talked to before. He seemed physically unhurt, but something had frightened the wits out of him, and his cheeks were so pale he seemed near fainting.
“I saw Glaurung,” he whispered through trembling lips. His hands holding the bowl must shake badly as well, it made his face oddly distorted from the ripples. “I looked him in the eye.”
“I am sorry for you,” said Aerneth, trying to sound comforting. “Can you tell me how Maedhros fares? Did he manage to beat the humans who turned on him?”
“He was bigger than my house back home. And it has three floors so it’s not small.”
“I see. Where is the dragon now?” Aerneth tried not to let her impatience show. She wanted to return to the battlements so she could see what happened in the Pass.
“The dwarves fight him. But they will lose. Nothing can beat him. He will burn us all to ashes, or maybe he will fry us lightly and then devour us. I know not what I would prefer.” Tears were trickling down his cheeks. It was always hard to tell another’s age, but Aerneth got the impression that this ellon was very young, perhaps not even ten decades.
“And Maedhros? Where is he?”
“Gone. They are all gone. Only I am left. I am hiding under a rock. But the dragons will smell me and come for me soon. Then I shall burn.”
“Gone where?” Valar, getting information out of this ellon was worse work than hauling a swan ship ashore.
“Dead, most of them. Heaps and heaps of corpses. Humans, elves. Heaps. But the sons of Fëanor went to the mountains. They fled.”
“Stay there, I have to check on Turgon and my father.” Aerneth went back to the wall and peered through the opening. Both banners remained up, thank the Valar. They had almost come to the river now.
The mist! She could help them hide. Singing a quick prayer to Uinen, Aerneth begged her to help Turgon and his troops.
The Maia’s reply was swift, a warm, comforting presence in her mind.
I will try, my dear. But I fear their enemies are too many this time.
Instantly grey clouds formed over the river, spreading out to cover the western host and their surroundings. From the balrogs, wargs and orcs who chased them came howls of disappointment. It was something, at least. A moment’s respite.
After a while she felt her father’s voice in her head. Hurrying back to the bowls, she connected with him. “Ada! I am so glad you are alive.”
Círdan was kneeling on the shore of the Sirion, peering down at her in its water. He looked as tired as Aerneth felt and was dirty and dishevelled.
“We are losing, Aerneth. The host will split up – Turgon and Húrin have just settled it among them. The humans mean to stay here and guard the Pass alone. A suicide mission, but they insist. Saying the world needs us – that elves bring them hope. Turgon is returning to Gondolin and I will take what remains of our people and return to Hithlum and our ships there. Thanks to your mist I should be able to get to the fortress and pick you up – unless you would prefer to return to Doriath? Captain Mablung is taking the remains of his march-wardens there, and Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn are going with them. The enemy seems reluctant to enter the fog so I think it should be a fairly safe passage south for as long as Uinen can keep it up.”
“Nay. I– I will go with you.”
“Good. We must hurry back to the Falas and fortify our cities against the Dark Lord, for I am certain he will come after us, seeking revenge – just as you saw in Galadriel’s mirror. Meet me outside the fortress, I will be there soon.” He disappeared.
“Aerneth!” It was the ellon in the other bowl. “The dragon! The dwarves hurt him and he’s retreating! The dragons are crawling back from where they came, all of them.”
“That is good news.” She tried to smile. It was useless, the war was still lost.
“The dwarves are leaving, though. Their leader was killed in the fight. So I shall be all alone.” He sighed forlornly.
“Go south to the Pass of Aglon, and then west until you reach Doriath. Tell them that you come from Gondolin, then I am sure they will allow you in. You will be safe there. It is an underground city.”
“Really? Maybe I will try that. Thank you.”
“I must close this now, I am leaving the fortress.”
Aerneth gathered the few belongings she had brought and went downstairs. When she opened the heavy gate she felt horribly exposed, expecting wargs or balrogs to assault her at any moment, but they still seemed to be far away, the sounds that drifted to her from the Pass were faint.
Then she heard the pounding of hooves. A rider was approaching, but who could it be? Círdan and the other Falathrim had come on their swan ships, they had not brought horses.
Her breath hitched. Was it the enemy? But this sounded like a horse, not a warg.
A shape emerged from the mist. When she recognised him her mouth went dry and her heart began to pound. It was too soon! She was not prepared!
“Aerneth!” Thranduil jumped off the horse and ran the last way, catching her in a hard hug. He smelled of sweat and his hair was tangled.
“Why are– How did you get here?”
“You did not reply. I called you over and over, but you were not there. I thought–” He hugged her harder, she had to struggle to breathe.
“I was just busy. I had so many connections open… I couldn’t…”
“I understand. Think no more of it. I am so relieved you are alive! I left without asking permission, I just went. I have been riding day and night to get here. Then I came across Lord Círdan and he said you were here! Oh sweet Elbereth. Thank the Valar. Blessed be Ulmo and his Maiar and anyone else who helped you.” He cupped her cheeks and kissed her, a deep, needy kiss.
The taste of his lips was bittersweet; only a few days ago another ellon’s lips had caressed hers and she had allowed it.
“Come home with me, please. My father did not mean what he said. And if he did we will live somewhere else. I need you.”
Seeing his face completely open like this, Aerneth felt a wave of love mingled with a remorse so strong it threatened to choke her. Why had she been so weak, so stupid? She had ruined it all.
“There is something I need to say,” she murmured.
“Me too! I should have told you years ago but I was so blind. Only after I lost you did I understand my heart.”
Aerneth forced her gaze not to waver. She knew what would come. Something she had longed to hear for so long.
“I love you Aerneth.”
She could not reply, no words would come out. How could she confess to him after this ?
His eyes narrowed slightly. “What were you going to say?”
“That I missed you too,” she said quickly, her voice hoarse.
He peered at her intently, clearly suspicious now. The openness from before was disappearing fast. She hated herself for doing this to him.
“Shall we go then?” She kissed him to avoid those far too perceptive eyes. He did not respond, instead he took a step back, his gaze sharp as swords.
“What did you do?” When she did not reply he grabbed her shoulders roughly. “Tell me what you did!” he yelled.
“I kissed an ellon.” There. It was out.
Thranduil stared at her in disbelief, his features shifting from shocked to deeply hurt. Then came raw anger. His grip on her shoulders was painful now, but she allowed it. She deserved it.
“Punish me,” she whispered.
He clenched his hand into a fist and she almost thought he would hit her. Instead he rammed it straight into the stone wall of the fortress, roaring out his pain. “Who is it? Tell me who it is. I will kill him. I will kill you .”
He loomed over her menacingly, his fist still clenched. It had bruised, his knuckles were swelling. Then he suddenly straightened up, drawing several breaths, his face settling into the cool mask she despised so much.
“Return to your lover if you will. I do not care.”
No, not this! Not this coldness, she could not bear it. “He’s not my lover! I only love you. I always loved you. Please, Thranduil, don’t look at me like that. Be mad if you want, anything but this glass face!”
He just stared at her haughtily, almost contemptuously.
“I’m so sorry! It was just one kiss. He did not know I was married. I was so afraid and tired and lonely and I know it’s no excuse but…” When he still would not reply she pounded on his chest with her own fist. “Stop it! Just stop it!”
That got her a reaction at last. His rage returned in full might and he pushed her against the wall with such force she hit her head. “Can’t you understand how much you hurt me? You left me, running away to a war you did not have to fight, one that could have killed you. Can’t you understand how that felt for me? You left me. And now you tell me you found another.”
She shuddered as the dam burst and the full flood of his emotions hit her.
“I don’t want to feel this pain, can’t you understand that? I don’t want to love someone who abandons me.” His eyes filled with tears, they trickled down his cheeks, making lines in the grime. “That’s how ellith are, you leave those who love you, abandon them. Just like my mother. Had she loved me, she would not have left.”
“Calm down. It was an accident… she did not abandon you and neither did I. She loved you. As do I.”
“She left me. You both left me!” He was shaking her but seemed not aware of it. “You want me to show emotions? I will show you emotions. Is this how you want me to be? Is it my anger you want to see? Do you want a husband who frightens you? You are trembling. I scare you. But you said you wanted it.”
“I am not afraid of you! If I tremble it’s because I am angry too. It was just one kiss , and aye I know it was wrong, but you are overreacting! I did not abandon you, you could have come with me to battle. It was the right thing to do. But you would only listen to your father. Every day you are turning more into a copy of him, Thranduil Oropherion. No wonder your mother left Doriath with two such ellyn in the house!”
Everything had become dead silent as she spoke, with only the distant sounds of battle from afar. Thranduil’s face was as white as a sheet. What had she said? She had not meant it.
“My mother killed herself. Her death was no accident.” He had lowered his voice almost to a whisper, and it was teeming with ice cold fury.
“I’m sorry… I did not know…”
He looked absolutely murderous now and for the first time Aerneth really was afraid of him. She took a step back, and another one, but he easily caught her by the arm, again pushing her against the wall. She whimpered as her shoulder connected painfully with the unyielding surface.
“My mother killed herself but it was not my father’s fault. If you ever accuse him of that again, I shall–”
“Why do you keep protecting him? He does not deserve it.”
“Shut up!” He pushed her again and she tried to break free of his vice-like grip, but to no avail.
She caught sight of the spring, the pool where the river Sirion began. Singing a quick spell, she caused the water to lash out, catching Thranduil and dragging him down. The surprise made him let go of her at last.
From under the surface he looked up at her, his eyes wide with shock and then fear, but she kept him down, angry again. How dared he threaten her? How dared he hurt her?
“Aerneth! Stop that at once!” Her father’s strong voice made her flinch and come to her senses. What was she doing? She instantly released Thranduil who broke to the surface, panting from lack of air.
Ignoring Círdan, Aerneth and Thranduil looked at each other in silence, he dripping water and still out of breath, she rubbing her smarting shoulder. How had it come to this?
“We are bad for each other,” Thranduil said at last. There was genuine regret in his eyes.
She nodded mutely. He was right. They were.
“Return to Eglarest with your father. I am going home.” He mounted his horse in a swift leap and galloped away.
I feel I keep blacken my poor main characters… cheating, physical fights… This is almost becoming an elvish version of Breaking Bad. But I hope you feel Aerneth and Thranduil are not impossibly ruined yet. Unlike humans, elves have long lives to atone for their sins and hopefully grow wiser.
About the “People of the Eldar” who Fingon refers to in his battle-cry: Originally all elves were called Eldar, but later it came to mean only those who had been to Aman (Valinor), such as the Noldor and the Teleri.
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