White gulls were calling overhead, as they had so long ago at the Havens, when he was very young. Salt spray and the ship rolling under his feet just as Father’s ship had moved, long ago before Father and his ship had been lost to them, before the Havens had burned. He could remember the smell of the sea. Ahead, the low humped mound of the Isle of Balar was drawing closer.
Elrond barely had time to greet his brother before Elros was hurrying him up the broad paved road from the quays, busy with Elves and Men coming and going. Carts piled high with supplies and weapons were moving slowly down the road towards the waterside, their wooden wheels rumbling on the pale dusty stone.
“You got here just in time!” Elros said, walking fast. “We’re moving everyone off Balar up to the Falas. Círdan has lent me ships to move the Men who are too old or young to fight to the new settlements east of the mountains.”
“Why?” Elrond asked, startled.
“We’re going to lose Balar, soon,” Elros said, matter-of-factly over his shoulder. “Gil-galad is making it into a trap. Next time Morgoth moves his forces south into East Beleriand, to face our people across the River Sirion, Ulmo is going to bring a wave.”
“Another wave? Is that wise?” The last time Ulmo had brought a wave, it had been further south and east, when Morgoth had unexpectedly attacked the new settlements of Men that had been set up in Eriador. Those settlements had been mostly occupied by the old and women with children. Nobody had expected an attack beyond the mountains. They had called on Ulmo, because Ulmo was the only help that could hope to come in time.
Ulmo had come, and Morgoth’s mightiest servant had struck at him. And now the mountains of the Ered Luin ended abruptly in the Sea, and what had been South Ossiriand was lost beneath deep and turbulent waters. Most of the Men had survived, though some had been unlucky or too slow. The settlements were being rebuilt on higher ground. That was where Elrond had taken ship for Balar.
“Gil-galad and Finarfin think it’s worth the risk,” Elros explained. He nodded to some Men who were loading tools from a workshop onto a donkey cart. “With luck the shock will be the breakthrough that Finarfin's part of the Host of Valinor needs to make it across the River Sirion at last. And we do at least know what we’ve got to prepare for, this time. Ulmo has promised the Falas will be safe, but the Isle of Balar is right in the way. It’s bound to sink.”
They turned a corner and went through a high, finely-carved archway into a quiet paved courtyard. As soon as they were around the corner and out of sight of the crowds, Elros whipped around to face his brother.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed. “We drew straws. I’m looking after the Edain. You were supposed to be looking after them!”
Elrond looked at his brother unhappily. “Not any more.” he said. “I had to leave. There was no choice. They gave me a warning. You know they always give a warning, first. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of ignoring it.”
“They wouldn’t have hurt you,” Elros said in obvious disbelief.
“They wouldn’t have wanted to hurt me,” Elrond said levelly. “Of course they didn’t want to hurt me. They didn’t want to attack Doriath. They didn’t want to burn our home! Maglor said to me: don’t tell me what we will not do. He’s heartsick and weary and I am desperately sorry for both of them. You know I wouldn’t have left, if I could have found another way. But if I had stayed there, there is a good chance that instead of a brother on that ship, there would have been a threat. A message for you to pass on through Eönwë to Valinor, and our father, that if he did not return the Silmaril to them, they would put me to torment.”
“I don’t believe it,” Elros said turning away dismissively.
“Believe it,” Elrond told him wearily, opening his mind so Elros could see the miserable truth of it. “I didn’t want to believe they’d do it either, and nor did they. Believe me, nor did they. But I’ve seen it in their minds. I couldn’t stay there and wait to see how long they could endure it before they broke again, as they did at Doriath, as they did at the Havens. The idea that they could do it was tearing them apart. I had to go.”
Elros shook his head despairingly. “That stupid oath,” he said.
“Yes,” Elrond agreed miserably. “They both sent you their love. Maglor said, don’t come back.”
Elros rubbed his hands across his eyes. He took a deep breath. “Right.” he said. “Right. Well. We were going... going to see the High King. Gil-galad will want to see you at once. Don’t tell him that, though. He thinks they’re monsters already.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Elrond said. “I’ve come to help my brother, that’s enough of a reason to be here, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is,” Elros said. He gave his brother a shamefaced look. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t much of a welcome. I am glad you’ve come, truly. And I know you did everything that could be done.” He smiled, with some difficulty. “They might still take the two in Angband when we finally get there. There’s bound to be confusion in the battle.”
“They might,” Elrond agreed, though he did not really believe it and, he knew, neither did Elros.
. . . . . .
Gil-galad, with his dark hair braided to fit under a helmet, wearing the kind of leather gambeson that was worn under armour, was in a room where the walls were filled with pinned-up maps and charts. He was busy talking to a knot of people who were were clearly important captains from their badges, but he turned immediately as soon as Elros and Elrond came in.
“Elrond!” he said striding over swiftly. “You made it here at last! Are you well?” He fixed Elrond with a long piercing look with fierce grey eyes.
Elrond met his gaze, and then bowed. “I am, my lord,” he said.
“I’m very relieved to hear it. Your father and mother were dear friends of mine,” he said. “We have all been greatly worried about you...” Abruptly he flung his arms around Elrond. “I’m so glad to see you!” he said. “You’ll need a sword, of course. Elros had been taught how to use one before he came here, have you..?”
“I have a sword,” Elrond said. He did: the finest work that the few remaining smiths of the House of Fëanor could still produce, sharp and deadly. The sword had been made for him, perfectly balanced, the guard encircled with the white flowers of Lúthien and the golden ones of Idril of Gondolin. The hilt was marked with the white wing of Tuor and the faithful hound of the House of Bëor, though the makers had not added the gem of Beren’s badge, or the star of Eärendil’s.
He drew it now, and offered the hilt to Gil-galad, who looked at it, but did not take it. “I offer you my service, my lord,” Elrond said.
“You don’t have to offer that to anyone,” Gil-galad said. “You don’t owe me allegiance. You and Elros are Thingol’s heirs. Even if you decide you want to be counted among the Noldor, there are two High Kings to choose from, now.”
“I know,” Elrond said. “I choose the High King who leads the Noldor who came to the aid of Middle-earth, not the High King who turned back and would have left us to fight the Enemy for so long alone. For the House of Bëor, the House of Hador and the House of Haleth, I make my choice.”
Gil-galad smiled. “That’s harsh to Finarfin, but I see your point.”
“I will be faithful and true, love all that you love, and shun all that you shun, I will aid and defend you until the breaking of the world.” He said it steadily and clearly, as was his duty, without any catch or hesitation: the words that his foster-father had taught him, but had never asked him to say.
Gil-galad took the sword.
“And I will protect and keep you as you deserve, until you ask me to release you,” he answered. “ I shall not ask more of you than you can in honour give. Nor ask you to bear this sword to unworthy end.” He gave the sword back to Elrond.
They were not quite the words that Elrond had expected.
Gil-galad noticed his surprise. “We don’t use the old form of that oath any more,” he said kindly. “Not since the last kinslaying. I won’t hold you to the ‘shun all that you shun’ part. I know how Elros feels about that. Anyway, if there is anything you need, please come to me immediately. Not that I’ll necessarily be able to supply it, but if it’s something that can be found in Beleriand at war, I’ll do my best! We’re pulling out of Balar, as no doubt Elros has told you, so things are a little complicated just now. It would be best if you stay by Elros for now, while you learn who everyone is and how we organise things. Elros, could you arrange accommodation for your brother until we leave?”
Elros nodded. “Of course, my lord,” he said. Gil-galad gave him an approving smile.
The rest of the day was a confusing whirl of names and faces, passwords, guard rooms and equipment, as Elros hurried back to his duties. He seemed to have a great deal to do as the leader of the Edain, though it was clear his captains were doing their best to ensure their young lord would not be overwhelmed with detail. Elros seemed enormously popular with his people — their people — who greeted Elrond warmly.
“Everyone seems very friendly,” Elrond ventured, when the day was dimming and great lamps were being lit across the island, casting bright reflections into the sea. “I’d wondered how easy it would be for the Edain to accept you. We were away from them for a long time.”
“They’re friendly now,” Elros said, leading the way up broad stone steps. “They’ve got used to me. It wasn’t easy to begin with. Even the more experienced soldiers could barely remember us as children. And a lot of the younger Men don’t remember Father or Mother at all, except as hearsay. They’d all lost everything, several times over, most of them. It made for a lot of distrust and confusion. But they did need a commander that they could all look to, as Gil-galad said they did. They realised it in the end. It was easier with the Elves, to start with. They all remember everything! Anyway, we’ve done a good day’s work, I’d say. Time to go off duty, and have a drink.”
Elros pulled open a dark wooden door, over which a carved sign showing a barrel wreathed in vine-leaves hung. He waved Elrond forward into a long high-ceilinged room filled with chairs and tables. The warm light of the setting sun flooded in through tall windows in the western wall, glazed with thick glass that twisted the light on the water and the line of the horizon into strange shapes. There were a few people, mostly Elves, sitting at the tables eating and drinking.
“And here,” Elros said, with an air of having saved the best for last, “is our cousin Celebrimbor!”
Celebrimbor looked recognisably like his uncle Maglor from the shape of his face, his long dark hair and from the star he wore upon the shoulder of his worn leather coat, though he was broader across the shoulders than Maglor was.
He was sitting with a few other elves, dark-haired and grey-eyed with the light of Aman in their eyes like himself. He got up to greet Elrond gravely, and introduced him to his people. All of them wore Gil-galad’s badge of stars upon a field of blue, but also a single eight-pointed rayed silver star, as many of Elrond’s friends had done almost all his life. After the long journey and the day filled with strangers and unfamiliarity, the star seemed oddly comforting.
“I’m glad to see you again, Elrond,” Celebrimbor said earnestly.
“Have we met before?” Elrond asked, in some confusion.
“You probably don’t remember me,” Celebrimbor said. “Elros didn’t. You were very young. And your mother was a little suspicious of me and my people, for... understandable reasons, so we did not spend much time together. But I remember you and your brother running along the quays to your father’s ship and playing on the strand at the Havens of Sirion, before my uncles ruined them.”
“You were at the Havens?” Elrond asked. “Maglor and Maedhros did not mention that.”
“I’m sure they didn’t, “ Celebrimbor’s mouth twisted in distaste. “I only saw them at a distance, when they came, before the flames came between us. Probably that was deliberate. Our quarters were at the northern end of the camp. That’s where we expected attack; from Morgoth’s beasts making their way down from Nan Dungortheb or through the mountain-passes to cross the rivers in the North. So when the attack came, I was up beyond the Three Bridges. You might remember those.”
Elrond remembered low wooden arches across muddy tidal creeks, and nodded.
“They cut all three, so we were left on the wrong side of the water. We had not expected anyone to come at us across the full width of the Sirion in boats out of the Fëanorian lands. They were supposed to be on our side!”
“They did regret it, ” Elrond said unhappily. “They didn’t want to do it.”
“Hmm,” Celebrimbor said. He frowned, which made him look rather daunting. “They left their regrets late. I regret that I did not do more to protect you and your mother from them, as I should have done.”
“Don’t regret that!” Elrond said, impulsively. “We surely have enough grief and kinslayers in our family already, without that!” Celebrimbor winced.
“I told you he’d agree with me,” Elros said to Celebrimbor.
“There were things I could have done that fell short of kinslaying,” Celebrimbor said wryly. “All of which came flooding into my head when we finally got through to the quays and found that you and your mother were missing... But forgive me, Elrond, I know that you and Elros grew fond of them. I meant no disrespect to you for that. I’m fond of them myself, despite all they’ve done. They are my family. There’s not much of it left. Yet, here we are, all at war against the Enemy who slew my great-grandfather Finwë: we should be united! It’s just so...frustrating.”
Elrond found a smile creeping across his face. It felt strangely unfamiliar, as if his face had forgotten how to do it. “It is, isn’t it,” he agreed.
“Let me get you both a drink,” Celebrimbor said, pulling out chairs for both of them, “Have you eaten? Hebril is trying to clear out her store cupboards here, before the Golden Barrel must close for good, on Balar, and she must set off for Eglarest. I know Elros likes the smoked duck, so I asked her to save some for you.”
It turned out that his star and face were not the only familiar things about Celebrimbor.
“You have just arrived from Belegost, Elrond, is that right?” he asked over the meal.
“Yes,” Elrond said. “Maedhros and Maglor have been there most of the time since the Host of Valinor arrived in Middle-earth. The House of Azaghal is still a friend of the House of Fëanor.”
“That is very good to hear!” Celebrimbor said. He looked sideways speculatively at Elrond, and then said in Khuzdul, “Did they let you learn their language while you were there? I know Elros picked up a few words.”
“I have it a little,” Elrond said in the same language, smiling. “Not well. More to listen. We were not supposed to speak. The rule was forbidden it.”
Elros frowned in concentration. “More better me!” he said, and grinned.
Celebrimbor laughed. “Not bad!” he said switching back to Sindarin. “I was very lucky. They let me have lessons. A great honour I’m told, they very rarely allow it, even in Belegost. My father was very persuasive.” The smile fell from his face as he spoke of his father, and he went on more solemnly “I’m told I speak it fairly well, albeit with an accent.”
“It’s not an easy language to learn when you aren’t supposed to be listening and can’t ask questions,” Elrond told him. “But I couldn’t help picking up some of it; we all did. I must ask you about a few things I’ve always wondered about the grammar. I thought you must have stayed there often: there are still some books in Quenya in the guest quarters that were yours. And some of the older Dwarves still speak of you and your father.”
“Really?” Celebrimbor said, his solemn face lighting up, transformed with delight. “Who?”
The rest of the evening was mostly concerned with news from old friends in Belegost and their families. It felt a good deal more like home than anything had done since Elrond had found that he had no choice but to leave.
. . . . .
The last Elves and Men left the Isle of Balar, abandoning it empty and forlorn among the wide green rolling waters as they sailed away.
Once they had all reached safe haven in Eglarest, Cirdan's city, now rebuilt and re-occupied yet again, Ulmo brought his wave against the south coast of East Beleriand. Elrond and Elros, in company with the High King and with Círdan watched it from a distant hilltop; a great roaring nightmare of a wave, grey and hungry, topped with foam, with the wild birds crying over it. The long isle of Balar, the thousand isles of the Mouths of Sirion and the birchwoods of Arvernien were whelmed into the sea and lost forever.
But once the High King of the Noldor in Middle-earth and the surviving Elves and Men under his command had fully established themselves around the city-port of Eglarest and had taken counsel with Finarfin, High King of the Noldor of Valinor, Ingwion, Leader of the Vanyar, and Eönwë, Herald of the Valar, it was clear that the wave had achieved less than they had hoped.
Morgoth’s commanders had clearly learned from their last clash with Ulmo. The south was gone, but the line of the Andram Hills had resisted Ulmo’s wave, and the Shadow still held East Beleriand and the North. The Enemy was little inconvenienced by the raw new line that was now the coast. The fumes of Thangorodrim still hung dark and foul across most of Beleriand, hiding the sky and holding the land under darkness.
In Eglarest though at least, there was a west wind from the sea, and welcome blue skies against which the Eagles of Manwë and the gulls of Ulmo wheeled.
In a hall of carven wood, under a high curved roof that looked rather like the clinker-built hull of an upturned ship which had fortunately survived the last sacking of the city, that day’s meeting of the captains was over. Most people had left already. Gil-galad had made time to stay for a while, to explain a few points of their discussion to Elrond. Elros was waiting for them.
“Celebrimbor is an excellent commander,” Gil-galad said when Elrond asked, in that way that made it clear he was trying to be fair while suggesting that the next word would be ‘but’. He leant back in his chair.
“...but it’s hard to know how to use him. Celebrimbor’s people are some of the most experienced that I have. Particularly those who were of Celegorm’s party, before Orodreth expelled Celegorm and Curufin from Nargothrond. When that happened, their people all turned to Celebrimbor instead. They fought in almost every engagement up to Dagor Bragollach. I am sure that is why Celebrimbor got away from the battle of Tumhalad, when Orodreth and almost all the army of Nargothrond died. I don’t believe the rumours about that for a moment: I think they simply cut their way out, and even Glaurung decided they were too fierce a prey to tackle without good reason.
“The trouble is that nobody wants to stand with them. They all fought at Alqualondë, Celebrimbor included, though he must have been young then. Thanks to Thingol and his ban on speaking Quenya, everyone in Beleriand has heard the most lurid stories about that. They were at Losgar, burning the ships, so those who crossed the Grinding Ice are suspicious of them. They turned away from their rightful lords to follow Celebrimbor, and though nobody mourns Celegorm or Curufin, people still think that odd and suspicious. They were in Nargothrond when Finrod was cast out. The few survivors of Nargothrond are still divided about that, and inclined to blame anyone with a connection to the House of Fëanor, though most of them would not be here if it were not for Celebrimbor and his kinslayers... And they survived the attack on the Havens, too.”
“It seems a little harsh to suspect them for simply being alive,” Elrond said.
“Alive, when so very many are dead,” Gil-galad said. “That applies to their leader too. I can’t send them to the Host of the Noldor under Finarfin, to join in the attempt to breach the crossings of the river Sirion and break into East Beleriand. The Hosts of Valinor consider Celebrimbor like the rest of his House to fall under the wrath of the Valar, and will not speak with him. They would probably stick to that even if he would leave off wearing the star of his House, though that certainly doesn’t help. And so I have an experienced commander and a small but deadly force of heavily-armoured Noldor, and I can do nothing with them. There aren’t enough of them left to operate entirely alone.”
“The Edain will stand with them,” Elros said, with his chin up proudly.
“My blessings on the Edain, their forgiving commander and their short memories!” Gil-galad said. “But their commander is still rather young to be in the field.”
Elros’s eyebrows shot up. “Elrond and I have been fighting the Enemy and his creatures since we were eight years old,” he said. Gil-galad frowned unhappily.
It was entirely true, although when Elrond and Elros had been allowed to join in with killing the giant spiders when they were eight, they had done it in a ring of watchful Noldor, with Maedhros standing next to them, sword in hand.
Still, when Elros had killed the young dragon ten years later, that victory had been entirely his own.
For that matter, Elrond had more than a few victories under his belt too, though given the expression on Gil-galad’s face, this might not be the moment to boast of them.
“When our father was our age, he was Lord of the Havens,” Elrond pointed out instead.
Gil-galad gave them a pained look. “I suppose he was. He looked more a Man than you two do, though. You could easily be Elves.”
“But we aren’t Elves,” Elros said, meeting his eyes. “We are half-elven. That’s why we’re as tall as you are already. And the Black Enemy of All the World is not only an enemy of the Elves, is he?
“No. No, he isn’t. But he is a cruel and savage foe.”
“We know that,” Elrond said gravely. “We have seen it. Are you so confident that you will win this war without the aid of the Edain? Still after twenty years the Noldor Host is held at the crossings of the Sirion, and still the Vanyar Host stands at Talath Dirnen, unable to breach the passages of the Teiglin and move North. And there are fewer of them than there were.”
Gil-galad looked at him, and let out a humourless laugh. “Why did I think you might need strategy explained to you, I wonder?” he asked, as if to himself. “But yes, Elrond. You are right.While we sit and wait, holding our enemy at bay for a time, our forces are worn away, one by one, hundred by hundred, just as they were when the Noldor first came back to Middle-earth. The Edain multiply year by year, but in war, Elves only die. And who knows what new devilries Morgoth is brewing up for us in Angband, while we wait and watch and do nothing?”
Gil-galad looked down at his strong hands resting on the edge of the large map on the table, which was scarred and marked with symbols showing twenty long painful years of battle.
“If the Valar were going to send more reinforcements to end this war swiftly,” he said, slowly, as if making up his mind, “they would have sent them by now. If any of them but Ulmo were coming in person, they would have come. They aren’t coming. Time to face facts.”
He took a long breath and looked them both in the eyes, one after the other, Elrond first, then Elros. “Very well, Elros,” he said finally. “I will assign Celebrimbor and his people to your command. If you wish, you may join our councils as my ally with full authority to lead the Edain to war.”
Elros looked startled. “But if Celebrimbor is such an experienced commander, shouldn’t he be in charge?”
Gil-galad shook his braided head. “Nobody would work with him. I can advise you in private that you might do well to take counsel with him, but don’t be too obvious about it. Everyone will be happy to work with you. And it is you that the Edain know and trust. They don’t know Elrond, not yet. If you are determined to join this war now, Elros, then it must be you who leads them.”
. . . . . .
“You don’t mind, do you Celebrimbor?” Elros asked their cousin hesitantly that evening. “I thought he’d put you in overall command if he agreed, not me!”
They were sitting in the Golden Barrel inn, now re-established in Eglarest and occupying a new building that still smelled of fresh-cut wood. There was no glass in the windows yet, only shutters, but it was a pleasant enough evening and the shutters were open, so they could look out West across the shining River Nenning towards the heather-purple hills that lay between Eglarest and Círdan’s other port-city, Brithombar. Hebril the landlady of the Golden Barrel had managed to bring the inn-sign with her, and find a new supplies of smoked duck and cider.
Celebrimbor’s dark eyebrows went up in a surprised arch. “Not at all, Elros! Honestly, I am delighted. And Gil-galad is right, any arrangement where Finarfin’s people had to work closely with me would be tense.” He thought for a moment. “Could we arrange to get supplies and equipment through the Edain, now that I am reporting to you? I find that supplies from Gil-galad’s stores turn up three weeks late, and often with sand in them, if we get them at all.”
“That sounds annoying,” Elrond said, sipping cider from a wooden cup.
Celebrimbor groaned. “It really is. We ended up doing a lot of fishing, when we were on Balar. And some of us did smith-work for hire, so that we could afford to go to the Golden Barrel and have a decent meal! I know I could go to Gil-galad and complain, but it’s like complaining about fog that vanishes as you look at it. Nobody ever knows who is responsible, and the king has enough to do without worrying about hunting down petty niggles with administration.”
“Yes, of course,” Elros said, frowning. “You should have said something to me before! I’ll speak to Gundor and make arrangements.”
Celebrimbor gave him a look under dark eyebrows. “That’s not quite how it usually works, Elros,” he said carefully. “You make the decision, then you tell me to go and talk to Gundor. Though, after my experiences on Balar, I would appreciate it if you could give me written authorisation. That does cut out a great many tedious arguments.”
“Oh,” Elros said. “Right.” Elrond produced a piece of birch bark and a stylus. Far away in the eastern mountains where he had lived with Maglor and Maedhros, you could still get dwarf-made paper, but here in the West, there were only soldiers and the servants of the Enemy. Nobody was making paper any more. Still, there was plenty of birch-bark.
Elros scribbled a quick message and gave it to Celebrimbor. “Is that right?” he asked.
Celebrimbor looked at it. “Perfect,” he said and gave Elros a speculative look as he pocketed it. “So what’s your plan?”
“I thought that we might try attacking East Beleriand from the Sea,” Elros said.
Celebrimbor’s eyebrows went up. “Ambitious,” he said. “Finarfin has been encamped at the Gates of Sirion for years, trying to break a way into East Beleriand to free the route through the Gap to the Anfauglith.”
“Yes of course,” Elrond said. He pulled out a rough birchbark map, and spread it on the table. “But there’s a whole new south coast now, since the last great wave. If we could get ships up what used to be the line of the River Gelion, here, we could open a new front here. I happen to know that the Enemy has pulled down the old fort on Amon Ereb. It isn’t manned now, and the hill would give us cover. Finarfin’s troops are new to battle, and this is his first war, but Maedhros said...”
Celebrimbor leant back in his chair, his usually solemn face overcome with helpless laughter.
“What?” Elros said. “You can’t say Maedhros doesn’t have experience! Celebrimbor...”
Celebrimbor pulled his face back into its usual serious expression with an effort and sat forward to look at the map dutifully. “I’m sorry, Elros. Yes, he certainly has that. And he knows the land too, of course. They did hold East Beleriand for almost five hundred years. It was only that I thought I’d left behind Maedhros’s plans! For that matter, Maedhros knows Finarfin, though I hope you’ll take anything he said about him with a pinch of salt.”
“I’m not a complete idiot,” Elros said sharply. “It’s not only Maedhros’s plan. Then he grinned “So what do you think?”
Celebrimbor considered. “I think we should find out if it’s possible to get boats in behind Amon Ereb. The hill itself would be a problem if it were still fortified. But if it isn’t, I think it could be taken, if we had surprise on our side.”
“Good. I’ll ask Círdan about... No.” Elros looked at Elrond.
“I’ll speak to Círdan and find out how close to the shore the ship went that made the map, and if it would be possible to bring boats in there,” Elrond promised. He knew at least where to find Círdan and how to make a report, even if he was still learning a thousand other details. An idea occurred to him. “I could speak to Ulmo too, and ask him if he could send someone to have a look at the coast close up at that point. Dolphins or seals, perhaps.”
Celebrimbor’s eyebrows went up. “You speak with Ulmo?”
“Of course,” Elrond said. “We both do. He’s a great friend of our grandfather Tuor. And at the moment he’s easy to speak to. When we were very young, he was very far away and hard to hear. Even if you called on him as our father did there was rarely more than the sound of waves and the cry of the gulls. But now he has drawn near and can be spoken with in words. It’s not always easy to understand his replies though.”
“Right,” Celebrimbor said, still looking a little taken aback. He started to speak again, then stopped abruptly.
“What?” Elros asked him.
“I was going to say something about being fortunate in my new commander and his allies,” Celebrimbor said with a cautious smile. “But on reflection, I think I’m just going to stay very quiet and try not to attract attention to myself.”
Elros laughed. “Not too quiet I hope! Tell me; am I missing anything?”
“Have you discussed the idea with Gil-galad? If not, you might want to do that before you call on Círdan.”
Elros considered. “No. But it may be impossible anyway. I think it would be better to get all the details straight first.”
Celebrimbor drained the last of his cider. “Fair enough,” he said. “That’s definitely what Maedhros would do.”
. . . . .
The sea was brown and stinking, thick with mud and rotting vegetation from the land that had not long ago been Taur-im-Duinath, the Forest Between the Rivers, had been southern Ossiriand, had been Nan-tathren of the Willows. Somewhere below the keel were the plains that had lain south of the Andram wall, slowly dissolving into seabed.
The deck moved under Elrond’s feet as the ship rolled, and he followed the sway out of old habit, remembering again how Vingilot had come sailing into the Havens of Sirion that now were not only burned and deserted, but drowned deep too.
The sea was too shallow yet for Círdan’s ships to come in to the land, though Círdan said that with time, the sea currents would wear it deeper. But it was more than deep enough for small shallow boats.
A crunching sound. The ship had met a tree-trunk and shouldered it aside. Elrond grimaced, thinking what a tree that size might do to a small boat. Still, Ulmo had sent dolphins to aid them. The dolphins were not particularly happy about the mud, but they would be better able to deal with floating trees than either Elves or Men.
The sky above was dark with Morgoth’s mirk, and the air smelled sharp, a chemical tang. It had been like that for much of Elrond’s life, and he barely noticed it, except to note that the darkness was holding, and that it would be a shield for them, as much as for the enemy.
Celebrimbor looked around at him, and smiled through the darkness, his face smeared with ash, dark save for eyes and teeth. Morgoth’s orcs would see the Elves shine with the remembered Light of Valinor if there were any on the shore, but Morgoth’s Men did not usually see so clearly. They would go unseen for as long as they could.
“Ready?” he asked quietly. Elrond checked his sword and armour one last time, and nodded. It was time. Elros, in the next ship, gave the signal to begin to load the boats.
Men and Elves were pulling on the oars, quietly, quietly, as the fleet of small light boats moved softly through the water, hidden by the sound of waves upon the shore. They stole up towards the dark and ruined coastline, dolphins moving through the mirky water beside them.
The boat lurched a little and shuddered as the bows ran up the shore. Celebrimbor’s boatloads of armoured Noldor were ashore already. Elrond could see them moving up the bank. He looked around at his boat full of Edain, breathed a silent prayer to Elbereth and gave the signal to disembark.
Firm gravel under his feet, not mud. Elrond let out a relieved breath: getting bogged down at this point could have been fatal.
Ahead of them, Celebrimbor’s Elves, light of foot and swifter than the Men, had passed the top of the bank and were out of sight. Elros’s boat had landed a little way along the shore. Elrond checked his boat had been staked and secured, and led his group on.
The high hill of Amon Ereb, topped by a broken crown of stone, could just be seen against the darkened sky to the west. Somewhere far behind it there was a faint red glow. That would be the front line, Morgoth’s armies encamped along the River Sirion, facing Finarfin and the Noldor Host of Valinor on the western bank. And with luck, not looking behind them.
There would be archers in boats upon the fens of Sirion, bravely firing up at the orcs upon the walls that had long ago been built by the House of Fëanor to defend the Andram Wall from Morgoth. Now those strong walls were held by the Enemy.
Finarfin’s people would be working to keep all of Morgoth’s servants upon those walls looking West. There would be brave deeds and songs, fires blazing, bright banners streaming on a wind from the Sea as the sun set dazzling behind the Host of Valinor and the stars came out. .
A very long way away.
Something was moving up there on the hilltop, something dark. Elrond strained his eyes, trying to pick out detail in the darkness.
Elros came up behind him and he started.
“They’re all ashore,” Elros said quietly. “So far, so good. Time to move.” The broken mud and gravel of the shore behind them was now filled with Men, moving as quietly and warily as they could manage up the slope.
“There’s something up there,” Elrond said quietly. “Something old, or perhaps many things. I can feel it.”
Elros gave the hilltop a considering look. “Well, that’s what we’re here for,” he said. “Too much to hope that the shore would be unguarded. Let’s take the hill before anyone else notices us.” He bit his lip for a moment, looking along the line that had now reached the top of the bank, and grimaced.
“Go ahead and support Celebrimbor’s foray,” he said, after a moment, and Elrond knew what it cost him to say it. “I’ll hold the shore and the boats so we can get out of here in a hurry if we need to.”
It had to be that way around: they could not risk their commander, and the full force of the Edain, mostly untested in battle, would be more likely to hold the line for Elros than for Elrond, who they did not know. It was the plan they had agreed for this contingency. But still, it was not easy. Elrond touched his shoulder for a moment and nodded, then turned to go, motioning to his own company to follow.
Rustling in the darkness, a dim thump, the beginning of a squeal. He found Celebrimbor wiping orc-blood from his blade, holding it low so that the blue light that came from it would not reveal them too soon.
“Only a few goblins,” Celebrimbor whispered, recognising them. “But there’s something else...”
The darkness on the hillside above was an almost-tangible menace, the air thick and choking. Elrond, looking back could see uncertainty and fear upon the faces of his company. He must seem sure now or they might lose their nerve. He beckoned them on and turned to climb the hill.
A dark warning was building in Elrond’s mind though he could see nothing, like a sound almost beyond the range of hearing, a whispered threat, growing as he climbed the hill behind the dim form of Celebrimbor.
There had been grass on this hill once, when Amon Ereb had been a stronghold of the House of Fëanor, when the sun had still shone on East Beleriand and the free winds had blown over it, but that was long ago. Now the grass was pale and dead underfoot.
There was a sound ahead, a sound like a great wind rushing over rocks, although the air was still.
Ahead, Celebrimbor’s head went up, listening. He turned to speak to Elrond, and Elrond saw the light in his eyes before he spoke.
“There are unbodied spirits here,” Celebrimbor breathed, barely to be heard. “That means...”
“A necromancer,” Elrond said. “I know. I’ve fought the undead before.”
Celebrimbor opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it and gave him a look that spoke volumes about things that Elrond should definitely not have faced in his few years of life, before clearly deciding this was not the time to speak of them. “Go back to the boats,” he said. “Men don’t do well in combat against the dead.”
“I’m coming with you,” Elrond said. “You’ll need me. I wish I’d brought a harp.”
“I’ve touched Elros’s mind,” Elrond said. “It’s an order. He says try to do it without fire, if we can. Give me a moment, and I’ll set the Men to hold the lower end of this path to secure our retreat.”
Celebrimbor looked as if he wanted to argue, then nodded grimly.
On up the hill, flanked by silent, determined Noldor, the Light of Aman in their eyes and long shields on their arms. They all had their swords up now, and the blades were blazing against the darkness. It made them visible, but that was a risk they had to take.
Then at last, the first strike came. Screaming out of the darkness like a bitter storm through the mountains, faint shapes filled with malice and with hate. Celebrimbor shoved Elrond backwards with one arm, stepping in front of him. Shields locked as the Unbodied beat upon them with pale half-seen hands, and long bright swords flashed as waves of terror rolled across the hillside. The Elves stood firm.
Celebrimbor called out a long rolling phrase. Power beat out of it, and the Unbodied fell back, circling. They moved on, upward, a few paces, a few more.
The unbodied Dead struck at them again, half-visible and swift. The shieldwall wavered for a moment before firming back to a solid ring, shields and swords set around Elrond in the centre. Celebrimbor called out again, a little hoarsely, and the enemy fell back, but not for long.
Elrond looked around for something to call on for aid. There were no stars, here. Somewhere above the mirk the stars would now be fading into morning sunshine. You would never know that, here below the thick black cloud. There were no trees, no living grass, no rivers. The soil was parched and dead. The angry sea that rolled some way below the shore was almost in as bad a case as the earth. But there was the rough ring of stone around the hilltop, not far away now. The stone that once had been a fortress of the House of Fëanor, built with all their art to stand against the Enemy.
The Enemy had not tried to take it over, to set it in defence. The Enemy had only pulled it apart.
The stone might still remember. He hoped it would.
There was no time to make a plan. Something tall and gaunt and terrible, dressed in rags and adorned with chains was coming out of the ruin towards them.
Celebrimbor stepped forward to meet it, blazing sword held high.
Elrond reached out to the stone, and sang; a song out of childhood, a lullaby of Valinor about the Trees of Light that he himself had never seen, though almost everyone else there must remember.
His voice lifted over the battle, was cast against the cold winds, reaching out to the old fortress in its ruin. As he had hoped, the other Elves began to take up the song as they fought, voices deep and clear ringing out in the dark.
Celebrimbor struck a swift well-aimed blow, and the necromancer facing him parried with a long black sword that rang dully.
For a long moment, Elrond thought that the stones had forgotten the song.
And then they woke and answered him.
The voices of the stones rang high and clear, almost beyond the range of hearing, a cry of greeting and of recognition. Then they took up the lullaby.
As they sang, Elves and stone together, the whirling of the Unbodied around them was lulled, and slowed, and finally fell to quiet. Dark eyes in pale sad faces were staring from the great silent crowd that now stood all around them, held still by the song. Elrond could see no armour on them, and few swords, only the shades of bows and clubs. They had been Nandor, once, these people now dead and bodiless.
Celebrimbor was still fighting their master. Elrond had no time to worry about that. He let the other voices carry the song without him, took a deep breath and spoke to the unbodied spirits gently, but with authority.
“Sleep now,” he said, in careful reassuring Nandorin, as the high clear song rang out above them, holding them still, bidding them like children, listen, attend, sleep... “Sleep, it’s all over now. The nightmare’s over. Sleep.”
And all that great multitude folded into the ground beneath their feet, and vanished into sleep.
The necromancer, distracted, whipped around, looking for the army of the unbodied that had been under his control. As he turned, Celebrimbor brought his blade around in one swift blow against the necromancer’s neck, and sent his head skidding and rolling across the hillside.
The elves ended their song, and as the last notes faded into darkness the old grey stones of Amon Ereb crumbled away silently into masses of pale sand that sparkled in the clear light from the swords, almost as if the hilltop were crowned with snow.
“Well!” Celebrimbor said, striding back toward Elrond. “That was considerably easier than it might have been! Child of Lúthien, indeed.”
He took Elrond by the arm and looked searchingly into his eyes for a moment as, behind him, his people fanned out across the hilltop, looking out for further enemies. So far there was no sight or sound of danger. With luck, the sound of singing had not carried.
“Are you hurt?”
“I didn’t even draw sword,” Elrond told him, meeting his gaze. “I told you! I’ve done this before.”
“I can see that,” Celebrimbor said giving him a very doubtful look under dark brows, “I can see who taught you, too. They’ve made you into someone very dangerous.”
“I think I did that for myself,” Elrond said, levelly. “Some would say they made you into a kinslayer and a rebel, when you were not much older than I am.”
Celebrimbor recoiled. “That was my own choice,” he said quietly but very firmly. “It is my House. And still is; I repudiated my father’s deeds, not my family.”
“Your family and mine are one,” Elrond said, standing there in the dark of the land that lay under the Enemy's hand, watching the familiar glint of the light of Valinor in Celebrimbor's eyes. “I too made my choice. I don’t think I am any more dangerous than you. Being dangerous is what the time calls for.”
Celebrimbor sighed, rubbing at his dirty forehead under the helmet absently. “I suppose it does. Still, if only out of sympathy for my memories of small joyful children on the strands of Sirion, which seem so very recent, will you please sit down and have some miruvor? Striking against the Unbodied can be perilous. I will send messengers to your men and to Elros, and then we can get this hill properly set into defence.”
“Very well,” Elrond said, sitting cross-legged and very upright on the dry grass and sand of the hill-top and pulling out a flask. “I don’t think I need it, but I’ll bow to your experience.”
“There could be another lot of them coming,” Celebrimbor said, with a grimace. “Save your strength. We may need it yet.” He turned to send Elves back down the hill with messages.
. . . . . .
In ordered companies, the Edain marched up onto the slopes of Amon Ereb and Elros’s captains began setting up a perimeter defence. Using a dark-lamp and a mirror, Elros sent a message to the waiting ships which could now be seen in the far distance, in daylight beyond the thick dark clouds that hid the nearer sky that the rest of their forces could begin to disembark with supplies and equipment.
Elros had brought the full force of the Edain with him, all those who were of an age to fight. Every one of them had a tale of tragedy, of escape, and by now, Elrond had heard many of them. They were Men who had escaped the ruin of Beleriand and rallied to the Isle of Balar, to the valiant little rebuilt towns of Eglarest or Brithombar upon the coast, or who had gone into hiding when Beleriand fell to the Enemy, and had later come to the Host of Valinor seeking aid. Some had managed to find their way east as far as the great dwarf-realms that still guarded the pass that led to the new settlements east of the mountains in Eriador.
One by one, or in small groups, or families, or a few of them already in ordered companies, they had come, and had been told by dwarves or elves that their Lord’s heir lived, and awaited them. Elros had spent the last few years learning their names, bringing them back together into a force that could fight together. This was their first serious test.
“So far, so good,” Elros said when they met on the hilltop to discuss the next move. “But they are bound to notice we are here soon. Then we’ll find out just how much the Enemy wants the south-eastern corner of Beleriand.”
“They’ve not made any serious attempt to take Ossiriand yet,” Elrond pointed out. “It’s only a few leagues to the river.”
“Ossiriand isn’t strategically useful. It’s cut off by the mountains and the rivers,” Celebrimbor answered absently. Then he gave Elrond a sideways glance through narrowed eyes. “And it was defended by one of the Children of Lúthien, until recently, of course. I had assumed that it was the Dwarves and my uncles keeping Morgoth from expanding further east. Now, I’m wondering.”
Elrond shook his head. “Not just me,” he said. “There are still Green-elves in Ossiriand, or were — survivors, not those poor enslaved homeless spirits. Maedhros and what forces he has left used to patrol that way, too. But that was before the last wave. I don’t know how many are left in Ossiriand now.” He hoped that the sea had not taken too many. They would have had less warning, there, than they had on Balar.
Elros nodded. “Ossiriand is defended. Well, so too is Amon Ereb, now. Once the supplies are in, I think we’d better announce our arrival. The sun will be well up by then. ” He looked at Celebrimbor, who nodded encouragingly.
“I’ll call a wind,” Elros said, “Then we shall have some real light.”
The wind came to Elros’s call, a keen cutting wind filled with the smell of salt and the crying of gulls, and the sunlight riding behind it shone upon the tired old hill and the dead grass and felled trees of Amon Ereb, and it cast a long shadow from the hill, pointing into the north. The darkness of Angband was thrust back, and Elros’s banner flew proudly in the growing light upon the hilltop: the red spearheads of the House of Hador, who made up the majority of Elros’s Men, glowing in the light, surmounted by a flowering tree, for Doriath, and a star wrought of silver, which could have a number of meanings, depending on who was looking at it.
The light came none too soon, for an army of Men out of the North and orcs hastening from the banks of the river Sirion came down upon them. The orcs were slow and reluctant to fight in daylight, and wolves that came with them too, but the Men had no such qualms. There was a wicked savage fight at the foot of Amon Ereb, then running west almost to the Ramdal, before they threw their foes back.
On Celebrimbor’s advice, they pulled back to Amon Ereb to secure their position.
The foothold East of Sirion had been secured, and now the Enemy was fighting on three fronts. In the West, the Vanyar Host were facing the terrible power of Morgoth’s beasts and dragons that came down through the pass of Sirion, and were trying to push North across the River Teiglin. In central Beleriand, Finarfin still stood at the Gates of Sirion, and to the southeast, Elros and his Men looked North across wide plains towards what had once been called Maglor’s Gap; the widest and easiest route for armies to move North to Angband.
They could not dare to move too far in that direction yet, for between them and Finarfin, the Andram Wall still stood fortified by all the powers of Angband, and any move away from the coast might leave Elros’s people cut off. But it was a change in the balance of the long war, a change that might mean a west wind was stirring.
Unofficially, there was a fourth front too: the Dwarves of the Ered Luin still holding grimly in the East, but since the ruin of Doriath, Elves looked askance at Dwarves. They might not be the Enemy, but they were not friends either.
. . . . . .
They had been holding Amon Ereb and the land around it for a month, supplied by sea and facing periodic attacks from forces of Morgoth’s Men and orcs.
It had been a clear day, at least directly overhead, and now the sun was sinking in the west, making a long golden path across the glittering waves and peering in beneath the skirts of Morgoth’s looming clouds that still shadowed the land to the north.
Elrond was startled to hear an unexpected horn-call coming from the north. It was not one of the braying orc-horns, or the great brass-bound horns that Morgoth’s men with their wolf-head standards sometimes used. It was an elf-horn, the sound clear and bright, ringing out as merrily as if it were calling them to ride out to hunt in a land at peace.
He had been standing in a trench, discussing the plans to extend the defences with some of the Edain. He pulled himself up onto the top of the rough turf-wall, and looked out.
Far below on the darkened plains, beyond a force of Morgoth’s men who had been resting and now were hastily trying to form a line, a small scattered group of riders were galloping south at speed, their armour gleaming in the golden light of the westering sun.
Gil-galad, after years on the Isle of Balar, had very few horses in his service. The Noldor and the Vanyar forces who had arrived by ship had done so largely on foot. Almost nobody fought with cavalry any more. And nobody came out of the north save Morgoth’s armies. Or almost nobody except...
As Elrond looked out from the hill-top the horn sounded again and the riders switched direction as swiftly as a flock of birds, gathering and then racing wildly behind Morgoth’s Men, leaping the orc-trenches lightly, then looping suddenly left to take them on a path that would bring them right to the foot of Amon Ereb.
The horn rang out again, calling, demanding, and Elrond leaped down from the parapet towards the Edain front line, shouting the order to open the way and let the riders in.
The riders came in through the gap without hesitation, reined in their horses and dismounted nimbly as the Edain hurried to put barricades back in place before anyone could follow them. The rider who had led them pulled off his helmet.
“Maglor!” Elrond said, furious. “You complete fool! You just rode through an entire army with thirty horsemen! What in Angband’s name are you doing here?”
“And I’m pleased to see you too, Elrond!” Maglor said, still breathing heavily from his wild ride. He put his helmet down, turned back to the horse and began to run careful hands down its legs, looking for injury. The other riders were doing the same. “I think she’s all right, “ he informed Elrond over his shoulder after a moment. “I thought we’d caught something on that last jump.”
“Maglor,” Elrond said again. He was alarmed to find his eyes were wet and stinging, and he blinked the tears away furiously. “Why are you here? Elros and I are both sworn to serve Gil-galad now. We might not even have let you come in: what would you have done then? You told me to go away and not come back.”
“I did,” Maglor said, straightening up with a wary smile, “And you didn’t come back. So that’s all right. You’re safe in the middle of several thousand Edain, and I, as you point out, have only thirty people with me. But you do seem to have moved in more or less next door, you and Elros. I thought I’d come and visit.”
Elrond could not think what to say to that. Maglor’s riders were coming to greet him, all of them old friends, and he turned to greet them in confusion.
Celebrimbor arrived in a rush from the hilltop and stopped next to him, staring.
“I brought your horse,” Maglor said to Elrond, and it was true. He had brought the horse that he had given Elrond when Elrond had become tall enough to need a war-horse, at the same time that Maedhros had given him sword and armour. There she stood by Maglor’s usual mount, observing him with huge dark gentle eyes, and as he turned to her, she moved forward to lip at his shoulder.
At least there was nothing complicated about that. It was perfectly reasonable to put his arms around her strong warm neck, and think of nothing else for a moment.
“We should arrest you, and send you to the king in chains,” Celebrimbor said quietly.
Maglor grinned at him, though his hand was set casually on his sword-hilt. “Hello Tyelpë! I wasn’t expecting you. I’m afraid I didn’t come here to surrender. Are you going to try it anyway?”
“No!” Elros said firmly, stepping past Celebrimbor, and throwing his arms around Maglor in a swift and clumsy hug.
“Here are Elves who are enemies of the One Enemy,” he said, stepping away again and raising his voice so that all who were nearby could hear him. “They are our friends, please make them welcome.”
There was a relieved murmur. The Men had seen the tension in Celebrimbor, no doubt, it was not that they were suspicious for themselves. Long years of war since the attack on the Havens of Sirion had eclipsed many memories for the Edain: almost everyone there was too young to remember who had attacked them, or why, or to pick out that one defeat from so many others.
Celebrimbor and his people remembered, of course. Elros looked at Celebrimbor, appealing rather than ordering, and Celebrimbor ducked his head. “Elros is in command here,” he said to his uncle rather stiffly. “His friends are mine. But my name is Celebrimbor, now.”
Maglor, who Elrond had never known by any other name, nodded. “Of course. A long time since you were my little nephew Tyelpë, Celebrimbor. I intended no offence.”
Celebrimbor gave him a long considering look. “A kinsman still,” he said at last, and stepped forward to take Maglor’s hand. “I don’t think I could escape that if I wanted to. But I don’t.”
“That’s good to hear,” Maglor said with a careful smile.
“Where is Maedhros?” Elrond asked, and saw Maglor’s deliberate smile give way for a moment to the too-familiar expression of guilty exhausted misery before he hitched the smile back into place.
“He is staying in Belegost for a few days,” Maglor said. “My turn to lead the patrol this time.”
“And you just thought you’d patrol as far as Amon Ereb. Twenty leagues and more beyond Ossiriand, across East Beleriand under the Shadow,” Elrond said, managing to be very calm. He was still standing about ten paces from Maglor, and although his horse had come to greet him, Maglor had not.
“Yes,” Maglor said, as if that were entirely sensible. “And we had to swim the horses across the Gelion: there’s an army watching Sarn Athrad, we couldn’t take the ford. I admit, that’s not quite next door. It took us three days.”
“It was a very stupid thing to do.” .
“I have a terrible record for doing stupid things,” Maglor told him, with a smile that was almost a real one this time. “You’ve surely noticed that by now.”
“Just a little. You know, we don’t even have any hay,” he said, and although Elrond’s mind was shuttered firmly closed and he thought his voice was entirely level and sensible too, perhaps it was not, because Celebrimbor put a hand comfortingly on his shoulder for a moment.
“Easy enough to speak words to raise some grass,” Celebrimbor said. “The south side of the hill and the shoreline are already green where the sun falls on them.” He gave his uncle a doubtful, assessing look. “I’ll arrange it. You and your people must be tired, Maglor.”
“We are somewhat tired,” Maglor admitted, looking wary. He had blue smudges under his eyes, Elrond noticed. He realised that it was possible to still love someone even after you had seen them imagine putting you to torment to ransom a gem. Even after they had sent you away.
Perhaps he should not be surprised. It was possible to love people who had killed your grandparents, burned your home and driven your mother into the sea, after all. He looked at Elros, who knew that too. Elros shook his head rather helplessly, and shrugged.
Maglor had not actually done it. Not this time. He had only been afraid he might, which under the circumstances was not unreasonable.
“If you’d let my horse get hurt, I’d never have forgiven you,” he said, and went to Maglor and embraced him tightly. “Come and have a drink and get some rest. You look worn out.”
. . . . . .
Maglor had brought a horse as a gift for Elros, too.
“I always thought it was a pity you went off to Balar before I had a chance to pick one out for you.” he told Elros, sometime later. The sun had gone down, and they were sitting by a fire in a hollow near the hill-top. “I thought he’d suit you, years ago when he was born, not long after you left. We’ve had some success breeding war-horses in the lower mountain-valleys, and the Dwarves are generous with supplies to those they employ to fight for them: we can spare him.”
“You’re fighting for the Dwarves?” Celebrimbor asked, looking a little surprised. Celebrimbor knew, of course, that his uncles had been in Belegost, but Elrond had not spoken much of what they were doing there.
Maglor shrugged and took a sip from his cup. “What did Elros say? We are all enemies of the One Enemy? There aren’t enough of us left to stand alone, or to supply ourselves, and the Dwarves can draw on food and forage from the east. They kindly gave us responsibility for keeping the road from Belegost to Sarn Athrad clear of the Enemy in return, though nobody travels it any more. We do our best. The Dwarves fought for Maedhros, after all.”
He seemed to realise that might appear a little pointed, directed to Celebrimbor, and made an apologetic gesture with one hand. The Dwarves had of course fought for Maedhros at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad: Celebrimbor had chosen to stay with Orodreth, and had not.
“Azaghal’s people fought heroically, I heard.” Celebrimbor said. “But I’m surprised you’d put it that way. Or that Maedhros would.”
“You’re fighting for Elros,” Maglor pointed out, taking a piece of bread from the plate. “The dignity of our House is lessened!” It was presumably some old family joke, because Celebrimbor’s mouth went up at the corner in a reluctant smile.
“My thanks, though I admit, he seems a strange gift,” Elros said. “Most people don’t fight on horseback any more.”
“Good to have the choice, though,” Maglor said. “If you don’t want him, I can always take him back with me when I go.”
“And when is that?”
“Oh, a few days. Once we’ve had a chance to rest the horses, at least. I can’t stay long, you know how Maedhros frets.”
Elrond could not in fact remember Maedhros doing anything that could be described as fretting about Maglor: it was usually the other way around. Even at his least grim, when Maedhros managed to laugh for a while and take some joy in debate, or telling some old story, or in a battle won, it was Maedhros who took risks and Maglor who worried that he might be hurt. But presumably Maglor knew his brother better than Elrond did.
“I feel I should have brought a gift for you too, Celebrimbor! I do hope you don’t feel left out,” Maglor said cheerfully. “I hadn’t thought to find you here. I suppose I might have guessed that Gil-galad would put you with the Edain.”
“This is a war,” Celebrimbor said seriously. “Guest-gifts are hardly expected!” Then he looked at his uncle sideways and made an effort. “But I’ll accept a song from you, if you’d like to give me one, since you have brought gifts for both your other kinsmen.”
“That seems only fair!” Maglor agreed, smiling. “I’ll let you choose the song. After all, it seems we haven’t left Amon Ereb in quite the state I’d wish to be receiving family. There’s surprisingly little left of it.”
“That was Elrond,” Elros explained. “I’m afraid he flattened what was left of your fortress, laying an army of the undead when we arrived here.”
“Ah. I thought it had an Elrond look about it,” Maglor said and grinned at Elrond, who could not help but grin back.
“It was in pieces already! I only made it sing. There wasn’t much else here to work with. It did sing very sweetly before it crumbled, you’ll be pleased to hear. ”
“I should think so too!” Maglor said.
A shout rang out lower down the hillside, and then the trumpet-call alarm sounded. A minor alert, not the general call to arms: orcs trying to breach the perimeter again very likely. Elros picked up his sword. “My turn, I think,” he said to Elrond and Celebrimbor, and calling for his men, he headed down the hill.
Celebrimbor watched him go down through the fires and torches, then looked back at his uncle. “Why did you?” he asked.
Maglor pulled up his knees in front of him uncomfortably and put his arms around them so that his face was mostly in shadow, save for his eyes. “The Oath. You know that.”
“I was there,” Celebrimbor said bitterly. “Of course I remember. I don’t remember anything about stealing ships, imprisoning women and trying to force them into marriage, attacking the enemies of the One Enemy, or stealing their children. I thought we were going to avenge our king.”
“Foe or friend, foul or clean..” the words had an odd echo to them in Maglor’s voice, a sort of shivering resonance. He stopped speaking abruptly. “It became complicated,” he said unhappily, after a moment.
“It certainly did. I thought it was over, when my father died. I knew I’d lost him to the Enemy, he and Celegorm. There was no question about that, after Nargothrond. But you two... I thought better of you and Maedhros. You have noticed that there are still two Silmarils in Angband? Surely you can’t have missed that!”
“My name is Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor of the House of Fëanor. The house whose name you’ve soaked in blood.”
“Of course. Celebrimbor. What do you want me to say? You know what we did and why. Our Oath grips us like a vice. I have no excuses to offer, only grief.”
“Do you really think my grandfather would be happy to see what you have done in his name?” Celebrimbor demanded.
Maglor closed his eyes. “Probably not,” he said after a moment, and his usually clear voice was thick with misery.
“Celebrimbor,” Elrond said. “We have talked of this, you know. I don’t think it helps.”
Celebrimbor glanced at him across the fire, took a frustrated breath and let it out all at once. “Very well,” he said. “But can I just ask him this one thing then? Why did you take the children?”
Somewhere down the hill, orcs were shrieking as they fled, and Maglor turned to listen for a moment, so that his face was outlined in the firelight against the darkness. He looked at Celebrimbor unhappily. “Because...because we didn’t want to do that again. Dior’s children. They must have died. The very worst thing. I couldn’t leave them in the ruins, hoping that a friend might find them before the flames or orcs did. I couldn’t do it. I may be only... what I am now, but I can at least remember being something else. I can remember being free.”
“We lived,” Elrond said to Celebrimbor. “We lived, and were with our family. Part of it, anyway. You have had your answer, and it’s the one thing in all of this that is not dark and terrible.”
Celebrimbor sat back. “Very well,” he said. “In that case, I shall claim my guest-gift and ask for my song. Sing me your grief for Sirion, Maglor. If you really did grieve over it, you would have written it into music by now.”
Maglor gave him a twisted smile. “Of course I have, several times over. All that pain and regret to make into words. Like giving you a reel of finest silver wire. You couldn’t help but twist it into shapes.”
Celebrimbor laughed, as if taken by surprise. “Some time since I’ve had silver wire, or leisure to work it. Someday I will again... Let me hear the shapes you’ve twisted from the deaths you dealt then, and see if you have made them shine.”
“I’m not sure if shining is what I make them do,” Maglor said, pulling out the small wooden harp from the bag that he always had with him, so much so that Elrond could not remember him ever being without it. “But listen then, and I will give you a song.”
. . . . . .
The Edain had lost enough people since the first assault that there were more than enough spare sleeping places for Maglor and the few people he had with him. Elrond found a bed for Maglor in a tent near the one that he shared with Elros.
“So if I go to sleep here, am I likely to wake up in chains on a ship taking me to Gil-galad, or to Finarfin?” Maglor asked conversationally, as if asking about the weather.
“Elros wouldn’t do something like that,” Elrond said, taken aback. “You know him better than that! He’d ask you to surrender freely, or not at all.”
“And so would you. So would Celebrimbor.... probably. He wouldn’t do it without Elros’s agreement anyway. Good enough!” Maglor sat down rather heavily upon the pallet-bed and began to take off his armour. Out of old habit, Elrond began to help him with the buckles.
“I don’t think we even have any chains here,” Elrond said, pulling a strap free. “This is a temporary outpost, not a prison!”
“I don’t know. No hay, no silver wire, no chains,” Maglor said and shook his head mournfully. “A terrible lack of forethought!. You could always get Celebrimbor to make some. You do have one of the finest smiths in Beleriand to hand, after all.”
“We do,” Elrond said, amused. “I’ll remember your advice on the matter, if Elros changes his mind! Though I can’t help feeling that the sound of hammering would serve as something of a warning. It’s not a very secret activity is it, forging?”
Maglor laughed, took off his boots and lay down. “At the moment I feel I could sleep through even that quite happily!” he said. “Good night!”
Maglor slept long and deeply in those next few days, deeper than Elrond had ever known him sleep before. It seemed a little strange that Maglor, who could sleep half-alert on horseback, who had always seemed able to go without sleep with no difficulty at all, should need to be shaken awake or called by name in the morning. But then, it had been a long and tiring ride he had made.
Maglor did not ask for his own people to sleep about him, either. Elrond found that reassuring. He could see no hint in Maglor's mind that Eärendil’s Silmaril and the thought of using Eärendil’s sons to come at it still preyed upon his thought.
Maglor’s Oath hung uncomfortably about him, as it always had, and sometimes you could see it catch him as he spoke. His eyes would be pulled to the North, where far beyond sight under mountains tall and dark, two Silmarils still shone in a crown of iron. But not for long, and then he would speak lightly, or sing, and Elrond and Elros almost could forget, and believe that Maglor too had forgotten it.
. . . . .
Seven days later, standing on the crest of the old hill of Amon Ereb early in the morning, Elrond looked out east towards the faint shape that was the mountains of the Ered Luin far away. The sun was coming up behind them, warming the sky with a rosy flush of light. A light pale mist lay across the plain before them, catching the light and hiding the scars across the land.
“Still all quiet,” Elros said to him. Lower down the hill, the guards were awake, of course. But the enemy were not moving, and most of the Edain were sleeping.
“Why do you think Maglor came here?” he asked Elros in a low voice, not to wake the sleepers.
Elros thought about it for a while. “I think he just wanted to see us," he said eventually.
“I wondered that, too,” Celebrimbor said. He was sitting on a stool checking over armour methodically, oiling each rivet and checking every joint moved smoothly. “I thought, after the Havens, that they were entirely lost. That they had both become the Enemy’s servants. Even when you both came back and seemed well enough, it was hard to imagine them any other way. It is odd to speak with him and find him so much as he was. His regret seems real enough. It gives me hope.”
“Yes,” Elros agreed. “Perhaps there is hope even for them? I’d like to think so.”
Elrond fidgeted unhappily with his sword-belt. “I’d like to think so too,” he said. “But I am not sure. It came to me this morning that perhaps there was another reason why he came. Do you think... Do you think that it might be that he wanted to give us a chance to break his oath for him?”
“I had not thought of it,” Elros said frowning. “You think he hoped that we might stop him leaving?”
“I wonder,” Elrond said. “Is it possible that might be the only way that his oath might allow him to choose: not to surrender, but to be taken?”
But if it was so, the thought had come too late. Maglor and his people had said their farewells, and ridden out again as the sun rose above the mist, taking a curving route along the shore to pass the Enemy’s sentries and get through the lines, heading east to cross the River Gelion. Once across the river, they would travel north under the shadow of Morgoth’s hand to Belegost, the closest of all Morgoth’s enemies to Angband.