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Sleeping on Embers, Breathing in Rivers

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Finrod and the Hunt for Glaurung, by Kathrin Heierli


"When the dawn comes, it comes early out of the North.  The rim of the world flickers with sickly tongues of light.  When they advance down through Ard-galen, they ride the heels of a howling rush of sulfur and carbonic acid and unnumbered horrors.  The grassy plains and the pine slopes burn.  No sooner does this grim dawn come that a new night falls, fast and thick with ash. Daylight does not come again for some time thereafter."


Morning field report, Talath Dirnen:

The messenger arrives covered in mud and gore, but his livery is still recognizable - one of his nephew's host.  Finrod accepts the missive he carries and sends him off to the field hospital.  He beckons Edrahil closer and cracks the wax seal. 

Uncle, the letter begins, Tol Sirion is assailed on both banks.  Angband is picking off our messengers.  Any hope of evacuation is gone.  Can you spare any forces? What news from Menegroth?  With all necessary haste, Orodreth. 

Finrod throws the letter onto the folding table.  "How fare the Edain? How far have the orcs come?"

"The eastern villages are evacuated, my lord," Edrahil replies.  "Most have fled west.  The orcs have not yet crossed the river Narog." 

Finrod purses his lips.  "Send a company to aid the evacuation.  Orwafindilë should lead them - they have proved themselves imminently capable, and their riders are swift.  And send word to Nargothrond - the lords are to muster two battalions and head for the crossings of the River Teiglin."  He taps the vellum map in front of him.  "We will meet them there - hopefully we will not come alone."

Edrahil tilts his head back.  "You intent to seek Thingol's aid?"  His tone is neutral, but the light in his eyes betrays his thoughts. 

"My sister's, more like," Finrod responds ruefully.  "Our kinsman, like as not, has set his mind to hold his borders and go no further.  But Nerwen's blade is yet keen, and she might venture forth with a few of her spear-maidens."  He seizes up some scraps from the pile of parchments in front of him.  He ponders a moment more, scratches out two short missives, then rises and ducks out after his captain in search of the dovecotes. 

When he steps into the dim tent, the pigeons are rustling nervously in their wicker cages.  They call to each other in the hot darkness, broken chatterings of wingless hunter and hot wind.  Finrod takes two of the cages from the dovekeeper and steps back outside.  He had taken these two messengers with him when he parted ways with Galadriel, and they would find their way back to Menegroth.

Finrod fixes the first missive to one pigeon's leg with a piece of twine.  The cock rolls his orange eyes in agitation, scenting the smoke in the air.  He flexes his wings against Finrod's grasp.  He will carry this message to the king of Doriath - Thingol, Tol Sirion besieged.  Give leave for Galadriel to take a regiment? - and retire to his mate and their perch in the royal dovecotes.  Finrod draws the pigeon toward his chest before propelling him into the air.  The pearl-eyed hen would seek Galadriel out personally, carrying Finrod's second message - Sister, bring as many as you can to defend Tol Sirion, meet at R. Teiglin ford

He watches as the birds disappear into the dirty grey sky.  The air feels sharp in his nose and eyes.  Even the light is ominous, a dull orange.  The sun is but a red smear, mostly obscured.  Finrod returns to his tent and he spends many restless hours pouring over his maps, lips moving soundlessly, lost in thought.  He sleeps late and rises early. 

The news the morning after next is as Finrod had feared.  "Thingol will not give leave for more than a squad," Edrahil informs him as he steps into the command tent, missive in hand.  "Doriath is loath to leave their borders thin in times like these.  Though," he continues, "he sends Galadriel on her way with his blessing."

Finrod sighs.  "That is as much as I expected.  We continue as expected, we meet Galadriel at the ford and travel northward there." 

Galadriel's own missive arrives shortly after, as the camp is in the process of breaking down for travel.  Finrod is readying his saddle when a great raven alights on his pommel.  It fixes him with a liquid eye, too intelligent to be entirely natural.  He cracks the wax seal and unfolds the parchment. 

 

Eldest brother, she writes,

As you no doubt know, King Thingol will not grant me a company, much less a regiment.  I have leave to bring myself, as many of the noldor as are willing to exchange their peace for swords, and a small squad from the outer marches.  My maidens will be ready within the day; we will travel down the R. Esgalduin and from there cross into Brethil. I will meet you at the fords as planned so we might take the North Road.  I am sorry I do not bring better tidings, but I am not without my own skills, which I hope are enough. 

All my love,

Galadriel

 

The raven does not wait for Finrod to draft a response, but takes off after letting out an unearthly whistle.  Finrod pockets Galadriel's letter and throws himself into the saddle. 


The Crossings of the River Teiglin:

The march is not a short one, but they make good time on the flatlands.  Even so, it takes the better half of a week before the forest of Brethil comes into view.  They camp with the ravines at their back, and a watch set looking south.  Nothing will disturb them from the north - the Girdle shimmers and ripples along the far shore. 

The battalions from Nargothrond arrive by noon the next day, just as Finrod's troop begins to ford the Teiglin.  The horses are skittish, and they paw at the loose stones of the bank, kicking up sprays of water.  Finrod and Edrahil leave the other lords in charge of ferrying supplies across the river and swim their horses over together.  The Teiglin is murky with ash, and Finrod cannot see if there is debris waiting below the surface to ensnare them.  When his horse, a red roan, tosses her mane, Finrod swallows water.  It tastes sour and metallic. 

They lead their horses onto the far bank.  It is humid, and a cold wind rolls down from the north.  Finrod and Edrahil towel down their horses before hastily changing out of their wet garments.  Leaving the main host to set up camp for the evening, the two set out to survey the country.  This close to the Girdle, the very air seems to shift about them.  Strange birdsong echoes out of the dark woods.  Trees seem to bend their branches down to meet them - while they seem inquisitive more than anything, it is a small leap of the imagination to suppose what they might do to less-welcome travelers. 

"I have the feeling that there are eyes watching us," remarks Edrahil from his place in the saddle.  His chestnut stallion squeals, ears raised and alert.

"Elf or animal?" Finrod replies, looking for tracks on the ground.  Edrahil does not know; he keeps his hand on the pommel of his sword.  Finrod wonders if the line between the two might blur when exposed to a potent magic like the Girdle - he keeps this thought to himself. 

By all rights there should still be light, but already the muddy orange of the day is fading.  Finrod is ready to give the sign to return to camp when the foliage near them rustles.  Edrahil guides his horse in front of Finrod, reaching for the shield at his back.  Three figures step out of the woods - they must be elves, for they are too tall to be human or dwarvish, and nothing else could come from inside the Girdle. 

A ripple of ósanwe brushes his mind, and Finrod knows before the taller one throws back the hood of her cloak that it is his sister.  Her hair spills out around her head, and she smiles.  The other two reveal themselves as well - Finrod does not recognize them but can tell by their armor that they are marchwardens.  He dismounts quickly and embraces his sister. 

Other warriors filter out of the trees as they introduce themselves.  Finrod recognizes Galadriel's spear maidens, and still other Sindar.  Galadriel catches his gaze.  "Evidently, there were some in Menegroth who wished to see the world beyond the Girdle," she says circumspectly.  "Beleg and Mablung," she gestures to her two companions, "were of a like mind.  I chanced to run into them along the Esgalduin." 

Edrahil takes quickly to the two marchwardens and they fall to speaking in low tones about supplies and the route north.  Finrod and Galadriel wander some distance away to speak freely. 

"Any further news from our nephew?" She queries.  "Your pigeon was the first I had heard on the siege of Tol Sirion, and the birds I sent afterward did not return."

Finrod shook his head.  "Just the first foot runner," he replied.  "Orodreth said in his message that the Enemy was picking off his messengers.  I thought it best not to send any detailed information back with the messenger.” 

Galadriel pursed her lips.  "We can only assume that they know we are coming.  How many strong are we?"

"My mounted troop,  your spear fighters, and two battalions from Nargothrond.  Edrahil and I can take one battalion, and you and the marchwardens should take command of the other."

"We move on the North Road then.  It is highly visible, but it will be faster, and we are too many to make effective use of the hidden, less-trod paths."

It is fully night by the time they reconvene with the rest of the host.  There will be time on the road to strategize, and to await fresh news.  Now it is time to rest.  They sleep deeply In the uneasy dark, though their dreams are marked by strange whispers.


The North Road, South of the Crissaegrim:

The days grow shorter as their host presses further up the Sirion.  Thick smoke hangs over the northern horizon, veiling the sun even at midday.  The road is long, and the heavy air stings their eyes and lungs - the quiet of the nights is broken by dry coughing.  A thin veneer of ash coats everything - equipment, horseflesh, the eyelashes.  The rustling of the tall grasses on the roadside sets the nerves on edge, and more than once do scouts find evidence that orc parties have passed by recently.  Finrod gives Beleg and Mablung each a quarter of his mounted troop and sends them to clear the lands east of the River Malduin to the west bank of the Sirion. 

One evening, Finrod spots a smear on the eastern horizon.  Squinting against the weak grey light, he cannot make out the livery or composition of the group, but knows that they are not Beleg's squad, which had returned in the early hours of the morning.  Whoever they are, they travel on foot at speed.  Signaling to Edrahil to take over the head of the column, he beckons Galadriel to follow him. 

They lead a mounted troop of archers and spear maidens in an inverted wedge to flank the other force.  Even as Finrod draws into range, the strangers pull together like wounded animals preparing for a doomed but vengeful reckoning.  The rhythmic pounding of hooves stirs dirt into the air as their troop encircles them, shining spears descending like a million arcs of light to point at the ragged bunch.  It is only when Finrod scrutinizes them that he realizes that they are fellow elves.  Their great heights are stooped under the weight of burden baskets and fatigue.  There are fewer horses than people, and those few horses bear not soldiers but the wounded (often two at a time). 

A dark-haired figure pushes his way to the front of the huddle.  Beneath the blood and mud and hasty bandaging, Finrod can identify the colors of his cousins' house.  "What times in which we live, to greet each other with blades," he calls with Celebrimbor's voice.  Galadriel hastily waves a hand and the maidens lift their spears.  The Fëanorians relax, low murmuring breaking out as they settle down onto the grass.  Some of the Nargothrondhrim set to distributing flasks of water and rounds of waybread. 

Finrod slides out of the saddle and pulls his nephew into an embrace - Celebrimbor smells of smoke.  He holds his nephew at arms' length and studies him.  Celebrimbor's hair is matted, his tough wool garments singed.  The soot crusted on his cheeks is marred with a lacework pattern of sweat or tears - Finrod guesses it to be both.  The worst is all but confirmed. 

"Has the east fallen?" Finrod asks, voice unsteady. 

"We lost the pass at Aglon.  Himlad is overrun - balrogs lead goblin armies vaster than all reckoning."  Celebrimbor clears his throat thickly. "Glaurung is on the move, Uncle.  That worm is torching the plains.  The news is that the foothills of Dorthonion are ravaged.  Maglor's men were burnt alive at Lothlann.  Though Himring holds, we are all but driven out of the east."  He beckons them to follow him.

It is true that this is more an evacuation than a war party.  Galadriel follows Finrod as they pick their way through the knots of refugees after Celebrimbor.  Galadriel touches his mind, whispering do you see the children?  As if with fresh eyes, Finrod perceives the many youths that number among this group, clutching short swords and daggers.

Celebrimbor stops a few paces ahead.  It is evident that while he had been leading the column, Celegorm and Curufin had brought up the rear guard.  There are more seasoned warriors here; most are tending the wounds left by goblin arrows.  Curufin is seated against his great blood bay, whose withers are smeared with the foam of hard exertion.  His head is bowed toward his chest, fiddling with something beneath his cloak - his charcoal hair spills forward to conceal his movements.  Curufin pays them no acknowledgement, but Celegorm nods briefly before his restless eyes return to the east.

Galadriel follows his gaze.  "You came through Nan Dungortheb."  It is not a question. 

Celegorm turns to look at her.  "We were herded," he corrects her, "like flies to the center of a web.  Do you know that the sun never rises there?  Strange horrors crawl in the dark, but the enchantment there comes not from Angband alone.  The twisting trees that feed on things other than light - from which enchanted well do they spring?"

Galadriel's lips thin.

Celegorm continues.  "Four days without rest, four days without light.  And always, the Girdle to the south.  Do you know what it does to those who touch it without leave?" 

Finrod sends Galadriel a warning glance.  He steps forward, placing a calming hand on Celegorm's chest.  "Tonight, you will rest with my host," he offers in supplication, "without fear for what walks in the night.  And after today, you are most welcome in my halls." 

Celegorm lets out a huff of air and slumps down next to Huan, a shaggy mountain on the ground.  His hand remains on his spear-haft and his eyes remain on the east.

Celebrimbor hastily interjects.  "We would be grateful for any assistance you can offer.  As you can see, we carry little with us.  Our supplies dwindle, and there is little that grows at the base of Ered Gorgoroth that is fit to eat."

A low and familiar hum meets Finrod's ears, and he realizes that Curufin's lips are moving in an old lullaby.  His cloak has fallen open, and Finrod can see the bundle strapped to his breast - an infant.  Curufin hunches protectively over his small charge, dipping his finger into a flask of cultured mare's milk.  He wipes each painstaking drop against her cracked lips. 

"We have nothing else to feed her."  The voice that comes from his cousin is harsh with overuse, reedy and painful, "Though she is too young to wean."  Curufin meets Finrod's eyes then.  "It is costly to call milk from one's hröa.  Even if we could manage it before she starved, I do not know of anyone in our host who has the energy for such an undertaking."

Galadriel steps forward, kneeling down before Curufin.  He pulls away from her, but she puts a hand against his cheek and he relaxes into her touch.  "I have riders among my troop who can manage such a feat.  They are hardy folk, and still fresh."  She draws him to his feet. 

Galadriel calls to her riders.  They slide from their horses, descending among the evacuees.  The wounded are lifted into the saddles.  Children are passed up into the arms of the riders and swaddled in their cloaks.  Those who can bear it run alongside the riders. 

They camp together for the night, there on the roadside.  In the morning, with fresh horses and supplies, the Fëanorians move southward, aided by a company from Galadriel's battalion.  As Finrod bids him farewell, Celebrimbor says "Glaurung is not all that he seems, Uncle; he has gifts other than size and brute strength alone.  There is an intelligence about him.  And the stories… he takes joy in causing pain."  He shakes his head.

Finrod's host continues their journey into the gathering dark. 


Due South of Tol Sirion:

Though the wind that rushes down the valley is hot, its ferocity chills Finrod's host and saps their strength.  In the camp, tent flaps billow and snap.  Horses tug at their fastenings and squeal in fear.  The Sirion runs so thick with ash that water must be strained thrice before it is potable - even herbs do nothing to improve the taste. 

The night before the final push to Tol Sirion, Finrod and Edrahil sit up half the night with Galadriel and the Doriathrim.  Despite the piles of furs to split between them, they huddle close over the topographic maps.  Beleg and Mablung mutter amongst themselves, pushing stones about to map battle tactics.  Finally, Mablung grunts. 

"Beleg and I are more accustomed to close fighting in wooded areas.  We are old, yes, with more experience fighting in Beleriand than you, but even we are too young to remember life without the Girdle on the open plains." 

Galadriel hums.  "There are two ways into Tol Sirion - twin bridges on the east and west banks.  We can thus assume that the Enemy has the keep besieged from both banks."  She taps the map with a stick, shoving some pebbles down the valley to represent the goblins.  "must take both banks simultaneously - otherwise, goblin archers will pick us off from the opposite bank."

Finrod casts a handful of pebbles onto the map in their current location.  "We divide our forces here, where we are less vulnerable to attack." he says, shoving half the pebbles onto the other bank of the Sirion.  "It is imperative that we move swiftly up the valley.  The Enemy has the advantage of higher ground and greater numbers; they will see us coming, and we will be massacred if they push us back out into the plains."

Galadriel and Beleg share a look.  "We move each battalion in a wedge formation," Galadriel begins, "spears to reinforce my nose, and your cavalry to reinforce yours -"

"- And archers to the rear, to cover you," finishes Beleg. 

"The banks are narrow; in a wedge, we will be too wide to flank," says Finrod. "The nose will pierce the front lines, dividing the Enemy and pinning them against the Sirion or the valley slopes."

The rest of the night passes quickly; much of the host is too wary to sleep for long.  Finrod dreams as he has not dreamed in a hundred years.  He dreams of a ruined tower in the middle of a great river, of the last heir to a fallen noble house, of a scaled beast slithering through familiar stone halls.  He dreams of prophecy, and he wakes tired.

With the meager light conferred by the morning, Finrod swims his cavalry across the river.  The sappers travel with them, weighted down by the heavy rope bridges they will use to ferry foot soldiers and the supply train.  I will be with you, brother, Galadriel whispers into his mind, like a bird on your shoulder.

They move cautiously. Despite the knowledge they carry with them - that they march uphill into pitched battle with a force of unknown size - their passage is undisturbed by scouting parties.  The grass waves in the wind with a shushing noise.  All is calm. 

They are within five leagues of Tol Sirion when a distant roaring can be heard.  It is not the wind, or the river, but the clamor of a great army waging war.  My scouts say the Enemy has made camp along the banks in preparation for a protracted siege.  Finrod, they outnumber us four to one, says Galadriel.

Finrod thinks of the ruined tower of his dream.  The bridges? He queries. 

Destroyed, replies Galadriel.  Our nephew must have demolished them in an attempt to safeguard our people.  But there is no way in or out now. 

There is one way, admits Finrod.  The storm-water outlets underneath the tower let out directly on top of the river, and they are big enough for a grown elf.  I designed them that way.

You speak as one who does not expect victory. 

Finrod does not know how to describe to Galadriel what he feels.  

Because she is his sister, and because she is Galadriel, she knows anyway.  So we cover the keep for as long as it takes to evacuate Orodreth's people.

We need to be quick.  Are you ready, Sister?  Then Finrod begins to sing.  He sings of hiding things, of the frog in the river rock, the deer in the hazel brush.  Across the river, Galadriel joins him, weaving in a harmony of swiftness and surety, of the hawk in the sky and the lion finding its mark.  I am ready.

In this way, the armies of Angband know nothing of the twin hosts as they fly up the valley.  They do not hear them until the first blast of their golden trumpets.  As if from thin air, the whine of elven arrows joins this bellicose melody.  And they only see them when Finrod releases the last threads of his song - right as a wall of hooves crashes through their front line.  The screams of horses fill the air.  Tents are trampled down, cookfires crushed underfoot.  Finrod sees Galadriel keeping pace with him on the other side of the bank, her halberd sweeping crescents of death at the head of her column.

Finrod signals Edrahil to gather their cavalry together.  We are moving to route the goblins, he says to Galadriel.  If we push them back past the confluence of the Sirion, I can join with our brothers in Dorthonion.  They spur their horses after the fleeing goblins.  Lather and spittle flies through the air.

Before they see the fens, they smell them - dark soil, decay, and crushed vegetation.  Then the ground begins to soften, and the horses churn up mud and peat as they labor forward.  A horse falls, then another, breaking their legs as they crash through the matted vegetation.  The route becomes a slog, with Finrod's forces picking their way through the driest paths, harried at every turn by goblin foot soldiers.  Those who fall are crushed into the peat. 

As the evening light reddens, they drive the orcs across the confluence.  With the shadows lengthening, they seem to melt away into the dark.  The orcs must be biding their time.  Finrod draws up alongside Edrahil, who is caked in grime and breathing heavily.  "We camp here tonight.  It will take too long to ford the river in the dark, and I will not risk more of the horses.  Get fires going, and set a heavy perimeter watch.  Do not expect things to remain calm."

Night falls, and enchantment descents.  The air is thick with a vapor that smells not of smoke but of something sweet, and rotting.  The soldiers huddle around the pitiful fires they manage to build from sparse, damp wood.  The weak flames do nothing to dry their sodden clothes.  Across the fens, other fires spring up, waving tongues of unnatural light. 

Finrod settles himself as best he can alongside Edrahil.  He falls into a fitful doze.  In his sleep, he itches unbearably.  Leeches crawl out of the cold water and inside his clothing, finding his pulse points.  Where he rips them off, he bleeds without ceasing.  A buzzing fills his head as waves of mosquitos descend upon his bare face and throat.  He wakes to Edrahil's shouting.  His captain has his arms in a vice-like grip, and when Finrod looks at his exposed forearms, he can see they are furrowed and bloody.  "The leeches," he wheezes, but no, there are no leeches.  And there is no buzzing.  But all through the camp, there are moans, and the rustling of a hundred soldiers gouging at phantoms in their flesh.

Finrod lets out an unsteady breath.  "Change out the guard," he forces out.  "Something is not right with this place, the flow of the Song is wrong." There are more orc fires than there were before.  But there is no movement in the night.  He falls back into uneasy dreams and wakes to -

-- terror in the camp.  Finrod explodes out of his tent.  The horses scream, yanking at their tethers and bucking at nothing.  One breaks loose and gallops past Finrod - and faster than he can perceive, something bursts out of the vegetation, colliding with the horse and dragging it into the darkness.  Finrod draws his sword and, back to back with Edrahil, advances out onto flat ground. 

Then the soldiers begin screaming.  Tents collapse, elves who were standing moments ago disappear in an instant, the perimeter fires leap their bounds and spread into the brush.  Everywhere, creatures with wicked teeth.  A gout of water and weeds erupts to the right of him, spattering muck into his eyes.  Finrod falls with a heavy weight on him, and now he can see two gleaming eyes filled with hatred and hunger - and teeth, so many teeth.  Silver flashes in the air, and Edrahil's sword pierces the beast's spine instants before those teeth close around Finrod's throat.  He heaves the dead creature off of him, and accepts Edrahil's hand. 

"To me!" Finrod cries, amplifying his voice out across the camp.  "All of you, to me!" His soldiers stream from their tents, swords gleaming, torches fashioned out of anything they have at the ready.  Dozens fall as they run, torches extinguished in the mire.  To his horror, Finrod can hear the ripping of flesh. 

Any remaining soldiers - the ones lucky enough to be nearest the command tent - draw into a ragged circle, backs against each other and swords pointed out into the night.  The screaming continues for an interminable length, and the sun does not rise. The sun does not rise, and Finrod’s host chases toothed shadows.  Every minute feels like an hour, punctuated with unsuspecting soldiers ripped screaming out of their hiding places.  No final assault comes, and Finrod realizes with horror that they are being hunted by something that likes to play with its food.  Finrod thinks of the stories that periodically came out of the north, of the Maia that stalked the night for being to graft into his menagerie in the dark cells of Angband. 

Finrod gathers his soldiers close.  "Go in groups of half a squad or less and make for the river.  Do whatever you must, but it is imperative that one of you get a message out - to my sister, or anyone you may find.  Without aid, we will all perish here.  If you find no one, then save yourselves."  All they can do then is pray to Varda, looking up at a starless sky and feeling despair set into their bones. 

The cloying air seems to make them swoon.  Cold water laps at their ankles and whispers with a sibilant tongue that would it not be better to sink, to sleep, to suffocate?  It must be a new day, and yet it is not.  They are alone in the dark.  Just as they lose all hope, dawn breaks in the east.  It is weak, but it is a new dawn.  It is then that a furor goes up.  A wave of swordsmen breaks through the orc camps, which are blinded by the rising sun.  The ringing of steel can be heard.

There are too many of the Enemy for these newcomers to defeat, but they move defensively to circle Finrod's camp with their spear wall.  Their tactical retreat gives Edrahil time to rally their forces.  They gather the barest essentials - weapons and food - and retreat as well.  In the clamor, Finrod realizes that the newcomers are Men. 


Rivil's Well, Dorthonion:

They are hassled by arrows all the way as they flee back over the confluence of the Sirion.  Though this is a rescue, it is not a victory.  Finrod watches with resignation as goblins stream down the west bank.  Leagues of open land and unnumbered enemies now lie between him and Galadriel.  Any thought of getting a message to her is gone; it is too dangerous to spare a runner and he has no more pigeons.  His one hope is that what stalked him in the fens does not come to nest in Tol Sirion, or that his sister has the good sense to know when to flee.  

The retreat to Rivil's Well is a bitter one.  It is only when they reach the eastern source of the Sirion that they stop to rest.  Elves weary from a week on the road and the terror of battle collapse with exhaustion and relief.  Others crawl to the spring and drink the first pure water they have taken in days.  The tree canopy is thick enough that some chance to light a fire, and those who managed to escape with more than the cloaks on their backs set about erecting group shelters from the sparse supplies.  There is little talk, and no laughter. 

Finrod picks his way over to the leader of the Edain, who is sitting on the ground some distance away with his men.  He recognizes Barahir - older, worse for the wear, with a nasty slice in his left bicep.  One of the other Bëorians is packing it with moss.  Another builds a fire nearby, hauling skins of water from the spring to boil rags. 

"Well met," Finrod calls.  "Though you are taller and broader than when I last balanced you on my knee."

Barahir looks up and smiles briefly, face illuminated by firelight.  "On the other hand, Nom, you have not aged a day.  A pity to be reunited under such unfavorable stars. " 

"If I do not look it, I surely feel it now," Finrod sighs.  "I owe you my deepest gratitude," He continues, settling down beside Barahir, "for saving the lives of my compatriots.  When I ordered my runners to leave, I will admit that it was more a last attempt at evacuation than any play for reinforcements."

"It is by chance that we stumbled upon you.  We witnessed the first fires from the slopes here, that night that Ard-galen burned.  When we descended to investigate, there was only chaos, and carnage.  The plains are burnt clean as far as we can see.  As we picked through the ashes, we ran into a squad of elves, raving about visions and monsters in the dark." 

Finrod plucks a flat stone from the ground and turns it over and over between his fingers.  "Truly, without your aid we would have all been slain.  There was something that walked among us on that killing field that was beyond all imagining."

Barahir grimaces uncomfortably.  "There are many foul creatures afoot these days.  All my house is slain, except for those with me now - by chance we were hunting in the western woods.  Now, these woods are Changed by some fell hand.  The valleys are full of intoxicating vapor, and the serpentine passage of some great beast has laid low stands of trees."

Finrod pauses in his fiddling.  "If such a fate has come to your people, then the northern foothills have fallen.  My younger brothers are the lords of those lands; I came north to succor Tol Sirion, and to forge a path to lend them aid.  Your people have treated with them, you must know their faces.  Yet you say you saw no one?"

"No one living.  Before we came down to the fens, before we met your runners, we happened upon the remains of a great battle, perhaps two days past.  The ground was still hot. There, we found two royal standards." Barahir pauses then, and puts a hand on Finrod's shoulder.  "They matched the colors of your house.  They would have fallen not a hundred paces from each other."

Finrod lets out a horrible noise, like his soul has been torn in two.  "You are mistaken.  If you found no bodies -"

"- Everything was reduced to ash.  What bones we found, orcish and elvish alike, were half-melted from dragon fire."

Finrod casts the rock he holds into the fire, kicking up a shower of sparks.  Tearing at his hair, he cries "I was coming to join with them.  If I would have come earlier -"

Barahir seizes his hands.  "- If you had come earlier, you would have died alongside them.  An inferno that size claims all of the air around it.   If by some miracle you had not fallen to that dragon's breath, or some orc arrow, then you would have suffocated, choked on ash.  Is that any way to honor their memory, Lord?"

Finrod breathes in harshly.  "I should run that worm down, flush him from the hole in which he hides.  I should split him from tongue to tail.  Is that a fitting way to honor their memory?" 

“My people look not to the past, Lord,” Barahir replies after some time.  “So I cannot say what your brothers would find honorable.  We look to the future.  What will be best for our children, for our land? What stewardship must we undertake to bring about our vision?”

Finrod lets out his breath.  "You are wise beyond your years, friend - now I see why beards come sooner on the faces of Men.  You call me Nom, but it is you, the second born, who have taught me much about the ways of the world.  What a privilege it is to bear witness to each generation of your great house."  He puts his head in his hands.  "But how sorrowful that the years fall like grains of sand between my fingers.  I look to the future and it is cloudy.  The work of my hands will come to ruin; I perceive that there is little that will remain of me in these lands."

"I think you place much stock in tangible permanence.  Perhaps all will come to ruin in Beleriand, and both our houses diminished.  But the impact you leave on those around you, though intangible, has its own permanence.  You will not be so quickly forgotten on this side of the sea. 

"I feel the pain of your loss, and I can say that the dragon will do more harm if left unchecked.  If you intend to hunt him, whatever your reason, I will follow you."

Finrod looks Barahir in the eye.  "I will not command you to lay down your life for me."

"I do this not for fealty, Lord, but friendship.  You have left a permanent mark on me."

"In that case, we leave tomorrow to hunt Glaurung.  We will travel light, a squad of men at the most."

They lay down next to the embers of the fire.  For the first time in days, Finrod does not dream.

In the morning, Finrod rises with new purpose.  As the camp falls to morning ablutions, he beckons Barahir to his side.  "Before we set out, I would like you to cut my hair," he says.

Barahir furrows his brow.  "One's hair is one's pride," he says, "and yours is no exception."

After some short debate, Barahir consents, leading Finrod to sit on a rock by the well.  Dusty light filters between the fir boughs, glinting off his golden hair.  "A pity to cut such fine locks," rumbles Barahir, running a hand over the braids.

Finrod laughs.  "On the contrary," he replies, "it is burnt, and matted with blood and mud. In any case, my sister's hair is far finer, so the world will not suffer overmuch from the loss of mine."

Barahir fetches some shears from a saddlebag and sharpens them roughly on his whetstone.  With one final grunt of distaste, he sets about cutting Finrod's hair.  By the time he is done, shimmering filaments unnumbered litter the moss under their feet.

Finrod checks his reflection in the well and then claps Barahir on the back.  "A fine job, Friend."  Then he goes in search of Edrahil. 

His captain is dolorously pushing some thick substance about in a hide cauldron.  When Finrod greets him, Edrahil's mouth falls open.  Mastering himself, he says, "You arrive just in time to break your fast with the pablum I have concocted."

Finrod accepts a rough bowl of young wood from him and settles down cross-legged.  Edrahil watches him over the rim of his own dish.  At length he says, "You look very mannish.  It suits you."  His tone is decisive enough to indicate sincerity.

"Better to start fresh," Finrod replies.  Scraping his spoon through the gruel, he says "I mean to hunt Glaurung.  I would like you to take the survivors here and lead them down to safety.  You have been through enough on my account and I will travel faster this way.  See if you can't get word to my sister on your way down the Sirion."

Edrahil shakes his head, dark braids swinging.  "You underestimate me if you believe that I would abandon you in your hour of need.  I was listening to your conversation with the Bëorian last night.  You have left a mark on me as well, old friend."

Edrahil cannot be persuaded otherwise.  Finrod gives him leave select a handful of the halest warriors and assemble the rest for their return journey.  Barahir meets them on the other side of the clearing with his own men. 

Leaving the camp, they hike up the ridge to get a lay of the land.  "I know these woods well," says Barahir as they crest the ridge.  "A beast the size of Glaurung will leave a trail visible to the eye from this height."

Finrod surveys the forest below.  "There," he says, pointing at a scar on the hillside where vegetation and dirt has been scraped away, revealing the stone underneath. "Due east."


The Forests of Dorthonion:

Down on the forest floor, the air is thick and moist.  Little light filters through the branches of the trees, which hang heavy with dew.  Breath plumes white in the evening chill.  Nothing moves in the underbrush.  Even the birds are silent.

The trail is easy to follow.  Trees have been uprooted, boulders turned up and smashed, great furrows dug into the earth.  The footprints that the dragon leaves in the soft dark loam as deep as the wingspan of a man - in this moist climate, they fill with rain.  Their small band is surefooted and experienced, but they lose time maneuvering over this debris. 

The light wanes earlier in the forest than on the flatland, so they set up camp among the roots of an ancient hemlock.  They do not chance a fire.  The deadfall is soaked-through and rotten, guaranteed to produce a smoky and guttering fire, unwise when there are liable to be orc raiding parties on the move.  They make do with some squares of waybread - Galadriel had brought some out of Menegroth, and it was one of the few things Finrod had managed to save in their exodus from the fens.

"How far do you estimate us to be from Glaurung?" Edrahil asks after they have finished eating and settled down in their cloaks.

Barahir lifts his head from where he was resting it on the bark.  "Based on the age of those tracks, and the water they've collected, perhaps four days in this weather."

One of Barahir's men groans from the other side of the trunk.  "How are we supposed to outpace a monstrous lizard?"

"I don't think Glaurung is moving very fast," counters Edrahil.  "Thinking back to it, there were depressions along the side of his path - clear of debris, worn like a nest.  He beds down frequently, seemingly with no thought to his pace."

Finrod pulls his cloak tighter about himself. "No, he has no clear destination, you are right.  He goes as he pleases - his work is done, and now he pursues some other goal of his own design."  He shivers against the cold, and presses closer to Edrahil. 

Barahir rises from his hollow and fits himself in alongside Finrod and Edrahil.  He had carried with him from Rivil's Well a great yak-wool cloak in the style of his people, which he now casts over the three of them.  Warmer now, but still pensive, Finrod drifts off to sleep.

They rise and depart when it is yet barely morning, eager to take advantage of the meager light.  As they exert themselves, steam rises from their clothing - made from wool, it had kept them warm through the night despite collecting dew. 

The party has been moving for some time before one of Barahir's men begins signing rapidly.  He gestures to a clearing an arrow's shot from their path.  The hunters conceal themselves in the brush.  Peering past the holly leaves, Finrod can make out the hewn-plank dwellings of a small Bëorian village. 

"It's too quiet," Edrahil whispers in Finrod's ear.  He is right; at midday a in place like this, one would expect to hear the noises of commerce, cooking, and children at play.  Instead, there is nothing but the patter of drizzle on the leaves.

"There's no one there," whispers Barahir.  "The place is deserted."

"Barahir," says Finrod, "A village like this, so close to Glaurung's path yet somehow unburnt, has likely been pillaged by orcs.  Any of your people here are likely dead."

"They at least deserve a good burial," Barahir says, making to step out from behind his tree.

Edrahil seizes his arm sharply.  "Do you not think this to be a trap?  How many raiding parties pass through settlements like these, massacre people like these, and then wait in the rubble for well-meaning interlopers?"

Finrod looks at the faces of the men.  More than one of them is lined with sadness.  "What is one raiding party to a squad of hunters of our caliber?"  He clasps Edrahil's shoulder. 

Swords drawn, they advance into the village.  Within a few paces, they find the first of the bodies.  A young woman lies pierced through the belly - her passing would have been slow, and painful.  More bodies are found, curled behind rabbit hutches or clawing at locked doors, all seeking shelter and escape. 

There is no sign of movement.  Any raiders who might have been here were long gone.  In fact, there are no orc corpses in the village.  Even on Finrod's patrol in Talath Dirnen, in those villages chiefly composed of those too old or young to fight, there were dead orcs.  Grandparents had taken up their pothooks and carding combs, their scythes for bringing in the barley, and brought down a number of orcs before they were overtaken and their blood was spilled into the dirt.

Finrod leads their advance toward the village square.  Here, the bodies are more numerous.  Most carry weapons - skinning knives, mattocks, cooking skillets.  All are grievously wounded.  Many are locked together in a last embrace. 

Edrahil knocks him on the shoulder.  "Look at his wounds," he mutters, pointing at one man's body. 

The massive wound in his ribs could have been caused by anything, but there are furrows dug deeply into the flesh of his face - and his fingers are bloody.  Finrod realizes with horror that many of the dead bear self-inflicted wounds.  The people - that Finrod had assumed died in each other's loving arms - were frozen in combat. 

Finrod remembers Celebrimbor's words, and the fell vapor that hangs over the valley.  A meandering path, with no clear motive save charnel destruction and a manipulative desire for torment.  "This is the work of Glaurung," he says heavily.  "Dragon-poison breathed into the glade drove these villagers mad with violence."

"We don't have time to bury them all," says Edrahil. 

"We cannot leave them here," Barahir protests.

"Though this be not the work of orcs, it is unwise to dally in a place that will attract their looters." 

Finrod lays a hand on Barahir's shoulder.  "Is there a particular custom you would like to honor? Though we cannot give them a proper burial, we can do something for them."

Barahir bows his head and breathes deeply.  "We have a song," he says, "for healing, and the return of spring."  Then he begins to sing.  One by one, the Men join in, harmonizing to create one plaintive droning tone.

Finrod listens for a moment before lending them his accompaniment.  He reaches out to the forest.  The mycelium under his feet thrums with energy.  It reaches up with slender grasping fingers, calling with a symphony of voices.  The bushes - bilberry and holly, kinnikinic and hazel - put forth shoots in response to his voice.  The spruce trees bend their bows down to touch the roof tops.  Finrod closes his eyes and asks the forest to honor its people. 

When he opens them, the village is transformed.  Each body has been covered in a soft mound of moss, and creeping vines and saplings have wrapped themselves around the buildings.  Elderflower and wild strawberry blooms in abundance.  Already the scene looks older, and softer - in a few years, it will return to the forest.  

"I thought this would be a fitting barrow for them.  If these people were anything like you in their love for this forest, then this will be a fitting barrow for them," Finrod says softly.  Barahir embraces Finrod like a drowning man.  A ragged sob climbs out of his throat.  Like Barahir had known what Finrod needed at Rivil's Well, Finrod knew that now was the time for Barahir to grieve.

The party leaves sooner than they would like, but they are unwilling to tarry in an exposed place.  They manage another few leagues before the light is gone.  There is little cheer In the air tonight, but they sit huddled together in a hollow beneath a hill and Edrahil passes around a flask of miruvor.

They wake early in the morning to the sound of thunder.  The party searches the sky, but there is no lightning, and there is no rain.  Finrod looks down, and sees the pebbles on the ground rattling. 

Barahir meets his eyes.  "Glaurung is on the move."

They pack as hurriedly as they can, cramming bits of waybread into their mouths and lamenting the lack of a hot beverage to wash it down.  Glaurung cannot be far off, and they intend to make every minute count.  They set off down the track after the dragon at a run.  The light is a sickly yellow, and it casts glancing beams through the dust-filled air.  Vapor rises from the ground, sulfurous and strange.  Finrod's head begins to swim.

The trail of destruction begins to wind its way uphill.  The party struggles to climb over the shattered granite boulders, the pine trees shredded of their bark.  The mountain laurel grows thick and Though Glaurung cuts a switchback up the mountainside, the ashy air, the sickening vapor, and the hours of exertion begin to take their toll.  Barahir's men suffer greatly, their breathes coming in great gulps, but they struggle onward.  Even Finrod begins to feel weary, is body protesting after weeks on the run.  He forces himself to ignore his discomfort, to fly uphill.  One way or another, this will come to an end. 

As they continue to climb, the vegetation thins.  First trees, then scrub, diminish and disappear.  The little dirt at this elevation is sandy and treacherous.  They scramble across this hot, exposed sidehill, rocks slipping under foot.  Here, there is little else but rock, great flat sheets of split slate.  This mountain face has weathered the cyclic freeze and thaw of the world.  Water creeps into even the smallest of cracks, wearing and expanding.  The mountain softens year by year as these cracks grow and sheafs of rock splinter away.  The noises these stones make underfoot are like ten thousand voices chiming like bells.  Onward, further, faster, higher.

The party bursts up the last incline onto the top of the ridge.  The air is still and hot, and the vapor here is thick.  Any visibility conferred by this alpine meadow is obscured by the fog, which clouds even Finrod's sharp sight.  There is no sight of Glaurung.  The echo of their own breathing echoes off the mountain sides.  The shifting of each pebble, the rustle of each blade of grass, radiates from all directions, disorienting them. 

The Men begin to cough, and groan.  Some sink to their knees, while others stare fearfully into the fog.  One begins to babble.  Finrod blinks against double vision.  His friends stumble about in confusion and panic, but he forces his mind clear.  No amount of trickery or ensorcellment will stop him.  He came here to kill Glaurung.  He came to avenge his brothers.  He came here to challenge prophecy.

Finrod steps away from his companions and into the mist.

With his sword in one hand, and the other covering his nose with the edge of his cloak, he advances.  He cannot see the way before him.  He cannot see his trail behind him.  This meadow seems to extend interminably - impossibly.  Finrod seeks in the dark for his fate.

And a great eye opens before Finrod.  He watches as the beast's cloudy third eyelid rolls back, revealing a brilliant golden iris.  Finrod is transfixed - he is alone, in the fog, with a creature larger than anything he'd seen before.

So, you are the whelp who has been chasing me these past days, Glaurung hisses, and Finrod realizes that he speaks directly into his mind.  The strength of the dragon's will exerts a throbbing pressure inside his skull.  Even Galadriel, working with concerted intention to dominate and subdue, had never come close to this. 

Finrod grits his teeth.  Well met, Worm, he hisses in reply. 

Oh, says Glaurung, such unrefined manners for one who styles himself a king.  Tell me, what is a king doing in these wastes?  Would it not be better, more fitting, for him to hide in his hole while I shroud the sun and drive your people before me?

Yes, the dragon continues, what of the burrowing king?  Would you not be safer in your ill-gotten halls, while my fire rages above your head, burning tree and bush, vassal and … brother?

Every fiber of Finrod’s body, every bone and bit of sinew aches to strike out at that eye, to pierce it through to the foul brain beneath.  But he is riveted where he stands. If you can divine my thoughts, seethes Finrod, then surely you know my purpose.

Come now, chides Glaurung, my goal here is nothing so gauche as slaying you; give me the same courtesy.  I heard your Song before, and I was intrigued. I wanted to get a better measure of you.  Did you enjoy my artwork in that little village?  It wasn’t meant for you, but by happy accident it brought you to me. 

The memory fills Finrod with revulsion. Why them? He says. Why not kill me?

Why not them? Replies Glaurung.  It cannot be undone, not for those second born rats.  I cannot undo it, and neither can you.  You can cover them with your flowers and say some candied words, but you will carry it with you.  Their deaths were meaningless, as is your life.

I have no need to kill you, taunts Glaurung.  There is no need for me to hasten that eventuality.  And I See in your eye that you Perceive it too.  Your halls brought low and defiled, all your works undone.

He touches Finrod’s mind then, filling it with images of Tumhalad on fire, his people scattered and dead.

The second-born will bring this to bear for me.  Do you still love them, Nom?

Only the barest hum telegraphs to Finrod that he is not alone before an arrow embeds itself in the sclera of Glaurung’s eye.  The dragon wails and blows hot steam across the meadow.  The hold on Finrod’s mind snaps and before he falls unconscious, he is dimly aware of Barahir shouting.


When Finrod wakes, he is lying in a makeshift bier, wrapped in Barahir’s mannish blanket.  It is sunrise, and Finrod judges that based on the ridge line, they are at the foot of the mountain. There is rustling beside him and Finrod cranes his neck as Barahir settles down next to him. 

“You were unconscious the night through,” says Barahir gravely.  “We had to carry you down the mountain.  Glaurung is gone, and whither, we know not.”

Finrod nods his thanks.  He does not trust his voice to hold.

“Glaurung planned that encounter in the meadow,” Barahir surmises.  “He wanted you alone, but not to kill you.  When I found you in the fog, you were bewitched as a deer in a lion’s jaws. What did he say to you?”

“He said nothing I did not already guess,” replies Finrod eventually.  His voice is hoarse from smoke and dehydration.  “But he is shortsighted in more ways than one.”  He lets out a dry cough. “Excellent shot, by the way.”

At this, Barahir barks with laughter.  “Truly I did not know if my aim was true.  I saw strange visions in that fog, and heard the voices of those long since gone.  But when I saw that golden eye, I was overcome with certainty.”

“Then this twice that you have saved my life,” says Finrod, grasping Barahir’s forearm, “by taking a wild chance, though you owe me nothing.  I do not know how to repay you.”

Barahir looks at him strangely.  “Need you owe me something before I treat you as my own? It is not my way to claim only those who are of future service to me.”

“And yet, that is why I must do this,” says Finrod. “Not because I have to, but because I want to.”

So it comes to pass that Finrod rises with the dawn and kneels, sun at his back, before Barahir.  He takes the ring from his finger, fashioned in the style of two devouring serpents, and places it in Barahir's palm. 

"There are many things for which I am grateful to your house," begins Finrod, "and not least for their wisdom and unabating friendship.  It is my greatest privilege to know you and to grow alongside you.  Your ancestor, Balan, bound himself to me as my vassal and became Bëor.  It would be remiss of me to not offer my oath in return.  Like Balan, I do this not out of obligation but of love.  If ever you or your descendants have need of me, I will come to your aid.  It may be for naught, but it is nevertheless worth the doing."

Then Barahir places the ring upon his finger, and it gleams with a green fire.  It carries but a simple enchantment, bearing little resemblance to magics of the great sorceresses.  It is more like a promise.


And so, when a young Man with Barahir's eyes arrives in Finrod's halls, it is time.  Finrod's crown will be lost, and Glaurung will come home to roost in the ruins of his achievements.  But the great friendship between Finrod and the House of Bëor will live on.  A maiden who called him friend will walk into the mouth of the underworld for her beloved.  A girl who was raised on their stories will safeguard the ring, the sole possession she carries out of a ruined city.  And it will come to rest in the keeping of one who is not quite elf and not quite man, in the last homely house this side of the sea.