Battle of the Golden Wood, The
18. A Turning Point
"Tell me he will live," said Haldir, pitiably, while the other brother, Rumil, sat at Orophin's shoulder and silently bathed the burning brow. "Tell me he will not die."
She sighed, moved at last by the archer's grief, whose arrogance had long displeased her. "Were we in Lorien at rest, and the sun shone, he could yet recover," she said, as gently as she could, "But in this murk all our spirits sicken. Despair comes upon our strongest, and the eye of the mind is fixed on death as its only comfort."
This part of her calling as a healer she hated. It was, perhaps, why she had been forced to grow so hard. Sometimes one had to be weapon-sharp to tell the truth. "Your brother yearns for light and peace," she said. "But unless this war is won soon, he will find it only in Valinor."
Shadow slid over Oswy as the sky became a drab roof over his head. It seemed the fume muffled sound, for all noise fell heavy on his ear. The trees leaned over him, whispering and, though he was weary to the point of tears, he could not sleep. The ring of Khamul was gnawing on his heart and he could not turn his thoughts elsewhere.
He tossed, unwound the blanket that swaddled him too tight, sat up, and folded his arms about himself, rocking. He did not want the ring. Truly he did not. He had no desire to become some foul, inhuman terror, whose presence brought all good creatures nothing but torment. He did not want it.
Why then could he not stop the craving? Why had his whole soul focussed with blinding desire on a glimpse of red and gold he knew he had not been meant to see? Celeborn had buried the ring, in a place where no man of honour would go looking for it, and already the roots of the young mallorn must wind through the gold, holding the treasure down. Ere long that tree would be so mighty that even if he were to desire the ring - which he did not - it could not be dug from the sheltering earth, or pried from the grasp of treeroots and dead elvish hands.
And that was good, was it not?
He sighed and, getting up, he buckled his father's sword about his waist. Perhaps if he walked a little his body's weariness would solve this debate for him?
Leofwyn slept, seizing this moment of respite in the war, while the orcs were leaderless and demoralized by the fall of the wraiths. Cyn, with the baby in the crook of one arm, and Gytha in the other, was chanting softly the tale of Baldor son of Brego, as though one fear would cancel out another. He looked up as Oswy rose, and his gaze was concerned. But he said nothing, only nodding, accepting Oswy's actions as one man to another, as a liegeman to his lord. It was a gesture of respect that Oswy might have treasured, had his mind not been elsewhere.
For a while he strolled aimlessly through a tense, subdued Lorien. Naught could stop these people singing, but now the falling patter of notes was a rain of lamentation, exquisite, but desolate. And as Oswy walked, his feet led him without conscious thought towards Calandil's grave. He knew he was headed there from the moment he stood up, yet still it was a surprise. Had he not meant to walk anywhere else?
The mallorn sapling rustled gently. Its trunk was a stripe of silver-grey against the gloom, and the blooms tossed fallow-gold under darkness. There was no other marker and the barrow was only a shallow swell of grass, already spangled with niphredil and daisies. Oswy told himself he was here to do his friend honour. He was here to remember a merry, generous life, even though it be of other kind than his.
Kneeling, he placed his hand on the ground, and at once the power of the wraith's ring fastened upon him like a leech. He could feel the burn of it, the brightness - the glory - even through the living barriers of turf and tree. All else fell away. He had searched, and he had found. Or he had been found. Here was what he had been looking for. Here lay his heart, buried alive in an elvish mound. At the thought he could almost feel it - earth in his mouth, dirt pressing on his eyes, the tree burrowing, worming, pressing at him, its roots holding him down, tearing him apart. He struggled, mindless with the need to escape. Darkness engulfed him. He strained for life, for light, for Lorien, and at last threw himself back, gasping. His heart raced and thundered in his ears. To breathe was a shock - he was not, after all, entombed. But if that was so, whence came this smell of soil?
Shaking, he unclenched his fists and gazed as a murderer might gaze on the blood. His palms were black with earth, his nails broken and fingertips bleeding. Horror came on him. I will not look. I will not. But still his eyes lifted reluctantly to see the scar in the sweet grass, the spilled dark soil where he had scrabbled with his bare hands, where he had begun to dig into the grave like a wild beast digging for carrion.
He reeled back. "NO!" Tomb robber. Desecrator of the Dead! "No..." He did not want this. He did not! Staggering a few steps away he collided with another tree, slid to its base, curled like a child around the misery of bad dreams. For surely this could not be other than a dream. In waking life he would not try to unearth his friend's corpse, just for a pretty trinket. "I would not."
Resting his brow against the mallorn's smooth bark he squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed his dirtied hands across the grass, but could not make them feel clean. "Bema! Help me! Help me!"
But even as he called upon the gods a thread of his thought was saying that since he was already so dishonoured it could not make matters worse to dig a little deeper and take the prize he still desired.
The talan swayed beneath Galadriel's feet. She closed her eyes and imagined it as the deck of a ship, taking her home. In memory she saw the green isle of Tol Eressea, a flight of swans above the rise and glitter of spray, vessels riding on the radiant waves like living jewels; her mother's kinsmen laughing at the tillers and the spread white sails.
A memory that had begun as comfort became another torment. Did they live again, those mariners of the Teleri, slain by her cousins? Perhaps, after so many years, they had all come forth from Mandos, made new. But the stolen ships - those flying shapes of freedom that had seemed to skim as bright as gulls over the waves - they were forever lost. Burnt as the Lamps of the Valar, dead as the Trees. What ship would now bear her back, whose family had wantonly destroyed such wonder?
Leaving the past, she opened her eyes and surveyed the fruits of her decision to leave Valinor: A battlefield as deep in orcs as the sea was deep in water; the halting crawl from Mirkwood's borders of the latest engine of despair; her husband's back, turned to her, braced and tense with pain. Of all her deeds of pride in a long life she regretted most the blight she had brought upon him. How had she dared come and demand comfort from him on the day of his friend's burial? Did she not have her mirror, and Nenya's power to lean on, where he had only his own native toughness? It should have been she, upholding him.
Drawn by an ache of love, she circled him, seeing his frown, the emptiness of the gaze fixed on Dol Guldur. Although she knew she should wish they had never met, that she had not brought the Doom of Mandos onto a blameless life, she was not yet selfless enough. Still this marriage was not an act she would undo, even if she could.
Having run out of words to reassure, or to goad, she came close to his side. He did not stir. Not knowing what else to do, she put her arms around him and held him fast. And at the touch he took in one great breath - an Oh! of unbearable loss - and rested his head on her shoulder.
"I know," she said without wondering what she meant, "I know." What else was there to say? Neither he, nor she, nor Lorien could endure much more. Caras Galadhon would be burnt, and the folk driven out to live among poisoned streams. Thirst and starvation would overwhelm all. The Golden Wood would remain impenetrable - for against her wards even Sauron could not come - but it would be the shut and silent inviolability of a tomb. A dead land, full of horrors. Even as she had said. She tightened her arms, glad he was here with her at the last, conscious of the rise and fall of his breathing, his slenderness and strength; the chill of his arm that lay about her waist.
"Forgive me?" she asked, and at this moment that mattered more to her than life and death, "It is my curse that has brought us to this. We should never have come here, never agreed to rule. It is my doing that these folk will die, and I cannot ask for their pardon. But I ask for yours."
At that, he raised his head, looking confused, bewildered, as though he had forgotten something important and now sought for it. Pulling away a little he turned and looked south. The orc army was thinner there, all the forces concentrated about Caras Galadhon and the springs of the rivers.
Noticing he had not answered her, her spirit darkened within her. Even he at the last cannot excuse me. Bereft, she began to move away. But he stirred from thought then, pulled her back, encircling her with the warmth of his left arm. Soothed a little, she leaned into his side, and the posture reminded her of distant Eregion. Even so they had stood before their thrones in Ost-in-Edhil, facing down the rebellion. Close enough to take comfort, far enough apart that they could each defend the other. Celeborn had had Celebrimbor's sword point poised at his heart, she remembered, and she... she had faced Annatar's smug, gloating smile.
"Justly you may claim to have begun the regrowth of the Golden Wood," said Celeborn, his voice growing in resolution as he spoke; feeling his way toward hope, "So perhaps Lorien may fall into ruin. But you cannot claim to have begun any of its people. They - against the Doom of Mandos or any other Vala - they may still be saved. Did we not bring the folk out of Eregion to safety here and in Imladris? We will do it again."
"We had a refuge prepared then," she said, "Where is there to flee now?"
He pointed with his chin, and she saw, but a little beyond the Southern borders, the windswept grass of the plains of Rohan, and, dark almost as the Mirkwood, tangled, brooding in its anger, the dim and mighty forest of Fangorn.
"It is perilous."
"Less so, I deem, than these armies. Even now those trees preserve some fondness for the Laegrim who woke them, and we have many of that kindred here. I do not believe Fangorn would turn us away. Are we not old friends? And will not we and the Onodrim be twice as strong together?"
The wind blew from the South then, and their lost son's voice called out to them upon the moving air. As always, this honour the world had given Amroth - this salt in the wounds of grief - made Celeborn angry. His jaw tightened. He took hold of his streaming hair and tried to knot it behind him, his right hand clumsy, readying himself to begin one more desperate task. There was a moment in which Galadriel resented his sheer resilience, his stubbornness. In defeat they had at least shared some peace together. But then - from her pride, and for his sake - she found the will to carry on. She took the clip from one of her braids, put her arms about his neck and fastened back the long fall of silver from his face.
"And when Sauron comes to Fangorn?" she said, her tone deliberately light, challenging this new resolve, "Is this not but a desperate attempt at borrowing time?"
Laughter was still beyond him, but he did at least smile, "Has not our whole life together been lived on borrowed time? Yet it has been a long one. Let us have as many more years as we can grasp."
He strode to the edge of the flet, and at that moment there came a silence. The wind ceased, the tree stilled beneath them. Arda held its breath. Even the orcs faltered and closed their howling mouths, looking up.
Instinctively - the ring had become so much a part of herself in the last Age - Galadriel reached out to Nenya, needing its cool brilliance, its reassurance. She followed the Elven-Ring's power from one end of Lorien to the other, touching the injured, giving such strength as she could. Her mind beheld hawks, floating motionless on the sky, dragonflies, as glossy-black as galvorn, held still above the silver pools, suspended. The small words of growing grass and sap were silent, tense. Waiting.
Then from the Ring of Adamant there came a sudden terror like a shriek in her ears. Sauron's terror. She felt his denial, his panic - a desperate reaching out of his will. It scrabbled through the metal, almost overwhelmed her. "No!" she cried, "You shall not have me!" But instead of the Black Hand - instead of the Eye burning in her mind - the band about her finger grew suddenly incandescent as the sun. Her protest became a scream. Pain lanced from her hand into her arm and shoulder, tearing, devouring. But it was as nothing to the agony in her fea as her spirit was ripped in pieces and cast into a pit of flames.
Someone was tugging at her hand. Celeborn - trying to take Nenya from her. She struck him hard, clenched her fist around the torture. The strands of her power were growing weaker, unravelling like a tapestry slashed. Time escaped her grasp, drew away like a wave of the sea and turned, gathering power, gathering the centuries it had been denied, gathering history and bloodshed, taint and the swift mortality of Men. It built, rushed towards her, curved and broke over Lorien. The elder days were washed away and Lorien stood amid the poverty and the drabness of the Third Age, undefended.
As though she had opened her wrists and the blood ran out to be washed away - so she felt, aching and numb. Power, colour, delight, meaning, all seeped slowly into grey. Like dying, but without its hope. Dollen i Riw, dannen i lass. Her eyes were closed and she wished for the Void, but it would not come.
At last a mere discomfort - a crick in her neck - recalled her to herself. A self so diminished she could hardly recognize it. Was this all that was left of her? Surely she had been greater once, before time and tides and the surging strength of Celebrimbor's gift had worn down the granite of her soul. In this world of Men was she now so little? So worthless?
Some pride yet remained. She was Lady of Lorien, a Queen in all but name, with a husband who loved her, and, even now, work to do.
Opening her eyes, Galadriel found herself in Celeborn's arms. But it was no tender awakening. His left hand was knotted in her hair, drawing her head back against him, his right held a sharp, curved knife, with gentle, deliberate pressure against the great vein in her neck.
Should she struggle it would doom her. She reached out, found his mind closed to her. Walled and guarded. She might, perhaps, break through that barrier in time, but not before he could slash her throat to the bone. The beat of his heart trembled with fear against her, but his hands were steady. "What are you?" he said. And if there was terror in his voice there was also no lack of determination.
"I am Galadriel."
Moving only her hands, she felt for Nenya's sleek band, the great stone like a fallen star. Humiliated, she took hold of it, pulled it off - and it felt as though she gouged out her eyes. As she dropped it onto the pale wood of the talan it rolled, sparkling as a trinket; all gold and brilliance and emptiness. Drained. Useless.
She felt his gasp through her back, pressed against him. Then suddenly he let her go, reached down for Nenya's tear-like sheen, picked it up, watching her. She neither moved nor cared, except dully, as though the lack of care itself was a pain.
Standing, with the glimmer of it in his palm, he sheathed the knife at last. The look of disbelief, and then utter wonder, was very like the look he had worn in fair Menegroth when first he gazed on her.
A time passed in stillness, and then, with some satisfaction, Celeborn walked to the edge of the flet and dropped the flickering jewel through fathoms of air onto the forest floor. "I thought Sauron had regained the One," he said, gently, "I thought to spare you an existence as his thrall."
"I know." Galadriel clasped her hands together, missing Nenya's comforting weight. It seemed even the beat of her heart had slowed, even her blood retained no vigour. All desire fled, except for the faint wish that he would go away and leave her alone. "But instead, this is the day we have long looked for. This is the day of our triumph. Against all wisdom Frodo has succeeded. The Ring has gone into the fire, and both it and Sauron are no more."
Celeborn's wonder passed into a happiness that left his face looking youthful, excited. "You are free of it?!" His eyes were wide and the smile that began tentatively grew until it was ferocious, radiant. "It is over?". Exuberant, he rushed to her, took her elbows and lifted her, spinning her around. "It is over!"
Her smile in return was a forced thing, an act of costly generosity. "Not quite," she said, "We have still an army at our gates, and the wards have just fallen."
Taking her face between his hands - the right already warming now Sauron's works were undone - he kissed her, gladly. "I will deal with that," and strode, buoyant with hope, down the great main stair. She could hear him calling orders, and the stir raised among warriors and healers alike by his voice, and she supposed she should be pleased. Instead there was nothing left to her. Nothing, but for a swell of bitter hatred for her husband.
It was not merely the knife at her throat that made her devotion fail - they had both agreed on that, long ago, and she had counted on his strength to do it, as on a rope in the mountains. It was unflattering that he found it so easy, true, but she could not resent something she had begged him to do. No, it was this: Nenya had failed. She was left alone, helpless, powerless, in a dying land, under a mortal sun. She had now lost everything it was possible to lose, and she could not quite forgive him his joy.
'Dollen i Riw, dannen i lass' = Winter is come, the leaf is fallen.
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