Winter Solstice Celebrations

Staying

1. The Fens

   
   
   
Darkness and cold, fire and heat — should not these things should be far opposed, so that each drives out the other, and cannot be at once, in the same place, this Winter midnight? —Yet the dark is heavy with redness that does not brighten, only shows the vastness of their defeat, that reaches to the very apex of the sky, the widest arc of vision, from east to west across the horizon's margin which is now hidden in welter of destruction, like the spray of blood leaping up beneath sword's edge to hide the wreckage under, and the forge-blast of tainted wind that sweeps down upon them from the plain dries the tears that it burns from eyes even as it steals moisture from breath without yielding any warmth in return upon its gusts.

A spark lands upon his skin, eddying under the warding metal, and he has not strength to brush it aside, or shake his head; but swiftly it is swept out from under the flange of cheekguard, before it can do more than sting, and the hot point replaced by the cold rough touch of mailed gauntlet, and he would make thanks, saving only that he cannot bring himself to care…

…in a hollow of the plains where a small spring wells from beneath the cold ground, freezing into rondels of pearl-like sheen even as limestone in a cavern's shaping so soon as it rises to the air, a half-dozen warriors lie pressed below the earth's lea, shields locked in effort to divert the wall of flames that roars across the field towards them, even as they hope the low rise be enough to shield them that it leap their scant den like a running horse…

…horses run before the storm, full out, no formation or pattern to their going, though the riders clinging flat to their necks are trained and tried, cavalry's strength no use against the foe that pursues them, the line that does not yield to charge, that cannot be daunted nor driven apart, that no weight of flesh and bone nor steadiness of spirit may overcome…

…against the mountains' northern foot the besiegers' camp is thrown into confusion, though in its higher ground and stony setting it is not overwhelmed by the tides of flame, fear riding the wind with its hail of bright shards and invisble soot, drawn in at every breath by those who hold it — yet even in the heart of it there is order, the commanders setting some to quenching the bits of fire that take hold in tent-cloth and fodder-hay — but the wind changes, and masses of smoke roil down upon it, blinding all, Firstborn and Secondborn alike, and in the cloudy reek the efforts of the choking defenders to preserve become futile, and their uselessness apparent to Prince and Lord alike…

…the fort's stones are beginning to crack with the heat of the fiery river that laps them, filling the dry moat even to the motte's crest, and the defenders are cut off, but still they refuse surrender to the horde beyond, knowing that every enemy held here is held from elsewhere, trusting to their defiance to madden the foe that they mock in turn — but the Glamhoth flee suddenly, as if in terror, but no rescue comes to their aid: in the midst of the mountains' outpouring writhes a shape of terror, sporting like an otter in the molten torrent, swift as water rushing, serpent of gold-bright bronze…

…the wave of flames — deep as the storm wave that whelmed the white swan-ships off Alqualondë — surges over the shallow pit about the handful that cower there, and the eddies of heat burn out all the breath of air that pools about the frozen pool before the undercurrent of the fiery flood tumbles down into the dip and tosses them within it like the lightest of shells twisting in the tide…

…as it swept over the footsoldiers in their holt it catches the hastening cavalry and sweeps on, and after its brightness has gone far past like the pale crest of a wave in the soft twilight seen far out to sea there is little of form left to distinguish horse from rider, barding from bone, metal from flesh, one from another any more than from the blackened earth they have rejoined their substance to so unwillingly…

…reluctant, still, though the disorder is too great to contend against, the defenders of the central siege prepare to abandon their position, blinded beyond even Elven-sight to pierce and crippled by the thick, lung-wracking fumes, all under this burning cloud alike now Sickly Ones, though senses beyond those of mortality let the Firstborn guide their younger allies with hand and voice and hope, down to the ravine where it is to be hoped that water and the gorge above them will give respite…

…the blackened stones yet hold, though split, too deep and strongly-set to give to the scorching assault, but the gates are not stone and they fold like parchment in the flame that is breathed straight against them, oak, and oak-hard iron, that each could withstand the pulse of wielded ram in scornful strength's rebound for so long as the defenders should need to repulse, has withstood indeed, nothing more now than curls glowing redly where not charred dark, before they are swept aside in the wake of the Worm's passing…

…the banners of the High King's champions ignite from the mere heat of the air about them, as they were the dry branches of the oaks with their yet-held leafage, the resin-rich pine pillars, flashing into the trails of falling stars before they are extinguished under the onslaught of the Balrog-captained countless throng that pours into their midst, heedless of the smouldering ground, fearing fire less than their own warlords…

…the sound of the stream is loud, louder than the crackling of the trees aflame behind and above them, and the air that streams above the icy water's current clears away the smoke, and gladly they hasten down towards it…and upon the opposite bank a triumphant yell erupts and echoes back against the stone and falls upon them like the hail of arrows that hissing follow after, and they hoist shields and struggle to form the wall, and the Princes set their greatest strength at the center, and the Lord of Dorthonion sets his upon the ends, and the Elf-lords go, blazing to Sight like the brightest flames, among the mortal warriors to hearten them and be the anchors of their strength in the reaches that might otherwise be left behind, to tatter raggedly under the blades of the foe as momentum falters, and the leader of Men goes to the line's heart to lead, foremost in this as is his right, and thus as one folk the defenders of the North go forward into their last fight, singlehearted, to the slaughter…

…fresh from the flame-flood, freshet of destruction that leaguers them, the Dragon plunges amid the daunted, disarrayed in the passage, swifter than thought, vast length darting as deftly as any slim serpent, eel-lithe, easy as water in movement, and the long jaws open in a vast cruel smile as spears redound from the glowing gold of the scale-plates, and swords snap like dry sticks against them in the wavering air, and the more-than-beast breathes forth his own element among them, and the fort's first defenders are gone, and the rest stand frozen, such the heat of the urulóki that they are burnt through in an instant, made but semblences of themselves, statues shaped of charcoal, perfect formed, until his going shatters and crushes them underfoot as he prowls ever deeper into the stronghold that has not held…

…from the foothills of the Ered Wethrin to the breadth of Lothlann is all ablaze, aswarm, and there is no respite, redoubt after redoubt falling, defenders falling back when they do not but fall, and the Leaguer is become their own trap, setting all Morgoth's foes neatly in one swathe for his mowing, and as the dry grass of Winter is withered in an instant in flame so swiftly their long besieging is consumed to black ash, and only the lack of adversary and the returning advance of Summer's brilliance slows the long long ingress of battle's tide…

…and another scene of dying, of dread, of a figure so ruined by fire that not eye nor insight might tell if Elf or Edain, clutching at another who runs past in piteous entreaty, yet the one who passes does not help, and hacks at the pleader to break free, and others turn no thought to the one who lies moaning, face and fingerless hands the rough of burnt bark upon hearth, until one at last in wild-eyed horror pauses for the half-heart's-beat it needs to drive gore-darkened spearhead into throat…

…and other yet, of burned warriors groping eyeless before the mockery of the Orcs who shoot at them carelessly, for mere diversion, assails him as it were played out before him present and held fast in chains, powerless to speak or save…

…and ever there are more, nor are they set singly thus, but overflow upon each other as pages laid atop and held before a flame, so that the tracings on each scroll are seen together, and form another formless message, image, vision tangled and most terrible…

…present or past or still to come to pass, memory or Sight, he cannot any longer tell. But it is real, of that he has no doubt, no more than he has doubt of his utter inability to change that which is Seen…

More real, in truth, than this sodden hollow where he lies on spongy floor of countless season's reeds, half-rotted into fabric woven by no hand, the same reeds that shelter them from enemy's sight, (but not arrow-flight's adder sting), brackish water seeping through all defenses, armour no more barrier than cloth, yet its mire is defense itself, against the fiery sleet that falls on them from the North wind. —More real, even, than the arm supporting his neck, the hold that keeps him from slipping back onto his wounds, the constant murmur of healing that washes through his veins, countering the death-spell's working…

—You cannot counter this, he objects in silence, it is as far past your power as it is mine — but ai, first of my Household, you will not heed me in this either, too great your loyalty to yield—

Whether his thought be heard or no, he receives no answer, nor expects one; and there is cause, regardless: he who has succeeded to the thankless post of first commander of the archers has crawled through the thickets to where this mockery of a command-redoubt is hid, and his words to him who is trusted to bear the King's words truthfully and inerrantly return the answer are bitter with irony:

"To think that we were thankful this was a dry winter and mild, with little of snow to burden us."

—Unusually dry, we said, out of nature — and knew not how true that was— but he cannot make himself trouble to utter the words, and they are speaking over him still:

"What is the order of the battle now?"

"What order? We shoot them, they shoot us. When we stop shooting they charge us, and we repel them again, and close up the gaps, and strive not to sink in the mud whiles. What, deemed you a swamp has the order of a flat field — or a limned map?"

To this there is no return; after a long stillness (such they count stillness, that is, discounting the ceaseless rattle of the reeds that give them such scant cover and the shouting beyond, the clang of blade on shield that both daunts soul and covers sound of approach, making many seem greater multitude) comes apology, the tone no less harsh, but all are hoarse now with the ceaseless breathing of the smoke-laden air and shouting, and with fear. "Thy pardon, Edrahil. We hold. That is all. We hold yet. —How stands it with him?"

"The bleeding has lessened, and the head draws no more inward — I've stopped it against bone as surely as I may — but—" For the first time that calm, dispassionate voice falters — "He fades apace. The Princes' deaths have rent him worse than all of this," gesture not quite touching the dampened cloths that ease flesh but not fëa, "and I know not how long he can withstand it."

—It is far worse than that, my friend, so far worse than thou canst see — but I, I can, and must, and cannot turn away—

"Belike that were the best thing." So softly and plainly is their defeat acknowledged for the first time, that there is no way from this trap that they have been driven into, no hope nor help to come to them, the world they came to rule taken now from them so swiftly, so easily by their ancient Enemy, whether they die here or not—

"Truly?" This doubt, this raising of question, is perhaps not foolish hope; for certainty of defeat is defeat, and certainty of failure follows always upon desperate weariness and confusion of mind — but there is no storm-swept disorder that speaks in the response, though there is weariness, only the dull certainty of one who has kept the grim tally of the fallen:

"They dare not close full with us yet, but every volley lessens us, and though we gather of their spent shafts as we may, they have more, and soon the wall becomes a ring, and they whelm us."

"Is there any hope of lasting until dawn?"

"Dawn?" He laughs, shortly and bitterly. "For all I can say it's come already. There will be none in this welter. —Worse than a storm-lit fire on the fields of Hithlum in a dry summer, this."

"How long?" The other shrugs.

"Less than we've held here. Beyond that — all hangs on when their reinforcements arrive."

"We cannot break out on any side, draw them over by feint, and send at least a portion through to safety?"

"Without horses? When our lord cannot walk?

Again there is no answer to this, and softer (or as much softer as smoke-roughened and battle-hoarsened throat allows) follows the beginnings of counsel that had rather not been given:

"I know thou spendest self to strengthen him—"

"—Not I alone."

"—That also I know. But — hear me out, Edrahil — it might not be disservice, didst thou not — hush! hear me only! — we cannot long hold, we cannot send for aid, if any remains to come or no, and we cannot escape. It were easier death than many, to let him fade thus, eased in thy arms — or, taken, than life thereafter." The silence that follows on this seems far longer than it is. "—Be not angered, friend — else not with me," and the plea no less desperate than wounded, begging of water.

"Nay." But the word is so sadly given that cold fury were little more distress. "Well-advised — yet worthless thy counsel. He is not so weak that his hröa strives not to heal and defend — even that should not see him hence safely ere we are taken. —Perhaps they will simply slay us, for having cost them so dear, being so few." But this hope, half-believed and no more even by him who speaks it, is swiftly dashed.

"There is little less of a prize in our lord than in his cousin, —less though some deem him to be." The bitterness of fear and acceptance of helplessness is scarce less hot in his words than the burning wind … the reply, when it comes, as the frozen earth:

"They will not hang him from our Enemy's gates. —Not living."

By the chance of the battlefield there is a lull in the clamor beyond, so that only the raw wind's hissing through the sedge grass fills that silence between them.

"Nay." So rough it is scarcely a word, that answer, acceptance, admission of grim necessity. "They must not. Yet—" The words break off, but anguish, horror, fear at that thought burn through, worse than any bodily pain could be—

"I will bear the bloodguilt of it." To hear the distant words one might think that naught but abstraction of untestable theory were matter of discussion — not the most dreadful of misdeeds beneath the Sun, made more terrible yet by twisting of loyalty to its reverse and round yet again, so that treason should be trust-keeping, love proven in slaughter, lord slain to save from worse-than-dying.

The pause that follows is of understanding, the cutting edge of realization that the bared blade lying so close to hand upon the reed-bed is not meant for futile last-stand, but for defense more direct, and simpler. Admission is made, weakness confessed by friend in turn:

"—I could not do it."

But the herald denies this denial, shaking his head with uneven smile.

"If it must be so, if arrow finds us all here, and not thee, —thou'lt do it. I have no doubt."

Brief silence follows this cruel confidence, before the commander of archers asks, "Does _he_ hear?" and the uncertainty and torment in that short question tears him from the blindness of his visions and forces him to see the agony about him, to offer this frailest of consolations, that he does not lie quite insensible, to be riven from life with less awareness than suffering beast slaughtered in mercy, that he knows their dilemma and their deciding and does not reject them for it.

"—He hears."

More is beyond him, but he manages to shift arm a little, offering hand to his liege. The other takes gauntlet in his own and raises mailed clasp to his lips, gaze fastened hungrily on his lord's face, seeking hope where he knows none is to be had, yet must nonetheless, and there is something which comforts him in the King's countenance, that is nearly as begrimed with mud and smoke as his own, save where the ministrations of nigh-futile hands have smeared away a little of the soot with clean water, though he forbid the waste of it upon him.

"—Sire."

And thus with heart satisfied, he returns to his post, to die there in an hour, hours, half-a-day mayhap, without word or thought of anger, of reproach, leaving his King lying broken in flesh and spirit, warded by the few that have survived that ride and run through flame and foe, only to find death here, driven into the two-edged trap of Serech, where the same watery muck that mires them, reedy tangle that traps them, also is barrier to their adversary — at least until one mightier than Orc-chieftan shall come to breach their shield-wall—

The Sight of the Balrog-lord whose flame lashed him, opening path for that hell-wrought shaft to strike where mithril-mail should never have given way, regardless how recurved the bow, the Sight of the golden Worm that has broken their Leaguer, running rampant on fire-tarnished ramparts, the Sight of Ard-galen's serenity changed to a blazing Sea — all of these or any may come, shall come, given time, if they do not fall to force of axes first, and the thought roils through him, spasming limbs weakened by more than iron, more than injury, and his herald's voice calls him back with Song of living, of stilling, of repose, despite himself—

—How long and dark a path they have followed, since days of fellowship in Valinor, when he was but the last son's eldest, far behind the eclipsing brilliance of his elder cousins, nor had any thought of such disastrous accession, to be other than artist, artisan, scholar, surrounded by such kindred spirits as his siblings, and these, no less true than brothers, than sister, who have not blamed him for this plight, nor the madness, overeaching his mastery, that helped, if did not completely bring them to this pass…

Eyes meet, and in that unity of vision Time slips forward for the King, who sees, not knowing if it is a true Sight or simply his own imagining of that which must be, the lock-pin pulled from gorget, the drawing-off of helm and coif, the sudden cold of Winter air on the bared throat, the press of lips against his forehead as his body is laid down on the matted reeds, the keen sword shining redly even as it is lifted into the glow of the far-off flames, full-handed-high that the severing be instantaneous, no slow battle against outflow of blood as he wages now, no struggle against dissolution, no lengthy regret to be endured the while — nor any hope of recovery perforce, damage mended by skill or spell, to let new suffering and starker take its place across the endless stretch of days…

As if in answer to his thought — and perhaps, nay, belike it is — his guardian carefully draws the whetstone from its holding wallet on his baldric and begins to sharpen his blade, working around him, still cradling him, without apology of word or look, to stroke away the least folding of the metal, small burr and nick and roughness that might catch, even as the edge is rasped to leaf-thinness, sharper than blade of summer grass, cutting the air in hollow whistle …

Guilt fills him — he is torn no less than the Guards beside him, stealing furtive glances at the doing, faces wrung with fear and horror and the uncertainty of conscience trapped, as he who sharpens blade is by contrary calm — for he should not so gratefully accept, should reject, refuse, — refuse to leave such cruel responsibility upon friend's soul, not slacken in relief at the fatal promise, acquiesce in such kind murderous deed, trusting in such loyal treason that he will not be delivered to worse-than-justice this night, whatever the price may be. But he cannot speak it, cannot do other than give silent, shameful thanks for his swift death before it comes.

"Flight!" The warning-word from the forward scouts echoes back, called through the line a little faster than the arrows themelves can fly. As the volley arcs over the fen from the trampled meads beyond the royal Guard fold their shields inward, tentlike, making low roof over themselves and their King. Hissing as they fall, the dark sleek serpent-shots rattle off the raised barrier like sudden hail, and flesh cannot help but shrink under that sound, whatever reason contradicts. The wave is followed as they know it must, by the renewed charge of their enemies, taking advantage of the disarray caused by such necessary warding, though few shall have been struck down by the rain of darts.

Overwhelmed by closeness and the taste of unclean spell, he struggles suddenly to reach the buckle beneath his chin and free his chafed skin from the bruising press of metal, but his nearest protector gently pins his hand, stopping him yet again from taking off his helmet, the which would serve nothing to relieve that which troubles him from within. And the thinking mind knows this is true, and such wanton risk no use at all, but sense ripped wide and flooded with the deaths of those who are broken in this night seeks only ease and free air… The other, stretched over him in final shield-wall of armored body, breathes apology, still trapping arm beneath his own.

The ring and roar of the fight beyond this trampled clearing loudens, and the shot-hail ended, the Guards raise their shields and form an inner ring, shortest sandastan to hold for long enough should the wider wall be breached — he feels his wrist released, his liege tensing to reach out for the fatal hilt, in strangest irony grasping it without stirring frame or limb otherwise, defending still against any injury save that which he himself shall inflict…

The mingled earth and water reed-woven beneath them shakes with the violence of bodies crashing and stamping upon it, and a sharper twinge renews that which he has grown somewhat used to, both the wounding arrow in flesh and bone, and the lethal music welded to its metal. Full conscious of the twist of fate that mocks his doing, the other whispers anew the words that bind its malice into sleep, folding it into dullness like ice overlaying the edge of a blade — not strong enough to unwork it, nor skilled to withdraw it without slaying, yet with all their company's Healers slain, saving the King alone, he does what he may. —And braces shoulder to rise for beheading stroke, and burns with anguish at what he has resolved to do.

—Peace, friend, the stricken one tells him silently, that have held my honor all these long years of Endor, how shall I not trust with my death now? Nor doubt I'll speak for thee, before the Throne, for what small good shall serve—

He tastes resistance and acceptance both, in the savor of his herald's thought, and the need to calm and hearten helps to hold back the storm of Sight, restrain the unending blazing tide, that flows inexorably over the land like flood more deadly than any sea, killing the earth under it down to the rocky bones of it, pouring along the ripple and slope of land like water, forcing its way downwards, drawn down the slow fall of the plain southward as armies engaged are themselves, have been, to drive hard against the standing walls of stone at the mountains' broken edges, or to drain like the yearly snowmelt into this sodden fane that guards the vale of Sirion — as they themselves have been drawn irresistably into this trap, as others have before them …

Beneath where they crouch lies a half-solid depth of watery silt and half-rotted reeds, the residue of an Age's growth and death and yearly renewing; yet somewhere far down lie, too, woven with the rest, the bones of those their fell-changed kin who likewise were hunted across the Plain, to fall back into the strangling cover of the swamps, where the swords of his elder cousin and his following hewed them and left them lying. —Ours too in time shall lie as deep, he muses, and wonders if they shall sink through to tangle in one nameless layer of forgotten enmity, friend and foe indistinguishable in the blind mire…

A fragile thread of warmth tangles his soul, drawing away the cold that spreads through him from within, slowly and carefully as angler seeking to land salmon with silken line, calling on the distant glory of the Sun, the memory of her power that the sleeping land holds through Winter, locked in the living plants about them, the small creatures of shell and slippery hide that slumber through warfare and cold alike, enfolded deep in the mud below the bite of ice, the sureness of Life that sleeps through the times of darkness to waken in its own fitting hour…

—It was no accident that our Enemy struck when Arien's strength was least, before the Gate-Time of the year, and his guardian agrees — No more than it was accident that our Healers were slain first, save thee.

—I too, he thinks, and it is hotly denied — laughably, given their situation, the bared blade waiting to send him West more swiftly than any ship.

The clangor draws closer, so close that the shield-wall moves outward, rising from their roof-arch to crouch forward, ready to hold if they are rushed so that there shall be but enough time — but the noise diminishes, the clamouring horde is beaten back, and the royal guard returns, lapping their shields ever inward about the center, about their wounded heart.

A louder whistle, like a marshbird's wing, twists through the air above and plummets down, and the impact jars through the unstable floor, and even as the thought leaps forth— So close—to be felt despite all the other tumult, the one who holds his life and death alike shudders, and the pain is like a stone-blow to the temple, stunning and stealing breath, and he cries out in dread, a short soft gasp to mirror the one by his ear, and fear for friend's life whelms all the rest for an instant, and he struggles to gather his strength, necessity of healing overrriding all weakness and reason together. It is past him — the lifegiving thread, woven of the world, and of all who yet stand by him, is fraying, held now only barely by one who has taken deadly (so he fears) hurt — yet would he give, if the twisted music in his body would not deafen him so—

"My lord! Sire—"

Then there are voices — Eldar voices, not Orcish, though almost even so hoarse and harsh — shouting and exclaiming, and Edrahil stirs, and shifts aside with help of hands, sitting up against support, face bone-grey under the masking filth and helmet-shadow. The spear, flung in retreat, has pierced his leg just below the knee, driving between the hinges of his greave, where the weak point lay open, unprotected, because he had drawn the skirts of his own mail aside to add further layer of defense over his King's helplessness.

With a thin-lipped smile he remarks, "At the least it's but one of our own cast back at us — no death-spelling — Of your kindness, if you would—" as though asking a cupbearer to refill his draught at a banquet. The nearer of the Guards crawls nigh to kneel, half braced with elbow against thigh, and grasps the wooden spar with both hands, his eyes unfocussed. "Nay!" he barks, unwontedly sharp, "That does not mean I'd have it pass through a second time! —Cut the head from it and but then draw the shaft."

Ashamed at his own confused unthought, the other warrior wrestles out his knife and with much clumsy effort braces the length of the spear against his own shoulder, working beneath to raise the wounded limb and pry from the wood the socket-pins that secure the flanged head. While it is being done the herald shudders in the hold of slow agony, the burn of the reversed thrust making him choke aloud and sink, brow pressed into the reeds; but he does not leave off from sheltering his lord either with body or spirit, and there is no regret at the generosity that left his own self exposed to the hell-hail — only gratitude that it struck not upon his King.

This graciousness moves him from unreproached guilt to strive again, to seek, to send forth his thought against the burning dark that rules this hour, not for his own sake, but for theirs — to call for aid, to whichever of his kin or Kindred might be nighest, but most strongly of all to his last brother, who still lives, he feels — at least whose dying he has not Seen this night—



This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

   
   
   

In Challenges

Story Information

Author: Philosopher At Large

Status: General

Completion: Work in Progress

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 01/30/03

Original Post: 01/29/03

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