Battle of the Golden Wood, The
8. New Understandings
At the sound of it Leofwyn's arms shook, so that the water spilled over her bowl, down her skirts, spattering over her feet and her patient and over Oswy who worked by her side. "Mother?" he said, but she could not speak in return. Her hands, that had been so capable, that had washed and arrayed Oshelm for burial and calmly laid the first stone of his cairn, grew nerveless. The bowl fell from them and rolled away.
Gytha took one look at her face and scampered after it, thinking she grieved over the dropped basin, "I will get it! Look I have it, here it is!" and the child's lack of understanding was a bitter barb to the pain of Oshelm's death now come on her irresistibly, summoned by the elvish lament.
She found herself on her knees, the world gone black around her, only partly aware that her hands were over her face. Her back shuddered but no tears would come. Oswy was at her side, frightened by her weakness, not knowing whether to touch her or not. The sound of lamentation ceased. Leofwyn looked up wildly, wondering who had stopped the note her soul was singing, and met the gaze of the bereaved maiden with a shock of agony and kinship.
"They rise in glory like hawks in the morning sky," the elf-woman said, her voice thin from keening, "And our hearts exult at them. And then," she bared her teeth like one in mortal pain, "And then they are gone and we are forever alone... Oh, my Barandir!" She closed her eyes and began to rock, the body in her arms like a restive child she sang to sleep. Aelinoth went to her side, and a tall young elf whose face was all angles leaned down to place a hesitant hand on her shoulder.
Oshelm! it was as if something had been unlocked in Leofwyn. At last the tears came like a wash of blood from a poisoned wound, cleansing her even as it made her shake with weakness. Then a hand caught her under her elbow and an arm went about her back. She smelled the marigolds of burn-salve and the earthy greenness of comfrey. "Come, Lady, come away from here and grieve. Others will work. You have been brave long enough."
There was a spill of golden hair across her cheek and the press of silk. She looked up and was astonished to see sorrow and sympathy in the eyes of Rian, whom she had all but accused of trying to steal her babe. "Come," Rian said again, gently, "This is no place for you now, let me bring you where you can rest and take wine and weep your fill."
She could do no more than nod and rise shakily, leaning on the elf's narrow, strong shoulder. Yet even in her grief she wondered. However separate their fates might be, she could no longer think of these creatures as anything other than fellow women, like herself.
Oswy watched the elf-maiden lead his mother away and felt more useless than ever. He had not known what to do or to say. Leofwyn had never wept in his presence before. He had not supposed she needed to, thinking her so strong. He debated following her to give comfort, but she had not asked for him, and so perhaps she wanted to be alone. It was ill, knowing there was nothing he could do to ease her. He liked it not.
Nor did he like being left here among the women as though he was a child. Had Oshelm lived, he thought perhaps his father would have fought in this war of elves and orcs. Surely these slender warriors would have been glad of a Man's strength beside them. And Oswy would have been, as he had been before, his father's esquire and banner-bearer. He would have had a place, and known it, and been glad of it.
He looked down the long pavilion. It was a strange hospital. A rill of water ran through it, glimmering in its green bed amongst the grass, threading its way past pallets where the injured tossed. Leaves blew in and were allowed to drift where ever they might, when it would be a simple matter to sweep them away. In sick-rooms he had visited with his mother there had always been darkness and that slight odour of old blood, but here was sunlight and the scent of the mallorn-blossom. And though they would not spare labour to clean away the leaves there was always at least one elf with time to spare in singing or playing on the harp.
Oswy sighed and knelt down beside Cyn, who was propped on his side, half drowsing, half watching Gytha play with baby Scild. "Even the harpist is treated as though he does some vital task," he said bitterly, "Yet I am fit for nothing. If my father were alive, I would..."
Wearily Cyn narrowed his blue eyes and shifted to look up into Oswy's frowning face. "Oshelm is here no longer, Oswy," he said, "What you will do is for you to say. You are Lord now."
It was an apt reminder. Chastened by it, Oswy rose and found the bundle of green cloth wherein the elves had wrapped their swords - so trustingly restored to him. Taking Oshelm's sword on his knee he drew it and began to whet it thoughtfully. What should he do, now he was master of his own fate? What could he do, for Rohan and for his own people?
Sunlight dappled the canopy over his head and cast a faint warmth on his bent back. The pass of the whetstone over the smooth blade was reassuring and absorbing, so that he did not at first perceive how all movement in the tent had stilled. It was the harpist's silence that made him raise his head to see that the Lord and Lady had entered the pavilion and stood together, the morning sun at the Lady's shoulder turning their bright hair to splendour.
"The first attack has been repelled," said the Lord Celeborn, his face expressionless as he looked on the wounded, "We chased Dol Guldur's orcs from one end of our boundaries to the next and sent them howling into Rohan."
"We cannot hope that this is victory," Lady Galadriel said, "But it is a reprieve." She smiled gently at both healers and those of the sick who had the strength to look upon her. "There will at least be no more death today, thanks to the valour of our defenders." Then she began to walk among the injured, speaking to each in turn.
Lord Celeborn had turned to do the same, but Oswy forestalled him, standing in his way with the naked sword gleaming in his hand. "You sent them into Rohan?!"
At Oswy's accusing tone, anger lit in the depths of the elf-Lord's dark eyes. "And if I did, is it for you to question me?" he said coldly, "I recall no alliance between Lorien and Rohan, only ill will and the spreading of worse rumours. Do not stand before me armed and demand I account for my deeds to you, child."
Oswy took a step back, daunted. The drawn blade seemed but poor defence against the Lord's displeasure, and he felt both afraid and ashamed. In truth he had forgotten the weapon in his hand. He had reacted like a child, running heedlessly to protest the deeds of the adults. Just was the elf-Lord's rebuke, yet it grieved him strangely from one who had hitherto treated him as a leader of men. He had not known the respect meant anything until it was lost.
"I...am sorry," he said, and straightened his back to look up with more honour. "It was not meant as either discourtesy or threat. I was...troubled for my country and spoke rashly." A darkness came over him, and he knew his father's trust in him had been ill founded. Better would Oshelm have done to entrust his people to Leofwyn, rather than me. Nevertheless, inadequate as he was, for Rohan's sake he had to speak. He could not hold Celeborn's gaze for long, but found himself studying the turf once more. "But is there no way," he asked diffidently, "For you to pursue this host into the plain? If Saruman has sent armies against us, and our warriors are pinned elsewhere, I cannot begin to tell the ruin these new orcs might do, unopposed."
Fear lengthened the pause into torment, and then Celeborn laughed softly. "No," he said, "We cannot pursue them. But Oswy..." Oswy glanced up and was bewildered by the look of kindness on the Lord's face. The anger had passed, swift as a shooting star, leaving no trace. "I have taken thought for Rohan," said Celeborn gravely. "Already my messengers fly ahead of the orcs to Fangorn where dwells an old ally and friend of mine. I doubt me that a single orc will pass his vigilance, now that his blood is up for war. You need have no fear on that score."
Then wonder came over Oswy and his heart was changed towards the elves. Moved by an impulse of valour he had almost despaired of finding in himself he knelt down and lifted up his father's sword with the blade across his upraised hands. "Then receive my sword, Lord," he said, "For you have been a better protector of my people than I, and this is all I have to give in return."
Celeborn gazed on him in surprise, and for a moment Oswy was terrified that the elvish lord would deem him but a child, play acting. He did not think he could ever raise his head again in front of his people, or look himself in the face, if that happened, howsoever gently it was done. But then Celeborn leaned down and placed his hands over Oswy's, steel between them. "I take your fealty, Oswy Oshelming. Not in payment of debt, for there is no debt between us, but in common cause. Rise now, warrior of Lorien and await my command."
So Oswy rose smiling, and sheathed his sword. And for the first time since Oshelm's death he felt he had a place again, and he was glad of it.
It rained. Half the sky was black with clouds and half pricked with stars. The round moon turned the falling water to lines of silver, and sheened the wet leaves. In the cool freshness voices sounded closer and calmer, and the gold and green lanterns of Lorien floated like flowers of Aman, blurred and turned strange by the gleam and patter of the downpour.
Galadriel stepped out onto the uncanopied deck of her high talan. Here in the dark sky the water under her bare feet shimmered, so it was as if she danced on Ithil. And for a moment her spirit tore within her as the Sea-Longing fought with her desire to remain until the very end of the earth. I do not remember such beauty in Valinor. Pain puts an edge even on glory.
She ducked beneath the awning that circled half of the flet and squeezed the rain out of her long plaits before walking further in. It was warmer here, and the sound of the rain on the fabric roof was lulling. Long spills of water trailed from the eaves like pennants of crystal and diamond. Somewhere far off, in a dry nest like this, a nightingale greeted the rain with her own fall of liquid notes and, near at hand, the pure tones of a wooden flute uplifted a song of Nenuial to the midnight hush.
Celeborn rose to greet her. He said nothing, but poured hot spiced wine and pressed the cup into her hands. His fingers brushed the cold rain from her cheek gently, and he smiled before turning away and sitting once more with his back to the treetrunk. She sipped the wine, finding her own place, drawing on a cloak of fur and fastening it with a latch made of a single huge pearl. After the day's exertions and grief it was pleasant just to sit and breathe, to feel the movement of the tree in the breeze and hear the small crackle of charcoal in the brazier which lit her face with warmth.
It was hard to remember she was angry with her husband, but she made the effort nevertheless. "'Celeborn the Wise' you have been called," she said, "But I do not see the wisdom of taking on a child as bondsman."
"He is not a child to his own people." Crosslegged, Celeborn had laid across his lap an axe as tall as he was. Its grey ash shaft was bound with rings of chased silver, its great head of blued steel was inlaid with Elu Thingol's device of moon and falling stars. It beckoned Galadriel into the paths of memory and she came to kneel beside it, touching the tracery of Daeron's runes that made it look almost dwarvish to her eyes.
"Melian's work," she said, feeling the Maia's bright and watchful presence laced through the metal. A great anguish of longing for Valinor lanced through her suddenly, for Melian had returned there many thousands of years ago, and there she remained. Even as Galadriel's parents, and her brothers, and her daughter waited there for her.
"Yes," Celeborn sharpened the edge until it shone like the falling rain, "And older than the Sun. For Melian made it when Morgoth returned, and her enchantments are strong on it against his servants." The flash of his smile was fierce. "It has been a faithful servant to me: In the war beneath the stars, before ever your people returned to Middle Earth; in the War of Wrath, when the Noldor remained on the Isle of Balar; in Ost-in-Edhil, when you and I were apart, and too many times between. And every time I hold it I know that Doriath yet endures, if only in me."
Thus in this as in all things. To her it was a call to Valinor. To him an affirmation of his ties to Middle Earth. She looked away. "If the Rohirrim spend their children rashly what is that to us?" she asked angrily, "Tell me you will not take this boy into war."
"You would have me dishonour him instead?"
"I would have you..." she rose and paced to the door. Now that she had grown used to the warmer air within, the night seemed over cool on her face, "I would have you not have made this decision in the first place." She turned, feeling caged, wishing to just walk away as she had in Eregion, so at least she would not have to watch as he put himself in peril. "You know you will be forever looking over your shoulder to be sure the boy is safe, and you cannot afford to be distracted thus. No warrior can."
There was silence. Celeborn bent his head and sang over the axe a long soft song in an ancient tongue, strange to her. All their years of togetherness were nothing before it, and in its power he seemed to her, as at times long ago, as alien and remote as the most savage of the Avari. When it was done he raised his head and looked at her askance through the pale waterfall of his hair. "And here was I," he said, grimly, "Thinking you must wish for my death."
"I..." she tried for fury and found it beyond her grasp. The night was too cold and her heart too weary. Instead she lifted the axe away and came to sit by his side. "I should hope for it, I suppose," she agreed. "For it would shorten our parting." But she had seen Nimwen, clutching the dead body of her lover to her breast, and the human woman kneeling sobbing by her husband's cairn, and she could not harden herself to willingly endure the same. "But I find I cannot. It would be too mean a victory. I would have you come West because you wished it, not because you had no other choice."
He raised both hands and smoothed back the rain-dampened hair from her brow, smiling a slow smile of delight. Then he cast his arms around her and held her close, and the night no longer seemed so chill. "Thank you," he said, "I will take care. I swear it."
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