1. Watcher on the Heights
A slight shift in the wind brought with it the scent of mutton stew. Coren’s stomach began to rumble in complaint; he had skipped breakfast this morning in his zeal to be out in the sun again after the recent foul weather. It had taken nearly his entire watch to remove the snow that had piled on the north face. The canvas that had protected the mound during the storm was now brushed off and folded away. As his shift came to an end, the heights were again completely cleared.
While winter maintained its stronghold here, no trace of it could be seen on the plains stretching out to the north below. From his perch atop Eilenach, he watched yet another caravan moving westward. Turning toward the east, he saw the darkness those below were trying to distance. And seeing, acknowledged that all too soon no distance would be great enough. Had he not stood upon these ramparts for years and done nothing more than note the gathering of shadows; had he not all but given up hope of a challenge declared?
Grogan’s hand on his shoulder startled him. The resultant laughter annoyed him, momentarily. It was too fine a day to allow petty grievances. His three-month rotation was over, in fact had been for a couple of days now.
“What has you so distracted? You’re not trying to spy out your replacement making his ascent, are you?”
His brother’s question, jokingly asked, required an honest answer. “No, I was watching yet another group making west.” Turning, Coren placed his hands on his brother’s arms in a rare gesture of affection. “It has been a fine, rare pleasure to stand watch with you this past month.” And it had. “Even if you still cannot play a proper descant.” And Grogan could not.
“One tune! One incredibly difficult and unbearably boring tune. Why you like it is a mystery to the entire family. It’s a measure of my fondness that I chose to even attempt the damn thing; no one else would have.” And they wouldn’t have. “Besides, you have some nerve goading me when you still fall for that same chess feint.” And Coren always would. “My sons play with more imagination than you.” And they did. And each knowing these bone deep truths about the other - over such inconsequentialities - was a comfort and joy to both.
“Ah, there you speak the truth. It does my heart good to know that intelligence still runs so strongly in the family - even if it did skip a generation.”
Cherishing these last hours with his brother, Coren didn’t attempt to avoid the headlock Grogan threw around him. They were both laughing when a moment later Grogan knocked his head and released him saying, “You do realize that you are a member of the generation good sense apparently skipped?”
Grogan noticed the irony and suspected his brother was unaware of the look that came into his eyes when he answered the taunt. “Aye Grogan, I do.”
“Off with you, Coren. The stew’s hot and I can’t help but notice that you have again been mule-headed and done all of the clearing. I would have happily moved some of the drift.”
“It wasn’t mule-headedness, Grogan. It was pity for your old bones.”
A snowball hit Coren in the small of his back as he was loping back to the shelter. “Now that’s a rude response to such kind compassion!”
“Compassion my arse! Now how am I supposed to keep warm this watch?”
The sound of his brother’s laughter was cut short with the closing of the door, leaving Grogan alone with his concern. He hated the change that had come over his younger brother. Always quiet, Coren had become silent, less animated, as though he was burning out. If that were true, what would he do now? Nothing else had ever held his interest.
Most mountaineers would spend a year or two in the rotation and then settle down, returning for the odd three-month tour every so often, as he himself had. They had families and homes, work to keep them occupied. But, not Coren. He had lived in the heights for the last ten years, never taking more than the required month off before returning to the next beacon. Coren had manned not only the Northern beacons, but had rotated through the Southern as well.
He was the philosopher, the poet. His letters home had contained words forged to a stark beauty tempered on the heights. His music possessed a passion honed by the wind.
Lately his correspondence was flat. Last week he had mentioned taking an extra month off. While he was certainly due the leave, and it was long past time to consider other choices, Coren showed no interest in a new life or even relief at the thought of a long earned rest.
Grogan recalled sitting with Coren as tales were recounted around the hearths of his childhood: sagas of cries raised and answered by distant friends; ballads of lance and spear, sword and bow, axe and hammer, all wielded together to fight back the enemy - to maintain peace in the valleys and hillocks, across the grasslands and orchards. As boys they could feel the earth shake with the pounding of hoofbeats whenever the old tales were sung, could hear the joyous scream of metal as it slashed downward to drive the evil foe back. There were traditions of battles fought and victories won. The grandfathers and fathers bore the scars of them with pride. And the children slept at night comforted.
But, it had been years since a call for aid had been raised. Instead people fled; cities emptied, fields lay fallow. Disquiet lay over the land, silencing even the bird song. Grogan felt the tension, heard the rumors of wildmen attacking in nearby Rohan, increased Corsair attacks in Dol Amroth, knew that the last of Ithilien had been abandoned. And still it had been years since a fire had been lit. Years, he knew, that Coren counted in days - each day a growing shadow in his heart. He had come to fear each new waking, and its lack of light. But times had changed. Allies were scattered and those remaining, suspect. Grogan had grown to manhood living with the threat rising in the East; while never immune, he was accustomed to it. But the shadow he now saw in his brother’s eyes was so foreign; it sent licks of ice racing up his spine, chilling his heart.
Coren had finished a second bowl of stew before he grabbed his ocarina. Moridir, the third man on this rotation was resting, but awake. He had taken ill a few days ago and Grogan and Coren had doubled up on watches. Coren would sleep after his next shift; just now he wanted to lose himself in his music.
The melody that filled the shelter transformed into a lament as Coren let his mind wander. Looking about him, he wondered if he would miss this place, or any of the others so like it. These buildings had been more than his home; they defined him, who he had chosen to be. Yet lately he felt naught but betrayed.
The frigid air that accompanied his brother into the cabin broke him from his somber mood. Wishing Grogan a pleasant rest, Coren wrapped himself up and took his instrument with him to watch yet once more.
Grogan’s sleep was interrupted by the sudden silence. It took several moments before he realized his brother had stopped playing. Just as he began to sink back under, he heard the snap and raced to the door. Coren had lit the torch and was racing back to the pyre. As he lit the waiting wood, he turned to Grogan “Amon Dîn is lit.”
The whispered words hung frozen in the air between them as each turned toward Nardol. The flames of the next beacon pierced the dusk before the first tear had completely trailed into Coren’s scarf.
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.