16. Some Successes
He slung the bow over his shoulder and ran swift from bough to bough, climbing ever upwards, until at last he stood amid the frail tops of the trees and was lashed by a bitter wind streaming from the snows on the Redhorn gate. Leaves tore from the twigs and went whirling in the gust - a sinuous rush of bright colour against the Mordor fume. Lorien's canopy seethed like the sea.
Watching the battlefield below, Erethon saw Calandil's cavalry come winging home, a trail of brilliance through the slick of Dol Guldur's army, and there, like a star at rest in the night sky, stood Celeborn amid the fray, and a shadow loomed over him. But even as Erethon saw it, the storm at his back grew wilder, and the clouds were rent apart, and sunlight fell upon his face like a blessing. Then the dark thing that faced his Lord was scattered, wailing, on the wind, and the trees of Lothlorien stood once more radiant in golden light. He drank in their beauty with the awe in which one who dies of thirst weeps over his first taste of water.
But joy was short lived. Borne on the blast, there came out of Moria a great, winged thing, hideous with scale and sable claw. The lieutenant of Khamul, enraged, soared to his doomed master's aid.
Above Erethon the Nazgul turned, blotting out the sun. Darkness engulfed the elf as he swayed upon his frail perch, and an icy shade fell on him. Then he thought of the monster, Ungoliant, who sucked all the light from the land of Aman, and he was in fear. "Elbereth!" he breathed.
The name strengthened him. As the monster passed him by, racing down the torrent of air towards the battle, he reached for his last arrow and nocked it. Riding the thrashing tree tops like a bucking horse, he aimed and let fly.
Of horn and metal was the Uruk-bow Erethon had salvaged, a torment to pull, and the arrow's head was made to gore horses - a crescent of rusted iron. It struck the beast in the neck, tore through the plates of its skin, burrowed into its throat. Blood fell on Lorien like a black rain. Then the creature crumpled and the wide wings of skin and stench folded, and the Nazgul plummeted from the sky like the bolt from an arbalest, straight upon the city of Caras Galadhon.
Galadriel walked among the wounded in the healer's tents by the glade of the Fountain. Lamps were lit there, and the stretched white linen made a glimmer against the sky. Green and gold and white, the lanterns shimmered in the leaping water, and the harpist played and sang. Even so it must have been, she thought, In Beleriand in the days before the sun. Every light and every note of music a defiance against overshadowing evil.
She stopped to speak to Aelinoth and hear news of the healer's needs, sending her maids running to break open old stores, long untouched in days of peace. Smiling on those who recovered, she spoke gentle words of thanks and encouragement. With those who died, she lingered, bringing with her touch and her voice what absolution, what comfort she might. And she knew, from their open hearts and faces that her people loved her for it.
It was a heavy burden. Their trust in her strength, their certainty that she was wise and powerful enough to protect them...they were an accusation. For on Galadriel a curse lay, that she would bring ruin to everything she began, and every work of hers would perish in destruction. In all her long life she had run from that curse; leaving Doriath and Nargothrond to the catastrophe she had foretold for them, hearing of it from afar because to look would have broken her heart. She had taken her contagion to Eregion, but from that great city too, rejected, she had fled, ere it fell. Never had she stayed, never had she lived through the hopelessness, the defeat. Never had she watched as decay and death took that which she had loved.
Always she had sought to evade Namo's judgement. But not this time.
This time she would end it. Already she had rejected her hearts desire, for which she left Aman; giving up the power and dominion of the Ring. Now she would drain in full the cup of punishment the Valar had set before her. She would stay, and she would see what terror, what desolation, would come upon the folk of Lorien for foolishly allowing her to rule them. She would stay, and she would suffer the loss of everything, not in hope of forgiveness - for long ago she had rejected the Valar's pardon, and could not expect to have it again - but simply in the wish to have all scores settled. In the wish that finally it would be over.
Through the ring she bore she sensed, in twisted kinship, the release of Khamul from his long servitude - the spirit passing beyond the walls of the world - and she thought of her Lord, whose hand had brought this strange deliverance. As a curse I have been to him also, she thought, and her smile was wan as she bathed the brow of a young elf feverish with orc-poison. For lost and broken are both of our children, and now our marriage. Even as Mandos had said, all that she wrought came apart in her hands and she ended with nothing.
"Look! My Lady, look!"
The harpist had risen from his knoll and stood, pointing up into the tormented sky. Above the tempest of leaves, wind tore apart the clouds. The sun shone out, and her merry, valiant light bathed the falling shape of a Nazgul upon his fell beast. Golden shadows played over the tumbling form, but could not make it fair.
"My Lady it falls! It falls on us! What is there to stop it?"
The chill of the wraith's presence went before it, and throughout the healer's pavilion the sick cried out in their sleep, as their dreams darkened, and their strength was sapped. Galadriel saw the Man, Cyn, sit weeping. His daughter stirred, nightmare pinching her round cheeks. She woke, wailing, and scrambled into her father's arms, but he would not hug her, he would not even raise his head and look at her, lost, sunk in the hopeless misery of the black breath.
Then anger took Galadriel. Did this creature think to pass her wards simply by falling from the sky? She was not so limited as that. Long she had accustomed Lorien to her rule, and now it gave up strength into her hands. She filled herself with the white glory of Nenya, with the abundant life of the forest, and then she reached out, as she had at the feast, and sent a fountain of brilliance to cleanse the Ulari out of existence.
Her power struck. She felt the wraith scream in terror at the touch of the light of Aman. She felt the call of his ring, and the answer - hundreds of miles away - from the Dark tower of Barad-dur. The Eye moved. At the Black Gate it had been focussed, watching the Captains of Gondor, puzzling over their reckless, suicidal march into his land. Watching with all the satisfaction of a cat toying with its prey before it eats. But now it turned to her and all the hatred of Sauron for the elves arced out of the basking, azure sky like lightning. She was seared and cold together, exposed, withering like a hand in flames. Distantly, she beheld Khamul's lieutenant floating like a speck of ash above her fire. But clearer to her was the mind of the undead king, suspended in torment between the sharp edges of her will, and Sauron's command. Unexpectedly, pity filled her, for she understood the wraith all too well.
Go, she thought, as a blizzard of coruscating light scoured her mind, shook her body. She felt that she must burst in pieces, but still, within the radiance there was a strange, terrible peace, Go, King of Men, to the doom you have been outrunning too long. You are weary and frightened, but now it is time to rest.
He had no more faith in the forgiveness of the Powers than she. He had to be pried, talon by talon, from his famished and broken life, and as she forced him to let go, she could feel Sauron's rage upon her in an agony of flame. But at last it was done. Open as she was, she caught the scene from the eyes of the onlookers, saw herself - slender and small - in the centre of the pillar of light. Lamps dimmed in her aura; trees washed too bright to hold colour, and for a moment all Lorien became white. At that instant, she felt the spirit of the Nazgul break, like a louse pinched between two nails. What was left she and Sauron shredded between them. He was gone.
She stumbled. The light flickered. The Eye pressed at her very soul and she pushed it away, wearily, ineffectually, while the Maia behind it took pleasure in the thought of breaking her.
*NOT YET* said the Dark Lord. At their meeting in Eregion he had kissed her hand in elegant gallantry, and looked up from the gesture with a smile. His heartbreaking amber gaze had drifted gently to her husband, to her children, marking them. Loathing had struck her then, the first foretaste of a revulsion that had darkened her life for a thousand years. It seemed the sentiment was mutual. *FIRST I WILL SLAY ALL THOSE YOU LOVE, AND TREAT WITH YOU AS I DID WITH YOUR DAUGHTER. ONLY THEN WILL I ALLOW YOU TO BEG ME FOR DEATH."
"My life or death is not yours to give," she said, faintly, and calling all the strength of her fea into her hand, she built once more the wall she held against him in her mind.
"Lady? Are you...?"
Galadriel opened her eyes, expecting to see a ring of flame, the hot, black slitted pupil of the Eye of Sauron. Instead there fell about her - fragile as ash - the drifting dirt that was all that was left of one of the Nine.
"I am well," she said, and straightened her back. "I go now to the mirror glade to see how the war progresses. I do not wish to be disturbed there."
Aching, she turned away. The looks of awe which followed her were little balm to the feeling of being charred black within. She wondered where Celeborn was; if he yet lived. And for a moment she wished it had been the Nazgul who had triumphed, she who had been scattered on the wind.
Celeborn stood on the field of battle and watched as Oswy struggled against the call of Khamul's ring. With one part of his mind the boy could see him, standing poised and intent above the power that should rightfully belong to Oswy. The ring of a king of Men, a strength only Men could wield, a glory which no elf had the right to withhold from him. Clumsy in his own body, Oswy stooped down and picked up his father's sword, which he had let fall in his terror. If only he bore the ring on his hand! Then this sword would never again be treated with such disrespect, for he would be afraid of nothing. Nay! But the servants of evil would fear him! He would take the sword of Oshelm and cleanse Rohan, cleanse the world, of liars, of those who were jealous of Men's dominion, all those who by trickery and dwimmorcraft tried to hold back the golden dawn which rightfully belonged to his people.
He shifted, brought the the sword up, and stepped, so that the fullared point hovered a bare hands breath from the elf-lord's unprotected throat. "Do not stand between me and what is mine."
The edges of his vision were full of elves. Terrible they seemed now - their gazes bright and sharp as lances, their very stillness a threat of sudden, lethal grace. All watched him silently, but in more than one face there was contempt. It fuelled his fury at them, until he desired nothing more than to lunge forward and drive the steel blade into their Lord's neck. Hatred they might find for him then, but at least their contempt would be silenced.
As the black rage boiled heavily in his chest a cry came from above. He looked and saw the second Nazgul come racing towards him like the onset of the end of the world. Evil it might be, but its power was awesome, and its vile, implacable will went out before it, filling him with certainty. He must have the ring. He would kill as many of the elves as it took, but he must have it.
He bared his teeth, drew back the sword in preparation for the strike. The point wavered and flashed in the sunlight as he trembled. His mind might be set, but his body revolted from this, and his arm shook. An arrow went up - an arc of blazing silver above Lorien - and the second Nazgul fell, ruinously, upon the Sorcerous Wood. Light burst from the trees, whiter than the snow on Gondor's mountains, and was gone. Then Celeborn took the point of Oshelm's sword in the palm of his gloved hand and moved it gently aside. "Oswy," he said, "You swore to my service on this blade. Would you so dishonour your father's weapon?"
In the face of the Lord of Lorien there was no disdain, only an understanding as clear and cold as a spear of ice. "Is this you, or is it but a foretaste of what the ring will bring you to? Do not let it do this."
'"Is this you?"' the words rang in his head, like the breath of winter that stills a churning stream, grey troubled water becoming solid and transparent; a place to stand. This was not him. Where had the desire that now consumed him come from? He did not recognize it in himself. Was it possible that this seethe of hot and salt desire had been the essence of him all along? Was he so vile? Is this me?.
Father! he cried out, and saw - as if in dream - Oshelm. Arrayed in armour, the sun a sheen of gold across the mask of his helm, his yellow hair glinting on his shoulders, and his eyes so like the sky it seemed they held heaven's light. "I did not raise you to break your oaths, or betray your allegiances, my son."
Father... Whether dream or vision, Oshelm placed his hand on Oswy's wrist, and for a moment the boy felt it. He felt his father's touch on his skin.
His arm ached and fell, and his grip slackened on the pommel of Oshelm's sword, leaving Celeborn holding it by the blade above the muck and blood of the battlefield. Oswy's eyes filled with tears, and the image of Oshelm blurred, wavered. No! Wait! But it was gone - a trick of his mind, no more; a phantom of his need for aid, the true expression of his heart. And he thought, dazed, I am Oshelm's son. Leofwyn's son. What more power do I need?
He gasped, and felt his mind resettle in his body, the devouring lust for the ring gone, a strange, shaken peace in its place. How had he come to this? Thus Khamul must have fallen, and the other, from whom the ring had taken even his name. "Oh," he staggered, finding Ardil at his side, supporting him with a troubled look. "Oh...what happened to me? I am so..." he raised his head and looked at them all - his companions in arms, his Lord, "I am so sorry. So sorry. I knew not that I was so weak."
A strange expression came over Celeborn's fair face, and his ancient eyes were full of secrets. "You are not weak, Oswy," he said, with certainty. "There are many Men and too many of the Eldar who had not the strength that you have just shown. Did he know, your father would be as proud as I." Turning the sword of Rohan in his hands, he offered the hilt once more to Oswy's grasp, and though Oswy did not understand the weight of sorrow that burdened the Lord's words, he recognized the gesture of trust well enough, and he felt again the need to weep.
"I do not forget that you saved my life, Oswy Edhellon," said Celeborn, and he passed the reins of Calandil's horse to the boy. Calandil lay across the saddle-blanket, shrouded in a cloak of silver-grey. "Now come, let us take our friend home."
Edhellon = 'elf-friend'