Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search

Beneath a Gibbous Moon  by Bodkin

A Star of Hope


Filthy waters lapped at the bedraggled grass, attempting to discard onto the ever-changing shore some of the bobbing intrusions from the land that now littered Lord Ulmo’s realm. 

The elf stared out over the relentless waves, grey eyes as bleak as the windswept sea.  This was victory?  If it was, he would hate to see defeat.

A flock of busy gulls squabbled over a half-sunken shadow in the murk.  The elf hoped that it was not what he thought it was – but knew that another unwitting victim of the Valar’s retribution drifted uncaring with the currents, beyond any need to scrabble for safety in this changed world.  Not, from its size, elf.  Nor man, come to that, but one – a deer, perhaps, or one of those long-horned kine – one that had not run in the right direction as the ground shook beneath it and then found, too late, that there was no sanctuary to be had among the tormented trees.

Doriath, he thought, his yearning stretching out over the rising waters.  First the dwarves had murdered Elu, then the ever-cursed sons of the ever-damned Fëanor had slaughtered Dior and their people had been scattered to the winds, but at least the land had survived.  Now – not even that remained. 

He folded his arms, and deliberately, defiantly, summoned images of his childhood’s lost home.  The spacious chambers and broad corridors of Menegroth, the fragrant, white-flowered gardens, trees that soared into a sky spangled with stars, cool pools of such stillness that they spread like glass, reflecting the distant points of light, until the movement of a restless fish shattered the surface to a flurry of shivering ripples.  Doriath would remain as long as those who loved it held it in their hearts – and he would not forget.  Neither forget nor forgive.   An unthinking breath filled his nose with scents of the sea – salt and damp air … and rotting fish and piles of insect-ridden weed and the constant reminder of the guarded realm the Valar shielded beyond its heartless barrier.

No, not for him the passage west.  Not for him to live on sufferance under the patronage of those whose kin had twisted and torn the world that was his.  East.  He would go east.  Seek out trees ignorant of the torment of their drowning cousins – trees that sheltered innocent elves, living as they had since the days of their awakening, far from the interference of the unthinking Ainur.   Beyond the mountains he would find a place – far from this haunted sea.  A place where he could do some good.

‘You cannot turn it back.’ 

The young voice held more than the melodious tones of the elves – it was touched with a vigour that had something of the Secondborn to it.   The elf looked at the youngster with disapprobation.   Could he not tell that his presence was unwanted?  Yet the elf could not dismiss the boy – who was, after all, the closest his king had to an heir.

‘Turn what back?’ he asked repressively.

The boy shrugged.  ‘Time,’ he said.  ‘It moves like the tide and will not halt its pace merely because we do not wish to change.’  He smiled – a flash of brightness that stirred memories of a dancing maiden, all light and shadow, in a grove now drowned beneath the indifferent waters. 

The elf blinked.  He could not – would not – like the boy, in whom flowed, after all, the blood of the Kinslayers as much as that of Elu: blood thinned out and weakened with that of men to make him and his brother true mongrels, but at times he could not help but feel a tug of recognition …  He frowned.  But was he right to reject the boy so carelessly?  Was Dior not his grandsire, after all?  Dior Eluchil – Elu’s heir – who had died defending his grandsire’s realm?  This boy – his brother – they were not to blame for the disasters of the last ennin.  Victims they were, as much as their uncles, children abandoned to die in wake of their parents’ slaughter. 

‘Is that why you chose as you did?’ he asked.

The onshore breeze stirred dark hair like night-shadowed silk and blew it across the young face as the half-elf bent to pick up a flat stone.  The boy flicked it neatly to skip half a dozen times along Anor’s iron-red path before it was swallowed by the molten slick.  ‘I am not altogether sure,’ he said honestly.  ‘I just knew, as soon as the words were spoken, that it was my fate.  It was a call that rang in my heart – one I could not reject.  Not I,’ he added softly, ‘any more than Lúthien could turn away from Beren – or Idril from Tuor.’ 

The boy’s eyes showed too much understanding for one so young.  Too many losses, too many battles, too much pain.  But with all that, a readiness to take up a burden that would daunt those many times his age.  ‘What of your brother?’ the elf asked.

‘He will be all right,’ the youngster said, as if reassuring himself.  ‘He will.  He will find out the fate that is meant for him … in time.’  He glanced swiftly at the impassive face of the Sinda.  ‘And, in the meantime …’

‘He has forgiven you?’ The elf raised a fair eyebrow.

‘Not entirely,’ he admitted, ‘but he is burying his dread for fear of losing what time we have left.’  He paused as the cry of a white gull wailed on the wind.  ‘He will remain with Gil-galad,’ he said, ‘and build a place for himself.’

‘He would doubtless rather have his brother.’

‘But we cannot have what we want, can we, Oropher?  We are left to make the most of what we have.’

Why was it left for a child to present him with a lesson in acceptance, the elf thought resentfully?  A half-elf, younger than his own son, one who faced mortality with a rag-tag band of over-hairy, short-lived Secondborn as his people, to tell an elf who had grown to maturity before ever the Exiles left Aman how he should face this … this broken world?  And yet …

‘Do you trust their word?’ he asked.  ‘This … this land with which they will gift you – will it be what they say, or another deception?’

Melian’s eyes, deep and dark and possessed of unfathomable wisdom, considered him from a young face that was more Noldor than Sindar.  ‘It will be as they say,’ Elros told him.  ‘Neither more nor less.  What we do with it … that is another matter.’ 

Oropher snorted. 

‘The Valar are not faultless.’ Elros smiled slightly and shook his head.  ‘They do not understand us, not really – they find us interesting, and know that Arda would run more smoothly if we would all only do exactly as they say, but they are … like eagles trying to raise squirrel kits.  Every now and then they turn around and realise that we have not learned to fly – and are quite bemused by our inadequacy.’

‘Yet you would put yourself – and your people – in their hands?’

‘We are in their hands whether we accept it or not.’

‘Is this what those Kinslayers taught you?’  Oropher’s voice soured as if he had bitten into an unripe crab apple.  ‘That no matter what we do, the Valar will follow their own rules and favour their own?’

‘More that the cost of our actions is more than many are prepared to pay.’  The young half-elf gazed along the bloody path across the sullen sea.  ‘But pay we must.’  He glanced at the fair-haired elf.  ‘We are given the right to choose – but what we make of that …’  He shrugged and lapsed into silence.

Oropher sighed.  ‘We are at one of those turning points,’ he said moodily.  ‘Choices made now will have long shadows.’

‘You will follow your heart across the mountains in search of the forest home that calls to you?’ 

The elf watched the waves eating at the shore – gently but with a relentless persistence that gave the land little chance of withstanding it for any length of time.  ‘I am not sure.’  He hunched his shoulders.  ‘My wife says that I want to run away – that I think I am declaring my independence, but that really I am refusing to confront the actuality of a new age.’

The young half-elf laughed.  ‘You will listen to her?’

‘If I know what is good for me!’  Oropher grinned wryly.  ‘Although I think she is no keener to remain at Gil-galad’s court than I am.’

‘I think you should go,’ Elros told him.  ‘This is not the place for you.’  He looked out across the darkening water.  ‘And the sea does not sing in your blood.  Not yet.’

‘And never will, I hope!’ 

The growing darkness softened the Noldor angles of the youngster’s face and concealed the hints of Edain blood flowing in his veins, instead strengthening the look of Elu in his profile and the echo of Lúthien in his voice.  He made no demands, this boy – not even asking for the respect due to one of Elu’s line, knowing that his mixed ancestry and upbringing set him and his brother apart … but he was the closest Oropher had to a king, whether he understood it or not.

‘Never is a long time.’ Elros shrugged.  ‘And if my experience has taught me anything, it is to avoid rash oaths and irrevocable undertakings.’

‘Then it would seem that you are following the wrong path, Elwing’s son.  You have accepted mortality and division from all your kin.’

Elros shook his head.  ‘A temporary parting, Oropher.  One that will last as long as Arda – but ultimately we will be reunited.’

The elf gave him a sceptical glance.  If the boy was counting on a hint from the Valar of eventual reconciliation, he was, most likely, in for disappointment – but he was not going to be the one to tell him so.   

The youngster was staring across the water, almost quivering with anticipation, as if he could hardly wait to begin his journey.  Oropher followed his gaze curiously, only realising as he caught sight of the silver glow on the horizon that this ritual had nothing to do with Elros’s future and everything to do with his past.  He pressed his lips together to hold back the surge of pity that quite unexpectedly stirred in him.  The closest that Elwing’s children could get to their family was to watch Gil-Estel as it soared above them – knowing nothing of Eärendil but that he was a hero, who had besought the Valar’s aid and drawn them from their self-imposed isolation to defeat their fallen brother.    Robbed of parents, grandparents, torn from their kin, stripped of their home, now the brothers were even to lose each other and be set upon different paths in pursuit of a destiny so distant they could not begin to imagine it.   

A rush of thankfulness for his wife, for his son washed over the Sinda.  At least they were together – and they could build again.

The brightness of the star shimmered in Elros’s face, turning his eyes to mithril and glinting in his hair.  He stilled as he watched the vessel’s slow progress.  ‘I wish I remembered him,’ he murmured.  ‘At least I can see my mother’s face – and I know that she loved us.’

‘You will need a family of your own if you are to found a dynasty.’ There was little Oropher could say to salve the youngster’s wounds.  Better, perhaps, for him to look forward.  He suppressed a wry grin.  He was a fine one to talk – determined as he was, his wife told him roundly, to wallow in resentment for a past he could not let go.  Maybe he, too, should start to look beyond this ruined shore and seek out a new life.

The slight smile that hovered on the half-elf’s lips suggested that he recognised the emptiness of Oropher’s comfort, but that he would accept it in the spirit it was meant.  ‘And Eärendil will watch over us all – until we all come home.’

A wisp of shimmering haze twisted over the silver-tipped waves, rolling as if dancing to the rhythm of the rocking water, taking on the Silmaril-sheen of Gil-Estel.  Oropher frowned as another veil of pearly mist joined it – and then another and another, rising up from the water to stretch towards the distant star.

‘Watch.’ Elros stretched out a steady hand towards the elf.  He spoke calmly, clearly undisturbed by the phenomenon.

‘What is it?’

‘You are not fond of the sea, are you?’ the young half-elf said.  ‘It is not something you tend to see when surrounded by trees, but on the open ocean …’

‘That is not an answer.’

‘Sailors say they are the spirits of the dead – those whom Lord Ulmo has gathered to his breast.  That on nights when Ithil is dark and only Gil-Estel brightens the sky, they come to the surface to dance and entice the unwary to their doom.’

Oropher glared at him.

‘But it is, in truth, nothing of the sort.’  Elros grinned.  ‘I have no idea what causes it.  My brother suspects it is an effect of rotting vegetation.  He lacks romance, I find.  But, whatever causes it, it is beautiful and I like to watch it.’

‘I shall be glad to leave the sea behind.’

‘In some ways, I will not miss these shores,’ Elros agreed.  ‘Although …’ He stopped and looked down.

‘The Falathrim have ships – and the urge to sail them.  You will not be abandoned by those who love you.’

‘Perhaps not.’

‘You will do well, son of Elu’s house.  You were born to rule.’

Elros inclined his head slowly.  ‘I hope so,’ he said.

‘And Elrond … He, too, is of Elu’s kin.’

‘Look after him for me,’ Elros demanded fiercely.

Gil-Estel followed its path slowly across the sky, casting dark shadows to contrast with the silver wave crests. ‘I will come at his call,’ Oropher conceded reluctantly.

Elros smiled.  ‘He will need you,’ he said simply.  ‘One way or another.  I know that.’   

Oddly, the undertaking felt right.  Despite his reluctance to show any weakness before the remnants of the Exiles and the intruders from Aman, it felt right to offer support to the last scions of his king’s house.  Whether or not those driven to the edge by his obstinacy – now or in some distant future – would agree with him, was a different matter – but he was never one to turn away from conflict.  It was, often, the only thing that made him feel sure of himself.

The light of the Silmaril caressed the half-elf, lingering like a blessing on his pale face and leaving fading sparks in his hair.  Oropher watched him, torn between pity and pride for this youngster, who had the weight of so much expectation and regret to bear him down, yet who endured it so well.   His choice was harder than his brother’s, for all it sounded so glorious.  He would sail alone into the unknown, with none but strangers to support him, leaving behind him all he knew, and face a fate that elves could not comprehend. 

‘It feels … odd – to be here at the end of things,’ Elros remarked. ‘Waiting to see how the tide will turn.’

‘It will leave sludge behind it,’ Oropher said dryly, ‘and we will be left to sort through it and dispose of the waste.’  He looked at the hungry waters.  ‘But all we can do is work in hope – and prepare for the worst.’

‘Hope.’  The youngster turned to watch the star.  ‘I suppose so.  All it needs is one point of light to brighten the darkness.’

‘A small light to keep burning in dark places.’  Oropher followed his gaze.  ‘Is it enough?’

Elros smiled.  ‘A light imperishable. It is enough.’     


Beneath a Gibbous Moon

It was the kind of rain that would find its way through a mountain five thousand feet above your head to soak you as you sheltered in the dark of a bone dry cave; the kind of rain that would seek out the slightest chink in a solid roof or the smallest weakness in an ancient wall to weasel its way in and saturate your longed-for bed; the kind of rain that proved the malevolence of elements presumed natural and innocent.  What chance did oiled wool and greased leather stand against it?

He hunched the poor protection closer round him and thought of all the things he would like to say to the one who was about to relieve him of this vain watch.

The road beneath him gleamed in the swelling moon as occasional breaks in the cloud allowed the indifferent light to pick out the wet chalk, stirred up and broken by the hooves of the now long-past trains of reputed merchants.  The trees huddled against each other, like brothers relying on each other to offer protection against a threat they could not drive off and the night sounds were subdued beneath the incessant lash of the spiteful whips of rain.

‘Nothing would get past you, my friend, now would it?’ a soft voice murmured in his ear.  ‘We can depend on you for our lives.’

‘Sarcasm becomes you not,’ he informed the new arrival. ‘Had I not known perfectly well who you were, you would be currently attempting to keep your innards from spilling in the mud.’

‘You flatter yourself,’ the elf informed him.  ‘You are good for a man – that I concede – but there is no comparison between us when it comes to speed and agility.’

‘But maybe, when it comes to street fighting…’ The man shifted slightly to reveal the blade he held low and ready before sheathing it.

‘I doubt Lord Glorfindel would approve of that,’ the elf observed.

‘Multifarious though his experience has been, I doubt he has had to escape from many baying mobs.  Or spent nervous months amongst those who would spit him as soon as look at him.’

‘I will make a point of telling him of the gaps in his knowledge next time I see him,’ the elf promised.

‘You would, too,’ the man said sourly.

‘Of course I would,’ the elf agreed, his sunny smile only emphasising the man’s glowering.  ‘I look forward to seeing how he responds – it is not often that the Balrog slayer is proclaimed inadequate.  Not, I believe, since Gondolin fell – and I am not entirely convinced that the insult might not have had something to do with the event, whatever the history books might say.’

‘I am so glad we met.’  The man attempted to shake the worst of the water from his bedraggled dark hair.  ‘I did not know what I was missing.’

‘How could you?’  The elf spoke with a condescending kindness that might well have inspired physical violence had it not been accompanied by the teasing sparkle of bright eyes.  ‘You had not before experienced the delight of friendship with a real elf – only those of Noldor blood who take themselves far too seriously.’

The man eyed him cynically.  ‘I think you have given me something to report to those who might object to your denigration of a noble kindred.  I doubt Elrond, for example, would take too kindly to your words.’

The elf raised his face to offer it to the rain – which seemed, the man noted, only too willing to lave it gently before sliding to rinse his fair hair, leaving it silken smooth.  If there was one thing he envied the Firstborn, it was their relative indifference to inclement weather – of which they had seen far too much recently.  Then, he thought morosely, there was their ability to keep clean even in this mud-soaked patch of land halfway to nowhere.

‘He is far too polite to say what he might think.’  The elf looked down and grinned at the man.  ‘While I am a Wood-elf – and, as such, expected to behave intemperately.’

‘Which you proceed to do at every available opportunity.’

‘Why not?’ The elf looked out over the saturated countryside before them, where nothing moved but water.  ‘A reputation needs to be upheld if it is not to wither away.’  He glanced sideways at the man.  ‘You should go and get some rest,’ he suggested.  ‘Dawn will be here soon enough.  And you do your best to ignore it, but it is obvious to the meanest glance that you are exhausted to the point of collapse.’ He indicated the empty outlook.  ‘There is nothing here with which I cannot deal – and I believe our companions offer hot food and conversation.’

‘If I lie down in this I risk drowning,’ the man groused.  ‘And I am not hungry.  I might just as well stay where I am.’

The elf turned his smile to the lowering clouds.  ‘The stars are still there,’ he observed.  ‘And on their re-emergence will shine all the brighter for having been hidden awhile.’

‘And in their absence the creatures of the Enemy prowl more freely.’

‘Even the stoutest of orcs will seek shelter on a night like this.  Your rest will be untroubled – if ever you can be persuaded to seek it.’  He paused.  ‘The fate of Arda does not rest entirely on your shoulders, my friend.  Do not think it.’

‘Is that what your weight of years tells you?’ The man’s voice was dryly sceptical.

‘It is what my eyes tell me.’  The hint of light in the fair face illuminated the elf’s serene smile.  ‘We do not stand alone – we are the product of all that has gone into making us.  Blood, training, experience – we balance on the shoulders of those who have brought us to this place and our people stand behind us.  For good or ill, we are their delegates at this knife’s edge.  We do what we can.’

The man’s dark eyes brooded over the shadowed countryside.  ‘It began in such hope,’ he said.

‘And will end in hope.’

‘Do not do that to me,’ the man growled.  ‘I have come to dread foresight and prophecy – they do nothing but deceive those who hear them into thinking that the Powers will bring them through to a most improbable victory, when all the evidence is to the contrary.’

‘You have heard your share of both,’ the elf admitted.  ‘Enough to know that they are easier to interpret in retrospect.’

‘I doubt I will live long enough to discover how the future wraps them round with significance.’

Above them, the wind tore the clouds to rags and let Ithil brighten the bleak lands below, glinting silver on the glut of transitory ponds that filled every hollow.

He clutched his wet cloak round him and suppressed a shiver.  ‘Do you not wish you could go home?’ the man asked.  ‘Back to your people and your forest of green trees and live in peace?’

The elf did not answer for a time, but the look on his face was wistful, as if he was remembering times that he doubted would come again.  The clouds shifted and reformed, and the absence of light made the world beyond their post seem darker than it had before the moment of brightness.

‘Do not you?’ he retaliated finally.

The man’s face twisted.  ‘I have no home,’ he said.  ‘Not now.  Not really.  Not for a long time.  I sometimes wonder if I will ever again be able to rest my head in a place where I can feel at ease.’

‘You need food,’ the elf told him, ‘food and a warm fire.’

‘And a skin or two of good wine – and dry clothing, freshly laundered and cedar-scented, and a soft bed in a safe haven.  A bath.’  The yearning in the man’s voice made his companion smile.  ‘And I will get none of them.’  He sighed.  ‘Old wounds are making their presence felt and reminding me that I am no longer young – and yet, what choice do we have?’

‘None.’  The elf sounded comfortable with the conclusion.  ‘I did not want to come – argued that this affair was none of our business and we had our own troubles to face – but I was wrong.  We have no choice, my friend, but to stand against this and hold firm – and die, if die we must.’

A spatter of rain slapped at them in a final display of petulance before the breeze blew the clouds apart. 

‘The temperature will drop now,’ the man said ungratefully.  ‘And we will be left to freeze in wet clothes.’

The elf looked at him in amusement.  ‘They must have finished their council now – and be sleeping peacefully.  You should be safe to return to shelter – such as it is – and take an hour or two of uninterrupted rest.’

‘At one time I would not have believed it possible to talk so much about so little.’

‘Those times must be long past,’ the elf teased.  ‘Back in the days of your innocence.’

The man smiled reluctantly, but his expression sharpened as the elf cocked his head to pinpoint a sound beyond the hearing of mortals.  ‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Probably nothing.’  The elf soundlessly loosened the blades he carried and shed his cloak to puddle in the mud.  He did not need a swathe of fabric getting in his way.  ‘Wait here.’

He was gone before the man had opened his mouth to protest.  Arrogant, he thought resentfully: that was elves for you.  Pleasant enough most of the time – but, when it came to a fight, they would leap into action and leave men standing.  Most of them found men to be a liability in battle, he knew – slower-moving, less skilled, less observant and not so quick-thinking.  And, of course, they had the experience of millennia to call on at need – as men never could.  He should be used to it by now – but he still found he resented the assumption that he should keep watch while the elf took action.

The man strained his ears, but, even knowing the elf was out there, he could hear nothing but the drip of the bushes and the whisper of leaves.  His breathing shortened.

There should be nothing to worry about – but you could never be sure.  And, no matter how many times the guard held, it only took one failure to bring about disaster. 

A hiss attracted his attention and he narrowed his eyes to see a pale hand wave him forward.  The man frowned.  Clearly whatever the elf had found was not a threat – but what had he seen that was significant enough to …?  He shrugged.  Anything odd was worth investigating.

And he could move quietly – he knew he could – but he had never managed to be no more than smoke on the wind.  Creeping up on an elf was an impossibility, so how was it that his companion twitched as he came close enough to stir the air behind him?

‘What is it?’

He followed the elf’s gaze.

A mist was rising from the wet ground, stirring and twisting between the trees as if dancing to a song he could not hear.  Wisps of vapour, white in the moonlight, seemed at times almost solid, then faded to nothingness in the shadows.

‘You brought me here to watch these will-o’-the-wisps?’ he murmured incredulously.  ‘It is nothing but an effect of this delightful weather.’

‘You know better than that.’  The elf’s shining eyes settled on him briefly.  ‘Look more closely.’

The man frowned.  He had seen such things on a thousand mist-filled mornings – why were these phantoms any different?   He stared at the silver trails, willing himself to discover what had stirred the elf’s interest – and found himself drawn to the elegant twining of the formless forms, longing to reach out, to touch, to surrender himself, to share the mystery they offered.

‘Blink.’  The elf grasped his arm, as if he was holding him back. 

‘I do not understand,’ the man said.

‘There are,’ the elf said sadly, ‘those bound to this world without surcease – and not all of them are friendly.  Do not follow these wights – they will lead you astray and keep you enthralled until you are lost to yourself.’ 

The man drew a breath.  ‘They do not affect you?’

‘They could – they have come close before now … but I am older than you.  I have learned that there are paths it is wiser not to tread.’

‘We must not come this way.’

‘They have no power in daylight.’  The elf watched the desperate dance of the shimmering shades and his voice was subdued.  ‘No power when confronted with life and love and joy.  They are little but shadow and memory.’  He did not raise his voice – the last thing they wanted was to attract the attention of anything living in these bleak lands – but the wisps shivered as he spoke, each softly pronounced word heavy with command.  ‘We know you now,’ he said clearly.  ‘And you have lost.  Return to the shadows and leave us alone.’

He turned and walked away without looking back.  The man glanced from one to the other and saw the wisps of gleaming mist settle back to the pools, marbling the dark water and turning it milky.

‘Come, my friend,’ the elf said.  ‘It is not wise to linger here.’

‘You are more than you seem, elf,’ the man said.  ‘You present yourself as a simple son of the forest – but you are more than that.’

Ithil’s light caught the elf’s profile as he turned and smiled.  ‘I am my father’s son,’ he said, ‘as are you.  We are both more than we seem.’

The man gave a brief snort of laughter.  ‘Everyone knows who I am,’ he said.  ‘It sometimes seems that those I meet know more of me than I know of myself.’

‘That is on the outside.’  The elf shook his head.  ‘Beneath the skin …’ He paused and inspected the man intently.  ‘You are the pivot on which the world turns, Isildur Elendil’s son.’ He smiled wryly.  ‘For good or ill, I know not.’

The Númenorean halted as the words rang in him with an unwelcome recognition.  ‘Did you have to say that, Thranduil?’ he protested.  ‘Do you not know that the words give life to the thought?’

The elf contemplated the man and shrugged.  ‘You need to get out of those wet things,’ he said practically, ‘and eat.  Mysticism never seems as intimidating on a full stomach.’  He indicated the growing band of light in the eastern sky.  ‘The night is past,’ he said.  ‘Our elders will have made whatever decisions their endless repetition of long-argued debates deem wisest and be ready to issue their commands. I doubt they will have noticed our dereliction.’  He paused.  ‘Whatever happens, my friend, I am glad to have come to know you.’

The pair regarded the smoke of a thousand small cooking fires dotted across the plain as the gathered armies of men and elves prepared for what might be their last day, before looking toward the dark shadow cast over the Enemy’s forces.

‘It will not be long now,’ Isildur said.  ‘The waiting is hard – but I think the battle will be harder.’

‘And who knows who will see it through?’ Thranduil said soberly.

The two regarded each other grimly.  The morning promised well, as mornings often did, but clouds lay deeply banked towards Mordor – and none could know how the day would end. 

‘Not I,’ said the man, ‘but you will be there.’

The elf grinned.  ‘Now who is proposing fateful burdens for another to bear?’

‘You will be there,’ Isildur repeated.  ‘To see the darkness fade.’

‘But for now …’ Thranduil rested his hand on Isildur’s arm as the man took a moment or two to gather himself.  ‘Breakfast calls.  A wise elf – or man – never fights a battle on an empty stomach.  Come, my friend.  Let us disregard a future we cannot read and take the short time we have to spend as best we can.’

Isildur squared his shoulders and uttered a resigned sigh.  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least it has stopped raining.’  


Beneath a Gibbous Moon – Waxing Crescent


The night lowered over him like a great bear, the constant smokes and fumes that loomed from the broken earth stealing sight of Elbereth’s stars.  ‘It could be raining,’ he muttered to himself encouragingly.  ‘At least we will face our enemy with dry clothes.’  A faint smile twisted his lips.  It was not a lot to offer them hope, here, where their lives were probably best measured in minutes rather than counting them out in longer periods of time.

How had it come to this?

Over the long years, there had been times when an end seemed certain – when the rock broke under his feet and tipped his reckless young self in the river, for one.  When he had been lost in that labyrinth of passages, his water bottle empty and with orcs scenting his trail.  When that warg … He reined in his recollection of potential disasters long past.  But he had always known that there was a way – if only he could find it.  Here?  The sullen red of Orodruin pulsed, the only light before them, deep in the darkness of Mordor, warning them of the dangers of this – their last stand.

How many of them would still be here tomorrow night?

Precious few.

And those who survived the day … 

He closed his eyes, summoning the image of graceful trees, cool air scented with spring and the sound of rippling water.  There was no point in indulging in despair.  They had made their choice – and it was the right one.  They could have done nothing else.  Their task was to give Frodo the chance to reach the fire – nothing else mattered.

He drew his cloak close round him as if to shelter him from the cold – but, in truth, it was not a sharp-edged wind that chilled him.  It took a special kind of courage to look death in the face calmly – even greater fortitude, perhaps, to confront the possibilities inherent in whatever survived the destruction – and there was so much, yet, that he had not done.  That he would never do.  He wished, briefly, that he had made more effort to leave word of what was in his heart before he entered on this – mad quest.

He would miss the trees.

The stars, he felt, would be with him wherever he went, but the trees …

‘The night before battle,’ a soft voice murmured behind him, ‘is the longest of all nights.’

He inclined his head.  ‘Filled with regrets,’ he agreed without turning, ‘and might-have-beens.’

‘We missed it on the Pelennor.’  The man’s eyes watched the darkness.  They would be foolish to think themselves alone out here – but whatever prowled the darkness prowled unseen.  ‘Battle was well under way when we arrived …’ He stepped to the elf’s side.  ‘But I have endured this before – frequently enough to know that dawn comes as a relief.  You?’

‘The enemy in the forest tends to come out of the dark,’ the elf told him.  ‘But I have fought in unavoidable battles often enough to know what it is to spend a nervous night polishing the edge of my blades and counting my arrows.’

‘I wish I could see the stars.’

The elf glanced upwards.  ‘They are still there, whether we can see them or not.’ He smiled faintly.  ‘And spring still stirs in the land, despite what we endure.  There will be celandines blooming beneath the trees in the Wood – and frogs will be mating in every pond.’

‘Life persists, you think?’

‘The trees will leaf and the grasses sprout – and the snows on the hilltops will melt and flow to the sea.’  He looked towards the north.  ‘Even amid this ruined land,’ he said, ‘there is life that pays no heed to the actions of those who will face each other with tomorrow’s sun.’

‘Long may it be so.’  The man folded his arms before him defensively.  ‘But – if Frodo fails …’

The elf did not reply. 

Aragorn sighed.  ‘Not that it makes any difference to us,’ he said.  ‘Not now.’

‘You should not be disheartened,’ his friend told him.  ‘There is more to what happens here than appears on the surface.  This could be a last stand – one of which there will be none left to sing – but, had we thought that inevitable, there would have been no point in our coming here.’  He glanced at the tall man.  ‘Or do you think that Mithrandir would have consented to a venture with no chance of success?’

‘Mithrandir is a gambler.’  Aragorn smiled suddenly.  ‘He hides it well, but he is willing to risk all on a final throw of the bones.’

‘Better to chance all in the hope of grabbing victory than die by inches?’  The elf raised a fair eyebrow.  ‘I prefer to think that he knows more than mere men and elves can suspect.  He has long been fighting this war– even as elves measure time.  He knows this Enemy better than anyone else who stands here.  Better even than do the Elrondionnath.’

In the darkness beyond the small fires that bordered their camp, wolves howled, their cries echoing from group to group.  Aragorn stiffened, narrowing his eyes at the night.

‘Peace,’ Legolas stretched out a hand to place a brief touch on his arm.  ‘They are not close enough to be a threat – they are watching for signs of weakness, but keeping their distance for now.  The Enemy strives to weaken our resolution.’

‘It is so still,’ Aragorn said.  ‘As if the world waits to see what will happen.’  He drew a deep breath.  ‘I hope Eärendil shows himself with the dawn – little as it seems likely.  The sight of Gil-Estel would offer …’  He sighed.  ‘Ithil’s crescent has abandoned the struggle to bring us light and sunk to an early rest blanketed in Mordor’s mists.  It is too dark.’

‘Darkness can be defeated by the smallest spark.’  Legolas sounded as calm as if he were walking the glades of his woodland home.  He suppressed a reluctant grin.  It seemed as if what he had needed was … to be needed.  By a king-in-waiting, no less, who had to be strong and certain for everyone else.  ‘You have the light of Eärendil within you, Estel – you do not need to see it to know that it is there.’

Isildur’s heir – the heir of Elros – stood beside him, cloaked in grey that absorbed what little light the night offered, black hair dishevelled over his shoulders, and closed his eyes.  His expression – well, few would be able to see it in the dark and those few would never speak of it.  ‘Tomorrow will be the test of that,’ he said.

‘You dislike depending on another,’ Legolas remarked.  ‘You are too accustomed to working alone and assuming all the burden yourself.’  He stared again at the smoke-obscured throb of the distant mountain. ‘We can do no more than trust in the one chosen to bring this to an end – and do our part.’ He lowered his head to watch the area between the huddled army and the Black Gate.  Half-seen mists swirled, blurring the borders between reality and nightmare, and in them prowled creatures more dreadful than the yellow-eyed wolves.  Elrond’s sons, he knew, would be watching with equal detachment as Sauron’s creatures slavered just beyond their fires.

‘Do not let them draw you in,’ the man recommended.

‘You know they are there?’

‘I have been here before.’  Aragorn sounded grim.  ‘I have seen the night-walkers when Ithil gave them an illusion of life.  I know their feel.’

‘Dawn will come soon.’

‘Too soon.  But none will get any rest tonight.’  The man turned his chin to inspect the last camp, where some among the host would be scribbling notes of farewell to loved ones, while others meticulously prepared the clothes in which they expected to die, and yet others talked of distant homes to those who would listen, or sang softly of love or war, or gazed blankly at a world that seemed suddenly far more precious for the fragility of their hold on it.  ‘I will walk among them shortly – talk to them.’

‘Éomer is passing among his Rohirrim, telling stirring tales of the Mark – and Imrahil and his sons are offering their support to those who marched from Minas Tirith.  They are good captains, all of them – and noble men.’


‘Has been set by Mithrandir to answer Peregrin’s questions.’  The elf smiled.  ‘Which should keep them both occupied until Anor rises.’

‘If he is to answer all Pippin’s questions, it should guarantee us victory,’ Aragorn said with a wry twist of his lips.  ‘A single night will never suffice to satisfy the young Took’s curiosity.’

‘I believe he would think it worth the cost.’  Legolas tipped back his head towards the stars.  ‘Look, Aragorn.’

The stillness of the cold air had stopped stirring the fumes, leaving them hanging over the dark plain.  From among the mists a patch of sky darkened to the west, clear as black ice, studded with stars. 

‘Menelvagor,’ Aragorn murmured.

‘An omen?’ Legolas raised an eyebrow.

‘We can hope, I suppose.’  The man watched the sky as the clear patch widened to reveal more of the Swordsman.  He smiled.  ‘It is encouraging, at any event.’

‘And we need what encouragement we can get.’

‘I am sorry, my friend.’

‘For what?’ Legolas sounded genuinely surprised.

‘For leading you from your forest to …’ Aragorn spread his hands to indicate the broken rock and blasted earth.  ‘You are a Wood-elf, Legolas.  This is no place for you.’

The elf shrugged.  ‘My adar and his spent seven years before Mordor – it is only right that his son should be here at this time.  I am just sorry that it is merely I who carry the torch for my people.  One elf for the Greenwood and the Elrondionnath for Imladris and the Golden Wood.  It is not a lot to offer by way of a final alliance.’

‘Your adar’s only son?  And my brothers?  No army could cost more.’

‘But an army might have been of greater help,’ Legolas said dryly.  ‘Only I am afraid that the forces of the Greenwood are struggling for survival under the trees – while Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel are fighting their own battles.’

‘And, for them, victory will cost as much as defeat.’  Aragorn sounded bitter.

‘Victory is always preferable,’ Legolas declared. ‘Even if the cost is high.  It is better than the alternative.’  The swift glance towards the man was filled with sympathy.  Whatever happened, it would cost Isildur’s heir dearly.  Failure would cost him more than his life – yet success would rob the one he thought of as his father of his daughter – and worse, tear from the Dúnadan the life he had lived over more than half a century to replace it with one of stuffy propriety.  But the man could do it.  If anyone could.  ‘We are here of our own will, Aragorn,’ he said gently.  ‘You released those who could not endure the morrow.  All here know their danger – and follow you because it is their last hope.’

‘Our last hope …’ Aragorn raised his eyes to the distant forge glow in the drifting smokes of Mordor.  ‘Our last hope does not stand here.’

‘They do not know that.’  The elf smiled wryly.  ‘They look to their king – returned from myth to lead them.’

‘And I will lead them to their deaths.’

‘Probably.’  The elf sounded remarkably calm about the prospect.  ‘But is it not worth it?  I would not choose to skulk away in the hidden places of the world while Sauron’s minions seek to destroy all that is good and fair and free.’

The man drew a deep breath and lowered his eyes to study the ground.  ‘I would have gone with Frodo to the end,’ he said, ‘but, perhaps, this is how I am meant to defend him at the last.  Better that Isildur’s heir should not have Isildur’s Bane within his reach.’ 

‘You underestimate yourself, Aragorn,’ the elf informed him.  ‘You are not your many-times ancestor, as he was not his.  Isildur sprang from the final arrogance of imperial Númenor – he was accustomed to the weight of a crown … to taking what he saw as his due.  You are – almost too modest, my friend.  Raised to a life of service – of patience – of endurance.  And you will do what you can – which is all that any of us can do.’

A gust of wind flicked back the edge of Aragorn’s cloak.  He looked up.  ‘It comes from the north,’ he said.

The elf pulled a face.  ‘And brings with it scents I could happily do without.’  He glanced towards the foul pits and heaps of slag that marred the northern slopes.  ‘The sky is beginning to lighten and the phantoms that haunt the night are gone.  If I did not know better, I would say we were alone here.’

‘This is one dawn I cannot welcome.’

‘Yet without it, we would face perpetual night.’  The faint light that clung to the Firstborn glimmered about the elf in a fluid silver flicker, reminding the man that, for all Legolas’s apparent youthful modesty, he was a warrior of long centuries’ experience.

Aragorn grinned reluctantly.  ‘You hide it well, my friend, but you puncture bubbles of pretension as effectively as my brothers.’  He squared his shoulders.  ‘Enough introspection,’ he said.  ‘There is little point brooding over what cannot be changed.  We are here now.  One way or another, we make an end.’

The elf clasped his friend’s arm in salute.  ‘The plans are set?’ he asked.

‘We ring the hills of rubble the Enemy has provided for us,’ Aragorn said briefly.  ‘With our backs to the stone, we take advantage of what little cover exists – and will stand as long as we may. We have no better plan.  We will hold the left, leaving Éomer and Imrahil the right flank.’

Legolas considered.  ‘It will do as well as any scheme.’  His eyes gleamed with sudden ferocity.  ‘And may each of my arrows do its work well.’

‘Come, my friend.’  Aragorn stretched and turned his back resolutely on the looming rampart of Cirith Gorgor.  ‘Let us spend what is left of the night with those who followed us here – and let them feel that we, at least, have no doubts.’

‘Well, we have none, have we?’  The elf smiled faintly.  ‘We are where we must be – and will do what we must do.  Our faith is in Frodo.’

‘We will play our part to the end,’ Isildur’s heir vowed.  ‘Let no weakness of ours expose him to any greater risk than he faces already.’

‘The banners of the Captains of the West will defy the hordes of Mordor and hope will lead us to the beginning of a new age.’

‘I hope that was a prophecy, my friend.’  Aragorn grinned tightly.  ‘It promises better than what is in my heart, so I might just take it as one – if you have no objection.’

Legolas waved an airy hand.  ‘Be my guest,’ he said. ‘I will foretell a dry day, too, if that makes you feel any better.’

‘And a long one.’  The man’s voice became grim.

‘Only for the fortunate among us.’

‘May it end well for you … for all who survive it.  And lead to a better tomorrow.’

‘One founded in faith,’ Legolas said with conviction, following the tall man towards those huddled round the embers of the campfires, ‘and built on hope.’


Home     Search     Chapter List