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Elrond shook his head firmly. ‘I had no worse a start in life than you or Elwing,’ he said. He and Eärendil leaned on the rustic rail of the wooden bridge and watched the water rippling over the rocks. Small silver fishes darted from the shadows to nose between the trailing weeds, indifferent to their presence.
‘My parents escaped the ruin of Gondolin,’ Eärendil pointed out. ‘I lost my home, but Tuor and Idril remained in Middle Earth until I was grown.’ He dropped a fragment of bark into the water and followed it as it wove its way along the stream.
His son turned to look at him. ‘Do you have any recollection of Gondolin?’ he asked curiously. ‘I have heard Glorfindel talk of it so many times – the trees and fountains and the airy white houses. When I first saw Tirion it was almost familiar to me, like seeing in reality something that had been part of a dream.’
Eärendil removed another piece of the loose bark and tore it to shreds, letting each fall into the stream. ‘Bits,’ he said. ‘As a child remembers. I recall sailing small boats in the fountain in the court where my naneth liked to sit – small boats with their prows carved like swans and sails of white. There were shady squares where people would gather and sing. Daerada’s hall. But it is a series of pictures rather than a living city. I was not old enough to be aware how it all fitted together.’ He straightened and raised his face to receive the warmth of the sun. ‘It is odd things that remain clearest – a stone flag in Turgon’s private garden that held the shadow of a giant sea snail. Daerada would often find me there when I was quite small, running my fingers over the curves of its shell. He would laugh and sit me on his lap and tell me stories about Aman. I had a secret hiding place in the hollow of an old tree where I would keep my favourite toys – I did not have time to fetch them when my naneth came to take me from my refuge to leave the city. I often wondered what became of them.’
With a flash of iridescent blue, a kingfisher splashed into the stream and emerged with a fish. He shook off the sparkling water and flew to a nearby branch. Eärendil and Elrond watched in companionable silence until the small bird flew off.
‘The journey to seek safety stopped me wanting to remember Gondolin for a long time,’ the Mariner admitted. ‘Those early years became a different world – one I did not wish to revisit.’
‘I can understand that,’ Elrond said thoughtfully.
‘I saw little of the battle for the city,’ Eärendil continued. ‘My naneth shielded me well from the visions of horror that ripped it apart – but she could not shut out the noise of battle or the stink of burning.’ He swallowed. ‘The Balrogs shared the stench that came from the dragon,’ he said in revulsion. ‘Like rotten eggs and ancient cesspools heated to boiling point and stirred into tar – and over all the sharp tang of molten metal. But it was the smell of incinerated flesh that sickened me most.’ He pushed himself away from the rail as if disassociating himself from his words and indicated to his son that they should walk along the water’s edge between the golden irises and the silver trunks of the birches.
‘Idril was no warrior,’ he said. ‘She was lithe and elegant – she danced like sunlight brushing the grass, and sang like a waterfall in the forest – she was the daughter of a house of kings, and she bore herself as such – but even she carried a blade in her hand as she held me under her cloak and slipped through the shadows to the way she had prepared.’
Elrond did not speak as they continued to walk.
‘I did not realise her purpose at the time, of course,’ Eärendil stated matter-of-factly. ‘I suppose I imagined her able to defeat Orcs and Balrogs as easily as she could me. It was not until after Elwing and I had wed that we spoke of the flight and she told me how she had steeled herself to end my life rather than see me a prisoner of Morgoth.’ He sighed. ‘Although Maeglin would have been only too happy to take that responsibility from her.’
‘I have often wondered about Maeglin.’ The healer in Elrond spoke. ‘He sounds to have been – unbalanced. Damaged by something in his ancestry or rearing that is not customary among elves.’ He glanced at his adar. ‘I have seen it among Men,’ he added, ‘but I have found it to be something that is almost impossible to set right.’
‘Eöl used enchantments to take Aredhel to wife without the consent of her kin,’ Eärendil considered. ‘And, while it was said that she was not wholly unwilling, I do not think she would have wanted Maeglin to know that she was reluctant to be his naneth. Yet both she and Maeglin were unhappy enough to run from Eöl when they were given the chance. And, of course, Eöl killed her in his determination to slay his son – that is not the work of a normal person. Maeglin had then to live both with her murder and his adar’s execution.’ He shrugged. ‘Intellectually I can feel sorry for him,’ he said, ‘but, nonetheless, I did not like him. He watched Idril like a starving man at a banquet – and he hated me.’
‘He was neither the first nor the last to break under the torment of Morgoth,’ his son said compassionately. ‘We none of us know how we would have fared under like circumstances.’
‘You would not have taken your beloved by the hair and dragged her to the wall, fighting and screaming, to watch you throw her son down from the heights into the flames of the burning city,’ Eärendil said dryly. ‘You would not, when you saw Tuor and those of the White Wing storming towards you, have drawn a blade and thrust it in my heart. Had Idril not dressed me in mail beneath my clothes, I would not have survived to take the hidden way.’ He glanced at his hands. ‘Torment might have made him speak of the secrets of Ondolindë, but only the flaws within him could have made him look on his betrayal of the city as an opportunity to rid himself of his rivals and take what he wanted.’
‘One thing I have learned,’ his son replied softly, ‘over many years of trial, is that it is more necessary for the injured party to offer forgiveness than it is for the perpetrator of the wrong to accept it.’
Eärendil glanced at him cynically. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘Had Glorfindel managed to forgive him?’
‘Hard as it might be to believe,’ Elrond smiled slightly, ‘he had. Although I believe that time spent in the Halls of Mandos had probably helped him to overcome his bitterness and develop understanding.’
‘Perhaps I should consider that as a cure,’ his adar observed, ‘or, on the other hand, perhaps not.’
A rabbit paused in its nibbling and looked at the two half-elves as they passed.
‘Yet I cannot feel sorry that Tuor reached us in time to rip him away and make him suffer the fate he intended for me.’ Eärendil’s voice was little more than a murmur. ‘Eöl had wanted to ensure that his son shared his fate – and, in the end, he did.’
Elrond stretched out his hand and grasped his adar’s arm, turning him so that their eyes met. ‘Nor should you be sorry,’ he said. ‘Maeglin’s end was brought about by his own actions. It was not your fault, any more than it was your parents’.’ He moved his other hand to clasp Eärendil’s free arm reassuringly. ‘You have blamed yourself,’ he said shrewdly, ‘for being the cause of Gondolin’s fall. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your heart, you have felt that, had you not been born, the city would have remained inviolate.’
‘Folly,’ Eärendil snapped, pulling from his son’s grip and stepping away hastily.
‘Believe me,’ Elrond sighed, ‘I am familiar with guilt.’
His adar turned and stared at him incredulously. ‘You are not responsible for what happened at Sirion,’ he said. ‘You were a child.’
Elrond raised his eyebrow as he returned his adar’s gaze steadily until Eärendil hunched his shoulders and spread his hands. ‘I sometimes think,’ he said, ‘that Lúthien and Beren were wise to keep their distance from the elves of Doriath. There were undoubtedly many in Gondolin who could accept my adar as a man and a warrior, but who had great difficulty tolerating him as the husband of Idril. And a half-breed son – they did not know what to make of me.’
‘Eru chose to permit the unions of Beren and Lúthien and of Tuor and Idril,’ Elrond said simply. ‘And he chose to allow those unions to be blessed. It is not for men and elves to dispute his decisions.’
Eärendil inclined his head slowly and drew a deep breath. ‘Tuor would have chosen to fight at the king’s side,’ he said, ‘but it was plain that the only chance of any escaping the ruin was to lead them along the hidden way known only to Idril and a few others. A rag-tag band of women and children, shielded by a few exhausted warriors, most of them wounded, all certain that they were only delaying their deaths by a few hours,’ he added softly. ‘The path took us to the north and climbed into the bitter cold of the mountains. The warriors of the House of the Golden Flower took it on themselves to guard our withdrawal and keep the way clear – many of them fell before we were hidden by the smoke of the fires and the filthy fogs that were all that were left of the fountains of the City of Water, but they had managed to keep the enemy in ignorance of our passing. Yet behind us,’ he said, ‘the towers of the city were bathed in flame, and the cries of the dragons echoed in the vale of Tumladen, dulling the sound of battle and chilling the hearts of those who fled. There was little doubt in our hearts that those who had remained behind would not be seen again among us outside Mandos’s Halls.’
‘There are many,’ Elrond commented, ‘for whose presence we wait still. And some – some for whom we will wait until the end of days.’
‘My naneth stood there,’ Eärendil continued, ‘in that harsh place and grieved for the end of so much that had started in hope, and for the loss of her adar and king. ‘To ice and flame, I have lost my parents,’ she said. ‘To earth I will lose my husband, leaving the air to take my son. The tragedy of the Noldor will devour us all.’ Then Tuor held her, Idril Celebrindal, and breathed courage into her as she wept for her adar and all she had lost.
‘Not all followed us to the Eagles’ Cleft,’ he sighed, ‘and, of those who took what appeared the safer path, none were seen again.’ He brooded for a while. ‘The passage was narrow and steep – and the wind and the jagged rock were eager to take those who faltered. Glorfindel’s warriors held off the bands of Orcs with difficulty – they were few and many were wounded, but they would not yield. Then the Eagles came,’ he closed his eyes, ‘and drove the Orcs off, casting them down to meet their end on the rocks. For a moment, then, we hoped.
‘But, when half the party had passed the falls of Thorn Sir, the Balrog came.’ He stopped and cleared his throat. ‘And Glorfindel challenged it, his golden armour glinting in the moonlight and his blade bright. They fought – and it was like the power of light contesting with the shades of the deepest pits. They both fell into the abyss and the silence that followed was like the end of the world. Then Thorondor,’ his voice cracked, ‘Thorondor brought up his body, burnt and broken, and Tuor and the remnants of the Golden Flower built over it a great cairn.’
‘I have heard Glorfindel speak of his battle,’ Elrond murmured. ‘But rarely, and little enough will he say of it. And of its final outcome, of course, he knows only what he has been told.’
‘His victory gave us enough time to escape,’ Eärendil informed his son, ‘into the jagged crags of the wasteland. No soft scions of the Hidden City we – no longer were we concerned with music and poetry and dance and listening to the song of water. The way was hard. Injured warriors healed quickly or passed to Námo’s care – there was little that could be done to save those more severely wounded. The ellyth’s soft gowns of pale silk quickly became rags and they sought barefoot for what food could be found in those wastes beyond the mountains. Elflings lost interest in play and learned to defend themselves with what came to hand as they worked alongside the adults to eke a living from the rock. We learned to hide and take what we could get, to clothe our feet in bark and weave rough grasses to keep us warm, to use slings to catch the birds that sheltered in the hollows, to seek roots and seeds. I know the adults starved themselves to keep the young ones fed.
‘And the forces of Morgoth sought us, sought us constantly, so that even our dead had to be hidden.
‘In time, when summer had come again and we were able to wander more freely in the hope of finding food and water, we came upon a stream that appeared to lead out of the wilderness.’ He smiled wryly. ‘We were tougher by then, and more skilled in the arts needed to keep the flame of life burning when all seemed lacking in promise; better able to follow a hope of salvation, however remote it seemed. Voronwë could hear the distant echo of Ulmo’s voice in the water and told us that we must follow it.
‘It led us down to the Sirion, where we found evidence of the fate of those who had followed the Way of Escape – and it was not a happy one.’ Eärendil looked at the peaceful wood around them, but he was seeing a sight far darker. ‘The bands of Orcs harried us more as we came into lands less remote, but the power of Ulmo was in the water and we endured. It took a long while,’ he added. ‘We were weary and weak for lack of food, but the greenness of the land and the song of the water gave us strength. The land was marshy and the biting flies drove me wild, but there were fish to catch and cat-tail roots to pull – and we could drink our fill.
‘When we reached the place where the willows trailed their branches in the water and the grasses provided a feast for the herds of deer, we could go no further. And, as our desperate fight to live eased, we had time to mourn what had been lost – not those who fell with the city only, although our uncertainty of their fate filled us with dread, but also for a third of those of us who had followed Tuor into this new exile and who had not survived the journey. And, of those who had died with us,’ he continued softly, ‘many had been among the youngest, who were least able to bear the privations of the journey. Of all those who had dwelt in Gondolin,’ he sighed, ‘fewer than six hundred lived.’
‘Long we remained in Nan-tathren,’ he continued, ‘where the Narog joined the Sirion in its passage to the sea. We grew strong again in that land of flowers and grasses, trees and water. But grief for what had been lost remained haunting and there were many to whom song and laughter remained but a memory.’
Eärendil fell silent and he and his son walked together beside the rippling stream as the sun bathed Aman in a comfortable warmth and the breeze rustled the lobed leaves of the hawthorns that edged their path.
‘You can eat the leaves, you know,’ the Mariner remarked, touching the fresh growth. ‘I have always been fond of hawthorn – it is not a showy tree, but it grows well almost anywhere, and it is generous.’ He glanced at his son. ‘We would call it bread-and-cheese. I do not know why – it bears no resemblance to either. The blossom could be eaten, too – or made into a tea. And the berries were sour, but better than nothing.’
‘It is good for the heart,’ Elrond informed him absently.
‘That I did not know,’ Eärendil allowed. ‘Not that it would have made any difference. After entering that desert of rock, we ate whatever we could find that would not poison us. Lichen, moss, roots – insects. Anything. A habit that persisted for some time.’ He indicated a broad slab of rock beside the stream. ‘Shall we?’ he asked and, in response to Elrond’s brief nod, he sat, stretching his long legs out towards the water.
‘Our homes in Nan-tathren were rustic when compared to the white towers of Ondolindë,’ he continued finally. ‘No more than huts among the trees – but we had shelter and food and we were as safe as we could be in a land where Morgoth wished to rule. But the song of the sea was in the waters of the Sirion and Ulmo’s voice echoed in its music. It woke a yearning for the endless waves in the blood of those who heard it, so that they could be no longer content in that soft green country. Idril heard it not – her heart was filled with a longing for the lands of her birth, but Tuor, the messenger of Ulmo, ached for the beat of the restless waters and the small remnant of Gondolin did not wish to be separated from what remained of Turgon’s family. We took what we could carry and returned the rest to the earth, following the river to its destined meeting with the sea.
‘And,’ he concluded with wonder, ‘to more destined meetings. A haven for many of those fleeing Morgoth’s chaos, the remnants of great Doriath lived there, in the Havens of Sirion, including Elwing, the only descendant of Elu and Melian. Not quite half-elven,’ he mused, ‘but the only living being who could understand how my mixed parentage affected me. Orphaned she was, before she had time to learn to know her kin; guarded by those who held her as the jewel of her House; beautiful and sorrowful. I loved her from the moment I saw her and we both knew that our fates were bound together.’
‘The heirs of Eärendil and Elwing gave hope to man,’ Elrond mused. ‘Like most prophecy, it contains meanings that are not evident until after events have played out.’ They sat without speaking as the golden afternoon turned towards evening.
‘I must go,’ Eärendil sighed.
‘May we continue this?’ Elrond asked. ‘If it is not too painful.’
The Mariner smiled. ‘There are tales I would enjoy telling,’ he said. ‘I have not had as appreciative an audience in two ages. I will happily tell you more.’ He glanced up at the sky. ‘But, just now, you will have to excuse me – I have other duties.’ He rested his hand somewhat shyly on his son’s shoulder and grasped it briefly. ‘Until tomorrow, my son,’ he promised.
Elrond smiled. ‘I will look forward to it,’ he said.
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