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The Stronghold  by Aldwen

That was not the only evening of old stories. Others followed, either in the hall by the blazing hearth or, more often, outside under the stars of the northern summer by the campfire, even as Maedhros had said it should be, and again and again we were lost in those tales of bygone days, and we drew from them such joy and consolation I had almost ceased to believe still to exist in this world, so full of peril and loss.

But loss was inevitable, and summer was nearing its end. The dusk now fell sooner, pale mist was winding about the hills in the evenings, in the mornings the dew lay cold on the grass, and the first flocks of birds were seen flying southward, their keen cries piercing the air. The time had come for me to leave Himring if I wished to return to Eglarest before winter. But the twins were upset when I told of my intended departure in three days’ time.

“No!” Elros exclaimed, staring at me wide-eyed. “You cannot go! You should not leave, cousin Celebrimbor! Why can you not stay with us?”

“I cannot, Elros.” I shook my head with regret. “You must understand that…”

“I do understand!” He interrupted me angrily. “It is you who does not! You should remain in Himring! We are your family!”

When I replied nothing, his lip trembled, and he rushed out of the library slamming the door behind him. Elrond cast a reproachful glance at me, then turned slowly and left, tears glinting in his lashes. In dismay I turned towards my uncles.

“I regret. I did not think it will grieve them so!”

“They are children. Both joy and grief come to them swiftly,” Maglor quietly replied. “We shall speak to them. They will understand.” And he went after the twins.

“Maybe… Maybe Elros was right,” I said hesitantly to my eldest uncle. “Maybe I should stay indeed. You are my family – what is left of it. Maybe…”

“No! Do not even consider that!” Startled by the sharpness in his voice, I fell silent. “No!” Maedhros repeated once more. “There is nothing for you here!” With these words he turned abruptly and left.

Confused and saddened by his bearing, uncertain what to do, I remained in the library for a while. I took a book from the shelf and attempted to read, but the words and their meaning slipped my attention. At length I sighed, set the book aside, left the room and wandered along the hallways for a while, regretting the grief I had unwillingly brought to my little kinsmen whom I had come to love.

Suddenly soft sounds of harp caught my attention. It was a hauntingly beautiful melody, yet sad beyond tears, and drawn by it I approached the music room. The tune was not flawless, therefore I concluded that it was not my uncle playing, yet I also could not imagine who it could be. Soundlessly I opened the door and remained on the threshold, frozen in astonishment.

Elrond was playing. He sat at his small practice harp, his brow furrowed in concentration, his fingers running over the strings. They slipped from time to time, for the melody was very intricate, yet even so I could not help but wonder at my cousin’s skill and apparently deep understanding of music. For a long while I stood there silent, listening, moved by the fair and sad sounds, and at whiles it nearly seemed to me that the story of the song will unfold before my eyes in a heartbeat, and I both longed to see it and dreaded what it might reveal.

Suddenly the harp fell silent, and I met the frightened gaze of my little kinsman’s grey eyes. He looked almost guilty to me, therefore I spoke to him reassuringly.

“Elrond, I regret that I startled you,” I said. “But the melody you played was so beautiful that I did not wish to interfere. Did Maglor teach you this?”

The boy regarded me solemnly for a while, then shook his head.

“No, he did not teach me this one,” he then quietly replied. “I… I overheard him playing and memorized it. I think, uncle Maglor does not want anyone to hear this song. He is playing it only late in the evenings when he thinks that we are already asleep. And when uncle Maedhros is not in the stronghold. He does not want even him to hear it. Maybe because it is so very sad. But now uncle Maglor went to look for Elros, and uncle Maedhros rode away, and I am sad today, therefore I decided that I want to play it.” 

He bowed his dark head; his fingers were running absently over the strings. I pulled a chair for myself and sat down beside him.

“I am sorry that my decision to leave made you and your brother sad, Elrond,” I softly said.” I did not mean that to happen, please, believe me. But I must return to Eglarest. I have work to do there. And…”

“…and your brother is there.” The boy finished, raising his eyes towards me. “I know. He would be very unhappy if you would not return. I can understand that. I would be terribly unhappy if Elros went away and decided to live in someplace else. I only…” His voice quivered. “I will miss you so. Elros will miss you so. And our uncles will miss you. Do you know, cousin Celebrimbor, my wish did come true, a little. The sadness departed, somewhat. Uncle Maglor laughed more often and played more happy songs while you were here. And uncle Maedhros told all those stories that he himself likes so much, everyone can see that; and at nights he slept, not wandered around the keep! Now with you gone, I am afraid it will all return back to what it was!” His eyes were slowly filling with tears.

“Oh, Elrond…” my heart overflowing with pity, I drew the boy in embrace. “Maybe it will not. Maybe the sadness will stay away yet awhile.”

“I merely do not want them to be so unhappy all the time,” he whispered against my shoulder.

“I know, little one. I know. But you must understand – our uncles have endured much grief and pain. And there are things that weigh heavily on their hearts. But you and your brother, you are the glimmer of light for them. Like little rays of sunshine, you drive away the shadows, as much as it can be done at all. You make their lives worth living.”

“Indeed?” He looked at me uncertainly.

“Yes, indeed.” I nodded. “Believe me, Elrond.”

“I believe you,” he whispered. He looked at me gravely then. “What weighs on their hearts, cousin Celebrimbor?” he quietly asked.

“I cannot say, for that is not my story.” I shook my head. “They will tell you themselves, one day. But whatever may happen, Elrond, whatever you may learn, - remember their love. Remember all they have taught you. Remember the stories. The songs. Both the sad ones and the merry ones.”

The boy nodded solemnly.

“I will remember all that, cousin Celebrimbor. I promise.”

“Very well.” I smiled. “Now, how do you think, do I have any chance of making peace with your brother?”

“Yes, I think you do.” The boy returned the smile. “Elros is never angry for long. Come, I know where we can likely find him!”

Elrond hastened to the door; I followed. And he had been right. We found his brother soon enough, in the thicket with the ponies, still sullen, but after a fair bit of talking and explaining we did make peace. After that we remained afield, went riding in the woodland and swam in the river, enjoying the last gifts of the summer and returning to the keep only after the dusk had already fallen. There were no stories this evening, as our eldest uncle remained away, nobody knew where, and if Maglor guessed where his brother had gone, he did not say.

I retreated early, but sleep fled from me, and I long lay awake, and at last rose and stood by the window. There was a full moon; the wisps of mist winding about the feet of the hills were glimmering silver, and the room too was filled with a gentle silver light that suddenly reminded me of the sheen of Telperion. I felt my heart filled with longing, yet I knew not what I was longing for. To return to Valinor? But I could not bear forsaking Endor. My love towards this land, once sprouted against my own will amid the harsh rocks of the mountains of Mithrim, had in these centuries thrived and grown into a great tree, roots firmly holding to this earth, branches reaching up to this sky. No, it was not the return to the Blessed Realm that I desired. What then? And when I realized, I smiled sadly. Like Elros, I too wished to reverse the time, to go back. Not to fight Morgoth, but to undo my own evil choices, to stand against the fateful decisions of others. Like his, mine also was a childish, futile wish, yet, once it was there, I could not chase it away, and now I understood Elrond’s grief so much better. That grief of realizing that wishing for something is not enough, no matter how strong the longing.

Long I stood by the window, but still sleep fled from me, so I left my room and wandered along the silent hallways again, like on that first night after coming here. I walked aimlessly, taking turns and stairs without any clear purpose, until I found myself in front of the music room. The door was open in a slit, and a slender beam of light fell upon the dark tiles of the hallway; I pushed the door open and entered.

The room was flooded with moonlight welling through the window; the furnishings cast long shadows upon the floor and on the walls. Maglor’s harp stood in the corner, its silver and pearl adornments faintly gleaming in the twilight, and, feeling strangely drawn towards it, I went closer. I had not touched any musical instrument for years. But now I sat down on the stool and laid my hands on the strings, and after a short while I realized that my fingers were searching for the melody I had heard Elrond play this afternoon. Yet I could recall only parts of it, and my playing was but a faint echo of its intricate beauty; I had not the skill of my uncle, nor, admittedly, even that of my little cousin. Still, strangely compelled, I played on, hesitantly searching for the notes and chords that would bring back the sense of beauty and wonder I had felt despite the sadness.

Suddenly I realized that I was alone no longer and raising my head I perceived Maglor standing on the threshold and watching me in silence. Embarrassed, I rose and took a step away from the instrument.

“Forgive me. I should not have touched your harp.”

He replied nothing, but came and sat on the stool, drew his hands over the strings, tuned a few, adjusting flaws so minor that my ears had not even noticed them, and then he started to play softly, a variance of the same tune, seemingly giving no heed to my presence. I made a step towards the door, but then turned back, torn between embarrassment and curiosity.

“What is this melody, uncle Maglor?”

The harp fell silent; he looked at me, his face was pale in the moonlight, and his eyes – deep dark pools of sadness.

“I call it Noldolantë,” he quietly replied, and I froze at the name, but it was too late to retreat now.

“And… does it have words also?” My voice was low, nearly a whisper.

Maglor said nothing. Instead, he bowed his head, set his hands back on the strings and resumed playing. And then, he sang.

He sang, and the melody and the words tore my heart to pieces. Beautiful beyond telling, cruel beyond mercy, they brought forth our vain pride, our intended and unintended crimes. Each and every one of our evil choices was laid bare without justifications, bathed in guilt and remorse, as one scene replaced another. The holy light of Valinor shadowed by our unrest, then destroyed by the Enemy. Fell words spoken in the torchlight. Blood spilt on the white quay of the havens. White timbers and white sails catching flames, bitter smoke rising towards starless sky. Cold graves amid endless fields of ice. The body of my eldest uncle, covered with terrible wounds. Rivers of fire running over once-green fields, turning them into wasteland. The blue flame of the sword glittering in the hand of the High King in a hopeless challenge. Blood dripping from the fangs of the wolf, blood of one betrayed by his kinsmen. Blue-and-silver banners trodden into dust after the battle that had started in hope but ended in disaster. Green grass growing upon the hill of our slain people, a memorial of our overconfidence and our allies’ treachery. Screams of terror echoing within the walls of Menegroth and in the streets of Sirion. Land, scorched by the flames of war. Death. Destruction. Despair. All this welled over me, conveyed by my uncle’s peerless voice, clad in a melody whose beauty had no rival. When silence fell at last and I raised my eyes, I found that I was kneeling on the tiled floor, tears streaming over my face. Carelessly I brushed them away, rose and went towards the door in silence, swaying. But ere leaving the room I looked back at my uncle who sat moveless by his harp, his face now turned towards the night sky in the window. It may have been a trick of the moonlight and tears, but it seemed to me then that I saw silver threads shimmering in his dark hair.

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