Prompt from Back to Middle-earth Month (B2MeM) 2014: Seasons of Middle-earth: Summer.
Tolkien's stories frequently feature cities, dynasties, or entire groups of people who rise and then fall in importance. Write or create art about a place or group that is at the height of its achievement.
"Only I hear the stones lament them: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago." – Legolas, FotR
S.A. 1363, Ost-in-Edhil
Ereinion bowed his head to accept the crown. The young girl hid her smile as petals fell over his face. Círdan to his right adjusted his crown, looking much more pleased than the Dwarves from Hadhodrond down the table.
"You should see the crowns at the mid-winter festival, when the hollies are in berry," said Celebrimbor. He looked disproportionate but splendid: his huge smith arms bare, a crown of the tiny white flowers on his head, his garments crimson. A wine-bearer followed the girl and filled each of their glasses.
Ereinion smiled, even as he felt a deep twitch in his nose and gulped down the urge to sneeze.
"Círdan," he whispered as he raised his cup to his lips. "Think of a reason for us to go above these trees, up on the hill yonder."
Círdan acknowledged the commission with a nod.
The holly trees were lovely, dipping their graceful branches to touch the ground, creating chambers walled with white flowers that the children played in. In the light of a half-moon their flowery domes could be mistaken for the domes of white stone and pearl that roofed his palace in Forlond.
He, Círdan, and an entourage of his household had for a week now lodged in Ost-in-Edhil, the chief city of the country of Eregion. In two days he had seen more holly trees than in all the centuries of his long life. They announced themselves along every street and in every garden with the fluttering of their glossy, jagged-edge leaves. Their dense branches were home to the greatest population of birds outside the gardens of Vána – swallows, crows, tits, warblers, wrens, whose gossip only ceased with the setting sun. Green even in the winter, the hardy trees took on a symbol of ever-life, a memory of sorts of the land over the sea.
But however lovely, however emblematic, the fact could not be denied. They made him sneeze.
For Celebrimbor's sake he kept his poise. He had as a boy first met the smith in Nargothrond and had always been a little terrified, a little awed of him. There was something both admirable and frightening in his mood, his tunneled focus on the task he challenged himself with. He would disappear in the smithies from days to weeks, not eating, not sleeping. He had a creed, that his greatest work was the one now in creation. And it never failed. Each new diadem, each new broach, each new corselet, was more exquisite than the piece before. Among his hammers, files, saws, and pliers he had unquestioned control, was master without equal. But outside, among people, he was a fish thrown into a tree and told to climb.
Ereinion leaned to Celebrimbor, and in wistful words, recalled with him Nargothrond. The fountains and tree-like columns and lamps that turned the underground halls into a twilight forest. The splendor and eccentricities of Finrod, who brought so many orphaned fawns and castaway hatchlings into the subterranean palace, the custodians penned a letter of grievances. The day a small boy had taken refuge in the smithies from an overbearing sister. The memory blinked out as Ereinion paused, stiffened his back. His neck prickled and a douse of cold water trickled down his spine.
A hush had fallen over the lawn. All eyes swept to the edge of lamplight, where, in a parting of the white hollies, a tall man stepped forward. His steps were graceful, almost poetic, despite that he had the broad shoulders and heavy arms of a hardened smith. His raven hair took a holistic sheen in the tender light of lamps and moon, and his soft dark eyes reflected none of it. He wore a blue traveler's jerkin and cloak, and even though they were simple, from his bearing, he might have been wearing a king's mail and mantle.
On this one condition we accepted the invitation. We were promised he was away east. That he would not be here. The Charlatan. Ereinion found his hand trembled and he set down his cup and clutched both hands to his knees.
"Aulendil!" Celebrimbor jumped from his place. His pleased smile quickly folded into a concerned frown. He doubtless felt the High King's gaze freezing over.
"Celebrimbor, my friend." Annatar's dark eyes took a gentleness of affection. Deeper in the light they revealed themselves to be rich blue, the same shade as his garments. His burly figure then bent elegantly in a bow. "King Gil-galad, I am pleased to meet you at last." Annatar undid his bow slightly, but did not fully straighten. He clutched his fist to his chest in deference. "Master Círdan, well met again."
Círdan dipped his head. Ereinion had not wavered his icy glare.
"Forgive my sudden appearance," said Annatar, failing to frost over, "I had an unexpected need to return and had no time to send a message ahead."
"Nay, my friend, do not apologize. It is no trouble to us," said Celebrimbor, as though confident that he could make fact from words. The silence at the table was so strained that the air seemed to shake with tension. It was lost on no-one the exceptional nature of this meeting.
"Indeed, no," said Círdan. He alone appeared unruffled, smiling at his cup that now he set down. "This is an opportunity to become acquainted. Let us walk to the Sentry Hill. You, Aulendil, the king, and myself. Inspired by the open stars of Elbereth, we might come to an understanding."
Celebrimbor sat again, his great build sagging in spite of Círdan's proposed truce. Ereinion felt a prick of guilt for having cast him into a wedge. But he remained, nonetheless, furious, and his goodwill quickly evaporated.
He rose from his cushion. Clouded with fury, he accepted Círdan's proposal without thinking. Then as he started on with the Shipwright on one side and the Charlatan on the other, a dread of speaking with Annatar overcame him, and he hoped Círdan had thought of a way to dodge it. A push into a well, perhaps. But even Círdan would not be so brusque.
Yet conversation did not unfold. They walked in silence, while the chatter and laughter behind them started again and faded with distance. The path was paved with stone, cut in curving forms so that their edges, when fitted together, looked like budding vines. As it met with the Sentry Hill, the path sprouted into winding steps. Ereinion wanted his mind clear so anger would not encroach on his judgment. But in spite of himself, he brooded.
His kinswoman Galadriel and her husband Celeborn had ten years before vacated the city to, they claimed, live quietly across the mountains in the forest-country of Laurelindórinan, a popular retreat of many of the Sindar who once had taken refuge in his kingdom in Lindon. This came as a sadness to some in Ost-in-Edhil, for the couple had ruled Eregion in all but name. They had been among the first to settle in the region, giving the migrating Noldor a focus to draw toward. Yet on this visit Ereinion detected more relief than sadness, at least among Celebrimbor's guild of smiths and many of the common folk who were craftsmen and merchants. Galadriel and Celeborn had overstayed their welcome, was the view, and where once they had leant prestige and prosperity, they had begun to stifle it in their outmoded ways, for they had frowned upon the new activities of the affluent smith guild, the Gwaith-i-Mírdain.
It was to the city's unrepressed pride that Celebrimbor took on the title Lord of Eregion. That smith alone, the last remaining descendent of Fëanor, lent the city all the credence it needed. Wealthy Dwarves and Men from every realm, from as far east as the Iron Hills to as far west as Númenor, sent their sons to learn from the Gwaith-i-Mírdain. Between Ost-in-Edhil and the Dwarf-kingdom Hadhodrond, especially, drifted a steady flux of eager masters and apprentices.
It was not Celebrimbor alone that supplied attraction. The most recent upswing in Eregion's opulence had to be tracked back to Aulendil, the Friend of Aulë, Annatar, the Bringer of Gifts, who had so generously shared his superior knowledge of smith-work with the Gwaith-i-Mírdain. In little time he became the guild's most celebrated member. Galadriel and Celeborn resented his membership; and the guild in turn became hostile to the couple and accused them of stifling their craft and discrediting their work.
But Ereinion knew it was Annatar's increasing influence in Eregion, rather than the guild, that ultimately drove out Galadriel and Celeborn. As much as he understood his aunt's unwillingness to be second in influence to any, he wished she could have shelved her pride in this one case and remained in Eregion to keep him under her eye.
Annatar's blossoming sway in all circles of elvendom, even in Lindon, despite the public frowning that he and Círdan bestowed on him, made Ereinion's blood boil. This self-professed messenger of the Valar presumed himself above the rulers of the mortal lands. Ereinion did not know what Annatar's central purpose was, but it was clear that he wished to burrow into the ruling class, and he had been exceedingly successful in Eregion. Even in the kingdoms of Men and Dwarves his praises were sung.
Celebrimbor was by right, dating back to Maedhros's oath of allegiance to Fingolfin, answerable to the High King. But Ereinion could not order him to dismiss a member of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain. If he pushed the matter, he would only provoke tension among the already-strained factions of Noldor. Already so many had crossed the Hithaeglir to escape his influence. Celebrimbor could easily break Eregion from the kingdom entirely, giving another victory to Annatar, and, by proving Ereinion's commands could be flouted, weaken further the High King's stance.
Many whispered, and Ereinion was not deaf, that he was being stiff and uncultured, that his denouncements of Annatar were a jealousy bordering on mania, that he feared losing the title of High King, blindly denouncing any who threatened to be on a higher rung in affluence. He never had met Annatar face-to-face, for he had forbidden him from entering Lindon. Now his perceptions were flung with mud. Certainly the being who walked beside him was not the guileless teacher that the smith guild claimed. But nor was he the brazen villain that he had wanted to imagine. He regarded Annatar again with a wary eye. Annatar countered the look with a nod.
"You still do not trust me," he said. His voice was not accusing, but rather pleasant, like a chime captured on a spring breeze.
"My trust is to be won."
"Give me, then, the chance to win it! You can take my advice, or not. But only listen, I beg you. I grieve much over the rift between us, which I believe has been excavated merely by rumors and misunderstandings."
They reached the hill's peak. Because it stood higher than the rest of the city, the top was kept bare of trees, affording an encompassing view of the city's buildings and gardens: the white towers that had been home to Galadriel and Celeborn; the winding walls that traced the hills; the houses lit by silver lamps. Ereinion breathed the sweet, fresh air, and his mind cleared of the holly-scent.
A giant, venerable tree, smooth-barked and white, stood twisted and leafless midway down the slope. It must have been magnificent once, but now it was gnarled, dead. One of the first planted in the city, no one could bear to lift an axe to it.
Annatar stretched his arm to the ancient tree.
"I know why the hollies are tended here. They are to reassure us that our labors will endure, that what we have built will keep us through the ages. But age smites even them." Annatar turned to peer at him with soft, eager eyes. "I imagine all elvendom in Middle-earth ever in bloom, never to wilt or wither."
He paused, as though expecting Ereinion to dispute. The king's countenance remained stony, and he continued.
"For I, as do you, love this Middle-earth. Is it not our duty to tend it with the greatest of our faculty? We might foster gardens out of desolation, cities of lamps from dark wastes. Never withering, never crumbling, as fair and ever-fresh as Eressëa." Earnest, his eyes smoldered. "I have been given power to aid the Elven-kindreds in this labor, but only as much as they will accept. And so you, Ereinion Gil-galad, have it in your power to raise all the lands west of the Hithaeglir to the heights of your kindred beyond the sea, like to that of your forbearer Olwë in Alqualondë. It burns my heart to see your kindred here languish in ignorance, when by their birthright they have claim to a greater strength and wisdom."
Ereinion looked at the burning stars, felt their light on his face, and then answered. "Indeed, my realm is a pale imitation of the Nargothrond of Finrod or the Gondolin of Turgon. That we are even further removed from the Bliss and remember even less of the Light, I cannot deny." He took a breath, lowered his gaze from the stars and again to Annatar's kindly face. "The fleetness of life here is a grief. However, I find beauty in its fleetness, as well, for it reminds me of its preciousness. To force my will on it, to make it act against its nature, would be an abomination. It would lose the beauty I had in the beginning sought to protect. If one day I find that I am weary beyond grief, I might go forth from this shore. But that is my choice."
"Yes, that is your choice, and I accept it. But consider this: your will is forced upon all those in your realm, and all elvendom looks to you to follow. You care to do what is best for your people, but to some such a choice may be perceived as selfish."
Ereinion was silent. A doubt crept in, like a cloud over the stars. He found that he could not look away from Annatar. He seemed so pleasant and judicious, while he felt that he himself had been too curt and too hasty in his reasoning. Annatar's eyes, like wells of eternity, blazing furnaces of knowledge, seemed more persuasive, more articulate than words.
You are High King, and a great king, the son of great kings, what do you fear? The forces of time and death that you cannot govern? I can teach you how.
As I said, I listen.
Annatar's smile grew. With the Gwaith-i-Mírdain and Celebrimbor I make progress. And yet, what I have taught them in the form of smith-work are but toys and trinkets to what they could become with your blessing – spears against death and shields against time. We hope to eventually grant all the rulers of Middle-earth these instruments to preserve and protect their lands. Of course our gifts are worthless if the rulers do not accept them.
Ereinion kept his eyes on Annatar; however, his thoughts turned inside himself, and he frowned.
A great king, you say. Ereinion's frown folded into a grimace. My father was a great king, but he fell when he listened to counsels counter to his own.
Indeed, but I do not offer counsel. Rather, a service. And you? Are you listening to your own counsels? Or are they the counsels of Master Elrond? The Shipbuilder?
"I see fire."
The whisper was soft and harsh, yet it thundered like a bell through Ereinion's head. He tore his gaze from Annatar, and to Círdan, whose wide grey eyes stared over their heads to the white towers.
"The city is on fire!" he cried. He leaped forward, his back to them. He landed deftly on the face of a large, tilted stone, tall as three men at its peak. Shoes scraping gravel, he clambered to the top, where he rose to full height and pointed to phantom flames. "The hollies are burning."
Terror twisted his sun-weathered face, haloed by his silver hair that filtered the light of the setting moon. Pale, towering over them, he looked like a bitter ghost from a battle in an unremembered age. His eyes seemed to follow a climbing ash and his lungs gag on a black and bitter smoke. His arms had dropped to hang limp at his sides. Other than his wide, darting eyes and quick breaths, he was motionless, seeming to be chained to the stone, unable or unwilling to close his eyes or to turn them away. Ereinion later reckoned the episode to have lasted a minute, but at the time it seemed to stretch an hour, he and Annatar below equals as spectators.
When Círdan's lips moved he looked to be whispering, yet Ereinion heard him as clearly as if he stood beside him. "The towers are pits. The walls are rubble. No one is coming to their aid. They have no chance. The hollies are burning. The only birds that linger are circling, waiting for the dead."
At last he seemed to have gained mastery of himself, or otherwise the force that had compelled him to run up the stone set him free. He descended the rock-face in slow steps. He brushed between the king and smith, they no more material to him than pillars of vapor. A sad ghost now, tears shimmered on his cheeks.
"One voice I hear above the dying: Where is the lord of the city? Where is he making his stand?" He spoke to the silent peaks of the Hithaeglir. Then he turned and faced Annatar, and though he seemed to speak directly to him, he was looking beyond him. "Their supremacy was a delusion, and for their arrogance their city was allowed to crumble to ruin. For all things do fail, and with the greatest ruin that which was built the highest."
With the same suddenness that it arrived, the ghost faded. So quickly that Annatar could not protest, Círdan lifted his holly crown from his head and placed it on Annatar's. Not waiting for a response, he spun on his heels, and, whistling, ambled down the hill toward the lawn where Celebrimbor's company waited. Three white petals drifted down and settled on Annatar's cheek.
"He is, they say, a prophet," said Annatar. He brushed the petals from his face. His warm eyes had cooled to beads of iron. "Else I would think this were a jest, and a tasteless one."
"The Master of the Havens does not speak rashly," said Ereinion. "And even when he appears to jest, you are wise to reflect on his words." He placed his feet on the path. "We are finished here. I would return to the festivities."
"My words, too, you might reflect on. Laboring together we could realize great things. But I will not provoke you. I will leave the city until you depart." A short bow, glaring for its lack of extravagance, and he strode down the path that led to the hill's farside, away from the lights, feasting, and music. Ereinion watched him weave down stairs. At some point down the slope he must have tossed aside the holly crown, for at the bottom his raven hair was liberated of the white flowers.
Still Ereinion did not return to the lawn, but sat among the stones, listening.
I borrowed bits of Annatar's spiel from Annatar in "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age," The Silmarillion.
Perhaps, just perhaps the DoS soundtrack worked its way in.