"Fruitless did I call the victory of the Last Alliance? Not wholly so, yet it did not achieve its end. Sauron was diminished, but not destroyed. His Ring was lost but not unmade. The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure. Many Elves and many mighty Men, and many of their friends had perished in the war."
- The Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring
Chapter 12: Victory
The man stood outside the barbed iron doors, and had courage enough to admit he was afraid. He licked his cracked lips, ever thirsty in these years of siege, and glanced down at the gnarled dwarf standing beside him. The dwarf returned the look and gave a nasty smile that twisted his horrible face. Missing an eye and half his nose, even his beard could not hide his deformity. A strange ally, and one that the man hated, but not as much as one on the other side of the door.
"Easy now, General," the dwarf rumbled, leaning on his axe. The little rock-man was unflappable, the man thought, looking venomously down at the fool as he fingered the sweat-damp hilt of his sword. When he had first entered the dark tower, he had expected to be stripped of his weapons, but it had not been so. And that was when the man began to fear, for in that moment he fully understood the depth of their helplessness. He jerked backward as the door abruptly swung open, menacing in its oiled soundlessness.
The dwarf chuckled in dark appreciation. "Would that we could master our fears as easily as He has mastered them," he murmured. "Steady on. All mortals live to die. Today, or in a hundred years, it matters not, and then we shall be beyond his grasp."
"Enter," a voice said, a liquid velvet command that could not be disobeyed. They passed the threshold and, to his shame, the man shook with a tremor that radiated from his core. He caught the hilt of his sword as it beat a soft tattoo against his armor, and looked up into the empty throne.
"I perceive you come with grievances," the voice came again, amused.
"Yes, my Lord Sauron," the man said, glancing surreptitiously around to room, trying to find the voice's source. He wished he hadn't when he inadvertently looked directly into the nauseating cowl of one of the Nazgul.
"Speak," the Master intoned.
The man cleared his throat, and, remembering his errand, found the fury necessary to sustain him. "Seven years since our last battle on the plains, my Lord," he said. "Seven years since the cursed elves and their puppets pushed us back in Mordor, seven years of sitting in this rotting land, dying from its foul fumes rather than cleanly on swords. You promised us quick victory, and the lands and riches of the elves, and instead you sit here, impotent. This was not the agreement," the man ended, nearly snarling.
During the first--and thus far, only--great battle of the war, the general had looked beyond the bloody fields to the vast lands spread out behind their enemy, and had nearly tasted the spoils of his great victory. They had easily cut off the right wing of the elven army, crushing them into the marsh like gnats while the rest of the army of Gil-galad and Elendil stood by, dumbly inattentive. It had been glorious. The elven flank had nearly broken, but then the greater part of the enemy had … done something. Some elvish witchery, perhaps, but they had suddenly been everywhere, and far better armed than the first wave, their long swords gleaming in the sun.
Only later had the man deduced what they had done. The elven king had sent out the right flank of his army as a suicidal diversion. They had been poorly armed, and his men could not resist such easy prey. Thus his fighters were distracted and caught unaware by the greater portion of the army. Somehow, he had not expected anything that cold, even from the elves. He swore he would remember better next time, but after three days of raging death, they had been driven back into Mordor, and there they had stayed these seven years, surrounded by orc and dying by siege in a land of rock and metal. Sauron had sent fire and darts upon the enemy encompassing them, and the cursed elves had suffered great losses, but even that knowledge did little to ease the suffering of the general's own host.
"If you are unhappy with our agreement," the Dark Lord said smoothly, "then I release you from it. I, of course, would also be relieved of my obligation toward your people and your army. Is that your desire?"
"No, Lord," the man bitterly replied, knowing well that only the will of Sauron kept the ravenous, man-hungry orcs at bay, and only their treaties kept the black hordes from turning to his homeland in the east. If Sauron withdrew his protection, the General knew that the orcs would kill him before he was able to return to his army, and his soldiers would be dripping from the teeth of the beasts ere they knew the peril. "I am a rough and unlearned man, and slow of speech," he continued, resigned. "I mean only to convey my eagerness to serve and die for your victory."
"Good," Sauron said, "for I have called you here to issue my new commands. I trust you are rested sufficiently to follow them with exactness."
Valandil sprawled wetly on the dark rocks that lined the courtyard, warming himself on their smooth, sun-baked faces. The rocks were a delicious counterpoint to the icy waters of the Bruinen which, despite the summer heat, could chill mortals, even those of the great age of eleven years. Well, nearly eleven, Valandil amended to himself, and rolled to his back, stretching in contentment.
"Well, what is this?" a familiar voice asked, and Valandil's eyes snapped open as Calandil prodded Valandil with his foot. The captain of Imladris' guard stood above him … and above Calandil was Lord Celeborn. "Someone seems to have left a soggy rug right here in the middle of the courtyard, my lord," Calandil continued in mock earnestness. "Well, I'll just have to get rid of it." With that, Calandil hauled the boy into the air and tossed him over his shoulder. Valandil yelped, and, upside down, poked Calandil in the ribs.
"Nay, Calandil," Celeborn said, his voice rich with a ripple of teasing amusement. " 'Tis the little prince."
"Ai!" cried Calandil, and, smiling stood the boy on his feet. "Apologies, Valandil. I scarcely knew it was you. You seem taller."
Valandil stood up straighter. "I probably am," he beamed. "Where have you been all this time?" he asked. Forgetting his posture, he started jumping from foot to foot.
Calandil smiled at glanced at Celeborn, who had folded his hands behind his back and looked away to mask the amusement that had settled into his eyes. "Lindon, Edhellond, the front lines, and everywhere between," Calandil said, ticking them off on his fingers as he focused back on the child.
"Did you see my father?"
"Did you see orcs?"
"Yes," Calandil said, his smile fading slightly before returning to full luminosity as he reached out and put both hands on the boy's shoulders. "Ai, Valandil, stop leaping about. I am an ancient elf, and you make me weary!"
"How old are you?" the boy asked curiously, for he had never had occasion to ask.
At that, Celeborn laughed aloud. "Older than the sun," the Lord answered for his captain, "though I doubt that Calandil has been counting the time since it first arose." To Valandil's surprise, Celeborn nodded in dismissal to Calandil, and gestured instead for the boy to come along side him as he walked. "Your mother tells me you have a question," the Lord said, moderating his stride as Valandil scrambled to keep up, and then stopping altogether when the boy abruptly halted.
Valandil felt his gut squeeze into a tight ball. He knew the question that Celeborn meant, but had not imagined that his mother would leave it in Valandil's hands rather than addressing it with the Lord herself. He looked up at his guardian, and wished he truly had the new height that Calandil had seen in him. Pride and fear warred in his heart, but desire made him speak.
"I am nearly eleven years old, my lord," he said.
"Indeed," Celeborn said evenly, and to Valandil's relief, the Lord lowered himself to the ground, leaning casually against a tree. He did not look directly at the boy, but over the churning Bruinen as Valandil gathered his thoughts.
"Can I have . . . may I learn the sword?" he blurted inartfully, blushing at his tumbling words.
"You are young," the Lord answered, his gaze distant. "What did your mother say when you put the question to her?"
Valandil looked at the ground. "She said that she would allow it if you approved."
"Why do you wish to learn the sword?" the Lord said, and turned his piercing gaze on the boy. It was a look that Valandil had seen directed at others, but had never experienced himself, for Celeborn had only looked upon him with amusement or affection. Although Valandil may have quailed at the elf-lord's scrutiny on any other day, today he felt it settle over him with a calming solemnity.
Valandil raised his chin, and answered: "When my father was last here, he said that when I was sixteen, he would summon me to join him and my brothers in the army. If I begin to learn the sword now, in five years I will be prepared to serve my people."
For a beat, Celeborn said nothing, but closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Valandil felt his heart lurch, for he had never seen such grief, not even in his mother when she had told him that his uncle, Anárion, had died in a battle. Valandil had been very sorry, of course, although he had never met Anárion. Indeed, he'd hardly met his father, whose words he had just so bravely invoked. Beyond that the promise to call him when he was sixteen, Valandil remembered that his father's beard had been scratchy, and that it had made him look odd when he smiled. The memory of his brothers was little different. Ciryon, Aratan, and, of course, Elendur, the eldest. They had teased him that he talked like an elf, and had promised to show him how to be a man, but had only been in Imladris for two days.
Celeborn stood, he gaze far away again. Valandil despaired, certain that the Lord was about to deny his request, until he answered: "As you wish, Prince Valandil. Look for Calandil tomorrow," he said softly, "and he will begin your instruction."
Valandil beamed and sketched an excited bow, flushing with excitement and trepidation. "Thank you, my Lord," he cried. "May I tell my mother?"
Celeborn nodded. "Go on," he said. "Rest well today, for you shall work hard tomorrow." The ancient lord watched the boy dash away, his steps light with a joy that Celeborn did not share.
"I have been expecting that," Calandil said, materializing from the shadows.
"As have I," Celeborn said heavily. "Though the request cut more deeply than I had been prepared. Would that they world was not one where a child must speak earnestly of the day he will go to war. In times past, I have cursed the Valar for allowing evil to remain when they had the opportunity to destroy it. Yet have we done differently? Perhaps some day, that youth will know our mistakes, and wonder why we did not care enough to leave him a better world."
"We have tried," Calandil said, "and are trying still."
Celeborn shrugged, turning again to his own thoughts, which roiled with concern for the orc again pressing their border, and the reports of renewed fervor from the enemy at the front lines that remained unbroken despite seven years of siege. "Teach him well, Calandil," Celeborn murmured. "He may need that sword sooner than he thinks."
Valandil pushed back his damp hair, grateful that the weather was beginning to cool. He suspected that the long, hot days of swinging his sword under the blazing sun would soon give way to long, cold days swinging it while standing in the snow, but for now he appreciated the turning of the season.
"Eat," Calandil said, breaking off a piece of warm bread that he had wielded out of the cook. Valandil smiled his appreciation, and had eaten nearly half the loaf before he noticed that the birds had stopped twittering, and the river's babble seemed muffled in queer stillness. Valandil stopped mid-chew, and looked quizzically at Calandil, who had caught the gaze of the cook.
"The trees are holding their breath," cook murmured. Calandil's eyes were closed, one hand raised in concentration. Abruptly, the air seemed to rush back into the room, and Valandil carefully placed his bread on the table. The bite in his mouth suddenly tasted wrong, like the flavor of all the bread in the world was suddenly on his tongue, and it was too much.
"This is not victory," Calandil said, surging to his feet.
"Wha--?" Valandil said, but Calandil was gone before he could finish the word. The boy scrambled out of the room after him. He chased the elf across the courtyard, and huffed at his heels up the staircase to the Lord's study. Calandil banged the door open in a manner that surely would have earned Valandil a rebuke, and the boy plowed into Calandil's back as the elf abruptly stopped two steps inside the threshold. Calandil scarcely seemed to notice.
Celeborn was bowed over the table in the center of the room, gripping its edges so hard that they were beginning to crack. His eyes were focused, not on Calandil, but on the floor. Nay, not even the floor, but on something beneath it. After a moment, he raised his gaze, and Valandil flinched at the strangeness of it. If he had been looking through the floor before, now he was looking through their very souls. Valandil quailed, and stepped behind Calandil's back.
"What says Galadriel?" Calandil asked evenly. Valandil peered around the captain in puzzlement. There had been no letters today, and Valandil knew that Celeborn's wife lived far away, in Lindon.
"Sauron is destroyed," Celeborn said flatly.
"But … ?"
"The Ring is not." Celeborn stepped forward and looked down at the little mortal again. His eyes were still strange, but kind, and he knelt beside the boy he had nurtured all of the child's life, smoothing back his hair. Valandil returned the Lord's gaze with guileless puzzlement.
"Do you see it in the boy?" Celeborn murmured, speaking as if to someone who was not present. "The fool has claimed the Ring as were-gild for his father and brothers, and has bound his bloodline to it fate."
Valandil frowned deeply, and followed his guardian with his eyes as the elf stood and turned away, his hands clasped behind his back
"Orders, my Lord?" Calandil asked.
Celeborn glanced over his shoulder at his friend, a twisted half smile on his face. "We've won, Calandil. For the moment. I suspect that in the next weeks, we'll be overrun by the victorious armies of Middle-earth. We have much to do to prepare for their return."
Valandil tugged grumpily on his high-collared tunic. His mother had stuffed him into the scratchy garment that morning so that he could be properly attired to greet the arriving dignitaries. It itched and choked him, but he had not yet been given permission to change.
He had bowed properly to Elrond--the true Lord of Imladris. Elrond seemed weary and sad, but had returned Valandil's bow with a smile. Valandil had not been prepared when Celeborn stepped forward and, taking the other elf's hand, had returned the haven to Elrond's care. Valandil's world tilted then, suddenly under the authority of a stranger. Celeborn had reached out and placed a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder, giving it a squeeze as he guided him to a bearded elf, who had nodded in greeting, and several of his father's generals, who had bowed and spoken to him as if he were a babe, before seeking his mother to explain that Isildur would come for them after he reorganized Gondor under Meneldil's care.
Valandil had watched with trepidation as the men of his father's armies spread across Imladris, setting their tents and camps. They seemed so loud, so soiled, as if they did not know the trees were watching. He felt abruptly ashamed, and wondered if he stepped as heavily on the ground as they.
There had been a great feast that evening, although Valandil could scarcely taste it for the turmoil in his heart. Afterward, the men returned to their tents to sing and drink. Ordinarily, he would have been overjoyed that his mother was too distracted to sweep him off to bed, but he had crouched miserably at the edges of their fires, and wished he was not a mortal. As the stars appeared, he heard the elves singing in the trees, and sought them in the glades where they danced. But these elves were not of the garrison at Imladris, who had raised him and taught him the wonders of their world; these were the elves of the armies, who saw only Isildur's youngest son.
Valandil leaned against a tree, and pulled again on his too-tight collar, and tried not to cry.
"Here you are," a kind voice said behind him, and it was his undoing. Valandil lost the fight for bravery, and threw himself into Calandil's arms with a sob. "Ai, child," the elf sighed, placing a kiss on his brow. He lifted the boy with ease, despite the gangly limbs that were longer than when he had done this last, and led him away from the turmoil to the arms of a tree. Valandil clung to elf and tree, neither of whom said a word as he wept.
Calandil gently woke him in the deep of night.
"It is not fair to you, Valandil." The elf said softly. "Not fair that you should grow up amid a troop of elves always on the verge of war, who look at you, and love you, but grieve the passing of your finite days. It is not fair that you have never known another child, and that your closest companion is an old captain of elves. Not fair that your first real encounter with you own people was with an army of weary, battle-rough men who are equally parts grieved and giddy. So much of your experience is far less than ideal. But look now, my child, and let your first sight of lovers reunited be beautiful."
Valandil blinked the sleep from his eyes and gazed across the meadow, where he saw Celeborn, shining like water in the moonlight. The Lord stood with the stillness of an arrow, paused in the moment before flight and made beautiful in anticipation of its purpose for being. The trees swayed aside, and Valandil gasped as a lady stepped from their midst.
"She is Galadriel," Calandil whispered reverently in answer to the child's unspoken question. "Their parting has not been long, this time—only the space of your lifetime. But watch!"
The lady smiled at her lord as she drew near, and although he did not return it, his eyes shifted from the gentle tolerance that Valandil knew so well to … something else. Only years later, when he felt the expression pass across his own face, would Valandil put the word adoration to it. The lord moved at last, like the dancer he was, and gave her his arm. She took it, her hand pressing into the crisp whiteness of his sleeve, and stepped fully into the glen. She turned, her fingers gliding over his wrist, a touch enough to make him smile at last. He touched her face,;she slid her hand behind his neck, and the Lord leaned forward to kiss her sweetly. Galadriel laughed when they parted, and took his hand. She turned toward the tree where Valandil and Calandil watched, and the lady caught the child's wondering gaze with a look that laid him bare and filled his soul in the same moment, ere turning with her lord to fade into the trees.
Calandil chuckled. "Close your mouth, child," he said.
"She knew me!" the boy cried.
"Of course she did," the elf answered. "You are an open book; she could know all you are in a glance. But indeed, there would be no need for her skills. Where Celeborn is, so is Galadriel, and where she, he. Her hand and wisdom have guided your youth as much as his, though you knew it not."
Valandil sat in thought. "Calandil, are you married?" he asked after a moment.
"Yes," he answered.
"Where is your wife?"
"Here, in Imladris. She arrived a few moments ago, with the lady."
Valandil blushed. "You probably want to go see her."
"I do," Calandil answered, "but we can wait." Valandil snuggled down into the wide branches of the tree as Calandil lifted his voice to the night in a song about love, and slept, and was comforted.
Next chapter: Precious things lost.
A/N: Ai, forgive me! So long since the last update. I seem to have fallen out of the fandom of late, and owe so many of you reviews for chapters and stories I have read and enjoyed. This chapter has been sitting, nearly complete, on my hard drive for months, needing only to be edited and reorganized. My roommate, on a Thanksgiving LotR movie marathon, was just the inspiration I needed. I hope you remember what the story was about, and I will endeavor to move forward with the next chapter in a more expeditious fashion.