Summary: It is Midsummer, the day when Gondolin fell. Will Rivendell fall also? Someone else will take the place of Glorfindel in the pass of Cirith Thoronath, and the Balrog Slayer must deal with the past to find his place in the present.
(last minute) Beta: nautika
Disclaimer: According to Gondorian laws, nothing is mine here....
Dedicated to StarLight9, with congratulations to her first month as a Teitho mod
Returning to Cirith Thoronath
He opened his eyes. It was dark and quiet. There were stars on the sky, bright points in the sea of darkness. He wondered what happened: the memory eluded him. His fingers were coated with something sticky. It was strangely warm, although the wind that toyed with his hair was cold like the last breath of winter. He tried to move them carefully. The cold merged with heat in a stream of pain. From his fingers… no, from his side that they were clenched on…. From his leg. From his head. Many icily hot streams that joined in a river of pain flooded him and tossed him into a whirlpool, he could not breathe…. It was dark beneath the surface….
Glorfindel's heart beat heavily in his chest. He did not look back. He knew the Orcs were there, somewhere, still in the pass maybe… His heart clenched when he thought about what delayed them. It should be him… it was his place. He has done it before. He died there… It was so similar then. Frighteningly similar. He wished now he hadn't accepted Estel's offer. He wished he had come alone. But he had welcomed the company, afraid if he came alone the memories he was trying to avoid would also come. They would also come if he stayed in Rivendell. It was that night.
There will be a feast in Rivendell. At the Gates of Summer, there will be songs and celebration in the shortest night of the year. The fires will burn for the whole night, and they will dance around them. The wine will flow…. Just like then. With song, they expected the dawn, but the light came from the north, and made the white walls of Gondolin glow red like with blood. The fires of Morgorth's dragons....
He could not celebrate this night. Instead, he decided to go on patrol, to the quiet woods, away from the songs and fires. No, fires had another meaning for him tonight. He saw his death when he looked into the flames. He had to go away. But he could not escape the memories. They were there, lurking in the dark corners of his mind. He was glad when Estel offered to join him on the patrol. He tried to dissuade him and convince him to stay and enjoy the celebration, but only half-heartedly. He should have tried harder! He shouldn't have allowed it!
He ran as fast as he could. Many lives depended on his speed. But the one that he left behind... Was it lost already? Maybe... just maybe, if he was fast enough.... He quickened his mad flight even more. He did not pay attention to the branches lashing his face and the creeping plants entangling his feet. He ran, just like Tuor did with Idril and little Eärendil, because he understood the price of sacrifice and would not allow it to be paid in vain! He ran. There was something wet on his face. With surprise, he realized it was tears....
Aragorn took a shivery breath. Yes, breathing.... That seemed like a good idea. He concentrated on his breath – in and out, in and out. He breathed through clenched teeth. In and out. The darkness abated a little. But not the pain. The pain stayed like icy flame circling in his veins and burning his thoughts. In and out - he tried not to think about it.... He tried to remember. There had to be something before the pain....
Glorfindel. Oh yes, Glorfindel.... it was Midsummer, he realised suddenly. In and out... breathe and try to remember.... Remember what? Midsummer in Rivendell? The memory of a Midsummer long ago came instead. When he was younger, he noticed that the golden-haired Elf was missing the celebrations.... He did not think about it then. Yes, there were the history lessons, but they were about something long ago and far away. Gondolin was a city of legend, old ruins lying beneath the waves of the sea, something distant and mysterious. He did not realize then what it meant to Glorfindel.... For Glorfindel it was not an old tale in the history books. For him Gondolin was a city, a living, prospering city with people in the streets and songs of silver fountains. But Estel had never heard him speak about it... about.... In.... In and out....
For a moment, as he lay on the hard stones, with the starry sky above his head, he could almost feel it through the veil of pain – the white city shining in the sun, Glorfindel's city. It floated somewhere there, on the corners of his mind together with the haunted eyes of the golden-haired warrior. No, they weren't alwyas such. They were lively and full of inner joy, kind like high summer sky. Just this one day, this one night they lost their shine. It was the day when Gondolin fell. Now he understood.... He was looking forward to the celebration, but when he saw Glorfindel's eyes, he forgot all his plans of enjoying the night. Glorfindel shouldn't be alone this night, he thought. He shouldn't be alone with the memory of his death...
Glorfindel had died that night. In a mountain pass, protecting the retreat of the refuges. He died fighting a balrog. Aragorn's thoughts circled around that point. There was shadow and flame. It burned like thousands of white-hot spears. It hurt. It hurt so terribly.... He was falling... falling... falling into a deep chasm enveloped with flame.... In and....
The night was cold; the wind blew from the mountains. Glorfindel ran with the wind, with the quick flowing of the river. His heart pounded in the rhythm of his steps. He ran breathlessly, replaying the scene over and over in his mind as the dark shapes of the familiar country passed beside him. What could he have done differently? Nay, there was nothing. He should have declined the offer – but he knew he wouldn't. Not today.
It was just like then.... They came unexpectedly, after a long time of peace. If he had just known, had anticipated it, he would have make the patrols much stronger. But he couldn't know that the Orcs will come in such number. They were not the mountain goblins on a raid. They were Orcs, strong and sturdy, and armed in steel. It was no raid – it was an organized attack. Just like then – there was another mind behind it, evil and cunning. The Necromancer was driven out of Dol Guldur, but the evil stirred again. Rumors of Ringwraiths spread. Just like then, the enemy came on the night of celebration. For that one day, the warriors put away their sword. Rivendell was unprotected – besides the ordinary patrols... one of them comprised of an Elf and a Man....
The terrain was rugged there, scoured by the quick waters of Bruinen, and the sound of the river rushing from the mountains muted all other sounds. They were close to the Orcs already when they noticed them behind a stone bank – a group counting more than one hundred. They froze in place, glancing quickly at each other. They did not need to speak to agree on a quick and silent retreat. There was no chance to fight such a group. On this night, Rivendell will be almost unprotected – they had to warn them!
But then, something went wrong. The wind blew in the wrong direction. One of the Orcs was on the wrong place to see them out of the corner of his eye when he turned suddenly. One of them made a wrong move, too quick or maybe too slow.... Everything was wrong since then.
They ran like a stag pursued by wargs. They could hear the cries of rage behind them, the steel boots scraping on the stones of the riverbank. The valley was narrow here, there was nowhere to hide – just run, run as fast as they could, forward, forward without looking back! They were two and the Orcs were many, but they knew they could trust each other with their life. The Elf and Man were faster than Orcs. The distance between them grew. They hoped they would be able to escape the Orcs and gain a headstart to warn Rivendell in time – just a little time for the warriors to grab their weapons and don the armour that has seen so many battles.
But then it went wrong again. They reached a long stretch where the river made no curves. Arrows whistled around them. A sharp cry of pain and surprise. For a short moment Glorfindel's heart stopped. He saw Aragorn stumble at his side. The time froze. No, this cannot happen.... This is not happening! The last heir of Isildur can't die on a patrol by some orc-arrow!
But then Aragorn stood up and stumbled forwards unsteadily before falling into step again. He was limping heavily. Glorfindel's heart clenched with relief when he saw that the injury was not serious, and with worry when he saw the black arrow protruding from his leg. Aragorn's eyes met his. There was no time to take it out. They both knew that he wouldn't be able to run for long. But Glorfindel saw also the spark of determination in Aragorn's eyes. He accommodated his step, and reached his hand to support Aragorn in their flight.
For some time they kept their pace, although Glorfindel could feel the tenseness of Aragorn's muscles and the wild beating of his heart, like heavy drums in the darkness. He leaned on Glorfindel ever more heavily, and stumbled more often. They could hear the Orcs' cries carried by the echoes, nearer and nearer behind the curve of the path. On both sides, the wall of the valley rose high, with no chance for escape. Aragorn stumbled again, and rose with clenched teeth, by the sheer force of will. Glorfindel bit his lip. They won't be able to go on this way much longer.... Aragorn's eyes met his again, and a silent plea was in them. Help me... just a little longer...
And suddenly, Glorfindel understood, and it was like an icy hand clutching his heart. Aragorn knew they would not reach Rivendell in time this way. Further ahead, the path was narrower, with the rushing river on one side and a sheer rock face on another. One man could defend it against a number of enemies.... No! Glorfindel's mind raced as he helped Aragorn to his feet. There must be some other way! It can't end thus! But deep inside he knew there was none. Aragorn ran with new strength now, his eyes not leaving his goal, and only by the fingers clenching his tunic convulsively could Glorfindel guess the sheer amount of pain that every step caused him.
Glorfindel dreaded the moment when they would reach the narrow pass. But he could not stop; the Orcs will be at them soon if he does. The pass neared. The moment came. Aragorn stumbled again and sank to the ground breathing heavily, as if his strength would finally give up.
"Estel! Run!" Glorfindel reached out to help him to his feet again, but Aragorn just shook his head. "You must run further... alone..."
For a moment Glorfindel stood motionless, his throat tight, refusing to accept the truth. His warrior heart screamed at him to stay and fight at Aragorn's side, but he knew it was hopeless against such odds, and if they both fell, Rivendell would be unprotected. Aragorn tried to buy him time....
"Run... there is no other way... Warn Rivendell..." Aragorn looked into his eyes earnestly, and then just for a short moment his determination seemed to waver. "...tell them... I love them..."
The stars spun above his head in a while that lasted centuries, and Glorfindel had the feeling he was in another place and time. The stones of the rock face became stones of other mountains, and a burning city was behind his back, smoke rising from the white towers and steam from the fountains. "Run!" he called to Tuor as he turned to face the horror that pursued them. Their eyes met. There was no other way...
Glorfindel took the arrows from his quiver, and gave them to Aragorn wordlessly. "I will return..." he whispered with taut voice, and with a last look at Aragorn, a short look that was telling more than thousands of words, he turned away and ran.
He opened his eyes slightly, expecting to see the blinding flames. He fell... deep, into fire.... No, the flames were extinguished. His body lay broken on the bottom of a deep chasm and eagles circled above him.... The stars were bright. It was quiet. The mountains stood mute. Just the river sang somewhere near, carrying his blood on its waves....
The river... why was a river there? There was no river when he fell... No, he didn't fall. He fought.... Oh yes, he fought to protect Rivendell! A moment of panic made him bolt upright, the thought about Rivendell giving him strength. But the pain came and pinned him to the ground again. He cried out as his body flared in agony, and curled convulsively. Tears welled in his eyes without even having the courtesy to wait for his acknowledgment – just like the sob that escaped his lips.
He struggled to escape the darkness that crept to him from the corners of his vision. He forced himself to think, to remember. Rivendell was in danger. Why? Midsummer... the fires, the celebration... no, Glorfindel... patrol... Orcs! The Orcs wanted to attack it! They ran... he could not run further. Glorfindel ran. He stayed. He defended the pass....
He waited behind a jag of rock. His bow and sword were ready within reach, and the arrows arranged before him. He knelt with closed eyes, and waited. His breath was calm and his hands steady. He had only a short moment before the Orcs arrived. But that moment, that one moment was his. The arrow was still embedded in his calf, but he forced the pain out of his thoughts. He searched within himself for his hope and courage, and he found peace instead – the deep peace in the middle of a storm.
When the first Orc passed the curve of the path, Aragorn opened his eyes and looked up. Three points aimed at the Orc – an arrowhead and two piercing eyes....
The first Orc fell, but after a moment of hesitation, they kept coming, protecting themselves with shields. He felled a few more while their arrows slipped harmlessly on the stones. But they kept coming. He hadn't spent all his arrows when the enemy drew too close. He let the bow slip from his hand, and drew the sword with a quick salute – to his ancestors, to his family, to the Valar, to anyone who might watch... to his Death.
"Elendil!" he defied the enemy with a battle cry. He fought. He wielded the blade with deadly accuracy, just like Glorfindel taught him. The heap of enemies at his feet grew... but they kept coming. The soil was soaked with blood. Thick, black blood. A few red drops fell with it. They kept coming. The red stain grew. The time moved slowly. It crept forwards, and every moment was bought dearly with blood.
Time stumbled. A sword fell to the ground, the hand wielding it unable to keep its hold any longer. More red stains blossomed on the earth. He fell to the ground with a quiet sigh. No other sound came though his lips. He embraced the bloody soil. The grey eyes were not piercing anymore. They closed. Steeled boots thundered around him, and the earth groaned beneath them. They kicked him as they passed, but he did not stir.
I will return....
Glorfindel cried out in rage at the enemies delaying him from fulfilling his promise. He led the biggest group of fighters to the valley of Bruinen. It was long, he thought. Too long.... How much time passed since he reached Rivendell, desperate and out of breath? How much time passed since they armed? No, he could not wait. Every delay could make a difference. Sitting on Asfaloth, he led the warriors forwards, hoping that it was not too late. How long could Estel defend the pass? How long could he stand against the odds, alone and injured? A small, foolish hope whispered him that he could hold it long, long enough for them to reach his side and help him. He knew it was impossible, but with every mile when they didn't run into the Orcs his hope grew.
Now it shattered. They were far from the pass yet when they saw the Orcs behind a curve of the path. Glorfindel didn't wait for the others. He charged them with all the rage of his broken hope. I will return. The promise burned in his mind, and they were delaying him. He fought his way through the battlefield like a deadly golden flame. The time moved slowly. Glorfindel was impatient. He had to be at Estel's side. He had to be there now! But the Orcs kept coming....
Finally, in what felt like eternity, the last Orc had been slain by the keen Elven blades. Glorfindel did not even turn back to see if they suffered any losses, trusting his warriors to deal with the injured. The armour hindered him. He fumbled with the clasps impatiently, and threw it away. He nudged Asfaloth forwards. The sky was beginning to light up with the light of the dawn. Soon the shortest night of the year would be over. I will return. He rode like knowing no weariness, the worry giving him speed. With the first light of the dawn he reached the pass and dismounted hastily.
"Estel..." the word slipped past his lips like an unbelieving sigh. No. Oh no.... The ground was soaked with blood. Corpses of Orcs lay on it, the horrifying harvest of death. He counted more than twenty – but twenty would not be enough as a weregild for the last of Isildur's line. His own life, reborn from death, would not be enough. There was no price high enough. The heir of kings was there – in the middle of the fallen enemies, lying in a pool of his own blood, the pale face turned to the sky.
"Estel..." the word came like a sob. Glorfindel sank to his knees at the side of the unmoving figure. He was late... He should be the one lying here! That was his place – the protector, the knight of Gondolin bound to guard his king and the king's line with his life. Elrond was from that line, as was Isildur and all his heirs. As was Aragorn son of Arathorn, the little boy that came to Rivendell with wide eyes and eager heart. These twenty Orcs – were they the reason why he taught that boy to wield the blade to be equal to any Elven lord of old in fight? No, this could not be....
"Estel..." the word was broken, almost inaudible. He reached his hand to touch the pale face and wipe the blood from the corner of the mouth. A quiet, almost inaudible moan. Glorfindel tensed. Did he really hear it? He searched for a pulse, but his trembling fingers couldn't find any while his own heart pounded heavily. Frustrated he withdrew his hand, and took out his knife. He brought it to Aragorn's lips and waited, not daring to breathe himself. A faint layer of mist appeared on the blade.
"Estel!" hope was in the word now, and worry. There was so much blood.... He had to find where most of it came from, and stop the bleeding immediately! Quickly he tore his shirt to bandages. There were so many wounds, and Glorfindel could almost see the fight before his eyes as he treated the worst ones. Here an orc blade sliced beneath the block when he tried to avert another blow from above... Here was the price for a killing blow against the attacker – the deep cut on the hand... And here – he gulped – here the block was so weak already that the blow got through it...
The shaft of the arrow was in Aragorn's calf still, but it was broken, and the wound was jarred by its movement. Glorfindel did not try to remove it, afraid to cause more damage without the proper equipment. When he touched the shaft, Aragorn stirred suddenly.
"Estel?" Glorfindel leaned over him anxiously.
Aragorn's eyes opened slightly, with a moan. His body tensed and his fingers dug into the ground in pain.
Glorfindel took his hand gently. "Estel, do you hear me? Answer me, please..."
"The... eagles..." Aragorn whispered almost inaudibly, and the word pierced Glorfindel's heart with a memory. There were flames all around him, dissipating slowly as the wind blew. There was pain of his burned and broken body, dissipating into nothing just like the flames as oblivion covered him like a soft blanket. The eagles.... They circled on the sky high above him, dark silhouettes against the bright sky. So noble.... So beautiful.... They were his last memory....
"Estel! Aragorn!" he cried out in panic. "Stay with me!"
Aragorn's face contorted in pain. "It... burns..." he breathed out almost pleadingly.
Glorfindel felt tears well in his eyes. Yes, he knew how it burned. It burned so much... "No, Estel! Stay here! Stay with me, please!" And soundlessly, his mouth was forming other words. No... Oh Valar, no! That was my place...
In that moment, the rest of the warriors caught up with them. Glorfindel did not lose any time, and turned to the first one that arrived. "Ride to Rivendell! Bring Elrond! Quickly!"
The Elf's eyes widened as he took in the scene before him, but then he nodded wordlessly and turned back. Glorfindel followed him with his sight for a moment as he rode, but then he turned his attention where it was needed most. To Estel. After the others, who arrived shortly, understood the situation, they worked silently, as if not daring to disturb a precarious balance. Some of them piled the corpses of Orcs out of sight behind the curve of the path, and the others started to build a fire and heat water. It was clear that Aragorn couldn't be moved in this condition. They had to wait for Elrond....
Glorfindel did not pay attention to anything of this. Only when a hand touched his shoulder, and gave him three light and warm elven cloaks to cover Aragorn, he looked up and accepted them mutely. Hesitantly, another cloak was wrapped around his shoulders, but in that moment, his full attention was with Estel already.
The Elves who built the fire now sit in a silent circle, their cloaks blending with the grey rocks and morning dew. Only their eyes moved, watching Aragorn and Glorfindel anxiously. But they couldn't reach to them - the two of them were not in the same place. No, Glorfindel and Aragorn were in Cirith Thoronath, the mountain pass protecting the secret escape route from Gondolin. Aragorn was feverish, and in pain, he relived Glorfindel's death while the golden-haired warrior could only watch helplessly, remembering.
Aragorn's body tensed again in a spasm of pain. "No.... Must... defend...." he muttered through clenched teeth.
"You did. You did, Estel...." Glorfindel whispered, stroking his temple gently. They both did....
Aragorn's eyes seemed to focus a little more. "G...Glor..."
"Yes, little Dúnadan.... It's me...." Glorfindel leaned over him.
"Run...." Aragorn breathed out, and his eyes closed slowly.
Glorfindel gulped heavily. "No! Aragorn! Do you hear me? I will not allow it! You are not there! That was my place! That was my..." he winced, but continued quietly: "That was my death.... Not yours."
He looked up to the sky, where the last stars were fading. There, as the Morning star, Eärendil shone brightly. "I died for the heir of my king," he continued, his voice quiet and expressionless. "I died for Tuor, and Idril, and Eärendil. There was no time for decisions. I did what I had to do." The moment was clear before his eyes. There was no hesitation. The flames reflected in the polished steel of his sword, nearing. The earth groaned beneath the steps of the approaching creature of darkness. He knew he would die. There was a strange peace in that knowledge. With surprise he realized he could feel that peace even now.
Eärendil shone. Glorfindel began to sing softly. It was a melody without words, soft and fresh like the murmur of Gondolin's fountains in a sunny day when the world was younger. It helped him to concentrate his thoughts and reach for memories suppressed so long that they became forgotten.
He was in Cirith Thoronath again. The earth groaned – the balrog was nearing. A man stood in his path, his sword drawn. Awaiting. Glorfindel's feet were like frozen to the ground. It was Aragorn who faced the balrog. The creature of shadow lifted its whip and its eyes burned with deadly flame. There was no time for decisions, no hesitation. Glorfindel drew his sword and threw himself between the balrog and Estel. The flame enveloped him. From the corner of his eye he could see Estel looking at him dumbfounded for a while, but then the descendant of Eärendil caught his sight for one last time before he turned and ran, understanding the dear-bought price of sacrifice.
Glorfindel fought, ignoring the burning pain. His sword grew red-hot, but he held on to the hilt desperately. When it broke, he fought with his bare hands. The sword fell to the ground with a clattering sound, and slipped on the stones, into the abyss. A pale-green jewel loosened from the pommel, and stayed lying on the path.
Glorfindel saw the sword falling. The abyss was deep. Nobody would survive the fall from here.... Determination gave him strength, and he pushed the balrog to the edge of the path. They were falling... falling... falling into a deep chasm, enveloped with flame. He burned. The pain shattered his thoughts.
Eagles.... They were so beautiful....
Glorfindel opened his eyes, shivering despite the rays of sun that was just beginning to rise on the sky. The memory in his mind was so real he could almost touch it. He saw the beryl lying on the path, like a sign that the way is safe again. He saw his death. But there was no terror in that memory anymore. Instead, there was peace. It was his place - he has taken it willingly, and would do so again. He took a deep breath and looked down.
He found Aragorn's eyes looking into his. They were glazy and clouded by pain, but focused.
"Estel..." he whispered in a choked voice.
He felt Aragorn's fingers tighten around his almost imperceptibly. "Rivendell...?"
"Rivendell is safe. We defeated the Orcs even before they could reach it. Elrond will be here soon...."
Aragorn sighed in relief.
Glorfindel smiled at him gently. "You did it. You delayed them as long as we needed...."
Aragorn looked into his eyes. "You... the balrog..."
Glorfindel pressed a finger to his lips. "Do not speak. You are hurting yourself... I just took my place."
For a long moment Aragorn searched Glorfindel's eyes, but he saw no shadows anymore. They were bright as they used to be in another days. He nodded in acceptance, and relaxed. But a wave of pain made him clench his teeth again. Cold sweat beaded on his brow. He longed for the pain to pass, for any distraction to guide his thoughts away from it. He looked at Glorfindel pleadingly. "Tell me... about Gondolin..." he whispered.
And Glofindel did. He spoke about the white city like a river pearl encircled with mountains. He spoke about the green valley of Tumladen, with trees loaded with white blossoms in spring and the golden corn at the peak of summer. He spoke about the proud towers and silver fountains and about Turgon and his family. He spoke about little Eärendil and smiled with the memory of the lively boy. He realized he could can speak about the Hidden city and remember it as it was before its fall, without the deep sadness of loss. The memories were clean again, not stained with fire and blood and the shadow of treachery anymore.
Aragorn listened, and Glorfindel's words carried him like a silver river, away from the pain. He could see the sun reflecting in the surface of the fountains and hear the humming of bees in the orchards in his mind. Meanwhile the sun rose on the sky. It was summer....
Glorfindel quietened as he heard a rhythmic sound on the path. Soon a horse and rider appeared behind the curve. Elrond.... Glorfindel sighed with relief.
The Half-Elf's worried eyes met his, and Glorfindel nodded slightly. Estel will live. He knew it. Elrond seemed to find strength in his confidence. He began preparing everything immediately, and the place burst into activity. The herbs and potions, the bandages, needles and strange instruments. Glorfindel did not bother to follow it. It seemed as if he was in another place again. They both were there: While Elrond worked, Glorfindel walked with Aragorn through the streets of Gondolin, and showed him the most interesting sights like a thoughtful guide.
Aragorn slept after the potion Elrond has given him. The Elves constructed a stretcher, and after Elrond examined Aragorn once again, he proclaimed that he could be moved without danger now. They walked slowly and carefully, taking turns on one side of the stretcher, while Glorfindel stubbornly occupied the other side, not allowing anyone to relieve him.
The sun neared the horizon already, when they reached Rivendell. The big bonfire was cold, the half-burned poles showing evidence of a hasty extinction, and piles of food lay abandoned on the tables still. When they were passing the place of the interrupted feast, Aragorn opened his eyes.
Glorfindel's face lit up when he saw him awake. "Next time we will send someone else to patrol, and enjoy the celebration, what do you think?" he winked at Aragorn.
Aragorn's lips twitched in a smile. "Next time...."