Falling Gold

       The Bruinen fell from the steep valley wall in a thousand delicate silver threads, like the fringes of a fine tapestry coming unravelled. They wove themselves together again in a series of deep blue pools below the cliffs, hurrying in a frothy ribbon past the feet of Elrond's halls, under the Last Bridge and so out into mortal lands seeking the Sea. Mist rose up from the churning water in a thin veil of pale gold that caught the sun slanting down...

       ...and glinting off the snow, a lake of light on the mountainside. Out of the sun something came buzzing. Obscure shapes resolved themselves into ragged black and red feathers in that last second before the arrows hit home, one after another, burning with a curious fire that came from more than barb and jagged-edged point.

       Elrond gripped the rail with a sharp intake of breath.
       “My lord?”
       Face already composed and impassive, he turned to the younger Elf in the open frame of the door at his back. “Togo roch nín, Borlas.”
       Puzzled, the page stared up at Elrond’s face, but there were only three who could read thoughts the Master of Rivendell did not choose to speak, and two of them were outside the valley: one in the Golden Wood, the other lying on the snow of the Redhorn.
       Elrond waited expectantly, the line of his jaw set with anger, which was so strange a thing that Borlas almost did not recognize it for what it was. The page bowed then and left the valley's keeper on the high balcony overlooking the falls, to grapple with the gift and curse of the greatest of the Three: not the vision of possibility, but of truth.
       When Elrond’s horse had been made ready, he rode out alone, armed. To all questions he gave no answer. His people had obeyed his orders swiftly, replacing his hunting arrows with keener and heavier broadheads, fetching the sword that gleamed in the Hall of Fire where it had hung since the days of the Last Alliance. He bore no shield, no armor, no mark of distinction except for the silver circlet at his brow. Elrond’s finer raiment had been set aside. He was arrayed in plain travelling gear and a white cloak woven of the same stuff the Galadhrim used to hide in the twilight. It would do for snow.
       It had been a thousand years since the lord of Imladris crossed the Last Bridge and turned up the steep path leading to the Fords. Now he was gone. Whispers passed from lip to lip instead of song. The falls roared on...
       ... a bellow cut short by a sword. The trunk of the last orc toppled across another blade lying on the floor that gleamed in a pool of its own light. When Orcrist was covered over, the cave was plunged into darkness, nearly black enough to blind Elven eyes. But one other thing gleamed, the pale gold of the hair of the sword's owner. Two mortally wounded Uruks were dragging her backwards, heaving themselves the last few feet, claws biting into the shoulders of their struggling prisoner. The stony wall at the back of the cave slid shut, leaving behind two upright figures among the twisted bodies of the slain.
       His brother hurled himself at the cold rockface, voice strained and desperate, and Elrohir joined him in chanting an opening spell: “Annon i orchoth, edro ammen!” But the stone wall remained a wall, mute to their demands. The twins looked at one another.
       “We’ll find another way in,” Elladan said flatly. “Come.”

       Elrond had reached the Fords, and was already midway across when he heard the sound of pursuit behind him. Bells rang out. Limloth could outrun any horse in the valley save Asfaloth his twin, but Elrond turned the stallion’s head and waited. A rider broke from the trees a moment later, flying to his side. “Adar, daro.
       “I must go,” he replied curtly. “And you must go back. Now, Arwen.”
       She did not budge, reining in her smaller mare and turning in the saddle to lock eyes with him. Her face was pale, lips pressed together, the light that made others call her Undómiel dimmed in her eyes. Evidently she had guessed her father’s errand. For there was only one thing that could induce the lord of Imladris to pass the boundaries of his protectorate. “You cannot leave, Father. You know this. Not while this Age lasts.” Her gaze fell upon his right hand, searching for a star.
       “Nor will you, my daughter, riding out without your brothers’ protection or escort against my wishes and your mother’s. Go home.” His grey eyes drank in the sight of her one last time. Her clear fair cheeks were flushed by the wind, her dark tresses coming unbound from the silver net and braids that gathered them against the nape of her neck. She wore a deep blue cloak, edged with small jewels fitting for a queen, and a white gown of shimmering fabric that was too delicate for a lengthy journey. As he guessed, she had been riding alone again in the forest above the falls.
       Another time Arwen might have protested with eloquent words, but now she simply set her small hand over his, Vilya cold under her fingers. That reminder was enough, finally, for the anger-clouded vision of its keeper to clear.
       He exhaled. “An ambush on the Redhorn, Arwen. Your brothers live, but I cannot see your mother. They have gone after her. The vermin carried her below.”
       She nodded mutely when the unthinkable was confirmed. “Let me wait with you. Please.”
       Her father gazed at the far bank and the narrow road that vaulted it, spanning an open mile of meadow before vanishing into a cutting in the trees. To other eyes there was no fence barring the way or proclaiming the boundary past which none could proceed save by his goodwill. But the lord of Imladris could not cross it without releasing Vilya’s hold on the valley and allowing the mortal currents of time to beat against the High-elves’ last haven like floodwaters chewing away at the bank. His need was great, but the safety of Rivendell must come first. Grim-faced, Elrond slipped his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. Like stone sentinels they waited, while the cold waters of the Hithaeglir foamed about their horses’ hocks.
       The moon was high when Asfaloth burst out of the woods in a flash of white, arrowing towards them. Glorfindel was slumped over the saddle — an odd habit, borrowed from Men during the wars against Angmar — and his steed’s right flank from shoulder to hip was stained red. There was no sign of his sword. The Elf-lord must have been fighting despite his wounds and lost hold of Glamdring when the poison overcame him. At least half a dozen orc-arrows were embedded in his side, shoulder, and back.
       Elrond bade Limloth wait until Asfaloth reached them. Then Arwen helped her father gather the stricken warrior across his knees. He ordered her to ride before him, although Limloth could have outpaced her mare and brought the dying Elf to the hall sooner. The bridge was lit with lamps when they reached it, and many hands eased Glorfindel onto a waiting pallet in the courtyard. Some wept to see the hero of Gondolin returned to them in such a state. Stunned silence followed, however, when the news spread that only he had returned. He was borne away to Elrond’s private chambers for such healing as the Master could give. Arwen remained in the garden, surrounded by more attendants and anxious well-wishers than she wanted. Her grey eyes turned often towards her father’s high chambers, but neither he nor any page appeared upon the balcony; Rivendell’s master healer worked alone.
       At dawn Glorfindel struggled awake, gritting his teeth as Elrond cut the last of the arrows from his shoulder. “My lord, your wife and—”
       “I know what has happened, old friend,” Elrond responded quietly, his own pain mastered now. “Hold still. Elladan and Elrohir were unhurt; we must trust their strength. You trained them well.” He fell silent, pressing a pale green leaf against the bloody wound and whispering some words under his breath.
       The strain in the Elf’s waxen face was not due to his injuries, but he was too weak to speak any further; only the need to deliver dire news had given him the will to rouse himself.
       “Sleep,” Elrond commanded, tossing the leaf into a crystal bowl and bending down to draw out the last of the poison. He spat it into the basin and reached for linen bandages. “You could not have known, Glorfindel.”
       Glorfindel did not miss his meaning, but the dispute would have to wait until later; blue eyes flickered shut despite his will. Finally all his wounds were bound, and his healer left him to rest. Elrond bathed and changed into clean garments, then paced his chambers with hooded eyes. He did not look south through the wide windows. There was no need.
       In direst need hope may come unlooked-for, and for Elves it still comes most often from the long line of Huor. As Elladan and Elrohir tore through the orc-nest they had found beneath the hills, they came across one slave whose face they knew all too well, hacked and disfigured though it was. The man had fought his way to their side, using chains as his only weapon; he fell at their feet before they could mistake him for goblin and slay him in their pitiless rampage.
       Elrohir knelt and lifted him, incredulous. “Argalad?”
       “Lord Elrohir,” he rasped. “New... prisoners. Elves?”
       Elladan stood guard over them, slaying the trio of goblins ordered forward by their drivers while his brother was distracted. “Do you know where they were taken?” Elrohir pressed urgently.
       “I think I may,” Argalad whispered. “Come, there is no time.”
       Elrohir all but carried him, chafing at the speed of stammered speech. With the Ranger’s guidance they threaded the labrynth. There was little resistance; most were goblins, the lowest rabble the ancient enemy's twisted power had produced. Only by numbers and by ambush could they overpower the greatest Elf-lords, nor could these two be caught offguard a second time. The next ambush was swiftly thwarted, and only one attacker escaped to report the slaughter. After that the brothers met no further obstacles until they outstripped the pace of news and the rumor of their coming. Guards and the stench of death from holes in walls and floor told them when they were near. None had time to give the alarm.
       So it was that they burst in upon their mother's tormentors and caught them unawares, and there saw what was done to her. The Uruk captain barely had time to see and fear before twin blades had cut through him. Elrohir flung him to the floor while his brother gathered their mother in his arms, stripped and barely conscious through her ordeal. She did not see them. Elladan’s hands shook as he bound her wounds and wrapped her in his cloak.

       Elrond tried to steel his face when he went down to seek Arwen in the garden. Drops of dew scattered from leaf and stem as he brushed past sleeping roses, tracing the rambling paths of polished stone. Arwen was waiting at the moon-bench behind a fountain fashioned to mimic Telperion, and she rose quickly to meet him. He shook his head curtly when those around her made to leave with obvious reluctance. They parted, fair faces drawn and silent, forming a semicircle around the fountain and the pair as he set his hands upon her shoulders. “They have her,” Elrond said briefly. “All live, but your mother is hurt. They still must escape.”
       There was a collective sigh around them, breaths held too long. Arwen touched her father’s cheek and kissed it, seeing a pain behind his eyes which she did not fully understand. “They will.”
       Elrond said no more. The circle of listeners meant Arwen would not press him for particulars. Instead she took his hands. “Sit, my lord,” she coaxed gently. “You are tired from tending Glorfindel.”
       Her shrewd glance met his. Wearily Elrond seated himself on the bench beside his daughter, lacing his hand with hers. “Send out riders,” he commanded the others. “Well-armed, and none travelling alone. Scour the roads for any other hidden ambushes. Let six wait at the foot of the turning to the Redhorn Pass. Meet my sons there and escort them home.”
       His people bowed and scattered swiftly, grateful for orders he should have given hours before. Some scouts, he knew, had already gone without being asked. More would be needed.
       Finally, father and daughter were left to each other’s company. Elrond drew his cloak around her, for she had cast her own aside, soaked through by the heavy dew. She sat pressed against him until he spoke. “Twice have I erred, Arwen. The first, at Orodruin, when Cirdan and I did not force the King of Men to finish what we had begun. I thought our foe vanquished, and all that remained was to hunt down the last of his servants. Into a world unshadowed I meant you to be born. But a shadow of that Shadow has returned, and your mother pays the price for my second mistake. Galadriel warned me something was amiss.”
       She squeezed his hand fiercely. “Not by lore nor vision can you know everything, Father, and Galadriel guessed no more than you what this new threat might be. You bade Mother postpone the journey. She did not wish to wait through winter. You sent Glorfindel to lead her escort. Little more could you have done, save to keep her imprisoned here apart from kin.”
       “And so I will have to keep you, Arwen, until the road is clear again. This you must bear.”
       She nodded reluctantly and rested her cheek upon his shoulder. The garden brightened around them, but the fog from the river blanketed the bottom of the valley, and Elven eyes could not pierce it to see the cliffs nor the sun. All was veiled in a pale silvery gold, the color of Celebrían’s hair.
       “There is something more in this,” she ventured softly. “Will you not tell me?”
       He sighed. “There are wounds of spirit as well as body, Arwen.”
       The worry in her eyes was innocent, and for that at least he was grateful. Her brothers had also taken a blow of spirit for which there ws no mending, and what they would do when this was over their father was already beginning to see.
       If not for the need to bring Celebrían home by the swiftest way, the twins would have cleared those tunnels down to the last orc or perished in the attempt. Their passage to the surface was not won by any stealth or wisdom, which had carried them at least partway into the warren of death, but by cool fury. They took turns carrying their mother, and such was the fire in them that each one fought as two on the rare occasions when the enemy tried to hinder them.
       It still would have gone ill for them had they not left behind their other charge. Argalad had been starved and weak before he had broken free, and in reaching them had taken such wounds as mortal could not long sustain. In an abandoned side passage Elrohir set him down. The Ranger groped for the Elf’s hands blindly.
       “My father’s time runs short,” he said, breathing labored, “and my younger brother is not ready to take the Chiefdom. Please ask Lord Elrond to watch over him.”
       “You are of Elros’ line.” Elladan’s voice was sure and steady in the darkness. “We account you brothers, and will stand by you as long as you have need. This I swear.”
       Elrohir laid a hand over the Man’s heart, affirming his twin’s words silently.
       “Then there is hope.”
       Those were the last words of Argalad son of Arahad, and there he relinquished his life according to the custom of Númenor. Elladan and Elrohir set a great stone across the passage and closed it with a spell of binding that no orc ever dared test, hearing their voices ringing loud and defiantly in that bleak place. The orcs feared a curse. It was perhaps not far from the truth; for no Elf had ever been more bitter in spirit than those two at that hour.
       Through blood and darkness they bore Celebrían back to the light of day, where they were met by those their father had sent, plus two survivors of the ill-fated party which had been scattered during the attack. These insisted on staying behind as rearguard, wounded though they were, to atone for their failure to protect the Lady of Rivendell. She lay in a fevered swoon which none present could ease. A poisoned wound from an evil blade was the cause. Elladan and Elrohir left the matter of keeping watch to their escort, and would not let anyone else tend or touch their mother on the journey back to Rivendell.

       It was a full month before Celebrían awoke with her husband and daughter at her side. Elrond took her hand and kissed it when he saw her lashes stir. But the gentle gesture was in vain; she yanked her hand away with a cry. There was horror in her eyes. High-hearted daughter of Galadriel though she was, a ray of sunlight for Elrond who had always kept the shadow of old sorrows at bay, the Lady of Rivendell trembled and could not speak a word.
       “Melethril,” he said, forcing his voice to be steady. “Celebrían. Im hîr lín.
       What was worse than her terror was her recognition. She looked upon him and knew him, but still flinched away from his touch.
       “Nana,” Arwen murmured, alarmed. She timidly stroked her mother’s hair. Celebrían did not shrink from her daughter. But she wept and would not face her husband, shuddering when he drew near. Nothing could calm her, and finally Elrond was forced to leave her to Arwen’s care.
       He stepped out into the sunlight, robbed of it, and strode the pathways along the riverbank alone. His sons had departed to bear tidings of Argalad’s death to the Dúnedain and had not returned. Doubtless they had fallen in with a hunting party and were venting their anger on orcs. Elrond wished he could do the same. He glanced down at the sapphire ring on his hand.
       Will you give it to another?
       “Would you?” Elrond asked of the light falling through the birch-leaves. “She is your daughter.”
       I cannot counsel you in this.
       The kindness behind that distant presence could not fill the emptiness in his heart, but at least he could talk freely. It was rare that they spoke in this fashion. Even with Galadriel’s power and Vilya’s long reach, the shadows and leagues between valley and wood made such communication all but impossible. Usually messengers had sufficed. Now Elrond would have to consider the risk each time he sent a party to Lórien.
       You still ponder first what is best for your folk.
       He bowed his head. “They are my responsibility. Galadriel, can you reach her?”
       Yes, but I cannot help her.
       Elrond winced, the sadness behind those simple words palpable. He marvelled that the Lady of Lórien could remain so calm when her own daughter was the one who suffered. “Then I know what must be done.”
       Not yet.
       Only that. The contact broke, or else Galadriel refused to tell him more. He roamed the deer-paths until late afternoon, then turned swiftly back towards the hall, spurred by some instinct.
       There was hubbub on the level lawn behind the bridge as he drew near. It spoke to the Lord of Rivendell’s state of mind that he did not notice the visitor, nor his identity, until the bent figure straightened and turned towards him, bushy eyebrows lifting. “Master Elrond,” Gandalf said, bowing. “I apologize for not coming sooner, but the passage of Moria proved difficult.”
       Elrond noted the bandage wrapping the wizard’s arm. “So I see,” he observed, moved that the Istari had risked that path for his lady’s sake. “And I’ve never been more glad to see you, Mithrandir. Come.”
       Gandalf did not let Celebrían know of his presence directly, but came often to sit in Elrond’s chambers, reading a book or propped against his staff, apparently deep in thought. Only Elrond knew what he was really doing. Arwen did not question; she simply stayed at her mother’s bedside, attending to all her needs, singing during the long dark nights.
       Under the light of the Evenstar and the warmth of Narya, Celebrían slowly came back to herself. When winter turned to spring she called Elrond to her, and with the first budding leaves she was walking hand in hand with him again beside the musical rills of Rivendell which had always been her greatest delight. They climbed the falls and rested on high ledges, looking down on the deep-cloven valley. Slowly her strength returned. But not her joy.
       “Our sons will be home tomorrow,” Elrond told her one day, sitting with her on a wide porch where she was painting the likeness of a sapling growing up from the level below. The picture was strange: it showed only the pattern of shadows.
       “That’s good,” she said without turning her head.
       He rose and came to stand beside her, laying his long hands on her shoulders. She went still. He took his hands away, and she returned her attention to the hypnotic stroke of the brush.
       “Do you want to go, Beloved?” he asked her quietly.
       “Go where? You said I cannot return to Lórien.”
       Even those sharp words were blunted. He looked down at her hair next to his, the one almost silver but tinted with a hint of gold, the other dark as the night sky. Hers seemed dull and ordinary now, like a mortal’s, no longer laced with the light of the sun. His eyes moved from the painting back to her face. Not yet, he thought, and kissed her brow. “Forget I spoke of it,” he amended.
       She looked up at him with a distant smile. “Hmmm?”
       There it was again, the ghost of her former self. Sometimes her family could draw a smile or even laughter from her. The Elves put forth every effort to lighten her heart with songs and all manner of pleasant speech and jests in the Hall of Fire, or during the rare times she came to the feast-hall. But these brief echoes of happiness did not outlast the moment. The Lady of Rivendell had become a mute stranger, restless even when sitting still. The whole valley felt her absence. A hushed silence of winter seemed to grip Rivendell long after the ice in the river had melted, and merry songs became an effort for everyone.
       Gandalf stayed close. Sometimes he rode out with the scouts or Elrond’s sons to determine the enemy’s movements, for the goblins had scuttled underground and shifted from bolt-hole to bolt-hole whenever the hunt was afoot. For the most part, however, the wizard remained in Imladris, an anomaly among the ageless Elves: bearded, ancient, almost comical in his hat and dingy robes. What laughter there was in those days stemmed largely from him, and he staved off the grief that kept threatening to settle like a shroud over the Last Homely House. Elrond was deeply grateful. His own heart was cold.
       At midsummer, Elrond finally announced what he had already discussed privately with his children: Celebrían would be leaving for the Havens. The poison, he said, had brought a malady upon her that was beyond his power to cure. Only in the West could she find healing. Gandalf would see her safely to Mithlond, to make certain her journey was an easy one.
       The evening before her departure, a great feast was thrown in honor of the Lord and Lady of Rivendell. Their people vied in courtesy and good cheer to delight Celebrían one last time before she was gone. She smiled often that evening, and even danced, but grew listless and weary well before the fires had burned low and Eärendil’s star had set. Elrond thanked and dismissed the gathering early, wishing to ensure that his wife was well-rested at the start of her journey. The revellers dispersed. The hall fell silent. After seeing her to bed, the Lord of Rivendell rose, sleepless, and went down to sit beside the dying fire.
       Glorfindel sought him out after the company had departed. The warrior’s own poisoned wounds had healed quickly. He was hale and strong-willed as ever, ready to take on Mount Gundabad itself at Elrond’s command. Now Glorfindel chafed doubly, for Elrond was sending Celebrían under Gandalf’s care and the twins’ watchful eyes, but not his own.
       “I need you here, my friend,” Elrond explained quietly. “Don’t think I trust you the less to keep my family safe. Indeed I still depend upon the training you have given my sons, not just Mithrandir’s wisdom and fire. But a new threat has crept almost to our doorstep. I must remain here and send others abroad in my stead. Both Imladris and the Dúnedain are in peril, and we do not know when or where the next blow will fall.”
       Somewhat mollified, Glorfindel planted himself before the lord of Rivendell with arms folded. “This I know. But why must you stay? Sometimes I cannot fathom your thoughts, Peredhel.”
       Elrond raised an eyebrow. “The old reason, which I should not have to name.”
       “That’s not what I meant.” Glorfindel spread his hands. “Listen to me, old friend. Take Arwen and the boys and go. Just go! Why not leave with Celebrían and care for her? Why keep your children here as Middle-earth falls again under the Shadow? What may yet befall your family in the dark days to come? Give me the Ring, and I shall rule as—”
       “You will rule no one,” Elrond said, voice brittle. “The High Kingship died with Gil-galad, and I do not rule in his stead. Nor is Galadriel a Queen. There is a reason for this.”
       Glorfindel noted the strain in his face, old lines of care beneath the new. Galadriel seemed immune to the touch of Nenya, or eerily blessed by it, but the face of the Peredhel revealed the price he paid for the High-elves’ last sanctuary east of the Sea. “Elrond, trust what I have told you before. You are not needed for the end of this war. The Witch-king will fall by another’s hand. The final struggle is Mithrandir’s and Men’s, not ours. The Dúnedain must rise again to—”
       “And I must see that their hope is not quenched nor led astray.”
       Elrond stood upon the balcony, noting two figures straying on the slopes above the river. In a moment they would discover one another.
       It had been a morning of great promise. His foster-son had taken the news of his lineage and heritage, his duty and his doom, with courage and high spirit. All had seemed well until a moment ago, but now a feeling of foreboding had come over Elrond like a cloud passing before the sun. He cast his mind out, seeking its source. To his dismay, his vision travelled no farther than the birch-grove where his daughter and foster-son were dallying.
       The Lord of Rivendell watched with a sense of inevitability. In his mind’s eye he could see Estel’s face clearly, bright with hope as he strolled carelessly across the glade. He was singing the Lay of Leithian. Elrond saw the young Man’s face transformed in that instant when he first laid eyes upon Arwen Undómiel.
       Aragorn stopped short, stunned. “Tinúviel!” he exclaimed, dazed, and called to her again when she did not answer.
       Elrond turned away with a sigh. Hope could not be quenched now. His duty was finished.