Only Ourselves Remain
A shift in the air has warned him as Gwindor straightens, vulnerable, in the midst of the river: a vanguard of bruised clouds in the middle distance.
Behind him, the column halts. The wind hits them with a buffeting gust, cloaks snapping like flags, hair eddying up over shoulders and helms, tangling in quivers. It bends the boughs of the fir trees like a black hand on the back of a neck.
He adjusts the pack straps biting into his shoulders.
Sand and moss-slick stones shift and swirl beneath his heels. Icy water streams from the hem of his cloak and clings to his thighs, chilling him, as he hauls himself out of Sirion’s clinging embrace.
Everything is weighted with water except his sword which he’d carried in his arms.
Underneath the shelter of an overhang, he turns back towards the beach. To those long in Hithlum, ‘Fingon’s waifs’ are little more than a morass of cobbled together realms. Nargothrond. Doriath. Outlaws fleeing the wrack of Ard-galen, men of the woods, who only loosely bound themselves to Fingon’s banners, knowing the power and peril of oaths, fighting a war no one truly believed could be won. The Dead that Live* are only two in number, and their fate is charmed. Not so the rest of them.
“Come along!” he chides the two Sindar of Doriath even as he calculates distance and angle between cliff and river, the swiftness of an arrow’s flight from tree to breast. “If I can see you, be assured the enemy can as well.”
The swordsman glances at him warily, but the bowman half-raises his hand in salute. Then, with a glance up towards the cliff, squeezes his fingers into a fist, lowers it to his side. They’re learning.
“We should continue on up the river apace,” the swordsman says, shielding his eyes as he scans the shoreline. “The cliff may be lower.”
“And the enemy thicker. We will go this way.”
The swordsman exchanges a glance with his comrade. “With all due respect, Captain, I do have some knowledge in such matters. Under Thingol, I—”
“I am sure you did or were something supremely valiant. I care not,” Gwindor says. “Here, you are just another regional bastard like the rest of us, ohtar. You are not in your own country.”
“Come, Mablung,” the Bowman says, tugging at companion’s arm.
The swordsman bristles and does not take his eyes from Gwindor’s, but he allows his companion to steer him away.
The wind presses them flat against the cliffs as they scale the switchback, the first drops of rain on their faces and the back of their necks.
Gwindor sinks up to his wrists in sand and mud, conscious only of pebbles scrabbling away under his boot heels, the earth vanishing under him, his pack dragging at his shoulders and the strain of his neck. He hauls his body in intervals over the lip onto a brittle sward of weeds that peters into a little goat track—too overgrown to call a proper path. It winds away into airless darkness.
The wet of sweat and river already trickles down between his shoulder blades and along his ribs. Something shifts beyond the edge of his vision like an animal in the undergrowth.
“This wood is full of ghosts,” says a hoarse, female voice at his shoulder. Rammas.
“If not now, it will be soon,” Gwindor replies grimly and plunges into the trees.
The storm sweeps over them, obliterating the trail they’ve followed for a fortnight, forcing them to hole up as best they can in what passes for shelter: a rock cave in the side of a hill into which they burrow like worms. No fire.
Flinging his pack against the wall, Gwindor sinks to the ground, testing the firmness of a branch against the strength in his hands, the smoothness of its skin. Birch, he thinks, but with the light gone, it is hard to make out.
The men are quiet, muted by the weather and fatigue, stripping off their wet clothes. There are fewer of them now than when they had crossed Sirion.
The close space smells of men, of sweat and river, of wet wool, hunger and restlessness. They settle to their bread and pallets the way deer in a wide meadow bend their necks to crop the grass. All the lines in their bodies reflect the narrowness of the trees just beyond their shelter, the low-hanging roof of boughs scraping the cave mouth like so many grasping fingers.
Only the two Sindar seem at their ease, laying out their clothes to dry, talking softly with one another, laughing in their own tongue as a charm and balm against the weather, the darkness.
As if it would save them.
Lightning surges in the small space of the cave, illuminating everything with a firework glow. Gwindor counts silently until the crack reaches him.
Habit has taught him vigilance exists in more than the eyes. He keeps his head bent over his work, sensing more than seeing the bowman as he slips out into the rain, his body luminous and bold in nakedness.
The bowman is a man who appreciates cleanliness, who washes his hands so often, others find him fussy. The rain gladdens him like a child learning the first notes of storms, not knowing enough to fear them yet.
A waft of shadow, a phantom step, the distinctly different scent of a woman. He methodically strips the bark from the branch with long, even strokes of his knife.
“Well, she-wolf,” he asks, “I have not seen much of you of late. Where have you been lurking?”
Rammas crouches beside him with an urgency that draws his eyes to her. With the distance reduced to inches between them, the wound in her throat curves beneath her jaw, raw and open in the glare. Only she remains with him from their company out of Nargothrond.
She leans her head against the wall beside him. “You are losing your way.”
“If we must hunker down, so must they,” he assures her. “We will find them once the rain passes. The Sindar do not want for tracking skills.”
Her rain-blackened eyes turn, considering, towards the mouth of the cave. “Have a care, Gwindor. You are not known for prudence in such matters.”
“I was made for hunting Orcs, my dear. Their woods or no.”
“That is not what I meant. Though there is that too.”
“And what is all that waffle supposed to mean?”
One of the men is looking down at him with a strange expression on his face.
“I thought you might be hungry.” He sets a bowl of thin gruel at his feet. “Who were you talking to?”
Rammas has up and left him.
“Myself, apparently.” Ignoring the gruel, he turns the knife up the side of the branch, a shaving of white curling amongst the dead leaves.
An ancient grove of trees swathed in ivy is the perfect place for an ambush. Movement at the corner of his vision suggests an Orcish shape. The shadow of a falling leaf or bird as it spins away into the gloom is an arrow aimed at his heart.
The knowledge of death steps with him as they move deeper into the forest, heading northwest. And he holds that knowledge the way he holds his sword, careful not to cut himself on the sharp edge.
The Sinda bowman is ahead of him. Between the dark woods and his dark hair and the black yew of the bow slung over his shoulder, he all but vanishes between the slanting shafts of sun that more and more infrequently barb the darkness.
His posture is alert and upright, but not skittish the way the younglings behind him are skittish. He carries himself like the ten-pointed buck who knows he is sought, can hear the hounds in the meadow, but some strange surety holds him to his course. He will not feel the hunter’s arrow today.
And even should ill-chance bring him within its sights, he does not fear it.
He turns his head, the arc of his cheekbone in sunlight, and for a fleeting instant, he looks to Gwindor: that same, sure gaze that considers everything and is not afraid, the same way he seeks a target for his arrows.
Gwindor jerks his chin towards the path and waits for the bowman to turn before easing back to the rear until he can no longer spot the dark head amidst the dark branches.
Rammas’ stare burrows into the back of his neck.
There are other edges too—all the sharper for being invisible, so that he cannot help but cut himself on them.
The Elf, if it is one of their own beneath such an amount of filth, kneels in the midst of a clearing.
The brightness of a clear sky pierces the shadows under the foliage and falls across his neck and face like a blade. Dark, matted hair falls in tangles, black as rain across his shoulders, his face as angular as a cliff. His wasted limbs lie all but lifeless at his sides. His wrists are bruised and ugly. Misshapen. They’d been broken, more than once.
“Who are you, man, and what do you here?” Gwindor offers. “These woods are no place for a traveler alone.”
Silence from the man. He rubs his hands, his wasted wrists. He picks at the wounds there.
“Whence do you come?”
A hiss escapes the Elf’s lips that only slowly resolve into words.
“Cannot hear. Cannot hear. Cannot hear. Cannot hear. You are shadow, no shape. No words. Wind and leaves, roots and trees. Cannot hear. Cannot hear. Cannot—”
“He is mad,” the bowman says in an awed tone of one confronted with something beyond the reach of his understanding.
When Gwindor advances his halberd within a foot of the sunken chest, however, the Elf stops abruptly, raises his head. A tall, haunted look in his eyes. Black windows into empty rooms. It is not a face he recognizes.
Men who had unraveled in Gwindor’s arms on the Dagor Bragollach had held such looks. Others who had disappeared months ago, believed taken by Orcs, returned with such a look. He can read it, has caught glimpses of it in the reflections of pools.
“We are all a little mad,” he says, lowering his blade. “Bind his hands, so he does himself no further harm. We will take him with us.”
“Mercy would be to put an arrow through him.”
“That is unjust, my Captain.”
He still hasn’t accustomed himself to the Sinda calling him that—the possessiveness of it—as if he were someone the bowman was responsible for or owed something to. Another holdover from Thingol’s ranks, like the way he eats with his hands. One cannot help one’s training.
The bowman paces before him, the lanternlight flickering across his face. “We do not even know who he is.”
“He is mad,” Rammas insists from the corner. He does not know if she talks of the captive or Beleg. “He is dangerous.”
Gwindor, for his part, leans back in his chair, seemingly at ease, all tension inward. “You have not been long in war, ohtar. There are thralls that Morgoth releases a-purpose to wander through the world and serve his will. This man is not the only one chanced upon the road. Such are accursed. They are chained to him. They know no other master or loyalty or love, and they will harm all they can, if they can. Even though they do not will it. There will be no peace for him save in death.”
“But to kill a man unprovoked? Why bring him with us and spare him death at the enemy’s hands only to deal it ourselves? That is monstrous.”
“That is war,” Rammas says, baring her teeth at the bowman, who has eyes only for Gwindor.
“Surely, you do not believe you can kill a man without harm to yourself? We are not Orcs. We are not monsters. He is defenseless. He needs our help, not our condemnation. If it was your brother, would you condemn him thus?”
Gwindor gets to his feet slowly. He is taller than the Sinda. “You grow overbold, ohtar. You know nothing of me and nothing of my brother.”
The bowmam has the grace to nod, abashed, but he does not retract his words.
“He cannot live. Even his presence here endangers all of them, including you-”
“I meant only—”
“Enough,” Gwindor says, silencing them both. “Sacrifices must be made. For the good of us all.”
The bowman gazes at him as if he’s never seen him before. He is a youth still—not in years, perhaps, but in war. What does he, this child of brush and wood-cover and enchanted girdles, know of long campaigns under ragged and bloodied banners? Of the sacrifices necessary for victory? Costly as those for love.
They stare across the pace and a half of canvass-draped space between them, across the barrenness of a desert where no green thing will grow.
“I will have no part of this,” the bowman says. The tent flap sweeps shut behind him, a draft in his wake.
Gwindor sighs and sinks into his chair. All the strength has gone from his legs. Blindly, he reaches over, and turns the lantern wick all the way down; the dark enters into the room the way rainwater seeps through cracks in walls, unfurling itself across the floor.
“You will do what is best,” Rammas’ voice speaks into his ear, her touch cool along his neck. “What is necessary.”
It is late, and he is not sleeping when the sentry comes to his tent to inform him of what has happened. He does not have to follow to see the pale, limp hand, the roots of the birch beneath it dark and wet. Firelight winces off the paring knife dropped or left.
Even compassion is cheated here, their actions reduced to shadows by the necessity of decision.
Rising, he buckles on his sword as the watch-trumpet shatters the silence: three, echoing blasts.
In the wake of their trap—Orcs.
The sun is not quite risen, but it matters not. They pursue the stragglers into the trees which close like hands behind them.
The bowman moves silent and intent as an owl at his side, their quarrel forgotten for the moment. Death has made it, like so many things, unnecessary.
The Orcs’ tracks are clear: crushed bracken, trampled undergrowth, broken branches and traces of blood. They have not tried to conceal their retreat. Something is wrong with such a clear trail—never before have the Orcs led them on so unerringly, but Gwindor’s blood is hot and churning. His blade unsheathed.
His boots dash the leaves against his heels, overturns stones. He is heedless and blind, groping in the shadows, after an enemy he cannot see. They are there. There. The yellow eyes, the flash of a knife. Just there.
And the bowman is before him, an arrow tearing a path through the naked branches. It soars, oddly silent. He does not see where it lands. Or if it has been taken into the gullet of the forest.
He only knows it is wrong when the bowman grasps his arm, not to warn him, but to hold him, to jerk him back from the precipice suddenly before his feet.
The breath leaves his lungs in a hard rush as he hits the ground.
Gingerly, the bowman crouches beside him, peering over the edge. Where the Orc trail leads. And ends.
“There is something there. But it is not an Orc. They did not come this way.”
“Their trail is here.” But it isn’t, and the world swings about him as he fumbles to his knees, follows the bowman’s gaze over the precipice edge.
Dawn is in the sky, red on the rocks far below them. A pale figure lies, black against the dun.
“Captain.” The bowman’s hand is hard on his shoulder, gripping, anchoring him or throwing him over.
The bowman’s sharp eyes have absorbed what Gwindor’s have not, less for keenness than disbelief.
The figure below lies broken on the rocks, but even from here, her hair is dark, matted against a shriveled skull. One hand lies outflung beyond her head, her legs awkward sprawled, partially displaced. Some animal had crawled down to tear at her.
Despite the dust and blood, she wears the faded blue and white of Fingon. The wound gapes beneath her throat, and in the dawnlight the blood is black.
Even from where they lie outstretched on the cliff, the stench of the long dead reaches them.
The bowman grips his arms, draws him up, against a tree, steadying. Gwindor can feel the pulse in the fingers holding him so tightly, smell the sweat on his skin, as intimate as blood.
“Gwindor, what is it?”
There is a wall of silence between them as the depleted company limps to Sirion’s banks. Victorious, after a fashion. Dorthonion, at least, is free for a time of orcs. If not of itself.
They strip at the riverside, too tired for speech, too aware of one another’s bruises and cuts, the business of fighting. The bareness of their bodies forbears further revelations of themselves. They have shed their skins and names and the formalities that would elsewise have held them apart faster than their tunics and sword belts.
Without looking at them, Gwindor is aware of the fragility of the other bodies. The darkness that threatens to reach and grasp them. And they would never know…for it was of their own making. Their own personal darknesses. Like one’s shadow. Inescapable.
“Captain,” Mablung calls to him, pressing his tunic to a hole in another’s shoulder. “Have you your knife to hand?”
Beleg half-turns to him, a scrap of damp cloth held against his thigh. His face is grey and knowing. “They say these woods are haunted.”
He shakes his head, keeps shaking it until he can put it into words. “We haunt it.”
Gwindor strikes a match in the darkness of his bedchamber, the light lifting itself onto the candlewick.
He holds the letters gingerly in his lap, the parchment rough against the pads of his fingers. Creases line where they’ve been folded in on themselves so many times he fears they will come apart at a breath. Insubstantial as air in his hands.
He lifts one by its edges and inhales the scent of its skin as if the skin of a lover. Even now, he can conjure the writer’s elegant hands. The way her pen slipped and spilled across words in her haste to render her thoughts physical. The ink blurred in places where the edges of her palm smeared them, so it would be dark for days.
They smell like leather from his satchel now. All perfume worn out by long marches, too many nights sleeping in haunted forests and wading through rivers.
The knock is only polite for the door swings open before he can answer.
Beleg stands on the threshold. Despite the chill of the flags, he is barefoot and dressed only in linen trousers and a belted tunic. His dark hair falls loose about his shoulders.
“So, here I find you.” He peers around the room with interest. “I thought the lords of Nargothrond all for opulence. This is…nigh stark. I stand all amaze.”
The character of the barracks is in it still despite that he’s remained in Barad Eithel longer than any other place, save Nargothrond. But the wine is enough: heady and thick as meat on his tongue after so long without. “I brought little with me.”
“It was but a jest,” Beleg said gently, shutting the door, enclosing them in their space.
“I was told Fingon was so very pleased to have even two Sindar at his disposal, he gave you the most sought-after rooms in the fortress. Rooms with a view.”
“Indeed, and such a view! Were we any more open to the sky, we might fall into it,” Beleg laughs. “Stifling in summer. Or damp. Or both. We are truly the envy of the barracks.”
“Better than fending off rats or Orcs in the bivouacs.”
“There is that, yes. The men are fortifying themselves well this eve.” An unknown tension threads the line of his body. He nods towards the decanter at Gwindor’s elbow. “As are you, I see.”
“By all means.” His offer is only polite, but Beleg takes up the decanter anyway, gives it an experimental swirl. The sound is hollow. Empty.
“Hm. I suppose not.”
“Why are you here, ohtar?” he says, weary of the fluttering about, the intrusion on his privacy.
“Mablung has commandeered our quarters for the eve with strict instructions for me to venture elsewhere.”
“And instead of cavorting with your fellows, you sought me.”
“I prefer the quiet.”
“Is that so.”
Beleg takes a breath, a measured sound, readying himself for something. “You have withdrawn since we returned from Dorthonion. It is not… After what we endured, a man should not spend so much time alone. Particularly when he leads other men.”
“Are you questioning my ability or merely my reason?”
“Peace, man! Neither. I merely think that it is difficult enough to hold rank and know you are apart from others because of it without imposing solitude upon yourself.”
“Perhaps what you view as an imposition is merely my preference.”
“If I believed that, I would not be here.” Beleg turns around the fringes of the room outside the circumference of brazier-light, so that half his face is in shadow. He touches the rim of the iron above the coals, gathering the soot on a long finger.
“In my own country, in Doriath, I led the marchwardens with Mablung. I held their lives in my hands. I am not unfamiliar with the perils and impositions of command.”
Gwindor swirls the contents of his mug, the red wine there. “I was unaware.”
Beleg turns a little towards him. “How could you not be when we are all ‘ohtar’ to you.”
“What else should you be?” Gwindor retorts around a mouthful of wine. It tastes metallic. Too long in the mug. Warm as blood.
Beleg winces as if Gwindor has brandished a blade in his face. “A man is more than his duty. He is a name. He is a mind. A heart. He feels. He bleeds. He loves.”
“He is slain or lost.” He is calm, staring into Beleg’s face, sees the archer searching for the tell that will give him away. He tucks it away behind his eyes. Women and men both lose themselves in his eyes. He is safe there. “And that all goes with him.”
But Beleg tilts his head, a quizzical dog, his gaze exacting, unrelenting. “Is there nothing left of your brother then in your heart?”
So, the toothless hound does bite. “Kin are another matter entirely. Do not confuse them.”
“Yes, because the Noldor are so very kind to their kin.”
“You do not want to tread that road with me, boy. You will rue it. Remember, I am of Felagund’s kindred. I know what the Noldor are capable of.” He remembers the paring knife he lost, he left. The whispers of a dead woman in his ear.
“Forgive me,” Beleg says, bending his neck a little. “I spoke out of place. But I do not regret it. That is the first time I have ever heard passion in your voice.”
“What do you want, Beleg?”
“In truth, I do not know.”
Gwindor leans his head against the chair’s wood back. He is wearier than he can ever remember. He wants to reach out and touch the figure across the room, to slide his hand against the sweat on his neck. He wants to lay his cheek against that dark hair and sleep. Real sleep, not the sleep he sinks into when the wine is not enough, the sleep where Rammas’ hands claw at his throat and Gelmir holds him with empty eyes.
It is too stuffy within the room. He heaves himself to his feet with a little difficulty, jostling Beleg’s knee, and opens the shutters.
Beyond the walls of Barad Eithel, the watch-fires and the banners of Eldarin lords and chiefs spread far out to either side of the slope, down to dark Sirion. The Noldor of Hithlum. The Eldar of the Falas and his own folk of Nargothrond. The Men of Dor-lómin. Their pipes and drums strain to envelop him, to pull them into their midst.
“I wonder what the stories will say of us. After tomorrow. If they will be generous. If there will be stories.”
The night is humid, the air wrapping about his body like a second skin. The wind smells damp with a coming rain. A buckle of noise far down the horizon, flung against the Ered Wethrin.
Angband is restless too.
Beleg comes to stand beside him. The lattice of moon and cloud lift and roll across his face and eyes, sweeping from shadow to blue-tinged light and back again. Gwindor wants to follow the play of it over the high cheekbones, the strong jaw, to assure himself it is flesh and bone in truth. The mood for argument has left him. Like coming out of the woods.
“I am betrothed,” he says. The wine is making him honest; it seems important…now.
Beleg, surprised, fumbles to offer congratulations, but Gwindor shakes his head.
“The betrothal has stood several years now.”
“She wants no other suitors. I want no wife. It works well for us. It is of our own will at least,” he says quickly to allay Beleg’s pity. He lays his hands lightly on the casement, the wood grain firm and solid, speaking to it rather than to Beleg. “My brother was the one who loved wisely and well. He was in love—he was always in love, Gelmir was. But Orodreth’s daughter caught him and held him. Finduilas. Then he was gone. I always thought she turned to me for the ways in which I resembled him. Though I loved unwisely and unwell as a general rule. It is, in part, why I left Nargothrond. Why I came here.”
“What is the other part?”
“I still look for him. Even now. But I do not expect to find him alive.”
“You would rather him dead?”
“I hope he is.” And it is the simple truth. “Better so than broken. He was a valiant man.”
“As the man in our camp.” Beleg watches him, his expression carefully shut and tied, his thoughts invisible.
“She told me things. That I had to do what is necessary. I did not kill him, if that is what you are thinking. He did not need my aid there. He understood there are sacrifices one makes. To keep others safe.” Why he is justifying himself, he does not know, but if he does not speak, the knowledge will rip him to shreds. “You cannot do the things that we have done—that we have been forced to do—and retain reason. You have to lose yourself a little.”
“I know.” And the words are spoken from such a depth that Gwindor believes him. Beleg rests a hand on his arm, and it is a warm, anchoring weight. “But you cannot stay lost.”
Gwindor sighs, pushing the breath out of his lungs. “I do not usually prattle on so. You’ll have to forgive me. I am still not quite certain you are here.”
Beleg lays the tips of his fingers against Gwindor’s temples, and they are firm and warm.
Gwindor catches him in his embrace and kisses him with an open mouth, feeling the hardness of shoulder blades beneath the spread of his palms, flesh and bone against him, and beneath it a measure of solace.
They stand beyond the light of the brazier, revealed as little more than shadows. The heat of their bodies is warm through his tunic. He feels Beleg shift against him, the dark hair fallen against his neck. The scent of leather and old sweat and wild woods. The corner of the casement digging into his back.
His mouth against Beleg’s ear, something in him unfurls and falls away like a shucked breastplate. He feels he could sink inside this man and disappear into his character. Lose himself in another way.
Beleg untugs himself first. “I cannot return to you what you have lost. Nor do I offer you absolution.”
Beleg nods and goes to the camp bed, stretches out full length, fills its space with his frame. He tucks his hands behind his head and cocks an eyebrow expectantly.
Gwindor wishes he knew Beleg well enough to ask why. Instead, he removes his clothes: easier to bare himself, now, than to reveal any more of his own character than he already has.
Beleg circles an arm around his neck and pulls him down onto the camp bed.
The brazier light flickers over their bodies, erasing scars, revealing only bits and pieces of their lives, here flank, a curve of shoulder, a length of neck, tendons drawn taut as a bowstring.
And when the red coals dim into smoke, Gwindor rests his brow against the broken bridge of Beleg’s spine and weeps, quietly and violently.
Beleg, turning, says nothing but puts his arms around him.
Chapter end notes:
* "Dead that Live"- a reference to Beren and Luthien after they returned from death and dwelt on the island of Tol Galen, renamed Dor Firn-i-Guinar (Land of the Dead That Live).
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