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Chapter 3. A New Star Rises in the Sky.
With stiff fingers Ereinion tied the last makeshift bandage, shredded in all haste from his undertunic, over the pad of birch bast that he had found in Hathol’s pouch. Only when this was done did he allow himself to sit back and close his eyes, shivering from exhaustion. He dragged his legs up, encircled them with his arms and hid his face between his knees, crying quietly as terror settled in.
He did not want to remember, but the memories pushed back fiercely.
He did not want to remember the three large, hideous orcs coming out of nowhere slashing at him, their growls and guttural cries, their stinking breath… Hathol had come crashing through the undergrowth, had cut one down almost immediately and wounded a second. He had then slashed wildly at the third, the one intent on forcing Ereinion from behind the tree.
He did not want to remember the panic, the helplessness, as he cowered there while Hathol drew the orc away from him, Lagortâl’s long knives working deftly against the curved, deadly orc-blade.
He did not want to remember the dread, as he saw the wounded orc getting up and gaining on Hathol’s back. Without thinking, he had nocked Lagortâl’s bow and had shot a dart deep in the creature’s thick neck; this time the orc had gone down for good. Dropping the bow he had leapt forth, ripped the blade from the first orc’s dead hand and thrust it with all his strength into the back of the remaining one, even as it lowered its own against a wounded Hathol, who had fallen to one knee, still fighting, shouting to Ereinion to flee…
He did not want to remember the aftermath. Hathol had a deep long gash that ran from hip to mid thigh and bled freely. He had somehow managed to staunch the bleeding with the scarce supplies that the young guard carried in the pouch on his belt, and then had found this hiding place, a small ravine well-covered by the large roots of powerful oaks and overgrown juniper bushes.
Panting, he had managed to drag heavy Hathol, who by then was unconscious, into that precarious shelter.
He had then cleaned the bloodied trail as best as he could and had ran back to retrieve Lagortâl’s cloak. “You need it not, and Hathol is wounded,” he had whispered guiltily to the still form. He had cleaned and dressed the wound as best as he could, and had covered him with the dead elf’s cloak.
And now he sat there, after doing everything he could think of to ensure their safety, and the true extent of their plight threatened to crush him.
How was he going to return to the city? Carrying Hathol was not an option, he was too heavy to haul, but Ereinion could not drag himself to abandon his wounded companion there, nor liked the idea of leaving that shelter while there could still be more orcs roaming around.
“What am I going to do?” he moaned, tears coursing his cheeks as panic threatened to overwhelm him.
“… When you feel alone, or sad or afraid, you just raise your voice in song, and you will see that all creatures, of wood and stone, of water and air and earth will echo your singing and rekindle your courage, strengthening your fëa with the bits of the Music that each creature carries within.” Unbidden, his father’s words came to his mind. For a brief while he wished he were back in Barad Eithel, ensconced in Fingon’s powerful arms, safe and warm after a terrifying adventure beyond the walls. Then, the image of Lagortâl’s body abandoned out there by the tree returned to him and he cried louder —reminded, once again, of the unmovable truth of his father’s death.
A tentative, shaking hand pressed on his calf. Wiping his eyes furiously he raised his head to meet Hathol’s pained face. “I’m not…” he began, ashamed of his weakness.
The other waved his bloodied hand weakly. “Listen, child,” he gasped. “Can you find your way… back home?”
Ereinion shook his head, panic and outrage struggling inside. “I’m not leaving you here!”
“But you have to… fast!”
Hathol struggled to sit and gave up, panting. “Listen... This was not a stray orc…this was a patrol…”
“But, what if there are more?” Ereinion cried. Then, aware that he had given away more than he intended, he insisted. “I cannot leave you alone!”
Hathol leveled a faintly amused glance on him, took a deep breath and gathered his strength.
“We need to warn Hîrvegil, Cîrdan.. everyone.. They count on you… Take to the trees..until out of this copse…then run back fast… you can send someone to …get me…I know you can do it,” he added, his hand pressing Ereinion’s calf, leaving blood prints on the already mucky pant leg, urging him.
Ereinion bit his lip, uncertain. The idea of running through that orc-infested forest alone frightened him, and he hated to be such a coward. On the other hand, leaving Hathol alone and helpless there was unthinkable..
“You should start now, child…before it gets dark…”
Ereinion closed his eyes. What would his father do? Again, Fingon’s words came to him. “Courage is not about not being afraid, but about finding the strength to do what is right, despite your fears...”
“I will,” he sighed at last, in a voice that quivered slightly. “But first, let me make sure that you are all set.” He checked the wound, which still bled sluggishly, placed their waterskins at Hathol’s reach and gave him Lagortâl’s long knives. “I will come back for you, Hathol,” he vowed, trying to sound reassuring and pressing the other elf’s hand in farewell.
He shouldered Lagortâl’s quiver and bow, and made ready to crawl from under the bushes when he heard Hathol’s gasp.
He looked back and put his fingers to his lips, but the other struggled forth. “You… are very brave… And so was your father… everyone knows that… Was just… badgering you…”
A small smile stretched his lips. “I know,” he said, as he slithered out of their hiding place, taking a moment to ensure that he left no trace.
The forest was quiet, but it did not feel threatening as before. Casting a look around, he chose an old chestnut that towered above the rest.
“By your leave, ancient one, allow me to have a quick look around,” he pleaded quickly, then grabbed the closest branch and started climbing, feeling the deep, comforting hum of the old tree through its thick bark.
With a quick glance he made sure that nothing stirred in the vicinity; the trees were calm and encouraging there. Closer than he expected, to the north, he distinguished the bare crown of the Barad Hen. Before the attack, Hathol had intended to climb the watch tower to get a clearer assesment of the situation. He surely could at least do that in his stead, then think of a way to bring the two of them back home.
“I must go there,” he sighed to the tree. “Please, take care of Hathol.”
Taking the soft sway of brownish leaves for assent, he chose the swiftest way across lower branches of oaks and chestnuts and alders and beeches, until he reached the edge of the forest. With a last pat of thanks, he jumped to the ground and continued his careful approach to the watch tower, cutting a wide arc by the feet of the rows of hills, intending to reach the outpost from the most protected side. In the end, after casting cautious looks around, he had to run the last stretch in the open.
He breathed in relief as he reached the protection of the tower, his heart beating wildly in his chest. The friendly sounds that greeted him made him smile. Even more satisfying than the welcoming murmur of the stone walls was the neighing and stomping coming from the large stable at the base of the tower. He felt immense relief as he rushed inside. What if Lagortâl’s horse was there? He would be able to bring Hathol back home!
The big sorrel greeted him noisily. Ereinion didn’t mind the warm welcome as the big head bumped him softly and searched him for treats. He hugged the strong neck and hid his face in the wild mane, finding relief in the familiar noises.
“I have nothing for you, Toroch, I’m sorry,” he sighed.
The horse continued lipping and nipping over his shoulder, until he remembered that he was carrying Lagortâl’s pack. He could not hold back an unsteady chuckle. “You know where he hides his treats, don’t you? Let’s see…”
With trembling fingers he unshouldered the pack and wiggled it open, ignoring the stains of dried blood, while keeping the big head away with the other hand. He did not want to look into it -dreaded to find out what personal possessions Círdan’s old friend carried with him, hated to remember that he was dead, alone and forgotten, lying abandoned in the forest floor like an old branch broken by a storm.
“Ah, there, look, he was thinking of you,” he said, smiling through bitter tears that welled up in his eyes. His scrabbling fingers fished out a handful of smooth sweet chestnuts that thoughtful Lagortâl must have picked up for his waiting friend.
As the horse munched happily from his open palm, Ereinion noticed that there was no straw left in the feeder and little water in the through. How long had Toroch been there? And why would Lagortâl ride up to Barad Hen to begin with? Foresters usually didn’t go there…unless they were scouting or carrying messages… As the imminence of danger hit him anew, his heart started pounding again in anxiety.
“Look,” he whispered to the horse, because it felt comforting to talk to someone. “I must go up and check the area… but first I’ll give you some water… then we will go back and bring Hathol home, if you agree?” he asked softly, meeting a large, intelligent brown eye that briefly looked up at him, as if asking.
He patted the big head and sighed, wondering whether the horse knew what had happened to his elven friend. “I know,” he wishpered, deciding that, yes, somehow, Toroch knew. “I know! I’m sorry, too. Wait here, please, I will be back soon!”
The Watch Towers served as stage point for messengers, scouts, hunters, foresters and all kinds of travelers between Nargothrond and the Falas, so there was always food, forage, water and bedding available both for errand-runners and their mounts.
Not far from the stable Ereinion found the well, a bucket and some fodder. He also found the guard room, now seldom used except for leaving messages and keeping extra weapons in a small armory. After a quick perusal he picked up a long knife that he strapped to his waist. It might serve him better than Lagortâl’s short bow.
Once Toroch was settled with water and hay he climbed to the viewpoint, hoping to get a good glimpse of the windswept, barren, no one’s land that spread to the North.
Arien was well into her downward race west, and the sky was getting the reddish hues that heralded sunset. At that time shapes could be deceiving, as unfolding shadows twisted and switched places with every passing cloud or slanting sunbeam.
Ereinion held his breath and tried to calm his pumping heart, unwilling to trust his sight.
He closed his eyes and opened them again, blinked rapidly then looked ahead intently one more time.
There was not doubt.
That was no large field of dark tall grass gently swaying in the evening breeze, as it had looked to him at first glance. That was the Enemy, slowly but unmistakably advancing across the highlands.
They were far, how far he could not deem, pouring into the unprotected lands of West Beleriand out of the shadows of the Ered Wethrin, marching southwards unmolested, down towards river Nenning. Those were armies in numbers he could not fathom, a dark stain spreading wide and forth —unstoppable, relentless.
For a brief while he stood there, panting heavily, frozen by the sight of that evil, slowly approaching danger. His stomach twisted and his chest hurt; he gasped, strangling a cry of terror that threatened to choke him.
As dread overcame him, he struggled to subdue it by standing very still and breathing deeply, as his archery master had taught him. “Fear exists not, there is only me,” he chanted, until his hearbeats settled down a bit. He sat on the stone floor, hidden by the stone parapet, and forced himself to think. He had to warn Círdan and the others, but, what of Nargothrond? How on Arda had this army made it past Orodreth’s hidden spies? Would it be that, as Hathol had said, nothing really stood between the orcs and the Falas, that Orodreth had witdrawn his support? He would not believe it.
“This is a beacon, isn’t it?” he encouraged himself -and set to work.
Up there he discovered a well-supplied storeroom. There, he found two large fire cauldrons and armfuls of dry gorse, bramble and heather sticks for fuel; tinder and kindling carefully wrapped in dry cloths, well-preserved from the night dew and rain and drizzle that came in from the sea, and a long row of striking stones.
He filled the heavy cauldrons with the dry shrubs and drenched them in flammable oil from a jar, then dragged the cauldrons outside. Panting, he stood and looked around, wondering where to place them for best sighting.
Then realization hit him that he barely knew the basics about the lay of the land.
Since he could not distinguish the shore from where he stood, it was only guesswork from the position of the sinking sun. But he had no idea where Nargothrond’s spy towers and watches stood, or Brithombar’s. He wondered in despair who would see those small fires before they went out. Or should he stay close and feed them? Would the advancing army see them as well? What, if they had more patrols in their vanguard, cleaning the territory before their main force?
He dropped again to the ground as realization hit him that he might be a clear target, standing there in the open. He sat quivering against the sun-warmed stone parapet, fear and despair threatening to overwhelm him.
“Think, Ereinion,” he told himself in soft sobs. “There must be more cauldrons somehere!”
After another thorough search of the tower he came to realize that this one must be a part of a beacon system, intended to be seen at a close distance by watchers on other towers. If Nargothrond’s were unmanned, as this one was, there was little hope in setting the two cauldrons alight, for there would be no one to mark his meager lights before it was too late.
He shook his head in despair.
“Please, Starkindler,” he begged, standing in the middle of the storeroom. “Help me get out of this fix and I promise I will pay more attention to Erestor’s maps!”
And then his eyes rested on the rows of earthen vats that contained the flammable oil, and an idea started to form. He shook his head and chuckled nervously, then began to work in earnest.
First, he took all the dry shrubbery, spread it all out in the lookout and threw it down the stairs and the stairwell.
Then, packing away a few bundles of tinder and a handful of striking stones, he began uncorking the heavy vats and started pouring the oil around, on the lookout, over the merlons and through the arrow gaps, and down the stairs and the inner walls of the watch tower, down to the ground.
Careful not to slip on the -by then- very treacherous steps, he came down as quickly as he could, picking up a few of the torches that were placed at intervals, ready for use.
“I must remember to thank Hîrvegil that at least everything here has been kept ready for use… before he kills me for torching his watch tower,” he admitted with a rueful, nervous chuckle, hurrying into the stable.
“Come Toroch, we are leaving!” he waved to the great sorrel, who looked at him in mild curiousity but followed him outside.
“Stay here, please, and don’t be scared,” he explained seriously, leading the beast to hide behind an outcrop not far from the tower. “I’ll be back soon.”
With fingers that trembled he brought out the striking stones and some tinder from the cloth bound parcels. After more tries than he usually needed, he managed at last to light up one of the torches, which he stuck on the ground. He then used the ragged wrapping cloths to bind the tips of some arrows.
“Easy, Toroch,” he insisted, hearing the nervous stomping of the steed. “I know what I am doing! Or so I hope!” he sighed. Carefully, he lit up the other torches and walked back to the tower. With as much force as he could summon he threw one up the stairs, another into the store room and a third into the stable.
The oil flamed up so violently that he had to rush out away from the ferocity of the fire, funelling up the stairwell and through the ground floor. He then picked up the torch he had left stuck on the ground and walked away from the tower until he deemed the angle was enough for him to reach the outlook. His first two flaming arrows fell short of the viewpoint and hit the stone wall before falling down. Fortunately, the flaming oil had dripped through the arrow gaps along the outer walls and caught fire quickly, so now the Barad Hen was alight in the outside as well as the inside. All that was left was the outlook.
Drawing Lagortâl’s bow with all his strength, he recalled his father’s most valiant deed and murmured his own, shy, prayer. “Please, Lord of Winds, be merciful and guide this arrow!”
Whether because of his prayer or his stubborn resolution, the flaming arrow at last reached the outlook and, all of a sudden, a powerful surge of fire blew skywards as if pushed by a sudden draft, the whole crenelation topping the blazing stone structure with a crown of fire.
“Yes! Look at that” he cried out in joy and relief. “See, Toroch? I wager they will see that even from Doriath! How’s that for a beacon?” he preened with a nervous laugh. The horse’s restless neighing brought him back to reality. Of course, the advancing army might surely notice as well, and so would any scouts in its vanguard.
“We need to get Hathol and ride back in haste to Eglarest, Toroch,” he entreated, climbing on the large beast. “Will you take me?”
Toroch tossed his head and sprang forth at a fast gallop. Behind them the flames rose sky high, bright as the glimmer of a newborn star.
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