In the back of his mind he could still feel it…the tenor of his waking breath in her embrace, the taste of sunlit air upon her marble streets, the spark of crystal rain that flanked the doors of the white tower, shimmering like a pearl of molten silver through the blood-red smote of the dawn. It was a city that lived within him now, every bit as ethereal to his remembrance as she was concrete.
Her name was Gondolin. The hidden city. His one and only touchstone.
His every present thought drifted through the memory of her. For years she grew to be an extension of self that flourished beyond the recall of his fury at her end, and cascaded into an ideal that gave his life a strength renewed. Even now he could conjure the fading touch of moonlight that would bathe her walls in the spring, flipping through the annals of his memories like pages in a book. One measured step after the next he walked, delighting in every recollected blade of grass, every note of lullabies sung by the white-hued birds that danced above the gardens.
But with the faintest of gestures, the enveloping noose of the present stole her from his grasp before he could take another step.
Harthalin nudged him again, her golden hair arching ever so gently as she bent down towards his resting eyes.
His heart breathed a sigh of smoke and ash. His eyes met hers.
“I am sorry,” he managed at a whisper.
“You seemed lost in a trance! It’s not like you to let the enemy cloud your mind to thoughts of defeat, my friend. Sauron surely knows the mastery in this battle is ours. Yet a cornered foe is perhaps the most dangerous. So be on your guard.”
Eldriun shook himself free of his thoughts and came round. His faded blue eyes were a glimmer of richness to the stark tones around them. His face, somehow befitting both a stern and welcoming countenance, was buoyed by the perpetual grace of all High Elves. But his eyes quietly spoke of weary travels, of days gone by and love lost amidst the perpetual storm of eternity.
“Then let’s be about it. The songs won’t wait for us to supply the notes,” he said with a faint smile.
“Come then! High King Gil-galad has summoned us.”
As they walked together across the charred earth of Morannon, the gate of Udûn waited menacingly in the distance. It served as a mouth to the land of Sauron the Great, as he called himself, the most dire foe to all life that claimed Middle Earth as its home. On every side their vision was clouded by the plumes of roaring fire, hails of flesh and steel, and the cries of glory and loss that incited the smoldering furnace of war. The battle had raged for many hours, the grounds now caked in the blood and remains of the fallen.
The Last Alliance of Elves and Men, it would come to be called. At this juncture, the armies of the High King had carved a swath through the enemy lines and formed a ragged wall of fighting soldiers around the current encampment. In front of Eldriun and Harthalin was another small force that was as yet disengaged, comprised more of Men than Elves. As they approached, Eldriun was reminded of how stories rarely evoked the true stench of the battlefield. The smell hung in the mind’s eye like a fog towering over a swamp, a soupy mixture that stung like acid in the mouth, lingering nearly as long as the harrowing images of life and death that preceded it.
Before he realized it they were already standing near the head of the soldiers, the rousing words of the High King booming in their ears. Eldriun held his place without so much as a movement or flinch, his sun-kissed brown hair peaking around the edges of his helmet like escaping tendrils of dark flame. As he beheld the High King and his words, he quickly noticed that some of the grandest names known to Middle Earth stood in front of them.
For the briefest of moments, Eldriun wondered who could ever expect to withstand such an impressive host? But then a flashing image of the crumbling white tower reminded him of the fate that befits such arrogance. All remnants of his home had been destroyed by the armies of Morgoth, then lost to the hunger of the trembling sea.
As Elendil, Isildur, and Lord Elrond took their turns to speak, a quick horn blast startled the masses to attention. Through the lines of glinting armor came an Elf, his legs moving as fast at his muscles could push them. He was declaring seeming nonsense about approaching riders from beyond Morannon, an oddity to be sure. Could it truly be the servants of the enemy come to treat?
Elendil, the King of Men, was unmoved.
“Sauron does not wield his servants as ambassadors.”
High King Gil-gilad could only nod in agreement, but still he acquiesced.
“Allow them to ride forward unhindered then. They would not penetrate this far north knowing we carry the day unless they brandished but words. We shall meet them in the field and see for ourselves!”
He motioned for the entire force to follow him through the path ahead, bordered by two small hills that bled out into the field of fire beyond. With Gil-Gilad at point, they crept ahead as their eyes squinted into the smoking cauldron of the horizon. If the riders came from where he thought, Eldriun knew as well as anyone that they would emerge from the black pale soon enough.
Each second that passed for this splintered army gave way to more apprehension. Spears and swords were at the ready, the sounds of nearby fighting still ringing out into the crisp night air as they inched their way over the land. Eldriun felt a trap was almost inevitable despite their expected victory, or perhaps even because of it. So his eyes cut like razors through the distant shapes of nothingness and turmoil, the back of his head shifting quietly in his helmet as he searched for movement.
With a sudden jolt, the High King raised his arm high and the entire host snapped to a halt. Gil-gilad’s voice was like ice.
“So it is. The shadow kings have returned from the darkness. The Gwetherain have come.”
From the depths of a realm beyond knowing, a horse emerged into sight, followed by one after another. Black as moonless night they walked, the mass of all known hatred infusing each and every step. One steed beared but one rider, all adorned in cloaks but otherwise lacking any tangible form beneath the outline of the humans they had once been. Silence fell over the field at their approach. The crinkling sound of spurs echoed in the in the dark as they spread their mares out before the Alliance of Elves and Men. Nine they were, no more or less. Their leader’s head was wreathed in steel and flame, known the world over as a symbol to fear beyond all others.
He was the Witch King of Angmar. The greatest of the Nine.
The High King signaled a lowering of weapons to his host, and one by one they did so. Despite himself, Eldriun remain fixed on the Witch King, his eyes staring without hesitation into the blackness of his visage. Though he never felt as if the stare was returned. But suddenly a hand gripped his arm, pushing downward without pause. He blinked only to see Harthalin pressing him to lower his weapon as instructed. It seems he had held it in place without knowing the whole time.
Just as he did so, the Witch King urged his beast forward, his blazing-eyed crown a beacon of malevolent light against the void of his ruinous form. The horse reared and kicked before coming to rest, the entirety of the High King’s force shifting their weight in nervous response to its bridled rage.
The Witch King’s speech wound itself through the air like poison through veins. His every utterance sent a chill of absolute fear through the heart. The host of armored Men did all they could to resist. But to the reassurance of all, their Kings and heroes were unphased by the terrible presence before them. They stood defiant and met his words with their own. The Witch King spoke of Sauron the Great’s terms. He asked that they hand over the three remaining rings fashioned by Celebrimbor, a mockery of Sauron’s true work, and to swear oaths to trouble these lands no more.
King Elendil was the first to respond.
“If we should accept, what assurance do we have that Sauron would not later make war against us?”
The Witch King left a pause before speaking. He had no face to emote with, but to Eldriun it felt like something close to a smile.
“He offers none.”
Gil-Gilad spoke next, his words a song in the black.
“Peace can never be made with Sauron. Only lies. And treachery. Speak no more of your terms and flee back to your master. Tell him the enemies of darkness amass at his gates!”
The Witch King’s mare sprang forward in a rush, dirt and decay vaulting up from its heels as it charged the High King. But the entire host responded, blades and teeth bared forth, the screeching howl of the Witch King’s voice a thunder of madness upon the quivering air. He reared his steed at the final moment, turning it sideways in a final gesture of his indignation.
“Sauron the Great has stayed my hand, but his patience has nearly ended!” he roared. “For soon no shelter…”
Eldriun felt the furor of his gaze then, though no eyes existed to give him validation. But a window of unfurled contempt poured into his body as he beheld Sauron’s most feared servant. Somehow he held the Witch King’s gaze, though it took every last measure of his strength to do so.
“…no shelter – no matter how well hidden – shall be free from Sauron’s dominion.”
With a final piercing tremor, the Nine and their King sped off into the darkness and back towards the yawning Gate of Udûn. The sense of relief was palpable as Eldriun cast a quick look at Harthalin. She nodded in reassurance, as bold and determined as the first day he met her. Gil-gilad huddled quickly with the others, hurried gestures and quick words dominating the conversation. After a moment, there were nods of agreement and the High King turned to face them.
“Eldriun, come forward. We must speak.”
The way parted for him as he approached, the rest of the Kings falling back as Lord Elrond gave him a knowing look. Eldriun inclined his head.
“How can I be of service, my King?”
“Before we gathered here I sent forth the Spears of Lindon with a Garrison of Elves and Men. You know them as Thelaron, Megoril, and Dernaith, and they have stood by my side through many battles against the most terrible of Sauron’s servants.”
Eldriun nodded fervently, his eagerness to accept whatever the High King offered getting the better of him.
“Ere they departed, they swore to cross the enemy’s trenches and dismantle their siege equipment. We can already see plenty of evidence of their success around us, but the wider front is still sending reports of catapult shots. Lord Elrond recommended you to be my scout and messenger. Learn what has become of their garrison, and if any of them yet live, deliver this message of hope.”
The High King paused, staring back at the collection of faces both fearful and resolute to the task ahead.
“Tell them that the Alliance marches upon the Black Gate, and that no evil – no Man or Orc – shall stand in our way!”
With a bowed head, Eldriun turned immediately and raced into the unknown beyond. His heart clamored against his chest as he ran, and had it held within the strength of Valinor in days past, it would have surely torn his body asunder. As it was, he could not help but think of the home he once failed to save, and the unending desire to atone for that folly on this day of all days. On the fields of tempestuous fire and beneath the callous watch of the enemy, he would bring justice to the Second Age of this world, either by the will of his heart or the skill of his blade.
Just ahead he could hear it, the quaking aftertaste of battle giving way to the clang of weapons and the gush of locomotion. The struggle was ahead and he would leave nothing behind…nothing but the wake of a hidden city that once shone like a diamond beneath the midnight sky.