It was a grey wet morning, and the mist lay heavy over the river Narog, hiding all but the nearest of the wooded hills of the Taur-en-Faroth. The watch-hill of Amon Ethir was the vaguest of shapes against the pale grey sky. The stone paving of the path along the river that led to the great doors of the cave-city of Nargothrond was dark and damp.
The group beside the river walked carefully on the wet rock. Four tall Elves, hard to see from a distance, wearing the grey-green livery of the guards of Tallath Dirnen, the Guarded Plain, and one other, a smaller figure who walked hunched forward as if exhausted. She had a grey-green cloak like that of the guards tucked around her shoulders, but underneath what little could be seen of her clothes were dirty and tattered. Her feet were bare.
The watchers from the spy-holes of Nargothrond looked on with interest. There were no guards due to report back that morning, no traders or envoys expected.
The rushing sound of the river rapids prevented them from hearing any words that might be spoken, but the guards’ faces were familiar, and they knew the watch-signals. Anyone who walked the path beside the Narog who did not know the signals would not get far. The hidden archers would see to that.
In a room that was clearly used for refreshment by the door-guards, cups and jugs were stacked neatly on a table by the wall. They gave her one of the plain but comfortable chairs to sit on, and she watched as the room was hastily tidied before the King arrived. That did not take long: the door swung open before all the gear and repair tools had quite been collected up and bundled into the big battered cupboard in the corner.
They had brought her a warm drink, and thick green socks that were far too big and bunched around her ankles as she sat on the tall chair. It was so good to have warm feet, and to have kind voices all around her, she felt giddy with it. She wrapped her hands around the cup, hoarding each small sip. Everything was so clean, and smelled good.
“Escaped? But how?” Orodreth the king, tall and magnificent, towered over her. She could feel herself unthinkingly crouching away from him, all her words forgotten. She remembered seeing the king, when she was a child from time to time, a shining distant figure in a crown. He looked quite different now, in what was probably an old coat thrown on in a hurry, looking into her eyes with that worried, hopeful look on his face. She could not decide if she recognised his face.
He saw her frightened movement, and turned to pull over a chair, but one of the tall guards was ahead of him and swept the chair into position with a flourish.
He spoke in a gentler voice, leaning forward “You lived on Tol Sirion, did you not? And you were captured in the Fens of Serech? What were you doing there? “
“Fishing, sir. When we saw the smoke to the North we started for home, but there was someone on the bank waving for help, so we went to help. The orcs caught us as soon as we touched the bank, it was a trap, they were waiting in the reeds. They sank our boat,” she remembered. It was still a hard memory, despite everything that had happened. She had been such a beautiful boat, and Father and Mother had worked so hard to build her. They had only taken her out from the harbour three times.
“I am sorry about that. And then they took you... North?”
“North, yes. Across the burned lands, such a long walk, everything black and smoking and dead. To Angband. To work in the mines. They said that we were Noldor, so they didn’t want to kill us. They wanted us alive because the Noldor make the best thralls. But we’d never worked any metal before. We didn’t know what to do, when they took us to the mines. We had to learn fast. They only feed you if you learn what to do.”
“And are there many of the Noldor in the mines of Angband?” The King sat as though he was quite relaxed, but his right hand was clenched and his nails were cutting into the palm of his hand.
“Oh yes. Many, many.”
“How many, would you say? Hundreds? Thousands?”
“ I.. don’t know exactly. Not to count. But I think perhaps thousands. Far more people than there were at Tol Sirion, more people than Nargothrond. The mines go on and on, you see, joining underground, with many entrances. You can hear them in the dark, a long, long way away, working, always working. And then there are all the furnaces to melt the ore and all the factories to work it, and the storehouses, and the prisons.
“ We were sent to the mines - my family - because we aren’t important. The important people go to the prisons mostly, and the metal-workers go into the factories. Some of the people who were with us on the way across the burned lands went into the factories.”
“They let you stay with your family?”
“Not all the time. But we’re allowed to see them sometimes. So they know... you know.” Everyone knew why. This tall king must understand.
“I don’t,” Orodreth said very gently. “Tell me.”
She looked up at him, surprised. “It’s so that, if you kill yourself, you know.. you know you’re leaving them behind. You’re supposed to work hard to look after them, and hope that you will all get out together one day. To begin with anyway.”
“To begin with?”
“After a while you start to realise, after a few years in the dark. There is no rescue coming, there is no way out, not really, no matter what you do, where you hide. There’s nowhere safe any more. The Valar have forgotten us, or maybe they never cared anyway. The Lord Melkor will have all Middle Earth, in time, and he is Vala, just as they are.”
The King was looking at her with an expression of growing horror. “ But you are here now, you are safe!” he said.
“For a little while,” she replied, and looked down at the warm socks. It would be nice, she thought, if they let her keep them. “It won’t be for long though. In the end, he comes for everyone, sooner or later. Resisting only makes him angry. You might as well give up now. It will be easier on everyone; the thralls, the prisoners. That’s why I came here: I wanted to tell you. ”
“But how? How did you get here?” Orodreth was leaning back away from her now, his eyes wide and alarmed.
“Once you realise that it’s dark outside the mountains too, just as dark across all Beleriand as it is in the mines, you get better food, and more time to rest. You just have to stop hoping and fighting and accept the truth. Then, if you like, they let you go into the tunnels that run along the outer walls. ”
“They let you go?”
“Oh yes,” She looked up at him again, and felt the faint trail of thought of the Lord Melkor running through the back of her mind like a dark fire. It had that that faint smell of hot metal to it that was everywhere in Angband. “I shall have to go back, of course. My parents are still there, my brother, my aunt, all in chains. And he will come here soon anyway, and he’ll be angry. I don’t want to be here then.”
Orodreth was standing now, looking down at her as if she had spat in his face.
There was a small gathering in the king’s private rooms that evening. It was not a full meeting of the whole Council of Nargothrond, but none the less, the voices in that Council which were most valued by Orodreth were there in the soft lamplight to advise the king.
“Throw her out” said Celebrimbor, frowning darkly over the edge of his ornately-decorated wine-cup. “Let her go back to Angband or wherever. You can’t keep her here. She’ll spread panic. ”
“How can I?” Orodreth answered, “She knows precisely where Nargothrond is. She came across the Guarded Plain and past the sentry-posts. She knows too much.”
“If her tale is true, then Angband is already full of thralls who know just where Nargothrond lies, and every detail of the roads across the Guarded Plain” Celebrimbor pointed out.
“If her tale is true.” Finduilas said, her pale face distressed. “If her tale is false, what horror could she possibly be hiding, that is worse than such terrible despair? If we turn her away, is that not doing Morgoth's work for him? She can see nothing but darkness in Middle Earth, from Angband to the shores of the Sea. Should we cast her out and prove her right?”
The worried creases in Orodreth’s forehead bit deeper. “ I could see no lie in her eyes. Only black despair. And yet, I almost hope she is lying. If any of the garrison of Minas Tirith were carried off to Angband, or any of our people who were visiting Ard-galen — their situation would be terrible. And we cannot hope that all of them will be able to resist the will of Morgoth forever. ”
Gwindor hit the arm of his chair, a sudden, involuntary movement. “My brother could be still living in Angband. If she knows, if she has seen him...”
“You cannot ask her,” Celebrimbor warned him, frowning. “I have seen these Elves that have cast themselves into living darkness before, in the North. What she knows, Morgoth may soon know. He may not yet know your brother’s name or position, but if you ask her about him, they will search him out.”
“This is appalling” Gwindor said helplessly and he rubbed his face with his hands. “I know that Gelmir would never betray us, for he is strong in mind. But who knows who else is a captive of Morgoth, who may be weaker? And if there are so many, forced into suffering in the dark... The ways to Nargothrond may already be known, whether or not this child can reveal them. ”
Orodreth nodded sympathetically. “Well, we have held so far. Either Morgoth does not know how to find us or at least he is wary of the road. I think it would be safest to once again move those sentry-posts that can be moved, and change all the watchwords and signals. Set traps across the safe paths, and move the path-ways to new routes. Gwindor, could you see to it that the captains of the Guard are briefed?”
“Of course,” Gwindor said, a soldier recalled from sorrow to duty. “I will speak to the duty captain as soon as I leave.”
“But this still leaves the question of what to do with this visitor,” Finduilas said. “Father, you surely cannot send her back to Angband or throw her out to wander across Beleriand alone in the rain. She’s a child.”
“Old enough to be a traitor,” Celebrimbor said, but he said it half under his breath.
Finduilas gave him a hard look. “We are all of us old enough to be traitors, grandson of Fëanor.”
Celebrimbor looked down “A fair point. If I did not lose the right to cry ‘Traitor’ when the ships burned at Losgar, then I suppose I lost it when my father took Luthien prisoner and broke the High King’s peace with Doriath, and I stood by and said nothing.”
“If that is so, cousin, then I fear we can none of us cry ‘traitor’ any more, not since our king called upon the people of Nargothrond to support him when he went away with Beren the Man to Angband, and we would not hear him,” Orodreth said sadly. “We are none of us untarnished any more.”
“Finduilas is no traitor,” Gwindor began to protest, but he was cut short. Finduilas stood up, slender and graceful in the soft lamplight against the deep shadows of the painted walls, and she stepped forward and bowed her head formally to her father where he sat. “Father, let me take her and keep her with me. I will watch and guard her. ”
“Are you certain? “ Orodreth asked her, concerned, “ It may be no easy task. She has been touched by the mind and malice of the Enemy, and there may be no healing for her here in Middle Earth.”
“I am certain.”
Orodreth smiled “There is still sunlight on the river after all. When I wonder if all we achieved by leaving Valinor was evil, I look at you and know that it was not. Thank you, Finduilas. I willingly give her into your keeping.”
The Elf-lady, Finduilas, was kind. Finduilas took her to a bedroom with a small window and a big soft warm bed, the kind of bed she had almost forgotten existed. Finduilas said she could stay there as long as she liked.
Finduilas said she was allowed to close the curtain, so she sat in the dark, mostly, and slept a great deal, and tried not to notice the dark fire running through the back of her mind. The dark fire would like her to go out and explore and talk to people, but here in the dark, lying in the soft bed, its voice was not very loud. If you listened to the sound of the stream that came faintly from behind the thick embroidered curtain, you could almost pretend that it wasn’t there at all.
Sometimes Finduilas would come and sit on the end of the bed, and bring cups of watered wine and a bowl of toasted hazelnuts to share or a plate of small sweet biscuits, and would talk quietly about music, or about dreams, or about the otters that sometimes visited the stream that you could see from the window, if the curtain was open.
Sometimes she would tell Finduilas about Mother and Father building the boat, or about Mother and Father weeping in the mines of Angband, and then Finduilas would hold her hand.
Each time that Finduilas went away , they locked the door at the end of the long corridor. She did not try to open the door, but you could hear the bolts being drawn across after the door closed. But that was all right. It was safer that way.
or on Ao3