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West over Sirion

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From the outworks south of Barad Eithel one had an unobstructed view of the land: Sirion, swift but shallow, would be no impediment to foot-soldiers, and beyond it the plain rose gradually, offering a clear sweep north to the enemy’s fortress.

The order, up and down the line, was: wait for the signal. The frogs in the river called out to their kin in the fens. The midsummer sun rose and grew hot on burnished armor. For a while a breeze tugged at braids and made the cattails nod before taking itself off to stir up dust clouds on the plain.

One cloud hung low, and did not disperse. It moved toward them, and as it did a little group of figures emerged at its center. They came and stood on the bank of the river, and the dust settled on their clothes, and on the bare skin of the prisoner they bore with them.

Wait.

 


 

Burying Beleg took up most of the day. The rain had soaked into the soil, leaving it with the consistency of lime-plaster, and the ground was choked with tree roots. Túrin helped with the digging, but his movements were strange and unpredictable. He would stand like a stone, his arms hanging down at his side, and then lunge forward suddenly and drop onto his knees to grasp handfuls of the sandy earth. It made Gwindor uneasy. He tucked Beleg’s sword out of sight, and kept out of Túrin’s reach.

By the time they got Beleg into the grave, the stump of Gwindor’s hand was sending shooting pains up his arm, and there were dark spots hovering at the edges of his vision. He left the rest of the burial to Túrin and slumped down at the base of the tree where he had left the sword. It was a big hawthorn with a hollow trunk like a gaping wound. It was only half-dead, and dark red haws still dotted the upper branches, too high to reach. Along with the sword and Beleg’s cloak, which Beleg had lent to him while he still lived, Gwindor had retrieved the pack and waterskin from the corpse. He uncorked the waterskin and drank deeply, then rummaged in the pack for the lembas. When he got it out he unwrapped it carefully and broke off a piece. He ate it slowly, holding each morsel in his mouth until it melted away to nothing, and watched Túrin fill in the grave, one handful at a time.

 

Gwindor woke to night falling. The air was growing cold, which made his joints ache but numbed the fire in his arm. He stood up slowly; even so, the world went gray for a long moment. He leaned on the tree and waited. When his senses returned, he walked over to the edge of the thicket and looked around. To the north and east he could see the peaks of Thangorodrim. Smoke issued from the mountains and hung heavy about them, but there was no movement on the plain. Away to the west were the fens, glimmering faintly, and the setting sun. It peered at him over the tops of the mountains like a sentry leaning on the battlements, waiting for him to make up his mind. In the south, the eaves of the forest had already grown dark.

The trees cast long shadows on the grave, now a low mound of loosely-packed dirt, and on Túrin, who sat cross-legged at its head. He did not look up when Gwindor approached. “We should leave before the next patrol comes by,” Gwindor told him. “We have two choices: south, or west.”

Túrin said nothing. Gwindor stretched out his arm and pointed for emphasis. “South,” he repeated, “or west.”

Túrin lay down on the ground and curled on his side with his knees tucked up, as though going to sleep. Gwindor forgot his earlier caution: he knelt down and seized Túrin by the shoulder. “Advise me,” he pleaded. “We cannot stay here. I propose to make for Nargothrond. We can go south toward the Pass of Anach, or west over Sirion to the Ered Wethrin. The path south is most direct, but we must pass through the forest, and I have already lost my way there once. But you learned woodcraft from Beleg. If you think one route is better than the other…”

Túrin lay like a log in the growing dark, sending up little puffs of frozen breath. Gwindor gave his shoulder another shake. This time it stirred him from his stupor: he sat up slowly and stared at Gwindor. Gwindor got out the lembas and offered a piece to him. Túrin took it from his hand and devoured it with the furtive haste of an animal. Gwindor leaned back on his haunches to wait, but Túrin had nothing to say.

"I see how it is,” Gwindor said. “You do what you’re bidden, and no more.”

He hoisted himself to his feet again and went to gather up the lamp and the pack and the waterskin. He considered leaving the sword in the tree, in a grave of its own, but found he did not like the thought of abandoning it in this barren place. He went to retrieve it, and realized that he had not thought to take off Beleg’s sword-belt before burying him.

Beleg’s pack contained, among other useful items, several coils of rope; tying the knots was frustratingly difficult, but with patience Gwindor managed to fashion a sort of strap that he could sling over his shoulder. When he was done, he went back to Túrin. “Listen,” he said. “I will tell you what I think. I do not want to go into that forest again. So, west it must be.”

He pulled the cloak more tightly around himself and tried to arrange his burdens so they did not clank against one another or jostle his arm. The sword was heavy, and the rope cut into his shoulder. “I know of a place just north of the fens where we can cross Sirion,” he said. “I did it before, years ago. But so much time has passed. Perhaps the land has changed, who can say?”

The moon was rising , and the air was growing bitterly cold. Túrin was beginning to shiver. They could not wait much longer. “You will die if you stay here,” Gwindor told him. “We both will. Get up.”

He extended his right arm toward Túrin, offering him his hand the way he had the lembas. Túrin took it and let himself be tugged to his feet.  The dirt from the grave still clung to his fingers, and ground against Gwindor’s palm. Well, there were rivers enough to wash in between them and Nargothrond. “Come” he said, and tightened his grip. “Follow me.”