A Path Through Darkness

by Varda

For the Children of Elrond

The Hall of Fire was silent and outside the deep ravine of Rivendell was hidden in a flowing silver mist. Elrohir felt the bite of frost on the air as he walked slowly down the wide stone staircase into the gardens of his father Elrond’s palace. The tall, dark-haired Elf came to a balustrade that overlooked the waterfall, and gazed for a long time down into the leaping water. A shaft of weak golden sunlight fell through the mist and lit up the rowan trees that clung to the steep sides of the valley. The trees bore pale drifts of blossom.
‘It is spring already, Brother!’ said a voice behind Elrohir, but he did not turn round.
‘Not for everyone’ he replied sadly.

Lord Elrond’s second son Elladan walked forward to stand at the stone rail beside his brother. He was clad in a long velvet gown of deep russet-red that contrasted with Elrohir’s simpl e grey tunic.
‘You are thinking of those in peril in the South...’ Elladan said quietly. Elrohir sighed and answered;
‘Brother, every day I think more and more of Aragorn and those others who face the Enemy in this last contest between Mordor and all Free Folk. I think of the hobbit Frodo, who was healed under this roof by the hand of our father....’

Here Elrohir turned to Elladan and his face was sombre and in his grey eyes there was a flicker of anger
‘I think of them and wonder what I am doing here, miles away from the battlefield, safe and secure while they fight for our very survival....’

Elladan listened, and his face showed sympathy. Then he replied;
‘But it is not our war, Elrohir...’
‘That is father speaking!’ cried Elladan. ‘How can it not be our struggle when all our world depends on the outcome...’
‘Whatever the outcome...’ protested Elladan ‘...our time here is over! Soon we too will seek the land beyond the sea. Even if Aragorn is victorious, our power will fade. Our father has spoken this, brother; the Ring of Sapphire that has wrought all this....’
And Elladan swept a hand to take in all the towers and gardens of Rivendell. ‘...all this will fade and die. It is inescapable, brother. This is not our fight....’
‘And what of our sister, Arwen?’ asked Elrohir quietly. Elladan fell silent. Elrohir nodded grimly.
‘Ay, it is less easy to stand by and see her pain and loneliness. She loves Aragorn, and will never be content across the sea. Father has decreed that she will not marry one who is less than a king, and who rules less than the ancient realms of Gondor and Arnor. Aragorn must defeat Sauron to win Arwen, but if he does not, Arwen is lost as surely as the battle, for she will wither and die in the lands beyond the sea. Even Elves cannot live if their hearts die. ‘

Elladan did not reply, but his head was bowed, for both brothers loved their sister Arwen. At last Elladan raised his head.
‘Well, Elrohir, what do you suggest we do?’

‘Never! I will not permit it! Ride to war alongside the armies of Gondor and Rohan? It is an outrageous idea! What has prompted this request?’

Elrohir and Elladan stood before their father in the Hall of Fire. Seated at the head of the long, polished council table where only a few months before Dwarves and Elves and Men and Hobbits had gathered for the Council of Elrond, the Lord of Rivendell now sat frowning angrily at his two sons.

Behind Elrond his court stood in silence, but in front of him his two sons stood proudly and did not bow their heads to their father’s wrath. Elrohir spoke first in reply;
‘Father, it was you who put this idea in our heads. At this very council table, when you sent Nine folk of the free peoples of Earth out to try to destroy that which Sauron needed to be great once again...’

Elrohir stepped forward and looking into his father’s piercing grey eyes, he said;
‘On that day, father, was it not your intention to send one, or both of us, with the Fellowship, to represent the Elves of Rivendell, just as Prince Legolas represented the Elves of the Woodland Realm?’

This question sent a ripple of surprise through the assembled Elves. Elrond did not reply. He sank back into his high carved chair, frowning and rubbing his chin.
‘Is it not true, Father?’ Elrohir persisted gently.

The Lord of Rivendell stood up and with a gesture he dismissed the assembled company. Then he beckoned his sons to accompany him and he walked down a long gallery that led from the palace to the Hall of Fire. Elrohir and Elladan walked beside their father. Although they were tall as all Elves are, Elrond was taller still, clad in a long robe of shimmering blue, his long black hair bound with silver and hanging down his back, and his sapphire ring winking on his left hand as he walked.

At last they reached an enclosed garden where a vine climbed up carved wooden pillars to cross a wide wooden trellis overhead. The vine was already sending out shoots in this sheltered, sunny bower. Elrond gestured to his sons to sit, and seated himself opposite to them at a round marble table. Without speaking, he took off his sapphire ring and placed it on the grey-veined marble before them. For some time he gazed at it, then said with a sad smile;

‘Behold, the power with which I built and sustained Rivendell. In the space of a few days, this power will be rendered powerless, whether Aragorn wins.... or loses. Whatever happens, I cannot hand this ring, and this realm, on to you my sons. I am the last Lord of Rivendell. ‘

Elfond said no more and the two brothers sat in awkward silence opposite him. At last Elrohir cleared his throat and said tentatively;
‘Father, does this not make it even more urgent that we should go to join our friends in the war?’

Elrond looked up and there was a stern gleam in his eye. Elrohir went on quickly;
‘As you say, Father, our time here – the time of the Elves - is ending. Why should we not complete our sojourn on earth with some deeds of courage and honour, done in the service of those who still cleave to Middle Earth, instead of fleeing like thieves in the night, content to have lived well here then left, not caring about the fate of those who remain?’

Elfond did not reply at once. He sat gazing at the Ring of Sapphire before him. In the pale sunlight sparks of blue fire danced in its depths. At last the Lord of Rivendell spoke;
‘I cannot hide it from you, my sons, because I perceive you have already guessed it, but it was my intention to send one of you....’ he gestured to Elrohir ‘ and it was you, my dear Elrohir... along with the company of Nine. But the hobbits Meriadoc and Peregrine, whom I had thought to send back to the Shire, rebelled, insisting that they go with Frodo and Sam. And Gandalf upheld their request. And so it never fell to you to go with them. But that was indeed my desire, for long ago I stood with Gil-Galad at the last battle of the Alliance of Men and Elves, and I thought it not right that none of our house should fight in this final conflict....’

Elrond leaned back in his chair as if tired, and said with a sigh;
‘.....But of late my mind has been darkened by care for your sister Arwen, and in my heart I have nursed bitterness against Aragorn, whom she loves. Not for himself, because he is noble and of the royal lineage of Arnor. It is for what the Dunedain stands for that I grieve; the loss of my daughter to mortality and a doom of grief and solitude when she outlives – as she must – her beloved Aragorn . ‘

For a moment Elrond was lost in gloomy thoughts. Then he shook them off and got abruptly to his feet. His sons rose as well. Elrond smiled and placed a hand each on their shoulders.

‘In better mood, I would have given you my blessing, as I gave to the Fellowship when they departed. And it was in this house that the Ringbearer was healed, by my own hand. We are part of this war, whatever the Elves might like to think. It was just a father’s grief at his daughter’s choice, and her sad doom, which wrought me to anger. ‘

Elrohir and Elladan cast down their looks, and tears filled their eyes, for they loved their sister Arwen above anyone else on the earth, save only their father. And yet they also loved Aragorn, who had grown up in Rivendell as their companion. They could not find it in their hearts to resent him.

At last, with a sigh, Elrond embraced each of his sons and placed a kiss on their foreheads.
‘Even for the house of Elrond, the future is not certain. We are Elves, not sorcerers, and know not what events will unfold. But this is my word; I send you to the South to take what part you deem necessary and honourable in this war against Mordor. Fight at the side of Aragorn the Dunedain if that seems right to you, and defend the one your sister has chosen as her beloved. One thing only I ask of you; that when the fighting is done, you use those powers of healing I taught you to ease the sufferings of the people ....now, go with my blessing, and return safe to your father. I would not lose both daughter and sons all at once.'

By this time, tears were coursing freely down the faces of both Elrohir and Elladan, but they were glad nonetheless to have received their father’s blessing. Bowing low, they withdrew from Elrond’s presence and returned to the palace.

Overhead, birds perched in the vine and sang as the sun strengthened and gentle warmth spread through the bower. But Lord Elrond seemed not to see it; he sat lost in sombre thought, the Ring with its great blue stone still lying on the cold marble table in front of him. Gradually, he started to remember, thinking back to his time as Herald of Gil-Galad, and soon the past had eclipsed the present, and he forgot where he was, and no longer heard the birds sing, nor felt the sun’s warmth.

The bright spring day had passed into a chill evening as the two brothers prepared for their journey south. They would travel light, for speed, bearing only arms and what lembas they needed for the way. They would not stop for night, as Elves do not sleep, and their steeds were Elvish creatures that could run without tiring for many days.

A pale moon was silvering the towers and bridges of Rivendell when the brothers stood by the flickering light of a brazier and looked appraisingly at each other’s mail and accoutrements of war. Their gear was not undamaged, for both had taken the field against Mordor many times before. Elrohir wore light silver mail and a surcoat with the silver and blue arms of Elrond. Elladan wore gilded mail with his own motif of a golden sun and moon. He buckled on his sword belt and heaved a sigh.
‘Well, let us go.....’

Just then there came a rap on the door. Elrohir stepped over and opened it. An Elf bowed low and said in an urgent voice;
‘My lord, there are messengers come....’

The brothers hurried out the door after the Elf, along the hallways of the palace and down the long marble steps into the moonlit courtyard. There they were astonished to see a group of about two dozen hooded men clad in grey cloaks fastened by silver brooches in the shape of seven-pointed stars . They were tall, and by their height and noble bearing and by their grey eyes gleaming deep in shadow, the two brothers knew these were the Grey Company, Aragorn’s companions and all that was left of the nobility of ancient Arnor.

Elrohir bowed low.
‘Masters....’ he said ‘... you are right welcome here! My father will receive you presently....’
‘We do not come to see your father.....’ said the leader of the Grey Company, pushing back his hood to reveal a stern, fair face.
‘Halbarad!’ exclaimed Elladan. ‘Aragorn’s standard bearer! Then you must be on your way south!’
‘I am’ replied Halbarad shortly. ‘And so are you, or that is what your father sent to tell us. He knew from your Elvish scouts that we were making haste to the south to join our leader Aragorn at this last struggle in our long war, and he sent a request that we take you with us on our journey.’

‘What glad tidings!’ exclaimed Elrohir. ‘We looked to make a lone journey to the south, in peril and unaccompanied. Now we will travel with the Dunedain, and it will be a journey with kings!’

Halbarad laughed,and the other Rangers smiled and pushed back their hoods.
‘Would that we could afford you kingly protection! But the honour is ours, and we are right glad to have the privilege of travelling with the sons of Elrond Half-Elven, Herald of Gil-Galad. ‘

‘But do you wish to rest for a while?’ asked Elladan.’ We were about to set out, but we can wait a while if you prefer....’
‘We do not want to rest’ replied Halbarad. ‘For all time of resting is now past, and the great trial of strength between Mordor and the West draws near. But we must receive something else, something other than rest or help which we were told to bring from Rivendell to the South.’
The two brothers looked at each other in bafflement.
‘Something from Rivendell?’

‘I think I can make that mystery clear to you, my brothers..’ said a soft voice behind them. The two Elves and Halbarad turned to see a tall figure at the top of the moonlit steps. It was Arwen, clad in a dark blue cloak of velvet sewn with silver. She had pushed the hood back from her gleaming dark hair, and her skin shone in the moonlight like ivory. But her eyes were dark sombre pools and her face was stern.
‘That gift from Rivendell to the Elfstone is in my keeping, come you now Halbarad, and you my brothers, and receive it at my hand....’

And Arwen turned and walked back into the House of Elrond, and her brother followed her with Halbarad. Along dim passages lit with silver lamps they walked, till at last they came to Arwen’s quarters. She opened the door and let them into a large, round room furnished with green and amber and lit with cool moonlight and a glowing silver brazier. The light reflected on a gold-embroidered hanging showing the lamps of the sun and moon from the first days of earth.

But in the centre of the room there was a low table bearing a long slender object covered in black cloth that contrasted starkly with the white marble floor tiles. Arwen turned and closed the door after the Ranger and her brothers, then walked to the table and quickly pulled away the black cloth.

Inside the wrappings was a banner. Arwen’s brothers stepped up to the table and stared in wonder at it, for they had never seen its like, nor heard of such a banner in all the histories of men and Elves in Middle Earth.

The banner was made of the finest silk and velvet; it was hemmed and sewn with the most intricate stitches known to Elvish craftswomen. But the material was black, all black, like a night without stars. As Arwen unfurled the banner on its silver post, the fabric glistened in the moonlight like the sea at night. But as she stretched it taut, all those present saw that upon the banner there was no device; it was blank and bore no emblem.

‘Sister!’ exclaimed Elladan. ‘From the dawn of time no flag or banner like this was every woven or wrought! For on it there is no symbol, no emblem of any prince or lord. What is this?’

Arwen gazed long at the banner, and at last she furled it up carefully, and bound it tightly closed with lengths of black leather stamped with gold.
‘This banner....’ she said slowly ‘...is the banner that Aragorn will bear into the last battle with the forces of Mordor. It has no emblem but is utterly black, as black as the darkness that will result if we fail. For it is only through darkness that we can come to the light. But also....’

And here Arwen looked at her brothers and in her eyes tears glinted in the moonlight;
‘This banner is for the dark of death, that comes to all men, and which I have made also my doom, out of my love for Aragorn.’

At these words Elrohir and Elladan, and Halbarad the standard bearer of Aragorn, looked sombre, and could find no words to speak, for a grief filled their hearts that was too heavy for speech. Arwen looked from one of them to the other.
‘My brothers, and you Halbarad who bears the standard of my beloved, do not grieve! For the death I choose as my doom is joy compared to the eternity I would face in the lands beyond the sea, where my heart would be dead. And if our hearts do not live, even for a short time as mortals, then endless life as Elves is worth less than the brief life of the least of creatures that live in Middle Earth.’

Arwen’s brothers and Halbarad looked up then, and gazed at the face of Lady Arwen, and saw there not grief or death, but a radiance that came of love and hope. And their own hearts were lifted, and they smiled and bowed to Arwen as if to a great queen, for they knew that of all of them, Arwen without leaving her chamber here at Rivendell had shown greater courage than any warrior in the hosts of the West who now rode to war.

‘And now....’ said Arwen, turning and picking up the banner ‘..I must entrust this gift to you to bear to Aragorn. And with the gift take also these words; say to my beloved;
‘If time is short, remember the Paths of the Dead...’’

When Arwen said these words, the Ranger and the two Elves gasped with horror. They looked at Arwen with dread. She smiled calmly and went on;
‘Do not be afraid, and do not hesitate to say this to Aragorn. For these dark words will be the herald of hope, and of a deed foretold long ago. Out of the mountains of death Aragorn will lead an army of the Dead, and it will bring rescue and hope to all Gondor.’
Lady Arwen fell silent then, and smiled. She held out the banner, and Halbarad stepped forward and took it with reverence. Then Arwen said;

‘The blessings of Men and Elves and all Free folk go with you, Halbard the Standard Bearer, and my beloved brothers Elladan and Elrohir.....'