Celebrimbor woke up with a start, all his senses alert as he heard the distant howl of warg. Fainter, the discordant clashing sound of orcs on the run was audible. He braced himself for a moment before jumping down from the tree he was perched in. He winced as he landed on his feet; he hadn’t dared to take his boots off for days. His feet were full of sharp pains and a dull ache had sank deep in his bones. From the dampness in both his boots, he thought his feet were bleeding, but until he could take his shoes off and leave them off, he didn’t want to check.
He pulled a device out of his pocket. On the surface it looked like an astrolabe, with neat ticks indicating season, altitude, and azimuth. The Valacirca and Menelmacar were symbolically represented with a sickle and sword. He had meant to add more constellations, but had run out of time. He concentrated, trying to hear the soft starsong through the device. The stars were veiled, but the principle of listening to the power of Varda should still hold true. For weeks now, Celebrimbor had been chasing an echo of power, watching the dials turn by minimal degrees. Around the same time, he had also attracted the attention of a company of orcs, most likely based out of Nan Dungortheb. Rather, he had thought it was a single company, but after failing to shake them off for so long, he was beginning to suspect that there were multiple companies, and they had all been informed that there was a lone elf on the loose: easy prey.
If he had been asked last year how long he could have lived on his own in the wild without a source of food or clean water, he would have guessed a couple months. It had now been one hundred and four days since the fall of Nargothrond. No one would fault him for giving up now, especially considering the wounds on his shoulder and hip, uncared for and healed badly. That traitorous thought was slipping through his mind regularly as of late. The motivation to keep going was just as strong though; the horrifying remains of the orc camps were a reminder of his fate as soon as he stopped running. As his physical pain grew, it became harder and harder not to think about the half eaten corpses, the distant screams, and the stains of blood and viscera that he’d seen too many times.
Celebrimbor grit his teeth and started jogging towards the mountains again. He could give up, but he wouldn’t, because that would make his father right. He could still see the cold look his father wore on his last night in Nargothrond. He’d been surprised at first when Celebrimbor had turned and joined those cursing Curufin and Celegorm’s treachery. Celebrimbor could see it in his eyes, for all he tried to hide it.
“You too, son? You would join the timid folk of Orodreth?” Then his face had frozen like a mask, before a heartless smile broke over his face. “I don’t think the craven king will last long in Nargothrond. If you would leave your father and throw your life away for these unworthy elves, I will shed no tears for your death.” Curufin turned sharply and stode after Celegorm, never looking back.
Still thinking darkly of his father, Celebrimbor braced himself for another day of fruitless searching. If he had no hope of finding Gondolin, surely his desire to spite his father could keep him on his feet one more day.
Hours later, he heard the bray of an orc horn. It was far too close for comfort, scarcely more than a mile away. He looked at his device in desperation. He had crafted it at the behest of Gwindor before his death, who had begun to clearly see that Nargothrond would not stay hidden for long, and some way of finding another refuge would be necessary. Gwindor had seen the forces of Gondolin during the Nirnaeth, and he harbored hope that some of Norgothrond’s folk could be led there. His request had come too late for Celebrimbor to create more devices or even test that his prototype worked. And now Gwindor had been slain like all his other friends in Nargothrond - those that weren’t thralls in Angband, that was. For a moment Celebrimbor felt a sharp stab of fear at the thought. He grimly wondered what Gwindor would counsel now. He would surely advise death over capture by orcs. Celebrimbor doubted they would bother carting a single elf to Angband, especially a nameless elf as he appeared with no sigil or sign of high birth. He had no illusions that his end would be easy though.
A thrum of power shot through his hand. He looked down astonished. The dials spun, clearly indicating proximity to a source of great and holy power. He took in the dry river bed he stood in, and ran along it following the arc the device indicated.
The walls of the ravine the river ran into grew steeper, and the light grew ever dimmer. Celebrimbor stopped, attempting to carefully disentangle his clothes from the thorny growth that was now all along the river bed and walls of the ravine. He didn’t want to leave a thread that a tracker might catch sight of and follow. He was of two minds about the dry river bed. On one hand, the ever narrowing cleft would eventually end in a cliff wall, and he might be trapped there, and cornered by orcs. On the other, if he could make it far enough in, they might miss that he turned here, and he could hide and live to run another day. He tried not to put too much hope in the ever growing power he could feel from his device.
Finally untangled, Celebrimbor limped along the river bed. It went on for miles more than he had anticipated. He hoped the orcs were actually thrown off his trail. A faint whirr stopped him in his tracks. He turned to the solid wall of rock in front of him. Behind the thorny brush, the walls were hung with lichen and ivy, and seemed much the same as they had been for miles.
There was nothing for it but to try. Wincing, Celebrimbor wove his way through the spiny branches until he reached the rock wall. He held out a hand, pushing through the hanging plants. Nothing stopped his hand. Frowning, he stepped behind the green growth. There was a shallow crevasse here, hidden from view. He stepped deeper in, and then saw a clear opening. It was, without a doubt, a tunnel. He didn’t need his device to tell him that the tunnel was not solely the work of nature. The smooth sides indicated parts were hewn and he could feel Elvish wards behind him, now that he had passed their bounds.
His heart began to pound with excitement. He had found the secret way into Gondolin.
Celebrimbor had lost his flint and had no way of making any sort of torch to light his way through. He resigned himself to a long, dark journey through the tunnel. He put his hand on the wall and carefully picked his way along the tunnel, sometimes tripping on the loose stones beneath his feet.
The dark was disorienting, and didn’t help his growing dizziness from hunger, thirst, and pain. As he stumbled along the tunnel, he wondered if it was guarded. He felt like he was making enough racket to alert everything in the vicinity to his presence. Surely if the way was guarded, they would have found him by now.
Just as the thought crossed his mind, a voice rang out.
“Stay! Move no further stranger.”
Celebrimbor froze, lifting his hands up slowly away from his sword. The voices were elven, and speaking Quenya no less, but they certainly didn’t sound friendly.
Footsteps approached, and then a light shone out. The lantern burned like the sun after so long in the dark, and Celebrimbor turned his head to avoid the piercing light.
“Who are you and why have you come to this place?” the voice behind the lantern demanded.
For a moment he couldn’t speak, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. It had been so long since he had spoken to another, it felt like he had momentarily forgotten how to answer questions.
“I am Carastaro of Nargothrond.” It was not not exactly a lie - Carastaro was his mother-name. There was no need to tell them that not even his mother used that name.
“Nargothrond! Last we had heard Nargothrond had fallen, but that was many months ago.”
“And so you come to your second answer - I am fleeing it’s destruction and searching for a haven.” Celebrimbor’s head was pounding. He wasn’t sure if it was from the blazing light or the abrupt questioning after so long without speaking.
The elf behind the lantern was silent for a moment. “I still have more questions, but this is not the place for them. Follow me.”
Celebrimbor found himself between two other elves, their forms still shadowed. He started following the light in front of him, mechanically putting one foot in front of the other. The long dark tunnel began to feel like a dream; the echoing tunnels made the sound of their footsteps come from disorienting angles, and the bobbing light looked like a captured star, buried underground. Occasionally one of the elves next to him took his elbow and drew him forward; he must be slowing down without realizing it.
He began to make out a faint light in front of him, beyond the lantern. As they drew closer, he realized it was daylight coming around the edges of some barrier. When they finally arrived at the gate, Celebrimbor took in the huge wooden portcullis. It was built for awe rather than beauty, the dark, ancient wood studded with iron. The scale of the portcullis was as if it were crafted for giants, and made the elves standing in front of it look like children.
The lantern holder had shuttered his light and now pressed a hand upon the portcullis. It began to slowly raise, with no discernable mechanism or effort. Celebrimbor craned his neck, trying to see what manner of craft enabled its raising.
“Do you know how it works?” Celebrimbor asked the lantern holder.
The elf frowned and narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “No, and if I did I would not tell a stranger.” He waited for Celebrimbor to stop peering at the door and meet his eyes.
“You have now passed the Gate of Wood. Know this, you have now entered the realm of Gondolin and are forbidden from leaving ever again, upon pain of death. You may find us stern and inflexible after dwelling in Nargothrond, but it is how we have stayed hidden from Morgoth for all these centuries.”
Celebrimbor nodded. “I did not think it would be any other way.”
“Glawardir, Cemenon, escort Carastaro to Gondolin. See that he makes it to Lord Ecthelion.” With a sharp nod, the captain strode back towards the tunnel, the other guards following.
“Come.” Cemenon gestured to Celebrimbor. “The Gate of Stone is about one league from here.”
“A league?” Celebrimbor could not completely keep the dismay from his voice. If I lay down and die here, I still will have technically made it Gondolin , he thought.
Cemenon looked at him appraisingly. “You surely have walked a more bitter route. I can see the light of Aman in your eyes.”
Damn, I can’t exactly lie about this. Celebrimbor swallowed. “I did not get to Beleriand across the Helcaraxë.”
Cemenon’s face darkened. “I take it you did not swim here.” He looked closely at Celebrimbor “So you are a follower of Fëanor? How do you sleep with the blood on your hands?” He began to walk quickly, forcing Celebrimbor to jog a bit to keep up. Glawardir followed, his face unreadable.
“It’s my deepest regret, but I thought we had decided as a people to move beyond our dark beginnings here. I was also at the Council of the Noldor in Mithrim, as were you. The Noldor have reunited, and united is the only way we can hope to stand against Morgoth.” Celebrimbor grit his teeth as they started to climb up a steep and winding path. Cemenon did not respond, and kept his punishing pace.
As they approached the Gate of Stone, Celebrimbor tried to distract himself from the consuming pain in his hip and feet by trying to understand how this gate would work. The gate appeared to be a single huge polished stone. Would it roll to the side, or lift like a portcullis? But then, where would it go? The surrounding gate didn’t appear to have any sort of hollow where the stone could be retracted.
At the gate, Cemenon pressed upon the side of the stone and stepped back as it began to pivot outwards. Celebrimbor tried to catch a glimpse of the hinge that the stone moved upon. He was more certain that this gate was wholly mechanical, but he’d need to get closer to find out. He realized Cemenon and Glawardir were frowning at him with suspicion. He tried to smile and walked forward. It would probably be best to try to appear less like a spy bent on uncovering the secrets of Gondolin’s defense.
He was ushered into a gate house. The room felt exceptionally warm after the whistling cold of the mountain pass. Glawardir motioned him to a seat at a table and Celebrimbor collapsed into it gratefully.
“I’ll be back with some food and water,” Glawardir said, and left the room. Celebrimbor fought against the growing exhaustion, trying to take in the other guards and the room he was in. Cemenon was still glaring at him - it seemed they were not destined to become fast friends.
The door opened again, and the guards in the room jumped to attention. Celebrimbor stood quickly as well, and then saw the room begin to tilt around him. As his vision tunneled and he lost all sense of orientation, he thought, well this won’t make a great impression.