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He basked in the heat, like a lizard on a rock, relishing the sun on his pale skin. On days like this, he could almost forget the bitterness of the Ice that still lingered in his memory. Almost, but not quite. Sometimes he thought that he would never be warm again.
‘You are mad, you know.’
Glorfindel snorted. ‘Madness is in the eye of the beholder, as you well know.’ He turned to lean on one elbow and let the ferocity of the midsummer sun blaze on his shoulder. The bone still ached where it had been broken.
‘You look like a deer carcass roasting over a fire.’
‘Speaking of which …’ He lifted an eyebrow of dark gold in enquiry.
‘Yes, yes.’ Halatirno flipped an impatient hand. ‘They are dressed and cooking – we have no wine, of course, but the ale has turned out better than expected and it will do to celebrate the success of the hunt.’
His friend drew a deep breath. ‘It will be good to celebrate. It makes life seem … almost normal.’
Halatirno’s grin twisted. ‘As much as anything can seem normal.’
The village had a makeshift air – huts crafted from driftwood, roofed with bunches of reed, clustered round a somewhat larger open-sided meeting place. Jewellers and masons, courtiers and warriors – they did not make the best people to establish a new civilisation in a world where they were not really wanted by those whose home they had invaded. They should have brought bakers, woodworkers, farmers, weavers – or, perhaps, they should have thought more carefully before coming at all. Theirs had hardly been a planned exodus. Glorfindel suppressed a vision of tall white towers surrounded by gardens of low hedges and fragrant flowers, elegantly-gowned ladies sitting with their embroidery, children playing among the welcoming branches of ancient trees … There was no point in brooding.
‘It could be worse,’ he said.
‘As long as you can soak up the sun…’ Halatirno sniffed.
‘I am merely showing my gratitude,’ he answered with mock-hauteur, hiding a shiver. The darkness, brightened only by the distant pinpricks of Varda’s stars, had oppressed him, just as the cold had gnawed into him. He would always love these eastern lands, not just because they symbolised the return of life – of birds and animals, of trees and grasses, of good earth and living people, instead of the groaning emptiness of the Ice – but also because their arrival had coincided with the return of light – first the rise of Tirion and then the blessed warmth that emanated from Arien’s chariot.
‘I wonder if she warms those we left behind,’ Halatirno said, ‘and if they think of us.’
‘At least we know they are safe.’ He ignored the doubt in his friend’s face. She had not faced the Grinding Ice, nor heard the words of the Doomsman. No oath had dragged her from her home, nor deposited her, half-starved and frozen, on the far shore of a restless sea. She was at home, and happy with her family. And he would be … all right.
He perched on the broad ledge above the fountain, one booted foot carelessly lodged on the back of the stone stag, his face turned up to the sun. The rippling of water, the rustle of the tree, the tapping of his restless fingers were the only sounds to disturb the quiet of the courtyard as he soaked up the warmth.
Something was not right.
He was not sure what it was – he never claimed omniscience – but he felt a little … uneasy. Keeping yourself hidden was all very well, but relying on secrecy was, perhaps, rather short-sighted. It only took one failure of the safety measures, one loose tongue, one lucky guess – and Gondolin would be vulnerable to attack.
Glorfindel shivered. They had come a long way from the ragged band of refugees who had reached the shore, but they had not achieved the ends they sought. Survival – the establishment of their own realms – the attempt to rebuild the world they had lost – all these had taken precedence over the … the righteous indignation and the sanctimonious and very arrogant conviction that they could – and should - achieve what the Valar had failed to do.
They had learned. Learned that they were not invincible. Learned that elves, too, could suffer and bleed and die. And done their best to shield themselves, to protect themselves from forces beyond their capacity to fight.
‘You make me think of a cat,’ Halatirno remarked. ‘Given the slightest opportunity, you curl up in the sun and sleep.’
‘There are worse ways to spend your time.’
‘More profitable ways, too.’
‘Perhaps.’ Glorfindel continued to bask. ‘But I have no desire to add to the volumes of badly-written poetry that clutter the libraries. No wish to flirt with maidens who know nothing beyond the white towers of Gondolin. No urge to supplant Maeglin as Turgon’s most favoured adviser. I am content to be … me.’
‘You prefer Tuor to Maeglin.’
Glorfindel opened his eyes and turned to raise an eyebrow at his friend. ‘I prefer honesty, no matter how it is clad.’
‘And, of course, the child likes you.’
‘I do not wish to use him. Nor do I disparage his very existence.’
‘Idril trusts you. Turgon, on the other hand, is rather suspicious of your lack of ambition.’
Glorfindel’s smile was rather lop-sided. ‘Perhaps he has been encouraged to recognise only one kind of ambition.’ He brushed his hand over the stone ledge, dislodging a fallen leaf to flutter to the cobbles. ‘He is my king – but …’ He shot a rather wary glance at his friend. ‘He … he shares some of the characteristics of this realm of his,’ he said carefully.
‘You should speak to Idril,’ Halatirno said. ‘She is Turgon’s daughter, but she … listens.’
‘We used to think everything was … enduring,’ Glorfindel sighed. ‘That nothing would change – but it seems that, the longer we live, the more transient the world around us.’
Halatirno laughed. ‘Obviously,’ he said. ‘A child has known nothing but what surrounds him, but an adult – well, did not our parents or grandparents journey west? Why should we expect to stagnate in the world they built? Why should we not build our own?’
The shadow of the tree danced over his face, coming between Glorfindel and the sun’s warmth. ‘For the better?’ he asked, overcome with a strange foreboding. ‘Or worse?’
Halatirno shrugged. ‘Both, probably.’
Glorfindel leaned into the heat reflected from the stone wall behind him. ‘We can only hope that the good outweighs the bad.’
The sun over Irmo’s garden was no warmer, and the breeze whispering through the reeds no more refreshing, than they had been east of the sea, before …
He lay, face-down, letting the heat burn into muscles that remembered fire – remembered it whilst being untouched. Muscles that had never felt the ache of battle, never felt the cold of the Ice – but that knew them, nonetheless.
His breath stirred blades of grass, rabbit-nibbled, bruised, and smelling – just as grass did in the meadows of Gondolin.
What was he doing here?
He felt the presence of the watching Maia, but refused to respond. So many had died in the frenzy of those attacks – why had he been chosen to resume a life he had willingly surrendered?
The heat felt as if it was reaching deeper into his being than was possible, touching parts of him that were never warm, and he turned rapidly, sitting up and hunching his shoulders, bending his head to rest on his knees, while his hair slid forward to hide him.
‘Let it in,’ a soothing voice advised. ‘You have no reason to fear.’
‘What do you want of me?’ The words sounded strange in his mouth, as if his tongue had forgotten how to shape them.
‘What do you want of yourself?’ the voice returned.
He was unsure if formulating his reply took moments or decades. ‘To do what I should,’ he said. ‘To keep my promises.’
The sun felt warmer, as comforting as a mother’s approval. ‘And so you shall,’ the voice told him.
He did not understand – he was an Exile, under the Doom – how could the Valar approve of him? But the chill in his bones faded, and the warmth of the garden eased him, and he was no longer the same. He slept for he knew not how long, and, when he woke...
Grey eyes studied him. ‘This is impossible,’ Halatirno said.
The waves, breaking on the shore and dragging back through the pebbles, like an elder sucking on his teeth, seemed to agree with him.
Glorfindel blinked. He had not seen the sea since … He gasped. ‘Gondolin!’ He sat up, his hand seeking a sword that was not there. ‘The Balrog!’
‘Long gone.’ Halatirno sounded calm, as if battle were no more than a distant memory. ‘You defeated it – although, of course, it also defeated you.’ The elf in front of him was … different. There was more than the light of the Trees in his eyes – he had seen more, been further than, perhaps, anyone else had ever been. ‘Come with me – there are people, I think, you need to meet.’
Glorfindel did not hesitate, but rose, just as the sun peeked over the dunes to caress his gleaming hair, and followed his friend.
He sprawled, naked, over the heated rocks by the pool and let the water evaporate from his body. There was nothing, he found, that equalled the contentment he felt in letting the sun warm him and heat a body chilled by the cold water.
‘You want to watch out,’ Halatirno remarked. The frantic splashing in the pool made them glance towards the youngsters, but neither of them moved. ‘Those two appear to be completely absorbed in their antics, but they will take a great deal of pleasure from drenching you, given half a chance. Especially if they think you are not expecting it.’
‘Please!’ Glorfindel sounded pained. ‘I am not that naïve. I have enough experience of Elrond’s sons to know the thought processes in what passes for their minds!’
‘And you have your revenge planned?’
Glorfindel smirked. ‘A lesson never comes amiss – and the twins need to learn to think ahead.’
‘You should marry,’ Halatirno said with apparent casualness. ‘You would make a good father.’
The wince was almost unnoticeable. Almost, but he knew his friend had been watching for it. Watching for it and noting that certain wounds were still … tender. Nevertheless, Glorfindel dismissed the idea with a flick of his fingers. ‘It is so much more entertaining to corrupt the children of others,’ he said. ‘And then – when they are dirty and exhausted and filled with sugar – to return them to their parents.’
Halatirno laughed. ‘I would believe that more easily if I did not know what Celebrían would do to penalise you for any such iniquities.’
He smiled. He had not expected it, when first Elrond began to watch Artanis’s daughter with that look in his eyes, but he had come to regard Celebrían as … the very best kind of sister. The sort of sister an elf would choose, rather than the kind presented by his parents. ‘She knows her sons,’ he said loftily, ‘and would not dream of blaming others for their deeds.’ He stretched, cat-like, and turned to sandwich himself between warmed rock and the heat of the sun’s touch.
‘I cannot understand it.’ Halatirno shook his head. ‘To look at you, anyone would think you felt the cold – but I have seen you go bootless in snow, cloakless in winter rain. I have seen you with icicles hanging from your hair as you stood guard. You bear the most bitter of weather with indifference, so why does sun turn you into such a … hedonist?’
Glorfindel sighed with a satisfaction he could not explain. ‘Who knows?’ he said, shifting just enough to ensure that no shadow touched him, before settling back down.
Shaking his head, Halatirno stood. ‘It is beyond my understanding,’ he declared, ‘but I must say that it suits you – so, just this once, I will divert the little monsters and leave you to … toast.’
Had he always been this way? He really could not remember – the further back he looked, the more detached the emotion. He could recall in perfect detail the look on her face, the mingling of the Trees gleaming in her hair, the brightness of the tears threatening to fall – but what it had been like to live … The Ice, he rather thought, had excised his yearning for what he could never have and left a permanent chill. But, at times like this, the warmth of the sun offered a … a poor imitation. And he would enjoy it while he could.
The small gathering of awestruck women stared up at the elf with a drooling admiration that would have sent him to seek solitude, had he only realised their existence. However, Glorfindel adorned the top of the wall, face turned towards the midsummer sun, humming a song so obscure that he was probably the only elf east of the sea to remember its origins, having managed to block out the thought of the busy city below him.
‘Is it not too hot for you here?’ Halatirno took advantage of the small patch of shade offered by the corner. ‘Once the sun is high, this stone city offers no hiding place.’
‘It is not Gondolin,’ Glorfindel admitted.
‘The smells alone make that obvious.’
‘Although Estel has more of a garden than the rest of his people.’ Glorfindel glanced beyond the guarded sapling of the White Tree to the walled garden that offered Gondor’s Queen an ordered imitation of the natural world.
‘They will not need to dwell here year-round, though.’ Halatirno seemed to be trying to reassure himself. ‘I would not wish to leave the Evenstar confined to this prison. It takes half a day to escape the gates from here.’
‘She is an elleth.’ Glorfindel put a foot up on the wall and leaned back. ‘They like gardens – Arwen likes roses and beds of fragrant herbs. And the Citadel is high up and the air is clear. She can feel the breeze from the mountains and watch the eagles fly.’
‘You dislike the idea, too.’
Glorfindel swung round, letting the sun warm his back – and, incidentally, causing his admirers to sigh and remember themselves. They exchanged embarrassed glances and separated to carry out their interrupted tasks. ‘I dislike leaving her here – but it is her choice and I would not take it from her. It is too easy to decide what others need, and you usually find that your assumptions were wrong.’
The friend who had known him for more than three ages of the sun Glorfindel so enjoyed glanced at him shrewdly. ‘You have been wrong?’ he asked.
Glorfindel smiled ruefully. ‘I have learned that I do make mistakes,’ he owned. ‘More often than I care to admit. And I have learned that I do not have the right to shepherd people into my way of thinking against their will.’
‘So the destruction of the Trees and the Exile of the Noldor has not proved to be without value,’ Halatirno said dryly.
‘Please!’ Glorfindel snorted. ‘I am not so arrogant as to believe that the world orders itself round me. I am just – in a small way – a beneficiary of the machinations of fate. Someone who … who walks beside those who make history.’
The sun brightened his golden hair to an aureole, whilst hiding the elf’s penetrating grey eyes. They had known each other for a long time, Halatirno thought, even as elves knew each other. ‘You love her,’ he said.
‘As a daughter,’ Glorfindel agreed. ‘As a daughter. And I will continue to watch over her for as long as I am needed.’
‘I cannot stay.’
Despite the heat, a sudden chill made Glorfindel shiver.
Halatirno looked towards him, his face pale and his eyes shadowed. ‘It has been too long. Now Elrond is planning to sail … I do not want to be left behind.’
The back of his head throbbed, and he felt almost stifled. ‘I will miss you.’
‘I missed you – but it was not for ever, and it will not be now. You, too, will come home, when the time is right.’
It made no difference how brightly the sun shone. Wind filled the sails and the small vessel scudded across the waves with the joy of a galloping horse faced with Rohan’s endless plains, but he remained frozen. He perched on the bowsprit, balancing easily against the forestays and staring over the open sea.
Was he going home? Or was this, for all it appeared to be, the final exile?
It was … odd. He had thought that, in the end, he would be the one dragging Galadriel’s beloved away from his treasured trees, but it seemed that the Sinda had had a better idea than he of when to cut his losses. Arwen’s children and children’s children had passed beyond his care, the world had changed and yet still … He had been putting off his return, he knew. He had said that he could not leave without Elrond’s sons, but he had long known that it would take no more than a nudge to make them decide to join their parents.
There was no warmth in the sun. It seemed more brilliant. Clearer, as if it shone through polished diamond, but it could not heat him. His heart was … was a hearth that had been long abandoned.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, as if to assure those watching that he was displaying his usual sybaritic reaction to any opportunity to bask in the sun, but he doubted that his display was convincing. If he failed to make himself believe in the show, how could he persuade others?
The sails creaked as they strained against the wind. At this pace, it would not be long before they found the path home. If it were there to be found.
He inhaled the damp salt tang. It would be there. He had promised – he would care for Arwen and he would bring the rest of the family home. He had taken his time, but he was not one to break his word. The Valar would open the way.
Alqualondë’s blue harbours, Tirion’s winding streets, Valmar’s white towers – would they be unchanged? Would their inhabitants open their arms to welcome one who had spurned them to follow his long-lost king across the Grinding Ice? Would those who remembered him forgive his long absence? His long silence? How many centuries would it take to repair the damage he had done? Was it even possible?
Again he found himself watching the shadowy horizon. High in the sky, the sun sent a rippling path of molten gold for them to chase. He blinked and narrowed his eyes. For days they had seen no other living thing – no fish breaking the surface of the waves, no dolphins playing in their wake, no birds circling their masts, but …
‘Gulls.’ It was the first word he had spoken in … he knew not how long.
Small specks of darkness grew as the flock approached, their plaintive cries giving voice to his worries and he shivered. He did not believe in omens, but he could not help thinking … The birds wheeled and mobbed the boat, diving to retrieve scraps thrown for them, squabbling over who should benefit most from the unexpected bounty. As he turned to watch them, their plumage gleamed dazzling bright and their calls became a raucous choir of welcome, while, above the gulls, a great snow-white bird drifted on the wind, beating its wings to draw ahead, as if it had come to guide them to shore.
And, somewhere deep within him, the dark remnants of a long-doused fire began to smoulder.
He basked in the golden light, relishing the warmth.
‘You have not really changed,’ Halatirno judged. ‘You still spend too many idle hours letting the sun roast you. I am surprised you are permitted to get away with it’
‘My wife is very understanding,’ he replied. The words still gratified him, making him marvel at their very unexpectedness. How could she be so … accepting? How could she have forgiven him for his long dereliction and accepted his return?
‘Your wife might tolerate your absence – she seems quite undeservedly tolerant of your whims – but I suspect your son will be less compliant.’
Glorfindel’s smile broadened. He was, perhaps, his friend reflected, rather less … romantic, now that his long-lost love had taken him in hand and turned him into a husband and father, but his contentment was much more pleasing to his friends.
‘Celebrían has informed me that he is everything I deserve,’ he admitted. ‘And that she intends to take every opportunity to lead him astray.’
‘But at least he is not twins,’ Halatirno said philosophically.
Glorfindel rested on one elbow, angling his head to feel the sun’s caress across his jaw. Arien shone brighter here in the Blessed Realm, but her warmth felt – more affectionate than ferocious. More real and less distant. He still like to saturate himself in her touch, but he no longer ached for something to dissipate the bitter cold left by the long trail into exile.
‘He is my treasure,’ he said. ‘He and his mother.’
‘You have worked long and hard to earn them,’ Halatirno told him.
‘More so than many hundreds of others?’ Glorfindel shook his head. ‘I doubt it.’
‘But …’ His friend shrugged and inspected him as he stretched out to relish the heat. ‘Perhaps you merit little more – but you have been chosen … You alone returned from Námo’s care to remind us that all was possible. Only you straddled both sides of the Sundering Seas.’
‘Was it needed?’ Glorfindel asked. He forced himself to breathe, reluctant to waste this moment of indulgence. ‘Or was it … no more than display?’
Halatirno jerked his head. Did it matter? ‘Do you feel better here? Forgiven? Part of a world we abandoned?’ His dark eyes pinned Glorfindel, demanding that he answer honestly.
‘I am warm,’ Glorfindel said simply. ‘For the first time in who-knows-how-long, I am warm and content. If this is happiness – well. It is more than I feel I deserve.’
Halatirno looked away to flick a tuft of thistledown from his sleeve. ‘That is good to hear. I think so, at any rate.’
Beside him, Glorfindel relaxed in the sunlight and allowed himself simply to be. Even here, he relished the simple pleasure of the sun on his skin – but, here, it was not an unwitting attempt to heal wounds too deep to touch. Here, there was no frozen waste within him, nothing missing. Here, at last, he was home.
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