Burning Bright - Part 1

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'Burning Bright'

 

Prologue


The water rippled about the craft, wavelets lifting against the sides in endless eddies. Soft, white clouds, shading to grey, played chase with the sun across a clean-washed sky. The dolphins that had followed him all day had moved off to play or perhaps to hunt dinner, he had no idea which. There had been no birds since the great sea bird of the morning, of a kind he seemed to recall was named an albatross. He had offered it salted fish, but after circling the boat a while it left unfed.

He had no idea how long it was since he set sail from Tol Eressëa, heading east across the Great Ocean that surrounded the Undying Lands. It was somehow easier to keep track of time’s passing there, where night and day followed one another with almost unnatural precision, in contrast to the long sunsets and pearlescent dawns of the Lands of Exile. Traversing the Ocean had taken him the best part of four days, four long days during which he steeled himself for the mission ahead and dealt as best he could with regret and loss.

They had entered his little house without fanfare. The Herald had always sparked a sense of disquiet within him, but the Maia Olórin spend much of his time amongst the first born and could be relied upon for straight speaking. This he had done, while the Herald sat silent on his chair’s edge, showing a fastidious care for the skirts of his fine-spun robe. Speaking in an even, friendly manner, Olórin explained the mission they were asking him to consider, and as he listened he realised his life was about to take yet another of those dramatic changes that seemed to dog him. Twice he interrupted, asking for clarity in some matter, otherwise he sat quiet, focusing on the words that swallowed up the calm days of his new life and trying to ignore the excitement stirring in his gut.

Elsúrië had not understood, of course, although he had explained it as best he could, repeating as much as he thought the Maiar would find suitable, wanting her to see the mission through his eyes. Instead he saw his failure reflected in the speed with which she passed from curiosity about the exalted visitors to concern and finally to outrage.

“Have you not done enough?” she asked when he had barely finished speaking, her soft voice tight with emotion. “They have no right to ask this of you as well. There are so many others they could send…”

“Others, yes,” he replied, taking her hands captive between his own and holding them until she stilled and looked up at him with tear-bright, frightened eyes. “But not as I am. Not a name known, a death witnessed by hundreds. Not someone whose coming will be taken for a sign of hope.”

“Hope?” She stepped back from him, sea-green eyes wide. Fear made her words unaccustomedly harsh. “What hope is there beyond these lands? What hope do your Noldor kin even deserve? It was their choice to remain. You have done what you said you would, you had recourse for my brother’s death, you followed your cousin and cared for her family after she was lost. No more. Please.” And more softly, “I have only just found you again. My family will never allow us to bind when they hear you are to return to that dreadful place. Please.”

This would be their second parting with the wide sea between them, and her pain had torn his heart. He kept silent about his other, more personal reason for accepting the task, knowing she would never understand. He said nothing, even after her tears dried and she asked him to repeat the Maia’s words, even when she helped him in his careful, meager packing, listening in well-feigned fascination to him speculate upon what he would find across the water. She loved him dearly and was doing her best, well aware their parting might be even longer than the one that had gone before. It was not the time to tell her just how much he had missed life on the Eastern shore.

 

~*~*~*~*~

 

Crossing the transition from Aman, where mists hid the sky and the seas twisted and roiled, had been a time of tumult and sharp jabs of fear. He knew, intellectually, that his vessel was guided and protected, wrapped around with runes of binding and warding, but even so, when he reached a place where the water seemed to drop away roaring beneath him, he curled up on the floor of the craft and closed his eyes. There was no one to see him, no need to act the hero. He was alone in the midst of angry, magic-enhanced nature, and he was quite sensibly afraid for his newly restored life.

The night’s darkness passed slow amid roaring water, but morning found him drifting on calm blue sea under pale sunlight. The sweetly carved vessel had taken no damage. Instead it continued onwards, its swan’s head raised proudly to face the dawn, guided by a current he suspected would have no impact on another, more prosaic craft. There was nothing for it but to wait, something he did well. He let time flow around him while he ate sparingly of his careful rations, watching, smelling, feeling the other world fold back around him, familiar as an old cloak, welcomed with the love due a much-missed friend.

He thought he should have marked the days, but the need was more from curiosity than concern. He was strangely calm about the whole business now, accepting of his fate. The messages he carried to the new king, not so new now of course, were committed to memory, as were the his own instructions. He had spoken truth when he assured the Herald he need not fear split loyalties; he had no intention of swearing fealty to yet another of the kings in Exile. No more after Turgon and Fingolfin; it had been enough. To himself though he took a private vow that he would put his own judgment first. The Valar had made their share of mistakes last time; the blame had not rested solely with Fëanor and his sons.

When the birds started to arrive in the afternoon, flocking around his ship in hope of food, he knew land was close. The sun set and night fell, the black velvet sky studded with the Lady’s lanterns. He had seen her once, tall and grave with eyes that saw to the soul, and for the only time in his two lives, awe had sent him to his knees. He lay back and listened to the water, enjoying the soft breeze that should not have been enough to stir more than a bundle of leaves and yet carried the boat effortlessly towards its destination. He ate a little waybread, drank water – nearly the last of his supply – and settled to sleep. Soon now.

He woke to a grey dawn and voices. In the night he had indeed been carried in towards the shore. He was crossing a broad bay, its shores lined with buildings backed by tree-covered hills that led up to rocky crags. To his left lay a substantial city with towers and domes, bright pennants and brilliant flowers, but he was being drawn to where the bay narrowed, across a rippling line that marked where the sea met the river that flowed out from a channel between hills. 

The smaller centre that lay across the bay from the city reminded him a little of Tol Eressëa’s south side, with a similar mix of buildings for residence and for storage. In the harbour, a line of ships rode at anchor within the protective arm of a well-shored breakwater. The voices came from a nearby boat, where oars supplemented the efforts of a grey sail bearing an unfamiliar emblem. He rose so that they could see him, see he was elven as they were, but it was hardly necessary; even with two boat lengths distance between them he could see the awe as they studied the vessel’s lines.

He used an oar to bring the swanship into harbour, taking responsibility for this last stage of his journey. He had been instructed to arrange for it to be towed back out to sea and cut loose once it had served its purpose. His escort berthed and tied up first, throwing him a rope which after a moment’s thought he looped about the wheel. Taking up his solitary bag, he looked one final time around his last link with home, then leapt to the quayside. 

The mariners, all of whom looked young and quite at a loss, stared at him, and he looked back. They were clad in greys and browns, booted and belted in leather. Dark haired, clear eyed. Telerin, his instinct said. Kin to Elsúrië’s people.

“Thank you for your escort,” he said in his careful Sindarin. “He may not recall me as we only met once before, a long time ago, but one of you had best announce me to Lord Círdan. Tell him my name is Glorfindel, formerly of Gondolin.”

 

~*~*~*~*~

1. The Messenger

Mithlond

 


The sun had barely passed the horizon, and to Elrond the water looked grey and uninviting. The Mariner’s son lacked his father’s attachment to the sea and was at his happiest inland - right now thoughts of Harad’s desert held an almost romantic appeal. About to board the waiting ferry, he turned at the sound of a familiar voice behind him.

“What, did he send for you too? Did the messenger tell you what it’s about? He was gone before they woke me.”

Tall and broadly built, Lindon’s King strode towards him down the private jetty that served the palace. He wore grey and moss green and had his mane of dark hair tied loosely back from his face. Someone who knew him well might see the robe looked a bit rumpled and the hair had barely been brushed, but Gil-galad always managed to look kingly. His size probably helped.

“All I know is he has something I need to see, words won’t adequately explain. It might have something to do with that,” he went on, pointing as Gil-galad joined him to where, far out in the Bay of Lhűn, a small craft moved steadily towards open sea, her strange lines emphatic against the grey-white dazzle of the dawn sky.

The High King shaded his eyes and frowned. “Not seen anything like that before,” he muttered. Gil-galad had spent most of his growing years on the island of Balar; he knew a good deal more about boats than Elrond did or would ever want to. He rested his hand briefly on Elrond’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go. Won’t learn anything by standing here talking. If it’s about that ship, he’ll tell us. If not, he can explain where it’s going and why. That’s the direct path to the Andún current and the sea road into the West.”

That detail told its own story to Elrond, who continued watching the retreating ship in silence as the ferry carried them across the bay to where the shipyards lay. This side of the strait was home to Círdan’s Telerin, those who had followed him to Balar, survived the War of Wrath and travelled with him down the new-made coastline to find and settle along this beautiful, secure bay. They paid nominal allegiance to the High King of the Noldor in whose land they lived, but their first loyalty was to the Lord of the Falas; the ways on the southern shore of Mithlond were not those of Gil-galad’s court.

The division was underlined when the ferry docked. Workers along the wharf saw them arrive, took note of the royal standard, and got on with the start of the day’s work. If the Shore Lord wanted a formal show of respect for the Noldor king, he would let them know.

Elrond disembarked first as courtesy demanded, to indicate he would be willing to die in the unlikely event of a threat to his king. Maglor had been emphatic about such things; the twins’ house training had been meticulous. Gil-galad delayed a minute, talking with the skipper about the likely return of the rain-bearing south wind, followed by a string of questions concerning the health of the sailor’s wife and new child. Elrond moved a small distance from the ferry and stood watching the alien vessel’s departure; he was used to waiting for his cousin. 

The harbour had been built near the point where the Lhűn flowed seaward through a gap where the Ered Luin was reduced to a series of steep hills before rising aggressively to form the backdrop for northern Mithlond. Círdan’s fiefdom was much smaller than the bustling city they had just left, and less colourful; the opposite shore felt very far away. The light seemed different here, the bay looked cool and misty and the flocking seabirds reminded him of Sirion and his childhood. 

Houses huddled above the harbour, the homes of mariners, ship builders and their families. A road led past the town and up to the guard point that secured this place where the ships that plied the seas to Aman were built and the coastal patrol rode at anchor. Círdan’s Haven was the destination for all who came to answer the summons and take ship home across the ocean, and as such it was heavily protected. His eyes followed the road idly. Up beyond his view the cobblestones changed to simple paving before crossing the hills into the open lands of Eriador as a trail of beaten earth. There it continued far into the south-east to Tharbad and the noisy prosperity and vaunted brilliance of Ost-in-Edhil.

“What’s wrong?”

Gil-galad had come up behind him on silent feet. Despite his size, he moved with the unconscious stealth of a cat; no matter how often it happened, Elrond was always caught by surprise.

“Nothing. Just looking around. It’s like being in another country. One day we’ll come over here and find his personal banner flying in place of the flag of Lindon.”

The King glanced over to where the blue and gold of Lindon drooped on its flagpole outside the harbour’s main office and grinned briefly, though without much humour. “Well, yes he could do that. But he’d know I’d be right over here setting out the tax for grain and milk and sorting out the rental for the land. Not likely to happen, is it?”

Círdan had fostered Gil-galad under the age-old tradition of sending first-born sons to be trained in manners and noble conduct by some great lord. The Telerin was master of the cities along the north-west shore, answerable to no one including his kinsman Elu Thingol, and would have made an unlikely choice to train a prince of the Noldor had the prince’s mother not been Sindarin and born in the Shore Lord’s own household. Sending him to the coast rather than some good, solid Noldor fortress had almost certainly saved Gil-galad’s life, as one after another of those fortresses fell to the Enemy. By the time he came of age, only the elves on Balar and in the crowded settlements around the mouths of Sirion survived. 

He and Círdan shared a taciturn affection punctuated by frequent, quick-burning eruptions. Gil-galad was easygoing and down to earth, he greeted his warriors and all the palace staff by name, but he was a direct descendant of Finwe and conscious of the respect due his bloodline. There had been any number of confrontations on Balar after his unexpected elevation to High King of the Exiles; Elrond could easily see him demanding rent from his foster father.

They followed the cobbled street up to the Academy, where the lore and history of the shore people was treasured and handed down. This was where young mariners came to learn the more technical details of navigation, while astronomers listened to lectures from ancients who had made the study of Varda’s tapestry their life’s work. This also was where Círdan lived, with his long-time companion Maeriel, a Silvan woman he had met back in the days when the coastal cities still stood proud. She was warm and sensible and Gil-galad, who barely remembered his birth mother, adored her. 

Círdan was pacing the entrance hall when they arrived, wearing a blue robe that looked as though it had seen better days and with his star-silver hair unbound. Elrond stared; he had no memory of ever having seen it down before.

“What took you so long?”

Even Gil-galad was a bit taken aback. “We came as soon as we got your message,” he began. And then, attack being the best form of defence, he added, “Damn early in the day, too. I haven’t had breakfast yet. What’s so bloody important?” 

Círdan, who had acknowledged Elrond’s presence with a courteous nod, gestured for them to follow him. “Come. You’ll have to see this for yourself. “

He led them through to his apartment, past the big study with its breathtaking view of harbour and bay to the kitchen where Maeriel was busy at the hearth. She greeted them with a smile that contained just a hint of concern. “Good morning, Gil-galad, Elrond. Have you broken your fast yet? Can I make you some oatmeal?”

Gil-galad gave her a fond look. “Your oatmeal is legendary, Maeriel. I’ll have a bowl, thank you. So will Elrond, he doesn’t eat enough.”

It was an old game between them and Elrond dutifully rolled his eyes in response. “Well, I’ve never polished off a whole chicken all by myself at one sitting, no,” he said pointedly. “Morning, Maeriel. Bread and cheese if it’s not too much trouble? You know I’m not much of a breakfast person.”

Maglor had been a stickler for breakfast, so when he and Elros had been given into their cousin the King’s care, Elrond had taken to skipping the meal purely because he could. The habit had stayed with him... Círdan made an impatient noise and gestured towards the door, and the memory of Maglor pointing insistently at a bowl of oatmeal slipped away as he turned to follow. 

The garden was quite unlike the small formal affair that graced the front of the building. Just beyond the door, herbs and vegetables were planted neatly, with rows of beans, carrots, cabbages and peppers, radishes and onions. A small, flagged path led round the corner to Círdan’s personal retreat, a sheltered corner overgrown with flowering shrubs and climbing roses, their scents mingling pleasantly with mint, thyme and rosemary. Soft grass studded with tiny yellow flowers surrounded a small fishpond, paved around with white stones. 

A wooden bench under an ivy-twined arch faced the pond and looked out over the low fence to the sea, and an elf sat there watching the fish, seemingly lost in thought. He turned when he heard their approach and rose slowly to his feet. Elrond’s first impression was of someone at least as tall as Gil with hair was more brilliantly golden even than Galadriel’s famed locks. His blue-grey eyes passed over them before returning to Círdan expectantly.

Círdan seemed almost to gather himself before he spoke. “Ereinion,” he said in a very even voice, “may I present Glorfindel, former lord of the House of the Golden Flower of Gondolin? He arrived this morning - you might have seen his craft out on the bay during your crossing? Lord Glorfindel, this is Ereinion Gil-galad, our King, and this is Elrond, Prince Eärendil’s son.”

Elrond needed a moment to savour the novelty of Círdan calling Gil-galad ‘our’ king before tackling the complexities of coming face to face with a legendary and quite unarguably dead warrior. The lord who had killed a balrog on the Christhorn Pass was a part of his family’s history, his battle with the balrog a tale Elrond had first heard as a small child. He stood unabashedly staring.

“Small white ship, swan’s head? Saw it, yes.” Gil-galad was made of sterner stuff and had dealt with any number of unlikely realities during the Great War. He considered the Vanyar-blond elf with a frown. “I’d ask Círdan if he’s sure, but that introduction didn’t leave much room for doubt.”

Glorfindel’s eyes had gone first to Elrond, a natural response as they were related through Idril. His smile was friendly but tired as he replied. “In your place I would have opted for disbelief, so I can hardly object. It’s my honour to meet Your Majesty, of course.” 

The remembered accents of Quenya imposed upon Sindarin wrapped themselves around Elrond as he listened. The garden started to look flat and unreal, the colours painted on, and Glorfindel’s light-toned voice seemed to come from a distance as vast as the pale sky above their heads. “As to why I am here – I carry messages of warning and encouragement from the Mighty, my lord, but mainly I was sent to offer my aid in whatever way you deem best, and to…”

Warmth flooded Elrond’s gut, his stomach twisted as though he was about to throw up. That was all the warning he ever received before Melian’s gift overtook him. The world fell away and instead of bile, words flooded out, speaking a certainty from somewhere outside of him. His throat hurt, his voice rang hollow in his ears. “Harbinger, forerunner of doom. The final warning before the deluge.” He stood with eyes half-closed, and the breeze that lifted his fine hair sent chills down his back and arms. “Darkness, red-streaked darkness rides from the east on wings of death. The hour is now.”

The ocean and the ever-wheeling gulls returned, and a hand on his shoulder offered the means to ground himself. There were eyes on him, Círdan’s pewter gaze was quiet and thoughtful while Gil looked grimly concerned, whether about him or what he had just said wasn’t clear. The hand belonged to the reborn hero of Gondolin. 
Family, Elrond thought vaguely. I must be the only person left over here that he has any connection to.

“Come. Sit.” Glorfindel’s tone implied he was used to his instructions being carried out. ‘I’ve not seen the Sight take someone quite like that since Artanis saw blood and fire if I went off with Turgon --- I’ve always wondered how much she saw and how much was just a good guess.” Elrond supposed in a detached kind of way that he had gone white in the face again, as sometimes happened when his Dorian heritage surfaced. This type of casual chatter was a standard approach when dealing with shock. Get the patient to sit or lie down, send for something warm to drink, preferably sweet, and keep talking in a calm, level voice. There was firm pressure on his shoulder, and he went over to the bench and sat obediently.

“If by Artanis you mean my great aunt, then she’d tell you she never guesses things, she knows everything,” Gil-galad said dryly, his familiar, practical voice serving as an anchor. “You all right, Rond? Círdan’s gone to fetch you some water. Just sit there a moment.” He was facing Glorfindel, his expression thoughtful. “Bit dramatic, but fair enough. They’d not send a resurrected hero over here to say hello and wish us luck. These messages – anything urgent, or can we have breakfast first? Give you a chance to explain how you got here and for us to ask questions you’re not allowed to answer. Plate of Maeriel’s oatmeal will do him the world of good, too.”

His hand still on Elrond’s shoulder, Glorfindel smiled and nodded. He had a good smile, Elrond thought distantly. “There are words for your ears alone, but nothing vital, certainly nothing that couldn’t wait. And my answers are more likely to bore than intrigue, I fear.” 

Listening rather than talking, Elrond caught the tiny hint of hesitation in the reply. He filed it away for later consideration when he could view the arrival of this hero from his childhood more prosaically. Right now the official explanation would serve. Gil was right, he needed to eat.
 

~*~*~*~*~

Part 2

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Beta: Red Lasbelin