Even Quicker Than Doubt 23

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'Even Quicker Than Doubt'

 

Chapter 23

“I came alone, the trip was uneventful, I see no reason I should not return home in the same manner.”   

The Númenórean fleet had reached the far side of the bay in a line of green and gold and was moving out to sea, and most of the guests in the pavilion were preparing to leave. Galadriel, however, remained seated, apparently enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Although faced with the combined masculine disapproval of Círdan and Glorfindel, she was less than intimidated.

“The fact that nothing happened hardly makes it right,” Glorfindel was pointing out. “You are not travelling back alone – if no one else is available, I’ll go with you myself. And no, I know you can look after yourself. My concern is for anyone misguided enough to trouble you.”

Galadriel chose to take this as a compliment and inclined her head with a satisfied smile. “As you say, I can look after myself.”

“It would be a simple matter to arrange a small escort,” Círdan offered swiftly. “If Lord Glorfindel were also to accompany you, I’m sure everything would be in order.”

Círdan’s desire for Glorfindel’s early departure was not lost on Gil-galad, who had left the thankless task of arguing with his aunt to others and instead stood watching the ships. He turned now and favoured his foster father with an expressionless stare. “Glorfindel is expected here for dinner, Hîren. I see no reason to disrupt Master Edhelûr’s arrangements. An armed escort will be sufficient. Or perhaps we can persuade you to stay the night, Aunt?” he added enquiringly, forestalling Glorfindel who had been about to object. “I can send word to Celeborn, and Thenin can accompany you tomorrow. I imagine he’s eager to return to work.” Thenin had mentioned looking forward to a quiet day on the road, but Gil-galad decided his assistant would probably find a few hours on the water equally restful.

Galadriel’s attention was apparently wholly on the ships, but after a moment she glanced up at him and nodded. “I can hardly attend a formal dinner dressed as I am, Ereinion, but if Master Edhelûr’s lady could perhaps find me something suitable to wear…” 

She would have much preferred to go home to the comfortable little house beside the ocean and the Sinda who had turned out to be her soulmate, but fondness for Glorfindel and an ingrained curiosity had persuaded her to stay the night. She had seen the intent behind Círdan’s words and had swiftly drawn her own conclusions. 

Círdan, silenced by the steel in Gil-galad’s eye, remained silent as he glanced around, dissatisfied but outmanoeuvered. He suspected that Galadriel had agreed to remain purely on Glorfindel’s account, but her face was calm and unreadable. What she thought, she kept to herself. The blonde warrior had returned his attention to the sea and was watching the fleet, his eyes narrowed against the sun. He had appeared blithely unaware of any undercurrents in the conversation, but Círdan was unconvinced. He doubted that any lord of Gondolin could have survived the rumoured machinations of Turgon’s court without some degree of political awareness, to say nothing of a sense for intrigue. Those clear blue eyes, the aged Telerin decided, were less innocent, less ingenuous than most assumed. Including the King.

There was still a conversation due between Ereinion and himself regarding the reborn Elf, but he knew that this was not the right time. In fact he was beginning to wonder if there ever would be a ‘right time’.

~*~*~*~*~

Master Edhelûr’s mate Emlinneth was somewhat shorter than the Lady, but she managed to find an outfit that could be altered to fit their illustrious and very pregnant guest. As Galadriel submitted to having the garments – a light gown and loose over-tunic – pinned and tacked, she chattered away like a young maid. Mainly she asked questions; about Forlond, about the guests she would meet over dinner, about the frequency of her nephew’s visits. Did he have many friends here, had it not been difficult accommodating so many guests in her home, had there been any problems or incidents of note? Had she met the Lady’s cousin, Lord Glorfindel - the sweet-faced one with the golden hair, yes? Was his room sea-facing, as was the King’s, or was he in some other part of the house?

And so on, leaving Emlinneth quite flustered by the time they parted company.

Later, as she and her husband prepared for dinner, Emlinneth admitted surprise at how sweetly approachable the formidable-sounding Galadriel - sister to the King’s father, full-blooded Noldo and Tirion-born - had turned out to be. There appeared to be at least one family trait she and her nephew had in common though, she added - the Lady was insatiably curious. Edhelûr, who had experience with the King’s apparently casual enquiries, wondered what particular item of information Galadriel had been attempting to uncover, but held his peace.

~*~*~*~*~

Dinner spanned eight courses and was accompanied by a selection of excellent wines, supplied by one of Edhelûr’s senior councillors who had trade interests in the South. Gil-galad had the place of honour, while Galadriel was seated beside their host. Glorfindel found he had been placed next to Edhelûr’s daughter. His family connections were impeccable and he was unattached; he doubted it was a coincidence. He took a deep breath and set out to attempt, for the first time in his life, to be courtly and almost - though not quite - flirtatious. He had no wish to mislead her, but hoped it might allay one or two of the rumours he was sure were circulating. He was regularly amazed at the things he was prepared to try and do on Gil-galad’s behalf.

Where there were Elves there would always be song and dancing, and after dinner the guests moved out onto the lawn for this purpose. Before anyone else found the courage to approach Galadriel, Gil-galad caught his aunt lightly round the waist and, disregarding her claim to be currently neither agile nor light on her feet, insisted that she be the first to dance with him.  Glancing around, she registered several disappointed expressions and chuckled sympathetically. “This will be no more than a brief escape, Ereinion. I can’t dance all night.”

He cursed mildly under cover of the music. “I feel like the prize stallion at a horse sale,” he complained. “They’ve assessed my looks, watched me eat, and now they want a chance to test my character and personal hygiene.”

“Don’t be silly, dear,” she said, giving him a wide smile that in some indefinable way reminded him of his father. “You’re High King. They couldn’t care less about your personality and how close an acquaintance you have with soap and water.

“I know,” he admitted irritably. “Which makes it worse. This is all about family advancement, gaining a crown. It would scarcely matter if I had two heads… Was it always like this? Before we crossed the sea, I mean. When I was young I was told male bound to female for love, two souls joined in bliss for eternity and all the rest. I’m starting to see that in this, as in other matters, Círdan’s views are a little old fashioned.”

Galadriel shook her head and laughed softly. “I know how you feel. I was assessed and bartered over in Tirion and later in Doriath,” she told him. “I think they believe that you merely need to get to know them and true love will follow.” She paused then added more seriously, “These aspirations always existed; ambition is older than time. Though previously I think we might have fared better at hiding the intent behind pretty words. I’ve often felt Fëanor was not utterly alien to the rest of us – he was just more open about his feelings, less inclined to hide them behind social conformity.  I rather liked that about him.”

It was more common to refer to Fëanor as The Kinslayer and find no redeeming feature in him, Gil-galad mused. Usually by people who, unlike his aunt, had little personal experience of the creator of the Silmarils. “I suppose one knew where one was with him – more than likely at the point of his sword, or walking across the Ice after he burnt the ships,” he agreed mildly.

Galadriel glanced at him sharply, made once again aware that it would be hard to find someone less like her loved but easily-led brother, Orodreth. Her nephew thought for himself and was not easily shocked. When the babe was born, Ereinion’s heir and a potential High King if it was a boy – of course it was a boy, she told herself firmly, no matter what Celeborn might think – she was sure they would have little difficulty in reaching an accommodation of sorts.  After all, the future was uncertain and a rival claimant, a child of his own blood, seemed less than likely from what she had observed. Elwing’s son she dismissed as politically unsuitable, made so by his share of mortal blood.

Putting aside future planning for a more suitable occasion, she smiled at him. “How will you decide with whom to dance next? Much as I enjoy having a partner taller than myself, I can hardly spend the entire evening with you. And even if I could, the scandal would be exceptional. Even for Lindon.”

“They’d be talking for weeks,” he agreed with a wry grin. “And I have a tried and tested method for dealing with this. I remain distant but courteous, dance with everyone no more than once and make a point of not remembering their names. So far it seems to have worked rather well.”

She laughed then nodded, her eyes suddenly kind. “They expect you to choose a bride and wed soon, my dear,” she said, moving closer so that her lips were near his ear, her words barely audible above the music. “But marriage – binding for eternity and producing heirs – I think is not for you. Am I right?”

Gil-galad was careful to show no outward sign of the watchful stillness that instantly cloaked him. “Time enough for that later,” he answered smoothly, aware, too aware, that if his instinct was wrong and the child she carried was a boy after all, that child and not Elrond would be the heir to the crown should he fail to provide one himself.

Fail.

As though it were a test he had to pass to prove his worth, he thought, suddenly tired of it all but knowing this self-doubt would probably follow him the length of his immortal life. He had given the future a lot of thought since that night of solitary drunken musing and he was certain that marriage was not for him, never would be. Knowing and accepting this simple truth about himself, however, did not change the fact that his predecessors would have seen it as a lamentable lack.

Almost as though she had read his thoughts she said, “Some of us are made to wed and breed, some of us not. Those who are not drawn to that life have each their own reasons – some prefer the arts of war, some prefer scholarly pursuits… and some simply find another path proves to be more suited to their nature. None of these choices is right or wrong, Ereinion. What is wrong is trying to be other than what you are.”

Could she enter his mind unnoticed, he wondered? Surely not…

They finished the dance in thoughtful silence. At the end she reached up and lightly – with complete disregard for protocol – placed a soft kiss on his cheek. “And now you need to start working your way through the hopeful daughters of Forlond, while I…” She glanced over to her left, eyes sparkling with mirth. “I need to go and rescue poor Glorfindel.  Emlinneth’s daughter is displaying excellent taste in holding onto him, but very poor judgement.” Her expression sobered. “I am very fond of my cousin,” she added pointedly. “He has a generous, trusting nature. I would be extremely upset were someone to attempt to take advantage of it."

~*~*~*~*~

The presence of the Elves of the Wandering Companies had transformed the hillside above Forlond into a setting for impromptu singing and dancing as they celebrated the beauty of the Silmaril which lit the sea with a brilliance rivaling that of the full moon. Food was produced, amounting to a small and varied feast, and the spirit of warmth and camaraderie was palpable. Elrond would have liked to remain longer, but Erestor insisted that, as Araslagor and his people were leaving, so too must they.

“We can go back alone later,” Elrond said in an exasperated voice, watching a small group forming around a young Elf who was playing snatches of song upon some kind of fiddle. If they started dancing, he would be sorely tempted to join them. “All we have to do is follow the road. It’s only half a day’s walk.”

Wide dark eyes flashed him an expressive look as Erestor shook his head firmly. “I’m not taking sole responsibility for your safety. Bands of unemployed mercenaries regularly attack travellers on the Forlond road. Why do you think I organised an armed escort in the first place – my personal amusement? Practice? No, we travel back in a group.”

 “Coward. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Erestor blinked, his expression deadpan. “I’ve had more than enough adventure in my life. Explaining to the High King how his cousin came to be kidnapped by renegades is more excitement than I need, thank you. Come, Princeling. Time to go.”

~*~*~*~*~

The small band of Elves moved with the silence of forest creatures, following an apparently clearly defined path which was nonetheless invisible to Elrond’s eyes. His attempts to keep up with them left him feeling clumsy and aware, as seldom before, of his mortal ancestry. On several occasions Erestor had to reach out a hand and guide him through the undergrowth, showing him with quick glances where to put his feet, when to duck his head. Eventually he gave up pride and, placing a hand on the black-haired Elf’s arm, followed in his footsteps.

It was dark under the trees. They had moved away from the road, taking a straight line to the point where the escort waited, and were out of sight of both thoroughfare and sea. The night’s activity went on around them, barely disturbed by their passage – scurrying sounds and sudden movement, night birds, the hunting cry of an owl, frogs calling in some tiny puddle-kingdom, all punctuated by long stretches of silence save for the sound of the trees whispering to the night. The air was very cold, but they were sheltered to some extent from the wind that had risen when the ships had entered the bay and which had been increasing towards storm-strength since then. Tomorrow would bring rain, he could smell it on the air.

The pace was moderate and Elrond soon lost all track of time. With nothing to do but follow Erestor as carefully as possible, his thoughts began drifting from one thing to the next like a leaf on the rising wind: the evening on the hillside and the ships, how small they had seemed; curiosity about the liquor Erestor had shared with him; Laslech, how she would have liked the scents and sounds of this walk through the woods… It was a very short step from that simple fantasy to another – of Laslech, caged, frightened, surrounded by cargo or other livestock.

He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, banishing the image. It was almost easier to try and guess what  Elros might be thinking, now that there was no turning back. He had no answer to that question, of course, and never would, so he banished it and tried instead to concentrate on what might have been happening at sea since nightfall. This proved a far simpler matter. They would be resting now, he decided, the men and women on board those frail-looking vessels. It had been a long day, and it was now the middle of the night. Unlike Elves, Men could seldom go through the night without rest.

How much sleep they would get with that blinding light above them was, of course, another matter

He wondered how Glori had enjoyed Forlond. He was glad Gil-galad had been there, of course, because it meant there had been at least one person present his brother would know genuinely cared for his welfare, but for the rest… A voice in his head dismissed their interest with distaste as idle curiosity of the type that encouraged the makers of the songs he so despised. He hesitated to include Glorfindel in this description – he was there at Gil-galad’s request, after all – but it had been a long day and he was tired and his opinion of the world in general was less than charitable.

Currently, he felt empty and strangely detached and his strongest emotion was a sense of tired anticlimax. The horror had happened. Elros had left; the little ships, green and gold sails flapping bravely in the afternoon sun, had sailed and now he was going back home, alone. Tomorrow would be another day, simply the next in an endless lifetime of days. No more excitement. Nothing to fear or anticipate beyond loneliness…

His foot caught on a root and he staggered slightly, but Erestor’s hand moved at once to his elbow, steadying him. There was a murmured exchange of “thanks” and “careful”, and they continued in silence. Elrond considered the Elf walking beside him, his shadowed face inward-looking and distant. The Half-elf had left naïveté behind on the night when Sirion burned and his mother had answered the call of fear. He knew his dynastic importance and he had considered the very real possibility that Erestor’s apparent interest in him was nothing more than sympathy combined with good political sense, but instinct said not. The depth of the concern and tenderness he had been shown the previous night had felt sincere, as had the morning’s interrupted pleasure.

Which, he finally realised, meant that tomorrow might well hold the promise of more than a little excited anticipation after all.

He slid his hand down Erestor’s arm and linked their fingers and his companion turned to him and smiled. In repose, Erestor’s face had the cool perfection of a sculpture created by a master craftsman, but when he smiled his features softened and warmed. The amber eyes sparkled despite the gloom and Elrond smiled back. Although he was feeling drained and emotionally exhausted, he knew this would change, that presently the pain of loss would return. He also knew that there would be someone beside him when that time came.

~*~*~*~*~

Galadriel left for the ferry at first light in a manner befitting the daughter of a King, accompanied by the promised escort of warriors and with Thenin, at Gil-galad’s insistence, in reluctant attendance. Glorfindel had again offered to travel back with her, but she turned him down with a knowing look and the suggestion that the overland journey would be more to his taste. Afterwards he wondered about a brief, low-voiced conversation he had witnessed between her and Círdan, which had left her looking distinctly pleased with herself. Youthful observation had taught Glorfindel to be extremely wary of that expression.

The party that set out on the return journey was less than half the size of the one that had arrived in Forlond. They left behind those who were taking the opportunity to visit with family, give attention to trade interests or who had simply decided on a whim to spend a few days – or weeks – sampling the entertainments the town had to offer. Glorfindel rode alone, comparing the current situation to the trip down to Forlond which had been filled with good humour and friendly interaction. He missed not only Dalbros, who had remained behind to gather more information for his History, but also the young Men who had joked with the escort and generally given the journey such a feeling of high-spirited anticipation. Those same young Men were, of course, no longer with them. They were somewhere out on the sea, heading towards their new life.

About an hour after leaving Master Edhelûr’s house it began raining in a continuous, heavy drizzle that was not sufficiently unpleasant to justify taking shelter and waiting for it to lift, but which slowly soaked the riders and further dampened their spirits.

“Bloody rain,” a voice said close beside him.

Gil-galad had fallen back to wait for him. The King was wearing a thick cloak as concession to the weather, but the hood was thrown back and his hair, hanging wet and somewhat disheveled, was plastered to his head. He looked rather more cheerful than his words suggested, an improvement on his brooding silence at breakfast. Glorfindel had assumed he was concerned about Elros. They had been given no opportunity for discussion after the fleet sailed; a late night and an early rising meant they had slept apart.

Glorfindel had missed him, even though sharing the narrow bed had proved an awkward experience.

“Bloody rain, yes” he agreed with a smile, his own mood lifting. “It’s keeping everyone very quiet in comparison to the journey out.”

Gil-galad grunted agreement. “Courtiers. Scared of a little water,” he said with a scathing glance at a huddled group riding ahead of them. “Elves should accept what comes their way; sunshine, rain, snow… it should all be the same.”

Glorfindel had a sudden memory of the blinding snowstorms that used to plague Gondolin in the midst of winter, the driving winds and shoulder-high snowdrifts penning the inhabitants inside their homes for days on end. He shivered slightly. “Not snow,” he said firmly. “And given a choice, not rain either. We Noldor have become far too accustomed to the comforts of city life, I think.” 

“You’re probably right. It’s not bothering them, after all.” Gil-galad gestured towards a group of Sindar who were busy picking apples in an orchard attached to the small settlement they were passing.

“They might have an order to fill,” Glorfindel hazarded. “That and fish are probably their main source of income.”

The King shrugged. “Possibly. Still, they seem not to mind.”

He rode in silence for a while, frowning thoughtfully. When they had passed the settlement’s brief stretch of cultivated land, he said, “I think we can spare an extra day or two – Lindon will hardly fall apart. I’d like to stop at a few of these places, see if they need any help. There’s a new town further up the coast that I’d like to see, too. Half the requests and complaints never reach me, you know. Thenin sees to them and just gives me verbal reports. I do my best but – I’d like to see for myself.”

Glorfindel considered him out of the side of his eye and decided Gil-galad was probably serious but not to the point of stubbornness. “Not this time,” he said, softening the words with a smile. He was still uncomfortable about contradicting the King or offering him unsolicited advice, but Gil-galad had declared himself sick to death of only hearing opinions that agreed with his own and had asked Glorfindel to speak his mind whenever he felt it was necessary. The blonde was less than happy with the request, but it was what Gil wanted and, understanding the reasons, he did his best to oblige.

Gil-galad, not yet accustomed to having his wishes denied, frowned at him. “A day or two – what possible difference would that make? Aren’t you also curious? You were full of questions about the new coastal settlements. Elrond even found you a book about them, didn’t he?”

Glorfindel nodded. “Yes, he did. And it was very interesting. And you’re right, of course I’d enjoy it. But you would need to send everyone else on ahead and keep just a few warriors with you as an escort – you can hardly expect the communities you visit to feed all these mouths. And that would mean compromising your safety.”

“Nothing’s likely to happen to me, don’t be fanciful.”

Glorfindel glanced at him, expressionless. “We used to say that in Gondolin – nothing’s going to happen. We were wrong.”

They rode on for a few minutes, each digesting this unexpected comment. Glorfindel darted a few quick, uncertain glances at Gil-galad, riding head bowed against the weather, and was finally the one who broke the silence. “You offered me a post reorganizing your army,” he said steadily. “If I were to accept, one of the first changes would be to make sure you had your own personal guard, with no responsibilities other than your safety. The war might be over but the roads are still unsafe, attacks happen…”

“Ah. So you’ve decided to do it then?”

Had he? Glorfindel supposed he had. He had been entertaining a suspicion for some time that the safety of the High King, the ultimate Elven authority on the Hither Shore, might have been the reason for Lord Námo’s decision to send him back in such an unlikely manner – not as a babe newborn in Aman, a receptacle for memories of a past life, but as a warrior at the height of his strength, with battle skills and training intact, faster, stronger, more focused than he recalled being before his death.

“I’ve given it some thought,” he answered slowly. “I can see more or less what needs to be done. It would mainly be a matter of shifting priorities and changing focus and if I’m given enough authority I can do it. There would be a few conditions, though…”

Gil-galad grunted. In his experience, there were always conditions.

“I would want a free hand, which you more or less promised me,” Glorfindel told him. “Also, I would need to be able to appoint or dismiss as I see fit while the transition is in progress. The same goes for deployment – currently you have warriors stationed in places that were probably important before the end of the war, but no longer warrant as much attention. And I’d expect to have the same authority over the Fleet…”

Gil-galad stirred at this, raising a hand to wipe away the water trickling down his face from his hair, but kept silent.

Glorfindel nodded as though the King had spoken. “I know sailors dislike taking orders from outsiders and I’m sure they’re accustomed to Círdan’s ways, but it can’t be helped. Both forces have to work together. It has to be a whole, not the Army on one side and the Fleet on the other as it is now. And finally, I want personal responsibility for your security – which means that when I say today is not a good day for an informal ramble down the coast, you will listen to me and not try and intimidate me into letting you have your way.”

“I would never try and intimidate you, Glaur,” Gil-galad stated, feigning outrage at the suggestion.  He was, in fact, a little startled by this brisk, professional side to the blonde warrior. He knew that Glorfindel was an experienced commander, of course. He had led Turgon’s rear-guard against the forces of darkness, a position of huge importance. Still, Gil-galad had not expected suddenly to be faced with someone quite this proficient and - decisive.

Glorfindel gave him an amused look. “You wouldn’t? That’s as well. The longer I know you, the less intimidating you seem.” His tone softened. “I understand why you want to see these places firsthand instead of relying on reports, Gil, but why not plan it out properly first? We can come back in the spring.”

Gil-galad noted the assumption that they would do this together with satisfaction, although he did no more than grunt a non-committal response.

~*~*~*~*~

Unencumbered by baggage, they made good time, barely slowing as they passed through the villages and settlements. When they reached the place where they had made camp on their journey to Forlond, Glorfindel slowed down to a walk. Under the pretense of watching a fishing boat coming in to the small harbour, he briefly acknowledged the sacred enclosure within its hedge, bowing his head respectfully, hand to heart as though he greeted one of the Mighty.

They arrived home near sunset, and those who were resident in the palace descended on the stables with a flurry of demands and needs that sent grooms rushing in all directions. Glorfindel, however, saw to his horse personally as was his habit. On the day he was deemed old enough to learn to ride, when he had been so young that even the selected pony had seemed impossibly high off the ground, his father had sat down with him and explained that the animal’s care and welfare would be his sole responsibility and should be performed as an expression of gratitude to the creature. It was not a chore to be shunted off onto a servant. The words and the implicit respect to the horse had stayed with him ever since.

When he was finally finished, the rest of the travellers had long since dispersed. He passed the kitchens en route to his rooms and paused to arrange that a plate of food be sent up to him at dinnertime. Long before he had gained sufficient confidence to mingle with his peers, he had been comfortable here. As a child, the kitchen had provided a warm, safe refuge from his father’s overwhelming expectations, and it was a setting in which he was instinctively at ease. His good natured courtesy had made him a popular visitor, and he was at once offered a cup of the head cook’s infamous chamomile tea and had to answer a multitude of questions about Forlond before he was finally permitted to go on his way.

Entering the palace via the kitchen, he decided to clean up and change and then fill the time remaining before dinner by going in search of Elrond. Gil-galad, he knew, would be working until late in the evening, catching up on those matters that would have accumulated during his brief absence. They would meet later. Meanwhile, Elrond would need to hear about his brother’s last few days in Middle-earth. Glorfindel was in two minds as to whether he should mention Elros’ conversation with Gil-galad, but decided that was a tale for the King to either share or withhold. He would confine himself to the ride to Forlond and a description of the ships.

His pack had been left outside his room as he had requested. Opening the door, he bent down to retrieve the bag and his attention was immediately drawn to a letter which had apparently been pushed to lie just inside the room. His name was written on the outside in a neat, vaguely familiar script. There was no further information. Closing the door, he stood, turning the letter over in his hand for a moment before finally taking heed of his surroundings. It was at this point that he discovered the impeccably neat room he had left on his departure from the palace had undergone a transformation. Items had been knocked over, his favourite boots were in the middle of the rug and his bed was rumpled, the cushions askew or on the floor.

With a sigh, Glorfindel put down the pack, returned the boots and cushions to their allotted places, and  sat down on the edge of the bed. He then opened the note, which he proceeded to read with narrowed eyes and less surprise than the author might have anticipated. When he reached the end, he was almost embarrassed to discover he was grinning.

~*~*~*~*~

Part 24

~*~*~*~*~

Emlinneth – little yellow bird

Beta - Enismirdal, Ilye Elf