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Elrond came down into the scent of pine and the sound of rushing water at evening. His weary troops spoke softly and with relief behind him as the stars shone on them through the trees. The spray rose up to dew their faces.
Celeborn was aware of their coming. He stood before the House and welcomed Elrond back with a wordless clasp of hands which almost undid the shell of hardened pain and let the grief out.
"Gil-Galad is dead," Elrond said, in a calm, strong voice, "And it was all in vain. Isildur wears the Ring of Power. On a chain around his neck for now, though how long that will last, I cannot guess."
At his shoulder, Glorfindel dismounted and Erestor came forward to speak to him. Between them the seneschals began the arduous task of seeing that all the warriors were quartered and eased as suited their valour and weariness.
"These tidings I have already heard," said Celeborn, with an edge of ice in his tone, and the light of his eyes chill.
"You do not still cling to your anger?" Elrond asked as they came into the shade and warmth of the linked halls of Imladris, and disbelief was added to the burden of sorrow he already carried. "Whatever slight you feel you have suffered, has his death not paid for it?"
It was strange how at times of crisis all those he relied on drew away from him. His parents had been the first to abandon him, and then his foster father had done the same. He had tried to learn from these two wounds the art of not being hurt again, but Gil-Galad's death had opened up the same cut, just as deep as ever. I had hoped for solace at your hands, my friend, not another battle.
"This is not about me." Celeborn stopped in the centre of the corridor, and the bustle of the returning army broke about him like Anduin about Tol Brandir. His fists were clenched. "Is there not some other news you feel worthy of my notice?"
"I do not have the time or inclination for riddles, Lord of Belfalas," Elrond drew himself up, reacting angrily to this threat in his own home. In truth it was easier to quarrel than to speak calmly; it held the tears off more straitly. "I have lost one who was to me as a father, and I am sick with grief. When you have grown more civil I will speak to you at further length. Now I will rest."
He turned to leave and Celeborn caught him by the arm, stopping him. There was a flash of fury between them, before the silver-haired lord sighed, the brittle ice of his anger melting into an unexpected sorrow of his own. "Gil-Galad was not the only King to fall, was he? What of my kinsmen Oropher and Amdir? Why do I wait in vain for tidings of them?"
"I had..." there was a moment of dislocation, as though returning to Rivendell he had found instead the many vaulted caves of Menegroth, and he looked again at his old friend, who had fought beside Gil-Galad for as long as Elrond could remember. A long term and trusted ally of the Noldor High King. Somehow, in that long service, Elrond had managed to forget that Celeborn was not of their race. He was a Grey Elf first. "I had forgotten," he admitted ruefully, "Forgotten you were their kin. Forgotten you would care. Forgive me, for they are both dead."
"And all the mourning is for Gil-Galad, as if they were not important."
He had not expected this - to find Oropher's Sindarin swings of mood in the normally level-headed Celeborn - to have to deal with guilt and anger as well as sorrow. "What do you want me to say?" he asked, a little desperately.
"That their sacrifice matters as much as his! That they are honoured as much as he is for it."
Elrond thought of the talk on the way home; bitter jibes about Oropher's inability to take commands, his pointless death and the uselessness in battle of his silvan troops. His death seemed to have bought him only contempt. And Amdir? About Amdir he had heard nothing, as though he had not been there at all. He knew not whether that was better than the scoffing over Oropher, or worse.
Evidently Celeborn read the doubt in his face. He turned away. "I should have been there!"
"He asked you to stay and guard Vilya...you know he could not take the ring so close to Sauron for fear the Dark Lord would sense him through it."
"And so these trinkets of Celebrimbor claim yet more lives."
"Do you think Oropher would really have listened to you, if you had been there? You two were ever at each other's throats."
This jibe, Celeborn ignored - justly, Elrond realized - for though he and his kinsman had argued vehemently at every opportunity, their enmity was a family affair into which strangers interfered at their own peril, and more often than not, only to find them perplexingly united. "Oropher had no experience of open warfare - his skill was commanding a defence in woodlands. He should have been left to defend Rivendell and the ring, and I sent into Mordor."
That, Elrond knew, was the truth, but for one thing. Gil-Galad had never felt able to trust Oropher out of his sight, half suspecting that, once the Noldor had left, the hot-tempered and prejudiced Sinda would claim the ring and the refuge for his own, so that if Sauron triumphed there would be nowhere left to flee. "Oropher was a reluctant ally," he said, "Gil-Galad was more certain of you."
It had been meant as praise. It was received like a draught of wormwood. Celeborn's mouth twisted with the bitterness of it. "The Noldor could not bring themselves to trust us, so they wasted our strength, and now they blame us for it."
His wife was Noldor. His beautiful daughter was half Noldor, but now, Elrond thought, it had become a case of 'us' and 'them' even for the wisest of the Sindar. More was falling apart at Gil-Galad's death than just the High Kingship.
Elrond was weary; worn by fighting and sorrow. At this unforeseen battle he felt his strength finally fail. Putting his head in his hands, shutting out the sight of everything, he sagged against the wall. At once Celeborn's mood was softened - he reached out and took the half-elf by the shoulders, supporting him. "Forgive me, my friend. This quarrel I should be having with him - if fate had been kinder. I grieve too, believe it or not. Now come; you need to sleep. There will be time enough to talk when you are rested and yourself again."
Sunshine filtered into the library of Rivendell, a few serrated chestnut leaves blew in through the open windows as if carried on the flood of warmth. Still nursing the bruises and cuts of battle, but finally clean and properly awake, Elrond was drawn there, into the hush and refuge, the memory of what he fought for.
Celeborn was there before him; ignoring the books, as usual, but tracing the lines of a carved field mouse which dwelled in a cunningly wrought nest in the corner of the shelves. He had never, Elrond observed, quite shed his preference for lore passed down in song, rather than in ink.
The small strangeness perturbed Elrond now. It had been easy, over the many years they had been Gil-galad's allies together, to regard Celeborn's archaisms as mere personal idiosyncrasy, and forget they proceeded from an ancient culture, quite independent of the Noldor. It was good, he thought, that he had been reminded now, when all central authority was gone. What would become of the friendship between Eldar and the Edain - now Isildur wore the One? And what remained of elven unity?
"Well," he said, "I am a little more settled, and prepared to bear your scorn and grievance."
The Lord of Belfalas laughed ruefully and sat at one of the great tables. Wine had been set there, and a white loaf, with cheese and honey-cakes. "Alas, as you slept I forgot what it was I meant to say. There seems little point in obsessing over my disagreements with Ereinion when he will never return to hear them. However we got here; whatever mistakes were made, here we are, and we must decide what to do now."
"You have anticipated my thoughts," said Elrond, and realized he had eaten two of the small cakes without tasting them - the habits of warfare. Having eaten, he knew suddenly that he was starving. But he forced himself to slow down, spread soft cheese on a hunk of bread and relish it. There was time, once again, to enjoy the small pleasures of life. Food that was not half a year old and rancid deserved to be appreciated.
Once he had slaked the first ravenings of hunger he pushed his plate away, mixed water into his wine. He watched as Celeborn bent his head and pulled from around his neck a long chain, and on it a ring of bright gold with a stone of vivid azure, luminous as a cloudless summer sky. The Sinda lowered ring and chain alike into the palm of his hand, and gazed on it for a moment, then he reached over and dumped the precious thing unceremoniously on the table in front of Elrond's plate. "Here."
Elrond stirred the still warm links of the chain with his fingertips, not quite daring to touch the ring - Celebrimbor's masterpiece; most powerful of the Three, for possession of which the last descendant of Feanor had been tortured to his death. "What is it like?" he said, in awe.
Celeborn sighed and walked to the windows, stretching, as one who has put down a weight. "Do you remember the fenny country of Serech? There were bogs there which sometimes gave forth dead things - birds, preserved by the peat, with every quill perfect, every scale on their clawed feet in place, their beaks open as if in song. Exquisitely preserved, but still dead. It reminds me of that."
It was not the answer Elrond expected, for Gil-galad had kept it many years, and been amplified, made greater by it. "The power of it, I mean,' he said.
"You understand I did not use it," Celeborn turned slightly, hand still on the windowsill, to look at Elrond with dark eyes. "Having it around my neck was enough - I was conscious at all times of Sauron's presence like a heat on my skin. I would not willingly touch it again." He turned fully, came back to lean down in urgency over the table. "If you will take my advice - now that nothing stands between us and Orodruin - you will unmake it. Go and throw it into the fire while you may. While the One exists in this world, the Three will never be more than a snare for their wielders."
Elrond laughed; this was, he had no doubt, another Sindar peculiarity - the result of their tendency to be suspicious of too much power, their unwillingness to get involved with the larger issues of the outside world. "You think well of Isildur if you suppose he has the strength of will to enslave the bearer of an elven ring. No, Sauron is no more, and the Three are free, finally, to do what they were created to do - to heal and preserve those things we love, to keep them spotless. We have lost so much strength we cannot afford to wantonly cast this away." Closing his hand over the ring, he unclasped the chain and pulled it free. "What is Galadriel's council on the matter?"
Celeborn's shoulders slumped. He gave a small, twisted smile and turned back to the sky. "She is of your mind. She would not give it up either."
"Then I am encouraged that it is the right thing to do. The Lady Galadriel is wise."
"Wise with the wisdom of Isildur," Celeborn murmured, and setting his arms on the sill he studied his hands, empty of anything but sunlight.
"You know that comparison is false." Elrond smiled, but in deference to his friend's reluctance he did not put the ring on, only closed his hand over it, feeling something of Celebrimbor, and some small prickle of Annatar still left in the metal. Power thrummed against his palm. "But come, may we not speak of other things? As a man I may grieve for my friend's death, but as a ruler I must consider the implications of my king's fall. He has no heir."
Returning to his seat, the Lord of Belfalas poured himself wine, carefully, as though he knew what was to come and was giving himself time to consider it. "No."
"Ereinion did what Maedhros could not, and united Noldor and Sindar both. There is one left in this world who could do the same."
"Aye." Looking out at the bright morning, Elrond sighed. Part of him wanted this, felt he was entitled, and more - that it would be a fitting memorial to all of his fathers. Another wanted to wash his hands of it all, to retreat into scholarship and lore, to learn how it would be to nurture life and use Vilya for healing rather than war. He did not know which tugged at his heart more. "I am Turgon's heir through Idril, and Thingol's through Elwing. I might, even now, weld the scattered remnants of our peoples into one nation. We would be stronger thus."
A bee droned into the room through the open casement and blundered for a moment among the scrolls before the window's light beckoned it back to freedom. Celeborn watched it with eyes and mind shuttered and unreadable.
"If I were to proclaim myself High King of both Noldor and Sindar," Elrond persisted, wondering at the obdurate mood, "Would you bow the knee to me? Amroth, King of Lorien, is your son, Cirdan and Thranduil are your kinsmen - they would follow where you led. Will you not give me your support?"
"You know that Kingship does not travel in the female line," said Celeborn, with a look of twisted humour. "Dior was 'Eluchil' because Elu himself said so. A case might be made for that line ending with Elurin and Elured. And given that I am the closest in male line to Thingol, I could claim that crown for myself. You have already said that the Sindar would follow me."
Taken aback, Elrond tore another piece of bread from the loaf in order to have something to look at, other than his great-uncle. If asked, he would have laid his life on the notion that the Lord of Belfalas did not seek power - so many times he had stood aside while it passed to others.
"But if we allow the female line," Celeborn continued quietly, "Then Galadriel has a nearer claim on the High Kingship of the Noldor than you do. I doubt very much that she would take you as king now that she has finally escaped the interference of her relatives. I do not see that it would work."
"You would not press your case against me. Would you?" Elrond asked, astonished, and his friend laughed, like one who yields in a game of nerve.
"No, I would not." Celeborn smiled with surprising warmth, "I accepted Dior for Elu's sake, and Luthien's, but in our hearts there is only one king of the Sindar, and it is not me." He looked at Elrond pointedly "It is not you, either. The Sindar have done as the Laegrim did, when Denethor fell. If we may not have the High King we wish, we will have none. Thus, although I would not make the claim, neither would I support yours."
It was a noble sentiment, and Elrond knew there was truth in it, but not the whole truth. "There is more to your decision than this."
"There is. But it is not so comfortable to hear."
Happily, what Elrond felt at this stumbling block in his plans was relief. It seemed the path of healing was what his fea had craved all along, and the call to kingship only a duty owed that proved now impossible to fulfil. The great sky-coloured stone of Vilya was sharp against his fingers, and it felt to him that it was there the strength of the elves now lay, and the time of the kings was indeed past. He laughed. "Oh, come! I have grown accustomed to your froward speech. The day you are comfortable with mere politeness will be the day the world ends. Tell me your other reasons."
"I have two," Celeborn reached up a large hand and rubbed his neck as though his collar chafed him. "Firstly, though I know your line is fully as Sindar as it is Noldor, you think like a Noldo. If you had shared my grief for Oropher and Amdir, I would have known your mother's kindred were as dear to you as your father's. But it was not so. Whatever your blood, your mind is Maglor's."
"That is hardly my fault!" Elrond snapped angrily; hurt, though he had promised not to be.
"I said not so - how could it be? You were a child, kidnapped - how could you be blamed? But it has made you who you are, and at times the hand of the Kinslayer still shows."
Unwilling to think of Maglor, for the thought always brought a bemusement of hate and betrayal, love and guilt, Elrond moved the conversation on. He had to admit that there was some justice in the accusation. Long he had known that Lindon suited him more than Lorien, Ereinion more than Oropher. There seemed no shame in that. "Secondly?"
"Secondly?" the wry, bitter smile again, from eyes in which there still shone the reflection of a Silmaril. Celeborn sighed, and wiped a finger through the condensation which beaded the jug of wine. The wine's colour glowed like fire and blood. "Little harm can Nenya do," he said, "isolate in our small city of Dol Amroth. My wife's ring I cannot escape, whatever my wishes. But I will not encourage young Thranduil, or my own son, to subject their realms to a second. This time the Sindar will not suffer for Noldor jewels. We have learned our lesson."
He reached over and patted the hand which all this time had remained closed about Vilya's splendour. Unconsciously, Elrond tightened his grip. "No. I remain your friend and kinsman, Elrond, but in this matter you are on your own."
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