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Her face – the soft curve of her cheek and long dark lashes of her veiled eyes – was overlaid with a mask of horror.
Elrond froze and only Celebrían’s firm grasp on his arm kept him seated in the present, where she and the three half-elves gathered in polite harmony beneath the dappled shade of a vast oak.
Inside the Lord of Imladris an elfling screamed as he and his brother were thrust away from her, with no more than a swift pat on the cheek and the feeling of her fingers bruising his shoulder while the sounds of battle grew closer. Her eyes were dark with fear for them, but the light of the Silmaril gleamed through the dark blue of the cloak at her throat.
‘I have long intended to journey to your tower,’ Celebrían said smoothly, ‘but for many years I was too frail to come so far – and then, no word of greeting came from you.’
‘We would not impose ourselves where we were not wanted,’ Eärendil pronounced proudly. ‘If you did not wish to meet us, then we would not insist.’
‘So many misunderstandings,’ his daughter-in-law sighed.
The guard had hesitated as the door to the Great Hall crashed open, but she had pushed him on, crying that he would not be able to hold them, that flight was the only possible hope for any of them. The passage had been dark, all sound muffled, with only the stifling closeness of the walls and a feeling of oppression. His face had been crushed in the rough wool of a cloak to smother his cries: for many long years he had been unable to endure the feel of cloth over his nose and cheeks.
Elwing said nothing, but simply looked at him, her pale skin gleaming like pearl and her dark hair bound in heavy coils, before turning her attention to the crystal goblets and pouring the rich red wine.
They had emerged into a scene of such horror that his protests had been silenced instantly. Elves lay in ruined heaps, crumpled in corners beneath the feathery tamarisk, huddled in corners, sprawled across the sun-warmed cobbles – not warriors only, but ellyth and elflings too, their eyes empty as they stared at a sky that stared back at them in shock, and the stench of spilled blood choked him. The guard’s booted feet had echoed on the silent stone as they had run from the shelter of his adar’s house and followed Elwing to the cliff, where the crawling sea had beckoned them.
The birds sang in the tree above them as Elrond sipped his wine and the brilliant blue of the sky was reflected in the wide pool, where fish broke water occasionally to snatch the hovering flies and the ripples spread gently across its still surface. Elwing’s long-fingered hand tentatively proffered a plate of small biscuits and he took one, smiling his thanks.
‘This is a beautiful place,’ Celebrían said, valiantly attempting normality as eddies of the past whirled around them. ‘I had not travelled this far north before.’
Elwing smiled and looked down. ‘We have dwelt here a long time,’ she said. ‘I have almost forgotten what it is like to live elsewhere.’
Almost, he thought. But there are some places one cannot forget, however much one might prefer to do so. The urgency of battle had pursued them – well, it would have done – they were, after all, the focus of all this death and destruction. The great warrior, with his red hair flying, sword grasped firmly in his left hand – and behind him, all sharp angles, gleaming like obsidian, the one who would not leave his brother’s side. Elrond had fallen suddenly, showered with blood as an arrow had pierced his guardian’s throat and Maglor had turned and snarled at his warriors to hold back. He had heard Elros whimpering as their nursemaid had held him close, but he had been afraid to move until Maglor had pulled him free and swung him up in his arms to pin him against the hard edges of his armour. His brother had screamed for him then, but the smell of metal and blood and sweat had turned him to ice. Maedhros had challenged his naneth as she stood on the cliff’s edge: her children or the jewel – and she had defied him, the despair in her voice, he recognised now, acknowledging that the madness of the Fëanorionnath would allow no escape for any of them. He had known she would choose them – they were her little loves, her precious ones – she was their nana. How could she not choose them over a stone, no matter how pretty?
A frog plopped into the pond, the slight noise unexpectedly loud in the silence. Elrond cleared his throat. ‘Do you miss the sea?’ he asked at random. ‘It never held me as it did Elros, but every now and then I would seek an excuse to visit Cirdan so that I could spend time beside the ocean.’
The other members of the party looked at him.
‘My naneth found, in the end, that it was better for her to remain away from the ocean,’ Celebrían said pleasantly, in an attempt to extend his remarks into conversation. ‘It was too compelling and she found it caused her pain.’
‘I sail other waters now,’ the Mariner said vaguely, glancing at his wife.
She had stepped back, he recalled, one hand clutching desperately at her throat, the look on her face one of total despair. The wind caught her cloak and blew it out around her and tugged at her hair, pulling it free of its pins and making it float like a dark cloud round her head. He could not remember her words – he thought now they might have been in Quenya – but Maedhros had been certain she would yield to him. He strode towards her – commanding, filling the sky, his figure dominating the slight form of the elleth, but Elwing had turned away and raced, no more than a step or two, to the bare rock overhanging the insatiable sea. She had looked at each of them briefly, no more than a moment’s hesitation before flinging herself back and letting the wind carry her as she plummeted beyond his sight.
Elwing leant forward and placed a hand on his, abandoning the attempt to pretend that this was an ordinary visit. ‘He would not have spared us,’ she said gently. ‘You remember a different Maedhros. He was enraged with the fire of battle and he had just lost his brothers – he would not have let us live.’ Her eyes like a raincloud, she continued, ‘He left Elured and Elurin to die. How could I doubt that he would do the same to you? The only weapon I had was the Silmaril – if I removed that, then perhaps he would find you of sufficient value to guard you well.’ She straightened and examined her hands. ‘I never expected what happened next. How could I? It was an impossibility.’
‘He believed you would return,’ Elrond told her. ‘For a long time, he thought that you would come back for us and bring the Silmaril within his reach again – but you never did.’
‘No,’ she echoed softly, her voice filled with the mourning of two long ages, ‘I never did.’
Elros had screamed as his naneth dropped from sight and he had struggled free of the elleth’s grip. She had reached for him, but Maedhros had scooped him up in his handless arm as he headed towards the place from which Elwing had disappeared. His brother had fought helplessly in the arms of the Kinslayer, arms flailing against the blood-stained armour and Maedhros had shifted his clasp ominously on the squirming body, there on the edge of nothing. Maglor had called a sharp warning in a language that meant nothing to Elrond and the red-head had looked at him before fixing his light-grey eyes on the ellon. Maedhros had turned away, thrusting Elros into the arms of one of his warriors, barking orders as they headed for the narrow path that led to the beach where their naneth had so often taken them to play. The nursemaid had run after them pleading with them to leave the ellyn, begging them not to harm the twins, to take her with them to care for the little ones, until, at a word from Maedhros, a casual blow had felled her, a red flower blooming at her breast.
‘Did you know,’ Elrond asked, ‘what became of us? I have often wondered if you were reassured that we had survived, or whether you carried with you always the fear that we had joined those lost at Sirion, yet more victims of a lust for Fëanor’s jewels.’
‘I hoped,’ she said softly, ‘as your adar’s ship wandered the face of the sea, but I feared the worst. I had seen the results of the Kinslayers’ obsession before and I could not believe that there was any kindness in their hearts for the heirs of Elu. It was not until the Valar offered the choice of the Firstborn to our House that I realised that you lived and thrived under the care of others.’
It had been close, Elrond had realised much later, when such things as battle lust and bitterness and vengeance had become more than words in his mouth. Maedhros would have killed them then – hurled them from the cliff, as Elwing took the Silmaril out of the reach of Fëanor’s heirs yet again, had Maglor not held him back, reminded him of his regret at the fate of Dior’s sons, offered him the hope of hostages. And then the white spray had taken form, a gleaming mist of swirling light coalescing above the black-edged rocks, and the haunting cry of the great sea-bird had made them shiver as, with one beat of her long narrow wings, she had broken from the clutching waves and left the land to carry the stone westwards over the reaching swells of the steel-grey sea.
‘Of course, you were their kin, too,’ Eärendil added. ‘I could only try to believe that the great-grandsons of Finwë would demand a duty of care of the Kinslayers that the great-grandsons of Elu did not.’ He gazed at the blood-red light reflected from his glass onto his open hand. ‘But my hopes were not high,’ he murmured.
Maglor’s arm had remained tightly round him as the argument with his brother had endured beyond their return to their warriors, beyond the dealing with the wounded and the disposal of their dead. He could have drawn away from Fëanor’s son, Elrond realised, but there had been something comforting about his strength in the midst of the confusion, an echo of a distant memory of strong arms and laughter, shining black hair in narrow braids and the feel of a cheek pressing briefly against the top of his head. His hand had reached out involuntarily and twisted itself in a silken braid and held on as though it was his only promise of safety.
‘Maedhros, I think, would have had little interest in us had he not believed that Elwing might return for us,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘In truth, I remember little of him, except that he frightened us both. But Maglor – it grieves me that his life was destroyed by his adar’s jewels and the oath. He would have made a good adar – but he was tormented by what he had done as Maedhros never was.’ Elrond closed his eyes briefly. ‘I hope he finds peace,’ he said. ‘Either with Mandos or in the days beyond days. He deserved better.’
‘I shall always be grateful to him,’ his naneth stated. ‘Whatever else he might have done, he guarded my sons and gave of himself to raise them when I could not. He could have given me no greater gift.’
‘My naneth felt that Maglor was caught up in a tragedy that was not of his making,’ Celebrían said softly. ‘He was not a warrior from choice, but from loyalty to his adar and for love of his brothers.’ She reached out to take Elrond’s hand. ‘It was like him to insist on taking care of you and Elros – and like him to free you from the fate that followed the Fëanorionnath by giving you into the care of Gil-Galad.’
Eärendil blinked. ‘Of course – you are the daughter of my grandfather’s cousin,’ he said, ‘as well as my son’s wife.’ He smiled. ‘I become confused,’ he admitted, ‘between all the layers of kinship.’
‘It becomes even more difficult,’ she laughed, ‘when long centuries divide you – and your cousins and uncles are the stuff of legend, as well as the people who put grasshoppers in your naneth’s hair and provoked your adar into putting thistles in her bed.’
‘Who,’ Elrond marvelled, ‘would dare put grasshoppers in Galadriel’s hair?’
His wife squeezed his hand. ‘She was not always the intimidating Lady of Light,’ she told him airily. ‘Believe it or not, she was once an aggravating little elleth with four older brothers. I am told they played tricks on her just for the fun of making her lose her temper and attack them. Rumour has it she would kick and scratch and bite.’ Her eyes twinkled. ‘Whereupon she would be sent to bed in disgrace.’ She congratulated herself on lightening the mood and waited for her husband to make the connection with her other revelation. It did not take him long.
‘Lúthien?’ he said incredulously. ‘Celeborn put thistles in Lúthien’s bed?’
‘It was one of my favourite stories when I was an elfling,’ Celebrían nodded gleefully. ‘What is it about learning how naughty your parents were? I loved hearing about Naneth and Adar getting into trouble!’
Elrond leaned back in his chair and laughed until he realised that his parents were not sharing in his amusement. Eärendil was straight-faced and pale, watching Elwing’s hands wind tightly together in her lap, as yet another empty part of their lives tore at her.
Her eyes had gleamed with tears as she stood there poised on the edge. A few seconds, no more, that had burned themselves into his mind so sharply that even now he could feel the salt-scented wind on his face and hear the sobs catching in his throat as he stared at her. A face as white as alabaster, the curve of her cheek brushed by the ebony of her hair and her pale lips mouthing her defiance. Her hands had stretched out towards them in longing, the jewel round her neck like a chain weighing her down, binding her to a fate that was not of her making. She had not chosen to abandon them, not really. Her decision had been forced on her and she had sacrificed herself in an attempt to give them a chance of life. Her gaze had been on him and Elros as she made her choice. She had screwed up her eyes then, before throwing herself from the heights: the last sight she expected to take with her from the world the frightened faces of her sons.
Slipping from his chair, Elrond rested on one knee before her and took her hands gently in his. ‘What we have lost,’ he said honestly, ‘cannot be recovered. But we have all the time we need now.’ He leaned forward and kissed her softly on her brow. ‘You are my naneth,’ he told her. ‘Nothing changes that. I am here now, as we hope that one day our sons will join us. Our family will never be complete and we will miss Elros and Arwen as long as the world endures, but we will hold each other the closer for that.’
She lifted her head and her eyes, the grey of rain-washed slate, met his, a flush of colour bringing life to her brightening face as she returned the clasp of his hands. Her son smiled at her reassuringly and decided that it was now time to enjoy her presence and his adar’s and allow the nightmare recollection of events long past to recede once again into the sealed depths of distant memory, where, as far as he was concerned, it could remain.
‘One thing,’ he stipulated teasingly. ‘I must demand that you reveal some tales of your past to equal my wife’s revelations.’
‘Oh,’ his adar told him, his relief clear in his voice, ‘I think we can manage that.’
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