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to walk these halls of mud and memory

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Chapter 1

The crowd was loud before him, chanting and stamping their feet in exultant expectation. “Findis!” half a hundred thousand voices cried, “Findis, Findis, Findis!”

Elrond Peredhel sat quietly on his steed—a large, black, Aman-bred mare named Avasath, who had been with him for more than an Age—and stared out at the lists. The hard-packed dirt stretched on before him, dusty and brown and hedged with slatted wooden fences and rising wooden stands, waiting for the thunder of hooves and the crashing of lances. Elrond took in a deep breath, readjusted his grip on his unmarked shield, and nudged Avasath into the starting position.

“The rules are simple,” the attendant said, handing Elrond his lance. “You have three runs to knock your opponent from their horse. If, after the third joust, neither of you are unhorsed, the judges will determine the winner based on form and strength of blows. If you are both unhorsed at once, the contest will progress to a duel with the sword. Understood?”

“Understood,” Elrond said, pitching his voice low behind his helm.

“Very well,” said the attendant, stepping back. “Wait for the horn call.”

Elrond was clad in dark but simple, unornamented and unmarked armor. A helm hid his face from view, the visor pulled down, and he bore no standard or crest. There was no cloak attached to his pauldrons, as there was on Findis's—her armor was bright gold edged in blue, and she bore a sapphire cloak and the crest of Finwë on the breast—and his boots were finely made and sturdy but plain.

“I want something I won't be recognized in,” he had told the smith in Tirion two weeks prior, when he went to order the armor.

“Why, my lord?” the smith had asked. “Do you not want people to know who you are when you ride?”

Elrond had smiled mirthlessly. “No, I do not,” he had said, then had added dryly, “That is kind of the point.”

“Might I ask why, my lord?” the smith had asked. “I assume this armor is for the tournament next fortnight?”

“For your silence,” was all Elrond had said, dropping a pouch filled with coins on the workshop table.

The truth was that he did not want anyone to know his identity. Not now; not yet. He wanted a chance to compete in the tournament without his name attached to his actions and deeds—wanted to be known and recognized for his performance, rather than his bloodline.

There was more to his desire to compete—but he pushed those thoughts out of his mind. To dwell on them now would be to lose the joust—to lose the tournament even before it had properly begun.

It was bad luck that he had drawn Findis for his first bout. He had expected to ride against lesser sons of lesser houses first, gaining his footing and a name in the tournament against weaker and less-skilled opponents. He had never ridden against Findis before, but it was said that she was an expert horsewoman, and was skilled beyond her years—and ancient years they were—with sword and bow. How she was with a lance, he had not heard.

The horn blew from the judge's stand. Elrond leaned forward and whispered to his mare. She exploded from the mark, hooves tearing up the hard earth, sides heaving and head bobbing with the rush of her haste. Elrond lowered his lance over her withers, adjusted his shield, and watched Findis coming on.

Her stallion was a brilliant bay, with a white blaze and white stockings. He bore armor on chest and sides, matching the blue-tinged gold of his rider, and he carried himself proudly. He was a fine horse, for a fine rider.

Elrond narrowed his focus into Findis's shield. He adjusted his hold on his lance, rose in the stirrups, and smashed the tip of the coromant onto the center of her shield. His lance shattered, and Elrond was nearly unhorsed by the blow. Instead he allowed the force to drive him back into the saddle, artfully keeping his seat as Avasath thundered past Findis and her bay stallion, his right arm tingling with the aftershock of the shattering wood. Findis's lance had also shattered, leaving fragments of wood on the field that attendants quickly hurried to remove.

He pulled Avasath around, and guided her back to their starting position on the far side of the field. The attendant there handed him a second lance. The Elf did not smile, nor did he bow, but there was a note of respect in his eyes that had not been there before.

Elrond accepted the lance and turned Avasath's head back toward the lists. Findis, on the other side of the field, was shaking out her shield arm before accepting her own second lance. Once she had, however, she moved her bay into position. The horn sounded again and, for the second time that morning, they were off.

Riding Avasath was like riding an avalanche of raw strength and power. She surged beneath Elrond, infinite speed, infinite grace, bearing him swiftly down the lists toward Findis and her bay. Once more Elrond's attention narrowed to her shield, bobbing slightly on her arm, and the crest emblazoned there. He struck it dead center, punching forward as he hit by rising in his stirrups, sending Findis reeling. She dropped her shield but remained seated, listing to one side.

Breathing heavily, Elrond turned Avasath and once more returned to their starting point. The attendant, now silent and with wide eyes, handed him a third lance.

“Best of luck,” he said softly as Elrond kneed Avasath back into position.

The horn sounded a third time. Avasath exploded forward, hooves tearing earth. Elrond gathered himself and his strength, and one last time struck Findis's shield—this time just ever so slightly beneath the center of it. He pushed up, shoving his entire weight behind the blow—and Findis popped from her saddle. She flew through the air for a glorious moment, before crashing to the hard-packed dirt with a clatter of metal armor. Her bay stallion drew to a halt and circled around toward his mistress, who picked herself up off of the ground.

Elrond drew Avasath to a halt and directed her toward Findis.

“Well fought,” he said from behind his visor. “It was an honor to cross lances with you.”

Findis glowered, then relented. “Indeed,” she said, albeit stiffly, mounting up. “You have great talent, young…”

“Lîmrion,” Elrond said.

Findis smiled grimly. “Lîmrion,” she repeated. “We have not seen you in a tournament before, have we?” She settled into the saddle and gathered up her reins, preparing to turn her bay's head.

“No, my lady,” said Elrond. “This is my first tournament.”

“Well,” said Findis, clearly done with the conversation and with Elrond, “best of luck to you.” Then she turned her stallion and sent him trotting back toward the small crowd of her attendants and well-wishers, standing on her end of the field.

~*x*~

“Tell us again why Elrond could not be here?” Amarië asked Celebrían, sitting forward in her chair to peer around her husband.

They were seated in the stands overlooking the tournament field, in a box centered just above the judge's stand. Reserved for nobility, it was filled with cushioned chairs and spread with tables covered in food, the ceiling overhead—which supported the next tier of seats—keeping out the direct sunlight. Celebrían sat to the right end, a plate of half-touched food in her lap, beside Finrod and his wife and their young son.

Celebrían sighed. “He said he needed time to himself,” she told her friend, “so he went riding this week.”

Amarië shook her head. “He should have come,” she decided, sitting back in her chair, though she still watched Celebrían around Finrod's broad shoulders. “He does know you have a love for tournaments, does he not?”

Celebrían smiled. “He does,” she said. “Though perhaps that knowledge has faded or dulled with time. I am not upset with him, Amarië,” Celebrían said. “He needs this time to himself, to rest and to heal.”

“I still think he could perhaps have humored you,” Amarië muttered, before rising. She hesitated, then crossed to kneel before Celebrían's chair. Taking Celebrían's hands in her own, she added softly, “This could have been a good time for you to find common ground once again—a chance to ease some of the strain. I know it has been hard for you…”

Celebrían smiled, and squeezed her friend's hands. “He needs time,” Celebrían said. “I am more than willing to give him that.”

Amarië rose, and held out a hand to her son. “Come, Arandannen,” she said, “let us get you some lunch.” The Elfling, no more than twenty years, whooped and hopped out of his chair, taking his mother's hand and leaving with her to go toward the food tables.

Finrod turned to Celebrían, a worried look on his face. “Are you sure you are all right, penneth?” he asked.

He alone could call her that. Celebrían did not even suffer her own parents to call her “penneth” anymore—not since she had reached her fiftieth begetting day. Finrod, however—her mother's eldest brother—had called her that from the first day she had landed on Valinor's shores, broken and half-dead and alone. When he used the term of endearment, it made her feel safe and loved.

Celebrían forced herself to continue smiling. “What other choice do I have, Uncle?” she asked Finrod. “I do not begrudge him his time to heal and mourn, which I suspect is what he will be using this week for. I only wish that…” She trailed off.

“Wish what?” Finrod prompted.

“That he would let us mourn and heal together. He is no longer alone, but it is like he has forgotten that.”

“He was alone for a very long time,” Finrod pointed out. “Perhaps he has forgotten he is not alone anymore.”

“I don't know how to remind him that he is not, though,” Celebrían said.

“We will figure it out, penneth,” Finrod said. He took Celebrían's left hand in his and squeezed, then released her and leaned forward to observe the field. It was nearly cleared after Findis's joust.

“So,” Finrod said, watching as the unadorned knight rode out of the lists, “who do you think he is?”

“I'm not sure,” said Celebrían. For half a heartbeat, during the first charge, she had been convinced that the young knight was riding Avasath, her husband's prize mare. The tall, powerful mount beneath the knight, however, had white socks and a white blaze down her forehead, and Celebrían had dismissed the notion as fanciful wishing on her part. “Clearly someone who has never jousted in a tournament here before. He had a very distinct style that I would have remembered from last year.” The way he had risen in his seat at the last second, to give himself more power in his thrust—the way he had shifted his shield at the last second to allow his opponent's lance to glide off—took incredible skill and timing to pull off.

“He had a very Fëanorian style of handling a lance,” said Finrod. “In fact, I have not seen the trick with rising in the seat from anyone not trained by a Fëanorian.”

“You think he's of the house of Fëanor then?”

“Or he was trained by someone therein, yes,” said Finrod. “Yet his manner of handling his mount was very Sinda. Did you see the way he hardly used the spurs, and instead relied on knee and vocal commands?”

Celebrían nodded. “Most of the warriors in Imladris relied on vocal commands more than the spur, though,” she pointed out, “and Imladris was far more Noldo than Sinda.”

“But Imladris's lord utilized a very Sinda style of riding,” Finrod countered, “or so I've been led to believe, and he encouraged his warriors to emulate him.”

“This is true,” Celebrían admitted. “So who do you think this knight is?”

“Someone with an eclectic training,” said Celeborn from behind them.

Celebrían turned with a glad cry to see her mother and father standing between the first and second row of chairs. “I thought you weren't coming,” she said, almost accusatory.

“Your father decided he wanted to compete at the last second,” said Galadriel, “so we decided to come, rather than spend a week alone in the city.”

“I’m glad you are here,” said Celebrían, grinning broadly. She set aside her plate of mostly-untouched food and went around the line of chairs to hug her parents. They returned her embrace fiercely, then sat down gracefully, in perfect sync.

“And Elrond?” Celeborn asked.

Galadriel smiled and shook her head, amused at something, though she did not say what.

“He went ahead with his plans to go riding,” said Celebrían. “I bade him farewell last night when he left Tirion, heading toward the mountains.”

Galadriel shook her head again, and Celebrían supposed it was at the choice her son-in-law had made; many of their close relatives and friends had urged Elrond to come to the tournament, and even to compete. When he had announced he was instead fleeing the city and plain on which the tournament was held, many had shaken their heads, their hearts full of foreboding.

Valinor was a place of healing—but some, especially those who had led the most tragic lives, often healed crookedly. They grew more distant and reserved, and often found their ways to Melian's forests and the realms of the other mighty Maiar, where they could learn ancient secrets and retreat from the ways and woes and memories of the world.

Many feared that Elrond, who had slowly but surely been pulling away from his loved ones, and those who sought to love him, was beginning that crooked healing.

Celebrían feared that most of all.

All she wanted was her husband back, and she feared that might be impossible.

What if I lose him? Celebrían wondered silently, the beginnings of despair once more trickling through her blood and running cold into her heart. What if he is already lost to me?

~*x*~

Elrond jousted four more times that day. The sport was not only one of skill and power, but also endurance; in the first couple of days of a large tournament, such as this one, each rider often jousted at least five times, if not more.

Only the first of his jousts—the one against Findis—was in the large arena. His later jousts were housed in lists behind and to the sides of the main arena, connected by walkways and avenues, but separated enough so as to not mingle the cries of the spectators. Elrond rode against lesser sons of lesser houses, to only minimal cheering—and that suited him just fine.

He won every one of his jousts easily. Only one of the Elves he rode against—the middle son of one of Gildor's nobles—managed to stay in the saddle after the first pass. He flew the second time, landing with a clatter and a crunch. He came up laughing.

“Never before have I ridden against someone who felt like a mumakil,” he said jovially, twisting his shield arm and shaking out his lance hand. “Well ridden indeed, sir,” he said, mounting his mare once more and riding over to Elrond. He put out a hand, which Elrond took, and shook it. “I look forward to watching you ride in the rest of this tournament…”

“Lîmrion,” Elrond supplied.

The boy smiled broadly. “Well met, Lîmrion,” he said. “I am Sadron. Best of luck to you in future bouts.”

“My thanks,” said Elrond, inclining slightly at the waist. Then he turned Avasath and rode away, breathing a slight sigh of relief.

Sadron had been born in Imladris—and Elrond himself had delivered him. Though he had spent most of his adulthood traveling with Gildor, the boy had been raised and trained in Rivendell. Elrond had been afraid that his guise would not stand the test of close inspection. Sadron did not seem any the wiser as to his true identity, however—and had been too young to know the Elf from whom Elrond had taken his identity's name.

Once his last round was finished, Elrond returned to the small tent allotted to him as a competitor, tired, sweaty, and ready for a bath and a chance to rest. He picketed Avasath outside, then went in to take off his armor and change into fresh clothes.

Glorfindel was waiting for him.

“Hello, Elrond,” the former Seneschal of Rivendell said. “Did you really think that I would not recognize you for who you were two seconds into the first joust, simply because you were wearing unmarked armor and a helm?”

Elrond grimaced, and removed said helm. His hair, cropped to his shoulders, clung to his neck and cheeks in sweaty strings, and plastered his forehead with dark strands.

“I had hoped that would be the case, yes,” Elrond replied, placing the helm on top of the small cot, on which Glorfindel was sitting.

Glorfindel snorted. “You forget, mellon nîn, that while it has been more than an Age since anyone else has seen you joust, I have ridden against you five times in the last year alone. I know your style, and your tricks.”

Elrond shook his head and fumbled for the clasps on his pauldrons. “I hope you were discreet with your recognition,” he said, pulling the pauldrons from his shoulders and dumping them beside his helm.

“Of course I was,” said Glorfindel. “Clearly you have your reasons for wanting to be unknown, even if I have no idea what those reasons might be.” He hesitated, then said, “What are your reasons?”

Elrond divested himself of his breastplate, which joined the rest of the armor on the cot, then leaned down to detach his greaves. “I did not want to be fawned over,” he said, looking up from where he was bent over double. “I wanted a chance to prove myself without anyone handing me anything on the simple principle that I am Elrond Peredhel.”

“No one would hand you a win,” Glorfindel protested, and it was Elrond's turn to snort.

“If you think that, then you have been utterly blind these last two months. Ever since we reached Valinor, everyone in my family has been trying to curry my favor, in one way or another. I would not put it past them to proclaim me the winner of this tournament simply in an attempt to make me happy.”

“They love you,” Glorfindel said, sounding somewhat defensive. “You should not begrudge them their attempts at earning your love in return.”

Elrond shook his head and straightened, greaves in hand. “They never loved me before,” he said darkly, “I don't know why now is any different.”

This was a sore and tricky topic—one that Glorfindel had touched on before. Elrond had been unwilling to listen to what Glorfindel had to say then, and he suspected it would be the same now.

“What of Celebrían?” Glorfindel asked. “Does she know?”

Elrond shook his head, fighting a slight blush. “No,” he said. “I mean to surprise her, later…”

Glorfindel chuckled. “She will either be delighted or furious,” he said, “and I am not sure which is more likely.”

“I hope delighted,” said Elrond. “Though even furious would be acceptable.”

That made Glorfindel frown. “How so?” he asked.

Elrond sighed and, pulling off his vambraces, sat down in the small, spindly chair situated by the low table. He was clad now only in his sweat-soaked under armour padding, tunic, breeches, and boots.

“There has been some...strain in our relationship, ever since my arrival,” he said. “Do not mistake me, I love her no less, and I want her in my life. But I feel...broken by the years since she sailed—by all the tragedies I have faced, the last of which she was not present for—” Glorfindel knew he spoke of Arwen, “—and I know not how to go about mourning and healing from what was lost, what was taken, what was ruined in me. And she does not know how to help me. She is trying, but…”

Glorfindel nodded. “I know,” he said, and Elrond supposed he did. Though Glorfindel had his own house just down the street from Elrond and Celebrían, he had spent much of the last two months with them. He had seen much, and guessed more, unless Elrond was very much mistaken. His former Seneschal was keen and wise, and there was little he missed.

“There is something missing in our marriage,” Elrond admitted heavily. “Something that has been missing since the Redhorn Pass: vitality, hope, joy. I had hoped to bring that back to her, to spark in her some excitement, to stop her from her ceaseless worrying over me and trying to figure out how to fix me. ” He sighed again. “Perhaps it was a foolish notion. But I thought that, if I could surprise her, then perhaps…”

Glorfindel smiled. “Perhaps not so foolish a notion,” he said, rising from the overburdened cot. “I will aid you as I can.”

“I must remain a secret,” Elrond said. “It must be a surprise for her that I am here.”

“I understand, my friend,” said Glorfindel. “I will keep your identity a secret.”

“Thank you.”

“But Lîmrion?” Glorfindel asked. “Are you sure that was the wisest choice in names?”

“I wanted to ride in his honor,” Elrond said. “And I thought it fitting, somehow. It was Lîmrion that saved Celebrían, ultimately, from the hands of the Orcs. And perhaps it will be Lîmrion who saves her—and me—again.”

Glorfindel smiled, crossing to the chair where Elrond sat. “You Peredhil are all so melodramatic,” he said, but he did so with fondness. He patted Elrond on the shoulder, then said, “I wish you well, Lîmrion.” He grinned. “I do not wish to draw attention to you, so I shall leave now. Until later, my friend,” he said, and walked out of the tent, closing the flap behind him.

Elrond stood and peeled off the under armor padding. Hanging it up, he then went about the task of hanging his armor on the stand beside the cot; he would clean and polish it later. Once his armor was mounted, Elrond took a brief moment to stretch, then he picked up curry, brush, and comb and went out to tend to Avasath.

He had bleached her forelegs from knee to hock, and carefully daubed more of the bleach onto her face, keeping it well away from her eyes and nose. She had snorted and stamped her hooves when he had first attempted it, tossing her head and whinnying in protest.

“Please, Avasath,” Elrond had said, straightening from where he had been kneeling by her right foreleg. It was night, the only light coming from the small fire Elrond had built in the shelter of a tree a mile outside of Tirion’s walls. “I know you detest being disguised—but please, my friend, for me?”

Avasath snorted and looked Elrond dead in the eye, unblinking and unwavering. No , she seemed to say.

“This is for Celebrían,” Elrond went on, cupping her chin with the hand not holding the pot of bleach. “I need…” Elrond trailed off, then rested his forehead against Avasath’s. “I need her,” he whispered to the mare, “and I do not know how to have her again. She is here, she is present, and I thank Eru for that. But she and I...it is as if we are existing in the same room but separated by glass. I cannot reach her, and she cannot reach me. She does not know how to reach me, or I her. I need to break that glass.”

Avasath snorted, and pulled away enough to look Elrond in the eye once more, as if to say, And this will help?

“This tournament is the key,” Elrond said. “With it, I may be able to bring a spark back into our relationship. I won’t just be the broken Peredhel in need of healing anymore. I’ll be her husband, who did something for her to surprise her. But in order to surprise her, I need to keep my identity a secret—and you, my friend, are too recognizable as you are. Celebrían will know you in a heartbeat—and I can’t bear to ride a different horse. So please, Avasath—for me? For Celebrían?”

Elrond knelt again, slowly this time, and scooped some of the bleaching paste onto his fingers. This time, when he moved to smear it along Avasath’s legs, she did not jerk or pull away—or even shift her stance.

“Thank you, mellon nîn,” Elrond said, smiling at his mare and patting her side with his free hand. “Thank you…”

He groomed her now, from nose to tail, taking extra time to curry her until she gleamed. “You did well today,” he murmured against her skin as he brushed, and, “Thank you, my friend,” as well as a dozen other soft nothings of gratitude and praise. Avasath basked in the attention, and in the grooming, and blew out a wad of spit when Elrond finished and put away the brushes.

Elrond laughed. “You are spoiled, my friend,” he said, patting her neck, and then he returned to his tent to gather up fresh clothes.

While most of the common folk made use of the public bath houses erected at the heart of the tent-city, Elrond knew that the nobility more commonly took their baths in the privacy of their own tents. This would—hopefully—keep him and his identity safe from prying eyes that would recognize him on sight. If he had had the choice, he too would have taken his bath in his own tent—but the small tent afforded to him had no tub, and even if he had found a way to acquire one, there was no way for him to fill it. So to the public bath house he went, trudging through the streets of the long-planned, long-built tent city arrayed across the Undead Plains.

The public bath house he retreated to was one of two at the heart of the camp, constructed from wood and mortar. It was crowded when he entered, the day’s competitors and spectators alike readying themselves for the evening’s feasts. He heard laughter and song and the cadence of friendly speech, alongside the smell of soap and steam and hot water. Elrond stood for a long moment in the atrium, watching the flow of Elves coming and going. At last, however, he steeled himself and walked into the locker room.

It was hot and steamy. The ground underfoot was stone, and row upon row of floor-to-ceiling cabinets made the room a maze. Elrond wandered around for a long moment, booted feet heavy on the stones, before he found an empty locker, the sliding door hanging open.

Elrond quickly stripped, folding his dirty clothes beneath the clean ones and placing his boots on the floor beneath the nearest bench, then he gathered his nerves and walked out of the locker room and into the bath house proper.

The bath house was made up of three interconnected rooms. Each room had a long, deep pool at its center, the water flowing in and out through grates on opposite sides. The pool in the first room was cool, the water in the second room warm, the water in the third hot. Soap and scrubbing sand sat in shallow dishes every few feet around the pools, and trays of shampoos and conditioners sat up on the lips. A ledge ran around the full length of each pool, a few inches beneath the ripple of the water, affording comfortable seating for those not wishing to stand or swim.

Elrond chose the third room—the one with the hot water and the fewest Elves. He sank down into it gratefully, foregoing the ledge for the deeper center of the pool, where he allowed himself to simply float, mostly submerged, for a long moment. He closed his eyes and tuned out the laughter and the song and the speech of the groups of friends all around him, and listened simply to his breath and to his heartbeat, to the soft shush of water against the stone sides of the pool, the gentle slap of waves against bare skin. He forced himself to relax, to let go of the tension in his shoulders and neck, to bleed out the anxiety cushioning his heart and stomach.

He drifted, only existing in the rush of his pulse and the whisper of air in his lungs. All will be well, he told himself. You will figure this out—somehow. Celebrían loves you, just as you love her. You will heal, just as she did, and all will be well. All will be well, all will be well, all will be well…

The moment ended, and Elrond opened his eyes, reality crashing back into mind and spirit. All might be well eventually, but right now he—and his relationship with his wife—was broken. They were broken, and though he hoped to begin to mend the broken bridge between them, he felt suddenly as if that hope was paltry and weak, born of desperation and despair.

Elrond returned to the edge of the pool and savagely began scrubbing his hair, then his body. He was clean in mere moments, his skin pink from the vigor of his washing, and he made to haul himself out of the pool and retreat back to the locker room and his towel and clean clothes.

A hand settling on his shoulder halted him. Elrond turned to see an older Elf kneeling on the edge of the pool, his eyes as silver as his hair. The stranger smiled kindly at him, then said, “You do know there is healing for you in Mandos’s Halls, do you not, friend?”

Elrond frowned. “What?” he began, only to fall silent with a fierce blush.

Elrond was not particularly uncomfortable with his body, but there was a reason he hated to be naked in front of others: throughout the years, he had collected more than his fair share of scars. While Elves rarely scarred—and when they did, it faded quickly and seamlessly—scar tissue grew much more readily and permanently on Half-elven skin. Even worse, he had once been the captive of a fallen Maia, Vorgod, who had taken the form of a great Orc captain. Using black and Orc magics, Vorgod had ensured that the numerous wounds he had inflicted had scarred much more brutally, painfully, and eternally than any normal laceration or abrasion. There were scars on the inside of his left forearm as well, criss-crossing and sweeping along the veins. Though they had since faded, and Elrond usually hid them easily enough beneath layers of clothing—the majority were on his chest and back, though there were some on his legs, buttocks, and arms—when he was naked they stood out, silver and white against his pale skin, easily visible to anyone who looked.

He had, for a moment, forgotten about his scars, and about his trepidation at bathing where others could see him. For a moment, he had been so lost in his thoughts about Celebrían, and about his marriage, that he had forgotten his discomfort with his own nakedness—had forgotten the danger of being noticed.

Now, however, he was brutally reminded.

“Friend?” the silver-eyed, silver-haired Elf said. “Are you well?”

“I am fine,” Elrond said gruffly, pulling away from the Elf’s touch and heaving himself out of the pool. “I do not intend to go to Mandos’s Halls now, or ever.” The words tasted like ash on his tongue. “But thank you for your kind suggestion.”

The Elf looked taken-aback at the vehemence in Elrond’s voice. He nodded, and moved back from Elrond’s personal space, saying, “I was merely trying to give advice.”

Unwanted and unwarranted advice, Elrond longed to snap—but he held his tongue. He was irritable because he was naked and his scars had been commented on, irritable because he was tired, and irritable because his life was nothing but one long, bleak hell. This Elf, for all his unwanted advice, did not deserve Elrond’s wrath or ire; he had, after all, been trying to help.

Instead he merely looked down upon the silver Elf and smiled faintly. “Have a good evening,” Elrond said.

The Elf started, looking surprised, then confused. “Do I know you?” he asked Elrond. “I feel as if I have seen your face before…”

“I doubt it,” said Elrond, turning quickly away. “Farewell.”

He all but fled back to the locker room. Once there, he dried himself off quickly and then dressed, gratefully pulling loincloth, tunic, and breeches on over his scarred skin, hiding them from view. Once again he looked no different from any other Elf of Nolofinwë’s or Lúthien’s descent.

The sun was setting by the time Elrond returned to his tent. Once there he dried and brushed his cropped hair, then changed again into finer clothes for the first night’s banquets. They were simply tailored, if well-made: soft, black breeches that tucked into knee-high, black boots; a deep blue, high-collared tunic embroidered with silver flowers; and a dark grey hood and mantle embroidered with the same silver flowers, that fell around Elrond’s shoulders and down his back, and hid his face and hair from view. He wore no jewelry save Vilya, visible on the forefinger of his right hand, and carried only a small, silver dagger on his belt.

After pausing by Avasath’s head to stroke her nose and murmur soft nothings by way of greeting and farewell, Elrond turned his feet toward the great feasting area erected on the western side of camp.

Hundreds of tables had been laid out in long rows beneath the darkening sky. Dozens of fire pits lay scattered throughout the field, adding their ruddy gold and red light to that emanating from the braziers at the ends of each table, and to the soft golden light falling from the thousands of candles arrayed across the field, in stands and sconces and jars. The tables that ringed the field were laden down with foods of every kind—succulent meats, crisp vegetables, ripe fruits, fluffy breads and flaky pastries, gossamer-thin spun sugar statuettes, puddings and pies and cakes—and already a hundred or more Elves meandered up and down the line of tables, filling plates and bowls with food before finding seats.

The high table was at the far end of the field. Rather than choosing their own food, the Elven nobility seated there were served on plates and platters edged with gold and silver, and their crystal goblets filled with wine sparkled in the firelight.

For a brief second, Elrond felt a pang of jealousy. He would like to be among them, listening to their talk and to their laughter, hearing their stories and judging their interactions, rather than standing here, alone, amid strangers.

He pushed away that pang. He had chosen to be alone for the time being. The benefit would far outweigh the pain—assuming it all went according to plan, of course. Even if it did not, however, he would not regret trying—would not let himself regret it, nor any moment of it.

Squaring his shoulders, Elrond went to find a plate.

Elrond sat at the end of a table near the edge of the field, where the firelight was dimmer. His plate was filled with food, and he carefully arranged his fork and knife and spoon, as well as a cup filled with water, around it. He hesitated, thanked Eru and the Valar for his food, then began to eat.

He was halfway through the three thin slices of venison when a dark-haired Noldo slid onto the bench across from him. “Do you mind?” the young Elf asked, still holding his plate and cutlery.

Elrond shook his head. “Not at all,” he said kindly, although that felt like a lie. He did mind, for all his pangs of loneliness.

The Elf set his things down and began to eat. “My name is Aearmagol,” he said, “eldest son of Maethorpeng, one of Turgon’s archer captains.”

“Well met, Aearmagol,” said Elrond. “I am Lîmrion.”

“Where are you from, Lîmrion?” Aearmagol asked, spearing a roasted pepper with his fork.

“Here and there,” said Elrond cagily. “I lived in Imladris for a time, before setting sail.”

“Ah, so you are from Middle-earth!” Aearmagol exclaimed, grinning. “I myself was born here in Valinor, during Middle-earth’s Second Age. How long have you been here?”

Elrond shrugged. “A while,” he lied.

“All the same,” Aearmagol said, “welcome. I hope your stay here has been good?”

“It has,” Elrond said, this time with honesty.

Another Elf slid onto the table’s bench, this time to Elrond’s right. She was honey-blonde haired, with startling green eyes and a thin, willowy figure.

“Lainrendis!” Aearmagol said brightly with a grin. “Welcome! This is Lîmrion. He is from Middle-earth, and from Imladris.”

Lainrendis perked up. “Imladris?” she asked. “I heard many tales of that great kingdom, and always wanted to visit—though of course I could not. Tell me about it—and tell me about her lord? The nobility all went half-mad when they heard he was sailing.”

Elrond fiddled with his fork uncomfortably. “He is well enough, I suppose,” he said. “He can be a bit aloof sometimes, though, and I would say his reputation is a bit over-blown. Imladris though...Imladris is—was—beautiful. Graceful but strong, quiet but kind, healing but not cloying or clinging.” Elrond sighed softly. “She was everything I wanted her to be.”

Aearmagol grinned and Lainrendis looked wistful. “I wish I could have seen it,” she said. “Perhaps one of Lord Elrond’s household is an artist though, and can sketch me a representation of it. When Lady Celebrían and her escort arrived, I asked around, but no one would tell me much—or could tell me much. Though, granted, she and her people kept to themselves for the first couple yén. Even her attendants were hard to find.”

Curious, Elrond asked, “Why is that?”

“Rumor has it that the Lady was badly wounded,” said Lainrendis, “and that that is why she sailed—that her husband could not heal her, and that she was fading.”

Guilt speared through Elrond. One of his worst failures in life was being unable to save Celebrían.

“They said she hid away while she healed,” Lainrendis went on. “That she did not want anyone to see her in her weakness and frailty.” Lainrendis sighed. “When she did start appearing, though…” She trailed off, and turned to Elrond. “Have you seen her?” she asked.

“No,” Elrond lied, curious as to where this was going.

“She is the most beautiful elleth you may ever see,” said Lainrendis. “She captures all of the beauty of the Sindar with all the strength of the Noldor and blends them perfectly together. Her hair is silver like moonlight, her eyes blue like sapphires.”

“Do you know her then?” Elrond asked.

Aearmagol laughed. “Nay,” he said. “She only wishes she does.”

“I met her,” Lainrendis protested. “Once.”

“She bumped into the Lady at a market,” Aearmagol explained.

Lainrendis rolled her eyes. “That’s more than you can say of any of the nobility,” she countered.

“I never said it wasn’t,” Aearmagol said, lifting his hands in protest, fork and knife still clutched in them.

His venison gone, Elrond swirled his salad around his plate for a moment, before taking a bite. The lettuce was full of crunch, the dressing sweet, the carrots and hard-boiled egg and onion giving the greens a snap of flavor.

“And what of you, Lîmrion?” Lainrendis asked. “Have you met any nobility?”

Elrond had to hide a smile. “I’ve met Lord Glorfindel,” he said, “as well as a few others of the Elven nobility that resided in Imladris, like Gildor. Most everyone who lived there long enough did.”

“What were they like?” Aearmagol asked, leaning forward on his bench, forgetting his food for a moment. “Most of them came with Lord Elrond when he sailed, did they not?”

Elrond nodded beneath his hood. “Most of his house came, yes,” he said. “As to what they are like—noble, and kind, and wise. I could not have asked for better.”

Aearmagol snorted. “You have kinder things to say about the lords than the Lord himself,” he pointed out. “Did you have some issue with Lord Elrond?”

“Not exactly,” Elrond said. “Nothing personal. I simply do not hold him in high regard.”

“You are the only one, then,” said Lainrendis, starting in on her salad as well. “From what I’ve heard, he was one of the most beloved rulers of Middle-earth.”

“He was one of the only rulers of Middle-earth,” Elrond pointed out.

Lainrendis shook her head. “I think you mistake my point,” she said. “Most of the Elves who served under Lord Elrond have decided to swear their oaths of fealty anew to him , regardless of who their first king or prince was. Most, when they sail, revert back to their initial loyalties—unless they are one of Lord Elrond’s subjects. Then they remain with him.”

Elrond frowned. “But Elrond has a House no longer,” he said. “He has a home in Tirion, but most of his followers have dispersed.”

“Have you not heard of the Valley of Élengail?” Aearmagol asked.

“Élengail?” Elrond asked. “The Valley of Bright Starlight? No. Why? What is it?”

“It is the new House that the Lady Celebrían built for her husband and his people,” said Lainrendis.

A flash of hot, then cold, sprinted through Elrond from crown to toes. Why had Celebrían never mentioned this to him? Why was he only now finding out about it? Why was he being told by two commoners rather than—well, his wife, who had apparently built it?

“How do you know this?” Elrond asked softly. “Where did you hear of it?”

“It’s common knowledge,” said Aearmagol. “Many Elves have already lived there for a couple of yén, awaiting and readying for his arrival.”

Elrond shook his head, dumbfounded. “I see,” was all he said, however.

“You do not sound pleased,” said Lainrendis. “Do you really dislike Lord Elrond so much?”

“It is not that,” said Elrond gruffly. Then he rose, abandoning his only half-eaten plate of food. “Excuse me,” he said, and slid away from the table. He paused a few steps away, turned, and bowed. “It was lovely to meet the both of you,” he said, first to Aearmagol then to Lainrendis. “And thank you. You have given me much to think about.” With that he turned and strode away.

He returned to his tent. It was dark, and the moon had yet to rise, leaving the only light to come from the fires burning in the braziers every dozen steps. Elrond patted Avasath as he passed, promising to get her her dinner soon, and pushed open his tent flap. He pulled off his hood and crossed to the washbasin standing on the small, fragile bedside table. He splashed his face with water, hands lingering against his face. He was trembling, he realized.

All he wanted to was to fade into obscurity, with his wife by his side and his friends near enough to have dinner with every so often. Yet his family—all of them, every single damn branch of them—seemed determined to include him in their drama, both political and personal. And now he had come to find out that even his own people intended to continue following him, with him as their lord?

Why? he wondered, leaning down to brace his hands on the table to either side of the basin. Why would they want to? He was only the lesser son of greater houses, the scion they could latch onto until their return to their rightful lords. He paled in comparison to Fingolfin, to Fingon, to Turgon, to Thingol and Melian, to Dior.

More than that, he did not deserve their love and fealty. All he had done in his life was bring wrath and ruin upon those he loved. Everyone he had cared about had suffered in some way—had been killed, or died, or forced to flee from Middle-earth to find healing in Aman. He had failed more times than he could count—and how many times had he succeeded? Twice? He had founded Rivendell, a place of healing and of beauty; and he had raised four noble and kind and strong children—though one of them had chosen the path of Mortality, just as his brother had, and one of them was Mortal. He had lost Arwen, as well as Estel, just as he had lost Elros, just as he had lost Maedhros and Maglor, Elwing and Eärendil, Gil-galad, and so, so, so many others. Just how many had he had been unable to save, from Orcs, from illness, from themselves? More than he could count.

So how could he deserve love and fealty? Why did he deserve it? Why would anyone want to give it—give it to a lesser son of greater houses, who had only been a placeholder until they could return to their rightful rulers?

A light flared behind him, and a woman said coldly, “Hello, Elrond.” Elrond whirled.

It was Celebrían.