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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

“What are you doing here?” Elrond asked.

“I should be asking you the same thing,” said Celebrían. She was angry; Elrond could hear it in her voice, could see it in the stiffness of her shoulders and the jut of her chin. She sat in the same spindly chair Elrond had sat in earlier that day, when talking to Glorfindel, a candle in one hand. “I thought you went out riding.”

“I did,” said Elrond. “I was. Sort of…”

“Why are you here?” Celebrían asked. Her words were iron and ice.

Elrond slumped down onto the cot. “I wanted to surprise you,” he said, burying his face in his hands. This was not going at all according to plan. “I know you love tournaments, and you have mentioned a few times the desire to see me ride in one.”

Celebrían set the candle on the table and leaned forward. “Then why did you say nothing to me about it?” she asked. “I can hardly enjoy watching you ride in one if I don’t even know it is you.”

“I wanted to surprise you,” said Elrond. “I thought...I thought—” He stopped. “It doesn’t matter what I thought.”

“Why?” Celebrían asked again. “Why did you lie to me, and go behind my back? I came here to ask Lîmrion why he had not come to tell me he was reembodied, and instead I find my husband hiding from me. Why, Elrond?”

“Because there is something wrong between us,” Elrond snapped at last, hands falling from his face. He stared at Celebrían, slate silver eyes meeting sapphire blue. “Because that spark of longing and love and excitement and joy is gone in our marriage. And I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, this surprise could reignite that spark.”

Celebrían opened her mouth to argue more, then snapped it shut. “Oh,” was all she said at last. She looked at him silently for a long time. “Then you were really doing it for me?” she asked. “For us? Not just for yourself?”

“No,” Elrond said.

“Oh,” Celebrían said again. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then she rose and crossed over to the cot where Elrond sat, and knelt in front of him. Taking his hands in hers—and feeling their trembling—she squeezed gently. “I love you, Elrond,” she said. “You do know that, do you not?”

“I know that,” said Elrond tiredly. “But you cannot deny that there is something wrong in our marriage.”

Celebrían reached up with her right hand and cupped Elrond’s cheek. “There is,” she admitted softly. “But I do not think it is something that we cannot fix.”

“How?” Elrond asked.

“With time,” said Celebrían. “And healing.”

Elrond scoffed and pulled away. “Is that your answer to everything?” he asked. “Healing?”

“Is there something wrong with that?” Celebrían asked.

“No,” Elrond said. Then, “Yes,” he snarled.

Celebrían looked taken aback. “And why is that?”

“Because I can’t heal,” said Elrond. Then, softer, he added, “Because I don’t deserve to heal.”

This time Celebrían took Elrond’s face in both hands, turning his eyes up to meet hers. “Everyone deserves to heal, Elrond Peredhel,” she said firmly, willing him to believe it. “I did—and so do you.”

Elrond shook his head against her hands. “But I lost—I failed—so many. My brokenness is of my own doing, no one and nothing else’s.”

“You are wrong,” Celebrían said bluntly. “None of your hurt is of your own making. It was all things done to you, or done around you. Your pain is the consequence of others’ thoughts, actions, and deeds.”

“And because of my failures.”

“Such as?”

Elrond bit his tongue. Such as you, he could say, but he had never confessed to his wife that he saw his failure to heal her as a personal failing. He was not sure how she would react to such knowledge.

“That’s what I thought,” said Celebrían. She rose, dropping her hands from his face, and sat down on the cot beside him. “You deserve all the healing in the world, my love,” she said, once more taking his hands in hers. “You deserve all the love, all the care, all the loyalty and adoration that Aman can afford you.”

Elrond turned to look at her. “All I want is you,” he said softly, freeing one hand and reaching up to brush her cheek with his forefinger.

“And you have me,” said Celebrían. “I will never again stray from your side, Elrond Peredhel. Ever.”

Elrond smiled, though the gesture was sad and forlorn—and then leaned in to kiss Celebrían. She met him halfway, lips opening against his, tongue sliding into his mouth as she deepened the kiss. Elrond lifted a hand to cup her face, and Celebrían pressed herself closer to her husband, narrowing the space between them, her own hands coming up to grip the front of his tunic.

They broke apart after a long moment. Celebrían was smiling, and Elrond’s lips were curled up at the edges, although there was still something distant and sad in his eyes.

“Elrond,” Celebrían said, flattening her palms against his chest, seeing that he was no longer looking at her, but at something far distant. “Elrond, come back to me. Please…”

Elrond blinked—and abruptly, and to Celebrían’s alarm, began to weep.

“Why?” he begged her in a hoarse voice. “Why?”

What he was asking for, Celebrían did not know.

“Elrond,” she murmured, sliding her hands up his chest to cup his chin and cheeks once more. “Elrond, my love,” she said, and leaning forward, kissed away his tears. “Tell me, what hurts?”

Elrond leaned into her touch, lifting his own hands to press them against hers. “I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t save any of them. And yet people still feign to love me. Why? Why? Why even pretend? Just let me fade already, dammit.”

Shock coursed through Celebrían. “You do not mean that,” she chastised gently, after a moment in which she battled away sudden fear for her husband. “Elrond…”

“What life is there left to live?” Elrond asked. “I’ve lost everything and everyone I loved, in one form or another. I have you back now—but how long until something else happens, and you are ripped away from me yet again? How long until a fresh hell happens upon me? I cannot bear another tragedy, Celebrían—I cannot. Would it not be better to simply fade away to nothing? To become a ghost in Mandos’s Halls?”

“You are in Aman now,” said Celebrían. “The pain and devastation and loss and tragedy have come to an end. Now is the time for healing, for reparation, for hope and joy and life.”

But Elrond shook his head. “Such is not my lot.”

“It is now,” said Celebrían fiercely. “I will make it so, if I must go petition Manwë himself to intervene on your behalf.”

Elrond was silent for a terribly long moment. His weeping ceased slowly, and Celebrían rubbed one thumb up and down his jaw in a soothing gesture.

“How?” Elrond asked at last, once his tears were dry. “How do I heal from this—from everything?”

“You let me help you,” said Celebrían softly.

“How?” Elrond asked again.

“Let me love you,” said Celebrían. “Let me guide you. Let me show you that love and hope and light are not gone from your life.”

“I want to believe that,” said Elrond quietly.

“Let me show you,” said Celebrían.

She slid her right hand beneath the waistband of Elrond’s breeches, then into his loincloth. She ran the palm of her hand up and down the length of his cock, and Elrond shuddered—then caught her wrist, halting her.

“Do you not want this?” Celebrían asked, surprised.

“I do,” said Elrond, not quite meeting her eyes. “But I don’t deserve this.”

“And why not?” Celebrían asked, her hand still cupping his cock.

“Because—á ercat, Celebrían. I lost our daughter. And I might have lost our sons too.”

“It was Arwen’s choice,” said Celebrían, “just as it will be Elladan’s and Elrohir’s. I knew when I married you that, if we were to have children, this was a possible eventuality. You cannot blame yourself, or begrudge yourself for the sake of their happiness.”

“I failed so many others too, though,” said Elrond. “So many died on my watch and under my care.”

“And you saved countless others,” Celebrían rejoined. “You brought so much new life into this world, forestalled so much life from leaving it, brought so much healing and hope to those who had none—to those who had lost theirs. You were light, bright and shining, in a sea of darkness. You were a bulwark against the shadows, and a fortress against despair and death.”

“But I failed,” Elrond insisted. “I failed Elros, and Maedhros and Maglor, and Ereinion, and...and you. Eru, Celebrían, I failed you. How can you ever forgive me for that? How can you even look me in the eye, let alone want any closeness with me? I damned you, and—”

Celebrian leaned forward and silenced Elrond with a savage kiss. He resisted, not fighting her but not kissing her in return either—until she pulled back just enough to whisper to him, “Do you love me?”

“Yes,” Elrond replied.

“Then kiss me.” Celebrían reached up and gripped Elrond’s face, her eyes boring into his. “Then kiss me,” she ordered.

Elrond kissed her, gently at first, chaste and sweet and barely daring. Then she cupped the back of his head with one hand and drew his mouth harder against hers, forcing open his lips and tasting his teeth and tongue. The kiss grew firmer and more demanding, hungrier and more needy—until, at last, he was kissing her with as much vigor as she was kissing him.

He needs this, Celebrían realized, though she had already suspected as much. He needs this even more than I do.

He had gone so long without touch, without companionship, without intimacy—had gone so long without hope, without anything but duty and demand keeping him moving forward—that Celebrían reasoned he had likely stripped himself of the belief that he deserved those things: touch, companionship, intimacy.

He had said as much, had he not? That he blamed himself so wholly and so entirely for the tragedies that had befallen him throughout the Ages that he did not deserve intimacy and love?

Celebrían dropped her hands to the button on his breeches. With a twist and a pull she undid it, and slid both of her hands into his pants once more. He groaned at her touch, and for a second she felt his hands flutter against her wrists, ready to halt her again.

“Do you trust me?” Celebrían asked him, lips still pressed against his.

“Yes,” Elrond said hoarsely.

“Then trust me when I tell you this: that you deserve my love—and my body, even—when it is freely given. And I give it freely right now, with all the desire of my heart.”

Elrond groaned again—but did not resist when Celebrían gently pushed him down onto the cot with one freed hand, the other stroking his shaft beneath his loincloth. He lay down, dark hair spreading across the pillow beneath his head, silver eyes wide with desire, with trust, with desperation, with love.

Celebrían pulled his pants and loincloth over his hips, and he kicked the clothing off of his ankles. Then she gathered the skirt of her own dress in hand and dragged it up and over her head. She dropped it to the barren earth beside the cot, then undid her breastband and hooked her thumbs in the sides of her underwear, drawing them down her legs as well.

She sat on his hips, naked in the dim candlelight, her only crown her silver hair. For a long second, Celebrían allowed him to simply admire her—drink in the sight of her, as he so clearly wanted to—then she leaned forward to undo the laces on his tunic. She pulled the collar open and ran a hand down his chest, fingertips trailing from skin to cloth and making him shiver. He half-rose, and Celebrían gathered the hem of the tunic in her hands and drew it over his head, depositing it onto the ground along with her dress and underclothes.

Celebrían lay down on top of him, pressing her chest against his and fitting her hips into the narrow V of his legs, his hardened cock pressing into her lower belly. “Do you love me?” Celebrían asked.

“Yes,” said Elrond, and Celebrían kissed his chin, his jaw, his throat.

“Do you trust me?” Celebrían asked again.

“Yes,” said Elrond. “More than anyone.”

“Give me your hands,” Celebrían ordered, and Elrond obeyed. She placed his palms on her breasts as she sat up, shifting so that she was kneeling over his cock. Meeting his eyes, she smiled—and slid onto him.

She cried out as he filled her, a rush of relief and joy spearing through her: relief that this was happening again, at long last; and joy at the union that had been so long denied them. It had been so long—so very, very long—since she had been joined with her husband in this way, that she had nearly forgotten just how it felt—just what it meant. In this moment, in this second, they were one, in a way that had been denied them for over 500 years. It was a uniting of their fëar as well as of their bodies, a unification of spirit and flesh that transcended any other.

Celebrían shifted her hips, sinking deeper onto her husband’s cock, eliciting a groan from him. For a second she was still, holding his hands to her breasts, merely bearing down upon him. Then she began to move, riding first with slow, purposeful movements that made him grind his teeth and whimper deep in his throat, then faster—then faster still, until he groaned again.

He came quickly. Celebrían felt his release within her, and she smiled to herself; she had nearly been undone as well—nearly, but not quite. She pulled off of him, then climbed up his body until she was half-lying on his chest, and lying half-propped up on one elbow on the cot’s edge. His hands were still on her breasts, to Celebrían’s delight; she liked the feel of his calloused hands against her skin, the cool pads of his fingers against her nipples. Even as she thought that, she felt him take one of them in his fingers and roll it gently between them, causing her to shudder.

“Two can play at this game,” Elrond told her with a small smile. Then, very suddenly, Celebrían found herself dumped on her back on top of the cot, Elrond rolling over so that he was lying above her, holding himself up with his hands to either side of her body.

He leaned down, capturing her lips with his, and moved one knee between her legs to open them wider. Celebrían obliged. Elrond sat back, and a second later, she felt his fingers—long, thin, deft, and cool—slide into her wet folds. He toyed with her for a long moment, stroking and rolling and pinching gently, before sliding a single finger into her body. He pumped in and out once, twice, three times—then a second finger joined the first. Celebrían groaned, arching her back and thrusting her hips forward, pushing against his hand.

“Faster,” she begged in a breathy voice. “Faster, please. I want…”

“I know what you want,” Elrond said with a small smile. His left hand trailed down her stomach, causing her to shiver, until he reached the dark strands of her hair. He played with it for a moment, still pumping in and out with his two fingers, before sinking his left forefinger into her folds to find her clit.

Celebrían gasped in pleasure as he at once rubbed her clit and pumped steadily in and out of her. She grasped at the thin sheets covering the cot, fighting to keep from grinding herself against her husband’s hands. She was close...so close…

She came with a cry. The orgasm unspooled in her body, filling her with warmth and release and pleasure all at once. For a long moment, it felt as if her skin was too small to contain her body—her paper-thin flesh too frail to withhold the burning of her fëa, so complete and whole and unburdened was she.

It was only when the high of her orgasm had faded, her fëa sinking back into her blood and bones once more, that Celebrían saw Elrond sitting on the edge of the cot.

Celebrían sat up, and swung her feet down to the floor beside him. Reaching out, she took his right hand in hers, and squeezed gently.

“What is it, meleth nîn?” she asked.

“I shouldn’t have— I mean, it’s not that we shouldn’t have—we are married after all—but…”

“But what?”

“But how dare I do that to you?” Elrond asked. He refused to look at her.

“Do what to me?”

“Hurt you like that.”

Celebrían laughed. “You hardly hurt me, Elrond,” she said. “Quite the opposite in fact.”

“But,” Elrond floundered, clearly trying to say something. The words, it seemed to Celebrían, were simply getting stuck in his teeth and in his throat. “But I’m unworthy of you,” he said at last. “I’ve sullied you now—I, who have already damned you and cursed you, have tarnished your body irreparably.”

“We’re married, Elrond,” said Celebrían dryly. “You’ve “tarnished” me already. Many times. Many glorious and memorable times.”

Elrond unclasped his hands from his lap and stared at them now, holding them before his face. They were trembling.

“What wrath and ruin these hands have wrought, though,” Elrond said. “What pain and death.”

“And also what life,” said Celebrían, reaching out to touch the knuckles of his right hand.

Elrond jumped at her touch, then pulled away. He stood abruptly. “I must feed Avasath,” he said, and stooped to pull on his breeches. Then he was gone, the tent flap falling down behind him, hiding him from view.

Would he come back?

Celebrían could only hope so.

~*x*~

Elrond stood at Avasath’s head, stroking her neck thoughtfully as she ate, the crunch of oats between her teeth loud in the near-silence of the night. There seemed to be no one around—everyone was still at the feast, Elrond supposed—and that suited him just fine. He wanted—needed—time alone, to think and consider and reflect on what had just happened.

He had meant what he told Celebrían. He had hurt her, in some form or fashion, surely—had he not? He was ruined, a broken and tarnished shell of the man he had once been. There was nothing left to him but pain and misery, nothing but heartache and heartbreak. He did not deserve Celebrían’s love, or her intimacy—and, worse, by sharing in that with her, did he not inflict his own brokenness upon her?

“Oh, Avasath,” Elrond murmured, pressing his forehead against her sleek neck, “what have I done?”

Celebrían did not seem to think that he had harmed her—that he had inflicted anything but pleasure upon her. But by joining with him, in body and in fëa, how could her soul not have been stained by his? The coupling made them one—and now she had been made one with someone wholly, utterly, and entirely destroyed.

It would be better for him to leave, to flee to Melian’s forests or, perhaps, to Mandos himself, in spite of what he had told the old Elf in the bath house. If he died, and refused to be reembodied, then Celebrían would be free to remarry—to find joy once again, in someone and something other than his shattered and withered heart. Would that not be better for her? Would that not be the kind and gracious thing—the loving thing—to do?

He could do it. He would do it. He would kill himself—cast himself from a cliff, or take a scalpel to his forearm as he had done once centuries ago, or...

There came from behind Elrond the rustle of footsteps and the swish of a robe against the grass. He straightened and turned, regretting not grabbing his tunic as well—and found himself face-to-face with a tall and terrible man with long, slightly curling black hair and eyes blacker than the night. His skin was unnaturally pale, and his broad shoulders were hidden beneath a robe as dark as shadow but embroidered with intricate silver threads. His brow was high, his chin pointed, his cheekbones pronounced, his lips full and grey.

Elrond collapsed to his knees, bowing his head. He knew who was standing before him—knew it in the song in his blood, in the ache of his bones, in the roaring in his head.

Námo.

“My lord,” Elrond gasped.

“Rise, child,” said Námo. His voice was thunder and the crack of mountain roots, the darkness of Ages deep, and the terror of futures unseen and unspoken.

Elrond rose.

“What can I do to serve you, my lord?” Elrond asked, keeping his head bowed.

“What is it you want, Elrond Peredhel?” Námo asked by way of answer. His voice was terrible, but there was a strain of something soft to it—something heartwrenching, something wrending. Something kind.

Elrond chanced a glance up at the Vala. He was looking down at Elrond with face impassive and unreadable, but his eyes were surprisingly warm. Elrond had expected them to be cold and empty, dark and eternal like the Void—and dark and eternal they were, but burdened with empathy.

“What is it you want, my child?” Námo asked again.

Elrond opened his mouth, then closed it again.

What did he want? He wanted freedom from this pain. He wanted the darkness to peel away and for the day to shine through. He wanted to forget his sorrows, his agonies, his heartaches and heartbreaks. He wanted to escape.

Looking down at the ground, he at last said softly, “I want to die.”

“That is what you think you want,” said Námo. “What is it you truly want?”

Silence—a long, terrible moment of silence. Then, even softer, Elrond whispered, “I want the pain to cease. I want to stop feeling as if I am shattered, as if I am standing on two broken legs, as if I am clinging to a cliff wall with bloody and cracked fingernails. I want...I want to feel whole again—if I ever did.”

A hand fell on Elrond’s bowed head. He did not look up, but Elrond knew that it was Námo’s.

“Come with me then, my child,” said Námo. “You will find your healing in my Halls.”

That was what he wanted, was it not? That was what he had just been considering: fleeing to Mandos’s Halls. Yet something—something dark and small and violent—rebelled in him at the thought of leaving, of following Námo away, of abandoning everything for the sake of the Halls.

It was Elrond’s Ages-old instinct to fight to survive, sharp and biting and pressing. No, it shrieked. No, you cannot give in. To do so would be weak, would be cowardly, would be unforgivable. You must continue to fight.

But how much longer can I fight? Elrond asked himself. I am utterly ruined, standing on two broken legs, clinging with bloody and broken nails. Why cannot you just let me give in for once and accept the easy way out?

And what of Celebrían? another voice asked. You would refuse reembodiment for her—but would she ever truly move on from you?

Finwë moved on from Míriel, Elrond told himself.

And look where that landed history.

“Is there any way for me to heal without coming with you?” Elrond asked, looking at the ground, surprising himself.

Through the hand on his head, Elrond could feel Námo smile.

“Yes,” said Námo.

“How?”

“If you will not come to seek the healing of your fëa with me, child, then you must let your wife aid you. She is bonded to you. You are one. You can not corrupt her, you cannot damage her, save by damaging yourself.”

“Will I hurt her, if I were to go with you?” Elrond asked.

The hand moved from his head and tucked beneath his chin, lifting Elrond’s head until his eyes met Námo’s. “Yes,” Námo said bluntly. “And she is not the only one.”

Elrond swallowed thickly. “I do not wish to hurt her,” he said. “Above all else, I do not wish to hurt her. I would bear a thousand tortures before I inflicted any more pain upon my wife.”

He blinked, and tears filled his eyes for the second time that night. “But please, my lord—I cannot bear this much longer. I cannot. I will surely break. Tell me, please: do I have hope?”

“All who reside here have hope,” said Námo. “Such is the way of this land.”

Elrond pulled away from Námo’s touch and turned, hunching his bare shoulders against the chill of the night air and the Vala’s gaze. “So they say,” Elrond said bitterly—before suddenly remembering to whom he was speaking. Turning again, he fell to his knees and bowed his head. “Forgive me, my lord,” he said quickly, “I meant no offense—”

“None was received,” said Námo. With a flourish of his robes, he knelt in front of Elrond, and once more tucked his hand beneath Elrond’s chin, lifting his face to meet his eyes. “I have looked into your future,” Námo said then, “and I will give you a gift I have given only a few.”

Elrond stared at him, eyes wide and breath stilled in his throat and mouth.

“In your future, I saw sunlight, bright and brilliant and golden. I saw a hidden valley full of those would would follow you unto death, a silver-crowned elleth at your side. I saw love, and joy, and peace, and above all, healing.

“But I also saw a path of darkness. I saw despair, and endless wandering. I saw shackles formed by fear and desperation. I saw desolation, and a barren plain from whence there was no escape. I saw judgment, and paranoia, and loneliness. I saw only stunted healing, twisted and broken and warped, never complete, always ravenous, always hunting for something to fill the void within you.

“Which future is yours depends on what now you choose—what you decide, in this very moment.”

“And which choice will lead to Celebrían’s greatest joy?” Elrond asked.

Námo smiled a terrible smile. “That I will not tell you.”

Elrond looked skyward, his eyes falling on the stars.

What did he choose? If he chose wrong, he would doom himself to a life of misery and despair for no reason, a life of half-healing and stunted regrowth. If he chose wrong, he would damn Celebrían as well.

She was bound to him, just as Námo had said. Did that then mean that he would damage her by damaging himself? And if he did damage himself—and consigning himself to a life of fear and desolation, of shackles and tomb-like plains, would be damaging himself—would he not be consigning her to that same life of fear and desolation, of shackles and tomb-like plains?

So what did he choose? Did he choose to stay in the hopes that Celebrían would be able to guide him in his healing? Would be able to show him how to unwind his broken path and straighten out his crooked spine?

Or did he go to the Halls of Mandos in the hopes that Celebrían would be able to once more live a life of joy, free of the burden that he was? For if he went to the Halls, Elrond had no intention of returning.

Námo had said that going to his Halls would hurt Celebrían, though. Would that be the beginning of the end? Or would that be the start of healing for her, even if not for him?

Would her pain be fleeting? Or would it be all-consuming?

“Have made your decision?” Námo asked.

Elrond was fairly certain that he knew which choice would lead to which outcome that Námo had professed—was certain, at least, that his choice to go to the Halls, and therefore to stay in the Halls, would lead to the second one. But which choice would bring Celebrían the most joy?

If he were to heal, then she would be joyous and complete. She would not be bereft of him, or suffer the wounding of their parting. She would not have to overcome his loss, or move on from him.

Did he therefore dare to risk it? Did he dare to risk everything on the hopes that the first outcome—the light, the sun, the joy for both he and Celebrían—was certain?

Was he brave enough, still, and strong enough—and willing enough to fight—that he would risk all for the possibility of joy for them both?

Elrond’s shoulders slumped. “Yes,” he said softly, making up his mind. He did not know if he was brave, or strong, or willing to fight, but for Celebrían? For Celebrían, who would be hurt by their parting? For Celebrían, who wanted to share her heart and her bed with him? For Celebrían, who he loved more than life itself? For Celebrían, he would try. “Yes. I have made up my mind.

“I...I will remain.”

“Very well,” said Námo. He bent, and to Elrond’s surprise, kissed him on the forehead. “Remember what I told you, Elrond, Lúthienion,” he said. “Allow your wife to aid you—she can, and she will, if you allow her. You will not break her with your sorrows, nor damage her with your pain.” Námo straightened. “Farewell now, Elrond. Until our next meeting.”

Elrond blinked—and Námo was gone.

Elrond sank to the ground, boneless and weary. He had met the Vala once before, when Elrond and Elros had been summoned before the Valar for their Mortality or Immortality to be pronounced. Though Mandos had spoken to him then, it had not been a private, personal conversation.

To be the subject of the Vala’s intense focus was overwhelming and draining—the topic of their conversation even more so. Elrond felt as if all of his energy had been sucked from his body, his strength sapped and his vigor swallowed. He felt empty and barren, his skin hollow and scraped thin.

Avasath nudged him, having finished her meal. She whickered gently, questioning.

“I am well,” said Elrond hoarsely, petting her cheek. “I am well…”

Was he, though?

He had nearly killed himself. He would have, if he had been given the chance—if Námo had not come. Had that been Námo’s purpose for coming? To convince him not to do so? Had Námo known he would not go with him to his Halls? Or had he come to genuinely give Elrond the choice of whether or not to leave?

Elrond shuddered and stood.

He had made his choice. He had decided not to go to Mandos’s Halls—and now he had to face the consequences of that choice. He had to face Celebrían. He had to—what? Heal? Move on? Get better?

But how?

“Allow your wife to aid you—she can, and she will, if you allow her,” Námo had said.

But how? Elrond wondered, turning back toward his tent.

By letting her love you, a voice whispered in his mind, just as she told you.

I will hurt her, Elrond thought, despairing and desperate.

Námo said you would not, another voice rejoined. And is Námo not the Doomsman of the Valar, privy to knowledge of the future more than any other being, save Ilúvatar Himself? Would not Námo know if Elrond would destroy his wife with his burdens?

Trust her, a shard of Elrond’s heart, which he had heretofore been ignoring—been quashing and crushing, smothering and destroying—wailed. Trust her, and let her help you!

What other choice did he have? What other option was left to him? He had refused healing in Mandos’s Halls, had turned his back on death.What was left to him, other than going to Celebrían and allowing her to try to heal him?

I cannot do this on my own, Elrond thought. I need help. And was not Celebrían bonded to him? Was she not part of him, in a way that no one else was? Was she not entwined with his fëa, a half of his whole?

Who else, but her, could help him heal?

Had that not been his goal in joining the tournament, in any case? Had he not been doing it in an attempt to seek healing and rejuvenation in their marriage? And what was more broken in him than the jagged wound Celebrían had left when she had been attacked, and then when she had sailed?

Go to her, the crushed voice wailed at him. Let her love you. Let her help you. Let her help you heal.

Elrond knew what he had to do.

He did not return to the tent with shoulders squared or chin lifted; he did not return strong and determined, ready to face and fight. But he did return: to the tent. To the light.

To Celebrían.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

They lay together on the cot in Elrond’s tent, the single candle Celebrían had lit guttering low on the table. Shadows danced wildly on the canvas walls, fantastic and crazed. Silence stretched between them, heavy and expectant, unbroken but full of words that needed to be said.

Celebrían traced the scars on Elrond’s left forearm with her fingertips, running her nails up and down and over the ridged skin once, twice, a hundred times.

“What are these?” she had asked when she found them, shortly after they settled into his cot together.

“What are what?” Elrond asked, looking down at her and at her hand, splayed across the inside of his forearm.

“These scars,” Celebrían said, shifting her hand to trail one finger down the longest and largest of them. It followed the path of his major vein almost perfectly.

“Oh,” Elrond said stiffy. “Those.” He hesitated, then said, “I was wounded shortly after you sailed. Glorfindel found and saved me from dying, though he was not skilled enough to keep the wounds from scarring—and by the time I was well enough to heal myself, the scar tissue had already begun to grow.”

“What happened?” Celebrían asked. “These seem…” She trailed off, then looked up at him with wide eyes. “Please, Elrond,” she whispered, “tell me you did not.”

“I was drunk, and hurting,” Elrond said. “It was right after I returned from seeing you to the ship. Elladan and Elrohir were out hunting Orcs, and Arwen was with her grandmother. There was a scalpel, and…” He fell silent. “As I said, Glorfindel found me. He and Erestor were the only two who knew—are the only two who know, save for Estel. And a few of the Maiar and Valar. They cared for me until I was well enough to heal myself. Everyone in the House simply thought I was in mourning—which I suppose I was,” he added darkly.

“Promise me,” Celebrían said. “Promise me you will never try something like that again.”

Elrond sighed, and bowed his head against Celebrían’s, pressing his forehead against her hair. “I promise,” he whispered. He did not tell her how close he had come that very night to repeating the past.

“I am sorry,” Celebrían said at last, turning her face up to look at her husband.

“It was not your fault,” said Elrond.

Celebrían shook her head. “It was my choice—”

“That you had to make—that you had every right to make—for yourself,” said Elrond. “I do not begrudge you that, or fault you for it. I am glad you made the choice you made, meleth.”

“But you...you almost killed yourself because of it,” Celebrían said.

“And I would have done the same had you died,” Elrond said calmly. “If you want to blame anyone, blame the Orcs who attacked and hurt you.”

Abruptly, Celebrían laughed.

“What?” Elrond asked, confused.

“It is just funny—and ironic,” said Celebrían.

“What is?”

“You are so adamant that your suffering is not my fault, but that I am to blame the Orcs who caused my pain and suffering—and yet less than an hour ago you were stating that all of your pain was your own fault.”

Elrond fell silent. “I suppose I can see the hypocrisy,” he said at last, softly.

Celebrían hummed—then turned in Elrond’s arms to face him. “I know we just finished a couple of hours ago,” she said, “but I...I missed you, El. I missed you, and I missed our coupling—and though you have been here with me, in my bed and in my heart these last two months, you have not been in me . I want to feel you in me again—I want to know you are here, and safe, and really, truly alive and in my arms.”

He had scared her. He realized that suddenly, with a lightning bolt of clarity. She had not realized how close he had come to death while she was away—and she only knew of the one instance where he had nearly died, though that was the only one of his own making—and now she wanted confirmation that he was here. That he was alive. That he was healthy. That he was hers.

Elrond leaned down and kissed her. “If that is what you want,” he said, pulling back a fraction of an inch.

“It is,” said Celebrían seriously.

Remember what Námo said, Elrond told himself, leaning in to kiss his wife again. You cannot corrupt her, you cannot damage her…

With a quick, deft movement, Elrond turned and pinned Celebrían to his chest, spreading his legs out to either side of her. She lay back against him, her head cushioned by his shoulder, pliant and willing beneath his hands. She trusted him completely—trusted him with her life, her safety, her pleasure.

Elrond slid one hand between her legs, and with the other cupped her right breast. He began to play with her, rubbing and circling and stroking, until she shuddered against him with need and desire.

“Please, Elrond,” she gasped at last, grasping at his legs. “I need you in me.”

Elrond stroked her again, his fingers sliding in and out of her damp folds, his fingertips sliding to the edge of her entrance and teasing her there. Celebrían groaned and whimpered deep in her throat, throwing her head back against his shoulder. “ Elrond ,” she said, and in his name was a desperate plea.

Elrond laughed. “Not yet,” he murmured into her ear, nipping at her earlobe. He teased her clit, first pinching at it then running a fingertip over it in long, slow circles. Celebrían whimpered and shoved her head back into his shoulder, her fingers grasping at his legs.

“Elrond,” she said again, his name straining past her teeth.

“Wait,” Elrond said quietly, his own voice strained with desire and pleasure of his own. His cock was hard, the tip of it pressing into the small of Celebrían’s back. She reached back to fumble for his shaft—only for Elrond to grab her wrist and arrest her movement, whispering, “Not yet,” into her ear.

Celebrían made a disgruntled, anxious sound in the back of her throat.

“Relax, love,” Elrond said, pressing his lips to her neck in a kiss. “Let me do this.”

Celebrían took a deep breath—then went limp in Elrond’s arms, allowing her body to relax into his hold, into the V of his legs, into his pleasure.

Elrond’s second hand joined the first between her legs, one finger sliding into her to pump in and out slowly, slowly, slowly. Celebrían groaned, her hands once more returning to his legs where she grasped at his thighs. Elrond smiled and slid a second finger into her to join the first, slowing his pumping further still to a teasing, excruciating degree.

“Elrond,” Celebrían panted, squirming in his arms.

Smiling, Elrond continued to play with her clit and with her folds, smoothing his fingers in and out of them, flicking and rubbing and pinching and circling. Celebrían shuddered in the circle of his arms, small, panting whimpers escaping her, causing Elrond’s smile to deepen.

With a sudden, single, deft, strong movement, Elrond shifted their positions, lifting Celebrían off of his lap and then guiding her down onto the cot beneath him. She grinned and spread her legs, opening herself before him—only to cry out in annoyance when Elrond settled his face between her legs instead of sliding into her like she so clearly wanted.

“Elrond,” she said again, this time with an edge of annoyance. “ Please.

His hands going to her hips, Elrond sank his tongue into her folds. For a long moment he simply sucked and licked, tongue flicking her clit before kissing it, kissing each edge of her opening, his tongue sliding in and out to taste her arousal. She was dripping with it—was hungry and needy and desperate with it.

Elrond climbed up her body, trailing kisses across her belly, her navel, between her breasts, her chest, her throat—before finally reaching her lips. She kissed him back, tasting herself on his tongue and breath, smiling into the kiss as it lengthened deepened.

When they broke apart, Celebrían said softly, “Elrond, please. I need you in me.”

“As my lady wishes,” Elrond murmured against her lips, kissing her again.

He positioned himself, the tip of his cock nudging at her entrance.

“Yes,” Celebrían whispered, shifting her hips—and with a cry from Celebrían, she slid onto him. Elrond groaned, then shifted his own hips, sinking deeper into her, drawing out a gasp and a groan from his wife.

“Yes,” she said again, gripping his shoulders. He was still within her, for a long moment simply glad to feel her clenching around him, glad to feel her warmth, glad to feel her wetness. Then, slowly, he began to move within her, pumping in and out with an agonizing, steady rhythm. “Yes,” she said for a third time, then, “Faster,” she begged. “Harder. Deeper.”

Elrond obliged. He sheathed himself all the way into her, pulled out, then drove back in. Celebrían cried out as he pumped in and out again, faster and faster, her nails scoring long, shallow gashes into the flesh of his shoulder blades.

She threw her head back against the pillow, silver hair fanning out beneath her like a halo. Elrond pumped in, pumped out, slowly gaining speed. He felt her tighten around him as she bore down on his cock, sending thrills of pleasure through him. Her fingernails bit deeper into his skin, drawing long trails of blood that trickled down his shoulders—but Elrond did not mind. The pain only enhanced what he was feeling, only brought to sharper relief the pleasure he felt coursing through his body.

“Yes,” Celebrían cried a last time, followed by his name as at last she came around him.

Elrond stilled within her, ready to pull out—but Celebrían stopped him. “No,” she said, begged, pled, “finish. Please.”

“As my lady wishes,” Elrond said, repeating what he had said mere moments before, and began to pump in and out again. His eyes remained fixed on Celebrían’s face, joyous and rapturous and happy, pleased, content. Her eyes blazed blue and bright in the dim light, filled with wonder and relief and pleasure.

“Elrond,” she cried out again as she felt him come within her a moment later. “Oh, Elrond,” she said, reaching up to cup his face as he collapsed onto her.

They lay tangled together for a long moment, flesh against flesh, heat against heat, pleasure against pleasure. Their skin was slick with sweat, and they both were panting. Then Celebrían began to laugh, pleased and light and happy. Elrond smiled at the sound; it had been centuries and centuries again since he had heard that laugh.

Elrond disentangled himself from her and stood, then poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin. He washed his hands in it, then found a cloth and dampened it. He bore it to the cot, where Celebrían was sitting up, and knelt before her.

“Here, my love, let me,” he said, and wiped the insides of her thighs and between her legs, cleaning away the product of their love-making. He kissed her then, once on the inside of each thigh, and once between her legs, before kissing her stomach, her navel, each breast, her neck.

“I love you,” Elrond said, when at last he reached her lips. “I love you, and I am here—here in Aman, here in this tent, here in your heart and in your body.”

Celebrían wrapped her arms around him and, for a long and terrible moment, simply clung to him.

“Thank you,” she whispered at last.

“For what?” Elrond asked, confused.

“For not dying,” Celebrían said. “For sailing. For being here. For competing in this tournament. For trying to heal the rift between us.”

Elrond pulled away just enough to kiss her, long and hard and serious. “I will fight for you until the end,” he said. “Even if that means fighting myself. Even if that means fighting for myself.”

He was not sure where the certainty came from, or the strength. All he knew was that, when he was looking at his wife, he would do anything for her—even stave off death and damnation. Even his own death and damnation. That was why he had told Námo no, was it not? For her sake?

Celebrían stood. “I should go,” she said, beginning to dress. “Unless we want people asking questions, I should return to my own tent for the night.”

“Tell no one of me,” Elrond pleaded. “I still would like to compete anonymously, to be judged on my skill rather than my bloodline. I don't want anything handed to me only on the merit of who my family is.”

“I understand,” said Celebrían.

Elrond nodded and stood as well. “Farewell then, my love,” he said, and drew her into a tight embrace. “Will I see you tomorrow?” he asked.

“Of course you will,” said Celebrían. “Not only will I be in the stands watching you, but I will come to you when I can.” Going up on tiptoes, she kissed him again, soft and sweet.

“Good night, my love,” said Elrond.

“Good night, Elrond,” Celebrían murmured—and with that she turned and slid out of the tent and into the night.

Elrond stood for a long moment, naked in the guttering shadows and the chill of the night. Then he turned and crawled back into his cot, feeling alone and cold. He wrapped the sheets around his body and buried his face in the pillow, and wished for his wife’s warmth and comfort.

The candle flickered out, plunging the tent back into darkness. Elrond lay awake for a long time after that, thinking and feeling and wondering.

What did he do now? For a brief, glorious moment, he had forgotten his pain; when he had been making love to Celebrían that second time, reminding her that he was here and alive, that he was present, that he was hers , he forgotten his brokenness, his agony, his despair. He had simply been Elrond once more, his wife’s husband and lover.

That sense of purpose and absence of pain had since faded, leaving him once more broken and cold and empty. He hurt—ached, sharp and dull and piercing and flat all at once—in his chest and in his head and in his stomach, his pain a real and physical thing. He longed for the comfort of his wife’s warmth, for the soothing of her hand upon his brow, for the gentleness of her lips upon his skin.

Could he heal, then? If he had been free of that pain and brokenness, even if only for a moment, did that mean he had a chance at healing? Did that mean that his pain and brokenness were not permanent? Were they only a passing darkness against the brightness of his life?

Elrond closed his eyes and pulled the sheet over his head.

Perhaps the pain was permanent, perhaps not.

Only time would tell.

~*x*~

Celebrían returned to her tent swiftly and silently, dodging between shadows and ducking around late-night strollers. She did not want anyone spying her and asking what she was doing among the competitors’ tents so late—did not want any rumors or lies being spread about her and any of the tournament participants. Not when her husband was purportedly away.

It had all begun at dinner.

“So, Findis,” said Fingon, a teasing lilt in his voice, “how does it feel to have been knocked from your horse by some unknown, unnamed competitor?”

Findis growled, and then indecorously threw a roll at her nephew’s head. “It feels like you should mind your own business ,” she said tartly.

Fingon caught the roll midair, and took a jaunty bite out of it. “What did he say his name was, again?” he asked, after chewing and swallowing.

“Lîmrion,” Findis said.

“I have never heard of him,” said Turgon from beside his brother.

Findis shrugged. “Neither had I. Probably just some commoner with delusions of grandeur.”

“Is it really delusions if he can send you flying though, Aunt?” Turgon asked dryly.

Findis picked up another roll from the basket sitting on the table between two candles—only to hesitate when she saw Celebrían’s face. “Are you well, Celebrían?” she asked worriedly, setting the roll down on her plate. She was seated across from Celebrían at the high table, her nephews to her right and her brothers to her left.

Celebrían smiled and nodded, swilling her soup with her spoon for a minute. “Yes,” she said, when Findis did not look convinced. “It is only...well, I knew an Elf named Lîmrion.”

Findis cocked an eyebrow, and suddenly everyone within earshot at the high table was looking at her. Lîmrion’s identity had been the buzz of the tournament thus far—the previous half hour of dinner had all been about who he could be, and about his style of riding, his fashion of tilting, his armor, his weapons, all of which had been of good quality if unadorned and unornamented—though his name had gone unmentioned until that moment.

“It is probably not the same Lîmrion,” Celebrían said hurriedly. “While Lîmrion was skilled at riding and at using the lance, he was taught by the training masters in Gil-galad’s courts, not the Fëanorians.”

“Hm,” Findis hummed, her cocked eyebrow rising another quarter of an inch. “Your face tells a different tale,” she said.

Celebrían shrugged. “I will see if it is the same Lîmrion,” she said. “But after dinner.”

“Just who was this Lîmrion?” Turgon asked. In that moment, Celebrían hated her uncle’s perception—and his curiosity. Or, perhaps, it was his sense of duty, and his desire to help and ensure that everyone in his family—even his more distant niece—was well.

“Someone in my honor guard,” Celebrían told Turgon and anyone else who was listening. She shrugged again then, feigning a lack of concern—belying the tremble in her hands and the knot of ice in her stomach. “Can we speak of something else now?” she asked, when no one seemed keen on changing the subject.

The subject changed, moving on to the predictions of the tournament’s next day. Celebrían drank a few more mouthfuls of her soup, then shoved her chair back from the table and stood. She could not eat any more; if she did, she was certain she would vomit.

Excusing herself, Celebrían made her way out of the feasting area and toward the competitors’ tents. Her thoughts churned, a mixture of anxiety and anger and worry. What if it was Lîmrion—her Lîmrion? What would she say to him? What would she do? How would she respond, knowing that he had been reembodied but had not seen fit to tell her of that fact?

She did not know.

She did not think she would know until she was doing it.

It took a number of questions, as well as visiting the quartermaster’s tent, to discover where Lîmrion’s tent was located. Celebrían had smiled at the unhappy quartermaster, who was tucking a sleep shirt into his breeches and looked to have been roused from an early bed as he arrived at his tent office, and offered a quick apology.

“I heard that he unhorsed Findis today,” Celebrían explained when he asked why she wanted to know where his tent was, “and I wanted to meet him.”

“Could this not have waited until the morning?”

Celebrían grimaced internally. Yes, it could have, but she had been so lost in her own thoughts, worries, and anxieties that she had not thought of those she would be putting out by seeking him out at the failing hour.

“I am sorry,” Celebrían said again. “I can let you go back to sleep now, if you would like…”

“I am already up,” the quartermaster groused, and sat down at his desk. He picked up a large map of the campsite, and peered at it for a long moment, before putting it down and opening a bottom drawer. He drew out a stack of papers, licked his thumb, and began to rifle through them. He found whatever he was looking for after another long moment, then returned to the map. “Here it is,” he said, laying the map flat and smoothing it out. He pointed to a spot near the edge of camp, and a small dot there. A name had been printed in tiny, nearly illegible glyphs beneath it: Lîmrion.

Celebrían memorized the location, then smiled at the quartermaster and thanked him. “This will not go unforgotten,” she promised.

The quartermaster harrumphed, but then smiled at her. “I am glad to be of service to my lady,” he said, albeit gruffly. Then he rose, bowed, and showed Celebrían out of the large, one open-sided tent that served as his office.

Celebrían found Lîmrion’s tent after about a quarter hour’s searching. Even knowing where it was theoretically, it was a different thing entirely to find it in person, surrounded as it was by a sea of identical and near-identical tents.

The tent was dark, and Celebrían went to find a candle. Find one she did, and easily, for there were many candles strewn throughout the camp, in tall sconces atop taller poles, and around braziers. She cradled the one she chose, picked from a circle surrounding a brazier at a junction in paths leading throughout the encampment, then carried it back to Lîmrion’s tent, careful of the hot wax dripping down the sides. She intended to wait for him to return, and question him then. She would see if he was her Lîmrion, or another Lîmrion...

The mare she had watched Lîmrion ride earlier was tethered outside. The horse neighed a greeting as Celebrían approached, this time from the front, surprising Celebrían. Eyeing the tent, and seeing no movement within, Celebrían altered her steps and went over to the mare, standing and stamping impatiently by the hitching post. If she wanted to say hello, Celebrían was not one to say no.

“Hello there,” Celebrían murmured, setting the candle atop the post, and then coming around to the front to offer a hand to the mare. The mare lowered her nose into it, whuffling softly, then looked up at Celebrían with wide, trusting brown eyes. There was something in those eyes—something Celebrían knew. Something—someone—Celebrían knew well.

“Avasath?” she whispered, barely believing.

The mare whickered, and nudged Celebrían’s hand, begging to be pet.

“But you have white on you,” Celebrían said, disbelieving. She reached up and stroked the stripe of white down the mare’s forehead—and felt coarse hair where it should have been smooth and silky. Celebrían narrowed her eyes, then knelt and felt along the mare’s legs down to her hocks. Again, the hair was smooth and silky until it reached the white, whereat it became coarse and rough.

“You’ve been dyed, haven’t you?” Celebrían asked, rising once more and reaching up to stroke the mare’s—Avasath’s —muzzle. Avasath snorted and tossed her head, pulling away from Celebrían’s touch for just a moment. Then she lowered her head once more, and once more nudged at Celebrían’s outstretched hand.

Celebrían turned and looked at the dark tent. If this was Avasath, then that meant—that meant that Lîmrion was not Lîmrion, but was, in fact, Elrond. Avasath would consent to bear no one else, unless specifically asked by Elrond—and Celebrían was certain that Elrond would not agree to that for a tournament such as this. More than that, though, Celebrían had watched her husband leave on this very mare two days before.

No, this meant that Elrond was here. This meant that Elrond was going under a false name.

And Celebrían did not know why.

Turning, she stalked forward, collecting her candle on the way past. She barged into the tent, uncaring of whether or not her husband was asleep. He was not—he was not there at all.

For a long moment Celebrían simply stood in the tent entrance, staring at the cot in the corner, the stand on which the dark armor Lîmrion had worn hung, the saddlebags sitting at the foot of the cot, the chest to her left, the small camp table across from her.

Making up her mind, Celebrían stepped further into the tent and moved to rifle around, looking through the saddlebags and the papers on the table. She found nothing that would indicate why Elrond was here—only clothes, armor cleaning and polishing cloths, food, a wineskin and waterskin, brush and teeth cleaning agent, and a handful of other necessities for living it rough for a few days, as well as notes about the tournament’s competitors.

In one side pouch, though, she found matches. A thought came to her. She was angry—furious—and wanted Elrond to not realize she was there. Wanted him to have to answer to her and not avoid or come up with some excuse for her. She snuffed the candle, then made her blind way over to where the spindly chair sat.

She would wait for him, and she would get answers.

Now, Celebrían smiled. She should have trusted her husband more—should have known he would do nothing nefarious. He would do only that which his pride and sense of duty commanded him to do, and it was not in his nature to be anything but kind. Oh, he could be fierce and ferocious when necessity demanded it—but always, always, always beneath that fierceness, that ferociousness, was kindness: for his people, for his family, and, she once would have said, for himself.

Now, however, she was not so sure. She had never realized before the depths to which the darkness in him lay. Had she merely been blind to it all throughout their marriage? Or was it something that had arisen after she had left? Somehow, she doubted that it was something grown at the behest of her leaving. Had her presence quelled it, then? Had it plagued him before, and after, but not during?

Celebrían shook her head. She would have to talk to him about that. But not tonight. Tonight she had to sneak back into her own tent, erected between Finarfin’s and Finrod’s, and pretend as if nothing had changed from the day before.

I can do that, she thought, as she slipped through the closed flap and into her own spacious tent. She undressed in the dark, pulling on one of Elrond’s old, loose tunics to sleep in, and then climbed into bed. As she settled down, she turned over to reach for her husband—only to find cold sheets where he usually lay. Sighing, Celebrían turned over again, facing away from the heart of the bed, and tried to convince herself that she wasn’t desperately missing him. The truth, though, was that she was.

I need you, Elrond , she thought as she drifted off into Reverie. More than you could ever know.

With that, she slept.

~*x*~

Elrond woke before the sun, in spite of the late night. He rose, stretched and went through a series of light exercises: push-ups, sit-ups, and a run around the camp.

The early morning air was crisp and cool, the stars overhead bright beneath the light of the low-hanging moon. The camp was still and silent, most of the competitors and spectators alike still in bed, getting all of the rest they could before the day’s activities and festivities. Elrond’s soft-soled boots thudded rhythmically into the dirt and grass as he ran around the perimeter of the large, sprawling encampment situated on the Undead Plains north and west of Tirion, his breath coming in steady drags.

Halfway around the camp, Elrond heard footfalls approach from behind. He turned, running in place for a moment—in time to watch as Glorfindel approached at a steady jog, his golden hair braided tightly out of his face, clad in simple exercise clothes much as Elrond was: tight-fitting shirt, leggings, and soft-soled boots.

“I had a strange dream last night,” Glorfindel said by way of greeting as he fell in beside the Peredhel.

Elrond turned and began to run again, Glorfindel falling in step beside him. “Oh?” Elrond asked, turning an upraised eyebrow on his friend.

“In it,” Glorfindel said, “Lorien himself came to me and informed me that his brother, Námo, spoke with you last night.”

“Oh, really?” Elrond asked dryly. “And what did he say our conversation was about?”

“Did you try to kill yourself again?” Glorfindel asked bluntly.

“No,” Elrond said.

Glorfindel sighed. “Were you considering it?” he asked.

They ran in silence for a long moment. Finally, Elrond admitted softly, “Yes. I was considering it.”

“Why?” Glorfindel exploded, coming to an abrupt halt and reaching out to drag Elrond to a stop as well. “Elrond, what the hell could possess you to do such a thing? Here, and now, when you have your entire life laid out before you, full of healing and respite and growth?”

“What healing is there for me?” Elrond snarled, whirling on his friend. “My daughter is gone , Glorfindel, just as my brother is gone . I will never see them again. I was nearly driven mad with grief and pain at Elros’s parting—how much worse will it be at Arwen’s? At my daughter ’s?”

“You are not alone now as you once were,” Glorfindel said, surprisingly gentle. He reached out and gripped Elrond’s shoulder, and gave him a small shake. “You have friends and family now who will aid you and support you through the sundering.”

Elrond laughed darkly, bitterly, brokenly. “I was not alone then either.”

“But you were,” Glorfindel retorted. “You at least bore the pain alone, even if you were not alone in friends. Let me help you. Let Celebrían help you. Erestor, Aravadhor, Galchyl, Maelrodh, Let your family, who love you, help you. You do not have to bear this pain and parting alone, Elrond. You do not have to bear any of this alone.”

Elrond shrugged out from under Glorfindel’s grip and began to run again, forcing Glorfindel to hurry to catch up. They ran in silence for a long time, not speaking again until they reached Elrond’s tent.

“I am not going to kill myself,” he said, once they had halted and were stretching their warm muscles. “Námo and I spoke, and...well, I decided against it.” He hesitated, then added, “He offered to take me to his Halls. But he said it would cause Celebrían grief. And others as well.”

“It would,” said Glorfindel firmly.

Elrond sighed, and straightened. “Are you satisfied?” he asked, somewhat bitterly.

Glorfindel smiled, but there was no light in the gesture. “For the moment,” he said. Then, softly, he asked, “Does Celebrían know?”

Elrond shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “Perhaps not ever. Please, Glorfindel, do not tell her.”

It was Glorfindel’s turn to sigh. “Very well,” he said. “I will not be the one to tell her that her husband nearly committed suicide. But you should not hide this knowledge from her for forever. She has a right to know.”

Elrond grimaced. “You are probably right,” he said.

Glorfindel crossed the intervening space between them, and once more gripped Elrond by the shoulder. “You are not alone,” he said softly, but intently. “Never forget that.” He smiled then, and this time the light was back in his eyes. Then he departed.

Elrond stood for a long time at the opening to his tent. The sky bled from black to blue to dusty violet, then to vibrant orange and fire-gold red. The sun rose, glorious and valiant, and she shone her brilliant light down upon a brazen Valinor with only a few, scudding clouds to mar her bright array.

At last, Elrond turned and ducked into his tent. He left the flap open, however, as he retrieved his armor and padding down from where he had hung them the day before, and began to clean them. The padding he beat out, then shook and hung up again; the armor he scrubbed and then oiled, seated cross-legged on the earthen ground of his tent.

That done, Elrond rose and washed his hands, then dried them and departed from his tent himself, heading toward the banqueting area and breakfast.

An army of cooks and servants were whirling around the long trestle tables lined on every side of the banqueting field, arraying dishes of steaming porridge and oatmeal, plates of freshly-baked bread—both plain-crusted and cinnamon-baked bread, bread stuffed with currants and cranberries, bread baked with bits of dried fruit, bread with raisins and walnuts—biscuits, muffins, and light, flaky pastries. There was gravy, and syrup of many flavors and varieties, butter, honey, and jam in jars and glass dishes. Juices in crystal decanters sat at the ends of the tables, alongside milk and jugs of water.

Elrond collected a plate and bowl and dished himself up a healthy portion of cinnamon and pecan-studded oatmeal, fresh, plain bread, and apple juice, then found a seat near where he had eaten the night before.

He had barely claimed his seat at the long bench when Lainrendis and Aearmagol appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. With them came three other Elves, one of whom bore Fingolfin’s crest upon his breast.

“Lîmrion,” Aearmagol exclaimed, grinning broadly, He swerved from wherever he had been heading, the other four following along behind, and sat with a flourish across from Elrond. He motioned for the others to sit as well. “How do you fare this fine morning?”

“Well enough,” Elrond said, somewhat stiffly. He had been enjoying the silence.

“I thought we might find you here,” Aearmagol went on, either not noticing or disregarding Elrond’s off-putting tone, “since you sat here last night. Lainrendis and I wanted to introduce you to our friends.”

Elrond quirked an eyebrow, then glanced at the other four Elves—including Lainrendis—who had all claimed seats across from him or beside him. He stabbed at his oatmeal, but did not take a bite, while he waited for the introductions.

“This is Tyelperindë,” Aearmagol said, gesturing to a tall, willowy elleth. She had platinum blonde hair, high cheekbones, and a pointed chin. Her eyes were cold blue. She had a haughty look to her, though her bow at her introduction to Elrond was courteous, and her smile, while distant, seemed genuine.

“Tyelperindë is a weaver in Tirion,” Lainrendis said, speaking for the first time since their arrival. “She makes the best blankets: warm and colorful and soft. You should visit her shop sometime.”

“Perhaps I will,” Elrond said, unsure if he meant it or not.

“This is Áraselyë,” Aearmagol went on, as the conversation came to an uncomfortable lull. “She works in Tirion’s foremost bakery as a pastry cook.”

Áraselyë was short for an Elf. She had raven-dark hair pulled back into a bun. A few wisps of hair had escaped the bun, and now they hung around her face, framing it and accenting her startling green eyes. If Elrond had to guess, she was a mix of both Noldo and Sinda. She had curves, and a round face, giving her a matronly, caring appearance—far different from Tyelperindë’s cold exterior.

Elrond inclined his head to her, smiling faintly. She curtsied, then laughed at herself. The sound was thin and bright, reminding Elrond of ringing bells.

“And this is Ambalaurë,” Aearmagol finished. “He is Lord Fingolfin’s standard bearer, and is competing in the tournament. He’s the only one of our group to be doing so; the rest of us are all just here to cheer him on. And you,” he added brightly. “Now that we know you, and all that.”

Ambalaurë, contrary to his name, was dark-haired and grey-eyed in true Noldorin fashion. He was tall, with broad shoulders and strong arms, a square chin, and arched cheekbones. He looked noble and regal—the perfect standard bearer to a noble and regal king.

“Well met,” said Elrond. “I am Lîmrion—though you already may have deduced that.” He grinned a crooked grin. “Now, if you do not mind, I would like to finish my breakfast.”

It was a clear dismissal—or so Elrond thought—but the others did not seem to realize what he had said. Or else they were ignoring him.

“Of course. Please, finish,” said Lainrendis to him. She smiled, but made no move to get up. Instead she turned to Áraselyë, and said, “Be a good dear and go get our breakfasts?” She gave a pretty pout, and Áraselyë sighed but stood, shaking her head.

“I am going to get you the nastiest porridge there is,” Áraselyë said, but left, heading toward the food tables.

Lainrendis watched her go with a small smile, eyes bright and dancing. Then she turned back to Elrond and the rest of the group, and said, “So, Lîmrion, are you competing today?”

“I am,” said Elrond. “My first bout is at 10 o’clock, and then we shall see after that.” He turned to Ambalaurë. “And what of you?” he asked. “Are you competing today?”

“I am,” said Ambalaurë. His voice was deep and firm, and very serious. “My first is at eight o’clock.”

Elrond smiled. Ambalaurë was seated across the table from him and to the left, his elbows and forearms resting on the tabletop, his hands clasped. His shoulders were tense, Elrond noted with a practiced, healer’s eye, and his eyes were guarded but anxious.

“Is this your first tournament?” Elrond asked.

Ambalaurë smiled faintly. “It is,” he said. “I have only served as Lord Fingolfin’s standard bearer for a little less than a yén. This is my first tournament in that office, and before that I did not have the training for it.”

Elrond arched an eyebrow. “Were you not already trained when Fingolfin accepted you as his standard bearer?”

Ambalaurë shared a glance with Aearmagol, fleeting and barely noticeable, and only too late did Elrond notice his mistake; he had forgotten that he was playing the part of a commoner—a commoner who would address any of the nobility with their titles attached, even in familiar company.

“No,” Ambalaurë said, though, without comment on Elrond’s slip of tongue. “I’m the son of one of his nobles, and when he met me, he said I had “great promise”. Because of that, he himself took on the task of training me.”

Elrond’s second eyebrow joined the first. “Well,” he said. “That sounds like quite the tale. I am sure it has involved many long, grueling hours of hard work.”

Ambalaurë surprised Elrond by laughing. “Indeed it has,” he said, sounding much brighter than he had yet. He sobered then, though. “I want to do Lord Fingolfin proud,” he said softly. “I want to prove that he was right when he said that I had great promise.”

“Just remember to breathe,” Elrond said. His oatmeal lay cooling on the table, forgotten. “Breathe through the ride, breathe through the strike. It will help you keep your cool and keep your head. Count, if you must—count the hoofbeats, count your heartbeat, count the bob of your opponent’s lance. It will help you focus, and keep you rooted in the moment—so long as you do not allow the counting to consume your mind. Does that make sense?”

“Aye,” Ambalaurë said. He smiled, truly and genuinely, and his silver eyes lit. “Thank you, Lîmrion.” He paused, then added, “I take it this is not your first tournament, then?”

“No,” Elrond said. “No, it is not—though I have not ridden in one in many thousands of years.” He bit back a flinch. He had not meant to tell them so much about himself as he just had. They now knew that he was old—very old.

Tyelperindë, who had remained silent for the entire conversation thus far, spoke. Her voice was as haughty and arched as the rest of her, though there was surprising warmth in her tone. “How old are you, then?”

Elrond shrugged. “I was born in the First Age,” he admitted. “I served under King Gil-galad until his death, and then I became a vassal of Middle-earth rather than of another lord.”

“What do you mean by that?” Aearmagol asked. “A “vassal of Middle-earth”?”

“It means I served the interests of all the peoples of Middle-earth, rather than the political interests of one lord, such as Lady Galadriel or King Thranduil.”

“Ah,” said Aearmagol, though he still seemed confused. Not by what Elrond meant, he suspected, but likely why he had said what he did—or been what he had been.

Tyelperindë leaned forward, her cold blue eyes intent. “And just what did you do as a vassal of Middle-earth?” she asked.

Elrond, very uncomfortable now, shrugged. “I rode against Orcs, and against spiders, and against all other manner of dark things. I aided the great lords of Middle-earth when they needed assistance. Things like that,” he added, somewhat lamely.

“Hm,” said Tyelperindë. Elrond was not sure if she believed him or not—though he had been entirely honest with them.

To Elrond’s great relief, Áraselyë returned at that moment, juggling bowls and plates of food. She set them down on the table, then collapsed dramatically down onto the bench, shooting Lainrendis a dark look.

“Breakfast is served,” she announced, “though all of you are getting your own drinks.”

She had brought two bowls of blueberry- and apple-studded oatmeal, a plate piled high with various slices of bread slathered in butter and jam, porridge swimming in honey, and another bowl filled to overflowing with fruit.

The others scrambled to get what they wanted before anyone else got to it, and for a moment there was only chaos. Then things settled down once again, everyone satisfied—or unsatisfied, in Ambalaurë’s case, who had wanted the porridge but lost it to Aearmagol—as everyone began to eat. Remembering his own now-cold oatmeal, Elrond ate as well, trying not to grimace at the texture.

“What are our plans today?” Aearmagol asked after a moment of silent eating. “Obviously we are going to go watch Ambalaurë and Lîmrion compete, but what else?”

“I wanted to go to the festival booths,” said Áraselyë. “Maybe for lunch? Then we can spend some time perusing the wares and goods.”

“I like that idea,” said Tyelperindë. She looked at Lainrendis and Aearmagol and arched an eyebrow.

“I agree,” said Aearmagol, and Lainrendis nodded.

“Shall we meet at noon then, at the mouth of the main thoroughfare into the booths?” Áraselyë asked.

“That sounds like a fine plan,” said Tyelperindë. “Will you be able to join us, Ambalaurë?”

“We shall see what my tournament schedule looks like,” the standard-bearer said. “If I win my first bout, I continue on in the lists, and I will not know when I compete until a little later. I shall try though.”

“And what of you, Lîmrion?” Lainrendis asked.

“Yes, Lîmrion,” Aearmagol exclaimed. “You should join us too!”

Elrond smiled. “We shall see,” was all he said, however.

Tyelperindë eyed him, but then turned away without comment. Whatever she had been thinking, she did not show, leaving Elrond to wonder just what it was she expected or suspected.

Elrond finished his oatmeal, then started in on his bread. It was plain, but fluffy and light, and tasted good in his mouth after the roughness of the cold oats.

“What about tonight?” Lainrendis asked. “The bonfires are being lit, and I would like to go.” She turned to the others. “I’ve heard they are singing the Valaquenta tonight at the main fire, in honor of the Valar and their servants…”

Elrond’s thoughts wandered from the conversation. He looked at these youths, so full of the vigor of life, and wondered what it had been like when he had felt that. Had he ever done so? He supposed he had, though he could not even recall what it felt like.

When had he even been happy? He had enjoyed learning under Maedhros and Maglor, and loved his brother and their escapades—but had he been happy in Himring with the Kinslayers? No, he realized with a swoop of his stomach. He had loved Maedhros and Maglor, just as he had loved his brother, and he had cared deeply for some others of the Fëanorians’ servants. But life had been hard, his lessons tough and sometimes unnecessarily violent; food had been scarce during the long, cold winters; and winning the affection of Maedhros had been long in coming, before which he had been harsh and sometimes cruel.

He had been happy under Gil-galad’s reign. Perhaps not at first, and perhaps not at times—but there had been long swaths of time where he had been happy. Yet, even though he knew that was a fact, he could not recall what that happiness felt like. Had it been a warm summer in his chest? Had it been crisp mountain air in his lungs? Had it been sweet fruit in his mouth?

He had also been happy with Celebrían. That he could remember, if only vaguely, for he had felt a trace of it the night before. It had been warmth in his fingertips, and coolness in his stomach, and sweetness in his mind. Yet what he had felt the night before was much diminished from how he knew it must have been during those first years they had been married—during all the years they had been married. He loved her, dearly and entirely, with his whole being.

So why, then, was he not happy now? Why was he still morose, still quiet, still bitter? Should his wife not have cured his ailments?

It is never that easy, a soft voice whispered in his mind, cool and detached in the way his healer’s observations always were. Healing of the mind takes just as long, if not longer, than the healing of the body. And you have been dealt many ills.

Had he, though? So what if his mother had turned into a bird and left him to join his father, who had sailed away and never come back? So what if Maedhros and Maglor, who had become his fathers, had abandoned him and Elros for jewels—blessed jewels, but jewels? So what if his brother had chosen mortality, and had thus died? So what if his king and cousin had been murdered in front of him? So what if his wife had been captured and tormented by Orcs, forced to flee into the West to seek healing that he himself could not provide? So what if his daughter had also chosen mortality, and will thus die, just as his brother had? So what if his sons might choose the same?

So what that he had nearly died countless times? So what if he was scarred beyond healing? So what if he had been tormented and tortured by Orcs himself? So what if he had been dealt a Morgul wound that only his Maiarin blood had saved him from?

So what?

Many others had faced and suffered far worse than him. He had never died, for one thing. So where did he come from, being so damaged and so ruined by things he knew were hardly even tragedies? By things that were so fragile in their ill compared to what so many others had faced?

He needed to get himself together, and stop being so self-pitying. He needed to adjust his perspective, and remind himself that he was very small in the grand scale of things—that his tragedies were minor, his life largely filled with happiness, even if the last 500 years had been fraught with sorrow and pain. He needed to force himself to be all right. Nothing else would be acceptable.

But how could he do that? He could fix his relationship with his wife, for one thing. He could put on a smile. He could bury the darkness in him, and forget it had ever existed. He could—

“—mrion?”

Elrond blinked, and came back to the conversation, realizing he had not been listening for the past few minutes. “I apologize,” he said, somewhat stiffly. “What did you say?”

“Will you come to the bonfires with us tonight?”

“I…” Elrond sighed, shaking his head. “Why do you even want me to accompany you?” he asked them, both curious and bitter. “You hardly know me.”

The friends all exchanged looks. “Well, we’d like to know you better,” said Lainrendis. “And it does not seem like you have many friends here.” That, at least, was true—though not from the others’ faults. “We discussed it, and we thought you could use some friends. So here we are.”

Startled, and somewhat taken aback but touched all the same, all Elrond could do was say, “Oh.”

“What say you?” Aearmagol asked, leaning forward on his bench and nearly getting the front of his tunic in the strawberry jam slathered on his bread. “Shall we be friends?”

How could he say no? How could he tell these children—for they were children to him, for all that they were a few thousand years old—no, when they looked at him with such expectation and hope?

Elrond smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, we shall.”

“Oh good,” said Aearmagol, sitting back, safely away from the jam. “I was afraid for a second there that you were going to say no. Then things would have been really awkward.”

“Only if you made them awkward,” said Áraselyë.

“So you will come to the bonfire with us tonight?” Tyelperindë asked.

Elrond nodded. “Yes,” he said, trying not to sound begruding. “Yes, I shall.”

“And will you come to the booths with us?”

“If I can,” said Elrond.

“Oh, good,” said Aearmagol, grinning broadly.

Ambalaurë glanced up at the sun and cursed. “I must run,” he said, “else I will be late for my joust. I will see you all later,” he promised, got up, and darted away.

“We should go too, then,” said Lainrendis. She looked at Elrond. “You should come with us to see the joust.”

In spite of himself, Elrond was curious to see the lad joust. Had Fingolfin been right, when he had seen potential in him? Had he learned quickly and well? And if he was to win, would Elrond face him himself? If that was the case, it would be good to get a gauge on his fighting style; Elrond had spent most of his time between bouts the day before watching his fellow competitors.

“Very well,” he said, polishing off the last bite of his bread.

They rose, gathering their plates and bowls, and brought them over to the large tubs filled with soapy water standing at the far ends of each table laden with food. They dumped their plates and bowls carefully into the water, then moved off at a leisurely pace toward the smaller lists.

“Which one is it in again?” Áraselyë asked.

“The second list,” said Tyelperindë.

“And which is the second list?”

Lainrendis laughed, but it was a happy laugh. “You always ask so many questions,” she said to Áraselyë, without cruelty or derision. She sounded delighted. She glanced fondly over at Áraselyë, who was walking beside her right elbow, and then said, “The second list is the one in the back right.”

Áraselyë nodded, unperturbed by her friend’s laughter. She seemed to be a very steady, very unflappable person. “That’s right,” she said, smiling at Lainrendis.

They reached the second list ten minutes of intermittent chatting later. Small, wooden stands had been built into one side of the list; they only stretched five tiers high, and there were no railings on the edges, or cushions on the seats as there were in the main stands. It was not uncomfortable though, per se, Elrond thought as they claimed seats on the top row, halfway down the bench.

They watched four jousts before Ambalaurë’s. The clash of lances against shields, the thunder of hooves against earth, the crack of wood shattering punctured the lively morning air to the sounds of infrequent cheering. Only a few spectators other than Elrond and his companions were there: friends and family of those competing, fellow competitors judging their competition, and the odd visitor who wandered through.

A little after eight, a rider on a white steed appeared at the far right-hand end of the field, bearing a long lance and a shield emblazoned with Fingolfin’s crest.

“There he is,” cried Áraselyë.

Aearmagol rose to his feet, cheering wildly and calling Ambalaurë’s name. Lainrendis leapt up as well, followed a few seconds later by Áraselyë, who copied her friend’s loud hollering and hooting. Elrond glanced over at Tyelperindë. She, like him, had remained seated, and showed no inclination to stand up and make a fool of herself.

She caught Elrond’s gaze upon her, and she grinned at him wryly. A moment of understanding passed between them, and Elrond nodded courteously at her, then looked away and down toward the field.

The trumpet came, signalling the charge, and Ambalaurë spurred his mount forward. The stallion—or Elrond thought it was a stallion—leapt forward and galloped whole-heartedly down the lane, running sure and true. Ambalaurë’s seat was good, his movements on the stallion’s back deft and practiced—the movements of an Elf accustomed to riding while handling a lance.

His grip on the lance and shield were good as well. He made incremental adjustments to his shield’s position as he watched his opponent come on, and held his lance steady. His hold was firm and sure, comfortable. It was clear he had been extensively trained—and trained well. He would be a difficult opponent to beat. Far harder than the lesser sons of lesser houses Elrond had mostly jousted against the day before.

It was over within five minutes. Ambalaurë won; neither rider was unseated, but he was awarded the victory by form and strength of his blows. Elrond joined the others in clapping for him, though he refrained from cheering—as did Tyelperindë.

“Well done,” Elrond said ten minutes later. He and the rest of the group—the rest of the group with vigor, Elrond with far less—had converged on the entrance to the list’s competitor’s yard, awaiting Ambalaurë’s exit. He appeared, soaked in sweat but grinning triumphantly, eyes blazing. He was quite the striking figure; Fingolfin had done well in choosing his standard-bearer.

“Thank you, Lîmrion,” Ambalaurë said brightly, reaching out to grasp Elrond's forearm. Elrond gripped his arm in return and nodded once. “I remembered what you told me about breathing.”

“Did it help?” Elrond asked.

Ambalaurë grinned. “Like a blessing.”

After another moment, Elrond excused himself from the group with the promise to try to meet up with them later that afternoon at the booths. Then, clasping his hands behind his back, Elrond departed toward his tent and his preparations for his own joust later in the morning.

When he arrived, it was to find his tent flap, which he had left open when he left, closed. Frowning, he pushed his way into the tent, pausing for a brief moment to allow his eyes to readjust to the dimness inside. When the shadows cleared, it was to find Celebrían seated on his cot, arms crossed and one eyebrow raised.

“There you are,” she said, not exactly curt, but not entirely kind either. “I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour .”

“I did not know you were coming,” Elrond said, “else I would have made a point of being here.”

Celebrían sighed, then stood and crossed to him. “I am only cross because I thought I was going to have to leave without seeing you this morning,” she said, and rose up on her tiptoes to kiss him. Her lips were sweet against his, her hands cool where they slid beneath the hem of his tunic to press against his stomach.

“Hmm,” Elrond hummed, drawing her flush against him, her hands trapped between them, and kissed her again, deeper this time. “Well I am here now,” he murmured, his tone edged with a growl. “Is there something you wanted to say to me?”

“Only that I wish you well in your bouts today,” Celebrían replied, breathlessly. She kissed him a third time, freeing her hands to tangle in his short hair. When she pulled away, however, her hands did not leave it, and for a moment she simply ran her fingers through his shoulder-length, cropped hair. “I cannot believe you cut your hair,” she said, the tension of the moment gone.

Elrond pulled away from her and turned around.

“Elrond?” Celebrían asked. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” Elrond said hoarsely. He turned back, smile overbright. “I only wanted to better disguise myself. A haircut is a very good tactic for that; it can change the entire shape of one’s face.”

“Well it certainly changes you,” Celebrían said. She canted her head to one side, then added, “Though not in a bad way. At all.”

She crossed the space between them, and grabbed Elrond’s right wrist. “I have twenty minutes before my mother and father expect me at the lists,” she whispered, reigniting the tension with a lift of her gaze through her lashes and a soft, coy smile. “We have time—”

“Lîmrion?” a new voice called from beyond the tent flap. Elrond and Celebrían both froze, her hands already halfway to the laces of his breeches. They knew that voice.

“Uh,” said Elrond, frowning and sharing a confused look with his wife, who looked just as perplexed as him. Why was he using the name Lîmrion? Surely Mithrandir, of all people, would know that it was Elrond in the tent.

Celebrían shrugged, then went to open the tent flap, keeping to one side so as not to be readily visible to any passersby. Elrond sat on the cot, crossing his legs, and forced himself to smile as his old friend and fellow ring-bearer entered the tent, stooping to fit through the opening.

“Hello, Mithrandir,” Elrond said, as Celebrían let the flap fall closed behind him.

“Or should we call you Olórin?” Celebrían asked. Mithrandir turned to look at her, clearly a little surprised to see her there, but then laughed.

“I should apologize,” Gandalf said, glancing between Celebrían standing with her arms crossed and Elrond sitting with his legs crossed, “but I think I won’t.” Even in the dimness of the tent, Elrond could see the twinkle in Mithrandir’s eyes. “Mithrandir is fine,” he told them then. “I am still myself, even if I have retaken my preferred form.”

He was no longer in the guise of an old man. Instead, he was a tall and narrow-shouldered, with no beard, and with gold-white hair braided away from his face. He had sharp, piercing eyes the color of fresh snow. His raiment was a white robe, akin to the white robe he had worn as the White Wizard, but embroidered with silver thread and made of a fine, sheer cloth draped over tunic and leggings and soft-soled, knee-high boots. He still bore his white staff, however, it comfortable in his firm grip.

“My lady Celebrían,” he said, turning once more to her and bowing slightly at the waist, “would you mind waiting outside while I speak with your husband?” A grin laden with mischief grew across his face. “I believe there are two Hobbits who accompanied me, who I bade to wait for me by the nearest tree, who would be most thrilled to make your acquaintance.”

Celebrían arched an eyebrow. “Very well,” she said, somewhat stiffly. She looked at Elrond, who nodded to her, and she sighed, but then left, ducking out of the tent and disappearing as the flap fell back into place.

“What was it you wished to speak with me about?” Elrond asked, looking up at his friend, who had crossed to stand over him.

Mithrandir moved—and a sudden spike of pain arced through Elrond’s head, accompanied by the sound of a sharp thwack as Mithrandir’s staff struck Elrond. “Ow!” Elrond exclaimed, lifting a hand to his smarting head, and he glared up at Mithrandir, who was just lowering his staff. “What was that for?”

“You tried to kill yourself last night, Elrond?” Mithrandir asked.

“What? No. I mean, I…” Elrond trailed off, and looked away uncomfortably.

“My lady told me about it this morning. She heard it from her brother, who was worried about you , and so she sent me to check on you. Do you know what it takes to make the Doomsman of the Valar worried about you , Elrond?”

Elrond shifted in his seat, and refused to meet Mithrandir’s eyes. “I am fine,” he said, though he did not sound certain. “Truly, Mithrandir. I am not in any danger of trying to kill myself again.” Though he had never explicitly told Mithrandir—or Lady Galadriel—what he had done that night with the scalpel, they had known all the same; such was the way of the Elven rings—they knew when the bearers of their siblings were in peril. It had not taken much for either Mithrandir or Galadriel to figure out what had happened.

“That is what you said the last time,” Mithrandir said, “and look where we have ended up again.”

This got Elrond’s attention. He turned his glare back upon Mithrandir, and snapped, “That was another lifetime ago. Much has changed since then.”

“Yes,” Mithrandir said, “it has. You are in Valinor now, a place meant for healing and regrowth, with your beloved wife and a family who adores you.”

“Not that they should,” Elrond muttered, looking away again.

“What was that?” Mithrandir asked.

Elrond’s eyes narrowed as he looked back at his friend. “I said,” he said, louder and with precise distinction, “not that they should.”

“And why is that?” Mithrandir asked.

“Who am I to be loved?” Elrond asked, rising abruptly to pace around the interior of the tent. “I am nothing, no one. I am the lesser son of greater men, doomed only to be a placeholder for them. I am the weak scion of strong houses, doomed only to bring dishonor upon their names. I am—”

“Horse shit,” Mithrandir said.

That stopped Elrond cold. He had only rarely heard the Istar curse, and so it was a surprise enough to cut him off short.

“Pardon?” Elrond asked, turning to Mithrandir from where he had been facing the tent wall.

“I said,” Mithrandir said, louder and with precise distinction, “ horse. Shit.

“Why?” Elrond asked. “It is true.”

“Only in your own mind,” Mithrandir said firmly. “Only in a mind so clouded with pain, despair, and exhaustion that it can see no other truth.”

“My mind is not—”

“You nearly killed yourself, Elrond,” Mithrandir said bluntly, sounding surprisingly patient for brusque tone. “Yes. It is.”

Elrond sank into the spindly chair, and buried his face in his hands. “I had not thought—I mean, I assumed…”

“Assumed what?”

“My mind is lying to me, is it not?” Elrond asked from between his fingers.

“Yes,” Mithrandir said. “It is.”

“How did I not see that?” Elrond asked. “How did I not realize? I am smarter than that.”

“Because you are in the throes of despair and grief,” Mithrandir told him. “That clouds even the most astute mind.”

“I still do not believe anything other than what I told you before,” Elrond said after a long pause, sounding very small. “Even knowing—even realizing—that it is my mind...I still cannot force myself to believe aught else.”

“Belief will come with time,” said Mithrandir. “The first step is knowing why you feel the way you do.”

There came footsteps, and Elrond looked up in time to see Mithrandir come to a halt before him. The Maia leaned down and kissed Elrond on the forehead, then smiled down at him. “You will find your healing, Elrond Peredhel,” he said. “I believe that. You must only keep fighting, my friend.”

Elrond shook his head, but said nothing.

“And now, I must depart,” Mithrandir said. “I promised Frodo and Bilbo I would not be long, for all that they are the ones who begged me to come along.”

Elrond smiled at that. “How are they enjoying the tournament thus far?”

“Oh, quite splendidly,” Mithrandir said. “Neither of them have seen anything quite like it before. They are quite taken in.”

“I am sure,” Elrond said.

“Be well, Elrond,” Mithrandir said, and then left before Elrond could reply.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Celebrían stalked away from the tent in a black mood. Not only had her brief moment with Elrond been interrupted—and by Mithrandir no less—but then she had been sent away like a troublesome child. She was an adult—and more than that, was Elrond’s wife for Valar’s sake—and did that not entitle her to hear whatever it was that Mithrandir might have to say?

She knew that was not the case, in her heart of hearts. There were things between Mithrandir and Elrond—and her mother as well—that she had no right to be privy to, and she knew that. The three of them were in a circle all their own, with secrets and goings on that no one else in the world even should know of.

Still, it irked her. Not least of all because she knew she would not be able to be alone with her husband again until much later that night—and it had taken no small degree of manipulation and sway for her to manage to escape after breakfast.

She had concocted a half-truth in order to do so: that she wished to go find Lîmrion and wish him a good and lucky day.

“He is not my Lîmrion,” she had confessed at breakfast that morning, to her mother, her father, and most of her uncles who were sitting close by. Findis was also there, still smarting at her defeat the day before, and eating in silence. “But we talked, and he seemed to be a nice enough Elf.”

“It is highly unusual for two Elves to be named the same,” said Fingon, who was seated three chairs down the high table form her.

Celebrían had shrugged. “My Lîmrion was born in Middle-earth, and I believe this Lîmrion was born in Aman. It is not unheard of for that to happen, even if it is rare.”

“True enough,” Fingon had acceded, and fallen silent.

Musing aloud, Celebrían had feigned only partial interest, and had said, “I think I might go and wish him luck today. Not that he may need it—yesterday he proved himself a worthy and mighty adversary.” At that, Findis had glowered, spearing a piece of watermelon with more force than was necessary. “But all the same, I’d like to get to know him better, and wish him well.”

Her mother had smiled at that, shaking her head slightly. Her father had shot her a small, sharp look, but had said nothing to her. Her uncles seemed to think nothing of it, and the conversation turned to the bouts coming later in the day.

Now Celebrían made her way toward the nearest tree, where Mithrandir had claimed he had left the Hobbits. Though the thought had crossed her mind to linger and try to listen at the tent wall, she had decided that would be a childish thing to do. Besides, she did wish to meet the Hobbit Ring-bearers, and now seemed like as good a time as any, even if she was irritated.

She found them just where Mithrandir had promised they would be, seated at the trunk of the tree chatting together quietly. Frodo—or the one she assumed was Frodo—was a lithe, dark-haired young man—or so he seemed to Celebrían—while Bilbo was in the process of de-aging. His hair was still grey but tinged with blond, and the wrinkles on his face were slight creases, as much from sun and smiling as age.

“Hello,” Celebrían said in Sindarin, coming to a halt a few paces away from them. “Might I join you?”

Frodo looked up, followed by Bilbo. Frodo smiled at her, and shifted so that there was a space between him and Bilbo. “If you would like,” he said, in heavily accented Sindarin. Celebrían smiled as well, and sat, gracefully tucking her skirts beneath her.

“I am Celebrían,” she said, “and am I right in believing you are Frodo and Bilbo?”

“Aye, Ma’am,” said Bilbo, in just as heavily accented Sindarin. He grinned. “And might I say, thank you for speaking Sindarin with us? We are learning the Quenya tongue, but neither Frodo nor I are very good at it yet. Not like with Sindarin.”

Celebrían laughed. “We can also speak Common, if you would prefer that,” she said, switching to that tongue.

Frodo and Bilbo both relaxed even further at that, and laughed merrily.

“I take it you are from Middle-earth, then?” Frodo asked, switching to Common as well.

“I am,” said Celebrían. “I was born in the beginning of the Second Age, and so Sindarin is my mother tongue, but my parents both were of distinctive birth, and though they most often governed Elves, they had dealings with Humans quite often. Because of that, they believed that it was best that I learn all of the tongues of Man that I could.”

“What else can you speak?” Bilbo asked.

“Well, I learned Common and the tongues of the North and of Númenor from my parents,” said Celebrían, “and then I learned the speech of the Southerners from my husband. The speech of Gondor and Arnor I learned along with him, as it had drifted somewhat from Númenor’s tongue in the intervening years.”

“And who is your husband, that he was so well-learned?” Bilbo asked. He blushed, then added, “If you do not mind my asking.”

Celebrían laughed. “Not at all,” she said. “My husband is Elrond, formerly of Rivendell.”

Frodo grinned, and Bilbo smiled broadly, snapping his fingers. “I knew I had heard your name before,” the elder Hobbit said, sounding triumphant and very pleased with himself. “Of course, you are Lord Elrond’s wife. He spoke of you sometimes, and there was a chair set aside for you in the Dining Hall, set into an alcove of the wall beneath stained glass that would catch the early morning’s light.”

Celebrían arched a graceful eyebrow. “Oh, really?” she asked. She had never heard of this before.

“Indeed,” said Frodo. “I have seen it as well. In fact, I asked my uncle about it when I was in Rivendell for the Council. He told me it was reserved as a memory for the Lady of Rivendell, who had sailed for healing from…” He trailed off, blushing. “I apologize, my lady,” he said. “I did not mean to conjure any bad memories, or…” He trailed off again.

“No need to worry,” Celebrían said. “It was long ago, and I have healed quite a lot since then.”

“Oh,” said Frodo. “Good.”

“So,” Celebrían said, after a brief lull in the conversation, “what do you think of Valinor thus far?”

“We love it here,” said Bilbo, speaking for the both of them.

Frodo nodded, then added, “The people here are so kind and considerate, if a bit curious and sometimes a little condescending. When you’re well over a thousand years old, though, and you have never met a Hobbit before, I suppose I can understand why.”

Celebrían shook her head. “They still should not be condescending,” she told him, and then looked at Bilbo as well. “You are both brave and strong, and they should be considerate of the great feats that you both performed in ridding Middle-earth of evil, rather than your age.”

“It is mostly our size,” said Frodo. “They see us as children, and so they treat us as such.”

Celebrían shook her head again.

“Most of them, though, only consider us for what we have done and who we are,” said Bilbo, sounding like he was trying to be fair. “Only a few of them are truly condescending.”

“Well if anyone ever is,” said Celebrían, “tell me, so that I might set them straight. No one should be condescended to, ever, be it for their size or their age or their doings.”

“I can see why Lord Elrond loves you,” said Bilbo. “You are very kind, and very considerate, as well as fierce.”

Celebrían laughed lightly. “Only compared to some,” she said.

They lapsed into comfortable silence once more, Frodo digging at the dirt, lost in thought; Bilbo staring up at the clouds scudding across the early morning sky; Celebrían watching the both of them. At last, she decided, “If either of you would ever like to meet any of my family, just ask. I’d be more than happy to introduce you.”

Bilbo and Frodo both looked at her with wide eyes. “Truly?” Bilbo asked. “I mean, Gandalf has offered to introduce us to anyone we like. But he is not exactly family or kin to them, and we did not want to be a bother…”

“Who would you like to meet?” Celebrían asked.

“Gil-galad?” Bilbo offered hopefully.

“Or Finrod?” Frodo added, just as hopefully.

Celebrían smiled. “I can definitely arrange that,” she told them. “When would you like to meet them?”

“Oh,” said Bilbo, “whenever they can spare the time.”

“Well, I believe Finrod will be sitting with me at the tournament today, if you would like to meet him this morning.”

Frodo’s eyes blazed. “Truly?” he asked. He sounded, more than ever, like a young man. While he had looked like one, at least to Celebrían’s eyes, there had been a sorrow to him that had weighed his eyes and drowned his shoulders, bearing him down and crushing his spirit. There was a darkness in his face, and a bleakness in his gaze, that had tugged at Celebrían’s heart and made her yearn to hug away the pain.

Now, however, that sorrow, that darkness, that bleakness seemed to lift, if only for a moment, revealing a young man in the splendor of his youth, ready and willing to face all the evil of the world.

“Truly,” Celebrían said with a smile. She rose fluidly, and held a hand out to Frodo, who took it shyly and stood as well. Then he hesitated.

“What about Gandalf?” he asked.

“Gandalf is here,” said Mithrandir’s voice from behind Celebrían. She turned her head over her shoulder to look at him, and her smile faltered as she remembered her ire with him.

“Did you finish your conversation with my husband, then?” she asked stiffly.

“That I did,” said Mithrandir. “Now, why were we asking about me?”

“The lady Celebrían has promised to introduce us to Lord Finrod,” said Bilbo, rising as well.

“Oh, has she, now?” Mithrandir asked with a twinkle of his eyes and a wink for Celebrían.

Celebrían laughed, forgetting her ire in spite of herself. It was difficult to be angry with Mithrandir for long when he smiled and winked, and when he had that particular twinkle to his gaze that meant glee and joy and just a touch of mischief.

“I have,” she said.

“Did you two know that Lord Finrod is Lady Celebrían’s uncle?” Mithrandir asked.

Celebrían huffed in pretend annoyance, even as she began to lead the way toward the thoroughfare leading out of the tents and to the lists. “I was not going to tell them that,” she informed Mithrandir. “I was going to let them guess.”

“I take it then that you have not told them who your parents are?” Mithrandir asked.

Celebrían shook her head.

“Well then, we can still let them guess that .”

“Hm,” said Bilbo, clearly happy to play along. “Well, Finrod had three siblings: Angrod, Aegnor, and the Lady Galadriel. Aegnor, it is said, loved the Human woman Andreth and therefore never married. Angrod had two children: Orodreth and Finduilas. These are all matters of historical record.”

Celebrían laughed. “And my birth is not?” she teased, to which Bilbo blushed.

“Not the history I was privy to,” he muttered.

“I am teasing,” Celebrían said quickly, softening instantly. “A matter of living record is rarely committed to our history books, and I was never slain. I find it much more likely that, now that my husband and parents have sailed, my name will go down in historical record.”

“Then you are Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn’s daughter?” Frodo asked.

“I am,” said Celebrían.

They reached the thoroughfare and turned down it, heading toward the rising tiers of stands visible as a dark wall in the distance. After half a moment of silent walking, Bilbo surprised Celebrían by asking, “What was it like, to grow up with Elves so famous and powerful as Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn as your parents?”

Celebrían was about to reply with a pithy comment when she hesitated. Bilbo had sounded genuine and sincere—and he did not seem to be someone who would ask such a question merely for the gossip mill’s sake. He had sounded truly curious, and truly innocent in his query.

Many had asked her the very same question. Most of the time, though, they were curious in order to delve out secrets of her mother, and even of her father. Never before had the person asked been curious for curiosity’s sake—or for her sake.

“I am sorry if I offended you, my lady,” Bilbo said quickly, as Celebrían’s silence stretched on.

Celebrían laughed lightly, though she suddenly did not feel jovial any longer. “You did not offend,” she promised Bilbo. “I was merely pondering how to answer your question.”

How did she answer it? With truth and honesty? Or with a blasé, humorous comment about a witch for a mother and a fae for a father?

“It was hard,” she found herself saying, even before she had come to a firm conclusion. “I always felt in their shadow, much as I imagine my mother always felt in the shadows of her brothers. I was always expected to do great things, for I had great sires. And when I did not—when the most spectacular thing about my life was who I married—I felt, for a time, as if I had somehow failed my own parents, and my lineage.”

Bilbo frowned, and Frodo looked sad. Mithrandir’s face did not change, but there was a tension in his shoulders that had not been there before. He looked ready to speak, but Celebrían was not finished, and she hurried on quickly.

“I love my parents, though,” she said, “and I know I did not disappoint them. They love me as well, in their own ways—my father in a kind and loving, if sometimes strict, way; my mother in a firm way full of knowledge and advice and long night talks.” She smiled then. “I remember my father carrying me through the trees on his shoulders and back, and dancing with me on his toes. I also remember my mother sitting by me when I was afraid of the dark, promising that she would fight away all of the monsters who would try to eat me. Those days are long past us, of course—but those are the kinds of parents they were. Full of love and the best intentions, and never judgmental or assuming.

“And do not get me wrong,” she added, “I was happy with my husband and my children. I do not regret my life—any of it, really, even the pain and sorrow and heartache that came.”

“That is good,” said Bilbo, sounding much like he did not know what else to say to Celebrían’s confession. “I am glad.”

They passed a group of revelers already half-drunk, singing loudly, and for a moment their conversation lulled, thwarted and drowned by a chorus of music. Celebrían shook her head in silent annoyance—did they have no dignity, no self-respect?—but made no comment, either to the revelers or to her companions.

“Did your mother really threaten to fight all the monsters under your bed?” Frodo asked once they had passed, sounding genuinely curious.

Celebrían laughed, annoyance bleeding away to be replaced with something far kinder. “She did,” she said. “More than once. I went through a period of time, when I was about 20, where I was very fearful of the dark. I am sure my mother found it exhausting—as did my father, as I insisted on sleeping with them every few nights—but they never let onto that fact.”

Frodo’s eyes shone. “I would have liked to see the Lady Galadriel as a mother, I think,” he admitted. “When I met her she was so...distant, and ethereal, and powerful . Well, I’m not sure that distant is the right word for it; above me, in station and might, and that she knew that. Oh, she was kind,” he went on hurriedly, “in her own way, I suppose. She was not, at least, un kind. But she was greater than me, and she knew it, and I knew it.”

Celebrían pursed her lips. “My mother did have an issue with arrogance,” she said. “That was not something I understood as a child, but something I learned as I grew.”

“I am not sure that she was being arrogant, exactly,” Frodo said. “She was not acting above her station, or mightier than she was.”

“Arrogance can be couched in truth,” Celebrían pointed out.

Frodo shrugged. Celebrían suspected he was uncomfortable trying to defend her mother, even as he was uncomfortable with her pressing him—and so she backed off.

“Regardless,” she said, “I do know that my mother has learned and grown a great deal since I was a child. And that is good—for everyone involved, I think.” She grinned. “And she would still threaten to slay all of the monsters under my bed, methinks.”

“If your husband did not get there first,” Mithrandir pointed out, the twinkle back in his eyes.

Celebrían laughed again. “Or my husband,” she conceded. She sobered, a new thought striking, and turned to Mithrandir. “After Redhorn—I do not know if you will know this, but if you do, I beseech you to tell me—did Elrond…”

Mithrandir shook his head. “No,” he said. “Only your sons sought vengeance.”

Celebrían nodded, shoving aside the wave of fear that crashed through her heart at that statement. “We can speak more of this later,” she murmured to him, and then turned back to Frodo and Bilbo, who were trotting alongside them, their much shorter legs moving fast to keep up with her and Mithrandir.

By then they had reached the beaten earth yard at the mouth of the list's viewer entrance. It arched high overhead, wood carved with rearing horses, hooves flailing and mouths open in silent screams of challenge. A switchback staircase was couched inside the large, dark space beneath the tiers, the shadows pierced only by the shafts of light falling in through the openings at each level and the lanterns hanging from the rafters. The handrails were fashioned into the likenesses of lances, and every third step was etched with an image: knights crashing together, plumed helms, charging horses, elegant swords.

Celebrían led the way up the stairs to the first landing. There she guided her companions to the door; most of the landings simply opened up onto the seating area, but there was a door and a guard leading into the nobility’s private box. The guard recognized Celebrían and bowed at her approach, smiling behind his open-faced helm and stepping forward to unlatch the door. It swung open, and Celebrían ushered the others inside.

The noble’s box was half as long as the tier itself, lined with two rows of high-backed, cushioned chairs. The second row was elevated on a step above the first, and the rail at the front was exquisitely carved into the likeness of crashing waves. Tables filled with food and drink sat along the back wall, to either side of the door leading out to the landing. The floor was polished wood, the ceiling hung with the banners of each competing house, from the least-known commoner to that of Fingolfin himself.

“Come,” Celebrían said, and guided the Hobbits and Mithrandir toward three golden heads seated in the front row. They followed obediently, even Mithrandir, keeping silent as she led the way down the step and around the chairs into the space between them and the rail. When they were but a dozen paces away, she halted the others, winked at Mithrandir, then went ahead alone to meet Finrod, Amarië, and Arandannen.

“Hello, Uncle,” she said, crouching down beside Finrod’s chair. Finrod jumped, startled by her sudden appearance and voice. He whirled around, saw who it was, and then laughed brightly.

“Hello to you too, penneth,” he said, grinning at her.

“I brought some people here for you to meet,” she told Finrod. Then she leaned out, smiled at Amarië, and added, “Hello to you too, Amarië. Arandannen.”

“Hello,” the young boy said brightly, waving. He adored his cousin, who often watched him. It was Celebrían who had sewn him his first “fancy clothes” as he put it, and who had formed and fashioned his personal coat of arms.

“Isn’t he a little young to have one?” Amarië had asked Celebrían privately, after Celebrían had presented the embroidered cloth to Arandannen at dinner the night of his fifteenth birthday. He had been sent to bed, leaving Celebrían alone with Finrod and his wife and a decanter of wine.

Celebrían had shrugged. “Elwing had Elrond’s sewn for him even before his birth. Though the original was lost in the sack of Sirion—or so Gil-galad told me—there were already copies drawn into the history books in the libraries throughout the city, some of which survived the Kinslaying.”

Finrod had shaken his head, but had made no comment, leaving Celebrían to wonder at what her uncle was thinking.

“Even so,” Amarië had said, before trailing off.

“If you do not want him to have it, or if you had another in mind—though Finrod said you did not—I can rescind it,” Celebrían said. “That is your right as parents.”

“It is not that,” Finrod said quickly. “I told you I approved of it before you presented it to him, and I stand by that.”

Amarië shot him a look, and Celebrían sensed that the two of them were going to have a heated conversation about the subject once she was gone for the night.

“I only fear…” Again Amarië had trailed off, before shaking her head.

“Fear what?” Celebrían pressed gently.

“The tradition of presenting the sigil in youth came about during a time of conflict, war, and bloodshed. Perhaps this is only superstition, but I fear what it might portend for my son that he already has one.”

Rising, Celebrían had placed her glass of wine on the table sitting at the end of the sofa, and crossed to kneel before her friend. “It portends nothing,” she said, gripping Amarië’s hands in hers. “Nothing but the love of a cousin.”

Now, six years later, Arandannen proudly wore his own sigil beneath that of his father, embroidered on the breast of his tunic for the special occasion.

“Who have you brought?” Finrod asked, turning in his seat to peer past Celebrían. Celebrían stood, blocking his view, and grinned down at her seated uncle.

“Someone I think you will be very thrilled to meet,” she told him. She turned slightly, and beckoned for Bilbo and Frodo to approach. They did so cautiously, Frodo especially looking uncertain and perhaps even a little green. Mithrandir drew near behind them, grinning.

Celebrían stepped aside, giving her uncle an unimpeded view of his visitors—and her uncle nearly tripped over his own feet as he leapt up, already extending a hand toward Frodo in greeting.

“Well met, Ring-bearer!” Finrod Felagund exclaimed, kneeling so as to not be towering over the Hobbits. He shook Frodo’s hand, then Bilbo’s, smiling so widely Celebrían was surprised his face did not split in half. “Well-met indeed. I have been wanting to meet the two of you—it is absolutely incredible what the two of you did, bearing that Ring of destruction and power and malice and evil for so long, with Sauron himself bending his will against you—but it never seemed like the appropriate time or place to do so. Please, tell me your names.”

They introduced themselves, Finrod repeating their names with a nod and a grasp of the forearm for each of them.

“Is it really true that you went head-to-head against Sauron and nearly won?” Frodo blurted out.

Finrod’s face fell, and Frodo blanched. “I would not say I nearly won, no,” Finrod said solemnly. “But I gave it my best try.” Finrod smiled sadly. “A great deal of pain and sorrow befell me for failing in my duel with him. But do not despair, Frodo,” he said, seeing Frodo’s face twist into a mask of grief, “for I healed from my wounds dealt by Sauron’s hand and mind—and so too shall you.”

Frodo nodded slowly, somber as well. “I believe you,” he said softly, after a moment’s thought. “For the first time—for the first time, I believe when someone says that.”

Celebrían smiled and claimed the seat beside Arandannen, even as the Hobbits found seats beside Finrod, who slid smoothly back into smiling eagerness. “Tell me,” she heard him say, “do you simply not wear shoes? And if so, is that a cultural quirk? A product of nature? Or something else entirely? And tell me, what is the name of your home? And tell me all about it, and about your customs and traditions…”

~*x*~

Elrond sat on Avasath and watched his opponent mount on the other side of the list. He was a great, hulking Elf, taller and broader than most—though not nearly as tall as Elrond’s foster father, Maedhros, had been—but he carried himself with ease and grace belying his size. That bespoke strength and skill; Elrond thought he was going to have to worry about this Elf.

The other Elf’s mount was a tall, sturdy-looking dun gelding. He bore no armor—only the wealthiest and most noble of the Elves typically armored their horses for simple tournaments—but his jousting saddle, high-backed and high-fronted, was beautifully made of rich, dark leather embossed with flowers and vines. Though Elrond’s eyesight was not as sharp as a full-blooded Elf’s, it was still good enough for him to make out the details on the saddle, and on his opponent’s armor, which was plain but for a single crest etched into the breastplate. That meant that he was either noble—which Elrond doubted, for he suspected he would have heard of that fact, if only from Ambalaurë, who was standing half a dozen paces behind him and to his right—or had done a deed great enough to win him and his family a sigil.

“Who is he?” Elrond asked Ambalaurë, turning in his saddle to look at Fingolfin’s standard bearer.

“Please,” Ambalaurë had said as Elrond emerged from his tent a few minutes after Mithrandir had left, to curry and saddle Avasath. “Let me serve as your squire, at least until I am needed in the lists myself—which is not until this afternoon.”

“Why?” Elrond asked. “Why would you wish to do this for me?”

“Because you aided me,” Ambalaurë told him. “I won my last bout because of you. No, really,” he said, when Elrond frowned. “I have been struggling with attention and focus—Lord Fingolfin has been working with me on it for months now—and you helped me achieve it. So I accredit my win to you. Please, Lîmrion, let me serve you.”

Elrond shook his head. “You need not do this to thank me. Your words and friendship are enough.”

“Then let me do this as a friend,” said Ambalaurë.

Elrond sighed, then relented. “With one caveat,” he said.

“Yes?”

“You allow me to aid you this afternoon, if I am able.”

Ambalaurë’s smile could have challenged the Sun in its brilliance. “Deal,” he said.

He helped Elrond curry and saddle Avasath—“Be nice,” Elrond instructed the mare when she turned a critical eye on Ambalaurë, “he’s a friend.”—and then aided Elrond in putting on his armor. Though he could do it himself, Elrond had to admit that it was nice to have an extra set of hands throughout the process.

Now Ambalaurë stood behind him with arms crossed, eyeing the Elf at the other end of the list with something that bordered on distaste.

“That is Ramo,” said Ambalaurë with what looked like a glower. “He saved Lady Nimloth from a boar on a hunt some 600 years ago. It earned him his crest and a place in Dior’s household.”

“I take it you do not like him much?”

“He’s arrogant and hard-headed—and not in the good, stubborn kind of way like Tyelperindë or Lainrendis. He has a tendency to bully too.”

“How do you know so much about him?” Elrond asked.

Ambalaurë grimaced. “We grew up together. We were not friends though, just lived in the same village.”

“I take it you were enemies then?”

Ambalaurë shrugged. “Something like that,” he admitted. “That is why I did not mention it before—I did not want to sound like I was whining or complaining about him, or trying to sway your judgment of him.”

Elrond smiled and stopped himself from shaking his head. Though Ambalaurë was a couple thousand years old, he still seemed very young—and not only because Elrond was three times his age. He suspected that Elves in Valinor grew up much slower than those in Middle-earth had, for the simple fact that there was no evil in Valinor to contend with, no evil to force them to grow up prematurely.

It made him wonder what his life would have been like if he had been born and raised in Valinor, instead of in Beleriand. What kind of man would he be now, if his young childhood had not been filled with strife and pain and fear? What kind of Elf would he be if his formative years had not been spent learning how to kill and defend, to fight and to protect? What kind of adult would he have been if he had not fought in the War of Wrath even before his fiftieth begetting day?

“Are you well, Lîmrion?” Ambalaurë asked.

Elrond laughed. “Yes,” he assured his young friend. “Only thinking.”

“I hope I did not perturb you with my talk of Ramo,” said Ambalaurë.

Elrond shook his head. “You did not.”

“Good,” said Ambalaurë. “And look, here comes the official.”

It was true. The official, bearing Elrond’s lance, approached quickly, a pinched look on his face. “Here you are,” he said, handing the lance up to Elrond.

“My thanks,” said Elrond.

“I take it you know the rules by now?” the official asked.

“I do,” said Elrond.

“Good, good,” said the official. He hesitated, then said, “I hope you beat him.”

Elrond arched an eyebrow at that. “I hope so too,” was all he said, however.

“Wait for the trumpet,” the official instructed, then moved back to stand with Ambalaurë.

Elrond lowered his visor, and turned his attention to Ramo and his horse. He settled down into his saddle, took in a deep breath, and calmed his heart. It would do him no good to ride into this joust worked up and nervous.

The trumpet came. Avasath leapt forward without even having to be asked, hooves thundering, sides heaving. Elrond lowered his lance over her withers, and watched Ramo’s oncoming shield. He rose in his stirrups at the last second, striking the shield dead on with as much force as he and Avasath together could muster. His lance shattered, and they passed by in a rush, Elrond sliding back into his saddle with a thud and a thump as the small of his back impacted the high back of the saddle. He grunted; Ramo’s strike had more force behind it than any other’s he had jousted against, even Findis. He suspected his back would be black and blue after this.

Avasath turned and trotted back toward her starting mark. As she moved past the stands, Elrond became aware of cheering. He glanced to the right, and there he saw Lainrendis, Aearmagol, Áraselyë, and Tyelperindë sitting—or standing—and yelling his name. He rolled his eyes, hidden behind his visor, but was touched nonetheless that they would put forth the same excitement and show of support for him as they had Ambalaurë.

They returned to the starting mark, and Elrond was handed a new lance. He shifted his grip on his shield, working his hand around the wooden handle that his hand fit through. It was beginning to go numb.

Was this what others felt when he jousted against them? He wondered.

The trumpet came again, and Avasath surged forward, Elrond lowering his lance. They came together with the crash and crack of wood splintering—and Elrond grunted as Ramo’s lance caught his shield just beneath the center of it, in an attempt to pop him from his saddle. Already unbalanced from rising in his stirrups, Elrond was flung backwards. He twisted, awkward in his armor, just barely managing to get back into it, and dropped the ruined half of the lance to grab onto the front of the saddle. Listing to one side, he clung to Avasath as she turned and once more trotted back to their end of the field. Only once she had halted did he manage to right himself, breathing heavily from the near call.

Rising in the stirrups gave him extra power behind each blow—but it was also dangerous, if his opponent was greatly skilled. When in his stirrups, only an inch or so of his pelvis was still in the saddle, making it easier for him to be unhorsed. Furthermore, being unhorsed when he was like that made it far more likely for a foot to become tangled in a stirrup, or for him to flip over the back of the saddle, making the prospect far more dangerous.

Did he dare try that trick again, even knowing how skilled Ramo was? Did he risk injury in order to win?

Of course he would risk injury in order to win. That answer was simple. That made the answer to the first question simple as well.

Elrond was handed a third lance. The trumpet blew. Avasath charged.

They thundered down the lane, Elrond’s focus arrowing onto Ramo’s shield. It was emblazoned with his house crest: a boar with a spear through its chest, an intricate flower of design painted behind it. Elrond narrowed his eyes—rose in his stirrups, and thrust forward at Ramo’s shield. The tip of his lance struck the shield just beneath the boar’s heart, and Elrond shoved forward and up.

Ramo flew.

Elrond was thrown back into his saddle with the crunch of metal impacting wood. He flinched at the spike of pain through his back, but then brushed it away; he would soak his pain away later in the bath house. For now he had other matters to attend to—matters like Lainrendis, Aearmagol, Áraselyë, and even Tyelperindë all cheering in the stands; matters like Ambalaurë standing and clapping and beaming broadly as he stepped forward to take Elrond’s reins as he dismounted; matters like Ramo stalking forward to the clatter of his helm falling to the ground and rolling in the dirt, a furious look reddening his face.

“Just who are you, you...you ingrate ?” he snarled as he drew near. He halted in front of Elrond and shoved his face up close to him. Though Ramo was tall for an Elf, he was not quite as tall as Elrond was, and that made him redden even more.

“You really should take better care of your armor,” Elrond said blithely. “It will take hours to clean all of the dirt out of the embossed crevices on your helm.”

Ramo growled. “Who the hell do you think you are to tell me what to do?” he sneered.

Elrond took off his helm and stared down at the furious Elf. “My name is Lîmrion,” he said calmly, “formerly of Middle-earth. It would serve you well to get a hold of your tongue,” he added with an edge of steel, “before I seek recompense for your tone and actions.”

Ramo snarled again. “As if you could best me with the sword,” he said derisively. “It was only a matter of luck that you bested me with the lance at all, and I am even better with the sword.”

Elrond could not keep himself from snorting. His foster father, Maedhros, had once told him that he had the talent to be one of—if not the —greatest swordsmen of his Age. Given that Maedhros had been one of the best swordsmen of his Age, Elrond was inclined to believe him—and indeed, it had been many thousands of years since he had been bested with the sword in an official duel or a fight. Even Glorfindel was unable to beat him more than once in every five bouts.

“Child,” Elrond said, knowing his calmness was infuriating Ramo, “I would not recommend you cross blades with me.”

Ramo scoffed. “I could say the same for you. You do not know who it is you are challenging, if you are from Middle-earth. I slew a boar single-handedly wielding only a sword.”

“A noble feat,” said Elrond, still very calm. He did not say that he had killed his first—but not his last—troll with only a sword when he was only 51.

“Yet you do not seem impressed,” Ramo hissed.

Elrond arched an eyebrow. “Because I am not,” he said.

Ramo lifted the pair of gloves he had taken from his hands and slapped Elrond across the face with them. “I challenge you to a duel,” he spat, “for the honor of my name and the name of my household.”

“Very well,” said Elrond. “When shall this duel take place?”

“Tonight,” said Ramo. “At sunset.”

“Where?”

“Beyond the outskirts of the encampment. By the lone tree.” He sneered. “Think you can find it?”

“No,” Elrond said, face blank and eyes cold, “I am too stupid to find the only tree around for miles.”

Ramo snorted, then whirled on his heel and stalked away.

“What were you thinking?” Ambalaurë hissed as soon as Ramo was out of earshot. “He was telling the truth when he said he slew that boar with only a sword. He’s wicked good with a blade, and he’s the kind of Elf who will gut you for an offense far less than the one you just gave him.”

“Have you so little faith in me?” Elrond asked, turning to look at the younger Elf.

Ambalaurë frowned. “I barely know you,” he pointed out. “I have never seen you fight with a blade—only a lance. I have no way to know how good you are with a sword.”

Elrond sighed. “I have had more than 6,000 years to practice with one,” was all he said, however.

“You what?” Lainrendis asked five minutes later, once Elrond and Ambalaurë had emerged from the competitor’s entrance into the lists. “He what?” she added, looking at Ambalaurë. “Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you—”

“It all happened too fast,” Ambalaurë said, lifting his hands as if to defend himself from Lainrendis’s onslaught of words. “By the time I realized it was going to happen, Ramo had already slapped him—and there was no going back from there.”

“There could have been,” said Lainrendis hotly. “You could have kept Lîmrion from agreeing.”

Elrond smiled, small and faint, at that. “My dear Lainrendis,” he cut in smoothly, “there is very little Ambalaurë could have done to stop me from teaching that child a lesson.”

“Are you really that confident in your own abilities?” Áraselyë asked, her voice soft against Lainrendis’s shout.

Elrond shrugged noncommittally. “I have no reason not to be,” he told the group.

“But how?” Tyelperindë said, speaking up for the first time since they group had rejoined. “He killed a boar , Lîmrion.”

“There are far worse things in this world than boars,” Elrond said. “Or, at least, there are beyond the Sundering Sea.”

“And have you killed those things with only a sword?” Aearmagol asked. He sounded unusually somber.

“Yes.”

There was a long beat of silence. None of the others quite seemed to know what to say to Elrond’s blunt answer.

Finally, however, Tyelperindë said, “Well, what is done is done. We can now only do all we can to aid Lîmrion today and tonight to prepare for the duel, and to support him when the time comes.”

“Thank you,” Elrond said softly. “Though please know that none of you must do anything for me. I goaded Ramo into striking me on purpose; I wanted this duel, likely just as much as he did. I do not expect any sympathy from you, or any aid.”

Eyebrows went up around the circle that had formed. “You intended for this to happen?” Lainrendis asked, her voice rising again. “You wanted to fight him?”

Elrond smiled grimly. “He is arrogant, brash, and unkind. He has bad manners, and is a sore loser. He needs a lesson.”

“And you think you’re the one to teach it to him?” Lainrendis asked, shouting once more.

Elrond’s smile grew into something wicked. “I do.”

“I do not understand men,” Lainrendis muttered, very suddenly not shouting anymore. She threw her hands up, turned, and stalked away, muttering under her breath. Áraselyë glanced at Elrond, then turned and followed Lainrendis.

The group broke up after that, each to go their own way until they met up at the entrance to the booths at noon.

Elrond returned to his tent, after promising to find Ambalaurë in an hour to help him prepare for his next joust. There, he removed his armor and hung it on its rack, stripped off the padding, and changed into clean clothes. Then he went out and took care of Avasath, brushing and currying her until her coat gleamed. By then it was nearly time for him to meet up with Ambalaurë, so he put away his brushes, pulled on his boots, and went in search of Ambalaurë’s tent.

“I was hoping you would find it,” Ambalaurë said fifteen minutes later when Elrond arrived.

“It was not difficult,” Elrond said. “One must only know what questions to ask.”

“You are very cryptic sometimes,” Ambalaurë told Elrond.

Elrond laughed. “So I have been told.”

Elrond aided Ambalaurë in armoring up, fastening his breastplate, cuisse, and greaves, while Ambalaurë attached the fauld and tasset, then pulled on his vambraces and gauntlets. Next came the poleyns and pauldrons, the lance rest, and lastly Ambalaurë’s helm.

“Shall we?” Elrond asked, sketching a bow to Ambalaurë in the tent mouth.

Ambalaurë grinned and walked out, at surprising ease for wearing plate armor. Elrond untied his stallion, and guided him alongside Ambalaurë to the lists, rising dark against the bright, blue sky at the distant center of the encampment.

“Look!” Ambalaurë cried, as they came to a halt at the far end of the competitor's yard to wait for the previous competitors to vacate the field. “Lord Fingolfin has come to watch.” He turned to Elrond and grinned broadly, clearly both thrilled and pleased. Elrond tried not to blanch.

“You look ill,” Ambalaurë noted. “Are you well?” He followed Elrond's line of sight to Fingolfin sitting in the first row of stands. His grin reappeared. “Lord Fingolfin is no one to worry about. His reputation far outweighs him—though do not say I said so. He can be quite a fool sometimes, even, though he is usually serious.”

Elrond, who had seen that goofier side of Fingolfin during their second meeting, as Fingolfin had tried to put him at ease, merely shrugged and said,” If you say so.”

“What?” Ambalaurë asked. “Are you afraid of nobility?”

“Something like that,” Elrond told him.

“I thought you knew nobles in Middle-earth, though,” Ambalaurë said.

Elrond sighed. Curse inquisitive and intelligent youths, he thought darkly.

“I did,” he said. “But Lord Glorfindel is far different than Lord Fingolfin, for instance.”

Ambalaurë frowned. “Is it the family?” he asked. “King Finwë's line?”

Elrond leapt at the out Ambalaurë had given him. “Something like that,” he hedged, still not wanting to give him a definite answer—only enough for him to draw his own conclusions.

“Hm,” said Ambalaurë. “Well, I shan't make you meet him then. Though I think you would like him if you did. He is very kind.”

“I will take your word for it,” said Elrond, though he did not need to—he knew of Fingolfin's kindness. It had been Fingolfin who had first greeted him at the Palace of Tirion, and Fingolfin who had escorted him in to meet Finwë. It had been Fingolfin who served as his herald during that first introduction, and Fingolfin who had stuck close to Elrond's side as he had met most of his extended family shortly thereafter. Yes, Elrond knew of Fingolfin's kindness—but he did not wish to let on that he did.

The competitors in the joust before Ambalaurë's finished in a crunch of splintering wood. They rode off the field, attendants scrambling to pick up the pieces of shattered lances, and Ambalaurë was motioned into the small yard at the end of the list proper. He mounted up, saluted Elrond, then rode to the starting mark and accepted his first lance. Across the field, his opponent—an Elf in in unmarked, silver armor—did the same.

The trumpet call came. Ambalaurë spurred his stallion into a crescendoing gallop. They charged down the field, rider and horse almost perfectly in sync, and Ambalaurë struck the other Elf's shield dead on. He dropped it, his own lance skidding off of Ambalaurë's shield, but did not fly from his saddle.

Elrond walked forward just enough to be in speaking distance as Ambalaurë returned. He hoped Fingolfin would not see him—or if he did, that he would be too far away to be distinguishable.

“Go for the kill,” he told Ambalaurë. “His seat and his grip are weak. He will fly like a gull on a spring morning.”

Ambalaurë accepted his second lance, nudged his stallion into place, and waited for the horn call. When it came, his steed leapt forward and charged down the lane, tail streaming out behind him. Ambalaurë lowered his lance, readjusted his shield—and struck his opponent's shield just below the center. He came out of the saddle just as easily as Elrond had predicted.

Ambalaurë trotted his stallion back towards Elrond. He handed his lance to the attendant, then lifted his visor to grin down at his friend.

“You were right!” he exclaimed proudly, in that moment sounding nothing more than like Aearmagol. “He came out of the saddle as easily as a rip grape off the vine.” He swung down out of his saddle, gathering the reins in one hand, and then extended the other to grip Elrond’s forearm. “Thank you, my friend,” he added.

“You are most welcome,” said Elrond, smiling back at the young standard bearer.

Ambalaurë released Elrond, then glanced over his shoulder. When he turned back, he said, “If you do not wish to meet Lord Fingolfin, I suggest you depart now. I believe he is coming to meet me, for he has left the stands and seems to be headed this way.”

Elrond nodded. “I will see you at the booths in an hour then,” he said, and turned to leave.

Ambalaurë watched Lîmrion beat a hasty retreat, wondering just what the House of Finwë had done to deserve his ire and trepidation. Aearmagol and Lainrendis had mentioned that he disliked Lord Elrond, in the same conversation they had told him—and the rest of their friends—that he had lived in Imladris in Middle-earth, and had known Lord Glorfindel. Was it something Lord Elrond had done to him, perhaps? Or did it stretch back farther than that? If he had been born in the First Age, he had likely fought in the War of Wrath, and thus might have encountered the House of Finwë during that time—or even, perhaps, before. Ambalaurë did not know just how old he was. Had something happened then to sour his opinion of them?

His musings were interrupted by Lord Fingolfin’s arrival. “Well fought, Ambalaurë,” he called when he was in hailing distance. He crossed the intervening space between them and clasped Ambalaurë’s forearm, smiling broadly. “You chose just the right moment to finish your opponent; it was good and quick thinking on your part.”

“I am afraid I cannot take credit for that,” Ambalaurë said with half a grimace, reaching up to take off his helm. His hair stuck to his cheeks and neck, the locks damp with sweat. “Lîmrion is the one who recommended I try to finish him on that last pass.”

“Lîmrion?” Lord Fingolfin asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Is that who I saw speaking with you before and during the match?”

“Aye,” said Ambalaurë.

“Who is he?”

“He’s a friend. An old one. Well, a new one, but one who is very old. Perhaps you knew him, back in the First Age?”

Lord Fingolfin looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head. “I do not recall his name. Why did you think I might know him?”

“He has an issue with the House of Finwë—or at least, that is what he implied—and I had wondered if it was because of something during the War of Wrath, or before.”

“Hm,” said Lord Fingolfin, turning and leading the way out of the list. “No, I do not recall his name from anywhere. That is not to say I did not encounter him; I met a great many Elves throughout the First Age, and I cannot promise I would remember every one of their names.”

Ambalaurë, leading his stallion along after Lord Fingolfin, nodded. “He is very skilled with the lance,” he said, “and he claims to be good with the sword as well. In fact, he helped me find my focus.”

“He did, did he?” Lord Fingolfin asked, turning to look at Ambalaurë with both eyebrows now cocked.

“Yes,” said Ambalaurë proudly.

“We shall see,” said Lord Fingolfin, though not unkindly. “I would like to meet him—this Lîmrion—if I may,” he added.

“I do not know that he will consent to a meeting with you,” said Ambalaurë hesitantly. “You should have seen his face when he realized you were in the stands. He looked downright nauseous.”

Lord Fingolfin’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “Oh, really?”

“Indeed. I am not entirely certain just what it was that happened to him, or between him and the House of Finwë, but I am certain he does not wish to meet you. I will see what I can do, though,” he added quickly, seeing Lord Fingolfin’s look.

“Thank you, penneth,” said Lord Fingolfin. “I would appreciate it.”

Ambalaurë smiled. “Anything for you, my lord,” he said. Anything for you…

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

The booths were located on the southern side of the encampment, set a little ways away from the spectator tents that encroached on the northern end. A large, hard-earthen road led from the tents to a carved, wooden arch that served as the entrance to the booths, then marched on in a straight line down the center of the business district. Smaller “streets”—more hard-packed dirt tracks, grey under the clouds that had condensed overhead by noon—led off to the right and to the left, winding and wandering between tents and pavilions, stands and proper booths all laden with goods and wares.

The thoroughfare was crowded with Elves, some meandering between vendors, some walking with purpose, all adding their voices to the din of noise and their bodies to the crush of the crowd. They were clad in dresses and armor, breeches and blouses, boots and slippers. The air was full of the scent of roasting meats and vegetables, the taste of ales and wines, the smell of delectable sweets; vendors hawked their wares, haggled with buyers, called to friends. It was a riot of noise and color, of sound and laughter, of smells and tastes.

Lainrendis spread her arms wide, spinning on her heel to walk backwards so she could face her friends, arrayed in a loose group behind her, and announced, “I have never felt so alive.”

They walked beneath the arch and into the booths proper, tightening together to avoid behind separated by the crush of the throng. Elrond ended up beside Tyelperindë at the back of the group; she shot him a thoughtful glance, then turned her attention forward once more without saying a word.

Grabbing Áraselyë’s hand, Lainrendis darted away towards an open-aired pavilion selling brooches and cloak clasps. Elrond watched them go, Aearmagol laughing and following, Ambalaurë doing so as well a few seconds later with a shake of his head. To Elrond’s surprise—though he perhaps should not have been so, he thought a second later—Tyelperindë remained by his side, instead of charging off as well. Instead, she crossed her arms and came to a halt beside one of the pavilion’s poles, leaning against it with an air of indifference.

“How did you fall in with this lot?” Elrond asked after a few seconds of weighty silence, in which they both watched their friends peruse the brooches and clasps. He turned to Tyelperindë, still leaning against the pole with arms crossed, and added, “Forgive me for saying so, but I would not have expected you to be friends with such an...exuberant group.”

Tyelperindë chuckled, then said, “We grew up together in the same farming village. Back then it seemed like the five of us against the world—and against the rival group of friends in town. We banded together less because of common interests, and more because of a common enemy, but then ended up becoming fast friends through the process.”

“And who was your enemy?” Elrond asked.

“Ramo and his gang,” Tyelperindë said. “There were four of them, though, and five of us, so we would usually win in fights, even if Áraselyë could not fight to save her own life.”

Elrond arched an eyebrow. “Your parents allowed fights? I—well, in my experience, fighting was rarely permitted. At least in Rivendell and Lothlorien. I suppose there was more antagonism in Eryn Galen between youngsters, something King Thranduil did not put a stop to as Lords Elrond and Celeborn and Lady Galadriel did.”

Tyelperindë shrugged. “Our parents knew a few bruises and cuts would not harm us. I think they actually thought it would do us good. You forget, Lîmrion, our world is not one of strife and evil. The entirety of Valinor is a safe haven, not just the small seclusions of places we have formed for ourselves. I think that makes a difference.”

Elrond smiled. “You are wise for your years,” he said.

“I am nearly 2,000 years old,” Tyelperindë pointed out. “That is hardly a child.”

“Still a child to me,” Elrond said blithely, but then winked at Tyelperindë, who shook her head but grinned.

“I like you, Lîmrion,” said Tyelperindë abruptly. “Even if I do still think there is something you are hiding.”

Elrond’s blood ran cold. “Hiding?” he asked, as innocent as he could make himself sound.

Tyelperindë nodded. “Perhaps I should not have said anything about it—but yes, you are hiding something. I know it.”

“What makes you think so?”

Tyelperindë shrugged. “I doubt any of the others would agree,” she went on, without answering Elrond’s question. “They are far too trusting, even after everything with Ramo’s gang.” She shook her head in something akin to fond dismay.

Her sharp, cold blue eyes suddenly snapped up to Elrond’s. “But know this, Lîmrion: even if I like you, I will not hesitate to cut you down if you hurt any of my friends.”

Elrond’s eyebrows rose. “And what makes you think you could do that?” he asked calmly.

Tyelperindë smiled coldly. “Ambalaurë may be the one with martial training, but he is kind-hearted and soft. I am neither of those things.”

Elrond suspected she was more those things than she was willing to admit, even to herself, but he did not say as much. “As you say,” was all he said, however. “I will take your warning to heart. Know this, though, Tyelperindë. I do not intend you, or any of your friends, any harm.”

“Intentions are all well and good,” Tyelperindë said, “but actions speak far louder.”

“Again with your wisdom.”

Tyelperindë smiled mirthlessly—then turned her attention to Lainrendis, who ran up to them holding a silver and amethyst brooch. “Look what I bought,” she exclaimed, showing first Tyelperindë then Elrond. “Is it not beautiful?”

It was beautiful. It was fashioned in the form of two serpents twining around each other, each biting the other’s tail. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Ring of Barahir—and a thrill of pain rang through Elrond, from crown to sole, at the sight of it—but with amethysts in the serpents’ eyes and at the heart of the brooch.

“It is,” said Tyelperindë, smiling at her friend. “Though should you perhaps have waited to buy it? It is not always wise to purchase the first thing that catches your eye.”

Lainrendis shrugged. “I wanted it,” she said, “and I still have money. Besides, Áraselyë said I should get it.”

Tyelperindë rolled her eyes. “Áraselyë always agrees with you,” she said.

“Not true,” said soft-spoken Áraselyë, appearing at Lainrendis’s elbow. “There are plenty of times we disagree.”

“Less and less so recently,” Tyelperindë said.

“She has a point,” Ambalaurë said, drawing near as well. He too held a purchase: a cloak fastening in the shape of a lion’s head, with rubies for the eyes and insets on the mane, and mother of pearl for the open-mouthed fangs.

Áraselyë blushed, and Lainrendis looked uncomfortable. They did not argue more, though.

“Shall we move on?” asked Aearmagol, after the group of friends had awkwardly stood around for a few seconds.

“Yes,” said Lainrendis, a little too quickly. “Let’s.”

They moved on, Elrond and Tyelperindë once more finding themselves together at the back. They did not speak, but walked instead in companionable silence. Elrond found it...nice. Yes, nice was a good word for it; he was not being pressured, he was not being scrutinized, he simply was—was allowed to be himself and no one else, even if that self was going under the guise of someone else.

“Tell us a little bit about yourself,” Tyelperindë said abruptly, pitching her voice so all could hear.

“You already know more than a little bit about me,” Elrond said dryly.

“We do not know what you like and dislike, what your philosophies are, what brought you here from Middle-earth. We only know that you are old, and that you are good with a lance and a horse, and that you can be cryptic. That is not much to judge someone by.”

Elrond smiled, though there was little mirth in the gesture. “Those are all things you will have to learn about me as time passes,” he said. “I am not in the habit of revealing my whole self to someone the first day I have met them, no matter how much I may like them.”

Tyelperindë smiled, and Elrond was surprised to see warmth in it. “That is fair,” she said, and there was, to Elrond’s even greater surprise, respect in her voice.

The clouds, which had condensed over the course of the late morning to form a wall of grey overhead, gathered tighter still, and then very suddenly let loose a deluge of rain, catching all of the Elves below off guard. There was a mad scramble for cover, ellyth and ellyn hollering and cursing as they ran, covering faces and hair with hands and arms.

Áraselyë halted in the middle of the main thoroughfare, a bastion of stillness amid the chaos, and opened her arms up to the rain, lifting her face to the heavens. The rain streamed over her, soaking her hair and cheeks in streams like tears, plastering her dress to her curves. Áraselyë laughed, bright and clear and sweet like honey, before looking down and finding Lainrendis watching her from a few paces away.

“Come,” Áraselyë said with another laugh, darting forward to seize Lainrendis’s hands and pulling her forward. Then Áraselyë spun, still holding Lainrendis’s hands, and together, for a moment, they danced beneath the rain.

Elrond watched them from beneath an awning, Aearmagol beside him. Behind them was a vendor selling sweet meats and pies. The Elf was cursing as he covered his fires, which spat and hissed from the raindrops, as well as his wares from the cool and damp.

“How long have Lainrendis and Áraselyë been besotted with one another?” Elrond asked, turning to Aearmagol.

“Lainrendis and Áraselyë?” Aearmagol asked with a frown. Then he laughed, as typically bright and cheerful as always. “No,” he said with a shake of his head. “Those two aren’t besotted. They are just friends. Best friends.”

Elrond arched an eyebrow. “I have eyes,” he said.

Aearmagol frowned again. “No,” he said for a second time, “they are…” He hesitated. A long moment of silence followed, in which Elrond could see him thinking. “Well,” he hedged at last, “perhaps… I mean, they have changed in the last decade or so. I know they see each other more than the rest of us, and their bickering has since all but been silenced. I had wondered why…”

Elrond smiled, looking back at the two of them, now twirling together in a dervish of skirts and rain and laughter. “I wonder if they even know,” he mused.

Aearmagol bit his lower lip in thought. “If they do,” he said, “I do not think they have spoken to each other about it. We would have known if they had.”

“Would you?” Elrond asked. “You had not even realized anything was different until I said something.”

Aearmagol shrugged with unusual somber sincerity. “I still think… I do not know. You have a better eye for this than I do,” he said. “Apparently.”

“I merely have the advantage of an outsider’s perspective,” Elrond said, and clapped Aearmagol on the shoulder.

After half an hour the rain began to abate, turning from a steady downpour to a fine mist. The Elves began to venture forth from their hiding places, and once more the thoroughfare grew crowded with seekers and buyers as well as vendors.

“Did you two have fun?” Ambalaurë asked Lainrendis and Áraselyë, coming towards them from across the street where he had taken refuge at a blacksmith’s stand.

Lainrendis laughed her bright and spritely laugh. “Yes,” she said simply. “Yes, we did.” She turned and looked at Áraselyë, who nodded, smiling brilliantly.

Elrond watched the two of them thoughtfully. He agreed with Aearmagol that the two of them had not spoken of their feelings; they were too hidden, too cautious with them, too wary of each other. In fact, he was not even sure if they knew that they were in love—or if one of them knew, he was almost certain the other was not. How, then, to help them realize it and speak to one another? Was it even his place to meddle? Or should he simply allow things to play out as they would have, had he not been included in their circle?

And yet he had been included in their circle, for whatever Eru-thought reason. He could not live his life as if he had not been befriended, as if he did not exist. He was part of them now, just as they were part of him, and that meant he was supposed to influence and affect their lives, just as they were to influence and affect his.

Elrond smiled. So, he thought, how to go about doing this…

The group moved off again, going slowly from booth to booth, examining the wares and speaking with the sellers. They ducked down a side street, coming to a section of the booths dedicated solely to food, and there they bought their lunches. Elrond chose a skewer of venison and pork interspersed with squash, carrots, and zucchini. The meat was tender and dripped with juices, and the vegetables and squash were sweet and just the right blend of crunchy and brazened-soft.

They also found a mulled wine vendor, and all six of them bought mugs of it. It was sweet and warm on Elrond’s tongue, delicious against the chill that the rain had brought to the air.

Then they came to a small section of booths set a little ways away from the rest. Elrond wondered at that—though on the main thoroughfare one could find any and all sorts of wares, it seemed that the side streets were designed to house specific sorts of vendors, from blacksmiths and weapons dealers to weavers and painters and potters—and wondered what the unifying theme of these sellers could be, for their wares seemed to be an eclectic mix.

Then he saw the faces of the vendors, and he blanched.

Gornacharn, one of the greatest poets from Imladris, stood behind one counter, displaying caligraphied copies of some of his finest works. Orodur, one of the blacksmith apprentices of Rivendell, stood behind a booth with an array of gleaming swords hanging from the rafters. Aewpath, one of Lindir’s best friends, strummed a lute beneath a pavilion awning, humming the beginning refrain of a ballad about Elrond himself.

The unifying factor among these vendors was that they were from Rivendell. There was no way that Elrond could avoid detection here.

Elrond panicked.

“I must go,” he said quickly, and turned to flee—only to come face to face with one of his former captains, Aravadhor.

Aravadhor was a tall, willowy Elf of Noldorin descent, with dark hair shorn to his shoulders and silver eyes. His shoulders were broad from millennia of martial training, and a distinctive scar was just visible on his neck above the collar; it was from a very old whipping he had suffered at the hands of Orcs. Elrond, who he had been protecting when he received the injury, had been able to keep his back from scarring terribly, but the wound on his neck was deeper and more severe than the rest, and Elrond had been unable to do anything but keep it from killing him for days—too long to keep it from scarring. He bore an unknown crest upon the breast of his blue tunic. He carried himself with grace and the subtleties of power hidden beneath a kind smile, and a ready laugh, and a gentle demeanor.

Aravadhor looked startled at the sight of Elrond nearly running into him, then shocked, and then opened his mouth to speak. Elrond, panicking even more now, lunged forward with one hand outstretched, plastering a smile he knew was as fake as poison across his lips.

“Captain,” he exclaimed, grasping Aravadhor’s forearm. “It has been far too long.” Lowering his voice, he hissed, “Go with it,” and prayed that none of the others had glimpsed the slight movement of his lips, or caught the low rumble of his voice.

Confusion flashed across Aravadhor’s face, there and then gone, and then he smiled. “Ah, yes,” he said, somewhat stilted, clearly trying to play along but not knowing exactly what to say. “Far too long, er…”

“Lîmrion,” Elrond supplied.

“Ah yes. Lîmrion,” Aravadhor said, a dark look crossing his lips and narrowing his eyes. Lîmrion had been one of his best friends, before Lîmrion’s death. It probably felt like a slap in the face to hear Elrond using his name.

Later, he mouthed, and Aravadhor’s shoulders slumped. He nodded, small and slight—then perked up. “And who are these fine young Elves?” he asked, looking past Elrond to the rest of his group.

Elrond turned, and saw the others watching him and Aravadhor with varying degrees of confusion and interest stamped across their faces. Introductions were made, names given and received, laughter and handshakes exchanged. Aravadhor smiled at each one in turn, genuine in spite of the dirty looks he kept shooting Elrond whenever no one else was looking, and answered the questions the younger Elves peppered him with.

“How did you know Lîmrion?” Aearmagol asked.

“He was one of the Captains of Imladris,” Elrond said quickly, before Aravadhor could spoil any secrets he was trying to keep.

“Ah,” said Aearmagol.

“And what did a Captain of Imladris do?” Ambalaurë asked, suddenly all interest.

Aravadhor chuckled. “Nothing of much interest,” he said. “Usually, at least. Normally it meant organizing patrols and daily meetings with my men, Lord Glorfindel, and Lord Elrond.” Again, he shot Elrond a dark look, which Elrond ignored.

“And unusually?” Ambalaurë pressed.

Aravadhor grinned. “I fought Orcs and Trolls and Wargs, and even Nazgûl on a few notable occasions.”

“You are a hero then,” Lainrendis said. It was not a query.

Aravadhor shook his head, blushing slightly. “I would not go so far as to say that,” he said. “Lord Elrond, certainly. Lord Glorfindel, absolutely. But me? Hardly.”

“You are too modest,” Elrond said, interjecting. “You have done some notably heroic things.”

“Oh? Like what?” Aravadhor asked, arching his eyebrows.

“You saved Lord Elrond from Orcs—more than once. You have also saved his sons from death and injury, and led many victories over the course of both Sieges of Imladris. You slew Orcs and Trolls and Wargs alike, and rescued countless people during the Sack of Ost-in-Edhil.”

Aravadhor raised his hands. “Very well,” he said, bowing slightly. “I concede your point.”

“Did you really do all those things?” Áraselyë asked.

“L—Lîmrion makes me and my deeds sound much greater than they actually were,” Aravadhor assured her. “But yes, I did do those things.”

The young Elves exchanged looks, their eyes gleaming. Elrond wondered if he had just introduced a few of them to a new hero.

“But now,” Aravadhor said, turning away from them toward Elrond, “I fear I must steal Lîmrion here. He and I have some...matters to discuss.”

Draping an arm around Elrond, ensuring that he could not duck or shimmy away, Aravadhor guided his lord away from the booths set up by the Rivendell Elves, leaving Elrond’s friends behind. He waited until they were out of earshot to whirl on him, face white-lipped and crimson, to hiss, “What in the Iron Hells are you doing, impersonating my best friend?”

Elrond flinched, grabbed Aravadhor’s arm just beneath the elbow, and dragged him onward down the side street, farther away from his friends. “I will be honest,” he said, pitching his voice low enough that he could not be heard, even by passersby. “I did not really think of the full ramifications of my choice when I decided to go by the name Lîmrion.”

“And why did you decide to go by the name Lîmrion?”

“It was the first name that came to mind when I was asked,” Elrond said, flushing slightly. “Celebrían and her last days had been weighing heavily upon my mind, and so it seemed only natural to me to choose Lîmrion as my identity, given my purpose here.”

“And what is that purpose?” Aravadhor asked. His words were half a sneer; he was clearly still angry—and rightfully so, Elrond thought.

“To mend the bridge of my relationship with my wife,” Elrond said, coming at last to a halt on the corner of an empty street. The nearest vendor was far enough away that he could not hear them, and there were no patrons wandering here; they would be able to speak freely without the fear of being overheard. “And to compete in the tournament,” Elrond added. “But mostly to mend the bridge of my relationship with my wife.”

“First of all,” said Aravadhor, “what bridge needed mending? And second of all, why could you have not done so as yourself?”

“To answer your second question first,” Elrond said, “it is because I wanted to be able to compete without my family knowing I was here.”

Aravadhor frowned. “And why is that?” he asked, clearly confused.

Elrond sighed, running a hand through his shorn hair. “Because,” he said, “I did not want them to hand me a win simply on merit of who I am. If I win, I want to win because I am worthy of winning—not because of my bloodline, and my family deciding they wanted to do something nice for me. Or, rather, because they want to engender my love and good will.”

“Would they actually do that?” Aravadhor asked.

Elrond shrugged mutely, then added, “I would not put it past them, given how they have treated me. They do not seem above doing anything in order to curry my favor.”

Aravadhor frowned. “Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Of course there is,” Elrond said. “They only want to use me.”

“Do you not think that is because they, I don’t know, like you? And they want you to like them back?”

Elrond snorted. “I doubt that,” he said, but did not expound.

It was Aravadhor’s turn to sigh. “If you say so,” he muttered, apparently not wanting to argue further. “So,” he said, when Elrond did not speak any further, “what is the answer to my first question?”

Elrond shook his head and shifted his weight from foot to foot before saying, “There has been...strain in Celebrían and I’s relationship ever since I came to Valinor.”

“What kind of strain?”

“If I knew that, do you not think I would have fixed it already?” Elrond snapped, testy.

“I apologize,” Aravadhor said stiffly, “I was only...concerned.”

Elrond sighed again and his shoulders slumped. “There is something wrong in our marriage,” he                                                                                           said softly. Then, he added, “Perhaps there is something wrong with me.”

“With you?” Aravadhor asked, the stiffness bleeding out of his voice to be replaced with worry. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…” Elrond trailed off. Then he shook his head. “Never mind.”

“Never mind?” Aravadhor asked, raising his eyebrows. “Oh no, my lord,” he said, “you’re not getting out of this so easily.

“What do you want me to say?” Elrond asked, snapping again. “That I almost killed myself last night? That I want to die? That I believe no one could ever love me for me—that everyone in my life is merely using me? That I’m ruined beyond repair?”

“You aren’t ruined beyond repair,” Aravadhor said softly. “This is Valinor, my lord: the land of healing. You can and you will heal here, if you will only give yourself the time.”

“How do you know that?” Elrond asked, sounding tired. “How can you possibly know that? Can you see the future now?”

Aravadhor shook his head. “No, my lord,” he admitted. “But I am already finding healing here—healing the likes of which I never thought I could find.”

Elrond’s eyes snapped up to Aravadhor’s. “Oh,” he said softly. He suspected he knew what Aravadhor was referring to—an incident between himself and his captain many years in the past, that Elrond had been manipulated and forced into through the threat of pain and death to Aravadhor—and for a moment he was back on the barren plain where it had happened, the harshness of firelight on his face, the fear and horror and disgust as real to him in that second as it had been then. Then he cast the memory from his mind and added, “I’m sorry.”

Aravadhor shook his head. “You need not be sorry, my lord,” he said.

“But it is my fault—I mean, I assume…”

Aravadhor cocked a grin. “You assume correctly. I still bear the scars of that night… But I am healing, utterly and entirely.”

“How?” Elrond asked.

“Because I have forgiven you,” Aravadhor said.

Elrond hesitated. “Had you not before?” he asked warily. “I thought…”

“And you thought correctly. But I still held onto pain from that night, and now I have let that go.”

“How?” Elrond asked again.

“There will always be some pain,” Aravadhor admitted. “That is the way of trauma. But enough time has passed that I can let go of the baggage of that night. More than that, I understand now—wholly and entirely—that it was not your fault what you did to me.” He blushed and smiled a secret sort of smile. “I actually have spoken to Estë,” he admitted. “She came to me in a dream, the first month I was here. We spoke at great length.”

“And she helped you?” Elrond asked.

Aravadhor nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Because I allowed her to help me,” Aravadhor added pointedly.

Elrond laughed bitterly. “That seems to be the advice of the day,” he said.

“What?” Aravadhor asked. “To let others help you?”

Elrond nodded. “Indeed. That seems to be everyone’s advice to me lately.”

“Well,” said Aravadhor, “it is good advice.”

Elrond laughed. It sounded half-crazed. “So it would seem.”

Footsteps. Elrond whirled, and there was Lainrendis, Áraselyë, Aearmagol, Tyelperindë, and Ambalaurë, all walking towards them, talking and laughing.

“There you are, Lîmrion,” Aearmagol exclaimed, seeing him with Aravadhor at the corner of the street. “We have been looking for you.”

Elrond leaned close to Aravadhor and hissed quickly, “Remember, I am not here. Please, pass that along to anyone else who might see me.”

Aravadhor nodded, suddenly grave. “I will,” he promised. Then, shoving his hands into the pockets of his breeches, he turned on his heel and walked away with a parting, “It was good to meet you all,” to Elrond’s younger friends.

The group swept Elrond up and down the street toward the thoroughfare. Elrond went along willingly enough, his mind tangled with thoughts of his conversation with Aravadhor. He fell to the back, walking slowly, and shoved his own hands into his breeches pockets, lost in thought.

Everyone has told me that I need to let others help me, he mused. But how do I do that? How do I let others aid me? How do I open myself up to that?

Can I even open myself up to it? he wondered. Or am I too broken—to desolate, too afraid, too wary of pain being wrought upon me—to do so?

Do I even trust anyone enough to open myself up to them?

“So.”

Elrond started, coming out of his thoughts with a jolt, and glanced quickly around. He found Tyelperindë falling back alongside him, arms crossed, haughty features stamped with both amusement and something oddly resembling concern.

“How close were you?” she asked.

Elrond frowned. “Me and who?” he asked.

“You and Aravadhor,” Tyelperindë said. “You two were clearly very comfortable with each other. Dare I say even...well.” She trailed off into an implication that Elrond did not understand.

“I am not sure what you are talking about,” Elrond said slowly.

“The two of you,” Tyelperindë said. “You were in a relationship, were you not? I saw the way he looked at you: with respect, and honor, and love.”

Elrond’s frown deepened. “Hardly,” he said darkly.

Tyelperindë laughed. “I know what I saw,” she said. “So, how close were you two?”

Elrond shrugged. “Close,” he said.

Tyelperindë nodded, as if something had been confirmed. “And how close did you two come to marrying?”

Elrond swallowed a squawk. “Marrying?” he asked, both confused and a little affronted.

“Well, yes,” said Tyelperindë. “It was clear to me that you two had been in a relationship. I think I understand now, too, why you were so reticent to speak of Imladris and your time there—as well as your dislike of Lord Elrond.”

“Oh?” Elrond asked.

It was Tyelperindë’s turn to shrug. “Well,” she said, “if my assumptions are correct, you two had a falling out. He still follows Lord Elrond, and you do not. There must be some resentment there.”

“Ah,” said Elrond. He was not so confused and affronted that he had missed the out that Tyelperindë had given him. He lunged for it, seizing it and swallowing it. “Well, yes,” he said, trying to make it sound like an admission. “Aravadhor is...very dear to me. As to how close we came to marriage...well, very close,” he said with dark humor. Again, for just an instant, he felt the barren plain’s hard dirt pressed against his bare knees, felt the firelight on his skin, felt Tilion staring down at him with judgment. He shook his head and dispelled the memory.

Tyelperindë nodded sagely. “Thank you,” she said sincerely.

“For what?” Elrond asked, confused.

“For telling me,” said Tyelperindë. “This is clearly a sore subject for you. So thank you for trusting me enough to speak of it.”

Guilt flashed through Elrond for the second time since he had adopted Lîmrion’s name. Was he doing harm by pretending to be someone other than himself? Was he hurting his friends—both new and old—by going under a false name, under a false guise, under a false personage?

Would Tyelperindë ever forgive him for this lie?

“It is more complicated than you think,” Elrond said, looking Tyelperindë in the eye. “Just...do not hold too fast to your assumptions.”

Elrond then quickened his pace and pulled away from her, leaving her to ponder his words and her thoughts alone and in peace.

~*x*~

Elrond jousted six more times that day. Because of the scheduling—Elrond’s bouts were so close together that he did not even have time to cool Avasath all of the way down—Ambalaurë was only there for the first bout. He jousted twice more as well, once in the normal lists, and once in the main list against one of Doriath’s minor nobles, but Elrond was also unable to attend either of them.

Elrond arrived for his first bout ten minutes early. He was just about to enter the competitor’s entrance when he heard someone call, “Lîmrion!” He turned, still holding Avasath’s reins, to see Celebrían approaching at a quick walk.

“There you are,” she said with a bright and happy smile. “I was worried I would not be able to catch you before you went in.”

“Hello, my love,” Elrond murmured, once she was close enough that no one else could hear. “How are you?”

She reached out and touched his arm, then slid her hand down to his so she could grip his gloved fingers. “I am well enough,” she said. “A bit bored,” she admitted, “and wishing I could be spending my day with you instead.” She sighed. “But it is well enough.”

She smiled then, bright and brilliant. “I met the Hobbits today,” she told Elrond. “I introduced them to my uncle.”

“Finrod?” Elrond guessed.

Celebrían nodded. “I think he was just as thrilled and excited to meet them as they were him.”

“From what little I know of Finrod, I am not surprised,” Elrond said.

“How did you get away?” Elrond asked his wife.

“I told them the truth,” she said. “They know I am interested in your progress, and interested in you since you share the same name as my friend from Middle-earth.” She grinned a wry grin full of mischief.

“Hmm,” Elrond hummed. “Well, I am glad you are here.”

“As am I.”

A herald approached. He bowed to Celebrían, then turned to Elrond and said, “You are needed in the competitor’s yard. It is nearly time for your joust.”

“Thank you,” Elrond said, and then turned to Celebrían. “Will you stay to watch?”

“Of course I will,” Celebrían said.

Elrond smiled. “Thank you.”

Glancing around and seeing no one looking their way, Celebrían reached up and placed a quick kiss on Elrond’s cheek. “I love you,” she whispered. “Ride well.”

Elrond gathered himself and Avasath’s reins, and led her toward the entrance into the competitor’s yard.

A small, hard-packed dirt yard stood between the entrance to the lists and the open entrance into the field. There riders could wait and watch, heralds could mingle, and attendants could rest. Benches lined the fence that surrounded it, and a trough full of water for the horses stood against the far right wall. There was another yard and another entrance on the other side of the list for the second group of competitors.

Elrond watched as the previous competitor exited the field, looking glum and downcast. His horse was dark with sweat and breathing heavily, as was his Elven rider. As he passed Elrond, he glanced up. “Good luck,” he said, and offered Elrond a small, very sad smile.

“Thank you,” Elrond said, wishing in that instant that he had watched the previous joust so that he could offer a word of encouragement and compliment to the kid.

Elrond guided Avasath through the yard and through the entrance into the field. Another small yard stood between the gate and the rail. The starting mark was a white line painted onto the hard-packed dirt. It was freshly redone, white and stark against the dry soil.

Elrond mounted and nudged Avasath over toward the starting mark. An attendant appeared, carrying a lance, which he handed up to Elrond. Elrond took it, settled it into place against his leg, and then thanked the attendant. The attendant bowed and retreated.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, Elrond took a second to glance out over the crowd. There was Celebrían, sitting in the front row, looking expectant, excited, and hopeful. A surprising number of other spectators had gathered as well, and they all seemed to be expectantly staring at him. Elrond frowned and quickly put his helmet on, closing the visor against their piercing gazes.

He turned his attention to his opponent on the other side of the field. He was a willowy Elf, made bulky by his rust-red armor, with a fine mare as white as a cloud. Elrond suspected he packed quite a punch, for all that he was skinny.

“Are you ready?” the herald in the judge’s box called. Elrond raised his lance in a salute. Across the field, the willowy Elf did the same.

The horn call came. Avasath leapt forward, charging down the lane with thunder in her hooves. Elrond lowered his lance and watched his opponent come on, measuring his breaths and keeping his heart rate calm and steady.

Wham.

Elrond’s lance struck the rider’s shield dead on, shattering at the apex of the blow. The willowy Elf’s lance slid off of Elrond’s shield and his horse galloped past, her rider listing in the saddle. Avasath turned—just in time to watch as the Elf slid from his saddle and fell to the ground.

Worry and fear spiked through Elrond. He drew Avasath to a sliding halt and jumped down out of her saddle as nimbly as he could wearing armor, then all but ran toward the Elf lying on the ground, abandoning his shield as he went. He crashed to his knees beside him, reaching down to unfasten the strap holding the Elf’s helmet onto his head. Pulling it off, Elrond revealed a young ellon with rust-red hair the same color as his armor. His eyes were open and staring upwards. He blinked at the sight of Elrond staring down at him worriedly, then crooked a smile.

“You strike like a mumakil,” he said.

Elrond smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. “You know,” he said, “you are not the first person to say so.”

More Elves arrived at a run, attendants and a herald and an elleth dressed in the flowing white robes of a master healer. They shoved Elrond out of the way and knelt down beside the red-haired ellon.

Elrond rose, knowing his presence was not wanted, and returned to Avasath waiting patiently for him by the rail. He gathered her reins, bowed to the herald and the judges, who were watching the drama of the young, red-haired ellon sitting up slowly and dazedly, then guided Avasath out of the lists. Turning toward the spectator’s entrance, Elrond hoped to catch Celebrían before she departed back to her family.

She found him halfway there.

“Come here,” she whispered, and dragged him—and Avasath after him—toward the shadowed underside of the stands, which rose on stilted wooden legs two dozen feet into the air. The darkness closed around them, and Celebrían turned once they were deep enough under that they were not easily visible from the outside. “Come here,” she said again, this time with heat in her voice, and she stepped forward, placing Avasath between them and the outside world. She grabbed Elrond and dragged him down to her, kissing him fiercely.

Elrond returned the heat of her kiss, surprised but not unhappy with the development. The insidious whisper of “You do not deserve her,” hissed through his mind—but this time it was combated by Gandalf’s voice, by Námo’s, by Aravadhor’s.

“Let her help you,” the three voices joined together in saying, becoming one great and mighty voice that sent small shudders through Elrond’s skin—became a voice that was none of theirs: was greater than theirs, was something terrifying and impossible and both terrible and beautiful.

The voice was male and female, was triumphant and sorrowful, was mighty and small. It was everything and nothing—green grass and burning stars, air and fire, water and sky. It made Elrond feel very insignificant—and yet great and powerful as well, as if he was seen and loved and cherished as he, himself, alone and unadorned.

Elrond blinked, faltering in his kiss, and Celebrían pulled away a fraction of an inch. “El?” she asked, sounding worried. “Are you well? Did I do something wrong?”

Elrond shook his head. “No, my love,” he said, and leaned down to capture her lips with his again. They were soft and warm, sweet and intoxicating. Her tongue slid past his lips, and Elrond smiled into the kiss as it deepened, deepened, deepened. “You did nothing wrong at all,” he murmured when they broke apart at last, breathing heavily.

“Hmm,” Celebrían hummed, and reached up to trace his jaw with one fingertip. Elrond shivered at her touch, light and gentle and almost tickling. Celebrían grinned, and her finger moved up to run along his lower lip. Elrond caught her wrist in one hand and kissed the pad of her finger, then took it into his mouth to suck gently. His eyes did not leave Celebrían’s, or the heady look written across her face.

“I do not think this is the place,” Celebrían said after a few seconds, pulling away. “Not for this.”

“Hmm,” Elrond hummed, mimicking Celebrían from the moment before. “If you say so.” He hesitated, unsure of himself, unsure of his right, unsure of whether this was hurtful or not—but then he reached out and snagged Celebrían around the waist as she made to turn away, dragging her back to him. He pinned her against his chest, hands roaming up and down the silken back of her dress then up into her hair, piled and pinned on top of her head in artful ringlets. “I love you,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her again, long and hard.

“I love you too,” Celebrían said, breathless, smiling up at him. “And I hope you have forgotten the notion that you will hurt me with your intimacy.”

Elrond hesitated. Her words struck straight to the core of the darkness that was bubbling inside of him, hidden though it was behind a glass window.

“You still think that,” Celebrían said softly, piercingly. “Don’t you?”

Elrond dropped his hands and stepped away, all lust and pretense gone. “Yes,” he said bluntly, hoarsely, raw. “I do.”

“Why?” Celebrían asked.

Elrond shook his head.

“Elrond,” Celebrían said, a brittle edge in her voice. “Please. Let me in. Let me help you.”

Let me in. The words echoed in Elrond’s ears and mind and heart—and suddenly, it was as if the last pin had fallen into place, the last piece slotted into the puzzle, the last thread sewn into the tapestry. Suddenly, he understood.

He had been withholding himself from her. That was the problem—the problem in their marriage, the problem in his heart, the problem in his life. He had shut himself off—from her, from Glorfindel, from Gil-galad, from Erestor, from his family, from his friends. From everyone. Even in his moments of weakness and vulnerability, he had still be withholding from them, still been hiding, still been keeping himself back.

He was afraid. So afraid. So very, very afraid of letting someone—anyone—in. He had been hurt too many times to count, and that had scarred and scared his heart into throwing up walls and gates and doors too many to count, to keep out anything and everything that could bring him that kind of pain again.

He had nearly lost himself when Gil-galad died. He had lost himself when Elros passed. Celebrían had saved him after Gil-galad, and for a time he had opened his heart once again: to his wife, to his children, to his valley, to his people.

But then Celebrían had been captured, and then she had sailed. His sons had gone off to seek vengeance against the Orcs that had destroyed their mother; his daughter had withdrawn to Lothlorien to be with her grandparents, unable to bear the Valley without Celebrían. He had lost everything and everyone who he held most dear.

That had been the breaking point.

Now, looking back, it suddenly became crystal clear.

He had been withdrawing for 500 years, locking himself and his heart away in a steel box to which nothing and no one had a key. He had destroyed himself in the name of safety.

Oh, he had still been a good lord, empathetic and understanding and kind. He had still been a good friend—at least, he thought he had—loyal and honest and true. He had still been a good father, loving and gentle and stern. But he had grown distant, aloof, cold in his own way.

Only Estel had managed to break through that barrier, even a little bit. And now he—and Arwen—were both lost to him forever. That last ray of Hope had been what ultimately sealed the last cracks in the box, locked the last gates, bricked up the last walls.

And now here he was, afraid and scarred and so very, very, very alone.

What did he do now, though? What could he do? Was he irreparably damaged? Had he withdrawn too far to open that box, unlock those gates, tear down those walls? Would he ever be able to trust and truly open up again? Or would he always harbor a seedling of fear, niggling and worm-like, that would keep glass between him and his love for everyone else?

I have to try, he realized. Even if it is impossible, I have to try to open up. I have to try to let Celebrían in. To let Glorfindel in, and Erestor, and Ereinion, and...and perhaps even the rest of my family.

That last realization was too much for Elrond, though. He blinked and looked at Celebrían, standing and staring at him with puzzled expectation. She was waiting for him to speak.

“I…” Elrond choked on the words, weighty and sharp and awkward in his mouth and in his throat. “I will try to let you in,” he said at last. “I can make no guarantees, no promises, but—á ercat, Celebrían,” Elrond cursed. “I am so broken—so damaged, so twisted, so cracked and warped and mangled. My spirit…”

“Will regrow,” Celebrían said with force. She took a step toward him, pinning him against Avasath’s bulwark of a side. “Just as mine did. Or do you think your spirit is more broken than mine was at my time of sailing?”

Elrond flushed bright red and averted his eyes. “No,” he said. “I only meant—”

“I know what you meant,” Celebrían said without anger or ire. “Just remember that, when you are in the midst of the darkness, you cannot see the light—can see nothing but your own demise, your own perversion, your own destruction. Just as in the middle of the night, after the moon has set, you can see no promise of the day to come, so too you can then see only darkness. But the day does come, as surely as Arien rises in the east. And just as the day comes, so too does the light. Your depression will not last forever, Elrond,” Celebrían promised. “Not if you do not succumb to it and let it consume you.”

“I do not know how to fight it though,” Elrond said softly, desperately, despairingly.

“First you let me in,” Celebrían said.

“And how do I do that?”

“You tell me what hurts,” said Celebrían. “You tell me why it hurts. You let me bear you up, away from the mud of your despair, and let me clean you of it.”

Elrond nodded. “I can do that,” he whispered.

Celebrían smiled. “I know you can,” she said. “Now, though,” she said, and took a small step to one side—just enough to peer around Avasath’s shoulder, “I think it is time for us to part ways. Much longer and I fear someone may come looking for me—and I would rather not be caught kissing someone in the shadows who is purportedly not my husband.” She smiled wickedly, ducked back behind Avasath, and rose up onto her tiptoes to kiss Elrond once more, deep and fierce and full of bridled desire.

“I love you,” Elrond whispered against her lips.

“I love you too,” Celebrían replied, then pulled away. She sidestepped once more, glanced around, then darted away, emerging from the shadows beneath the stands and slowing down to a sedate walk, smoothing her skirts and then clasping her hands loosely behind her back.

Elrond watched her go, then gave her a few moments to get to the thoroughfare out of the lists before he too emerged, leading Avasath. He turned in the opposite direction from which she had gone, and then guided Avasath toward one of the horse yards situated between the lists, to cool her down and water her.

He already missed her, he realized with a pang of longing. It was sharp and spear-like, thorn-like, dagger-like, an ache in his chest beneath his heart. He missed her warmth and her smile, her comforting presence, her laugh, her hand on his arm. He wanted her with him, beside him, joining with him in this day and in this moment.

Not that he could not be parted from her. Not that he could not enjoy his time away from her. But he suddenly wanted to do life with her—wanted her to share in his life with him—in a way he had not truly wanted since his arrival in Valinor.

Ever since then, for all of his joy in seeing his wife again, for all his relief at finding her hale and whole, for all his happiness at sleeping in her bed, he had been drawing away from her. His pain had been consuming him, just as it had been for the last 500 years, driving him deeper and deeper into himself and away from all those who claimed to love him—including Celebrían.

But now that he had decided to open himself up to her once again—now that he had decided to fight, had allowed himself to truly partake in her bed, had given in to intimacy with her—something in him had changed. Something long-lost, long-dimmed, long-consumed had awoken once more.

And Elrond found that it was starving.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

It rained for the last two of Elrond’s jousts: a light, sprinkling mist that slowly turned into a driving downpour mere moments after he rode off of the field of his last bout.

It had been a tense joust. The ground was just beginning to turn into sucking mud, dangerous for the horses and thus dangerous for the riders, and lightning and thunder flashed and rumbled threateningly in the distance, creating a warning sonatica to the cadence of clashing of lances and the whinny of the stallion facing Elrond and Avasath.

“On your marks,” the herald called, his words punctuated by a fresh peal of thunder.

Elrond toed Avasath into place, readjusting his grip on his shield and breathing deeply through the cool, wet air seeping in through his visor. Across the field was an average-looking Elf on a large palomino stallion. His armor was unmarked and unadorned, much as Elrond’s was, and his shield bare.

The horn call came. Avasath lunged forward without having to be asked, springing into a gallop in an instant. Mud flew from beneath her hooves, spattering her legs, her belly, and Elrond’s boots. Elrond ignored the mud, focusing instead on the onrushing knight.

They came together in a crunch. Both lances shattered, and Elrond was flung back into his saddle with more force than even when he had jousted against Findis. Breathing deeply, against exhaustion and against bruises forming on his back, Elrond returned to his end of the field and accepted a second lance from the attendant, shaking out his arms as he went.

“Good luck,” the attendant murmured, smiling up at him with encouragement.

Elrond nodded in reply, then nudged Avasath back into her place.

The second horn call came. Avasath thundered down the lane, an avalanche contained in horseflesh, and Elrond lowered his lance. He struck his opponent’s shield just beneath the center, and shoved up, intending to send him flying—only for the knight to shift his shield to one side at the last second. Elrond’s lance slid off, unbroken.

Startled—it had been a very long time since he had not broken a lance in a pass—Elrond wheeled Avasath and sent her trotting back to their starting point. They took their place and waited for the next horn call to come.

If Elrond did not unhorse the knight on this pass, he thought, then he was likely to lose the tournament here and now. The knight’s last lance had shattered in a ringing blow; his posture and form were perfect; his strength of blows was impressive.

Yes—if Elrond did not unhorse him, he would lose the bout, and thus the tournament.

Settling his lance more comfortably in his hand and breathing deeply, Elrond considered. He had   to figure out how to unhorse the knight—and figure it out fast. The task was to figure out how to ignore the sliding of the knight’s shield—how to still hit the right spot to send the knight flying, even with the knight using his shifting trick.

If he hit the shield at just the right place, Elrond thought, then when the knight shifted his shield, his lance would be in the right relative place to pop him from the saddle—and it would not slide off either. The difficulty, of course, would be knowing just where that place was…

The horn call came. Avasath leapt forward, Elrond lowered his lance, and watched the onrushing knight.

Steady…

His opponent’s shield bobbed only slightly on his arm, innocuous and steady.

Steady…

The unemblazoned center of the shield glared open and obvious.

Steady…

Elrond shifted his gaze slightly to the left, judging where the knight’s hand was on the other side of the shield.

Steady.

They crashed together.

Elrond struck the shield just where he hoped the knight’s hand was. He felt the shield shift beneath his lance tip—but because of the placement of his own coromant, the shield’s center, relative to the knight’s body, was now directly beneath Elrond’s lance. He rose in his stirrups, pushing up and out—and the knight flew from the saddle.

He crashed to the ground with the sound of mud splashing and rain pinging against metal. Elrond brought Avasath to a wheeling halt, then sent her walking back towards where the Elf was picking himself up gingerly, his stallion circling uneasily as thunder continued to rumble overhead.

“Well fought,” Elrond said, removing his helmet.

His opponent sighed gustily behind his visor, then reached up to remove his helm as well. When he did so, it was to reveal a heavy jaw and arched brow, dark hair that was more brown than black, and stormy grey eyes tinged with blue. It was a face Elrond recognized but did not know well—and a thrill of horror raced through him.

It was Rog, of the House of Hammer of Wrath, one of Turgon’s greatest captains. It was said that Rog was the strongest of all the Eldar, and his ferocity in battle was well-renowned and sung of in many ballads and told of in many tales. Elrond had never officially met the Elf, so it was not guaranteed that Rog would recognize him—but others had said that, while Elrond looked much like Lúthien and her mother, Melian, there was an uncanny likeness to Turgon as well. Would Rog see and recognize that likeness? Would he put one and one together?

“I should say the same to you,” Rog said, tucking his helm beneath one arm and extending his free hand up to shake Elrond’s. “It has been long and long again since I have been sent flying, save by my lord Turgon and his father, Fingolfin.”

Elrond smiled grimly. “I have been told I have that effect on people,” he admitted, then bit his tongue. He needed to be careful not to say too much, lest Rog begin to suspect he was more than he seemed.

“It was an honor to joust against you,” Elrond said quickly, hoping to speak before Rog could consider his words more closely. “It has been long and long again since I have not broken a lance on a pass.”

Rog smiled. “That we both may have admiration for the other is a fitting end to this joust, methinks,” he said. “Though tell me, victor, what is your name?”

“Lîmrion,” Elrond said.

Rog’s eyebrows rose. “Not the Lîmrion who bested Findis yesterday?”

“The very same,” Elrond said.

Rog laughed. The sound was booming and great, as massive as his shoulders were broad. “I feel much less foolish now, then,” he said with a grin. He glanced over his shoulder at the judge’s booth, then turned back to Elrond and said, “But I think we should be on our ways now. They are beginning to look impatient.”

“Indeed,” Elrond said with a glance of his own toward the judges. They were staring at the two competitors with thin lips and flashing eyes. Elrond bowed deeply to them from his saddle, then turned Avasath back toward his side of the lists.

“I hope we will meet again,” Elrond said to Rog, turning back toward the captain of Gondolin.

Rog grinned. “I don’t doubt it,” he replied, and swung up into his own saddle.

The remaining jousts of the day were called off as the rain continued to beat down upon the ground, turning it to mud and muck. It continued to rain throughout the late afternoon and into the early evening, the storm only beginning to ease up as sunset approached.

Draped in an oiled cloak, his things safely tucked beneath his right arm, Elrond made his way to the bathhouse as the last hour before sunset approached. He slid in through the doors, taking a moment to breathe deeply of the scent of water and soap before making his way toward the locker room. There he placed his things on a bench, stripped out of his oiled cloak and his sweaty clothes, and padded his way into the bathhouse proper.

He soaked for half an hour, easing the aches and pains and bruises in his back and sides. If anyone eyed him, or his scars, Elrond ignored them, content instead to simply remain in the peace of his own mind, still and drifting. His thoughts spun lazily, aimlessly meandering here and there, never lingering on one thing for too long.

If he allowed his thoughts to do anything but that, Elrond knew, they would turn dark and bleak—would turn to dark memories and darker traumas, would return again and again to the bleakness of his heart. He would remember Vorgod, would remember Sauron, would remember Orcs and Wargs and the Witch-king; he would remember Celebrían’s absence for 500 long years, would remember Arwen’s Choice, would remember Estel’s impending death. He would remember his own despair, his own empty future, his own desolate past.

Elrond pushed those thoughts aside, and directed his mind again toward the warmth of the water soothing his bruises, to the sound of the chatter around him, to the memory of his lance shattering against Rog’s shield.

He thought of his impending fight with Ramo. The boy needed a lesson in manners and expectations, and Elrond intended to provide that lesson. He was arrogant, brash, and full of himself—all dangerous things, to both himself and to his companions, should they ever find themselves in a truly dire situation. That Elrond yearned to have a moment of glorious victory was inconsequential; that Elrond longed for the black triumph of strength over a weaker opponent was insignificant.

You’re damaged, a sick voice whispered in his mind. You want this because you want to feel superior—want to feel vindicated and strong. You do not want this for any noble or high-minded purpose.

Elrond swallowed down his bile and shoved the voice away. It was right, and he knew it was right—but he could not bring himself to want anything but those things, even knowing the black truth of his desires.

I truly am damaged, he thought. A farce. A fake. A facade. I am no noble Elf lord. I am nothing but a bully.

Was that true, though? The reasonable, logical voice in Elrond’s heart, untwisted and undiminished by his self-loathing, wondered. It was dangerous for Ramo to continue as he was, convinced of his own superiority. It was poetic justice, in its own way, for Elrond to defeat him at his own game. Was that wrong? Was it wrong to wish that he learn his place—that he learn he was not so significant as he seemed to think? Surely not.

What was the truth, though? Did Elrond wish for Ramo’s downfall because he wished for Ramo to grow as a person? Or did he wish for Ramo’s defeat for his own vindictive pleasure?

Would he ever know?

Elrond climbed from the water, all enjoyment of the warmth sapped by his thoughts. He grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his waist, then returned to the locker room and his things. Drying off, he dressed quickly, toweling his hair and finger-combing it into a semblance of order before quickly exiting the bathhouse.

Should he call off the duel? Would that be the honorable and right thing to do? Or should he let events play out as they were set to progress? It all depended on his real and actual reasons for wanting the duel to take place. Were they selfish reasons? Or honorable ones?

Could they be both?

“There you are!”

Elrond turned to see Lainrendis and Áraselyë bearing down upon him, hurrying through the misting rain with hoods thrown over their hair and cloaks thrown over their shoulders. They were both grim-faced, their footsteps eerily in sync as they walked.

“Yes?” Elrond asked, pausing to allow them to catch up to him. “Did you want something from me?”

“We wanted to find you before the duel,” said Áraselyë.

“We wanted to try to talk you out of it,” added Lainrendis.

Elrond sighed, then turned to continue walking. Lainrendis and Áraselyë fell in step with him, one to either side of him, matching their gaits to his brisk pace.

“And why do you wish to talk me out of it?” Elrond asked, wondering why he was feeling defensive. If he needed an out to escape the duel, they were providing him with one—or, at least, the beginnings of one.

“Because you are going to lose,” said Lainrendis bluntly.

“And you are going to get hurt,” Áraselyë added.

Elrond raised an eyebrow. “And why are you so certain of this?”

“You have not seen Ramo fight with a sword before,” said Lainrendis. “We have.”

“You have not seen me fight with a sword before either,” Elrond pointed out.

“Prince Dior himself has said that Ramo is one of the most promising young swordsman,” said Áraselyë.

Elrond sighed. Part of him wanted to tell the young women what Maedhros had said of him back in the First Age—that he had the makings of one of, if not the, greatest swordsmen of his time. The rest of him, however, wanted to simply show these youngsters what he was made of.

Was that so wrong? he wondered. To want to show them what he was made of? To show them that they were erroneous in their assumptions?

Or were they? Was he the one being arrogant and brash? Was he the one overestimating his own significance and ability? Was he the one in for a rude awakening?

He had to see. He couldn’t not see. He had to go through with the duel, and figure out his motivations for wanting to do so later.

“I am going through with it,” he told the ellyth . “For good or for ill, I will be fighting Ramo tonight at sunset.”

“Even if you die?” Áraselyë asked.

Elrond laughed. “I do not think this is my end,” he said.

“What?” Lainrendis snapped. “Can you see the future now?”

“Only sometimes,” Elrond said blithely.

They reached Elrond’s tent. Lainrendis stormed forward and thrust open the tent flap, disappearing inside—only to squawk and reappear, white-faced, an instant later.

“What is it?” Elrond asked, concerned.

“The Lady,” Lainrendis gasped. “She’s—I mean to say she is—there’s—I mean—”

Elrond thrust open the tent flap, and there, sitting in the spindly chair looking startled, was Celebrían.

Elrond sighed and shot her a dour look. Celebrían shrugged, looking at him with confusion, then mouthed silently, “Who are they?” Elrond shook his head, adding silently, Later. Celebrían nodded.

Celebrían rose gracefully, stepping out into the misting rain. She smiled at the younger ellyth , then extended a hand first to Lainrendis, then to Áraselyë.

“I am Lady Celebrían,” she said. “Lîmrion here is a friend of mine. I came to see how he did today in the lists. And you are?”

Lainrendis and Áraselyë introduced themselves, Lainrendis stuttering over her words and looking as if she was about to pass out. Áraselyë looked annoyed.

Once introductions were done, Celebrían asked, “And what, pray tell, are you two doing here?”

“We are Lîmrion’s friends,” Áraselyë said, sounding just as put out as she looked—but trying to hide it. “We were just trying to talk him out of his duel with Ramo.”

“Ramo?” Celebrían repeated with a raised eyebrow. “And who, pray tell, is Ramo?”

“The best swordsman of this generation,” said Lainrendis all in a rush.

“And why is Lîmrion dueling him?” Celebrían asked.

“Because he’s an idiot,” Lainrendis said—then blushed ferociously. “I mean—I don’t mean to speak ill of a friend. It’s only that he does not know what he is getting himself into, and he refuses to listen to us when we try to tell him that he is in any danger!”

I am listening, Elrond informed his wife through their marital bond. I am merely electing to ignore their warnings.

You should heed them, Celebrían retorted, eyes flicking to meet Elrond’s. They have seen Ramo fight. You have not.

Elrond mentally shrugged. I must see how good this boy really is, he said.

There is more to it than that, Celebrían noted astutely. Is there not?

Later, Elrond told her. Let us discuss this tonight.

Aloud, Celebrían said, “It is worthy of you to try to protect a friend. But perhaps you should have faith in your friends as well. Perhaps Lîmrion knows what he is doing,” she offered gently.

That gave Lainrendis pause.

“Have you seen him duel?” she asked Celebrían.

“Aye,” said Celebrían. “I have.”

“And is he as good as he says?”

Celebrían laughed. “As I do not know how good he says he is, I could not say. But if I had to guess, knowing him, I would say he is better than he has let on.”

Lainrendis looked askance. Áraselyë looked at Lainrendis and frowned. Elrond looked between his wife and his friends and sighed again.

“Now,” he said, bringing his hands together, “if you two would not mind, I would like to discuss something with the Lady Celebrían.” He looked significantly at Lainrendis and Áraselyë.

“Of course,” said Áraselyë. She grabbed Lainrendis by the elbow and began to tow her away. “We will see you at dusk then, Lîmrion,” she said over her shoulder, and then dragged Lainrendis off.

“So,” Celebrían said, stepping backwards into the tent, Elrond following her, “a duel, hm?”

Elrond shrugged. “He needs a lesson.”

Celebrían smiled ruefully. “And you are the one to give it to him?”

“Perhaps,” Elrond hedged. “Can we not speak of this now?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Celebrían. She reached out and tugged the tent flap closed.

“Leave it open,” Elrond instructed distractedly, reaching for his sword, Hadhafang, where she hung on a hook attached to the armor stand.

“I’m not letting you go off to a duel that I can’t watch , in which you might die , without saying a proper goodbye,” Celebrían said, leaving the tent flap closed.

“I am not going to die,” Elrond said wearily, turning to look at Celebrían. “Even if I lose, I doubt Ramo will be able to deliver a killing blow.”

“But how can you be sure of that?” Celebrían asked smugly.

Elrond paused. Then, sounding somewhat startled, he simply said, “Oh.”

Celebrían grinned. “Oh, indeed,” she said. Then she hesitated, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. “Unless you do not want to…”

Elrond crossed the space between them in three long strides and crushed his body to hers. He kissed her fervently, and she kissed him back, lips and tongues meeting in desperate need. In seconds their hands were tugging at each other’s clothes, pulling tunic and breeches and dress off. They dropped their discarded clothing in a line towards Elrond’s cot, until they were bare before each other.

Elrond gave Celebrían a light push, and she fell back onto the cot with a soft thump. She was grinning, her eyes bright and dancing, as Elrond climbed on top of her, skimming his hands along her skin as he moved up her body. He kissed her again, then reached down to play with her to wetness. Once she was wet, dripping and ready for him, he slid into her with a groan from them both. For a moment he was still, allowing them both to simply bask in the feeling of him filling her. Then he began to move, slowly at first, then more quickly as they settled into a steady rhythm.

It was short and fast. Celebrían came with a cry that Elrond stifled with a hand, both of them grinning. Elrond climaxed shortly thereafter, collapsing with a stifled cry of his own. Celebrían wrapped her legs around his hips and her arms around his shoulders, holding him close as they both shuddered their way down from their high.

After a few long moments, Elrond rose and began to dress. Celebrían propped herself up on one elbow to watch him pull his tunic on, hiding his skin and scars beneath cloth of a deep, rich violet. She smiled at him, eyes flicking up and down his form, drinking in the sight of him.

“You really are beautiful,” she told him.

“Hm,” Elrond hummed, clearly not believing her.

“What?” Celebrían asked. “Do you not believe me?”

“I believe you find me beautiful,” Elrond said, “but that does not make me objectively so.”

Celebrían sighed and rose as well, walking over to where her dress was lying between the cot and the spindly chair. She stooped to pick it up, then brushed it free of dirt. “You are the image of Lúthien in male form,” she pointed out drolly. “ Objectively speaking, you are stunning.”

Elrond snorted. “Perhaps I once was,” he said. “No longer.”

Celebrían, her dress halfway over her head, paused. This was not something they had ever really talked about before, somehow. They had skirted around the topic, speaking of his scars and of his perceived failures—but never before had they delved deep into his self-worth issues, or dealt with his self image.

“Because of what Vorgod did—and had done—to you?” Celebrían asked.

She meant more than just the physical scars.

Elrond sighed and finished buckling his belt. “Can we not speak of this right now?” he asked. He grinned wryly. “I have a duel to go fight, and I would rather not be distracted by philosophy.”

Celebrían smiled. “Of course, my love,” she said, and stepped close to him, buttoning the last button on her dress. She reached up and kissed him sweetly. “Good luck then,” she said. “Fight well—and don’t die.”

“I am not going to die,” Elrond said dryly. “And even if I do—which I won’t—I will be back here soon. Mandos cannot keep me away from you.”

Celebrían laughed. “Very well then, my love,” she said. Then, reaching up, she undid the braid her hair had been in, and gathered Elrond’s hair into a short horse tail with it. “Wear my token,” she bade, “and win.”

“I shall, my lady,” Elrond promised. He captured her hands in his, then kissed her knuckles. “I love you,” he said softly.

“I love you too, my El,” Celebrían replied. “Now go. Sunset approaches.”

Elrond gathered Hadhafang, then brushed through the tent flap with one final kiss.

It had stopped raining, and toward the horizon the clouds had begun to break, leaving the sunset sky a riot of gold and orange and scarlet red below a strip of blue. The air was cool and damp, and the grass squelched beneath Elrond’s boots as he made his way toward the lone, solitary tree on the edge of camp.

When he arrived at the agreed-upon dueling site, Elrond was shocked to see that he was not the only one there. Ambalaurë stood staring at the far-distant sunset with arms crossed and a thoughtful look on his face, while beside him Tyelperindë stood with lips pursed and eyes narrowed. Aearmagol stood beneath the tree itself, watching the rest of the gathered crowd, while Lainrendis and Áraselyë stood side-by-side, almost—but not quite—brushing hands.

There were others besides Elrond’s friends, too—ellyth and ellyn dressed in tournament finery and armor alike. A broad range of expressions marred their beautiful faces, from interest to excitement to downright dislike. Elrond frowned, wondering what—or who—had put them in such a foul mood.

He arrived at the tree, sliding up on noiseless feet to stand beside Aearmagol. “What are all of these people doing here?” he asked his young friend.

Aearmagol jumped, then whirled on Elrond. “Do not scare me like that,” he said, placing a hand theatrically against his breast. “You nearly frightened me to death.”

“Well?” Elrond asked. “What are they—”

He was cut off by a sudden cheer going up. One of the spectators had caught sight of him, and Elrond found himself very suddenly the center of attention as two dozen voices were raised in united acclaim.

Aearmagol laughed. “They are here to watch your duel!” he said. Then he leaned close. “In fact, three of the former Captains of Gondolin have even come.”

Elrond’s blood ran cold. “Oh?” he asked, feigning inconsequence. “And who might those three be?”

“Lord Rog, Lord Echthelion, and I think Lord Glorfindel,” Aearmagol told him.

“And where are these three?”

Aearmagol shifted on his feet, then nodded his head toward the far side of the loose circle the spectators had created. Elrond glanced over toward where Aearmagol had indicated—and yes, there was Glorfindel’s distinctive golden hair.

“Ah,” he said, swallowing back a sigh.

Another cry went up, and Elrond turned to see Ramo stride confidently into the circle, grinning broadly. “Thank you all for coming,” he said loudly. “It will be my great pleasure to give you all a show you will not soon forget.” He grinned, dashing and proud, and then crossed the circle to a knot of young Elves that Elrond suspected were his friends.

“What now?” Tyelperindë asked, appearing suddenly at Elrond’s side.

“Now I stretch and warm up,” Elrond said, handing Hadhafang to her. She took the sword—and for a second Elrond was afraid she would recognize the blade, thus undoing all of his attempts at hiding his identity. But she simply took Hadhafang and held her tightly in one hand, barely sparing the sword a second glance.

Elrond peeled off his tunic, then began a series of loosening stretches. It did not escape his notice that Ramo was not likewise engaged; instead, he was talking animatedly to his friends, having already unsheathed his sword. It hung at his side, naked and gleaming in the dying light.

“Here come the torches!” The cry came from one of the spectators. Elrond straightened from touching his toes to see an Elf bearing a single lighted torch and a bundle of unlighted ones. In just a few seconds, the unlighted torches had been passed around the circle, and the process of lighting them began. By the time Elrond was finished loosening his body, there was a ring of fire with the tree marking one point in the perimeter, the heart of the circle trodden earth.

Ramo stepped out into the center. “Are you ready, Lîmrion ?” he sneered.

Elrond accepted Hadhafang back from Tyelperindë, unsheathing her and handing the sheath to Lainrendis, then stepped forward as well. “Aye,” he said calmly, giving Hadhafang an easy flourish. “I am.”

I have a lot of money riding on this duel. The voice came to Elrond’s mind suddenly and unexpectedly—but not unwelcome. Glorfindel’s silent voice was unmistakable, and Elrond smiled. You had better not lose.

I do not intend to, Elrond replied to his old friend. Now hush, so I can concentrate.

Ramo struck without warning.

Elrond lifted Hadhafang at just the last second to deflect the blow. The ringing crash of the metal blades meeting exploded through the circle, followed almost an instant later by a second ringing crash as Ramo disengaged and struck again, this time with a savage uppercut. Once again Elrond deflected at only the last second, thrusting Ramo’s blade to one side. Ramo grinned, wolfish and confident, and struck again, this time with two hands toward Elrond’s unprotected side—only to sweep his blade down and around with his left hand at the last instant in a crescent moon strike.

Elrond spun out of the way, then came back in with a cut of his own. Ramo parried easily enough, then attacked again in a flurry of blows. One, two, three—Elrond counted the strikes silently, then watched as Ramo set himself up for a Mummer’s Dance.

Simple, Elrond thought, settling himself into the Courtier’s Waltz to counter Ramo’s next move. Flashy, but simple to counter, and simple to outmaneuver.

Not that Ramo was aware he was being outmaneuvered, Elrond suspected. It was clear all too quickly that, while he had studied the act of swordplay, he had not made an extensive study of the basics of form and maneuver. He did not see Elrond’s Courtier’s King move until it was too late—and only a quick step and a lunge kept him from falling on his face as Elrond swept his blade up and around Ramo’s in a parody of a crowning, throwing him off-balance.

Enraged, Ramo attacked. Elrond was pushed back one step, two steps, three beneath the fury of Ramo’s onslaught—and Elrond had to give it to him, the lad was fast and strong, and had a good ear for balance and a better eye for weakness. He saw each and every one of the openings Elrond left for him, even the most subtle ones, and took them, striking and cutting and lunging in an attempt to get past Elrond’s defenses and steal the first blood that would seal his victory.

Each time, though, Elrond would slide around his blade, dodge or duck or parry, just in time. Ramo grew more and more frustrated—and more and more tired—as the long minutes dragged on.

“Curse you,” he hissed at last, sweat dripping down his face and chest. “Just bleed already, damn you.”

Elrond smiled grimly. “I would rather not,” he said calmly, parrying another wild blow from Ramo.

Ramo closed the distance between them, slamming his blade into Elrond’s and sliding it up until their hilts locked. “Enough is enough,” he growled. “I end this now .” He began to press down, down, down against Elrond—who was taller than him, but not quite as strong. Elrond took a staggering step back, only for Ramo to follow and push him down to his knees.

“I must admit,” Elrond panted up to his opponent, “you have a great deal of potential. If only you would study more, and flaunt your skill less, you might even one day be great.” He smiled.

Ramo frowned. “Then why are you grinning, old man?” he asked. “I am winning. You have been on the defensive ever since the beginning. I have you hilt-locked, and have borne you down to the ground. You have nowhere to go. Nowhere to run. No way to escape.”

“Because,” Elrond said with a small grunt, shifting so that both of his hands were on Hadhafang’s hilt, “I have been using my left hand.”

“And?”

Elrond’s smile turned wolfish. “I am not left-handed.”

He disengaged, dropping Hadhafang and rolling away at the same instant, twisting at the last possible second to grab a hold of Hadhafang’s hilt once more as she fell—this time with his right hand. He came up spinning on one heel, already brandishing Hadhafang in a flourish. Ramo, who had lurched at the sudden disappearance of Elrond’s weight, caught and righted himself, then stood up against Elrond with a fierce growl.

“Come then,” he cried. “Show me what you are truly made of!”

Elrond attacked.

Ramo took one step back, then another, then another, his fierce anger quickly turning to fear. He managed to deflect one blow, two blows, three. Then Elrond brought Hadhafang around in a blur almost too fast to track, lunging in only to dip down and around at the last second, catching the hilt of Ramo’s sword with the tip of his blade. Ramo’s sword went flying from his hand to land with a thud and squelch of mud some ten paces away.

Ramo, panting, went very still, Elrond’s sword tip at his throat.

“Yield,” Elrond said coldly.

“I yield,” Ramo whispered.

“Louder,” Elrond ordered. “So that all might hear.”

“I yield,” Ramo said, louder.

A cheer went up, loud and raucous, from the spectators. Elrond lowered Hadhafang, then wiped his brow. He too was sweating and breathing hard—though not as hard as Ramo.

“Well fought,” he told the younger ellon . “As I said before, you have the makings of a truly great swordsman.”

“Who are you?” Ramo snarled by way of answer. “Only the great Elven heroes of the First Age are that good.”

Elrond smiled mirthlessly. “All you need know is that my first instructor was Maitimo Fëanárion,” he said.

Ramo paled. “But,” he stuttered. “But that’s impossible. He—” He went still and silent. “Only the great heroes of the First Age are that good,” he repeated, sounding weak.

Elrond’s smile turned bitter. “And who is to say I am not one of them?” he asked softly—and then he turned on his heel and walked out of the ring.

~*x*~

Smug, and more pleased with himself than he had been in at least a century, Glorfindel held his hand out to Rog, quirking his fingers when Rog hesitated.

“Come now, Rog,” he said gaily, “don’t be a bad sport.”

Rog sighed, then pulled a purse stuffed with gold coins off of his belt. He dropped it into Glorfindel’s hand with a dirty look for Ecthelion, who was standing between the two. “Why didn’t you stop me?” Rog asked his taller, black-haired companion.

“As you might recall,” said Ecthelion blithely, “I did try. You insisted that you knew better, and that Glorfindel was going to be 500 gold pieces poorer by the end of the night.” Ecthelion smiled a small, tight-lipped smile. “It seems you have learned a lesson in presumption tonight, Rog.”

“No more than Glorfindel ought to have,” Rog protested. “He made presumptions as well.”

Correct presumptions,” Glorfindel retorted. “So were they even really presumptions?”

Rog rolled his eyes and huffed a second sigh. “Very well,” he groused, annoyed but sounding good-natured rather than irritable or sore. “Take my money—and my lesson in presumption.”

“I shall,” said Glorfindel with a twinkle of his eyes and a grin.

“Just who is Lîmrion?” Ecthelion asked as the three of them began to walk back into camp, Ecthelion carrying a torch. “And how do you know him, Glorfindel?”

Deciding to go with the truth—of Lîmrion, if not of Elrond—Glorfindel said, “He was the Captain of Lady Celebrían’s Honor Guard.”

“Was?” Rog asked, sobering. “I take it he was slain? It is not common for a Captain of an Honor Guard to cede that position willingly.”

Glorfindel nodded somberly. “He died of his wounds shortly after bringing us news of Lady Celebrían’s capture by Orcs.”

“Ai,” Rog breathed. “A noble end—though a dark one.”

“Indeed,” said Glorfindel. Then he added, “I had not known he was reembodied until the tournament began.”

“He had not gone to his lady upon reembodiment?” Ecthelion asked, arching an eyebrow. “That seems...surprising.”

“Whether or not he went to Celebrían, I do not know,” said Glorfindel, hoping he was not weaving the lies too thick. “All I know is that I was surprised to see him compete yesterday.”

“He truly is a spectacular fighter,” Rog said decisively. “I shall be black and blue tomorrow from jousting against him today. And young Ramo certainly learned a lesson tonight in arrogance and assuredness.”

“Lessons seemed to be learned all around tonight,” Glorfindel said, grinning at his shorter friend.

Rog rolled his eyes, but chortled good-naturedly. “Indeed,” he agreed.

Ecthelion placed the burning torch in a brazier, then caught up to his two friends who had slowed their pace but kept walking.

“So who is on the lists first thing tomorrow morning?” Glorfindel asked Ecthelion and Rog. He knew that they were following the tournament much more closely than he was.

“Your friend Lîmrion is jousting against Gil-galad,” Ecthelion said.

Glorfindel raised an eyebrow. “Oh,” he said wickedly, “now that is going to be fun.”

“Oh?” Ecthelion asked. “And why is that?”

“Because the two of them have not jousted against one another in over an Age,” Glorfindel replied easily, hoping the other two would not press much harder, and cursing himself for his slip of tongue. “It will be interesting to see it happen again.”

“And who are you betting will win?” Rog asked with a mischievous grin.

“I do not actually know,” said Glorfindel. “Lîmrion typically won then , but much has changed since their last bout.”

“Indeed it has,” said Ecthelion softly, thoughtfully. “Indeed it has…”

~*x*~

Elrond returned to his tent after a late dinner with his friends. After the excitement of the duel, they had all agreed to postpone their trip to the bonfires to another night—for which Elrond was grateful. He just wanted to go back to his tent and relax before sleep.

It was dark and empty when he arrived—though not for long. Elrond had barely begun to settle in for the night when there came footsteps nearing his tent, hurried and furtive, and then the tent flap brushed back to reveal Celebrían with a hood over her hair and hiding her face in shadow, dressed in a simple, common woman’s dress.

Elrond rose and crossed to her as she stepped inside, letting the flap fall closed behind her as she took off her cloak, and pulled her to him. He kissed her fiercely—and she returned the kiss with just as much fervor, tongue sliding into his mouth and her lips pressed tight against his.

“So?” she asked when they parted. “Did you win?”

Elrond laughed, quiet but bright. “Aye,” he said. “I did.”

Celebrían rose up onto her toes and kissed him again, soft and sweet this time. He leaned into her, and into the kiss, and relaxed, shoulders slumping and back bowing.

“I wish I could have seen it,” she whispered to him, breaking the kiss. She lifted a hand to trace her fingertips along his cheek and then down to his chin—and then she rose once more to place a third, chaste kiss on his lips.

“I wish you could have been there,” Elrond agreed. He smiled tiredly. “I understand, though, why you could not.”

As it was, Lainrendis and Áraselyë had cornered him at dinner to demand answers about Celebrían.

“I thought you said you had never met her!” Lainrendis had exclaimed, seating herself on Elrond’s right with a plate of food in her hands.

“Who?” Elrond asked.

“Lady Celebrían,” Áraselyë answered, sitting on Elrond’s other side, placing her food on the table primly. “Apparently you told Lainrendis and Aearmagol earlier that you had never even met her.”

Elrond grimaced. “I lied,” he said bluntly, scrambling for a good reason as to why he had lied.

“Why?” Lainrendis asked, just as bluntly. “Why would you want to lie about that?”

Elrond shrugged, settling on an answer that was truth. “I wanted to see what you had to say about her, thinking I did not know her.”

“And why would you want to do that?”

Elrond sighed. “I was in her Honor Guard, for a time,” he said at last. “It was my duty then to assess any threat or discomfort that might befall my lady—a habit I have yet to break.”

“And you thought Lainrendis  a threat?” Áraselyë asked with eyebrows raised.

“I barely knew her then,” Elrond replied. “In fact, we had just met. I had no way to know who she was, or what her intentions with my lady were.”

“It was a simple crush!” Lainrendis exclaimed, drawing the attention of the others at the table. Tyelperindë frowned, and Ambalaurë looked confused, but then seemed to dismiss it and went back to talking with Aearmagol. “Am I not allowed to have a crush on a beautiful lady?”

“I never said you were not,” Elrond replied steadily. “But, again, I had no way of knowing it was nothing but an innocent crush at the time. I wanted to suss out what it was , and the easiest way to do that was to hear what you had to say, thinking you were introducing me to her.”

“Hm,” Lainrendis huffed—but Áraselyë seemed content with his answer.

“That makes sense,” she said slowly, looking around Elrond at Lainrendis. “Whether you want to admit it or not.”

Lainrendis rolled her eyes, but seemed to accede the point, because she was silent for a moment then changed the subject.

Now Celebrían smiled and said, "I hear you are fighting Gil-galad first thing tomorrow."

Elrond's eyebrows rose. "I have yet to check the listings," he admitted.

"So this is news to you?" Celebrían asked.

"It is," said Elrond.

Celebrían laughed. "Well," she said, "it will be a fun bout—for a few of us, anyway. The few of us who know your true identity."

Elrond shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he said cagily.

“What?” Celebrían asked. “Are you afraid of jousting against your cousin?”

Elrond shrugged again. “Not precisely, no.” He grimaced. “Though not precisely not, either.”

Celebrían laughed. “You are ,” she said. “You are afraid of jousting against him.”

“Of all the competitors, who do you think is the most likely to recognize me?” Elrond asked, arching one graceful eyebrow.

That sobered Celebrían. “True,” she said slowly. “Yet it has been more than an Age since you two jousted against one another. And while our memories are good—great, even—even Elven memories are not that good.”

“One can hope.”

Elrond settled onto his cot, Celebrían following suit a few seconds later. She fit herself against his side, beneath his arm, and for a long few minutes they simply sat there, basking in the warmth and stolidity of each other’s presence.

“So tell me,” Celebrían said, sliding out from under Elrond’s arm and settling back against his pillow. “What was it you did not want to talk about earlier, regarding the duel?”

Elrond sighed, then stood. Celebrían’s eyes followed him as he paced around the interior of the tent once, then twice, propping herself up on one elbow.

“It is just…” Elrond trailed off, then shook his head with irritation. “It is just that I do not know my motives for dueling Ramo,” he admitted at last.

Celebrían frowned. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Were they not to show him the definition of a truly great swordsman, and to prove to him that he was not as good as he thought he was?”

“They were,” Elrond said. “But also… Ai, Celebrían. What if I did it just because I wanted to embarrass the youth? Wanted to feel slick glee at winning?”

“Well, did you?” Celebrían asked.

“I do not know!” Elrond exclaimed. He hesitated, then said slowly, “Not in the moment, no. In the moment the only thing I cared about was proving a point to Ramo about himself. But perhaps before? Perhaps when I was preparing for the duel? Ai. I do not know.”

Celebrían rose and went over to stand in front of Elrond. She reached up and cupped his face with both of her hands, then leaned up to kiss him. “You are far too critical of yourself,” she informed him. “You are a good man, Elrond Peredhel. Even if you did have a few slightly less than noble desires tonight, that does not change the fact that you are a good man.”

“Does it not, though?” Elrond asked. “Is that not the definition of what a good man is?”

“A good man is someone who always strives to do what is right,” Celebrían said. “So the fact that you yourself are fretting over this proves nothing more than that you are , in fact, a good man. Someone who is not a good man would not care what his intentions for the duel were.”

“And if my intentions were selfish and black?” Elrond asked.

Celebrían looked thoughtful for a moment. “Then strive to always have better intentions,” she told him at last. “Then crush those bad intentions when they surface, and seek to replace them with good ones. Though I do not think that your intentions were bad this night. You yourself said that, in the moment, your intentions were not selfish or cruel—were about proving a point to Ramo about himself.”

Elrond sighed, and then turned his head into Celebrían’s left palm. “You are right,” he admitted. He grinned. “As always.”

Celebrían grinned to match him, then leaned up to kiss Elrond again. “Now,” she said, “I do not know about you, but I am...hungry.”

Elrond frowned. “I am sure that the kitchens would be happy to make you food, if you were to ask. It is not so late that all of the cooks would have gone to bed yet.”

Celebrían rolled her eyes. “Not for food,” she said—and then, leaning up, kissed him again ravenously.

Elrond was grinning when they broke apart. “I see,” he said wickedly—and then snatched Celebrían around the waist and dragged her to him when she made to retreat to the cot, her back flush against his chest. “Not so fast,” he whispered in her ear, breath ghosting against her skin and making gooseflesh ripple across her neck.

He kissed the delicate skin behind her ear. She shuddered, then turned in his grasp to try to capture his lips with hers. Elrond evaded her, ducking down instead to press an open-mouthed kiss to the side of her neck, then another to her spine.

“Let me love you,” he murmured to her. “Let me show you how much I love you.”

Celebrían shivered in his grasp, then nodded. “If you insist,” she said.

“Oh,” said Elrond, smiling into the third kiss he pressed to her neck, “I do.”

Wrapping one arm around her to keep her pressed tight against his chest, Elrond’s other hand roamed Celebrían’s body. He skimmed his fingertips across her stomach, then ghosted them up and down the length of her bare arms. She shivered again, groaning deep in her throat, as Elrond nipped at her left earlobe.

“Do you want my hands?” he asked her. “Do you want me to touch you?”

Celebrían mewled, reaching up to capture Elrond’s wrist in both of her hands to guide him between her legs. Elrond broke free easily enough—she was not trying hard to hold him, and all it took was a simple twist of his arm to break her hold—and went back to skimming her stomach, her sides, her hips.

“Elrond,” Celebrían said weakly, “stop being such a tease .”

Elrond laughed low in his throat, the sound half a growl. His fingers skipped across the front of her hips, almost touching her—but not quite. Celebrían mewled again, arching her back into his chest to try to reach his hand.

Slowly—achingly slowly—Elrond brought his hand up to her right breast. He palmed it, squeezing gently and rubbing at her nipple through the cloth of her dress, while he kissed her neck again, and again, and again, dipping lower each time until he was nearly kissing her shoulder. Then he switched breasts, giving the left one just as much attention as the right. Celebrían pushed her chest into his hand, and Elrond smiled.

“Needy,” he commented.

“And you’re a damn tease,” Celebrían retorted without ire or heat.

“I’m taking my time,” Elrond replied easily. “Can’t a husband take his time in showering his wife with pleasure?”

“It’s pleasure I want ,” Celebrían said.

Elrond laughed again, freeing his hand from her breast to tug her dress away from her left shoulder. Dipping his head, he sucked at the pale skin there, kissing and grazing his teeth across it as he did so—but being careful not to leave any marks where she could not easily hide them.

His hand drifted down, down, down along her side to her right thigh. He rubbed small circles there for a few seconds, then began to gather her skirt into his hand. He hiked it up, one end around her hip, then shifted his hand around to graze the front of Celebrían’s underclothes, freshly bared to the air.

Celebrían pushed her hips forward, into Elrond’s hand. For a long second he simply stood there, cupping her—touching her, almost touching her, the cloth of her underclothes still between their skin.

He began to rub between her legs, underclothes still between them. Celebrían let him do so without comment for half a moment, before she whimpered, “Please, Elrond. I want you to touch me.”

She was already wet, slick and warm, when Elrond at last slid his fingers past the waistband of her underclothes. Celebrían whimpered again, her legs going almost instantly weak as Elrond rubbed his fingers between her folds, pressing right up to her entrance before pulling back and retreating to her clit. He rubbed a fingernail over her clit, then the pad of his finger, then the length of his entire digit along it, causing her to shudder once more. Only his left arm, still wrapped around her waist, was holding her upright.

“Does this feel good?" he whispered into her ear, sliding his fingers back into her folds.

“Yes,” Celebrían panted, pushing herself more fully into Elrond’s hand. “Yes, it does.”

“Now just imagine what it will feel like when I am all of the way inside of you,” Elrond murmured to her, sliding his fingers back to her entrance. He teased her there, running his fingers around her entrance but never quite dipping in, skimming them over it but never quite penetrating. “Imagine the sight and feel of me filling you entirely, of me moving within you, of me making you scream with pleasure.”

“I want that,” Celebrían said weakly. “Please, Elrond…”

“I want you to imagine it first,” Elrond said softly. “Here,” he said, “I will help you,” and slid two of his fingers into her.

If Celebrían had been weak before, now she went limp. Elrond adjusted his hold on her, the better to keep her upright against him, and then began to pump in and out of her with excruciating slowness.

The sheer amount of trust that she was exhibiting in him suddenly struck Elrond; she was trusting him with her pleasure, with her body, with her safety. She was trusting that he would not hurt her. She was trusting that he would give her rapture. She was trusting that he would not let her fall.

He did not know if he deserved such trust. But he would not fail her. He would not .

He continued to pump his fingers in and out, in and out, in and out. Celebrían shuddered a third time, hands fluttering at her sides, a low moan escaping her throat. Elrond smiled into her hair, pressing a kiss to the back of her head, and continued his ministrations.

One long minute passed, then a second. “Are you reaching your climax, my love?” Elrond asked at last.

“Yes,” Celebrían panted.

“Good,” Elrond said—and stopped. He knew she had been—could feel it in the tensing of her body, could feel it in the tightening of her walls around his fingers—but he had wanted to hear her say it. “Now,” he said softly, “do you want me in you?”

“Yes,” Celebrían all but pleaded.

“I want to hear you say it,” Elrond murmured to her, sliding his fingers once more through her folds to keep her on the edge of orgasm.

“I want you in me,” said Celebrían. “I want to see your shaft piercing my body. I want to feel you filling me. I want you moving inside of me.”

Elrond smiled—then hoisted Celebrían up into his arms and carried her to his cot, as a newly wed husband will carry his bride to their marriage bed. He placed her gently down, then climbed onto the cot as well, unfastening his breeches first, then pulling Celebrían’s underclothes down around her ankles. She kicked them off, then hiked her skirt more fully around her hips while Elrond shimmied his breeches down to his knees.

He slid into her, and Celebrían cried out. She lifted her head, the better to see her husband enter her, and when she looked up at Elrond, her eyes were shining.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you too,” Elrond replied, and began to move within her. He reached down between them and began to play with her as well, teasing at her clit, rubbing it and flicking at it and massaging it with his fingertips. Celebrían moved in tempo with him, pushing herself into his hand and onto his cock as Elrond drove in, allowing herself to sink back to the cot mattress when he pulled back.

Celebrían came with a bitten-off cry less than a minute later. She went limp onto the cot, panting heavily, hands spasming against the blankets beneath her. Elrond, still hard and unspent, pulled out of her and laid down beside her, kicking off his breeches and pulling her close. Celebrían rolled into him willingly, body still shivering from the weight and strength of her orgasm. Elrond pressed a kiss to her forehead, then to her nose, then to her lips.

“Did that feel good?” he asked teasingly a few minutes later.

Celebrían nodded. She had begun to recover herself, and was thinking coherently once more. “Yes,” she said, still sounding weak—and then, for the first time, she felt Elrond’s cock pressing against her stomach. She frowned. “But what of you, my love?” she asked, looking up into her husband’s silver eyes.  “Why did you not finish?”

“This was for you, dear heart,” Elrond replied, leaning down to kiss her sweetly.

Celebrían let him kiss her, but when he pulled away, she said, “Well now is time for you.”

Elrond shook his head. “I do not—”

“No,” said Celebrían firmly. “Now I pleasure you .”

Elrond sighed, but he was smiling. “How can I say no when you insist?” he asked, bemused.

Celebrían shifted upright, then slid off of the cot. “Come here,” she instructed, and Elrond obeyed, sitting up as well and moving over to sit on the edge of the cot. Celebrían spread his knees wide, then knelt between them. Bending her head, she took Elrond’s cock into her mouth, and began the long, teasing process of pleasuring him.

She licked, sucked, swallowed, swirling her tongue over his head and trailing the tip of her tongue along his shaft. She took him down her throat once, twice, three times, swallowing and smiling as she heard her husband groan in pleasure.

Celebrían felt her husband suddenly tense beneath her hands, braced on his knees. At the same instant there came the rustle of tent canvas.

“What—” Elrond began.

“Oh!” The second voice was sudden and unexpected, and Celebrían choked as she recoiled off of her husband. She coughed, then whirled. The eyes of the elleth standing in the tent’s opening were wide and a blush of embarrassment was coloring her face. Very suddenly, however, that blush of embarrassment turned to one of fury.

What are you doing here, Celebrían ?” Nimloth, wife of Dior, daughter of Galathil and niece of Celeborn Celebdil, demanded. “Actually,” she said, lifting a hand, “no. No, it is very clear what you are doing here. I need no explanation.”

With that she whirled and stalked away, allowing the tent flap to fall closed behind her.

Celebrían rose quickly. “I will go after her,” she told Elrond, who was already rising and fumbling for his breeches. “I will explain…”

Elrond nodded, and Celebrían darted out of the tent.

“Nimloth,” she called, catching quickly up to her cousin.

“What, Celebrían?” Nimloth demanded, whirling. “What can you possibly say…”

“I am sorry that you walked in on us in such a state,” Celebrían said quickly, grabbing her cousin and dragging Nimloth off of the main thoroughfare and into the shadows of a nearby tent. Celebrían glanced at it, and realized she would have to be careful what she was to say, if only so that the occupant would not overhear something they should not. “It is only that—well, we do not want anyone to know. You understand, do you not?”

“Oh, I understand perfectly clearly,” said Nimloth coldly. “I must say, though, I thought you better than this Celebrían—this sneaking around in the dead of night, this, this…” She trailed off, seemingly at a loss for words.

Nimloth's anger baffled Celebrían. Yes, she had walked in on her and Elrond having sex. Yes, they had lied to their entire family about Elrond's whereabouts and Lîmrion's identity. But was that enough to make her so livid?

Apparently.

“He only wants to compete,” Celebrían said softly. “Please, you must understand. His family would be in an uproar if they knew…”

“As would yours,” Nimloth replied.

Celebrían laughed. “True,” she admitted. “Please, though—tell no one?”

Nimloth glared at her cousin. “I make no promises,” she said, and then stalked away.

Celebrían returned to the tent feeling sick. Would all come to ruin because of this? And why had Nimloth come to the tent to begin with? What had possessed her to enter without so much as a warning?

“Well?” Elrond asked, when Celebrían entered the tent once more.

“I said what I could,” Celebrían said heavily. “I do not know if she understood, however.”

Elrond nodded. “We shall have to wait and see, then,” he said.

Celebrían nodded. “We shall have to wait and see…”

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Nimloth of the House of Celebdil was furious. 

She had thought her cousin Celebrían a good and righteous woman—noble and proud and great. She had thought her kind and gracious, and full of love: for her people, for her family, and most of all for her husband. 

So to find out that Celebrían was being unfaithful to her husband was almost unthinkable. It was outrageous and scandalous, and was hurtful to even consider. For if someone whom Nimloth had held in such high standing could commit so grievous a sin, what did that mean for all others who Nimloth believed were good people? What did it portend for Elvish society as a whole?

Or was she overgeneralizing? Was she attributing too much meaning to one woman's moral failing and failure?

Nimloth approached the large tent that her uncle and his wife shared, located close to the center of the nobility's quarter in the encampment. The guard standing outside of the tent flap snapped to attention at the sight of her. 

"I must speak with Lord Celeborn," Nimloth announced. "If you would be so kind as to inform him of my arrival?"

"Certainly, my lady," said the guard, who then ducked into the front area of the tent. Through the canvas, Nimloth heard him call out for his lord, and after a moment she heard her uncle's sleepy voice reply. 

Another moment passed, and then Celeborn appeared in the tent flap. His hair was loose around his shoulders, his chest bare though his shoulders were covered with a loose robe. Soft sleep pants and soft slippers covered his lower half. 

"Nimloth," Celeborn said warmly. "What brings you to my tent at this late hour of the night?"

"I am sorry to wake you, Uncle," Nimloth said, "but I just had a very...upsetting encounter with your daughter, and I could think of no one else to turn to to seek advice and aid."

Celeborn frowned and began to walk, motioning for Nimloth to walk with him. "Is Celebrían well?" Celeborn asked, clearly alarmed. 

Nimloth laughed darkly. "Oh, she seemed more than well," she told Celeborn. 

"What do you mean?" Celeborn asked. 

"I walked in on her having sex with one of the tournament competitors," Nimloth said with black precision. 

Celeborn stopped dead. "You what ?" he asked. 

"You heard me right," said Nimloth. "I walked in on her being unfaithful to her husband."

Celeborn shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "No, I do not believe that. Celebrían would never be unfaithful to Elrond."

"All I know is what I saw."

"And what, precisely, did you see?"

"I went to Lîmrion’s tent to speak with him about his duel with my vassal, Ramo, this past evening. Ramo came to me and told me that Lîmrion had humiliated him in front of many onlookers, unjustly and cruelly. I went to speak with him about that. Yet what I found was Celebrían was on her knees, the man's cock in her mouth. The stench of sex was in the air."

"And you are sure it was Celebrían?"

"Positive," said Nimloth. "She chased after me to beg me to keep it quiet."

"Hm," said Celeborn sternly. "And you are certain that the Elf she was...engaging in sexual activities with was not her husband?"

"Is it not common knowledge that Elrond is away riding?" Nimloth asked. 

"It is. But deception is not out of the question here. Describe him to me," Celeborn commanded, beginning to walk again. 

"Tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with short hair to his shoulders."

"Was he scarred?" Celeborn asked. 

"No," said Nimloth. 

"That does not sound like Elrond," Celeborn admitted. "For one thing he has never, of his own volition, cut his hair shorter than his shoulder blades for as long as I have known him."

"It was not Elrond," said Nimloth firmly. "Celebrían made it clear to me that she wanted me to keep what I had seen a secret—begged me to, even."

"This simply does not sound to be in Celebrían's character," said Celeborn. "The daughter I raised would not be unfaithful to the husband she loves as much as life itself—the husband she waited for for 500 years."

"Perhaps, then, you do not know your daughter so well as you thought," said Nimloth. 

Celeborn grimaced. "I will speak with her tomorrow," he decided. "In the meantime, get some rest, Nimloth. And try to forget what you saw. All will be made clear in time; of that, I am certain."

~*x*~

Celeborn returned to his and Galadriel’s tent after a walk through the nobility’s quarter. Nimloth had left him nearly an hour before, but Celeborn had needed time to think—to think on her words, on Celebrían’s recent actions, on the mystery that was Lîmrion. 

Celebrían had said that Lîmrion was an Elf of Aman. Yet she had been hiding something, that morning she had told them about Lîmrion’s origins—Celeborn had seen and felt it in her when she had been speaking: in the flick of her eyes to one side as she had lied, in the slight tensing of her shoulders as she spoke. Contrary to what Nimloth seemed to think, he did know his daughter—and well. 

Initially Celeborn had suspected that it was merely that the Lîmrion Celebrían had met was one and the same as the one she had known in Middle-earth. Was there in fact something deeper and more nefarious going on, though? Was she hiding more truth than that the Lîmrion she had known had been reembodied? And if it was the same Lîmrion, why would she hide the fact that he had been returned from the Halls of Mandos?

Such ran Celeborn’s thoughts, in boundless and endless circles, until at last his feet guided him back to the front of the tent he shared with Galadriel. The soldier of the house of Finarfin who was standing guard bowed at Celeborn’s approach, then lifted the flap for him. Celeborn walked into the large, spacious tent.

There were three sections to the tent: a large, open front room, complete with a sofa and two large braziers for light on either side; the sleeping space he shared with his wife, with its bed and chests and stands for Celeborn’s weapons and armor; and a privy.

Galadriel, who had been asleep when he left, was awake and reading when he brushed through the curtain partitioning the front room from the rest of the tent. She was sitting up in the large bed at the center of the sleeping area, lamps burning on the side tables. They shed a warm, golden glow throughout the space, filling it with comfortable shadows edged in yellow.

“There you are,” she said, looking up from her book. “You were gone longer than I expected. Where have you been?” 

“Nimloth came to speak with me,” said Celeborn, pulling off his slippers and dropping them at the foot of the bed, then shrugging off his robe and draping it over a clothing rack.

“What was so pressing that it could not wait until morning?” Galadriel asked.

“She came to tell me that she had just caught Celebrían having an affair with one of the competitors,” Celeborn informed his wife.

“And did she say which Elf it was she was having an affair with?”

“Lîmrion,” Celeborn replied. “The Elf who beat Findis in the first joust.”

Galadriel laughed, low and amused. “All I shall say about that, then,” she said, “is I doubt Nimloth saw what she thought she saw.”

“Do you know something?” Celeborn asked.

Galadriel shrugged. “It is not my place to say,” she said cryptically. “But do not put too much stock in what Nimloth thinks she saw.”

“I have not,” Celeborn assured his wife. “I do not think Celebrían would betray Elrond in such a way—especially not after having remained faithful for 500 years while waiting for him to come to Valinor.”

Galadriel shook her head. “Indeed,” she said.

Celeborn climbed into bed and settled down beside his wife. Galadriel put her book onto the bedside table, blew out the lamp on her side of the bed, then lay down, curling into Celeborn’s side. Celeborn draped an arm over her waist, drawing her close, and then placed a kiss into her hair.

“Sleep well, my love,” Celeborn murmured.

“You too,” Galadriel replied, and then the two of them drifted off into Reverie.

~*x*~

Celeborn awoke early the next morning. He rose and dressed—thigh-length tunic, leggings, and soft-soled boots that laced to his knees—then slipped out of his and Galadriel’s tent. It was only a short walk to his daughter’s tent, situated a few hundred paces east, but it gave Celeborn a moment to collect his thoughts and admire the early morning, pre-dawn air.

The guard standing outside of Celebrían’s tent snapped to salute when Celeborn approached. Celeborn nodded grimly at the auburn-haired Elf, then asked, “Is my daughter in?”

“Aye, my lord,” said the guard, “though I believe she is still abed.”

Celeborn weighed his options. He could either go in and wake her to speak with her, or he could wait until later to do so. Were his questions pressing enough to warrant an early waking, though? Or would that simply be rude?

Sighing, Celeborn nodded once more towards the guard and bade him farewell, then turned his feet toward the feasting area and breakfast. Food was just being set out when he arrived, and Celeborn quickly sat and began to dish up a plate-full of food: freshly cut strawberries, toast slathered with jam, oatmeal studded with brown sugar and butter, and juice squeezed from oranges.

He was nearly done with his meal when a hand falling on his shoulder dragged his attention behind him. There, standing at his elbow and smiling slightly, was his daughter.

“Amrûnion said you were looking for me this morning,” she said lightly.

Celeborn quickly wiped his fingers on a napkin, nodding. “I was,” he said. “I needed to speak with you.”

“Well,” said Celebrían, claiming a seat beside her father, “what did you wish to speak with me about?”

Celeborn glanced around at the surrounding seats. Fingon and Turgon were seated two chairs down, talking animatedly together; Fingolfin and Finarfin were seated three chairs down in the opposite direction, speaking softly to one another. Otherwise the table was empty.

Turning to his daughter, Celeborn said quietly, “I hope you will be honest with me, iel-nîn,” he said, “no matter how painful that honesty may be.”

“I am always honest with you,” Celebrían said, wide-eyed.

Celeborn smiled grimly. “I only fear that you have not been,” he said, just as quietly as before.

Celebrían frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Who is Lîmrion?” Celeborn asked. “And who is he to you?”

Celebrían tensed, then shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Do not ask me that, Ada,” she begged at last. “I do not wish to lie to you.”

Celeborn sighed, conflict raging in his heart. What did that mean? Did that mean Nimloth had spoken—and seen—truly? Did that not mean Celebrían was indeed hiding something? But what?

“Then tell me this,” Celeborn said, as serious and intent as he had ever been, “are you being unfaithful to Elrond?”

Celebrían recoiled. “No!” she exclaimed, louder than she seemed to have meant, for she glanced furtively around at their dining companions, then softened her tone. “No,” she said again, quieter but fiercer. “I am not being unfaithful.”

“You are not lying to me?” Celeborn asked, gazing into her eyes and face.

“I swear it,” said Celebrían.

Celeborn sighed and sat back in his chair, nodding. “Thank you,” he said, relieved.

“Whatever made you think I was being unfaithful?” Celebrían asked, her face darkening.

“Nimloth came to me last night,” said Celeborn. “She said she walked in on you having sex with one of the competitors.”

Celebrían’s face went red, then white with anger. “What Nimloth thought she saw, she did not,” she said, her expression turning thunderous. 

“What did she see, then?” Celeborn asked.

Celebrían shook her head. “Not me being unfaithful to my husband,” she said blackly.

“Very well,” said Celeborn with half of a ghost of a smile. “Keep your secrets.”

Celebrían grinned at her father. “I shall,” she said. She rose. “I must go, though,” she told him, leaning down to press a kiss to his cheek. “I love you, Ada, and I will see you later this morning.”

“Farewell, iel-nîn,” Celeborn said, and then watched her stride away from the high table, purposeful and confident.

~*x*~

“My father thinks I am having an affair,” Celebrían told Elrond. She was seated in the spindly chair, watching as he drew on his armor. “Apparently Nimloth went and told him about finding us together last night.”

Elrond, in the process of buckling on his breastplate, frowned. “I see,” he said. “And did you tell him it was me?”

Celebrían shook her head. “It is not my secret to tell,” she said. “Do you wish I had?”

Elrond shrugged, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “I would rather no one else knows I am here. Not that I think your father—or mother, for that matter—would care, or would attempt to sway the tournament in my favor, but...well…”

Celebrían grinned. “But you are enjoying yourself,” she guessed. “Including the deception, and the knowledge that no one—or very few people—even know you are here.”

“It is nice,” Elrond admitted, “being able to walk freely about. It is nice knowing that I have no responsibilities or expectations placed upon me. It is…” He blushed. “It is nice sneaking around with you. It is an element of excitement and unexpectedness that our marriage has been lacking, and—”

“You need not explain yourself to me,” said Celebrían, rising and crossing to stand behind Elrond. She reached up and finished sealing the last buckle on his breastplate, then patted his shoulder. “I understand.”

Elrond turned to face her, then leaned down to capture her lips in a kiss. “I love you,” he said softly.

“And I love you,” said Celebrían sweetly. She flicked her eyes up and down her husband’s body, then added, “And I do so love seeing you in armor.”

Elrond arched an eyebrow. “Really?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” said Celebrían. “You are never more attractive to me as you are right now.”

“How am I just now learning this?”

Celebrían laughed. “Because I have never told you?” she suggested.

“Hmm,” said Elrond, snagging her around the waist and drawing her closer to him. “Well,” he said, “I do have a few more minutes before I must leave for the lists.”

They kissed hard for a long minute, tongues and lips and breath meeting. Hands roamed, their bodies pressed close together, and still they kissed, breaking apart only for brief seconds to breathe. At last, however, Elrond pulled away reluctantly.

“I must go,” he said, snagging his pauldrons from the armor rack and pulling them on, buckling them with a few swift, deft movements. 

“I will be watching,” Celebrían promised. “Do you still have my ribbon?”

Elrond turned, and showed her the ribbon braided in with his hair. Short though it was, he had braided it in the Galadhrim fashion, with the braid beginning at the top of his head, the hair being woven tightly together close to his scalp. Celebrían smiled.

“Bear my token and win in my name,” she said formally, then leaned up to kiss her husband one last time.

“I love you,” said Elrond sincerely.

“As I love you,” said Celebrían.

Elrond left.

The walk to the competitor’s entrance of the main list took nearly a quarter of an hour. Elrond took is slow, leading Avasath through the gathering crowds, helmet tucked under one arm and gaze sharp and wary. This close to where the nobility frequented he had to be careful—had to be watchful and on edge, ready to duck away at the slightest glimpse of a recognized head or flash of eyes.

The competitor’s yard of the main list was much like the competitor’s yards in the smaller lists, only larger. There was the gathering area, with benches and troughs filled with fresh water, and then there was the secondary open space between the arched gateway into the list proper and the starting mark.

“Welcome!” cried a voice almost as soon as Elrond had entered.

Elrond smiled tight-lipped and canted his head down. “Greetings,” he said, straightening. 

A tall, broad-shouldered Elf approached him dressed in a herald’s tabard. He had rich, brown hair that hung around his shoulders and down his back, and deep brown eyes. His coloring was that of a mixed heritage—likely mostly Noldorin, with a touch of Sindar—with full lips and a broad, strong nose.

“You are Lîmrion?” the herald asked Elrond.

“I am,” Elrond replied. “Might I inquire as to your business with me?”

The large Elf laughed. “I have been assigned to you as your herald,” he said. He extended a hand. “I am Fimcirion,” he said, grasping Elrond’s forearm. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Why must I have a herald?” Elrond asked, perplexed. He was under the guise of a commoner—and commoners didn’t have heralds. Only the extremely wealthy and the nobility employed heralds for a tournament; the rest of the competitors simply relied on their own notoriety to precede them.

“It has been decided that the remainder of your jousts will take place in the main list,” Fimcirion informed Elrond. “All those who have been awarded that honor also require a herald to announce them. It is a great prestige,” he added, “to have been so singled out by Finwë and his sons.”

Elrond fought back a grimace. “Well met, then, Fimcirion,” was all he said, however, and he smiled grimly at the large Elf. “My thanks to you.”

“You do not seem pleased,” Fimcirion pointed out shrewdly, sounding confused. “Is it not a great honor to have been found by Finwë?”

“No doubt it is a great honor,” said Elrond, “but it is an honor I would have been happy to forego. No matter,” he added briskly. “What is done is done. I take it you are to announce me?”

“Aye,” said Fimcirion. “In but a moment.”

They waited in companionable silence, Fimcirion standing to Elrond’s right, Avasath to his left. Then Fimcirion turned to Elrond and said, “Forgive me, sir, but I do need to ask a few questions.”

Elrond inclined his head. “Go on,” he said when Fimcirion made no move to ask him anything.

“Where are you from?”

Elrond grimaced. “Here and there,” he hedged. Celebrían had told him that she had informed her family that Lîmrion was from Aman—while he had informed his friends, who he was certain would be in the crowd watching, that he was from Middle-earth.

“No particular city or township or village?” Fimcirion asked, arching his eyebrows.

Elrond shook his head. “My past is...many and varied,” he said softly. “I am from nowhere.”

“I see,” said Fimcirion. “Well then, perhaps we can take a different approach. What is it that is most important to you?”

Elrond frowned thoughtfully. “Loyalty,” he said at last. He nodded. “Aye, loyalty. For without loyalty where is love? Where is hope? Where is truth? Loyalty is inherent in all of those things—without loyalty, none of those things can burgeon.”

Fimcirion smiled. “Quite the poet,” he commented, then went on to say, “And what is the greatest deed you have ever performed,” before Elrond could reply.

Elrond grimaced. What was the greatest deed he had ever performed? He had killed Vorgod, not once but twice; he had slain Trolls and Wolves and Orcs; he had fought against Dragons and won; he had founded Rivendell; he had wielded great Rings of Power—all of them, at the beginning, then Vilya alone for an Age; he had fought the Witch King, had fought the Necromancer, had fought Sauron in his true form. He had done many “great” and “noble” deeds—but which was his greatest ?

Founding Rivendell , Elrond decided. He had known it from the beginning, though the knowledge of it had taken a moment to percolate through his consciousness. Yes, he thought. Founding Rivendell—a place of healing and beauty, a place of safety and security—was my greatest feat.

He could not say that, though. To do so would be to reveal himself.

Elrond sighed.

“I have done no great or noble deeds,” he lied. “None worth telling about, in any case,” he added.

Fimcirion frowned. “But surely…”

Elrond shook his head. 

“Very well,” said Fimcirion grudgingly. “You are not making this easy, Lîmrion,” he groused.

“My apologies,” said Elrond, not sounding very penitent.

“What can you tell me about yourself?” Fimcirion asked.

Elrond shrugged. “Not much, I am afraid,” he said. “Not much more than I have already told you, at least.”

Fimcirion sighed. “Very well,” he said, sounding reluctant. “I shall do my best, but forgive me if your introductions are not very...well, good.”

Elrond smiled grimly. “No need to apologize. I know I am digging my own grave here.”

An attendant appeared in the gateway into the lists and beckoned Fimcirion and Elrond forward. Fimcirion shared a look with Elrond, then led the way out of the competitor’s yard and into the list.

The stands were crowded high overhead, packed with spectators cheering and clapping and stamping their feet. To Elrond’s surprise, he caught a refrain of speech buried within it: “Lîmrion!” the chanting went, “Lîmrion, Lîmrion, Lîmrion!”

Not everyone was chanting his name, of course. Only about a third of the stands were doing so—but that was a third more than Elrond had expected. He pulled up abruptly, then settled his helmet onto his head before he approached the starting mark, keeping anyone but those closest to the entrance to the list from getting a clear look at his face.

Fimcirion walked out into the center of the the list and raised his hands. The crowd quieted almost instantly.

“Welcome, friends!” Fimcirion cried, his voice rising and falling loud and clear throughout the space. “Welcome, to today’s first joust—the long-awaited bout between Lîmrion, the newcomer to the Amani court, and Aran Ereinion Gil-galad. And this will be a noble and mighty joust indeed! For Lîmrion, while a newcomer, is strong of heart and stronger of arm. Already he has bested Lady Findis,” and here he bowed toward the noble’s box, “and Captain Rog. Will he best Aran Gil-galad as well?”

A second herald approached the center of the field from the opposite side of the list. He was dressed in the herald’s tabard, though it was embroidered in the colors of Gil-galad’s house.

“Nay, I say!” the second herald cried. “Nay, he will not win! For Aran Gil-galad is not only strong of heart and arm, but he is a noble man known well for his great and mighty deeds! He fought Sauron himself, face-to-face, against all odds. He has slain Darkness the likes of which Aman cannot even imagine! He is no newcomer to the courts of Aman; he is a tried and true veteran of these tournaments, and of war. He is no unblooded youth, like your commoner.”

A great booing was taken up at that. Elrond caught a glimpse of Fimcirion’s grin before he turned back again to the crowd.

“And what do we say to the nobility who thinks they are better than us commoners?” he cried.

The booing turned to cheers.

Elrond grimaced. How would the commoners react when they found out that he was no commoner—was, in fact, as noble as anyone could be? Poorly, he suspected.

I will deal with that when I come to it, he decided. What else could he do?

Across the field, Elrond watched as Gil-galad approached his starting mark, mounted on a fine, white gelding. He was clad in bright silver armor, a helm tucked under one hand to reveal his flowing, black hair and flashing grey eyes. He looked every inch the noble and regal former King of the Noldor.

Elrond smiled at his cousin, though Gil-galad could not see it—could not know it was his cousin across the field from him. This was going to be an interesting contest of strength and wit.

The heralds cleared from the field, leaving the lanes open. From the judge’s box, the head judge called out, asking if Elrond and Gil-galad were ready. They raised their lances in turn, signalling that they were. The horn call came—and the joust had begun.

Elrond thundered down the lane on Avasath. She was a mountain of energy, of raw power unbridled. Drying mud flew from beneath her hooves. Elrond settled his shield and his lance, lowering the tip over her withers. 

They came together in a crunch of splintering wood and crashing hooves. Elrond rose in his stirrups, thrusting out and up with his lance before it shattered against Gil-galad’s shield. Then they were rushing past, Elrond’s lance and shield arms both tingling from the blow.

Avasath circled around, then trotted back to her starting point, head held high and tail streaming out behind her. Elrond accepted a new lance from the wide-eyed attendant, inclining his head in thanks, and then kneed Avasath back to the starting position.

The horn came again. Avasath crashed forward, hooves pounding the earth. Elrond lowered his lance over her withers for a second time, attention narrowing in on Gil-galad’s shield. Wait, he thought, subconsciously counting his breaths, Avasath’s hoofbeats, the bob of Gil-galad’s lance. Wait for it…

They crunched together. Elrond shoved forward, aiming for the point on Gil-galad’s shield where he could pop him out of the saddle—only for Gil-galad to shift his shield at the last second, saving him. 

At the last second, Elrond also shifted his own shield, placing the direct center of it beneath Gil-galad’s coromant, rather than slightly below it. Even an inch off, and he could have been flung from the saddle. 

It was tricky, and took a great deal of skill and practice, to be able to keep an eye on both lance and shield—but it was possible, with the right training and experience. It was training and experience that Elrond had. Without it—and without shifting his shield as he had—he would have lost the tournament then and there.

Elrond shook out his lance arm, then his shield arm, as Avasath trotted back to her starting mark for the last pass. “Here you are, sir,” the attendant said, handing Elrond his third lance. Elrond accepted it with a word of thanks, then settled in for the last round.

The horn call sounded. Avasath leapt forward, and Elrond readied himself. He had to strike perfectly this time, or else…

Elrond’s lance shattered on Gil-galad’s shield—even as Gil-galad’s lance shattered off of his. Then they were past, rushing on, on, on toward the far end of the list.

As Avasath slowed, Elrond became aware of the cheers of the crowd, of the stamping of their feet, of the two names being called, vying against one another for supremacy. “Ereinion!” half of the voices screamed, amidst clapping and wild hollering. Yet the other half was shouting, “Lîmrion!” with just as much vigor and excitement.

Elrond turned Avasath just in time to see Gil-galad approaching him. Gil-galad drew his gelding up alongside Avasath at the far end of the list, then extended a hand. Elrond reached out and gripped his forearm.

“Well fought!” Gil-galad exclaimed, grasping Elrond’s forearm tightly in turn. “I have not jousted against someone so skilled in many years. But tell me, Lîmrion, where did you learn how to joust? You fight like an old friend of mine, who had an...eclectic training.”

Elrond swallowed hard, certain that Ereinion was speaking of him .

“Here and there,” he answered, pitching his voice low through his help. “I learned where I could, from whom I could.”

Ereinion, who had flipped up his visor, grinned. “So it was with my friend. I suppose that explains it, though.” He tightened his grip on Elrond’s forearm, then released him. “Now then, let us go hear what the judges have to say.”

They turned their horses and rode forward, toward the judge’s box. They came to a halt a few paces away from the lip of the wall separating the box from the field, their horses prancing and uneasy, sensing their riders’ anxiety.

Elrond bound his own nervousness into a tight ball in his stomach. He would win this joust—or he would not. He had done the best he could, and now he had to wait and see what the judges said. That he had often won against Ereinion in the past did not matter—for Ereinion had often enough won against him.

The judges, tucked into a knot at the center of their box, dispersed, returning to their seats in a line along the wall. The head judge, dressed in official robes of office, stepped forward and raised his hands.

“We have declared the winner!” he called. “The winner of this joust, for the strength of his blows and the form of his riding, goes to...Lîmrion!”

A great cry rose up from the crowd, thunderous and impressive. Cold ice of shock raced through Elrond, from crown to sole; he had not actually expected to win this bout. He had expected, because he had failed to unhorse Gil-galad, that he would lose. Yet he had won. He had won. 

He had won .

Elrond glanced up towards the nobility’s box, situated above the judge’s box. There was Celebrían, clapping politely but grinning broadly. Her mother and father sat beside her to her left, Finrod and Amarië and their son, Arandannen, to her right. Arandannen was on his feet, leaning out over the walled ledge, cheering wildly. Elrond lifted his shield in salute of the boy.

Then he turned and made his way out of the lists, pleasure vying against discomfort and fear at having been recognized—by Gil-galad, by the judges, by anyone in that nobility’s box. At last, however, the pleasure won out, and Elrond allowed himself a satisfied grin.

He had done it. He had won . He was moving on in the tournament.

Now he only had to keep winning.

~*x*~

Gil-galad handed his gelding off to his squire, then took off his helm. Sweaty hair clung to his cheeks and neck, and Gil-galad brushed a hand through it, freeing it from his skin and arranging it back into some semblance of order.

“Well fought,” said a familiar voice, and Gil-galad looked over to see his adoptive father, Fingon, straighten from where he had been leaning against the fence. Fingon smiled at his son, then strode forward. He clasped Gil-galad on the shoulder, a tight squeeze there and then gone, and then turned, motioning for Gil-galad to follow him.

“So,” said Fingon, “how does it feel having lost?”

“Must you rub my nose in it?” Gil-galad groused good-naturedly.

Fingon laughed. “I only wanted to make certain you were well.”

Gil-galad shrugged. “It was a good joust,” he said. “That Lîmrion is strong and skilled. He was a noble opponent to lose against.”

Fingon nodded. “Well said,” he agreed. Fingon hesitated, then asked, “Did you recognize his fighting style at all?”

“You mean the way he fights like a Fëanorian?” Gil-galad asked. “Of course I noticed that. Has that not been the talk of the camp?”

“There has not been a new rider who fights in such a way since the end of the First Age,” said Fingon. “Celebrían claims that the boy—if he is a boy—is from Aman, but I am not convinced. He learned those techniques from the Fëanorians—the old Fëanorions. They do not teach their pages and squires that type of jousting any longer.”

“Hm,” said Gil-galad thoughtfully. “His fighting style was familiar.”

“Oh?” Fingon asked.

Gil-galad stopped dead. “I must go, Fingon,” he said. “I apologize for my abrupt departure, but I must speak with Glorfindel at once.”

Fingon grinned. “Of course. And do tell me if you discover anything?”

“I will,” Gil-galad promised, and then hurried away.

It took the better part of an hour and numerous questions for Gil-galad to locate Glorfindel. At last, however, he found him sitting in the stands two thirds of the way to the top. Rog, Ecthelion, Duilin, and Penlod were seated with him, eating skewers of meat and vegetables and cheering on the rider in blue below.

“Finally,” said Gil-galad, sitting down on the bench beside Glorfindel. He cocked an eyebrow at the five Lords of Gondolin and asked, “Why are you not in the nobility’s box with the rest of us?”

“Eh,” said Glorfindel with a shrug, “we thought we’d appreciate the atmosphere better out here.”

“Ah,” said Gil-galad, not sure he understood. “Well,” he said, changing the subject, “Glorfindel, I need to speak with you. Might we go for a walk?”

“Of course, my lord,” said Glorfindel. He rose, finishing off the last bite of his meat skewer and then flicking it at Ecthelion, who caught it without taking his eyes off of the tournament below. Glorfindel glared at his friend, then turned and followed Gil-galad out of the stands and down the switchback staircase to the ground.

“So,” said Glorfindel, once they were outside, “what is it you wished to speak with me about?”

“I will cut straight to the heart of the matter,” said Gil-galad. “Is Elrond here?”

Glorfindel frowned but kept walking. “Elrond?” he said, brows drawing low over his eyes. “He is out riding. I thought you knew that, Ereinion.”

Gil-galad sighed. “I know that is what he said he was doing. But Lîmrion—the lad I jousted against today—he reminded me of Elrond very strongly. I know it has been long and long again since we jousted against one another, but it would take longer time than that to dissuade me of my memory of his fighting style. And Lîmrion’s fighting style is almost precisely as I recall Elrond’s.”

“Hm,” Glorfindel mused. “Well, all I can say is that Elrond is indeed riding. It is not impossible, nor even unlikely, that there is another Fëanorion Elf competing, is it?”

“But his style ,” Gil-galad said again. “It was one of the older styles of Fëanorion fighting. As Fingon pointed out to me, the House of Fëanor no longer teaches its pages and squires that particularly dangerous and reckless style of using a lance.”

“Then perhaps he is an older Elf,” said Glorfindel. “Perhaps he simply has never wished to compete before, but learned how to ride and how to use a lance long ago.”

“Perhaps,” mused Gil-galad. Then he nodded. “Yes, that must be it. Still…” He trailed off. 

Glorfindel looked at him sharply—sharper than Gil-galad would have expected—and then asked, “Still, what, Ereinion? Do you not trust me?”

“I trust you,” Gil-galad said. “It is only that I cannot help but wonder if Lîmrion has pulled the proverbial wool over all our eyes.”

“In what way?”

“I cannot help but think that Lîmrion is hiding...something,” said Gil-galad. “For one thing he would not show me his face after the joust.”

“Perhaps he has an unusual scar,” suggested Glorfindel. “Or perhaps he is recalcitrant. That would explain why he had never competed in the tournament before.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Gil-galad. “Still, I cannot help but wonder.”

Glorfindel smiled. “Well,” he said, “if you go snooping about, I hope you will take me with you. If you believe there is something off about Lîmrion, I believe you—and I would like to aid you as best I can.”

Gil-galad smiled, then reached out to grip Glorfindel’s forearm. “Thank you, Glorfindel,” he said. “I will take you up on that offer. Now, however, I am going to go get out of this armor and take a bath. Lîmrion can wait for me to be clean.”

Glorfindel laughed. “Indeed.”

They parted ways, Gil-galad toward his tent and a hot bath, Glorfindel off toward his own tent and Asfaloth. His friends would forgive him for abandoning them—he hoped—but this was important, and could not wait.

Glorfindel whistled as he drew near to his tent. A moment later, Asfaloth appeared between two tents, trotting with head high and mane and tail streaming in the light breeze. He pranced up to Glorfindel, white coat gleaming in the morning light, then lowered his nose to touch his friend and master’s chest.

“Hello to you too,” said Glorfindel gaily, stroking Asfaloth’s neck. “Are you ready for a run?” he asked the stallion.

Asfaloth snorted and flung his head up in clear agreement.

Glorfindel went into his tent, gathered Asfaloth’s saddle, saddleblanket, and bell-mounted reins, then returned to the stallion. Readying him was the work of but a few moments, and then Glorfindel mounted up and began the long, slow walk towards the edge of the encampment.

“Ho there, boy,” Glorfindel called to a page passing by as he neared the camp’s southeastern border. The boy—a lad no more than thirty-five or so, dressed in Finarfin’s blue and gold—approached and bowed.

“Aye, my lord?” he asked. “What can I do to serve you?”

“Take a message to Lord Ecthelion for me,” Glorfindel instructed.

“What is the message, my lord?” the boy asked.

“Tell him that Lord Glorfindel rides for Tirion on an urgent errand. He intends to return tomorrow morning. Ask him to keep Gil-galad busy—and possibly drunk—tonight, and to keep a close eye on him.”

The page bowed again. “Anything else, my lord?” he asked.

“That is it,” said Glorfindel. “Now run quickly. He is sitting in the stands, about two thirds of the way up at the center.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the page, bowing for a third time. With that he turned and trotted off, moving with as much haste as he could through the crowd.

Nodding, convinced that Ecthelion would heed his wishes—and that he himself would not be waylaid or asked any uncomfortable questions, at least until he had time to think up some good answers for them—Glorfindel turned Asfaloth’s head and loosed his reins. Asfaloth took off in a brisk trot, leaving the camp behind in moments.

The ride to Tirion was a bright and cheerful affair. There were no creatures that posed a threat to Glorfindel's safety, and so he spent the ride singing and speaking aloud to the deer and birds he passed. None of them replied—but Glorfindel did not mind. 

He arrived at the gates of Tirion just as the sun began to set. There was still at least an hour of light left, though, so Glorfindel rode through gleaming gold streets as he made his way toward his lord's manor, situated in the nobility's district high in the city. 

Tirion was sectioned into a number of districts, each with its own banner and sigil. There was the merchant's district, the craftsmen's district, the housing district, the warehouse district, the entertainment district, and the religious district, along with the nobility's district. Each of those districts was governed and represented in the city's council by district officials: by a head officiator, a treasurer, a judge, and an elected panel of citizens meant to bring their own people's needs to the attention of the city counsel and the nobility, who met together monthly.

Ornate gateways led between each district, each situated on a tier of Tirion, with the craftsmen's district on the bottom and the nobility's on the top. The palace was located at the very tip of Tirion, crowning the magnificent city with glory. 

Glorfindel now made his way to the uppermost tier, passing through each gate uncontested until the last. There the two guards stepped between him and the road beyond, pikes held crossed between them. 

"Halt," the guard to the right—a broad-shouldered woman with a broad nose and strong jaw, lending her an air of command—said, "and state your name and business."

"Do you not recognize me, Certhael?" Glorfindel asked with a grin. He dismounted and approached, leaving the reins trailing. "I know it has been long and long again since we met, but have you forgotten your captain and lord?"

Certhael gasped and dropped to her knees. "Lord Glorfindel!" she exclaimed. "Forgive me! I did not realize— I thought you were at the tournament, and thought—"

"Peace, Certhael," Glorfindel said with a laugh. "I have business at Lord Elrond's house. Might I pass through?"

"Of course," Certhael said quickly, rising once more to her feet. She was blushing. "We admit anyone, if they have reason for being here."

"And is my reason enough?" Glorfindel asked with another laugh. 

"For you, of course, my lord," Certhael replied. 

"My thanks," Glorfindel said. Then he turned to the other Elf, who had watched the exchange with silent interest. "And to you as well…"

"Cellgwael," said the other elleth . She was short and trim, with black hair and dark eyes. 

"Well met, Cellgwael," said Glorfindel, extending a hand. Cellgwael gripped his arm, and Glorfindel returned the gesture. 

"My thanks, my lord," Cellgwael said. "I have heard much about you. Certhael was very excited when she heard that you had arrived on these shores."

Glorfindel glanced at Certhael. She was blushing harder. 

"I only wished you would take up your former mantle as Lord of the Golden Flower," she muttered. Then, stronger, she added, "We have missed you, these many long years. All of us."

"Even Uirebhen?" Glorfindel asked, referencing a sour, dour-faced ellon who had always chafed beneath Glorfindel's leadership.

Certhael laughed. "Even Uirebhen," she said. "Though I doubt he would admit it. So tell me: are you going to retake your title and place beneath Aran Turgon?"

Glorfindel smiled, but it was a sad smile. "I fear I must disappoint you," he said. "At least for now, I have a lord other than Turgon, and a duty besides that of being Lord of the House of the Golden Flower."

Certhael's face fell, but she nodded. "Lord Elrond?"

Glorfindel nodded. "Indeed," he affirmed. 

“I understand,” said Certhael, though she did not look as if she did. She bowed again, though, and gestured for Glorfindel to enter through the gate. “Please, my lord,” she said, somewhat stiffly, “you may go about your business.”

Not knowing what else to do—not knowing how to comfort Certhael, or make her feel more at ease or at home with his decision—Glorfindel returned to Asfaloth and gathered his reins, then walked through the gate and into the Noble's District. 

The Noble’s District was the richest of all of the districts of Tirion—though all were beautiful in their own way. The streets were paved with whorled marble cobblestones inlaid with gold and silver and precious stones, creating designs that passed underfoot in blues and greens and reds and oranges. The buildings to either side were made of wood and stone alike, the wood exquisitely carved into the likenesses of vines and flowers and animals, both real and fictional. Unicorns peered out from behind draperies of flowering vines, and foxes and hares darted in and out of etched thickets. The sky was bright overhead; the buildings, while tall, were straight as arrows, not crowding out the view of the heavens.

Most of the buildings were houses: houses of lesser nobles of greater houses closer to the gates, the manors of the high nobles—such as Fingon, and Finarfin, and even Elrond—closer to the Palace. Still, though, there were some few merchant and craftsmen shops here: blacksmiths and seamstresses whose clientele were the nobility alone, carpenters and stone smiths who worked endlessly on improving the district.

Glorfindel passed the shops and the houses of the lesser nobility, climbing a broad flight of steps that separated the lower nobility from the higher. At the top, gates and iron-worked fences began to appear at the edge of the roads. Beyond were long lawns and orchards, drives edged with trees, fountains at the heart of hedge gardens. On the other side of those rose the houses of the higher nobility, grand and great and massively beautiful.

Elrond’s house was situated off of the main street, set well back behind a curtain of trees. The long drive leading from the main road to the front door was lined with flowering trees that dropped white petals to the ground below, filling the air with perfume and a drifting veil. Asfaloth flung his head up as a petal landed on his nose, snorting, causing Glorfindel to laugh.

The stables were set off to one side of the house, a long walkway leading around the edge of it to the stableyard. A kennel was beside it, and a falconry beyond. A kitchen garden stood in an alcove on the other side of the house, connected to the kitchen itself, and the servant’s entrance was close by. The servants’ quarters were in the house itself, however, located at the back of the expansive house.

Glorfindel ignored all but the front door. He left Asfaloth’s reins trailing, and walked up to the artfully carved oak door, and rapped his knuckles against it, foregoing the brass and gold knocker. He waited for a moment before the door swung open, revealing a tall, raven-haired elleth dressed in Elrond’s blue-green and silver.

“I am sorry, but my lord is not— Ah, Lord Glorfindel,” the elleth said, seeing his face in the dying light. “I apologize for not recognizing you at once. I apologize, however—as I am sure you are aware, neither my lord nor my lady are here.”

“I am not here to see Elrond or Celebrían, Belegwael,” Glorfindel said with a small grin. “I am here to see Erestor, who I believe has been taking care of the estate in their absence?”

“Ah yes,” said Belegwael. “Of course. Please, come in.”

She led the way into the entrance hall: a large, open room with a thick, red carpet that accented the rich mahogany of the paneled walls. The ceiling was vaulted, and sported a crystal and diamond chandelier hanging from the arched rafters. It was currently cold, though the gems glittered in the dying sunlight filtering in through the window above the door, facing west.

Vases sat on wooden stands and plinths along the walls, interspersed with carved panels. They were made of porcelain and glass, diamond and silver, gold and jasper. Each was etched with the finest details: bird’s wings, flowers, waves of the ocean, fish and crawling creatures, even scenes throughout history. Glorfindel caught glimpses of a young woman turning into a bird as she leapt from a cliff; a man hurtling into flame; a terrible figure being thrust through doors set in a starry sky.

“Wait here,” Belegwael ordered, guiding Glorfindel into an antechamber set off of the main entrance hall. It was small but cozy, with a dead fireplace and cold heart, a sofa, and an armchair. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with tomes lettered along the spines with gold and ink. A side table sat between the sofa and the armchair, angled toward the fireplace, and a lamp burned on it, filling the room with a soft, golden glow.

Glorfindel perched on the arm of the sofa and waited for nearly 10 minutes before a figure appeared in the doorway. It was Erestor—dark-haired, grey-eyed, quick-witted Erestor, who was one of Glorfindel’s greatest and truest friends.

“Hello there, Glorfindel,” said Erestor, smiling. “Tell me, what brings you to Elrond’s humble home?”

Glorfindel snorted. “If this is a humble home,” he said, “then Asfaloth is a mare.”

Erestor smiled, tight-lipped but with shining eyes that bespoke true amusement. “You have not answered my question,” he said after a few seconds of bemused silence.

“Ah, right,” said Glorfindel. “Truthfully, I came to request your aid.”

“Aid? Aid how?”

“Elrond is not out riding,” Glorfindel said bluntly. “He is competing in the tournament—for a plethora of reasons that you will need to speak with him about.”

One of Erestor’s eyebrows rose gracefully in mild consternation. “I see,” was all he said, however. “What do you need my help with, though?” he asked.

“Gil-galad is getting close to the truth,” said Glorfindel. “And that could prove disastrous. You know Gil-galad when it comes to Elrond.”

Erestor, who had served as a messenger and vassal for Celebrimbor during the first years of the Second Age, and who had met Gil-galad only a few times prior to the Sack of Ost-in-Edhil—but who every time had heard the praises of Gil-galad’s herald—snorted slightly.

“Indeed,” he said.

The truth of the matter was that Gil-galad could not be silent when it came to singing Elrond’s praises. “He will not speak enough for himself,” Glorfindel had heard Gil-galad say once at a court function, “and so I must sing his praises for him.” He had grinned at that, a savage twinkle in his eye that bespoke something more than loving adoration—that bespoke a wicked humor and a wicked enjoyment. Ever since that day, Glorfindel had suspected that it was as much a prank against Elrond—one meant to uplift and adore, certainly, but a prank nonetheless—as it was love and praise.

Still, though, Glorfindel feared that Gil-galad’s love for Elrond would ruin all, should he find out the truth.

“And what,” Erestor said, shaking Glorfindel out of his thoughts, “do you think I can do about it?”

“Keep him occupied,” said Glorfindel. “Keep him running in circles. Keep him debating Telerin poetry with you, if you must. Of all the people I know, I believe you are one of the few who could keep up with Ereinion Gil-galad’s wit and wisdom.”

Erestor smiled his tight-lipped smile once more, though this time his eyes did not gleam. “I see,” he said. “You forget, however, that I was left in charge of our lord’s estate in his absence. I cannot simply abandon my duty.”

“Which do you think he would prefer?” Glorfindel asked. “You saving him from Gil-galad, or managing an estate that can manage itself just fine with only its staff for a week.”

“Hm,” said Erestor. “I see your point. Still,” he said, “I would be shirking my duties.”

Glorfindel sighed with gust, and rose from where he had been leaning against the sofa. “Please, Erestor,” he said. “For Elrond?”

Erestor sighed. “I will...come speak with him,” said Erestor. “If he desires me to stay and run interference with Aran Gil-galad, I shall do so.”

Glorfindel grinned. “Thank you,” he said. He started toward the door—only for Erestor to lift a hand to halt him.

“I am not riding in the dark,” he said. “We can leave tomorrow morning.”

Glorfindel sighed again, shoulders slumping. “Very well,” he said. “But we leave first thing in the morning.”

“Agreed.”

With Erestor leading the way, the two friends turned and walked deeper into the house, before they had reached the corridor out of the entrance hall already deep in conversation about the goings-on of the tournament and the much less interesting events of the House. It promised to be a good night, Glorfindel thought as the warm, golden light of the lamp-lined hallway welcomed him. A good night indeed—even if he did itch to be on his way.

~*x*~

Elrond won all four of his remaining bouts that day with relative ease. Fimcirion continued to announce him, and Elrond continued to ride with as much flair as he dared. He sent opponent after opponent after opponent after opponent flying, to growing cheers and cries of his name.

“Give them a show,” Fimcirion said after Elrond’s second joust of the day. “They want to be entertained. So entertain them. You’re riding to win—I can see that, as clear as day—but you’ll never truly win until you have the people backing you.”

After the third ride, Elrond trotted Avasath in a prancing pace along the fence in front of the judge’s box; after the fourth, he drew Avasath up into a rear, thrusting his lance into the air as she reached the apex. Resounding cheers were his answer.

“So you know how to work a crowd,” said Fimcirion, one eyebrow cocked, after Elrond brought Avasath to a prancing halt after the third ride. “Perhaps I should not be surprised, oh mysterious one, and yet I find I am. That was not the clumsy attempts of a first-timer. You know how to work a crowd—don’t you?”

Elrond shrugged beneath his breastplate. “I have had experience with it,” he admitted, “though to do so is not my natural instinct.”

“Then what is your natural instinct?” Fimcirion asked.

“To be quiet and reclusive with a book or a healer’s scalpel,” Elrond replied.

Fimcirion’s other eyebrow rose. “Indeed?” he asked, and then looked contemplative. 

“I would appreciate you not using that tidbit of information in any of your announcements,” Elrond said quickly, though he was not entirely sure how Fimcirion would use it.

Fimcirion scowled. “You do not wish me to say anything personal about you in your introductions,” he said.

“That is my point,” Elrond said blithely, and then kicked Avasath into a canter towards the gate, giving the field to the next competitor. Fingon, riding a large, jet-black stallion, nodded in Elrond’s direction as they passed; Elrond nodded in return, feeling his stomach lurch. Though his visor was down, and there was no way for Fingon to recognize him, to be this close to him was unnerving.

After the last joust, Elrond once more retreated to the bath house where he cleaned the sweat and grime from the day from his body, allowing the warm water to soothe the aches and pains he had accumulated throughout his jousts. His back was mottled black and blue from the back of his jousting saddle, and his palms were chaffed. Once he climbed out of the water, he did a few quick loosening exercises before returning to his clothes.

Two Elves were waiting for him. They were both naked but for the towels wrapped around their waists, their silver hair gleaming in the dim lighting of the locker room.

“Hello,” Elrond said uncertainly, trying to reach his things without making it look like he was attempting to flee—which he was. He was never comfortable under intense scrutiny when he was naked—and he was being scrutinized now.

“Hello,” said the ellon on the right. He smiled, and reached down to pick up Elrond’s towel. Elrond tensed—only for the ellon to hand it to him. Elrond quickly wrapped it around his own waist, and then he settled into a broad stance—one he could easily kick or punch from, if the need arose, though he doubted it would. He was in the midst of a public bath house, after all, surrounded by Elves of nobility and honor. It was unlikely they would try anything untoward toward him. Still, it was better to be safe than sorry.

“You are Lîmrion, yes?” the Elf on the left asked.

Elrond nodded slowly. “I am,” he said.

“We heard you defeated Ramo in a duel yesterday,” the Elf on the right said.

“I did,” Elrond said warily.

They exchanged a glance, grinning. “Good,” said the ellon on the right. “He needed to be taken down a notch or two. Us, on the other hand—”

“Well, we would like to try our hand at besting you,” said the ellon on the left. Elrond wondered if they were brothers; they certainly looked enough alike, with broad noses and thick necks, broader shoulders and strong hips beneath their towels.

Elrond sighed. “As you said,” he told them, “Ramo needed to be taken down a notch or two. I am not in the business of dueling anyone else.”

“We heard that Lady Nimloth walked in on you having sex with the Lady Celebrían,” the ellon on the left said, leaning in. His eyes burned. “Tell me: is she just a whore? Or—”

Elrond’s hand moved almost before he had time to register what he was doing—almost. He struck the ellon across the cheek with the flat of his palm, the strike accompanied by a loud smack , drawing the attention of everyone within fifty paces. They turned, eyes widening at the sight of the drama unfolding, and began to draw near.

“I will take recompense for your offense to my lady in blood,” Elrond snarled, only barely keeping from lacing his voice with the first strains of a Song of Power—one of cutting, one of binding. “Meet me by the tree tonight at sunset.”

The ellon smiled. “Gladly,” he said. He shared another look with his companion, and then the two of them turned and walked off.

It was only once they were gone that cold fear washed through Elrond. How many people had Nimloth told? Was it common knowledge that he and Celebrían had been found by her the night before? Was it camp gossip? Had he just confirmed an unconfirmed rumor?

Gritting his teeth, Elrond began to pull his clothes on. What was done was done. Now he had to live with the consequences of it—whatever those might be.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

The crowd surrounding the tree was significantly smaller than crowd that had watched Elrond’s duel with Ramo—for which he was grateful. There were a handful of torch-bearing Elves, all bearing swords, gathered together in a loose knot beside the tree. Standing a little way away, to Elrond’s surprise and consternation, was Ambalaurë and Tyelperindë.

“How did you find out about this?” he demanded of them by way of greeting, coming to a halt beside them.

Both young Elves whirled, startled. Ambalaurë averted his eyes, but Tyelperindë met his gaze haughtily. “Ambalaurë was in the bathhouse when you issued the challenge,” she said. “He is the reason there are not more spectators here, for he dissuaded them from coming to watch—for which you should be thankful. I doubt you would like any more than Ramo’s gang to hear the vile spiel they have likely concocted against you and the Lady Celebrían.”

Elrond nodded. “Indeed,” he said. He turned to Ambalaurë. “My thanks,” he said. “It would seem providence was with me that you were there.”

Ambalaurë chanced to meet his eyes. “Then you are not angry with me?”

“Whatever for?”

“For hearing what that wretch said about you—or, rather, implied about you.”

Elrond snorted. “Far worse has been said about me,” he confessed to his two young friends. “But now I must ready for this duel.”

They nodded, and Elrond stripped off his shirt and began his loosening exercises. By the time he had finished, the silver-haired brothers had arrived, and the one he was set to duel had begun—and finished—his own warming up routine.

The knot of Elves bearing torches moved apart and shifted to form a ring around Elrond. Ambalaurë and Tyelperindë moved aside, joining the others in their shifting circle, leaving only Elrond and the silver-haired ellon he had slapped at the center.

His brother was at the forefront of the ring, also wearing a sword on his hip and staring at Elrond with a glower. His eyes, while blue, were shadowed and dark, full of grim intent. A knot of indiscernible fear wormed its way into Elrond’s belly—and he fought back a shiver. He had long ago learned to heed the warning that this particular taste of fear heralded. Just what it meant, however, he was unsure. Did the brother mean to duel him after he had finished with his initial challenger? If he did, Elrond intended to disappoint him.

“So, Lîmrion,” said the ellon standing at the center of the circle, naked sword in hand, “how are we judging this contest?”

“First blood,” Elrond said curtly.

The ellon grinned. “Oh, good,” he said, sounding delighted. “I want to see you bleed.” He lifted his sword in a sloppy salute—only for Elrond to stop him.

“Before we begin,” he said, “what is your name?”

“Maethwinn,” said the ellon.

“And your brother?”

“Maedgwath,” Maethwinn said.

Elrond nodded. “Very well then, Maethwinn. Let us begin.” Elrond lifted Hadhafang in a crisp salute, then settled into a broad stance, waiting for Maethwinn to make the first move.

He made it, short and sharp and fast. Elrond spun out of the way, bringing his own blade cutting in and down. Maethwinn ducked, moving sideways in an attempt to flank Elrond. Elrond turned with him, sword up. Maethwinn struck again, and Elrond parried the blow, then brought his own blade up and around in a quick flick. If Maethwinn saw the attack he was too slow; Hadhafang’s tip sunk into his shoulder, drawing a long rivulet of blood.

Maethwinn smiled savagely.

Only Vilya’s shriek in Elrond’s mind saved him. He whirled, hearing and feeling the air part around the blade as it arced toward his unprotected back. He brought Hadhafang up in a savage, desperate defense that would likely notch her blade, and the clangor of metal meeting metal rang throughout the air. The blow that would have carved his spine open was stopped—but Maedgwath was already disengaging and coming in for a second blow.

“Look out!” Ambalaurë shouted, and Elrond turned again just in time to see Maethwinn strike as well. Elrond ducked, throwing himself backwards into a tumble. He landed, hard, and flipped over onto his knees, bringing Hadhafang up into a guard position.

“What do you two think you are doing?” he demanded of the brothers, now standing shoulder-to-shoulder before him, blades up and held at the ready. “I won that duel fairly. Now put your blades down and—”

They struck.

Elrond threw himself sideways, then rolled up onto his feet. He brought Hadhafang around in a flourish, parrying one strike, then another, before cutting in and down with her tip. He caught Maedgwath in the thigh, tearing through the ellon’s breeches to leave a long, bloody gouge that made him stumble and nearly fall.

“Curse you,” he spat, hobbling—Elrond had neatly cut one of the tendons, though not completely through, laming him. 

“Stop this madness,” Elrond said. “I do not want to hurt either of you. What do you expect to gain from this?”

“Satisfaction,” snarled Maethwinn. “Satisfaction for your attack against Ramo, Kinslayer.

Elrond laughed, high and wild. “Kinslayer?” he asked, incredulous.

“Yes,” said Maethwinn. “It is clear you are a Fëanorion. For who else would try to kill a much younger and inexperienced swordsman who had merely challenged you to a duel?”

“What?” Elrond exclaimed. “You mean Ramo? I did not—”

But the two did not listen. They simply attacked again, driving Elrond back one step, two steps, three—until Vilya shrieked again, and Ambalaurë and Tyelperindë both yelled in warning. Elrond stopped, batting away a blow from Maedgwath’s blade, and half turning. There, behind him, were the other five ellyn who had accompanied the brothers to watch the duel. They all had their blades drawn and had quickly moved up behind Elrond in a half-circle; another step and he would have speared himself on their blade tips.

They struck now as one, all seven of them. Elrond cried out as their blades bit into him once, twice, three times. It was all he could do to keep them from striking anything major or truly damaging: heart, lungs, stomach, arteries. As it was, he was soon streaked with blood—and though he gave as good as he got, there were seven of them, and one of him.

Until he was not alone.

With a cry, Ambalaurë threw himself forward. What could only have been a few desperate seconds had felt like an eternity to Elrond, but then Ambalaurë was there, tackling one of the newcomers to the ground and wrestling his sword from his hand. Kicking him in the temple, sending him down and unmoving, Ambalaurë stood and moved back-to-back with Elrond.

“Well come on then,” snarled Ambalaurë. “If you are going to insult a good and noble Elf, then you can insult me too.”

“Ambalaurë,” Elrond said tightly, “do not do this. Do not risk yourself. Leave now. Go get help—”

The six circled tight and attacked.

It was a furious and pitched battle. Where Tyelperindë had gone, Elrond did not know—he did not see her standing by, and he could only hope she had run for help. As it was, though, he could only spare one quick glance and prayer for her; then he was dragged back into the melee, fighting for what felt like his life.

Parry, side-step, duck, weave, stab, parry again. Elrond was breathing heavily, and sweat trickled down his face and into his eyes. It was clear that the Elves wanted mostly to hurt him—him and now Ambalaurë—for if they had wanted to truly kill him, Elrond doubted there was much he could do against seven armed and trained Elves. It felt like a game of cat and mouse, where there were six cats and two mice trapped at the center.

Then Ambalaurë screamed. The world seemed to slow around Elrond, who turned just in time to see Maedgwath pull a blade out of Ambalaurë’s stomach.

“That’s what you get for interfering, you roach of Fingolfin,” the Sinda sneered, and kicked Ambalaurë in the face. Elrond heard his nose break. “And that’s for downing Uirind,” he added. He looked up, saw Elrond staring at him in shock and horror, and grinned a nasty grin. “Don’t worry,” he said. “He won’t die. I think.”

Elrond snapped.

The Song came easily to him. He opened his mouth, and uttered a single long, shrieking refrain of music. It was one of the oldest Songs he had been taught—and one of the most powerful. It was a Song of breaking.

Beneath him, the earth cracked. Before him, the six Elves attacking him broke; bone snapped, joints popped out of sockets, and they all fell with choked-off screams. Above him, the air pealed with thunder as the air was shattered and then slammed together once more. Beyond him, the tree split.

Elrond stood above the fallen Elves, fury on his face and wrath darkening his heart. “Get out of my sight,” he growled, “before I break you again.”

“What did you do?” Maethwinn screamed from the ground. The bone was jutting from his shin, red blood staining the dirt.

“I ended this little show of yours,” Elrond replied coldly. “Now get out of my sight.

Those that could scrambled to their feet, nursing shattered collarbones and fractured arms and dislocated ribs. They pulled their companions to their feet, then rushed off toward the healing tents.

Elrond turned and hurried to Ambalaurë’s side. He knelt, turning the young Elf over so that he could get a good look at the wound—there did not seem to be any damage to the spine, only to the stomach.

What Elrond saw made his heart and blood run cold. He did not even have to put his hands over the bleeding puncture wound to know what he would find—though still he did. 

Ambalaurë’s stomach had been sliced nearly in two, releasing acid and toxins into his stomach cavity and bloodstream. He would be dead in minutes.

Elrond gathered Ambalaurë up into his arms, uncaring for his own wounds or the blood from Ambalaurë staining his chest and arms. He turned toward the healing tents himself and set out at a run, mentally ticking down the seconds until there would be no hope for survival.

The Head Healer’s tent was on the edge of the healing tents. It was larger than the rest, and made of heavy canvas, with two surgery rooms separated by a curtain, a preparation room, and a study for the Head Healer himself.

He was in the front surgery when Elrond burst through the tent flap, still bearing Ambalaurë. The ellon looked up in surprise, saw Elrond, and paled at the sight of all the blood.

“Quickly,” he said, moving aside, “put him on the table.”

Elrond was already moving, however, placing Ambalaurë carefully down on the smooth, wooden surface of the surgery table. Before the Head Healer could speak again, he was already snapping out orders and moving toward the washbasin in the corner.

“I will need clean robes immediately,” Elrond said, “as well as bandages for my own wounds and this list of supplies.” He began to rattle of a list of surgery utensils when the Head Healer cut him off.

“Excuse me,” he snapped, “but I am the Head Healer. I do not even know who you are, so why do you think I will take any commands from you?”

“Because,” Elrond snarled, rounding on him, soap lathered up to his elbows, “if you do not, this boy is going to die. His stomach has been ruptured, and unless I can attend to him at once, his chances of survival are slim at best.”

“And what makes you think you can save him?” the Head Healer demanded. “A ruptured stomach is a death toll, even for me.”

Elrond smiled grimly. “It is not for Elrond Peredhel,” he said simply, and then turned back to washing his arms.

The Head Healer stared. “I— You— I mean, you are…” 

“I am,” Elrond said without turning.

The Head Healer rushed off without another word, returning in mere seconds with a set of surgical robes. He dashed off again an instant later, returning in moments with all of the supplies Elrond had asked for.

They were halfway through the surgery, Elrond Singing as he worked—Singing the toxins out, Singing the acid burns whole, Singing the rent flesh closed—and the Head Healer assisting, when the tent flap blew open and Fingolfin stepped inside. He went dead still, eyes riveted on the sight of his standard bearer lying unconscious on the surgery table, before they flicked up to Elrond standing elbow-deep in the lad’s stomach.

“Get out, Fingolfin,” Elrond ordered, though not unkindly. “There is nothing you can do here right now. You will only be a distraction.”

Fingolfin nodded and, without saying a word, ducked back out of the tent, leaving Elrond to his grisly work.

~*x*~

Tyelperindë tore her eyes away from the fight—from Lîmrion frantically parrying and ducking and dodging, and from Ambalaurë lunging forward with a cry—and ran. She had to get help—had to, had to, had to. Without help, what hope and chance did Lîmrion and Ambalaurë have? Their attackers’ intentions were clear, and Tyelperindë did not see how either of them would escape without severe wounding if someone did not step in.

Someone with more authority than either she or Ambalaurë bore.

She reached the edge of the encampment and made her darting way between the tents. Where will he be? she wondered, then angled her feet toward the feasting area. With the setting of the sun, it was time for dinner; Lord Fingolfin would most likely be dining with the rest of his family.

By the time she reached the feasting area six agonizing minutes later, night had well and truly fallen across the firelit encampment. Panting, Tyelperindë slid to a halt and gazed across the long field towards the high table. It sat adorned with drifting table cloths and glittering cutlery, the finery of the nobility gleaming in the light from the braziers and candles festooning the tabletop.

There, sitting beside his father at the center of the table, was Lord Fingolfin. He was clad in a drifting blue robe over a high-collared tunic and hose, knee-high laced boots, and a thin belt that bore a purse and a knife. He was talking to his brother around his father, a smile on his face.

Tyelperindë started forward, dodging tables and diners and servants carrying platters and jugs of wine and juice towards the trestle tables laden with food and drink. As she neared the high table she slowed, however, seeing the guards stationed at the foot of the flight of stairs up to the dais on which it sat.

She approached slowly, still panting for breath—she was not out of shape, but she had taken the almost-mile from the tree to the feasting area at a run—and then slowed further still when the guard nearest her locked eyes and stepped forward. It was not a threatening move, but it was not welcoming either.

“What is your purpose here?” the guard asked. He was dressed in ceremonial chainmail and surcoat emblazoned with Finwë’s crest, and bore a spear and a shield. His face was stern, though not unkind, and his slate grey eyes were sharp.

“I come to plead aid from Aran Fingolfin,” said Tyelperindë as formally as she could. “His standard bearer is in danger, and I need his help.”

The guard frowned. “What sort of danger?”

Tyelperindë shook her head. “I will speak to Aran Fingolfin of this and no one else,” she said. She did not want any more rumors spreading throughout the camp—of Lîmrion, or of the Lady Celebrían.

The guard frowned. “You said this regards Lord Fingolfin’s standard bearer?” he asked.

Tyelperindё nodded. “He is in danger, and I believe only Lord Fingolfin will be able to save him and his companion.”

The guard turned and, without another word, walked up the stairs onto the dais. Tyelperindё watched him pass behind the high table, then cross to kneel behind Lord Fingolfin. His mouth moved, though at her angle Tyelperindё could not make out what it was he said—she had learned how to read lips long ago, when Áraselyё and Aearmagol had gone through a time in which they had liked to taunt her by talking about her behind her back, literally—but Lord Fingolfin turned in his chair and replied.

After only a few seconds of conversation, the guard rose and returned to Tyelperindё, descending the stairs with a grace belying the armor and weapons he carried. “Come with me,” he ordered, as soon as he was before Tyelperindё, then turned once more and led the way back up the stairs.

Tyelperindё followed obediently, though she could not stop the flash of panic that darted through her, from heart to stomach to the soles of her feet. She had expected the guard to bring Lord Fingolfin down to her, not the other way around—had expected him not to want a commoner anywhere near his noble family, even if she did bear important and critical news. Speaking to Lord Fingolfin alone would have been nerve-wracking enough. She had never met any higher nobility—had never met any nobility, besides a few far lesser nobles who had visited her shop in Tirion. The greatest noble she had ever met was one of Aredhel’s Ladies: one of ten noblewomen who were skilled in archery and horseback riding, who accompanied Aredhel in all her numerous adventures throughout Aman.

Now, however, Tyelperindё was being led to Lord Fingolfin’s chair at the high table, the eyes of not a few of the high nobles following her with a mixture of confusion and interest.

“Here she is, my lord,” the guard said, and then stepped back towards the edge of the dais.

To Tyelperindё’s surprise, High King Finwё turned in his seat, saw her curtsying, and rose. “Here,” he said, stepping away from the table and pulling the chair out, motioning for Tyelperindё to sit.

Tyelperindё froze. The High King of the Noldor was offering her his seat. Yet she could not sit in his presence, unless he too was seated—that was only common sense and common courtesy. And yet he was the one offering the seat to her.

High King Finwё looked at her kindly, then said, “You did have important news to tell my son, did you not?”

Tyelperindё nodded and sat. It was being offered to her—how could she refuse High King Finwё? And he was right: she was bearing critical news, news that needed to be heard at once if there was going to be any hope for Lîmrion and Ambalaurё.

Lord Fingolfin had watched the exchange with a mixture of amusement and concern, but had remained silent throughout—until Tyelperindё sat. Then he said softly, softer than Tyelperindё would have expected, “You are one of Ambalaurё’s friends, yes?”

“Yes,” said Tyelperindё, gathering her wits and her courage. She could do this—she had to do this. Think only of him, and of Ambalaurё and Lîmrion, she told herself. Do not think of all the eyes on you, the ears listening to what you are saying. Do not think of who you are speaking to.

“Yes,” she said again, “I am—and it is for Ambalaurё’s sake that I come to you now. I apologize for interrupting your dinner, but the news I bear is urgent.” Before Lord Fingolfin could ask what that news was, Tyelperindё plowed on, not waiting for pleasantries. There was no time for that. “My friend Lîmrion challenged an Elf named Maethwinn to a duel today for Lady Celebrían’s honor,” she said. “He won the duel—however Maethwinn and his brother, Maedgwath, did not fight fair. And neither did the rest of their friends. Once Lîmrion won the duel, they joined the assault. They look as if they mean to kill them.”

“Them?” Lord Fingolfin asked. “And how does Ambalaurё take part in this?”

“He stepped in to intervene on Lîmrion’s behalf,” said Tyeleprindё. “When I left, Ambalaurё was wresting a sword from one of the attackers’ hands.”

“And their attackers mean to kill them?” Lord Fingolfin asked.

“So it appeared,” Tyelperindё replied.

Lord Fingolfin rose, his robe billowing around him. “Where was this fight taking place?”

“At the tree beyond the competitors’ tents,” said Tyelperindё.

“Show me,” Lord Fingolfin ordered, and strode for the stairs down to the ground, motioning for the guards standing at attention on either side of the dais to follow him. Tyelperindё leapt to her feet, curtsying once more to High King Finwё, then darted after her friend’s lord, descending the stairs with quick steps.

Lord Fingolfin was waiting for her a few steps beyond the dais. Feeling awkward and not at all as if she was in the right place, Tyelperindё took the lead and began the long trek back through the camp towards the tree.

When they arrived, nearly fifteen minutes later, it was to grassy earth cracked and splattered with blood. The long seams in the ground were sharply angled and deep enough and wide enough for Tyelperindё to fit her whole hand down into. The tree, which had been whole when Tyelperindё had left, was split down the middle as if it had been hacked at by a giant’s ax.

The guards began to murmur. Tyelperindё glanced over her shoulder at Lord Fingolfin, who was staring at the splits and at the tree with a thoughtful expression.

“My lord?” Tyelperindё asked.

“It would seem your friend Lîmrion is more than just a skilled swordsman and jouster,” he said.

“What do you mean, if I might ask?” Tyelperindё asked.

“This was caused by Song,” said Lord Fingolfin. “A very powerful and very dangerous Song. I have only ever seen such damage wrought by one in particular—a song of splitting, of breaking, of shattering.” He grimaced. “As I said, very dangerous.

“It would appear that whatever was happening here when you left has ended,” Lord Fingolfin added. “There are no bodies, however, which is a good sign.”

“They could have moved them,” Tyelperindё pointed out softly. Lord Fingolfin rounded on her, eyes hard and eyebrows slightly raised, and Tyelperindё blushed. “I am sorry, my lord,” she said. “That was too forward.”

“Though not inaccurate,” said Lord Fingolfin. “If the attackers did indeed kill your Lîmrion and my Ambalaurё, however, they will pay for it. There has not been a murder in Aman in over a yén—I only pray that it has not happened again tonight.”

Tyelperindё bowed her head and sent a brief prayer to Manwё and Námo for the same.

“What now, my lord?” one of the guards asked.

“Now we search,” said Lord Fingolfin. He pointed to two of the four guards. “Go start asking questions amongst the nearby tents,” he ordered. “Check with the competitors and the spectators who are there—see if they saw anything.”

The guards bowed and moved off toward the tents.

Lord Fingolfin turned toward the remaining two guards. “You two begin searching the most likely places to hide bodies,” he ordered. “If Ambalaurё and Lîmrion were killed, I want their corpses found at once.”

“Aye, my lord,” said one of the two guards. They both bowed as well, and then moved off a little way to begin a quick, hushed conversation.

Lord Fingolfin turned toward Tyelperindё. Before he could speak, however, she asked tentatively, “Pardon me, my lord, but might I request something?”

Lord Fingolfin inclined his head in assent.

“Might I go speak with Lord Celeborn? Ambalaurё’s and Lîmrion’s attackers were of Nimloth’s court—were of her personal guard, if memory serves me, just as Ramo is. What they did was unjust and not right, but I do not want them telling their lady a different tale than what happened, and a rift come between the Noldor and the Sindar for this. Lord Celeborn is her uncle, and also the father of Lady Celebrían, for whom this duel was fought.”

“You never did tell me why the duel was fought,” Lord Fingolfin pointed out.

Tyelperindё grimaced. “If you have not heard the rumor, I would rather not spread it further,” she said, “though if you order me to tell you, I will, of course,” she added hurriedly.

Lord Fingolfin shook his head. “Nay,” he said. “I will not pressure you to say something you do not wish to say.”

Tyelperindё smiled faintly. “Thank you, my lord. Suffice it to say that Lady Celebrían was insulted.”

“And why would Lîmrion care?” Lord Fingolfin asked. “Why would a young, Amani ellon care if the Lady Celebrían was insulted?” he asked, when Tyelperindё looked confused.

“Forgive me for saying so, but Lîmrion is neither young, nor Amani,” Tyelperindё said. “He was born in Middle-earth in the First Age, and served in Lady Celebrían’s honor guard for a time during the Third Age. I suspect that is why he was so protective of her honor.”

Lord Fingolfin’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed,” he said, but nothing more. He turned away, towards the tents.

“Yes,” he said. “You may go speak with Celeborn. I believe to do so would be wise, in fact.” He turned back toward Tyelperindё, a small smile curling the edges of his lips. “In fact, I should have thought to do so myself. A rift in the Sindarin, Noldorin relationships would be…bad.”

Tyelperindё curtsied.

Before she could move off, however, one of the guards returned at a run. “My lord,” he said, panting slightly, “some of the competitors saw an Elf carrying an ellon that fits Ambalaurё’s description toward the healing tents. Gwaelion has gone ahead to ask at the healing tents, while I came to fetch you.”

Lord Fingolfin nodded. He turned to Tyelperindё. “Go,” he ordered. “Speak with Celeborn. Then come find me at the healing tents.”

“Yes, my lord,” Tyelperindё said with another curtsy. Before she had even finished, however, Lord Fingolfin was already moving after the guard toward the tents.

Tyelperindё took half a moment to gather her thoughts before she too moved off, heading toward the feasting area once more. She had not seen Lord Celeborn or Lady Galadriel at the high table, but that did not mean they had not been there.

By the time she arrived once more at the feasting field, Tyelperindё felt exhausted, drained, all of her energy sapped. Was it relief that Ambalaurё seemed to have survived? Was it all of the running around she had done? Was it the fear she had felt—the crushing terror, the overwhelming anxiety? She did not know; she did not care. She had work to do yet, and so she could not give into the tiredness. Not yet.

Scanning the high table, Tyelperindё’s initial glance had been confirmed: neither Lord Celeborn nor Lady Galadriel were there. Frowning, Tyelperindё turned her feet away from the feasting area and toward the nobility’s tents. Perhaps they were there—and if not, perhaps someone would be there who would know where they were.

After asking a few questions and getting directions, Tyelperindё found Lord Celeborn’s and Lady Galadriel’s tent. Lights were blazing from within, and a guard stood to the right of the tent flap. Tyelperindё curtsied to him as she approached, and the guard smiled at her warmly.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I am here to speak with Lord Celeborn,” Tyelperindё said, “upon Lord Fingolfin’s urging.”

“I will return shortly,” said the guard. He did not turn away, though, instead asking, “And what is your name?”

“Tyelperindё,” she told him, and the guard smiled at her again.

“Very well, Tyelperindё, I will return in a moment.” He ducked into the tent, and was gone for a few moments before he reappeared, grinning. “Wait in the front room,” he ordered. “Lord Celeborn will be with you shortly.”

Thanking him, Tyelperindё pushed through the tent flap and into the front room. It was large and spacious—larger and more spacious than her entire tent, which she shared with Lainrendis—with a sofa and two braziers, a desk covered with papers and an inkwell and sharpened quills, short shelves lined with books, and standing candelabras.

Tyelperindё stood uncomfortably just inside the tent flap, waiting. After a few moments, a section of the curtain along the back wall was brushed aside, and Lord Celeborn appeared, tying a robe around his waist. His feet were bare, as was his chest, and his hair was bound back into a horsetail.

To Tyelperindё’s surprise, Lady Galadriel appeared a few seconds later, also tying a robe around her waist. Her feet were also bare, though her hair was hanging free down her back, slightly tangled but still beautiful as it caught the light of the burning candles and braziers.

“Tyelperindё?” Lord Celeborn asked, smiling at her.

Tyelperindё curtsied. “Aye, my lord,” she said, bowing her head. “I apologize for interrupting your evening, but Lord Fingoflin urged me to come to you with my tale at once.”

“Please,” said Lord Celeborn, “sit.”

Tyelperindё carefully walked forward, cutting around the edge of the sofa and then perching on the edge of the corner cushion. Lady Galadriel joined her on the sofa, while Lord Celeborn came to a halt half a dozen paces in front of her, beside one of the candelabras.

“So tell me,” said Lord Celeborn, “what was it Fingolfin bade you come tell me?”

Tyelperindё took a deep breath. “There was an…incident tonight,” she said. “It began with a young Elf in Lady Nimloth’s guard calling the Lady Celebrían a…” She trailed off, suddenly acutely aware that she was speaking to Lady Celebrían’s mother and father.

“Go on,” Lady Galadriel urged gently, but with steel in her tone.

“Well, he called your daughter a whore. My friend, Lîmrion, was there. He slapped Maethwinn in challenge for insulting his lady in such a way. There was a duel—a duel which he won fairly. But his opponents did not fight fair. Maethwinn’s brother, Maedgwath, attacked him as well, as did the rest of their friends once it became clear that Lîmrion might win against even the brothers together. My friend, and Lord Fingolfin’s standard bearer, Ambalaurё, stepped in to help. That was the last thing I saw before I left to get help.”

“And why do you bring this information to us?” Lord Celeborn asked. “Other than the obvious connection.”

Tyelperindё took a deep breath. “Because I fear what Lady Nimloth’s guards will tell her about the incident,” she said. “Because I do not want the Sindar to think that the attack was provoked or justified. Because I do not want a schism between the Sindar and the Noldor over this.”

Lord Celeborn shared a grim look with Lady Galadriel. “I see,” was all he said, however.

“Were they slain?” Lady Galadriel asked.

“I do not know,” said Tyelperindё. “I believe Ambalaurё, at least, yet lives. He was seen being carried to the healing tents.”

“And this Lîmrion?” Lord Celeborn asked.

Tyelperindё shook her head. “I do not know,” she admitted softly.

“Very well,” said Lord Celeborn. “I will speak with my niece about this. Thank you for bearing to us the truth of the matter.”

Tyelperindё rose and curtsied again. “Thank you for listening, my lord. My lady.” She curtsied again, this time to Lady Galadriel, and then left—she knew a dismissal when she heard one—feeling the nobles’ eyes on her back as she brushed through the tent flap. She wondered what would happen next—what they would do, whether or not Lord Fingolfin had found Ambalaurё, what had happened to Lîmrion. She only hoped that not all would come to wrath and ruin because of this night.

~*x*~

Celeborn sighed and crossed to the sofa, sinking down onto the cushion that the girl, Tyelperindё, had just vacated. “Well,” he said slowly, “this is turning out to be an interesting night.”

His wife laughed. “Not quite interesting in the way I was hoping it would go,” she admitted. “Or, rather, the way it was going.”

“I should go speak with Nimloth,” Celeborn said. “And then with this Lîmrion, if he can be found.” Celeborn grimaced. “If he is still alive.”

Galadriel smiled one of her secretive smiles. “Oh, he is alive,” she said. “I can guarantee you that.”

“How?” Celeborn asked. He frowned. “What do you know that I do not?” This was not the first time his wife had been cryptic about this Lîmrion.

Galadriel sighed, then slid across the couch to be closer to him. “Nothing,” she said, sinking into his side, but did not try to hide the fact that she was lying.

“Very well then,” said Celeborn, wrapping an arm around her shoulders, “keep your secrets.”

“I shall,” his wife said with an added chuckle. It was eerily reminiscent of Celeborn’s conversation with his daughter earlier in the day, and once more made Celeborn wonder just what was going on.

Galadriel turned her face up toward her husband, and Celeborn leaned down to kiss her. His tongue slid into her mouth, and Galadriel kissed him hungrily in return. “We still have our own business to finish,” she pointed out when they broke apart. She grinned.

“I must go speak with Nimloth,” Celeborn pointed out. “And Lîmrion.”

“I will speak with Lîmrion,” said Galadriel. “He will not be able to lie to me, though he will you. But regardless, I believe Nimloth and Lîmrion can wait for another hour.”

“You’re just hungry,” said Celeborn with a grin of his own.

“Very,” his wife replied, and straightened so that she was on a height with her husband. She kissed him again, one hand coming up to cup his left cheek, fingers splayed as she deepened the kiss.

Celeborn broke the kiss, pulling back just a fraction of an inch so he could say, “Very well. You’ve bewitched me, I dare say, into being irresponsible.”

“And how is caring for your wife irresponsible?” Galadriel asked, leaning across the distance to kiss him once more.

Celeborn rose, drawing Galadriel with him, their lips still locked. Galadriel’s fingers fumbled with the sash tying his robe around his waist. The knot came loose, and her hands crept beneath the robe, to cup and fondle Celeborn’s cock. Celeborn groaned into their kiss, his own hands going to Galadriel’s robe. He hiked it up around her waist, even as they stumbled back towards their sleeping room, baring her legs and then her hips. He reached down, between her legs, and Galadriel moaned as his fingers sank into her folds. He let the movement of her backwards walking rub his fingers through her, while his free hand reached up to cup her face as he deepened the kiss.

The curtain parted around them, then fall back in place, hiding them from view of the tent flap. They halted, Galadriel still palming Celeborn’s cock, Celeborn’s fingers sunk in between his wife’s legs. He began to move them, sliding them in and out of her folds, teasing at her clit, while she ran her fingers up and down the length of his shaft.

“What do you want?” Celeborn asked his wife, breaking their kiss just enough to speak. “Tell me, meleth-nîn: what is it you want me to do to you tonight?”

“I want you in me,” Galadriel said. “I want you in every one of my holes.”

Celeborn smiled. “I can do that,” he said, and pressed his lips against his wife’s again.

He guided her to their bed, still kissing her, and together they fell back onto the mattress. Galadriel fumbled with the sash of her own robe, parting the loose knot and opening it to bare her chest for her husband. Celeborn broke their kiss to trail his lips down her chin, her neck, her sternum to her breasts. He took one nipple into his mouth and licked and sucked and nipped until it was hard beneath his tongue—then he moved to the second breast and did the same, while he palmed the first and teased at the bud of her nipple with his fingers. His other hand was planted on the bed beside her, keeping him upright.

Galadriel arched her back into her husband’s mouth, one hand going to her own folds. She began to stroke herself—only for Celeborn to release her breast and instead grab her wrist with his free hand.

“That is for me to do,” he told her with mock sternness.

“Then do it,” Galadriel commanded, the imperiousness of the order mitigated by the breathlessness of her voice.

“In my own time,” Celeborn said with a wicked grin—and went back to attending to her breasts. He kissed and sucked, licked and nipped, until Galadriel was groaning with delight and pleasure, her entire body arched away from the bed and into Celeborn’s mouth.

At last, Celeborn released her nipple with a small, wet pop. He pressed and open-mouthed kiss to the space between her breasts, then to her navel, then to her stomach, then to the hair between her legs. Then he sank his tongue between her folds, and once more began to lick and nip and suck gently.

Galadriel pushed herself against her husband, demanding more. Celeborn’s tongue teased at the edges of her entrance—then dipped inside. He pulled out, then dipped in again. Galadriel moaned, and reached down to fist a hand in her husband’s hair, pulling some of it free of the horsetail.

Celeborn pulled away. Galadriel moaned, and bucked her hips, searching for the warmth of his mouth and tongue. Celeborn laughed, and leaned down to press a quick kiss between his wife’s legs.

“Just a moment,” he bade, and then climbed off of her and went to one of the bedside tables. Opening the drawer, he drew out a bottle of oil, uncorked it, then dipped two of his fingers into the mouth of it. He swirled them around, through the thick, viscous oil within, then pulled them out with a slick pop. He recorked the bottle, careful not to let his oiled fingers touch the bottle, then climbed back onto the bed, leaving the bottle out on top of the nightstand.

“You said you wanted me to fill your holes?” Celeborn asked.

“Yes,” said Galadriel, grinning up at him.

“Lift your hips,” Celeborn ordered, settling down between her legs. Galadriel obeyed, and Celeborn slid his unoiled hand down her spine to her ass, then parted her cheeks. Lifting his oiled fingers, he pressed them against her entrance—then slid them in. Galadriel groaned, shifting down so that she pressed herself more firmly onto him. Celeborn began to pump in and out, in and out, in and out, and then he buried his face between his wife’s legs once more.

He licked her clit, then ran his tongue through her folds, tasting her arousal and desire for him. Then he teased once more at her entrance before sinking his tongue deep into her, all the while continuing to pump his fingers in and out of her ass. He drew back then, and replaced his mouth and tongue with two fingers of his left hand. He teased her, playing with her hair and rubbing at the tips of her folds, before sinking his fingers very suddenly into her. After many long millennia of intimacy, he knew exactly where to reach for, and how to shift his fingers so as to make Galadriel cry out in pleasure almost as soon as he began to move inside of her.

Her walls tightened, and she orgasmed around his hands. Celeborn grinned, then pulled out of her for just long enough to once more bend his face and begin to lick her clean. He reveled in the taste of her and of her pleasure—pleasure that he had brought to her.

When at last he pulled away, Galadriel rose up on one elbow and said, “But I have one more hole for you to fill.” She grinned at him. “Come here,” she said. “Kneel over me.”

Celeborn obeyed, spreading his legs so that he was kneeling over her chest, knees tucked beneath her arms. Galadriel then rose up, bracing herself with one bent arm beneath her back, while with her free hand she grasped Celeborn’s cock. Then she lowered her parted lips onto him, taking him fully into her mouth and then down her throat.

She cupped his balls with her free hand while with her mouth she began to suck and lick and swallow around her husband’s cock. Celeborn moaned, unable to keep from bucking his hips slightly against his wife’s mouth. Galadriel smiled and continued to service him, taking him even deeper down her throat, until her lips were pressed against him, tongue lathing his shaft, fingers of her free hand pressing gently into his balls and rubbing them. She swallowed—and Celeborn came with a cry of Galadriel’s name.

Galadriel swallowed his seed, then pulled away, allowing herself to fall back onto the bed with a self-satisfied smirk.

“How do you feel?” she asked, as Celeborn climbed off of her, cock limp and dripping.

“Better than I have in a long time,” Celeborn confessed. He smiled, then leaned over to kiss his wife deeply. “You?” he asked when he pulled away.

“Better than I have in a long time,” Galadriel echoed. She grinned. It had been many long years since they had been so intimate in anything but need or desperation for release. It had been long and long again since they had had sex for the sheer pleasure and joy of it.

“Good,” said Celeborn, leaning in to kiss his wife once more. He rose then, and moved to the washbasin in the corner and began to clean himself up. “Unfortunately, I fear I must now go to see Nimloth.”

Galadriel sighed. “Very well,” she said, settling back onto the pillows. “I, however, am going to go to sleep.”

“Are you not going to go see Lîmrion?”

“I believe Lîmrion is otherwise engaged at the moment,” said Galadriel, her words half a mumble as if she was already partway asleep.

“I see,” said Celeborn. He hesitated, then returned to cleaning himself and dressing.

He kissed Galadriel before he left, but she was already deep in Reverie. Celeborn smiled, pulling on an open robe that showed off the front and collar of his deep burgundy tunic—open robes were in fashion at the moment in Tirion—and left the tent.

The walk to Nimloth’s tent was short but fraught with deep thoughts. Celeborn wondered how Nimloth would respond to what he had to say to her. He liked and respected his niece, but her attitude the night before had certainly shaken him. She had changed a great deal since he had known her in Doriath—that much, at least, was certain. Suddenly he was unsure of how she would respond to finding out that some of her guards had tried to kill Fingolfin’s standard bearer and his friend.

The Sinda guard standing outside of Nimloth’s tent announced him, and Celeborn walked in. Nimloth was sitting on the couch in her own front room, staring at a young ellon standing before her. His arm was in a sling, and he was holding himself gingerly. Celeborn, who had spent many years on battlefields, could see in an instant that he was suffering from internal damage—likely broken ribs, and possibly some minor internal bleeding from said broken ribs.

“Celeborn,” said Nimloth, turning to her uncle. “This is Acharncil. He has an interesting tale to tell.”

Celeborn looked at the lad sharply. He was dressed in a short tunic and breeches, with Nimloth’s sigil embroidered onto the breast. A cut marred his fair cheek, and his blond hair was tangled and in bloodied disarray.

“I see,” he said. He could guess what Acharncil’s tale was about. “Tell me this tale, if you would please, Acharncil.”

Acharncil bowed as Celeborn took a seat beside Nimloth. “Might I begin again, my lady?” he asked.

“Please do,” said Nimloth.

“It begins with a rumor,” said Acharncil. “A nasty one surrounding the Lady Celebrían—and with a certain Elf named Lîmrion attempting to kill Ramo last evening.” Acharncil took a deep breath, then launched into his story.

“Last evening, Ramo fought an Elf named Lîmrion for his honor. Lîmrion not only defeated him in a humiliating way, but he attempted to kill Ramo as well. It was a deft, sly move, that no one but Ramo himself saw, for Lîmrion was attempting to hide his actions. Only a quick side-step saved Ramo’s life. What this Lîmrion has against Ramo, I will never know—I doubt it is logical or sane, whatever the reason he might give—but whatever it is, it is enough for him to try to kill over it.

“Then, yesterday, a nasty rumor began to spread surrounding the Lady Celebrían. I will not repeat it here, or ever, for it is certainly untrue—and even if it was, it is not my place to repeat it, for it is vile and destructive. While in the bathhouse, however, my friend—and Ramo’s friend—Maethwinn, overheard Lîmrion repeating it. When Maethwinn told him not to repeat such vile things, Lîmrion slapped him in challenge.

“Once again, Lîmrion did not fight fair. Again, he attempted to kill his opponent. I saw that attempt with my own two eyes. When Maedgwath stepped in to save his brother, Lîmrion turned on him as well. It was only with all of us stepping in to aid Maethwinn and Maedgwath that we managed to save them at all.

“In the end, however, Lîmrion used a Song of Power to break our bones and the earth around us. Thunder pealed, and the tree behind us split. Our bones shattered and snapped, and it was all we could do to escape with our very lives.”

“And what of Ambalaurё?” Celeborn asked. “I am to understand it was injured in this fight.”

Acharncil looked surprised, but he recovered himself quickly. “An accident happened when he tried to step in to help Lîmrion with his nefarious goals,” he said. “We did not mean to injure him as badly as we did—only stop another foe from harming us and our friends.”

“I see,” said Celeborn. He turned to Nimloth. “That is not, unfortunately, the tale that another eyewitness gives.”

“Oh?” Nimloth asked.

A glance toward Acharncil gave Celeborn the impression of him having been struck to the core, before he once again recovered himself and masked his emotions with an expression of pain and sorrow. It did not encourage Celeborn’s liking of the youth.

“Nay,” was what Celeborn said, however. “Tyelperindё, a friend of Ambalaurё and Lîmrion, tells that it was Maethwinn who insulted my daughter, and Maethwinn and Maedgwath who fought unfairly. She claims that Lîmrion won the duel, but that afterwards Maedgwath entered the fray and the two began to attempt to kill Lîmrion. Ambalaurё joined in the fray in an attempt to save his friend’s life.”

Nimloth frowned. “Which, then, is the truth?” she asked. She turned to Acharncil, and then asked, “You are certain that what you told me is true?”

Acharncil shifted uncomfortably. “It is as true as I recall it to be,” he said.

Celeborn shared a look with Nimloth.

“You may go, Acharncil,” said Nimloth to the boy. He bowed, and then walked out of the tent, limping slightly.

“What do you think of this whole thing?” Nimloth asked.

“First of all,” said Celeborn coldly, “I must ask why you repeated what you thought you saw to anyone, let alone someone who would repeat it to others.”

Nimloth blushed. “I only told my servant who attended to me last night before bed.”

“And servants talk,” Celeborn retorted sharply. “You should know this, Nimloth. Now there is a rumor circulating around camp that my daughter is a whore.”

Nimloth blanched. “I did not intend—I mean, I did not want…” She trailed off.

“Regardless of what you wanted or intended,” Celeborn said, “your actions have consequences. And the consequence of these actions are proving particularly dire.”

“I am sorry, Uncle,” Nimloth said softly, sounding stricken. “I did not mean for this to happen.”

Celeborn shook his head. “Regardless,” he said, “some of the consequences of these actions is that someone tried to kill someone else tonight over it—or else over Ramo, I am not sure which.” Celeborn frowned. “What did Ramo tell you last night when he came to you.”

“Only that he had been insulted gravely by this Lîmrion, who had humiliated him in front of many people.”

“He did not say that Lîmrion attempted to kill him?” Celeborn asked.

“No,” said Nimloth. “Not last night, at least.”

Celeborn arched an eyebrow. “Then it would seem that there is a greater chance that Tyelperindё was telling the truth. That seems like it would be something I, at least, would mention straight away to my lady, had it happened.”

“Indeed,” agreed Nimloth. “Still, why would they lie to me?”

“If they did indeed try to kill Lîmrion and Ambalaurё, are you surprised that they are trying to cover their backs?”

“Well, no,” admitted Nimloth. “They are not the kinds of people to try to kill, though. I would never allow someone like that into my guard.”

Celeborn grimaced. “I think, perhaps, you should start paying closer attention to those you do allow into your guard,” Celeborn said. “For regardless, even if what Acharncil said is true, that means however many of them were there could not defeat a young Amani Elf and a young standard bearer. That does not bode well for their capabilities.”

“They are good and noble Elves,” Nimloth insisted, “who are strong of heart and strong of hand. They have proven themselves again and again in the practice courts.”

“In the practice courts,” Celeborn stressed. “Now they have proven themselves in a real situation, and they have been shown wanting.”

Nimloth shook her head. “Must we discuss this now, Uncle?”

“No,” said Celeborn. “We need not do so. We must, however, find out the answers to our questions.”

“What do you suggest?” Nimloth asked.

“I think we must speak to Amabalaurё,” said Celeborn. “Galadriel is going to speak with Lîmrion. I will see what she has to say about him as well.”

“And where is Ambalaurё?”

“Tyelperindё, his friend, believed him to be at the healing tents.”

“Then we should go there. Though not, I think, tonight,” said Nimloth. “If he is indeed injured, we should give him time to rest and recover before we begin assaulting him with questions.”

“Wise indeed,” said Celeborn, rising. “I will return to my tent now, then. Tomorrow morning, however, we will go search for him to find out his side of the tale.”

“Agreed,” said Nimloth, rising as well. She showed Celeborn to the tent entrance, then reached up to kiss his cheek in farewell. “I am sorry, Celeborn,” she added softly, pausing by the tent flap.

Celeborn sighed. “Apologize to Celebrían,” he bade, and then brushed out of the tent and into the night.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Fingolfin paced outside of the Head Healer’s tent, anxious and waiting. It had felt like hours since he had been banished outside, though the logical part of his mind told him it had been less than two hours. Still, the moon had risen and the stars had come out in their full, glorious array, and the braziers had begun to burn low by the time the tent flap opened, and the Head Healer himself appeared in the entrance.

“You may come in now, my lord,” the Head Healer said, bowing.

Fingolfin brushed into the tent without a second’s hesitation. Lamps hung from the tent poles and candles sat on tables ringing the surgery room, leaving not a single space in shadow. The air smelled of blood and soap, pain and almost-death; Fingolfin had been in enough wartime surgery rooms to know the smell well.

“How is he?” Fingolfin asked the Head Healer, coming around the edge of the surgery table to stare down at his standard bearer, lying pale and naked on top of it. A long, stitched gash marred his stomach, red and swollen and ringed with bruises and oozing blood.

“He will live,” said the Head Healer. “Or so Lord Elrond says.”

“And where is Elrond?” Fingolfin asked. “I have many questions for him.”

“I am here,” said Elrond, coming through the curtain separating the surgeries from the preparation room. He was clad in loose healer’s robes that covered his arms and chest and fell nearly to the floor, and his short hair hung nearly to his shoulders in sweaty disarray. His hands bore bruises and one nail was black with burst blood vessels, and he sported a gash on one cheek. Fingolfin wondered where that gash had come from, but did not ask—yet.

“How is Amabalurё?” Fingolfin asked his grandson, before looking once more at his standard bearer. Ambalaurё was unnaturally pale but for the bruises and cuts littering his body, though his chest rose and fell with a deep and steady rhythm.

“He will live,” said Elrond tiredly, “although it was touch and go for a while there.”

Fingolfin nodded. “What happened?” was his next question.

Elrond grimaced. “Let us go for a walk,” he said, and motioned for Fingolfin to precede him out of the tent.

Fingolfin pushed his way out into the night, Elrond following, and began a slow walk down the thoroughfare between the many healing tents. Elrond fell in step beside him, hands clasped behind his back, face inscrutable in the shadows cast by the low-burning braziers and torches.

“There was a fight,” said Elrond tersely. “I do not know the details of it, for I came upon it close to the end, but I heard a cry of pain as I was entering the camp and went towards it. There I found Ambalaurё on the ground, a puncture wound in his stomach, and another Elf who I believe is named Lîmrion fighting six opponents. It ended quickly thereafter—Lîmrion used a Song of Power to break the bones of his attackers, splitting the tree and the earth along with it, ending the fight.”

“I see,” said Fingolfin. “Now tell me, what happened to Lîmrion?”

Elrond shrugged. “That I do not know,” he said. “I left before I could see which way he went. My thoughts were on getting Ambalaurё to the healing tents and saving him and naught else.”

“Speaking of which,” Fingolfin said, drawing to a halt and pulling Elrond to a stop beside him, “thank you for saving his life.” Fingolfin reached up and grasped Elrond’s shoulder in a tight squeeze. “Thank you, Elrond,” he repeated. “I care deeply for the boy, and I would be stricken if he were to die.”

Elrond smiled tiredly. “You are welcome,” he said. “I could not have borne—that is to say, I could not bear to see any young life, so full of potential and hope and future, be snuffed out.”

Fingolfin smiled. “I think I understand you better now,” he said, turning and beginning to walk again.

Elrond began walking as well, quickly catching up to Fingolfin and falling in step beside him once more. “And what is it you understand, if I might ask, my lord?”

“That you are a kind and caring lord, who loves quickly and brightly, even if not personally. That you are someone who will risk much to save a life. All things I think I knew already from tales told of you, but not something I had yet to see in you myself.” He turned and smiled at Elrond. “Now I have.”

Elrond bowed at the waist, accepting the compliment with as much grace as he seemed capable of. “My thanks, my lord,” he said, sounding somewhat stiff. Whether or not he appreciated the compliment, Fingolfin found he could not tell—but he did not regret giving it, even if he had somehow offended his grandson.

“What is wrong, Elrond?” Fingolfin asked, unable to hold back the question. “You do not sound pleased.”

Elrond laughed bitterly, but only said, “It is nothing, my lord.”

Fingolfin sighed. “Stop calling me “my lord”,” he bade. “It makes me feel old, and you are my grandson, not some new, upstart noble.”

“As my lord wishes,” Elrond said, and then Fingolfin caught the edge of a grimace flash across his face, visible even in the darkness. “I mean, as you wish…Fingolfin?”

Fingolfin laughed. “My name works just fine, Elrond,” he promised. “But tell me, what are you doing here?” Fingolfin asked, changing the subject. “I thought you were out riding.”

“I was,” Elrond said. “But then I missed my wife, and so I thought I would come to camp. I have been staying with the competitors, as there were extra tents there, and I do not wish for all of my family to know I am present.”

Fingolfin nodded. “I see,” he said. Then he asked, “But why do you not wish for your family to know you are here?”

Another grimace. Then, softly, Elrond said, “Our family is…tiring. And I am not yet accustomed to…well, them. Or it. Or…well, anything.”

A sudden flash of insight struck Fingolfin, sparked by the hesitancy in Elrond’s voice, in the softness of his tone, in the caution of his words. He was overwhelmed—overwhelmed by his family, by the new place, likely by everything about the situation. He had purposefully shirked the title of High King of the Noldor, purposefully disregarded all attempts that the Sindar in Middle-earth had made to make him their king; he had only claimed lordship over a small valley, whose purpose was for healing and hope rather than to be a proper kingdom. Though, to Fingolfin’s understanding, many there had considered him their true lord—their King, even, though they did not call him that to his face—and many had even moved to Imladris specifically to serve under Elrond, he had been adamant that he was not a king, and nothing but lord over a small realm.

More than that, he had spent his life very much alone. The closest thing he had come to having blood-related family was Gil-galad, his cousin. He had married and loved Celebrían, and their reunion was already the subject of at least three ballads, and he had loved his children dearly; it did not take a genius to see that, or to see the pain that his parting from them had caused him. Yet his parents had been taken from him when he was six, his foster parents before he was 100, his cousin in a gruesome and horrific moment at Sauron’s hands, his wife to the cruelty of Orcs, and, apparently, his daughter—as well as his brother—to Mortality.

No, he had had very few family, and what family he’d had he had lost tragically in one form or another.

And now here was his entire family, claiming him left and right, insisting that he was a Prince of highest blood, calling him their own and showering him with love and gifts and clumsy attempts at healing. How was he to respond to it all, but with reticence and uncertainty?

Once more, Fingolfin reached out and drew Elrond to a halt. “Are you angry with us?” he asked his grandson softly.

Elrond frowned, lines of shadow carved deep into his forehead and eyes, his mouth a gash of darkness. “Why would I be?” he asked.

“For accepting you so readily. For showing you so much love. For being so…forward with that love.”

“Ah,” said Elrond. He looked skyward. “No,” he said at last, but his long silence made Fingolfin wonder if he was being entirely honest. “No, I…” He trailed off. Then, abruptly, he said, “May I be forward, Fingolfin?”

“Always,” said Fingolfin.

“It is…painful,” Elrond admitted softly, still looking at the stars strewn overhead. “To suddenly have so much, when for so long I had—well, enough, and I do not, and will not, regret my life, not the sorrow nor the joy I had. But I had so much pain, and so much grievance. I…” He swallowed thickly, and shook his head. “I am sorry. I am being too forward with my own pain. Too forward when so many suffered so much greater than I.”

Fingolfin frowned. “Elrond,” he said slowly, “your life is considered one of the great tragedies of Middle-earth.”

Elrond laughed, abrupt and sharp and incredibly bitter. “Do not mock me, Fingolfin,” he said, with more sternness than Fingolfin expected to hear from his grandson. Again, he was forced to reassess the ellon standing before him.

“I am not mocking you,” Fingolfin said evenly. “You lost so much, Elrond. You lost everything.”

“I never lost my own life,” Elrond pointed out softly. “Unlike some. Unlike many.”

It was Fingolfin’s turn to laugh bitterly. “Frankly, Elrond,” he said, “dying was the easy part.”

“I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t… I—” Elrond choked.

“You need to accept your pain,” Fingolfin said softly, a second flash of realization striking him—that Elrond was broken, by his life and by the tragedies that had wracked it, in spite of the face and front he put on for everyone, but that he refused to allow himself to accept that brokenness—followed by a distressing thought: For how long has he been denying that he is broken?

“No,” Elrond said. “No, I cannot. To do so would be to insult so many others—others who suffered far worse than I.”

“There is no rule that states that only the one who has suffered the most and the worst is allowed to mourn and deal with their pain.”

Elrond shook his head. “My pain is so paltry and weak. So what if I lost a few people? So what if—”

“Elrond,” Fingolfin said, cutting him off. “You have suffered a great deal. Accept that.”

“How?” Elrond asked, sounding suddenly very small.

“Perhaps start by simply saying that you have suffered?”

Elrond shook his head again.

“Elrond,” said Fingolfin sternly, though not unkindly. “Please, do this. For me. For your wife. For all of your family.”

“And what do I owe you?” Elrond snapped. “What do I owe any of you?”

“Nothing,” said Fingolfin. “Nothing at all. And that is the point. You owe us nothing—but we owe you everything. Us, who abandoned you to darkness. Us, who abandoned you to pain. Us, who abandoned you to fight alone. Let us help you. Let us love you.”

“Why?”

“Because we could not before. Because we have thousands of years to make up for.”

Elrond sighed. “It is just…hard.”

“I know,” said Fingolfin.

“Do you?”

“Well enough,” said Fingolfin.

“What happened to me was tragedy,” Elrond said softly, suddenly.

Fingolfin smiled sadly. “It was,” he said.

Elrond sighed again. “If you will excuse me, my lord,” he said formally, sounding exhausted, “I will take my leave of you now. I would like to sleep.”

“Of course,” said Fingolfin. He stepped forward, leaned down a scant inch, and pressed his lips to Elrond’s forehead. “Sleep well, my grandson,” he said quietly.

“Thank you,” Elrond said, pulling away. Fingolfin watched him walk away, steps slow and full of exhaustion—and only then did Fingolfin realize he had not asked Elrond where the cut on his cheek or the bloodied nail had come from.

There is always tomorrow, Fingolfin thought, and turned back toward the Head Healer’s tent.

~*x*~

By the time Elrond reached the split tree, he was nearly staggering blindly from exhaustion. He was not done yet, though.

He gathered Hadhafang up from where she had fallen amid the grass, then examined the long, seam-like splits in the earth. They were nearly a hand-span wide and a hand-span deep, the shortest of them three paces long. The tree, meanwhile, was split lengthwise down the center, as if Elrond’s Song had struck it like a blade.

If he did nothing, then by morning everyone would know that he had used a Song of breaking—and that was something he did not want, at any cost. Better to let most of those who heard the lads’ tale think they were making things up to salve their own pride, or to think they had made it up altogether.

That meant he had to do something to fix the cracked earth and explain the split tree, however.

Sitting on the ground, Elrond began to hum. It was a well-known, comfortable Song for him, one of healing and mending. He ran his hands over the nearest of the splits in the earth—and at his touch and at his song, the ground rippled and eddied, like waves in the ocean, then moved together seamlessly, as if it had never been broken.

Elrond repeated the gesture with each of the eight splits in the ground. By the time he was done, his eyesight was swimming and shadows were crawling against the edges of his vision. His wounds were also bleeding again, and he felt the cloth of his borrowed robes begin to stick to his skin.

Once more sitting down on the ground, Elrond took a deep breath. He reached deep, deep, deep within himself, expanding his consciousness towards Vilya on his finger. She was less powerful than she had been, her power having diminished with the destruction of the One—but she still had power within her. Power that Elrond could harness and use.

He began to Sing again, this time a Song of summoning and building. His voice was thready and weak, but the words came to him easily. He usually preferred Songs without words—he was personally able to manipulate the world around him more clearly and concisely when he was not forced to channel his thoughts and actions through the narrow confines of lyrics—but tonight he needed the focal point of them.

Come, he sang. And again, Come. Build. Grow.

On the horizon, clouds began to form.

This was dangerous. Working with weather always was. But Elrond needed an excuse for the tree to be split, and in his exhausted state he was beyond caring at the danger he was putting himself—and the plains—in.

The clouds grew and blossomed, edging farther across the heavens toward the encampment. Elrond bound a command to the earth and sky, stumbled to his feet, and then staggered towards his tent.

The rain began just as he reached it nearly half an hour later. It struck him with the force of a sledgehammer, the small, stinging droplets driving into his skin and hair and clothes with digging fingers. Elrond shivered—the rainwater was cold, far colder than most rain at this time of year—and ducked his way into his tent, already drenched.

A candle was burning on the small table, illuminating a figure wrapped in blankets on his bed. At the sound of his footsteps the figure sat up and turned to him, revealing a crown of silver hair and brilliant blue eyes.

Celebrían.

Elrond let out a sob of exhaustion and sank suddenly to his knees. Celebrían was on her feet in an instant, and beside him in another.

“Elrond?” she cried, reaching out to touch his cold and clammy face. “Elrond!”

Then darkness swooped in, and Elrond knew no more.

~*x*~

Celebrían watched in horror as Elrond slumped to the ground, unconscious. She rolled him over onto his back—and felt the warm, wet tackiness of blood stain her palms and fingers. She jerked away, bringing her hand to her face—and yes, red daubed her pale skin garish and stark, startling and disturbing.

“Elrond!” Celebrían exclaimed, running her hands now purposefully down along his chest and torso, along his arms hidden beneath the sleeves of a healer’s robe, over his hips, along his legs. Her hands came away even redder.

Lunging to her feet, Celebrían dashed out of the tent and into the driving rain. For a second she hesitated, turning on her heel; she hated to leave him lying on the ground, but she knew she would not be strong enough to lift her husband’s dead weight off of the ground and onto the bed. So who did she go get?

Her first thought was Glorfindel. She turned and sprinted for his tent, nestled amid the spectators’ tents on the border of the nobles’ section. When she reached it, it was dark—and empty. She called Glorfindel’s name, and when there came no response, she brushed her way in through the flap. The cot was bare and cold, the sheets and blankets pulled tight over the mattress; no one had slept in it that night.

Cursing, Celebrían turned and quickly fled. Who to go to now? she wondered. She could go to the healer’s tents—probably should go to the healer’s tents, though she knew not what healer would be awake at this hour—but she also needed someone who she knew and trusted, who could aid her, whether or not she got a healer.

But who fit all of those requirements?

Mithrandir.

The thought came to Celebrían suddenly, like the flash of lightning that pierced the rain at nearly that very instant. Celebrían jumped; it had been very close to camp. A peal of thunder came almost directly after, loud and sudden and sharp.

How did she find him, though? She did not know if he was staying in camp, or if he was elsewhere in Valinor at the moment, attending to business or matters besides the tournament. So how would she find him? How would she contact him?

Another flash of lightning and peal of thunder. Another thought.

Nienna, Celebrían prayed, falling to her knees in the mud and rain, dirtying and soaking her skirt, please, hear me. Another flash of lightning. Elrond is injured and unconscious. I need Mithrandir to aid me. Send him to me—please. A fourth flash of lightning, and a rumble of thunder. Please.

Silence.

CRACK.

Celebrían jumped. Though it had been in the near distance, it was clearly audible that lightning had struck a tree. Thunder rolled and tumbled through the air, shuddering and shaking. Celebrían gathered herself together, stilling her jittering heart, and straightening her shoulders.

She rose. What now? she wondered. If she heard me, how long will it be until Mithrandir comes? Then, Did she even hear me at all?

“Celebrían?”

Celebrían whirled—and there, standing in the rain a few paces away, was Mithrandir. He was in the same form he had been in when he had visited Elrond the second day of the tournament, with his gold-white hair and pale white eyes, his narrow shoulders, and his beardless, pointed chin.

“You summoned me?”

“It is Elrond,” Celebrían gasped. “He collapsed, and is covered in blood. I think it is his.”

“Lead the way.”

The storm began to slacken as they made their way back towards Elrond’s tent, the driving force of the rain weakening to a gentle, clinging, chilly drizzle. The lightning abated, the thunder moving off across the plains. The storm had not lasted long—but Celebrían was thankful for that. She was not certain how well the encampment could have withstood any direct lightning strikes to its tents or thoroughfares or braziers.

The pathways were dark, the rain having driven out the fires. The only light came from the candles and braziers from within the tents themselves, the golden glow of the flames spilling out through cracks and gaps in the canvas, and from Mithrandir, who seemed to faintly glow with a pale, white light the same color as his eyes—though the light seemed to come from his robe and face as a whole.

They reached Elrond’s tent some few minutes later, drenched and, in Celebrían’s case, dirty. They pushed through the tent flap, and found Elrond exactly where Celebrían had left him: lying on his back on the hard ground, healers robes pooled around him but stained with ever-spreading red.

Celebrían fell to her knees beside her husband, then looked up at Mithrandir. “Can you help him?” she asked.

“Do you know what happened to him?” Mithrandir asked.

Celebrían shook her head. “All I know is that he came in, I awoke, and then he just collapsed.”

Mithrandir knelt beside him opposite Celebrían and placed a hand on Elrond’s forehead, closing his eyes. For a terribly long moment he was still and silent. Then Mithrandir’s shoulders slumped, and he said simply, “He has only overextended himself.”

Celebrían’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?”

“He has used a great deal of Power tonight,” Mithrandir informed her. “Just what all he did, I cannot say. But his reserves are tapped. He will be well enough, once he has a chance to sleep and eat.”

“What of the wounds, though?” Celebrían cried.

“Those you and I can tend to. I do not think any of them are grievous. Now come, help me get him out of this robe and onto his cot.”

They lit a branch of candles, then Mithrandir lifted Elrond into a seated position, his head lolling limply, and held him there while Celebrían maneuvered the healers robes off of him. What she revealed, when she dropped the robe carelessly to the floor, was skin littered with cuts and bruises, and flesh smeared with blood and oozing droplets of red still weeping from the abrasions.

“Some of these will need stitches,” she said, eyeing the worst of the cuts: a long, deep gash carved across his right breast. It looked to have been done with a sharp blade, likely a sword or a dagger. Celebrían sighed. “Just what did you get yourself into tonight, El?” she asked him quietly.

Together, she and Mithrandir lifted Elrond and moved him onto his cot, Celebrían straightening the blankets before they laid him down so that he would not get any blood on the sheets or mattress. Then Celebrían began rummaging around through Elrond’s things, searching for the healer’s bag she knew he always carried with him everywhere he went.

She found it tucked into the bottom corner of the chest at the foot of his cot. She pulled it out, triumphant, and opened it, taking out sterilizing alcohol and small, cloth swabs, a needle, and thread. Her hands shook as she swabbed the needle with alcohol, then threaded it.

Mithrandir took her wrists in his hands, stilling her shaking. “Allow me,” he urged softly. “I have just as much experience with stitching flesh as you do—more, likely as not.”

Celebrían grimaced. “More, I am certain,” she said. “I usually only stitch embroidery and cloth.”

Mithrandir smiled, and took the needle and thread from Celebrían’s hands. “Then allow me,” he said again.

It was the work of a long, quarter hour before Mithrandir was done stitching the worst of the wounds: three on his chest and stomach needed stitching, two on his back, one on each arm, and one on his right leg before he was done. When he was finally finished, however, he relinquished the needle and severed thread to Celebrían, who burned what was left of the thread and then re-sterilized the needle and put it back in its place in Elrond’s pouch. Then she and Mithrandir bound his still-bleeding wounds with gauze and linen bandages.

Celebrían settled down on the cot beside Elrond, shifting so that his head was in her lap and her fingers were in his hair. She began to stroke her fingers through his locks, smoothing the dark strands off of his forehead and running her nails gently along his scalp in the way she knew he liked. Tension that Celebrían had not even realized was straining her husband began to bleed away, and he settled more comfortably onto the cot and into her lap, though he did not wake.

Mithrandir settled down into the spindly chair, apparently not keen on leaving yet himself. Celebrían arched an eyebrow at him, then said, “You have my thanks, Mithrandir. Without you…” She took a deep breath.

Mithrandir lifted a hand. “No need to thank me, Celebrían,” he said. “It was my duty; my lady sent me to aid you. But even more than that, he is my friend—I would have happily helped, even if my lady had not sent me.”

“Might I still thank you?” Celebrían asked. “You did aid me, after all, when I knew not who to turn to.”

“Why did you not go to Glorfindel or Ereinion?” Mithrandir asked.

“Glorfindel is not here tonight for some Eru-only-knows reason,” said Celebrían. “And Ereinion does not yet know that Elrond is here, and I do not think Elrond would be happy if I brought him in on our little secret just yet.”

Mithrandir nodded in understanding. “And why not a healer?”

“Frankly, because I did not know where I could find one at this hour. I am sure they are all abed by now, and to my understanding their tents are scattered throughout the spectators’. I would have had to go to the quartermaster to find one—and one who I trusted would have taken even longer.”

“What would you have done had I not arrived when I did?”

Celebrían pulled a face. “Gone to the quartermaster, likely as not,” she admitted.

Mithrandir nodded, seeming satisfied at last. Still, though, he did not rise, and Celebrían hesitated. “Was there something else you needed, Mithrandir?”

“To see my friend awaken,” Mithrandir said easily. Then he looked up and met Celebrían’s eyes, and smiled a tight, small smile. “And,” he added, “to speak with you about your sons.”

Celebrían’s eyebrows snapped together in a frown. She had not forgotten her promise to discuss what Mithrandir had said about her sons seeking revenge—she just had assumed that would wait until after the tournament. Still, if he wanted to discuss it here and now, who was she to deny him? If she was honest with herself, the only reason she had wanted to wait was the same reason she wanted to hear it now: anxiety—anxiety over what Mithrandir would tell her, anxiety over how her perception of her sweet, innocent boys would change, anxiety over how she would react to hearing about them seeking revenge for her sake.

“Very well,” she said softly, giving a nod.

Mithrandir settled back into the spindly chair, which gave a small groan of protest. “Where would you like me to start?” he asked Celebrían.

“From the beginning?” she suggested.

Mithrandir began at the beginning.

He told her of the early days after her sailing—of her twin sons gathering supplies and riding out at the break of dawn to hunt Orcs. He told her of their ceaseless wrath and ruin against them—of how they would be gone for months or years at a time, hunting and seeking and slaying, with the Dúnedain, with Prince Legolas of Mirkwood and his people, alone. He told here of them returning for only long enough to get their father’s healings, and to restock their supplies, before riding out again in their ceaseless, endless war against the beings that had harmed their mother. He told her of hearing tales of butchered Orcs, slaughtered in needless cruelty and savagery—Orcs that could only have been slain by the twin sons of Celebrían and Elrond.

He told her of their hatred for their father—of how they had blamed him for Celebrían’s sailing. He told her of the incident with the trolls 100 years after she had left the shores of Middle-earth, and of how the twins had nearly allowed their father to die of his injuries before at last Elrohir agreed to lend aid in the form of his Songs of healing. He told her of the fragmented, fragile beginnings of peace between them, and how they had slowly, carefully, cautiously begun to reconstruct their relationship.

What unfolded from Mithrandir’s lips made Celebrían’s blood run cold, then hot, then cold again. She could not believe that her sons—her precious, kind, sweet, innocent sons—would be capable of such darkness. Yet she believed Mithrandir; he had never lied to her before, and she did not see why he would begin here, now, with this.

“Perhaps I should have allowed your husband to tell you this,” Mithrandir said, finishing. “But I doubt very much that he would have told you the entire truth of it. In fact, I am not sure he even knows the entire truth of it—or accepts it, rather. He knows of them torturing Orcs, though I do not know if he has admitted that fact to himself.”

Celebrían shivered. “And are they still like this?” she asked. “Even now, do they ceaselessly hunt for Orcs and butcher them?”

Mithrandir smiled. “No,” he said. “A young boy named Hope came into their lives, and while they still harbor a hatred for the creatures, their desire for bloodlust is not what it has been since he stole their hearts.”

“Estel,” Celebrían said softly. She smiled. “I wish I could have met him.”

“As do I,” Mithrandir said. “You would have loved him, I think. He brought a great deal of healing to your family—to your sons, to your daughter, and to your husband as well. He was the brightness that had been missing in their lives since you had left.”

“I am glad,” said Celebrían. “I am glad they were not doomed to that darkness for the rest of time.” She looked down at her husband, lying limp and pale and unmoving in her lap. “Though,” she added softly, “perhaps, if Estel had never come into their lives, they still could have found healing—and my daughter would be here as well.”

“Perhaps,” said Mithrandir. “But you cannot begrudge your daughter her Choice, Celebrían—nor her happiness.”

“I do not,” said Celebrían. “I only…”

“It is hard,” Mithrandir offered gently.

Celebrían nodded. “It is hard,” she agreed. “And it makes it all the harder that Elrond refuses to acknowledge or mourn it. If only we could do it together, I think I would be able to handle it a little better.”

“Give him time,” Mithrandir suggested. “Your husband has a great many hurts to heal.”

Celebrían smiled sadly. “I know,” she said. “I know…”

~*x*~

Elrond woke to candlelight above him and a soft bed beneath him. He groaned softly, lifting a hand to press against his pounding head, and blinked against the bright light.

“Brí?” he called, before realizing that he did not know where he was or who he was with. Be more careful, he chastised himself sternly.

“Your wife had to return to her own tent, or risk detection.”

Elrond sat up slowly, his entire body shaking with the effort. There, sitting in the spindly chair, was Mithrandir, his staff propped up against the tent wall. He was smiling at Elrond kindly, and when he saw Elrond struggling to rise, he stood and walked over to the cot.

“Let me help you,” he said, reaching down to support Elrond’s back.

“My thanks,” Elrond said—and then coughed. The words had dug into his throat with harsh claws; it felt as if he had swallowed sand—or glass—and even breathing hurt. “What happened?” he asked.

“According to Celebrían, you collapsed once you reached your tent,” Mithrandir said. “I believe you overtaxed yourself last night. Just what happened?”

“Ai,” Elrond breathed, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees, which he drew up slightly against the cot’s mattress. “A lot.”

Mithrandir sat down on the edge of the cot. “I am listening.”

“There was a duel,” Elrond said. “I won, but only after a friend was nearly slain and I was forced to use a Song of Power that cracked the earth and split a tree. I then healed the boy—but that was four Songs of healing layered on top of one another, and I am accustomed to Vilya’s greater aid when I have been forced in recent years to do surgery with that kind of precision and detail… And then, after that, I had to fix the earth and explain the tree’s cracking.”

Mithrandir’s eyebrows rose. “The storm?” he guessed.

Elrond nodded.

Mithrandir rolled his eyes and stood. “It is no wonder you passed out,” he said. “Summoning weather is no minor parlor trick—and neither is detailed surgery, to flesh or stone. You are lucky you only passed out, unless I much miss my guess.”

Elrond flapped a hand in Mithrandir’s direction. “I am fine,” he said, and made to rise.

Mithrandir lunging to his feet and grabbing Elrond around the waist was all that saved him from falling to the ground.

“You are not fine,” Mithrandir chastised. “In fact, I think you should submit a resignation from the tournament.”

“No,” Elrond snapped, pulling free of Mithrandir’s hold. He wavered, but miraculously did not fall as he straightened. “No, I am fine.”

“Your threshold for “fine” is not what everyone else’s is,” Mithrandir pointed out acerbically.

Elrond snorted. “Tell that to the rest of my family,” he said.

Mithrandir cocked an eyebrow. “Fair,” he admitted. “It is still a highly unsustainable practice.”

“I’m fine,” Elrond insisted.

Mithrandir sighed. “If you can dress yourself and walk to breakfast on your own, without me having to catch you to keep you from falling, I will be more inclined to believe you.”

“Very well,” Elrond said coolly. He crossed to his chest with a limp and opened the lid, then began rooting around in it, pulling out tunic and breeches and underclothes. He dressed as quickly as he was able, stiff and aching though he was from the numerous stitched cuts across his body.

“Was it you who stitched these?” he asked, pausing in his dressing to inspect one of the cuts on his arm.

“It was,” said Mithrandir. His back was turned to afford Elrond some privacy, though Elrond had the feeling that he was listening closely for the sound of him beginning to collapse again.

“You did well,” Elrond said, finishing his inspection and deciding he would not have to take the stitches out and do them again.

Mithrandir snorted. “I did have well over a millennia with a nearly-human body that I had to take care of, and you were not always there to stitch it up for me. I had quite a great deal of practice.”

“Fair,” Elrond said, echoing what Mithrandir had said but a moment before regarding his comment about his family. Then, “I am decent,” he said, finishing pulling his tunic on over his head and tugging it down around his hips.

Mithrandir turned. He eyed Elrond skeptically, but then nodded, seeming satisfied with whatever it was he saw. “Well, let us go get some breakfast into you,” he said, and then led the way out of the tent, Elrond half-limping, half-hobbling after him.

It was early morning. The sun’s first rays had just begun to crest the horizon, turning the air gold and dusty lavender. A few competitors were already out and moving about, running and stretching and going through exercises. Usually Elrond would be one of them—but not today. Not when he felt as if he had been pummeled by a Mumakil.

The walk to the feasting area took nearly twice as long as it usually did, for Elrond had to keep stopping to rest. Mithrandir was patient with him, never offering aid but watching with a hawk’s sharp gaze, never once letting one grimace of pain or gasp of discomfort past his watch.

By the time they reached the feasting area, Elrond was exhausted. He had slowed further still, and his strides were limping hobbles. He was still upright, though, and that was all that mattered—to him, at least, even if not, it seemed, to Mithrandir.

“Sit,” Mithrandir ordered, and pointed at the nearest table and bench. “I will get us food.”

Mithrandir disappeared toward the trestle tables laden with food, leaving Elrond alone for a moment. He put his head down on his arms, crossed on top of the table, and closed his eyes. He was more exhausted than he was even willing to admit, and his entire body throbbed, from his head to his chest to his legs. He only hoped that food would help. It usually did in situations like that—he only hoped it would help enough.

Footsteps. Elrond looked up, propping his chin on his forearms, to see an unknown Elf approaching his table. The ellon was grim-faced but kind-looking, with bright blue eyes and dark brown hair.

“Lîmrion?” the ellon asked as he drew near.

“Aye,” said Elrond, straightening. “What can I do for you?”

“Is it true that you fought seven of Lady Nimloth’s guards and won?”

Elrond grimaced. “Where did you hear that?”

The ellon shrugged. “Rumors are flying. My friends and I saw you walk in and I was dared to come and ask you for the truth.”

Elrond sighed. “It is true that I fought them, yes.”

“And you won?”

“I did. Though I was not alone.”

“Who else fought with you?” the ellon asked.

“Lord Fingolfin’s standard bearer aided me,” Elrond said. “Without him the outcome of the duel likely would have been very different.”

The ellon smiled. “I see,” he said. Then he bowed. “Best of luck to you today in the lists. I will be cheering for you.”

Elrond, startled, said automatically, “My thanks.” Then the ellon departed, leaving Elrond confused and slightly alarmed.

He was right that news of his duel with Ramo’s gang had spread—but it had spread far faster than he had expected it to. He had hoped it would take the better part of the day before he heard about it. That he had heard something about it first thing—and that someone had come up to him to ask about it—was disconcerting and even worrying.

Would he be able to continue keeping his secret? Or would someone put together the disparate pieces of information and tidbits he had accidentally dropped, and figure out his true identity? Would all of his lies catch up to him in a horrifying conflagration? Or would he be able to pull this off for the last four days of the tournament?

Groaning, Elrond put his head back down on the table and waited for Mithrandir to return.

He did so a few minutes later, juggling two plates piled high with food. He placed them down on the table, one in front of himself and one in front of Elrond, then ordered, “Eat.”

Elrond straightened and picked up the fork Mithrandir had brought as well, stabbing a slice of melon with more force than was necessary. He took a bite, juice dribbling down his chin from the ripe fruit; he took a second bite, then a third, and a rapid fourth, already beginning to feel much better.

By the time he was done with his meal, he felt less like pulverized meat and more like a Peredhel once more. His throbbing headache had receded to a dull burn, and the pains in his body had diminished to little more than whispers of complaints. Oh, he still hurt, but not so badly that he could not ignore the pains.

“How are you feeling?” Mithrandir asked, polishing off the last bite of his walnut- and cinnamon-studded bread.

“Much better,” Elrond said firmly. He was relieved to hear that his voice sounded strong and resolute.

Mithrandir smiled. “Good,” he said, and rose. “Then come, let us get you back to your tent so you can ready yourself for your first pounding.”

“What?” Elrond teased. “You are not going to try to stop me from riding?”

Mithrandir sighed. “I would dearly like to, but you did manage to walk to the feasting area without my aid.” He shook his head. “The stubbornness of the Peredhil will never cease to astound and amaze me.”

Elrond laughed and rose as well. He wavered for a second, then straightened, and began walking alongside Mithrandir towards the entrance to the feasting area.

“Á ercat,” he cursed suddenly, spying a familiar face in the crowd slowly trickling into the feasting area. He ducked around and walked in the other direction, Mithrandir spinning on his heel to follow after him.

“What is it?” Mithrandir asked.

“Fingolfin,” Elrond said. “He knows I am here, but not that I am Lîmrion, and I would dearly like to keep it that way—especially after our conversation last night.”

“What conversation?” Mithrandir asked.

“No matter,” Elrond retorted. “Just…please, go distract him? I will be in your debt.”

Mithrandir sighed, but nodded. “Very well,” he said. “Good luck in your jousts today, my friend.” Then Mithrandir turned again and began making his way towards where Elrond had last seen Fingolfin.

Elrond sat down at a table and waited for five minutes before rising again and hurrying as quickly as he could away from the feasting area. He passed Mithrandir and Fingolfin, standing a little way off of the main path into the field, talking animatedly. Elrond turned his head away and hurried past. To his great relief, Fingolfin did not seem to see him—did not seem to see anything but Mithrandir in front of him.

Elrond returned to his tent. To his sorrow, he did not see Celebrían when he arrived, but he resolved that he would see her later in the day. She was likely caught up in family drama of one sort or another, or else was sleeping in. Instead, he took down his armor stiffly and began to clean and polish it, along with Hadhafang.

Once that was done, he rose and made his way toward the healing tents to check in on Ambalaurё. He had given the Head Healer strict instructions the night before that he was to care for Ambalaurё with the utmost attention, and informed him that he would be coming by to check in on him frequently. Though Ambalaurё was mostly healed, his body would need time to rest and recuperate from the surgery and Songs of Power that had been Sung over him and his wounds. Moreover, if he was not careful, he would tear the incisions into his belly—which also had to be carefully watched for infection. Stomach wounds almost always grew infected.

Even so, Elrond thought he was out of the woods, so long as he did not do anything too terribly stupid, such as rip out his stitches by trying to joust.

Ambalaurё was awake when Elrond arrived. He had been moved out of the surgery and to a recovery room in the neighboring tent, and was now lying propped up in a bed with pillows at his back and blankets swathing his legs.

“Lîmrion!” he cried when he saw Elrond appear through the curtain.

“Hello, Ambalaurё,” Elrond said with a smile.

“I was worried for you,” said Ambalaurё. “The Head Healer, who has been tending to me, did not know what became of you. I was concerned you had been injured.”

“Not badly,” said Elrond. “Another friend tended to my wounds last night after the duel.” He perched himself on the edge of Ambalaurё’s bed, then asked, “Did the Head Healer say who saved your life?”

“I had not asked,” Ambalaurё confessed. “I assumed it was him.” He hesitated. “Was it not?”

Elrond had thought long and hard about how to handle this situation, after he had left Fingolfin the night before. He could have requested that the Head Healer say that Lîmrion had carried Ambalaurё to the tent, and that he had performed the surgery—but doing so risked Ambalaurё telling Fingolfin that version of the story, and Fingolfin coming to realize that Elrond was, in fact, the same Elf as Lîmrion. Which Elrond still did not want.

Perhaps it was foolish, given everything that had happened, for Elrond to continue hiding his identity. In fact, it almost certainly was. Yet Elrond had started this, and he wanted to see it through—wanted to see if he could actually win this tournament, and on his own merit. He wanted to continue avoiding his family, and shirking his responsibilities, and doing all that he could to simply be…well, himself, for a few days more at least—be himself, rather than a Prince of the Noldor and Sindar, a lord, a noble. He was happy being Lîmrion, frankly, and he was not ready to give that up.

Was that selfish? Yes. Was it also stupid? Probably. But Elrond felt that he was entitled to a little bit of stupid selfishness at this point in his life.

Elrond sighed. The only avenue that he could see was telling Ambalaurё the truth, and hope that he would respect Elrond’s wishes and not tell Fingolfin everything. It was a gamble—but a gamble that Elrond felt like he had to take.

“No,” Elrond said, looking up and meeting Ambalaurё’s eyes with his own. “It was me.”

Ambalaurё’s eyebrows rose. “You?” he asked. “But you are a warrior! You have said yourself that you have slain evil things. And warriors are not healers; I thought that killing stole away a being’s ability to heal.”

“It does,” said Elrond. “If I had not ever touched a sword in my life—if I had not killed, and murdered, and butchered—there is no telling how powerful of a healer I would be. But the truth is, Ambalaurё…” Elrond choked on the truth. It was suddenly very difficult to speak.

“The truth?” Ambalaurё pressed. “Lîmrion?” he asked, when Elrond did not speak.

“My name is not Lîmrion,” Elrond said softly. “Lîmrion was the captain of my wife’s honor guard, before he was slain by Orcs living in the Redhorn Pass.”

Ambalaurё frowned. “What are you saying?” he asked. “If your name is not Lîmrion, what is it?”

“Elrond. Elrond Peredhel.”

Ambalaurё stared at him. Then he cracked a smile. “No,” he said with a shake of his head. “No, it…Lîmrion, cease your jesting.”

“I am not jesting,” Elrond said, realizing for the first time that Ambalaurё might not actually believe him. What would he do if Ambalaurё simply refused to understand what he was telling him—refused to believe the truth? Would all come to ruin because of that?

Ambalaurё’s smile began to fade. “But…” He trailed off, the smile dying a quick and painful death. “But, no. No. You—you’re Lîmrion. You’re not…not Lord Elrond.”

“Think about it,” Elrond said softly. “I am old—very old. I was born in the First Age. I fight like a Fёanorion—like Maedhros Fёanorion specifically. I told you all that I was not beholden to any particular lord, but that I aided those who needed my help.”

“I always wondered what you had against Lord Elrond,” Ambalaurё said quietly. “But I thought it was just…well.” He trailed off with a blush.

Elrond frowned. “What?”

“Well, there was a debate going on amongst us,” Ambalaurё admitted, “as to whether you were in love with Lord Elrond or Lady Celebrían.”

Elrond’s eyebrows rose. “Oh really?” he asked.

Ambalaurё’s blush deepened.

Elrond laughed, sudden and abrupt. “Well, you were not half wrong,” he said. “I am in love with the Lady Celebrían. She is, after all, my wife.”

Ambalaurё laughed as well. “So the rumor about you having sex with the Lady Celebrían was real?”

Elrond sighed, sobering. “Lady Nimloth walked in on us,” he told his younger friend.

Ambalaurё snorted. “Well done, my friend.”

Elrond’s eyes snapped up to Ambalaurё. “Then I am still your friend?” he asked softly.

Ambalaurё looked startled. “Of course you are,” he said. “Unless…unless you do not wish to be mine. I understand if you do not. You have much greater people to be friends with than Lord Fingolfin’s standard bearer.”

Elrond reached out and gripped Ambalaurё’s shoulder. “I wish to always be your friend,” he said firmly.

Grinning, Ambalaurё nodded slowly. “Thank you,” he said. And then blanched. “Oh, Valar,” he said, his eyes going wide with dawning understanding.

Elrond frowned. “What is wrong?” he asked.

“It, you…” Ambalaurё stuttered to a halt, then his gaze sharpened and his eyes snapped to Elrond’s. “You’re Elrond Peredhel, hero of Middle-earth, of the First and Second and Third Ages! You’re a Prince of the Noldor and the Sindar. You are the son of Eärendil and Elwing, grandson of Queen Melian and descendant of High King Finwё. I…you… And yet you want to be my friend? There are so many better people in this world than I! And yet you helped me win my tournament, and I leapt in to fight with you against Elves who were trying to kill you—and ai Eru, they were trying to kill you. If they had succeeded…”

“But they did not,” Elrond pointed out. “Only mildly inconvenienced me.”

“Well, yes, but that is missing the point—”

Footsteps, and then Elrond heard the voice of the Head Healer. “He is right through here, my lord, my lady,” he said.

Elrond paled.

“Tell no one I am here, save Fingolfin,” he begged. “I am yet Lîmrion to all else—and even Fingolfin does not know I am competing. Please, I beg of you, do not tell my secret.”

Ambalaurё’s eyes glittered. “I shan’t,” he promised.

“My thanks,” Elrond said. The footsteps were right outside of the curtain into the recovery room now.

Elrond panicked. The Head Healer had called whoever Ambalaurё’s visitors were “lord” and “lady”. That indicated that it was someone Elrond did not wish to meet.

He flung himself toward the back wall of the tent. He ducked, then squirmed his way out beneath the canvas and into the early morning light, leaving Ambalaurё, and his unknown visitors, behind.

~*x*~

Celeborn and Nimloth approached the recovery tent, following the Head Healer, Cuilanan. Cuilanan was speaking, telling them of how a passing Elf had carried Ambalaurё to him, and how he had just barely been able to save the lad’s life. Lord Elrond had beseeched him not to tell anyone that he was in the camp—had said that he wanted his privacy uninterrupted, and that, though he would be back to check in on Ambalaurё, he wanted his presence kept under the veil.

“Just…say it was a passing Elf,” Lord Elrond had said. “That is, in essence, the truth. Just leave my name out.”

“As you wish,” Cuilanan had said, though with a small degree of confusion. He had been willing to adhere to a noble’s—and his hero’s—wishes, however.

Lord Elrond Peredhel of Middle-earth had been one of the reasons Cuilanan had become a healer, if he was honest with himself. He had heard tales when he was growing up in Aman of the great and noble hero who could Sing Elves and Men and Dwarves alike back to wholeness; he had heard of the great and noble lord who had brought countless Elves and Men and Dwarves back from Darkness and into Light—and he had wanted to do the same things.

So he had become a healer—for that reason, among others. He had never imagined he would meet his hero, however—had never thought he would work under and with him, even more. He had done his best to hide his thrill and excitement at the prospect, and he thought he had done an admirable job. Lord Elrond had been brusque and all business, snapping orders and giving Cuilanan very little time to dwell on the reality of the situation, until it was over and Lord Fingolfin had arrived.

Now Cuilanan brushed back the curtain. He caught a flash of movement at the back of the tent—the canvas falling back into place, and Ambalaurё’s head turning toward him—and he wondered what it was that he had walked in on the end of. He shot a sharp glance toward Ambalaurё, who shook his head slightly.

Sighing, Cuilanan turned and bowed the nobles following him into the tent. “Here he is, my lord Celeborn, my lady Nimloth,” he said.

Lord Celeborn breezed into the tent, followed by a much more subdued Lady Nimloth. They stopped just inside the tent flap, Lord Celeborn nodding his thanks to Cuilanan before turning his attention to Ambalaurё, who was staring at them with surprise. This gave Cuilanan the chance to observe his royal guests as well, however—and without being noticed.

Lord Celeborn was dressed in exquisitely crafted leather armor: breastplate, pauldrons, vambraces. It was light armor, meant for ground combat—meant for quick movement, for swift strikes and swifter dodges, for ducking rather than taking the brunt of a hit. Flowers and vines had been etched into the pauldrons and vambraces, while two mallorn trees had been emblazoned across the front of the breastplate. Twin swords hung on the belt at his waist, their hilts gilt and wrapped in gold wire, flecks of rubies studded into the hilts.

Lady Nimloth was clad in the height of Sindarin fashion: a layered dress, with the top layer made of a fine, black lace interwoven; the bottom layer was made of a thick, gold silk that peered through the lace in flashes of bright color. The collar was low, slung deep across her shoulders and chest, revealing the pale skin of her kindred, dotted with freckles. Her black hair was piled loosely on top of her head in ringlets, pinned with gold clasps flecked with obsidian.

“Forgive us for the intrusion, young…”

“Ambalaurё,” Ambalaurё said, answering Lord Celeborn.

Lord Celeborn smiled. “Ambalaurё,” he repeated. “How are you feeling?”

“Better than could be expected,” Ambalaurё said. “Thank you for asking…”

“Ah,” said Lord Celeborn with a smile. “I am Celeborn, of Doriath and Lothlórien, and this is my niece, Nimloth of Doriath.”

Ambalaurё bowed slightly—then grimaced in pain as his incision was pulled. “Forgive me for not bowing again, or properly,” he said, through a small gasp of pain. “My stomach is not what it was yesterday at this time.”

Cuilanan hurried forward, pushing Ambalaurё down to the pillows, then lifting his loose shirt and peeling away the bandage to inspect his stitches. To his relief, Ambalaurё’s incision was still closed, though a few droplets of blood had oozed out. Cuilanan wiped them up with a patch of gauze lying on the bedside table, then reaffixed the bandage.

“Forgive us for pressing you with questions when you are so newly healing,” Lady Nimloth said, “but we need answers, and as quickly as possible. Might we ask you a few questions about what transpired last night?”

“Please do,” Ambalaurё said.

“Who insulted who in the bathhouse?” Lord Celeborn asked, folding his arms over his chest.

“The Elf I would come to know as Maethwinn is the one who insulted Lady Celebrían,” Ambalaurё answered immediately. “He challenged Lîmrion to a duel, and when Lîmrion refused, he insulted his lady.”

“His lady?” Lord Celeborn asked.

Ambalaurё nodded.

“Who is his lady?”

“Lady Celebrían, of course,” said Ambalaurё. “He served in her honor guard for a time.”

Cuilanan watched as Lord Celeborn’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “Indeed,” he said softly, though it sounded more like a distant musing than a question. He blinked, seeming to come back to himself, and then asked, “And who won the duel?”

“Lîmrion,” Ambalaurё answered, again with barely a heartbeat’s pause. “They fought to first blood, and Lîmrion won after only a few passes.”

“What happened then?” Lady Nimloth asked.

“Then Maethwinn’s brother, Maedgwath, stepped into the ring, and attacked Lîmrion,” Ambalaurё said darkly. “They called him a Kinslayer, stating that he had attempted to kill Ramo the day before, and then they struck. When it became clear that even together they could not best him, however, the rest of their friends joined the fray.”

“And that is when you went to Lîmrion’s defense?” Lord Celeborn asked.

“Indeed,” said Ambalaurё.

“Who stabbed you?” Lady Nimloth asked.

“Maedgwath.” Ambalaurё reached up and gestured to his nose, bruised and swollen. “He also broke my nose.”

The two nobles shared a look.

“And this is the truth?” Lord Celeborn asked.

“I swear it,” said Ambalaurё. “In Námo’s name.”

They shared another look. “I see,” was all Lord Celeborn said, however. He inclined his head to Ambalaurё, then added, “Thank you for your time. I wish you a speedy and painless recovery.”

“Thank you, my lord,” said Ambalaurё, inclining his head in return. “My lady.”

“Head Healer Cuilanan,” said Lord Celeborn said, acknowledging him as well. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“As it was you,” said Cuilanan, bowing low.

With that, Lord Celeborn and Lady Nimloth turned and swept out of the recovery tent, leaving only the faintest scent of Lady Nimloth’s perfume and the sudden absence of Lord Celeborn’s presence the only reminders that they had been there.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Elrond returned to his tent at a slow walk. His first joust was in an hour, and so he would need to gather his things and report to the lists soon if he was to make it on time. He was moving slowly—painfully slowly. After pressing himself to prove his strength to Mithrandir, and after putting on a brave and stalwart face for Ambalaurё, he was exhausted. He was forced to stop numerous times on his way to his tent, in order to breathe deeply and recover his strength. He would shake, his hands loosening at his sides as if unable to hold anything, his legs trembling beneath him as they threatened to give way.

The clouds from the night before had begun to gather on the horizon once more, darkening the sky with a band of grey. Elrond hoped they would not be in for more rain; doing so would put the tournament in a precarious position, if it began early enough in the day, forcing the jousts to halt for the day and pushing them to the next. That would mean an extra day that Elrond had to hold his charade—a day Elrond did not wish to have.

He brushed into his tent, staring down at the ground beneath his feet, then stopped dead still before looking up at his mother-in-law and friend, seated in the spindly chair pulled over to the side of his bed. She was watching him with her sharp, blue eyes, a half smile curling her lips.

“Hello, Elrond,” she said calmly.

“Ai,” Elrond breathed, straightening in spite of the weakness running rampant through his body. “Hello, Galadriel,” he said, crossing to begin straightening the blankets on his cot. “Did Celebrían tell you I was here?”

Galadriel snorted delicately. “As if I would need my daughter to tell me that it was you jousting?” she asked. “In fact, I knew it was you from the first instant I laid eyes on you in the lists.”

“How?” Elrond asked.

Galadriel lifted a dainty hand and pointed to the silver and adamant ring gleaming on her right forefinger. “You forget, Elrond,” she said, “we are still bound by our Rings—and more than that, I have spent many thousands of years bound to your mind.” She dropped her hand, and rose to begin helping him.

Elrond grimaced. “Have you told anyone?”

Galadriel shook her head. “No,” she said, “though I think perhaps you should tell Celeborn—or at least consider it,” she added, seeing Elrond’s second grimace.

“It is not that I do not think he can keep a secret,” Elrond said, straightening and then sitting carefully down on top of his newly straightened bed. Secretly, he did not think he could remain standing for much longer. “It is only that… Well. The fewer who know, the better, and so many already know.”

Galadriel sighed and sat back down on the spindly chair. “Very well,” she said. “It is your decision.” She looked at him with eyebrows slightly raised. “That is not what I came to talk to you about, though.”

“Oh?” Elrond asked.

“What happened with the duel last night?”

Elrond groaned and buried his face in his hands.  “How did you find out about that?” he asked through his hands.

“A young elleth named Tyelperindё, who claimed to be your and Ambalaurё’s friend, came to us and told us quite the tale,” Galadriel told him. “She was concerned that a rift would come between the Sindar and the Noldor for what happened, should the truth not be known—for she feared, rightly as I suspect, that the Elves of Nimloth’s court would not tell the truth.”

“Ai,” Elrond breathed. “Not that a rift may not still occur even with the truth of the situation out in the open. Especially if it becomes known who I am…”

“If the truth is known and believed,” said Galadriel, “then those who are responsible for the attack will be brought to justice, and no schism should occur. Especially if they know that the one they attacked was one of their princes.”

“Then you believe Tyelperindё’s version of events?” Elrond asked, looking up.

“I still need to hear yours—but I know you, Elrond. Lîmrion,” she added with a small smile. “I doubt that the injustice in the fight was caused by you.”

“You would be right,” Elrond said. “It was Ramo’s friends who attacked me, seven against one—until Ambalaurё stepped in to lend his aid, making it six against two.”

“Tell me what happened,” Galadriel said.

Elrond obliged.

When he was done, Galadriel sat back in the spindly chair and looked thoughtful. “I see,” she said, then nodded once, as if to herself. “It is as Tyelperindё said, then.”

“Did you expect her to lie?”

“Nay,” said Galadriel. “But such is not the tale Celeborn brought back from Nimloth’s tent.”

Elrond pulled a face. “Who does Celeborn believe?”

“When we spoke this morning, before he readied to leave to go see Ambalaurё, he was not certain. But, then, he does not know that Lîmrion is you. If he knew, he would have been sure, I am certain, that you were the one wronged.”

Elrond’s face twisted from a grimace to a frown. “Such assumptions could be dangerous,” he said. “For what if I had been the one to instigate the injustice? Would I be able to get off with just my name and preceding reputation?”

“The thing is,” Galadriel said calmly, “we know the kind of man you are, Elrond. We know that you would not be the one to instigate the injustice.”

“So you think,” Elrond said darkly.

“Then tell me this, Elrond,” Galadriel said, “would you ever try to kill an opponent in a fair duel?”

“No!” Elrond exclaimed.

Galadriel smiled, self-satisfied. “There you are, then,” she said.

Elrond sighed and shook his head, standing. “One of these days,” he said, “I will take advantage of you and your perceptions of me.”

Galadriel laughed. “I doubt it.”

Elrond shook his head again, but said only, “If you are here, will you aid me in putting on my armor? I am stiff and sore, and it will be a challenge without help.”

Galadriel rose, the spindly chair protesting mildly, and crossed to Elrond’s armor stand. She began to take the armor down, then helped Elrond put it on slowly, piece by piece.

Once they were done, Galadriel smiled at Elrond, then drew him into an embrace. “I am glad you are well,” she said. “And I am glad you are enjoying yourself at this tournament.”

“Who said I was enjoying myself?” Elrond teased.

“Nimloth walked in on you and my daughter having sex,” Galadriel said dryly. “I am fairly certain you are enjoying yourself.”

Elrond blushed faintly. “Ah,” he said. “That. Yes, well…perhaps I am.”

Galadriel smiled, then kissed his forehead. “Now go win your next joust,” she said.

“I will try,” Elrond replied, bowing to his mother-in-law before departing.

~*x*~

“Do you know who you are jousting?” Fimcirion asked Elrond. They were standing together in the competitor’s yard, waiting for the last joust to be complete. It was between Orodreth and a young noble of Turgon’s house.

“No,” Elrond replied. “I have been…otherwise occupied, these last twelve hours.”

Fimcirion raised an arched eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked. “In what way?”

“If you have not yet heard, I will allow the rumor mill to inform you,” Elrond replied drolly. “I am sure it will be honest and truthful, and will in no way reflect poorly on me.”

“If you are concerned about truthfulness and honesty,” said Fimcirion, “should you not tell me yourself?”

“Who said I was concerned about truthfulness and honesty?” Elrond asked, quirking an eyebrow of his own. “Though I suppose, given that you are my herald, it would be good for you not to hear any lies about me.”

“So do tell.”

“I was in a duel yesterday,” Elrond confessed.

“Not an uncommon occurrence when this many Elves of so many different kindreds are put together for an extended period of time.”

“True,” Elrond said, conceding the point. “What was unusual, however, was that the Elf I was dueling with did not fight according to the rules of engagement. His brother stepped in when I won, and when it became clear I might manage to disarm or disable those two, the rest of their friends did so as well.”

“That is indeed unfair,” said Fimcirion.

“Unfortunately it did not end there,” Elrond said. “One of my friends was nearly killed because of them, and I was injured.”

Fimcirion’s second eyebrow joined the first. “Should you be jousting then?” he asked.

Elrond shrugged. “I am only very minimally injured,” he said. “A few cuts needed stitches and I am tired—that is all.”

“Hm,” said Fimcirion. A sly, secretive smile burgeoned upon his lips, just as Orodreth sent Turgon’s young noble flying.

“What?” Elrond asked, feeling uncomfortable.

“You have finally given me something to speak on,” Fimcirion said, and then strode away before Elrond could protest.

“Wait,” Elrond tried to say, lifting a hand as if to grab a hold of him—only to drop it as Fimcirion walked past Orodreth riding off of the field. Elrond, who had met Orodreth once, ducked down to fake inspecting Avasath’s girth. He waited until Orodreth had passed before straightening and walking Avasath over to the entrance into the lists.

He arrived just in time to hear Fimcirion begin to speak.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he cried, “ellyth and ellyn, noblemen and commoners! I am here today to bring you a tale of injustice and righteousness—a tale of treachery and heroism!”

Oh no, Elrond thought, his stomach dropping into his toes.

“Just last night,” Fimcirion began, “our friend Lîmrion was brutally attacked after fairly winning a duel against an opponent. Though he won, it was not before a friend was badly injured, as was Lîmrion himself. Yet still he jousts today! For Lîmrion is not only strong of heart and mind, but he is strong of arm and body as well. He won against those unjustly assaulting him—just as he will win against Fingon today!”

Fingon? Elrond thought with sudden panic. I’m jousting against Fingon? Oh no, he thought again, suddenly very convinced he was about to lose. Fingon was—or had been, according to Maedhros—one of the best jousters in his father’s court, and Elrond highly doubted that had changed in the intervening years.

He only had a moment to fret, though. Almost before he knew it—before he could calm his racing heart or steady his breathing into a facsimile of readiness—the heralds were leaving the field and Elrond found himself kneeing Avasath forward to the starting mark.

He closed his visor with one gloved hand, then accepted the lance from the attendant with a tremble in his arm. Of all the people I had to joust while still exhausted, Elrond thought, why did it have to be Fingon?

The horn call came. Avasath lunged forward without prompting and thundered down the lane, mane flying and tail snapping in the wind of her passage. Elrond lowered his lance over her withers and watched Fingon's oncoming shield.

WHAM.

Elrond reeled, dropping his shield and gasping for breath as Avasath rushed past Fingon and his mare. It felt as if he had been punched by a troll. Avasath turned and cantered back to her starting mark while Elrond caught his breath, watching Fingon on the other side of the field. He seemed neither winded nor rattled, accepting his second lance with a bow of his head to his attendant.

“Thank you,” Elrond said to his own attendant, as she handed him his collected shield and a fresh lance.

She smiled at him. “Good luck,” she murmured, then stepped back.

The second horn call came and Avasath leapt forward.

Halfway down the thundering lane, a bout of weakness overcame Elrond. He dropped his lance, and his shield fell to his side, limp against his leg.

Five heartbeats until impact.

He had to get his shield up now. Fingon would not have the time to react and shift his lance’s aim in the second it would take for them to meet and pass.

Four heartbeats.

If he did not move his shield, Fingon would run him through—or strike him in the shoulder or chest with the cormorant, which would certainly shatter his bones and send him flying.

Three heartbeats.

He would lose—and would likely find himself in the healing tents as well, confined to a bed while his body healed from its breaking.

Two heartbeats.

Now, Elrond, he shrieked at himself.

One heartbeat.

He dragged his shield up at the last instant, and once again Fingon’s lance crashed into it, throwing him back against the high jousting saddle, driving the breath from his lungs and setting his bones to singing from the impact. He gasped, and once again dropped his shield into the dust beneath Avasath’s hooves. He did not, however, reel from the saddle.

I have to figure something out, Elrond thought. I must unseat Fingon on this next pass, or this tournament is lost to me.

But how?

Fingon was fast and strong, with a solid seat and knowledge of how to position his lance and shield so as not to go flying except from just the right impact—and Elrond did not trust himself  to be able to strike the coin-sized point just below the center of his shield that would send him out of his seat.

“Are you well?” the attendant asked him, when she handed him his third and final lance and passed up his shield as well.

“I am fine,” Elrond lied, settling the lance against his thigh.

What do I do?

He gazed across the field at Fingon as he waited for the third and final horn call to sound, watching as he readjusted the straps on his shield, and then took up his last lance. Elrond frowned. A memory tugged at him, wanting to be heard, wanting to be remembered…

Maedhros, drunk and reeling from one of his periodic realizations that life was real—was not just a figment of his imagination, a hallucination while his body was still trapped under Sauron’s care in Angband—talking to him about Fingon.

He was usually so tight-lipped about Fingon. It had taken four years before Elrond found out that the two of them were even married. It had taken another four before he found out that they had been married just after the First Kinslaying, but before Losgar and the Ice. Now he was 24, and had learned about Fingon’s death in his history lessons, and he was drinking in every detail about the Elf he had decided was his hero.

“He straps his shield to his arm,” Maedhros was saying with the air of someone rambling, though Maedhros never—so far as Elrond knew—rambled. “It’s a brilliant tactic, because it narrows the impact point necessary to send him flying. But it’s only brilliant if you don’t know what he’s doing and done.” He took another long drink of wine, and placed the cup down on the table when he was done. His eyebrows creased together into a frown. Then, abruptly, he grinned, the scars on his face twisting and pulling unnaturally. Maedhros never smiled, and it unnerved Elrond to see now. “However,” Maedhros said, lifting his hand to gesture somewhat wildly, “if you know what he’s done, it makes your job a hell of a lot easier. Because,” and here he pointed a finger at Elrond, “if you can hit his shield in the bottom right corner and send his shield flying, he’ll follow suit. But of course, no one ever tries to hit an opponent’s shield in the bottom right, so he almost never has to worry about it. Unless he’s jousting against me.” He grinned again. “I was the only one who knew his little trick.” He reached out and ruffled Elrond’s hair. Elrond, 24 and half an adult, ducked out from under Maedhros’s hand with a groan of protest. “Now you know too,” Maedhros said, then returned to his cup.

Could Elrond trust a very-drunk Maedhros’s information, though? Could he count on it, or was he merely talking out of his drunkenness?

Even more than that, even if Fingon had once used that trick, did he still? If he did not—or if Elrond did not accomplish what he was attempting—Elrond was going to look either like a fool, or like an incompetent. He dearly did not wish for either of those eventualities.

But what choice did he have? His hands were trembling as he kneed Avasath back into the starting position. He knew he would not have the dexterity or the strength to knock Fingon from the saddle traditionally.

He would have to try.

The horn call came. Avasath thundered forward. Elrond lowered his lance, fighting with its weight as he had not done since he was an Elfling and wielding his first iron-core studded practice lance.

Fingon came on, his own lance steady and strong. Elrond breathed in deeply and counted his heartbeats.

One heartbeat.

His lance tip dipped over Avasath’s withers.

Two heartbeats.

Fingon rushed toward him, his palomino mare tall and strong and swift.

Three heartbeats.

Elrond fought to lift his lance tip, cursing his weakness and begging any Vala who was listening to him to lend him strength.

Four heartbeats.

He lifted his lance, and aimed straight for the lower right corner of Fingon’s shield.

Five heartbeats.

WHAM.

Fingon’s lance tip struck Elrond’s shield just below the center, and for a second Elrond thought he was going to lose his seat. Then they were past Fingon and his palomino mare, turning in the mud of the field left over from the rain the night before to see—Fingon, picking himself up off of the ground gingerly, then yanking off his helmet. He was glowering.

He strode toward Elrond, sitting on a now-still Avasath, footsteps strong and purposeful and deadly with intent. Avasath danced in place as he approached, but then stilled at Elrond’s touch to her neck.

“Who are you?” Fingon demanded, drawing close enough to Elrond that he would not have to shout.

“My name is Lîmrion,” Elrond began, only for Fingon to shake his head.

“No,” Fingon snapped. “Who are you? And how did you know to do that?”

“I cannot say,” Elrond said, trying to sound innocent and blithe. “Now if you will excuse me, my lord, I must tend to my horse.”

Elrond kneed Avasath around Fingon, standing angry and perplexed in the middle of the list, and then rode off of the field to thunderous applause.

~*x*~

Ereinion Gil-galad woke late and to a pounding head.

He rose slowly and stiffly, conscious of his churning stomach and the way the world was rolling ever so gently beneath his feet. Am I still drunk? he wondered, half annoyed, half horrified, half amused. He staggered his way toward the privy, then changed carefully out of his sleep clothes. He donned a simple tunic over a white shirt, breeches, boots, and a loose over robe in a shade of burgundy that matched the lighter lavender of his tunic. Then, feeling equal parts foolish and idiotic, he tottered his way out of the bedroom portion of his tent and into the front area.

A head popped up above the back of the sofa, startling Gil-galad. He stopped, dead—and then memory crashed over him.

“Good morning,” Ecthelion of the Fountain grumbled.

“Ah,” said Gil-galad. “Good morning.”

Ecthelion had arrived at Gil-galad’s tent early in the afternoon the day before, a wineskin in one hand and a devilish grin in the other. “Glorfindel sends his apologies,” he had said, “and me.”

“You?” Gil-galad had asked.

Ecthelion had shrugged. “He said you two were planning on spending the afternoon together.” Gil-galad did not recall them having made those plans—but, then again, it was not out of the realm of possibility that they had and he had simply forgotten about it. “An urgent errand called him back to Tirion for the night, so he sent me in his stead.”

“I am perfectly capable of entertaining myself,” Gil-galad said dryly. Indeed, he hoped he could dissuade Ecthelion of his intent to spend time with him, for Gil-galad was not keen on telling anyone else his suspicions as to who Lîmrion was and he had hoped to spend the afternoon sleuthing around.

“No doubt you are,” Ecthelion said smoothly. “However if I drink this entire thing of Doriathrin wine by myself, I will die of alcohol poisoning. The least you could do is share it with me.”

And that was how the two of them had begun an afternoon, which had bled into an evening, of drunken shenanigans.

Gil-galad had a faint recollection of racing Ecthelion through the camp—Ecthelion had won, much to Gil-galad's disgrace—and of riding to…someplace, but little else. Just what had they done the day before? And who all had seen them in such a sorry state?

Gil-galad groaned and planted his face in the palm of his right hand. “Dear Eru,” he murmured, “kill me again now.”

Eru did not seem inclined to smiting at the moment, for a long second passed, then another, without Gil-galad dying. So he sighed, straightened, and said to Ecthelion, “Come, my friend.” He supposed they would have to be friends, after the day and night they had passed. “Let us go get some breakfast in us.”

It was a little after noon. They made their way to the feasting area on unsteady feet, and dropped into seats at the high table once they were there. Feeling as though their arms were lead, they helped themselves to venison and mutton sandwiches piled high with cheese and lettuce and tomato, and then poured themselves large goblets full of lemonade. Wine also sat on the table—but even the sight of it made Gil-galad's stomach wish to rebel.

They were halfway done when Gil-galad happened to look down from the high table. There, just sitting down at a table in the near distance, was Glorfindel and—someone else. Gil-galad's heart lurched at the sight of him for some reason, and suddenly the food tasted like dust in his mouth.

Who was the ellon sitting down beside Glorfindel? He looked vaguely familiar, as if Gil-galad had met him once or twice before, but had not done so for at least a few millennia.

He was tall and willowy, with narrow, bird-like shoulders and long, straight black hair. His face was all sharp angles, his chin pointed, his eyes a grey that could cut steel.

He was the most beautiful ellonGil-galad thought he had ever seen.

“Excuse me, Ecthelion,” Gil-galad said, the words feeling distant as they left his mouth as if he was speaking them from very far away.

“Hm,” said Ecthelion through a mouthful of sandwich.

Gil-galad stood and made his way down from the high table toward where he had seen Glorfindel and the mystery ellon sit. It took him but a moment to find them.

“Hello, Glorfindel,” he said, coming to a halt behind his friend. He was standing across from the mystery ellon, where he could get a good look at him. He was just as beautiful as he had been from a distance. And, Gil-galad realized with a lurch of his stomach, distance had lied to him.

He knew who this ellon was. They had met a few times over the years—had even exchanged words. Important words, even, about war and Sauron and the merits of death.  

Erestor, Steward of the House of Elrond, lifted his eyes from his plate and met Gil-galad's—and Gil-galad knew he was lost.

“Hello, Ereinion,” Glorfindel said, oblivious to the sunlight raining down upon his friend’s soul. “You have met Erestor, yes?”

“Yes,” said Erestor. He smiled at Gil-galad, whose heart lurched. “We have met.”

“Might I sit?” Gil-galad asked.

Erestor nodded and Glorfindel said, “Of course.”

Gil-galad sat, stepping over the bench to perch behind the table. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on top of the table, and asked, “So what brings you here, Erestor?”

He and Glorfindel shared a look, before Erestor said simply, “Glorfindel asked me for a favor.” His voice encouraged no further questions.

“I see,” said Gil-galad. He smiled at Erestor. “Well I am glad you are here.” He immediately kicked himself; why would he be glad Erestor was there? He barely knew the ellon.

Erestor arched an eyebrow, but Glorfindel—Glorfindel looked as pleased as a cat with a full bowl of cream. Gil-galad frowned. Did Glorfindel suspect?

“If you two will excuse me?” Gil-galad asked. “I should return to my own lunch. I hope I will see you two around the tournament, though.”

“You will,” said Glorfindel, sounding as smug as he looked.

Gil-galad rose, a bit unsteadily—and not from still being partly drunk—and strode away as regally as he could manage, even though he was still partly drunk.

He did not even realize that his thoughts were no longer on Lîmrion.

~*x*~

Elrond was startled out of a deep sleep by two voices arguing.

“Gandalf said it was right here.”

“Yes, but do we disturb him? It was clear he was sleeping when we poked our heads in.”

“Would Gandalf have sent us if he didn’t wish for us to talk to him?”

“Gandalf might’ve not known he was sleeping. Gandalf doesn’t know everything.”

Groaning, Elrond sat up, running a hand down his face. He felt moderately better than he had when he had come back to his tent after his joust against Fingon, and planted himself on his cot. An hour—or maybe two, he judged, by the dimly slanting sunlight filtering in through the edges of his tent—of deep, Mannish sleep had definitely aided him in his recovery.

It was not often that he slept as a Man slept. He usually only did so when he was very badly injured, ill—which happened on rare occasion—or when he had pushed himself far too hard for far too long. He supposed the events of the last night fell within the purview of the last category, though.

The two voices were still arguing.

“I know Gandalf doesn’t know everything.” That voice definitely belonged to Bilbo. It was differently-pitched than any Elf’s Elrond had ever met, and aged with a crack that no Elven voice ever attained. “But I still maintain that he wouldn’t have sent us here to talk to Lîmrion if it wasn’t important.”

“He sent us because we were bored,” said Bilbo’s companion, who Elrond was certain was Frodo. He did not know the younger Baggins nearly as well as the elder, but he recognized the Hobbitish cadence in his voice, as well as the sound of the voice itself.

Elrond groaned again, then stood and crossed to the tent flap. If Mithrandir had sent them, he had better invite them in—or he would never hear the end of it from the Istar. Besides, he was inclined to agree with Bilbo; Gandalf had a reason for everything—and often two or three reasons. If he thought that Frodo and Bilbo knowing that Lîmrion was Elrond was important, then he had a good reason for thinking that, and Elrond had learned long ago to heed his friend’s judgment.

He brushed the tent flap aside, and came to a halt in the opening. Looking down at the two Hobbits standing face-to-face in front of him, he told them dryly, “If you think that Gandalf had only one purpose in mind for sending you here, you do not know the Wizard as well as I suspect you think you do.”

Bilbo yelped. Frodo looked startled. Then both of them paled as recognition set in.

“My lord Elrond!” Bilbo exclaimed, and Frodo bowed.

Elrond waved a hand. “None of that,” he said, “and be quiet about your recognition, if you would. No one in the area knows who I am—I think. But please, come in.”

He ushered them inside, then let the tent flap fall back into place behind him, plunging the inside of the tent into grey twilight. Elrond crossed to the small bedside table, fumbled with the matches on it, then with a flare of yellow-gold light lit the wick of the candle sitting there. The tent was instantly filled with a weak and flickering glow.

Straightening the blankets on the cot, Elrond motioned for the Hobbits to take a seat, then claimed the spindly chair for himself. “So,” he said, once they all were settled, “what brings you here?”

“Gandalf,” said Bilbo.

“We were bored,” Frodo added. “After watching so many jousts, they all just sort of start blurring together.”

Elrond grinned. “That is not untrue,” he conceded. “But what urged Gandalf to send you here?”

“What urges Gandalf to do anything he does?” Bilbo asked shrewdly. He hesitated, then said, “If I might be so bold, Lord Elrond, might I ask why you let us in? It would seem you don’t wish to be known—so why let yourself be known to us?”

Elrond sighed for a third time, leaning back in the spindly chair, which protested slightly with a weak groan. “Gandalf has reasons for everything,” he said. “If he thought I should talk to you, then I should talk to you.”

“Why do you think he thought we should talk to you, though?” Bilbo asked.

“I do not know,” Elrond said.

“Why are you hiding from your family?” Frodo asked. “Not that we don’t understand hiding from family; I think you spent as much time hiding from the Sackville-Bagginses as you did anything else, Uncle.”

Bilbo snorted, then laughed outright. “You aren’t wrong,” he informed Frodo. He turned to Elrond. “Are your relatives after your house?” he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

Elrond shook his head. “Worse,” he informed them gravely. “They’re trying to include me in all of their houses.”

Frodo and Bilbo shared a look. “What does that mean?” Frodo asked after a moment.

“It means they all want to claim me as their scion,” Elrond told him. “It means they were never my family before but want to be now.”

“Is that such a bad thing?” Bilbo asked.

“No,” Elrond said. Then, “Yes.”

Bilbo folded his hands in his lap, then leaned forward over them. “Then you don’t have to be their family. You know that, right?”

Elrond frowned. “But of course I have to be,” he said. “What other choice do I have?”

“Just because you are related to them by blood doesn’t mean you owe them anything,” Bilbo said.

“Of course it does,” said Elrond. “If they want me in their lives…” He trailed off.

Bilbo smiled, though the expression was mirthless. “My relatives proclaimed me dead after a year’s absence,” he said. “They never apologized, and they never made more than the paltriest attempts at amends. All they cared about was that I came back strange, and with stranger notions in my head. I owed them nothing—just as you owe your family nothing, who never did anything for you before.”

“They’re trying now, though,” said Elrond. “And that begets the need for me to reciprocate.”

“Does it?” Frodo asked, speaking suddenly. He looked vaguely uncomfortable, but determined. “Forgive me, my lord,” he said—he had never been as familiar or comfortable with Elrond as Bilbo had grown, over the years—“but it seems to me that you get to choose who is in your life. You shouldn’t have to force your heart to do anything it doesn’t want to do.”

Elrond’s frown deepened. “Of course it does,” he replied, feeling mulish. Trust Hobbits, of all people, to dredge up his insecurities about his family—and now that they were out in the open, he was finding it difficult to put the topic of conversation away. It was something it seemed he had wanted to talk about for a while now, and now that his heart had been given the chance to talk about it, it was unhappy to be quiet.

Furthermore, he trusted, respected, and liked these two Hobbits—just as he suspected they trusted, respected, and liked him. He and Bilbo had had many a deep conversation over the years Bilbo had spent in Rivendell, and he and Frodo were no strangers to meaningful topics of conversation either. It felt a little strange to bare his heart so fully to them, when he knew they regarded and saw him as very much an esteemed Elf lord—and normally he would have been quick to silence this avenue of talk because of that—but somehow, Elrond also suspected that this was the very reason Gandalf had sent them to him.

And was he not trying to heal?

“Why is that?” Bilbo asked.

“Because that has always been my lot in life,” said Elrond.

Bilbo looked thoughtful. Frodo looked—sad.

“That is not the way it is meant to be,” Frodo said softly. “We are not meant to live our lives solely for other people, but also for ourselves. That is something I have had to learn—something I did learn, upon sailing.”

Elrond laughed. The sound was harsh and brittle. “Such may it be for others,” he said, “but not so for me.”

“Bullshit,” said Bilbo suddenly. His eyes flashed. “You are no strange exemption to that rule.”

Elrond raised an eyebrow. “You are not the only one to give me that expletive this week,” he commented dryly.

“Good,” said Bilbo. “You probably deserved it just as much the other time too.”

Elrond crossed his arms. “And why do I deserve it now?”

“Because you get to be selfish, sometimes!” Bilbo said savagely. “Because you get to make decisions that will benefit you and you alone! Because you don’t live your life solely for others—that’s a sure way to end up broken and feeling like you’re utterly alone.”

Elrond felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach by a horse.

“Oh.”

He stood. “If you will excuse me,” he said stiffly. He bowed to the two Ring-bearers, then slid out of the tent, trusting that they would be able to find their own way back to the lists—or to Gandalf.

The damn meddler, Elrond thought. I’ll bet he knew we would have this conversation.

Barefoot, dressed in simple but sturdy breeches and a laced, cotton shirt, Elrond wandered through the encampment as the sun rose to noon and began to drift down toward the western horizon. His next joust was not until the midafternoon, and so he had time—time to think, time to ponder, time to be angry.

Just who did Bilbo think he was? Who did Frodo think he was? Who were they to tell Elrond how he was to live his life? Who were they to tell him how he was meant to live his life? Who were they to insist that he was allowed to be selfish—was allowed to do and be the one thing that Elrond had spent his entire life fighting against within himself?

The anger, however, was short-lived. It bled away into something resembling sorrow—into a moroseness black and terrible. Was his brokenness really his fault, then? Was he derelict in his own functioning? Had he destroyed himself? Was he not a victim in any of this, but the perpetrator of his own demise?

He had never allowed himself to be selfish, and as Frodo had said, he had ended up broken and alone. Therefore did that not mean that his pain was of his own doing and his own making?

Somehow, Elrond did not think that was what Bilbo and Frodo had meant—but the thoughts crept up on him anyway. They crept up on him, and sank into him, with meaty claws and ivory and obsidian fangs, until he bled from tatters rent in his soul by his own thoughts and his own self-immolation.

This is your fault, a voice whispered. You knew it was all too good to be true—all of this healing, all of this hope. You don’t deserve any of that—not if you brought this upon yourself.

Elrond’s feet guided him to the feasting area. He came upon it just as lunch was winding down to a close, most of the benches empty and the long tables with food mostly cleared. Not feeling hungry, he wandered between the long rows, eyes half-glazed and unseeing, aiming for the far side and his continued wanderings. Until—

“Sorry,” Elrond said hurriedly, backing up a step from the man he had bumped into, then another startled step when the man turned around.

The man, who was shorter than most Elves, with golden hair and beard and bright, blue eyes, smiled. “No need to apologize,” he said quickly. “It was more my fault than yours, I am sure. I am not quite sure what I’m doing, and so was not paying attention to where I was going.”

An elleth stood beside the Adan’s shoulder. She too was golden-haired and blue-eyed, of clear Vanyarin descent, shorter than many Elves but with delicate features. Her eyes were wide when she turned and looked at Elrond—and in them was something terrible, some awful recognition that Elrond did not know if she understood or not.

Elrond, however, knew them at once.

“Ah,” he said uncomfortably, shifting from one bare foot to the other. “I apologize, Lord Tuor. Lady Idril. I did not mean to hamper you.”

“Perhaps you can help us,” said Tuor. “We were hoping to get food—but we have come late to the tournament, and so are unsure exactly of the practices or traditions here.”

“If you are not busy or needed elsewhere,” Idril said hurriedly. She looked at him hopefully, however, the terrible knowing in her eyes having faded somewhat. “We would not wish to hamper you.”

“No,” said Elrond hurriedly. “No, you are not hampering me.” He grimaced. They were using that word far too much. “Come, I will show you where to get your food.”

He led the way to the tables ringing the feasting field, and showed Tuor and Idril where to get their plates and cutlery. Then they walked down the length of two tables, selecting sandwiches and sliced fruits, crackers and frosted cookies to eat for their late lunch.

With Idril now leading the way, they found a table near to the edge of the feasting area, tucked well away from any of the main thoroughfares and nearly out of sight and recognition. Elrond appreciated this; he, like them, did not like attention, and wanted to avoid it at all costs.

“I did not know you were at the tournament,” Elrond commented, after a few moments of silent eating.

Idril shrugged, and Tuor smiled. “That is by purpose,” he said. “We did not wish for anyone to know—and therefore we hope you will keep your knowledge of our presence here on the quiet.”

“But of course,” Elrond said quickly. He frowned. “In truth,” he said slowly, “I did not even know that the two of you had made it to Valinor.”

“Few do,” said Idril. “We have spent most of the last few Ages in seclusion.”

“Why is that?”

Idril laughed, short and brittle in a way that made Elrond’s hair stand on end. It sounded very much like his laughter.

“Do you truly believe that we would tell you, a relative stranger, our life story?” Idril asked.

“Idril,” Tuor chided gently, laying a hand on his wife’s forearm. “Peace.” He turned to look at Elrond. “But you have not told us who you are,” he said. “Tell us something about yourself.”

What do I tell them? Elrond wondered. Do I tell them the truth?

Frodo’s and Bilbo’s words to him about family, and about owing himself to his family, ate at his soul. According to them, he was only beholden to those who he wished to be beholden to. He owed no one anything, least of all his family simply on the principle that they were his family.

Yet his grandmother and grandfather sat before him, looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer, waiting for a name.

So what did he do?

Did he want them to know who he was? Did he want them to know he was their grandson? Did he want them to fawn over him, and desire his name to be added to theirs, and wish for them to exclaim and coo and gush? Did he want them to love him? Did he want them to know?

Yes.

The cry of his heart was silent and nearly-quashed.

Yes! it wailed again when he tried to ignore it. Yes, you want this. Just as you want the rest of your family.

Shush, Elrond told it sternly. You hate your family.

Yet was that true? Or was that only what he was feigning? Was that only what the overwhelmed nature of his interactions with them had led him to believe?

Did he really want nothing to do with his family? Did he really wish for them all to go away, and leave him in peace? Did he really desire their silence, their coldness, their absence?

Or was he simply…overwhelmed by their presence? By their affection? By their love? Was he simply overwhelmed by the fact that he had gone for so long without a family and suddenly had so much? Was he simply overwhelmed by their accidental overbearance?

Very suddenly, the notion of them all going away was terrifying and terrible. Suddenly, life felt cold and bereft at the idea of them being out of his life. Suddenly, everything was dark and bleak and empty. There was no love, no light, no hope. There were only empty rooms like tombs, echoing and grey and frozen in time and place.

Did that mean he actually wanted them all? Did that mean he yearned for them—for their company, for their love, for their warmth? Even, yes, for their overbearance?

Did that mean he loved his family too?

“We are not meant to live our lives solely for other people, but also for ourselves,” Frodo had said. Did that not also mean he was allowed to love those he wished to love? To let others love him as well?

And suddenly a new thought struck him—a new realization. Was he denying himself their love because he felt he did not deserve it? Because he felt and believed himself so broken, so ruined, so bereft of light and hope, so destroyed and so tainted and warped, that they should not, could not, would not love him for him?

Elrond felt as though he might throw up. It all was suddenly so vividly, horribly clear to him.

You’re broken, he realized. And not in the self-destructive way you kept telling yourself you were broken. You were broken by your life, and by the falsely held beliefs you had of yourself.

Oh Eru, Elrond thought, I’m utterly shattered.

But how did he go about healing, then?

You start by letting others love you, a voice whispered in his mind. Was that not what he had decided not but earlier that week? That he needed to let Celebrían love him? Was that not a lesson he had already learned—yet seemed to need to learn again?

Then, And you start by loving others.

Elrond looked at his grandparents, staring at him with confused expectation. Elrond took a deep breath.

Who better to start loving than my own grandparents, Elrond thought. He smiled.

“My name is Elrond,” he said. “Elrond Peredhel. I am your grandson.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Idril and Tuor stared at him. Then, abruptly, Idril began to cry; at the same second, and before Elrond could react to Idril’s tears, Tuor lunged from his seat and across the table to drag Elrond into a tight hug. He released him just as suddenly as he embraced him, hands rising to grip Elrond’s shoulders.

“It is you?” he asked. “Truly you?”

Elrond nodded, then looked at Idril. “Daernaneth?” he asked. “What is wrong?”

But Idril could only shake her head. She wiped her tears from her face, sniffed, then said with watery syllables, “You look like my father. And I never thought—I mean, I had hoped, once or twice, to meet you, but I never thought…”

Elrond broke free of Tuor and climbed over his bench, then skirted the table to sit down beside Idril. He opened his arms—he was taller and bigger than her by quite a bit—and she sank into his chest, her own hands encircling his back and gripping tight. When at last she pulled away, she wiped her face with her sleeves, then smiled weakly at her grandson.

“I always loved you,” she said. “From afar, for certain. But we would receive messages from Elwing on occasion, telling us of you and your brother’s lives.”

Elrond blushed. “And what did you hear?”

“That you were a great man and a great lord,” Tuor said quickly. “That you were a mighty hero and a beloved healer. That you brought light and life and joy and healing into a world filled with darkness and despair.”

Elrond looked skyward. “Hardly,” he said, half self-loathing, half discomfort with the compliments.

“Would your mother lie?” Tuor asked.

“Probably,” Elrond said darkly.

Tuor frowned, as did Idril. “You do not have a high opinion of your parents, do you?” Idril asked shrewdly.

Elrond blushed, remembering that he was at least partially now speaking of their son. “It is not that I think ill of them,” he said carefully—only for Tuor to snort.

“No need to politique with us, Elrond,” he told his grandson, sitting down at last. “You can say what you mean, and what you will. We will not hold it against you, or be angry with you for your feelings. We know you have led a hard life—one fraught with loss and abandonment.”

“We were part of that abandonment,” Idril said softly. “We had our reasons, but we still left you and your brother even before you were born, seeking a far-distant hope.”

“A hope that you found,” Elrond pointed out.

“We still missed your births,” said Tuor gravely. “We missed your first steps, your first words. We missed our opportunity to forestall the Fёanorions capturing you and your brother. We could have mitigated the situation, or claimed you from them. Yet we did none of those things.”

“So much of my family believes they have failed me,” Elrond blurted out. “You two included. Why? You had other things to do and things to be. You died, or sailed to seek salvation, or had your own lives to live. I was just a footnote in a long string of relatives!”

Idril and Tuor both looked taken aback by Elrond’s outburst. “You are our grandson,” Tuor said at last, simply. “That means we love you—or we should love you, and in Idril and I’s case do love you—and we should care for you. We, as I assume most of the rest of your family did, failed to do that.”

“Never again,” said Idril, once more embracing her grandson. “Never again will we abandon you as we did on the hither shores.”

Tuor laughed. “You do realize what that promise portends, do you not, my love?” he asked. When Idril looked at him, he said, “It means we are going to have to come out of seclusion.”

Idril looked away, then back at Elrond. Her jaw set,  she said softly, but with an edge of steel, “So be it.”

Shock coursed through Elrond. They would do this for him? For him? But… But he was nothing! No one! A lesser son of greater sires! A placeholder, a minor footnote. He was not worth this…

Or was he?

“I, for one, wish to finish my lunch,” said Tuor, turning back to his meal. Idril laughed a watery laugh that was anything but the brittle sound from before, and turned back to her plate as well. Elrond watched them eat for a long moment, before looking up at the sky and realizing, with a jolt of dread, that he was about to be late.

“I am sorry,” he said quickly, “but I must go. My next joust is in less than half an hour.”

“Go,” said Idril hurriedly. “We will see you later.”

Elrond rose and swiftly left the banqueting area, making for the competitors’ tents with all haste. Once he reached his own tent, he quickly buckled on his armor, saddled Avasath, then led her toward the main list. He arrived just as Fimcirion neared the end of the field, a worried look on his face that cleared at the sight of Elrond.

“There you are,” he hissed softly. “I was afraid you would not arrive in time for your next bout.”

“Who am I fighting against?” Elrond asked.

“His name is Ranasinyё,” Fimcirion informed him, as Elrond mounted and moved Avasath over to the attendant holding his first lance. “He is a High Elf from the First Age—one of the Lady Galadriel’s attendants from the Elder Days.”

Elrond nodded, accepting the lance. “My thanks,” he said to the attendant, and kneed Avasath to the starting mark.

“Good luck!” Fimcirion called from behind him, before moving off of the field entirely.

The horn call came and Avasath thundered forward. The first pass ended with the sound and shock of both lances splintering into a thousand spinning shards. Elrond turned Avasath’s head back toward his side of the field and the attendant standing there, holding his next lance, and kneed her forward. As they passed, however, his opponent—Ranasinyё—drew his steed to a halt. Elrond drew Avasath to a standstill as well, and Ranasinyё flipped up his visor. Elrond was startled to see brilliant green eyes peering out at him from beneath black, slanting bangs.

“You are going to win this tournament,” Ranasinyё said. His tone was blunt and lacking any note of ire or begrudging irritation.

“I beg your pardon?” Elrond asked.

“You are going to win this tournament,” Ranasinyё said again. “I only jousted against Lord Fingolfin once before, but never since then—and perhaps never before even that—have I felt a blow such as yours.” He grinned then—a flaring, flashing grin that spoke of a devilish laugh and a wicked humor—and added, “I would bet against me in this joust any day of the week.”

Unsure if he should take this ellon seriously or not, Elrond said simply, “My thanks, for your compliment. Now, shall we finish this joust?”

Ranasinyё reached up and flipped down his visor, saluted Elrond, and kicked his mount into a quick canter. Avasath trotted her way back to the starting mark, and Elrond accepted the lance from the bewildered attendant, a honey-haired elleth, with bright grey eyes and a mixed complexion.

“What was that?” she asked, looking up at Elrond, towering over her on Avasath.

“I am unsure,” said Elrond slowly, looking across the field at Ranasinyё, who was also accepting his second lance from an attendant. “Either an attempt at a very tricky bit of mental manipulation, or a genuine compliment—I am unsure which.”

“Hm,” said the attendant.

The second horn call came, and Avasath leapt forward. Elrond lowered his lance over Avasath’s withers, narrowed his focus on Ranasinyё’s oncoming shield, and WHAM.

Ranasinyё went flying.

~*x*~

“Gil-galad suspects you.”

Elrond, hearing the voice as he stepped into the shade of his tent, froze. He peered into the shadows within, then let the tent flap drop behind him, cutting off the outside’s view of his two visitors. Glorfindel was seated on the cot, Erestor on the spindly chair.

“What are you two doing in my tent?” he asked.

He had jousted twice more in the last hour, winning both rounds easily enough. Now he had a short break before his next joust, and had intended to come back to his tent to eat and drink from his travel pack—there was no time to change and go to the banqueting area. Instead he found his steward and seneschal waiting for him in his tent, bearing poor news.

“How do you know this?” Elrond asked.

“He came to me and asked where you were,” said Glorfindel. “I replied that you were riding, but I do not think that he believed me.”

Elrond turned a raised eyebrow on Erestor. “Is that why you are here, o faithful steward?” he asked, teasing gently.

Erestor did not blush, or even flinch. “Indeed it is,” he replied evenly. “Glorfindel asked my aid in dissuading Gil-galad from your tracks, and I agreed. If, that is, you agree as well.”

“And how do you think you will go about dissuading him?” Elrond asked, moving at last away from the tent flap and coming into the tent properly. He crossed to the chest at the foot of his cot, knelt with a clank of armor, and opened it, drawing out his travel pack. He dropped it on the cot beside Glorfindel.

“Oh,” said Glorfindel, sounding extremely smug, “I do not think that will be an issue.”

Elrond looked at Glorfindel sharply. “And what does that mean?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing,” said Glorfindel. “Only that Gil-galad met Erestor already, and was absolutely smitten.”

“Hardly,” said Erestor from the chair behind Elrond.

“You do not know Gil-galad as I do, Erestor,” said Glorfindel. “Trust me when I say he was absolutely taken with you.”

“I did not even know he was attracted to men,” said Erestor with an air of what Elrond felt was forced calmness.

Elrond turned to his steward and said, “It is not a well-known fact. I know, Thranduil knows—or I assume he does—and Elendil knew. Because of a comment I made on the battlefield once, Glorfindel figured it out. I assume Fingon knows. Other than that, however, I do not think it is common knowledge.”

“I see,” said Erestor.

Elrond frowned. Erestor was not typically forthcoming, but there was something about his attitude that struck Elrond as unusual. He would not quite meet Elrond’s eyes, for one thing. For another, he was avoiding looking at Glorfindel as well. For a third, his hands were clasped together so tightly that his knuckles were turning white.

Elrond’s eyes narrowed. “I see no harm in you trying to distract Gil-galad,” he said at last to Erestor. “So long as you are not uncomfortable with it.”

Erestor shrugged. “If it will help you, my lord, I am willing to do my best,” said Erestor carefully.

Elrond glanced at Glorfindel, who gave him a meaningful look. Elrond gave a small, half-aborted shrug in response, and then turned back to Erestor.

“If it ever becomes too much, there is no dishonor in backing out,” Elrond added. “You are under no oath or obligation to aid me here.”

Erestor lifted a hand and waved dismissively. “I would like to get to know the former High King better, I think,” he said, with as much casualness as Elrond had ever heard him speak.

“Very well,” said Elrond. “Well then, my thanks—to the both of you.”

Glorfindel and Erestor bade Elrond farewell and left together, leaving Elrond alone in his tent. Elrond sat down on the cot, dragged his pack to himself, and took out jerky and hard, travel biscuits, which he softened with drinks of wine from a wineskin.

After eating he stood and went out to tend to Avasath, who he had unsaddled and rubbed down but had not yet brushed and curried. He did so, then saddled her once more and led her back to the main list.

It was time for his next joust.

Fimcirion was waiting for Elrond on his end of the field.

“You are jousting against Lord Orodreth,” he said worriedly, as soon as he saw Elrond. “I have heard he is wickedly good with a lance, for all his usual reticence.”

Elrond had heard that as well. Orodreth had never won a tournament before, but he was commonly in the last five competitors, and almost always present in the last day of jousts. Elrond had never jousted against him before, but he was secretly looking forward to it.

“I will do my best,” said Elrond. “That is all that I can do.”

Fimcirion went and spoke to the crowds for a mere moment—his announcement of Elrond had grown shorter, as the crowd had grown to know him better—and then Orodreth’s herald went out to announce him as well. Once the elleth had retreated from the field, Elrond moved Avasath to the starting mark, accepted his lance from the same honey-haired attendant that had aided him in his first joust of the day, and waited for the horn call.

It came.

Avasath exploded from her mark, pounding forward with dirt spraying from beneath her hooves. Elrond leaned forward, lowering his lance over her withers, and watched Orodreth come on.

They struck each other with the force of a battering ram. Elrond’s shield arm tingled away into numbness as Avasath arced around and trotted back toward their side of the field. Elrond shook out his lance hand, then switched his shield to his right arm to shake out his left. On the other side of the field, he saw Orodreth do the same.

Elrond accepted his new lance from the honey-haired elleth, then nudged Avasath back into her starting mark. The horn all came again, and they were off, thundering down the lane.

They came together in a crash of lance and armor. Splintered wood went flying as both lances shattered, and a roar rose from the crowd as Orodreth listed in his seat. He did not, however, fall.

Accepting his third and final lance, Elrond turned Avasath's head down the lane once more. Unless he could unseat Orodreth this round, it was going to be a close joust.

The horn call came a third time. Avasath bounded forward without any prompting, charging down the lane with lightning speed. Elrond lowered his lance over her withers, watched Orodreth come on, narrowed his focus in on the shield bobbing on the Elven prince’s arm.

WHAM.

Once more they came together in a cacophony of splintering wood and crashing metal. Elrond was thrown back against the lip of his jousting saddle, and for a second the world danced a merry jig around him, his ears ringing and his balance thrown to the wolves. He swallowed thickly, releasing the broken end of the lance and letting it fall to the ground as he grasped for Avasath’s mane, his breath coming in quick gasps through his lips. He did not fall, but for a brief moment he thought he might vomit from the bells clamoring in his head.

Avasath circled around back toward their end of the field, slowing gently and moving with careful precision so as to give Elrond time to recover. She came to a halt beside the honey-haired elleth, throwing her head up when the elleth made to take her bridle in hand.

“Are you well, Lîmrion?” she asked worriedly.

“I am fine,” Elrond said hurriedly, still gasping for breath. He reached up and pulled the helmet from his head, cool air washing over his face. He took in three deep gulps of air, then shook his head. The ringing began to subside, leaving him tired and aching.

“It has been long and long again since I was knocked silly,” he admitted to the elleth ruefully.

“You are well, though?” she asked with concern.

Elrond waved a hand and said, “I am.”

Hoofbeats.

Elrond turned—and blanched. Orodreth was upon them, riding up on his fine grey mare, helmet tucked under one arm and fair hair blowing gently in the light breeze. His grey eyes were glinting, and half a smile was playing about his lips.

“Hello, Elrond,” he said, his soft tenor carrying through the air in spite of his gentle tone.

Terror and horror alike washed through Elrond. It is done, he thought. It is over. My charade is up. Orodreth will tell our family, and my ruse will come to an end.

“How did you know?” Elrond asked.

“I had suspected it for some time now,” said Orodreth. “Ever since I saw you joust against Findis, in fact. For who else rides and fights as not only a Fëanorion, but also as a Sinda?”

“I take it my ruse did not fool you, then?”

“It is hardly difficult to ride out and ride back,” said Orodreth. “But tell me, cousin: why do you hide your face from your family?”

Elrond grimaced. “I want to ride to prove myself worthy without their interference,” Elrond said with a strain of bitterness. “Surely you of all my kin, Lord Orodreth, understand what it is to desire to walk unknown amidst your people.”

It was Orodreth's turn to smile with bitterness. “I do,” he admitted. “Very well,” he said, “I will keep your secret.”

Elrond smiled, relief washing through him. “My thanks,” he said with real gratitude.

Orodreth drew his mare abreast of Avasath, who flicked her ears back at the intruder of her space. She did not bite, however—only stamped a hoof and huffed a whuffle of air.

Reaching between them, Orodreth clasped Elrond on the shoulder. “Congratulations on winning the joust, by the way.”

Elrond frowned. “What?”

“You were over here,” Orodreth explained, “but the judges made their decision. You are the winner of this bout.”

His sudden fear of discovery had driven all thought of winning the tournament from Elrond’s mind. Now, however, he smiled faintly.

“Thank you,” he said to Orodreth.

Orodreth smiled in return and inclined his head. “It was an honor to joust against you, Lîmrion.” Then, with that, he turned his mare and rode off across the list toward his herald and attendants.

Elrond was in the process of turning Avasath’s head when he caught sight of the honey-haired elleth’s face. Her eyes were wide, her skin bloodless. When she saw his gaze meet hers, she instantly bowed low, an apology falling from her lips like rain.

“Forgive me for not knowing you, my lord,” she said. “I didn’t—I mean I should have—I mean…”

“Please,” Elrond said, lifting a hand, “stand up. What I told Lord Orodreth I meant: I wish to compete in this tournament unknown and untitled.”

She frowned, eyebrows lowering over her bright eyes, but she straightened.

“Are you angry with me?” Elrond asked, frowning as well.

“Angry with you?” the elleth asked. “For what?”

“For masquerading as a commoner when I am not. I know that I have gained something of a reputation and…” He trailed off, not wanting to continue with his train of thought.

“Oh,” said the elleth. “That. Some might be angry with you. But I am not.” She hesitated, then asked shyly, as if barely daring to believe her own audacity, “Would you ride for us, if you could, my lord?”

“What do you mean?”

“For us commoners? As one of us. Without title or blood or special dispensation. Would you ride in our name, and for those who have no hope at winning such a contest of nobility and heroism?”

Elrond hesitated. “I intended to ride for my wife,” he said slowly. “But…”

“But?” the elleth echoed when Elrond trailed off.

“If I win, I will gift the wreath to my wife, and I ride with her favor on my arm. But if you would gift me one, I would ride with a favor meant to represent those you champion as well.”

The honey-haired elleth smiled brilliantly. “You would be our champion?”

“If that is your desire—the desire of all of you.”

The elleth nodded. “Might I find you later?” she asked.

Elrond inclined his head.

The elleth smiled again. “Until later, then,” she said. Then, quickly, she said, “Now hurry off the field. The judges are waving for the next bout to begin.”

Elrond nudged Avasath into a brisk trot. They left the list and their final bout of the day behind, heading back toward Elrond’s tent. Once there, Elrond tended to Avasath, then stripped himself free of his armor and padding, gathered his bathing supplies, and headed toward the bathhouse.

He only hoped it would be a less interesting bath than that of the day before.

He undressed silently, placing his clothes in a locker, then padded through the steam-filled rooms to the hottest pool. Sinking into it, he sighed quietly, letting his head fall back against the stone side of the pool and allowing his eyes to slide closed.

If only I could stay like this forever, he thought, his muscles loosening beneath the caress of the heat, the aches and pains easing at the kiss of the water. Then he amended, If only Celebrían was with me…

“Hello.”

Elrond opened his eyes and picked his head up, turning to look at whoever had spoken. He found himself face-to-face with a vaguely familiar ellon. He was dark-haired and silver-eyed, as many of the Noldor were, but he had an elegance and grace about him that bespoke noble lineage.

“Hello,” Elrond said warily as the ellon settled down beside him. He leaned back against the side of the pool, mirroring Elrond, and blinked lazily, as if he was considering falling into Reverie. “Can I help you?”

“My name is Gwindor,” said the ellon—and the recognition Elrond felt snapped into place.

Of course, he thought. He had met Gwindor once in passing—had been introduced to him at the welcoming gala held the first week he had been in Valinor. Gwindor had married Finduilas, making them family by marriage, though Gwindor had not seemed keen on claiming Elrond as family—for which Elrond was grateful.

“I do not mean to cross any boundaries,” said Gwindor, continuing on without seeing Elrond’s dawning recognition, “or tread on any toes, but when you climbed into the pool, I could not help but see your scarring. And I thought I might offer some companionship.”

Elrond tensed, his hackles rising. “Forgive me,” he said stiffly, “but I am not seeking any healing from them—and neither am I seeking any kind words of wisdom regarding them.”

“You misunderstand me,” said Gwindor. “I did not come to encourage you to remove your scars, for they are a part of you, just as surely as your right hand is; and neither did I come to impart words of wisdom. I only wanted to say that, though it may feel at times as though you are alone, you are not. Though it has been many years since I was reembodied, I can still well recall the alienation of being scarred in a society filled with flawless perfection, real or perceived. You are not alone, my friend—and I only tell you this because I spent many years feeling as though I was alone, utterly and entirely, and I made a great many mistakes because of that sense of loneliness. If I can forestall and foreswear it in anyone else, I feel as if I must at least try.”

“I see,” Elrond said. He looked up at the ceiling, very suddenly unwilling to make eye contact with Gwindor. “Well I can assure you that I do not feel alienated or alone,” he reassured his cousin-by-marriage.

“Forgive me,” said Gwindor without penitence, “but I have eyes. One needs only look into your face and they know that you feel very much alone.”

Elrond stood abruptly, water sluicing from his shoulders and falling down his back in a waterfall. “What right do you have to speak to me thus?” he all but snarled, whirling on Gwindor and glaring at him, meeting his gaze at last.

“Forgive me,” said Gwindor again—only this time he sounded remorseful. “Perhaps I was too forward.”

“You were,” Elrond snapped.

Gwindor, nonplussed, raised an eyebrow. “I will say, though,” he commented off-handedly, “it is few people who dare to speak to me in such a way.” His eyes narrowed. “Just who are you, friend?”

“I am not your friend,” Elrond said bluntly. “And I am no one of importance.”

Gwindor smiled ruefully. “I doubt that,” he said. He stood as well. “I will take me leave, then. But you may always come and find me, if you desire to talk. Friend.

With that he waded away, leaving Elrond to finish his bath in angry silence.

I am not lonely, Elrond thought savagely, scrubbing himself with soap and a sponge a handful of moments later. I have Celebrían and Glorfindel and Erestor, as well as all of my people. I have many people in my life. I am the opposite of lonely.

Wasn’t he?

He finished his bath and climbed out of the water, then dripped his way to his towel, which he wrapped around his waist. He dried off in the locker room, then dressed quickly in a high-collared tunic of deep aquamarine embroidered with gold, soft brown breeches, and shin-high leather boots. He braided his hair as he left: two braids starting at his temples and wrapping around the back of his head, where they met and tied in an artful knot.

What now? he thought to himself as he returned to his tent. It was still a little early for him to go to the banqueting area; no one would be there, and he would be forced to eat by himself. Not that that was an entirely unappealing option. However, he figured his friends would have something to say about that choice.

Deciding to read—or, more likely, work on a missive to Thingol’s Halls, which he had been putting off for two months—he ducked into his tent.

Celebrían was waiting for him.

“Hello, my love,” she said with a brilliant smile.

Elrond turned and shut the tent flap, then crossed to her in four long strides. He bent and crushed his mouth to hers, reaching up to tangle his hands in her long, loose tresses. For a long moment they kissed, tongues meeting and breath mingling, passion kindling with each brush of their lips together.

“How are you feeling?” Celebrían gasped, breaking away at last.

Elrond scowled. “Fine,” he said, and leaned forward to capture her lips again—only to find a hand held up in his way.

“You were reeling after the last strike from Orodreth,” Celebrían said. “I came to make certain you were well.”

“I’m fine,” Elrond insisted.

“Hm.” Celebrían dropped her hand, and Elrond glimpsed a wicked smile before she closed the distance between them and whispered against his lips, “Let me be the judge of that.”

She grabbed him around the waist, then neatly spun him around and dumped him onto his back on the cot on which she had been sitting. Elrond did not resist. He landed on the thin mattress with a soft thump, then watched as Celebrían climbed on top of him, straddling his legs with eyes burning and lips curled upwards.

“Just how do you intend to make certain I am well?” Elrond asked.

“Well,” said Celebrían, leaning forward, “first I’m going to undress you. A healer must see her patient’s bumps and bruises in order to ensure he is not hiding any injury from his wife. Then I will test his reflexes and his stamina, as well as his strength.”

Elrond ginned. “And how are you going to do that?”

“Let me show you.”

Leaning forward, Celebrían began unlacing Elrond’s tunic, baring brown skin and the gentle slope of his collarbones. She ducked her head, placing one feather-light kiss on his left collarbone, then another on his right—before kissing his neck a little harder, sucking at the flesh just beneath his left ear.

Elrond groaned and lifted his hands to tangle with Celebrían’s hair—only for her to grab his wrists and pin them above his head. “No,” she said wickedly. “Today I touch you.” She kissed his lips, then returned her attention to his tunic.

The laces undone, she gathered the hem in her fingers and began to slowly drag the cloth up over his stomach, curling over and pressing open-mouthed kisses against his bare skin as she went. The slope of his pelvis, his belly, his sternum, his chest felt the brush of his wife’s lips, the soft stroke of her tongue. Then his tunic was over his head—she kissed his chin, his lips, his nose, each eyelid—and Celebrían wrapped the cloth around his wrists, tangling them together.

Celebrían shifted on Elrond’s hips, and Elrond groaned long and low. She shifted again, then tweaked one of his nipples between her thumb and forefinger, while she leaned down to suck at the other. Elrond groaned for a third time, making an aborted move with his bound hands before remembering that he was restrained.

“Shhhh,” Celebrían crooned, swirling her tongue over his right nipple, then leaving a wet kiss on the other. “Let me tend to you, my love.” She shifted yet again, grinding against the bulge in Elrond’s breeches, and Elrond all but whimpered.

“Please, my love,” he said, desire coating his words.

Celebrían’s hands sank to the button on his breeches. It came undone with a swift flick of her fingers, and she rose just enough that she could slide her husband’s pants down over his hips, then down to his ankles. She knelt over his knees, then leaned over and crawled her way up to his cock, pressing more kisses to the insides of his thighs. Elrond whimpered again, feeling the cooling trail of her saliva on his skin, wanting to feel her touch him with a yearning, desperate need.

And then, at last, she was at his cock. She kissed the tip of it with chaste, gentle lips, then ran her tongue along the head of it.

“Do you want me?” Celebrían asked.

“More than anything,” Elrond groaned. “Please…Celebrían…”

Celebrian took the head of his cock into her mouth, swirling her tongue over it, sucking gently. Then, slowly, she took more of him into her mouth, still sucking gently, still working her tongue along his length.

She opened her throat, and took him deeper still. Elrond groaned, involuntarily pushing his hips upward. Celebrían caught him, pushed him flat, then began to work at his cock, moving her head up and down, taking him in and out of her throat and mouth.

Elrond shuddered, moaning, and tensed beneath Celebrían’s ministrations. Up and down, deep and deeper. Sucking, licking, nibbling, swirling her tongue over his shaft. Elrond groaned again, hands fisting in his tunic, which was still wrapped around his wrists.

Celebrían worked him right up to release and then—she stopped. She could feel it in the tensing of his muscles, the tensing of his cock. She gave one final lick to the head of his cock, then pulled her mouth free of it with an audible pop. Elrond moaned, wriggling beneath her, seeking for the warmth of her mouth and the wetness of her tongue.

Laughing, Celebrían crawled up his chest to press a kiss to his lips. “Do you want me?” she asked again.

Yes,” Elrond said, half a pant, half a whimper.

Celebrían smiled, then shifted so that she was kneeling over her husband’s shaft. Hiking up her skirt, Elrond saw that she was not wearing anything underneath it. Then, grinning wickedly, Celebrían opened her legs and sank down onto her husband, her wet, warm opening stretching around his length.

She began to move, up and down, riding Elrond’s cock slowly. Elrond thrust his hips up—only for Celebrían to hesitate just long enough to push him flat again.

“None of that,” she chastised, half teasing, half serious. Elrond groaned with irritation, but remained flat on his back as Celebrían began to move again, working his cock within her.

She rode him for one long, deliciously agonizing moment, then a second, increasing her speed incrementally with each second. And then, at last, Elrond—who had been holding onto himself with an iron grip—felt himself come undone.

Celebrían saw it in his face and, quickly leaning forward, pressed her hand over his mouth. Elrond cried out, the sound muffled by his wife’s palm. Celebrían slowed, then stopped, and finally pulled off of her husband’s limp and dripping cock.

She leaned forward, and once again pressed a kiss to Elrond’s lips. “How do you feel?” she asked.

“Good,” Elrond said, panting. “Better than I have felt in a long time.”

“Good,” Celebrían said, echoing Elrond.

Elrond freed his hands from his tunic—it was an easy task, a simple twist of his hands and a tug of his wrists—and he reached up to place his palms on his wife’s cheeks, cupping her face. “I love you,” he said, staring up into her eyes.

“And I love you,” Celebrían replied, smiling and reaching up to place her hands over her husband’s.

Celebrían pulled free of Elrond’s grip, then rolled over so that she was lying at his side. Elrond turned over so that his chest was pressed to her back, then shifted so that he could hold her. His right arm he draped over her hip—while his left hand crept beneath her and under her skirt, then between her legs, sinking into her folds.

Groaning, Celebrían sank deeper into her husband’s grip, spreading her legs slightly to give him better access. Elrond played with her slowly, running his fingers through her hair and in and out of her slick folds, eliciting another groan.

He continued to play with her, before suddenly asking, “Am I lonely, Celebrían?”

“Hm?” Celebrían asked, turning her head so that she could look up at her husband. “What makes you ask that?”

“I met Gwindor in the baths today,” Elrond said, and told her about his uncomfortable conversation with his cousin, not once breaking the slow, steady rhythm of his hand between Celebrían’s legs.

Celebrían, much to Elrond’s surprise, smiled faintly instead of looking dour or dark. “You are,” she said simply, sinking back down pushing herself harder against her husband’s hand.

“But,” Elrond protested, “I have you. And Glorfindel, and Erestor, and all my people.”

“You hold everyone at arm’s length,” said Celebrían softly, trailing her fingers up and down Elrond’s arm, wrapped around her waist. “Even me.”

“I do not,” Elrond said, incredulous, his hand stilling at last.

“No?” Celebrían asked. “Then tell me: have you told me everything there is to know about your pain and your sorrow and your heartache?”

“I…” Elrond trailed off. “Well, no,” he admitted. There were times he had sheltered and shielded from his wife, and from the elleth who would become his wife. More than that, he thought that it was unnecessary to burden her with all of his darkness—darkness he could carry perfectly well on his own.

“There you have it, then,” said Celebrían. “You have let me into your heart, and I know this, but I also know that you yet hold back from me. You always have. And I allowed that in Middle-earth because I knew there were things I could not be a part of there, and woes that there was no time to heal. But we are in Valinor now, and the time for that healing has come.”

“But that does not mean I am lonely,” Elrond pointed out, somewhat desperately.

“It means you do not let anyone fully into your heart,” said Celebrían. “It means you hold yourself apart. It means you set up walls and doors and barriers between you and others—even me. And I know why you do it, and I am not upset with you for it. But it does mean you are lonely.”

“Oh,” Elrond said softly, resuming his petting.

“I am sorry,” he said at last, after a long moment.

“You do not need to be,” said Celebrían. “But if you do truly feel bad, then work on changing things.”

“I will,” Elrond promised. He smiled, and pressed a kiss to the crown of Celebrían’s head. “Starting with you.”

He rolled over her, pulling his hand free of her legs to prop himself up. “I love you, Celebrían,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her. “And anything you’d like to know, I will tell you.”

Celebrían kissed him in return, then sank down against the thin pillow on his cot. “Later,” said Celebrían. “Tell me everything later—once this tournament has ended, and we are at home, and you can safely break apart into the thousand shattered pieces I know you are.”

Elrond frowned down at his wife. “A thousand shattered pieces?” he repeated. “I…I am not that, am I?”

Celebrían smiled sadly. “You have suffered much, Elrond Peredhel,” she informed him. “Even the strongest would break after half as much tragedy and suffering as you have faced; and indeed, the strongest shatter the worst, for they crack a thousand times beneath the pressure of their duty and the weight of their responsibility, only to hold their fragmenting pieces together out of necessity. And they fragment again, and again, and again, and never allow themselves to break, and so they—who are under the most pressure already—fragment and shatter into tinier pieces, all held together by bands of need.” She hesitated, then asked, “Does that make sense?”

“I…yes,” Elrond admitted. “It does. It…it feels right, somehow, even though I…”

“You do not have to call yourself broken,” Celebrían whispered. “Only acknowledge that you are not whole.”

“How do I do that?” Elrond whispered in return.

“Admit it, first,” said Celebrían.

But Elrond shook his head. “I…I cannot,” he said softly. “I cannot yet confess that, even to you.”

Celebrían nodded against the pillow. “Very well,” she said, then leaned up to kiss her husband again. “Now make love to me,” she murmured. “Please.”

“Gladly,” Elrond said, and set to work pleasuring his wife.