The surface of the bowl misted over. Galadriel straightened for the last time, turning away from the water that mirrored nothing but her own face now. Tendrils of relief and regret twined around her heart. Her daughter was well and the High King had prevailed, but the Dark Lord was by no means defeated; by conceding one battle he had not lost the war. Ancient evil burrows deep and is not easily uprooted.
One day it will be vanquished. Yet even this conviction did not bring the poignant joy to which tears were the truest response. Arda would remain Marred until the End; grief and suffering would ever harrow these mortal lands. And while the Powers of the West believed that mortals would have a part in the healing of the world's evils, they would remain flawed instruments and a sorrow unto themselves and others. Westernesse had saved the day, but the man who led its army was under the Shadow. The water did not lie.
Galadriel gazed down at Nenya, suspended on its delicate chain. She had made her choice before the armies left Mithlond. She would abide by it. If her refusal to surrender the ring of sapphire barred her return to the Aman once again, so be it - the battered, bleeding lands of Endor would fare the better for it.
She thought of Celeborn, her beloved. At least this victory had raised her hopes to be reunited with him - for a while.
'I can walk,' he insisted.
Beregar looked dubious: 'If you say so,' he muttered. Not that the young mortal was entirely hale, but at least an arm wound does not prevent one from walking, or supporting a comrade-in-arms with the other arm. Gildor's wound was the old injury in his side, reopened by the tip of an orc scimitar shortly before their enemies had retreated. For a denizen of the Blessed Realm, he was not overly blessed, he thought, smiling wryly at himself.
Then it occurred to him that he was no longer a denizen of the Blessed Realm. He could only guess what Glorfindel would do, but no ship would carry Gildor Inglorion from the Havens for many yeni to come. It was Zaba's death that had sealed his fate, he knew now. These mortal shores had been her homelands. He owed it to her memory to walk the earth that her feet had trod for as long a time as would be granted to him, or until the evil that had destroyed her would be wiped from the face of the earth. Thus he would abide here - not in loneliness, and yet alone, taking no wife even though nothing bound him to Zaba but the mystery of what might have been.
They began to weave their way across a field strewn with fallen enemies and broken blades and rent and pitted by numerous hooves and feet. Walking was strenuous, and after a while Beregar asked: Gildor, are you certain that you do not want to rest?'
'Perfectly,' Gildor replied. 'It's not far now, and I do not intend to collapse before we make it back to the Elvish camp. Victory does wonders for the morale.'
The silence that followed was long but not really uncomfortable. 'Fine, Gildor, I concede that you were right about not shooting that... that man before we knew where he stood,' the young mortal replied at last, 'though why you should think that you have the additional right to gloat escapes me. This was a victory of necessity over principle.'
Or of brains over brawn and sense over sensitivity? But as Gildor was not sure he was entirely fit to pose as the champion of good sense, he wisely held his tongue. He would be well advised to practise a little.
Once again it was Beregar who spoke up first. 'Would you have shot him if he had turned against you - I mean, the Elves?'
Gildor thought for a while, searching his soul. 'I do not think so,' he replied truthfully.
'Because you would have shot him first?'
Beregar pulled a face. 'And if I had missed?'
'The possibility never even crossed my mind. You are an excellent archer.'
'Why, thank you, even though I suspect the compliment is qualified.'
'It is not,' Gildor told him, shocking Beregar into silence, maybe because he meant it.
The first Elf they encountered on their way back to the High King was Glorfindel, who seemed to be actively looking for them. He was, Gildor noticed, the very image of relief. It was good to be wanted.
'We are,' he announced, forestalling the questions, 'quite all right. Nothing that good care and rest cannot heal.' Time, though, is a different matter.
One half of Glorfindel's mouth smiled, while the other half appeared to regret the unspoken half of the truth. 'I trust that neither of you has committed an irredeemable folly, then?'
'We managed to grow up - thank you, my lord Glorfindel.'
It was said with a mixture of mockery and sadness. Gildor turned his head in mild surprise. 'Did you have to steal my words, Beregar?'
The Ciryatur lay down on his field-bed. The night was young, but his ageing body was tired and craved rest.
The fatigue was mostly pleasant, though; he was a satisfied man. His decision not to change sides had worked out well. There had been a moment of doubt when it seemed that the reinforcements had been too little and too late. But the Ciryatur told himself that it had not been a gamble on his part to ignore Annatar's invitation to join him. Definitely not; he liked to think of himself as shrewd and calculating - as a man who knew what he was about.
The Elvenking had needed him, whereas Annatar had merely wanted him. And despite their victory, Gil-galad still needed him: the enemies had retreated but not lost and these lands would never know true peace until they were swept clean. It could be done: the other side had proved vulnerable. New reinforcements would set out from Lond Daer at the mouths of the Gwathlo, marching for the crossings of Tharbad; the strategy of Westernesse was sound. Surely they would be able to beat the orcs and barbarians once more.
The crucial question, the admiral mused, was what would happen when the other side would need him as badly as the Elves did. If Annatar were to lose the next battle as well, he would perhaps rephrase his invitation as a request for aid - and the commander of the Numenórean army would find himself in an ideal position. The Ciryatur wondered who would be the highest bidder. The Elves had little more to offer than fair words and beauty, but maybe the beauty would suffice if it took the form of a silver-haired maiden.
He fingered the hardness under his velvet night robes, pressing it into the bare skin of his chest. It radiated a pleasant heat. It was easy to guess that the maker of his ring had not told him all there was to know, and at the moment the ring's promises were no less alluring than the silver maiden. More, if he was honest with himself. The ring held power; he could sense it, feel it throb with a heartbeat of its own. Love seemed pale compared to the potency of this passion.
He experienced a moment of uncertainty. What if he had spoiled his chances with Annatar? What if there would be no second invitation, let alone a plea for help? Then he smiled in the dimness of his pavillion. Again, he felt the power of the ring. Did he really need Annatar?
To his surprise, the Ciryatur realised that his fatigue was gone. He felt remarkably strong, better than he had done in many years, capable of anything. Why not found a realm of his own on these shores, instead of living the remainder of his natural life on the isle of Númenor as Tar Minastir's loyal but humble servant? He would have little trouble recruiting enough men to follow him and swear him fealty and subdue the kingdoms of the barbarians for him. After all, it was not Tar Minastir who had led this army to victory.
Yes, he said to himself, smiling once more. I may just do that.
Suddenly, the future held more promise than it had ever done in the past while he was young. He could almost believe that he had been granted the life of the Eldar - were it not, that such a thing was impossible, naturally.
He found Gil-galad standing rigidly erect in the starlit stream, close to the riverbank and gazing into the night. Tárion sat down on a small boulder to pull his boots off and put them beside the King's. When he waded into the chilly water Gil-galad looked back with the trace of a smile, but he did not speak. Neither did Tárion; instead, he laid a hand on the shoulder nearest to him. It felt slightly tense when his palm first touched it, but he felt it relax when he squeezed it gently.
In the end it was Gil-galad who spoke first. 'We did not even come close, did we?'
We came close to losing the battle... . But Tárion knew what his lover meant. 'Do you believe that we did not try hard enough?'
'Valanya, I know that I did not try hard enough,' replied Gil-galad, sounding a little exasperated.
'True enough. You did not try hard enough to be slain in an attempt to reach him, commanding an army rather than pursuing great and memorable deeds,' Tárion conceded. 'I am fully convinced that you could have come within ten feet of him before being slaughtered today. Next time, you will have to rethink your strategy, so that after the victory, I can assure you that you could have come within, say, six feet before -' He fell silent; Gil-galad was perfectly able to fill in the conclusion containing the six feet under.
A snort, as expected. 'Could you please add now that, secondly, he was obviously not yet doomed to fall yet, and that thirdly, I had better stop chewing, and swallow?'
'It is always my pleasure to oblige, my dear lord. Consider it said.'
Turning away from the early stars scattered across the nightly sky Gil-galad sought Tárion's face. He smiled. 'I feel better already. Care to oblige me a little more - do we have to worry as much about our mortal allies next time as we had today?'
Tárion frowned, shifting in the water. He felt the current tug vainly at his calves and remembered that this was one of the few spots where the river was shallow enough to be safe. 'I am out of my depths there, Arto,' he said truthfully. 'Glorfindel was able to break the lure of that damnable ring, but he also said that it seemed to be attuned to mortals. Even if our friend the Ciryatur has not yet succumbed to the temptations of its evil master, it does not mean that he never will. But as it is your doom in Middle-earth to strive against the Dark Lord, you have little choice but to pursue this path to the end - unless you can choose to be other than you were made to be.'
He saw Gil-galad's eyes grow dark as the sky then, but not with displeasure, concern or rejection. 'You are indeed most obliging, my love,' he murmured, 'telling me so willingly what I want to hear.' He stepped a little closer. 'You did See him fall, did you?'
'And had I not, would you abandon the fight?'
Gil-galad did not even bother to shake his head. 'One does not need hope to endeavour...'
'... nor success to persevere,'(1) Tárion finished.
Their kiss was short, a brushing of lips only, hands clasping shoulders as in a courteous embrace. It could even pass for innocent to any who wished to see it thus, and as they were fully visible from the camp, they were undoubtedly being watched. But it did not matter what it looked like, Tárion thought when they left the river, picked up their boots and returned to the camp, barefoot in the shadowy grass and side by side.
1)A saying of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, that always struck me as very Tolkienish. The original French version: Il n'est pas besoin d'espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer.
Finally, to all the readers who made it to the end: thank you for reading this story! - Vorondis