13. Holiday Visit - Pt. 1 of 2
"We need more butter, and cheese too. Definitely, we need more cheese. The Dúnedain keep asking for dishes made with it…"
Aurin moved down the shelves of the cellar, knowing full well that Gilraen trailed behind her, noting down on her wax tablet where the larder was lacking for the next round of trading with outlying peoples. From the absence of response, she was fairly certain that the Lady of the House had responded to her pointed commentary with her usual, long-suffering smile. If there had been one thing the mistress of Elrond's kitchens had found most challenging about the recent return to openness toward the Dúnedain, it was that Gilraen had taken it upon herself to teach her and her kitchen staff to prepare dishes intended to make the increased numbers of visiting Rangers feel more at home than they ever had. And, unfortunately, many of those dishes flew directly in the face of Elven culinary custom and taste by being filled with or smothered by melted cheese.
"How many extra wheels do you think…"
"At least ten more than the usual, at the rate we go through them now," Aurin interrupted in a sour tone, but then gave into the temptation to toy with her friend a bit. "Perhaps you could explain to me once again just what is so alluring about a dish that would otherwise be very tasty, if it weren't overpowered by…"
"It is our way," Gilraen chuckled at her finally, picking up on the topic and running with it. "Melted cheese…"
"Gets caught between or stuck behind the teeth, and nearly always stretches without breaking between plate and utensil or mouth in a very unseemly manner. That is not even mentioning the difficulty in cleaning the plates afterwards, when it has hardened…" Aurin sniffed in real disgust, but her lips twitched at the very edges anyway. This was becoming an old and comfortable argument, one carried out on a regular basis lately as evidence of the long-standing friendship between herself and the young one who had been given the temporary role of chatelaine in the Last Homely House. It was ever entertaining to the both of them to see just how far either would carry things before one would find an excuse to move along to other topics.
"And it tastes absolutely delicious," Gilraen finished for her before she could say any more. "Have you never tried an apple pie, fresh and hot from the oven, iced and sweetened cream drizzled atop it, and on the side, a slice of sharp…"
"No!" The word was accompanied by a sincerely horrified look and a wrinkled nose. "It is bad enough that I must smell that stuff as I cook it into dishes that would be otherwise most subtly tasty. To think of ruining a perfectly good slice of pie…"
Gilraen settled the stylus into its slot in the frame of the wax tablet and then stared at her. "But you and everyone else here likes cheese. This is what I don't understand. At breakfast, there is always at least one plate of slices…"
Aurin nodded. "Aye, we do enjoy cheese when it is hard and cool and sliced and on bread or served in chunks where it is to be enjoyed for its own qualities. Then there are always cheese crisps, if one absolutely must cook it." Gilraen smiled and Aurin grinned back. She was well aware of Gilraen's weakness for the thin wafers of cheese that had been fried on a hot griddle until they were golden and brittle bits of filagree. During the colder months, they were a favorite snack for many in Imladris. As a matter of fact, the platter holding the day's crisps to be distributed throughout the House had already been prepared, and Gilraen would no doubt consume her fair share of them. "But cheese melted onto toasted bread and served hot and dripping?" she continued with a derisive tone and a sniff. "Or added to scrambled eggs? Both of those dishes are delicious in and of themselves and certainly much better tasting before being ruined by something with the consistency of… well… hot wax."
"Then again," Gilraen smiled sweetly, "I have never developed a taste for slivered gondlim in butter sauce, nor can I understand how anyone would have ever dreamed of preparing an otherwise poisonous fish by burying it for months in a stoneware box filled with rocks and sand to ferment and then letting it dry and mould on the rack before considering it ready. Did that person have a desire to better understand the meaning of 'food poisoning' or…"
"But gondlim is delicious!"
"So is melted cheese in scrambled eggs! Besides, gondlim stinks like a poorly-maintained privy! Cheese, on the other hand…"
Aurin shook her head vigorously. "Gondlim does not stink; I am sorry that the One did not create edain noses capable of distinguishing the subtle aroma that only fermented and well-aged gondlim has. It would make a world of difference to you, I am certain. Incidentally, we should also ask our fishermen to replenish our stock of that in preparation for the feast when Masters Elladan and Elrohir return home again. You know how much they love that dish…"
Gilraen shuddered and then mirrored Aurin's shake of the head. "Yes, I know how much they enjoy that dish, and that even Estel enjoys it, for some strange reason. I still maintain that it smells more like something that should be returned to the stable floor from whence it came – or better, left buried where the fishermen put it until the world ends rather than disinterred after just three months and then hung to mould for another four! And it certainly should not be sliced as thin as parchment, arranged on a platter and covered in good herbed butter."
She took up the stylus again and made a note. "However, as you have asked so nicely, I shall send word that we need more. But I was thinking that this time," she looked at her friend and smiled sweetly, "when you prepare it, perhaps you could make me a melted cheese sandwich to eat at the feast instead, so that I do not have to embarrass myself by not touching the disgusting food on my plate. Bad enough that I'll have to smell it…"
"Are you ladies at it again?" Erestor's voice came from the direction of the stairs and doorway that led back up into the kitchen. "Your voices travel all the way up into the kitchen, you know. But I must admit my curiosity has been satisfied: I now know why some of the staff enjoy gathering around the cellar door during your consultations rather than attending to their tasks."
"Aurin seems to think that the Els are soon to return, as she wants me to send word to the fisher folk for a bounty of gondlim suitable for a feast." Gilraen declared as both women watched the Chief Counselor's face emerge from the shadows of the darkened stairs that led back up into the kitchen. "Does she know something that has not been shared with others?"
"Only that the Els love that dish, and would be quite pleased were it served to them upon their return," Erestor offered, his tone helpful but his eyes glinting merrily, "although I should think you know that well enough by now. And it occurs to me that Master Elrond commented not that long ago that it had been a while since he'd had gondlim."
"See?" Aurin demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, satisfied to have an ally in the debate for a change. "Even Lord Erestor agrees with me that we should prepare to have a gondlim feast! Just because you just do not know what tastes good…"
Gilraen shuddered visibly, but then brightened. "I know! Rather than prepare me a melted cheese sandwich, you could prepare a very small portion of gondlim with a spiced cheese sauce instead of herbed butter..."
Although the idea was thoroughly revolting to her, Aurin watched with glee when Erestor's face blanked in surprise and then turned down in utter disgust as he got drawn unsuspectingly into their game. "Now, why would you want to ruin a perfectly delicious delicacy with melted cheese?" he growled, obviously nauseated by the mere idea.
"Because I know what tastes good and what doesn't, and I'm curious if this might actually make that horrid mess remotely palatable," Gilraen quipped back, but then shrugged. "Gondlim is an acquired taste, just as melted cheese is; however, I'm curious now to see if they go together – a culinary compromise, as it were. It would need some of those small, dried red peppers from Harad, though, something to overpower the gondlim. Do we have any in stock?"
From the darkening expression on Erestor's face, Aurin decided to reclaim the game from one so completely unprepared for its rules. Gilraen's outrageous request had certainly won this round. "You are truly mad, Lady Gilraen. Melted cheese is…" Aurin began again, only to be interrupted.
"While far be it for me to interrupt your… discussion of matters of the palate, ladies," Erestor began, one hand held up defensively, "or, the One forbid, the entertainment of the kitchen staff whom I can hear cackling above, I truly need to know if you are finished with your inventory and menu planning. Master Elrond has requested Gilraen's presence…"
"Well, why did you not say that earlier?" Aurin spouted impatiently, her hands at her hips. She turned to Gilraen, all evidence of play gone and her tone completely professional. "Do you have everything noted? Have we missed anything?"
"No, I even have notes to send word to the fisher folk," Gilraen agreed, her tone as professional as Aurin had ever heard, "and to make certain to order a minimum of ten more wheels of cheese than usual."
"Then give me your wax tablets," Erestor directed with clear patience, "and come along. I shall take them to the library while you hurry off to speak to Elrond."
"Do you know what he wishes to speak to me about?" Gilraen asked, handing over her tablet and turning as directed by the Chief Counselor's hand at her elbow.
"I do, but I shall defer to Elrond," Erestor sounded as regal and imposing as Aurin had ever heard, "and no, you will not be able to coerce me to give you any hints beforehand."
Aurin watched without listening and with a smile on her face as the two vanished back into the puddle of darkness at the foot of the stairs into the kitchen. Five hundred years of doing semi-monthly kitchen inventories with Erestor had made her deeply appreciate the humor and wit of the little one Master Elrond had gifted the position of Lady of the House. It would be for far too brief a time, but she was determined to enjoy a woman's touch running this place again for as long as possible.
As she caught up the torch that she'd carried down to light the cellar, she wondered what Lady Celebrían would have thought of spicy melted cheese on gondlim – and then cringed and rejoiced not to have heard the explosion.
"You sent for me, Master Elrond?"
"Come in!" Elrond looked pleased to see her, and rose from behind his desk. "I have fresh apple juice, cool from the cellars. May I offer you some?"
"Of course." If nothing else, his demeanor told her that while what he needed to discuss might be something that couldn't wait, it was nothing to be distressed by. Then again, come to think of it, Erestor hadn't been agitated or rushing her down the corridors either.
He moved to the sideboard and began pouring. "I am sorry to pull you away from your consultations with Aurin, but I thought you would enjoy learning that Estel will be returning to us in time for Mettarë."
Gilraen felt the flood of happiness pour through her. "Really?"
"Indeed." He handed her one goblet and then, with a hand at her elbow, showed her to her favorite comfortable chair before his office hearth. "Dírhael has, through the Els, asked that Halbarad, a cousin, also be allowed to spend time with us when Estel comes to visit. It seems that the young man is curious about his cousin's upbringing, and Estel asked permission for the both of them to spend their respite between patrols here."
"When will they arrive?" Gilraen's mind was spinning. Would they be able to stock up on that cheese in time? Do I have time to finish the tunic I was going to gift him before he arrives?
"I believe the Els intended to come home the moment the roads opened enough that they would not have to be forging through drifts. No doubt Estel and Halbarad will accompany them at that time."
"I missed them all at Mid-Winter this year," Gilraen commented wistfully. This was the first winter when even the Els had been absent the entire season, and much of the summer and autumn before it. Estel himself had been back to his childhood home only twice since leaving to train with the Rangers four years earlier, and his prolonged absence had been a hole in her life that she rarely commented on at all.
Elrond set his own goblet on the desk after shifting papers carefully out of the way, and then he sat down in his chair and gave such a great stretch that Gilraen could almost hear his joints cracking. "I know; we all have missed the three of them. It is bad enough to have Estel gone for so long; but for the Els to be gone too again takes much of the life from any…" He gave a quick glance in her direction and assumed a brighter smile. "But we will have them all home for Mettarë this year for a change, and with an honored guest besides, and that is what is most important."
"Yes, it is." She smiled back at the Master of Imladris. His admission that the absence of all his sons had grieved him was unexpected, but not surprising. A good deal of the fun and light that was an Imladris with Estel gone was bound in the banter the twins threw back and forth, or the interplay between father and sons, or twins and the other Elf-lords. Elrond had done his best not to show how deeply he'd been affected, however, which made his private admission to her all the more poignant. Gilraen doubted that he would have made a similar confession to anyone else before now or even to her, except that she was feeling the same sense of loss of her son. It was another of his subtle hints that he was indeed fond of her to be this open with his feelings. "We shall have to try to make this a very special Mettarë then."
"Indeed. In light of our expected guest, we will be depending upon your store of knowledge of the various ways the Dúnedain celebrate Mettarë that we here are unfamiliar with, for we would not want young Halbarad to feel as if he missed the Festival because the celebrations would be lacking something important to him."
"You wish to include more Dúnedain traditions as well as your own this year – other than the ones you have always allowed?" Gilraen's smile grew.
"Absolutely. I shall be relying on you to make young Halbarad feel more at home and less lost in a very strange and exotic place. I believe you will probably remember those traditions that you have done without all these years that might make all the difference for him." Elrond's gaze was kind. "Besides, it would be interesting to see a more Dúnedain Mettarë for a change."
"Foods, as well as customs?"
He nodded and took another sip of his juice. "Whatever you wish, provided we have the wherewithal to accommodate you in anything that we have not tried before."
"I'll have to talk to Erestor. Hopefully he can help me make the combination of both Dúnedain and Edhellen traditions meaningful to all at the same time." Already her mind was spinning with ideas and things that she had not enjoyed since her last Mettarë with Arathorn.
Elrond chuckled. "I am glad that my plan is so appealing to you. I know that the Els tried to bring some of their knowledge of your traditions back with them, so that the celebrations you encountered here were not completely lacking; but I was certain that there were probably many more bits and pieces that they were unaware of that you have never mentioned missing." He fixed her with a direct gaze. "You did not have to go without all this time, you know, child. You had but to say something…"
"I know," she hurried to reassure him. "At first, it wouldn't have made much difference to me anyway; I was so lost here, that even familiar things were made strange simply from the nature of Imladris itself and living with Elves. Then, as time passed, and I became more comfortable with the way things were done here and your traditions and customs, it just never occurred to me to ask – or if I truly missed something, it happened late at night, when I would remember my life before and compare." She shook her head. "I have not been unhappy here, Elrond, nor have I suffered any lack of Dúnedain traditions… much…"
"Um-hmmm." He didn't sound convinced, and his shaking his forefinger at her merely reinforced that. "Well, either way, this year we shall make up some of that lack."
"Yes, my lord."
"Make certain that you note down any additional supplies that will be needed in the kitchen or housekeeping when you make up the list for the traders. This is to be a true celebration for all in the valley this year. Estel will be home, the Els will be here, our kinsman will be here; no expense should be spared to make this Mettarë a memorable one for one and all." He nodded at his own pronouncement. "We shall need the memories from such celebrations as this to sustain us in the years ahead."
That's an odd thing to say. Gilraen felt a trickle of chill streak down her spine. "Yes, my lord," she agreed, not entirely certain what he meant, but knowing full well that these words would haunt her eventually. His gift for "knowing" things was just too uncanny to be ignored; and sometimes it was one of these little statements from out of nowhere that carried the greatest weight. Is something bad going to happen?
She shook herself free from her musing. I'm not going to worry about that. Estel and the Els are coming home – that's more than enough to think about for now.
Gilraen could barely believe that the hardened, scruffy-looking young man that had just slipped from his horse was her son, but she had very little time to take in the changes before she was swallowed by his embrace. "I've missed you," Aragorn whispered into her ear.
"Oh, Estel!" Her arms were around his waist, because she could swear that he'd grown yet another inch or so since last she'd seen him, not long before the snows had closed the roads for winter. "You have been away too long. Welcome home!"
There was a lingering scent on Aragorn's clothing that suddenly struck a note in Gilraen's memory: he smelled of home. After all this time, after all these years in Imladris, it seemed incredible to catch a whiff of the pine forest that surrounded the settlement, of wood fires, of sweat from honest and hard labors and even the musty odor of dirt. Her parents, in their visit several years earlier, had worn clothing that had been recently washed and packed away, or stored away in a cedar-lined chest for safe-keeping, and so not offered her such a vivid olfactory memory. Gilraen breathed in deeply, fighting the wave of homesickness that had struck so unexpectedly.
"My son." Elrond's deep voice loosened Aragorn's hold on her, and Gilraen reluctantly stepped back so that her son could greet his foster-father. She watched in amazement as the two shared a warrior's greeting; Estel truly had grown, for he not only nearly matched his adar in height, but seemed somehow more thickly muscled as well. Next to him, Elrond looked almost ephemeral.
Movement to her right caught at her attention: another young man, almost as tall as Aragorn and garbed in nearly identical leathers and home-spuns, slipped from his saddle to stare about him with eyes wide. He then gawked as his cousin suddenly was swept up into a tight embrace by his foster father, whose quick familiarity and inherently regal mein could be quite intimidating to strangers. "And you must be Halbarad," Gilraen said and walked towards her kinsman with hands outstretched, hoping to help him out a bit. "I remember you as much, much younger." Her memories were of an infant, really, born at nearly the same time as Aragorn had been. His mother, Míriel, had been her best friend growing up; Halbarad had her eyes and pointed nose.
The young man looked down at her and blushed as he let his hands be captured. "Lady Gilraen, it is an honor to meet you at last. Nana has told me so much about you."
"All good, I hope," she jested, hoping to lure a smile to his face. He looked as if he felt at least as out of place and lost as she must have felt here at first, all those long years ago. "Come," she added, slipping one hand into the bend of his elbow and tugging gently, "let me introduce you to your host." She could feel the reluctance in his posture as he let her pull him towards where Aragorn and Elrond still stood very close. "Master Elrond, allow me to introduce my young kinsman, Halbarad, son of Halboron. Halbarad, this is Master Elrond, Lord of Imladris."
Estel stepped back so that his foster-father could become the Master of Imladris once more. "Halbarad, son of Halboron, you are most welcome here," Elrond pronounced in his slower, deeper voice that he used in more formal settings even as he pressed a hand to his heart and bowed shallowly. "It is good to welcome some of our more distant kin at last."
"Lord Elrond." To his credit, Halbarad's voice didn't quite shake when he made his crisp, formal salute, although Gilraen could see clearly that he was thoroughly intimidated. Yes, she remembered that feeling as well, the first time she had met Elrond. The mere idea of meeting someone who had seen so much in his lifetime – more even than his aristocratic sons – was enough to take most any Dúnadan aback. "Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to visit. This place is…" The young Ranger looked about himself once more in amazement. "…spectacular."
"Thank you. But come," Elrond said then, extending his arms in an encompassing gesture. "Warm baths, fresh clothing and a hot meal await you all within, do they not, Gilraen?"
"Indeed!" Gilraen turned to her son. "Estel, I thought that Halbarad would enjoy the room next to yours. So you may show him the way to the baths directly. I'll have fresh clothing waiting for him in his room when he's finished."
"And a good meal to sustain him will be served soon after in the larger dining hall," Elrond added. "Erestor and Glorfindel are anxious to meet you as well; you will no doubt meet them at the table."
"This is well, for Halbarad has not stopped asking questions about our Battle Master, Adar," Elrohir offered with a grin. "I think he believes that he is up to sparring with him."
"I disarmed you once," Halbarad stated in a pained voice, "and you are considered a master."
Estel chuckled. "I hate to tell you this, cousin, but disarming Elrohir isn't that hard. I wasn't even allowed out on the outer fences until I was able to disarm either him or Elladan."
Gilraen's eyes widened. Arathorn, and indeed all of the Dúnedain warriors she had known at home, had held the sons of Elrond in great awe for their skills with a sword; for Estel to speak of them in that manner… But then she saw Elrond's lips twitching in a manner that told her the elegant Elf-lord was but a few breaths away from bursting out laughing. Warrior humor, she decided, is definitely understood only by warriors. She let her eyes touch each of the returned family. Elladan's eyes shined at her merrily as he nodded his head in answer to her glance. Yes, it is good to have them all back home!
Elrohir put a heavy hand on Halbarad's shoulder and began pushing him towards the steps to the portico in front of the huge front door of the House. "Glorfindel will be much more a difficult challenge for you than I, young one, I promise you. He has moves and counters that he has yet to teach anyone here."
"There shall be plenty of time to discuss such matters over a hearty meal. Go on with you!" Elrond commanded. "Show our young kinsman to his rooms and then to the baths with all of you. The time has come to remove the dust from the journey."
"Come on!" Estel grabbed at his cousin's upper arm. "I'll show you the way." Together, the two Rangers sped up their strides, taking the steps two at a time and hurrying into the House.
Halbarad's voice wafted out to those who remained outside. "Good, because this place is larger than anything I've ever seen before in my life! How do you keep from getting lost?"
"Have Adar and Glorfindel been taking good care of you in my absence, my lady?" Elladan quipped, moving quickly to capture Gilraen's hand and tuck it into his elbow.
Elrond gave his son an arched sideways glance. "And welcome home to you too, my son. Here and I thought you had bequeathed my welfare into her care at your departure. You really do need to let us know which of us is to be taking care of the other and then stay with that choice." With great deliberation, he reached out and plucked her hand from Elladan's arm and nestled it possessively onto his own. "Apparently it would be best if the two of us simply take care of each other until he makes up his mind who is taking care of whom, do you not agree, Gilraen?"
"Absolutely." Gilraen grinned up into Elladan's startled face, thrilled to be so clearly invited to help Elrond turn the tables on his son. It wasn't often that the Master of the House showed his playful side in public; and when he did, it was generally a good idea to be allied with him.
Elrond gave Elladan a gaze of quiet authority. "Besides, you need a bath, child. Now that our guest is within the house and out of the range of Dúnedain hearing, I can tell you truly: you and your brothers stink of dust and sweaty horse and too many smoky fires. One would think you had forgotten the renewing properties of clean water."
"But Ada!" Elladan's voice rose into an excellent imitation of a childish whine. "You have Gilraen's company all the time - you must at least allow me to enjoy that pleasure when I am come home!"
"Of course I have her company all the time," Elrond continued, turning Gilraen with practiced ease and then sedately escorting her towards the steps and the open front door beyond. "Unlike you, you see, I do not spend my days and months careening about the landscape on horseback. I am old enough and wise enough to know that if one truly intends to give one's Lady the proper level of attention, one must remain in the general vicinity of that Lady for more than an evening or two now and again. What is more, I am certain she would prefer to be escorted by a gentleman freshly bathed and groomed to one dusty and grimy from too much time spent in the wilds. And for those times when I need to be elsewhere, I am assured that Glorfindel is more than willing to escort the Lady…"
Gilraen pressed her lips together tightly, but still couldn't keep her shoulders from shaking with her suppressed laughter; and she could feel in Elrond's hold on her that he was having the same difficulty. Elrond schooling Elladan on courtly behavior, using her as an example, was beyond outrageous, and Elladan's whine was worse than anything Estel had ever attempted in his distant youth. "I must admit," she offered, throwing caution to the wind and entering the fray herself at last, "that having two – nay, three, with Glorfindel – having three esteemed Elf-lords clamoring for my favors is quite a compliment."
"Four," Elladan corrected quickly, hurrying forward to her other side and claiming her free hand to himself anyway, giving his father a saucy smirk of accomplishment and rebellion as he did. He bent towards her conspiratorially. "You may not know this, Gilraen, but Elrohir is too shy to act on his heart to say anything to you, but every once in a while, he will..."
"Excuse me, but I can speak for myself," the other twin said dryly from where he awaited them on the portico. "And I happen to know better than to get between either Glorfindel or Ada and our Lady of the House. My mother did not raise a fool, or rather…" Elrohir aimed a cocked eyebrow at his brother pointedly. "…she only raised one."
Elrond bent to her from the other side and jerked his head in his sons' direction. "I hear a great deal of wind out here, do you not agree?" Oh, but his smile was mischievous and his eyes twinkled with humor.
"I do indeed."
"Then allow me to escort you to the dining hall while these two smelly ruffians masquerading as my offspring take themselves off to the baths. Remember…" He looked up and gifted them both with a patently contrived glower and an upraised forefinger of warning. "Do not forget to wash behind your ears, or there will be only bread and cheese for you in your rooms. Is that understood?" He reached out and rescued Gilraen's other hand from Elladan's keeping and then waved his sons forward with an imperious gesture. "Go on with you now. Shoo!"
"It is good to see you too again, Ada," Elladan stated with a wide grin of concession before grabbing Elrohir's upper arm and dragging him off towards the interior of the house, and the stairs that led downwards to where the hot spring beneath the House fed the communal baths. "Come on, El. I, for one, am hungry enough to eat just about anything that moves."
"Let go of me, you imbecile." Elrohir freed himself from his brother's grasp. "Thanks to you, Adar will probably have Erestor standing at the door, ready to check behind our ears before letting us in to the dining hall."
Elladan's voice was as dry as his brother's had been when it drifted out the door. "As if Erestor would do otherwise anyway, if given the chance. I swear he enjoys watching us squirm altogether too much of late."
"They're home," Gilraen whispered to Elrond. "They're all three of them home, safe and sound."
"Eru save us all," was the whispered response before another tug on her hand got them moving again, although the intense pleasure and happiness of the man at that very same thought shone in his dancing grey eyes. "Shall we?"
Gilraen could see Halbarad's nose twitching in alarm almost the moment he sat down to his place next to Estel, who had been given the place of honor at his foster-father's right hand. Already the platters of gondlim were moving up and down the tables. "Lady?" the young man asked, leaning into Gilraen as much as he could within the bounds of propriety even as he hurriedly slid the platter past and into her waiting hands.
"Is there a problem?" she asked, already understanding all too well his concern. She, in turn, quickly sent the platter on to Glorfindel, who was waiting next to her with a grin of anticipation.
"Must I… I don't think I can…" he began, his face almost pale.
She shook her head at him and with a raised forefinger signaled for another platter to be brought forth. "Nobody expects you to, Halbarad; or rather, Elrond understands, as do I. As a matter of fact, that's why I had Aurin roast a capon for the two of us." She smiled into startled grey eyes. "That's right: I'm not a fan of this particular delicacy either."
Halbarad glanced cautiously at those who surrounded him and then leaned slightly closer, his voice a soft whisper. "It smells like…"
"I know." Gilraen chuckled sympathetically. "And were it not that you're here, and I wouldn't want to sicken you, I had challenged the cook to make a small portion with melted cheese, to see if that would…"
He looked horrified. "That would be an incredible waste of good cheese, Lady!"
"Well, seeing as how melted cheese is appreciated by the Elves about as much as their gondlim is appreciated by the Dúnedain…" she began.
"How can he tolerate the stuff?"
Gilraen choked back a full laugh at the sickened look on Halbarad's face as he watched Estel shovel a healthy bite of pink fish into his mouth and grin with delight. "He was raised with it, and with those who told him it was a delicacy to be savored," she explained quickly, "and never gave it a thought. The only one who never liked it when he was a child was me. The rest of them… well, look at them." She waved about her at the sounds of true enjoyment coming from the other diners in the room.
Halbarad shuddered in revulsion and busied himself with cutting a leg and wing from the capon that had been placed before him. "Is all Elven food like that?" he asked very quietly.
"Not at all. There are only a few dishes that make you wonder if they are entirely sane. Mostly, the food is quite good." She accepted the platter of capon and took a slice of succulent breast meat before moving it back to a place on the table between the two of them. "Tell me: how is your mother?"
"She's well, and wanted me to pass along a greeting. I have a letter for you, somewhere in my travel bags…"
"You could not convince your young friend to try the gondlim tonite?" Glorfindel asked, nudging her arm just enough that she didn't quite spill her wine.
She gave him a raised eyebrow that set him to chuckling. "Halbarad is a true Dúnedain, and knows what is and isn't edible." She gestured at the platter with the half-demolished capon. "We are sharing something we can enjoy as much as you do that infernal fish. Just think: it leaves that much more for you…"
"That's fish?" Halbarad's face paled slightly again, his eyes on the platter of pearly pink meat that Gilraen suspected was still far closer than he would have preferred.
"A very special fish," Glorfindel informed him happily. "It is buried for three months in shady soil, and then…"
"Buried?" The young Ranger's eyes were even wider, and his face paler than before.
Gilraen swatted at Glorfindel's arm. "Stop that, you'll ruin his meal." She turned back to Halbarad. "Don't listen to Glorfindel. He knows what most Dúnedain think of gondlim and is testing your intestinal fortitude."
"Considering that this little one accused our Estel of the most despicable ulterior motives upon his return to his people, I think I am entitled to some small entertainment, am I not?" Glorfindel drew himself up regally and aimed a sharp eye at Gilraen too. "You did not think I had forgotten that, did you?"
Halbarad's fork halted on its path to his mouth. "I did what?"
"I believe you accused Estel of attempting to simply 'move in and take over', if I remember Estel's letter properly," Glorfindel explained without hesitation with a slight scowl, "or of believing himself somehow superior because he had been raised here."
"Master Glorfindel, that's water that has flowed beneath the bridge, down the ravine, across the plains and out into the sea. I have long since forgotten it, and forgiven Halbarad and the others for their assumptions." Estel leaned forward so as to see past his cousin and mother to his old tutor. "I had some rather odd assumptions about them for a while too, you know, so..."
Halbarad's face broke into a nervous smile, and Gilraen could see the relief in his eyes as he turned and gazed back at Estel. "Yes, you did at that, didn't you?"
"I think," Elrond spoke quietly, but with a tone of authority, "that we can allow issues which have evidently been settled between the two involved to rest for now, can we not?"
Glorfindel didn't even flinch at the steely look in Elrond's face. "For now," he repeated calmly, his voice not quite flat.
"What did I do?" Halbarad leaned into Gilraen's shoulder again.
"Don't worry about it. Like Master Elrond says, these are issues that – for you and Estel, at any rate – have been long since settled. Elven memories are long, however; and there was one letter from Estel – the first one we received after he returned to the Dúnedain, as a matter of fact – that made all of them here a little… upset." Gilraen aimed a glance in Glorfindel's direction that begged him to hold his tongue, answered with a lift of a golden eyebrow and a tiny nod that made her sigh softly in relief.
Sometime that evening, during the entertainment in the Hall of Fire, she'd warn Halbarad that he probably faced at least some grilling over the attitudes shown Aragorn at first. These Elf-lords were nothing if not protective of one they considered their own!