Gilraen hesitated in her path and smiled at the very contrite "Sorry, Master Erestor," that issued from the open door of the reading room that now served as learning center for her son. She knew how much he hated the lessons on diplomacy that had joined history and literature as topics of learning of late. It continually amazed her that such training started so young with the Chieftains; she would never have considered ten years old to be mature enough to have to face the kinds of situations Estel was now being asked to handle in theory.
"Sorry will not convince an angry Ranger to listen to you! You cannot afford to be anything less than complete focused."
The boy's sigh spoke volumes. "I know. I just…"
Erestor's answering sigh was just as easy to interpret. "We shall start over, from the beginning…"
"The beginning!" Gilraen could easily imagine the horror and frustration on her son's face.
Erestor sounded utterly unmoved. "…And this time, keep your mind on the situation at hand, as well as your presentation of your solution. I am not going to want to listen to reason - so you must command my attention and convince me of a good reason to do so without being offensive or tyrannical. Now…"
Gilraen shook her head and continued on her way. Erestor was a demanding instructor - this she knew all too well from personal experience. The report in her hand now headed for Master Elrond's desk, like the many that had come before it, called to mind all too easily a similar battle of wits and wills several years earlier regarding the nuances of Elven arithmetic and notation standards. And although Elrond's Chief Counselor had eventually been convinced to give way on the need to adhere strictly to the Elven manner of actually doing the arithmetic, he had only become more particular with the format in which her totals were to be presented, both in the household ledger and in the weekly reports. Even now, years later, he still raised his eyebrows derisively when finding her working her totals on wax tablets and made pointed remarks about it from time to time.
"I overheard Erestor bragging about Estel to Adar the other evening." Elrohir too had been listening to the drama in the reading room, and he caught at Gilraen's elbow before she'd gone more than a few steps. He easily matched his pace with hers. "It seems that some of little brother's solutions to Erestor's problems are… shall we say… creative," he whispered with a proud smile on his face.
"He has a good head on his shoulders, when he chooses to use it," Gilraen whispered back. "But he hates the idea that there could be times when saying exactly what is on his mind would not be a wise thing. History, literature - these things do not change or need finessing."
Elrohir's expression was sympathetic. "I don't think anyone Erestor has trained in the art of diplomacy has ever enjoyed the learning process - although I know both my brother and I have been extremely grateful for the sheer torture he put us through when we found ourselves in situations where we actually had to use what he taught us and had it serve us well." The dancing grey eyes slipped briefly back over a shoulder toward the open door again. "Estel will be no different in the end; although I have a feeling he will be almost as good at mediation and diplomacy as Adar is if he already has Erestor singing his praises."
“I’m still not certain that Erestor hasn’t started him on these studies before he’s really ready to understand everything involved,” Gilraen complained, moving forward again.
“Estel needs to put these lessons under his belt as quickly as possible, to make the principles and thought processes involved an integral part of him,” Elrohir countered in a persuasive tone. “They, along with his weapons practice, are among the most important things that he will have to learn here. It is to be hoped that if given the chance, he will prevail with diplomacy and reasoning more often than not – learn to manage and direct the actions of others without the need to resort to violence – but have the quality martial and strategy skills at hand when and if that reasonability fails.” The Elven smile was a gentle one. “I know that it may seem to you that Estel is too young to understand, but I trust my Adar’s and Erestor’s experience in these matters. They have seen and trained many Chieftains in their time - they are aware of those areas normally taught by the Dúnedain that they would have approached differently.”
"Do you mean to say that the Dúnedain don't…"
"Do not mistake my words, Gilraen; I mean no offense. The Dúnedain have done remarkably well and certainly deserve no criticism." Elrohir shook his head. "But Estel is getting the benefit of an Elven upbringing along with all the Dúnedain upbringing you can provide him. He will benefit immensely from not having to unlearn and relearn things."
Gilraen still felt a slight twinge of criticism toward the training Estel would have received if his father hadn't been taken from him in such an untimely manner, but decided to let it go. Her Elven hosts were doing the best they could by her son; of this she was well aware. "I hear that you and Elladan will be leaving us shortly," she said, steering the conversation into other, hopefully less uncomfortable directions.
"We are indeed. My father asked the King of the Greenwood long ago if he would send someone to train Estel in the bow; evidently King Thranduil has finally consented that this person be allowed to leave his kingdom for a short while to do so." From Elrohir's expression, this was welcome news. "Elladan and I have not seen him for several long-years, so we are being sent as part of the company to escort him back."
"Don't I remember you two arguing that you both were quite proficient enough to teach Estel?" Gilraen's eyes twinkled in memory.
Elrohir's expression grew sheepish. "Our ways rub off on you, Gilraen. We protested our skill; but Adar was adamant. Estel will have the best the Elven world can give him for his teachers, bar none; and this one is, without a doubt, the best at the bow in all of Middle-earth. Not even a Galadhrim can best him in competition."
"Estel will miss you both dreadfully while you're away." So would she, for that matter. Neither of the twins had spent more than a few days away from Imladris since she had arrived, and the thought of so many evenings in a row in the Hall of Fire without either of them there to spark good natured banter with someone else was bleak.
"It will be good for him to begin to learn that departures are not always permanent ones, especially as he has suffered so very few since he came here," the Elf replied thoughtfully. "But I must admit that as much as I will enjoy re-establishing an old friendship from long ago and kinder days, and visiting a realm I have not seen for even longer, I will miss my little brother a great deal as well."
"How long will you be gone?"
"About two months, provided we run into no trouble on the road and that our friend is prepared to leave once we have rested from our journey there."
"Trouble?" Gilraen's heart skipped a beat. That word, among her people, only had one or two possible causes, neither of them welcome news at all.
"The pass over the Misty Mountains has not been secure for many centuries," he replied darkly, "and the Greenwood has darkened as well in recent times. We shall travel as quickly as we dare, and yet slowly enough not to make any more mistakes - either going or coming."
The Misty Mountains! Gilraen's heart clenched at the sound of that. Glorfindel had once told her the whole story of why her people were so well acquainted with the sons of Elrond, and it had all arisen from an attack that had happened in the Misty Mountains. That beautiful woman in the portrait in the family parlor, Elrond's wife, had been taken while traveling through them and tortured by orcs; and in the end had sailed West when her husband could not heal her sufficiently. Her sons had ridden to the rescue and found her, and then been so grief-stricken at her fate that they had lost themselves in blood-lust for revenge in the centuries that followed. Their consuming need to repay the orcs for what had been done had awed and troubled many generations of Dúnedain.
Gilraen put a hand on Elrohir's forearm and pulled him to a shop. "You and your brother will be very careful, won't you? Don't do anything… unnecessary."
She saw him blink in surprise at her, and then his lips turned up slightly to accompany a sudden twinkle in his eye. "We will be very careful, Naneth, never fear."
Her jaw dropped for a moment, and then she shook her head at him fiercely. "This isn't funny, Elrohir!"
His other hand patted hers soothingly. "No, it is not a laughing matter, I know. But the tone of your voice sounded very much like my Adar's when he told us of the need for an escort, and his decision on our inclusion in it; and his warning used almost the exact wording and tone as yours did. I just could not resist the temptation."
"You will be careful," she insisted.
"We will be careful, and return as soon as possible," he promised. "Estel will barely have time to notice that we are gone before we will be back."
She found it hard in that moment to remember that this ageless warrior had been traveling across the face of Middle-earth since long before her birth, and that he was quite capable of taking care of himself. But the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach at the thought of his leaving was much akin to the one she used to feel when she knew Arathorn was preparing himself to depart to dangerous places, and she didn't like it a bit. "When do you leave?"
"At dawn tomorrow," was the gentle answer, "probably before either you or Estel are up." He patted her arm again. "And now, if you will excuse me, I should probably make certain my scatter-brained brother is doing what he is supposed to do to prepare. Until our next meeting, may the stars shine brightly upon you."
"And upon you, Elrohir. May the blessings of the Valar keep you and Elladan safe and bring you back to us in good time."
Elrohir folded his hand over his heart to bow to her and then hurried off down a branching hallway, leaving Gilraen to walk the last few paces to Master Elrond's office door alone. She stood still, however, watching him vanish around a corner and into another wing of the sprawling mansion.
Oh, she would be up to farewell them in the early morning, even if her son wasn't! If her life at home had taught her anything, it was to take every opportunity to spend time with loved ones before they departed, because one could never be certain that they'd be seen again.
Her day just a little darker than it had been moments earlier, she sighed and turned to take those last steps to see her current set of reports duly tendered. Maybe she would spend the afternoon in one of the more private gardens; she certainly wasn't in the mood for sewing or conversation anymore.
By mutual agreement, both Gilraen and her son were awake long before dawn. They had dressed by candlelight and, the moment they heard movement outside their suite, had gone to investigate. Cooks were organizing the final packing of foodstuffs for the trip, and servants were rushing to finish last-minute details.
Gilraen had looked for and then headed toward the tall figure of the master of the house, following him out the door. Elrond began giving each of the warriors that would make up the company final instructions and a personal farewell. Elladan and Elrohir, garbed in shining armor she hadn't seen for years, stood to one side with Glorfindel, talking seriously and intensely.
With a hand on Estel's shoulder to keep him from running over to his foster brothers at the wrong moment, Gilraen found a place near the steps next to Erestor. Estel gazed out at his foster brothers sadly and then looked up at his mother. "I don't want them to go, Nana," Estel complained softly.
Erestor looked down at his pupil. " They go as part of a group charged with guarding the life of one who is coming to your benefit, Estel. They do this for love of you."
"But they're going to be gone a long time!"
"Two months is not so very long, little brother," Elladan said, approaching finally as his brother finished talking to Glorfindel. "Erestor and Glorfindel will have you busy enough in the meanwhile that you will not even notice we are gone until we are already back. And when we get back, you will be so busy learning how to shoot arrows…"
"I won't ever be that busy, Elladan." Estel countered indignantly.
Elladan nodded. "Perhaps, and perhaps not. But come now, can you not give me a warrior's farewell?"
Gilraen watched as Elladan bent a bit at the waist so that he could accept the hands-to-forearms clasp that was the way that all warriors - Elven and Dúnedain alike - greeted and bid each other farewell. "May the stars watch over you, little brother. Learn all that Erestor and Glorfindel have to teach you while I am away, for you will have to tell me all about it when I return."
"To me as well." Elrohir had finally finished his talk with Glorfindel and joined the small group. He lowered his voice and bent towards Estel. "And we need to ask you to keep an eye on Adar for us too. See to that he does not get too lonely for the company of younger minds." Gilraen stifled a small smile at the twinkle in Elrohir's eye as he too accepted his warrior's clasp from her son.
And then it was her turn. Looking at the both of them, standing there before her like the strong and ancient warriors of old that they truly were, Gilraen found herself unsure of just how to tell them goodbye. In not quite eight years, these two had gone from being the indistinguishable and infinitely strange companions of her husband, beings who had spirited her away from everything she knew in the middle of the night, to being close friends - family - with those small traits that distinguished the one from the other now clearly visible. Seeing them in their all-too familiar armor again, all polished and proud, made her heart both swell with affection and cringe in fear for them. "Don't be gone too long," she warned them both, "for you'll be sorely missed - and not just by my son."
The two glanced at each other, and then in unison they leaned forward to each drop a gentle kiss on a cheek. "May the stars guide and protect you from all harm, Gilraen," Elladan said in a whisper near one ear.
"We will be careful, we promise," Elrohir whispered into the other ear.
Then they were giving their formal farewells to their father, each accepting a tight and loving embrace from him and then a warriors clasp before walking proudly over to where their two sleek, black war horses pranced and waited for them. The other warriors all mounted their horses in unison with the twins, and the spectacle reminded Gilraen of that measured dance the trainees did with their swords in the practice ring.
Glorfindel waited until the departing mounts were nearly to the first turn in the road that led out of the ravine to the east before walking over to join Gilraen and Estel. "Come. There is a good, hot breakfast waiting for us." Estel nodded and slumped his shoulders as the last mount vanished from view, turning and heading back indoors. Erestor tucked his hands inside his dark robes and, after a sigh, followed Estel.
"Lady?" Glorfindel asked when Gilraen didn't move.
Her eyes were on the master of the hall, who still stood where he had bid his sons farewell. "I'll be in after a bit," she answered him absently, then stepped forward into the courtyard.
In that moment, Elrond seemed not so much the wise and beloved Master of Imladris as he did the anxious parent, and that fact drew her like a moth to a flame. How often had he watched his sons leave, heading into far less friendly territory, not knowing when - or if - they would ever return to him? The last eight years, when they had remained home with their blood-lust somehow miraculously cooled, had been relieved ones, she was certain.
For the first time since she had met him, Elrond seemed oblivious to what was going on around him. His concentration was so very tightly fixed on that curve in the dusty road, around which his sons had just disappeared at the head of a company of capable Elven warriors, that she doubted that he even was aware that she had joined him. She could almost appreciate what he was going through; all she had to do was imagine that a fully-grown Estel had ridden off with them.
"It's still hard to let them go, isn't it?" she asked finally, turning away from him to gaze down the now-empty road as he did.
Elrond drew in a deep breath, roused and seemed to remember where he was. "In these uncertain times, it is never easy to watch them ride away - whether it be on good occasion or dangerous one," he answered in a bleak voice, his eyes still on the road.
"Does it ever get easier?" As difficult as it was to imagine, the day she dreaded would come; and then it would be her turn to stand here after watching Es… Aragorn… disappear down that same road.
Slowly he shook his head. "Not really. And it only is worse when you know that their path will take them into unhealthy lands." He glanced into Gilraen's face knowingly at last. "I wish there were some word of comfort I could offer you, as I know exactly of what you are thinking. The day approaches when you will stand where I do, watching your son ride off into dangerous places. Believe me when I tell you I dread that day almost as much as you do."
Gilraen found herself caught in his deep and ancient gaze. She knew how much he loved her son; for years now, he consistently treated Estel with the same combination of love, humor and discipline as he treated his own children. No doubt when that dreaded day came, he would be standing here, right along side her in the courtyard, watching Estel take his leave, no less upset or concerned than she. "How do you bear it?" She'd asked this question before, long ago, but couldn't help but ask it again.
"I remind myself that it does no good to allow the worry to take control," he replied, catching at her elbow with a large hand and gently turning them both toward the Last Homely House. "Worry accomplishes nothing. If all is to end well, then the energy spent would be truly wasted. And if things will go badly after all, then the worry would have accomplished nothing useful."
She glanced at his face as he walked beside her, and then glanced again. "And yet you still worry," she noted.
The smile that bloomed on his ageless face was a gentle and chagrined one. "Absolutely! It is virtually impossible for any loving parent to do otherwise. The lesson is offered to you for the wisdom it contains, and for the comfort it can offer both before and after the fact, if nothing else, Gilraen. To actually put it into practice in the moment it is needed, on the other hand, is most exquisitely difficult, even for one who has had as much practice at it as I have. I know that my sons are well-trained warriors, as capable of defending themselves if challenged as any in Middle-earth. And this day, they ride accompanied by many with similar training and experience. I have foreseen nothing of any real concern in regards to this journey, or the return trip."
He sighed and closed the massive front door behind them and then resumed escorting her toward the private dining hall. "But I fear I have allowed myself to grow a little too accustomed to having them at home again, laughing and enjoying life again; it has been such a joy to me after so many centuries with them absent or driven by the darker emotions, seeing them only when one was wounded nearly unto death. With luck, they will not need to leave again until the time comes to escort our borrowed archery master back to Thranduil's halls."
The sideboard in the little dining hall used by the Master's family was already well-stocked with typical morning items. Glorfindel, sitting next to a very glum-looking Estel, gave Elrond and Gilraen a small wave as they entered. The two of them served themselves - although Gilraen noted from the small portions on the plates that neither she nor Elrond seemed particularly hungry that morning- and then settled at the table with them.
"I was thinking, Elrond," Glorfindel began, and Gilraen started when she realized that his gaze rested on her face, and not on that of the Master of the House. "The day is going to be a fine and extra warm one. How open are you to being lured out of your office?"
Elrond lifted the carafe of fruit juice with an arched eyebrow in Gilraen's direction, and then poured some for her when she nodded. "That would depend. What did you have in mind?"
Glorfindel attention shifted, and his hand ruffled Estel's dark curls. "I was thinking that we all could use an opportunity to smile, actually. My thought was to have the cooks pack us a luncheon and ride up to the hot spring for a picnic and day of relaxation."
"Master Elrond has to prepare for the delegation from Lonely Mountain, which will arrive in just a few more days," Erestor countered stonily, joining them at the table with a slice of bread with honey on his plate. "Why am I not surprised that our spoiled Vanya is instigating our lord to escape his duties yet again?"
"Frankly, you could use an excuse to get away from the library and your work as well, my stiff, Noldo friend," Glorfindel smiled widely and announced pointedly. "Too many weeks in that somber black robe of yours, stuck amid dusty scrolls and ink wells, can turn anyone positively gloomy."
Erestor shot a withering glare in Glorfindel's direction and continued his argument against the suggestion as if the golden warrior hadn't spoken at all, "And besides, Estel and I still need to finish an exercise in diplomacy, which…"
Gilraen's lips twitched as Estel's face folded even more unhappily and he gave a very soft groan.
"Actually, Erestor, I think we can accommodate your concerns about Estel's education and Glorfindel's need for recreation at the same time," Elrond stated, his eyes settling on Estel's face even as a hand settled on the boy's shoulder. "What do you say, my son? A pleasant ride, a relaxing luncheon out of doors, an hour or so beneath the trees with your Ada and Erestor working on diplomacy, and then…"
"You will take part in the lesson?" Erestor gaped, now ignoring the delighted surprise and smile replacing the gloom and frustration on Estel's face.
"I assume such is not out of the question?" Elrond chuckled at his councilor's surprise.
"Of course not. It is just that…"
"That I have only heard of, but not seen for myself, the kinds of solutions my son has been coming up with lately," Elrond finished for the Elf, "and I believe it is time for that situation to end." He turned to Gilraen. "It seems Estel is amenable, and so what say you, Lady? A relaxing day, no reports, no mending," he lowered his voice warningly, as if he knew all too well that Gilraen, given the chance, would bring some sort of task to keep herself occupied while the others sported. "The hot spring would make for a very relaxing destination. When the lesson is completed, Erestor, Estel and I will join you in the water for some exercise."
Erestor's mouth worked silently for a moment. "But what about the delegation from…"
"They are not arriving for another week yet, my friend. Surely six days' worth of preparation should be sufficient!" Elrond turned back to Gilraen. "What do you think?"
Actually, Gilraen had found Elrond's suggestion intriguing. The hot spring was far enough away from the main house that one couldn't just visit it on a whim, and yet close enough to be well within the Imladrim fences. The family had been there several times on days very much like this one. And, she decided, it might help keep something other than a sad scowl on Estel's face. "I think that sounds like a lovely idea, Master Elrond. As Glorfindel says, it would be good to have reason to smile today."
"And there you have it," Glorfindel crowed triumphantly. He gave a tiny shove to Erestor's shoulder. "You are out-voted, my over-closeted friend. Go pack up whatever it is you have to take along with you so that Estel's lesson might not be hindered, and don't forget fresh clothing for after the swim."
Elrond chortled around his fruit juice. "Let the poor Elf at least break his fast, Glorfindel!"
Gilraen found herself hard pressed to keep from smiling at the way the Glorfindel preened and prodded at both Erestor and Estel. Perhaps a relaxing day with no duties or responsibilities after the sad farewells that morning would be just what was needed.
"I should have brought my mending after all, no matter what Master Elrond said," Gilraen muttered to herself as she finished packing away the remains of a very substantial picnic lunch.
Glorfindel lifted the blanket from the grass and, with arms long enough for the task, began folding it. "Why do you say that? Today is for relaxation and recreation - not for diligence to chores done each and every other day."
She lifted her eyes and found him grinning from ear to ear at her. "Erestor's right, you do instigate things and promote dereliction to duty!" she accused.
"Guilty as charged, my Lady, for today anyway," he chuckled back, shifting the neatly folded blanket onto one arm so his formal bow to her could be unencumbered. "And your point is…?"
He'd done it again: managed to nudge aside her temper and get her to smile again. She just shook her head at him. "You're impossible when you get into one of these moods."
And now he laughed at her gaily, stepping forward to drop the folded blanket on top of the other packed bundles. "And again I ask, your point being…?"
"Do you mind?" Erestor chided pointedly, his tone clearly demonstrating his irritation. "We are trying to concentrate over here…" Next to him, Estel's eyes were fixed on something in the grass in front of him, obviously oblivious to everything going on around him. Elrond merely leaned back against a nearby tree trunk, hands behind his neck, long legs stretched out with ankles crossed, and shook his head at the lot of them.
"You see?" Glorfindel rose smoothly and reached down to snatch at Gilraen's hand. "We have our instructions. As two people with no further duties, we can now go relax in the shallows of the pool."
She let him pull her to her feet. "We really shouldn't swim so soon after eating…"
"We are not going to be swimming immediately," he informed her without releasing her hand, tugging her instead over to the pile of tack and the bundles of extra clothing that had been left there when the horses had been turned loose. "We are going to settle into the shallows and let the hot water soak away all our worries and cares. When our friends get tired of thinking so much, they shall join us; and then we shall swim."
Gilraen nodded and sighed. "Sitting and soaking will feel good today," she admitted. It always did, once she would let down her inhibitions and stifled her embarrassment at bathing or swimming with males other than her husband. She still wasn't entirely at ease with all the Elven conventions and standards of decorum.
Glorfindel, as usual, caught onto the reason for her hesitation. "Now, no unhappy thoughts. Here. With luck, this will help." He handed her the bundle of fresh small clothes and towel that had been tied to Rochiril's saddle, along with another roll of material.
"A blanket, or more specifically, a blanket not covered in grass and small insects from being laid out upon the ground for hours and sat upon." Glorfindel's grey eyes danced. "I thought that you would enjoy a bit of privacy for a change, for when you leave the water. This will not turn transparent when wet, as do your small clothes, you say. When you choose to leave the water, it should protect your modesty nicely."
Gilraen's brows raised in surprise. The first time she and her son had been invited to spend a leisurely afternoon at the hot springs, she had not been aware that the Elves had so few inhibitions about their bodies, and she'd most definitely been unaware of their practices when around those of the opposite sex in swimming or bathing situations. Her visits to the bathing rooms prior to that had been private ones, not even seeing the serving Elves who filled or cleaned the bathing pools. So in fitting with what she had grown up expecting were her experiences in the bathing rooms that she had been surprised to find out on her first trip to the hot springs that such was not the norm in Elven society - nowhere near the norm, in fact.
It had taken a great deal of persuasion from Master Elrond and Glorfindel together, along with sincere promises of turned backs and averted eyes at the appropriate time, for her to finally consent to strip down to her chemise and small clothes and join them in the deliciously heated water. And then, when it was time for them all to get ready for the return trip, she truly hadn't been ready for Master Elrond and Glorfindel both to simply stand up wearing nothing but their skin, and to do so without warning her to turn away ahead of time as if nothing in the world were wrong…
That memory still brought a deep blush of embarrassment to her face, along with a very private and very secret admiring opinion that both the Master of Imladris and his Battle Master managed to keep themselves looking very fit. It also had made certain that, from then on during each subsequent visit to the hot springs, she waited until the others were already submerged before entering and then removed herself from the pool long before Elrond could decide it was time to go. However, her embarrassment at standing up in small clothes rendered virtually transparent by the water was nearly as great as watching the great Master of Imladris and his legendary Battle Master rise from the water in their full glory. At times, she wasn't certain which was worse.
That on this visit, Glorfindel had taken the time to consider her sensitivities on the matter and attempt a solution touched her deeply. "Thank you," she told him sincerely and caught the extra bundle close. "That was very thoughtful of you."
"My pleasure," he assured her, fitting her elbow into his hand and leading the way toward the mineral-encrusted edges of the shallow end of the spring pool. "Just please do not tell Erestor of this; he chooses to believe me totally self-absorbed, and I would not wish to disabuse him of a reason to give me grief." He gave her a cheeky grin, and then pointed. "That is a safe bush behind which to remove your clothing while I get myself into the water."
He was right, the blanket had been woven of far more substantial cloth than the fine linen of her small clothes and chemise. What was more, it was plenty big enough to make for an adequate cover after folding her outer clothing into a neat pile on top of the fresh small clothes for later. As she turned to step from behind her bush, she could hear the sound of water being disturbed. Thrusting the memory of a dripping, gloriously naked Glorfindel into a far and dark corner of her mind and locking it down there, she hesitated. "Are you decently sitting down?"
The water splashed again, and then he answered, "Aye, Lady. It is safe for you now."
Clutching the blanket tightly, she walked from behind her bush and to the edge of the pool. At the opposite end, Glorfindel sat up again, his golden hair now drenched and slicked back from his face, exposing his gently pointed ears. He gazed at her kindly. "I was thinking that you might want to put your blanket on that rock there while you soak, but leave it within reach." His thumb indicated the one large boulder that sat at the edge of the pool. "When you are ready to leave, simply pull it down and wrap yourself again." He then averted his eyes, as she had so often requested they do when she joined them.
Gilraen nodded and moved around the pool to the boulder before pulling the blanket off so as not to get it wet while she stepped into the knee-deep and deliciously hot water. She carefully tossed the blanket up so that it would be within reach when she wanted it, and then turned to sit down quickly. "That's much better!"
"You really should let your hair down and rinse it in the water here," Glorfindel said with a grin. "It may stink of old eggs and Elrohir's unwashed socks after you do, but the minerals in the water here make hair softer." He brushed away a trailing driblet of water from his forehead.
He shook his head at her. "Not at all! Here, turn around; I can take the pins from your hair."
She blinked at him. Let her hair down, in front of a male not her husband? And in her current state of undress? "I don't know…"
"Do you not believe me?" Blue-grey gazed at her guilelessly. "Or is it that you do not trust me not to lose your hairpins?"
"I trust you," she responded slowly.
"Then turn about and let me take the pins out."
I am so glad Father isn't here to see this, she thought as she slowly turned her back to Glorfindel and felt his deft fingers pull out the pins holding her braid to her head one by one. Then the braid was down, and suddenly her hair was completely loose about her shoulders. "Lean back into my hand," he directed.
His hand and arm was indeed there, supporting her so that only her face remained above water. And were those the fingers of his other hand running gently over her scalp? She sat up quickly, before she could admit to herself that she was enjoying her dip backwards and his ministrations. When she turned to him, he handed her the hairpins, which she deposited on one of the mineral-encrusted mounds that formed the edge of the pool that was closest to the boulder with her blanket.
"Do you still think you should have brought your mending?" he asked when she returned to her spot not far from where he sat.
She stretched, already feeling the beginnings of the languor that inevitably filled her when she soaked in this pool for any length of time. "Probably not," she admitted. "I wouldn't want to get the material wet."
Glorfindel chortled. "I shall turn you into a fun-loving elvellon one day, I swear it."
"You are more than welcome to try," she grinned back at him and flicked her fingers in his direction, spattering his face with droplets.
"You shall be sorry you did that," he warned with a shaking finger. "Just you wait."
"Gilraen." Elrond's voice sounded from behind her. "Lesson time is finished, and we are preparing to join you. If you do not wish water in your face and eyes, you may wish to…"
"Thank you!" She threw her hands up over her face and closed her eyes. "Safe."
"What do you say, my old friend? Shall we?" she heard Elrond ask in an amused tone.
"Indeed we should," came the equally amused answer, followed by an alarmed yip from Estel.
"Ada! Master Erestor! NOOO!" she heard her son squeal, and then a splash from the deeper pool, followed by two more larger kerplooshes, splattered her generously with water. She lifted her hands from her eyes to see both Erestor's and Elrond's heads bobbing in the deeper water, with Estel treading water next to them, wiping his face as dry as he could. "Nana - how come Ada and Master Erestor can throw me in the water, and I can't push them in?"
"Perhaps because you still are not strong enough to do so, my son," Elrond chuckled, leaning his head back into the water to let it pull the hair from his face.
"Besides, I have no doubt that both your Ada and Master Erestor are most likely quite capable of defending themselves," Gilraen laughed at him, and then widened her eyes when her son's head disappeared beneath the surface of the water.
"Got you!" Estel crowed as he pushed himself up onto his Ada's shoulders and tried to dunk him. Instead, Elrond himself threw himself backwards, dunking them both.
When both reappeared on the surface of the water once more, each wiping their face and laughing, Glorfindel tapped Gilraen on the shoulder. "A much better end to the day, would you not agree?"
"Yes." Gilraen watched the three sporting in the deeper water with a fond smile on her face. "A much better end to the day."
Glorfindel moved into the deeper water to join the others, and Gilraen found herself laughing heartily as three normally serene and wise senior Elf Lords cavorted like children themselves with her son until all were tired enough to want to find a seat in the shallow area and relax.
The afternoon was a warm one, and dappled sunlight danced off of the water as light conversation drifted from one less than urgent topic to the next. Finally, however, Gilraen knew that the time was drawing near when they would have to pack up and begin the ride back to the Last Homely House. She reached up and pulled the blanket from its spot and drew it around her. Content when she saw proof that, even wet, it would successfully shield her body from being displayed inappropriately - meaning that she need not bother anyone to turn away or close their eyes for a change - she rose to her feet and walked to the edge of the pool.
An odd, hissing sound met her ears as she tugged up on the blanket so that it would be out of her way when she stepped over the rime-encrusted edge to the pool. She glanced back over her shoulder to find all three Elf Lords with mouths agape and eyes wide, staring at her… feet?... while Estel still lazily tossed pebbles into the deeper pool without paying his Ada or either of his teachers any mind. As his warm, startled stare slowly moved upward at last to meet her questioning gaze, Elrond blinked, swallowed hard, and then very obviously forced himself to look away. He frowned, hissed something under his breath and then thumped both Glorfindel and Erestor hard in the upper arm to break their stares away from her as well the moment he noticed what they were doing.
Gilraen blushed at the heated and frank appreciation that had been in all three stares, and she quickly checked; but no, she was still quite modestly covered from her shoulders to mid-calf. Confused, and feeling as if she were missing some very important concept, she let go of the hem of the blanket and made quick tracks to her bush, where towels and clean, dry small clothes and chemise waited patiently for her.
The heat of the day had not dissipated with the setting of the sun. The evening's entertainment, therefore, took place on one of the many broad porches of the Last Homely House. Torches in their sconces affixed to surrounding pillars supplied more than sufficient light for Gilraen to be able to tend to her mending while Estel sat at his father's feet as the Master of the House took his turn at story-telling.
Eventually, however, the number of people gathered on the porch slowly dwindled. Elrond finally nudged a drowsy Estel to head off to bed about the same time that he himself bid everyone a good night, guiding his foster son with a gentle hand to the shoulder.
Gilraen, on the other hand, wasn't ready to declare the day at an end yet. And so, with her night's mending finished and carefully folded into a neat bundle on the seat beside her to be returned to Maeniel in the morning, she rose and wandered out the stone archway into the garden beyond. Ithil sat high in the sky, lending a soft light to the summer foliage; stars shone and sparkled brightly in the black canopy overhead.
Gathering the ends of her shawl about her, she found a friendly tree eventually against which to lean her shoulder and look out over the river, which could be heard roaring faintly far below. On evenings like this, she could only marvel anew at the peace and tranquility of the place she now called her home; here, she was the uncontested lady of the house, but without the backbreaking responsibilities of cooking and cleaning.
"May I join you?" Glorfindel's voice sounded gently enough behind her that she didn't start.
She nodded. "Of course."
The tall, golden-haired Elf, dressed in his customary white silk robes, stepped up beside her and followed the direction of her gaze to the rugged cliffs on the other side of the ravine. "I feel I must tender you an apology," he began after a long and quiet moment of companionship. "Elrond, Erestor and I discussed it, and it was decided that perhaps I would be the best one to try to explain…"
Oh yes. Gilraen was grateful for the dim light, for she was certain her face was a brilliant red at the thought of the heated stares she had received so unexpectedly that afternoon. Still, it must not have been too bad if Glorfindel had been elected to explain it to her. If it had been a true breech of Elven etiquette, she was certain that Elrond himself would have taken the matter in hand. She nodded silently and waited for her friend to continue.
The Elf must have been self-conscious, for after another long pause, he cleared his throat. "I want you to know that this was my fault entirely. I had only been thinking of your discomfort and modesty and not…"
"And not…?" Gilraen pressed gently, now getting curious.
"Maybe it would be better if Elrond explained it," Glorfindel grumbled to himself.
She turned to face him directly. "I'm certain you are just as capable of telling me what I did wrong," she told him firmly.
"No, no - you did nothing at all wrong, Gilraen. As I said, the error made was on my part. It is just that…"
Gilraen blinked. Glorfindel had folded his arms across his chest and started rocking ever so slightly. Never had she seen him so ill at ease. "Just tell me, before the curiosity takes me!" she exclaimed in amusement. "What happened that had the three of you staring at me as if I had done something completely outrageous?"
Finally, Glorfindel unfolded himself, and his hand found her elbow. "Come, let us sit down and make ourselves comfortable - at least, as comfortable as one can be in this situation," he mumbled the second part as if to himself. Still, Gilraen allowed him to guide her to a stone bench beneath an arbor of roses. When he turned to face her, however, his eyes immediately rose above hers. "Did you wash out the spring water?" he asked suddenly. "From your hair, I mean?"
"I had to; it smelled of rotten food," she replied with a wrinkled nose. "Why?"
"I was right, was I not, that your hair is softer now than usual?" His hand reached up, but didn't quite touch her head.
She shrugged. "I suppose. What does that have to do with…"
The hand fell back into his lap. "You are right; I am stalling." Gilraen blinked. Was his face darker; was he blushing? "Very well. I am certain that you have discovered that there seems to be a large difference in opinion when it comes to matters of… modesty and decorum… between your people and ours?"
"Yes," she answered cautiously. "A very large difference in opinion. Why?"
"Because you stumbled across another facet of that this afternoon. When I gave you the blanket to protect your modesty, it had not occurred to me the way in which you would have to handle that blanket to remove yourself from the pool."
Gilraen frowned in confusion. "What do you mean, 'handle the blanket?' All I did was pull it up out of the way…"
"Yes, exactly," he interrupted with a nod. "You pulled it up…"
She thought through her actions at the pool. She had stayed more than modestly covered - at no time had her wet and transparent clothing been visible. What in the world could he be talking about? "I don't understand," she complained with a shake of the head. "Why…?"
A very brief glimpse of frustration washed across Glorfindel's face. "Very well. I can see there is no easy way to talk around this, so I guess I may as well speak plainly."
His eyes glittered at her in the moonlight. "I remember the first time you came to the hot springs with us, and your reaction when we got ready to leave. Do you?"
Now Gilraen did blush. "Yes," she barely managed to squeek. Of all the things to have to live with, now she had to contend with the knowledge that Elrond and Glorfindel had actually noticed her looking at them! What they must think of her now!
"That was the first time it occurred to any of us that your people…" He shook himself and seemed to steel himself against something to come. "That was when we realized that your people feel some shame in the exposure of your bodies to one another. In all our long-years, we have never been in quite that situation with one of the Dúnedain before."
"The men would have no trouble, I'm certain," Gilraen explained, feeling some of his embarrassment now. "It was because I am a woman - and none of you are my husband… Among my people, we do not mix the sexes while swimming or bathing, unless it is husband and wife."
"Ah!" Glorfindel's face filled with understanding. "That is the key! I shall have to tell Elrond!"
"It still doesn't explain what happened today," she pointed out.
"Well, just as we had never considered that you would have been shocked by our standing up, I had never considered our reaction to your pulling the blanket up to step from the pool. You see…" He paused and seemed to marshal his thoughts. "You see, what we Elves find… arousing… is the suggestion. The tie of a blouse loosened to show a little more neck, or a hem pulled up a little higher than normal to show an ankle and perhaps a flash of calf…" He gazed earnestly into her eyes. "Understand, please, that nudity during bathing is just accepted - how else are we to clean our bodies, after all. But to be covered and yet let slip or deliberately uncover that which normally is hidden…"
"You mean, I could stand up from that pool without a stitch of clothing on, and you would think nothing of it?" Gilraen gaped. Of course! That would explain why they had just stood up as if nothing at all were amiss! "But when I pulled the blanket up to step out of the pool, I… Oh my!" If it weren't so important that she maintain her composure, she certainly would have broken into hysterical laughter. As it was, she merely put her hand over her mouth and stared up at the stars.
"As you can imagine, you took the three of us very much by surprise with actions we would normally expect from a young woman actively seeking our attentions, or a wife trying to seduce her husband. I am not even certain poor Erestor has yet recovered from the embarrassment of being caught staring; you notice he did not join us this evening. Elrond is more sanguine about such matters, of course; but then, he has been married for many long-years. And I… well…"
"So you were staring at my feet."
"Um…" Glorfindel coughed. "Yes. I am sorry; we all were, for..."
"Yes, well," Gilraen swallowed hard. "I'm sorry too, for…" No. She wouldn't let the memory of Elrond and Glorfindel resurface; not now. "I didn't mean to stare either." She finally worked up the courage to look back into his face, only to find him looking at her with an odd intensity that startled her. Shaken, she rose and wandered back into the garden in search of that friendly tree. Perhaps, with some distance between them, she could figure out exactly what was really going on below the surface of the conversation they'd just shared. She had never been very good at reading between the lines with Arathorn; doing so with Elves seemed infinitely more complicated.
Suddenly, very gentle fingers were carefully removing the pins from her hair and then loosening her braid - just as they had earlier in the day. She stood still, hardly daring to breathe, as long fingers combed through her hair to spread it across her shoulders and down her back. "Just as I imagined," Glorfindel commented softly, his voice deeper, huskier than normal, "as soft as silk and as dark as night." Over and over the fingers ran gently through her tresses, even down her back to her waist, to finally return to rest very carefully on her shoulders. "I did not mind your gaze that day, Gilraen," that deep voice stated softly at last, so close to her ear that she could feel his breath on her skin. "And, if it makes any difference to you, all three of us agree that your ankle and calf are… magnificent."
Gilraen turned to gaze at him in both surprise and shock. So caught was she in that intense gaze that she barely noted his gathering one of her hands into his to deposit the loosened hairpins back into her keeping. At last Glorfindel broke the impasse, stretching out a finger to tease away a tendril of hair that had dared ride the breeze onto her cheek, all without touching her skin.
And then he turned and was gone, leaving Gilraen staring after him into the darkness with the risen gooseflesh of knowing something mysterious and dangerous - and all too tempting - had just passed her way. She found herself wondering, as she tucked the hairpins into a pocket and gathered her hair to braid it again loosely, if she would ever, ever, understand these ancient, incomprehensible - magnificent - beings around her. Then again, perhaps it was better that they remain a mystery, for understanding them risked bringing on challenges she wasn't certain she was ready to face.
One thing was certain: she wasn't going to find sleep easily this night.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.