1. To Sing Of...
Supper that night had gone on far too long. I was weary to the bone by the time I returned to my private chambers, drained of all energy by an evening of repetitive dances and unwanted attention. But as I had hoped, Erestor already waited by the fire when I opened the door. He stood half hidden in shadows, dark in contrast to the flames, and looked like some unsavoury, dangerous thing.
"Well?" he asked. "How fares my King?"
I could not manage anything for an answer, not even a grunt, as I collapsed into the nearest chair. Ever the good servant, despite his slyness, Erestor poured me a generous measure of wine. I took the glass and downed half of it without pause.
"That bad, hmm?"
"Worse." I swallowed the rest, and he refilled my cup.
The second glass, I only sipped. It was a good vintage, full and aromatic, and stronger than usual, which suited me perfectly. If only kingship were as easily pleasing as wine.
"I can't marry her, Erestor," I said, leaning back in the chair. I let my head hang and my hair fall down behind me. It felt as heavy as my conscience. "I just can't. I thought it was possible, but the more I see, the more I think... I can't do this."
He looked at me through his narrowed eyes, and I knew a scheme was already forming. "And so?" he said carefully.
"And so, advise me. Advisor."
"I'm not your advisor," he muttered.
"Not officially, no. But I trust your opinion above anyone's. What should I do?"
His secretive look did not falter as he considered my situation. "A difficult call, indeed," he said. "On the one hand, a marriage can only improve your standing. If you were to marry and start a family, it would be easier for the elders at court to regard you as a grown man rather than the inexperienced boy they knew before the war. Also, the people adore Laerinn. She is the daughter of the Secretary of the Law Council, who is the most revered and respected man in the land after you, but she is also descended from no princes, which makes her an appealing choice to the commoners. On top of that, she is beautiful, kind, gracious, and sweeter than sugared honey. A perfect bride."
"But on the other hand?" I asked. "The 'unfortunately' hand?"
Erestor smirked. "There's an 'unfortunately' to all this sweetness and perfection?"
"Unfortunately," I groaned, "I simply do not love her."
"Whyever not?" Erestor asked. He did not bother to hide his gleeful enjoyment of my discomfort.
I took another sip of my wine only to discover that it, like the first cup, had somehow disappeared. "Perhaps I am being too fussy," I said with a sigh. "Perhaps I am trying to sabotage myself by talking my way out of the marriage because I am nervous. But Elbereth help me, Erestor, I do not even like her! She is beautiful, but so are a dozen others. She is kind and gracious because she hasn't the temperament to misbehave. She is sweet but vapid. My stars! All through dinner, while I tried to speak with that messenger from Celeborn, she was talking about wedding clothes! She wouldn't give me a moment's peace!"
Erestor, tactfully, said nothing.
"If I only liked her," I continued. "If we could only be friends. That would be enough to make the marriage work. I need not love her, I need only like her. But even that... even that... Half a year betrothed, and I shouldn't be sorry if she married another tomorrow."
"You could learn to like her," Erestor started.
"No." The word was heavy and flat, but it rang true. "I've tried. Elbereth knows I've tried. I've taken her riding to the seaside, walking through the gardens, I've had her at my side for every court supper since spring... And I've thought about this, Erestor. The more I think, the more I know I can never marry her. Were she not a lady of status, I never would have chosen her, and were I not the king, she never would have agreed to my proposal. It makes no sense."
His suspicious look having doubled in intensity, Erestor kept his eyes levelly locked on mine. "And what have you planned to remedy this?" His voice was every inch as wary as his face.
"I need your help," I admitted.
He gave a little huff. "I knew it."
"Please! You're the only one I can trust to help me." Again he huffed, and rolled his eyes, but I continued. "You are my spy about court. If anyone can dig up any reason I ought not marry her, you can. There must be something. Something in her past, some instance of disloyalty, anything to throw her character into question and make her an unsuitable match for the king."
"You want me to besmirch the spotless reputation of an innocent woman?" he asked, incredulous.
I frowned. "What, you've suddenly developed some moral fortitude?"
Slowly, he shook his head, and a smile twitched on his lips until he looked like a child at New Year. "No," he breathed. "I just thought you'd never ask."
"I knew I could count on you," I said, and his little smile of amazement grew wide and greedy. "Just... ah. Nothing too contentious, right?"
"Of course not," he said smoothly.
Something in his voice was too slick for me to believe. "Hm. Good. Then I guess I'd better..."
"You'd best get to your public chambers," he finished for me. "I had a look through the keyhole, and it is full of courtiers undoubtedly wanting to bother you."
It was days like this that made me wish I were anything but the king. Being a farrier would have been nice right then, or a mariner, or even one of those simpering courtiers with nothing better to do than mill about and ask me for outrageous favours.
"Two dozen, at least."
I groaned. "Fine. Fine. Let's have this over with so I can go to bed."
Erestor disappeared through the secret passage beside my desk as I pulled myself to my feet. We liked to think we were the only two who knew of that passage, which led up a narrow spiral of stairs to a draughty and impractically small, thus unused, office on the second floor. Of course there would certainly be some servants who knew of it, and the builders of this haphazard house, but they were not the ones we worked to avoid. Our secret stairway worked well enough to evade prying eyes. Erestor was never seen entering or exiting my private room, and never seen in my presence. In the eyes of the court, he was nothing more than a lowly servant to the treasury. It made his spying more effective.
I paused at the door to my reception room and, as Erestor had done, peered through the keyhole. More bodies than I could count from my vantage point loitered and gossiped in a large herd of expensive clothing. I could hear their rippling chatter and false laughs. As quietly as I could, I opened the door and slid through, hoping that some miracle would let me avoid detection.
It nearly worked. I had closed the door behind me and taken a few skulking steps along the wall before the first heads turned in my direction. "Your Majesty!" I heard one voice call, followed by shouts of "Gil-galad!" and "The King!" and other similar noise. At the fore of it all was Laerinn's father, Lord Heledhol, striding forward in a purposeful way. He wanted to discuss Celeborn's trade proposal. I could see it in his face: he wanted to remind me of his role in it, assure me it would be a wise choice, add a compliment to his daughter and what a splendid wife she would make, and ask me for a favour. He always came around to asking for the favour.
Carefully, I let my eyes glide over him as I searched the room for any distraction. To Heledhol's left stood a pair of brothers from the Council of Law, most certainly also in search of a favour from me. Past them, a small group stood with heads huddled in secrecy. I could not see their faces, but easily recognised the capes of some of the worst gossips at court. Flirtatious youths trading coy jests filled the area nearest the fireplace, but beyond them... Elrond. Alone with his harp, Elrond sat on the window bench, absorbed in playing something too quiet for me to hear above the din of the receiving room.
"Elrond!" I said, just loud enough for Heledhol and the others to hear. Elrond did not look up, nor did he notice my presence until I was nearly hovering over him. Then he jerked back, startled, and his hands froze on the harp strings. The notes died abruptly in my ears.
"Don't stop," I told him. "What song is that?"
"Nothing," he said quickly. "Just some practice at arrangements. Thinking of new harmonies. Not a real song."
But I knew this was untrue. I had heard only a brief snatch of it, but I recognised what he played. It was a song that had been popular in my childhood, but that had been written long before: an old Noldorin song called 'Liritas', to Sing of Her, which told the story of a man whose beloved spurned his advances. It was a favourite of mine all those years ago, for its haunting and complex melody. And if rumour held, the song had been written by Maedhros. I did not have to wonder at how Elrond came to know it.
"'Nothing' or not," I began, but was interrupted by a handclap on my shoulder and the hearty voice of Heledhol at my side.
"Gil-galad! At last! We've been waiting for you!"
If Elrond saw me flinch, he did not show it. He merely looked back to his harp, rubbing his thumb over a scratch in the wood, and silently excused himself from the banality of court. I turned to face Heledhol with as pleasant an expression as I could muster. It was not that I disliked him at all. Only our conversations were always very taxing. It took so much energy to play the game of king and courtier, following the rules and etiquettes and never enjoying the freedom to speak plainly.
"Heledhol. My good friend."
He bowed as I nodded my greeting. "You look splendid tonight, my King. Is that a new robe?"
And so it began, as it always began. I was not wearing a new robe, which he knew as well as I. Such an insignificant comment, meant to flatter, and yet it irked me enough to shoot a flash of hot anger down my neck. This was how it would be until the end of time. If I married Laerinn, this is what I could look forward to for the rest of my days. I would wake every morning to Heledhol's pointless pleasantries, and retire every evening from a day spent at his side. We would never be true friends. Always under a false impression that I demanded it, he would dance around my kingship like a gnat buzzing in my ear. He would be the grandfather of my children and yet never act as part of the family. We would never be comfortable with each other like brothers. He would never call me Ereinion.
The prospect of such a future made me want to scream. It stifled me, and all I wanted to do in response was throw a tantrum like an infant. I could flail off those bonds and howl away the decorum, if I tried. For now, though, the best I could do was imagine it. And lie.
"Heledhol," I said, "I am deeply sorry. I know there are things we need to discuss. But tomorrow, perhaps? I've received an urgent letter from Círdan. I'm afraid Elrond and I must leave immediately."
"Círdan?" he asked, just as I heard Elrond's sharp and confused inhalation behind me.
"The only man in the kingdom who can command a king's presence and expect it at once," I continued, smiling in a way that felt far too wide. Hopefully, he would find it amusing.
He did not. "Ah." His voice hung sharp with resentment. "Well, if you must go..."
"I must." I tugged at Elrond's arm, pulling him to his feet, and had to hold my breath against sighing in relief when he neither resisted nor questioned me. "We must. Elrond and I."
They bowed to me, Heledhol and the others, but made no movement away. I had to be the one to leave them. Which I did, gladly. With Elrond's arm still under my hand, I hurried from the room, and he hurried along with me. It was not until we were outside by the orchard that I realised I had been steering him as if he were some petulant child.
"Sorry," I said, dropping my grip from his sleeve. "I didn't mean..."
He shook his head. "No worry."
With anyone else, I would have worried. I would have worried at being too forward, or that my apology was only accepted because I was the king, and the king must always be treated with infuriating delicacy. But Elrond put me at ease, somehow. It was so easy to believe that whatever he said, he meant. I smiled at him, and we fell into a comfortable, wordless companionship as we walked down the path from the house.
"This way," he said when we reached an intersection with the wider, cobbled service road. I was so caught up in my enjoyment of the freedom of the night air that I was four steps away before I realised he had spoken.
"This..." I looked at him, confused. "What?"
"To the stables," he answered with a frown. "We should ride to Círdan. Walking will take the better part of an hour, and it's starting to rain."
Círdan. I had forgotten the lie about Círdan. My head was truly elsewhere. "Oh," I said stupidly. "Ah. Right. Círdan. That was all... I invented that. There was no letter from Círdan. I just needed to get out of that room."
"Oh." Elrond's arm, which he had been holding out to point the way to the stables, fell limply to his side. "So, Círdan did not send for us."
"We needn't go to him."
I shook my head.
Elrond stared at me a moment longer, looking both hesitant and unsure. "Then where are we going?"
That, I could not answer. I glanced around at the garden, searching for any reasonable destination, but the sky was overcast and blocked all but the weakest hints of moonlight. The misty air had given way to a steady patter of rain. "Perhaps," I began, but found I could not finish the thought. Clearly, there was no sense in staying outdoors.
"I left my harp in your reception room."
He said nothing outright, but that little hint was enough to cast a sudden light of clarity on how selfish I had been. "Oh. Elrond. I'm sorry... I dragged you out of there right in the middle of your playing. I didn't even think."
"I'm glad you didn't think," he said with a smirk. "Otherwise I might be stuck in there all night with idiots who are convinced they're very clever to ask me if I can play Over the Hill and Far Away. What I meant was: I hope nobody sits on it."
"Then you hate having to be on display every night as much as I do?"
"Sometimes, I think I would rather strangle myself with a harp string than play through one more love song for the benefit of some lord's son besotted with his starry-eyed dance partner."
There was a reason I had always liked Elrond, and this was it. He had the same familiarity as Erestor, and the same wit, but without the acid sharpness. Why did we spend so little time together? Every time I saw him, we were part of a larger group putting on the show of Merriment in the King's Court.
"Sometimes," I said, "I think I would rather be anything in the world instead of a king. I would be like Círdan. How did he manage-"
"To be a leader without all this superficiality," Elrond finished for me.
"Exactly! A leader, but not a king."
"Free to live a simpler life."
"My stars. What I would give to be able to do that..." I grinned at Elrond, and he at me. It felt as if we had gone through this conversation before. Something about the smooth exchange seemed so natural. He could have been my long-time confidant, such was the ease I felt with him.
"But to change the subject for a moment," he said, interrupting my thoughts, "we should get inside."
"Inside?" I looked down at my clothes. In the past minutes, the rain had picked up, and I was drenched. I had not even noticed. "Right. Inside. You know anywhere we can go? I'm afraid my private chambers are out of the question. We have to pass through too many busy corridors to reach them."
"My bedroom," he said. "Same corridors as yours, but there's this conveniently placed tree right outside the window..."
In nearly thirty years of looking out my bedroom windows, I never really noticed the tree. How I missed it was a mystery, because of its exceptional size, but I never gave it much thought. It was simply there. And had someone asked me if there stood a tree near my bedroom, I am sure I would have answered, "No."
But there it was. And there was a very well placed branch growing off to the side, ending a mere armspan from one of Elrond's windows to create a natural bridge. The tree might have grown with escaping Elves in mind; it certainly appeared that way.
Elrond balanced with one foot on the branch and the other on the windowsill. He had unfastened a brooch from his cloak and was attempting to open the window latch by sliding the brooch pin along the crack where latch met frame. It came open with surprising ease.
"You mean to show me," I asked as we clambered gracelessly inside, "that anyone, friend or enemy, can unlock my windows with nothing more than a pin?"
"No," he answered; "just mine. I deliberately leave them latched but not bolted." He gestured toward the tree with his chin. "For this very reason."
"You use the tree often?"
He laughed, but did not answer. Instead, he crossed the room, undressing as he walked, and hung his wet robe over a chair by the door.
I had never been in Elrond's bedroom. At least, I had not been inside since the house was built. At that time, I inspected the new rooms to ensure they had been constructed adequately. Now, I noticed two distinct things. The first was that Elrond kept his room very warm. The air was almost stuffy, and a large fire still crackled jovially. He must have had a servant come in twice an hour to tend it. The second thing I noticed was the fish.
Elrond kept ornamental fish. He had four large glass jars of water, each containing rocks, a little plant, and a brightly coloured fish. The jars had been grouped around the fireplace, presumably for warmth. And as soon as he had pulled off his wet robe, Elrond knelt amongst them, pinching bits of fish food from a silver box.
"I never knew you had fish," I said.
"They're a recent thing. Elros sent them up from the south last summer. Unfortunately, they need very warm water to live. So..." He nodded to the fire.
I sat by the fire and peered into the nearest fish bowl. Its inhabitant, a little creature no more than half a finger in size, floated lazily near the surface with shimmering, blue fins draped about it like a royal mantle.
"You won't take off your wet clothes?" Elrond asked me. He had stripped to his breeches and unplaited his hair, and now sat with his bare back to the fire, skin glowing golden in its heat.
At one time, I would have. But I had recently adopted a policy against removing my clothes unless absolutely necessary. Erestor was to blame, for accurately drawing to my attention that I was as skinny as a stick and far too tall for my weight. I chided him once about his thin, girlish arms. He retaliated by having me hold up my own forearms against his to compare, and I was horrified to see that I was no better. Worse, he had me try on his tunic and breeches, and they fit perfectly. I had always regarded Erestor as being far too thin, and there we were: the very same size. Only I was taller. Since that day, I have never worn less than three layers of bulky clothing. I gained a special fondness for quilted jerkins, wide fur trims, and anything with pleats.
"I'm fine," lied. The damp cold had crept through my layers and all the way down to my skin to cling in the heavy, uncomfortable way of wet fabric. But the discomfort of a wet, clinging tunic was preferable to the humiliation of having to compare my naked self to Elrond, whose Mannish heritage had blessed him with broad shoulders and strong arms. How unfair it was that I was the older of us two, the king who spent frequent hours in the training arena with sword and spear, yet he, the minstrel, looked my part while I looked his. Fate works in cruel and infuriating ways. "Everything can dry on my body."
To his credit, Elrond did not push the issue. He only nodded, closed his eyes, and dropped his head back with a contented sigh. "It's nice, isn't it?" he asked. "To come in out of the rain and dry by a warm fire?"
"It is," I agreed. I let myself hunch over, and then succumbed to relaxation and lay down on the hearth rug between the fish bowls. The fire snapped happily as I watched its leaping flames. Elrond's gentle breathing provided a soothing counterpoint in the background. "Far, far better than any pompous reception room."
I woke in a strange bed, buried under an enormous mound of blankets, with a masculine arm draped around my shoulders and little recollection of how I ended up there. It took a moment to gather my bearings and remember that I was in Elrond's room and therefore Elrond's bed. It was only logical that the arm belonged to Elrond.
And I was hard. Of all the mornings for this to happen, it had to be when I was in Elrond's bed. I had thought I was free of that bodily curse. It had plagued me nightly from the time I had started to grow out of boyhood through to the later years of the war, but recently had become less and less frequent. Now, of all the mornings, with no hope of release... I needed a distraction. I concentrated on Elrond's arm dangling in front of my face. The yellow light of morning caught each of the soft, dark hairs rising up from his skin, creating highlights and shadows around each curve of muscle. He had such manly arms.
Distressingly, this only made the situation worse. I closed my eyes, and pressed my face into the pillow.
He was awake, then. How long had he been awake? "Yes?"
He groaned with the effort the morning's first activity, pulling his arm away to stretch. "I didn't want to risk waking you if I moved."
"Not a problem."
That is, he was not the problem. My uncooperative, treacherous body was the problem. I was trapped in bed with only blankets between my shame and Elrond's eyes, and little prospect of escaping unnoticed. I was no longer dressed. My clothes, I could see, lay draped over a chair back across the room. Now that I thought on it, I had vague memories of Elrond waking me on the hearth rug, helping my sleepy self to undress, and leading me to bed. Which meant he had seen me naked. My embarrassment was now fully compounded. I needed a great stroke of luck to help me salvage whatever was left of my dignity.
It came, amazingly enough. As I lay there, spinning my mind through all possible courses of action, Elrond rolled away with another groan and reached beneath the bed for his chamber pot. "If you'll excuse me," he said before crossing the room to disappear through a little door in the side wall.
I lost no time in leaping up and throwing on my clothes. By the time he returned, only minutes later, I was fully dressed and ready to leave. His eyes registered the briefest flash of surprise when he saw me.
"I have too many things to do this morning," I told him. "Breakfast with Laerinn, meeting with Heledhol, sit with the Law Council, the usual trials of kingship..."
"Oh," he said. "Of course."
"I'm sorry for falling asleep on you last night. We could have had a good visit, but I hardly realised how tired I was."
He shook his head to dismiss my worry. "You were exhausted. You need to rest more. Your position is a stressful one, and if you don't take enough time to sleep-"
"I could find myself falling asleep in worse places than your bedroom," I finished.
Though he smiled, he said nothing.
"Anyhow," I continued with a cough, "I'll likely see you in the public chambers tonight?"
"Likely," he said.
I left the room feeling both relief and disappointment. The disappointed part asked why I had not stayed longer.
Laerinn did not come to breakfast with me, and I saw only the back of Heledhol's robe at the end of a corridor before he, too, disappeared. None of the Law Councillors requested audience as I ate. In fact, no-one spoke to me at all. It was as if the court had filled with ghosts overnight. Eyes flitted my way, but nobody approached. By the time I finished my bread and jam, a sense of foreboding had started to creep through my skin: that hot-cold, tingly feeling in the back of my neck that told me something was wrong.
Alachel was the first person I found after breakfast. She had been a friend of mine for years, and I called her cousin even though we were only distantly related through marriage. Her mother was Orodreth's wife's second-cousin, or something to that effect. I never could keep our relationship straight.
"Walk with me?" I asked.
She nodded, and led the way out to the gardens, where we could speak more privately.
"You're wearing a nice gown today," I said. "What's the occasion?"
Scowling, she lifted her skirts to clear a puddle left by last night's rain. "No occasion. Nana just thinks I should be more ladylike. I'll never catch a husband wearing work clothes, apparently."
I laughed, looking her over. If anything, the finery of court only made Alachel look less ladylike. She always had a certain confident grace about her in riding leathers or the plain grey smock she wore in the enamelwork studio. In this excessive yellow gown, she had all the flair of a child playing dress-up. Her necklace hung crooked, a small stain from breakfast had dribbled its way onto the trim at her breast, and she shuffled along in delicate slippers that were clearly too large. The skirt was too long, and everything else too tight. "Whose gown is it?"
Arathel was Alachel's twin sister and perfect opposite: tall, slender, and dark where Alachel was short, round, and silvery-pale. No wonder the gown fit so poorly. And while the yellow would have been pretty with Arathel's black hair, it did no favours to Alachel's silver plait.
"So is that your plan today?" I asked.
"Is what my plan?"
"To catch a husband."
She clucked her tongue against her teeth: a classic Sindarin sound of annoyance. I learned long ago that when a Sindarin woman starts clucking her teeth, even if her words are calm, trouble is about to erupt.
"Husband," she snorted. "As if I'd agree to any fool who fancies me in this horrible dress (cluck). Although...." She fixed her gaze somewhere off to my right, and paused to let a slow and appreciative smile creep across her face. "I wouldn't toss him out of bed, no matter what he thinks of my clothes."
I followed her eyeline across a border of hedges and between an arch of trees, where a half-naked gardener stood pruning branches. Despite the cool morning, the man had removed his shirt and was already glistening with sweat from his hard labour. In a three-quarter profile, he looked very much like Elrond: he had the same well shaped arms and shoulders. It made me feel even taller and ganglier just to look at him. And look at him we did. Alachel, suddenly dreamy and giggly and very unlike herself, seemed unable to pull her eyes away.
The unfavourable comparison between him and me made me squirm. "Alachel," I murmured, "do you ever feel... ah... inadequate?"
She stared a moment longer before realising I had spoken. "Oh... sorry, what? What do you mean?"
"I mean, compared to others. Physically."
"Ah!" she laughed. "Of course. All the time. Who doesn't?"
My shoulders sagged with relief. "So you know how it is."
"More than well enough." She leaned closer to strengthen the air of confidence between us before continuing. "You know, my mother has perfect tits. I envied them the whole time I was young, praying to Elbereth like mad that I'd grow up soon to be just like her. Like perfect Arathel did. And wouldn't you know? I was flat as a boy until the summer I was forty-seven." She clapped her hands over her chest for emphasis. "And then these huge things sprung up on me. I haven't been able to fit into a nice gown since."
"I envied my father," I admitted. "I always wanted to be like him, too. He was so much bigger and stronger than I was. I hated being a skinny, weak boy next to him and couldn't wait to be an adult. Now I am an adult and I'm still nothing like him."
"Perhaps it's just the nature of childhood to want to be our parents."
"Perhaps. And I know it sounds so trivial and stupid," I said with a sheepish smile, "but like you and your mother's... ah..."
"Tits," she offered.
"Chest," I continued, "I was deeply envious of my father's arms. He had very manly arms." I looked down at my own arms, covered in two layers of sleeves though they were, before finishing, "Like Elrond."
Alachel blinked at me. "Elrond has manly arms?"
"You were looking at Elrond's arms?"
"Yes," I said. "Well, one of them. This morning. It was dangling in front of my face and it reminded me of all those envious thoughts I used to have about my father. That I still have."
"Why..." she began slowly; "why was Elrond's arm dangling in front of your face? This morning?"
"I was in his bed. Because I fell asleep on his floor. I think he must have thrown his arm over my shoulders accidentally. So I woke with part of the arm that was over my shoulders dangling in front of my face. Like this," I added, holding up my own arm at head height in a way that surely must have looked ridiculous from her position. I dropped it almost immediately.
"So you were in Elrond's bed. With Elrond. Who had his arm draped over your shoulder."
She stared at me for a long moment, narrowing her eyes and running her tongue back and forth between her teeth so that I could see its movement behind her cheeks. "I knew it," she finally said. And then she laughed. It started quietly at first, but quickly rose to a full, cackling, howling laugh as she bent over and pressed her hands to her face. "I knew it!"
"Knew what?" I asked. When she did not answer, I repeated my question more crossly. "Knew what?!"
I received no reply. Instead, the moment she stopped laughing, she grabbed my arm and stared in the direction of the gardener. "Oh shite," she hissed. "He's looking at us. We have to go!"
Roughly, she tugged on my sleeve, pulling me further down the path until we were at the very edge of the gardens and well out of the sight of anyone. This far from the house, the gardens were nearly wild, with native plants left to fend for themselves between the walking paths and rows of trees. The place we had found was overgrown with vervain. I picked two leaves to rub between my fingers and release their fresh, green perfume.
Alachel had started laughing again as soon as we stopped running. She sat down on a large rock and giggled to herself, nervously covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers. "He was looking at me," she said.
"You want to marry the gardener?" I asked.
Before I could answer, something snapped into place in my mind. "Marriage," I groaned. "Now I remember. I wanted to talk to you for a reason."
"Laerinn?" she guessed.
There was no stepping around the issue. "I can't marry her," I said bluntly. "I decided last night."
She nodded, not looking at all surprised. "What made you decide?"
"I simply don't like her. I thought I could, but I find it impossible. We're a poor match." Shaking my head, I sat down on a rock opposite Alachel and crushed two more leaves between my fingers. "When I was young, just before I left for the Havens, my father gave me the best of his advice. One thing he told me was to marry for friendship. He said that a love marriage can often be soured by blindness to fault, but a friend is always a friend. He bade me marry someone I know well, trust, and admire."
"Not Laerinn, then."
"No. Not Laerinn. I hardly know her, have no reason to trust her, and my admiration for her is limited to the few obviously good characteristics she has. Our marriage would be a disaster. The more I think it over, the more I know I can make a better choice."
Once again, Alachel's eyes had narrowed, if only slightly, and she regarded me with an appraising expression. "Hmm."
"What are you thinking?" I asked. "Am I right, or would it be foolish to call off the betrothal to Laerinn?"
Like Erestor, Alachel was one person I always trusted to speak honestly. She held back her opinions only as much as was polite, and did not unnecessarily sweeten her words or hide criticism behind mountains of praise. We were of a similar enough mind that her thoughts usually coincided with mine, and we agreed on almost all topics. This was why we always got along so well.
A sudden inspiration hit me like a wave over the sand. A very large wave over some very oblivious sand. "Alachel!" I whispered.
She froze under my gaze, eyes widening. "Oh no," she said. "No! Don't you dare! Do not even think that, you-"
"I should marry you! Of course! It's so obvious!"
"It's not obvious!" she answered back. "You're only saying that because you need any excuse to break with Laerinn!"
"No, listen!" I insisted. "We have been friends since before the war. We trust and admire each other, yes?"
"Yes, but it does not mean-"
"Why not? I must have been an idiot not to think of you in the first place."
"Ereinion, I can't marry you."
"Of course you can. You're only-"
"Oh, stop it!" she said, close to shouting. "Stop thinking about marrying me, and stop pulling the leaves off the plants! You're destroying them!"
Without even realising it, I had another pair of vervain leaves tattered in my palm. I lifted my hands to my nose to smell the oil. "I like their scent," I explained. "They remind me of..."
Something. They reminded me of something. Something comforting and familiar. Whatever the reason, the smell made me happy. I inhaled again, and let the clean greenness fill my senses. "Did you know, Elrond wears vervain perfume?"
Alachel leaned forward. She cupped her hands over mine, pulling them away from my face. "This is why I can't marry you," she muttered.
Frowning, I looked from my hands to her eyes, but her expression was blank. "What do you mean?"
"Well. It's quite obvious you're in love with Elrond, isn't it?"
"And then she said I was obviously in love with Elrond! Can you believe it? How absurd! Sometimes women get the silliest notions."
I set my cup down on the table at my side and flashed a grin at Erestor, expecting him to laugh with me in reply at Alachel's foolishness. But his face remained expressionless apart from one curiously raised eyebrow.
"And what did you say?" he asked.
"I told her how ludicrous that idea was," I answered. "Elrond! Of course I'm not in love with Elrond. Why would she think that?"
"Oh, I have no idea," Erestor said sharply. "Perhaps because the rest of the household is convinced of it?"
His words made the air in the room turn suddenly cold to my skin. "What? What do you mean?"
"Did you or did you not spend the night in Elrond's room?"
"Yes," I said. "But-"
"In Elrond's bed?" he interrupted.
"Pressed up close together like kittens?"
"Kittens!" I coughed. "No! I woke with his arm over me, but I think that was-"
"You were seen."
The ice in Erestor's eyes as he spoke made me shiver. "Seen?"
"By four different servants over the course of the night, coming in to stoke the fire."
The fish. Elrond's wretched ornamental fish. My pristine reputation was shattering beneath me on account of a handful of needy, aquatic dependents.
"By breakfast," Erestor continued, "they had spread the word throughout the house and beyond, reporting to several highly placed individuals. I am not the only scandal-monger about court, you know. Heledhol has been ranting about your immorality all day."
I groaned, dropping my head back to look at the ceiling. "Oh, what does Heledhol care?"
"He has hired servants to spy on you. I'm sure of it now. Likely has been doing so since your betrothal to his daughter, to keep on top of any possible impropriety on your part. Which brings me to the important news of the day: he is demanding you call off the wedding."
"Call off the-" I snapped my head back up to look at Erestor. "Truly?"
Erestor nodded. "Yes. And it's a good thing, too; the worst gossip I was able to uncover about Laerinn is that she thinks hunting is cruel. Your betrothed is as pure as mountain snow and just as interesting. Luckily, you are not."
"I don't care what Heledhol thinks," I said. "But Erestor, I want to assure you that nothing happened between Elrond and me. You know I would never do anything like that."
"Yes, I know you would never do anything like that," he admitted. "However-"
"No 'however'. I would never do that. I am not that sort of person. I am not the type to flit around from bed to bed in dark secrecy and skirt the edges of morality. I do what is good and right. I am going to be married. If not to Laerinn, then to some other lady."
He raised his eyebrow at me again, but said nothing. He had no need to speak; his expression revealed all.
"You can doubt me all you want," I warned, "but I am not like you. If Laerinn is as pure as snow, then you're as pure as ditchwater, Erestor, and don't pretend I don't know it."
"I won't deny it," he said.
"I am not in love with Elrond. And I am a little insulted anyone would say such a thing. In fact, I am very insulted. I am not in love with Elrond, or any other man, and never would be. I am no degenerate. I might be in love with Alachel. I like her well enough. Yes. I want to marry Alachel."
"Are you in love with Alachel?"
"I just said I might be."
He kept his dark, even gaze on me, never faltering. "Ereinion. Think about this carefully. Are truly you in love with Alachel?"
Scowling, I pushed myself out of my chair and paced to the window. Erestor could be so trying at times. He had a superior air about him, and always thought he knew better. I knocked the window open, too hard, and it swung back to hit the shutter with a crack.
"Breaking things won't help you decide," said Erestor.
I had to think, and thinking was impossible while Erestor squawked in the background. I rested my elbows on the windowsill and leaned outside, feeling the cooling autumn wind on my face.
Was I in love with Alachel? It was so hard to say. I liked her. She was a good friend. I loved her, even, but perhaps more like a sister or cousin. Was I in love with her? Did I want to marry her, and spend the rest of my days to the ending of the world at her side? Faced with that situation, the answer was clear.
"No," I told Erestor, speaking hardly above a whisper. "I love her. But not in that way. Not as a wife."
Thankfully, Erestor remained quiet, and I leaned further out the window. I needed to think, and better arrange my mind. Things were getting so tangled lately. I only needed time to think. The wind helped, blowing disarrayed thoughts into ordered lines, and the sounds of the birds were soothing. And the music. Somewhere outside, hidden by trees, someone sang and played the harp. It was so faint, I could hardly hear.
"So if you will not marry Laerinn, and not Alachel-" Erestor began after a moment of silence, but I held up my hand to shush him.
"Quiet. Do you hear that?"
He came to my side, cocking his head to listen. "No. What?"
I leaned out as far as I could, until I was balancing with my belly on the window ledge and my shoulders all the way outside. Carried on the wind, I could just hear the faintest string of a melody and its words. Quenya.
To sing of her,
In a tower of silver,
High as the clouds and yet more beautiful,
Perfect as light itself.
While I, abandoned on the ground,
Can only wish for a glance, no more,
From the one I love.
To sing of her,
My poor words ill-suited to her grace...
That song again. It was Elrond who sang, somewhere in the gardens, of the woman he loved. I had never known Elrond to be in love with anyone. He kept to himself so much, wrapped up in privacy, that the thought was disconcerting. And, somehow, it made me sad.
"It's Elrond," I said. "Practicing a new arrangement from last night. A song by Maedhros: Liritas. Do you know it?"
I hesitated over what I asked next. If anyone knew about Elrond's private life, it would be Erestor. And while I hated to pry into things that did not concern me, my curiosity was too great. "Erestor... What do you know about Elrond?"
"Likely as much as you know, but I'm sure that's not what you are asking."
"Why would he play that song?" I asked. "For whom? Which lady holds Elrond's eye?"
Erestor stared at me as if I had grown a second head. He took a long breath. "Ereinion... please try to think about this. Who wrote that song?"
"Maedhros. I just said-"
"And what is the song called?"
"Liritas," I said, annoyed. "I just-"
"Yes. Liritas. With an S. Have you never wondered why it uses the ambiguous pronoun instead of the full version? To sing of her, specifically her, would be Liritaryë. So why the unclear Liritas?"
"So the lines have the proper syllables?"
Rolling his eyes, Erestor looked ready to slap me. "Maedhros," he hissed. "It was written by Maedhros. To whom might Maedhros write a love song?"
"I don't know," I said. "I know very little of his life. As far as I recall, he never married."
"Liritassssss!" Erestor all but shouted. "To sing of her, or it, or...?"
Erestor did slap me. It was nothing more than a quick flick on the cheek, but it did its job, and I know I deserved it for being so dense. "Ohhh..." I breathed. "Maedhros and... oh. Right."
"Right," Erestor repeated, nodding.
"But does Elrond know that?"
A sharp look was all I needed.
"Of course. You're right. Of course he does. So what you are saying is..."
"Elrond is not as pure as mountain snow," Erestor said. "More of the ditchwater variety, if you understand my meaning."
"You know this for a fact?"
Erestor could not answer. But nor could he meet my eyes.
"Are you... ?"
"No," he growled.
It was then that all the confusion of the day seemed to fade into nothing. Every tangled thought was gone. Dread of the wedding to Laerinn had disappeared. Uncertainty of my feelings toward Alachel was no more. In their place, lightness filled my mind. The weights had been lifted, and only clarity remained. I felt... relief. And joy.
"Shite," I murmured. "I am in love with Elrond."
I cannot say what I expected Erestor's reaction to be. A knowing smile, perhaps, or a little congratulations for my discovery. Instead, he only looked annoyed.
"Ereinion, please don't take this the wrong way, but I have to tell you that, despite your numerous admirable qualities, you are honestly the stupidest person I have ever met."
What could I say to that? "Thanks?"
"You are welcome," said Erestor. "Now please, for the love of Varda, go out there and try to accidentally fall on top of him so I don't have to spend the next thirty years shaking my head at your utter cluelessness."
There was no way to argue with such a command, nor would I want to. I nearly flew to the door. "Was it really so obvious?" I asked, pausing in the corridor.
"For thirty years?"
Part of me wanted to melt from embarrassment. The other part did not care. I was in love with Elrond. "I will see you later," I said.
"I hope not," Erestor replied with an evil smile.
He sat on a stone bench just off the path, so absorbed in his music that he did not notice my approach. "Elrond?" I said quietly.
Just as he had done the night before, he stopped playing as soon as he noticed me. He dropped the harp to his side. "Sorry," he muttered, looking down at his knees. "I didn't see you. How long have you been there?"
"Only a moment. I heard your song from my window and came to listen better."
He looked up at me with a mixture of horror and uncertainty in his eyes. "You... heard?"
"You needn't worry," I laughed. "It sounds lovely."
Again, he muttered to his knees, but the words were too soft for me to fully hear. It seemed as if he said, "I'm not worried about the sound."
I sat down next to him, doing my best to smile and put him at ease. "I know the song. It's been a favourite of mine for as long as I can remember. Will you play it for me?"
At first, I thought he would refuse. He bit his lip and drummed his fingers on the harp, and I could almost see the arguments flying back and forth inside his head. "I suppose I can," he finally agreed. Sighing, he picked up the harp, and tentatively plucked the opening notes.
"Liritas," he began to sing, but immediately I stopped him with a hand on his arm. His gaze flickered nervously toward me, wondering what he had done wrong?"
"Liritas?" I asked, trying to keep myself from smiling too widely. "Or Liritaryo?"
His uncertain look held for a moment longer before the meaning of my words became clear. Then his lips curved into a slow grin. He leaned against my shoulder, laughing. "Liritaryo," he agreed. "To sing of him..."
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.