It was the last thing he'd thought to find while opening small boxes in search of one just the right size and shape to both hold the pendant he was gifting Arwen for Mettarë and fit into a messenger's pouch. In fact, he'd forgotten that he even had the thing, much less that the cedar-wood box containing it had been tucked into a collection of similar boxes. Most of the ones he'd examined were empty, but obviously this one was not. The objects it held would be considered inconsequential to anyone not aware of their history, but Elrond knew he'd tripped over something he prized very highly and actually had forgotten he owned for a time. But how could he forget the tiny soapstone carved by little, mortal hands into a flower, or the poem about Imladris written by a young boy who remembered no other home?
Or the hairpin?
Elrond sat down heavily into the chair at his desk, feeling as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Trembling fingers reached into the tiny container and pulled forth the single mithril hairpin, retrieved from the floor of a suite of rooms in Imladris at almost the same time he'd found a box holding an abandoned Elven circlet belonging to his wife placed so very carefully in the middle of the stripped bed. The circlet being left where it was had been a pointed and painful message from the one who had departed. The hairpin, however, had no doubt been an accidental oversight caused by frantic packing.
Had she missed it, he wondered? Gilraen had been rightfully proud of that pair of mithril hairpins that she had once told him had been a wedding gift from her father. Over the time she'd lived in his Last Homely House, he'd seen to it that his proud, Dúnedain chatelaine had been provided with ample hairpins of silver, gold, carved wood and bone to hold up her braids, regardless that he and Glorfindel teased her endlessly to simply leave her hair down and behave in a more Elven manner when no other Dúnedain were around to disapprove. Her perseverance in continuing to uphold the Dúnedain tradition had been her way to answer their persistence – to tease her gwaedh-vellyn in return.
How happy they had been then! The fate of Ennor had grown increasingly dark, and yet for an all too brief time, Imladris had been a home again rather than merely a refuge or a stronghold. He'd always known the happiness would be temporary, but had never dreamed that he himself would bear the responsibility for bringing about the end of that happy time – he, and not the ravages of time upon a mortal being given far too little time to walk beneath the trees and stars.
It had all started when Estel and Arwen had returned to Imladris, glowing with love for each other and basking in the warmth of their new betrothal. He had warned his foster-son long before that Arwen was too far above him, but had reckoned without the complicity of Arwen herself. Her reaction to the youthful Estel, back in the gardens of Imladris, had echoed her responses when any of the previous heirs had shown her any interest; but then she had seen him again, after years of training and travels, a mature man in Lothlórien, and her head and heart had been turned. His reaction to their announcement had been far less than wise and infinitely more damaging than he wanted to remember: he had been beyond furious, and had unleashed his temper on everyone involved while in the sway of a frantic and futile desperation.
And as a result, he hadn't seen any of them for several years now – Arwen, Estel, or Gilraen. A coldness had come between himself and each of them, he knew, that would take great effort on his part to attempt to remedy, if such remedy could be found. As it was, the wound in his heart at the thought of not only losing Estel someday but also losing his daughter to death, whether Estel be ultimately victorious and regain to himself all that his ancestors had lost over the course of millennia or not, had yet to do more than merely stop bleeding.
Arwen remained stubbornly in Lothlórien with her grandparents after angrily fleeing there in the company of Glorfindel, and Galadriel pointedly told him that his daughter felt the need for the safety of distance from his disappointment and ire. That situation would be changing soon, however. The messenger carrying his Mettarë gift was also carrying a summons home that she couldn't ignore. Lothlórien was simply too close to Dol Guldur for his liking, and he couldn't protect her there. Hopefully, once Arwen was safely back in the Valley, they would take the opportunity to speak at length and finally settle some of the enmity that sat between them as the result of his poorly chosen words.
Estel had left Imladris at his order that very day, and for years had not even sent a message to anyone in the valley. His time was completely taken up with becoming a fulltime Chieftain of the Dúnedain and leading his people in their battle for survival, as had always been his fate. Elrond had understood that, as the head of a scattered and desperate people, it was more important by far for his foster-son to be planning battle strategies to counter the increasing influx of orcs and trolls in the areas the Dúnedain called home than it was to travel several days merely to try to settle a dispute with his estranged foster-father.
Of late, Estel had been forced to visit Imladris in his official capacity as Chieftain to exchange information or aid as was needed in the struggle. During his time in the Valley, he had behaved as if dealing with a respected ally rather than a trusted and beloved relative. He was cordial, but cold and distant; not once did he relax into informality or seem at ease once more in the bosom of his Elven family. With the brusque farewell he'd received from Estel when the Dúnadan rode away, Elrond could feel the gulf between them growing wider, and he had privately despaired of ever again reconciling with the loving, loyal young man who had literally chosen him to be an Ada.
His hand closed about the hairpin as his mind returned, at last, to Gilraen. Coming to them as little more than a child herself, she had grown up in Imladris with the Elves every bit as much as her son had, and she had been a bright light for all of them during an increasingly dark time. He could remember her laugh, the blush of embarrassment when her lifting a blanket from her feet to escape a hot spring had made all the Elven lords present gape in shock, how she would bring her mending to the Hall of Fire or other times of recreation, keeping her hands always busy in service to the community. She had handled his household with finesse for decades, played hostess to all of his guests – Elven or mortal – with skill and humor, and supported him emotionally at some of his most vulnerable times. In the process, she had wormed her way into his heart far deeper than he'd ever chosen to show her.
And how had he repaid her in the end?
Even now, it was difficult to even think about the words that he had dumped on her head in the throes of his grief and near-madness at the idea of Arwen's choosing the fate of Lúthien. On she who had herself done her best to discourage Estel from attempting to think of Arwen as a potential wife, he had visited the very worst of his vitriol, saying things to her that he would never have dreamed himself capable of saying to anyone, things that made his mind writhe in shame every time they bubbled forth from where he tried to keep them carefully locked away. Even now he could see her in his mind's eye, sitting in his office, on the very edge of the chair she ever selected when speaking with him there. Her eyes had gone wide and she had become deathly pale as his grief-poisoned tirade continued, as he had so thoughtlessly and carelessly betrayed and demolished everything that had ever been between them.
She was gone two days later. She'd listened, returned truth for grief and abuse, reason and valid challenges to senseless accusations and barbs, and he had chosen not to hear her; and then she'd spoken not a single word at all to him after leaving his office until she was wishing him well even as she rode out of the courtyard of Imladris with his sons to return to her people. All of the beautiful hairpins he'd given her over the years, without exception, had been left in a haphazard pile on top of the clothing press, and his wife's circlet sat abandoned on a stripped down bed. He had not heard from her since, either. All he had was a single mithril hairpin, dropped accidentally in haste and probably not even noticed until she was far enough away to decide it wasn't worth it to return to claim it.
He had written to her well over three years ago, striving to explain himself, using every last power of persuasion at his command to convince her to return to Imladris where it was safer, where they could work out their disagreement face to face. She had never answered him. Like with Estel, the distance between Imladris and the Angle had transformed into an insurmountable barrier. He could not safely leave the Valley – the Els would never agree to such a thing, matters being what they were now – and she evidently had no intention of coming back. Worse, she had ever right to be angry with him and shun him. He could only hope that mortal forgiveness came at the same, quicker speed as their lives were lived at, for the thought of enduring to Ambar Meth never having made his peace with her, never having had the chance to tell how much he regretted that moment of weakness and fury, haunted him.
"My lord?" Erestor's voice interrupted his musings from beyond the now-cracked office door.
Hastily he tossed his hand at his face to swipe away the tears that had escaped his control. "Yes?"
His Chief Counselor entered the office, took one look at his lord's face, and quietly closed the door against the prying, curious eyes of the household staff. "What is wrong?"
Elrond sighed. "I was looking for a box to hold my Mettarë gift for Arwen this year, and I found something that…"
"Elrond?" Erestor sounded worried, and he stepped closer. "What is it?"
Wordlessly he held up the hairpin, and his eyes searched his Counsellor's for… he wasn't sure what. Forgiveness? No, not forgiveness, for as he watched, Erestor's eyes widened in surprise and consternation; and less than a moment later, it was like a heavy curtain fell to hide any more private emotions. Inside, he winced. Erestor hadn't spoken to him except at great need for almost a year after Gilraen had left, hadn't spoken to anyone for nearly three months. Evidently this particular topic was no more resolved for Erestor now than they had been those first few months.
As if Erestor's reaction at the time to his lack of wisdom and tact hadn't been bad enough, Glorfindel had refused to discuss the matter at all after his unauthorized visit to the Dúnedain settlement to which Gilraen had retreated, having left Imladris almost the very moment he'd returned from Lothlórien. He had returned from the Angle just hours before the first snowfall and had been utterly reserved and uncommunicative about anything but the business of the realm for weeks. The one time Elrond had tried to press his Battle Master for news of Gilraen, roughly a year later, Glorfindel had grown so angry with him that Elrond had never had the courage to broach the subject again. Since then, for all of them, just an accidental mention of Gilraen's name was like yanking a bandage from an open and bleeding wound that they carefully avoided touching in order to otherwise preserve their deep friendships.
"Put it away, somewhere safe," Erestor told him in a flat, quiet voice. "I am certain I can help you find another, better box."
With a sigh, Elrond nodded and gently returned the pin to its box and replaced the lid.
"I do not know why you keep it." There was a hint of rage still glowing white-hot on the very edges of that flat voice. "I understand you made it very clear to her at the time that she was living with us on suffrage alone and deeply resented."
"You know better than that." Elrond sighed in frustration. He truly didn't want to argue, but he wouldn't let that kind of attitude rule the day – even at the risk of stirring the kind of explosive emotion that made Erestor a very dangerous man.
"Do I?" The sarcasm dripped from Erestor's question like melted wax and made him cringe, visibly this time. It was a side Erestor rarely showed to anyone, and a side Elrond would do nearly anything to avoid: it was a prelude to disaster. The last time he'd seen it, Erestor had also been defending Gilraen – only then it had been against Glorfindel. Elrond didn't like remembering that episode either, and he'd evidently awakened the sleeping warrior, for Erestor continued, "Why do you keep it, then?"
Elrond weighed his words carefully, knowing that he had but one tiny chance to let his friend and his Counselor know just how much he regretted what had happened. "I keep it to remind myself that we all – Men, Elves, even the Belain themselves – have the capacity to betray those we love with just a few ill-chosen words, that it is far too easy to destroy relationships that took decades or even centuries of love and friendship to build." He looked up into those veiled, grey eyes that gazed at him with cold intensity and prayed that any judgment to come from the man this day would be a fair one. "From Gilraen I learned that one need not be a minion of a Dark Lord or under the sway of a terrible oath to commit an unspeakable act, and I keep her hairpin to remind myself to never again lose my temper with someone I hold dear to such an extent that I commit another similar act."
There was a very tiny flicker in those almond-shaped grey eyes that told him that perhaps finally, after all this time, he had been at least understood: the hairpin was his self-inflicted punishment, as were the memories it called forth. A fleeting glimpse of smug satisfaction that vanished almost before it could be seen didn't comfort him at all, however – nor was it meant to.
Still… "Listen." Erestor moved around the end of the desk and pointed. "Aranor has not needed to construct furniture lately, and so he has been practicing more decorative skills on smaller items which may be of interest to you. I believe he has a box that may just fit your needs. Find someplace safe in a drawer, put that thing away and come with me to the workshop."
Elrond shifted to open one of the bottom drawers of his desk and slipped the box into an empty spot that seemed to have been waiting for it all this time, and then he slid the drawer shut. "I miss her. I miss them both." Gilraen. Estel. It seemed impossible that so many memories of them could fit in such a small box along with a few otherwise inconsequential mementos.
"We all miss them, some of us more than others," Erestor said, his tone guarded, but no longer cold. "Come along now; Aranor can probably be convinced to release to you one of his little masterpieces…"
Again Elrond nodded, and this time rose to his feet. "Thank you…"
"Do not thank me," came the stinging response, as quick as a whip and just as painful. "Just… drop the subject. You have other more important matters to attend to, and your time is better spent on them than dredging up something that does nothing but cause pain and grief for all involved."
No. He hadn't been forgiven yet by Erestor. Perhaps someday, when the immediacy of loss was gone for the both of them, they would speak and put the event behind them. But he had learned the hard way that once hurtful words were spoken, they could never be taken back. From some – like Gilraen herself – it appeared there was no chance of forgiveness, ever; and that endless "ever" loomed bleak and cold and empty and unavoidable.
Quietly, respectfully, he followed Erestor from his office and closed the door behind them.