The summons had named him, and the summons had said 'Now.'
And, whatever else he was with His Majesty at the moment, Elrond was also not one to refuse him.
Fresh from the stables, the dust of the road still on his cloak, he walked through the marble and gilt and heavy velvets of the king's audience hall until it gave way to the private apartments where few indeed were permitted to trespass.
His boots tapped rhythmically and much too loud on the hardwood floors as he passed deeper into Gil-galad's most guarded chambers, a twinge of misgiving settling deep behind his ribs.
He did not belong here. Only manservants and maids and the odd, furtive shadow came and went from the king's quarters with impunity. That, and the last words they had spoken to one another before he'd left made him wish himself very much elsewhere.
But he was also not one to refuse His Majesty.
Lindon had not been initially created with a king in mind, and to an extent, it remained a harbor-city on the newly re-formed coast, and the king's apartments reflected it in the pale walls and wooden beams scavenged from the shoreline.
Gil-galad, much against his custom, was bent over a tome. The light of the fire turned the sheaf of hair tumbling to his breast all to liquid brass. His frame cramped in a too-low chair, his neck craned in the dim light. His knuckles pressed intently against his lips as he read, his eyes darting over, devouring the pages.
He was magnificent.
Leaning a little over his shoulder, Elrond glimpsed a complex-looking diagram, words like 'bezel' and 'shank.' Cuts of stone and their properties when embedded in silver or gold bands…
"Having a piece commissioned?" Elrond asked with some surprise, doubly so when Gil-galad's head snapped up.
"Ah, Elrond. You startled me."
"Apologies. I had not realized you were so engrossed. I hardly knew you read," he teased, pulling out the seat beside him.
"I have never seen you wear any sort of ring," Elrond remarked, touching the edge of a page with his forefinger. The only ornament Gil-galad ever wore, apart from his coronet (and that only with great reluctance on state occasions), was a pendant on a leather thong about his neck. A thin, mithril star with eight points.
Gil-galad fingered it like a talisman, almost absently. "No, nor do I intend to."
"Then what's all this?"
Gil-galad sighed and shut the tome with a heavy thump. "A frustration only, I fear. How was your journey?"
Accustomed as he was to such evasiveness, Elrond knew better than to push him. "I might have spent the remainder of the season haggling with Cirdan over locks and limits. Your message sounded urgent."
"I missed you."
It was the kind of thing he would say. And it always left Elrond very much wrong-footed.
This was how it always was with them, their meetings always holding the same pattern. A little, playful exchange, a hint of perhaps and a whole lot more of surely not, you deluded fool or so Elrond thought to himself. And naught more. Neither further encouragement nor absolute rebuttal came from Gil-galad.
His Majesty was as phlegmatic as ever when it came to making his thoughts known, and he only smiled without saying anything else.
"We had a messenger whilst you were gone."
"Of the Valar. Supposedly." They had both glimpsed the Valar in the War of Wrath before the Drowning. They had come with fire, and they had left. None had lingered.
"I judge by your wording you do not think he is what he claims."
"I know not. Not enough to either admit him or outright refuse him. But looking into those eyes, I felt myself…sinking into a dark well though the words I heard were fair enough. I do not think he is the lord of gifts we would have him be. And I liked not at all what he said of Eregion."
"He goes to them next. But I would liefer our messengers come before and warn its lord that not all may be what it seems."
"Celeborn may already be aware, if this… so-called messenger has reached us by now."
"True. But Celeborn travels often with his lady wife. They are more accustomed to being benevolent stewards than rulers of a realm. There is one, there, though who might offer you more. His name is Telperinquar."
A flicker of familiarity and a niggling disquiet of a thought half-recalled. "I know the name."
"He came out of Nargothrond, originally, and fled south after the sack with several companions. Eventually, they found their way here. Thence, to Eregion, after a time, seeking mithril. He is master of the jewel-smiths now and quite renowned for his skill…and his stubbornness against better judgment." Gil-galad stroked a forefinger along his lip absently.
"You knew him then?"
"I knew him, as much as any, I suppose. I doubt there are any who can claim to know his mind fully. And I do not know how he might receive you now. He did not leave Lindon under…the best of terms."
His tone did not invite further discussion on the subject.
After a moment, he shook off his dark thought and smiled again. "Regardless, I would have you go, my faithful Aranóma."
"Go?" Elrond cocked his head in blank puzzlement.
"Celeborn and Galadriel are my kinsmen from afar. They might heed your warnings."
Newly returned and already sent away again under the clever guise of duty. How fitting. Gil-galad wished to deal with this no more than he did.
"If that is your wish, Your Majesty. I will go, of course."
"That is my wish."
Thus excused, he rose and left the room.
The Road unfurled before him, the stones so smooth and evenly set, it felt as he rode across the earth rather than any construction made by craftsmen.
Every stride of his horse leading him that much farther away from the scents of salt and cypress and the incessant pounding of the Sea.
Ost-in-Edhil was a grand city, teeming with life. However, Celeborn's house was empty but for a few servants despite the messages Gil-galad had sent ahead.
An inquiry of one such led him down a few side-streets to an open square and thence to the marble building that crowned it.
The House of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain was an astonishing two stories tall of white marble and subtly crafted stone. Walking up the broad stone steps, he opened the wooden door and was immediately enveloped in the rich dimness and smell of books and leather and ink, the impression of space vast around him, despite being indoors.
Warm-colored lamps that neither stank nor smoked illuminated patches of stone flags where were displayed devices and objects that even Elrond himself could not identify. Things protected under dark-tinted glass, tapestries from ruined and drowned realms adorned the walls, threadbare and precious. The skill of their crafting was unsurpassed by anything he had yet seen or, indeed, could have imagined.
He stroked a finger along the skin of the books stretching along one of a more than a hundred lined shelves and only felt the gaze on the back of his neck when, drawing near the niche-lamp, he realized the figure beneath it was not of stone.
"Forgive the intrusion."
"Not at all. This House is open to all who would seek knowledge." The stranger laid a finger in the crease of the volume in his lap to mark his place.
One of the Noldor of Eregion, though for all his dark hair, he had the most striking blue eyes, rare among their people.
"As a matter of fact, I seek not knowledge but the master of the House."
"Oh? To what purpose?"
"That is best told him first, is it not?"
The stranger pursued his lips but nodded his acquiescence. "He is not always an easy man to find."
"Well, then I suppose, I do seek knowledge after all. You did not give me your name."
"I am one of the mírdain here."
"I would have thought the jewelsmiths more enamored with their smithies and treasuries than their tomes."
The man's lips lifted a little. "What? You did not look to find a smith amidst such scholarly environs?"
"It strikes me as…uncharacteristic, perhaps. Albeit, my experience with such is rather limited." The craftsmen he knew in Lindon were boatmakers for the most part and sought value in the doing rather than the studying of how to do.
"Though you have given no introduction, by the colors you wear, I know well enough who you are and whom you serve, Master Elrond."
Elrond bowed though he did not quite like the insinuation in the other's tone. "I did not know my name was spoken in Eregion.
"Your name is known to some."
"Those not unknown to Lindon, perhaps, Master Jewelsmith?" Elrond's eye caught on something, subtle and silver on the smith's collar. An eight-rayed star.
Celebrimbor favored his father's kin with the hard, high cheekbones and dark hair that framed his face in a lion's mane of shadow. Save those strange eyes.
"I had expected Celeborn or Galadriel."
"They are gone, I'm afraid," he said shortly.
"Negotiations with the Naugrim and Narvi's folk." Celebrimbor smiled blandly at him, but his eyes glittered with curiosity. "What news from the sleepy coast then? Gil-galad still watching the tide eat away at his shore." As he spoke, he twisted the shank of a ring worn on his left forefinger: a simple silver band with a star sapphire bezel-set against it.
Elrond, intimately aware of the significance of those colors, thinned his lips at the presumptuousness. "His Majesty's heart misgives him, concerning this…Annatar."
"So his message said. What need then to send a messenger to follow it?"
"Perhaps, he believes a messenger will be better heeded than a piece of parchment."
Celebrimbor said nothing for a long minute. Then he raised a speculative eyebrow. "If Gil-galad expects to win me to his cause by dangling a pretty piece before me, he has let politics drive him further from sense than I thought."
Elrond bristled at the blatant perusal of his person. "I am an ambassador and herald of the king, my lord."
Celebrimbor made as if to reply but a voice, soft and impossibly beautiful even by Noldorin standards, vibrated across the air.
"A mighty king is Gil-galad and wise in all lore is Master Elrond, Telperinquar. You should heed him and hold your mischievous tongue."
Elrond turned towards the voice.
Slender-limbed and elven-fair, the figure before him seemed neither wholly male nor female but a sharp blending of the best features of both. It confounded him so much, he stood merely and stared.
The being that must have been Annatar smiled indulgently as if accustomed to such reactions. "I am not so fearsome, am I? Had Gil-galad not turned my emissary from the gate without a glance, he might have been reassured."
Beautiful and well-spoken though he—for in most respects, 'he' seemed to fit best—was, something skittered just underneath that smile, and though Elrond did not know why he should feel so, a cold shudder went through him to his very soul. Yet his lips moved, and other words came forth.
"The great are accustomed to their own way in their own lands. And, perhaps, in these hard-won days of peace, one might be excused an excess of caution that counsels one to hold guests from the door."
"Caution is one thing, timidity another. Alas for the weakness of the great! One more prone to offense might take such a lack of hospitality as a desire not to see other lands become as blissful as their own. But wherefore should Middle-earth remain forever desolate and dark, whereas the Elves could make it as fair as Eressea, nay even as Valinor, if only they banded together?"
"They left Valinor."
For a moment, Annatar looked taken aback as if unaccustomed to having his words received with anything other than servile agreement. Then he laughed.
"Wise you are indeed, Master Elrond. But since you have not returned thither as you might, I perceive that you love this Middle-earth, as do I. Is it not then our task to labor together for its enrichment, and for the raising of all the Elven-kindreds that wander here untaught to the height of that power and knowledge which those have who are beyond the Sea?"
Before Elrond could answer, Celebrimbor nudged in. "Come, Annatar, you will bore our poor guest to death with your philosophizing!"
"It was not your guest I sought, but you."
"Well, you have found me." With a bow in Elrond's direction, Celebrimbor offered him an almost apologetic smile. "Duty calls, I'm afraid. Master Elrond, please do make yourself at home. You are welcome in Ost-in-Edhil."
"My thanks," Elrond replied dutifully.
The dark eyes of Annatar rested a beat too long on him before he turned and followed Celebrimbor from the room.
Despite themselves, he and the master of the jewelsmiths became friends.
True, not in the same way that he valued Gil-galad, but not as unlike as he'd thought. The blue eyes were ever ready to laugh at a jest, tease over some habit or other, or spark at a spirited point in one of their many debates. For a man with an immobile face, Celebrimbor could become as animated as any in discussing his craft, alluding at whiles to a great project he had been working on—but when pressed, he only shook his head and smiled. He did not speak of his family. And Elrond did not ask.
Tucked away behind his smithy, sharing a glass of beautifully aged malmsey, they roamed across every subject—though they avoided the one that had caused such friction at their first meeting. Elrond had not met Annatar again and had no wish to destroy the fragile peace with an incautious word.
Their talk turned to Lindon—for Celebrimbor, having dwelt there, remembered its hollows and secret places—and eventually to its king.
Celebrimbor's glance was all-too-knowing. "He is a magnificent man, is he not?"
Elrond raised his head in surprised dismay. "Am I so transparent?"
"No. But I have learned to recognize the signs of one besotted without hope." Celebrimbor freshened his glass without asking. "So… which was it? Love newly declared and unrequited? Or old love broken by older habits?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Come now, Master Elrond. Do not play the coy. No messenger has come from Lindon in many a long year, and the appearance of Annatar seems, to me, a thin cause when you have not ventured further abroad than Harlindon since this past Age. So, which was it? His part or yours?"
And Elrond found that he tired, indeed, of demurring, and here was one with whom he might share his mind with no whisper of it to reach Gil-galad's ears. "Neither. I said words that I should not have and received no answer. A refusal outright would have been kinder. A prolonged absence seemed all the more expedient at the time. For both of us."
In an effort to blunt the edge of revelation, Elrond took a heavy draught from his glass, swallowed the bitterness on his tongue. "Did you know him well?"
A pause. "I do not know anyone who can claim to know him well, save, perhaps, Artanis. She ever knows your mind even when you don't know it yourself."
It was only until much later, alone in his bedchamber, that he realized Celebrimbor had not answered the question.
As summer waned into autumn, Celebrimbor spent more and more time at the House of the Mírdain, and his appearances of an evening lessened.
Surprised by the sudden lack of companionship, Elrond wandered the boulevard lined with holly trees and thought of white sands lapped by white shores.
A letter bearing the king's seal sat on the secretary when he returned to his rooms. He did not open it.
Instead, he went to bed early and slept like the dead until an urgent pounding on his door jerked him awake.
The room was utterly dark about him. Muzzy and stumbling with sleep, he fumbled for the latch and flung the door open to meet Celebrimbor, looking haggard, but his eyes gleamed, almost feverish, with delight and wakefulness.
"I have done it."
"What no one else could. What no one else has ever done or dared to do."
"I don't understand."
"You needn't. Just get your cloak."
He led Elrond, stumbling with sleep, to the darkened House. It was quiet, and the lamps extinguished, but Celebrimbor knew the way even blind and kept tight hold of Elrond's wrist so he would not miss his step.
The treasury was set at the back of the house, and it was still warm. On a table, nestled within a velvet cloth, three gold bands, each with a different jewel. Pale diamond. Ruby.
"Nenya. Narya. Vilya," Celebrimbor noticed his lingering stare. "I had…inspiration, of a sort, for that last."
"So I see." They fairly hummed where they lay. They caressed and crackled along Elrond's nerves and set his fingertips tingling.
"They will make our world as Valinor without the ugliness. Here, we are our own masters. Here, we are free of all our curses. At last." There was a desperate kind of hunger in Celebrimbor's face as he turned to Elrond.
The hunger changed, turned outward and sharpened.
"You know I always found you fair. And I never understood how Ereinion could have pushed you away."
"Let us not speak of it," Elrond said, boldly tracing the curve of that fire-lit jaw with the tips of his fingers. "This is a night for freedom."
Celebrimbor's quarters were dark, but it mattered little when his mouth drew a burning path up his neck, so that Elrond clenched his teeth tight to constrain the noise that buckled against his lips. Even so, a soft, embarrassing little exhale broke from him as if something were going out of him. How long had he been touched like this? How long since he had felt he could be touched like this?
When the backs of his knees touched the mattress, he folded as if they'd been cut out from under him.
Seduced by darkness and forge-light and the fact that Celebrimbor had come to him—to him—in joy and pleasure kindled him, and he surrendered.
After, he touched the rawness at his throat with a sense of detached curiosity, the marks that Gil-galad would never have bestowed on him, marks that declared him a warrior tested and not found wanting.
The letter still waited.
With Celebrimbor sunk in sleep, Elrond eased back the covers and broke the seal with the flick of a fingernail. By the light of the burned-down candle, he read it, and his expression darkened. But as there was nothing to be done with what remained of the night, he left it on the secretary.
Celebrimbor's bed-warm hand slid over his shoulder. "Ill news?"
"I have lingered overlong."
A pause. "You could stay," Celebrimbor offered, unexpectedly. "Here, with me. You could be the liaison between Eregion and Lindon, if you like. Or, we could find other work for your hands, if not. There would be a place of honor for you."
"Thank you." And it was truly meant, but he knew in the morning Celebrimbor would be gone with a new project, a new obsession, whatever his successes of this night. "You have been… more than kind to me. For what reason, I cannot wholly fathom. But in Lindon, there is my heart, and I can no more renounce it than I can my limbs."
"Ever the king's faithful vassal," Celebrimbor said, but there was no sting in it now.
"Yes. I suppose I am."
In the morning he rose early and dressed.
Celebrimbor did not see him off for he had gone earlier still into the hills with a few fellows of his, searching for whatever they looked for up there, and he did not return to say farewell.
Lindon was much the same as when he'd left it save that Gil-galad met him at the top of the stairs. And the pendant that had had its home around his neck for as long as Elrond had known him was gone. Elrond touched the empty space where it had lain in wonder.
The world outside was growing dark, but Elrond cared not.
Save that from Eregion, no word came.
As the season deepened, and the ice reached even the edges of the Gulf of Luin, the whispers grew. But now, instead of joy and speculation, the whispers came in fearful hushes, quick skiterings of sound and uncertainty.
They no longer spoke of "Annatar, the Lord of Gifts." He was without name. Without form. Now a dark shadow of rumor. Some said he had gone to the East, others far to the North. But Gil-galad was troubled most of all by the lack of news from Eregion.
On a night of the fiercest gale any could remember in a long-year, a horseman overrode the guards and cantered to the very edge of the King's Stairs.
Elrond turned as the door to the audience hall banged open, thrust forcefully inward by a gale of wind.
Gil-galad, in his chair on the dais, cocked an eyebrow at the stranger who neither made obeisance nor lowered his hood as was customary in the court.
"I did not summon you, stranger."
"I am not one for being summoned." The figure threw back his cloak, revealing Celebrimbor's dark mane and flashing eyes. He looked more tired than Elrond had ever seen him in Lindon.
"I had not looked for you to come yourself."
"I could send no one else."
"Merciful of you, in this weather."
"Is this what we have come to?" Celebrimbor asked in a half-wondering tone. "Sniping at one another? A pair of petty politicians?"
"As I recall, it was you who wished for distance between us."
"I have learned from that loss. And the cleaving of it is a pain and a burden I will carry with me always, but I seek you out now not for myself alone."
"It is not your hands alone that are silver," Gil-galad said with a strange expression on his face. "I had nigh forgotten."
Celebrimbor canted his head ever-so-slightly, the hard lines in his face softening tentatively until Gil-galad continued.
"You speak as your father once did: urging a king to action against his will."
"I have not heard it said that Finrod—or any of his kinsmen—could ever be forced to action against their will. And I am not my father, as you well know."
"You took the realm from my kinswoman whom you yourself professed the utmost admiration for. If this is how you show you are not your father's kin, I am sad to see you are no better than they. Worse, even, for treachery one expects from foes, not friends."
Celebrimbor did not flinch, but something behind his eyes gave way. "I would rather you run me through with Aiglos than say that again… I erred."
"I thought it was for the betterment of the realm," Celebrimbor continued. "I was blind, Ereinion. I was so very blind."
"So you have said before, but you do not heed your own words."
"I am my father's kin whether I will or no." Celebrimbor snapped with such ferocity that Elrond tensed, prepared to step before his king if the man came closer. But Celebrimbor halted at the dais steps. "Blood is blood, and blood will out. So, I have earned what I deserve? Is that what you would say to me, Ereinion? Is this my curse? For wanting only what was better, wanting it and trying for it and failing?"
"You alone know what you have to answer for." There was no sympathy in Gil-galad's face. "Why have you come here?"
"I need your help."
Gil-galad laughed. But a more mirthless sound had never before sprung from his lips. "You come before me, after driving forth my kinswoman into the wild with her daughter. And you come to me for...help."
"I had thought the irony would please you. To see me humbled."
"Humility never did suit you. Of all the arrogant, assuming things you have ever done, this is—"
"It is not aid for myself that I ask." Few dared interrupt the King, but Celebrimbor seemed beyond protocol, beyond reason. "I am beyond aid. Even yours."
"What do you mean?"
A brittle smile tilted one corner of Celebrimbor's lips, and he spread his arms. "I want to save the realms. What remains of our people on these Shores. War is coming, Ereinion. And the onslaught will be swift and brutal and short unless we are prepared."
Gil-galad's gaze swept over Celebrimbor's face. And Elrond, who had been the subject of that gaze more than once, felt Celebrimbor shift a little. But he met the King's eye and held it though his face, already haggard, greyed.
The King softened and withdrew his glance. "You are weary."
"Beyond all bearing."
Before Gil-galad gave him the nod, Elrond fetched a chair, not too comfortable, but it had four legs and a wooden back.
Celebrimbor sank as if into velvet and down. It had cost him to come to Lindon and not physically. The one place he swore he would never go. The one person he could ask nothing of. For a moment, their eyes met, and Elrond again felt the charge of those eyes at close quarters, remembered forge-warm hands on his skin, a quick pulse of something that flashed in the air between them.
But he stepped away ere Celebrimbor could address him and took his place beneath the dais.
Celebrimbor nodded. Reaching beneath his shirt, he drew from his tunic, a small beaded bag. It had a used and clumsy quality to it, but when he tilted it, the soft clink of gold tumbled into his hands.
Gil-galad stood up so fast Elrond started. "What folly is this? You brought them here? Are you mad?"
"They are a danger only if you wear them. Your own cousin took one from my hand."
"She always was a little mad."
"They were not made with power in mind. But to ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world."
Celebrimbor rose and took one step towards the dais. "Ereinion. Please. You are… the only one, now." Words of humility had never come easily to any Fëanorian's lips. In that, Celebrimbor was no exception. And the look he cast Gil-galad was one of gutting desperation.
The king's mien trembled under the weight of that plea, and even from his place in the shadows, forgotten, Elrond felt Gil-galad steel himself against an old, aching pull.
"I cannot do what you ask, Telpëlamba," he said with uttermost gentleness.
"That is your final word on the matter?"
"That is my word."
Celebrimbor's mouth thinned. Then he laughed, a sound bereft of mirth. "Ever the stoic. I wonder if it ever chafes you. To have naught to do with the world and people you rule."
Before Elrond could snag his elbow, he turned on his heel and stalked out, the door ringing to behind him.
In the silence that crept in around the edges of his departure, the unspoken secrets heavy in the air, Elrond glanced towards the dais.
Gil-galad's gaze was sunk on his knees, and if he were aware at all of Elrond's presence, he gave no sign.
Elrond let out a breath and slipped out.
Celebrimbor did not pause until he reached the end of the arcade, and he stood, fingering the pouch at his waist. He looked at Elrond, and his eyes flashed.
"You know I am right."
For a moment, Celebrimbor gazed at him, and something akin to pain flickered in the depths of those blue eyes as if he were steeling himself to the most unpleasant of tasks.
Then with sudden ferocity, he seized Elrond by the wrist and slapped the rings into his palm, closing Elrond's fingers with his tightly.
"Do not put them on, whatever you do. For so your heart and mind will be revealed to Him."
"Swear it to me. You will not wear them."
"I will not. I swear."
Celebrimbor nodded, but he did not let go immediately. He stared into Elrond's face with burning eyes. Elrond scarce breathed, unsure of what fey mood had seized the man.
Then Celebrimbor smiled and released him. "They may do you some good yet. There is power in them. But not of the dominating kind, the kind that Annatar seeks. You will learn. It cannot be explained."
"You yet wear yours." Elrond said, acknowledging the silver band with its star sapphire that Celebrimbor had worn on his forefinger since the first time Elrond had met him.
A bitter smile.
"I am already revealed to Him. He will seek me whithersoever I go, and I expect, in the end, He will find me." A dark cloud passed over his face, and he frowned then shook himself abruptly. "Fear not, Master Elrond. No harm will come to Lindon because of it. Besides, there is no magic in this ring. Or rather, the magic that once was in it is far beyond my skills to recreate." He glanced up towards the high windows of the court and away just as quickly.
"I was wrong somewhat. Not wholly, but some. It is a fool who goes chasing gold when there are finer things in life to be had…If I may tell you something, Herald, without risking your ire: once you have him—and you do have him, whatever else you may think—do not let him go."
Elrond said nothing for a long moment, and for the first time, felt as if he knew Celebrimbor and Gil-galad both. "You are a better man than you know, Telperinquar."
Celebrimbor smiled, but it did not quite touch those striking eyes. He rode away under the louring sky. The wrack of clouds overhead made an unbroken ceiling and bore down on horse and rider like a massive, black hand as they dwindled into the distance.
A chill climbed Elrond's spine: a hard shudder that curled up his knees and down the back of his neck. And he knew, without knowing how he knew, that he would never again lay eyes on Celebrimbor, living.
Closing his fingers around the delicate bands of gold, he turned and strode back up the King's Stair to ready for the storm.
Author's Notes: For Catalectic for the Slashy Valentine Fic Exchange 2015. Happy Valentine's Day!
Request: Elrond/Gil-galad or Elrond/Celebrimbor. Libraries! Some travelling on horseback. People who know more than they say. I love a good mystery but I can live without if it makes things difficult.
Request: Elrond/Gil-galad or Elrond/Celebrimbor. Libraries! Some travelling on horseback. People who know more than they say. I love a good mystery but I can live without if it makes things difficult.
Chapter end notes:
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