Encounters in Imladris - Chapter 3 - Rings and Responsibilities

Author's Note: Thanks to all of my lovely lovely reviewers! I do apologise most humbly for the delay - blame college work and the distraction of unrelated plotbunnies (insistent little beggars they were too!)


I wish at this point to note that I will continue to have Gil-galad address Elrond as `Peredhil' - I have consulted with a couple of other writers and, while I am aware that Peredhil is the plural of Half-Elf, I am using it as Elrond's epessë. I hope this won't put people off as I know it is not very canonical of me!


****

The last snowstorm had been severe, with possibly the heaviest snowfall of winter, but in its wake, Imladris lay pure and white, unsullied by darkness. The worst of the winter's weather was now over and the inhabitants of the valley looked forward to the arrival of spring, and an end to the siege of snow.


Celebrían walked alone amidst the trees of the valley, her soft step leaving no mark on the white ground. The path she trod was directionless; she simply followed her feet. Occasionally a splash of sunlight on a white-frosted bough would catch her eye, and she would amble in that direction, or else the sound of plaintive birdsong floated through the air, and she would follow that delightful noise for a time. Her mind wandered with as little direction as her feet. She knew that there was to be a council soon, for the dignitaries of Imladris had grown rather preoccupied in recent weeks. The High King and the Lord Erestor seemed less light-hearted and she had scarcely spoken to the Lord Elrond since the night of her arrival. It was a source of great vexation to her that she found herself floundering for words when he did take the time to speak with her. Celebrían could scarcely understand it; on that first night, they had spoke at great length about trivial matters and they had come to understand something of one another.


She was still youthful enough to delight in simple things, like a burst of music or a brightly-coloured flower. He, on the other hand, was grave and noble, concerned with sweeping events and the very future of Elves in Middle Earth. He had experienced such sorrows that might break a lesser being, before she had even been born. Despite such disparate experiences in life, she felt drawn to him and she greatly lamented her newfound tendency to stammer girlishly or worse, to clam up completely.


She smiled as her mind traced the familiar outline of his face; a smooth high brow, stern eyebrows, enchanting grey eyes, whose depths could be as tumultuous as a stormy sea or as firm and unyielding as rock. Sometimes, those mesmerising eyes were calm and welcoming and sometimes they were curious and questioning.


"Irresistible, no matter what their hue," she murmured. And no matter what the mood of the Lord of Imladris himself.


"I trust you do not speak of the colour of the trees of Imladris, my lady?" That voice sounded out from behind. "For they are tragically bare and dreary."


Celebrían turned around and could feel her face flushing. She raised her eyes tentatively to meet the irresistible grey eyes of Lord Elrond Peredhil as he walked up the slope towards her. She could have sworn that his own cheeks were somewhat more pink than usual, but that might have been due to the cold air.


"No, my lord," she mumbled, silently chastising herself for her faltering tongue. "I was simply speaking to myself."


To her surprise, he smiled sadly. "I fear that you, and many of my guests, must feel rather neglected of late; it is no wonder that you seek your own company."


"Do not concern yourself with attending the whims of a mere Elf-maiden, my lord," she replied and winced inwardly. No! I do wish for your concern; I do wish for your interest! Ai! Silly young maiden; why can you not speak your mind? It has never been a problem before!


He laughed, unaware of her inner remonstrations. "My lady, I should never have described the daughter of the Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel as a `mere Elf-maiden'!" He stopped for a moment, hesitating before he ventured his next words. "I am just about to inspect a guard point in the south of the valley. The view there is wonderful... perhaps you would care to accompany me?"


Celebrían smiled; there could be no doubt now that his cheeks had reddened, and somehow the evidence of his embarrassment lessened hers.


"I would like that very much, Lord Elrond," she replied, pleased that she sounded keen, but not overenthusiastic. "But I should hate to distract you from your task."


"It is a distraction I am willing to risk," he said gently, smiling as he offered her his arm. They made their way up the slope, and she listened to him speak about the valley. The lifeless trees around them seemed to become less oppressively dreary; it was as though they too were listening to Elrond's passionate speech. As his words flowed, Celebrían could envisage his ideal Imladris and she found herself yearning to be a part of it. Elrond, gratified by her obvious interest, was encouraged to relate even more of his ideas. He spoke of fanciful notions, never before voiced, even to Gil-galad. Scarcely aware of time passing, so engrossed were they in their conversation, that it came as a surprise when they found themselves at a sheer rock face in the south of the valley.


Celebrían turned to Elrond with a raised eyebrow. "I assume that this is not the wonderful view of which you spoke earlier, my lord? For, though it is an impressive rock face, it is hardly a thing of surpassing beauty."


Elrond chuckled. "Nay, my lady, this is not the view of which I spoke; although it is beautiful in its own right, being unchangeable and steadfast through the ages." He moved towards the rock and, to Celebrían's surprise, seemed to disappear into it. She took a startled step forward, before realising that there was a narrow cleft in the rock. Curious, she followed the path of the Lord of Imladris and found herself passing between two towering walls of stone. The trail was narrow, but she walked along it with ease. After a few moments of following Elrond's upright back as he moved effortlessly ahead of her, she found herself standing on a precipice looking out of Imladris. The southern reaches of Middle Earth stretched out before her. In the far distance, a distinct glimpse of green could be seen.


"Spring is coming," she whispered as she inhaled deeply. The distant promise of warmth and light filled her being and she closed her eyes as her thoughts wandered over the mountains to Lórinand, the land of her birth. She could almost smell the trees of the Golden Wood and stood stock still for a while, as if in a trance. An unfamiliar voice startled her and her eyes flew open. She spun around to see Elrond conversing with one of the guards of Imladris. Her cheeks flushed again, although neither of the male Elves gave any indication that they were aware of her brief daydream.


"Two days away, you say?" Elrond rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Thank you, Maethoron. We shall prepare for their arrival."


The guard bowed and returned to his concealed post while Elrond approached Celebrían who had recovered her poise. He stood alongside her to gaze over the landscape that stretched down below them. "Another spring is here," he murmured. "A new year. May the winds of Manwë bear fresh hope to the enemies of Gorthaur."


"And may the stars of Varda bestow light and joy upon the people of the Eldar," returned Celebrían automatically.


Elrond turned to her and smiled, before offering his arm once more. "Come, my lady, let us return to the house. Despite the coming of spring, the winds of Manwë are still rather cold! And I should like to show you some books in the Long Room that might further explain my plans." Elrond looked down at Celebrían's rapt face. "If, of course, you would care to see them," he added hastily.


"Indeed I would," she returned warmly before asking innocently. "Has the Lord Erestor finished cataloguing the new library?"


Elrond shot her a half-amused, half-fearful look, wondering what stories had reached the fair maiden. "Yes, my lady, I believe he has done a... thorough job." He blinked, hoping that she had not heard the reason for Erestor's slow progress. Despite reassuring Gil-galad that he would cease speaking of Celebrían at every available opportunity, Elrond still found his mind wandering in the direction of the silver maiden as he reviewed reports with the High King. The pile of broken quills in Gil-galad's study had reached impressive dimensions, and Erestor had joked about the need to ration writing utensils in Imladris. Elrond shook his head, slightly embarrassed at the memory, before becoming aware of Celebrían's eyes looking at him with amused interest. He coloured further and was rather relieved to find that they had reached the steps into the house. Just as they were about to enter the building, Celebrían pulled him to a stop. Her hand still rested on his arm, and they both seemed to notice the contact at the same moment. She hesitated before strengthening her grip on his arm.


"Thank you, my Lord," she whispered, her face tilted up towards his.


"Believe me, Lady, when I say that the pleasure was entirely mine," he replied softly. He kissed her brow, and then seemed uncertain on how to proceed. The world around them seemed to pause, encased in ice, before they laughed uncertainly.


"Perhaps we had better...."


"It is getting cold..."


"The Long Room, you said?"


"And your father..."


This exchange of half-meaningless phrases continued for a full five minutes, and in all the time, Elrond was continuously aware that Celebrían had not removed her hand from his arm. Smiling, he covered it with his own and managed to speak decisively, in defiance of the flutterings that seemed to have taken over his stomach.


"Let us proceed to the Long Room, for there is still some time before the evening meal for me to show you that book of which I was speaking."


The two Elves proceeded into the house and passed to the Long Room. Elrond paused with his hand on the door handle; he could hear voices within. He involuntarily tightened his grip on the handle when he recognised one voice in particular.


"My Lord Erestor, I think you will find that such a move is most unwise..." Lord Celeborn's voice carried out to where the Half-Elven Lord of Imladris stood. Elrond glanced at Celebrían, who smiled enigmatically as she listened to her father's words.


That expression is most like that of her mother, thought Elrond vaguely, as Erestor responded.


"My thanks for your concern, Lord Celeborn." It sounded like the High King's counsellor was speaking through gritted teeth. "But in such a situation, one must take risks if one is to emerge unscathed."


Celeborn chuckled. "Unscathed, you say? Should one not attempt to emerge victorious in all such situations, my lord? If one's ambition is simply to survive, then one cannot hope to win."


Erestor sighed. "But when there is no realistic chance of success, survival is a worthy ambition."


The High King sounded entertained as he now spoke. "I do wish you would turn your attention back to the matter at hand, Erestor. You are merely prolonging your own demise!"


"Ai! I knew it was a mistake to accept this challenge, Ereinion; I have not played chess against you for a hundred years, and now I remember why I have avoided this particular pursuit!"


"Well, perhaps if my vice-regent had not disappeared for the day, you might have been spared, Erestor. I wonder where he is," mused Gil-galad aloud, "for I could have sworn he was only inspecting the southern guard post, yet he has taken time enough to inspect the entire valley perimeter!"


Elrond knew beyond doubt that the High King was perfectly aware of his location, and he pushed the door open, clearing his throat as he did so. Gil-galad shot him a knowledgeable glance from his station on one side of the chessboard. Erestor looked up briefly. "Ah, Elrond, perhaps you can help me extricate myself from this particular quandary!"


Celeborn smiled at his daughter and Elrond was convinced that the silver-haired Lord was somewhat more guarded when he greeted him, his eyes lingering on Celebrían's hand which still lay on Elrond's arm.


"Greetings, Lord Elrond," he said mildly. "I trust that the boundaries of Imladris are secure?"


"Indeed, Lord Celeborn," Elrond bowed in greeting. "I have had word that delegates from Lórinand are drawing near to Imladris for the council. They should be here in two days."


Celeborn did not appear surprised at the news and simply nodded as he turned his attention back to his daughter.


"Iell-nín, we were considering sending out search parties for you," he said with a twinkle in his eyes.


"Do not fear, Lord Celeborn," commented Gil-galad as he surveyed the chessboard with immense satisfaction, "I daresay she found herself in most capable hands."


Erestor started to choke, and turned puce. Gil-galad smirked slightly. "Elrond, be so good as to slap Erestor on the back. I cannot imagine what has come over him."


The Half-Elf gave the High King an expression which rather suggested that Erestor was not the one he wished to hit but Gil-galad smiled beatifically and addressed Lord Celeborn.


"Speaking of search parties, Celeborn, should our wives not be joining us soon?"


Celeborn laughed as, at that precise moment, the door opened and the Ladies Galadriel and Nîndorien entered. The Elf-lords in the room stood up to greet them.


"That was just showing off, Ereinion," spluttered Erestor as he regained his composure, although not his breath.


"Is the High King showing off again?" asked Nîndorien as her husband guided her to the seat next to his. [How... surprising]


[Oh, loth nín, I am deeply wounded!] Gil-galad smiled at her. Lady Galadriel moved to where her husband and daughter sat while Elrond studied the chess game and shook his head mournfully.


"I'm afraid, Erestor, that the situation looks hopeless."


Erestor did not appear to be stricken with grief at the news. "Ay, I feared as much." He swept his chess pieces from the board and looked at Gil-galad defiantly. "Never again, Ereinion, do you hear?"


Laughing, Gil-galad accepted his victory. "Perhaps Peredhil will give you a few lessons, Erestor, and then we shall play again."


Erestor laughed. "You do not take `no' for an answer, do you?"


Gil-galad glanced at Nîndorien whose eyes were dancing with laughter. He sighed overdramatically. "Ai, can a day not pass without me being accused of stubbornness?"


Nîndorien and Erestor looked at each other, responding simultaneously. "No."


Meanwhile, Elrond had retrieved a number of books, containing illustrations and plans of Imladris and was showing them to Celebrían, who seemed utterly engrossed.


[Can she really be that interested?] Gil-galad placed his hand on his wife's as he watched Elrond running his finger down a page and talking rapidly. The High King had heard Elrond's plans for Imladris so often that he found them rather tedious at this stage.


"You are too cynical, aran nín," murmured Nîndorien.


[Well, I suppose it is an improvement on his previous monosyllabic approach to communication.]


Nîndorien bit on her lip to refrain from laughing. She looked around the room with contentment; Erestor was speaking animatedly with the Lord Celeborn while Galadriel sat close by, interjecting occasionally in her low musical tones.


Aware of the light pressure of Gil-galad's hand on hers, Nîndorien looked at him. He raised his eyebrows. [Are you happy, loth nín?]


She smiled warmly. [I am, aran nín. How can I not be, when you are here with me and we are surrounded by our friends? This is how it should always be.]


For a moment, she thought that a pained look had crossed his face, but it passed so quickly that she immediately thought that she had imagined it. He raised her hand to his lips and softly kissed it.


Nîndorien hesitated before proceeding [What weighs on your mind?]


[I can keep nothing from you, it seems. Nor would I wish to] Gil-galad paused before he slowly let down the barriers of his mind. Nîndorien closed her eyes as she realised what Gil-galad planned to do.


As the sun began to set, a bell rang in the distant reaches of the house, signalling the evening feast. The noble Elves in the Long Room stood up and began to move towards the door, continuing in their conversations. Gil-galad and Galadriel remained.


"Elrond, would you please stay?" asked the High King as he relinquished his hold on his wife's hand. The Lord of Imladris looked surprised but complied. Gil-galad tried not to notice the look of disappointment on the faces of Elrond and Celebrían, but he could not ignore the unsettling notion that he was about to jeopardise Elrond's happiness.


A few moments passed before Elrond finally broke the silence. "Ereinion, what troubles you?"


Gil-galad sighed. "Peredhil, I have a great burden to place upon you. You must listen to what the Lady Galadriel and I have to say before you agree... or not." He glanced at Galadriel who nodded before she began to speak.


"You know, Lord Elrond, of the Rings of Power wrought by Celebrimbor under the guidance of Sauron?"


The Half-Elf nodded slowly, thinking of the devastation wreaked on Eregion by the Enemy in a bid to recover the rings. Galadriel continued. "And you know also that three were made, unbeknownst to the Enemy and untouched by his black hand?"


Again Elrond silently indicated his knowledge on the matter.


"Celebrimbor gave one of the Three to me, that I might keep it from the possession of Sauron. At that time, I counselled that he send the other two out of Eregion. It was with great reluctance that he complied, but desperation forced his hand in the end."


Gil-galad wondered if the last sentence had been for his benefit, but Galadriel's expression betrayed nothing more than her usual serenity. The High King noticed Elrond looking at him curiously.


"Yes, Peredhil. Our kinsman sent the two remaining rings to Lindon; to me. You suspected as much, did you not?" Without waiting for an answer, Gil-galad proceeded, his tone flat. "Celebrimbor asked that I take them for safe-keeping." He reached into his robes to produce a velvet pouch, which he placed on a small side table. "It was for these that Eregion was laid waste; for possession of these trinkets, Gorthaur would have brought down my kingdom." An undertone of barely-disguised bitterness could be heard in the High King's voice, shocking Elrond who had never heard Gil-galad speak thus. "I will not lie to you Peredhil; to be a guardian of a Ring of Power is a heavy burden. There is always a sense of being alone for no one else can understand the power and the weight of these things." He picked up the pouch again, and turned it upside down, emptying its contents onto the table. Two rings fell out; one was set with a red stone that seemed to glow with an inner fire. "Narya," whispered Gil-galad. The other ring was golden, set with a blue stone. "And Vilya."


The High King turned to Elrond, holding Vilya towards him. "I ask you, in all earnestness, Peredhil, will you consent to safeguard this ring?"


Elrond stood motionless for a moment. Worried, Gil-galad glanced at Galadriel but she looked at him calmly, nodding her head slightly. [He will consent] Slowly, Elrond reached out his hand and flinched slightly as Gil-galad dropped it into his palm. Automatically, Elrond's hand closed around it. He looked at Gil-galad with wide eyes, as if suddenly aware of what he had agreed to do. A flash of anger appeared in his eyes. "Why, Ereinion?"


"Will you not take it, Elrond?" asked Gil-galad with concern.


The Lord of Imladris laughed bitterly. "I think it is too late for me to change my mind now." He slowly turned the ring around in his hand, feeling a gentle warmth. He could not deny that it felt comfortable in his hand, in his keeping, but he was suddenly filled with resentment towards the High King; an emotion altogether foreign to him. Neither Elf-lord noticed Galadriel depart soundlessly from the room.


"Peredhil, I am sorry," Gil-galad began, his forehead creased with anguish. "But you alone can I trust with this."


"You knew I would not refuse it." Elrond stated flatly, his eyes now dull and passive.


"I hoped that you would not."


"Oh, Ereinion, you know that a request from the High King is tantamount to an order," replied the Half-Elf. "It would have been easier for me had you ordered me to take it."


"But I could not rest easy knowing that I had forced you against your will," replied Gil-galad.


"No doubt, but the fact remains Ereinion: you have placed this burden upon me. You have coerced me into accepting this."


"Elrond," began the High King but he was cut short by the bitter words of the Lord of Imladris. "It feels as though I have been deserted, Ereinion. By you, of all people, the one I trust the most."


"I have not deserted you, Elrond, I never shall!" replied Gil-galad desperately


Elrond simply shook his head; it seemed that his mind had been filled by the singing of Vilya and he feared that his desires were lost to him, driven out by the power of the ring. "Please go, Ereinion. I need to think."


Helplessly, Gil-galad placed Narya back into the pouch and strode to the door. Before leaving, he turned. "Know this, Elrond; it is a privilege to be a Ringbearer." His tones were measured and his eyes glittered strangely.


"Is that what Celebrimbor told you?" asked Elrond coldly before Gil-galad opened the door and left the Half-Elf alone with his thoughts.


****


As soon as Gil-galad entered the Hall of Fire, his eyes fell on Nîndorien. She immediately stood up and made her way towards him. The High King had seen Celebrían look up, her face filling with hope before realising that he was alone. A brief sense of regret passed through Gil-galad as he held the door open for his wife and followed her out into the entrance hall. They paused for a moment outside the door and she put her hand on his face. [What troubles you so, aran nín?]


He smiled half-heartedly and simply clasped her hand and led her outside. The night air was cold, despite the promise of spring in the quiet air but still he did not respond. She trembled slightly in the cold and looked at him with concern. He frowned as he became aware of her shivering and pulled her close against him, wrapping his arms tight around her.


"Ai, I should have retrieved our cloaks, loth nín," he murmured. "Although I did not know where I was going until the night air hit me."


She looked up at him and placed her finger on his chin, directing his face down to hers. "What troubles you so, aran nín?" she repeated aloud. [I have not known you to be so distracted since...] Her eyes widened with realisation as he silently affirmed the cause of his worries. They both recalled the stormy night on which the messenger from Eregion had arrived, bearing a small velvet pouch. There had been no accompanying letter; simply the words: "Celebrimbor of Eregion asks for your aid, Ereinion Gil-galad, for he knows that his doom has come upon him. He bids you to keep these secret and safe from the grasp of Gorthaur, in the name of loyalty to your subjects and love of your kin."


Gil-galad had never spoken of that night, but sometimes, in the dead of the darkest nights, Nîndorien would involuntarily find herself entangled in his tormented dreams. She knew well the burden he carried and, with soothing thoughts, she would calm his mind and draw him back to more pleasant dreams.


[I fear that I have deserted Elrond, loth nín. Now he bears the burden of this thing, he will be alone.]


Nîndorien kissed him softly. [You could not have borne such a weight for much longer, meleth nín, you had to share it and who else could you trust in such a grave matter?]


"Círdan, perhaps?" Gil-galad frowned before muttering distractedly, "No, not yet."


[I fear that Elrond despises me.]


"He does not despise you, my Gil-galad," Nîndorien murmured. [Surely you know that] She so rarely addressed him by name that he looked at her closely, paying more attention than before. Silently, she continued. [And you must know that he is not alone; just as you are not alone.]


[Ai, melethril] Gil-galad kissed her thoroughly and unhurriedly, as though reassuring himself of her presence, before he closed his eyes and rested his head on her shoulder. [I know I am not alone, for I have you. But Elrond... he has no one]


[What of the Lady Celebrían?]


"She is still young and you know Elrond; he..."


[Takes his responsibilities very seriously?]


Gil-galad smiled. [Indeed, loth nín, perhaps to the exclusion of all else.]


"You should go to him," said Nîndorien decisively. Gil-galad raised his head and looked at her. She nodded. "Yes, so that he knows that he is not alone; you, aran nín, are the one he trusts above all Elves. He does not need Celebrían at this moment; he needs you. You can teach him how to cope with this burden"


[It seems I must reassure him again. And I shall.] Gil-galad took a step back, catching hold of Nîndorien's hand and squeezing it gently before raising it to his lips and kissing it. A flash of gold caught his eye and he stood transfixed for a moment as he looked upon the ring he had given her in Lindon so many years before. He laughed softly as he walked towards the house. Not all who bear rings are alone, he thought as he proceeded to the Long Room, where Elrond sat in the shadows beside the fireplace.


The Lord of Imladris looked up as the High King entered the room. Gil-galad sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace. Elrond held Vilya loosely in his right hand while Gil-galad absentmindedly put his hand on the pouch containing Narya, buried deep within his robes.


"Elrond, you are now the Keeper of Vilya; it is true. But it is not all that you are. Remember that. If you allow possession of this thing to eat at you, it will break you. I know, for I came close." The High King could sense a shift in the Half-Elf's interests and continued. "Were it not for Nîndorien, and Erestor and yourself, though neither of you knew it, I should have suffered the more. Remember, Elrond, you bear this ring so that others will be saved. And you must remember to take delight in others, else this whole exercise is pointless."


Elrond grunted slightly, but he seemed less tense than before.


The two noble Elves sat in silence as the shadows deepened around them. Not a word was spoken between them for the rest of the night, and as the sun sent its first rays across the clear skies, Gil-galad looked at Elrond and was relieved to see a slight smile on his face.


"Come, Peredhil, let us proceed to the morning meal where it may well be that our hearts' desires await us."


"Indeed, I should like to speak with the Lady Celebrían before the travellers begin to arrive for the council."


"Celebrían?" asked Gil-galad in a surprised tone. "I was speaking of breakfast!"


Elrond opened his mouth to respond with some witty rejoinder, but he closed it again quickly upon catching sight of the gleam of humour in the High King's eyes. Chuckling, they made their way to the feast hall; and despite the sleepless night, both were comforted.

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