The library did what nothing else was able, it overawed Erestor into silence. Shelves and shelves of books, writing desks in rows by the window – the idea of writing as well as reading had not occurred to him, he had thought it a special craft, open only to the few.
Glorfindel went in search of Elrond afterwards and found him sitting in the sun with Celebrían, keeping her company while she stitched. Glorfindel had never asked, but often wondered if she disliked needlework as much as her mother used to.
“I’ve come for advice,” he told Elrond, taking a seat on the grass with them.
Elrond raised an eyebrow. “Not a habit of yours and probably overdue. What’s the problem then?”
“Erestor was never in a position to learn to read,” he said, choosing his words with care and hoping for the best. ”He’d like to learn and I said I’d try and teach him. Do we have any primers for adult students, anything along those lines? I could ask in the library, but he’d not want me advertising it.”
Elrond stroked his chin, watching a bee dancing out an elaborate message over a patch of bright flowers. “I’m sure we can find something, of course, but will you have time for this?”
“I can teach him,” Celebrían said without looking up from her work. “I taught all three of the children, and he should be much easier than Arwen, because he actually wants to learn.”
“Cousin, I could hardly impose…” Glorfindel began. That was partly true, but the bigger fear was that she would start asking awkward questions, after which he was unsure which would be the worse outcome, that she might sense a mystery or that she might uncover the answers.
“Nonsense,” Celebrían said briskly, sounding quite like her mother. “I can certainly manage an hour or two a day. I’ll find some suitable books to work from and he can come sit with me out here or on the balcony, nothing obvious, no one needs know if he would rather stay discreet. Not that there’s anything wrong with not being able to read,” she added. “More than half the people I’ve met over the years couldn’t either. It’s refreshing to find someone who cares.”
And so in the end, because Celebrían was mulishly stubborn in the most elegant way, it was not Glorfindel who taught Erestor the basics of reading, although they practiced together most evenings after dinner. Erestor never missed the practice sessions any more than he did his lessons with Celebrían, though whether he would stay on into the night was still unpredictable. He had, however, grown interested in hearing about things like Glorfindel’s youth, about Tirion in what he called the Summerlands or other places Glorfindel had seen. And he started asking about his work in Imladris too, and listened with apparent real interest to the problems of keeping a peacetime military force focused and occupied.
So spring moved into summer and so the summer passed, with reading and questions and sex in the sun or in the moonlight by the water, outdoors or in Glorfindel’s bed, once even in the barn with the horses, although Erestor swore they were watching. He was ill at ease still with animals that were taller than him.
They started laughing at things together too. Erestor’s wit proved quick and pointed, the result of sharp powers of observation, while Glorfindel’s was gentler, and they found a balance together. Glorfindel began joining him in the Hall of Fire to listen to sagas that had been old when he was young, tales of the Elder Days even before the Huntsman enticed his ancestors to travel to Valinor, ballads of mighty deeds, deathless romance, all of which he had heard before but experienced anew through Erestor’s eyes.
One night it was Gondolin’s turn, and he sat with Erestor, hearing about the marble walls and tinkling fountains, the snow-capped mountains, and the night it all ended. Afterwards they went back to Glorfindel’s rooms, as usual, but the mood and the memory made him quiet, less inclined for pleasure. After a while Erestor sat up, his hair, which he had taken lately to fastening back, now loose and glowing softly in the lamplight, and said, “That was the story the bards tell. How was it really? Share it with me.”
And Glorfindel leaned back against the pillows with the covers around his waist and talked, as he had not before with anyone. About the streets and the open land around the city, about markets and festivals and celebrations, about his home, his mother and sister, his family’s high dreams and hopes, all fed to the flames on the night of Morgoth’s attack. And he talked a little about the Balrog, and the fight, an approximation of which had been sung of earlier with a bow towards him from the bard. Not the fight itself, but how he had felt, something else he never shared And Erestor sat listening, his pose not unlike the way he had reclined in the pool on the second night, his face grave.
At the end he moved up the bed and came to lie beside Glorfindel, resting a hand on his chest. “What is gone, is gone,” he said softly into the late night stillness. “It cannot be brought back. Talking can help, sharing pain, but it is a tiring business. Rest now. I will stay till Lórien claims you.”
“And then you’ll go?” Glorfindel asked, as quietly.
Erestor paused, then nodded his head. “I walk at night and watch the valley,” he said. “It is hard for me to stay in these little rooms, like caves, while the trees whisper and the stars sparkle. But I will stay till you sleep.”
Somewhere inside him tight knots of old pain and betrayal, of promises no one had been able to keep softened, relaxing their hold, soothed away by that shining gaze and matter of fact kindness. Glorfindel placed his hand over Erestor’s and smiled. “I will never ask for more. Thank you.”
Erestor continued exploring the corners of the valley as the months passed, learning its moods, its problems and its people. He knew little groves in the woods that Glorfindel, responsible for its security, had never come across, and now understood the rotation of crops like a farmer.
His special love was given to the river and few days went past without him spending time beside it. He would walk in the shallow parts, knee deep, but he never swam. He watched the children diving and chasing and splashing as children do, and his face was wistful but he stayed on the land. Glorfindel wondered if the water was forbidden him but when he finally, warily asked why he never joined the young ones, Erestor actually laughed.
“Imagine your greatest joy was in running, and you were now lame? Would it please you to take part in children’s races, just for the sake of feeling the track under your feet? That is not swimming. Not as I knew it.”
The past, their meeting, the millions of unanswered questions, rose up between them for the first time in months, but Erestor was quick to shake his head. “Leave it,” he said, quiet but firm, reaching up to touch two fingers to Glorfindel’s lips. “I answered you. Is that not enough?”
And Glorfindel had to admit that it was. There were some things he had grown accustomed to not thinking about.
Summer passed and autumn came with scarlet leaves and gusting winds. Erestor was fascinated by the colours and the energy. He learned to help with the harvest where there was need and enjoyed the festival that heralded the time of year. Winter came and brought snow, about which he was philosophical although he seemed to feel the cold almost as much as Elrond. Glorfindel remembered he had spoken of the lands in the far north, but that was in the past, from the experiences of a strange, feral creature who bore only a passing resemblance to the elf he had somehow without realising fallen deeply in love with.
He still kept up his lessons with Celebrían, devouring books as soon as he was ready for each level. The time he spent with her brought him into proximity with Elrond too, who occasionally shot Glorfindel puzzled looks but only once gave way to curiosity, asking where they had first met. Glorfindel admitted they had met briefly in Mithlond, for which he received another of those curious looks, but Elrond had lived a long time and with some quite strange people and knew when to hold his peace and think his own thoughts.
Shortly after midwinter a young couple who had been born and raised in the valley were ready to bind. With the snow heavy on the ground and Imladris essentially cut off from the world, it was an excuse for a big celebration. Glorfindel found himself watching Erestor as much as the young couple or anyone else involved with the festivities, because he sat as he sometimes did in the Hall of Fire, drinking in the new, and to him magical, world that should have been his birthright. He caught Glorfindel’s eye on him and looked a question.
Glorfindel shook his head smiling. “I just like looking at you, that’s all. What were you thinking then?”
Erestor smiled, the soft smile he kept only for Glorfindel and very small children, and raised his cup. It held water, not wine. He had never gotten over the expanse of fresh water that was the Bruinen and also had no taste for alcohol. “I was thinking how happy they look? And wondering if there is an equivalent ceremony for men. There are one or two couples I always see together.”
“Like us, you mean?” Glorfindel asked, amused. “Not the formal ceremony, no, that’s for couples who join with the idea of having children. But promises can be made with the One for witness, no one can prevent that.”
“That’s good,” Erestor said, drinking his water. “I am glad for them.”
Glorfindel waited, hoping he would say more, but Erestor went into one of his deep silences, broken only when the music began and Arwen came striding across, bound and determined to teach him to dance.
The end-of-winter thaw began and the river tore down through the valley with a loud angry voice and parents paid extra attention to the whereabouts of their children. Erestor spent a lot of time watching it and less time talking. Glorfindel thought the long inactivity of winter had worn him down as it did some, and respected his mood. There were other touches that were confusing though not alarming: he gave away a couple of books he was fond of and the warm travelling cloak Glorfindel had given him at the height of the cold, and he spent even more time outdoors wandering from one spot to the next, following a route that made sense to him alone.
One night he came in later than usual, after Glorfindel had already gone to bed. He still followed his own unpredictable routine, but they generally spent at least part of the night together and he still left before dawn. He sat down on the edge of the bed and for a minute just looked at Glorfindel, then bent to take off his boots.
Glorfindel propped himself up on an elbow and reached a hand to stroke the long black hair. “Your hair’s like ice,” he said affectionately. “You’ve been out in the cold again.”
“I was listening to the river,” Erestor said, as enigmatic and reserved as ever. “I’m here now.” He rose and began removing his clothing, one piece at a time. Even after a year, this simple act was still all it took for Glorfindel to become aroused. He lay watching, a hand resting lightly over his sex, feeling it swell and press against his palm.
Erestor finished and turned to him, naked but for his hair. He knelt on the edge of the bed, leaned down to brush his lips against Glorfindel’s, then began kissing him slowly from the base of his neck in a tender line down his body, night-cool hair sliding across his skin and leaving fire in its wake. Glorfindel stroked his back, murmured pleasure. Erestor’s hands were cold but where they chilled him, a warm mouth soon followed.
Their lovemaking was slow, almost languid. Erestor seemed determined to make them both wait at the brink for as long as possible, far longer than was normal for him. He still had the untamed appetite of their first night, although, as he said, he had learned not to devour the entire meal in the space of ten heartbeats. This night he wanted to touch and kiss and caress every inch of Glorfindel’s body, with an almost studious thoroughness, and was more inclined to give than receive. Glorfindel had no objections, the tenderness was breathtaking in its own right, as was the way Erestor finally straddled him as he had their first time and guided him in, eyes never leaving his face.
It was a hard ride and not gentle, leaving them both soaked with sweat when it was done, but as soon as their breathing eased, Erestor led them back down that path again, and despite Glorfindel’s half laughing argument that he asked too much, their second joining was if anything longer and more intensely satisfying than the evening’s first.
It was dawn when he woke, with pale light creeping in the window and Erestor still sleeping in the crook of his arm. He was so surprised he almost woke him to ask if something was amiss but instead lay a while looking at him. Long lashes brushed clear, pale skin, black hair with the texture of silk framed his face and tumbled over his shoulder. His lips were slightly parted, inviting even in repose, but he stopped himself from kissing them. He had seldom seen Erestor sleep but was sure even something as light as a kiss would wake him. Instead Glorfindel pulled him closer, feeling the line of him along his own body, and went back to sleep smiling.
When he woke, Erestor was gone, which was hardly in itself surprising. Glorfindel had a busy day ahead, so while he was sorry they had not finally woken together, he sensed the time for that was close at hand. He dressed and went out into the world and after a while was too occupied to wonder any further.
That night Erestor was not at dinner, which was not unheard of because he sometimes shared a meal down in the valley. Neither did he come to the Hall of Fire, although Glorfindel stayed for a while, drinking wine and talking. He went to bed a little amused, suspecting the morning’s intimacy had not been unexpected for him alone. Erestor never spoke of love or referred to what was growing between them, and this would be his typically skittish way of dealing with change.
Next day, when there was still no sign of him, Glorfindel grew concerned. A few casual questions produced nothing of value, it seemed no one else had seen him the previous day either. He hesitated to ask Celebrían, not wanting it to look as though he felt Erestor owed him explanations for the way he spent his time, but he did ask Arwen if Erestor had gone for his morning lesson at the usual time, trying to make it sound casual. Fear prickled when she said she had not seen him for several days.
Celebrían proved almost equally difficult to track down. “She’s involved in something with the smiths,” Elrond explained when approached. “Their work reached a sensitive stage today and she’s unavailable, even to me. Very much her mother’s child,” he added with a smile that hovered between frustration and pride.
“I wanted to know if she knew where Erestor was,” Glorfindel explained. “This is the second day I’ve not seen him and I’m a little – concerned.” What he felt was something a great deal stronger than concern, but he still wanted to avoid looking like a possessive lover. Even if possibly he was.
Elrond wrinkled his brow and shook his head. “I’ve not seen him either, now that you mention it,” he admitted. “Still, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. He strikes me as more than capable of looking after himself.”
Dinner came and went. This time he gave the Hall only a cursory search, then went down to the river and walked alongside it right down into the valley. He had no idea what he expected to find. Even though Erestor could no longer swim as he once had, he suspected it would take more than the Bruinen to overcome him, but fear was irrational and it was fear that walked beside him, setting his heart racing at every shadowed tree log, every unidentified mound of stones. Later he went up to the smith’s compound, but the door was closed and locked and no one responded to his banging on it. Eventually he returned to his rooms with the lovely view of river and mountain and the empty bed, half hoping against hope, but there was no sign that Erestor had been there in his absence.
He drifted in and out of sleep on top of the bed, still partially dressed. Somehow he had never realised how used he was to Erestor’s presence, how empty the valley – his life – would be without him. The dawn had barely kissed the sky when he was up again, washing his face in cold water, brushing and redressing his hair. Celebrían would be in for breakfast, and he wanted to catch her before the day swallowed her up again. He was about to leave when his eye lighted on the anomaly he had sought and missed the night before: the windowsill was bare, the abalone shell was no longer there.
He stood staring, his mind empty, not understanding how it could be gone. Then he looked on the floor and checked other surfaces in case it had been moved during cleaning or on some whim of Erestor’s – he had been known to move things about, answering some aesthetic all his own. It was really gone, and he knew this even as he searched.
A visit to the stables, the one place he had not thought to check, told him the rest. Erestor had taken one of the horses almost three days ago and left the valley for a destination no one had felt at liberty to ask. The senior groom was quick to disclaim responsibility to Glorfindel, who as head of security could be relied upon to make life difficult if there was no authorisation for the removal of a horse. Lady Celebrían herself had given the instruction, he said, that if Erestor were to ask for a horse, he was to be given that specific one, an animal with good wind and capable of travelling long distances, and not plied with unnecessary questions.
Glorfindel barely heard the last of this, he was already on his way back to the house to find Celebrían.
She was home and in her nightclothes, but after one look at his face she shooed her husband away firmly and then turned to face Glorfindel.
“Where is he?” he demanded when they were alone, almost shouting. “What possessed you to offer him a horse and not say a word to me?” He was so deep in fear-fuelled anger he barely knew what he was saying.
She shook her head and her voice was gentle. “You do not own him, Glorfindel. He does not answer to you, or for that matter to me. He asked me how he would be able to return to Mithlond and I said he could have a horse. Would you want him to walk?”
“But why? Why would he leave? Why would he not tell me he was going?”
Understanding dawned and she put her hand on his arm, shook it a little. “He said nothing to you? My dear, I am so sorry, I hadn’t realised. But – you knew he would have to leave in the end, surely?”
A look at his face must have told her all she needed to know there. She turned away, walked to the nearest window and looked out. He followed her. It was a beautiful view across the valley, but he barely saw it. “He said nothing. I – he came here to find me, I never thought he would leave…”
“Perhaps it was too difficult to say goodbye,” she said softly. “Those can be the hardest words of all.”
He looked at her glumly. “You know – what he is, don’t you?”
“I met one of Ulmo’s children once,” she said after a slight hesitation. “I was very young, it was long before I was married. I thought she was beautiful but terrifying. My father said he wouldn’t like to meet her alone in the dark. My mother thought that quite funny – I didn’t understand why at the time. Erestor though, I think is younger, kinder.”
“I must go after him,” Glorfindel said, barely taking in what she was saying. “I can change his mind.”
“I don’t know that it’s his mind you’d have to change, my dear,” Celebrían said sadly. “But perhaps you have to find that out for yourself. He’s gone back to the coast near the Havens, somewhere touched by sea, not the river, I’d think. And Glorfindel,” she added, as he made for the door. “Don’t talk past him, if you find him. Listen to what he has to say. Try and understand.”