Glorfindel left Imladris within the hour, taking a bag of supplies he threw together in the kitchen and a single change of clothing. There was no thought or planning involved further than getting on the road as fast as possible and catching up with Erestor before he got too far ahead. He was well past Bree when the horse, not his usual mount, began limping and they had to stop and rest the night before resuming the journey at an easier pace with very regular rests.
Sitting under a tree in the rain and eating a portion of lembas, it finally occurred to him that he would have been better able to catch Erestor, a less experienced rider, if he had taken two horses and changed between them. But all the years of training and experience that made him such a good commander had deserted him in the face of a loss that was in the process of rocking the foundations of his world.
At any rate, due to his lack of foresight he would have to stop and rest the horse at regular intervals and remember it was not a trained warhorse. He loved horses and had always looked after his well, in fact it had been one of his few true joys in Gondolin that he belonged to a family permitted to own horses and ride for pleasure, but he had been less patient with his current mount’s frailties, urging him along down the endless road to Mithlond, and now they both paid the price.
At intervals he wondered how it was for Erestor, alone on a strange road with only a horse for company, if he was managing all right, if he was safe, dry, had food for the journey. He could only hope his relative unfamiliarity with horses would slow him down enough for Glorfindel to finally catch up before… He refused to think about what he might find at the end of the road. Just – before.
It rained on and off for days and when he left the road to cross the Emyn Beraid he had to take care because the horse slipped several times on the rain-slick ground. He came down the hidden road to the Grey Havens in the afternoon with the rain holding off but the wind strong and angry. He passed the elven haven without stopping, although Círdan missed very little that happened in his remnant of the once-great Kingdom of Lindon and would know he was there. Instead he rode alongside the water, his eyes scanning the shoreline. He looked carefully at the rocks, watching for movement, although there was none in the place where he and Erestor had first met, in fact he could hardly be sure it was the same, because the water was high and only a few jagged rocks showed where he was sure there had been a pool.
It was getting late and the despair he had fought all those long days on the road was creeping closer, when a horse came trotting towards him, tossing its head and snorting softly to itself. His own horse whinnied a greeting for a known stable mate. Glorfindel recognised the horse and his heart lurched. There was a blue cloth draped beneath the saddle which he also knew, it was the cloak Erestor had worn when he arrived in Imladris, his gift of warmth to the animal that had carried him back to the sea.
Glorfindel stared at it and felt chilled to the soul, finally confronted with a reality that till now he had refused to accept.
The tide was coming in, waves smashing against rocks and swallowing the narrow beach. The clouds were leaden grey with barely a touch of light about them, and he felt a few drops on his face that were rain, not spray. The track degenerated into loose gravel and sand and he knew it would be dangerous for the horse to go further, which was likely why Erestor had chosen this point to let his own go free. Cursing himself for any one of a number of stops that could have been shorter, he dismounted. He led his horse to a group of scraggly bushes and fastened the reins to a solid-looking branch. Horses in his experience were stupid about such things; the lightest knot to the flimsiest post was as effective as chains and a masonry block. Giving it a reassuring pat, he continued on foot.
He tramped on for some distance, grimly determined, while the shoreline curved around a high outcrop of rock. When he rounded it he finally saw Erestor, walking with a kind of stiff resolve, his back very straight, his head held high.
“Erestor, wait,” he shouted. Erestor did not look round, but instead started walking faster. Pain and fear fed into a burst of irrational rage and Glorfindel began running. “You. Stop. Where in the Void do you think you’re going? How dare you leave without telling me?”
Erestor glanced over his shoulder now, briefly. “I had nothing to say. It was time. Nothing I said could change that,” he tossed back.
“What are you talking about, it was time?”
“Time. Time to come back.” He turned but kept walking backwards, something he still did as smoothly as forwards. The wind whipped his words away and back, sent his hair flying about his face. He was close enough to the water now for the salt spray to reach him. “You don’t understand. It was only for a year, no longer. Till the next spring’s equinox, when the day and night lie even. Go back, Glorfindel. This isn’t for you…”
“I’m not going back,” Glorfindel insisted. “We have to talk.” Celebrían’s voice came back to him, calm but firm: Don’t talk past him, listen to what he has to say. “Just – explain. Please. I thought we – you were happy…”
“It is nothing to do with being happy or unhappy.” Erestor pushed his hair back, and Glorfindel was close enough to see how pale he was, to read the pain in his face. “I wanted to see Imladris, I wanted to find you. I was curious. And I found you and the valley and I – I would have stayed if I could, but I only had a year. Please go back, Glorfindel. He’ll be angry. This isn’t for shore people.”
He turned away and hurried on, closer to running now than walking, and Glorfindel stood staring after him, trying to think what to do to change it, what to say to make him stay. If he could stay. The air was cold and he pulled his cloak closer about him, trying not to think of Erestor, all warmth and smoothness, back in the icy sea. Distracted by this, it took a minute or two for him to finally realise Erestor wasn’t just walking aimlessly down the track, he was walking towards someone.
This time Glorfindel moved more cautiously and tried not to be obvious about it, though if he could see whoever was standing on the rocks, that person could see him. As he got nearer he saw that the man, tall and strongly build, bare save for a kind of apron that covered his private parts and wearing a necklace of shells, was no mere elf or water dweller; Glorfindel had been born in the West twice, he knew a Maia when he saw one, and this without a doubt was Ossë. Respect, ingrained from birth, slowed his steps.
Erestor had drawn level with the Maia and stopped, a small stretch of foaming water between them. The wind turned and their words drifted to Glorfindel, though barely audible above the roaring sea.
Erestor’s voice was clear, steady. “I am returned, Ossë, in the time you set.”
Ossë crossed his arms over his chest, staring at him. A wave crashed against his rock, breaking over him, and he paid it no heed. “From equinox to equinox I said, yes. One turn around the sun and then the payment, to serve me as messenger, no longer to roam free without responsibilities as do your siblings.”
“That was what I promised before I left. One year, and then I would enter your service.”
“And did you find what you sought in the lands beyond the sea?” Ossë’s voice carried more easily through sea and wind, his elements from the beginning of time. He was bigger than Glorfindel, but not bigger than a Balrog.
“I found what I sought, yes.”
“Then it is time.” Not at any point had Ossë so much as glanced at Glorfindel, clearly he had decided there was no reason to concern himself with one lone elf. “Enter the water and reclaim your true form.”
“That is not my true form,” Erestor said. He sounded as though he had given this some thought. “This is my true form, before our Lord saved me from the breaking of the world. The one I have to reclaim was his gift.” He was taking off his boots as he spoke, neither moving fast nor slow, while the wind whipped and tangled his hair about him.
The sun was getting ready to dip beneath the horizon and the sky was darkening. Ossë made an impatient gesture. “It is the form to which you must return. I gave you only one cycle, no more.”
Erestor, barefoot on the rocks and about to remove his tunic, stopped. There was a stillness about him that Glorfindel could feel even at a distance. “It was all you gave me?” he asked.
Ossë stood waiting. The wind barely stirred his hair. “Even so. Come.”
“You gave me a year and in return wanted a servant – messenger is a pretty word, but not what I would be.” He had his back to Glorfindel, who knew him well enough to imagine him measuring the Maia with his eye. “Just a year. What would you want, Ossë, if I asked for more? What would it cost if I wanted to go back forever?”
Some of the words drifted away into the noise from the sea or were thrown aside by the wind, but Glorfindel could hear enough to understand, enough to make him hold his breath, waiting for the Maia to rage.
He was right. “You would dare bargain with me, urchin?” Ossë shouted. He lunged forward but Erestor stood his ground, still staring at him. “Get into the water, we will have an end to this. I have work and enough for you. What do you need on the shore, up in the mountains? Enough of this!” His voice rolled over the waves like the wind, carrying power and urgent threat.
“What would it cost?” Erestor shouted at him, tugging his tunic over his head and throwing it onto the rocks. His shirt followed in a couple of angry moves that must have ripped buttons.
Ossë roared at him, a sound akin to thunder that split the air. Glorfindel moved a step closer, not sure what he would do but with an instinct to protect Erestor if he could. Erestor would say he needed no protection, he certainly seemed unafraid of Ossë. Glorfindel had no idea if that was an act or simple reality, but then Erestor had always seemed fearless to him.
The water near Ossë suddenly began foaming and frothing and then in its midst a form took shape. A woman’s head and shoulders rose from the sea, her hair cascading back in a spreading tracery of lacy white. She gave Ossë a reproachful look, but said nothing. The Maia glanced at her. “Wife,” he said with a brief nod, then set his hands on his hips and stared down at Erestor. There was a sudden, unnatural stillness and then he said, clipping each word off sharply. “You would needs prove to me that you really want it, urchin.”
Erestor stood wrapped in his long black hair, stripped to the waist. A wave broke thigh high, soaking him. “A jar of my blood, the hair off my head, a limb, one of Varda’s lanterns?” Glorfindel’s blood ran cold at the challenge in his voice.
Ossë made a sound that he realised was laughter, but flesh-crawling and dark. “Nothing so simple, urchin. Those things would hurt, but then heal. This is something you must want more than any other. Therefore, to win it you must first destroy the thing you love the most. And I will know if you lie. Then only can there be a new bargain.”
Erestor stayed motionless a moment longer, then pivoted round and looked directly at Glorfindel. Unexpectedly he smiled, beautiful, winsome, and all the unspoken love Glorfindel knew lay between them was in his eyes. Turning back to Ossë he shrugged and said more quietly, “That is too high a price, my lord. Let it be as you required.”
In one fluid motion he removed the last of his shore clothing and stood naked save for the jewelled necklace he had won from the ocean and a small bag that hung against his hip from a cord around his waist. Ossë gave him a measured look and then raised his hands. There was a moment of absolute darkness filled with a grating, chittering noise that had Glorfindel clapping his hands over his ears. Then it stopped and the darkness lifted as though it had never been, and Erestor was sliding into the water, clearing the rocks with a powerful thrust of his tail.
“Welcome home, little fish,” Uinen said, her voice ebbing and flowing like the tide. White tendrils of hair reached across and touched Erestor fleetingly.
There was no need for Glorfindel to think what to do next, it was like the Cirith Thoronath and the Balrog, one of those moments where there is only a single course of action. He stepped forward, crossing the open space between him and the place where Erestor had stood. Ossë finally deigned to notice him and was watching, arms crossed over his chest again, curious rather than annoyed.
Glorfindel bowed, hand to heart, as he had been trained in boyhood. “My Lord Ossë, perhaps even now there is another gift you would accept on Erestor’s behalf?”
Ossë frowned but nodded. “Speak, elf from the Westlands. What would you offer that matches the value of the prize?”
Glorfindel measured him. If the Maia grew angry enough and attacked, he would die more surely than was ever likely with the Balrog. Without turning round Erestor snapped, “Glorfindel, I told you to go back. This is not…”
“It’s not for me, no. So you said. And you are wrong. Love makes you wrong. Hush.” He spoke gently, as if there was no one else present. “My lord? If you can take it, I would offer my immortality, as much of that span of the ages as it seems fit to take. I will live the life and die the death of a mortal, if it pleases you. Just let Erestor go back to his true home in the mountains, the place he loves.”
Erestor twisted in the water, wet hair flicking across his suddenly white face, his expression one of pure horror. “Glorfindel, stop it, be quiet. Ossë, no, he never meant…”
“Yes, I meant it.” He felt absolutely calm, the sense one had in battle when the die is cast and there is no turning back. He looked up at the Maia, into unreadable green eyes, and waited. Ossë raised an eyebrow, considered him, then threw back his great head and laughed, the sound booming and echoing.
“You will give up your heritage? You will go into the dark with the Second-born? To give this urchin legs to climb trees? Yes! Yes, I say. That is a very fitting price!”
Uinen became agitated, the sea foam around her spreading wider. “No, no, no, no,” she exclaimed in her strange, whispery voice. “No, my husband, this cannot be.”
Ossë drew himself up and glared down at her. “Cannot? You dare say cannot, wife?”
“The Lady speaks well,” Erestor said, swimming back to the rock and pulling himself up onto it. Glorfindel caught at his shoulder to help and was shaken off.
“Bad little fish,” Uinen piped in their direction. “Always a stubborn little fish. No, my lord. This is the one the Doomsman sent back. His life cannot be touched, Námo of the dark halls would be angry with usssss.”
Erestor was looking past her, staring at the sea behind Ossë, suddenly tense and watchful. It was rising, waves rolling across and past, colliding, the current twisting and shifting. Uinen followed his gaze and cried out in sudden alarm, “He comes, take care. The King of the Sea comes!”
The water rose and kept on rising as the sky darkened. Somewhere lightning flashed and the air became tight and bitterly cold. The waves resolved into something vast and terrible. Blue-green skin covered a massive chest and arms, rippling over muscle. He had a head of white hair, a white beard wild and lacy like Uinen’s hair, and piercing green-gold eyes. In one vast webbed hand he held a trident that gleamed silver from the light that seemed to emanate from him. Erestor stayed on the rock, just the lower half of his tail in the water, but bowed his head. Glorfindel knelt, though he kept his head raised, looking with awe on the face of the Lord of the Deep, Ulmo himself.
“What did I hear? You would deal in spans of lives, vassal?” the Vala roared at Ossë. “You would put yourself above the One?” Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled out to sea.
Ossë had bowed low but chose not to kneel, though Glorfindel was almost certain he saw a small hand extend from Uinen’s veil of sea foam and tug at his foot. “My lord, it is indeed not so,” he said, and his voice was subdued, no longer the ringing tones he had used first to Erestor and then to Glorfindel. “But it was a vast thing that was asked. I needed to be sure the one from the Westlands meant it truly before I asked for something more – suitable in exchange.”
“You. Child!” The trident reached past Ossë and touched the rock where Erestor sat.
Sparks flew where it struck and Erestor flinched back from them. He straightened, looked up at the Lord of Waters, and now there was no defiance. “My lord who gave me life, I am Erestor…”
“I know your name,” the Vala retorted. “There is not a child of mine whose name and doings I do not know. You have walked in strange places, child.”
“I have walked in Elrond Half-elven’s valley, my lord who gave me life,” Erestor said respectfully.
“Eärendil’s son?” Uinen sounded pleased. “They played by the sea when they were boys, before the other one went to the drowned land.”
“Hush, wife,” Ossë muttered.
“The Star Traveller’s boy, yes. And how did this come to be? Did I not save you from the Breaking and bring you into my realm?”
“Yes my lord who gave me life.” Erestor’s voice, husky-soft as it was, was almost drowned out by the sound of the waves. “I asked Ossë if there was a way I could go ashore for a little while, just to see, and he…” Ossë glanced back and glared at him and he amended it. “… and we made a bargain.”
Uinen swam or more correctly glided over to the rocks and floated alongside Erestor. The waters shifted. Ulmo took a step forward. “And this bargain was – what?”
Erestor gave Ossë’s back an uncomfortable look. “I could have legs and live on land for a year, and when I returned I – would work for him?”
Lightning flashed, and a line caught the tip of the trident and leapt back to the sky. Thunder roared. “Work for him?” Ulmo’s voice seemed to come from within as well as without and vibrated around Glorfindel’s head eerily.
“My lord, I don’t know. Take messages? Find things?”
“Poor silly little fish,” Uinen muttered just loud enough for Glorfindel to hear. “Poor silly husband.”
“It is not your place to make bargains with my children, nor to take away gifts you may have bestowed,” Ulmo told Ossë almost conversationally. “We will discuss later how it is that this was in your power and where you learned this – skill.”
He shifted his focus, turning his attention to Glorfindel, and the strange eyes bored into him as though reading his soul. “There was something you offered, something that was not yours to give, Twice Born.”
Glorfindel took a very deep breath. “My lord, my life is my own…”
“Your life is a gift from the One, undying, unchangeable. It is not for you to deny it, nor is it in the power of any to accept this offer. And yes, vassal, you say this was not your true intent. I heard you. What then would you have?”
It was almost full dark now, but the strange light Ulmo shed lit the scene in frightening shades of green and violet and blue. The sea crashed and the thunder answered, and no one said a word. Uinen had moved even closer to Erestor, who sat back, taking his weight on his hands and watching Ulmo. Glorfindel was more interested in Ossë.
“I would have the gold from his hair,” Ossë said finally, flatly.
The words made no sense. Glorfindel stared blankly, trying to understand, looking for the meaning while distantly hearing Erestor gasp. Ulmo’s green-gold eyes moved to Glorfindel. “You made an offer. It was accepted. I deemed that coin unsuitable and untenable. This however, is a fair exchange if exchange there must be. You agree?”
Erestor started to speak, to object, but Uinen said in a stronger, more solid voice, “Let it go, little fish. He offered something, he cannot go back on his word. Would you make him a liar?”
Glorfindel rose unsteadily to his feet and bowed his head. “I am ready, Lord,” he said with a calm he did not feel. The gold from his hair? But whatever that meant, Erestor’s freedom was worth far more. Watching under his lashes he saw a small interchange between Ossë and Ulmo, in which the Maia gave his lord an uncertain look and Ulmo favoured him with a rather human sneer. Then the tip of one of the tines of the trident touched his hair and the world became strange.
Glorfindel stood in a whirl of brilliant colours and strange, whispering, keening sounds, and the air felt hot as it slid into his lungs, despite the sea, despite the rain, neither of which he could see or feel. His head felt warm and strange, but there was no pain. And then as fast as it had happened, the colours and sounds vanished and the rain-filled dark returned. Erestor was looking up at him with wide, glittering eyes, a hand to his mouth, and Ossë – from neck to shoulders, Ossë wore a broad collar of sunlit gold.
“I remember you from the beginning, child.” Ulmo’s voice was the wind wailing around chalk cliffs and waves breaking on foreign shores. “Bright eyed and curious and with no fear for me. Go then, heart’s child. Be what you were. But do not forget the sea.”
Then the trident touched Erestor and there was a flash of lightning so brilliant it blinded Glorfindel, and when his sight cleared he was alone on a half-submerged rock with rain beating down and the waves crashing over it, and Erestor was scrabbling at the rock and trying to pull himself up out of the sea, his hair clinging slick to his body. Glorfindel grabbed him almost without thought and tugged, and he came up easily and collapsed on hands and knees before turning to look back out to sea.
“They’re gone,” he managed to get out, shivering so hard he could barely talk.
Glorfindel stopped staring at the miracle of long, pale limbs and instead pulled his sodden cloak off and draped it over Erestor. “Come, away from the edge, bring your clothes. It’s over, yes. They’ve gone. And we’ll drown if we stay here much longer.”
They staggered over slippery rock and onto the shore, Erestor carrying his clothes, pausing only to take the necklace from round his neck and toss it into the waves, returning it to its rightful owner. They stopped when they reached the trail and stared at each other. “He let you come back,” Glorfindel said disbelievingly.
“You paid,” Erestor replied, speaking barely above a whisper. “The gold from your hair — Ossë wears it round his neck. And your hair – your hair is white…”
Glorfindel dragged his eyes away from the familiar shape of him and the outline of the abalone shell in the bag on his hip and tugged a lock of his own very wet hair round to examine the strange, leached colour of it. He laughed, not quite believing it, let it go and then took Erestor by the shoulders. “It is just hair,” he said gently, kissing the top of Erestor’s head. “I would gladly have given all I had for this.”
Erestor looked up at him wonderingly, touching and touching his hair with questing fingers. Then he wrapped his arms around Glorfindel, head in the crook of his shoulder, and sighed deeply. “Can we go home now?” he asked softly.
Glorfindel held him close, laughing with the pure joy of being able to do so. “Yes, we can go home now. Perhaps a bowl of soup and a bed for the night from Círdan, but then the road home.”
Erestor straightened up and looked at him and finally his lips twitched into a smile. “That depends,” he said. “They treat strangers with caution here. Before we see soup and a bed, it might take some convincing for them to recognise you.”
The abalone shell regained pride of place on the windowsill of the bedroom they now shared. Elrond grew to trust Erestor’s practical wisdom and often called on him for counsel. He did miss the sea sometimes with a deep ache, and would go walking beside the Bruinen when that happened, quiet and reserved, but as the years passed, those times grew rare. The valley became the home of his heart and their love held true, paid for in purest gold.
AN: Many thanks to Red for all the help with the story concept and for guessing what Ossë would ask for. Thanks also to Talullah for inspirational graphics.
Betas: Red Lasbelin and Phyncke for 11th hour help. You’re both awesome.