The Long Defeat
Elrond closed the door of the treatment room behind him. “Give her the draught for fever; athelas again for the foot tonight. And keep a watch on her,” he said to Thalanes.
As the healer hurried away to prepare the draught, Elrond walked with Glorfindel to the door of the hall of healing.
The Commander of the warriors of Imladris was dressed for battle, his sword hanging by his side, and his helmet under his arm. His armour gleamed less from the dim lamp light than from the radiance of his famed hair, which fell in golden waves down his back to his waist. Regardless of what had happened with the balrog in his last life, elven vanity ran deep and it would never have occurred to him to tie his tresses up. No self-respecting elf would.
As they strode down the lamp-lit corridor, before the warrior could speak, Elrond said to him, “Does that child look familiar to you? And tell me in Quenya.”
“Humour me. In Quenya, please.”
Glorfindel looked quizzically at Elrond, but obediently replied in Quenya, “Perhaps… I cannot quite place her, though.”
“That’s the very accent!” said Elrond in Sindarin. “Now, how is it that a child of forty in our times should speak Quenya—and not any Quenya, but the elegant, quaint Quenya of my great-grandfather’s court?”
“There is nothing odd about my accent!”
“My foster fathers would have begged to differ,” said Elrond drily in Quenya, emphasizing the lisp.
“Did you find out what in Eä she was doing, wandering naked in the southern woods of the Rhudaur?” said Glorfindel, reverting to Sindarin. Quenya was by this time a language of ritual and ceremonies and ancient song, and he had never before conversed in it with Elrond.
“She cannot remember. Yet she looked at you rather strangely when you entered. You may have reminded her of someone.” Before she had quickly turned her face away to the wall, Elrond had caught the expression that had flashed across it. The disgusted look of an elf who had just seen a squat, warty toad or a troll. Not the usual reaction of most maidens to his gloriously beautiful, golden-haired friend.
Glorfindel gave a small shrug. “I did not get a good look at her, but I don’t believe she’s anyone I have met on my travels.” He averted his face. “She seemed rather agitated. I shall speak to her when she is well again.”
“She is a strange child. Very strange,” said Elrond. “She certainly does not behave like a youngling.”
Glorfindel shook off the shadow that had touched him and briskly changed the subject. “The patrol that just returned saw the wargs that Gildor and his company encountered, and a band of orcs. About twenty. I am heading out with a party to hunt them down…”
The sky was grey and overcast. Riding out in the dim light of early morning with his company of eight, the golden-haired elflord was more silent than he was wont to be, and his warriors left him to his thoughts
The girl in the healing halls. Black hair, white skin. And suddenly he was transported back to a beloved city with tall white towers surrounded by seven gates, protected by the sheer cliffs of the Echoriad, the Encircling Mountains: Gondolin the fair, last secret stronghold of the Noldorin exiles in Beleriand. For that one fleeting glimpse of a young, fair face had reminded him of Aredhel Ar-Feiniel, sister to King Turgon the white lady of the Noldor. It had been a dark day when Glorfindel had lost the king’s sister in Nan Dungortheb, and a darker day still, a day of doom, when she had at last returned to Gondolin.
Glorfindel remembered her pale, stricken face as she had sunk to the cold flagstones with her husband’s poisoned javelin in her shoulder. He had been standing just a little too far to save her. Had a second time in her life failed her, and that second time had been fatal.
The failures of his life…
The highs and lows of service in the mortal lands over two ages. The bitter victory of the Last Alliance. Facing down and defeating the Witch King of Angmar. Establishing a safe haven for the Eldar and for the Dúnedain in Imladris. As commander of the valley’s armed forces, Glorfindel’s duty was to keep it and its surrounding region safe. Few orcs or wargs or trolls that wandered west across the Misty Mountains survived to tell the tale. The men and hobbits of Eriador never realized how much of their peace and security they owed to the vigilance of the elves of Imladris and the Men of the West.
But the darkness was growing. Both orcs and wargs were becoming larger and bolder and their incursions more frequent. The Lady of Imladris, Celebrían, had been captured by Orcs a number of years back while travelling home from a visit to her parents.
And where had Glorfindel been, when Elrond had staggered and fallen to his knees one twilight in Imladris, as his lady’s pain and terror smote him across a hundred leagues?
The balrog slayer had been several hundred miles away at Mithlond, seeing off some friends as they took ship west. By the time he had returned to Imladris, Celebrían had been brought home, a shadow of her former self. She had taken a morgûl wound, and never recovered, despite all Elrond’s efforts to heal her. She had begun to fade, and had sailed for Aman leaving her grieving husband and her three children.
Glorfindel had been sent to help and serve the descendants of Turgon, and in the moment the family had needed him most deeply…
But now, with a flash of his eyes and a leap of his heart, he saw the orcs in the distance.
Glorfindel and his company of elven warriors and Rangers of the North descended swiftly upon the orcs and wargs. The skirmish was brief but brutal. Some of the foul creatures fled in fear before the white light shining from the golden-haired warrior, which seared their eyes with the purity of its radiance. His sword cleaved through the orc ranks as the white horse Asfaloth ran through them. The cowardly orc commander and some of its creatures fled into the dense woods where Asfaloth could not follow. Leaping from Asfaloth’s back Glorfindel gave chase, decapitated one warg, thrust through an orc, came face to face with the commander and slashed through its armour and its torso as through butter. Thought and act and instinct were one as his sword sang, and Glorfindel, for those moments, felt fully alive.
This had been one of the easier ones. With their leader gone the enemy had all tried to flee and were picked off relatively easily.
The Commander returned to his men and whistled for Asfaloth, the white battle-light still flickering in his blue eyes and shining in his face. He sang healing softly to his trusty steed as he bandaged a flesh wound on Asfaloth’s right foreleg—might need a couple of stitches, nothing serious—and checked on his company: three ellyn, two ellith, and three young Dunedain aged sixteen, nineteen, and twenty. No casualties, minor wounds. Between the nine of them, they did the tally. All twenty-three orcs and nine wargs had been killed, almost half by Glorfindel alone. The golden-haired lord’s armour was spattered with orc blood, but he himself looked as fresh as the morning.
The three Rangers looked warily at the elven warrior, in awe of the fluid grace that had carved a path of destruction with such swiftness and ease through the orcish company. Shining like a star, his beautiful face stern and terrible, Glorfindel had looked to them like one of the Valar. They could feel power still emanating from the bright-haired elflord as he approached them, prickling their skin like lightning in the air.
The Rangers were young ones, new to Imladris and had been training with Glorfindel’s captains. He, just returned from Lothlórien, had not had time to break the ice with them. Yet. He patted Asfaloth’s flank and smiled at the edain, and his expression transformed into boyish friendliness. It was as though the sun had come out. They smiled back.
“Well done, lads,” Glorfindel said with a grin. He glanced up at the skies. They had cleared. “It’s going to be a beautiful May morning! Let’s go home for breakfast.”
After breakfast with his men and a good bath, Glorfindel went out onto the terrace with his bright hair still damp, whistling cheerfully, a large tray balanced on one hand. He slid down the balustrade of the steps leading to the gardens, the tray still perfectly balanced, and set it down with a flourish on a small table next to a chair where a grey-robed wizard was sitting, enjoying the morning sun.
“Breakfast is served, mellon-nin!” Glorfindel poured out some tea for the wizard. “I met the maid as I passed by the kitchen,” he added by way of explanation, before throwing himself gracefully into a chair. “From the distant snores my elven ears discern from the guest wing, our good hobbit is still asleep.”
“All tuckered out by his adventures,” said the wizard with a chuckle. “And he’s had aplenty for a little fellow.”
“Yes, adventures.” Glorfindel sighed and looked balefully at the wizard. “It will be a long while before I forgive you for packing me off to Lothlórien after Dol Guldur. And causing me to miss the biggest battle since the Last Alliance.”
“You were too injured to take part in another battle. You have only yourself to blame for taking such wild risks with your life in the assault on the Necromancer.”
“There’s gratitude. I saved your lives.”
“I am not ungrateful. But you were careless.” The wizard raised an eyebrow at the elf as he ate. “I should like to know why you appear so bent on sending yourself back to the Halls of Mandos.”
Glorfindel reached for a piece of bread and laughed musically, but for once it did not sound particularly merry. “Would that be a loss? I’ve fought the good fight for five thousand years. I’m ready for retirement.”
“Glorfindel, you were sent here. No one has given you leave to return yet.”
“What real purpose do I serve now? I keep myself busy, but the truth is the guard of Imladris is so well-trained it can run without me. The captains can train the Dúnedain without me. My warriors could have handled that orc company we slew this morning—without me there—and not even broken a sweat. The population of the valley is down to below eight hundred, and I’m not involved at all in administration. Erestor and I keep getting on each other’s nerves, and Elrond keeps fabricating excuses to send me to Lothlórien and Mirkwood. But all I really do in the Golden Woods is have an extended holiday.”
“Galadriel, Celeborn and Arwen are very fond of you.”
“So is half the single female population. It gets tiresome, you know, politely telling ellith to get out of my bed and off my talan. And in the Woodland Realm, all Thranduil and I do is annoy each other. I’m not a diplomat, I’m a warrior. Erestor should be the one to go on these diplomatic trips, but all he wants to do is bury himself in the library. There’s next to no work for him to do here. In fact, since the house steward sailed west, Erestor has not even looked for a replacement. He’s simply assumed the duties to stave off boredom.”
“Maybe one of your purposes here has been to keep Erestor amused.” The wizard chuckled.
“Maybe if I annoy him enough he’ll kill me.” The elf poured a fresh cup of tea for the wizard.
The wizard had finished his breakfast and now lit his pipe. Glorfindel wrinkled his nose and quickly swung himself away from the smoke into the nearest tree upwind.
“It is a lovely blend, this particular mix of weed. You should try it one day.”
“The beard and the old man incarnation, I could get used to. This stinking dwarven habit, never. Manwë would disapprove.”
“I shall plant pipeweed in Yavanna’s fields one day. It shall be a new fad in Aman.”
Halfway up the tree, the elf looked out over the valley a little dreamily. “There was a time this valley housed twenty-thousand elves. And in the days of the gathering of the Last Alliance, there must have been a hundred thousand at least camped here, and a hundred thousand more in the surrounding lands. A sea of tents and temporary dwellings. But almost all have passed west. Taken ship, or been taken to Mandos. For the tale of the Firstborn in the mortal lands, is the tale of our woe and our long defeat. These are the days of our fading. To diminish in numbers, to dwindle in power, and at long last to depart.”
He settled himself on a bough. The wizard smoked his pipe, and waited.
“After five millennia here, what have I really achieved?” said the musical voice from the branches above. “Think about it. I did not succeed in stopping Annatar. I protected Lindon, but I could not protect Eregion.”
“Eregion refused your intervention.”
“Yet that was where it was most needed. And so, the rings were made. Celebrimbor got slaughtered.”
“He made his choices. He would not listen to you, or Elrond, or Gil-galad.”
“Gil-Galad.” A sigh from the tree. “I could not save my king. Or Elendil. I was not even there for the end of the siege of Barad-dûr. The most important battle in the Second Age, and I missed it.”
“Because you were fighting for your life in the infirmary. I heard the tale from Elrond. And you omit to mention that you saved Thranduil’s life.”
“For which he has never been grateful. I failed to save his father.”
“And if you had not been in the skirmish that almost killed you, neither Gil-Galad nor Elendil might have lived to see that final battle with Sauron. The darkness rises again. We saw it, at Dol Guldur. We have vanquished it but for a while. There may be other battles for you still to fight.”
“The Istari are here to fight them, Olórin. I wonder if you truly needed me at Dol Guldur. Perhaps you summoned me there because you felt sorry for me twiddling my thumbs here.”
“If you really need to hear me say it, of course you were needed.”
Glorfindel was restlessly climbing higher and higher in the tree. Lying back and gazing at the sky, he let the tree cradle him in its branches. “I see no great battles in my future.” Prophecy was a gift he sometimes had, but for others, never himself. “I see… nothing.”
The wizard’s face grew stern. “Bitterness does not become you, Glorfindel,” he said in reprimand. “Since when have you been so cynical? This is not like you at all. You forget that your mission was specific. You were sent here to serve Elrond.”
“Apart from playing chess with him and letting him beat me, I cannot see how I am serving.”
“He is your friend as well as your assignment. And for as long as he and his family are here, the greatest warrior in Middle Earth should be at his side.”
“Do not call me that!” Glorfindel sat up straight and looked down at the wizard with flashing eyes. “I hate being called that. And the so-called ‘greatest warrior in Middle Earth’ was not even there when Elrond needed him most.” Standing up, he balanced impossibly on the slenderest, swaying branches at the top of the tree without using his hands.
The wizard pulled on his pipe and blew a few beautiful smoke rings. “So that is what this is all about.”
The tree was silent except for leaves rustling in the wind.
“Come, come. Come on down here before you fall and hurt yourself. Whatever you do, Námo will not let you back into his halls. You’ll merely be miserable and suffer horribly for nothing.”
“Námo told you that?”
“I know for a fact that all of us are wherever we are for a reason, and until the appointed time. And your appointed time to go home has not come yet. The truth is, I have no idea how you may yet serve Elrond and his family. But you have done so, faithfully and well, and this self-flagellation over Celebrían is needless. It was Elrond himself who suggested you accompany Gwestor and his family to the Havens. And even had you been here, you could not have prevented the tragedy, or reached Celebrían much faster than her sons did. So, stop being silly and come down. I want to say something.”
Glorfindel lightly descended to a lower bough and sat on it. “Speak. I’ll stay here till you finish that pipe.”
The wizard puffed on his pipe and looked at him with deep eyes. “An answer to your deepest question... the missing piece of your soul. Surely you are not done yet in Ennor until you have found what was promised you.”
Glorfindel gave a light laugh. “I never understood what Manwë meant by that, and still do not. I cannot seek when I know not what to seek.”
Gandalf smiled. “Or in other words, there is no disappointment for one who does not hope.”
Glorfindel glared at the wizard. “I had no need to hope for anything. I had no questions and no missing pieces before the Lord of the Winds proposed to me that I did. I was perfectly happy.”
Glorfindel shifted on his bough. “To seek for myself is... selfish.”
“And trying to get yourself killed and leave your friends bereft is not?”
Glorfindel said nothing for a while.
“My deepest question right now is… have I been enough? Have I done enough?” He looked away towards the west. “And, Olórin, old friend… ”
Just then, a small figure with curly hair and furry feet emerged onto the terrace. The elf broke off whatever he had been about to say, waved at the hobbit with a cheerful smile that he did not feel, and leapt lightly down from the tree.
“I’ll ask the kitchen to prepare a hobbit-sized tray of breakfast.”
“They may be small, but they have impressive appetites.”
“That was what I meant!”
And with his golden hair shining in the late morning sun, Glorfindel ran up the steps, and exchanged a few words with Bilbo before disappearing into the house.
“Good morning, Baggins.”
“And a good morning to you, Gandalf!”
Bilbo lit his pipe as he settled into the chair next to the wizard’s. “Such a charming fellow, that Glorfindel! Do you know what he said he’d get me for my breakfast? Mushrooms! And an omelette. And a bit of a steak and kidney pie.” The halfling sighed blissfully as he leaned back in his chair, pulled on his pipe, and blew out a few smoke rings. “Ah, elves! Always so merry, and fair, and full of song! One cannot be weary in a place like this. I feel like a new hobbit already.”