Dark Flame, Bright Shadow
Snow came, and the elvenlord did not return.
The valley became hushed. The head advisor was, according to the whispers in the kitchen, unwell again. Perhaps overwork – ever since his breakdown.
Amid the whispers, the unease was reined by Lord Glorfindel. Since his awakening, he had grown taller, his voice richer – as if he had begun to grow back to his old self, tread alone in a backward flow of time.
And when asked about Lord Erestor, he only smiled. He had not been to see him.
The call was hesitant. Erestor raised his eyes from the scroll he was writing. The Councilor of Finances stood at his doorway.
"Lord Glorfindel," he said, fidgeting. Erestor creased his brows.
"What of Lord Glorfindel?"
"He is drinking." The other councilor was met with an expressionless stare. "Alone," he added, "in the Hall of Fire."
Erestor narrowed his eyes. "So?"
The councilor avoided his gaze. "He has been doing that every night, my lord. Ever since your..." he trailed off.
Erestor turned back to his scroll. "My what? What are you suggesting?"
"I thought..." the other councilor seemed at a loss. "I thought perhaps you knew something."
Erestor continued his work. "I am not particularly intimate with drunken blond males."
The other elf's shoulders sagged. He turned to leave with a silent bow.
He turned back with uncertain hope. Erestor leaned wearily against his chair.
"We all have our nightmares. His are heavier than most."
The councilor waited, but Erestor fell silent. With a sigh, he closed the door.
The fire was burning bright when Erestor stepped in. A mass of yellow tresses cascaded down the table, where three wine bottles lay. Long fingers were loosely curled about a half-emptied fourth.
Black eyes narrowed.
"You are a coward."
Glorfindel looked upward, and raised his bottle. The heavy scent of wine unfurled.
"Ah, the jewel of the lost city of glory. Come, come."
Erestor grabbed the bottle and threw it into the fire. The flames roared.
"You cannot have both."
Sharp voice cut into the sparks.
"I will stay out of your sight if you wish. Stop this sorry display, or return to the shadows of what you were. Fade. I don't care."
Glorfindel smiled, pulling himself straight. "Honesty was always your merit."
Erestor narrowed his eyes.
"The people speak of a great lord of Gondolin, returned from death," he breathed, "but all I see is a fool."
"Aye, I was a fool. To have believed-" Glorfindel made a sweeping gesture, "that perhaps – you could deliver me from these flames."
"I know not of which you speak."
"That's my line, dear Councilor." Glorfindel raked back spilling strands of hair. "I'm the liar, remember?"
The fire began to quiet.
"You are drunk." Erestor's voice grew low. "Go pity yourself in your own room. I am locking up the wine cellar now."
The warrior elf tilted his head. "Have you already finished avoiding me, dear Councilor? You can still stay in bed." He drummed his fingers on the table. "You're weak after that tantrum, remember? It was quite a storm."
Silence froze the air.
Glorfindel smiled. And it was bewitching, this charming smile.
With a sweep of his crimson robes, the warrior elf rose, and ambled toward the hearth. He picked up small carvings from the mantelpiece, inspecting them one by one. "So how does it feel, to be back from the dead yet again?" he called. "To have the entire valley fuss over you – oh, not that you're undeserving, mind you. Where would we all be without our Chief Councilor?"
Cold dread spread in Erestor's heart. Glorfindel was no longer trying to climb back up the abyss. Erestor had pushed him, and he was willing to fall. Throw himself down, once again.
This was not how it was meant to be.
"I…" he opened his mouth, but no words came. He had nothing to say.
Putting the carving back down, Glorfindel whirled, spreading his arms. Blood-red robes glowed before the fire.
"What do you seek of me, dear Councilor? You wanted me to stay," he breathed, "and here I am."
Erestor clutched his robes.
As silence lengthened, a bitter smile danced upon dark blue eyes. Glorfindel looked away. Erestor's words died in his throat.
"I am sorry," he whispered.
"So am I." Glorfindel continued to watch the flames. "I no longer know how to play this game." He smiled grimly. "But we both knew we would end up here, didn't we?"
Fire cackled into silence.
Detaching himself from the mantelpiece, Glorfindel walked back to the table. "We so wanted to live," he murmured, running his fingers up and down a wine bottle, "undeserving as we were, we still wanted to live in these feeble lies – and hated each other for being our mirrors. Ai, Erestor," he breathed, slumping wearily down, "you and I have wrecked each other."
Erestor slowly sank into a chair. Glorfindel stared into the bottle.
Erestor watched the glass of the bottle glint in the firelight. He could not remember how this started. He had lost himself in the game, and he was tired.
"Forgive me," he whispered.
The flames continued to lick the hearth.
Glorfindel's eyes reflected the glass. "We make one sorry pair of elves, you and I."
As he began to drink, tassels of hair ran down his back, a golden river in the light. It flowed freely, loosened from its warrior plaits – and released from his battle, he was beautiful, this defeated warrior. Erestor wanted to cry.
Bottle in hand, Glorfindel turned to watch the fire. The flames danced against his face, burning into the crimson of his robes, the gold of his hair – as if he were turned away once again, facing the demon alone, watching silently as the flame consumed him.
No, this time – he would not. He could not let him.
With a violent clatter, Erestor rose from his chair.
Dark hair swirled past. Glorfindel blinked. And Erestor was standing before the fire, pulling a cataract of hair into his hands. A knife flickered in his hand.
The blade sang. Erestor's tresses tapped against his chin, severed above the shoulders. Glorfindel slowly rose.
Erestor gazed into the fire, holding out the slippery bundle of hair. A spark caught onto a strand, and with a heavy sizzle and smoke, flames began to climb up the length.
"You are right. I cannot save you, for I cannot save myself." He turned halfway to meet Glorfindel's eyes, which flickered with light as they watched the flames reach Erestor's hand. "But worthless as I am, you – you are not."
The knife fell to the floor. Erestor smiled.
"Go, Vanya," he whispered. "Go where you will, and be free of me."
The tresses fell away, and the fire roared.
Glorfindel closed his eyes. A draft brushed past, followed by a slam of the door.
It was a dark afternoon when the valley found Glorfindel running through the corridors. The ravens were crying. And screams were tearing into the hush of day.
Elves made way as Glorfindel approached the door, only to find it locked. Promptly breaking it down, he swept in, and jammed the door back into the frame. An inkwell crashed and scattered by his head. He strode forward.
Erestor stood, poised to strike again. He fumbled, reaching for his quills on the table. Black robes slid down, baring his shoulders.
Glorfindel stopped. Silence trembled. And then, Erestor fled to the center of the room, and pulled at the doorknob. The jammed door did not budge. Erestor began to pound frantically, a wretched scream tearing from his throat. Glorfindel leaned against the windowsill, watching.
Perceiving that there was no escape, Erestor turned, backing away against the door. Shaking fingers pulled the loose robe about his shoulders.
He knew – even in his maddened mind, he knew that he was a creature of beauty. Glorfindel's gaze softened.
"You still hate yourself so," he murmured. "Poor Erestor."
The raven cried.
Erestor tightened. Plugging his ears, he screamed, as if seeking to drown out the cry outside of the window.
Glorfindel's gaze swept the sky. Reaching out, he swung the window open.
The bird cried once again, and the echo was clear against the valley. Erestor crumpled to the floor, a mass of black robes. Hugging the air before him, he cooed and soothed, whispers of comfort trembling forth at a failed attempt at courage.
"They won't hurt you, my little flower," he whispered, "just do whatever they say, and come back in here to me. They won't hurt you."
Glorfindel remained still, outlined by the gray light. "What happened to her, Erestor?"
The raven let out a screech. Erestor flinched, looking up.
"Be gone!" he cried. Looking wildly about, he spotted a gleaming knife on the table – the one he had used to cut off his hair – and moved swiftly toward it. Glorfindel remained unmoving as blank eyes turned his way.
"It hurt." The words sliced through the thick gray of the room. "It hurt too much." Erestor forced a smile. "But I will make up for it – I'll do whatever you say. Please don't take her away."
Glorfindel strode forward, stopping when Erestor withdrew the knife, drawing a shallow mark across his arm.
"Erestor." The voice was calm. "Drop the knife."
Erestor stood tensely still.
Glorfindel's gaze burned into his. "You made a promise."
Erestor let out a laugh. "Yes, I did." The laughter was thin. "Why even bother making me promise? Why did you not force me from the beginning?"
A smile tumbled down.
"At least I would have been able to fade."
Glorfindel breathed in. He knew not of this other promise, and yet he already knew. And his blood burned with cold fire.
And this time, he could not rest in its welcoming flames; he had to find footing, climb up on his own. There was one elf who yet needed him alive.
He scanned the room. Amid the wreckage that littered the chamber, a black crystal lay on the floor among shards of glass. He approached, and bent to pick up the crystal. Glittering glass peppered his hand; he looked down thoughtfully as droplets of blood began to gather about his palm.
Glorfindel looked up. Erestor watched, wary.
"The white walls of my city were not invincible." Glorfindel began to glide along the wall, holding his gaze and yet not closing the distance between them. "And neither will the stones of your city be."
Erestor tightened, watching. This elf was unfamiliar – he was fair, and unfathomably ancient. And yet his voice radiated with a gentle song, a silent caress he could not quite place. He ambled along the wall, circling, and Erestor tentatively stepped forth to meet him.
"You are stronger than this." The blond elf's gaze was gentle. "You will live to outlast those walls."
As if drawn to a magnet, Erestor matched the taller elf's gait, circling him while drawing imperceptibly inward. Wonderingly he raised his arm, and the fair elf stilled, watching with all-knowing eyes. The knife scraped against the tall elf's sleeve. Erestor blinked. The knife fell soundlessly onto the carpet.
Suddenly he pulled back, as if waking from a trance. He rubbed his eyes in confusion. He blinked again in surprise as his hands came away wet. He glanced upward.
Glorfindel held a smile. And it wavered with sorrow.
"You are wrong," he whispered. "You are also worthy."
Held out in his hand, the crystal gleamed in the fading light.
"But that is not fair, Glorfindel," he whispered. He looked up from the crystal, eyes lucid through a sheen of tears. "You are not playing fair."
Erestor held up a hand. He shut his eyes painfully. "Stop it… I can't bear it."
"Bear what, friend?" Glorfindel tilted his head.
"Don't – don't call me like that. Don't call me that way."
"Please," whispered Erestor, "leave."
"I came," said Glorfindel evenly, "because I am ready to look you in the eye."
Erestor looked up, surprised. And a gentle smile spread.
"You come too late."
Glorfindel shook his head.
Erestor smiled again, a silver trail dropping heavily down.
"You are too late."
The tear fell, and with it a splash of endless waters. He was once again floating, floating in peaceful waters where he alone was a dry island. He would never hear the ravens again. He reached for the knife on the floor.
In a flash of gold, Glorfindel moved into his view. And there was a splash, and someone was fighting him – trying to pull him out of the waters. Erestor struggled. He was tired of fighting for breath. Strong arms held him round the waist from behind. He screamed.
And suddenly, there was darkness. A cool hand pressed over his eyes, and he was alone in the vast ocean. His body was sinking downward, downward.
"I lost a friend who was very dear to me."
A gentle voice. Who was speaking? Erestor turned. He could see nothing but endless waters. And somewhere distant, he could feel concentrated warmth, unlike his own dissipated coolness. The warmth throbbed with pain, its struggles to breathe melting into heated tears. Wonderingly, Erestor moved toward the beating heart that still wept, still cursed and fought.
"It should have been me." The warmth was coming closer, closer – it was sinking, alone in the darkness of the ocean.
"I couldn't bear it. So I killed myself in the wake of battle."
Erestor moved upward, reaching for the warmth.
"Valar sent me back, but I was undeserving." The whisper enveloped him in fluid melody, in ripples and waves. "I tried to right the wrong. Live the life he should have been given – tell his tales, train the soldiers in his image."
The voice was gentle, weighed with sorrow; as it danced with the tranquil waves, Erestor could hear the embedded sorrow of the days long gone, a story that had already come to pass. And yet how he longed to change the end to that tale, lift up the heavy grief from the melodious voice.
He struggled upward, upward – and he could see it, the light. Erestor swam away from the dark heart of the ocean, and reached upward as the pulsating light descended.
"But somewhere along my path, I lost my way."
The whisper was soft as it embraced him in a gentle caress. He struggled on. It was so distant, and yet so close, this comforting light.
"I grew weary, ready to fall again. And then – in my darkest hour, he came."
The brilliant orb came to rest upon his hand, as Erestor slowed. He gently held the pulsating warmth. Blinding white rays spilled between his fingers.
"He found me, came to me – to tell me," whispered the voice, "that it was not my fault."
And dancing gently upon his hand, the warmth crystallized into a single prism, a crystal that absorbed into its heart the blinding light, before darkening upon his palm.
Erestor closed his eyes.
"You never play fair," he heard himself whisper, as his body slumped into Glorfindel's arms.
Dusk had spread when Glorfindel reappeared, rivulets of hair streaming freely down his shoulders. Without a word to the awaiting elves, he left to reach his own chambers. With haunted steps, he approached the hearth, and stood gazing down at the black soot and white ashes – and then, with a vicious swipe, he sparked the fire to life.
Eyes smoldered into roaring flames, golden light dancing upon glassy blue.
Raising his eyes from the fire, he looked up toward the darkening sky. And raising a low voice toward the heavens, he swore at the Valar.
When Erestor woke in his bed in the hush of twilight, startling the healers, he rasped out a name.
Elves were sent out on a search, but Erestor rose unsteadily, pushing away staying hands, and staggered out of his rooms. And with frantic healers in tow, he burst into the warrior elf's empty chamber. And stood, silent, as the fire burned in the lonely hearth, leaping wildly over the streams of golden hair that had been viciously thrown into the flames.
And as he watched, in his clutch remained the crystal that hung near his breast, threaded by hair cords bearing the mark of the golden flower.
The fire roared away into the night.