The Dance of Shadow and Flame
Winter was dark.
Search orders were sent out for Lord Glorfindel. Some reported to having seen him; but as the pale sun disappeared over the horizon, so would he vanish, as if he only existed in the enchantment of day – and after a long hushed night, he would reappear in the vapor of sunlight.
The Chief Councilor was ailing. Fading, some whispered, at last exhausted by the sorrows of war.
One eve, he suddenly rose from bed, and called off the search. His face was serene. "I need a bath," he said, waving off the worried healers as he disappeared into the public bath chamber. And later that night, the rising moon found him stepping barefooted into the courtyard, wrapped in a thin black robe as water trailed from his hair.
Erestor slowed. He stood in the small clearing in the gardens, where he had first heard the cry of the raven. The moon had been shy then, a crescent strand of light.
Now, it had waxed.
And like a faint mirage borne from the bosom of the darkened forest, the pale elf stood watching, veiled in a thin white robe. He was tall – as if he had leaped through decades of growth. He watched in silence; and his open gaze was unfathomable, for they wavered with the undercurrents of the majestic years, the joys and sorrows and weariness of one who had seen much. Erestor released a tremulous breath.
"Can Imladris no longer offer you peace?" he whispered.
A thin smile unfurled, dry and weary. "Funny," the pale elf murmured, "I said the same thing to Elrond regarding you."
Erestor smiled despite himself. It was tearful, this smile.
"Ai, Glorfindel," he breathed, "forgive me."
Glorfindel smiled faintly. "I didn't demand it yet."
A weak laugh. "Good ear, even when comatose."
Glorfindel nodded, expression unchanging. Erestor cast down his gaze.
"No, Erestor." Glorfindel held up his hand. "Let us not say these things yet."
For they had come thus far, entangled in this web of deceit, clawing each other, embracing each other – and here, standing at the edge of their path, they would shed the last of their lies.
"Not so much for each other," said Glorfindel quietly. "But for ourselves."
This was their last round.
Erestor's heart murmured. They had once stood here, coiled and shielded, ready to strike; and now, standing before each other once again, they were sheathed in nothing but open robes and white moonlight.
Wounding each other easier now. But they did not move in for the kill.
Glorfindel watched a dull gleam of white twirl on Erestor's chest. The black crystal danced in and out of view under the moon, white one moment and black the next.
Life, and death. Perhaps they were the same.
Valar, why did you send me back?
The question he had never thought to ask, had been too afraid to ask. He had locked it away, fought, laughed with those who entered his patchwork of a life. He had his brittle peace. Until one elf threw the question his way, cast that oblique shadow across his soul. And he was lost.
Perhaps the shadow was not meant to be defeated.
"I had a friend in Gondolin."
Glorfindel abruptly turned, and began to walk along the garden path.
"People called me the rays of the golden sun, and called him the moon over silver waters."
The moon grew brighter. And shadows darkened.
"I wrote songs and he sang them. I played the harp and he played the flute. I fed the horses and he sharpened our swords."
Glorfindel turned to look at Erestor. And his face was beautiful, for on it rested a calm, defeated serenity.
Erestor wanted to look away.
"We were preparing for the festival, that day." His voice was measured. "I had a sudden vision and fell – the vision of the balrog. The collapsing city. The fire, the abyss…and Ecthelion, fighting to his death."
He turned away, and resumed his slow pacing. "It shook me so – I could not voice it. I thought it was nothing but a dream."
He stopped. Turned away from Erestor, he stood facing the moon.
"I did not warn the King."
The night was quiet.
"Ecthelion was worried. I promised to reveal my dream after the festival. He trusted my prophecies more than I did – I wanted him to smile that day."
He could still see it, the burning city, the shouting soldiers, the screaming civilians – and how he and Ecthelion had donned their armors while arguing over who would stay to fight and who would escort the refugees. And when Ecthelion pushed Glorfindel out of the armory, shouting for the civilians to gather around the Lord of the Golden Flower, Glorfindel had clutched his arm, a wordless scream.
And Ecthelion had looked at him then, with those raging waters in his eyes – and he knew.
Go, Glorfindel, the silver warrior had whispered. Go, protect your kinsmen. Idril needs you.
He had promised to follow. Had promised to join him, after aid came.
The aid never came.
"He was consumed by shadow and flame." He smiled a little. "You know the tale."
And he had smiled for him that day, before leaping into the flames. The beautiful smile that Glorfindel had loved so well, streaked with silver tears.
"My body was not burned much when it was lifted from the abyss. But the fire consumed everything – our home, our memories. Our dreams."
"It consumed me as well."
The crickets began to sing.
"There is nothing left of me, Erestor. Nothing but ashes, burned to dust." Cold breaths clouded his smile. "You were right, Erestor; it was not the balrog that slew me. I threw myself into the abyss."
The moon trickled down his hair, enfolding the white of his robe in a frosty halo. And he was but a phantom, a long-lost hero whose tears and cries had died in an age long past.
"I answer to the death of Gondolin. The people. And myself." His voice was soft, melting into the white shimmer of his form. "Such is my sin."
Erestor's heart fell into a hush.
The ancient elf stood in silence. Watching. Erestor knew not which way to turn; perhaps he had never known – ever since this elf had beheld him with those eyes, many moons ago, bringing back the question he had refused to face.
Valar, why did you not let me die?
He had many a time tried to right the wrong. But every time he came close to success, the elvenlord had intervened, had healed him. And when Elrond at last confronted him, Erestor had laughed. He had remembered his mother, father, brother, aunt, sister – and the blackened city, and his own pathetic struggle to live, his phenomenal struggle and success, and he had laughed. And Elrond had not said a word – no, not a word, as he held him tight and the laughter broke into a million tears.
Thus the whirl of his life, the shapeless, colorless blur was reorganized; The Peredhil straightened out his world, sharpened every image, and gave name, form, and shape to all that had been a meaningless blur. All had become clear, three-dimensional. Quiet, calm shades of gray.
Until even that was shattered.
The golden elf had waltzed into his life, introducing himself as the resurrection of a legend. With a mere touch, a glance, a breath, he distorted every shape, every order that Erestor had fought so hard to achieve. Had looked at him straight in the eye, begun to breathe color into his calm shades of gray. And it was beautiful, it was dazzling, terrifying.
Perhaps it was meant to come to him, to haunt him, to embrace him, this undying light.
"It is not me, is it?" Soft footsteps fell near, a gentle brush against frozen grass. "We do not really hate each other, dear Erestor. We only hate ourselves, for living. Despite all that has come to pass – despite all who have died in our stead."
Erestor fought the urge to close his eyes.
"We both refuse to save ourselves." Glorfindel's voice was weightless, face weary and yet pale with fierce intensity. "But we must grant ourselves forgiveness, Erestor – grant ourselves, each other, permission to live. I owe it to Ecthelion, and you owe it to your family."
Erestor held his breath.
There was no more escape; they could but go forward. Glorfindel was driving them both to the edge. And he wanted them to fall.
And perhaps, if they left the safety of the shadow and cast off their lies, let it burn in the light of day – perhaps the fire would be kind, and resurrect them once again; and perhaps, they could be reborn, soar from the ashes of death.
He pulled on his robe, allowing it to slide off of his shoulders. Pale skin glowed under the moon, revealing the scars.
"Perhaps," he breathed, and forced a smile.
Time had tempered the pain, but did not erase the memories of them. The look in his gentle mother's eyes as she came at him with the shovel, his own moans as he crawled out of the house, and his father's scream, when he beheld for the first time the open skull and the pumping warmth of red under his spoon – no, he had not forgotten. And left alone, as he heard the body fall, he had sunk to his knees without a glance at his brother, for he was weary, so weary – even as he was recognized for his brilliance and taken to court, gaining fame as the Black Pearl of Eregion.
The black crystal continued to tap against his heart, white light dancing in and out of view.
He had lived despite all, this tainted jewel. Had not faltered as his aunt's body crumbled against his own; nothing had stopped him as he carried his sister out of the city, not even the sword wound that ripped further and deeper with every step he took; nothing, except for his sister's pleas of hunger, a distance away from the city, shivering in the rain.
Those were old times. A spark of life had existed then. He had vowed to catch up with the refugees, to take the child to a sanctuary. Even when he crawled off in search of food, his clumsily stitched stomach bleeding still, even when he frantically tracked the child back to the ruins, he had the fierce will to live.
But the light in his eyes had died when he beheld the ravens that day.
He had lived – collapsing at the doors of Imladris, he had lived to tell the tale, to smile and laugh while telling the tale. But it did not ease the pain.
The sky had darkened to black, pierced by fragments of light. And Glorfindel stood in the center of the broken universe, held it together.
"There were scars there too, were there not?" Blue eyes were steady upon Erestor's hands, tightly clenched. Erestor laughed.
"Yes, there were. And they still burn – can you believe it? After all those years – the scars are not even visible now. And yet they burn from time to time."
He pried trembling hands apart and lifted them for Glorfindel to see. The white skin was unmarred.
"A knife – no, two knives. Through my hands, into the ground." He looked down at his hands. "They were long enough to pin me down. But it hurt too much to move anyway, because he was quite brutal when -" he broke off, and chuckled to himself. With a deep breath, he looked upward. "She was all I had left, my baby sister."
The night was darkening, brightening.
"Being my mother's surviving child, I knew of the dark lord's plans. And I kept my silence."
In the court of Eregion, the Black Pearl saw all, and trusted no one. All of Eregion could fall into hellfire, as far as he was concerned. Ever since his beautiful mother had become a red mass on the wall of the stables, his world had ceased to hold color, smell, taste, life. He only needed to protect his young sister. And protect her he did – the only way he knew how.
"Silence," he whispered, almost to himself, "and submission."
He looked down at his hands.
"Once I tried to run away – when he was drunk and the pain became unbearable – and my sister was taken from me, and he gave me these marks." He smiled. "It hurt… a lot… that day."
The moon was bright. So bright.
"I couldn't fade." He smiled. "I needed to make sure he kept his word. Or so I thought." He began to laugh quietly. "But even after she died, I lived." The laughter mingled with vehement tears.
It was so white, this light.
"Yes, Glorfindel, you guessed correctly." He exhaled, wavering before the blinding moon. "As you became Seneschal of Imladris, I became Chief Councilor, to have an excuse to live; and as you played the role of Ecthelion, I gave in to madness when my self-loathing became unbearable. Reliving those days when I had no choice but to live."
Erestor smiled. "I tread upon the shadows of the dead," he whispered. "Such is my sin."
How black it was, the city. Not with its crystal walls, but with brittle soot breaking under his feet as he called for his sister, his only reason for allowing the city to fall. And he had fallen to his knees, silent, as the ravens circled the sky.
Glorfindel shifted. The moonlight shafted gently through his eyes. He stepped forward.
Erestor stepped back. But the pale apparition continued on, and as the white halo approached, Erestor could flee no more. He tightened, small, pathetic.
Gentle hands reached forth, pulled the loose black robe onto bared shoulders. In light caresses, they pulled the fabric together, tucking the folds around the waist, smoothening out the rumples, covering the debauchedly naked skin from the moonlight.
Erestor jerked away. A white ocean tumbled open, and he was drowning, firmly anchored.
The struggles broke, a muffled sob.
As Erestor leaned limply against his breast, Glorfindel pulled him closer, burying his lips in the warmth of black hair.
Perhaps the ravens' cries had cleaved the heavens after all.
The crystal scraped against Glorfindel's chest, drawing blood. Erestor closed his eyes. Drowned out by the warm heartbeats against his ear, the cold moon was no more, and he was enveloped in a silent melody, a healing song of yore, the golden light of Valinor. A shaky arm rose – and then two – and feeble arms clung weakly, hearing the roar as the icy walls of millennia crumbled, the jagged shards glistening under the moon.
The moon watched on, ever silent, as the raven burned, broken wings caressed by golden flame, and feather-light ashes were rekindled to life.