The Dance of Shadow and Flame

Shades of Winter

The hall was quiet.

Elves glanced at three empty chairs at the head of the table. Silverware clattered softly; food was slow to disappear. The whispers in the kitchen were shadowed with gloom; foreboding rose easily in the hearts of those who had seen much. There was no news of the lord of the valley, and the chief advisor was continuously absent at meals. And Lord Glorfindel, their Lord Glorfindel – he did not waken.

Elves eyed one another as they rose, one by one. There was no vibrant laughter, no temperate smile, no watchful eye. Their presences had been great – and they were all gone.

Holding their breaths, the elves began to clear out of the dining hall.

The great oak doors loomed, dark and forbidding, as one would expect at the Halls of Mandos. Pale hands gingerly pushed them open, faltering as the doors moved with majestic grace. He stood, tentative, as the threshold revealed the room.

Daylight basked the chamber, clouded yet pale. All within its reach was washed white; and in the light was the motionless elf, laid to rest in a healing chamber that was too large for one patient, a chamber made for those who would lie for a long time – those who did not wake. Those who were fading.

With each faltering step, the elf came into fuller view – streaming hair reflected the white of day, long lashes no longer trembled with joys and sorrows; the chiseled body no longer stirred. He slumbered on, as he did in tales – tales where he would sleep until awakened by the sweetest of whispers. And in this tale, he did not wake.

He was gone. Had returned to where he came from, those legends, those fairy tales. And he was unreachable.

Erestor sank to his knees.

"Have we done this to you?" The whisper was hoarse.

Perhaps they had erred in praying for this savior. To pray for this hope had been to demand sacrifices that spanned an entire Age – for he belonged in another place, another time. And he had fought to smile among them – and was now weary.

Perhaps this time, it would be the kind thing to do, to let him sleep. To release him to his eternal lands.

And yet – yet.

He slowly reached for a hand. It was brittle with visible veins, transparent – as if life had been sucked dry, through tears and blood and ravaged cries.

It was so white, this blinding light.

He slowly stroked the limp hand.

"I will not apologize," he whispered, "until you come back to demand it."

Closing his eyes, he slowly kissed weather-worn knuckles.

"Love us again, gentle Vanya," he whispered. "Return once more to this groaning land."

The golden warrior gave no answer.

There was much to be done, but no one seemed able. Squabbles rose, trouble brewed, and unhappiness loomed. Elrond's council was busy, Erestor busiest of them all; he worked without sleep, often found sleeping crouched somewhere in the garden – in close vicinity to Glorfindel's chamber. And that was where the Councilor of Housing and Comfort found Erestor one evening.

"Lord Glorfindel had decimated the attackers," he said, reading from his scrolls. "But the troops are unable to decode the Rangers' strategies. They are foreign to all of us, and border policies–" he pressed his temples. "And the complaints about housing are mounting. Some are threatening to move out into the gardens."

Then let them, Erestor was tempted to say, as he mulled over the report. The fear in the valley was spinning out of control.

"Send the policy matters to me, my lord," he answered, looking at a distant shrub, "and bid the soldiers hold. We'll send another delegate to the Rangers, as our priority is not orc decimation but Lord Elrond's safe return." He gazed back at the older councilor. "And speak with the troublemakers in your wing directly."

"They do not listen," said the councilor. "I cannot force them."

Dark eyes bore into his, and the older councilor blinked. Those orbs were as black and magnetizing as they always had been, and yet – they were less fierce, more deep. As if he were standing at a respectful distance away, proximate as they were.

"Force them, my lord," he said quietly, "or I will."

He had done this before. During the war, when the elvenlord was absent and the house was overrun with mutiny – he had ruled with an iron hand, and he could do it again.

The older bowed, and left the younger elf alone in the whispers of dusk.

Erestor watched the advisor disappear. Weariness tumbled down; he had always been the hawk-eyed watcher, pulling the strings from behind. Commanding at forefront – no, that was best left up to the Lord of the Golden Flower, be it war, politics, or household matters, for before anyone had realized it, he had stepped into the role in a stride, shoulder to shoulder with Erestor. Now, alone once more, the burden seemed gargantuan.

He pressed his temples. He suddenly felt lost, an elfling. These tides of troubles left no room to breathe.

He raised his eyes toward the darkening sky. He wished Elrond were here.

The oak doors always opened to new footsteps. Healers and visitors came and went; they wept, pleaded, whispered – touching his hand, stroking his hair, keeping vigil by his side. Every elf in Imladris grieved for the fall of their beloved Glorfindel. Children slipped out of lessons, scuttled to his bedside, told stories as he would tell them. They would lean over his body, shake an arm or a knee with all their might. And day by day, gifts grew.

Gentle lilacs, pure lilies, fragrant herbs. Brilliant roses and sweet daisies. And gifts from the children, their most prized possessions – trinkets, dolls, chains of flowers, their favorite toys, and paintings, raw and colorful with themselves holding Glorfindel's hand, smiling in a happy Imladris. And they grew each day, as every footstep, every whisper, every gift became a prayer, joined in t heir unison chant toward the Valar – to release him, to send him back once more.

And encircled by gifts and sweet flowers, the golden lord breathed slowly – and in the idyllic peace that ever shone upon his chamber, he lay deathly still, seeing naught of this world, and did not waken.

It was when quarrels had escalated momentously that an elleth sought out the Chief Councilor.

"The Councilor of Housing and Comfort could not find me new quarters," she said, approaching him in the gardens. "I would rather sleep here."

"Constructions are still underway," he answered, looking at the sky. At the end of his sightline was a circling raven. "If you wish, you may temporarily move into the other wing."

"But I will have to relocate soon after those of Lorien arrive," she rejoined. "And I heard there might be more shifting when this one is deemed a success."

Erestor nodded. "Until the matter is settled, then, you may have my room."

The elleth stared. The Black Pearl of Eregion, who single-handed ran the House of Elrond, was offering his private quarters. Perhaps the newfound rumors in the kitchen were right; there was something soft about this darkness.

She peered up cautiously. "What of you, then, my lord?"

"I will speak with the party that has been giving you trouble."

The maiden made a despondent face. "But the Councilor of Housing and Comfort has already done so – and yet they harass me in secret."

The Chief Councilor looked solemnly into her eyes. They were almost intimidating, those bottomless black depths – and yet the brutal honesty in them was kind. "I will see to it," he said. "And if you do not see a change within a day, you shall take my quarters."

The councilor was looking away, somewhere distant. As she bowed and took leave, she saw the councilor look up to the skies once more.

The clouds were shifting. Winter was coming.

Dark gray enveloped the halls, and a lithe black figure haunted them day and night, sleepless. His black robes wavered by, and those who saw him walk in haunted silence would whisper among themselves, whisper of a looming fate of their last sanctuary. The Black Pearl of Eregion was ever in mourning.

He no longer entered Glorfindel's healing chamber.

Instead he roamed the gardens outside of his window, looking upward, eyes lost and searching. And when a raven cried, he would touch his heart, hold his breath, feeling it burn.

He no longer called to the Vanya to awaken. He could no longer face him.

Instead he haunted the lands, just as the raven haunted the sky, and he would raise his eyes to the skies, and keep the cry of the raven at bay, out of the reach of the sleeping warrior.

Be gone.

The silent cry would ring wretchedly, terribly, as life and death fought, and life continued to be plagued with death.

And on such cold winter evening, Elrond returned.

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