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Athrabeth Rodyn

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Dust was thick in the air, coating every breath he took.  When he wasn't tasting dirt, he was spitting out blood -- some his own, some spattered from the enemies he cut down.

There was certainly no end of those.  His arms were heavy with all the slashing and cutting he'd done.  Blow after blow he gave, but before him there was a sea of black and gray.  Instead of an army, it was a formless mass with random arms and heads sticking out here and there like a bloated snake with knobby skin.  It was too big to take in, and all he could do was put his head down and deal with what was right in front of him.

His home was burned but he could not think of that.  His brother was slain but he could not think of that.  His lords were cut down but he could not think of that.  He had lost his son in the confusion of battle, not knowing if he lived or died, but he could not think of that.  He could not think of any of it or he would break down and all would be lost.

There was only one thing on his mind: his men were fighting beside him and he'd be damned if he lost anyone more.

So he gave no thought to the weight of his blade and shield.  He thought nothing of the itch of sweat prickling between his shoulder blades.  He shook away the blood dripping in his eyes.  There was nothing but the opponent in front of him.

Then he saw a flash of gold in the distance -- a burst of sunshine in this gray, barren wasteland.  The gold was too far away to concern him; he needed to focus on what was right in front of him or he too would fall.

But his eyes kept straying, his heart crawling slowly up into his throat, and a sense of foreboding slithering under his skin.  He knew; he just knew.  That flash of gold was the only thing that really mattered right now in this hellish landscape.

He didn't know what it was; he could only spare the briefest moment here or there to look for the gold that fluttered in and out of the mass of gray limbs and disappeared altogether for long stretches of time.  His stomach twisted tighter and tighter the longer that flash of gold was hidden from his eyes.

But it always returned, a flash at the corner of his eye, a half-remembered thought that he could not bring to mind.  Then the sun broke through the thick smoke, bringing that far-off gold into view so he could see it clearly and . . .

. . . and he bolted awake with a start.  For a moment he had no idea where he was, his boyhood room as alien as any rent-room found at a roadside inn.  For a moment he could still taste the dust in his throat, could still feel the weight of his armor on his body, and the strain in his muscles.

He frowned, trying to bring back that flash of gold that caught his attention but there was nothing there.  He shook his head at his foolishness, shook away the unfamiliar familiarity, and threw back his covers to begin his day.

 

************


Finrod was careful to keep his head high and back straight -- to give no outward appearance that he was at all affected by the way people stared and whispered behind their hands as he passed.  He cursed his luck that he'd been forced to travel beyond the city walls and that Tirion was emptied of many of its occupants.  There were just enough people to note his return to the city and nowhere near enough to hide himself in the normal crowd.

He'd never felt the distance between the outer gates and his father's home as he did now.  So, he was ridiculously glad when he saw his aunt Findis and cousin Idril stepping out of a weaver's shop, their arms filled with fabrics.

"Good afternoon.  Would you like some help with those?" he offered, happy to be of any service and be given any buffer against the pity and confused resentment thrown his way by every stranger he passed.

Idril flashed him a smile, shrewd eyes instantly noting the tension in him and doubtless immediately deducing the cause.  Her expression softened in sympathy.

"We would be very glad for the assistance," she said, and seemed happy enough to dump the entire load into his arms without any further prompting.  Findis paused a moment before shrugging and also adding her own newly acquired merchandise to the heap.  There was enough that Finrod could barely see over the pile and grunted under the weight but he was happy enough.  Half-obscured and flanked by his kin, he was less likely to draw unwanted attention -- or at the very least, less likely to notice it.

He flashed both women a smile and continued his walk home, slower this time in keeping with his companions' pace.

"It is good to see you, Cousin," he said to Idril.  "I was unaware you were in the city."

"Tuor was called away to the same meeting that has taken your father, and it seemed an ideal time for me to visit.  I know I have been horribly remiss in my duties to you all." Idril shifted so she could see around Finrod to flash Findis a smile.  Findis looked faintly amused but said nothing.

"I do not think you are remiss in anything, but I am always glad when you visit," Finrod said sincerely.  "The city is brighter for your presence."

Idril laughed at that, which brought a smile to Finrod's mouth and lightened his heart so that he forgot completely what day it was.  He gave her a curious look.  "Do you miss living in a city?"

She shrugged elegantly. "Not really.  You may not realize it, but it has been long indeed since I lived permanently in a city.  Not since Gondolin.  I have always followed those I love.  Father desired thick walls and high towers, so that was where I dwelt for my only wish was to be with him.  But he is now gone," she whispered, the shadow of pain crossing her face for a moment.  Finrod felt its twin cross his own heart but said nothing.  It was only a moment anyway, for she quickly shook away the sorrow to give them a faint smile.  "Now I have others I would follow.  I do not have an undying love of the sea but my husband, my son, and Voronwë all get itchy when they are too far from it."

Her smile brightened with good humor and Finrod could see the joy in her heart, which helped to banish the ghost of Turgon from their midst.  He managed a faint smile of his own.  "My uncle is the same way.  Sometimes I think even Mother hears the call."

"Speaking of your uncle," Findis interrupted, "do you think he is the cause of this mysterious meeting Tuor and Finarfin have been called away to?  I hear Lord Olwë was called as well.  Do you think he is taking up his kingship again?"

Finrod shrugged.  "It's possible.  I cannot think of any other reason for the three Houses to be called before the Valar.  They should return shortly and then we will know for sure."

"It would be nice if there was some good news for once, some forward progress.  While I respect your uncle greatly . . . Elulindo can be . . ." Findis paused, clearly looking for a tactful way to continue. 

Finrod saved her, knowing only too well his uncle's defects.  "Stubborn, hard-headed, unforgiving?"

Findis gave him a sad smile.  "Grief is a terrible burden," she said, her voice barely a whisper of sound. They were all silent for a moment, thinking of all the losses they'd suffered, and all those who were no longer with them.  Findis shook her head, dispelling the gloom with obvious intent, if her forced expression of cheer was anything to go by.  "Hopefully that shall mend shortly?"

She gave him a look, clearly asking for more.  Finrod thought about it for a moment, considering the situation.  "I think so.  I know that when Mother went to see her father, she returned with such joy . . ." Finrod had to swallow, the memory of his mother's demeanor then bringing conflicting emotions.

It had been wonderful to see her joy but he had seen behind it the shadow of all that had come before; he had seen the tentative hope that would strangle her if she let it.  She wanted so much so badly but she knew as well as anyone that it could all come to ashes.  She had spent all these centuries caught between her husband and her brother, who had once been the best of friends.  But that was before the Kinslaying.  Finrod deemed his father calm and wise but he was not without the pride of the Noldor.  His uncle was broken by the loss of his parents and overwhelmed to suddenly have a wounded, grieving nation all looking to him for answers he did not have.  Sometimes the only way for peace was through his mother's tears -- the one thing neither man could bear to see.

Finrod shook away the emotion, managing to give his aunt an encouraging look.  "Mother said Uncle Elulindo has already spent much time with Grandfather and been much calmed for the reunion."

"And how does Olwë fare?" Idril asked, real compassion in her voice.

"I do not know.  I have not yet seen him.  Mother would not speak for him and it was clear we should not ask.  I have no idea how well he is dealing with being reborn."

Findis said, "He is a strong Elf.  I am sure he will be just as wise a king as he was the first time around."

Idril and Finrod said nothing to this because all three of them knew Findis could know no such thing.  Rebirth affected everyone differently.  Finrod could hope that Olwë's relatively peaceful life before his death would outweigh the trauma of the Kinslaying but there was no way to know.  Some Elves could deal with it and some could not.  Some, like Finrod, bounced back fairly well and quickly.  Some, like his brother Angrod, nearly broke when their memories returned to them -- the sudden onslaught nearly undoing them so that there was real fear they might flee back to Mandos before the truth could be internalized and dealt with.  Some, like Finrod's other brother Aegnor, appeared fine at first and then snapped one day some years after their memories returned.  Finrod always felt this latter was the worse as the hurt was never truly healed.

There was just no way of knowing so Finrod made a noise of agreement and said nothing of it.  Fortunately their home was finally in sight.  Findis called for the servants to relieve Finrod of his burden.  He had just been about to take his leave when a clatter of hooves announced a new arrival.  Finrod looked up just in time to see the gates open wide and his brother Aegnor bearing down on him.

"What is wrong with you!" Aegnor demanded as he dismounted.  Finrod glanced at Idril, who gave his hand a supportive squeeze before she discreetly left with Findis, allowing Finrod some measure of privacy in the open courtyard.

"It's nice to see you too, Brother," Finrod said quietly, not in any way looking forward to this conversation.  Aegnor marched right up to him, grabbing him by the shirt so they were almost nose-to-nose.

"It's official; they've been married.  You've lost all chance with her.  Why did you do that?  How could you do that?" his brother yelled, shaking Finrod with every word.  Finrod remained still, letting his brother do as he pleased.  He said nothing, knowing there wasn't really anything he could say.

"I don't understand this game you've played but I thought surely you wouldn't let it get this far.  You had a chance for real happiness, a chance I would give anything to . . ." he trailed off, a stab of heart-deep pain flashing across his face that made him look so young, so vulnerable.  But it passed, replaced by a mask of fury.  "And you just threw it away.  I should--"

"That's enough, Aegnor," a stern voice called from the entryway.  Their mother's tone made Aegnor pause, though he did not let go of Finrod right away.  So close, Finrod could see the war of emotions on his brother's face, could see the barely contained grief.  His heart ached to see it, and he slid one hand over the fist bunched in his tunic.  He gave it a supportive squeeze, not that it seemed to diminish the fire at all.  Beneath his fingers, Aegnor's fist tightened for a moment before he let him go with a violent jerk.  Finrod stumbled back a step, watching Aegnor moodily stalk away to pace a few feet away.

Finrod looked over to see the concern cross his mother's face before she noted his attention and walked to his side.  She reached up to caress his face, her concern for him a deep well of sadness in her eyes that Finrod would do much to erase.

"Are you alright?" Eärwen asked quietly.  Finrod feigned as bright a smile as he could manage, knowing from the way she looked at him that it was pathetic indeed.

"It is nothing, Mother.  Aegnor just needed to let off some steam," he said quietly, not wanting to antagonize his brother further.

Eärwen gave him a long, searching look.  "That is not what I mean.  Your brother is overzealous but I deem his heart is as troubled as is mine.  Tell me, are you truly at peace with the fact that Amarië marries another today?"

Finrod startled at her bluntness.  Neither his mother nor his father had ever mentioned this to him directly.  Indeed, no one had and he wasn't sure at first how to reply.  He took the hand on his cheek and enfolded it into his own.

"I am alright, Mother.  I know it seems strange but it is the truth."

"Then why do you look so sad?  Why is there such a weight on your heart?  Do you think that I have not seen it?  Do you think you could keep such a grief hidden from your own mother?  Why have you allowed this to happen?"

Her words were quiet, the pain she felt on behalf of her child obvious and hard for Finrod to hear.  He closed his eyes, willing some strength to withstand her concern.  It was a long moment before he could meet her eyes.

"Whatever you have seen, I swear to you it has nothing to do with Amarië.  I am happy for her."

"Are you?" Eärwen asked sharply.  "You and Amarië were betrothed for years, and yet when you returned to us, you have barely said three words to her.  You have actively avoided all mention of her and this wedding.  Can you honestly tell me that you are alright with your Beloved marrying another?"

Finrod sighed, seeing that he wasn't going to be able to sweep this under the rug as he'd done every time it had come up before now.  He had hoped that with her marriage his family would stop asking but he should've known this would be the final straw for them all.

"I love Amarië but she is not my Beloved."

The admission was quiet but despite that, the conviction in his tone was unmistakable and it startled both his mother and brother.

". . . h-how can you say that?" Aegnor said, sounding hurt.  Finrod's heart went out to him but it was to his mother he addressed his words, knowing she was the one he really had to convince.

"It is true.  I did not know it in my youth.  I thought myself in love -- eternal love -- but now . . . now I know it is not the truth."

"And what has changed that you know this?" his mother demanded, a frown of confusion and concern creasing her brow.  "How can you be so sure?  It was years, Finrod.  You and she were together for years and she waited for centuries for you to return.  How can you tell me the bond between you was not true love?"

Finrod knew he owed his family a real explanation.  The problem was he didn't have one, not really.  Deep in his heart there was a truth he was not yet ready to face.  If he could not bring himself to own up to it, he certainly couldn't name it to his kin.  All he had was an uneasy feeling churning in his stomach every time the topic came up and he always shied away.

Today was no different.

"There is nothing I can say to satisfy you but it is the truth.  And it is a truth that Amarië saw first," he said, seeing that his words had hit his mark when his mother's eyes widened in surprise.  This at least he could reveal.

"It is long since we met in the gardens of Lórien and she . . . she, like you, had noticed a grief that lay on my heart.  She said she would have gladly sought to lift it but she had come to realize that it was no longer in her power.  Perhaps it never had been.  It was as bitter to her as it is to me but it a truth we both recognize."

"Are you sure of that?" Eärwen asked.  "Or could it be that for love of you, she told you what you wished to hear, thinking you would come to your senses one day?"

Finrod gave his mother a look halfway between pity and disappointment.  "We never married.  All those years before the Noldor went into exile, we never married.  I know you and father were both confused and troubled by it.  I know you wondered what held us back.  I say that even then we knew in our hearts we were never meant to be together.  All the time I was with her, there was always a shadow on my heart that I did not understand -- I still do not -- and it kept me from committing myself fully.  Now, I deem that was well done.  I do love Amarië and yet my heart is little troubled with news of the wedding.  Yes, I avoid mention of it.  Yes, it hurts but not because I have lost her.  For so long I saw my future with her by my side and now it is gone.  I mourn that surety.  Perhaps I mourn the life I had set out for myself but I do not mourn that I have lost Amarië.  I wish her every happiness in the world and I am relieved for my part for I have felt very guilty to have caused her such distress on my account.  I am very happy she has found someone to love her as she deserves.  I know if we had wed, there would have been no joy in our union.  It is better that we saw it when we did, better that we have parted our courses to run where they would go."

"And where will that be, my son?" Eärwen asked softly.

Finrod's only answer was a shrug.  He had lain awake many nights pondering that very thing and still there was no answer to be had.

His mother did not look completely convinced but there was more acceptance in her gaze than he'd seen before, which he knew was enough.  He was uncertain if she would have pressed the point further but it became moot.  A few moments later, a horn rang through the city, announcing his father's arrival at the outer gate.

"Your father has returned," Eärwen said, as if they did not know what the horns meant. "Oh, he'll want a hot bath after his journey and the tub hasn't been returned yet."

"Let me see to it," Finrod quickly volunteered.  He knew his mother was anxious to see her husband, and he was glad to be useful.  Eärwen flashed him a grateful look before hailing a passing page to give instructions to make sure the stables were ready for the return of the king's horse.

"I'll help you."

Unexpectedly Aegnor fell into step beside Finrod as they headed inside.  They walked in companionable silence for several minutes before Aegnor spoke.  "I am sorry."

Finrod favored his brother with a sad smile.  "I know."

They passed a few more minutes in silence before Aegnor again spoke.  "It's just . . . you and Amarië . . . I always think--"

Finrod stopped, grabbing his brother's arm.  "I know," he said, gently squeezing his brother's arm in support.  He could see how hard this was for Aegnor.  He could see the poorly disguised pain in his eyes.  It would be cruel to make him own up to what was really behind his outburst, not when they both knew what it was and there was nothing to be done about it.

Aegnor took a moment before meeting his eyes, needing the time to gather his composure.  He took a deep breath before nodding.  Finrod squeezed his arm one more time before letting go and turning his attention to hunting down servants strong enough to move the heavy iron bathtub his mother had recently refurbished.  It was a large thing with clawed feet that was liable to leave deep scrape-marks in the floor if not handled correctly (an outcome his mother would kill him for).

While Finrod oversaw the placement of the tub, his brother dealt with getting hot water.  There was no way to hook up the tub to the plumbing in time for Finarfin to make use of it so Aegnor had gone to retrieve the water elsewhere.  Just as Finrod told the servants who had moved the tub that they could have the rest of the day off, Aegnor returned with a half-dozen Elves carrying a bucket of hot water each.  It took five trips to fill the tub completely and Finrod was a little surprised his father hadn't shown up yet.

Just as he was dismissing the servants, he felt eyes upon him and he looked up to see his father standing in the doorway.  There was an unreadable expression on his face that made Finrod frown.

"Father, we're so happy to have you home!  How was your journey?" Aegnor said, alerted to the king's presence by his brother's quietness.  His words diverted Finarfin but it was clear there was still something weighing on his mind.  Still, he drew his son in for a hug as he normally did.

"Well enough.  The roads are over-dry this time of year."

Aegnor smiled at that.  "Mother thought as much and we have drawn you a bath."

"She ever knows my mind," Finarfin said, though there was none of the usual humor.  At that, even Aegnor frowned at their father's grave demeanor.  Catching it, Finarfin gently squeezed Aegnor's bicep and said, "Would you give me a moment with your brother?"

Aegnor looked both momentarily rebellious and a little worried.  He glanced between them, opening his mouth to say something.  But then he closed it, clearly reconsidering.

"Of course."  There was a definite question behind his words but Aegnor did not ask it.  He hugged his father once more, and then moved to the exit.  He grabbed and squeezed Finrod's arm as he passed.  When Finrod turned his head in question, Aegnor gave him a pointed look, likely one demanding Finrod discern the cause for their father's unusual mood and tell him about it later.

He said nothing though, walking out of the room and shutting the door behind him.

Finrod immediately turned his attention back to his father.  "What is it?  Did the council not go well?"

"The council was fine," Finarfin said, beginning to remove his bracers.  Finrod wordlessly moved to his side and began working on the ties of his father's ceremonial armor.

"And was the object of the meeting to do with Grandfather?  Will he take back his throne?"

Finarfin paused noticeably and Finrod could feel the undercurrent of tension in his father's frame.  But when he spoke, his father was as controlled as ever.  "Olwë is indeed king once more.  Elulindo raised no objections, and Olwë has proven willing and able to once again lead."

"That's good . . . isn't it?" Finrod asked hesitantly.  He was wary of the king's peculiar mood and yet he had a hard time believing his Grandfather could be the cause.  Finarfin and Olwë had always gotten along.  Olwë could be as stern as the sea at times but he had always been wise and fair.  His father was equally just and compassionate.  He was always looking for some way to return peace to their people.  Finrod could only imagine that Olwë would want the same.

And yet, Finrod was only too aware that death and rebirth could shake the strongest foundation.  His heart ached at the mere idea that Olwë should succumb to it.

"Olwë desires to mend bonds and address grievances so that there can be healing," Finarfin murmured, and Finrod blew an internal sigh of relief to hear it.

"That is good news.  What has he suggested to that end?"

Finarfin's pause was more than noticeable.  He pulled off his armor and laid it on a nearby bench but instead of returning his attention to his son, he stayed immobile, staring without seeing.  It was strange enough that Finrod hesitated calling attention to it.  He was just reaching out to touch his father's shoulder when Finarfin seemed to shake himself to awareness.

"It was not Olwë's suggestion but Lord Manwë's." Finrod's eyes widened at that, for ever since Fëanor had accused the Valar of cozening the Eldar to captivity, Manwë had kept his advice very guarded.  "And it was not so much a suggestion as . . . an opportunity."

"An opportunity?"

Finarfin sighed, for a moment looking suddenly very tired.  It passed too quickly for Finrod to be sure but it alarmed him all the same.  Sitting down, Finarfin patted the spot beside him.  "Sit with me, my son.  I have something to tell you."

Still wary, Finrod nonetheless sat where bid.

"Lord Manwë says that if Maglor will come to Valinor and sue for pardon, he will be heard.  And in doing so, he will earn the opportunity for those of his House to once again be reborn.  If Maglor will bow to the Valar's will, the House of Finwë may be restored.  Your grandfather thought the arrangement fair and consented to it.  If Maglor truly repents, the Teleri will oppose no one's rebirth that Lord Mandos recommends, not even Fëanor."

His father's words were soft, all hint of his feelings carefully guarded behind an expressionless mask.  For his part, Finrod was stunned speechless.

"He . . . he did?"

Finarfin nodded.  "Yes, and I have volunteered you to find and inform Maglor of this opportunity."

"Me?" Finrod asked incredulously.  "You want me to go to Endor?"

Finarfin glanced away tellingly.  "I would never wish you from me," he whispered, a deep pain poorly hidden behind his words.  Finrod didn't need to ask to know he was again reminded of all those years he had been parted from his children, their reunion only possible through the suffering and death of his sons.

"But I cannot ignore your unhappiness."

Finrod startled at that, a ready denial already at the tip of his tongue.  One stern look from his father left his denial unsaid.  "I have spoken to your mother.  She told me what you had to say about Amarië's marriage."

"Father--"

"She did not, however, have to tell me her concerns.  Those I know very well, for they have been my own for many years now."

Finrod looked away, feeling guilty.  Beside him, his father sighed.  Gentle fingers touched his chin, directing Finrod to turn his head back.

"If Amarië is truly not the one who calls to your heart, then so be it.  But you cannot continue to deny that something weighs on your soul.  We have all seen it.  I thought at first that it was death and rebirth that had a hold of you but it . . ." Finarfin paused, hesitating.  Finrod cocked his head in question, unsure if he wanted to know the answer.

After a moment, Finarfin shook his head. "Whatever solace you need cannot be found on these shores; that much is clear to me.  So, I have volunteered you for this quest because I know Maglor is more likely to listen to you than anyone else I could send, but more importantly I hope that returning to the land where you died will help you . . . put your ghosts to rest."

"I . . ." Finrod began but stopped, realizing he had no idea what to say to that.  His father regarded him intently for a long moment, his mind gently probing at the edges of Finrod's own, seeking his thoughts.  Finrod was not concerned for there was nothing there to reveal.

"I will not force you to do this," Finarfin finally said into the awkward silence, "But I have reason to believe such a venture may bring you peace.  That is all I want for you.  Do you think I am in error?"

Deep in his gut, Finrod knew his father was not.  Indeed, there was a thrumming excitement running under his skin and churning his stomach.  Too afraid of what he'd find, Finrod avoided thinking about the implications of this reaction, which was something he had become disturbingly good at in the last few centuries.

He only shook his head to answer his father.

"And do you accept this mission?"

The question was innocuous enough so it was strange that Finrod's heart stuttered and the knot in his stomach twisted a little harder.  There was only one answer though.  He didn't understand it but the idea of returning to Endor, scarred and broken and nothing like what he remembered, made him twitch with need.

"I will go," he said so quietly he wondered his father could hear it.

Finarfin regarded him for another long moment before nodding as if he'd expected nothing else.

"Then you should know there are certain restrictions placed upon this quest.  All that I have told you about the Valar's role in this matter you cannot tell Maglor.  Nor can you tell him how his decision could affect the House of Finwë.  The Valar will only accept his repentance if there is no ulterior motive, a stipulation King Olwë strongly agreed with.  Maglor can only know that Olwë has returned to his kingship and will welcome him if he repents of his deeds."

"I understand," Finrod said, for he did.  It would make his mission more difficult but it did make sense.  Maglor's judgment would be in his repentance.  It was important that the judgment be unsullied by any shade of gray in the matter if there was to be healing between the Houses.

"The Valar have also set an injunction that you shall speak of your quest to no other Elves save Lord Círdan alone.  You must avoid any Elf who could recognize you."

"Then I cannot seek out Galadriel?"

Finarfin shook his head sadly.  "I'm afraid not.  Her Doom will come and soon but the time is not now."

For an instant, Finrod could see the wealth of sorrow behind his father's eyes.  Finarfin downplayed any reference to the grief of being separated from all his children.  The decision to turn back and sue for pardon had not been easy on him, though he would never say so.  Having his sons back had tempered that grief a little but there would always be a special place in his heart for his only daughter, a place that remained empty and hollow with her absence.  He tried to keep such thoughts from all those he loved, never wanting to burden his family, but the arrival of Celebrían to these shores with news of the dangers that yet remained and the trials that the Elves continued to endure had been a secret weight on Finarfin's heart.  Finrod would do anything to relieve it and it frustrated him that there was nothing to be done.

Perhaps seeing his son's concern, Finarfin quickly continued on, "You must also find and return with Maglor within three years' time."

"Wait, find Maglor?  The Valar do not know where he is?"

Finarfin shrugged.  "If they do, they are not telling."

"And I only have three years to uncover his location without the help of anyone I know and convince him to return here without being able to adequately explain why?  Do they wish me to succeed in this venture or not?" Finrod demanded.

His father simply favored him with an enigmatic look, a faint sadness in his eyes that told Finrod nothing.  "The stipulations of the quest are what they are and would be the same for whoever goes to seek Maglor out.  We must trust in the Valar's wisdom.  They would not propose such a mission if there wasn't some value to it."

Finrod frowned when his father punctuated the last sentence with a rather intense look, feeling as if Finarfin was trying to make a point that Finrod just wasn't seeing.

After a moment, his father shook his head and stood up.  He clapped Finrod on the shoulder as he headed towards the basin, beginning to unravel the braids in his hair.  "You should prepare to leave as soon as possible.  Lord Tuor has volunteered to take you on his own ship.  He rode ahead of me to make ready and I would not keep him waiting were I you."

A thousand questions crowded in Finrod's head but he could see there was no point in asking them.  Instead, he stood and headed to the bathroom door.  He sketched a quick bow, though his father would not see it, and said, "As you will, Father."

He did not wait for his father to acknowledge him, fairly sure Finarfin would not do so.  He slipped out the door and wandered back to his room, trying desperately to ignore the butterflies swarming in his stomach.

************


Finrod left Tirion three days after his father's return home.  He would've left sooner but his mother insisted on throwing a farewell feast and even the King of the Noldor could not refuse her.

The morning after the feast, Finrod was ready early.  His brothers Angrod and Aegnor elected to travel with him to Alqualondë where Finrod would meet up with Lord Tuor.  With them also went Idril and the ever-faithful Edrahil.

A strong contingent came out to see them off.  Eärwen and Anairë, Finarfin and Orodreth, Findis and even his grandmother Indis had all assembled to wish him good luck and safe journey.  Even Lady Celebrían made a brave showing, lingering in the shadows of the archway to wave him off.

Despite the desire not to make Lord Tuor wait, their pace was leisurely.  Idril assured them her husband would not mind, and knowing the mortal Man as he did, Finrod believed her.  He had had several occasions to be in Lord Tuor's presence and he had not struck Finrod as the sort of person to stand on ceremony.

It was many days before the walls of Alqualondë came into view.  Finrod did not realize he was doing it, but at the sight he slowed his horse's pace.

"What is it?" Angrod asked, ever observant.  He drew his horse up alongside his brother, glancing between Finrod and the city in the distance.

Momentarily startled, Finrod finally recognized what he was doing.  He sighed.  "This is the first time we have seen our grandfather and I . . . I am not sure what to expect."

"Hmm, I hadn't thought of that but you are right.  Does that make you uneasy?"

"It is not Grandfather that gives him pause," Aegnor supplied, coming up on the other side of Finrod.  "We have not seen Uncle Elulindo in a long time either and that is more than enough to give anyone pause."

That was not the truth for Finrod's mind had definitely not been on his uncle.  But then it hadn't really been on Olwë either.  Afraid what his brothers would uncover, he did not correct Aegnor.  As long as he could, he would keep this strange feeling brewing in his stomach to himself and if that meant his brothers were diverted with half-truths, Finrod did not feel bad about that.

"Father's report was positive though," Angrod said. The night of his arrival home, Finarfin had told all of them of Olwë's return to kingship.

Aegnor only shook his head at his brother.  "Yes, and Mother sat at his elbow.  What else would he say?"

Discreetly, Finrod slowed his horse down a little further so that his brothers outpaced him and he was no longer between them.  Let them bicker if it pleased them; he had no desire to be right in the middle of it though.

"Something troubles you."

The soft voice startled him, seemingly coming from nowhere as it did.  He looked sharply to his left, finding Idril riding placidly beside him.  She offered him a gentle, knowing smile.  Finrod was of a mind to deny her statement so as not to concern her but one look suggested she knew more of this matter than he did.

Finrod could well believe that was the case.  Before they had both died, there was no one closer to his heart than Idril's father, Turgon.  Turgon loved no one better than his daughter, a fact Finrod only truly appreciated in hindsight for as he cast his memory back, there were many moments of joy and friendship spent with Turgon that Idril had also been present for.  She had always been wise and far-seeing but Finrod doubted it would be difficult for her to see his heart.  Surely, no one knew him better.

"I . . . I have felt . . . out of sorts ever since Father told me of this quest," Finrod volunteered softly, careful that his brothers took no notice.

"You have some misgiving about this mission?"

Finrod frowned.  "No, not a misgiving.  I cannot rightly name what it is I feel."

"Or you fear to name it," Idril noted quietly.  She gave him a piercing look, for an instant seeming to see right to his very soul.  But then she turned and gently prodded her horse forward so she could interrupt Finrod's brothers.

Finrod was disquieted, unsure if he wanted her to voice her thoughts or not.  He knew he had only to ask to learn the answer but he also knew he wouldn't.  At any rate he had no time to contemplate it for they had finally reached the gates of Alqualondë.

They reached the gates just as twilight descended.  The city was slow to let the day's light fade and glowed by contrast, though there were many lamps already lit.  It would be hours more before the stars could be seen clearly.  In Tirion and most other cities, the populace would be preparing to rest but not here.  Here, the city was just coming to life for the Elves here still loved the stars best.  Only their ships did they love better.

Many people waved at them as they wound their way through the streets, and the group paused more than once to speak with old friends.  Finrod noted, however, that everyone's tongue was guarded.  No news of his uncle or his grandfather slipped from anyone's lips but there were many covert glances at the tall tower where the royal family resided and those spoke volumes to Finrod's keen gaze.

He felt uneasy for some reason, though he could not rightly name the cause, especially once he rounded the last corner barring his view of his grandfather's home.  Olwë stood on the top-most step, looking so much the king from Finrod's memory that he felt his heart clench in his chest.

Beside the king stood Elulindo and his three children.  Elulindo was wearing a simple circlet on his head, but then he had never taken up his father's crown so there was nothing to be gleaned from the choice.  His eyes were dark and stormy but unreadable as he watched Finrod's party dismount, and Finrod could make nothing of his emotions.

"Well met, Finrod son of Finarfin," Olwë said, his voice like the threat of a storm on the ocean.  Finrod straightened his shoulders before climbing the stairs to stand before his tall grandfather.

"Blessed be this day of our meeting, King Under The Stars," Finrod responded, making a proper bow to the proud king.  He managed to catch the flash of approval in Olwë's eyes and he was relieved by it.  His address was not one he had uttered before but he had heard it many times in Doriath.  Finrod had heard many stories at his grandfather's knee but he hadn't really understood them until he had seen Thingol with his own eyes.

"May it be so," Olwë murmured.  He regarded Finrod for a weighted moment, expression guarded.  Finrod met his gaze levelly, though he felt the weight keenly and that strange feeling in his gut churned a little harder.

But then Olwë's expression suddenly softened and the atmosphere broke like a thunderclap when one heavy hand fell upon Finrod's shoulder to draw him into a proper hug.  All the tension in Finrod drained out in an instant and he gratefully held his grandfather back.  It seemed so strange to him.  He had been held many times by this Elf and yet it had been Ages since he had last felt these arms around him, strong and secure as he remembered them to be.  It was like no time had passed at all, like Olwë had only been gone a while, not dead beyond their reach.

And yet, when he pulled back, he could see a weight behind his grandfather's eyes that had not been there before -- a silence.  Even his smile was not as bright, but Finrod did his best to give no reaction to what he saw.  He knew from personal experience how awkward that was.

Olwë clapped him on his shoulder.  "It is good to see you well."

"It is better to see you here," Finrod replied with a smile.  Olwë nodded noncommittally, squeezing Finrod's shoulder before turning to greet the rest of Finrod's company.

Finrod did not bother watching the scene.  Knowing his duty, he turned and gave a shallow bow to his uncle.  "Well met, Uncle," he murmured respectfully.

Elulindo canted his head in acceptance.  "Finrod," he said, voice a good imitation of his father's thunder.

Finrod hesitated a moment, wondering if he should try for more.  He could make nothing of his uncle's mood.  It would be polite to compliment him on his attire or the state of the city or inquire about the fleet but given the strain of the last few decades, Finrod wasn't sure if this would set the right tone.

Fortunately he was saved from a decision when Elulindo's eldest daughter came forward to greet him.  Finrod noted the twinkle of understanding in her eyes as they exchanged their formal greetings.  While things had been tense with Elulindo, Finrod had managed to remain on good terms with his cousins at least.

He had just finished with the barest greetings when Olwë's voice commanded their attention.  Turning, he saw Olwë politely extend his arm to Idril as they both ascended the stairs to rejoin the others.

"I know you will not stay long but I have prepared a feast in my grandson's honor.  Would you not join us?" the king said.

Idril smiled becomingly.  "It would be rude of me to partake in your hospitality when I shall depart as soon as I have eaten." She held up a hand to forestall his protest. "However, if I know my husband at all, he will be busy yet for some hours seeing to all the last minute details, and if it pleases you, I have no objection to awaiting those hours here in your Hall."

Olwë managed a polite smile. "Your company is most welcomed."

Nodding once to the assembled, he passed by them to lead her inside.  Finrod offered his arm to his nearest cousin and followed suit.

 

*************


The feast prepared was of such size and elegance that Finrod would have protested the scope of it.  Certainly Angrod said as much, only to be politely rebuffed when their grandfather said nothing less was suitable for his grandchildren.  Finrod thought that was utter nonsense.  Newly revived or not, there was no way Olwë had changed so much that he suddenly desired the pomp and circumstance he had eschewed in his former life.

However, Finrod saw more than his brothers.  He could see that among the guests at the feast were many high-ranking nobles and prominent Teleri, most of whom had joined Olwë's settlement after the War of Wrath.  They had known only Elulindo's reign, and while loyal to Olwë in theory, there would be many who might doubt or contest Olwë's right to rule.  Finrod's presence was merely an excuse to begin dealing with this lot, so while Finrod was anxious to speak to his grandfather, he did not expect to have any of his time, party in his honor or no.

The party was winding down but not over when Finrod managed to sneak away.  He had done his duty, dancing with his cousins and chatting amiably to the lords who desired his attention.  Considering he was to sail on the morrow, no one would begrudge him his leave.

He did not, though, head to his room.  Rather, he wandered out to a secluded balcony overlooking the ocean.  The sounds of music were still faint on the air but strove against the wind at times so that there was nothing but quiet.  The light of the city was muted now, the stars shining high overhead.  It was beautiful and peaceful.

Finrod braced himself against the stone railing, closing his eyes to feel the wind on his face.  For a moment he tried to let go of everything, to stop thinking and feeling and just be.  He hadn't felt like himself in such a long time but he had always shied away from confronting the problem.  Today was no different.

"You've a long journey on the morrow," a quiet rumbling voice startled him.

He whirled around to see his grandfather.  How long Olwë had been regarding him, Finrod could not guess.  The king showed no outward sign of his thoughts, elegantly advancing to stand beside his grandson.  "You should be resting."

Finrod laughed.  "The voyage will be long indeed with little to entertain or distract me.  There will be plenty of time to sleep on the ship."

"You have gained your sea-legs since I've been gone?" Olwë asked mildly, giving Finrod a shrewd look.  Finrod flushed, feeling like the errant child he'd never been.  He'd never been prone to outright seasickness but nor was he easy out on the water.

Olwë nodded, obviously having expected as much.  He too braced himself on the stone railing and looked out over the ocean.  Finrod studied him for a moment, seeing only the noble, guarded bearing that had always been Olwë's outward face.  Not for the first time, Finrod wondered what Olwë thought when he looked out toward the ocean.

Being with his grandfather was peaceful though.  His presence had not dampened the calming atmosphere at all.  Indeed, having Olwë there was like the anchor to their ships, steadying against the storm inside.

For a very long time, there was only quiet between them.

"Your mother is worried about you," Olwë murmured at last.

Finrod closed his eyes, needing a moment to fortify himself.  When he opened them, he found that Olwë was still looking out to sea, and Finrod was grateful for that at least.

"Your father as well.  Having seen you, I understand now what has concerned them."  At that, Olwë did turn to give Finrod a sharp look, pinning him in place.

Finrod was afraid to ask but couldn't help the hesitant, "And what do you see?"

His grandfather's gaze was searching, as piercing as Idril's had been earlier, but in the end, he only shook his head and kept his silence.  He turned once more to the contemplation of the sea.

"I had my doubts about sending you on this quest but perhaps it is a prudent course of action after all," he said, seemingly more to himself than Finrod.

Finrod stood silently for a moment, having the opportunity he'd longed for but unsure if he should take it.  In the end, though, he felt it was his duty and so he asked, "This quest . . . I wanted to know your feelings on it.  Maglor will sense any doubt I have and think my presence merely the fruit of foolish optimism and refuse to return, so I must be assured of your good will in this matter."

A sudden wind blew up from the sea, stabbing icy fingers into Finrod's thin shirt.  Olwë stood like a tree against the brief violence, unbent and immovable.  When the wind died down, the silence rung in Finrod's ears as each moment drew out before his grandfather responded.

"There is much hurt among my people." Olwë's murmured words were almost too soft and Finrod leaned in to hear him better.  "The wound done to us is Ages passed but still very much present.  It is not for the Noldor that I would forgive.  I know your father and many other Noldor repent of their deeds.  I know there are many Noldor who are indeed innocent and have suffered much by association.  But they are not my people and I am not their king."

Another blast of wind blew up from the ocean as if punctuating that statement.  Olwë continued to look out beyond the horizon but Finrod now doubted it was the sea that held his interest.

"My people deserve peace.  Elves deserve peace, and we have known too little of it.  We can no longer simply ignore the problem and will it to be done.  It is not so and it will not be so.  Returning a son of Fëanor to these shores will doubtless bring every nasty, terrible, shameful deed of our past back to light.  Divisions will arise, animosities sparked to conflagration, perhaps even a threat of violence will again darken our world."

Olwë's words trailed off, as if the wind snatched away his half-formed thoughts, not meant for Finrod's ears.  There was something sad and dispirited in his grandfather's expression as he stared out at the sea.  It was a knife-wound to Finrod's heart to see, and he wished there was something he could do to erase such an expression from those much beloved features.

When the silence became too oppressive, Finrod whispered, "Then why?"

At that, Olwë finally did look at him.  He offered up a sad smile.  "Because whether Maglor comes or not, the animosity is already here.  He is not creating anything new; the ill will is hidden deep in shadowy recesses that are hard to access without cause.  Maglor's return will rip it out into the light, which is good.  We must confront that if we are to find peace.  If he comes, he must repent, and that is a very good start to this problem."

"And if he does not come?" Finrod asked hesitantly.

Something flashed behind Olwë's eyes but was gone too quickly for Finrod to catch.  His grandfather's tone was flat as he said, "Then that too is something to know."

There was much that remained a mystery about his grandfather, especially now that he was reborn, but nothing was clearer to Finrod than that this was all Olwë had to say on the matter and Finrod should not press.

He frowned, turning to look out at the uneasy sea.  There was so much more he wanted to know and these were not the answers he'd hoped for.  Much about this journey was suspect; he was beginning to feel like there was a rather large secret hanging over it that no one was telling him.

It made him uneasy but not as much as that feeling in his stomach that said he knew exactly what that secret was, and he shied away from that in a hurry.

The sudden hand on his shoulder startled him.  He turned to see his grandfather watching him, something like compassion and worry in his old eyes.  Olwë used his leverage on Finrod to turn him around so he could take both shoulders in his sea-roughed hands.

"A king you have been on distant shores.  A prince you were born and remain.  I know you have taken on as much of your father's burdens as he will permit.  I know you would do the same for me.  But the why of it all is not yours, not here, not for this.  Whether this is a good idea or ill should not concern you.  Go as a simple Elf seeking long-lost kin.  If something more were needed, I deem you could never succeed in any case."

Olwë's fingers tightened minutely in Finrod's shoulders, the look in his eyes a flame Finrod was more familiar seeing in Aegnor's eyes.

"But I would ask one thing of you, Finrod son of Finarfin son of Finwë Noldor-King.  There is one thing I demand of you for this quest to receive my blessing."

Troubled by the intensity in his grandfather's eyes, Finrod could only whisper when he said, "And what is that?"

"Be true to your heart, my child.  Whatever happens, promise me that.  Be true to yourself and follow your heart."

There was something more behind those words, that illusive secret lurking behind every exchange Finrod had had of late.  He could see a hidden knowledge in his grandfather's eyes, something weighty and life-altering and it scared and thrilled Finrod so that he could barely think.

He should demand to know what it was.  Bared to him, Olwë could not deny there was nothing more for he had concealed it poorly.  Perhaps he wished Finrod to ask.  But again Finrod shied away.

He could only nod his acceptance, the growl of the sea not loud enough to excuse his silence.

Olwë studied him for a long moment, perhaps weighing the strength of Finrod's promise or his own vow of secrecy.

In the end, he said nothing.  He gently squeezed Finrod's shoulders once more, using his grip to pull him in for another hug.  Finrod accepted gladly, leaning on him in a way he hadn't done with anyone else since he was a boy.  Olwë made no protest and did not let him go until Finrod was ready.

There was something sad, an ancient weight in the king's eyes when they parted.  He looked at Finrod as if to memorize him, as if he never thought to see him again, which disquieted Finrod further.

But Olwë still held his peace, pressing a kiss to Finrod's forehead and finally departing.  He left Finrod the sea, and Finrod turned once again to stare into the churning depths.

Above him, the stars were little comfort.

 

************


The first rays of the sun were inching over the ocean when Finrod and his companions approached the docks.  Despite the early hour, the whole place was alive with activity as all the fishermen prepared for a day out on the water.

Lord Tuor's ship was on a slip set apart from the regular folk.  It was a long stone pier, jutting deep into the harbor where the ships of the king and his kin were moored.  It was a high honor that Lord Tuor's ship was also fastened at the end but the sea-vessel certainly looked like worthy company.  Eärrámë she was called, and Finrod was enough his mother's son that he could appreciate her beauty.

She was a very large ship, very obviously designed for long distances in the hostile open ocean.  Her hull was pale in color, almost the white of Teleri ships but not quite.  Against her vibrant purple sails though, she gleamed like a pearl.

Lord Tuor was standing beside the gangplank when they approached, Lady Idril, and Lord Voronwë by his side.  Finrod noted two other figures waiting a little further down the pier but he had no chance to identify them.  As soon as Tuor noticed their arrival, he hailed them.

"Well met, friends," he said, standing back a little to let them dismount.  "It's a fine day to sail!"

"I certainly hope so," Finrod said, handing his reins to Edrahil and moving to greet Tuor properly. "Thank you for agreeing to take me to Endor."

Tuor waved his hand in dismissal. "'Tis nothing.  We haven't had a lengthy voyage in far too long.  It will be fun."

Beside him, Idril looked less enthused but she did manage a smile for Finrod's benefit.

"We?  Am I to assume Lord Voronwë will be accompanying us?" Finrod asked politely, though the idea of Tuor going anywhere without Voronwë was unheard of.  A look was passed first between Tuor and Voronwë and then Tuor and Idril.

"I am," Voronwë volunteered.  "As is our crew, but I do not believe you will be our only passenger."

Finrod's eyebrow inched up at that, but a pointed look over his shoulder by Tuor had him whirling around.  Aegnor, Angrod, and Edrahil still stood by the horses, but Finrod saw Aerandir, a crewman on Tuor's ship, accept bags that were most definitely not Finrod's luggage.  Finrod glanced back at Tuor's small group and Idril gave him an amused smile and made a shooing motion.

Having been pardoned from his duties, Finrod turned back to his companions.  "Is there something I should know?" he asked, arms folded, voice stern.  It was his most kingly voice, the one that commanded attention and respect everywhere he went.

And it was completely ineffective as far as these three were concerned.  The lot of them gave him their full attention but looked utterly unrepentant.

"You cannot seriously think that we would let you go alone," Aegnor said, mirroring his brother's pose and crossing his own arms.

Bemused, Finrod shook his head. "You cannot deprive Mother and Father-"

"Father gave his permission," Aegnor interrupted.

"And I shall be returning home," Angrod said.  "But Father did give his permission."

Aegnor frowned at his brother, perhaps torn between the fact that Angrod had defended him but also that it was clear Aegnor's word would not have been believed on its own.

Finrod's frown turned more serious.  "Father said nothing to me of this."

"I am sure he had his reasons," Idril said from behind them.  "Two voices are doubtless better than one when it comes to persuading Maglor to return.  And it will be good for you two to spend some time together."

Finrod glanced back at her, his frown deepening.  He contemplated a reply but thought better of it.  Idril was not one to involve herself needlessly and he would be foolish indeed to discount her insight.  It sounded very much as if she too had some knowledge of this, which bothered Finrod more than he wanted to say.

He looked again at the resolute faces of his brothers and knew a lost cause when he saw it.  Sighing, he unfolded his arms.  He didn't have to say it for his brothers to know he'd given in and they both relaxed. Aegnor grabbed the last bag from his saddle and approached Falathar to ask where he could help.

"Edrahil?" Finrod said, seeing his faithful retainer begin to follow Aegnor.  Edrahil leveled him a steady look and said, "I am coming."  If there was ever a tone not to refute, this was it.  Finrod could only shake his head, finding it difficult to argue with Edrahil on anything.  In all honesty, he had never expected that he would make this journey without him; Edrahil had always followed him and let nothing impede him, not even Finarfin, High King of the Noldor.

Knowing he was outvoted, Finrod threw his hands up and let them all do as they pleased.  He once again turned to his host.  "It appears I must express my gratitude for all of us."

"Think nothing of it.  The more the merrier."  Tuor laughed.  "I think you know my crew, yes?"

Finrod looked at Aerandir, Falathar, and Erellont, who were all busily at their own tasks.  The three loyal companions of Eärendil, who braved the great journey to Valinor to sue for the Valar's aid, were well known.  Finrod nodded.

"Then there's no need for introductions.  You should make your goodbyes.  We should be leaving shortly."

Tuor put a hand on Voronwë's shoulder and one around Idril's waist and the three of them moved further down the pier where the two Elves were waiting.  Finrod still did not have a chance to identify them, his attention first on how closely Tuor, Voronwë, and Idril stood together and then on his brother when Aegnor returned to his side.

"Well, brother," Aegnor said to Angrod, "you'll be green with envy for the tales we shall have to tell."

Angrod laughed, "You may have grown eager for travel rations and long hours of riding but I had my fill of that in the First Age.  I shan't think there is anything I will find envious but you are both welcome to test that theory."

He drew Aegnor in for a hardy hug.  Finrod smiled to see it.  These two were rarely ever parted, and that was one constant that had not changed between their previous lives and this one.  It comforted Finrod.

He accepted his own hug gladly, saying the usual things -- that Angrod should mind Father and look after Mother and make a point of taking Eldalótë dancing once in awhile.  Angrod rolled his eyes expectantly but gave Finrod a hearty thump on the back when they parted.

By this time, Tuor had wandered back.  Finrod finally saw that it was Lord Aranwë and Lord Annael that Tuor and Voronwë had been speaking to.  The two fathers did not follow their sons to the gangplank, though they watched them say goodbye to Idril.

Tuor wrapped his wife in a strong embrace, lifting her off her feet to give her a sound kiss that had her laughing.  Before Voronwë could sneak past, she managed to grab him and give him a hug too.  Finrod could hear her telling them to be careful and to look after each other.  They dutifully nodded their heads in all the appropriate places, as sailors learned to do.  Idril pressed one last kiss to Voronwë's cheek and Tuor's lips before they were finally allowed to board their ship.

Aegnor was already aboard and Finrod was about to follow when Idril gently caught his sleeve as he passed.  He gave her a questioning look.  For once, she did not look the confident princess he was so used to.

"You'll look after them?  See that they do not come to harm?" she said softly, eyes big as they searched his.  There was no need to ask who she was talking about, though Finrod's eyes strayed to Tuor and Voronwë without his consent.  Gently he took the hand she had grabbed him with and kissed her knuckles.

"You have my word, my Lady."

She gave him a watery smile, the parting clearly harder than she wished them to know.  Out of respect, Finrod called no attention to it.  He kissed her hand again and then released it, finally boarding the ship.

Tuor had everything squared away expertly and they were underway very shortly.  Finrod turned to watch Angrod, Annael, Aranwë, and Idril waving goodbye until they were mere specks in the distance.

 

Chapter Text

In the dream it was morning.  The sun was bright overhead, forcing her to shade her eyes to see anything in the distance.  Everything sparkled in that light.  The water of the great lake glinted brightly below her, a silver mirror too far for reflection.  But her eyes were not drawn down; they were drawn up.  On a hill she saw it.  She saw gold fluttering in the wind like a kingly standard wrought from the earth by otherworldly hands.

The sun obscured her vision.  She saw it only because it flashed the brightness back at her.  She could not see beyond it but she knew it.  In this moment she had never before beheld it but with the certainty of dreams she knew it all the same and her breath caught in her throat.

Her feet moved forward on their own accord.  But she felt the pull of gravity as she climbed the tall hill, each step harder than the last.  A weight wrapped around her heart that sought to drag her away so that she was fair torn in half.

She shouldn't go on; she should leave it.  But she couldn't; she was driven by some unknown need, something so deeply buried but so intrinsically part of herself.  She had never known she could feel this way.

Onward she climbed, as she ever did, to the top of an impossibly high dream-hill.  And just as she reached the summit, as it ever did, the dream faded in an instant and she was awake.

A faint memory always accompanied her into the waking world; a half-forgotten image just on the edge of her mind that she struggled to bring back.  It left a hollow feeling in her chest.  Something vital was denied her; something intrinsic to her being haunted her but she could give it no name.

Sighing, she let the dream fade into the background of her life.  And yet, every time she closed her eyes to sleep, it was with a terrible hope in her breast that this night would be the night this terrible emptiness would be filled with an answer of some kind, and every morning the disappointment wrapped around her anew.

But she was not of a temperament to let foolish dreams encumber her.  She pushed away this dream as she did all the others, finding it only a little more difficult than usual to accomplish that task.  And if something of it lingered about her during the day, no one was the wiser.

 

 

*************

 


"I think you are hearing things, Brother," Aegnor opinioned, following wearily behind Finrod.

"There was music.  I heard it," Finrod insisted.  Aegnor exchanged a look with Edrahil, who only shrugged.

"Perhaps we should consider finding a campsite for the night," Tuor suggested.

Beside him Voronwë was looking up into the passing trees.  "Do you think we can find a bird willing to send word to Erellont?  At this rate, he should be looking for a sheltering harbor further north."

He seemed to be speaking mostly to himself so no one bothered to answer him.

"This is another dead-end," Aegnor insisted, reaching out to grab his brother's elbow.  Finrod resisted being turned, still trying to catch something on the wind.  But when Aegnor pressed, his brother did finally give him his full attention.

"What would you have then?  This is no more flimsy or substantial than anything else we have followed, and unless you are holding back some clue you have not shared with us, we have no other sign to chase."

"Two years have now passed, Brother.  Everywhere we have met failure.  I am beginning to believe the Valar did not intend us to succeed in this quest." Aegnor could not hide his frustration.  They had been up and down the coastline tracking one rumor after another but so far there was no sign of Maglor.

His brother sighed.  "It may indeed be true that failure will be our lot but I will not yet give up.  Three years we were given so three years I will search.  We have one more to us; there is no reason not to satisfy this mystery.  I heard singing on the air.  I know that voice.  I deem Maglor is nearby--"

"Finrod--" Aegnor protested but Finrod held his hand up to forestall him.

"And if I am in error, I will learn of the reason.  But I do not believe I am.  My ears are sharper than yours."

Aegnor crossed his arms, unimpressed.  "My ears are just fine," he muttered, but followed after his brother when Finrod continued forward.

They had gone no more than half a league when Finrod stopped suddenly, like a dog that had caught a scent.  The others strained to hear something but, as far as Aegnor was concerned, there was still nothing to be heard but the faintest breeze rustling in the trees.

"There it is again!" Finrod shouted, taking off into the forest.  Edrahil was quickly on his heels but Aegnor paused long enough to roll his eyes heavenward before he, Tuor, and Voronwë also raced forward.

It was not long before they caught up to him.  Their group had been in the sparse forest for much of their trek, hugging the coastline but staying just far enough away that the sound of the sea would not drown out a lone singer's voice.  Yet, Finrod's trail now veered back west and north, back towards the ocean.  Aegnor could smell the salt in the air, his mother's blood stirring in him.

They burst out from the tree-line onto a rocky cliff overlooking the sea.  For a moment Aegnor breathed it in, looking out over the peaceful blue waters that stretched the entire horizon.  Beside him, Finrod paused for a moment to listen.  Aegnor listened too.  With the sea calm and the leaves behind him, it was quiet enough that Aegnor thought he might have heard something, but he was in doubt it was a song.  He could not tell if they were hearing the same thing, but Finrod seemed satisfied and continued north at a brisk pace.

Sighing, Aegnor jogged to catch up to him.

It was no more than a quarter of an hour before Aegnor heard something he could definitively call music.  It started off as no more than a trill here or there, as sometimes could be heard when the wind whipped through holes in seaside cliffs.  There were no cliffs here though.  Their rocky outcropping had flattened and fallen slowly until they were almost even with the sea now.  And in any case, there was very little wind, certainly none that could drive such sound from the rocks.

Once the first faint notes floated on the air, it was not long before Aegnor had to conclude he'd been wrong.  Someone was definitely singing.  He was just beginning to make out words when he finally saw the singer in the distance.

Flung out into the ocean was a small natural jetty, sparse grass growing along the rocky outcropping.  At the very end someone was standing.  At first he was no more than a blur of red fabric and black hair but as Aegnor got closer, he could see the singer was bent over a small harp.

For a moment their group stopped, listening as the sweet, sad strands of a song floated tentatively on the wind.  There was something familiar about the music but Aegnor still couldn't see for sure who the singer was.

Finrod clearly had no such doubts.  He exchanged a triumphant glance with his brother before cupping his mouth and shouting, "Hail, Maglor!"

They were standing behind the singer at the end of the jetty, incidentally barring any kind of escape had that been an issue.  Finrod's words caused the singer to startle, whipping around to see who it was.

That was when Aegnor could see his brother had been correct.  Maglor stood before them, looking much as he had when last Aegnor had seen him.  He was perhaps a little thinner and his hair was much longer than was usual for a male Elf, but there was nothing wholly changed about him.

Aegnor was relieved.

"Cousin?" The word was more mouthed than actually said, or seemed that way with the wind snatching away sound as happened by the sea.  Maglor's eyes were glued to Finrod, not that Aegnor was surprised.  Finrod had always had the most presence about him in their family, quiet though he could be.  Alike as all the sons of Finarfin were, all eyes were drawn to Finrod first.

Well, save one, but Aegnor pushed that thought aside.

Finrod smiled -- that genuine, warm smile that had been much missing of late -- and he strode out to meet their cousin.

"So, this is where you've hid! We've been looking for you everywhere," he said as he arrived at Maglor's side, reaching out to grab him in a hearty hug.  Maglor looked astonished, frozen for a long moment before he let his harp slip from his fingers and he returned the hug just as hard.

The hug was perhaps overlong but that was certainly understandable.  Aegnor glanced around the place, noting the quiet isolation, and he wondered if this was really where his cousin lived.  If it was, it was a lonely spot.

When Maglor and Finrod parted, the look of astonishment hadn't lessened at all in Maglor's eyes.  "Finrod?  Aegnor?" he said, eyes finally flickering toward Aegnor.  "What are . . . how did . . . are you really here?"

There was something like wonder in his voice, though Aegnor had to look away at his question.  Lonely indeed.

"We are." Finrod's voice was firm, his fingers tightening minutely where they still held onto Maglor's shoulders.  "And we are not the only ones."

He shifted to the side slightly so Maglor could see the other three members of their party waiting respectfully where jetty met coast.  "I don't know if you remember Edrahil," Finrod said, gesturing to the Elf in question.

"Of course.  He went with you when . . ." Maglor trailed off awkwardly, the reminder of Finrod's death clearly flying to the front of his mind, where it had not been before.

Fortunately, Aegnor, Finrod, and even Edrahil were used to such displays, and Finrod continued speaking as if there was no awkward reference to the past.  "And let me present Lord Tuor and Lord Voronwë."

At their introduction, the wonderment slipped from Maglor's face to be replaced with wariness and a hint of unease.  Aegnor frowned, wondering what that was about.

"Hello," Lord Tuor said simply but with genuine warmth.

"It is a pleasure to finally meet you," Voronwë added, all formality.

Before Maglor could do more than nod in greeting, Finrod continued on, and Aegnor wondered if he was alone in seeing the guarded expression that had passed over his cousin's face.

"Lord Tuor provided his ship to sail us from Valinor, and most graciously offered its further use in our long search for you along the coasts.  Left quite the path, you did.  We've been looking for you everywhere."

Maglor's attention remained on Lord Tuor for a second too long before Finrod's words seemed to penetrate through to understanding.  Then, he turned sharply to ask, "You have?"

Finrod smiled broadly.  "Indeed we have.  We've been all up and down the coast."

"An understatement if ever there was one," Aegnor laughed, clapping his brother's shoulder.  "Up and down the coast he says, like it was no more than a pleasure trip.  In truth, we have tracked you all the way to your old home in the south and all the way back here to the north--"

"Beset by pirates," Finrod said, obviously just to tease his brother, though it was absolutely true.

"Aye, and set a whole town to riot and possibly started an international incident in Gondor," Edrahil added tonelessly, almost too quiet to be heard from where he was standing.  But hear him they did.  Aegnor grinned unrepentantly, which drew a reluctant grin from his cousin.

"But now we've accomplished our goal, and here you are."

At Finrod's words, Maglor's smile slipped slightly and he frowned at them.  "Me?  You went to all that trouble to find me?  For what purpose?"

In an instant, all levity and relief of the moment before evaporated into an uncomfortably weighty atmosphere.  Even the wind died down around them, as if to respect the sudden mood.

Finrod stood straight, a mantle of kingliness settling around him with unconscious ease.  His fingers dug once more into his cousin's shoulders.  "We have come to bring you back to Valinor.  King Olwë has been reborn and once again reigns in Alqualondë.  He knows that after the War of Wrath, Eönwë bid you to return to Valinor for judgment and it is said that you sought to persuade Maedhros to accept this offer -- that you would repent.  Grandfather has said that if you were to fulfill this desire and submit to the will of the Valar, he would welcome you.  The Valar have opened the way for you at Olwë's bidding and we have come to inform you of this.  You can come home.  You can finally rest."

It was hard sometimes for Aegnor to see Finrod as anything other than his indulgent older brother but it was a moment like this where he was forcibly reminded of just how powerful and kingly his brother truly was.  Aegnor could practically taste his brother's magic on the air, adding weight to his words so that Maglor could not misconstrue the desire behind them.

Maglor was silent for a very long minute.  He held Finrod's gaze for much of that time before his eyes finally slid away to look out at the restless ocean.

"I appreciate the effort you have gone through to find me but I must decline."

"Decline?" Aegnor demanded, moving to stand right in front of his cousin and forcing Maglor to look him in the eye.  "Why would you decline?  Your oath is fulfilled.  You retrieved the Silmarils.  After everything that happened, you can have no right to believe an offer to return to Valinor would ever again be extended to you and yet here we are!  How can you decline?"

Aegnor could see the way Maglor's jaw tightened, a muscle jumping in his cheek and a storm of emotion brewing behind his eyes.  For a moment he looked as if he might explain, but in the end he said coldly, "I owe you no explanation.  I have made a temporary home nearby and you are welcome to stay with me for as long as you will but I will hear no more of this.  I cannot return."

With that, he slipped passed Aegnor and skirted around Tuor and Voronwë, giving them as healthy a distance as there was room for.  Then he took off up the coast, leaving stunned silence in his wake.

Aegnor made to go after him, though there was no real need as Maglor did not actually go so far as to be lost to them.  Still, Aegnor was far from through with this topic.  Finrod, however, was ever the cooler head between them and grabbed his arm before Aegnor had even fully formed the thought of his action.

Aegnor rounded on his brother, yanking his arm away, also a habit.

"We cannot let this stand.  We did not come all this way only for him to refuse!  What of his family?  What of the Noldor?  He needs to come home."

"And he cannot know that," Finrod said sternly.  "Those were the conditions laid upon us.  He cannot know.  We always knew this endeavor would be difficult.  Finding Maglor at all was a stroke of great luck indeed but convincing him was always going to be the harder matter."

"We don't have time for that.  It took two years to find him.  You propose it will take at least another two to convince him?  We have only a year more.  We cannot delay." Aegnor made once again to march after Maglor, and yet once more his brother restrained him.

"Badgering him is hardly going to do the trick.  You must see his perspective, Brother.  He has been wandering alone for a long time, and we who were known dead to him for two Ages passed are suddenly before him -- he needs some time to process that.  If you push now, he will only raise his defenses higher.  We are not in desperate straights time-wise.  We have a year.  Let us break bread this night as a family, and remind him without words of what it is he is forsaking.  That is much better than lecturing him until you are blue in the face."

Aegnor scowled, though he knew his brother was right.  He hated that his brother was always right.

"Your pardon," Lord Tuor interjected cautiously, glancing between the brothers, "but I would advance the opinion that it would be best if Voronwë and I returned immediately for Eärrámë."

That managed to startle both Aegnor and Finrod.  "There is no need--"

Tuor smoothly interrupted, "Perhaps not, but I think it best.  Having two people he does not know will hardly induce Maglor to comfort, which I think is best here.  Voronwë and I can meet up with Falathar and the others, and sail my ship back here.  That will give you some time with Maglor without distraction or pressure.  I think that is best for everyone.  We certainly don't mind."

Finrod looked obviously torn but he eventually gave a half-hearted nod.  "Your reasoning is sound, though it is late enough I am in doubt of your returning immediately."

"It is no trouble," Voronwë assured.  "We will hug the coastline so there is no question of getting lost and the moon will be full tonight."

"I am not tired," Tuor volunteered, since he was the only one among them who actually needed regular sleep.

It was clear enough that they were set on this path, and Finrod must have seen as much.  His voice was filled with reluctance when he said, "Very well."

Tuor nodded.  "We will see you in a week."

 

 

*************

 


It turned out that the natural quay they had discovered Maglor on was just long enough to be a decent pier for Eärrámë.  Edrahil had spotted the ship while it was still a distance off but the hike from Maglor's home to the jetty was long enough that Aegnor arrived just as Falathar and Aerandir were driving a post into the ground to more securely tie the ship off.  They paused when they saw their company.

"How was the voyage?" Aegnor inquired after the initial greetings had been said.

He was startled when his answer came from the ship, "Very fine indeed." Aegnor's head whipped around just in time to see Tuor jump over the side of his vessel to land neatly on the jetty.  "We had a strong fair wind at our backs the whole way.  You cannot ask for more than that."

"I suppose that is true," Aegnor said tactfully, watching as the sailors expertly secured the vessel.  He had offered to help but he couldn't say he was surprised at their refusal.  He had found that common among Sea-Elves.  They were wary of letting any help them with their beloved ships.

"And you?" Voronwë asked from where he was leaning on the ship's railing.  "Have you made any progress?"

Aegnor let out an explosive sigh, which said more eloquently of this last week's frustration than any words he could string together.  "We've spent the last week catching up on everything.  Our trip south, the pirates, the island, life back in Valinor, Maglor's home down in the southern continent and why he abandoned it, how he found this place and how long he's been here.  We've talked about everything but our purpose here, and every time I try, Finrod shuts me down."

There was a hint of whine in his voice and Aegnor knew it.  He couldn't help it though.  He was just so frustrated with his brother and cousin.  They were so close to achieving their objective and yet the two seemed intent on discussing anything but what really mattered.

Tuor gave Aegnor a sympathetic look.  "Well, perhaps our presence will change that?  It is conceivable that Finrod wanted to give the time of our absence to Maglor so he wouldn't be so defensive.  Now that we are here, perhaps he will again broach the subject?  I'm sure everything that has passed between you all has been useful to your brother in gauging your cousin's outlook."

"That's what Edrahil said," Aegnor muttered, causing Tuor to laugh and clap him on the back.

"He is usually right.  Well, now, what say we get on with this?  Eärrámë is secured, and I for one am famished."  Tuor patted his flat belly as an exclamation point, giving an exaggerated pitiable look that no doubt Idril found ridiculous but was charmed by nonetheless.

Aegnor laughed.  "Yes, there's food awaiting you.  Finrod anticipated your arrival; he and Maglor went hunting just this morning and came back with an impressive buck."

"Excellent!  I am much desirous of anything that is not fish."

Apparently it had already been decided among the sailors that Erellont would stay with the ship.  Aegnor led the other four men north along a practically non-existent path towards Maglor's home.  The woods were dense with growth so that Maglor's home was well hidden.

When they finally came upon the peaceful little clearing Maglor had claimed as his own, Aegnor spotted his brother once again looking northeast.  Finrod had been doing a lot of that since they had discovered their cousin, and it made Aegnor wonder if his brother's heart was really focused on the task at hand.

"And here we are," he said, pitching his voice loud enough to announce their presence even as he swept his arm out to encompass the whole of the little clearing.  His words grabbed his brother's attention, who immediately stopped daydreaming to come greet them properly.

"Ah, well met.  You have excellent timing.  Dinner is almost ready.  I'll tell Maglor and Edrahil you've arrived."  Finrod took a handful of steps before pausing and turning back to them.  "Is Erellont coming or . . .?"

"He elected to stay with the ship," Voronwë supplied.  Finrod nodded and again turned towards the little cabin that was Maglor's home.  It was too small to house more than one Elf comfortably, so Aegnor, Finrod, and Edrahil had spent most of their time around the large campfire near the external brick stove.

Not tonight though.  While Finrod and Maglor had gone on a hunt, Aegnor and Edrahil had spent the day setting up a large table outside and engaging in their own little hunt for any chair or chair-like substitute that could be placed around it.  The table was a worktable so it was of passable size but Maglor never had visitors and most of the seating inside his cabin consisted of benches punched into the walls.  Chairs were in short supply.

The table had been set, and Aegnor directed everyone towards it.  Predictably, Tuor and his sailors all offered to help but they did sit when Aegnor refused them.  Not a minute later, Maglor, Edrahil, and Finrod joined them, all bringing dishes with them.  Aegnor was sent on several trips back to the kitchen to get the odds and ends of the repast but it wasn't long before he too could sit down to enjoy his dinner.

"So," Aerandir said, once the dishes had been passed around, "Aegnor tells us you have been caught up on our long adventure."

Maglor smiled at the sailor.  "Indeed.  It sounds like quite the tale.  Worthy of a song."

"Speaking of songs," Voronwë said.  "Finrod spoke often during our voyage that he was looking forward to singing with you once more.  Perhaps tonight you two could grace us with a duet?"

His innocent question was met with uncomfortable silence.  Maglor and Finrod glanced at each other awkwardly.  Aegnor didn't blame them.  The first night they'd stayed with Maglor, Finrod had suggested the very thing, doubtless to smooth over the unpleasantness of the confrontation at the peer.  Maglor had seemed eager as well, bringing out a beautiful floor harp.

And yet, for all their skill and eagerness, they just couldn't manage it.  It had been excruciating to listen as they would start song after song but none of them finished as the melody disintegrated somehow.  Aegnor was not enough of a musician to label what was wrong but there was clearly something off.  Maglor and Finrod just couldn't get on the same page, and in the end, they'd stopped altogether and only sung solos since then.

Now, Finrod looked uncomfortably at his plate while Maglor struggled to answer the request.  "Er, the hunt was long and difficult.  I know I will feel it soon.  Perhaps tomorrow."

Voronwë frowned, throwing a glance at Tuor as if he might have an answer for the sudden tension in the air.  Tuor did not acknowledge the glance, his focus remaining on Maglor as he said, "Of course.  We would all love to hear you both.  I'm sure there will be ample opportunity in the future."

It was all very gracious but Aegnor was sure Tuor noted how the awkwardness from Finrod and Maglor only increased.  Tuor continued to study them, and Aegnor would give much to know what he was thinking.

In the end, the Man let them off the hook.  "Well, perhaps you should enlighten us as to what exactly Finrod and Aegnor have said of our journey so that we may have the opportunity to defend ourselves against their most outrageous fictions."  His tone was light, and he smiled mischievously over the lip of his glass before drinking.

Finrod relaxed immediately, looking much relieved for the distraction.  "Fictions indeed.  I mark you will be sore regretful of this request once we have gotten to your misadventure in Umbar."

"A scandalous lie if ever there was told one," Tuor said immediately, his eyes twinkling.

"You haven't even heard what we've said," Edrahil noted dryly.

Tuor only shrugged.  "I know the company I have been keeping."

Finrod laughed outright at that, and from there on he and Tuor dominated the conversation as they traded good-natured barbs while discussing the harrowing tale Finrod had made of their search for Maglor.

Aegnor watched it without comment.  Usually he enjoyed conversation; certainly Tuor and Finrod were delightful when in such a mood.  But Aegnor was still very much aware of their mission here, and every moment that passed without some reference to getting Maglor back to Valinor, the itchy feeling under his skin grew worse.  The longer the meal went on in such good spirits with everyone ignoring the dragon breathing down their necks, the more Aegnor's frustration magnified.  And if his brother's gaze turned once more towards the northeast, Aegnor was going to smack him.

When the meal was done and they had exhausted the usual chitchat, the awkward silence returned.  Aegnor's knee bounced under the table, a restlessness born of his frustration that he could not contain.  He couldn't take it anymore.  Finally he turned towards his cousin and opened his mouth to speak.

"No," Maglor said, before Aegnor could say a word.  "I have not changed my mind.  I am not going to Valinor.  Nothing you say will sway me."

The stubborn tone was a good match for Aegnor's when he was of a mind.  It was warning enough that the war was lost and Aegnor should leave it, but he just couldn't let it end like that.  Finrod had been right.  He had to keep trying because he would never forgive himself if he hadn't given his all to this.  He doubted Finrod would forgive himself either.

"Maglor, if you would only--" Aegnor began, ready to argue for a whole year if need be.  Perhaps that would wear his cousin down, and Maglor would acquiesce just to shut Aegnor up.  Aegnor would take whatever he could get.

However, whatever he was going to say -- and not even he was sure -- it was not to be known.  Finrod was looking northeast, apparently disengaged from the world around him.  But, without turning around, he interrupted Aegnor to say, "Perhaps if you are not willing to journey to Valinor, we might tempt you to journey somewhere else."

"What do you mean?" Maglor's tone dripped with wariness; Finrod did not need to turn to see it.  But he did turn, tearing his gaze back to the others with apparent effort.

"Long has it been since my feet were set upon these shores.  Long was the journey to seek you, and in the doing, I saw many things that have set my heart afire with curiosity.  I would see more of this land.  I have a year left to explore, and I would do that.  Will you not come with me?"

Maglor looked unsettled, a frown marring his handsome features as he searched his cousin's face.  "The Valar have prohibited you from being seen."

"Only by those who could recognize us," Finrod countered smoothly.  "That certainly excludes any Man or Dwarf from the injunction, and many Elves too.  Surely, you can think of somewhere to take us that would be of interest without running afoul of the Valar's will.  Or have you been so long hidden, you no longer know how to interact with others?"

There was a definite ring of challenge in Finrod's tone and a dangerous glint in his eyes.  Aegnor was not surprised that Maglor stiffened but he was surprised when Maglor opened his mouth to retort only to swallow back his reply.  His frown deepened as he studied his cousin.  Finrod met his gaze steadily and held it.

They remained in stalemate for a long minute, and the others glanced between them but said nothing.  Just before Maglor looked away and nodded mutely, Aegnor caught his eyes glancing towards the northeast, a suspicious light in his gaze.

"I can take you," Maglor said, voice low and quiet.

The air was heavy with tension, and for a weighted moment, no one said anything.  Aegnor watched his brother watch Maglor, a contemplative look in his eyes.  But, as if pulled by an irresistible force, his eyes once again turned northeast.  Then, Aegnor watched Maglor watch Finrod, his own contemplative look settling over his features.

It was Tuor who broke the awkward moment.  He placed his hands down on the table.  It was a light gesture but in the previous silence, it sounded like a thunderclap.

"I think this is a very good idea."  His voice was low and insistent as he glanced from Finrod to Aegnor and then held on Maglor, who could not meet his eyes.  "I am of like mind with Lord Finrod.  If he will permit it, I should beg leave for Voronwë and myself to join this expedition."

He looked at Finrod, whose attention he had captured with his speech.  Finrod did not look the least surprised.  He nodded gracefully, not that it was ever very likely he would refuse Tuor.  It would be good to have many swords at the ready in the dangerous wilds.

Aegnor noted, though, that Maglor did not look nearly so eager.

"I can have my three sailors sail Eärrámë north to shelter in Círdan's harbor.  He has always been kind to me; I do not think he will begrudge me this grace," Tuor continued. "If I understand Lord Finrod correctly, we can take the long route north -- by whatever road seems best -- and if we have not managed to convince Lord Maglor to accompany us in a year's time, we will sail home without him."

His words were soft and matter-of-fact but they rang with a quiet authority that sent shivers down Aegnor's spine.  There was a weight of Knowing behind those words clad in innocence.  Aegnor wondered if this was what his cousin Turgon had felt when Tuor had stood before him as Ulmo's messenger.

Tuor seemed oblivious to the stir he caused.  He waited only a moment for any dissent before nodding to himself.  "Well, if that's settled, I am ready to turn in for the night.  Where would you like us?"

It took Maglor a moment to realize Tuor was addressing him.  He gave himself a shake, clearly needing a moment to get himself together.  "Er, you may use my quarters tonight.  I know where there are horses that can be got quickly, and I should . . . get to that," he said awkwardly.  Aegnor couldn't keep his eyebrow from lifting at that.  He didn't think he'd ever seen Maglor so graceless in his speech.  He wondered what was going on.

Tuor took no notice, or pretended it well enough.  He simply nodded, saying, "Thank you.  I think a night's rest in a proper bed will be very welcome before a long journey.  If we want to travel far, we shouldn't linger too long or our days will shortchange us."

Flashing a quick smile to Maglor, he got to his feet and offered Voronwë his hand, which the sailor took.  The two took up their dishes and wandered over to the open kitchen to find a place to put them.  Conspicuously, Maglor did nothing to stop them, host though he was.

The others melted away just as quietly, soon leaving only Aegnor and Finrod, who was once again staring into nothing in the direction of the northeast.  Aegnor opened his mouth to ask what it was.  Ever since they had landed, Finrod's eyes had been trained east or northeast depending on where they were at the time.

And yet, like every time before this, Aegnor found he could not ask the simple question.  Now, in the quiet, he found that itchy feeling had returned to him and he had to wonder if it had anything to do with Maglor at all.

Against his will, his eyes followed his brother's gaze to look northeast.  A strange feeling overcame him.  It was like his heart was the remnant of a long-ago inferno that had flared to life in a blinding explosion leaving only ash.  But in that ash burned an ember of terrible hope, and it was that which stirred in his breast when his gaze traveled northeast.

It was too much and he quickly turned away.  Unsettled, he swiftly gathered up what little crockery remained, desperate to find any occupation to distract him.

He did not look northeast again.

 

 

*************

 


"Is that a river ahead?" Voronwë asked, shading his eyes against the sun in an effort to see more clearly.

Maglor nodded.  "Aye, the River Angren, or Isen as the locals call it."

"Excellent," Aegnor said enthusiastically.  "A bath would be most welcome.  I have always disliked the dust of travel the most of long journeys."

"Then you are in luck.  We will follow the river east until we reach the Gap of Calenardhon, which is several hundred miles away.  You can bathe every night if you please," Maglor said.

Slowly scanning the area around him, as he had done the entire trip, Edrahil brought his horse closer to Maglor.  "It seems rather quiet.  Does no one live near?  Surely such a grand waterway would draw a large population.  Are there many towns along the way?"

"Beyond the river is Drúwaith Iaur where the Drúedain lived an Age past.  Perhaps they still live there; it is hard to tell with them.  The Men of Rohan and Gondor have strange tales about them and do not wander into their lands if they can help it.  More practically, the river floods rather frequently.  Near to the sea, there are a few settlements but most have been abandoned for many years.  The closer to the Gap we travel, you will see many more Rohirrim settlements.  Between them and the sea, the land is wild and sparsely populated.  You needn't worry overmuch that someone will spy on you bathing," Maglor noted to his cousin.

Aegnor merely rolled his eyes but said nothing as he deemed the tease beneath him.

"And is that our destination?" Voronwë wanted to know.  "Rohan?"

Maglor hesitated for a moment, glancing at Finrod.  "There might be occasion to meet some of the Rohirrim, though I doubt they would be happy to have us.  But they were not my primary goal.  The Gap of Calenardhon is merely the safest place to cross the Hithaeglir."

"Which will lead us to our destination?" Aegnor prompted, making a motion with his hand to get Maglor to reveal his intentions already.

Maglor gave him an amused look.  "You have roughly a year.  Though it is far, I think we can reach Erebor and return to Mithlond with enough time for sightseeing."

"Erebor?" Voronwë asked politely.

"The largest remaining Dwarven Kingdom in Endor.  I thought Finrod would be pleased to see it.  Isn't that right, Felagund?"

Finrod smiled pleasantly.  "I trust you know me well enough to have chosen well," he said tactfully.  Now it was Maglor who rolled his eyes.

"Well, let us not dawdle," Aegnor said, anxious for his bath.  The others shook their heads at him but urged their horses to a faster pace.  Smelling water, the horses needed little encouragement and soon they were set up near the bank of the very wide river.

Aegnor helped set up the fire and see to the horses but did not wait for lunch.  He quickly gathered his supplies and tried to slip off quietly.

"Don't go far," Finrod said.  "There is no assurance that we really are alone."

Aegnor sighed, feeling his brother was being overprotective, but he promised that he would be careful.  Once free, he dashed away to look for the perfect spot to bathe.

Their camp was near a stream feeding into the mighty Isen.  The stream was deep but slow, its path strewn with large boulders and other obstructions that hindered its course.  They made a wonderful screen for privacy.  There was one particularly tall outcropping of rock that drew his attention.  On the nearer side, it was an unsightly jumble of edges but when Aegnor walked around it, he found it had a rather flat shelf that looked easily reachable without much effort.

He could still hear the indistinct murmur of his fellows on the other side of the rock and knew that if he shouted, he would be heard.  Deeming that safe enough, Aegnor shucked all his clothes and slipped into the cool water.

He attended to his hygiene quickly and then just let himself float in the calm water.  It felt wonderful after the long ride.  He had no idea how far away Erebor was but he knew enough of long journeys to take advantage of water, privacy, and downtime whenever any presented itself.  In his experience, they became less and less available the more they were needed.

When he finally exited, he noted that Tuor and Voronwë had settled on the other side of the large rock with the flat shelf.  They could not see him from their angle and Aegnor did not hail them.

Aegnor didn't bother dressing right away.  Instead he climbed up to the shelf, finding there was a little lip that protected him from sight.  He took advantage of that too, stretching out in the warm sun.  On the other side, he could hear Voronwë and Tuor talking quietly about mundane things but their voices were muted and easily ignored.

"Lord Tuor?"

At some point, the voices had stopped but Aegnor was dozing by then and didn't really notice.  He was half-aware that Voronwë had left, having heard his footfalls, but he had not known Tuor remained until he heard Maglor call out.

"Please, call me Tuor," Tuor said pleasantly.  "What can I do for you?"

Maglor's tone was unusually hesitant when he spoke, "I . . . I feel there is some business between us that needs to be addressed."

"Indeed?  And what might that be?"

The pause following the benign question was notable enough to garner Aegnor's attention, but it was the answer that woke him up completely.

"Sirion."

It seemed as if the whole world held its breath at that answer.  Certainly, Aegnor did.  He inched up in the hopes of perhaps seeing something of the conversation he was hearing but there was no good spot from the shelf.

"Ah.  You mean where you demanded your jewel only after my son was not available to protect his people, where you threatened violence on those who had fled your devastation of their lost homes, where you slaughtered your kin from Gondolin and your victims from Doriath, and where you stole my grandsons.  Is that what you mean?"

Tuor's tone was calm and measured, but Aegnor could well imagine a fire in his eyes.  There was another pronounced silence that didn't surprise Aegnor at all.  In the end, all Maglor could manage was a simple, "Yes."

Tuor hummed, unimpressed, but did not say anything.  Aegnor wished he could see his expression.  He honestly couldn't picture what Tuor's reaction might be, not to something like this.  Tuor held his tongue, forcing Maglor to speak his mind.

"It . . . I can understand if you are . . . angered by what happened.  I certainly cannot blame you if you are.  I know that no apology I could offer would undo . . . all that was done but I would offer it all the same."

"And that is what you have for me?  An apology?"

"If there is anything more you would have of me, I would gladly offer it."

"Why?  I am sure there are many others who deserve your repentance more than I.  Why do you seek me out here?  Is it only because we will be traveling many days together?"

"No, I . . . I have regretted many of my past actions, but had little chance to make amends.  You are here now; I have the opportunity to atone for my wrongs to you at least."

"You would have the opportunity to atone for much more than that if you would accept Finrod's call to seek Valinor," Tuor noted shrewdly, though his tone made it almost an offhanded remark.

There was another pronounced silence on Maglor's end, and Aegnor strained to hear what his cousin's answer would be.

"That is not possible," was all Maglor said, voice tight.  Aegnor never would've accepted that as an answer but Tuor said nothing of it.  He only hummed again, letting the awkward silence linger to make his point.

Maglor could only stand it for so long.  "Did you have some reparation in mind?"

"A reparation to compensate for the kidnapping of my grandchildren?  Think you there is such a thing?" Tuor's tone remained idly speculative.  Maglor said nothing, so Aegnor had no idea what he was thinking.

On the other side of the rock, Aegnor heard noise to indicate Tuor had finally moved to stand.

"Did you love my grandsons?" Tuor said boldly.

Maglor's response, "I still love them," was quietly fierce, speaking of a strength of attachment that surprised Aegnor.  Tuor must've been studying Maglor because it was a long time before he spoke again.

"Very well.  If you would seek my forgiveness, there is indeed something you can do."

"I will do it," Maglor said eagerly.

Tuor must've studied Maglor again, or given him an unimpressed look.  His tone was a shade severe when he spoke.  "What you may not have realized is that Idril and I fully intended to return to Sirion eventually.  Eärendil sent word by bird when the twins were born, and we turned our ship around when we received it.  Sadly, we had sailed a very long way away and we felt there was no need to hurry.  With Gil-galad near, surely Morgoth would be noted.  Surely that was the only fear remaining for the refugees at Sirion."

There must definitely be a hard look leveled along with words like that but Maglor continued to say nothing.

"We were not so very far away when news reached us of Sirion's fall.  I will not bore you with the details of our grief or how we eventually ended up in Valinor, but the thing to know is that my wife and I always intended to return to Sirion and again reassert our family connections.  I greatly looked forward to meeting my son's boys.  I cannot tell you the heartache I felt when I learned that another of my homes was destroyed.  What you stole from me was not just my grandchildren but their childhood, and it is that which I would demand of you for peace between us."

"And how should I manage to give you that?" Maglor demanded.

"By telling me every moment that I missed.  Tell me every scrape the boys received, every story you told them at night, every question they asked you and every answer you returned.  Tell me how they spent their days and nights, their enjoyments and fears.  I want to know everything that happened -- good and bad -- while they were in your care."

Aegnor sat back against the rock.  That didn't sound like such a terrible price.  Surely there must be many stories Maglor could tell.  From what Aegnor knew, he felt the time raising the twins must've been one of the highlights for Maglor in the dark days following Nirnaeth Arnoediad.  He was surprised, then, when Maglor did not immediately volunteer the requested information.

"I . . . that is very reasonable," Maglor finally said, sounding uncomfortable.  "I would be happy to oblige.  It's just . . . it's not . . . perhaps right now is not the best time to . . . that is to say--"

"If you wish to delay," Tuor mercifully interrupted, "I do not object.  We have a year in each other's company.  I am sure there will be ample time for lengthy conversations.  But if you have not fulfilled my request by the time we sail for Valinor, then you will never have my forgiveness, and I will speak against you wherever your name is mentioned.  Surely, that too is reasonable."

There was a definite challenge in his tone, daring Maglor to object.  Maglor did not.

"Well then, what say we return to camp?  I am sure Finrod will have many questions about the upcoming journey.  Have you had much contact with the people of this area?"

"Er, no, not really.  I have . . . I have kept to myself."

"Hmm, is that supposed to be penance?"

Tuor did not wait for an answer, the sound of his feet indicating his path back to camp.  A few minutes later, Aegnor heard the lighter tread of his cousin.

Aegnor rolled back onto his back, looking up at the darkening sky.  He wasn't sure what to think but he was sure that he had just heard something very important.  There was a definite undercurrent threading through the conversation but Aegnor felt it slipping through his fingers like wind.  It was all the more frustrating because he was absolutely sure Finrod would've understood it all.

When a shiver slid down his spine, he finally noted the time and rolled off the rocky shelf to get dressed.

 

 

*************

 

 

It took them three months to reach Esgaroth.  Their horses were fast but their journey had been leisurely.  Wherever folk could be found, they paused along the way.  Sometimes it was for a few hours, sometimes a few days.  During the long expanses of wasteland they had traveled, their pace had been quick and their route direct.  All things considered, they had made great time.

In all that time though, nothing of consequence had happened -- at least not as far as Aegnor was concerned.  Maglor and Finrod had yet to sing a duet successfully.  Aegnor noted that Maglor avoided Tuor even more now, though he was forever throwing worried looks towards the Man.  But most importantly, no ground had been covered in getting Maglor to change his mind.  The topic had come up perhaps four times in the last three months but never seriously and soon enough was dropped again.

And through it all, there was a steady pull on Finrod.  He had masked it well enough at the beginning but ever since the mountain had come into view, Finrod couldn't keep his eyes off it.  He had discreetly encouraged them to increase their pace little by little so that by the time they had reached Long Lake, they had all but raced the last leg north.

By chance they had ended up on the eastern side of the Celeduin River.  It wasn't until they were halfway along that side of the Lake that they realized they were on the wrong bank to get to the town they could clearly see on the water.  Maglor pleaded ignorance, saying he had never actually traveled these parts, which made Aegnor wonder again where he was hearing his information if he was living in seclusion as it seemed.

At Finrod's urging, they had raced along the eastern bank.  The area was populated with small farms so they did not keep close to the lake itself, losing it for a time behind a tallish ridge.

And now they had stopped at the very top of the lake, a mighty road before them leading even further north.  The sun was just beginning its track down into the west and the travel party could see small fires in the distance being lit in preparation for the coming dark.  Yet, Aegnor noted Finrod's attention was not on the lake like the rest of them.  His focus remained steadfastly on the mountain.

"Well, a choice lies before us," Voronwë said.  "We can continue on or turn south to visit the town on the Lake."

Tuor stretched in the saddle. "Well, I would favor the Town obviously.  I should like to see it up close.  I wonder very much at its construction."

"It is likely closer than the city up ahead," Edrahil noted.

"Aye, and sooner to find a warm bed," Voronwë said, giving Tuor a knowing look and a smile.

"That sounds wonderful too," Tuor said.  "You never really appreciate a warm bed as you do after a long journey."

"That is truth indeed.  What think you, my Lord?" Edrahil said, turning to his prince.

The silence that echoed after his statement was enough to turn everyone's attention to Finrod, so that now it was not only Aegnor who noted his distraction.

"Finrod?" Maglor asked, bringing his horse up alongside his cousin.  "What is it?"

Finrod jerked as if startled from his thoughts.  He was clearly again surprised when he turned to find himself the center of attention.

"What?" he asked, not having registered Maglor's question.

Maglor frowned at him. "We are debating which way to go.  Voronwë and Tuor are both in favor of turning south to the town, and Edrahil asked your opinion, yet you have heard none of it.  What has diverted you so?"

Finrod shook his head as if to clear it and deny Maglor's concern in the same movement.  "Nothing.  I am just tired."

"That's utter rubbish," Aegnor said scowling, "unless you've been 'tired' this entire trip."

Aegnor had no explanation for his harshness but nor could he restrain it either.  If Finrod had been distracted, Aegnor had felt restless.  The closer they came to the mountain, the more restless he felt.  It was that under-skin itchy feeling that had stayed with him to one degree or another since they had begun this journey.  Right now, it was pretty well full blown and he was irrationally irritable because of it.  Something about Finrod's specific distraction -- the Mountain in the distance -- really agitated Aegnor, a condition he was ill-equipped to deal with.

Maglor spared a concerned frown his way but Aegnor's outburst was not so very unusual.  "Aegnor is right.  You have been distracted since first we were reunited.  Your eyes are ever drawn northeast.  The closer we have come to Erebor, the more you have urged us on.  So, tell us, what is it?"

Finrod looked away to hide his chagrin.  But in doing so, his eyes were once again drawn to the mountain.  It appeared to be an honest effort to drag his eyes away, and this time it was clear even he noted it.  His eyes met Maglor's.  Seeing nothing but honest concern there, he sighed.

"I do not rightly know," he said truthfully.  "It's just . . . ever since I . . . well, I don't know when but . . . I've felt something pulling me this way.  There's an anxiousness within me that I cannot defend and I find . . . I do not wish to wait even a moment more.  I feel that I am very close to some kind of answer.  I know it is almost night and the town is the more sensible destination but I . . . I wish to continue on immediately."

"To where?" Maglor demanded, his concerned frown deepening.

Finrod did not have an immediate answer, glancing once more towards the mountain.  Against his will, Aegnor found his own gaze drawn that way too.  He hadn't consciously realized it but as Finrod's focus was drawn inexorably northeast, Aegnor had done all he could to avoid looking in that same direction.

But he looked now and it was like taking a battering ram straight to the chest.

Aegnor took a shaky breath, tightening his suddenly shaking hands until he had a white-knuckle grip on the reins.  Before his eyes was a beautiful mountain but that couldn't be less interesting to him.  There were no words to describe the sudden turmoil inside him.  He couldn't rightly say it was his emotions that had run away inside him or some deeply seeded instinct trying to claw free.  The only thing he could say was that he had never felt anything like it in his life and he knew for a fact that he just had to get closer to that mountain as soon as he could.

"Well, we can certainly make it to Dale by morning." Aegnor tried to sound as nonchalant as possible, though considering his inner turmoil, he felt the others must surely see right through it.

Yet, their attention remained on Finrod to see what he thought of the suggestion.  He glanced once more towards the Mountain before saying hesitantly, "I should like that very much."

Watching the reactions of the others, Aegnor saw Maglor and Edrahil both frown but he also saw a rather telling look that Tuor shared with Voronwë.  Aegnor had no idea what it meant but he made note of it for later consideration.

"I suppose we could go on if it means so much to you," Maglor said slowly, the frown migrating into his voice.

Finrod looked relieved and Aegnor had to admit he too breathed easier.  What was going on with him?

He shook the thought away, turning his horse towards the road along with the others.  For a while, they were quiet.  But then Edrahil and Voronwë picked up a conversation they had interrupted when their party had reached the road.  Finrod was at the front of their group, quickly outdistancing the rest, and Aegnor dropped back to the rear, awash with conflicting emotions.

He was in the perfect position to see the rest of their party, so he noted Maglor slowing his horse to come along Tuor's.  Remembering the last conversation he had overheard from these two, Aegnor slowed his own horse down and tried to look lost in thought.

Maglor did glance his way but Aegnor was careful not to catch his eye.  His ruse apparently was a success for after a hesitation, Maglor finally broached a subject that was most definitely not for Aegnor's ears.

"Are you . . . well to continue?"

Tuor glanced at Maglor, a quirk to his lips. "If you mean am I tired, I doubt no more so than the horses.  I can stand a few hours more."

"That . . . that is good," Maglor said, again showcasing an awkwardness Aegnor so rarely associated with him.  The silence lingered between them, and clearly Tuor had no intention of helping the conversation along.  Indeed, he may have thought it concluded.  His eyes were drawn before him, as they ever were, to where Voronwë was talking with Edrahil.  He would not be able to see the darting glances Maglor kept throwing his way.

He likely felt them though.

"I have noticed . . ." Maglor finally said, but faltered when Tuor again returned his attention to the Elf.  "That is, I wanted to ask . . . you have made no mention of . . . the reparation that . . ."

Mercifully, Tuor finished for him.  Aegnor wasn't sure his cousin would have been able to.  "For my grandsons, you mean."

Maglor nodded, once again glancing around at the party to make sure no one was paying them any mind.  Aegnor suddenly found the passing scenery to be utterly fascinating.

"Yes.  I have noted you have said nothing of it ere now," Maglor said.

"I did not know it was my duty to bring the subject up," Tuor said lightly.  This time Aegnor could see the shrewdness in his gaze though.  "Certainly not when you have been avoiding the subject so thoroughly."

Maglor quickly denied that, "I haven't-"

"Haven't you?"  Tuor gave Maglor a pointed look, under which Maglor quickly looked away.  Aegnor could see Tuor studying Maglor and there was something knowing in his gaze.

"But that's hardly the only thing you've been avoiding, is it?"

That did get Maglor's attention.  "What do you mean?"

"Do you honestly think the reason behind your refusal to return to Valinor isn't utterly transparent?  Do you really believe Finrod is ignorant of it?  You are merely avoiding the inevitable."

Maglor snapped, "I am avoiding nothing.  It is my right to refuse and I have done so.  I have no desire to return."

"Really?" Tuor said, a wealth of scorn and disbelief in that one word.  For a moment, Maglor looked utterly rebellious.  But he must've seen something in Tuor's expression that Aegnor could not because the moment passed.  Maglor turned away quickly, his hands tightening on the reins of his horse but no other outward sign of his thoughts.

Tuor sighed.  "You know, sooner or later, you are going to have to confront this.  Hiding hasn't solved anything nor has running away.  You will never find peace or happiness on these shores."

"Maybe I don't deserve peace," Maglor said quietly.

"There are many others who do though.  Having you return to Valinor will likely be contentious and painful but sometimes that is the only way to heal.  Would you deny your kin that chance?"

Whatever Maglor's reply was going to be was lost as the group finally caught up to Finrod.  Aegnor's brother was speaking to a traveler.  By the look of him, he was doubtless a merchant.

"-- you're not likely to find any room right now, especially for the horses," the man said.  Finrod nodded and thanked the man, who continued on his way with a tip of his hat to Aegnor and the others.

"What was that about?" Aegnor asked, urging his horse to come up beside his brother.

"Apparently there is a very large festival going on in Dale right now -- the largest of the season -- and room is at a premium.  In particular, he said stabling horses is nigh impossible.  But he said there is ample stabling on the banks near Esgaroth."

"It is not too late to turn around," Maglor noted.

"We can certainly camp outside the city too," Aegnor said.  "That would be no bother."

"We'd likely not be the only ones though.  If many others are there, grazing land may be a disputed commodity," Edrahil said.

Voronwë added, "That is of course predicated on a need to go to Dale itself.  Is that our final destination?"

They all turned to look at Finrod, who turned a frown down the darkening road.  "I do not rightly know where my heart urges me except onward."

"Let us be sensible then," Tuor said.  "Nothing is really all the far in this area.  Voronwë and I would like to see the town on the lake, doubtless in detail that will bore the rest of you.  We can take the horses south and stable them.  They are certainly deserving of a long rest.  In the meantime, you can scour the city without encumbrances.  Should your desire rest elsewhere, Dale is at the door of Erebor, certainly as easy to walk as ride.  If both Dale and Erebor prove fruitless, you can easily enough return to collect the horses."

"Or by that time, the festival will be over, and Tuor and I will have rejoined you," Voronwë said.

"So, we will be walking all night?" Edrahil said, not sounding too thrilled by the prospect.

"We were likely to be riding all night, so it's not as if either option would spare you.  Of course, the most sensible option is to set up camp right here beside the road," Voronwë said.  It was clear he expected his recommendation to be ignored.  Finrod certainly looked like he was ready to leave them all behind.  Aegnor felt like he would be right there with him.

Maglor laughed at his cousin's expression.  "Nay, we can go on.  Let us find out what has caught Finrod's attention so."

Thus it was set.  They dismounted and distributed the necessary provisions among their bags.  Most of it they left on the pack animals.  After securing the animals together, they said their farewells to Voronwë and Tuor.  Their companions turned south and were quickly lost to sight.

The remaining four continued north.  The road was of good repair and the moon was bright overhead so there was no fear of losing their way in the unfamiliar territory.  They walked through the night, not bothering to stop even for a repast, which they ate as they walked.  Though they had journeyed hard the day before, none were tired and their pace was quick.  They did not hurry but they were swift of foot by nature so that they reached the gates of Dale just before sunrise.

They slipped into the city without too much fuss, finding it just coming to life.  Aegnor noted how charming everything was but only distantly.  He felt that tug inside him even stronger now, making it hard for him to maintain a composed demeanor.

Finrod made no pretense, wandering through the city until he found the market, which was quickly becoming crowded.  There were a plethora of things to hold their attention but Finrod saw none of it.

Finally Maglor turned to Edrahil and asked, "Do you know what this is?  What is it he is seeking?"

"I do not know.  I have seen nothing like this either in this life or the one before.  I cannot fathom what has captured their interest so."

It was the "their" that caught Aegnor's attention, and he knew he had not been as subtle as he hoped.  That realization made him shake away the strange feeling swimming inside him.  Whatever was going on, Finrod clearly felt it too.  Surely he must know more than he was saying.  He always knew more than Aegnor, who always turned to his big brother when he didn't know what to do.  Now was no different.

With that in mind, he grabbed his brother none too gently and hauled him around to look at him.

"This has gone on far enough.  We cannot just wander around aimlessly.  Why are we here?  What has caught your attention?"

"If I knew, I would tell you," Finrod snapped, uncharacteristically short-tempered.  It was clearly a sign that he was as on edge as Aegnor, not that Aegnor saw it as such.

"Perhaps you are not trying hard enough.  Perhaps you . . ."

Aegnor's sentence trailed off abruptly when something in the distance caught his eye.  That something turned out to be someone standing by the guards-tower at the other end of the crowded market.

Aegnor's sudden distraction had Finrod spinning around to see what he saw.  The moment he saw the Man in the distance, Finrod's breath caught audibly in his chest and he murmured, "It cannot be."

"What?  What is it?" Maglor demanded, but neither Aegnor nor Finrod could answer.  They were utterly stunned.

It was Edrahil who finally voiced the impossible.

"It is Barahir."

Chapter Text

Spear in hand, he fought with all his might but it was not just the enemy he contended with.  The field was a flooded marsh, clutching at his legs with a sucking hold that made balance difficult and forward momentum nigh impossible.

But push forward he did, desperate to get to the flash of gold in the distance.  At this point he had to take it on faith that there was anything before him worth saving, for he could see nothing with the thick smoke in the air.  The rivers of flame had long cooled, no longer glowing an unearthly red, but they still spread out like black honey, slowly oozing over every living thing and setting it ablaze.  Ash from the distant fires continued to rain down, further hampering his attempt to do anything.

It did not stop him.  A terrible rage had taken hold in his breast, a fierce resolve that these thrice damned creatures would taste no more victory, no matter how small.  He fought like one possessed, struggling for every inch forward, every blow delivered, every breath taken.

Before him the ranks of evil gave forth, unable to withstand the force of his determination and the strength of Men.  The enemy was also hampered by the muck.  Driven to frenzy as they were, they noticed it little though, even as it held them fast to take a disemboweling without any defense.  While there were many more of them -- so very many -- he and his men had a longer reach, and the contest remained undecided blow by blow.

He kept his focus fixed beyond him, a part of him always aware of his men around him and the enemy before him.  But it was that flash of gold that wormed itself inside his mind, planting an urgent need that lent him strength where his was close to failing.

And yet, no matter how desperately he fought against enemies and terrain alike, he could never get any closer.  Always that flash of gold remained distant and untouched.  The battle remained unceasing, and a weight began to grow upon his heart.  The point came where he knew he had fought overlong.  He should have reached his goal by now.  He felt that once upon a time, he had managed this enormous task and earned victory ere now.

But not this time.  This time he fought and fought and gained no ground.  What he sought remained forever out of reach and his desperation grew until panic drove him.

His heart was still beating wildly when he very abruptly awoke.  For a moment there was no separation between waking and dreaming as he suddenly found himself at war with a bed sheet that had tangled itself around him and would not be kicked away.  The struggle was impressive but the bed sheet won the day, unceremoniously dropping him on his ass when one particularly violent kick ended up overbalancing him right out of his bed.

That jolted him to awareness so that he could see again his boyhood room filled now with the trappings of a man grown.  Certainly too grown to be losing fights to bedding.  He sighed, shaking his head at himself as he more methodically went to work releasing himself from the small bundle of fabric.

It was early morning, no sign of the sun yet.  Accustomed as he was to rising early, he thought nothing of going through his morning absolutions.  It was only when he prepared to dress that he remembered he had the day off.  He contemplated returning to bed to enjoy the novelty of sleeping in but quickly discarded the notion.  For one thing, he was not of a temperament to laze about.  But more immediately, he knew there would be no sleep after a dream like that.  There was still a faint remnant of panic singing through his veins, leaving him disjointed and upset.

He needed some occupation to distract himself so he quickly dressed and wandered downstairs.

As early as he was accustomed to waking, he had never managed to rise earlier than his sister.  He was not surprised to find her already hard at work in the kitchen, stoking the fires in the oven to life.  She smiled when she saw him, though it faltered some when she got a good look at him.

"You look terrible, Beldir.  Perhaps you should go back to bed," she said seriously, but then her lip twitched in another smile.  "Or is it that you have forgotten your day off?"

Beldir snorted.  "You mean after you have mentioned it to me every day for the past month?" He didn't feel the need to mention that he had indeed forgotten it at first this morning but then he was out-of-sorts and felt he had excuse.  "I should have to check my head to forget it in light of your pestering."

His sister laughed gaily, and he was happy to hear it.  It seemed he heard it too little these days.  He did not mind her teasing if it brought a smile to her face.

"They may have to check your head indeed.  You are wearing your colors," she said.

Startled, Beldir looked down and found that he had indeed pulled on a vest with the insignia of his unit sown to the breast and his rank noted at his collar.  He colored, feeling rather like she'd caught him, even though she could have no idea of his grand battle with the bed sheets this morning.

"It's habit," he growled, since that was true.  She laughed again, and he rolled his eyes.  "Well, I am not tired.  Give me some useful employment or I shall wander aimlessly and end up back at work despite your efforts."

"Oh, no, you don't," she warned, threatening him with a wooden spoon.  "I've fought too hard to lose the battle now."

Her words were light and merry but they struck him like an upturned bucket of ice-water.  He was reminded again of his dream this morning and he sobered instantly.  He tried for a smile anyway, not wanting to dampen his sister's good mood.  After all, he had taken the day off for her in the hopes of alleviating whatever was bothering her of late.  He wasn't going to undermine that for the sake of a bad dream.

"Well, then, I await your command.  Surely you can think of something for me to do," he said.

"Aye, but should I?  I don't think you understand the principle of a well deserved day of rest."

"What I understand is that if you do not send me away with a task, I shall stay right here for the rest of the day -- here in your kitchen, watching you work -- and by nightfall, the neighbors will be telling the sad tale of how close we used to be and what a terrible tragedy it all was and--"

"Alright!" his sister said with a laugh.  "As a matter of fact, I do have a task for you.  But it will take you to the market, and I fear the temptation of your colleagues will prove too great a trial.  I fear to think of you all alone against such odds.  Why, I might never see you again, and then what's to become of me?"

Beldir actually thought he might've hurt something rolling his eyes again.  "Yes, a great misfortune indeed when you sell the house for a tidy profit and then settle in some sunny coastal Gondorian town.  I should think I have more to fear that you will finally find a worthy suitor and leave me to fend for myself against the monumental ordeal that is laundry."

"Or worse, mending," his sister added.  There was a knowing twinkle in her eyes, though she nodded solemnly.  "I see your point.  It would be a heavy burden indeed to lose the steady guidance of my wisdom and expertise.  I can see it now.  All of Dale will be talking about the great Beldir.  My, he was a terrific guardsman and it's such a shame to see him go but what other choice is there when he has holes in his socks fit to throw a troll through?"

Beldir snorted but kept his tongue.

"Yes, I suppose I shall have to save you from that.  If you think you can manage to the market without losing your way, I am in need of two dozen eggs and a block of Embla's fine cheese -- the white kind, not the yellow.  And don't let her try to talk you into any of her bread-pudding.  That woman couldn't manage a decent bread-pudding to save her life."

"Two dozen eggs?  What in Arda could you need two dozen eggs for?"

In response, his sister moved to the window and opened the shutters wide.  The kitchen window was small but they could still see the streamers and lights that their neighbors had hung for the festival.

"We're celebrating!  All of Dale is commemorating the historic day when Beldir finally takes a day off from work.  The revelry will be wild indeed."

Seeing he would get no answer (and a little afraid to know the real answer anyway), Beldir could only bow his head and acquiesce.  "Two dozen eggs and white cheese it is."

"And a hank of ham if there's any to be found today."

"Well, then I really will need to stop by work.  I didn't pick up my pay last night."

His sister gave him an unimpressed look.  "Too busy carousing?"

"Too busy rounding up drunks and listening to petty arguments," he shot back.  "I swear, the festival gets worse and worse each year.  You may think it best for me to take a day off but this is a terrible time to do it.  There are too many people here and not enough room to breathe.  It always brings out the worst."

His sister tsked, still unimpressed.  "It's thinking like that that only proves my theory.  You spend too much time at work or surrounded by the other guards.  All you ever see is the worst.  Today, you're going to go out and see everyone having a good time.  That will change your mind."

Beldir disagreed but he was wise enough to do so in the privacy of his own head.  "As you command.  I shall be back in a half hour or so with your eggs, cheese and ham."

"Oh, and one of the small bags of potatoes."

"And potatoes.  Anything else?"

His sister smiled sweetly.  "That should be all.  Don't get lost now."

She handed him a piece of toasted bread to break his fast without ruining his appetite and then shooed him out the door.

Beldir merely shook his head, walking down the street that would eventually lead him to the guard tower near the market.  He took his time, admiring the city in the quiet early morning.  The sun's light was beginning to filter through the city, though the sun itself still remained behind the arm of the Lonely Mountain.

The city was gaily bedecked in banners and streamers and strings of small lanterns.  Even the quiet residential neighborhoods such as theirs were wild with color.  Beldir thought it too busy for everyday but it was a welcome change in the short term.  Begrudgingly, he thought his sister might be a little bit right.  It was nice to see the city scrubbed down and dressed up and her people out celebrating.

In the morning, it was most notable in the market.  Even so early, the square was teeming with people and bright with laughter and talk.  Beldir ducked and dodged, trying to make his way through the crowded streets to the little table his Captain had set out at the foot of the tower.  All of them manned the table in shifts, the point of which was to be accessible to the many foreign travelers who might need aid of some sort and to remind the less virtuous among the throngs that they were being watched.

Today, the Captain himself was lounging in his chair, his second-in-command filling out papers beside him.

"Oh, no you don't," the Captain said when he saw him.

"Oh, no, I don't what?" Beldir asked, honestly confused.

His Captain laughed.  "Beldis has promised to un-man me if I let you anywhere near your post today."

Beldir snorted, though he didn't doubt it for a second.  "Well, then, you may rest easier.  I have come to collect my week-pay."

"What happened to your gambling winnings from last restday?" the other guardsman said, though he had set his paper aside to grab a large ledger where the guards' expenses were written.

"Unfortunately, I gave it to Beldis and she's done something sensible with it -- probably paid our taxes," Beldir said.  His focus was only partially on the conversation, as he glanced this way and that to see what was going on.  It was one of the things he liked about the guard-table rotation.  He liked to watch all the people coming and going during the festival.  There was always something interesting to see.

"And I suppose this has been earmarked already too?" the Captain asked, opening the ledger to make a note in it.

"I'm afraid so."

"One of these days, your sister is going to let you have some fun," the other guardsman said.

"She lets me gamble with you sorry lot.  You're lucky she doesn't let me off-leash more often or you would not have any pay left at all."

His colleagues laughed.

Beldir's attention was again diverted.  He had felt strange since waking but no more than seemed usual for him.  But suddenly he felt very odd indeed, though he could not place the feeling or the cause.  It almost seemed like he was searching for something, though he could not tell what.

His eyes scanned from one side of the large market to the other and back, drifting from brightly colored scarf to wild gesticulation to a laugh that lifted up above the general din.

Just as he was about to turn away, a flash of gold caught his attention.  Being so near the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor, flashes of gold were not at all unusual.  Dwarves loved gold and silver and all shiny things and much of that had enriched Dale and her people over the years.

But on the heels of the dream he had had this morning, the golden flash caught his attention as it normally would not do and he took a second look.  There, on the opposite side of the market, were two people with golden hair of a truly striking shade.  They were too far for Beldir to make out clearly but close enough that they seemed really familiar to him.

That unusual feeling tugged a little harder at him and he took a step in the direction of the distant golden men without thinking.

"Beldir!"

The sound of his name made Beldir jump.  He whirled around to see the amused expressions on his colleagues' faces, an indication they had called him more than once.  He flushed in embarrassment.

"Here you are," his Captain said, handing over the appropriate coin.

"Don't spend it all in one place," the other guardsman teased.

"And enjoy your day!" the Captain added kindly.

Beldir thanked them.  Pocketing the money, he turned around quickly and again scanned the crowd but the golden men were gone.  He felt a terrible disappointment descend on him, but almost instantly sought to shake it off.

This was clearly crazy.  Strange dreams and a childhood fancy to chase after golden-haired men -- maybe he did need to get his head checked.

Shaking his head at his foolishness, he determined to put this folly behind him.  He had no time for such nonsense.  Resolutely he turned in the opposite direction of where he had seen the two golden men -- the direction where the food-vendors lay -- determined to get the requested food and get on with his day.

But he couldn't help stopping before turning the corner to look just that one last time over his shoulder.

 

*************

 

Finrod stood completely frozen, his mind unable to grasp what he was seeing and his heart doing strange things in his chest.  The rest of the world ceased to exist for that fleeting moment as he saw a ghost long ago lain to rest brought again to life.

But then the ghost turned away and the crowd shifted, masking him from view.  Finrod took a step in that direction without conscious thought, intending to search the entire crowd if needs be, until he again found this ghost.

A hand restrained him though.

"Finrod, what is this?" Maglor asked.  "What is going on?"

For an instance, Finrod felt an irrational rage bubble up inside him, making him want to rip his arm away, tell Maglor to mind his business, and then storm away to find this ghost.  But that was so unlike his own temperament that he was shocked still, and in that stillness he saw the honest concern in his cousin's eyes, which further centered him so that he finally thought about this situation instead of just reacting blindly to it as he had done.

Unfortunately clarity of thought did not bring with it any answers.  "I . . ."

Aegnor did not wait for Finrod to gather his thoughts, pulling his brother from Maglor's grasp with a hard yank.

"Is this what has brought you here?  How is he here?  How did you know he was here?  How is this happening?" he demanded, shaking Finrod sharply with each question.

Finrod could see the real question behind his eyes, the one he refused to name to himself in fear the hope would kill him.  It was that, more than anything else, that snapped Finrod out of whatever strange delirium had taken hold of him.

This couldn't be what he thought it was.  There was no way.

"It's . . . I . . ." He still didn't have the words though.  Aegnor demanded explanation but what could Finrod possibly say?

"You said it was Barahir?" Maglor said, turning to Edrahil, who seemed to be the only one keeping his head.  "You know that man?  Did you meet him when looking for me?"

Edrahil shook his head slowly, also looking stunned.  "It is Barahir son of Bregor, and father of Beren Erchamion.  Barahir who rescued my Lord Finrod during the Dagor Bragollach, and to whom my Lord gave his ring and his word that led him to aid Beren in seeking your Silmaril.  It is that Barahir."

Disbelief colored Maglor's expression as his gaze darted from Edrahil to Finrod and back, only detouring briefly to the space where the ghost had been seen.

Finrod shook his head to clear it, Edrahil's recitation making it clear just how ludicrous his thoughts had been.

"It is not Barahir," he said, though his voice sounded like it was coming from a great distance.  "It cannot be.  He is long dead.  There is a Man in this city that bears his resemblance and that is all.  And really, that is not so very strange.  Barahir would have many descendants by now."

Finrod was aware he sounded like he was trying to convince himself but there was nothing he could do about that.

"Are you sure about that?" Edrahil's voice was hesitant.  "Barahir only had two direct descendants to survive the First Age and remain in Middle-earth.  Elrond's three children have none of their own.  Elros' blood has thinned through many generations.  Even if that was a descendant of Elros, this is not Númenórean territory.  It would be highly unlikely someone so strikingly similar would be found here."

Finrod said, "This is not a backwards city nor was the road here so overly difficult that a Gondorian or Dúnadan could not manage it.  This festival certainly looks grand enough to draw people from all over Arda.  He could easily be of those people."

"He's wearing the colors of the guards here," Maglor noted quietly.

"And we cannot overlook your recent unrest," Edrahil added quickly.  "You have been ill-at-ease since we landed on these shores and ever were you drawn further east and north.  And as soon as we arrive, you see someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Man who saved your life Two Ages past; how can that be a coincidence?"

Finrod was not unaware of this.  It was all too remarkable to be unrelated, and yet Finrod shied away from actually thinking about the implications of what Edrahil was suggesting, which didn't put him in a charitable mood towards his bodyguard.

"And what other answer is there?  Do you really believe that Barahir again walks these shores after two Ages?  Is that really a more reasonable explanation than seeing a descendant?  Has there ever been a case where a Man returns to life when his body is gone?  Does that sound like anything we know about the race of Men?"

Edrahil and Maglor looked disquieted in response to Finrod's words but not so with Aegnor.  He again rounded on his brother, eyes ablaze.  "And what do we know about Men?  What do we know about their fate?  What do you know of it?  Have we lived in every town of Man that has ever existed in Arda?  How do we know they do not come back?  How can we be certain of anything?"

"You are being absurd," Finrod shot back, his patience tested as only a sibling could manage.  "You know perfectly well no such thing is possible.  Mandos has confirmed that much at least.  You are just grasping at straws, and we both know why."

"At least I would entertain the possibility.  I wouldn't run away like a coward."

"I don't have to take this," Finrod growled, wrenching his arm from his brother's hold and beginning to march off.

Alarmed, Edrahil asked, "Where are you going?"

"For a walk.  You three find us lodgings; I need to clear my head."  He stomped off down a side street and quickly lost himself in the crowds.

For several minutes, he walked without purpose and unmindful of his surroundings, still irritated by his brother's goading.  His ire faded quickly under the backdrop of the cheerful surroundings and the exuberance of the city as it began to wake.  He couldn't help but be charmed as he saw children chasing each other under the watchful eyes of their mothers or people giving each other gifts or urging one another to try some strange holiday delicacy.

His pace slowed as he began to look around him.  At first he told himself he was only drinking in the sights, enjoying being among Men again.  But even he could only maintain the delusion for a short time.  He saw the city but he didn't take any of it in, not really.  His gaze darted from sight to sight, never lingering on anything, and it soon became apparent that he was looking for something.

It wasn't hard to figure out what that might be.

Though he tried to ignore it, the feeling that had haunted him since first his father had mentioned this mission was again churning up inside him.  He tried to will away the knowledge but he could not be ignorant that the feeling had unfurled like a bursting star the moment he'd seen the guardsman in the distance.  Nor could he be ignorant that the strange feeling had returned in full force the moment the guardsman had left his sight -- the unnamed drive returning even stronger than before.

Sighing, Finrod paused in the middle of the street and really looked at his surroundings.  He found himself just at the edge of the market where there were fewer people about.  There was a small, enclosed courtyard to his right, filled awkwardly with two giant trees that had clearly outgrown their original placement.  The courtyard was deserted and looked to remain so for the foreseeable future.

For an instant, Finrod wavered.  A part of him wanted to continue on, to keep searching until he found the guardsman again.  Another part wanted to continue on so as to avoid whatever truths were hiding inside him.

But he pushed both impulses away.  Aegnor was right; he was a coward.  There had been an instant when he'd seen the guardsman in the distance and the answer to everything had been just within his reach.  But he remained afraid of what it would be and shunned it.

He couldn't do that anymore.  As much as he wanted to avoid this, it had been a constant companion to him since his rebirth and he needed to confront it.

So, he slipped into the quiet garden, found a quiet bench to perch on, and forced himself to think about the situation.

His companions were correct.  It was too inexplicable that he should be driven here and find a Man who resembled Barahir so closely.  And yet he had been right too -- mortal Men did not come back.  Once lost, they were lost forever.  Their souls moved beyond the world to a fate that was not to be known by Elves.  So, there was no way the Man he'd seen was really his Barahir.

And yet . . .

Finrod had felt something when seeing him, something he'd refused to acknowledge at the time . . . or for the last two Ages too.

Now, sitting in this peaceful courtyard, Finrod finally opened the lock he'd placed around his heart and looked inside.

The only reason he could know with such certainty that Amarië was not his beloved was that he had finally come to know real love.  He had found the other half of himself, the one person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

He had fallen in love, and now presented with this evidence -- with the stuttering of his heart when he'd seen the guardsman in the distance -- it was clear that Barahir had laid claim to his heart.

Was it any wonder that Finrod had avoided this truth?  Hadn't he seen the same grief slowly strangling Aegnor?  Why should he wish to confront the reality that he loved someone he would never again see?  That he would endure to the ending of the world and even then, he could not be sure Barahir would even be there as some hoped?  And should they be reunited, would Barahir feel the pull as he did?  Their time together had been so brief, and Finrod had never had a moment to declare his feelings.  As Finrod had not even acknowledged his own heart, Barahir had no idea how he felt; what kind of hope was there to build on?

But he could no longer live in ignorance.  The truth had confronted him with a familiar face that was at the same moment not the person he sought.  How could he be?

Perhaps, though, that was the point.  Perhaps the Valar had laid this feeling -- this drive -- within him so that he would seek out this perfect imitation, forcing him to finally admit his feelings.  And in doing so, he would admit the hopelessness of his situation.  It was cruel perhaps but then the Noldor had not endeared themselves to the Valar.  Out of concern for him, his parents had asked for some help, and the Valar had answered.  Doubtless they had not promised the resolution they offered would be a happy one.

Finrod sighed, running an agitated hand through his hair.  He suddenly felt so very old.  He felt every moment of every minute of every hour of every day that had passed since last he had seen Barahir on the field of battle, when he had taken his hand -- felt the warmth of life, the casual strength wrapping around his slim fingers -- and given his ring.

He had given a ring.  How had he ever managed to hide his feelings from himself when his actions spoke so boldly?

A slight noise interrupted his gloomy contemplation, and his head snapped up.  Again, he felt his breath catch as he saw the very guardsman of his thoughts standing awkwardly in the entrance to the courtyard.

Now closer, the resemblance was even more uncanny.  The guardsman was much younger than Barahir had been when Finrod had seen him last, but a man grown all the same.  His build was a shade different, likely a reflection of having less to do with horses and more to do with bows in his position as guardsman of this city.  His hair was a shade lighter -- and was it disturbing Finrod could tell that so accurately with such slight evidence? -- but that could very well be from constant sunlight.  In Dorthonion, there were always pines to shade the sun.  There was no such thing in the city of Dale.

Finrod catalogued these differences in an instant and yet not one disproved the notion that this was indeed Barahir, for in all other respects the Man before him was an exact double.

So stunned was he by the resemblance -- by again seeing that much beloved countenance filled with life -- that Finrod did not at first realize that he was staring.  They both were.

Finrod shook his head minutely, willing his resolve back to him.  The resemblance may be uncanny indeed but it did not change the facts.  This could not be Barahir.  It just wasn't possible.

Managing to find a polite smile, Finrod said, "Hello."  It was perhaps the least impressive greeting he'd ever given in his life but the fact that he was able to articulate anything in this moment felt like a strange kind of victory.

The Man hesitated noticeably, and for the first time Finrod realized that the guardsman's demeanor matched his own for strangeness.  He tried to quash the sudden hope that tried desperately to flutter in his breast, anxious to take this as some kind of sign.  Finrod was too pragmatic to give into hopeless delusion.

". . . Hello," the Man finally parroted, which made Finrod's smile come a little easier.  At least they were matching each other in awkwardness too.  It was nice to have company.

Finrod watched as the Man seemed to shake himself, taking command of himself.  "I wanted to know if you needed assistance."

"Assistance?"

For a moment, it appeared he'd stumped the young Man, who looked as if he was searching for a reply. "You appear to be lost," was what he finally settled on, though he winced when he said it.

Hiding his amusement, Finrod took pity on the guardsman, feeling more at ease with each passing moment.  "I have no particular purpose currently.  My companions are seeking lodgings and I needed some place to wait for them."

"Oh, you're not going to find anywhere right now.  The whole city's packed to bursting," the Man said, wrinkling his nose the exact way Barahir had whenever he was mildly annoyed.  Just like that, Finrod was back to feeling breathless and shaky.

It took him a moment to respond.  "We had heard as much on the road here.  Two of my companions took our horses south to the town on the lake but the rest of us continued on.  I am not sure what we shall do tonight."

"You could stay with me," the Man blurted out, and he clearly surprised himself as much as Finrod with the offer.  He rubbed the back of his neck in a nervous gesture.  "I mean with me and my sister . . . I mean if she's alright with that . . . and if there's room . . . how many did you say were in your party?"

He tried to sound nonchalant but it was clear he hadn't thought his offer through at all.  Finrod was ridiculously charmed by it.

"I have three companions here in the city." That was easy enough to offer but then Finrod hesitated.  His head screamed at him to let this go.  The young Man before him was not Barahir and pursuing this would only end in heartache.  He absolutely shouldn't . . . "If you do not think your sister will mind, we would be very glad of your offer."

Internally Finrod cursed his weakness but he hoped he kept all such feelings to himself.  It was hardly the guardsman's fault he looked as he did.

"Oh, that's . . . well . . . I should think it is alright?" The way the Man said it made it seem like he was asking Finrod more than telling him.

"Is it far?" Finrod asked.

"Not too.  I can show you where it is and then you can go collect your friends.  That should give my sister time to prepare for guests."

The guardsman nodded to himself, having settled upon the issue, and then bent down to grab a bag that had been lying at his feet.  For the first time, Finrod noted that the Man had been awkwardly holding several boxes in the crook of one arm.  Now holding the bag, his hands were full.

Immediately Finrod offered to help.  "Oh, you don't need to--" the Man protested but Finrod would not hear of it.  He took the bag from the Man, finding it was filled with potatoes and ham.  The Man offered him an awkward smile and a thanks, before gesturing for Finrod to proceed him out of the courtyard.

Finrod paused though.  He couldn't remember a time he had ever felt this nervous, though he supposed nothing had ever mattered quite so much to him before.  He had to know though.

Quietly, he said, "I . . . I do not believe I caught your name," and then held his breath for the answer.

The Man hesitated, shifting the boxes he carried from one hand to the other, freeing his hand to once again rub nervously at the back of his neck.  "Er, sorry, didn't think.  I'm Beldir, and my sister is Beldis.  Pleasedtomakeyouracquaintance," he said in a mumble and with a slight nod that had clearly been ingrained in him as a boy but was now slurred from many years' use.

Finrod couldn't help feeling bitterly disappointed at the answer, though he forced himself to keep his polite smile.  He had been right.  This was a terrible idea.  He was setting himself up for terrible heartache.

Seeing the expectant expression on his companion, Finrod quickly discarded his negative thoughts.  "I am Finrod, and the pleasure is mine," he said more formally, placing his hand over his heart and bowing over it.

A strange expression passed over Beldir's face, though Finrod's disappointment still held his mind and he did not really notice it.  He followed as Beldir slowly began walking away from the market, the two easily falling into step.

"Finrod . . . that seems familiar," Beldir said after a few minutes of silence.  Finrod looked up to see a frown on his face as he clearly tried to place the name.  A few minutes ago, his words would have given Finrod cause for hope but he did not allow himself such a luxury now.

He knew that his role in helping Beren retrieve the Silmaril, which had indirectly ended up overthrowing Morgoth, had made him famous among Men.  Even Men such as these in Dale, who would not have as much concern about the great wars and kingdoms of the First Age, seemed to remember that much.  And among the Men of Gondor and Arnor, his roles as King of Nargothrond and as the liege of Bëor the Old were well documented.

No, it was no surprise that his name would seem familiar.  Finrod would give much if Beldir remembered him for other things but he was not so foolish as to allow himself to believe that what he recalled now was anything more than a half-remembered lesson given to the Man as a boy.

"Fin is common in many Elvish names," Finrod demurred, feeling a heavy weight beginning to wrap around his heart.

Perhaps sensing his mood, Beldir let the matter drop.  They walked on in uncomfortable silence for a few more minutes before Finrod finally scolded himself for being unsocial.  He could see the hesitant looks Beldir kept shooting his way, obviously wondering if he had offended the Elf.

Finrod mustered a smile, trying to put the Man at ease.  "What's in the boxes?" he asked, gesturing with the bag he was holding.

"Eggs -- two dozen of them -- the wrong kind of cheese and some pastries my sister adores but insists she doesn't because they're a bit expensive."

"Two dozen eggs?  Did she anticipate our company then?"

Beldir snorted.  "I wouldn't put it past her but no.  I have no idea what she needs them for and I've learned not to ask.  I find it's better for my sanity that way."  He gave an exaggerated shudder and Finrod laughed.

"Aye, I know what you mean.  I've a sister myself and I know to cross her carries dire penalties indeed." He pitched his voice low to heighten the dread behind his words.  It was patently ridiculous, earning a grin from his new friend.

"And is she one of your companions?"

"Nay, but my brother is, and a cousin also, as well as . . ." Finrod paused, not entirely sure how to name Edrahil.  Edrahil had rank enough that he was not a servant but he was not kin either.  Finrod finally settled on, "A friend," though that too was imprecise.  Edrahil was much too proper to be friendly but Finrod doubted explaining he was Edrahil's lord would earn him ease with Beldir and his sister.  Beldir seemed like simple enough folk.

"And you?  Is it just you and your sister?" Finrod asked quickly.

Beldir shrugged.  "Yeah.  Our parents died of plague twelve years back and it's just been the two of us.  We don't really have any close relatives except for some cousins on my dad's side that my sister can't stand and an old aunt of my mom's who went south with her husband years ago to a little village along the Celduin where he had family.  She sends us coats every winter, though they haven't fit me in years."

"Twelve years ago?  You must've been awfully young then," Finrod noted, trying to judge Beldir's age.  He had to be in his mid to late twenties, perhaps as old as thirty but it was hard to tell with Men.  The different peoples of Men seemed to age differently, and Finrod did not know the Men of Dale well enough to guess how it would be with Beldir.

Beldir shrugged again.  "We did alright.  Oh, here we are." He sounded relieved to be able to change topics as he pointed out his home.

Not knowing Dale, Finrod could still tell they were in a nicer part of the city.  Further on, the houses got bigger and grander, likely leading all the way to the Lord of Dale's residence.  The house before him was not nearly so imposing, looking quaint next to its neighbors.  But it had an ample yard on both sides, which was more than most houses that Finrod had seen in the crowded city.  It appeared to be one of the older houses too, low and squat and taking up room that newer buildings wouldn't dare do in a thriving city.

There was a small gate in the fence surrounding the yard, and Beldir led Finrod to it instead of the main entrance.  The gate moved with a displeased squeal, opening up to reveal a riot of color.

"This is a beautiful garden," Finrod praised, looking around him at just how many varieties of flowers and plants were neatly laid in tiered beds and growing up along the fence.

Beldir glanced about him, obviously too used to his home to actually note it.  "Yeah, this is my sister's handiwork -- her pride and joy.  She'll be delighted you like it.  Coming from one of Thranduil's folk, that's praise indeed."

"We're not of Thranduil's folk," Finrod said, amused but not surprised at the assumption.

Before they turned the corner where Finrod could really see the backyard, Beldir paused to look at him, surprise patent on his face.  "You're not?"

Finrod shook his head, a smile on his face.  "No.  Indeed, in terms of interest, I should think we have more in common with your Dwarven neighbors than your Elven ones."

Beldir opened his mouth, but eventually closed it again, apparently not knowing what to say to that.  "Huh . . . well, Beldis will still be pleased nonetheless."

They finally turned the corner and Finrod paused in surprise.  The backyard was much larger than he would've anticipated.  There was a very ancient fountain as a centerpiece before a small marble gazebo with benches set both inside and outside its perimeter.  A beautiful walkway led from a large patio near the house to the gazebo.  The stone sparkled in the sunlight, lined with large columns covered in flowering ivy.  Several of the columns were free standing but a few carried beams where more flowers were strategically hung, some in hanging pots and some looped through the beams like colorful ribbons.

It was certainly not a rival to the likes of Lórien in Valinor or Doriath or even Mithlond's seaside farms.  But surrounded by the stone of the city, it was a wonderful surprise of natural beauty.

"I shouldn't think any Elf could be blind to your garden's charm.  Your sister has every right to be proud," Finrod said honestly.

Beldir grinned.  "Yeah, I think so too.  If you don't mind my asking, where do you hail from?"

Before Finrod could answer, a voice issued from the house.  "Beldir!  Did you get lost after all?"

The voice was quickly followed by a woman.  She emerged from a small door that must have led to the kitchens.  It was clear she was prepared to give Beldir a good-natured scolding but she paused when she saw Finrod, clearly surprised by their visitor.  Something passed over her expression, but it was quickly gone.

"Beldir, you didn't tell me we had guests!" she accused, smoothing out her apron in an unconscious gesture.  She was wearing simple fair, a faded work dress with the sleeves rolled up and the hem slightly muddy.  There was a hint of flour on her cheeks indicating the employment they had interrupted her doing.  Her hair was tied back into a simple plait but wisps had gotten loose, curling becomingly in the heat to frame a pretty face.  Her skin was tanned from her gardening, though not tan enough to hide a slight dusting of freckles across her nose.  She looked remarkably similar to Beldir, obviously related, but a few years his junior.

Finrod noted all of this numbly, the sight of her hitting him like a blow square to his chest from a mace-wielding troll.  Suddenly he knew exactly what was going through his brother's head when he had seen Beldir in the distance.  The woman standing before him might be Beldis sister of Beldir but to Finrod's eyes she was Andreth aunt of Barahir, the same Andreth that loved his brother Aegnor as much as Aegnor had loved her but whose loved had been doomed from the start.

Here she stood in a soiled apron, once again alive and so young.  There wasn't a trace of the frost in her hair that had been present when Finrod had last seen her.  Indeed, Finrod didn't think he had ever met her when she was this age.  She had always seemed mature and wise and timeless to him, weighed down by her tragic love for his brother.

"You did what?" she demanded, snapping Finrod out of his shock.  He'd clearly missed Beldir telling his sister about their new houseguests.  He did turn in time to see Beldir wince.

"The city's full and you're always going on about offering our extra room during the holidays.  I thought you'd be pleased."

It was clear Beldir thought no such thing and it was equally clear his sister knew it.  She put her hands on her hips, giving him a look that made Beldir wilt.  Finrod would have been amused except that he had seen that look before.  He had seen Andreth strike the exact same pose and give the exact same look back in Ladros towards those deserving of it.

Finrod missed the next response, once again feeling like the world had suddenly upended on him.  Seeing Barahir's face again had been surreal enough but Andreth?  He had known Andreth better than he had known even Barahir.  When Aegnor had drawn away, Finrod had felt it his duty to look after her as much as he was able.  He would never miss her as Aegnor did but he did miss her all the same.  He had cared for her a great deal.

To see her once again alive -- to know that his brother had a second chance at happiness -- it was too much.  What did he even do with this?

"Alright," she finally conceded to whatever fancy fast-talking Beldir had managed while Finrod was quietly boggling.  "I suppose we have enough laid down for four more guests.  But I shall have to go to market again if we're to have a proper supper."

"I can do that," Beldir quickly volunteered, even as he surrendered the eggs in his arms to his sister.

She favored him with a particularly unimpressed look.  "Oh, I don't think so.  The last time I sent you, you came back with four wayward Elves.  Goodness knows what you'll find the next time."  She flashed a smile at Finrod to let him know she was teasing.  He could only stare numbly.

When a slight frown of concern began to crease her brow, Finrod again shook himself to gain control.  How many times had he done that today already?  How many more times would it be necessary?

It wasn't wholly effective this time, as he couldn't help but stare in wonder at Beldir's fair sister.

"I should go collect my companions," he said, trying not to sound awkward.  He gave his bag to Beldir.  "Thank you very much for having us."

"It's no problem," Beldis said graciously.  "We'll be having brunch as soon as it's ready, which shouldn't be long, so you may wish to return straight away.  Do you think you can find your way?"

Finrod murmured assurances that seemed to do the trick, though he had no idea what he was saying.  He watched as she took the boxes and whirled back into the kitchen, an imperious call of her brother's name a command that he follow.  Beldir offered Finrod a grin but quickly obeyed.

Finrod managed to get as far as the side of the house before his legs gave out.  Conveniently a bench was set innocuously by the wall that seemed there for no other purpose, and Finrod gratefully sat down.  Distantly he could hear Beldir being upbraided by his sister for springing guests on her when she wasn't ready.  There was no real heat in the exchange so Finrod knew he had not really laid any tension between the siblings.  Having earned similar reprimands from Galadriel, Finrod knew there was no worry.

Not that he had any energy to spare on such a consideration.  He was still trying to accept what he had just seen.  But now that Beldis -- and it was Beldis he reminded himself; it was just as impossible for Andreth to be alive as it was Barahir -- now that she was removed from his sight, Finrod could think a little more objectively.

Uncanny failed to describe the almost perfect resemblance.  It was more than just looks.  Beldis had sounded exactly as Andreth had -- the same voice, the same tone, the same expressions.  Being in Aegnor's shoes, it was difficult for Finrod not to want his brother to pursue this.  On the one hand, Finrod still felt strongly that this couldn't be Andreth -- that it was impossible for humans to be reincarnated as Elves could.

But even he couldn't deny that having two individuals that looked exactly like Barahir and Andreth -- the beloveds of Finrod and Aegnor -- appearing at the same time was too much to accept as random.  It might well be just that but there was no way to convince his heart of that.

What did Finrod make of this?  How could these two be reborn, and why now and here in this place?  Every logical bone in his body rebelled against such a notion.  It wasn't just to protect his heart.  What he knew of Elves and Men and Ilúvatar's great design said that such a thing must be impossible.  It was true that what he knew must be small indeed but it was still true that immortality and mortality were the only things that truly separated the races.  There would always be some Man who could run light as an Elf or some Elf who was strong as a Man.  But no Elf save Lúthien would ever know death as Men did.

That was the whole point.  That was their gift.  For all their suffering and diminishment, Men were rewarded with death.  The irony was only Elves seemed to truly understand Men's gift and its worth, but that didn't stop the gift from being there for Men to receive.  If Men could be returned to life, then what was the point of their gift?

And it was clear neither Beldir nor Beldis knew of their connection to the First Age.  Beldir hadn't hailed him as a long lost friend he had been eagerly awaiting, not the way an Elf reborn would do.  Both would be old enough now that their memories should have returned but there was no sign of that.  Finrod saw no sign that they had any relation to Andreth and Barahir save in looks and mannerisms.

And yet Finrod could not be sure of objectivity in this area.  With a heart so desperate to connect with its other half but equally desperate to avoid yet more pain, how could Finrod possibly see with clear sight?

There would be no answers sitting here on this bench; that, at least, was obvious.  Finrod sat indecisive for a moment, realizing there was a choice before him.  He could return to his fellows and pretend nothing had happened.  He could say that he had found Beldir and confirmed it was not Barahir, tell them his heart urged him further to Erebor, and then find an excuse to turn around so they could all return home.  He need never tell Aegnor about Beldis and her uncanny resemblance to Andreth.

Finrod sighed, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes as he tilted his face up towards the brightening sky.  He knew he couldn't do that.  For good or ill, he had made his choice when he had accepted Beldir's proposal to lodge his company.  He could never live with himself if he had not done all he could to unravel this mystery.

It was harder when it risked more than his own heart though.  But, be that as it may, he knew what Aegnor would want.

He remembered back in Valinor when Aegnor had finally snapped.  It was several years after Aegnor's memories had returned to him when everything hit him.  Finrod was glad his parents hadn't been around to see it, as it had been very bad indeed.  Finrod had feared his brother's soul might flee back to Mandos under the crushing grief of loss he felt.

But when it had passed, Aegnor had bared his soul to his brother.  He had told him how much he ached for just one more day with his beloved Andreth -- how he would be happy if he could have just one lifetime spent by her side.  Finrod had said nothing then but privately he had thought it a blessing Aegnor had not had that lifetime.  He didn't think the new memories of bliss would grant Aegnor any peace as the years lingered on in loneliness.

It hadn't mattered then because the point was irrelevant.  Andreth was dead and would not return.  But now there was another woman who looked so much like her.  Even if Finrod knew for certain that it was indeed Andreth, was it wise to start again?  Finrod knew his brother would do it.  Aegnor would jump at the chance to marry Andreth and set up a little home away from war and grief, even if it meant he had but a short handful of years to enjoy it.

Was that what they were being offered here?  One human's lifetime of joy?

Finrod shook his head, frustrated, and finally got to his feet.  He did not even think Beldis was Andreth.  Perhaps Aegnor needed to confront the realities of his situation as Finrod did, or at least the Valar might judge it so.

Whatever the case, he had made the choice, and his companions were awaiting his return.  Finrod knew he would come back to this quiet garden, and bring Aegnor too.

He had no idea what he was going to tell his brother though.  How could he prepare Aegnor for this shock?  Andreth was never far from his thoughts, even if he rarely ever said her name.  Seeing someone so like her was going to hit him hard.

Finrod still hadn't figured out what to say when he heard his name called.  He turned to find his companions approaching him.

"Have you cleared your head?" Aegnor asked.  He still sounded tetchy, every muscle tight with visible tension.  Finrod's heart went out to him, knowing what he must be thinking and feeling, and he still had yet to learn that what Finrod had found was awaiting him too.

"You look pale," Maglor noted with alarm.  "Has something happened?"

That earned him the sharp attention of all of them.  Under their concerned gazes, Finrod found words even harder to come by.  He looked helplessly from one to the other, his gaze lingering on Aegnor.

In the end his shoulders sagged in defeat.

"I found the guardsman.  His name is Beldir.  He and his sister Beldis have extended an invitation for us to lodge with them while we are in the city, and even now await us for brunch."

His recitation was terse and toneless.  The others regarded him with surprise.  Even Aegnor's ire melted at this revelation.

They all seemed speechless, and the four Elves stood awkwardly for a long minute.  Finrod still desperately searched for some way to warn his brother but nothing came.  When the awkwardness became too much, he whirled around and went back the way he came, unmindful if the others followed or not.

They did of course.  Maglor quickly fell in step with him.  "Are you alright?" he asked, looking very concerned.  Finrod could only nod tightly.  Maglor took the hint, and said no more, even if he glanced at Finrod often.

Finrod led them through the city streets that were quickly growing crowded as more and more of the populace poured out to enjoy the festivities.  He could hear the occasional hushed question from Maglor to Edrahil, trying to determine if they should be worried about him, but it wasn't as if Edrahil had anything to offer.

Aegnor was silent for his part, saying nothing until they reached the house.  The gate announced their presence with the same squeal of displeasure and they all paused to enjoy the garden.  It was here that Aegnor finally stopped Finrod with a gentle touch to his elbow.

Finrod gave him a curious look, even as Maglor and Edrahil moved on ahead.  Aegnor looked uneasy -- that distinct look of unease he had when the guilt of an outburst finally got a hold of him.

"I'm sorry for yelling.  I know this must be . . . difficult," he said awkwardly.

Finrod's heart squeezed, knowing the difficulty had barely begun.  "It's alright.  I understand why . . . I understand."

Aegnor nodded, looking relieved.  He would have continued forward to join their fellows but it was Finrod's turn to stop him.

"Aegnor, wait.  There's something you should know."

Turning, Aegnor gave his brother an expectant look, which made this a thousand-fold more difficult.  Finrod shouldered on anyway.  "Beldir's sister . . . she . . . you need to know that she . . ." But try as he might the words were not there.

"She what?" Aegnor asked.

Suddenly all Finrod could see was Aegnor as he had been when he was a toddler, determinedly following Angrod everywhere.  He saw a young boy sitting at a formal table, trading pokes and pinches under the table with Galadriel while trying to go unnoticed by their parents.  He saw that same boy gazing listlessly out a window on a bright summer's day with a half-finished copy of dry text waiting to be completed before him.  He saw him roaming free, laughing joyfully the first time he'd ridden a horse he could call his own.

What Finrod saw was not a warrior grown but his little brother.  He saw the heartache awaiting him and he wished desperately that he could take this pain from him.  Finrod would do anything to shoulder this burden if he could and it broke his heart that he could not.

He closed his eyes in pain.  "You will have to see for yourself . . ." he said, because that was the truth.  No words could prepare Aegnor for what awaited him.  Finrod opened his eyes to see the puzzled concern on his brother's face.  Reaching up, Finrod tucked a stray lock behind his brother's pointed ear.  "And I'm sorry, Brother.  I'm so sorry."

Alarm passed over Aegnor's features.  He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.  Beyond them they could hear Maglor and Edrahil give greetings, and Beldir's reply.  That seemed to draw Aegnor's attention.  Sparing one last look of concern for his brother, Aegnor turned and walked out into the back garden.

Beldir looked relieved to see Finrod.  Even with his worry over Aegnor being so much on his mind, Finrod was again struck with a host of emotions when seeing Barahir's likeness before him.  There was an instant where he thought it was indeed Barahir before he remembered that it was not, and that moment was bitterly sweet.

"Thank you for having us," Maglor said.  "I hope we are not putting you out."

Shaking his head, Beldir offered a friendly grin.  "No trouble.  It's a little short notice but we have room enough and food enough, don't believe my sister's words to the contrary." It was clearly a tease, and the Elves smiled accordingly, relaxing at Beldir's easy nature.  Well, all but Finrod, who craned his neck to look for Beldis.

"Where is your sister?" Edrahil asked.

Beldir made a vague gesture behind him.  "She's in the kitchen but she'll be out shortly.  You've good timing.  I think the food's almost ready."

As if on cue, the small door to the side of the house opened and Finrod held his breath.

Beldis had taken the opportunity to change into a nicer dress and redo her hair into something slightly more stylish than a simple plait, though apparently the wisps of hair curling around her face could not be tamed.  She was holding a large pitcher with both hands, a welcoming smile on her lips.

"Oh, good, you're here.  I hope you're hungry.  I've made . . ."

Her sentence trailed off when her gaze finally swung around and she finally saw Aegnor.  Her smile faltered.

Standing right next to his brother, Finrod had heard the quiet gasp, could see the way his brother started when Beldis emerged from the house, his body going rigid.  Now the two simply stared at each other.

The moment stretched on.  Finrod shifted slightly, ready to support his brother.  Peripherally he was aware of Maglor looking on in confusion, of the growing concern on Beldir's face, and the patent shock on Edrahil's.  They were secondary to Aegnor right now though and Finrod gave them no thought.

Finally Beldis gave herself a little shake.  She noted being the center of attention, a blush of embarrassment staining her cheeks.

"Your repast will be out momentarily," she said, glancing anywhere but at any of them.  Finally she thrust the pitcher into her brother's hands.  "And haven't you gotten the large table out yet?  You should have the chairs set by now.  Poor hosts we are to make everyone wait."

Beldir took no note of her scolding, his frown of concern only deepening.  Beldis did not wait for an answer.  Flashing them a nervous smile, she twirled around with all the dignity of the lady of the manor and slipped back into the kitchen.  Finrod knew a retreat when he saw one.

But his attention was diverted when Beldis' retreat finally broke through to Aegnor.  His arm moved on its own accord as if reaching out to her, as if to call her back.  But then he was still, immobile against the shock of this revelation.

It broke Finrod's heart.

"What is--" Maglor began, turning to look from the kitchen to Aegnor and back again.

Fortunately Edrahil was quicker to recover.  He elbowed Maglor none too subtly, and said, "We'd be happy to help you with the table.  Three sets of hands will make the work go quicker."  Finrod had never been so grateful to Edrahil as he was right now.

Beldir had been looking at the kitchen but Edrahil's words roused him.  "Of course.  Thank you.  The table's on the other side of the house and the chairs are inside.  I'll show you where they are."

He did not move immediately though.  His eyes sought out Finrod, questions clouding the brilliant green color.  But Edrahil appeared at Beldir's elbow to take the pitcher and be given direction, effectively distracting the Man.

Finrod let out his breath, not realizing he had held it.  With the others disappearing to find the table and chairs, Finrod grabbed his brother's elbow and pulled him to the side of the house where they had entered and pushed him down onto the same bench he'd sat on only a short while ago.

Aegnor's breathing was coming too fast, and he bent double as he tried to regain some control.  Sitting beside him, Finrod gently rubbed his back as he had done when Aegnor was little and afraid of thunder.

The internal storm blew out quickly, and soon enough Aegnor was leaning back against the wall.

"What is this?  What . . . how is this?  I . . . I don't understand."

He sounded so lost, so fragile, and Finrod just had to draw him into a hug.  "I don't know.  I don't know what it is but I'm here.  Whatever it is, I'm here," he murmured, wanting Aegnor to know he had that to hold onto.  For a moment Aegnor was unresponsive but then his hands came up and buried themselves in the fabric of Finrod's shirt.

"My heart hurts," he whispered.  Finrod closed his eyes at the vulnerable tone, his own heart breaking in sympathy.  But there was nothing he could say and he just held his brother tighter.

They remained like that for a good long while, both too old for hugs and neither giving a damn right then.  Eventually they parted, though it was only in degrees.  Aegnor's fingers slackened and his head dipped down so that his forehead rested on Finrod's shoulder.

"She didn't recognize me," he murmured, sounding so sad.

Ignoring every thought he had had earlier about humans and reincarnation, Finrod gently tugged his brother's head up to look at him.  "That's not true.  She was as struck by you as you her.  She didn't react like that when she saw me.  There is something there."

"But she doesn't remember me.  She doesn't remember you.  She doesn't know who she is," Aegnor whispered.  For a moment, he looked lost and vulnerable.  But then his mercurial temper took hold and he shook his head and violently surged to his feet to pace.  "And who is she?  She's not Andreth.  Just like you said; it can't be them.  It's all some sick cosmic joke the Valar are playing at our expense."

"Aegnor."

"No, you were right.  Humans are mortal.  They aren't tied to the world as we are.  They don't come back.  Isn't that the point of this?  The Valar are showing us the folly of falling in love with humans, reinforcing the lesson in case it wasn't clear with Lúthien.  There is only heartache in loving mortals.  There's only--"

Finrod surged to his feet when he heard his brother's voice break on a sob.  Grabbing Aegnor's shoulders, he turned his brother to look at him.  "Stop that.  We don't know what this is but I can guarantee you the Valar's hands in it would be small indeed.  Lúthien's fate, Tuor's fate -- that was Eru's will alone, and that is beyond all the knowledge of this world.  We must have faith.  Aegnor, where is your optimism?  This morning, you would have had me follow a ghost on the mere chance it could be Barahir reborn.  Did you not call me a coward for resisting the idea?" he asked gently.

"And I was a fool.  It was easier when it was not my own heart I risked.  Forgive me." Aegnor hung his head but Finrod dragged it right back up, offering a sad smile.

"There is nothing to forgive," he said, hauling his brother back for another rib-crunching hug.  It felt good to have this connection.  Finrod still had his own storm of emotions threatening to drown him but it was easier to push that aside when his brother needed him.  It was good not to feel alone in this.

"I . . . I can't . . . I can't," Aegnor murmured brokenly against his brother's neck.

Finrod held him tighter.  "Shh, I know.  I know."  And he did know.  Aegnor couldn't do this.  He couldn't go back and see a woman who looked exactly like Andreth but couldn't possibly be her and yet there was hope she was.  And he couldn't not go back and see her.  He couldn't not reach out for this slim chance at happiness, even if it tore his heart to ribbons.

Against all reason, he would return and Finrod knew he would too.  What other choice was there?

 

*************

 

"Thanks," Beldir said as he and the brown-haired Elf managed to haul the large outdoor table to the patio.  The black-haired Elf -- Maglor, Beldir reminded himself -- followed shortly after with the first two of six chairs Beldir had shown him.  They were indoor chairs but it was unlikely to rain and Beldir had never cared much for the benches that went with the table.

"It's nothing.  Was there anything else we could help with?  You needn't think of us as guests.  We're more in your debt than you ours.  We're happy to help out," Edrahil said politely.

Beldir knew Beldis wouldn't like it but he could tell a soldier when he saw one, and he knew Edrahil was being honest so he accepted the offer.  "Well, if you can get the other chairs, I'll see about plates and such."

The Elves seemed happy to oblige, disappearing into the main backdoor where the chairs would be found.  Beldir paused before following, noting Finrod was nowhere in sight.  He felt a deep unease in his belly, though he tried in vain to push it aside.  Rationally, Beldir knew his new friend was likely with the other blond Elf, who had to be the brother Finrod mentioned.  The Elf had behaved oddly; they were likely discussing whatever had disturbed him.

Which Beldir understood all too well.  He had never seen Beldis react like she had, and it worried him.  She had been upset of late, and he did not know why, but it had never shown in any obvious way.  To be caught like that before strange Elves was very unlike her.

Entering the kitchen, Beldir announced, "The table is up."  It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darker interior.  When they did, he saw his sister apparently hard at work cutting up the fresh bread she'd baked.  Moving closer, though, he could see how her hands were shaking and that her usual precise cuts were horribly messy.

"Beldis?" he asked gently, wrapping his large hand over the one holding the knife.  He could feel the tension in her frame and for a moment she stilled before letting the knife go with a clatter and rounding on him.

"Why are they here, Beldir?  Why have you brought them here to our home?" she demanded.  He could see a wild look in her eyes, like that of a hart caught in a trap.

Startled, Beldir could only stammer.  "I . . . I don't know.  I saw the Elf and I . . . I felt drawn to him."

"You felt drawn to him?  Have you taken leave of your senses?"

"Yes," Beldir snapped.  "Possibly I have.  I don't understand this any more than you, but yelling at me isn't going to make it go away."

For a moment Beldis looked like she was ready to punch him in the jaw and he was ready to take the hit if it made her feel better.  But then she whirled around suddenly, bracing her hands against the nearest table.  He could see tremors running up her arms.  Feeling helpless and disliking the feeling immensely, he wrapped around her from behind and rested his chin on her shoulder.  He could feel the tremors more now but he could also feel them lessening, as if her unease could bleed out into him.

Finally Beldis turned in his embrace, tucking herself against him.  "I've never . . . when I saw him . . . I never . . ."

"I know." Beldir understood exactly what she meant.  When he had seen Finrod sitting the courtyard, he'd felt as if his heart was trying to hammer out of his chest to leap into the Elf's lap.  The whole world had gone wobbly and pale next to the shimmering gold before him.

Beldis drew away enough so that she could look her brother in the eye.  "You know?  With the Elf you brought home?  And I should feel the same with the Elf he brought with him; does that not seem strange?"

"Very strange," Beldir agreed.

"Well, what does it mean?"

"You're asking me?  You're the one with all the answers.  You tell me." Beldir waited anxiously, hoping that she would indeed have some answer for him.  She had always been unnaturally insightful, having answers to questions only the obscurest tome in Erebor could confirm.

Beldis returned her head to his shoulder, and the quiet soothed them.  "It means we are both fools, too long in our own company with no elders to push us to our duties."

Frowning, Beldir pulled away to look at his sister.  He didn't like the defeated look in her eyes at all.  "What?"

"We are both old enough to have been married many years by now.  You may be spared the whispers because of your profession and sex but I have not."

"Since when have you cared what the hens have clucked about?" Beldir demanded, as this was nothing like the sister he knew.

"Since I have apparently fallen under the same Elf-spell that afflicts all foolish girls and yet am too old to claim youth for my folly."

"You are not old," Beldir snapped, incensed with the very thought.

"I feel old though.  Sometimes I feel . . ." There was a troubled look in her eye when she trailed off that unsettled Beldir deeply.  He was afraid to ask, though he was preparing to do so anyway when she shook herself.  "That's not the point.  Old or young, we are neither of us anything so special as to turn the heads of Elves so great as our current guests.  For all their worn travel raiment, they are clearly high-born.  What have we to offer them?  We are orphans in a small city of no importance far from anywhere.  It is best to set aside such foolish notions before someone gets hurt."

While Beldir could not disagree for himself, her words did not sit well with him.  "Do not think so lowly of yourself.  You are the prettiest girl in Dale, and any Elf would be lucky to catch you."

"So says your love of me, which would find no fault, and I thank you for that." Beldis gave him a watery smile at that, though she looked much bolstered at his fierce defense. "But we mustn't delude ourselves.  Elves and Men do not mix but for the highest of lineages.  We have none.  And even if we did, it would not . . . Well, it doesn't matter.  How probable is it really that we should find two Elves by chance who will fall madly in love with us?  It's simply ludicrous."

Beldir reluctantly had to admit she was likely right, as usual.  The practical part of himself -- always the chief determiner in his life so far -- pointed out how recently he had met these Elves and that he knew nothing of them nor they him.  But there was a new voice whispering from his heart that spoke of something else.  It was too quiet for him to know it clearly but he knew it was there all the same.

Still, words had never been his forte and they failed him now.  Even as he tried to come up with some response, Beldis had slipped from his side.  Her own words had clearly decided her and she returned to work with her normal bustle.  She put together a pile of plates and flatware and shoved them into his arms.

"Well, best not keep them waiting," she said, manually turning him around and giving him a little push toward the door.  Had he not been preoccupied, he would've moved forward as directed but as it was, she would've had more luck pushing a wall.  He did go though, wandering slowly back out into daylight.

When he saw that the golden Elves had returned, he paused at the doorway.  Finrod and his brother were standing near the edge of the garden by one of the free standing columns.  The other Elf had his armed crossed, looking remote and unhappy but more put-together than he'd been a few minutes ago.  Finrod was touching his elbow, talking quietly.  Beldir was too far away to hear what they spoke but that was not what caught his attention.

The two Elves had shed their travel cloaks, revealing crisp blue tunics with fine silver embroidery.  The sun shone on their golden hair, glinting with every tiny movement.  It was such a natural compliment to the colorful garden setting, and Beldir was struck motionless to see them.

They really were beautiful, but especially Finrod.  There was something very kingly about him and yet something very kind too.  Beldir had never felt so comfortable with another person save perhaps Beldis.  He felt like he'd found a long lost friend.  At the same time, Beldir felt like he had finally found a king worth following, a king he would die for.

That thought disquieted him, bringing back images from his dreams.  He shook his head at himself, feeling suddenly so foolish.  Beldis was right.  This was ludicrous.  The Elves before him were so beautiful and wondrous; what could they possibly see in little old Beldir?  He was deluding himself.  He was unworthy of even looking at such a beautiful creature.

"Do you need help with that?"

Beldir startled, finding Edrahil at his elbow already reaching for the stack of plates in his hands.  He gave them over without prompting, and soon all thoughts of his golden Elf were subsumed in the mundane work of getting the table sorted and the food set out.

Even Finrod and his brother eventually pitched in.  Beldir quietly inquired about the name of Finrod's brother, finally learning from Edrahil that it was Aegnor.  Beldir felt something itching at the back of his brain when he heard the name and thought he should tell his sister.  But every time he went to the kitchen, she anticipated him, shoving something in his hands and pushing him back outside as if she feared what he would say if given a moment to say it.

"This should be the last of it."  Beldis finally came out of the kitchen, clutching a basket of warm rolls.  As Beldir could see there was little left, he had told the Elves to seat themselves so they were settled comfortably around the large table.

Maglor, who was sitting nearest the door, took the basket from her so she could sit with ease.  "This looks wonderful.  You needn't have gone to so much trouble."

"Oh, it's no trouble.  I was already planning something grand for today.  It is just as well Beldir has found friends to share it with us for I likely would have made far too much for just the two of us.  I often do," Beldis said with a rueful smile.

While passing a bowl of mashed sweet potatoes to his brother, Finrod said, "Do you always mark this festival with a grand feast?"

Beldis laughed, and Beldir noted how Aegnor almost dropped the bowl his brother handed him.  "Goodness, no.  My brother and I have never been much for holidays and parties.  No, the real celebration is that I have finally managed to convince Beldir to take a restday during a holiday.  I think my brother is positively allergic to relaxing and having fun."

Beldir snorted at that, earning him one of his sister's sharp elbows into his ribs.  After years of such abuse, he barely felt her jabs anymore.  He was a little more preoccupied by the smile Finrod flashed his way anyway.  Suddenly eating became much more difficult with his mouth so dry.

"Is that right?  Why should you eschew fun?" Finrod said, his voice teasingly light.  His expression was warm as he gave Beldir an expectant look.  Beldir fumbled with his water glass, needing liquid if he had any hope of answering.

But it was Maglor who responded with his own snort.  "You shouldn't speak, Cousin.  You are just as bad."  He turned to the human siblings, giving them a much-aggrieved tale.  "He was always working in Valinor, always perfecting the scores we worked on, or running to do errands for his father, or helping his brothers out, or . . . well, everything else.  He is never still."

"That may be," Finrod replied, unperturbed by his cousin's recitation, "but stillness is not required for fun.  I spend much of my days enjoying things when there is an opportunity.  Indeed, I hope to explore this city and see more of this festival."

Beldis clapped her hand once.  "Oh, wonderful.  Perhaps you can take Beldir with you." Beldir almost choked on his water. "I have managed to keep Beldir from his duties today but I just know if left to himself, he will fill his day with small chores around the house and waste a perfectly good opportunity to see the city at its finest."

Beldir opened his mouth to protest but his eyes strayed to Finrod before he could hiss at his sister to mind her business.  There was something strange in the Elf's eyes that stayed Beldir's tongue.

"I . . . I should like that," Finrod said quietly.  Beldir swallowed around his dry throat, unable to tear his eyes from the Elf's, not even when his sister continued on.

"Wonderful.  And the rest of you?  Shall you also spend time in the city?  There will be dancing tonight in the great square and silly competitions this afternoon.  I'm sure something will tempt you."

"Perhaps this evening," Maglor said slowly.  "But we have walked all night already.  I, for one, would like to sit in quiet for a time and rest."

"You walked all night?" Beldis asked with alarm.  "Well, of course you are tired.  You needn't feel obligated to entertain Beldir, Lord Finrod.  If you need to rest, I understand."

Finally Finrod's eyes broke away from Beldir's, freeing him.  Beldir felt shaken, his heart racing and breathing edging towards labored.  He quickly dropped his gaze to his plate, his mind confused and overwhelmed by the stir of emotions that threatened to swamp him when he had Finrod's attention.

"There is no need.  Elves do not need the same rest that Men do.  I am not yet tired, and I would be delighted to have someone who knows this festival pointing out anything of interest." His tone was perfectly polite, but Beldir thought he heard something in the words that made him glance up despite his intentions.  He again found Finrod's eyes on him, that unreadable something in his voice also in his eyes.  Beldir quickly looked down before he could again be caught in those otherworldly blue eyes.

"Good," Beldis said, sounding relieved.  Beldir knew his sister prided herself on being a good host.  She would be distressed if she had forced a weary guest to wander around the tiring crowds of the festival against his inclination, and doubly so if that guest was an Elf.  "I am sure Beldir will be able to show you the most interesting sights, despite never having taken the time to enjoy it himself."

Her tone was again teasing, and he earned another good-natured elbow-jab.  He looked up, since it was expected, managing to give his sister a strained smile.  Having likely expected an eye-roll or a hearty laugh, Beldis paused in her humor, beginning to look concerned.

However, her concern was only for a moment as Edrahil quickly diverted her attention.  "You have a lovely garden here.  I'm not sure I recognize all these plants.  Are they all native to this area?"

Her attention still on her brother, Beldis hesitated in answering.  Beldir kept his gaze firmly averted, trying to look nonchalant about it.  He could feel his sister's stare burning a hole in the side of his face, and had they been alone, she would never have let this go.  But they weren't alone, so she answered Edrahil.

"No, indeed.  I have traded for seeds from as far away as Gondor.  Or at least, that's what the merchants claim.  They are exotic to this area at any rate."

"It must have taken you some time to acquire so many varieties then," Maglor noted, his gaze swinging about him to take in all the different plants.  There was no question that this line of talk wasn't going to completely absorb his sister, and as expected, she quickly warmed to the subject.  The dark-haired Elves were wonderfully complimentary about the garden, asking all the right questions and appearing genuinely interested, though Beldir had no idea if that was the truth or not.

Finrod chimed in once or twice but was mostly silent.  No one seemed to expect Beldir to have any opinion about the garden, for which he was thankful.  It gave him a chance to collect himself and then to observe his guests.

His eyes continuously flickered towards Finrod against his will.  Finrod met his gaze more than once, though Beldir always looked away quickly.  When Finrod was not gazing at him or following the general trend of the conversation, his eyes would flicker towards his brother, the hint of concern there easy to see.

Aegnor never said a word.  He would stare at Beldis for long stretches of time, only looking elsewhere when Finrod very subtly nudged him or obviously stepped on his toe.  Then he would become very engrossed in mashing the food around on his plate.  In watching him, Beldir noted that his sister was avoiding the Elf's gaze.  She must feel the staring but she refused to acknowledge it, determinedly keeping her attention on Maglor and Edrahil.

Beldir frowned in annoyance.  It was clear to him that Aegnor was interested in his sister.  At the very least, something about Beldis had caught his attention.  He had barely noted Beldir at all, and took no notice of the other Elves.  No, his attention was all for Beldis.

Perhaps it was true that a simple guard such as himself would not be of interest to such high and mighty Elves, but Beldir felt he had been right about his sister.  She was certainly worthy of their notice.  Aegnor's attention proved as much, and her resolute avoidance made it clear to him that she was equally engaged.

Beldir considered if he might need to involve himself in some manner -- something more than the friendly big brother chat where he threatened the Elf's manhood should he hurt his sister.  He might actually have to help the pair along, which seemed contrary to his big-brother status.

He was so occupied with these thoughts and with watching the progression of looking and not-looking between his sister and Aegnor that he was surprised when Beldis began collecting plates to clean up the meal.

Scrambling to help, Beldir was stopped with a wag of his sister's finger.  "You're going to the show Lord Finrod around, remember?  I can manage here on my own for one meal."

"I can help," Aegnor said quickly.  Beldis paused at that, looking faintly troubled.  But the Elf had already gathered up his plate and his brother's, gracefully rising to follow.  As Beldis had missed the opportunity to object, she inclined her head in thanks and wordlessly led the Elf towards the kitchen.

"I should at least show you your room," Beldir said, rubbing the back of his neck nervously.  His eyes darted towards Finrod, an anxious knot beginning to twist in his stomach at the thought of being once again alone with the Elf.  He wasn't sure if he was excited or terrified.  It might be both.

"There's no need.  We are not in a great hurry," Maglor assured him.  "The contemplation of your garden is rest enough for us."

They were stacking plates together for Aegnor's return, seemingly happy to be on their own.  That left Finrod, who was now standing at the edge of the patio.

"I am at your command," he murmured, bowing over the hand at his heart.  It was likely supposed to be lighthearted but when his head came up from the bow and his eyes locked with Beldir, the guardsman found it very hard to breathe.

It took him a long moment and several dry-swallows before he managed a rather hoarse, "What did you wish to see?"

He fell into step beside the Elf, leading him around the corner and out into the street.

Finrod turned his neck to look towards Erebor.  "The mountain is a Dwarven kingdom, correct?  Do they have close ties here or are they reclusive?  I should think at this festival at least there would be representatives."

"You want to meet Dwarves?  I thought Elves didn't like Dwarves."

Finrod laughed.  "Some do not; that is true.  Some even have cause for their dislike, I will grant them that.  But that was never in my experience."

"Well, there are usually Dwarves about here.  They have stalls near the smithies.  Did you wish to go there?" Beldir asked, pausing at the corner of the street.

"If you do not mind."

Gesturing with his arm, Beldir directed the Elf to the right path.  It was still relatively quiet in their neighborhood, though Finrod might disagree.  Many more people were out and about now, nodding to Beldir as they passed.

"How long has your family settled these parts?" Finrod inquired politely.

Beldir shrugged.  "As long as the city's been here, I guess.  Beldis could tell you more.  She actually paid attention to that kind of stuff.  I never felt it was very useful."

"There is no record of your ancestors moving to the city then?" Finrod's words were polite but there was something in his tone that made Beldir frown at him -- as if the answer were very important.

"No, I don't think so.  I know our family's well established.  Our cousins are endlessly proud of being among the founding families.  That's why we don't get on very well.  They think our father married down when he married our mum, though her family's been here just as long.  Absolutely infuriates my sister.  I suppose Elves don't have that kind of thing though?"

Beldir's tone was hesitant, as he wasn't sure if it was okay to ask questions of the Elf or not.  He'd never been as foolish over Elves as young maids tended to be, but he admitted to some curiosity.  This was the first chance he'd had to speak to an Elf in any depth.  Thranduil's folk rarely strayed further than Lake-town and kept mostly to themselves if they did venture to Dale.  Their trips to Dale were often official in nature.  It was rare to find an Elf traveling under his own auspices.

Finrod was thoughtful in his reply.  "I should like to say there is not but that would be dishonest.  On the whole though, we value happiness in marriage over anything else.  Petty disputes rarely last, not if there is honest love between parties.  At least, that's the way it should be."

Finrod frowned then, looking faintly troubled.  It was too much like Beldis of late that Beldir was disquieted to see it and anxious to replace it with pretty much anything else.  Before he could think of what to say though, Finrod seemed to remember himself.  He offered Beldir a strained smile, asking, "And being a guard?  Is that a source of family conflict too?"

"Nah, the guard is respectable enough.  It's something of a family business.  My dad and granddad were both Captains.  I know Beldis hopes I'll follow their footsteps but it's a bit of a political position and I'm not really interested."

"Do you enjoy it though?"

Beldir shrugged again.  "Sure.  The pay's decent.  If I had a wife and a passel of kids, things would be pretty tight, but just me and Beldis?  No, it's a good occupation.  The others guards are decent folk.  It keeps me busy.  I'm not sure what else I'd be good at."

He'd never given it much thought.  He was just happy to find something he could do that was stable.  He didn't have any higher hopes than that.

"I'm sure you would be good at anything you tried," Finrod said quietly.  It was a common compliment, only more obvious in its affectation for the fact Finrod did not know him at all.  And yet . . . there was something in the way Finrod said it, the surety in his voice that made Beldir wonder.

Whether he had the courage to pursue the matter or not would remain a subject of speculation as they finally reached the Dwarven stalls.  There were actual stores in this part of the city, but because of the festival, the stores were closed and brightly colored booths were erected in front of them.  Many of the vendors took the opportunity to not only showcase their best wares in the hopes of finding buyers but also to announce to the other vendors what the next season might bring.  There were just as many professional craftsmen wandering along the aisles as there were buyers.

"What did you have in mind?  I know a few craftsmen if you'd like an introduction, although I warn you you're unlikely to receive a warm reception," Beldir said.  He noticed they were garnering their fair share of looks.  Many of the Dwarves offered a scowl when they saw the Elf.  There was a great deal of curiosity directed their way, as was to be expected.  But there were also speculative looks that made Beldir uneasy and protective of his companion.

Finrod took no notice of any of this.  He smiled politely at Beldir's offer, saying, "Thank you but I think I shall be fine.  I am well versed in Dwarves."  He quirked his lips, suggesting some kind of amusing history.  His gaze was sharp though as they passed each stall.  Beldir had seen that look among the really good merchants with the most discerning eye.  Clearly Finrod was looking for something in particular, and Beldir decided he was unnecessary.  He followed along anyway, curious to see what would happen.

Finrod walked along the entire row of stalls until he reached the last one.  The stall was not nearly so polished, abutting straight against the largest smithy.  Beldir could see Dwarves at work at the fires behind the booth.  Beyond this shop began the more industrial part of the city where few people had any business, especially during the festival.

To Beldir's surprise, Finrod stopped at this shop.  He approached the booth's counter and politely hailed the smiths.  The Dwarves paused what they were doing, sharing wary looks amongst themselves until the oldest one reluctantly stepped forward.

"Aye, what can I do for you?"

To Beldir's immense surprise, Finrod did not answer in Common or even Elvish.  Rather, his response sounded very much like Dwarvish, though more fair than Beldir had ever heard it spoken.  From the reaction of the Dwarves, they were just as surprised as Beldir.

Beldir considered warning Finrod off, knowing Dwarves could be very prickly about their own language.  And indeed, there was thunder in the old Dwarf's eyes initially.  But there was also a fair bit of wonder too, especially in the younger Dwarves watching the scene.  Finrod spoke confidently and whatever he said calmed the anger in the old Dwarf, whose expression quickly turned shrewd and businesslike.

Knowing nothing of Dwarvish -- as no one did as far as Beldir knew before Finrod proved him wrong -- Beldir had no idea what was being said.  He could only watch the expressions of the Dwarves and the Elf.  Finrod's expression remained polite, though he occasionally flashed a genuinely kind smile that seemed even Dwarves were not immune to.  But it seemed to be his hair that the Dwarves really couldn't stop staring at.  Even the old Dwarf, who was too self-possessed to allow a slip in restraint, couldn't seem to keep his eyes from wandering to the brilliant golden strands that danced in the gentle breeze.  Beldir found this far less alarming than the covetous stares thrown their way earlier.

The Dwarf and Elf did nothing but talk for several minutes, until Finrod reached into a pocket and drew out a beautiful jeweled dagger.  It was very small, something to hide in a boot perhaps, but it was absolutely exquisite.  Beldir knew nothing of fine craftsmanship but he wasn't surprised at the look of reverence that came across the old Dwarf's eyes.  Such a work of art was worthy of appreciation.

Finrod's tone was demure as he continued to speak.  Beldir wasn't sure if the old Dwarf even registered what he was saying.  His complete attention was on the knife in the Elf's delicate-looking hands.  But when Finrod shoved the sheathed dagger in the Dwarf's direction, he definitely got attention.  The Dwarf grunted a series of sentences, calling for his assistants.  One of them brought a piece of paper and a quill, leaving Finrod and the old Dwarf to haggle over the contract.

Beldir hadn't seen too many contracts being made in his time, so he watched the back and forth with interest.  He was watching closely so he saw the surprise that crossed the old Dwarf's face when the contract negotiations began.  The Dwarf suggested something else and his eyebrows climbed a little higher at whatever the Elf's response was.

From there, it clearly got serious.  Finrod remained placidly calm through the whole thing.  It was very difficult to read anything from him.  Beldir got a better sense of how the negotiations were going from the Dwarf, who was as inscrutable a fellow as any Dwarf Beldir had ever seen.

At one point, the old Dwarf barked something at his assistants, who jumped into action.  They disappeared into the shop.  When they returned, they were both holding glass boxes filled with the most beautiful jewelry Beldir had ever seen in his life.  Even the Royal delegation from Erebor, bejeweled as they were in wondrous necklaces and belts and earrings, had never worn anything as exquisite as this, at least not in Dale.

The old Dwarf looked around the area, finally deigning to notice Beldir and giving him a disapproving look.  With such a bounty, it was no wonder he would be wary.  Beldir had no idea there was such a treasure in the city.  As a guard, he could appreciate not wanting to let that secret out.  He wondered at Finrod's good luck to find such a treasure.  Surely, he couldn't have known, could he?

For all Beldir's awe, Finrod merely eyed the jewelry with a critical eye.  He asked several sharp questions, and the Dwarf answered in kind.  They went back and forth for awhile with the Dwarf pointing to one or another of the precious jewelry.  At one point, Finrod said something that had all the Dwarves turn their attention on Beldir.  He was surprised at their sudden scrutiny, feeling very much like a horse for sale.  It lasted only a minute before the old Dwarf said something back to Finrod and again returned to their haggling.

It all ended rather abruptly.  Finrod finally pointed to one of the necklaces and slipped the dagger back into his pocket.  The Dwarf barked a few orders to the assistant that had been furiously writing while he and Finrod had been talking.  The assistant finished up quickly and the Dwarf took the contract from his hand.  He looked it over quickly before signing and offering it to Finrod.  The Elf read it over a little more slowly, asking just one question, before he too signed.

The two then shook hands, nodded to each other, and then turned away, apparently utterly disinterested in each other.  Finrod took several steps away before he noticed Beldir had not followed.

"I am finished," he said, rather pointlessly since that much was obvious.  He did offer a warm smile towards Beldir when the guardsman finally caught up to him.

"What was that?  I've never seen anything like that.  You know their language?  I didn't think they let anyone who wasn't a Dwarf know their language."

Finrod laughed.  "A rare few, it is true.  I had the honor of learning it back in the First Age.  They were a little more forthcoming then."

Beldir needed a moment to absorb that.  Intellectually he was aware that Elves did not die.  But, they seemed so youthful it was hard to think of them like that.  Sans beard or age lines, Finrod appeared no more than a particularly beautiful young man.  When Finrod chanced to catch his eyes though, Beldir saw in them a deep well of age.  There was such wisdom, such knowing in those blue eyes that Beldir could not long meet his gaze.

He had to put the whole notion away or he wouldn't know how to speak to the Elf at all.

"And why did they look at me then?  What were you talking about?" Beldir asked, turning his head forward to navigate the increasing crowd.

"They were looking at your eyes."

Beldir missed a step, almost stumbling.  "My eyes?"

Finrod nodded nonchalantly.  "The color at least."

"Why should they need that?"

Finrod flashed a new kind of smile, his eyes alight with mischief.  It made him look even younger, the cares he'd worn ere now starkly evident now that they were gone.  "I noticed you and your sister are very alike.  It should give the Mastersmith some indication of the color he should match."

". . . the color he should match?" Beldir parroted dumbly.  It only took him a moment to put all the pieces together -- to think of the beautiful jewelry he'd seen and the idea that anyone should need to match the color of his sister's eyes.  "You're going to give Beldis one of those?"

Beldir knew he must look like a landed fish but he couldn't find it in himself to care.  Just one of the tiniest gems he'd seen would cost more than all of the Lord of Dale's wealth.  The idea that his sister should merit a whole necklace or bracelet or ring was just staggering.

"Of course.  I know the selection was meager, but that is to be expected with such short notice.  The Mastersmith assures me they can match my specifications but we shall see."  Finrod shrugged as if it was of no matter.

Beldir's mind went blank on him, unable to comprehend the idea that Finrod did not think those beautiful, intricate works of art were good enough for Beldis.  He made it seem as if they were no more than children's baubles.

"Do you think she would dislike such a gift?" Finrod asked, as if the idea had just struck him.

Beldir didn't even think when he responded. "Absolutely."

At that, Finrod finally paused to give his full attention to his companion.  "She doesn't like jewelry?"

"Oh, she adores jewelry.  But she's never going to accept something that beautiful for herself.  I . . . I honestly can't imagine what's she's going to do if you give her one of those pieces.  She might have a heart attack or beat me black and blue."

"You?" Finrod said, clearly amused.  He had been mildly alarmed at Beldir's reaction but obviously not any more.

"She'll say I should've stopped you.  Perhaps I should," Beldir said, awed by the magnitude of this gesture.

Finrod laughed.  "Don't worry.  I promise I'll protect you."

His smile was genuine, the sparkle in his eyes warm.  A whole bunch of butterflies began flapping in earnest in Beldir's stomach.  He knew he should protest a little harder about the jewelry but he found his breath stolen away and nothing came out.

As happened at this time of year, the multitude of sights soon took their attention.  Finrod asked dozens of questions about the festival and Dale and Beldir himself.  Beldir didn't think he'd ever talked so much about himself in his whole life.  He wasn't sure if such interest was particular or not, as everyone in Dale already knew him and his sister so he'd never had a comparable experience, but there was a tiny little part of him that was basking in the attention.  It was getting harder and harder to keep up the wall around his heart, and he had to keep reminding himself that the Elf couldn't possibly be as interested in him as he was the Elf.

Beldir took Finrod to see the competitions.  Horse racing and archery contests were later in the afternoon, and while they waited for those, the two entertained themselves watching the pie eating contests.  For all his apparent wealth and nobility, Finrod was not too great to join in.  He seemed to delight in particular in the ugly hat competition that the older women put on, entertained by all the creative designs and inventive uses of strange materials.

Everywhere they went, he drew attention.  Beldir felt a little jealous but his feelings were mollified when Finrod so obviously favored his company.  The Elf was wonderfully courteous, patiently answering the many questions that were asked of him or listening politely to the old men's customary complaints or giving the appropriate compliments to the married women or playing happily with the children who demanded his attention or ever so skillfully rebuffing the attentions of all the young maidens.  He'd obviously had much practice in his life but there was such ease to it all that Beldir had to believe him a natural to begin with.

Beldir was content to watch as Finrod charmed everyone who crossed his path, even the dourest of Dwarves.  Clearly he was watching Elf-magic at work.

Finrod bought a small lunch for the two of them to share as they found a good perch to watch the horse sprints.  When the races were exhausted for the day, Beldir took Finrod down to the wide fields where sports were being held.  Finrod was polite about everything but Beldir definitely felt there was a keener interest in the display of swordplay presented in mock battles than anything else.  Still, Finrod joined Beldir in watching the archery matches, and cheered on Beldir's friends with him.

He seemed happy enough, though, when Beldir finally suggested they return home.  The afternoon had worn on, and Beldir was surprised to realize how late it was and that he'd spent all day so happily in the company of his new friend.

"I feel as if I've done this before," Beldir said as they wandered their way back to his home.

When he saw the questioning look Finrod threw his way, Beldir flushed, realizing that he had once again spoken before thinking.  "I mean this all seems very familiar to me."

That wasn't exactly what he meant to say but he didn't think it all that remarkable either.  But Finrod physically paused in the middle of the street, the strangest expression on his face and his skin going very pale.  It alarmed Beldir.

"You . . . what?"

Beldir didn't understand what had distressed the Elf but that didn't stop him from quickly backtracking.  "I'm sorry.  I know I'm being silly.  I didn't mean that."

"What did you mean?" Finrod asked quietly.  He was watching Beldir very closely, which was terribly difficult to endure.

"I just . . . today . . . it just seemed easy, like we'd done it many times before.  It's like when you meet someone who really gets you -- it just seems like you've known them forever.  Or maybe that was just me."

Beldir gave Finrod a nervous smile.  Finrod did not return the smile.  There was something shadowed in his eyes as he regarded Beldir for what seemed like a very long time.  The air felt heavy around them, and Beldir desperately searched for something to say to undo his blunder.

"No, I understand," Finrod finally murmured.  "I felt it too."

Beldir had no idea if Finrod was telling him the truth or not, but at this point, he was willing to be placated.  That meant he hadn't offended his new friend.  At least Beldir knew not to push the issue.

"Yeah . . . so what did you think of our little festival?"

There was a noticeable pause before Finrod answered.  "I enjoyed myself today." His voice was quiet, his words carefully stressed with a meaning Beldir could not grasp.

It made Beldir uneasy, and he wished they were closer to his home.  As it was, they had only just reentered the gates of the city and had the crowds to contend with.  That was fine with Beldir, as it gave him something to concentrate on and a reason for his silence.

But the crowds remained congregated in the public areas, and once they reached the edge of the residential neighborhoods, the number of people about dropped off precipitously.

It was then that Beldir really felt the awkward silence.  Apparently Finrod felt it too for they had not gone a block before his companion stopped.  He looked around himself, snorting ruefully when he saw the same courtyard they had met in just a few yards away.  He motioned Beldir to follow, and though uneasy, Beldir obliged.

The Elf did not sit on the bench so Beldir did not either.  He wasn't quite sure what to do with himself, trying to find a place to stand and look casual as Finrod approached the largest of the trees in the overgrown courtyard.  Beldir watched as Finrod reached out toward the tree but then hesitate before actually touching.  There was something almost reverent in the Elf's actions, and Beldir felt he was intruding.

"I am very old, Beldir.  So old, I do not think you could truly understand it," Finrod said quietly.  Beldir hesitated only a moment before moving a little closer so he could better hear.

"I was born in Valinor in the time of the Two Trees.  Perhaps it seems to you that nothing is so permanent or steadfast as the sun in the sky, but my memory stretches back to well before the very first sunrise.  I remember what it was like to live in darkness with only the stars to light the way."

He paused, resting his head against the tree's bark.  For his part, Beldir was stunned by this admission.  He did not know much of Elves and their history, not finding it particularly relevant to his everyday life.  And when he did learn something of Elves, he had never thought overmuch about what he'd learned really meant.  He knew Elves were immortal and some were very old.  He had some recollection of learning the origin of the sun and moon as a boy but he had never given it much thought before.  He had never put two and two together to realize that the Elves were older than the sun in the sky.  He had never met anyone who could actually claim that distinction.

But looking now at Finrod as he leaned wearily against the tree as if it was the only thing holding him up, Beldir could believe what Finrod said.

"I remember when Men were young and new to Elves.  I remember when they . . . fought at our side during the great battles of the First Age.  I remember it as one who lived it, and it is difficult sometimes for me to remember that what I have lived is legend to you -- stories told to frighten and entertain children during the long winters.  I am merely a story -- a name -- and like all stories, the immediacy of terror and love and danger and life has bleached away with time and distance.  I am a walking ghost in these lands."

The last was said very softly, as one speaks to oneself.  Finrod finally lifted his head to look up at the tree, and he contemplated it for several long minutes.  Beldir could only watch, not sure what was going on or what was needed from him.  He felt helpless.

Finrod eventually sighed and turned to look at him.  There was something very sad in his suddenly so very ancient eyes.

"I remember what it is to die, to feel my body break and my heart slow.  I remember my last breath.  I suppose there are not many who can claim that."

"Wait, you died?" Beldir asked, horrified.  The very idea sent a chill through his veins so fast he was dizzy with it.  A sudden fierce urge to surge forward, grab the Elf by the shoulders, and breathe his breath -- feel his life -- was so strong, Beldir actually swayed forward with it.  Had he been less shocked by the very idea, he surely would have followed through on the impulse.

Nodding gravely, Finrod said, "Yes, I died.  I was killed a long time ago.  But as is the fate of Elves, that was not the end of my story.  For as I had a last breath, I had a second first breath too.  I was returned to my parents and raised again to adulthood.  I was given a second chance."

"A second chance to do what?" Beldir asked quietly.  He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer, the ice in his vein sliding around in fear.

Finrod shrugged elegantly.  "That has yet to be seen.  Only the Valar in their wisdom could say."

He fell silent again, and after awhile it seemed he had no more to say.

Beldir swallowed a few times, rubbing sweating palms on his slacks.  "Why are you telling me this?"

Finrod had turned his attention to the flowers growing at the base of the tree, though Beldir doubted he was actually seeing them.  No, his sight had quite obviously turned inward.  But at his words, Finrod again returned his attention to the guardsman.  He glided to Beldir's side, offering a sad but sweet smile.

"Because you deserved to know."

Beldir frowned.  "Why?"

He found himself suddenly very close to the Elf, almost close enough to get his wish and feel the warmth of breath upon his face.  It was a little disconcerting to be so close.  Beldir's eyes traveled the planes of Finrod's face, trying to burn every little feature into his memory for when the Elf finally left.

Finrod seemed to be looking at him in the same manner, and the silence stretched on without either noticing.  It was Finrod who finally retreated, but not before Beldir saw something sad and lost in his expression.  Beldir was sorely tested not to reach out and gather the Elf into his embrace and comfort him.

"You just do," was the only answer Finrod provided.  He did not wait for a response, slipping past Beldir and back into the main street.  He waited there until Beldir collected himself and joined him.  Then the two fell into slow steps walking the path back to Beldir's home.

Beldir's mind was a whirl with thoughts.  He felt he had just been given some great key to unlock a mystery but he had no idea where the door to be opened lay.  There was something at the edge of his consciousness fighting to be acknowledged but no matter how he tried, it remained stubbornly out of reach.

In the end, he had to shake the feeling away.  He knew Beldis would sniff it out immediately and for some reason, the idea of his sister knowing felt like the worst possible idea ever.

So Beldir glanced at the Elf beside him, focusing on the light making a halo of his hair.

"What will you do?" he asked, again without thinking.  He didn't feel quite so bad about it this time around though.  Finrod gave him a questioning look, so he clarified, "Here.  What are your plans here?"

Rubbing his chin in thought, Finrod took a moment to consider the question.  "I don't suppose we have any plans.  I should like . . . that is, if you and your sister have no objections, I should like to stay awhile."

Finrod gave Beldir a nervous, hopeful look.  Apparently he too was unsure of where he stood in this new friendship.

"Of course.  I shouldn't think that would be a problem.  You and your friends can stay as long as you like.  Beldis will like the company, even if she says differently.  I can't promise to be as good a host come tomorrow though.  I will have to go back to work."

"Naturally," Finrod said quickly.  "We would not desire to put you out.  We can pay our way -- indeed, I insist we do -- and we don't mind finding our own entertainment.  You needn't go to any trouble on our account.  I should be embarrassed if you did."

Beldir nodded but said nothing.

Just then, they turned the corner and Beldir's home came into view.  It looked as quaint and lovely as ever and yet for one moment, Beldir felt as if he was looking at something entirely alien to him -- somewhere he'd seen in a half-forgotten dream and not the place he had lived his entire life.  The impression unsettled him, bringing with it the strange conversation from mere minutes ago in the courtyard.

He looked again at Finrod and felt this irresistible force.  Finrod reached out, grabbing the gate to open it, but Beldir ever so gently placed his own hand on top of the Elf's pale one, stopping him.

Startling, Finrod looked at him with questioning eyes.  Beldir hardly knew what he was doing himself and his words seemed to come from someone else.

"Why are you in Dale, Finrod?"

The Elf searched his eyes, the hand in Beldir's grasp trembled slightly and Beldir caressed it without noticing.  "I am looking for something," Finrod finally volunteered softly.

"And have you found it?" Beldir was standing so close to the Elf now that he could feel the heat radiating from his body.  He hadn't thought himself cold but against this heat, it felt as if he'd lived his whole life half frozen and half asleep.

Finrod continued to search his eyes, and he even shifted closer, bringing more of that delicious heat with him.  Eventually, he said, "We shall see," and finally slipped through the gate.

Beldir was left alone, feeling suddenly cold and winded and utterly alien in his own skin.

Chapter Text

There was a duel sensation at the edge of his consciousness.  Almost all of his attention was on the fight to save his life and that of his men and to reach the far-off gold, but there was a part of him that was aware of the growing cold.  The muck he struggled through was freezing, and his legs were cold.  The hellfires were finally spending their last, far in the distance, and the heat of the sun was a distant memory.  He had only the warmth of his exertion left him, but the wind was quickly cooling the sweat on his skin, leaving him chilled.

As if his body didn't have enough to deal with, he began to shiver.  He had no reserves for it but there was nothing he could do but shrug away the sensation and keep fighting.

Enemies flung themselves at him with wild abandon.  As far as he could tell, their leaders were gone -- killed or too distant perhaps -- but their still considerable size gave them confidence.  Like insects, they sought to overwhelm with sheer numbers.  There was very little left of strategy at this point.  His enemy was tiring too, and he was thankful of that small mercy at least.

His men remained strong though.  They were all tired and hurt and cold but they remained with him like a solid wall of stone.  For every swipe he missed or vulnerability in his defenses he could not cover, one of his brothers-in-arms was there to make the blow or raise a shield for him.  He was happy to do the same in his turn, never more grateful for the men who stood beside him than now.

As a unit they fought on, gaining ground little by little.  It was a steady progression.  At the end, he did not even notice that they had reached their destination.  The fighting grew very heavy and desperate so that he could concentrate only on that.

It all happened very abruptly.  The enemy before him refused to fall, and he was hard-pressed by it for a minute.  It was distressingly undecided until suddenly it wasn't.  His spear found purchase, and he almost lost his balance in the abruptness of it.  He stumbled forward, almost falling into another warrior.

That was the moment, etched forever into his very soul.  He looked up and saw his flash of gold, a wreath of hair around a familiar face.  He saw it now.  He could see his king standing yet unbroken for all that there were rents in his wondrous silver armor, and his cape was too muddy and torn to see the color clearly, and there was vibrant red blood staining his skin in small patches.  The Elf looked remarkably healthy and strong and alive, and all the weariness of before was gone in an instant.

He'd been saved from falling by the steadying hand of his king.  He could feel the warmth of that hand on his chilled skin even now, as if he'd been branded in that moment.  If he had, it was a scar he would gladly bear for the rest of his life.

There was no time to pause though.  An arrow whistled by, and he acted without thinking.  He grabbed his king, pulling the Elf against him and using his own body as a shield.  Other arrows whistled close but none found a mark.

It should have gone differently from there.  He should have pulled back and returned to the fray, his king fighting beside him.  His men should have formed a wall of spears around them and inch by bloody inch, they would have brought their king to safety, rejoining the Elven lines that surged to meet them.

This time, it didn't happen like that.  He had the Elf pressed against him, sheltered and safe if only for a moment.  He did not luxuriate in the feel of his king being so warm and solid and whole but there was a part of him that was aware of this.  There was a part of him that wanted to hold on forever -- to always keep his king in his arms where he would be safe.

It wasn't to be though.  His king was pressed beside him and then suddenly wasn't.  He looked up to see his Elf being snatched from his very arms and dragged away.  Panic choked him but it felt suddenly like he couldn't move at all.  He couldn't even speak.

He tried.  Desperately he fought to pick up his spear and tear after his king.  But his weapon was suddenly too heavy; his limbs were too weary and refused to cooperate.  Even his lips refused to form the scream desperate to burst from his chest -- his king's name remained stubbornly locked within his lungs.

He could only stare helplessly as his king was torn from him.  The Elf was yelling, calling for help, calling for him as the gates of Angband suddenly loomed up behind them.  One name was said over and over again, as his king was dragged through the gates.  When they slammed shut, there was only an echo lingering behind like an accusation.

"Barahir!"

The echo followed Beldir into the waking world.  Waking abruptly was not uncommon to him but he had never been as shaken as he was today.  The name faded from him, only half-remembered.  It was not nearly so important as the fact that Beldir had finally found the flash of gold -- the one it seemed he'd spent his entire life chasing -- and it was wearing Finrod's face.  The image of Finrod being dragged away from him was so chilling that Beldir fought for breath.

Throwing off his blankets, he jumped out of bed and all but dashed out of his room.  It was early yet.  The house seemed very quiet and still, reminding Beldir to be quiet.  He had no wish to wake Finrod's companions.  Standing before their closed door, he wondered what it was he did wish.

He raised his hand to knock but paused, feeling foolish and on edge.  The panic of the nightmare still held him fast and yet he was not a child to forget all propriety just to appease an unpleasant dream.  More importantly, it was the height of embarrassment.  He was sure the high Elves who had spent the last two weeks in his house would be very kind about it but they could not be very happy to have their rest disturbed.

Still feeling the urge to break open the door and reassure himself that Finrod was well, Beldir whirled around and lurched to the stairs.  He was halfway down before he could stop to think.  He paused at the last step, leaning his head against the wall.  His heart was hammering in his chest as if he'd just enacted the battle in his dreams instead of rushing about the house like a madman.

No matter how he scolded himself for his silliness, he could not persuade himself to calm.  Lost inside himself, he was only dimly aware of the soft strains of music emanating from the front parlor right beside the stairwell or the fact that the music stopped as soon as he crashed down the stairs.

"Beldir?  Is aught alright?"

His head snapping up in surprise, Beldir was startled to find Finrod next to him, looking very concerned.  Having the object of his thoughts so suddenly before him sent Beldir reeling.  He wasn't even aware of the rather awkward circumstances he found himself -- leaning like an invalid against the wall, skin pale in color, still in his nightshirt -- his eyes were only for the Elf before him.

He found he could breathe again.  His heart skipped a beat upon seeing Finrod -- Beldir maintained it was only in surprise, nothing else -- but then settled into a more regular pattern.  Finrod was here, safe.  There were no armies of darkness waiting to drag him to torment and death.  It hadn't happened.  His hair was shining gold and his skin had a healthy glow.  There was no sign of battle weariness or injury.  Now that Beldir could see the Elf, he could finally believe the truth.

It had been just a dream.

"Beldir?" Finrod asked again, hand reaching out to offer assistance.  Beldir discreetly dodged the seeking touch, fearful of betraying himself should they come in contact.

"I'm fine.  I just . . . I'm fine."

Finrod's hand remained suspended for a moment before finally falling to his side.  It was then that Beldir noted that the Elf's other hand was holding a delicate golden harp.  He thought it might be the one Maglor had used the last few nights to entertain them but Beldir couldn't be sure.

"You do not look fine." Finrod's gaze was shrewd, obviously searching for the cause of Beldir's aberrant behavior.

Beldir shook his head to clear away the cobwebs and focus.  Finally he was aware of his appearance and he straightened in a vain attempt to appear more together.  "It is nothing.  Just a bad dream."

"Do you wish to talk about it?"

"No!" Beldir said emphatically, shuddering at the thought.  Seeing the concern in Finrod's eyes increase, Beldir quickly got a hold of himself.  "No, I am fine.  Thank you."

Finrod did not look convinced but he did not press either.  He silently studied Beldir for a moment, and Beldir did his best not to wilt under the too perceptive gaze.  It brought to mind the rumors he'd heard that Elves could read Men's thoughts.  Beldir had never given that idea much credence before, but now having extended experience with Elves, he could well believe it.  He was reasonably sure, though, that Finrod was too polite to go poking about without permission.

At least he hoped that was the case.

"Well, as you like.  I was just practicing a new song.  Perhaps you would like to hear it," Finrod offered.  His purpose was clear but Beldir found he didn't mind.  A well meaning distraction sounded lovely right now, especially with the added benefit of being in Finrod's presence where Beldir could take as much time as he liked reassuring himself that all was well.

He wasted a moment worrying about the state of himself but then just as quickly shrugged it off, not wanting to miss the opportunity of having Finrod all to himself.  The Elf retreated back into the parlor and claimed a place by the fireplace.  Settling in a comfortable old chair opposite him, Beldir watched the Elf position the harp upon his lap.  He strummed a few notes -- tuning or pondering his selection of music perhaps -- before beginning in earnest.

In deference to the early hour, his selection was by necessity a quiet one.  That did not lessen its beauty.  The piece started out simply with only the harp, and that alone was quite lovely.

It seemed very much like the tunes Maglor had been favoring them with.  Beldir had found them to be quite beautiful.  He knew only bawdy drinking songs himself, and perhaps a few childhood melodies were still rattling around in the dustiest recesses of his brain.  He knew nothing of high art or epic poetry.  Beldis had informed him that Maglor was exceptionally talented but Beldir could only attest that he liked the music and it seemed well done.

Finrod seemed the same at first.  When he added his voice to counter the harp, it was Elven-fair, light and high and exceptionally fine as Maglor's had been.  For anyone else who was as unschooled in music as Beldir, they might have sounded very similar.

But Beldir thought Finrod infinitely superior.  There was something hypnotic about Finrod's singing, and though Beldir was entranced by the dancing of Finrod's long fingers across the strings, his eyes closed as if the music bid them shut.

For a stanza, he let the music take hold of him without any thought.  Even though he did not understand the words, he felt Finrod's song wrap around him like a warm blanket after a bath, constricting him to remain in one place and yet comforting him at the same time.

As the music unfolded so too did images begin to unfold in his mind.  At first they were faint impressions of bark and leaves, of sunlight and starlight, of gold and marble.  But the images began to order themselves so that he was given a glimpse of a forest so vast and wondrous that no words could fully describe its majesty.  He saw an underground kingdom grander than Erebor in every measure.  He saw two great trees glowing from within with complimentary light, the brilliance of their glow slowly shifting from one to the other.

He saw kings and queens and maidens more fair than any yet living.  He saw beings of such awesome might and terrible beauty that he could scarce hold their image in his head.  He saw a shining city on a hill and great vats of stars.  He saw a mighty king with a crown upon his head on a shining white horse, charging towards a darkness that looked far too similar to that which he'd seen in his dream.

He saw the sea and he saw three glowing jewels, and he could not decide which was more beautiful.

Tears pricked at his eyes, unaccustomed as he was to anything so vast and so magnificent.  His eyes opened reflexively.  Finrod had his own eyes closed, a slight frown of concentration marring his brow.  He seemed lost in his own music, but perhaps he sensed Beldir's gaze because he opened his eyes, locking them with Beldir.

His music faltered and then stopped but Finrod did not seem to notice.  Neither did Beldir.  His attention was completely on the crystal blue of the Elf's eyes, bright like a summer's day.  He felt he could become lost in those eyes and gladly so.  Not for the first time, he felt a pull when their gazes met -- a feeling deep in his gut of rightness, urging him to some action he did not understand.

The sounds of footsteps on the stairwell startled them both, and Beldir's gaze quickly darted to the window.  He shook his head ruefully, knowing now what a proper idiot he was.  Dawn was not too far off; how long had be been sitting here staring like a love-struck fool?

He was preparing some remark -- doubtless a stuttered string of nonsense that it was just as well to be interrupted -- when the door opened and his sister poked her head in.

"Ah, I thought I heard music."

"I hope I did not wake you," Finrod said.

Beldis smiled.  "No, not at all.  It's quite lovely to wake up to."  When her eyes shifted from him to Beldir, her smile slipped.  "Goodness, Beldir, what a state you're in!  Are you ill?"

Well, if Beldir wasn't self-conscious about his appearance before, he certainly was now.  His eyes darted to Finrod, finding himself the object of interest, and flushed.

"No, no, I am fine.  I just needed . . ."

"He could not sleep, and I offered to entertain him," Finrod cut in smoothly when Beldir faltered.

Beldis obviously suspected some kind of tomfoolery but must have decided it wasn't worth exploring.  "Well, you best be getting ready.  Your shift will start soon and you'll be wanting breakfast."

Grateful for the excuse to leave with some dignity intact, Beldir nodded his thanks to Finrod and then made a hasty retreat.

It wasn't until he was again safely behind his bedroom door that he allowed himself to relax.  He sagged against the door, the sound of Finrod's voice still ringing in his ears.  The images that had been so clear in Finrod's song were faded and blurred now but he could still remember them.  He could remember his dream too, if not the name he'd been called.  It was all too much for a simple man such as himself.

Sighing, Beldir went to his closet to grab his uniform.  While he dressed, he tried to make some sense out of what was happening.  It was true he had been haunted by a war-dream for as long as he could remember.  He was obviously searching for something.  It was not unreasonable that after so many years of unanswered questions his brain would latch onto anything remotely plausible as an answer.

Finrod was exceptionally beautiful, even among the beautiful Elves.  He was talented and charming and genuinely nice.  It was no wonder he had caught Beldir's attention -- he would catch anyone's attention.  And it was no wonder that Beldir's infatuation had only deepened over the last two weeks.  There was much to love about the Elf.

Finrod was everything anyone could be searching for and he was conveniently golden in coloring.  It took no imagination for Beldir's brain to supply his most recent obsession as the answer to his oldest one.  That didn't make it the truth though.  That didn't make it real.

It would be nice to think that what he'd been searching for all along was right in front of him now -- that all his answers were within arm's reach.  But that wasn't the way his life worked.

The dream had reminded him of one thing though -- how much it hurt to lose those he loved and just how terrible a feeling helplessness was.  He remembered watching his parents dying.  He remembered feeling so utterly useless against his sister's grief and fear.  If something ever did come of his feelings for Finrod, could he grow old and die knowing he was leaving what he loved most in this life to live on forever alone?

Beldir shook his head violently, disturbed at the very notion.

Not everything in the dream had been bad though.  He remembered the moment when he'd had Finrod in his arms; he remembered feeling strong and confident and ready to take on anything that tried to take away his king.

His king.

That had a nice ring to it.  It had felt deeply right to have someone to serve, someone to protect.  No one Beldir had ever met in his life so aptly fit the description of what he felt a king should be.  Lord Girion was affable and just; Thrór was generous at times but also iron-fisted and fickle.  They were born leaders and yet they paled compared to Finrod.  He could just imagine Finrod in a magnificent crown of state atop a magnificent steed at the head of a magnificent army.

Beldir sighed at the image, disheartened because he knew he would never see it.  Finrod may well have led nations long ago but the time of grand armies had passed, and it was just as well.  The enemy they had fought was too terrible to contemplate.

Beldir shied away from the thought that Finrod had faced that terror.  While his dream must surely be a figment of his own imagination, that did not mean its contents were entirely fictitious, and he shuddered at the thought that Finrod may very well have fallen into enemy hands.  After all, he had said he'd died.

Disquieted at the turn of his thoughts, Beldir quickly finished his morning rituals and exited his room in search of anything to distract him.

He found Finrod and Beldis in the kitchen.  Finrod had settled himself at the table and out of Beldis' way.  He flashed Beldir a warm smile when he saw him looking more put-together.

"Here you are," Beldis said, pushing his breakfast into his hands and manually directing him to the table so she could continue on her work.

"This is very generous." His sister had prepared a heaping plate of cold meats and cut-up fruits and even a decent scrap of bread left over from the night before as well as the usual boiled egg and bacon.

Hovering over a pot, Beldis threw a smile over her shoulder.  "You came home so late last night, you barely had any dinner.  I'm sure you must be starving."

His stomach took that cue to growl loudly, earning a laugh from Beldis and Finrod.  Beldir flushed but gratefully dug into his meal.  He hadn't thought it after his disturbing dream, but he really was very hungry.

He was distracted by Finrod's presence and hungry enough that he did not notice at first his sister's new acquisition.  He was also still tired and his mind was never the sharpest early in the morning.

So, he was surprised when he saw the necklace and momentarily didn't even remember Finrod haggling for it on his first day in the city.  "When did you get that?"

Beldis whirled around to see what he was talking about.  When she saw him pointing at her throat, she looked down and flushed when she saw what had caught his attention.

"Lord Aegnor gave that to me yesterday.  If you hadn't fallen straight into bed, you would have seen it then," she scolded.  Beldir could tell her rebuke was just an excuse to change the subject, so he paid it no mind.

"Lord Aegnor?" His mind had finally caught up, and he gave Finrod a questioning look.  Finrod winked at him, though his expression was carefully blank when Beldis appeared at Beldir's elbow to refill his glass.

"Yes.  I know it is much too fine but he would not be refused." Her hands fluttered a bit when she was flustered and they did that now, making Beldir realize that she was worried about his reaction.

Beldir smiled warmly.  "It's very beautiful."  And it was, stunningly so.  It was silver in color, perhaps even made of mithril.  There were many tiny stones and three larger ones set in the necklace itself and one rather large green gem hanging from the center.  Beldir could see there was some kind of design -- perhaps a name or a formal heraldic device -- elegantly following the length of silver but he was too far away to make it out.

"Yes, it is that." Beldis' tone was filled with wonder, and Beldir could imagine how she felt.

Their parents had had precious little to leave them when they died, and it had been a struggle for many years.  They had never felt disadvantaged, knowing they were very lucky to have a house as large as this one and steady employment.  But Beldir had always felt bad that he could not give his sister the things he thought she deserved.  He had tried over the years, saving up for a pretty dress or a set of really fine cooking pots -- things that had been extravagant by their standards but nothing compared to the necklace she was currently wearing.

Beldis had always decried any frivolous expenditure if it was on her behalf, but she had always been so delighted by any small gift Beldir had managed to scrape together to give her.  She was always so appreciative that giving her gifts delighted Beldir.  He would never have considered giving her something as fine as the necklace but he was very glad that she should have it.

"Lord Aegnor has insisted that I wear it all day today," Beldis continued, looking faintly anxious as she sought to explain the oddity of wearing something so beautiful while making breakfast.

Beldir smiled at her nervousness.  "If I had such a bauble to gift a girl, I would want to see her wear it too.  You should make a point of visiting our cousins today."

The idea startled Beldis from her worries over the necklace.  She noted Beldir's wicked grin, and her lips twitched despite herself.  "And rub their faces in it?  That would be terribly undignified."

"You really want to do it though, right?"

Beldis rolled her eyes, but said, "Yeah, I kind of do."

Finrod and Beldir laughed, and Beldis shook her head at them.  "Alright, you two.  Do you have enough for breakfast, Beldir?"

"Far more than I should eat certainly," he agreed.

Beldis took a small basket and said, "Watch the bread for me.  I won't be but a minute."  Beldir waved her off, and she ducked out to the garden, likely to get fresh fruit for the Elves' breakfast.

That left Finrod and Beldir alone.  "Lord Aegnor?" Beldir asked, smiling.

"I promised I would protect you," Finrod reminded, also looking amused.  "As you have not spent much time with him, she will not suspect you of having had any opportunity to talk us out of our gift."

Taking another bite to give himself an excuse not to respond right away, Beldir gave the Elf a skeptical look.  He highly doubted that was the only reason Finrod had let his brother give the gift.

"She will wonder when he had the opportunity to purchase the gift.  They have not been more than a half hour out of each other's company." Though he tried for casual, there was a distinct note of wariness in his voice.

Finrod appeared not to hear it, for he only smiled pleasantly.  "She has made no mention of it ere now.  I very much doubt she will.  I do not think it has occurred to her nor is it likely to."

Beldir conceded that was likely true.  She was probably overwhelmed by the gesture; the necklace had taken up her whole focus.  That had not been Beldir's concern though.  He had wondered if Finrod was aware of how much his brother favored Beldis' company.  Finrod had not disputed or seemed surprised by Beldir's assertion that Aegnor was always with Beldis.  Nor did he seem upset at the notion, which Beldir hoped meant he approved.  Certainly, he must know what having Aegnor give such an extravagant gift must look like.  If he had wished to prevent an attachment from forming, he would not have purchased such a gift.

"Speaking of gifts . . ." Finrod said, shifting in his chair to pull something out of his pocket.  Beldir watched him curiously as he put his hand back on the table, his fist leaving whatever he held obscured.  "Hold out your hand."

Wary, Beldir nonetheless did as bid.  Finrod gently placed what he was holding into Beldir's palm but instead of letting Beldir see what it was, the Elf flattened his hand so that the item was caught between them.  Beldir could feel the size and weight of the object, warmed as it was by being in Finrod's pocket.

But his attention was drawn to the intimate holding of hands.  Finrod's palm was cool and soft, his long fingers bending ever so lightly over the side of Beldir's palm.  His own square fingers curled upward on their own accord, gently cradling Finrod's hand.

Beldir gave the Elf a questioning look.  Finrod's expression had softened, his eyes looking old but strangely hopeful.  "I had hoped to give you this yesterday, but you were so tired last night, I did not think it an appropriate time."  He smiled a little self-consciously.  "Do you remember what I said on my first day here?  Just before you took me home after we saw the horse races?"

Beldir remembered the conversation very well, still unsure what to make of it.  He wasn't sure what the Elf was getting at, and was hesitant in his reply.  "About being older than the sun?"

Finrod's smile made it clear that Beldir had missed the mark but perhaps not too widely.  "Yes.  I also said I was born in the time of the Two Trees.  Do you know of them?"

Unbidden, the memory of the song Finrod had sung to him this morning came to him.  He could not picture the two glowing trees clearly but even in a faint memory, they still evoked awe.

"They're where the sun and moon come from, right?" Beldir would not have been able to answer the question two weeks ago, but since the Elves had come to stay with them, he'd been pestering Beldis for everything she could remember from their childhood lessons.  She knew a surprising amount, and in talking, some of his own schooling had come back to him.

"Yes." Finrod smiled again, and Beldir was a little more pleased with himself than was warranted.  "One was golden and one silver, and their light filled Valinor.  It was a great tragedy when they were destroyed, but it turned out it was for the best.  Had their light not been extinguished, these lands would still be in darkness.  I like to remember that whenever things appear at their worst.  Great good may yet come from it."

Beldir wasn't sure if Finrod had something specific in mind, as there always seemed to be something weighing on his heart and a secret knowledge in his eyes that he would like very much for Beldir to discern.  He did not volunteer it and Beldir did not ask.

He had no idea how to respond to Finrod but apparently his answer was not needed.  Finrod gave Beldir's hand a little squeeze before withdrawing and leaving his gift behind.

Beldir was struck dumb.  It was a ring made of two bands, one silver and one gold, that were cleverly designed to represent the Two Trees.  They twisted around the front to hold a beautiful diamond between them.  It sparkled unnaturally, as if some light was held therein.

"The jewel is the last of what Fëanor made before he created the Silmarils themselves, one of the very few to survive Morgoth's onslaught to Formenos," Finrod offered without being prompted.  Beldir gave him an incredulous look.  "Maglor had it; he said it would be good to put it to some use."

Finrod shrugged, though he looked a little chagrinned.  Beldir doubted it was for the obvious reasons but he couldn't think to ask.

"I . . . this is . . . you didn't have to--"

He was stopped when a pale hand gently covered his mouth.  Finrod was smiling again, the warmth of it reaching all the way to his eyes.  "Obviously," he said, "That's why it's called a gift."

Finrod removed his hand, though it seemed his fingers dragged along Beldir's skin in an imitation of a caress.  The amusement leached away; the air growing heavy and warm again.  "I want you to have it," Finrod said simply.

Beldir's breeding demanded he not accept.  This was grander than anything he'd ever seen in his life, let alone actually owned.  To have something that Fëanor himself had made . . .

And yet, when he looked into Finrod's otherworldly eyes, his protests died on his tongue.  How could he refuse this Elf?

When he gave a little nod, Finrod took the ring from him and gently grabbed his hand.  The moment he actually slipped the ring onto Beldir's finger, Beldir felt so very strange.  He felt as if he'd lived this moment before.  He felt as if he was standing on the edge of some great discovery.

Finrod seemed to feel it too, for he looked up to watch Beldir with an intensity in his eyes that made it difficult for Beldir to speak.

He tried, opening his mouth to ask something but his mind had rather inconveniently gone blank and nothing came to it.  A gentle caress against his skin made him aware that Finrod had yet to let go of his hand.  Surely that had to mean something.

In this fey atmosphere, Beldir wasn't sure if he was dreaming or awake.  Finrod's eyes seemed to invite questions, and the strangeness of it all induced Beldir to ask the one thing he had been avoiding.

"Lord Finrod . . . will you be staying?"

Beldir internally winced, as that was asking it much more bluntly than he intended.  Apparently it wasn't the question Finrod had desired, for he looked surprised and finally withdrew his hand.  Beldir missed it immediately.

"Staying?"

Awkward, Beldir nodded.  "You've been here two weeks and . . . well, the festival has been over for days now and I . . . not that we aren't delighted by your company -- we certainly are -- but I wanted to know . . . that is, if you knew what your plans were, I--"

It was just as well Beldis chose that moment to reenter the kitchen, her basket overflowing with berries.

"Aren't you finished?  You should be on your way if you don't want to be late."  Beldir opened his mouth to reply, but his sister quickly continued before he could say a word, "Don't worry about cleaning up.  I can certainly handle that."

There was nothing to be said.  Beldis shooed him away and there was no way to continue his line of inquiry towards Finrod.  It was just as well.  If the beginning was anything to go on, Beldir would have only butchered it terribly.  It was probably best not talked of at all.

Beldir gave Finrod a nervous smile, hoping he hadn't completely ruined everything.  Finrod looked thoughtful but also distracted as Beldis also shooed him out of the room too.

Stumbling out of the kitchen, Beldir almost ran over Aegnor.  "Er, sorry."  Aegnor waved it off, stepping aside to let Beldir and Finrod pass.  He was too wise to attempt entering the kitchen at this early hour, opting to slip into the front parlor instead.

"Beldis is right," Beldir said, pausing by the front door.  "I should get going . . . I'll see you tonight."

Finrod gave him a little smile, though his words were solemn. "I look forward to it."

His words reassured Beldir, though he still felt like a right fool.  He offered one last nervous smile before dashing out the door.

 

 

************

 

 

Finrod watched Beldir disappear around a bend in the street, and he continued to look at that space for a while longer.  Sighing, he finally shut the door.  When he turned, he was startled to find his brother leaning against the opposite wall, apparently watching him.

"Did you need something?" Finrod asked, a little tartly to mask his surprise.

Aegnor did not respond right away.  The fire in his eyes was a glowing ember that was too like their Uncle Fëanor for Finrod's comfort.

Eventually, he said, "It's not an unreasonable thing to ask."

Finrod frowned, suddenly wary.  "What isn't?"

Aegnor gestured with his chin towards the now-closed door.  "If we're staying.  We have been here two weeks, and nothing's been decided.  I for one would like to stay."

"Well, naturally we can stay a little longer--"

"No, Finrod," Aegnor interrupted, reaching out to grab his brother's arm.  "I'm staying.  I don't care about the Valar's restrictions.  I am staying."

"You can't mean that.  We have some time to spend here, yes, but we must set sail before the three years are up.  You might never be allowed to return otherwise."

"Then I will not return."

For a minute, Finrod was struck speechless.  His brother stood straight, a determined jut to his jaw.  Clearly he anticipated the coming storm, and was bracing for it.  Finrod was more than happy to oblige him.

Glancing around quickly, Finrod grabbed his brother's arm and dragged him into the parlor.

"Have you lost your mind?" he hissed.  "The Valar aren't playing games, Aegnor.  You are not so special that they will set aside their rules for you.  We were given a rare opportunity to come to these shores but only because it served a higher purpose.  Maglor's return will help the Elves as a whole and possibly engender lasting peace in Valinor.  Your personal problems do not merit such consideration."

"Don't give me that.  You haven't spent any time trying to convince Maglor to return to Valinor.  Since we got to Dale, your every thought has been filled with Beldir.  I don't think you've said more than ten words to Maglor each day.  Even before that, the call of your heart had all your attention.  You did not speak to Maglor about leaving at all."

"Because speaking would have done no good," Finrod ground out, frustrated that Aegnor couldn't see that.  He was always impatient, favoring the blunt hammer to solve his problems.  Maglor was damaged; he needed a surgeon's touch.  "There is nothing you could say that Maglor does not already know.  He needs to feel safe enough to open up and confront his demons.  Only then will he be able to face the challenge of returning to Valinor.  It was always crucial for him to reconnect with us.  I may have been remiss in my duties to him of late but that has not impeded my plans any.  And none of this in any way changes the fact that you must return with us."

"The Valar cannot command us.  For all the good Maglor's return could yield, he still has the freedom to refuse.  And I have the choice to stay here if I want to, and I do want to.  I have a second chance with my Beloved; I'm not throwing that away."

"We don't even know if it is Andreth and Barahir.  You could be throwing your life away for nothing."

"Now who's refusing to see the truth?  You cannot seriously still doubt it.  I don't know about you, but it is Andreth I have spent the last two weeks with.  She may have a different name but it is the same person.  She has the same turn of phrase, the same fierceness of spirit, the same expressions."

"But she doesn't remember you," Finrod interrupted.  "Neither of them do.  How can you start a relationship bringing a history they do not share?  That isn't fair to them; and frankly it isn't fair to you either.  You are seeing a ghost in a living woman, but eventually the truth will out and then you will be alone on these shores."

"It is Andreth," Aegnor insisted.  "And she will remember in time."

"Aegnor."

"No, it's the truth.  I am not merely seeing what I wish.  There have been many times these last two weeks where I have said something that clearly makes her pause.  She says things and does things that are from our past, and they are increasing with frequency.  She knows me, and soon enough she will remember me too."

"They are only coincidences, Aegnor.  And the longer you are together, the more you will confuse things between this life and the next.  There is nothing for her to remember because She. Cannot. Be. Andreth."

"And you would say the same of Beldir?  Can you really tell me that you have not witnessed one moment where you could see the truth in his eyes struggling to find daylight?" Aegnor demanded

Unbidden, Finrod was reminded of his first day in Dale when Beldir had mentioned how familiar everything was.  And he could still feel Beldir's hand curled around his own, the ring a heavy weight between them.

He shook his head.  "If there is anything, it is only me reading my desires into the situation.  Beldir has been nothing but kind to us, but he has not remembered any past life.  He knows nothing of a son or a brother or the Outlaws."

Throwing up his hands, Aegnor let out a noise of utter frustration.  "Then you are blind.  No, worse, you are scared.  You are scared to reach out, scared of being hurt.  I do not blame you.  It is a hard thing.  But I am not scared.  I have lived with this knowledge longer than you.  I know my heart and I know what I need.  I need to be with Andreth, and I will be."

"And what of our family?" Finrod said, trying a different tact.  "What of Father and Mother?  What of Angrod?  They will be devastated if you do not return.  Will you really force Father and Mother to again be separated from their child with no hope of reunion?"

For the first time, Aegnor hesitated, and Finrod felt a breath of relief forming in his chest.  But then Aegnor hardened visibly.  "None of them would ask me to suffer for them," he said quietly.  "And I have been suffering.  I have lived thousands of years with them but every day was a trial in Valinor.  Mother, Father, Angrod, you -- your love sustained me but it did not give me life.  And yet, in two weeks with Andreth, I have felt a peace I had never thought to know.  I am happy.  I am sure our family will understand."

Finrod opened his mouth to refute that, but before he could there was a faint knock on the door.  Beldis poked her head in, the smile on her face suggesting she had not heard them arguing.

"Breakfast is ready, and your friends are up.  You had best hurry or it will be cold."

"We will be right there," Aegnor said, his demeanor completely at odds to what it had been a moment ago.  He smiled kindly to her, and she returned it with equal warmth before ducking out.

Aegnor gave his brother a significant look before following after her.  Finrod remained where he was for a moment, disquieted by the conversation and his own feelings.  He had to find a way to make Aegnor see reason.

He was aware, however, that Aegnor was right on one point.  As Finrod finally followed them out into the garden, his eyes turned to Maglor.  He honestly had very little idea what Edrahil and Maglor had been up to these past few weeks.  Neither had seemed bored or impatient to be on their way; they had made no mention of future plans.  Indeed, they both seemed excessively diverted by Finrod and Aegnor's sudden relationship problems.

As Beldis served them breakfast, Finrod realized he had become complacent.  He had just enjoyed Beldir's company so much these last two weeks; it had lulled him into forgetting his true purpose.  It was not injurious that he had not spoken to Maglor about returning to Valinor but that did not change that fact that it was not a purposeful act on Finrod's part.  He should've chosen to refrain from mentioning it, not merely forgotten it in favor of Beldir's mysterious presence.

Finrod was ashamed of his distraction.

"--and then Lord Tuor came running towards the ship, a whole horde of pirates at his heels.  I can tell you Voronwë wasn't pleased with that," Edrahil was saying, though Finrod had only been listening with half an ear.

"Tuor and Voronwë; those are your companions, right?" Beldis said, already beginning to grab dirty plates.  "You've spoken of them before.  When shall we be expecting them?"

Her innocent question surprised all four Elves, and increased Finrod's guilty conscience tenfold.

Maglor and Edrahil exchanged a look.  "I . . . I don't rightly know.  Surely they must have tired of Lake-town by now," Edrahil said.

"I'm surprised we haven't heard from them before now," Finrod said, the beginning of concern in his voice.

Aegnor snorted.  "I highly doubt there is any need to worry.  I'm sure the two of them are enjoying their solitude, if you take my meaning." There was nothing particularly suggestive about his tone but Finrod threw him a disapproving look all the same.

Beldis frowned slightly, obviously not following, which Finrod was grateful for.  Maglor was frowning too, though Finrod wasn't sure if the reasons were the same.  "Perhaps I should go see if everything is alright." Maglor's tone was tentative as he looked between his cousins, obviously picking up on the tension between them.

"That sounds like a good idea," Finrod said.  "Perhaps I will join you."

That earned surprised looks from everyone.  Edrahil said, "You will?" in an incredulous tone.

Finrod shrugged.  "I promised Idril to look after them.  I would be remiss if I did not check up on them."

"But what about . . ." Maglor trailed off, looking uneasy.  Finrod canted an eyebrow to ask for the rest but Maglor clearly thought better of it and said nothing.

There was uncomfortable silence for a minute before Beldis cautiously said, "Well, we shall miss your presence, but I can understand wanting to make sure your friends are alright.  You must tell them they are very welcome to stay here if they like.  The stables are emptied now; there is more than enough room in the city."

Finrod smiled warmly at her.  "I am sure they will be delighted to accept your offer, and I thank you for it."

His response seemed to reassure her that he wasn't leaving completely.  She flashed him a smile, and then began to gather up the rest of the dishes.  Aegnor jumped to help.  After two weeks of living together, she didn't bother to argue him out of it.  The two worked well together, and as Finrod watched them, he privately admitted they looked beautiful together too.  Certainly, his brother never looked happier.

Finrod frowned, unsure what he should do.  The idea of returning home without Aegnor was unthinkable.  He could just imagine his parents' reaction, and the very thought left him chilled.  And yet, could he really drag Aegnor away from here?  Was it really better to break his heart now or did he deserve a few decades of joy first?

"Finrod?"

Startled, Finrod looked up to see Maglor and Edrahil looking at him expectantly.  He'd clearly been lost in his own head for long enough to be noticed.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?"

His companions shared another look before Maglor said, "I inquired if you have had an opportunity to bequeath your gift to Beldir yet."

"Yes, I did.  This morning actually."

"And what did he think?  Was it to his liking?"

"He was naturally overwhelmed but yes, I think he liked it very much.  Thank you again for the gem.  The Dwarves were very taken with it."

Maglor laughed.  "I should think so.  I doubt they have seen anything so lovely in their lives."

"Nay, that might not be true," Edrahil said.  "For I have heard there is a great gem installed above the Dwarven King's throne that the Dwarves liken to a Silmaril."

Maglor laughed again.  "Yes, I have heard that too.  An Arkenstone, I believe they call it.  Something they found while mining.  If such a rock brings them awe, it is as well they have not seen the work of my father's hands for I doubt they could bear it.  You should have seen the Master Dwarf when I gave him the gem for your ring.  I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head."

Finrod's lips twitched, as he could picture it perfectly.  "They are uncommonly proud of this Arkenstone though.  I should think it must be something of at least some significance."

"Yes, I--"

"Sorry to interrupt," Aegnor said, coming back outside, "but Beldis is short some supplies and I have offered to take her to the market.  We will be gone no more than an hour."

Uninterested in his announcement -- as indeed it was particularly common employment for Aegnor of late -- Maglor merely waved him off.  Finrod was less easy, wondering if he shouldn't say something.  He had not protested any such intimacies before now but now knowing Aegnor's intentions, what had seemed innocent enough did not seem so any longer.

The moment passed though.  Aegnor nodded to them and returned to the house before Finrod could say a word, and Maglor was already returning to his interrupted thought.

"As I was saying, if we are finally to explore these parts, I should like to see this Arkenstone if I am able and compare for myself how like a Silmaril it may be."

"You may find such an endeavor difficult," Edrahil cautioned.  "I have heard the Dwarves do not take kindly to Elves, even more so than is usual."

Finrod added, "Though they do seem to like to brag about their wealth.  I have heard no fewer than a dozen conversations where the Arkenstone was mentioned in Westron.  They speak about their gold with equal fervor.  If even half of what they say is true, then Erebor must be the richest Dwarven kingdom yet standing.  I do not know if we would be welcomed or not."

"It's worth a try at least.  And if you and Aegnor remain diverted here, there is no harm in spending a few days in the attempt," Maglor said.

Edrahil smiled, "Unless you start an international incident of your own."

Scoffing, Maglor said, "I think I can keep myself contained, thank you very much."

Edrahil laughed and the talk soon turned to the play the two had gone to see the night before.  Finrod returned to listening with half an ear.  Watching Maglor, he could not avoid his negligence of these past two weeks.  Worse, he had also neglected his duties to Tuor and Voronwë.  He had made a promise to Idril after all.  How could he ever look her in the eye if something happened to either man she loved?

He had been negligent overall, and that needed to stop right now.  He had to be more mindful of himself and his actions, and more purposeful in his time here.  He had to figure out what he intended with Beldir or risk breaking his heart.

Awash with these thoughts, he did not at first notice the sudden change in the atmosphere.  For the most part, the day had been quiet.  There was a light breeze on the air -- just strong enough to be pleasant against the morning sun.  Very suddenly, the wind changed directions, blowing from the north.  Sheltered among the tall buildings, the sudden shift of wind was barely noticeable.

But the air turned heavy, like the prelude to a great storm.  Finrod had felt it many times at sea, right before his grandfather and uncle would abruptly change course to seek home -- right before a hurricane.

It wasn't until he heard the snapping and popping of the pines high on the mountain that Finrod thought anything unusual was happening.  The sound was quickly followed by a blast of hot air, as if a great furnace door had been opened.

Finrod and Edrahil were still glancing about curiously when Maglor shot out of his seat, a look of fear on his fair face.

"Dragon!"

A roar in the distance punctuated the statement, not that Finrod doubted his cousin.  Maglor had been in the eastern division against Glaurung during the Dagor Bragollach and he had seen the last of the War of Wrath.  Finarfin had forbade Finrod from joining that fight, leaving his son to rule Valinor in his stead so he had not seen it, but he knew the air had been thick with dragons in the end.  Maglor would know what he was talking about.

"Aegnor is out there," Edrahil said, immediately grabbing his bow and quiver from where they rested always by his side.  Maglor was already taking the extra bow and quiver that Beldir usually left at the house.

"And Beldir," Finrod added tightly.  "We must get them to safety.  You two find Aegnor and get out of the city.  I shall meet you in Lake-town--"

A shadow fell over the city, bringing with it oppressive heat.  They could hear the roar of fire and the shattering of a building further in the city.  Screams began to rise up from all quarters.

"Wait-" Edrahil protested, grabbing his Lord's arm in protest.  He would not be separated from his beloved Lord easily and Finrod knew it.  Feeling time pressing in, he quickly grabbed the hand Edrahil held him with and squeezed it.

"I need you to find my brother.  I need this Edrahil.  I cannot be safe myself if I must worry about him, and I know I will not need to worry if you go after him.  And I need to find Beldir."

He said it in a rush, his feet still moving forward in a bid to keep up with Maglor, who was already rushing towards the market.

Edrahil looked very much like he was going to continue protesting but something in Finrod's expression stayed him.  He finally nodded, letting Finrod go and racing to catch up with Maglor.

Assured his brother and companions were on the way to safety, Finrod turned his feet in the opposite direction.  He wasn't entirely sure but he thought Beldir was assigned to the wall today and that was far from the market.

Another swoop and this time Finrod saw a glimpse of red hide as the dragon took aim at yet another building.  From the center of the city, large horns were sounded, as if anyone could miss the danger.

Finrod dodged the frantic crowd, using his more agile and lighter body to take the unconventional paths along narrow walls.  It cut a great deal of time, and soon he was high in the city, able to see in most directions without trouble.  He was just in time to see the dragon take aim at the far gate.

He paused, a sick feeling in his gut.  The dragon wheeled tightly, and Finrod could see arrows flying at it but bouncing off harmlessly.  Another gate fell, and Finrod could see the dragon was targeting them -- targeting all avenues of escape.  His gaze turned south, heart in mouth as he looked at the marketplace.  He could see people rushing about, many of them making for the gate and over the bridge to safety.  As he watched, the dragon came and the gate disintegrated in a shower of fire and rock.

Finrod shook his head and took off.  He could not afford to worry.  He had to hope Maglor had found Aegnor in time, and his friends were safely through the gate already.  His business was elsewhere.  He would worry about his own escape once he found Beldir.

That proved impossible though.  The populace was panicking, the streets blocked by the flaming wreckage that had once been homes, the air obscured by smoke.  As much as he knew he shouldn't, Finrod couldn't turn away.

The first person he saved was a man.  The walkway beneath him gave way when the supporting building began to collapse as fire ate its bottom level.  Finrod jumped, grabbing the man's hand and all but throwing him to the dubious safety of another bridge.  They were almost immediately separated as Finrod continued on.

He paused to help an old woman whose foot had been caught under a heavy timber.  He grabbed a child paralyzed in fear, managing to shove her into the arms of a passing woman, who took the child without protest and kept running.

Soon enough, Finrod stopped near the outer wall in the south of the city.  He realized what he was doing was pointless.  If the gates were all destroyed, it didn't matter who he saved -- there was no way out of the city.  And the city was beginning to burn.  The dragon had turned, heading towards Erebor and her riches.  With such bounty, the dragon would have no need to return to finish Dale off.

Not that there was likely anything to remain.  The fire was taking hold in earnest now, and the smoke was thick.  Even Finrod was beginning to cough; he knew the humans wouldn't be able to withstand it for long.  Something needed to be done.

"Finrod!"

Head whipping around, Finrod was just in time to see Beldir barreling into him.  The guardsman tackled him to the ground, and a good thing too.  Debris from the fires high above was raining down all over the whole city.  A wooden beam -- likely the support for one of the larger roofs -- had caught fire and tipped over the side, nearly crushing Finrod as he pondered what to do to save the people of Dale.

Beldir's flying tackle was just enough to push them to safety.  He grabbed Finrod's head, sheltering it against his chest as a shower of sparks followed the large beam to the ground.  They could do no more than singe, but Beldir kept Finrod safely tucked from them all the same.

It ended in an instant and Beldir let up as he looked up to see if there was more danger.  When he turned his head back, both Elf and Man froze.  Finrod was aware that Beldir was laying on top of him, body sheltering him from danger but also pressing him into the stone road.  Finrod could feel the solidness of Beldir's form, the ease with which Beldir held him down.  They were close enough that Finrod could feel Beldir's chest heaving from exertion, the puff of each breath warm on Finrod's cheek.

He could make nothing of Beldir's expression but the guardsman also seemed entranced.  For a moment, Finrod was very much aware of the fact that they had never been physically so close before.

Another ominous creak and then a bang as something else fell nearby snapped them to awareness.  Finrod cursed himself for even the momentarily lapse.  Beldir was already jumping to his feet, grabbing Finrod's arm to drag him up too.  His hold on Finrod's arm remained firm as he began running to get away.

Finrod allowed it for a minute before his better sense finally got over the close call.  He pulled them to a stop.

"We cannot run aimlessly.  It matters not if we escape a few falling beams if the whole city goes up in flames.  Is there another way out of the city?"

Beldir shook his head.  "There was a tunnel but it's blocked by debris now.  Only the gates remain and they . . ."

"I saw." Finrod craned his head around, looking for anything he could use to get them out of the burning city.  "What about the wall?"

"We reach the top mostly be ladder.  The stairwells were near the gate and they were destroyed.  There is no way to get over them--"

Before Beldir could finish, another building creaked ominously.  It was larger than most, a slim four-story structure.  It had been propped up on either side by squat two-story buildings but they were both crumbling now as pieces of them had taken indirect hits from the dragon's initial assault.  The taller building was being eaten by flame.  Even without the flames slowly gutting it, the structure had been precarious to begin with.

But as Finrod's eyes scanned the surroundings, he saw the building abutted closely to the southern wall.  If they could only topple it like a tree . . .

"Come on," Finrod said, grabbing Beldir and heading towards the building.  "Keep your eyes out for something very heavy that we can move easily."

"What about that?"

Finrod followed Beldir's pointing finger to two wagons filled with large barrels.  The hay used to cushion the load was just beginning to burn, and Finrod easily tamped it out with his hands.  He grabbed for one of the barrels and found he could barely nudge it -- it was full.  He tried a few more, and they proved equally unyielding.  Unstopping the cork in one proved the barrels were full of lamp oil.

"We can use these.  Help me move them over there," Finrod said, pointing to the road that lay between the buildings and the wall.  It was a narrow cart-road, used mostly by merchants to cart their goods without bothering the general populace.

Beldir did not question him, a soldier happy to have orders to follow.  He pushed with all his might and Finrod pulled with all his strength but the wagon was too heavy.  It was immediately apparent this wouldn't work.

"What are we trying to do?" Beldir asked.

Finrod gestured towards the four-story building just as a large piece of the adjacent squat building holding it up came down in a crash.  "If we can get it to fall south, we can get over the wall."

"You think to escape that way?" Beldir asked incredulously.  "The city's high above the ground below.  We'd fall to our deaths."

"One thing at a time, Beldir.  If we stay here, we will burn; that at least is certain."

Beldir still didn't look convinced but he clearly had no better idea.  So, he began to hail passersby, calling especially for big sturdy men.  They were mostly craftsmen, and seemed happy to listen to anyone in authority who looked like he had a plan.  In short order, Beldir had them organized.  The combined effort of a half-dozen men was enough to get the wagon moving.  They strained under the weight of it but they managed to get it to the top of the narrow cart-path.

Meanwhile, Finrod had women and children clear the path of all the debris that had fallen.  He took two men and went almost to the foot of the burning building.  They hauled all the debris they were able to lift, creating a curve in the path that would lead the wagon straight into the corner of the four-story building.

Finrod knew that would not be enough, and directed the men to find the flattest debris they could.  He gently stacked the pieces, laying them first in the wheel divots and then making them roughly level with the road itself.  He then had them curve gently towards the building.

It was a messy affair, hampered by the tools at hand.  It rubbed Finrod wrong to leave the task unfinished but the building began to creak ominously and he knew his time was short.

He pulled everyone back except for the six men who moved the wagon.  They had moved it to the top of a hill, setting the wheels in the worn tracks along the cart-path.  The hill was sharp but not terribly long.  Finrod hoped the momentum would be enough, and bid the six men to push the wagon free.

The wagon resisted strenuously, the wheel tracks not worn smooth.  But the strength of Men prevailed and the wagon slipped beyond their grasp.  Its progress was very slow at first but the small hill was steep enough and the wagon heavy enough that it was soon racing along.

When it hit the blockade, it did not turn nearly as much as Finrod had hoped.  But it did turn a little, and combined with the narrowness of the cart-path, the wagon did end up striking the corner of the building more or less head-on.

The wagon burst on impact into a shower of wood and oil.  The force of it smashed the barrels against the wall, splashing oil onto every surface.  Fire from the nearby buildings quickly ignited the oil.  It traveled along the side of the four-story edifice and along the road like a swift-moving river.  The fire was bright and hot but there was no sign the structure felt the hit at all.

"Quickly, set up the next wagon," Finrod commanded.  The six men had moved it behind the first wagon, though it took effort to set it into the wheel tracks.  More men helped them out, and in short order the second wagon also began its journey down the hill.

The blockade to turn the wagon had been completely disordered by the first hit, and it was on fire.  The second wagon didn't really turn at all, striking the barricade head-on.  But the area behind the building was narrow enough that the corner of the building must have suffered some damage.

With the heat of the burning oil, when the second wagon crashed into the blockade, it went up with a bright flash of flame, scorching the wall and building all the way to the second story.

The building still appeared untroubled by the activity at its base but Finrod knew looks could be deceiving.  He ordered the townspeople away, and they all raced along the cart-path in the opposite direction.

Finrod did not count how long it took, but they had barely gotten to any safe distance -- dodging falling debris and hampered by small mounds of wreckage -- when the four-story building finally groaned.

They all turned to watch as the building swayed for an instant.  Then the corner the wagons had hit gave way first, taking the whole building with it.  The building fell at an angle, and just as Finrod had hoped, crashed hard into the wall.

Beldir and Finrod led the people back to the wrecked wall, struggling to fight fire, smoke, and disruptive rubble at every turn.  But they made it.  The building had hammered the wall with enough force to leave a small gap at the top.  The same impact had shattered the building itself into piles of bricks and burning wood, making a ramp the townspeople could use to scale the wall.

Unfortunately, the structure was still burning.  Beldir and the other townsfolk worked to smother enough of the fire to create a safe path over the rubble and through the wall.

Finrod raced to the gap, needing to see what lay beyond.  The walls of Dale were tall and thick, appearing to grow out of the rocky hill the city itself was built upon.  There was a small lip of stone just a few yards below the gap in the wall and then a steep drop to the rushing river below.  Debris from the oil-covered building littered the stony outcropping, setting it alight too.  Periodically some piece broke off and fell into the river.  Being oil, the water did not always smother the fire, leaving burning refuse to float down the waterway.  It was not ideal but nor was it insurmountable.

"Now what?" Beldir said, coming up beside him.  The city was burning in earnest behind them now; there was no going back.

"We're going to have to jump," Finrod said, looking for a way to get further down the lip and closer to the water.

Beldir grabbed his arm.  "Are you mad?  We'll be killed."

"It's not as bad as it looks.  If we can clear the rocks, we should make it.  There is no other option."

Finrod gently pulled against Beldir's hold, urging him to movement but Beldir continued to resist.  "And what of Beldis?"  He looked back but the slight gap in the stone had become a wall of flame as the winds fanned the burning oil over every surface within reach.  Beldir looked ready to chance it anyway, and now Finrod shifted so he could hold Beldir in his turn.

"I sent Edrahil after her and Aegnor.  There was time for them to get out."  That was the truth at least.  There had been time but just barely.

"You don't know that," Beldir said, picking up on Finrod's hesitation.  He seemed more determined to risk the fire and search for his sister.

Finrod dug his fingers into Beldir's arm. "You would never find them.  If they did not make it through the gate, my brother will find another way to save her, you can depend upon that.  We must look to ourselves.  I could never face your sister if I let anything happen to you.  We owe it to her to come out of this alive.  Now, come."

When he tugged, Beldir finally came, though he still looked troubled.  Soon he had much to focus on as they led the townsfolk down the rocky outcropping as far as they dared.  Finrod gave credit to the people of Dale.  Only a handful of them balked at the notion or needed to have the plan explained to them, and other townsfolk were quick to take them to task or explain.  One by one, everyone took the plunge until only Finrod and Beldir remained.

Finrod again took Beldir's hand, unwilling to be separated from him.  They exchanged one long look before jumping together.

The instant Finrod hit the water, he thought he may have miscalculated.  He had seen the other townsfolk bob back to the surface, laboring to keep upright as they were swept down the river.  The largest danger had seemed to be the current and finding a way to one of the banks.

But that first hit against the water was like falling onto stone.  Finrod felt the painful contact radiate up his legs and through his whole body.  Surely the more fragile human bodies could not take such a blow.

There was no time to think of that though.  In the initial strike against the water, Finrod lost his hold on Beldir.  He rushed to the surface, desperate to find Beldir.  He quickly spied him several feet away; already being tumbled down the river.

Finrod had currents and protruding rocks and occasionally burning debris working against him as he struggled to get to Beldir's side.  They came within grazing distance a few times, fingertips barely touching, but the current kept ripping them away.

From Finrod's perspective, it seemed that Beldir took the worst of it.  He was bashed into the rocky river walls repeatedly.  Finrod took no notice when he too took a hit, brushing it off as nothing in his bid to get to Beldir's side.

One particularly nasty hit sent Beldir under the water for long enough to truly panic Finrod.  Pushing his body to its limit, Finrod launched himself in Beldir's direction and just managed to grab his arm.

The instant he did, Beldir's weight dragged Finrod down with him.  Finrod struggled to get a better grip and then haul Beldir to the surface, even as the water had them lurching to and fro.

Beldir struggled with Finrod, so at least he was not knocked unconscious.  When they broke the surface, Beldir sputtered and coughed, desperate for air.  Finrod tried to help him but it was almost impossible in the swiftly moving river.

His gaze turned toward the shore.  As they were bobbing along, the rocky walls had lessened considerably so that the banks were now much more manageable.  They were low enough that in places, Finrod felt they could climb out if they could but gain purchase.  And the banks were growing shallower the further south they went.

However, the lowering of the banks also put in stark relief the surrounding area.  They were not yet very far from Dale, and all around them there was fire.  Apparently before attacking Erebor, the dragon had trailed large swaths of flames over the surrounding countryside.  Everywhere Finrod looked, he saw fire.

He tightened his hold on Beldir, looking for somewhere to grab hold and haul them out.  The river continued without any heed to its passengers, occasionally throwing up a rock or strange eddy but growing more placid as the river broadened and neared Long Lake.

Finrod's strength was almost spent when the water finally calmed enough and the banks proved shallow enough for him to latch on.  The fires had not yet reached this area, and Finrod was not the only one to find refuge here.  As soon as he managed to get a decent hold, there were hands to help him haul Beldir up to safety.

Collapsing on the shore, Finrod was grateful for the help.  He looked over at Beldir.  The Man was coughing out water and looked generally miserable but not really the worse for wear.  Finrod wanted to check him over, make sure none of the hits he'd seen Beldir take had caused internal damage.

But he didn't have the strength for that.  For the longest time, he could only lay still and breathe.  The only exertion he allowed himself was to fling his arm in the general direction of Beldir until he felt the skin of Beldir's arm.  Thus reassured, he contemplated the brilliant blue sky.  Above him everything looked fine.  There was no sign here of the devastation they had just escaped save for the occasional wisp of smoke.

"Beldir!"

Finrod had no idea how long he had been lying there when he heard Beldis' frantic call.  It was long enough that he had recovered some of his strength.  He sat up at the sound of her voice, finding Beldir following suit.  Beldir had just managed to get upright when he was bowled right back down by the force of his sister grabbing him in a tight embrace.

"I thought you were lost!" she cried, burying her head into her brother's shoulder and refusing to let go.  Finrod could see her shaking just as Beldir's arm came around her, holding her just as hard.

A shadow fell over Finrod.  He looked up just in time to see Aegnor kneel beside him.  Beyond him, Maglor and Edrahil were standing just a few feet away.  They watched the scene with concern but looked all right.  They must have escaped the worst of it, for which Finrod was very thankful.

Finrod made no protest when Aegnor gathered him into his arms.  He just leaned gratefully against the solid wall of strength, letting Aegnor hold him up.  He turned his head so he could keep Beldir in his line of sight.  Seeing Beldir and Beldis whole, feeling Aegnor breathing beneath his cheek, knowing Maglor and Edrahil were only a few feet away -- Finrod finally relaxed.

Everything of value had survived the day.

Chapter Text

For the first time, she found herself on the top of the hill instead of at the bottom.  There had been no great struggle to obtain the summit.  She stood there like a tower.  Before her was a frozen lake and a sea of trees.  The sun was winter-pale but high and clear in a blue sky.

Far below, she saw a great company of mounted soldiers.  They were a splendid sight of might and strength.  Her eyes honed in on her lord astride a magnificent black steed.  He wore white and blue, his hair a golden cape fluttering behind him from under his shining helm.

He raised his spear and his voice, and he was replied in kind by the large muster.  Wheeling his large black beast, he prepared to lead them out to maintain their century-long siege.  But he paused, his eyes wandering unerringly up to where she stood.

The distance was too great for her old eyes to see anything more than a small speck but she was sure it was not the same for her eternally youthful lord.  Doubtless she was as clear to him as if he were standing before her.  She felt her breath catch in her throat, the moment stretching on endless.

At the same time, it was no more than an instant and he was urging his horse forward.  The great stallion leapt ahead with a surge of its powerful muscles, quickly outdistancing the others who jumped to follow suit.  All too soon, the entire company was lost amid the pines.

She remained behind, a forgotten statue to endure the slow creep of time.  The view was peaceful though.  Looking west, she saw the sweep of pines shadowing the mountains in the south.  The green was stark against the white snow.

She felt she could look at it forever.

A thin tendril of smoke slipped into her peripheral vision.  It was followed by another on the other side, and then yet another.  The sun was too weak to notice at first but its light began to falter.  She looked up and there was a huge column of smoke hanging like a road in the air above her.

Whirling around, she found the source of the smoke -- her city was on fire.

She raced down the hill.  Screams began to lift into the air to accompany the thickening smoke.  She could see the hoards of orcs approaching her city, the tips of their arrows alit like thousands of fireflies.  Volleys of flaming darts sailed over the meager walls to disappear into a dance of shadows and sparks.

Strobed light gave some indication of the industry inside the walls as people rushed to put out the fires.  Though she was far away, she felt the weight of a pail filled with water in her hand -- the exertion on muscles as they repeated the same action over and over.  She could picture the small well in the middle of town, could picture racing back and forth between it and the many fires.

Suddenly she was there.  Her old muscles strained against her will, fighting her as she struggled with the heavy bucket of water, struggled to run as fast as she could, struggled to throw as hard as she could.  It quickly took a toll but she endured.  She refused to give up.  The men would return -- victorious or half-dead; it didn't matter -- and when they did, she would have a home for them to return to.

The fire spread though, and with it came huge projectiles hurtled through the air to take out the sturdiest of buildings as if they were no more than tents made of twigs.  She watched as her sister was crushed in a shower of debris.

There was no time to grieve.  As the people rushed to shore up the gate, her part remained to run between well and fire, the staccato of a battering ram echoing through the air and adding urgency to every second.

An explosion threw her off her feet.  The ground lurched, making it impossible to get back up.  Managing to flip onto her back, she saw a wave of fiery pinpoints.  They hung in the air for a moment rivaling the stars in the night sky before descending around her in a shower of flames.

Instinctively, she tucked herself into a small ball but she was still exposed.  In no time her hair and clothes were on fire.

Beldis woke with a cry, absolutely sure she could feel the heat of flames against her skin.

"Shh, it's alright."

Strong arms wrapped around her and she felt instantly safe.  It was a moment, however, before she realized it was not her brother who comforted her.

Startled, she looked up to see Aegnor's concerned face looking down at her.  "It's alright," he repeated.  "It was just a dream.  You're safe now.  The others will be back shortly."

Beldis was confused for a moment before she remembered where she was and what had happened.  Mercifully, Aegnor had angled her so that she was not looking towards Dale but rather over the calm waters of Long Lake.

Looking in this direction, there was nothing to suggest the calamity they had just left behind them.  All around her were other survivors.  It seemed like a goodly number of people but Beldis knew it was far too small for all the souls who had inhabited Dale and the Lonely Mountain.

She shuddered at the thought, and Aegnor immediately drew her closer, drawing his cloak around them both to ward off any chill.  Taking no heed to propriety, she gratefully burrowed closer to him.  There was a growing ice in her bones that had nothing to do with the air and she clung tightly to the Elf's warmth.  He made no protest, holding her tightly.

Not yet brave enough to look behind her, Beldis sought out her brother.  He was still sleeping under Finrod's watchful eye.  Almost as soon as they had been reunited, the Elves had encouraged them to continue moving.  They had raced south as fast as they could, always fearful that the dragon could swoop down at any moment.

If her body would follow the will of her heart, Beldis would have continued running all the way to Gondor.  But she was only human.  Racing all the way to the very northern edge of Long Lake was a feat in itself but it seemed woefully inadequate to her.

Still, the Elves proclaimed it good enough at present.  Certainly Beldir needed to rest.  He had been knocked about quite a bit, though Beldis knew he would be on his feet again tomorrow, whether he was well enough or not.  She had watched Edrahil check her brother over and knew he was terribly bruised but otherwise all right.

She could never express how grateful she was for that.

And now they waited for Maglor to return.  They had not been the first to reach the little way station where horses were exchanged for boats and vice versa.  Other survivors had taken horses and boats in an attempt to flee further south, leaving only one small boat behind.

It was too small for their whole party, and none of them felt right leaving behind all the other survivors anyway.  Maglor had volunteered to seek aid.  He promised to return as soon as possible with the missing two members of the Elves' party and whatever other support he could rouse from Lake-town.

The cynical side of Beldis thought that support would be small indeed.

"Try to get some more sleep," Aegnor said.  "You have run a great distance and suffered a terrible loss.  I am exhausted; I know you must be very tired.  Dawn is many hours away; please rest."

"I cannot," Beldis said, another shudder shaking her thin shoulders.  "Not after . . . not with that thing . . ."

"You needn't fear the dragon coming after us.  It has what it wants," Edrahil said, a dark note in his voice.  Against her will, she followed his gaze back towards the mountain.

Even now, it still burned bright against the darkened sky.  The entire valley around it blazed like a golden net had been cast over the mountain and rivers of gold flowed from it.

Sickened, Beldis quickly looked away.

"Come then, if you are not tired," Aegnor said quickly, catching her look.  Gently he shifted her and then urged her to her feet.  "There are many here and all is in disarray.  Even if Maglor can rouse all of Lake-town, it will be a great undertaking to organize everyone and keep things civil.  We can help now by sorting out who needs the most aid, and help calm people's fears."

Beldis wondered how she would calm anyone when she felt like her bones might rattle right out of her own skin but she was very grateful for the distraction.  She had always done her best when there was something useful she could be doing.

She allowed Aegnor to tug her along but she paused for a moment beside her brother.  There were shadows under his eyes but his breathing was deep and even.  She prayed that his sleep remained untroubled.  Surely after today, he was owed that at least.

"I shall watch over him," Finrod promised quietly.  He didn't look much better than Beldir, his skin almost gray in the flickering firelight.  But there was a determined light in his eyes, and she didn't doubt his words.

Beldir was in good hands, so she let Aegnor pull her along.

They worked all night.  Beldis had been exhausted even before they started and she was dead on her feet by the time Maglor arrived in the late morning.  She had worked diligently though, unable to face her own thoughts.

It almost broke her though.  Many of the survivors were severely injured.  Not a few sported unsightly burns.  Thankfully, someone had already looked after the worst of the injuries so many of these were already bandaged.

There were also many bloody wounds.  Some were obviously from falling debris but there were also several people with deep gashes all over their bodies that required much stitching.  Unfortunately, there was no thread to do the work.

Many people also suffered broken bones, and a surprising number of them were leg injuries.  It was while setting bones and bandaging gashes with strips of her dress that Beldis learned the details of her brother's harrowing escape.

When she realized just how close she had come to losing him, Beldis had to throw up in nearby bushes.  Aegnor rubbed her back supportively until she was finished.  Then, he drew her into a hug.  She had a glimpse of him before she was tucked beneath his chin and she could see that he was just as shaken as she was by this revelation.  She realized that Finrod had been in equal danger, and she knew exactly how Aegnor must feel about that.

"I'm sorry for doubting you," she whispered softly.

Aegnor looked down, giving her a questioning look.  Beldis quickly wiped away her tears with a corner of her tattered dress.  "When you bid me leave the city with you, you said your brother would save mine.  I know I raised a fuss, and I'm sorry.  You were right."

Looking particularly grim, Aegnor was silent for a long moment.  When he finally said, "That isn't quite right," his tone was dark and grave.  Now it was Beldis who gave him a questioning look.  Aegnor's gaze turned towards his brother, still waiting patiently by Beldir's side.  "I said that Finrod would not return without Beldir."

At the time of the attack, Beldis had assumed Aegnor meant Finrod would bring back Beldir no matter what.  It wasn't possible for such a great Elf as Finrod clearly was to be bested by a mere dragon, terrible and fell as it proved to be.  Even faced with a dragon's true power and horror, Beldis had not been shaken from this assumption.

But now she realized what Aegnor had really meant, and that he too had feared never to see his brother again.  She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came.  What could she possibly say when faced with the enormity of what the Elves had risked for them?

Unsettled, Beldis rested her head against Aegnor's chest.  She moved until she could hear his heartbeat beneath her ear.  At the sound of the steady rhythm, something loosened in her chest and she breathed a little easier.  She didn't know why but she had this powerful feeling that Aegnor still being there was a great change of fate.  He had been with her when Maglor and Edrahil had shouted about the dragon and dragged them through the nearest gate.  Their closest brush with danger was when the dragon had destroyed the gate, but they were already on the other side of the river at that point.  All things considered, they had been safe.

And yet it felt like a true gift that Aegnor was still there.

Before Beldis could wrap her head around it, Edrahil jumped to his feet.  "Tuor!"  His obvious relief drew much attention in the waking camp.  Beldis looked up and saw that Aegnor looked equally relieved.  He flashed her a reassuring smile and again helped her to her feet.

They walked over to the water.  Beldis noted her brother was awake now, looking much more like himself for the hours of rest.  Beldir gave her a concerned and disapproving look when he saw how rundown she looked but he held his tongue.  Instead, he extended his arm in invitation.  While Beldis did not really desire to leave Aegnor's side, she did not hesitate to rush to her brother's embrace and curl against him.  Feeling him hug her back was a balm no apothecary could match.

Together they watched as a small armada of boats began to approach the shore.  At first, Beldis wasn't sure who she should be looking for.  The largest boat was the first to approach, and a group of armed men from Lake-town jumped onto the shore.

"Who's in charge here?" the leader demanded.

"I am," a woman called from behind them, gently elbowing her way through the gathering crowd.

Beldis could see her brother's surprise when he saw Lord Girion's wife, her young son clutching at her soiled skirts.

"Our Lady survived?" Beldir whispered in awe, preventing Beldis from hearing what their Lady had to say to the guardsmen.  "What of our Lord?  Did Girion survive?"

There was nothing Beldis wished more fervently than to be able to spare her brother, especially when he looked so suddenly hopeful.  Watching that light die in his eyes as he saw her solemn expression was a piercing shard to her heart.

"She says not.  I spoke to her last night.  She said her husband collected all the guardsmen he could find to attack the dragon but he ordered her to take their son and find some way out.  She said if not for you, she would not have been able to obey his final command.  She said you helped her climb through the wall and directed her to jump.  Don't you remember?"

Frowning, Beldir slowly shook his head.  "I can't say I do.  I can't say I remember anyone that was with us at the wall, though I know there were many.  It's all a blur."

He rubbed his forehead, looking tired.  Gently, Beldis patted his arm.  "Well, you did, and she is very grateful, and she is not the only one.  There are many who would not be here without your help, and they all know it.  They are already singing your praises."

"Better they should sing of Finrod then; it was his idea," Beldir muttered.  He was rubbing the back of his neck.

Recognizing the nervous gesture, Beldis said, "I'm sure you did your part," and left it at that.  She knew he had never been comfortable receiving praise.

"Lord Tuor!  It is good to see you again," Edrahil said, distracting both siblings.

Beldis looked up to see a very tall, very good-looking blonde man walking towards them.  He had a kind smile on his face, obviously relieved to see his friends, though his eyes were quiet with sympathy for the terrible tragedy that had befallen.

"You are very well met indeed," Finrod said, reaching out to clasp the Man's hand in a warrior's hold.  "Here, let me introduce you to Beldir and his sister Beldis.  They have graciously housed us in Dale these past two weeks."

Beldis prepared to greet the stranger she had heard so much about from their guests but when Tuor's gaze swung towards the siblings, her words died in her throat.  It seemed as if he had an Elf-gaze, looking deep down into her very soul.  There was such intensity in the look that Beldis felt like she could barely breathe.

But then Tuor smiled kindly, the tense moment melting away as if it had been nothing.  "So Maglor said.  I am very pleased to meet you, though I grieve it is under such circumstances."

His sympathy was very obviously genuine, and Beldis felt her throat constrict.  Her emotions threatened to overwhelm her again.

"We had begun to think something had happened to you," Aegnor said, obviously to distract from the emotional atmosphere.

"Voronwë and I are well.  We were just enjoying Lake-town's hospitality, and it's a good thing we were or this aid may never have reached you."  He said the last grimly, but quietly.  Their little group was a distance away from the rest of the survivors and boats, and most people were paying attention to the conversation between the Lady of Dale and the Lake-town guardsmen.

"What do you mean?" Finrod asked.  He shifted closer to keep their conversation private.

Tuor glanced about before also leaning in.  "Voronwë and I have spent freely in Lake-town and earned much goodwill for it.  The Master of the Lake is terrified of the dragon and would not listen when Maglor or I or even the cooler heads on the council told him it was highly unlikely the dragon would attack the town on the lake now that it had all of Erebor's wealth to guard.  He refused to send any aid or to accept any refugees into the town, afraid they are cursed."

Tuor's tone was calm and matter-of-fact, but Beldis thought she saw a slight pull of disgust at the corners of his mouth.

"And yet you are here?" Finrod noted.

Tuor nodded.  "You may thank King Thranduil for that.  The birds brought him swift word of the calamity and he sent his fastest boat down the river to bring word that he is preparing great succor for any survivors."

"Why that is wonderful," Beldis said, heartened for the first time.  This was welcome news indeed.  Lake-town had not the provisions to handle even a tenth of Dale, not to mention Erebor's great population.  There was still some hope that something might be salvaged of the summer's growing season but with all the land afire, Beldis didn't know what the farmers would do.

But Thranduil surely had enough stockpiled to aid them for one season as they figured out what to do next.  If his people actually came themselves to aid in rebuilding, then there would be shelters of enough worth to handle the long winter.  Even if they did no more than send food, that would free up many hands for building.  Beldis was much buoyed by this news and she could see her brother shared her view.

However, their elation dampened quickly when they saw that the Elves did not look nearly so relieved.  Indeed, they shared uneasy looks.

"What is it?" Beldis demanded, wanting no more terrible surprises.  "What is wrong with King Thranduil?"

Aegnor quickly reassured her, "Nothing is wrong.  It's just . . ."

"It's complicated," Finrod finished for him, sounding decisive where his brother had been hesitant.  "And a very small matter paired with the disaster that has just unfolded.  We will deal with it should something arise of it but otherwise, it is not a concern."

Beldis could see Aegnor wasn't entirely convinced but nor was he going to argue.

For his part, Tuor merely shrugged.  "At any rate, Voronwë and I still retain our room in the town's inn and you are welcome to use it.  The Master has ordered that all survivors of Dale remain on the shore -- he is terrified that his town will be overwhelmed and barred any from Dale there -- but the women of the town have already begun setting up a series of tents so there will be a place for these people to rest and get looked at.  I think, though, that the Master will make an exception for my friends as we have been so generous up until now and can remain so for awhile more, but I would not count on that lasting.  Space is going to be at a premium very shortly and I think you should take a bed tonight while you can."

"We are glad of the offer," Aegnor jumped in. "Beldis has been up all night.  She is in need of rest."

Beldis had only the time to shoot Aegnor a dirty look before she was being turned to look her brother in the eye.  "Up all night?" he demanded.

"There was much work to be done."  Hands on hip, Beldis refused to be cowed and glared right back at her brother.  Likely it would've been more effective is she didn't feel like a stiff wind might blow her over.

Finrod was quick to intervene before a row could start.  Tempers were short, and though Beldis didn't want to fight, she felt drawn thin and ready to snap.  "You've done admirably too.  But now there are many more hands to help, and you can rest.  There will be much more to do and you will do no one any good if you do not get what rest you can."

His words were very reasonable.  Indeed, they were the exact words Beldis had used any number of times on Beldir to get him to take proper care of himself.  But she didn't want to hear them.  The idea of going back to sleep made her positively jumpy.

"It's decided then," Tuor said, not giving Beldis time to argue, "There aren't enough boats to take everyone over anyway but horses are being sent up for those who can ride.  We are to take the injured, the infirm and elderly, the women, and the very young. Lady Beldis can come back with me.  I sent Maglor to the inn to rest.  He will see she is comfortably installed."

Though it was contrary to her liking, it was thus settled and Beldis soon found herself on a small merchant ferry.  There was a brief flurry of activity as she helped other survivors settle onto the tiny craft but soon enough they were on their way and she had only her thoughts to distract her.

She opted to stand near the bow, still feeling shaky and restless.

They had sailed only a few minutes when a quiet voice said, "May I join you?"

Turning, she found Tuor standing nearby.  There wasn't room for him elsewhere so Beldis scooted over to let him stand by her side.  She threw him several looks but relaxed when he remained quiet.

For over an hour, he gave her peace.  She would have appreciated it more if she could actually find peace.  The world was very quiet.  There were some whispers and groans from the other passengers but nothing too distracting.  Everyone remained very quiet, as if they could attract the dragon's attention even now.  Beldis knew Finrod and the others were right that it was unlikely the dragon had any interest in them now, but she couldn't make her heart believe that.

Just as she felt her thoughts would overwhelm her, Tuor finally spoke up.  His voice was quiet and his tone very serious when he said, "I know something of what you are feeling."

Beldis wanted to scoff, but Tuor finally stopped contemplating the water before them and turned to look at her.  There was such sadness in his eyes that it again stilled her tongue.  "I lost my own home to a terrible evil.  My wife and I fled with our son and what remained of our people, while our city was burned to the ground."

Tuor turned his gaze back out to the water, and it was just as well.  There was a terrible weight of knowing in his gaze, and Beldis wanted to comfort him.  This dragon-attack must have stirred up old memories.  Having just suffered this loss, Beldis could well imagine how Tuor must feel.

"I lost many I loved that day.  I lost a home that I had spent many years searching for, and the security I had thought to find there.  There isn't a day that goes by where something of that loss doesn't touch me."

He sighed, bracing himself against the railing of the boat.  Closing his eyes, he let the spray from the water splash against his face.  There was graveness to him and yet he seemed very peaceful too.

Beldis didn't know what to say.  Everything was too soon and she had had little time to think.  But many of the survivors she had tended to last night had wondered what they were going to do now.  She didn't know the immediate future but she did know nothing would ever be the same again.

Straightening suddenly, Tuor again turned to look at Beldis.  He gently took her small hand into his large square one.

"I know the last thing you want to do right now is talk about this.  I understand that.  It was a long time before I could bring myself to even reference the day my home was destroyed, let alone talk about it.  I threw myself into doing anything useful -- into getting my family and friends to safety and rebuilding.  I do not know you but I think you will be the same.  I certainly find no fault with that.  I just wanted to let you know that whenever you are ready to talk about this, I stand at the ready.  I do understand what you feel but I am not so near to this tragedy that you need to spare your remarks on account of my feelings.  Whenever you are ready, I am here to help."

Beldis felt her throat constricting again, though the reason was vastly different.  Tuor's offer was overwhelming in its genuineness.  She wondered at it.  Tuor may be a friend to Aegnor and the others, but she was still a stranger to him.  She could not imagine him making such an offer to anyone else from Dale, and yet this didn't feel so very out of place either.  She felt a connection to this Man, something completely different to the connection she felt when she had first seen Finrod and Aegnor.  She had never met this Man before and yet she felt as if they were somehow tied together.

She could only nod.  Clearly he expected no more for he merely squeezed her hand, and again left her to her thoughts.  She followed his lead, turning to concentrate on the water.  She tried to will its peace into herself.

Behind her, the mountain continued to burn.

 

 

*************

 


"Ah, Beldir," Maglor said, causing Finrod to turn his head in time to see Beldir slip into the room, "We thought you might have become lost."

Beldir removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve.  "The town is certainly fuller than I can ever remember it being but I don't think there was any real worry the inn would have moved."

He managed a tired smile, clearly trying to lighten the air but he looked so exhausted that the effect was rather pitiful.

Apparently Finrod was not the only one to notice, as Aegnor said, "You look bone-tired.  Come sit by the fire.  Voronwë's scrounged up a decent repast.  You should eat."

"Voronwë?" Beldir asked even as he wandered towards the fireplace as bid.

Coming over with a plate of food and a mug of watered ale, Voronwë said, "That would be me.  I wish the circumstances were different but it is a pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure is mine.  Really.  I had begun to think Finrod and the others had made you up," Beldir said, taking the proffered plate.

As intended, the Elves laughed, and Beldir seemed to relax some.  "Where is my sister?"

Maglor gestured towards a closed door.  "Tuor managed to convince her to rest.  I believe she is still sleeping."

"Good," Beldir nodded, and relaxed the rest of the way into his chair.  He certainly looked as if getting up again anytime soon was more effort than he could afford to give.

"You should join her, my friend," Finrod offered softly.  "The river took a lot out of you; you should take some time to recover."

"And you shouldn't?" Beldir shook his head. "You may be an Elf, but you cannot tell me that you are any less tired for the adventure.  And don't tell me you've been taking it easy.  I saw you on the shore helping the survivors the same as me."

Finrod held up his hands in surrender.  "I wouldn't dream of denying that.  And I do intend to rest tonight.  A good long sleep would do us all good."

No one could argue with that but no one jumped to fulfill his good advice either.  Beldir ate half-heartedly, clearly knowing it would do him good but having little appetite.  Finrod remembered feeling the same after a huge battle.  Whether victory was theirs or the enemy's, the losses suffered always left the heart too heavy to take pleasure in simple joys.

"What did you find?" Aegnor finally asked.

Beldir did not at first realize the question was directed at him, so Aegnor repeated it.  A shadow came over his face then, making Finrod wish his brother had kept his tongue.

"It is ill news all around.  Only two other guards from my unit survived.  My Captain is unlikely to make it through the end of the night."  Beldir sighed.  "I can find no news of my kin.  Their homes were deep in the city; I have found none from that area among the survivors.  I fear my cousins did not make it."

"I'm sorry, Beldir," Finrod said honestly, leaning over to place a hand on his friend's arm.  Beldir nodded distractedly, not really noticing the comforting gesture.

"Pain in the ass that they were, I hadn't thought I would miss them this much.  I do feel the loss of my friends more though, which I feel bad about.  I suppose it doesn't feel real yet.  I still expect to see them coming down the river at any minute.  I still hope that more managed to escape."

He shook his head again, this time at his own foolishness, and returned his attention to finishing his meager meal.

Finrod watched him with a heavy heart, seeing the heartache that Beldir was clearly trying to suppress.  Doubtless he wished to have it under control before Beldis needed his shoulder to lean on.  As a big brother himself, Finrod understood the impulse but he wanted Beldir to know that he too had a shoulder to lean on.  He needn't bear this alone.

Beldir had just finished his plate when the door opened again.  Tuor looked faintly surprised to find himself the sudden object of scrutiny but he flashed a tired smile nonetheless.  Voronwë jumped up from his seat to help the blond divest himself from his cloak and coat.

"And where have you been?" Aegnor inquired politely.

Tuor sat down in the chair Voronwë had just occupied, accepting his own mug of watered ale from the Elf.  "The stables on the shore.  I've left Edrahil there to make sure no one decides our horses are not spoken for.  Most people are still weary from the journey here or too injured for mischief but I highly doubt that will hold long.  Already the stablemaster has approached me, wanting to know what I could possibly need nine horses for.  There are not many horses in these parts; I think there might be something of a row -- if not about the horses than about other supplies surely."

The Elves nodded.  "Yes, many of the survivors I talked to seemed determined to keep going as soon as they could," Finrod said.

"I heard that too.  Many who have family along the river will go south," Beldir added.  "I should think they could find a boat easily enough.  But if they wish to make for Gondor or anywhere else, they will need horses.  I think you are right to be vigilant."

It was Tuor who broke the silence that followed his remarks. "Well, we must also take some thought to our own course of action.  What shall we do now?"

The Elves exchanged surprised looks, the idea apparently not having crossed anyone else's mind.

"I should like to help all these people," Finrod said slowly.  "But if Thranduil is really coming, I do not think there will be any need for our aid.  Indeed, if he should come himself, we must be elsewhere."

"And why is that?" Beldir quickly asked, shifting forward in his seat in interest.  "You were skittish about his name back at the way station.  Why do you react so?  Has he done something to you?  Have you done something?"

Finrod chewed on his lip as he considered this question.  He could feel Aegnor's eyes on him, his expression clearly asking if they could speak of this or not.  But it was Tuor's raised eyebrow that decided Finrod.

Taking a deep breath, Finrod turned his attention to Beldir and said, "It is not about Thranduil, not specifically anyway.  I know you have asked before where we are from and we have never really answered you.  The truth is . . . we are not from the Greenwood, Dorwinion, Rivendell, or anywhere you know Elves to live.  We are . . ."

Seeing Beldir's expectant face, Finrod faltered.  He was unsure how Beldir would take this revelation and that worried him.  He did not want anything to change between them.

"We are from Valinor," Aegnor said, impatient with his brother as usual.

Beldir frowned. "Valinor?"  It seemed that the name was familiar but he could not quite place it.

"The Blessed Lands to the West," Aegnor clarified.

"Beyond the Great Sea?" Beldir asked, his eyes going wide.

Seeing the awe and growing shock, Finrod continued on quickly in the hopes of barreling over this news so Beldir had no chance to think deeply on it.  "Yes, and we were sent here on an errand.  But to gain leave to return to Middle-earth, restrictions were placed on us.  We cannot meet up with any Elves who might recognize us.  Thranduil lived in Doriath for a time, as did I.  He would recognize my brother and me at the very least.  And though it is unlikely he would come here himself, I am in no doubt that anyone he would send to oversee the relief effort would also be highborn and old, likely also from Doriath.  We must avoid bringing ourselves to their notice.  That is all."

As desired, the awe slipped away to again be replaced by Beldir's frown.  "An errand?  What kind of errand?"

He looked first at Finrod but when Finrod hesitated, his gaze swung around to all the Elves.  He could not miss the way they all shot covert glances at Maglor, and he finally rested his curious gaze on him, clearly unsure if he should ask or not.

"It is me," Maglor finally offered, not sounding pleased.  He did not meet anyone's gaze as he spoke.  "They came to get me."

"You?" Beldir's voice was filled with confusion and his frown deepened.  He turned his gaze to Finrod.  "Why--?"

Finrod quickly shook his head.  "It's complicated.  Local politics back at home," he said as dismissively as he could.

Beldir did not let it go though, not that Finrod could say he was surprised by that.  "I thought Maglor said he lived by the sea.  Why did you come to Dale then if you were sent to fetch him?  Shouldn't you have taken him back to Valinor right away?"

"I am not going to Valinor," Maglor said tonelessly.

Beldir's look of confusion only deepened.  "Why wouldn't you want to go to Valinor?  Isn't it your home?"

Maglor looked faintly flustered.  "It's not that I don't want to.  It's--"

"So, you do want to come with us," Aegnor said, jumping on his cousin's statement.  "And your refusal then?  Pray tell me what could justify that?  Is it out of some misplaced sense of penance?"

Scowling, Maglor insisted, "It's not misplaced."

"But that is the reason," Aegnor pressed.

Finrod watched them, feeling torn.  On the one hand, he still didn't feel Maglor was ready to be pushed like this.  But on the other hand, this was more than they had gotten him to admit so far.  Beldir's questions were clearly innocent; they did not raise Maglor's defenses as they would coming from his cousins.

Finrod could see that Maglor was becoming agitated by Aegnor's pushing, and that conflicted him further.  He didn't want to push Maglor too far beyond reach but he also wondered if now that Aegnor had pushed, it might not be better to push all the way.

Tuor clearly felt otherwise, for he intervened.  "Regardless of why we came, we are here now and we must still decide what to do next.  Our year is quickly dwindling."

"Your year?" Beldir looked at Finrod.  He asked his question quietly, the fight he had provoked making him wary.

Finrod gave him a guilty look.  "Another restriction placed upon us.  We had only three years to complete our errand, after which we must return home.  We have already used much of that time in searching for our cousin."

A hurt look flashed over Beldir's face and it made Finrod's heart squeeze in distress.  Before he could say anything, Aegnor spoke up.  "If we are going home."

He said it emphatically, his eyes challenging as they turned to Finrod.  It made Finrod uneasy but he had no ready reply.  Maglor, who had been glaring at Aegnor, now looked at his cousins in shock.  Voronwë also looked surprised, and Finrod noted the way he looked to Tuor, as if the Man had some idea of this.

Tuor's expression remained inscrutable.

It was Beldir who caught Finrod's attention though.  He clearly understood there was much more going on than was being said, but Aegnor's qualifier had given him a tentative hope.  Without words, his gaze asked Finrod if what he hoped was possible.

Finrod honestly had no idea how to reply to that.

Fortunately, Voronwë spoke before Finrod needed to commit himself one way or the other.  "I do not think staying is a good idea.  Though I too would wish to help -- and certainly I do not think anyone would recognize me -- for what little help we might offer, we would still just be in the way.  I think we would do the most good to leave.  We can offer what supplies we do not need to the survivors but having fewer mouths to feed and bodies to house would be the greatest relief we could give."

"You really should be on your way back," Maglor said.  "Returning to Mithlond will take time.  You have some time yet to spare but you do not want to get into a situation where your time is tight.  If we commit ourselves here, we will commit ourselves for a few months I should think.  No, it is better to leave as soon as possible and get out of everyone's way."

While there were complications with Beldir and Beldis, Finrod could only agree with this summation.  They really shouldn't stay.

Around him, he could see the others reaching the same conclusion.

"So . . . you're leaving?" Beldir asked, voice small and expression guarded.  Finrod opened his mouth to reply, though he had no idea what to say.  It was Aegnor who answered though.

"You and Beldis can come too.  We brought three pack animals.  If we do as Voronwë suggests and leave what would be beneficial here, we will not need all three going back.  You and Beldis can each take a horse and we would still have one left to exchange and carry."

There was a quiet intensity to his words as he willed Beldir to accept the offer.  Finrod was again conflicted but he too waited with breathless anticipation for Beldir's response.

For his part, Beldir looked stunned at this offer.  "I . . . that is a generous . . . but we would . . . I'm just not sure Beldis would be willing to leave--"

"Yes, I would."

They all turned to find Beldis standing in the doorway.  She looked pale and tired but determined.

Aegnor shot to his feet.  "Did we wake you?" he asked, moving to her side.

She shook her head minutely.  "I was not asleep.  I cannot sleep, not here, not after what happened."  Beldis turned to look at her brother.  "If the Elves will have us, then we should leave.  What is there to stay for?"

Beldir looked troubled.  "We still have a duty--"

"To what?  Our city is destroyed.  Our Lord is dead.  Our people are dead.  You had a duty and you discharged it by getting as many people out of the city as you could.  But you have nothing now, Beldir.  Neither of us does.  We must start over now, and I wish to do it far from here."

"What of our friends and family, Beldis?  Can we just leave them behind?"

"What friends and family?  Who would we stay for?  If someone has survived, then tell me."  She looked at him expectantly, clearly hoping that he might indeed have a name to give her.  But he looked away, clearly having no such name to give her.  She inhaled sharply through her nose, willing away tears the way proud women did, and continued, "Then there is nothing to hold us here.  Please, Beldir, I cannot stand to be here.  I cannot-"

"Shh," Beldir said, standing up quickly to take his sister in his arms.  "If you wish to leave, we will leave."

Beldis sniffled and hid her face in his shoulder while she sought to master her emotions.  The others waited quietly.

"Where will we be going?" she asked when she finally put herself together.

Finrod was surprised when Tuor did not hesitate to say, "Rivendell."  He said it so matter-of-factly and so decisively that he earned curious looks from everyone.

He snorted when he saw those looks.  "You cannot really think that I have come all this way and would pass up the chance to see my grandson.  Idril would have my hide if I didn't check up on him."

"Your grandson lives in Rivendell?" Beldis asked hesitantly.

Tuor smiled warmly at her, his lips twitching in private amusement as he said, "He does indeed."

Beldis and Beldir exchanged confused looks, obviously picking up that there was much more to this story.  Not wanting to answer any more awkward questions, Finrod quickly said, "What of our restriction?  We cannot see anyone who would recognize us."

"We shall be discreet," Tuor said, though Finrod was hardly reassured.  There was a dangerous twinkle in Tuor's eye that made Finrod distinctly wary.  But he could not deny he was curious to see Rivendell and her Lord.

"If that is your destination, then I shan't be coming with you," Maglor said, crossing his arms over his chest and looking as intractable as Finrod had ever seen him.

Before anyone could think to cajole him, Tuor responded pleasantly, "You will indeed be coming with us."

"And how can you be so sure of that?" Maglor asked acidly.

Tuor's smile turned a little cold, but he said with simple pragmatism, "Because you are the only one who knows the way.  Beldir, do you know the way to Rivendell?"  Surprised to so suddenly be asked, Beldir could only shake his head mutely.  "Well, none of the rest of us knows it.  It is in a hidden valley, is it not?  Are you going to tell us that you do not know where it is?"

There was a definite challenge in his voice and a hard light in his eyes.  Finrod was not surprised that his cousin looked uneasy.  ". . . I know where it is," Maglor allowed reluctantly.

"Then you will show us the way.  That is, unless you wish to again come between me and my grandson."

Finrod actually flinched back hearing those words, and he heard Aegnor draw in a shocked breath.  Finrod swore the temperature in the room dropped precipitously in accord with Tuor's cold tone.  He couldn't quite believe that Tuor would call Maglor out like that -- not so bluntly.  Tuor didn't seem the type.  Certainly he had been very pleasant to Maglor this entire journey.

Finrod could only boggle.

Maglor's jaw clenched, a sea of emotions in his eyes.  There was definitely anger and irritation but there was also guilt, and that won out.  He looked away first, and muttered, "Of course not.  If you desire to go to Rivendell, I will show you where it lies.  But that is where we will part company."

Finrod was still not ready to give up on his cousin yet, but he felt it was imprudent to push the issue here.  And there was definitely a speculative gleam in Tuor's eyes that suggested Tuor had his own plans for Maglor.  For a moment, Finrod considered cornering the Man later to demand answers but he discarded the idea; if Tuor had wanted his plans known, he would have already told Finrod and no amount of threats or persuasion would loosen his tongue.

The atmosphere in the room remained strained for several very long moments before Voronwë hesitantly spoke.  "And what is the best route to Rivendell?  What kind of journey should we prepare for?"

"If you do not wish to encounter King Thranduil," Beldir replied, sounding very reluctant to offer his knowledge.  Finrod couldn't blame him.  He wouldn't want to wade into another's fight either.  "There is the Old Forest Road.  It is less than a hundred miles south of here.  You can follow the river all the way to it and it runs straight east/west through Greenwood."

"It probably is the quickest path," Maglor allowed quietly, not bothering to look at anyone.  "It comes out the other side of the Forest very near to where Imladris is.  We need only cross the Hithaeglir to get there."

"Well then, that settles it," Tuor said.  "We shall go south as soon as possible.  Tomorrow if we can manage it."

"If we are to leave tomorrow, then perhaps you should again try to sleep," Aegnor said, gently touching Beldis' elbow to lead her back to bed.  "It will be a long journey, and you will need your rest."

Beldis resisted.  "No, I cannot sleep.  I would be better employed preparing for the journey."

"Beldis, you need to rest," Beldir said, looking concerned.

She shook her head.  "I cannot.  Every time I close my eyes . . ."  She shuddered.

"Perhaps we can help with that," Maglor unexpectedly offered.  He reached for the harp lying by his feet.  It was not as big as the one he'd left in Dale but still of fine Elven craftsmanship.  "I know many lullabies.  Perhaps some music would put you at ease."

Beldis still looked like she would protest but Aegnor gently took her shoulders and drew her from her brother's arms.  "Please Beldis.  We are willing to try if you are.  Won't you at least try?"

He looked so earnest.  While Beldis still looked reluctant, Finrod was not surprised that she eventually gave in.  She allowed Aegnor to guide her back to her room and Maglor followed, gently shutting the door to allow her some quiet.

Beldir remained where he was for a few minutes but his own tiredness grabbed him and he sank back into his chair.  Finrod reached over to again touch his arm, earning a tired smile from the human.

"Where do you think you're going?" Voronwë said.  Finrod looked up to see Tuor near the door.

"To the stables.  If Edrahil must stay there, I know he will like to make use of his time.  He can begin preparing for a trip tomorrow."

It sounded perfectly reasonable to Finrod but Voronwë apparently was not convinced.  "You will do no such thing."

"I will not?" Tuor asked, an amused quirk of his lips.  He did not offer resistance when Voronwë grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the door.

"You will not.  You are human yourself and in just as much need of rest as Lady Beldis.  Let me and the others attend to preparations.  You will serve us best by taking a good night's sleep.  That is all that is required of you now," Voronwë said sternly.

Tuor's obvious amusement only increased but he said gently, "I appreciate your concern but a small errand will not tire me.  I will take rest enough in an hour or so."

"No, you will do so now.  What should I tell Idril if you were injured through such carelessness?  Would you place me before her ire merely to appease your pride?"

Finrod could not tell if Voronwë was serious.  His tone was not light but it was not particularly grave either.  Voronwë did look slightly agitated but that seemed divorced from the conversation they were having, and Finrod was not sure what his kinsmen was thinking.

"Alright," Tuor said, holding his hands up in mock surrender.  "The Valar forefend that you should suffer my wife's displeasure." He smiled warmly though, showing he was only teasing.  He was serious when he said, "If it means so much to you, then I will leave it all in your hands."

"It does," Voronwë said softly.

Tuor's warm smile softened into something truly tender.  Reaching up, he gently tucked a stray lock behind Voronwë's pointed ear.  "As you command," he murmured.

They remained looking into each other's eyes for a charged moment.  Finrod thought possibly something more would come of it but Tuor eventually straightened.  He showed no embarrassment when he saw Finrod and Beldir watching them.  Instead, he flashed them his brilliant smile and said, "It appears I am turning in as well.  Good night."

He nodded to Finrod and then strode towards the other room they had rented.  It did not escape Finrod's notice that Tuor caught Voronwë's hand as he passed him and gave it a squeeze before slipping into his room.

Voronwë gave them a flustered smile.  "I'll just see to . . . I'll go speak to Edrahil."  He did not wait for Finrod's response and slipped out of the room, leaving Finrod and Beldir alone.

Beldir continued to look at the door Tuor had disappeared through, a thoughtful look on his face.  Finrod braced himself for more questions.  Now that everyone was gone, it would be easier to steer the conversation but Finrod still wasn't sure how to explain everything.  He especially wasn't sure how to explain Voronwë and Tuor.  Whatever was between them was not to be mentioned, but surely after what he'd seen, Beldir would ask.

Beldir held his silence for a very long time, and Finrod waited him out.  Finally a great weariness passed over Beldir's expression and he sank back into his chair.  "They seem like good folk."

Finrod glanced at the closed door.  "They are.  I think you will get on well with Tuor."

Beldir nodded noncommittally.  He looked very tired.

"You should follow his lead," Finrod offered gently.  "You do look bone-tired.  A good night's sleep will do wonders, you'll see."

Gently, he took Beldir's arm and urged him to move.  At first he had no luck.  Beldir was solid muscle and unmovable without some serious effort.  The Man appeared too weary to contemplate getting to his feet.  But soon enough he gave into Finrod's pulling and hefted himself to his feet.

He swayed dangerously and Finrod grabbed him to steady him.  Only after the certainty of Beldir's balance had been restored did Finrod realize he was half-holding the Man.  Indeed, they were standing chest-to-chest and Finrod was suddenly caught in Beldir's green-eyed gaze.

Beldir gazed back at him just as intently.  He had reacted to the loss of balance by grabbing the Elf to steady him and now Finrod was very aware of his hands holding so gently to his arms.

It seemed like a small eternity before Beldir quietly whispered, "I haven't thanked you yet.  For what you did in Dale."

"There's no need--" Finrod began automatically.  He was again silenced, this time when Beldir's hands slid down his arms to interweave their fingers.

"No, if you and your friends hadn't been there, my sister and I would be dead."

The thought made Finrod's heart constrict painfully.  He needed to swallow to clear the emotion.  "We were there though, and you two are fine.  And I know it seems enormous now but everything will be fine again.  You will find someplace to settle and all of this will seem like a bad dream."

"You mean in Rivendell?" Beldir said, studying Finrod intently.  Finrod found himself holding his breath.  He had no idea what Beldir had made of everything he had heard this evening -- if he had even caught all the references or understood them -- and he had no idea what Beldir's thoughts were now.

Beldir gaze was piercing but clouded as he stared into Finrod's own brilliant blue eyes.  Finrod felt the look as if it scoured to the very depths of his soul.  Feeling the warmth of Beldir's hands holding his own, Finrod was reminded of the terrible moment in the water when they had lost connection.

"I thought I had lost you," he murmured without really realizing he'd spoken.  "I thought I would watch you dashed upon the rocks.  I thought . . ."

"Shh," Beldir murmured, shifting forward just enough that Finrod could feel his warmth fully.  It felt hotter to him than the dragon that had swooped so close so recently, and Finrod wanted nothing so much as to curl into it -- to wrap himself in Beldir's arms and be assured the Man yet lived.

"I'm alright.  Beldis is alright.  Your brother is alright.  Your companions are alright.  But for you, the day might have ended differently but it was not so.  Do not think anymore on might-have-beens.  We are safe."

His words were gentle and his touch tender where their fingers tangled.  There was a fire in his eyes though.

Finrod felt his breath catch.  Where a moment ago had stood a very tired guardsman of lowly birth and no rank, now there stood a king of men.  Finrod was suddenly reminded of that time so long ago when he had seen Barahir coming across the field of battle, a warrior's rage blazing from him like a beacon in a storm.  Nothing had ever seemed so magnificent, and even now, it never failed to send chills down his spine.

Feeling singularly out of his depths, Finrod didn't know what to say or do.  He was caught in Beldir's gaze, unable to break free as the Man studied him.

"We are safe," Beldir repeated.  His voice was low and intense, his gaze no less so.  Gently, he untangled one of their hands, reaching up to cup Finrod's face.  Without thinking, Finrod leaned into the touch.

"What have I done to earn this fortune?" Beldir continued to murmur.  "I have escaped the greatest of calamities with all that I truly need to live whole; who else can boast such good fortune?  When the dragon attacked, I thought surely it was over.  When the dragon attacked . . ."

He frowned, his thumb gently stroking the fragile skin under Finrod's eye.  Without intending it, Finrod's eyes closed to better feel the sensation.  "My sister was not my first thought.  Is that not strange?  Since we were children, she has been the first thought in my head whenever there was any danger, but not this time.  My first thought was of you.  I feared I had lost you and that I would never . . ." Beldir took a shuddering breath.  "Have you bewitched me?  Is this . . .?"

Finrod opened his eyes to see the storm of emotions at war in Beldir's green gaze.  Frozen in his stare, Finrod was unable to tell him that no, he hadn't bewitched Beldir; it was the other way around.  He was bewitched.  All his magic, all his vaunted knowledge, all his long experience -- none of it availed him against the man standing so near.

For a breathless moment they stood toe-to-toe gazing into each other's eyes.  Just as Finrod thought he saw something in Beldir's eyes -- recognition or perhaps a sudden resolve -- Beldir unexpectedly backed off.

Gone was the general-king, leaving only Beldir.  The sudden change made Finrod dizzy.

"Forgive me, I . . . I did not mean . . . You are correct; I should rest.  I must be more tired than I thought." Beldir could not look Finrod in the eyes while he spoke.  A flush of embarrassment chased over his skin and he took another few steps back.

"Good night," he said awkwardly, and then moved towards his sister's room.

For a moment Finrod could hear the sweet sound of his cousin's voice but then the door was shut.

Finrod sank into the chair Beldir had vacated.  Distantly he noted his hands were shaking, but that was a minor issue compared to the confusion swirling in his head.

What had just happened?

 

 

*************

 

 

They didn't quite manage to leave the next day, but nor did they stay in Lake-town.  They crossed the forest river and set up camp south of it just in time to see the first rafts of supplies appearing with Thranduil's promised aid.  They drew no attention to themselves but Beldir was glad to see the aid coming with his own eyes.  It made leaving a little easier.

Early in the morning, they broke camp and headed south along the Celeduin.  The horses seemed eager to stretch their legs, needing very little urging, but they did not give them full rein immediately.  Beldir had ridden a bit in his life but he couldn't say he was well-versed in long-distance travel.  Beldis had even less experience, and in deference to both of them, the Elves took many breaks to let them get used to the long hours in the saddle.

They made a straight path south until the Celeduin plunged into the Greenwood itself.  At the eaves of the forest, they set up camp and split into two groups.  Beldir was relieved when Finrod joined his brother, Edrahil, and Tuor on a hunt to augment their supplies before they took the long road west.  Finrod had thankfully said nothing about what had happened in Lake-town but Beldir could feel the Elf's gaze on him almost constantly.  He couldn't think with those otherworldly eyes on him.

So, he was glad of the three-day respite.  The Elves had decided it was best to make the journey through Greenwood as quickly as possible.  It was a well-known fact in Dale that one should never stray from the Road when in Greenwood.  Merchants told all sorts of wild tales, almost universally embellished.  But Maglor had also said it would be foolish to tarry, and he added that game was unlikely to be easily found deep in the woods.

While Finrod and Aegnor had been nothing but patient with their new traveling companions, they seemed glad for the exertion of a hunt.  They had seen that the camp was secured and then set off in the early morning.

Beldir had wanted to use the quiet to have a long conversation with his sister.  He was still concerned about her strong insistence that they leave.  It didn't seem like her; although to be fair, he'd never really considered how she might react to their home being destroyed by a dragon.

She refused to have such a conversation though, and after a few failed attempts to get her to open up, Beldir finally accepted she just wasn't yet ready to face what had happened, and he backed off.  If his sister needed some space, he would respect that.

So, he spent a delightful three days getting to know Voronwë better.  Maglor seemed content to sing by the river.  There had been a great deal of tension between him and Tuor, and he too seemed relieved to have some time to think.

But after three days, they were all glad to see their companions returned safe and sound.  They were very successful, bringing back a large buck and a decent-sized doe.  Beldis prepared the meat for them, making a smoking pit to ready it for travel.

While she set about curing the meat, the hunters brought back news of the Forest.  They confirmed the Road was still in good repair but that the Forest itself was too quiet.  Finrod supported Maglor's advice that they try to make it through the Forest as quickly as possible, even going so far as to suggest they push the horses to shave off a day or two.  Aegnor said his brother was being overly cautious, but he had glanced at Beldis when he said he saw no reason to dawdle either.

There was a flurry of activity as they made their final preparations, and then they finally turned their horses onto the Old Forest Road.

They made good time.  The first three days, their journey went smoothly.  The forest was a little eerie but the Road was fairly wide and the sun was bright overhead.  Maglor and Finrod took the lead while Tuor and Voronwë brought up the rear, leaving Beldir and Beldis with Edrahil and Aegnor in the middle.  Edrahil was not the best conversationalist, his eyes always scanning the surrounding area when they weren't keeping an eye on Finrod.  Beldir himself kept an eye on Aegnor, who had remained close to Beldis since Lake-town.  Aegnor spoke mostly to her, which Beldir did not mind as it seemed to take her mind off their journey and its reason.

It was nice when they changed things up though.  The middle stretch of the Road had become dark as the trees stretched higher into the air and began to block out the sun.  It wasn't totally dark but it was gloomy, and no one had to be encouraged to go that extra hour each day.

On the sixth day, Beldir found himself riding next to Tuor, and he realized he hadn't really had much conversation with the other Man.  The forest had just begun to feel truly oppressive and Beldir was anxious for any distraction.  Consequently, he nudged his horse a little closer to Tuor's.

The other Man gave him a curious look, which Beldir took as an invitation to break the heavy silence.

"Voronwë tells me you and he are sailors," he said for want of any other topic.  It seemed a good choice for Tuor broke out in a wide grin.

"Indeed we are.  Never feel quite right unless there's a ship beneath my feet and an ocean all around me."

"I've never seen the ocean.  It . . . Isn't it similar to Long Lake, only bigger?"

Tuor laughed.  "In the same way a mountain is similar to an ant-hill, 'only bigger'."  When he saw Beldir's chagrinned expression, he reached over to grab his arm.  "Nay, it's not a bad example.  Certainly, it's the closest thing I could give you as a description.  But there is no true comparison.  To see the sea . . . truly one is blessed."

". . . I think I may know what you mean, at least a little," Beldir said hesitantly.  At Tuor's curious look, he flushed.  "Finrod sang a song and I thought I saw a vast water in my mind.  It was so large I could not grasp it.  I . . ."

He trailed off with a self-conscious shrug.

Tuor nodded. "Aye, that sounds it.  The Elves can do wonders with their songs; they can make it feel like you're really there, at least for a little while.  I don't think it stays in our minds the way it does in theirs.  But you just wait.  If you ever get to see the real thing, you'll never be the same again."

Tuor flashed a genuine smile, and Beldir could see that for him at least this was true.  Beldir could only nod, and they rode in silence for a few minutes.  Above them the sun continued to lower, and Beldir could only be sure of his path by following the brilliant white horse Finrod rode and trusting to his night-eyes.  The trees around them creaked worryingly, and Beldir was sure he could feel many eyes upon him.

It was a little unnerving.

"You . . . have you been traveling long with Elves?" Beldir asked.

Tuor gave him a curious look.  "Do you mean these Elves in particular or just in general?"

"Er, well . . ."

Tuor shifted his horse a little closer, an amused look in his eyes.  "Or did you mean with Finrod in particular?"

Beldir could feel all the blood drain from his face, only to rush right back.  He ducked to hide his blush, feeling disconcerted that Tuor had noted his interest.  He only looked up again when Tuor reached over to clap him on the shoulder.

"Don't worry.  I shan't say anything, though I doubt it shall stay a secret for long."

Instantly Beldir was again standing before the fireplace in a tiny room in Lake-town.  His fingers still tingled with the feel of Finrod's skin under them.  He could still clearly picture the way Finrod closed his eyes in surrender to his touch.  Surely, that was interest, wasn't it?  But even so, Finrod had not pursued it.

Then again, neither had Beldir.  He wasn't sure what he was allowed or when he crossed the line, and he was terrified of pushing the Elf away.  And the longer it went unspoken, the more impossible it seemed to recapture the moment.

"To answer your question though," Tuor said, turning to look ahead of him, "I have spent my whole life around Elves, though Finrod and his people are not quite as well known to me.  They are my wife's kin--"

"Wait, you're married to an Elf?"

Beldir could only look at Tuor in amazement, his stomach tightening as the first inkling of hope began to stir within him.  He tried to tamp it down but it began bubbling up with every word Tuor gave him in reply.

"Indeed I am, prettiest Elf there is if I do say so myself."  Tuor winked.  "We were blessed with a wonderful son and now I'm on my way to see my grandson for the first time.  I know no one could be luckier than I."

"I didn't think . . . it's not common for Men and Elves to marry, is it?"

"No, not common.  I didn't have any problems in that regard as Idril's father supported our union.  Most Elves I meet have been supportive, although I was raised by Elves too so I have always been comfortable amongst them." Tuor shrugged.

Beldir hesitantly asked, "And Finrod . . . what does he think?"

Tuor gave him a long, contemplative look.  "I have never had cause for such a conversation with him, but--" he said quickly, perhaps seeing Beldir's disappointment, "I have no reason to believe he disapproves.  Indeed, there was another Man's suit that he supported rather strenuously.  I have never asked about it but the particulars of the situation are rather well known, and from them I have felt justified in believing I have only Finrod's goodwill.  Certainly he has given me no indication to feel otherwise."

Tightening the grip he had on the reins, Beldir turned his gaze forward.  He could see the golden waterfall of hair in front of him.  Even in the darkening twilight, the gloom could not dampen its beauty.  Finrod's hair seemed to shine like real gold -- like a light to brighten this dark place.

That thought made Beldir look down at the ring on his finger.  It too glowed in the gloom, sparkling with a faint inner light that made the surrounding gold and silver stand out.  Beldir had never worn a ring before in his life and yet there was something very familiar about the feel of it.  The weight felt foreign and familiar on his finger.  Whenever his thoughts turned to Finrod, his eyes would fall to the ring, and that too felt like something he had done all his life.

Distracted as he was, he did not note the look Tuor gave him.  "My wife did tell me," he said, grabbing Beldir's attention back, "that Finrod was very unhappy.  Indeed, it was generally well known back home that Finrod was fairly miserable."

"Miserable?  Why should he be miserable?"  The very idea seemed bizarre.  Beldir supposed that it was possible Finrod's outwardly friendly persona could mask his inner state but the idea of such a wonderful Elf not having everything he ought to have to make him happy just seemed wrong.

Tuor shrugged.  "That I cannot say.  Perhaps he was missing something?"

There was something in Tuor's tone when he said that, and when Beldir turned his head sharply, he saw a rather pointed look thrown his way.  Beldir was instantly reminded of the conversation he'd had with Finrod where he'd asked him why he was in Dale.  He remembered the searching look Finrod had given him.  He remembered the way Finrod's hand had trembled beneath his own.

Feeling his stomach twist, Beldir looked back towards the dark forest.  The shadows were lengthening into a dark carpet thrown against the edges of the trees, creeping up along the road itself.  The sun was beginning its final descent behind the still unseen mountains in the west.

Taking a deep breath, Beldir turned back to Tuor.  He saw no question in the other Man's eyes; Tuor clearly knew more than he was saying.  And yet, when Beldir opened his mouth to ask, he knew instantly that Tuor would not say.

It really wasn't his place anyway.  If Beldir needed answers, then he should man up and ask Finrod himself.

His eyes returned to watching the Elf.  As if sensing the scrutiny, Finrod glanced back.  He flashed a smile when he saw Beldir but quickly returned his attention to the road.

"And how are you doing?" Tuor asked after a few minutes of quiet riding.  When Beldir gave him a curious look, Tuor clarified, "With everything that's happened.  How are you -- and your sister -- coping?"

Beldir's gaze instantly turned towards his sister.  She was talking quietly with Aegnor, though her eyes often strayed to the surrounding trees.  Aegnor was trying to distract her but it was clear she was uneasy.  Beldir couldn't blame her; this far into the path, the forest really was unnerving.

"I think we're okay," Beldir said slowly.  "I have not gotten my sister to speak to me of it.  I know she is still uneasy.  I don't think she'll really settle or open up until we are in Rivendell."

"That's to be expected.  This forest certainly isn't helping matters." Tuor frowned at the surrounding foliage and Beldir was heartened to see he wasn't the only one to notice the darkening environment.  "I think you are right.  I have not been to Rivendell of course, but if it is anything like other Elven settlements, it will be well-guarded but calming to the spirit.  She should feel safe there and given the peace of mind to confront the tragedy."

"So, you think it is wise to leave it for now?" Beldir tried not to sound unsure but he would feel better if he had Tuor's endorsement for his inaction.  It was difficult not to pester his sister to talk about what had happened.  Beldir had always distracted himself from his own feelings by focusing on hers.  Not having that meant he had nothing to distract himself from his confusion over Finrod and that was almost as unnerving as the forest they were traveling through.

"You would know your sister's needs better than I," Tuor hedged.  "But at the very least I shouldn't think she will come to any harm for waiting.  And it's never the best of circumstances to talk about such things when on the road.  They are never given the weight they deserve."

Beldir nodded at that.  As a soldier he could also appreciate the dangers inherent in traveling.  Even discounting the eerie forest that was making him jumpy for no tangible reason, there were any number of things that could happen on the road, and it was best to stay sharp to them.  No, Tuor was right.  He had been doing the right thing.  He had made Beldis aware he was there if she needed him but given her the space she wanted.

He felt much better, and turned his attention back to the golden waterfall of hair in front of him, thinking the topic concluded.  Tuor clearly did not agree.  "And you?"

Surprised, Beldir turned back to see a gently concerned expression directed his way.  He raised an eyebrow in query and Tuor obliged.  "You have spoken of your sister, but what about you?  Your home was lost too."

Something about Tuor's phrase struck Beldir hard.  Of course he had lived in Dale his whole life; it was his home.  And of course Dale had just been burned to rubble and was lost to him.  But something about the idea of losing his home . . .

"What is it?" Tuor pressed, seeing something in Beldir's eyes.  He shifted his horse close again, keeping their conversation from the others.

Beldir shook his head but Tuor continued to gently press.  There was something so kind in his gaze, so concerned, that against his will, Beldir found himself opening up.

"It's just . . . sometimes it feels strange."

"Strange?"

Beldir glanced around to make sure no one was listening.  Even reassured on that point, he found it difficult to put his thoughts into words.  "I . . . I feel as if what happened to Dale . . . I feel removed from it in a way.  But not . . . I don't know.  I was in the middle of it when the city burned.  I can still feel the heat of the fires.  I can still feel . . ."

Beldir trailed off, his eyes again straying to Finrod.  He could remember the panic he'd felt when he'd seen the Elf standing there unaware of the danger about to fall on his very head.  He could still feel the solidness of Finrod's body laid out beneath him while he sheltered him from danger.  He could recall the amazing strength in Finrod's slim hand as it held onto his when they jumped.

"You feel . . ." Tuor prompted, pulling Beldir out of his memories.

Beldir frowned.  Unbidden, images from his dreams came before his mind's eye.  He still felt a chill to his soul when he remembered Finrod being pulled away from him.  But that didn't seem as real to him as the gold in the far-off surrounded by danger.  Seeing Finrod standing in the street surrounded by fire on all sides, Beldir had felt like he was living the moment all over.  He had pushed himself as hard as he could to get to Finrod's side and save him from the danger.  Having Finrod pressed against him as he protected him from falling debris felt so much like it had in his dream when he had protected Finrod from falling arrows.

He hadn't really made the connection before now -- certainly there had been other things on his mind.  And now, so removed from the event, he had to wonder if his dream had really been so lifelike or if he had just ascribed the real feeling of pulling Finrod out of danger to the dream.

Still, it did seem to him that there had been a moment of recognition.  He thought he remembered feeling that when he held Finrod to him -- a strong sensation that he had done this before.

Beldir shook his head to clear the sudden confusion.  He turned to Tuor, half-hoping the other Man might have some answer for him.  "Do you . . . have you ever felt like . . . like you've seen something before it happens?"

"Like a premonition?" Though Tuor's question seemed innocent, there was a shrewd light in his eyes as if he knew that it was no such thing.

Beldir did not pay attention to Tuor's expression though, already frowning and looking inward to better explain himself.  "No, no not exactly.  It . . . maybe not seen something so much as lived something.  Except, that's not it."  Feeling completely tongue-tied, Beldir let out a frustrated sigh.  "Sometimes it feels like I've . . . like I've lived something somewhere else a long time ago.  Do you ever feel like that?"

He turned hopeful eyes towards Tuor, who regarded him for a very lengthy moment.  "I have felt very old at times," the other man finally offered, his voice low and serious.  "I'm not sure about feeling like I've lived elsewhere, but I did have a sense when I was young that there was somewhere else I was supposed to be, some destiny I had to achieve.  Sometimes I felt haunted by it."

It wasn't quite what Beldir was talking about but it was more than he had thought to get.  "And do you still feel that way?"

Tuor shook his head, and for a moment Beldir was disappointed.  But then Tuor said, "No, but then I achieved my ambition.  I followed my heart, and sought out the place that haunted me.  There I found what I was searching for."

Now it was Tuor's eyes that slid away to an Elf.  He glanced back towards Voronwë, who was chatting amiably with Edrahil.  Looking forward, he saw Tuor's glance and flashed him a smile similar to the one Finrod had given Beldir -- more of an automatic response that seemed ingrained from years of doing the same thing.

It made Beldir frown.  He had been so caught up with what had passed between him and Finrod that he had almost forgotten the intimate way Tuor had tucked a strand of hair behind Voronwë's ear or the softening of their features when they looked at each other.  Beldir had been sure they were a second away from leaning in to kiss one another.

And yet, nothing had happened that night, and now Beldir had just learned that Tuor was married to another Elf.  The light of happiness in his eyes when he spoke of her made it clear that he loved her dearly.

So, had Beldir just imagined the intimacy he'd seen earlier?  Certainly Voronwë and Tuor were rarely ever apart.  They placed their bedrolls next to each other every night and rode most days together.  But perhaps they were just good friends.  Beldir had seen Finrod tuck Aegnor's hair behind his ear but that had seemed very brotherly to him.  There hadn't been the weight to it that had been there the night Tuor did it for Voronwë.

Beldir shook his head.  He had been very tired that night, making a fool of himself in front of Finrod.  Who was he to determine another's relationship when he could make nothing of his own?

He tried to drag his mind back to what Tuor had been saying.  He still wasn't sure how closely it applied to his own situation -- if Tuor truly understood what he was getting at or not -- but just as he was beginning to form a question to ask, Finrod called a halt.

"We shall camp here for the night."

It was almost too dark to see him now, and Beldir thought a fire was definitely in order.  The others seemed to concur, as they too began to dismount.  Only Beldis hesitated.

"Are you sure we should not continue?"

Aegnor came to help her off her horse, saying, "We can go no further with surety of safety.  The road has been goodly maintained so far but there is no guarantee and if the horses should take a stumble in the dark . . ."

"It's only for one more night," Maglor reassured.  "I think one more day's ride will get us to the eaves of the forest by tomorrow night.  We are not too far from the edge; we should be fine."

Beldis still didn't look convinced but she didn't protest when Aegnor reached up to lift her off her horse.  She remained jumpy throughout the preparations of the fire and evening meal, constantly looking out towards the dark wall of trees.

It put Beldir even further on edge.  He had been restless as it was, and the environment certainly did nothing to put him at ease.  He would be happy when they were finally out of this grim forest.

The fire seemed especially cheerless once Edrahil got it doing, though it was much larger than their usual, as if the Elves too had been affected by the gloominess.  Beldir settled against the nearest tree to the fire, feeling tired but far too twitchy to sleep.  He almost jumped out of his skin when Finrod appeared too quickly at his elbow.

Finrod offered an apologetic smile, wordlessly offering him a bowl of dinner.  Beldir tried to return the smile but even to himself, his face felt wooden.

"There's no reason to fear," Finrod said, settling beside him.  "We are too large a party for wolves to attack.  The fire will keep them at bay."

He certainly sounded confident but Beldir did not feel reassured.  "Does nothing here concern you?"

"I have faith in our party.  Should anything attack, we are well armed.  All of us are warriors, save Beldis, and she's the person I would least want to tangle with amongst us." Finrod smiled again, clearly trying to cheer a better mood out of Beldir.  Beldir's smile did come a little easier at the thought but he still did not feel at ease.

The others seemed to feel something of it.  Conversation was muted and then abandoned altogether.  Finrod urged them all to turn in, but Beldir didn't think anyone slept.  He lay down to appease the Elf and to silently encourage Beldis to do the same, but his sword was clutched tightly under his blanket and he kept his gaze on the surrounding trees.

He almost missed the very first indication that something was indeed wrong.  While his mind was uneasy, his body was tired and his eyelids felt very heavy.  There was really no doubt of his being able to stay awake, but the sharpness of his mind suffered in the quiet and gloom.

But he thought he saw movement in the deep shadows.  It was too quick to be sure, and at first he thought it was merely his tired brain making things up.  Indeed, the very first disturbance he witnessed, he thought nothing of it at all.

Beside him, Aegnor stood guard, having volunteered for first watch.  He was standing quietly at the edge of their circle -- as he passed most nights on watch -- and seemed calm and unaffected.  But he was near enough that Beldir saw instantly when he stiffened, his head slowly scanning the surrounding area for whatever it was his sharp Elven ears heard.  An arrow suddenly appeared notched in his bow but he still had the weapon pointed down.  Clearly he had not yet identified if there was a threat or not.

Beldir had seen this behavior many times during their journey, and it had never heralded anything.  Aegnor would eventually relax and nothing would come of it.

It felt different this time though.  Again seeing some movement out of the corner of his eye, Beldir squinted in that direction.  He stared so hard that his eyes began to water.  He blinked to clear them and the moment he did, he saw a distinctive glint.  Not even bothering to question what he saw, Beldir reacted on instinct.

Just as a throwing axe sailed towards Aegnor, Beldir grabbed the Elf's ankles and yanked hard.  The axe just barely missed burying itself in Aegnor's chest.  Even as he was falling, Aegnor shouted something in Elvish that had all the others jumping to their feet in an instant.

Garbled shouts echoed from the direction of the axe-throw, and they made Beldir's blood run cold.  He and Aegnor quickly disentangled themselves and also got to their feet.  Even in that short amount of time, they were already besieged with a wave of attackers.  As the shouts had indicated, these were orcs.  They wore little armor and no shoes, which accounted for their quietness.  Their weapons were crude as were their tactics; they did not prove overly difficult to kill.

But, as was generally the case with orcs, what they lacked in skill and armament, they made up for in numbers.  Beldir had no idea where they all came from, and he wondered just how long their party had been under surveillance.

He quickly ignored any such thoughts, immediately looking for his sister.  Tuor was quicker, having pulled her up against a tree and put himself between her and their attackers.  Aegnor raced to his side to shore up his flank.  Voronwë magically appeared on the other side, leaving Beldis well protected.

Beldir wished to join them but almost immediately he found himself blocked by three orcs.  The biggest one growled something that might have been, "We're going to rip you limb from limb, filthy maggot!" but his mouthful of teeth made him rather unintelligible.  Not that Beldir wasted any time trying to understand him.  Nor did the orc waste any time in swinging a rather menacing looking flail in his direction.

Beldir was able to duck away from the blow with ease, keeping the nasty weapon from his unprotected flank.  Though he had never used one, he suddenly wished for a shield.  He thought about how quickly he could dispatch his opponent if he only had some protection.  Instead of constantly dancing out of reach, he could use a shield to absorb the impact of the blow and use the closeness that move provided him to plunge a sword from underneath the protective barrier into the orc's guts.

He had no shield though, and pushed away the impulse with irritation.  He had no idea where the thought came from.  He had not trained with a shield; he would only get himself killed.

It was with that in mind that he applied himself to the battle.  He tried to keep half an eye on his sister but that backfired as the orcs seemed keen on seizing any moment of inattention.  Eventually Beldir just had to trust that his sister was in good hands and worry about himself.

He didn't notice at first the widening gap between himself and the others.  He only noticed the immediate terrain and its effectiveness or hindrance to the small skirmishes he was engaging in.

"Beldir! Behind you!"

Finrod's warning was just in time; Beldir felt the sword just miss his ear as he ducked.  He twirled around, managing to catch his attacker in the gut before hopping backwards out of reach.  Barely able to make out the features of the dying orc, Beldir finally realized that he had strayed too far away from the firelight.

He needed to get back.

Finrod called his name again, practically dancing through the line of orcs as he tried to get to Beldir's side.  This, however, took him from the safety of the others and Beldir didn't want that at all.  Trying to keep an eye on his back, Beldir fought to return to the firelight.

This proved unusually challenging.  Most of Beldir's experience as a guardsman had been rounding up drunks and breaking up fights.  He had come across orcs while on messenger duty but never more than a handful.  They were usually starving to venture so far from Greenwood.

Beldir had never fought against a disciplined enemy before.  These orcs may not be well equipped but they worked well together.  Beldir found he had very little control over the situation; he could only react.

Despite his wishes, he was still being pushed back.  He couldn't afford to worry about anyone but himself.  The orcs had smelled a vulnerable target and were pressing hard.  With the thick darkness pressing around him, Beldir had no idea how many orcs there were.  He could only see the ones right around him and around the fire, but whenever an orc was hacked down, another always emerged from the darkness.

Finrod continued to call his name, and Beldir used that as a judge of the Elf's position.  Though he knew he shouldn't, he couldn't help looking for Finrod's golden head whenever a moment presented itself.  It seemed like Finrod was slowly getting closer to him, which meant he too was being drawn away from the others.  But he didn't seem to be having any trouble with his opponents.  He was quick and strong and smart; none of the orcs got anywhere near him.

Beldir's own fight was much messier and getting worse the more he tired from the exertion.  Even with his cursory glances, he could tell Finrod and the others were out of his league.  It would have been better if he had stayed by his sister's side and let the others defend them.

There was no hope for that now.  He could only duck and slash and hope that his enemies were beginning to grow few.

Time did not flow naturally during a battle, so Beldir had no idea when the slipup occurred.  He was fighting a particularly big orc, one of the few who had an iron breast plate, helmet, shin guards, and thick leather pants, making it more difficult to get to a vital organ.  He was clearly a leader of some sort but Beldir had seen at least two others similarly dressed and he didn't know which one had to be killed to send the others scurrying away.

The orc had a heavy iron mace the size of Beldir's head, and he wielded it with surprising speed.  It took all of Beldir's concentration to keep out of the creature's reach.  There were several very close calls as the mace came dangerously close to knocking Beldir upside the head.  But no matter what he did, Beldir couldn't get close enough to land any blows himself.

It was in this situation that Beldir made his mistake.  Without meaning to, his eyes wandered for an instant towards Finrod.  In that instant, the big orc struck.  It was closer than any previous blow; the only reason Beldir was saved from an actual strike to the chest was a tree root.  He scrambled back when he saw the hit coming and ended up overbalancing when his heels came in contact with the root.  He fell down hard, the mace actually scraping against the leather of his jerkin but not delivering any actual damage.

"Beldir!" Finrod screamed.  From his vantage point, it must have appeared that the orc's blow had struck Beldir off his feet.

On his back, Beldir had only a moment to look at Finrod.  Even with his close call, he couldn't stop himself.  In that moment, he was horrified to see that his fall had distracted Finrod from his own opponents.  One of the orcs grabbed at Finrod's hair, dragging him down.

That was all he saw before the big orc loomed above him, and Beldir had to roll to avoid another blow.  Luck was with him; the mace became stuck in the same root that had upended Beldir, who pounced on the opportunity.  He struck with all his might against the orc's vulnerable neck, almost decapitating the creature.

Pumped with adrenaline, he jumped to his feet.  More orcs were converging on him but his eyes went immediately to where he had last seen his Elf.  For a moment he saw nothing.  He swung his gaze from side to side, desperate for some sign of gold.  The firelight seemed so far away, barely throwing any light in their direction.

And then he saw a sight that turned the blood running through his veins to ice.  An orc had Finrod on his knees, a dirty hand tangled in his golden hair pulling back his head and revealing his neck.  Another orc had his sword raised, ready to deliver the killing blow.

Beldir's whole world tunneled in an instant to the sight of his Elf.  He felt a lifetime of memories slam into him in an instance, and he discarded anything that was not immediately useful.  With a roar of rage, he charged forward unmindful of the orcs still converging on his position.

Suddenly his instinct kicked in.  He ducked and sliced and spun and hit as if he had been in thousands of such battles.  Every blow landed perfectly, every evasion was timed just right -- his tiredness was as nothing.

The orcs he didn't kill leapt back in surprise at the complete switch in his apparent aptitude but he paid them no mind.  With a great leap, he smashed into the orc about to behead Finrod and slammed the creature into the ground.  Viciously he snapped the orc's neck, and then jumped back to his feet to dispatch the remaining orc.

Finrod had already taken care of it though, drawing his own blade out of the twitching orc's dead body.  There was no time to check each other over as the orcs regrouped and came at them in force.

They fought back-to-back, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world.  He suddenly felt alive again.  He felt as if he was shedding a heavy cloak to feel the sun for the first time.

Which was ironic as it was black as pitch still.

The two of them quickly dispatched the orcs; there was no longer any contest.  When he struck a blow, Finrod covered his flank.  He returned the favor when Finrod danced out of an orc's reach, neatly decapitating the creature.

It felt like they were just getting into a rhythm when suddenly all their enemies lay dead at their feet and no more were coming.  They looked around for a moment, the battle frenzy slow to die away.

But when it was obvious they had come through unscathed, Finrod turned to give him a relieved smile.  It was the kind of smile that could light up the whole forest.

The instant he grabbed Finrod's arm and slammed the Elf into the tree, the smile died and a look of confusion replaced it.  He loomed right into Finrod's space, staring hard into his unearthly eyes.

The silence stretched, but Finrod made no move to free himself.  He simply stared back, a slight frown the only indication of his confusion.

"I remember," Barahir said, his hand tightening just shy of bruising the Elf's arm.  He saw Finrod's eyes go wide; he could practically see the Elf's mind racing to understand what he meant.  So, Barahir repeated himself.  "I remember."

He didn't know what he wanted.  He didn't know what he thought would happen.  He just knew they were standing on the edge of a precipice.  He wasn't thinking things through.  He didn't consider the implications of what he now knew to be true.  He was still running on instinct and every instinct in his body was pushing him towards this Elf.

A hand grabbed his, pulling him away.  Already feeling defensive because of Finrod's near miss, his blood was still singing in his ears, and he lashed out at the person trying to take his Elf from him, but Tuor ducked the blow neatly.

Tuor didn't bother restraining his strength, digging his fingers into Barahir's flesh as hard as he could.  Barahir realized what it must have looked like, so he again said, "I remember."

But Tuor only said, "Later," with no surprise at all.  He dug his fingers in a little tighter and the small pain centered Barahir, made some of the bloodlust leave him.  The resurgence of his mind bleached away the intensity of the moment, making him more aware of just what toll his body had taken.

"Your sister needs you," Tuor said, shifting so the firelight could be seen with ease over his shoulder.  There were no obstructions and he could see Beldis safely encircled in Aegnor's embrace while the others rushed about to saddle the horses and ready for a hasty escape.

Just as suddenly as his old life had reasserted itself, his new one also claimed privilege.  The two clashed inside him, and he swayed under the weight of it.  Tuor flexed his hold, giving him a painful anchor to center himself on.

All he could do right now was push everything aside.  There was no guarantee that another wave of orcs wasn't waiting to ambush them at any second; they needed to get out of here.

Tuor saw the instant he reached this conclusion because he let go of him and whirled around to help the others.  Glancing over at Finrod, he saw that the Elf was clearly shaken.  He wanted nothing so much as to reach out to Finrod.

But he didn't know what he was reaching for.  Confused, he could only follow after Tuor.

 

 

*************

 

 

When the fighting started, Edrahil and Maglor had immediately taken up defensive positions in front of the horses to keep them from bolting and to keep the orcs from laming or freeing any.  None of the orcs had achieved a successful blow to the animals but there were many near misses that had thoroughly riled them.

As a result, as soon as supplies were quickly packed away and riders mounted, the horses bolted from the camp as if they were as anxious to be gone as their riders were.

Finrod allowed his horse to go as fast as it pleased, following Maglor's lead.  They had no idea if they had managed to kill the entire party of orcs or indeed if their adversaries were alone or merely a hint of a much larger force.  No one wanted to again be caught off-guard, and it seemed wise to lose themselves further into the forest.

They had no choice but to take the road.  It was still unnaturally dark in the forest as neither moon nor starlight penetrated the interlaced boughs.  The road had been in good repair so far and the trees grew up right along both sides for the most part, creating a wall that left little chance of taking a wrong turn.  At the speeds they were going, the only wise course of action was to stay on the road.

It left them vulnerable though, as the orcs could determine this much of their options at least.  Finrod hoped there were no more orcs readying to ambush them; he could only hope the speed of their horses would be a counter to whatever threat remained in the forest.

Had they been going at their normal pace, there would've been a full day's travel remaining to them.  With the horses going as quickly as they would, they would surely at least half that.

Maglor slowed their speed when the sun's first rays peeked through the leaves.  The horses were sweaty and spooked but they could not afford to stop.  However, with the coming of the sun, they all felt better able to see a coming threat, thus the need for speed was not quite so great.  It was well known that orcs and other foul creatures shunned the sun.  That did not guarantee safety but it certainly favored them.

They kept moving, reining back the horses as much as they felt was safe so as not to exhaust them.  But once they finally saw the western eaves of Greenwood, the horses strained against them, and their riders let them.  Finrod's horse burst from the forest like a well-aimed arrow, going at a full gallop towards the river in the distance.

It wasn't until they had found the Old Ford and crossed to the dubious safety of the Anduin's western bank that they finally halted.

Finrod jumped from his horse immediately, stripping the stallion of every burden.  The horse was sweating and shaky, pressing its nose into Finrod's shoulder in a bid for some kind of reassurance.  Finrod could not converse with animals as his cousin Celegorm could but as an Elf, he could certainly soothe the beast.  He spoke softly into a velvet ear, telling the horse what a wonderful job it had done and how swiftly it had flown and that it was okay to rest now.

Around him, the other Elves were likewise engaged.  Beldis and Beldir could not speak to the horses so that the beasts would understand but they took time to stroke their necks and speak gently, which was almost as good.

Even as he spoke, Finrod's eyes kept straying to Beldir.  His mind was still reeling from the fight and their encounter at the end of it.  He remembered watching Beldir fall backwards from what looked to be a fatal hit straight to the chest.  At that moment, Finrod's whole world had fallen in on itself.  He hadn't even cared when the orc had grabbed him by the hair and forced him to his knees.

Seeing Beldir sweeping in like Maedhros himself in full battle-fury had jumpstarted Finrod's heart.  It was exactly like Barahir had done all those centuries ago, and the resemblance had made Finrod momentarily dizzy.  But then they were fighting together just as they had done during the Dagor Bragollach; it seemed like no time had passed.

Finrod had been exhilarated and unthinking.  For a moment he had looked over and it had been Barahir standing beside him.

And then it had been Barahir.  He had said he remembered.  He had looked at him with those kingly eyes, flinty with a lifetime's fighting and dangerous in a way that made Finrod breathless.

Beldir said he remembered.  But remembered what exactly?  Did he remember that he was Barahir?  Did he remember meeting Finrod?  Did he remember saving him?  Did he remember his son and their people?  Or did he mean something else entirely?

Finrod chewed his lip in uncertainty, trying desperately to tamp down on the growing bubble of hope trying to inflate his chest and carry him off.

"Beldir, would you get some water from the river?" Beldis asked, giving her brother the traveling pot they made stew in.  Beldir looked pale and glassy-eyed with exhaustion, though he took the pot without protest.  They were all very tired, not having had much sleep the night before and riding hard all day.  Knowing that Beldir had an emotional revelation to deal with too, Finrod had just resolved to go to him when Beldir shook himself and headed off towards the river.

Finrod watched him go, feeling uneasy to let him wander out of sight.  Beldir would be within yelling distance but that didn't seem good enough to the Elf.  Finrod had a very strong urge to follow the Man.

But he was still at war with himself, uncertain what to do.  In the end he sighed and told himself not to worry.  Beldir was tired but not stupid; he was a trained guardsman and there was open country on the other side of the river.  He would see any threat in time to call for aid.

So Finrod helped Maglor build a fire while Beldis directed Edrahil and Voronwë with the making of their camp.  Finrod had just finished setting out his own bedroll when Aegnor approached him.

"Horses secure?" Finrod inquired politely.  Aegnor looked distracted as he glanced over his shoulder where they could both see the horses grazing.

"Yes.  They're exhausted."

Rueful, Finrod said, "We all are."  He thought that might be the end of it and reached for his pack to grab his comb to make some sense to his hair.  In doing so, he became aware that his brother was still hovering so he canted an eyebrow in silent inquiry.

Aegnor glanced around and then leaned in closer to make sure no one heard.  "I heard what Beldir said -- that he remembered.  Does he know who he is?  Did he confirm he is Barahir?"

Finrod could not immediately answer, feeling the twist of emotions wrapping around his inners.  When he looked up, the ardent look in his brother's eyes was hard to take.  He could guess how much his answer would mean to Aegnor.

"We haven't had a chance to talk," Finrod said quietly, turning away.  He wasn't very surprised when Aegnor grabbed his shoulder in a firm hold and gently turned him around.

"What are you waiting for then?  Aren't you eager to know what he remembers?  Aren't you eager to declare yourself and be known truly once again?"

Finrod admitted there was a part of him that was anxious to do just that.  Even if Beldir did not feel as he did, it would be a relief not to mince words anymore and to speak openly.

But he also feared what he would learn.  He feared that Beldir indeed did not feel as he did and he feared that he did.  He wasn't sure what he wanted from this meeting, and that stayed him.

Aegnor would not let him waffle though.  He took the comb from his brother's hand and dragged him across the camp.  In a loud voice, he said, "Beldir has not returned yet.  See what is keeping him."

Clearly Aegnor expected Finrod to see about much more than that when he pushed his brother in the direction of the river.  Finrod was too tired to resist, and he knew his brother meant well.  Indeed, he really did need to talk about what had happened.

He was also worried.  Beldir should have returned by now, and considering their close call the night before, Finrod feared the worst.  His fears were for naught though.  He found Beldir sitting on a fallen log, looking blankly out across the river.

"Beldir?"

At first it appeared that Beldir did not hear him.  Before Finrod could repeat his call, Beldir finally glanced over at him.  He offered a tired smile, too worn and distracted to really be a smile at all.

"Are you alright?"  Unsure of his welcome, Finrod approached closer and took a seat beside the Man.  He was careful to keep some distance between them, still not sure where they stood.

Beldir nodded, and the quiet lingered for a time.  He didn't seem like he wanted to talk and Finrod had no idea what to say.  As his mind conjured and discarded dozens of questions and opening remarks, he too looked over the water to find some semblance of peace.

The Anduin was wide and serene.  Every once in a while a branch or leaf or some other such debris would dart past them in the swift current but that was the only indication of the speed of the river.  It looked deceptively calm on the surface.

"I'm sorry."

Startled out of his thoughts, Finrod looked over to find Beldir finally focused on him.  Beldir looked chagrinned and repeated.  "I'm sorry.  For . . ." He pointed towards Finrod's arm.  Finrod had rolled his sleeves up to make the fire and there was a bruise forming right above his wrist.

"I don't think this is your doing," Finrod said.  Indeed, he remembered being pulled hard by an orc hand before he'd severed the orc's arm off.  Beldir's grip had been firm when he had grabbed the Elf but it had not been painful.

"Still . . . I shouldn't have . . . I'm sorry about . . . well, I'm sorry."

"It's alright.  I understand."

"Do you?" Beldir asked sharply, seeming to shake away his exhaustion.  His sudden focus was surprising.  "You knew me; you know me.  When we first met, you recognized me, didn't you?  That was why you gave me this." He lifted his hand; the ring on his finger glinted brightly in the sunshine.  "You wanted to remind me of who I used to be.  That I am . . ."

"That you are . . .?" Finrod prompted.  In his chest, his heart began to hammer, and his stomach twisted itself into a knot.

Beldir turned away, and was silent long enough to be a torture for Finrod.  When he answered, it was a whispered, "That I am Barahir."

Finrod's breath hitched.  Ever since he had seen Beldir, he had debated the nature of his existence.  In his head, he had noted the possibility that Beldir could indeed be Barahir reborn.

But to have Beldir say the name -- to confirm what had seemed the wildest of dreams was a shock to Finrod's system.

He was given no time to adjust to the sudden shifting of his world's axis because Beldir turned to him and demanded, "Did you know I would be in Dale?  How is it that I am here?  How is it that I am reborn?  Is that what happened?  Am I reborn?"

Before Finrod could even begin to answer, Beldir glanced behind him toward the camp and then continued, "And my sister?  Or should I say my aunt?  It is Andreth, isn't it?  Why is she my sister and not my aunt?  Does she--"

"I don't know!" Finrod burst out, his head dizzy with the same questions he had spent so much time pondering himself.  Somehow having Beldir ask them made them more real, more concrete, and even more difficult to confront.

"I don't know," Finrod repeated, a little quieter.  "I have asked myself the same questions over and over again, and I have no answers.  I wish I did.  Seeing you and your sister -- it goes against everything I have ever known of the race of Men.  And yet, here you are.  I cannot refute that.  I don't know why you are here but if you remember that you are Barahir, then I can only conclude that you are indeed reborn."

Beldir studied Finrod for a long moment but then turned back to the river, running a hand through his hair in an agitated gesture.  He looked weary and confused, and Finrod's heart went out to him.

"I'm sorry," Beldir finally offered after the silence had lingered long enough to settle them both.  "I just . . . everything is mixed up, and I'm not sure . . ."

He paused, frowning hard at the river as if it had taken his words from him and would not give them back.  Beldir licked his lips, finally turning to Finrod.  He looked lost.  "I remember holding my son for the first time.  I remember my wife's face on the day of our wedding.  I remember riding out over Dorthonion with your brothers.  But I also remember the day Beldis was born.  I remember flying kites on the high terraces in Dale and playing in the garden behind our house when I was little.  I remember the first time I was deemed old enough to go to Lake-town on my own.  I remember my parents: both sets.  I remember walking the road to Erebor with my sister, and walking the trails of Ladros with my brother.  And yet . . ."

He trailed off, the troubled look in his eyes increasing.  Sensing how delicate this was, Finrod refrained from prompting him, though he was anxious to know more.

Suddenly Beldir surged to his feet, the picture of agitation as he paced a few feet away and then stomped back.

"I have all these memories and none of them feel real to me.  I can feel what it was like to hold my son in my arms.  I can hear the bells of Dale ringing in the morning.  I can smell my wife's perfume and I can taste my mother's cobbler.  And yet it seems like that is someone else's child, someone else's parents.  Both lives feel foreign and ill-fitting to me.  But at the same time, they are both mine.  When I conjure my parents' faces -- all four of them -- I can picture them clearly.  They feel like my parents and they feel utterly alien to me too.  Tell me, what can you make of that?"

The way Beldir said it, it was clear he expected no answer.  It was just as well for Finrod had no answer to give.  He had never heard such a thing.

But he could see the tension in Beldir's back as he again turned to look into the swirling waters.  Finrod could not bear to see him so distressed.  Standing, he hesitated for only a second before reaching out to touch Beldir's shoulder.  Beneath his hand, the muscle felt like solid stone for a moment before Beldir consciously relaxed.  He allowed Finrod to turn him.

"I do not know what all this is but please do not worry.  You have only just regained your memories.  It seems to me that being reborn is different for Men than Elves but when I regained my memories after rebirth, I had difficulties too.  I had the same parents and lived in the same city but I was not the same person anymore.  It was jarring."

Beldir regarded him for a moment, and Finrod was not sure he had helped him any.  The sharpness of his distress left his eyes though, leaving mostly confusion.  Finrod had at least distracted him from the worst of his questions.

"Reborn . . ." Beldir muttered, and he glanced back at camp.  "You . . . you were alive the last I remember.  I saved you . . . didn't I?"

He sounded suddenly unsure, and Finrod quickly jumped to reassure him.  "You did.  I was cut off from my people; you directed your soldiers to my aid and brought me back to the line of my men.  Is that not how you remember it?"

Beldir glanced down at the ring on his finger, and Finrod was reminded he had mentioned that earlier.  The butterflies were back in his stomach as he wondered if Beldir remembered that moment with the same clarity Finrod did.  And if he did, had he ever looked at it as anything other than friendship?  Had he seen the true designs behind the gift when Finrod himself had been willfully ignorant of it at the time?

"Yes . . . and no.  In my dreams I have seen what you describe but I have seen it go otherwise as well.  Yet, when it went otherwise, it never felt right to me.  I just . . . I wasn't sure."

"Your dreams?" Finrod asked, as this was news.  Beldir had seemed to recover his memories in the heat of battle, and none of them had slept yet.

Beldir nodded slowly.  "Yes.  I have dreamed of that moment since . . . forever, it seems.  I would be lost amid the battle and see the gold of your head in the distance.  But I could never reach you, at least not until you arrived in Dale."

He looked faintly embarrassed but mostly still just confused and troubled.  Finrod's curiosity got the better of him.  He had not realized Beldir had any memory before this; Elves never did in their own rebirth.

"And after?"

". . . I saw your face finally but . . . you were ripped away from me.  The battle never went the way I felt it should.  Something was always in the way."

Finrod knew the power of dreams and premonitions.  Had not Ulmo sent him a dream urging the building of Nargothrond?  Had he not known he would never father a child?  Had he not known of his brothers' deaths?  He did not know what Beldir's dreams portended but he knew not to discount them.

"And my ring?  Did you dream about that too?" Finrod couldn't help asking.

Beldir again looked down at his new ring.  "Not in the dreams.  It felt familiar when you gave it to me but . . . no, it only came back to me now."

Hesitantly, Finrod pressed further.  "And your death?"

Beldir glanced away quickly, his expression twisting with some emotion Finrod could not identify.  Eventually he shook his head but it did not seem like a definitive answer; Finrod could not tell if he was saying he had not dreamed of it or he did not want to talk about it.

"You did not answer my question," Beldir said, perhaps to change the subject.

"Your question?"

Beldir again searched his eyes.  "About being reborn.  You said you died.  How . . . when . . ."

Now it was Finrod's turn to turn away.  He wasn't sure what to say.  He had been asked before; he had a dozen pat answers ready at a moment's notice.  But none of them were right, not for Beldir -- not for the Man who had saved his life and who he loved with all his being.

"I . . . I was killed by one of Morgoth's lieutenants," he hedged.

"When?  Was it in another great battle?"

Finrod chewed his lip, realizing he would not be able to skirt the issue of Beren's involvement.  He had not wanted to mention it, certainly not when Beldir had just begun to remember himself.

Glancing at Beldir, Finrod could see the Man would not be content with anything but a full answer though.

He sighed.

"Your son came to me in Nargothrond carrying the ring I gave you and invoking the promise I made to you to help you and your kin.  Beren had been given a task by King Thingol to retrieve a Silmaril as bride-price for his daughter's hand in marriage.  Beren asked for my help and I granted it him.  Together we went north but we were ensnared along the way.  That was where I met my end -- in my own creation on Tol Sirion."

Finrod made no mention of the werewolf that gave him his wounds or his great sacrifice in killing the creature to spare Beren.  He did not like to think of that time too much.  Looking into Beldir's familiar face though, it occurred to Finrod for the first time that Barahir had been on his mind from the first moment Beren approached him in Nargothrond.

Beren had brought news of his father's death, which Finrod had not known before then.  Barahir had not been the first Man in Finrod's service to die but it had felt so different learning that Barahir was dead.  Finrod wondered if part of the reason he had not fought back against his cousins' treacherous words or made any effort to dissuade Beren from his quest had been because of the revelation of Barahir's death.  Now that he knew his heart, he realized that back then he had just learned that his other half was sundered from him forever, leaving him very vulnerable.  Beren's mission was a suicidal one; after such a blow, surely that was attractive to his fragile heart.

Lost in his thoughts, Finrod did not immediately see the stricken expression on Beldir's face.  "That's not . . . such an oath should not have led to your death!"

Finally seeing how upset his companion was, Finrod quickly focused on that.  "Nay, do not be distressed.  And do not think ill of your son.  A far greater power was at work in my death than my oath to you.  King Thingol called upon the Silmarils, and in doing so, he set a much greater power to work.  But even so, I do not regret my decision.  Your son was a very worthy man, and his love was true.  What better death could I ask for than to die so that two who so dearly loved each other might be united?"

Finrod shook his head.  "Your son was with me in the end, and my last memory was the grief on his face when I breathed my last.  He too had not meant for things to go as they had, and I think he deeply regretted that.  But I do not, and I would not have others regret it either.  For his actions, a great good has come in this world.  He retrieved the Silmaril, and it ended up in hands that delivered peace to these lands by ridding them of Morgoth's vile presence.  But even if the result had not been so high, I am more than paid in full with the worthy heirs that have come from your son's union.  When I made my oath to you, I did not foresee the consequences but the consequences that resulted were all that my heart intended when I promised my eternal friendship to you and your kin.  Please do not be distressed.  You will see for yourself when we reach Rivendell and you can see your grandson for yourself.  Had I not fulfilled my Oath, Lord Elrond might not be here, and that is a consequence that I could not bear."

Finrod watched anxiously to see if he had settled Beldir.  He had never met Elrond but he knew enough of him to think very highly of him indeed.  And Finrod had spoken the truth; he had never once regretted helping Beren and he never would.  Death was a terrible fate for an immortal Elf but Finrod would do it all again without a second thought.

"My grandson . . ." Beldir barely breathed the word, a look of wonder on his face.  Finrod could see he had not considered that.  Indeed, he had barely had any time to consider anything.  Even if he was perfectly reconciled with both lives immediately, he still had to make account of the intervening years.  There was much he did not know.

It was then that Finrod realized he was being selfish.  He wanted to know if Beldir felt what he did.  They had never spoken of their feelings in their first lives; Finrod honestly had no idea if Barahir ever desired him as he did the Man.  And if he had not, did Beldir's burgeoning interest in this life mean something could evolve?  Or had everything changed now that Beldir knew of his old life?  Certainly he no longer carried himself like the poor guardsman of Dale.  Finrod could see traces of that young man still, but mixed with it was the bearing of a great leader now -- a hardened warrior of many years' struggle.

Beldir could not make sense of himself yet.  It was unfair to press the issue now.  Indeed, it would only end up hurting them both if Finrod forced an answer Beldir had not really had time to consider.

So, Finrod gently wrapped his long fingers around Beldir's wrist and smiled kindly.  "Yes, Lord Elrond is your grandson removed by a few generations.  And he is Tuor's grandson too, who is himself your distant nephew.  Not all that you achieved is lost to the ages.  I know this is all a great deal to make sense of right now but it won't remain that way.  Do not be so hard on yourself, and take as much time as you need to consider the situation.  Aegnor, Edrahil, and I have all been reborn.  Clearly our experience is not the same as yours but we have all had to adjust.  We understand a little and are here to help.  Perhaps you should go easy on yourself tonight.  Things will fall into place in time.  You will see."

Beldir did not look wholly convinced but he did not resist Finrod.  Grabbing the filled pail, Finrod led him back to camp.

 

 

*************

 


Wary of another attack, the group did not stay more than a night by the river.  They went slowly as they approached the great mountains but they did keep going.  Maglor quickly found the High Pass and they set their horses on that course.

Deeming Beldir was burdened enough with his new memories and the trials of the journey itself, Finrod gave him space.  He made sure he was available if Beldir ever needed him but the Man did not avail himself of the offer.  Finrod could see he was lost in thought and he knew Beldir was still mulling over everything so he left him be.

It wasn't an ideal time to speak anyway.  The High Pass was treacherous and dangerous.  Thankfully, they did not encounter any enemies in the high peaks but that did not make the crossing easy.  When the steep climb down began to turn into a gentle slope, they were all relieved.

"We should camp here," Maglor said.

Edrahil drew his mount to a halt, glancing up at the sky.  "It is still light out; we could make a few more hours."

"That is true.  However, we are also getting close to Rivendell.  The area has changed some since last I journeyed this way.  I will need to scout to find the right path."

"In the morning," Finrod said sternly.  "We are all in need of rest.  If we are that near our objective, then this area must be fairly safe.  Let us make camp and take our ease."

They unburdened the horses and tied them loosely near a large pond surrounded by bright green grass.  For their own camp, they chose a sandier spot a few feet away.  Large rocks provided surprisingly comfortable seating, though they were further apart than was ideal.

"What I wouldn't give for a bath," Beldis said, standing at the edge of the water.

Tuor came up next to her and offered a warm smile.  "I'd wager the water is right cold but I think it clean enough.  You could even go over there for privacy." He pointed towards a large tree jutting out into the pond.  It created a small barrier to the other side of the pond where Beldis could bathe rather close to them without being seen.

"You know, I think I just might do that.  I don't fancy meeting Lord Elrond and his Elves covered in an inch of travel dirt."

Aegnor came up to her, offering a relatively clean cloak to use as a towel.  "I have never been one to turn down a bath myself, though I think you underestimate your loveliness.  Should Lord Elrond's folk behold you now, I declare you will start a new fashion trend.  I'd wager that in less than a fortnight, everyone will be wearing mud."

Beldis rolled her eyes, though there was distinctive blush on her cheeks when she accepted Aegnor's cloak.  "I should wonder anyone takes you seriously when you speak such nonsense."

"Nay, it is not nonsense," Aegnor said, gently taking her free hand in his.  "Our company is much enriched for your presence.  I cannot think anyone would argue that."

They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment, and Finrod did not doubt his brother's feelings were on full display.  When Beldis showed the first sign of unease, Aegnor smiled and placed a bar of soap into her hand.  "Yell if anything should disturb you and we shall be at your defense immediately."

There was a thoughtful frown on Beldis' face, suggesting she was unsure if the regard she saw in Aegnor's eyes was real or her imagination.  She was well aware that they were the center of attention, so she smiled and said, "I thank you for that, though I should ask you to heed my second yell and not my first."

Aegnor gave her a confused look and she laughed, explaining, "I do not know about Elves, but when suddenly immersed in icy water, I cannot help but shout."

The Elves laughed as intended.  The only one who did not laugh was Beldir.

"Andr-, er, Beldis.  I can--"

"Oh, no you won't," Beldis said, knowing immediately what her brother would offer.  "I am just beyond that tree; you can be at my side in no time.  I appreciate the offer but I do not need you hanging over me as if I were a babe."

"That wasn't--"

"And you'd do best to take your own bath in the meantime," Beldis said, not bothering to listen to her brother's protestations.  "You've been slogging through the mud since we left; I'm sure the Elves will appreciate if you took a dip too."

Beldir rolled his eyes, obviously seeing his sister was set upon her course.  Finrod hid his smile when he saw Beldir take a covert sniff of himself after his sister had disappeared behind the tree.

"I think Beldis has the right idea," Tuor said.  "I might take a dip over that way."  He pointed towards the other end of the large pond.

"We could all use a wash.  I am looking forward to Rivendell and a proper bath," Edrahil said, electing to join Tuor and Voronwë, who had begun drifting towards the north end of the pond.

Finrod said, "Take your time.  We'll wait dinner for you all."

The three nodded their thanks and wandered north.  When Finrod turned back to camp, he found Maglor and Beldir working to set a fire and Aegnor hovering near Beldis' tree in case she called.

Finrod snorted at that.  When Aegnor caught him looking, he flushed and then glared at his brother, which only amused Finrod further.

"You know, I've heard Beldis yell, Brother.  I don't think you need to worry you won't be able to hear her by the fire."

Aegnor's scowl deepened (as did the red on his cheeks).  "Leave off.  I'm just waiting for dinner to be ready."  He growled the words out, doubtless a warning to his brother to back off.  But Finrod knew Aegnor too well and knew it was only to hide his embarrassment.  Finrod was tempted to needle him further -- as any good older brother would -- but he decided the topic was too delicate and let the matter drop.

He settled on an exposed tree root a little further away so that Aegnor didn't look quite so conspicuous standing by himself next to the tree.  Aegnor hesitated for a moment before settling stiffly beside him.  Finrod hid his smile, turning away to let Aegnor reclaim what dignity he could from the situation.

Irresistibly, Finrod's eyes were drawn to Beldir and Maglor.  The two had the fire going now and were chatting quietly.

"Have you told him how you feel?" Aegnor said quietly, startling Finrod from his observations.

"What?  No, of course not."

"What do you mean 'of course not'?  What are you waiting for?"

Finrod gave his brother a disapproving look.  "In case it has escaped your notice, Beldir has been struggling with his returned memories.  It would be unconscionable of me to force a conversation only for my own gratification.  Why must I rush headlong into this?  I am more concerned with doing this right than doing it fast."

Aegnor didn't look the least bit chastised.  "In case it has escaped your notice, Beldir has been doing fine lately.  He is thoughtful -- that is to be expected -- but he is not distressed as he was initially.  You are being too cautious."

"Easy enough for you to say.  I don't see you rushing to declare yourself to Beldis."

"Beldis doesn't remember me," Aegnor hissed, glancing back towards the tree.  "Do you think for a moment that I shall hesitate to act once her memories have returned?"

"I'm sure that will go over wonderfully," Finrod said darkly, and perhaps too quietly for Aegnor to hear.  Or perhaps Aegnor simply ignored him.

"You are letting your fear rule you again.  If you do not act, you will miss your chance."

"Prudence is not the same thing as fear," Finrod said, feeling as if he'd had this conversation a thousand times before.  "We shall be in Rivendell tomorrow or the next day.  There we will be in safety with nothing to distract us; I intend to confront him then and discuss things at his pace."

Aegnor shook his head.  "No, you are thinking about it wrong.  Rivendell will not be the isle of paradise you think it is.  There will be so many other people for Beldir to talk to -- he will be distracted.  Speak to him now when there's no one but us.  At least begin the conversation."

Before Finrod could protest further, Aegnor jumped to his feet and said, "Excuse me, Beldir, do you mind if I interrupt?  There was something I wished to discuss with my cousin."

Maglor and Beldir both looked surprised at the sudden interruption.  Beldir merely shrugged, and said, "By all means."  For his part, Maglor looked more suspicious but he did allow Aegnor to draw him to the far side of the camp.

Having no one else to talk to, Beldir gravitated towards Finrod and took a seat by him.  Finrod gave him a chagrined look, utterly mortified by his brother's behavior.  "Sorry about that."

"No, it's fine," Beldir said with a kind smile.  "Maglor and I weren't talking about anything important."

Though it was juvenile, Finrod couldn't help but be relieved at this proof that Beldir had not been confiding in someone other than him.  Finrod had offered Edrahil and Aegnor's expertise along with his own, but he had hoped Beldir would turn to him.

However, he had also hoped Beldir would do so on his own, without any help from a meddlesome brother.

He couldn't deny that an opportunity had presented itself though.  While he was still unsure if it was wise to bring it up yet, he found it impossible to continue restraint.

"I was wondering . . . that is, if you felt ready -- not that you have to if you don't want to obviously -- but I wondered . . ."

Thankfully Beldir interrupted before Finrod really embarrassed himself.  "If that was your attempt to ask if it's okay to talk about my former life, the answer is yes."

Beldir's eyes were twinkling with amusement, a very fond expression on his face.  Ducking his head, Finrod could feel his cheeks burning.  But when he looked up, Beldir's expression was so inviting that Finrod was instantly at ease.

"You're sure?"

Beldir nodded.  "Yes.  Obviously, it has been much on my mind.  I think I've managed to sort out my two lives -- or at least to have a handle on having two lives."  He sounded a little unsure despite his words.

"And how are you doing with that?"

"I'm okay.  It's . . . it's still a little confusing at times.  I have so many questions but . . . I thought to wait until we reached Rivendell before asking."

"I would be more than happy to answer anything I could.  We all would," Finrod said.

Beldir gave him a faint smile.  "I know.  I'm sure all of you could answer many of my questions but . . . I wanted to make sure I knew my own head first so that whatever I learn doesn't . . . mess it up.  Rivendell seemed a good boundary marker.  I'd give myself until then to make sure there was nothing else rattling around my brain to pop out at me."

"We are near Rivendell now but if you wanted to wait--"

"No, it's fine.  There's been nothing new since Greenwood and now I doubt there will be.  Rivendell was just a good marker.  And, well . . ." Beldir's cheeks began to glow and he ducked his head slightly, looking slightly embarrassed.  "One of my cousins -- my Dale cousins -- worked as a scribe and told me Rivendell supposedly has a magnificent library.  I thought I might look for a book on the First Age."

Finrod frowned.  "Is there something you think we could not answer?"

Beldir's chagrin only increased.  "It's not that.  I just . . . there's a lot of history to cover.  I know some of it from schooling but I never paid attention like I should've."  He shrugged.  "I just thought they might have a short history that would get all the big events in order for me.  Then I could ask you and the others to fill in around the edges."

Amused, Finrod said, "I don't know if you will find a short history among the books of Elves."

"Well, Lord Elrond is a Half-Elf.  Perhaps his books will be half as long." Beldir winked and Finrod laughed.

"You may be right at that.  But surely there is something I could offer now?  I know when my memories returned, I lost myself in my head for awhile.  It wasn't just that my memories returned but that I had distance from them.  I thought over everything again, and rather objectively too," Finrod said.

Beldir was slow in answering, a thoughtful frown just beginning to crease his brow.  "I understand that.  Certainly there are things from my first life that . . . that I am seeing in a new light but . . . but at the same time I am not so sure of my memories that I feel rightly able to rely on the things I recall.  Does that make sense?  My race is not the match of your own on this score."

"I think you may do yourself a disservice but I will accept that the memories of Men often seem more fluid and fragile than that of Elves.  And I do not know how rebirth is with Men.  I doubt there would be any guidance in this world on that score, save perhaps across the sea.  And across the sea . . . well, I do not know what the Valar would make of your presence."

"Do you think they know of it?" Beldir asked, leaning in as if to keep their conversation from the ears of the Valar themselves.

Finrod thought about it a moment before replying.  "I do not know how they couldn't.  Surely your soul must have resided in Mandos at some point.  I do not know for how long or what happened that led to your being here but I cannot believe you to be a wandering spirit this entire time.  And even if you were, only one Grace would allow your rebirth, and surely Lord Manwë would have heard of it?"  Finrod shook his head.  "It seems too fantastic that you and your aunt could be reborn without the Valar having some idea.  Indeed, I would be very skeptical to learn they had no hand in it whatsoever."

"Why would they do that then?  I know you have no solid knowledge but surely you must have considered the matter," Beldir pressed.

Finrod was again slow to answer.  ". . . I have thought about it, but it makes no sense to me.  It has always been plain to me and to the other wise among my kind that, though we acknowledge that Men are close kin to Elves, your souls are not confined to Arda as ours are.  And though the Valar are ever circumspect in their speech, we have parsed from their few words about Men that your souls indeed do not long dwell in Arda when your bodies have succumbed to their end.  So, then, you have deviated from what is natural for your kind.  Only once before was such a boon offered -- to your very son -- and for a Doom far higher than any I can conceive of being needed in this late Age."

"But it was the Valar who achieved that boon, was it not?  Lúthien interceded on behalf of my son to Lord Mandos, who then interceded to Lord Manwë, who then interceded to Ilúvatar Himself.  Surely no less would be needed now, or do I err?"

"No, you are right.  That Ilúvatar had a hand in your rebirth is unquestioned, for only He has such authority over Men.  But I have never heard of Him acting without intercession -- a prayer or a call from the Valar.  And always, as I said, it has been for a high Doom.  Beren needed to live again to sire Dior who sired Elwing who gave the Silmaril to her husband to sue for aid but she was also instrumental in turning the hearts of the Teleri towards pity, which was just as important in winning the Great Battle.  That was the highest Doom indeed.  What Doom could match it here and now?  What possible reason could entice the Valar to sanction what they deem would be unnatural for your kind?"

Finrod shook his head again, as perplexed now as he had been when he had first seen Beldir across the crowded market-square.  "It makes no sense to me.  I feel strongly that the Valar are involved in some measure and yet I also feel that were they to learn of your rebirth, they would disapprove.  Indeed, if they were there before your rebirth, I think they would intercede to stop it."  Finrod shrugged, and noticing Beldir's rapt attention offered a chagrinned half-smile.

"Forgive me; it seems I cannot give you answers after all."

Now it was Beldir who shook his head.  "Nay, I did not expect them.  I find myself amazed that I am at the center of such a lofty debate, something more suiting to Andreth's temper than my own.  I did not really think you would know the answers but I also did not think there was any harm in asking.  Sometimes debating the matter brings clarity and sometimes it brings peace.  At the very least, I have some new things to consider and that is no small thing."

"Then I am glad if I have been of any service.  I too would welcome a discussion on this, for I have pondered it long but my thoughts have begun to circle.  I doubt there are answers to be found on these shores," Finrod said regretfully.

"Aye, that I believe.  I look forward to when Beldis regains her memories.  As I recall, you and she had many such debates.  I am sure she will consider something neither of us has."

Finrod nodded.  "I think you are right.  Andreth was the wisest woman I have ever spoken to, and I have always valued her insight.  If her memories return, I am most interested to hear what she would have to say."

"'If her memories return' . . ." Beldir murmured, looking towards the tree that screened Beldis from view. 

Finrod waited but Beldir appeared lost in thought.  When it appeared that Beldir would say nothing more, Finrod said, "Barah-- er, I mean Beldir.  Sorry."

Turning back at the call, Beldir smiled kindly.  "There is no need.  Indeed, if you wish to call me Barahir, you may."

"Really?" Finrod asked, surprised.

Beldir shrugged, suddenly looking self-conscious.  "To be honest, it has always sounded odd to me when you call me Beldir.  Even before my memories returned, my new name on your lips sounded . . . off.  I could not place it then but now . . . I think I knew you when I was Barahir and that is still stronger to me than as Beldir.  I think I think of myself as Barahir.  Certainly I feel that I have accomplished more as Barahir than Beldir."

"You are being unfair to yourself," Finrod said.  "You are still very young and this Age is not like the First Age.  And you . . ."

Finrod paused.  He had been about to mention that he had no doubt Beldir would do something marvelous with his life -- that he could settle down somewhere where he was needed and perform many feats that would rival his deeds in the First Age.  But Beldir would have to remain in Middle-earth to do that, and that idea made Finrod uneasy.

Shying away from examining his unease, Finrod instead said, "You do a disservice to the importance of small acts of kindness and love.  Great deeds may be lauded in songs and poems but the simplest gestures are the ones with the most power."

Beldir seemed to consider that for a moment, though Finrod had no idea if he accepted the notion or not.  Finally, Beldir said, "Well, at any rate, I do not think Beldir suits me anymore.  The only thing left from that life is Beldis, who is really Andreth.  I think it would make more sense to embrace my old name, for I think on the whole it would bring more order to my two lives."

"If you deem it so, then so be it," Finrod said.  "I admit I still think of you as Barahir.  There were many times I almost called you such in Dale.  I feared to confuse you but sometimes it was so difficult."

Beldir smiled.  "Well, if it puts you at ease, I give you leave to call me as you see fit.  Barahir or Beldir, it does not matter so very much to me.  I imagine I shall answer to either."

Finrod smiled back, though his attention was diverted when Aegnor and Maglor reappeared.  Aegnor winked at his brother before wandering over to rummage through his pack.  Maglor merely rolled his eyes when he noted Finrod's attention, and gathered his harp to him.

"May I ask you something?"

Finrod quickly turned his attention back to Beld-Barahir, noting the hesitance of his address was matched by his expression.  "Of course."

With his chin, Barahir gestured towards Maglor.  "Is he really going to leave soon?"  Finrod looked at him in surprise but before he could answer, Barahir quickly continued, "It's just that, he's the reason you came to these shores, is it not?  And yet you are just going to let him go now without any objection?  It seems strange."

He rubbed the back of his neck in his nervous gesture, obviously knowing this was a personal topic.  Finrod was distracted though, glancing again at his cousin.  Maglor had settled on a rock at the outer edge of their camp and was plucking softly to himself.  His expression was carefully neutral and Finrod could make nothing of his thoughts.

Without conscious thought, Finrod turned his head towards the north end of the pond where Tuor and the others were bathing.  Finrod had again become so preoccupied with Barahir that he had not spared much thought to his cousin.  But Barahir was right; this was a crucial moment.  Maglor had said he was leaving and Finrod had no reason to doubt him.

And yet, there had been something about Tuor that had suggested he had a plan of his own.  But a suggestion was not fact.  Finrod could not rely on that, and he realized that that was exactly what he had done.  He had shunted his responsibility with no surety of the outcome.

That was unacceptable.

"I --"

Before Finrod could even begin to answer Barahir, Beldis appeared from behind the tree.  She was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, Aegnor's wet cloak draped from her arm.  "Beldir, come help me with this, won't you?"

Barahir flashed Finrod an apologetic grin, and said, "Excuse me, won't you?"  When Finrod nodded automatically, Barahir jumped to his feet to help his sister hang the cloak on a high branch of a tree where it could dry.

Finrod watched them for only a minute before his eyes returned to Maglor.  He suddenly felt very, very negligent, and determined to redress that immediately.  Consequently, he got up and wandered over to his cousin's side.

"May I sit with you?" he inquired politely.

Maglor opened his eyes and gave him a surprised look.  He did scoot over though, and said, "Of course."

Finrod took the seat but found himself momentarily at a loss for words.  Maglor returned his attention to his strumming, apparently not expecting any conversation.  In the end, Finrod could only ask, "How are you fairing?"

The surprised look returned to Maglor's face.  "I'm sorry?"

"With everything," Finrod said awkwardly.  "I know we have dragged you here, there, and everywhere, and now we are almost at Rivendell and I just . . ."

Finrod bit his lip, unsure how to go about this conversation.  If Maglor really was going to leave tomorrow or the next day, this might be the only chance Finrod had to convince his cousin to come with them but he had laid none of the groundwork.  In his eyes, Maglor still wasn't ready to face his fears and would only flee the quicker if pushed.

That was a lot riding on this one conversation.

"I should be asking you that," Maglor said hastily.  At Finrod's raised eyebrow, his cousin clarified, "What, with you and Beldir, and Aegnor and Beldis.  It seems to me that I should be asking how you are doing."

Finrod colored, his eyes straying towards Barahir without direction.  Barahir was rifling through his pack, finally producing a worn comb that he handed to his sister.  She smiled at him before beginning to tackle the tangles in her long, wavy hair.

"It is strange to me," Maglor said quietly, drawing his cousin's attention back to him.  "When you first asked me to show you this land, I have no idea why Erebor seemed like a good destination when it is so far and your time was limited.  I had not thought to find anything of note there, but certainly not . . ."

Finrod watched Maglor watch Barahir.  When Maglor finally met his cousin's eyes, there was a quiet sadness to his ancient gaze.  "You love him, do you not?"

Again looking over at Barahir, Finrod was filled with fondness of such force that it warmed his belly and calmed his soul.  Turning back, he met Maglor's eyes and said, "I do."

Maglor studied him for a moment before nodding.  His expression remained guarded, and Finrod had no idea what his thoughts were.  It seemed apparent, though, that Maglor considered the conversation over for he again bent over his harp and closed his eyes.

The first few strands of a melancholy tune drifted from his fingers, too quiet to be heard by any but the two of them.  Hearing it, Finrod felt a great weight on his heart and depthless pity fill his being.  With it left his uncertainty.  "Will you not go to Rivendell?" he asked gently.

Maglor paused for a heartbeat before saying quietly, "No."

"Is it meeting Lord Elrond that you fear?" Finrod continued to question softly.  "Do you fear his rejection?  His anger?"

Maglor's pause was more noticeable this time, the harp almost slipping completely from his grasp before his fingers tightened sharply on the smooth wood.  "No, it isn't that.  Elrond . . . I do not flatter myself but I believe he would be happy to see me.  He has always been a generous soul."

There was the faintest roughness to his voice when he spoke of his foster son, and Finrod could see his cousin swallow in attempt to clear it.

"Then it is you who does not wish to see him?"

Finrod knew the answer already but he waited patiently to see if Maglor would own up to it or not.  He could see his cousin's fingers turn white with the force they pressed against the delicate instrument.

". . . I have never desired anything but to be at his side."

It seemed to Finrod that the omission was drawn unknowingly as if Maglor did not realize he spoke aloud.  Gently, Finrod said, "And yet you will not go to him."

Maglor did not respond right away, and Finrod did not expect it.  He continued to wait in silence, hoping to engender some understanding in his cousin.  Even if he could not convince Maglor to return with them, Finrod thought the least he could do was convince Maglor to abide with his beloved foster son.  It was clear to Finrod that Maglor loved his foster son very much and it would do him much good to reside with him once more.

Finrod had thought Maglor wouldn't respond at all when his cousin very quietly said, "I may wish to be by his side but I have never deserved anything less."

This admission was more than Finrod hoped to achieve but before anything more could be said, a loud snap drew their attention.  Finrod and Maglor looked over to see Beldis' comb had broken in two, one end still embedded in her wet hair.

Barahir laughed.  "And yet another of my combs meets its demise in your freakishly thick hair."

Beldis put her hands on her hips.  "That's what you get for buying such cheap fair from Lake-town," she said tartly, which only made her brother laugh harder.

"Perhaps a brush would work better," Aegnor offered, a fond smile on his face also.  "I have one that you may borrow."

Beldis gave her brother one last glare before smiling winningly at Aegnor.  "Thank you ever so, though I should warn you, it may suffer the same fate as this comb."

Aegnor laughed, reaching for his pack and immediately retrieving an elegant brush he had brought with him from Valinor.  His hair was thick and long as well, and it had been stiff in his first life.  Finrod and his parents had broken their own share of combs and brushes in Aegnor's hair.  Eärwen had begun to order reinforced brushes, and though Aegnor's hair was somewhat softer now and no longer needed them, their mother had not changed her habit.

"Consider me forewarned; I shan't hold it against you if you break this, though I shall be suitable impressed if you do manage it," Aegnor said, handing the brush over.

It seemed like such a little thing, and yet, just as Finrod was about to look away, he noted the way Beldis stiffened the moment her fingers clasped the brush.  Her eyes were glued to it, a troubled expression instantly clouding her eyes.

Aegnor also noted it.  His expression quickly slipped into one of concern.  "What is it?"

Beldis did not respond for a very long minute, her whole focus on the brush held between them.  When she finally spoke, it was in a whisper that only Finrod's keen Elf-ears allowed him to hear.  "This is not the first time you have given me a hairbrush."

Finrod could see the sudden hope leap into his brother's bright eyes but it quickly became wary as he forcibly reined himself in.  "Beldis?"

Finally she looked him in the eye.  "The first gift you ever gave me was a fine hairbrush you had brought with you over the Ice.  I remember it now.  I . . . I remember."

Her expression had been slightly awed in the beginning but the shock did not give way to joy.  Indeed, if Finrod had to name the emotion dawning over Beldis' face, he would have to say it was horror.

Instantly he was on his feet, wary of this new development.  Maglor joined him, and Finrod could see Barahir glance his way, seeking guidance.

"You remember?" Aegnor said cautiously.

Beldis shook her head as if to throw the new memories from her mind.  The horrified expression only grew.  "You died.  I remember now.  Y-you -- just as Finrod said you would." Beldis glanced at Finrod and then back at Aegnor, her hand falling from the brush.  "You died before I did, and I lived long enough to burn."

Aegnor flinched at her words, but tried to remain a calming island for her sake.  "I am fine though.  Just like you, I have been reborn.  We both have a second chance at . . . at life."

"A second chance," she parroted dumbly.  For a moment, Finrod could not read her expression but then she held her hands up and looked at them.  "I am young again, as I was when we first met in Ladros.  Is that what you mean?  Will you abandon me again?"

Aegnor frowned.  "What--"

"Is this some cosmic retribution?" Beldis continued on, backing up from Aegnor.  "Shall I again be forced to behold your flame and be burned by it?  Shall I not again grow old with winter's frost upon my head while you remain untouched?"

"Nay, not untouched!" Aegnor cried.  He took a deep breath, reaching out to gently take her hand in his.  He looked earnest, letting all the love he felt for her shine from his eyes.  "I do not care what you look like.  I never have.  I shall not leave you this time.  I swear it.  Please, do not be distressed."

Beldis did not look at all reassured.  If anything, her agitation only rose.  She looked at their joined hands and then up at Aegnor's face and back again.  For a moment, Finrod thought his brother might have gotten through to her.

But then, she drew back in a violent flinch and said, "No, I shall grow old and die again.  You say you would remain at my side, but if you do that, you will only pity me at the end.  It would not be fair to you to be chained to me, and it would not be fair to me to be so pitied.  I do not understand how I am here.  I do not understand what is happening but whatever this is, it is cruel," she said, her agitation increasing with every word.  She began backing up and Aegnor matched her step for step, his hand reaching out towards her.

Beldis shook her head violently.  "No, Finrod was right.  Our kindreds cannot cross the divide."

And then she turned and bolted into the surrounding foliage.

"Andreth!" Aegnor yelled.  He would have run after but he was very suddenly restrained.  Finrod had been watching the exchange dumbly and had not noted the return of Tuor and the others.  Now, Tuor had Aegnor is a fierce grip.

"Let her go.  She needs space," Tuor said sternly, using all his might against the struggling Elf.  "You won't achieve anything but pushing her further away.  Let Beldir help her; he understands what she's going through."

Finrod knew he should go help Tuor, as Aegnor was far too near the situation to see clearly.  But Finrod's eyes turned first to Barahir's.  For one instant he saw something sad and uncertain flash in those brilliant green eyes before a wall went up -- a wall that had never been there before.  It was the kind of wall people erected to protect their hearts.

There was no chance to think on that.  It was only an instant before Barahir took off after his aunt.  There was no question he would catch her, so Finrod forced himself to focus on his brother.  With Tuor's help, Finrod managed to drag him away from camp.

In Finrod's head, he felt that once the high emotions of the returned memories had burned out, Andreth might view things differently and Aegnor might be better equipped to deal with the situation.

But there was also the memory of the look in Barahir's eyes, and a shadow fell over his heart.

Chapter Text

The fields were golden in color, ripe with grain to be harvested.  They coated every hill like a honeyed sea that stretched on forever.  Framing the wondrous bounty was a stern wall of pines.  The contrasting gold and deep green was pleasing to the eye -- everything looked to be in the fullness of its health.

But a softer green also drew the eye.  Dotting the valleys like tiny emerald bugs were many gardens and orchards, also in full bloom.

This was where she employed herself.  She loved the smell of fresh apples, loved seeing the violent red amid their pale green beds.  The happy sun blazed above her, and each apple shone as if being specifically spotlighted by the golden orb.

She sang as she worked.  For a time she did not sing alone, for there were many hands for the work and many eager for the first pickings of the year.  But eventually, her voice rose alone for she was young and eager and her diligence kept her long at work when others drifted to other tasks.

She noted not the lack of fellows, delighting in climbing the trees as fast as she could and making a game of how quickly she could spot and pick the best apples.  Her heart was especially eager for she had set herself the task of baking a pie that evening.  She wanted only the best ingredients because her father would be entertaining their lords this evening and she wanted to give them something special.

In her eagerness, though, she was not as cautious as she might have been otherwise.  She misjudged her reach, her fingers just brushing the limb she had depended to hold her weight and down she fell.

But it was not the heartless ground that rose to meet her.  To her surprise, she found herself caught in a pair of strong arms.  She looked up to see her lord's beautiful blue eyes filled with concern.  The concern melted into a warm expression when he saw she was unhurt and she melted right along with it.

There she was being held by the one whom she loved more than anything and he made no move to let her down.  He made some comment that had made her blush and laugh, but her focus remained on the feel of his strength surrounding her.  He held her as if she weighed nothing at all.

And when she looked into his eyes, she thought she saw the love she bore him returned.  She thought she saw her happiness reflected there.  She thought she saw her own desires for a future together mirrored back to her, and her heart leapt in joy.

Andreth woke slowly, the warmth of that moment following her into the waking world.  There was a minute where she was young again and still optimistically eager for the union she envisioned.

But when she opened her eyes, she saw the embers from the campfire highlighting the gold of Aegnor's head and everything came back to her in a rush.  She remembered what happened the night before.  She remembered the hopeful look on Aegnor's face but she also remembered her conversation with Finrod all those years ago.  She remembered growing old.  She remembered learning that her lord had fallen in the war with his brother and her nephew.

She couldn't do this again.  She couldn't be drawn to his flame only to have him again depart from her.  Or worse, to have him hold her close until she withered like a grape in the sun.  Neither option held hope.

Feeling her heart breaking, Andreth could not keep her tears at bay.  First one slipped down her cheek and then another, and soon she was crying in earnest.  Her tears were quiet -- more out of shame than deference to her sleeping companions -- but there was one who noticed.

Strong arms wrapped around her.  They were as familiar to her as her own face, but a sob escaped her the moment she was surrounded.  Her brother - her nephew - was a bulwark against the sea of all her troubles but he was not the one she wished was holding her, and that desire only highlighted how terrible a fate had befallen her for she could never allow Aegnor so close again.

Her heart could not bear it.

 

*************

 


It was still early when everyone got up.  It appeared no one had slept well, not that Maglor could blame anyone.  Last night Beldis and Beldir had already returned and settled in their bedrolls by the time Finrod and Tuor brought a much-subdued Aegnor back to camp.  Maglor had seen the tortured look of longing Aegnor threw in Beldis' direction.  Finrod had looked no better, a deeply troubled look in his eyes.  Both his cousins had tossed and turned, and Maglor doubted either really slept.

Maglor's sensitive ears had heard the quiet sobbing Beldis tried to muffle into her brother's shoulder just prior to daybreak.  He was sure that, quiet though it was, it had not gone unnoticed by the other Elves either.  And if it had, her puffy red eyes when she got up were a giveaway to anyone who bothered to notice.

The morning had devolved into a series of awkward interactions.  No one seemed to know what to say.  Aegnor's gaze never left Beldis, who refused to meet anyone's eyes.  Finrod and Beldir kept exchanging looks but their eyes quickly darted away the moment either noted the other.

Edrahil and Voronwë shared in Maglor's awkward voyeurism, having no idea where they would be best employed or what would happen next now that both Beldis and Beldir's memories were returned and their former lives were verified.  So, they were forced to do nothing, as there was nothing they could do that wouldn't just make things worse.

Only Tuor appeared outwardly calm.  It furthered Maglor's long suspicion that the Man knew more than he was letting on.  Maglor might have said something about it but he couldn't be entirely sure if the quiet self-assurance he saw from Tuor was brought on by special knowledge or was just natural for him.

Besides, Maglor had other reasons to avoid any confrontation with the Man.

Maglor had just been about to suggest he scout for the path to Rivendell -- if only to reduce the awkward standoff by one -- when Edrahil's head had snapped up and he pulled an arrow from his quiver.  That drew everyone's attention from their own troubles and they all listened for what had spooked Edrahil.

Maglor's keen musician's ears heard the tread of horses immediately.  From the sound, they were going at a fair clip and there were many of them.  Maglor had barely identified the sound when a company of horses appeared over the ridge right beside their camp.  There had to be two dozen horsemen, all heavily armed with spears and bows.  They rode under an Elven banner that was all too familiar, and Maglor's stomach dropped when he saw it.

The main group of horses halted at the top of the ridge -- just in range to fire their arrows, which were notched but not aimed as yet.  Two horsemen separated themselves from the group immediately, giving Maglor the suspicion that their small party had been spotted unawares by these guardsmen from a distance.  The two representatives let their horses pick an unhurried pace and approached in a non-threatening manner.

Even at a distance, Maglor could make them out and he felt his breath freeze in his chest.  They were not perfectly identical to their father but the resemblance was uncanny, leaving no doubt as to their identity.  And while they shared a strong resemblance to their father, their resemblance to each other was absolute.  Even Maglor's youngest two brothers had not been so perfectly matched.

Seeing them tilted Maglor on his axis.

Numbly he watched them wave and Finrod move to greet them in turn.  The two introduced themselves.  Maglor already knew who they were but to hear their names -- to hear Elladan and Elrohir spoken from their own lips -- made his legs unsteady.

The Twins smiled politely as they courteously inquired the party's identity and purpose.  Finrod was in top form with no evidence of his previous inner turmoil as he provided false names for everyone but Beldis and Beldir and explained that they were refugees from the dragon.

Then the Twins' smiles had turned from polite to genuinely sympathetic.  As they explained that news of the calamity had reached Rivendell by bird-wing, Maglor watched as each Twin quietly noted the redness of Beldis' eyes.  Clearly they thought the cause of her distress was the loss of her home, and Maglor could see their father's compassion shining from far too similar gray eyes.

They immediately offered their condolences and the comfort of Rivendell, to which Finrod explained that had been their destination.  The Twins seemed delighted to hear this, and happily offered their assistance in finding the way to the Hidden Valley.

And just as Maglor was again gathering his wits, realizing he needed to leave while he still had the strength to walk away, Tuor appeared as if from nowhere and clapped a friendly hand on his shoulder.

"And are there horses to spare in Rivendell?" Tuor asked, drawing attention to himself (and incidentally to Maglor as well).  "My friend here wishes to continue on in haste and all of our horses are as weary of travel as we."

The Twins exchanged a brief look that said nothing of their thoughts.  Maglor almost missed it under the comically dumbfounded expression on Finrod's face.

"Of course," said Elrohir.

"There are a number of horses to choose from," Elladan added.

"And you may replenish your supplies as well."

"But you are more than welcome to stay as long as you like," said Elladan, and Elrohir continued seamlessly, "We hope you will take us up on our offer though.  I know our father would be very happy if you accepted his hospitality."

There was nothing but genuine kindness in their identical expressions, and Maglor felt positively dizzy.  It was only Tuor's clamp-like grip that kept him upright.  Being the center of attention of these two was not something Maglor had been prepared for and his once gilded tongue absolutely refused to work.

Fortunately Finrod immediately came to his aid, asking how far Rivendell was.  The Twins seemed successfully diverted, but Maglor had to wonder if they hadn't seen something because as soon as their party was packed up and mounted, the Twins directed their horses to ride on either side of Maglor's.

The Twins called to their unit and several other horsemen approached while the rest of them turned to apparently continue their patrol.  It was two of these newcomers who took the lead, chatting amicably with Finrod who was also up front.  The others interspersed themselves among the group with two trailing behind Tuor and Voronwë, who were themselves behind Maglor.  Without even realizing it, Maglor found himself boxed in with no hope of slipping away quietly.

Apparently he was going to Rivendell whether he wished it or not.

Maglor was surprised how close they really were.  It was no more than a few hours' ride before he could hear the waterfalls in the distance.  The Twins chatted to him the entire time, seamlessly holding his attention so that even though he was aware of what they were doing, he was still caught off guard when their party turned a rocky bend and the entirety of Rivendell could be seen below them.

It was even more beautiful than Maglor had imagined.  He knew it was only a small Elven settlement and in no way as grand as Lindon or Lórien and certainly nothing like the great cities of the First Age.  But it was everything Maglor thought appropriate for his foster son.  Elrond was welcoming and generous and unpretentious, and Rivendell reflected all of this.

Maglor was completely enthralled, and for a time the Twins even let him alone.  One of the guards took off ahead of them to announce their arrival while the others went at a slower pace down the winding path that led to the narrow bridge.  Maglor thought he could feel his foster son's presence in the happily burbling river, and he closed his eyes to better listen to the water's music.

There was more room to spread out between the river and the main house, and Tuor and Voronwë settled their horses on either side of Maglor's, the Twins continuing to flank them all.  It was only when Tuor very innocently asked, "I have heard Lord Glorfindel resides here; is he about?" that Maglor finally remembered himself.

"You are not in error that this is Glorfindel's home," the Twin on the right (Maglor had lost which was which along the way) said.

"But I am afraid we must disappoint you," the other Twin said.

The right-Twin nodded.  "He has left to escort our sister to our grandparents."

"Indeed, you likely just missed him.  He would just be reaching Lórien now."  Apparently even with three horsemen between them, the Twins could still manage to finish each other's thoughts without difficulty.

"Was there some reason you ask?"

"Do you know him?"

Tuor smiled his most charming smile.  "My friend has a message for him." He gestured towards Voronwë, who looked startled for a moment before rolling his eyes.  Seeing the Twins' curious looks, Voronwë gave them a polite smile and nodded, though Maglor noted he sent an exasperated look towards Tuor, who seemed excessively amused.

"Glorfindel will be back shortly," the left-Twin said.

His brother added, "I would wager in no more than a month or two."

"And you are more than welcome to stay as long as you like."

"But if you cannot wait, you can give the message to Lord Erestor."

"He will deliver it for you."

Maglor felt his heart squeeze a little harder.  Elrond and Elros had not been known to finish each other's sentences but they could do it, especially when they had been excited or trying to talk their way out of trouble.  Hearing Elrond's sons speak that way brought back memories of his little foster sons, which made Maglor simply ache to see Elrond again.

But Tuor's question reminded Maglor of his place.  Glorfindel would easily recognize his prince and Voronwë.  Indeed, he would recognize anyone from Finwë's royal family.  Maglor wasn't completely sure of Tuor's intention in asking -- if it was to assess the possible threat or just for his own mischief -- but either way, it reminded Maglor of the restriction placed upon their mission, which reminded Maglor of the larger quest itself and the reasons for his refusal.

Alarmed, he looked around and found himself almost to the doorstep of Rivendell.  He realized there was no escape, not without being conspicuous, not without Elrond knowing he had been there.  What would his foster son think if he knew Maglor had been so close but rather than see him, Maglor had turned tail and run?

But how could Maglor possibly face Elrond?

The horses were already approaching the courtyard though, and at the top of the stairs was a dark-haired elf.  For a moment the sun shone brightly on him and Maglor could not make him out.  He held his breath, feeling trapped and eagerly expectant at the same time.  For a moment Maglor steeled himself for the apparently unavoidable meeting.  And then the dark-haired Elf stepped forward to meet them.

It was not Elrond.

The Twins introduced the Elf as Lord Erestor, who greeted them kindly.  He told them that Lord Elrond was busy at the moment but that they were welcome to partake in a midday meal that had just been prepared and that Lord Elrond's business would no doubt be concluded shortly and he would join them there.

Maglor felt a rush of emotions.  He was relieved and disappointed by Erestor's presence, and he chided himself sternly on that score.  He should be happy that he had a reprieve.

It was only a reprieve though.  Maglor's mind was working furiously, trying to find some way to politely decline the lunch invitation.  He just needed to avoid Elrond until he could find a way to slip away.

Surprisingly, it was Beldis who unknowingly offered him a solution.  Immersed in his own fears and hopes, he had not taken note of her own situation.  When Lord Erestor invited them to lunch, she asked to be excused, saying she did not feel well.  Indeed, she looked absolutely miserable.  It was clear to the Elves that it was heart-sickness that held her in its sway, though Maglor wagered the Rivendell Elves would continue to believe it was the loss of Dale that grieved her.

Even so, she looked pale and her eyes were still puffy and her nose was red from her earlier crying.  She did indeed look unwell and very tired.  Just as the Twins' had, Lord Erestor's expression softened in concern.  He granted Beldis' request and took them directly to a set of rooms hastily prepared for their arrival.  It was a grand suite with a large receiving room in the center of four bedrooms and a wide balcony.  After Lord Erestor arranged for their meal to be provided them in their rooms, they were left in peace.

At the first opportunity, Maglor slipped into one of the adjoining bedrooms.  Large windows lined one whole wall and seemed perfectly suited to being used as an exit.  The outside wall was covered with hard-clinging ivy and constructed with enough ornamentation that Maglor was not without handholds.  He made it to the ground without any fuss.

Looking around, he found the area still and quiet.  Above him, there didn't seem to be any sign that he had been missed.  Cautiously he slipped into the garden beneath their rooms and tried to find an exit.

He soon became distracted though.  Elrond's gardens were beautiful and extensive.  Flowers peeked out of every little cranny.  Pavilions offered shelter from sun or rain, and merged so seamlessly with the house-proper itself that it was often hard to tell the difference.  Winding paths took off in every direction, sometimes bordered by wide lawns, sometimes meandering towards little gazebos or wide terraces, and sometimes slipping into shadowed recesses on their way towards somewhere unseen.

It was difficult to tell the well-worn trails from the untrodden paths and where either would lead.  Maglor did the best he could to remain undetected but he still encountered his fair share of people.  Many Elves and even Men (Dúnedain by the look of them) were walking the paths or sitting in a circle of stone benches or playing music upon the lawns or reading beside a small brook.  There seemed to be room for everyone and a place for every occupation and it proved very difficult for Maglor to go about unnoticed.

Maglor did not fear being seen but he did fear being recognized.  He had been a very public personality in the First Age and he had no idea who would know his face.  Being spotted would hinder his plans for a quick escape.  So he did his best to avoid the trails and instead wandered where there were trees to hide him.

Maglor always kept his eyes open for any kind of exit but in keeping to the less obvious paths, his own view was often obscured.  He would see an opening in the hedges in front of him and would move with single-minded purpose towards it, only to find there was a gathering of picnickers or a group of children playing just to the side of his destination that the flora had hidden.

Each time he was caught unawares, he reminded himself to be cautious but there were just too many quiet little hideaways and sudden turns and very thick growth not to be surprised more than once.

It happened to him again when he spotted a golden gate interrupting a very tall, very long wall of hedgerow.  A very imposing stone arch supported the gate, which just so happened to be open.  Maglor could not see all the way into the gated area but what he could see looked very promising as far as exits went.

So focused was he on the gate that he almost stumbled into the paved walkway that skirted the hedgerow all the way to the house.  He grabbed a skinny tree just in time to keep himself from tripping down the sudden drop to the footpath.  On instinct, he glanced around to see if his moment of inelegance was noted.  In doing so, he spotted a pair of Elves standing where the paved walkway joined a very grand staircase leading up towards the main house.

Thankfully, they were deep in conversation and did not notice Maglor.  The Elf looking more in Maglor's direction appeared to be an official sort, a handful of papers in his hands, though neither Elf was referencing them.  The other Elf was also dressed in formal robes, the direction of his gaze hiding his face behind a fall of dark hair.

Maglor almost dismissed them as unimportant and was just about to chance walking towards the golden gate when the nearer Elf shifted just enough to be seen, and Maglor was infinitely glad he hadn't let go of the tree yet, as it was all that kept him upright.

It was Elrond.

Maglor could only stand there dumbly, staring.  Elrond was listening attentively to the other Elf, and Maglor found himself able to observe his foster son unnoticed.  The Half-Elf looked very well, his hair gleaming under the afternoon sun and his color good as far as Maglor could make out.  There was no sign of distress or unease about him, and Maglor felt his heart squeeze painfully the longer he could simply look at his beloved Half-Elf.

"I thought spying was beneath a son of Fëanor," a lazy voice noted, and Maglor almost jumped right out of his skin.  He whirled around to find Tuor lounging against a tree, looking quite comfortable and also like he had been there for some time.

Two things occurred to Maglor.  One, he had indeed been spying.  Two, he hadn't taken any thought to hiding himself.  Indeed, it hadn't even occurred to him.  Maglor had been so surprised to so suddenly see his foster son that all thought had left him.  It wasn't until he heard Tuor's voice that he remembered himself.

Tuor did not wait for an answer, moving to Maglor's side to peer through the trees.  "Is that my grandson?" he asked, sounding delighted.

Without meaning to, Maglor's eyes followed Tuor's gaze to once again alight on Elrond's fair features.  This time Maglor was more mindful of his situation and surroundings.  But he couldn't help being drawn in again.  For centuries he had dreamed of Elrond, worried about his safety, wondered what he was doing, remembered days gone by.  It seemed surreal to see him now so near.  He need only lift his voice and he would have Elrond's attention once more.

He didn't deserve it though.  Having Tuor by his side reminded him of that.  Tuor was seeing his grandson for the very first time; he had every right to be excited.  He had every right to Elrond.

It reminded Maglor that he only had Elrond's good grace because he had taken it.  He had stolen this beautiful Half-Elf from his mother and his people.  The reason Tuor had never seen his grandson before now was because of Maglor.  No, the last thing Maglor deserved was to have any more of Elrond's time or affection.

Feeling his heart breaking in his chest, Maglor turned away abruptly.  His feet began to walk him back the way he had come but Tuor's words stopped him.

"Running away?"

Maglor stiffened.

"That is what you're doing, isn't it?" Tuor continued, coming around to stand in front of the Elf.  "That's why you're in the garden to begin with.  You snuck out as soon as our backs were turned and you meant to run."

"And what of it?" Maglor hissed.  He was tired and upset.  He had been with Tuor for months now, every moment reminding him of his sins and what was lost to him.  It took all his strength to walk away from Elrond, and his heart was breaking because of it.  The last thing he needed was for Tuor to push this.

Tuor remained undaunted though.  "Well, there are two things of concern that I thought should be addressed before you left," Tuor said calmly.  "The first being the fact that you made an offer of reparation for the harm you have done me, and you have not delivered."

There was no accusation or condemnation in the words but to Maglor's already weakened heart, he felt them like a body blow.  Tuor's expression was guarded as he watched the Elf, and Maglor could not meet his eyes for long.  The ever-present weight of all his past actions pressed on him just a little harder.

Tuor asked such a simple thing.  Indeed, as recompense, it was unworthy.  Tuor deserved the knowledge Maglor had of his grandchildren as mere courtesy if nothing more.  Maglor was getting off lightly that Tuor should set the price of his forgiveness so low.

And yet . . .

Every time he contemplated it, Maglor found his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth and his lungs stopped up.  His memories of Elrond and Elros were the most precious things he had left to him, more precious then his days in Valinor or his memories of his mother or the love he bore his brothers when there was yet hope for them all.  For all that he had obtained them through the worst of crimes, his time with the Half-Elves felt untainted, as if the light of their purity and goodness had brightened his dark soul and offered a moment's redemption.

Indeed, holding them to him had been like holding the Holy Silmarils.  For a moment he had truly felt like he might be redeemed.

But then he had had his father's jewel in his palm and he had felt it burn.  Curling his hand into a fist, he could still feel how the burn scar pulled.  It was a reminder that there was no light, no pity, no forgiveness that could ever wash away the stain of what he had done.  He was foolish to have ever thought otherwise.

Trying to put words to his memories of that one perfect moment when he had been guardian to two precious little boys only reminded him of what he had hoped for then and how cruelly that had been denied him.  He feared to look too closely for what other delusions would make themselves known under the weight of Tuor's expected questions.  He was terrified to lose that one last bastion of refuge he had erected for himself -- memories he had locked away but kept close to his heart to shelter him against the loneliness and heartache of his existence.

Looking at Tuor, he knew with absolute certainty that no one deserved to know these memories more than this Man and yet he now realized that he couldn't give him this.  He couldn't make himself speak.

Feeling utterly ashamed and guilty and disheartened, he had no answer for Tuor.  He could not even find it in himself to argue the point.  All he could do was whisper, "And the second?"

Tuor looked suddenly very sad but he did not push.  He sighed and said, "The second item of concern is that should you leave now, I wanted you to know that neither I nor any of our party will keep secret that you were here in Rivendell and left again without making yourself known to her Lord."

Not expecting this, Maglor's head whipped up in alarm.  "You wouldn't dare."

"No?  I think my grandson would be very interested to learn what regard you hold him in.  Your leaving should tell him that more forcefully than any words would."

Tuor's expression was cool now as he continued to study the Elf.  Maglor could only look at him dumbly for a moment but then he scowled, the fire of his father's anger once again stoked.

"Is that supposed to frighten me?  Do you really think that I believe you would risk the Valar's wrath just to rebuke me?  You are under restrictions not to let anyone know of your presence on these shores."  Maglor got up right into Tuor's space, pressing a finger into the Man's chest as he made his point.

"Those restrictions do not extend to you," Tuor said calmly, unaffected by Maglor's proximity or anger.  "And in case it has failed to achieve your notice, such restrictions are of little consequence to me.  But should Finrod's good sense sway me, I am quite sure he will find some way to tell Elrond without outing any of the rest of us."

With just a shift of his weight, Tuor pressed into the finger pointed at his chest and seemed to loom over Maglor in the process.

"And as for rebuke . . ." Tuor's voice was cool, his eyes hot as he leaned in very close to Maglor.  "I should think that any man who cannot face the child he raised when he so clearly desires nothing more than that is well deserving of rebuke.  You've run away long enough, Cousin.  It's time to face what it is you are running from, and I can think of nowhere better than right here."

Without warning, Tuor's hand clamped down on Maglor's wrist, and in the span of a heartbeat, he had pulled him out into the walkway and Maglor suddenly found himself not four feet from Elrond.

They had been hidden by the shrubbery so Elrond jumped back to find them so suddenly in front of him.  Tuor had been able to keep sight of Elrond throughout their conversation so he had seen when his grandson had finished his conversation and started heading their way.  He'd timed it just right to appear the moment Elrond was near.

Tuor immediately let go of Maglor before Elrond could note it and apologized for their abruptness.  He might have said more but Maglor did not hear it.  Indeed, he did not think Elrond did either, for he saw the moment his foster son's eyes alit on him and the recognition therein.

"Maglor?"

Elrond's eyes were wide with shock and all Maglor could do was stare.  It had been Two Ages since last he had seen his foster son.  He had not thought to ever see him again but here they were, and Maglor's brain refused to work.  He couldn't even wrangle enough thought to figure out what he should be doing, let alone actually doing it.

Elrond didn't seem to mind.  His shock melted away quickly enough.  It was replaced by a very warm smile, and suddenly Maglor had an armful of Half-Elf.  Maglor froze for just an instant before he returned the hug as hard as he could, burying his nose in Elrond's fresh-scented hair.

When Elrond drew away, Maglor allowed it with great reluctance.  Fortunately, Elrond only moved far enough so he could look Maglor in the eye.  "I . . . I don't know what to say," Elrond said, his smile undimmed as his eyes roamed about Maglor's face in a bid, no doubt, to ascertain his well being.

"Have you just arrived?  What has brought you here?" His tone remained light and kind, making it very clear he was absolutely delighted by Maglor's presence.

At his question, Maglor's eyes slid over to Tuor, who had been standing quietly to the side.  He too had a very warm smile on his face as he watched his grandson, and Maglor was stunned to realize that Tuor's smile was an exact match to Elrond's.  Maglor had always known that they were related but he had never felt the truth of that as he did now.  The smile Maglor loved so much on Elrond had clearly been inherited from his grandsire.

Maglor was suddenly very aware that he was holding Elrond right in front of Tuor.  Tuor didn't seem to mind but Maglor was self-conscious, reminded that he had no right to the affection Elrond so freely gave.  Though it went against every fiber of his being, Maglor made himself let Elrond go and step back.

Elrond had noted the look Maglor passed to Tuor, and seemed to make note of the Man for the first time.  The slightest frown marred Elrond's brow, and Maglor thought he saw a faint hint of surprise.

"We are just newly come from Dale." Tuor's tone was as calm as ever, giving away nothing of his thoughts.  His smile remained wide and pleasant though, his eyes warm.

Whatever Elrond had thought when he saw Tuor was instantly dismissed at his words.  Alarm chased over the Half-Elf's features as his gaze quickly swung back to Maglor.

"We have heard word of the dragon's attack; were you there?  Are you alright?"

"Uh, yes . . . yes, I am fine."

It was difficult to stand up under Elrond's searching eyes.  Maglor had forgotten just how penetrating his gaze could be and just how perceptive he was.  But Elrond had always been wise, even when he was a wee thing in Maglor's care, and wisely he did not press, though Maglor had to wonder what exactly it was he saw.

"Well, I am relieved to hear that.  And I am very happy that you have come here.  I admit there have been times I worried you feared you would not be welcomed, and yet you have come here in your time of need.  Nothing could please me more."

Elrond's smile remained kind, though his eyes were sharp.  Maglor had no idea what to say, feeling like an utter ass for his determination to leave.  Chewing on his lip, he couldn't quite meet his foster son's eyes and he knew how telling that was.

Again, Elrond did not call him on it.

Instead, he said, "I was just on my way to greet your party."

"Excellent," Tuor said.  "Perhaps you can show us the way back.  Your garden is very beautiful but I'm afraid I'm rather turned around."

Elrond laughed.  "Yes, it can be rather tricky for those who do not know it well but most people do seem to find their way.  I would be glad of the company though."

He gestured along the path they should take but Maglor hesitated and of course Elrond noted it.  "Is something wrong?"

"I . . ." What could Maglor say?  He'd barely managed two words with his foster son; how was he going to manage when Finrod and Aegnor were present?  How would he explain their presence?  Elrond knew him far too well; he would give them away.

Worse, they would tell him the truth of their mission and what would Elrond say about that?  Would he want Maglor to stay?  Or would be push Maglor to go?  Maglor honestly didn't know which option he feared more.

"Forgive me," Elrond said, surprising Maglor.  "You are obviously here in the gardens seeking some well deserved quiet.  After a dragon's attack, I can certainly understand the need for peace.  Here, you may use my private garden.  No one will disturb you there."

Gently, Elrond directed Maglor by the elbow towards the golden gate that had caught Maglor's attention in the first place.  Maglor had to pause at the threshold because Elrond's private gardens were more beautiful than anything Maglor had yet seen in Rivendell.

Obviously used to such a reaction, Elrond waited out the initial wonderment, which incidentally left Maglor unguarded to his gaze for long enough to be alarming when Maglor realized it.

"You may stay as long as you like," Elrond said softly, pulling Maglor's attention back to him.  "But I hope you will not mind if I come visit you later.  Will you be here?"

"Um, yes." Maglor stumbled when he realized Elrond was actually expecting an answer.

Elrond's gaze remained very sharp as he very quietly asked, "Promise?"

Maglor was suddenly reminded of a very young Elrond, needing so very little to be content and yet already resigned to being denied.  He remembered when he had first seen the world-weariness in the wide gray eyes of the young boys brought to him.  It had broken his heart then seeing the shattered resignation Elrond carried at the loss of his mother and his home.  It broke Maglor's heart anew seeing that same look now.

Elrond had been dealt so many blows in his life.  How could Maglor possibly refuse him something so small?

"I promise," Maglor whispered, though he felt he had just jumped feet-first into a dragon's mouth.  This was such a bad idea.  Traveling with Finrod was one thing but staying with Elrond was an entirely different matter altogether.  Maglor had no armor here; his heart was bare.

"Good.  I shall return shortly.  I still have the harp you gifted me; perhaps if you feel up to it, you will favor me with a song."

Maglor could only nod, feeling his throat constricting around a lump of emotions.  He allowed Elrond to pull him into one more hug and Maglor clung to him as if he might never have the opportunity again.

When they parted, Elrond offered him that wonderfully gentle smile of understanding.  He squeezed Maglor's hands once before letting go and turning towards the patiently waiting Tuor.  Maglor watched the two walk away until they turned a corner and were out of view.

 

*************

 


Finrod wasn't surprised when Beldis' patience with Aegnor finally reach its limit.  His brother had been hovering over her since daybreak.  If Aegnor had done the same thing to him, Finrod would have snapped too and he wasn't dealing with an entire lifetime's worth of memories suddenly flooding his brain.

Honestly, did Aegnor not remember what it was like when his own memories came back?  Finrod really thought that argument was the one that had won Aegnor over last night when he and Tuor had finally gotten Aegnor to leave it alone.  But now it seemed like he was doing all he could to be within touching distance lest Beldis suddenly decide she wasn't upset with him after all and he might miss his opportunity.

The only reason Aegnor hadn't spoken to her yet was because Edrahil, Finrod, and even Barahir had done all in their power to circumvent it.  Finrod had all but ordered Aegnor to ride next to Edrahil, and with Barahir riding so close to his sister, Aegnor had had no chance to speak to her then.  During lunch, Finrod had elbowed his brother at least a half-dozen times and stepped on his toes even more often.  Every time Aegnor opened his mouth, Voronwë or Edrahil or even Barahir would quickly ask a question or note something about Rivendell or do anything to talk over him.

Aegnor was nothing if not stubborn though, and Finrod knew he had actually made the matter worse.  It wasn't just that Aegnor was desperate to speak to his beloved; he was also irritated with his brother, which was always a recipe for him to do the thing everyone was telling him not to.

But what else could Finrod do?  He could see how tense Beldis was.  Clearly she didn't want to talk about it yet.  Finrod felt the only option was to eat as quickly as possible and then drag Aegnor as far away as he could manage and sit on him until bedtime.

All he had to do was get through lunch.

And they were so close to that when Aegnor finally managed to get a word in edgewise.  Finrod felt like bashing his head into the table.

"Beldis, I know everyone's been skirting around the issue, but . . . are you feeling better now?" Aegnor's tone was gentle at least, cautiously testing the waters.

Finrod could see the way Beldis tensed, and she had already been stiff as a board throughout the whole meal, her entire being screaming that she wanted to flee.  Still, she very calmly replied, "I am feeling a little better, and I thank you for your concern, but I do not wish to talk about it."

"I can understand that," Aegnor said quickly, and Finrod prayed fervently that his brother would let it go now.  Of course there was no possible way he actually would, not now that he had his opening.  "But I just thought that perhaps I could put your mind at ease -- that I could explain about-"

In a motion violent enough to upturn her chair, Beldis surged to her feet.  "No!  Forgive me, but I insist that you respect my wishes.  I do not want to talk about this.  I know what you would say but I have not changed my mind.  Finrod was right.  The divide cannot be crossed."

Whirling around, she fled towards one of the bedrooms but not before Finrod could see tears forming in her eyes again.  Barahir locked eyes with Finrod just before he too surged to his feet and followed her.  And the idiot, Aegnor, was half-risen when Finrod and Edrahil grabbed his arms and made him sit down.

They did not actually receive that much resistance.  Finrod knew his brother was aware he was pushing and that in doing so, he was actually hurting Beldis.  He knew it tore at Aegnor's heart to do it.  But he also knew that Aegnor just couldn't help himself.  Finrod had watched his brother struggle with Andreth's absence for thousands of years.  One might think that another few days wouldn't matter but that really wasn't the case, not when the outcome of a happy ending was in such doubt.

Aegnor sat quietly for about a minute, and Finrod was just about to breathe a cautious breath of relief when his brother very suddenly got to his feet, grabbed Finrod by his shirt and shoved him into a corner.

"What does she mean by that?" he demanded hotly.  "Why does she keep saying Finrod was right?  What did you say to her?"

Looking into his brother's furious eyes, Finrod felt his heart sink.  There was no way this conversation was going to go well.

"I . . . I've had many conversations--" Finrod hedged, only to be stopped when his brother growled.  They knew each other too well, and Aegnor knew Finrod was aware of what Beldis was talking about.

Finrod sighed.  Gently he grabbed his brother's hands and forced him to let go.  He did not intend to lose his shirt when Aegnor lost his temper.  While he did not look forward to this conversation, he consoled himself that at least it would achieve his aim of distracting Aegnor from his quest to remain at Beldis' side.

"You know I visited Andreth much when you and Angrod were at the walls of defense.  The last time I saw her . . . we talked about the nature of Men and Elves, and the possible design of Ilúvatar concerning us.  She was . . ."

Finrod paused, trying to find the right word for Andreth's demeanor that night.  He didn't want to say outright that it was bitter or that she despaired, but there had certainly been elements of that.

Chewing on his lip, he finally decided on, "She was rather pessimistic about the fate of Men, and I . . . well, it didn't feel like she was actually talking about Men as a whole, and somehow we got to talking about you and . . ."

Finrod trailed off again.

"And?" Aegnor prompted impatiently, his eyes flitting to the closed door hiding Beldis and Beldir from view.  It was only when Finrod remained quiet that Aegnor returned his attention to his brother.  A flame blazed in his eyes, and Finrod knew he was only just barely holding himself in check.

Finrod sighed again.  "And she was upset," he said bluntly.  "She was upset because she thought she was rejected."

Visibly startling at this idea, Aegnor's attention now turned completely towards his brother.  "Rejected?  By who?  Me?"

He sounded incredulous, which made Finrod want to shake his head at him.  "You left her, Aegnor.  What was she supposed to think?"

"But I . . . it was the war . . . I couldn't . . . we couldn't . . ." Aegnor sputtered.

"Yes, I know that.  And I tried to explain that, but that is a wholly unsatisfactory answer to one of the race of Men, whose lives are so short.  However, it would have been of more weight if you had bothered to explain yourself to her before you left." Finrod grounded out the last bit, for it had always annoyed him.

Aegnor looked taken aback.  "Y-you're saying this is my fault?"

"Yes, Aegnor, I'm saying you bear some of the blame.  If you had only told her how you felt or what you were thinking or why you felt you had to go, then perhaps she wouldn't have felt that you deemed her unworthy and thus rejected her."

"Unworthy?" Aegnor barely breathed the word, looking utterly shocked.  "How could she ever believe I could think that?"

Finrod looked heavenward.  "How could she not?  No, Aegnor, think on it.  Did you ever tell her you loved her?"

"But she knew I loved her," Aegnor protested.  "All those hours we spent in Ladros, the gifts I gave her, the confidences I shared -- how could she doubt her place in my heart?"

"But did you ever tell her you loved her?" Finrod repeated.  "Did you ever declare yourself?  Did you tell her what you were planning to do and why?  Did you say the words, 'I love you'?"

A troubled expression began to highlight Aegnor's fair features.  "I . . . I'm sure I did . . . I mean, I must have."

He looked at his brother for confirmation and support, and Finrod could only shake his head again.  "Well, if you did, she did not hear it.  Or your actions made her doubt; I do not know.  All I know is that she was very upset that night.  She thought that you had decided she was too lowly for an Elf and rejected her.  I told her that was not so.  I told her that as she loved you, you loved her, but she still remained upset."

"What did you say?" Aegnor's voice was quiet now, sounding far less certain for Finrod's revelation.  But he saw Finrod hesitate, and that brought back his earlier righteous anger.  "What did you say?  What does she mean 'the divide cannot be crossed'?"

Finrod took a deep breath.  "I was only trying to comfort her.  You have to understand the moment.  I had foreseen your death.  I knew how much you loved Andreth; I knew living without her would be terrible for you.  I honestly thought you would remain in the Halls of Mandos forever.  I think these last two Ages have borne out my belief back then; you have been absolutely miserable.  And I never anticipated this.  Andreth was mortal, and I deemed you and she would be sundered until the world's end.  I was only trying to offer her some consolation for her remaining years."

Aegnor began to scowl, clearly identifying justification when he heard it.  His voice was ice-cold when he said, "What did you tell her, Finrod?"

Finrod could not quite meet his brother's eyes when he responded.  "Well, I . . . we had been talking about the ultimate fate of Elves and Men, and that led to . . . I just noted that any union between our kindreds was bound to be grievous by its very nature and she shouldn't feel that the . . . impossibility of your union to her was a failing between the two of you or your love for each other.  I thought to comfort her that it just couldn't be."

"And what of Beren and Lúthien, of Tuor and Idril then?  Are not they unions of Men and Elves?  You had no right to say such a thing!"

Annoyed with his brother's anger, Finrod did not hold back his own heat.  "I did not know about them when I spoke to her.  None of that happened before my death!  But I did note that any such unions between our kindreds must be for some high purpose of Doom, and I still maintain that.  Tuor and Beren's marriages only prove my belief -- their unions resulted in the saving of Middle-earth."

"And is that what you think when you look at Beldir?" Aegnor shot back.  "That being with him doesn't serve a high enough purpose?  You don't think loving him is all that is necessary to legitimize your union?  How is that fair to him?  How is it fair to me and to Andreth?  Or even Tuor and Beren?  Did they seek out Idril and Lúthien because the world needed them to procreate?  No, they did what they did out of love.  We are still creatures of free will.  Their actions were not preordained, whatever the Valar knew beforehand.  If Tuor had not fallen in love with Idril, then the world would have found another savior.  Tuor's heart led him, as mine leads me.  He did not think of Doom when he married Idril.  Beren had no inkling of the great task ahead of him when he first gazed on Lúthien.  How can you know there is no Doom here for us?  And how can you be so arrogant as to say that unions between our kindreds are restricted only to a high purpose of Doom?"

Finrod looked away, troubled.  His brother made some good points, ones that Finrod had not had reason to reflect on before now.  Perhaps he was being too pessimistic.  He still felt that he had been right -- that Beren and Tuor's marriages had been special exceptions for a greater purpose -- but Finrod could not deny that Barahir and Andreth's rebirth flew in the face of all established rules.  If Finrod could not explain their very existence, how could he apply any knowledge to their situation?

A sudden knock on the door distracted them.  Before any of them could react, the door opened and Tuor appeared holding a tray.  He glanced about quickly, walking straight to the table to set the tray down.

"Where are Beldis and Beldir?  Our host is here to greet us."

At his words, Finrod looked beyond Tuor to the person standing in the doorway and what he saw there stunned him.

Lord Elrond was very beautiful, there was no debating that, but it was not his beauty that struck Finrod.  Nor was it his obvious resemblance to his sons or even to Tuor who stood nearby.  No, what struck Finrod was that he could see everyone when he looked at Elrond.

He saw the gray of Lúthien's eyes combined with the delicate curve of Idril's eyebrows, and the slim shape of Elwing's nose coupled with Fingolfin's chiseled jaw.  Finrod could feel the subtle aura of power that Melian had exuded but also the quiet Vanya spirit of Elenwë.  Finrod could see Thingol's nobility coupled with Finwë's strength just in the way Elrond held himself.

Here was a perfect melding of Finwë and Elwë -- a testament to what greatness there was in both lineages.  Elrond stood as a direct descendant of both great men, and he was certainly worthy of all his ancestors.

Finrod could only stare, cataloguing every gesture, movement, and word as a reflection of this or that ancestor Finrod had met.  And yet all of it was wholly Elrond himself, owing to none of them at all.

Elrond smiled kindly, apparently oblivious to Finrod's regard, and said, "I bid welcome to you all.  I do not wish to intrude but I wanted to see how you are all settling in."

"That is most kind, sir," Edrahil said, bowing to their host.  "We are very grateful for your hospitality."

Elrond demurred immediately.  "Please, your gratitude is not necessary.  My home is open to all who desire rest.  You needn't feel indebted.  I should be embarrassed if you did."  He gave another reassuring smile.

Just then, Beldis and Beldir emerged from the bedroom with Voronwë, who had gone to fetch them the moment Tuor asked after them.

The moment he saw them, Tuor said to Beldis, "Lord Elrond has brought a healing tea for you."

"Yes, I had heard you were unwell," Elrond added.

His attention seemed to fluster Beldis.  "Oh, I . . . my lord that is very thoughtful but I . . . it is not a sickness of the body that afflicts me.  I do not think tea is . . . what I need."

Elrond's expression remained kind as he approached Beldis and took her hand.  "So my sons informed me, and I can certainly understand being upset after what has happened."  His smile remained kind, but Finrod wondered if he wasn't reminded of losing his own home to Maedhros and Maglor.

"The tea I have brought is soothing in nature.  I have found it calms agitation and helps restore peace, but if you do not think tea will help you, it is not all that I would offer."

At Beldis' questioning look, Elrond continued, "I'm sure you have seen the gardens beyond your windows.  Within them are many quiet corners where you will not be disturbed.  If nature does not feel right, I also have libraries and quiet nooks inside my house that might suit you.  But if you do not desire quiet, my home can offer conversation or music to distract you.  I am sure there is something here to make you feel better.  Let me help you find what you need."

"My lord, you are too kind, but I---"

"If you would thank me, then please take me up on my offer," Elrond interrupted seamlessly. "I derive no pleasure in knowing anyone underneath my roof is suffering, especially when there is something in my power to remedy it.  Surely there is something I have mentioned that calls to you."

". . . if you do not mind, I would like somewhere quiet to think."

"I thought as much.  There are many such places in Rivendell and I think I know of one in particular that you may find suits your needs very well.  If you would allow me the liberty, I would show it to you."

Beldis hesitated, her eyes going to Barahir and then very briefly to Aegnor, but she finally nodded.

Elrond tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow but paused before whisking her away.  "My offer extends to you all.  I doubt Lady Beldis is the only one suffering, for I have heard you were all in Dale when the dragon attacked.  And you must be tired to have reached us so soon.  Please consider my home yours for as long as you need, and please take advantage of any resource you desire.  I leave Lord Erestor at your disposal."

"Thank you very much, my Lord," Tuor said.  Finrod and the others echoed his sentiments but Elrond waved it away.  He gave Beldis a reassuring smile, and Finrod heard him asking her if she had enjoyed her lunch before they slipped out the door.

For a moment after they were gone, the room was awkwardly quiet.  But the moment passed when Tuor clasped his hands with a clap and said, "A fine grandson, if I do say so myself.  What say you?"

He turned to Edrahil.  "I would agree, but I fear giving you a bigger ego than you already suffer from," Edrahil said dryly, causing Tuor to laugh.

Tuor walked over to Barahir's side and clapped him on the shoulder.  "And what do you think?  I think I see a bit of you in him.  I certainly did in his sons."

Barahir startled, giving Tuor a surprised look.  "Oh, well, I . . . I . . ."

Tuor laughed again, though it was not unkind.  "Not to worry.  You'll figure it out."  He clapped Barahir on the shoulder again and then wandered over to the table to poke at the remains of lunch.  "Did you save me anything?"

"If you decide to indulge in games over lunch, then you will just have to accept scraps," Voronwë said, though he too wandered over towards the table to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Man.

Tuor took two apples from the bowl of fruit.  He tossed one to Voronwë, who caught it easily.  "I'll have you know that my games have proven very fruitful.  Lord Elrond showed me the loveliest little art-room.  Idril would simply adore it."

Throwing an arm over Voronwë's shoulders, Tuor bit into his apple as he directed them both towards the doorway.  Voronwë rolled his eyes but he did lean into the contact and made no attempt to resist the Man.

Edrahil watched them leave before shrugging and wandering towards one of the bedrooms.  Finrod only peripherally noted him.  Feeling his brother shift beside him, Finrod immediately forgot all about Elrond in favor of putting his attention back on his brother.

Turning, he saw that Aegnor was tight as a bow string, his eyes fixed on the now-closed door.  Hesitant, Finrod said, "Aegnor . . . perhaps we should . . . go for a walk.  Let's find a practice ring and work out our travel kinks, get a sword in your hand.  Just clear our heads."

Finrod held his breath as he waited for an answer.  He knew it was crucial he distract his brother.  He needed his brother to burn off some of his energy so Aegnor could finally think.  If he could only get Aegnor to yield . . .

The moment Aegnor's eyes finally broke their fixed stare to look at him, Finrod knew it was hopeless.  There was a thunderstorm in Aegnor's eyes and there was no quelling that.  Finrod could see the tension in Aegnor's jaw, in the set of his shoulders, in the tightness of his fists.  Seeing that, Finrod was actually surprised Aegnor stood still as long as he did.

But in the end, a visible full-body shudder roused Aegnor and he strode purposefully towards the door.  For a moment Finrod considered trying to restrain him again but quickly decided against it.  It was clear Aegnor would not be deterred from doing something stupid; he just couldn't help himself.  For better or worse, Aegnor and Beldis would have to figure this out on their own.

That left Barahir.

Inexorably Finrod's eyes turned toward him.  Barahir was also facing the door, though his eyes were unfocused and Finrod doubted he was actually seeing anything at all.  But he apparently felt Finrod's eyes on him for his inattention almost immediately cleared up.

When Finrod opened his mouth, he hadn't really considered what he would say.  It didn't matter though, as Barahir spoke before he could.

"Er, I think I might look for one of those libraries.  I think I'll look for that half-book we talked about." He offered a strained smile in an attempt at humor but Finrod couldn't smile.  With his joke falling flat, Barahir rubbed the back of his neck nervously.

The atmosphere felt very awkward.  Finrod's thoughts raced to find something to say but nothing came.  He felt it was crucial they speak -- to discuss whatever was going through Barahir's mind that had put up a sudden wall between them.

It took too long though.  "So," Barahir said, slowly tracing Aegnor's path. "I guess I'll see you at dinner."  He paused at the door as if waiting for Finrod to stop him.  Finrod wanted to but the words stuck in his throat.

Barahir quickly left, though not before Finrod saw a quick flash of disappointment and confusion on the Man's face.

Now alone, Finrod sank back against the wall and growled in frustration.  He knocked his head back against the wall a half-dozen times before his eyes alit on the tea Elrond had left.

Well, if Beldis didn't want it, perhaps it would do Finrod some good.  At this point, it certainly couldn't hurt.

 

 

*************

 

 

There was very little color in the painting.  Everything was washed out and dimmed.  The trees and grass surrounding the picture's center were more gray than green.  Thingol himself was a pale figure.  His silver hair, white skin, and gray garments did not offset the striking vibrancy of his blue eyes.  Beren's green pants were so dark as to look almost black.  His skin was so ashen that it very nearly matched the gray of Thingol's cloak.

The only real color was the vibrant red where Beren's wounds bled, staining the crisp white shirt he wore.

In the picture, Thingol was kneeling and Beren's head rested in his lap.  One of his hands was gently cradling the wrist of Beren's mutilated arm.  Though the angle made it harder to see, Barahir could just make out that Thingol's other hand was gently cupping Beren's cheek upside down.  Beren was weakly holding the Silmaril up, clearly trying to give it to the King.

But Thingol was not looking at the jewel.  His eyes were locked on Beren's and there was something so sad about his expression -- like someone who had discovered an important truth too late.

Barahir couldn't tear his eyes away.

Something about this image felt very real to Barahir.  It was that uniquely Elvish gift of preserving memory.  It felt like the artist had really witnessed this moment -- like Barahir was actually seeing the moment his son died.

And here he sat, long dead at the moment depicted in the picture and now looking at it in his great-great-grandson's library.  What did he make of that?

He'd read the book cover to cover twice now but nothing was any clearer to him.  There was still this uneasy feeling crawling up and down his spine looking for a place to settle.

Tracing along Thingol's arm until his finger touched the stump at his son's wrist, Barahir wondered what his son was thinking at this moment.  He wondered what Thingol was thinking.  An Elf and a Man soon to be parted forever.

And yet that had not been the case.  Against all thought, Beren and Thingol did meet again.  They had a second chance to address all that had been unsaid and undone.  Had they taken that opportunity?  Had Thingol spoken of the feeling that was captured in this picture?  Had Beren talked about his own thoughts?

And what had Beren thought of his extraordinary fate?  What did Barahir think of it?

Just as Beren lived again to speak to the Elves that mattered to him, so now Barahir and Andreth had the same opportunity.  But Barahir had no idea what to do.  Beren had been given a second chance at life but in the end, he had died.  And he had taken Lúthien with him -- the greatest treasure of the Elves.

Was Barahir here just for a second chance?  And if he was, what was the second chance for?  Was there something he was supposed to accomplish that he had failed to do before?  Something only he could do?  What could that possibly be?  He had been a leader and a warrior but he was certainly not unique.  What of Hador or Bëor or Haleth?  What could Barahir do that none of them could?

And if it was not some great deed to be accomplished, then did it have to do with Finrod?  Did it have something to do with how he felt about the Elf?  Barahir hadn't realized just how strongly he'd felt about Finrod until he'd not had the weight of leadership on his shoulders.  As a simple guard living in Dale, he could indulge in an impossible love -- it didn't hurt anything if he loved in vain.

But as Barahir, he was a vassal of Aegnor and Angrod, who were themselves vassals of their brother Finrod.  His King lived far away, more a myth than a reality for much of Barahir's life.  When he finally met Finrod, there was war upon them.  And then his people were all but wiped out and it was all he could do to hold them together.

No, there had been no time to look after his own heart back then.  But with his memories returned and a new life as a comparison, he realized he had loved Finrod then.  He had fallen hard and enduring.  In his first life, he was married and obligated to his people, but in this life, he had no attachments.  Emeldir was long gone.  Though she would've killed him if he had cheated on her in his first life, Barahir knew for certain that if she knew his fate now, she would kick his ass for waffling as he was.

But how could he not hesitate?  He did not understand his fate but he knew at least that it was extraordinary.  When Beren and Lúthien returned to life, they were given guidance by the Valar.  Mandos had given Lúthien a choice and she had chosen mortality.  They knew their fates.

What was Barahir's fate?  As far as Barahir could tell, Beren had been returned to his own body and had merely lived out the remaining life allotted to him.  And the price for even that had been great indeed.  He was never to be seen by his own people again.

The divide cannot be crossed.

Beldis' words kept echoing in his head.  She said Finrod was right.  That meant Finrod had said them, that he believed Men and Elves could not be united by marriage.  But that was long ago.  Did he still believe that?

Barahir thought back to all the moments he and Finrod had shared since meeting in Dale.  Before he knew himself, he had thought that perhaps Finrod might reciprocate his interest.  He hadn't imagined the way Finrod had responded to his touch . . . or had he?

Everything had become muddled to him since the return of his memories -- he didn't know what to believe.  Finrod had leaned into his touch, but could it not be that he simply marveled at a connection he thought lost forever?  How would Barahir act if Bregolas appeared suddenly after so many years of absence?  What if it had been his father returned to life, but also returned to the vitality of his youth?  What would Barahir say to him?  How would he feel?

No, Barahir could have no idea what Finrod thought.  Finrod had said his tongue was bound so long as Beldir did not remember.  When he had been Beldir, Barahir had thought that perhaps Finrod's sometimes strange behavior might be an attempt to disguise his feelings when there was uncertainty of Beldir returning them, but now he wondered if it wasn't an awkward attempt on Finrod's part not to give away the secret.

Barahir was just so confused.  He didn't feel rightly confident in any of his memories -- first life or second.  He knew what he himself felt with more surety than ever before but he had no idea what Finrod's thoughts were and he was scared to open his heart and find he was wrong.

Or worse, that he was not wrong but that he was condemning the Elf he loved to live forever without him.  Beldis had seen it.  Had she not immediately understood that her return meant another life lived to old age and death?  Barahir had not managed old age the first time around, so that remained a bit of a mystery to him, but surely it must still be coming.

Wasn't it?

Barahir sighed, watching his finger lightly trace the edges of his son's pale face in the picture.

"What have you there?"

Startled, Barahir's head snapped up to see Beldis standing on the other side of the table.  Instinctively, he slammed the book shut so she couldn't see what he was looking at.  With everything else going on, she didn't need to see Beren's death too.

"Andr-, er, Beldis! I didn't hear you."

Beldis gave him a wan smile that did not reach her eyes.  "I can imagine.  You seemed quite engrossed.  And Andreth is fine."

"Is it?" Barahir gave his sister a long look, trying to discern her true feelings.  She looked more composed than she had this morning.  The red was gone from her eyes and there was some color back in her cheeks, but there was a dispirited air about her that Barahir did not care for at all.

She met his gaze steadily though.  It was not Beldis' feisty spirit that looked back at him.  For as long as Barahir had known his aunt, there had always been a sadness about her.  It was there now.

"Is Barahir not what you prefer?" she said quietly, and Barahir knew she felt as he did when it came to his old life versus his new.  There was too much to just go on as if nothing had changed.

Barahir nodded, and Andreth held his gaze for a long moment before wandering towards the edge of the patio just beyond the library.  Following her with his eyes, Barahir was startled to see how dark it was out.  He must've been here for hours; he honestly hadn't noticed the time passing.

His attention snapped back to his aunt, realizing that she had had some hours now to make sense of her new memories.  Perhaps she had figured out something that he had not.  Perhaps her earlier distress was an overreaction brought on by the return of her memories.  Now that Aegnor was not breathing down her neck, perhaps she had found some peace and figured out what was going on.

That is if Aegnor had actually left her in peace.

"Are you . . . have you had some time to think?" he asked hesitantly, not wanting to push.

Andreth did not take the implicit offer to sit at the table, remaining at the edge of the patio and looking out over the darkening garden.  "I have.  Lord Elrond was kind enough to direct me to a private room with a private garden."

"And he left you alone?"

"After a while, yes.  It was very peaceful."

Barahir gave her a surprised look.  Apparently, despite what it looked like when Aegnor had marched out the door after Andreth had left, he had not actually approached her.  Barahir wouldn't have put money on that.

"And how are you feeling about . . . everything?"

Leaning against an elegantly carved pillar, Andreth did not reply for a long minute.  "I . . . I want to be upset," she said softly.

Barahir frowned.  He blurted out, "You're not?" before he could think not to.  She finally glanced at him and he flushed, quickly saying, "I mean, earlier, you were very upset."

Favoring him with another wan smile, Andreth turned her attention back to the darkening garden.

"I was upset.  I was overwhelmed.  I was confused.  I still am.  But . . . this place is so peaceful that it is difficult to remain violently distraught.  I spent an hour in Lord Elrond's company and he is well worthy of his title as Healer for he knew just what to say to soothe me even while remaining completely ignorant of the true cause of my disquiet.  His home is infused with his spirit.  Can you not feel it?"

Barahir nodded, for he could.  He had been sitting here for hours reading a book filled with graphic descriptions of battles he had actually fought and the suffering of people he had actually known.  With every reference to something he had actually lived or to the people he had cared about, Barahir's memories were stoked and freshened.  Sometimes it was like he was living the moment all over again.  And that was nothing compared to the beautiful paintings in the book, all masterfully wrought in all their terrible detail.

It was heart-wrenching.

And yet, for all that, Barahir was remarkably calm.  While traveling to Rivendell, he had shied away from thinking too much about his son's fate or Finrod's or his own.  The whole thing was so distressing that he could not even entertain the idea for more than a moment before he had to force himself to think of something else for his own sanity's sake.

But it was different here.  He felt safe here.  He felt magic in the air that gave him the strength to examine what went before and not be overwhelmed by it.

Yes, Barahir knew exactly what Andreth meant about Rivendell.  She glanced at him to see the answer in his eyes, and she nodded too.  "In the presence of such a kind soul as Lord Elrond and surrounded by the warmth and loveliness of his home, I find it impossible to hold onto my distress, and I fear that."

Frowning, Barahir parroted incredulously, "You fear that?"

Andreth finally gave her compete attention to her kinsman.  "I do," she said seriously.  "I fear that my distress is the only defense I have and without it I am completely vulnerable."

Her words only confused Barahir more, a fact that must have been evident on his face for Andreth continued without prompting.  "Aegnor is alive again.  I thought him lost to me forever.  And when he lived, we could never have been together because of the Siege.  So long as Morgoth remained a threat, Aegnor was bound to his duty and could not bind to me.  But that is not the case now.  We survived a dragon attack, that is true, but there is no great war in this Age.  And even if there were, Aegnor can have no part in it.  I am young again.  I can give him the few good years I had always desired to spend on him.  It is what my heart so hoped for when I was old and failing.  A true second chance."

Barahir had to swallow back a lump of emotion that momentarily left him unable to speak.  Her sentiment so closely matched his own.  Finrod was not a king anymore and Barahir was not his vassal.  The only family Barahir had was Andreth, and her presence in no way impeded a relationship with the Elf the way his lineage from Bëor and his marriage to Emeldir had in the past.  Unlooked for, he had been reunited with Finrod, and he was yet young.  Didn't that seem like a second chance?

Wetting his lips, Barahir quietly said, "If this really is a second chance . . . shouldn't you embrace it?"

Andreth wrapped her arms around herself in a gesture Barahir was very familiar with.  He only just kept himself from surging up and wrapping her in a hug, knowing the gesture would not be welcomed, though it was surely needed.

"That is why I am afraid," Andreth said quietly.  "It all seems too good to be true, and it is everything I have ever wanted.  But . . . I am not the young maid Aegnor met upon the high hills of Dorthonion.  Nor am I the ignorant girl from Dale.  I cannot pretend I do not know the consequences of the thing I desire.  But I am weak.  Where Aegnor is concerned, I always have been.  If he places his heart within my grasp, I am not strong enough to refuse.  If I could but remain upset enough to keep him in doubt, perhaps then he will not make his offer."

Given the weighty atmosphere, Barahir felt it impolitic to snort so he did not.  But her words left him incredulous.  Surely, she could not really believe any such obstacle would deter Aegnor.  Surely, she must have seen or felt how singular his regard had been for her.  Aegnor had shadowed her for weeks now.  He must've given some indication of how deeply he felt for her.  Indeed, whether Andreth was willing to acknowledge it or not, it was clear enough that Aegnor had already given all of himself to her.

If that was her plan, it was far too late.

But . . . delusion was a lifesaver sometimes.  Looking down at the book beneath his hand, Barahir had to acknowledge the enormity of their situation.  He had lived an entire life and now had a new one and he didn't know why.  He had fallen in love with a great prince of Elves but this time around he knew the fates of others who had done the same and the heartache in store.  How did one make sense of all this?  How did one decide what to do?

If Andreth needed a delusion to help her cope, who was Barahir to call her on that?  He was sure he was deluded himself too and was too scared to know in what way.

"And what have you been up to here?"

Barahir startled, looking up to find Andreth standing on the other side of the table now.  He had been so preoccupied with his own troubling thoughts that he had not heard her move.

"I-I've been reading up on some history.  I just . . . I was thinking about my first life and . . . I was hoping something in here would clear up some of the confusion."

"I highly doubt that there is a book written that covers our situation."

"No, that's true, but . . . us being reborn isn't . . . it's not the only question I have."

Andreth was quiet for a moment, her eyes searching his face.  Barahir could not meet her gaze.  "You're speaking of Finrod, aren't you?"  Andreth gave him a sad smile.  "Yet another improbable twist that lures us into believing there must be some grand design at work.  Indeed, why else would our situations be the same?"

"Not the same," Barahir said softly.  When Andreth gave him a questioning look, he reluctantly said, "Aegnor had marked his attentions to you, whatever you believe of their dependability.  It is clear that Aegnor is interested in you.  I have no such belief for myself where Finrod is concerned."

"But surely . . ." Andreth trailed off, a troubled frown marring her brow.  "He is very partial to you.  I have seen that much."

"Partial, perhaps, but that is not all that would describe my own heart and I cannot say the same of him.  I do not know his feelings.  Indeed, I am inclined to believe his partiality extends only to friendship."

"Then you err."

Andreth and Barahir swung around at the sound of a new voice.  Aegnor stood stiffly a few feet away, and Barahir wondered how long he had been there.

Only allowing himself the barest glance towards Andreth, Aegnor walked to Barahir's side.  Barahir was impressed, as he could see it was taking all of Aegnor's will to keep his attention on him.

"I know my brother can be difficult to read but you cannot doubt his affection for you.  He was long engaged to a maid in Valinor but broke it off because his heart belonged to you.  He loves you.  He is only waiting for the right moment to tell you.  I deem Finrod is overcautious.  Though . . ." Aegnor paused, unable to prevent himself from another glance at Andreth. "He may not be entirely wrong."

Frowning, Barahir was left torn.  A part of him was stunned to hear Finrod had been betrothed and broken it off.  He wanted to ask Aegnor a thousand questions about that, not sure be could believe it.

But as intrigued as he was about this little tidbit, his immediate concern was his aunt.  He noted the utter stillness that came over her when Aegnor appeared.  From her earlier words, Barahir understood Aegnor had left her alone, which meant he had had some time to think too.  Barahir wondered what he was thinking now, and he prepared himself to intervene if necessary.

Despite the fact that there was no one to impede him, Aegnor did not say anything.  It seemed he had realized he needed to back off but once his eyes met Andreth's, he could not look away.  Only when she broke eye contact did he finally seem to remember himself, forcing his focus back on Barahir.

"I would not have you in doubt on this score.  Believe me when I say that my brother loves you as . . . as I love Andreth."

This time he managed not to look at Andreth at all, though Barahir could see the tension in his jaw even more clearly now.

There was awkward silence for a few seconds, as Barahir had no idea what to say and Aegnor was clearly forcing himself to say nothing.  It was Andreth who finally spoke, and Barahir could see the sudden wary determination in her eyes.

"You have desired to say something to me all day," she said, looking stiff and vulnerable but resolute as she turned her full attention on Aegnor.  "Speak then, if it is so important that it cannot wait."

Though it was clear Aegnor wanted nothing more than to speak, Barahir was surprised that he actually hesitated.  He glanced once at Barahir -- who wondered if his presence was problematic for the Elf, not that he had any intention of leaving Andreth alone at such a time -- but then Aegnor turned all his attention on her and seemed to forget all about Barahir.

"I have spoken to my brother about . . . old matters, and he has brought to my attention that I . . . that I . . . Well, it seems that I did not communicate to you as well as I thought I had and in doing so, I caused you unneeded grief.  I only wish to rectify that -- to make sure that this time I have made myself perfectly clear."

Andreth frowned.  "I do not follow.  What do you mean?"

Barahir could see Aegnor shift forward, as if to reach out to grab Andreth's hand, but he caught himself in time and rolled back on the balls of his feet in the only outward sign of his inner turmoil.

"Finrod told me that when I left to see to the Siege, I left you in doubt of my affection.  He said that y-you thought I had . . . rejected you, that I found you un- . . . unworthy . . . that you thought I did not love you."

The last was said quietly, and Aegnor looked away.  His face was expressionless but there was a storm in his eyes and his voice was tight with barely suppressed emotion.  Barahir could see him swallow twice as he fought to speak.

"Finrod said I should have been clearer about my feelings and my intentions.  That is all I want to do."

Barahir glanced at Andreth, whose eyes were wide and locked on Aegnor.  This time Aegnor was unable to stop himself and when he reached out, Andreth did not pull away.  Gently Aegnor touched the outside of her wrist in what looked like the barest of skin-to-skin contact.

"I love you," Aegnor said simply.  "I have always loved you.  From the first moment I saw you upon a high hill in Dorthonion to the last when I saw your reflection in the waters of Aeluin to the miracle of seeing you once more in Dale -- I have loved you all those times and every moment in between.  When I was away from you, I longed only to return to your side and tell you once more how much I loved and admired you.  That longing has never left me.  When I died, I thought of nothing but you.  When I returned to life, I ached to see you again.  It had been 6,346 years since I last saw you and there hasn't been a day -- a moment -- of that time where you have not been in my heart.  So . . ."

Aegnor swallowed quickly against the sudden emotion in his voice.  His fingers slid down Andreth's wrist to gently curl around the outside of her hand.

"So, I hope you will forgive me for being forward.  After so long without you, I refuse to squander this opportunity.  I will not give up on us, not if you feel as I do.  I would not pity you if you grow old nor would I pity myself if I had but a few decades at your side.  I have lived thousands of years greeting each day with no hope in my heart and no life in my soul.  There is no fate worse than that."

"Aegnor, I . . ." Andreth paused, looking stunned and overwhelmed.

Perhaps sensing he might lose her, Aegnor moved his hand so he was finally holding hers and quickly spoke.  "Please, Andreth, I have thought about this.  I understand what our fate will likely be.  Perhaps Finrod was right and our end will be grievous.  But . . . I know what it is to be without you.  I know how painful that is.  Being with you again -- even for just this short amount of time -- has brought me more joy than I have felt in two Ages.  So, I am more than ready to live only a short time with you if that is all I am allowed.  But . . ."

Aegnor hesitated again.  "But as I accept that of all the outcomes offered us, a bitter parting is the most likely, I still have faith that it might not be so.  I look at Idril and Tuor, whose love is no less than our own, and he is even now our traveling companion.  He has lived all this time in Valinor."

"There is no surety that we would be allowed in Valinor," Barahir interrupted.  "Indeed, I would think that it is almost certain we would not be allowed to go there."

Aegnor barely glanced at Barahir.  "I do not know about that.  As I said, Tuor has lived a very long time there.  But it needn't come to that.  I will not ask Andreth to live among Elves where she might not be comfortable.  I am more than content to stay on these shores in some sleepy human village."

"What of Námo's deadline?"

"I will miss it." Aegnor showed no concern about this, simply shrugging as if it was nothing.  "I don't feel that matters though.  I am incapable of leaving Andreth now.  If she is not allowed in Valinor, then I will not return.  As I said, I still have faith that a bitter parting may not be our lot.  But if it is her fate to grow old and die after the fashion of your kind, then my own fate is clear.  I shall follow her, having died of grief, and when I have followed her to the Halls of Mandos, I will beg of Námo that our souls may be united even as Lúthien's was to Beren.  And if he will grant that boon, I shall consider myself fortunate.  If my soul can follow hers wherever it would go, then I deem my fate will be a happy one."

Aegnor spoke in such a matter-of-fact way that Barahir was stunned silent for a while.  Looking at Andreth, he saw that he was not the only one.  Barahir finally cleared his throat and asked, "And what if he will not grant you such a boon?"

"I will die all the same, and linger once more in Mandos.  But that is no better or worse than my life was in Valinor.  If I am to be parted from Andreth, it doesn't matter where I end up for I would be equally miserable anywhere.  I am nothing without her."

"You cannot put all that on me!" Andreth said, looking horrified.

Aegnor looked distressed by her alarm but he merely shrugged.  "I am placing nothing on you.  It is simply a statement of fact.  Please do not be upset."

"How can I not be upset?" Andreth demanded.  "You have just said you will die in any outcome where I do not end up with the immortality Tuor has achieved, an outcome that is almost entirely impossible."

Aegnor shook his head.  "You view death as such a great evil, and I deem it is not so.  When I say that nothing would make me happier than to live a lifetime at your side and then to follow your soul wherever humans go when they die, I mean it wholeheartedly.  I would deem that just as good a fate as to live forever with you in Valinor.  I would be blessed either way."

Andreth looked in no way comforted by his words, not that Barahir blamed her.  The thought of Finrod watching him grow old and die, and then taking Finrod from this world -- from all his family and friends who loved him -- was a horrifying thought.  Barahir did not want that for Finrod, and he was sure Andreth did not want that for Aegnor.

And yet, he could believe that Aegnor really felt this way and that he really would fade and die without Andreth.  Everything Barahir had witnessed to this point reinforced Aegnor's belief.  Barahir almost hoped Aegnor was lying about Finrod loving him just as much as Aegnor loved Andreth because he didn't know if he could stand to have Finrod's life and happiness dependant on him.  How could he stand such a burden?

"No," Andreth said, shaking her head sharply.  "You . . . This is . . . you are in shock.  That is what this is: shock.  You thought I was dead and suddenly I am not and it's . . . it's too much.  I cannot tear you away from all you know.  And you . . . you do not know what you are saying.  You think you can do this but--"

"Would you come with me?" Aegnor interrupted suddenly.  "If you were offered the same option Tuor was, would you take it?  If I could get you permission, if you were wrong and the future wasn't as bleak as you think it must be, would you come with me?  That is what I want to know.  Do you love me enough to risk trying?  Because that is what I am doing.  I am not so afraid of unhappiness and heartache that I'm not going to at least try.  I am so hopeful that I might find the peace and happiness that has eluded me all my life.  I have faith that this will all turn out all right.  So tell me, what is it that you want?"

Aegnor had moved around the table as he spoke so that he was standing right in front of Andreth.  Barahir held his breath, waiting to see what Andreth would answer.  He watched her open and close her mouth a few times as she struggled with whatever was in her mind.

In the end, though, she had nothing to say.  With an abrupt action, she yanked her hand out of Aegnor's grasp, whirled around, and fled into the dark garden.

Aegnor reached out after her but he did not follow.  Barahir could see the heartache and confusion in his brilliant eyes.  "I . . . I didn't mean to . . ."

He sounded so lost.  Barahir never thought the great Elf prince he had followed into battle would ever sound like that.  There was a tortured look on his face speaking of the utter turmoil brewing in his soul.

Eventually he noted Barahir watching him, and the vulnerable look was immediately hidden behind his regular frustration.  He whirled around in the opposite direction Andreth had gone and stalked back the way he had come.

Suddenly alone, Barahir just sat there for a long time.  When he was unable to stand the quiet anymore, he turned again to the book still beneath his hand and unerringly opened it to the picture of Thingol and Beren that so captivated him.

He looked at the sad expression on Thingol's face and wondered what he was supposed to do now.

 

 

*************

 


Listlessly, Finrod pushed the food on his plate around with a fork.  He didn't feel much like eating and knew he was being terrible company.  He had hung around their suite all day in the hope Barahir might return, but he did not.  Even when dinner was served, only Voronwë and Tuor returned.  They were politely ignoring Finrod's unsocial behavior, chatting pleasantly with Edrahil.

Edrahil couldn't help shooting concerned looks at his Lord.  More than one had an element of pity in it that just made Finrod tired when he saw it.

Finrod felt rather low.  He'd been unable to speak his heart when given a perfect opportunity to do so.  He had no idea where Maglor was, and had likely failed in his mission there.  Aegnor had no doubt spent all day pestering Beldis, perhaps managing to completely ruin any chance he had with her.  Or perhaps it was Finrod who had ruined his relationship with his brother.  At this point, Finrod wouldn't be surprised if that was the case.

Finrod paid no attention to the conversation going on around him.  Instead, he kept thinking about what Aegnor had said regarding his belief that there must be some High Doom to allow his union to Barahir or Aegnor's to Andreth.  Had he truly missed the mark about that?  He had always felt strongly that that was the truth.  History seemed to bear him out but did it follow that it would always remain the case?

And did it really matter?  Or was it that Finrod was just scared?  Aegnor kept calling him a coward, and Finrod had to admit there might be something to that.  Finrod had been focused on all the obstacles between himself and Barahir -- perhaps even inventing some that didn't exist.  If he focused on that, he could excuse himself for not acting.  It wasn't that he was scared; it just wasn't prudent to open his heart before he understood how things stood.

But Finrod remembered the look on Barahir's face when he left this afternoon, and he knew he could not keep hiding from his own heart.  He was a coward, and he was hiding because he was scared.  He did not yet have a firm declaration of Barahir's feelings, and that too had kept him quiet.  But he knew that that too was a lie.  Barahir had not said the words, clearly waiting for Finrod to act first, but his feelings had been unguarded since the moment they had been reunited.  Finrod had ignored all the evidence to guard his own heart but it was clear Barahir had been drawn to him from the beginning.  The way he looked at Finrod -- the way he touched him -- was more than enough to prove that Finrod's feelings were not unreturned.

And that was what truly scared Finrod.  He did not fear rejection so much as he did acceptance.  Surely rejection could not hurt a half as much as having his love returned only to lose it in death.  Finrod had already lost Barahir once; could he bear to live through that again?  Worse, if he lived by Barahir's side, he would witness the progression of age, and instead of learning the news removed in distance and time, he would be right there when Barahir died.

The idea of holding Barahir in his arms when he breathed his last left Finrod frozen inside.  How could be bear such a thing?

But how could he turn away either?

The memory of Barahir's guarded expression of late twisted something in Finrod; he felt like he was losing his chance -- that he was losing Barahir -- and that terrified him almost more than the thought of Barahir dying at some far off time in the future.

And through all his brooding, one thought kept coming back to him.  It was a terrible light in the darkness that Finrod almost wanted to snuff out for the terrible hope it brought him -- a terrible impossible hope -- but he couldn't make himself do it.

Beldis' words and Aegnor's questions had brought back to his mind the conversation he'd had with Andreth all those long years ago.  He remembered now Andreth's strange insistence that Men were not made to be mortal.  He remembered the strange hope she had kindled in him that Arda Marred might be Arda Remade.  At the time, his only thought had been a light in the darkness for the Children of Eru as a whole and the world itself.

But there was now a more personal reading.  If Men were not originally meant to be mortal, then it did not go against their natures to live on to the end of the world (or near it) with Elves.  And if it was not against their nature, then the Valar might grant permission for Barahir and Andreth to come to Valinor.

Finrod fought to quell the hope that threatened him.  Of all his thoughts, this was surely the most ridiculous to hang his heart on and yet he found he could not dismiss it.

So focused was he on his own brooding that he nearly jumped out of his chair when the door suddenly slammed open with a loud bang against the wall.  Aegnor stomped right up to them and didn't stop until he stood right in front of Tuor.

"You!" he said, pointing a finger at Tuor.  "Why is it you are so special?  Is it only that you have two Elves who love you that you have gained immortality?"

Beside Finrod, Edrahil choked on his meal.  If Finrod had been eating, he would've done the same.

"Holy Varda, Aegnor!" Finrod hissed, because that was way out of bounds of an acceptable question to ask.

Fortunately Tuor looked completely unperturbed by the aggressive question.  He calmly replied, "Without trying to sound arrogant, I think I am loved by many more than two Elves."

"You know what I mean," Aegnor growled menacingly.  Finrod held his breath, hoping Tuor's patience would hold.  He could feel how tense Edrahil was beside him and he could see how uneasy Voronwë looked, and it was that that really made Finrod worry for his brother.  Tuor might let a lot slide but Voronwë being distressed was not one of those things.

Tuor was still calm when he replied though.  "Yes, I know what you mean.  And my point still stands.  Do you think my father's love for me accounts for less than Idril's?  Or all those who helped him raise me in Androth?  Or my many friends from Gondolin; does their love not count?  If anyone's love really made the difference in my 'fate', surely it must be Ulmo's.  Having a Vala's love must surely account more greatly when it is the Valar who must intercede to Eru.  But I think you err if you think that one person matters more than another in the eyes of the Valar when they are making a decision like this."

Aegnor growled again, clearly frustrated with the answer.  Thankfully, he did move away to pace off his frustration.  It was likely he knew badgering Tuor was a pointless exercise.  Tuor had no say in his fate beyond accepting the choice presented him.  Even if he knew why the Valar had allowed him to live in Valinor, it was highly unlikely that it would be applicable twice.  Tuor had no guidance to give, and Aegnor was just lashing out to lash out.

And apparently he wasn't done with that.  Once again he swung around suddenly to confront Tuor.  "Why are you here, Tuor?  Why did you come?  I've watched you from the beginning of this expedition and you know far more than you've been saying."

"I came to fetch Maglor, the same as you," Tuor said.

"Not the same as us," Aegnor pressed.  "You've had your own agenda from the beginning and I want to know what it is.  You weren't the least bit surprised when you learned about Beldis and Beldir."

"Well, to be fair, you weren't there when Maglor told me about them so you don't really know how I reacted to that," Tuor said, a cool glint beginning to form in his eyes.

Finrod reacted before Aegnor could get himself in real trouble.  "Please, Tuor," he said quietly.  "If you know anything, please tell us."

There may have been a note of pleading in his voice but Finrod did not care.  He held nothing back and knew his vulnerability must be showing because Tuor's hard expression softened some.  "Nothing I say will help you," he allowed.

"Anything, Tuor.  Please," Finrod pressed.

Tuor looked reluctant and unhappy, but he finally nodded.  "Sit down, Aegnor."

Faced with the prospect of some answers, Aegnor obeyed immediately and took the seat beside his brother.  Tuor looked at them for a moment before sighing.

"Maglor is the reason I am here but . . . it is because I had reason to think you two might be distracted."

"Then you did know about Barahir and Andreth," Aegnor said.

"I . . . I knew it was a possibility but I was bound to silence," Tuor hedged.

Aegnor scowled and Finrod quickly grabbed his arm hard to keep him from pushing.  "Please, just tell us what you know."

Tuor glanced at Voronwë, who still looked uncomfortable.  The Man reached out and took the Elf's hand in his before he responded to Finrod.

"What I know is that after they died, Andreth and Barahir's souls resided in Mandos, as do all human souls for a time.  But unlike everyone else, they refused to leave -- to go wherever it is the souls of Men go.  Dead or alive, Men have free will and the Valar cannot compel them to do anything they do not wish.  I have heard there have been other souls that have lingered.  I have heard that Námo is often able to persuade them to move on eventually but not Andreth and Barahir.  They refused to leave."

"Why?" Aegnor asked.

Tuor shrugged.  "I was not told that.  I can certainly guess.  Given what was decided about them, I do not think it unreasonable to think the two of you might have had something to do with it, but I don't know."

"What was decided about them?" Finrod asked hesitantly.

Tuor did not speak right away, clearly measuring his words.  Beside him, Finrod could feel his brother winding tighter and tighter as each second passed.

"From what I was told, at first Námo thought to just leave them in Mandos.  He was sure that eventually they would cave.  It was natural for them to move on and he felt that surely that natural instinct would win out.  But after two Ages . . . well, it was clear they were not going anywhere.  I do not know if they asked specifically for Manwë to intercede or if Vairë brought it to Varda's attention or how it came to pass.  But eventually it became a matter for all the Valar.  A great council was called and the Valar met to debate their future and the future for any Men who reside in Mandos and cannot or would not move on for whatever reason."

"There are others?" Finrod asked, his head spinning to learn about this.

Tuor shrugged.  "Well, I assume there are, though I know not who or how many or what reasons they would have to refuse moving on.  I do not know how the fate of Andreth and Barahir will reflect on them.  As I said, Námo usually waits them out and is successful on that score.  He was very against Manwë's decision.  I heard that he argued passionately -- or as passionately as he gets -- to keep Andreth and Barahir right where they were."

"And what was Manwë's decision?"

Tuor hesitated.  "I am not entirely sure.  I do not know when this debate occurred.  I know that the Valar were very split about it.  I was told that Manwë asked Ilúvatar for guidance and Ilúvatar was silent."

"He was silent?" This seemed the most shocking thing Finrod had yet heard.  He had assumed Ilúvatar must be involved but it was something else entirely to have confirmation that He was asked.  The fact that He did not weigh in felt very momentous to Finrod.

Tuor nodded, not appearing at all affected by this news.  "Yes.  He did not say anything either for or against, and that only intensified the debate among the Valar.  The way Ulmo told it, he thought Manwë only asked for Andreth and Barahir's rebirth to appease those of the Valar who desired that and Manwë did not actually think Ilúvatar would grant the request, as He had been silent to that point.  Ulmo says Manwë was surprised that the request was granted, but I do not know how Ulmo would know that."

"Ulmo told you this?"

Nodding again, Tuor said, "He did."

"And when was this?" Aegnor jumped in.  "How long have you known about this?"

"Not long.  Ulmo only told me after it was sure that you and Finrod would accept the mission to find Maglor.  Once you agreed, he told me about the debate and about my kinsmen.  I rather suspect he wasn't supposed to tell me but Ulmo has always gone his own way."

"What did this have to do with Maglor?" Finrod asked.  "What exactly was decided?"

Frowning, Tuor again did not reply right away.  "It doesn't really have anything to do with Maglor."

"Then our mission was pointless?" Aegnor asked.

"No, bringing Maglor back to Valinor is a legitimate exercise for the reasons you were told.  Námo is willing to allow some of the Noldor to be reborn, and I think the Valar feel that Maglor is a loose thread and they would be happy if his fate was settled.  They are well aware of the tensions between the Noldor and Teleri, and I think they agree with Olwë and others that Maglor may be a key to begin addressing that."

Finrod felt his stomach fall, feeling again his failure to address Maglor at all this entire trip.

"If Maglor had nothing to do with Andreth, was our coming by chance?" Aegnor asked.  "If I had not offered to go with Finrod, would I have missed my chance to be reunited with her?"

"Probably," Tuor said bluntly.  "From what Ulmo told me, there is a deep divide among the Valar.  The question of what should be done with Andreth and Barahir is a weighty one.  Ulmo did not say so outright but I believe that their rebirth is some kind of test -- a trial if you will.  How this unfolds may determine the fates of others still in Mandos, if there are any.  And because of that, the Valar . . ."

"The Valar what?" Aegnor demanded when Tuor trailed off.

Tuor looked particularly hesitant to continue and he was long in answering.  "You must understand that this is all wild speculation on my part.  It really has no basis in anything Ulmo told me."

"Then speculate," Finrod said sharply.  "I trust your judgment, and I would hear your opinion."

Tuor did not look reassured by Finrod's vote of confidence, and Finrod held his breath to see if Tuor would reveal his thoughts or if his better sense would finally hold his tongue.

"I believe -- and mind it is only my opinion -- but I think that Andreth and Barahir remained because of unfinished business with the two of you.  Námo and his faction of the debate did not believe this was sufficient cause to warrant rebirth though.  And I think . . . I think that there must have been some doubt about the strength of your bond.  It is my belief that . . . well, you were in Valinor and it is clear that Men should be reborn from Men, and if they were to be given a second chance with you, something must be contrived to throw you together.  But . . . well, Námo did not agree with this at all and I think that to appease him, the other Valar set a test.  Instead of telling you your loved ones were reborn, they would give you an opportunity to find each other and if you did not take the opportunity, then you were not meant to be with your loved ones.  Andreth and Barahir would have had their second chance and it would result in naught, and therefore they would finally move on.  And you would be none the wiser of the missed opportunity."

"So they left it to chance?" Aegnor sputtered, utterly indignant.  "Because Námo did not agree, I should be denied happiness.  He would have my beloved reborn in the remotest part of Middle-earth and give me absolutely no reason to go there?"

"But you did go there.  That is why I have said nothing -- why I did not think I should ever need to say anything.  I know that if you . . ." Tuor trailed off, glancing at Voronwë.  More softly, he continued.  "I knew that if you felt a half of what I feel for my Elves, then it wouldn't matter if you were told -- you would have found your other halves no matter what obstacles the Valar put in your way.  And I do not believe you were completely without guidance.  The Valar did call your father before them and suggest you and your brother would be good for the mission of getting Maglor back.  And who is to say how the thought of going to Erebor entered Maglor's mind?  He has spent a long time by the sea.  Perhaps Ulmo whispered it or Lórien sent it in a dream or perhaps it came from an even higher power.  It doesn't matter now.  You have found your lovers, and you will figure this all out."

Finrod wasn't so sure about that.

"Then if we have found them -- if the Valar know -- surely then Andreth and Barahir will be welcomed over the sea," Aegnor said, though he didn't sound a fraction as sure as his words would have them believe.

Tuor looked uneasy again.  "I can offer nothing of that.  The Valar know but it is clear that at least some of them are very much against what has happened."

"But the rebirth has happened," Aegnor pressed.  "We have found each other.  Whatever test was laid before us, surely we have passed it.  Why not allow them to Valinor?  Now that their memories of their first lives have returned, surely the Valar cannot want them to remain in Middle-earth where news of what has happened could reach others."

"Maybe, maybe not.  You cannot know what they think or what they are prepared to do in this situation.  They may have given a second chance, but it may only be for one lifetime of Men.  Perhaps they do not want that lifetime to be spent in Valinor.  Perhaps they do not want anyone to die of old age there, to bring the shadow of mortality to the immortal shores.  I do not know, and neither do you.  That is why this is a pointless conversation.  You can glean nothing of what will happen from what I know or speculate because I do not know what will happen.  You must continue blind and make the decision you deem best without any guidance -- as I did, as Beren did, as all lovers do."

Tuor was stern in voice and expression, and that seemed enough to still Aegnor's tongue.  Finrod could feel his brother practically vibrating next to him but Aegnor did not ask anything more.

After an awkward moment, Tuor's demeanor softened again and he turned his focus to Voronwë.  For the first time in their company, he brought their linked hands to his lips and kissed the back of Voronwë's hand.  "What say we go for a walk?  I could use some exercise to work off dinner and I am sure my grandson's gardens are especially fine at night."

Tuor's tone was exceptionally gentle, hinting at the deep affection he felt for the other Elf that Finrod always felt just under the surface when they were near but was never quite so on display.  A hint of a blush touched Voronwë's cheeks but it was clear he was put off-balance by this sudden openness.  He only nodded, allowing Tuor to help him to his feet.  Tuor nodded towards Finrod, Edrahil, and Aegnor, and quickly ushered Voronwë out the door.

Aegnor was soon to follow after, surging to his feet after a few minutes of awkward silence and slipping out the door.  He almost ran over Barahir in doing so.

"What's gotten into him?" Barahir asked.

For some reason his appearance flustered Finrod.  After learning that Barahir's soul had stubbornly refused to leave Mandos -- that he might have done so for the chance to see Finrod again -- well, Finrod had no idea what to think.

Fortunately Edrahil likely surmised as much.  He pulled out the chair beside him in a wordless invitation and said, "Oh, he just stuck his foot in his mouth.  It's nothing serious.  Would you like dinner?"

Barahir sank into the chair and accepted the roasted pheasant when Edrahil passed him the plate.  "I saw Aegnor doing something similar a little while ago.  Where's he off to now?"

"Doubtless he's gone off to find Beldis," Finrod said, forcing himself to get out of his head and focus.  He still wasn't sure of what to do but at the very least, he knew he did not want to squander the time he did have with Barahir.

"Well, I think I shall go look for the baths." Edrahil's tone was off-handed but he winked at Finrod when Barahir wasn't looking.

"Oh, I think I saw some at the end of the hallway," Barahir offered, watching Edrahil get up.  Finrod almost panicked to again be alone.  He hadn't figured out what to do yet.  What was he going to say?

Edrahil did leave though.  He thanked Barahir for the directions and firmly closed the door behind him.

Now it was Barahir's turn to push his food around his plate.  Finrod watched it with concern, for Barahir had not eaten much at lunch either.  Before he could address this, Barahir broke the silence.

"Beldis is going by Andreth now.  Obviously not to Lord Elrond, but to our party.  You can call her Andreth if you want.  I saw her earlier, just when I saw Aegnor."

Finrod sighed.  "So he did go after her then."

"Actually no.  I was surprised too.  But when Andreth came to talk to me, she said Lord Elrond had found her a quiet spot and she'd had some time to think.  Of course, then Aegnor showed up and . . . well, things were a little less peaceful."

"What did he do?"

Barahir chewed his food slowly to give himself some excuse not to reply, and Finrod saw it for that.  Considering how Aegnor had stormed in here, Finrod braced himself to hear what had happened.

"Not a lot.  He was . . . he just wanted to assure Andreth of his feelings and make sure . . . make sure she understood just how much he was willing to give up."

Finrod frowned.  "What do you mean by that?"

Barahir quickly stuffed another bite into his mouth, looking more uncomfortable than before.  Finrod was concerned to see that there was a touch of unease in his gaze too.

"He just . . . he said that no matter what happened, he wasn't going to leave her side, even if that meant . . . He just said that if her fate turned out to be normal, he would die when she did and gladly follow her soul to Mandos.  He said he would ask Námo to let his soul follow hers, and if he would not grant it, he would just stay in Mandos.  Either way, his life would end when hers did."

Barahir could not meet Finrod's eyes when he spoke.  For his part, Finrod couldn't say he was surprised by this news.  All he felt was numb, unable to think at all about the likelihood that he was going to lose his brother.  There was only one outcome where that did not occur, and Tuor's explanation had only confused Finrod further on just how much he should allow himself to hope.

The two sat in silence while Barahir finished his meal.  He ate only a few more bites, his appetite apparently diminished by his own inner confusion.  Finrod could think of nothing that might lighten the atmosphere, though he struggled in that pursuit.  He thought he had more time, anticipating Barahir would eat more.  He was surprised when Barahir very suddenly set his fork down with a clatter and pushed his plate away.

"I couldn't bear that."

Frowning, Finrod said, "I'm sorry?"

"If someone I loved gave up everything for me -- was torn away from all that loved them and robbed of life because of me -- I couldn't bear it."

The words were whispered.  Barahir kept eye contact for a moment but it seemed to prove too much and he looked down where his hands fidgeted on the table.

"I can understand that but . . ." Finrod trailed off when his words brought Barahir's attention back to him.  Vibrant green eyes searched his face, and he was mesmerized.  Without thinking, he continued, "But sometimes asking the person you love to keep on living without you can be so much worse -- not when the alternative is millennia alone.  I don't think I'd ever wish that on someone I loved either."

Finrod watched the way Barahir swallowed.  He could feel the air grow heavy around them.  Fingers twitching, it was all he could do not to reach out, to see if Barahir's beard was soft or rough, to test the strength of the corded muscles he could see peeking out from his shirt, to feel the texture of his tanned skin.

And if he was not sorely mistaken, he thought he did not struggle with this desire alone.  Indeed, there was a moment when he very much thought Barahir was about to reach for him, and Finrod thought he would go.  He still didn't know if he was ready to risk his heart but he knew that if he felt Barahir's rough hands on his skin, he would be powerless to resist.

A part of him was desperate to feel just that.

But again, Barahir's restraint claimed him at the last moment.  Just as he was about to reach out, he seemed to remember himself and he surged inelegantly to his feet.

"I, um, I should turn in.  It's been a long day."

He backed up as he said that, bumping into a small stand holding a potted plant.  Finrod watched him juggle with the pot, just managing to keep it from dropping, before offering Finrod an awkward smile and then stumbling into the bedroom he had claimed for himself and his sister.

Even after the door was shut, Finrod's keen ears could hear Barahir getting ready for bed.  He could hear him walking around, could hear the rustle of fabric when he began to undress.  In his mind, Finrod could picture clearly as each layer was carefully shed and what was revealed underneath.

When he felt himself stir in his pants, Finrod jumped to his feet and headed outside.  He needed some air.

Chapter Text

The hands touching his skin were hotter than a Dwarf forge.  He shivered as they slid down his naked flanks and over his hips.  Kisses were strung down his chest and belly, while those scorching hands were now on his thighs and urging them to part a little further.

He did so without hesitation.

The kisses continued their leisurely trip south, detouring only to let an agile tongue play with his navel until he was squirming.  He bucked up when the kisses continued, ignoring the obvious destination to string kisses along the jut of his hipbone.  He found that his hands were tangled in his lover's hair, and no matter how he tugged, he could not make him move.  His struggles did earn him a quiet laugh, the puff of warm air against his skin sending another shiver racing up his spine.

He arched off the bed, wanting more.

Finally his lover shifted.  A nose grazed the side of his cock, a tongue darting out for a little lick.  His fingers tightened their hold.  Looking down, he was greeted with dark eyes staring back at him, the pupils almost completely swallowing the surrounding color.  His lover exhaled, the warm air so close that it made his cock twitch.

The hands were once again on his hips, holding him down so that he could not buck at the first serious swipe of tongue along the underside of his cock.  He moaned loudly, wordlessly begging for more.

His lover did not oblige right away, tongue sliding down to the base of his cock to plant more kisses along his pelvis.  Silken strands of hair slid against his sensitized cock and he squirmed, desperate for more.

His lover's chuckle was warm and amused, the eyes twinkling up at him filled with such affection that his heart tripped on its side.  And then finally his lover moved with intent, again licking up the side of his cock.

Just as his lover's lips wrapped around the head of his cock, Finrod woke up.  He was unbearably hard, and he just managed to keep himself from snarling in frustration.  Maglor and Aegnor were sharing the room with him, and he had no idea if either was asleep.  Their ears were as good as his; if either was at all awake, they'd know exactly what he was doing if he took himself in hand.  They were both too close kin for him to be comfortable with that idea.

He was tempted though.  The image of Barahir between his thighs remained perfectly vivid in his mind, and damn him if he didn't ache to go hunt down Barahir and see his dream made real.

Burying his face into his pillow, he tried to smother the growl of irritation that he could not keep trapped inside.  He shifted onto his stomach and forced himself not to rub against the bedding.

It was a long time until morning.

 

 

*************

 


"Good morning, Lord Erestor."

"Good morning, Beldir.  How are you today?"

Barahir smiled at the Elf.  "Can't complain."

"I'm happy to hear that."

It had become something of a daily ritual.  Since his arrival, Barahir had spent every morning in the library, and it seemed that was part of Lord Erestor's routine as well.

"I've set aside your books in your usual spot," Lord Erestor said.  Barahir wasn't sure what it said about him that he had a 'usual spot' -- Lord Erestor must think him academic, which was so far from the truth it was funny.

Still, he smiled politely, thanked the Elf, and then wandered further into the sprawling library to the quiet corner he had claimed as his own.  He had just about reached his destination when he passed one of the many openings leading out to the gardens.  This would not have been unusual save that there were two people standing on the landing embracing, and Barahir did a double-take when he realized it was Andreth and Aegnor.

He stood there dumbly until Aegnor noted him.  The Elf said something too softly for Barahir to hear but it made Andreth's head whip around to look at him.  Barahir noted the way she flushed before ducking her head.  Aegnor did not look embarrassed in the least.  He brought Andreth's hand to his lips, murmuring something before kissing it.

He came in Barahir's direction after he took his leave, and nodded to him as he passed by.

"Well, say something," Andreth said, when the silence had stretched on awkwardly.

Her words brought Barahir back to himself.  "I . . . I'm just surprised.  I thought . . . well, when did this happen?"

Andreth looked briefly heavenward.  "I told you I was weak.  Aegnor has been so warm in his attentions to me.  I love him so and he loves me and I . . . I want whatever time I can have with him and . . . oh, don't give me that look!"

Barahir startled.  "I don't have a look--"

"You're no better," she continued, heedless of his protest.  "Just because you and Finrod are taking things slow doesn't give you the right to judge."

"I'm not--"

"Mark my words, you'll come to the same determination we have and then you'll realize that we've thought things through just fine, thank you very much, and you can get off your high horse--"

"I'm not on a high horse!" Barahir said indignantly.  "And if you and Aegnor have reached an understanding, then I'm happy for you."

". . . you are?"

Barahir rolled his eyes.  He was used to his sister going on the offensive when she was feeling vulnerable; he'd just never seen his aunt do it.

Andreth had the grace to look chagrined -- another emotion she did not wear particularly well.  "Right, well . . ."  Apparently at a loss for words, she simply turned around and walked down the path.

Barahir rolled his eyes again.  He couldn't say he was surprised at this revelation.  Well, he was surprised but he knew he shouldn't be.  Aegnor had spent every second at her side that Andreth would consent to his presence.  Her consent had been easier in obtaining of late.  It was no wonder they had reached an understanding.

He wasn't quite sure what to think about it in terms of his own situation.  Andreth's words from their first night in Rivendell were always on his mind.  He wondered if Andreth had come to some determination about their situation that he had not -- something that gave her peace.  What had she and Aegnor discussed in private that had led to this change of heart?  Would it help him figure out what to do with his own feelings for Finrod?

He could only answer these questions by asking them but that would have to wait until Andreth was in a better mood for talking.  Deciding it was best to put it out of his mind until then, he continued on to his little nook.

Just as Lord Erestor had said, there was a small stack of books left on his table.  Barahir quickly grabbed the only one that had captured his attention -- the one with the stunningly lifelike pictures -- and began flipping through it.

After spending so many hours brooding over every page, he'd practically memorized the entire thing.  If there had been anything relevant, it had ceased to be useful days ago but Barahir really had nothing else and he stared at the pictures in the hopes something might shake loose.

"I see you are interested in the First Age."

Barahir's head snapped up to see Lord Elrond standing on the other side of the table.  "My Lord, I--"

Elrond waved away his words with a gesture.  "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Er, no, no of course not."

Offering a polite smile, Elrond took the seat opposite Barahir, who covertly shut the book in front of him.

"Was there something I can help you, my Lord?" Barahir asked.

"I thought perhaps it was I who could offer you help."

Barahir frowned.  "I'm sorry?"

"Erestor tells me that everyday you arrive here right after breakfast and tuck yourself away in this little corner until dark.  You only remember lunch when your friends come get you or Erestor himself asks you to sit with him.  And yet, for all the time you have spent here, you seem content with this small stack of books alone."

"Is that so unusual?"

"Not unusual per se but . . . it makes me wonder if what you are looking for can be found in books at all.  Am I wrong?"

Eyes dropping, Barahir looked at the book under his fingers and he knew he had answered Elrond's question.

"I know you and your sister have just experienced a devastating loss.  Sometimes it's best to talk these things out.  I have some experience with what you are dealing with.  I would be happy to talk with you about it if you want."

For a long few seconds, Barahir watched his fingers tracing the cracks in the book's cover and he made no reply.  The reminder of Dale and the dragon surprised him; he hadn't given it much thought since his memories had returned.  While he did feel more comfortable as Barahir, he had been Beldir for a long time too.  That life was just as relevant and real to him as his old life in Dorthonion.

But now he wondered if Finrod wasn't the only reason he was so eager to look back.  It was easier to deal with the loss of Dale and all his friends and family if he could throw some distance between the events -- if it felt like someone else's life.

After a moment's reflection though, Barahir discarded the idea.  He was still as much Beldir as Barahir, and he didn't feel any distance between either life.  The truth was that he had already dealt with the loss of home, family, and a way of life when Dorthonion burned.  He had tried to hold on and only succeeded in getting himself and his remaining men killed.

"I . . . I haven't thought much about what happened.  That's not . . . it's not what I'm here for."

"And what are you here for then?"

Something in Elrond's tone made Barahir finally look up to meet his eyes.  Lord Elrond appeared nothing but sympathetic and ready to help, patiently waiting for Barahir to speak.  And yet, there was something else lurking behind his polite mask that made Barahir wonder just how much Elrond had guessed or what it was he was thinking.

Barahir hesitated, but in the end the promise of an unbiased ear was too tempting.  "I have a decision to make, and I'm having trouble figuring out what to do."

"You're unlikely to find answers in books these old," Elrond noted kindly, though his eyes remained sharp.

"It isn't . . . they're not . . . I just needed some perspective, and I don't know, seeing what others have gone through . . . I don't know."

Elrond was silent for a moment, studying Barahir.  Unable to meet his piercing gaze, Barahir again found the cover of the book under his hand completely absorbing.

"Looking back for guidance can be very wise," Elrond said.  "But unless I have misread the situation, it appears that doing so has not provided you with any answers.  Perhaps, then, you are looking in the wrong direction.  Instead of looking back, you should look forward.  What is it you want for the future?"

Barahir did not really have to think about that.  He'd spent hours contemplating that very thing, and he had come down to two very basic things.  He wanted to be with Finrod but he also wanted Finrod to be happy and live.  The idea of Finrod dying because of him was utterly abhorrent.  But it was not so great that it immediately overran his desire to be with Finrod.  To him, the two impulses seemed perfectly at odds.

"It isn't about what I want, my Lord," Barahir said slowly.  "Not completely, because it isn't only my desires that matter."

"It involves someone else?  And how does this person feel?"

Barahir chewed his lip, feeling keenly his lack of insight into Finrod's feelings on the matter.  Aegnor assured him Finrod loved him, and Barahir had his own interactions with Finrod to support that claim.  But he wasn't sure.  The more he thought over his memories, the less certain he was of them.

"I haven't asked him."

To his credit, Elrond did not immediately respond and when he did, he said the obvious answer as gently as possible.  "Perhaps speaking to him will clear up the matter."

Barahir nodded because he knew that was true.  Seeing Aegnor and Andreth, he could not help but realize that just talking it out might make everything clear.  Aegnor had spoken his heart and Andreth had not concealed hers.  It would be so easy to just ask Finrod what he felt.

But it didn't feel that easy to Barahir.

Barahir had considered a thousand different ways to open his heart to Finrod.  He had thought about just coming out and saying it.  He had thought about using Andreth and Aegnor as a cover to explore Finrod's feelings on the matter.  He had even considered writing a note and leaving it for Finrod to find.

When thinking about all these different options, Barahir's mind played out the likely reaction to follow.  He knew Finrod would never be cruel about such a declaration, and his own reading of the situation made him fairly confident Finrod would return his feelings.  But that didn't mean he would react positively.  And Barahir did entertain the possibility that he had completely misread the situation and Finrod did not feel as strongly about him as he did the Elf.

It was not that which held him back.  It was the fact that when his mind rehearsed a scene where Finrod greeted his declaration with delight, Barahir did not feel the joy he should at such a prospect.  Aegnor's words continued to haunt him, reminding him always of what Finrod was risking in loving him, and it made his heart constrict in pain when he thought about Finrod's possible fate.  If Finrod was like Andreth and could not deny him if Barahir actually forced the issue, would it not be better for Barahir to stay silent to protect the Elf?

And throughout everything, Barahir was always keenly aware of the fact that Finrod had not said anything to him either.  If Finrod wanted Barahir, surely he would have said something by now.

Wouldn't he?

"There are other things to consider though.  What I want and what he wants -- it might not matter."

"What do you mean?"

Focusing on the book beneath his hand, Barahir thought about the history written therein.  He thought about Beren's fate and Lúthien's sacrifice but mostly about Námo and Manwë's role in the narrative.  Far beyond this place were beings of such might and power, Barahir could not entertain their enormity.  He should be as nothing to them and yet he was now caught up in something that must surely interest them.

Would they be sympathetic to his plight or would they consider him a dangerous aberration?  If they did not agree with his rebirth -- and for some strange reason, he felt strongly that they might not -- then would they not reject him?  Not only would Tuor's fate be beyond his reach, but they might also punish Finrod by proxy, denying him even the desire to chase after Barahir to Men's afterlife.

If Finrod agreed to be with him, Barahir would then be condemning the Elf.  There would be no hope of peace.

Barahir opened his mouth, wanting to explain, but found there were no words.  If he mentioned the Valar at all, surely Lord Elrond would deem him arrogant to think such high beings would care for his tiny problems at all.  Barahir would need to explain his rebirth but he could not even explain it to himself.  And, more importantly, he would also need to explain about Finrod, and Elrond was not to know about that.

"I cannot explain but there are external factors to consider."

Glancing at Elrond, Barahir could see him considering that.  Barahir wondered if he sounded utterly daft.  If he did, Elrond was too polite to point it out.

"These factors that you are not at liberty to talk about, is the other party involved aware of them?"  Barahir nodded.  "Then he must have some insight into how they affect the decision you are struggling with.  Perhaps he feels the same way you do.  Or perhaps he has considered something you have not."

"No, I know he hasn't.  On that at least we have spoken."  Barahir paused, considering the truth of that statement.

He knew Finrod was in the dark about the Valar's role in Barahir's rebirth.  It stood to follow that he would also be ignorant of their perspective on Barahir's desire to be with Finrod.  But for the first time, Barahir wondered if Finrod couldn't guess.  Tuor had said he had never gained Finrod's judgment about his marriage and yet felt confident of Finrod's good opinion because of Beren and Lúthien.  Was it too bold to think something similar could be extrapolated about the Valar?

Barahir shook his head.  "The factors that affect us cannot be known with surety."

"Then they are irrelevant to your decision," Elrond said.  When he saw Barahir's clearly skeptical look, he clarified, "It serves you nothing to consider these factors if they cannot be known.  You will end up making your decision without knowing them anyway so wrestling with them is pointless.  Or do you think that pouring over these dusty old books will provide you with answers on this score?"

Looking down at the book beneath his hand, Barahir had to admit, "No, but that doesn't mean it's pointless.  It matters.  It matters because the factors will have such a huge impact on . . . on the outcome of the decision."

"And you are in doubt of what the outcome will be?"

"Well, no," Barahir admitted reluctantly.  He knew the outcomes, didn't he?  Was there really some strange other Doom that none of them were seeing?  He had Tuor and Beren as guides -- the Valar would either grant him lasting life or not.  They would either allow Finrod's spirit to be tied to his or they would not.

"There are several outcomes but . . . I can guess what they will be."

"Well, that seems like a great deal of knowledge from which to make a decision."

"Yes, but I do not know which outcome will happen."

"And you cannot know that?" Elrond said, clarifying his understanding of the situation.  Barahir nodded.  "But you have gleaned the outcomes available at least.  I surmise that you would choose differently for the different outcomes and that is why you are in doubt.  I still fail to see why you must make this decision alone.  Surely knowing how the other party feels will be important to your ultimate decision."

"Yes, but he . . . he might . . ."  Finrod might say he was willing to die if that was the outcome.  He might say he was willing to live for millennia in sorrow and loneliness for only a handful of years together.  What was Barahir supposed to say to that?

"He might?" Elrond prompted gently.

Feeling confused and heartsore, Barahir's reply was whispered.  "He might feel that . . . There is an outcome where he would be very hurt and if he felt that . . . He might not refuse to turn away from such an ending."

"Well, surely that is his decision."

"Yes, but he might choose differently if I did not desire that for him."

"Then why don't you tell him that?"

"Because I . . . because . . ." Barahir struggled to find the words -- to find what it was he wanted to say at all.

With the clear insight of the Elves, Elrond provided it for him. "Because you do not know what you would say because you do not know how you feel."

Barahir nodded, feeling the truth of that keenly.  He didn't know what he felt.  He didn't know what he would do if Finrod accepted him, not when he didn't know if that meant he was gaining Finrod by his side forever or he was condemning the person he loved the most to a truly terrible fate.

Elrond was silent, a thoughtful expression on his face.  It was a long few minutes before he again spoke.

"Let me see if I have understood this.  You and another party have a decision to make -- one I assume you will make together.  You cannot make this decision without his input but you do not want to know which outcome he would prefer until you know how you feel about his preference.  And you cannot know how you feel about his preference until you know what that preference is; am I right?"

When put like that, Barahir just wanted to slam his head into the table.  No wonder he wasn't making any progress.

Elrond gave him a sympathetic look.  "Well, you certainly do have a dilemma."  Barahir could guess at the expression on his face because he saw Elrond's lips twitch in amusement.

"I don't suppose you have any advice for this, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Elrond said.  He sounded so confident that Barahir gave him a surprised look.  Though he knew it was unlikely, he waited eagerly for a possible solution.

Elrond reached across the table and gently pried the book from under Barahir's hand.  "What you need to do is get out of your head.  You've been cooped up in the library too long.  The answers aren't in here," he said, pointing to the book he was now holding.  "They're in there." He pointed at Barahir's heart.  "And the best way to find them is to stop thinking about it and just let yourself feel."

"And do you have a suggestion how I should do that?"  It sounded like good advice but all Barahir had been able to do was think about it.  It was always on his mind, even when he tried to focus himself elsewhere.

"I do."

Lord Elrond got up and gestured for Barahir to do the same.  While they walked away from Barahir's quiet corner, Elrond said, "I would suggest you go down to the practice rings and give yourself over to some exercise.  I think I can say with surety that my sons would be delighted to spar with you."

"That is a good idea but . . ."

"But?"

"I just think any sparring I did with anyone in your household would be far too short for the purpose you intend.  I used to think myself a decent fighter but after Greenwood . . ."

"What happened in Greenwood?"  Elrond's innocent question brought Barahir back to himself, reminding him of who he was speaking to and the secrets he had to maintain.

"We were attacked by a large group of orcs.  It was not like the small skirmishes that I've been in while traveling.  Most orcs I've seen seemed desperate and starved and easy pickings.  But the ones that attacked us on our way here were formidable opponents, at least to me.  But not to the Elves I travel with.  There was no contest."

"Well, then it sounds like the training will do you good.  If it makes you feel better, my sons have trained the Dúnedain for centuries.  They are good with any level of proficiency.  I am sure they will provide you with just as much challenge as you are able to withstand."

Flexing his fists, Barahir began to feel excited at the prospect of sparring.  He had always been an active sort -- in both lives.  He'd never been content to sit on his butt.  He was sure Lord Elrond had discerned as much, which was likely why he'd felt it necessary to see why Barahir was doing just that.

No, getting up and moving would be good.  It would distract him at the very least, which could only be good at this point.

And maybe there was something to what Lord Elrond said.  Explaining the skirmish in Greenwood, Barahir was reminded of the moment when his memories returned.  He remembered how badly he had fought in the beginning and how that had changed when his memories had returned.  He'd barely tasted the skill he had once had but he knew his instincts were once again sharp with decades of fighting.  He was suddenly anxious to see how far he could push that -- to see what his new body made of his old fighting skills.

Turning to Elrond, he nodded.  "Alright."

Elrond smiled and led Barahir out into the sunshine.

 

 

*************

 


"My Lord?"

Finrod turned away from the panoramic view of waterfalls and gardens to find Edrahil standing at the entrance of the balcony.  He raised an eyebrow in question, and Edrahil continued, "Voronwë and I are going to meet up with Tuor in the Hall of Fire.  Would you like to come with us?"

"Thank you but I think not.  Perhaps some other time."

Edrahil hesitated, and Finrod could guess his thoughts.  This was not the first invitation Finrod had turned down, and Edrahil was clearly beginning to worry.

Finrod waited for the lecture -- for Edrahil to tell him that brooding wouldn't solve his problems and he should at least make the attempt to be sociable -- but the words never came.  He heard a quiet, sad sigh right before Edrahil bowed and took his leave.

Finrod once again turned his mind to the stunning landscape before him.  He tried to empty his mind of all thoughts of Barahir -- to stop worrying over how little he had actually seen the Man, or that when he did see him, their interactions were universally awkward.  No, he tried to focus on the stunning beauty of Rivendell.

He couldn't say he was very successful.

"May I join you?"

Startled, Finrod whirled around to find Lord Elrond standing just outside the balcony doors.  He smiled gently when he saw Finrod's expression.  "I knocked but it appears you were lost in thought."

"Er, yes.  Yes, I suppose I was," Finrod said, watching Elrond glide to his side.  "What can I do for you, my Lord?"

"I have just come from speaking with the young Man in your party.  It seems he has been struggling of late."

Finrod's heart twisted in his chest.  He had seen the troubled look on Barahir's face whenever they were together, and it tore at Finrod every time he did not do anything to make it go away.

"And unless I err wildly, I do not believe he is the only one." Elrond threw in a pointed look towards Finrod in a silent punctuation to his statement.

Finrod could feel himself going pale.  It occurred to him too late that he should be denying the implication outright but he knew he had missed his chance.  Though their group had kept mostly to themselves, what Finrod had seen of Elrond proved him to be deeply insightful -- a match to Finrod himself.  Finrod had already betrayed himself, and he knew Elrond had noted it.

He did not know just how much Elrond had guessed so he kept silent.  For a few minutes, Elrond allowed the quiet.  "Forgive me if I am overstepping my bounds, but it seems to me that Beldir is waiting for you to act and it is curious to me that you have not done so.  I have spoken to him, and now I would offer to speak to you as well.  I can assure you of my discretion, if that is a concern."

"I . . . I thank you for your offer but--"

"Before you refuse," Elrond interrupted seamlessly.  "Beldir did not betray the nature of the problem you two are struggling with but I believe I have guessed it.  If I have guessed correctly, will you consider speaking with me?  I only wish to help you for it seems to me that you two need some guidance."

Finrod could not deny that, so he nodded his acceptance.

"It is clear to me that Beldir loves you dearly and I believe that you return his affection.  I know I do not know either of you well but I do not think I am wrong.  I would not so boldly insert myself in your affairs if I did not think it warranted."

Sighing, Finrod had to admit that Elrond had likely assessed their situation correctly and he doubted it had been all that hard for Elrond to diagnose their problem.  That didn't mean Finrod felt he could talk about it, though he was at the point where he would take advice from anywhere if it was sound.

"You are right but . . . I cannot talk about it.  There are some unusual circumstances."

One of Elrond's eyebrows canted just slightly but he did not look wholly surprised.  "Yes, Beldir mentioned something of that.  He said there were external factors at play."

"Then you know I am not at liberty to discuss it."

"The way you are not at liberty to tell me your real name?" Elrond's tone was excessively mild and it took all of Finrod's self-control not to betray his surprise.  From the look Elrond gave him, it was clear he had not succeeded.  In a conversational tone, Elrond said, "I do not know if you are aware but Celeborn is rather adept in the art of portraiture.  And I would venture that Galadriel is not too bad herself.  Certainly her brothers would be a favorite subject."

Finrod closed his eyes for a moment.  "You've known this whole time?"

"For awhile anyway.  I did not recognize you at our first meeting but . . . well, Maglor's presence alone dictated a second look at you all.  It would take someone special to draw him from his solitude.  I can think of no one but family who could achieve that."

Nodding to himself, Finrod silently agreed with that.

"So, now would you speak to me?"

Finrod debated his options.  He was still hesitant to discuss the situation concerning Barahir but he wondered if he might not explain about the initial mission that brought them to these shores.

Nothing had surprised Finrod more than when Maglor had actually returned to their rooms on their first night in Rivendell.  The confrontation between Aegnor and Tuor had again reminded him of his mission here, and he again resolved to concentrate on his cousin and getting him to agree to come to Valinor.  But just as soon as he began to focus his attention on Maglor, he found it completely unnecessary.

Elrond had made a point of spending at least some part of every day with Maglor and often it was much more than that.  Their time together was conducted in Elrond's private rooms or his private garden where they were not disturbed so Finrod had no idea what they spoke of.  But when Maglor returned each day from these meetings, he seemed at once both more agitated and more at peace.  It was clear that Elrond was shaking something loose in Maglor, and that could only be a good thing at this point.

If Elrond had deduced their identities, then there was no reason to keep him in the dark -- at least not about the mission regarding Maglor.

"My brother and I have come from Valinor to offer Maglor a chance to come home.  So far he has refused to accept our offer, and he must come of his own freewill.  We . . . we were not supposed to come here."

"To Rivendell?  Because of his connection to me?"

Finrod shook his head.  "No, it wasn't about you.  We weren't supposed to see anyone who could recognize us -- not Galadriel or Celeborn or Glorfindel or anyone.  The Valar also set a limit on our time here.  We only have a little while left to convince Maglor to come with us or he will never get to come home."

There was a long minute where Elrond said nothing.  "I am unclear how Beldir fits into all of this."

"Well, he doesn't," Finrod admitted reluctantly.

Elrond's eyebrow lifted a little higher but he kept his peace.  He braced himself against the railing and looked out over his valley.  "Do you love Beldir?  Do you desire to build a life with him?"

"Yes."

"And yet you and he both hesitate because of these 'external factors'.  Do I guess rightly when I say that the 'external factors' you and Beldir are so worried about are the Valar themselves?" When he glanced over in Finrod's direction, Finrod quickly looked away.  "I spoke to Beldir about that -- at least as much as was possible when he would not divulge the particulars -- but I found that the source of his struggle did not have anything to do with these 'factors' at all.  I wonder if it might not be the same with you."

"What do you mean?"

"I just think that you and he are focusing on the wrong thing -- that you are both worrying about the things that are out of your control to allow you to avoid the real heart of the matter."

Finrod felt the uneasy feeling in his stomach grow with each word Elrond spoke but he also felt a growing anticipation too.  "And what might that be?" he whispered.

Elrond's reply was not immediate.  As he looked out over his valley, Finrod could see a deep sadness in him.

"No one knows this but when the choice of the Half-Elves was laid before me, I did consider choosing mortality."

Finrod startled at this revelation, imparted as it was in such a quiet voice.

"It was only briefly, and of course I did not do it.  I knew my spirit was most closely aligned to that of the Elves and I would feel most comfortable with them.  I knew that was the right choice for me.  I knew it just as I knew that my brother was meant to be a Man.  From my first breath, I knew that was the choice he would make.  Elros was dearer to me than anyone else.  He was my other half.  He was the half of me that is human, just as I was the half of him that was Elf.  But more than that, he was me as I was him.  When he died, it felt like someone tore my chest open with their bare hands and ripped my heart out to leave me with an open, bleeding void.  I felt as if my soul had been shredded like a flag in a hurricane.  I felt empty and so utterly alone.  To this day, I still do not feel whole."

When Elrond paused, Finrod could see the way he swallowed.  It was clear that this was a painful topic and Finrod opened his mouth to stop it.  He didn't know why Elrond was confiding in him but he did not desire it if Elrond found it this difficult.

But Elrond must have sensed as much for he turned to meet Finrod's eyes, and the look he gave dried up the words in Finrod's throat.

"None of this was a revelation to me though.  I did not discover just how dear my brother was only when he was sundered from me.  It did not creep up on me unawares.  No, I knew what a separation would mean long before we were offered our choice of fates.  And I knew what our choices would be long before we made them.  As a child, I knew where his spirit would run.  I did not know that we would have any say in the matter, but I sensed that we would be sundered."

Elrond took a deep breath through his nose to center himself.  "I could have saved myself some pain if I had turned away, if I had kept a part of myself from him.  I could have protected my heart.  It would not have saved me from all heartache but it would have spared me a good deal of pain if I had but withdrawn on my own accord.  I know that was what Elros was doing when he moved to Númenor -- that if he was beyond my reach, our parting might not hurt me so.  I could have done as much for myself far earlier.  When he left to fight in the War, I could have stayed with Maglor and Maedhros.  I could have chosen to spend my days without him."

The piercing look intensified in Elrond's eyes as he continued, "But I did none of those things.  He was my other half and he belonged with me as I did him.  And for all the heartache that his loss has caused me, I do not regret that I did not do more to spare myself.  I wouldn't trade a moment of the time I spent with my brother to lessen the heartache I feel now.  Is not that how you feel with Beldir?  If you could change the past so that the two of you had never met and never fallen in love, would you do that?  Would you discard him to avoid grief?  I don't think you would, and I think that is what you must focus on here."

Stomach knotting painfully, Finrod knew Elrond was right.

"And as to the Valar," Elrond said, "Do you have so little faith in their mercy?  Or if not in them, then in His?  And if you are so sure that they would strike against you, would you just accept that?  Or are you willing to fight?  I think that is what truly matters here.  What is Beldir really worth to you?  Can you just walk away?"

Finrod knew he couldn't.  It was already too late.  From the moment he'd seen Barahir, his path was clear.  Whatever their future held, it was too late now for Finrod to turn back.  His heart belonged to Barahir, and it didn't matter if Barahir died at his side or here in Middle-earth; Finrod would feel his loss with the same keen heartache.  But he had never backed down from a fight, and nothing had been more worth fighting for than Barahir.  They deserved to be happy together, even if only for a little while.

Clearly seeing that Finrod had reached some kind of decision, Elrond said, "Beldir is sparring with my sons.  When you are ready, you can find him in the practice rings."

Finrod nodded distractedly, still reeling from the sudden insight Elrond had given him.  He did not hear Lord Elrond leave, but when he turned to thank him, the Half-Elf was gone.

Feeling excited and anxious and nervous, Finrod took a deep breath and left to find the other half of his soul.

 

 

*************

 

 

Barahir thought he was doing pretty well, all things considered.  It felt exhilarating to have a sword in his hand again -- to enjoy it without the threat of orcs or the need to focus on other people's safety.  For the first time, he could really stretch himself -- he could really feel the difference in his lives in the way his current body did not quite match up with the skills he possessed from his first life.

Without the immediacy of danger, it had taken him a bit of time to find his rhythm.  He had to wonder what Elladan and Elrohir thought of him.  He had to be the most inconsistent fighter they had come across.  Yet, they betrayed nothing, and Barahir could see that Elrond had not misinformed him about these two.  They were born teachers, and easily adapted to whatever Barahir was doing.  It was much easier to test his limits when he was in such good hands.  He trusted the Twins would be able to keep him and themselves safe, and he felt very comfortable losing himself in the fight.

When he had started out, Elrohir had been his sparring partner while Elladan watched and occasionally made suggestions for Barahir's benefit.  Once Barahir finally began to stop thinking and just acted, Elladan joined his brother.  The two-on-one match was excellent as far as Barahir was concerned.  Having two such skilled opponents left him no room to think, forcing him to really pay attention to every aspect of the fight.  It was absolutely perfect and Barahir was rather proud of himself that he was able to take them both on.  Clearly they were going easy on him, but even keeping up with these two was no small feat.

For the span of over an hour, he did fairly well -- that was until a stray thought completely ruined his concentration at the most inopportune of moments.

Barahir was thinking that this was exactly what he needed, and he was reminded that sparring used to be his go-to remedy whenever he had had a problem in the past.  He hadn't always realized it was what he needed but his brother and then his son could always be depended on to suggest a day's exercise just when he needed it most.  Barahir was dodging the quick swipes of Elven blades as he thought about how fortuitous it was that Elrond had noted the same thing and that his sons were turning out to be just as perceptive as Beren had been regarding what Barahir needed in a fight.  Barahir had never encountered anyone who could get him like that who wasn't in his family.

And then it occurred to Barahir that Elladan and Elrohir were family.  In a stunning moment of clarity, he could see Beren in these two and remembered that they were descended from his son -- were descended from him -- and that was pretty much guarantied to blow his concentration to hell.

The moment the realization struck him, Elladan did the same thing.  He was kicking out, aiming for the back of Barahir's ankle.  Barahir had easily side-stepped such attacks before and Elladan clearly expected him to do that this time so he did not really pull his strength, and consequently, Barahir went down.

"Are you alright?" Elladan said, immediately coming to his side to help him up.

"Fine, fine.  Can't avoid a few falls against such fine warriors such as yourselves, can you?"

"Nay, you have done very well," Elladan reassured.

"Indeed, you have given my brother and I a true challenge," Elrohir added, coming to stand beside them.

Barahir snorted at that, not believing it for a second.  "It's true," Elladan insisted, "Clearly you have had some excellent tutelage and absorbed it well."

Elrohir added, "You only trip yourself up when you think too much about what you are doing."

"When you simply let yourself flow, you are a force to be reckoned with."

"You need only practice trusting your instincts."

"Would you like to go again?"

Barahir shook his head, a smile creeping around the edges of his mouth.  "No, I think I shall decline.  Thank you so much for the match.  I do not think I have ever had such skilled opponents."

"It was our pleasure," the Twins said together, both sounding so earnest that Barahir felt they must be sincere, even if he didn't think it warranted.

"Perhaps you will wish to soak your muscles after such exercise," Elrohir said tactfully.

His brother added, "There are private baths just through there."

"Will you not take your own advice?" Barahir asked.  He ran a critical eye over them, noting that while he was completely drenched in sweat, they were not so much as glowing.  To look at them, one could never guess they'd just spent an hour strenuously fighting.

Elladan said, "Perhaps later.  We must be off to take our rotation on patrol."

"You're going on patrol after an hour's sparring match?" Barahir asked incredulously.

The Twins merely responded with sunny smiles.  Neither of them looked winded in the least, and Barahir could only shake his head at that.  For all the effort Barahir had just exerted, they looked like they could have spent all day picking daisies.

The Twins reiterated their delight in the match though and politely refused Barahir's assistance in putting away the equipment.  They insisted that as a guest he should take his ease and would not hear anything but that he head to the bathhouse for a well-deserved soak.

Outmatched, he gave into their insistence and headed down the partially hidden path the Twins pointed out to him.  They said the bathhouse down that way had little traffic and he could be assured of some peace and quiet.

He had only gone a few feet down the path when a voice had him looking to the left where he saw Finrod approaching him.

"Do you mind some company?"

Surprised, Barahir stammered, "Of course not."  All his earlier confusion flooded back to him and he had to quickly turn his attention away so Finrod did not see.  Finrod fell into step with him and they followed the path down to a pretty little structure right on the edge of one of the many streams pouring through Rivendell.

"I see you have found some sparring partners," Finrod said conversationally as they entered the bathhouse.  "I caught the last half of your fight.  I must say I like what I saw."

Barahir snorted, turning a little away from Finrod so he could peel off his sweat-drenched shirt.  "Ah, the lads were going easy on me.  If I'd had a handful of lads like them in Dorthonion, Morgoth would not have found us so easily taken."

He used his wadded up shirt to wipe his face and neck, and did not notice the way Finrod was looking at him.

"I think you give yourself too little credit," Finrod said softly.  "But I wasn't talking about that."

Something about his tone caught Barahir's attention.  He turned, ready to ask what Finrod had been talking about then, but froze when he saw the intense look the Elf was giving him.

Finrod took a step forward, putting them within touching distance.  "I like what I saw."  He repeated the words slowly, putting quiet emphasis on the sentence so that Barahir could not mistake his meaning.  "I like what I see."

Eyes wide, Barahir could only stand dumbly as Finrod took another step closer.  They were almost chest-to-chest now and Barahir held his breath when the Elf reached out.

Finrod hesitated for a moment before touching Barahir's bicep.  His fingers grazed along Barahir's skin, making the Man shiver.

"Finrod?"

The Elf shook his head slightly but didn't say anything.  He was looking at Barahir but his focus seemed somewhat inward at the same time, as if he was weighing something.

For a moment nothing happened, and in the silence, Barahir thought the pounding of his heart must surely reach Finrod's keen ears.  His shirt had fallen from his fingers, which twitched with the sudden need to reach out and touch too.  Finrod's touch was feather-light, shifting slowly up but not making any real progress.  It was maddening, and Barahir was desperate for more.

He didn't move though, wary of disturbing whatever was going on in Finrod's head and possibly causing him to back off.  But Barahir's blood was still singing from the recent sparring match and he wanted action.

He wanted Finrod.

"Finrod."

At the quiet sound of Barahir's voice, Finrod's focus snapped to the Man's face.  Barahir felt his breath catch; the heat in Finrod's eyes was scorching.

Finrod surged forward, and his kiss was every bit as passionate as the look in his eyes promised it would be.  Without any thought, Barahir was kissing back.  His arms locked around the Elf's slim body, pressing him as close as he could.

Finrod seemed intent on tasting every patch of Barahir's mouth, his tongue eager and busy.  Barahir was just as eager, burying a hand in the golden hair that had so transfixed him.  It was just as soft as it looked, slipping through his fingers like silk.

Finrod's fingers dug into Barahir's flesh, not that Barahir noticed it.  All he could think was he wanted more.

The need to breathe finally broke them apart.  Looking at Finrod -- lips reddened, cheeks flushed, eyes blown wide -- Barahir groaned in need.

"I . . ." Finrod began but had to stop, his voice rough.  He licked his lips and swallowed before trying again.  "I want you with me, Barahir.  I need you, and I can't . . . I can't lose you because I didn't speak up.  I've realized that I would never forgive myself if that happened.  I need you to know that . . . I need to tell you that . . ."

"That?" Barahir asked quietly, seeing the Elf struggle with his words.

Finrod's grip on his bicep loosened, and raising his hand, he cupped Barahir's cheek with an infinitely tender touch.  His expression was soft as he studied the Man's face.

"That I love you."

Again Barahir's breath caught in his throat but it felt entirely different this time.  Those softly whispered words struck harder than any physical blow he'd ever suffered in his life.

Had Elladan managed to knock him out?  Was he dreaming?

Mimicking Barahir's actions in Lake-town, Finrod's thumb gently stroked Barahir's cheek as they were once again locked in each other's gaze.  Finrod swallowed again, clearly forcing himself to keep going.  "I wanted you to hear the words -- to know how I feel.  I have loved you for two lifetimes now.  I-I haven't always been brave enough to face this truth but that in no way made it any less real.  You have been in my heart since I first met you and I do not now want to miss the chance to live by your side . . . if you would have me."

"And what of the future?" Barahir said.  His head was spinning, Elrond and Aegnor and Andreth's words racing through his thoughts.  "What happens when I grow old?  Do you really expect me to . . . I cannot bear to have you suffer on my behalf."

"But I am already suffering," Finrod said quickly.  "That is what you must understand.  I was miserable in Valinor without you, and yes, if you and I are separated, I will be miserable again.  But that will be true if you leave me now or in a lifetime, and I would much rather have the latter.  I understand what I risk and I would risk it anyway."

"Finrod-" Barahir protested, but stopped when Finrod placed a finger against his lips.

"Please Barahir, do not reject me out of some misplaced need to protect me.  It is too late for that, and frankly, I don't appreciate it.  If you will reject me, then do it because you do not want to be with me.  But if you feel about me what I feel for you, then do not let this chance slip away."

With such a heartfelt plea, only one thing continued to hold Barahir back and that was his own feeling of unworthiness.  He did not deserve this Elf.  But as he let his fingers slide free from the golden strands of silk to frame Finrod's face, he knew he could not deny himself for that reason.  If his Elf wanted it -- his Elf -- then how could he refuse?

Gently he used his leverage to press a chaste kiss to Finrod's lips.  When he pulled back, Finrod's expression was guarded as he searched Barahir's face.

Barahir offered an awkward smile.  "I love you too, in case it wasn't clear," he said, earning a watery smile from Finrod.  Serious now, Barahir continued, "And nothing would make me happier than to spend my lifetime with you.  I want nothing more than that.  And if you want me too . . . I would follow you anywhere, Finrod."

"Even to Valinor?"

Barahir nodded resolutely, a fire burning in his eyes.  "If that's what you want, then yes.  I do not want to separate you from family and friends, certainly not when I have nothing to tie me here.  I would confront the Valar themselves if you want me to.  I will ask them to grant me Tuor's fate.  I will tell them that though I am not built to last so long, I can endure easily if I have you at my side.  I will tell them that I deserve it because you love me.  And if they do not think that is justification enough, I will argue everyday of my life to make them see it is.  And if I should die anyway, I will not stop arguing.  I will wait in Mandos and make such a nuisance of myself that the Valar will have to reunite us, if that's what you want.  I will wait for you, Finrod.  Always."

Finrod looked at him with such emotion, amazed and hopeful and overwhelmed.  "I think you already have," he said softly, though Barahir did not understand.  "And we are of like minds.  For I intend to fight just as hard.  You are worth that to me.  I will make the Valar understand that -- you are worth the fight, Barahir.  And I think we've both proven that when we fight together, nothing can stop us."

Barahir looked into Finrod's eyes and took a moment to marvel at his sudden turn of fortune.  He didn't let himself think about the battles to come and about their uncertain fate that had dogged him for so many days now.  No, for the first time, he concentrated on the fact that Finrod loved him -- that he really was going to get to spend the rest of his days with this Elf.

It was such a breathtaking thought that he rested his forehead against Finrod's to keep the world from spinning out from under him.  His arms came down to wrap securely around Finrod's waist and Finrod's arms wrapped around his neck.

They remained locked like that -- breathing each other's breath, feeling each other's warmth, finally sharing the weight of their burden together -- and the world left them alone.

Whatever the future brought, this moment was theirs.

 

 

*************

 


Sitting alone in Elrond's private garden, Maglor mindlessly plucked out a tune on a silver lap harp.  The harp itself was beautifully crafted but smaller than was typical.  Still, it fit well in his hands and all of its strings rang true.

Maglor had made the harp himself a very long time ago.  Indeed, it was the very first thing he had ever made that had earned his father's approval.  It was that more than any intrinsic superiority of form or loveliness that had enticed him to choose it for the journey from Valinor above the many finer instruments he had crafted in later years -- that had him saving it alone when all else he owned burned in the many wars of the First Age.

He had managed to keep this one small harp with him for centuries.

Elros and Elrond had not known this history when he gifted them the harp, but Maglor thought Elrond might have suspected some partiality on Maglor's part.  That was unlikely to be the only thing Elrond suspected.

Maglor sighed, thinking back to that last parting.  Some foresight warned him that it would be the last time he would ever look upon his charges, riding off to join the Great War against Morgoth.  And that proved true, for Elros at least.

But here he was now, sitting in Elrond's garden and again playing a harp he had thought never to see again.

"That's beautiful, Maglor."

Maglor looked up to see Elrond approaching him.  "Was it?  To tell you the truth, I have no idea what I have been playing.  You've caught me lost in thought."

His words caused an amused twinkle in his foster son's eyes.  "You are not the only one."

Maglor shifted over to give Elrond room to sit beside him.  "What do you mean?"

"I have just come back from speaking to Finrod."

Maglor's thoughts immediately went to Finrod's predicament with Barahir; he could well believe Elrond had caught his cousin brooding.  It took him a moment to realize that Elrond had not used Finrod's false name, and his eyes widened when he realized that Elrond knew.

Elrond smiled a little mischievously when he saw Maglor had caught on.  "I've known for a while now," he said, and gave a little helpless shrug.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"Well, I wasn't entirely sure, and I assumed you all had your reasons for the subterfuge.  I saw no harm in allowing it to continue.  But Finrod has now confirmed my suspicions so I do not think there is any harm in you and I discussing his presence -- not here where there are no ears but our own."

"And what is there to discuss?" Maglor asked warily.

Elrond pretended not to notice his tone.  With an air of only the mildest interest, he said, "Well, you have been reunited with your cousins after a very long absence.  Are you not glad to see them?   Have you not enjoyed their presence?"

Hands tightening on the harp, Maglor did not reply right away.  His thoughts were taken back to that solitary moment singing by the shore when he had first heard Finrod's voice call his name.  He remembered the shock when he had turned expecting phantoms but saw instead a whole group of people suddenly appearing as if from nowhere.

He thought about these last few months and how conflicted he'd felt.  On the one hand, it was wonderful to see Finrod and Aegnor again.  Being in their presence had brought him back to his more innocent days when he could still enjoy the company of family and friends, and he had had family who would still have him.  But on the other hand, watching Finrod and Aegnor bicker and laugh and tease each other made him simply ache for his own brothers, and knowing that they were all dead and unlikely ever to be released from Mandos made the entire trip bittersweet.

There was never any chance he would refuse to join their little adventure though.  He had missed his cousins almost as much as he missed his brothers.  He missed all of his family.

"I have.  It is good to see them."

Elrond nodded, his attention drawn to a pair of birds landing in the small pond before them.  "I wonder how I would feel if Elros were to suddenly show up on my doorstep," he murmured softly.  "To suddenly be able to tell him things I never got a chance to the first time.  To think there might be a future to look forward to when I have come to expect never to see him again."

Not knowing what to say, Maglor struggled to find a response.  Elrond must have sensed the atmosphere becoming awkward for he finally dragged his focus back to Maglor and offered him a sad smile.  "Though, I guess a better example would be if Gil-Galad turned up on my doorstep.  It is at least within his nature to be reborn, if Mandos wills it.  I don't think that would lessen my shock any though."

"Nor did it with me," Maglor admitted, beginning to relax into the conversation.  "I think I knew Finrod had been reborn but I never expected to actually see him."

"Mmm." Elrond hummed softly in agreement and said nothing for several long minutes.  He seemed to be relaxing to the quiet splashing of the waterfall in the distance and birdsong from above them.  Maglor had to admit it was soothing, and he too felt himself relaxing.

He was contemplating whether or not to augment the quiet with a little soft music when Elrond finally spoke again.

"Finrod told me of his mission."

Maglor briefly closed his eyes, needing a moment to fortify himself.  Taking a deep breath, he said, "I have refused to go."

"Yes, Finrod said as much," Elrond said quietly.  "Would you tell me why that is?  And please don't tell me it's because you don't want to go."

Maglor shut his mouth with a snap, for that was exactly what he'd been about to say.  He looked away, guilty at being caught about to lie to his foster son.  However, he found the idea of exploring the truth no less unsettling, and he sat in silence for a long time at war with himself, ever mindful that Elrond was sitting patiently beside him waiting for an answer.

"I . . . I know that you will not agree -- that you will protest that I am being too hard on myself -- but the truth is I do not deserve to be given a reprieve.  After all I have done . . ." Maglor shook his head, unable to articulate the magnitude of his crimes.

Elrond seemed to consider that, looking out at the pond once more.  "So, you refuse to go as penance for your sins?  You think that there will be no punishment in Valinor?  Were there not survivors in the First Kinslaying?  And the other two?  Haven't most of their refugees taken the ships West?  Not to mention all those who are reborn like Finrod; if you seek penance, surely you will find your fair share in Aman."

"Finrod told me Olwë is reborn -- that it was he who opened the way for my return.  He at least has forgiven me . . . or at least might do so.  He felt the sting of my father's blade.  If he can forgive me --"

Maglor stopped, realizing what he had revealed.

"Then they all might?" Elrond said gently.

Unsettled, Maglor surged to his feet and wandered to the edge of the pond.  Elrond said nothing for a time, remaining where he was.

"So, you seek penance, and because you have been given reason to believe you will not find something suitably horrendous across the sea, you have elected to stay.  Do you not find that rather arrogant on your part?"

Startled, Maglor whipped around.  "What do you mean?"

"You are not the victim of your crimes and yet you would set your own punishment," Elrond said mildly.

"I have not let myself off easily!" Maglor protested.  "I understand how terrible my deeds have been; I would never treat that lightly."

"Well, that's hardly the point though." Elrond finally stood up to stand in front of Maglor.  As he had done many times since his arrival, Elrond studied Maglor's face.  It had always been unnerving for Maglor, who feared what Elrond would see, but never moreso than right now.  Still, he did not look away.  He owed Elrond that much at least.

"I see you, Maglor," Elrond said softly.  "I see you.  I see your good and I see your bad.  I have always seen it.  Do you think that because you fostered me that I have forgotten all the terrible things that you have done.  Am I not your victim too?  Did you not destroy the sense of safety and security my brother and I had as children?  Did you not steal us away from our family and friends?  My brother and I were denied our mother growing up, and she will never see Elros again."

At that, Maglor did look away, feeling his guilt threatening to choke him.  Gentle fingers slid under his chin, urging him to look back.  Elrond's eyes were soft and kind, his expression sad.

"But that is not all you are, Maglor.  Not to me, not to many.  You did steal us from our parents and from our people but you cared for us like the dearest of treasures.  You held us when we were scared and you dried our tears when we were sad.  You taught us music and fighting and games and history and everything else we would need to know to live happy and free.  You and Maedhros sheltered and protected us and treated us like family and I do love you, Maglor."

Maglor closed his eyes, feeling the burn of tears beginning.

"I love you but that has not made me blind.  It has not undone the harm you have done me, and now you would deny me and all those like me the chance at some say in the penance we desire of you -- in deciding what we need to help us heal."

"Elrond . . ." Maglor shook his head.  Swallowing hard, he met his foster son's gray eyes.  "If you are still . . . hurting by what I have done, then nothing I can do will make that right.  And even if there were, you would not take it.  I know you.  You would forgive me."

"Again, you would take the choice from me." Now it was Elrond's turn to shake his head, though clearly in disappointment.  "And again, you prove your arrogance.  You are right that I forgave you a long time ago, but you are very wrong if you think I forgave you for you."

Maglor frowned.  "What do you mean?"

"Maglor, I forgave you for me.  I forgave you because it was what I needed to do to find peace.  I am offended that you think my forgiveness is worth less than some terrible punishment."

"Elrond, I do not think that," Maglor protested.

"Do you not?  Is that not why you refuse to sail?  You fear that you will not face retribution but forgiveness, and you cannot bear that.  You cannot bear forgiveness because then what?  You might be accepted?  You might fall in love?  You might settle down and have a family?  You might live your life?  You might be happy?  And that would be just terrible, wouldn't it?  How can you be happy when your brothers are all dead?  How can you be happy when you are all alone?  Well, you are not alone, and I take umbrage that you would even think so."

Chagrined, Maglor looked down at his shoes.

After a moment, Elrond sighed.  He waited until Maglor was once again brave enough to lock eyes and said, "Maglor, if you love me as I love you, then you will respect my forgiveness and you will submit to my judgment insofar as I have earned it for what you have done to me and my brother and my family.  I say you deserve to be happy."

"Elrond-"

"No, Maglor," Elrond interrupted immediately, raising a finger to silence the older Elf.  "I know you do not feel like it, but you do.  Go to Valinor and repent of your deeds and accept whatever punishment is laid upon you but after that . . . after that you must forgive yourself.  You made a terrible oath and you have hurt many people but you have been hurt by it too, and I would not have you make light of that any more than I would have you make light of those you have raised your sword against."

"Elrond, I can't-"

"Maglor." Elrond's tone was soft and gentle, his expression once again warmed with affection and sorrow.  That more than anything silenced Maglor, who awkwardly swallowed back his protest.

"I intend to go to Valinor someday.  The time of the Elves will soon be coming to an end; that is clear for all to see.  I will see my brother's rightful heir restored to the throne of Gondor and then . . . then I think I will have fulfilled my duty to him and to myself.  I will take the ship West.  When I do, I would like very much if you were there to greet me."

Maglor took a deep breath.  "Elrond, that's not fair--"

"No, it's not.  It's what I want all the same.  Will you be there?"

Looking into Elrond's gray eyes, Maglor felt utterly powerless and completely defenseless.  He could no longer deny how much he wanted to return home, not when Elrond so clearly saw to the heart of him.  He couldn't lie to himself in Elrond's presence.

It still didn't feel right accepting Finrod's offer but he knew he would now.  He knew he could never deny Elrond anything.  Elrond so rarely traded on that; he only did it when it truly mattered to him, which made it all the more difficult to resist.

Sighing, Maglor nodded.  "Alright.  If that is what you wish, then I will sail.  You will see me again in Valinor."

Elrond smiled but said nothing.  Instead, he picked up the discarded harp and settled back onto the bench they had recently vacated.  He strummed a few notes before settling into an ancient sea-song.

Grateful for the moment to collect himself, Maglor stood at the edge of the pond with his eyes closed and just let the music wash over him.

 

 

*************

 


The first shades of evening were just beginning to fall when Elrond returned to his private rooms.  In his hand was a sheaf of paper Erestor had given him in passing.  Elrond intended to leave it on his desk to look at tomorrow.  But his desk was positioned right in front of a large set of bay doors leading to his private balcony overlooking the largest of Rivendell's falls.  When he approached, he could not help but notice the doors were wide open and someone was standing with his back to them.

Cautiously he walked around his desk and stepped outside.  "Can I help you with something?"

Elrond could not deny his surprise when the person turned around, revealing it to be the tall blonde Man who was traveling with Maglor.  The Man smiled warmly, and said, "Yes, actually.  I was hoping to have a moment of your time."

Elrond frowned but did move closer.  "And you thought it appropriate to have it here?"

His guest's smile just widened.  It was rather infectious.  "Forgive me if I am intruding.  I wasn't sure when you would be back and I . . . Well, this might not be a conversation for everyone's ears."

"Indeed?" Elrond gave him a rather skeptical look.

"I just wanted to tell you how impressed I am.  You managed to sort Beldir and Finrod out, and Maglor came back to us just after lunch saying he'd changed his mind and now he's willing to come back with us to Valinor.  That's rather remarkable for a day's work."

"'Back with us'," Elrond repeated slowly, a jittery feeling wanting to break loose from his stomach.  He was too old to give it free reign but he could feel it all the same.

"Finrod said that he'd explained it all to you -- that you know our mission now."

"He really didn't explain all that much."

"But you know all the same, don't you?"

There was a quiet knowing in his eyes, a challenge to ask the question that had been in Elrond's heart since the first time he'd laid eyes on the Man.

Elrond took a deep breath.  "Glorfindel has drawn pictures of you but he's drawn pictures of your father too and they're pretty much identical to the ones with you in them.  I really think he only has one face he can draw.  It's not a bad likeness but . . . I can't say I recognized you from them.  Gil-galad and Círdan have never pretended any kind of artistic ability and never tried.  There are no pictures of you that I know of, not on these shores."

"Then how did you know?"

Swallowing, it took Elrond a minute before he could whisper, ". . . you look like Father."

"I've heard that before.  I hadn't expected to hear it from you though.  I know Eärendil's always felt you were too young to remember him when he left.  It has been a source of grief for him."

Briefly, Elrond closed his eyes at this backhanded confirmation of what he'd suspected but been unable to bring himself to actually believe.  His grandfather was standing in front of him.  The rumors were true; Tuor had not died as Men did.  He had lived on in Valinor.

And now here he was in Rivendell; Elrond was talking to him.  This was the last thing Elrond had ever expected to happen and he was in no way ready for it.

"H-he's not exactly wrong," Elrond blurted out.  "I mean to say, I didn't remember him, not really.  I had a fuzzy picture in my head and it grew fuzzier and fuzzier until I didn't really remember him at all.  But when I saw you . . . You and he are so similar and I was struck by that.  But you felt off.  You weren't quite right because you aren't him.  Seeing you has brought it all back to my mind though.  I can see what he should look like because I see you and I see how you're not him.  Does that make sense?"

Tuor nodded, moving to stand a step closer.  "He'll be happy you remember him.  He's missed you very much.  Both your parents have."

"I've missed them too," Elrond said softly.  He didn't know how to feel about what he was hearing.  It didn't seem unreasonable to assume his parents thought about him from time to time but it was altogether different hearing it confirmed from his grandfather.

"If you wanted . . ." Tuor began, sounding ever so slightly cautious, as if he wasn't sure of Elrond's reaction.  "I would be happy to take letters to them.  That's what I've come to tell you.  Finrod desires to leave immediately, doubtless before Maglor can change his mind again.  We will be leaving tomorrow if we can manage it.  I know that doesn't leave you much time but if there was something you wanted to say -- to your parents or your wife or anyone else you know is in Valinor -- I am at your service.  It wouldn't be the first message I've delivered."

There was an amused twinkle in Tuor's eyes when he said the last bit.

"I thought your mission is a secret," Elrond replied, frowning.  "Surely the Valar will know you've spoken to me if I send letters with you."

"I'm fairly sure they know already.  Don't worry about me.  I trust your discretion, and that's the only thing the Valar are likely to be concerned with."

Elrond wasn't quite sure he believed that but he reasoned that Tuor would do as he pleased.  Elrond considered the offer, already thinking of some things he would like to write down, but he shook his head.  Even if he agreed, letters could come later.  He had his grandfather before him.  That wasn't an opportunity to waste.

"I might just do that . . . I . . . There's so much I want to ask you."

Tuor's smile softened as he looked down into Elrond's gray eyes.  "You can have all the time you need . . . if that's what you want."

"What do you mean?"

Gently Tuor reached out and pulled Elrond's braid from where it had caught on his shoulder.  "When I left Sirion, I thought your father and mother were safe.  I thought it would be there when I returned.  And, well, we both know how that turned out.  I'm not going to make the same mistake twice.  You have but to ask me, Elrond, and I will stay.  If you need me, I am here for you."

It was very rare in his life that Elrond was left speechless but Tuor's offer rendered him exactly that.  He sputtered, "B-but what about Idril?"

Tuor snorted.  "Your grandmother would skin me alive if I left you when you needed me.  She was just as devastated as I was when we learned what happened in Sirion.  She . . . she would not want that repeated."

For the first time, Elrond had a sense of just how old his grandfather was.  Every time he had seen Tuor before now, he had seemed exactly as he appeared -- a young Man in the fullness of his strength -- but just now Elrond could see the wealth of sorrow behind his eyes.  He could see the weight of his years, and it seemed like such a heavier burden in a Man's eyes than when he saw it in an Elf's.

"I . . . Thank you but that's not necessary.  I assure you I am quite safe here.  Glorfindel and my boys have seen to that."

Tuor studied him, studied the truthfulness of that statement.  Elrond met his gaze easily, studying him right back.  Eventually Tuor said, "If you are sure."

"I am."

Tuor took a last long moment but then nodded, fully accepting now.  "Well, then, our time together will be short, far shorter than I would desire.  I doubt there is time enough to tell you everything I would want, but . . . I will tell you what I can."

Elrond smiled, warmed by the kind expression in his grandfather's eyes.  He felt a little flustered, not sure what to ask for first or even where to begin.  He was still pondering the problem when Tuor gestured West with his chin.

"Your father's star," he said.  Elrond's focus immediately turned to look, seeing the Silmaril shining brightly in the darkening sky.

"D-does he . . ." Elrond wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to ask.

Fortunately, Tuor seemed to understand.  "He can't see you but he looks down every night nonetheless.  You are always on his mind."

Elrond had spent many evenings and mornings gazing at his father's star but tonight felt different.  He had often wondered if his father looked for him.  To hear so definitively that he did . . . Elrond had no idea what to feel.

Tuor gave him several minutes to work it out, standing silently beside him as they watched the star in the distance.

"There's something you should know about me," the Man finally murmured.  When Elrond turned his focus on him, Tuor smiled warmly.  "I like to hug."

"I'm sorry?"

His grandfather's grin turned mischievous.  "It's just a thing about me," he said with the exaggerated air of someone imparting a great secret.  But his actions were more cautious.  When he reached for Elrond, it was clear that he was giving his grandson the opportunity to refuse.  Elrond wasn't entirely sure but he made no protest and allowed his grandfather to wrap him up in a hug.  "I like to hold those I care about."

Elrond found himself tucked under his grandfather's chin.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd been held like this -- probably by Círdan or Gil-galad -- and yet it didn't feel nearly half as strange as he thought it should, especially as he'd only just met his grandfather for the first time.

It felt nice though.  It felt safe.  It felt peaceful.  It felt right for Tuor.

"Is this alright?" Tuor asked softly.  Elrond nodded against his grandfather's chest but said nothing, enjoying the quiet.

He felt a kiss pressed to the crown of his head, which made him smile.  With his head turned West, he could still see his father's star.

They stayed as they were until the light of Eärendil was beyond their sight.

Chapter Text

The day was absolutely beautiful.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky and yet the sun was not baking hot, though it shone brightly above the small courtyard garden.  All of the flowers were in full bloom, their scent filling the air.  Hummingbirds and dragonflies darted amid the plentiful blossoms and birds twittered to themselves in the fruit-laden branches.

In the very middle of the garden was a beautiful statue carved by Nerdanel herself.  The statue stood tall above everything but the ancient trees bordering the high white walls circling the yard.  Its subject was the Lady of the Stars, one hand reaching up as if to touch her creations.  The delicate craftsmanship left the impression that she was garbed in real silk rather than carven stone.  To look at the statue felt like looking at a real person frozen in time.

Beneath Varda's statue was a circle of benches.  On one of them sat Andreth and Eldalótë while Anairë and Eärwen sat on another, each busily employed with their own needlework while they chatted away.  Across from them sat Maglor and Finrod, providing the party with music from a floor harp and a flute.  The rest of their party was busily playing a lawn game.  Even the king had been cajoled to join in, and was good-naturedly losing to his sons.

Aegnor's ball managed to hit Barahir's out of bounds, winning him the game.  Orodreth, who had been on Barahir's team, cheerfully demanded a rematch.  When Angrod and Aegnor promised to defeat them once more, Finarfin tactfully suggested switching the teams up and made a point of encouraging Maglor to join them.  Maglor protested that he had no ball, and Barahir quickly offered up his own place.

It took some cajoling but eventually Aegnor took the harp from Maglor's hands, and Orodreth and Angrod pulled him to his feet.  Shaking his head, he took the ball Barahir proffered and moved to the starting line.

Finrod and Barahir watched the game for a few minutes before Barahir offered to get the party some refreshments.  He politely asked if the ladies had anything particular they would enjoy, and Aegnor was quick to say Andreth had wanted to sample the new spices Olwë had just gifted Finarfin on his most recent visit to Tirion.  Reminded by his words, Anairë quickly volunteered that Idril had sent her several new recipes making the rounds on Tol Eressëa, and Anairë had given them to the cook to prepare.

While the ladies discussed which recipe they wished to try today, Aegnor wandered over to his wife's side and asked if she would like him to arrange a canopy to shield her from the sun.  When he noticed his mother's eyes upon him, he seamlessly extended his offer to the other ladies as well, though it was clear that had not been his initial intention.  Andreth rolled her eyes at him and assured him she was fine.  She did accept Aegnor's kiss though, and beside them Eärwen did a poor job hiding her pleased smile.

A decision about refreshments was finally reached, and Finrod stood to join Barahir.  They joined hands and headed for the large arched gates leading back into the palace.  Just before they disappeared from view, they turned to each other at the same moment, and they chuckled when they realized how similarly they thought.  Finrod leaned close and Barahir easily accepted his kiss.

That too earned Eärwen's smile.

 

 

*************

 


Raised up on his elbow, Finrod watched the first rays of morning sunshine slowly slide higher and higher up Barahir's naked chest.  It was only when it reached his eyes that Barahir frowned and turned away, incidentally curling a little closer to Finrod.  Smiling, Finrod let his fingers card through Barahir's unruly hair.

Barahir made a contented noise, finally opening his eyes.  Seeing his sleepy green eyes, Finrod had to lean down and kiss him.  Barahir immediately wrapped his arms around the Elf and pulled them flush.

"You seem happy this morning," Finrod noted when they parted far enough for speech.  Over the last few weeks of travel, he had noted that while Barahir was not particularly grumpy, he was not a morning person.

Barahir smiled now though.  "I just had a good dream is all."

"Really?  Do tell," Finrod said, though he distracted Barahir with little kisses along his neck.

"Oh, nothing happened really.  There was just this little garden party with you and me and Andreth and your brothers and a few other people I didn't know.  You and Maglor were playing music while Aegnor was trouncing me at a game I've never played.  It looked like fun."

While Barahir was speaking, Finrod paused.  He gave the Man an incredulous look.  "Wait, did you offer to get refreshments and Anairë started talking about recipes?"

Barahir frowned.  "I don't know who Anairë is but yes, there was talk about spices and recipes and the like.  How did you know?"

"Because I had the same dream!" Finrod said, startled at this revelation.

Barahir seemed surprised but not nearly so impressed.  "Huh.  What are the chances?" he said with a shrug.

Amused, Finrod gave him a quick kiss.  "Well, they could be very great if Lórien sent us the same dream."

That finally did startle Barahir, who looked sharply at the Elf. "You think he did?"

Finrod shrugged.  "He might.  Or any of the Valar could have done it for that matter.  I really don't see us both dreaming about a garden party just by chance."

"And if he did?  What does that mean?" Barahir asked quietly.

Finrod's hand once again found its way into the Man's dark hair, gently combing through his sleep-tangled strands.  "You never can tell with the Valar but . . . well, it was a very happy scene.  I can attest that I haven't received too many prophetic dreams that were so domestic and content.  I take it as a good sign."

"I'd like to think so too," Barahir said.  He offered a quiet smile, his hand sliding up Finrod's back to rest at his neck.  Finrod gave into the slight pressure, leaning down to taste Barahir's smile.

His own hand rested against the Man's chest and just as he began to move it a little lower, there was an impatient knock at their door.

"Are you two up yet?" Aegnor yelled through the door.  "Tuor wants to leave as soon as possible and Maglor's wandered off again."

Silently cursing his brother's poor timing, Finrod groaned and let his head fall heavy against Barahir's chest.  Barahir laughed sympathetically, his fingers sliding up to gently stroke Finrod's hair.

"Finrod!" Aegnor called.

"We heard you the first time!" Finrod yelled back.  "We're coming."

"Well, hurry up.  Andreth wants to sit breakfast with Círdan so I can't go look for Maglor."

Finrod rolled his eyes.  He sincerely doubted it was so much a case of 'can't' as 'don't want to'.  But they could hear Aegnor walk away so it was too late to call him on it.

"Ugh, sorry about that," Finrod said.

"No, it's fine.  We should probably be getting up anyway.  I wouldn't want to keep everyone waiting."

Reluctantly Finrod agreed.  They shared another kiss before finally getting up and getting dressed.

"Why don't you go look for Maglor?" Barahir suggested.  "I can pack up our stuff and give it to Aerandir.  Then I'll grab us breakfast and meet up with you."

"Maglor shouldn't be too hard to find.  I'm sure he's just wandering the coast.  I doubt he's gone very far."

"I'll just head down the coast then when I'm done."

Finrod gave Barahir a quick kiss and then slipped out the door.  Passing several open doors, it seemed he and Barahir were the last ones up.  Finrod didn't meet up with anyone though, and he quickly made his way outside.

In deference to their need for a low profile, Círdan had given them a small house at the edge of the settlement in Mithlond.  Finrod had only to wander down the road to find himself right at the edge of the city.  There was only one pier nearby and Eärrámë was the only ship anchored to it.  Even though the ship had been in port for several months now, she still received her fair share of admirers.

Right now there was only Tuor and his crew though.  Tuor waved at him so Finrod changed direction.

"Good morning!" Tuor said.

"And to you!  I see you're already hard at work."

"So we are.  We should be ready to set sail within the hour, though I'm sure Círdan will want to give us a proper goodbye.  He'll have to finish breakfast for that."

"And you'd have to wait for Andreth and Aegnor anyway," Finrod noted with some humor.  Tuor's good mood was infectious.  "Barahir should be down shortly.  I'm on my way to collect Maglor."

Tuor nodded.  "He dropped off his pack this morning and headed that way."

Glancing in the direction Tuor pointed to, Finrod nodded his thanks and started off.  He did not have to walk far before he saw Maglor in the distance.  It was just far enough that all sights and sounds of Mithlond were gone, leaving Maglor some quiet to think.

He stood like a silent sentinel gazing out to the sea.  Finrod's approach did not go unnoticed though.  As soon as Finrod came over a bluff, his shadow announced his presence, and Maglor turned immediately to look at him.

"It looks like it will be a beautiful day," Finrod said conversationally as he walked to his cousin's side.

Maglor looked up to the sky and gave a noncommittal shrug.

Finrod tried again.  "Tuor says we're almost ready to go."

That earned him only a half-hearted nod of acknowledgement, and Finrod decided he had to rethink his approach.

Maglor had been quiet ever since they had left Rivendell.  Finrod had just been so relieved that Maglor had changed his mind that he hadn't pushed him about it.  But Maglor looked unhappy, and Finrod sighed, knowing he couldn't just accept Maglor's unexpected change of heart.

"I know it goes without saying, but I'm glad you've changed your mind about coming with us . . . but I wanted to know if you were sure."

Maglor turned his back to his cousin, looking out again at the sea.  "Does it really matter?" he said softly.

Grabbing Maglor by the shoulder, Finrod forced him to turn back and look at him.  "Of course it does!  I want you to be happy.  The only reason I have been so insistent about you coming with us is because I think coming home will make you happy.  But if that's not going to be the case -- if you really feel like we are dragging you to Valinor against your will and you would be happier here, well . . . then you should stay."

Maglor studied his cousin for a moment before he sighed and the tension left his body like the shedding of a heavy pack.  "I'm sorry.  I know you've always had my best interests at heart.  To answer your question, yes, I am sure.  Elrond was right; I should go.  I want to go home.  I just . . ."

He trailed off, his attention shifting away from his cousin.  His eyes turned towards the sea, but Finrod could see now that his focus was inward.

"You just?"

Maglor's only answer was to shake his head.  For several minutes, Finrod respected the silence.

"I wish you would talk to me, Cousin," Finrod finally said.  "I want to help but I can't do that if you won't tell me what's wrong."

The silence continued to stretch, and Finrod was just about to accept that Maglor just wasn't going to open up when his cousin finally spoke.  "I have often dreamed of returning home.  Most of the time, I imagine Valinor as I left it -- or at least as it would be if my father and brothers weren't there.  But sometimes . . . sometimes I imagined what would really happen.  I am not blind to the fact that I am the sole Fëanorian left.  I am the only one who can answer for everything my family has done and . . . well, it's not likely to be pleasant, is it?  I just . . . this is a big step for me."

Finrod reached out again and squeezed Maglor's shoulder supportively.  "I can understand that.  I've actually . . . I've thought a lot about this.  When I was first told about this mission, I never thought the end of it would be simply getting you to Valinor.  I was never just going to abandon you."

"I didn't think you would but--"

"No buts, Maglor.  I have lived in Valinor a long time.  I know it better than you, and I have a fair idea what you will face.  To tell you that it's all going to be roses would be lying but it's not all going to be thorns either.  You are not alone, and I promise you that I will stand by your side for whatever happens."

Maglor did not look entirely reassured.  The faintly troubled look persisted, and he opened his mouth to respond.  He was preempted though.

"He won't be the only one."

Both Elves turned at the sound of Barahir's voice.  The Man was standing on the bluff.  Beside him stood Tuor, a wooden box in his hand.

Barahir jumped down to the sandy beach and walked towards them.

"You do realize that my brothers and I are responsible for the deaths of your grandson and great-grandsons, right?" Maglor said tightly.

"Yes, and when you start to crow about that, we might have a problem.  But you're going to Valinor to repent, right?  I've spent months with you now, and I know you won't just be giving lip-service.  That's good enough for me.  Considering that you have killed my family and I'm willing to forgive you should say something to others in Valinor.  If they still have a problem, then I'll tell them why I don't."

Shaking his head, Maglor began to protest, "That won't--" but trailed off abruptly when his gaze was caught by something being washed up by the surf.

He froze completely, his eyes gone wide, a stunned look on his face.  Frowning, Finrod followed his cousin's gaze to see what had so shocked him.  At first he saw nothing.  The waves continued a gentle back and forth along the sandy beach, carrying along driftwood and seaweed for the most part.

He was just about to turn back when something sparkled in his periphery.  He thought at first it was just the sun being caught in the water but he looked closer anyway.  Again at first glance there appeared to be nothing.  But then the water receded just a little and the sparkle returned for a moment.

Finrod was still trying to work out what it was when Maglor overcame his paralysis and moved towards the sparkling object as if drawn to it.  Just as Maglor knelt in the surf beside it, Finrod realized what it was and gasped.

"A Silmaril."

Finrod's tone was hushed with awe as he watched his cousin reach for the jewel.  But just at the last moment, Maglor must have remembered how it had burned him because he paused, his fingers trembling right before he closed them in a fist and let his hand drop to his side.

"Here," Tuor said, having come closer.  He gently thrust the wooden box he was holding into Maglor's hands.  Frowning, Maglor only just managed to tear his gaze from his father's jewel to look at what he'd been given.

It was a box made of polished red wood.  The lid was hinged and there was a golden lock.  When Maglor opened it, they all saw that the box was lined with velvet and just big enough to house a Silmaril.

"How--?"

Tuor's eyes were sharp and knowing as he looked at Maglor.  Softly, he said, "Having a Silmaril could be a powerful sign of your repentance, depending on what you do with it."

Finrod could not settle his gaze, looking between Maglor and Tuor and back again.  Surely he was misreading this.  Surely there was no way Tuor could summon up a Silmaril on command.

But as he watched Maglor struggling with the same questions, Finrod was reminded that Tuor was Ulmo's favorite and had always been his herald.  It was not beyond Ulmo's power to know where Maglor had thrown the jewel and safeguard it until the appropriate time.  He could surely wash it upon the shore.

And it would indeed be a powerful message if Maglor were to arrive in Valinor with the Silmaril and offer it to the Valar.  No one could doubt his sincerity then.

It was clear Maglor understood that.  Finrod had no idea if Maglor actually would do that but he knew it was only fair Maglor had the chance.  That was all he had ever been offered in this mission -- a chance.

Maglor stared at Tuor, and Tuor gazed back at him placidly, giving away nothing.  Eventually Maglor drew the scarf from around his neck, and without ever taking his eyes from Tuor, used the scarf to pick up the jewel and place it in the box.  It seemed as soon as the lid shut the brilliance from their eyes that some spell was broken.  Maglor looked down at the box, tracing a finger along the beautifully carved design in the lid.

"Thank you," he whispered, though Finrod had no idea who he was thanking.  No one said anything after that.  Finrod exchanged a look with Barahir, whose expression was half incredulity and half amazement.  Finrod offered him a reassuring smile, and then took Maglor by the elbow and hoisted him to his feet.

"Come, Cousin, let's get going."  He interlocked their fingers and pulled Maglor along, Tuor and Barahir falling into step behind them.

Maglor walked in a daze until Mithlond -- and especially Eärrámë -- was in sight.  He clutched the box a little tighter but nodded to Finrod to let him know he was all right.  Finrod wondered about that but let Maglor go.  Immediately Barahir took Maglor's place at Finrod's side, and Finrod couldn't say he was disappointed by that.

"Are we leaving or what?" Aegnor said by way of greeting when they reached the ship.  Finrod could see everyone was already aboard the vessel waiting for them.  Only Círdan stood on the pier.

Smiling widely, Tuor grabbed Círdan's wrist in a warrior's hold.  "It looks like we're off then."

"It was very good to see you again," the old Elf replied, using the hold to pull Tuor into a proper hug.

Tuor laughed but hugged him back easily.  "And you too.  It's been far too long since we last met.  I hope it will not be too long before you finally come to Valinor."

"In time, in time," Círdan said.

Finrod passed the pair and walked up the gangplank.  He immediately sought out Edrahil, and while Círdan and Tuor said their goodbyes, he consulted with his vassal to make sure they had squared away everything on their end.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Maglor settle near the main mast, his full attention on the box in his hands.

It was not long after that that Tuor jumped up on the ship, and his crew made the last preparations to set sail.  Círdan released the mooring rope and waved them goodbye.  Finrod joined Edrahil and Voronwë at the stern to wave back.  It was only when Círdan was too small to be seen clearly that Finrod missed Barahir's presence beside him and turned to locate the Man.

Barahir was standing at the bow, looking out towards the sea.

"Second thoughts?" Finrod asked when he joined the Man.

Barahir shook his head, his answer gratifyingly resolute.  "No."  He turned and pulled Finrod into his arms.

"Then what are you thinking?"

"I'm just looking forward."

"To what?" Finrod asked.

Barahir shrugged.  "Just forward."

Finrod thought about that for a moment before nodding his understanding.  He turned in Barahir's arms so that they were both looking to the west.  Resting his chin on Finrod's shoulder, Barahir tightened his hold.

Finrod leaned back against him, letting the Man take his weight.  Surrounded in Barahir's strength, Finrod felt safe and secure.

Whatever happened, they would face it together.

 

 

The End