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The Return of the Balrog-Slayer

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“Mother! Mother! Where are you?”

Loswë paused, glue-brush in hand. Yelling was not Laurefindil’s usual style: he had been courteous ever since childhood, and patient ever since his return from Mandos’ Halls. She felt a twinge of concern. Before it could grow into worry, she set aside both the glue and the half-finished kite and hurried to look out into the central courtyard.

Yes, there he stood, right by the exit. To her relief, he did not seem distressed. Excited, perhaps.

“I am here,” said Loswë, “in the workshop. I just started on--”

“Of course, the kite.” Laurefindil smiled apologetically. “Sorry to interrupt; I only wanted to say that I need to run down to the market before it closes. Because, well...”

“You have been struck by inspiration?” It was a happy thought; he had been rather listless, lately. “To make your own entry for the Festival of Winds, perhaps?”

“No, no, I need... various supplies. I think I might-- But there is no time to discuss it now. We will have to... to talk seriously, when I return.”

And with that, he ran out -- quite literally, as if taking off for a race.

His behaviour was a mystery that made further work impossible, so Loswë decided to investigate it, instead. The courtyard yielded no further clues; neither did the library where Laurefindil spent so much of his time. His bedroom, however, betrayed evidence of a hasty change of attire, mostly in the form of clothes scattered all over the floor. Loswë found the disorder rather pleasing -- a splash of life in her son’s soldier-like, organized room -- but she decided to pick up the clothes anyway, just to examine them more closely. And that was how she found the letter, a square shape tucked inside the sleeve of a comfortable house-robe.

She did not set out to read it. When she opened it, she did so only to discover the sender. But the script was so odd -- she recognized the archaic lettering of the city Laurefindil had once defended -- that she struggled to decipher it, and the signature was especially stylized. Her eyes sought something more approachable.

Glorfindel,

No mystery there -- Laurefindil’s Sindarin name went with the script. On the other hand, Loswë could not recall ever seeing it set down so informally, without an affiliation or honorific. Her eyes moved downward.

Please excuse this letter’s flaws. I write it with hands new and strange, and in great haste. I dare not take time to redraft.

Whoever the writer was, he certainly knew how to create a sense of urgency and suspense! If Loswë felt compelled to read on, he had only himself to blame.

I know you have been re-embodied for some time now, and I expected nothing else from someone of your pure and straightforward spirit. However, my own path out of the Halls has proven more difficult. Again and again, I have tried to tell Mandos that I am ready to leave, but he is so skilled at talking me into doubt that, again and again, I have ended up feeling quite the opposite. At least, until now. After all, no-one, not even I, can doubt this: that the current situation back East -- known to me well, from Vairë’s Tapestries -- fills me with great concern, and an even greater desire to help.

Well, that sounded very familiar: had not Laurefindil said much the same thing, in his low moments?

Unsurprisingly, Mandos, being a fatalist, does not understand such impulses. Thus, it is fortunate that his attitude is not shared by all the Valar -- Ulmo being an obvious example, what with all the advice he gave us in the First Age. Oromë would appear to be another: it turns out that two of his Maiar have been planning to cross the Sea and offer even more direct aid. Their preparations have been extensive. They even tracked down my old research into Orcish military culture, and obtained permission to visit me in the Halls. I know they intended only to ask me a few questions, but, somehow, their presence inspired in me an eloquence I had never possessed with Mandos, and they left with the firm belief that the mission could benefit from carefully-chosen Elven support.

Loswë almost put the letter back, right there: those last few sentences had been hard going, with their rather stilted tone, and guilt was starting to overcome curiosity. But the next paragraph looked so short...

To conclude: Glorfindel, I am reborn, and heading East.

Not just because I wish to go there, but because this is the purpose -- the condition, even -- of my release from the Halls. At any rate, we plan to depart by ship, from the harbour at Alqualondë, during the upcoming festival of Manwë. So, in three days. Perhaps even fewer, by the time this reaches you. There can be no delay, as we hope for a quick, discreet departure, and the festival should provide both a distraction and a perfect, steady wind.

At this point, the writer seemed to encounter some difficulty: the subsequent three lines had been heavily crossed out. Below the mess, however, the letter ran on to its conclusion. With all the experience she had gained from reading thus far, Loswë felt confident she would finally be able to decipher the signature.

Now, I do not know much about your current, second life, and the obligations you may have taken on. I have not found your image on any of the current Tapestries. As for me, however, I am essentially unchanged, and I would greatly welcome the chance to see you again, if by good fortune you can make it to the docks before we depart.

Ecthelion (sometime of the Fountain, lately of Mandos’ Halls)

 

Ecthelion. Well, Loswë had certainly heard that name before -- as had everyone who had spent any significant time with Laurefindil. She had even heard plenty of speculations as to when he might be re-embodied. Still, she had imagined that particular moment very differently. And now, this letter... If she had discovered the sender in advance, she would never have read the rest, expecting a more personal message. What had Laurefindil made of it all? And how was he planning to respond?

Well, he intended to journey to Alqualondë, that much was clear. But beyond that... The mission was one of passionate interest to him, of course, but would he join it, or not? Neither answer was truly welcome. Loswë knew all too well how it felt to stay behind, dogged by second thoughts through long years of helpless worry, and now she would have to feel it all again -- either on her own behalf, after Laurefindil’s departure, or in sympathy with him, if he stayed.

Would it truly be the same, though? Surely not, she told herself. That first departure had taken place in darkness and terror, with Laurefindil dragged along by an oath of loyalty, and so young, so unprepared for what he might encounter, and for the different ways in which he might be tested. And now, he was an adult full-grown -- no, more than that, he was larger than life, a hero who had seen the worst an Age had to offer and passed every test, and who would be returning willingly to a land he knew, in bright sunlight.

And yet... the Sea was wide, and the land beyond it marred, and full of dangers.

 

Laurefindil returned just after dusk, carrying two heavy sacks. Loswë, who had been watching the road, met him by the entrance.

“I read the letter,” she told him directly.

“I thought you might do so, when I realized I had left it behind.” Laurefindil shifted a sack so he could take the letter from her hand. Then, he shifted his weight from foot to foot, uncertain. “So...”

“So...” Loswë tried to smile, to put him at ease. “What did you buy?”

“Well.” Laurefindil straightened. “Originally, I wanted all sorts of travel supplies... But then I realized that a Maia-led team would be well-supplied already, and that many things can be bought anywhere. So, I got local spices and medicines, mostly. Hair-care products, a new travel cloak. A really well-made flute, in the modern style. One of those light knives with multiple folding blades I have been admiring.”

The list, with its awkward phrasing, revealed anxiety, but did nothing to answer the real question -- although the haircare products were a worrying clue. “I see,” said Loswë, surprised by the tension in her own voice. “And I am sure that all these items would make for fine gifts, but...”

Laurefindil fidgeted with the sacks again, then exhaled. “Let me put these down.”

Loswë followed him into the library, and watched him drop his purchases and light a lamp over his favourite desk, taking his time.

“When I left,” he said at last, “I told you that we would have to... talk seriously. But now I am not sure any discussion is warranted.” He paused to look at her with heartbreaking, uncharacteristic gravity. “I will board that ship, of course. I am sorry if--”

“But, Laurefindil, this letter...” Loswë had to say it. “It does not seem like much of an invitation.”

“I know.” Laurefindil glanced down at it; when he looked back up, his expression was determined. “Still, they cannot refuse me, not if Ecthelion is welcome. After all, my skills, my obligations, even my history, are all but identical to his.”

Loswë acknowledged this with a nod. “Yes, of course -- but I was speaking more... personally. I meant that the letter does not read as very inviting.”

Laurefindil looked down again, longer this time. “I see what you mean. It does sound rather neutral -- but this very fact,” he said with a sudden smile, “only proves Ecthelion’s claim that he is essentially unchanged. And then, that particular claim, itself... Mother, I know him well. He wants me there.”

And, just like that, his awkwardness was gone: he was his bright, sure self again. That, at least, was a joy to see. Loswë decided to trust his instincts, regardless of her own misgivings.

“Very well,” she said. “But then we have much to do, shopping aside! Your father--”

“I have sent him a message already. With luck, he will return from the hills in good time to see me off. I have also written to Aredhel, who should be only too happy to help with the grape harvest.”

That seemed likely: Aredhel had been eyeing Laurefindil’s grapes for years. But viniculture was not her son’s only interest. “What about the bees?” Loswë asked. “You know neither of us has any idea how to tend them.”

“We will have to find someone to take them. A pity, when they have been doing so well.” Laurefindil sighed. “The new hive... And, oh, the horses! I have such high hopes for Ilsafal’s foal.”

“I would be happy to care for the horses, at least.”

“Thank you, but even with your care, they will know I abandoned them -- but will not understand why.”

Understanding why did help a little, Loswë supposed.

“Although,” said Laurefindil thoughtfully, “I do have an idea...”

 

---

 

Ecthelion’s eyes kept straying to the crowd of well-wishers gathered on the quay. As crowds went, it was rather small and humble: most of the mission’s supporters had official duties at the Festival. Idril did, for one, which meant that any glimpse of yellow hair could... No, that was too much to hope for. The timing had been too tight.

Still, surely expecting a reply to his letter was not unrealistic? He had written to several other friends, at leisure, and most had responded. Glorfindel’s silence made him suspect that his words had been too bold, inappropriately intimate after such a long separation.

When the preparations for departure started in earnest, Ecthelion could restrain himself no longer. He crossed the swaying deck -- no easy task, on four-day-old legs that could barely cope with solid ground -- and joined Alatar at the starboard rail.

“I was wondering,” he said, “whether there have been any messages for me.”

“No,” said Alatar. “Not since the last time you--”

“Oh, I must apologize,” said a voice behind them. When Ecthelion turned, he saw that the voice belonged to the Keeper of Goats.

“I almost forgot, what with all the fuss over enlarging the animal sheds,” the Keeper continued, “but the horse-groom did ask me to give you this.” He rummaged in his clothing, eventually producing a small folded square of paper.

“The horse-groom?” asked Alatar. “What horse-groom?”

“I forget his name, but he is quite tall, with a veritable mane of fair hair and an annoying tendency to laugh for no reason. He arrived with those horses you ordered.”

“I do not know this individual,” said Alatar, “and I certainly ordered no horses. Although proper Valinor-bred mounts could certainly come in handy when hunting. Perhaps Pallando--”

“Actually,” said Ecthelion, “I suspect that these unplanned-for horses are my fault. May I see the note?”

Hope rushed through him, as if pumped by his speeding heart, when he took the letter from the Keeper’s hand. Unfolded, the paper emitted a faint animal smell, and revealed these words:

To Ecthelion, sometime of the Fountain, lately of Mandos’ Halls:

Remember how, back in Gondolin, you chose silver and crystal for your ceremonial armour, ignoring Egalmoth’s helpful colour suggestions? And how this looked best when accessorized with a white horse?

Now, I do not know much about your current, second life, and the colours you may now prefer, but if you still require a white horse, I should be able to provide one.

Glorfindel (currently of Valinor, soon to be of Middle-earth)

The handwriting was exhilaratingly familiar, as was the feeling of confusion induced by the note’s contents.

“Where is this horse-groom now?” Ecthelion asked.

“With the animals, I presume.” The Master of Goats indicated a shed that had been hastily constructed near the stern, then turned towards the shore; a loud cheer indicated that the ship-launching ceremony had begun.

Ecthelion chose to ignore the cheer, even if it echoed his own feelings with unexpected accuracy, and set out across the deck, which seemed to be even less stable than before. He was relieved to finally reach the building’s wooden wall, and to place a hand against it for balance as he rounded the corner.

Only a step more, and he was there, at the shed’s wide entrance, looking into the shed’s interior, which seemed full -- of horses, or piles of hay, or perhaps even fire-drakes upon a hoard of gold and rubies, for all Ecthelion knew. He could spare no attention for such mundane details. He was too busy noticing that Glorfindel’s hair was braided back in an unfamiliar style that made it appear darker than he remembered, but that his eyes looked exactly the same, green-grey and infinitely welcoming.

Ecthelion knew he should greet him, but how? The brief speech he had imagined himself giving in the unlikely event of this meeting had slipped his mind -- as usual, he now recalled -- and the conventional phrases he had not forgotten, such as “good morning”, or “well met”, seemed a bit inadequate.

Thus, it was up to Glorfindel to break the silence, which he did somewhat breathlessly.

“At last,” he said. “All the waiting was starting to tax my sanity.”

“Sorry.” Ecthelion’s own voice was blessedly steady. “I would have come sooner, of course, but I only just got your note.”

“I know. I watched you read it through a chink in the wall.” Glorfindel indicated something behind him, his gaze never leaving Ecthelion’s. “But, although skulking in this makeshift stable has not been the most exciting of activities, that is not the wait I was talking about.”

“Oh?” As the implication hit him, Ecthelion felt like flying; a worrying desire, in his current unstable state. He tightened his grip on a handy plank, and focused on keeping his spirit inside his body like a normal person.

“Yes.” Glorfindel tilted his head. “Indeed, my time outside the Halls has passed very slowly. I have spent much of it cultivating patience. And grapes. And... well, I had to keep finding new interests. Spelunking. Theoretical meteorology. Horses. Bee-keeping.” He glanced towards a sturdy box labelled FRAGILE HAY THIS WAY UP. “There is so much I wish to-- Sorry. This is probably not the right moment to describe my whole life.”

No, but perhaps it was the right moment for Ecthelion’s speech, which he had managed to recall during Glorfindel's digression. So, he refrained from asking the obvious box-related question, and said, “It sounds like you have a very full life, as I imagined you would. I hope you know that I certainly do not intend to uproot you, nor to--”

“You do not?” Glorfindel had taken a step back into the shed’s dark interior. “Mother did say-- But I thought-- Did you not want me to come?”

“Yes! I mean, no!” The pained uncertainty in Glorfindel’s eyes had to be quashed, and quickly. “I mean, of course I wanted you here. One could even say that I have been living for the moment when-- No, no, that is obviously untrue. But then, ‘I have been dead for the moment when I could see you again’ sounds ridiculous, so--”

“It sounds great to me,” said Glorfindel, moving forward again. “Though I would still like to know whether you have been, er, ‘dead for the moment’ of glimpsing me once, or of embarking on this adventure, together? No, wait, never mind.” He stood up, straight and confident. “Your expectations are irrelevant, since I am not about to let you steal all the glory.”

He was out on the deck now, hair brighter than the morning sunlight, and Ecthelion had to smile at him -- and at his challenge, and at the intention it concealed. How could he have doubted any of this, regardless of Mandos’ comments? “Very well,” he said. “Though I suspect that stealing glory from a horse-groom might be too easy to offer much satisfaction to a Balrog-slayer. Come, let me introduce you to the others.”

Glorfindel dimmed a little. “I would rather wait until we are beyond swimming distance of land. Not that I doubt our joint powers of persuasion, but I was hoping we would have more than a few minutes to use them.”

A few minutes? Ecthelion followed Glorfindel’s gaze upward, where sailors were preparing to unfurl the sails, then to the shore, where the small crowd was growing increasingly agitated. A few people had launched kites, taking advantage of the Festival wind, and these now swooped over the quay as if performing an intricate dance.

“My family,” Glorfindel said, and hurried to the rail, waving. Ecthelion followed, faintly jealous of his ability to perform two actions at the same time; he himself stumbled a little when the excitement made him forget to lift his feet. Only when his left hand had found support did he raise his right in a gesture of farewell.

It felt strange, almost hypocritical. He took in at the crowd -- which included his own parents, looking typically stoic -- and the buildings of Alqualonde, new and unfamiliar, that rose up beyond; and then, the hazy shoreline of the land of his birth. There was a whole life to be lived out there, but he had not even tried it. Leaving behind an abstraction involved no sacrifice.

But then, Glorfindel -- who was now cheering enthusiastically, as the ship began to move -- did not seem to be treating his own departure as one, either. It was almost an enigma.

Almost. For, if Glorfindel felt as Ecthelion did... if he had held onto his values, if he still wished for excitement... well, how could he, or anyone, ignore the call of an adventure that promised to blend duty and desire?