Autumn has come to the Wood of Greenleaves. Its beeches and oaks are crowned with reds and golds, though few leaves have yet fallen. Erestor's company rides in a deepening twilight; in other days, even skirting the edges of the forest with nightfall approaching would have been dangerous. This time, though, they had taken the narrow road past the ruins of Dol Guldur with few second thoughts, and passed through thick stands of firs into the heart of the woodland where broad-leaved trees are plentiful.
In the Age since Erestor has travelled this way, the forest has changed enough to be near-unrecognisable. The trees and their branches have unsnarled, and the webs – dark spirals that had shadow spun into their very fibres – are gone. Light reaches the forest floor, now, and wood-irises bloom in clusters.
Elrond's sons ride ahead, though still within eyesight. A messenger, bound for East Lórien, had departed the White City before them, but their travels have been so unrelentingly swift Erestor is still surprised they have not overtaken him along the way.
An undignified yell from one of them – Elladan, most likely – must mean their journey is all but over. Several Elves come forward out of the trees to meet them. One of Haldir's brothers is among them, but Erestor cannot say which – the two still look more alike than Elrond's sons ever have.
"Erestor," comes a voice from beside him, and Haldir is there. When Erestor dismounts he is caught in a long, tight embrace. "Your rider only arrived last evening – how is it you're here so quickly?" Haldir's smile is bright, without a hint of hesitation; Erestor has missed that, among so many other things.
"Blame Elladan and Elrohir for that," he says. "Apparently the visit with their sister made them over-eager to see their grandfather, as well. They have 'much to discuss', in Elrohir's words. I can't blame them – they have so little family left east of the sea, now."
"None of us do," says Haldir.
"Some of us never did." Erestor reaches out to clasp Haldir's shoulder with a soft smile, and turns with him to walk toward the settlement.
"How fares Arwen?" Haldir asks.
"She is a jewel, as always."
Erestor sighs. "He ages, as mortals do. More quickly, of late."
A voice from the head of the convoy calls to Haldir. "Come," he says, and reaches for Erestor's hand.
Later, after a meal and a brief meeting with Celeborn, Erestor is free to explore the grounds of the settlement. Haldir remains beside him. Erestor's questions are plentiful, at first, and Haldir's answers descriptive and ever-patient, but after a time they fall into silence, unhurriedly walking the perimeter marked with high, green walls.
East Lórien cannot help but echo the Golden Wood – it is her people who have built it, after all. The trees are not as tall, here, but houses easily nestle amongst their spreading branches. The curving walls and intricately bordered windows are similar, and countless silver lamps shine like stars. Though fewer bridges and stairs are needed to connect the houses to one another, one can still traverse the entire settlement without touching the ground.
It takes curiously little prompting, in this place – both new and old, at once – for Erestor's mind to drift from the present to the past, to the years of Rivendell's founding. He can still vividly recall the first meeting between a newly-appointed captain of the Valley's guard – who did not yet have the confidence, in personal matters at least, that he would have in later years – and a visiting Marchwarden from the Golden Wood who had confidence enough for both of them.
He sighs as they pass beneath an apple tree, low-hanging branches heavy with fruit. "We've managed all right, haven't we?"
"It hasn't been so terrible," says Haldir, warmth in his eyes as he lays his hand on Erestor's back.
"Sometimes I think if either of us were less stubborn we might have given up a long time ago." He smiles, then, to blunt the edge of his words. "And sometimes I do wonder what might have been had I not had my commitments in Imladris, if you hadn't had yours in the Golden Wood. How that might have changed our choices. Where we might be now."
Haldir tilts his head. "Do you regret--" he starts softly, but Erestor does not let him finish.
"No," he says. "Absolutely not."
Haldir stops walking, and pulls Erestor by the hand back to face him. "Erestor," he says. "You're not one to reminisce without reason. What troubles you?"
"Troubles? No, that's not the right word for it at all."
Haldir leads him, then, to the gardens that sprawl across the north of the settlement. The trees have been cleared to make way for planting, and starlight shines on harvest-ready vegetables in long, straight rows. There are flowers, too, both wild and cultivated, and the garden border are marked with white stone. Haldir takes Erestor to a bench beside a deep pond that lies clear and still.
"I heard a rumour, in the city," Erestor says, without preface. "I heard Lord Celeborn and his people will leave this place come spring." He pauses, for just a moment – not long enough for Haldir to respond. "How long have you known?"
"Long enough to have written you a letter about it. Not long enough to have sent it." Haldir shifts, and again lays his hand on Erestor's back. "What are your thoughts?" he asks, and if there's the barest trace of uncertainty in his voice Erestor chooses to ignore it.
"I never thought I'd see the day when Celeborn would come to the Valley," Erestor says. "I'm pleased for the boys. They'll be glad to have family – besides each other, of course – with them at home again. And selfishly..." he says, and stops.
"Selfishly?" Haldir prompts.
"I'm delighted," Erestor continues, clasping Haldir's free hand in his own, unable to keep a smile from pulling at the corners of his lips. "I think we've had our share of time apart, you and I. And yet," he says, reaching out to stroke a thumb across Haldir's cheek, "I know how hard it is for you to leave home."
"This isn't home," Haldir says, softly. He looks up, around the clearing and then to the stars. "It's a good forest, though. Resilient. The trees have seen much and haven't bent under the weight of it."
"Rather like us, yes?" Erestor says.
Haldir nods. "Rather like us." He stands, holding out his hands for Erestor to join him, and walks along the edge of the pond. "Envoys have been sent to the Woodwood," he says; Erestor does not have to ask which wood he means. "To those who remain, inviting them to join us in the spring. Few will, I suspect. Those who stayed did so because they felt they had no choice."
"There's always a choice," says Erestor. A frog near his feet jumps into the pond with a quiet splish; the moon comes out from behind a narrow smudge of cloud and lights the ripples on the water.
"I know," says Haldir; he slips an arm around Erestor's waist and draws him close.
They retrace their steps along the green walls of the settlement, back toward the homes spread through the trees. "So in spring," Erestor starts, and a soft burst of laughter in the trees overhead makes him pause. "We'll find ourselves back where we started. And for longer than a few weeks – or a season – at a time."
Haldir raises Erestor's hand to his lips. "I can promise you more than a season," he says, and Erestor has reasons enough to believe him.
"There's a cottage, in the Valley," Erestor says, when the moment has passed, "near the north bank of the river. It's empty, for now. Closer to the ground than you're used to, of course, but it's surrounded by oak trees. I think you might like it. And," he adds, "my home's just downstream."
"Trying to keep me close, are you?"
"In more ways than one," Erestor readily admits.
"I have not," Haldir begins, after a long silence, "always been fond of change." Erestor knows this too well: more than once he had feared that Haldir would be amongst those who could not bring themselves to leave the Golden Wood, so great was his love for his home and his commitment to its protection. Haldir had surprised him, then, by choosing to follow Lord Celeborn and help establish a new realm in a new woodland that differed from Lothlórien in enough ways to matter. "Yet," Haldir continues, "these days, it has become easier, for me, to look ahead and not behind."
Erestor's smile is gentle, understanding. "I had suspected as much," he says, "but it pleases me to hear you say so."
The moon again drifts behind cloud and a chill wind sweeps through the tree-tops. In the Valley, the coming winter will be long and cold, but spring will follow in time, and when the apple trees begin to blossom and the snows melt on the High Pass, Haldir and the Elves of East Lórien will leave their settlement behind and come to Imladris. And Erestor will be waiting.
"It's not too late for a drink," says Haldir. "Come share one with me. Tell me about this cottage, and its oaks."
"Of course," says Erestor. "Lead the way."