Gil-galad came back from the mouth of the cave and sat down heavily by the little fire Erestor had managed to get started. “Like a white sheet out there. We’re lucky the wind’s blowing away from us or we’d be snowed in.”
“Stuck here till spring, unable to escape. One of us would have to eat the others to survive,” Erestor said cheerfully.
“My money’s on Erestor for the survivor.” Elrond sat against the wall of the cave hugging his knees to his chest. He felt the cold more than the other two. “You can’t trust the little quiet ones.”
“Quiet lets him out then.” Gil-galad blew on the flames then held his hands out to the warmth. “Talks almost as much as Glorfindel.” He paused as a thought struck him. “Hope he’ll be all right out there with those courtiers. Helpless bunch.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” Erestor said. “It must have got a lot colder in Gondolin. He’s talked about keeping watch in the mountains with snow waist deep.”
“Don’t believe a word of that.” Gil-galad and Elrond exchanged looks: they’d spoken together.
Erestor glared at them. “He’s the most honest person I’ve ever met, so of course he wasn’t exaggerating. And he was really cheerful about the idea of a ride in the snow, even if he doesn’t hunt.” He gave them a satisfied look as he said it. His thoughts on killing innocent creatures for sport and only incidentally the pot were well known.
“He’s even more honest than Gildor, yes,” Gil-galad said dryly. “Do we have anything to eat, or did that all get left with the main party?”
“There’s no need to be facetious.”
“I don’t carry food as a rule,” Elrond intervened hastily before Erestor could take it any further. “Might have an apple in the saddlebag, but that’d be for the horse.”
Erestor looked at their mounts, who had been banished to the other side of the cave, a space he felt was not big enough for elves and horses both. “He looks fine to me, well fed,” he said. “If there’s an apple, he can go without and we can share it. Later. We’re going to be hungry later.”
“... and your horse will be fine without a blanket, so we can claim that later this evening too, when it gets really cold.”
“You’re acting like the expert here,” Gil-galad said. “When were you trapped in a cave by a blizzard?”
Erestor tossed his hair back and gave him a smug look. “I might have been? I don’t tell you every single thing that’s happened in my life.”
“I’ve known you most of your life,” Gil-galad retorted. “I’d have noticed.”
“We weren’t always in the same places during the War.”
“We were mainly, except for the times you spent on the island while I was in the north.”
Erestor flicked a glance to his right. “Sorry we’re boring you, Elrond.”
Elrond gave them a jaundiced look. “I was thinking this is none of my business. And wondering how long we’ll be stuck here and where we’ll sleep.”
“On the ground up against the wall as far from the horses as we can get – though this cave’s too small to be practical. Could be worse, I suppose. It could be a herd of cows.”
Gil-galad stared at him and shrugged. “Your mind moves along its own secret paths, yes. Anyhow, this isn’t too bad. We have a fire, the wind’s blowing away from us, we all had a decent breakfast, and there’s an apple for later...”
“Not too bad is relative,” Elrond said. “I can’t recall ever being stuck in a cave overnight before.” He looked unhappy.
“Who said anything about overnight? They’ll come and find Gil as soon as the storm eases off a bit. Can’t go around mislaying kings.” Erestor was very certain of this.
“Might well be morning,” Gil-galad said reasonably. “It’s showing no signs of stopping and on a normal day it’d be half dark by now. They’ll stay put till daylight.”
“That’s negligent.” Erestor was outraged. “You could be lying somewhere with a broken limb or trapped by your horse’s lifeless body.”
“Yes, Erestor, that one’s likely. And if it was, you’d do something about it.”
“Yes, I would. Just as I’d be getting the search party together even while I was waiting out the blizzard.” Erestor knew he surprised most people by being meticulously thorough at his job, however he chose to define it on any given day. He would never have left the King of Lindon to wander possibly alone and hurt in a snowstorm.
Gil-galad shot him a fond look. “Yes, you would I suppose. Can always rely on you. Pity your skills don’t run to getting us home to Mithlond in the dark.”
“You ever been out in a storm like this, Elrond?”
Elrond pulled a face. “Oh yes, a couple of times. Maedhros didn’t believe in stopping till you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Just roped the horses together so no one got lost and kept moving. We sat it out in a cabin for three days once. You can’t imagine three days with him and Maglor each blaming the other for the wrong turn that landed them there in the first place. You?”
“Not exactly trapped in a cave, no,” Gil-galad conceded. “But we were caught out in a huge storm with no shelter and had to keep moving to reach the shelter of the forest. That was not pleasant.”
“Oh, that was one of your first raiding parties,” Erestor chimed in. “I remember that. Círdan lectured you in front of everyone.”
“Kind of you to remember.” Gil-galad’s eyebrow twitched. “His idea was I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. He was right. And your storm story would be...?”
“Gildor. Shortcut. Somewhere between here and Eregion. Don’t ask.”
“I am asking.” Gil-galad’s voice was neutral, his expression less so. He was always willing to think the worst of Gildor.
Erestor glared at him. “I told you it happened, I didn’t say I’d tell you how or why. Anyhow, we were only lost half a watch period or something. We found a sheltered spot with some trees and a frozen stream and Gildor had food, so it wasn’t too bad.” At Gil-galad’s look he added, “That time you sent me along with him to try and find out what Celebrimbor was up to?”
“You never mentioned a storm,” Gil-galad growled.
“He told me about it,” Elrond said. “Well, one of them did. I think it was Erestor.”
Erestor had been careful not to share that little adventure with anyone, but Elrond went out of his way to keep the peace, so he supposed that was what was happening. “Does anyone have a container? So we can melt snow.”
“Why do we want to melt snow?” Gil-galad’s attention was elsewhere, he was rubbing a flat space on the cave wall with the end of his cloak.
“Drinking water? Do you want to go through the night with nothing to drink?”
They listened to the wind whistling outside. Gil-galad’s vigorous rubbing blended neatly with the fire’s crackle. The horses moved restlessly.
“Oh, very well.” Elrond got up, stamped over to the horses, and came back with a silver flask. He put it down near the fire. “We’ll have to drink the brandy first, I suppose.”
“That’s a wine flask.” Erestor was scandalised. He opened it, took a sniff. “Good stuff, too. You always bring enough alcohol to drown several people’s sorrows when you go hunting?”
Elrond looked embarrassed. “No, of course not. I just – it was a rush this morning, and I couldn’t find my little bottle to decant into.”
Gil-galad left off whatever it was he was doing and reached across, snagging the flask. He took a deep swig and nodded. “Yes, just the thing to keep the cold out. Good work, Elrond.”
Erestor watched him for a minute then held out a hand. “Excuse me? Were you planning to keep that or...?”
Gil-galad glanced down, seemed to consider it. “Oh, I thought this was for me.”
“Oh very funny.”
Elrond liberated his flask hurriedly. “One good swig each and we’ll make it last as long as we can. When it gets near the end, we can add some snow.”
“It’s half full,” Erestor said with a contented smile. “We might not miss dinner too much after all.”
Gil-galad had started pacing. The cave was a reasonable size, but when it also contained two other elves, a fire, and three horses, the circuit became tight. He started off patting horses as he passed but now his face had taken on a grim set and he ignored them.
“He’s going to drive me insane in a minute. I can’t concentrate.”
Elrond sat very straight, with his legs crossed and folded out and the backs of his hands resting on his knees. Even his neck was straight: Erestor had never realised how long it was before. He tried not to stare.
“Just ignore him, he doesn’t manage confinement well. If you want insane, that’s for when he sits down again and wants to be entertained. What are you doing?”
“It’s a relaxation technique from the east.” Elrond’s eyes were half closed and he seemed to be trying to speak without moving his face. “You have to focus on letting all your muscles find rest and balance and empty your mind while you meditate on peace.”
Erestor nodded, trying to look impressed. “I found just turning my back helped, but I’m sure this is a very good idea. Why do you have to sit like that? Isn’t it uncomfortable?”
“It’s so you can draw the earth power up through the energy centres along your spine and out through the top of your head. It strengthens and cleanses.” Elrond’s voice carried the slightest edge.
Elrond was forever trying new ideas, found in obscure and often dubious books. Placing a hand on the ground, Erestor covertly sought the reassuring connection to Arda that was every elf’s birthright. He knew better than to say the exercise was clearly a mortal concept: Elrond was likely to take that personally. Instead he started feeding the fire with little twigs, the remains of something that might previously have been a nest that Gil-galad had found in the back of the cave. It wasn’t much, but gave them fuel to supplement the couple of branches they had found near the entrance.
Elrond sighed deeply and started making a low, eerie humming sound. Erestor rolled his eyes discreetly. It was going to be a long night.
The apple was shared three ways, as was the little bag of nuts and seeds that Elrond had forgotten about. Gil-galad found an orange, the presence of which he was unable to account for, and Erestor had grudgingly handed over a sachet of little jellied candies imported from Lórien. Elrond ate his portion, except for the candies, which he said were too sweet, Gil-galad ate everything except the orange, which he was keeping in case he got a bit peckish during the night, and Erestor cut everything into tiny pieces, planning to snack on small quantities at regular intervals.
The horses had nothing at all to eat and huddled together, the picture of misery.
Night set in and the snow kept falling. The wind picked up, howling dismally. Inside the cave, the little fire struggled to hold back the shadows. Gil-galad had been standing at the entrance looking out into the dark, but now came to sit next to Erestor, who was running short of twigs and wondering what else they could burn.
“He all right?” Gil-galad had given Elrond his cloak earlier, swearing the pacing had done him the world of good and he wasn’t feeling the cold too badly. Elrond’s mannish heritage embarrassed him at times by showing itself in a susceptibility to things like cold and hunger. He lay against the wall now, wrapped in Gil-galad’s heavy hunting cloak.
“Asleep. It’s better than whatever that thing was he did before.”
“What was that about? Looked strange to me.”
“It’s a meditation technique from the east. Clears the energy centres. No, I don’t know either.” He pushed Gil-galad’s hand away from his food. “Leave that! I can’t help it if you finished yours.”
“One piece. Come on.”
Erestor compressed his lips and handed over two. “I told you you’d be hungry if you ate it all at once. If you spread it out, your stomach doesn’t realise there’s no food.”
“My stomach is larger than yours. It knows. Got any of those sweets left?”
“Possibly. Go look by Elrond, he didn’t finish his.”
“Leave it, he might want them when he wakes up. If you’re hungry enough, just about anything looks good.” Gil-galad went to where the horse blanket lay and shook it out instead. “Why aren’t you using this? It doesn’t smell much worse than one of us would after a day or two on horseback.”
Erestor shook his head. “Ssh, not so loud, you’ll wake him. I’m not being fussy. It’s for you.”
Gil-galad frowned, “Ah.”
Coming back with the blanket slung round his shoulders like a cloak, he sat down beside Erestor and draped half of it over him. “Three people in a cave during a blizzard? There’s no kings here tonight, Res. You know that. “
Erestor gave him a small smile. “I know it’d never cross your mind, no, but manners are manners and training is training – if there’s only one blanket, it goes to the king.”
“Stupid.” He put his arm round Erestor and pulled him close. “One blanket, it goes to the person the king thinks is most important. And that’s not always himself.”
“You don’t put yourself first often enough,” Erestor said softly, getting comfortable against Gil-galad, his body soaking up the warmth. “How can you be so warm? All the pacing?”
“All the pacing, yes. And lots of good, hot blood.” He bent his head, persuaded a kiss from Erestor, then another. Erestor finally sighed and turned to face him, half in his lap.
“May as well do this properly,” he said. “I’ve quite forgotten about feeling hungry.”
They slept close to the dying fire, wrapped in the horse blanket, and when Erestor woke the fire was dead. Pale grey light seeped into the cave, the blanket was tucked securely around him, and Gil-galad was gone.
He sat up and looked around, pushing hair out of his face. Elrond was still sound asleep a short distance away, the horses were half awake, and the king was a dark shape at the mouth of the cave. He rose slowly, knotting back the long hair Gil had insisted on loosening, and went over, the blanket slung about his shoulders.
Gil-galad held out a hand for him. “I was coming to wake you. Look at it, isn’t this beautiful?”
The world was grey and white with just the faintest tinge of dawn pink. Trees and rocks lay under a carpet of snow, the grey to black contrasts supplied by bark and the occasional rock wiped clean by the wind. The sky was clear, and the world looked new, pristine. There was also nothing to suggest where they were or how far from Mithlond.
“We could be somewhere in the far north, hunting narwhales,” Gil-galad said softly, putting his arm about Erestor. “If you keep very still, you can hear them calling.”
“While we overnight in a cave, hiding from snow giants, yes.” Gil-galad gave a huff of laughter and Erestor looked up at him, serious. “One day you’ll be able to get away for more than a moon and we’ll do that. Not sure about the snow giants, but...”
Gil-galad leaned in and kissed him with enough heat to imply a little more than good morning. “One day,” he agreed. “When life is so easy and peaceable that I can delegate to Elrond and go off without feeling guilty or worrying something will come up only I can deal with.”
Erestor knew what the chances were of this happening any time soon, but nodded anyway and leaned against him, looking out at the dawn. “You’d never say there was a storm last night. Not a breath of wind.”
“It’s blown itself out, yes,” Gil-galad said. “We need to make ready to leave.”
“Not an awful lot of work involved there,” Erestor said dryly. “Collect the remains of Elrond’s sweets, make sure the fire’s properly out, and get the horses saddled.”
“Damn animals must be starving, yes. Should really wait till they come and find us, make them feel good about themselves, but... “
“But the horses need water and licking snow isn’t quite the same. We’ll probably meet them on the way, coming to look for you.” Erestor straightened up and took a last look outside. “Of course, I have no idea where Mithlond is from here.”
“I do,” Gil-galad told him. “It’s south east of here. There’s north, see?” He pointed as he spoke.
Erestor smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you do that, but you’re usually right. Sometimes anyhow. Otherwise we could just head towards the sea.”
“How would you find that?” Gil-galad almost looked impressed.
Erestor jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “Elrond. He can always find the sea.”
“Even though he hates it and wants nothing more than to live as far inland as he can get one day when I give him permission to shun my court?”
“Even so.” Erestor thought about it. “It must be bloody annoying.”
They went back into the cave. The day was getting lighter and the shadows were driven further back. On his way to shake Elrond awake, Erestor stopped in his tracks and stared at the space Gil-galad had polished clean with his cloak the previous night. “What...?”
“E,” said Gil-galad behind him. “Three ‘E’s. E times three?”
The number 3 was unmistakable, the little diacritic above it signifying the vowel was less obvious. Erestor frowned and then burst out laughing. “Three Es, yes – Ereinion, Erestor, Elrond. I wondered what on earth you were doing but then Elrond distracted me.”
“You mean the brandy distracted you,” Gil-galad said, giving him a brief one-armed hug. “Our cave. People will find it years from now and wonder. Tell tales of dwarven treasure hoards, secret hiding places during the War and...”
Erestor turned to hug him properly. “You are such a dreamer when you have the time for it,” he said affectionately. “Come. If you get the third E up and moving, I’ll go and piss – before I die - and then see to the horses. With luck we’ll meet the rest of them when we find the road.”
“We’re no more than half a league off the Forlond road,” Elrond said sleepily, propping himself up, the cloak firmly over his shoulder. “There’s only one way to go, the other would take us up further into the mountains. Couldn’t get lost if we tried. Just head for the sea.” He looked about him vaguely then up at the two of them, irate. “Where are my jellied candies? That was meant to be breakfast.”
Erestor smiled, patted Gil-galad’s shoulder and turned to the horses: first Gil-galad’s, the one most likely to cause trouble. “I’ll leave you to deal with that, you being responsible and all,” he murmured. Then, raising his voice, “Come, you bundle of misery, let’s go pollute the clean morning air. The sooner we get finished here, the sooner you can eat.”
They got the ill-tempered, hungry trio of horses saddled up and on the road again in short order and made their way down the slope to where Gil-galad swore the road was. Elrond was not convinced.
“With respect, if you look at the shape of the mountains, you can see that’s where the road would curve out towards the sea, and we must have come from over --- there,” he declared, pointing to their right.
“Would that take us down towards Forlond then?” Erestor asked, squinting against the glare coming off the snow. Out beyond the shadow of the mountains the sun had risen in a clear blue sky and the snow was already dazzling.
“Yes, but we don’t want to go back to Forlond,” Gil-galad said patiently. “We want to go home. To Mithlond. Which is much closer.”
“I wasn’t talking about going to Forlond, just getting onto the Forlond road,” Erestor retorted. His usually well behaved horse was fidgety and the mood was starting to affect him too.
“Erestor, you have no sense of direction. Why not just leave it to me – to us?” Elrond’s smile was forced. Maglor had raised the twins to eat a hearty breakfast whenever the chance presented itself. He had a firm belief in oatmeal, which Elrond had brought with him into adult life.
“We just need to keep left round those hills and get onto the road,” Gil-galad said with the full authority of his rank, “and then follow the coastline home. Right?”
Elrond and Erestor exchanged glances and nodded. “Yes, Sire,” Erestor said blandly. Gil-galad gave him a suspicious stare and grunted: he knew sarcasm when he heard it.
They picked their way back, mainly in silence, around clumps of trees and between snow-covered bushes, following an invisible-to-all-but-Elrond line towards the sea. They had just made their way through a small wood, which Erestor thought he could place in relation to the road, when Elrond’s relieved exclamation brought them to a half. “Look. It’s right up ahead.”
Erestor considered the line of darker blue that heralded the sea. “Had I known you’d be so surprised, I’d not have trusted you so easily. All right, we’ve come out of the foothills, through the trees, the sea’s over there, so the road should be...”
Erestor obediently hushed and waited. Gil-galad was listening. Elrond joined in, head to side, face still with concentration. Voices carried on the air, somewhere to their right. “Isn’t that...?”
“Hush!” Gil-galad and Elrond said together. Erestor shut up.
“Is that someone calling for help?” Gil-galad asked at last.
“I thought it was ‘Hey’, not ‘Help’,” Elrond suggested.
Erestor rolled his eyes at them. “Isn’t that the rest of our party, out looking for you – Sire?”
“No need to get snippy just because I made a decision instead of letting you organise our lives, Res. And yes, it could be, but why would they be so far over there?”
“Actually I do think they might be shouting for help,” Elrond said quickly before they could get an argument started.
There was no question of galloping through snow and on a downward slope, but they managed a brisk trot. The sounds of voices drew nearer, and then they heard someone shout, “Horses, I can hear horses. Hello?”
Erestor shot Gil-galad a look. The king nodded. “Yes, it is.”
They rode through a screen of trees, a wind break for some farmer in more clement seasons, and came upon the rest of the hunting party. Several were mounted, the rest led their horses. Everyone looked somewhat the worse for wear. At sight of them a chorus of voices rose: “The King, it’s the King. The King...”
Erestor held back, letting Gil-galad move ahead of them, and he saw Elrond do the same on the other side. Back in public view, protocol once more took precedence.
“What’s this? I thought you’d be down on the road by now. Where did you spend the night?”
Several voices spoke at once, but eventually Lathronglor, a loquacious distant relative through Gil-galad’s mother-line, stepped forward. “We thought you were lost! Lord Glorfindel showed us to form a circle under the trees with the horses on the outside to protect us from the worst, but by that time we’d gone right off the trail. We were trying to get help from one of the nearby settlements, where they’d know the land best and could start looking for you.... But you’re well, Sire?”
Gil-galad gave him an annoyed look. “Of course I’m well, Lathronglor. It was just a little snow, nothing like what we got used to on Balar.”
“We took shelter for the night and His Majesty insisted we come back and look for you rather than ride straight home. We had expected to find you out searching for us, not the other way round.” Elrond looked as cool and neutral as he sounded.
“I said we should wait for you to come and find us, as a courtesy. It’s bad form to mislay a king,” Erestor offered to no one in particular.
“We’d have frozen to death by then,” Gil-galad snapped. “Anyhow. Anyone who wants to mill around here and think about it, feel free. The rest of you – this way.” He pointed. Elrond cleared his throat, made a small hand gesture. Gil-galad gave him a dirty look. “That way,” he corrected, this time pointing upper rather than central left. “Put some muscle into it. We can still be home in time for breakfast.”
“With or without jellied candies,” Erestor said cheerfully. “No, really, it’s a new fashion, Lathronglor. You must try them. You’ll love it.”
“Not my jellied candies,” Elrond told him sharply.
Erestor made his amber eyes very wide. “Your jellied candies?”
Gil-galad gave them a disgusted look and aimed a slap at Erestor’s pony as he passed. “Get moving you two, or I’ll send you down to Forlond to inspect the fish market.” Quietly he added, “That would leave me having to ride back with Lathronglor. And that would make me very displeased with life indeed.”
Erestor gave Elrond a dazzling smile and held up his hand in the universal gesture for peace. “Home,” he said. “I have a whole bag of them waiting there.”
Elrond raised an elegant eyebrow. “You make the fish market sound almost inviting,” he said, turning his horse for Mithlond. “Thank you, but I think I’ll just settle for my usual oatmeal. Unsweetened.”
Lathronglor = Splendid Listener.