The rain began as they rode down from the hills, grey cloud hiding the mountains ahead and veiling the land so that Elrond could see only the distant pale line of the Gulf of Lune. As they came into sight of Mithlond, the rain began beating down in earnest, soaking the horses and their riders, drumming on the green grass and sending thin muddy streams across the wide paved road that led to the city by the water.
The gates were open, and they rode hurriedly through and into the welcoming horse-smelling straw-strewn dryness of the stables. Someone ducked out of a loose-box to take Elrond’s horse as he dismounted, and as he turned, Elrond saw with surprise that it was the King himself, wearing a blue tunic that was plain by his usual standard, and the only gem about him the polished blue mussel shell set with silver stars that he wore in his hair.
“Welcome home!” Gil-galad said, and threw a bundle of cloth at Elrond.
Elrond caught it with one hand, and then brought it up in salute. “Thank you! I thought you’d be in the middle of court this afternoon.”
Gil-galad grinned. “Rained off. We were supposed to be discussing some issue about fishing rights, but the Falathrim saw the storm coming and stayed in Forlond.”
Elrond was surprised. “Since when do you judge Falathrim fishing disputes?”
Gil-galad laughed. “I strongly suspect Círdan of using me as the ettin that lurks in the hills, to keep his young people in line: stop stealing from one another’s lobster pots, or I’ll send you to the Noldor! I assume it’s someone who doesn’t remember me from the days when I used to go out with the fleet... If they haven’t thought better of their crimes, I shall thunder at them ferociously when the weather clears up. Anyway, I decided to wander over here to spend a little while brushing Gwedal’s mane and offering her slices of apple instead. Until the storm decided to enter my stables in the person of a sodden Herald and his soaking friends on steaming-wet horses, anyway.”
Elrond wiped raindrops from his face with the cloth, then turned to start rubbing his horse down with it. His horse snorted delightedly and nibbled affectionately at his shoulder.
“I do have grooms to do that,” Gil-galad pointed out.
“Well, yes, but if I was rushing off anywhere, it would be to report to you. Conveniently enough, you’re here, so I can make sure Híthion is comfortable myself, and report at the same time!” Elrond called across the stable “Idhron, Mallendis, Erestor, no need to wait for me. Go and get dry and find something to eat, I’ll see you later.”
“If you must rub him down personally, I suppose I might as well give you a hand,” Gil-galad said, and turned to pick up a second cloth. “So, what news of our rebellious cousin Celebrimbor?”
“Rebellious is putting it a bit strongly, surely? He’s never actually defied a direct order, has he?” The horse, Híthion, nudged his elbow, and he began automatically to rub at its neck.
“Only because I have the sense not to give him direct orders, I strongly suspect,” Gil-galad said, frowning as he rubbed at Híthion’s wet side.
Elrond turned to him, one hand on Híthion’s back. “I don’t think he would defy you if you made a point of it, even now. He’s never made the High Kingship an issue, after all.”
“He threw Galadriel out of Eregion and took possession of it for himself,” Gil-galad pointed out, his dark stern brows drawn down.
“Celebrimbor doesn’t think of it quite like that. He says they had a few disagreements about this and that, and that after Galadriel had her daughter, she decided to spend some time beyond the mountains among the Nandor. There are far more people who owe allegiance to the House of Fëanor in Eregion than those who count Galadriel or Celeborn their leaders, after all.”
They both knew that, of course. Many of the Elves of Nargothrond and Dorthonion, the adherents of the House of Finarfin, had gone away back into the West long ago. But the people of Celebrimbor’s House, those who had lived in the Eastmarch of Beleriand, had been those most eager to leave Aman, and many of them were kinslayers. Few of those who had survived had chosen to return.
“That’s not quite how Galadriel sees it,” Gil-galad said, running a hand up the horse’s neck to scratch his crest. “The letter she sent me made some very...pointed remarks. She went as far as to say that Celebrimbor resembled his father far more than she had once thought, and she felt herself a second Finrod, exiled from the land she built when her people turned to the House of Fëanor. If you are right that Celebrimbor still considers me his king, then I should have ordered him then to stand aside. But Galadriel felt that would force an open breach. I think she was right. Eregion is supposed to send me a gift-tribute. A golden cup, every three and thirty years. It has not been paid once since Galadriel left Eregion. And for the leader of the House of Fëanor, of all people, to break that tradition...”
“Oh well,” Elrond said and smiled sideways at his king. “If you’re short of golden cups, you should have mentioned it. I’d have brought you one.”
Gil-galad straightened up and his dark brows frowned alarmingly. “Don’t play the innocent, Elrond. You know the point is not the cup. It is a symbol that the Noldor are united under one king in Middle-earth. The High King in the West suggested the tradition before he sailed away, and everyone agreed. You included, I seem to recall. ”
“Of course,” Elrond said, undaunted, met the king’s eyes . “I’d still have brought you a golden cup on Celebrimbor’s behalf, if you’d only mentioned it. Celebrimbor is my cousin, can I not assist him with matters of administration? I’m sure he didn’t intend to neglect his obligations to our king.”
Gil-galad shook his head and laughed with some reluctance. “You can’t just do it for him, Elrond. That’s not supposed to be how it works.”
Elrond smiled. “Celebrimbor has had a lot to put up with. People haven’t made it easy for him, even though he he disavowed his father’s deeds and was barely more than a child at Alqualondë. Now he has his own land and lordship at last, he’s proud of what he’s achieved there. He doesn’t care to be reminded that his house is called the Dispossessed, and after all, he’s a lot older than you and his grandfather was High King. He prefers to forget the war and focus his attention on his art. You can’t blame him for that, can you?”
“I wasn’t planning to blame him,” Gil-galad said. “I know well enough that if I did, you’d find some excuse for him! But I don’t like his taste in friends, nowadays. Nor do you, be honest.”
Elrond made an unhappy face. “No. But I do have some news about that. Our dubious acquaintance has left Eregion and vanished.”
“You’re serious? Annatar has left Eregion?”
“Not a sign of him anywhere. I did ask around; quietly of course. Not a word of him. Celebrimbor told me he left about five years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. And I would swear he wasn’t lying to me. Not knowingly, anyway.”
Gil-galad grimaced. “I wish I could work out just when Celebrimbor became someone whose word we couldn’t quite trust. But perhaps, if Annatar has gone, things will get better again.”
Elrond knelt to wipe mud from the horse’s forelegs, and did not reply.
Gil-galad regarded him thoughtfully. “But you don’t think so?”
Elrond looked up at him over his shoulder and shrugged unhappily. “I had a feeling like thunder brewing, all the time I was in Ost-in-Edhil this time. I still do. The road ahead lies in shadow.”
“Hmmm.” One of the grooms came over with a bucket of oats, and Gil-galad took it from him. “I am still convinced that the power rising in the East that sent Men raiding in Enedwaith is a servant of Morgoth. And we don’t know where Annatar has gone, or what he’s doing.”
“Foresight isn’t always right...” Híthion stamped. “You can have the oats in a moment, greedy! Just let me wipe the last foot... there you go.”
“You see further ahead than most do, Elrond : I’d be a fool to ignore it. I’ll send ships down the coast to gather news, and messengers to speak with Galadriel in Lindórinand, too.”
“I spoke to Celeborn while I was in Eregion,” Elrond said getting up. “He is still there, in the hills, since he refuses to pass through Khazâd-Dum and go east as Galadriel did. He knows no more about Annatar’s whereabouts than we do. Not that Annatar would tell Celeborn, of all people. Celeborn has made no secret that he distrusts Annatar as much as he does the Dwarves. I wish he had found it in his heart to be a little less open about it. Neither opinion has endeared him to Celebrimbor.”
Gil-galad said gloomily, “I wish Galadriel had been able to stay in Eregion. Both of them might have listened to her.” Then he straightened decisively, full of purpose again. “Still, Annatar is no longer whispering in Celebrimbor’s ear. We’ll wait and see what the storm brings with it.”
“And in the meanwhile, live in hope,” Elrond said and smiled. Híthion was gobbling oats hungrily from the bucket.
“Always. And make a contingency plan, just in case.” He wrinkled his nose at Elrond and then punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Come on. You have yet again succeeded in causing me to be splashed with mud and stinking of wet horse! I’m going to the bath-house. Since your horse is now dry, clean and well-fed, and you are still soaking wet and smell worse than I do, you can leave him to his oats and come too.”
“You didn’t have to help!” Elrond protested, laughing. “Though Híthion and I both owe you our thanks. But I haven’t made any report of what Celebrimbor has been up to yet. Ost-in-Edhil is buzzing with talk of Rings of Power.”
Gil-galad looked mournfully down at the mud on his sleeves. “You can tell me all about them on the way to the bath-house,” he said firmly.