sm_1.htmlTEXTStMl">&t Shieldmates: The Gathering

Year 3431 of the Second Age: the Gathering of the Host of the

Torches and lanterns burned long into the night, giving the valley floor the appearance of being strewn with golden stars. The last of the advance scouting parties had departed that morning. And for all that, the sheer number of people seemed to remain the same. Many of the fighting men had fled the ruin of the Northern cities, bringing their wives, children, and dependents who needed a place of safety. The sick and the wounded who would remain behind needed caretakers and protectors as well, further paring down the strength the Alliance could call upon.

Moving the armies of the League was rather like moving a small city,
Elrond reflected. It brought back unpleasant memories of the chaotic retreat from Eriador. Except this time, they were not falling back to a hidden valley, but preparing to march east, taking the war to Sauron. Not since the Valar set against Thorogadrim had such a mighty host gathered all in one place. Cavalry, foot-soldiers, scouts, pack beasts, supply wagons, smiths, healers, boat and bargemen, and what seemed like every horse in Middle-Earth not already enslaved in Mordor.

And it fell to him to get them all into some kind of order.

Now, at last, all seemed ready. The host would ride out for the Misty Mountains at dawn, under the banners of Ereinion Gil-Galad, and Elendil the Tall, last lord of Anduine. On their road, they would meet up with the Elves of the Greenwood and Lorien, and the grim Dwarves of Moria. And the forces of Mordor and the Dark Tower would fall--or swallow Middle-Earth and her peoples whole. There was no other road.

Elrond headed back towards the house, leaving the foundry buildings
behind him. He wore ordinary soldier's garb, trading the usual silks and velvets his rank allowed for economy of movement and good boots. His sword hung at his hip, a too-familiar presence. He reached for it automatically, now.

"My lord!" A page in the livery of the King's household came across the grassy lawn towards him.

He served one of the lieutenants in the archer companies, Elrond
remembered. Too young for this, he thought with a pang. The Elf before him was barely into his third century.

"The King sends for you to attend him, if you will," the young Elf said, harried after a day of endless messenger duty. "He is meeting with the other captains in his rooms."

The wording called for prompt response, but not immediate. He could
finish here, first. He sent the page on his way, then went to gather the reports.

The Elvenking kept a suite of rooms near the waterfall side of the house. He made his way through the night-shadowed corridors, passing several people intent on their own errands. There were no obvious armed guards at the king's door, not here in Imladris, but he recognized many of the faces and knew the king to be well-guarded, even here.

He could hear the soft rise and fall of Elven voices in conversation. The king was not alone, then. Raising his hand, he knocked twice, and heard his liege bid him enter. Gil-Galad was seated by the cold hearth, the table beside him half-buried in maps, books--and a familiar coffer. Four other faces turned to greet him: Amroth of Lorien, sent ahead by his father; Seilinde of the Greenwood, Círdan the Shipwright, and the warrior, Glorfindel. There was no sign of any of the mortal Captains. Faintly disturbed by that, Elrond nodded a greeting to the lords assembled and took the last remaining chair in the room.

He heard reports of men and supplies, the most recent reports sent in by the advance scouts. The supply routes had been finalized, and Men and Elves selected to guard them. Valar willing, the League would be ready to march out on the dawn.

When the door closed behind the last of the departing Elves, Gil-Galad let out a long sigh.

" goes against the grain, to be planning war while all of Elbereth's glory arcs overhead." He gestured to the carafe. "If you would, Peredhel... and one for yourself, if you like."

Mindful of his duty as host, Elrond refilled the king's goblet, but decided against partaking himself. Gil-Galad accepted it with a murmur of thanks. Elrond settled himself to await instruction. The King took his time, setting aside a number of papers, putting some in dispatch pouches and re-stacking books. Last, he moved the coffer to the center of the table.

Gil-Galad wore no braids, Elrond realized as if for the first time. The Elvenking wore his hair loose past his shoulders or bound back with only a thin silver circlet. Any of their kind who but looked on him, heard him speak, knew him to be possessed by a true, deeply pledged love.

His lord Gil-Galad and Elendil had been heart-friends for decades, if not pledged in truth. He had witnessed Elendil shiver under a light touch from Gil-Galad's hand, or from a single hooded glance, as if they were still new lovers who had yet to measure the depth of their passion. Yet Gil-Galad never openly wore the signs of his lover's devotion.

"You are staring, Peredhel," Gil-Galad observed, his eyes sparkling with warm amusement.

"Your pardon, lord," Elrond said, lowering his eyes.

"We are alone, my friend. You need not be so formal."

And they were alone, Elrond realized. Elendil was no-where in sight. Unusual. Circumstances and physical distance separated Gil-Galad and Elendil so often, they usually snatched at an opportunity to be together, even on the eve of war.

"Lord," Elrond said at last, when the silence between them grew weighty, "how may I serve you?"

The king remained silent, his head bowed. Long, restless fingers stroked the rim of the silver-chased goblet, but did not raise it to his lips.

"Peredhel, you have been Our voice, Our eyes and ears, all throughout Our realm," he said at last. "Your loyalty is unquestionable, your devotion to Our people long-proven."

Elrond stilled, foreboding like an icy hand at his neck. I thought we had set formality aside? "I but do my sworn duty, my Lord," he demurred.

"There are others of our kind who could do worse than heed your example." Gil-Galad stared ahead, into some vista he alone could see. "I have failed you in the past, my friend. Had I been swifter, more perceptive of the greed and madness our folk could stoop to, I might have prevented the burning of the Sirion Havens. What could have been avoided, then?"

"And had Feanor paused twice for breath, the Exiles might never have sailed from the West," Elrond said with some asperity. "My Lord, you speak in riddles. If you esteem me so highly, speak your mind to me. I will do all in my power to aid you, but I must know the root of your cares."

Gil-Galad raised his eyes then, and dim and bleak they seemed.
"Forgive me, Elrond, I have come at this all wrong. I cannot speak to you as a king on this matter. I cannot compel your obedience by any oath, or past loyalty or obligation." He touched the lid of the coffer. "Do you remember when I gave this into your keeping?"

"Yes, my Lord. The year the Dark Lord was driven out from Eriador."

Gil-Galad fixed him with a searching gaze. Elrond thought that he had never seen the High King's eyes so dark or so deep. It was if he might see the stars floating there if he looked long enough.

"What do you know of the Great Rings?" Gil-Galad asked abruptly.

An odd question, now. "Little more than what you made known to me,"
Elrond said, watching Gil-Galad for cues at to where this was going.
"There are twenty Great Rings and an unknown number of lesser rings. They were almost all crafted in Eregion, where Sauron seduced and betrayed the metalsmiths living there. All are now believed to be in Sauron's control, save for the Three."

"Yes. The Three." Gil-Galad gave an odd smile, resting his fingertips on the casket's lid.

In silence, the Elvenking raised the wood and brass lid and reached
inside, drawing forth a braided gold chain. A gold ring set with a great blue stone dangled from it, almost austere in its simplicity --save for the Power that surged from it.

"You know Vilya," Gil-Galad said, his voice solemn. "You have felt its ghostly echo in your thoughts, heard its whisper when you spoke with Our voice, though you have wisely turned your thoughts from it."

Elrond only stared. The blue stone seemed to fill his vision, deep as the longed-for sea and as full of secrets. Light sparkled along its faceted surface as it swung gently from the end of its chain, pulsed in the star at its heart. Oh, yes, he knew Vilya: the greatest of the Three, one of the treasures Celebrimbor had died protecting.

"I gave this into your keeping, never revealing what exactly I set you to guard." The chain's links made a soft, slithery sound as the Elvenking set the Ring down on the table. "My reasons were many, and at the time, they seemed valid. If my silence on this matter has wounded you, I can only beg pardon."

With an effort, Elrond looked away from the Ring. "You have done me
no wrong," he protested.

Gil-Galad smiled, but the expression held more sorrow than peace.
"Perhaps not in your eyes, Peredhel. It is never wise to cloak things of Power in deception, even well-intentioned deception."

"Better deception than the bodies of their defenders," Elrond said grimly. In his mind's eye, he saw again Celebrimbor's defiled body, hoisted like a macabre standard at the head of the Enemy's army. "Ignorance was the best defense for this Ring."

"But no longer," the Elvenking said. "The time has come for this Ring to pass into other hands."

Both fell silent, looking at the Ring. Such a thing of simple beauty, crafted with such hopeful reverence and awash in blood and suffering. Is it truly unsullied? Elrond wondered. Its maker put to torment, the ring hidden in solitude and deception... Was Celebrimbor's intent strong enough to hold against that?

He waited to hear Gil-Galad name the next bearer--or to ask him for
his opinion. The list of those suitable for such a burden was indeed thin. Perhaps Glorfindel or Cirdan the Shipwright, or Celeborn the Wise might agree to take up this Ring. Gil-Galad's next words shocked him past speech.

"I ask you, Peredhel: will you take Vilya? Will you guard it, passing it on only when your strength fails or you are moved to do so by the will of the Valar?"

He could only stare, a thousand questions whirling through his mind,
all beginning with, 'Why?' Gil-Galad must have read his confusion, for he picked up the Ring again, and spoke.

"This is the Ring of the Firmament, and you are the Eldar son of the
Mariner, he who sails the secret ways between the stars. It is sung
that he made his choice for the love of both his peoples, and for
Middle-Earth itself. Whoever bears this Ring in the age to come must have a thought for all the people of Middle-Earth, not just the Eldar alone. I believe you are that one. And so I ask if you will take up this burden."

The protest on his lips died unspoken. A question that was not a question could have only one answer. Reluctantly, Elrond extended his hand. Gil-Galad tipped his hand, and the Ring settled into Elrond's palm, the thick gold chain pooling around the Ring. The band would contract to fit, he knew, even if he never once wore it. The star sapphire glowed like the evening sky. The Ring felt cool and heavy, heavier than its size would indicate.

"I will take the Ring, my Lord," he said, "and I will keep it safe."

Gil-Galad's expression turned cool and remote. "I do you no favors with this act," he said. "In time, you may come to curse me for the burden I have placed on you."

"My lord," Elrond began in protest, but the king held up a hand, silencing him.

"From this moment onward, whenever you are faced with a choice, you
must make the one that protects the Ring. You must keep it secret, you must keep it safe, even if it costs lives, or even your honor. For, so long as the Ring must remain hidden, you will never be able to explain why you do what you do."

"I understand, Lord," he whispered.

Gil-Galad sat back, raising a hand to rub away the weariness in his eyes. "Not yet, my friend. But you will. May Elbereth sustain you."

The Ring drew his eyes to it again. It slept, its power unstirred for centuries. What he felt was its merest reflection. If the Ring would blaze so brightly even the simplest of Men would sense it. Unease prickled the back of his neck. The League was to begin its march at dawn. Why had the king waited until now to charge him with this duty? Did Gil-Galad mean to leave him behind?

"Surely you do not mean for me to carry this into Mordor?"

The Elvenking shook his head. " Let it remain here in Imladris, in a place of safety. If fortune favors us, you will return, and be able to wield it as its maker intended."

Tension drained out of him, allowing him an easy breath. He didn't know if he could have borne remaining here while others went to war. Silence lay between them again, a thing of soothing softness and gentle shadows. Outside, they could hear soft voices raised in song, a hymn of praise to Elbereth and Este. At last, Gil-Galad stirred.

"Take leave of your fellows tonight," he said. "You must forge your own bond with the Ring...and I must purge myself of mine."

The Elvenking's bright eyes traveled slowly to a door that led off of his chambers, lingering there. Elrond knew who awaited the king on the other side of that door. He curled his fingers around the Ring, holding it in a tight fist.

"My lord," he said quietly, and bowed his way out.

It was only when he was halfway down the hall when he realized he'd
never asked the king why it was time for the Ring to be passed on. Well, he could hardly disturb him now. In any event, it was not his place to question his king on such matters. The king's will stood revealed, and as a loyal liegeman, he must heed it. Still, the timing disturbed him. Passing on the stewardship of Vilya might cause but a small ripple, but there was more under the surface.

He left the house, avoiding the more popular paths. With all of the people now in the valley, it was more to difficult to find the level of privacy he needed. He knew the lay of this land better than anyone. Even so, it took some walking before Elrond at last found a place secluded enough for his purposes.

The night air felt cool, the rising wind tossing the boughs of the trees. The rustling sounds reminded him of a room full of voices. Elrond wondered if Vilya could decipher those voices, if it indeed knew the speech of all things. What knowledge did they contain, what mysteries could be revealed? The blue stone pulsed against his fingers, falling into the same slow rhythm of his heartbeat.

He stood in the center of the grove and opened his hand. Under Ithil's light, Vilya appeared luminous, its rich gold taking on a sheen of platinum. In the blue depths of the sapphire itself, tiny glints of light began to shimmer and dance. He did not try to bring them into focus, understanding instinctively that to do so would wake the Ring.

He allowed the lights in the stone to draw him in, until everything around him seemed made of sapphire. The lights spun around him, like stars whirling across the night sky. He saw the Dragon fly by, its tail of sparkling stars pointing to Valacirca. Other stars glimmered, dim and distant. Gradually, two stars rose to prominence. Borgil, blazing ruby-bright, with the cool blue of Luilin pulsing beside it.

One by one, the other lights began to fade, until only Borgil and Luilin remained. The two stars pulsed and sparkled in solitude, until a pinpoint of light began to glimmer between them. What is this? he wondered, watching it grow. This new light shone like the layers within moonstone, glowed like a fire opal. The Gil-Estel, he realized with a shock of recognition.

Elrond looked up, more than half-expecting to see the three stars blazing overhead. Instead, he saw only the late-night stars of early spring, glittering sharp and cold. The night sky itself held countless shades of deep blue, like those at the heart of the sapphire. A few silvery wisps of cloud scudded across the sky. The first two stars were the other Rings, he realized. And the rising of the evening star to join them, the star that bore his father's name announced him. Did the other two Ringbearers sense him the same way, or did their Rings speak to them in other ways?

He looked back down at the Ring. It gleamed in his hand, appearing
now as nothing more than a pretty trinket, more for a woman's hand
than a man's. Vilya. The Ring of the Firmament. The treasure
Celebrimbor had died for, the trophy Sauron sought. Now it lay in
his keeping, only as safe as he could make it.

The night wind rose, strengthened, and he shivered. Snatches of
conversation reached his ears: Men of the North, grumbling about a
superior. A woman, wearied to tears, trying to soothe a sickly child. Bits and pieces of a hundred different songs, from different places and ages floated free on the air.

'There were Elves of old, and strong spells under green hills in
hollow dells they sang as they wrought many fair things, and the
bright crowns of Elven kings. But their doom fell and their song
waned, by iron hewn and steel chained.

The eve of war was not the time to think on the Doom of Elves. And it was not only the Elves who brought this war to Sauron--the Men of
Middle-Earth had mustered as well. As if it had heard the change in
his thoughts, the wind spoke again.

'So men flicker and in the mirk go out, The world withers and the wind rises, the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.'

The trickle of voices became a stream, became a flood. Every word ever snatched by a stray breeze rolled towards him, torn and tattered from its journey. He heard the low crooning of the Naugrim as they worked at their forges, the lulling plainsong of the Ents. Somewhere, somewhen, a woman cried out in pleasure or pain. The gurgling screams of the drowned Faithless Ones bubbled up. He heard the groans and cries of the thralls of Mordor, the crack of the lash, and the wet sound of parting flesh. Beneath it all, he heard the ceaseless song of the sea.

Another sound came to him then, like the low growl of distant thunder.

'Where are you, lost one? Come, and I will give you peace. You take on a burden too strong for you. Let me share it. Let me spare you this pain...'

Sauron! For a sickening moment, Elrond feared he had woken the Ring, had betrayed them all. But the summons rolled out again, blind, impersonal. He seeks the Three, he thought, but has not yet found them.

Stillness...yes, he must be very still. Elrond hardly dared to breathe, concentrating on stillness and silence. The heaviness lifted in increments, as Sauron's blind seeking moved away from him. Twice more, he felt Sauron's questing thought, each time moving further away. Silence, then, the wary kind of silence that came in the wake of a great predator.

Are there no portents of hope? he thought in despair. Or do we all go to our deaths with the dawn?

A gentler, voiceless wind from the West swirled about him, tugging at his clothing. Elrond's hands shook as he slipped the braided chain over his head. Vilya disappeared under his tunic, resting just over his heart. He let the soft wind guide his steps, steering him out of the grove and back onto the garden paths. On a moment of impulse, he stopped to remove his boots. The feel of cool grass and earth under his bare feet helped clear his mind.

His mother, they said, had had a great love of the things of the earth. When he walked the gardens of Imladris, Elrond thought he felt an echo of her, even here in this place where she had never set foot. Echoes and faded memories were all he had of Elwing. Perhaps one day, the memories would fade entirely, and he might walk through green places without being haunted by the mother who had abandoned him. One day...

He found his steps leading him along a path to one of the water gardens. He could smell fresh water, feel its fine mist in the air. Elven artistry had lovingly called up miniature fountains from the earth, letting them bubble and splash freely along cunningly designed stone arrangements. Some of his folk found their beauty and song able to blunt the sea-longing that rose up too frequently in their hearts.

He found another comfort in the moving water this night. The splash and murmur of the fountains drowned out the sound of the wind--and its voices. He knelt by the rippling pool and cupped his hands in the water. The chill against his skin shocked him out of the spell Vilya had neatly woven around him.

"Elbereth," he breathed on the water, watching the light dance on its surface.

"Master Elrond," a familiar voice greeted him.

His hands flew apart, spilling the water back into the pool. He hadn't expected anyone to be abroad at this hour. His vision sharpened and he could see Isildur, Elendil's oldest son, sitting alone on the grass. The moonlight silvered his features, accenting all the sharp planes and angles of his face. Isildur, he saw, kept his sword near by him, even in the gardens of Imladris. In another time, he might have felt insulted.

"You are abroad late," Elrond said, rising to his feet. He shook the water droplets from his fingers.

"My apologies, Master Elrond. You seemed unaware of my presence,
and I did not wish to intrude."

Vilya had truly mazed his senses, he hadn't even seen the Man. "I should be the one to apologize. You came here seeking solitude, perhaps."

Isildur laughed, and any thought Elrond had of leaving vanished. If
he had never heard Isildur laugh, he surely would never have turned
his thoughts to the Man. The prince of Ithilien, like so many of
his kind, was dark and grim in repose. But when he laughed...the
sound was as rich as red-gold mead. It settled in warm, deep pools
inside the listener, inviting him to draw closer. It had snared him
years ago, and he still could not find a way to break free.

"No, I came here to hide," Isildur said in that forthright manner that jolted so many of Elrond's folk. "My lady-wife is in a foul temper. I thought it best to remove myself--before she attempted to remove my head."

"Is aught amiss?" Elrond asked, caught between wanting to offer aid
and respecting the privacy between husband and wife.

Isildur gave a weary shake of his head. "No. She is with child. This mood always takes her when her time draws near. I can do nothing right, and rather than listen to her rail at me for things I can do nothing to change, I came out here." Isildur waved a hand. "Join me, if you like. You look as though you might welcome some quiet as well."

Elrond hesitated for just a moment, thinking of the almost endless
number of tasks still to be seen to. Still, they had waited this long... and it would be churlish, to leave Isildur here when he so obviously wished for company. And given enough time, I can convince myself the Sun rises in the West, he thought, amused at himself. He stayed because he wished Isildur's company. He could at least manage that much self-honesty, even if he chose not to examine his motives any deeper than that. He settled on the grass.

The prince looked solemn, his usual fire quenched. They sat together in silence for some time. Elrond watched the wave-ripples, soothed by the lulling sound of the water.

Isildur gave him a sidelong glance. "You are not married, are you,
Master Elrond?"

"No. I am unmarried," he answered, with unintended sharpness.

He grew weary of having his unwed state the focus of well-meaning
friends. It was unseemly for an Elven lord of his years, but what else could he do? Any children he fathered would have the Choice set before them: the life and youth of the Eldar, or the Doom of Men. How could he, in honor, ask for the hand of any maiden, when any child of theirs might be parted from them for eternity? Worse, the immortality of his future children rested on his own, for as long as he stayed in Middle-Earth. With the fires of war burning again... To ask a woman to risk both husband and children was too heavy a burden.

"There are times I envy the unwed," Isildur sighed.

"If she is in distress, should you have left her alone?" he asked, then winced. It was not his place to judge Isildur's behavior within his marriage.

Isildur shook his head, strands of his dark hair falling into his eyes. "I didn't. Her companion is with her. Kalita can gentle her mood."

Elrond recalled Isildur's wife, an almost painfully thin woman with long brown hair, and swollen with child. Another woman had clung to her, even thinner, with bird-bright eyes and a magpie's chatter. She never seemed to pause for breath, skipping from one subject to the next, like a brook running over stones.

And that is supposed to be restful for her?

"I sent Elendur to sit with her for a time," Isildur continued. "It is hard for her, to send her husband and her sons to war. It has all been hard on her."

He started at this unexpected echo of his own thoughts. He touched
Isildur's arm, feeling solid muscle and bone through the cloth of his tunic. A frisson of awareness swept through him at the contact. It was always so around Isildur. Elendil's eldest son was like a spring storm, wild, invigorating, and potentially dangerous.

"Do you have need of anything we might provide?" Elrond asked,
falling back on the rituals of hospitality to cover his disquiet.

Isildur frowned, cocking his head to the side. The gesture stirred a memory, but it refused to come to light.

"Our journey here taxed her considerably," Isildur said at last. "Her companion has some skill at the art, but I would be easier knowing she had a birthing-woman to attend her."

A midwife. That wasn't a skill often needed in Imladris. Still, anyone who practiced the healing arts had to learn it. It would be easy enough to assign one of the healers to Isildur's wife. "Your child will be the first born here," he realized with a start.

"Well," said Isildur, breaking into a broad grin, "that is a good omen."

Yes, it is. To have one of my brother's blood born here, to bring in life even as we go to meet death...

"I will regret leaving this place," the Man said abruptly. "After so much destruction, it soothes my heart to know such beauty still exists."

"Imladris is a sanctuary for those who have suffered from the Enemy," Elrond said, unable to keep a small amount of pride from his voice. "Beauty is healing."

"So it is," Isildur agreed, watching him.

Isildur had eyes as dark as the night sky, as deep as the heart of the sapphire. Elrond looked away. Perhaps Men could not read the hearts of Elves, but he did not care to test that theory.

"Do you times, Imladris reminds me of the wilder places of Anduine. Almost, I expect to hear the kirinki singing. My heart jumps at any splash of red I see among the trees," Isildur said.

"I fear that there are no kirinki elsewhere in the world."

"They sleep with Atalante, now, beneath the waves," Isildur agreed. "Did you ever see it, Master Elrond? Anduine, or Eldalonde the Green?"

"I have been to the City of the Kings," he said softly. "Once."

Once, and never again, for the Elves did not return to places of sorrow.

"Ah. That eases my heart, Master Elrond. To know it lives in immortal memory... It will be but an echo of a dream to my children's children. I would have some part of it live on."

"Númenor lives, Isildur. It lives on in its people, the Faithful who came safely to these shores."

Isildur gave a slight smile, shaded with sorrow. "Men die," he said. "Immortal memory endures."

Then he reached out. For a moment, Elrond thought the Man meant to
touch him. He felt a light touch against his hair, then Isildur drew back.

"You had a leaf caught in your hair," he said, letting it flutter free to the ground.

"Ah. Thank you."

They sat in silence once more. Isildur looked upon the gardens--and
Elrond looked upon Isildur. Light and shadow, the waxing Moon and the night sky that cradles Him...ah, Elendil, you named your sons well.

"Ai, I will sleep on the ground soon enough. Best enjoy the bed while I have it." Isildur stood up, looked around once more. "Your home is beautiful, Master Elrond. Valar grant we will all return to see it again."

"Well spoken," he murmured. Isildur raised a hand in farewell, then
started back towards the house. Elrond watched him go, until the
trees' shadows cloaked him from his sight.

A few hours remained before he had to oversee the final preparations
for the dawn march. He would spend them here, he decided,
surrounded by the land and the water. Isildur's words had given a
new luster to Imladris, and he wanted as many bright memories as he
could carry on the road to Mordor.

Kirinki: small red birds, native to Numenor

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