The City Lights Burn
Elrond was worried. Night fell and he drove his horse to even greater speed, eager to enter the protective walls of Forlond. Of home. Home was a foreign concept to him, insofar that most people associated it with a single and safe place, most often the one where their family lived. Elrond had other connotations; he had no family left since the Havens of Sirion were destroyed many years earlier, he had moved around for a long while. But Elros had been his home. His twin brother, his other half. But Elros chose differently, and with him Elrond thought home was forever lost to him.
Then he met Gil-Galad who took him to Lindon and slowly Elrond discovered what others meant when they thought of home. Forlond, with its bright towers and tall arches and chosen dwelling place of the current High King of the Noldor. Home.
Stars twinkled high up in the sky and the night was clear; not a trace of the ominous-looking clouds that hung over Ost-in-Edhil and were spreading out over the rest of Eregion. It seemed that the air here was sweeter and breathing went easier, but perhaps that could be attributed to the salty presence of the sea.
Elrond rounded a hill and finally, finally, he could see the many lights of Forlond in the distance. Homestretch now. His horse was exhausted and Elrond allowed it to fall back to a trot while his heart soared ahead.
Half an hour later he stopped before the city gates. Tall wooden structures, proud and strong, denied him entrance. Elrond knew there was a night watch, and he called loudly a few times to get their attention. They opened the gates for him and he rode inside.
After he’d brought his horse to the stables Elrond decided the first thing he needed now was a hot bath to relax his sore muscles. Then he would check if Gil-Galad were still awake; if not, he would enjoy a good night’s sleep and relay his report in the morning.
After his bath Elrond felt much better. The ache in his muscles from the many hours in the saddle was almost gone and he was clean. Every time he traveled Elrond was amazed at the quantity of dirt a body could amass. He went in search of Gil-Galad. His monarch and friend was not in the library and not in the dining room, enjoying a late supper. Elrond detoured to the kitchens where he took some fruits before continuing his search along the main galleries and a few of the cozy chambers where fires burned merrily. None of those places was empty, but Gil-Galad was nowhere to be found. Elrond decided he’d had enough for today and sought his own bedroom, allowing sleep to take him.
The next morning he woke early and after getting dressed, Elrond walked towards the great dining room where breakfast was just being served. He snitched a few bread rolls and some grapes from one of the long buffet tables and made his way to the main table, where Gil-Galad was already seated. Elrond took his customary place at his King’s right hand, munching on the sweet bread while the King conversed with a Lady on his left, whom Elrond did not recognize. She was beautiful, carrying a waterfall of golden hair as a crown over her grey eyes. Her animated voice was light and pleasant, and Elrond found himself listening to the sound.
He waited patiently, now and then glancing at the Lady, and when he finished his breakfast made no motion to get up, refusing to leave until he had told his news to the King. Gil-Galad must’ve noticed Elrond’s deliberate lagging, for after a few minutes he excused himself to his guest and gestured for Elrond to follow him as he left breakfast and headed towards his study. Elrond closed the door once they were inside and turned to face Gil-Galad. “I am sorry for the delay; the lady Celebrían arrived a few days ago as an emissary from Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien,” the latter said, tone serious. “So, what news from Eregion?”
“A dark cloud hangs over the land, and that is not only a metaphor.” Elrond sighed. “The people are ecstatic, the Gwaith-i-Mírdain thrives and the city blooms.” He sank down in the chair Gil-Galad provided and for a moment he put his face in his hand. “That Annatar character has brought them nothing but prosperity, and yet I cannot shake this foreboding. I feel disaster is about to happen.” Gil-Galad sat down in his own chair, not bothering with formalities yet still more dignified than Elrond.
“And what does Celebrimbor think of your concerns?” he inquired softly. Elrond simply groaned. “He listens to me, but I fear only out of politeness. He does not believe a single bad word spoken about Annatar. And how can I blame him, when I have no proof but my instinct and he after all that happened in the First Age has finally found his peace?”
Gil-Galad did not respond immediately. “His family is known for their stubbornness,” he said delicately after a while. Elrond merely raised an eyebrow, not amused, then sighed. “I am aware,” he moaned. “And every time it became their undoing.”
“You fear Celebrimbor will die?” Gil-Galad questioned.
“I know he will, unless Annatar is removed from his position of influence. And even then it may already be too late.”
“The situation is that serious?”
“It is, and we cannot intervene without initiating a fourth slaughter of kin upon kin.”
“Hmm,” Gil-Galad said gravely. He leaned back in his chair, as much of a loss of composure as the High King would allow himself. “Do you remember when Annatar first visited us here, Elrond?” he inquired after a short while. His tone was pensive.
“I do,” Elrond responded. “And even back then I was uneasy around him.”
“I know. I felt the same, though probably not to the same extend you did. Still, for all his gifts and his golden tongue I saw there is something hard hidden in him, something cruel. I wonder how long he will be able to contain that darkness.”
It was the first time either of them addressed these suspicions, that Annatar did indeed come from the darkness they’d dared to hope was gone. It was not apparent in his appearance, nor in his speech or his eyes, yet it was there all the same. A sense of unease, a prickling in the neck that put them on edge and cast a shadow over their hearts. It was a miracle, though an unwelcome one, that no one else had seemed to pick up on it, save a select few. Annatar was charming; there was no denying his polite manners, his genuine interest and open gaze.
Elrond remained silent for a while, contemplating these thoughts. There was nothing suspicious about the emissary from the Valar and that was the problem. It was gut instinct, pure and simple, that warned Elrond to stay away. Celebrimbor had had plenty of good arguments in Annatar’s defense, and there were none Elrond could refute. It was not as if Annatar had been present during that last grueling battle, the War of Wrath. As far as Elrond knew, he had not been involved in the War at all.
The strong voice of Gil-Galad broke the silence. “You have spoken to Celebrimbor; have you also met with Annatar himself?”
“I have,” Elrond said, “for a short while. He was pleasant with me, but I could tell he was wary. He no doubt heard of my opinion of him, and therefore didn’t initiate any contact. It was obvious he enjoyed my company just as little as I enjoyed his.”
“How did he act?” Gil-Galad urged. “Similar to when he was here? Similar to your previous visits to Ost-in-Edhil? Or different?”
Elrond closed his eyes for a moment, trying to envision exactly what Annatar had said and done. His actions were like the moon, Elrond thought, erratic yet with design. He spoke these words aloud. “He was different. He had… calmed down, yet was strangely excited, if that makes sense,” Elrond said finally.
“His posture, behavior if you will, was more relaxed. Do you remember how intense he was, how he seemed to be doing ten things at once when he was here, while thinking about another twenty?” Upon Gil-Galad’s nod Elrond spoke further. “He wasn’t like that, this time. He was focused, concentrated, not a blur of activity but able to sit back and think.” Elrond shook his head. “Rather like someone who has finally made an important decision, one that had been bothering him for a long time. Or perhaps more like one who has managed to shut up the voices that were screaming in his head.” Elrond sighed again. “I do not know how best to describe this change. Yet at the same time he was excited, like a child on his begetting day, talking at length with many members of the Gwaith about their big project, about practice samples, about intricate metal designs, about the jewels they should use and the magic they need to complete their big project. I don’t know exactly what it is they were working on, except that it is huge. The entire Gwaith is involved.”
“The entire Gwaith?” Gil-Galad asked, eyebrow raised in confusion. Elrond nodded. “Even the apprentices were busy.” Normally the guild had multiple projects going on, as well as taking commissions from anyone who asked. To have all its members occupied was unusual, to say the least.
“And you have no idea what it is they are working on?” Gil-Galad stressed. Elrond shook his head. “None. I suspect they are sworn to secrecy, although I cannot envision Celebrimbor enforcing such a rule.”
“Neither can I. Celebrimbor is averse to promises of any kind. Do you think this is also part of Annatar’s design?”
“I am not sure. While undoubtedly this came from Annatar’s mind, I have a feeling it is more of a practical concern than a part of his actual schemes.”
“Do you expect a grand revelation ceremony when this project is finished?”
“…I do, in fact,” Elrond said, and allowed himself a grin. “And soon. Despite whatever else he is and whomever he does serve, Annatar is proud and will want to show his achievements to the world. I do not know whether this will bode well for us or not, but at least we’ll gain some information.”
“Didn’t Celebrimbor share anything about it? Did you ask him?”
“I did, but Celebrimbor is similar to Annatar in that respect.” Elrond paused. “I heard it is a trait he inherited, that Curufin was a perfectionist as well.” Gil-Galad nodded, face contorted into a sad frown. “He was. I didn’t know him very well since I only met him a few times, but they are indeed similar. So were Fëanor, Nerdanel and Mahtan, it was said.” He sat up straight in his chair. “But that is neither here nor there. Celebrimbor did not reveal anything at all?”
“No, he did not,” Elrond stated again.
“So there is nothing we can do but wait?”
Elrond shook his head. “Although I very much wish to return to Eregion and challenge him to a duel, it would be extremely foolish to do so.” Gil-Galad let out a laugh. “I can imagine, in the middle of the square, a duel one to one! I have seen Annatar fight once, a mock duel with Celebrimbor. You won’t stand a chance, Elrond.”
“I was taught by the very best,” Elrond remarked, then realized what he’d said. “I did not mean it like that,” he hastened to add when Gil-Galad’s mood sunk again. “In my mind I still cannot reconcile the story of the Kinslayers with the Eldar who raised me.”
“I know you did not and you cannot,” was all that Gil-Galad said, and dropped the matter. But the atmosphere was heavy again.
Elrond looked past Gil-Galad through the window. The sun had disappeared from the eastern sky and would be parading high in the south. He had missed the warm light under Ost-in-Edhil’s perpetual cover of clouds. The phenomenon was frankly unnatural, Elrond mused, and relayed this to Gil-Galad.
The High-King noticed his obvious change of subject, but didn’t comment on it. He picked up on Elrond’s words.
“And none commented on it during your stay, or thought it otherwise strange?”
Elrond shook his head. He had done it a lot in the past hour, and he started to feel it in his neck. “They thought it a lingering storm from the mountains. Annatar himself didn’t even seem to notice it. The light was not entirely eliminated, but dimmed and most colors were stripped away, leaving a brown sky underneath black clouds.” He shuddered slightly. “I am glad I’m back here.”
Gil-Galad nodded. “What happens there is now beyond our control, even if we were to seize it by force.”
“Do we try to remove Annatar in silence?” Elrond dared to suggest, resulting in a hard stare from Gil-Galad. “If you are asking whether we will attempt assassination, kidnapping or taking him hostage, the answer is no. Whatever more than swordplay you might have been taught in your unique upbringing, such scenarios have no place in a civilized world, Elrond Makalaurion.” The implication was clear. Elrond inclined his head, partly to apologize and partly to acknowledge the threat.
Gil-Galad relented a little. “It is not wise to even think of such things, my friend,” he said. “Those thoughts linger in the mind and can drive on mad. I do not want you to fall victim to that curse. But should we pursue to remove Annatar from Ost-in-Edhil, it is my opinion that the damage is already done. A sudden disappearance would only accelerate disaster.”
“So we let Annatar play his games?”
“We are too late already to prevent Eregion’s fall. The only thing we can do now is control the descent.” Gil-Galad closed his eyes for a moment, clamped them shut, and when he opened them again they were weary, and lines had set into his immortal face.
“Elrond, I want you to do several things for me. First, alert the army. Ensure they are in a state of readiness to meet whatever it is that comes. Second, I want you to warn our allies to do the same. However, do not contact Eregion. I don’t want Annatar finding out. Third, once that is all done, I want you to scout the lands for a safe haven, a strategic location and defensible place to retreat to should that prove necessary. The Lady Celebrían is returning to Lothlórien tomorrow; accompany her on her way home. It is a perfect cover for your true mission. Lastly, I appoint you as my herald. Do you accept that position?”
Elrond listened carefully to his instructions, memorizing them as they were spoken. When Gil-Galad came to his last point, Elrond at first did not believe he heard correctly. However, Gil-Galad’s earnest expression told him his ears did not deceive him. It was a position of honor that Elrond had never aspired to attain, but now that it was freely offered, he would not refuse. A smile broke through his face, one that Gil-Galad answered with his own. “You’ve more than earned it, my friend,” he said.
“I accept the position. Thank you,” Elrond simply answered. “I appreciate it.”
“I know. Now, I believe you should be on your way. The sooner this is all done, the better.”
“Yes, my King,” Elrond saluted.
Title taken from the song Anthem of our dying day by Story of the Year.