CHAPTER 1 – Leaving the Valley
Asfaloth stirred restlessly beneath me while we waited with growing impatience for Elrond to lead us out of Imladris. I pulled my four-legged companion around in a tight circle and he settled down again. I smiled as I listened to the tones of the bells in his mane. I would pack them away after today, but I would not permit Imladris’ inhabitants to leave the Valley skulking silently in the darkness like servants of the enemy. No. Asfaloth’s bells would ring out and proclaim that we were proudly leaving our refuge to return to our home across the ocean, even though I would be returning to the Valley to watch the end of our dream amidst the shadows of our past.
I reviewed our preparations once more, assuring myself that all was in readiness. Elrond was walking down the stairs towards us, passing a group of elves clustered near the entryway who waited to wish him farewell. He nodded to some of the elves who would be remaining behind in the Valley, stopping here and there to shake hands, give quick hugs, and exchange words. He was leaving elves behind who he had watched over for more than an Age.
In the courtyard Elrond’s horse awaited him, along with those of us who would accompany him as he journeyed west. Most of the gathered elves would join him on the ship and cross the Sundering Sea. There were a few, however, such as Celeborn and me, who would remain in Middle-earth. My cousin Galadriel and her Lord were already mounted and would ride to Elrond’s left. I looked over towards the couple. ‘It will be a long separation for them,’ I thought. ‘I am not sure if he will ever sail west, but it is clear that my cousin can no longer deny her desire to return home again.’
My attention returned to Elrond. My Lord was dressed for traveling in doeskin leggings, knee-high boots, a fine lawn shirt and a long split tunic. His sword, cloak, bedroll, and other small items for his daily needs were tied to his saddle. As he walked towards his horse, a playful breeze tried unsuccessfully to snarl his braided hair into a knot.
Twenty warriors would escort the group and another twenty would take up the rearguard position. The wagons would be in the center of the group. These included those carrying supplies for the journey, the cook’s wagon and Bilbo’s wagon. Most of the elves would be walking and they would be grouped around the wagons. Riders who were not part of the guard would ride randomly, providing additional protection as well as assistance to the children and to those who were walking at a slower pace.
I glanced to my right where Erestor sat astride his horse, Faraloth. He had a small smile teasing his lips and was impeccably dressed as always. I caught myself licking my lips unconsciously. ‘Get yourself under control,’ I told myself firmly. ‘He might look delectable, but he is just your friend, not your lover.’
Wresting my attention away from Erestor, I once again looked for my Lord. Elrond was speaking with his sons before mounting his horse.
“You will leave in three weeks?” he asked as he hugged and kissed each twin.
“We will not be late, Father,” Elladan said calmly. “It will be a slow process for you and all of these people to walk to the Havens.”
“Even staying these extra weeks here in Imladris, we will still be joining you long before you arrive at Círdan’s domain. We will have ample time to spend with both you and Grandmother before you board the ship.” Elrohir’s comments slid after his brother’s so effortlessly it was almost as if only a single person was speaking.
“I am counting on that,” Elrond responded as he mounted, taking the reins from Elladan’s hands.
My Lord looked at his home one last time. I knew that many of his happiest days had been spent in this valley. He would surely miss it, yet there was no hesitation in his manner. “Move out,” he called, and we began walking down the path, away from the Last Homely House.
At the top of the valley’s rim I pulled away from the group to make sure that everyone was moving comfortably and climbing up the steep path successfully. Without fail, each elf turned for a last look at Imladris. Many had tears in their eyes or running down their cheeks as they turned away, heading for the upper Trollshaws.
Erestor stopped his horse next to mine. “Well, my friend,” I said. “Are you ready to leave our long-time home?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “It's been a good home for us over the years, but Elrond has given all that he can. He needs the deep healing which can only be found in the West. It is my hope that he will find happiness once again.”
“Do you think he will find that in the West with Celebrían?” I asked. “After all, we know not if she was able to be healed or what her feelings may be towards Elrond after all this time.”
“I think he'll have a better chance of happiness there than here,” Erestor responded. “Staying here will only bring increased burdens and eventually the deaths of Arwen and Aragorn. This will wound him deeply. If he is with others he loves and under the care of the Valar, this blow might be softened. If Celebrían is healed and welcomes him back into her arms, then they will share the joy and the sorrows and gain strength through their bond.”
I nodded and looked carefully at my friend. I hoped to find some time to tell him of my feelings towards him while we were on our journey. I wanted no secrets between us before he boarded the ship for the voyage west ‘Well, there is time to introduce the topic later. Right now I need to ride.’ I shook my head slightly. I knew that the Imladris I would return to in a few months’ time would be an empty, echoing shell.
Erestor turned to me and asked, “Is something wrong, ‘Fin?”
“No.” I shook my head firmly. “No, nothing. Shall we go on?” I turned Asfaloth away from the valley, urging him into a canter and moved rapidly away from Imladris. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Erestor catch up with the larger group and stop to speak with Mithrandir who was riding next to Bilbo’s wagon.
The first few days went slowly but smoothly. The elves were adjusting to the pace of the journey and the horses needed this time to acquaint themselves to a slower pace. The guard was under orders to rotate their mounts so that each horse would have some opportunity to gallop regularly.
Another day or two would see us at the ford, then we would be in the lower Trollshaws and our guard would have to be doubled. Elrond would begin assigning scouting parties soon.
As we settled down for the night, everyone collected their evening meal from the main cook wagon. Afterward, the large group split into smaller clusters comprised of friends or family members, each gathered around one of several smaller fires. I brought my own meal and a plate of food for Erestor to the fire that he had chosen. We sat together on a short length of wooden log that was on the ground nearby.
“I have first watch tonight, but then I am free,” I informed him as we began eating. I took a quick glance towards him then looked back down at my food.
“And you are telling me this because?” came the query.
“Ummm, I just wanted to...well, I wanted to talk to you.”
“Look, ‘Fin, it's a long journey to the Havens and I want to arrive there with our friendship intact. What have you got to say to me later that you can’t say to me now? Why do you need the darkness of night to talk?”
I turned and looked at him. For thousands of years I had watched Erestor, admiring his efficiency, and yes, his body. But I had lived a life of a warrior. I was constantly patrolling the borders of the Hidden Valley, and fighting battles both large and small against orcs and other enemies. Each day that I armed myself, mounted, and rode out of the Valley could easily have been my last. I had never allowed myself to speak to Erestor in terms of anything other than friendship because I had no desire to leave a love behind me if I lost my life again. Doing that once had been enough.
Now things were different. Erestor was leaving, I was staying, and it was very likely that I would survive to return to the West in another few hundred years, accompanying the sons of Elrond.
“The quiet and solitude of the night suits me. If you are too weary, or if you would rather not stay awake to speak with me, I understand. But I wanted to speak to you privately, without the population of Imladris walking nearby.” I took a swallow from my cup and continued. “What say you, Erestor? Will you meet with me this night?”
Erestor sat silently, his gaze focused on me. It was impossible to know what he was thinking; his long years of practice in presenting an unflappable outward appearance allowed him to hide his thoughts easily. But he slowly nodded. “All right, I’ll meet you near my fire when your shift is over. I’ll have some wine for us to share.”
“I look forward to it,” I said, and I got up from the log. Shortly afterward I left for my shift on watch.