The weight of a strong hand settled on his shoulder. He reached up and gave it a half-hearted squeeze. He remembered then, the pain he felt was not his exclusive province. Everyone on this deck, their eyes turned toward the ever distancing shore, was experiencing the inescapable anguish of bereavement.
He turned, and settled his eyes on his grandson's stoic visage. He knew the pain hidden beneath was as vast and deep as the sea. Elrohir had lost most of his family to the fate of Men, recently his own twin brother, Elladan, Celeborn's own grandson. Those were painful memories. Celeborn managed to peel his tongue away from the roof of his mouth to scrape out, “You have my love.”
Elrohir nodded solemnly, but averted his eyes from his grandsire's face. Celeborn watched his lips curl into a bitter grimace. “I had a choice as well,” he replied. “I just never imagined that it would take me away from him.” Elrohir paused, turned his piercing gaze toward his grandfather, and added, “But then you would know of those choices much better than I; after all, grandmother left you as well.”
Celeborn inhaled sharply. He was reminded once more of Elrohir's unflinching forthrightness and his keen insight into people's emotions. It was true, he felt Galadriel had abandoned him, but contrary to popular belief, her desertion had happened much earlier and in a gradual manner. Her desertion had started when Celembridor had given her Nenya.
He replied, “She was never truly mine,” before leaving the deck for the shelter of his cabin.
The day of their arrival at Tol EressŽa dawned chilly and foggy. After nearly three weeks of rough, temperamental seas, with mainly lembas for sustenance everyone on the ship exhaled a deep sigh of relief at the murky sight that greeted their eyes. The sleepy city of AvallonŽ rose form the mist on the eastern coast of the island, its great tower glinting in the rays of the shy sun peeking from behind the clouds. However, it was not the great tower of AvallonŽ that had Celeborn rushing to the railing. It was the sight of the dark haired elf standing on the dock. He smiled for the first time in days.
Elrohir came to Celeborn's side. At the sight of his grandfather's smiling face, he asked, “Anyone you know?”
Celeborn let out a low chuckle. “Prepare to meet a legend, Elrohir.”
It took all morning to get the ship moored and it was early afternoon by the time Celeborn and Elrohir stepped on dry land. By then, a huge crowd had assembled on the pier. Celeborn had given leave to his entourage to go find their families, so it was just him and Elrohir making their way through the throng. It was impossible to move, let alone see, and Celeborn's mood was worsening in direct proportion to the amount of crushing and pulling he received from the press of people on the pier. When he was about to really lose his temper, Elrohir called for his attention and pointed to someone a few feet away. “Isn't that the legend?”
The stranger stepped in front of them, placed his hands on his hips and let out a hearty bout of laughter, something akin to a bark. “A legend! Celeborn, you know better than to tell fibs.”
Celeborn's bad mood vanished in an instant. He enveloped the stranger in a mighty hug. “Mablung!” They embraced for a few seconds. Elrohir looked awestruck, both at meeting a legend and given the fact that said legend had dissipated his grandfather's bad mood. Also, the young lady next to Mablung was a Lindyn beauty with thick, silver hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a beautiful smile. A welcome sight after all those days at sea.
Celeborn disengaged himself from his friend and patted his grandson's back. “This starstruck young man here is Elrohir, my grandson,” Celeborn told Mablung and his companion.
“It's a pleasure to meet you,” Mablung said. He motioned to the attractive young woman next to him on the pier. “This is my daughter, Nimlach. We have been living here since your lady wife, Galadriel, arrived from the East.”
Celeborn's smile froze. He cleared his throat, “Is she still here, do you know?”
“No, not at all. I believe she lives in AlqualondŽ with her grandfather, OlwŽ,” Mablung replied.
Elrohir, who was apologizing to Nimlach for his grandsire's dastardly manners, paused and asked, “Is my mother residing with her?”
Mablung colored slightly and stammered for a reply, it was his daughter who came to his rescue and quipped, “No my Lord. I believe your parents have a estate close to Tirion.”
Celeborn gave them a little sardonic smile. He was willing to bet every strand of hair on his head that Galadriel's fit at Elrond's choosing to live with Gil-Galad's people rather than under her heel had been spectacular.
“Why doesn't that surprise me,” he said to no one in particular. It was now Elrohir's turn to clear his throat, but instead of its intended target, it was Mablung who caught the hint.
“Come,” he said to them and led them off the pier to the side of the road where a few horses were waiting for them. “I have given word for your belongings to be brought to the palace.”
“Whose palace?” Celeborn asked.
Mablung and his daughter exchanged a look before he replied, “To Thingol's palace, of course.”
Ever since Galadriel's departure from Middle-earth, Celeborn's thoughts had often wandered toward avenues he thought sealed for eternity. He was old... so very old... and tired, but that did not mean he was dead or without desire. And the longer he lived, the more keenly he was aware of the curse of his people, to live without forgetting, to remember precisely all the yearning and aches long past, as if time were a lens that magnified emotions tenfold. In those lonely years following her departure, while he watched half of his family vanish away into the ether, his thoughts often turned toward those early years of his youth when another had been the recipient of his affections. Before falling for that formidable woman with all her golden hair, strength and beauty, Celeborn had been deeply in love with someone else.
And he was now en route to his former lover's palace.
Celeborn's heart hadn't hammered this industriously since he was a lad in short pants. Not even war, or the possibility of death had made him as uneasy as reuniting with his kinsman and former lover did. Especially now, that his marriage was in such a state. As they made their way through the sleepy streets of AvallonŽ, his mind kept going over scenarios of how to best approach this impending reunion. Such was his distraction that he didn't realize his companions had stopped their chattering and were waiting for him to him to answer one of their questions. The silence grew uncomfortable.
“Celeborn, have you been listening?” Mablung asked.
Nimlach shot her father an exasperated look. Elrohir, who had been watching his grandfather carefully since they left the pier, gave her a small nod of acknowledgment.
“No, I haven't. You have my apologies, old friend,” Celeborn replied in a soft tone.
“None needed,” Mablung replied. “Listen, I haven't had the opportunity to make you eat dust in a horse race since, well, you know...”
Celeborn chuckled. “You were never able to make me eat dust in a horse race. Ever!”
Mablung snorted and quipped, “Care to make it interesting?”
“The last to the palace is a rotten egg!” Celeborn shouted.
The whole party raced through the streets earning the glares and insults of pedestrian and other horse riders alike, for it was considered beyond rude to disturb the sleepy peacefulness of AvallonŽ, not to mention the fact that those walking on foot did not appreciate eating dust laced with horse dung.
It was Nimlach atop her leggy mare who reached the palace first. By the time Celeborn –who came in dead last– and the rest of the party made it there, she had already organized a welcoming party. They ushered the new arrivals to their guest rooms without much reverence and with much haste.
While he allowed the servants to herd him around like a lamb, Celeborn's mind kept going back to the first years after Thingol's return. It had been a great joy for their people to have him back, years and years after abandoning them on their way to Valinor, while entrapped in the enchantment of a fey sorceress. In those first years, when everyone thought Thingol had died, Celeborn's love for Thingol had given him the strength to stay behind. He took upon himself the task of organizing his people. He kept them safe while in his spare time he searched for his lover. It had been an onerous task, to keep everyone calm and avoid civil war, for many thought he wanted them to stay behind so he himself could become their king and keep all the glory.
That had been the furthest thing from his mind. Celeborn had been obsessed with finding Thingol and that had been his only reason for staying. During those years of fruitless searching he had felt desperation tinged with guilt, for he had blamed himself for Thingol's disappearance. Later, desperation gave way to despair and right before his despair had turned to utter misery, Thigol returned. How his heart had soared! He remembered throwing himself into Thingol's arms and Thingol's polite but definite rebuff when his lips sought those that, in the past, had often sought his. It was then, when Celeborn's eyes truly opened and he noticed the enchantress holding onto his lover's hand, that his heart had truly been broken. Nothing could have prepared him for the pain of seeing his most beloved return deeply in love with someone else. Not even a whole millennium of fruitless searching.
“Grandpa?” Elrohir's concerned voice broke into his bitter abstraction.
Celeborn colored, this was the second time his grandson had caught him woolgathering. He cleared his throat. “Yes?”
“They are waiting for us.”
A very solemn looking retainer led them through the cavernous halls of the palace. The walls were encrusted with jewels and mother of pearl and the floors and ceiling were filled with cleverly designed mosaics. For all its coastal beauty this palace reminded Celeborn of the halls of Menegroth, in an oblique manner. He walked and tried to compose himself. It was idiotic to get so worked up about seeing Thingol, because Thingol was married –happily so– to Melian. It did not do to dwell in impossibilities, even if his own marriage to Galadriel was beyond saving.
The servant led them to a huge chamber. It was three stories tall and the walls were covered in books and scrolls. Sitting on a chair by a finely carved fireplace was Thingol, his head bent over a scroll. The fire created a nimbus around his head and his skin glowed with that uncanny light that those who had returned from the Halls of Mandos acquire
“My Lord?” the retainer called.
Thingol looked up, smiled, and Celeborn's heart threatened to take flight. It was true, Galadriel was beyond exquisite; yes, but when one has seen Anor's fiery light for millennia, all one wanted to do is to gaze at the exquisite, cool beauty of Ithil.
“There you are!” Thingol's mellow baritone echoed through the chamber. Celeborn and Elrohir bowed deeply while the servant announced them.
Thingol rolled his eyes, laughed. “None of that.” He put aside the scroll he was reading, rose from his chair and enveloped each of them in a fierce embrace. Celeborn bit his cheek hard to suppress the urge of burying his nose in Thingol's neck, redolent as it was of that familiar scent: sandalwood, smoke and that masculine musk that was Thingol.
“We are kinsmen and if I am not mistaken, this strapping young lad right here is my great-great grandson.”
Celeborn, who thought calling a battle hardened warrior and seasoned man like Elrohir a "lad" very amusing, turned to Elrohir and chuckled. “Strapping young lad, eh?”
Elrohir, who hadn't been called a lad twice in a day for many years, replied, “You did call me a young man earlier today, ancient relic.” He then turned to Thingol and answered, “Yes, I am Elrohir, son of Elrond Halfelven, great grandson of your daughter, Lķthien.”
“And so forward, ” Thingol told Celeborn.
“No wonder Nimlach was bending my ear about this one,” Mablung called out. He was leading a small army of servants carrying trays ladened with food and wine. Elrohir groaned out loud when he saw a very embarrassed Nimlach come through the doorway. The three other men laughed.
The servants, under Nimlach's efficient direction, set up chairs and tables around the fire and a very nice spread of fruits, cheeses, cold chicken and wine was set out for them. Thingol motioned toward the chairs. “Come, have a seat.” He passed an apple to Celeborn. “Nimlach suggested this more intimate setting.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Celeborn told her while settling on his chair. He regarded his apple thoughtfully before continuing, “You are very kind to have suggested this. I don't think either one of us was ready for a formal meal at court today. I am sure Melian is very pleased with your diligence.”
Mablung spluttered his wine, Thingol choked on the piece of bread he was chewing and Nimlach's cheeks colored a very fetching pink. She answered, “I thank you, my Lord, for your kind words. Regarding Lady Melian, I should hope that she is happy with my diligence, but I have no way of knowing that.” She looked Celeborn straight in the eyes before saying, “I have never met her.”
Thingol cleared his throat. “Oh, yes, Celeborn... about Melian.” His eyes were regarding his bread very carefully as if he expected to find a treasure buried in its depths. “I haven't seen her since I returned from The Halls.”
Celeborn's heart started beating fast. He grasped his apple hard to stop his traitorous hand from shaking, thus revealing his emotional upheaval. All those feelings he thought long buried came to the fore with renewed strength. His throat burned, he felt on the verge of tears. He swallowed hard, annoyed to have lost control of his emotions and asked, “Why?”
Thingol smiled ruefully. “She fell in love with someone else.”
The silence following that declaration was deafening. Nimlach stood, walked toward Elrohir and gave him the brightest of smiles. “Would you like to come and see the gardens? They are breathtaking at this time of the day.”
Elrohir gave her a slight bow and rose to accompany her. Before leaving the room Elrohir stopped next to his grandfather. “Take care,” he said in the softest of voices.
Celeborn, who had lost all appetite, placed his now bruised apple aside, grasped his grandson's hand between his own, and nodded. “I will.”
Mablung took hisleave and went with Elrohir and his daughter to see the gardens. Celeborn had half a mind to run after his grandson and his newfound friends, but he resisted the urge. He was Celeborn, the Wise, and he'd be damned if he'd run from this conversation.
“So, your marriage vows have been rescinded?” Celeborn asked after a few minutes of unbearable silence.
“Indeed, they have,” Thingol answered. “It was quite the scandal. She fell in love with some other Maia and had been living with him for quite a long time before my return. It broke my heart that she'd blindsided me as she did, but I have gotten over it. I truly hope she is happy.”
Celeborn stood up and started pacing. “This is madness. You can't just break your marriage vows!”
Thingol snorted. “Isn't that exactly what you did?”
“No... yes... I don't know. Nothing formal has been decided,” Celeborn replied. “I loved Galadriel”
“Then why are you so flustered about my marriage having ended?” Thingol asked. “And so you know, I also loved Melian, for a long, long time.”
“I know you did, at least I hope you did. You abandoned me for her!”
Thingol's breathing was harsh. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing, “I still love her, but not in the same way of those former years. I know what I did, how shocking it must had been for you to have me come back to you madly in love as I was with her, to have put you aside so selfishly and for that I am sorry. I never intended to hurt you. Forgive me.”
Celeborn came to Thingol's chair and braced his arms on the armrests, leaving him no escape. He lowered his voice. “Damn it, Thingol! You broke my heart into a million pieces. It took forever to put it back together and it was never the same. Then I met Galadriel and I came back to life, but it was too short... our happiness, our love ran its course fast and hot and then there was nothing but her relentless pursuit for power.” He backed away, dropped on the chair nearest Thingol and cradled his head in his hands.
Celeborn felt the intense heat of Thingol's gaze. He looked up as Thingol asked him, “Has it truly ended?”
He could only bring himself to nod.
Later that evening Celeborn and Elrohir were together in one of the bathing chambers of the palace. While soaking in water perfumed with scented oils, Celeborn was going through an interrogation worthy of the best henchmen at Orthanc, performed with as much grace. Elrohir's forthrightness was always most evident when he was trying to figure things out. Celeborn had gotten used to such tactics during the years they'd spent together. As a matter of fact, Celeborn welcomed it over the usual dissembling other people used when trying to get the truth.
“And Thingol used to be your lover?”
Celeborn rolled his eyes. “You could say that.”
Elrohir was combing his long, sable hair. Celeborn noticed his grandson was putting more interest into his grooming today than he had all the time they have been living together in what used to be Imladris.
“Before you met grandmother? Isn't he your first cousin?”
“Yes, to both counts, but in those days it hardly mattered. We really were outside the influence of the Valar.”
“Are you in love with him now?” Elrohir asked.
Celeborn took a deep breath. There was no point in trying to hide it, so he decided to be completely honest. “I never really stopped loving him, and before you ask, yes, I did love your grandmother. I still do, but I don't really think our relationship could be repaired.”
“But your relationship with Thingol can be mended,” Elrohir said in a droll tone
Celeborn splashed water in Elrohir's smirking face. “No, I did not say that. I don't know... as a matter of fact, let's talk about Nimlach.”
Elrohir's cheeks flushed scarlet. “What about her?”
Celeborn's lips curled into a smug smile. He had successfully managed to divert Elrohir's attention, which was beyond anything he had achieved before. “Mablung won't let you trifle with her heart, so if you truly are not interested it would be best if you just told her the truth.”
“I don't know what you're talking about, old relic,” Elrohir answered.
Celeborn smacked Elrohir's middle with a wet washcloth. “In all the years we lived together and even before when you came to visit us in Lorien, I never saw you pay any attention to any woman. So, I am asking you now, what is it you think you are doing to this poor girl by encouraging her affections?”
Elrohir, who had been perusing the red mark on his belly to avoid Celeborn's gaze, finally looked up. “Honestly? I don't know. I just know I like her smile and how good she smells.”
“The same could have been said of a number of women in Lothlůrien or Imladris,” Celeborn pointed out. “Yet, you sought companionship only from men.”
Elrohir laughed. “Well, I never said I wasn't attracted to women. I just never paid any attention to them previously because, first, no one of really caught my eye, and second, I did not want to encourage father in one of his matchmaking schemes. Not to mention that I had an abundance of willing partners. I like men just as well.”
“Well, there goes my theory about twins and their sexual preferences,” Celeborn replied. He stood up and wrung out his hair. “I thought you'd settle down with a warrior as your brother did.”
“Well, it is too early to say I won't,” Elrohir replied. He stepped out of the pool and handed his grandfather a towel. “But I won't lie, I like her very much.”
Galadriel arrived a week after his arrival to Tol EressŽa. Thingol had summoned her as soon as the ship carrying him from Middle-Earth had been sighted. Celeborn expected their meeting to be fraught with emotional outbursts and recriminations, but that was not the case. As a matter of fact their separation had given them some much needed perspective. Still, seeing her after all those years made his heart ache for their loss. He had never been immune to her beauty and in his eyes it had increased instead tenfold as the years passed. They were having lunch in Nimlach's exquisitely tended gardens when that much dreaded conversation took place.
Galadriel spoke first. “I am not one to dissemble with empty words and pretty lies, Celeborn. I know I've hurt you. I know that by accepting the responsibility of being a ring bearer I also accepted the isolation that came with it.”
Celeborn took both her hands in his. “You did what needed to be done.” He brought one of those delicate hands to his mouth and placed a kiss on the back of her immaculate fingers. “I also made many mistakes.”
She looked into his eyes. “I don't think we could go back to what we were. Not without destroying my heart with the knowledge of what I've sacrificed. In some ways, I am broken beyond repair.”
Celeborn's eyes filled with tears. “I should have taken better care of you.”
“I should have let you,” she told him before placing a soft kiss on his lips.
The next morning he watched her once again sail away into the mist. Only this time hope, not bitterness, filled his heart. He hoped that by giving her freedom she would be able to find her happiness. He also hoped to find his own.
A month went by before Celeborn was able to seek Thingol out. He took advantage of AvallonŽ's court life and let himself be swept into endless meetings and formal dinners, thus maintaining his safety from any private exchanges with Thingol. They were quite alone in the palace, Mablung, Nimlach and Elrohir having left for the continent the previous week in order to pay a visit to Elrohir's parents. Their courtship seemed to be developing rather fast, but Celeborn trusted his grandson, and Nimlach was wise beyond her years.
His self-preservation instinct demanded caution; also, his heart was recovering from having given his final farewell to his lover and companion of many years. It seemed proper. But aside from all that, Celeborn was scared shitless. Even unattached as he was, Thingol had never intimated that he wanted Celeborn back. After asking a few of the servants around the castle for Thingol's whereabouts, he found him in the library perusing one of his beloved scrolls.
“There you are,” Thingol said by way of greeting. “I was wondering when you'd come looking for me.”
Celeborn, nettled by Thingol's confidence, blurted out, “Well, aren't you the cockiest bastard I've ever known.”
Thingol set his scroll on the small table next to his chair. He watched Celeborn for a few seconds before saying, “Have a seat Celeborn, and stop being so wretched. You wouldn't be here if you had no interest in pursuing a relationship with me, and if I didn't have any reason to hope for your affections, you also wouldn't be here.”
He sat on the chair next to Thingol and took a deep breath before asking, “How do you figure I'd want you back?”
“You would have left Tol EressŽa long ago if you didn't,” Thingol said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Your mere presence here has given my confidence an immense boost.”
He gave Thingol a reluctant smile. “True.”
Thingol rose from his chair and offered his hand to Celeborn. “Come,” he said. “Let us take a stroll in the gardens.” Celeborn accepted his offer and they made their way toward the gardens at a slow, measured pace. They were quiet, each of them enjoying the other's company. The air outside was redolent with the aroma of jasmine and wild roses and the sound of the waves breaking in the distance proved to be a soothing melody for Celeborn's fraying nerves.
He was the first one to break the silence. “Tell me about Mablung. How come he is here with you in Tol EressŽa instead of serving in OlwŽ's court, and why is his wife not with him?”
“Oh, Elbereth!” Thingol exclaimed. “You really have no idea, do you?”
“Well, I've just been living on the other side of the world for the past four ages, old codger. How am I supposed to know?” Celeborn said rolling his eyes. All this easy camaraderie made his heart give a little jump, for this is what they had once shared. To see it return in full force gave his soul some much needed solace for it meant that a future with Thingol was not a farfetched reality.
“Old codger? Me?” Thingol replied in mock anger. “For your information, this island is full of my good brother OlwŽ's rejects. See, if we don't fall under the standards of exemplary Valinorian behavior, we are shipped over here to live in a kind of exile, so we don't become an embarrassment to his illustrious court. Mablung doesn't have a wife.”
“No, he never has. You can imagine what happens to people who come back from the Halls after millennia of being incorporeal, they come out starved for physical stimulation and affection. Also, it is quite disconcerting to one day find yourself in front of the Encircling Seas, naked and disoriented. The pilgrimage back to civilization is quite harrowing. Not many Valinorians are inclined to help those who have passed through the Halls,” Thingol explained. “Once he was able to find his kin after the long trek from Mandos's Hall, and securing his position at OlwŽ's court, Mablung went out into the town and got drunk. It also happened to be Fair day in AlqualondŽ and there were many Lyndyn beauties around from all over Aman.”
“I don't like where this is going,” Celeborn muttered.
“Oh yes, he went to bed with one of them. She expected him to marry her and move with her to her village deep into OromŽ's woods. He, of course, refused, having always lived at court and having no intention of going 'native' as he called it. He pleaded, but as you well know, Lyndyn women are very independent and they also do not care for the trappings of court life. A week after their argument she slipped from his rooms never to be seen again. A year later a small basket was delivered to Mablung's quarters in OlwŽ's palace, baby Nimlach was in it. OlwŽ shipped Mablung out to Tol EressŽa within the month. They have lived with me ever since.”
“I can imagine OlwŽ's face when he found out,” Celeborn said while trying to supress a chuckle.
“Oh, it was very bad. Not only is Nimlach one of the last people to be born in Aman, but by the time that happened, Galadriel was back from Middle-Earth, alone, with no husband in tow and with the weariness of someone who has borne the weight of the world on her shoulders,” Thingol said in a soft tone. “She is a most remarkable woman.”
“I hope he didn't cause her any grief.”
Thingol raised a well shaped eyebrow at that last utterance. “You do not know Galadriel well if you think she'd let herself be cowed by her grandfather.”
They laughed at this, and once the hilarity ebbed, they stood facing each other. Celeborn's breath hitched in his chest. The light of the fading sun settled on Thingol's hair making it look like liquid mithril, and beams of unearthly light seem to radiate from his face. His gazed locked onto Thingol's lips and before he knew it, Thingol was kissing him with the passion and desperation of a man who, long denied water, had the fortune of finding a oasis with a crystalline stream.
“Stay with me,” Thingol pleaded breathlessly. “Give me a chance to make you happy.”
“I intend to,” was all Celeborn said before kissing Thingol again.