Disclaimer: I do not own Tolkien's works.
Many thanks to Linda Hoyland and to Zopyrus for the beta. :)
Warning for mature themes and references to violence.
Dance on the Thunder
Sam wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and took his walking stick from beside the coat hanger. Elanor had not returned from her evening stroll, and the sky was darkening. He tried to think of the relief he would feel when he found her, of his contrived, mundane worry that she would have missed the dinner he had spent all afternoon preparing in their humid kitchen.
"The Shire's a safe place," he thought. "We leave our doors unlocked for a reason. There ain't no shadows to fear."
Fat drops of rain began to tap on the round windows. Growing even more anxious, Sam reached for the door. It swung open the next moment and almost collided with his nose. Elanor stood before him, curls flecked with raindrops and two bright spots on her round cheeks. In her dirt-stained hands was a figure of a galloping pony, wrought of green vine.
Sam had no time to think about the figure. His worry dissipated, and he released a loud breath. "Where have you been?" he said, as Elanor stepped in and shook out her hair. "I was about to go looking for you."
"I'm sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all. She put her nose in the air and sniffed. "Is that chicken pie? It smells glorious."
Sam always marvelled at how his daughter managed to switch topics in mid-air, the way a person would stop while out on a stroll and turn heel. He knew she did not do it deliberately to annoy him; it was merely how she was. Her mind always seemed to be occupied with some thought or idea, until she discovered something more interesting. "Did you go to the woods?" he asked. The edge of Bindbole Wood was one of her favourite haunts.
"I did. I got lost," she said proudly, her eyes gleaming.
Sam tried to understand how she found getting lost enjoyable. After the war, he himself had grown averse to perilous things like that; he despised uncertainty. "Next time, if you want to go into the woods, I'll accompany you," he said in his sternest tone, which was not terribly stern at all. To appear more imposing, he put his hands on his hips and scowled in what he hoped was a stern manner.
Elanor grinned. "I would love that! Can we bring Mother, as well?"
Sam rubbed the space between his brows. He couldn't decide if he felt annoyance or affection.
Suddenly he remembered the pony figure. A brief glance told him it was too elaborate for her to have made; only an elvish craftsman – or an otherwise bizarrely talented being – could have created it. "Where'd you get that?" he said, gesturing towards Elanor's hands.
She held up the figure. The soft light from the chandelier caught in the vines and gave it a strange, ethereal glow. Sam was not sure if he was afraid; he was certainly intrigued. "An elf gave it to me," Elanor said, chin raised as if she dared him to not believe her. "He was so very tall and had bright, sad eyes – so sad they could drown the sea."
That did sound sufficiently elf-like, Sam decided. Especially the part about the eyes. He wondered if the elf was from Rivendell, and what business he had wandering around the Shire. "Now, what did he give that toy to you for?" he asked. "And what was his name?"
"I don't know," said Elanor. "He was sitting by a tree and I stopped and admired the horse. He didn't smile, but I wasn't afraid of him, not one bit. He asked if I was lost and I said yes, and he took me back to the edge of the woods. Then he just gave me the pony and told me not to get lost again. I wanted him to pet my head the way Mummy does, because he was an elf, but he didn't."
She sounded so disappointed that Sam reached over and ruffled her hair. He wondered, briefly, if the elf still lingered somewhere in the woods, whether he minded being around Hobbits, and if he was part of a company. The memory of Gildor came to him unbidden and he chewed his lower lip, recalling that night they had spent together, drinking, laughing, chattering like larks. Frodo's smile had been wide and warm and true.
A lump rose in Sam's throat, and for a moment he allowed himself to be swallowed by loathing for the dark things in the world. He trundled into the kitchen stove and began to fiddle with the pots and pans under the guise of cleaning up.
It took Sam three days and a pint of ale to break down and investigate the woods himself.
Autumn had settled into the Shire like a slow sigh. The air was thick with the scent of decaying leaves, and every twig was dripping with dew. Sam sauntered along, choosing to stay off the beaten path, idly swinging his walking stick. He was so taken with the reds and yellows and purples around him that he almost forgot he had come to the woods with a purpose.
In a small clearing he found a bright beam of afternoon light that had filtered through the canopy and touched the earth. Grinning, he cupped his hand underneath it, pretending he could catch the sun.
Sam sneezed, and fumbled in his trouser pocket for his handkerchief. To his dismay, he found it was not there. "I must have dropped it somewhere," he thought miserably. Rosie had embroidered that thing herself, and had painstakingly created an intricate daisy design along the edges. Sam carried it everywhere he went.
He turned around, ready to trudge back home, and only just managed to suppress a squeal when he found a tall stranger in a tattered cloak standing a few feet away from him. His hood was drawn over his head, and his face was cast in shadows. How had he managed to steal towards Sam without making a sound? Was he a remnant of Saruman's servants?
Sam's heart began to pound. Blood rushed in his ears. He did not have his knife, and doubted he could use his walking stick to defend himself.
But the stranger only held up his hand, in which happened to be Sam's handkerchief. "Is this yours?" His voice rasped like nails on a board, whether with disuse or age, Sam did not know. It recalled to Sam lurid tales of battle and bloodshed and vengeful spirits that Bilbo had whispered to him as a child – and yet, underneath all that, there was a languid rhythm of the melancholic songs that elves so often sang. In that moment Sam knew, in the same way he knew the evening star was Eärendil on Vingilot, that this stranger was the elf his daughter had encountered.
"It is," Sam said, wondering whether he ought to bow or merely retrieve the handkerchief. In the end he did both, quite awkwardly. He gave his name and then said, "Thank you for your help, Master...?" He trailed off, wondering what sort of name this elf had. Sam guessed, for some reason, it was either something rather grand, or disarmingly plain; by his air, this stranger did not seem to settle for any in-betweens.
The elf did not offer a name, but merely stood there, still as a statue, as if he was part of the scenery. Sam decided he had never encountered an elf quite as grim as this one. "I'd need to call you something, Master Elf, beggin' your pardon, if I'm going to be seein' you around."
"You will not, Master Hobbit. I do not plan to remain here much longer."
Sam knew that asking whys and hows did not always work with elves. "Will you be going to Rivendell, then, or perhaps Lórien?"
There was a short silence. "No."
Sam raised his eyebrows; he had not expected that response. "Where else is there to go? Do you plan to sail to the West?"
"No." His tone was abrupt and final, a door being shut and bolted.
"You ask too many questions, Master Hobbit."
Sam had cast all concern for his bodily integrity onto the wayside. This elf seemed ominous, in the way magic doors and ancient jewellery were ominous – but not dangerous. Not really. Sam was more curious than afraid, and decided to trust his instinct. "Well, Master Elrond always approved of questions, no matter how many I cared to ask."
The elf jolted. Then his shoulders drooped somewhat. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and Sam noticed that he wore no shoes.
"How was...how was Elrond, the last time you saw him?" said the elf. The tenderness that crept into his tone pulled at Sam's heart. It was a tone he'd seen fathers use with their wayward sons; but the fair Eärendil was the evening star, and this elf's hair was dark as soot.
Pushing his wandering thoughts away, Sam said, "Some years ago, it was, when he sailed for Valinor. He seemed happy - or rather content. He smiled, but he'd miss his children, of course." He scuffed at the ground with his toe, embarrassed at talking so freely with a stranger. "I think he wanted to meet his dear wife again."
Unexpectedly, the elf cast back his hood, revealing a gaunt face and streaks of frost in his matted hair. His eyes...his eyes made Sam want to grab his hand and drag him back to Bag End and keep him safe. They were at once hollow, devoid of warmth, and yet shone with a bright flame that seemed not of this world. "Oh," whispered Sam. "Oh, you...you're one of those High Elves." How many of them were left in Middle-Earth? Numbness sank into Sam's bones. "You are from Valinor. You..." No. He was dreaming. He had met legends, somehow, despite being a mere gardener, but encountering myth was another matter. "You are Fëanor's son."
Maglor. Foster-father to Elrond and Elros. The greatest minstrel and poet of the elves.
Sam was rooted to the spot. He did not know whether to run, or to stay and ask more questions so he could put the answers in a book. For a moment his vision was washed in scarlet, and images of carcasses and crows and unseeing eyes flickered through his mind. A small, dark, desperate part of him wanted to rush forward in a frenzy and just kill. His fingers twitched, and his breathing grew erratic. How could such a despicable thing be standing before him? How could they have been making pleasant conversation but a moment earlier?
Maglor gave a grim half-smile. "I am paying my price yet, Master Hobbit," he said. "Killing me now would end my pain, and I am quite sure neither of us wants that."
"I wouldn't kill you if I could," said Sam with a sneer. "I'm not like you."
"That is well, for the world needs less of my kind."
Sam took a slow breath, and put a hand over his brow, as if that would help his racing thoughts. "Why did you help my daughter?"
"She was lost."
"Why'd you give her the figure?"
Maglor shrugged. "I made it out of idleness. I had no use for it." He smiled again, the corners of his eyes fanning into crinkles. Sam was terrified, because in that moment Maglor appeared kind and gentle and fatherly. He appeared normal, just another fellow one might encounter at an inn. "Did she like it?" he asked brightly.
Sam curled his lip.
"I am glad she did." Maglor drew his hood over his head again. He turned, as if he were about to leave.
The forest seemed to grow still around them; an odd silence hung in the air, thick and smothering like a heavy velvet curtain. Sam drew his hand across his brow and took a deep breath. What was wrong with him? When had he allowed his anger to overwhelm his reason? Heavens, what would Master Frodo say? He clutched the fabric of his shirt over his thudding heart, chewing his lower lip. "Wait," he said, "don't leave."
"You really must learn to decide how you feel about people," Maglor said, but turned back to Sam.
Sam put his hands on his hips. "I have decided. I've decided you're good at heart, Master Elf, and have been wound around fate's little finger like a string."
Maglor barked a laugh, the sound harsh against the silence of the forest. He placed a hand over his stomach, as if he were not used to the feeling. Sam suppressed the urge to step back; there was something disconcerting about someone who had forgotten laughter. "That was a good laugh," he said at length. "I have not laughed in a long time." He closed his eyes and let his head fall back, exposing the sharp line of his throat. "I would damn you, but I am not qualified to damn."
"Beggin' your pardon – "
"Begging yours, Master Hobbit," Maglor said, dropping his head down again, "good is not a thing you are. It is a thing you do." He brushed his hands together, like a fly, quick and jittery. "And some things are not redeemable."
"Everything's redeemable," Sam said. But he felt as if he were hanging onto the edge of a cliff by a finger.
Maglor tugged his cloak about his shoulders, though there was no wind. "Let us test that statement. If I killed your daughter, would you forgive me, even if you lived forever?"
Sam sucked in a sharp breath. He didn't have enough time to be angry, to take his stick and lash out, because almost immediately Maglor continued, "Ah, there. I know that look." He turned his palms up. They were wrinkled cardboard cut outs, cobwebbed with fine cracks that were stained a faint red. Sam found that he could not rip his eyes away, though bile rose in his throat at the sight.
"You see," Maglor said, slipping his hands underneath his cloak, "most people can forgive if they are the ones who have been hurt. If their loved ones have been hurt? Not so much. And it is no fault of theirs; forgiveness is not an obligation." He gave an almost imperceptible shrug. "That is what I think."
"You're out of your mind."
"Oh, come, now. You will make me laugh again, and then I will grow annoyed. Murderers are not insane; merely deluded."
"That line's a bit thin, if I may say so."
"I am not sure I agree."
"I'm wonderin', an' it's giving me the worstest headache," Sam said, rubbing his eyes, "how the good Master Elrond put up with you."
Maglor blinked, giving the vague impression of someone who has just stepped out of a dark room. Perplexity looked out of place on him. "I was not aware he put up with me."
Sam had only the pale memory of Elrond's eyes to trust, akin to a fleeting reflection in clear glass. "He loves you." It was a gamble he was willing to take.
There was a pause, during which Maglor pursed his lips. Then he bowed his head, as though burdened by an immense weight. "I hope you are lying," he said in a soft voice.
"I ain't," said Sam. "There are lots of things I am, but a filthy liar ain't one of 'em. I leave that to rascals and twisted not-Hobbits."
"Do you, now?"
Sam hated the sureness in Maglor's tone. "You could've spoken with him before he sailed."
"I should leave," Maglor said, beginning to turn away.
"But you wanted to punish yourself, didn't you? You thought, I won't meet him or kiss his cheek or anything, because I don't deserve it. Poor Master Elrond must've been knocked sideways; probably felt the brains rattle in his skull. I tell you, I ain't never met such a selfish creature as you."
Maglor closed his eyes and shook his head, once, as if he was being fed a tired argument. "You do not understand."
"That's true; I don't," Sam said. "I just realised somethin', and it ain't pretty. There's elves and elves, as I say – and then there's you. A right piece of work."
"A keen observation. I should learn from you."
Sam felt his cheeks grow hot.
"But I am glad I met you, Master Gamgee," Maglor said. And there, there was that stupid, rueful smile again, a paltry remnant of gentleness and family and home. "You have a stout heart, and remind me of what this world could be if people tried."
"Why don't you come over for tea?" That's it, Sam thought, I'm crazier than he is.
Maglor blinked, and his smile disappeared. "What?"
"Are you deaf?" Sam snapped. "I ain't askin' twice." He crossed his arms over his chest and planted his feet firmly apart, daring Maglor to say no, daring him to say yes, daring him to react at all. He was not sure why he did that, but Maglor looked stupefied enough to satisfy him.
Maglor pinched the space between his brows, releasing a soft sigh. "You will damn me no matter what my answer is."
"I'll damn you less if you accept."
Maglor shook his head, looked to the sky, and then back down at Sam. His expression – if one could call it that, because it was all in his eyes – was worth more than all the gold in Bag End. At length he shrugged, holding up his palms in a placating manner, and said, "If you insist."
Sam swung his walking stick over his shoulder, and then placed it on the ground again. "You'll follow me, then, Ma – " He paused, turning pink. "Can I use your name?"
Something flashed in Maglor's eyes, and was gone as swiftly. "You may."
"Right then. Maglor. Come with me; it's not too far from here." Sam began to walk back towards the path, acutely aware of the weight of Maglor's gaze on his back. He dabbed at the sweat on his upper lip with the back of his hand. "The place is small for folk like you, so don't bump your head on the ceiling."
"I don't even know if you like tea."
"I will take whatever you give me."
"You'll wash your feet in the stream before you come in."
"Don't you frighten my daughter with old bogey stories."
"No, that would be your job. I can make things sound pretty."
Sam stopped and looked at him. Maglor may as well have been a faded painting on a wall; his expression was that of one unwilling to disclose the smallest morsel of feeling. In the forest he appeared odd, flat amid the tall trees brimming with life.
"I can leave if you are reconsidering your idea."
"No," Sam said, turning back. "For some reason, I don't think I could sleep tonight otherwise." To his own surprise, he was being nothing but honest.
"So, this is for you?"
Sam could hear the wry smile in his voice. He had never before met an elf who made him want to punch holes in things. "Right, your mouth? Close it." He found himself growing irked when he did not hear another word.
He led Maglor out of the forest, along the sun-drenched road. A crisp breeze blew past and played with their hair, and Sam breathed deeply, tilting his head towards the clear sky.
Maglor had an uncanny ability to remain unobtrusive despite being so tall; they received few stares and fewer glowers. Only a pair of children scuttled by, shrieked with delight, and pointed at them. When they arrived at Bag End, Sam opened the newly re-painted door and stepped aside, and Maglor bent his knees to peer in, tilting his head this way and that. "I always wondered what it would be like to live in a doll's house," he said in a somewhat strained voice. He was gazing at the chandelier on the ceiling, and his neck was bent at an awkward angle. "I suppose that childhood fantasy will be satisfied soon."
"It won't if you keep talking," Sam said, and ushered him inside.