Disclaimer: I own nothing but an '89 Caddy Eldorado with a broken tape deck, and you're welcome to it.
The Fall of Night Part 1
"They are so beautiful," Lalaith murmured in awe as she helped her grandmother from the cart, her gaze lingering first on one elf, then another. "Nana, how is it possible?"
"Well, first of all, you've always been easily impressed," Naurë told her with a grin, then sighed when no answering smile was forthcoming. Her granddaughter was ever solemn—an unfortunate inheritance from her Rohirrim mother. Naurë knew she shouldn't have let her son marry a sourpuss from Edoras…
But even though it might be far too late to mourn her son's poor choice of mate, she might still be able to hold some sway over her granddaughter. Ever since Elrond had invited her to Rivendell, she had been uneasy about having Lalaith accompany her. The girl was serious, and most naïve in the ways of the world. She didn't understand the duplicity of Man, and Naurë feared the Elven predilection for flirtation and wit would confuse the straightforward, uncomplicated Lalaith into making bad decisions with her life.
And more importantly, with her heart. Naurë knew how susceptible Lalaith was to beauty—there was little enough of it in Bree these days, and even the old woman had to admit that the elves that surrounded them, tall and strong and so very handsome, were enchantingly beautiful.
"Beautiful is empty, Lalaith," she told the young woman with uncharacteristic solemnity. "Beautiful loves no one, it will strip you until regret is all that is left." She squeezed her granddaughter's smooth, young hands in her own gnarled, aged ones. "Be you careful."
That being said, Naurë peered past the girl with a gaze as sharp as they'd been three-quarters of a century ago, searching among the sea of blond heads for a dark one. "Elrond! My old eyes are gladdened to rest upon you."
The elf stepped forward and bent without hesitation to drop a kiss on the withered cheek. "Naurë, you honour me," he replied, and smiled. "Have you brought some of your family for me to meet at last?"
"I have," she affirmed, and gestured to Lalaith. "This is my granddaughter Lalaith, youngest child of my youngest child." The girl stepped forward and performed a curtsey
"She is named 'laughter'?" he asked, the faintest touch of doubt in his voice as he looked thoughtfully at her. Her face was sober and her eyes, while intelligent and curious, held not the sparkle of wit and amusement that were ever-present in her grandmother's.
Naurë sighed. "My son was blessed with an unfortunate sense of irony," she replied. "Lalaith is a fine woman, but I despair of ever seeing her smile." She leaned closer to the elf to whisper confidingly, "I even tried getting her drunk, but all she did was fall asleep."
Elrond began to laugh helplessly. "It has been far too long since your last visit, meldisamin [my friend]."
"I agree," she said, taking the proffered elbow and leaning upon it, allowing him to help her walk. She slid a sharp glance at him. "If you have missed me so, why then has this invitation been so long in coming?"
Elrond laughed. "I could make the excuse that elves do not so easily see the time slip by, but you would not allow that, would you?"
Naurë laughed too, a dry sound that drew the attention of many around them. "You know me well, my lord."
"I doubt even an elf could live long enough to know you well, Naurë," he demurred, and she barked out another laugh.
"Ha! I am but a simple woman, my lord," she told him. "My needs and desires are few—a warm bed, a full belly, and—" she squinted across the courtyard at an elf who had just entered on the other side. "Haldir?"
"Haldir is one of your simple needs?" Elrond asked slyly.
"Haldir is indeed simple," Naurë replied, just as sly. "But I fear the only itch he would be able to scratch faded many years ago, along with any small beauty I might have had." They both threw back their heads and roared with laughter.
"Why is it that you two always sound like witches cackling over an evil brew when you are together?" Haldir asked when he met them in the middle of the courtyard,
"We only cackle when we're making fun of you, Guardian of Lorien," Naurë told him with a grin.
"Then I must truly be a font of amusement," the march-warden said, bowing over her hand. "Because the pair of you never fail to sound like a clutch of brooding hens." His blue eyes flicked past to the girl standing behind them. "Are you aware that you are being followed?"
"This is my granddaughter, Lalaith," Naurë said, "and you will not fall in love with her. One humourless stump in the family is quite enough, I could not bear it if I had to gaze upon your unsmiling face the rest of my few years."
Haldir shot her an odd look, and bowed over Lalaith's hand as she curtseyed to him. "I do not think there is any fear of that, Naurë," he said when he'd straightened to his full height, and graced her with one of his sweet, rare smiles. "You know my heart has always belonged to you."
Naurë laughed then, a strong laugh that sounded remarkably young, and exchanged Elrond's arm for Haldir's. "You are good for an old woman," she told him. "Even if you are shamefully dishonest." He began to lead her away but she stopped and addressed Elrond. "We are not done yet, sir elf," she told him, and he bowed.
"I am ever at your disposal, madam," he told her with mock deference, and she cackled again as she and Haldir walked away, the tall elf shortening his stride to match her arthritic one.
Lalaith was feeling very close to being overwhelmed by her surroundings. Rivendell was amazingly lovely, its plants so green and lush, its river so silver and sparkling, its buildings so graceful and organic in the way they nestled into the trees and rocks.
And its people… she sighed with unconscious appreciation. Never in her life had she imagined that living creatures could be so exquisite, their every movement an exercise in liquid grace. She had always been considered somewhat attractive, but surrounded by these divine-looking elves she was feeling very self-conscious indeed, and tried to brush the travel dust from her gown with one hand as she attempted to smooth her wind-rumpled hair with the other.
"Do not fret," said a deep voice, and she looked up to see Elrond smiling at her. "A bath awaits you. We are aware of the hardships of travel, and do you not judge you because of the dust."
Lalaith nodded and slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow when he offered. "Your home is breathtaking," she told Elrond. "Thank you so much for sharing it with us."
"Naurë is always welcome here," he said simply. "As are you."
She nodded again. "You are most kind."
"Not at all," he insisted gently, pushing open a door and waving her through. "Her skills at healing have made her a valuable ally, and her personality has made her a valuable friend." His gaze moved over her face a long moment. "You have much the look of her in her youth," he said at last. "It is difficult seeing her…" Elrond's voice faded away.
"So old?" Lalaith supplied. "Yes." The last decade had not been kind to her Nana; the deaths of both her children had weighed heavily on a body that no longer boasted the strength and resilience of youth. "It troubles me, as well, that her last years are upon her."
Elrond stopped at a door of dark, intricately carved wood with brass filigree framing the central knob. "Then glad I am that she has come to Rivendell one last time." He opened the door and gestured inward. "This is your room; if anything is not to your liking, you have only to say it."
"I'm sure it will be perfect," she replied, and curtseyed her thanks. He bowed and left her, and she closed the door softly before turning to survey her surroundings. The walls were plastered a soft, creamy colour, and the fan-vaults reaching to the ceiling were shaped like tree branches. Coloured glass sparkled in the windows, and jewel-shades of light cascaded over the floor, which glowed with age and cleanliness.
Lalaith barely had time to notice the large, inviting bed against the far wall when there was a soft knock at the door. Answering it, she found a female elf standing there, her arms loaded with towels, a cube of soap, and crystal bottles filled with pearlescent liquid.
"I am Aerlinn," she introduced herself. "I will help you refresh yourself, and then guide you to the hall for the feast." She stepped inside the room and gestured to the elves behind her, who carried a large wooden tub. "For your bath," Aerlinn explained.
Almost before she knew it, Lalaith had been stripped of her dirty travelling gown and pushed gently into the tub of steaming tub. Herbs and scented oils were poured into the water, making it silky, and Lalaith sank gratefully into it, sighing when Aerlinn began to wash her hair.
"Was the journey difficult?" Aerlinn asked companionably.
"Not difficult, but long," Lalaith replied. She never wanted to get out of the tub, ever. "Nana travels well for her age, but still, it is hard to watch her be jolted in the cart, and harder still to see her pain in the mornings after sleeping on the ground."
"I could not imagine the anguish you must feel at seeing your beloved family age and die," Aerlinn said, and Lalaith knew the elf meant it kindly, but could not repress a wince at the bluntness of the words.
"It is part of life," she said at last, scrubbing the last of herself with a soapy cloth. The entire room smelled of flowers and rain, but the turn of the conversation prevented it from being soothing. "It cannot be avoided."
"It seems so hopeless," Aerlinn murmured, sluicing clean water over Lalaith's hair. "How do you bear it?"
Lalaith stood and let wash off the suds that clung to her body. "There is no alternative," she replied with a shrug. "What else is there to do, but bear it?" She thought a moment. "It makes each day more precious."
Aerlinn handed Lalaith a towel, and took one herself to begin drying the woman's hair. "Humans are stronger and more resilient than I had thought," she said at last, and smiled. It was like the sun breaking over the horizon. "I am glad to know you, Lalaith."
Lalaith nodded. "And I you, Aerlinn." It was true. Lalaith knew little of elfkind, and this conversation had been most enlightening to her. She doubted she would enjoy eternal life, if it made a person so fragile that one couldn't bear the most basic of facts.
Aerlinn opened the door and, in a show of strength at odds with her fragile beauty, dragged in the trunk that had been deposited outside. Opening it, she began to rifle through the clothing within. "Have you a particular gown in mind?" she asked.
Lalaith considered. All her garments were practical and sturdy, made for longevity, not splendor. Unfortunately, they looked it, and she felt a pang of dismay she hadn't made more of an effort to outfit herself more attractively. Looking at Aerlinn, she saw too that the elf was wearing a gown of extreme simplicity, but the lines of it were very flattering. Perhaps during her stay in Rivendell, she could re-cut and re-sew her gowns…
She sighed. "The green, I think," she said at last. "It's the least ugly."
Aerlinn giggled. "We are of a similar height and shape," she said. "I will fetch you one of my gowns for tonight, and tomorrow we will see what can be done with these." Her expression didn't hold much hope.
"Oh, no—" Lalaith began, but Aerlinn was already flitting from the room. Lalaith sighed and slumped onto the edge of the bed, rubbing a towel through her hair until it was mostly dry. She was combing out the tangles when Aerlinn returned.
In her arms was a gorgeous confection of a dress—light pink underdress with flowers and butterflies embroidered all over in white silk thread, and an overdress in coral velvet, embossed round the very full sleeves with ivy. "I could not dare," Lalaith breathed, but Aerlinn waved aside her protests.
"It will look better on you than it ever did on me," she said breezily, and tugged the underdress over Lalaith's head. "Your dark hair will be much finer on the rose-pink than my pale mess." She pushed a flawlessly smooth lock of platinum over her shoulder and reached for the overdress.
"Now for your hair," she announced, and took control of the comb. "Braids, or no braids?"
"Perhaps just one," Lalaith conceded, and Aerlinn's nimble fingers began parting and sorting the heavy, barely-damp hair. She wove it into a loose but nevertheless intricate plait, and when she finally allowed the human to look in the mirror, beamed like a proud mother.
"I look…" Lalaith could barely speak, so amazed was she at the transformation.
"Breathtaking," Aerlinn finished. "Now help me get ready," she commanded, and Lalaith was more than happy to do so.
The elf had brought a gown of leaf-green silk that floated over the pearly-white lace underdress she donned. Lalaith helped her plait her hip-length silver-gilt hair into the traditional three braids. Declaring them ready to face the others, Aerlinn led the way out of the room.
Naurë was grateful for the hot bath, and sank onto the bed afterwards for a short nap. Feeling greatly refreshed when she awoke, she dressed with the help of an elf sent by Elrond for that purpose and was not surprised to find Haldir outside her door when she stepped outside.
"You will get a reputation for being a pervy old-lady fancier if you will insist on escorting me everywhere, Guardian," she teased him as she leaned on his arm.
"But it will do wonders for your reputation, will it not?" he shot back.
"That it will," she admitted with a cackle, and gripped his arm just a little tighter. She'd only met him once before, over thirty years ago, but their friendship had been instantaneous. In spite of his forbidding appearance and serious nature, she found he had a delightful, if sly, sense of humour than never failed to make her laugh even when the elves around them stared in puzzlement.
And he seemed to relish flirting with her, which was the best of all—no matter how Man liked to pretend that its old people were genderless and sexless, she knew that her mind was all too willing even if the flesh were weak. Ah, if only she were sixty years younger…
She spied her granddaughter being led into the hall by a lovely elf-maiden, and smiled. "I was almost as lovely as Lalaith in my youth," she told Haldir proudly as he led her to a table.
"Beautiful is empty, Naurë," he replied softly, helping her into a chair. "Is it not?" he asked when she started, and stared at him.
Naurë recovered, and grinned at him. "Stop reading my mind, Guardian." Elrond was making his way across the hall. "Be you gone," she instructed him.
He bowed and left, quickly replaced by Elrond. "So, you are feeling up to an evening of feasting and dancing?"
"Feasting, yes, indeed," she replied, and allowed him to fill her plate with delicious food from the platters placed before them. "Dancing? I highly doubt it." She peered more closely at him. "You are up to something."
"I?" he asked, his handsome face entirely too innocent as he popped a morsel of bread into his mouth. "Whatever can you mean?"
"Elrond, I have known you for almost seventy years. You trained me as a healer; we have worked closely for over half a century. I always know when you are up to something." She glared at him over the rim of her goblet.
He sighed dramatically and busied himself with buttering more bread. "Why could my apprentice not have been one of those particularly dull humans?" he asked no one in particular.
"Because you would have gutted me like a trout were I particularly dull, and well you know it," Naurë retorted, snatching the abused bread from his hands. "Now, tell me."
He turned to her excitedly, eyes sparkling with mischief. "My sons are returned home from their travails with the Dunedain."
"Glad I am to hear of their safe homecoming, my lord, but I fail to see—"
He cut her off. "If there are two elves in Middle-Earth who can make a person laugh, would it not be those two?"
Naurë was beginning to see what he was about. "And you think to set them upon my poor, unsuspecting granddaughter?" She searched the room for Lalaith. The girl was, as Naurë feared, seated with Elladan beside her and Elrohir across the table, with the pretty elf-maiden close by. Naurë shook her head at her friend. "I feel naught but pity for them, because it is a thankless and hopeless task," she said sadly.
Elrond cocked his head at her. "Would you care to make a wager on that?" he asked, entirely too casually.