Goldilocks and the Three Balrogs

Balrog the First

Disclaimer (1): I am not Tolkien and I do not own Middle-earth.

Disclaimer (2): Canon, hm. Always a tricky subject - especially with such characters as Glorfindel, for whom there are so many variant "canonical" backgrounds. This is merely my version, set circa 1000 Third Age...

He afterwards remembered the Halls of Mandos only as a metaphor.

Death had been... different. Some suggestion of nothingness clung to him, and the curious sensation of being wholly without form. He remembered a blaze of agony, a searing collision from nowhere that snatched breath away and hurled him into the timeless dark. That darkness had perhaps been spiritual rather than real. Without eyes, one did not see.

Death had not been lonely, though. Nor had it been silent. He remembered whispers in the dark and the closeness of mingling minds. He had come out of the heat and chill and chaos of the world – from the horror-filled sack of Gondolin, the smoking ruins of once-white walls and blackened fountains, dragon-withered – fleeing the fall of House and home, his lord and king, he had tumbled grief-struck into darkness – and found himself surrounded. Here were the lost and the abandoned, the mourned and the beloved. Here was his king, found again amid the whispering dark, and here was Ecthelion the Balrog-slayer. Here somewhere, so the whispering rumours said, was the traitor Maeglin, whose body had bounced three times upon the slopes of Amon Gwareth before falling into the flames below. Gondolin, a pyre for its betrayer! It was as well for Maeglin that the dead had no form in the Halls of Mandos.

Here was not Idril Celebrindal, King Turgon's daughter, nor her son Eärendil. Those who had gone into the dark with the fall of Gondolin took that as a reason to hope. Perhaps somewhere in Middle-earth some shattered fragments of glorious Gondolin still thrived.

All this he remembered, after he had been snatched back into daylight, as a metaphor for death. The truth was something different again. He could not quite remember what.

He found himself standing bewildered on the shore, spray-spattered. Sensation lashed him like a whip of fire: the hammer-blow of the wind, the chill, the slick sharp stones shifting beneath his naked feet. For a moment, shocked, he almost lost his balance. Water foamed hungrily along the pebble beach, iron-grey beneath an iron sky.

"Now there's a party trick," said someone conversationally. "Better than a rabbit out of a hat any day. Can you do Men as well?"

The second voice sounded rather annoyed. "I'll thank you to remember, Aiwendil, that this resurrection required some rather complex negotiations on the part of Lord Ulmo. Lord Námo was quite reluctant to release the spirit. Apparently he was old enough to be there when the Prophecy of the North was announced. Lord Námo has some rather strong opinions about that. Ecthelion, now –"

"A northern prophecy? What's that, then?"

"Tcha!" said the second voice, crossly. "Perhaps you do at least remember the Kinslaying over the hill at Alqualondë when Fëanor and the Noldor stole the white ships of the Teleri? And that they then rowed north to the wastes of Araman, intending to cross from there to Middle-earth where the channel narrowed? And that Lord Námo himself went to Araman to declare the Prophecy of the North, which is to say the Doom of the Noldor, which is to say a curse on those who refused to turn back and seek pardon –"

"Enough, Curumo," interjected a third voice, somewhat wearily. "He remembers!"

"So I do," said the first voice, Aiwendil, sounding rather as though he was laughing. "Did anyone bring any clothes for the Elf?"

Clothes. To be unexpectedly alive in daylight – to have weight again, a physical presence in a world of light and colour, to be whipped by the wind and the spray of the sea – had been so startling that he had not noticed his nakedness. No wonder, then, that he was cold and that the wind cut his flesh so fiercely.

Abruptly and unwanted, his death came back to him. The terror of that bare escape and the despair of those pitiful few who fled through the secret pass into the treacherous mountains. Devastation and danger everywhere. His ears still ringing with the screams of the dying in burning Gondolin. And then that final, merciful tumble down the black abyss in a blaze of Balrog's fire that killed his killing grief.

He spun round in sudden shock of memory. "Are they safe? Did they get away?"

Three figures were standing behind him on the stony beach. "I doubt it," said the tallest one in the precise, still annoyed voice of Curumo. "Whoever they are. It's been a messy aeon or two."

A clear misunderstanding. He said more urgently, "Lady Idril and Tuor, and little Eärendil. Did they get away? Where are they?"

"Oh, them. Yes, they survived. You won't have time to see them, though. The ship leaves in an hour."

"The – ship –?"

"Yes, the ship. Here is a tunic and you should find more clothes in your cabin. It should all have been made ready for you. No doubt Lord Ulmo will let you know why he went to so much trouble on your behalf. Personally, I would have made do with Ecthelion. Lord Námo would have released him without any trouble. He killed Gothmog, after all."

None of this made sense. He stared at Curumo, bewildered. "I don't understand."

"Nor does anyone," said brown-eyed Aiwendil cheerfully. "Don't worry. It doesn't get any better than this. I'd put on that tunic if I were you."

The tunic in his hands was soft and green, made from closely-woven wool. He shook out the folds and dragged it over his head. His hair was loose on his shoulders, tangling in the wind.

Curumo, Aiwendil and their weary companion were still watching him. He blinked at them in sudden surprise. "You're Men."

"Not quite," said raven-haired Curumo in his precise way. "We don't have time to explain. The ship is waiting."

Something in the way the Man spoke was inexplicably compelling. He followed meekly over the glittering stones, stunned into silence, and did not hear Aiwendil mutter "Cheat!" behind him. The wind in his ears hissed like the flames in Gondolin and on the shore smashed the waves like tumbling fountains.

He had not seen King Turgon's tower fall. Dragons had torn apart his own tower, hurling massive chunks of stone like children's toys that added to the devastation as they crashed through the air. The outer walls had fallen fast. He had seen the monsters rampaging through the grounds, his walls in ruins, and realised that the tower itself must be abandoned without delay. As they escaped, a shattering bellow of rage and upheaved rock had made him look back just as one vast black dragon reared up from the destruction, a shadow of terror seen through a chaos of falling stone and settling dust. The smack of its furious tail had made the ground shudder. The monster must have smashed through the lower floors and found itself trapped as the tower collapsed around it. His last sight of the tower he had built with his own hands, four hundred years ago, had been blocked out as the other dragons shouldered through chaos and ruin to finish tearing it apart.

Thus Gondolin. He had retreated across the corpses of friends.

"Careful!" exclaimed Aiwendil in his ear, steadying him. "Fine time it'd be to do yourself an injury!"

The Man's hand under his elbow was surprisingly warm, startlingly solid. After death, flesh seemed coarse, its touch a shock. He freed himself with some care, not discourteously, and started to walk blindly again down the stony beach. Memories of death and devastation still danced before his eyes. Behind followed Aiwendil, shaking his head.

He was aware, barely, of climbing narrow steps (very many) and passing through a fair city (very beautiful) to reach a crowded harbour. Swans everywhere adorned pearl-white mansions, making him think of eagles screaming as they plummeted through the icy air. He heard their rage and ferocity more vividly now than he had done then, circling the Balrog on a frosted spire. Snow underfoot and fire before him, and the promise of merciful death all around. And eagles, screaming, somewhere.

Seagulls. He could hear seagulls fighting over scraps of fish. Not eagles!

"I think the Elf should get some rest," he heard Aiwendil say. "Must be a shock, straight out of Mandos. He looks a bit dazed."

The weary third Man's voice. "I'll take him down to his cabin."

Down below, shown into a small, bare cabin, he lay on his bunk and stared up at the ceiling. A little light came in through the porthole and the blankets smelled of soap. Faintly now, he could still hear the seagulls screaming like eagles. When he closed his eyes, he remembered the last time he had slept, bundled up in a cloak amid refugees in the snow. A woman's sobs had woken him: her child had frozen to death in its sleep. He had known her, vaguely, and had been able to offer no comfort. Even in Gondolin before the fall, it had been considered unwise to bring forth children into such a dangerous world.

"I believe it will take several weeks to reach Mithlond," he heard the the third Man say quietly somewhere. "You should rest. I once heard Finrod say it took a week's sleep to forget dying and another to work out that he was alive again. After a while, he said, the dark wears off."

The dark. Only a metaphor could describe death.

Gondolin had gone into the dark and the Gondolindrim had been destroyed. The white walls, the shining fountains. Amon Gwareth, those sacred slopes, drenched in blood. Their hidden vale had crawled with the armies of Morgoth, led by Balrogs and Glaurung's brood flaming like the torches of heralds. The images of the Trees wrought by King Turgon had melted in the fire of the dragons of the north on a day when the Gondolindrim should have been celebrating the festival of the Gates of Summer. On the blood-soaked ground he had seen the mangled remains of Elves with whom he had crossed the Helcaraxë. He had been glad to die.

He opened his eyes again, listlessly. "Why me?"


Fragments of Curumo's conversation were coming back to him. "Why me? Why not Ecthelion?"

"I don't know. Why not you?"

That was hopeless. He had played that game as an elfling. Why, Mother? Why not, dear? No, why? Well, dear, because. Just because. But why?

Father, why? Don't ask me, little one. Ask your mother!

He asked helplessly anyway, "Why am I here?"

"Lord Ulmo wishes you to be here. No one knows anything more than that."

"Where are we?"

"Currently, Alqualondë."

That made him sit up in surprise. The Man was standing next to the porthole, a greybeard beside a window into the grey sea.

"But that's in Aman!" he protested. "It's not poss– no one can –"

He broke off in confusion. Alqualondë. He had last seen the Swan-haven of the Teleri by starlight, splashed with Elven blood.

"You died four and a half millennia ago, Glorfindel," said the old Man beside the porthole. "The world is very much changed since then."

He took a breath. Four and a half thousand years. "Tell me."

The Man was watching him with youthful eyes. "What would you like to know?"


They reached the Grey Havens of Círdan the Shipwright on a pale day some weeks later. Glorfindel had discovered almost as soon as the ship left Alqualondë that he was a very bad sailor indeed, which had at least distracted him from the after-effects of death. It had distracted him from several other things as well, among them his feelings on learning that Lady Idril, Tuor and their son Eärendil were all currently residing (for a given definition of 'residence') in Aman and that he had been put on a ship sailing back to Middle-earth. The news had not pleased him at all. Surely a few days could have been spared for him to meet his king's daughter and her family again? Apparently not. He would have been angrier, but he was too busy trying to keep his stomach in its proper place. It almost tempted him to forgive Fëanor for burning the stolen white ships of the Teleri all those long years ago. Helcaraxë had been a bitter crossing indeed, but at least everyone had been able to keep their feet firmly on solid ground.

The Men who were not quite Men had by then supplied a rough history of the ages that had passed since the fall of Gondolin. On that first afternoon, the weary companion of Curumo and Aiwendil had related what he knew about the survivors of Gondolin until the ship set sail and a violent nausea had overtaken Glorfindel. Since his primary concern was the fate of the remaining Gondolindrim, he had ceased to care about everything at that point: the story of Lady Idril and her family would do. A few days afterwards, however, he had been sprawled out in his customary spot on the deck, one arm hooked firmly around the rail, when raven-haired Curumo had strolled past on his evening walk round the ship.

"You spend a great deal of time up here, I've noticed," the Man had observed approvingly. He paused beside Glorfindel, layering his thin hands over the rail. "Has Lord Ulmo spoken to you yet?"

Apparently Curumo had misunderstood the reason for his frequent spells on deck. Glorfindel shook his head curtly. No: he had not heard the voice of Lord Ulmo in the spray of the sea on his face, perhaps because his entrails had been speaking omens to him both loudly and unmistakably. There was no reason for Curumo to know that.

A sudden lurch of the ship made bile surge up in his throat. Beside him, Curumo lifted his head with an elegant deliberation that was wholly characteristic of the not-quite Man. His eyes were dark and wise and also (when Aiwendil was not in his presence) unusually benevolent, smiling gravely upon the world.

"The Valar help those who help each other," he observed in his smooth, precise voice. "I believe my grey colleague spoke to you about Lady Idril's fate."

Indeed. Glorfindel nodded and took a deep breath as his stomach roiled.

"Perhaps – if no one else has troubled to tell you, of course – perhaps I should explain a little about us, and anything you might want to know about events in Middle-earth during your absence. Would that suit you?"

Clearly it would suit the Man. He nodded again, without much interest.

Let Curumo talk if he wished; there was nothing much better to do in the middle of the ocean than to listen to history lessons, after all. If Curumo enjoyed the sound of his own voice, so be it. The voice was sweet and the vice was common. He had occasionally been accused of suffering from it himself.

Over their time spent at sea, he came to realise that the truth was a little more complex than that, since Curumo had the instincts of a teacher and it delighted the Man to share what he knew. The way the Man spoke was peculiarly soothing and in some strange way his stomach seemed more settled, sitting beside the rail in the evening while Curumo's rich voice rolled melodiously overhead. Sometimes Glorfindel even attempted to listen to what Curumo had to say. As a result, he had some vague idea of the recent history of Middle-earth and knew a little more about Curumo and the Istari, the five Men who were not quite Men, by the time they reached land. His own inclusion on the expedition was still a mystery, however.

"You mean Lord Ulmo hasn't spoken to you at all?" said Curumo in clear disbelief. "Not one word?"

"No," said Glorfindel shortly. The ship had weighed anchor in a discreet bay some way south of Mithlond in the Gulf of Lhûn, for reasons that had not been satisfactorily explained and about which he was insufficiently curious to inquire, and he had been given to understand that they would shortly be put ashore in a rowing boat. It was another grey dawn, sprinkled with showers. He would be glad to stand on solid ground again at last. "What happens next?"

The Istar's long face was full of disapproval, as though Lord Ulmo's silence was somehow Glorfindel's fault. "That's your business. I wasn't sent here to arrange your life."

He turned on his heel and stalked away, white robes swirling majestically at his ankles. Glorfindel stared after him, taken aback.

"Don't mind him," said the weary grey Istar in his ear, having crossed the deck softly enough that Glorfindel had not heard his footsteps. "He's annoyed because he wanted to know what Lord Ulmo had in mind for you. He likes to know everything that's going on. It's not your fault."

"Clearly!" said Glorfindel, perhaps with more force than the point required. He turned abruptly, not troubling to be conciliatory. "What is going on?"

The Istar sighed, running his fingers through his beard. "With you? No one knows. I think you'll have to work that out for yourself. In an hour, we disembark. I suggest you collect your belongings and come with us for now."

"Where are you going?"

"Where the wind takes me," said the Istar, with remarkable airy grandiloquence for one so grizzled, and almost smirked. "No, very well. An audience will be sought with Lord Círdan, after which – we shall see. Curumo has some idea of travelling east and perhaps my blue colleagues will go with him. Aiwendil – well, who can say what goes on in his head? Personally, I intend to ask Lord Círdan where best to go to learn lore. You're welcome to come with me. I don't know much about travelling in modern Middle-earth and I doubt you do either. Safety in numbers – and maybe you'll learn a bit more about what happened to the survivors of Gondolin."

The suggestion was reasonable. "I'll consider it."

"Glad to hear it. Anyway, you'd best get your things."

Which was to say the clothes that had been supplied for him, presumably by the Istari. He had carried more possessions across the Grinding Ice. He nodded curtly and went down to his cabin. It was to be hoped that Círdan the Shipwright was in a good mood, since Glorfindel would need to be properly equipped if he was to travel into the dangerous unknown and he suspected that the Shipwright was not overly fond of the Noldor. That might complicate matters.

Life was complicated. Death had been so simple.

He slung his bag of clothes over his shoulder and went back up to the breezy deck.

The beach was a strip of muddy sand, nothing like that shining gem-strewn shore where he had first breathed air, snatched from dark death. A fine return to Middle-earth, this. He was the last to leave the boat when its keel scraped against the sand, clambering out into the knee-high waves. In another mood, another lifetime, he might have leapt lightly over the tops of the waves to reach dry land unscathed; as it was, he waded grimly after the weary grey Istar through the foam and spray.

"Ah, Lord Círdan," he heard Curumo saying from some way up the beach, that rich voice rounded in smooth satisfaction. "Excellent, excellent! We did hope we might seek an audience with you, I believe, my lord – being visitors to your domain –"

The words were perfunctory; the tone was not. His charm was very nearly tangible.

At the top of the beach, where the sand blurred into scrappy grass under the wind-gnarled trees, a narrow trail led upwards into the hills. Curumo was already gliding up the beach towards a solitary Elf standing with folded arms beneath a jutting rock on the crest of the hill. The other Istari followed more slowly, muttering among themselves and trying to shake the water out of their robes, a disparate group. Glorfindel lagged behind them all, aware coldly and vividly now of the squelch of his shoes on the sand, his dripping clothes. Solid ground rather than wood underfoot and the damp wind of Middle-earth in his hair. His queasiness was easing now, exposing him to the painful clarity of being alive.

That smooth, irresistible voice was rolling through the air as he came up the beach behind the Istari and found himself pinned by the thoughtful eyes of Curumo's addressee. Glorfindel had recognised the other Elf at once; it would have been hard not to. He had met Círdan the Shipwright no more than a handful of times in his life, but the Lord of the Falathrim was not easily forgotten. A tall, unhurried Elf with silver hair, which was unusual, and a neat square beard, which was unique, Lord Círdan possessed that agelessness that indicated a very great age indeed and he stood very straight in the shadows of his rocky shelter. The hems of his embroidered robes were weighted with pearls.

His voice was unexpectedly deep, sliding into a gap between sentences that Curumo certainly had not meant as a pause. "Certainly an audience, good sir. Lord Ulmo's messengers will always be my welcome guests in Mithlond. Master Vanya, forgive me – have we met?"

"A long time ago," said Glorfindel, more curtly than he had intended. The familiarity and strangeness of being alive on this alien beach in Middle-earth was starting to cut his nerves like broken glass. He was aware of the merest lift of one silver brow, no doubt at his discourtesy, but found himself aggressively indifferent to whatever the Shipwright might think. "Not quite a Vanya. That would be my mother's side."

"I see," said Lord Círdan, while Curumo hovered disapprovingly on the scrappy grass. "I seem to remember one young Elf in the days when the world was young, one of Turgon's captains. But he was slain after the city fell. Turgon's city, Gondolin."

One young Elf. Glorfindel had not been old, perhaps, but he could already claim more than a Valian century of experience when he had first arrived in Middle-earth. He had earned his place as Turgon's second captain during the crossing of the icy Helcaraxë wastes. And even then, Círdan the Shipwright had seemed ancient. Now Círdan's smooth face behind the beard was as ageless as the sea that broke itself endlessly upon the shores of Beleriand. In the days when the world was young.

"He fell," he said flatly. "It hurt a bit."

"Lord Ulmo doubtless has good reason to return Lord Glorfindel of Gondolin to Middle-earth," interjected Curumo, as smoothly as only the white-robed Istar could, and added a shade acidly, "No doubt he will eventually let us know what it might be. Forgive me, Lord Círdan, but the voyage has been long..."

Lord Círdan bent his silvered head. "Please, forgive me," he replied with impeccable courtesy. "Of course such discussions should wait. Welcome to Middle-earth, gentlemen. Let me show you the way to Mithlond."

They walked through unfamiliar hills to reach the Grey Havens, sea-splashed and ringing with the screaming of seagulls. Glorfindel was grimly discoursing with himself on the alienness of this strange new shoreline, weathered into unspeakable antiquity in the weeks since he had gone flaming into the timeless dark. Admittedly he had never travelled much among the kingdoms of Middle-earth, having spent most of his time amid the white fountains of Gondolin. He had led the first of those sent to begin the building of their hidden city and he had left it once before the fall as Turgon's second captain at the battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

He had laid the first block. He had cut the first block from the vein of white stone that had become the principal quarry for Turgon's tower.

He would do better to forget it. Gondolin was gone.

Lord Círdan's house was a fine mansion, almost a palace, on the northern side of a high bridge that joined the river-split town. Would they like refreshment, rest, solitude? Apparently. Glorfindel was indifferent to food and had little need of rest; he stripped off wet garments, stalked through the Shipwright's hot baths in a haze of memory and threw himself down on a bed in the guestroom. It was odd to lie on a soft mattress in a room with tapestry-hung walls and a carpeted floor, although these last few weeks of unsettled nausea were beginning to seem as strangely blurred as the timeless dark. His most vivid memories concerned fire and ice and long-gone Gondolin. With his eyes open, he could see the bedchamber in which he had slept for hundreds of years; shut, he heard and breathed the chaos as Gondolin burned. He closed his eyes anyway. Maybe sleep would come and extinguish fire with darkness.

Maybe it did.

"Glorfindel –"

The touch, not the name, brought him violently awake. He found himself in an unfamiliar room staring at a startled stranger in grey, his vision blurred by tremors of unthinking rage. He needed to kill something. It took a second for reality to slide back into place.

"Uh – could you – let go?" asked the grey Istar carefully and moved backwards rather fast as Glorfindel's hands fall away. The Istar was rubbing his wrists and looked distinctly unamused. "Dinner. With Lord Círdan. Then an audience. Coming?"

Seconds more passed as that sheer, animal fury subsided. "Coming."

It seemed unreal. A civilised meal in a splendid dining room; Lord Círdan, silver-haired and ageless, presiding over a table of not-quite-Men; much polite chatter. Glorfindel sat stone-still in silence, listening to the voices of those who had died. He could remember quite clearly the glitter of candlelight through glass, raising a toast to somebody's health. A harper had been playing quietly in the background; later there had been dancing. He remembered the glint of the ruby that swung from the lady's ear, red against her swanlike neck, although he did not remember her name.

After dinner, a serious discussion. Glorfindel paid it no more attention than he had done the meal. Had the lady wearing the ruby earring survived? Unlikely. Very unlikely. A dinner, a dance and death. A thousand deaths. Others, equally beautiful, had lain trampled and charred in the ash. From civilisation to chaos, burning.

"Glorfindel?" said the grey-cloaked Istar from a cautious pace away. "I take it you weren't listening –"


"Lord Círdan suggests a trip to see Elrond Half-elven and his library at Imladris. That would be Eärendil's son Elrond. Seems he's the best person to ask about lore. Lord Círdan's willing to supply guides and letters of introduction. Still thinking about joining me?"

Eärendil's son Elrond. Hard to believe that the delightful, bright-eyed child of Lady Idril and Tuor had produced children of his own in what seemed like no more than a few weeks. It was impossible not to remember Eärendil as a chubby elfling glowing with the light of Aman inherited from his mother.

He nodded shortly. "I'll come."

"Good. Lord Círdan says he'll supply whatever else we need."

"Kind of him. When do we go?"

"Not so hasty," chided the old grey Istar, stroking his beard in a way that suggested he was hiding a smirk. "Arrangements to make, guides to talk to, that sort of thing. Lord Círdan wants to talk to you as well at some point, I think. Anyway – a couple of days."

"All right."

It was late then and the Istari, not-quite-Men that they were, seemed to be showing traces of tiredness. Glorfindel was not tired and was in any case too tense to sleep. He prowled through Círdan's palatial house instead, sloughing off the bittersweet final days of Gondolin. What would he need from Círdan the Shipwright? Armour, weapons, a horse, provisions. Everything. How dangerous was the road to Imladris? Was there even a direct way there? A map. He needed a map. Even if Círdan was going to provide a guide, it would be unwise not to have some idea of the route and downright stupid not to find out how the world had changed since Glorfindel had last travelled through Middle-earth. His study had contained an entire shelf's worth of maps – ironic, perhaps, given the acknowledged insularity of the Gondolindrim –

He heard his name spoken beyond an open door and went through to find himself in an airy, unlit chamber full of grey shadows. On the balcony beyond stood the tall figure of Círdan, a clean silhouette in the moonlight.

"Lord Glorfindel," said the Shipwright again in his deep voice. "I thought I heard you there. Will you join me?"

The balcony was a lacework of stone above the shadowed garden that stretched away below them to the dark, distant river. As Glorfindel went out through the open doors, a wisp of cloud veiled the moon like smoke, briefly dimming Isil's brightness before dissipating into the endless night. A hint of rain still lingered in the kiss of a breeze that teased the grass in the garden below.

Círdan was stroking his knuckles absently over the stone balustrade, glancing from the garden to Glorfindel and up again, briefly, to the unclouded moon. "Doesn't your room suit you, Lord Glorfindel? It's late to be wandering around."

"You are."

"So I am." He did not seem offended, although Glorfindel had not troubled to soften his tone. "Your arrival's convenient, whatever the reason. I hope to talk to a couple of people who may be willing to guide you to Imladris and I daresay they'll want to talk to you too."

"Really," said Glorfindel, without enthusiasm. "Why?"

"Before they agree to travel with you, they'll no doubt want to be sure you're worth their time."

"To see if – to see what?"

Círdan seemed to find his reaction slightly amusing. "These are my guests, Glorfindel, not my vassals. I can't command them to guide you there and if they refuse, I'll send Galdor with you instead. Still, I think they'll be happy enough to oblige."

"Why not just send Galdor?"

"The gentleman in grey expressed an interest in lore," said Círdan calmly. "My guests have lived through enough of it to be more than interesting. If their view of the world was a little less – ah, idiosyncratic – I'd have suggested your friend save himself the trouble of a trip to Imladris. As it is, I did suggest he should talk with them at the very least. If they're willing, they can certainly guide you to Imladris and no doubt your friend will be glad to hear what they have to say."

He glanced down into the garden again. Another twist of cloud had drifted lazily in front of the moon and the wind was stronger now, plucking at the leaves.

Behind them, a new voice broke the silence. "Would this be a friend from the West?"

Glorfindel had whirled around at once, shocked into a fighting crouch by this unheralded arrival, a fresh surge of that earlier animal fury blanking out rational thought. Only when his hands clenched on air, reaching instinctively for absent weapons, did he pause just long enough to recover a semblance of self-control.

He straightened. Took a breath. This was Mithlond: these were not enemies.

The owner of the voice had come silently out of the shadows, another figure materialising at his shoulder, both glancing curiously at Glorfindel. In clouded moonlight, still shaking from that sudden flood of rage, Glorfindel found it impossible to see them clearly. A pair of dark-haired Elves walking without sound through the depthless night.

Círdan, who had not moved, was smiling. "I didn't see you cross the garden."

"You must have been distracted," said the second Elf sweetly. A woman, Glorfindel realised suddenly. He locked his hands together and blinked several times, hoping to clear his vision. Her hair was too sleek not to be damp and her dark eyes flicked over him dispassionately in a way that made his hackles rise. "Hello, you seem rather young to shine so much. Erestor, do we –?"

"I don't know why you always ask me," murmured her companion, apparently occupied in wringing the water from his hair. A spatter of drops stained the stone floor of the balcony, bloodlike in monochrome; he twisted his head round to squint up at Glorfindel through a mesh of slick locks. "But since you do, he does look familiar. Maybe we know his parents."

"I doubt it!" snapped Glorfindel, who had left his parents in Aman to follow Turgon to Middle-earth. Young! There was no light in either of them, not so much as the odd twinkle of a parent's recollection of the Trees, and yet they presumed to call him young! He had brought his brightness from Aman to the fight against Morgoth before the Sun's first dawn! "Maybe I know yours!"

"Well, I doubt that too," said the woman, sounding distinctly amused, and turned her attention on Círdan. "So what do you want at this time of night, m'lord? Something to do with all these new visitors?"

"Something," said the Shipwright, a glimmer of matching amusement in his eyes. "Tell me, would you be interested in a trip to Imladris?"

They both seemed a little surprised by that. A glance passed between them; the man straightened, flicking away his wet hair, and replied, "Not very. We were there only last month."

"Well, last year," corrected the woman. "But that was a fairly long stay. We've only been here for a month."

"So you have," said Círdan gravely. "An uncommonly short visit, to be sure. I don't doubt Master Elrond would be surprised to see you back so soon. Still. Two of my new guests are interested in lore and I've promised them an escort to Imladris as a good place to start. And since you happened to be visiting..."

Another glance was exchanged. "Anything to do with the swan-ship over the way?" asked the woman, twisting her fingers thoughtfully into her own dripping hair. "Because that might be interesting. I haven't seen any of them since the War of Wrath."

The presence of the ship, Glorfindel recalled, was meant to have been a secret. Círdan sounded more resigned than anything. "I should have known. How did you hear?"

The man smiled. "It's a nice spot for swimming. They wouldn't talk to us, though – always were rather standoffish, as I recall. So who are these guests from out of the West? Or have the Valar started turning Elves away from Valinor at last?"

"Not to my knowledge. As to the other – perhaps you should ask them yourself."

"On the road? Perhaps!"

"These lore-hunters –" said the woman, tilting her head. "It's not exactly hard to find Imladris, now, is it? Once you're on the Great Road, it's pretty much just a matter of remembering to keep going east. Do they really need guides?"

"Both are capable of making their own way to Imladris," Círdan replied with a glance for Glorfindel, who was surprised and rather irritated to hear that the Shipwright thought it fit to assign him an escort for an apparently uncomplicated journey. He bit down his immediate reaction, allowing the Shipwright to continue. "I have heard, however, that the journey is more dangerous these days and that the Road has fallen into considerable disrepair in places. My guests would surely benefit from the company of more experienced travellers. Perhaps you'd be so kind as to share the benefit of your experience with them in the morning, even if you decide against –"

"I know what I need!" Glorfindel interrupted, finally annoyed enough to cut Círdan off. Why was Círdan being so elliptical? and why might he need travelling advice from a pair of dark-eyed daylight's children? Of course the world had changed. Morgoth had been removed from Middle-earth, to start with! How much more dangerous could the world be now?

He saw their surprise and was not conciliated. He went on roughly, "Armour. A sword. Provisions. A horse. I'm not a child, I know what I need!"

"Actually," said the man, "we usually travel on foot –"

"On foot?" What was this, a joke? Hard to tell in this light; the man sounded serious enough. "You want me to walk to this place? Elbereth light my way! do you think I'm here to admire the bloody countryside? I want to see Idril's grandson, not every little stick and stone along the way! Varda Elbereth! Of course I shine, I was born in Valinor by Tree-light! I built Gondolin, I led five thousand men at Nirnaeth Arnoediad and I'm the Lord of the House of the Golden Flower. Do you think I walk?"

He was shaking again, overcome by that unthinking bloody rage. A long moment of silence followed. Both of the prospective guides were regarding him critically and Círdan the Shipwright appeared to be counting the stars.

"Under other circumstances, m'lord, I'd suggest you found your lore-hunters a different escort," said the man at last to Lord Círdan. "Especially since we came here from Imladris and were going to go looking for Iarwain and Goldberry next, I believe."

"It was suggested," said the woman, absently untangling her fingers from her hair and flicking water over the balcony. She was still studying Glorfindel in that cool, dispassionate way. "On the other hand, I think we might be interested in undead Gondolindrim Elf-lords and their western friends. Although I personally prefer to walk."

"What if you run into an orcish horde?" demanded Glorfindel before his ears caught up completely. "Undead? Excuse me –"

"We like to avoid orcish hordes," she informed him matter-of-factly. "Horses get in the way. They need to be fed and groomed and they make too much noise and they die too easily. And having horses tempts you to carry more and then the things that really matter get lost – especially if you're careless enough to run into an orcish horde."

Her companion sighed. "So true," he mourned. "Such a nice knife... Still, I suppose we can make an exception just this once. Besides, I can't help but feel that Lord Glorfindel may not be naturally suited to our mouselike habits. It might be wise to have the wherewithal to move fast if necessary. Perhaps m'lord would be so kind as to lend us horses?"

"I don't – wait, what do you –"

"Happily," said Círdan, ignoring Glorfindel's splutters. "You will ensure that my guests arrive safely in Imladris, then?"

The couple exchanged a glance. "Oh, I think so," the man replied lightly. "As Melinna said, they sound interesting. Certainly worth a trip to Imladris!"

They seemed to feel that was all there was to be said; their disappearance was as silent and unexpected as their arrival, leaving Glorfindel gaping incredulously into the night. It was clear that Círdan appreciated his astonishment, for the Shipwright transferred his gaze from the eternal stars and remarked almost apologetically, "As I said – idiosyncratic. I do assure you, though, Erestor and Melinna are the best guides anyone could have in Middle-earth."

"Good," said Glorfindel, recovering his voice harshly. "They'd better be!"