Goldilocks and the Three Balrogs
Disclaimers (1) and (2) still apply. A note for anyone who has got this far: all comments are very much appreciated!
Beyond the window of Master Elrond's study, the Sun shone brightly over the hidden valley. Birds sang, children played and the river tumbled white-flecked down its rocky course. As Glorfindel gazed absently through the open window, a swallow perched unexpectedly on the sill, chirped at him and flew upwards into the eaves.
"... Glorfindel?" said Elrond Half-elven. "Are you listening?"
He had gone walking in the gardens that morning after breakfast. Underfoot the grass was green and everywhere flowers were coming into bloom, alive with spring. Wherever he went, the river could be heard running and gurgling down below. He had listened to it all night as well and the sound had been strangely comforting, an echo of the constant fountains of his lost city. Eventually the path had wound its way down to the riverbank, where a strategically placed bench had awaited him beside the basin of a tumbling waterfall. Silver flashes in the water had announced fish, darting between pebbles in the foaming pool. He had still been sitting there, watching sunlight sparkle over the surface of the water, when the three children of Elrond Half-elven had appeared around the corner and halted with winsome smiles.
He had raised his eyebrows at them. "Hello."
"Are you really Lord Glorfindel from Gondolin?" one of the twins had asked engagingly, clasping his hands behind his back just as Idril had always done when she wanted something from Turgon. "The one who knew our father's grandmother?"
The other twin and their sister had clearly been holding their breath, which had helped Glorfindel to be amused rather than annoyed. "I am."
Three sets of clear grey eyes had gone very wide. "The one who met the Three Balrogs?" squeaked Elrond's beautiful daughter, hopping with excitement. "Really really?"
The second twin turned on his sister crossly. "You idiot!" he said. "There were only three in the story! The real Glorfindel only duelled one –"
"I know that!" snapped the girl, abruptly dropping that delightful childishness. Her eyes had narrowed dangerously and there was a wilful set to her mouth that made Glorfindel think that perhaps Elrond and his offspring had inherited more from Idril's side of the family than was immediately obvious. Certainly there was something about the fresh-faced twins that brought to mind Idril and Tuor. "But Glorfindel is the one in the story, isn't he? So he's the one who met the Balrogs!"
"I'm sorry?" said Glorfindel, rather surprised. "What story?"
That had cut short the impending quarrel. All three of Elrond's children had turned as one to present him with innocent faces and the first twin produced another of those suspiciously winsome smiles.
"Mother and Father say we mustn't bother you with silly questions," he had said primly. "Also, Father was wondering if you might like to talk to him now? He's in his study with Master Mithrandir. We can take you there..."
And bother him with silly questions along the way. Of course.
He had allowed them to carry him off to Elrond's study, amused by the artless way they chattered. They must all have reached adulthood centuries ago, but for some reason that he could not fathom they had seemed to be putting on a show of childishness for his benefit. Or perhaps Elves had simply aged more swiftly in Glorfindel's dangerous youth. At any rate, they had deposited him before their father's door and waited wreathed in smiles until he went inside. There he had indeed found Elrond Half-elven in conversation with Mithrandir the Istar about their journey from the Grey Havens; and there he still was now, not really listening to their conversation as he looked wistfully over the terraced gardens that lined the hidden valley.
He realised that Mithrandir was stroking his bristling beard as if to hide laughter. "Glorfindel, Master Elrond was asking you about the horse thieves," the Istar prompted. "The ones who tried to ambush us past Amon Sûl, remember?"
"Of course I remember. We carried their bodies for days. What about them?"
"You carried their bodies?" said Elrond Half-elven, looking rather surprised. "Why was that?"
"Oh – Erestor and Melinna, of course. Something about it being tidier to dump them in a bone-yard across the River. Not that I saw many bones where we left them, but I was too glad to be rid of the bodies to care. I'd have left them where they died, personally."
It occurred to him that Master Elrond's eyebrows were almost as arched as the pillars of the Last Bridge across the River Mitheithel. The Lord of Imladris said nothing for a time and his mouth was a little open in apparent disbelief.
"Would you repeat that?" he asked at last, carefully. "You killed a set of horse thieves –"
"That was Erestor and Melinna," murmured Mithrandir. He had hold of his rowan staff and was rubbing his thumb thoughtfully over the wood, possibly recalling how it had burst into blue flame. Glorfindel noticed for the first time that the head of the stick had been carved into the round shape of a bird with its head tucked under its wing.
"Erestor and Melinna killed the horse thieves," said Master Elrond flatly. He did not seem surprised. "Yes, indeed. And then you loaded the bodies onto your horses –"
"Their horses," said Glorfindel. It was so sunny outside. How did so much sunlight make its way into such a deep valley? And what was this story that Elrond's children had been talking about? "The ones in your stables now."
"Of course. I had forgotten. Very well, you loaded the bodies of these horse thieves onto their horses and carried them until you crossed the Mitheithel, at which point you left them... where? In a heap in the woods?"
For a long moment, Master Elrond stared at him, open-mouthed.
"That goes too far," he said at last, with complete conviction. He got up and crossed his study, throwing open the door to reveal the twins and their sister sitting on the carpet outside and blinking innocently up at him. Clearly he had expected this; he said crisply, "Go and fetch Erestor or Melinna or both of them. Melinna at least will certainly be with your mother, probably looking at your mother's latest tapestry. I want to see them now."
He closed the door on their chirrups of acquiescence and came back into the room. The starlit grey of his eyes was dark and ominous.
"I think I should probably give you both a word of advice," he said flatly. "Erestor and Melinna are very old and very experienced and very knowledgeable and very well-travelled. My revered forebear, Queen Melian of Doriath, used to call them her nightingales and I don't think I've made an important decision since Imladris was built without first asking their opinion. If they could be persuaded to stay in one place for longer than five minutes, I'd certainly hope that place was Imladris. However –"
He paused meaningfully. "This is not to say that I always follow their advice and it is certainly not to say that they are my only counsellors! I very often find it wise to balance their advice against the counsel of those who are dull and hidebound and firmly attached to all normal social and ethical conventions. I don't say they weren't the best people for the task – but if I were Círdan, I'd have sent Galdor with you as well!"
"Ah," said Glorfindel and glanced at Mithrandir, who looked equally surprised by Master Elrond's apparent strength of feeling. Perhaps it would not have been so foolish to object to Erestor's treatment of the dead horse thieves after all. He said tentatively, "Círdan did say they were – what was the word? – idiosyncratic..."
Master Elrond made a sound that was very much like a snort and did not sit well with his fair, ageless face. "That's not the word I'd use! If you ask me, Círdan's getting idiosyncratic himself in his old age!"
He spun around again as the door opened behind him. Erestor came into the room with Melinna and the Lady Celebrían close on his heels; the two women seemed to be discussing something involving onion skins and Celebrían broke off as they entered to say briskly, "I hope this is important, dear, we were having a nice conversation –"
"– about your tapestry, yes dear, I did know that." His arms were folded across his chest and his eyes on the errant pair were hard. "Erestor. Melinna. May I talk to you about those horse thieves from whom you acquired so many things along the way?"
"Of course you may," said Melinna sweetly. She wore a dark red gown, which seemed odd now that Glorfindel had grown accustomed to the muted greens and browns of her travelling garb, and hooked under the girdle around her waist was a white spindle that swayed as she moved. "I suppose you'd like to discuss the way we disposed of them?"
"Yes," said Master Elrond flatly. "Tell me – and I realise I may not like the answer – did even you not hesitate to use all those bodies as Troll-bait?"
Melinna smiled at him. "No, we didn't. Next?"
"Wait –" said Glorfindel, sitting up in shock. "Troll-bait?"
"It worked very nicely," said Erestor mildly. "We didn't see a single Troll all the way."
"Troll-bait? Are you serious?"
"My dears," said the Lady Celebrían in her soft voice, sounding pained. "That is a little gruesome –"
"It's more than that!" snapped Master Elrond. "It's downright impious! Even horse thieves don't deserve that! And if you left twelve bodies there, there's a good chance it'll attract Trolls down from the Ettenmoors! How dangerous do you want that stretch of Road to be?"
Erestor was beginning to look faintly bored. "I'd imagine the problem will have gone away by now," he replied with a yawn. "There's a fair-sized family with a couple of cubs in the old cave under the hill near the Bridge – we met them on the way to Mithlond. The Road should be safer, if anything, since they won't need to hunt for a while. Hungry lot, but quite civilised for Trolls. Plenty of, aha, family feeling."
Lady Celebrían and Master Elrond were both staring at him in disbelief. They turned together to look questioningly at Melinna, who shrugged.
"Someone thought it would be a good idea to poke his nose into an 'abandoned' Troll's nest one afternoon," she said, "which is why that someone has been on cooking duty ever since. Sadly, something turned out to be a doorstop rather than a paperweight, so I suppose I'll be doing my share on the road to Lindórinand."
Erestor's smile was satisfied. "You can also clean your own rabbits. And birds."
"Yes, that too," said Melinna, rolling her eyes. "So no, Elrond, to answer your question, I doubt the Road is much dangerous now than it was before and you certainly aren't going to make us feel ashamed of ourselves for leaving a nice heap of manflesh for the Trolls. They have to eat too, you know. Was that all?"
Master Elrond threw up his hands in visible exasperation. "It's clearly all I'm going to get out of either of you!" he replied tartly, turning away. "If I say anything else, you'll only tell me I look like my mother when she couldn't get her way. Actually, I tell a lie – you brought up my grandfather Dior last time. Next time, I expect it'll be Tinúviel or Thingol himself! But really – sometimes you go too far!"
They laughed and left him there, still seething, while Glorfindel exchanged a glance with Mithrandir the Istar. Troll-bait. That had to have been unusually macabre even for Erestor and Melinna. No wonder Elrond Half-elven liked to ask the advice of less idiosyncratic Elves when he needed to make important decisions!
Other things were said by Mithrandir and Master Elrond after that; Glorfindel paid little attention, still seduced by the Sun shining in the valley beyond the study window. Occasionally, called upon to comment, he made some brief remark about the journey or their companions or the condition of the Great East Road. Soon the morning gave way to the midday meal, presided over by a smiling Celebrían whose merry eyes belied the firmness with which the younger diners were kept in line. Afterwards, Glorfindel went walking in the terraced gardens until he saw the fresh-faced twins approaching in the distance, at which point he retreated to the house. Just then he did not much feel like being bothered by the silly questions of Elrond's children.
The house was very fair and his chambers were pleasant. For a time, he sprawled out in the afternoon light as it streamed through the window of the sitting room to splash across the empty fireplace and the nearby table. The bowl of white and yellow flowers still sat cheerfully on the mantelpiece and someone had set a vase of catkins and purple heather on the windowsill. The gold-etched patterns of the stone he had once brought from Valinor seemed almost to glow in his hands. Presently, still holding his father's handiwork without thinking about anything in particular, he began to hear the gentle runs and falls of a harp being played somewhere nearby. It fitted so smoothly with the sunlight and the spring flowers and the distant babbling of the river that he closed his eyes and merely sat there, listening. The melody was unfamiliar, a light ripple of humour and delight that tickled his ears and made him smile.
After a while, he heard that familiar long, liquid trill of birdsong sound clearly above the harp's lilting notes. It seemed almost like a summons. Still carrying the stone doorstop that his father had made for him, Glorfindel went dreamily out of his sitting room. A little way down the corridor, a door stood open, spilling sunlight and the harp's music into the airy passageway.
The harp filled his thoughts completely. He drifted towards the open door, bemused and entranced.
This room was long and high and full of light, a temple to an incipient summer. Glorfindel was struck first by a tapestry that occupied most of one wall and pictured grey nightingales flitting through starlit gardens, framed by the high stems and branches of great trees. Deep in their shadow and attended by more nightingales walked a tall queen, smiling, and the light of Aman was in her beautiful face.
An unstrung loom stood before the tapestry. Melinna was curled up nearby on a heap of cushions all covered with yet more grey birds; she had a basket of threads in her lap and seemed to be sorting out sets of different colours. As Glorfindel entered, she was holding up two shades of red to the light with one hand and sifting through her basket with the other, apparently in search of a third matching skein. Not far off, Erestor was sitting behind a harp, his fingers dancing across the silver strings. A stately note had entered his music now, rather like the dances that had once been played at Turgon's court feasts, and he smiled at Glorfindel over the elegant curves of the harp's high frame.
"Have a seat," he invited. "There's one behind the desk."
The desk stood foursquare in the sunlight streaming golden through the window. It was a big, solid affair in oak with taloned feet and polished gilt trimmings, and the green leather surface was stacked with parchment notes. Glorfindel, looking curiously at the parchment as he went to sit down, saw some mention of poetry and the woods of Doriath. There were other fine tapestries in the room as well as that striking depiction of gardens and nightingales and as he glanced around, that feeling of having entered a world that was both Elven and profoundly alien came crashing back in full force.
He set the stone doorstop down on the parchment notes. For a time, no one spoke a word. The pure, clear tones of Erestor's harp continued to rise and fall in the sunlit air.
The fair-faced queen seemed to be smiling at him from the tapestry. Melian the Maia Queen of Doriath walking in the gardens of Lórien. He had never met her, which was a pity. She really had been very beautiful.
They had talked about Melian that night in the woods beyond Amon Sûl. A question had been asked and left unanswered; remembering it now, he asked them suddenly, "That story about Queen Melian and the nightingales – was it true? Did they really bring her news of what happened in Beleriand?"
"Old gossip," said Melinna, without looking up. "I doubt it."
"You sound disappointed," said Erestor lightly. His fingers ran across the harp strings without a pause. "Nightingales aren't really bright enough for that, you know. If it's not edible, dangerous or a possible mate, they're not interested. That's really all they talk about – food, sex and danger, or the lack of it."
Melinna was nodding as she laid a sequence of skeins out on the carpet in increasingly deep shades of blue. "True. If you want a decent conversation, you'd do better to talk to the Eagles, because they're shocking gossips."
"That is rather disappointing," said Glorfindel. The frame of Erestor's harp was carved with silver-gilt birds, probably more nightingales. He recalled the birdsong that had summoned him to their sitting room to begin with and added, "Just now I heard a nightingale – unless I was imagining it – but it sounded like the same one that followed us from the Grey Havens..."
Melinna pursed her lips to produce that very familiar liquid trill. "It was," she said, smiling now. "Queen Melian taught us both to sing as well, you know. It's a convenient way to share information in a hurry. Food, safety, danger..."
"And an ambush laid by horse thieves."
He was not really surprised. Of course she had been scouting as well as foraging, all those nights when she had vanished into the shadows as they made camp and been missing at dawn to check her snares before anyone else awoke. If he had been less absorbed by his grief over Gondolin, he would have realised that much earlier. He might even have shared the Istar's surprise on hearing the nightingale sing so frequently along the long Road.
His remark had earned him some laughter. No one spoke for a while. Glorfindel traced his fingertips over the golden flowers etched by his father into the stone doorstop and all around fell the silver tones of Erestor's nightingale harp.
"Elrond's children were talking about a story," he remarked, recalling their winsome smiles and absurd, charming childishness. "Something to do with me and three Balrogs. Do you know anything about it?"
The harp sang out in a sudden shimmer of melody, rather like musical laughter. Erestor's expression was perfectly serious, perhaps only a little amused. "It does sound familiar. I think that may be a tale they used to tell the children at Sirion. The younger children will probably want you to tell them all about it."
"Ah, now that I can't quite remember." He spoke lightly and splayed his fingers across the octaves in a ripple of music. "The twins could tell you, or little Arwen, or any one of the children around Imladris. Ask them."
"I did. They said their parents told them not to bother me with silly questions."
"Well, that won't last. Ask them again."
Was this why he had been returned to Middle-earth? – to amuse the children of Imladris with tales of Balrogs and ancient wars? It seemed unlikely. Still, he might as well. The world had changed. These days there were no great enemies or Dark Lords left on Morgoth Bauglir's model. Only Bauglir's lieutenant remained, that petty werewolf lord of Tol-in-Gaurhoth who had succumbed to the spells of Thingol's maiden daughter and deceived the jewel-smiths of Ost-in-Edhil. What need was there for Glorfindel in this small world of trivial menace and minor villains?
"Your harp is very beautiful," he said to distract himself. "It looks like old craftsmanship."
"It is," replied Erestor, smiling as he caused the nightingale harp to produce silver waterfalls of sound. "Daeron owned it once. After Lúthien married Beren, he crossed Ered Luin into Eriador, so it survived the fall of Doriath. He entrusted it to us when he came West again and sailed to Valinor after the War of Wrath. Do you care to play?"
"If I may."
He rose, leaving the memory of his music still shimmering in the air. Glorfindel went more slowly to sit behind the harp that had been owned by Daeron. The seat was still warm and the sunlight fell hot on his back, pooling golden around his feet on the red carpet.
"The world is very small these days," he remarked dreamily, brushing his fingers along the strings in a run of silver notes. "I remember when I first came to Middle-earth – it seemed so huge, so many forests, such emptiness. There were Orcs, of course, and wolves and Trolls and all Morgoth's creatures. And the Moon came up and we drove them into the North with sword and fire and then we had all of Beleriand for our kingdoms. And the Enemy was very great – and so were we, so very great and so very proud, with our high towers and our white cities and our memories of the light we saw in the Day before days across the Ice in Valinor. And back in those days, those glorious days that blazed so bright and ended in fire and the sword, back in those days the world was mighty and so were we. And now the world is small and the great are gone and only the little fish remain..."
He trailed away, leaving the harp to speak for him. The tone was very sweet, this nightingale harp of Daeron's that had seen Menegroth. In his head was the paean to Elbereth sung first atop his tower in Gondolin and last in a smoky inn at Bree under Bree-hill. The memories mingled in his head: starlight and brandy and treason that tasted of elderberry wine. Beneath his fingers, the silver strings hummed.
"Why am I here?" he asked them, not really expecting an answer. "Why did Ulmo want me in Middle-earth? My days are over. Those were my days – those bright and glorious days, the days of greatness and fire. You called me young and so I was, but I'm too old to live now. The world is too small."
"It can feel that way sometimes," said Melinna, quietly. She had paused in her work and now sat looking up at him from her nest of nightingale cushions, both hands buried deep in the basket of threads. The curve of her mouth was bittersweet and her eyes were dark and ancient. "Not all the great are gone. Círdan remains. So do Galadriel and Celeborn. Oropher's son Thranduil is king in Eryn Galen. Elrond's the image of his grandfather Dior, not to mention Dior's mother Lúthien. And then we have Gorthaur."
Somewhere behind Glorfindel in the airy sitting room, Erestor chuckled. "Gorthaur is gone, defeated, slain and what-have-you after the Last Alliance." His tone was very nearly sarcastic. "So they tell me."
She did not laugh. "So they do."
"Are they wrong?" asked Glorfindel, tilting his head curiously.
"Well now," she said and frowned at her threads. "We lost him once – and back he came as Annatar. Now we've lost him again and who knows how he'll return this time? Círdan's right to be cautious. It's wishful thinking to say Gorthaur is dead and he's not such a little fish either. He isn't Morgoth, certainly, but as enemies go he's great enough."
"Is that why I'm here? To lend another sword to someone else's fight?"
"Why not?" said Erestor lightly behind him. "I'm sure Elrond would be grateful. He collects interesting people, you know. If he can talk you into staying at Imladris, I'm sure he will."
That might not be unpleasant. Perhaps he would remain at Imladris with the family of Idril's grandson for now. Perhaps he could occupy himself in the library like Mithrandir the Istar, relearning the lore of Middle-earth and the history that had passed during his time in the Halls of Mandos. Perhaps it was his doom to defend Middle-earth against Sauron, since he had missed the War of Wrath and the fall of Sauron's master, Morgoth Bauglir.
His fingers on the harp strings had abandoned the paean, moving from brandy and starlight to a half-remembered melody that evoked candlelight and rubies and the ceremonious elegance of King Turgon's court. The dance had been very popular in Gondolin that year. It was slow and stately and it had sounded antique even in Gondolin, having been written in the aftermath of Nirnaeth Arnoediad when people's thoughts were turning longingly to Valinor. He had swayed to it a hundred times and now as he listened to his own playing of the nightingale harp, he was remembering the days when only the Lady Idril had been willing to speak aloud what everyone had silently feared. The Gondolindrim had been very merry those last few years, but they had been merry in the shadow of an inescapable fate.
He was vaguely aware that Erestor had arisen and come to stand on silent feet before Melinna, still curled up with her basket amid the nightingale cushions. Erestor's words were soft beneath the silver voice of the harp. "Will you dance, my lady?"
She shed her work and arose, smiling. "Surely, my lord."
Over the silver-gilt nightingales and through the shimmering strings, Glorfindel watched the couple dreamily. They did not dance as the Gondolindrim had danced, but their movements were as courtly and formal as anything seen in Gondolin. It was not hard to guess that they had learned to dance in those long-gone days at the court of Melian and Elu Thingol. When he let his eyelids fall and saw everything blurred through his lashes while the music filled his ears, he might have been anywhere. In Gondolin, in Menegroth, in Imladris. Imladris, so Elven and so alien, where Idril's grandson resided among the symbols of Doriath.
The last of the afternoon sunlight was warm at his back. "Thank you," he heard Erestor say softly. "You should stay at Imladris. It would suit you."
"Perhaps it would," replied Glorfindel and let the harp go still.