Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
I do not know what to say.
“My lord,” I call down, “my lord, Anar descends into the West. The night is cold and we have heard enough of our own voices to sicken ourselves. We would rather you lend us yours.”
He looks at me, the gloom of the dimmet woods whitening his skin and stealing his substance, as if he were nothing but foam on a black sea. “Give me peace,” he says, quietly, under his breath, so that I must strain to hear him. “I would keep my own company tonight.”
These few words are more than have passed his lips in three days. I hesitate, unable to decide if I am heartened or dismayed.
Every day, he comes. Every day, he sits in the roots of this grandfather tree, giant whorls of bark-skin and tree-flesh that writhe out of the brown earth. The hollow he chooses—every time—is a deep, dark place, where the leaves are withered and black and the soil is cold and damp.
Every day, we come to find him. We tell him how long it has been since we put our backs to Eryn Galen, how long it has been since the day the King commanded us to return passed us by, and how long it has been since our errand here failed and came to naught.
We do not tell him how long it has been since he last rested, ate, or laughed. We do not tell him how long it has been since she fled Imladris, fled him. We do not tell him how long it has been since he returned from the wood, bloodied and lost.
My lord's son has changed. Since that morning, that ill-wrought day when we came upon the clearing of yrch corpses, he has not been himself. We who have been charged with his protection watch, helpless, as he drifts further and further away from us. Our blades are as bright and sharp as the horns of lune Isil, our bows as strong and powerful as the wings of Eagles, yet we can do nothing against that which eats at him in his heart.
I will not speak of her. I curse the very hour of her conception, and the bloodlines of her mother and father, and the chance that made them cross.
I wander down to the foot of the hill, and then back up. Winter is nigh, and the sward here is spare and shriveled. There is no pleasure to be found in the shadow of this ancient tree, so greedily does it take all light and water for itself.
My feet scuff and crackle in the frith and brake, but he does not look at or acknowledge me again.
I mourn the day we left Eryn Galen. When we departed from my King's halls, his son was an Elf bright with youth and life, free if not quick with his smiles and laughter. We sang the old lays as we traveled, despite the cheerless news we carried, and he found pleasure in every little thing, be it birdsong or a particular tree whose voice was especially clear. He sang with us, and there was nothing about him that was not as it should be with an elven prince in the prime of his life.
Now he haunts the tree where he last saw her, a ghost in his silence, and sits for hours, for days, his face turned to the South.
We, his attendants, are at a loss. It is not fitting that we should speak to him of such things, for we are neither blood nor close in companionship, nor of a rank to disregard such lacks, but who else is there for us to turn to? Elrond watches his sons fade, powerless to bring them back, his fear apparent to anyone who cares to look—how can we approach him with our troubles? All others here are unfamiliar faces whose names we know only by reputation.
The Peredhil's sons weaken by the day, sick with their longing. Not my lord's son. He grows gaunt and pale, his eyes a lighter shade than I remember them, but he does not wane, and we do not know if this is a thing good or evil. To the contrary, I think he grows harder, as if he were a blade being tempered in a terrible fire, thinner and more brittle and that much stronger, shaped by hammer and anvil into unyielding steel. He does not diminish, but seems only to become quieter, lonelier, and, somehow, in a way that is difficult to describe or understand yet simple enough to see, more resolute, like the first shape of the sword emerging from the hot metal.
The others say that he must be maturing, as all Elves do, making that final passage from youth to maturity. His own father is of a more detached character, except when he is angry, and we tell each other in hopeful tones that perhaps it is only that his son is beginning to resemble him in more than looks.
I long for the King to send for us, to dispatch a message his son could not ignore. I long for Lord Elrond to tell him, gently or otherwise, that he should return home, for any excuse to take the prince away from Imladris and back to his father's halls. But we hear nothing from the King, and the lord of the Last Homely House neither knows nor cares about anything but the suffering of his children.
All these things pass through my mind as I stand on the lee of the tor, watching him alone with his reveries, but it is not my place nor even truly my desire to speak of them to the son of my King. I turn to go, and then, as if we had been all the while in idle conversation rather than in mute unease, he says softly, “Tell me a tale.”
This, which would not have been an unusual request only a month earlier, is unexpected now. I stand, taken aback, and can only think to ask, “What tale should I tell?”
“Tell me of Gondolin,” he says, and now I can barely see him, so dark has it become in his hollow. “Tell me of the fall.”
This is stranger than it should seem, and I know that he knows the story, the history, as well as I, but I am too gladdened to hear him speak and behave in a manner even distantly familiar. I sit, drawing my cloak close against the night, and, ignoring the unnatural feeling of the situation I find myself in, begin to tell the tale of the Fall of Gondolin.
He does not interrupt, or voice his thoughts when I delay between breaths to let him do so, and the light passes from the West as I recite. Ithil is high and bright in the sky when I come to the close, and I watch that full white face as I speak of the Havens of Sirion and the flight of the fugitives, Tuor and Idril and Earendil, Elrond's own father, which is the last part of the story.
When I am done, he still does not speak, and we listen for a while to the low hoots of owls at their hunt. It is late, now, and the dark is sweetly cold, a softness to the air that speaks of coming snow. I would my prince go inside, for we have begun to worry for his wellbeing as we never have before, but he has already commanded me to leave him be.
I sit, and I wait.
“This Eol,” he says at last, “he was an Avar.”
“This is what is said,” I say. “Eol, called the Dark Elf, though I remember they used to say he had Noldorin blood as well.”
“Not so different then,” he almost whispers, “from us.”
“Different from you and yours, my lord,” I offer carefully. “He was never one of the Teleri.”
He moves. I cannot see how or in what way, but I hear the rustle of leaves and the scrape of bark, and I have the sense he is looking up, now, at Tilion in his vessel of white and silver where he searches the heavens for fire-eyed Arien.
“Do you think she was beautiful,” he murmurs, “Aredhel Ar-Feiniel? So beautiful that Eol Mornedhel, who despised every other, so much desired her above all else that he dared to ensnare her, breaking the laws of our people?”
My mouth opens, but I cannot speak. This question, meaningless and inoffensive, doubtless asked by many and often, strikes such terror into my heart that I can scarcely breathe.
The prince slants a glance at me, and I swear his are the eyes of a starving wolf.
But then he looks again away and he is who he is, the son of my King, silent and despairing. He waits, and I cannot remain silent. I close my dry mouth, hesitate, and say, awkwardly and with false indifference, “Not as beautiful as Luthien or Arwen Undomiel, certainly, but fairer than most. Who of the line of Finwe was not?”
He stands, and I see him by the light of Ithil, a pale shape in the dark, his hair and skin the white of bone, as if he had never known the warm touch of Anor, and in the dark below the black-scaled tree he is clothed in shadows, as if he wore a suit of blackest armor.
“Go to the others,” he says softly, faintly, “and tomorrow, home, to my father's halls.”
He turns, leaves me standing there looking after him as he walks away through the trees, and such relief fills my heart that all premonition and foreboding is shut out. We will go home, we will take him back to his father, and the King will know what to say, what to do, to help the prince. Thranduil will know what to do with his wounded son. All will be well.
All will be well.
I return to Imladris, respited from those many troubles I did not know how to resolve, and repeat to the others his instruction.
It is not until the next morning, when our company assembles in the courtyard to make a count and examine supplies, that we learn the prince never returned from the woods. His room is empty, his weapons gone, and not a trace or sign of him remains behind. I remember the exact phrasing of his command to me, Go to the others, and tomorrow, home, to my father's halls
, and I think there never was such a fool as I.
We look at each other, the prince's guard and companions, and I see my own dread in their faces.
“What will we tell the King?” they whisper. “What should we do? How can we go home, having lost the prince?”
They look to me, the eldest, the one to whom the King gave his instructions and his son last spoke.
I do not know what to say.