In the end, the fault had only been his own; he should have seen to his belongings himself. But he had not offered to help. He had no wish to make the disassembling of his home any easier.
The boy was laden with more than he could carry. Old enough to be set to work yet too young to be of much use beyond lifting and carrying, he and his fellows had volunteered to load the wagons bound for Caras Galadhon and their new lodgings there—and, as Haldir saw it, to strip from the outer reaches of the forest what little life remained. The lads scrambled up and down ladders with unseemly eagerness and attempting to outdo one another in displays of strength. The contents of Haldir’s home had been paraded before him, bound up in quilts and blankets, and one boy now carried the last of it piled high in his arms. Atop the stack was a wooden chest bearing what few things Haldir counted as his most personal tokens.
The load sagged in the youngster’s arms and Haldir started forward and opened his mouth to give a warning. The boy seemed to have felt it for himself, and with a grunt, he jostled it upward in his arms. The chest tumbled off and landed with a loud crack, ejecting its contents in a wide arc across the ground.
Haldir grimaced and pinched his brow. A brusque rebuke rose to his tongue but he saw the look of horror and the flood of crimson in the lad’s cheeks as he tentatively peered around the bundles he hadn’t dropped, and he said nothing. The boy was quite young, after all, and trying to impress his elders with his strength and efficiency, and hadn’t he done the same thing at that age?
Ah, but it has been a long time since I was young, he thought.
The lad began an awkward dance of trying to set down his load without further mishap, but Haldir waved him away. “Never mind. Just take the rest of it to my brothers.”
As he tottered off, Haldir squatted to survey the mess. The lid had been partially wrenched off, one hinge broken and the other noticeably bent. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed. Everything inside the chest had scattered over the ground: coins from vanished realms, stones from distant shores, a few love tokens from paramours who had come and gone.
Celeborn sank down beside him, brushing aside dead leaves and picking up a piece of mumakil tusk etched with a scene from a battle. Haldir had forgotten which one.
“It was kind of you not to berate him in front of the others,” he remarked. “And not at all like you.”
Haldir chuckled. “A disastrous fumble in front of me and his friends alike seemed punishment enough. In any case, he meant well.”
“He did. As do your brothers.”
Haldir’s shoulders stiffened. “Is it not enough that I have conceded to come to Caras Galadhon when the forest’s deeps have been so long my home?”
Celeborn ran his hand along a tree root. “The forest as we have known it fades, and they will not stay long in Caras Galadhon. It is but the first step in a long journey.
“They are afraid for you,” Celeborn continued when he did not answer. “As it seems they are right to be.”
The admonishment in Celeborn’s tone might have gone unnoticed by one who had not known him for as long as Haldir had. “Let me make my decision in my own time. After three ages of this world, I see no reason for haste.”
“I could give you many.” The admonishment was less subtle now. “I could remind you that our time in this world is past,” he gestured toward the empty telain, the abandoned guardposts, “but this you already know. I could remind you that sundered families wish for reunion, but this you already know. I could remind you that neither Cirdan’s boats nor his patience are in infinite supply, but this, too, you already know.” He closed his eyes and Haldir saw the weight of years in his face. “I will not wait much longer. My lady languishes; the burdens she has carried have diminished her. The succor of Valinor is the least she has earned.”
“And that I know as well.” The necessity of a decision pressed into his gut like a fist. “If the need is so urgent, do not delay it for my sake.” It was not the first time, nor even the thousandth time, Haldir had refused to defer to Celeborn, or to curb the sharpness of his tongue, and Celeborn, as he usually did, ignored it.
“You are still in my service. I could compel you.”
“But you would not.”
“No,” Celeborn sighed. “I would not.”
Having reached an impasse, they worked side by side in silence for a time, gathering up the souvenirs of Haldir’s long life. The trundling of the wagons lurching through the wood toward the walled city receded and the quietude of the forest returned.
To stay or to go: neither option held great appeal. When Orophin and Rumil looked to the West, they saw peace and new beginnings for their families, a place where their children might grow without fear, where darkness was held at bay by forces stronger than any they had known in this land. For himself, he saw only the endless unwinding of years like silk from a spool in a land where he had neither a place nor a purpose. A soldier without duty was but a lonely man with a sharp blade, and a march warden with no marches to guard was but a wanderer in the wilds. Yet to stay, to watch the land he loved wither and die, to linger with the last of his kind until they faded from the world altogether...
Celeborn surmised the path of his thoughts. “You are not the first man who has forged a life from a sword; you will not be the first who must find new ventures on which to set his hands and mind.”
“But at what cost?” Haldir looked at him sharply. “My liberty? My pride? My father’s father led our clan out of Ossiriand at Thingol’s invitation, but he did so by choice, not by charge. I gave my sword to Thingol because Doriath had become my home and I wished to safeguard it, not out of fealty to his crown. I care little for titles and lines of succession; it is the land that houses and nourishes and provides for us, not a king.” Celeborn gave him a look of frayed forbearance and Haldir knew he tread on dangerous ground. But if Celeborn wanted an answer, an answer he would have, whether it pleased him or no. “I pledged my service to you because I believed you and your lady wished above all else to steward the land and make it safe, and I was not mistaken. You could have styled yourselves king and queen, but you did not. I have no use for pageantry and no patience for intrigue, so why should I go where I will be subject to the whims of kings and the machinations of the Valar?”
“Most men are content to let others guide them. And few there are who are not beholden to someone greater, Haldir, be it by birth, by necessity—or by their own choosing. Fewer still have the wherewithal to refuse convention and make their way alone.”
The few leaves clinging to the branches swayed and danced in a passing breeze. Haldir stared into the depths of the wood beyond, where his home had been, into the dense and untamed forest that had reminded him of Nivrim long ago. “I can think of one.”
In the kind light of the afternoon, Celeborn turned his face to Haldir, refusing to let him evade his pointed gaze. “And I can think of another.” After a moment of tacit accord, Celeborn reached across Haldir to pluck something up from the ground. A feather, its quill spliced and threaded with a leather string. He held it up and regarded it with interest. “Yours?” he asked.
“No.” Haldir awkwardly found his feet. His toes tingled and his trouser leg had gone damp from kneeling on the ground. “I am merely its steward.”
Celeborn rose and turned it in his fingers. The feather was mottled grey and brown at the base and tapered into a long, dark finger. It had come from a young eagle. It was not particularly large, but hinted at great size yet to come. The sun danced along its edge as if on the blade of a knife. “This does not come from any common bird.”
“No,” Haldir confirmed, “it does not.”
“I have not seen its like in a long time,” Celeborn murmured, as much to himself as to Haldir. “The children of Thorondor have not been fledglings for many ages now, and never did they part with these lightly.” He abruptly turned. “Those upon whom they have been bestowed do not part with them lightly, either.” He extended the feather to Haldir. “Someday”— he drew back his hand just slightly and Haldir’s own hand reflexively jerked—”I should like to hear the story of how this came to you.”
As it came to rest in his palm, Haldir found himself wondering how something so weightless could feel like such a burden. “It is a short story and ends poorly,” he said.
He had neither seen nor thought about the thing for many, many years. It had been hidden deep in the bottom of the coffer, protected from the elements...and he protected from it. Seeing it now woke a dormant longing and the sharp bite of memory. It should long ago have turned to dust; perhaps then he could have forgotten entirely—no, he never could have forgotten—but it had been spared the ravages of time under the Lady’s ring.
When he shook off the feather’s beguiling spell, the coffer and its contents were gone, and Celeborn with them. And so he walked.
Nothing and no one remained south of the Celebrant. Even the mallorn leaves had begun to lose their lustre. Someday, their limbs would be blighted and their trunks would soften with rot, and they would fall, and none would grow to take their place. Like the Elves, they would pass out of time and out of the minds of Men as if they had never been.
Men. Foolish, fearful Men. They will hear stories of a sorceress in the wood, and in fear and ignorance they will will burn it to the ground.
Or perhaps another fate awaited majestic Lorien: they would clear it to grow their crops until they had drawn the last bit of wealth from the soil, then they would turn their backs on it and move along to despoil some other piece of land. He had no love for Men, save for a few of the Dunedain. It was an old grudge, yet it still pricked. Even with Aragorn sitting his throne and the Men of the West raised in stature once more, they could no sooner plant wisdom in the minds of their lesser kindred than they could plant oaks in a desert.
He walked further, until he reached the Celebrant’s bank. When he had first come to the Golden Wood, the sight and sound of it, the willows bending their boughs to touch the water, had reminded him so much of the Esgalduin that he had nearly wept with joy. Melancholy had made him tired and he desired to rest. He sank to the ground, soft moss beneath him, the strong trunk of against his back. He lifted the feather and turned it in the light. Brilliant colors gleamed along the barbs, evidence of the wildness and magic caught within.
A short story.
He gave a self-deprecating chuckle. The story may have been short, but its echoes had reverberated for a long, long time. . .
Beleg Cuthalion cast a long shadow. His shape and the cadence of his stride were immediately recognizable, even when the low-slung sun threw a blinding aureole around him.
The march warden stopped and turned at the sound of his name. Haldir put up a hand to shield his eyes and was met with a questioning expression. He thrust out the paper target he carried, a constellation of holes clustered at the center.
"Sixty yards, in the field. I considered what you said about keeping too much tension in my back through the release.” His heart raced, and words tumbled out of his mouth. “I think I've just about found the right measure."
Beleg brushed a hand lightly over the holes. "Well done. A little more work, consistent results like this, and I may petition Thingol to send you with me to the marches next year."
Haldir's heart sank. "Next year?"
Beleg's answering chuckle was not unkind. "Yes, next year. You are young yet, and we live rough. Nivrim is a wild place." He resumed his long, deliberate strides.
"I was born in Ossiriand.” Haldir countered, following at his heels. “Wilderness is bred into my bones. I swear to you, I will be equal to any task you set for me."
Beleg laughed. “You’ve enthusiasm enough, that I’ll grant. And not a little bit of stubbornness. It may serve you well, if it doesn’t get you brought up for insubordination first. If a man wishes to lead, first he must serve. And in order to serve, he must obey.”
“And when were you ever obedient?” Haldir gave him a wry look. “They say the Strongbow is a law unto himself. You answer to no man.”
A cloud seemed to pass briefly over Beleg’s face. He drew Haldir aside. “Most of my men stood ten years or more in Menegroth before a posting in the outlands. You’ve served only six—”
“Seven, then. Still short of the mark. Take it as a high compliment I give you consideration for this at all.”
A roguish grin overtook Haldir’s face, though he knew he ought to be circumspect. “Consider me for something else, then.”
Beleg’s eyes were bright and gay, though he made an effort to look stern. “Don’t ask. You are tempting, and too handsome by half.” Haldir’s face flushed with the heat of his pride, which was immediately stricken when Beleg’s mercurial expression turned from levity to solemnity. “But now is not the time, Haldir. We have spoken of this.
“Besides,” he added, as if to soften his refusal, “you are young yet.”
“I am a man, Haldir protested, “and I know my mind.”
“No doubt you think you do, but you are only just a man by my reckoning, while I have walked the length and breadth of this land since only starlight lit the sky. Sow your oats now, my friend. Each season in its turn.”
The damnable sensibility of Beleg’s answer only fueled his frustration. “I have my eye on a greater crop, and you know it. You have known it for some time.”
“And for just as long, you have known that my heart and mind have other tasks.”
Just like that, all of Haldir’s pleas and objections were rendered futile. “I do know. I simply find that I am ill-suited to patience.” He inclined his head. “Farewell and fare safely. I shall look for your return, whenever it may be.”
He turned to take his leave, but the touch of Beleg’s fingers on his shoulder stopped him.
“Here: a story to tide you over for a time. Don’t worry, it’s short. Many years ago, I came across an eagle caught up in a snare. Her name was Gwaelir, song of the wind, a daughter of Gwaihir and newly fledged. Her wing had been broken, and there were wolves and other creatures about.” As he spoke, he worked at the knots in the leather string tying back his hair. From the string hung a dark feather. “I freed her and tended to her until she was well enough to fly once more. She left me with this token of her thanks.” He stopped to stick the quill between his teeth, then took up Haldir’s hair in both his hands and hastily plaited it. As swiftly as his hands moved, his work was straight and even. “As she took leave of me,” he enunciated around the feather, “she told me that the one who bore it would never lose his way.” He bound the quill to the end of Haldir’s plait, finished it with three neat knots, and gave it a gentle tug before pulling back to admire his work. ”Keep it for me while I am gone. And do not lose your way!”
“Hardly likely,” Haldir muttered, his fingers tracing the edge of the feather. “I don’t go far enough away from anything to get lost. Thank you all the same.”
Beleg laughed heartily then, and his hand settled on Haldir’s shoulder. Haldir relished its warmth and weight. But soon his laughter faded and his face became still and sober once more. He lifted his hand, brushed the backs of his fingers across Haldir’s cheek. Even the barest graze of his fingertips sent fire through Haldir’s limbs. He could feel his cheeks flushing once again, hear the pounding of his heart in his ears.
“Do you think me foolish for desiring you as I do?” he asked, his voice pitched barely above a whisper.
“No, and a thousand times no. Another time, and I would not hesitate.”
The inexplicable sadness in Beleg’s face unmoored something deep within Haldir’s chest, and he saw, for only a moment, how much older Beleg was than he—and how heavy a burden he seemed to be bearing. It occurred to him, belatedly, that such a grave look could only mean one thing.
“Túrin. He has a hand in this.”
Beleg hesitated. “He is part of it, yes.”
The realization came upon him like an unexpected blow. “You’re taking him with you?” He hadn’t meant to speak so loudly, but his chagrin exceeded his sense of propriety. “Beleg, I have carried a sword for more years than he has been alive, and you think me too green for the roads you travel!” Seeing the intransigence settle over Beleg’s features, he wished he had held himself in check.
“He is young, yes; even by the standard of Men. There is much he must learn, and quickly. The fire in his belly burns bright and hot, and a flame which is not rightly tended may become a conflagration. I have a hope of reaching him, of guiding him. And so I must.”
It was an old wound—all of seventeen years now—and a tender one, and Haldir knew better than to press it, even if the very thought of the boy set his teeth on edge. A sullen face and scowling mouth flitted through his head. He had little concourse with Men, but if Túrin was an example of the hope of their great houses, he was content to keep it that way. “He bears me no love, that much is clear.”
“He is threatened by you.”
Haldir rolled his eyes. “He shouldn’t be.”
“No?” Beleg’s eyes gleamed silver-bright, and he drew his battle-scarred knuckles along Haldir’s jaw, then beneath. Haldir felt the disturbance of the atmosphere around him as Beleg leaned in, and the warmth of Beleg’s breath against his lips, and—
A curse could hardly have curdled the air more effectively. Haldir could barely contain his frustration, but Beleg’s face showed nothing.
Túrin’s shadow was not nearly as long as Beleg’s, and yet it seemed to cover twice as much ground. The sun had not set, Haldir noticed, and yet the boy seemed to drain all the light around him. His wary eyes were trained on Haldir, his mouth set in a scowl.
Haldir’s nostrils twitched, some feral instinct stirring in the dark recesses of his being. He fought it back; he would not rise to the boy’s bait. It was a battle he could not win, and no doubt Túrin knew it well.
“We are to set out early tomorrow,” he announced imperiously, as if it had not been Beleg who had overseen every arrangement for their journey. “My foster-father would have us dine at his table tonight.” Haldir noticed that in his presence the boy always referred to King Thingol as his foster-father, as if Haldir might forget.
Beleg turned back and offered an apologetic smile. “Well, then. I suppose I must go.” Túrin made an impatient noise and Beleg shot him a scolding look, which had only a slightly tempering effect. “Be well, Haldir, and be patient. Such time will come that you and I will tread the marches together. There are more than enough adventures to be had in this world, and we will have ours.”
Haldir inclined his head, an acknowledgement and a farewell, and watched them go in silence. Beleg looked straight ahead, but Túrin turned back for one brief moment to give Haldir a defiant glare.
Just as Beleg had promised, Haldir had been called up to the marches the very next year. But in the end, it had been Mablung who had secured his assignment, not Beleg. Beleg was abroad in these days more often than he was on the borders. Haldir wished for his company, but Mablung had much to teach him, and he found a great bond of brotherhood with his fellows, forged in battle and tempered in snow. After the first winter— which had been longer and colder than he ever imagined—he knew he had found his calling. He had no wish to be cooped up in Menegroth's dim chambers, nor to watch the preening courtiers look down their noses at him because he was Laiquendi, or because his hands were dirty and his cloaks were heavy and rough and not pleasing to the eye. The march wardens were their own law, and their own justice. They followed Mablung because he demonstrated wisdom, strength, and skill, and all in great measure, not simply because Thingol had given him a captain's title and a captain's chain.
And ever after, I have sought the solitude of the borders and made my home on the fringes of the land. A land that now withers day by day.
He drew his fingers up the feather from the quill to the tip, feeling the barbs yielding under his touch. Where is Gwaelir now? he wondered. Does she still live?
He had awaited the day when he and Beleg would roam together, for the promised adventures, for the promise of whatever it was that seemed ever ready to take root. But Túrin’s shadow had fallen always between them.
He had hoped that the death of Thingol’s councillor would rip the scales from Beleg’s eyes, that he might see Túrin as Haldir did. Yet Beleg had only defended him more staunchly. It was as if he sensed that he was running on his doom, and had decided that there was nothing to be done for it but to charge at it full-tilt.
And I have never understood why.
Yes, he had thought that Saeros' death would be the end of it. In a sense, he supposed, it had been.
Beleg stopped mid-stride. Haldir’s attempt at stealth had not fooled his keen hearing. "You are far from your post," he said without turning. "Did Mablung give you leave to come here?"
"Mablung sent me.” Haldir kept his voice low and even. “He hoped your fondness for me might prove a bulwark against your folly. But I see you would leave me—leave us all—without even a farewell." A stubborn knot of betrayal twisted in the pit of his stomach. "You skulk away in silence and in darkness because you know this is madness—" The words faltered when Beleg turned. His face was stony and drawn, and the drab of his garb spoke to the necessity of concealment on the road. At his hip hung a dark sword forged for havoc.
“It was not my intention,” he said shortly, an acknowledgement, but not an apology. “Time is no friend to me tonight.”
"Beleg, he is a murderer!"
"He did not—"
"Did not throw the man into the ravine? Perhaps not, but his malice provoked the whole affair."
"Saeros' own malice provoked it!"
Haldir was dismayed to hear such desperation. It was not a thing he was accustomed to hearing from the Strongbow’s mouth. At that moment, he knew the battle was lost.
"Why do you defend him?” His anger had ebbed, leaving behind only a sense of incomprehension and impending loss. “Had he been an Elf and not a Man, he would be reviled as a kinslayer. Would you stand for him then? What glamour has he laid upon you that has blinded your eyes so? "
Beleg said nothing. After a moment, Haldir dared to ask the thing he dreaded.
"Do you love him, Beleg? As I would have you love me?"
Beleg would not meet his eyes. "It is not like that."
“Do not dare tell me you love him as a father loves a son." A note of disgust had crept into his voice that he didn’t bother to disguise. "Perhaps once, when he was a lost child shivering in the woods, but not now."
“No,” Beleg conceded, “it is not that, either.”
"Tell me what it is, then! Help me to understand! He is not of our kind, Beleg. He is a Man, and a broken one at that. He takes everything you give him and demands ever more. He will give you nothing but grief in return!"
"Think you I do not know this?" Beleg’s voice was strained. "All I know is that I am driven by something that I cannot define and cannot explain, but I know that I must heed it."
Haldir took in a long breath and blew it out. “The seasons turn and turn and turn again, yet nothing changes except for Túrin’s increasing troubles. We have not yet walked the borders together, and I fear we never will. I am no longer a stripling boy to be placated with promises which never come to pass.”
“No, you are a man, just as I am, who owns the consequences of his actions, just I do, and who must bear the vagaries of fate, just as I must.”
Beleg's anger echoed in the dark, and rang them into silence. They did not look at one another.
After a long while, Haldir spoke softly but emphatically. “He will lead you to doom.” He was not gifted, as some others were, with foresight, but he knew to trust what instinct told him now. “I swear, I can feel it in my bones.”
Beleg shook his head. “No foe will take me; be certain on that count, as I am.”
Haldir’s shoulders sagged under the weight of resignation; he had run up against the indefatigable wall of Beleg’s resolve. "Then I fear all your promises will come to naught.” His eyes fell again to Beleg’s wicked sword, dully glinting like an Orc-blade dimmed with pitch. “You go after him now courting death and destruction, and I do not know when we will next meet.”
“Our time will come." Beleg reached out and the tips of his fingers, bare and cold, traced Haldir's mouth. "In my heart, I know this to be true. But that time is not now, and this, too, I know for the truth. I cannot say when that it will be. Perhaps a hundred years may pass before I see this through to its end. I do not ask for fidelity—”
“—how can you? I have had nothing but my own longings to hold in faith. You will not even leave me with a kiss to sustain me.”
“Would you have me be so cruel to you? To myself? Even to him?”
“He is not here. He has run, like the caitiff he is.”
Beleg held up his hand. “Enough.” It was very nearly a plea. Haldir fell silent under its gravity. Once more, he freed the eagle’s feather from his hair, and began to tie it into Haldir’s. “Until I return.”
Haldir shook his head, but did not refuse the token as he felt the first knot tighten. “It is you who wander, Cuthalion, and you who have lost your way, not I.”
Beleg’s hands went still, and his breath bloomed white in the cold. “Perhaps. And perhaps it will take more than an eagle’s gift to see me home.
“But now I must go.” He gripped the back of Haldir’s neck for a moment, his thumb coursing lightly over Haldir’s throat before he withdrew. “Farewell,” Beleg whispered, “or fare free, dear one, if that be your wish.” The night air was filled with the rush of the wind and the beating of wings.
Haldir never saw him again.
The weight of old grief lay like an anvil on his chest.
What sort of fool am I to let memories grip me so? Past is past, and I have known far more years with my memories of Beleg than I knew with Beleg himself.
All the same, though ages had come and gone, realms had come and gone, lovers had come and gone, the first song of his heart had always been the most resonant.
And to no good end, he reminded himself. For I am still alone, and know nothing of him. Had he returned from the Halls of Waiting? Did he even now walk rough paths in distant forests? Likely he hadn’t thought of Haldir in all the years since, save perhaps as a simple tyro’s infatuation. That, he thought, was the worst of it: that he might at last concede to go to Valinor, nursing some secret hope in his heart, to find that Beleg remembered him only as some comrade from his distant past—or worse, did not remember him at all.
But it was foolish to dwell on things he could not change. He collected himself and let the song of the Celebrant soothe him. He imagined the pain of his memories being carried away on the water. He took one last, long look at Beleg’s feather. "Farewell or fare free, dear one," he said and set it on the water. The river's wake carried it away from him forever. He sat long in silence, the sun making patterns of lace on the forest floor, and felt a weariness that reached through to his bones.
A crackle of footfalls on dead leaves caught his attention and he stood. Perhaps Celeborn had sent one of his brothers to bring him back. He called out, but received no answer, and so he started off in the direction of the sound. Beyond where he walked, a shadow passed swiftly between two trees, and he shifted his course to follow it. Farther and farther into the woods the shadow drew him, to the deep places where the wildness had already returned, where the trees had already forgotten their Elven guardians. It came again, a dark blur, and he quickened his pace. As he pursued it, it became a thing less of mist and more of matter. The next time he saw it, it had resolved into the unmistakable shape of a man.
He thought he knew the broad shoulders, the skillful carriage. He also knew he must be mistaken. A ghost of my own memory, he told himself, and nothing more. I have stayed here too long.
And yet, even to imagine it was to gave his heart a cruel pang of hope.
Sun streamed through nearly naked branches, and a bold stroke of light fell across the mysterious visitor for only an instant as he passed behind an ancient oak, and Haldir knew that walk, that body, how it moved, and before he could stop himself, he had spoken aloud:
But the vision was gone, quick as that, and Haldir's shoulders sagged under his disappointment. The man is dead and gone, and has been all these many years. Let it lie.
A creeping current of cold air tickled against his neck and he abruptly turned, shuddering at the sensation.
Before him in the copse stood a vision of Beleg Cuthalion, as insubstantial as mist in the first light of day, yet unmistakeable to Haldir.
If this is a dream, he thought, let me never wake.
“Is this the Golden Wood of which I have heard tales?”
The voice did not come from the fetch; it came from within Haldir’s mind, the memory of a voice he had not heard in many, many years.
“It is,” he replied, awestruck.
“I can see why a man might be loathe to leave it.” A moment’s pause. “Haldir of Lorien, you are called now. Will you leave the Golden Wood, Haldir of Lorien?”
“I...” Haldir could not master the quaver in his voice. “I have not yet decided.”
The fetch frowned. “I see.”
As Haldir heard the words, something faltered inside him. “How have you come here?”
Beleg shrugged lightly. “The mind wanders; perhaps sometimes it finds the thing it seeks. These things are beyond my ken; I do not question.”
“So you still remain in Mandos’ care, even after all this time.” The thought made him unaccountably sad.
“Time?” Beleg looked surprised, yet somehow indifferent. “Time passes by its own measure within, and all that happens without seems far away. One year may have passed or one thousand, and it is much the same to us. It feels to me as though very little time has passed at all.”
Haldir’s heart sank. The fetch looked like Beleg, it spoke like Beleg, but it lacked Beleg’s boldness, his light and laughter. It was but an echo of all that Beleg had been. “Whence your fierceness and your fire, Strongbow? If this is what comes from Mandos’ embrace, I think I would sooner stay here and become a shade.”
“The Halls are a place of quiet contemplation; we have no need of passion.” He gave Haldir a wry smile. “Were it otherwise, the vengeful and the lovelorn would have torn down Mandos’ palace stone by stone long ago. Beleg’s fetch looked gravely concerned. “Is it truly your wish to pass out of time and into nothingness? I should think that a long and lonely road.”
“I am accustomed to long and lonely roads,” Haldir said. when the weight of the silence became unbearable, he asked, “Will you be released soon?”
“It is not mine to say. I think, perhaps, yes. I have known a restlessness of late I have not felt since my days in Doriath.”
This answer only made Haldir long all the more for what he had lost. Perhaps he would go to Valinor, then; perhaps he would go and find what all his waiting had wrought. Perhaps all would be well in the end.
Something on the ground had caught the fetch’s eye. “I know that feather.”
Haldir took a step back. “What feather?” Only moments before, he had sent it down the river. He had watched its passage until it vanished from sight.
Haldir looked down at his feet. Sure enough, the feather was there. Wet and bedraggled, but there. A chill coursed swiftly through down his spine. What fey mischief was this?
“It was given to me long ago. The eagle’s name was—”
“Gwaelir,” Haldir supplied when the fetch faltered. “The song of the wind.”
“Yes, Gwaelir. She was my friend of old. I often tracked her flights across the sky. When last I saw her, I do not recall. It could be that she flies no more.”
“You gave it to me before you set off with Túrin.” Haldir said. “You told me that I should tend to it until you returned.”
A rueful smile played across the fetch’s lips. “But I did not return.”
Haldir shook his head and looked down at his feet where the feather had appeared. When he looked up again, the faint outline of the trees behind the fetch had grown darker, and it no longer looked as solid as it had a moment before. It was fading. He held out the feather in appeal. “Please, take it. It belongs to you.”
“And I gave it to you.” The voice within him was softer now, more distant. “To you, Haldir of Ossiriand, Haldir of Doriath, Haldir of Lorien.”
Haldir shook his head adamantly. There was barely anything left of the spectral visitor now, and he felt a rising desperation to keep it with him. “I am only its keeper; the eagle gave it into your care, not mine.”
“I have no need of it now. I know where I am, and where I soon will be. But you...?” The fetch closed its eyes. The sound of a breath escaped it, a short, soft “Ah.” It had almost entirely vanished; only a residual glimmer of it remained.
“Beleg, no!” Haldir cried.
“Come home, Haldir.” The voice receded like an echo, taking the final light of Beleg’s image with it. “You will find your way.”
“Wait!” Haldir reached for the evanescing shadow. “Don’t go! Stay with me just a while longer!” But Beleg was gone once more beyond Haldir’s reach. The feather fell from his hands. His head swam, storm-tossed and spiralling. The earth had begun to tilt and shift beneath him. He steadied himself against the trunk of a tree, but he felt as though he were spinning... falling... drifting...
...His eyes flew open. The full dark of the night was surprising and disorienting. It had still been light out while he had spoken with the fetch, but the moon was now clearly visible above the trees; the day’s light had long since passed.
So it was merely a dream, then. A terrible, wonderful dream. A fever of longing raged in his belly. It would be a long and sleepless night.
He rose to his feet, brushing the dirt and leaves from his trousers, and as he did so, he felt the weight of his plait swinging across his back. He did not remember having braided it. A slow frisson of hope crept along his limbs as he pulled the plait over his shoulder. From its end dangled the eagle’s feather, radiant even in darkness, untouched by the river, and secured to his hair with three neat knots.
Within the high walls of Caras Galadhon, a few candles still guttered in the windows, despite the lateness of the hour. A crystal lamp still glowed within Celeborn’s quarters. Haldir knocked on the door.
If Celeborn harbored any satisfaction upon seeing Haldir at his threshold, he was kind enough not to show it.
“I’ve a story I’d like to tell, if you’ve an ear for it.”
Celeborn’s expression became blandly curious. “Is it short?” He opened wide his door and gestured for Haldir to come inside.
Haldir shook his head, and for the first time in a long while, he allowed himself to smile. “No, but I think perhaps it ends well.”