Standard Bearer, The
11. The Dance of Rivals
Elendil’s camp had been transformed into something from a fairytale. Hundreds of flickering lamps hung from poles, thick carpets covered the rough ground, gorgeous awnings and pavilions sheltered groaning tables and all around soft music sounded.
“Oh, it is delightful!” exclaimed Galeria, her eyes bright. “Don’t you think so?” she peeked round Elrond to catch her friend’s eye.
“Oh yes!” Gildinwen’s face glowed with happiness, she could almost feel her eyes fill. ‘No crying!’ She scolded herself, and resorted to an irrepressible grin instead.
“I see some of our friends!” Galeria started forward, dragging the others behind her, “Come! Let us join them!”
Gildinwen felt Elrond’s arm slide out from under her hand as Galeria pulled him on, but just as she thought to lose him, she felt his strong hand clasp hers, and the steps with which she followed Galeria’s laughing ones seemed to float on the very air itself.
The group of younger Elves had commandeered a large table with a good view. They happily squeezed up to make room for the newcomers and soon everyone was settled and eagerly watching the spectacle unfold.
Elendil stood in front of the top table to greet his guests. He was dressed magnificently, his tunic thickly embroidered with gold, and a crown upon his head. Behind him hung gorgeous tapestries depicting legendary battlescenes, while above a richly appointed canopy glowed with colour. Silence fell as Gil-galad approached. His formal robes blazed with the countless stars of night, his face solemn beneath his simple coronet, his step long and firm and his bearing regal. At his right hand strode the shipwright, Cìrdan, his white hair shining, his face grave.
Once the guests of honour were seated, Elendil’s family advanced. Isildur, as the eldest, took precedence, and a gasp was audible as he appeared with the Lady Varadil. Truly she was the most beautiful woman. Her hair like a river of molten sunlight, her skin radiant, her face flawless. She moved with the grace and lightness of a deer, her body supple and waist narrow despite the four sons she had given her lord. A delicate hand rested lightly on Isildur’s sword arm, and even the slight distance in her summer-sky eyes served only to enhance her beauty. She was attired in the finest silks, exquisitely sewn with gold and pearls, and arrayed with the finest jewels to be found in Middle Earth. Her husband’s face shone with pride and happiness, as he handed her to her place at his father’s left hand, then seated himself beside her.
A slight movement caught Gildinwen’s eye and she glanced away from the pageant to see a tall, good-looking man, whom she could not quite place, moving round behind the crowd his eye riveted on the Lady Varadil. She nudged Galeria discretely.
“Lord Brithiar,” her friend whispered.
Of course, Falcred’s companion.
“The Lady Varadil was betrothed to him once,” continued Galeria in a low voice, “But she broke it off to marry Isildur. They say he never got over it. Certainly he never married.”
“Oh.” breathed Gildinwen, “Isildur is his leige-lord, is he not?”
“That is so, and as such Brithiar has no recourse against him. It was considered very bad judgement for Isildur to take the betrothed of one of his vassals, but he could not be persuaded against it.”
They hushed again, as Lord Anárion and the Lady Tuiliel stepped up. The younger of Elendil’s sons was slightly taller than his brother, his fair hair unruly above keen blue eyes, his chin clean-shaven, his mouth smiling. His wife was shorter, her build shapely, her face rosy and blooming, a mass of chestnut curls spilling down her back. They walked closely together, and when they sat, Anárion held her hand tenderly in his.
The food served was delicious, but Gildinwen could only nibble at it, and even a glass of wine failed to alleviate her dry mouth. Beside her, Elrond reclined indolently in his chair, long limbs loose in a posture of abandonment. His dark hair lay softly against the fair skin of cheek and neck, the elegant tips of his ears parting the fine strands. Sitting here among the talk and laughter of her friends, her head a little giddy from the wine, she knew there was no point in denying it. Her whole body felt like a tinderbox, just one spark was needed to set her alight. Every nerve was taut like a harpstring, just one touch and she would sing out. A song of love, a song of desire.
She was distracted from her musing as the tables were pushed back, and the floor cleared for dancing. Galeria pulled her chair up beside Gildinwen.
“You must tell me all about the dances, Gil! Although we Elves dance, it is generally something that is performed as an art, like singing, or for one’s own pleasure, but I understand it is different among Men.”
“Oh very different!” exclaimed Gildinwen, “For us dances are a social activity, and strongly linked with courtship.”
“How so?” Galeria was fascinated.
“Well, young people go to dances to meet each other. When a young man sees a girl that he likes, he asks her to dance.”
“Do they dance by themselves?”
“Oh no, many couples will dance at once, and the dance steps are fixed so everyone knows what to do.”
“And what if a young woman sees a man that she likes?” Galeria’s face was mischevious.
Gildinwen laughed, “Unfortunately, there is no custom to allow for that. She must wait for the young man to make a move first.”
“And if he does not?”
“Then either she can dance with another who does ask, or else she must wait in vain.”
“And there are different types of dances?”
“Certainly! Some are dances of friendship, that you might join in with a brother, or an uncle, some are intimate, that one would only share with a lover, and there are many in-between. Some are fast and furious, and some are slow and close. There are dances for spring, for summer, for harvest and mid-winter. For birthdays, weddings, and just about any occasion you can imagine.”
In front of them, the muscians played the introduction, and amid a bustle of activity, the men scrambled to claim their partners, and take their places in the set. In addition to the ladies from the great cities of Gondor who had travelled down the previous day, many camp followers and other such lowly lasses had been drafted in for the evening.
“So does the music tell which dance it is to be?”
“Indeed. This is a Boatman’s Reel. A fairly typical dance to start the evening with – quite suitable to dance with a stranger.”
The dance started in earnest, and Gildenwen felt her feet tapping along to the lively music. The dancers whirled and stamped, their clothes bright and faces happy. Among the young sons of Gondor she noticed Lord Falcred, resplendant as always, and his friends from the ship. Laughing they spun their partners, and galloped heartily across the floor, all thoughts of war banished for a time.
After several dances, a break was announced and some singers came out to take over the entertainment. Many songs of battles and victories were sung, reflecting the mood of the gathering. The soldiers joining in loudly with their favourites. After a few of these, and following much insistence, the Lady Tuiliel got up to sing a very different type of song. A sad lament, of a young wife waiting in vain for her husband’s return from war.
After it was over, Galeria sighed appreciatively. “I liked that.” She turned to her friend again. “It seems to me Gil, that among humans, the male and female are very different.”
Gildinwen laughed aloud. “That is indeed the case! Is the same is not true for Elves, then?”
“No,” Galeria shook her head, “we are much the same in our thoughts and feelings. From what I have seen of humans, and from your songs, it seems to me that the might of men is in strength of body and feats of daring, but for women it is in endurance, the silent bearing of heavy burdens of heart and mind.”
Gildinwen made no reply, but her face was thoughtful.
The musicians struck up again, and the floor filled with dancers once more. Glorfindel made his way through the crowd towards them.
“Greetings.” He beamed at Gildinwen and Galeria, “And how are you enjoying the evening?”
“We are having a wonderful time!” replied the Elf, “Isn’t that right, Gil?”
Gildinwen had to agree wholeheartedly.
“Good!” replied Glorfindel, “Now, I’m afraid I have to deprive you of your escort for a while, Lord Gil-galad has need of him.” He turned to Master Elrond and whispered in his ear. “But I hope that I may do in his stead.” He drew up a chair and settled himself beside Galeria, looking over at her with a shining smile.
Elrond pushed back his chair and stood up, “Please excuse me, ladies. I shall return as soon as I may.”
Applause rippled through the company as the dance finished, and when the musicians started the next, a great cheer of excitement rose from the assembly.
“A Cirthar!” exclaimed Gildinwen. “Now you will really see something. It is very energetic and furious, and the couples compete to dance the fastest and most complex steps.”
Galeria clapped her hands with glee.
“It is also traditional that no girl may refuse this dance if asked,” continued Gildinwen, “unless she be already betrothed. And for this reason it is also known as the ‘Dance of Rivals’, as sometimes a young man will use it as an opportunity to steal a dance with another’s partner.”
She looked up from explaining this to see Lord Falcred standing in front of her. His blonde hair was disarrayed and his face pleasantly flushed from exertion. He bowed and extended his hand, “My Lady Gildinwen, may I have the pleasure?”
Astounded, she found herself led onto the dance floor, Galeria’s delighted laughter ringing in her ears. Couples already on the floor huddled in consultation, planning their strategies.
“My lord, I…” she stammered.
“I noticed that you hadn’t danced all night.” Falcred grinned, his handsome face beaming at her. He leaned towards her, “You can dance a Cirthar, can’t you?”
“Can I?!” Gildinwen feigned outrage, “I’ll have you know I was the best Cirthar dancer in our region!”
“Ha! I knew you’d be good!” he exulted. “Mardaroc variations?” This was the most intricate form.
“And a double jump after the crossover.” It was ambitious, especially with an untried partner.
She felt a spirit of recklessness come over her, and grinned broadly, “Very well.”
They lined up and the dance started. Leaping and spinning, feet flashing in the pattern of the dance, the couples flew around and about. The secret to dancing a Cirthar well was to never take your eye off your partner, and Gildinwen kept hers locked on Falcred’s smiling blue ones.
She did not notice Elrond return to his seat, frowning as he spotted her on the dance floor. Nor the frown turn to a glare as Galeria whispered, laughing, in his ear.
The tempo increased, the onlookers clapping in time. Maintaining perfect rhythm, Gildinwen and Falcred matched the beat, their feet drumming in harmony. The spirit of the Cirthar filled her whole body, her blood sang with it, her head tossed proudly, the wild heritage of Gondor possessing her. Conscious only of the music in her ears, the grip of Falcred’s hand on hers and the subtle signals in his face, she gave herself over to the dance. As the musicians played furiously towards the finale, and they span through the crossover, she felt Falcred take hold of her waist – a double jump! The man was mad! Despite this she leapt high in the air, not once but twice. The onlookers shouted with delight and applauded as the two dancers came to a perfect stop, and bowed towards each other, as the music faded.
Gildinwen collapsed in a nearby chair, breathless with laughter and delight. “Oh heavens!” she loosened the neck of her gown and fanned herself ineffectually with a hand, “I can’t remember when I last had so much fun!”
Falcred’s glowing face was split by a huge grin, “Come on!” he pulled her to her feet, “I’ll get you something cold to drink.”
Grabbing a bottle, he dragged her out into the night.
The cool air was wonderful against her hot skin, and she breathed deeply. They walked a little way between the lines of dark tents before finding a seat at a deserted campfire, its embers low, the usual residents part of the noise and light behind them.
He handed her the bottle, and she took a deep drink, it was a light cider – deliciously refreshing.
They sat for a while in silence. Gildinwen enjoying the feel of the night breeze, leaning back to look at the stars bright above them.
“I spoke to my father about you.”
She turned to look at him.
“And, well, there’s something I want to ask you.”
“What is it?”
He faced her, running a hand awkwardly through his wayward hair. “I’m only the second son, but I hold lands of my own, and command the Company, as you know.”
She felt a feather of suspicion tickle the back of her mind.
“You’ve done what you came here to do. You’ve brought the Banner to the Elves. So, well, how would you feel about coming back to Lossarnach with me? As my wife?”
Gildinwen was suddenly wide awake, a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. Oh Gil! You idiot! Didn’t see this coming, did you?
He looked up at her, uncertainty warring with excitement in his face. “It’s a good offer.”
It was, especially for someone like her, with no family or money.
Meeting his frank and hopeful gaze she felt like the lowest and meanest creature alive. She took a deep breath, better to get it over with quickly. “You do me a great honour, my lord. Your offer is generous beyond words.” She paused.
“But?” Disappointment already clouded the blue eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she shook her head mournfully, “It would not be fair to give my hand where my heart does not follow.”
“Ah.” He glanced down at his feet, “I thought it might be that.” He shrugged and pulled a rueful face, getting to his feet. “You’re sure?”
He stooped to pick up the bottle, then looked down at her, his eyes hardening briefly, his quiet voice edged with gall, “He won’t marry you, you know. You’d have been better to stick to your own kind.” Then he turned on his heel and walked swiftly away.
Gildinwen sat wilting miserably on her seat. Inside she felt horrible. What a fool she had been to come out here in the first place, she thought angrily.
“He seemed to take that rather well.”
She leapt from her stool with a start as Elrond stepped from the shadows, pushing back his Elven cloak.
“How long have you been there?” she demanded, incredulity and guilt making her voice harsh.
“Long enough.” He leaned insolently against a nearby tentpole, arms folded, a scowl marring his beautiful face. “Sounded like a good offer, maybe you should have accepted?”
Gil felt a familiar hot feeling behind her eyes. No! She set her jaw. I will not!
“I will not marry where I do not love, my lord.”
“Maybe love would have grown between you? Would not your father have approved of him?”
“Possibly, but he was a notoriously bad judge of men.” She raised her head defiantly, “I make my own choice. It is one of the few advantages to having no living relatives. Maybe it is within the power of a mighty Elf-Lord to choose where his heart goes, but it is beyond that of a mere mortal woman.”
With three strides of his long limbs, he crossed the clearing. He looked down at her face, his features hard. “Perhaps you think to make a better match?”
She met his gaze, her eyes flashing. “No, my lord.” Pride swelled her voice, “I have no such hopes.”
He plucked the arm of her dress, gripping the fine silk of the dress between his fingers. “Does my gift not please you?”
“Your gift?” Gildinwen felt a seeth of conflicting feelings. He was very close. “Yes,” she whispered, “It is beautiful.”
“I did not expect to see you wear it to dance with another!”
“I did not realise the gift was from you.” Her voice was tight with emotion, “Nor that there was a price attached to it.”
He grabbed her by the upper arms, his grip tight, and pulled her against him. She trembled, unable to breath. His eyes were unreadable, and his lips set. She felt a strong hand on the back of her head, taking hold of her hair. His mouth softened a fraction, and he bent his head…
“My Lord!” Luinil’s voice was urgent.
Releasing her roughly, he whirled angrily towards the intrusion, “What?!” he roared.
Behind him, Gildinwen gasped for air, her mind and body confused and swirling. At a loss even to know what she was feeling, she turned and fled into the darkness.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.