1. New Roots
It had been a long time since Celeborn had been among trees like these.
The closest he'd been had been when Galadriel had called down the tower of Dol Guldur. The forest surrounding the tower had been dark and twisted, and he had felt almost dirty by the time he had once more returned to the Golden Wood.
Lothlórien was no more now, and the path that had taken him to Imladris had not ventured anywhere near these lands. During that time, he understood, the name had changed from a dreary Taur-e-Ndaedelos – Mirkwood – to a vibrant Eryn Lasgalen – the Wood of Green Leaves. The better part of three ennin had passed now since he'd even been remotely close to the area, and the difference was striking. The name indeed reflected a welcome change.
This was what he'd known when he was much younger in Doriath, and he was suddenly reminded of Lothlórien before the mellyrn had been planted and convinced to grow tall and ageless. Birds chattered busily in the canopy, squirrels scampered in carefree abandon from tree to tree, and a white doe and her fawn grazed peacefully on the abundant grass of a small meadow and merely looked up in curiosity as he passed. Nowhere were there any scars of the fierce battle that had been waged beneath these eaves. All was long healed.
All, that was, except him.
Without the press of an escort, or even knowing himself expected at any destination, Celeborn brought his mount to a halt and simply gazed around him. Imladris had ever had its own kind of peace; but without the restorative energy of Vilya to sustain it, the ravages of time had slowly begun taking their toll there. And now that Elladan and Elrohir were gone…
No. He wouldn't think of that. The idea that Elrohir had chosen the fate of the Second-born and accepted Eru's Gift, and that Elladan had fled from his brother's funeral pyre to the Havens was a wound too deep and too fresh to contemplate. Even before that horrible day, Elladan had tried several times to convince him to ride to Mithlond when the time came, to cross the Belegaer and make a new life in a new land where Galadriel and Celebrían waited to greet him; and each time he'd quietly and firmly replied, "No." Elrohir's mortal family had also begged him to remain with them after the funeral, only to be given a similar response.
Haldir and the others had chosen to cross the sea at last, however, and Celeborn hadn't been surprised. They had stayed in Ennor as much for him as for anyone or anything else, but the dissolution of the settlement in Imladris had been a blow they could no longer endure. So many of their kin had been taken in the wars, or had fled West long since; there was nothing to hold them on this side of the sea any longer save his own stubbornness – and even that was no longer enough. And now, so much that had been carefully tended for thousands of years at the bottom of that ravine grew wild and untouched. Stone that had been worked almost two Ages ago was beginning to crumble. Finally, but most importantly, Men had begun settling closer and closer, to the point that it was only a question of time before the hidden nature of the refuge was utterly lost.
In Lothlórien after Galadriel's departure, Celeborn had ridden out the storm of Sauron's evil until the very last. He had traveled to Imladris with Galadriel and then remained there while she continued on to the Havens, never seeing the fading of the mellyrn she had so loved. He had ridden out the storm of the passing of the Elves there and now had ridden out of the valley and away from his daughter's old home so as not to witness the slow fading of yet another refuge. He had taken the trail east across the Hithaeglir, seeking something old and yet new: a place that would not fade, a people who would not flee across the sea.
And here it was.
He left the road behind him and rode in pleased silence into the forest itself. In a manner the like of which he hadn't heard for many, many ennin, the trees soughed at him, reaching out in small ways with twigs and leaves to brush him gently as if greeting an old friend. The summer breeze teased and lifted his hair from his face and shoulders and brought the sweet scent of wildflowers. The further he rode away from the Old Forest Road, the denser – and yet more contented – the woods grew. The entire place seemed alive and aware, as if a common intelligence underlay it all; and that intelligence was a welcoming, distinctly Elven one.
It was midday; Anor shone brightly, sparkling sunbeams danced through the leaves and painted infinitely changing patterns on the forest floor. Celeborn could hear the music of a small stream in the distance and aimed his faithful Sador in that direction. On the banks of a rivulet that splashed and frolicked over stones on its way to one of the larger waterways he dismounted and dipped a hand into water that was crystal clear and cold as if it had been snow only just that morning. The taste was fresh, clean and wild in much the same way the waters of the Bruinen had been. He splashed his face and found himself almost chuckling as he straightened and, settling onto a comfortable perch on a nearby rock, looked around.
Imladris had been beautiful, but ultimately it had been built of stone in the Noldor fashion. He had been comfortable there because his grandsons – and Elrohir's mortal family – had been there, and because the Elves who remained there had needed him. And yet, that time was over now. Here, in this untouched wilderness, he felt alive as he hadn't in a long time: unfettered, young.
Would Thranduil permit him to settle here, somewhere? Celeborn looked about him with a discerning eye. The trees here by this stream were old and venerable; surely one of them could be convinced to support a simple talan in its arms, for he needed nothing more than that. Lordship, power, authority, responsibility – these were all things that belonged to the past now. How long would it take him to convince his estranged kin that he wanted no part of anything other than just being a wood-elf? He'd have to find him first…
"You are a long way from home, cousin."
Celeborn's head turned to where he could see Thranduil's golden hair and green, suede-clad figure coming out from behind one of the older trees. He wasn't surprised to see him already; it was said that little went on in these woods that the Elvenking didn't know of long before anyone else did. "I suppose you are right." He gestured at his rock – easily large enough to hold them both. "Join me?"
With a graceful incline of the head, Thranduil moved closer, looking about the area closely. "You are alone!"
"So are you," Celeborn pointed out with a smile.
"True, but then, these are my woods." Thranduil settled on the rock next to him and then pointed to where the forest grew denser. "And, truth be told, my escort remains hidden: far enough away to give privacy and yet close enough at hand to be of use if needed." He drew a deep breath and then folded his hands in his slightly tilted lap. "It has been a long time since last we spoke."
"Indeed." Once more Celeborn studied the forest about him, and once more he felt his spirit buoyed by the life that pulsed so vibrantly here. "Too long."
"You look tired, cousin. Do your grandsons still give you so much grief?"
Celeborn's brow wrinkled before he could stop it, a visible indication of a grief he wasn't ready to face quite yet. "My grandsons bide no more in Ennor," he said simply.
He didn't need to look to know that he had shocked the Elvenking. "And Imladris?"
"Empty. Growing older by the day and fading."
"Why are you not on a ship then?" Thranduil asked quietly. "You have nothing holding you here any longer…"
"That is where you are wrong, cousin." Celeborn took a deep breath of fresh grass and new life; and when he breathed out, he released some of the pain and anguish that had been his constant companions since Elrohir's final illness had overtaken him. "This is my home – this, and not Aman. I was born here. My life has been dedicated to the welfare of these lands, these trees."
"But your wife, your daughter…"
"I will see them again," he said with the certainty of belief. "We are not sundered forever. But I have no place in those lands." He looked over at Thranduil. "You too have a wife and son on those other shores. Why do you stay?"
And he watched his cousin look up and out over the woods, his eyes caressing the trees and animals of his realm. "Like you, I have no place in those lands, and these lands still respond best to the touch of the edhil. The only way I will ever tread the Undying Lands is by journeying through Bannoth first."
"Then we understand each other." Celeborn allowed his gaze to wander and his ears to be filled with the sound of the dancing rivulet. An easy silence grew between them, one filled with the understanding of power and authority – and understanding how little that power and authority mattered here, where the heart of the wood spoke in the whisper of the breeze and the trickle of wild water. Eventually, though, he knew that the question needed to be voiced. "I would make my home here, if you would permit it."
Thranduil gave the statement due consideration before answering. "There will ever be a suite of rooms in my Halls for…"
"No," Celeborn interrupted. "Here." He gestured about them. "This is a good place to build a simple talan."
"The winters in Eryn Lasgalen are colder than those of Lothlórien, cousin," was the wry response. "Even Imladris did not suffer the harsher winds of rhîw, being protected down within a ravine with hot springs to combat the frost. Besides…" Thranduil turned to him, his green eyes glittering with humor. "It would be good to have an old friend with whom to empty a carafe or two of Dorwinion of an evening."
"I actually look forward to a winter where I am neither surrounded with stone nor Golodhren magic." Celeborn sighed softly. "Besides, I am not so feeble that I need more than an adequate fire-pot to chase away the harsher chills. And…" He turned to face Thranduil with a shy smile. "…there is nothing that states that a ruler cannot visit an outlying talan and bring a supply of Dorwinion with him, is there?"
"I would have you closer to me than that," Thranduil admitted in a quiet voice. "Your wisdom would be of great benefit."
"My wisdom, such as it is, would ever be at your service. But…" Celeborn stood and took a few steps, breathing deeply of the forest scents and feeling the weight of grief shift. It didn't leave him entirely – it would ever be there, he knew that all too well – but here in this vigorous, peaceful place, it could be far more bearable. "…I am ready to step back from the business of ruling and be a simple forester once more."
Thranduil rose too. "Might I suggest a compromise then? There is a small settlement just over that rise." He pointed. "There is another stream there, much like this one, and a stand of old oak that have enjoyed the company of the edhil for many ennin. I am certain one of those would bear your talan. And before you complain…" He put up a long finger to stop Celeborn's complaint before it left his lips. "…it would at least provide you with a few of the niceties of a more settled life: someone to wash your clothes and cook for you – right along with the rest of the settlement."
"I am perfectly capable of handling those tasks on my own, you know," Celeborn stated stubbornly. "I have done so before."
"If you think I will permit you to take up a hermit's existence and slowly fade of grief beneath my trees, cousin, you are sadly mistaken." Thranduil's expression grew stern. "I have few I can call family or close friend on this shore any longer; permit me the luxury of hanging onto those who remain, even when they have other wishes."
"I did not come here to fade."
"Good. Then we need not argue over the difference of less than a league. Anyway, I was hoping to invite you to dinner and to share the first of those carafes of Dorwinion between us this night. It will take a while before your talan is ready anyway; you know this."
He couldn't help it: Celeborn began to chuckle, and then he laughed outright. "Galadriel used to marvel that you persevered here, so close to the Enemy, by the sheer power of your will alone. I need not wonder about it any longer, when I find that same will bent in my direction."
Thranduil's eyebrows climbed his forehead, and his lips twitched for a moment before the grin couldn't be hidden any longer. "Tell your four-legged friend there to follow, then, and let me introduce you to my forest. Together we shall see which oak will agree to bear your presence in their branches." He clapped Celeborn on the shoulder companionably. "And then, when that is finished, we shall head back to my Hall and let Galion fall all over himself in trying to impress you."
Celeborn shook his head in amusement. "Are you still giving your man a bad time?"
"Always!" Thranduil laughed outright. "It is one of the few amusements I have had of late. I am hoping you can help me think of a few more, however. If memory serves, my father told some fairly interesting tales about some of your exploits…"
While walking next to his cousin, once an estranged relation and now a welcoming friend, Celeborn once more took in a deep breath and then let out a bit more of the melancholy that had shadowed him all the way from Imladris. This was a good place to put down new roots – this time among the Sindar, whom he had missed greatly.
He would see Galadriel and Celebrían again. Someday. In the meanwhile, however, he who had dwelled in so many different places and with so many different people at so many different times could learn to call this place "home."
Bannoth - the Halls of Waiting (Q. Mandos)
edhil - Elves (sing. edhel)
ennin - multiple periods of 144 years (Q. sing. yen)
Hithaeglir - the Misty Mountains
mellyrn - golden trees of Lothlórien (sing. mallorn)
rhîw - winter
talan - platform dwellings in trees that are the home of Silvan Elves (pl. telain)