Burning Bright: Answers in the Dark

10. Westward

Erestor had not yet changed his mind about boats, but at least the sea was quiet for once, the deck almost steady under his feet. Away from the light the sky was clear and studded with brilliant stars; there was no moon yet, it would rise later. They were near the middle of the second watch so there were still voices talking softly above the sound of the waves and although the ship with all its creaking and groans sounded like it might fall apart at any moment, everything seemed to be going along as it should.

His home on this dubious vessel was the small cabin he shared with Arvarad and Lindir, little more than a covered frame with a leather curtain for a door and a panelled division between their quarters and those shared by the two nobles’ sons, Faelon and Abrazîr. He had planned an early night but that was before a noisy game of chance started up next door. Neither reading nor sleep were possible after that so he went back out on deck instead, in search of company. He could have asked to join the game, it would certainly have passed the time, but he had spoken enough Adûnaic for one day.

The world was a softer place after dark. During the day the water threw back shards of sunlight and his eyes never felt quite comfortable, but at night the deck was lit fore and aft by lanterns hanging from iron holders, bathing it and the captain’s cabin on the upper level in a golden glow. He could make out a figure in the steersman’s chair but the angle was awkward and he wasn’t sure if it was Captain Gimilkhâd or his deputy. A young boy sat up against the ladder, one of the two who ran errands and took turns with the hourglass that timed the watches: he was upright, but Erestor suspected he was in fact asleep.

Arvarad was nowhere in sight, but Lindir had found a dry spot and sat with his back against a battered storage chest, his lyre resting across his thighs. Erestor made his way over, stepping lightly around ropes and other hazards and sank down next to him, drawing his knees up and tidying the folds of his coat. He made a point of being properly dressed at all times, even if the clothes itched in the heat and were a pain to keep clean. He was Gil-galad’s envoy and appearances were everything.

“I saw you up in the rigging earlier,” he said. “You realise of course you could break your neck and leave us without any cultural exchange to offer? We’d have to recite poetry or something.”

“Yes, there had to be a reason for the concern.” Lindir tilted his head back and smiled at the stars. “Not oh Lindir, you must not climb the rigging, you could be hurt and I would be devastated, no.”

“It takes a lot to devastate me, Songbird,” Erestor told him. “Put out, yes. I would be put out.”

“You should have come up with me. You like doing crazy things and the view was spectacular.”

Erestor shrugged and tried not to feel resentful. “I’m the envoy, remember? Diplomatic representative of the High King of the Elves. I can hardly go climbing up ropes and generally having a good time, it lacks elegance. Especially in formal clothes. Arvarad, perhaps.”

This got Lindir laughing. “I can just see him – all black robes and scrawny legs. Yes, I know you have to live up to your rank, though it sounds like a pain in the neck. I on the other hand am a bard, which means I can do as I like – well, within reason…”

“So long as it doesn’t embarrass Lindon, yes. You’ve been sneaking a look at Arvarad’s legs?”

“Sharing dressing space makes it hard not to. Sorry, was that bit about embarrassing Lindon a discreet hint?”

Erestor snapped his fingers at him good humouredly. “I don’t deal in discreet hints, they’re a waste of energy. If I wanted you to know something, I’d tell you in small, clear words.”

“Because I need small words, yes,” Lindir agreed. “If I was bright I wouldn’t be out here on the sea on this strange ship, heading for a place of legend that is a bit too close to Elvenhome for my comfort.”

“The boat takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?” Erestor said, serious now. “I still feel too high above the water. And I miss rope-sewn planks and protective runes. Our ships are in tune with the ocean while this Dolphin doesn’t work with the waves, she charges through them like a wild boar.” He glanced round to make sure none of the small crew was close enough to overhear him criticise Númenórean ship design. “And I don’t see the point in more than one mast, no matter how many times Arvarad explains it to me. Why are you worried about being close to Aman? Scared they’ll hear your brilliant voice and come drag you home?”

“It’s not my home,” Lindir said pensively. “I know we’re meant to call it that and be happy it’s there, but it’s never appealed to me. It sounds like a cage. And if you think this is bad, you need to ride in one of the Haradrim longships. You can reach over the side and touch the waves, and you’re drenched most of the time, but damn they’re fast!”

“This is pretty fast too,” Erestor conceded. “Nothing like the designs they had when they followed Eärendil west either. I thought they’d have learned from the folks on Tol Eressëa, but this seems all their own invention.”

“So they say. And I understand wanting to do it your way. Aldarion is supposed to have learned ship building from Círdan, but there’s not much of that on show. I don’t know about before, I remember something about their sails changing, that’s all. Square mainsail to lateen.” He stopped when he caught Erestor staring at him. “What? My grandfather worked in the Forlond docks before he sailed.”

Erestor frowned at him. “Is that where you learned about ships? You keep coming out with things like – lateen sails? – and I wonder where you get it from.”

Lindir gave him the side of his eye. “I’ve been on a ship or two in my life,” he said. “And seen a good many more. But I listened when the old man talked too. I was sorry when he took the final voyage. He wasn’t keen but my grandmother wanted to go back, so…”

There had been a constant western migration since the Ban was lifted, and the choice to stay or leave formed a common division between families and friends. Few were untouched, including Erestor’s own sister whose husband’s family were trying to persuade them to sail. It was a sensitive topic, so rather than express an opinion he went back to Númenórean invention. “I think Aldarion lived almost a thousand sun years ago, didn’t he? Ideas mutate, change over the generations. Sometimes I think we’ll be surpassed by the Second Born in the end because we’re in no rush, we know the question will still be here in fifty years and we can solve it then.”

“Does that mean we’re more thorough then?”

“Depends – do you think examining a problem from all angles is better than acting on instinct?”

Lindir grinned at him. “Probably, though it’s not a lesson I’ve learned yet. There’s less pressure though if you can spend fifty years on a simple problem.”

“Annatar might not have got as far as he did if some people thought a bit faster,” Erestor said. “And, Celebrimbor might have seen he couldn’t hold onto Eregion alone and sent for help.” He had not known Celebrimbor well, but hearing the means of his death had chilled him, the horror more real than most of what had been going on around him in Mithlond. He could picture Annatar savouring the terror, making it last…

“That’s a good example of not thinking it through,” Lindir agreed, moving the lyre into a playing position and trying a few cords. “Fëanor’s grandson, doing it his way.”

Erestor drew a steadying breath, nodded. “True enough. Did I disturb you? Were you composing a song?” Like most laymen, he had no idea how a musician’s creative process worked.

Lindir shook his head. “No, did you need something? I’m just messing around with sounds.” To demonstrate he played a few runs, fingers flying over the strings. Heads turned and Erestor saw a couple of sailors prop themselves up on an elbow to listen. They slept on deck wherever they could find cover, wrapped in the same padded bags the elves had been given for warmth at night. Their luggage, including the bulk of Erestor’s vast wardrobe, was stored below, leaving them with just a small chest between them of things they needed for the voyage. The sailors, he had discovered, kept their valuables in their sleeping bags.

The boat dipped and Erestor put a hand flat on the deck to balance himself. “No, I didn’t need anything, just company. Our neighbours are playing some kind of game and I had to get away from the noise.”

Lindir shook his head. “You’d think they’d have quietened down by now, wouldn’t you? It’s been over a week.” He drew something that sounded suspiciously like laughter from the strings as he spoke.

Erestor laughed too. “Oh, they’re all right, just very young. Abrazîr strikes me as the type to hold a grudge to the end of time though. Probably very good on a quest.”

“He’s fed up because they were meant to have separate cabins, but then we came aboard. I’d be fed up too, Faelon talks in his sleep. Still, that’s life. The Elven King’s Envoy doesn’t complain about sharing with a trade advisor and a mere minstrel.”

Erestor smiled, leaning closer so their shoulders almost touched. “You just haven’t heard the Elven King’s Envoy complaining, that’s all. Have to share that tiny space with someone who’s all legs and another who’s all hair and has these bags – lute here, harp there, fiddle over there…”

“I wasn’t putting them in the hold.” Lindir had been determined to the point of rudeness on the subject, and Erestor had found it easier to back him up, even at the risk of it degenerating into a serious row with the captain. It had taken Arvarad to sort it out in the end, insisting that these were the tools of Lindir’s trade and in their way irreplaceable.

“I think they’re waiting for a song,” Erestor said, gesturing around the deck before Lindir could rehash the entire argument. He could see Arvarad now, leaving the navigation hut beside Gimilkhâd’s cabin and pause to take a few deep breaths. Erestor knew from experience that it was close in there and thick with lamp fumes.

Lindir let the strings talk to him, staring out into the dark and frowning as he played little runs and waited for inspiration to strike. “We make them nervous, you know,” he said, his voice almost lost in the sea sounds all around them. “No one I’ve talked with has ever seen an elf. They’re from the eastern side of the island and elves come mainly to the west, the part nearest Tol Eressëa. We’re not quite real to them, like beings out of old stories their grandmothers tell. Stopping at Mithlond like Aldarion was an adventure, but I’m not sure they’re comfortable having us on board. I didn’t need Faelon to tell me sailors are a superstitious lot…”

“If I earned my way by sailing on a collection of nailed together planks with two masts and at least five sails to lose to the north wind, I’d be superstitious too.” Arvarad dropped down next to Erestor.

Lindir glared at him. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you two. Just because their way’s not ours doesn’t make it wrong. Our ships are built differently, our sails follow another concept, but when you think of it, they got some basic ideas from us and built on them – the triangular sails alongside the old square sail, a rudder instead of a side oar – and they don’t have magic woven into the fibre of the ship so they have to work harder and their risk is higher. Good enough reason to sacrifice to the gods, honour Lady Uinen, and never allow a fair haired woman to set foot on board.”

“Which excludes our own dear Lady Galadriel, should she ever feel the urge,” Arvarad said cheerfully. “And no, difference doesn’t make something right or wrong. But if I had as little to rely on as they do, I’m not sure anything would persuade me to go to sea.”

“It’s a calling, or so I’ve heard,” Lindir told him. “Like music, only more dangerous.”

“Music can as be dangerous,” Erestor reminded him drily. “Some music. On some roads.”

Lindir gave him an unreadable look. “Some music, some roads, yes. Not this road though. I’m not sure of the odds on soothing potentially savage seas so how about a love song? Think that’ll go down?”

“To bridge the cultural gap between us, you mean?” Erestor asked, smiling slightly. “Remind us that we all share the pain of loving and losing, the disbelief at loving and winning. Go ahead. Give us something to weep over.”

“Love isn’t always about losing, Erestor,” Lindir said sternly. “Sometimes it’s more about having to try very hard for a very long time. I think I have one of those. I can even sing it from the heart.”

Arvarad laughed. Erestor raised an eyebrow and Lindir smiled, all innocence. “What? I’ve had a chequered love life. They always say artists should first look to experience. Ask Cirithon, Mithlond’s esteemed Chief of Minstrels. He was scathing about my ode to the sky lights on the northern snows. Nothing I say or do will convince him I’ve been there and seen them for myself. Sing about springtime in the woods, young man, he says. Something you know. Reaching for something beyond your knowledge is arrogance.”

Erestor was intrigued. “You’ve really been there? You never told me. And why should you know more about spring in the woods than you do about the north lands?”

“Never came up. I’ve been lots of places. And of course I should know all about woodland life. Cirithon is an eternal snob. Anyone not full blood Noldor must have lived wild in a forest at some point. Some people it’s not worth arguing with.”

Arvarad was frowning. “But not challenging bigotry is how stereotypes get perpetuated. If you don’t show someone they’re wrong…”

Lindir shrugged, shook back his hair. “Probably, but I don’t have energy for it. I spend enough of it on defending my song choices and being open about liking pretty boys as much as pretty girls.”

The moon was rising, kissing the sea with silver. Erestor watched the flap of a sail signify a change in wind direction and hid his thoughts behind his diplomat’s mask. He hadn’t been sure about Lindir and women, and was annoyed to find he was curious. There was no reason for that; it wasn’t as though he planned on getting involved. The other business though, Cirithon ’s prejudice – that was something else entirely.


Lindir drifted between humour, romance and quiet melancholy, unable to settle on a mood. Arvarad sat with him for a while but finally said he wanted to learn how they took directional readings at night, leaving him alone with the sea and the sharp air and bright stars. The night finally spoke to him, and as it grew later he sang for himself rather than to please an audience, soft songs about ordinary things: there was not a single woodland air among them.

Some time after the change of the midpoint watch he sought the bedroll that passed for his bed, entering the cabin quietly; Arvarad had not returned, but Erestor was already asleep. Lindir put the lyre away in its oilcloth wrapping, always careful to keep everything protected and dry, then took off his outer clothing and folded it neatly on top of the chest that held their possessions.

He left the door open while he was busy, but now, after shaking out his sleeping bag and finding his comb, he closed it, claiming back the only modicum of privacy the close confines of shipboard life allowed. The cabin at once felt smaller, more intimate, the only light coming through a narrow slit of a window that looked out to sea. He got to work with the comb, easing the worst of the tangles out of his salt-roughened hair before braiding it back for the night. Finally he lay down.

“Cirithon needs to watch himself,” Erestor said, wide awake. Lindir froze a moment, startled, and forced down a flutter of panic that was pure habit. “He can be as snobbish about pure Noldor ancestry as he likes in private, but publicly he should remember the king’s mother was Sindarin and so is his foster father. Pure Noldor blood never struck me as saying much about a person anyhow. My father walked across the Ice and my mother was born here the year after her parents arrived, but I’m hardly respectable.”

“You have very well placed friends for someone who’s not respectable,” Lindir stalled while he frantically tried to reconstruct what he had said earlier about the Chief.

Erestor made a dismissive sound. “I don’t have respectability, I have access,” he responded. “An entirely different thing. Anyhow, it’s a nonsense and people who think their Aman bloodline makes them better irritate the life out of me.” He turned over, propped himself up. “Where did your family come from originally? Doriath?”

Lindir drew in a breath, and then another. “Somewhere within the Seven Rivers,” he said. “My mother’s side, anyhow. You’d not hear that from my father. His father came over from Aman with Fingolfin, and that’s all the family background that gets mentioned. He’s the one who sailed West. I never knew my mother’s father, he died in the War.” He put the comb down and turned to face Erestor, close and yet indistinct in the deeper shadow. “And oh yes, we’re tied to the heartbeat of Arda itself, of course, divided into tribes for no more reason than to keep track of who came from where and if their skills should run to smithcraft or sailing. Or finding their way in the wood. Nothing bigoted about that, just keeping things neat and orderly.” He tried to bite down on the bitterness but it had been a long time growing.

Erestor sat up, all black hair and glitter of eyes in the half light. “The catalogue, yes. Like breeds of horses. The Noldor are colonising warriors with uncommon skill for metals – except for me, I have no talent in that direction. The Sindar are introspective nature lovers, the Telerin happily live a peaceful life on the shore catching fish and singing sea songs. And the Nandor,” he waved a hand, “Those are the losers who hid from the Vala and went their own way, defined by whether their families followed Denethor or were just wild Avari, wandering the forests and valleys, owing allegiance only to their tribe. Such an offensive load of rubbish.”

He could talk like that, he was one of Lindon’s elite, Noldor to the core. “Like Badger?” Lindir regretted the words as soon as he’d said them.

Erestor’s eyes widened, then he snorted. “Like Badger, yes. Exactly like Badger. Really, when you get down to it your mother’s people were in Lindon before any of us. Land of singers – it fits. Why would your father not talk about that? Surely he can’t be such a bigot?”

Lindir laughed at the bluntness, though the laughter, like the memories, was without humour. “Can’t he? My siblings and I were raised to do nothing that would hint at our other, less desirable bloodline, or embarrass him or get people to look too hard at us unless it was for something intrinsically Noldor…”

“That left you a lot of leeway really,” Erestor said. “Historically we’re not very nice people. It explains why he wasn’t impressed with you singing for the half Sinda king or playing for Galadriel with her Sindarin husband. That all makes sense now.”

Lindir was surprised by the casual empathy, and even more so that Erestor actually reached out and placed a hand on his wrist – Erestor, who seldom touched anyone. “This all went right past me. If I thought of it at all, I supposed you were Noldor, but I assumed that of anyone in Ost-in-Edhil, it was a very Noldorin city. I mean unless you were a dwarf… And you have the accent right, the clipped sounds, the little hints of Quenya. I’m usually good with accents.”

“That’s how he talks,” Lindir shrugged. “We all picked it up. He has a thing about talking correctly. Not singing though, singing is letting the side down.”

“Maglor sang, and he was a prince,” Erestor offered.

Lindir stared at him. “Well, we all know how that turned out.”

Erestor said, quite gently, “You have such skill the king personally chose you to go to Númenor as part of an embassy to beg for aid. There were any number of pure-blood Noldor who weren’t even considered for this, including a few Gil’s known all his life.”

Lindir thought a moment and shrugged. “I suppose it might be grudgingly acceptable. Especially as the king thought he was sending someone without a drop of wild blood in his veins.”

“Gil doesn’t care what kind of blood you have as long as you get the job done that he set you,” Erestor said. “He wouldn’t give a damn either way and he’ll be put out to find Cirithon thinks Nandor blood worthy of snide comments.”

“Gods, you’ll not say anything. Ery…” Lindir shot up, horrified, hardly noticing when he pulled his arm away from Erestor’s light touch.

“I don’t see why not,” Erestor was not in the least concerned. “He’s an irritating old prude with a stick up his arse. Can’t do much harm to see him dance a bit. Though yes, that would be a tad uncomfortable.”

“You are not to say anything,” Lindir reached across urgently and grabbed Erestor’s arm. He felt vaguely sick, and angry at himself for the careless comment. Careers had been broken by far less. “He’ll know it came from me and he’ll make my life miserable. I still have to go back and work under him, remember.”

Erestor lay back and Lindir sensed the grin even if he couldn’t see it. “You sound like me – you’re not to say anything, I’ll be in trouble for it.”

Lindir crossed the short distance between them in two movements and leaned over, hands on Erestor’s shoulders, closing on muscle and bone and the suggestion of strength. the untidy braid he had just worked brushing Erestor’s face. “Not one word! I respected you when you asked me to be quiet about your – mistakes.” He wanted to shake him.

“Well, I owned up in the end, for all the good it did me,” Erestor said, a little too casual, a little too bright.

Lindir eased his grip, diverted. “It couldn’t have been too bad,” he said more carefully. “You’re here, after all. That says a lot.”

“It says that he’s known me a long time and decided I was the best person for the job, but it’s an intellectual assessment, if that makes sense? In the head, not the heart. I – damaged a very old friendship.”

“Badger or the other?” Lindir sat back on his heels, trying to read Erestor’s expression in the gloom.

“He understood. About Badger… he said he’d rather not know officially. I was under orders from the Lady so unless she decides to have me banished, it’s nothing to do with him. But – it changes things. He can’t afford to be close to that, to the person responsible for that death…” The words came out level, toneless. “The other thing — he asked a lot of questions. He accepted I hadn’t known, but it wasn’t comfortable. He took it better than I would in the end – it still feels like a betrayal.”

“No it wasn’t,” Lindir said firmly. “It was a blunder, not a betrayal. A bad mistake but not deliberate, not wilful.”

It was never quiet at sea, but right then the cabin felt small, shut away from the world. Perhaps that made the words easier to bring together. “My whole life feels like a mistake some days,” Erestor said in a low voice. “Even this. Especially this. I have to convince the queen of a nation I know almost nothing about to send help against an enemy she can’t even begin to imagine… Lin, I can’t do this.”

Without stopping to think Lindir reached down, touched Erestor’s face, brushing his thumb along the smooth skin over his cheekbone. Following instinct he leaned in, their lips so close he could feel Erestor breathing. All the light in the cabin seemed concentrated in the shadowed eyes that stared up at him. The rest of the world was suddenly very far away.

“What on earth are you doing?” Erestor’s tone was what he might have used on someone serving meat before soup or substituting a good cloak for a horse blanket. He was statue-still in a way that said more about tension than any amount of trembling could.

Reality set in. Lindir drew back at once; it was Erestor and that meant there was more involved than concern about the neighbours – that fey, skittish response to intimacy, the barely concealed unease, had their roots back in Ost-in-Edhil. He forced a light laugh. “That was meant to be a friendly peck, a way of saying I’m sorry you’re unhappy. Not a proposition. Still, not a good idea. “

“No,” Erestor said with surprising equanimity, moving back though not far. “It wasn’t. Nothing personal, just – well, look where we are for a start.”

“Yes, Arvarad still has to come back, plus our neighbours might wake up. I know. But seriously, it was only a kiss, well almost – nothing more energetic. I’m pretty clear that’s not a road you’re keen to travel down right now. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Erestor frowned over it. “I’m – if I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m ready for anything more right now, no. My body doesn’t always agree, but listening to it’s not a mistake I’ll make again in a hurry. I just – it’s hard to connect right now. I don’t know how to explain this, just — I can’t deal with that too.”

Unsurprised, Lindir shrugged, nodded. “If something isn’t possible, then it’s not. I’m not a child. Just a pity you’re like a nest of fire ants, the way they get under the skin and sting and burn.” He made vague brushing gestures along his arms to illustrate.

“They do that? Really?” Erestor palpably relaxed, feigning fascination with wide eyes. “I’m not sold on the simile. I’d have thought something with moonlight and seduction in it…”

“You want me to compare you to Lúthien? I can do that. I’m a bard. You both have black hair.”

Erestor breathed a laugh, then sat up and placed a hand on Lindir’s shoulder. He moved closer till their foreheads almost touched, his version of an apology. They stayed like that a while, then finally Erestor said, “You’re good, but you’re not that good. I thought the world was shaking but it’s the boat. The sea’s getting rough.”

“See what you’ve done?” Lindir said. “You’ve gone and upset Lord Ossë. I’m surprised he’s not rapping on the side to ask why we stopped.”

“Shh.” Erestor tried and failed to sound serious. “If they catch you being disrespectful while we’re at sea they’re likely to throw us both overboard, and where would Lindon be then?”

Lindir shook his head and sat back. He was only half joking when he said, “There’s a reason the king sent three of us. I guess is that happened, they’d be finding out just how good Arvarad really is.”

Erestor laughed, suddenly relaxed. “Oh he’s good, I’m just not sure any of us is that good alone. Open the door, let some air in. I feel like I’ve been swallowed by a whale in here. Leave it open till Arvarad comes to bed.”

Lindir got up and went back to the door, careful where he put his feet – there was always something lying around in the cabin due to lack of space. “Shall we find a nice, safe subject to talk about?” he asked over his shoulder.

Erestor sounded amused. “Safe – I suppose that disqualifies pretty girls and pretty boys and how they’ve fitted into your life?”

Lindir fastened the leather door open, breathed in cold salt air, and went back to his bed roll. Erestor was remaking his pillow – clothing wrapped in a spare cloak – and made a show of not looking at him. “You want to know about my sex life?” Lindir asked, flopping down.

Pillow organised, Erestor lay down and got comfortable, curled on his side. “Not the intimate details, thanks all the same,” he said. “But earlier you mentioned liking both, and I’ve sometimes wondered how that was – I’m not that flexible. So – girls you have known. And boys. And why. You must have all sorts of interesting stories. I’ve shared my most hair raising with you, and now it’s your turn. Entertain me. ”


Chapter 11 – coming soon!