Part One: Arrival
None of them had been sure what to expect when they arrived, but certainly not the crowd of people thronging the quayside. And then there was the light, which was subtly different to what they had left behind. Erestor had grown up hearing about Tol Eressëa bathed in starlight, but that was back in the Years of the Trees of course, the Undying Lands of his grandfather’s memories. This was more like a very clear afternoon, the kind you see when the sun has gone behind a mountain peak but day is not yet done. There were lanterns the length of the flag-stoned quay though, so he supposed some work at least was still done here at night, in accordance with the stories and songs of his childhood.
He left the ship just behind Elrond, who had unaccustomedly hung back until given a firm push by Gandalf. Galadriel turned back to collect him, which left Erestor alone and looking around while he waited for the baggage to be unloaded. From what he could see of the organised chaos, it seemed likely to take a while. Meanwhile he scanned the crowd, looking against hope for a familiar face.
He had never known for sure how either of his parents died: his father had been one of the nameless thousands who had not survived the War of Wrath, and his mother had been killed in Eregion, but they had been kind, decent people, untouched by kin slaughter, and he had hoped to find them reborn when he arrived. Glorfindel had told him they might have chosen not to return, but he had kept on believing, right up till now. And his sister – he kept searching the edge of the crowd, hoping against hope that she was just late again, the habit of a lifetime.
There was one other person he looked for, but a bit more covertly. Even with an interval in the Halls of Waiting there had been enough time to move on from a relationship that had been of necessity discreet. He had looked elsewhere himself a few times, but nothing had ever quite lived up to the rush of excitement, the complex, enthralling balance they had found together. He had prepared himself for anything, from being greeted as an old but casual friend, to a sheepish introduction to a wife and three children, Either way, he had been sure he would at least be there – he had others to greet besides an old flame.
Erestor forced the rush of sorrow and loss and – yes, disappointment – down and made himself focus on Elrond instead, who was being swamped by people, most of whom seemed to be strangers. He was staying close to Galadriel, who Erestor could just hear greeting people and chattering with edgy brightness about the interesting voyage and how her husband, yes, yes, the Sinda, would be following when the last elves were finally ready to leave. So responsible, someone said, and even from where he stood Erestor could see her twitch.
Elladan, who gossiped, had told him the rows between his grandparents on the subject of when Celeborn would sail had been awe-inspiring, but Celeborn was not called the Wise for nothing; he had a point. Someone had to stay behind to shepherd the uncertain, in many cases frightened, Sindar and Silvan elves who had chosen not to remain east of the sea. No one had quite believed the unmaking of the Ring would bring about such a radical change to their lives in Middle-earth, and some needed more time to prepare than others when it came to leaving the only home they knew.
It was assumed the Noldor would be less concerned about sailing, though, but Middle-earth was the only home Erestor and others like him had known, too, and he had hardly embraced with gusto the idea of leaving the lands of his birth, never to return. No one had shepherded them either – Elrond had more than enough to deal with, Galadriel spend most of the preparation time wandering her wood and saying goodbye to her trees, or so the rumour went, and Glorfindel had all manner of other things to arrange.
He wished the twins had come with them. Or Glorfindel, who could always be relied upon to see the bright side of anything and who could make Erestor laugh at the direst moments. The twins had decided to stay for the span of their sister’s life, and Glorfindel had chosen to remain with them – for advice and guidance, as he put it, though Erestor knew it was to make quite sure they were on that last ship whenever it happened to sail, his final act of service to the half-elf he had taken as his lord.
A gull dived low overhead shrieking, and he realized he had become lost in a day dream. People who had left the ship after him were already moving off. Apparently everyone knew someone or had an idea of where to go or what to do except for him, which was unusual as Erestor always knew exactly where to go and what to do, and if he didn’t he found out before he could be caught out. The hobbits were even in good hands, hustled past him by Gandalf.
There was something stranger than usual about Gandalf, too. Ever since that stomach-twisting night when they had passed onto the Straight Way, he had started looking and sounding younger by the day. Erestor could have sworn there were a few dark hairs showing in amongst the white of the wizard’s hair and beard, which was so much against nature that he was inclined to keep his eyes averted.
The only other person who seemed to notice was Galadriel, who he had seen watching the Maia with a speculative eye. She had been very quiet during the voyage. Erestor knew she had no real desire even at this late stage to go home, but the centuries as a ringbearer had wearied and physically weakened her and she had been out of choices. Strong willed and independent as she was, he could guess how much she might resent that.
“There’s a good inn just up the road and to the left if you need a place to stay,” Luntindo suggested as he hurried past. He was one of Círdan’s senior mariners and had made several trips West. “If your bags are marked as I suggested, I can have them sent on to you there. We’re doing as much for Lord Elrond, so they can drop yours off when they pass. Just say I sent you. No need to worry about coin yet, there’ll be someone along to sort all that out for you in a few days.”
Erestor watched a flock of small white and grey gulls swoop past calling to one another, just like gulls everywhere. He considered the alternative option of going along with Elrond and his extended – and royal – family, and shuddered. There were more reasons than one to avoid that. “An inn? I think I might do that, yes. Thank you, Captain.”
They had known one another for two Ages, and ‘captain’ was a courtesy title Erestor had bestowed on Luntindo long ago. The normally serious mariner cracked a smile and ducked his head in acknowledgement. He looked across at the remaining families and friends on the quay, considered for a moment and then asked carefully, “None of your family here?”
Erestor put on a courtier’s face and shrugged ironically. “Apparently not. I always suspected most elves who died badly and unknown would choose to keep to the Halls. I had hoped though… I had a sister who I would have loved to find again.” Not something he was ready to discuss yet, but Luntindo was an old acquaintance, and deserved courtesy. The pain didn’t stop there of course, but it was all no one’s business but his own.
“Not everyone makes the journey to greet every ship,” Luntindo offered in reassurance, his attention already on his next task, and the one after. It would be long after star-rise and the lighting of the lamps before he was done here. “The inn is one of the places people will look for a new arrival. Give it a day or two. Things are different here, word spreads in its own time.”
Erestor shouldered the bag of clothing and personal effects he had kept with him on board ship, and worked his way through the thinning crowd and towards the road up from the harbour that Luntindo had indicated. Elrond, also moving slowly in that direction, caught hold of his arm as he passed and pulled him to a halt. “Where will you be staying?” he asked in a voice that sounded less secure than was normal for the lord of Imladris. “We must be careful not to lose touch with each other.”
Heads were turning, several of them with eyebrows raised in delicate curiosity as they considered Erestor. He had already seen before he left the security of the White Ship that those faces he would have given a large part of his immortality to see were not present, and right now there was no one else, no matter how important or legendary, that he wanted to meet. Before he could be introduced around and forced to make small talk – “But where is your family?” – he said hurriedly, “I’m spending the night at an inn up the road that one of the mariners recommended. He seems to think it would be easier for people to find me there? After that – I need to see if I can track down any distant relatives, or… something. My plans,” he added more firmly, “are fluid.”
Elrond frowned at him, concerned, and then dropped his voice, “I had hoped someone from your family would be here, but if you can’t find them, you know you always have a place where I am, don’t you? Wherever that might end up being.”
Erestor met his worried gaze and smiled affectionately. They had been through a lot together, were and always would be close friends. “During the voyage Círdan said to give it a couple of days, and he was right, of course. After that I will have a better idea of how things work here, we all will.”
He did not ask about Celebrían, not with all these people too close and pretending not to listen, but her absence was not a good sign. For Elrond’s sake, and for Galadriel’s, he hoped the morning would bring good news. For himself, she had been dear to him, but he could not reconcile the pale, empty woman who had sailed alone from Mithlond under a leaden sky with any kind of healing.
Low buildings made of matte grey and gleaming white stone flanked the cobbled street, graceful lamps stood at intervals along one side, while on the other was a small, flagged footpath to which he kept. Horses trotted past him up the road, their riders talking and laughing to one another, a carriage of unique and intriguing design trundled past, as did several wooden carts pulled by short, stocky horses with unusually shaggy-looking coats.
The walk up from the harbour was pleasant. The air was fresh and balmy, the sea and gulls and voices calling put him in mind of Mithlond in the old days when Lindon had still been a kingdom and his second home. He tried to see where the light was coming from, if it was in fact the sun shining here as it did back over the sea, but could not pinpoint the source. It had been like this since they moved onto the Straight Way, where starlight had guided them for what felt like days, to be replaced as though with the coming of dawn by this warm, summery light. He wondered who he could ask. He was starting to miss the midday sun.
The inn was further up than Luntindo had implied. Erestor was just starting to get that vaguely panicked feeling that went with suspecting one was lost in an unfamiliar place when he spotted a sign up ahead, a wrought iron bracket with “Swan’s Rest’ written in cheerful yellow letters on a grey board. It was just as well as the light was starting to grow dim and while Erestor had no idea how long a day might last on Tol Eressëa, it was clear it was reaching an end.
The open doorway had pots on either side that held unfamiliar red flowers, and as Erestor approached a tall man came out with a jug of water which he poured carefully, half into each pot. He looked up at the approaching elf and smiled a greeting. “Come off the ship, did you?” he asked in a lyrical voice, speaking softly accented Sindarin.
Erestor nodded. “Yes, I did. I was told you might have a room for me here?” Tiredness and the afternoon’s disappointments gave his voice a trace of diffidence.
The elf nodded cheerily. “Yes, we have a few rooms left. Some captains send their passengers up the road into town, to the big hostelries, but many find their way here instead. We try and make things more familiar for new arrivals than they do in town too,” he added proudly. “Things like food and the way the rooms are laid out. And we give advice if it’s needed on how to go about looking up family and old friends.” He extended an arm in a manner similar to how Glorfindel had taught him was the customary greeting in Gondolin. When Erestor clasped it, he smiled. “My name is Rainano. Whatever questions you might have, I can try and answer them. If not, my father will know. My father probably knows everything.”
“Your father runs the inn then?” Erestor asked, offering courtesy in response to friendship. “A family business?” This was something he could understand, yes.
Rainano looked amused. “He pretends to, when he’s around,” he said, laughing. “Though mainly this is my interest. He should be known to you, though. He was on your ship and no doubt is the one who sent you up here.”
“….Luntindo?” Erestor tried to imagine the taciturn mariner as husband and father, but his usually sound imagination deserted him utterly.
“Even so.” Rainano looked smug. He must have faced this response before. “Come in, I’ll organise a room. What did you say your name was?”
“Erestor….” No longer Erestor of Imladris.
Rainano’s face lit up totally. He was rather like a friendly, well-loved puppy, Erestor decided, trying and failing to find any trace of the father in the son. “Oh, your name is known, yes. Father spoke well of you last time he was here. Come in and welcome. I hope you will feel at home here while you decide where you want to live and how you’d like to spend your time. We do that, you know,” he added seriously. “We choose what fulfils us and do it. That is why I have this inn. I hear it was not the same in the Harsh Lands, but here – here you can rest.”
Dinner was satisfying, though less like the food Erestor was familiar with than his host would have liked. Rainano had been born on Tol Eressëa and had never travelled further than Aman’s mainland after Númenor sank. At his father’s insistence, his mother had sailed into the West while still pregnant with him to escape the dangers hovering at the end of the Watchful Peace, so he had never known the lands of his conception and had only recently got to know his father. Now that ships were crossing on a regular basis, several had been captained by the Luntindo himself, taking advantage of the chance to finally spend time with his wife and son.
The inn was pleasantly full without being crowded, and Rainano was kept busy at dinner, moving from one guest to the next. Afterwards, when mildly alcoholic drinks were served on a small verandah that looked out to sea, he managed to spend more time with Erestor, clearly eager to hear about his father’s life beyond the sea in a place so far away he might as well have been living in the Halls.
Erestor shared a few stories as he sat in the cool evening and watched the stars slowly light the sky. Their pattern was different to that which he had known his entire life and this more than anything else told him how far out of his own time and space he had travelled. He felt strange and very alone with no sense of purpose other than to live on, endure, wait and see what the future held. He knew this feeling would pass, but right now all he wanted was to go home.
But they could never go back home again.
The room he had been given was simple but comfortable, with a bed, a chest of drawers, a chair, and a small nightstand, all made from an attractive blond wood. The canopied bed was unusual, an absolute square placed in the centre of the room, but it had crisp white sheets, a soft, coverlet and deep pillows. A floral painting occupied one wall, and a long, narrow window looked out onto darkness illuminated here and there by lanterns. After a long look outside, Erestor decided tomorrow was time enough to worry about his surroundings and drew the drapes.
A bowl of tepid water and something he took to be soap had been left on the washstand in the corner, and he washed himself down fairly thoroughly before getting into bed, clad only in an old grey shirt and, unusually for him, underpants. Just in case. Best to take nothing for granted.
He wrapped cold emptiness around the pain and sadness before it could overwhelm him, but it had been a long day: sleep came easily.