Part Nine: Home
They rode for over an hour, mainly through heavy woodland though there were also passes between rocky clefts and two rivers to ford. One was shallow but they had to swim the horses across the second. Erestor had not been on horseback for weeks – longer – but he enjoyed every moment. It was almost like being back in Middle-earth, on some out of the way trail, except the light was still diffused and he was sure there was no forest in Middle-earth where such a variety of trees and plants grew. The birds too were melodious but unknown to him. It was almost the mirror opposite to neat, pristine Valinor.
The best thing about the ride, besides having Gil-galad close enough to reach out and touch, was the way the weight inside his chest began to lessen and his breathing felt easier. All the sadness of losing Celebrían twice, the loneliness of being an outsider amongst his own, faded away into the fragrant air and the ongoing conversation, which was about people and events he knew nothing of, but was still relaxing to listen to.
Only when they left the trees and followed a stone trail up to a narrow pass did Erestor realize that here too, there were guards, one on each side of the entrance. There would be either two or four more out of sight, he supposed, as had always been the deployment in Imladris. He shot Gil-galad a surprised look that was met with a smooth stare in return. ‘What?” the former High King in the East said. “This is our home. What would it say if we weren’t careful of it? Just a precaution.”
The guards saluted as they passed and Erestor noted that they had businesslike daggers at their belts though at least they weren’t wearing swords. He then recalled the guards outside the palace in Tirion that he had thought ornamental, and wondered again. And there was the matter of Hilion and his brother mariner, did they have personal reasons that took them in this direction, or were they Gil-galad’s informal bodyguard?
Guards, experience told him. Definitely guards.
He puzzled at this all the way through the pass, a channel that in places forced the horses to go in single file. When they were alone, he decided, he had some questions for Gil. And then they passed through the gap and he forgot about guards and the hitherto unremarked fact that Glorfindel’s sister had also been armed and just stared.
The lake was a deep grey blue under the now-cloudy sky and stretched across to the forest on the opposite shore which in turn climbed up the mountain slopes behind it, deep green giving way to shades of moss and blue and rising to peaks tipped with snow. Houses clustered around the lake within the shelter of more mountains, spreading around in a wide, sprawling arc. There were a couple of docks that he could see, and the houses were clustered more in one place than another, but it all looked open and peaceful and very beautiful. Gil-galad drew rein beside him.
“Where are we?” Erestor asked, gesturing in amazement. “What did she call it? Starhaven? It’s like I said, all we’re told is that the north is cold and empty. Why does no one know about this?”
“Because it’s ours,” Gil-galad, Ereinion Last-king, replied, sitting calmly while his horse tossed its head and snorted, eager for home. “All the outcasts, all the people who could not fit into formal, polite Elvenhome, everyone looking for somewhere to belong, honest work to do, and clean air to breathe – we find them. Sometimes we need a bit of help, sometimes they need a bit of help, but it all works out. As for why you’ve not heard of it? Well, it hasn’t been here for long, and they’re suspicious of new things back in Tirion. Only the well connected know about us, and they’d as soon not talk about the flawed souls who don’t appreciate Paradise. Which we mainly don’t.”
“We?” Erestor was struggling to catch up yet again. It was still an unfamiliar experience, not one he liked much and it was happening too often.
Gil-galad smiled and reached over to rest a hand on his thigh, something he would never have done in public before. “Come and see,” he said.
The streets were either cleanly gravelled or else cobbled and when the town closed around them there were houses and shops and craftsmen’s workshops, vegetable and flower gardens – he even saw chickens and some goats. A cat cleaned itself on a gate post. Everything led downhill towards the water, and some of the streets were so steep he wondered at the houses along them and how people could go up and down with such ease. Everyone they passed saluted Gil-galad respectfully but there was no great fuss, he was plainly a regular sight. Erestor remembered how he had liked to go about amongst his people before in Lindon, but his council had placed restraints on those movements.
They left the horses at a stable yard with good pasture running up to the steep slope that rose behind the houses and went the rest of the way on foot. It was the best way to get the feel of the place, Hilion told him as they took their leave – this was home and they had families to visit. He followed Gil-galad, taking in the sights but as before keeping questions to a minimum. There were a few detours, people Gil wanted to look in on or check up on, he wasn’t clear as to which, but finally they came to his home. It was not quite a palace this time, but a well built house down at the water’s edge and set a little apart from the rest with windows looking out onto the lake and his emblem flying from the roof. There was a shallow strip of shale beach in front and a jetty off to the side with another boat, the canopy displaying the familiar blue with silver stars this time.
“Not all that big, but it’s comfortable. Warm in winter and easy to find,” Gil-galad told him. “Most important. Círdan drummed that into me when I was a boy – make sure people can find you when there’s a problem.” He seemed amused by something but said nothing more except an aside to a girl who was energetically polishing the red flagstones of the long veranda that extended along the front of the house and overlooked the little beach. “I have one more surprise for you,” he told Erestor, pausing with a foot on the last of the steps leading up. “I think you’ll like this one best. Well, almost as good as me waking you up in the middle of the night, of course. Hard to beat that.”
“You did set the bar rather high with that. Are we still in Valinor? It’s like another country.” Erestor asked, shaking his head. It had been a lot to take in.
“This is Araman, past Valinor. Near where Feanor had his place at Formenos, if that’s where I think it is. Never been there in person. But we’re still in Aman, if that’s what you’re asking. Oh, here’s your surprise, staring at you with her mouth open.”
There was an audible gasp from the doorway and the next moment, before he even had a chance to turn round, solid weight flung itself onto him and arms wrapped round him tightly. “Erestor, Erestor, oh Lady Bright, it’s you, it is you!”
Even though he was stunned, there was no mistaking the voice, nor the face turned up to his, the brown eyes already brimming with tears. “Veryanis?” he asked wonderingly. “It’s not possible. We lost you in Eregion…”
“And when I’d had my rest and healing in the Halls I was allowed to come back,” she said, laughing through the tears. “Not everyone stays forever – I’d barely started to live.”
“I invited her over and found she likes cooking, which is a good thing for anyone who has a meal in this house,” Gil-galad said as though this was all completely normal. Then, seriously, “What, do you think I’d leave your sister to suffocate on Tol Eressëa?”
Erestor looked at him over his sister’s shoulder, unwilling to let Veryanis go just yet, even if he could with her clutching him round his waist. “I think you just equalled waking me up in the middle of the night,” he said, struggling to get the words out. “Two of the best surprises of my life in a matter of days.”
“That’s good,” said Gil-galad cheerfully. “Give it time and I’ll even make up for dying on you.”
Gil-galad gave Veryanis the night off so the siblings could spend time catching up, and she decided the best place for this was her favourite end-of-day spot on those rare occasions when she wasn’t in the kitchen preparing dinner. This was how they came to be sitting in her bedroom on the window seat with cups of pale golden wine, watching the sky change and the light fade.
Now that they were quiet and alone, Erestor could finally ask the question that was in the front of his mind, the one that first needed a deep swallow of wine and a steadying breath. “Nan and Adar? They’re not here at all, are they?”
She shook her head and bit her lip as she always did when something bothered her. “I thought they would be here to greet me when I left the Halls, but then I was told they were amongst those who chose not to return. I – I couldn’t understand that. I wanted life back so badly and yet they could give it up and go on as spirit, not even willing to try so we could be a family again.”
“Glorfindel said he thought many who died hard deaths chose not to leave Lord Námo’s Halls,” he said, forcing down the sorrow that he thought he had already rationalised and accepted weeks ago. “If one really wanted to stay, then I suppose they’d have chosen to be together. It must be what they wanted, we have to be happy for them, don’t we?”
She nodded, sighed softly. “I thought I was used to it and now you’ve gone and reminded me of how sad I was about that. But still, yes, if they were tired then they need to rest.”
“And we’re together,” he reminded her smiling. “A smaller family but still a family. I’d all but given up on you, but here you are, the same as when I last saw you. Just – wiser and happier and your hair’s much longer.”
“I always wished I had your hair,” she told him, twining a lock round her fingers. “We have everything else in common – hair colour, eyes, both short…”
“I’m not short, no idea why people keep saying that.”
She giggled. “All right then, most of the men I know are too tall then, you’re just right. Anyhow, we have all that, but my hair doesn’t have the sheen or the texture and I don’t have your eyelashes either. Such a waste on a man.”
“Life never was fair,” Erestor told her smiling. He kept wanting to touch her, be sure she was really there, rather as he did with Gil-galad. “Though I can’t complain – since I got to Aman I’ve lost one but gained two people very dear to me. I’ve finally found some good in the place.”
“Who did you lose?” she asked gently. “People return, you know. Sometimes you have to wait a long time… “
He shook his head. “Someone very special, the wife of a good friend and someone I knew all her life. And she won’t return. Such terrible things happened to her that she asked to be reborn to another family with no memory of her past. We saw her, a sweet young girl – until then, I think we and her mother hoped she had found healing here.”
Veryanis leaned against him, still watching the sky. “But how wonderful to have another chance,” she said softly. “There are others who would give all they have to lose their memories. There is only so much they can help you with in the Halls. Give thanks for your friend, for she is blessed.”
Erestor put his arm around her and was quiet, drinking his wine. Then he said, “I hadn’t thought of it like that, neither I think had her husband. That’s – that’s a great truth. Thank you.” He kissed the top of her head, then asked because he was her brother and he had to know, “What of you? How bad are your memories? Is it all right if I ask? The only reborn person I knew before Gil and you is Glorfindel, and I think he was a special case anyhow. He makes dreadful jokes about being crisped…”
“You call him Gil,” she interrupted sternly. “How is it that my brother grew to call a king by such a personal name?”
“Long story. No really, it’s a long, long story. Yours is more interesting.”
“Always wonder that he never wed, a kind, wise, good looking man like him. Hmph. Mine? Oh it’s not so bad, truly. Most of it I barely recall, though I’ll never be good with fire too fierce and too close. They left me to burn at the end. No hush, it’s all right. I passed out and when I woke I was beyond. Erestor, you’re crushing me!”
He relaxed his hold on her hurriedly. “I’m sorry, I just – I am so sorry. I should have been there.”
“You were off fighting somewhere,” she said, as practical as she’d ever been, “and if you hadn’t been, you’d have died too and not be on such fine terms with royalty. So it’s as it is.”
He gave a huff of laughter and nodded, holding her against him but more carefully now. It was a cosy room, well lived in, with lots of warm colour and pretty things. “You’ve been here a while?” he asked, nodding to the room.
She drew a little away so she could look at him. “After I – came back, I spent some time on the Island, but there was no one I knew and you have to belong with someone there, so I would need to do cleaning or some such and…” she smiled, remembering, “and then His Majesty came visiting and sent for me. He told me you’d been friends and would I like a place in his household or see what else I’d like doing. And I said I liked to cook… And he said well, he needed a second cook.”
Erestor had a sudden memory of Líssië’s worried face as she talked about the inn closing. “Does he have a lot of people to stay, that he needs two cooks?”
She pulled a droll face. “Oh yes, there’s always guests coming and going, sometimes the house gets quite full. But I like it. I get to try new things.”
“Do you think there’d be place for someone else, maybe just to tidy up and help guests feel comfortable?”
Her eyebrows went right up. “You’re looking for a position?”
Erestor burst out laughing. “I should ask, just for the look on his face. No, no, there’s a young girl at the inn where I’m staying on Tol Eressëa and she’s worried the inn will close soon, when the ships stop coming in from the East. I just thought…”
“Oh, there’s always something when people aren’t happy there,” she said, quite certain. “And I don’t doubt if you ask she’ll have something to come to here.”
“If people come and go as you say, is there any need for an inn here?” he asked, feeling out the idea.
Veryanis shrugged. “I’m sure there would be? There are little settlements all over and people come to town to trade or see family or to sail on the lake – that’s very popular, even the Sindar who live in tree houses across the lake come over for that sometimes.”
“Oh yes. They’re meant to stay on the Island and some love it but most don’t. Then they find their way here and they’ve made their own place in the trees. It’s a little strange but I’ve been over there and it’s lovely.”
“It sounds like Lórien,” he said softly, being careful of the memory because like all memories of home it had the power to hurt.
“It was over the mountain from Eregion,” he reminded her. “I can’t remember what they called it back then. They lived in the trees, there were little walkways and ladders and lanterns everywhere and song…”
She snuggled against him and sighed. “It sounds beautiful. I think this must be a little like that. I’ve not been there after dark though. How is it you went there? Did you travel a lot?”
Erestor nodded. “I used to go over and negotiate things for Elrond and sometimes for Gil – carry sensitive messages, that kind of thing. That kind of work took me to the Havens and Lórien and sometimes to places like Gondor or even Harad.”
Her eyes were wide. “That sounds important. I knew you were with Gil-Estel’s son, but I never knew what you did. Are you going to stay here now and help our king like that?”
Erestor sniffed. “He hasn’t asked me to, Veryanis.”
“He will,” she said simply. “And – you will stay, won’t you? I won’t lose my brother again?”
“I have to go back to Tol Eressëa and speak with Elrond of course but after that I’ll come back if he’ll have me. And if we’re being strictly accurate, you were the one who was lost, I was there all the time.”
She punched him the way she used to when they were children. “You haven’t changed, you’re still impossible. All right, we’re not to lose each other again. Is that better?”
“You’ll be looking for ways to be rid of me after a while,” he teased her. “Eternity is a very long time.”
“We can worry about it when we get there,” she told him, resting her head against his shoulder again. “Until then, I’m going to just enjoy being part of a family again.”
“My Lady Vairë,” he said quietly, bowing low. “There’s no need to ask how you got here, is there?”
Her laugh was soft and warm. She came right up to him and reached up to pat his cheek. “There is nowhere I cannot go,” she said. “There are places my lord husband asks me not to visit, and out of respect for him, I don’t, but not because I cannot go there.” She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm while she was talking and smiled up at him. “Come. You were turning back, were you not?”
They walked a few paces before Erestor finally said, “You arranged this, didn’t you?”
She shook her head. “Not this, no,” she said. “Sometimes I tell people where to find other people who might need them, but I knew he would find you in time, your pattern was not complete. And from you, it is a short reach to Elwing’s son, although Ereinion has already set that in motion. And from him, to that bright, restless, rebellious soul, Finarfin’s daughter, who I have always admired. And her husband with the silver hair….”
“Weaving people together,” Erestor said softly, the beginnings of a smile warming his face at the thought of his sister, and of a quiet-eyed blonde woman who, yes, did resemble her brother more than a little.
Hazel eyes laughed up at him and Vairë ducked her head in a quick, bird-like motion. “Of course,” she said. “Finding the patterns and guiding the thread. I record the past and watch over the present, but before everything else, matching colours and smoothing yarn is my life’s joy and what I do. And now you are here, the time has come for you to go about finding your life’s joy too.”