Lindon, S.A. 1730.
“Indeed, sir, and I am sure you are quite entitled to your opinion on the food production methods used in Gondolin. It must be that we have read rather different books on the subject.”
With a gesture implying he would return shortly, Erestor nodded agreement, then put a convenient pillar between himself and possibly the most opinionated bore he had ever been trapped by. He had been quite eager when his host, a friend of Lord Elrond’s, had invited him along to a begetting day celebration at the palace for someone whose name he had trouble pronouncing – Mirnimmeril, something along those lines – but as the evening wore on, his enthusiasm had waned substantially.
He had assumed this route would lead to the main salon, a vast room where the conversation was unpleasantly loud and where the general finery made his neat but simple dove blue robe seem distinctly underdressed. It did, but rounding the pillar had brought him face to face with a doorway opening onto an unlit balcony. He hesitated for no more than an instant, then stepped out into the cool air, grateful for the respite and taking care to leave the door slightly ajar as he had found it.
The balcony had a railing made of an unfamiliar metal, with whorls and curves that gave it an airy, delicate look. He was careful not to lean against it, daring nothing more than a light pressure of hands, but it seemed quite solid. The view would be spectacular in daylight, he thought, with the gardens stretching out in front of him towards the darker mass that was the Gulf of Lhûn. There were lights to the right, and as he leaned out a little to try and orient himself, he was startled by movement on the edge of his vision.
A figure in shadow resolved into a tall, well-built elf with a mane of dark hair which had been twisted and braided to hold it back from his face. He wore a robe of some dark colour, possibly blue, and no jewellery other than the strands of gems that glittered in his hair and a few rings on either hand. He joined Erestor at the railing, leaning his elbows on it with a marked lack of concern for its delicate appearance. He had a wine cup in one hand, which he proceeded to sip from. He looked out across the garden broodingly for a minute, then turned to Erestor and raised an eyebrow.
“I hate these dos. Was that Golwenion? He likes to think he’s quite the expert on Gondolin. You wouldn’t be the first unwary guest to be bored senseless by him on the subject.”
His voice was quite deep with a rich timbre. Erestor thought he might make a good singer, while his speech placed him possibly as a warrior, though clearly of rank. He had a broad face, more characterful than beautiful, with strong eyebrows and chin, piercing eyes and a mouth that held a line somewhere between humourous and sensual. More to the point, he looked friendly.
“He seemed to have strong opinions,” Erestor ventured carefully. He had been unable to ascertain Golwenion’s rank and thought it best to err on the side of caution. “But they were very much at odds with some of the things I’ve read, and I thought to debate it a little.”
His companion snorted. “Bet that went down a treat. Not used to debate, our scholar. From what I overheard, you held your ground well enough though. You’ve made a study of the hidden city?”
Interestingly, he did not attempt to capitalize the title, as was the current fashion. “Not quite, no. But I run the library at Imladris and we have several works on Gondolin. As they’re written by people who once lived there, I’ve tended to take them at face value?”
“Ah.” The tall elf leaned against the railing and regarded him. “So you’re from Imladris? I need to pay Elrond’s haven a visit one of these days. What brings you to Mithlond then? Visiting family?”
The eyes were intent, interested, they carried none of the dismissal Erestor had encountered elsewhere that evening when he mentioned he came from Imladris, best known for being a military stronghold in the middle of nowhere to which Elrond Eärendilion had withdrawn since the war. It was so far from court, it might as well have been in Harad. He took a chance, decided on a recitation of the boring facts.
“Not family, no. Unfortunately.” His family had died in the assault on Ost-in-Edhil. “I came to buy or beg more books for the library, specifically about the history of the Silvan elves if any such can be found. We, that is Lord Elrond, wants to create a good reference section, eventually…” His voice trailed off. He could not sound as interesting as his listener’s expression implied.
“So he’s thinking bigger than just the history of the Noldor, plus a few novels and a handful of scientific studies? Interesting.” The tall elf mulled this over while taking a mouthful from his cup then straightened up, nodding. “I like the idea. Silvan lore? I never thought them in the habit of sharing their history?”
Erestor had been trying to learn a bit about their woodland cousins and could nod and smile with a bit more confidence than he had brought to the short-lived discussion on Gondolin. “They have a tradition of oral history,” he explained, “and a couple of Sindarin writers have shared what they know of that. I was hoping to find something closer to source, written perhaps by a Silvan who had spent time here.”
“I’ve always liked the idea of an oral tradition, somehow. It’s more personal than book learning. More like being taught your family history.”
The soft smile that came when he thought of his parents tugged at Erestor’s lips. “My father did that when we were small. Sat my sister and me down with him and told us about our family, traced the line back across the sea to Aman. Not every night, just now and then when he wasn’t busy. It was our time, just a father and his children.”
The other nodded. “I had very little chance to get to know my father, but I think that is how it should be done, yes. And then one day you can tell your son in the same way, and so the tradition would carry on.”
Erestor had a picture for a moment of a line of people tied by blood, one handing the torch of history on to the next and realised there might well be no hand beyond his own. It was not in his nature to be drawn to women in that manner, thus children were unlikely.
The regret might have shown in his face – Lord Elrond had mentioned before that he could be quite easy to read, and he was working on it – because a big hand rested briefly on his shoulder and his companion said in a not unkind voice, “Not everyone has family to pass traditions along to. Keeping the story alive and sharing it with others close to you would be enough, surely? Now – you say there are already works about Silvan customs? Have you managed to read any of these yet? I was always curious about the bond between them and the land and how they could yet justify hunting with such ease…”
They had somehow moved past Silvan history and culture to an animated discussion about forest dwellings and whether either of them would care to pass the night in one of those treetop platforms apparently used as homes in Lorien, when the door squeaked open further and a young, very worried-looking elf hurried out onto the balcony. At the sight of them he gave a hearty sigh of relief. “Sire, I had no idea where you were. You must come now, please. They are about to begin the speeches and you wanted to say a few words.”
The elf whose name he had not thought to ask straightened up and away from Erestor, leaving a feeling of empty space where he had been. He tossed off the last of his wine. “Damn. Already? Oh well, time to get back to work. Courtesy and all that.” He gave Erestor an engaging smile. “I’m sorry, we never did get around to introducing ourselves, did we? I was enjoying the conversation – and the company. What did you say your name was?”
Erestor blinked at him. “Erestor,” he said finally. “My name’s Erestor. Forgive me, Your Majesty, I had no idea…”
He received a look that was brisk and friendly with just a hint of discomfort. “Yes, sorry about that, bit like a bad novel, isn’t it? Spend an age talking to a stranger at a party only to find you’ve analyzed a realm’s ills to its king. Which you didn’t, that’s more my style, but you know what I mean.” A hand almost but not quite touched his arm, a look indicated the open door leading from the dim balcony and clean sea air back into the brightly-lit world of perfume, courtiers, fine clothes and jewels. “Come, walk back down with me. We haven’t finished this yet. Hammock or bedroll?”
Erestor never imagined Ereinion Gil-galad would find his company worth cultivating beyond the span of their initial meeting, but a number of invitations came his way during his short stay in Mithlond. Once he managed to get over the shock that the high king of the Noldor seemed to quite like having him around, he started to enjoy himself. They shared an almost equal curiosity about the world in general, and they laughed at the same jokes. Gil-galad had been surprised to find the archivist from Imladris was the same Erestor who had spent two years earning a formidable reputation fighting in Eregion before settling in the valley haven. In his turn, Erestor had been rendered speechless by the fact that the no-nonsense warrior-king could recite poetry. In Quenya.
In between searching for books – either new or second hand and within the limited budget Lord Elrond had authorized – he attended a musical evening at the palace, saw his first boat race in company with most of the court, sat with some of the highest-born in the kingdom during a contest in swordsmanship, and on his last day was invited to join the king on a dawn ride up into the soft, rolling hills behind the city.
The party was a mixture of courtiers, high-ranking warriors, and a few of Gil-galad’s councillors. The courtiers, who would have braved greater discomforts than early morning exercise if it gave them a place at the king’s side, mainly ignored Erestor as an anomaly, not one of their own. This suited him well enough and as far as was practical he did likewise.
The view from up in the hills was ethereal; mist still hovered above the sea, and Mithlond was a fantasy in pastels and pearl. Sitting his horse in the morning chill, Erestor looked out over the graceful spires and domes of the capital of the greatest elven kingdom in Endor, watching the sun’s light give the mist a silver sheen. A rider moved up beside him and Gil-galad’s voice was no surprise.
“Ready to trade your mountain valley for the Lhûn delta?”
It was becoming a joke between them, that Erestor would be drawn from Imladris by the lure of life in the big city. After all, he had been born in Ost-in-Edhil, a city of surpassing beauty and innovation before the sack. Erestor turned, trying to hide his smile. “Not quite, your Majesty. Mithlond is lovely, especially at this hour, but the ruggedness and newness of Imladris is home to me. We may lack the sea, but we do have waterfalls.”
They shared a grin. Noting the laughter lines that crinkled the corners of Gil-galad’s eyes and faced with the already legendary charm of his smile, Erestor felt a slight pang at the thought of the road back east that beckoned as soon as the last bag of books had been loaded onto the wagon. His exit from Mithlond would mark the end of an interlude, and he would be forgotten within the week.
“When do you leave?” Quiet, serious. Gil-galad’s public face tended towards the bluff, cheerful and easygoing. This felt different, both in tone and in the searching look in those light blue eyes. This was the king whose astute mind and canny wit had built Lindon into a great power, and whose true concerns lay a world away from the courtly entertainments he encouraged and often funded.
“Some time before lunch, I hope,” Erestor replied, quieting his horse who was growing steadily uneasy at the proximity of the king’s mount, a stallion curiously named Valen, “We need to be well on the road before night falls. There’s a good, sheltered spot to rest the horses and I’d like to reach it before sundown.”
“You’re taking an escort, right? Just because the war’s over doesn’t mean there aren’t all kinds of ugliness still roaming Eriador.” The warrior who had cleared out orc nests during the War of Wrath knew all about the evil Morgoth’s lieutenant might have left wandering the open spaces between the mountains.
Erestor gave him a look caught between a laugh and a frown. “Your majesty, there are three of us, myself, the regular courier and a warrior with more experience in the last war than myself. We will be armed and vigilant, I assure you.”
Those intent eyes held him again, then the king looked out across his capital. “Good,” Gil-galad said briskly. “That’s good. And you’ll be back when?”
When? Erestor had only the vaguest idea. “A few months,” he hazarded. “It – depends on Lord Elrond, on when he thinks we’re ready for another purchase.” Imladris was still new, still finding its feet, still struggling for a place in Lindon’s cycle of trade. Erestor suspected, nay, knew, there was very little money to spare. The library was still treated as a luxury, the Lord’s personal indulgence.
Another nod. “Good. Let me know when you’re back. Just tell Laegon.” Laegon was the royal aide, nobly born, who looked so far down his nose at Erestor it was only a matter of time before he toppled over while doing so. “We still have to decide the truth of that story about the ice giants in the far north, the one I was so fond of in childhood and that you say is a load of horse droppings.”
It took a while to settle back into the slow-moving life in Imladris that he had previously treasured, and several months passed before finances allowed Erestor to take the road to Mithlond again. Lord Elrond’s enthusiasm for the library had already made the difference between a once yearly purchase and more regular visits, and Erestor’s casual mention that variety required frequent calls on the more reputable copyists and retailers in the capital fell on receptive ears. Imladris might be a quasi-independent entity, or so the official papers said, but it was held in the king’s name, and everyone referred to Mithlond as ‘the capital’.
With his unconventional introduction to court life in mind, Erestor spent the first two days in Mithlond visiting book sellers while summoning up the courage to approach Laegon. Eventually, fully expecting to be sent on his way with a snooty glare, he put on his good clothes, which still fell rather short of the standard for court casual, and took the long walk to the palace. Finding the king’s aide took him almost as long again, but to his surprise when he finally succeeded he was given no more than a disapproving stare, asked to wait a few minutes, and then handed a list of court activities for the next month. He was free to attend whatever took his fancy, he was told, except of course evening entertainments in the royal apartments, which were by invitation only.
According to the list, the following evening offered a display of dancing by a troupe newly arrived from Harlond. Decision taken, Erestor began to consider his wardrobe with rising unease. There was no call for courtly clothing in Imladris, and he had a list of personal necessities to purchase from a purse that would not stretch to include fashionable extras. Finally he decided on the simplicity of a dark green tunic, tight black pants, and his good boots. His hair he wore clipped loosely back from his face.
He considered the result in the mirror, wishing he looked less like someone’s country relative. He tried twisting a string of garnets through his hair as the king did rubies, but either he lacked the knack or else one strand was insufficient. Shaking his head he gave up with a rueful grin. Eyes the exact shade of good dwarf brandy laughed back from the mirror. At least his hair, a waist length fall of very unelven black curls, was behaving itself for once; on a bad day the sea air rendered it unmanageable.
He forced himself not to wonder if the king would even notice him in amongst all the usual finery. It had been a few months and life was busy here, people came and went. He might have been on some kind of a list as Laegon’s actions had implied, but that meant nothing, nothing at all.
The performance was staged in the great courtyard in the centre of the palace complex, often used for such events as it was easily accessible and sheltered from the wind. Its prosaic daytime appearance had been transformed by strings of tiny, many-coloured lanterns and an array of silken banners. Seating was provided for the well-born and the determined, everyone else sat on cushions which they brought themselves. Erestor had not thought to do so and in any event, being of slightly less than average height and finding himself near the back, preferred to stand.
Gil-galad had the best place, of course, and was surrounded by a group of close intimates, or so it might be assumed from the conversation going on around him. It was easy to see when the king told a joke; everybody laughed.
The first part of the evening involved tumbling and juggling and a preliminary dance, which had to do with a flock of swallows flying south for the winter. The dancers were dressed in grey and white and certainly made the most of the available space. To Erestor it all looked energetic but rather pointless. After this, a short intermission was announced while props were set in place for the main piece. Erestor was steeling himself to try and penetrate the crowd around the table offering snacks and wine when he heard his name called, followed by a hand on his arm.
“Master Erestor? Master Erestor from Imladris?” The young page was even shorter than he was, with big, worried eyes and fluffy brown hair. Barely giving Erestor a chance to nod, he pushed his arm to indicate he should turn round and pointed. “Over there. His Majesty says you’re to go present yourself. Quickly, before the dancers come back. Did you want food? I’ll get you something. Just – go.”
Erestor realised he was standing with his mouth hanging open and hurriedly closed it. He started to speak to the page, but the boy had already plunged into the crush around the refreshments table. Erestor made his way through the milling crowd, trying to think of something sensible to say when he reached the elite group he had been summoned to join, but as it turned out there was no need. As he crossed the open space people were being careful to leave between themselves and the royal party, Gil-galad looked round, saw him and rose. Even in the uncertain light of the courtyard, Erestor could see the twinkle in those blue eyes. Next moment he was being clapped firmly on the shoulder.
“Gods, you’ve been gone an age. When did you get back? Well met, Erestor. Where were you sitting? Are you with anyone? No? Come, join us. Arthon – up. Give him your seat, you’ve spent the day with that behind of yours firmly planted on cushions, I’ll wager.” And back to Erestor: “Right then, what are you drinking?”
And thus was the pattern of Erestor’s life set. A few months in Imladris, the ten day journey to the delta, three weeks, maybe a month in Mithlond buying books, and then the return to the Valley of Rainbows.
Sometimes when he was at home in Imladris he would gaze out across the valley or watch the river leaping down the waterfall just before it passed the house and ponder how he had split into these two quite dissimilar people. There was quiet, efficient Erestor who copied and catalogued books, hiked or rode about the valley for exercise, and liked to share a cup of wine of an evening with friends and colleagues in the Hall of Fire. And then there was an elf of the same name who had ridden and even sparred with Ereinion Gil-galad, had a place within the inner circle at court functions, and was being sporadically tutored in chess by the king himself.
When he was in Imladris, the Mithlond Erestor seemed almost unreal, a being from a dream who happened to look and sound rather like him. When he was in Mithlond, there was no such confusion; he lived each moment as it was offered to him and avoided any thought of the morrow and the long road back to the Valley.
And sometimes when he gazed out across the valley or watched the river leaping down the waterfall, he found himself falling into daydreams of blue eyes that danced with humour, and a teasing, intimate smile that promised all was right with the world. He reasoned this was only to be expected with someone as charismatic as the king. Had anyone suggested these were the symptoms of somebody nurturing a sizeable crush, he would have been highly indignant.
With winter starting to make its presence felt in Lindon, court life turned more towards indoor activities. One such day provided a memory he revisited often when he was back home in Imladris and busy with the repetitive tasks of writing summaries and cataloging books in the library while the snow lay thick on the ground outside.
He had presented himself at the palace to find the scheduled ride cancelled due to the weather. Instead he was directed to the smaller, private salon which was open only to accredited courtiers, not to the public at large. Someone was playing soft airs on a harp, conversation buzzed in a civilized manner on scented air. Sometimes the king was busy with other concerns and spent only a short while in his company, but this time Gil-galad had a chess board set up and waiting on a small table under one of the long windows that looked out onto the dismal vista of a wet garden and a grey, uninviting sea.
Erestor was directed to the table and left to watch the raindrops sliding down the window while the king finished a conversation with a small group that including his treasurer, Gurmaeron, and a member of his Council. Erestor could see the shipyard across the bay, Lord Círdan’s domain, and if he stared hard enough through the rain could just make out what looked like one of the great seafaring vessels in the dock. When the king returned and took the chair opposite, he turned back from the window with a slow smile of welcome. Gil-galad filled any space he entered, the table suddenly felt very small and the room far warmer, the grey locked outside by the vibrant energy that seemed to surround the high king.
“Sorry about that. Something that should have been sorted out earlier. Gurmaeron fusses like an old woman.”
Erestor was still learning the game and had first move, which theoretically gave him a very slight advantage. He tried a new opening, hoping for the best. “I was watching the sea. Is that ship making ready to cross to Aman?”
Frowning at the piece, Gil-galad shook his head disapprovingly and offered a counter. “Strange move. Oh, that’d be the Heron. She’ll leave at week’s end. I plan to watch her sail, want to come along?”
“I’m due to leave then,” Erestor said uncertainly, toying with his Priestess.
Gil-galad seemed about to query the proposed move, but Erestor was left to advance his piece unhindered as Lord Aravilui, another councillor, came over to them. He launched into discussion with the king, acting as though Erestor was invisible, not surprising as the court as a whole tended to ignore him. Early on, the belief had taken root that the king went out of his way to spend time with him when he was in Mithlond as a courtesy to the Viceroy in the north, his cousin Elrond. Mostly, as soon as it was made clear he had no personal influence, people lost interest.
After a brief, cheery exchange with Lord Aravilui about the possibility of the king attending a dinner to honour the Weavers Guild, Gil-galad turned back to his game, effectively dismissing his councillor. When the lord had moved off – slowly and reluctantly – Gil-galad resumed their conversation as though there had been no interruption. Erestor was regularly in awe of his ability to hold a thread intact whilst dealing with another matter entirely. “One more day makes no difference, Erestor. Tell Elrond you were tracking down some rare work or other if you need a reason.”
Erestor glanced up at him, startled. “I wouldn’t lie to him, Sire. I don’t think he’d mind that I wanted to watch a ship set sail for Aman. Though I’ll have to talk to the courier, find out what he thinks about the weather. I need to get back before winter sets in.”
The king considered the board, moved a piece in response, then his eyes met Erestor’s. “No, no you wouldn’t lie to him,” he agreed. “You’re honest – in your words, in your dress, in your actions. Tell him I invited you, that should be enough.”
“My dress?” Erestor glanced down. He now had a tiny selection of garments he mentally labeled ‘court wear’. They were all good quality, all plain but well cut, with nothing to set them apart or make them stand out. Today he had expected to ride and had dressed accordingly in a blue tunic with a plain leather belt worn over a soft green shirt and dark pants.
“Yes.” Gil-galad rested his chin on his fist and looked at him properly. “No cheap jewellery or fancy embroidery, no trying to keep up with fashion. You wear things that fit you well in colours that compliment fair skin and dark hair. No pretending to be someone you’re not. Honest.”
Erestor smiled ruefully. “Truly, Sire? I only spend a few months of the year here and do not earn enough to justify keeping up with fashion. I just try my best to be neat and not embarrass myself. I have very little jewellery, and I wear dark colours because they seem to stand outside of fashion. They might not excite admiration, but they are also unlikely to be as out of place as… lavender, two months after yellow becomes the season’s colour.”
They glanced as one down the room to where one of the ladies was resplendent in last season’s colour, looked away and exchanged sheepish grins. “Lavender’s out, is it?” Gil-galad asked. “I never quite manage to keep up with these things.”
“You don’t have to,” Erestor pointed out carefully. “You’re the king. If you woke up tomorrow and decided you wanted to dress in lavender, it would be all the rage again by nightfall.”
Gil-galad rested fingers atop a pawn, tapping it lightly, and looked thoughtful. “Yessss. That is about the size of it, how it works. But– you would still wear green, wouldn’t you?”
“If the new fashion were lavender?” Erestor asked. ”Yes, of course. I’d have to. Again. Anyhow, I have a sense I would look terrible in it.”
The king released the piece, rested folded arms on the edge of the table and leaned forward so their faces were unexpectedly close. Blue eyes held Erestor’s. “And if I needed to be told an uncomfortable truth about how I looked in that lavender I’d set my heart on, you would get on and do it, wouldn’t you? No flattery, no placating?”
Erestor drew a breath, unable to look away. “I would always tell you the truth,” he said quietly. “I know you well enough to be certain it would be taken in good part. You would never punish criticism if it was well-intentioned.”
Gil-galad’s eyes stayed serious and a question lurked in their depths. He seemed about to say more on the matter, but two ladies paused to greet him and when he turned back, the more familiar look of genial amusement had returned. “Good. I’ll hold you to that. Truly? Lavender couldn’t look any worse on you than it does on me. Tried it once, decided I could get by without being in the forefront of fashion. Oh, and that move with the Priestess?” A piece was advanced, and the Priestess vanished into a large, competent fist. “Bad idea. You’re good with a sword, you’re well read, your dress sense is sound, and you have nice hair. But your chess strategy? That needs work.”
The following three months saw Erestor along with everyone else penned in Imladris, which settled early under a heavy blanket of snow. It was spring, with the thaw still in progress, before he could finally justify taking the familiar trail back to Mithlond. He had spent the final month quietly irritable with life, a mood foreign to his nature, but had been careful not to put a name or explanation to it beyond that well-know culprit, mid-winter depression.
Gil-galad’s court had not changed appreciably during his absence. Some old faces were missing, and there was a smattering of new. Lord Círdan was present, which was unusual though not unheard of; the Shore Lord liked to keep his own side of the bay amongst his own people. Officially Mithlond covered both shores of the Gulf, palace facing shipyard across a narrow expanse of water and joined by a regular and meticulously run ferry service, but in truth the high king’s writ stopped where the Telerin’s influence began. The division apparently harked back to the days on Balar, but Erestor had never felt forward enough to ask for details.
He was welcomed back in the usual way, with Gil-galad spotting him from across the room and hailing him loudly, causing more than a few heads to turn. “Heard Imladris turned into a prison for a time back there. The couriers couldn’t get through, no one could get out. All’s well with my cousin?”
Erestor made his way across, and for a moment all he could see were light blue eyes that sparkled with wit and pleasure at his presence. That moment was all it took for him finally to know the truth. He breathed in, let it out. “Well enough, Sire. He asked to be remembered to you. I believe there was a letter.”
“Oh, right. Laegon must have it for me. Well, come on, join us. We were talking about Midhiel‘s new paintings.”
“I don’t think they’d be familiar with Midhiel’s work in Imladris, Ereinion.” The voice was light, confident. She had been absent from court for much of the previous year, but Erestor knew her by sight; Ormeril, the Noldor-dark daughter of Gil-galad’s treasurer. Tall, slender, exquisitely dressed, she looked at him and through him before turning her flawless face up to the king and smiling. “Though listening to you experienced patrons argue is always an education.”
“Erestor will see her work soon enough, Ormeril,” the king said mildly. “But you’re quite right, no harm in hearing a few considered opinions first. Someone get Master Erestor a cup of wine. Now, you were saying, Arthon?”
There were always court ladies hanging onto the high king’s every word, this had been obvious since the day Erestor met him. Young for the most part, noble or from influential homes, promoted at court by families hungry for advancement and seeing the clearest route resting in the crown matrimonial. In Erestor’s limited experience they came and went, and Gil-galad was pleasant, charming even, without offering favour to one above the others. Ormeril was different. Vivacious, witty, elegant, all long neck, good jewellery and tasteful cleavage, she was beside the king at every event, gathering or entertainment he attended. Erestor gritted his teeth and fought the urge to leave the room at sight of her.
After more than a week in Mithlond, he had only spent random moments alone with the king. Not that he expected to be the centre of attention after his absence, just – he had assumed something similar to what had gone before, which involved talking quietly while they rode together or over a game of chess, or sudden, animated exchanges about some matter that had caught one or the other’s attention. Now Ormeril kept close to the king’s side, riding, walking, at court functions – dancing.
He arrived one morning to find Ormeril at the centre of a group around the king, all deep in discussion about the festivities planned for that night to celebrate the marriage of the son and daughter of two of Lindon’s wealthiest families. Talk ranged from rumours of exotic gifts to stories about catering and the size of the wedding party. Erestor stood on the outskirts, tempted to make his excuses and leave but loathe to surrender the field to a rival. He could have sworn Gil-galad was unaware of his presence, but suddenly he was the recipient of that smile and a look of friendly interest. He felt as though his heart had leapt into his throat.
“So. And what do you think, Erestor? Was it really a camel being led into the groom’s family stables? What will you be wearing tonight? Scarlet and black?” It was a joke between them, the closest thing Erestor had to formal attire was a scarlet robe worn over a black shirt.
“It could be a camel, Sire, though if there is only one, it faces a lonely life here in the north,” Erestor said, resisting the urge to shrug. Why anyone would give someone a camel, a creature of the extreme south, as a wedding gift was beyond him, but people will do strange things to prove their wealth and creativity. As the gifter might be present, he kept his thoughts to himself. “And were I on the guest list, that would be my choice, but as a casual visitor to the capital I hardly expected an invitation.”
Neither family probably even knew he existed, which he would have said had it just been the two of them. Pride forbad him from confessing as much in present company.
Gil-galad wrinkled his nose and frowned. “Not invited? Oh, I’ll soon fix that. In fact, easiest way is if you just come along with me tonight. Can’t see them having trouble feeding one more.”
“Olwen told me her father was being quite strict about the guest list, Ereinion,” Ormeril cut in smoothly, all court grace and familiarity. “Plus, I doubt – Erestor – has anything suitable to wear at such short notice. There would be no call for formal party clothes in a place like Imladris. With respect to your cousin, of course.” She smiled brilliantly up at Gil-galad as she spoke, an obvious ploy to soften any possible slur on Elrond, of whom the king was known to be very fond. Her remark stung, it burned, but not as much as the way Gil-galad responded, indulgently amused.
He muttered something about already having plans for the evening and wondered if Gil-galad even heard him. He always thought of him as that, ever since the day the king had said his epessë, ‘descendant of kings’, put him in mind of a race horse or prize bull, even though it was considered proof of a close connection to call him such. Ereinion had been the gift of his great-aunt Galadriel; his mother had called him Gil-galad.
Erestor stayed on the edge of the circle for a while longer, watching Ormeril flirt and smile and chatter and Gil-galad respond laughingly to most of it and generally pander to her. When he could no longer bear to watch, he detached himself wordlessly and left.
The room Erestor used when he was in Mithlond was one of a number located in an unfashionable corridor near the main entrance to the palace. It was small, sparsely furnished, and had been Gil-galad’s gift one night when he realised how far Erestor had to walk back to his previous lodgings. With nothing to do and all court activities cancelled for the evening, Erestor had sought its privacy early, taking himself to bed with a book. He read till late, trying his best not to get sidetracked into his own thoughts.
The rapping on his door woke him eventually. He struggled out of dreamlessness and barely had the presence of mind to light the lamp before going to investigate. The open door revealed Gil-galad, hair loose, a dark cloak thrown over his clothing, his hand raised to knock again. Erestor stood gaping, but before he could say anything the king pushed past him, closing the door with a sharp click of the latch.
“Where were you? I turned away and when I looked back you were gone.”
Erestor blinked at him, trying to wake up and get to grips with the reality of Ereinion Gil-galad in his bedroom in the middle of the night. “I… you were busy, Sire, and I doubted you’d notice. It seemed rude to interrupt Lady Ormeril.”
“What the… what has Ormeril to do with you not saying goodbye? You always say goodbye. For all I knew, you’d decided to go back to Imladris early or something. You weren’t there after lunch, you weren’t at the wedding…”
Confusion made him blunt. “I would never leave for Imladris without saying so. And I told you, I wasn’t invited to the wedding.”
“And I told you to come with me, no invitation necessary.” Gil-galad’s lips compressed briefly and he lowered his voice again to something more suited to hour and place. “What is the matter with you?” he growled. “Has something happened? We’ve barely spoken since you got back.”
Any number of replies chased their way around Erestor’s head, but in the end he settled on the one that said it best while being the least embarrassing. “You have very little time to spare, Sire, and seem to prefer other company? I was never much good at pushing myself forward where I am not welcome.”
The lamp flame flickered, the shadows in the room leapt and danced. Even so, the indignation on the king’s face was patent, his voice sharp. “Not welcome? What are you talking about? Where are you not welcome?”
Gil-galad moved further into the room, radiating tension. Erestor stared at him, wordless. He wondered distractedly how he looked to the king, hair unbound and wearing nothing more than an old shirt that doubled as sleepwear, but that was low on his present list of priorities. Later he could berate himself for his appearance. They were near the door, the bed was opposite, under the window. Other than that the room held a nightstand, a small clothes chest, a table stacked with books, a chair. It offered no distractions, no way to avoid the question, so finally he answered with simple honesty. “Lady Ormeril has most of your attention, Sire, and finds my presence tedious.”
The silence was so absolute it was almost tangible. The king’s personal guard patrolled the palace grounds at night, but otherwise nothing stirred. Inside the small, functional room the lamp dimmed before the light once more steadied. Gil-galad was staring at him, his face unreadable. Erestor felt cold and empty. He stood waiting for impatience perhaps, or one of the king’s more colourful oaths. And then, not for the first time, Gil-galad surprised him. He laughed, a single, startled bark of laughter. “You are keeping your distance because Ormeril finds you – tedious? Why in the world would you care what Ormeril thinks? She won’t be the first or the last to wonder what you’re doing in my immediate circle.”
“Yes, but they say in time she will be first lady of the Noldor.”
Erestor heard himself as though from a great distance. This was not something one should repeat to the king, and it had not crossed his mind to do so when similar rumours had circulated concerning Daerris, whose father oversaw the grain harvest. But Daerris was by nature a modest girl and the current whispers were entirely different, due as much to Ormeril’s reputation, he supposed, as to their content.
Gil-galad was staring at him. Finally, when Erestor felt ready to sink through the floor would it just do him the favour of opening up at his feet, the king reached out a hand and strong fingers wound through a lock of his hair and tugged. “You think Ormeril is on her way to becoming Queen of Lindon?” he asked flatly.
“I – so they say, Sire.”
They faced one another, Erestor feeling the colour flooding his face, while Gil-galad’s expression softened from grimness through to something horribly close to amusement. “You have got to be joking. Ormeril?”
“I think she would be less likely to find it funny, Sire, she acts as though…”
“She turns up her well-bred nose at everyone who wasn’t born on the other side of the ocean or who cannot at least trace their descent back to Finwe. And you let that bother you, because…?”
“I suppose I know my place?”
Gil-galad went very still, staring down at him. Watching his eyes darken, Erestor felt as though the air was being sucked out of the room. It was like balancing on a knife edge, tipping slowly, inexorably over into the next moment, into the thing that steady look promised. Then the hand left his hair and grabbed his upper arm instead, dragging him forward. Next moment he was being crushed against that broad chest, and Gil-galad’s lips were claiming his own hungrily.
“Your place?” the king grated against Erestor’s mouth, his voice uneven. “Your place is here, with me, in my arms. No other – there has been no other.”
A hand under his chin forced him to look up. Gil-galad’s voice was deliberate, his gaze intense, cutting through the jumbled whirl of thoughts and questions. Erestor could feel him breathing, feel the swift rise and fall against him. “Now listen to me, you. Ormeril’s father is in the last stages of negotiating a very desirable match for her. It was a secret, she needed to distract attention. I was lonely, needed diversion… I’ve known her for years, we enjoy one another’s company. Nothing more.”
While he spoke his free hand was busy exploring Erestor’s hair, letting the soft curls slide through his fingers. The hand cupping his face moved, careful fingers brushing the bridge of his nose and out across his cheek – softly, a touch like cobweb that sent shivers whispering through him. “I have wanted to feel your hair, your skin, for months. That scattering of freckles – just there. Wanted to touch… like this. You have no idea…”
“I thought – you seemed so at ease in her company.” Erestor rested the palm of his hand flat on Gil-galad’s chest. The king was warm, solid, yet he could still barely believe the dream had been made reality so suddenly, so utterly. “It – I felt invisible…”
Gil-galad pulled him back for another endless, starving kiss. “Don’t be stupid, that’s how she treats everyone,” he said gruffly when they finally paused for breath. “I didn’t realise you were taking it seriously, just that you were distant, always seemed just out of reach. Bored, almost. I thought you knew, thought you understood… Spending time with a suitable girl, it distracts people, makes them think I’m just picky, not that – not that marriage is the last thing I could ever want. I would never deliberately have hurt you…”
It was a rushed, almost frantic coupling. The heat that flared in the pit of Erestor’s stomach spread outwards right to his fingertips, blocking any further attempt to make sense of what was happening. All he knew were hard, demanding hands tangling in his hair, rubbing circles over his back, moving lower to cup his buttocks and draw him close as Gil-galad ground against him, panting, needful, his mouth ravishing Erestor’s face and neck. Erestor returned kiss for kiss, touch for clasp, barely remembering to breathe.
They somehow found their way across the room, clothing discarded on the way – somewhat more of Gil-galad’s than of Erestor’s as he was naked beneath the shirt, which fact earned a grunt of satisfaction. They collapsed onto the bed in a confusion of disjointed whispers, mouths tasting, hands groping, exploring briefly, before Gil-galad reached down between them, grasping him and Erestor both with rough fingers and set to jerking them off, breaking free of Erestor’s mouth so he could lean up and watch his hand’s work. His other arm remained tight around Erestor, who lay writhing and gasping in its embrace.
For what seemed an eternity he rode the flame-bright edge of ecstasy, then thick, dark hair fell like a cloud around his face and a long kiss carried him through to completion.
After, they lay in the narrow bed, Erestor half atop of Gil-galad whose fingers roved over him, stroking and petting gently.
“You were jealous. How did I miss that?” Amused, Gil-galad idly ran his hand down Erestor’s arm before returning once more to the tumble of long, black curls.
“Not… jealous exactly.” Erestor turned his head to press his cheek against Gil-galad’s shoulder and tightened an arm around his waist. “Hurt, I suppose, and a bit lost. And feeling inadequate and embarrassed, and not knowing how to get your attention without looking like a child shouting ‘look at me, look at me’.”
A soft snort of laughter brushed his cheek. “And I started to feel you were only here because you thought you had no choice and were bored, bored with me, with the shallowness of life at court. I even thought maybe there was someone at home – not a girl, I was fairly sure of that, but some young warrior perhaps, someone who needn’t hide his true tastes from a Council determined someday to see a royal heir.”
Erestor shook his head, kissed Gil-galad’s neck. “Hardly. Most of the warriors in Imladris are married anyway. I spent most of winter trying to fool myself into believing I wasn’t desperate to get back here to see you. Never thought you could miss someone the way I missed you…”
A half-turn had him on his back. The king leaned over him, the mane of dark hair once again shutting out the world. A finger traced his lips, the line of his face up to his cheekbone, then around his eye to his eyebrow. Erestor smiled into the touch and reached up to rest a hand on the back of Gil-galad’s neck. Their bodies adjusted to the new space and pose, the king’s sex resting heavy against his thigh. Lips touched his forehead, a caress more than a kiss. “I’ve loved you for months. Every time you leave, the days stretch endless till you return. I know all about missing someone.”
“But you never said a word.”
Gil-galad gave him look for look, then spoke carefully, as though fearing another misunderstanding. “I was just – overwhelmed when I realised what I felt for you. Not lust as I’d been telling myself, but…love, the real thing? I had an instinct from the start not to do anything that would make you think I was trying to use you. When I understood my heart, I knew why.” He laughed ruefully, a hand stroking Erestor’s hair back from his face. “Believe me, the fact that nothing happened before wasn’t through lack of interest.”
Erestor settled under him, feeling the beginnings of new desire already stirring his loins. “How long?” he asked.
It was more than a simple request for a date, a span of time, and Gil-galad took it as intended. “How long have I known I loved you? Oh, months ago. You won’t remember. We were playing chess, talking, it was raining outside, you smiled at me and promised always to tell me the truth…”
“Even if you wore lavender. I remember.”
“You do?” He sounded pleased. “Good. Thought I was the only one here obsessively remembering every word, every look. Well, from then. Though I’ve wanted to do this to you since the night we met.” He emphasized ‘this’ with a thrust of his hips, and reawakened hardness grazed Erestor’s belly. Erestor grinned, undulated against him. He was young enough for love still to be a new experience, and for the first time in his life he felt really desirable, sensual, with an urge to test his powers. He was not disappointed, a sharply indrawn breath signaled his success.
“Tease,” Gil-galad chuckled. “You’ll pay for that. What about you? How long? Or did it really take Ormeril to finally open your eyes?”
Erestor shook his head, rubbed it catlike against Gil-galad’s shoulder, drew him down for a kiss. “That first night when we were talking about Lorien, about sleeping on a flet? I knew who I wanted to share that flet with. It grew from that, but once I knew who you were I put it out of my mind, it was too impossible. It was – it was enough just to be close to you, to have your friendship. I never expected more. But when I saw someone else might have it all — can only hide from the truth for so long.”
“I owe Ormeril the kind of binding gift they’ll be talking about for years to come,” Gil-galad chuckled. “Something tasteful but very, very glittery. “ He sobered. “You – do realise no one can know, don’t you? The smallest chance that I might one day finally wed is enough to keep all sorts of people in check and to hint at any number of alliances. It’s not just a social issue, it’s a political tool, and one I can’t afford to lay down, either. Not even for love. Two men together, living quietly, the continuance of their line no matter of any urgency – most people will accept that. Love is a gift from the One, after all. But – kings are different.”
Erestor smiled up at him, hands busy brushing back hair, touching skin, simply because he could. “No one will know, I have no need to display you as a trophy. Just so long as I have your heart and we can find time to share, I will have all I could ever want.”
“Trust me?” Gil-galad’s voice was husky, the hand kneading Erestor’s shoulder suggestive and almost-rough.
“I trust you. Always. If you tell me this is real, if you tell me there is no other, that is all I need. I trust you.”
“Nothing will ever be more real to me than this.” The hand stilled, the low voice was solemn, absolute. “Next month, next year… a thousand years in the future.”
Erestor reached up, made a futile attempt to push the curtain of thick, dark hair out of the way, and Gil-galad grinned at him, turned to kiss the palm of his hand. “Now then – let’s take things slowly this time. I need to check if you have any more of those adorable freckles in – less public places.”
“You’ll be missed of course,” Gil-galad said, his voice pitched loud enough to reach anyone in the immediate vicinity who was paying attention. “You’ll be back for the summer, right? Be a pity to miss Lady Ormeril’s wedding. I hear it’s to be quite a spectacle.”
Erestor smiled politely. “I’m sure it will be, Sire, though I’m not certain I’ll find myself on the guest list.”
“Oh, I think you can assume you will,” Gil-galad assured him, his glance more than casually amused. “You can always show up as a member of my party if it comes to that. Don’t laugh, Erestor. I’m serious.”
“Yes, Majesty. I suppose I will have to start considering a suitable gift then.”
“Oh – yes, gift. Almost forgot.” Gil-galad explored pockets, coming up with a tiny parcel wrapped in shimmery lavender cloth. “Here it is,” he said triumphantly. “Knew you were leaving, made sure I’d remember to bring it along.” He held it out. “In case you don’t get back before Midsummer’s Day, here’s something small to mark the holiday.”
Erestor opened his mouth to say midsummer wasn’t for months yet, caught the look of devilment dancing in bright eyes and smiled instead. “Thank you, Sire. You are – most thoughtful. May I open it or should I keep it for the day?”
“Oh, go ahead, open it now. It’s just something small anyhow… for luck.” Gil-galad, renowned for being neither superstitious nor sentimental, waited, watching him.
Erestor unwrapped the cloth carefully and looked down at what lay in the palm of his hand. No jewels fit for a royal favourite, nothing to excite attention beyond a shrug at the vagaries of the king’s whim. An enamelled pendant, rectangular in shape, coloured in swirls of rose, purple and, yes, lavender. Upon the front the letter E had been etched within a five pointed star, and it hung from a simple but strong leather thong of the kind the king sometimes used to tie back his hair when he was out riding.
It was neatly made, but suggested the work of a careful amateur rather than the accomplished craftsmen who would normally produce wares for Lindon’s king.
“E for Erestor,” he said with a smile. Or Ereinion. “Thank you, Sire.”
“The star’s for luck,” explained Gil-galad, serious for a moment, “surrounding your name with its light.”
Starlight, Star’s Radiance – Gil-galad. Erestor looked away before his eyes could speak secrets for the entire court to read. “I think this star will bring me all the luck I could ever wish for,” he replied softly. “And I could grow quite partial to lavender.”
Tol Eressëa, sometime early in the 4th Age.
“And it really brought you luck?” a voice asked softly.
Erestor returned reluctantly from memories of the Second Age and smiled down at the girl who lay on the grass at his feet, looking up at him with dreamy eyes. For once, even her brothers were quiet. They were getting older now, which left them more appreciative of the subtleties of a love story, although this provided new reasons to gloss over a few of the more intimate details – Erestor had been careful in his telling to skip from that first kiss straight to the public leave-taking.
“Of course, Gelireth,” he told her, amused. “My life has been blessed with good luck ever since. And love. Oh, there were difficult times, like when the king rested in Mandos while I continued working for your grandfather in Imladris – you know all about that, too – but I knew at the end we would meet again here, and the years flew past faster than you might imagine. The luck held true, and the love was forever.”
In the near distance he could hear laughing voices, the sounds of swimmers returning up the path from the beach. He had decided against the lure of Aman’s azure blue ocean and the accompanying risk of sunburn, preferring to pass the time with Elladan’s children outside the rambling house their father had begun building soon after his arrival on Tol Eressëa.
Gil-galad came into view, striding up the path with Elladan and Elrond. They were followed by Glorfindel, newly arrived on Tol Eressëa and whose golden locks drew the eye in that dark-haired company. He spotted them under the trees and waved, calling out a greeting, and as always Gil-galad’s eyes went immediately to Erestor. They shared a look that was private and exchanged smiles, much as they had the day they finally met again in Tirion shortly after Erestor’s arrival. It was Erestor’s claim that he had been the one doing all the looking, while Gil-galad would just smile and shrug and say he might not have met every ship that arrived from the east, but he had never doubted they would find one another in the end.
“Love also makes its own luck,” Erestor told the girl, offering her his hand as he rose, turning to wait for Gil-galad, wet and cheerful, to come over and kiss him hello. “And forever is a good long while to spend enjoying it. Come on, up you get. Time to go in and see if your mother needs our help with lunch. ”
*needs to stop here, not really the end*
Beta: Red Lasbelin
AN: For Fimbrethiel in the Ardor in August 2009 swap.