Gildor was pleased to find the so-called Last Ship was a good sized vessel for an Elven ship, built from pale wood and with green and silver sails hanging from a tall mast. There were benches fore and aft and a covered space in the centre with a cabin for sitting out of the spray and the rest given over to sleeping. Below in the hold were fruit and vegetables for the crossing, clean water and the personal possessions of the passengers.
Círdan held the sailing time against the tide, giving Elrond’s sons leeway to arrive as promised, which they did at the very last moment in a clatter of horses’ hooves and bickering. More time had to be spent loading the last of their treasures while their grandfather had words with them – brief words, Celeborn had always been succinct and to the point. Gildor still had no idea how that worked with his cousin; even back when she was just little Nerwen toddling along determined to keep up with her brothers, she had been wordy.
The other passengers made up a motley collection that included members of his company, mainly Ennor-born, who had left the decision till the very end, those few elves who had remained in Minas Tirith with the Evenstar until her final journey, and the undecided, the repentant, the unhappy, the lonely. Exiles they might have been in a harsh land, but they had made that land their own and pulling up roots was a painful business. He too had waited, half unwilling to leave the place that had been home for so long, where friends and lovers were buried and indelible memories had been made. Besides that, some faint stirring of royal duty had whispered he should stay as long as he could, be a shepherd to these lost sheep while they made up their minds.
One passenger sat a little apart from the others in the stern, keeping easily out the way of the mariners. Tall he was and dark haired, his face bearing the signs of weather and hard living, his grey eyes alert and keen as a falcon’s. He and Círdan had looked carefully past one another when he embarked, though he had spared a nod for Gildor, kin to kin. Gildor hoped he had managed to mask his surprise, nay amazement, but then this was the last of Círdan’s ships, no other would be built able to master the transition from the world’s sea to the Straight Road. Perhaps it was not so surprising after all.
Of course his people had brought him rumours that Thranduil’s son Legolas was busy with some shipbuilding endeavour of his own, but he’d believe that when it docked at Avallónë. The Greenwood was not known for its shipwrights.
Baggage stashed, the ship cast off and edged smoothly away from the dock and out into the waterway, travelling the age-old path into the Gulf, the remains of Mithlond sliding past on both sides: storehouses and residences, ancient spires and domes, the soft rose beauty of the palace dating back to when there had been a king in the green land between mountain and sea. Gildor conjured a picture in his mind of blue eyes, a laughing mouth, unruly dark hair, and wondered how long they kept heroes in Mandos.
The sea beckoned, blue and wide. Small white clouds scudded across the sky, otherwise it was a perfect Lindon afternoon. Gildor had made the journey from the main harbour and either up or down the coast many times, he looked back at the land, unable to truly believe he would never see it again. It was very quiet on board, no sounds beyond waves and gulls as they all tried to come to terms with this thought. He never heard the beginning of the song, it just wound its way unobtrusively through the shipboard sounds and into their consciousness, carrying with it images of tall towers, green trees, windswept hills. Slowly heads turned to the Elf in the stern. He stood straight and tall, watching the Hither Shore draw away from them as he sang their leave taking. Gildor thought it was fitting that the last of the Noldor to make music in Middle-earth should be one of the first to have set foot there. Full circle.
The crossing was a strange affair. Everything was exactly as Gildor had been told it would be, but that made it none the less peculiar. They sailed into the west, following the course set by sun and stars on a calm blue sea. Foam caps streamed past them on the days when the wind roused a little, but mainly they had a peaceful, uneventful passage. Dolphins followed them, flying fish leapt, and sea birds circled overhead in the hope of scraps.
As soon as was decent on the first day, Gildor took the twins aside and told them in no uncertain terms not to bother the singer. As it turned out Celeborn had been there first. “Not that we don’t want to meet him,” Elladan explained with a grin, “just not with Grandfather glowering at us.”
Gildor raised an eyebrow and looked towards the legend in what was already his customary spot, sitting at ease, dark hair covered by an ancient straw hat. “Oh, I think meeting him is necessary, or at least being presented to him. That’s just courtesy. You might want to save the casual chatting till your father’s around though. Come.”
They looked uncertain, but they had known him all their lives and followed anyhow. Gildor stopped a few paces away and waited for the grey eyes to leave the sea and come to rest on him. “I thought you might want to meet Elrond’s sons. This is Elladan the eldest, and this is Elrohir.” To the twins he said softly as he might have millennia ago when they were young, “Manners.”
Two dark heads bowed as one, hands raised dutifully to chest height. “A star shines on the hour of our meeting.”
It was an old, traditional greeting, uttered almost without thought, but a wry smile twitched the Elf’s lips. ‘A most exceptional star, in its way,” he said, gesturing to the sky where Vingelot sailed low at day’s ending. “I am pleased to meet you, sons of my fosterling. You’ll forgive me if I keep my own company. It’s been a while since I’ve passed time amongst Elves. It will take some getting used to.”
Elrohir, who never could leave well enough alone, said, “They’re really letting you go back? Just like that?”
Gildor toed the back of Elladan’s calf, a signal to shut his brother up although it was a little late for that. The Elf shook his head briefly, and although his expression remained severe, there was what might have been a glint of amusement in those far-seeing grey eyes. “Apparently,” he said mildly. “Or at least so Círdan says. I have a few – events – to answer for, but in the end I find I prefer to do that and walk the paths of my birth land once more than remain alone in Endórë. The solitary life is more palatable when you know you have options.”
He said nothing more, just sprawled back on the bench again, set the hat more securely on his head, and resumed his contemplation of the ocean. He had nothing with him beyond his bedroll and single bag. Two bags, in fact, one doubtless containing clothing and other necessities, the other a tiny thing closed by a drawstring. This one Gildor noticed he kept close to him as if it were something precious. There was no sign of a harp or other instrument, but then he was Maglor: the only instrument he needed was his voice.
The days blended one into the other. They slept and ate and spoke together and at times sang, because that was the way of the Elves, but after the beginning of their voyage the greatest musician of the Noldor remained silent; it seemed there were no other songs left in Maglor. No one bothered him. They all knew who he was by then, but he sailed on Círdan’s vessel and that meant old grievances must be put aside, for who amongst them would have a greater grievance than Elu Thingol’s nephew? After a while it was almost as though he was not there; they talked and laughed amongst themselves in the cabin and on the deck, and he kept to himself in his place in the stern, watching the sea and the sky and safeguarding the little bag he carried.
They knew they were approaching the transition long before they arrived. In the distance spray was flung high into the air in great, broiling clouds, and a roar like thunder grew and spread around them as they neared, swallowing up the world. Círdan ordered everyone below, telling them to pack away anything that might get thrown around and do harm. When the cacophony of the water had grown so loud it was hard to think and the sky had darkened as at the approach of a storm, curiosity grew too great for Gildor and he made his way out onto the pitching deck, holding onto things as he went along. The twins followed him.
Maglor was already there, in fact Gildor was unsure whether he had been inside with them at all. He stood with his arm around a strut while he craned to see ahead into the mist. Instinct made him look round and he nodded a greeting before returning his attention to what loomed ahead. Círdan, on deck and shouting orders at his mariners, came hurrying down to them, waving an arm and gesticulating towards shelter. Gildor grinned at him, red hair whipping across his face from the howling wind. Out the side of his eye, he saw Maglor doing likewise.
“I’ve wandered in some strange places,” Gildor shouted above the noise, “and I’m not about to miss this.”
“Bloody Finwëans,” Círdan yelled back. “Suit yourselves.”
The sea churned around them, waves lifting and crossing one another, white spray stinging their faces while the boat dipped and bucked beneath their feet like an unruly horse. “There,” Elladan called, grabbing Gildor’s arm and pointing. “Directly ahead. Look at it!”
The sea directly ahead bubbled and fell as though over a ledge. As they reached it his stomach churned and he had to swallow back bile, everything in him screaming that they were about to die. On instinct he closed his eyes, then forced them open again when he heard Maglor laughing wildly into the wind and noise and saw that somehow, despite the water falling endlessly away beneath them, they were sailing on through icy grey mist.
It took him a few moments to realise Maglor had one of the twins by the arm – Elrohir, far too close to the side. As the bucking and pitching eased and the noise lessened, Maglor released him and gave him a casual shove. “It’s a long way to swim. Your father’s had enough to face without walking the beaches of Aman in the hope your body finally washes up there.”
Elrohir made to thank him, but he had already moved off, the little bag hung from his wrist, the other over his shoulder. Aside from his own personal risk, he had taken no chances with having his worldly possessions washed overboard during the tumult.
The mist stayed with them for what Gildor thought might have been a night and a day, but he woke late the next night or early in the morning and went up on deck for some air to find stars shining down from a velvet sky. His eyes tracked for the usual patterns but they were subtly changed. It took time to recall the night sky of his youth and fit the shapes to those memories. They had crossed from the World of Men, he would never see the stars of Ennor again. At the unexpected clench of his heart, he had to remind himself that he was going home.
The sun rose on a calm sea, different only in being a shade or two darker than the one they had left behind. Breakfast was dried fruit, salt fish and water. Gildor overheard two of the mariners talking, the food was near its end, and they agreed it was as well they were due to make port soon. The voyage had taken a day or two longer than average, the Straight Road had been harder to find than before.
Day and night turned and turned around again, and then the land birds started flocking out to visit them, looking for scraps, and the passengers barely needed Círdan’s warning to make ready for landfall. The only person not involved in the excited talk and speculation as to what they might find when they reached Tol Eressëa was, of course, Maglor. He sat where he had for most of the voyage, watching the sea and the growing line of mountain in the distance, his face unreadable. Gildor wondered if he was afraid. Despite his casual dismissal, there would surely be some manner of judgement awaiting one who had been a participant in all three Kinslayings.
The Pelóri loomed vast and dark against the sky and the light beyond them was strange, with a hint of purple iridescence. Closer and looming larger by the hour was an island. Gildor knew it had to be Tol Eressëa, though in the late afternoon sun it looked different than in his memories. But then, it had been a long time and though there were trees as he recalled, there were also houses jostling them for space. Back when he had left, only Avallónë had been well populated and the island had shimmered darkly under starlight.
Celeborn stood with his grandsons watching the sun sink into the sea. None of them had much to say beyond a few exclamations at the height of the mountains and the size of the island that was about to become their home. They would soon be learning the fate of a beloved daughter and mother and he doubted there was much space in their hearts for curiosity or excitement. Maglor too had risen from his usual seat and resumed the station he had held when they set sail. Gildor noticed him fiddling with the drawstring of the little bag and once again wondered what it held.
Dusk had fallen when they made the final run into the harbour with its grey and white stone buildings, its line of new-lit lanterns that seemed identical to those Gildor recalled from the ancient past. All he could do was hope this was no omen, no harbinger of what they would find in the days and weeks ahead, or however time was being measured here now. Galadriel had said she believed the Valar would have learned a few lessons of their own since the Exile, and she was not known for wishful thinking. Then they glided smoothly up to the quay and he put old concerns aside for later.
There was a knot of people waiting and he found himself scanning faces as eagerly as anyone else on board, even though he had no reason to expect to see the one that would give him the most joy. It had been a long time, after all. Perhaps too long. He saw Elrond almost at once, recognising him from the way he stood, the tilt of his head. There were others he knew, acquaintances rather than friends, some waving, some involved in excited conversations with companions. He looked for his cousin but there was no sign of her, and if anyone stood out in a crowd it was Galadriel. She and Celeborn had always had an unusual marriage, but this seemed a little extreme even for them.
Ropes had been thrown and the mariners were busy tying up at the side when the song began. The voice was clear and rich like old silver, the song one of homecoming and welcome. The hubbub of voices hushed as people paused to listen. Gildor knew the voice, he had heard it at his own camp fire on more occasion than one. His eyes swept the quayside till he found Erestor seated with the grace natural to him on a covered bale, his black hair loose and shimmering in the lamplight. He sang strongly with a quiet joy, his eyes on someone beyond Gildor’s sight line.
Turning, he found Maglor standing very still, one bag over his shoulder, the other in his hand, the ridiculous hat firmly on his head. He was watching Erestor and it was as though an invisible thread ran from one to the other. Elladan had also made the connection and seemed about to say something, but Gildor caught his eye and he changed his mind, following his grandfather down the plank that had been slung between deck and quay to meet his father.
It was chance that took Gildor down the gangplank almost directly behind Maglor. He had been diverted into a brief conversation with Círdan, which meant he left just ahead of the unloading of their baggage. There was no hurry, he had friends to meet but his family were probably mainly over in Tirion and the person he kept thinking of was more likely to be there or still in the Halls of Silence. This was how he heard what happened next and solved the mystery of what Maglor had carried over the sea in a small, carefully-guarded bag.
Fëanor’s son had no sooner placed both booted feet on the stones of Tol Eressëa than Erestor uncoiled from his perch, slid down and strode over, his face still soft and almost-young from the music. The shadow of sorrow that Gildor had always seen behind his eyes was gone. He came to a halt before Maglor and they looked at one another in silence for a long moment.
“I told you the next time we met I’d gift you with a song.”
“Yes, you did. I doubt either of us thought it would be this long. You have an intimidating memory.”
Erestor’s laugh was low. “Is that what it takes to intimidate you? I must remember. At any rate, that was your homecoming gift. Most people would say there was a degree of arrogance in offering Maglor of Tirion – and beyond – a song, but I thought you might take my poor offering in the spirit in which it was intended.”
“A reminder of a drunken night with far too much sex and far too little thought for the future, yes.”
“There can be too much sex? Really?” His smile was wicked.
Maglor’s laugh sounded a touch unused, but nonetheless genuine. He raised his hand and Gildor, who had been about to move off, ashamed to be eavesdropping, realised he was proffering the bag. He stopped instead and made a business of taking his cloak off, shaking it, slinging it over his shoulders again, fastening the amber pin. “With the right partner, no,” Maglor said. “Otherwise… Here.”
“What’s this? Oh, you knew I’d be waiting on the quay for you, did you?”
“No, I would never take anyone so unpredictable for granted. I thought to find out where you live and have it delivered.”
Erestor was already looking down, pulling the tie open. Gildor hid a smile: he had always been curious as a cat. He heard the gasp above the ongoing buzz of conversation and associated noises of the ship being off loaded. “… oh my!”
“I remember you liked them, and I thought unless Aman’s changed dramatically since I lived here that you’d not find them this side of the sea. You could try growing a few pips – never know. Though you don’t garden, do you?”
“Not if I can help it. Dates from southern Harad… I can’t believe you remembered how much I love these. This is wonderful.”
“Of course I remembered. And they’re sweet too – I sampled them, naturally. Wanted to give you something that makes you happy. Now – is anyone waiting to haul me away, or will they give us time for a reunion first?”
Gildor missed the response because at that moment one of the twins – he thought it was Elladan – shouted, “Mother!” and he was just in time to see the crowd part and Galadriel appear with her daughter, slender, ever-fragile Celebrían, with Glorfindel walking just behind them.
By the time he remembered to look back, Erestor and Maglor had made their way across the quay and were going up one of the steep flights of steps. Erestor was wearing the hat now, the bag of dates clasped firmly in his hand, and they were talking animatedly. Whatever had been decided about the only surviving son of Fëanor’s line, Gildor suspected justice would be forced to wait the night. Smiling he made his way over to Elrond’s family group to hug Celebrían and greet everyone. There was a chance, he thought, resting his cheek against her soft hair as he held her close, that life on this side of the sea might not be as dry and restrictive as it had been before. At least he doubted it would be boring.
Beta: Red Lasbelin
Challenge: 2011 Yule Fic Exchange at LOTR Community Genfic for Erulisse