Erestor woke to the sound of the bed creaking and someone muttering under their breath, busy with some task that made the mattress shake. He tried chasing after the fading tatters of a dream but it was futile: once he was awake there was no going back. He sighed and turned over, squinting against the lamplight.
“What’s the time?” he asked, his voice hoarse with sleep. “And why are you here? I thought you said you were going to overnight at Círdan’s?”
“We talked. It got late. I decided I wanted your opinion before I slept so I came home.”
Erestor propped himself up on an elbow, shoving his hair out the way. “Now what’s wrong? What did he want you for?”
Kicking his boots off, Gil-galad pulled tunic and undershirt together over his head, dropping the tangle of garments onto the floor at his feet. Erestor glared, irritated. “On the chair with that. We’re in my rooms, not yours, remember?”
The king grunted. Bending he picked up the clothing and scrunched it into a ball which he shied accurately at the chair. “You fuss worse than my old nurse.”
Erestor eyed him. “Those leggings are a disgrace. They fit like a second skin,” he said around a yawn. “What was wrong? And why am I awake? Why could it not wait till morning, when I have to get up for work anyhow? What did he show you?”
“Glorfindel,” Gil-galad said succinctly, climbing under the covers.
Instead of shifting over to rest his head on the king’s shoulder as expected, Erestor sat bolt upright and stared down at him. Gil-galad settled back on the pillows and gave him a satisfied look – it was not often Erestor was at a loss for words.
“Glorfindel, hero of the Hidden City and all that?”
Erestor continued to stare, waiting for the point of the joke before he started shouting about the time.
“I thought you’d be impressed.”
“Gil, I’m not sure what the punch line is here, but I saw the lord of the House of the Golden Flower die – well almost anyway. I saw him battling the Balrog. Then my father made me run…”
“Same one,” Gil-galad informed him, less amusement in his voice now. “Long blonde hair, blue eyes, looks a bit confused with life at the moment, but that’ll pass Círdan says.”
Erestor tried to force his mind to wake up and work. “But how can that be? And why?”
Gil-galad shook his head. “I was hoping you would have ideas about that. Seems they sent him back, full grown, in a body the image of the one he had before. Elrond had one of his prescient moments and called him a harbinger…”
“Warning of darkness to follow?” Erestor muttered. “That’s encouraging. Very Elrond.” He sunk down beside the king, and they spent a moment getting comfortable together. When they were settled he said, “So he’s come back… How did they do that?”
“Put him on a boat and sent it over the sea. Círdan’s people found him floating in the Bay.”
“Has… has that ever happened before?” Erestor asked uncertainly. He was trying to remember that night but his clearest memory was of the tall, grim-faced warrior at the entrance to the escape tunnel when he and his family reached it. He had gestured ahead into the darkness and said something about moving quickly, keeping up, his mind plainly elsewhere. Erestor’s final – only – memory of Glorfindel that night was of a being of fire and smoke, immense, flames against the night sky, and an elf looking absurdly small beside it, facing it with sword drawn, golden hair tossing in the wind.
“Not that Círdan knows of,” Gil-galad answered. “Not that Elrond has ever read. Not that I ever heard. And it is obviously a new concept to you.” He placed a brief kiss to the side of Erestor’s head. “All any of us can think is that this is a warning of some kind. Though the message is unclear to me…”
Erestor started to sit up again. “What does he say? Glorfindel, I mean.”
Gil-galad shrugged and pulled him back down. Erestor pushed away so they could look at one another. “Nothing of any use, of course. Do you think the Valar would make it easy for us? All he says is that he woke on Tol Eressëa, and once he was strong enough he needed to come back here. The words he used were ‘to protect and advise’”
“Thought that was Elrond’s job,” Erestor retorted. “And no, we are going to sleep now. Don’t get ideas. What are you planning to do with him while we work this all out?”
Gil-galad sighed. “Only logical thing I could think of – Elrond wasn’t having any of it so I left him with Círdan.”
The next morning was a rush of chasing Gil-galad out the small, well-appointed cottage in the palace grounds so that he’d have time to change before breakfast, getting himself, his two dogs and the cat fed, and hurrying in to work. The morning was busy, which meant it was almost lunch time before Erestor could get away.
The ferry ride to the other side of the Mithlond strait was choppy, the wind had come up and the sea was uncomfortable. The swan ship was still docked near the ferry station so he and everyone else crowded to the side for a good look at it as they came in. There was a guard pacing nonchalantly up and down close by, which he supposed was wise: the temptation to go aboard and have a look tugged at even him and he lacked the curiosity about boats shared by almost everyone living on Círdan’s side of the city.
He made the long climb up the hill to the Shore Lord’s green-roofed house with its commanding view of the harbour and the gulf beyond, but Círdan was nowhere to be found and no one knew where he had gone. This wasn’t unusual: long ago on Balar Erestor had dealt with Círdan’s accounts and lived in his house, and often had no idea where to find him there either. He was about to give in to temptation and see if the guard would let him take a look at the small, elegant ship from out of the west when something more interesting caught the corner of his eye.
Círdan could not be said to have a garden as such, but there were a few benches dotted about beside the house and a sheltered alcove with a table and chairs. Someone tall and fair haired had found this and was sitting at the table with a cup in his hand, looking pensively out to sea. Erestor stared. Not that he hadn’t believed Gil, of course – the story was too daft not to be true – but seeing, as they said, was believing. For a moment he was back on that pass and could hear the monster roaring, see bright gold hair shimmering through smoke…
He had to take a breath and square his shoulders before making his way over. Blue eyes in a tired, ageless face fastened on him. Blond eyebrows came down in a frown. Erestor stopped a short distance from the table and jerked a bow. “My lord? It’s really you?”
The words sounded as stupid out loud as they had in his head. Glorfindel blinked and then nodded. “As far as I know?” he offered, putting the cup down. It was tea, Erestor saw, which made sense as they drank a lot of it over here, including at times when the north side of the bay would be more inclined to reach for the wine bottle. Noldor heritage, he supposed. “I know you, don’t I?” Glorfindel went on. He had a nice voice, not particularly low but clear and friendly. “You look familiar, but I forget things sometimes.”
This hardly seemed surprising. “From Gondolin, yes. My father worked for you? You came to look after our dog had puppies once and we talked for some time.” It had been a few months before that final midsummer, and they had sat on the floor watching the pups play and clamber over each other while they talked for almost an hour about all sorts of unlikely things. Afterwards his father had warned him against being too forward. Looking back, Erestor could read this as concern over him getting entangled in the political and personal manoeuvring that raged between the great houses, but at the time it had seemed fussy and a bit unfair.
Glorfindel was still frowning. “Things get a little muddled,” he admitted. “Then, now, before… I have memories I know belong to me but jumbled up, like in a dream.”
“A little confusion makes sense to me,” Erestor assured him. “A lot’s happened. We didn’t know each other well, so in the normal way of things you might have forgotten. We just spoke a few times? My name’s Erestor and my father was Thangur, if that helps.”
The worried face lit up suddenly. “Oh, Círdan told me to expect you, that you’d have questions. You had puppies, didn’t you? Well, not you. Your dog had puppies – I’m right, aren’t I?”
“That’s right,” Erestor said, sitting down to the side, careful not to block the view. “You came to see them. I think Father gave one to your sister.”
“He might have.” Glorfindel’s face fell and for a moment he looked concerned, then he brightened up. “She hadn’t been reborn when I came back, but I’m sure everyone does eventually. Don’t they?”
Erestor decided against lying. “My lord, I don’t know. We know very little about any of that on this side. Círdan would be the best person to help you. Or maybe the Lady Galadriel when she next visits.” He thought back, did some arithmetic with years and amended, “Artanis? I’m not sure you knew her Sindarin name.”
Glorfindel smiled, “I knew she changed her name, couldn’t recall it for the life of me. Galadriel. That’s pretty. We’re cousins, you know. By marriage, I mean.”
“Yes, I remember,” Erestor said. He had completely forgotten but no need to admit that. “It’ll be a nice reunion for you then.”
“Be good to see her again,” Glorfindel agreed. His brow furrowed and there was a small hesitation before he asked, “There’s – not a lot of contact between here and over there in Aman, is there? I’d heard it was a one way exchange.”
Something touched Erestor’s nerve endings with a delicate finger. Long years of sifting through intelligence reports had given him a sixth sense for the hidden, the words behind the words. “Not as a rule, no,” he said, watching a sudden drift of butterflies go past. “Not that I know of or that His Majesty has mentioned to me.”
“Would he have talked about it? Is it general knowledge?” Erestor wondered how much Círdan, who heartily disapproved of him, had said about his position or his connection to Gil-galad, especially as he was dressed for work in something plain and functional rather than court attire and probably looked like a clerk eager to say hello to a famous newcomer he had spoken with maybe five times in his life.
Masking his annoyance at the shipwright, he smiled. “I deal with secrets and the unusual, my lord, and such information tends to come my way. Plus the king and I are friends of long standing, it’s the kind of thing he would mention. And if not him, then Gildor, who I talk with regularly as well.”
Glorfindel pulled a face. “Gildor? What, some enraged husband hasn’t seen him off to the Halls yet?”
They both laughed. “I see crossing the Sea didn’t change him,” Erestor said. “No, so far he’s proved hard to kill. I’m glad there’re a few people you’ll know – he shows up here regularly, though right now he’s in the south picking up information for us. Is there anyone else I could try and find for you, my lord?” He wondered how many of the people Glorfindel had known were still alive and on that side of the Great Sea. Not many, he thought.
“Call me Glorfindel. Please. I’m not really lord of anything anymore, am I? And we’re both from the same city…”
He had not thought of himself as Erestor from Gondolin for a very long time, he was mainly Erestor who had lived in Sirion and on Balar before the world changed and they moved to Lindon. However he smiled and was nodding his thanks when someone belatedly came out from Círdan’s kitchen with more tea and a plate of cakes. He hoped the little bow and respectful air reassured Glorfindel that he hadn’t been exaggerating his connections.
Sipping his tea, he watched as Glorfindel selected one of the cakes and bit into it experimentally. Erestor, a courtier and occasional spy, was quite good at giving the impression of being relaxed and casual when in fact he was alert for any changes in expression or body language, and he used this to full effect now. “I’m not sure I understood properly – you came from over the sea in that lovely boat I saw moored alongside when I came in on the ferry, yes, but Ereinion wasn’t sure why and said you’d come a long way so he didn’t want to press you right away. That’s why I’m here now. Was there a message, or were you given a specific mission? No need to tell me the details of course if it’s secret, but I’ll have half the court asking me and I need to make up a useful answer to satisfy everyone.”
He finished with his warmest smile and tucked into one of the cakes, waiting. Hints of lemon and sugared peel assailed him. Glorfindel drank more tea and was a bit obvious about buying time. Finally he gave Erestor a look of utter blue-eyed innocence and shook his head. “Protect and serve, that’s all,” he said. “The cakes are good, aren’t they?”
Erestor stared at him. “They’re lovely. You know, it’s always easier to be open about things. The only person who needs to know what you tell me is Ereinion. Otherwise this is just between you and me. Someone has to know what this is all about. It’s not as though we get regular visitors out of the west. As you guessed, it’s a stream that flows one way only. As a rule, anyhow.” The silence stretched between them till eventually he said, “Come, you can trust me. I’m not a total stranger, after all. In fact you’re nominally my lord, or would be if Gondolin still stood.”
“I make it a habit never to trust anyone who says ‘you can trust me’,” Glorfindel said, looking amused. Then his expression clouded again. “Is it completely gone now? They burnt it, I know. And someone said it was damaged during the war…?”
“The whole of Beleriand was under the sea when they’d finished with it,” Erestor said, restraining a sigh. They might at least have given him a bit of an update on history before putting him in that boat.
Glorfindel stared at him, then lifted his gaze to the sea and was quiet. Finally he turned back to Erestor, who was enjoying his tea while he waited: waiting was one of his skills, learned during endless night surveillance assignments. “Everything? I heard some jokes about having changed the coastline, but I had no idea… Do you think Círdan has a map? I – need to see this.”
Erestor felt bad for him and annoyed at himself for being so blunt. It had taken years to distance himself from emotional reactions to places forever gone, but the lesson had been well learned and today it had made him callous. “He’ll have plenty of maps of what will be a new coastline to you,” he said contritely. “I’m sorry, I was thoughtless. It was long ago and I’ve had time to make peace with it. I’ve never met someone who didn’t know about the end of the War of Wrath.”
Glorfindel smiled wryly and shrugged. “That’s all right. I kept telling myself the world would have changed dramatically, I just didn’t understand quite how far. Where were you when it happened? How did everyone survive?”
Erestor studied his teacup. “We were on Balar, even those left in Sirion sailed across when the earth shook and we could see smoke and strange lights in the north. Everyone else, the people inland who hadn’t fled far enough east, died.” And the animals and the birds and any number of amazing creatures like Ents and… Erestor shut down the memory firmly. He always got angry when he thought about that, even now.
“I’m sorry,” Glorfindel said unexpectedly. “The army that went along with the Valar, I don’t think they understood the effect of what they were doing. Knowing there are people in the way isn’t as immediate when you’ve never met them, seen their homes.”
Erestor’s left eyebrow twitched, “I suppose not.”
The silence stretched on until finally Erestor broke it. “They didn’t give a damn really, did they?”
“Probably not.” Glorfindel looked sad. “Relatives of mine on my mother’s side – the Vanyar side – were in that army. I don’t suppose they thought too much about it, it’s too far outside of their experience.”
Erestor poured more tea from the ample teapot. “What did your family think of you being reborn and then sent back here?” There was nothing more to the question than casual curiosity but the strangest expression crossed Glorfindel’s face. Erestor rested his elbows on the table and studied him. Eventually he shook his head. “You have no idea how tenacious I am. A rabid dog has nothing on me.”
“That’s why you got sent to cross examine me, isn’t it?” Glorfindel asked glumly.
Erestor smiled. “Actually Ereinion didn’t ask, he knew I’d do it as a matter of course. I don’t like mysteries unless I get to solve them.”
“Huh. Yes, I can see that. They thought I was odd right from when I was reborn – if I’d had friends from before to spend time with it would have been better, but none of them has been released yet so it was assumed I’d want to be with family. They were all like strangers, couldn’t understand what was important to me or why, didn’t want to know anything about life over here.”
It was hardly what Erestor had expected but he nodded encouragingly. “And then you got sent back to this strange barbaric place.”
Glorfindel said nothing. Erestor waited. Sometimes leaving a gap and keeping quiet worked, often it didn’t. This time it did. “I didn’t get sent back,” Glorfindel said quietly, eyes steady, no longer evasive. “I left.”
“I still don’t get it.” Gil-galad said.
They were in the royal apartments in a tangled heap of bedclothes, which had happened because midway through Erestor’s explanation had seemed a good time to do another kind of catching up after the day’s work. Gil-galad was propped up against a couple of pillows while Erestor lay flat looking up at the ceiling with its ornate moulding and painted theme of clouds and swooping birds. He often tried to count the birds but got a different number each time.
“What’s there to understand? He wasn’t happy with the people he was left with, no one had been here or understood why he followed Turgon in the first place, there was talk about trouble over here and how this time no one was going to intervene, that if we were still stupid enough to be here we could cope alone, and he wanted to help.”
“So he stole a boat – that has a familiar ring to it somehow – and managed to get across the Sea without capsizing and turned up in exactly the right spot along the coast? Come on Res, you have to admit that sounds unlikely. He’s from Tirion, not Alqualondé, what the hell would he know about sailing and navigation?”
Erestor sighed. “I told you, I haven’t a clue. He said the boat just seemed to know where to go.”
“Be nice if I could have taught my warship that back in the old days.”
“It’s not my fault, I’m just telling you what he told me. And before you ask – again – yes, I believe him. He’s honest, you can see it in his face, and anyhow he remembers me as one of his people. That’s why he confided in me.” That and possibly the memory of an afternoon in the sun laughing at a litter of pups and talking about art.
Gil-galad turned onto his side and tugged a lock of Erestor’s hair. “You’re one of the least gullible people I know and yet you believe this crock. I don’t understand that. He was your father’s lord and so he wouldn’t lie to you?”
Erestor reached up and pulled his hair free. “No one’s that stupid. Of course he’d lie to me if he needed to, he’s a great lord even if he hasn’t anything to be lord over right now. You high born types all lie through your teeth when you have to. But it didn’t feel like that.” He fell silent, twisting the hair around his finger and thinking hard.
“So swanships have some kind of sentient intelligence? Fascinating,” Gil-galad said with a straight face.
Erestor elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “Yes, you get on board and say ‘Mithlond’ and it knows exactly where to go. New invention. Of course not, you ass. But… the person guiding it knew how to get to Mithlond.”
“I thought we established he wasn’t a sailor?”
“Not Glorfindel. Think. You’re supposed to be smart and wily and really quick. Not seeing much of that tonight.”
This time it was Gil-galad who lay back and stared up at the ceiling. “I ought to get that repainted. Have fire-breathing dragons or something. All right, maybe I’m not quick tonight, but I can still deliver the smart and wily part. Who’s powerful enough to be behind this? Ulmo himself? Why would he do it?”
Erestor raised an eyebrow at him. “Fire breathing dragons don’t work for me, I won’t be visiting. I don’t know, Gil – Ulmo yes, or perhaps Ossë, they’re both supposed to be independent-minded. Not that one person can turn the tide or take on an army single handed but…”
“But one person, the right person, can be a symbol for people to look up to and follow.”
Erestor sat up, shook his hair back over his shoulders and began winding it up into a knot. He always did his best thinking when his hair was out the way. “He wasn’t happy, he felt out of place and that he was needed here. So he goes to the coast and somehow finds a boat… “
They looked at each other. Erestor tucked the end of his hair in under the knot and Gil-galad passed him a leather hair tie from the clutter on the night stand beside the bed. He fastened it, shook his head to make sure it was secure, then leaned back against the headboard frowning. “I suppose I was a bit gullible there, yes. Someone told him where the boat was and that he’d be safe, didn’t they?”
“Yes they did.” Gil-galad put an arm round him and tugged the sheet up, the night was getting chilly. “And for whatever reason, he’s covering for them.”
“Well if some Vala or Maia came along and said, ‘Psst, I can help you, but don’t tell a soul,’ what would you do?” Erestor asked, leaning his head against Gil-galad’s shoulder.
Gil-galad snorted. “Depends which Vala or Maia we’re talking about. But yes, you keep quiet if it works out, keep their secret.” He took Erestor’s free hand while he was talking, carding their fingers together.
Erestor nodded, looked down at their linked hands and smiled. “What should we do? After all, he’s here…”
“He’s here, yes,” Gil-galad agreed. “And we can now guess how much help we can expect from the other side, so I say we take what we can get. Glorfindel is a famous hero, returned from the dead to aid and advise me, or so he said when he arrived. That should give heart to everyone who looks east and worries or has family in Ost-in-Edhil. Also I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with his advice, he’s fought all sorts of things including a balrog, plus his heart’s in the right place.”
“So you’ll confirm his story and keep the truth to just a few of us?”
“Not a few,” Gil-galad said firmly. “You know and I know. And that’s where it stays. Anything shared by more than two people stops being a secret.”
“Well, Glorfindel knows.” Erestor pointed out, ever practical.
Gil-galad grinned and kissed the side of his head. “Yes he does, but he doesn’t count: he’s not telling anyone. My only concern is that some day in the future another, bigger, swanship is going to glide into the harbour and some very angry Telerin will get off and demand their stolen boat back.”
Erestor shrugged. “Cross that bridge if we come to it. Meanwhile though, you’d better get rid of that boat. Just in case.”
Gil-galad nodded. “That is a good thought. Where?”
Erestor closed his eyes, stretched. “Do you think Círdan would want it? He likes new designs, he could study it. See if it really has a mind of its own.”
Gil-galad pinched him, making him yelp and bat at his hand. “It can be as smart as it likes, Res. That’s fine. Just as long as it can’t talk.”