Full winter had come late to the island, bringing the usual share of storm and bluster and icy sleet. The wind had dropped over the past two days and there was no sign of snow, but the air still bit sharply. Gildor and Erestor had developed an ongoing joke about how long it would take to skate to Sirion if the sea between Balar and the mainland ever froze, something Gil hoped never happened because he suspected they were just mad enough to try.
He had invited Idril and her family to join them for Yule, but that had been weeks ago and he now thought it unlikely they would brave the uncertainties of the midwinter sea. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to be stopped on his way to check flood damage along the Wherewith and told Tuor’s ship was coming into the harbour and Barawen had the two girls who kept the Shipwright’s house running around preparing rooms for the guests.
He reached the harbour as they were disembarking. Círdan was there ahead of him, as was Gildor who never admitted to missing family but took every opportunity to spend time with Galadriel or Idril. He was handing her down the plank now, talking cheerfully and joking with the two ladies who accompanied her. Tuor came behind with Eärendil, who was pointing something out to his father and looking up expectantly. Círdan saw Gil just in time to step back from bidding them welcome to ‘his’ island and let the king of the Noldor make his own greetings.
Any chance of formality vanished when he reached them. In a flurry of sunshine-blonde hair and furs, Idril flung herself into his arms and gave him a thorough hug. “Tuor said if it didn’t storm last night we could spend the Solstice with you after all, and I took him at his word. Eärendil is dying to see a watch fire lit or some such. Sirion is a terribly boring place to live, apparently.”
Gil hugged her back. “I hope Balar stays as boring,” he said fervently. “The last thing I want to welcome the turn of winter with is a raid.” He reached past her while he spoke and clasped Tuor’s forearm in greeting. “And thank you, I wasn’t sure you’d trust your family to the sea this time of year.”
Tuor returned the greeting cheerfully. “Well, the whole idea was to have a family Yule, and the weather’s not been too rough so far. Nothing like last year.” Everyone knew he could seldom refuse Idril anything. There were little wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes and beside his mouth, Gil noted, but he looked well and that golden hair was still almost elven in its straight, sunlit glow.
“Cousin, Adar let me steer,” Eärendil piped up happily. “One day I’m going to have a boat just like his and everyone in the whole world will want to sail with me.”
“Eärendil, for shame. Greet your cousin the king properly first, if you please,” Idril admonished, properly horrified, and was reinforced by Tuor’s immediate, “Oy, manners!”
Gil ruffled the boy’s hair and grinned, though the smile hid a twinge of envy. The way Idril and Tuor fitted together was wonderful to watch. They were two halves who formed a whole in defiance of their different races and upbringing, their circle made complete by this clear eyed, intelligent child. It was no one’s problem but his that their very closeness served as a reminder that he was alone and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Gil was a stranger to jealousy, but sometimes when he saw the three of them together he found himself wishing life really could be that simple.
He had thought there was no one else, but movement caught his eye as two women appeared on deck, wrapped against the cold in dark cloaks. One was a stranger, but he recognised the other as Lady Rûeth, Elwing of Doriath’s caregiver. They stood aside and Celeborn, who had been on the mainland for weeks raiding enemy settlements, came down the plank clad in leather and fur, his silver hair still braided for combat, and then turned back to extend his hand. A solemn child paused at the top of the plank, ignored the ladies as though they were invisible, and came down to the quay with careful footsteps, her small hand barely touching his.
Gil looked to Idril first, not bothering to hide his surprise. “Poor child, she insisted when she heard we were coming,” Idril told him, and there was a touch of uncertainty in her voice. Idril was not noted for her indecisive nature, and it took Gil no more than a moment to follow her thoughts.
“No, that’s in order. She’s related by blood to both Celeborn and Círdan. It’s – unusual – that her people allowed her to come, but of course she’s welcome here,” he said, placing a reassuring hand on Idril’s shoulder before smiling past her and stepping forward.
“Well met, little Queen. I’m glad you chose to join us.”
On solid ground, eleven year old Elwing stopped in front of him, looking up with huge eyes. “We do not think we like boats,” she declared in her whispery-soft voice.
Gil nodded. “Some people don’t,” he said equably. “It’s just how it is, not wrong or right. But you’re here now and the world will soon stop rolling beneath your feet. You’ll see. By dinner you’ll be quite used to being back on land again.”
Gil entered the main room, the space given over to dining and socialising, with the armful of small gifts he had spent the past months accumulating for family and friends. Being a king did not confer financial security: he had inherited jewels and armour, chests of coin and pearls had been salvaged, but he had people to care for and a war band to equip, leaving him perpetually broke. He had learned to be imaginative rather than generous.
The Yule log had taken over an entire corner since he was last there. It was more like a big branch than a log, but was brightly decorated, thanks to Erestor having time on his hands and a good supply of gold and silver paint. He had hung the log with sun, moon and star shapes cut from thin board, and there were little shells, some pretty crystals and strings of multicoloured glass beads which Gildor had found somewhere. The low platform it stood on was draped with red cloth and boughs of holly, amongst which someone had latterly cleared space for the memorial candles. In all it was a bit of a mess, albeit a cheerful one.
He was piling his gifts neatly in front of the dais when soft footfalls made him look round. Elwing crossed the hall, carrying something wrapped in green. He smiled a welcome. “Is your room all right? It was mine when I was around your age.” Not her age, but her size. Gil saw no need to go into that; she must already know she was ‘different’.
Serious eyes considered him. “We like the room. We can see the garden and the sea at the same time.”
The royal ‘we’ was a new thing, and no doubt Rûeth’s work. Gil couldn’t decide if he was amused or concerned. “Yes, that’s what I used to like about it. What do you have there?”
“We brought something,” she said simply, holding it out to him. “We – I made it when Eärendil said we were coming here. I don’t know where to put it so I came to find you. Can it go here?”
Gil unwrapped the proffered bundle carefully and was quiet at what he saw. She had taken a plate and painted it in swirls of spring colours: green, gold, soft blue. In the centre she had glued little stones and pieces of shell to make a meticulously careful star shape. He looked from this to the dais finally. “This was a good idea, little Queen. Let’s put it here, near the front, so everyone will see it.”
“It’s for the lady who made the stars,” she explained softly. “You told me about her last time, but I don’t remember her name. Was that all right, to make something for her?”
“Varda,” Gil said automatically. “The Star Kindler. Your people call her Elbereth, Lindir says. That’s why you put a star on it, right?”
“I made it green for when the trees get pretty again, and then there’s sunshine and blue sky,” she told him, pointing to the colours with a thin finger – she still needed to put on some weight. “And then the star, so she’ll know it’s for her.”
Gil removed Erestor’s silver star made from intricately twined twigs and placed it near the central candle, exchanging it with Elwing’s simpler offering. “You have a good memory,” he mused. “And I think she’d love this.”
“Will it snow again, this Yule?” Elwing asked, watching as he rearranged things to restore the balance of the display before Erestor could complain. “We do not like snow much. It’s wet.”
Gil moved the last of the unlit candles a little further back then got up and held out his hand to her. “Let’s go outside and take a look at the sky. You can see if there’s snow coming. It might have just warmed up enough for it, too.”
“The birds were quiet. They’re always quiet when the snow’s coming,” she said confidently.
Gil nodded, “That makes sense. Let’s go and see if the birds are right – though this time there’s no freezing outside on the porch. Midwinter is all about good food and finding a place to keep warm.”
“And no hurt comes?”
So she still kept her fear of the season, the time when her parents and brothers had died in the Second Kinslaying. She was more outgoing than before, but the watchfulness hadn’t left her eyes and she still seemed ready to bolt at the first sign of danger.
“And no hurt comes,” he confirmed. “Not here. Now come – let’s go and look at the weather before Erestor comes in and catches us rearranging his display.”
Candles had been lit, gifts had been opened, dinner was a memory, and the company that had sat down to the meal now formed little groups around the long room. Lindir, the minstrel new-arrived from the mainland, sat near the hearth with his harp, playing a soft backdrop to conversation, Círdan was talking boats, and one of Tuor’s mariners was holding forth about the hunting to be had in the woods beyond Sirion. Over by the Yule log, Gildor seemed to be trying to sweet talk Erestor into something, judging from the winning smiles and Erestor’s determinedly shaken head, dancing black curls kissed by candlelight.
Gil drifted from group to group, wine cup in hand, making his way across the hall to where his aunt and several times removed cousin sat talking. Galadriel was sewing, a sight unusual enough to almost outweigh any other reason for joining them. She disliked needlework and was very good at getting the women of Pearly Bay working on projects while taking no real part in them herself beyond supervising.
He stopped to lean against Idril’s chair. “You finally got that boy settled, I see.” Eärendil had wanted to stay up and talk with the men, which had amused his father so much it had taken female intervention to restore order.
Idril smiled up at him and nodded. “I had to remind him that we’ll be riding across the island tomorrow to visit Ciryalondë and that he’d need to be rested for it.” Ciryalondë was the Noldorin ship-building community her father had founded with Círdan’s permission on the north side of the island. Privately it would not have been Gil’s choice to take a child up there in the middle of winter, even with no storm expected, but Idril knew no fear and took her duties as her father’s daughter seriously.
“Elwing wanted to go along too,” she added. “I had to tell her no, of course. It would be much too far for her to ride…”
“And not wholly suitable either,” Galadriel said practically. “They would have no idea what to make of Dior’s child, and her minders would have a fit when you return and she mentions where she’s been.” She turned her work around as she spoke, which meant Gil could get a proper look at it. The size and shape suggested one of Celeborn’s shirts.
“She says no more than she has to,” Idril said, curling her legs under her and getting more comfortable. “She’s a strange creature, quiet as snow most days, though she’ll talk by the hour to Eärendil.”
“Rûeth’s still minding her manners then?” Gil asked, with a discreet gesture to where Elwing’s two ladies sat together against the wall, also sewing. Elwing’s caregiver was a distant relative with political ambitions that Gil had good reason to suspect where not necessarily in her charge’s best interests.
Idril gave a short laugh, the silvery note less light and pure than usual. “Oh, she’s been mild as milk since you had Celeborn speak to her last year.” She smiled at Galadriel. “Your husband has a good turn of phrase when he’s annoyed, I hear. They were talking about it for days after, and openly enough for it to reach my ladies.”
“That child had no other kin to speak for her,” Galadriel said, pausing to bite the thread. Gil tried not to stare: he wondered if she always did Celeborn’s mending or if this was an exception. “He had to be sure what he said would be remembered and taken seriously,” she continued. “She spends more time with you now, I bear?”
Idril’s eyes twinkled. “He said that letting her spend time with me, your kinswoman, showed respect for him. Tuor and I weren’t sure how that worked really, but we nodded sagely and agreed.”
“He has a way of saying things with so much confidence people accept it without fully understanding,” Galadriel said dryly.
“Rather like Gildor, you mean?” Gil asked, jerking his head towards the conversation that continued near the Yule log with its blaze of candles, one for each friend or relative lost to the hazards of life in Ennor. Erestor had stopped shaking his head now and was making emphatic hand gestures.
His aunt snorted. “Exactly like my cousin, yes. He’d claim it’s a Sindarin trait, while Celeborn of course swears it’s pure Noldor.”
Gildor’s confidence was legendary. Gil put it down to being born royal and on the other side of the sea in a time of peace. His own assurance as a junior royal fostered amongst people not his own had been harder won. He mustered a smile and said, “Then I should be brimming with self-belief, belonging to both lines as I do”
He had wanted to do something about Elwing himself, but Círdan had been emphatically against it and Gil knew to pick his battles. He understood the resistance; his mother’s family had been from Eglarest with precious little connection to The Wood beyond their kinship to the Lord of the Falas and in some quarters it would have been seen as blatant Noldor interference.
Galadriel put her needlework down and flexed her fingers. “What will happen to the child?” she asked. The query was casual and when Galadriel was casual, Gil took heed. He knew his aunt. “I mean, there is no Doriath to be queen of, although they keep calling her that, plus the survivors themselves – I get the impression anyone who was anyone died in Menegroth.”
Gil found himself nodding. He had been underwhelmed by that remnant of Dior’s court who had survived the fighting and managed to reach Sirion. They lived on in their isolated portion of the settlement, jostling for position and advantage just as they had back in the grand days of security within Melian’s Girdle.
Idril looked puzzled. “I suppose so, and their numbers aren’t all that much larger than ours were from Gondolin, but I’m not sure I understand…”
“Royal children, even throneless ones, grow up into royal adults. What will happen to her then? She’s a delicate child, Itarillë. I doubt she could look after herself, so they’d have to find her a husband, preferably one with a good, strong family.”
“I think that can be left till she’s older and has a chance to learn her heart,” Idril interrupted, her tone firming. “Some things should never be arranged, Artanis.” Gil hid a smile. Idril believed in romance, of course. Her life’s story was one long romantic adventure with a surprisingly happy ending.
Galadriel’s eyebrows rose a fraction. “I know the value of a love match as well as the next person, Itarillë. Perhaps more so. However, neither you nor I had the rare bad fortune to inherit a Silmaril.”
Across the room Erestor finally laughingly threw up his hands and shook his hair at Gildor who looked immeasurably pleased with himself. Gil wondered what he had been talked into this time. He watched his aunt at the same time with that awareness for body language and aura that was almost another sense for him. Beside him, Idril’s normally positive manner faltered. “That’s true enough, but that’s the responsibility of their whole community, not just that one child…”
“One little girl-child, yes. Lúthien’s granddaughter, inheritor of her grandmother’s bride price. That cursed gem does not belong to the people of Doriath, Itarillë. It currently belongs to Elwing alone, a family heirloom.” Galadriel fished about in the basket set discreetly beside her chair and brought up a skein of silver thread which she passed through the needle’s eye on the first try. Gil used to thread Barawen’s needle for her sometimes when he was young and knew how much practice that took. He was impressed.
Idril’s expression passed from thoughtful to concerned as Galadriel began a line of careful embroidery, eyes on her work. It occurred to Gil that men assumed a woman doing needlework was busy and not paying much attention to what happened around her. The thought followed that this might be a flawed assumption.
“But – it’s safe enough in Sirion,” Idril said at last. “Isn’t it? They would hardly dare come looking for it here, surely?” The pronoun needed no explanation to any of them.
Galadriel glanced up from her stitching. “They swore an Oath,” she said, her voice clipped, the faintest trace of a Quenya accent in the flawless Sindarin. “Of course they will start looking for it. Not now, not while the horror still lies fresh, but – they will have to in the end. No reason why they might not look here.”
“I have a war band who says they won’t,” Gil said quietly. “It’s not just the enemy we keep watch for along the coast, Aunt.”
She nodded, eyes back on her work. “And we all sleep far better in our beds because of it. But even so, the future needs to be looked to. That child will need a strong guardian later, and there will be any number amongst her people wanting the position. The Silmaril wasn’t the only treasure they managed to bring out of Menegroth, plus there would be the cachet of taking Dior’s daughter to wife. A crown is still a crown.”
Idril shivered convulsively and hugged herself. “Felt like a goose flew across the moon,” she said softly, then did what Gil had seen her do before when troubled; she looked for Tuor. He was across the room talking with Círdan but turned round as though he had been called, his expression half query, half smile. The conversation buzzed around them, woven through with Lindir’s harp notes.
He felt Galadriel’s eyes on him, unnaturally dark, very focused. They seemed to stare not just at him but right into him. There was no need for words, he knew exactly what she was trying to do. He might have Telerin blood, truth be told he was a bit of a mongrel, but he was first and foremost King of the Noldor, a descendant of Finwë, and no more inclined than was Finwë’s granddaughter to leave something as brilliantly dangerous – and Noldorin – as a Silmaril in the hands of a bunch of effete courtiers who might be hard pressed to fight off an angry kitten.
“Oh Itarillë, no, I never meant to upset you.” Galadriel’s voice was contrite now and she reached over, placing a hand on Idril’s knee. “Ereinion, get her another cup of wine, will you? It was a stupid thing to talk about tonight of all nights, on the anniversary of the attack on Menegroth.”
“Of course,” Gil said, automatically reaching down for Idril’s cup. He crossed the room, filled it, gave Gildor and Erestor, now deep in conversation near the fire, a suspicious look and returned to his place by Idril’s chair. Offering the cup to her, he said gently, “My aunt’s right, that wasn’t a good topic for after dinner.”
Idril took the wine, looking a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, that was silly. I don’t know what came over me. Just – bad memories from the past, I suppose. I’ve also been stalked for a crown. You were right of course, Artanis….”
“No, that’s quite enough of my fancies,” Galadriel said, straightening up. Gil suspected she had never entertained a fancy in her life. “Let’s talk about something more cheerful. How are things going with young Eärendil? He seems such an intelligent boy, and full of energy. He reminds me of my brother Aegnor when he was young.”
Her eyes flicked to Gil so quickly he would have missed it had he not been watching for it. He hesitated a moment, assessing. He was building a bond with fey, haunted Elwing, whose isolated position resonated for him. He recalled her small hand in his after they placed her star offering by the Yule log: she was growing to trust him. He was also very fond of Idril and Tuor, and of Eärendil who already showed so much promise. There was no harm, he decided, in discreetly supporting an effort to place a highly-strung girl and her deadly inheritance under his family’s protection.
“Oh, Eärendil’s growing like a weed,” he said aloud, accepting his cue. “I noticed Elwing’s very fond of him, too, and he seems quite protective towards her.”
“Like draws to like,” Galadriel agreed picking up her needlework again, a tiny, satisfied smile curving the corners of her mouth. “Being unique can be so lonely. Isn’t it lovely that they’ve already become such good friends?”
The noise of the room seemed to fade and something shivered Gil’s backbone, a sense of new, unknowable strands being woven on a distant loom. Something shifted, and for good or ill a course was set. Somewhere far away, inexplicably, he thought he could hear gulls calling. He could only hope the day would never come when he looked back on this night, this moment, and was forced to ask himself what they had done. Coming out of it he smiled and raised his cup in salute to Tuor who was sending curious looks their way. One of Círdan’s earliest lessons in kingship had involved misdirection, not letting people see his thoughts.
Time, Gil supposed, would tell. For them all.