Elwing liked to listen when people talked, which was why she was standing just out of sight behind a clump of reeds watching the boys building something that might one day be a cart. She was a queen, so of course she could not gossip or spend time with the other children from Doriath. Anyhow she knew she made them nervous because she was different, and not in a comfortable way. The only person as different as her was Eärendil, and he at least had Vanyar-fair hair and blue eyes. And parents. She did not have parents. They were dead.
This time though, she wished she had not stopped to listen because they were talking about Tuor, big, kind Tuor, who was always good to her.
“You have to watch once their hair goes pale and their skin sags,” the one boy said. His name was Cyllon and his father made beautiful bows when he could get the right wood. Otherwise he carved little animals that looked almost alive. His wife did not like him doing that, Elwing remembered: she liked being married to a proper craftsman.
“Is that what kills them then?” asked the other boy. He was a bit taller and she could remember nothing about him because he was not memorable.
“Oh no,” Cyllon said. “It’s just that their energy wears out and their bodies fail them. It’s not like fading, their bodies stop working in the end and they just – die. Like horses. They don’t seem to last much beyond seventy sun years, my adar said.”
“Mannish blood,” the other boy said in a dismissive voice, and she was surprised because he was Noldor and they had more experience of mortals and were more at ease with them than were her own people. “Well, nothing we need bother about. Though it’ll be strange when Lord Tuor dies. I wonder what She’ll do then?”
Cyllon shrugged. “Probably look after her boy. He’s like his father, isn’t he? So he’ll not be here much longer than that either. She’ll want to baby him while she can.”
They were laughing as boys do while Elwing slipped away, silent as a pale shadow amongst the reeds near the water’s edge. No one ever heard her unless she was willing for them to. No one had taught her the skill, it came naturally. It made people nervous, too. She quite liked coming up quietly behind her Lords when they were having one of those hushed conversations and then moving into their view and nodding a greeting as she passed. They were always startled, occasionally horrified.
She had seen mortals before, of course. There were little groups living near Sirion, close to the water, and she had watched them on her wanderings from home, those wanderings that bothered her Lords so much. She found mankind interesting – tall, short, some of them much heavier and rounder than an elf might grow, and their hair came in different colours, often lighter than her peoples’. She had even seen one with skin so dark it was almost black, an easterner who had been captured and kept as a servant. And some had white streaks in their hair and lines on their faces, but she never understood till now that those were the marks of age, nor had she ever associated such things with Eärendil or herself. An angry fear set in at the thought, sinking into her bones like winter mist.
Sirion started abruptly where the wetlands ended, a big, untidy sprawl of buildings and shelters. It had been a fishing village before, but now there were proper brick or wood houses standing beside old turf shelters with thatched roofs and leather door curtains, single roomed structures like wooden boxes, and other things that were little more than tents with an improvised frame. Elwing stood looking around, trying to think where to go. Somewhere warm, she wanted somewhere warm where the air did not seem empty and thin.
The most organised part of the town was the big square down near the harbour where the signal fire stood covered and unlit. Princess Idril’s house was close to the square. It was made from good stone with a red roof, but then she was a princess from lost Gondolin and needed a fair home, even if it was rather small and long and quite dark inside. Elwing considered the idea of visiting – there would be a fire because the weather was turning cool and Tuor was unhappy when it was cold, and there was always something to eat.
It did not occur to her to return to the draughty wooden building referred to as the Queen’s Hall: it was too early for dinner and there were always voices carping on at her, asking where she had been, why she had gone out alone, who she had been talking to, why she behaved in ways not fitting for a royal lady, putting them all to shame before the Noldor...
She could just see down to the harbour from where she was if she stood on her toes, and she did so now to see if Tuor’s boat was there. Eärendil was learning about boat building from Círdan, and that meant they spent more time over on the island. Usually he told Elwing when he would be away, in case she looked for him, and he had said nothing about today.
Tuor’s boat was docked, she could see it in its usual place, but there was another vessel coming in that changed her half formed plans at once, a warship sitting low and sleek in the water, displaying a plain sand-coloured sail. The shade was hard to see from the shore, deliberately so, making it a good choice for a raider, harrying the Enemy’s positions further up the coast.
She took the short routes the animals followed to get down from that end of Sirion to the harbour, almost running but still moving quietly. She drew the hood of her cloak up over her head, hoping no one would recognise her and have a reason to stop her. She slipped once climbing over a fence that was too dirty to climb under, but otherwise her passage was smooth and no one spoke to her. She knew, because she had heard, that they said she was fey and strange, which meant most people avoided her, but one of her Lords might have been about and they always wanted to be seen with her. They passed it off as kindness or concern, but she knew it for what it was, a display of ownership.
Even worse would have been if one of Rûeth’s ladies saw her because she was supposed to act like a queen at all times. Sometimes though decorum was just too inconvenient. And slow.
The ship had tied up and the men had disembarked by the time she reached the harbour. There were steps leading down to the quay, broad and shallow, but she stopped above and waited. Long clouds streaked the sky and played chase with the sun and the wind whipped at her cloak even though she held it firmly closed with one hand. Eventually someone must have seen her and said something because several heads turned and looked her way.
A tall figure detached himself from the group and frowned up at her – she could sense the frown from the way he stood and if her mood had been different, she might have giggled a bit. He went back to talking for a while but she was content to stay and watch them now, knowing he had seen her and would not forget she was there.
She saw Gildor was back. His bright hair, like copper at sunset, was impossible to miss. He had been somewhere in the south and must have gone straight to Balar on his return, because no one had mentioned him being there and people always talked about Gildor, the Lady Galadriel’s cousin, whose adventures took him everywhere. Elwing had exchanged perhaps a dozen words with him in her entire life: he scared her half to death in a fascinating, can’t-look-away manner.
Eventually, as she watched, Gil-galad went to speak to him, hand on his shoulder, and left Gildor to manage the unloading of some unidentifiable packages. He strode towards the stairs, strong and purposeful, his hair a dark, sea-wind tangle against the red of his cloak and she felt the feather’s touch of hope: Gil would know.
It was late afternoon when they reached Sirion. Everyone was sore and tired and irritable – a village burned and bodies to bury meant one more failure, one more success for the men who held the formerly elven coastal cities for the Enemy.
The place was already on fire when they arrived, leaving them little to do beyond hunting down stragglers, laying the dead to rest and setting the survivors on the road to Sirion. Gil-galad agreed to take three children on board, too small for the long walk to safety, along with what could be salvaged from the flames. There had been shocked objections to this and mutters of theft, until Gildor pointed out that the dead were in the Halls of Silence and had no use for what remained, so the living might as well take what they needed for a fresh start elsewhere. His bluntness provoked more tears, but even the most grief stricken had to admit it made sense.
Their long day would edge into evening before the survivors’ bundles were offloaded and safely stored and they could sail back to Balar, so Gil-galad was sounding his men out about staying over on the mainland. This depended on them all having family or friends who would make space for them, and in the buzz of discussion he almost missed it when someone said, “What’s she doing here?”
He was helping the eldest child find the basket with their clothing and didn’t turn around at once, though several other heads did. He had no need to ask, the tone of the comments told him who they had caught sight of.
“Just standing there staring at us – uncomfortable, I call it.”
“She’s a strange one, though it’s to be expected.”
Amongst themselves they would have harsher, uglier things to say, but while he was in earshot they would choose their words. A glance showed him Elwing standing near the top of the shallow steps down to the harbour. She was hooded and cloaked, but the wind had tugged some of her fine dark hair free and in any case she was easy to recognise, not just by her size – small, but still too tall, too thin for her age - but also by something in the way she stood absolutely still and watchful, seemingly impervious to the tossing wind and the waves leaping at the sea wall.
He stepped away from the boat and squinted against the light. From that distance she seemed unharmed and not particularly upset, though it was hard to tell with the young Queen of Doriath. Elwing’s life this far had not been like other lives, her earliest memories were of blood and trauma and he thought the mark would be on her forever, making her reactions different than others her apparent age – she looked like an elven child of some thirty summers although she had seen no more than twelve because, like Eärendil, her growth and development were closer to that of the Second Born. Unlike Eärendil though, Elwing was part Maia, and as his aunt Galadriel was fond of saying, no one had a clue what effect that might have.
“You’d better go see what that’s about before her people come looking for her and think we’re about to kidnap her and carry her across to Balar,” Gildor, his several times removed cousin said dryly. He had a nasty gash along one arm that he’d picked up during the fighting, otherwise he was unharmed, unlike the two Easterners who had met the business end of his sword.
“They’d take a chance on losing her as long as we didn’t touch her heirloom,” Gil-galad said grimly, Elwing’s council and caregivers being no friends of his and unsuitable guardians, in his mind, for a fragile child. “They’d fuss, but not start sharpening swords.”
“Those that have swords.”
“Even so. I’m with my aunt there, the real fighters died in Menegroth. You take charge here while I go and see what’s wrong. Get the children to Gurior’s mother, she’s the best choice, and make sure all this stuff gets stashed somewhere dry.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Gildor’s face was guileless. Gil-galad sighed, keeping a light touch because they had an audience. “All right, Your Highness, I’ll reword it as a request if that suits your royal dignity better. Just – take over here, will you? Please?”
Gildor, older and as royal by birth as his kinsman, shrugged and shook his head. “I know you’re fond of the child, cousin, strange though she is, but she really is not your problem.”
“I know,” Gil-galad said. “She’s the problem no one would want if she wasn’t Lúthien’s granddaughter. Get this sorted out for me, yes? I’ll meet you at Idril’s. With luck, she’ll take pity and feed us.”
He took the steps briskly, putting tiredness one side to be dealt with when there was time, after he had seen to this next problem, because when Elwing came looking for him there was always a problem. There was no greeting when he reached her, instead she gave him a grave stare and started walking. He was used to it and fell in step without a word. Swords scared her, so she walked on his other side where there was only the dagger which was small enough to ignore. He wondered if the blood still showed. He hoped not. Elwing was skittish about blood: she had seen her mother’s body the night Maedhros took Menegroth.
She led the way up past houses to an open space above the harbour where he knew she sometimes went to watch the sea and talk to the birds.
“No birds?” he asked, looking around.
“The wind is wrong for them.” She stopped in the shelter of a tall stone and looked up at him, assessing his mood.
He shrugged, nodded. She knew more about birds than he did. “Well met, little Queen,” he said finally after letting her look her fill. He never rushed her if he could help it, the words froze on her tongue then and whatever she needed took twice as long to dig out. “Did your people know you were at the harbour?”
She shook her head and the hood fell back. “We went for a walk and were on our way back. And then we saw your sail.”
Sometimes she reverted to the royal plural with him as she had been trained, though he had explained it had no place in modern Sirion and certainly not between two monarchs – even her lords could hardly object to that. His concern was that it set her even more apart than she already was, isolating her further from the rest of elven society. There was no set pattern, but he had an idea it happened when she was trying to confront something that scared her. “Very formal, little Queen,” he said, gently teasing. “Is the matter so serious?”
Huge dark eyes looked up at him out of a pointed face. “Am I going to die?” she asked.
Gil-galad swallowed the sigh that would have sent her running home and looked around. “It’s been a long day and I think I need to sit down. It’s better than towering over you.”
She nodded and sat right where she was, her legs folding under her smoothly. He checked quickly that they could reasonably expect to be seen. It was better to risk a few questions than to act as though there was something to hide; he put too much effort into building bridges between the various factions in Sirion to want his integrity questioned. Satisfied that they were visible from a good part of Sirion by anyone caring to look, he sat, one leg folded under him, his back against the stone, and studied her.
She seemed to have nothing more to say, so he asked, “Is there some reason you might die? Did you eat something bad, do something you oughtn’t?” Did someone threaten you?
She shook her head hard, and the cobweb hair floated around her face. “I was listening to the boys talk.”
She had given him a headache more than once with the tangled route it could take to reach a straight answer. Without condoning it, at times he understood her caregiver’s frustration with her. “Elwing? You heard me say I had a long day? Not one of those dances that takes us through till after dinner, please. Which boys, what did they say?”
He made an effort to keep his voice neutral, not annoyed with her but also firm, not prepared to chase threads till moonrise, and it paid off. She pulled a face but nodded. “They were talking. They didn’t see us...”
“Me,” Gil-galad said. “We’ve talked about this. If I don’t speak about myself as ‘we’ and ‘us’ then there’s no reason for you to. Go on, they were talking.”
“Rûeth says it’s important.”
“Rûeth is a fussy chicken. Go on.”
As he’d hoped, this almost made her smile. “They were talking about how mortals are worn out after seven score sun years. And how Eärendil will be like that too, because of his father. Am I going to die? Eärendil and I are the same, aren’t we?”
She was trying to sound casual but there was fear lurking in those normally unreadable eyes. This was in fact something that had been discussed all over Sirion and certainly on Balar, and Gil-galad held himself back from automatic reassurance. “You’re not the same,” he said instead. “Eärendil has a mortal father and an Aman-born mother. That makes him rather like your father, but your mother was an elf.” And your great grandmother was one of the Maiar, and some say that might mitigate the mortal blood.
“I don’t want to die,” she said in a sharp, thin voice. “I don’t want to get lined and ugly and then have my body wear out. I don’t want to go into the dark. I won’t.”
He reached a hand for her but she reared back and he let it drop. “Elwing, there’s no reason to think you’ll share the same fate as the second born...”
“Of course there is.” Her eyes blazed and unquiet energy made the air tingle unpleasantly. “Look at me. Other girls my age don’t look like me.”
She meant other elves, of course. She would have no way of comparing herself to mortal children. Gil-galad considered for a moment. Since they first met shortly after her people brought her to Sirion, he had tried to give her a safe space where she was no political pawn but a traumatised child, liked and cared for. One of his rules, something that set him apart in her eyes from the people surrounding her, was that he never lied to her.
“No, they don’t,” he said, disregarding the hint of raw magic he could smell on the air. Part Maiar, a voice whispered in warning to him, and he told it to be quiet, he knew that. “Any more than Eärendil looks like boys his age. But Tuor says by his people’s standards, Eärendil would be bright but very undersized, so --- I think you’re both making your own rules. We don’t know how it all works, little Queen. We have never seen this before either.”
“My father was mortal,” she whispered. “He would have died too.”
“We have no idea what would have happened to Dior, and he was not mortal, he was the son of a mortal man and a...”
“... and a mortal woman. She had stopped being an elf when he was born. We know our family’s history. They have been telling it to us over and over and over since we were born.” Her voice rose sharply and little spirals of light flickered on the air around her.
He straightened up, too alarmed to argue over pronouns. “Elwing, calm down. Yes, I know they have, but they’ve been telling you things even they don’t understand. You’re also part Maia - do you think that part will let your body age and die?”
She was on her feet now, eyes wild, hair tossing in the wind, her voice shrill like a crying gull. “I don’t know, I don’t know. Just – we are different, and no one wants to talk about it and I don’t want to die, I don’t want to d...!”
The scream went through him like a spear. She hunched over, clasping her hand against her chest, face contorted with pain. Even as he shot to his feet, he knew what had happened. Earth energy, the life force of Arda, could spark like summer lightning if mishandled. Under certain circumstances it could even kill. Elwing was staring in horror, first at him and then at her hand where a red welt was rising on the pale skin. Then she flung herself into his arms and burst into tears.
She seldom cried, it hurt her head and made her eyes itch and Rûeth said that queens did not cry. If that was the case, Elwing suspected it was because queens understood there was no help to be found in tears. Now it was over her skin was strangely cold and tingly, except for her hand which was hot and sore, and it felt as though little birds fluttered and flapped around inside her head. It was hard to pin down thoughts, harder still to make sense of what had just happened. She had been upset and angry and then... the air had felt strange and then something unseen had hurt her.
“You need to watch that stuff,” Gil’s voice said somewhere above her head. “Energy’s a funny thing when you interfere with it, worse can happen than a burn on the hand.”
She had somehow not realised she was sitting on his lap as she had at times when she was younger. When she jerked her head up to look at him he was watching her calmly as though what had happened was the most normal thing in the world. Well, that was until she looked harder and saw the muscle twitching in his jaw near his ear. “I never meant to – I don’t know what I did...”
“Nor do I,” he said matter-of-factly as she moved onto the ground and a little away from him so she could see him properly. “It’s not supposed to be possible to mess with the fabric of Arda by accident, but you’re part Maiar, it might be more sensitive to you. You need to have a care with whatever that was, you could have finished us both off like Glorfindel and the Balrog.”
She couldn’t stop a shaky giggle at that. She couldn’t help it, he was good at making her laugh when she knew she shouldn’t. “Eärendil says he was very brave, even though he knew he was going to die.” She thought about this. “Not like me at all.”
Gil beckoned and she moved closer without getting in his lap again like a baby. He held out a fold of his cloak to her and she took it and wiped her eyes and face. She needed to blow her nose too, but she thought that might be too much and settled for sniffing hard instead. Out at sea where there was less cloud it looked like the sun was sinking into the water. She knew it didn’t really do that, Lady Galadriel had been very clear about it, but that was still how it looked.
”First time this happened?” Gil asked, reaching for her injured hand. He sounded casual but there was something about his posture, as though he was ready to leap up again at a moment’s notice.
“The air gets – tickly - sometimes when I’m upset,” she said, averting her eyes. “I didn’t try and make it happen. It just comes.”
“Morgoth’s balls, girl. You can’t go around doing that every time you get upset. There’s worse things than maybe dying sometime in the future.” He examined her hand while he was talking, touching it gently. Even so Elwing cringed, her stomach twisting.
“It was only one other time,” she said in a small voice. “I was very cross at Rûeth and I went for a walk and I got more and more cross thinking about it and then a bird flew at me and I got a fright and --- and then the birds all flew away from me.” Her voice shook. She did not want to remember this. “I try always to be good to them now, to say sorry,” she got out, almost starting to cry again.
Gil sighed heavily and seemed to relax. “Yes that makes sense now,” he said, though she thought he spoke to himself more than her. “Come now, don’t start crying again. You were really so frightened at the idea of growing old and dying?”
She nodded seriously. “I never thought of it before and it’s awful. And Eärendil never did anything to deserve that happening to him. It’s not fair. We didn’t ask to be like this.”
Gil put an arm around her shoulders and sat looking at the sea as she had earlier. She was content to stay there with him in silence and even started to relax a little, warmth easing out the chill she had felt before. When he spoke his voice was thoughtful. “A lot of things happen that aren’t fair, little girl. You’ll learn that as you grow older. And dying -- It’s just another unknown. You’ve had your fill of those and you need to find a better answer to them than fear.”
“But I can’t help getting scared,” she said, resisting the urge to lean closer, feel all that strength keeping her safe. She wondered if he was ever afraid but it seemed rude to ask. “And that’s – dying’s like going into the dark Void...”
“No it’s not,” Gil said at once, giving her a little shake. “Mortals do it all the time. It’s natural for them. They go wherever it is the One decided for them, that’s all. If it’s natural for you, that’s how it’d be too.”
“I don’t want to die,” she said stubbornly and was rewarded by his soft laugh.
“Of course you don’t,” he said, and she could see without looking up that he was smiling. “You’ve gone through many things no one your age should have to experience, but somehow you dealt with each of them – your family’s loss, living here with Rûeth and all the expectations from your people, being alone, being different... And I know you would bring the same strength to aging, or even death.”
She flinched at the word and an image of lined, sagging flesh beckoned, but he shook his head and the hand resting lightly on her arm tightened, grounding her. “Think, little Queen. Death is everywhere. There’s mortal death, where they age and finally give back the One’s Gift, and there’s our death – Glorfindel with the Balrog, your parents, Finrod Spell-singer, my sister Finduilas... You either live in fear of it, or you accept it as part of life. In your way, you can match any of my warriors for courage and they live daily with the closeness of death. You can do it too - without provoking raw magic or unquiet energy.”
She glanced up. He had light blue eyes that could look right into you and indents in his cheeks that Rûeth had told her, disapprovingly, were called dimples. They creased when he smiled. He was not smiling now, but his look was kind. Beyond him, close to shore, the wild geese were coming in to roost for the night. The gulls were still out over the water, they must have found a catch, each reluctant to be the first to leave it and come in. The winged creatures of the world were what she liked best of all animals. Sometimes if she listened very carefully she could almost make out what their calls meant – like a language. They were smaller, something that she could understand.
“Birds die,” she said cautiously, tasting the idea, testing it.
His brow wrinkled as it did when he was puzzled. “In their season, yes.”
She prodded at the idea harder. “And they don’t worry about it, do they?”
“Where are you going with this? No, I’m quite sure they don’t.”
“And I didn’t die when I was a baby either.” She kept hold of the thread of the idea, careful not to drop it or be distracted by something new. She got to her feet, still watching the gulls. A fishing boat was putting out. They often fished at night, holding lanterns above the water to call up curious fish. Elwing thought they were the stupidest things alive and refused to eat them in case they made her stupid too.
Gil rose as well. “No, you didn’t die. For all her faults, Rûeth kept you safe and they brought you here.”
Rûeth had been telling her that for as long as she could remember. There was something more important than how she survived the bad things that had happened at Doriath though. “And – if I was mortal, I couldn’t do what I just did. They can’t, can they?”
His mouth smiled but his eyes were serious. “I’m sure they can’t. Not that I want you doing it again either, all right? It’s dangerous, like a baby playing with fire.” He said it firmly, as he did when he wanted her to remember something or take it as a lesson.
“No, not again,” she promised. “But I need know how to make it stop though.” He looked so serious it almost made her scared all over again. ”I could ask the Lady...?”
He looked alarmed. “Gods, no, don’t mention it to my aunt. She’s spent literally yéni learning how to manipulate something you access by chance. She’ll want to explore it further – that woman should have been a smith. Don’t worry about it, just watch yourself when you get upset. This probably comes from your father, a Maia trait that can affect reality. But there’s no one to train you so if you feel anything strange happening just stop and breathe slowly. It’s what I do when something worries me a lot.”
He sounded as though he knew what to do. He usually did: he was king of the Noldor, after all. That was what made it all right for her, the Queen of Doriath, to come to him for advice. At least, she thought so. Rûeth might not agree. Surreptitiously she held her hand palm down towards the ground and tried to feel if the thing that had burned her lived there. For moments there was nothing, and then she felt something coil and stretch, reaching up towards her. She drew her hand back hastily, shaking off tendrils of something too large, too dangerous.
“We can do that,” she agreed hastily, falling back into the royal plural without thought. It made her comfortable, as though she was not trying to be brave alone. "That feeling, it was like a Balrog stalking us, all growly and sparks. We will keep it in a dark place and not let it hurt us or take us down into the fire like poor Glorfindel. And we will try not to be scared or think about stupid boys or dying any more either. That’s just another kind of Balrog,” she added, looking up at him for confirmation, “all roar and whip. If we have to die…” She saw he was laughing quietly and shaking his head and she gave him a cross look before continuing. “If I have to die, I will worry about it then. And maybe there is a different road for me, I just have to find it.”
She paused as a thought struck her. “And for Eärendil too. He wants to sail to so many places, he needs more time than seventy loa. He’s my friend, I don’t want him to die either.”
If she could touch the spirit of the world, as he had said, then she was almost sure she could find a way to hold onto immortality when she was older. And there was a little voice in her head telling her quietly and with a degree of confidence to which she was a stranger that one day she would find a way for them both.