Second Age 2250
The light in the shop was dim and it took Erestor’s eyes a moment to adjust. There, leaning across the counter in close conversation with the merchant's son, was the one he sought, his traveling companion, Glorfindel. The Elda looked scandalously underdressed and terribly native in his sleeveless, blue-striped cotton tunic, which revealed the powerful curves of his bare arms, voluminous trousers tied at the ankle and slit up the sides to the thigh, and leather sandals. His wrists were encased in bronze guards and his waist was cinched by a wide band of red leather from which hung a sword and several long and elegant elvish knives. He certainly could pass for one of their Southron hosts except for his fair complexion and that hair. Unlike the traditional cloth-bound style of the Haradrim, it flowed down his back in a glorious golden cascade into which were braided a dozen tiny silver bells that chimed agreeably when he moved. Only Glorfindel could pull off such a brash mix of elvish and Haradren costume and still be uniquely himself.
Erestor’s gaze shifted to the merchant’s twenty-year-old son, who appeared to have paused in the midst of wrapping up parcels. Unfortunately the young man was pretty and he was looking at Glorfindel with dark eyes full of promise. Glorfindel’s answering smile was dazzling enough to weaken the most stalwart resolve. The warrior reached out and gently ran his knuckles across the boy’s cheek. The boy’s lips parted slightly; his eyes fluttered shut. A warm glow of sympathy for the young man’s plight coursed through Erestor, lodging in his groin. Curse Glorfindel for a rogue! This scene was all too familiar.
Loudly, Erestor cleared his throat. The youth’s eyes darted upward to meet Erestor’s; he straightened and went back to his task as if nothing had happened. Glorfindel turned to look at Erestor, a mischievous smile quirking that luscious mouth. Not even a hint of embarrassment! Erestor shot him what he sincerely hoped was his sternest look of disapprobation. He could feel Glorfindel’s amusement like waves of rippling water. It did not improve Erestor’s temper. He walked up to the counter covered with the pile of supplies, picked up a piece of that wretched waybread these Haradrim called food, and rapped it on the counter top.
“Not these miserable things again, Glorfindel. I swear by the gods, I near broke a tooth on one during the trip down.”
“They pack well and keep sweet for a long voyage. This young man’s family has a secret recipe which he assures me is quite palatable, Erestor.” The golden warrior’s voice was light, and as ever, smooth and diplomatic as silk. His tongue seemed to linger warningly on the final r in Erestor’s name.
“I assure you, my lord, it always receives praise,” the boy said. “My family, we are well known for it.” He spoke in the strange lilting accent of the Haradrim. His smile was bright, meant to charm. Erestor was, of course, immune to its effect.
“My apologies,” Erestor purred, “I intended no insult. I am sure it is delightful.” He tossed the biscuit back on the pile where it hit with a clatter.
The boy turned to Glorfindel. “My lord, ten rotels of the biscuit, you said?” He began scooping the tan squares from a barrel into one of the hanging scales, then added a lead weight to the other scale and frowned. “Enough is it, for a sennight at sea?”
“It should be. The biscuit is mainly for the last stages of the journey. We are stocking plenty of other provender and my ascetic companion here doesn’t eat much, as you can see.” Glorfindel lightly tapped Erestor’s stomach with the back of his hand.
Annoyed, Erestor stepped away from him. “My needs are minimal. I don’t gratify my desires . . . as some do.”
“Perhaps you should occasionally. It might improve your mood. It is not healthy to starve oneself,” Glorfindel replied.
“Neither is it wise to indulge in a constant glut,” Erestor countered. “Some of us take our vows seriously.”
The argument was old and tired and both knew it was not about food. Erestor wasn’t even sure why they sparred so, just that whenever he spoke to Glorfindel, it came as naturally as breathing. He wasn’t looking forward to another week cooped up on a small ship with his irritating companion. On the way down to Umbar, Erestor had spent quite some time contemplating what he would say to Ereinion when they returned to Lindon, about the king’s strange sense of humor in sending him, a senior strategist, on an ignoble mission to retrieve a horse of all things, and with Glorfindel of all elves. Everyone in court knew they did not get along. And it was also well known that Erestor hated to travel. But when he had protested, Ereinion would not hear of it. “It will do you good, Erestor. Get you out of that musty library and into the fresh air.” Indeed, he’d said more that Erestor did not wish to contemplate just then. And now . . . well, now after two weeks in Umbar, Erestor had encountered enough court intrigue to know why Ereinion had sent him. None of it served to improve his mood.
It seemed to take forever before Glorfindel finally concluded their business and arranged for the purchases to be delivered to their ship. The warrior’s farewell to the merchant lad was conducted with heartfelt assurances of mutual admiration and unnecessary kisses to both cheeks. Erestor rolled his eyes.
Outside the shop the blazing white sunlight assaulted them, and instantly Erestor felt hot in his heavy, black silk garments. He remembered the argument he’d had with Glorfindel about adopting native dress and it served to increase his irritation. Once they were sufficiently out of the earshot of men hanging around the shop, Erestor turned to his companion and said, “For gods’ sake, Findel, what were you about in there? Do you know what that boy’s family would do to you if they caught you? You might curb your appetite just long enough for us to get home in one piece.”
Glorfindel shrugged. “It was but a shared moment of appreciation, nothing more. You get yourself too worked up over these things. One might even think you were jealous.”
Erestor spluttered like a dunked cat, “Jealous, my foot! Of what? Your ability to seduce every young catamite you come across? You have an overweening opinion of yourself, Lord of the Golden Flower. You should have a care. The Valar are not fond of hubris.”
“I have met the Valar and am not frightened of them,” Glorfindel replied shortly. He lengthened his stride into a long wolflike lope, a fact joyously announced by the bells in his hair. Erestor had to work to match his pace.
The gulls’ rasping cries as they wheeled overhead told Erestor they were close to the docks. The wind brought them the scents of brine, rotting seaweed, and tar. They emerged from an alley into a wider road and were nearly knocked down by a cart hauling a load of timber down to the wharf. The human traffic increased as did the sounds of commerce. From booths perched on the wooden planking of the docks, merchants were selling anything one could imagine and some things one could not.
An apothecary’s stand with a strange assortment of hanging leathery objects caught Erestor’s eye. Unable to contain his curiosity, he stopped to look at them, then tentatively touched what appeared to be a tremendous sausage.
“Ah, the handsome lord desires something to please his sweetheart, yes?” The merchant said with a sly wink.
“My sweetheart?” Erestor asked, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s a rhino penis,” Glorfindel said, as he leaned casually against the stand. Erestor snatched his hand back and Glorfindel chuckled. “Dried and ground into powder, mixed in wine, it’s supposed to improve one’s prowess.”
“Only you would know these things,” Erestor retorted. He looked again at the object swinging in the breeze. “Mandos, it’s huge,” he said in awe. “I’ve never seen this animal.”
“They say it is an armored beast with a spike in the middle of its face and a wayward temper. I have never seen one either. Perhaps we should sail south to look for one?” Glorfindel was enjoying himself far too much at Erestor’s expense. It was time for a riposte.
“The only direction I’m interested in is north where the climate is more temperate.” Erestor turned back to the merchant. “Do you have anything for stomach malady?”
“From what cause, my lord elf?”
“Illness at sea, from the motion,” Erestor crossed his arms over his stomach and puffed out his cheeks.
The man smiled. “Ah yes, here.” He reached for a large ceramic jar and opened the seal; it emitted a strong fishy smell. He picked up a bit of the powdery substance on his forefinger and mimed touching it on his tongue. He said, “Put under tongue or drop pinch in tea. Works good.”
“What is it made of?” Erestor asked.
Erestor made a face and Glorfindel’s laughter echoed down the quay.
“And some other secret ingredients,” the merchant hastened to add.
“Yes, I’ll take a dram,” Erestor said.
“I’ve never seen you seasick,” Glorfindel said.
“It’s not for me,” Erestor said with a smirk. “It’s for you. Eels. I’m sure that’s just the thing when you feel like heaving. I’ll be right there with a large spoonful.”
“Uh huh,” Glorfindel retorted. “It’s just sympathetic magic. They think because eels squirm, it will cure the same roiling feeling in the stomach. Thank you, I’ll none of it. I’ll just hang my head off the side.” He turned and strode off through the throng.
Well, that’s put him in his place, Erestor thought smugly as he paid the man and tucked the small cloth bag into his belt pouch. The proud warrior had been quite ill during a rough patch of weather on the way over. In part, Erestor derived satisfaction from his companion’s discomfiture, but another part couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. The usually unflappable Noldo had looked truly miserable, a fine shade of green.
“If you’ll pardon me, my lord, here’s another method of curing seasickness,” the merchant said. “Please to hold out your hand.”
Erestor did so and the merchant pinched on either side of the hollow below Erestor’s wrist bone where the pulse ran. “Apply the pressure just so,” he said. “Hold. It will relieve the malady.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Erestor said, although he couldn’t imagine how that would work. He looked for Glorfindel and saw the flash of bright hair ahead of him in the crowd. He hurried to catch up.
They came out onto the docks. Ahead, moored to the pier, were an array of ships with sails of differing sizes and colors. Third down the line was their ship, Hirilondë, a merchant vessel from Númenor. The sailors were busy unfurling its bright yellow and red sails. There seemed to be a crowd gathering near it and suddenly they could hear the high pitched scream of a horse.
Glorfindel shaded his eyes to see. The crowd broke and swirled outward. In its midst, Erestor could see a white horse rearing and flailing out with his hooves.
“By Mandos! The fools!” Glorfindel cursed. He took off running, as fiercely swift in motion as a thrown lance. Groups parted before him and Erestor could barely keep up. They dodged around people and carts until they reached the scene of confusion.
There was their charge, the gift from Prince Du-phursa of Umbar to King Ereinion Gil-galad: a magnificent white stallion with a jet black mane and tail. The Prince had kept them a fortnight waiting at court occupied with feasts and meetings with officials, until he finally presented the animal. It had appeared docile and well-trained. Now the creature was completely wild: snorting, leaping, flailing his front legs which were wrapped in white bandages, while three exasperated men shouted and hauled back on the ropes tied to his halter. Overhead, on a long arm from the ship’s crane, hung a thick leather harness that they had been attempting to fasten to the horse so they could winch him on board the ship. Erestor watched in absolute horror as the stallion reared up again and caught a foreleg in the harness.
“Halt! Don’t move!” Glorfindel’s voice boomed above the din. Everyone froze. “You,” Glorfindel gestured at the men who held the ropes, “Let go. Back away from him.” The men looked at each other and then did as the fierce elf lord commanded. The horse shrilled savagely and continued fighting the harness, hopping around on three legs. The hooves clattered against the planking. Glorfindel began speaking in Sindarin, his voice low and musical, almost like humming bees. The words were singsong nonsense but they seemed to project calm. Suddenly Erestor envisioned a field of rippling grass.
Blowing hard through flared nostrils, the horse stopped thrashing and stared at Glorfindel. Slowly, deliberately, the warrior approached. He reached out a hand; placed it on the animal’s neck. The strange nonsense poured from his lips. The horse’s ears pricked forward. Glorfindel grasped the leg that hung in the harness, gently lifted it a little, slid the harness away, then let it down to the dock. The stallion was poised for flight, stiff and trembling. Glorfindel continued speaking to him in a crooning tone, as one would a lover, while gently stroking his neck, his ears, his nose. Then the elf lord leaned his forehead against the animal’s neck and spoke so softly Erestor could barely hear him. Slowly the stallion lowered his proud head and his breathing eased.
The men around them relaxed and the buzz of speech began. Erestor was struck dumb, filled with unexpected admiration. He knew his companion had a way with animals but had never seen him do this before. It was extraordinary.
Glorfindel turned his head, still with his cheek pressed to the horse’s neck. “Erestor, come here. I need your help.” Erestor approached with some trepidation. The horse watched him suspiciously. “Talk to him,” Glorfindel said.
“What do I say?” Erestor asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Introduce yourself. Talk of the weather for Mandos’ sake. Come here and put your hand on his neck.”
“Hello friend horse,” Erestor began. “I am Erestor, Counselor and Strategist to the High Elven King Gil-galad. And your name is, what did Prince Du-phursa call him?”
“Oiolairë,” Glorfindel said. He was busy running his hands down the animal’s legs to make sure he wasn’t injured.
“Ah yes, Oiolairë. Interesting name that. An evergreen tree. On Númenor, it’s sacred. They affix a branch on the prow of a ship to secure Ossë’s blessings for a safe voyage. Perhaps you are meant to be our safe passage home, eh?”
The horse was listening to him with ears pricked forward and now he gave a small grunt and nudged Erestor with his nose.
“Erestor, I didn’t know you had a way with horses,” Glorfindel said as he straightened up.
Erestor felt himself blush with pleasure. He hadn’t had much call to work around horses. Mostly he viewed them as a necessary evil to get from one place to the next. He stroked Oiolairë’s silky white neck and admired him. He was truly a splendid gift: spirited, fine carriage, intelligent face, long powerful legs, well-sprung chest. His coloring was striking: white and black, a study in contrasts, like day and night. Even Erestor could tell that the offspring of this horse would greatly enhance the King’s stock. The animal was worth several talents of gold. The Prince must really desire the alliance with Gil-galad that they had discussed.
“My lord, how will we get him aboard the ship? He fights the harness,” asked one of the men who had been attempting to control the horse.
“Wouldn’t you fight if someone tried to strap something around your belly and hoist you through the air?” Glorfindel asked. “Where is his groom? He needs someone he trusts.”
“His groom was detained,” said another man. “He appears to trust you.”
“So be it,” Glorfindel said. “Bring me a scarf.”
The first man unwound a cloth from his waist and handed it to Glorfindel. Still murmuring reassurances in that low, melodic voice, the warrior tied the cloth around the animal’s eyes.
“I need help fastening the rig,” Glorfindel said. “You and you, approach slowly and quietly. Erestor, hold onto his halter; keep talking to him.”
After some false starts in which the stallion sidestepped out of the harness, they managed to secure him. Glorfindel signaled to the men on the ship to start cranking the winch and slowly the horse was lifted off the ground and swung over the water. He struggled, his legs thrashing as he became airborne. Glorfindel called to him and the horse eventually relaxed. When his hooves touched the deck of the ship, the crowd cheered.
“Well, that’s done,” Glorfindel said, “Now we need to get aboard ourselves.” He clapped Erestor on the back. “A nice piece of work, friend. I didn’t know you had such a skill.”
Erestor had stiffened under the warrior’s touch. “I don’t,” he replied shortly. “Let’s get on with this, shall we? I wish to be out to sea, away from this heat.”
They reached the ship by way of a fifteen-foot long, swaying gangplank. Glorfindel ran across it as if it were a highway. Erestor came more cautiously. Once aboard, they went down into the hold where the sailors had lowered the unfortunate horse. Although his stall was large and well ventilated, he looked ill at ease, shifting back and forth in an attempt to brace against the gentle rock of the ship. He was supported about the belly by a harness that was tied to the sides of the stall. He still wore the blindfold.
“At least they know enough about transporting horses to leave his head free,” Glorfindel said.
“Why does that matter?” Erestor asked.
“They need to be able to lower their heads or they get ill,” Glorfindel replied. He ducked under the rope barrier and entered the stall. “Suilad, old man,” he said. “Don’t fret. You’ll become used to it.” He patted his neck, then carefully took off the blindfold. The horse tossed his head with a loud snort. “I understand your dislike of boats,” Glorfindel said. “I’m not partial to them myself. It will be only seven or eight days, Ossë willing, until your feet touch land again.” He held out a hand filled with grain from the bin and the horse accepted it. After some time, the animal appeared to quiet and began drinking water from the bucket in the feedbin.
Erestor breathed a sigh of relief. They had considered riding the horse back to Lindon by the overland route but that would have taken four months and would have been harder on the horse, not to mention the thought of brigands along the way. No, this was the best method.
“Well, now that our charge is safely bedded down,” Erestor said, “I’m going on deck to see if they have delivered my trunk to our cabin. I expect half of the contents to be missing or at the least to find it filled with snakes. I swear they went through it thoroughly while we cooled our heels in court. Everything was out of place.”
“You don’t have much faith in our hosts,” Glorfindel said, smiling.
“Should I? You and I both have watched the Darkness creeping over every enclave from here to Gondor,” Erestor said. “I learned enough at Court to be disquieted. There are clearly several competing factions within Umbar. Just because Prince Du-phursa is Númenórean doesn’t aid us. Númenor darkens too.”
Glorfindel nodded. “I see the signs as well as you, my friend and I've learned a few things myself. I know what rides on this mission, as they say. Let’s go check on your trunk.”
They climbed the ramp to the deck and found the captain standing amidships shouting orders to a score of barely-clad young men who were climbing rigging, unfurling the sails, and hoisting the anchor. Glorfindel gazed about with an appreciative smile. Erestor had to bite his tongue to keep from making a snide comment. The wind caught a sail and it bellied full just as several men pushed away from the docks. The ship lurched forward. Overhead, the gulls screeched.
“Well, Erestor, you should be happy. We’re heading home,” Glorfindel shouted. The wind took his words and flung them away. He was beaming. Erestor smiled too. Yes, thank the Valar, they were headed home.
Because they were important passengers, high-ranking members of Gil-galad’s court, Erestor and Glorfindel always dined with the captain who had the cabin next to theirs. The crew all ate and slept in the hold below.
The Captain’s name was Azra Armalak. He was Númenórean-born and had spent most of his life at sea. He was lanky except for a large belly, wore his hair in a queue, and sported a long mustache. Even on land, he walked with a rolling gate. He claimed kinship with the royal house of Númenor, in the distant past through a sister of Tar-Súrion. His talk was salty and his manners atrocious, a fact that Glorfindel enjoyed and Erestor tolerated. However, he was one of the Elendili, the elf-friends, and as such was loyal to Gil-galad.
When they entered the cabin, the captain was awaiting them with outstretched arms. “Greetings my lords, Glorfindel, Erestor. How fine to see both of ye back aboard. The wind’s abaft us and we’re off to Lindon on a wing and a prayer, Mandos be cussed.”
“Good evening Captain Armalak,” Erestor said with a bow. “And you may ‘cuss’ Mandos as you say, as long as prayers are offered to Ossë and Ulmo.”
“Is he always this damn formal, Findel?”
“Usually worse,” said Glorfindel. “I do believe he’s loosening up.”
“I am merely cautious,” said Erestor. “I have no desire to wash up on the rocks somewhere through offense to the Valar.”
“Ah the Valar will do what they will, eh? I’ve learnt that after sixty years asea. Still Counselor Erestor, I’ve never been washed up anywheres yet. And you Findel, gone native, I dare say.” Stroking his chin, he walked around Glorfindel eyeing him appraisingly. “You look like a damned brigand.”
“It’s practical in this heat,” said Glorfindel. “I’ve learned to adopt the local dress wherever I go. They usually wear it for a reason. Erestor and I have already had this discussion.”
“And I felt that as ambassadors from Gil-galad, we should look the part,” said Erestor. “However, there is no need for protocol here. I too can adapt.” He looked pointedly at Glorfindel as he took off his thigh-length fitted jacket of black silk revealing a pleated linen shirt with lace collar and cuffs. “There, much better. I feel I can breathe.”
Glorfindel was looking at him with amusement. “Do I win the wager?” he asked.
“Certainly not. We are not in Umbar now.”
“You are the stubbornest elf I know, Erestor,” said Glorfindel.
The Captain laughed at this exchange. “I see that a fortnight in Umbar hasn’t changed you two a bit. I think the Haradren dress suits you, Glorfindel. Nice physique, wouldn’t you say, Erestor?”
Erestor made a humphing sound. Captain Armalak laughed again. “Come, let’s sit down and eat,” he said. “I’m fair fit to eat that horse we’ve got down in the hold.”
They sat at the table and the Captain rang a bell. “I hired a new boy while in port,” he said. “A fair looker too, though personally I’m one for women.” He winked at Glorfindel. The door opened and Erestor’s mouth dropped for a moment. It was the same young man who had served them in the shop. He was carrying a plate of fish and a basket of bread, which he set down on the sideboard. Now that he was out in the bright light, Erestor could see the full extent of his loveliness: an almost feminine face with high cheekbones, bright eyes lined with kohl, a long, narrow nose, and shapely lips. Most of his black hair was bound up by a wide red headband but one curling lock escaped its confines and hung over his shoulder, halfway down his chest. The sides of his sleeveless white tunic were slit and loosely laced revealing tantalizing flashes of olive skin. Erestor was not pleased to see Glorfindel’s broadening smile.
“Ardan!” Glorfindel cried.
“My Lord Glorfindel.” The boy demurely dropped his glance and smiled, a lovely flash of white teeth.
Ai gods, Erestor thought. He looked up at the elaborately carved ceiling.
“How do you come to be working aboard this ship?” Glorfindel queried.
“He showed up this morning with a letter of recommendation from the Prince’s Minister of Commerce,” Armalak said. “Said he could cook and keep track of the stores. Fortunate, since my previous cabin boy ran off shortly after we come ashore and I ain’t seen him since. This one is from an old merchant family. By Ossë, when he told me who his family was, I realized I knew his grandfather. Confided in me, he did, that he’s always wanted to go to sea. Adventurous that. Reminded me of me when I were his age. And how, I ask ye my lords, could I turn that down.” He gestured palm up at the boy who was smiling again with a coy expression.
“I can’t imagine how,” Glorfindel said, rather breathlessly.
Something was prickling at Erestor, something he didn’t like. Almost of warning. He didn’t know what to do with the feeling, so he fought it down.
“Why didn’t you tell me this afternoon that you would be sailing on the Hirilondë?” Glorfindel asked.
“I wanted to surprise you,” Ardan said with a slight shrug.
"You succeeded," Glorfindel replied.
“Well lad, be about your business then,” said Armalak
Glorfindel raptly watched the young man laying out the dishes, cups, and food. Erestor noticed that he brushed against Glorfindel as he was pouring out the wine. Glorfindel looked up and they exchanged a smile. When completed, Armalak dismissed the boy with a wave of the hand. “I’ll ring when we require the next course,” he said.
Armalak raised his wooden wine cup. “Counselor Erestor, would you do the honors?”
Erestor nodded. He dipped his finger in the cup, took up a drop of wine on his finger which he let fall on the votive plate, then a pinch of bread, a bit of salt. He pulled a knife from his belt and pricked his callused thumb with it, allowing a drop of crimson to splash down into the wine. Then he swirled his thumb in a tight circle through the mixture. The salt stung. “Hear us, Ulmo, Lord of Waters, and Ossë of the Waves, grant your humble servants safe passage over your restless domain.”
“Hear us,” both the Captain and Glorfindel intoned. Then, without even waiting a decent interval, Armalak was tearing at his bread like a starving wolf.
More daintily, Erestor began to eat his fish. It had a fine flavor.
“This is good,” said Glorfindel. “Who knew the boy could cook?”
“Yes, who knew,” Erestor said dryly.
“You sound as if you don’t approve of my new hire,” Armalak said with a laugh. “I believe Findel has a different opinion.”
“It is not my place to approve or disapprove,” Erestor said. “I merely have unfounded suspicions.”
Glorfindel looked at him and then a slow grin spread over his face. “My dear Erestor, just because you can’t eat, don’t begrudge someone else the feast.”
“What do you mean?” The Captain said around a mouthful.
“Ah, you didn’t know, Armalak?” replied Glorfindel. “Our dear friend and companion has taken a vow of chastity in service of Ossë, about five hundred years ago, I believe. It’s crap inconvenient at times.” Glorfindel shook his head.
"Five hundred and fifty years exactly," said Erestor.
Armalak widened his eyes. “I didn’t know Ossë required that of his devotees.”
“Normally, he doesn’t,” Erestor said with dignity. “However, I have my reasons, which remain my own.”
“Damn shame,” Armalak said as he picked a fish bone out of his teeth. “Someone of your looks. Begging your pardon, my lord, but there it is. I’d be blind if I couldn’t see it, even though women is more to my taste. However,” he grinned and licked his lips as he ran his eyes over Erestor, "we shouldn't fault variety, should we?"
Erestor abruptly stood. He grasped the sides of the table as he leaned menacingly toward Armalak. "You’re out of your place, Captain.”
“Forgive me,” Armalak replied. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and continued chewing.
“Eh, Erestor, sit down,” said Glorfindel. “I swear, you are so backed up that it is affecting your head.”
“I don’t see that frequent indulgence has improved your ability to be discerning,” Erestor scoffed as he sank back in his seat. “Who kept disappearing with the Prince’s sister while leaving me to wend my way through the nuanced intrigue of Umbarian conversation? Half the time I didn’t know if I was being insulted or pumped for information. I suspect both, but it was so,” he waved his hand, “subtly done.”
“They are known for that. But you yourself are a master at such word games, Erestor,” Glorfindel said. “Many is the time I’ve seen you in Council put down some pompous elf so beautifully he didn’t even know it afterward. I love to see that little half-smile on Ereinion’s face when you do it too. Nothing gets by that old fox.”
The rare compliment took Erestor by surprise. He dipped his head in acknowledgment.
“Besides,” Glorfindel raised his glass, “what makes you think my time with Princess Ilien was not productive? She shared many things that may be quite useful. Sometimes horizontal conversations are the most revealing, wouldn’t you say?” He took a sip of wine.
Armalak burst into laughter, reached over and clapped his hand on Glorfindel’s shoulder. “I like you, Findel,” he said. “I didn't think the elves were so hot-blooded.”
“Who says we're not?” Glorfindel raised a slanted eyebrow.
“It’s a wonder we weren’t stabbed in our beds,” Erestor responded. “I hope this is not being discussed all over court.”
“Not a word,” Glorfindel said. “I assure you.”
“Well, I’m ready for the duck,” Armalak said. “What d’ye say I ring and we give Glorfindel another gawk at our lovely new server? Gil-galad’s Master at Arms appears to have a taste for Southron arse.” He laughed again as he picked up the hand bell.
Erestor could only grit his teeth.
After dinner, Glorfindel went to check on the horse while Erestor stood on deck and watched Anor recede in fiery glory below the horizon. Already the coastline was only visible as a distant brown haze that encircled them on three sides. Erestor knew the way by heart. First they would clear the jaws of the Bay of Umbar and then strike directly across the Bay of Belfalas for the Cape of Anfalas, then meander along, keeping the coast in sight on the starboard side, past the lands of Enedwaith, Minhiriath, Harlindon to the Gulf of Lune. With a good wind, which they should have at this time of year, they would make it home in time for Mettarë, the winter solstice celebration. Of all the rituals in the year, Erestor was most fond of this one. He smiled, remembering the candles blazing throughout the castle, the pungent smell of pine boughs that decorated the doorframes and banisters, and the mouth-watering smells of roast goose, spiced pies, and mulled wine punch with oranges, cinnamon, and cloves. He loved the laughter and the singing that went on all day and into the night. And of course the little gifts. He had picked up a few things in Umbar, uncommon enough to be real treats for his friends. In a weak moment, he’d even bought something for Glorfindel, though now he wondered if he’d have the nerve to give it to him. It was a little horse carved of ivory, exquisitely done. The moment he saw it, Erestor had fallen in love with it. This afternoon when he’d seen Glorfindel’s gift of speaking to horses, he knew it had been the right choice. But now . . .
He watched Glorfindel come up out of the hold, followed by that Haradren boy. They went out to the stern of the ship and the boy pointed out things on the horizon. Erestor could hear the low murmur of his voice and Glorfindel’s purring response. Then Glorfindel put his arm around the young man’s waist.
Erestor retreated into their cabin.
The cabin was warm and somewhat close compared to the cool air outside. Erestor removed his jacket; unbuttoned and rolled up his sleeves. He pushed on the round window at one end and latched it open. Then, he took out the hammock stored in a bin built into the wall and clipped each of its four ends into the metal hooks hanging from the ceiling. The hammock now took up most of the left side of the small cabin. Glorfindel could sleep on the built-in shelf with the tick mattress across from the hammock. Erestor would be hung on a spit before he’d sleep in the same bed with him.
He took off his shoes and stockings and put them in the corner. Then he exchanged his shirt for a silk sleeping chemise. He still wore his leggings. Unbraiding his long dark hair, he took a rare moment to feel pleasure in its silky weight. Then, he lit a candle which he stuck in the holder near his head. He rummaged through his trunk and removed a book. He thought for a moment, then pulled his sheathed knife from his belt and hid it under a pillow in the hammock. Stepping on the recess below the window, he climbed up into the hammock and attempted to get comfortable, but the cursed thing swung wildly back and forth. Annoyed, he reached out and grabbed the candle sconce to steady it. He was reading with one arm propped behind his head when the door creaked open and Glorfindel entered, humming. Erestor found he was pleased and annoyed to see him at the same time. These contradictory emotions didn’t make any sense and the illogic of it just made him more annoyed. “You’re back,” Erestor said.
“Mmm, yes. It’s a comely night. The stars are so beautiful . . . like lacework threaded with gems. You should have come out to see them.”
“I’ve seen them countless nights. This one is no different.”
Glorfindel sighed. “Why are we always sparring, Erestor?”
“Because we don’t like each other?” Erestor closed his book to look at him.
“Actually, I rather like YOU, you fussy old fool,” Glorfindel said. He unbuckled his belt and set it aside, then began drawing his tunic over his head. The bells in his hair shivered with sound.
“Hunh,” Erestor said and opened his book again. “It seems you favor any pretty young thing that crosses your path.”
“I didn’t take a vow of celibacy,” Glorfindel said gently.
Erestor raised his eyes from the book to look at him and discovered that the warrior had turned his back and was stripping off his loose trousers. He straightened, his skin clothed only in the flickering yellow light. Erestor had to catch his breath at the magnificence of that body, long limbs with muscles honed and sculpted by hours of battle practice. He wasn’t over-built as Erestor had seen some warriors become. Instead he was lean, well proportioned, sleek as an otter. Just perfect. And that beautiful hair. It rippled down his back like a river surging over rapids. Erestor wondered how it would feel tangled in his fingers, or better yet, slithering down his chest. His glance lingered on Glorfindel’s arse with its artful curves, strong, with that indentation at the hips. How delightful it would be cupped in his hands. Then Glorfindel turned and Erestor’s eyes darted down his strong chest, across the rippling muscles of his abdomen, to the nest of golden curls, and below. . . . Unconsciously, Erestor licked his lips and then felt heat flood his face when Glorfindel looked up and discovered his gaze. The Elda slowly smiled at him. “Do you like what you see?” he asked.
“Impertinent,” Erestor grumbled, turning away. “You’re actually going to sleep naked. What if we run aground and there you are, without a stitch on.”
“Then I’ll not be weighed down by my clothes,” Glorfindel said. “My dear Counselor, always worrying.” He sat on the edge of the bed and began unbraiding his hair and sliding the bells out of it. He set them down, one after another on the bed where they rolled gently back and forth with the lilt of the ship.
“Why are you doing that?” Erestor asked.
“I don’t want to disturb your slumber with noise every time I turn over." He finished with his task, scooped up the bells, and dropped them in his trunk. "Sleep well, old friend.”
“Maer dü. Good night, Findel.”
Erestor reached over and snuffed out the candle. He heard the crunch of the mattress as Glorfindel got into the bed and then the soft rustle of a linen sheet. It became quiet: naught but the creak of ropes and mast, the occasional flap of the sails outside, and the slow rock of the boat. All of it spoke softly of sleep.
“Erestor,” he heard Glorfindel whisper.
“Put that fine analytical mind of yours on this problem. Why wasn’t Oiolairë’s groom there to load him aboard the ship today?”
“They said he was detained.”
“Is that likely? What more important task would he have than making sure his charge, his master’s gift, was safely loaded?”
“I do not know, but you’re correct, it doesn’t seem right,” Erestor said. “I will think on it. And thank you . . . for the compliment.”
“Don’t get a swelled head,” Glorfindel returned. “Maer dü.”