“I can’t find anyone I’m looking for today,” Gil said, subsiding with a sigh onto the bench and resting his elbows on Barawen’s kitchen table. “At least you’re here. Is there tea?”
Círdan’s housekeeper was chopping vegetables for dinner, the blade moving at blinding speed in her capable hands. She gave him an amused look and indicated the pot keeping warm on its hearth stone. “Why, they are all at the summer’s end market, of course,” she said. “I know you’ll find my lord there, he wanted to be sure it was all done properly, he told me, though I suspect it would be more about a visit to Midhiel’s sweet stall – he likes to pretend he doesn’t indulge. She’ll be close to the flowers though, and so I asked him to look for some of those pretty papery wildflowers, the blue ones. I thought they would brighten the table tonight.”
“...flowers? Yes, all right,” Gil said absently, his attention on the tea he was pouring for them both – Barawen never said no to a cup. The words penetrated and he frowned. “Why, is it a special occasion?”
“For shame, Ereinion Gil-galad,” she said, shocked. “Oh, it is only the begetting day of your very own aunt, that’s all. I am making that special vegetable casserole she likes so much, and fish seared with lavender and herbs. You have no gift for her?”
“Clean forgot,” he said grinning as he put the cups down and resumed his seat. At her disapproving look he laughed and shook his head. “Don’t worry, I’m just teasing you. Yes, I have a gift. Lindir reminded me, he knows everyone’s begetting days, it’s his job as house minstrel. Though Gildor told me they just all picked a day once they got over here because it was so hard trying to do the math - Aman years, sun years...”
“That’s as maybe and very sensible of them to move with our time instead of that of some long-dead Trees. However, this is her day and we should make something of it tonight.”
“If anyone’s trying the market for a last minute gift, I hope they went early,” he said, helping himself to a carrot quarter. “The weather’s coming over, they’ll be finishing up early. There’s been more wind than normal for this time of year, hasn’t there? It feels like it’s permanently howling.”
Barawen paused in her chopping and peeling. Her family had settled on Balar long before Gil was born. He had been brought there as a child when the Shore Lord and his people were driven out of the coastal cities, retreating to what was commonly called the Holy Isle. Gil had grown up here and had known her for most of his life.
“The seasons are – not as they were,” she said slowly. “My father and his friends were talking about it a few nights ago, they’ve never seen such an early autumn.”
Gil was about to ask if anyone knew why this was when the peace of the kitchen was broken by approaching voices raised in what in others would be argument. Gildor followed by Erestor came into the kitchen, saying over his shoulder, “...not even when I was growing up. It’s one of those stupid things you find if you dig deep enough in the Laws and Customs that Turgon tried to codify while we were in Nevrast. He had a whole list of things we probably shouldn’t do, but that doesn’t mean people don’t eat meat or that healers are all pacifists or…”
“Well, it’s what I got thrown at me anyhow when I turned her down. Under our law, intimacy equals marriage and eternity. No other option, so how could I possibly be seeing someone – casually? And a man at that. The whole conversation was embarrassing, I’m not used to being judged and found wanting by some little girl barely past her majority.”
“Yes well, other people’s customs are always confusing – hello Gil – and you know you’re fond of Fionel. Just not quite that fond. I hope you explained we aren’t all like swans.”
“Swans?” Erestor had gone looking for the teapot beside the fire and stopped in a flurry of black curls, confused to find it gone. “Barawen, why isn’t there tea? I’m dying of thirst.”
“That’s because he talks nonstop,” Gildor said in a satisfied voice, sinking down next to Gil. “The pot’s over there by the tub. If you’re making, I’ll have one too. Swans, yes. They’re totally monogamous, mate for life. Didn’t you know? Boy swan meets the girl swan of his dreams, they become – intimate – and he never looks elsewhere again. At least not where she can catch him.”
Erestor shot him a dire look, helped himself to half a carrot from Barawen’s stock, and went to retrieve the kettle. “It’s empty,” he declared.
Barawen nodded. “That it is. I was about to brew fresh. Just wait you till I’m done here.”
“I can do it, just tell me where the tea is. Are there no cases of boy swan becomes intimate with boy swan and knows it’s forever? That’s quite sad.”
“Well they’re swans, not elves. You can make tea?” Gildor raised an eyebrow. He looked like Galadriel from the side when he did that. It was the only time Gil could see the oft touted family resemblance, though he never said so.
“Of course I can make tea,” Erestor was affronted. “I can also bake bread in a crock buried in coals if I must. How much leaf for a full pot, Barawen?”
Barawen left off chopping with a barely concealed sigh and went over to take up the tea maker’s role. “Best let me do that, t’will be faster all round.”
“It’s your cousin’s begetting day today, right?” Gil asked Gildor, losing interest when he saw they weren’t to be treated to the novel sight of Erestor doing something useful in a kitchen.
“It is?” Gildor looked uncertain. “Are you sure? I thought it was later, closer to winter.”
“Today. So Barawen says, and I first heard it from Lindir, days back.”
“And Lindir would know because…?”
“Minstrel. Has to be sure there’s an appropriate song or - or something. He looked like I should understand.”
Gildor laughed. “Know that look, yes. Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to get her something. No idea what.”
“How about the market?” Gil suggested. “You could try there, pick up something sentimental and pretty? Half the town seems to have gone.”
“A nice sewing box, you mean?” Gildor suggested dryly, retrieving and playing with a celery stalk. “Or one of those wood frames ladies fasten their embroidery over?”
“Depends. How soon do you want to visit the Halls?” Gil was moving various vegetable chunks around to form a pattern along the edge of the cutting board. There wasn’t enough carrot, he decided. It needed more orange.
Barawen put the teapot on the hearth to boil and came back to the table. “If your majesty had wanted to help, there’s chopping that could have been done,” she scolded Gil, heaping everything back together and spoiling his design. She had told him off since he was a child; a crown had not proved reason enough for her to stop.
“Oh, those two?” Erestor explained airily. “They can’t chop vegetables. They’re royal. It’s beneath them.”
“Beneath me? Yes, there’s something to be said for that position,” Gildor mused, his smile pure evil. Gil gave him a warning kick, catching him neatly on the ankle bone. He had no idea how much Barawen knew about the situation between Gildor and Erestor – he assumed there had to be a few people left on Balar who were not yet aware they were discreetly sharing a bed whenever possible – and if Barawen was one, this seemed the wrong time and place for her to find out. The Telerin were sensitive about such things.
“No wonder they needed rules in Aman,” Erestor said. “There had to be a way to keep people like you in check. Did someone say we’re going to the market? I have work to do – bales of it.”
Gil had no idea how Erestor got his work done, he always seemed to be off somewhere with Gildor, but as his employer, Círdan, would have been the first to say something and he had no complaints. Either Erestor managed to get everything done or else he was very convincing. Possibly a bit of both, he decided.
“It’s Tanis’s arbitrarily chosen begetting day,” Gildor explained. He seldom used her Sindarin name, claiming it was too unwieldy. “I’m meant to get her a gift.”
“Have some tea, then we can go down and I’ll show you where they have really pretty jewellery made with mother-of-pearl,” Erestor suggested.
“What, for the woman who grew up in Tirion and lived in Menegroth?” Gildor would pay attention though; he enjoyed seeing how Erestor’s mind worked.
Erestor shrugged. “You’ve said yourself she’s not exactly pining to go back to Tirion and I’ve heard her speak about Menegroth --- tacky and overdone are the words she uses most when she mentions it. Oh, and garish.”
“Not in front of Celeborn, I’m guessing,” Gil said. “He’s from Menegroth.”
“More correctly, he is from Doriath,” Barawen said severely. “And I am sure it was not the Lady’s intention to say that the Sindar have no taste?”
Gildor, who was far more likely to create situations than save them, hurried to Erestor’s rescue with an engaging smile. “The place rather than the inhabitants, he means. It’s her commentary on dwarvish tastes, Barawen sweet. They decorated Menegroth, remember? Not Elu Thingol’s courtiers. Tanis always preferred understated elegance. All right, Erestor, drink your tea and then let’s go take a look. Mother-of-pearl has possibilities for the desperate, I suppose. Coming, Gil?”
Gil considered his day full of unfinished business and shrugged. “Why not? Might as well. If everyone’s really down there, I might even get something done today after all.”
Pearly Bay had a weekly market for produce brought in from the farms beyond the town, but four times a year tables and stalls took over the square overlooking the harbour and the less unusual shared space with the commonplace: everything from clothes and leatherwork to food and novelties. Barawen was right, almost the whole town was there. He quickly found three of the people he had been searching for earlier – the pigeon handler, the senior fletcher and the boy Círdan wanted him to train as a page – and was looking around for Celeborn when he spotted Gildor and Erestor at a stall selling cloth brought over from the Dorian part of Sirion.
Erestor was bargaining, a polite way of saying he was haggling like a fishwife with the stall owner. Gildor saw Gil approaching and jerked his head proudly in the direction of the furious exchange. “He’s got him down from two silver to a handful of seed pearls.”
Gil snorted with laughter. “What is that he’s buying?”
“Some gauzy stuff with sequins on it. I have no idea what he plans with it, but I hope it’s for a gift. That berry blue isn’t his shade.”
Gil had seen a man wearing sequins once, but that had been with a troupe of dancers who passed through Brithombar when he was very small. He decided against saying anything to set off the wicked humour lurking in the depths of Gildor’s eyes. “Well, it’s very sparkly. That might help. Have you seen Celeborn anywhere? I’m conducting business here this afternoon.”
Gildor looked around then pointed. “He was over there by that food stall – the one selling honey-glazed chicken wings or whatever they are. Don’t see him now.”
Gil sighed and once again started looking for silver hair somewhere amidst the multicoloured vista of covered stalls and people either moving from one venue to the next or gathered in groups, most of them with food or a beverage in hand. Beyond the market lay the choppy waters of the bay under a rapidly clouding sky. Of his aunt’s husband there was no sign.
“What’s wrong?” Erestor joined them, bearing a wrapped bundle and a satisfied expression.
“He’s looking for Celeborn,” Gildor said, holding out his hand. After ignoring this for a few moments, Erestor pulled a face and placed something into it. Gil heard the sliding sound of the little seed pearls that were part of the currency of Balar and by extension Sirion. Gildor pocketed them without a word.
“I was about to get us something to eat with that,” Erestor told him unconvincingly. “Celeborn had a fight with Dorwen over by the fish market. Then he bought chicken over there and must have found somewhere out of the wind to eat.”
Erestor was not a gossip exactly except in his close circle, but he was famously observant. “In the big tent?” Gil asked, watching someone shooing off an over-attentive seagull.
“The tent is full of confectionary stands and mothers keeping their children out of the wind,” Gildor reminded him. “Can you see him? About the last...”
“What’s happening down there?” Erestor interrupted, pointing to the harbour side of the square where a small crowd was forming. “Is the seal back?”
The battered old male was a regular visitor, too regular to draw this amount of attention. “There must be a ship coming in,” Gil said. “Come, I want to see what’s so special.”
They started across the square, following the tide as more people began looking out to sea and asking questions. Erestor was good at ducking through crowds and went ahead, coming back shortly. “There’s a boat from the mainland. Not one of ours. From one of the Edain’s settlements further along the coast.”
Gil frowned. This was so unusual as to be unheard of. There was trade between Sirion and the mortal villages, and there were merchants whose goods were welcome on Balar, but one boat arriving unannounced was something new.
People made space as they reached the edge of the square. Rather unnecessarily, Erestor pointed out the little flat-bottomed boat with its square sail, cutting steadily through the dark, foam-capped waters, oars flying rhythmically.
“Bypassing the harbour,” Gildor said from behind his shoulder, interrupting his thoughts. “It’s making for the beach.”
“Why on earth...?” But he could see Gildor was right, the angle would take the boat to the strip of beach beyond the harbour. The obvious answer struck him. “Ah. Might be a bit intimidating, looking for space to tie up between warships and merchant craft.”
“If we are to investigate this, could I buy some food first please?” Erestor asked, holding out a hand palm up to Gildor. “Give. Investigating mysteries is hungry work.”
Gildor did the eyebrow quirk that reminded Gil of his aunt and handed back the seed pearls. “Meat pasty – there, from Den. His are fresh. Get one for Gil too.”
“Of the humble serving class, me, yes,” Erestor replied in a voice that was anything but humble and darted back through the crowd.
“Your pasty might end up getting dropped in the sand, just by accident,” Gil warned, amused.
“He knows I can bear a grudge for an unconscionably long time.” Gildor grinned. He placed a hand on Gil’s arm as they reached the steps down to the harbour and raised his voice. “Make way for the king, there on the stairs.”
Worn stone steps set into the cliff led down to the dock, and a gravelled path between rocks connected the harbour to the adjacent beach where fishing boats were often pulled up during the day or overnight in fine weather. The other approach to the beach was less accessible, but people could already be seen taking to the cliff path.
The curious kept a respectful distance behind royalty, leaving Gil and Gildor to walk alone, enjoying the unexpected peace after the bustle of the market while the wet gravel crunched and slid under their feet. They were about half way between the quay and the narrow strip of shale when Erestor caught up, He pushed between them, cheeks flushed, black curls a disarming tangle. “Food. Here.”
Gildor took his pie and looked at it suspiciously, holding the other out to Gil. Erestor, who had a sweet tooth, had cake which he gave Gildor to hold while he knotted his hair back from his face, fighting the wind that was stronger at sea level.
“Hold onto it for me, I’ll see to this first,” Gil said, declining the pastry with a shake of his head. “Somehow not very dignified, standing there asking questions with a mouthful of food.”
Erestor reclaimed his cake. “You could eat fast? This doesn’t make sense, Gil. It’s not flying colours, it’s just an ordinary fishing boat. They never cross the bay.”
Gildor squinted against the light and the wind. “Two oarsmen, couple of passengers. No sign of smoke from the warning beacon was there? I never looked.”
He addressed the question to Erestor, who would have checked before following them, but Gil said, “No, I looked. Nothing like that. There can’t be anything wrong at Sirion, if there was the boat would be one of our own.”
Once they passed the point where the track became part of the beach, Erestor moved over so that he and Gildor were on either side, their king in the middle. Gil suspected he didn’t think about these things, just did them on instinct. It was why Círdan was willing to trust his correspondence both on the island and across the bay to someone still so young. Gildor had it too, that instinct for the right gesture at the right time, though in his case it owed more to upbringing: a king’s grandson, raised in a royal household.
Gildor measured the distance from the shoreline with his eye and said, “Wait here? Give them space to run the boat up and come to us?”
Gil nodded and stopped, standing with arms folded, watching, the wind tugging at his clothes and whipping his and Gildor’s hair. The boat reached shallow water and one of the rowers gave up his oar and leapt overboard, guiding it in. The other oarsman joined him and they got their boat decently up the beach before they ran out of breath. The passengers, Gil noticed, stayed put as though unsure what was expected of them. Then one of the sailors held out a hand to help them clamber out. Close beside him he felt Erestor stir. Barely audible over the noise of sea and wind, Gildor drew in a breath and whispered, “What...”
They were very young, with the dark hair and grey eyes of the Eldar, both dressed in plain brown tunics and pants. Each had a small bag which they carried slung over opposite shoulders. A random strand of memory brushed Gil: with mirror twins, one would be left handed, the other right. They looked around the beach, serious, uncertain, and finally settled on the small reception party and what was no doubt a larger one forming behind. No introduction was necessary: one look at their almost identical faces declared them their mother’s children.
The sailors exchanged worried looks, then one came forward, stopping well short of them. He was broad shouldered and stocky, clad in the usual homespun and leather, his face framed by a brown beard a shade lighter than his short-cropped hair. Gil raised a hand and beckoned him closer. Balar’s elves patrolled the coast, going ashore at any sign of the Enemy’s forces, and Gil knew faces from many of the coastal settlements, but these two were unknown to him.
“You rowed a good distance with strange cargo, my friend,” he said, hoping his grasp of their tongue would be good enough for whatever this story was. He doubted they spoke Sindarin.
The man’s face cleared. Gil wondered if he had feared he would have to use gestures to communicate. “Leon is my name, my lord, a fisherman from the village of Taernsby. That there is my brother Maro.”
Gil nodded. “My greetings, Leon, Maro. Welcome to Balar.” He kept back his own name in case they recognised it. They would get to business faster without knowing they were answering to a king.
Leon seemed a bit lost for words so Maro stepped up next to his brother and ducked his head. “Meaning no harm, my lord, but we were paid to bring those two across. Not well paid, mind, and in gems not coin, but he was tall and fierce and it seemed well to abide by his will.”
When he mentioned jewels, Leon searched a pouch sewn into his sleeve and came up with something which he hesitated over. “Payment honestly come by, my lord. There’s marks on it that might have meaning for you.”
He held a necklace of delicately forged links interspersed with moonstones, with a silver medallion on which was etched an outline in blue and jet. Before Gil could do anything, Gildor stepped forward and snapped his fingers. The fisherman handed over his treasure without a word of demurral. Gildor looked at it, frowning, then turned it so Erestor could see.
“You know it?” Gil decided not to make an issue of being bypassed. Gildor normally showed his rank scrupulous respect, in part because he more than anyone had the right to ignore it. Had he not inherited Finwë’s blood from his mother’s side, the crown would have been his ahead of Gil.
“I’ve seen this before, yes, on the other side. See - the sign of Fëanor’s house and the letter M...” He turned his attention sharply on Leon. “The person who paid you to bring the boys across, did he give his name?”
Eyes slid to Gil and back again to Gildor. Gil held out his hand for the medallion. Gildor hesitated a moment, but training took hold and he passed it over with a nod that might have been an apology.
Gil looked at the smith work, the perfect joins, the flawless gems, the intricate etching, and then at the men. “This is one of our heirlooms,” he said, stumbling on the word, “the property of my cousin’s near kin. We will pay you for it, because it is not fit it should end its days amongst strangers.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, but that’s well enough. Silver would suit us better,” Maro said quickly. “Children cannot eat stones no matter how they glow, and while my wife could wear it round her neck, it would not warm her back come winter.”
“True enough,” Gil said, not giving Leon time to contradict him. “Now, about the man who paid you…?”
“One of your own, my lord, not one of ours. Tall and grim, a warrior from his scars, with hair the colour of the setting sun in winter. He said we were to take the boys home, be sure they were in good hands.”
They exchanged looks. Erestor, who had been quiet till now, asked, “One hand or two?”
“One, obviously,” Gildor said before either fisherman could answer, reverting to Sindarin. “How many tall, grim elves with red hair do you think there are?”
Erestor shrugged delicately. “The colour’s less rare than the family likes to believe, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I suppose it could be one of his followers?”
“The young lord has the rights of it, my lord,” Maro said to Gil, appealing to authority. “He was missing his right hand, though I’d not chance my luck to his left.”
“And that would be very wise,” Gil told him, and meant it.
“He said it was time for us to go back where we belonged,” one of the boys said softly in careful Sindarin. They had been standing to one side, almost forgotten while the men and Gil talked. “He said darkness was coming, and this was the safest place remaining.”
Gil mentally kicked himself and gave them his full attention. They were amongst strangers and must surely be apprehensive, though they seemed watchful rather than afraid.
“Do either of you remember me?” he asked, searching their faces for some hint of recognition, though there was none and both heads shook. He hunkered down so they no longer had to look up at him. “I was your mother’s friend and knew you when you were very small,” he explained, keeping the uneven Sindarin in mind and speaking slowly. “We’ve looked for you for a very long time - I never expected to find you on one of our beaches.”
He would have said more, but Gildor touched his shoulder and as he straightened up murmured, “Half the town seems to be at our back and the rest will be coming down the cliff path from the other side. Even I might find that a bit intimidating. What do you want done?”
Gil considered his options, trying to see the path through the ever-present political marshland of relations between the various elven factions. “Erestor, tell everyone to move back. Then find my foster father and ask him for food and drink for two, and a bag of coins - silver, and some of the mannish gold if he has any. I’ll see him right later.” That was an exaggeration - the rank of High King did not confer automatic wealth while Círdan had been trading pearls and pelts for so long he had even been rich by Elu Thingol’s standards.
“Celeborn might feel they should be placed in his care. Or Círdan himself,” Gildor suggested, as aware of political ramifications as he was himself.
Gil shrugged. “Maybe. But I’m not handing them over like an award or a mark of royal favour. They’re my responsibility, no one else’s.” It was what Elwing would have wanted, and Elwing had been dear to him; that was all that really mattered.
Erestor left while they were talking and could be heard telling people to go back to the square. He had a brisk, confident way of giving orders that caused people to obey without stopping to think too hard. The boys he sent off with Gildor, although they looked a bit askance at this new cousin. He assumed, politics or no, Gildor would go straight to Galadriel because they were close, but fair enough, it would be a begetting day she’d not forget in a while. Then Gil was left on the beach with two ill at ease fishermen, a smelly, weather-beaten boat and a raucous flock of seagulls who as always put him in mind of the boys’ mother.
The hand of friendship was still their only defence against Morgoth’s agents’ attempts to draw frightened villagers over to their side. He turned, smiling, to his unexpected guests. “My foster father will be here soon, with food for your return trip. While we wait you can tell me about the fishing off your village, if the fish are running as scarce as they say further north in Briar Glen...”
They were still talking animatedly about rogue tides and the shortage of deer for the pot when Círdan came striding down the beach with a leather bag and a face full of questions. The men would sail back to their village with coin for trading and stories of the elves’ island and how they understood the problems of the shore folk over there. It could only do good.
And in return, unlooked for, Eärendil’s children had come home. Even that was not an unsullied gift, not when their captors had only sent them over to Balar because the world had turned and their safety could no longer be assured. Their presence here was its own omen, underlining what the boys said Maedhros had told them: darkness was coming, and Gil sensed it would be a long night before the dawn.