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Into the Sunset
‘You have made no mention of the Silmaril,’ Elrond observed.
Elwing drew breath and Eärendil glanced at her under his dark lashes. Neither spoke and the warmth of the bright afternoon seemed shadowed.
‘I hated it,’ Elwing said abruptly. ‘To me it was never a wonder that embodied the beauty of the Two Trees, never a creation from the hands of a master, never a prize to be treasured. It was – it still is –stained with the blood of my kin. My naneth thrust it in my bundle and sent me from her, remaining to die in the ruins of Doriath. To my mind, the jewel of Fëanor corrupted all it touched. I wanted nothing to do with it.’
‘It is not so,’ Eärendil said softly. This was an argument that had clearly been played out many times. ‘The Silmarils are too – pure – for the children of Arda. They burn those who come close to them, so that they cannot then endure the absence of their clarity. Having once felt their power – their perfection, you can understand Fëanor in a way that no-one can who has not been touched by them. He may have been their creator, but the need for them ate at him. He could not help but pursue Morgoth to find them again. Nothing could be permitted to stand in his way. Not the Lords of the Valar, not the reluctance of kin, not the wide sea, not the ill-will of Morgoth – nothing could free him from their spell. Not even death. He would do anything to reclaim them, even to slaying elves who stood in his way. Even to sacrificing his own sons to a terrible fate.’
‘I have watched it crossing the sky for three ages,’ Elrond mused. ‘The Star of High Hope – it is in its rightful place now. Where it should, perhaps, always have been. It was not a possession; something that could be kept in a treasure house to gloat over – it belongs to all. If Fëanor could have brought himself to see that, then much would never have come to pass.’
‘But he did not,’ Celebrían spoke sadly, ‘and he would not and many died who would have lived. But many also came to be born who would never have been. We must remember that, too, before we allow ourselves to grow bitter.’ She smiled at Elwing. ‘My parents would never have met – Eärendil would not have been born – and neither would Elrond and Elros, nor their heirs.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘Tell me,’ she invited, ‘where did you hide the Silmaril?’
Elwing shrugged. ‘For many years it resided in a box in a hole beneath the cabbage patch. Later, once Sirion became a haven of stone houses and formal gardens, Gereth made a hiding place for it in the wall of my bedroom and I did my best never to think about it.’
Elrond smiled. ‘I like to think of it in a cabbage patch,’ he commented. He watched his naneth in silence for a while. ‘Why did you not then surrender it?’ he asked. ‘If it meant so little to you.’
‘It is not, I think, that it meant little,’ she told him slowly. ‘It had, after all, been instrumental in the death of most of my kin. Elu – my parents – my brothers. Doriath had fallen to ruin over it. I resented it – I think I feared it, but I could not betray the slain by handing it to the Kinslayers.’ Her eyes lost focus as she considered events long past. ‘When the demand came from Maedhros – that was the first time in years I had really thought of it and what it meant. And then they came – and for the only time I placed the Nauglamir round my throat.’ She shuddered. ‘I could feel the power in it – it pulsed with a life that scared me, and it demanded a service that took no account of other responsibilities.
‘I leapt into the sea,’ she continued, ‘hoping beyond hope that if I possessed it still, the sons of Fëanor would guard you as prizes that could be used to take it from me.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Stupid of me – as if my ruined body on the ragged rocks could protect my sons. The Kinslayers would have robbed me of the jewel and continued on their way, regardless of my intentions. But the Lord of the Sea did not want it to end there. He had his own plans – and handing the Silmaril to the sons of Fëanor was not among them.’
Her face pale as the sea’s foam, her hand stroked the solid stone of the bench as if to convince her of the reality of the world around her. ‘The sea came up to meet me,’ she said, her voice low and intense. ‘I was expecting pain and severance from all I knew – and instead, I rode on the white spray and became – other. I felt as if I had been taken apart and melted and remade – and the only thing that remained constant was the Silmaril pressing against my throat.
‘I screamed – and the scream was the desolate cry of a seabird, and I rose above the grey silk of the waters and the wind hurled me westwards. I was myself and different – grieving and torn and longing to return, yet driven to soar towards the bloodied sun in search of I knew not what.’
‘And so the first of the Silmarils found its purpose,’ Elrond said thoughtfully, ‘and its home.’
Elwing’s warm tears had burned like acid, he acknowledged reluctantly, and the guilt burdened him. He did not, in truth, want to set sail, but they both knew that this was the culmination of the last years’ work. The ship was built and tested; the crew experienced and ready; he had no excuse to remain longer in Sirion. Lord Ulmo called – and his duty must be done.
She was limp in his arms as she held him close, accepting helplessly another of the many ‘lasts’ they had been accumulating over recent weeks, for who knew when – if – they would ever meet again. This quest was, after all, dangerous. Of the seven fully-crewed ships sent by his daeradar only one sailor had been seen again in the realms of Middle Earth – what reason had he to believe that he stood any greater chance of success?
His hand caressed her hair, and moved to feel the soft curve of her cheek, resting briefly on her mouth before roaming to absorb as much as he could, so that the sense of her would be with him always. Her eyes fed hungrily on his face and her clasp on his body had a desperate feel, as if she, too, was trying to fill a chest of memories that she could open when the days became too hard.
‘I wish you could come with me,’ he said.
Tears she had been holding back spilled over. ‘Duty,’ she breathed, too distressed to voice her words.
‘Look after my sons – and see that they remember me,’ he asked. ‘Hold Sirion safe.’
‘I will do what I can,’ she whispered.
‘My lord,’ Voronwë intervened gently. ‘The tide will be turning soon. You must come aboard.’
Eärendil held his wife convulsively. ‘This will become no easier for delaying the parting,’ he said, resting his brow on hers for a moment before releasing her.
She staggered and would have fallen, but for Gereth’s preparedness. He looped an arm round her waist and steadied her until she was able to stand straight and proud. ‘Bid your sons farewell, my lord,’ she said. ‘For who knows when you will meet again.’
The Mariner dropped to one knee in front of the small boys. ‘Look after your naneth,’ he instructed them, taking a hand of each. ‘And grow well, so that, when I see you again, I can be proud of my sons. Remember that I love you both.’ He drew them close and shut his eyes as he breathed in the fragrance of sweet-scented soap and clean elfling. ‘I will miss you.’
‘Why do you have to go, Ada?’ Elros piped up disapprovingly. ‘Nana and us want you to stay here.’
‘The sea calls, my little bird,’ he said, his voice cracking.
‘Where will it take you that we cannot go?’ Elrond sounded curious. ‘I want to know!’
‘Into the sunset,’ Eärendil said, reminded of the words of a story his naneth had told him many times in the almost forgotten haven of Gondolin, ‘where the stars shine.’ He kissed both children. ‘I will come back if I can,’ he said, refusing to make promises that he might not be able to keep.
He rose and, taking a final loving look at Elwing, he boarded Vingilot.
It was as if Ulmo was directing them. The winds blew still from the west – Manwë, Lord of the Air, clearly had no desire to receive supplicants from the realms of Middle Earth – but the currents of the ocean favoured them and Vingilot was able to remain close-hauled and head steadily into the wind.
The pain of separation lessened. There was too much to do to brood on the likely failure of their mission – and thinking about what he had left behind only made his grief worse. Eärendil decided to live for the moment – and the moment was good. The sky was a vault of perfect blue above a hyacinth ocean. The creak of the sails and the splash of the water against the silvered hull of his vessel relaxed him and the occasional songs of the sailors set off the tranquil routine of the long days at sea.
‘It cannot last,’ he commented quietly to Voronwë. ‘If the voyage were really this straightforward, Círdan’s ships would be plying the waters between Balar and Aman. Sooner or later we are going to encounter challenges that could see us on the sea-bed.’
Voronwë nodded towards the west. ‘We will be approaching the Isles before long,’ he warned. ‘Ulmo’s goodwill will not see us through them so easily.’ He looked into the distance. ‘They are shrouded with confusion,’ he reminded the Mariner. ‘It is possible to wander there endlessly without ever emerging into the clarity of a sunlit day such as this.’ He hesitated. ‘It is not impossible,’ he conceded, ‘that some of Turgon’s envoys rest there still, unaware of who they are and why they sought the lands beyond the sunset. Once we enter the mists surrounding the Isles, it may be that we will never escape.’
‘Do we have any choice in the matter?’ Eärendil asked wryly. ‘The only illusion of safety is to return at once and acknowledge ourselves beaten – and that is no safety at all.’ He gazed out across the sea behind them, the ship’s pale wake spreading its arms towards home. ‘We must go on in hope that we have something that no others possessed – and that it will be enough.’
‘You have grown, ellon,’ Voronwë approved. ‘Your adar would be proud of you.’
Tuor’s shadow hung between them: the hero who had won the heart of Idril Celebrindal and fought free of the ruin of Gondolin to bring the last of Turgon’s people to the edge of the sea. ‘I wish he had remained to see my sons,’ Eärendil said wistfully. ‘Although I am in no position to say that what he did was wrong – for at least he waited until I was grown before he and my naneth boarded Eärrámë and left. I have already abandoned my sons to the vagaries of fate.’
‘Not so, ellon,’ Voronwë insisted. ‘They have their naneth – and the care of those who remain in Sirion. And Círdan and Ereinion will keep watch on them.’
‘And we all know how safe we are behind the walls of inviolable fortresses, do we not?’ Eärendil observed.
‘You cannot worry about what might happen.’ Voronwë sighed. ‘There will be enough danger in your future, my friend. You will need to be whole-hearted to face what comes. Trust your wife, Eärendil. Trust in those who guide her – and concentrate on your own challenges.’
The sea stilled as the haze closed round them like a drift of fine tulle, and the song of the gulls faded as if their ears had numbed. It felt colder: despite the large gold coin of the sun in the sky, a whisper of chill that had nothing to do with the temperature made them shiver. Wind filled the sails, but they could not feel it in their hair and a strange constriction affected their breathing.
Eärendil focused on the process of drawing air into his body. He knew he was alive; he knew his heart was beating – it was thudding loud enough for all aboard to hear it; he knew he was breathing – but he felt stifled.
‘I remember this,’ Voronwë said, his voice unemotional and distant. ‘It is designed, I should imagine, to make any that approach want to do nothing more than leave.’
‘It gets better?’ Aerandir’s legs gave way and he sat on the bleached deck as they glided slowly across a clinging sea.
‘It becomes – less bad.’ Voronwë swallowed, as if the stillness was affecting him much as sea-sickness caused landlubbers’ stomachs to revolt. ‘It is at its worst at the edges – and it is not easy to escape. Only Ossë’s rage enabled us to break through the barrier. His wave threw us through the web – and drove us eastwards. It takes more than the wish of our hearts to break the ban of the Valar.’
Eärendil gripped the smooth wood and concentrated on its solidity and warmth. ‘I would have appreciated knowing of this effect before we felt it,’ he said, hearing a strange echo in his tone, as if it took seconds for the words to pass from speech to hearing.
‘I had forgotten,’ Voronwë remarked remotely. ‘It is not, I think, something that the mind retains – and the outside is not the same as the inside. It is on the inside that,’ he frowned, trying to make sense of the peculiarities of the place, ‘straight lines bend,’ he said in the end. ‘Like a distant view on a blazing afternoon.’
‘It is like looking through glass,’ Falathar observed, staring from the stern. ‘Molten glass.’
Eärendil was conscious of an unexpected lightening of his spirit. ‘We have no choice then,’ he said with relief. ‘We must go on.’
Day followed day. Sometimes, despite the curve of the sails, Eärendil was unsure if they had made any progress at all. At other times, he would gaze at the position of the sun in confusion, knowing that the vessel was no longer where experience told him it should be. The sea remained amazingly calm, moving in what seemed little more than a steady series of moderate ripples. It was not until the arrival of gulls that wheeled round the mast and settled, bobbing on the water, that they realised the strength of the current.
‘It is a narrow band,’ Falathar narrowed his eyes intently to study the darker stream of water in the expanse of silver. ‘But we are in its centre and we are being driven.’
‘We are in the hands of Lord Ulmo,’ Voronwë said with resignation. ‘Fighting the sea could make things worse.’
Eärendil smiled wryly. ‘Or better. We have no way to know.’
‘We are still heading west, my lord,’ Erellont said doubtfully. ‘I think.’
‘We need to make landfall sometime soon, captain,’ Aerandir advised, ‘or it will not matter who guides us. That or hope for heavy rain. The sea will provide us with food enough, but we need fresh water.’
‘There is a way I learned once,’ Voronwë said thoughtfully, ‘that will take sea water and make it fresh – but it will not provide much unless the sun is hot enough to cause the water to turn to vapour.’
‘We will try it,’ Eärendil shrugged. ‘And watch for land. There must be islands hereabouts. These gulls do not travel too far out to sea.’
‘It will not be easy to pull out of the current,’ Falathar considered. ‘It is to be hoped that the Lord of the Sea wishes us to make land, or we will watch island after island pass us by as we continue helplessly towards whatever doom awaits us.’
Falathar’s prediction proved correct. At the sight of the first green-capped island towering out of the foaming breakers, they had fought fiercely to try to turn Vingilot’s path, to edge from the current and free themselves from its control – but their efforts had made no difference. Their vessel had continued serenely as if drawn on a wire.
Exhausted, her crew had sunk to rest on the gleaming deck. ‘We might as well abandon any attempt to direct her,’ Eärendil said helplessly. ‘Our sailing her is an illusion – we are making no impression at all.’
‘We must be prepared for when the current releases us, ellon.’ Voronwë gazed into the distance where another smaller pair of islands broke from the smooth sea. ‘You know only too well that the attentions of the Lords of the Sea are not always friendly – they demand respect, even when offering their aid. When Ossë tires of helping us, he is only too likely to add a sting to his farewell.’
‘Then I hope Lord Ulmo was a little more explicit in his directions this time,’ Eärendil shrugged. ‘We will be of little use in our quest if Ossë is permitted to smash Vingilot to tinder and abandon us on some remote strand.’
Night, when it fell, came dark as a velvet cloak, shielding the light of the stars jealously. Strangely fluorescent patterns swirled across the surface of the sea, faint enough to make Eärendil wonder if he were seeing things in the blackness, but the quality of the silence was too dense for him to break. Falathar sighed in his sleep: reluctant to separate, the off-duty sailors had settled down on the deck, so they could at least take comfort from the presence of their companions. The faint sound reassured the Mariner. He was not alone, suspended in an eternal darkness, but merely awaiting the inevitable return of the sun.
But, when one still morning came, they had been left to save themselves.
‘The current was bad enough,’ Voronwë said ruefully to the Mariner, ‘but I am not sure that this is not worse.’
The sails hung motionless on the mast, the breeze stilled and the sun shone with the glassy relentlessness that seemed so unlike its normal friendliness. As far as they could see in any direction the surface of the sea was motionless, a still pond of liquid silver.
‘I am not sure that Círdan thought it would be necessary to provide Vingilot with oars,’ Eärendil said, attempting lightness.
‘Perhaps we could swim,’ Erellont suggested frivolously. ‘If we hauled on ropes, we could, perhaps, pull Vingilot to shore that way.’
‘Or maybe if we harnessed the gulls,’ Aerandir added.
‘We have been becalmed before,’ Voronwë suppressed them. ‘And the wind has returned when it is ready. All we need to do is wait.’
Vingilot drifted; a speck of dust on an infinite ocean.
Talking became too much. The silence became part of the waiting and the crew drew apart, each buried in his own memories and thoughts of what might come. Every now and then, one would look up and open his mouth as if he wished to shatter the barriers between them, but he would hesitate and turn back to the open ocean, inspecting the water as if he was seeking some sign that could offer him hope.
‘The sea has become our prison,’ Eärendil murmured absently to Voronwë as the sun overhead shortened the shadows. ‘One from which there is no escape.’
‘There is always an escape, ellon,’ Voronwë sighed, ‘although it may not be what one would choose.’
The Mariner frowned, trying to force his mind to make sense of the words. ‘We will not die here,’ he said more sharply. ‘This is not the time to heed Námo’s call. We are sailing west for a purpose that is too important for us to fail.’
‘We need a breeze,’ Voronwë said helplessly. ‘Without one, we are powerless. And I doubt we can persuade Lord Manwë to offer us his aid in a project of which he is bound to disapprove. He will not send a wind for our whistling.’
Eärendil frowned. ‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘Surely the Lord of the Valar will not close his heart to us once he hears our woes. And, if there seems no reason to expect his kindness, there is no reason not to try.’ He looked at his crew with more liveliness that any of them had shown over the past days. ‘Falathar, you play the pipes,’ he said. ‘We would appreciate it if you would play them to beseech the Lord of the Air to send us a wind.’
The air stirred like a beast waking as the song of the pipes rang out across the wide waters, but the sluggish movement failed to shift the lank canvas.
Eärendil closed his eyes, remembering bright mornings scudding on sparkling waves, fresh breezes stirring the white sails and the sound of his adar’s laughter and, to the fluting melody, he began to voice a prayer that he had many times heard his naneth sing – softly in places where noise could bring danger, joyously in the gift of a clear dawn, sorrowfully in the red light of a westering sun; a prayer of gratitude, of love, of trust, of hope.
And a tiny trace of air brushed his face like his naneth’s kiss.
The island seemed frozen, as if nothing had ever happened there, as if nothing could ever happen there, as if it stood outside time, outside place, outside memory: a bloodless place, colour leached from the sky, the rocks, the plants. Standing over it all, a tower rose, pale as pearl in the dull light of a sunless day.
‘We cannot choose to pass it by,’ Aerandir advised. ‘We need fresh water – meat if we can get it. Fruit. Roots, if there are any. We cannot live solely on fish, my lord: not without becoming unwell.’
‘I do not like it,’ Eärendil said. ‘It seems a – forsaken place.’
‘It makes me think of the stories you tell elflings,’ Voronwë said slowly. ‘The ones that make them shiver and cuddle close.’
‘Yet there are birds in plenty making it their home,’ Erellont remarked, squinting doubtfully at the land as though any dangers would make themselves apparent to his cautious gaze. ‘And it is no darker than anywhere else in these shadowy seas.’
‘Someone lives here.’
‘Or lived here once, ellon.’
‘And yet,’ Eärendil shrugged. ‘Aerandir is right – we have little choice. We have been led to this island among the many. We must suppose it is for a reason.’ He smiled slightly. ‘And we have learned to beware of the unknown, no matter how harmless it might seem. We will take every precaution.’
Her sails reefed, Vingilot eased gently between the looming headlands and into a wide inlet of deep water. A soft mist hung over the cliffs, obliterating sharp edges and giving the whole a dream-like quality. Her crew worked intently, ensuring that their vessel had plenty of clearance beneath her keel and that she would be able to escape swiftly in case of need. They anchored at a good distance from the shore, before the harbour took a dog-leg beyond a rocky promontory, and lowered the dinghy into the water.
‘I think we will leave Aerandir and Falathar to guard the ship this time,’ Eärendil smiled. ‘Not that I am blaming them for our experience with Ungoliant’s kin, of course.’
‘I can live with that,’ Falathar said dryly. ‘In fact, I think I am more likely to live if that is your decision.’
‘But we need food, Captain,’ Aerandir ventured, ‘and water. They are both more important to our quest than any exploration.’
‘First things first,’ Eärendil nodded. ‘We will scout for any obvious dangers – and look to see if there is any evidence that the island is inhabited. If it seems safe, we can take our time to replenish our supplies.’
Their feet crunched on the pale shingle of the beach, the unexpected sound causing a flight of gulls to whirl above their heads before concluding that these strange bipedal creatures were nothing to worry about.
‘Is it my imagination,’ Voronwë asked, ‘or does it seem that there are steps rising up behind the beach?’
‘They have been cut,’ Erellont decided, ‘but not recently.’
Eärendil looked around at the empty expanse of pebbles. ‘Shall we climb them?’ he suggested. ‘If there are people here watching, then they know that we are here – and, if the place is as empty as it seems, we might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get up the cliff easily.’
‘I will go first,’ Voronwë stated firmly. ‘Wait until I have reached the top.’
The Mariner grinned amiably. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ he teased.
‘We might make a sensible leader of you yet.’ Voronwë loosened his long knife in its sheath and moved quietly up the steep stairway between the rocks.
Eärendil listened intently, but even Voronwë’s footsteps were inaudible in the drifting haze, so that he was surprised to see his face appear suddenly at the top of the rocks.
‘I think you should see this, my lord.’ His voice sounded unnaturally calm and Eärendil charged headlong up the irregular steps to reach him.
‘What is it?’ he asked urgently.
‘Wait.’ Voronwë placed a hand on his friend’s arm. ‘You will have to wait for the mists to part. Then you will see.’
The Mariner stared uncomprehending into the silvery cloud that filled the estuary on the far side of the promontory, watching as the fog shifted and thinned. Something was there, on the expanse of water, something that moved with the waves, something long and narrow, topped with a mast that stretched its finger up into the sky. A hollow feeling clutched at him and, as his suspicion solidified into conviction, the vapours cleared as if they had never been and a sea-worn ship rocked at anchor in the bay, sails furled. ‘It is Eärrámë,’ he said and turned to Voronwë, dread in his eyes. ‘It is Eärrámë,’ he repeated.
‘There is no reason to suspect that anything is wrong, ellon,’ the older elf told him. Voronwë held Eärendil reassuringly, his grasp warm and steady. ‘Tuor and Idril could be living happily here – we could be worrying over nothing.’
‘This is not a happy place,’ the Mariner said bleakly. ‘I can feel it in the air. What if my adar died here – and my naneth was left alone in her grief?’
‘Do not imagine horrors that might not be.’ Voronwë’s voice was gentle. ‘We will approach the tower – cautiously. It would be foolish to rush in when an hour or two will make no odds.’
A wide cobbled path, overgrown with weeds, led up from behind a stone jetty to which was tied a small boat, half-filled with water. Eärendil stared at the dinghy and then from it to Eärrámë and back. It had been long since either boat had moved, except as the tide willed. Whatever had happened, here on this small refuge, had happened – and nothing he could do would change it.
‘We will row out to Eärrámë later, ellon,’ Voronwë said gently. ‘First let us see what the island has to show us.’
Eärendil looked at him uncomprehending until it suddenly occurred to him that the elf thought that the body of one or other of his parents might be resting on the vessel. He swallowed. ‘We will discover first if there is anyone living in the tower,’ he suggested.
It was odd, he thought. He was fit enough to climb a mast in seconds – in the prime of his youth and strength, yet, as he climbed the steep path, sword loose in its scabbard, he found it difficult to breathe. Wisps of mist trailed across his mouth, clinging like Elwing’s silk shift to his rough sailor’s hands, hiding both the sight of the sea and the pale tower, so that it felt as if they were held in a cloak of illusion. He shook his head. His ears were ringing as if he heard a distant pealing of small silver bells, like teasing laughter on the edge of hearing. The trees, tall-stemmed and crowned with ruffs of serrated leaves bleached of their green by the pervading grey, rustled busily in the puffs of breeze.
Erellont stared into the shaded depths of the wood. ‘There are creatures there,’ he said. ‘I can feel them watching us.’
‘But I sense no danger.’ Voronwë kept his gaze roaming the undergrowth. ‘Curiosity, perhaps.’
The tower surprised them, looming out of the hazy afternoon with a solid bulk that had not been apparent from the sea.
‘Where is the door?’ Erellont asked in puzzlement, looking straight ahead at the structure. The path widened to a broad terrace that led up to and around the building. ‘There seem to be neither door nor windows.’ He stopped and leaned back to study the height of the tower. ‘How would anyone get in – or out?’
Eärendil’s breath caught. Was this his parents’ prison? Or their tomb? ‘We have to find a way in,’ he said urgently.
‘Then the first thing we have to do is look for the entrance, ellon,’ Voronwë told him calmly. ‘I doubt that Tuor carried Idril up the side of sheer walls. And we do not leap in – regardless of how much you want to see inside. We cannot allow this island to be Vingilot’s resting place.’
The Mariner bowed his head and inhaled slowly to calm himself. ‘You are right,’ he said. ‘It is just . . .’
‘It is just that you are shocked to find their vessel here – and worried. You are not the only one, Lord of Sirion. I, too, will not rest until we discover the fate of Tuor and Idril Celebrindal.’
‘You two go round that way,’ Eärendil suggested. ‘I will go this – look for any sign of people going in or out. The door might be hidden, but we should be able to see any evidence of the disturbed ground.’
‘Partly right, ellon,’ Voronwë said firmly. ‘But we will all go together. I will not return to Vingilot to say that you are lost on this island.’
Eärendil looked irritated and Erellont stepped discreetly back. ‘I am not a child,’ he snapped, ‘nor yet am I helpless! I can take a short walk without coming to harm.’
‘We still go together.’ Voronwë looked at him. ‘I promised your adar,’ he said, playing the card that almost invariably gained Eärendil’s co-operation, ‘that I would guard you as best I can – and I cannot do that in your absence.’
‘If, by any chance,’ the Mariner replied tightly after a moment, ‘my adar is within these walls, I shall tell him what I think of this open-ended request of his that enables you to extort compliance from me at inconvenient moments.’
Voronwë glanced briefly at the tower. ‘And I would be glad to hear his response, my lord,’ he said sincerely.
The base of the tower possessed the smooth impenetrability of the inside of a shell, Eärendil thought with exasperation. It gleamed in the inevitable mists, the dampness gathering on its polished surface like a dust of tiny diamonds, but nowhere did it reveal a door. They circled it twice, certain that they must have missed something, but the walls gazed back at them blankly, confident in their ability to conceal whatever secret it was that would gain them admittance.
‘Perhaps they are not there,’ Erellont observed cautiously. ‘Perhaps they took refuge elsewhere on the island.’
Eärendil shook his head. ‘My adar would never have been able to resist this puzzle,’ he said. ‘He would have continued to work at it until the answer opened before him.’
‘True,’ Voronwë agreed. ‘Tuor was obstinate to a fault. Telling him he could not enter would be tantamount to offering him an invitation to break in. And Idril would have egged him on – one does not refuse the daughter of a king of Finwë’s house and get away with it.’
They chose a spot to rest – sheltered from unfriendly eyes and within sight of the tower, yet positioned carefully to give them warning of any movement in the forest. Voronwë signalled to Erellont to bring out the dried provisions they had brought with them, together with their small supply of stale water. ‘We need to give some thought to finding the items Aerandir has demanded of us,’ he said absently.
‘Later,’ Eärendil shrugged. ‘We have enough to be going on with – and I am not convinced that this island is the healthiest of environments. It might be better to wait.’
Erellont leaned back against the trunk of a tall palm. ‘There is something very soothing about it here,’ he said sleepily. ‘It is restful.’
‘You cannot sleep here,’ Voronwë commanded him, ‘we have work to do.’
The sailor reacted to his tone and stiffened, forcing himself to appear alert.
‘We are on unknown terrain – facing we know not what difficulties,’ Eärendil observed. ‘This is not time to sleep.’ He glanced at Voronwë. ‘I admit that I feel weary enough myself – but we must solve this.’
Erellont suppressed a yawn. ‘The door must be hidden,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you need to be looking at the right time of day – or in the right light. If we keep watch, then we will find it.’
‘Who would be capable of making such a door?’ Voronwë said doubtfully.
Eärendil shrugged. ‘We are among the Enchanted Isles,’ he said. ‘It would be a small enchantment among many others.’ He rose and walked across to the base of the tower to run his hands over the smooth surface of the stone.
‘Valar!’ he gasped, snatching his hands back, like a child finding the kettle hot. Slowly he stretched out again, touching the featureless wall, moving his fingers curiously across the face.
‘What is it?’ Voronwë joined him, reaching tentatively to investigate.
‘It has been here all the time,’ Eärendil marvelled. ‘Hidden in plain sight. Do not look – feel.’
Beneath his fingers, the smooth aged wood was bound with solid bars of metal and studded with bosses. The latch was large and cold to touch, but simple and he lifted it easily. Without any sound, the door swung inwards.
‘Erellont,’ the Mariner said with quiet decision as he slid his sword from its sheath, ‘remain here – and do not allow the door to close.’
The inside of the tower seemed bigger than the outside, Eärendil noticed. Bigger and lighter. And quiet. Very quiet.
A hand grasped his sleeve. ‘Not too fast, ellon,’ Voronwë murmured. ‘Cautiously.’
‘I was thinking of charging in there, yelling at the top of my voice,’ the Mariner returned. ‘Do you feel that would be unwise?’
Voronwë released him abruptly and the Mariner grinned grimly. It had cost the elf a lot of self-control not to reply, he knew, but that did not mean that he would allow the incident to pass. Eärendil felt sure that he was due a talking-to – provided they survived this adventure undamaged, of course.
They sidled into the Great Hall, but it, too, was empty. The long table was laden down with food appealing enough to make the Mariner’s stomach growl, but there was no sign of anyone to eat it. Tall glass pitchers contained wine of a deep ruby and jewelled goblets stood nearby, as if inviting them to drink.
‘I think this is one feast of which we will not partake,’ Eärendil commented. ‘Somehow, I feel it would be less than wise.’
Voronwë indicated the open doorway leading to the stairway. ‘Remain alert,’ he warned.
Each room they entered seemed as if it had been freshly cleaned and prepared for occupation – but each was empty.
‘Touch nothing,’ Eärendil said. He flicked a glance at Voronwë. ‘It becomes ever stranger.’
The final room, its windows overlooking the open sunlit sea, was, however, occupied.
Eärendil entered first, his sword before him. He swept his eyes round the space, but the stillness had already informed him that there were no enemies present waiting to attack. It was a large room, adorned with tapestries woven in subtle shades and rugs to soften the polished wooden boards of the floor. A large trunk stood below the window and on it rested a sword in a silver-trimmed scabbard of well-oiled leather, its hilt decorated with jewels of a deep red. Next to it, on a chair, a mantle of soft green rested as if it had been discarded only moments before.
The Mariner froze.
‘That is Tuor’s sword,’ Voronwë breathed.
Eärendil forced himself to turn towards the wide bed. It was high, hung with heavy curtains of rich damask, and he had to walk further into the room to see round the tall bed-post. His eyes closed involuntarily. Much as he wanted to know his parents’ fate, he did not want it to be found here, in this pearl-grey tower on this abandoned island in an unfriendly sea. This was no end for Tuor, hero of Gondolin, and Idril Celebrindal, his wife. He merited a place with her among the blessed of the Valar, where they could dwell in happiness. They had undertaken this quest that he now pursued in hope of winning forgiveness and aid for all those who dwelt in Arda – this could not be how it had ended.
He lay like a king. Robed in rich velvet, a circlet binding his brow, hair falling in its impatient waves of frosted ebony, beard trimmed, hands folded on his chest, he rested on the wine-red fabric covering the bed. And beside him, curled on her side with her gown of ivory silk trailing to the floor, her hand clasping his, lay Idril, still as death.
A cry was wrenched from Eärendil’s lip and he fell to his knees in horror.
Voronwë’s hand rested gently on his shoulder, but the Mariner could hear the pain in his shallow breaths and knew that the sight before them was as much a grief to him as it was to Tuor and Idril’s son.
Despite his shock – or perhaps because of it – he could not take his eyes from his parents, reclining in dignity and love in this isolated tower.
‘They cannot have been dead long, Eärendil,’ Voronwë said gruffly. ‘They are as they were in life. We should do something to see that they receive our rites.’
Frozen, Eärendil stared. Was that the faintest hint of movement he saw? It could not be – how could they be merely sleeping? He rose convulsively and was beside the bed in a single leap, his adar’s wrist between his fingers.
‘He is warm.’
‘It cannot be, ellon.’ Voronwë closed his eyes. Surely fate could not be so cruel as to bring the lad to his parents’ deathbed a few short hours too late to bid them farewell?
‘He is warm and his pulse beats. Slowly, it is true. Slow like a tree, but it beats.’
The sailor blinked and stared at the two figures. Idril must have laid out her husband, he decided. Tuor’s body rested in formal state, every fold of his robe sculpted with loving hands, hair brushed and arranged, dressed and crowned in majesty as the king she had always felt him to be. She, on the other hand, lay like a child in a thunderstorm, curled round to gain the greatest comfort from the man beside her. She had positioned herself beside him and – goblet in hand? Voronwë paused and stepped closer. For what reason would there be a goblet on the bed, its trail of wine soaked into the cloth and staining it a deeper red?
‘She took poison,’ he breathed. ‘Rather than be left alone here, she chose to follow Tuor.’
‘Not poison,’ Eärendil insisted. ‘They are not dead. Feel.’
Delicately, as if he was afraid that his touch would bruise her, Voronwë placed his hand on Idril’s where it clasped Tuor. Her fingers were soft and supple, the skin silken. He slid his hand to her wrist. The lad was right. There was a pulse there: slow, but as steady as the rhythm of Arda itself. Tuor, too, lived – and, he thought, looking at the man who had chosen to attempt the impossible as he felt death approaching, he looked far more like the warrior who had fought free of Gondolin than the age-worn leader of recent years.
‘Do we attempt to wake them?’ he asked.
‘Do you think we could succeed?’ Eärendil looked up to glance at him swiftly before returning his gaze to his parents.
‘This island is redolent of enchantments.’ Voronwë shook his head. ‘I do not believe that they will awake until the Valar blow away the mists of confusion that surround us.’
‘I also think,’ the Mariner said softly, ‘that to eat or drink anything that comes from this land would be a mistake.’
‘Perhaps.’ The sailor inspected his captain. ‘What shall we do here?’
Eärendil continued to stare at the couple as if absorbing their peaceful appearance to store against his continuing sorrow. ‘Nothing. What can we do? Idril has seen to it that Tuor is resting as he deserves – and I would not take from her the comfort of holding him by laying her out as the queen she is. We will leave them here to await whatever judgment the Valar choose, in the knowledge that they have not been divided – yet. Tuor may, in the end, travel a path that she cannot, but here and now they are together.’
‘And so we left them,’ Eärendil said softly. ‘Sleeping in a Tower of Pearl.’ He smiled wryly. ‘It sounds romantic,’ he added. ‘So many of these tales do, when it is not you who is living through them.’
‘I am glad,’ his son told him, ‘that the Valar gave themselves time to think of a solution.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘I would not tell them, but I am of the opinion that they ended up feeling that they had been rather hasty in their decision over Beren and Lúthien – and, perhaps, felt the need to compensate for that.’
Elwing tilted her head as she considered his words. ‘Yet it is Eru who granted immortality to the Firstborn and offered the Gift to men. The Valar cannot change that.’
‘As they cannot grant immortality to men, neither can they take it away from the Firstborn,’ Elrond pointed out. ‘Yet Lúthien followed Beren where no elf can go. I believe that Tuor was gifted with the fate of the Firstborn to – restore the balance.’
A blackbird sang on the branch above them as they considered his theory and Elrond leaned back to watch its orange beak open and close as it offered them its rippling melody.
‘I always felt,’ Celebrían admitted, ‘that Lúthien was able to free herself of an elf’s bond to Arda because she was half-Maia. Melian chose to wear an elven body and dwell with Elu – but it was by decision rather than compulsion. Lúthien was an elf, but I always wondered if, when Beren died, she found that she was less bound to this world than she had thought.’
Elrond looked at his wife. ‘I have never heard you say that before,’ he wondered. ‘You may be right. It could be why their line was, in the end, given the choice of which kindred should be theirs. There are, after all, other houses in Arda where the blood of men and elves was shared – yet the offspring were always numbered among the Secondborn and the elven parent was divided from them.’
Eärendil looked from one to the other and shrugged. ‘I have never really felt the need to know why everything happens,’ he said, smiling engagingly. ‘I am but a simple sailor. It was enough to know that my parents had not drowned in some Ossë-stirred storm, but rested safe against the coming of the Lords of the Valar.’ He sighed. ‘But we could not feel that it would be wise to linger. We returned to Vingilot and set sail without pausing to take on water or seek food. We were too afraid that the any gifts of the island might provide us, too, with an enchanted sleep. And then. . .’
He looked towards Elwing. ‘I was seized with an uncontrollable terror that nothing could assuage,’ he said softly. ‘There we were, in the midst of the wide sea among isles of mystery – as far from home as I had ever been – and I knew that my family had been betrayed, that they were facing dangers far greater than those we had known. We raised the sails and headed east – hopelessly – knowing that, even should we ever make it out of the Shadowy Seas, whatever had happened would have been long past before ever we would sight familiar shores.
‘A light gleamed from the east,’ he recited, his voice soft and emotionless. ‘And, out of the grey, came a bird, flying fast, with the desperation of one pursued. Its white wings shone with the light of what it carried and its cry was enough to rip your heart out. It flew straight for us, coming to land on the deck as if it had been sent.’ He stopped, pausing to draw a deep breath. ‘Which, indeed, it had.’ He raised his head to meet Elrond’s eyes. ‘You heard what Elwing said. Light flowed around the bird – it shimmered and twisted and then, suddenly, it was no albatross lying exhausted before us, but Elwing, her eyes desperate and haunted, and, at her throat, the Silmaril.’
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