He turned the horses loose when they reached Lisgardh, not wanting to risk accident or injury amidst the endless stretch of reeds. They were intelligent enough to know the way home, or at least he hoped. Somehow, Elrond imagined Maglor and Maedhros might be more forgiving if they found their steeds returned to them all in one piece.
“Give them our regards, won’t you?” he murmured, and gave his own horse a reassuring pat on the neck before spurring them both back north. Elros came up beside him, face pale.
"You're facing the wrong direction, brother."
Elrond turned to stare out at the spread of rushes and the sight of the ruins in the distance. The nervous energy that had sped their last two days of travel had all but evaporated, replaced with exhaustion and a deep-seated dread of what awaited them in the lands beyond.
“I’m starting to think you were right after all," Elrond said. "About this being a bad idea.”
Elros raised his eyebrows. "Changing your mind?"
Elrond shook his head.
"Come on," he said, and they picked their way through the reeds.
There were rumors that Círdan’s people had resettled in the Havens, and it had been those whisperings that had finally convinced Elros that this whole journey was worthwhile in the first place. But there was no one around for miles, and they could only see the crumbling remains of a town that had once sheltered those who had nowhere else to go.
“Do you remember any of this?” Elros asked. Elrond didn’t answer. None of the ruined buildings rose higher than a few feet, and he could still see thin traces of ash that remained, the remnants of their final night there. Even if he had remembered more details of the haven where he had been born, he doubted he would be able to distinguish one crumbling structure from another. He ran a hand gently along the wall, and a stray piece of shell broke off between his fingers.
“This hasn’t been touched in…no one’s been here, Elros,” he said, his throat dry. “No one’s been here since it happened.”
“Elrond.” He turned, and Elros gestured to where the marshland ended in sharp rock and sloped upward into a cliff that jutted out into the sea. Elrond nodded, heart hammering, and followed his brother as they made their way to the top of the cliff.
Elros looked out toward the horizon, his face set, but Elrond could not help but look down to where the sea met the rocks, the waves crashing angrily against the shore with a relentlessness that allowed for no second chances.
They would never get the full truth of what happened in Sirion, nothing beyond their own fear-soaked memories of flames and the screams of the dying. They had looked back only long enough to see Elwing running to the cliff, but they would never know if she had perished in the sea as so many had thought, or if she had somehow escaped, with no knowledge of her sons' survival.
Worse still, Elrond could not say with certainty which possibility he wished for more.
It was nearly nightfall when they finally turned away, and Elros risked lighting a torch as they made their way back through the marshland.
“We should have just left the horses at the edge of Lisgardh,” Elros grumbled as he stepped in another puddle. “They would have waited for us.”
Elrond rolled his eyes. “I’m glad you have faith in them, at least. Neither one seemed too happy about—“
He stopped short and held a hand out, and Elros halted behind him, suddenly silent. He strained his ears for any noise, and tilted his head just slightly to the side. Elros gave a small nod, and placed his hand on his sword.
“Show yourself!” Elrond finally shouted. He heard a sharp laugh behind them, and turned just in time to see a dark-haired Elf emerge from the reeds. He was armed with a knife and spear, but the knife was sheathed at his side, and he slowly lowered his spear to the ground as he stared at Elrond and Elros in awe.
“I heard a report from the scouts that twin ghosts of Eärendil had been seen wandering the havens of Sirion,” the Elf said. “For once, it seems, the rumors might be true.”
Elrond and Elros glanced at each other. Neither of them had counted on being recognized in this part of the world.
“And who are you, who can discern rumor from fact?” Elros asked.
“One who knew your father of old, and would recognize his sons anywhere.” He bowed low. “Ereinion Gil-Galad of the house of Finwë, at your service.”
They followed Gil-Galad back to his encampment, a small clearing amidst the reeds, where a small party of warriors awaited him.
“You will forgive me, but when my men claimed to have seen you, I thought they had gone completely mad,” Gil-Galad said. “None of us ever thought—well, there were no survivors, when we finally reached Sirion. We had counted you among the dead, and then we heard the rumors that Maglor…”
He trailed off, and the silence hung heavy over the campfire.
“Might I ask what finally prompted them to let you go?” Gil-Galad’s voice was carefully measured. “Or did you leave of your own accord?”
Elros stirred beside him, but Elrond jumped in before his brother had a chance to speak. “We thought it was time to make our own way. There was little left for us in Ossiriand.”
Gil-Galad nodded in understanding. “Well, you are both most welcome here, if a home is what you seek. Círdan will be delighted to hear you are both alive and well—I do not think he believed he would ever see the sons of Eärendil again in this part of the world.”
“With respect, sir, we did not entirely expect to find ourselves here,” Elrond said carefully.
“Come now,” Gil-Galad said with a trace of impatience. “You did not return to Sirion by chance. Surely there is something you hope to accomplish?”
Elrond struggled to hold his piercing gaze. He could not put a name to the force that had finally driven them to leave Ossiriand and return to this wasted land. Closure? Traces of an old life they barely remembered? The hope, however unlikely, they they might discover a way to find their parents? Even now, he could not say with certainty what it was they sought.
It was Elros who finally spoke. “My lord, we wish to learn how to sail a ship.”
“Ah,” Gil-Galad smiled. “Well, Círdan will hardly deny you that.”
Elros had taken to sailing like a bird to flight, but Elrond found himself struggling to master the basic mechanics of the ship. He had not capsized anything, but he could not steer for the life of him, and navigation proved to be an even trickier challenge still.
“Think of it as a battle,” Elros had suggested one night, as they lay staring up at the stars. “The elements at you from all sides, fully aware of your surroundings, plotting strategy…”
“Except the only enemy is Ulmo himself,” Elrond shook his head. “And I do not believe that is how we are supposed to think of him.”
No matter. Swordcraft had not come naturally to him, but he had practiced for hours on end, day after day, until he could hold his own against his opponents. And he would do the same here.
He awoke early one morning, careful not to wake Elros, and wandered down to the harbor, the gulls crying out a mournful tune as he passed. It would be a good day to sail: there was a fair wind, and the sky was clear save for a few lingering clouds. He paused once he reached the docks and stared out at the ships that dotted the harbor. The scent of the air stirred up the oddest bits of nostalgia in him, of learning to swim in the sea, of racing Elros along the shore as his mother trailed after them. They were memories Elrond typically did not trust himself to confront, but for the first time in his life he found himself able to look back at his childhood with only the faintest of grief.
“The sea washes away all hurts, in time,” a refugee from Gondolin had said to him once. He did not know if he believed her, but he could not deny that an odd sort of peace had settled over him ever since he arrived here. A peace that did not exist in Beleriand, outside of Círdan’s harbors.
“You picked a good day for it,” a voice said behind him. “But are you really sure you should go alone?”
He let out a strangled yell and jumped at the sound, turning to find his brother perched on a barrel at the edge of the dock, tossing an apple back and forth between each hand.
“Morgoth’s bones, Elros,” he gasped, chest heaving. “You’re going to kill me, one of these days.”
Elros grinned and jumped off of the barrel. “You’re too stubborn to ever be killed, brother. Though I thought the days where I could sneak up on you like that were long gone.”
“I wasn’t expecting company,” Elrond grumbled, but there was no true malice behind the words.“I thought you were going hunting with Gil-Galad today.”
Elros shrugged. “Gil-Galad can wait. He still doesn’t know what to make of us, you know.”
“What, long-lost distant cousins?” Or children raised by kinslayers?
If Elros guessed at his second, unasked question, he gave no indication of it. “Something like that. Were you looking to find relatives, when you came here?”
“Looking, perhaps. But I wasn’t expecting to find them."
“Well, there will be plenty of other chances for us to get to know each other, and I would rather spend the day at sea. You’re the captain, though—I know you want the practice.”
The harbormaster raised her eyebrows when they asked for leave to take one of the smaller ships out, but led them to the dock with no objection.
“Performance anxiety?” she asked, and Elrond nearly laughed aloud when she tossed the rope back to him.
“Is it that obvious?”
She gave him a knowing smile. “It happens to the best of us. My lord Círdan does not always realize how impressive he appears to outsiders.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it. Círdan had been kind to them, and was more far patient an instructor than Maedhros had ever been, but the shipwright’s keen gaze always made him nervous aboard the ship. He seemed to recognize Elrond’s mistakes almost before they happened, and he hated to appear lacking before Eärendil’s teacher. Better that he practice his skills on his own, so that one day he might be counted a mariner in his own right.
He owed that much to his father, at least.
They worked together in silence to clear the harbor, Elros busying himself with adjusting the sails of the ship while Elrond plotted their course. He had not yet sailed more than a mile or two off the harbor, and the more reckless part of him wanted to try his hand at the open water, as far west as he could for one day.
Besides, if he managed to get them lost, Elros could easily turn them back around.
“What sort of king would you want to be, Elrond?” Elros asked, almost lazily, eyes shaded against the glare of the sun.
Elrond frowned in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“What sort of king would you want to be?” he repeated. “Gil-Galad and I were talking about it yesterday…we have so many examples to choose from, after all.”
“Why do you want to know? It’s not like either of us are ever going to become one.”
Elros glanced at him. "We will both rule, someday. Of that I have no doubt."
Elrond shook his head. Elros never tried to hide the odd bits of foresight that struck him, and he had the brash confidence that Elrond had always associated with the few groups of Edain they encountered growing up.
In any event, he harbored serious doubts that there would be anything left to rule, before Morgoth was done with Beleriand.
“All right, don’t think of it as kingship,” Elros waved his hand impatiently. “Think of it as—what sort of leader would you want to be. If you had to go to war, and found yourself in command.”
Elrond fell silent once more and thought back to the skirmishes of his youth, where he had drawn his first blood against Orcs and other beasts that stalked the ruins of Beleriand.
“I wouldn’t want to look back to those who have come before,” Elrond said at last. “None of the kings were ever very successful, were they? I would want to make my own way.”
“You would look to none?” Elros asked in surprise. “You, the lover of lore and history? What about what Maglor would always tell us in his lessons, how did he put it…’those who do not learn the mistakes of the past…’”
“‘…are bound to repeat it,’” Elrond finished the old adage.
Elros smiled. “It’s the only thing I ever took away from his teachings.”
“Well, Maglor hardly learned his own lesson, did he?” Elrond’s tone was light, but he gripped the rigging tightly beside him. Conversations with Elros about their upbringing rarely ended well. “Neither of them did.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Elros offered. “From everything they’ve told us, it sounds as if the Oath isn’t exactly something you can just set aside…”
“When did you suddenly become their great defender?” Elrond snapped, and strode to the other side of the boat. His temper, kept at bay for so long, finally threatened to get the better of him.
“Are we really going to do this again, Elrond?” his brother called after him. “It’s done. There’s little left for us to do but accept things for what they were.”
He swung back around to face Elros.
“How can you?” he asked in fury. “Weren’t you the one always trying to run off, when we were children? Who rebelled every chance you got? How can you look back now and only remember the good times?”
“We stayed, didn’t we?” Elros retorted. “We could have left years ago, and survived just fine on our own. But we stayed, because we knew we meant something more to them than hostages from a war they never wished to enter.”
“You’ve been to the ruins, same as I have, you’ve seen what they did! It’s for Mandos to judge their motivations, but the body count is still the same…against our people, Elros! Our family, our mother…” his voice broke.
Elros looked at him, and Elrond saw his own pain reflected back in his brother’s eyes. “Could you have lived in that tent without forgiving them? When they were the only ones left to care for us? For twenty years, could you have done it?”
Elrond sighed, and turned to stare out at the western horizon. The sea was calm, deceptive in its bliss, but he could see the storm clouds that had begun to form on the horizon.
"No," he said at last. "I just wish that forgiveness hadn't been the only option."
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“You ought to turn the ship around,” Elros’ voice was soft behind him. “Neither of us have the skill to survive such weather. Not yet.”
The storm broke soon after they returned to the harbor, and continued on well into the night. The usual evening revelry that took place in Círdan’s courtyard was brought indoors, though the change of scenery did nothing to dampen the spirits of the Eldar. A young archer, one of Gil-Galad’s men, rose and began a ballad of a mariner who had faced all matter of fantastical beasts during his travels.
So now he must depart again
and start again his gondola,
for ever still a messenger,
a passenger, a tarrier,
a-roving as a feather does,
a weather-driven mariner.
Elrond glanced briefly at Cirdan, who was watching the singer with a slight frown, and wondered if the song was meant to be about anyone in particular—he could not help but picture his father’s face at the words, but there was certainly no shortage of adventurers in Balar. Elros drummed his fingers impatiently on the table, and rose to slip outside the main hall.
Elrond shook his head, and turned his attention back to the young man’s performance. But as the ballad ended and Círdan himself began a new song, he found his attention wandering in spite of himself, and he slipped out quietly to find his brother.
Círdan’s main hall was on the second floor of the house, and the doors opened out to a wide balcony that seemed to stretch to meet the sea itself. The rain had stopped, and he saw Elros standing at the edge of the balcony, looking out at the water beyond. The sounds of the evening’s entertainment faded, and Elrond could hear the distant crash of waves against the shore.
“You ought to come back in,” Elrond offered. “Círdan’s singing about Mewlips now.”
“What on earth is a Mewlip?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea. You should come inside, and find out.”
Elros gave a rueful smile, but didn’t move from his spot near the edge of the balcony. Elrond came up beside him and leaned against the railing.
“I didn’t mean to quarrel, earlier. And I don’t think you’re wrong. It’s just…being here, with people who knew them, glimpses of…”
“…the life we could have had. I know,” Elros finished. “It’s hard to avoid it.”
The clouds had finally begun to disperse, and Elrond looked up as the moon shone down upon the water, the stars only just visible through the fading mist.
“Have you ever thought about going after him, Elrond?” Elros asked. “Finding out if he ever made it?”
Elrond barely remembered the day his father sailed for the last time, beyond Eärendil’s final embrace and a small ship fading into the sunset. More clear in his mind was the storm that arose two days later, how they had remained shut up in their home with his mother looking out the window every hour, worry barely masked. It was said that his grandfather had the favor of the great sea god, and some days that knowledge was the only thing that kept Elrond from believing that Eärendil had perished that night, that the Vingilot had never been meant for anything other than a fool’s errand.
“I suppose we might as well stop trying to pretend we came here for any other reason. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t wonder…
Elros nodded. “And what do we have left, here, anyway? Would we be leaving anything behind, if we went after him?”
Elrond sighed. “Duty, I suppose.”
“Duty? To what?"
“We’re the last living descendants of Turgon,” Elrond shrugged. “Thingol, too. There are plenty of Edain who would have followed our grandfather to war in a heartbeat, and you know it. And…I don’t know, something you said earlier…”
He trailed off, not certain he trusted his own muddled thoughts, and Elros looked back at him.
“All the great leaders of this age are gone,” Elrond finished. “If we’re to survive, we need new ones.”
Elros nodded slowly. “On the ship, you said you would want to make your own way, if you were king. I suppose neither of us can do that if we’re off chasing ghosts.”
“No,” Elrond sighed, “I suppose not. But I haven’t the slightest idea of how to make my own way, either.”
“Well, we can figure it out together, at least,” Elros smiled. “I’d like to think we’ve gotten good at that sort of thing, over the years.”
Elrond gave a weak laugh. He had never stopped hoping for his parents’ return, even after all this time, and he knew Elros hadn’t either. Without that hope driving him, he didn’t know what direction life would take them, and in some ways the prospect left him feeling even more lost than he had before Balar.
But to move forward, he would need to let them go.