They were in Valmar, that dreadful place with the bejewelled, golden houses, when it happened. It was the week of the harvest festival and tradition dictated that they went up into Valinor proper to stay in a tented village and pay their respects to the Valar in their city. Everyone called Valmar a city, but really it was just a very expensive village in the eyes of Idril, Turgon’s daughter, who had lived in a true city, one which had even dwarfed Tirion, upon which it had been modelled.
Idril would have preferred to be with the Queen, her aunt Eärwen, but was forced instead to share a flimsy shelter with her grandmother Anairë, a straitlaced and not always empathetic woman who could not conceive of a life beyond the hallowed lands of Aman and regularly told Idril how grateful she should be to find herself home at last. Tuor, when she complained, told her to ignore it, but that was all well and good for him as he usually found an excuse to miss these social occasions - ship repairs, an arranged voyage, building work, anything, nothing. He made people nervous, so no one argued; an elf who had been born mortal was confusing in this small, isolated world. Idril knew all about isolated worlds so she tried not to let their attitude bother her: Tuor just laughed.
Halfway through the festival the air changed, tingling with a strange energy, and the whispers started. There had been some kind of an - event - back in Tirion. Messengers had come through the pass, were even now on their way to the First among the Powers. Rumour was rife and spread like wildfire as the inhabitants of a changeless land tried to imagine something so significant it might disrupt an event as important as the harvest festival. Court ladies twittered like birds over the mystery: it was all very exciting. Idril alone felt a chill of foreboding. She had grown up in lands where the sudden or unexpected were seldom good, and her husband was alone in their home by the sea further north and her first thought was for his safety.
When the page came to tell her that the High Queen, her great-grandmother Indis, wished to see her, she dropped the flowers she had been working into a garland - tedious work, but all the ladies were expected to do it - and almost outran him to the queen’s tent, a many-roomed pavilion of pastel silks. Indis was seated in the middle of the reception area on an ornate chair, her hands in her lap, and a semi-circle of ladies behind her. This then was to be a formal audience, Idril realised as she dropped into the required curtsy, ignoring the drag of her heavy skirts as she rose.
Indis, golden hair gleaming under a sparkling crown, golden lashes lowered, looked down at her. “Grave times are upon us, my child,” she said. Idril had noticed before that she had a tendency towards drama, though having lived through the Darkening, a husband’s death, the loss of a son and grandchildren, she supposed the woman was entitled.
“Highness, is there some way I can help? What is this news everyone is waiting to hear?”
The ladies standing behind the queen looked disapproving. Etiquette required that Idril should wait demurely to be told, not demand information. Indis looked a little put out too. “A ship lies at anchor in the Bay of Eldamar,” she said, her tone almost accusatory.
The words made no sense. Idril frowned, trying to see what this could mean and how it concerned her. Had Tuor done something odd? But no, he was pretending to work on the plans for the house extension, his excuse for not being here. Ships came down the coast from the fishing villages all the time and docked at Alqualondé or the harbour that served Tirion. They came from Tol Eressëa too. All were common events. “Ship?” she asked.
And then she knew. Even as Indis opened her mouth to speak, she knew.
“Your son has broken the Ban, he and his wife have sailed West and set foot upon the Undying Lands. I cannot see where this will lead. Surely the same transgression will not be forgiven again.”
“But it’s ridiculous, why can we not see them?” Idril had been pacing the room since Tuor arrived, fetched by Eönwë personally in some manner he was reluctant to try and describe. Idril could only assume it was unpleasant and a bit frightening. They had been given rooms in one of the houses, a small place belonging to one of Yavanna’s servants who had been asked - told - to vacate his home until the excitement was over. The festival still went on, but given the circumstances Idril had been excused.
“You know as much as I do. He asked to address the Lords of the West and until that’s done and they’ve debated what he has to say, no one can speak with him.” Tuor’s voice remained firm and definite but his face was troubled. The crinkly lines at the corners of his eyes that she loved so much were deeper set, as were the furrows across his forehead.
“It makes no sense,” Idril threw at him, her voice rising, frustrated past patience. “We asked to be allowed to do that, to beg for help against Morgoth, and look what happened there?” The nice thing about marriage, she always thought, was it gave you someone to yell at who understood why you were upset and seldom - though not never - yelled back.
Tuor shrugged and that irresistible smile tugged at his lips. ”We got sent off with a flea in our ear and told we should be grateful to be alive. Which we wouldn’t be if you weren’t Finwë’s great-granddaughter, royal and with family to speak for you, and if Ulmo hadn’t taken a liking to me and convinced them I was essentially harmless.”
“And you were accepted as one of us,” Idril said. “Otherwise they’d have had to kill you, that’s what my uncle told me.” Arafinwë always had a strange sense of humour and it had hardly been a comforting welcome. She wondered sometimes if he resented that it had been she who returned, not one of his own lost children. She tried not to keep harking back to what had happened after their arrival, when she had been sure they were going to die, but it tied too closely to her current fears for Eärendil, for both those children with their share of mortal blood.
Tuor smiled and shook his head. “It could have been worse, yes. I’m still not sure what you were thinking when you came with me. I just wanted one more grand adventure before my time came.”
“And I wanted to share it with you, as I had all the others,” Idril reminded him. “And we have fought this one to a standstill, we need to let it go. It still irks me though that we were not allowed to sue for aid - I am both royal and part Vanyar, for heaven’s sake.”
“Well we weren’t,” Tuor said, coming over and putting an arm round her to stop her from pacing. The warmth and strength were there, as always, and she leaned into them gratefully. “We had experience and maturity on our side yes, and your birth and Ulmo’s goodwill. But we did not have a Silmaril. And that is what makes this different. Eärendil came bearing our law daughter’s dower - in other words he has something they want.”
Idril’s head started to ache and she turned into Tuor’s embrace, her arms around his waist. “That is a terrible, terrible gamble,” she whispered. “He was always a boy for risks, but to play with gods… And Elwing, even Grandmother won’t tell me what’s happened to her, only that they came together and that Eärendil says he holds the Silmaril for her, and only she can dispose of it.”
“I insisted, but all Eönwë would say is that she’s safe and being cared for,” Tuor said, his hand rubbing her back. “She’s our responsibility, yes, but right now there’s nothing we can do. Just wait, along with everyone else. Our son is a man grown now, my heart. We need to trust him to know what he’s doing.”
“I really don’t know, it seems strange, that’s all I can say.”
Fáriel shook out her skirts and tidied the tumble of fashionable curls over her shoulder. “Well, he is direct kin to the High King, so if they’re allowed to remain, I don’t suppose he can be kept from a place at court. He has it by right, just as his mother does.”
“I wonder if they’re much alike, I find her quite intimidating,” Sartië confided. “They say she fought monsters - with a real sword too. And it was her own, not even her husband’s.”
“Oh honestly Sartië, you can’t believe everything you hear. The very thought. Aren’t swords heavy? How could she even lift one, she is far too short and slight, not at all like most of the House of Finwë.”
“Her mother was Vanyar, they tend to slender build. Like the High Queen.”
“That’s true, that’s true.” Fáriel sounded worried. “But that is hardly the point, is it? The point is, why are they here? They are not even like us. And if they are allowed to remain, would it be suitable for a young person born - over there - to be accepted at court? Would he even know how to conduct himself?”
“His father would have to teach him,” Sartië said dubiously. “I’ve seen him a few times, he’s always seemed quite presentable. He - he even looks like one of us.”
Fáriel found a few stray hairs and carefully tucked them in with the end of a hairpin. “Even so, things are different over there. I’m sure Turukáno did his best in that city - what was it called, Gondolin? But there is nothing to compare to being raised at court. And what about the wife?”
“The wife?” Sartië raised a hand to her lips. “Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of that. They say she’s a little...”
“Wild, yes. Caurien’s cousin married into one of the better families in Alqualondé, and she says the wife spent some time there, till they were brought back for the Judgment. She barely speaks Quenya, for a start, and has the strangest hair. And no concept of social order. And Caurien’s cousin says she seems distracted, almost child-like.”
“I heard that yes,” Sartië said. “But I also heard, from someone who knows one of the invited witnesses, that she chose to hand the Jewel to Lady Vairë when Lord Ulmo reached for it. She told him she would not put it in the hand of one who had tried to steal it from her, she would give it to the Lady rather.”
Fáriel gasped. “And yet I heard Lord Ulmo had spoken in their favour. The impertinence. Well, they will take that into account when they judge.”
“I’m sure they will,” Sartië said, shaking imaginary dust from the hem of her robe. “But be that as it may, we should hurry now, we are about to be late for Queen Earwen’s reception.”
“You are so good at estimating time,” Fáriel said admiringly, preparing to follow. “I must admit, since our Trees were so horribly decimated I never know quite where I am. The Amber Room, is it?”
Sartië reached out and took her arm. “The Amber Room, yes. Let us go in together.”
Idril, seated in an alcove almost completely concealed by spreading leaves and fragrant violet blooms, kept very still and listened to their quick departing footsteps. Her clenched fists ached, and when she looked down at them, turning her hands palm up, she saw her nails had dug deep enough to leave neat red crescents. Slowly, deliberately she flexed her fingers. No matter what she heard, she had to be strong and let it pass her by, just as she had somehow managed with all the gossip and speculation about Tuor.
Only once had her control failed her. She had interrupted one particularly salacious speculation about him by walking up to the ladies, smiling brightly, and telling them that yes, she was delighted to report the rumour about that particular aspect of mortal physiology was true. Every time after that when she felt the urge to smack something down hard on someone’s head, she remembered their faces and smiled.
But this was different. This was her son, her only child, her baby boy, because he would always be her baby boy, so fast-growing and beautiful and doomed by his mortal heritage. And yet, doom and all, he and the strange, fey girl he had taken to wife were here, unlooked for, with a bargaining token that might win them the prize she and Tuor had lacked the coin to barter for.
She rose slowly, straight-backed and smooth faced, and as the ladies had before her, patted her hair into place and tidied her skirts. She was Idril of Gondolin, the daughter and granddaughter and great-granddaughter of kings. They would never see her pain, nor doubt her strength. She was more than a match for those who could never understand, smug and safe in their shining home. She had looked death in the face, sword in hand, and not faltered. Nor would she now.
The house was perfect: not a cloth, not a cushion, not a flower petal out of place. Idril knew this was so because she had spent the morning going round and round, finding things to do. Never since she set foot back in the Undying Lands had time hung so heavily, moving like mud through the endless morning. Three or four times she heard what might have been the sounds of someone arriving, but each turned out to be an everyday matter - a couple of the house help talking, Tuor’s men bringing in the fresh catch.
She stood at the window with her hands on her hips, glaring at the blue water, and thought she had never realised how noisy their home could be. They were far out of the city here, because Tuor needed to be close to the Sea, and because they were not quite like other couples and made people who had seen nothing new or strange in their lives ill at ease. They went into Tirion for festivals and family celebrations and now and then just to walk the streets and look at the art and laugh and talk. There was always something they hadn’t seen before, a new discovery to talk about when they got back home. Not that they lacked things to talk about, they hadn’t really stopped since the day they met.
After an eternity she heard the signs that heralded the arrival of Tuor’s Eärramë – shouts and activity and running feet outside and sometimes, barely heard, the flap of sail. Her heart caught in her throat and she tried to steady her breathing so she would not overwhelm them with her excitement. Tuor had insisted on fetching Eärendil and Elwing from her great uncle Arafinwë’s palace himself and bringing them home while a house was built for them and whatever the Powers were doing with Vingilot went on apace. It would all be clearer now that Tuor had been to the city and had the details.
Truly, the only detail she cared about was that their son lived, that he had not died for his impiety, that the Mighty were taking council even now to decide their response to his plea on behalf of all the people of Beleriand. He lived, and so did Dior’s daughter, who had somehow - Idril had only the bones of the story - somehow carried their salvation into the west out of a night of terror.
She heard the door and hurried forward, recognising Tuor’s footsteps. He reached her before she was quite in the hallway that led to the deep porch at the front of the house and caught her elbows, holding her steady in front of him, making her stop. She looked up, alarmed, but she could see there was nothing to fear despite the intense look he gave her. Gondolin had been a world for speaking eyes and conversations without words; for them both it now came as naturally as breathing.
“What?” she asked and instinctively lowered her voice.
“Eärendil’s getting their belongings together, such as they have, and then he’ll bring Elwing inside. There are things you need to know first. You knew they had to choose between being numbered with the first or second born - they chose the path of your - our kindred. It was Elwing’s decision, though I’ve not asked her reasons. They’re both very tired, we can keep the questions for later.”
For a moment she stared at Tuor, barely able to take it in, just as she had before when Ulmo had won eternity for him. “…and now we won’t have to lose them,” she breathed. “Do you know how I always dreaded…”
“Hush, love, I know,” he said gently. “Just listen, this is important. When Elwing left Sirion, she was fleeing Maedhros and his brothers. She was alone, with no one to defend her, and - they had twin boys, and she could not protect them, she was forced to leave them behind for Fëanor’s sons. You remember what happened to her brothers? She was never very strong, the night her parents died marked her deeply, and this has left her devastated. She will need time.”
Idril’s chest tightened, and for a moment the world stopped still around her. She remembered the smell and weight and soft snuggling sounds of Eärendil as a baby, imagined his children, her grandchildren… And then she remembered Maedhros before they left Aman, when she was still very young, and again Maedhros after Fingon did the impossible and brought him back from that mountainside. She could see his eyes. The last time she had spoken with him, he had come to find her and under cover of music and laughter told her how very sorry he was about her mother, who he had always liked. Through it all, his eyes had not changed.
“He won’t hurt the children,” she told Tuor, with quiet certainty. “He never hurt the others, they say he was half out of his mind with the horror of it and searched for them for weeks. I will remind them of that when things are calmer.”
Tuor searched her face and then nodded and a little of the worry that he had carried into the room faded. “You’re right, as always,” he said and gave her a quick hug. “Somehow you just know things. But not yet, all right? Give them time to grieve, because no matter what happened to our grandchildren, they cannot go back, they can never leave here again – those children are lost to them, to us all, forever.”
“Perhaps,” Idril said, “But they still live, of that I am sure.” She knew it in her bones, the way she had known the tunnel out of Gondolin was necessary, the way she had known if Aredhel left the city, it would cost her her life.
They went out onto the porch hand in hand and waited. The sky was clear, that light grey-blue that hurt the eyes out at sea. Eärramë was moored in her usual place, and coming up the path to the house walked two figures Idril had never thought to see again.
Elwing looked drawn, deathly pale. Her hair lifted and flew about with a life of its own as it always had, but there was less shine to it and her eyes were huge in her beautiful face. She was thinner than Idril recalled too. Eärendil walked beside her, his arm protective around her shoulders, supporting her. He had not changed: the same blue eyes, golden hair, sun browned skin, exactly as she had seen him every day in waking dreams.
They stopped, looked first at each other and then at her, and Eärendil said softly, “Mother?”
Idril walked to the top step of the porch and looked down at them. Then she held out her arms and smiled. “Welcome home, my brave, beautiful children,” she said, and it was the first time she had seen Elwing also as truly her own. “Come in and rest. It is all confusion and sadness now, I know, but time brings answers and healing, and time we have in abundance here. You’ll see - it will all be all right in the end.”