It was raining when Erestor left the British Museum. He had spent the morning enjoying the Egypt Underwater display of antiquities discovered beneath the sea off Alexandria and having a bit of private fun seeing how many things he could spot that he recognised – actual memories rather than pictures from books that looked a bit like things he recalled from the distant past. Mind, Alexandria wasn't that long ago as time was measured. He and Glory had lived in various parts of Egypt; Alexandria had been one of the later ones.
He took the tube to Chelsea, a very nice area where he currently lived in the world's smallest one bedroomed, ground floor flat, an extravagance but it was near the water, which suited Erestor. He loved the river. When he let himself in he was trying to remember what they'd been doing the last time they'd lived in Alexandria and almost failed to notice the envelope on the mat. When he saw it he froze in the act of putting the keys on the little side table under the coat rack.
It lay on the rich brown mat and stared up at him, all clean, stark white except for the old fashioned seal on the back, which was the part facing upwards. Even without bending down to pick it up, he knew that seal, could still read the glyphs easily – he had sealed enough formal letters with something similar long years ago in a different time and a place long since lost, even to legend. Carefully, as though it might bite, he picked it up. Solid black letters looked back at him, with his current name and the address set out in a tidy, slanting hand. Written by a professional, suggested the little voice in his head, the one that always had to get in on the act and analyse things.
He slit the letter open very carefully, not wanting to damage the pristine envelope or what might be inside. The contents proved to be a single sheet of heavy paper, rich cream in colour, with three neat lines in the same hand as on the envelope. There was no signature, but then there was no need of one.
Finally pulling himself together, Erestor checked he had in fact remembered to double latch the door, took the note and went towards the kitchen. Half way there he changed his mind and veered off into the small living room instead where he poured himself a double tot of the first thing he got his hand to on the drinks trolley, which happened to be Gil’s very good Scotch. Taking the glass through to the kitchen he dropped two blocks of ice in it, a pretence at being civilised despite drinking at 2 in the afternoon, then sat down at the counter and took out his phone.
"But how could you not know?" Erestor was frustrated, not sure he was being told the truth, and after downing half the whisky wasn't fussed with being diplomatic.
Across the Atlantic, Gil-galad's voice was clipped and firm, the way it sounded when he was trying not to lose his temper. "I don't know how I could not know. Maybe because I'm not psychic? They don't tell me everything either, you know that. I've complained about it often enough."
"Yes, but something this big?"
"Ery, if I knew I'd have told you, or at least hinted at it. How stupid do you think I am anyhow? No one told me. Maybe they thought I understood what 'one of these days' meant, which is what I last heard. Are you sure you got the date right?"
"Are you suggesting I can't read?" Erestor folded the note open on the kitchen counter and glared at it.
*Kindly present yourself at the collection point for the New Haven on or before November the 12th of this year, 2017.
Allowed luggage will be confined to one bag only. No food, seeds, pets, or electronics.
Financial compensation will only be discussed upon presentation of six months certified bank statements or share certificates. *
The line was silent. Finally, Gil said, "You can't take your phone? How will you live?"
"Oh shut up, that's ridiculous. Well your Kindle will be staying behind too."
"Not when they find out how many books I need to take along."
"One bag only, remember."
"Not for me, trust me on this." Gil paused, thinking. "Why is it you have an invitation and I've heard nothing?"
"I don't know, Gil. Maybe they don't take investment bankers. Maybe they have too many former kings already. Maybe they’re included in there with seeds and food."
"You need to calm down."
"How can I calm down? We have to sail West. Now. Not sometime in the distant future. They're shutting it down and making us leave."
"Babes, you knew this was going to happen someday." Gil was trying, Erestor had to give him that, though he was probably more focused on who he would phone and demand answers from as soon as they finished talking.
"But not now!" He pulled his voice back down hastily. It sounded shrill. At some point he had finished the whisky without realising it. He went back into the living room and fetched the bottle.
"What’s the difference? Now, five years from now..."
"How about a hundred years from now? I'm - I'm not ready for this. I have a whole life here."
"Ery, in case you haven't noticed, so have I. Wrapping it all up and walking away wasn't front of mind for me either. And I need to get off the phone now and find out where my letter is. Why didn't it come with yours?"
"Because you're not here." Erestor was investigating the freezer for ice cream. "You're in bloody New York. And you won't be wrapping up your career, by the way."
On the other side of the Atlantic, Gil-galad frowned - he could hear it. "I won't?"
"No. Nothing that tidy. You'll just leave work on the evening of the 11th and plain not come back. Or more like the 8th - we still have to get there."
Gil was quiet for so long that Erestor thought they'd been cut off. Then he said, "Yes, of course. There’s not enough warning for anyone to extricate themselves naturally. That's pretty stupid. A whole bunch of people around the world suddenly vanish...."
"It won't matter," Erestor said. "We'll be gone. It won't matter what they think. I'd put money on a wide spread alien abduction theory, which is pretty funny because when you think about it, we're really the aliens."
"Aliens aren't fashionable these days. More like some grand conspiracy, creation of a worker force in some secret Illuminati city."
"They have cities?"
Erestor drank deeply, stared at the glass. Apropos of nothing, a picture came into his mind, another time and place, a lot of whisky, another voice. "Gil?"
"I need to get off the phone. I'll call you later. Love you... What?"
The half-formed thought slid out of his mind, overtaken by very present irritation. "I hate those faceless bureaucrats on the other side of the Sea, even if they’re supposed to have our best interests at heart. According to you anyhow. I’ve never been so sure of that."
Gil-galad snorted. “I only say that when they come with some dumb suggestion that hits your buttons. You’re interesting when you’re all fired up. Right now, they’re not my favourite people in the world either – and it doesn't help that the odds are good I’m related to more than one of those faceless decision-makers.”
“It’s ridiculous. Who will take my classes?”
To say Elrond was displeased would be an understatement. Erestor, on the grass in St James Park, threw a bread crust in the general direction of some ducks and leaned back against the tree. The weather was humid but cloudy, which meant it was warm without every square inch of space on the grass being overtaken. He had come down to have his lunch and watch the tourists and was already thinking of heading back when his phone went.
“Not sure who will do a lot of things,” he said. “You have to look at it like dropping dead, Gil says. People will just have to cope once they get over the shock.”
“Thank you, that’s cheerful.”
“Oh, we’re really into gallows humour right now. He won’t have time to close a deal he’s been working on for months, I’m in rehearsal for a production I’ll never see… it would have been nice if they’d asked us to vote on a date or something.”
“But why? I don’t understand.” Elrond was in Germany, teaching some New Age stuff about acupuncture and energy flow. He could as easily have taught conventional medicine but said it was too much trouble to get the fake papers and backstory together that he would need. Erestor understood that from long and sometimes bitter experience.
“I was talking to Gildor last night. He thinks the political situation with terrorism rampant and economies falling apart has finally spooked them. Rather get us all back now than risk losing some of us to an airport attack or a hand-launched nuclear device.”
“I’ll take my chances, thank you very much. I haven’t needed a nursemaid for a very long time.”
“Don’t fight with me.” Erestor let the ducks have more bread. A nearby couple exclaimed about how cute they were and began snapping pictures. He successfully fought down the urge to ask if there were no ducks back where they came from. “I’m no happier than you are, but we haven’t a choice. Once they close the Straight Way, anyone left here will have no means of getting home.”
“Well is that such a bad thing?” He heard the click and flare of a lighter as Elrond lit a cigarette. “Think about it. We weren’t born there, it’s a completely strange place, why would we want to give up everything we know to go and live there?”
“Um, your parents are there? Don’t you want to see them again?”
He knew he’d made a mistake as he said it. Elrond seldom talked about his parents and most of it was less than glowing.
“I was five years old when we were – separated. I hardly remember them. And it’s been so long, I doubt they remember much about me either. The most I feel there is curiosity. I remember my grandmother better than my mother, and my father barely at all – he was never home.”
“All right, calm down. All I meant was there’ll be people over there for most of us – you have Bri, and you’ve said you can sense that Elrohir’s already out of the Halls. We all have family or friends who left a long time ago, one way or another.”
Elrond huffed and subsided. “I wonder if they even have indoor plumbing.”
Erestor considered this in horror then shook his head. “Don’t be silly, if they didn’t your mother-in-law would refuse to leave, and according to Gil her big concern is getting her finances transferred.”
“And that’s another thing. I’m not sure I trust them with that. Comparative values, I was told. We have no way of judging; they’ll be sure and cheat us.”
“I think Gil understands how it works, he even tried to explain once but it was too much for me after a long day. Talk to him.”
“I suppose I’ll have to. Him or Galadriel, and of the two I’d rather go to him. No wish to let her know what I’m worth.”
“No, I can understand that.” He plucked at grass, trying to find the right way to ask the next question. “Dan all right with it?”
Elladan could be unpredictable, even more so without his brother to anchor him. “Oh, he’s off having one last party. I don’t expect to see him before we all meet up. He’ll go, of course. I know he always swore he wouldn’t, but I never took it seriously. His mother and brother are there.”
Erestor suspected Elrond was so used to not being obviously married that after all these centuries Celebrían was more dream than reality to him. They knew that she was alive but no one could confirm in what state that aliveness had left her. There were only two ways of dealing with that: fret or tune it out. “I think they have most of us nailed down that way,” he acknowledged. “People we belong with.”
“Gil eager to get over there, is he?” Elrond’s tone was sardonic.
“Oh, hell, you know he isn’t, and he’s furious because I was notified before him. I said I thought it was to do with how long people had been here and he was only re-embodied and allowed to come back quite recently.”
“Did it wash?” Elrond asked in his ‘polite’ voice.
Erestor laughed briefly. “Not a lot, but he’s in New York so I didn’t have to hear too much about it. Someone had a very nasty earful from him though.”
“I suppose the test would be who do we know who found out first? If we’re going length of time over here, that would be Gildor or Galadriel, right?”
He thought about it. “Pretty much, yes, and Gildor knew for weeks already, just assumed Gil would have been told, High King in the East and all, so he didn’t contact me. I’m hardly going to ask Galadriel.”
“Get Gil to, she’s his aunt. Or is he still scared of her after all this time?”
“Don’t be mean, El.” He instinctively turned his head away as someone started photographing the ducks, with him in the frame. The world had grown small, the odds of showing up in someone’s old family photograph was one of his personal horrors – from experience he knew there was a limit to how convincing ‘Oh, that’s my great-uncle” could be made to sound.
“I still would though, if I knew where he was.”
Elrond paused. “Doesn’t he usually keep in touch? You’re the one I always assume can track him down if he’s needed.”
Erestor frowned. “Yes, of course. I mean, we don’t share our every move, but there’s always a trail to follow. Anyhow I’m sure that wherever he is, they’ve let him know. They never seem to have much trouble finding any of us.”
The powers that kept the Straight Way open and stayed in touch with the elves still in Middle-earth were assumed to have a number of agents, elves sent back for this purpose, whose job it was to keep track of the thousands still scattered across the world and help when they were at last ready to sail or got in enough trouble that they had to be extricated in a hurry. They were called Angels with a certain degree of cynicism. On principle, they were not popular.
“I suppose so, yes.” Elrond sounded hesitant. “Got a place in Nice currently, doesn’t he?”
“No, he decided to move down to Madrid. France doesn’t feel comfortable right now, too many terror threats.”
Elrond made a sound of agreement. “Well, just keep an eye out for him. He always leaves everything to the last minute, lives in his own personal time zone. I have to go, I have a class. What’re you doing? Why can I hear street sounds?”
“Because St James Park is tiny so you don’t feel in the least like you’re in the country. I still have an hour and I’m making the most of it.”
“Bloody easy life.”
“Give acting a try some time,” Erestor said pleasantly. “You’ll go running back to your students whimpering and exhausted.”
“Doubt that. Well, till I do – say hello to Gil for me. And the blond, when you track him down.”
“He’ll show up,” Erestor said cheerfully. “There is going to be massive drama; neither of us would miss it for the world.”