Time's Passages 3
 

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'Time's Passages'

 

Chapter Three
 

“He was always a bit cynical, but this is different. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s bitter and angry and - it was as though he looked down on us for having the bad taste to like it here, to like them. God, Hal… by blood he’s part mortal himself.”

Erestor stopped to draw breath and went on in calmer tones, “Whenever I’ve run into him, the first thing that always struck me was how… unchanged he seemed. Quieter maybe, that’s all, and that’s right and normal after burying three children. The last few times he was travelling with a Silvan girl and seemed almost happy again.”

Haldir squinted at him from the end of the bed, his interest piqued. “A girl? Why didn’t you ask about her?”

Erestor had the grace to look embarrassed. “Couldn’t remember her name,” he admitted, picking up the old, stuffed dog that held pride of place up against the pillows. He held it absently, rather like a cushion. “Fin would know, I must have told him. I’ll find out next time he phones.”

“You’ll forget, too busy asking what he’s doing, and is he eating properly, and…”

“Oh shut up, Hal.”

They were in Erestor’s room, which was the smaller of the two bedrooms, but suited him as it looked out onto the back garden and was sunny in winter but cool in summer. Hal, now wearing a vest and shorts, lounged across the bed, while Erestor, who had changed into an old t-shirt and pajama pants, sat with his back against the headboard, a pillow behind him for comfort.

The house was quiet. Cars seldom passed along their side street this late at night, and the only sounds came from a chorus of crickets out in the garden, joined occasionally by a lone frog. The overhead light was off, the sole illumination in the room came from the bedside lamp with its cheerful orange and yellow shade.

Since dinner Haldir, normally the more impulsive and hot-headed of the two, had opted for tolerance.

“You pushed,” he now said in a voice so reasonable that Erestor’s jaw muscles twitched. “His reasons for staying are his own, Res. He doesn’t have to explain why he’s still here after all this time. Not to you, not to me. Not to anyone. I mean, if someone asked me why I hadn’t sailed, I’d tell him to shove off. It’s no one’s business but my own. And yours, because you’re my friend,” he added hastily after a glance at Erestor’s expression.

“Nothing strange about you staying, it’s not hard to understand. Not really.”

“Not something I’d share with a stranger though.” Haldir lit a cigarette and passed it up the bed so that Erestor could take his customary two draws before returning it. He was trying to kick the habit for the fourth time, which in practice meant he no longer bought his own but smoked part of Hal’s instead. “And you? Nothing complicated about why you’re staying, is there? Be happy to explain them to anyone.”

Erestor stopped with the cigarette half way to his lips and looked up sharply. “I could if I wanted to, but it’s no one’s busi… Oh shut up, Hal.”

“See? You don’t want to talk about your reasons either. Staying for love, like someone in one of Marta’s Mills and Boon books. All hearts and flowers.”

“That’s not just nonsense, it’s not even true. It was a joint decision and you know it. We both wanted to stay and watch the new world grow around us a while, do some exploring…”

“Yep,” Haldir cut in, propping himself up on an elbow, serious eyes belying a bantering grin. “And after that, after it wasn’t new any longer? You still stayed. He’s still trying to save the world, and you’re just killing time till he’s tired of it all and ready to go home. This stopped being about what you wanted centuries ago.”

This was an old argument to which Erestor was about to make his customary rebuttal, but the conversation raised an entirely different question. He spoke slowly, feeling his way into the words. “You know – Fin was born over there, born there twice in fact. But he’s in no hurry to go back. He won’t talk about it much, but enough that I’m not sure ‘over there’ is as good as legend always made out. That’s what stops me every time I’ve thought of doing it – finding the Last Haven, asking Círdan when the next ship sails. Fin would leave if I wanted to, he promised me that at the start, but – I’m not sure. Sometimes it’s better to stick with the devil you know.”

Haldir could see he wasn’t getting his cigarette back any time soon. He lit a second for himself, and they smoked in silence for a while. “They lied,” he said at last, his voice flat. “About us diminishing and fading if we stayed. About not being able to leave much past the time of Elessar’s death. They’ve lied about a lot of things. When you think about it, there’s no good reason to believe the story about the perfect land, Elvenhome-beyond–the-Sea, either. It stinks of propaganda. The Lady was like your Fin - never seemed convinced of it, either. I saw her in the days before she left. Grim, set. Not like someone heading home for a big family reunion.”

“Well, she was a rebel and they exiled her for millennia. It must have seemed a mixed blessing, going home.” It was forever since Erestor had thought about the Lady, tall and grave, golden-haired like his lover. The last time he saw Galadriel, she had been standing in the stern of the White Ship, watching the shore recede as they turned out into the channel and made for the open sea. Facing the land, looking back, not forward. Exhausted by the long battle against shadow, she had been unable to remain on the Hither Shore - unable, not unwilling. He wondered as he had then what her choice would have been had her body not been drained of strength by its long acquaintance with the Ring of Water.

“She left because she had to, not from choice.” Haldir had been watching him carefully and seemed almost to have read his thoughts. “It was written on her, on him as well – my Lord. I knew even then that sailing would be my last choice.”

“But Celeborn sailed. Eventually.” Erestor pointed out sombrely.

“That he did,” Haldir agreed, tipping ash into the battered-looking abalone shell he was using as an ashtray. “But not because he wanted to see Aman at last. He sailed for love. Much the same reason you stayed. So -- let Elrond be. His grounds won’t be the same as theirs or ours, but they’re his own and he’s a right to them. Just as we have.”
 
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‘Early morning here, only recently light. Sitting on the heap of rubble that was once part of the outer wall of the castle, watching Sidon come alive. Thinking of you, remembering that the last time I was in this city it was with the knowledge that you were only a few miles away --- Acre then, I think, Tyre before that. How long did we live in Tyre, do you remember? It feels good to be back, I always loved this part of the world.

The work is tiring and time-swallowing, so much to do. Refugee camps are all the same - so many suffering, so many dispossessed by war and by the aftermath of war, pawns of the politics that leave people homeless, without means of support, without hope. There is a scent the camps have, Ere - not unwashed bodies and illness, but a quiet desperation. Hopelessness. I do what I can, we all do what we can, but there are so many it can never be enough.’


He put down the pen and sat with the notepad resting on his raised knee, looking out across the harbour at the ancient city of Sidon. The sun’s rays were starting to move down the hill, drawing buildings out of shadow and flashing light off a mosque’s gilded dome. Across the narrow stretch of water the call to prayer had just concluded, and in thousands of homes families would be getting ready to break their fast and face the day. While he wrote his lips had been moving, soundlessly following the morning’s praise to Allah. He had lived a long time and was at home with all the world’s great faiths.

The morning light warmed his hair, deepening the shade from pale blond to gold. Thick, wavy, he wore it drawn back from his face into a broad plait that reached more than halfway down his back. Its length might seem an eccentricity in the world within which he moved, but it fitted his look and manner, seeming at one with his classical features and the far-seeing eyes that matched the blue-grey of the harbour waters. He flexed broad shoulders briefly and then leaned back against a portion of wall. Since before recorded history, an elf sitting still and quiet became almost undetectable to mortal eyes. Somehow, tall and well built though he was, he seemed to blend into the brickwork, barely visible to a casual glance from the shore.

‘I remember this castle had a grace, a certain beauty, it seemed a compliment to the city it protected. They still maintain the causeway, but a large part of the building and most of the outer walls have been demolished over the centuries. I remember keeping watch from these very walls. What were you doing then, do you recall? The years fall into one another for me sometimes, your presence being the only constant thread.’

Reading back over the words, he wondered if it might be wiser to start over in Sindarin. He was not a believer in clinging to the tools and manners of the past, because survival in an ever-changing world depended on flexibility and knowing how to blend in. Still, he and Erestor had often found the old tongue invaluable when their correspondence might be intercepted. In this case the chance of that happening was slim and the reference obscure, so he let it stand.

‘I tried phoning you last night. This has been my first overnight in the city since I arrived, and I thought to treat myself to the luxury of your voice but there was no reply. Either you were out, very sensibly enjoying the evening, or I had a bad connection – more than likely. I hope things are going well down there. I hope that you are content, that there is laughter in your life, and that the business is thriving. I hope that Hal is behaving himself. I hope you miss me at least half as much as I miss you…’

A glance at his watch had him nodding, unsurprised. Time to start making his way back. The transport would leave at 8 sharp with or without him, and there were children with diarrhoea that was not, please Lady, the beginnings of cholera, and mothers to advise on nutrition under circumstances so Spartan that the citizens of that ancient city state would have looked askance. And then there were the elderly; displaced, confused, afraid, often more in need of a kind word and some reassurance than any medical aid he could offer.

Where it was practical, he always sought out work where he could be useful, where his skills as warrior, healer and teacher could be best put to use. Currently he was a medic operating under a red cross intriguingly similar to the one he had once worn as a Templar knight in these same lands. A very long time even before that he had promised Erestor that when there was no more work for them to do, no more aid to offer, they would sail, and one day they would. But not today.

Glorfindel penned a last few words to the letter, words of love and longing. He had included few details about his work, because by now Erestor could guess the shape of his days and already had a description of the camp and the medics' living quarters. There was also no need to try and explain why he was doing this, because that was a question Erestor never asked; he understood.

After folding the page neatly in three, he placed it in an envelope already addressed and stamped, and rose to his feet with easy, cat-like grace. He stretched, emphasizing his height, and gave his head a brief shake to clear it of the memories of other days, a different cityscape. Then, without apparent haste, he began his journey back across the causeway, ready to face yet another day’s work amongst the dispossessed refugees of southern Lebanon
 

~*~*~*~*~

“Oh yes, right. Of course I’ve got time to run the office and do the real work around here while you head off to town with m’lord.”

Erestor leaned against the doorframe and gave Hal a bland stare over the top of his coffee mug. Haldir was in the middle of servicing a scruffy-looking Ford Granada, a car he disliked with a vehemence that almost amounted to a personal grudge. The wind had dropped and summer was making a final resurgence before autumn set in. It was airless in the workshop and there were oil streaks across Hal’s face where he had wiped away sweat, making him look as hot and irritable as he sounded.

“Well one of us has to take him back to town, I promised. And we’re better off with you doing my work than with me doing yours.” Erestor could service the Ford if he really had to, but anything more complex was best left to Haldir who had an instinctive feel for things mechanical that he lacked. The choice was logical; their reputation depended on consistent results.

“Why does one of us have to do it anyhow? Doesn’t he know anyone who can come through and pick him up? Or --- he can take the bus. What’s wrong with the bus?”

“Bus to town only runs once a week, on Tuesdays. So that’s not much use,” Erestor reminded him. “And it doesn’t matter if he has someone who can fetch him or not. We offered.”

“You. You offered.”

Erestor watched with interest as Haldir ran a hand over his head in frustration, leaving oil streaks through his pale hair. He considered drawing attention to it but if Hal wanted to be annoying, he had to take his chances. “Yes, I offered. You want to work on the fancy, up-market car? Well, I want us to get the word of mouth advertising from having it here. And anyway, we help one another, that’s always been the way of it. Right?”

Haldir glared at him but finally gave a reluctant nod. Erestor, who knew Hal couldn't really argue the practical benefits of being entrusted with repairs on such a specialised vehicle, sipped coffee and returned the nod. There was also his final point, which summed up a basic tenet that bound all elves still remaining in Middle-earth: they looked out for their own. It was a simple rule which had evolved as the centuries passed, as lands opened up and elves scattered across the earth. Some, confronted with the massive expansion of the new race, had soon decided enough was enough and made their way to Círdan’s Haven and from there, home. Others though, drawn by the lure of new places and customs, had remained, at least for a while.

By the time Rome spread her empire across much of the known world, the dwindling number of elves hiding amongst their mortal counterparts knew they could only depend on one another for help in staying unnoticed. Old ties and rivalries became meaningless; they were family now, with all the occasional bickering, disputes and absolute loyalty the word implied.

Getting Elrond back to town lacked the urgency of producing forged documents to substantiate a background, or providing bed, board and a new identity for someone who had to move on hastily when the lack of physical aging had sparked deadly suspicions regarding the black arts. But still, an elf needed their help and turning him down was unthinkable.

Erestor pulled himself back into the present. He had been dwelling on the past rather more than usual lately, and running into Elrond had probably fuelled it. This always happened when more than three weeks passed without either a letter or a brief, indistinct phone call from Fin, causing his over-active imagination to start calling up memories of other times, other elves, stories with a variety of nightmarish endings.

“You all right?”

“Fine, just deciding when to leave. I’ll try and get as much done as I can first. I have a few orders to place, things like that, and I’ll do the banking for you. Then I’ll take him through to town, have something to eat and come straight back. Four hours, tops. I’ll be back before closing time.”

“Because you don’t trust me to close up without you to hold my hand?” Haldir glared at him, running his hand back over his hair in irritation and incidentally adding yet another streak of grease.

Erestor leaned his head back against the door frame and closed his eyes briefly, trying not to laugh. “No, Hal. Because it’s Friday. Payday, remember? Last time I looked, making up the pay and handing it out was my job, not yours. I’ll be back before five.”
 

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Chapter 4

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Beta: Red Lasbelin