Flakes of snow fell softly into the waves. Glorfindel stood at the ship's stern, gripping the rail as though it anchored him to the world; the breeze chilled his damp knuckles, and the glittering lights of Rómenna faded away behind them. The deck of the Azar tilted gently under his feet as the ship leant into the dance of the sea it was named for. Or was azra the sea, and azar the word for star? He couldn't recall.
Fëanor would be ashamed of you.
Like a bulwark against the gathering memories, he ducked his mind behind the linguistic query and thought it through. It seemed foolish to name a ship after the ocean. 'Star' seemed more likely – although he had a nagging idea that the Adûnaic word for star began with a 'g'. Nelyo would have known, or Turgon. Finrod most likely did know; he had always loved immersing himself in different cultures...
And now you're back to precisely the place you did not want to go.
A warm, sepia-brown hand gripped his shoulder. “Don't tell me.” The deep voice was laced with amusement. “The great Glorfindel is seasick.”
He laughed; he couldn't help it. He hadn't known Alatar back in Aman, but had got to know him a little on this strange journey – and what he had discovered, he very much liked. “No. Only deep in thought.”
“Pleasant ones?” The pale grey eyes were shrewd and kind.
Alatar squeezed his shoulder. “Pallando would likely say something comforting about justice and mercy and new beginnings.”
Glorfindel arched his left brow. “And what would you say?”
“I am a hunter, not a philosopher.” The wizard's eyes flared, and for a moment on the salted air Glorfindel tasted the green, untamed sweetness of an ancient forest, and heard the soaring call of a horn – and then Alatar smiled. “My skill with words is small.”
Glorfindel turned his back on Rómenna's shrinking lights and tipped his face upwards. Snow brushed his cheeks and melted in his hair. He inhaled softly, remembering the last time he had made this journey – the shattering cold of the Helcaraxë; the heavy, aching silence when the winds finally dropped; the weight of Idril in his arms, frozen and exhausted after trying to save her mother...
“Come. Enough.” Alatar shook him briefly, and gave a crooked grin. “Or else the others will drink all the wine.”
“Well, we can't have that.” Glorfindel clasped the old man's arm. Thank you.
One wrinkled eyelid flickered – a movement so swift and slight that Glorfindel wasn't sure he'd seen it at all.
Atop the forecastle the Númenorean sailors sat on crates and upturned barrels, most heaped in furs and hunched together for warmth. A youth with skin the gold of sunlit sand cradled a stringed instrument as though it were a delicate treasure; next to him, a tall, straight-backed man with silver-flecked hair brushed his fingertips over the taut skin of a hand drum. One of the others hummed a low, sweet note, and a small group of them broke into a carol full of bright harmonies and cantering rhythms.
Pallando rested against the rails, surveying them with keen hazel eyes. He inclined his head to Glorfindel as they approached.
“Is all well, brother?” Alatar asked.
“We left Rómenna less than an hour ago,” Pallando returned drily. “What do you expect to have gone wrong in that time?”
Glorfindel smiled as they bickered, and settled himself on a barrel at the edge of the group of Númenoreans. A young, skinny boy to his left eyed him shyly.
It's alright. Glorfindel softened his gaze, and tilted his head encouragingly. I don't bite.
Slowly, hesitantly, the boy held out a flask of wine.
“My thanks.” He drank. The wine was sharp and weak, but it was better than nothing at all. “Forgive me, but what is your name?”
“Kherû, sire.” The boy blinked long-lashed eyelids and looked down.
“I'm pleased to meet you, Kherû.” He handed back the flask. “My name is Glorfindel.”
“I know, sire.” Kherû looked up, brown eyes shining with admiration. “My father sings about what you did.”
Fire and stone...the screams of the children...falling, falling, falling...
He breathed in deeply. “I wonder if you could help me, Kherû. The name of this ship - Azar - what does it mean?”
Kherû blinked again. “Starlight, sire.”
“Starlight.” Of course. Glorfindel glanced back at the two wizards, robed in blue, only the odd white glimmer behind their eyes hinting that they were more than they appeared.
“To light our way,” Kherû explained. “Since we set sail on the longest night.”
A cool thrill prickled through him. May it be a light to you in dark places...
The words came to him suddenly, as though he had heard them before, or knew he would hear them again. He lifted his eyes to the sharp, bright star that they said in the Blessed Realm was Eärendil, sailing the skies in his beloved Vingilot, a Silmaril bound to his brow. A lonely existence, he thought – and then Idril's face was before him again, and that of her sweet, dark-haired child, laughing in the Hall of Fire, dancing to some whirling jig at Yule, heads bent together over an old, yellowing scroll...
“Do you sing?” Kherû asked him as the Númenoreans' song drew to a close.
Glorfindel drew himself out of the past. “Only very badly,” he admitted.
The boy turned to the wizards – although to him, they doubtless appeared as no more than oddly-dressed old men. “And you?”
Pallando shook his head – but Alatar grinned, and after some encouraging cheers he positioned himself on top of a crate, where he hopped about and reeled off a ridiculous ditty about the Man in the Moon stealing a set of silverware and being chased all through the land by a great angry cat. Glorfindel chuckled and drank more wine; the song went on, and one of the sailors added a squawking counter-melody on his little fiddle, and when Glorfindel next looked back he saw with a start that Rómenna's lights had vanished into the darkness. The patient sea lapped at the boat, insistent and rhythmic, its call stirring a longing deep in his heart. Ahead of them lay empty ocean, and cold, and wind, and no doubt more snow and rain.
Glorfindel looked up again at the brightest star, bowed briefly before it, and then turned his gaze to the East.