Hands Wide Open by Elleth

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Story Notes:

Written for TalullahRed at the 2014 Yule Exchange, for her prompt: Set in Eglarest, naturally with seascapes, preferably wintery, but it's up to you. We get a glimpse at the daily life of the city. Something gets lost. Many thanks to Elvie for her beta!

“Ayulan Khatun. I was the wife of Borlad and I speak for these people: Eji Oyutai, wife of Ercimtei whom you called Bór, and Cherbi Bayarlal her brother. Ildün the Fair, wife of the one you called Borlach, Sakighci the son of the one you called Borthand, and Qariyacai his sister. And my own daughter, Abaqai.”

The woman - Ayulan, Galdor repeated the unfamiliar syllables under his breath - stood no higher than Círdan’s chest and was thin as a sapling that deer had stripped, neither very imposing nor threatening. But when the elven ship bucked over a particularly savage wave, she moved as though she had a steel blade for her spine, easily balancing her movement in the way of a practiced rider, he noted with some approval. Others of the group were not so lucky; the young woman named Abaqai sought to steady her grandmother and both nearly lost their footing on the slippery deck, huddling down together. Abaqai pulled the large, worn fur cap off of her head and tucked it onto her grandmother’s in a gesture of comfort.

How they had come as far as the Falas in the depth of winter half-starved as they were, almost as far as Barad Nimras, where the patrol ship had picked them up, remained a mystery to Galdor, but he hoped that it would come to light before they landed in Eglarest. It ran almost completely counter to the tales that they had received from the battlefield in the aftermath of the crushing defeat of the Union of Maedhros the past summer - that the Easterlings took their women and children to the battlefield, to die there in some measure of honour if the battle went ill.

And yet here was a whole group, from the two aged and infirm to a babe in arms, claiming kinship with Bór.

Galdor supposed that Círdan would question them and their loyalty thoroughly, and be able to fathom if their mortal minds held any lies. Their survival spoke for it, aligning them rather with the traitorous kin of Ulfang whose deaths had been far too merciful a punishment, Galdor thought.

Ayulan was still speaking with Círdan, and appeared no more at ease than before. If anything, there was fire flashing in the dark of her eyes to match the incensed words, and the gusts of icy wind that tore at her from the sea had whipped her fawn-brown cheeks into a flush. Her fingers were clenched into fists.

He risked a glimpse to the lookout atop the mast of the ship. The woman was gesturing in outrage, and it was a sort of relief to find that - even though the group around her appeared docile and in fact relieved - two of the crew’s best archers had arrows trained on the scene, should anything untoward occur and Galdor’s hand on the hilt of his sword not be quick enough to draw.

He had not expected to hear Círdan’s booming laugh. Indeed, it turned the heads of everyone on deck, from Galdor himself to the crew that kept the ship speeding up Nenning Bay. Ayulan stopped her tirade in stunned silence and tugged on one of the two heavy braids that hung almost to her waist, turning to her people. Their burden seemed lightened by it; the old woman bobbed her head and gave a toothy grin, while Abaqai hid a laugh behind her hand. It seemed the tides had turned, and light chatter, remarkable only for its absence among the talkative lot, sprang up among the crew, replacing the tense silence. The archers lowered their weapons. A gull wheeled overhead.

Galdor bit back a smile. Knowing Círdan disliked being overheard deliberately and would come to him sooner or later, he had not been listening in on the topic of the conversation beyond the introduction, finding Ayulan’s - albeit fluid - Sindarin oddly pronounced with the excess of fricatives that the Fëanorians had claimed as their mark, and a strange hopping rhythm to the language that must surely stem from her native tongue. But Círdan would not laugh unless all were well.

“Little over an hour until we make it to Eglarest,” he said, turning to the group and smiling. “You may rest below deck out of the wind until then, and we will find you lodgings in town after. Some houses stand empty; their inhabitants fought alongside your people in the Fifth Battle. It seems only meet that one ought to be for you.”

“Your hospitality honours us,” the old woman, Eji Oyutai, said. “I will be glad to warm my bones.” One after the other, they murmured their thanks before going inside, and Círdan’s sea-wizened face broke into another smile.

“What did she say that amused you so?” Galdor asked when the doors closed behind them.

“She made very clear what she thought of Ulfang and his spawn,” he said. “But in letting her become so incensed, she also opened her mind to me and proved that there is no lie in her - at least not any such lie that you and I would not employ at times. Nothing in her mind indicates that she would put us in danger or seek to conceal vital information. She and her kin are who she claims they are, we even had some news of her before the battle. She goes by Boraegas in Sindarin - Maedhros’ Easterling tactician.”

“I would not have expected that,” Galdor admitted and rubbed his nose, bitten cold by sea wind and spray. By now they were hugging the southern shore of the bay and making good speed toward the city, while the coastlands lay white, flat and lifeless on either side, but sheltered them from the worst behaviour of the open sea. He was looking forward to the harbour and a hot beverage to thaw the chill from his body. “But I suppose knowledge of the battle’s tactics helped her keep her kin alive.”

“In a way,” Círdan rumbled. “She instigated a hostage situation before the battle; Bór’s family went to Ulfang and Ulfang’s to Bór, to ensure their pacts of fealty to the Sons of Fëanor and each other held, but she underestimated the extent of Ulfang’s treachery. I do not know what happened to his family, but she and her kin were taken to Hithlum and shut there with the rest of the survivors, and as enemies of Angband they were made into thralls. It was not until frost came that they dared flee to make their trail harder to follow. You have seen how thin they all are, and how shabby their clothes. They were not treated well, but most at least lived, even if Borthand’s children are orphaned and Bayarlal lost the best men that remained to him during the escape. They struck south along the seaboard, believing it to be safest, meant to turn south-east around the Ered Lindon into the Inner Lands, and thence again through a gap in the Hithaeglir into the far plains of the East where they believe their kinsmen still roam.”

“And what has that to do with our involvement; should we not let them go?”

“I fear they are being tracked, Galdor,” Círdan said. “They are not merely fugitives, they are the last remnants of the enemies of Ulfang and the Elf-friends among the Easterlings, and perhaps we have been given the grace to set aright the division here. Taking them with us will not only throw their pursuers off their trail; we can shelter them in Eglarest through winter and provide them with help for the road come spring.”

“I see,” Galdor agreed. “But they remain Easterlings, and while I cannot find it in me to doubt you, I am not certain it is wise to let them into the city. The folk of Eglarest may not be so discerning about their heritage, and there are many that have suffered losses in that battle. Kindness may be hard to come by.”

“That, my dear Galdor, is where I shall rely on you.” Círdan clasped his shoulder with an iron grip. “I wish for you and the young King to be seen in the city with them so the people understand that they are to be treated with trust and honour. And,” he added, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled and relinquished his grip, “I have a feeling that Ereinion will already be awaiting our return.”

* * *

By the time they reached Eglarest and the ship had been safely moored, the first lights were coming on in the houses, although the hour had not yet passed mid-afternoon. But under the low cover of clouds that promised more snow - a rare event so close to the coast and the warm current that kept the weather mild and fish abundant - dusk came early. Perhaps a good omen, as the city would present itself at its coziest, and the warm glow of the lamps might reveal fewer signs of wear wrought by damp and frost than unkind daylight would to the newcomers.

Galdor caught himself smiling when a figure scurried into sight on the quay, fulfilling Círdan’s prediction.

“My King, you smell of tar,” Galdor said when Gil-galad had come aboard the ship, and he caught a stronger-than-usual whiff of the smells of the harbour. He sighed; as expected the substance manifested in dark stains on Gil-galad’s council robes, and he found the young King eyeing his nose, but saying nothing. Gladly that discussion, involving the phrase ‘keep your big nose out of my affairs, my lord’, spoken with all the dignity a fourteen-year-old High King could muster, was a thing of the past. It had taken all of Galdor’s restraint not to burst out with either some insult, or (equally insulting) uproarious laughter then, and he had become the laughing-stock of the sailors for weeks.

“I had to hide between the tar barrels,” Gil-galad murmured instead. “I knew you were coming in from patrol, and Lady Ivrellain nearly found me.” But the quirk of his lips ruined the impression of penitence that the boy seemed to try and suggest.

“Ah,” said Galdor with another sigh, looking down at the boy. “Where is your tutor now?”

“She went looking elsewhere,” the young King explained, shrugging. “Did anything exciting happen?”

“Guests, my King,” Galdor said. “We thought we had happened upon a war-band, the furthest southwest so far, but when we went to engage, they turned out to be fugitives from Hithlum. However, they were not Sindar or Noldor - rather, members of Bór the Easterling’s house, and Lord Círdan has determined that they will stay in Eglarest for the time being. You could learn from them. Would you like me to introduce you?”

After a pause he added,” I will not excuse your reticence so far to Lady Ivrellain, but I would excuse you for the rest of the afternoon if you agreed to this. She is a high lady of Nargothrond. She - ”

“- deserves at least a little basic respect, especially since your lady mother herself appointed her to this task, and - Valar be my witnesses - you are not the easiest charge to handle,” Gil-galad said. His mimicry of Galdor’s voice and intonation was uncanny, but any answer Galdor could have given was interrupted by the giggle of two young voices; the Easterling girls had the door to belowdecks ajar and two pairs of dark eyes were peering through onto the deck.

Galdor barely had time to catch Gil-galad by the scruff of his neck and rub a spot of tar off his silver circlet before the boy went to investigate.

* * *

“ - and the market stretches all the way around the embankment, and if - when Ereinion and your daughter slip away the next time, this will be the surest place to find them,” Galdor explained to Ayulan, who was walking close beside him, taking in the wintry town through wide but cautious eyes. “It is his favourite haunt, and I expect he will wish to show Abaqai all of it.”

“The spear-makers and the blacksmiths in particular,” Ivrellain added. They had found her still in search of the young king, who already was at large for the second time that day, followed, this time, by Abaqai, who was eager to explore. “He is fascinated by his family history and claimed to be ready to take up arms any day now, although his basic training under Captain Belthoniel is progressing none too well.”

“He is too rambunctious,” said Ayulan, nodding. “He reminds me of the colt whom Iniyedün - Borlad - gave me for an engagement gift. A good filly, but he needed a strong hand to train for riding, and more so for war.” She clenched her hands, as though around imaginary - or remembered - reins.

Ivrellain chuckled, nodding. “We are all trying, lady, trust me.” Galdor nodded his agreement; he was glad that the two women seemed to get along with easy grace and curiosity on both sides, and Ayulan had shed at least a little of her caution. By now he had even grown accustomed to her way of speaking Sindarin and found the clip and lilt quite pleasant to the ear, admitting to himself that he had been unfair to her in his assessment before.

They passed onward through the market. In the time it had taken to settle the group in an empty beachfront house with all the basic amenities it had grown to be early evening and fully dark, and all except Ayulan and Abaqai had decided to stay inside for the night. But now in particular Eglarest lay resplendent and awash in the warm yellow glow of fires, torches and candles over the snow, while the Nenning ran into the sea with the gurgle of water below great, drifting floes of ice, and rendered a manifold reflection of the scene the town painted. It was a far cry from the damp that had accompanied Galdor’s first arrival at Eglarest and turned at least one pair of his leather boots into food for mildew.

He smiled, but the momentary reverie was broken with the sound of running feet through the crowd still calmly milling around the stalls and booths. Breathless and flushed, Abaqai came bounding up to them, followed by Gil-galad, panting to keep up on his shorter legs. Although they were roughly the same age, the Easterling girl was halfway to adulthood, while Gil-galad grew at the slower rate of elvish children.

And, Galdor noted with alarm, his head was bare of the circlet he had worn before.

It was a family heirloom that had originated in Tirion and been passed down the generations until it had come to the boy, and was now uniquely considered the mark of his kingship - or would be at his coming-of-age when he would formally ascend to the throne in his council’s stead unless Turgon laid claim to the title for the lands outside his hidden stronghold in more than theory.

He caught sight of Ivrellain, whose gleaming grey eyes were wide with disbelief as she tutted over the boy and he squirmed from her attentions, brushing the layer of wet sand off of his back and from his unruly hair. “What happened, Ereinion?” she asked with one dark eyebrow quirked high. “Where is your crown?”

“I was’t wearing it. I mean, I - I took it home before we came back here, I --”

“It fell in the water,” Abaqai said in a low voice while Gil-galad still stammered out a mishmash of excuses. “We were wrestling; I had told him of Father becoming champion at the Naghadun festival, and I showed him the cegci move, he tripped as he should, and a wave came up and took it.”

The girl looked so miserable that Galdor could not find it in himself to admonish her, but Ayulan seemed to have no such compunctions, talking low and swift to her daughter, whose eyes began to brim with tears. Gil-galad stood by chewing his lip.

“It was my fault as well,” he said at last, having mustered up just enough courage to speak. “I asked her to, and I could have been careful and taken it off beforehand, but I… didn’t think. Until it happened. It was probably swept out into the bay by now.”

Galdor and Ivrellain heaved a collective sigh, and both of them turned away to the waves lapping at the beach below the promenade and the crunch of the ice at the water’s edge. It was good, at least, that Gil-galad admitted his responsibility, even after the fact, and was willing to face the consequences. Until very recently, well-aware that his history of being sent to safety from home made the adults around him reluctant to treat him harshly, he had relied on his rank and status to avoid punishment.

Galdor glanced over his shoulder. Ayulan was calmer now, speaking with the children and rubbing Abaqai's back to calm her; he decided to give them a moment’s privacy. There would be time enough to discuss this matter with Gil-galad later.

“There is hope for it to be found again,” Ivrellain said under her breath. “The fishermen, the shrimp trawlers… or it may be that Salmar or Ulmo take pity upon him and wash it ashore again…”

Galdor nodded. “We can hope.”

“But first they will go and search.” Ayulan joined them again, and both children raced past her, down toward the stretch of beach where they must have lost the crown in their wrestling game.

“What did you say to them?” Galdor asked over the shred of laughter drifting toward them from the water’s edge.

Ayulan smiled. “That they have until spring to find the crown. Then, regardless, we will move on, twice across the mountains and back into our lands of old. But you showed my family and myself unexpected trust this day, so let this be my first show of gratitude... your lord Círdan hoped that we might re-knit the bond that was broken between us. We shall see what may yet come of it.”

She stretched an arm up overhead, opening her hand wide, and caught a first falling snowflake upon her palm.

Chapter End Notes:

The names and cultural allusions around Bór's people are all Mongolian, derived from Lingua Mongolia in place of the unknown Easterling language they would have spoken within Middle-earth. I've decided, similarly to the -fin- element in the names of various Finwëans, to use Bor- as a patronymic prefix in the Sindarin translations/approximations of the Easterling names, other than in Bór's own as the patriarch of the family.

Ayulan: mountain; Khatun: queen, a leader's wife (Boraegas)
Abaqai: princess, young lady, daughter (Borhedil)

Eji Oyutai: wise grandmother (Borhael)
Bayarlal: joy, rejoicing; Cherbi: steward (Borel)
Ildün: sword; Ghoa: fair, beautiful (Borvegil)
Sakighci: watcher, guardsman (Borthir)
Qariyacai: swallow (Borthuilin)

Ercimtei: steadfast (Bór)
Iniyedün: laughter (Borlad)
Ghalci: fire-man, fire-stoker (Borlach)
Bambaici: shield-carrying soldier (Borthand)

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