The sound of water moved around him. The soft wash of the waves, brushing across the shore with a cloud of foam, then sliding back out to the sea.
He was standing on the dock again, not moving as he stared across the water. The sun was setting, painting the sky and sea with brilliant gold.
Not this again. Tonight, too?
His heavy winter robes were useless against the cold sea breeze, and every puff of wind seemed to pierce his bones.
Erestor shuddered, pulling the coat around him. He had dreamed this so many times that he was tiring of it. This same dock, the same sunset, every time.
A gull, circling high above him, broke the relative silence with its melodic cry. You don't belong here, it seemed to call. The earth is pushing you away. Go, be with your kin. This world is not for you anymore.
One wave, larger than the others, rushed forward and broke, spraying water up to the dock. It spattered across his face like thrown paint, and he could taste salt on his cracked lips.
He turned and looked around him, but just as always, he was alone.
"You're up and about awfully late."
Erestor was so much in his own mind that he jumped at the sudden noise. The hall was dark, but lit by a few candles, and he hadn't noticed anyone.
"So are you," he answered, after failing to think of anything wittier to say.
"You advisors and your endless repetition of the obvious," said Glorfindel, stepping out into the candlelight and stretching like a tired cat. "Couldn't sleep. Hungry."
"You warriors and your incomplete sentences." He bit back a yawn of his own. "I was going to the kitchen as well, if you don't mind company."
"Do I ever?" Glorfindel swept a deep bow, a hand outstretched down the hallway.
The kitchen was quiet, but they were able to find pastries left from dinner, and a small bottle of wine. Erestor would have boiled water for tea, but he let himself be talked into the wine instead.
"You've been having the same dream for a week?" asked Glorfindel, once they were seated and began talking. "Those are usually significant."
Erestor shrugged. "I've never had the gift of foresight… not like you and Lord Elrond, anyway. But I will admit that the dream is surprisingly consistent, and feels strangely real." He lost himself for a moment, remembering the details of the dream with cold clarity. "I can smell the brine. I can taste the salt. It's as if I'm actually there."
The older elf frowned. "That does sound like foresight, or a distant memory. Is there any message? Voices, anything written anywhere? Scraps of paper in your pockets?"
"Not that I've ever seen. The closest would be the gull, but it tends to leave itself open to interpretation."
They were quiet for a moment, Erestor pushing all the crumbs on his plate into little piles, and Glorfindel balancing his wine glass between two fingers of his left hand.
"If you'll forgive me for stating the obvious," said Glorfindel, his voice quiet, "have you considered that the dream may be telling you to sail to the Blessed Lands?"
Erestor felt a twist in his stomach. "Of course I've considered it."
"And?" The golden-haired Elf paused, holding up the wine glass and watching Erestor through it. His keen eyes seemed to be taking in far more information than Erestor felt comfortable offering.
He shrugged, in what he hoped was a convincingly casual way. "It's a possibility, but certainly not the only interpretation. If it is a dream of some significance, which of course is also only a possibility, then I would be amiss to not consider every-"
"Erestor," interrupted Glorfindel, setting the wine glass back down on the table. "You're rambling."
He closed his mouth with a snap. "My deepest apologies."
"You're rambling, which means that you're either nervous or being deceitful, and since you have no reason to deceive me, then perhaps you're deceiving yourself… about something that makes you nervous?"
He broke eye contact. There it was, the cold little pool of fear that had begun to collect in his mind. He had put so much effort into avoiding it, but Glorfindel's probing questions had pushed him close to its banks.
Erestor swallowed. "I don't want to go."
Glorfindel pushed his wine glass aside, then seemed to think better of it and filled it again, along with Erestor's half-empty cup. He then picked up his glass by the stem and raised it, smiling with a strange mixture of amusement and pain.
"A toast," he said, a fond sadness in his voice. "To my dear friend Erestor, as he begins preparations for his final journey."
Erestor clenched his jaw, refusing to touch his glass. "I didn't say that."
"Not yet perhaps, but the doom is written across your face. In large, dark, exquisitely penned letters." He took a deep swallow of the wine. "You may as well embrace it."
"It's a dream. That's all." Erestor knew he was being obstinate, but had the sudden sensation that he was trying to hold back a great wave with his bare hands. "Besides… who would care for Rivendell if I did sail? Ever since Lord Elrond and the Ringbearers sailed across the Sea, you and I have been tasked with its maintenance, and I don't want to abandon the last work he left us."
"We were tasked with maintaining Rivendell, but only until we sailed." Glorfindel raised an eyebrow. "Or are you determined to wait until your body blows away to dust, and your nameless shade haunts these halls until the world's end?"
"Of course not. I'm sure that I'll sail at some point." He reached for his wine glass, only touching the stem. "I just don't think I'm ready yet."
"Your dream-self seems to think differently."
Erestor was quiet, letting Glorfindel's rebuttal hang in the air. Why did he feel the need to refuse? What made the idea of sailing so painful?
He could feel Glorfindel watching him. He couldn't bring himself to meet his eyes.
"I love it here," Erestor finally said, his voice thicker and huskier than he meant for it to be. "The halls. The trees. The river. The rise and fall of kingdoms all around us. The changing seasons, the endless cycle of catastrophe and recovery, the golden evenings in the Hall of Fire…" The memory of the gull's cry struck him, so clearly that he could feel saltwater stinging his eyes. "This is my home. My life's work. I don't want to leave, not even for the Blessed Lands."
A hand came to rest on his own. He looked up and saw Glorfindel smiling at him, a gentle ancient sadness in his eyes. "And that is why you should leave now," he said. "Don't wait until your last memories of this place are only memories of pain. Leave while the world is still beautiful, my friend."
Erestor couldn't respond. He stared at his glass, at the rich red wine. Little bubbles hung around the inside, catching the candlelight and reflecting it, glistening like dark ruby pearls.
He ran his thumb along the stem of the glass. If… if he did sail, what would the Blessed Lands be like? With whom would he share these late-night conversations? A land of endless joy and rest sounded wonderful, of course, but it wasn't Imladris. It wasn't home.
But there was wisdom in Glorfindel's words. He was referring to Lady Celebrían, who had not been given the chance to sail while she was still happy. She had been captured and tortured by the orcs, and despite all of Lord Elrond's tender care, she had been too broken in spirit to remain.
The morning she sailed, she had dragged herself out of bed and taken her morning tea on her balcony. I wanted to watch the sunrise, she had said with her weak voice, long stripped of its joyful lilt. I hoped it could convince me to stay, but I can't even see the color anymore.
It was the first and only time that Erestor had seen her break down crying.
Would he end up like her, if he lingered?
Something gave way within his heart. Reluctantly, he wrapped his fingers around the wine glass, lifting it to the light. The wine sloshed in the glass, red ripples moving against the curved surface, like waves along the surface of the Sea.
"To preparations," he said. "I suppose it's time."
Glorfindel leaned back in his chair and sighed, sipping from his own glass. "Ah, it's just as well. I was sure you'd tire of me eventually, without Lord Elrond here to keep the peace."
"Don't start," said Erestor. "What about you? Will you sail?"
The golden-haired Elf turned away, something about him suddenly heavy, as if all the long ages he had lived were staring back at him from the other side of the wall. "Eventually," he said, turning back with a smile as if nothing had happened. "Surely Mandos wouldn't send me back here again. But those twins will need supervising, at least until Estel's reign is over."
Erestor brought the glass to his lips and drank, the bittersweet liquid warm in his mouth. It was a good wine… Lord Elrond's favorite, actually. It was all he and Glorfindel had drank since the Lord of Imladris had sailed.
"Give him my regards, won't you?" said Glorfindel, as if reading Erestor's thoughts about the wine. "Tell him I won't sail until there's only one bottle left, and I'll bring the last one with me."
"Bring two bottles. One to share with the Lord and Lady, and one to save until the twins join us."
"If they do." A shadow passed over Glorfindel's face. "I have known them so long that I seem to hear every thought that runs through their heads, but I have no knowledge of what their choice will be. Some days I am convinced that their hearts lie here with us in Imaladris or with their mother in Eressëa, but other days they seem more like Estel's kin than even the Rangers."
"You really think they would separate the Lord and Lady from all their children?" asked Erestor. "They know the grief Arwen's choice caused."
"He knew it was a possibility." Glorfindel spoke slowly, as if he hated each word. "And he knew that Arwen's choice only made their decision even harder. But the choice is theirs, not his. And it must be theirs, if they are to live with its consequences for eternity."
Erestor grit his teeth. "We all bear the consequences." He would never forget the moment he realized that Arwen had truly followed Lúthien's path, and chosen Men over her Elvish heritage. Losing forever the little girl who loved to dance in the flowers, and who once named a kitten after him, had been even more of a blow than Celebrían's slow demise.
"But we bear the fond memories as well," said Glorfindel, breaking through Erestor's reverie. "I do not begrudge our little Evenstar her love. Even Elrond could not protect her from that doom. And I would rather have her live a short mortal life of joy than to languish for all the ages in regret."
"So we come full circle to lingering and regrets," said Erestor, taking another sip of the wine. "You're not very subtle."
"I've been accused of many things, but subtlety was never one of them." Glorfindel grinned. "To tell you the truth, though, I've been wondering for quite a while when we would have this conversation. You haven't been yourself lately. Not since Lord Elrond left."
"As someone who is accused of subtlety on a regular basis, was I so obvious?"
"Only to those who can see right through you." He poured the last of the wine into their glasses. "Meaning me."
"You're not very humble either."
"Really, you're just stating the obvious now." He primly brushed a few crumbs off the table. "So very unlike you."
Erestor could feel the cold tide of grief begin to recede. Something about Glorfindel's banter, as forced as it may have been, was reassuring. "Tell you what. I'll take one of those bottles with me and hold it ransom. You can claim it when you meet us across the Sea."
"It's a bargain," said Glorfindel, offering his hand for a shake. "If I sail, you lose the wine, but you gain my marvelous company. If I don't sail, you can drink away your sorrow with Elrond's favorite wine. You're a crafty little Noldo."
He smiled as he returned the handshake. "Crafty, or just dubious of the vintages that a world without Wood-elves would produce. Perhaps I'm just getting the wine by trickery."
"Whatever you are or aren't getting, trickery is sure to be involved." Glorfindel stood and stretched. "But that's the last of this bottle, I'm afraid. We should probably go back to sleep… we have plenty of administrating to do tomorrow."
Erestor drained his glass. The last few drops lingered, sparkling in the light. "Thank you," he said, turning to face his friend. "I'll admit that I'm not looking forward to sailing without you."
"Only that much wine and you're implying that you enjoy my company?" The golden-haired elf put a hand across Erestor's forehead. "Elbereth's mercy, you do need to sail, or you might get so far gone that you admit you'll miss me!"
He rolled his eyes. "As if your ego needs further inflation, you arrogant dandelion."
Glorfindel gave an exaggerated bow and winked, then strutted away down the hall.
Erestor collected the plates and wine glasses and placed them on the counter, then extinguished the candle. His anxieties had not all been relieved by the conversation, but at least now he knew what pressing issue he was anxious about, rather than a vague future uncertainty.
Perhaps, at the very least, he would sleep soundly now.
Waves rolled onto the shore, lapping at the dock with gentle insistence. The sun burned low in the sky, barely visible at the western horizon. Only the deepest orange scattered patterns across the water, and the sky behind and beside him was deepening to night.
The gull was not circling, but sat at the edge of the dock, as if it had settled for the day. It was quiet, gazing at him with its black fathomless eyes.
And just off the dock was a small dinghy, tied up with a silver rope. A furled sail was bound to the mast, its exposed edge snapping in the breeze. The boat was loaded with parcels, all labeled in neat familiar penmanship, and a folded winter cloak lay across the seat, wrapped around a single bottle of wine.
The wind, he realized, was pushing at his back. The tide was beginning to recede, and if anyone was going to leave the harbor, everything was prepared for their departure.
He walked toward the dinghy, then stopped, to turn and look behind him one last time.
Waves of stars were opening across the deepening sky. Shadows flowed across the hills, blanketing the land of Middle-earth. In the distance, a river moving toward the Sea sparkled under the stars.
It was beautiful. As beautiful as it had always been.
Erestor smiled and stepped into the boat.
It was time to go.