"Auntie! Auntie!" The child's shrill voice rang across the noisy kitchen. Alagni groaned with impatience. She knew children were to be cherished but there were occasions when it was difficult to think of her nephew as little more than a pest with a bad sense of timing.
This day, of all days, Alagni was incredibly busy. A delegation of Noldor was expected to arrive at any moment. There was no doubt the dark-haired elves from the West were fearsome fighters and everyone agreed their unlooked for arrival on the shores of Middle-earth had saved Brimbothar from disaster, but they had a reputation for pretentiousness. Lord Cirdan had made it quite clear, in his quiet, understated way, that he wished for his guests to be entertained in a grand manner. While this was well within the rules of hospitality, Alagni and, she suspected, most of the people of Brimbothar, wished to give the Noldor no reason to look down their long noses at the Falathrim. Alagni, as the head cook in Cirdan's kitchens, felt the burden of expectation resting heavily upon her slim shoulders.
There had been weeks of preparation, of selecting and preserving the best fish and mussels from the nets of choosing the finest cheeses and fruit to serve at the banquets.
The great feast of welcome would be held tonight. The kitchen buzzed with purposeful activity as Alagni rushed from pot to pot, overseeing the smallest detail of the preparations.
Into this carefully controlled chaos her nephew burst, demanding her full, undivided and immediate attention.
"Auntie! Auntie!" he called in his shrill, determined voice.
Alagni's first instinct was to shout at him to go away. Instead she waited until he had pushed his way through the cooks, bottlers and scullery maids to stand before her. He returned her stern gaze with a solemn, determined expression.
"What is it, Galador?" Alagni asked. "Have our guests arrived?"
"No, Auntie," Galador said.
Alagni, arms crossed, large spoon clutched in one hand, heaved a mental sigh of exasperation.
"Has Mereniel fallen off the end of the dock again?" she asked.
"No," Galador answered.
"Is there a storm brewing?" she wondered.
"No," he admitted. He didn't sound nearly as confident as he had when he first burst into the kitchen.
"What is it, then?" she asked calmly, tapping her foot.
"It's…" Galador began. Then he stopped, chewed on his lip and gathered up his courage.
"Why does Lord Cirdan have a beard?" he asked.
It was all Alagni could do to not throw her hands in the air and upbraid him for his bad timing. Not that she could answer the question…Lord Cirdan was the only elf to have a beard and people often speculated on why this should be. Guesses were not facts, though. Alagni was faced with an unanswerable question at the least opportune of times.
She took a deep breath, aware that the clangs and thumps of the working kitchen had slowed as people strained to hear her answer.
"That is a very interesting question," she said, placing her hands on her nephew's shoulders.
"If you truly want the answer," she continued, leaning closer to them and dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. The child leaned closer to hear. So did half of the kitchen staff.
"You should go ask your Uncle Elvander."
The child gave a shout and run out of the kitchen in search of his uncle.
Alagni critically glanced around the kitchen. The pace of preparations had returned to frenetic.
"Excuse me, Alagni," said Thurines as she dutifully chopped greens for the soup pot. "But do you think that was wise?"
"It will mean Elvander will be helping us in his own way."
Thurines smiled. Elvander was infamous for disappearing whenever there was work to be done.
The same Elvander was sitting beneath a tree, watching the waves rush to the shore and flow back to the ocean. He leaned back indolently, the scent of the sea filling his nostrils, the heat of the sun lulling him to sleep when he was accosted by a small child.
Elvander closed his eyes and didn't move a muscle, feigning sleep.
"Uncle Elvander! Uncle Elvander!"
The voice belonged to Galador. As dearly as Elvander loved his nephew, he knew the child would never leave until his curiosity had been satisfied. Sighing inwardly, he opened his eyes to find his nephew's anxious face a hands breath away from his own.
"Galador!" he said pleasantly. "What brings you here on such a fine day. Shouldn't you be helping the fisherfolk to mend their nets?"
"The fisherfolk didn't want my help," Galador said. "Besides, they're all in the kitchen or cleaning the Great Hall for this evening."
"And aren't you excited about this evening?" Elvander asked. "It isn't often we have guests of such rank."
"They aren't here yet," Galador shrugged. "And I need to know something."
"Alagni would likely be of more help than me," Elvander suggested, eager to get on with his nap.
The boy shook his head emphatically. "She told me to ask you," Galador said. "Besides, I don't want to know about Fingnolfin. I want to know about Lord Cirdan."
"King Fingolfin," Elvander automatically corrected his nephew. "And what do you need to know about Lord Cirdan?"
Galador fell uncharacteristically quiet. Hands clasped behind his back, he shifted from foot to foot, obviously searching for just the right way to phrase the question. It was all Elvander could do not to smile.
"Is it true that Lord Cirdan awoke at the Waters of Cuivienen?" Galador asked.
"Yes, it is true," Elvander said. "Along with King Thingol and his brother, Lord Olwë."
"If that was all you wanted to know…" he said, settling himself against the tree once more.
"Why does he have a beard?"
"What?" Elvander asked.
"Why does Lord Cirdan have a beard?" Galador seemed to have recovered his confidence.
"Why do you ask that question?" Elvander wondered.
"Does King Thingol have a beard?" Galador asked.
"No," Elvander said.
"Have you seen him?"
"Yes, I have," Elvander assured him.
"And he does not have a beard?"
"No, he does not have a beard."
"Is Lord Cirdan the only elf with a beard?" Galador asked.
"As far as I know, yes," Elvander admitted.
"Then why does Lord Cirdan have a beard?"
Elvander signed inwardly. When Galador wanted an answer, there was no peace for anyone around him until he was satisfied. The child, Elvander reflected, had the tenacity of a badger.
Inspiration sprung from this observation.
"You want to know why Lord Cirdan has a beard?" he asked. Galador nodded, his eyes wide.
"Then sit down and I will relate to you the tale of how Lord Cirdan acquired his facial hair.
Galador dutifully dropped to the ground, his full, undivided attention on his uncle.
Elvander stretched out his legs and regarded this sea, watching his nephew with his peripheral vision. He remained silent, listening to the roar of waves upon the beach, until the boy began to fidget with impatience.
"Lord Cirdan, when he was young, was a great deal like you," Elvander began.
"You mean I am going to have a beard?" Galador asked, horrified.
"No!" Elvander stifled his laughter at the look of relief on his nephew's face.
"Did you know Lord Cirdan when he was young?" Galador asked.
"No," Elvander admitted.
"Then how do you know he was like me?" Galador demanded.
"Because I know the story," Elvander replied airily.
Galador crossed his arms and examined his uncle suspiciously.
"Do you know the story?" Elvander asked.
"No," Galador admitted.
"Well, then, Lord Cirdan, before he had his beard, was very curious. He wanted to learn about everything. He had many, many questions and he would ask them of anyone who displayed the slightest knowledge in any subject. Anyone who took a polite interest was rewarded with an endless stream of inquiries and wonderings that would tire even the Valar."
Elvander glanced at his nephew. If Galador recognized this as a representation of himself, he gave no sign of it. If anything, the child looked slightly bored. He had found a twig and was scratching idle patterns on the ground.
"Well in those days, as you may well expect, there were far more questions than answers and one day, as you may also expect, people grew tired of young Cirdan and his endless, unanswerable enqueries. So finally, one fateful day when the stars shone up above and the waters of Cuivienen sang, someone told him that, if he was so anxious for answers, he should seek them out himself.
"Well, Lord Cirdan, being a young elf with an active mind, proceeded to do just that. He watched the stars and listened to the song of the water. He followed the flight of the birds and watched the deer in the Wild Wood.
"One day, while following a roe deer through the forest, he espied a creature he had never seen before."
Galador now interested in the story, stopped drawing.
"Was it a balrog?" he asked.
"No," Elvander replied. "I said Lord Cirdan was curious. I never said he was foolish. He would not have gotten that close to a balrog."
"What was it, then?" Galador asked, deflated. He began to doodle once more.
"It was a strange creature. Its back was grey. It had two white stripes over its eyes and large, strong claws on its front feet."
"It sounds like a badger," Galador said.
"And it was a badger," Elvander agreed.
"What is so special about a badger?" Galador sniffed.
"Well, nothing, now," Elvander admitted. "But then…No one had ever seen a badger before. Can you imagine it, Galador, being the very first person to ever see a badger?"
The boy considered. "It would have been more impressive to have been the first person to see a balrog," he said.
"Never you mind the balrogs!" Elvander snapped. "Now, where was I?"
"Lord Cirdan saw a badger," Galador said, without much enthusiasm.
"Yes. Just so. Lord Cirdan saw a badger and followed it.
"Now, as you know, badgers live in tunnels under the ground and this particular badger, when it saw Lord Cirdan, was the first badger to ever see an elf. So you can image how the badger felt when this huge (compared to a badger) creature began to follow it.
"First it thought to stand and fight, then it turned its back and hurried into its hole.
"Now this was one of the first badgers and it was large; too large for its tunnel. It got stuck near the entrance and could not move. And what do you think Lord Cirdan did?" Elvander paused for dramatic effect.
Galador stared at his uncle and shook his head, interested in spite of himself.
"He put his head right into that tunnel. And do you know what the badger did?"
Galador shook his head.
"The badger attached itself to his face! Try as he might there was no way to remove it. Neither Cirdan nor Olwë nor Thingol himself could find a way to remove the badger from his face. And it remains there to this day. The other elves, learning from Lord Cirdan's mistake, never chased a badger into its tunnel again.
"And that, dear nephew, is how Lord Cirdan got his beard and why he, alone of all our kind, has facial hair.
"Now off with you," Elvander said, leaning back against the tree. "I'm sure your Auntie can find something for you to do rather than pestering your uncle with questions."
Galador climbed to his feet and made his slow way back to the halls of Brimbothar.
Lord Cirdan examined the assembly with quiet delight. The halls sparkled in the light of a hundred candles. Above, the banners of Brimbothar and Fingolfin, whom the Noldor called High King, hung suspended from the rafters. The Noldor with their gems and their gold, were a great and strong people, but the Falathrim, with their pearls and coral, did not seem out of place beside them.
The dinner had progressed perfectly, the fish and other fruits of the sea prepared to perfection by Alagni and her cooks. Even Fingolfin, who had dined at the table of the Valar, had pronounced the meal worthy of praise.
His words, or rather the earnest, open way in which they were delivered, had warmed Cirdan's heart. For although the High King of the Noldor was suitably humble, for all that he was careful not to extend his writ into the lands occupied by Cirdan's people, there was a subtle air of arrogance about his followers. This sense of superiority at the expense of the Falathrim rankled and Cirdan was determined to display his people and holdings in their best light, the better to convince the Noldor that the Falathrim should be granted the respect of equal allies.
The reception and the evening's entertainment were successfully advancing that point, if the hum of pleasant conversation was any indication. A minstrel of the Falathrim had just finished a song of the sea and a Noldorin harper was about to take his place when Cirdan felt a sharp, insistent tug on his sleeve.
A quick glance revealed a young boy standing behind Cirdan's chair, holding the basin for his lord to wash his hands. The boy's face was set in an expression of determined curiosity.
Fingolfin, alerted by the shift in direction of Cirdan's attention, also noticed the boy.
The First Born dearly love children. It was said that most of the Noldor who had returned from the West were grown men. There were very few children and, with very few women, the situation would not change in the near future.
This may have occurred to Cirdan as his greeted the child. "Good evening, Galador. Did you enjoy the meal?" he asked as he bathed his hands in the water, scented water.
"The food was very good, Lord Cirdan, but I have a question," the boy said, leaning closer and peering suspiciously at Cirdan's chin.
"Do you?" asked Cirdan, who ought to have known better.
The other Noldor, watching their king, also turned to watch the exchange between the Lord of the Falathrim and the young boy. The hall had fallen silent.
Every sensitive ear trained on the conversation and ever ear heard the boy ask, "Is it true there is a badger attached to your face?"
Iorthon stared resentfully into the dark, surrounding forest. He should have been at the feast instead of on guard duty, but he had made a foolish bet with Elvander and lost. Instead of enjoying Alagni's food and Cirdan's wine, he was standing on the wall of Brimbothar watching for orcs.
It was beyond ridiculous, he told himself, watching for orcs. With the Noldor tromping around and blasting their trumpets, any orc with a shred of self-preservation would be leagues away.
That much could be said for their new allies, at least; they might be pompous and self-important, but the orcs were afraid of them.
Certainly the enemies were frightened enough by the Noldor to allow one watchman a night's respite to enjoy the feast held in their honour. While Iorthon was in no hurry to share the company of the newcomers he was regretful about missing the meal.
It had been foolish, accepting a bet against Elvander, but Elvander was wily; he had goaded Iorthon into the situation.
Elvander was undoubtedly enjoying the evening while Iorthon was left to go wanting on guard duty.
One day the smooth talking Elvander would receive his comeuppance. And on that day, Iorthon would raise a glass in good cheer.
An angry cry pierced the quiet night.
Heart racing, Iorthon ran to the edge of the wall and peered into the darkness. Had an army of orcs and trolls followed the Noldor from their northern fastness? He could still remember them, as thick as the sea, surrounding the walls of Brimbothar. His stomach lurched at the memory.
Nothing moved in the blackness.
The cry came again.
Oddly enough, it was behind him.
Iorthon raced to look over the interior side of the wall, thinking that perhaps one of the good people of Brimbothar had somehow come to grief.
He was about to call down when an individual came pelting down the street. Even in the dim light cast by the lanterns that burned outside the houses near the wall he recognized Elvander.
Iorthon was genuinely torn. Duty commanded he offer aid to any who required it but he had no love of Elvander, so he hesitated.
Elvander, oblivious of the watchmen, turned down an alley and disappeared from view.
In the end, duty won out. Undoubtedly Elvander had annoyed one of the Noldor and a swaggering, sword-toting elf was now following him, bent upon revenge. It was just desserts, but Iorthon could not in good conscience do nothing while a Noldo intimidated one of his own people. But before Iorthon could move or even shout another figure appeared.
It looked oddly misshapen in the dim, flickering light of the lamps and it smelled vaguely of the pitch.
As Iorthon watched in amazement, the person stepped into a brighter pool of light.
The guard exclaimed aloud. There below him, a look of grim determination on his face, was Lord Cirdan, a bucket of pitch in one hand, an animal that appeared to be an angry badger under the opposite arm.
Cirdan looked up at him, his face red in the ruddy light of the lamps.
Iorthon's mouth was suddenly dry. He wished he had never looked over the edge of the wall.
"You did not see me," said Cirdan gravely.
"Yes, my lord. And I did not see Elvander run down that alley, either," he said, pointing in the direction Elvander had gone.
Cirdan immediately disappeared in pursuit.
Iorthon listened for a while then returned to his guard duty.
It did not seem nearly as onerous as it had a few moments earlier.